Friday, November 29, 2013

My Top 10 Favorite Books from the Last 12 Months

A Brief Explanation

Here's my top 10 list of favorite books read in the last 12 months. This isn't a Best of 2013 list, really. Only two of the books on this list were published in 2013, and my list covers books read from December 2012 through November 2013. I only tried to rank them because people really seem to enjoy numbered lists.

10. Clown Tear Junkies by Douglas Hackle

Published: September 2013
Read: September 2013

I listened to the never-to-be-produced audiobook version of Clown Tear Junkies (the one read by Smokey Robinson) and I must say it was excellent. These stories have something to satisfy everyone in your family. There are many, many huge cocks and bodies being smashed to a bloody pulp, copious amounts of semen and chyme, gay ice road truckers and polyhedral dice, blank pages, and pages filled with random letters, numbers and symbols. There’s even a story that features an elderly man being pulled down the street in a little red wagon!

Readers who enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the works of Deepak Chopra need to read this collection right away.

9. Some Kind Of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Published: July 2012
Read: December 2012

I've yet to be even mildly disappointed by a Graham Joyce book. Fine work.

Note: I must have had a lot going on when I wrote this ridiculously brief "review."

8. Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko (Translator)

Published: 1977 (first English edition) 
Read: February 2013

Exactly the sort of SF I like (light on the science, long on the human impact of a changed world). This had so many great and horrible things jammed into it. It was tragic and funny, and the humor grew naturally from the tragic elements. It had a noir feel, too, which I generally am fond of. Excellent writing, unusual structure, brilliant characterizations.

7. Grudge Punk by John McNee

Published: December 2012
Read: November 2013

This is easily one of the best books I've read this year. It's labeled as Bizarro fiction, but I wouldn't categorize it that way. In my mind, this falls more in line with what folks a few years back were calling New Weird. It's the perfect blend of science fiction, fantasy and horror that manages to be none of those things. It's like the film Sin City set in some town in Mieville's Bas-Lag, where the citizens are all comprised of meat, metal, fiberglass, and random junkyard scraps. It's a work of gritty noir fiction. Not the hard-boiled detective variety, but rather the type concerned with the criminals, the scammers, the low-lifes, and the creeps. It's like Pulp Fiction as directed by David Cronenberg. Speaking of Cronenberg, if you like his nastier works (especially Naked Lunch and eXistenZ) and like your noir with some extra grit, then you'll like this book.

6. Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca

Published: December 2008
Read: July 2013

Quite possibly the best ghost story I've ever read. The writing was excellent and engaging from the first page onward. It’s a lengthy novella and I read it pretty much in one sitting. It’s dark, imaginative, very sad, and darkly funny at times. Here’s the basic premise, quoted from the book synopsis:

In the morning, Bram finds the bones of a murdered child. At noon, the murdered child begs for his help. And by nightfall, they have killed a man together…

Great premise, great execution.

5. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, Donald Last (Translator)

Published: April 2002
Read: November 2013

Murakami's books are very hard for me to review/write about. Before I sat down to write this, I went back to look at my reviews for the other works I've read by him. They weren't helpful in the least. Two of the reviews were extremely brief and for the other book, it appears that I just left a star rating and went on with my life.

So, I guess I'll start by saying that Murakami has moved into my list of favorite authors. His writing style is so smooth, so idiosyncratic, and his subject matter is such an odd mix of the mundane and the otherworldly, that I'm consistently impressed and mystified. I can never figure out how he's achieving any of his effects, and, more importantly, as I'm reading, I simply don't care. I don't know how he makes scenes about getting dressed or making dinner fascinating. I don't know how he makes me care about his oddball characters and their ridiculous, obtuse conversations. I don't know how he keeps me interested in a story about people being possessed by a sheep.

But he does. And I guess that's what's important.

4. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Published: April 2013
Read: June 2013

It really showed that the author had a hell of a good time writing this book. And the fun was contagious. I had a great time reading it. I thought the villains were hilarious (and somehow that isn't a negative for this horror novel). The set pieces were highly inventive and cinematic. The names for the characters and places were perfect, catchy, the kinds of names that will stick in the memory for years to come. The whole thing was filled with a kind of macabre and gleeful mischievousness that I really enjoyed. Many have cited the length of the book as an issue. I didn't feel that way. The main weakness of the book (which is also tied into one of it's strengths) is the obvious cinematic influence on the storytelling. Many of the action sequences were way over-the-top and pretty unbelievable, and characters survive injuries that no human could possibly withstand. But, really, I could say the same about almost any piece of popular entertainment nowadays.

If you like a little humor, a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink, mixed in with your horror, then you'll like this book. If you loved the nostalgic, creepy playfulness of films like Creepshow or Trick r' Treat, then you'll like this book.

3. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Published: August 2012
Read: February/March 2013

Victor LaValle has a real gift for describing authentic "stage business," character gestures, ticks, and body language. These aspects of his writing seem to be drawn directly, and relayed expertly, from observation. This book is frightening and sad and very funny, too. The humor works so well because it's organic to the story, the characters, the situations. I had a few minor quibbles with this book (but they are things that are like personal pet peeves more than anything), but not enough to detract from the overall impact of what the author has accomplished here. This is an excellent piece of work, something I will be recommending to folks.

2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Published: 1992
Read: April 2013

This was really quite excellent. The character portrait this novel paints of Bunny (this mystery's murder victim) is particularly extraordinary. His behavior and mannerisms are so real that I kept trying to figure out exactly who it is that I know that the author was describing. This book won't be for everyone. It's populated with less-than-likable characters. For example, (and it won't be spoiling anything to tell you) the narrator is an accessory to murder. You find that out in the first few pages. If you're looking for a story with a hero, read something else. This reminded me of early Ira Levin, but with a more sophisticated writing style. I found the author's technical and storytelling skills quite humbling.

1. The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian

Published: August 2006
Read: August/September 2013

This is a literary novel with science fictional, fantastical, and horrific elements. It’s a novel with overt religious themes that’s filled with black humor, curse words, sexual situations, bleakness, and just a sprinkle of hope. It is dark and funny. The writing is top notch. Some characters are chillingly true-to-life while others are wonderfully over-the-top. The author creates a true microcosm of the world in his children’s hospital afloat on God’s second great flood. He’s smashed a little bit of everything inside and let everything loose to wreak havoc. Is it a bit much? A bit overlong? Perhaps. But the more I think on it, I can’t think of anything that I’d cut. I liked every scene, and especially those featuring Jemma’s big brother, the young psychopath who wants to be undone. This character is so well drawn that his chapters alone are worth the read. Folks seem to be evenly divided on this work. I’m on the side that thinks this is one hell of a literary accomplishment.