(For all the essays in this four-part "Year In Books 2010" series, please click here.)
It's the end of the week, which means it's finally time for my favorite write-up here of the entire year -- my list of the genre potboilers, feverish melodramas, and other titles that ended up being some of my favorite reads of the year, but that I'm a bit ashamed of admitting to my fellow litbloggers were some of my favorite reads of the year, found below in alphabetical order...
Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Ellinor Smith
It's a century old, was overhyped, and is frequently not very good, but it's the amazing true premise itself that vaults this first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography into my best-of lists this week; originally written in the early 1900s, Twain demanded that it not be published in full until a hundred years after his death, so that he could freely talk trash about people who considered him a friend. Now, it turns out that he didn't actually do much of this, and in general it was about people now forgotten by history (mostly landlords and lawyers who had done Twain wrong), but it's still a treasure trove of Victorian-Age goodness, reminding us with stunning clarity just what short shrift the American arts usually got on the world stage when Twain was alive and working.
Below Sunlight, by Ryan Adam Smith
Being an overeducated, sensitive fellow in my youth, I was of course a sucker for what Nathan Rabin has called the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," the sexy yet charmingly crazy love interest who always seems to haunt stories set among people like myself; and they didn't get much more charming or crazy in 2010 than with Smith's intriguing hero/villain, a coke-snorting goth girl who believes she was put on Earth to be someone's guardian angel, and the hapless slacker who gets pinned in her sights when she ramps up one summer to her most insane. More to be loved for the mood it sets than for its sheer quality, this is a great example of what can sometimes be so fun about basement-press literature, and the lovely laid-back tone such stories can so often achieve.
The Butt, by Will Self
You can think of Will Self perhaps as the British Chuck Palahniuk, only funnier, not as repetitive, and even more bizarre if you can believe it; take his latest, for example, which uses a white tourist's violation of an arcane no-smoking law in an unnamed third-world country as just the starting point for a whole rabbithole of wonderful strangeness, including old Nazis conducting behavioral experiments in the abandoned brush, life-insurance Russian Roulette as a valid form of overseas investment, and all kinds of other issues relating to the ways that former colonialists now awkwardly get along with their former colonial subjects. More and more clever with each passing page, this features a surprise ending that will stay with you for a long time.
Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest
This is the second book in a row by Cherie Priest to win a Guilty Pleasure Award here, by nature not quite as good as its ultra-inventive original Boneshaker, but a fine second volume to what's looking like will be a substantial series by the time it's done; set in a steampunky alt-history America in the late 1800s, it's a train-bound action story set in a world where the Civil War is a bloody stalemate fought with giant brass robots, and where flesh-eating zombies now populate the unincorporated Pacific Northwest territories. The very definition of "literary rollercoaster ride," these "Clockwork Century" books are a passionate fan favorite, and I confess are thrillers I can read over and over again.
The Failure, by James Greer
In a world now so filled with noirish caper stories, it's hard to get too terribly excited anymore about a new one; nonetheless, I always enjoy it when one is done well, like is the case with this non-linear, more comedic take by James Greer, one of a whole series of great titles I received from our pals at Akashic Books this year. A cringe-inducing record of all the things that go wrong during a botched robbery of a Korean check-cashing place, its saving grace is Greer's decision to tell the story out of order from how the events actually happen, delivering a "Pulp Fiction"esque pastiche that's a lot of fun to make one's way through.
A Friend of the Family, by Lauren Grodstein
I'll be the first to admit that this is not much more than a trashy "Lifetime movie"-style melodrama, filled with more hysterics than even usual because of the female author assigning so many catty traits to our male villain narrator; ah, but what a delightfully trashy melodrama it is, the story of an overprotective upper-class suburban father who dislikes his teenage son getting romantically involved with the older, behaviorally challenged twentysomething daughter of his best friend, so perpetrates a whole series of "Nancy Grace" worthy passive-aggressive maneuvers in an attempt to sabotage the relationship, which in good melodrama style ends up blowing up in his face in a big way. This is the kind of book I think of when someone says that a title is a "good airport read," a smart but not-too-challenging actioner that will keep you highly entertained during an afternoon of constant flight delays at O'Hare.
Geosynchron, by David Louis Edelman
This is the third book in a row by David Louis Edelman to win a Guilty Pleasure Award, which together tell the fascinating science-fiction saga of a post-post-apocalyptic world, one that's been rebuilt into greatness again through the near-reverence now for the recently rediscovered principles behind free-market tech-industry entrepreneurialism. Set in an expansive speculative universe that takes an entire website's worth of backstory just to explain, this started as an online programmer's simple ode to the Web 2.0, but over the years has become something much grander -- an entire "space opera" in the Golden Age sense of the term, a fanboy delight that one can mention to conventioneers to establish one's street cred. A great treat to watch unfold over these last four years, and recommended as a three-book whole to my fellow SF fans.
Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson
Man, was it a great year for New Weird speculative tales, which is why my best-of lists this year seem to be riddled with them; take this immensely entertaining Hugo nominee, for example, which takes the concept behind James Howard Kunstler's "World Made By Hand" novels (that in a post-oil future, the US will revert back to a 19th-century, pre-Industrial state), but then plays this mostly for inventive laughs instead of Kunstler's eye-rolling drama, telling in a neo-Victorian voice the legend of a future leader of the Republic, in an alt-universe future where America has become a hereditary dictatorship based on Christian rule of law, and in which an unending proxy war in Canada with a smarter and richer EU helps distract the populace from the multitude of dangerously secular artifacts still left in the country's rotting former urban centers. Perhaps the most clever book I read all year (which is saying a lot, if you've been paying attention this week), it comes recommended to everyone from steampunk fans to readers of historical fiction.
Lost Lustre, by Josh K. Arlen
Granted, it's far from the best-written book I read this year, but this true memoir of a failed early-'80s New Wave band ended up hitting me in a really emotional way; in reality more a meditation on being a Gen-X grown-up, it's also a great look at a crumbling lower Manhattan that no longer exists, as well as all the ephemeral steps involved with an artist going from "almost famous" to out-and-out star. A sad but engagingly wistful story just begging for one of those low-budget movie adaptations that always snag surprise Oscar nominations, this might not be for everyone but is a definite must-read for any fortysomething who ever dreamed of adding their name to the CBGB dressing-room walls.
Stan's Leap, by Justin Kramon
This basement-press pastiche from Justin Kramon is a hybrid of a book, partly an ode to South Seas sailing and partly a grown-up version of Lord of the Flies; written by a veteran Jimmy-Buffet-style yachtsman and set deliberately next-door to where the crew of the HMS Bounty settled after their mutiny, it tells the story of a group of spoiled Westerners staying at a "rough-it resort" on a remote Pacific island, the PTSD-suffering army dropout in charge of their well-being, and the ways this situation turns feral and deadly after it becomes clear that some sort of apocalyptic event has occurred back on the mainland. A sprawling saga that covers two entire generations of island living, this is a grander story than it might seem at first, a page-flipping character drama that incidentally teaches a lot as well about both its location and the history of maritime travel there.
And that's it finally for CCLaP's look back at 2010; as always, I appreciate you coming back again and again and sharing in the journey, and I hope you'll have a chance to visit regularly in 2011 as well, as the center tackles yet another 150 random reads over the next twelve months. Remember, I always love hearing of your own book recommendations, which you can either email to cclapcenter [at] gmail.com or post at CCLaP's Facebook group; or if you want to absolutely guarantee that a certain title get reviewed, you can always purchase a used copy through CCLaP's wish list at Amazon, and have it directly shipped here with no trouble or fuss. Come Monday, let the 2011 reviews begin!