Four by More: 2003's Best Books -- and more

Agony Column Review Archive


Four by More: An Agonizing Choice
Lots More Than Ten Best Books from Last Year
The Agony Column for February 13, 2004
Commentary by Rick Kleffel, Katie Dean Serena Trowbridge and Terry D'Auray

Yes, it took too long. I know that, and I'll try to make moves to adjust for it. I'm still trying to strike the balance between news and columns, reviews and interviews. But what follows is not just my work. It's the result of four reviewers who each spent their time reading carefully and paying attention to every detail. I asked for "ten best" lists and got a nice range, from Katie Dean's bare-bones of classic literature to my own predictably bloated list. But I only added one title to the ten, no fifteen no twenty, no twenty-one best of last year.

We'll start this out simple, because, you know, simple is good. Simple is clear. And Katie Dean is quite clear on what she liked from last year. Here's what Katie had to say.

Katie Dean

And finally, my 10's quite a difficult thing to do. I've picked books I've read in 2003 rather than books published that year, so, in no particular order, they are...

A Faber and Faber favorite.
Dracula - Bram Stoker
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Dr Zhivago - Boris Pasternak
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
Jekyll and Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
Women in Love - D H Lawrence
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Northern Lights - Philip Pullman
My Life as a Fake - Peter Carey

Quite a range and it was impossible to rank them as they're all quite different, but they all have a few things in common - well written, compelling and left me with something to think about afterwards.

And I hope this makes it clear that -- and why -- we manage to cover a wide range of material on this site.

Serena Trowbridge had a bit more to say about her favorites of last year. And she actually does what Terry D'Auray has accused me of wanting to do. Terry says that given the chance, I'll read Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood' (and, I might add, Stanislaw Lem's 'A Perfect Vacuum') every year and use up spots on a ten-best with them. That said, Serena's choices are once again, perhaps, not what you'd expect from a website with " steel vanadium chains, ladies and Gentlemen -- he cannot escape these chains!" that bind it to the world of science fiction, fantasy and horror. And yes, I have seen 'King Kong' a few too many times.

Serena Trowbridge

Top ten books for 2003 (Not necessarily published this year! And not in any order as I just couldn’t manage that!)

"Close to a masterpiece"
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
In a year where some awful things have happened and everyone is scared to talk about them, this book stood out as unafraid, hopeful and a light in the darkness. I know it seems grisly, and that everyone is understandably afraid to let their children out of their sight, but this is close to a masterpiece.

Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris
I’ve read and loved all her books, but this was the one where the characters and story gripped me most. I couldn’t put it down. She recreates the historical France as well as contemporary places, and it’s absolutely enchanting. I love how she uses magic, but not in a deus ex machina way.

Defying Hitler/The Meaning of Hitler – Sebastian Haffner
There are things that have happened in history that we owe it to the world and our ancestors to understand. Turning a blind eye could lead to history repeating, but anyone who reads these immaculate, well researched but highly personal memoirs will understand that crimes against humanity cannot be tolerated in a civilised world.

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt
I was fascinated, appalled and scared throughout. Still not sure who did it though – answers on a postcard…it’s been driving me mad ever since.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Actually this is my favourite book of every year, but I reread it as I was asked to do a reader’s guide to it to coincide with the release of the film. It’s teenage innocence and childhood cynicism; it’s also all the things I love about Britain and bizarre British humour, and I laugh and cry all the way through even after about 20 readings.

Tolkien – Michael White
All this fuss about Lord of the Rings – read the biog and see the real man. This is a fantastically well-written biography with lots of atmospheric colour, and is probably more readable than LOTR! Anyway, he lived in my road in Birmingham…!

King Lear – William Shakespeare
Had to reread this to teach it, but everyone should read it. Forget all the gothic books and dark films, this has madness, death, treachery, war and even a touch of incest. I “did” it at A-level and am still obsessed. A Thousand Acres of Sky by Jane Smiley gives an excellent contemporary take on it.

Plays with the reader.
Thinks… - David Lodge
Do characters in a novel have their own consciousness? Do we, as readers, really know how to draw the line between fact and fiction? The fact that this is discussed in a novel makes it delightfully post-modern, but bit’s a cracking yarn as well. Highly recommended!

Feminine Gospels – Carol Ann Duffy
Even if you don’t like poetry you should read this. This is narrative poetry at its best; Duffy is a master of a tale well told, and makes good use of internal structure in poetry. I loved it – it’s like listening to really good music played by a maestro, and that’s how poetry should be.

Affinity – Sarah Waters
This is a book that plays with the reader, and I do enjoy a bit of textual interactivity. I like things that are miserable and Victorian, so this was ideal for me anyway, but I especially liked the characters realness, and the way people believe what they want to – all the best books have characters that make you identify with them, and this was definitely one of those.


Terry D'Auray couldn't quite confine herself to the usual "ten best" list, and we're all the better for it. She has a rather different take on the whole matter.

Terry D'Auray

Rather than allow indecisiveness to result in immobility at the task of judging entries for the “ten best” books I read in 2003 (or the “ten worst” for that matter), it’s far easier to simply identify the memorable books – exceptionally good, astonishingly bad, or just simply memorable – that made their way in front of my eyes during the year. And it’s also a reminder that I need to keep of a list of what I read, since my memory is becoming increasingly dangerous territory.

Certified Winners

Gritty urban violence.
I’m an unabashed, near drooling fan of books by George Pelecanos, although it wasn’t always so. The first of his books I read, ‘Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go’, was exceptionally well written, but a bit Vachss-like for my tastes – too much grunge and way, way too much booze. Can you get a hangover from the printed page? The writing tempted me to try another a few years later, and either Pelecanos mellowed (now how often do you find the adjective “mellow” in a sentence about George Pelecanos) or I toughened, or both, but now any year of good reading must include at least one of his books. This year provided double pleasure. Having read ‘Right as Rain’ previously, I greedily devoured both the second and third books in the Strange/Quinn saga, ‘Hell to Pay’ and ‘Soul Circus’. No one writing in the mystery genre today blends realistic, gritty urban violence with human compassion quite like Pelecanos. With a prose style that is lean, spare and visceral, Pelecanos writes of the cruel urban ghetto, a world of stupidity, despair, depravity and violence, yet laces in just enough poignancy and compassion to make it emotionally absorbing and compelling. His slangy, cadenced language is hypnotic, his plotting and pacing are superb, and his characters, flawed but familiar, are strong and empathetic. I read his novels with a knot in my stomach at the all too realistic and believable violence. He writes stories of conflict, of race and racism, guns and violence, drugs and money, all set in Washington DC, stories that are all the more memorable and vexing for the lack of easy resolution or solutions to the conflicts they portray.

Pelecanos’ newest book, ‘Hard Revolution’, will be released in January in a Dennis McMillan Limited Edition and in March by Little Brown. In addition to looking forward to that, I’ve also backtracked and picked up both ‘King Suckerman’ and ‘The Sweet Forever’ in pristine first editions for “the vault” of blue-chip books guaranteed to satisfy.

Pure, tough prose.
One of my favorite authors, Dennis Lehane, veered in yet another new direction in 2003 with ‘Shutter Island’. Following his five-book series featuring Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, classics of the hardboiled detective genre, Lehane changed course in 2002 with ‘Mystic River’, a superb novel of the effects of violence on the lives of both victims and perpetrators. More far-reaching and character driven than his past books, ‘Mystic River’ was a compelling social commentary on violence and its aftermath, told in pure, tough prose. With ‘Shutter Island’, Lehane ventured into the territory of Ruth Rendell, creating a compelling story of psychological suspense with what’s-real-what’s-surreal plotting. His characters, drawn deftly and revealed slowly, are tormented, complex, and finely layered. Lehane’s skill as a novelist ensures that the plot twists in ‘Shutter Island’ ring true; he metes out shocking revelations that are well grounded, yet still surprise.

I also relished the continuation of G.M. Ford’s compelling Frank Corso series, reading both ‘Black River’ and ‘Blind Eye’. Graduating from the lightweight Leo Waterman books of his earlier writing days to darker stuff, Ford’s Corso series is bleak, violent and rooted in the moral ambiguity of the times. Frank Corso remains a sad and mysterious protagonist, and his sidekick, Meg Dougherty is one of the best-written supporting characters in mystery fiction. With this well plotted, hyper real and highly witty series, Ford is proving himself to be a masterful writer of contemporary hardboiled fiction.

Hey wait, who's doing the image choice here?
Does the world really need another wisecracking smart-ass PI who loves both his guns and his ladies? Well, yes, if it’s Duncan Sloan, Bob Truluck’s wisecracking, smart-ass Florida PI who made his second appearance in this year’s ‘Saw Red’. Writing pure hard-boiled pulp, Truluck delivers rapid-paced action, scintillating similes and a rockin’ good time for readers with a yen for action-packed adventures that are all entertainment. Heavy on in-your-face attitude, light on anything brain-drainingly heavy, Sloan’s a slangy shot of caffeine for those times when only a whip-snapping jolt will satisfy.

Also high on the year’s reading list were Carol O’Connell’s ‘Crime School’, who’s original and ballsy protagonist Mallory never fails to satisfy; Bill Pronzini, who thankfully put to rest the rumors of the demise of "Nameless”, his long-standing detective series protagonist, with the wonderful ‘Spook’; and Laurie King’s stand-alone ‘Folly’, a rewarding story of self discovery and mystery. In the offbeat-romp category, nothing can hold a candle to Marius Brill’s over-the-top ‘Making Love’ for unbridled imagination, prose that is both witty and literary, and a plot that veers from wild to wilder.

Late to the Party

A bit of the gruesome.
Like most gluttonous readers, I probably spend as much time reading about books and authors as I do reading the books themselves, and I always struggle with hype. Authors that are accorded heaps and piles of praise across a broad section of media – newspapers, magazines (general and specialty), highbrow and low, reviews, journals, and the like – give me pause. What’s one to make of an author who’s praised by Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker and Elle, and then appears on “60 Minutes”? Ever wary of hyper-hyped authors or books, I tend to pass them by rather than succumb to the phenom-du-jour. It took me years to get beyond the hullabaloo about Harry Potter and actually read one, and that one was quite enough, thank you.

As a result of my sensitive hype-meter, I like to think I’ve spared myself some real horrors. On the other hand, I’ve also missed some appealing gems, one horror-writer in particular, Chuck Palahniuk. While Palahniuk is frequently described as the “reinventer” of horror, his 2003 novel ‘Diary’ was labeled “mainstream”, and if I’m going to read a horror writer, better mainstream than avant-garde. ‘Diary’ turned out to be a delight, easily one of the best books I read in 2003. The plot, while horrifically bizarre and singularly twisted, was accessible to a mystery fan who savors realism and a bit of the gruesome. And the language was simply sublime, scathingly cynical, acerbic and muscularly lean, like many of the best hyper-modern mystery writers. While still leery of the horror genre, Palahniuk’s previous books now go in the sure-to-be read vault as an antidote of originality to my normal hardboiled mystery fare.

I also finally read my first Lew Griffin novel by James Sallis, a prolific and well-regarded mystery writer who often appears in the must read lists of other well-regarded mystery writers. Beginning with the first Griffin, ‘The Long-Legged Fly’, followed shortly thereafter by ‘Bluebottle’, Sallis’ stories, seeped in New Orleans atmosphere and history, are social commentaries on race, economics and the quest for peace and human connection in an unkind, often unjust, world. Griffin is a black detective in a white world; he travels with prostitutes, gangsters and petty crooks, and he is angry, isolated, bereft, and utterly and engagingly human. Less mystery stories than character stories, Sallis writes with a poetic grace that’s rare in the genre. His prose is undeniably original, richly textured, soulful and poignant. It’s nothing but good news that he has written many Griffin novels, so I can blissfully play catch-up for some time to come.

Fabulous Firsts

The year 2003 was a winner for debut mysteries, with exceptional first novels from Mark Haddon, Giles Blunt, Adrian McKinty and David Corbett.

Mark Haddon’s ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night’ is an engagingly original novel of an autistic teen’s inner and outer demons. While setting out to discover who killed a neighbor’s dog, autistic Christopher Boone instead uncovers the causes of the break up of his family and the terrors and joys of an unfathomable world. Written from the perspective of its teenage protagonist, ‘curious incident’ is a story told straightforwardly and without emotion that manages to generate remarkable resonance and human connectivity. Smoothly blending humor, originality and compassion, “curious incident” is an exceptional debut novel.

An intriguing, icy chill.
Giles Blunt’s ‘Forty Words for Sorrow’ begins a new police procedural series with an intriguing and icy chill. Policeman John Cardinal and Lise Delorme, a fellow cop with a hidden agenda, work to identify and capture a serial killer in the barren and frigid Canadian town of Algonquin Bay. What sets ‘Forty Words’ apart from the mainstream serial killer novel is its depth of characterization and the evocative sense of place. Both the characters and the environment have chilling undertones and the plotting and pacing are controlled and suspenseful. Blunt’s next novel, 'The Delicate Storm, is high on the to-be-read stack.

Dead I Well May Be’ is Adrian McKintey’s debut novel of the unlucky Michael Forsythe, newly arrived in the US from Ireland, and caught up in a world of petty and violent crime in the US and Mexico. Mixing gangsters and drug lords with typical underworld actions and totally atypical prison segments, McKinty’s novel is a masterful story of betrayal and revenge written with a sure hand in tough, highly readable prose. It wins my kudos for a gritty and original narrative.

Unquestionably my favorite debut novel of the year is David Corbett’s ‘The Devil’s Redhead’. In a poignant love story and a tough and violent exposition of rivaling ethnic drug lords in Northern California, Corbett marries lost innocence and contemporary brutality with grace, sensitivity and some of the most memorable prose of the year. Corbett's characters mix action with self-reflection, violence with soul-searching, to bare their psyches along with their fates. This is an emotional novel, both beautiful and depressing - a haunting, unforgettable reading experience. His second novel, ‘Done for a Dime’, even more acclaimed, beckons.

Certified Losers

As I become more selective and well informed about what I choose to read, big misses become increasingly rare. But this year, there were a couple of true standouts. The first, Chris Simms’ ‘Between the White Lines’, was billed as doing for driving what ‘Psycho’ did for showers. Well, not by a long shot! With plotting that stretched the credibility of one who’s credibility was willing to be stretched, and prose that was heavy-handed and hollow, ‘Between the White Lines’ utterly failed to deliver on its promised scariness and turned into a true laugher. It’s out of here – no room on the bookshelves for this.

Equally unsatisfying was Ben Rehder’s debut novel ‘Buck Fever’. Ostensibly a Texas caper novel featuring game warden John Marlin and a cast of characters who stand out only for the quantities of beer they can guzzle, ‘Buck Fever’ is a Charles-Willeford-gone-wrong story of Texas-sized hicks wrecking Texas-sized havoc. In prose that is simplistic and clunky, the story lurched along without charm, without humor and utterly without appeal. Rehder, of course, has written a sequel, which won’t be finding its way to my house.

And finally, a book so not-to-my taste that I couldn’t finish it, ‘Latex Monkey with Banana’ by Jonathan Worlde. Intrigued by the title, which is undeniably wonderful, I found myself in the world of a Puerto Rican musician on the trail of a serial killer who marks each death with a latex monkey figurine sporting a three-inch penis in one hand and a three-inch banana in the other. Oh please! This description is sure to whet the appetite of any number of readers, who will now set out to track down this little gem on their own. First caller can have my copy. (Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner -- er -- sort of -- I think! -- Rick Kleffel)

Newfound Guilty Pleasures

Dennis McMillan goes where no others dare!
I confess that I’ve become a fan of the commercially successful body-count maestro John Connolly. Way over the top in violence, but with original and intriguing forays into the occult, Connolly manages to tuck enough wit, humor, character and substance into otherwise relentlessly brutal serial killer novels to provide a satisfying read. Connolly writes far better than most best-selling suspense authors, and creates complex, layered stories that make pure page turning palatable. A true guilty pleasure.

And finally, a book that only I seemed to like – Jim Nisbet’s ‘The Price of a Ticket’, a messy, way too wordy and almost literally unreadable book that is also hysterically funny, utterly bizarre, totally absurd and, these many months later, still memorable. I’m glad I stuck with it ‘till the end, because it seems to have found a way to stick with me.


And finally my list.

Rick Kleffel

Like many reviewers, I keep careful track of the books I read and review, in part because somewhere along the line, I know I'll want to make an annual list of my favorites. I found myself not just thinking which books I liked the best, but rather, how my feelings towards the books I had read last year -- and in previous years -- had changed. Since I pick nearly all the books I read for myself, I read books that I like. Finishing any book, I tend to have enjoyed it at one level or another. But those positive feelings change as time goes by. It's not that I feel less positive about any given book. It's more that I feel less about a given book.

A reading vacation.
For me, the act of reading is primarily an act of memory. In reading, I'm excavating the memory of another while manufacturing my own memory, the memory of the reading experience. In a sense, books are very much like the memory vacations that you can purchase in Philip K. Dick's story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale'. The download speed is just a lot slower, and that's part of the pleasure -- the reading experience. That's why reading on vacations and reading vacations, which are not necessarily the same thing, are so important. In general, I find that if I'm enjoying other aspects of my life, I enjoy the books I'm reading more. A book that you read on a wonderful vacation can't help but recall the memories of that wonderful vacation. But that doesn't necessarily translate to a more memorably enjoyable book. A lot of factors go into what's good.

It's impossible to ignore what other people thought of a book. This can have both positive and negative consequences for your long-term enjoyment of the work. If you read a book and have a muted reaction to it, then find that it's being lionized left and right, it's tough not to go back and revise your impression. The reverse can also be true; if you love a book that's generally despised, it might lose its lustre. And of course, both of these effects can be reversed if you're of a contrary nature. I'm of a contrary nature. It also depends on who is doing the talking. Some readers might be more influenced by what their friends thought, while others might be more influenced by what the critics thought. The critics have their biggest effect in getting you to read a book. But even afterwards, a good critic might make you think twice about your own opinion. You may not revise or even adjust it, but you'll certainly engage in a mental debate with the critic. In general, what others think about a book doesn't have that much sway over what we think of a book, but it does factor in over the fullness of time.

In 2003, I read 84 books. Once again, I've posted my annual reading list in spreadsheet form so that you can enjoy it in all its gory detail. Since I've reviewed every single book I've read, there should be no surprises. Alas, and I've lamented over this often in columns over the years, I'm a slow reader. Part of this is because I have a lot of irons in the fire; my time is limited. Part of this is because I have an unconscionable interest in watching television, about which I refuse say more. And part of this is because I often deliberately diffuse the reading experience, so that I can soak up the ambience of what I'm reading. In the first pass of the ten best books, I only managed to winnow down the field to 21 -- no make that 22 with a last minute pull-in. That will have to do.

These books all came out in 2003, but I won't get to read them till this year.

In addition, there are a number of books I didn't read last year for one reason or another -- usually involving scheduling around interviews or reviews. Those books are nearly as important as the ones I did read. This would include Alastair Reynolds 'Absolution Gap', Mary Gentle's '1610', Neal Stephenson's 'Quicksilver', George P. Pelecanos' 'Soul Circus', Walter Jon Williams' 'The Praxis', Dan Simmons' 'Ilium', and Jasper Fforde's 'The Well of Lost Plots'. These just came off the top of myhead; there are an equal number that will occur to me as the days pass.

The list should probably be topped off with Graham Joyce's 'The Facts of Life', a 2002 novel that, like those above, wasn't read read until 2003, offset by a year. This novel is everything a great novel should be. It's bursting with life, with joy and strangeness and sorrow and death. The characters that comprise the complex and yet crystal clear matriarchy at the center of the novel come crisply to life in Joyce's sparse prose. For all the time that's covered, for all the emotional distance that Joyce takes you, this is a remarkly slim, yet fulfilling novel. In a sense it's OK to put it in this year's list; the prescient and always tasteful Gollanz brought it out late in 2002, but it saw an American debut in 2003. Joyce is a thrillingly original novelist with a human vision like no other.

A gripping and memorable memoir.
Looking at the whole list, I find that all of the books evoke strong memories. But they aren’t always memories of the book itself. What makes a book memorable, or enjoyable, or -- the best -- involves much more than the simple content of the book. A book might interact with what's going on about you, or provide a perfectly pleasant contrast to what's going on about you. It might have a memorable plot that glues your eyes to the pages and kicks your ass. It might have characters you simply love reading about, characters you want as old friends, characters you want to have a conversation -- or a shouting match -- with. You may encounter unforgettable prose, either in small, discrete memorable sound-bytes or in a lava-flow of poetic prose. A book that makes you laugh, a lot, is a book you're likely to remember. A book you loan to your friends, and they to theirs, is a book you're going to want back and not likely to get back. Sometimes a book is simply a gateway to an author's catalogue; in itself excellent yes, but as an introduction to an author, invaluable. Sometimes books will simply tell you things you never knew you needed to know, until the words went into your eyeballs. Some books simply take one small bit of each of these positive qualities and combine them in the perfect proportion.

At first I was working on a long list elucidating the wonderful properties of each book in my list. Then, I got bored doing that, which suggested you might get bored reading it. So instead, I went and ruthlessly ordered my book in a totally unfair and often inaccurate list from one to twenty-one. Make that twenty-two. I think, unless I added yet another.

I have to say that it was a great year for first books. James Frey, Cory Doctorow, Mary Roach, Kirsten J. Bishop -- each of them turned in an outstanding work the first time out of the gate. Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' was wise and funny, bubbling with ideas. When I read it, it felt a bit on the light side, even though it was clearly smart as hell. In retrospect, it seems not in the least bit light. Time has brought out the complexity in my mind. I can go back and visit Doctorow's complicated world and enjoy all the subtle nuances he brought to a work of science fiction that was on the surface -- and what a surface -- just a hell of a lot of fun. James Frey's 'A Million Little Pieces', a non-fiction rehab memoir seemed rather off-putting at first; thick, tiny type and oddly punctuated. I have to admit that the cover image made me snatch it off the table for the Fine Print crew more than the subject did. But once I cracked the code, it turned into a gripping noirish thriller about the rebel of the rehab unit. This one, over time, acquired a depth and subtlety that wasn't apparent when I was reading it the first time around. And the characters have taken on a life of their own; well, I guess they already had one, but now I'm waiting anxiously to find out what will happen next, and the author has promised we will find out.

Mary Roach and KJ Bishop were two first-time writers I heard a lot about before I actually managed to get to read the books. But when I saw Roach on Book Events, I knew I had to interview her, especially since she was relatively local. I was prepared for an entertaining book, but not for a book as consummately well-written as 'Stiff'. She manages an incredible balancing act that doesn't feel at all like a balancing act. 'Stiff' is also one of the best books to read aloud to your friends you could hope to find, and a book to loan to them as well. Nobody expects to enjoy this book as much as they inevitably do. It's great fun to get back to those you loaned this book to and find out how much they enjoyed it, how finely written it really is. And the interview was a blast for everyone at the station.

I'd been hearing about KJ Bishop's fantasy 'The Etched City' for months before I managed to get a copy. Still, all I'd heard was that it was a fantasy and quite good. I'd read a lot of fantasy last year, including the behemoths of the fantasy world, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind, both for the first time. Now, make no mistake about it. Jordan and Goodkind are skilled writers, and their books are well-crafted megalithic slabs o' fantasy. If you're a fan of either author, you were probably quite satisfied with their novels. But the images of those novels have faded together, as one might expect since both novelists are working in the nexus of well-known influences.

Bishop writes what is clearly, recognizably fantasy, yet she invests it with an original vision that's both striking and poignant. Striking we pretty much expect in a fantasy, poignant is a lot rarer. Her characters and her world are finely written in a way that sticks with the reader and grows. I can still feel the spaces between the words, between the cities in Bishop's world. And her battle scenes, smaller in scale, shorter in length, stand out more than the epics we've seen onscreen and on the page. There's a distinctly personal feel to Bishop's work that hangs on long after the book is closed.

Rattling with ideas.
Charlie Stross' 'Singularity Sky' rode a wave of unhelpful hype, part of which I fed. Charlie was the "it guy" of Worldcon, with an appearance on every panel, even those that took place at the same time -- making use of the temporal anomalies peculiar to the singularity, no doubt -- and a Hugo nomination as well. I enjoyed the hell out of his novel as I read it, but expected it to congeal in my mind, not unpack over time. Like Cory Doctorow's work, Stross showed the virtues of science fiction as a literature of ideas, as a littered path of ideas, tossed off like flowers from a Rose Parade float. And, again like Doctorow, he knows the virtues of humor. The whole novel is filled with the sort of big-brained good humor that brings the concepts closer and keeps the details entertaining. And looking back on it, you know, the main thing is that this novel simply put, boggled my mind in the best possible way. I could go right back, read it again and get an entirely new set of ideas out of it.

Veniss Prime.
There was a whole group of books last year, that while they weren't, technically first books, felt like first books. Jeff VanderMeer's 'Veniss Underground', was in fact, his first novel. It followed 'Cities of Saints and Madmen' which, while not a novel, felt as whole and complete as one. So I don't know exactly where to come down on 'Veniss Underground' as a first novel, but I certainly know where it falls in my memory. And that would be in the dank, scungy underpinnings, in the grottiest recesses of where the strands of biological reality -- the undeniable fleshiness of us, of our lives -- crawls upwards towards the light, then shies away, turns back toward the oozing blood and ichor. I can still visit the places the VanderMeer created in my mind in the company of his characters. It's all icky. We're all icky. It's the kind of truth that really sticks with you.

Now Mark Haddon's 'the curious incident of the dog in the night time' isn't his first novel, either. But it's his first adult novel, so like Vandermeer's work that puts it in a sort of netherworld of first-not-first. But this I know for sure. Haddon's novel was hands-down, without doubt, the most loanable, the most recommendable, the most deserving of number-one bestsellerdom of last year. They could drop it from helicopters with a bill attached and I bet nine out of ten people would read the book and pay the bill, happily. And they'd probably try force it on the one in ten who didn't want to read it. Haddon work is the kind of thing you can't do in movies, though some enterprising soul may just go right out and make a bang-up movie of it. But it works as a book in the ways only books can work. It gets right to you and sears your soul with the joy and pain of the narrator's quest. Look, ignore everything else I've ever said, but read this book, and I think you'll agree that it's something special.

Inventive writers and evocative prose from 2003's top novels.

John Burdett's novel 'Bangkok 8' was not his first novel. But it was the first I encountered at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and it knocked me right out, it did. Like Haddon's novel, this book turns largely on the point of view of the first person narrator. In this case, it is not a disease that defines the perspective, but a religion. It reads in many ways, like a science fiction novel, offering a point-of-view that allows clueless Western civilization to see itself entirely from the outside. Even now, I can return to that perspective, look at myself from Sonchai's eyes.

David Corbett's mystery novel 'Done for a Dime' isn't a first novel either; it's a second novel that reads like the complex achievement of a long and award-studded career. In retrospect, it feels like the mature work of a classic mystery writer. The thrill is that we can get to see where Corbett, already an assured pro goes next; to see how he grows beyond what we currently know as the seasoned professional.
Like any reader, I appreciate my share of fun reading. And lots of what I read last year was fun, but the fun that stuck with me came in the guide of two excellent science fiction novels; Neal Asher's 'The Line of Polity' and Richard Morgan's 'Broken Angels'. Look, like just about any guy, I'm kind of a dope for guns and monsters, and these guys both brought me guns, monsters and another ingredient not often found in the vicinity of guns and monsters -- characters I cared about. Asher's mutant kid Apis Coolant is just too wonderful, while Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs is too cool. Chuck Palahniuk's 'Diary' offered that sense of fun as well, in a literary package that showcased writing skills rarely brought to novels that are as much fun to read. Period, and that's all I need.

The Great American Novel of 2003.
As I write this essay, I'm coming better to understand what it is about books that I like, and one of the things I'm finding out is that I like books that offer a sense of place that the reader can go back and re-visit. Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude' was The Great American Novel of 2003. It had the scope, it had the characters, it had the imagination and it had the heart. But it also created a place, Boerum Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood with such detail that it has become a place that I have walked, that I can go back to visit again and again. And I do visit it, often, in the company of boys and men not unlike myself, the characters created by Lethem. Powerful, poignant, pertinent. It deserves a National Book Award, but --then I've already done my award rant.

I'll go back again and again to visit Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins. It's a numinous mystery series with characters like old friends, mysteries that unravel and illuminate, an atmosphere I can breathe easily, gracefully, thankfully. I don't read much series mystery. But in novels like 'The Lamp of the Wicked', Rickman's blend of mystery, character and the supernatural is the kind of comfort that I cannot do without. The same would be true of another series author I just discovered this year, yet I read enough of his work to make my choice of which was best difficult. While the rest of the world has been reading Terry Pratchett like gangbusters, I've always managed to resist the urge. Having started reading him, I now look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking. Pratchett's novels definitely do not fade with time; they get better in memory. Pratchett's latest novel, 'Monstrous Regiment' is a beautifully written political satire, but coming as I did, from never having read any of Pratchett's Discworld novels, I was most captivated this year by 'Night Watch', a poignant tale of policing in Pratchett's remarkably complex creation. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 'Felaheen' was another creation that blended intense imagination and emotion more effectively than anyone has a right to demand. The density of Grimwood's world is beyond compare in today's speculative fiction. Behind every word, one can sense a world as real as ours, as complicated and terrifying human, yet a world that is nothing like ours --other than it is the result of humanity living a life unfettered by reality as we, at least, know it. We'll have to thank Del Rey here in the USA when the novels start appearing next year. Look for them to win awards in either the mystery genre or the science fiction genre, or most properly, in the plain old fiction genre, though they are nothing like plain or old.

A lovely, memorable novel.
And then there is the book I thought I would not like, but came to love. Win Blevins' 'So Wild a Dream' is about a time and a place that I had no interest in whatsoever until I cracked his novel and started reading about the westward expansion in the early 1820's. Blevins' novel is the beginning of a series that is so well-crafted, so emotionally resonant, I was reverted to my childhood, when I used to enjoy adventure stories of a similar stripe. But Blevins' work is complex and rewarding for this adult, enough so that I can hardly wait until his next book comes out.

Ian R. Macelod's 'The Light Ages' marks the start of a beautiful, detailed series set in a Dickensian England which has been tweaked by the discovery of a magical source of power. Prose is Macleod's magical source of power, paired with a scientific extrapolative rigor and a connection to the deepest well of our emotions. It makes a nice pair with Ken Macleod's 'Engine City', a space opera series capper that makes horrifically depressing conclusions about mankind far more fun than they deserve to be. Together they create an iron dream which will trap the hardiest readers between bars of hopelessness and despair.

And in contrast to the serial works we know and love, there are the authors we can count on to produce standalone novels of power, grace, humor, wonder --it's a wide palette. Last night, I was flipping past a Discovery channel show on whales, and when they stated that the fluke of a whale was as individual as a human fingerprint, I flashed on Christopher Moore's wonderful novel of the same title, 'Fluke'. Moore lavishes as much attention to his wonderful characters as he does to a thrillingly mind-boggling premise in 'Fluke'. This is the good-time novel you can go back and re-read to re-laugh at the jokes. There's also a lot of humor in Chuck Palahniuk's remarkable 'Diary', the kind of black humor you'd expect from the author who brought you last year's 'Lullaby' and the mordant satire 'Survivor'. Palahniuk gooses his story of supernatural revenge with writing so stripped down, so transparent and yet so skillfully complex that it's hard to believe the prose structure that unfolds in your reading mind. Stewart O'Nan shows a similar level of skill in 'The Night Country'. O'Nan also deploys a storyteller's voice to unfurl the Halloween tale of a tragic auto accident with surprising causes and reverberations that ripple reality. Typing these words about the book, the sky begins to darken, and I can feel the leaves turn; and that's what I want from a novel, something to hold on to, something to go back to.

For me, looking back at the books I read last year, I can see where I was and what I was doing as I read them. While I read books with bookmarks, books themselves become a form of life marks, icons which I can grab on to, to bring back a memory good or bad, of what was happening when I read them. This is at least one reason why I keep track of what books I read and when; of course my writing for this website is clearly another. But I can look at last year, from the goofy, post-NewYears' fun of Cory Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom' to the warm summer nights of reading Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude'. From a radiant spring day with Graham Joyce's 'The Facts of Life' to a long Fall holiday drive immersed in 'So Wild a Dream'. Each book another notch in the year, another experiential overlay on life itself. Last year is gone, but the books remain.

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