Every year, the Morning News website does a "Tournament of Books" in which a selection of reviewers compare books to one another, elimination style, until only one is left the victor. It's a pleasing concept and an addictive one, especially if you have a particular book or two you root for like a favorite sports team. The only problem is that there seem to be certain biases as to what books get picked for the tournament. Specifically, anything printed under a "genre" imprint (science fiction/fantasy/horror/romance/mystery/thriller/crime/whatever) gets ignored, pretty much as a rule. Which isn't to say they're opposed to genre concepts, for example, this year's tournament included Margaret Atwood's dystopian Year of the Flood, which even she refers to as a speculative fiction novel, though it's published as mainstream. One assumes then that it's not as much an explicit prejudice as simple ignorance.
To rectify the situation, I'm recommending some books from 2009 that were sadly overlooked, and I've recruited two excellent authorities, Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits and Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. It's too late to be included in this years proceedings but hopefully they'll take notice. And next year I plan to be more proactive in letting them know my selections before they begin, so they have no excuse!
Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Originally written in the 1920's, this collection of short stories was repressed by the Soviet government and only achieved publication in Russia in the 1990's. This first English edition of his work reveals the unfortunately named Krzhizhanovsky as a kind of Russian Kafka, with a sensibility anticipating Borges and Thomas Disch. He is the 20th century master we didn't know we had.
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
Vandermeer has positioned himself in the speculative fiction world as a kind of thinking man's fantasy writer, and his latest fantasy noir Finch is as fine an example as any of why he's worth paying attention too. See my interview with him for more on this book.
Last Days by Brian Evenson
2009 produced another great noir, this one gritty, dark and elegant. A physically and emotionally damaged ex-cop finds himself swept up into a complex plot centered around a cult called The Brotherhood of Mutilation, which fetishizes amputation. Bizarre, at turns both horrifying and beautiful, Evenson is a marvelous writer and this is one of his best books.
The Best of Michael Moorcock by Michael Moorcock
20th Century Boys vols 1-6 by Naoki Urasawa
The Tournament of Books chose a puzzling volume for its graphic novel entry this year in Logicomix, not because that book isn't good, but because it isn't fiction, unlike every other entry. A better selection might be all six (they're quick reads) of the 2009 released 20th Century Boys volumes, in which a group of Japanese friends discover their childhood fantasy is being made into a reality by an unknown party, threatening death and devastation on a massive scale. Urasawa is one of Japan's most popular manga creators and in this series he carefully upends and reexamines the cliches and tropes of science fiction manga.
Parker: The Hunter adapted by Darwin Cooke from the novel by Richard Stark
Another graphic novel, and another noir, this one an adaption of a classic novel by Richard Stark. If movie adaptions can be reimagined works of art, there's no reason comics can't as well, and this book shows why.
The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
I sort of want this anthology to be titled "Science Fiction Doesn't Have to be Stupid". There is an assumption in the popular mind, and even in certain circles of SF, that science fiction is aimed at 12-year-olds or must reduce complex issues to overly simplistic metaphors. This book handily demonstrates the falsity of those suppositions, and shows the genre of ideas as a serious and intelligent playground for great writing. Every person who doesn't like or understand science fiction but reads "literary" fiction should read this book immediately.
Ed Champion's Selections
Quoth Edward, "It isn't just genre that they're knocking, but a certain kind of thoughtful or challenging literary book."
China Mieville, THE CITY AND THE CITY
Brian Evenson, FUGUE STATE and LAST DAYS
Richard Powers, GENEROSITY
Catherynne Valente, PALIMPSEST
Sarah Hall, HOW TO PAINT A DEAD MAN
G. Xavier Robillaird, CAPTAIN FREEDOM
Javier Calvo, WONDERFUL WORLD
J. Robert Lennon had TWO books out last year, where are they? CASTLE and PIECES FOR THE LEFT HAND
Any of the five books published by Michael Muhammad Knight
Thomas Pynchon, INHERENT VICE
James Ellroy, BLOOD'S A ROVER
Thomas M. Disch, THE WALL OF AMERICA
Will Self, LIVER
Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS
Sarah Weinman's Selections
I specifically asked Sarah for books in the crime/mystery/thriller genres, since she's far more well-read in them than I am.
Megan Abbott's BURY ME DEEP
Carol O'Connell's BONE BY BONE
Ninni Holmqvist's THE UNIT
Don Carpenter's HARD RAIN FALLING (reissue, but why not?)
Hopefully this will give The Morning News folks something to chew on when next they put together the tournament.
EDIT: See also JF Quackenbush's addendum and errata