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The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Book of the Year (2011)

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Book of the Year (2011)

This post doesn't need an introduction.  Here are the nominees, the winner, and an honorable mention for the best SFF Book of the Year for 2011:

#5: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Most people wrongly assume Zoo City was a 2010 release, largely (I think) because of Lauren Beukes's nomination for the John W. Campbell Award at WorldCon.  Truth is, Beukes was eligible for the Campbell under her debut novel, Moxyland.  Ok, it might also have something to do with the fact that it actually hit stores after Christmas in 2010.  Either way, I know two things.  One, Zoo City is officially a 2011 release and eligible for many 2011 awards.  Two, there's no doubt Zoo City had something to do with the Campbell nomination because it's one bad ass book.

The most impressive thing about Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction.  Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes's cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction.  The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel.  It's clear that the world of Zoo City isn't just an author's passing fancy, but rather represents a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg could be.

#4: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

Unlike the other novels on this list that are brilliant as stand alone pieces of fiction, The Crippled God is incredibly reliant on the nine novels that precede it.  Furthermore, its greatness isn't pervasive, with long sections of boredom and seemingly inconsequential asides.  But, the good parts are so good that I didn't even consider leaving it off the list.  The metaphysical commentary and the conclusion of thousands and thousands of pages of tension building, exhibits some of the best writing I've ever been privileged to read.  I believe Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most significant work of fantasy to date, and everyone should read it... eventually.  It's not for the faint of heart, or the fantasy beginner, but to the right reader it can be truly eye opening.

I'm glad that I read Crippled God before I started this blog.  I don't believe my ability as a reviewer, or the quality of my writing, is ready to give Erikson's series the praise it deserves.  As soon as I feel confident I can do it justice, I'll be writing a review of the series in its entirety that I hope will compel all my readers to pick it up.

#3: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Lyrical, intoxicating, mesmerizing, beautiful.  That's a few adjectives to describe Erin Morgenstern's debut novel.  I could go on... and on... and on.... it's that good.  Rarely does a book completely live up to the hype (and this one had a LOT of hype), but Night Circus does just that.  At the novel's heart is a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco.  It's also a love story.

Interestingly, the plot is the weakest part of the novel, acting in many ways as window dressing for the clever narration, gorgeous prose, and awe invoking atmosphere.  It's literally a novel for everyone -- men, women, young, old, and everyone in between.  I can't recommend it enough.  I don't envy Erin Morgenstern as she writes her second novel... Night Circus is going to be a tough one to live up to.

#2: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Sadly, this novel joins the aforementioned Crippled God on the list of novels I read before the blog.  Since I try to write reviews within a week of finishing a book, I never had a chance to get around to it.  That's a real shame because not only is Heroes Abercrombie's best work to date (he just keeps getting better), but it's the best novel I read this year.

The plot revolves around the battle for the Heroes, a strategic hill named for the rock formation at its top.  Taking place over a few days, Abercrombie captures the nature of war and its effect on the men who fight it.  Craw's story is particularly difficult to read as an aging veteran who can't walk away. His obligation to his commanding officers and his squad are the excuses he uses to justify continuing to do the only thing he's ever been good at.

Abercrombie's characters are always dark and fucked-up, but in Heroes he treats his readers to flawed human characters, a departure from the Logan, Monza, and Shivers characters whose inhumanity defines them.  This is a novel by a writer entering his prime -- masterful and compelling.  I'm two-year-old giddy at the thought of reading his next novel, Red Country, in 2012.

#1: The Best SFF Book of the Year (2011) is:

After the Apocalypse 
by Maureen McHugh

Did you notice I called The Heroes the best novel I read this year, and not the best book?  If so, nice reading comprehension.  Personally, I never imagined that a collection of short stories would top my list of the year's best books, but here it is.  After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh is amazing.

I'd never heard of McHugh prior to receiving an e-mail asking me if I would be interesting in reviewing an electronic ARC of the book.  It turns out she's published four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award.  In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story The Lincoln Train.  After reading this collection, none of that surprises me.  Many of the stories in this collection are "award worthy" - especially the three new ones that are published here for the first time: Honeymoon, The Effect of Centrifugal Forces, and After the Apocalypse.  The latter has been included in The Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six edited by Jonathan Strahan due out in March.

As the title implies, all of the stories in the collection deal with what comes after the apocalypse. Notice that's a lower case apocalypse. While some of the stories delve into the aftermath of the "big-one", some are more about a personal cataclysm. All of them are told from a very tight point of view in a consistently haunting prose. McHugh's characters are all real people, with real problems, who lived before she opened the window into their story and will continue to live after it's closed. It's rare that I enjoy short fiction this much. It's even more rare when I'd put a 200 page short story collection above any novel I've read this year.

#0: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht:
And you thought I was done...

Two weeks ago Aidan Moher over at A Dribble of Ink said about The Tiger's Wife, "There’s magic in this novel and I recommend it with every ounce of my passion for literature."  I share Aidan's sentiments... I think.  The truth is, I need to read it again.  It's so good, I want to do it right now -- three shorts weeks since I finished it for the first time.

The reason it's down here, as an honorable mention, is that I'm not sure it's fantasy.  It's definitely one of the five best novels I read this year, but this is a SFF genre blog and these "awards" are genre awards.  There's some fantasy to the novel, there's no doubt about that, and certainly to a Western reader the disconnect to the Eastern European setting could nearly be second world.  But to call it genre?  No.  It's just not.  It's a literary novel about a girl coming to grips with her grandfather's death while trying to understand his life.  The interconnected threads that Obreht weaves through his life, and into the present, are timeless and resonate in a bleeding edge emotional rawness.

I think there's a section of the genre reading community that would like to claim Obreht's debut for us -- to hold it up as an example of how great genre can be.  That seems a little intellectually dishonest to me.  While elements of fantasy populate the novel, they are more an example of the mythological and cultural beliefs of a cultural foreign to mine.  What seems magic to me, is a grounded belief in the supernatural to a culture steeped in it.

I don't want anyone out there to miss The Tiger's Wife because they read a review on this blog calling it fantasy.  This is a novel for everyone who reads books.  And like Morgentern's Night Circus, Obreht has a daunting task on her hands to live up to the greatness demonstrated in her debut.


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm doing a series of awards. I'm going to call them the Juice Boxes. See if you can keep up here... so there are the Hugos. My name is Justin. Put those two words together and you get Jugos. Jugo in Spanish means Juice. The Juice Awards sounds like something O.J. Simpson would bestow on someone, so I added the box. After all, who doesn't like Juice Boxes?

I'll be doing a separate post for each category with a goal of having them all done before Christmas (we'll see). My award categories are as follows:

Best SFF Press for eBooks
SFF Editor of the Year
SFF Cover of the Year
Most Disappointing SFF Book (2011)
Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011
SFF Debut of the Year (2011)
SFF Book of the Year (2011)



At January 3, 2012 at 9:10 AM , Blogger Neth said...

oh, you could review Erikson's work just fine. For me, there are some writer's that bring out the best in me as a reviewer. I think Erikson is one of those. If I had to think of the 5 best reviews I've ever written, several of those would be for Erikson novels/novellas. Maybe even all 5.

At January 3, 2012 at 2:19 PM , Blogger Jared said...

I think Zoo City was 2010 UK, 2011 US, which might explain some of the confusion.

This is a cracking list. I've got to read the McHugh...

At January 3, 2012 at 3:54 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

Nice list. The Heroes also made my top 5, and I took think it's the best Joe Abercrombie to date.

At January 4, 2012 at 11:45 PM , Blogger Mieneke van der Salm said...

Great list! Jared's right, Zoo City was a 2010 UK release and a 2011 US release. Because of that it's eligible for both the Hugo and the Nebula this year.

At January 5, 2012 at 9:43 AM , Blogger Joel said...

The Night Circus is for everyone... except me. The writing was pretty, sure, but the mood, tone and imagery got stale after a while when not tempered with A) much of a plot or B) interesting characters. It was a huge, huge disappointment for me and by the end I barely wanted to finish it.


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