Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012

Best of 2012

Hello, faithful readers! If anybody out there has been paying attention, they will have noticed that I haven't been posting reviews for quite a few months now. I've got quite a few drafts stored, but I haven't gotten around to posting. To tell the truth, writing full-length reviews has gotten to be a bit of a chore. I've loved writing this blog, but it's started to be more time-consuming than I would like. Much as I enjoy writing reviews, it's gotten to be too much work to write an individual review for every book I read.

This does not, however, mean the end of this blog! Instead, I'm going to change up the format a bit. At the end of each month, I'm going to post a list of the books I read that month, with a capsule review of each one, which should be quite similar to the reviews I've written for the past few years. This will keep the blog running with as little change as possible, while still keeping me from having to write a new review every week or two.

Before we get to the traditional end-of-year awards (God, I sound pompous), here are the books I read during the end of November and December of 2012:

All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, 1963

Dense, hefty and lyrical, All The King's Men was not an easy read. It's not an inviting book, in the sense that it has no easy hook. It's the story of the complex politician Willie Stark, but it's truly the story of his pressman, Jack Burden, and Burden's relationship to his troubled past. It's a political novel, a philosophical tract, and a family saga, with dashes of romance and noir. It's a difficult book to encapsulate, because it's far too ambitious to be straightforward and too tightly constructed to be sprawling.

Warren's writing has a fascinating quality to it, difficult to pin down. His dialogue is sharp and keenly observed, and yet much of the novel is internal, the thoughts and recollections of Jack Burden. Warren's prose can be luminous, or bleak, or wryly comic. You never quite know what to expect. I was particularly fascinated by some of the philosophical concepts that Burden comes to believe in, and the way that Warren handles his ultimate conclusion.

Even more fascinating is Willie Stark, a character so perfectly drawn that I can see him even now in my mind's eye. Willie is a classic antihero: he's not a good man, not truly, and yet I rarely felt contempt for him. His journey up from poverty is characterized by lying, cheating and dirty tactics, yet there's something oddly admirable about it, too (although his long-suffering wife would certainly disagree).

I had problems with some parts of the novel. The Cass Mastern interlude, while illuminating in many ways, can be a hard slog, and I found Jack's endless longing for Anne incredibly dreary after a while (in general, I would say that Warren was far more comfortable writing three-dimensional male characters than three-dimensional female ones). These flaws are pretty minor, and do little to overshadow the brilliance of Willie Stark's descent into corruption and Jack Burden's search for a truth that he can live with.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, 1988

I've always been a little wary of the comic book medium, especially when people claim that it's an art form on a par with film or fiction writing. I've read very few comics (and most of the ones I have read are the genially goofy superhero comic books of the fifties and sixties), so I'm really not in any position to judge. It's easy, from an outside perspective, to write off comic books as cheesy and their devoted fans as shortsighted nerds. I knew that I would eventually have to read a graphic novel and see what it was like.

While I don't know much about comic books, I am pretty familiar with most of the major superhero characters thanks to the glut of movies based on them (superhero movies are one of my guilty pleasures). My all-time favorite movie superhero, hands down, is Batman (I'm a huge Christopher Nolan fangirl), so it made sense to start with him. Even though I'm fluent in the basics of the Bat-verse--billionaire, murdered parents, Gotham City--I decided to start with the beginning, or at least with the most highly-regarded retelling of the beginning.

And all I can say is, wow.

Year One may be a comic book, but it's not inane, ridiculous or juvenile in the least. It's a red-blooded crime story, with clipped, noir-ish writing and some genuinely beautiful artwork. While the comic format took a little while for a virgin like me to get accustomed to, soon I was flipping pages without thinking about it. The way the action moves between panels is a work of art, the timing incredibly precise. Mazzucchelli's art is gorgeous--moody, dark, classic. He draws people who--for the most part--look like people, rather than caricatures (I especially like the way he draws Gordon for some reason). The level of detail present in the artwork is sometimes astounding, and I particularly liked the way Mazzucchelli uses little details to set a scene, provide characterization and sometimes to foreshadow the plot.

Miller's story, split between Batman and James Gordon, is a terrific piece of crime writing. I was actually shocked by how suspenseful and exciting I found it. Some of the set-pieces, like the showdown between Batman and a SWAT team in a derelict building, are truly gripping, thanks to the marriage of Miller's terse narration and Mazzucchelli's art. I particularly enjoyed the way that the internal narrations of both protagonists manages to be authentic and distinct, without becoming cheesy or overly explanatory--although I will say that I don't care for comic writers's need to make every other word of dialogue bold. It's a device that seems clumsy and outdated, especially in a comic book as sophisticated as this one.

The influence of Year One on the Nolan film trilogy is clear. This isn't the jokey Adam West Batman; this is a young man with some serious demons--in one of the comic's most harrowing scenes, he comes very close to essentially committing suicide. Gordon, too, is a far more interesting character than he usually is: an essentially good cop struggling against the corruption and evil that surrounds him.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, 2012

There is no doubt in my mind that no author had a bigger impact on my formative years of reading than J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series is, gun to my head, quite probably my favorite piece of writing of all time. And no, I'm not crazy enough to think that it's a masterpiece of beautiful wordsmanship, but Rowling is an incredible storyteller. She's actually a much better writer than she gets credit for, too; she does some truly amazing work in the final chapters of Deathly Hallows. Naturally, I was thrilled by the news that Rowling was releasing a new novel, and a standalone literary novel for adults, no less. Like a lot of Rowling's fans, I was slightly bemused by the fact that the book was a low-key piece of black social comedy with no speculative elements. I was also a bit discomfited by the fierce love-it-or-hate-it dialogue that popped up immediately after it came out. It would have been a huge disappointment for me if Rowling had messed up her crucial first step into standard fiction.

Most of my fears were assuaged once I got a hundred pages or so into Vacancy. Reading Rowling's tart, clear-eyed prose again is an almost physical pleasure for me after a few years with no new Potter, and it didn't take long until her skill at drawing you into a world had me engrossed. Vacancy is a pleasingly complex novel, a mature, entertaining and thoughtful book with some deep flaws and a troubling conclusion, but overall it's an impressive work.

The plot is almost shockingly quiet and low-concept: beloved family man Barry Fairbrother dies of a hemorrhage one evening, sending the provincial town of Pagford into disarray. Barry's death leaves an empty seat (a 'casual vacancy') on the parish council, sparking a massive power struggle between the town's two principal factions. Pagford's residents are a pretty sorry bunch, from jolly tyrant Howard Mollison to new-in-town social worker Kay Bawden. All of them are struggling against private demons, and by the end of the novel, none of their worlds will ever be the same.

The thing that hits you first about Vacancy is just how many character perspectives there are. The Harry Potter novels are almost entirely limited to Harry's POV, but Vacancy switches between narrators like a Stephen King doorstopper. Rowling has always been adept at characterization, and it's a skill that serves her well here. Her cast is big, but distinctive; it's easy to remember who everybody is. Sure, some of the characters are a bit thin, but it's a forgivable flaw with a story this sprawling.

Unfortunately, Rowling can't quite stick the book's ending; while it works thematically, it comes off as mawkish and contrived. Rowling has some interesting and thought-provoking points to make, but she uses a jackhammer to make them when a light tap would have been more effective. The conclusion of the character arcs are likewise a mixed bag. There are some surprisingly satisfying resolutions, and some extremely unsatisfying ones. Still, I enjoyed the book as a whole, which is well-written, acidically funny and sometimes surprisingly moving, even if it doesn't come together perfectly. It's no Harry Potter, but then, what is?

Horns by Joe Hill, 2011

One of the many things I liked about Horns is how difficult it is to classify. Heart-Shaped Box, Hill's first novel, was a pretty straightforward supernatural thriller, at least as far as the plot was concerned. Horns defies any easy labels. It is, at its core, a character study infused with religious theology and a streak of pulpy horror. It's at times a supremely uneven read, with the individual segments stitched together almost haphazardly. But it's also fresh, scary, exciting and diabolically clever.

The premise--a man wakes up with horns--sounds like an old Twilight Zone episode, and at first it seems like the novel will be a surreal black comedy about perception and honesty. Then, the plot twists again, and seems to set up a murder mystery. This conceit gets tossed out pretty quickly, too, as we learn the identity of the killer quite shortly.The book's final stretch reads like a hybrid of gory revenge thriller and theological treatise (I'd be hard-pressed to decide which element is more entertaining).

Hill is a very strong writer, capable of writing sentences of surprising beauty, and some that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Once in a while his prose can become a bit pretentious, and there's the odd bit of clunky dialogue, but these are the exception to the rule. The two segments I had the most trouble with are both flashbacks--the lengthy discursion about Ig as a child and a sequence from the perspective of the main villain. Both sequences run too long and have too little new information in them to justify their length. Interestingly, the only time I actually thought about Hill's parentage (Stephen King is his father) was during the childhood flashbacks; there was a strong flavor of "The Body."

Once the slightly clunky expositional segments are out of the way, though, Horns gets far better. The novel's final third or so is a seriously intense revenge thriller, with much bloodshed and savage humor. Like Hill's last protagonist, Judas Coyne, Ig is a character with a whole lot of layers. Is he ultimately a good guy gone bad, or a bad guy gone good? Does his transformation into a devil (a very literal transformation) represent a descent into evil or a rise from powerlessness to empowerment? It's a shame the novel's antagonist doesn't make for a more complex foil for Ig. The third main character, Merrin, has been murdered before the novel begins, but the reader gets to know her through flashbacks. In one of Hill's neatest narrative tricks, we find out who Merrin is in bits and pieces, only getting the (shocking) full picture at the very end.

What surprised me most about the novel in the end was how moving it was. The book's tone jumps around so much, particularly at the mordantly funny beginning, that the emotional power of the final stretch comes as a bit of a shock. For a book that is basically about evil, it has a surprisingly humanistic streak to it. Yes, humans do horrible things to one another, but they have a surprising ability to redeem themselves, too.

Okay. On to the best-of list.
Anyone following this blog could see that there was a steep drop in the number of books I read this year versus last year. Last year, I read forty-five books. This year, I read twenty-one books, less than half (and a lot of the books I read this year were short). For various reasons--and I'm ashamed to admit that one of them is a Netflix subscription, I just haven't spent as much time reading this year, something that kind of makes me sad, to be honest. One of my New Year's resolutions is to make 2013 a more productive year, book-wise.
But while I may not have read many books this year, I read plenty of good ones. Here are the top six:
6. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
In my review of The Magicians, I made it clear that I had mixed feelings about some of Grossman's choices, both plot and stylistic. I still am, to an extent, but boy, this is a book that stays with you. Grossman has some occasionally profound things to say about fantasy, young adulthood and growing up, not to mention the fact that The Magicians breathes life into tired tropes like the school for magic and makes them feel fresh again. The Magician King is definitely on my reading list for 2013.
5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Like I said above, ATKM is not an easy read. It is, however, an enriching and fascinating one. Warren's meditations on morality and accountability are sometimes spellbinding. Plus, it's a finely honed political novel with a subtle wit, written with enormous talent.
4. Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner
A near-perfect thriller, in my humble opinion. Evan Delaney is a terrific protagonist, and the novel is a synthesis of everything great about the genre: hilarious, scary, twisty and exciting as hell. More than that, though, the novel is a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a relationship put through extraordinary circumstances.
3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
It's by Shakespeare; they'll revoke my Pretentious Reader card if I don't include it on the list! But seriously, this is an amazing play, even if it's not one of my favorites. Nobody does tragedy like Shakespeare.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
TBT is not just a beautiful and daring YA novel, it's a beautiful and daring novel, period. The fact that it is, technically, aimed at kids is astounding. Its complexity and thoughtfulness is as striking as its playful, ghoulish wit. The ending may be engineered to make you cry, but it certainly works, doesn't it? Beautifully written, and hauntingly illustrated, too.
1. The Code of the Woosters/The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I will contest to my dying day that P.G. Wodehouse is one of the most under appreciated geniuses to ever put pen to paper. His talent is absolutely mind-boggling. His sentence construction alone ought to be studied with the same reverence afforded to Shakespeare or Keats (and let's not forget his incredible gift for dialogue). Code and Inimitable are two of his finest Jeeves-and-Wooster books (I especially adore the episodic pacing of Inimitable). I definitely didn't read any other books this year that were both this brilliant and this much fun to read.
Honorable Mentions: Horns, Smoke and Mirrors, Savages, Mockingjay, The Shadow Rising.
Well, that's it for 2012! Hopefully 2013 will be even better. Keep checking in for my January report, which should be up soon!