The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: 25 Favorite Fictions of 2009

Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review: 25 Favorite Fictions of 2009

For many, I suppose this is the only list of mine that matters to them.  They want to know the "best of the best," I suppose.  Never mind that with few exceptions that this list focuses on novels (several of the anthologies and collections, not to mention the graphic novels, are at least on par with several of the books that appear here).  People want a list of favorites among those released this year.

So here is a list.  Outside of the top 5, there is no order to the remaining 20 books on this list.  It easily could have been 50.  Several of the books that appear here will appeal to several types of readers, but it's highly likely that several of the books here will be antithetical to the reading preferences of several readers.  Yes, there really isn't any epic or secondary-world fantasies (with one semi-exception) on this list.  While I read them, I didn't get as much enjoyment out of those as I did out of other books.  So while I did enjoy offerings from R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, and David Anthony Durham (to name three of several authors of epic fantasies that have graced several such lists from bloggers that appear in my blogroll and in the blogrolls of those over there), I just could not justify their appearance at the expense of several others here.

But for those of you who like several genres of fiction, perhaps this list will offer something for you.  Six out of the eight mimetic fictions that I listed my earlier post today appear here.  So do works from each of the other categories I've posted over the past four days.  Hopefully, this list will greater reflect the diversity not just of gender or national origin, but also of the many fine narrative modes in which talented authors have told their tales for our enjoyment and edification this year.  Each of the books that appears below will be re-read in the near future, some doubtless several times in the coming years.  May you find as much enjoyment out of these books and others that you've read this year or in the future that I did from these during 2009.

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

From my original review:

History, or rather its root of "story," can be a cruel, deceitful monster.  People inspired by one telling of the past may go forth and butcher their neighbors, just because of stories that may not ultimately be "true."  Memories can be haunting by themselves, but when infused with stories from the past that are tinged to place might and right on one's side, who can fathom the depths to which one may be self-deluded or, ultimately, betrayed?  What may seem insignificant in the present may have antecedents that were considered to be momentous, or perhaps the mundane present can give birth to unimaginable futures.  History's treacheries may inspire or crush societies, but no society ever truly remains static or totally free of being enslavement to (false?) memories of the past.

In Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle, the various false faces that history and memory can wear are interwoven into the fabric of these tales.  From the myths surrounding the razing of the gray cap city of Cinsorium to the fates of Samuel Tonsure, Voss Bender, and Duncan Shriek, there are layers upon layers of shaded meaning.  What is happening between the lines?  Which writers, if any, manage to follow that old deceiving adage of historians, wie es eigentlich gewesen?  In my recent re-reading of VanderMeer's first two Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek:  An Afterword, I found myself referring back to this adage of Ranke's.  How can one even hope to believe that "how it actually has been" can be found in narratives like that of Janice and Duncan Shriek?  Who is "lying," and who merely is self-deceived?

In the concluding book to the Ambergris Cycle, Finch, the issues surrounding the relationships between past and present are brought to the fore in VanderMeer's apparently most straightforward narrative yet.  Set around 100 years after the events in Shriek:  An Afterword, Finch is on the surface a noir-like murder mystery.  Ambergris, after decades of internecine warfare between two leading trading companies, fell under the control of the gray caps in the Rising six years before the present story.  The city, always in a fragile state, has become a brutal occupation zone.  Passages such as the one quoted above pepper the narrative.  Humans are herded into quasi-concentration camps or they are subdued by the gray caps by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms that provide euphoria and substance to the addicts.  Bands of altered human quislings, called Partials, spy on the population, trying to stamp out the last vestiges of revolutionary activity inspired by the enigmatic Lady in Blue.  Ambergris is rotting on both the inside and out, or perhaps being on the verge of a transformation may be a more apt description.


Finch is certainly one of the best novels that I have read this year.  Despite the minor quibbles that I noted above, there is so much that VanderMeer did "right" in terms of balancing narrative, characterization, and themes that I have found myself thinking about some of the issues related to this novel (and to the series as a whole - see the recent interview I conducted with VanderMeer)  for several days now.  Finch is a novel that I believe would appeal to a wide range of readers, from mystery fans to lovers of surreal fiction to those readers who want to "think" and "feel" simultaneously.  It's just a damn good book and I suspect future re-readings will only strengthen my appreciation for what VanderMeer managed to accomplish in this novel.  Most highly recommended.
 For the reasons noted above, Finch is the best 2009 release that I read this year.

 A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book

From my original review:

Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, one of Great Britain's most prestigious literary awards, A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is a sprawling, 675 page historical novel that spans from the last years of the Victorian Age to the immediate aftermath of World War I.  At the center of the novel is the family of children's novelist Olive Wellwood and how their lives, full of bittersweet romances, flights of fancy, and tragic events, relate to the seven stories that Olive pens about them.  During the quarter-century that the novel spans, The Children's Book takes an interesting dual-narrative approach that serves to weave a story that is much stronger as a whole than if it were to be considered by its component parts.

The Children's Book can be read on two levels.  First, there is the complex narrative of the Wellwood children and the adopted runaway Philip.  Byatt does an excellent job fleshing out the characters and their unique traits.  The scene quoted above serves as a microcosm of what transpires between the pragmatic Tom and the idealist Charles (later, Karl).  Byatt breathes life into these characters, so as Tom, Charles, their siblings and Philip grow into adulthood, the reader becomes immersed in what they are experiencing.  From every hope held to every betrayal done, the Wellwood children and Philip live lives that hint at another interpretation of Dream that differs from those given by Tom and Charles.  Some might find Byatt's treatment of these characters to be overly bleak and dour, but considering the second narrative level from which this novel could be interpreted, I found the sometimes-brutal, heart-wrenching agonies that the children experience to be suitable for the parallels that Byatt created to their times.

In addition to the novel working as a tragic look into the lost innocence of childhood, The Children's Book works as an excellent historical novel that presents a vivid image of the British Empire just before the calamities of the 20th century.  From the idealistic Fabians to their darker, more violent anarchist brethren, the Great Britain of 1895 to 1913 was a study in contrasts.  Charles/Karl's flight into the world of the anarchists, his rejection of his comfortable (and somewhat hypocritical) bourgeois upbringing parallels the rise of the Guides in England and the Wandervogel movement among German youth in the two decades before World War I.  Byatt depicts the world of opulent decadence almost pitch-perfectly, as the reader is immersed in a mindscape that correlates almost perfectly with the imagines of a genteel, tamed landscape where the bourgeois dared to dream that eternal prosperity was about to emerge.  Some dreams, when shattered, are damning to those betrayed by them.

 Although The Children's Book lost out to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which appears in the list below), I found it to be the slightly more enjoyable and better-written book of the two.

Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings 

From my original review:

The opening story to Terrence Holt's debut story collection In the Valley of the Kings, " 'Ο Λογοσ", serves as a represenative piece. The opening paragraph quoted above sets the stage for an apocalyptic tale to follow, as one by one, "word" by "word," people are infected with a new plague that is carried not by microbes, but instead by the etching of "the word" on their flesh. Holt's matter-of-fact, clinical prose (he has alternated between being a writing instructor, medical doctor, and storywriter for the past 15 years) is all the more chilling here because the reader knows something dreadful is happening, but the prose purposely understates this in order to allow the reader's imagination to create more and more dreadful consequences for what is transpiring within the story. By the time the final paragraph is reached, the tension has built to the point that one begins to wonder if the narrator has gone mad...or if we will.

The second story, "My Father's Heart," is much shorter (5 pages compared to the 16 devoted for the first story), but it too contains an unsettling image:

I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Blooksucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping raffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up. (p. 29)
The imagery would have been at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story; the juxtaposition of the mudane (taking the bus) and the unreal (the heart being sentient and prone to outbursts) serving to underscore the strangeness of the situation. The resolution to this story is emotional, not as it was in the first, but in a way that reminded me of how family members, whether or not their hearts literally act for themselves, clash and bond over crises.


But the end of dreams and self-delusions is not necessarily bad. In many respects, the final paragraph to "Apocalyse" could serve as the epigraph for In the Valley of the Kings:

But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what wwe would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars. (p. 223)

Through it all, In the Valley of the Kings is a true tour de force of exploring the human condition(s). At times, I was reminded of the best of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Holt's prose tantalizes. It hints, it promises, but at the end there are no true revelations within the text itself. It is up to the reader to fill in the spots purposely left blank. It is up to the reader to provide meaning, to establish hope, to ward off despair. Holt's collection simply is great, provocative storytelling at its best and it deserves serious consideration for any and all awards for which it may be eligible.

In the Valley of the Kings was not only the best short fiction collection that I read this year, it was almost the best book period.  

Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

From my original review:
Caitlín R. Kiernan's latest novel, The Red Tree (August 2009) is in turns a pseudo-autographical novel, a psychological portrait of a first-person narrator on the verge of madness, and a sometimes terrifying mystery that surrounds a particular red oak tree in Rhode Island. The Red Tree contains several layers of framing stories, from the introductory and concluding passages that set up the tale of the main narrator, Sarah Crowe (who has several attributes of Kiernan herself, as well as several fictitious ones lest people begin to think that the author inserted herself into this story), to the epistolary-like journal entries that Sarah writes about her experiences in Rhode Island and her discovery of a decades-old journal (which serves as a third level for this rich, multilayered story). In reading The Red Tree, I was reminded at times of two other books released this decade, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss, as there are elements of each (Danielewski's adroit use of nesting framing stories to hide in plain view what was transcurring; Hand's use of the pseudo-autographical novel to blur the lines between the real and the unreal) in Kiernan's tale. Thankfully, Kiernan takes these possible influences and crafts a story that feels original and "real." 

The red oak mentioned in the title has a mysterious, possibly supernatural dark past that stretches back to the colonial period. Over the centuries, farmers have been killed by wolves there, not to mention it being associated with a serial killer from the early 20th century. It is this sense of mystery that envelops Sarah, a writer who has recently fled Atlanta and a failed relationship with a lover who has recently committed suicide. Recently relocated to Rhode Island, she now occupies an old house that she shares with a mysterious painter named Constance. When going through an old chifforobe (the inclusion of such a subtle nod to Southern writers such as Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor, as stories of theirs revolved around such a hybrid piece of furniture), Sarah discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house's former tenant, a parapsychologist who appeared to be obsessed with the red oak tree and its past.

The strength of The Red Tree is not establishing the horror elements, as one could argue that what might constitute "horror" largely takes place off-stage. Rather, it is with Kiernan's portrayal of Sarah and how her past haunts her. Kiernan's use of an epistolary narrative technique enables the reader to get a fractured, haunting look into the past of Sarah and how her past relationship with her former lover "Amanda" has come to haunt her.


The lines between what was transpiring with the red oak blur with what is going on with the interactions Sarah is having with the dead journalist's notes, her odd association with Constance, and her constant memories of the traumatic end to her relationship with Amanda. In places, it is hard to tell what Sarah is dreaming and what is "real" to her, which serves to add depth to the story and how the reader may interpret what is happening both "on screen" and off.

Kiernan is an outstanding stylist and she masterfully weaves the various framing stories mentioned above into a compelling, gripping tale that will haunt my thoughts for some time to come. The Red Tree is one of the better psychological/horror novels that I have read in quite some time and despite the fierce competition, I suspect it'll earn a spot on my Best of 2009 lists come December. Highly recommended. 

 Well, yes, it did end up earning a spot on my Best of 2009 lists, fairly high, too, at #4.

 Brian Evenson, Last Days

From my original review:

These religious celebrations are mentioned here because they inform and add layers of depth to Brian Evenson's latest book, Last Days. Throughout this book, itself an expansion upon 2003's The Brotherhood of Mutilation (which comprises the first part of this novel), references to St. Paul, to his visions of how to lead a holy life and especially to his views on the coming end to the world, abound. Today in this world, there are those who take the words of prophets and other religious men so literally that we see such a self-effacement taking place as to make outsiders wonder what could move them to inflict such pain and suffering upon themselves and upon others. Evenson addresses some of those questions in Last Days, but as it is with trying to grasp the mentalité of those whose very world-views are so alien to ours, there are times where the narrative falters and the reader is left confronted with the raw, visceral "otherness" that has fallen across adherents to such extreme manifestations of religious faith.

Last Days begins with detective Kline, himself a recent victim to a severing of his right hand, being approached by a secretive religious cult that revolves around the passage of Matthew 5:29-30 referring to if one's hand causes one to commit sin, that such a member ought to be severed and cast off in order for one to remain righteous. Instead of telling this in a direct fashion, Evenson uses the first paragraph not just to foreshadow this first contact, but also to go beyond it and to hint at the meanings embedded with the story...


Here, Kline's role has shifted from an investigator, a seeker of truth, to a vengeful quasi-angel of death. Such a role inflicts damage upon the psyche and Kline's transformation reflects heavily upon this. However, the narrative suffers as well, as with Kline becoming more of an initiator of violence (even as he himself is being tracked down by the non-Pauline cultists) than a seeker of knowledge, the tension between what is understood and what is happening falters. But perhaps it is fitting that in an apocalyptic atmosphere, that the original meaning of apocalypse, "revealing," comes to the fore. While the Kline that closes Last Days differs greatly from the one that opened it, the journey, stumbling as it does in places as the violent acts threaten to numb the reader's reaction to the horrific developments, ultimately is worth the effort. The world in its present form has passed away and those who were not weeping are now left weeping as time runs out.
 Evenson's use of vivid (sometimes close to too vivid) imagery, along with the psychological elements that I noted in my original review, ensured that Last Days would be part of my 25 Favorite Fictions.

Books 6-25, in no particular order

Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia

Dan Simmons, Drood

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Zoran Zivković, The Bridge

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura, I Kill Giants

Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima

Lev Grossman, The Magicians

Jeff Lemire, Essex County

Michael Ajvaz, The Other City

Robert Holdstock, Avilion

Daniel Abraham, The Price of Spring

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

Dave Eggers, The Wild Things

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City

Paul Auster, Invisible

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

How many of these books have you read this year?  How many of them (if you've read any of them) would make your overall best fictions list for 2009? 


Unknown said...

I agree on Finch - the best thing I've read this year / released this year. Add the Angel's Game to the list, too, which I assume you'd have there if you hadn't read it earlier in Spanish!

Apart from that, though, I've simply not read a lot of the books on your list - about 5 are in my "to read" pile, and your review made me want to get hold of the Children's Book.

Unknown said...

Oh, and happy new year, Larry. Your blog's always an interesting read, thanks for providing some engaging thoughts about good books for all and sundry to engage with.

Larry Nolen said...

You're right; I had El juego del Ángel on my 2008 list. Hopefully you'll find the books on the list you haven't read yet worthwhile.

And a happy new year to you as well, Eddie! 2010 is going to be interesting...major shift coming up soon. Might lose some readers, but hopefully gain a few as well. More details next week.

Brody said...

Great list. Out of your top 25 I have read Finch, I Kill Giants, The Magicians, and Boneshaker. Think I am going to add The Red Tree and Terrence Holt's collection to my read pile after reading the reviews, they look great. I would also agree that Finch was the best thing I have read all year, I can't recommend it enough to everyone I talk to at work.

Looking forward to where your blog goes in the new year. I can always find great picks for my next book here, e.g Finch and I Kill Giants, which I read about here first.

Larry Nolen said...

Glad you enjoyed them, Brody, as I was hoping there'd be a nice mix of styles and authors for readers of all sorts to enjoy :D

Liviu said...

I have and plan to read Evenson, Finch (I need to finish Shriek first since for some reasons though I got it on publication I never got into seriously) and Red Tree and I just bought Valley of the Kings from the Kindle store since I remember being impressed by it when i browsed it but not quite in the mood at the time; of course TCB is my #1 novel of 09

Of the rest, I loved Wolf Hall too, Kindly Ones is my #1 book of the 00-09 decade (read it 4 times end to end so far in 06/07/08 French, 09 English and will probably read it once a year for a while since it's just a great remembrance of how lucky we are today and how we should not take for granted our civilization, among many other things of course), Drood did not wear that well in my memory though I still would recommend it, Invisble is one of my next reads with Holt, one historical epic and one new sff release that you may like too - Kingdom Ohio - Groosbart I started several times and will finish at some point, The Bridge I have and should read soon also, The Other City I want to get but gotta try it first, disagree on the Magicians, did not like Boneshaker/Abraham/Lethem but that's more because of me not that I disagree with you as per Grossman, may try Collum at some point too

Calibandar said...

Couple I didn't care for and a few that I did like.

I am going to pick up Essex County, that looks cool. Asterios Polyp I will give a miss, for now. I have Finch and Valley of Kings on the shelf. Big fan of of the Brothers Grossbart book. I bought Shaun Tan's The Arrival earlier this year, which is wonderful, but I gave Suburbia a miss because it is so slight. Drood, The Magicians, Avilion, Abraham's Long Price quartet are all on the shelf and I have high expectations for all of them.

I think you might like the Jay Lake books Trial of Flowers/Madness of Flowers btw.

James said...

From the list I have read FINCH, LAST DAYS, THE OTHER CITY, THE MAGICIANS, and I KILL GIANTS. The first three were among my favorite books of 2009 and I really enjoyed I KILL GIANTS, but I was not particularly fond of THE MAGICIANS, which was one of my disappointments for the year.

THE SAD TALE OF THE BROTHERS GROSSBART is sitting on my shelf. I started it last year along side some others, but got to the point where everything I was reading suddenly turned me off and sat it aside. Do attend to get back to it though. Also in 2009, I was introduced to the works of Abraham with A SHADOW IN SUMMER and Holdstock with MYTHAGO WOOD, both of which I loved. So even though I cannot add THE PRICE OF SPRING or AVILION, their predecessors are among my favorite of the year.

Unknown said...

The only one I've read on this list is Last Days, and I loved it. Fantastic book. Deliciously twisted.

Lots of stuff on that list I haven't read, though (a couple of those books are in my library, and some are on their way). I'm hoping 2010 will have me doing a lot more reading than 2009. Then again, nobody can read as many books as you do :S.

Larry Nolen said...

It's good to hear that not everything on this list was particularly liked by all. I would be worried then, as this list shows my preferences more than anyone else's.

That being said, it's good to know several of the books here were also enjoyed by others.

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