Out of the 144 books I read this year, more than half were fiction — 81. I read a lot of really great books this year, so follows my top 10 pick for fiction in 2012! — not including books already read before this year. Also not limited to books published during this year, because I’m pretty sure I didn’t read any. (Dates read indicate the date I finished a book, and I don’t list any start dates.)
1. The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
This was, in short, the best book I read this entire year, and it happened half by accident. I don’t actually enjoy reading fiction about Russia, necessary; sometimes I get into a weird mode where I love something too much to enjoy other people’s interpretations of it. And fiction about the Romanovs has been strictly off-limits to me in the past. But it was a weird day, I was at the Friends of the Library bookstore, I saw it sitting haphazardly on a pile of books it didn’t belong with, and it was an attractive size, shape, thickness, with one of those nice stiff papery covers. I saw the title and went, “Hey! I know what that’s referring to!” When I read the description on the back of an 83-year-old former bodyguard to the Imperial family, I knew I had to try it. It cost me about $2, but, after that digital download of realMYST that I bought last year, it was the best $2 I’ve ever spent. John Boyne is an artist with words. The book is constructed brilliantly, the timeline running backward and forward and meeting in the middle. This thirtysomething Irishman’s first-person portrayal of an 83-year-old Russian librarian and ex-guard is skillful, completely believable, and, as I had no expectations of the book at all, and was glad to take the ride it offered, I was thrilled, shocked, and pleased at everything it had to offer. And while I have spent this year crying over the ends of books that didn’t necessarily earn the tears, let me tell you that when I spent the last two chapters of this book with tears streaming down my face, they were earned, welcomed, and perfect. The best book. I love it.
2. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
I meant to read this years ago. It was on my casual list, my “if I get a round tuit” list. I saw the preview and thought that the concept sounded brilliant. In fact, when I described it to a family friend, she exclaimed, Doesn’t that just sound like something Megan would write? The book was even better than I ever expected, though, I must say, I was astonished to find it shelved in the juvenile section of our public library — and having read the entire trilogy, allow me to say that providing this series for the under-12 crowd is unimaginably inappropriate. It truly ought to be in the YA, due to mild language and sensual content (particularly in the third book). Actually, the second two aren’t anywhere near as good as the first one. But the first one! What a book! I loved Inkheart. The title, the characters, the situations, all cleverly woven together.
(By the way, give the movie a skip. The author, preoccupied with getting the exact actors she wanted–who were all, to be sure, well-chosen–allowed them to fairly well mutilate the book into a pigwash not much related to the novel.)
3. Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers
I started the Lord Peter Wimsey thing late last year. I thought it was high time I saw what this was all about. Lord Peter is completely adorable, and, I decided, worthy of the canon of “mystery series I actually read.” This one was really impressive, not least of all because the murderer used a particular method I’ve said people should’ve been using all along, because it’s virtually undetectable and foolproof! (I’m not going to tell you what method I’ve been advocating for the smart murderer. No. But you could always read the book . . .) Lord Peter is yet another amateur sleuth who know his job better than the police do, although Sayers’ police are pretty competent; Inspector Charles Parker is Wimsey’s brother-in-law and often feeds him cases. Lord Peter is also aided by the completely adorable Melvin Bunter, his valet. Also, Lord Peter’s hobbies include the collecting of first editions and incunabula, so he’s obviously super cool. The setting is post-WWI London, and the dialogue is snappy and humorous; personally I think that Sayers is a better mystery writer than Agatha Christie, and deserves more due than she gets. This one was a particularly good choice, and I think one of my favorites of the series.
4. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
I’ve heard about this book for years. In fact, I even confused it with the wildly boring film Gosford Park. But unlike that tedious and haphazardly-accented film, Gorky Park is a thrill ride written by a Pennsylvania native but indistinguishable from real Soviet Russia. A thrilling murder mystery with living, breathing characters who occasionally succeed in making the reader forget, with pleasure, that there was a mystery to follow. A rare find! Arkady Renko is a homicide investigator who is called on a case involving the bodies of two young men and a young woman, all three shot to death in Moscow’s famous Gorky Park. The time of death is uncertain because a heavy Russian winter has kept the victims hidden under a blanket of snow for some time, and even less certain are the victims’ identities and a motive for murder. Involving the KGB, the FBI, and the NYPD, this mystery is a page-turner crossing several continents. I don’t even usually like mysteries! But this is worth reading, no doubts.
5. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
I was surprised by this one. I know that Heinlein is a master of science fiction, winner of many awards, inspirer of many later authors, but honestly, I’ve hated or endured just about every book of his I’ve ever read. Yet I’ve always given him another chance and another chance . . . and this time I actually wasn’t sorry. I picked it up because it is widely considered one of the best scifi novels ever written, and although I don’t enjoy dystopian literature, as you know, this novel (which takes place on the moon, a 21st century penal colony) didn’t feel like typical dystopia to me. In fact, it was fascinating. Probably because it had to do with that civilization-building thing I’ve talked about before. Mannie is a computer tech on the moon who discovers that a particular computer has achieved self-awareness and a sense of humor; things progress from there into an all-out revolution, and while the cell system of the lunar revolt calls to mind communist subversives, the ideology is far more closely aligned with the birth of the United States. In fact, one of the original three revolutionaries drafts a declaration of independence and constitution based on that of the United States, and the moon declares its freedom on July 4, 2076. The book has been praised as having one of the most realistic portrayals of a future lunar/earth society, and by and large isn’t dated by its copyright (1966). And while I was periodically disturbed by the lunar marital/family setups — particularly the way the narrator takes for granted you understand what he’s talking about — it added to the realism, particularly the development of said narrator. Worth reading!
6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
People spend their whole lives petrified of this book, and I don’t know why. I think part of it is that people get caught up on Tolstoy and use him to judge all Russian literature by, and Tolstoy writes dense, confusing stuff. For example, because everyone complains about Russian authors using dozens of names for the same person, I kind of expected that to be the case here, but I can say definitively that this is a problem of Tolstoy’s and one soundly avoided by Dostoyevsky. The novel with a title like a thesis is almost stream-of-consciousness in its nature, modern in its style, Russian to its core, and entirely mesmerizing. Raskolnikov, whose full name is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov and who is not called anything but Raskolnikov the length of the 500-page novel. The first paragraphs frame the debate that overshadows the rest of the action — is it immoral or not to kill a person whose life offers no benefit to anyone around them and in fact actually harms people — and parts of it read almost like a delirious dream you are caught in along with the protagonist. I read it very quickly and enjoyed every minute. I advise you not to be scared of Russian literature where Dostoyevsky is concerned, and let Crime and Punishment be your first foray, because of its modern readability and comparative shortness.
7. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I don’t recommend this one for your first attempt into Russian literature because it is nearer 700 pages than 500 and is incredibly densely packed with stuff. In fact, two segments of the book have inspired their own completely independent plays, and one chapter is often printed independently as a prose poem. I was almost 300 pages in to it before I suddenly cared about what was going on. Fyodor Karamazov, a detestable old drunken coot, was very closely based on Dostoyevsky’s own father (a man murdered by his own serfs); he has three sons from two marriages and a possible illegitimate son he employs as a valet. Dmitri is the eldest, followed by Ivan and Alexei (called Alyosha). They all have extremely distinct and polarized personalities, each embodying in microcosm a specific part of the Russian psyche: Dmitri is a soldier and a sensualist, blowing a great deal of money on women and champagne and spending most of the book as a point in two intersecting love triangles, where he and his father are both after the same woman, and this woman and another are both after Dmitri. Ivan is a rationalist philosopher who is abrupt and callous and occasionally close to evil. Alyosha is the spiritual one, the devout disciple of an elder (starets) Zosima at a local monastery. Like I said, it took me half the book to care about what was going on, and then I didn’t want it to end (Dostoyevsky intended it as the first part of a saga called The Life of a Great Sinner). I also somehow fell in love with Dmitri. Anyway, at first I was reluctant to call Karamaxov Dostoyevsky’s greatest work (it was also his last work; he died four months after its publication), but now I can agree with the assessment: it is like Hamlet in many ways. Just as Shakespeare wrote Hamlet after the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet, Dostoyevsky’s last novel responded to the death of his son Alexei, age 4 (although both authors named their great characters after their deceased sons, the characters do not appear otherwise based on them). Interestingly, Alexei was born in Staraya, the town used as the model for the one in Karamazov. Anyway, bogging down here in background, aren’t I? In short: didn’t expect to like it because everyone goes on about it, but, like Hamlet, it’s totally deserved.
8. The Other by Thomas Tryon
Here’s one for the Goodreads recommendation pile! I forget what it suggested this one to me based on, but it was definitely because of my paranormal-supernatural bookshelf, on which I also shelve horror. And because it seemed to be a classic of horror literature, I put it on my list. Well, bored and desperate for something to read, I got a really grimy copy from the Champaign County Library and spent early August sitting around the house alone enjoying the ride. I didn’t know anything about the book and remembered less than that when I picked it up to read it, and had no expectations except to hopefully get scared half out of my mind. (I’ve really and truly had an insatiable appetite for horror since May, and I think it’s because I spend so much of my time just scared, I want to read and watch scary things to legitimize this omnipresent fear.) Although this falls in the realm of “okay, that was creepy, but scary? No,” it was a great book. Truly skin-crawling. It is divided into parts, which are introduced by a rambling first-person narrator who seems to be institutionalized; the narrator does not identify himself but is acquainted with all the other characters and passes judgment on them. The main characters are twin brothers, Niles and Holland, who live in the rural Midwest in an, I think, undefined time period that seems like early 1950s. This falls in as another book in my fascination with worthy younger brothers who are slavishly devoted to extremely unworthy and potentially evil older brothers, which may explain why I liked it so much, but I think anyone looking for a chilling few hours will enjoy it. (Like any horror book, you want to read it in as few sittings as possible for maximum suspense buildup.) I was also ridiculously proud of myself for understanding every word said by the Russian grandmother; none of them were translated in the book and I was disproportionately smug at recognizing things like, “Hello, Cat. Thank you, Grandmother. See you!”
9. Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny
At last, my search for a non-Amber Zelazny book that’s still readable and enjoyable has panned out! Like a number of other books I’m preoccupied with, this one is constructed in a very unusual fashion: it begins with chapter two! Not only does it start with chapter two and then proceed into chapter one, the chapter after that is chapter two again. And on it goes throughout the book: it is only two chapters long, it’s just that those chapters are out of order. (Experiment: I want to read all the chapter ones and then all the chapter twos, because I think the timeline bears out — although Zelazny explained that the ‘ones’ all take place “on the road” and the ‘twos’ all take place “off the road” and he put the ‘twos’ in randomly). The captivating cover actually sums up everything important in the entire book, although it’s impossible to understand how without reading it. In the first chapter, Randy Dorakeen’s traveling companion makes him stop and fix the vehicle of an extremely old couple who don’t seem to understand what’s going on; the old man clasps his hand, asks his name, and then says, “Dorakeen. Good name!” In the second chapter, Red Dorakeen is told at a filling station that his truck was seen burning at the last exit to Babylon. (All chapter twos involve Red Dorakeen.) Confusing, funny, occasionally pointless, but always generally enjoyable, the book has everything I like about Zelazny as well as some really intriguing touches. If you like dragons, give it a go. (What is the Road? I’m not going to tell you, so you might as well read it. Also: robotized tyrannosaur, robotic death machine turned pottery enthusiast, and talking sentient robotic books. Dude. So much awesome.)
10. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
This was a really strange book, and I responded to it strangely. If there were a grid showing my star-ratings for it as I read it, it would probably go something like, “Three stars. Two stars. Four stars. Five stars. Two stars. Three stars. One star. Three stars.” I just didn’t know what to do with it, but since I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I thought it must not have been that bad, and I’d like to read it again. The story is really complex and has about a hundred and a half minor characters and subplots, but generally speaking it is about a girl from the slums who mistakenly gets a copy of a prototype book called A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which, because this is the future, a sort of AI interface that grows and develops as she does. (There are three other copies of this book: the one commissioned by a neovictorian mogul for his daughter, one bootlegged by the actual creator for his daughter, and one taken by a Chinese crime lord.) It starts off teaching her to read (she’s about four, BTW) and eventually grows more elaborate, teaching her basic robotics and combat skills, for example. It also tells a fairy story that roughly parallels the things that take place in her life. The whole story is elaborate and complex and disturbing and beautiful and strange. I still don’t really know if I even liked it or not! Yet I kind of can’t stop thinking about it. Whatever else you could possibly say, Neal Stephenson is some kind of an authorial genius.