Best of the Year – Joe’s faves
I meant to post my own Best of the Year choices before the end of 2008, but Christmas, birthday and New Year all got in the way, as did my own propensity to keep adding to the list so it just kept getting longer and longer… (I couldn’t help it, everytime I looked at my bookshelves I kept realising there was another book or comic I had to mention). Still, finally here it is with apologies to anyone who I meant to include and simply forgot to get in there (a lot of 2008 went past in a bit of a blur for me):
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan, Gollancz
I’ve been a huge fan of Richard’s work right from the start (with the powerhouse Noir-SF Altered Carbon) and have been eager to see what resulted when he put aside science fiction for his first foray into fantasy – especially as he intended to bring his hard-boiled Noir edge to the genre. I wasn’t disappointed – some damned good action contrasted with the horror of the actual combat, giving the reader the thrill of the combat and action mixed with guilt at the disturbing consequences of it all. Add in some clever commentary about racism, sexism and religious intolerance, not to mention a very sexually active gay lead hero and you have an intoxicating combination.
Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod, Orbit
Edinburgh, Scotland, the near future. The Faith Wars are years past with religion not exactly banned but highly frowned upon by public and governments alike, being blamed by most for the rash of wars and troubles which extended out from Iraq on into the 21st century. When a priest operating out of a normal house in the city if found dead is it a straight murder or the start of a new faith (or anti-faith) series of atrocities? Ken, one of the smartest commentators on contemporary politics and society in modern SF, draws in conflicts from the Middle East, religious zealotry, secularism and politics and along the way manages to throw in a Creationist park with robot cavemen in New Zealand, nods to Scottish history, hints of the future (like the Space Elevator) and also gets to indulge himself in a proper Edinburgh detective novel too. Bloody brilliant.
Halting State, Charles Stross, Orbit
Charlie continues to carve out a hugely impressive name for himself in SF&F. Like Ken’s Night Sessions this too involves detectives in a near-future, independent Scottish Republic, but there the similarity ends. Called to investigate a bank robbery the police arrive at what turns out to be an old nuclear bunker (coincidentally a real location, right across from my old college). The bank job was carried out by orcs; the bank is a virtual one in an online game. The detectives are about to charge the company with wasting police time before they are informed just how much ‘real’ money the virtual items are worth and how much these games contribute to the economy (which means political friends to lean on the cops). From there Charlie, with much dark humour, mixes in reality, virtuality and even some hi-tech possible espionage. Genius.
The Wall of America, Thomas M Disch (Tachyon)
Disch is one of those authors that everyone in SF&F respects and yet few have actually read (I’ll confess to only having read a fraction of his work myself). This is a posthumously published short story collection following his suicide on July 4th of this year. In most short story collections, even by the best writers, there are always a few tales you just don’t care for as much as the others. This is the rare exception: each of the tales – some only a few paragraphs, others several pages – are clever, intricate jewels, from an unusual take on vampires and immigrant culture to family life post-Rapture to a cunning visit to the court of Oedipus and Jocasta (the cleverest I’ve read since the great Brian Aldiss tackled those famous characters a few years ago), a seductive water sprite, why the Christian God doesn’t have a wife, extreme performance art and the eponymous Wall of America itself, a Homeland Security construction across the northern border to keep those troublesome Cannucks out which artists turn into the world’s largest outdoor gallery. It’s a wonderfully diverse selection of intelligent works, elegantly written, clever and sometimes rather biting.
There were a lot of other damned fine SF&F books I picked up in 2008; it was another very good year for some seriously high quality writing in the genre. There isn’t enough room to list every one I enjoyed this year, but I’ll just briefly have to give special mentions to the Temporal Void by Peter F Hamilton (the second of his current trilogy and like many of his other books a massively thick tome and yet one that still flies past at a great pace), The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (following on from the excellent Old Man‘s War; what seems like pulp Starship Troopers boy‘s space war yarn turns out to be clever and bloody gripping), Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley (the second part of his Godless World, some damned fine hard heroic fantasy), Small Favour by Jim Butcher (I don’t know how but Jim makes each successive Dresden Files novel better and better; I am addicted to them now) and Half the Blood of Brooklyn by Charlie Huston (short, sharp and nasty, Charlie continues to mix 70s era Scorcese with vampires; like shooting heroin with a .357 instead of a needle).
And also on the SF&F front I need to give an extra special mention to Interzone (and sister publication Black Static) which continues to fly the flag for short, new SF from established writers and new talent, as well as the usual mix of interviews, reviews and features (the December issue is available now and has some terrific short stories; Aliette de Bodard‘s Butterfly Falling at Dawn is particularly intoxicating and Gord Sellar‘s Country of the Young was one of the most interesting angles on aging versus artificial eternal youth I‘ve read since Jack Deighton‘s thoughtful Son of the Rock).
Paris (directed by Cédric Klapisch)
I can’t resist a good French film with Juliette Binoche; this multi-character flick may have the Queen of French Cinema as the sister to a dancer lamenting the turn of his life as his health deteriorates while awaiting a transplant but around this Klapisch weaves several different tales and characters all overlapping one another (think the excellent and intricate Short Cuts), life, love, death, regret and hope all set in the beautiful City of Light.
The Dark Knight (directed by Christopher Nolan)
Hard to say any more than others have already said – Nolan (who I’ve admired since the brilliant Memento), free in this second film from having the handicap of needing to include an origin story, creates a more complete and satisfying work here, the dark anti-hero hero and Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker.
Waltz With Bashir (directed by Ari Folman)
Folman’s unusual animated documentary has rightly created a buzz on the film festival circuit and finally got its UK and US release just a few weeks ago. Exploring memories and dreams Folman talks to former comrades about their time in the Israeli army during the war in the Lebanon in the early 80s, with the animation allowing the viewers to move into the nightmares and dreams that have haunted many of them since then; I won’t go into it again since I posted a review of it recently here.
Man on Wire (directed by James Marsh)
Another documentary and another flick which established its reputation first on the film festival circuit, acrobat and tightrope walker Philippe Petit, following a stunt involving walking a high wire strung between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, reads about a massive new structure being built in New York – the Twin Towers and determines to break in covertly just as it is finished and walk a tightrope between the roofs of these colossal structures. Rightly, I think, the film avoids discussion of the eventual fate of those now iconic buildings on 9/11, although archive footage of the early construction showing the massive foundations and the ‘basin’ have eerie echoes of what we saw after their destruction. Petit comes across as arrogant and selfish quite often, but if he wasn’t he’d never have managed such a magnificently mad but astonishing feat. It isn’t for those who suffer vertigo, but it is amazing; a man, on a wire suspended above New York.
Idiots and Angels (directed by Bill Plympton)
I love Bill’s work and was delighted when the Edinburgh Film Festival announced that it would be screening this, just a few weeks after it debuted at a festival in New York. Even better Bill was there in person to chat with the audience before and after the film, then he created little thumbnail sketches for each and everyone present on the way out; there’s a longer review I posted to be found back here on the blog.
Honourable mentions also go to Elegy, Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge, Hellboy II: the Golden Army, the belting piece of hi-octane that was Quantum of Solace and the animation anthology Peur(s) du Noir.
Stickleback, Ian Edginton and D’Israeli (Rebellion)
Whenever we hear that Edginton and D’Israeli are collaborating on a new project we tend to get pretty excited – they are firm favourites with a number of the FP crew. Stickleback collects two recent related stories from 2000 AD concerning the eponymous mis-shapen master criminal. Richard reviewed it recently so I won’t go on about it too much now – suffice to say I thought it was a superb bit of Victorian Steampunk (love those giant robotic tanks which look like a cross between 19th century robots and Fred Dibnah’s steam traction engine), magical fantasy, horror (a demonic Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley complete with zombie cowboys and Indians) and crime, its Lovecraft meets Charles Dickens, with multiple references to spot throughout (including even one from Carry On Screaming!) while D’Israeli’s new style of art is brilliantly atmospheric. Even better than their Leviathan outing; here’s hoping we see more of Stickleback.
Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell (Top Shelf)
I wasn’t familiar with Nate’s work prior to reading this, but I was quickly taken in by it. Using a lot of black and some scratchy inks his art conjures up the worlds of a brother and sister with mental health problems (in addition to family problems and the usual high school teen problems); the way they see and interpret the world is quite different from others around them, which can be alienating for them, especially in a conformist world that demands we all see things the same way or else be judged to be abnormal. Swallow Me Whole doesn’t judge, doesn’t preach, it shows different ways people can see their world and who is to say which version is right? And although we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover I think I have to also mention that Top Shelf have printed Swallow Me Whole in a small hardback format that is rather lovely.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel (Jonathan Cape)
Alison rightly won many plaudits last year for Fun Home; this collection of several year’s worth of her Dykes to Watch Out For strip is a different kettle of fish though, an ongoing, multi-character, open-ended series, almost like a soap opera (but in a good way – I normally hate soaps, but I loved this). I’ve read some of Dykes before, but this was my first really concentrated burst of them and it made a huge difference to read so many back to back. With our lesbian leads and their friends aging in real time its very easy to get sucked into their lives and for anyone past the age of 30 who remembers some of the real world events going on as we pass through the years here there’s a real touch of empathy with the characters, with the ‘I remember that’ factor and also the emotional empathy as we see the characters getting older and having to deal with exactly the same things we all have to, from losing beloved pets to losing family members and welcoming (and worrying about) new ones, health, jobs, wondering what happened to the groundbreaking neighbourhood bookstore as the relentless march of the chain bookstores threatens them, wondering, as they get older, what happened to their youthful fire (one day street activists fighting for equality, another day they are worrying about mortgages and weeding the yard) and why the younger generation of lesbians are often so different from them (good lord, some even vote Republican!).
It’s a substantial collection covering a number of years and I found the best way was to read a little chunk at a time, moving through the 90s and into the 2000s; after a little while the cast became like old friends and I found myself eager to read another batch. I should also mention the cartoon intro Alison created for the collection which had me laughing my arse off and showed that while she’ll handle heavy subjects as well as humorous she’s also quite happy to poke fun at her own and her character’s foibles too.
Too Cool To Be Forgotten, Alex Robinson (Top Shelf)
I’ve been a huge fan of Alex Robinson for years, not least for Box Office Poison (the BOP scenes set in the bookstore made him a particular hero to the bookseller community), so I was really looking forward to this. When the central character is persuaded to try hypo-therapy to give up smoking he wakes up in his teens, reliving his high school years. What starts off as a bit of a humorous trip with a warm touch of nostalgia (the sort of feeling I get from watching an 80s movie like The Breakfast Club these days) starts to bring in the whiff of regret than any reader over the age of 35 will probably empathise with – was that really our youth, did we do that, why didn’t we do the other, where did it go and how did it lead to us being what we are now? Then the final reel takes us into a very emotional space, bringing a real lump to the throat…
Absolute Sandman Volume 3, Neil Gaiman et al (DC/Vertigo)
Okay, technically this is a reprint so perhaps I shouldn’t have it in my main list, but dammit I love this series and have shelled out now for all four volumes (I’m currently reading the fourth and final one over the holidays) and I think Neil’s work often benefits from re-visiting it to see little details and layers missed on previous reading while the over-sized pages of restored artwork let you feast visually on the numerous contributing artists, most especially the Ramadan chapter with art from P Craig Russell, a mix of the Arabian Nights and wonderful, colourful fantasies like The Thief of Baghdad. The linkage between the Golden Baghdad of flying carpets and genies and the modern, war-torn city still gets me. The only problem I have with these volumes is that because they are so damned huge its like trying to hold a Times Atlas up and its pretty strenuous on the wrists – these really need a home with a proper library room and a large lectern to rest it on (when I finish book 4 I think I should get a piece of tempered glass, lay it on top of them and used them as a coffee table).
Britten & Brülightly, Hannah Berry (Jonathan Cape)
I loved Hannah’s debut work, a detective tale with lovely, painted artwork, with a damaged shamus and his partner, who at first seems like a voice in his head, making the reader think perhaps he’s dead and Britten just thinks he still talks to him, but actually he turns out to be a teabag (“a teabag with needs”) advising and chastising his lonely partner as he accepts a case of possible society murder from a beautiful and rich widow. I loved the story and its old-fashioned British setting, perfectly realised by the lovely art. I was lucky enough to meet Hannah in person at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August and I’m really looking forward to seeing more work from her in the future; you can read an interview with Hannah here on the blog.
The Sands of Sarasvati, Petri Tolppanen and Jussi Kaakinen, based on the novel by Risto Isomäki, (Tammi Publishers)
I only posted a review of this a couple of weeks ago so won’t say too much again here, except to say this was my first ever graphic novel from Finland and I really enjoyed this near-future piece of science fiction, mixing ancient civilisations, contemporary environmental concerns and geology, all executed in a style reminiscent of the better adult BD from Europe; here’s hoping Tammi make a deal with a UK or US publisher or distributor so it can be made more easily available in 2009.
That Salty Air, Tim Sievert (Top Shelf)
Another artist who was new to me, I thought Tim’s work had a deceptively simple charm which starts as very all-ages friendly before moving into a very dark place as the fisherman’s straightforward life which he is perfectly content with is destroyed by loss and grief and the self-destructive actions they drive him towards which could cost him and those around him everything. I think anyone who’s lost someone important to them will recognise his mix of utter despair infused with a fire of anger at the world for what its done to him, what its taken away and how awfully easy it is for that combination to drown your soul and blind you to the love still around you.
As with the SF&F books there were far more good comics crossed my desk than I have space or time to write about here, so I’ll conclude this (already longer than I meant it to be) Best of the Year with a few quick, honourable mentions which have to go to the ongoing (and very welcome) reprint series of classic 2000 AD strips, especially the Complete Judge Dredd Case Files (“Chopper for Oz!”) and the total nostalgia trip I had from re-reading the Complete Ro-Busters (collecting the original Starlord then 2000 AD strips and introducing us to Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws, two of the best robot characters in comics) which I’ve been loving (and oh, Kev O’Neill, Mick McMahon and Dave Gibbons art to luxuriate in!).
Props also to Classical Comics – I’m not the target audience for these literary adaptations but I still really enjoyed them (and think they are perfect for getting younger readers into the classics and as study guides for teachers to use); Jon Haward’s Macbeth and Declan Shalvey’s Frankenstein both contained some cracking art which should excite the most reluctant reader. Sticking with the classics mention should also be made of Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy’s interpretation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which raised the profile of Robert Louis Stevenson (one of my favourite authors since childhood) and comics in Scotland with plenty of mainstream media coverage (not to mention being a major part of the National Library of Scotland’s comic art exhibition in the spring of 2008; how satisfying to see comics taken so seriously by the NLS).
The Galago anthology of Swedish underground comics, From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, also opened up my eyes to some new (to me and I imagine to many English language readers) artists, Jeff Lemire’s third Essex County volume drew me right back into that series (all three of which are highly recommended), Veronique Tanaka’s ‘silent’ and unusual work Metronome was a fascinating exercise in fairly minimal storytelling with repeating similar frames which created almost a feel of animation. Andy Winters’ Septic Isle was a nice twist on the war on terror (with right wing nutters as the protagonists rather than religious zealots) and I really must give a mention for Alex Irvine’s serious effort with the Vertigo Encyclopedia as a great reference work on DC’s mature readers imprint.
Overall its been a year with some bloody good books and comics to enjoy on all sorts of subjects, from new talent and established favourites, fascinating new works and some quality reprint editions of classic material (such as the fine hardback of Bryan Talbot’s Tale of One Bad Rat). And I haven’t even touched on the seemingly always expanding range of online comics which are increasingly becoming something we all need to keep an eye on for new works and new talent – the Dean Haspiel-edited Next Door Neighbor series on Smithmag has been a real treasure trove of short works by numerous creators and Kevin Colden’s intriguing Fishtown drew me in then made the jump to print (as is one of my faves from 2007, La Muse). I’m quite sure I’m forgetting to mention some of the creators whose work I’ve enjoyed this year, but I’ve already rambled on far longer than I originally meant to. Mind you, over-long ramblings aside I think that itself can be seen a positive statement on the SF&F and comics scenes – there were simply more good books and comics than I could realistically cover here even I wrote umpteen more paragraphs and I’m sure there will be some outstanding works coming our way in 2009.