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What I Read in 2018

For my third year-end wrap-up blogpost, I’m going to share the things I’m most glad I read this year. In previous editions to this post, I’ve focused on novels and short stories I read that were published in that calendar year. I’m going to have to have to do something a little different this time.

In years past, one of the motivating factors pushing me to read current writing was my own desire to update and broaden my own writing skills. I wanted to see what was out there and who was writing stuff I wanted to read.

This year I have been involved in this longer project which has changed my focus to a lot of mythology and non-fiction books. I’ve read some books released this year but rather than rank them separately I’ll fold them into what left a mark - literary-wise - this year.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander. A couple years back Uncanny Magazine published Bolander’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” which was one of the most savage and funny take-downs of a sub-genre (“what does makes those serial killers tick”) I’ve had the pleasure to read. “The Only Harmless Great Thing” is an altogether different beast although it embodies Bolander’s gift for using a breezy and acerbic voice to bore right through the BS. Here, the story alternates between the plight of Radium Girls and an Indian Elephant killed in a useless publicity stunt. The way these stories are explored, through an alternate reality, where one injustice blends in with the other, the sickly glow of radiation and industrial priorities throwing uncomfortable shadows on both.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. I’ve now read enough Tremblay to say this is one of his better books. While not as fiendishly knotty as “Head Full of Ghosts,” this novel is perhaps more immediate and appalling. A couple settles into a wilderness cabin with their daughter, expecting a week of relaxation and family bonding. Instead they are attacked by a group of strangers committed to saving the world from an impending catastrophe. The way this scenario plays out is disturbing, bloody, and inevitable. It’s also a hell of a good read.

Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste. It’s been my pleasure to put something by Kiste on my best-of lists and monthly review posts for a few years now. Quite simply, she writes stories I like reading in direct but effortlessly evocative ways. Returning to her hometown, Phoebe Shaw begins to wonder if a strange affliction that claimed her childhood friends decades before has returned. Kiste mines the rust-belt decay of the mid-west to describe a concept with one foot in social commentary and one foot in cosmic horror.

Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton. This is the first novel I’ve read by Hamilton and I have to say I’ll be looking for more to read. There’s something at once leviathan and also appealing about this tale. Due to the time-shifting elements of the story, each vignette told by a separate member of a contact team sent to a distant uninhabited world, I immediately began thinking of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. While there are a lot of similarities between the two, Simmons mined literary references to create one of the classics of cosmic horror, and Hamilton hews closer to space opera, albeit Space Opera with an unusually diverse palette of story-telling styles and better-than-average idea extrapolation. First of a trilogy apparently so don’t expect a neat-and-tidy resolution.

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente. I’m sure the genre of science fiction humor did not die with Douglas Adams but for the life of me I can’t think of anything with as much fun and loopy charm as Valente’s Space Opera. Told from a similarly arch and all-knowing narrator as Hitchhiker’s Guide, Space Opera here refers to a trans-interstellar musical competition with incredibly high stakes. Fail to impress the judges of this Eurovisionesque musical sing-off, and your world is destroyed. One catch: every intelligent race which hears Earth’s music agrees, our music is terrible. Another catch: Earth’s only hope, the glam-rock has-beens “Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes,” broke up years ago and is no longer on speaking terms.

With special mention:

This year, in the interest of my ongoing project, I ended up reading a bunch of classics I’ve been meaning to get to for years. One was the “Silmarillion” and the other was “The Once and Future King.”

“The Once and Future King,” is a weird one I think. I think somewhere in the 80s or 90s it stopped getting mentioned in the same breath as “The Lord of The Rings” and “The Wheel of Time” as must-read classics of the fantasy genre. It sits in a strange liminal place in the YA, Serious Adult Literature divide. Add to that the metafictional elements, the sincere but odd philosophical meanderings and you're left with something which checks a lot of boxes without fitting comfortably on any one shelf. Or at least that’s my take on its current reputation. Anyway, having read this lengthy work, I want to put a good word in. T.H. White’s book is amazing and should literally be read by everyone. There is something about this recreation, reimagining and resurrection of the Arthurian Cycle which makes what was good great and what was bad an essential paradox to the narrative. In a similar fashion, I would humbly suggest that the Silmarillion is perhaps not as imposing and dreary as its reputation suggests. To be sure, this is not the Hobbit nor the Fellowship. I’ve heard it described as the Elven Bible, which is both witty and apt but also unfortunate. If what you liked about The Lord of the Rings is storytelling told on a mythic and epic scale, with subtle and astute references to existing mythos then you want to read the Silmarillion, or at least listen to a good audio version of it.

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