The Year in Books

I've been keeping track of the books I read since 1996, and looking back at the end of the year is always an instructive experience. The annual list includes every book I read, in any category--fiction, nonfiction, drama, comics, poetry, whatever. The only exceptions: picture books or collections of newspaper comic strips (except archival tomes such as Fantagraphics' collected Peanuts and Pogo multi-year volumes). And I don't count comics collections when I re-read them (which I will often do as bedtime reading). When I re-read anything else, however, it appears on the list, albeit with an asterisk; I've found that this signifier gives me a bit more impetus to read new material.

As reading years go, I'd have to say that 2014 was a bit of an odd one, but it wasn't entirely out of line with my past experiences. I didn't finish as many titles as I have in years past, but that's a trend I've noticed recently. From 2004 through 2007, I read furiously, finishing over 100 books per year, but in 2008 through 2011, I slipped down into the nineties. Since 2012, however, I've been steadily finishing only seventy-odd books per year. I'm not sure what's driving the shift, but if I had to guess, I'd estimate that I've been spending more time on the internet than in the past. (I joined Facebook in 2009, for what that's worth...) Alternatively, the change might be work-related: In the fall of 2011, I stopped teaching speech and went to full-time English teaching; has the increased number of papers kept me from reading as many books?

The weirdest thing, however, has nothing to do with the total and everything to do with the subject matter. In this year when I published my second nonfiction book, I read only five nonfiction books (two of which were re-reads) That is decidedly odd for me. Then again, maybe I had spent so much time in the nonfiction realm because of my own writing that I felt it necessary to wander around in the fiction section for a change.

That fiction section contained a fair number of re-reads, too. For some reason, over the summer I decided to revisit Larry Niven's Known Space short stories, along with three novels (World of Ptavvs, Protector, and A Gift from Earth). They were among the first hard SF stories to grab me, but I'll confess that the mind-grabbing elements of Protector didn't make up for the lengthy discourse on spacecraft trajectories in the second half of the book. I also spent a little time looking at old favorites by Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, as well as perhaps the favorite SF novel of my adolescence, Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls. Time has not been kind to Chalker's writing, alas, and I can now see much clunkiness where once I saw smooth and satisfying prose; the ideas, however, remain as potent as they ever did, and the Well World remains one of my favorite mental playgrounds.

When I wasn't re-reading fiction, however, four of the novels I selected were among the best I've come across in recent memory. The first book I finished in 2014 was G.B. Edwards' remarkable 1981 tale of the isle of Guernsey, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. How I missed this book when it came out I don't know--oh, wait, yes I do: I was finishing high school and paying little attention to contemporary fiction. But thanks to my old Readerville chum D.G. Strong, whose praise for Edwards' work has been vocal and uninterrupted for some years now, I finally picked it up and can attest to its merits: it somehow manages to be simultaneously fresh and old-fashioned, an engaging novel that reveals its secrets in a way that is both fair and satisfying to the reader. It is a wonderful, wonderful book.

From there I fell into a work whose prose was just flabbergasting. I cannot recall the last time I stopped and read aloud passages to my wife so often as I did while reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. (I suspect it was probably while reading John Crowley's Little, Big, but don't quote me.) I'm not 100% sure I like the ending, and I certainly don't have great things to say about Mr. Helprin's work in the political realm, and you couldn't pay me enough to watch the movie they recently made from this book, but oh my god is this a breathtaking piece of writing: rich, descriptive, fiercely imagined, and never, ever dull.

Dan Simmons, whose work often delights me, hit my sweet spot once again with The Abominable, which treads the same borderlands he explored with The Terror, namely those between history, adventure, and horror. With this book, he stays more within the boundaries of the first two (as opposed to his repeated visits to the latter territory in The Terror), creating a yarn filled of mountaineering excitement, historical mystery, and edge-of-your-seat set pieces. (I mean, it's about climbing Mount Everest. Of COURSE there are cliffhangers. Some literal.) A guy who can write an exciting rock-climbing sequence can handle my mountaineering fiction any day.

Finally, I at long last cracked open a second book by James Hynes. Back in's heyday, I led a discussion on Hynes' audacious and hilarious satire of university English departments, The Lecturer's Tale, which was both scathing and illuminating. (Probably the first book I ever encountered that attempted to address the concept of privilege, it was also noteworthy for including the only fight scene I know that continues into the footnotes.) It wasn't until I found a copy of Kings of Infinite Space in Richmond that I dove into his work for a second time, and I was not one bit disappointed. Here Hynes takes on the world outside the ivory tower, the kingdom of cubicles and underemployment, and he's just as fearless as ever when it comes to following up on his wildest ideas. Bold, hilarious, and thoughtful, it's a book I recommend without hesitation; hell, Hynes even manages to end it with a punchline.

Add to that the start of several promising series by Lev Grossman, Ann Leckie, and Mira Grant, plus a trip back through an old favorite (Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man), and I'd have to say it was a dandy year for fiction.

And comics? Oh, hell yeah. Several favorite tales from long ago were finally collected and reprinted, including Miracleman (by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, and Alan Davis), Flex Mentallo (by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely) and the indescribable Bojeffries Saga (by Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse). I finally obtained my own copy of Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's terrific Secret Identity, and I continued to enjoy a variety of continuing (or recently-completed) series:
Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory
Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Misfile by Chris Hazelton
I also discovered several enjoyable titles that are still being published... at least for the moment:
Ms. Marvel by G. WIllow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

And last but not least, I discovered a frank, hilarious, and utterly delightful autobiographical comic by Erika Moen: DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary. It's collected in two volumes, and if you can get your hands on it, I highly recommend you do so.

On to 2015!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on December 30, 2014 11:43 PM.

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