Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

January 5, 2013

Favourites of 2012 – Novels

Filed under: books of 2012,reviewage — lexifab @ 10:08 am

I had a pretty good reading year. It was wildly unfocused, as my reading list always is, but obviously most of my reading for pleasure comes from genre fiction [1] and then mainly in the sf&f fields. I like mysteries, but I don’t think I read anything in 2012 that was exclusively a mystery story.

Picking a top ten isn’t easy, especially if you apply metrics as vague as “Do I remember really, really liking this one?”, like I do. But it’s easier because I don’t attempt to make any claims as to literary merit or significance. These are just the ten novels I liked the best last year, in reverse order of preference:

10 – Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman

In many ways Hidden Things is the common fantasy trope of a mundane woman who is drawn into the unseen supernatural world, combined with a cross-country road trip. I’ve seen it compared to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the resemblance is superficial I think. It’s more reminiscent to me of works by Jonathan Carroll, and its themes of forgiveness within familiesand reconciliation with mistakes of the past are mature for a first novel. The floating narrative style soothed and beguiled, the dialogue was witty and fun and the author didn’t make the mistake of over-explaining the fantastic elements of the story. The ending is emotionally brutal and deeply satisfying.

9 – The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

One of the few books sneakily inserted into Lost that I had never read or even heard of, The Third Policeman is an absurd, dreamlike descent-into-hell narrative about a rather dull-witted, gullible young man who commits a murder and possibly goes mad as a consequence, meeting a host of confusing and vexatious characters who could be insane, or conspiring against him, or agents sent to punish him. It’s delightful, absurd and frequently blackly comic.

8 – Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. Dense and engaging, romantic and thrilling and featuring some very exciting set pieces and  coherent, plot-integrated worldbuilding. I particularly enjoyed the somewhat reluctant, dutiful heroine who would much prefer to be putting her feet up than saving the world.

7 – Debris by Jo Anderton

I reviewed it here. Wonderful magic system that completely informs the world building, a tough and pragmatic heroine who refuses to take the destruction of her reputation and life’s work lying down, and a satisfyingly weird plot.

6 – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. I may have quibbled about elements of it but the overall effect was wonderful. A meaty, thoughtful apocalypse-in-progress adventure with smart, engaging and compelling characters [2]. Heartbreaking at times.

5 – Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren

I reviewed it here. It was a bit of a tossup whether Kaaron Warren’s Slights also made it onto the list, but this one made it for being weird, haunting and gloriously unusual. It’s a coming of age story of sorts, but the richness is in the storytelling about the strange and sometime horrifying customs of neighbouring cultures.

4 – Silently and Very Fast by Cathrynn M. Valente

I’m cheating a bit here because this is a novella. I include it here based on the wholly subjective criterion that it felt to me more like a novel than a long short story. Silently is the story of an eclectic family’s relationship with its custom-made household AI over several generations. As far as I can recall this is the only thing by Cat Valente that I’ve ever read, but the writing in this piece is so beautiful, heartfelt and tragic that I know I’ll be hunting down some of her other work. It won the Hugo for Best Novella last year. I read some fantastic novellas in 2012 – it’s a form I have avoided like the plague in the past, for reasons that now elude me – but this one had the best writing of all of them.

3 – Bait Dog by Chuck Wendig

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a Wendig fanboy. No surprises that he’s near the top of my list (and – spoilers! – also *at* the top). Bait Dog is the sequel to Shotgun Gravy, the first Atlanta Burns novella, about a hurt, sarcastic high school avenger with a squirrel gun and a hate-on for bullies. The sequel only exists because it was successfully funded through Kickstarter (along with another sequel due sometime this year). But all of that would be beside the point if it were not also an absolutely riveting book. Set in the squalid dog-fighting scene of back-country Pennysylvania, it is vicious, amoral and sometimes sickening (there’s at least a couple of scenes of strong animal cruelty that are much, much harder to read than any of the violence inflict on the human characters). But the writing is so good, you guys! The prose pumps, driving you from scene to scene, sometimes in spite of your likely sense of reluctant horror. And Atlanta Burns is such a fun young adult protagonist [3], smart and resourceful but also too angry to think straight most of the time. Her violent response to bullies invariably makes bad situations worse, and Wendig never shies away from hammering his heroine with the consequences of her hasty decisions. It’s hard, painful reading, but I honestly can’t recommend Bait Dog enough.[4]

2 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

I reviewed it briefly here. A roaming wander through almost a dozen literary and genre forms, telling an absurd story about the search for an author through a series of half-finished manuscripts and an increasingly incredible conspiracy plot. It’s great fun and a sly insight into the mentality of obsessive readers. I found If on a Winter’s Night beguiling.

1 – Blackbirds/Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Yes, I’m cheating again. Blackbirds (reviewed here) and Mockingbird (reviewed here) are complete novels in their own right, but they became instantly inseparable in my reading canon. The first and second novels about Miriam Black, a very messed-up drifter who sees the deaths of the people she touches, are compelling works of dark, violent fantasy. (Just as an aside, they also have the best covers of any fantasy novels I saw this year – just take a look at those links. Simply gorgeous). Miriam Black is a wonderful character, damaged, clever and pissed off at all the supernatural horrors making her life a living hell. Wendig is at the top of his game with the Miriam books – the writing flows like a flooded river, sweeping the reader in and pounding, slashing and drowning them with irresistible pace.

So, compiling this list, I noticed something I didn’t expect – nine of the eleven books feature female protagonists. Only The Third Policeman‘s narrator is definitely male, and it’s strongly implied that the “you” of If on a Winter’s Night is a heterosexual man. Other than that, all women. I don’t know if I can self-diagnose a definite preference for female protagonists from this small a sample size, but I definitely enjoy reading stories about resourceful, determined women with plot agency. Fair to say I probably haven’t yet outgrown Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

[1] Excluding romance, I’m afraid. I’ve never developed much of a taste for it, unless it happens to show up in other genre works (as it often does in fantasy). I’ve no objections to it, though, so if anyone has any promising recommendations, let me know.

[2] Andrea, cousin Tyler needs a spinoff novel. C’mon!

[3] In case it was not clear, Atlanta Burns is a young adult. Bait Dog is not necessarily YA. It would have given me nightmares for weeks when I was thirteen, I think.

[4] I bought it for my Mum for Christmas. I am totally serious.

2 Comments »

  1. Tyler’s a little too…complete unto himself to carry his own narrative.

    Comment by Andrea — January 5, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

  2. I suspected as much. Still would be eminently watchable 🙂

    Comment by lexifab — January 5, 2013 @ 9:16 pm

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