by Sarah Pinsker
Sarah is a Sturgeon Award winning writer and a Nebula finalist.
1. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
I couldn't put this down. I loved the setting, the unreliable narrator. I see the comparisons to Lovecraft, but the thing it actually reminded me of was Lost, in a good way: mysterious locations, horrors familiar and unfamiliar, experiments, unreliability.
It was exactly the length it needed to be, taut, with no filler or loss of focus. Creepy and satisfying. The other two books in the trilogy were also released this year, and while the combined volume (called Area X) is pretty amazing, it was this first short novel that truly wowed me.
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I remember finishing The Road and weeping at my desk. For months I couldn't shake the feeling that I had somehow corrupted myself with that vision of the future. Kunstler's World Made By Hand helped somewhat, offering me an alternative vision where people banded together to survive. I'd read other apocalypses before and I've read others since, but it is not one of my favorite sub genres. I'd so much rather read brighter pasts and presents and futures.
I can't say this book doesn't instill that same panic at the tenuous nature of our society, but like the Kunstler novel, it has a more favorable view of humanity. The people who survive in this book write plays and poetry. They read comics. They perform Shakespeare. They live by a creed lifted from Star Trek Voyager, that "Survival is Insufficient." And that somehow lifts my heart, makes this world the author has imagined infinitely more palatable, makes me willing to lose hours to linger with these characters in their post-plague world.
Add to that the author's deft craftsmanship, her weaving of characters and plots backwards and forward in time, and her absolutely luminous prose.
3. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
I'm not a big reader of series. Generally, I find that if a first book is a success, authors try to recreate that success by duplicating the beats of the first novel. Or worse, authors that use a second book in a trilogy entirely to set up a third. There are exceptions, of course: series that invent and reinvent themselves as they go along. Series with greater ambitions and a strong structure, like Vandermeer's Southern Reach or Jo Walton's Small Change.
As much as I loved Ancillary Justice, I didn't need to see it duplicated. So when I realized that Leckie had other plans, I was overjoyed. Part of what I loved about Ancillary Justice was that even though the overarching story was huge and centuries-spanning, the focus was on the characters. In Ancillary Sword, she manages to move forward with the big plot put in motion in the first novel, but the focus is tight. Most of the action takes places on one station and one estate on a planet. It concerns a finite set of characters. We're given a chance to see how Breq deals with human sized problems, and how Breq approaches power. I loved it.
4. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
A beautiful combination of historical detail and great characters and literary prowess and Coney Island and not-quite-magic. Absolutely gorgeous.
5. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
I put this down twice in the first chapter, put off by the thees and thous. Only the fact that so many of my friends had recommended it so highly kept me reading, and I'm glad I trust them so much. I'm easily put off by grimdark and the sort of grandiose heroism that I (perhaps unfairly) expect to encounter when I open a book of high fantasy. This was in fact a lovely character study, and a deeper meditation on stagnation of power. Maia, the eponymous Goblin Emperor, is a good character to hang a book on: enough of an outsider to explain the world to readers, but savvy and thoughtful enough to survive in the role that is thrust upon him. He reminds me a little of Nicola Griffith's Hild in the ways he learns to use his power, though he doesn't have her prodigious political acumen.
I'll admit the sheer number of characters overwhelmed me sometimes, but that got a little better once I found the glossary and list of characters at the back. I realized I could stop stressing over it and most scenes could be repopulated by context; behind the names, the characters were drawn so distinctly that there was no doubt who was talking. I'd also like to give the author a few points for using ears to denote emotion. I've often wished people could be as expressive with their body language as horses. Points also for writing a world this complex but being content to leave it as a standalone novel. Thoroughly enjoyable.
6. My Real Children by Jo Walton
I loved almost everything about this book: the deft imagining of two parallel timelines of the twentieth century, both different from our own, the vivid depictions of every character in both timelines, the ways in which Pat/Trish is different and the same. I think it would have been a five star book for me except for the last line. I've read reviews that interpreted it differently than I did, and maybe it's meant to be a personal rorshach for the reader as well as for Pat/Trish. There are other books and movies that have trod this path - I'm particularly thinking of the underrated film Mr. Nobody - but the way this came together, and the particulars of both lives, touched me deeply.
7. Etched on Me by Jenn Crowell
A brave, difficult, compelling, heart-rending novel by an old friend. Jenn Crowell takes an unflinching look at one facet of the British mental health system, and one young woman (fictional, but based on real cases) who survived it. That's not a spoiler. It's in first person, so narrated as a recollection, which tells you from the beginning that she in some way makes it through.
8. Lock In by John Scalzi
This hit my sweet spot: near-future SF, brains, disability politics. Breezy, engaging, and smart. Scalzi's books are sometimes a little too slick for my taste, but I actually think this is a far better book than Redshirts.
9. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
I'm cheating a little by putting this one on the list, since I'm only halfway through it. Frankly, there is almost no possible way, given the beginning, that he could possibly mess this up for me. I just read a hundred pages about a character I absolutely despise, and I want more.
10. A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
The first line of this book deserves to go in the Hall of Fame of great first lines. The whole first chapter served as an amazing hook. The dialogue and human interactions didn't always ring true to me, but Cambias has created two truly alien species, and I enjoyed watching their interactions with each other and with humans. Some great ruminations on first contact and second contact.
There are a number of novels of 2014 that I haven't gotten to yet that very probably would make my list even more difficult. Apologies to the authors of those fine looking books, including Jennifer Marie Brissett, Nnedi Okorafor, Michael Underwood, Beth Cato, E. Catherine Tobler, and John Darnielle. I look forward to catching up soon.
Favorite biography of 2014:
Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr
I feel like I've read a lot of disappointing non-fiction lately, so this was very refreshing. The thing with a biography is that no life fits into a neat arc. The bios that don't work either try to hard to shoehorn the arc, or lose focus. This book did neither. Sherr recognized the need to put Sally Ride's life in context, so she talks about the space race and NASA and women and girls in science. Not just Sally Ride, but why she mattered. I was very young at the time of her first launch, but I remember it vividly. I can't say how much of a difference it made because from then on, that was the way it was. Most of my conscious life has been spent in a world where it is taken for granted that women can be astronauts, can be scientists, can be anything we want to be. This book is a good reminder of what it took to get to that place.
Sherr was a friend of Dr. Ride's, and she makes an effort to contextualize Ride's personal privacy as well, and her reasons for keeping her relationship a secret until she was close to death. It isn't often I can be brought to tears by a biography, but this did it. It's a lovely tribute to Dr. Ride's full legacy.
Best music biography:
I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway
by Greg Kot
An engaging biography of a great band. I'm not sure it needed so many subtitles. I guess that's because it starts with Pops but finishes with Mavis. At times it felt a little superficial on some of the personal milestones, but the detail on the music portions makes up for it. When I saw Mavis play last year, I noticed that her sister Yvonne - the only other Staples on the stage - looked like she wasn't entirely excited to be there. This book made me far more sympathetic. Yvonne comes across as somebody who would do what was needed of her. If her family needed her on stage, even if she didn't want to be there, she would be there for them. Lots of other little details added to my picture of the band: I didn't know they went to high school with Sam Cooke, or that Mavis and Bob Dylan were sweethearts. I love the image of the big family meals in Chicago, with Mahalia Jackson and Stevie Wonder and the Franklins.