Recommended Books from 2009

Finishing up my series of posts on recommended speculative fiction from 2009, these are the books published in 2009 that stood out for me.  Technically, these span across several categories for both the Nebula and Hugo awards, but I’m covering them all in one foul swoop – so this list includes novels, young adult books, anthologies, and novellas. 

  • The Love We Share without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak: Mosaic novel set in Japan, centered around a group of friends who form a “suicide club,” an action whose ripple effects we see among friends, family members, and lovers, all brilliantly drawn in Barzak’s prose.  These are powerful and haunting tales of loneliness and alienation, with some lovely moments of real connection amidst the loss.  The shelving gods have proclaimed Barzak to be “literature,” but the book has several ghosts and enchantments and other touches of magic realism. (Technically, I think this one was published in late 2008, but it’s still eligible for the Nebula under this year’s rules.)
  • Finch by Jeff VanderMeer:  Detective Finch must solve an unsolvable murder amidst the backdrop of Ambergris, a steampunk city of human beings occupied by the gray caps, their inhuman fungal overlords.  VanderMeer delivers every reader cookie you could possibly desire: brilliant world-building, brilliant noir mystery, brilliant prose, and brilliant characterization.   One of the most original books I’ve read in recent memory.  
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier: Moving to Young Adult territory, this is one of the most sophisticated YA novels I’ve read in a while.  From the first sentence, Micah (our beloved hero) tells us that she’s a liar, beginning the ultimate unreliable-narrator tale. Larbalestier masterfully interweaves a tragic romance, the mystery of her sort-of boyfriend’s murder, some fantastic elements that may or may not be real, and the omnipresent uncertainty of everything Micah is telling us.  Hard to say more without getting spoiler-y, so just go out and read this book.   
  • Horn by Peter M. Ball: I only read a handful of novellas this year, but this is the one that stands out.  I’ve already gushed about it elsewhere, so I’ll try not to go on too much here.  Unicorn noir mystery, featuring a bad-ass lesbian PI who will come back from the dead if that’s what it takes to crack the case. 
  • Interfictions 2, edited by Christopher Barzak and Delia ShermanExcellent anthology of “interstitial” stories – stories that blur the boundaries between genres.  These stories wonderfully defy expectations, and many of them were among the best stories to come out in 2009.  This series is fast-becoming the heir apparent to Polyphony as the hot place to find stories of the interstitial/New Weird/slipstream/gonzo variety.

Other great books from 2009 included Nicholas Kaufmann’s extremely entertaining pulp fiction adventure, Hunt at World’s End; Joe Abercrombie’s sometimes disturbing dark fantasy revenge novel, Best Served Cold; Walter Jon Williams’ near-future thriller of gamers plunged into real-life mystery and intrigue, This is Not a Game; and Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer’s highly useful guide to writing in the 21st century by conquering the internet instead of allowing the internet to conquer you   Top of my remaining to-read list from 2009 include Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door, Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, all of which I’ve heard are excellent.

The Tangled Bank is Out Now!

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution is out now!  This anthology of tales of evolution celebrates Darwin’s 200th birthday and includes my story, “On the Entropy of Species,” not to mention great fiction and poetry from Carlos Hernandez, Christopher Green, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Anil Menon, and a slew of other writers from around the globe. It’s edited by Chris Lynch, my Clarion South-mate and co-author of our collaborative story, “This is My Blood.”  Chris is fast proving that he’s as skilled as an editor as he is as a writer.  The book is not only packed with great fiction, but is also visually stunning, framed by images like this one and by a series of haikus from Sean Williams, each inspired by a different chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species

You can download your copy here for only $4.99 (U.S.). Or, if you want a free taste, check out “Darwin’s Daughter” by Christopher Green here.

Novelette Recommendations from 2009

Continuing with my recommendations of high-quality speculative fiction from 2009, here’s my personal list of recommended novelettes.  As with the short stories, my reading hasn’t been anywhere near comprehensive, but these are long-short-stories I read this year that have really stuck with me:

  • The Gambler,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, Fast Forward 2.  Interesting near-future tale about a reporter trying to cover stories of extinct butterflies in a new media world that’s only concerned with the dating life of the latest pop culture icon.  Definitely a near-near-future story, but Bacigalupi’s characters and prose make this one a keeper.
  • I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A queer (in both senses of the word) and haunting Phillip K. Dickish tale that blurs the line between speculative fiction and autobiography. 
  • The Score,” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Interfictions 2.  Highly original story of a rock star/peace activist, whose death leaves behind a complicated legacy for his friends and allies.  Not to mention the intermittent cameos his ghost keeps making.  Told in the entertaining form of blogs, emails, instant messages, and transcipts.
  • A Wild and Wicked Youth,” by Ellen Kushner,  The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.   High fantasy tale of swordsmanship and youthful friendship against the backdrop of a richly detailed and convincing feudalistic world with a rigid class structure. 
  • Eros, Philia, Agape,” by Rachel Swirsky, Tor.com.  This story provides all the joys of a classic Isaac Asimov robot story, but updated for the 21st century with wonderfully sophisticated characterization, prose, and social insight on the complexities of possession, love, and individuality.

More recs coming soon!

Short Story Recommendations from 2009

It’s that time of year whenst folks are reflecting back on 2009 and thinking about nominations for awards and the like.  Thus year, for the first time I’m actually participating in Nebula and Hugo award nominations, a task I am leaping into with both gleeful abandon and a deep weight of responsibility.  These are some of my favorite SF short stories from last year:

  • Superhero Girl,” by Jessica Lee, Fantasy Magazine.  An original twist on the superhero story, masterfully woven with ambiguity.  This is Lee’s first published story, and it’s an impressive debut.  Audio version also available at Podcastle
  • Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens,” by Peter M. Ball, Apex Magazine.  Wonderful steampunk tale with a memorable clockwork narrator. Not surprisingly, Peter recently picked up an Aurealis award for this one, one of several strong pieces from him this year. (BTW, for those keeping track, this one clocks in at just under 7,500 words, just missing the novelette category.)
  • Interviews After the Revolution,” by Brian Francis Slattery, Interfictions 2. An elite international circuit party in the midst of revolution and music in Latin America, told in the form of a documentary.  Everything Brian Francis Slattery writes seems to be brilliant.
  • Marsh Gods,” by Ann Leckie, Strange Horizons. Domestic strife, warring gods, and ancient covenants.  Brilliant world-building.  Audio version also available at Podcastle.
  • Reservations,” by Christopher Green, Expanded Horizons.  Lovely magic realism story.  Chris had a bunch of great pieces this year but this is the one that most sticks with me.  
  • The Film-makers of Mars,” by Geoff Ryman, Tor.com.  This brilliant story only served to fan the flames of my secret crush on Geoff Ryman.  Did I say that out loud?

For short-shorts, I highly recommend The Daily Cabal, which has a steady output of quality short-shorts from Dan Braum, Jason Fischer, Angela Slatter, Jeremiah Tolbert, and others.  One of my favorites this year was Fischer’s “Inventory,” a story in the form of a classic 80s adventure game.  GO READ.

Interesting that my list has a fair bit of overlap with Rachel Swirsky’s recent recs, which more than anything probably reflects that we have similar tastes. 

Many great stories came out this year, and these are just a few of the ones that have really stuck with me. – not at all exhaustive, especially considering there’s tons of great stuff out there I haven’t even read! 

Coming soon: novelette, novella, and book recommendations, plus my controversial recommendations for the year’s best SF on-screen.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is More than Fun

For Christmas, my fab sister gave me Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (Okay, she gave it to Hassan, but she knew I’d read it too.)  Bechdel is the author/artist behind the successful and hilarious comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home is her autobiography in graphic form. 

The main thrust of the story focuses on her relationship with her father, an English teacher who is obsessed with the historic restoration of their gothic revival home.  His hobby makes the family’s home a bit like a museum – both in its archaic beauty and its stifling atmosphere.  Dad seems more interested in restoring the shingles to their former glory than he is in showing any affection for his kids.  In college, Alison comes out to her parents.  She prepares herself for rejection but gets something possibly even more overwhelming: she learns her father has had affairs with men, including her former babysitter.  A few months later, as she’s still processing this new understanding of her family history, her father dies in what may have been suicide.

It mean some like these are spoilers, but all of this is clear within the first few pages.  Alison unfolds the narrative of her family not-quite-chronologically, going back and forth in time, creating a picture that grows more complex and fascinating with each new detail.  At some point, I think I may haveto re-read the book just to get a better understanding of how she structured it. 

Bechdel is an exceptional master at using the combination of words and pictures, for maximum, astoundingly efficient effect, as in the image below.  She tells her story with honesty and skill, and along the way draws on everything from the Icarus-Daedalus myth to Stonewall and James Joyce.  And on the final page she manages to bring her non-linear narratives together in a way that added yet another layer of complexity to her story and was also deeply moving.  Go forth and read it – you won’t be disappointed!

Listen to Tio Gilberto at Podcastle

I’m excited to announce that the podcast of my story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is up at Podcastle.  It’s interesting – and a bit odd – hearing someone else read a story I wrote, especially this one, which I’ve read aloud a couple of times.  I like the casual tone Brian Lieberman reads the story with, which is a great match for the narrator’s voice.

I wrote this story at Clarion South, and was partly inspired by a story by Lee Battersby, one of our Clarion instructors.  His story, “Through Soft Air,” was a ghost story about a man haunted by the ghosts of his fellow soldiers who died at war – a haunting that his children and grandchildren can’t understand, coming from a generation for whom the war is only history, not memory. 

It got me thinking about the way that an entire generation can be haunted by ghosts – of a war, a holocaust, an epidemic. There’s a wide gap between the generation haunted by those ghosts and the generations that follow, who just haven’t lived through that same overwhelming loss.  As a gay dude who came of age in the 1990s, I’d felt that type of gap with my older gay friends and mentors, whose lives  had been so deeply shaped by the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  Thinking about that generation gap was the seed for this story.

Have a listen!

Another Story Coming Soon

I recently got word that a story of mine will be published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a very cool zine published by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link at Small Beer Press.   LCRW is like the sacred madre patria for writers of weird stuff, so I’m pretty geeked out to have a story published with them.

I first wrote this particular story at Clarion in response to my mates’ saying that I needed to write more concrete, sensory details. “Ha!” I said, “I’ll write a story so filled with concrete details that it can only be titled ‘Concrete!'”  Alas, the story ended up being a surrealist story that demanded to be re-titled “This is Not Concrete.”  Ah, well…

Will post more when I know when the story will find its way into the wild.

Agatha Christie Oh How You Make Me Angry

OK, so I just finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it made me oh-so-angry.  (In case either of the two other people who still haven’t read this 100-million-copy-selling book happen to be reading, I’ll try to leave this spoiler free.)

Simply put, no writer should be allowed to get away with writing a mystery in which you narrate from the internal point of view of all the characters and yet still manage to surprise the reader as to who the culprit is.  It’s clearly cheating!  And, yet, you go back and re-read the parts that made you think what you thought, and then you realize, oh, that’s how she did it, it actually wasn’t cheating after all, and then that only makes you angrier…

The technique that she seems to use again and again, to such great effect, is deflection. She puts the answer right in front of you, but arranges such a carnival all around it that you assume that can’t possibly be the answer, until, oh wait, it is.  Which makes the conclusion as superbly satisfying as it is frustrating.  Curse you, Agatha!  And please teach me how you do what you do.

(Side note: there are also all sorts of things going on in the book around race, class and gender – some of which is conscious and much of which probably is not, but that could be a whole dissertation unto itself.)

Story Coming Soon in The Tangled Bank

I recently got the news that my short story, “On the Entropy of Species,” will be appearing in The Tangled Bank, an e-anthology of stories on Charles Darwin and evolution coming out in just a few weeks.  The anthology commemorates Darwin’s 200th birthday as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  I’m very excited to be part of such a cool project, and to have a story published in the theme-anthology that inspired the story – a first for me.

When I first saw the call for stories on evolution from editor Chris Lynch, nothing immediately came to me.  But then I started reading excerpts from Darwin’s journal, particularly from the time of his voyage on the Beagle, and found both his voice and personality inspiring.  I loved the unabashedness of his excitement in exploring new terrain and observing new species  – e.g., “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.”  He was a totally glamorous geek-adventurer.  That was the initial springboard for “On the Entropy of Species,” the story of another geek-adventurer, on a voyage of exploration in a world where evolution doesn’t seem to work quite the way we’re used to.