Sunday, January 2, 2011

Books of the Year

2010 was a pretty good year of reading for me. I managed to read a total of 35 books, which is a decent number for me, especially considering that I also read 50 graphic novels. The quality of the books I read was pretty solid, but nothing was completely mind blowing...On the other hand, there weren't too many books that were flat out terrible either. I don't normally get to read too many new releases, and this year was no different, as I only managed two 2010 releases, one that pops up on the list here, and Who Fears Death being the other. Looking back at a year's worth of reading makes me excited for reading in the new year. I hope to expand my tastes, and experience some new authors. Until then, my Top 5 reads from 2010:

#1: The Lions of Al-Rassan: Reading a Guy Gavriel Kay novel has become sort of a special event for me at this point. Before I even open the cover, I know that inside there will be a rich, imaginative world that isn't so unlike our own. I know that the story will be populated with memorable characters who come to life through strong writing and skilled character building. I also know that the story will likely capture my imagination and have me thinking about it even when I'm not actively reading the book. I really enjoy the immersion experience I get when reading a Kay novel. Then I start reading, and it is all those things and often more.

The Lions of Al-Rassan not only featured Kay's sharp writing skills, but what stood out for me was the setting. The lands of Al-Rassan represent the real-life Iberian Peninsula and Kay does a wonderful job placing the reader there. I guess you could argue that he's not creating an alternate world like other fantasy authors, so his job is easier, but he still needs to make a guy like me who's getting constantly drizzled on in Seattle feel like he's breathing fresh mountain air, or dumping desert sand out of his shoe. Kay did that for me here, and that true feeling of escapism is one of the great things about reading.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Kay at an author event in May, and I'm happy to say that he's a kind, intelligent and friendly guy (pun intended). It's always a bonus to know that that author you're reading is a good person.

#2 Little Brother: This book faced two difficult, uphill challenges before I even started reading it. The first challenge was that I don't normally read sci-fi. For some reason, I never find the imagined future that the author presents to be anything other than depressing. I hate reading a book and feeling like the future is going to suck. The second challenge is that I don't normally read Young Adult titles. No real reason there, just that I tend to stick to books written for an adult audience. Luckily, this book smashed through those obstacles like it was the Hulk. It helps that the book essentially takes place now and is has a techno-thriller feel to it. Second, it never once felt like it was a book aimed at a younger audience. This is most definitely a book that anyone can enjoy.

Little Brother does a fantastic job of being timely. The plot, which centers around a terrorist attack in San Francisco, is believable and scary. The results of the terrorist attack, the way the government reacts to it, the way it changes civilian life, and the way it changes the characters was very fitting given the circumstances. The book also struck on a common American narrative theme, that "if you put your mind to it you can do anything" ideal came into play as the main character, Marcus pitted himself against the Department of Homeland Security. The book is also is perfectly paced and very well written. The fact that it overcame my predilections and managed to add a few surprises make it a lock for the number two spot.

#3 The Judging Eye: (I'm counting this as a 2010 Release since that's when the TPB version I own came out.)
After fully loving the Prince of Nothing trilogy, I had high hopes for the first installment in the follow up series. This book didn't disappoint. The novel followed three main threads, and while each was compelling its own way, I was most intrigued by Achamian and the events of his story. Achamian is one of the only likable characters in the story, but what is amazing is that even though the other characters all inspire my hatred, they are skillfully written and great characters despite their lack of redeeming qualities. Bakker has a strong knack for putting the reader into the minds of his characters and giving the reader an idea of their motivations and desires. The result is that I get a bit creeped out by what I find there...but in a good way.

This book would probably make the list based solely on the strength of the Black Halls scene which is a modern homage to Tolkien's Mines of Moria. I knew at some point the shit would hit the fan, yet when it did, Bakker still managed to rock my socks off. Hands down my favorite reading moment of the year.

#4 Fevre Dream: I thought I was totally sick of vampires, but I found myself in need of a late Autumn horror read and I just happened to have this GRRM title sitting on my shelf. That it was a vampire novel, and that it was a non-A Song of Ice and Fire GRRM novel made me doubly skeptical, but Martin easily erased that skepticism in the early pages. The skills that make Martin a favorite author of mine are on display in this, one of his earlier novels. Robust characters, and expert world building brought the Mississippi riverboat life of the mid 1800's vibrantly to life. Add in a healthy dose of the supernatural where vampires aren't wearing eye-liner, and you've got a great vampire story.

The only thing keeping this from a higher ranking is that it was a bit lacking in Martin's trademark unpredictability that highlights the plots of his fantasy material. Still, a great read if you find yourself hurting for some GRRM while waiting, and waiting and waiting...

#5 The Wastelands: Stephen King's Dark Tower books were a very big part of my life in 2010. I read four of the seven novels this past year (Song of Susannah review forthcoming) and the series becomes more of a favorite with each installment I read. Looking back at my reviews, I noticed that even though I love each book, the grades they receive on my highly "consistent" grading scale don't necessarily reflect that love. Because I love this series so much, I think I hold the individual novels to a higher standard, and despite the series' strong, yet not overwhelming GPA, my Books of the Year list would be sadly lacking if I didn't include one Dark Tower novel.

Of the three I've reviewed, The Wastelands gets the nod here. In this novel the stalwart characters of the series, Roland, Eddie, Susannah and Jake come to the forefront. I've come to love each of these characters, flaws and all, and I can't wait, though I'm a little scared, to see what King has in store for them in the finale. Aside from fantastic characters, this book features a battle with a giant bear, more travel between parallel universes, and a deathly ride aboard a psychotic train. This novel is well written and a feat of sheer fantastic imagination.

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