Friday, December 28, 2012

Best Fiction I Read in 2012

I've been distracted by many things, including having a new puppy this fall, and haven't done too many book reviews.  To make up for it, I wanted to list my favorite reads of 2012.  Everyone does a best list at the end of the year, but these books aren't necessarily newly published, just what I enjoyed reading this year.


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel This is the 2012 geek equivalent of Ready Player One; anyone who loves computers, software, books, and bookstores will want to read this novel ASAP. Imagine a cult centered around a bookstore, a puzzling mystery that has lasted for centuries, a sort-of "DaVinci Code" for geeks. Penumbra's bookstore is located in San Francisco's North Beach, where the narrator, Clay, goes to work after losing his high tech job. Clay works the late night shift and at first just sells one or two books, but then he comes across some unique "members" of the bookstore who come in for very strange tomes. This all leads Clay down the well of mystery into the contents of the books and cracking the code surrounding them.

I think after a while I will totally forget the mystery of the bookstore, but I won't forget the characters or situations. Clay's girlfriend Kat works at Google and helps him with the power of Google's virtual servers, Hadoop parallel processing, etc. Kat's view of the world is unique and I love the scene where Kat helps Clay use the powerful book scanner. Clay also has a friend in the startup scene, Neel, who has created animation software for specific body parts (of Scarlett Johansen) and his roommate Mat, who works at Industrial Light & Magic. Sloan captures all these quirky bay area personalities wonderfully. No idea if all the Google stuff is true but it is fun to think that they really work on the Singularity & extending our life spans.

Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files Anticipating a new Dresden novel is on par with waiting for LOST, Harry Potter, etc. I inhaled the first few chapters, which starts right where Changes left off. Harry learns to adapt to his new mantle as the Winter Knight, which is great fun reading about him adapting to the denizens of the Winter Court while quoting Spider-Man and making Star Wars references. We also learn more about the entity of the island known as DemonReach, the secret of the island is revealed and it is a much better secret than the island of LOST. :-)

I can't really add anymore to the reviews already posted, but I absolutely loved it and can't wait for the next book. If anything, this book makes you want to re-read all the Dresden novels to date. While each book stands alone, this book refers to events all the way back to the first novel, and many background characters have grown quite a bit since their first appearance.

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie I liked this book much better than The Heroes but not as much as the First Law trilogy or Best Served Cold. The inspiration for this book are countless Western movies. Shy South is the main character, her two siblings are kidnapped, and just like in the John Wayne movie The Searchers, Shy and her father-figure Lamb go on a journey to find them. Lamb is a Northman, one who was in the First Law trilogy, if you read that you will figure out who he is quickly. Cosca the Mercenary is in this tale too, but a larger focus is given to Temple, his lawyer who works out contracts with the Union. Cosca's team is rooting out revolutionaries for the Union, burning and pillaging towns as they travel through. While Shy, Lamb, Temple, Cosca are all appealing characters, sometimes the plot wanders for me during the "wagon train" scenes as a caravan of gold seekers moves through the country while avoiding Ghosts (Indians). But it is a must read for Abercrombie fans and some of the action scenes involving Lamb are memorable.

Replay by Ken Grimwood. This novel was a World Fantasy Best Novel winner in 1988 and one of the most romantic and life-affirming fantasy novels I've ever read. Why isn't this book as popular as Time Traveler's Wife? I think anyone usually thinks of alternative decisions they could have made in the past. What if I had studied something else, what if I had gone out with that girl, what if I had done better at business? After he collapses from a stroke at work, Jeff gets a shot at all of those alternatives and more as his life replays over and over again. You can find parts of Groundhog Day and Back to the Future II here, but the book was written before either of those films. Jeff, with his knowledge of the future, has no problem becoming rich but does have romantic problems. He tries to make contact with his first wife as a teenager, but with Jeff's 45-year old mind, he comes off like a lunatic. Eventually he meets other women, one of them who becomes his match throughout his predicament.

I cannot believe I never heard of Replay (or Ken Grimwood) until I saw it on Ernest Cline's life of 10 best SF books.

Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 1) I was totally blown away by this collection, featuring the early Elric stories by Moorcock and then topped off by the novel Stormbringer. Previously I had been exposed to Elric in comics and graphic novels from Marvel and First Comics. Nothing could match how inventive the character or the world that Moorcock created in prose form. In the very first story, "The Dreaming City", Elric is practically the villain of the story, leading an attack on his own homeland to rescue his beloved. After that, Elric roams the Earth seeking wealth, truth, love, etc. In truth he is a bit of a sorcerous rebel, an angry young man lashing out against wizards and warriors the way young men rebelled against authority in the 1960s. His mighty blade Stormbringer, which consumes the souls of whoever it kills, has a mind of its own and is liable to kill Elric's friends as well as his enemies.

The novel Stormbringer had a conclusion that left my jaw on the floor. I had known, roughly, what happened to Elric's world at the end, because many articles on sword and sorcery mentioned it. But that spoiler alone didn't convey how operatic and poetic the final fate of Elric becomes at the end. I loved Robert E Howard's Conan as a character but always longed for a fantasy character with deeper thoughts and perhaps a deeper meaning to the entire story.  The rest of this volume is packed with great content. Alan Moore writes a nifty introduction. The original introductions to each story from Science Fantasy magazine are included, too, as well as letters, correspondence, maps, etc.

My only problem now is that I have read the final fate of Elric, I don't know if I can read any of the later stories--which are all prequels?

Gone Girl: A Novel Gillian Flynn is really good at examining a marriage from both a male and female perspective. After the novel starts and Amy is found missing, layers and layers of the onion that is her marriage to Nick unravels. Two unique first person narrators each telling their side of the story. Just at the point when I thought this book would devolve into a series of Nancy Grace episodes, there were some big twists in the story. When I hit that spot, I was pretty much glued to my chair one weekend day to finish the novel.

I can see this being made into a movie, but I would hope the Coen brothers would grab the rights!

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford Outstanding crime fiction, originally published in 1991. Do you think Stephen King has a wicked imagination? No, Sandford knows true terror by telling crime fiction tales of serial killers like Bekker, a doctor obsessed with death, how people die, want happens at the moment they leave.  Bekker snares another fellow to help him kill his wife and he almost pulls off the perfect crime.  I like how these books are structured. One chapter follows the killer and the next chapter follows the detective Lucas Davenport. There's continuity going on here, too, Lucas is deeply depressed over the events in the last book Shadow Prey. Bekker is a fine opponent for Davenport, who becomes even more unraveled by chasing him. Riveting.  To get the full payoff, you need to read all the Davenport books in order.

I think detective fiction was easier to write when the internet, cell phones, and whole digital ecosystem didn't exist.  When Davenport wants to receive a phone call he needs to either be at home or check his tape recorder.  It's easier for a criminal to produce an alibi when he isn't tracked by the GPS on his cell phone.  I wonder how Sandford evolves these novels into the present day?  I also wonder how people born after the 1990s can understand such a world without all the gadgets.  Was it like me reading Charles Dickens when I was young?

Those were my highlights for fiction reading in 2012.  I also quite enjoyed The Coldest War which I previously reviewed.  Feel free to follow my reading activity over at GoodReads.  Nuff Said!

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore sounds interesting enough to put on my Amazon wish list...


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