This was a great year for my reading. My New Years Resolution was actually useful for once: to give up on books that made no engaging impression. I read some things that infuriated me, or non-fiction that I strongly disagreed with, but that’s good for me. What I didn’t do was wade through 600-page tomes of sloppy prose and stale characterization. That let me blaze through more inspiring books this year than in any recently remembered one. I actually ran into a problem mid-summer where I’d read so much fiction of incredible quality that merely good fiction few too unambitious and made poor impressions on me. That’s an unusual problem for me.
And so I’m very happy to run a list of those books that shook me up the strongest this year. These are my favorites. There’s no order to the list because I wouldn’t even say most are better than each other – they’ve different, with different appeals and strengths that don’t compare easily. Fantasy, SciFi, YA, comic books, literary fiction, classics, bestsellers… it’s been a good 2012 for reading.
|Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny|
Beyond the success of seamless style adoption, Lord of Light also has the utmost faith in its readers. That premise of false gods? We don’t even know what they really are until deep into the novel, up which they might be real gods, or this might be a surreal fantasy.Halfway through you won’t even be thinking about the things you’ve figured out that the text hasn’t said, but has presented so many gaps that you’ve filled in. The ending is the greatest achievement, because there are at least two gigantic secrets on the final page that Zelazny never tips his hat about, but if you’ve been paying attention to their technology works, will rock you back in your seat. We’ve all seen twist endings. Precious few writers leave so many secret twists for you to find if you’re thinking.
|A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin|
I dearly wish I’d grown up with this, because if you gave me Ged’s story at the same time as Bilbo’s, I might cherish them equally. It’s beyond succinct – it’s almost a true “good parts” version of an adventure story. Not too much time in Wizard School, not too much exposition on anything, with highly invested and personal stakes that take us around an incredible archipelago. It’s only a shame the later books in the trilogy didn’t land for me. I respect LeGuin writing them in different styles and taking them in different directions, but it was only this story that got me. It reads like it’s made only from 100% premium ingredients. And that dragon showdown?
|Let the Right One In by John Avidge Lindqvist|
As I said on the Halloween episode of Consumed, take whatever version of this you want. The Swedish move features some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen, Let Me in is a high-end remake, and the novel is the most robust version of all of them. It’s equal parts classic monsters (vampires and ghouls need their prey) and familiar monsters (child prostitution, bullies going too far), without choosing one as better or easier. The true achievement is that in an excessive harmful world, finding a kindred spirit validates continuing to live. It’s not a mere love story between two kids, but a story of two kids who are everything to each other: playmate, philosopher, leader, hero, boyfriend, distraction, confidant, and most crucial to the childhood experience, personal enigma.
Akin to Lord of Light, it also deserves a shout-out for its ending. In this case it’s because, four hundred pages in, there were still at least five different ways I could see the book ending. It doesn’t build up a solitary resolution; there are so many messy parts that can collide. What’s delivered is the best kind of ending: the one that is fitting to the characters.
|Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore|
It seems like I always have a comic book on my list, but that’s because geniuses are attracted to the art form. Randall Nichols sent me this for Christmas two years ago, I believe in an attempt to embarrass me in front of my family when I unwrapped it and they all saw the sexy cover.
It may be the first Romantic-type work to make my #bestreads list, though according to conservative definitions, it’s not a Romance. Love is a prime motivation for most of the characters, such that the story is really about what this emotion does to people who can’t effectively approach or change each other. Love for a dying friend, love for a friend who can’t reciprocate, love you don’t understand – all told idiosyncratically, and as affecting when it’s funny as when it’s defeated.
|Among Others by Jo Walton|
In the Hugos this year, I actually voted for China Mieville’s Embassytown, yet Among Others is the contestant that’s stuck with me the longest. Based largely on Walton’s own childhood, the novel is the diary of a troubled girl. Something – we’ll find out what – severely hurt her leg, killed her sister, and caused her to be taken away from her mother’s custody. Yet as maudlin as some entries are, others are flighty in exactly the way teens actually are: naively judgmental, ignorant in the way of someone who never gets to talk to other people about sex or drugs or culture, flipping between enormous topics with only passing interest.
And then there’s the layer of her claiming to see fairies and know magic. She could be in a Fantasy world that no one else knows about, or crazy (we suspect her mother is, if she isn’t an evil witch), or a helpless teen mythologizing her own life to make it more livable. Her voice is so artless that figuring out the truth is slippery, right up into the end.
|Embassytown by China Mieville|
I’ll stand by Embassytown, though. It’s perilous SciFi, the kind of gutsy stuff precious few writers will even try. In a pocket of subspace, humanity has met and ghettoized an alien species that is truly unlike us. They speak from more than one mouth, they modify intent through external organs, and they have no capacity to fabricate – they can’t lie or even construct fiction, and host contests for who can get the closest to saying an untruth.
It’s Mieville, though, so it isn’t about bad-bad humans and goody-good aliens morally shaming us. Rather that alien culture is dangerous and has its own troubled histories, and we colonists are an external force driving social change. There’s a lot of Marxist stuff packed into the novel’s cheeks, but again, it’s Mieville. His language penchant for atypical characterization make even the most didactic passages worth studying.
|The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta|
Marketed as “The Secular Rapture,” Perrotta presents a world where one day, millions of people have simply vanished. No apparent cause is ever discovered, and there’s no commonality between the victims. The novel is about dealing with loss, and we watch a cult rise, a family fall apart, a man turn into a drifter, and a mother turn into a walking ghost. Unlike 9/11, this is something we can’t punish anyone for or beat. The event is a crucible, resonating with the many ways in which humans lose, and the many ways loss affects us. It has a bit of a Mitch Albom ending, but I hardly minded. Perrotta had certainly earned it.
|Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch|
The only author on the list that I actually met this year, and a very nice one. I would not have expected a friendly volunteer firefighter to have written this incredibly cynical novel about a hundred thieves and politicians backstabbing each other, but I’m glad he did, because Lynch has an incredible balance of wit and world. He pulled off flashbacks that I actually liked, for crying out loud. It’s easily one of my favorite recently-published Fantasy novels, and one of the strongest debut novels I’ve read in at least a decade. It even possesses strengths of picaresque, so often being about specific cons or ploys that only mushroom into something bigger later.
6. Chuck Allen
8. Maria Kelly
9. T.S. Bazelli
10. Beverly Fox
11. Sonia Lal
12. Linda Wastilla
15. Claire McAlpine
16. Dorothee Lang