As 2014 begins, this marks my third year reviewing for CCLaP. In 2013, I also began reviewing fiction and non-fiction for the New York Journal of Books and the occasional essay on thethepoetryblog. With the added challenge of reviewing a book a week for CCLaP, that has widened my choices for favorite books of the year. On a more informal level, I've become known as "the genre guy" among my fellow CCLaP reviewers. While I have my own personal genre preferences, I hold no genre as inherently better than any other genre. Western, paranormal romance, adventure, Warhammer 40K tie-in novel, and so forth. What matters to me is whether or not the writing is good. And, concurrently, whether or not that good writing is an advantage or a liability. One can write a highly polished "literary novel" that still might miss the mark (see my review of Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig) or it can lack polish but have passion (see Pervert by Mr If). Despite all this self-justification, reviewing boils down to my subjective reaction to a book. These choices are my own and reflect my own individual quirks, eccentricities, and passions. They are bound to appeal, infuriate, and confound just about everybody.
Best Comedic Novel: The King of Pain, by Seth Kaufman. Seth Kaufman weds postmodern literary flourishes with an acid critique of "reality programming," along with our culture's lurid sensationalism about state-sanctioned torture. Rick Salter is a reality TV producer who helms The King of Pain TV show. Following a bender, he wakes up beneath his stereo system and a book called The History of Prisons laying beside him. The History of Prisons was written by an author called Seth Kaufman. Then Rick starts reading ... What happens is a dark commentary on our sick sad world.
Best First Novel: Wheatyard, by Peter Anderson. Set in Champaign, Illinois, Wheatyard tells the story of a business student's run-ins with one Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard, a reclusive curmudgeon who pens strange stories and novels. Anderson offers a quirky meditation on the conflicts between the creative drive and the practicalities of the Day Job. Anderson is a new voice that is, by turns, tender and vicious.
Best Foreign Language Reprint: Louis XXX, by Georges Bataille. An anthology of previously unpublished works by Georges Bataille are collected together in what is described as "audaciously experimental pieces of pornographic chamber music." Fragments and shards of narrative come together as poetry, scatology, confession, hallucination, and theory. Not for everyone, but for those interested in the works of Bataille, this is a must read.
Best Political Writing: The Confidence Trap, by David Runciman. David Runciman's The Confidence Trap is a history of democracy in crisis from the First World War to the present. In a field filled with empty rhetoric and ideological sclerosis, Runciman gives the reader that has the potential to change how one perceives political processes. His main thesis is that what many consider democracy's faults are indeed its advantages. Despite writing that sometimes sounds like Zen koans, Runciman writes a book that challenges expectations and is a page-turner.
Best Economics Writing: Debtors' Prison, by Robert Kuttner. Debtor's Prison is a scathing indictment of the cult of austerity. Kuttner, a progressive economist, write with fury and erudition as he takes apart austerity and its misapplications. In addition to his economic muckraking, he delves into the history of personal debt and explores why personal debt is seen as a vice while corporate debt involves bailouts. One of the few books that make reading about debt ratios and central EU bank infrastructure a means to anger up the blood.
Best Bizarro Fiction: Sloughing Off the Rot, by Lance Carbuncle. Sloughing Off the Rot, by Lance Carbuncle, takes bizarro fiction in a new and wonderful direction. Pop culture references and religious mysticism collide in a work of lowbrow majesty. John travels down the Camino de la Muerte to confront his nemesis, Android Lovethorn. Along the way he meets new friends, gets high, gets wasted, and encounters blumpkins. Vulgar and visionary in equal measure.
Best Thriller/Conspiracy Theory: Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon. While I'm sure Pynchon's latest has made it on enough Best Books lists, let me throw my two cents in. I appreciate Bleeding Edge as a delightfully off-kilter example of the conspiracy thriller. It is the quintessential thriller about 9/11, bringing to mind other works like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, another idiosyncratic thriller.
Best History: The Nazi Seance, by Arthur J. Magida. The story of Erik Jan Hanussen, a self-described mind reader, is deftly handled by Arthur J. Magida in The Nazi Seance. Magida separated myth from reality in a story of twisted relationships, fabricated biographies, and anti-Semitic hate. Entertaining without being sensational and erudite in its handling of explosive material, The Nazi Seance sounds made up. To use that over-used cliché, "Truth is stranger than fiction." A lot stranger, as it turns out.
Best MetraRead (a read for your daily commute): I Don't Know, by Leah Hager Cohen. Saying "I don't know," when asked a question can be bad news in certain situations, especially a classroom or in medical school. Leah Hager Cohen pens a short, intelligent, and compulsively readable exploration of doubt and self-doubt. Saying "I don't know" can be good, but it can also be bad. When waiting for those inevitable Metra delays, don't cuss out Rahm, read this book instead.
Best Adventure: Land Without Sin, by Paula Huston. A sister who lost her faith searches for her brother, the priest, in modern-day Mexico. In this supremely entertaining adventure novel, Paula Huston spins the tale of two siblings from a Chicago-area Croatian Catholic family. Faith, politics, suffering, archeology, and blood-lust are all explored in Land Without Sin. Part Graham Greene, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's a winning combination of adventure and intellectual struggle in Zapatista-controlled southern Mexico.
Best Just Plain Fun Book: In Thunder Forged, by Ari Marmell. Intrigue, warfare, steampunk mecha, gunmages ... bring it! As a fan of the Warhammer 40K tie-in novels, it was a joy to discover another RPG tie-in novel. Marmell does indeed bring it, giving the reader a violent beautiful world and showing how big the War Machine world-building sandbox really is.
Best Cover Design: The Creative Fire, by Brenda Cooper (cover art by John Picacio). The book itself didn't do it for me, but the cover is extraordinary. The alchemical admixture of youthful beauty, Pre-Raphaelite flourishes, and rich detailing, John Picacio paints a beautiful cover. In a world of photorealistic covers, it's nice to see cover art that's painterly.
Best Overall Book Design: Wheatyard, by Peter Anderson. KUBOA presents a beautiful looking (and feeling) book. When I first beheld it, it reminded me of those pocket-sized books from the Sixties. It's a stylish presentation with an enigmatic cover and pleasing dimensions. Heck, I even liked the font they picked.
Best Batting Average (On average, will the publisher give you, the reader, a well-written, well-designed, entertaining book?): In no particular order: Akashic Books, The Permanent Press, and Pyr. I've read my share of books from these publishers. On average, I've been pleased with what I read. Pyr's range is extraordinary, from conventional space opera to the utterly bonkers. The Permanent Press has re-written the metrics of genre fiction. Whether it is straight genre pieces or more experimental works, the Permanent Press continues to bring out quality work. Finally, Akashic Books has their ongoing Noir Series and their new series about drug culture. Regardless, they represent the gold standard of genre anthologies.
(Click here for Travis Fortney's Year In Books report, here for Madeleine Maccar's, and here for our collective "Best of the Best" list. As always, we appreciate you coming by and reading these reviews on a regular basis, and we're looking forward to presenting yet another 150 or so write-ups in 2014.)