Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#BestReads2012

Welcome to Best Reads 2012! If you've got a list of your own on a blog or tumblr, give us a link in the comments and I'll add you to this post.


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
The most ambitious success I’ve read all year. It begins with a dynamite premise: in the far future, a space colony is ruled by a caste of humans who have deified themselves by hording the only technology from the old world, living as Hindu gods in hedonism over a superstitious world. To embrace this rich concept, Zelazny leaps from style to style, his intros written like holy sutras and poems, some chapters done in punk or pulp narration, some in the style of religious retrospect, a seduction in monologue, then omniscient narration of a god turned predatory animal. One chapter features a dozen ellipses and paradoxes; the next ten don’t have a single one.

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.

It’s the road novel without the road, but with mob bosses who raise sharks and dump their enemies in kegs of horse urine. And yet, for all its incredible (and sometimes, incredulous) cynicism, my favorite scene is a precious moment where two vagabond boys you expected to enter a blood feud give each other peace offerings and try to talk out why they don’t understand each other. How come mediation only showed up in one of the darker Fantasies I read this year?

More Best Reads!

1.
Katherine Hajer
2. Cindy Vaskova


14. Alexia

 


28 comments:

  1. Interesting. Since I'm not in the world of twitter, here's my annual list: http://pokingbadgerswithspoons.blogspot.com/2012/12/2012-in-books.html

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    1. What played well about Brideshead for you?

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    2. The language, the theme. The language. It is so very well-written, and you know I've got a thing for memory and nostalgia, which feature heavily in the work. Look up some quotes to get a good feel.

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  2. I will have to go back through this list and consider it further. Thank you - I loved The Wizard of Earthsea, and have always liked Roger Zelazny. The rest are new to me, and promise treaats in store. I also do not play twitter, and my list can be found at http://myjustsostory.blogspot.com.au/

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    1. Kempe was a terribly interesting woman. It was neat to read your impressions of her.

      Have you read Lord of Light?

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    2. No, I haven't read Lord of Light. Yet.

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  3. Some thoughtful reviews here, John. Among Others sounds like it's right up my alley and I love the cover of The Leftovers, although, before I read your review, I thought it was about stinky feet.

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    1. Perhaps its cover played better during the Rapture craze earlier this year. It's an excellent book, though. And I hope you enjoy Among Others!

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  4. Got my list up! Hopefully, I'll get to read a few when I get back home.

    I think I've heard of all the books on your list except Strangers in Paradise and The Leftovers and have only read one. Great list! Thanks for hosting, John.

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    1. Added you to the collector! Which of these books had you read?

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  5. You've gotten my interest here, especially with your first pick. Dammit. Another one on my To-Be-Read list! :D

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    1. I hope you dig it, Gany! Really inspiring fiction for me as a writer.

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  6. Sorry I'm late, but please add me anyway.
    http://bev-thebevelededge.blogspot.com/2012/12/bestreads2012.html

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    1. Boy, you're quick!
      Thank you!!

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    2. Well, you weren't late! And since I'm editing today, I'm able to swap over to the blog and add people. I'm glad to see your list!

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  7. I'm liking a few of these John! As a fan of Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, I'll be definitely reading Lord of Light. Others that caught my attention thanks to your review are Embassytown and The Leftovers. I think I'll like Scott Lynch's novel as well, so it goes on my to read list.
    Let the Right One In has been on my web shelf for a while now. Maybe I need to get down to it!

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  8. A wizard of earth sea is on my tbr list! Also, I love Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, too!!! Too bad I didn't read it this year, otherwise I could have picked it for my Best Reads of 2012, too. That goes for Lord of Light too.

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  9. I just posted my list: http://storytreasury.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/best-reads-of-2012/

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  10. These are super. I need to reread Zelazny's stuff, so thanks for the reminder. Also the Tom Perrotta sounds most excellent, so I will try to squeeze in before the end of the holiday break. Here's my quickie list of Best Reads of 2012, a mix of old and new: http://linda-leftbrainwrite.blogspot.com/2012/12/last-minute-stocking-stuffers.html

    Happy Holidays! Peace...

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    1. Had you read Lord of Light before? Added you!

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  11. Our reading rarely intersects, but I'm glad to say that I've found a couple to add to my TBR list. Among Others and Let The Right One In, we've already talked about, but now I've added The Leftovers as well.

    Thanks for reminding us all to do this every year. My list will be up soon...ish. :)

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    1. Just let me know and I'll add you on up, Danni! And please let me know what you think of The Leftovers, even if you can't stand it. Very curious for my friends' responses to that book. It resonated very strongly with me even before the deaths in my family this year.

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  12. Hi John - I found this through Elephant's Child, and together you have inspired me to put together my own list - it's here http://dreamingofopenseas.blogspot.co.nz/2012/12/bestreads2012.html

    I really enjoyed reading your list - thanks for pointing me to a Zelazny I haven't read, and I'll certainly be looking for Among Others

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    1. Welcome, Alexia! I'm happy to add you to the collector, and to read some more thoughts about Reamde.

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  13. Hi all,

    I posted something on my blog too about my favourite books this year. Here's the link:
    http://christinavasilevski.com/2012/12/2012-the-year-in-book-reviews/

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  14. Hi! i arrived here through the Writerly Reader, and just love those year-in-book reflections – they now inspired me to go through my own bookshelf of 2012, too .. really enjoyed that. Thanks! have a great reading year 2013 everyone ~~
    Here’s the link to my blog post: a year in reading: 2012 - cities, voices, zen, poetry, history

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  15. Here's a link to my top reads on my blog Word by Word http://wp.me/p1nUrn-td Thanks

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  16. I always look forward to seeing your reading list, John. The Leftovers and Lord of Light have now been added to my list of future reads. (On a side note, I was disappointed to see that Lord of Light was not available for Kindle yet.)

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