Books of the Year: 2012

I read fewer books in 2012 than in recent years--a total of 70--but that was partly because I chose to read a few longer tomes I'd been wanting to finish for some time. In general, I think the sacrifice was worth it, because I definitely got a lot out of some of the doorstops in question. Here, then are my favorite reading experiences of the year:

FICTION

The First Law Trilogy/Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself/Before They Are Hanged/Last Argument of Kings): A refreshingly un-Tolkienesque fantasy series, even with swords, magic, and misplaced kings all over the place.

Fobbit/David Abrams: Okay, I"m biased, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a pointed, hilarious, unsettling book about a war where the reader probably should feel a little unsettled.

The Little Black Book of Stories/A.S. Byatt: She's good. She's very good. You knew that, and I knew that. But I hadn't realized just how good she was in a more confined space. These are stories you won't stop thinking about for days after reading them.

The Passage Trilogy (The Passage/The Twelve/TBA)/Justin Cronin: An odd mix of the familiar and the new, with pacing that starts and stops and prose that often grabs you by the throat. Sometimes you'll think you're reading Stephen King, sometimes Cormac McCarthy, sometimes someone completely unfamiliar. If you can get past the fact that the first 200 pages are basically a prologue, the rest will click along nicely.

David Copperfield/Charles Dickens: Watch this kid. He may have a future in the business.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 2/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: It's a little easier to understand why Holmes and Watson simply won't go away after you've read their complete catalogue.

The Last Werewolf/Glen Duncan: I loved I, Lucifer when it came out, but Duncan vanished from my radar until this little gem, in which one of my least favorite monsters, the werewolf, is given new shades of meaning, thanks to a remarkably perceptive and world-weary narrative voice. Great stuff for horror fans tired of the same old horror.

Cloud Atlas/David Mitchell: The most inventive novel I've read in years, with the most varied and marvelous prose I've seen in a single book perhaps ever. Bears comparison to Nabokov. And I don't make that comparison lightly.

Redshirts/John Scalzi: I expected funny and clever. I didn't expect to go into Philiip K. Dick territory in terms of mind-fuckery. Playful, thoughtful, and original. Well done, Mr. President.

Pod/Stephen Wallenfels: Twin narratives about a devastatingly simple alien invasion. As YA books go, this one's got a lot of adult depth, but it reads like a dream. A pleasant surprise from out of nowhere.

NONFICTION/COMICS/DRAMA/OTHER

It Is Folly to Assume My Awesome Lies Dormant/Matt Adrian: I discovered this gem while windowshopping with Kelly in Richmond's Carytown, and she bought it for me for Xmas. Beautiful paintings of birds coupled with jarring and hilarious captions. Imagine a fine arts/philosophy spin on The Far Side and you'll be the same territory as Adrian, whose mincingmockingbird.com is your one-stop web source for neurotic wildlife.

Den of Thieves/Stephen Adly Guirgis: A comedy black enough to fall into the infra-red: four amateurs attempt to steal a small fortune from a disco, only to find it's owned by the mob. Forced to supply one body and three thumbs, the quartet spend most of Act II tied to chairs, trying to decide who will give up what. And the production I'm directing at WFS will go up on January 24th, if you're in the area and want to catch a show free of charge.

Midnight Rising/Tony Horwitz: A thorough examination of the life and work of John Brown, a man of moral certainty, fanatical dedication, and bizarre, even inept, tactics. If you want to see how much influence one person can have on history, this book will give you a long, hard, unflinching look.

The Complete Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder (Vol. 1)/Walt Kelly: If you've ever doubted whether comics can achieve the status of high art, here's the place to begin assuaging those doubts. A fabulous edition that beautifully showcases a master's work. (And yes, I picked up Volume 2 a few days ago.)

We Learn Nothing/Tim Kreider: After years of following his weekly cartoon The Pain: When Will It End? online, I went whole hog and bought all Kreider's earlier collections (The Pain: When Will It End?, Why Do They Kill Me?, and Twilight of the Assholes) and went to a signing for this, his newest volume of cartoons and essays. His account of his friendship with transsexual author Jenny Boylan is a remarkably honest and thoughtful essay, as is his tale of finding his birth mother and two siblings late in life. A satirist equipped with endless gallons of black bile and a heart of gold, Kreider will alternately delight, appall, and educate you.

Chew: Flambe/John Layman, Rob Guillory: The most original comics series in decades: detective Tony Chu receives psychic impressions from the things he eats, and in a world where poultry is illegal and cyborgs work as cops, that ability is incredibly useful and bizarrely problematic. Gross, hilarious, and unlike anything you've ever read.

Batwoman: Elegy/Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III et al.: Is there still room for creativity within the thoroughly spelunked confines of the Bat-verse? Boy howdy. Rucka's Kate Kane is mainstream comics' first openly lesbian heroine, yes, but she's also a complex, morally centered woman who happens to be a seriously badass crimefighter. Williams' art is gorgeous, as usual, and even the presence of a bizarre group of were-critters can't make the goings-on completely ridiculous. Top-notch superhero entertainment.

Dragonbreath/Ursula Vernon: Even if she wasn't one of the coolest people on earth (full disclosure: she was one of my interview subjects for the latest book, and she was incredibly forthcoming and helpful), this mix of narrative, illustration, and comics would make a fantastic tale for any young reader. Danny Dragonbreath can't breathe fire yet, but his imagination and fearlessness make his adventures in a reptile-centric universe a total delight. Give it to your kids, nephews, nieces, friends, whatever, but read it for yourself first.

Happy New Year, everybody!

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