Best Books: First Half of 2007

July 1. Half the year is over already! How did that happen so quickly?

I'd hoped to be reading 10 books a month this year, but so far I've fallen a bit short of that goal. I've read 53 books, with an abnormally high number of books I'd define as superior among them. Most of the books I've read are fairly new, but they're not hot off the presses. But who says you have to be new to be the best?
Here are my favorite books of the year so far:

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston. This is the second in Swainston's New Weird trilogy, following The Year of Our War. While not as crazily inventive and enthralling as The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time is still mysterious, fascinating and endlessly readable. I'm very much looking forward to the third and final volume of this trilogy, The Modern World.

In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips. Phillips' short stories are interstitial fiction of the finest kind. They are endlessly puzzling, often beautifully gentle while still managing to frighten the socks off you. I reviewed the book in detail here.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Connolly is better known for his violent mystery novels about Detective Charlie "Bird" Parker. But this lovely fairy tale about loving books and reading, which manages despite its subject matter to be as grim as anything the Grimm Brothers ever committed to paper, is as different from Connolly's Parker novels as it is possible to be. If you love quirky tales that bring you back to all the mystery of childhood, this is the book for you.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. This freshman effort at a horror novel shows great promise. It's a ghost story that begins when a burned-out rock musician with an interest in the occult buys a suit that promises to be haunted by the ghost of the owner's stepfather. The suit lives up to the seller's promise; what she didn’t say was that the ghost was malevolent with a particular hatred for the rock musician. A great start for the writer of the excellent 20th Century Ghosts, which I reviewed here.

The Chains That You Refuse by Elizabeth Bear. This book of short stories is from a writer who burst onto the scene just two short years ago with her military SF in three related books, Hammered, Scardown and Worldwired. The number of books she has produced since these three appeared is genuinely astonishing, including both fantasy (for example, Blood and Iron: A Novel of the Promethean Age) and science fiction (for example, Carnival). But personally, I love her short fiction, collected in The Chains That You Refuse. The stories are as varied and imaginative as are Bear's novels, from the post-apocalyptic "And the Deep Blue Sea" (which begins, "The end of the world had come and gone. It turned out not the matter much in the long run") to the historically-based "Tiger! Tiger!" One of my particular favorites is "This Tragic Glass," in which an English professor attempts to apply science to literature, with surprising results. It's an excellent collection.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is a post-colonial novel of an elderly man who made his fortune practicing law in Hong Kong. His name is an acronym: "Failed in London, Try Hongkong," suggesting that his skill was insufficient for the Empire. But that suggestion is belied by the esteem in which his colleagues, both at home and abroad, regard him. The book mostly concerns what happens when a man leaves the world and the profession he has come to know and love. Is England truly “home” anymore? What of his marriage, has it survived his professional responsibilities? What is there to life besides professional success? This is a fine little book that has been unfairly unheralded. Pick it up! You can find more detail in my review here.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. This book of essays was frustrating and delightful in equal measure. Wallace seems to have a love affair going on with the footnote, which works beautifully in some essays and makes others almost impossible to follow. The first essay, "Big Red Son," is a tour de force in which Wallace describes the adult film industry's annual awards show. It is deeply disturbing and very, very funny at the same time; you can almost see Wallace squirming in his chair even while he is fascinated and intellectually, distantly amused. This book is worth its cover price solely for this essay. But it's not all: "Authority and American Usage," while very dense, is marvelously entertaining to anyone who loves words; and "Consider the Lobster" will make you, indeed, consider the lobster, and may make it difficult for you to ever eat another one. I'm encouraged to read more by this writer; perhaps I'll tackle his big novel, Infinite Jest.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read this book at a time in my life when it spoke to me much more loudly than it might have otherwise. Nonetheless, I don't think my love for it is entirely personal. Gilbert sets off on an odyssey following the collapse of her marriage, staying in three different countries for four months each: Italy, India and Indonesia. She recovers in Italy mostly by eating pasta and gelato (and making friends everywhere she goes). She examines herself and her life at an ashram in India. And she finds love in Indonesia. This spiritual memoir is written in a seemingly light, breezy style, but deep thoughts creep in before you know it. This is a beautiful little book that offers hope and even, dare I say it, redemption.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. A first mystery by Atkinson, who is more well-known for her literary novels (and, in fact, this book was sold as one of them, rather than within the genre). Jackson Brodie is her detective, an ex-cop who has turned his hand to private investigation in Cambridge, England. He has been hired to look into three extremely cold cases. The search for the answers takes him into a time and a puzzle that plays out beautifully. A compelling, brilliantly written book.

The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. What if Shakespeare was a Catholic in Protestant England? What if he wrote a play about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her famous dispute with Queen Elizabeth I? And what if someone found that play in the early 21st century? If you like books about books, and mysteries about mysteries, this is the book for you. I particularly enjoyed the portrait of the self-loathing lawyer who becomes bound up in search for the manuscript, largely because he becomes infatuated with a strange woman who sets him on the hunt. After writing this much of this blog entry, I'm pretty much out of superlatives, but I wouldn't want this book to escape your attention; it's one of the best of the best. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and despite its occasional denseness, found it difficult to put down. It's not exactly a beach book, but it would be a great book to read on that long flight to England for your summer vacation.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This first fantasy in a trilogy by a first-time author plays all the changes on the tropes of the typical big fantasy, making everything old new again. It is told from the point of view of a man who has become an extremely gifted wizard, and is the story of the first part of his schooling. Far from being a Harry Potter clone, this is a book entirely for grown-ups. No clichés here, except insofar as they are rewritten into new adventures. I do wish Rothfuss would try to write entirely out of the box, but this book is an excellent example of the strengths still present in the old stories. I reviewed the book in detail here.

Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman. This mystery about New York private detective John March was thrilling, exciting, and frightening. It's a book to be read alongside a viewing of Fatal Attraction, perhaps, being a tale of the dangers of extramarital dalliances -- and the odd "artwork" of a certain very attractive young woman. The book was so good that I immediately grabbed hold of Black Maps, which I've just finished, and which also rates mentioning on this list. It is the first in the John March series, bold and complex. Blows don't bounce off this guy; they hurt. But he keeps putting himself in danger anyway, doing his job stolidly and with passion. Don't miss these.

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. This is a most peculiar book about a boy who may be possessed and maybe mentally ill. How does one tell the difference? The book explores whether there is true evil, or merely disease; whether the devil exists and is merely a symptom of schizophrenia; and the origin of violence in the brain or in Hell. None of the questions is easily resolved, regardless of attempts at exorcism and psychotherapy both. An eerie book that will leave you contemplating some very heavy questions.

That's 13 out of 53 books that I rate as superlative. There are lots of interesting books that didn't quite make the cut, like the experimental Vanishing Point by David Markson, a cornucopia of facts and figures that seems to add up to the life of an intellectual; Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, reviewed here; The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, a lovely historical novel/fantasy in which a woman becomes a swordsman; The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, reviewed in brief here; The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff, a first novel for the author about a horror that visits a group of college students who have the poor wisdom to play with a Ouija board, reviewed in brief here.

It's been a good six months.

Tell me what you've read during the first half of 2007 that you find yourself urging on other readers. What good stuff did you find out there? Classic, new, fiction, non-, comics, tell us all whatever it is, so that we, too, can enjoy.


I admire your organization! I keep a list of books I've read but not of the dates I read them. So I don't quite remember all I read this year.

But here are ones I'm pretty sure I read this year. Mostly it's non-fiction (current events, history) when it isn't sci-fi/fantasy. The Middle East and Muslim-European relations are two topics: Fouad Ajami's, The Foreigner's Gift; Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam, about the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the filmmaker, and Occidentalism, essays about mutual east-west misunderstanding; Brigitte Gabriel, Because They Hate, a memoir of a Lebanese Christian; Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy; now dated, it's an overview of Europe in the 1990s; Stephen O'Shea, Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World; Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, a prominent Muslim professor's view on how Muslims in the West should reconcile modernity with faith.

Then there are miscellaneous items, stuff I just pick up from scanning the "New Arrivals" shelves in the library: Adam Gopnik, Through the Children's Gate (he's a writer for The New Yorker, author of a wonderful series of essays during five years living in Paris; his latest is a collection of recent essays on life in NYC), Marc Kurlansky, Cod, a social history of the fish and its economic impact in Europe over 500 years; Norman Manea, The Hooligan's Return, an account by a Romanian Jewish dissident of his return to Bucharest on an official visit after having emigrated.

I can't begin to remember which sci-fi/fantasy titles I've read this year. I don't keep track of them at all. I've just finished Lynch's first book-- liked it very much and am looking forward to the next. Rothfus, as you know, since we've discussed it, and also Hobb's new one. I bought Cherryh's Fortress of Eagles and I'll start that soon.

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