Pornokitsch: That was 2014...
Underground Reading: Hot Night in the City by Trevanian (2000)

Friday Five: 5 Favourite Books of 2014

My first seven drafts of this post had a long waffly introduction, but, you know what? The only criteria here is that these books are my favourites. (Oh - and published in 2014.)

So with that, let's get to it... 

The-feverMegan Abbott's The Fever

Rather appropriately, I can't get this book out of my head. Is that because of me? Is that because I hang out with people that also really like it? Is it because of the book? Or what I want the book to be? [See what I did there?] [If you haven't read The Fever... probably not.]

Still, we can always resort to the facts of the case: Abbott is one of the most captivating contemporary noir writers, with a penchant for unconventional settings and unexpected perpetrators. She's also one of the most harrowing - with a knack for writing the mind of the completely ordinary. And there's nothing scarier than the normal.

The Venn diagram of her awesomeness intersects at The Fever - in which an inexplicable thing (a seemingly incurable disease) strikes an utterly banal location (a high school). This is a mystery (wtf is happening, y'all) but also apocalyptic SF at its best: people dealing with the end of the(ir) world. A book about priorities and teleology and adolescence and fear.

The closest comparison would be Jenni Fagan's soul-rending The Panopticon - another novel that stretches the reader's perceptions and our definitions of what constitutes speculative fiction. If the characters believe they are living in the impossible, why shouldn't we?

Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

I've said it before (a lot) but it probably bears repeating: this book makes me feel good about the world (broadly) and science fiction (specifically). For space opera - an algae-powered wormhole-drilling pan-species space opera at that - this is a book that ditches the grumps and humpfs of science to focus on the important part: the characters.

The Long Way is an episodic, meandering book that never feels 'bitty' or in any way dull - thanks to its cast of electic, electric and brilliant characters. It is effortlessly progressive as well, both graceful and heart-warming. Truly wonderful. 

SmilersFairRebecca Levene's Smiler's Fair

Somehow I got this far into the year without writing a proper review of Smiler's Fair. Instead I'll hold out hope that I get to revisit it at length as part of my annual DGLA shortlist reviews. Hint. Hint. 

Smiler's Fair is the first volume in an epic fantasy series that is doing everything wrong. The characters are wrong. The world is wrong. The plot is wrong. Everything about it is is familiar, yet somehow twisted, slightly disturbing and wonderfully, terribly surprising.

On Tor.com, I called it "Bret Easton Ellis meets Diana Wynne Jones", and I'm sticking to it. This isn't the sort of splatterpunk grimdark that goes for nasty shocks - it is more of a subtly ongoing subversion and sense of unease. A Game of Thrones comparisons are a-dime-a-dozen, but that may have been the last time I read a fantasy book with such a sense of "I have no idea what will happen next."

Sarah Lotz's The Three 

Another book I've somehow gone without reviewing, possibly because I'm still puzzling it out eight months later. On that level, what I love about The Three is that exact sense of 'reality upset' - there are no definite answers, only layer after layer of vaguely-sustainable theory - this is less a book than a wriggly ball of conspiracies. (Justin and I still argue over whether or not this is even science fiction. He is, of course, wrong.) And, as a format, I'm a sucker for a well-crafted epistolary novel: it keeps the pace up while also treating the reader as an intelligent peer.

But The Three also does the 'little' stuff well - and that's incredibly important - a pacey, high-concept thriller that never resorts to slapdash writing. The Three has empathetic characters, interesting settings, stunning set-piece action and oodles of spooky atmosphere, and, to crown it all, a handful of the most genuinely petrifying moments I've ever read.

"Hello, Uncle Paul."

[Refuses to sleep with the lights off until 2017.]

NigeriansDeji Bryce Olukotun's Nigerians in Space

Like The Long Way, this is a book I've reviewed in a few places, so will strive to keep it short-ish. A cross-over mystery/thriller/SF novel, Nigerians in Space is about science fiction and, beyond the politics and murder and international espionage, this is a book primarily about the power of dreams. The Golden Age of SF (insert the word 'American' anywhere in that phrase) wasn't without its problems, but, underneath it all, there was a sense of destiny and agency: that humanity has the strength and the power to go make the future. A fundamental belief that we, as a species, will go forth and do incredible, amazing things.

By contrast, I find some of the best contemporary speculative fiction to be more near-sighted: the pace of change, perhaps, has killed our vision of the future, so SF is better suited as a tool to pick apart the presence. Nigerians reverses the pattern. Certainly this is a book about the now, and a versatile metaphor for the present day, but this is also a manifesto: a belief that we do make our own future, and that future is awe-inspiring. Page by page, a beautifully-written book with twists to rival the best modern mystery, but, as a whole, a text that makes you look to the stars. And I love that.

And because I'm indecisive, a few honorable mentions

Kill Baxter 

Pierce Brown's Red Rising is addictive to the point of borderline illegality: like the best bizarrely-constructed teen dystopias, it glosses over the implausability with passion and... page-turniness. 

James Dawson's Say Her Name is proper horror without the trimmings - atmospheric, direct, humorous and, despite the laughs, sleep-destroying. I find a lot of horror to be ponderous, but Say Her Name most certainly isn't: quick, fun and effortlessly scary. 

Charlie Human's Kill Baxter is a gutsy meta-fantasy that is even bolder and more entertaining than its predecessor. This is - excuse the wankiness - a quintessiantially contemporary book, packed with pop culture and geek culture references, espousing a 21st century morality and yet... still recognisably a classic fantasy. Hard to describe - but this book will be a cult classic someday.

Non Pratt's Trouble is a sensitive, charming young adult story that combines real (heart-breaking) drama with a relentless optimism - a book that leaves you feeling better about the world. I've read a lot of great 'issue-based' YA this year, and Trouble may be my favourite, possibly because of the way it is both real and uplifting. Trouble proves that the best truth is in fiction.

For more red hot favouriting action...

I've also been involved in 'best of...' pieces elsewhere on Rocket Talk, as well as Tor.com's "Reviewers' Choice" and "Under the Radar". Most of those had slightly more in the way of structured criteria to them, which is nice.

I've also put together a 'favourites of 2014 that weren't from 2014' post. (Includes the world's most sinister book about lettuce.)

Your turn! Favourites? Bests? Most awesome? Share in the comments please - plus throw in links to your own lists! 

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