Friday, December 31, 2010
Best Reads of 2010
I read 134 books in 2010. The following are my twelve favorites. For variety's sake, each author is limited to a single work, and books that made the previous Best Released list will not be considered here. I’ll post my complete reading list for the year in a few days, so you know what I’m drawing from here.
In alphabetical order, we’ve got:
Andreyev’s characters try and often fail to find meaning, their lives so well portrayed that the century’s gap between the tales’ writing and reading does not dim their impact in the slightest. This collection is often startlingly dark, with stories like The Red Laugh painting our whole world with their hellish brush, and other tales like The Abyss showing compassion and innocence defiled, destroyed, and left by the roadside. Andreyev is a master of pace, capable of making a man’s final night seem like years and of making the longest waits and isolations heavy with their inevitable ending. Though the exclusion of one of Andreyev’s best stories, Lazarus, is disappointing, Visions is still an incredible work.
Bakker’s debut is a work of powerful, vivid prose and thought provoking ideas, offering genuine insight while also succeeding at the standards by which mainline Epic Fantasy is judged. Though there are pacing issues, their detrimental effect was diminished on reread (this was my second time through), and those problems are ultimately inconsequential in the face of what’s presented. Bakker's characterization is deep, if miserable, and sympathetic, if deplorable. The various societies of Bakker’s world walk a fine line between recreating history and pure imagination, falling to one side or the other as their prominence dictates, and the magic here is innovative and excellently depicted. Highly recommended for any fans of fantasy.
The Master and Margarita crackles with vitriolic wit. Bulgakov’s writing is impassioned, outlandish, and brilliant. He can make you care for his characters. He can make you laugh at his characters. He can make you hate his characters. The Master and Margarita uses excellently realized fantasy to criticize and examine the oppressive world around it. This is a classic of genre and literature.
Malazan is a bizarre mix of larger than life fantasy and Erikson’s philosophical and social musings. The series is far from flawless, but Erikson’s large cast and powerful prose make each of the volumes satisfying and often exemplary. When it comes to balancing visceral entertainment and more cerebral pleasures, the early volumes often fell too far to the shallow-but-fun side of the spectrum, while Toll the Hounds almost wholly sacrificed plot for the sake of writing and theme. House of Chains is one of the few volumes in the series that manages to flawlessly blend the two elements. The volume features the introduction of Karsa Orlong, beginning with his extended viewpoint, and then takes us through the height of the Seven Cities rebellion. The new ground level perspectives introduced with the Malazan army that comes into play here are well done, and the battles are mixed with the atmosphere of other, imaginative scenes that take place in the farthest reaches of Erikson’s creation.
Up until last night, American Gods was on this list. Then I read Sandman. This is a graphic novel of startling scope and imagination, with a grace of writing and presence of atmosphere that make it remarkable in any category. The sheer depravity of 24 Hours and the power of The Sound of Her Wings together managed to make Preludes & Nocturnes one of my favorite reads of 2010, and I’ll even say that Gaiman edged out Moore for my favorite Graphic Novel writer. And I hear that the first volume is the weakest of the series. Is that even possible?
Gilman’s prose in Gears of the City is among the finest that I’ve read this year. His characters are theatrical masterpieces, cackling and monolithic in their flaws and triumphs, and his world is oppressive and immersive. I could try and rationally argue for its spot here, but I think I’d rather let Gilman do that for me and just give you another excerpt of the novel’s writing:
Later, as Arjun and Brace-Bel hid in the darkness of their bolt-hole, Brace-Bel would breathlessly recount his adventures in the Museum. He explained that he had always, in his strange life, been the villain, or worse, the laughingstock; but he’d ventured into the enemy’s lair in search of his true beloved like a hero of the highest and most chivalrous romance. His purpose had been pure as the purest knight’s, because he expected nothing from [her], nothing at all. He became what he was always meant to be. It was laughable, humiliating, but also superb… (p. 233)
Joe Hill’s debut collection is a brilliant piece of horror, which also happens to examine just what horror is and how it works. Hill is capable of visceral darkness, as he proves again and again in tales like Abraham’s Boys and In the Rundown, but he’s also adept at moments of heartwarming melancholy that leave your world feeling drained of color in comparison afterwards, as he shows in Pop Art and the title story. There’s the occasional weaker story, but they don’t succeed in bringing down the power of the collection. Hill proves himself right out of the gate and doesn’t let up; 20th Century Ghosts is masterful and self conscious horror.
When I reread The Shining in March, I said that it was the best novel by the greatest modern horror author. Now, having discovered Ligotti, the latter part of that statement is almost painfully off (especially when one considers King’s lamentable later work), but that does nothing to dilute the power of The Shining. This is pretty much a textbook example of how modern horror should be written. The characters are complex and sympathetic, their relationships organic in their development, and the horror comes from the characters and their relationship to the world. It’s true that the ending is a disappointment, but what precedes those last pages is so powerful that the ending’s weakness fails to damage the work. This is a must read for horror fans.
Thomas Ligotti’s work is hypnotically powerful and devastatingly depressing. The man’s prose is crystalline, flawless and ornate. His grasp of atmosphere is equal to Lovecraft’s, and those are not words I say lightly. Choosing whether to include Songs of a Dead Dreamer or Teatro Grottesco here was very difficult. I ended up going with the latter. It’s less outright horror, operating even more on a cerebral level than Songs… did. The stories here are crushing, but they’re so well written that they are, somehow, beautiful at the same time. Review coming.
McCarthy’s work is brutally, horrifically violent. Most action stories, whether prose or film, manage to make violence glorious and exciting. Blood Meridian does the opposite. This is a story devoid of sympathetic characters and understandable motivations. It is a story with no goal in sight. It is, simply, violence, brutal and uncompromising, unending and representing the entirety of the world. And the reader, mesmerized by McCarthy’s masterful prose, has no choice but to keep reading.
Moore’s work is dark, powerful, and multifaceted; his inclusion in this year’s Best Of was assured. But that still leaves the question of which of his works to show. V for Vendetta (review forthcoming) was very powerful and generally devoid of some of the flaws of Watchmen (the ending-from-nowhere, for instance). Still, I had to go for the later work. Watchmen was generally deeper, and the character of Rorschach and his ultimate decision is still present in my mind despite having been read months earlier. If what you think when you hear super heroes isn't a nuanced examination of the nature of power, you need to read this.
After Dark is the story of a few almost unconnected characters in the early morning hours of Tokyo. There’s little to no overarching plot. Going in, I didn’t think that I would love this book, but Murakami’s prose made me an easy convert. This novel is beautiful, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. Tokyo is vibrant, alive, and bizarre, and the different characters came to feel as real as anyone I’ve ever met. Review’s on the way.
(THE DUBIOUS HONOR OF) WORST NOVEL
This was no contest. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter was boring, and that's just about the worst thing that can be said of entertainment. The characters are uninteresting, the plot is uninvolving, the themes are occasionally offensive but generally unremarkable, and prose is wholly devoid of style. When reading is a chore best handled in fifteen minute increments, you know that something’s gone wrong.
THE WORKS UNCONSIDERED
When compiling this list, I left Shakespeare and Dostoevsky out of consideration for a variety of reasons. First, both are classic authors. You don’t need me to tell you that. More importantly, with Shakespeare, there’s the fact that I find it difficult to view his work in the same way that I do another author’s, and I’m not talking about quality here. Shakespeare is on such a pedestal, and his work has so seeped into popular culture, that one’s expectations going in are monolithic, and rare is (at least from what I’ve seen) the reader who, going into Hamlet (to pick a play at random) does not know the majority of the plot. If I had included Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, they would have both made the list (King Lear beating out Hamlet, for me), but that’s not to say that they would have been my favorite books on it.