ljgoldstein (ljgoldstein) wrote in theinferior4,

Another Idiocyncratic Best of the Year List

I was going to do a list of the ten best books I read this year, the way I did last year, but I found that I could only make it to five -- and most of these didn’t even come out in 2013.  Were there fewer good books published this year?  Or have I just gotten old and cranky?  Or did I somehow miss all the good books, unerringly reaching for the books right next to them in the bookstore?  If you have anything to recommend, especially books published this year, please let me know.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz -- Oscar De León’s family came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, and is possibly under some sort of curse (called a fukú, “the Curse and Doom of the New World”) for angering the Dominican dictator Trujillo.  Oscar himself is fat geek who falls in love hopelessly and without reservation, and all these things together seem to mean that his life is almost a complete tragedy, a sentiment foreshadowed in the “brief” part of the title.  Still, the novel’s very funny, with an idiosyncratic style that bounces into both Dominican Spanish and Elvish.  There are almost as many genre references here as in Jo Walton’s Among Others, though the books are otherwise very different.  Trujillo is compared throughout to Sauron; one of his agents is called the Witchking of Angmar.  Oscar’s college roommate Yunior writes:

“Do you know what sign fool put up on our dorm door?  Speak, friend, and enter.  In fucking Elvish!  (Please don’t ask me how I know this. Please.)  When I saw that I said: De León, you gotta be kidding. Elvish?

“Actually, he coughed, it’s Sindarin.”

(I couldn’t help but wonder, though I know a reader can’t really ask these questions, why poor Oscar just didn’t go to science fiction conventions to find like-minded women.)


Hild, by Nicola Griffith -- Hild is an actual seventh-century woman who begins the novel as the powerless daughter of a widow and becomes seer and adviser to Edwin, the overlord of the Anglisc.  As I said here, I loved the character, and the close attention both Hild and Griffith pay to the world around them, and the poetic nature of the prose.  And it was published in 2013 -- yay!


Dead Lions, by Mick Herron -- Dead Lions (also published in 2013) led me to Herron’s previous book, Slow Horses, and that led me to all his other novels, including a series about a detective named Zoë Boehm.  Male authors generally have a hard time writing female characters who do things -- either they can’t get away from the stereotype of the passive, timid woman who brightens up when a man steps in to help her, or they go to the opposite extreme, where the woman occupies too much space and talks in sports metaphors.  But I liked Zoë a lot, and more importantly I believed in her: she’s smart, cynical, funny, doesn’t like people much but wants to help them anyway.  She’d be a good person to turn to if you needed help.  And I like it that she’s Jewish, which is also unusual.  In one of the books someone asks her if she’s a practicing Jew and she says, “This is about the pork thing, isn’t it?”

Herron is a terrific stylist; his prose makes you pay close attention so you don’t miss a turn of phrase.  “Carefully, Tim stood, and managed to leave the bar without incident.  Then, a resident, he retired to his room, to set about the tiresome chore of suicide.”  (Why We Die)  “She’d started to run, but the ground was slick and treacherous, and next thing she’d been in the drainage ditch, her leg broken, and the rain coming down like God never promised a thing.”  (The Last Voice You Hear)  Or the beginning of Reconstruction:  “In cartoons, when the alarm rings, the cat, mouse, dog, whatever, hauls out a mallet from under the pillow and BAM! -- cogs, levers and coils go everywhere; the clock face drops from its casing like a cuckoo on a spring ... Morning is broken.”


The Unreal and the Real, by Ursula Le Guin -- A collection in two volumes (Where on Earth and Outer Space, Inner Lands) containing a whole lot of good stories, science fiction, fantasy, surreal, real, unreal... As I said here, “I’m old enough to remember when Ursula Le Guin came to prominence.  It was a different time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and said that women couldn’t write science fiction.  And I remember how thrilled I was to discover Le Guin, who not only played with the tropes of science fiction but was better at the game than just about everyone.”


Wonders of the Invisible World, by Patricia McKillip -- Another collection, published in 2013 and so eligible for many awards -- I’m looking at you, World Fantasy judges!  McKillip writes beautiful, strange, fantastic tales that read like myths from cultures we haven’t discovered yet.  This book has plenty of those, but I was interested to find stories that take place in other times and places as well, about Cotton Mather, a Christmas cruise, an artists’ colony.  Turns out McKillip can write pretty much anything she turns her hand to.

Two science fiction/fantasy collections, one mystery, one lit-fic, and one historical novel.  Three women, two men.  One person of color.  (I generally read as many books by women as by men, but my score this year for books by PoC wasn’t as good.  Hope to improve on that in the new year -- and, once again, recommendations?)  All featuring great writing, though the styles are very different from one another.
Tags: best of the year, brief wondrous life of oscar wao, hild, junot diaz, mick herron, nicola griffith, patricia mckillip, unreal and the real, ursula le guin, wonders of the invisible world
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