The OF Blog: 2007 in Review: Things Liked, Things Not-so-Liked

Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in Review: Things Liked, Things Not-so-Liked

By now, there are numerous posts on the blogosphere and on various forums listing one's favorite fictions from 2007. In most of those posts, the writers proclaim 2007 to have been an "excellent" or "outstanding" one for fantasy/SF/etc. They'll rattle off 5-20 books that they enjoyed, perhaps give a sentence or two of explanation behind the choices, and then the post is done. All well and good for their intended purposes, no doubt, but I keep wanting to read something "more" in such "year in review" posts.

Before I explore the book side of matters, I want to take note of certain authors who have died in 2007. Between April and October, three authors that I had read at various points of my life had died. The first (and perhaps most prominent to mind, although coverage in certain sectors was lacking) was Kurt Vonnegut. Although I have read only two books of his to date (Slaughterhouse 5 and Timequake), I remember reading many of his short stories and essays throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Witty, irascible, and often dead-on with his writings, Vonnegut's words spoke to some of my unease with the daftness that makes up our so-called "reality." He will be missed.

In August, Madeleine L'Engle died at the age of 88. Like Vonnegut, she had lived a "long and full" life, but my memories of her are closely related to my sixth grade teacher (long since retired) who, more than anyone during my time in primary or secondary school, encouraged me to read fiction. She especially urged me to read A Wrinkle in Time, but at the time (I was 11, remember), I was too easily distracted. But yet that book stuck in my mind and earlier this year, I read it start-to-finish for the first time. There was a "magical" quality about that prose, even though its intended audience was for my former 10-13 year-old cohort group, that appealed to me. So when a few months after reading this that I heard that she had died, I was saddened a bit, thinking at the time that we needed more people like her who would just imagine things and write from there with a sense for the trepidation that lies behind our seeking for making the world a better place.

Finally, epic fantasist James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (better known under his pseudonym of Robert Jordan) died after a battle with a rare blood disease. I first read his The Wheel of Time books (then numbering seven) in late 1997 while I was seeking a distraction from my MA exam studies. At the time, they met a need and despite the many problems with pacing and characterization, I continued to read the books fitfully through the present. Indirectly, I came back to reading genre fantasy (and later branching out from that into the styles you'll see below represented in my choices for the Best of 2007) due to a chance encounter with his writings and for that, it does bear noting that his death was a loss for millions of spec fic fans. But out of death arises hope on occasion and it was announced earlier this month that Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn trilogy and of Elantris, will be completing the final WoT novel, A Memory of Light, with an expected Fall 2009 release date.

This year has seen much more than just author deaths. There have been new imprints emerge in the past couple of years, such as Orbit US, Pyr, and Solaris to name but three of many, that have published things that have made somewhat of an impact on the genre. Although there has been a steady growth the past few years, apparently 2007 was viewed by many as being the year where SF review blogs became worthy of notice for their role in influencing buying and reading patterns. Perhaps there is something to it, but I am cautious about this, considering that blogs such as mine might not be as much the avante guard in proclaiming certain books and trends as being rather the reflection of already-present trends in public reading consumption. Then again, perhaps my choices for best of year will belie that.

When I started compiling lists for the various categories listed below, I was struck by a realization similar to the one Jeff VanderMeer had back in October in regards to short fiction. There weren't too many "bad" books that I read; a great many of the 2007 releases had elements to recommend them to others. However, there just were not many releases that I read that had that je ne sais quoi element of "magic" to them. I am not a reader who is comfortable with reading various permutations of a particular formula; I want something that at least attempts to be "inventive" and "challenging." Mind you, this does not mean that I wanted an X or Y style of writing, as the inventiveness and challenge can come in a great many styles and varieties within widely disparate genre forms.

The books that I chose for each of the categories (Best Novel, Best Collection, Best Anthology, Best Debut Spec Fic Novel, Best YA Novel, with certain others appearing on my personal, non-genre blog) in virtually all cases had something to them that made them stand out from a crowd. By that, I do not mean wiseass mo'fo spouting off pithy lines inside the framework of a "traditional" SF or epic fantasy novel, but rather that the authors chosen attempted different perspectives, displayed high proficiency in using language to create a certain mood, and for some, the stories were laid out in such a fashion as to be unsettling and provocative. My choices will not be popular with many who read this blog in addition to certain others, I know. In many cases, these stories are not "accessible" and they are going to cause all sorts of problems for readers accustomed to taking a more passive role in the reading game. M. John Harrison alludes to this in his recent essay on "worldbuilding" (the quotes serve a purpose here) in talking about the intertextual "games" that transpire between Author, Text, and Reader, with the Text serving as a constant field of interpretative action. Not all readers (sadly, not even close to a majority) want to engage themselves with the writing - they want things spelled out, as clear as if they were viewing something rather than interpreting the word-symbols (which is but of course the foundation of language and communication). For those readers, many of the books that I have chosen for these lists will be unappealing, frustrating, and perhaps "bad" in their eyes. So be it, as after all, this is a very subjective list, albeit one grounded in providing some reasons at least for including these books here in the various lists.

But enough of the essay writing. I have things to do. On with the show. In the following sections, I'll list the full shortlist and then choose 1-3 for further commentary regarding why these were chosen. Let's see how many of you (besides the lucky 2 out of 81) are surprised by my #1 selection for Best Novel.

Best Spec Fic Novel of 2007:

4. Gene Wolfe, Pirate Freedom
5. Dan Simmons, The Terror
6. Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish
7. Lucius Shepard, Softspoken
8. Sarah Monette, The Mirador
9. Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen (Black Man)
10. Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon's Arms
11. Emma Bull, Territory
12. M. John Harrison, Nova Swing

3. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

As a kid, I remember watching "Fractured Fairy Tales" on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. While Valente's stories certainly are not satires, that title would fit the sort of storytelling that is taking place in this second half of her The Orphan's Tale duology. Various myths and folklore from around the world, with bizarre and yet somehow familiar characters of all shapes, sizes, and hues, all feeling as though they were distillations of our shared cultural pasts. This led to a very enjoyable reading experience in which I felt that magical quality called "wonder." I like that, I want that, I even need that fix. Valente delivers that here.

2. Michael Cisco, The Traitor

This was a very challenging but rewarding read for me. There has been some interesting discussion on that elsewhere, where Cisco answers the email of another who read this work and had struggled to grasp its meanings. The Traitor is a feverish, confessional tale, replete with repetitions and apparent contradictions to this tale of a tortured prisoner's various betrayals. It is in many ways akin to Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground and when I approached it from that angle, the story revealed even more layers to it, belying its slim 150 pages. Cisco is not "accessible," but damn was he ever worth the read for me.

1. Shaun Tan, The Arrival

So I picked a book that has no intelligible words for my top 2007 release. Why? Because in those images that evoke flashes of Ellis Island or many other ports of entry for immigrants over the years, one gets so many powerful images. Wonderment. Despair. Confusion. Hope. Frustration. Sadness. Joy. And in a genre in which it does seem at times that authors almost force readers to consider only one way to approach a story (which is why I sympathized to an extent with MJH's arguments, and don't let people like Pat fool you into thinking Harrison didn't have valid points to consider), it was so refreshing to have to imagine what is transpiring behind those images. Fantasy is as much about readers engaging their own imaginations as reading a writer's imaginative exercise and sometimes I feel that this has been lost in tales that borrow too heavily from the past imaginative exercises of others. Tan drew some amazing pictures that told so many stories at once that it'll take a lifetime to exhaust the possibilities there. For that, he deserves the top choice here.

Best Author Story Collection (Single or Collaborative):

I had six very strong candidates to choose from here and not much separated them from one another. In a couple of cases, having more stories (Cisco, Rambo and VanderMeer) would have improved their status perhaps, as the sample was not large enough for a full spectrum of stories. Regardless, I'd heartily recommend each of these for those who like the quirky and unpredictable to appear in their stories.

6. Michael Cisco, Secret Hours
5. Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories
4. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes (US edition)
3. Sarah Monette, The Bone Key
2. Tim Pratt, Hart & Boot & Other Stories

1. Richard Parks, Worshipping Small Gods

When I read this collection back in the summer, I said the following in summation:

Richard Parks' Worshipping Small Gods is a collection of 14 stories, most of which have been released in various genre magazines, with three new stories included. Each of these tales touches upon our desires, fears, and hatreds in a way that makes each story stand out as its own creation but yet with some common threads that connect it to each other.
I still hold to this opinion and it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see this collection up for a World Fantasy Award in 2008. One can only hope.

Best Anthology:

The anthology choices were harder for me. In many cases, such as The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (which I might review in full in a few days, time/energy permitting), the strong stories were counterbalanced by some rather dull, "competent" stories that made for an uneven experience. In other cases, such as with Logorrhea, the uniting theme was not strong enough in places and the stories did not feel as though they were parts of a whole. But sometimes, the editors got it right and the winning entries showcase this.

7. George Mann (ed.), The Solaris Book of New Fantasy
6. Peter Wild (ed.), The Flash
5. John Clima (ed.), Logorrhea
4. Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (eds.), The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
3. Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers (eds.), Infinity Plus: The Anthology (US edition)

And in a tie for first place:

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Best American Fantasy (prior review)

Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.), Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

In each of these two anthologies, there were stories that grabbed my attention, made me reflect upon matters, and which contained those "magical" elements that I look for in stories of all stripes and genres. I could not easily decide which of these two I liked best, so I chose them both for the top slot. After all, some of you will consider reading these excellent works, right?

Best Young Adult Fantasy Novels:

Doubtless, this list is rather spare and lacking in comparison to others, although I do hope to rectify this in time for next year's Review post (any publishers reading this: I do read and review YA literature when it's brought to my attention, as I think it's underrated in many circles).

4. Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow: The Invisible Road
3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
2. Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors

1. China Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Although this isn't Miéville's best work (for that, I consider his novella The Tain to be his strongest work of fiction), this was a very imaginatively-done story. As a child, I remember making up creatures and all sorts of nasty surprises that could lurk around city corners and it was a delight to see an alternate London done in a similar fashion here. Although there were some rough places here and there where the intended audience might not have been considered well, overall, Un Lun Dun contained nice twists and Miéville's usual penchant for scary monsters. Good stuff.

Best Spec Fic Debut Novel:

Although one author on this list has had some well-received historical novels, writing genre fiction (whatever "genre fiction" might mean, as it's akin to "obscenity" in its definitions, it seems) is a different matter.

3. Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors
2. Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

1. David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein

For a fantasy debut (again, I know Durham's written three historical novels and I've read the first two, as a glance at the link above to my non-genre Best of 2007 lists will show), Acacia was a good read. I typically get bored with the patchwork arrangement in secondary-world fantasies, as it seems at times that the authors do not focus their attentions adequately to certain story mechanics, but Durham did an excellent job in getting me engaged with the mechanics that underlay this opener to a trilogy. As I jokingly told him a few days ago, Acacia was "lucky #13" on my Best of 2007 Countdown, as it was the last book to be removed from that list. I removed it with the expectation that as he grows more accustomed to writing in a "created world," his characters will continue to show the nice development that I noted in my earlier review. For this, it was the best spec fic debut novel that I have read this year out of the 2007 releases that I own.

Final Notes:

I have read through 356 novels to date and have only a few pages here and there to finish of two others, so I will have read 358 novels this year. Of those, roughly 80 were 2007 releases and a bit over half were in the spec fic umbrella. Not many of those (fewer than 10) were epic fantasies and many contained elements of "magic realism," which is a preferred style for me. I will be posting my final 2007 reading list tomorrow or Wednesday on my other blog. I welcome any questions and comments in regards to my choices, as well as listings of your own favorite 2007 reads. I hope you enjoyed reading this and took something from my comments, even if it might have been a distaste for 99% of the books I selected. Thank you for reading and I hope that each of you has a Happy New Year full of wonderful book reading that will contain at least one "Book of Gold" for you.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Glad to see Pirate Freedom on here. It caused me to do a search and read your review. I'm not well versed in the world of Gene Wolfe but I've absolutley loved what I have read: The Knight, The Wizard, The Fifth Head of Cerebus, and have several more of his books on my pile. I have been wondering about Pirate Freedom and hadn't seen any reviews.

Cheryl said...

Larry, you are absolutely right that many readers will not enjoy the books you have listed, because different people look for different things in books. But of the books you listed, every one that I had read I also loved, and that gives me great confidence to seek out the ones I haven't read. Job well done.

Tia Nevitt said...

Somewhat embarrassingly, I have not read Name of the Wind. It came out before I started Fantasy Debut. Maybe I should have come up with a "Books I Still Need to Read" category for my own list. However, it would be rather lengthly, since I missed half the year.

Happy New Year!

Patrick said...

Hey Larry,

Happy New Year, my friend!

I wouldn't worry too much, for nobody really listens to me!:p Anyway, as I said numerous times, we will probably never agree on MJH. But since we are living in a Grecian democracy, I'm entitled to my opinion!;-)


Lsrry said...

First off, Happy New Year to all who've replied! My beloved Vols won a close one, so I'm in a very good mood, obviously!


If you're curious about some of the other Wolfe books, I still have about a half-dozen reviews to write in the coming month. I just took a break to compile this Best of Year bit.


Thanks :D I can only hope that at least some of the books I mentioned will be appealing to others as well, because I remember discovering many of these from reading short notices on others' blogs. Viral spread indeed.


Always new ways to integrate other reads within your planned focus. Do what you feel is best, as your concept is an interesting one :D


You know I couldn't resist getting you back in some form for my name appearing in that MM part of your thread! :P And yes, Grecian Formula Democracy is an interesting thing to behold, no? ;)

Anonymous said...

I've got The Terror and The Name of the Wind sitting on my shelf waiting to be read this year. I've head great things about them from you and many others.

Anonymous said...

You've actually counted how many books you've read? Or is that just how many you've read for this blog?

If the former then that is real OCD material :)

I'd have no idea how many books I've read over the years. I started reading fantasy properly (with the Hobbit, LOTR & Belgariad) when I was 9... Now at 29 I'd say that'd be a lot of books!

Anonymous said...

Seeing that you liked _The Last Wish_ by Andrzej Sapkowski AND you read Spanish, may I suggest that you try reading the Spanish translation? It's splendid, and maybe the only non-Slavic one that does justice to the Polish original.

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