Fiction of the Year 2010

Unlike the many bloggers who start their Best of the Year lists at Thanksgiving, I believe in giving the year the whole 365 days in which to produce interesting stuff. But now that it has, I'm ready to give you the lowdown on the best stuff I read in 2010 (not that all of it was PUBLISHED in 2010, mind you.)

First, my Top Ten Fiction Books of the Year, alphabetically by author:

Vicious Circle/Mike Carey
The second of Carey's horror tales about hard-boiled exorcist Felix Castor is in some ways even better than the first; there's less exposition and more focus on the events, and the events are constantly imaginative and creepy, with clever and often very funny prose describing them. Picture Raymond Chandler writing about John Constantine.

Crime and Punishment/Fyodor Dostoevsky
One I've been meaning to get to for a long time, and well worth the wait. I was surprised at how early the crime takes place, but I was expecting sophisticated examination of the psychology of guilt, and boy howdy did I get that. (I should note that I read this in one of B&N's inexpensive "Barnes & Noble Classics" editions, which have made several 19th-century doorstops far more accessible to me.)

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. I/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Another B&N Classics edition, containing A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I'd read several Holmes stories (as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles) and seen plenty of movies and pastiches in the past, but I decided it was time to dig deeper, and I'm glad I did, if only because it helped me better appreciate the new modern-day BBC adaptation Sherlock far more. Holmes remains a stunning literary creation, and as improbable as his adventures are on many levels, they make for great reading.

Grimm's Fairy Tales/Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm
My final B&N Classics edition of the year, and one that was in some ways almost more like research than fiction. These tales have been incorporated into so many other things I've read--Disney movies, Bill Willingham's Fables comics, Neil Gaiman's entire oeuvre--that it seemed almost impossible that I'd never read the original collection, but doing so certainly impressed upon me the astonishing reach that the Grimms' work has had over the ensuing centuries.
 
Heart-Shaped Box/Joe Hill

After encountering Hill's astonishing short story "Pop Art" in his 20th Century Ghosts collection, I knew I'd be checking out his novels as well, and he didn't disappoint here. In some ways it's a very straightforward ghost story, but Hill creates vivid and believable characters to suffer through this haunting, and it's impressive that he makes a sympathetic and plausible protagonist out of something as fanciful as an aging rock star. He gets big points as well for having characters who, when they realize that something supernatural is happening, don't automatically start looking for naturalistic methods of dealing with it. This guy's got skills.

Always Coming Home/Ursula K. Le Guin
Despite my lifetime membership in the Le Guin fan club, I had for some years been stymied by this enormous work of creative thinking: a sprawling anthropological study of a future society in the mountains of Northern California, combining descriptive prose, narrative, lyric poetry, bits of drama, folklore, and song, plus maps, diagrams, and illustrations. On this year's trip to Big Bend, however, I had the opportunity to concentrate on it, and I'm glad I took the time. It's challenging and sometimes disjointed and not like anything else I've ever read, including other works by Le Guin, but it's a chance to look inside the mind of one of our time's great writers.

A Song of Ice and Fire/George R.R. Martin
This year's single biggest commitment of time (and biggest collection of pages by a single author), the first four volumes of this series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows) are one hell of a tale--or rather, one hell of a first half of a tale. With readers now entering their sixth year of awaiting volume five, there's concern that Martin may never finish, and the news that HBO is adapting Game into a miniseries offers limited comfort, as some worry that Martin will be so distracted by the TV version that he won't get the books written. As epic fantasy goes, this saga is top-notch, but know what you're getting yourself into when you start.
 
Kraken/China Mieville
If you like urban fantasy and horror--and if you recall the praise I've given Mike Carey, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, etc. over the years, you know I do--you'll want to pick up this improbable tale of a museum curator whose giant squid goes missing, catapulting him into an apocalyptic conflict between cults, assassins, and supernatural agents of every stripe. Matters of faith, friendship, taxonomy, and Star Trek transporter systems are considered from unexpected angles. And if The Tattoo isn't the most unsettling thing you've read about this year, I want to know what the hell you've been reading.

I Shall Wear Midnight/Terry Pratchett
The fourth and final (?) volume in Pratchett's stories of young witch Tiffany Aching, this novel contains many of the delights associated with the earlier volumes (the Nac Mac Feagle being front and center), and if they're less surprising now, it's still satisfying to see Tiffany in action as the Chalk's primary protectress.

Rolling Thunder/John Varley

Varley's third Heinlein pastiche (on the heels of Red Thunder and Red Lightning) gives us the protagonist RAH couldn't quite create for himself: a brash, brilliant, likable and slightly insecure teenage girl. Podkayne. No, not the one Heinlein created, but her spiritual sister. Her tale of adventure, pop music, interplanetary destruction and exploration will remind any reader of both Heinlein's and Varley's respective themes, but never in a derivative way.  A satisfying ending to a worthy tip of the hat.

And now, five "problem" books--not the worst of the year, but five that bothered me in some way or other:

Saturday/Ian McEwan
I loved Enduring Love, but this just made me want to gnaw my leg off. I don't mind when protagonists are well off, but there's a limit to how much sympathy I can muster when the author keeps making the characters not merely fortunate but downright superhuman. Here we have a tale of a day in the life of Britain's greatest neurosurgeon, who is married to a high-powered attorney, herself the daughter of one of the country's most celebrated poets, and their two children, a young poetess already winning prizes and drawing comparisons to her grandfather, and a teenage son who is not only already an accomplished blues musician but is taking master classes with Jack Bruce... that was the point where I could no longer suspend my disbelief, something I usually find easy to do even when reading stories about leprechauns and unicorns. It's also frustrating to see how clumsily McEwan arranges matters so that the protagonist just happens to have exactly the skills and experience necessary to handle the problem presented by the antagonist. This hamfisted novel has none of the subtlety of Enduring Love,

The Ringworld Throne/Larry Niven
Ouch. One of my very favorite SF writers delivers a dud. The original Ringworld was a tremendous leap of imagination, a rollercoaster ride through a universe of marvels. The Ringworld Engineers was more workmanlike, an attempt to correct some errors and further explore some elements of the first book, but was still satisfying. This third volume, however, will be deeply uninteresting to any reader who doesn't delight in hacking through thickets of polysyllabic names, watching various humanoid species couple in emotionally uninteresting configurations, or working out the complexities of transporter pad networks. I suggest you re-read Neutron Star instead.
 
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze/Kenneth Robeson
I grew up a huge fan of Robeson's bronze superman and his quintet of assistants, but every so often, when I re-read one of the books, I have to look past the adventure, the cool technology, and the camaraderie of Doc and his men, and admit that the prose is just, uh, Not Good.

A Town Like Alice/Nevil Shute

Not a bad book by any means, but one that left me disappointed nonetheless. Why? Expectations. Shute's masterful On the Beach is probably the best end-of-the-world novel ever written, so I was hoping for more great things. Moreover, my mother is a huge Shute fan, and she's been telling me how wonderful ATLA was since I was a child. When I finally read it, however, it simply didn't measure up. The story itself is a pretty good one, but I found the structure baffling; why Shute chose as his narrator an aged lawyer thousands of miles away from the action I just don't understand, particularly when some of the details and insights the reader absorbs are deeply unlikely to have been shared with that lawyer by the characters. Puzzling.

Darwin's Blade/Dan Simmons

The three Simmons books I had read before this ranged from very good (The Fall of Hyperion) to excellent (Hyperion) to superb (The Terror), so I was ready to love this one as well. Simmons writes in a variety of genres, and after seeing him handle SF and historical/horror so well, I figured he'd handle the thriller genre well. Unfortunately, this one relies overmuch on recasting urban legends (for example, the jet-assisted takeoff engine attached to a sports car) as fact, and it suffers from the same problem Saturday does: a protagonist who is carefully provided exactly the skills and experiences needed to get himself out of any difficulty, no matter how improbable. The love interest bothered me, too; she wasn't really a strong female character on her own, but rather the kind of strong female that the main character would find attractive. Disappointing, but not enough to put me off of Simmons for long.

Coming up: the year's best comics, nonfiction, drama, and miscellaneous written work!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on January 1, 2011 11:41 AM.

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