Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best Books of 2012

Here it is: my 16-volume list of the books I enjoyed the most this year. You can click on the titles to link to my full-length reviews. And in no particular order they are...

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

An audacious blend of occult horror, mystery, humour and steampunk. What makes it work brilliantly isn't that it's a genre mashup; it's because Howard is an excellent writer who would undoubtedly succeed in any conventional genre.

The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

When it comes to craftiness and duplicity nobody can beat the French bourgeoisie of the 19th century. The characters in this story expend more mental energy on scamming each other than NASA has used in putting men in space.

The Third Reich In Power 1933-39 by Richard J. Evans

The best book I've ever read about how the Nazis came to power and what they did to warp Germany in their image. 

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read five books by McCaughrean this year and all of them could be on this list, but I'll stick with this one and the one below. Roux is a Candide-like tale for the Young Adult market, but the main attraction is the author's prose. McCaughrean is simply the one of the very best writers, all genres included, working today.

Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean retells the legend of Noah's Ark as though it actually happened and in the process gives a sublime kicking to religious fanaticism.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

A couple of teenage boys sail to the Far East in the Victorian era as part of a small team looking to capture a Komodo dragon. Disaster ensues. A superb example of historical fiction. The seafaring sections are the equal, or better, of anything Patrick O'Brian ever wrote.

Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami

Schami writes about Syria with the same intensity and brilliance that Faulkner wrote about Mississippi or Dickens wrote about London. This guy's going to pick up a Nobel Prize for Literature one of these days so get on the bandwagon now.

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

McKinty is just about the only reason I'm still reading crime/mystery fiction. This is the first in a trilogy about Sean Duffy, a cop with the RUC in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. McKinty gets bonus marks just for setting a police procedural during this era. Why didn't anyone else think of doing this? Duffy's a great character and N.I. is brought to vivid and uncomfortable life.

The Judgement of Paris by Ross King

Think nothing new can be written about the Impressionists? Think again, Jean-Claude. This is an amazing blend of art criticism and social history that's more entertaining than most novels.

The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

An amazing subversion of the crime thriller genre. It has all the deviousness and bloodshed you expect in this genre, but it also rubbishes all its conventions. 

Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess

Here's another example of why adults should be checking out the Teen/Young Adult shelves: this novel about a seriously dystopian future is off-the-charts imaginative, combining Norse mythology with, well, everything but the kitchen sink. Think Dr Who on meth.

This Green Land by John Fullerton

Here's a worthy successor to John Le Carre and Eric Ambler. Fullerton seems to be almost unknown, especially in North America, and that's probably because he isn't a huge fan (and that's putting it mildly) of U.S. imperialism. This novel is a thriller set at the height of the Lebanese Civil War and it succeeds on all levels.

 The Big Roads by Earl Swift

A history of the U.S. Interstate Highway System doesn't sound like a page-turner, but it turns out to be a fascinating story about the rise and fall of our love affair with the car.

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Pearson

Pearson shines a light on the atrocities committed by both sides (primarily the rebels) during the Spanish Civil War. It's a harrowing book but it's a needed look at crimes that are virtually forgotten.

A History of Modern Palestine by Ilan Pappe

A history of the Middle East that demolishes most of the pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist rhetoric and mythology that's written about the region. Pappe is both Jewish and Israeli so no one can accuse him of being an anti-Semitic outsider.

The Pursued by C.S. Forester

Yes, this is the same guy who wrote the Hornblower novels. This novel, however, is a tawdry tale of lower-middle-class sin and murder. Forester isn't the greatest writer, but his evocation of small lives filled with class anxieties makes this read like something Orwell might have written had he turned to crime fiction.

So there you have it, my best of the year. If there's been one big change in my reading habits over the past year it's that I've been enjoying mystery/crime fiction a lot less. I'm finding that the whole genre is getting a bit stale, something I discuss here. The only reason I don't have a worst books of the year list is that I've finally developed the healthy habit of giving up on books if they're not doing anything for me after 50 or so pages. But if I did have such a list Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo would take top honours. To my eternal regret I read all of it, and here's my angry review.

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