by Doctor Science
It's that time of year again -- the one where I need to figure out gifts for various friends and relatives. Fortunately, it's also the time of year when critics and reviewers put together "N Best Xs of the Year" lists. Even more fortunately, almost everyone on my list *loves* books.
So: I'm going to put up a list of "best or at least most interesting books I've read this year", in several categories. Your job is to chime in with *your* best-books-of-the-year. Hopefully, the result will include ones that will work for my shopping list, and some of mine can work for yours. Result: books! which is a win, where I come from.
I am linking to each book's Goodreads page, because that contains consolidated links to all kinds of sources.
Of the books I've read for the first time since about December 1, 2010, where "New" is defined as "published in 2009 or later" and "Backlist" is "published before 2009":
BEST NEW FICTION
Among Others by Jo Walton
When Walton was working on this book and talking about it in her livejournal, she called it "Post-Industrial Landscapes of Elfland" -- about what Elfland would be like if it abutted, not a vision of bucolic medieval Wales, but the Wales of Walton's youth.
But that's only a small part of it. As I was reading, I kept think of the fanvid Us, by lim, which is about slash fandom. But it's also about how we *gestures around at media & SF fandom in general* make a world together, how we let stories in and get stories out.
There is no better description, anywhere, of what it's *like* to be an SF/F fan/reader than Among Others. My impulse is to give it to my parents, to say "this is what my life was like from the inside, this is why I read all that stuff" -- but unless they've read the books Mor, the protagonist, has, which are the ones I read, too, only a few years earlier, they won't *get* it.
As Kristina Busse says in the comments to "Us":
the vid foregrounds insiderness, especially in the way it not only requires a breadth of references but also a certain depth. [...] But I think you're right that this is part of the argument—it is about a particular culture, [...] but it is also about the way it ultimately doesn't matter [if] you recognize every particular scene, because we change it anyways.Similarly, you don't have to have read *every* book Mor reads to see how her mind develops, but you have to have heard of most of them, and you have to know The Lord of The Rings, at least, to a fair depth.
I'm not actually certain I read this in 2011, but it was certainly late in 2010, and it is IMHO the most underappreciated sF/F of 2009. The problem is the cover and other marketing, which is meant to cash in on the Great Twilight Paranormal Romance Boom. But although some of the characters are merpeople, and a lot of the plot revolves around marriage, that's not what it is at all.
Imagine instead that the cover was based on a portrait of Elizabeth I: still covered in pearls, but the Lady has slightly bluish skin and webs between her fingers. In Great Waters is an Alternate Historical, in many ways more like science fiction than fantasy, despite the merfolk. It involves themes like politics and the idea of royalty (Whitfield is British); the marriages are matters of state, not romance. It's fascinating and thought-provoking for me, an American interested in history; for someone living in a monarchy it's also relevant.
BEST BACKLIST FICTION
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
I'd never read it before, and it was a revelation -- not *at all* what I was expecting. I'll be writing more about it later, but I'll just say that I think it's not a "sentimental novel", it's an emotional one. The characters are not stereotypes, as I had been led to expect, but are more realistic than those in, say, Dickens, and *far* more believable than those in Melville.
BEST NEW NON-FICTION: a tie
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
The best kind of history book: it makes my own life and times more understandable. Wilkerson makes you really *feel* life under Jim Crow and why it was worth leaving. She shows that blacks who left the South were, in motivation, resources, and intent, just like other immigrant groups. The difference was the level of pre-existing bias they met in their new homes.
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham
BEST BACKLIST NON-FICTION
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (2004)
Before I read this book, I knew basically *nothing* about Genghis or his people -- even though Genghis is probably the most significant non-religious actor in world history. Weatherford is unashamed to be "on the side" of living Mongols and their rights to language, culture, and territory, but he doesn't gloss over the dark side of the historic Horde. He does make it *understandable*, though: both their motivations and their success.
Militarily, the Mongols remind me a lot of Americans: they were the hi-tech army of their day, for instance. They also refused to treat any Mongol as expendable -- which is why there were so many non-Mongol civilian casualties in their wars. They did their best to fight at a distance -- they would have *loved* drone warfare.
So there's my list. Chime in with yours, and I'll end up with something to guide my shopping!