As I have for the past few years, I’ve been keeping notes on what I’ve been reading in 2010. Thirty-four books in total, less than 2009, but better than a poke in the eye. For those who want to know, these are the books I’d pull out as the top five of the year. It is, of course, incredibly subjective, and there are no real rules under which I make these selections. They’re not necessarily newly published in 2010, that’s just when I read them.
Your mileage may vary, but were you to come up to me and ask what you should read next, I’d point you in the direction of the following…
Absolute Sandman, Four Volumes, Neil Gaiman – Collecting the full run of Gaiman’s Sandman series, one of the finest extended comic book runs ever written (and possibly, one of the finest myths spun in the modern age), there’s almost nothing I can say about this that hasn’t been said before. Volume One begins the tale of Dream, the embodiment of same, brother of Death, Destiny, Despair, and the rest of the Endless. It’s interesting to watch the series evolve, from the initial attempts to integrate it into the DC comic universe (always interesting and mature, but short-lived), to the point where Gaiman seems to realise he has carte blanche to do whatever he likes, and talks about dreams, and myths, and stories. Startling, sometimes horrific, always surprising and poetic, if you’ve never read it, this is going to change how you think about storytelling forever
With the series established and a voice found, Volume Two starts to revolutionise what can be done on the comic book page. From Lucifer’s abandonment of hell, to a girl trapped in her own childhood fantasies, the series weaves and reweaves around itself, adding impossible layers to the core concept. In some stories, the titular Sandman turns up only on the fringes, proving that Gaiman can do whatever he wants in this book. It’s inspiring stuff. And have I mentioned how beautiful these Absolute editions are – huge, faux-leatherbound volumes collecting art and afterwords, and covers, and more (the Dave McKean art helped define the feel of the series, and looks stunning). Not cheap, but absolutely worth having.
Gaiman’s epic continues with Volume Three, and for me it’s in the ‘Brief Lives’ section of the cycle, in which Dream and his sister Delirium set out to find their long lost brother Destruction, that the author achieves his aim of creating a modern mythology as relevant to the time of writing as the old pantheons of gods where to the people of their day. That he does this while not only acknowledging those old gods, but inviting them into his story, is remarkable. Following the shattering events of this sequence, he segues into ‘World’s End’, a series of short stories that both stand alone, and play into coming events. Transcendent stuff.
For all the world-building and storyweaving, the resonance and layers, for a myth to become epic it has to end. Volume Four is a heartstopping conclusion, pulling strands from across the five year run of the comic together, some obvious, some obscure, and building an inevitable end for the lord of dreams. Like the grand, enduring sagas it has joined, Sandman’s ending is tragic, painful, and heroic. It’s devastating, and also uplifting, with change and renewal threaded through the final arc. It closes a story that feels both old and new, bigger than the reader, a tale of rare, beautiful power. I loved it, and can’t wait to start the whole journey over again.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson – Popular science made… well… popular by the affable charm and awe Bryson brings to his telling of how things came to be what they are today. It often me laugh out loud, thanks to the author’s preoccupation not just with the strangeness of the Universe, but the strangeness and eccentricities of those who helped work out what we know about ‘stuff’ (which is both quite a lot, and surprisingly little). It’s hard to imagine another book about science providing as much entertainment as this one, but that does not make the telling either patronising or simplistic. An epic, but fascinating read that does a surprisingly good job of living up to the ambitious title (that said, quantum physics, the science of the subatomic, still makes my skin crawl and my brain turn inside out at the impossibility of it all, but it seems to do that to quantum physicists too, so THAT’s all right).
The Passage, Justin Cronin – Describing this engrossing book as a post-apocalyptic vampire novel does it no favours – even as a devoted horror reader, such a descriptive just makes me sigh. The book itself though, an amazing, epic story about hope and survival, made me breathless in different ways. I lost myself in it, for a week, sitting down to read it when I had far more pressing things to do. In many ways the book is really a trilogy in its own right. There’s the opening quarter, as the stage is set for the end of the world, and the apocalypse falls. There’s the siege novel, a hundred years later, as a colony of survivors try to fend off the things that ended the world. Then there’s the quest, through a horrific post-apocalyptic America. Each is superb, filling you up with people and places and events that never happened, and making them real. The book ends well, on an ambiguous note, and only then did I realise this is the first part of a trilogy. Unlike some, who apparently felt rather cheated when they discovered this, I was delighted. Two years is a long time to wait for 2012’s The Twelve, but knowing it’s coming makes me happy. In the meantime, The Passage finds a good place to close, as some things conclude, and new chapters are about to open. I recommend this one strongly, and hope you get to it before the inevitable movie comes out.
Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Gary A. Braunbeck – Whether I was in a different, more receptive mood, or whether there is a more even consistency to the tone of the stories, I found the second collection of Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill tales a far more engaging, though no less alarming and beautiful, selection than the first. Perhaps because it builds on the work accomplished by the first volume, Graveyard People, or perhaps because the backdrop is becoming more rooted and established now, the collection left a concrete aftertaste, a feeling that I know this town. Cedar Hill, fifty thousand souls, big enough to get lost in, small enough to know. Weird Shit Happens Here. Braunbeck’s trademark lyricism breaks your heart over and over again. Nothing is taboo, because this is the sort of horror that makes you understand where darkness comes from, but it’s written with such courage and soul that it rises far above the gutter, and somehow becomes something beautiful. An outstanding collection, and I look forward to the third volume, hopefully sometime next year.
The Obverse Book of Ghosts, Cavan Scott – As you’d expect from a writer whose own fiction often falls into the spooky genre, I’m a lifelong lover of horror stories, and keep current in my reading. Perhaps that’s why this book was such a delight. It features exactly none of the authors whose short stories I normally find in horror anthologies. Those authors I do know, I recognise from their non-horror work, and their individual takes on the classic ghost story were therefore something of a voyage of discovery. An additional surprise was the sense of fun between these pages. I’m so used to horror stories that hang their serious intent out for all to see that I’d all but forgotten that it’s possible to write a story that’s both atmospheric, and bloody amusing. This (beautifully produced) little hardback was a delight, and if you’ve any urge at all to delve into a book of spooky yarns, I suggest you make it this one.
Bubbling Under – Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter, The Whisperers
Later today, or maybe tomorrow, I’ll follow up with the full list of all thirty-four books, if you feel like comparing notes, or seeing what the above were up against. If you’re interested, feel free to compare and contrast with my top five books from 2009, 2008, and 2007.
So, tell me, what was the best book you read in 2010?
Tagged 2010, a short history of nearly everything, absolute sandman, bill bryson, book review, books, cavan scott, gary a. braunbeck, home before dark, justin cronin, neil gaiman, reading, the obverse book of ghosts, the passage