Thursday, December 29, 2011

A look back, part 2: The Best?

     When 10-best lists come out at the end of each year, and some of my favorites aren't included, I wonder if the critic (and if you're declaring something the best or the worst, you are by definition a critic) had read them. How can you declare something the best if you haven't actually read everything?
     Also, unless you confine yourself to reading only books published within the last year, probably some of your "best" will be from past years.
     So I can't compile a "best" list. I can only compile a "favorite" list. Of the 32 books I read this year, in no particular order, these were some of my favorites (some of which I’ve already reviewed in earlier posts):

Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm
The Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
     I’ve already reviewed “Zanesville” at length (see zanesville). I’ve written about the other two, (see midnight riot 1midnight riot 2 and dragon tattoo), but not reviews as such.
     “The Rivers of London” was published in the U.S. as “Midnight Riot,” but I greatly prefer the original title. The fantasy novel, the first in an ongoing series, involves Peter Grant, a young mixed race London police officer who is recruited into a special department investigating supernatural crimes. The main crime is a ghost that possesses people, first making them kill other people, then twisting their own face into an approximation of the character Punch. Since the human skull is not designed to accommodate this shape, they quickly bleed to death. Grant has an old-school sorcerer superior, but Grant finds ways to use science to help explain and enhance his magic. The original title refers to anthropomorphic embodiments of the rivers who are tangential to the main plot, but who are integral parts of the book. They may play a bigger part in future books. Book three is due out in 2012.
     I saw the Swedish film version of “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo” before reading the book, and I haven’t seen the American version yet. Sometimes the book is so much better than the movie, or vice-versa, that fans of one can’t bear the other. In this case, I’d say it’s a draw. The film was faster paced, the book more detailed, but I enjoyed them both about equally. Of course, as a journalist, I’m interested in a book with a journalist hero. If you don’t know the plot, it involves a disgraced journalist and a damaged computer-hacking young woman investigating the disappearance and presumed murder of a young woman several decades earlier. This soon leads to the discovery that a serial killer of young women has been at large for at least that long, and may still be active. Not the most original plot, but the characterizations are compelling and the tension is palpable. Not for the squeamish.

 Steampunk’d, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (see spring heeled)
The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers (see steampunk bible)
Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers (see gaslight)
     I’ve already written full posts about the last three, but I read “Steampunk’d” before I started this blog. It’s an original anthology of steampunk short stories of varying quality, but overall very good. The story that particularly sticks with me is “Scourge of the Spoils” by Matthew P. Mayo, a steampunk Western, with several entertaining twists.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson (see shakespeare)
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (see wordy)
The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur (see history)
Thunderstruck by Eric Larson
     Again, I’ve already reviewed three of these. The fourth, “Thunderstruck,” conflates Marconi’s development of the telegraph with the events leading up to the disappearance and presumed murder of Dr. Crippen’s wife (although evidence uncovered since the book was written calls both Crippen's guilt and his wife’s death into doubt). The hook is that Crippen was caught due to Marconi’s telegraph while on a ship bound for North America. It’s not always a compelling link, but the separate stories were interesting enough to keep me reading. 

     That’s my top 11. Any favorites of your own you’d like to mention? Let me know.


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