It sucks to love books as much as I do, and yet be a relatively slow reader. Compared with most avid readers, I know I have a much slower page per minute rate. Granted, some of that is because I am comparing myself to people like my friend Amara, who probably read War and Peace in the time it took me to proofread that last sentence. Still, I know I am not the fastest of readers, I suppose a combination of just plain being slow, and my need to savor each sentence and feel sick if I start rushing and missing stuff. I retain well, when it comes to picking out themes and seeing connections I’m one bad mamma jamma, but speed eludes me.
Slowish reading is my achilles heel when it comes to the massive number of books on my ever growing ‘To-Read’ list. In a 2012 that was down in just about every aspect of my life, reading books was no different. I only read 41 books in 2012, and before some of you roll your eyes and say, “Oh, only 41 books, I read 4,” remember that I get very little done. I have no excuse for not getting through more books… well except for profoundly severe insomnia and terrible clinical depression, but that doesn’t stop me from being frustrated I don’t get through more books in a year. My goal for 2013 is 52, but that’s best left for another post.
For this post discussing books I love in 2012, I wanted to limit my list to those books I haven’t mentioned on the blog before. Books I loved this year, but have already written about are: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Lilith by George MacDonald (which I mentioned in a post that also features a now depressing reference to Being Elmo), Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, Kraken by China Miéville, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.
Here are some I haven’t mentioned yet. As is always the case with book lists, this is just books I read this year, not books released this year.
1. The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls– Lois McMaster Bujold
Every year, I discover at least one new author I fall in love with. In 2013, Lois McMaster Bujold was that author. I read Paladin of Souls as part of my goal to eventually read every novel that has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, but that required reading that book’s predecessor The Curse of Chalion. Reading books that have been honored as the best in their field sure is a great way to discover masters of the craft of writing. Bujold is so wonderful. The magic and gods and demons of her world are so rich. Where most fantasy authors these days use gods lazily, as nothing more than a catalyst for political intrigue, Bujold’s gods, while mostly in the background, are central to the action and to Bujold’s remarkable engagement with themes of belief, despair, anger, disillusionment, and hope.
These are special books, and they enter the realm of mythopoeia with the skill of masters like MacDonald, Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, LeGuin, and Gaiman.
2. The Scar – China Miéville
A book set in Miéville’s remarkably imaginative steampunk(ish) world of Bas Lag (the setting of Perdido Street Station and Iron Council), in which most of the action takes place on a floating pirate city made of the cannibalized remains of captured ships? Yes, please.
When it comes to dark, weird, twisted, engaging fantasy that isn’t like any other fantasy you’ve ever read, Miéville is unparalleled. The Scar is so rich in its characters, atmosphere, and moments (many of said moments are genuinely chilling).
Also, I used to love the idea of writing about vampires, but have despaired that possibility because of the oversaturation of really bad vampire stories. And while this isn’t a vampire book, in the lone vampire character in the novel, Miéville gives me hope that there is still a place for vampire characters as long as they are well written and engaging. It can be such a fun mythology to play with, as long as we leave out all that goddamned sparkling tomfoolery.
Miéville is the best, and you couldn’t ask for a more capable author to write your nightmares.
3. The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson is one of those highly lauded authors who deserves the hype. It’s evident he is wildly intelligent and knowledgeable about the fields he is passionate about (which are myriad), and even while enjoying his work on every level we are aware of, most of us will know full well we are missing so many connections, subtexts, and layers in his wonderfully complex work.
What Snow Crash did in 1992 in envisioning implications for economics, politics, and relationships in the information overload of the internet age, he does again in The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer for the overwhelming implications on their way in the age of nanotechnology. I should probably read Snow Crash again, a contemporary classic only two decades old and praised as one of the more important science fiction novels ever, but on my first read, I actually enjoyed The Diamond Age more. It flies along at a breakneck pace and thrusts its characters through remarkable events that may not be so remarkable someday very soon.
The plot is too complex to do it justice in a brief summary, but basically, a rich and powerful man commissions a wonderful interactive nano-book, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (I can’t really describe in this space how awesome this nano-book is!). The book will interact with and instruct the rich man’s granddaughter and teach her all she needs to know about the world, saving her from the fate of becoming just like her inane parents. The man commissioned to create the book succeeds, but also tries to steal a copy for his own daughter, with the result being that a stolen copy falls into the hands of a poor, abused, forgotten girl named Nell. Then things get awesome/terrible/crazy/awesome (yes, awesome twice).
4. Neuromancer – William Gibson
Much of what can be said about the literary significance of Neal Stephenson can also be said about William Gibson, with the important distinction that William Gibson came first. Neuromancer came eight years before Snow Crash hit the scene, as the debut novel of the man who coined the name of the cyberpunk genre. In many ways, Neuromancer is actually a cybernoir novel, with noir values, themes, and relationships merging with cybertechnology.
Neuromancer features Case, a former hacker criminal wunderkind in a rough and tumble city in Japan, in a future imagined in the 1980’s. In this future, “jacking in” was done in a style similar to what was later popularized in The Matrix. When Case double-crosses one of his criminal employers, they inject a microtoxin into his bloodstream that ruins nerve endings and makes it impossible for him to jack in, cutting him off from his only skill and the only thing he loves in one fell swoop. Then, a shadowy figure emerges from the underworld and offers Case one massive job, the reward being a cure to his damaged nerve endings.
It’s good, and you should read it.
5. Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
It’s called a novel, but it is really more of a connected series of vignettes revealing the lives of the bizarre enough to be real characters who live on Cannery Row in Monterey, California during the Great Depression. Simple and quiet, with no great revelations or existential crises, the perfect 1940’s prose and realistically painted characters got underneath my skin. I just wanted to go on reading forever of the little moments these characters shared, the minor adventures they embarked on, the way people stumbled towards and away from one another as they do in life. People’s tragedies and triumphs are most often of the sort in these stories, unremarkable, but leaking through with grace.
My friend W gave me the book over the summer, and I’m in his debt for facilitating my encounter with this unassuming little miracle of tightly written fiction.
6. Seraphina – Rachel Hartman
The crown prince is murdered gruesomely and mysteriously, threatening a tenuous peace between dragons and humans. Seraphina, a gifted and intelligent young musician, is pulled into events by her own curiosity and strength, but the closer she gets to unraveling the mystery and finding connection with another person, the greater the threat of the revelation of a secret she holds that may cost Seraphina her life.
In this world, dragons can choose to take on human form, but not human emotions and passions, in order to serve at court and uphold the precarious treaty between humanity and dragonkind. Rich characters, satisfying narrative development, and an exciting story make this, at least in my opinion, a must read for YA-addicts and fantasy fans alike.