Sunday, January 24, 2016

10 Best Books: Fiction

So, after hitting ten years of book reviewing on this blog, I posted a list of the ten worst fiction books I'd read, followed by the ten worst non-fiction books I'd read.  Now, here comes my list of the ten best fiction books over the past ten years--starting with the best first, and working outwards from there.

1. The Masters of Rome Series by Colleen McCullough (review of Caesar here, review of The October Horse here).

Okay, first off, I acknowledge I'm cheating slightly on this one.  It's a whole series of books instead of one book.  But since it all tells one continuous story, to my mind it's all one big long book.
Secondly, of the 7 books in the series, I only reviewed two of them on this blog.  (The first 4 books I read back in my youth in the 90s, long before I started this blog).
Thirdly, there's no denying these books have their faults.  McCullough has been criticized for writing Roman history as if it were a soap opera.  (The sex lives of Roman aristocrats get more attention than the intense class-warfare which characterized the last 100 years of the Republic).
Related to the above point, McCulllough misses of the most interesting parts of the period.  Some key events happen in the years between books (and just get summarized briefly in the author's introduction) and even within the text, McCullough drops the ball and gives short-shrift to some key events (for example the Catiline conspiracy or the gang warfare between Milo and Clodius).
Also I've never really been a big fan of McCullough's dialogue, and when it comes to prose style, and she's not my favorite narrator in the world.
The early books have an obvious bias in favor of the Populare faction (W) in Roman politics.  As the books progress into the age of Julius Caesar, the author develops an almost embarrassing infatuation with Caesar.
But of course these books are going to have their flaws.  They're some 7,000 pages long covering an epic sweep of 80 years of history.  Of course they're going to have all sorts of flaws.  Of course it's going to be super easy for someone like me to sit back and nit pick, and say "Hmmm, well, she didn't get this part exactly right."
But what an epic ambition these books have.  And, despite all her flaws, McCullough tells the story skillfully.  (Bad dialogue aside, she writes characters you really remember.)  Most of my historical knowledge of the Roman republic comes from these books.

2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (original review here)

Satire usually loses its relevance as it ages, so you wouldn't expect a book this old to still be funny.  But it's hilarious.  Laugh out loud funny in parts.

3. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (original review here)

So delightfully creepy, and the central mystery of the story is teased out so expertly.

4. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (original review here)

Historical Fiction at its finest.  All the twists and turns of the Dreyfus Affair expertly laid out in the form of a novel.

5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (original review here)

A co-worker of mine is currently struggling through this book, and talks to me occasionally about his frustrations--the plot isn't going anywhere, it's all people sitting around and talking in ballrooms, and for a book entitled War and Peace, there's very little battle scenes.
I counsel him as best I can--just accept that the plot isn't going to go anywhere anytime soon, and that the whole point of the book is to just hang out with the characters and get to know all about them, and all about their lives in every detail.
If you can do that, it's a wonderful book.  (How often do you get to just "hang out" with the characters, with no expectations of a plot getting in the way?)  If you can't do that...well, maybe this book isn't for everyone I guess.
The characters are some of the most well developed characters in all of literature--they feel like real people, they rationalize their actions to themselves like real people.  (Even when a character does something foolish or bad, you understand exactly why they are doing it.)
And then, when the Napoleonic Wars finally do come crashing into this novel, you experience so much more keenly all the disruption it caused because you're so invested in the lives of all of these characters.

6. The Once and Future King by T.H. White (original review here)

I had a number of problems with this book (all of which I detailed in my review), but on the whole a fascinating story that T.H. White is able to bring to life for modern audiences.  I might never get around to reading the original Le Morte D'Arthur, but I at least know the story now thanks to this book.

7.  Burmese Days by George Orwell (original review here)

This isn't Orwell's best fiction, but this list is strictly limited to recounting only the books I've reviewed in the last ten years.  (1984 and Animal Farm I read before starting this book review project.)
Like War and Peace, this is another novel in which the plot  moves very slowly, but the main purpose is to hang out with the characters.  And I think Orwell created some great characters.  Maybe I'm just biased because I identified so strongly with the main character.
Also, a great literary picture of the nature of colonialism, that in some ways makes this book more valuable than any history textbook.

8.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (original review here)

Considered the greatest American novel for a reason.

9. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (original review here)

I'm not generally a huge Hemingway fan, but I loved this book.  Hemingway expertly milks all the tension, isolation and claustrophobia of a group of guerrilla fighters all alone up in the mountains who all start out on the same mission, but end up increasingly spending all of their energy arguing more and more with each other

10. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (original review here)

As I mentioned in my original review, the anything-for-a-gag format of the book can be a bit exhausting at times.  And sure, about half the jokes are real groaners.  But so many jokes fly at you so fast that you just can't help but smile at some of them.
The real strength of the book, though, is how it draws you more and more into its bizarre logic, until by the end of the book, you're not quite sure what is rational and what is absurd anymore.  Is Yossarian insane, or is it the world?

Honorable Mentions

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (review here)
Admittedly, I lost my patience with this series as it went on and got more - and - more - tedious - with each sequel.  But the first book in the series is absolutely perfect--tightly plotted, quickly executed, and non-stop action and adventure from beginning to end.  The historical details are also interesting for us history nerds.  Just try to ignore all the repulsive pro-monarchist politics of the book, and you should be alright.

Funeral Games by Mary Renault (review here)
A really epic Game of Thrones style story about several different characters struggling for power.  Mary Renault allows you to follow the rise and fall of several interesting characters in this book.  If this had been a stand alone novel, it probably would have made my top ten.  But in order to fully appreciate all of these characters, you need to read the first two books in the trilogy first.  And I was underwhelmed by the first two - books.

Babbitt (review here) and It Can't Happen Here (review here) by Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis was ahead of his time as a humor writer.  (His bizarre take on the oddities of suburban life would be right at home in episodes of The Simpons or Family Guy).
I like It Can't Happen Here generally as an entertaining book, but as political satire I think it misses its mark slightly.  (The over-night conversion to fascism shown in this book is unrealistic in American society.)  And for that reason, Sinclair Lewis doesn't quite make my top ten.  But still an entertaining author.

The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler (review here)
I'm not sure why I never went back and read more Raymond Chandler.  (I guess I have nobody but myself to blame for missing out on more great books.)  But if you want to see an author take the pulpy exploitative genre of the hard-drinking private-detective story, and turn it into an art form, read this book.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (review here)
Perhaps judged simply as a story, this isn't the best book in the world.  But as a creator of a sort of modern mythology, Robert Louis Stevenson is brilliant.  He fully creates this whole world of pirate lore and pirate mythology.

The Golden Compass Trilogy by Philip Pullman (reviews here, here and here)
I started these books fairly cynical--typical YA fiction, I thought, typical child-hero protagonist.  Typical fantasy world.
But then the second book introduces the concept of multiple universes, and all of a sudden the possibilities and imagination in these books kicks into overdrive, and I was hooked.

The Flashman Series by George MacDonald Fraser (list of reviews here)
I hesitate to recommend these books for all of the reasons listed in my reviews.  (They can be misogynistic, imperialist, racist, and they have a lot of dark humor).  But, I  have to admit they are entertaining.  They certainly kept me coming back for more and more.
The obscure historical notes make these books a delight for any history nerd.  Anyone who's not a history nerd can give them a pass.

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett
A friend of mine recently discovered these books, and read through all of them from beginning to end.
"Didn't it get boring reading so many books from the same series at once?" I asked him.
"Not at all," he said.  "I loved the way Pratchett just kept spinning this world out further and further with each book."
I've been somewhat intrigued by this, and someday have ambitions to read the whole series like he did.
At the moment, however, I've only read a handful of the Discworld books.  Nevertheless, I can recommend all the books that I did read.   Guards! Guards! , Soul Music , The Amazing Maurice and his Educated RodentsThe Truth , The Color of Magic , Thief of Time , Night Watch , Interesting Times , Monstrous Regiment , and Going Postal.

Other Notes, Disclaimers, and Addendums

* Just to be clear, this is not a list of my top 10 favorite books of all time, but rather just the top ten since I started regularly reviewing books on my blog in 2006.  I was already 27 by that point, and past my most formative years. All of the books which really made a big impression on me were books I read before the age of 25.

* Nor is this a list of my best book reviews.
In fact, since I have a rather limited vocabulary, I tend to resort to the same few adjectives every time I like a book (fascinating, interesting, brilliant).  And so the books I like the best are also usually the ones I describe with the least skill.  (I think I'm better at articulating why I don't like a book than I am at putting my finger on exactly why I like particular book.  So I tend to be happier with my negative reviews than with my positive reviews.)

* I've mentioned before the flaws inherent in a list like this, but perhaps it bears repeating.  First of all this is just my own subjective tastes--which is why so many books about history and historical fiction tend to rank so high.
Secondly, even within my own subjective tastes it's flawed in the sense that I have difficulty quantifying my feelings, and that my feelings change from day to day.  Ask me how I feel tomorrow, and you may well find a completely different list.
And then over the passage of ten years, the memory fades somewhat as well.  There are a few books that I think I enjoyed reading well enough at the time, but just don't remember enough to put on this list.
Consider this as just kind of a fun attempt to sort out my favorite fiction books from the past ten years, rather than a definitive list.

* I'll admit, this list is double-dipping a bit, because I have already done two favorite lists of fiction in the past: my list of all the classic books which are fun to read, and my list of my favorite historical fiction.  (I cheated in my list of historical fiction, because I decided that I liked them all.)  If you read those lists, you'll find a lot of the same books repeated here.

Tomorrow, the top ten non-fiction books.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding"

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