(This is part four of the four-part "Year In Books 2008" report I am publishing at CCLaP this week. Don't forget, if you've never done so, you might want to check out both the CCLaP Manifesto and the Ridiculously Long Guide to CCLaP's 10-Point Scoring System before reading these reports; also don't forget that books up to eighteen months old are eligible for this year-end list, meaning that some of the titles were actually published in 2007.)
So what's my favorite thing of all about being a book critic? Well, it's not the highest-scoring or mostly heavily hyped titles I come across on any given year, that's for sure; it's instead the smaller, more out-of-the-way books that I end up loving with fanboyish glee, even as their strict genre appeal or less-than-stellar writing rationally means that I probably shouldn't be such a huge fan. This is what I consider one of the main benefits of running a place like CCLaP, is to get exposed all the time to great books I wouldn't normally come across on my own; I've picked ten such titles this year to be the winners of the coveted CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards, found below. As always, listed in alphabetical order.
The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold
I was shocked to see this wickedly naughty black tragicomedy by the much-loved Alice Sebold get routinely dismissed by her existing fans; but then when I thought about it, I realized that maybe that's because it's simply so different than her surprise runaway bestselling debut a few years ago, the weepy tearjerker The Lovely Bones (which I also loved, don't get me wrong). See, that one is a delicate, poetic drama about a dead girl watching her own murder investigation from heaven, so I guess many of her fans were disappointed by her not turning in yet another tome along the same lines; but I thought it was brilliant of her to turn in a witty, trashy, very dark and surprisingly funny family melodrama instead, which like the camp classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? takes a hard-edged look at a bizarre familial relationship, an inner-brain portrait of one of those frazzled middle-aged women who suddenly go nuts one day and smother to death their crap-covered mean-as-hell dementia-plagued elderly mother, then try to stuff the cadaver in the basement freezer. Smart yet traumatic, it made me spend much of my reading time looking through splayed fingers, laughing and cringing and saying, "Oh no, Sebold, you're not taking us there, are you? Oh yeah, I guess you are!"
Bringing Home the Birkin, by Michael Tonello
I've said it before, but I'll say it again; seriously, in a perfect world, I would love to be a fan of silly, funny, melodramatic stories about fashion and gay culture and the swinging lifestyles of single upper-class urban-dwelling females. But Cheez-Its, ladies, why do you all have to worship so much crap along the way, so much freaking crap, and insist that I should subject myself to the nadir stylings of Sex And The G-dd-mned Annoying Hacky Fag Hag Sorority Girl Consumerist Worshipping Pink Covered City? Instead, may I recommend a title like Michael Tonello's Bringing Home the Birkin, a hilarious true memoir that will give you all the tales of insanely overpriced consumer goods your platinum-card-clutching heart could ever desire, without having to dumb things down even the slightest. A Huffington Post contributor and high-priced hair/makeup specialist, who in the early 2000s finally realized his dream of moving to Europe and then promptly had his new job there disappear, Tonello was amazed to find that various designer clothes he had just accidentally picked up over the years could actually be sold to EU consignment stores for more money than he originally paid for them a decade ago. That led him quickly to eBay and the elusive $25,000 Birkin handbags from Hermes, whereby he broke the complicated "code" of getting snotty employees to actually sell him one whenever he wanted; and suddenly this witty entrepreneur was burning through millions on credit cards in single weekends, flying to multiple continents just to shop at designer boutiques, even once chasing a chickenhawk con artist down the streets of Paris with sunglasses-sporting private security team in tow. The secret, though, is that Tonello doesn't worship such goods himself, letting him expose the whole thing as the empty house of cards it is, even while delivering all the funny, fascinating stories that come with the entire thing. A natural raconteur, Tonello turns in a highly readable and entertaining volume here, whether or not you yourself are naturally a fan of the fashion industry and its gossipy goings-on.
Chance in Hell, by Gilbert Hernandez
So all right, what critics of this title argue is true: this latest dark, dystopian tale from Love & Rockets co-founder Gilbert Hernandez is not nearly as polished a project as that more famous title, an interesting concept but something that feels more like a quick dash-off than anything else. But as a particularly big fan of dystopian post-apocalyptic thrillers, I have to admit that that "interesting concept" for me makes up for the admittedly subpar graphics on display. It's essentially the nightmare of those James Kunstler "Post-Oil Society" nutjobs come to life: a world where only the packed urban centers of various cities have been able to maintain any kind of civilized state in the post-gasoline future, literally walling themselves off from the anarchic, Mad-Max-style suburban wastelands beyond. The multi-year tale of one such wastrel, as she first negotiates a tricky, violent childhood in the wilds of torn-up mini-malls and the like, then is adopted as a teen by a do-gooder urban liberal social reformer, Hernandez's main point seems to be that no matter which environment, it's the the same complicated rituals of sex and power exchange that the girl must go through in order to survive and thrive. Admittedly light but still holding quite a bit of a punch, I think this slim yet disturbing volume deserves more credit than most people this year gave it.
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas
Although its actual magazine-journalism-style layout sometimes left me flat, the main argument put forth here by fashion veteran Dana Thomas couldn't be stronger or timelier -- that since the '80s, the so-called "luxury industry" (Gucci et al) has stopped relying on actual high-quality goods for success, and has instead hedged all its bets on clever marketing, cheap Chinese labor, the embrace of "bling-bling culture," the unending debt-spending of the late postmodern era, and the low self-esteems of most middle-class people; and furthermore, that the moment this combination no longer works, the entire industry will be set to completely collapse on itself like the trillion-dollar house of cards it is. And hey, guess what? The figures have just come out for 2008, and it turns out that the luxury industry has declined over the last year by a whopping 35 percent, far and away the largest decline of any major industry in America. See? She was right! That's all the more reason to read this book if you haven't yet already, to watch with laser precision just exactly what went wrong with this industry in 2008; she writes about it all in the hypothetical here, based on her actual traditional reportage skills, but it's pretty amazing to have watched it all come true too.
The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, by Donald Thomas
Yes, I know, I make a big deal all the time here about always going out and seeking smart, unique, challenging projects, of not just falling back on the proven and well-loved just because it's easy like comfort food to do so. But hey, even I'm a human, and even I like comfort food sometimes! One such literary meatloaf I enjoy, for example, are the tropes of Victorian detective and now public-domain character Sherlock Holmes, for which there have now been hundreds upon hundreds of stories and novels and movies made concerning his notoriously prickly adventures. And if all you're looking for is a nearly pitch-perfect aping of what made Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories so popular in the first place, might I recommend this easily digestible collection of "all-new retro" stories, written deliberately to feel as if they had maybe just gotten discovered for the first time in some dusty trunk in an attic in some old woman's house in freaking Dover or whatever. Not just perfect Holmesian tales but also each taking on a specific type of Holmesian tale (daring escape, job for the Queen, showdown with a nemesis, etc), consider this the mashed potatoes of any heavy reader's literary diet; filling yet empty, containing no nutrients on its own, to be digested only in conjunction with one's usual meat and vegetables.
MultiReal, by David Louis Edelman
So congratulate science-fiction cult favorite David Louis Edelman -- he's the only author on the planet to win the CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award two years in a row now, ironically enough for the first two books of the same complex sci-fi saga, two volumes I personally have just loved but are just so genreriffic that I simply cannot in good conscience recommend them to a general audience. The tale of an Earth thousands of years in the future, where the "ancient" concepts behind free-market tech-industry entrepreneurial capitalism have been rediscovered and are worshipped as "The New Classicism," the main point of enjoying this series is not for the sometimes clunky plot itself, rife sometimes with semi-hacky problems and "CyberThis," "CyberThat" -- it's instead for the massively complex fake history of an entire "Second Dark Age" that Edelman has planned out in preparation for this series, which prompted this daytime web developer to build an entire giant Lord-Of-The-Rings-style reference fansite for his own "Jump 255 Universe," including tens of thousands of words of background material not found in the novels themselves. Yes, I know, I AM A LEXICON-EMBRACING MORON; or in other words I'm a pretty typical SF fan, with this being a much higher-than-average project but only for those already hip to the expository cause.
The Somnabulist, by Jonathan Barnes
And speaking of being an unapologetic fan of geeky ultra-specific literary subgenres...steampunk! STEAMPUNK STEAMPUNK STEAMPUNK! And hey, the brass-and-mahogany sci-fi Victoriana finery didn't get much better in 2008 than with this volume, an almost impossibly inventive historical actioner that is seemingly teeming in yet another outrageous fantastical concept every ten pages, adding up and adding up and soon just becoming a towering impressive pile of pure Empire-powered ridiculousness. One of my guiltiest pleasures out of them all this year, this one isn't even that worth going into again in detail; you already know whether you will naturally love or hate this book, and I encourage you to either just check it out or not because of that. You freaking nerd.
Sunshine Estates: Rx for Rosedale, by Lynn Shirey
The reason I call this particular title today a guilty pleasure is simply that I didn't expect to like it as much as I did; after all, it's essentially a gentle Lifetime-style "Murder She Wrote" type crime story, centered around a charming yet nosy former hippie who hasn't been adjusting well yet to her new retirement-village environment, the book itself adequately done but certainly nothing special. But sometimes I guess nothing in particular about a book has to be spectacular for it to eventually add up to a wonderful little read anyway; sometimes all you need is a merely well-done manuscript, exploring topics in an inventive, funny way you haven't personally thought much about before, giving you an honest and revealing look at a milieu of humanity you yourself spend little time usually contemplating. That's how I feel about this lovely little laid-back character-based thriller, a perfect choice for older readers and especially Nancy Grace fans.
Trip, by Mick MacO
And speaking of which, sometimes all I need to really enjoy a book is a mere sense of legitimate overwhelming enthusiasm from that author; that's one of the great things about the print-on-demand times we live in, after all, is that it allows every single interested person out there a chance to put together and sell a book themselves too, many times their own personal record of an important yet stereotype-filled period of their life; that time they were a soldier, that time they toured Europe, that time they lost a parent to cancer. Take this great little volume by Mick MacO, for example, which for absolutely sure doesn't even begin to tell a story you haven't heard already a thousand times; but so what? It's still a great story, even the thousand and first time you hear it, the story of a young curious man crossing the Continent and learning profound things about himself along the way. Those of us who love a particular type of stereotypical story love it precisely for those stereotypes, and especially for the enthusiasm of the person telling that story yet again; this book is a perfect example of what I'm talking about, a title certainly worth taking a look at again if you're a fan of confessional coming-of-age travelogues.
Vacation, by Jeremy Shipp
And what do you know; we finally close out the Year In Books by looking at an author who actually made two different best-of lists; it's the hard-working alt-horror veteran Jeremy Shipp, whose story collection Sheep and Wolves was one of the highest-rated books at CCLaP in 2008, but whose witty political parody Vacation also happened to get reviewed back in January, enjoyed very much by me for an entirely different reason. And that's because Shipp here does something funny and interesting, essentially taking the sometimes arcane political beliefs of a curmudgeon like Noam Chomsky and wrapping them within an absurdist New Weird potboiler of a plot, taking here for example as its premise a near-future America which guarantees all its citizens a free year-long globetrotting vacation, filled with tightly regulated and controlled "extreme activities" (Australian cliff-jumping, Thai prostitutes) to help the blind sheep not notice who actually holds all the puppetstrings of power. Frequently silly, often juvenile, this is just the ticket for those who love Warren Ellis or the Illumnati! Trilogy; who knew that this cultishly popular genre author would be able to spit out two such different yet great books in the course of a single year?
Okay, and that's finally it for this year, a look again at my favorite 38 contemporary books of 2008, of the 83 I had the chance to read and review here over the last twelve months. I'm shooting for 150 of them in 2009 (a hundred contemporary books, fifty classics), so here's hoping I'll have a chance to share even more great titles and deserving authors with you all next year than I even did in 2008. I hope your new year is going well, and of course watch out for the start again of new book reviews, coming here Monday.