4. Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg.
I had - still have - no idea what to make of this book, which is why it's nearly two months later and I'm just now posting about it. In some ways it was enthralling, otherworldly, mesmerizing - in others it was confusing, unconvincing, and unsatisfying. It also committed one of the cardinal sins of storytelling in my eyes - it had an ending so abrupt and random that I kept turning the page, not expecting to be at the end of a chapter, let alone the end of the novel.
The book is translated from the Dutch, which may have something to do with the confusing aspects, but I also think it broke down on several fundamental mechanical levels of storytelling which should transcend language. It's one thing to have a seemingly small mystery pull you into this huge conspiracy, but the protagonist has to have a reason to go there, and the stated reasons didn't do it for me. Smilla felt like a puppet, being pushed here and there by a clumsy storyteller who couldn't get out of the way fast enough.
Hoeg's writing style is still quite enchanting, though; I may see what I think of one of his later works, or if he's written any short stories. A shorter format might do more justice to the otherworldliness of his vision without collapsing under the weight of a plot too cumbersome to stand.
5-11. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
A reread, obviously, but I hadn't read them in many, many years. I'm not sure how long it had been, but I do know the last time I read them I wasn't consciously aware of the Christian allegory (and when I did find out, I deliberately didn't read them again for a very long time, not wanting my childhood experience warped by a mythology I honestly find quite distasteful).
One thing that struck me this time round was the subtle racism in the Narnian world, especially in The Horse and His Boy; but keeping in mind that these books were written in the 40s and 50s, they're still quite enlightened for their time, for even though the dark-skinned southern cultures were corrupt, individual members of them could still rise above the culture, and there was even interracial marriage.
My favorite one remains The Silver Chair; my least favorite, The Last Battle.
12. Kiln People, by David Brin
After having loved Brin's early work, and been massively let down by the recent Uplift Trilogy, I finally dared to pick up his latest novel (albeit still a few years old). And I am so glad I did.
This is some of the best that science fiction can be - it takes a simple scientific or technological advancement, throws it into human society, lets it simmer, and tells a human story with what comes out. In this case, the advancement is the ability to upload human consciousness into temporary clay golems, which experience life fully for a day and then either return for uploading of memories into the original, or disintegration and recycling. What emerges is a society both alien and compelling, and of a richness that takes some serious talent to communicate without getting in the way of the story itself.
The book does fall prey to one problem which is admittedly a peeve of mine when it comes to science fiction - it tries, in the end, to solve every mystery of the human condition and transcend utterly out of known reality - which is great, but after 90% of the book being a regular old human story, to cram all this existential stuff in at the very end really throws you for a bit of a loop. It would have made a great third book of a trilogy - but so many writers try to do this sort of thing as the climax of a single novel, and in my mind it just takes away from the rest of the story.
But the book is still fantastic despite that, as an exploration into human psychology and sociology if nothing else (and those are two of my favorite things ever).