(For an overview of this year's essay series, and a linked list of all its chapters, please click here.)
Every year, it seems, there ends up being a number of books that I enjoy more than the book themselves probably warrant -- either because they're just not written that well, or they wallow in the tropes of a very specific subgenre, or another of several reasons why I may have enjoyed that book quite a bit but don't really want to tell that to my NPR-listening friends. Here, then, in a proud tradition now entering its fifth year, is a look at ten such titles I read in 2011, listed as always in alphabetical order.
Bodyslick, by John H. Sibley
Granted, this futuristic actioner won't be winning any literary awards anytime soon; but I admit, I still laugh warmly every time I spy that outrageous front cover, with an inner story that to be fair delivers exactly on what that gonzo cover promises, a double-fisted attack of genre goodness that combines Mad Max and a blaxploitation film within the crumbling remains of a post-apocalyptic downtown Chicago. A fun read for those who are into that kind of thing, but don't blame me if you roll your eyes a lot while making your way through it; after all, it's a guilty pleasure, remember?
Crimson Orgy, by Austin Williams
Disappointing at first for not being what its cover and jacket copy sell it as (that is, a contemporary horror story about a group of underground filmmakers who have real violence and death visit them during production), it's nonetheless quite enjoyable for what it does turn out to be -- that is, film historian Williams' loving ode to the community in early-1960s Florida who made some of history's very first grindhouse drive-in flicks, notoriously awful things but with the filmmakers now admired for their resourcefulness, sense of invention, and willingness to push the public-morality envelope. As such, then, this book sometimes doesn't work that well as a traditional three-act novel, coming across more sometimes as simply a clever way of presenting a class lecture on the subject (some of the dialogue, for example, sounds like it was literally copied and pasted from a Wikipedia entry); but as a clever way to present a history lesson, it's actually kind of brilliant, and I wish its publisher had made this clearer so the book could've found the audience who would've naturally loved it the most. Just the ticket for fans of, say, John Waters, not just for his finished films but for his dedication to exploring the badly documented history of these trashy classics.
Burton & Swinburne in: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder
Although I try to maintain as varied a list of cultural influences as possible, like everyone there are certain hyper-specific subjects and genres that I tend to turn towards again and again, willing to overlook some pretty major flaws in some of these projects in return for them fetishistically delivering the tropes that make me love that genre so much; for example, a particular bad one for me is the Victoriana-meets-high-tech subgenre known as "steampunk," and my reading list every year tends to be filled with brass-plated potboilers that make even my closest friends sometimes roll their eyes in furious exasperation. And this was one of my favorites in that genre in 2011, mostly because of the extra layer of inventiveness that Hodder brings to the table; premised on the idea of the real-life subversive explorer Richard Burton and the real-life subversive artist Algernon Swinburne teaming up for a series of adventures in an alt-history British Empire, these books are full of such mind-blowing details as genetically engineered giant caterpillars with hard exoskeletons, eviscerated and with steam engines installed to create the funkiest public transportation in human history. A delightful actioner to all my fellow steampunk fans, although it can be easily skipped by those who aren't aficionados.
Drinking at the Movies, by Julia Wertz
Although one of the most crudely drawn webcomics in history, there's something about Wertz's bawdy, autobiographical humor that makes me literally pee in my pants in laughter on a regular basis; so it was both a shock and weirdly natural that Wertz would score a surprise contract with the major publisher Random House for these tales of poverty, substance abuse and self-deprecation, then even funnier when Random House unceremoniously dumped her six months later because of disappointing sales, now yet another hilarious ongoing theme in the daily strips she is still producing online. In the meanwhile, though, we have this gorgeous publication left behind as a result, a slick compilation that all webcomic artists should be lucky enough to be able to one day put together, which much like Jerry Lewis or '80s metal has become a surprise hit in Europe, giving Wertz the last laugh after all. The true definition of a guilty pleasure, this will have you snorting all the way through your morning commute, even as your desperately try to hide the cover from all your fellow metro passengers.
Floating Staircase, by Ron Malfi
I've now reviewed four books by this alt-horror author in the last four years, and have generally been a fan of them all; but this newest is a step above all the others in my opinion, an attempt to jump straight over the modern 20th-century additions to this genre and to really try to find the spooky core of what made so many Victorian horror tales so effective as well. In this case, that's done by Malfi using a realistic setting and then relying heavily on atmosphere, looking ironically at a successful alt-horror author who's obsessed with the long-ago drowning of his brother, who moves to a semi-abandoned country home in Washington-Irving-feeling rural New England and contends with a whole series of bizarre goings-on -- hidden dungeon/playpen rooms in the basement, a creepy staircase to nowhere floating in the middle of a nearby lake, a local population who seems unusually hostile to the idea of him being there in the first place. Malfi comes up with a satisfying answer to all these things, too, but not before presenting us with an equally likely series of options -- perhaps ghosts, perhaps a rational explanation, perhaps our hero's PTSD blackouts playing havoc with his life again -- then making us guess at the real answer until literally the last chapter. A consistently great genre author who deserves a bigger audience than he currently has, this is recommended as a welcome alternative for all you Stephen King and Joe Hill fans.
Ganymede, by Cherie Priest
For three years in a row now, all of Cherie Priest's remarkable "Clockwork Century" steampunk novels have made CCLaP's best-of lists; and that's because her endlessly inventive rollercoaster rides are easily the best written, most rollicking titles being published in this entire genre right now, with it no surprise that the first title in this series is just about to be made into a giant big-budget summer movie. Now, granted, if the idea of Victorian zombies, armored dirigibles, and a US Civil War being fought on the western frontier with locomotive-sized military robots seems a bit silly to you, you'll want to stay as far away from these books as possible; but for those who enjoy a little comfort food in their otherwise strict literary diet, this will easily be one of the most enjoyable books you will read this year. Get caught up on this story now, before the big Hollywood publicity machine gets geared up for the movie version!
Germline, by T.C. McCarthy
It's a rare and welcome event when a cheap supermarket thriller turns out to be written with the stylistic density of a Pulitzer winner; but that's exactly what this first volume in a coming trilogy of future-war actioners is, a look at a Vietnam-like moral quagmire in a futuristic central Asia that is part Denis Johnson, part Joseph Heller, part Ernest Hemingway and part Hunter S. Thompson. A clever extrapolation of many real tech developments and political issues just breaking into the mainstream now (military uniforms with self-contained atmospheres, the coming global war over the trace metals needed for cellphones, the evermore pervasive use of military drones and satellite weapons), this harrowing yet darkly funny look at runaway drug addiction within a nightmarish world of child soldiers and genetically cloned suicide squads will be a book that will stay with you a long time after you finish, and it's a shame that the publisher didn't put it out in a way so that this was clearer. One of my personal favorites of the entire year.
Ghosts of War, by George Mann
Although based on a great premise (steampunk-style alt-tech meets the Shadow-type big-city noirs of the 1920s), I have to admit that the first book in this series last year didn't do much for me; so thank God that I both warmed up more to this sequel and that it's simply written better too, an adventure story involving a proto-Batman that cleverly spins the mythology of HP Lovecraft into a gleaming, dirigible-filled Art Deco Manhattan. A pulp tale for sure, but one that will be especially appreciated by heavy readers of the genre precisely for its fantastical details.
Kraken, by China Mieville
This New Weird pioneer has been so busy recently, he had not just one but two books show up on this year's best-of lists; earlier this week I profiled Embassytown, serious and challenging in tone, but today's is most certainly a rollicking but dry comedy in the vein of the classic Illuminatus! Trilogy, and perhaps the best book of Mieville's entire career in terms of pure entertainment. The London secret-society conspiracy novel to beat all London secret-society conspiracy novels, it starts with the sudden disappearance in the blink of an eye of a giant squid from the city's history museum one day; in the rest of this Monty-Pythonesque story, then, we watch literally hundreds of magical cabals and other fantastical orders as they seep their way out of the dark alleys of this ancient city and eventually fight an all-out public war, all in the attempt to figure out which of them stole the squid and for what purpose. A huge but quickly paced volume, it's impossible to have any legitimacy as a fan of SF comedy without being able to deliver at least a few choice quotes from this book at your next dinner party.
The Summer We Read Gatsby, by Danielle Ganek
Like I said earlier this week, I tend to wade through the dreck known as "chick-lit" more than maybe a lot of other litblogs do, because of having so many middle-aged, middle-class female readers here at CCLaP, and of me wanting to be able to recommend to them some of the few great novels that actually exist in this genre; and while it has its problems, I found myself this year thinking about this quiet charmer long after I had finished it, and that sometimes its ambitions deserve to be highlighted more than the fact that the ambitions frequently aren't quite fulfilled. One of those cutesy sister romcoms that Lifetime loves making cable movies about, it concerns two siblings who inherit a charming run-down bungalow from an eccentric aunt smack-dab in the middle of the tony Hamptons, one sister a Gucci-wearing reality-TV habitué, the other decidedly more cynical and world-weary than that; and it's this commitment to cynicism and a disdain for high fashion that keeps this otherwise flighty story grounded, along with its proximity to the Gatsby setting mentioned in the title, and the sisters' romantic dedication to the book as they spend a summer trying to thrive within this upper-class, old-money community. A great alternative for those tempted to read The Devil Wears Prada, you should turn off that latest episode of "The Bachelor" and pick this up instead.
And that's it for CCLaP's look back at all our favorites from 2011; don't forget that next week, a downloadable ebook version will be coming here to the website for free (or $5 at Amazon), for those who prefer reading these long reports in a mobile version they can take with them. I look forward to trying to bring you hopefully yet another 150 book reviews here in 2012, the goal CCLaP always shoots for on any given year; and don't forget that I am always on the lookout for other writers who fit the "CCLaP ethos" and would be interested in writing funny, informed, not too academic book reviews here at the blog throughout the year. If you'd like to see if your writing style qualifies, simply drop me a line at cclapcenter [at] gmail.com. Here's to another year of great reading!