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Favorite Reads of 2010

by Jonathan 3 Comments

This list I am about to roll out is not about books published in 2010, but books that I read in 2010 and enjoyed. Unfortunately I am neither a book reviewer who receives the latest SF and Fantasy titles (on second thought, I don’t think I could manage to review with the intensity and frequency those guys do. They have my utmost respect), nor am I loaded down with disposable income. I receive most of my books as gifts for birthdays, Father’s Day, Christmas, Flag Day, etc.

In most cases, I’ve provided a link to either the publisher, a bookseller, or the author’s page. As a bonus, if you click on the cover of each book, it’ll take you into a magic world of chocolate waterfalls and phantasmagorical nightmares, or, rather,  a review of the book.

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

This was my intro to Mr. Mieville and I have to say that even though I read it almost 12 months ago, the images still stick with me. Mieville drives home some points overly much, but, if anything, adds a bit of charm to the whole thing. This is fantasy clad in weird science fictional robes. I may just have to read it again soon.

The Passage – Justin Cronin

This honker of a book justified the hype that came with  it. Dude raked in over 4 million clams before he had even finished the first book (three book deal and movie rights purchased by Ridley Scott). I literally couldn’t put it down. Have you ever showered with 750 pages of book in your hand? I didn’t think so. Read this and you’ll know what I mean.

Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

This is a late entry. I just finished it a few days ago and am into the next title, Gormenghast. In truth, it was a slow burn, but after Peake sets the table, it’s a smorgasbord of satisfying strangeness. The climax in particular is haunting. What I first thought was dense prose became easy reading. It reminded me of Dickens only more interesting.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

This one also starts a little slow, but holy moly, the book almost caught on fire I was turning the pages so fast. I managed to finish it in record time and then wrapped in a curtain and rolled it around on the floor.  There are things that might turn off some readers, but any story that demands you finish gets my respect.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

I wrote a post on this not long after I finished it. If nothing else, Bacigalupi’s conception of our world in a post-oil era is stunning. But The Windup Girl is so much more than that. I look forward to reading it again.

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

After reading The Difference Engine, I was leery of jumping into this one. Turns out that fear was unnecessary. Powers weaves a potent tale of time travel that starts you out in the dark and gradually draws back the shades. By the end, I was nodding my head and smiling. Very satisfying.

Finch – Jeff VanderMeer

Every time I look at the cover of Finch, I get a little giddy. The whole presentation of the story is superb, from the staccato pulp noir prose to the world-building to the tone. If you like your fiction off-center and a lot weird, this is one for you. If you’re allergic to fungus, get an allergy shot first.


The City and the City – China Mieville

China Mieville almost made this list thrice, but in the end, I did not include The Scar although I enjoyed it very much. I did include The City and The City because of how utterly different it is from Perdido Street Station. Where Perdido Street Station is steeped in Lovecraftian weirdness, The City is much more subtle. It is a police procedural, but like Finch, there is a fantastic element to it that revolves around two cities whose edges overlap in some strange extradimensional way.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I include the whole series here because you have to read all four books or you’ll be left wondering, “WTF did I just read?” if you don’t (you might still think that after reading all four books, but at least there’s closure). Gene Wolfe has a way with words. Like Mervyn Peake, once you get into the swing of things, these books read at a nice pace. The way Wolfe weaves everything together is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the series. Get your dying earth on with Severian (the protag). Can’t remember which author said it, but after they read this series they thought, “I didn’t know you could write fantasy like that.”

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Stark, moving, horrific at times, haunting at others. Frankly, any of the Cormac McCarthy books I read this year could be on this list (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and this one). The man knows how to turn a phrase for maximum effect and he has a knack for cutting to the heart of so many of the things we think about every day.  If you have children, it’s even better.

There you have it. If you haven’t some of these, check ’em out. Hope your 2011 is filled with words, whether you are reading or writing.

Cronin the Barbarian, Usurper of Titus Groan

I know, so many of you, as usual, are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. I’m not quite sure myself. All I know my friend Mike since sixth grade (*waves* Hey Mike!) was gracious enough to send me his copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Mmm. That sounds good. I'll have that.

Suddenly my doorstop of the Gormenghast novels was on the floor next to my bed amid the dog hair and dirty socks.

It was like I had been dating this nice, but weird girl that I wasn’t even really sure I liked and then the girl I had a crush on for the last year not only noticed me, but asked me out. Hello The Passage. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even bother changing my Currently Reading widget in the sidebar.

I wasted little time tearing through Cronin’s first foray into speculative fiction. Six days later I emerged.

Cronin’s writing reminded me of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy mostly. For me, that was a good thing as I find both of those writers eminently readable as well as engrossing. The first 200 pages turned everything up to 11, bringing on viruses, experimental human subjects, prostitutes, punk frat boys, otherworldly children, nuns. The only thing missing was a Federal agent who was too good at his job. No wait, there was that too.

And then Cronin hit me in the face with a frying pan, forcing me to regroup. I was a little resentful, but eventually fell into the story that picked up almost 100 years after the events from the first part of the book. I read one review that essentially called those 200 pages a prologue.  Ah.

Once it got rolling again, I could not put it down. I’ve read a review that called the middle section baggy (to be fair, the reviewer loved the book). While I don’t disagree, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t want to leave the story. Fortunately, The Passage is the first of a planned three post-apocalyptic vampire novels. I’m in.

Now normally I don’t go for vampires. Twilight sort of reaffirmed my stance, but I’ve never gravitated toward the vampire story, except maybe the whole Vlad Tepes thing behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this Justin Cronin guy, he does it all up right. There’s no sparkling, no suave Tom Cruise guy. This is more Nosferatu meets 28 Days Later: Creepy ass, fast moving, and brutal creatures.

But The Passage is more than gore and horror. Cronin sucks you in deep with his characters. And for me, I very much enjoy the Iowa Writers’ Workshop sheen to it all:

Amy’s father was a man who came in one day to the restaurant where Jeanette had waited tables since she turned sixteen, a diner that everyone called the Box, because it looked like one: like a big chrome shoe-box sitting off the county road, backed by fields of corn and beans, nothing else around for miles except a self-serve car wash, the kind where you had to put coins into the machine and do all the work yourself. The man, whose name was Bill Reynolds, sold combines and harvesters, big things like that, and he was a sweet talker who told Jeanette as she poured his coffee and then later, again and again, how pretty she was, how he liked her coal-black hair and hazel eyes and slender wrists, said it all in a way that sounded like he meant it, not the way boys in school had, as if the words were just something that needed to get said along the way to her letting them do as they liked. He had a big car, a new Pontiac, with a dashboard that glowed like a spaceship and leather seats creamy as butter. She could have loved that man, she thought, really and truly loved him. But he stayed in town only a few days, and then went on his way.

There Cronin’s just getting started, but you get the idea.

There’s been much made of the quality of Science Fiction and Fantasy, most of it pointing to the substandard presentation of story in exchange for cool space ships or monsters or worlds. Those who read those genres widely are well aware that there is plenty of what writers and publishers would call “literary” speculative fiction.

I thank Justin Cronin for listening to his then-8-year-old daughter’s suggestion that he write a book about a little girl who saves the world. And for not being afraid to utilize old vampire and dystopian post-apocalyptic tropes. You just don’t mind going over the well-worn ground because, after all is said and done, his writing carries the day.