So at the end of the year I briefly review the books I read. I’ll start with fiction this year…and non-fiction will follow sometime in the next 4 months if history provides any precedent.
I decided to bring some order to this year’s list by ‘counting down’ from books I did not like to those I loved in 8 categories. But the down side of this approach is that I start out cantankerous and critical and if you don’t make it past the first few, it seems like I didn’t like anything. Not true. I liked most of them. So skim the first couple if you want to miss me yelling ‘get of my lawn’ from my rocking chair at the YA industrial complex.
After a disappointing finish to my survey of YA dystopias (that started last year) I turned to neo-classic Science Fiction (with a substantial additional dose of Martin and Gaiman). I used this list:
(and a couple others) to select ‘classic but not old’ science fiction (i.e. Science fiction with contemporary science and modern writing). So, without further preliminaries:
Pthhh – Not Good
Matched/Crossed - Ally Condi (A)
"In the end you can't always choose to keep, you can only choose how you let it go."
It is hard for me to take the "love stories" in YA literature seriously. Not because young love can never be real, but because the descriptions of it in art are generally as thin and naive as most high school crushes. And dystopic window dressing aside, this is primarily a high school love triangle where the protagonist makes the wrong choice based on very ‘YA’ ideas about what ‘love’ is.
The first book wasn’t terrible and the little dystopic romance set up was even a little clever and a little engaging. But once cracks formed in the utopian world and things started to take a dark turn, everything got vested in bad romantic choices. Then, book 2 was the most useless ‘trilogy bridge book’ I’ve ever read. So when I found that the third book wasn’t available on CD at our library - I did not feel even a little bit of sadness or regret or for a moment entertain the idea of buying it.
Also building your plot around classic literature and constantly repeating the lines of a famous poem does not make you The Book Thief if the rest of your plot is about the raging hormones of a couple teenagers who are simultaneously more knowledgeable and less wise than most teenagers I know.
If I Stay – Gayle Forman (A)
Macabre, emotionally heavy handed, philosophically inconsistent, uneven, unwise, and often dull. If it was longer I would not have finished it.
This was probably the worst book I read this year…or in a couple years.
Not Terrible – But Not Good
The Leftovers – Tom Perotta (A)
“At her sister's urging Norah and her kids once attended a Service at ZBC. Her husband refused to waste a Sunday morning. And she'd been a little put off by the evangelical fervor. It was a style of preaching she'd never encountered close up having spent her childhood as a half hearted Catholic and her adulthood as an equally passionless non-believer.”
OK, the set up drew me in.
What if a secular artists with a penchant for small town relational fiction/satire, wrote a ‘Left Behind’ type story about a post-rapture world?
His imagination of the fallout of a massive disappearance was interesting. But in the end, the disappearance was too arbitrary and illogical to give the narrative any directionality (e.g. there is an extended analysis of Sponge Bob). Maybe that is exactly the satirical deconstruction of dispensational eschatology the author was going for (and not a totally unfair deconstruction). Maybe it was a thought experiment about losing hope in the future. But it was a better concept than novel.
Entertaining But Forgettable
Maze Runner – James Dashner (A)
"Sometimes you don't look very hard for things you don't think can or will happen."
The authors I have been reading really esteem Dashner. He’s shown up as a guest on ‘Writing Excuses’ and people refer to him as the big current success story. I found the Maze Runner very readable, but it was more of an intro to a series than a novel. It did not tell enough of its own story.
This book is consistently referenced as a perfect example of “get in late and out early” (e.g. don’t ruin a good adventure with a lot of back story.) But it probably got in too late and out too early. The only thing I knew about the characters by the end of the book was that there was a LOT I didn’t know about them. I didn’t trust them and didn’t really care about them enough to pick up the sequel…which seems like a failure on its own terms.
The Passage - Justin Cronin (A)
“A baby was a fact. It was a being with a mind and a nature, and you could feel about it any way you liked, but a baby wouldn't care. Just by existing, it demanded that you believe in a future: the future it would crawl in, walk in, live in. A baby was a piece of time; it was a promise you made that the world made back to you.”
I like post-civilization zombie survival narratives. I just did not find much in this one to distinguish it. It was professionally written and moved well, and I cared about the characters, but it did not stay with me in any way.
Anasi Boys – Neil Gaiman (A)
I read a lot of Gaiman this year (see Graveyard Book and Fragile Things below). This wasn’t bad, and my feelings about art about brothers is well documented (I tend to like it). But this book was the most forgettable of the Gaiman bunch.
Entertaining and Not as Forgettable
Incarceron/Safique – Catherine Fisher (A)
They did not give me a way to see outside myself...can you imagine how it must be to live forever trapped in your own mind
Fisher gets points for not writing a trilogy when she only had two books of material. And I liked her world and characters. The twist about the location of the prison was great, the father daughter dynamic was wonderful, and the future/period courtliness gave it a unique ‘look.’ There were a couple great lines and I even used the story ark as a major illustration for a talk on the Incarnation (which even sounds like Incarceron) which totally worked (but at least in part because I used fan art that imagined the protagonist as played by Taylor Lautnor, but also because the story is very ‘Incarational’).
Divergent – Veronica Roth (A)
“I am selfish. I am brave.”
“Politeness is deception wrapped up in pretty packaging.”
“Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it's so important that we don't rely on it.”
“I'm going to shoot a muffin off Marlene's head.”
I refuse to start a trilogy until it is finished. And so with the publication of the third book of this series, I picked up the first one.
Roth writes beyond her years, and has more mature and helpful themes and internal world in her ‘girl in a dystopia’ than the grownups writing in the genre are offering. We are excited about the movie and I’ll probably read the sequels this year.
Maybe Great but Seriously Flawed
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell – Susanna Clarke (A)
“He had a very young man's belief in the absolute justice of his own cause and the absolute wrongness of everyone else’s.”
I couldn’t decide if Stange and Norell was tedious or brilliant. I lean more towards the latter than the former, but I wasn’t totally sure. I could have found an argument to put it in any of my categories. The world is rich and the characters fully realized and interesting…but then again, for the number of pages devoted to those tasks, they better be.
The writing was great and the magical world was interesting, though the rules were a little difficult to piece together. The best part was the alternate history. What would the Napoleonic wars have been like if England suddenly (re)discovered magic? But it moved very slowly. I think it might have been brilliant at half the length.
But maybe I just cut Clarke a bunch of slack because of her love of footnotes.
The Sword of Shanara – Terry Brooks (A)
I also have no idea how to categorize this.
It was a re-read of one of my favorite books from High School (even though I had almost no memory of its content). Brooks is often credited with the rediscovery of the fantasy genre. And while the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs bugged me (now that ‘how to write books’ have told me that they are supposed to) the book was engaging and entertaining as an adult. It pales in comparison to modern fantasy, but it isn’t modern fantasy and shouldn’t be judged by contemporary standards.
But it is painfully derivative. The plotlines and characters and themes lifted directly from Lord of the Rings were impossible to overlook. And after I finished, a little poking around the internet suggested that this has been a major critique of TSOS since it came out.
Still, I loved the reveal of the magic of the sword. I loved what the sword did to hero and villain alike.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz (A)
“Rushdie says that dictators and scribblers are natural enemies. But I think that’s lets writers off too easy. Dictators just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like after all recognizes like.”
“We all know how tolerant the tolerant are.”
Great writing. Interesting story. Wonderful description of the internal world of a teenage nerd. Incredible insider observations of Dominican culture and history.
Unnecessarily unsatisfying ending.
I don’t know enough to understand if this is a deconstruction or a description of Dominican masculinity and sexuality. It works as the former but I’m not sure it does as the latter. (Footnote has big spoilers but also most of the analysis). And any satisfaction the ending appears to offer us is undone, not by the natural consequences of the story, but by a kind of reverse “Deus ex machina,"  which seems capricious and unfair. I can handle an unsatisfying ending if it was the inevitable direction of the narrative, but this one seemed unsatisfying for no particular reason except author whim.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay– Michael Chabon (A)
“Freedom was a debt that could only be repaid by purchasing the freedom of others.”
“(She seemed to) live among men whose solutions were invariably more complicated than the problems they endeavored to solve.”
I had this in the previous section but moved it up on principle. Including a Pulitzer in ‘Entertaining but Forgettable’ probably says more about me than it. But while the text was engaging and enjoyable I just couldn’t vest in the hasty forgiveness and reunion in the end. It seemed like the last 40 pages were written to a deadline and did not match the rest of the book’s pace, tone, or artistry. I did like the novel, though. To say ‘Chabon selects and orders words well’ is kind of like saying ‘Drew Brees can throw a football.’ But my for some reason, my early interactions with his works have still been underwhelming. I’m not giving up, though, and have a couple picked out for 2014.
Fragile Things – Neil Gaiman (A)
"I was not so old that I would deny my own senses."
I love short stories. In the same way that I think that most non-fiction books should be 1200 word pamphlets, I think most novels could be novellas or short stories. And I think short story, novella, and very short story are Gaiman’s better genre. Several of these stories are amazing. “A Study in Emerald,” “The Map Maker,” and others are wonderful. In fact, with a couple exceptions, the stories get better as the volume proceeds. And in most cases, I listened to the story, went online and read a bunch of analysis, and then listened to it again.
But, The Problem of Susan…
I knew that I was going to disagree with ‘The Problem of Susan’ but I thought that it would be clever and subversive and interesting and even fun…but at least it would be worthy of the volume and the author. And the first 80% of the story was all those things. A deconstruction of Lewis worthy of Gaiman. And then it turned. And by the time the Lion was performing felatio on the Witch, I turned on the entire volume.  Gaiman argued that he had always found the bit about Susan in ‘The Last Battle’ ‘irritating’ and wanted to write a story equally ‘irritating.’ Maybe he meant to ruin a wonderful, thoughtful, subversive, nuanced story with a ghastly, horrific ending. Maybe that is a not-so-subtly parody of the end of Narnia. But I was irritated, and pissed. So a book that should have been in the final category instead, gets the ‘should have been great, but deeply flawed’ designation.
Pattern Recognition – William Gibson (A)
“Advertising is the inverse of espionage.” 
“If they had asked she would have told them she was weeping for her century, whether the one past or the one present she didn't know.”
"Paranoia, he said, was fundamentally egocentric, and every conspiracy theory served in some way to aggrandize the believer."
I’ve never read Neuromancer and will remedy that someday. But Gibson is one of the premier science fiction authors (credited with inventing the term cyberspace and siring the cyber punk fiction genre – plus he has a great name) so I got the only audio book the library had by him. It was very good. He’s an excellent writer and the adventure romp was very readable without ever feeling artless. Plus, his insight on our time and travel is wise and penetrating and often fun. He gets the artfulness and artlessness of our era, and packages it in prose.
For example, he posits that ‘jet lag’ is due to the fact that our soul cannot travel as fast as planes, and takes a while to rejoin us in full effect when we hop around the globe, which is surely a profound metaphor of some sort.
But sometimes he stops writing cyper-punk page turning adventure and takes a break from cutting social commentary and just writes. There is a scene near the end of the book that I don’t remember as prose as much as a perfectly shot black and white film sequence. If I have to think twice about whether I read the book or saw the film…when there isn’t actually a film option, and author done something special.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – Cory Doctorow
“Junkies don't miss sobriety, because they don't remember how sharp everything was, how the pain made the joy sweeter. We can't remember what it was like to work to earn our keep; to worry that there might not be enough, that we might get sick or get hit by a bus. We don't remember what it was like to take chances, and we sure as shit don't remember what it felt like to have them pay off."
This is the kind of book where the premise is better than the execution, but at 120 pages, a great premise and an acceptable execution is totally sufficient (Seriously, I’m, not hard. But if you make me read 500 pages…or a trilogy, the requirements for artfulness and/or entertainment increase). In the future, Disney is taken over and run by rival ‘gangs’ that coexist uneasily and occasionally try to expand into each other’s territory. Oh, and people can be uploaded into new bodies when they die so everyone is really old but young…but no one is particularly mature.
Glasshouse – Charles Stross (A)
"a vestigial agricultural installation maintained for aesthetic or traditional reasons" – description of a 20th century suburban garden
I like a heavy dose of science in my science fiction. And Stross fits the bill.
His writing is great and the concept was interesting, even if his themes were a bit heavy handed.
Future ‘war criminals’ who have had that part of their memories expunged are recruited as part of a sociological experiment to populate a simulation of our time (which was historically important but actually lost to history, so they are trying to re-create and understand it experimentally). This sets up a very natural opportunity for ‘fish out of water’ social commentary.
There were a lot of similarities between this and “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” but while the premise of DAOITMK was more fun, the premise of Glasshouse was pretty great and the execution was mostly excellent.
Game of Thrones/Crown of Kings - George RR Martin (A)
“There is no creature on earth quite so terrifying than a truly just man.”
"It is one thing to be clever and another thing to be wise. I wonder what the years have done to him."
“How can a man be brave when he is afraid? A man only can be brave when he is afraid.”
“War was easier than daughters.”
I’ve written a lot about my affection for GRR in the posts about my own experiments with writing and wrote another post on these books (and have others in the works). So, ‘let me sum up.’ Mostly I love GRR’s world building (‘he world build’s like a grown up’), but his willingness to buy real dramatic tension at the cost of beloved characters is something you have to respect.
World War Z – Max Brooks (A)
"Freedom isn't just something you have for the sake of having. You have to want something else first and then want the freedom to fight for it."
I am kind of a sucker for ‘found literature’ genre fiction and for zombie narrative. And this is the best of both. It cobbles together an oral history of a fictional event with a series of short stories that stand alone and work together. It is wonderful precisely because it would not make a good Brad Pitt movie, it tells a human story in a decentralized medium, exploring our shared qualities in diverse responses.
Silence – Shusako Endo (A)
"Why is human life so full of grotesque irony?"
“Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”
Fantastic. Difficult and brutal and beautiful. A Japanese author takes on the era of Christian persecution and poses a supra-Moltmanian answer to the problem of suffering and, more particularly, the silence of God.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (A)
“People want to forget the impossible. It makes the world safer.”
“If you couldn’t trust a poet for sensible advice, who could you trust?”
This was my first exposure to Gaiman. It was wonderful. Just a delightful light (if with a little bit of characteristic Gaiman darkness) story built on a fun concept: What if a graveyard full of ghosts (with a little corporeal help from a vampire and a wearwolf) attempted to raise a child. Kind of like a mystical jungle book. His children’s literature tempers his darkness with lightness and wonder in a really fine way.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon – Anthony Marra (A)
“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”
I read these last two books after I read several books (and listened to a lot of audio content) on ‘how to write fiction’ near the end of the year (see non-fiction list to follow). They both demonstrated precisely what those books were describing making it look simultaneously effortless and entirely unattainable. 
As with Junto Diaz’ work and Dominican history, part of the allure of Constellation is that I was almost entirely ignorant of the Chechnyan conflicts, and Marra writes as if he had been there.
“It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.”
Saunders was pitched to me as “a PhD in geophysical engineering turned author.” Is that something I might be interested in? Yes. Yes please.
10th turns out to be a diverse short story collection that does interesting and sometimes disorienting things with point of view, includes a couple perfectly constructed narratives, majors on themes of privilege, explores a range of human states with surprising ease, and is about half populated with what I would characterize ‘literary science fiction’ where incremental technological innovation enables the plot but serves the prose.
This post was written while listening to the Sons and Daughters Pandora channel.
 Also, yes I realize that I am currently 2/3rds of the way through my physical/theological anthropology series (though I might be the only one that realizes it). The third installment is done but not done enough. And I wanted to get the year end list closer to, you know, the actual year end. So the speculations about a cold blooded incarnation will run a little farther from the celebration of the incarnation than I expected.
 Since one of my reading objectives is to read good, contemporary literature so that I can develop an artistic intuition for my own writing, which is mostly genre Science Fiction that aspires to be literary Science Fiction.
 Picture me making a raspberry sound.
 (A) indicates I listened to this as an audio book, which is the primary way I experience fiction.
 The whole book is based idea that the best match would be substantially better than the second best and would correlate with attraction. The whole romantic premise that this book is based on, actually, overlooks most of the recent (and not so recent) psychological findings on happiness, self determination, self understanding, and regret. Young adult literature, (like adult literature, but more so,) should craft a fake world that makes reality more real, not that makes reality seem the way we want it to be.
 Of all the things about this book that are objectionable the parenting was the worst. The parents were Portland musicians who were about a decade or two past their prime, but never seemed to change their approach to life. They parented by coolness, ordering their family with playful banter. And this worked, because this is fiction…bad fiction…bad young adult fiction (which has a lower bar for ‘plausibility structures’ it needs to pass through and, therefore, requires less realism).
 Contrast this to Divergent that hit the ground running (off a train) but built characters I cared about by the end.
 Totally unrelated to the book, something like this quote is at the heart of my theology of children. Saying stuff like “the world is too broken to bring children into it” (which my wife and I said for almost a decade) sounds kind of loving and wise but is either total bull shit* or total chicken shit. It is a capitulation. Having children is both an actual and dramatic act of hope and a pact with the evil in the world that we will not roll over that easy. It is a big F-you to the evil in this world. It refuses to allow evil to define the terms of the game. It is the ultimate act of faith, that behind the horror, there is something or someone fundamentally good in the fabric of the universe and that reality is worth experiencing despite its many capricious and violent features. Forget the ‘sinner’s prayer’, the biggest expression of my faith in God is those three little people.
*What it actually means, usually, is that the world is too scary to make myself that vulnerable to its power. I’m too scared of what the world can do to care that deeply about someone in it. Or I like free time.
 I refuse to use the term ‘post apocalyptic’ because there is nothing ‘apocalyptic’ (politically subversive symbolic prose that reveal cosmic reality behind human hegemony) about almost any zombie narrative. We use the words dystopic and apocalyptic interchangeably, but they are not the same words.
 It certainly helps my affection for her writing that we share a world view and I generally agree with her analyses and sensibilities. But I think it mostly just helps that she actually writes from a formed world view. An artist has to have something to say.
 “As early as the twelfth century it was recognized that priests and magicians are in some sense rivals…In many ways the two cosmologies are remarkably similar, but priests and magicians draw very different conclusions from this understanding. Magicians are chiefly interested in the usefulness of these supernatural beings; they wish to know under what circumstances and by what means angels, demons and fairies can be brought to lend their aid in magical practices. For their purposes it is almost irrelevant that the first class of beings is divinely goo d, the second infernally wicked and the third morally suspect. Priests on the other hand are scarcely interested in any thing else.”
 Understanding the rules of a magical world is pretty important to maintain tension, otherwise the reader will just expect a magical resolution.
 I have a post mostly written about this.
 Spoiler alert ******So let me get this straight, Oscar gets unnecessarily murdered, and the package that was supposed to make his death redemptive is lost in the mail, but we are supposed to be ok with this (or at least, less sad) because the fat kid finally got laid? Did I misunderstand? A really beautiful, well observed work, until the puzzling ending.”**********
 What is the opposite of a “Deus ex machina?" Whatever it is, it seems similarly out of bounds.
 Spoiler Alert: **********A father going AWOL for 5 years is not ok. It is very hard to see him as a sympathetic character after that.**********
 I tried to get into Telegraph Avenue three time and just couldn’t get far enough to count it on this list.
 My own novel wants to be about 45,000 words.
 I’m not sure if this makes the stories obtuse or brilliant, but I’ll go with the latter.
 I don’t know how to spell this word, but WORD doesn’t give me good options and I refuse to type it into google.
 It didn’t help that the story that followed the ‘Problem of Susan’ celebrated an affair with a particular lack of remorse and was equally ‘irritating.’
 Admittedly, “The Last Battle” was the weakest of the Narnia volumes and Lewis did not have a lot of warm relationships with women in his life until his brief marriage just before their deaths (you cannot do a fair feminist evisceration of Lewis until you understand the exploitive nature of the relationship that dominated his youth and young adulthood)…but I have always thought far too little attempt has been made to understand ‘the problem of Susan’ (a term coined by this short story) on Narnian terms.
 “We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. ... We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios.”
 “I think that I was too self-centered to ever develop good skills as a peacemaker. In my younger days, I assumed that it was because I was smarter than everyone else, with no patience for explaining things in short words for mouth-breathers who just didn't get it.”
 Everyone who had serious philosophical conundra on that subject just, you know, died, a generation before. The Bitchun Society didn't need to convert its detractors, just outlive them.
 My affection for this quote will surprise no one who knows me and my feelings about lawn care and gardening.
 Drop the word ‘senescent’ to describe ‘being old’ and you’ve pretty much got me.
 And his religious themes are downright clumsy.
 Turns out the authors are friends.
 Probably because of my belief that Kierkegaard (particularly Either/Or) invented the genre. I have a ‘series of short stories’ (that currently is one short story and two introductions by fictional editors) that is of this ‘found literature’ type and borrows the initials from SK’s editors in Either/Or (which goes three pseudonyms deep in an experiment in irony that is complicated even for a guy who did his dissertation on irony and people debate what he believed because most or all of his works were ‘ironic’).
 The similarities to The Power and the Glory are substantial and probably genetic, Endo studied in Europe about the time Greene was going through his ‘Catholic Phase’ and was influenced by his work.
 One of the most brutal (and successful) attempts to eradicate the Christian faith in its history.
 He goes beyond ‘solidarity of suffering’ to ‘service of suffering.’
 The world also kind of came alive to me because of my familiarity with Xavier’s writings and much of the novel takes the form of Jesuit letters in this tradition and from this era.
 “So, its only death, many of my best friends are dead.”
 One of the reasons the graveyard book is fun is that it compresses history forming a community out of the inhabitants of different eras. I read this book while I was studying Revelation this summer and was struck by the fact that this is also part of the wonder of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. It is a city of extreme cultural, ethnic, and temporal diversity which is way cooler than its architecture (which is also post-modern before post-modern architecture was a thing, a culmination of the best from multiple eras). Imagine the grace an self forgetfulness and self skepticism to build a community not just across all ethnic and class divisions but also across all temporal divisions.
 More disturbing was that several of Mara’s sentences were better versions of some of my better sentences. I’m not sure what that means. Are Mara and I building with the same cultural raw materials and generational sensibility, he’s just doing it better. Should I be discouraged or encouraged that if I had read this book before drafting mine that several of my better sentences would be plagiarized if they had not been inferior? Or is it just an availability bias?
 Note: in both cases I am assuming that they describe an actual history and not an alternate history as in, say, Strange and Norell, but that illustrates the depth of my ignorance of both conflicts.
 And he’s like 28. How does an American in his 20’s imagine like this let alone write? Literature is the only art form where youth surprises me, which I think means it is harder. If you can age out of an art form in your 20’s (cough-popular music-cough) it can’t be very hard.
 I remember thinking, the reader is unlike any audio book reader I have ever heard. Understated and apt. It was Saunders. Another data point for my theory that if an author can read his/her own book, it is always a better product.
 There is one problem with audio short story collections. This was a problem with Fragile Things but especially with 10th of December. There is no break between the devastating end of one story and the relentless beginning of a new one.
 From Syracuse.
 In one case, a detail that originally seems like a mile non-sequiter slowly grows to take over the story.
 Dealt with complexly and with the appropriate level of nuance and mystery. “The artist’s job, I think, is to be a conduit for mystery.” -Saunders
 Several of these stories have stuck with me. Of course the S.G.s and the Doxitoal. But one little story where an actor at a renaissance fair takes a drug to enable his performance and the sensibility and nobility of a different age change his actions in ways that no one expects is really wonderful.
 For some reason, I find myself suddenly able to stomach ‘worship music’ when usually even just the phrase irritates me. Not sure how or why, but I’m going to roll with it.