I’ve read a few books this year. I’ve lost count, but it’s not really that many, perhaps about three books in a month.
Well, I took together a list of the more memorable books I’ve read so far this year, and made a giant of a blog post out of it. These are the books I’d recommend to others, the ones I like the most or just the ones I remembered for some reason. Clicking any image takes you to the amazon site for the book, where you can see more reviews, and if you feel so inclined, buy yourself a copy.
I recommend bookmarking this post.. it will be very helpful once Christmas comes around ;).
The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy
I bought this book after seeing it in a Riot Round-Up on BookRiot. The way it was described ticked all my get-this-book boxes, and so I ordered it right-quick from the internets. A few short weeks later (I live in a faraway land), and it was in my hands. The cover is beautiful, and so is the writing.
The Illusion of Separateness tells a number of interwoven short stories, starting with Martin, who volunteers at a nursing home and is often mistaken for one of the residents. The story goes back and forth both in time and place, between France and the US, between the present and the Second World War. There were times where I wanted to reach into the book and hug the characters gently, informing them that everything would be all right, and that they would meet their loved ones later. It shows us people being genuinely and selflessly kind to each other, often by sacrificing a piece of themselves. There is nothing about this book I didn’t love, and I will be giving copies of this to people come Christmas.
The writing is beautiful, and the characters are delicate and feel authentic. Great, great book, one that I will re-read again and again for years to come.
The Blue Blazes, by Chuck Wendig
This is a supernatural mafia book that takes place in a world where the gate to hell is to found under New York City. Mookie Pearl is a mob muscle kind of guy, bigger than most people and wiser to the ways of the world. He runs a crew of mole people under New York that dig up Blue, a drug that makes you stronger and faster and also lets you see the “truth”; some people aren’t really people at all, but half-breed and demons. Turns out the mob boss is dying of cancer, and as soon as word of this gets out a frantic fight begins amongst the different gangs of New York to take his place. Into this we get a demon hell-bent on opening the gates to hell and regaining control of the world above.
The Blue Blazes is brutal and fun, and I would advise those who found anything in the description above even the slightest bit “their thing” to give it a try. I, at least, had a lot of fun reading it.
From Hell, by Alan Moore
This is probably going to end up in my top five of the year. Genius storyteller Alan Moore (the man that gave us Watchmen) writes his version of what the truth to the identity of Jack the Ripper might be. This is a rich and detailed retelling of the gruesome murders in Victorian London. We follow both the inspector trying to find the killer, a prostitute we know is going to get killed, and the man Alan Moore would have us believe is the real Jack the Ripper, and the way in which he falls into doing what he does. The detail in the book is just amazing, but readers should be warned that Mr. Moore holds nothing back, and this is a truly dark and disturbing book.
In it, he names a man that he obviously considers to have been Jack the Ripper, a man with ties to the Freemasons and to the Queen herself, and gives us a motive of sorts.
This is a book to own, a book to re-read when one is in a mood for dread and despair of the darkest kind.
The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell.
The Ones You Do is the third book in Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. It is about the return of John X Shade to Frogtown, where he reunites with his sons, who hardly know him. The book is mostly about his relationship with his children, but also about the lives these children have created in the absence of a father. John X Shade does not come to his family by choice, though, but because he is being chased by a man who thinks that Shade stole quite a bit of money from him. There is quite a bit of violence in the book, and a great cast of colorful, broken characters. Woodrell’s writing is very good, and is a treat to watch as he improves from one book in the trilogy to the next. Not just a book that is fun to read, it is also great to see a writer come into his own and find his voice.
Truly great and original writing.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I had actually not intended to read this book, and I blame the way it was marketed. I thought it was a sweet, sweet, slightly girly romance fantasy that took place in a cute circus. It did not appeal to me. But people kept recommending it, and everyone just seemed to love it.
I picked it up at an airport bookstore to go along with GRRM’s Dance With Dragons in a 2-for-1 book deal that was going on. DWD was a bit heavy to start reading on a short plane ride, so I opened The Night Circus instead, and was immediately whisked away into a complete and detailed world of magic and intrigue. Sure, there is romance, but this is not a romance novel. It has often been compared to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I think it a fair comparison; both books are long and intricate, both books have interesting characters that perform magic, and both books are an absolute joy to read.
The Night Circus really tells of a magical duel between Celia and Marco, neither of which is entirely sure how, or indeed who, exactly they are supposed to be duelling. They are both great users of magic, and unknowingly end up in the circus together. For a while everything is going well, and the circus travels the world and becomes famous. But all good things must end, and all duels end in death.
Believe the hype, buy this book.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
THIS! This is without a doubt the best book I read this year. It’s a big book, and took me a good long while to read, but it is totally worth it. East of Eden tells the story of the Trask and Hamilton families in and around Salinas, California at the beginning of the twentieth century. We watch the heads of the family grow old and die and watch their children grow up.
In East of Eden we are presented with a host of characters, most of which we fall in love with. I’ll admit however, that some of the girls in the book are not as memorable as the boys, and felt blurry to me, apart from the family mothers, Cathy and Liza.
Cathy Trask, the vilest character I’ve read in a good long while, stands head and shoulders above other characters in the book in terms of memorability. Manipulating and cold, she only knows how to hurt, and after reading one is left with a foul taste.
Steinbeck’s writing is magical, though the Cain/Abel allegory gets a little tired towards the end, but that is really my only criticism of this book. It is simply one of those books you have to read before you die. Seriously.
Wool, by Hugh Howey
Wool is great fun. A fast-paced post-apocalyptic story that takes place in a silo underground. The whole world has been destroyed and the last living humans are all packed into a silo that is almost completely underground. I read it in a flurry, and I think everyone I’ve recommended it to has done so as well. It does have a bit of a skip-and-jump ending, but the book is great fun.
Hugh Howey self-published the book and is now doing very well, financially, and has become the self-publishing success story that people refer to. “You could be the next Hugh Howey,” has probably been said many a time now.
The book’s description on Amazon sells the book far better than I ever could:
This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.
I’ve recommended this book to three people. One missed a meeting because she lost track of time reading it, another kept his nose firmly between its pages during a family holiday (often ignoring everything around him) and a third made me his “Official Recommender of Books”. Says more than anything else, really.
Journalism, by Joe Sacco
This is the third of Joe Sacco’s graphic novels I read, and it is just as heartbreaking as the other two. Even the often comic drawing style of Mr. Sacco can’t cover the truth of the brutality and the truly disgusting things we human beings do to each other, often under the guise of “war”.
In Journalism, Joe Sacco shows us the Hague War Crimes Court, the struggle of everyday Palestinian life, the task facing American soldiers in Iraq, torture of Iraqis by American soldiers, the stream of immigrants from Africa to Malta and the crushing poverty of the lowest classes in India. This is a great book for those who like being informed, and a true must-read for anyone in journalism. His introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful. The powerful are generally excellently served by the mainstream media or propaganda organs. The powerful should be quoted, yes, but to measure their pronouncements against the truth, not to obscure it. If I believe power brings out the worst in people, I’ve observed that those on the short end of the stick don’t always acquit themselves well either, and I’ve endeavored to report that. I think the great British journalist Robert Fisk gets the equation about right: “I always say that reporters should be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer.”
A difficult thing to read, knowing that it is all true, but truly worth your while.
A Memory of Light, Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan
Decades of reading come to an epic end. A Memory of Light is a doorstopper of a book, a literal brick of bound pages that could prop up a bus at the top of a steep hill. This sis the final book in the Wheel of Time series, the first book of which was published in 1990, six years after Jordan started writing it. And now, twenty-three years later and, sadly, after the death of the author himself, we have the last book. And it is good.
Sanderson (or Jordan, it is hard to tell how much actual control Sanderson has) let a little bit of George R. R. Martin seep in and has finally lost his fear of killing of characters. It tells of the Final Battle, an epic of good versus evil, and while I’m satisfied, I can’t bring myself to recommend that other start the series. It sags in the middle (books 5 – 8) but then picks again. But with each book being between 700 and 1000 pages, that may be a bit much for most people.
The book is as satisfying an ending as one could hope for, with epic battles and fantastic (in every sense of the word) scenes and characters.
For fans of fantasy, this is about as good as it gets. That being said, the writing itself is not the finest of literature; Sanderson’s (or is it Jordan’s?) similes are grating and any and all symbolism is beat-the-reader-over-the-head obvious and therefore superfluous. Still. Sanderson did a very good job finishing Mr. Jordan’s series and I for one salute him.
Fans will not be disappointed.
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
This is a book I was really looking forward to reading. A fellow Bookriot contributor had called it “one of the best science fiction books of all time”, and the premise is awesome: aliens came to visit Earth but didn’t try to make contact. They just came and left again, after touching down. They area where they landed is now off-limits, a sort of Chernobyl. The left debris of some kind, items who’s purpose scientists are still trying to figure out, and the area itself has add properties.
The books main character is a “Stalker”. He sneaks into the area and pulls out items and sells. He goes “clean”, meaning that he stops going into the zone, but is tempted by a rich man to seek one final item.
Roadside Picnic is the X-Files in book form. If you liked a single episode of the show, and miss it, this is your medicine.
Among Others, by Jo Walton
It tells the story of a girl who can do magic and see fairies. Her twin sister was killed in an incident involving their mother, an incident that is a mystery right up until the end of the book. She is sent to an all-girls boarding school were she gets great grades and manages to read more books than is perhaps entirely plausible. The book starts off very well, and I thought I was in for a treat, but then we get about 400 pages of her going to school, getting books from the library and eating bad food. And she also reads books. Did I mention she likes books? At about the two-thirds mark in this book I just wanted to shout at Jo Walton to “Get on with it!”
I don’t like to say unkind things about books, but the fact that this won the Hugo and the Nebula shakes my faith in both those prizes. It’s not a bad book, it’s just really boring. Jo Walton writes very well, but this should have been about 200 pages shorter.
Still, if you’re a teenage girl who dislikes her mother and really likes science fiction, this is going to be your favorite book.
Give us a Kiss
Any time I read a Woodrell book it is very likely to be my favorite book of that month, and Give Us a Kiss was no exception. As with most of his books, Woodrell pulls us right in with the opening line. “I had a family errand to run, that’s all, but I decided to take a pistol.” The book then tells us about the trouble Doyle Redmond gets into as he goes in search of his older brother Smoke, hiding out in the Missouri Ozarks to evade the law. It involves guns, certainly, but also hillbilly love and past-life experiences.
Give Us a Kiss is different from Woodrell’s recent novels in that there is less focus on the pretty prose (though the prose is all sorts of good) and more focus on moving the story along. We are still in familiar territory, with unsavory characters in the Missouri Ozarks up to no good, and we just can’t help but love all the misfits Woodrell drags onto his pages. There is a point in the book where Redmond describes how he sees himself as a writer, and this so mirrors how I imagine Woodrell sees himself as a writer that I felt a pinch of vertigo for a moment, like I was having an out-of-book experience:
“I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a ‘genre‘ life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.”
Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
Perhaps the book I read the fastest this year. The Shining Girls tells the story of a serial killer who is able to travel in time via a house in the poor parts of Chicago. He uses this to give presents to little girls, things that don’t fit the time period they inhabit, and then comes back when they are grown, kills them and takes back the thing he gave them.
One girl gets away, and is intent on finding her killer after the police have given up. The problem is that the killer discovers that she is not dead, and he wants to finish the job.
It’s the time-travelling serial-killer thriller that everyone is, or will be, talking about. Highly recommended.
City of Glass
It all starts when Quinn, who writes detective novels under the pen name William Wilson about a private eye named Max Work, gets a phone call asking for Paul Auster. Quinn tells the caller that it’s the wrong number, but when they call again he says that he is indeed Paul Auster and takes the case, protecting Peter Stillman from his father, also Peter Stillman. Still with me? City of Glass is not what I expected, but is wonderful nonetheless. We go along with Quinn as he loses his identity in an attempt to save the young Peter Stillman from his father, but then we get to wondering whether there ever really was a case, or indeed if there ever was a Quinn to begin with.
In the end, all we are left with is the wonderful book we just read.
Howard Zinn Speaks edited by Anthony Arnove
I didn’t exactly rush to reading this book, a collection of speeches by Howard Zinn ranging 1963 to 2009 and ranging in subject from slavery to pacifism and government oppression (and everything in between). The reason I was slow to pick up the book is one probably shared by many readers: who wants to read a bunch of speeches? Well, after actually reading the book, I am of the opinion that everyone should. Howard Zinn was a man of great intellect and compassion, unafraid to voice an unpopular opinion when it needed to be heard. Very much a fan of the citizens of a country bringing about the important changes in rights and justice, Zinn is outspoken and inspirational. Howard’s speeches, selected and edited by Anthony Arnove, read more like essays, but since they are made to be spoken, they read with a certain power and conviction that many political essays lack.
If you read one political book this year, make it this one. It will make you believe in democracy again.
Urban Occult, edited by Colin F Barnes
Urban Occult is an anthology of short stories from rising small-press publisher Anachron Press. The stories each involve, as the name implies, strange things taking place in an urban setting. These range from fantasy to horror, and all the shades those come in. They are written by an even mix of mostly British writers, male and female, and are all quite good. Urban fantasy is a popular genre these days and this fits well in that category, except for the awkward teenage romance that so often tends to be found in books of that kind.
Something Neil Gaiman said in the introduction to H.P Lovecraft Dream Cycle collection applies very well to the stories in Urban Occult (and could, indeed, have been written for it as well):
If Literature is the world, then Fantasy and Horror are twin cites, divided by a river of black water. Horror is a rather more dangerous place, or it should be: you can walk around Fantasy alone
And if Horror and Fantasy are cities, then H.P Lovecraft [and Urban Occult] is the kind of long street that runs from the outskirts of the first city to the end of the other.
Great find for people who like their urban fantasy somewhat dark and free of sparkly vampires and teenagers in love.
Algernon, Charlie and I, by Daniel Keyes
Here’s something you didn’t know: the song Tomorrow from Annie was originally written for the theater version of a book called Flowers for Algernon.
A book about a book, this is the story of how Flowers for Algernon came to be written. If you haven’t read Flowers for Algernon you need to stop reading this post and go get it right now. It is one of all-time favorite books. It tells the story of a man with really low intellect who is offered surgery to improve his mind. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking book. This book, on the other hand, is about how Daniel Keyes got started as a writer and how he ended up writing Flowers for Algernon. It contains some entertaining anecdotes and tips for writers.
Another interesting fact: Keyes got the idea for the book while editing comics for a lanky kid named Stan Lee, at a company you may have heard of called Marvel.
If you are either a writer or a fan of Flowers for Algernon, you will really like this book. If you are both, you will love it.
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
This is the only play on here, though I read a few this year. Plays are not always easy to read, but I make a point of reading a few every year. Many plays, when stripped of the lights and the handsome actors, tend to be a little flat on the page. Not so with Death of a Salesman (or A Streetcar Named Desire, a sheer joy to read), which has such an interesting main character and premise that the reader just keeps turning the page. It tells the story of Willy Loman, a travelling salesman who is getting tired of life on the road. He decides, after a nudge from his wife, to ask his boss if he can work in the city. His sons, Biff and Happy are back home and Willy has ideas of what he wants them to become but doesn’t ask them what it is they really want to do.
Needless to say, Willy’s meeting with his boss doesn’t go well, and push him towards fulfilling the promise made in the play’s title. It has won and almost embarrassing amount of awards and makes for a riveting read.
Recommended for all fans of drama.
Nests, by Barry Napier
Lovecraft meets Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. This is a book by Barry Napier, which was snapped up my Severed Press moments before he self-published it. It tells the story of Eric and Kendra, and her unnamed baby boy as they travel through and try to make sense of a post-apocalyptic world. After finding what seems to be a photograph of a safe zone and directions how to get there on the body of a man they killed (in defense), they set out on foot from the house they had been staying in. The landscape is ripped right out of McCarthy’s The Road with the added bonus that there are now also mysterious zones of impenetrable darkness littered on the landscape. We follow the trio as they try to make it to some sort of safety, meeting other survivors but mostly battling their own fear and insecurity. And the strange creatures of the nests. Mysterious, creepy and fast-paced.
It’s a good book, exciting and the short chapters have the added bonus of making the reader feel like it’s passing by in a flash. And maybe it is.