Mostly, this is a post about books. Shocking, right? I bet you had no idea I like books. It’s not like I ever talk about books or anything. It’s not like I obsessively acquire them, or want to fill every room in my house with them, or sleep curled up around a pile of them or anything. Not at all. So on that note, in no particular order, I present you with a list of books, some old, some new, which constitutes my officially unofficial Bestest Reads of 2012.
Kraken by China Mieville
I am a fan of China Mieville. He has an amazing knack for re-inventing his writing style from book to book, not to mention the fact he’s insanely prolific. Kraken may be one of my favorites of his so far. Squid cults! Living ink! Folding men! London-mancers! Glass angels! I could go on, but I’m afraid I’d be cited for abuse of exclamation points! Suffice it to say, I loved the world-building, the richness of the language, the dense, tanglyness of the prose, and the way even throw away concepts mentioned in a line or two seemed like they could open up into entire novels or stories of their own.
Last Call by Tim Powers
Last Call hit so many of my fictional weakness, it’s almost like it was written just for me: the gritty, noirish feel, unconventional systems of magic with deep roots in history and mythology, compelling, down-on-their luck characters, beautiful turns of phrase, and a pitch-perfect voice all the way through. Parts of it reminded me of another of my favorite books, Barth Anderson’s The Magician and the Fool, which, now that I’ve read both, I could very easily see having been inspired by Last Call. As the best books do, Last Call managed to be both completely satisfying, and leave me wanting more.
The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlin R. Kiernan
I’ve already raved about this book here before, so in attempt not to repeat myself, I’ll just say: Read this book now. Seriously. It’s beautiful and haunting, and it continues to linger with me even now, months after finishing it.
Among Others by Jo Walton
Among Others is a love letter to books and reading, and speculative fiction in particular. It’s also a subtle kind of book, deftly blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and it is richer for those bits it leaves open to interpretation. The characters are beautifully realized, and the world feels complete and real, which makes perfect sense given that Walton has said the book is at least somewhat autobiographical.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
This book surprised me in many ways. It surprised me that I had never read it before, and that every time I mentioned it to someone, they had read it already and raved about its brilliance. How did it manage to slip under my radar for so long? It also surprised me how much I enjoyed it, as non-fiction generally isn’t my thing, and it surprised me which parts of the book I found most appealing. The sordid history of America’s first known serial killer seemed like it should have been right up my alley, but the sections about the Chicago World’s Fair were the parts I found most compelling. If you happen to be a person who thinks they aren’t particularly interested in non-fiction, as I was, this may the book to change your mind.
Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors by Livia Llewellyn
There is not a false note among the stories in this collection. Taken as a whole, they are gorgeous and brutal, lovely in a way that makes them worth every bit of darkness and pain. They are not easy stories, nor should they be. They are tales for those who like fiction that makes them uncomfortable, pushes them out of the complacency of the world, and also reveals beauty in the shadows. I can’t wait for Llewellyn’s next collection.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible’s brilliance lies in its characters, which are so incredibly drawn that reading becomes an immersive experience. You understand exactly where each character is coming from, even when you don’t agree with their point of view. Their voices are very real, very distinct, and very human. You live the novel as much as you read it, seeing it in turn through each character’s eyes. It is very much set in the real world, telling the story of a missionary family living in Africa, but the novel has the epic feel of a fat fantasy novel in a way. You journey with the characters, and by the end, you feel like you’ve watched them grow up and live their entire lives.
Filaria by Brent Hayward
Filaria is another book with fascinating world-building at work, and intriguing characters weaving in and out of each others’ lives. The world is a machine, or it isn’t, and time is slippery; nothing rests easy, and there’s a sense of something unsettling going on just beneath the surface of everything that you never quite get to see. It isn’t a book for people who like neat endings, with every wrapped up tidily and all questions answered. There are messy bit, frayed threads left un-followed, which hint at a larger world. When done right, which Filaria was, I enjoy stories that suggest at a larger reality that spills off the page, where there’s a sense that the world keeps on going whether you’re there to read about it or not.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
I will know something is seriously wrong with the state of the world the year I assemble a ‘best of’ list and there isn’t a work by Catherynne Valente on it. Revels is the second of the Fairyland books, and every bit as rich and gorgeous as the first. I appreciate books for young audiences that never talk down to their readers, either in subject matter, language choices, or the intricacy of the prose. Valente’s Fairyland is riddled with darkness, and it is even more evident here than in the first book, as it takes place in Fairyland’s shadow, showing the flip side of things, the consequences of magic, and forcing the heroine to make difficult decisions where the right and wrong are not always clear.
Beyond Binary edited by Brit Mandelo
The stories selected for this anthology did a brilliant job of showing a wide range of sexuality and the diverse possibilities surrounding the concept of identity. There were only one or two stories that didn’t seem to fit the theme, or didn’t work for me on a prose level. The best stories were so breathtaking that those that fell flat for me probably only did so because they had so much to live up to. Any anthology that puts Kelley Eskridge’s The Eye of the Storm right up front is giving the stories that come after a very tough act to follow. However, most of the stories were more than up to the challenge, and even if they hadn’t been, the anthology would have been worth the price for Eskridge’s story and Nalo Hopkinson’s Fisherman alone.
I could go on, but ten seems like a good place to cut it off. However, a few honorable mentions are due: Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear – full of Bear’s typical, gorgeous prose, and leaving me wanting to read more set in this world; Expiration Date by Tim Powers – more ambitious than Last Call, and because it was trying to do so much it fell short in some places for me, but there were some truly intriguing concepts here and the story will definite stick with me; The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich – another book that leaves lose ends, remains stubbornly open to interpretation, refuses to explain itself, and works with dense, looping prose; Lauriat edited by Charles Tan – a wonderful sampler of Chinese-Filipino fantastic literature, with a few truly stand-out stories; and Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey – demons, tattoos, intriguing world-building, and engaging characters, not to mention being damned good fun.
Stay turned for part 2, which will cover some of my favorite short fiction of the year, and possibly some other miscellaneous odds and ends if I’m feeling ambitious.