Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Best Reads of 2011
Largely, I think, due to reading so many magazines and so many parts of various books for classes, I read the fewest books in 2011 that I did in any year since I started keeping track in 2009. Still, I've ended up with the at least somewhat respectable total of one hundred and nine volumes conquered, and, needless to say, quite a few of those were rather excellent. And so the time has come for the eight best of them, presented in alphabetical order. We begin with…
The Wounded and the Slain isn't an exciting book. It's downbeat, instead, not to mention depressing, dejected and dispirited, filled with character and heart and written with a kind of rough poetry. Though there is a crime at the book's center, it's very much a crime with a small c, not a jumping off point to adventure but a tortured, haphazard, regrettable, and, above all, pointless thing. The descent into darkness thing is an inexorable crawl, not a glamorous leap. I don't think you could ever call this a pleasant book, but it's one that'll hit you hard, and it's a damn good one.
As stark as it is focused, as streamlined as it is jagged, Red Harvest embodies much of what interests me about the noir genre. Though wholly concerned with matters of justice, this is a compassionless novel, maybe even a(n intentionally) heartless one. Morality here is a brutal force, and the idea of right is relegated to strength and violence. But, in this nigh lawless place, even the lawman, the only one standing up for us, might be corrupt to the core. This is a fast novel, a fun novel, and a damn disturbing one.
Like Red Harvest, The Ammonite Violin is disturbing and raw, but here those qualities don't come from bare language, harsh violence, and a lack of emotion but rather from a series of stories that are almost unutterably rich in their composition, filled with overwhelming and enveloping language and positively overflowing with feeling. The longing shown here is the kind of calculated, unbearable, and revelatory longing that might come gushing forth from an excised heart with all the force of the heavy, dark blood that comes with it.
Grimscribe is horror extraordinaire Thomas Ligotti's second collection, and it takes place wholly within nightmare, on the edge of utter dementia itself. Its stories toy with that border, giving glimpses and tantalizing, horrifying hints, leaping across for brief moments where sanity howls before falling back. Amidst it all are several of Ligotti's best tales, including Nethescurial, an insidious and Lovecraftian beast of a tale that can actually be read for free (albeit with an annoying formatting issue or two) here. In my personal rankings, Grimscribe is roughly tied with the author's Songs of aDead Dreamer and Teatro Grottesco for the overall prize of his best work. Suffice to say, this is a brilliant collection.
I knew I'd like Sandkings going in, maybe even knew I'd love it, but I didn't know how much. The Stone City is a Science Fiction Weird Tale in every sense of the word, and an absolutely brilliant one at that, fiction that probes the limits of human understanding and strangeness with as much skill as Lovecraft himself brought to the table. This isn't, though, a collection with one centerpiece. Every tale here is filled with breathtaking images and audacity, entire worlds and some of the best characterization you'll ever come across. I know a lot of readers view Martin's older works as a now-done sideshow compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, but doing so is a dire mistake.
Embassytown is the rare Science Fiction novel that is not only alien in its choice of colors and its number of tentacles. The aliens shown here are convincingly inhuman, but it's the aspects of language that Miéville uses them to explore that are stranger and more intriguing still. Those concepts are explored in full, taking the humans in the narrative to and past the breaking point, twisting and shattering and reinventing every aspect of their world. Miéville's as skilled as any with coming up with brilliant and challenging ideas, has the ability to ride them for all they're worth, and the talent to present the whole with his fantastic prose. Though it's very different from his early work, Embassytown is no less excellent.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion builds a vivid, colorful, and fascinating world and populates it with larger than life, well explored, and somehow believable characters. I think it says a lot about the novel that I chiefly remember two scenes, one the thrilling, grand, and inventive climax and the other an unimportant scene where the main character eats some rather unpleasant food in a diner. Try as I might, I can't decide which of those I liked best, or which felt more real, and, amazingly enough, the two fit so well into the same narrative that, looking back, they really don't seem all that different in importance at all.
Review to come.
A Fire Upon the Deep operates on a scale so much vaster than what can be easily conceived that the reader's practically pummeled with awe as they turn the pages, and turn them they will. The central plot of A Fire Upon the Deep is a gripping adventure story that takes place amidst an unimaginably complex and fascinating universe, a story filled with grand ideas and with a cast made up in large part of some of the best made and most convincing aliens I've ever seen. A Fire Upon the Deep isn't only one of my favorite books of this year: it's one of my favorite Science Fiction novels ever and even one of my favorite novels.
(THE DUBIOUS HONOR OF) WORST NOVEL
Though it also had its fair share of excellence, 2011 packed in more than a few disappointing novels: Boneshaker, If You Could See Me Now, and even the legendary Frankenstein among them. But the latter two had some good ideas, if a fumbled execution, and even Boneshaker was more formless mush than actively bad. Only Wicked Things managed to truly and genuinely piss me off, not because it hadn't met my expectations (though, needless to say, it hadn't) but because it was simply an awful book, one that rambled about aimlessly, setting up numerous hints and clues, and then oh-so-cleverly keeled over dead before resolving anything. Ha ha. Wicked Things tries to be a stylish, plot-based read, but the ending reveal leaves it a thriller that forgot to thrill, a horror novel whose only real horror moment is a and unsubstantiated cheap shot, a novel whose characters are stick figures then jerked out of their unremarkable paths, and a book with nigh no redeeming features.