(For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all four parts, please click here.)
Ah, guilty pleasures! Aren't they why we become book lovers in the first place? Although CCLaP is ostensibly dedicated to "serious literature" most of the time, the truth is that some of my favorite reading experiences of all come from goofy genre actioners, graphic novels, and other fare that you'll never see reviewed in the New York Times. Here below, a look again at seven such books from 2009 that I found particularly great, listed as always in alphabetical order.
By J.D. Riso
I was surprised after originally reviewing this to learn from the author that it had been received disastrously by many of the real people who had inspired it in the first place; but then after thinking about it, I realized that that's actually no surprise at all, and that it speaks of the surprising power Riso brings to what in other people's hands would've been a pretty by-the-numbers erotic tale. Inspired loosely by events from the author's fascinating actual past, it tells the story of a masochistic victim of childhood abuse who runs away from home as a jailbait teen, then falls down the rabbit hole of the sex industry because of a cartoonishly dom drug-dealer boyfriend, landing first in the stripper ghetto of southern California and then eventually moving to Guam, a favorite destination for rich Japanese businessmen with fetishes for American blondes. What makes this remarkable, though, is the intense sense of complex realism Riso brings to this story, balancing the dirty parts with incredibly sobering looks at the down-sides of such a lifestyle; and this is obviously why the author's old friends balked at the finished manuscript, in that it takes a probing look at the dysfunction, self-delusion, and rampant abuse of unusual drugs that fuels such a community, how a steady diet of cash, prescription pills and slimy opportunists can eventually convince many women in such a situation that they are just one step away from a Jenna-Jameson-style mainstream career breakthrough, keeping them continuously mired in the scummy low-class environment they're actually in. It's this combination of VIP-room fantasy and tragic repercussions that keeps Blue so riveting, and as a result it stands as one of the best pieces of erotica I've read in years and years.
By Cherie Priest
Oh, Cherie Priest, how I love you, ya big f-ckin' nerd! Who else but a dedicated geek, after all, would come up with such an inventive central premise for her uber-steampunk actioner Boneshaker -- inventor of deep-earth drilling machine has an accident that destroys downtown Seattle -- then add the fact that the survivors all become zombies because of a mysterious underground gas, then add an entire fictional alt-history timeline to the thing because it's just not nerdy enough yet! Whew! The genre novel to beat all genre novels in 2009, this literary Frankenstein combines elements of Jules Verne, George Romero, John Carpenter and Harry Turtledove, even while framing the entire thing around a family drama featuring a tough, spunky single mom as our main hero; and if you too don't end up completely adoring it by the end, you deserve to have your brass raygun and ComiCon weekend pass stripped from your blasphemous soul. A much deserved surprise national hit for this already respected author and industry editor, and I'm already salivating for the coming volume two in this epic series.
By Ian McDonald
This book actually made the list on a technicality; although it really was published for the first time in 2009, it's in actuality a companion volume of stories to augment Ian McDonald's 2004 science-fiction saga River of Gods, and it was actually that one that blew me away more than this one. A day-after-tomorrow tale set in India on the centennial of its independence, there's a very good reason that McDonald is known as the spiritual heir of the old '80s "cyberpunk" movement; and that's because he's a master at taking today's hottest issues and extrapolating them just a few realistic yet fantastical steps forward, giving us here a glittering but war-torn southeast Asia that is now firmly a global leader in technology and entertainment, even as the ever-remaining third-world elements of that region continue to cause havoc to the city-based modernizers' best-laid plans. It's a big sweaty challenge of a book, one that will take most people a month or two to finish but that will make you feel like you're literally there the whole time; although ironically, far from needing to read the novel first in order for the story collection to make sense, many people would actually be better off to start with the stories first, in that they at least get some of the massive exposition this universe requires out of the way more quickly than the main novel does. One of the five best SF titles of the entire 2000s so far, and an absolute must-read for any genre fan.
I've mentioned this many times already, but I'm a bit of a sucker for Sherlock Holmes stories, something I consider the "comfort food" of my usually strict literary diet; and they don't get much better than Lyndsay Faye's remarkable Dust and Shadow, a book so well-done that it even received an endorsement from the official Arthur Conan Doyle estate. It's one of several treatments over the decades concerning the idea of Holmes taking on the infamous "Jack The Ripper" case, which of course was an actual serial-killer mystery going on at the time that the original Holmes stories were being written; and under Faye's nimble hands, Dust and Shadow becomes as much a fascinating and well-researched look at all the real details of that actual case as it is a Victorian detective thriller. But make no mistake, this is a Victorian detective thriller, with spot-on dialogue and even a few fantastical steampunk touches, the exact kind of clever reimagining that one hopes will always come whenever a famous literary character passes into the public domain. The very definition of "guilty pleasure," this is undoubtedly one of the few titles in 2009 I will probably read again in the future, even while keeping mum about it at intellectual cocktail parties.
Human Diastrophism: A Love and Rockets Book
By Gilbert Hernandez
This is yet another title that made the list on a technicality; although the book itself was published last year, it's actually a collection of stories from the seminal comic book Love and Rockets, some of which originally appeared over 25 years ago. Oh, but how can I pass up the opportunity to mention Love and Rockets again?! Part of the long-running "Palomar" storyline that ran in the comic for decades, this is essentially Hernandez's
ripoff homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which like 100 Years of Solitude takes a multigenerational look at a tiny Mexican village and the myriad of events that happen there, including plenty of magical-realism touches; this particular volume, part of a whole series of oversized paperbacks being put out by Fantagraphics these days, reprints a particularly dark story arc from the Palomar series, concerning a serial killer that passes through town and the chaos his actions create within this incestuous community. If you've never read Love and Rockets before, you really owe it to yourself to do so, not just to read some fine stories but to understand more of the history of American grown-up comics; and these affordable new paperbacks are a great way to do it.
By Denis Johnson
It's a well-known trick among writers to follow up a challenging epic with a small and fluffy genre exercise, not just to "cleanse the artistic palette" but to keep expectations low among a fickle public; for example, look at gritty man's man Denis Johnson, who followed up his mindblowing 2008 Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke (itself a best-of title here in the past) with this little hiccup of a book, a nearly perfect crime noir that will take most people no more than a day or two to get through. In the style of the Coen Brothers, it's a darkly funny look at a ridiculously contrived caper among a group of incompetent petty criminals, with barely a single detail that you haven't already seen a hundred times in old black-and-white films from the 1930s and '40s; but Johnson gets nearly every detail of his cliched story almost exactly right, including his infamous mastery over clipped, smart dialogue, making it almost a textbook example of how to write a great noir tale. One of those books to borrow instead of buy, this will certainly change no one's life, but is highly entertaining anyway from nearly the first page to the last.
By A. Colin Wright
I mentioned here a few days ago what the main benefit is of reading through the dozens of self-published titles each year that I do, which is the opportunity to stumble across little gems that no one else does; and one of my favorite self-published gems of 2009 turned out to be Sardinian Silver, retired professor A. Colin Wright's slightly fictionalized memoir of his time as a youth in the swinging early '60s on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, boozing and womanizing as part of his job as an "insider liaison" for a hip travel agency back in the UK. It's a delightfully unhurried book that aims more to set a mood than to tell a traditional three-act story, and I have to confess that I found myself thoroughly charmed by the portrait of Modernist hedonism that Wright paints here, with the decades that have passed allowing him to look back on these events with much self-deprecating humor, even as it's his youthful arrogance that makes them so funny to begin with. It's one of those titles that shows the true biggest worth of the self-publishing format, the opportunity to put out great little stories that may never be bestsellers, but are still intensely loved by the small audience particularly drawn to them; and it's my sincere hope that more and more of these retired Baby Boomers will sit down and write out their own memoirs of youthful indiscretion soon.
And that it's for my look back at my favorite 33 books of 2009; I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always, I appreciate and thank you for being a loyal reader to begin with, and I hope you'll get a chance to stick around in 2010 and go through the process all over again.