(For all the lists in the 2012 "Year in Books" series, please click here.)
Because of CCLaP's unique scoring system, a book isn't allowed to score in the nines no matter how good it is unless it appeals to a general audience; so that leaves a lot of the most satisfying reads of the year off yesterday's "Best of the Best" list, simply because they appeal only to a niche crowd, but will appeal intensely to them. Below, a list of nine great examples from last year, listed as always in alphabetical order.
Black Crow White Lie, by Candi Sary. First reviewed only a few weeks ago, this is the incredibly charming latest from the always impressive Casperian Books, a slowly-paced and character-heavy sleeper hit about a rapidly burning-out New Age alcoholic who bums around the seedier sections of southern California, and the precocious child she is raising on her own. Told from the child's perspective, it's admittedly an emotionally manipulative story, the main reason some people won't like it; but it does its manipulation well and not very schmaltzy, a quick read that will have you strongly rooting for its complex, deeply sympathetic hero.
The Dead Witness, edited by Frederic Chaubin. Sure, we've all read Sherlock Holmes; but did you know that at the time those were being written, there were literally hundreds of other popular detective series being written on a weekly basis? In fact, there have been many good compilations recently regarding a lot of these second-tier authors; but The Dead Witness aims to go even further in, publishing a number of stories for literally the first time in 150 years specifically to show that the industry in general was actually much larger and more varied than popular lore now has it. We think of the genre as mostly dominated by old white men in England; but as this astutely curated anthology shows, there was lots of detective fiction at the time coming out of the British colonies and dominions, and that much of it was being written by women, one of the main reasons to pick up this compilation versus others.
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne. Meant as a sweeping Graham-Greene-like look at the complex realities of expats in exotic locales, but with just a little too many problems to make it to our "Best of the Best" list, this is nonetheless a very well-written and affecting book, and I find my mind returning to it on a regular basis long after actually finishing it. It's the story of a world-weary British upper-class couple, who are traveling to Morocco to visit some acquaintances -- and not just any acquaintances, but insanely super-rich acquaintances, who bought an entire dilapidated village in north Africa and turned it into a luxury 30-cabin private estate, where once a year they invite all their jet-setting friends around the world to come in for an entire week of limitless drugs, bisexual orgies, and all the other decadence of the Western "I'm A Monster" '00s. But on a drunken drive from the airport to the compound, the British couple hit a local teen on the side of the road; and thus starts a three-day adventure that is illuminating and unexpected, if a little rough around the edges.
Gay Dwarves of America, by Anne Fleming. It's not a good year unless one of the books by our pals at Canada's Pedlar Press makes our best-of lists! And this year it's this, a story collection by Anne Fleming whose main mark of distinction is that it's edgy and experimental, but comes to this place by first taking mainstream story ideas and then weirding them up. There are just a couple of clunkers in there, which is what kept it off the "Best of the Best" list; but the best stories suck you in even while impressing you with their literary acumen, the kind of high-quality manuscript that small presses excel at getting out.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, by Mark Dery. After a fully established career that has seen this cultishly loved essayist slowly building a following, 2012 seemed to finally be the big breakout year for Mark Dery, with this dark yet erudite collection being one of the big buzzes among lit hipsters all last year. Granted, it's not quite as groundbreaking as some of its breathless praise warrants, which is what kept it off the "Best of the Best" list -- although always smart and subversive, it ultimately isn't anything different than what's being said by Warren Ellis, Bruce Sterling, the staff of Boing Boing, etc -- but if you're not familiar with any of these other people, it's an absolute imperative that you pick this up as soon as you can, a writer destined to be as important to future hackers and Sub-Geniuses as William Gibson and Mondo 2000 was to my own youth.
Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton. I've only recently become aware of this contemporary public intellectual, and have been reading through both his old work and new over the last six months; this is his latest, an incredibly smart and thought-provoking look at how the secular benefits of religion can be separated from the faith and applied in a humanist way to atheists' lives. As such, then, this book was trashed by a lot of critics, who called it everything from trite to obvious to unworkable; but I gotta say, I had a much more positive experience with it than they did, and saw it as a highly practical updating of the beliefs of 1950s Existentialists like Albert Camus, with lots of real-world advice on how to incorporate these things into your everyday life. A populist deep thinker but a highly intelligent one, don't let his mainstream media appearances trick you into assuming this is pop psychology.
The Restoration Game, by Ken MacLeod. I didn't have a chance to read as much science-fiction in 2012 as I usually do; but this was one of my favorites, an unexpectedly complex day-after-tomorrow tale that builds some wonderfully speculative details onto highly original "ripped from the headlines" issues. Largely set in the fictional "Krassnia," located roughly where the Crimean War was fought in eastern Europe, it's the tale of an immigrant computer programmer now living in Scotland, who's been contracted to build an MMO virtual-reality game that may or may not be a gift from the CIA to the revolutionaries in Krassnia, as a safe place online to plot their actions, and which may or may not be being done by the CIA because of a magical secret buried in a local mountain that the Nazis actually tried going after in World War Two, which may or may not be accidentally revealed in the programmer's mother's old out-of-date Lord of the Rings-inspired '60s guide to Krassnian mythology, which the programmer used to create the main map of the virtual-reality game. IS YOUR MIND BLOWN YET? That gets you to page ten! HOW ABOUT NOW?
Spurious, by Lars Iyer. Hey, so speaking of obscure '50s philosophers with curiously mainstream followings, this "sequel" to Dogma by the contemporary British philosopher is obviously influenced with much love by classic absurdist Samuel Beckett; for this is barely a three-act story at all, but rather a series of ridiculous conversations between the author's doppleganger and a fellow philosopher who's much more popular, quickly taking side turns every few pages to delve into all kinds of issues of pure thought and wacky humor. Inexplicably popular for how challenging it actually is ("I thought I'd be the only person in the world to love this book," starts hundreds of glowing reviews at Goodreads.com), this will be the densest yet most delightful read that you've taken on in quite some time.
Watch the Doors As They Close, by Karen Lillis. For the sake of disclosure, let me confess that author Karen Lillis has participated in past CCLaP virtual book tours, in her role as another popular litblogger and book reviewer online; but even with the bias, I have to say that her latest as a creative writer was simply one of my favorites of the year, which almost earned a Guilty Pleasure Award because its premise is just so stereotypically the kind of stuff I usually find intolerable. Mostly a deep character study that uses just the slightest of actual plot, it's essentially a sophisticated look at one of those moocher hipster-douchebag failed artist types that young girls are always seeming to fall for; and not only that, but a lot of it takes place along Paris's West Bank in modern times, when the only "artists" left are entitled Americans seeking a bohemia that hasn't existed there in half a century. But despite all this, I found the book a real page-turning delight, because Lillis has such an earnest and beautiful voice, one of the only academes out there writing specifically academic literature who I really adore; and if you have a similarly low tolerance for such work, this is a great title to be the proverbial "one book of this type this year to read, if you read only one book of this type this year."
And that's it for today; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow, when we'll be looking at staff writer Karl Wolff's top ten picks by category for 2012. Regular reviews of new books start again this coming Monday!