Favorite Books of the Yearr


Diaz, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

(A funny, ingenious, heartbreaking book about a Dominican SF nerd in New Jersey. Wonderfully written.)

Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
(Finally got around to reading this one. Understatement used like a hammer on the soul.)

Korelitz, You Should Have Known

(A woman’s husband is accused of murder. She deals with the fallout. This one’s a different kind of detective story / thriller, because the focus is less on the psychopath than on the psychology of the people manipulated by them)

Malllerman, Birdbox

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, creepy-as-hell horror novel, pick up this one.  A survivor of the apocalypse tries to protect two children from monsters (?) that drive you mad if you see them. Easy. right? Just wear a blindfold every time you go outside… into a world of monsters and murderous lunatics. Bloody. Hell.

Marshall, Gifts for the Ones Who Come After

A great, eclectic collection of creepy and odd stories from this year’s winner of the Shirley Jackson award.


Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time

Egan’s unflinching look at the American Dustbowl. The analogy to climate change is there, but never heavy-handed.

Price, The Pixar Touch

Not your usual success story. First, this book eviscerates the Steve Jobs myth. Instead, it looks at the would-be artists who parlayed their tech jobs into movie-making. It provides an entertaining narrative about the failures, obstacles, hardships, and sheer perseverance that accompany any dream of artistic success in the States.

Fischer, A Kim-Jong Il Production

Did you know Kim-Jong-Il was an enormous film buff who kidnapped his favorite director and actress to force them to make movies for him? Did you know that the director and actress were bitter exes who fell back in love while trying to escape their North Korean movie-making prison?  This true story reads like a black political comedy / Hollywood satire with a surprisingly romantic heart.

Leovy, Ghettoside

A Serial-like analysis of a single murder case that becomes a compelling analysis of the relationship between poor black communities, the police, and the justice system. It’s a page-turner and an important read.

Macdonald, H is for Hawk

A woman starts training a goshawk following death of her father. The history of hawking, the repressed homosexuality of “Sword and the Stone” author T.H. White, and astute nature watching somehow combine to make a brilliant, beautiful book.


Best Books of 2014: Non Fiction

Aaaand here's the non-fiction list.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Finally read this one, and wow. A profoundly affecting "Indian" history of westward expansion. Yes, there are certain archaeological claims it makes that have since been called into question, but this book remains a painfully eye-opening account of the "Indian Wars' of 1860-1890. It inspired me to start looking into the history of western Canadian settlement, which I knew little about and had never thought to particularly question.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Although Hubbard's name gets tossed around a lot in SF studies I'd never read an account of his rise to cult-leader status, let alone the disturbing aftermath as scientology transitioned into a "religion." Structured around the conversion & rejection of a prominent Hollywood scientologist, this book is worth reading on multiple levels: as a fascinating cultural history, as a profile of indoctrination, and of abusive personalities. Also, Tom Cruise.

Nothing to Envy: Everyday Lives in North Korea

A sometimes charming, mostly terrifying account of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected to South Korea. I found myself rooting, retroactively, for the young starcrossed lovers to escape and the elderly Party loyalist to see the light and escape before her family starved to death. A fascinating - and horrifying - insight into life in a truly Orwellian society.

The Black Count

Born on Haiti, Alex Dumas, the mixed-race former slave, rose to become a French aristocrat and military hero before running foul of Napoleon. His adventurous life was later used by his son, Alexandre Dumas, as the inspiration for characters and events in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. An adventurous look at Romantic era race relations in Europe - a story American cinema and history tends to ignore.

The Emperor of all Maladies

I put off reading this book for a long time because, quite frankly, I thought this history of cancer and its treatment would strike too close to home. But Bannerjee's history of the evolution of cancer treatment is highly readable and provides a grim insight into the failures as well as successes of medical research. It also is clearly written and helped me get a better grasp on the language of 'precancer,' 'clinical trial' and 'chemotherapy' actually means.

Honorable Mention:

Capital in the Twenty First Century

Probably one of the most important books of the year, but - frankly - not the most readable, Pekkety's empiricist history of capitalism from the 18thC onward buries ''trickle  down' economics and provides a grim, number-driven picture of our century's rising inequality. The first and last chapters are the most important, so if you want to know what people are talking about, go read those.

Best Books of 2014 (a biased list): Fiction

This year I read 76 books for pleasure: non fiction and fiction with a generous helping of SF and New York literary-awards type books. Here are my favourites.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)


Station 11

I picked up this 'literary apocalypse' novel expecting another THE ROAD. What I got was something I'd never read before: a beautiful apocalypse. STATION 11 interrogates art, human connection, and the meaning of life in a matter-of-fact postapocalyptic setting. I can describe the plot in trite catchphrases (it's SLINGS AND ARROWS meets THE STAND!) -- but what's great about this book is hard to put into words. Let's just say it's about a famous Shakespearean actor who dies onstage, and a lethal flu epidemic, and a new generation using art to survive in a brave new world. If you're a writer, you should read this book.

The Paying Guests

Of all the "literary" books I read this year, this one was my favourite. It's a character study of a woman out of step with her times, who discovers she's not as brave or ethical as she believed herself to be. Also, it's a page-turner about illicit love and murder. And it's beautifully written.

Fool's Assassin

Robin Hobb's latest may win no grand literary awards, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Hobb sets her novels in a high fantasy world, but it's the domestic details that grip the reader and anchor the plot. I don't know how she does it. Note: if you've never read Hobb's novels before *don't* start with this one. Go back and read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, or even ROYAL ASSASSIN first.


I haven't read the last book in Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, otherwise I might have three titles heading this entry. An "environmental disaster" (or was it?) has produced a mysterious zone of biological weirdness called Area X. Governments send expeditions to investigate it. Things go horribly wrong.

ANNIHILATION won my love for situating me inside the deteriorating consciousness of a biologist trying to preserve her sanity on a bizarrre jungle expedition. (Scientific explorers going mad! Love!)

AUTHORITY transfers that creepiness into bureaucracy, plunging its pov character into a 'jungle' of a new workplace. (Uncanny workplaces! Love!) It also features one of the creepiest scenes I read in any book this year.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

This is a clever puzzle box  of a novel -- perhaps too clever to be widely successful. Still, if you enjoy trying to outhink unreliable narrators, you should check it out. The plot: Charles Jessold was a brilliant young composer who killed two people and then himself. A music critic narrates the story of his own very peripheral relationship with the doomed genius. It's a dull tale - at first. Then we get another version. And another. And things get darker and more twisted every time.

The Secret History

Finally got around to reading this study in murder, intimate friendships, and what people will do to belong to a group. As with many books of this type the real character of interest is the narrator, a young man from a lower class background determined to fit in with an elite group of students at a private college. And it has a great opening line: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Honorable Mention:

Life after Life. A child is born, dies, restarts her life, is born, dies, restarts... This must have been a very hard novel to write. Atkinson doesn't completely pull it off, imo, but the result is a highly unusual and very readable novel.


I realized today that I've had this lj account for over 10 years. There are other markers of age - seeing people's kids go from babies to toddlers in the blink of an eye, meeting certain milestones - and then there are social media markers, like the fact I remember a world without internet & have now had an lj account for 10 years. Also, the fact I have an lj account at all. In my students' eyes, I might as well be listening to 60s folk singers on vinyl records.

Still alive! Still alive.

Hello folks!

I'm still alive, and still on lj. But (like many?) I'm suffering from excessive guilt re: the time writing entries takes away from Other Things I Ought to be Writing. Ergo, I do not post.

But I will try to do drive-bys now and then. To note things like:

1) I'm teaching a Transatlantic Gothic graduate seminar this semester and it's AMAZING. My students have enormously smart things to say about some interesting material and, my God, I actually LIKED Udolpho this time around.

2) I'm neck deep in cover design etc. for the academic book. Very exciting.

3) My TV obsession de jour is _True Detective,_ although, like many, I'm disappointed by the show's lack of interest in its female characters.

4) I seem to be making regular trips out to Boston & Princeton this semester, so if you live around there, give me a shout.

5) I'll be at ICFA in Orlando in a few weeks. Hopefully I'll see some of you there.

6) I just finished reading my CW classmate J.M Sidorova's striking debut novel The Age of Ice, about a Russian prince plagued by his special relationship with cold. Sidorova marries luminous language to historical detail in a saga of the promise and despair of Enlightenment science. Fans of historical fantasy and Russian novels should definitely check it out.



I've emerged from my Christmas chaos and internet lurking with a poem for you all. I think my geek friends will particularly appreciate this:

Fragments from a Childhood

Gwendolyn MacEwen
From:   The Fire-Eaters. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1982

You are eleven years old and have finally decided you can fly. You've been through all the issues of the Marvel Family comics for the last three years, and you know the key word that will give you wings. You can fly if you pretend your white satin bed-jacket is a cape. Now for you Chazam of the Creative Word, the Logos, the formula of flight. You know you can fly, the way They do, straight out like a bullet with your arms stretched forward and your cape fluttering in the wind.

There is no doubt in your mind.

Something else delays you.

You've tied the white satin bed-jacket around your neck tightly so that the wild sleepy folds fall down properly from the shoulders. You imagine what the wind will do to it; you know what it means.

You have many words to utter before you reach Shazam. You utter them slowly, half-hoping you will not reach the end of them. half-hoping that the world will not wring from you the Final Formula, for everything would stop then. You don't really want to pronounce the Unpronounceable.

You stand poised over the steep ravine that leads down to the river. You know it will work because it works for the Marvel Family. You think about the other kids who read the same comics but who don't know what they are all about. They don't know, otherwise they'd be here with you above the ravine with their bed-jackets tied around their necks, wouldn't they, wouldn't they? Maybe they do it alone in their rooms, maybe they pose alone in front of their mirrors, but none of them are here where you are now.

In a way you really do want to have the Great Word wrung out of you, but until now you've witheld it, having sworn never to pronounce it except in a moment of extremity. After all, you don't wish to destroy the world . . .

It's a long way to the bottom of the ravine. There are no witnesses. You wanted it that way, didn't you?

Maybe God will punish you for your insolence. Icarus tried it once; Prometheus still lies chained to a rock with an eagle picking at his liver for a crime less than this. But the Marvel Family has no quarrel with God, and besides they do Good Works and have a fine sense of humour; God never punished them because they were Super.

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The Best Books I've read this Year (so far)

Looking for book recommendations? My list of the best books I've read for fun this year:

1) Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (fiction) - A young teenager deals with death of uncle. And it's bloody, bloody brilliant.

2) Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction) - Housewife discovers butterfly migration and then herself. Some of the best characterization I read this year.

3) Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction) - Dry but compelling overview of parents whose children belong to a different identity category from them (autistic, deaf, musical prodigies, deaf, criminal etc.)

4) The Last Policeman/Countdown City by Ben Winters (SF/mystery) - Detective ignores apocalypse, focuses on solving crimes. Tackles some big philosophical issues in a convincing genre pairing. Mystery lovers - check this one out.

5) We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (fiction) - Young woman grapples with fallout after being raised to think of a chimp as her sister.

6) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (YA fantasy) - For once, a YA novel that both made me root for its romance and seriously worry about the fate of the heroine. Also, it has terrifying carnivorous horses.

7) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (SF) - Tight plot, interesting lead.

8) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (memoir/graphic novel) - Bechdel describes her belated discovery of her dead father's secret homosexual life in graphic novel form.

9) On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliott House (non-fiction) - Good overview of contemporary Saudi and its issues.

10) Wild by Cheryl Strayed (memoir) - It almost convinced me to hike the PCT, and that's saying something.

Still here

There's been a flurry of 'return to lj' posts from some of my f-list recently, so for the record, I'm still here & still reading. I'm also going gangbusters on academic book revisions right now, so I have basically no time for writing that is not let's-get-shit-done related. So: no posts from me for a while.

But I will quickly say that my semester has started up again and, for the first time ever, I have a student who needs accommodations after being struck by lightning.