Another year, another top five books. I’m still reading, obviously, but most of what I have lined up for the next week or two is research for a project, and so good as they might be, are unlikely to trump the books I’ve enjoyed purely for pleasure.
I woefully under-achieved in my ‘reading aims’ this year, and went through far fewer books than I wished to. Nevertheless, as you’ll see after xmas when I post the whole list and reviews, the sample size is large enough to pick some highlights from. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and my usual ‘rules’ apply. These are books I read in 2012, but that’s not necessarily when they were published. It just happens to be the year I got around to them. Also, I’m not declaring my selection of favourite books to be better than your selection. Feel free to comment at the end of the post if you like, and even debate my choices if you choose, but I haven’t the time or inclination to start wrestling with trolls.
That said, here we go…
A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin – It was so long between the fourth and fifth books in Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice saga that I really had no idea where the story was at when I got round to ordering the most recent. The only sensible thing to do was sit down and re-read everything that came before A Dance With Dragons before I started that book. A hefty undertaking, but as it turned out, not a chore at all. I had a fantastic month or so in Westeros. I could legitimately say that the whole saga to date is one of my top five books of the year, but that feels like cheating. Instead, I’ll highlight A Storm Of Swords as perhaps the best individual book in the sequence so far.
It seems clear to me that when Martin originally plotted these books, he probably intended for the key events here to be the mid-sequence climax of the saga (though as he keeps writing, it’s becoming more like the end of Act One). It’s extraordinarily eventful, with shock building on shock. The Red Wedding, and Catelyn’s ultimate fate in its aftermath, Joffrey’s own doomed wedding (seriously, who would get married in Westeros?), Tyrion’s final moments with his father… it’s all go, and makes this one of the most gripping books in the whole arc. Plots seeded years before begin to come to light, and what had seemed to be the set journeys of several characters are overturned entirely. There are dramatic returns, daring escapes, betrayals, maimings, murders, and much more.
A Song of Fire and Ice has often been called the fantasy book that finally grabbed women and brought them into the fantasy genre – a gateway drug for fantasy as a whole, if you like. However, it’s also clear that it’s a gateway drug for men too – a gateway to soap opera! Not that this is a bad thing. For all that this could be Dallas with swords (and an X rating), it’s how every bloke would want soap opera to be. it’s epic, frightening, and thrilling, and at the same time races to the pulse of characters that we’ve grown to know very well. I labelled the first book as Ned’s tale, and the second book Tyrion’s. For me, this one is Jaime’s moment in the light. For the first time we see the world from the Kingslayer’s point of view, and he’s instantly not as black and white as he once appeared. The man who throws children from towers and screws his sister is also a man deeply in love, whose life has been defined by one moment when he both saved a Kingdom, and betrayed his most sacred vows. Maimed and on the run, I watched him evolve, and he’s who I think of when I look back on this book’s journey.
The Wrath Of Angels, John Connolly – Where the previous Charlie Parker mystery was a story in which Parker himself took a relatively minor role, The Wrath of Angels is a slice of Parker to which a story has been appended. It’s a rewarding read if you’ve been following these novels, but too problematically entrenched in the mythos that’s built up around Parker for the newbie. As I’ve been following the novels for years though, I’m well rewarded. As ever, Connolly holds back from offering conclusive revelations, but he enriches his own world of fallen angels and those who oppose them deeply with this novel.
As far as the plot goes… there’s a long crashed plane somewhere in the Maine woods, and a list of names on board that could prove influential in the secret war that Parker has found himself a part of. He has to find that list. Story done. It’s the solidifying of the supernatural elements that really delivers in this book. We’re a long way from the early instalments, when it was unclear whether the supernatural was a real presence in Parker’s life or just his own fevered imaginings, yet for all its epic implications the story stays grounded in little lives and personal stories. Beautifully written, as I’ve long since come to expect from Connolly, and a milestone in the arc plot that has slowly developed over the years.
Sundancing, Brian Keene – Brian Keene has never been a man at peace. As an author, he entered the genre full of piss and vinegar, determined to rage against the machine. With success as a novelist, the machine swallowed him whole and kicked him in the teeth (notably during the collapse of his publisher Dorchester). His past is littered with dysfunction, and while he has projected a public image that’s sometimes appeared impervious to all, the truth has been very different.
In Sundancing, a short autobiographical novella detailing his trip to the Sundance Festival for the premiere of Ghoul (the movie based on his novel), he seems finally to have found some genuine contentment. In essence, this book is a quirky ‘what I did on my holidays’, during which Brian and his close friends flirt with and embrace the studio machine (just as liable to chew up its victims as the traditional publishing behemoth). Brian writes with the same honesty and invitation that makes much of his non-fiction addictive. For those who know him even distantly – and his fans can count himself among that number, as he’s the kind of author who pays back support with genuine connection – the real pleasure of this book is understanding that, finally, he seems to have found ways to unify the things that make him happy. For that reason, this is a book that makes you feel good, and for long term fans of the author it comes highly recommended.
Born To Run, Christopher McDougall – “Why does my foot hurt?” It’s quite an innocuous little question, but asking it sent the author on a vast, epic adventure into the then guerilla worlds of ultrarunning. Although it begins as a personal quest to run without pain, the question’s answer sends McDougall on an expedition to learn the secrets of some of the most extraordinary long distance runners in the world, most of whom reside in a single community hidden deep in remote Mexican canyons. It turns out, the Tarahumara tribe might be key to unlocking a new way of looking at the human body and what it’s for. Although contentious, the core of the book features a fascinating argument that the human body is designed to run further than any other animal on land, for longer periods of time (to run down prey – we had no other advantages when it comes to taking down other large mammals). That evolutionary argument remains contentious today, but it’s compellingly put. I read this book because I’m a runner, and it transformed how I think about how I run. However, I was surprised at how caught up I got in the author’s story, the characters he meets, and the ultimate secret ultramarathon he and the Tarahumara set up at the end of the book. It’s exhilarating, often funny, and inspiring whether you run yourself or not.
Faction Paradox: A Romance In Twelve Parts, ed Stuart Douglas and Lawrence Miles – Hands down, the best anthology of fiction I’ve read in the last few years. It knocked me sideways, and it’s been difficult to draw my thoughts about it together.
First off, what is the Faction Paradox? Well… I’m not going to tell you. I didn’t know when I started reading the book, and the mystery enhanced the stories so much that I pity any reader who already knows. As the book’s final page states: “They’re here. They’re not here. Get used to it.”
What’s clear from this collection is that Faction stories are unbound. A Faction Paradox story isn’t restricted to a set of rules or a stylebook. Quite the opposite. This book is an absolute explosion of ideas, and an homage to the exhilarating possibilities of speculative fiction. The Faction Paradox ‘brand’ clearly doesn’t limit the potential of stories. It seems instead to enable them, and the result is a book crammed with sometimes dizzying flights of fantasy.
Some highlights. The opening tale, Matt Kimpton’s ‘The Storyteller’, caught me completely off guard with its presentation of a Scandinavian myth told in the oral tradition. The story is of a young bard determined to live a legend in line with those he regales others with, and his hunt to do so changes his own tale in strange and temporal ways. It’s densely, lovingly written, and while utterly unexpected also introduces the scope of the book in a brilliant and curiously unsettling way. Compare this with Blair Bidmead’s ‘Now Or Thereabouts’, on the face of it an amusing parody of The Apprentice with surprisingly affecting undertones. It’s difficult to imagine how two such opposing stylistic tours could exist together in the same book elsewhere, but here they actually serve to complement and enhance the overall impact of the volume. Later, Dave Hoskin offers ‘Tonton Macoute’, a story of an appetite for ingesting stories that drips with grotesque menace, and Philip Purser-Hallard closes with the extraordinary ‘A Hundred Words From The Civil War’. In this final piece, the author draws strands from across the book together in a city at the end of time where all souls are resurrected, and uses a series of drabbles to document the beginning, middle, and end of a complex civil war with remarkable grace.
My personal highlights only. Consider this book (beautifully designed, if you choose the hardback, though there’s an ebook too) an adventure waiting to happen to happen to you, a genuinely exciting mystery tour through Romance and Story. It excited me about the potential dynamism of storytelling all over again, and sets my expectations of what I want from anthologies almost impossibly high.
Bubbling under – London Macabre, The Concrete Grove, The House of Silk
There you go. Books that made me happy in 2012. In a week or two, I’ll post my full review list of the year’s reading. If you’re curious about the books that have pleased me most for the last six years, you’re also welcome to check out 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
Currently reading: The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill
Currently reading (short stories): Wake Up And Smell The Creepy by Marianne Halbert