The OF Blog: December 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final 2008 Reading List

The first 366 books (through December 16)

367 B.K. Evenson, Aliens: No Exit

368 Hal Duncan, Escape from Hell!

369 Laura Restrepo, Olor a rosas invisibles/The Scent of Invisible Roses

370 Juan José Millás, La soledad era esto

371 Carlos Fuentes, La voluntad y la fortuna

372 Paul S. Kemp, Forgotten Realms: Shadowbred

373 Matthew Stover, Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor

374 Nate Powell, Swallow Me Whole

375 Appollo and Lewis Trondheim, Bourbon Island 1730

376 Kazu Kibuishi (ed.), Flight: Volume Five

377 Kristin Cashore, Graceling

378 Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato

379 Lisa Wagner, et. al., Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is

380 Luigi Pulci, Morgante: The Epic Adventures of Orlando and His Giant Friend Morgante

381 Bertrand de Bar-Sur-Aube, The Song of Girart of Vienne

382 Roberto Bolaño, Llamadas telefónicas

383 Javier Cercas, Soldados de Salamina

384 Roberto Bolaño, Putas asesinas

385 Andrzej Sapkowski, La torre de la golondrina

Somehow I doubt I'll reach this level for 2009...

2008 in Review: My Favorite Fictions

While I've covered most of these books in my previous posts, there are a few books appearing on this overall list of 20 2008 releases that I have not covered. Perhaps I shall write a longer review of a couple of these in the coming weeks (I thought I would have had time before now, but a combination of feeling under the weather and wanting to enjoy at least a few hours of rest during my two-week break from teaching has left me with little time/energy for reviewing those works now), but for now, here is a list of my favorite 2008 fictions:

20. Ma Jian, Beijing Coma

19. Toby Barlow, Sharp Teeth

18. Matthew Stover, Caine Black Knife

17. Jeffrey Ford, The Shadow Year

16. Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory: Volume 2

15. Antonio Orlando Rodríguez, Chiquita

14. Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

13. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), The New Weird

12. Nate Powell, Swallow Me Whole

11. Carlos Fuentes, La voluntad y la fortuna

10. Ekaterina Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone

9. Jo Graham, Black Ships

8. Felix Gilman, Thunderer

7. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

6. Brian Francis Slattery, Liberation

5. J. M. McDermott, Last Dragon

4. Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El Juego del Ángel

2. Jeff VanderMeer, The Situation

1. Elias Khoury, Yalo

*wonders who had Khoury in their betting pool*...

Perhaps I'll begin the new year with an essay on a few other miscellanea from 2008, such as disappointments, thoughts on certain trends noted, and so forth. One thing I would like to say here, after reading similar Best of 2008 reads: Many expressed an opinion that "fantasy" was weaker this year, often citing the lack of "big releases." To me, it is akin to judging the quality of Oscar nominations by the number of vapid summertime commercial movie blockbuster fare being released. Some of the better books I've read this year either were published by smaller presses or were limited-edition works. Sometimes, it takes a bit of sifting through the various publishing lists to find a few hidden diamonds in the rough. And for full disclosure's sake, only a third of the books that made my Top 20 did I receive as review copies directly from the publishers. The rest I mostly purchased on my own dime.

Hopefully this list will inspire some discussion and questions. I know some will question the validity of a list that barely contains a whiff of epic/heroic fantasy, but that's because for the most part, the epic fantasies that did come out this year were either not as strong as previous volumes or they were enjoyable but just barely missed this list. All I know is that this list represents 20 out of possibly 50-75 books from the 385 that I've read this year that I would recommend easily to most of the people reading this right now. Perhaps 2009 will be an even stronger reading year; all I know is that I enjoyed the majority of what I read in 2008 and that isn't a shabby average to be batting for a year.

2008 in Review: Anthologies, Short Story Collections, and Novellas

For many years, the short story or novella were the basic staples of SF writing. Rarely did stories go past 60,000 words and a great many authors, from Isaac Asimov to Gene Wolfe to all sorts in-between, got their start in writing by writing short fiction for the pulp magazines. Today, most of the coverage of SF writing on blogs such as this one or even in print magazines goes to novels. One may be forgiven if the presumption that SF short fiction had gone the way of the dodo. While doubtless its impact has lessened over the years, there is still quite a bit of relevancy to the SF short fiction form. In fact, when I compiled the longlist for this category earlier this month, I had no less than 19 separate bound volumes on it!

What I decided to do is this: there will be a pictorial representation of these volumes, followed by discussion of a few works that I found to be the most important or captivating for 2008. There will be a mixture of reprint and original anthologies. If an anthologist's name is repeated, then it means that I found that s/he did outstanding, prolific work in this field for this year. I will not, sadly, have the time I would like to devote to discussing individual stories at length. Just know that I enjoyed each of these quite a bit and that in 2009, I'm looking at expanding my reading by subscribing to a few magazines in hopes of doing a separate Short Story feature this time next year.

This year, I read all or part (in the case of the John Joseph Adams-edited The Living Dead) of nine different anthologies. Of these, four (the above-mentioned Adams, plus his Wastelands, the two Ann and Jeff VanderMeer-edited The New Weird and Steampunk anthologies) either contained a majority or were entirely composed of reprinted stories. Each of these four were "themed," either grouped around an important "movement" (as in the case of the anthologies devoted to steampunk and New Weird works) or focused on a particular story theme (the various strains of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery and setting, zombies). There is little to add to my earlier reviews of the two VanderMeer anthologies, other than the approach the two took in organizing The New Weird anthology, with its more "historical" approach to this sometimes amorphous but always-intriguing "new" movement is one that I suspect will be emulated by many other anthologists in the future, as that format really added to the sense of importance that the chosen stories had.

There were also five original, mostly-themed anthologies in my reading this year as well. Lou Anders' Fast Forward 2 is a SF-mostly anthology focusing on "futuristic" stories. What struck me when I read this anthology last month was just how diverse and multicultural these future-oriented stories were; not something often associated with SF, perhaps due to its spotted past. Despite my general antipathy towards pirates (argh? ack! ), I do have to compliment the two VanderMeers for selecting a wide range of stories in their Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology that for the most part made this inveterate pirate hater (for the record, I'm equal opportunity, as I could care less about ninjas, cowboys, Pee-Wee Herman, and that fat kid from The Goonies) pay attention to the stories contained within. If I had more time (which I don't, as this holiday has kept me busier than many work weeks), I would write a review of it.

Ellen Datlow's The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the only non-themed anthology in this group, contains one of the best short stories I've read this year, the "controversial" Margo Lanagan tale, "The Goosle." The rest of the stories are, for the most part, solid, if not as memorable as Lanagan's retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story. "Solid" might be the best term to describe both the Jay Lake and Nick Mamatas-edited Spicy Slipstream Stories and the Ekaterina Sedia-edited Paper Cities - both contained several good, entertaining stories, but on the whole, neither collection was as memorable as the Anders one was, for example.

Edit: Try as I did to have a list in front of me before I began writing these articles, I noticed this morning that I somehow forgot to write down the Nick Gevers-edited Extraordinary Engines anthology. It is an original anthology of steampunk stories, featuring stories by Margo Lanagan, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Jay Lake, and Ian MacLeod that I enjoyed quite a bit. While there were a few dull works in this anthology (I never really could get into the James Lovegrove or Marly Youmans stories, for example), on the whole it was a good, solid anthology, one that complements the Steampunk anthology nicely.

Short Story Collections:
As with the anthologies, I found most of the short story collections that I read this year to be solid, if not spectacular works. Kelly Link's third collection, Pretty Monsters, was a mixture of stories from her first two collections along with five other tales, many of them with a YA bent, or at least that was how it was marketed. In the end, it was another Kelly Link collection, meaning if you enjoyed her previous two collections (as I did), then you likely liked this one. No surprises there. Same holds true for Jeffrey Ford's third collection, The Drowned Life. This is the second of two 2008 Ford releases I read this year and while I preferred his novel over this collection, The Drowned Life was a solid, enjoyable effort.

John Langan's debut collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, was one of two debut collections I read this year. The other, Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Other Stories, possibly might be the most varied and enjoyable of the collections that I read this year. I expect more great stories from him in the near future and in fact, he has one in the Fast Forward 2 anthology I mentioned above.

I read two short story collections that were originally published in Greek and Hebrew. Amanda Michalopoulou's I'd Like was very excellent, with each of her stories flowing nicely into the succeeding tales. Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge, while not as good as the Michalopoulou, still was a funny, engaging read for the most part, with few lulls.

Rikki Ducornet's The One Marvelous Thing was a very nice collection of microfictions, most of which read well thanks to her poetic prose. Jeremy C. Shipp's debut collection, Sheep and Wolves, is more of an acquired taste. I think I need to read more of his fiction before I can decide what it is about his work that I like and what annoys me about it.

I only read two novellas that were originally released in 2008 (I bought a signed, hardcover copy of Gene Wolfe's Memorare that was released this summer, but the story originally appeared in 2007), Jeff VanderMeer's The Situation and Hal Duncan's just-released Escape From Hell! While I enjoyed both stories quite a bit (and I think Duncan's story is a bit more accessible for those put off by his storytelling style for Vellum and Ink - although I loved it), VanderMeer's story perhaps is one of the finer short fiction works I've read the past couple of years. What worked for me was how mundane the office politics weirdness seemed to the characters; it highlighted even more the insanity and strangeness of that office while also reminding me just how weird my own office climate is. Certainly one of my favorite stories of the year.

Any other anthologies/short story collections/novellas that I missed out on reading that you think I and others would enjoy?

And with this post, I conclude the series of short essays (OK, almost 3000 words for some of those articles isn't that short, but still, that's only about 10 printed pages, right?) on the several categories of 2008 releases that I have read. Shortly, I will post a list of my overall favorite fictions for 2008, minus any explanations (outside what you might find in these posts), for those who like lists rather than reflective discussions.

2008 in Review: Translated Fictions

The United States, despite its multicultural heritage, lately has not been considered to be a hotbed for translated fiction. If memory serves, the percentage of books published that are translated into English is less than 3% of the total published annually. Since the U.S. is the world's largest publishing market, such a tiny percentage, when compared to the higher percentage of translated fictions appearing in many of the non-English language markets across the globe, has been a cause of consternation among global fiction aficionados in the U.S., as well as derision from others, including the Secretary for the Nobel Prize in Literature committee. Lately, there have been efforts to improve the availability of fiction from across the globe, via programs such as Reading the World. In this article, I plan on devoting a little bit of coverage to six books released this year that are among the best fictional works I have read this year. In addition, two other works of translated fiction will appear in my next post on 2008 short fiction. Finally, before some question its exclusion: Yes, I did read Roberto Bolaño's 2666 this year. Yes, I thought it was brilliant. Yes, it would have been a strong contender for my overall #1 read for 2008. However, I read it in Spanish and since it was released in its original idiom in 2005, I decided not to cover it with the 2008 releases. That being said, if you haven't read it yet, in whatever language is your native one, why not go out and read it now?

The six books pictured here are by authors from (in picture order) China, Poland, France, Serbia, Palestine/Israel, and Lebanon. Three of the books are speculative fiction to some degree, while one is a collection of poetry, another is a metaphor-laden account of a country's blind groping towards more political freedom, while the final book simply is a terrifying account to read of truth and remembrance. Outside of these books being translated fictions of some quality, there is nothing that unifies these books into a solid group; each contain its own idiom of narrative expression.

The first book listed, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, uses the quasi-vegetative state of a shot Tiananmen Square protester, Dai Wei, and his coma-induced remembrances of his past (and his family's treatment of his body as it lies unconscious for over a decade) as a metaphor for China's changes since that massive 1989 protest. Ma Jian, himself a political refugee from China's Communist government, takes a lyrical approach to telling a powerful story of change occurring that isn't always congruent with his characters' desires for greater civil liberties. It is a book that I suspect will make several year-end lists; it has made mine.

I have already reviewed Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Blood of Elves, so I'll just quote a bit from the end of that review:

The dialogue is interesting and at turns bitter and hilarious. Ciri and Yarpen's personalities are shown via the way each addresses the other, one being inquisitive and eager to learn while the other is embittered and yet ready with sharing his own sarcastic take on the world. We learn about how the various races are not getting along, how rhetoric seeks to both divide and unite groups, as well as what is transpiring around the travelers. In short, it is a microcosm of the unfolding events and serves to make the reader focus not just on the plot actions, but also on the thematic underpinnings of the story. Sapkowski accomplishes much with scenes such as these and while Blood of Elves truly is a set-arranging opener that doesn't advance the main plot too rapidly, these undercurrents that Sapkowski explores serves to create an opener that is exciting and one that plays off of the tensions introduced in the story collections and the opening chapter, creating the promise of a rewarding payoff. One of the better opening sequences to a multi-volume fantasy series that I have read in years. Highly recommended.
Maurice Dantec's Cosmos Incorporated translated well from its original French. It is a SF tale involving a post-apocalyptic setting, a memory/identity problem for the protagonist, and a metaphysical look at the world. Dantec mixes these elements together well, creating a tale that was enjoyable, leaving me hopeful that more of his fiction will be translated into English in the near future.

Serbian author Zoran Živković has been a favorite of mine ever since I read the 2004 English translation of his The Fourth Circle. Although most of his stories that I've read have been short, thematically-connected "story suites," The Last Book is a suspense novel about why people are dying after they open a particular book. As is fitting for his tales, Živković's tale is in turns surreal and poignant, with a twist ending that, while not surprising for those familiar with his writing, is a fitting conclusion to a playful mystery.

Palestinian poet Taja Muhammad Ali's collection of translated poetry, So What, varies in tone and style. Ali covers not just the expected topics (the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East), but he focuses more on the little things that can made a harsh life just a bit softer. His poetry, even in translation, is evocative, keening even at times, making for a strong emotional connection between the Reader and the subjects of Ali's Text.

Lebanese author Elias Khoury may have written this year's most disturbing novel for me; it certain ranks among the very best fictions I have read this year. Here is an excerpt from my short review of Yalo:

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's latest novel to be translated into English, Yalo, opens with an interrogation. Yalo, a former paramilitary soldier during Lebanon's tragic civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, has been accused of raping a female acquaintance of his. The novel revolves around the process in which Yalo deals with certain shady events (not necessarily inclusive of the rape accusation), the attempts by his interrogators to beat more confessions out of him, and the psychological effects of such physical and emotional traumas.

Khoury does not take short cuts here, either in detailing the torture methods (very brutal, such as the case of the cat trained to swipe its claws across the genitals of the prisoners) or with Yalo's confrontration of his past and his conflated understandings of the present and what his interrogators want from him. While some reading Khoury's book might be tempted to make some comparison to Franz Kafka's The Trial, Khoury goes even further in exploring the elastic boundaries of Truth and Remembrance, while working in references to Lebanon's bloody past and present. Yalo's narrative, almost always given in the third person-limited point-of-view, shifts from the past to the present and back again, from memories of his relationships with women to thoughts of betrayals, from the understood Now to the imagined Past. It is difficult at times to discern a linear narrative arc, yet Khoury's method of using a fractured narrative to underscore his points about the traumas inflicted by and upon people works quite well.

In reading this novel, I found myself reflecting more and more on my reactions to Yalo's confessions, my thoughts regarding the society that could produce a Yalo and his interrogators, on my interpretations of what was transpiring. What I concluded was this: Khoury has written a rich, dense narrative that flows sublimely. The more one learns about Yalo, the more questions that arise from these revelations. What is truth? Whence the source of such brutality? The way that Khoury explores these issues made for a read, that while never "light" in tone, which was one of the best I have read this year. Highly recommended for those readers who like a "challenging" read and those who want to study an author's technique for revealing psychological duress.

Little else to add to my previous comments, other than it is a damn fine book, albeit rough and harsh to read on occasion.

Hopefully, 2009 will bring even more translated fictions to my awareness (and then, possibly, into yours). This year's group was an excellent, eclectic group, but I suspect that I missed several gems. Anyone have any other translated fictions published in English in 2008 that they think are worth my time and others'?

In a few hours, the 2008 short fiction article will be posted, to be followed by a few list-oriented posts leading up to the ranking of my favorite reads for 2008.

2008 in Review: Spanish-Language Fiction

It is no secret to regulars here that I like to read books in languages other than English, particularly Spanish. Over the past two years alone, I have read nearly 200 books in Spanish or Spanish translation. But since there are many reading this who may wonder why I, whose native language is English, will spend hundreds of dollars a year on importing books printed in a language that I did not learn until my late twenties. It is as much for those people as it is for a completeness in coverage that I cover here, in a different format than my other 2008 reviews, seven 2008 Spanish-language releases.

Oftentimes, Anglo-American SF/F readers make the mistake in presuming that the US/UK publishers SF/F publishers represent the Alpha and Omega of SF/F publishing. Works of a speculative nature have been written for centuries in many parts of the world, from the non-English speaking parts of Europe to the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Japan, to stories told by Native Americans or passed on through generations of African griots. In many of these tales, the structure of the narrative varies. What if you grew up in a society where military/political greatness is now centuries in the past, with a populace facing uncertainty in the late arriving Industrial Revolution? That is the backdrop to the 1910s-1930s Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's El Juego del Ángel (available in mid-2009 in English as The Angel's Game).

Or how can one approach telling the story of his/her country's fratricidal madness? Carlos Fuentes does so in metaphorical form in his latest novel, La voluntad y la fortuna (Will and Fortune, likely to be published in English either in late 2009 or sometime in 2010), with a severed talking head serving as a narrator of sorts exploring Mexico's often sordid past via personal relationships.

Not all stories have to be region-specific for them to make rhyme or reason. Colombian author Laura Restrepo's novelette, Olor a rosas invisibles/The Scent of Invisible Roses, recently had its American debut. It was a charming story of an aging man's memory of a torrid love affair from 40 years before and his serendipitious encounter with that ghost from his past. It is a tale of adultry, perhaps, but one that is not punished with recriminations or suffering, as is often the case whenever that real-life occurrance is highlighted in novels, but rather it is a wistful reflection on what inspires people to do the things they do.

The Spanish SF/Fantasy/Historical Fiction writer Javier Negrete, who recently won the Premio Ignotus for his 2007 alt-history, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma (Alexander the Great and the Eagles of Rome; no known schedule for an English translation), often mines classical antiquity for many of his stories. His latest novel, Salamina, is a historical novel dealing with the greatest naval battle of antiquity, the Battle of Salamis, that marked the beginning of the end of the Persian War. Historical fictions such as Negrete's are universal, but a writer of his talent for detail and characterization are hard to find, regardless of the idiom used to tell the story.

Although I have read a comparatively small amount of Spanish-language fiction published in 2008 compared to English-language works, the breadth of narrative styles has been a pleasant surprise (or perhaps not, since I do tend to seek out the more experimental works whenever possible). Mexican author Jorge Volpi, one of the authors behind the Crack Manifesto in the 1990s, in El jardín devastado released a story of searching and longing that mimics the form of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but with a very different message behind it. I have admired Volpi's writing for three years now and this might be one of his best efforts in a bibliography stuffed with impressive novels.

Uruguayan/Spanish author Federico Fernández Giordano won the 2008 Premio Minotauro for submitted SF novel for El libro de Nobac. It is in turns a mystery, a metanarrative on fate, predestination, and how we view such, and a clever tale involving an otherworldly cipher of a person who has managed to leave behind a book that writes and rewrites itself daily, narrating the events of the person, Nobac, who has come into possession of the book. It is a very literary SF work, one that might remind several readers of some of Jorge Luis Borges' short stories or perhaps Adolfo Bioy Casares' La invención de Morel in its almost horror-like imagery, one that I need to re-read before I can comment much further on it.

Although technically a novelization of a person's actual life rather than anything speculative in nature, Antonio Orlando Rodríguez's 2008 Premio Alfaguara-winning Chiquita contains elements of the grotesque. It is the story of the 26 inch-tall Cuban midget, Espiridiona Cenda, and her experiences traveling in side/freak shows across the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rodríguez's tale is a fascinating one that captivates the reader and it was a very enjoyable read for me.

I highly suspect these seven books are but the tip of the iceberg for excellent Spanish-language fictions. Hopefully in future years, I could expand this section further, perhaps also including fictions available in Portuguese or Italian (if my language skills improve enough in those two sister languages to Spanish). Perhaps others here have books published in Spanish (this year or previous) that they'd like to suggest for me or other multilingual readers to consider?

Later today, posts on translated fictions, short fictions, works that disappointed, and a ranking of top books for those who can't read between the lines ;)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 in Review: SF/F Non-Fiction

Many times in recent years, I have glanced at the shortlists for awards such as the Hugos, Nebulas, and the World Fantasy Awards and I have seen categories for "Related Works." Although I rarely indulged myself with further investigation, there was always something about those books, many of them biographies, that roused my professional curiosity. Although I received/read only four non-fiction works that touch upon SF/F/comics, it would have been very difficult for me not to consider strongly listing all four of them if the list were ten times as large, as each is very well-written.

The first book I read was journalist David Hajdu's, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Hajdu's book is a cultural history on 1950s America and the McCarthy-fueled condemnation of comic books as being a cultural blight that threatened not just the well-being of pre-teen and adolescent boys, but all of America. Hajdu focuses on the Congressional hearings involving EC Comics and how American society at that time was able to see the sometimes-lurid, often-graphic comic books as being simultaneously reactionary, in a quasi-Nazi state of glorifying the übermensch, and somehow revolutionary, vaguely Communistic in its attitude toward life and liberty. A passage from the Prologue notes this in vivid fashion:

"Comic books are definitely harmful to impressionable people and most young people are impressionable," said the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an incendiary tract, Seduction of the Innocent, which indicted comics as a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.

"The time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores."

Churches and community groups raged and organized campaigns against comic books. Young people acted out mock trials of comic characters. Schools held public burnings of comics, and students threw thousands of the books into the bonfires; at more than one conflagration, children marched around the flames reciting incantations denouncing comics. Headlines in newspapers and magazines around the country warned reader: "Depravity for Children - Ten Cents a Copy!" "Horror in the Nursery," "The Curse of the Comic Books." The offices of one of the most adventurous and scandalous publishers, EC Comics, were raided by the New York City police. More than a hundred acts of legislation were introduced on the state and municipal levels to ban or limit the sale of comics: Scores of titles were outlawed in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and other states, and ordinances to regulate comics were passed in dozens of cities. Soon, Congress took action with a set of sensational, televised hearings that nearly destroyed the comic-book business. Like Janice Valleau, the majority of working comics artists, writers, and editors - more than eight hundred people - lost their jobs. A great many of them would never be published again.

Through the near death of comic books and the end of many of their makers' creative lives, postwar popular culture was born (p. 6-7).
Hajdu takes this dramatic, exciting backdrop and he expertly analyzes the root causes, the ways that immediate post-WWII worries and frustrations were shown not just in the protests against the comics, but also in the comics (especially those of EC Comics, to which Hajdu devotes the majority of his discussion) themselves. Hajdu notes how the seeds for today's comics were planted at this time and how those characters evolved to fit in with the ethos of the 1950s and the reaction that set in by the mid-1960s. His research is impressive and the book works on two levels, one as a general introduction to popular culture, the other as a secondary source full of primary source document citations that could be used in further research.

Although Paul Kincaid's What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is a collection of essays rather than a single dissertation-length piece of writing, the essays contained within examine topics such as reader interactions with texts and how we devise our own interpretations as to what the texts might mean. As I said in my earlier review:

Imagine that you are holding an unfamiliar book. Curious, you open it up and start reading. Almost immediately you are greeted with strange, sometimes unknown words. "Fuligin" and "grok?" What the hell? Is this something unusual, or are these but clues that what is within is not mimetic?

In the opening section to What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid's latest collection of essays, such scenarios as the above are discussed and analyzed. What is "science fiction?" What does the science fiction reader do when reading tales that contain night unimaginable technologies or creatures? These questions and more he addresses concisely, arguing that far from confusing the reader, such words as the disinterred "fuligin" in Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun and the neologism "grok," found in Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, serve to focus the reader's attention even more to what is transpiring in the text, thus making the "weirdness" of the story not something incomprehensible, but rather it permits such stories to be interpreted in a fashion unlike those that would be employed for processing terms and themes for mimetic fiction.
Kincaid's book is a worthwhile read for SF critics and for those who want to explore more why Book X and its plot/characterizations/themes work for them, but Book Y doesn't. In many ways, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction works best as being read in conjunction with the third book on my list, Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy. From my review:

Every few months, the cycle begins anew. Someone out there somewhere, someplace, asks "What makes this work a fantasy?" He or she ponders it for a bit, like a cow chewing its cud, then the thoughts are spit out, perhaps onto a blog or into the middle of a forum discussion. Others read it and react, "No!" or "Yes!" or "Yes, but..." Names are tossed about as example of the X but not Y "qualities" of "fantasy." "Yes, Borges is." "No, he isn't!" "Yes, yes he is!" And so it devolves into the claiming of authors as being X, Y, and Z or X and Y but not Z, or Z but not X and Y, and by the time the poor, baffled reader deciphers what is being argued, he or she is left wondering if anything was really accomplished.

Sometimes, however, someone dares to go a bit further, to ask tougher questions, such as "How is this story interacting with the world about the reader?" Occasionally, these questions lead to further explorations that reveal a lode full of fruitful results. These rare works contribute to the growing historiography of literary studies, studies that leave the reader not just knowing more, but also armed with an interpretative set that can be applied to other works. Farah Mendlesohn's recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, has the potential for being such a book.

Instead of engaging in a rather Quixotic attempt to define a hard and fast set of rule for "what is fantasy," Mendlesohn instead is more interested in understanding the construction of the genre, namely its language and the rhetoric employed, in order to provide critical tools for further analysis (Introduction, xiii). She argues that more is to be gained from examining the various ways in which a dialectic between the author(s) and reader is created; as it takes an implicit understanding of what the author is constructing and what the reader will digest for a true "sense of wonder" to be constructed out of mere words. This idea appeals greatly to me, as too many comments on the structures of fantasies fail to note this dialectal event by which an author creates scenes that contain expectations that the reader desires to see fulfilled. It is a case in which the actual creation of a form is often neglected for looking just at the already-constructed forms themselves.

Mendlesohn posits that there are four main types of fantasy: portal-quest, intrusive, immersive, and liminal, with many works utilizing elements of each of these four. Each type or form has its own semantical relationship between character, plot, setting, as well as how reader expectations shapes these relationships. Mendlesohn structures her book into five sections, devoted to each of these four types and a final section for those works that exist on the peripheries of each of these. It allows for a lengthy exploration of well over one hundred novels along their "genetic" kinships, as well as noting those books that do not meet the criteria.
While I had a few quibbles about some of the particulars of Mendlesohn's approach, overall, her Rhetorics of Fantasy has the potential to become quite influential in shaping some of the arguments over how to define and interpret works of speculative fiction, particularly fantasy. The final book I read (and one I really wanted to review, before my current job began to suck up most of my creative energy) in this group was John Rieder's Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. As the back cover states:

This is the first full-length study of emerging Anglo-American science fiction's relation to the history, discourses, and ideologies of colonialism and imperialism. Nearly all scholars and critics of early science fiction acknowledge that colonialism is an important and relevant part of its historical context, and recent scholarship has emphasized imperialism's impact on late Victorian Gothic and adventure fiction and on Anglo-American popular and literary culture in general. John Rieder argues that colonial history and ideology are crucial components of science fiction's displaced references to history and its engagement in ideological production. He proposes that the profound ambivalence that pervades colonial accounts of the exotic "other" establishes the basic texture of much science fiction, in particular its vacillation between fantasies of discovery and visions of disaster...
While I hope to write an in-depth review when I likely re-read this book in the Summer of 2009, my first impressions were that Rieder touches upon quite a few of the points of unease that I have had in reading some of the late 19th to mid-20th century SF narratives, particularly when it comes to "first contact" and the behaviors of the initiators of that contact (benign overlord-like attitudes if the first contact comes from the almost invariably Caucasian explorers/settlers, threatening and devious if the first contact is initiated by an "alien" group). There were a few points that I vaguely recall that I wished Rieder had explored more, but my general impression, six months after reading the book, is that it is a welcome addition to the cultural histories that explore how imperialist ideology was reflected in the popular culture of its day.

Four might not be as lonely of a number as one, but I suspect there are several other outstanding non-fictions that touch upon spec fic narratives and concerns. Can anyone name some good 2008 releases that would fit this criteria?

Next up will be a look at Spanish-language and translated fictions for 2008 that I felt were among the best of the year. While there will be some mimetic fictions involved, a good many of these are also speculative fiction works.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A little background dance for you while you read these posts

Ah, nothing can beat that combination of dancing and music, no? But what about this, then?

Better? Or worse?

Year-End Book Porn

Seven books arrived today. Although I'm expecting more tomorrow and/or Wednesday, I decided this would be my final Book Porn post for 2008. The first two pictures are of books I purchased from Jeff VanderMeer and they highlight one of my passions, the collection of foreign editions of works that I enjoyed. The final three books are from an order I placed a few weeks ago to a Spanish bookstore.

Left: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, New Weird (Romanian translation); Jeff VanderMeer, Miasto Szalenców I Swietych (Polish translation of City of Saints and Madmen, with a very lovely cover. Too bad I can't be bothered enough to activate the Polish alphabet feature on my keyboard right now).

Left: Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (an added bonus to my purchase, and a Carter book I haven't yet read); Δρσ. Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts, ΝΟΣΟΛΟΓΙΟΝ (Οδηγοσ Παραζενων & Αμφισβητουμενων ΑζΘενειων) (Greek translation of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases).

Left: Roberto Bolaño, Putas asesinas (2001 collection of short stories); Roberto Bolaño, Llamadas telefónicas (1997 collection of short stories).

Left: Andrzej Sapkowski, La torre de la golondrina (sixth and penultimate volume in the Saga de Geralt series).

Nice artwork for most of these, huh?

A glimpse into my world

This image is taken from the book Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is, which is a collection of student notes from the Los Angeles School District and its environs from 1999-2002, with artists hired to decorate some (but not all) of the student notes. The picture I took above is representative not just of the book, but also of what middle school and high school teachers such as myself have taken up (and often, secretly chuckled over). I would write a review of this book, but...yeah. Whatever. Peace, bye.

2008 in Review: Debut Novels

While normally I would refer any discussion of debut speculative fiction novels to Tia Nevitt's wonderful Fantasy Debut blog, looking back through my books at hand, I see there were nine debut novels about which I have things to say. This is obviously not a large number, nor does it comprise all of the debut novels that I have read (I recall Ann Aguirre's Grimspace and Anton Stout's Dead to Me vaguely as being pedestrian reads that didn't appeal to me in the way perhaps it would for those who are more well-read in urban fantasy/paranormal romances than I am), but perhaps there'll be a few books here that haven't been covered by others already.

In addition to three books already covered in my review of YA SF/F reads (Kristin Cashore, Graceling; Peadar Ó Guilín, The Inferior; Isamu Fukui, Truancy), there are a couple more debut efforts which will not be discussed here, as they shall appear in my upcoming article on my favorite anthologies/collections/novellas for 2008. However, the following four debut novels hopefully will contain points of interest for most readers here. As like with the YA and Graphic Novel articles, the books discussed are not "ranked" in any shape or form; I'm adding them from a longlist I wrote down when browsing my bookshelves (there will be a brief post on the 31st where I'll provide "rankings," but that post is intended solely for those who have the attention span of an ADHD squirrel, as the real fun is in discussing the books, no?).

Although the technical release date for Felix Gilman's Thunderer (according to Amazon) was December 26, 2007, the book carries a 2008 copyright, thus its inclusion on this list. I first encounter Gilman's writing in early February when I read his contribution to a group story project contained within The New Weird anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (more on that anthology tomorrow). I was impressed enough by it that I ended up requesting a review copy of Thunderer. Although I failed to write a review at the time (the reason being was that I had just been hired for a teaching position at a local residential treatment center for emotionally/behaviorally disturbed teens), I always kept thinking that I ought to return to it and then write a review. This little snippet will have to suffice, at least until I (hopefully) write a review of its sequel, Gears of the City, which incidentally is coming out tomorrow.

Thunderer is a very atmospheric novel, and its opening chapter hooked me, especially this description of the Bird:

Countless painters decide to capture the Bird's image. It'll test their art. It's impossible to make out its details - before the eye can fix on it, it's moved on. It's huge, yes, but it's impossible to say how huge. It seems to be unthinkably distant even as it thunders immediately overhead - perhaps it's vastly farther away and larger than it seems. Later, no one will even be able to agree what kind of bird it is. Some see a storm of bright feathers, others only the graceful motion of its wings. Little more than a sense of easy, invincible speed remains. A dozen minds conceive abstract new schools of painting to capture the moment.


The Bird has no church: its interventions into the city are too occasional and unpredicable, and it is utterly antithetical to order and structure in any case. But a handful of eccentric self-ordained devotees are here, wrapped in contraptions of linen and silk and balsa, ready among the sparse crowds, and as the presence rushes by, they run to the chasm between the roofs, fling out homemade wings, and plunge. In the moment of its passage, their wings catch flight, the Bird's power passing briefly into them, and they wheel up to join it, tears of joy and terror on their faces. Those who miss the moment fall to be broken in the alleys below. Down there, the city's no gleaming, gauzy thing; down there it's hard and bruise-dark and stinking. (pp. 4-5)
It is this combination of the hopes and beauty symbolized by the Bird's appearance and the juxtaposed "hard and bruise-dark and stinking" image of the city (Ararat, itself a name almost biblical in its possibilities, no?) that grabbed my attention. Arjun's search for his people's god in the midst of the Ararat's teeming hordes of the unwashed, suffering souls captivated my attention at the time. I can only hope that Gears of the City improves upon the pacing of the plot, as the main weakness I recollect about Thunderer (one that is but the flip side of its imaginative strength) is that the reader sometimes could become too lost in the wonder, at the danger of losing focus on what was transpiring. Perhaps there'll be a greater sense of resolution in this second volume, but Gilman's debut effort is one of the smoother and more enticing ones I have read in recent years.

Although Toby Barlow's prose poem, Sharp Teeth, was released in Great Britain in late 2007, it was not until February 2008 that it was released here in the United States. As I said in my May review:

But epic poetry has been a moribund storytelling form for over three centuries now, which is why when I read that Toby Barlow wrote his debut novel, Sharp Teeth, in a fashion that would hark back to those ancient forms, I was intrigued. So what if the story involved werewolves, surely an overplayed paranormal/horror staple? None of my favorite epic poets ever really created something "new" when they wrote about the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, or of the twelve mighty paladins of Charlemagne. What each of those writers, from Homer to Vergil, from Ariosto to Tasso, did was to take that source material, hackneyed as it might have been in the hands of a lesser poet and make something meaningful from it.

Did Barlow manage to do something of the same? To a degree, yes, but only to a degree. In his tale, told in free verse rather than in the octaves favored by Ariosto (whose themes most resemble Barlow's and thus will be the epic poet of comparison in this piece), Barlow tells of an ancient band of lycanthropes who shift back and forth from a canine (not lupine) to human state at will, unaffected by the lunar cycle. There is a lost alpha female, nameless, who drives the story; it is her interactions with the dogcatcher, Anthony, that sets up a narrative/character tension that makes the resulting story a real page turner for me.

Mixed in with this saga of deceit and love, of fleeing females and meandering males lost in the gloam searching for their lost leader, are some interesting asides, similar to the ones that Ariosto and others employ to great effect in creating a greater depth to the conflict being played out.
I love me some poetic tales of longing, self-identity searching, and true love being frustrated. Is it any wonder then why I would chose Sharp Teeth to be on this list?

I discovered J.M. McDermott's Last Dragon after reading a few enthusiastic posts about it on Jeff VanderMeer's blog. I then emailed his publishers and they sent me a review copy of this book and three others. I read through this book over the course of a day and night back in early February. Below is a snippet from the book and my commentary on it at the time:

My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you, even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth's face, and the face of the golem.

Esumi, do you remember the night before you left? We threw a grand ball in your honor. A skald sang of the glorious deeds. My deeds, my husband's, and even yours were sung. And Adel's glorious song eclipsed us all. Three hundred cantos extolling her deeds were barely enough for the ones who didn't know her when she was alive. I knew her. You didn't. I don't know if she was really our savior, or simply the monster who fooled us all. Both, perhaps. I don't know. I never did. I think she was my friend, but even that's fuzzy. For all I know I was a weapon for her, no better than any mercenary. Or perhaps I was her friend, like a trusted weapon at her side, a trusted warrior. And, she is a hero worthy of song.

In these letters I wish to tell you of us and his empire, Alameda. (p. 3, ARC)
This opener to J.M. McDermott's debut novel, Last Dragon, serves as a portal for what follows next. Eschewing a straight narrative tale, McDermott's story of a young girl, Zhan, and her search for her grandfather, who has been accused of killing her family as well as others in her native village, moves in an episodic, rapid-fire fashion in which each scene lasts little more than a page or two. As Zhan and others (most of whom are mentioned in that opening sequence quoted above) travel in search for her grandfather in an attempt to understand just what could have led him to wreak such havoc among his people, the reader is treated to a series of narrative fragments, fragments that at first can be disorienting for those expecting lots of straightforward expository writing, but which when considered carefully in their own light, yield some surprisingly intense character insights.
Although McDermott's writing might not be for everyone (damnable tastes that some people have, aside...), it certainly is the type of prose and story that I enjoy reading and I was impressed enough to put it here.

Although I'm still trying to decide how I'm going to revise my review for later publication, Jo Graham's Black Ships is one of two Æneid-themed novels to be published in 2008 (the other being Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia). Below is a quote from my draft review:

How should a modern-day writer approach using such a legendary character in a tale? Should the story be recast in modern terms, with modern analogues for ancient ideals such as Aeneas’ famed pietas? Ought the writer stay true to the character established 2,000 years ago but instead rework the surroundings to make them “true” as well to the presumed early 12th century BCE setting? Perhaps any writer who’s audacious enough to use Vergil’s characters ought to consider using the poem itself as the basis for departure? Or would it be best if Aeneas himself were but a minor character in the reworked story?

Jo Graham, in her debut novel, Black Ships, bases her version of Aeneas upon recent archaeological evidence. She uses evidence that there might have been two sacks/destructions within a generation’s time at the Hisarlik site presumed to be that of Homer’s Troy as the basis for her tale. Furthermore, as she states in her afterward, she read a transcription from tablets found at Pylos referring to “the woman of Troy, the servant of the god.” Taking this and other evidence found in Egyptian and Hittite records in regards to the sudden appearance of the Sea Peoples and their depredations in the eastern Mediterranean, she constructs a story set around 1200 BCE that is very true to current theories regarding the weaponry, economies, and religious practices of that region during a very troubled and violent time.
But a moving tale depends upon more than just an exciting backdrop. Fortunately, Graham's characters are intriguing and she does an excellent job of integrating her fictional ones in with the legendary ones such as Prince Aeneas. However, I don't want to get too far into discussing the mechanics of the book (I do have that review to edit/revise this week, ya know), so I'll just close by saying that for a historical fiction/romance/slight fantasy debut effort, it more than met my high expectations for it.

James Braziel's Birmingham, 35 Miles is a post-apocalyptic, family-centered novel that when summed up in synopsis form, perhaps would appear lackluster, due to a surface similarity with Cormac McCarthy's stunning The Road. Braziel's book, however, is not a carbon copy of McCarthy's and the events that are unfolding center as much around inertia as it does around the effects of devastation.

The story opens in southern Alabama in 2044. In 2014, a new ozone hole opened up over the southeastern US, making it into a deadly desert. The US government has quarantined the area, forcing the inhabitants of that region to stay there in an attempt to control the flood of refugees. One of the family's sons, Mat, has a visa to the unaffected lands to the north, to Birmingham, just a scant 35 miles away, but it is Mat's internal struggle that makes up much of this novel's story.

Braziel's strength is in developing his setting and his characters. While some might be frustrated by the slow pace of the first half of this 292 page novel, those who love quality prose might be attracted to passages such as the one that opens the novel:

Working on fence posts was my grandfather's work, my father's work for some time, until the winds and sand came in from the coast, and the sky opened up a wound over southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, a blinding eye swirling, burning until everything in the Deep South became too dry. No crops would take, and then my father became a clay miner who told me, "Clay rocks are good for nothing but the money. And there's not much of that, Mathew, except for the government, what they're willing to give to keep us here." But money or no money, my father would have stayed and died just as he did. (p. 5)
The tale unfolds at a leisurely pace, never hurrying to its destination, as that 35 miles becomes more than just a short travel away. After all, when there are kinfolk involved and familial connections to the land, blasted as it may be, why should one rush into making a snap decision?

Francie Lin's The Foreigner is a noir novel. It is a tale about family. It is a story involving a main character discovering his real identity. It is a fiction that devotes itself to exploring the chasms that can open up between an individual and his/her society. It could even be a romance. Certainly it is a Romansbildung, perhaps even more than that. Whatever it is, The Foreigner made for a very good read.

Lin's novel revolves around a stolid, rather boring Chinese-American financial analyst, Emerson Chang, who couldn't get laid if he had $1000 to give to a willing prostitute, and his dying mother's wish to for her ashes to be scattered in her native Taiwan. Along the way, Emerson has to confront the nasty living ghost of his brother's shady past, figure out how to deal with his new-found inheritance, and what to do when he falls in love, sort of. Lin peppers her narrative with subtle humor, often using it as a vehicle for exploring the conflicts that Chinese-Americans, particularly the males, have between their family/old society's cultural expectations and the new pressures that living in the United States brings. Emerson's explorations into his family's past uncovers some dangerous information, and throughout the second half of the novel, Lin's narrative takes on elements of a thriller in the speed in which events unfold. However, she manages to maintain firm control over the narrative and the reader is rewarded with a tale that not only moves briskly, but also contains layers of depth for those who like to contemplate what they are reading.

It'll be interesting to revisit this post in about five years or so and see what each author would have produced by then. I suspect for most, if not all, their second, third, X number of novels afterwards would build upon the promises found in each of these fine narratives. Some likely will experiment with different styles, others might continue to develop their voices in a particular chosen narrative style. All I know is that I'll be keeping tabs on each of these authors and that I'll have two (Gilman, Graham) to read before next month is over.

But perhaps there are other debuts that I have missed. What 2008 debuts would you point out as being among the best for this year?

Later today, a relatively short post on 2008 SF/F Non-fiction/Related Works, with posts on Tuesday devoted to Spanish-language/Translated Fiction and to examining some of the best anthologies, short story collections, and novellas for 2008.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Amusing observation

As I'm finishing up preparations for the books I want to discuss in the next few parts of my 2008 in Review series, I noticed that a book that I probably will choose as one of my Top 3 Reads for 2008 received absolutely no comments when I posted a review of it earlier this year. Since I don't care to reveal my hand before I am ready, I'll leave it up to you to guess which book it was (one hint: it was a solo review).

Now back to resting and then writing the next two essays.

Thinking about starting a new reading/research project

Every now and then the "bug" strikes me. It began when I was given a hardcover copy of Bulfinch's Mythology as a child. Much as I loved the classical Greek and Roman myths, great as my love for Arthurian romance has been over the years, I always have found the Carolingian Paladin stories (also known as "The Matter of France") to be the most fascinating. In particular, I have always wanted to read more about Roland/Orlando, the tragic hero of the chanson d' geste called The Song of Roland, as well as the star of at least three major Italian Renaissance epics, Morgante (composed by Luigi Pulci), Orlando Innamorato (Matteo Maria Boiardo), and Orlando Furioso (Ludovico Ariosto).

After years of haphazard research, I have begun to delve further into the Orlando/Roland mythos. I have ordered copies of Boiardo and Pulci's work (currently reading Pulci after finishing the Boiardo Thursday), plus I am awaiting the arrival of the English translation of Bertrand De Bar-Sur-Aube's 12th century related geste, The Song of Girart of Vienne, which deals with the rivalry and later the friendship between Roland and Olivier. I am contemplating spending a relatively large amount of money (over $100, when shipping is included) to import a copy of Spanish poet/playwright Lope de Vega's La hermosura de Angélica, which deals with Orlando's great love, the Cathay princess, Angelica.

But this time, I want to go further. The historian in me wants to explore the origins of the myth (Einhard's biography of Charlemagne contains a brief reference to the historical Roland, Count of the Breton Marches) and to see how Roland/Orlando and his world changes from the late 8th century CE/AD through the 11th-13th centuries chansons through the Italian Renaissance epics of the 15th and 16th centuries to more modern portrayals of the character in various parts of the world, particularly the romance language-speaking countries of Spain, France, and Italy. But this proposed project will be draining in both money, time, and energy. Hopefully, I can devote enough time to reading a book a month and writing my reflections upon what I have learned and how each work connected to others touching upon the subject of Roland. It might end up being a years-long project. However, I think it'll be worth it to me, as it's been too long since I've really delved into a cultural study, much less one that has intrigued me for over two decades now.

So there might be occasional rumblings from me in the coming months about certain books being acquired. I certainly can't think of beginning this in full until the summer time (when school will be out), and I first need to amass a list of resources. So...

Anyone reading this know of any other primary, contemporary sources (poems, chronicles, tracts, etc.) on Roland/Orlando besides the ones I've mentioned above? I'm looking for sources that either have been translated into English or are available in Spanish (I can muddle my way through Portuguese or Italian, though, so I might be able to consider those as well, although the import costs from those quarters is bound to be even more expensive for me) that I can use. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008 in Review: Graphic Novels

Before this year, my only exposure to the graphic novel form had been the first four volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and (unfortunately) some Jack Chick tracts. Needless to say (overlooking the tackiness of the last), I had virtually no experience in reading the graphic novel form. This year, I managed to read 15 graphic novels, 13 of them published this year (the other two being Alan Moore's classic Watchmen, which I highly recommend, by the way, and the graphic adaptation of some of horror writer Thomas Ligotti's tales, The Nightmare Factory: Volume I), thanks in equal measure to various publishing firms sending me unsolicited copies and to Jeff VanderMeer, whose generosity helped expose me to some talented storytellers whose works I would never have heard of, much less read, if he hadn't sent me a few spare copies of work he had received.

If the YA books I mentioned in my previous column seemed to be a bit eclectic in tone, theme, and writing style, that is nothing compared to the diversity of this group, united solely on the basis of drawn art being as much a part of the storytelling process as any words appearing on their pages. No less than 5 out of the 12 are histories, biographies, and autobiographies told with the use of comic-style illustrations (Howard Zinn, A People's History of American Empire; Alissa Torres, American Widow; Rick Geary, J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography; Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History; and Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, After 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001 - )), plus another (Appollo and Lewis Trondheim's Bourbon island 1730) that is largely historical in nature.

Since it is very difficult for me to talk at length about graphic novels, since I am not well-trained enough to say more than "Hey, this group of stories is great!" or "Hey, the artwork is cool!," I am going to take a more general approach there than I will for the other categories in my 2008 in Review series. Considering the non-fiction entries I've mentioned above, what I first noticed is how vivid the authors use the visual media form to reinforce their stories. While I certainly wouldn't consider the Zinn, Pekar/Dumm, Geary, or Jacobson/Colón books to be masterpieces of research and insight, their sometimes incendiary commentary, when matched with equally controversial drawings, serve to create texts that argue their points forcefully and with such power that whether one agrees with them or not (I only did to a point, sympathetic to Leftist causes as I may be), the reader's attention is grabbed immediately. These were excellent introductions to their chosen topics and despite wearing their Left-leaning biases on their sleeves proudly, these works are well worth the effort to read them.

Alissa Torres' autobiography, American Widow, takes the sad tale of a 9/11 widow (one who was pregnant with her first child when her husband died in the attacks on the World Trade Center) and personalizes it even more with the illustrations. The reader experiences not just Torres' hassles with the Red Cross and other relief organizations through her own words, but the illustrations serve to convey the alternating senses of grief, confusion, despair, anger, and forlorn hope in a way that words alone would struggle to accomplish. It was reading her tale that I began to understand better how graphic novels can carry an emotional resonance that traditional novels do not carry.

If the first five books represent historical events drawn in a realistic fashion, then Appollo and Lewis Trondheim's Bourbon Island 1730 presents a historical situation (the settlement of the Indian Ocean island formerly known as Bourbon Island during the 17th and 18th century) via the use of animals to stand in place of the various human ethnic groups who either chose or were forced to stay on that isolated isle. While the blurbs claim this book is told in the tradition of Watership Down, it might be more honest to note that symbolicly, the characters are more akin to Spiegelman's Maus than anything else. It is a tale of yearning and of freedom and the comic style suits the narrative well. While it doesn't contain the deep personal nature of Spiegelman's classic, Appollo and Trondheim do manage to show the humanity of the disparate ethnic groups involved in mutual (albeit antagonistic at times toward each other) struggles for survival on a new island precisely by drawing these groups as animals rather than as human beings.

There were two outstanding graphic anthologies included in my readings this year, the collaboratively-edited Out of Picture Volume 2 and the Kazu Kibuishi-edited Flight: Volume 5. In each of these anthologies, a wide cast of very talented illustrators, many of whom have worked for major animation studios, have drawn short sketches, some of which are almost entirely wordless stories. The vignettes are very colorful, striking not just in their visual appearance, but also in the depth of humanity that can be conveyed in the images. There is a wide range of styles employed in both anthologies and I cannot choose a favorite, either from one of the selections in each anthology, or between the anthologies themselves.

David Petersen's Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 has already garnered two Eisner Award wins for Best Publication for Kids and for Best Graphic Album - Reprint (it originally appeared as a set of comics, before being bound together in book form). The story is a clever one involving a set of brave mice who seek to protect their homes in the face of predatory threats, as well as from traitors in their midst. Petersen's illustrations are gorgeous and the story unfolds beautifully. It is in turns amusing and sad, with ever darker tones as the tale progresses to a close. Petersen is currently working on a second related series called Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 and when it is available in book form, I plan on purchasing it.

I had heard of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy/detective series The Dresden Files before, but until I received a finished version of his first graphic novel, Welcome to the Jungle (illustrated by the Dabel Brothers), I had never bothered reading any of his fiction. This graphic novel is a prequel to his series and it introduces one of wizard Harry Dresden's first cases. While the artwork is stunning (the colors in particular are very well-done), the story was merely adequate; it moved from plot point to plot point and served its purpose of providing something around which the illustrators could work. It was adequate to good, but in terms of story, it was the weakest of the graphic fictions I read this year.

The adaptation of several of Thomas Ligotti's horror stories in The Nightmare Factory: Volume Two, however, went much smoother. Not only did the adapters do a very good job in capturing much of Ligotti's tone and pacing (inevitably, there were some losses in effect, but much of this was made up in the illustrations), but the images (which varied from story to story) fit the story descriptions very well, creating a creepy, unsettling effect for most of the tales. A highlight for me was the adaptation of "The Clown Puppet," with its chilling conclusion being matched by the illustrator's drawings, while "The Chymist" is even more terrifying with the way the characters are drawn. Hopefully, there will be future adaptations of Ligotti's work in the near future.

Cyril Pedrosa's Three Shadows is a very poignantly-written (and drawn) tale of a family trying to avoid a nasty, shadowy threat, and the love that unites father, mother, and young son. Pedrosa does a good job in using his illustrations to underscore the story, rather than letting the story be overwhelmed with the visual images. The ending was very touching, perhaps the second-most moving out of the books listed here, with the exception of the final book to be discussed.

Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole is the tale of two suburban kids in a blended family who struggle with incipient schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while their parents and they struggle with the grandmother's slow decline into dementia and death. Powell has some well-drawn images and the pauses in the dialogue speaks volumes about the characters' conflicts and their attempts to fit in despite the mental illnesses they bear. As a high school teacher who has had students suffer through similar conditions, Swallow Me Whole was at times very uncomfortable to read, as it felt so personal. It is this sense of the real that makes Powell's story such a compelling one to read.

Hopefully, 2009 will lead to more graphic novel discoveries, as with one exception already noted, the fiction pieces were outstanding and the non-fiction not too shabby as well. Anyone else have any graphic novels from 2008 that they think ought to be considered among the year's best?

Next up will be a brief look at the debut authors/novelists I read this year, followed perhaps by a discussion of foreign fiction, translated and untranslated alike, that I enjoyed this year.
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