Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best of 2013, Part One

Year’s end is upon us, and with it, the need to evaluate twelve months’ accomplishments. After sorting one year’s literature, dividing worthy from unworthy to help you make informed decisions, some books linger in my mind longer than others. If you’ve read my reviews, but delayed purchasing anything, here’s your chance. Month by month, I sort which books weren’t just good, but actually stayed with me long enough to matter.

January: The Age of Anti-Anti-Americanism

Recent events in India, including protests outside the American embassy and burnings of the American flag, have awakened old accusations of global anti-Americanism. But what’s really happening in India? While nationalist politicians agitate the crowd, realistic complaints against American diplomatic heavy-handedness keep the protests alive. Cable news bromides only confuse an already dark debate.

Max Paul Friedman’s Rethinking Anti-Americanism examines a durable accusation, recasting populist (and anti-populist) rhetoric in a multinational context. America’s unique geographical situation—no enemy can really attack us—and extreme wealth keep citizens unaware of fraught global situations. We often mistake opportunities for threats, to our own detriment. Simply broadening our outlook may improve our own, and international, peace.

February: Gillian Philip's Bleak and Godless Fantasy

JRR Tolkien's unquestioned status in fantasy fiction hasn’t immunized him from criticism. Many authors denounce his explicitly Roman Catholic ethics in Lord of the Rings. And authors like Philip Pullman and George RR Martin have written counter-fantasy based on secular ethics. Scottish author Gillian Philip’s debut, Firebrand, eschews Pullman’s didacticism, and Martin’s wordiness, creating a taut, muscular fantasy that challenges Christian triumphalism while telling a cracking good story.

March: What Happens In Fantasyland, Part 2

When American news sources recently lost their noggins over krokodil, a Russian hybrid drug that peels and necrotizes users’ skin, I remember thinking: “They should read more paperback fantasy.” Vicki Pettersson's The Lost warned of this drug’s possible encroachment months before it hit American shores. Pettersson predicted both the suffering this drug causes, and the despair that makes users embrace a suicidal high.

Book Two in Pettersson’s “Celestial Blues” features protagonists living outside their time, and thus open to influences to which contemporary hipsters are already jaded. By pitting her heroes’ Eisenhower-era innocence against Las Vegas’ seamy primordial sin merchantry, she makes readers question why we take modernity’s truly awful side effects for granted. Vicki Pettersson is raising urban fantasy to high art, whether it wants to evolve or not.

April: Daniel Palmer's Cathartic Torture Epic

After a frankly inauspicious career start, Daniel Palmer has found his feet. Palmer’s third novel, Stolen, has a familiar thriller premise: an ordinary person stumbles into a vast, brutal conflict, and must adapt or die. But Palmer salts his story with contemporary twists, including health care abuse, Internet celebrity, and postmodern poverty. His comfy thriller tropes let Palmer thrust a mirror in our faces, saying, “This crime is about you.”

May: First Contact and Nightfall

SG Redling’s Damocles seems to reverse familiar science fiction boilerplates. You’ll recognize Asimov, LeGuin, and Silverberg among Redling’s influences. But by making humans land on a distant world, she upends decades-old conventions. Regular human xenophobia looks very different when we’re on the receiving end. Fans of paperback space opera (like me) will find their cozy prejudices challenged.

But that’s just the surface. Redling does something few SF authors have done before: she makes interstellar exploration into a job. Her humans maintain technology, look for food, and struggle to parse native languages. Her earthbound aliens point guns at the discoverers because this is their home, dammit. Redling strips space opera of its high romantic overtones, making starships into blue-collar enterprises occupied by ordinary people like, well, us.

June: Gay and Christian in a Changing America

The only Christian book on this list, Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, distills several important voices in one of today’s most important religious debates. The Phil Robertson controversy has spotlighted one of modern Christianity’s most pervasive problems, its loyalty, both within and without, to sexual ethics which it has forgotten why it first adopted.

Blind, and selective, obedience to Levitical law has earned Christianity a reputation for benighted intolerance. But a significant minority of Christians have come to believe that, if Jesus died for our sins, he died for all sins, not just the ones majority moralists find acceptable. Chu doesn’t purpose to resolve this debate. But he agrees that we must take steps to find homes for all Christians, regardless of their particular sin.

Part Two: July Through December

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for the shout-out--and for reading my book!