I realized yesterday, to my embarrassment, that I had already completed my 50 books for 2008. So you get this year’s review early!
Best Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nominees: World War Z, The Space Merchants, Guards! Guards!, Little Brother, Bridge of Birds, Virtual Unrealities, The Wizard Knight
Winner: The Wizard Knight, Gene Wolfe. I keep struggling whenever I try to describe this book, because it’s a Gene Wolfe novel and it’s inherently weird. On the surface, it’s a story so cliched it strains the teeth: boy vanishes from Earth and reappears in a fantasy world, falls in love with a fairy princess, and quests to find a magic sword and become a knight. But Wolfe makes clear early on that the world is more than it seems, raising question after question: is this the protagonist’s first visit to this world of Mythgartr? If so, why do so many people seem to recognize him? If not, why can’t he remember the other visits? And are we worshipping these magic creatures or are they worshipping us?
Best Mystery / Crime / Espionage
Nominees: This Gun For Hire, The Ministry of Fear, The Confidential Agent, Smiley’s People
Winner: Graham Greene. Greene wrote the first three of those books, so he’s practically a shoe-in. His late-blooming Catholicism notwithstanding, Greene was a crackerjack at suspense and espionage. Those three, written in the tense years between World Wars I and II, are some of his very best.
Nominees: A Very Long Engagement, The Plot Against America, Franny and Zooey, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Winner: TIE: A Very Long Engagement, Sebastien Japrisot and The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. The Plot Against America is a triumph of vision; Franny and Zooey exceeds in style; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter wins in characterization. But Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement wins at all three, and tells a fresh story besides. Atwood, on the other hand, makes a terrifying and unlikely future seem compelling, and inevitable, and banally real. I can’t decide between them, so I won’t.
Nominees: God’s Secretaries, Palm Sunday, Mind Performance Hacks, Persepolis, The 4-Hour Work Week, The 33 Strategies of War, Now The Hell Will Start, The Monster of Florence, Me Talk Pretty One Day
Winner: Mind Performance Hacks, Ron Hale-Evans. A close call between this and The 4-Hour Work Week. But if I go by which has had a more measurable impact on my behavior so far, Mind Performance Hacks wins by a tidy margin. Incorporating a mere 5 strategies out of this book will justify its price.
Winner: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. I first read this book at age 12 or so, and thus most of its savage brilliance was lost on me. Reading it again was like discovering it anew.
Nominees: Downtown Owl, Virtual Unrealities, The Pacific and Other Stories, Soon I Will Be Invincible, Love In The Ruins, Good Omens
Winner: TIE: Love In The Ruins, Walker Percy, and Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I did not expect the explicitly Catholic Percy – or his explicitly Catholic novel – to win me over as strongly as they did. And I did not expect a Gaiman and Pratchett collaboration to avoid the worst of Gaiman’s precociousness or Pratchett’s cleverness-for-its-own-sake, and tell a complex and fun story besides.
Nominees: The Myth of the Rational Voter, Life of Pi, The Mote in God’s Eye, The Alchemist, Off The Books
Winner: The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho. All of these books disappointed me in some way. The Myth of the Rational Voter preached to the choir, and that too dryly, to keep my interest. Life of Pi told an entertaining string of anecdotes that dissolved into a lukewarm moral at the end. The Mote in God’s Eye depicted a fascinating alien race and dull cardstock humans. And Off the Books was far denser than its fascinating thesis needed to be. But only The Alchemist was without redeeming value.
Winner: King of the Vagabonds. “Godspeed! What the fuck sort of thing is that to say to a galley slave?”