Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Favorite Books of the Year: 2010

I continue to be grumpy on this subject: it may be possible to do a list of the best or most notable books published in a given year before that year is complete -- as long as one has absolute knowledge of publishing schedules, and nothing unexpected happens [1] -- but one's favorite books of a year cannot be known until the very end of that year, as long as one continues reading.

So, once again, I declare all of the media outlets with their "Best of 2010" lists popping up as early as October -- I'm looking at you, Amazon, and it's not an approving glance -- to be severely missing the point, as usual.

On the other hand, my own choices are idiosyncratic as usual, given my rules:
  • These are "favorites" rather than "best," which is important.
  • I don't break books down by category, but pit them all against each other.
  • I do try to gravitate towards new books as much as possible, but not always.
  • I pick one favorite book for each month, so this is a Top Twelve.
(The terminally curious may want to glance back at the books I liked best in previous years: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005.)

As usual, there is some commentary, and there are some runners-up; those who want just the list should skip to the end. There are links to individual reviews of the books, where available (pretty much all here, this year); those of you who are trying to waste a lot of time might also poke your head into my Book-A-Day 2010 Index, which includes everything I reviewed (and nearly everything I read) from February 4th onward.

But perhaps most important is the fact that although I read 361 books last year, there were several orders of magnitude more books than that published, plus gigantic tottering piles of books published in earlier years (both on my specific to-be-read shelves and in general in the world). I make no claim that these books below are better than anything else -- I'm sure I missed vastly more good books than I read -- but these are good ones, worth reading.

I saw three excellent graphic novels to begin 2010 -- not all of them new -- in Dash Shaw's formalist collection The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., Nick Bertozzi's energetic The Salon, and Paul Hornschemeier's devastating Mother, Come Home. Notable on the nonfiction side was the amusing How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein and the thoughtful The Book of William by Paul Collins. But the best thing I read in January was Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, a novel that saw him take his amusing concepts and quicksilver wit and wrap them into a deeper, stronger, more resonant story, without the easy escapes and reader-nudges of his earlier series.

There were two very enjoyable collections of miscellaneous writings from two fine American writers of very different centuries: Michael Chabon's rambling and capacious Manhood for Amateurs and the intriguing bits-of-string compilation Who Is Mark Twain? Kage Baker's Not Less Than Gods was a suitable send-off for her "Company" universe -- we all wish it didn't happen so quickly, but that book will stand as a placeholder for all of the future related books she didn't get to write. Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw collected some of his better short pieces, in which I detected a growing preference for complexity over easy answers. C. Tyler's You'll Never Know was a strong addition to the growing shelves of graphic memoirs. And the best thing I read is, sadly for the rest of you, the hardest for people on this side of he Pacific to find: the third volume of a great urban fantasy graphic novel series from Philippine creators Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, Trese: Mass Murders.

The most entertaining book I read this month was Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland, the second collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books edited by David Rose. It was also a month for books about other books, with the Kerouac-Lovecraft mash-up Move Under Ground from Nick Mamatas and the secret history of comics in Dylan Horrock's Hicksville. Joe Hill's second horror novel, Horns, almost lived up to the promise of his first book and best short stories. Hans Rickheit's The Squirrel Machine was an impressive clanking contraption that I didn't really understand. Brooke A. Allen's debut graphic novel A Home for Mr. Easter was incredibly impressive, not just for a first book but in general. But my favorite book had to be the third Hengis Hapthorn novel from Matthew Hughes, Hespira.

The best thing I read this month, by far, was Ian Tregillis's debut novel Bitter Seeds, an alternate-history WWII novel that managed the difficult feat of not trivializing one of the most deadly conflicts the world has ever known through its fictions, but, instead, found new avenues to explore the real-world horrors through invented ones. Also notable were Gene Wolfe's typically thorny novel The Sorcerer's House; Megan Kelso's saga of families and wars, Artichoke Tales; James Kochalka's everyday epiphanies in American Elf, Book Three; and John Lanchester's clear-eyed layman's explication of the financial crisis in I.O.U.. On the pure entertainment (and raw jealousy) front, it was hard to beat Stephen Fry in America, the record of extensive trips through all fifty states.

There were a number of interesting nonfiction books this month: the amusing and inspirational Causing a Scene by Charlie Todd and Alex Scordalis; the purely amusing Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded by John Scalzi; Michael Lewis's sidelong glance at the big winners of the market crash, The Big Short; and the thoughtful and (I hope) deeply useful The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan began a fine steampunky alternate-history series. But the best book of the month was an amazing collection of silent comics from a Philippine creator, Manix Abrera, 12 -- not just the best of the month, but one of the best comics I've ever seen.

Molly Crabapple and John Leavitt's sexy and rollicking graphic novel Scarlett Takes Manhattan was a hoot. John Scalzi's novella The God Engines was unexpectedly dark, and almost entirely successful. Taiyo Masumoto's Gogo Monster was a subtle, engrossing look at perception, outsiderdom, and growing up. But the best of what was admittedly a weak month was Ian McEwan's almost SFnal Solar, a novel that wasn't quite as humorous as its author thought it was but still had major strengths.

William Poundstone's Priceless didn't quite do what it seemed about to do, but it did cover a lot of ground and excellently explained modern pricing theory and practice (which is much more interesting, and important, than it sounds). Matt Kindt's 2 Sisters was a typically dark and spy-obsessed graphic novel from a great creator. The anthology Swords & Dark Magic -- edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders -- provided exactly the kind of stories I love, done very well by some of the best in the business. Dash Shaw's second major graphic novel BodyWorld married the formalism and SFnal impulses of his shorter stories to the sweep of his first book, Bottomless Belly Button. And I nearly made the winner this month Jason Shiga's muliplex book of wonders Meanwhile -- which was published as a graphic novel for young readers, but is so much more than that -- until I realized I'd missed something. The real book of the month was in three huge slipcased volumes, presenting the fiendishly awesome work of several decades: Gahan Wilson's Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons.

Tom Rachman's novel of parts, The Imperfectionists, was just as good, and as capacious, as the literary critics said it was -- and that was very good indeed. Tom Bissell's examination of videogames, Extra Lives, didn't touch on my own experience of gaming except tangentially, but it was still a great explication of the form and defense of what games can do. Raina Telgemeier's Smile was a nearly perfect graphic memoir, turning personal experience into a story for all of us. Simon Rich's Free-Range Chickens was wickedly funny. But the best of the month was Charles Stross's third "Laundry Files" novel, the darkly funny and edge-of-apocalpytically thrilling The Fuller Memorandum.


China Mieville produced my choice for the best novel yet of his career in the groundedly fantastic Kraken. Aaron Renier's rollicking, full-of-wonders graphic novel The Unsinkable Walker Bean gets better the more I think about it. Jeff Lemire's graphic novel The Nobody took an old story and retold it well in a new place. Jen Wang's luminous first graphic novel Koko Be Good appropriated the energy and vivaciousness of romantic comedy to tell a story about people finding themselves, instead of each other. Gabrielle Bell turned her own everyday life into art in the comics stories of Lucky. And the best of the month was Harry Connolly's unflinching, tense second novel Game of Cages, an urban fantasy that short-circuts miles of the standard justifications and romanticizations of the genre.

Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio's big anthology Stories, like the world itself, had a lot of good stories, and a few that weren't so good. Jason's new graphic novel, Werewolves of Montpelier, slotted in right next to his other excellent books, with the same usual descriptors: wry, understated, deadpan. Charles Burns began a big new story with his graphic novel X'ed Out, though there's no sign of an ending any time soon. Kage Baker's coming-of-age fantasy novel The Bird of the River was an unexpected last word from a writer who died, much too early, at the beginning of the year. Miles Kington's How Shall I Tell the Dog? was a surprisingly funny look at impending death from the inside. But Darwyn Cooke's second adaptation from the writer usually known as Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit, was uniquely remarkable, with Cooke pulling out all of his neo-Sixties chops and stylistic tricks to make a timeless thriller of a graphic novel.

James Enge's This Crooked Way was a really good sword & sorcery fix-up, the kind of book that I thought died out in 1982 but was thrilled to see return. Reading Ambrose Bierce's A Cynic Looks at Life reminded me to pull my eyes away from the relentless churn of contemporary publishing more often. The Hernandez Brothers proved again that they're the masters of contemporary comics with Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 3, featuring a devastating new Jaime story, "Browntown." I finally caught up with Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's understated, clear-eyed Demo, a collection of comics stories about young people different in unlikely and unwanted ways. But the best of the month was Larry Gonick's capstone to three decades of work: The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part II, which explains everything about everything from the past two centuries.

I was thrilled to see a big yellow collection of David Boswell's meanly funny comics as Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman, Volume One. Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight was another vital and thoughtful novel from one of the masters of modern fantasy. Denys Wortman's New York was an amazing rediscovery -- from James Sturm and Brandon Elston of the Center for Cartoon Studies -- of an incredibly vital, but now forgotten, cartoonist of the mid-20th century. I might wish that Bill Bryson would write slightly different books, but his At Home was still a joy to read from beginning to end. The latest translation from Osamu Tezuka's vast backlist of incredible graphic novels was the dark family saga Ayako. And the book of the month, I'm afraid, is a slight cheat: I'm not quite done with Eddie Campbell's Alec: "The Years Have Pants", a massive compendium of his autobiographical comics from the past thirty years, but that's entirely because I spent most of today (the last of 2010) typing the words you see above. Alec can't wait for my best of 2011 list; even if I don't manage to finish it by midnight tonight (and I might!), It's on this year's list.

And the compiled Favorite Books of 2010, arranged alphabetically:
  • 12 by Manix Abrera
  • Alec: "The Years Have Pants" by Eddie Campbell
  • Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
  • The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part II by Larry Gonick
  • Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons by Gahan Wilson
  • The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
  • Game of Cages by Hary Connolly
  • Hespira by Matthew Hughes
  • Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke
  • Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
  • Solar by Ian McEwan
  • Trese: Mass Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo

[1] These two conditions, of course, apply exactly never.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

12 by Manix Abrera and Trese: Mass Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo are for the win! great review :)

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