Thursday, January 1, 2009

My Favorite Books of 2008

I like keeping track of the books I read. I've done it for at least ten years, and it makes me feel like I've accomplished something when I look back at the list after a while. In no particular order, these are my ten favorite from the 51 that I managed to read this year.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This novel puts a gothic twist on a story set in the dark aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The novel starts in a fairly straightforward manner, but then falls into stories within stories that reveal the secret histories of characters. While nothing truly supernatural occurs in the novel, you're left with the feeling that truth can sometimes be just as mysterious and terrifying as reality.

Naked, by David Sedaris

After reading all of Sedaris' books early in the year, I can say that this is hands-down my favorite. The title only slightly refers to the story about Sedaris' adventures in a nudist colony, but really alludes to the way in which he completely exposes his past, his family, and his inner thoughts, embarrasing flaws and all. The honesty in the stories is what makes them so memorable. Reading this is like listening to the inner monologue of someone who never fails to find irony and adventure in everyday life.

Into the Wild, by John Krakauer

What might otherwise be an interesting paragraph in a news story becomes a cross-country odyssey across America in search of meaning in modern life. Krakauer chronicles the life of a young man who decided to wander the country on foot and eventually venture into the wilderness to meet his death.

The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker

I thought I was pretty familiar with all of the conventional horror tropes until I read this. Barker's stories are disturbing on a visceral level and focus on themes of bodily transformation as transfiguration. They're also written with more style than any horror I've ever read.

Wastelands, ed. by John Joseph Adams

Post-apocalypse stories are very in vogue at the moment, but this collection proves that there's more to the genre than the survivalist narratives of the nuclear age. Ranging from traditional plague stories (King's “The End of the Whole Mess”) to bleak post-cyberpunk (Lethem's “How We Got In Town and Out Again”), the stories in this book reassure you that there's still a lot of life left after the end has come.

The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison

Magic is strange. Fantasy stories tend to use magic more as a plot device rather than focusing on how absolutely bizarre it would be if it truly existed. This story follows three protagonists through the aftermath of a magical experiment gone wrong and the way in which they cope with their supernatural experiences. Harrison portrays magic as something that is terrifying, alienating, and more bizarre than we can truly imagine.

Y: The Last Man (Whys and Wherefores), by Brian K. Vaughn

This is a fitting ending to one of the best comic series I've read in a long time. Yorick Brown is the last man left on earth after a man-killing plague spreads across the world, and in this volume he is finally reunited with his fiance. Vaughn keeps it realistic, ties up all the loose ends in the series, and doesn't settle for easy answers or solutions.

Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files are pretty formulaic urban fantasy novels that are made memorable by the snappy conversational narration of wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden. In every Dresden novel, you can count on two things: Dresden is going to get his ass kicked, and he's going to kick some ass. This one is no exception, but also manages to grapple with questions about loyalty, duty, and sacrifice along the way. Also, two words: zombie dinosaur.

Scar Night, by Alan Campbell

This is probably the most flawed novel I've read in a while. The characters are flat, the point of view never really gives us a main character we can become invested in, and the writing tries really hard to be stylish. Despite all this, the ideas were too cool to pass up: a city suspended on chains above a giant abyss, a bloodthirsty god in charge of a subterrainian army of undead, the mastermind behind a government-sponsored genocide gaining control of an ancient starship – there's a lot to like here. Maybe I'm just having flashbacks to Perdido Street Station, but this book had me hooked while I was reading it.

The Stand, by Stephen King

I'm a sucker for post-apocalypse stories, and while this novel didn't really bring anything particularly new to the table, it did one thing that most don't: show you the apocalypse from the beginning to end. King calls this book a tale of “dark Christianity,” and there's no doubt that there's a harsh and unforgiving old testament god lurking behind the scenes here. The scale is epic, and it's a blast following the characters through their multiple trials to redemption or damnation.

I'm kicking off the new year by finishing a couple of books I had started earlier: The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks, and The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams.