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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Top 10 best and worst books I read in 2009

Another year is behind us, and the Internet is inundated with all sorts of "best of" and "worst of" lists, including Rex Sorgatz's List of Lists. Last year, I posted my inaugural annual list of best and worst books I read. I enjoyed pontificating so much about my favourite (and least favourite) books of 2008 that I thought I'd do it all over again for 2009!

Before we begin, let me explain. I use a site called Goodreads to track what I read. I joined Goodreads last year in May 2008, so I only had seven months' worth of books--64, to be exact. Choosing twenty books as the best and worst of the "year" amounted to thirty per cent of the "year's" total.

This year it's different. I read 156 books, which gives me a wider selection and means I have to be a little more discriminating in choosing my top 10. In fact, winnowing the choice down to ten took more work than I thought it would. Sure, I could create a "top 11" or "top 12" list--why enslave myself to society's arbitrary fascination with the number 10? But that's not the point. The point is to limit the number of books I can showcase so I have to stop and consider exactly which books I consider worthy of this honour (or dishonour).

Top 10 Best Books I Read in 2009

10. Lilith's Brood, by Octavia E. Butler

Cover of Lilith's Brood, trade paperback edition

I read this book for my speculative fiction course in the fall term. Full disclosure: this is actually an omnibus edition of Butler's Xenogenesis series, consisting of Dawn, Imago, and Adulthood Rites. However, since it's only printed as the omnibus these days, I feel it's only right to include it as a single book. From my review:

This is one of the scariest books I have read in a long time. Good science fiction, good posthuman fiction, challenges the idea of what it means to be human. Octavia E. Butler goes beyond that, way beyond, challenging not just what human means but how open-minded I am to such challenges. This book blew my mind.

9. Robert Charles Wilson

Cover of Julian Comstock, hardcover edition

This is the first book by Robert Charles Wilson that I have read. While Julian Comstock didn't "blow me away" like some of the books on this year's list, it's a solid, thought-provoking story. From my review:

As a didactic work of fiction, however, Julian Comstock embodies the sublime. It neither preaches nor lectures. There are precious few speeches. Instead, Wilson shows us a possible future, and as the consequences of his what-if game unfold, we see his themes in both the dialogue and the action: it takes strength to stand up against injustice, especially when it's inevitable that you won't live to see your victory achieved; the only comfort is the knowledge that this too shall pass.

8. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover of The Dispossessed, mass market paperback edition

Last year, I ranked Le Guin's Lavinia as my tenth-worst book of 2008, and I felt really bad. Le Guin's a wonderful writer, and The Dispossessed reaffirmed that opinion. This was a latecomer to the race, as I read it only a few days before Christmas, but as my review demonstrates, it definitely deserves a place on this list.

Le Guin manages to make both nations seem viable, but it's clear that neither are ideal places to live. There is no utopia, Le Guin proclaims. This is the common theme of utopian literature, of course, but The Dispossessed stands out because it's discrediting two visions of utopia. And each has different flaws, different vulnerabilities. On Anarres, society the pressure on the individual to conform with social norms replaces laws. The danger of this, however, is that it stifles the very foundation of Anarresti society: "we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine." On Urras, we see classical forms of government with classical flaws: the individual becomes subordinate to the State and the Economy, slave to the twin whips of Authority and Profit. Despite these obvious flaws, however, it's clear that these are visions of utopia. And that's where it really gets interesting.

7. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, by Lawrence Lessig

Cover of Remix, hardcover edition

The copyright wars are raging all around us. Corporations face off against teenagers. Words like "pirates" and "criminals" abound, whether or not such labels are deserved. Lessig's book is a well-reasoned look at the current state of copyright and what we can do to put copyright back on track. From my review:

Lessig's stance reassures me that there is nothing wrong with the concept of copyright itself--indeed, so-called "free" licenses, like Creative Commons and "copyleft" are also copyright, just of a different breed--the core dilemma we face is that copyright has become distorted during the twentieth century by increasingly restrictive regulation. Lessig argues that we need new legislation to remove our copyright quagmire and update our laws to reflect current cultural values

6. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Cover of Little Brother, hardcover edition

Doctorow is one of those chimeras who manages to sound like he's writing popular fiction (perhaps even "young adult" fiction, although I'm hesitant to label Little Brother in such a restrictive way) even though his book is clearly polemical. By no means a perfect book, Little Brother managed to make me passionate enough that my review turned into a polemic as well!

This isn't Luddite fear-mongering either; Doctorow's addressing real concerns about the intrusive nature of new-old technologies like RFID. These aren't issues that affect only the military or upper class white-collar workers or secret agents; these issues affect everyone, rich or poor, desk or factory, government or private sector. And they affect us here, now, today--not tomorrow. Doctorow is clearly on one side of this issue, but even if you eventual come to stand on the opposite side, at least you'll be choosing a side. If you remain apathetic, then you will have no voice in this silent revolution. And if you have no voice, how can you really call yourself free?

Also, you can download Little Brother for free in a variety of formats, no DRM at all, courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.

5. Fool, by Christopher Moore

Cover of Fool, hardcover edition

I have many friends who swear by Christopher Moore, so this year I gave him a try, starting with Fool. Anyone who likes irreverent Shakesperean comedy will love this. From my review:

Take Fool with a grain of salt and suspend your disbelief and you'll be rewarded with a funny and entertaining story. I laughed out loud at several parts of the book, something I very rarely do, and was ready to grant the book five stars when I was less than halfway through (contingent on the book remaining awesome, which it did). Not only is Fool fun and easy to read, but it makes Shakespeare accessible to people who might otherwise never find time for the Bard--I'm looking at you, vapid Twilight-enslaved teenage populace. Fool isn't a replacement for King Lear, and maybe I'm just being too idealistic here, but I hope it'll stir up more interest in Shakespeare, who could be every bit as bawdy as Christopher Moore.

4. Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco

Cover of Foucault's Pendulum, paperback edition

Eco is the only author to make the top 10 list two years running now. While I found The Name of the Rose interesting and profound, Foucault's Pendulum was a sublime work of literature. From my review:

At its core, Foucault's Pendulum is a fable about conspiracies. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates what happens when people begin to believe in conspiracy theories; lending credence lends life, which can have unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. The main characters begin as sceptics, working for a publishing house that's allied with a vanity press, who begin constructing a fictitious Plan by connecting seemingly-disparate historical facts. When organizations and individuals begin showing up seeming to be acting in accordance with this Plan, however, our protagonists realize that if you make up a Plan, even a false one, someone might try to execute it.

3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Cover of Middlemarch, paperback edition

I don't care what you think about Victorian novelists or how much you love or hate Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters. I don't care if you named your kid after Charles Dickens or personally made a pilgrimage to see the heart of Thomas Hardy. Forget everything you know about rural Victorian England. Middlemarch is, hands down, the best Victorian novel ever.

As I put it:

Eliot masterfully balances several related but distinct plots that take place in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Although the story takes place during the Great Reform Bill of 1832, politics plays a secondary role. The story is largely character-driven and focuses on rural English life, which sounds boring until you realize that it's utterly fascinating. It's like the Victorian version of reality television.

Or as Siobhan Adcock puts it:

Best. Goddamned. Book. Ever.

Seriously, this shit's bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S. 750 pages in, and you're still being surprised. It's 800 pages long and EVERY SINGLE PAGE ADVANCES THE PLOT. You cannot believe it until you read it.

2. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Cover of Midnight's Children, paperback edition

This is only the second book I've read by Salman Rushdie, yet I feel so familiar with his work already. The brilliance of Midnight's Children is so subtle at the beginning but quickly crescendoes. From my review:

In fact, the actual experience of reading Midnight's Children reminded me why I love prose so much, why reading is eminently superior to other forms of entertainment (I'm looking at you, television!). In the hands of an author like Salman Rushdie, words can transcend language, and prose becomes beautiful. While other authors can describe a scene in such a way that I feel present, that I can smell the smells and feel the textures, Rushdie wields a different sort of literary magic: his words evoke emotions, their euphony resonating with the soul and reminding us of the beauty of life itself. I savoured the words of Midnight's Children

1. The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

Cover of The Gone-Away World, Vintage paperback edition

Seldom do I so thoroughly enjoy a book as I did The Gone-Away World. It's just fun. From my review:

The genius of The Gone-Away World sneaks up on you in a loud and bombastic way. Nick Harkaway's writing reminds me two Douglases who are masters of the absurd and apocalyptic: Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams. Sardonic and observant, Harkaway tosses off scene after scene of unrelenting zany fun. Yet when the smoke clears and the score is tallied, The Gone-Away World is ultimately, like JPod or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, about what it means to be human.…

The book goes on to explore how some people use cognitive dissonance to keep their humanity intact in dehumanizing lines of work, whether they are appallingly destructive or just mindlessly tedious. The Gone-Away World isn't merely about retaining one's humanity in the face of external threats like Stuff; it's a cautionary tale about unintentionally sacrificing one's humanity in the name of doing good.

Shortlist for the Best

Some books that made the shortlist, in alphabetical order by author:

Top 10 Worst Books I Read in 2009

10. The King's Grace, by Anne Easter Smith

Cover of The King's Grace, trade paperback edition

To be fair, this book isn't bad so much as incredibly bland, which is why it's all the way up at number 10 on the list. From my review:

Wrestling with my mixed feeling toward this book, I've ultimately decided that the problem is the writing more than the story itself. The story should be interesting: rather than the battles and machinations per se of final chapter to the Wars of the Roses, we get to see the relationships among the sisters of York as Tudor secures a definitive Lancastrian victory, only to have to put down an upstart impostor to the Yorkish crown. Every so often I'd see a glimpse of depth and drama—such as Grace's observations about Elizabeth Woodville's treatment of her daughters vis-à-vis Woodville's treatment of Grace. Then the book would shy away and sink back into turgid mediocrity.

9. Drood, by Dan Simmons

Cover of Drood, hardcover edition

This is a controversial pick, since I know that Dan Simmons has a large fanbase that will no doubt give Drood much acclaim. As much as I enjoyed Hyperion, Drood did less than nothing for me:

… I shouldn't be upset about supernatural elements in a book that is supposed to be supernatural, right? Except that the entire "Drood" mystery is conflated by the prospect of it all being an opium- or mesmerism-induced fantasy. Perhaps I just dislike it when the supernatural elements aren't blatantly real but merely just suggested.

8. The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, by Jill Kargman

Cover of The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, hardcover edition

I admit I knew I wouldn't like this book prior to reading it, and some may think that including it on this list is unfair as a result.((Tough. This is my list. Want your own list? Go make one. Leave a comment linking to it. I'd love to hear what books you loved and hated in 2009!)) From my review:

By refusing to choose between a serious satire of hedge-fund-wife society and a silly romantic summer read, Kargman undermines her own story, transforming it from something with great potential into just another mediocre romantic comedy. Pandering to everyone just won't work. Good literature has to take risks, even if they don't pay off, and even if they alienate one audience in favour of another. The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund has a couple of moments of shining glory tarnished by the absence of any element of risk.

7. The Forgery of Venus, by Michael Gruber

Cover of The Forgery of Venus, hardcover edition

From my review:

I eked very little enjoyment from The Forgery of Venus. As romantic and attractive as the art forgery scene may seem, Gruber manages to quash that feeling in his drug-induced insanity plot. Had I any sympathy for the protagonist after the first few chapters (which I didn't), in which he whines about how unfortunate his life has been, it would have slowly bled out of me while I watched Chaz firmly refuse to take any responsibility for his own life.

6. Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin

Cover of Elsewhere, hardcover edition

Imagine a book that tells you about what happens in the afterlife. Now imagine that book, only with flat characters and an afterlife in which nothing happens and there's no such thing as religious resolution. Then you have the unsatisfying atmosphere that is Elsewhere:

Elsewhere ducks the question of souls and religion in general, giving us a throwaway line that "God's there in the same way He, She, or It was before to you. Nothing has changed."…

Everyone lives in a nice house, has a nice job, and is nice to people. Yet if Elsewhere itself is an allegory for growing up and leaving behind adolescence, what does that say about life in general? This is jarringly inconsistent with adolescence, adulthood, or any other period of life. The moral of Elsewhere seems to be that a life without conflict can be rewarding, and I don't see how that can be the case.

5. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin

Cover of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, hardcover edition

No, that isn't a typo. Gabrielle Zevin receives the dubious distinction of making my list of top 10 worst books of 2009 twice.((No, I don't know what I was thinking reading two of her books. Seriously, I've punished myself enough about this already.)) And it wasn't a contest deciding which one was worse: Elsewhere is unfulfilling, but the themes of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac are downright disturbingly stereotypical. From my review:

If anything, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac reminds me of why I'm glad my years as a teenager are coming to an end: way too much drama. And not the funny-yet-vicious sort of drama I enjoyed watching in Tina Fey's Mean Girls; no, this is the pointless-yet-ubiquitous drama created as a byproduct of our own struggle to discover who we are. Unfortunately, Zevin seems to focus on this byproduct while ignoring the end goal--the whole self-discovery thing.…

It's a zero-sum book, because its main character never really changes.

4. Sex and the High Command, by John Boyd

Cover of Sex and the High Command, paperback edition

Much like The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, this is a book I knew would be bad beforehand. I read it precisely because I wanted to write a snarky review. So while its appearance on this list may be slightly unfair, its ranking must ultimately reflect how bad it is--and as much as I disliked some of the books on this list, few of them are worse than Sex and the High Command. From my review:

As a story, however, Sex and the High Command severely lacks anything resembling a sensible plot or realistic character development. Again, my context is a little vague here. What resources I could turn up seem to indicate that this isn't satire, but it belongs to a school of sci-fi that's tongue-in-cheek in its approach, bordering on absurdism but not quite philosophically adept enough to earn that label. It reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch that's 212 pages long and has also ingested steroids.

3. The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks

Cover of The Algebraist, trade paperback edition

I've heard positive things about Banks, but so far I'm underwhelmed. While I somewhat enjoyed Consider Phlebas, The Algebraist was a big disappointment:

The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn't a bad thing).…

It's as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patient evaporated.

2. History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, by Rodney Bolt

Cover of History Play, hardcover edition

From my review:

I have to admit I was skimming by the time I reached the halfway point of History Play. Its stultifying writing made me want to put it down, but the rational part of me wanted to see how it ended. It probably wasn't worth it, in retrospect … as it is History Play is lifeless, limp prose.

1. The Expected One, by Kathleen McGowan

Cover of The Expected One, hardcover edition

Let's put it this way. While reading through my reviews to decide which book would earn the title of "worst read in 2009," The Expected One clinched it when, in the first paragraph, I compare it to last year's worst book, The Art Thief. As with last year's title holder, the worst book I read this year is one to avoid at all costs:

What begins as innocuous conspiracy-orientated historical fiction ends up becoming a delusional and boring dissertation on the "truth" behind Mary Magdalene … this novel is semi-autobiographical…. It gets worse.…

The Expected One is empty; the story, its inspiration aside, is poorly written. A good book should appeal to the reader even if he or she disagrees with its themes. The reader should be entertained by the quality of its writing and its story. When a book becomes limited to an audience of approval, there's something wrong.

Shortlist for the Worst

Some books that made the shortlist, in alphabetical order by author:

Want to Learn More?

But wait, that's not all. I've also done a statistical analysis of my reading in 2009 using OpenOffice.org Calc and data gleaned from Goodreads. It's amazing what consistent tracking of my reading habits and a couple of hours playing around with a spreadsheet reveals about what I read and how I write my reviews.