In 2012, I did not see one motion picture in a theater. No 3D, no Imax, no communal experience of the joy of movies. It was not a conscious decision, no “statement” on anything, it just worked out that way. I get most of my DVDs from the local library, and so I do manage to get caught up with the movies, but by the time I do, no one really is still talking about THE AVENGERS or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (both movies which I did not really enjoy). If I had to pick movies I did really like in 2012, they would be THE TALL MAN with Jessica Biel and SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED with Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. I also really, really liked an “official” Duplass Brothers movie, JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME, but I do not think it was released in 2012.
As far as TV shows go, I only watch a couple. THE WALKING DEAD is having a great third season, both on its own and compared to the less than thrilling first half of Season 2. Unlike many people, I do not hate the casting of David Morrissey as the Governor. I think his…squirreliness somehow adds to his overall menace. He was never more believable–or evil–that when he was waving the white handkerchief and giving those National Guard boys a big smile right before he and his lackeys gunned them down in cold blood. Far and away, though, my favorite TV show remains JUSTIFIED, even though I thought Season 2 was better overall than Season 3 (You just cannot replace Margo Martindale). The writing, directing and acting is always great in this show, with special attention always paid to “minor” characters–who often have some of the best lines. The role of Raylan Givens suits Tim Olyphant much better than DEADWOOD’s Sherriff Seth Bullock did, and there is no Ian McShane to steal every single scene–although Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder comes awfully close. IT is a real pleasure watching those two square off, in their verbose but always entertaining conversations, and I hope to see a lot more of that in Season 4 coming up soon.
So, not seeing a lot of movies or watching a shitload of TV, must have freed up some time for something else, and I am happy to say that I was able to read a lot of books in 2012. I really made an effort to try and read books outside my usual “comfort zone” or “interest” just to try and experience some different authors and (hopefully) some great writing and storytelling. I was not disappointed. Although, I will say in looking back that I did not read as much non-fiction as I hoped, but I chalk that up to a steady diet of the New Yorker that keeps me busy with its many unbelievably great articles, awesome reporting and amazing writing (and editing).
This list could have been much, much longer. As it is, I couldn’t limit it to only 10, so I said “fuck it” and made it the “11 Favorite Books of 2012” and then after still more agonizing, finished up with the “12 Favorite Books of 2012.” It is not a cute “12 for ’12” kind of deal–I just couldn’t get it down to 10. I could have just as easily had 20 more, I fear, but I made myself cap it at twelve. I did not claim “Best”, these were just my personal favorites, YMMV. And so:
12. BELUGA-Rick Gavin. This book is just pure storytelling, character and dialogue fun. BELUGA is the second book to feature characters from RANCHERO (which I had not read prior to discovering BELUGA). The first-person narrator Nick Reid and his partner/buddy/too-big-to-be-a-sidekick Desmond start out flush with some cash they took off a meth dealer in the previous book. Desmond still has a thing for his (extremely ferocious) ex-wife, so when her idiot brother hits them up for a loan on a “business proposition” which involves stealing some tires, everyone in the world sees the many red flags waving, but, hey, what can you do? Thus begins an exceptionally violent (and often quite hilarious) chain reaction as various cops, low-lifes and self-stylized crime family bosses become drawn into the increasingly complex situation. I would be hard-pressed to recall more pleasurable reading than this book. I was reminded of the best of Elmore Leonard, but I guess folks are calling what Gavin does its own sub-genre–“Delta Noir.” Whatever it is, I am all in. (PS. The first “Nick and Desmond” book–RANCHERO–is awesome, too).
11. BREED–Chase Novak. One of the few out-and-out “horror” novels to be included on this list, BREED is everything one would want from a work of dark fiction. The basic plot is simplicity itself–wealthy, in-love-and-have-everything-but-children couple seek out an unorthodox (to say the least) method to have a successful conception, and the wife gives birth to a lovely set of fraternal twins–Adam and Alice (natch). The narrative then jumps ahead ten years, when the shit starts to hit the fan, but not in the way one would expect–in fact, I would dare say, the opposite of what one would expect. That is simply the first of many clever tricks “Chase Novak” plays on the reader, which makes what would seem to be yet another familiar tale of “science gone wrong” wholly interesting and incredibly addictive. The author is actually Scott Spencer (ENDLESS LOVE), who is a critically-acclaimed “serious” writer, who apparently does not want to sully his “good name” by writing an increasingly crazed and bloody page-turner, or perhaps some munchkin at a publishing house decided it would be better to keep the Scott Spencer “brand” separate. Whatever the case, I say “Good enough for Colson Whitehead, good enough for the rest of us!” In any event, this is great, creepy reading.
10. DARE ME-Megan Abbott. A novel about the competitiveness and petty (and not so petty) vindictiveness of high school girls who happen to be cheerleaders? I suppose I would have put money on me never even picking up such a book. However, the fact that it was written by Meg Abbott (THE END OF EVERYTHING, BURY ME DEEP) as well as raves from people whose judgements I trust leg me to, in fact, pick it up. And, all I can say is…wow! WOW. I am very glad I did. If you are thinking this is another MEAN GIRLS or HEATHERS knock-off, let me disabuse of that fact right away. Yes, there are high school girls. Yes, they are cheerleaders. Yes, there is much cattiness and much petty (and not so petty) slights that mean SO much in that peculiar context we call “adolescence” or “high school.” But this novel is so much more. Abbott has always had a gift for zeroing in on the people who populate her stories and making you really see the world through their eyes, and, often, finding the commonality with us where we, as readers, may not think that any exists. I feel like I am not selling this very well at all. If you liked the film BRICK, you will understand how this book can have such great appeal. Much more than the “dark side of cheerleaders”–suicide! murder!–this more the dark side of all of us in our supposed most “innocent” and formative moments. Forget it. I can’t possibly convey how good this book really is. Just go get it. I promise it is a cracking good read.
9. THE LAST POLICEMAN-Ben Winters. Easily the greatest “high-concept” premise of the year (taken from the back cover): “What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?” There is a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth, only six months until game over. Hank Palace is a detective with a suspicious case. He runs into resistance at every turn, but not, presumably, from murky master criminals looking to cover something up, but instead–and perhaps even more terrifying–overwhelming apathy. “Who cares?” is the refrain that runs like an undercurrent that turns outs to have a deadly undertow in this riveting novel. Part police-procedural, and part “pre-apocalyptic” dystopian SF tale, somehow all the parts fit together perfectly and keep the pages turning. Every time the reader thinks he/she has the direction of the narrative figured out, Winters takes advantage of his audacious premise and sends it spiraling out in a different direction. Even the dreaded “first of a trilogy” should not be enough to keep you from snapping up this wonderful, clever novel.
8. SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU-Charles Yu. If you have been fortunate enough to read Yu’s novel HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE, then you will need no incentive to check out this great little collection. Traditionally formatted stories along with more adventurous constructions are here, and all are enjoyable and–like all great SF (or even just plain fiction, for that matter)–will make the reader think. Some of these stories are biting satires that brought to mind the work of very clever writer (and good pal) S.G. Browne. Others less like “stories” and almost like a conversation between Yu and You (sorry). Or, more accurately, Yu and Yu. My favorite in the collection is the opener, “Standard Loneliness Package” about the outsourcing of unpleasant emotions. It could serve as a template of sorts about what I like about all of Wu’s work here: There is the premise, explained well, there is the situation that develops as one would expect (see also “Yeoman,” a tale told form the POV of one of the fabled, doomed “Red Shirts”), and then Yu puts his own spin on the material, often bringing the essential humanity or human question to the forefront in a clever, understated way. Yes, I have used the word “clever” quite a bit, so I guess your takeaway could be these are “extremely clever stories with a lot of heart.”
7. GONE GIRL-Gillian Flynn. Yes, everything you heard is true. It REALLY is that good.
6. THE DOG STARS-Peter Heller. Aside from a book we will be getting to a bit later, this was perhaps the most surprising read I had in 2012. Thankfully, I did not know much about the “plot” heading in, and thus was fully able to appreciate how things gradually unfolded. Taking a well-worn premise–the human race has seemingly been wiped out, save for a few isolated survivors (thankfully, no zombies)–Heller creates a pitch-perfect story that is busting at the seams with humanity. A man, Hig, who happens to be pilot of a dilapidated old Cessna, has made it through the great wipeout of people, along with his trusty and beloved dog, Jasper, and his extremely dangerous and unstable, armed-to-the-teeth and proficient with all those weapons “neighbor.” His takes his plane up (with Jasper as co-pilot) on trips increasingly farther and farther afield to keep the three of them in supplies. There you have it. From that simple cloth, Heller has created an equally simple, yet brilliantly alive tapestry of the commonality of what makes us human in the best (and worst) of ways. While is plenty of action and bloodshed in this tale, it is in the quiet spaces in between that the real resonance occurs. This is a remarkable book, to be read and re-read and shared with people you want to share great things with.
5. THIS DARK EARTH-John Honor Jacobs. Did I not just get done bemoaning the glut of EOTWAWKI tales and–especially the glut of tales when zombies are the delivery system of that world ending misery? Perhaps that should serve as some baseline for just how great THIS DARK EARTH is–if someone as sick and tired and jaded and disinterested in the whole zombie apocalypse as me could love, love, love this book, then it should be a layup for anyone who has even the slightest inclination to read that type of novel. The novel hits all the points one would expect: the frantic early hours when the shit hits the fan, the straggling ragtag survivors limping along on the dangerous road, the heavily-fortified community that is seemingly thriving against all odds (this one, in a genius burst of inspiration, constructed on a bridge high over a river, thereby limiting avenues of attack), and the fundamental question of which will be the greater evil: the hungry undead or the equally hungry maw of human nature? With all of those familiar components, Jacobs has nonetheless written a gripping novel of great ingenuity and–most importantly–a lot of heart. We really care for the expertly crafted characters, we worry about every mishap and what it will mean to those characters and we feel an ongoing and persistent level of dread, because, after all, one knows that, sooner or later, the shit is REALLY going to hit the fan, and what then, what then? As an end-of-the-world zombie novel, THIS DARK EARTH is a great, fast-paced and involving read. As any other type of novel you could use for comparison purposes, THIS DARK EARTH is a great, fast-paced and involving read. Jacobs debut novel, SOUTHERN GODS, was one of my favorite books from last year. That book was a moody, dark meditation on music, souls, and those things which may or may not exist “out there” (tip of the hat to HPL). This novel operates on a much larger canvas, but still keeps the strong characterization and focus that proves Jacobs is a writer to follow for the long haul.
4. WUFTOOM-Mary G. Thompson. Earlier on, I mentioned that a book–THE DOG STARS–was probably the second most surprising read of 2012. This book, WUFTOOM, was easily the first. I was having a discussion with someone the other day, and she said, “YA is a pandemic,” which is a sentiment I heartily agree with–it seems these days that all publishers are looking for are YA, YA, YA and preferably a trilogy or a series. There are now sub-sub-sub-sections of the YA “genre” geared to more and more specific demographics. Basically, this means there is a ton of less-than-great work being thrown up against the wall to see what sticks, looking for the next HARRY POTTER or HUNGER GAMES. I think what a lot of publishers (and authors) tend to forget is the sheer originality of both story and voice in those two books (series and trilogy, sigh). Well, I am pleased to report that WUFTOOM has more originality in one chapter than most books have between their covers. And, much like POTTER and GAMES, while this is technically a “YA” novel, this is written at an adult-level, with very serious issues (humanity and what it means to be human again–sensing a pattern among this years’ list?) and some very disgusting and disturbing passages. As the jacket copy says, “Everyone thinks Evan is sick.” But, he is not sick…exactly. Evan is undergoing a metamorphosis into, well, into something else. Specifically, into a Wuftoom, a worm-like creature. He knows this because a Wuftoom comes and visits him and tells him it is so. As one can imagine, this is not exactly good news for a young person. Especially one who is very close with his mother, who has problems of her own. Isolated and scared–very, very scared, Evan is also visited by a Vitfly, the arch-enemy of the Wuftoom. What happens after this is nothing short of amazing, especially considering this is a debut novel from Thompson. The scope of the decisions Evan is forced to confront–about not only his particular situation, but much, much more is handled in such a wonderful and heartbreaking manner, one would think this is a seasoned writer of dozens of “deep” books. Again, this was–by far–the most pleasant surprise I had reading this past year. I am eagerly looking forward to ESCAPE FROM THE PIPE MEN, scheduled to arrive in June of this year.
3. THE LAST KIND WORDS-Tom Piccirilli. Those who follow my posts on Twitter or facebook (and, of course, those who do not) have probably seen something about Tom’s unexpected diagnosis of brain cancer earlier this year and his subsequent intensive treatment. The good news is that, from what Tom’s wife, Michelle, has posted herself, it seems that (fingers crossed) the surgery and chemo and other treatments have been effective in eliminating the cancer. The reason I am prefacing the discussion of THE LAST KIND WORDS with this information is that–in an irony that Tom would surely appreciate if it was from a fictional story–after years of toiling and writing brilliant novel after brilliant novel (and brilliant story after brilliant story) for the horror and crime small presses, THE LAST KIND WORDS was supposed to be Tom’s “break out” novel for a big publisher, with big exposure. (To further explain, the best analogy I can come up with is, prior to his “break out” series LOUIE on FX, Louis C.K. was always mentioned as “the comedians’ comedian–someone flying under the mainstream radar yet beloved and idolized by the fellow practioners of his craft for being not only gifted, but also an incredibly nice and generous individual. Now, using that example, Tom Piccirilli is a “writers’ writer,” especially in the close-kint world of horror small presses. EVERYONE not only acknowledges Tom’s great talent, but is also in 100% agreement that he is perhaps the nicest, most straightforward due one will ever meet). And, irony on top of irony–THE LAST KIND WORDS is Tom delivering exactly what everyone hopes to do with that “shot” at “the big time”–he hits it out of the park. THE LAST KIND WORDS is one of those rare, wonderful “crime” novels where the focus is squarely on the characters and, in particular, the inevitable draw of family. Like an undertow. Hanging on what at first glance would seem to be a familiar setting–a gang of lowlife criminals who happen to be a family of lowlife criminals, and The One Who Got Away from the wicked family “business” only to return and….well, this is where Piccirilli turns convention on its ear and takes the story in a direction that only he could do with such mastery. WIth or without Tom’s poignant backstory, this was one of the three best books I read all year–maybe several years.
2. BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: LIFE, DEATH AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY-Katherine Boo. One of the most amazing books I have ever read–and it is NONFICTION. Katherine Boo is a reporter who spent three years among the people who live in the shadows of the Mumbai International Airport. As many have said, at times it is difficult to believe this book is nonfiction, and that is being written about people living in the 21st century. The other thing that is often remarked upon is the “objective” nature of the reporting–the poverty-stricken people she chronicles are never “noble” because of their suffering. Instead, she relates their struggles–monumental struggles–to survive and grab just a tiny scrap of security or peace of mind with a balanced, non-judgemental eye. Because she spent so much time essentially “immersed” with the people living in this particular “slum” she had unprecedented access and the accounts of those peoples’ lives may be some of the most harrowing–yet ultimately also uplifting–reading you will ever do. Again, I cannot stress how much this is not a “I am a White Westerner looking at these poor, poor peoples” kind of book. The stories of the individuals and families are laid out in unflinching and balanced detail, and the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions about some of the more obvious bigger questions (mainly, how can this be allowed to happen???) This achievement is even more remarkable in that this is Boo’s FIRST book. This work is deserving of every prize it has received or will receive. A must.
1. STAY AWAKE-Dan Chaon. I would like to brag and say I have been a big fan of Dan Chaon’s fiction since his early collection, FITTING ENDS, was originally published by Northwestern University Press in a little paperback, and I have smugly waited for the rest of the world to catch up to his unparalleled mastery of the short story (and subsequently, the novel). Alas, that is not entirely true. While I do have one of those paperbacks, I was, as per usual, a bit late to the party, finding his work only after reading some short stories in magazines and in reading his two superb novels AWAIT YOUR REPLY and YOU REMIND ME OF ME. However, even with all that, I was still unprepared for the collection STAY AWAKE. Coincidentally, as I was reading STAY AWAKE, I was working on edits for my own soon-t0-be-published collection, HOW TO DIE WELL (shameless plug alert!), and I remember not only enjoying Chaon’s amazing stories, but also being thoroughly depressed in comparison. Of course, part of that was (hopefully) just editing blues, but the real point is the fact that Chaon is working on a level that most everyone else has not come close to reaching. These stories are incredible gut-punches and also finely observed slices of life–lives that are close to swirling around the drain and about to go under for the third time. While they are technically not “horror” stories–they are no zombies, vampires or werewolves in these pages–these are some of the most horrific stories I have ever read. I had read the opening story, “The Bees” somewhere before, but it still knocked me silly upon finishing it a second time. I think I had the most intense reaction to that story of anything I read in 2012. Hence, the #1 spot. But, in reality, ALL the stories in this collection are equally strong in impact. What is even more amazing is that Chaon does this without using any dramatic plot “twists,” or linguistic flourishes or anything else that might detract from the overall effect of the story. Much like the stories in Donald Ray Pollock’s collection KNOCKEMSTIFF, these are not “feel good” stories–you will definitely feel the emotional toll on some level. To me, that is part of the greatness. This was not only the best collection I read all year, but the best book period.
And there you have it. Some of the “Honorable Mentions” that I agonized with inclusion on this list include: EAST OF DENVER by Gregory Hill; UP JUMPS THE DEVIL by Michael Poore; THE CRONING by Laird Barron; THE RITUAL by Adam Nevill; THE PROVIDENCE RIDER by Robert McCammon; KINGS MAN by Angus Donald; STONEMOUTH by Iain Banks; THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin; GUN CHURCH by Reed Farrel Coleman; LITTLE STAR by John Ajvide Lindqvist; FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM by Phillip Pullman; BLACK HEART ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL by T. J. Forrester; PORTLANDTOWN by Rob DeBorde; THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS by Alden Bell; and TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE by Benjamin Anastas.