Strictly speaking, these are the best books I read in 2009 even if they don't measure up to best books from previous years, but I can't work up the same enthusiasm for them that I have in previous year's best lists, so I've changed the format of this list a little to indicate why I consider these books worthwhile despite their flaws.
- Best Return to Form: Anathem by Neal Stephenson (review)
The first book I read (and blogged about) in 2009, I was quite enthusiastic about Anathem when I first came away from it, then found that enthusiasm fading as its strengths receded in my mind and its flaws--the frequent infodumps and As You Know, Bob exchanges of dialogue, the blank and conveniently dim narrator, the flatness of the female characters and their near-constant accommodation of the narrator's needs and desires--became more prominent. Upon a third evaluation, however, it occurs to me that these flaws point towards the very quality that makes Anathem worthwhile. They are, after all, ubiquitous in Stephenson's writing, and it is one of his most important qualities as a writer that in his best books, he makes them not only tolerable but enjoyable and endearing. After the earnest and interminable Baroque Cycle, Anathem shows us Stephenson rediscovering his sense of fun and his ability to infect readers with the fascination he feels for his subjects.
- Best Departure From Form: The City & The City by China Miéville (review)
China Miéville followed the three Bas-Lag novels, including the paradigm-shattering Perdido Street Station, with a limp and watered-down children's book, and left me very nervous for his future as a writer. In his determination to keep from being pigeon-holed as an author who works in a single secondary world, was he leaving behind the very qualities that made him worth reading? The City & The City puts that question to rest. It does, in fact, leave behind most of what we associate with Miéville's writing--the secondary world setting, the fantasy creatures, the emphasis on the gory and grotesque--but the story that's left behind, about a detective investigating a murder in a city that is two cities overlaid one over the other, is still a powerful and deeply weird story. It's China Miéville, but not as we know him, and though I had my reservations about The City & The City, which I ultimately found too cold and neat (it lacks, in fact, the messiness and sprawl that characterized the early Bas-Lag novels), it certainly lays to rest my concerns that Miéville couldn't survive reinvention, and leaves me very curious to see what he does next.
- Best Unexpected Pleasure: Thunderer by Felix Gilman (review)
I went on quite a bit about the parallels between Gilman's debut, in which a pilgrim to a fantastic city unwittingly sets a supernatural menace on its citizens, and Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and I still feel that these are too prominent for the book to ever quite escape from out of Perdido's shadow. Even within that shadow, however, Thunderer was one of the most satisfying novels I read this year--beautifully written and envisioned, with rounded, compelling characters. Some of the imagery from the novel--the floating ship that gives it its name, the three-dimensional atlas of the fantastic city in which it is set, the main character's journey into alternate universe versions of that city--lingers with me still, and reminds me that sometimes one should read for strength of execution rather than originality.
- Best Weird Book: Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott
At times it seems that there's a sizable portion of genre fandom obsessed with either writing or finding the literary epic fantasy novel, one that elevates the genre above its simplistic and often reactionary roots. In my admittedly limited forays into the various attempts at this holy grail, what I've found was usually the same familiar fare made grimmer and morally murky. Which is fine as far as it goes, but not quite what I think of as literary. McDermott's Last Dragon, a non-linear story about a warrior woman's pursuit of the man who massacred her people, which becomes a key component of the war for her nation's survival, comes out of left field to show us how it's done. The result is, well, weird--I'm still not entirely clear what happens in certain scenes or what the solutions to certain mysteries are, or if McDermott even delivered those solutions--but also entirely satisfying. It manages the difficult trick of hitting on the standard tropes of the epic fantasy story in a way that is stirring and engaging, while simultaneously making it clear that these are not the point of the novel, but rather the exploration of its characters and how they're affected by their situation.
- Best Survey of a Genre: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (review), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (review), The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (review)
I still haven't gotten around to reading Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, the fourth Booker nominated novel to catch my eye, but the three ladies on the ballot provide a very interesting panoramic view of modern historical fiction. Wolf Hall gives us the history we know from history books and tend to think of as a play (or a period drama) whose immediacy is drowned out by unfamiliar customs and attitudes, and tries to make that history, and its actors, modern and familiar. The Children's Book gives us history as a moment, or rather many moments, of revolution, the building blocks of our modern world falling into place before our eyes, though even as she describes its disappearance Byatt seems to be cataloging the old world down to the cutlery and furniture. The Little Stranger gives us history in the wake of that revolution, as it ticks, almost imperceptibly, into the now, and is also a well done ghost story. I had my problems with all of these novels--Wolf Hall is too wrapped up in its glorification of Thomas Cromwell, The Children's Book often feels less like a novel and more like a lecture, The Little Stranger plays its generic and mimetic elements against each other--though I still maintain that The Children's Book is the best of the three. Taken together, however, they are an impressive display of skill, research, and fine writing, and if I felt that fantastic reading had drowned out other modes and genres this year, I can at least comfort myself with this brief but satisfying foray into historical fiction.
- Best Overall Read: Warlock by Oakley Hall
The one 2009 novel which, I feel relatively certain, would have made it onto this list in a stronger year. Hall's deconstruction of the Western gets so many things right: it's beautifully written, switching effortlessly between the voices and perspectives of its wide cast of characters; it's intelligent and thought-provoking, raising thorny questions about the meaning of law and violence as it charts the rise and fall of Clay Blaisedell, a marshall brought in to rid the titular town of outlaws who finds himself unequal to the mantle of hero; best of all, it's deeply compassionate towards all its characters, taking their points of view each in turn and depicting them as compelling and comprehensible people no matter how vile their actions. Like epic fantasy, the Western is constantly being tinkered with and reinvented in an attempt to divorce its romantic setting from its oversimplified underlying assumptions. Turns out, Oakley Hall figured out how to do this back in 1958.
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall