Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Favorite Books of 2012

This is the seventh annual year-end "Best Books of 2012" list from Antick Musings; it's possibly the only major annual milestone that I haven't forgotten at least once. Prior years are only a link away: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

I should explain my idiosyncrasies, since I certainly have them:

First, I do this list on the last day of the year, and cast aspersions on any "Best of the Year" list done any sooner. My point is slightly muted by not getting any reading done on my Christmas vacation this year, but making a list of the best anything of a year before that year is done is, I will always argue, cheating.

Second, these are "favorites" rather than "best." That's partially to avoid arguments, but also because I don't entirely believe that I can decide what are the objectively "best" books.

Third, this has to be based on what I read this year, and so it doesn't include a lot of notable new books (because I didn't read them) and does include somewhat older books (since I found them this year).

Fourth, it's not based on genre of any kind -- I came out of the SFF world originally, and I've reviewed comics (from various nations), but my reading, and hence my lists, also includes various kinds of non-fiction, literary fiction, and some less classifiable things. If you don't like your kinds of books touching, like peas and mashed potatoes, this will not be the list for you.

Fifth, I write a sentence or two about the contenders each month, making a longer list of books worth reading (for the right readers).

Sixth and Last, I pick one book from each month to make a Top Twelve, which is doubly quirky: it gives me an extra two slots, but forces me to pick a best book each month, even if some months had two top-notch books. Since these lists are all arbitrary anyway, I like the way this particular rule really lampshades that.

This year, I read 158 books -- up a bit from last year's 146, but still down substantially from the average 343 books a year I read semi-consistently from 1991 through 2010. (I didn't keep track before the fall of 1990.) For whatever reason -- backlash after the end of the big Book-A-Day run in 2010, my new iPad around that time, increased stress and workload at the day job, sunspots, Alien Space Bats -- I've gone from reading a book nearly every day to reading one about every 2-3 days. That does mean I saw fewer books than in the past, but, on the other hand, the other books were in large part SF art books, masses of manga, and other art-heavy and quite generic material.

And here's what I read this past year that was worth remembering:

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 was easily his biggest novel, though not his best -- there were good things about it, but it's best left to Murakami aficionados. Tim Powers's collection The Bible Repairman and Other Stories was a fine slim collection of good stories by an excellent fantasy writer. Paul Hornschemeier's Life With Mr. Dangerous was a fine graphic novel about being young and unconnected. Bright's Passage was a tightly focused first novel by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, and was exactly the kind of novel you'd expect an artist like that to produce. And the best book of the month, unsurprisingly, was Julian Barnes's Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending.

This is one of those months with a plethora of half-decent choices and no obvious winners. Peter Ackroyd's short history London Under was a bit too short and too scattered; Michael Lewis's Boomerang was engrossing but an extended exercise in blaming the victims of the financial crisis rather than attacking the perpetrators. David Koenig's history of Walt Disney World, Realityland, was enthusiastically amateur, in both good and bad senses of the term; P.J. O'Rouke's Holidays In Heck showed that, yes, O'Rourke is a closed-minded, grumpy old man entirely resting on his laurels, but some of those laurels are still pretty entertaining. So it has to come down to the genre saviors -- either Scott Westerfeld's steampunk YA trilogy-ender Goliath, or Drew Weing's small-format graphic novel Set to Sea. In the end, Weing's book has lived more strongly in my memory, so the top of the month is Set to Sea.

The first novel for younger readers under the name of Daniel Handler -- much better known to that audience for writing books as Lemony Snicket -- was the excellent and carefully organized Why We Broke Up, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds was a very idiosyncratic look at the SF world, from a writer who had repeatedly denied having anything to do with that world (which she explains, even more idiosyncratically, in the book). Jon Ronson -- he who previously wrote about men who stare at goats -- wandered around a bit in The Psychopath Test, but its best pieces are engrossing and its least-connected pieces are still entertaining. Stephen Fry's second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, wasn't nearly as gripping and necessary as his first, Moab Is My Washpot, but that's the curse of success, isn't it? And I should mention George O'Connor's Hades: Lord of the Dead, the latest in a series of graphic adaptation of Greek myths ostensibly for younger readers. But the best book this month was Bill Mauldin's sixty-year-old cartoons, as collected in Willie & Joe: Back Home.

This is another month with three decent choices -- which I read, back to back, right at the beginning of the month -- none of which is perfect. I wanted to like Charles Stross's Rule 34 better than I did; it's s tremendous achievement, but, sometimes, just reading it also felt like an achievement, as Stross tried to cram in every possible speculation of how life might be different ten years in the future. Ludovic Deburme's graphic novel Lucille (which I read in translation, for what that's worth) was dark but strong -- so there's some beer metaphor struggling to escape. But I think I'll award the crown for this month to Case Histories, the book that launched an unlikely detective series for its author, the literary novelist Kate Atkinson.  

And then there were a bunch of good books the next month: Rudy Rucker's memoir of a life in SF and math, Nested Scrolls, Tim Powers's fine new novel Hide Me Among the Graves, Steve Erickson's rich and allegorically topical novel These Dreams of You, and Ysabeau S. Wilce's barn-burner of a trilogy finale, Flora's Fury. But the two best books this month -- by far -- were both graphic novels, both fearless and groundbreaking and intensely original. Since, by my own rules, I can't put them both on the list, Anders Nilsen's vast and encompassing Big Questions has to yield, even if only slightly, to Ray Fawkes's even more expansive, big-hearted, and human One Soul, one of the most uplifiting books I've ever read.

I read only five books in June -- my reading life was the casualty of two big business trips and a "fun" trip chaperoning my fourteen-year-old and sever hundred other kids of the same age -- so this will be a hard decision. It will not be John Scalzi's Redshirts, believe you me -- Scalzi is seriously slumming there -- but it also won't be the old things I read or the further evidence of Frank Miller's descent into madness, Holy Terror. No, the only possible choice for June is Matthew Stover's Caine's Law, the fourth in a very bloody, and bloodily fascinating, SF/Fantasy series about death and power and family and love and other painful things.

There were a bunch of good books this month -- on the fantasy side, Jasper Fforde's first book official for young readers, The Last Dragonslayer, and Mary Robinette Kowal's second Regency, Glamour in Glass; and, on the comics side, Osamu Tezuka's dark classic The Book of Human Insects and Guy Delisle's story of his year-long life in Jerusalem. I also read an excellent non-fiction book, Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar-retracing Ghost Train to the Evening Star. But the best book of the month was the gripping, pitch-black Cold War fantasy The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis.

I read all kinds of odd things in August, including two very different but similarly good books about properties belonging to Walt's old buddy The Mouse (Chris Strodder's The Disneyland Encyclopedia and Leonard Kinsey's The Dark Side of Disney), two wonderfully goofy graphic novels (Teen Boat! by Dave Roman and John Green, and Joe Daly's Dungeon Quest, Book Three) and Matthew Hughes's superhero trilogy middle Costume Not Included. On the more serious side, Derf Backderf's graphic novel of a childhood buddy, My Friend Dahmer, was compelling and carefully constructed. And the best book of the month was the latest in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files," the evangelical-tweaking, Armageddon-whistling-past The Apocalypse Codex.

Easily the best book I read this month was William Carlos Williams's book-length poem Paterson, but that doesn't count -- I've read it at least twice before, and it's around sixty years old. Otherwise, it was another month of mixed decent books, with three pretty good non-fiction books (Susan Cain's bestseller Quiet, William Gibson's odds-and-sods Distrust That Particular Flavor, and Thomas Frank's rabble-rousing Pity the Billionaire), and three decent graphic novels (Mark Kalesniko's dark-side-of-Hollywood-animation Freeway, Raina Telgemeier's sweet tween-romance Drama, and Darwyn Cook's flinty, stylish adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker: The Score). But the best book of the month was Daniel Pinkwater's latest quirky, weird masterpiece, Bushman Lives!, one of the several utterly sublime books that Pinkwater has given to the world.

I read a really good first novel this month that I haven't managed to write anything about yet -- Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead, a secondary-world fantasy with slightly steampunky elements that's really more of a legal thriller. And I read a bunch of good graphic novels -- Kevin Huizenga's unclassifiable Gloriana, Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover's obliquely told Gingerbread Girl, Eddie Campbell's money-focused The Lovely Horrible Stuff, Kevin Cannon's epic Arctic adventure Far Arden, the Joycean biography Dotter of Her Father's Eyes by cartoonist Bryan Talbot and his wife/Joyce scholar/professor Mary M. Talbot, the surprisingly light and entertaining STD-themed Monsters by Ken Dahl (another book I haven't managed to write about yet), Michel Rabagliati's latest Quebecois slice-of-life story, the deep and resonant The Song of Roland, and Jeff Lemire's moody family story The Underwater Welder (also as yet unreviewed here). But the best book of the month was prose, and non-fiction -- Alina Simone's memoir of her life in and out of rock 'n' roll (and in and out of Russia, and in and out of a number of other fascinating things), You Must Go and Win.

Two funny series books are worth mentioning -- the series-starting The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz, and the most recent book in the Thursday Next series, Jasper Fforde's The Woman Who Died a Lot. Ian McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, was mildly disappointing but worth reading. A graphic novel Western by two creators I was totally unfamiliar with -- JT Petty & Hilary Florido's Bloody Chester -- was strong and smart and darkly exciting, so much so that I haven't managed to review it yet. I re-read Daniel Handler's first novel, the awesomely unreliably-narrated The Basic Eight, but I really shouldn't list that as the best of this month. Luckily, I moved from that book to Handler's alter-ego Lemony Snicket's new book, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?", which is nearly as sneaky but substantially funnier. (And I'll actually review it eventually.)

This has been another slim month -- only six books -- but several of them are worth mentioning, from Terry Pratchett's early-Victorian problem novel Dodger to Lois McMaster Bujold's return to the Vorkosiverse in Lord Vorpatril's Alliance. But the best book, for the most bittersweet reason (he's ending the strip as of December 31) is James Kochalka's American Elf, Book Four -- four years of daily diary comics by a master of the form.

And then the full Top Twelve, re-arranged into alphabetical order:
  • Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • Ray Fawkes, One Soul
  • James Kochalka, American Elf, Book Four
  • Bill Mauldin, Willie & Joe: Back Home
  • Daniel Pinkwater, Bushman Lives!
  • Alina Simone, You Must Go and Win
  • Lemony Snicket, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?"
  • Matthew Stover, Caine's Law
  • Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex
  • Ian Tregillis, The Coldest War
  • Drew Weing, Set to Sea

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