(For all the lists in the 2012 "Year in Books" series, please click here.)
For six years now we have been proudly giving out the CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award here on the last day of our "Year in Books" roundup; these are books that for various reasons I shouldn't have loved nearly as much as I ended up doing, far from a best-of list but great choices for when you're in a certain particular mood, listed as always in alphabetical order.
Attic Clowns, by Jeremy C. Shipp. It's not a good year unless alt-horror author Jeremy C. Shipp wins a Guilty Pleasure Award; and last year saw him in fine form, turning in a long-gestating story collection all about various situations in which evil clowns are found in attics. Why this guy isn't a superstar in the literary world is beyond me; but I can safely say that he's the best genre writer currently working in the United States who you've never heard of.
Broken Piano for President, by Patrick Wensink. Just like in previous years, I ended up reading a lot of so-called "bizarro" fiction in 2012, although not really by choice but rather that all those bizarro authors know me through the social network Goodreads.com and all send me their books; and one of my favorites is by this Louisville resident but popular Chicago regular, a ridiculously out-there adult fairytale about militarized fast-food chains and messiah-like crusty old country singers. Of course, it didn't hurt that by receiving "The Most Polite Cease And Desist Letter in History" from Jack Daniels over the book's former cover (seen above), Wensink became an international meme sensation for a couple of weeks last summer; ah, if only all of us basement presses could receive such attention!
Cocoa Almond Darling, by Jeffra Hays. She has no web presence to speak of, has released little information about herself publicly, and has a habit of self-publishing 500-page human-interest novels about elderly black women reminiscing about their saucy youths; but damned if I didn't really love this latest by the mysterious Jeffra Hays anyway, essentially a Tyler Perry story if Tyler Perry wasn't such an unwatchable hack.
The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey. The book's got some serious structural problems, and by all rights shouldn't really be on any best-of list; but I found this story of teenage ballet dancers out on their own for the first time in their lives to be just really engaging in an earnest, magical way. Of course, it helped that I was reading this at the same time that CCLaP was doing its big tour of New York last summer, where I was spending a lot of time bumming around the exact tony midtown Manhattan locations where most of this novel takes place.
Enormity, by W.G. Marshall. Although far from an original idea -- random humans get blown up into gargantuan proportions through a science experiment gone wrong, then proceed to wreak havoc -- what saves this delightfully disgusting book is Marshall's focus on what exactly a thousand-foot-tall human would be medically like, including nauseating details about dandruff piles the size of houses, and exhaled breath that can literally knock jet fighters out of the sky. Hugely entertaining in a gross, gross, gross way.
The Great Lenore, by J.M. Tohline. Although they often fail in execution, I always appreciate an author who thinks grandly and takes big chances; and this was one of the more conceptually ambitious books I read in 2012, an attempt to combine The Great Gatsby and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" into a Franzen-like contemporary novel about rich spoiled Gen-Xers and the dark secrets they hide. It's not necessarily a great book, but is certainly the sign of a great author, who is just one random manuscript away from a true masterpiece.
A Lost Argument, by Therese Doucet. I disliked literally the entire second half of this lightly fictionalized memoir; but I found its first half just so incredibly charming and titillating that I can't help but to include it in this Guilty Pleasure list. The story of a Philosophy-majoring Mormon who goes off to Brigham Young University for her freshman year, then does some pickup work at her local community college the following summer, where she meets a sexy bad-boy atheist who makes her question every assumption she's had about life, Doucet has the ability to really hit the sweet spot of yearning and angst that so marks the lives of most college freshmen, a strange and wondrous time when a person is not quite an adult yet no longer a child.
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner. When I first moved to Chicago and got involved with the lit scene in the 1990s, the exquisite nonsense artist Mark Leyner was one of our gods; and after some years recently of flailing about with his career, I'm extremely glad to see him back in fine form with this brand-new novel. Essentially another of the bizarro authors mentioned above, his stream-of-consciousness tales are not for everyone, but is just the ticket for fans of, say, Monty Python and Warren Ellis, and have always wondered what kind of unholy baby would emerge from a union of the two.
Under the Harrow, by Mark Dunn. A contemporary post-apocalyptic thriller written exactly like a thousand-page Charles Dickens novel, this fact neatly encapsulates both its good and bad points: for while this story of a Victorian town that slowly learns "The Village" style that they've been kept deliberately anachronistic and hidden for a hundred years from the rest of the world at large, as a bizarre experiment by the Cold-War-era US military that just never got shut down, is freaking incredible at points in its details and style, its attempt at Dickensian book length does the taut plot a disservice, which is why it's a Guilty Pleasure and not on any of our legitimate best-of lists this week. If you're already a fan of this stuff, though, this is an absolute must-read that you don't want to miss.
And that's it for this year's Year In Books report! On behalf of Karl Wolff as well, I want to thank all of you for coming back to the blog day after day and reading these reviews; it was a pleasure to write all 150 of them that we published last year, and we're looking forward to presenting 150 more in 2013. And speaking of which, I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that we're looking to once again expand our reviewing staff this year, and to hopefully bring on three new people if we can find three reviewers we love; and these will be paid positions, too, although not very much, under a system I'll explain in another blog post soon. (Basically, for the first time this year we're going to start gathering up all the blog content and publishing it as a monthly magazine, and reviewers will get a 20-percent share of all the revenue made through this magazine at Amazon and iTunes.) So for now, if you write in a way that's similar to what you see here at the blog on a regular basis, and think you could do at least one large essay (500 to 1000 words) every week, please drop me a line at cclapcenter [at] gmail.com with some links to your favorite pieces online. Remember, we're looking for funny YET smart; erudite YET populist; opinionated YET fair; acquainted with the obscure YET mainstream-friendly; and did I mention funny yet smart? I look forward to seeing what you have!