Notable Books 2012
Every year I try to keep a list of the books I read, though I think I gave up around 150 this year. But when I was asked to compile a list of notable genre books for 2012, I was forced to revisit that list, and then scan my shelves for any entries I might have forgotten. I'm sure there are a lot, because frankly I inhale books at a much faster rate than I probably should. I read in the toilet. I read in transit. I have a degenerated disk in my neck and a permanently strained shoulder, in part because my backpack usually contains at least three books I'm working on at any given time: One or two for fun, one or two for “research.” Just to give some context, you understand.
I will also note that due to having re-read a fair deal and written even more this year, I am admittedly behind on my table-top of books marked “To Read,” which is why some of the things other people put on their End of Year lists probably aren't going to make it onto mine until 2013. That being said, however—
A lot of my reading is dictated by looking up whatever the authors I already admire have done lately. This year, that particular column was spearheaded by Robert Jackson Bennet (Mr. Shivers, The Company Man), whose third novel The Troupe manages to combine the most truly frightening faeries since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, anthropomorphized representations of the seasons and a subliminal war against the overall decay of Creation with a detailed exploration of the relationship mechanics inside a small-time 1920s vaudeville travelling theatre programme that includes a gymnastic dancer who skirts racist regulations by claiming to be a “Princess” from France, a strong-woman who may be a zombie and the conniving, mysterious man who might be our protagonist's father. Like all Bennett's work, its overall strangeness and horror is couched in curt yet beautiful language and leaves a stringent after-taste, as well as a strong sense of yearning.
Next up, there's Elizabeth Hand's long-awaited Available Dark, second of her Cass Neary “mystery” novels, a term I only put quotes around because the mysteries involved—though always fascinating—are so thematically secondary to the character journeys undertaken by Neary, a Punk photographer with a severe case of PTSD and possible psychic powers, who spends most of her time trying desperately to make some goddamn money, while simultaneously staying perversely committed to not “selling out.” Available Dark also happens to be set in Scandinavia and involves an exploration of the Black Metal scene, thus combining several things I love passionately at once; you owe it to yourself to seek-it-the-fuck-out, basically, especially if you long for more examples of centralized, difficult, self-destructive female characters bulling their way headlong through horror, with so much agency it literally hurts.
2012 also saw the release of mid-length horror fiction god Laird Barron's first novel, The Croning, which (amongst many other things, all equally unsettling) re-frames the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale as a Cthulhan nightmare. Elizabeth Bear began a brilliantly engaging new trilogy with Range of Ghosts, which sets its action in a magic-soaked fantasy-analogue version of Mongolia where horses are supporting characters rather than vaguely alive transportation methods, while Guy Gavriel Kay spun out an equally enjoyable (if heart-wrenching) T'ang Dynasty fantasia in Under Heaven, which ably mixes complex political machinations, the tidal pull of history and the overwhelming power of grief.
On the horror side of things, two neat-o British authors I'd never come into contact with before were Adam Baker, whose Outpost and Juggernaut actually manage to make the oh-so-overdone idea of survival in harsh environments infested by sort-of-zombies fun again, and Tom Fletcher, whose The Leaping and The Thing on the Shore alternately put a nu-millennialist spin on the werewolf legend and run the Cthulhan mind-invasion trope through a framework that's equal parts free will-destroying call centre work vs. its protagonists' Internet-addicted yearning to live life as an avatar or multi-platform RPG character. Baker's style is streamlined to the point of being a series of thinly veiled screenplay haiku, while Fletcher constantly branches off into unexpected directions, riffing sensorily from odd angles in a way I don't think I've seen since such classic Ramsey Campbell books as The Nameless or The Doll Who Ate His Mother. Both are well worth further notice.
Again from the department of People I Follow: I was extremely happy to note that old-school horror writer F.G. Cottam, whose last three books I was forced to order directly from the U.K., has joined Baker at Hodder & Stoughton, which has a distribution deal that puts him into Chapters-Indigos everywhere. Similarly, Jonathan L. Howard has apparently finally signed a North American reprint contract for his hilariously black Johannes Cabal series (emblematic quote: “Cabal smiled, technically.”), chronicling the adventures of a turn-of-the-century Mitteleuropaean Re-Animator clone whose lack of emotional affect is only exceeded by his skill at his craft and his utter imperturbability—the first book in the series, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, begins with him marching into Hell to demand he be released from a contract in which he sold his soul to the Devil, because he didn't get what he wanted out of it; Satan sets him a wager, he takes it, shenanigans ensue. The others are similar, except with more airships and Lovecraft jokes.
In terms of genre-skirting historical fiction, I had a lot of fun reading Sarah Poole's now-complete series of mysteries built around the character of Francesca Giordano, Cardinal-turned-Pope Rodrigo Borgia's in-house poisoner (Poison, The Borgia Mistress and The Borgia Betrayal). I was also blown away by Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham, set in the pre-Gangs of New York Five Points millieu (and twenty years before BBC America's Copper TV show), in which bartender Timothy Wilde, disfigured and homeless after the Great Fire of 1845, is forced to become a policeman, almost immediately stumbling across a far-reaching conspiracy disguised as a series of child-murders. Reminiscent of Caleb Carr's The Alienist, it's a fast-moving cornucopia of human nastiness that deserves a sequel, stat.
Potential accusations of favouritism aside, I really would feel remiss if I decided to not mention some of the truly outstanding books published in 2012 by CZP itself—novels The Steel Seraglio by Mike, Linda and Louise Carey (addictive and mesmerizing), Rasputin's Bastards by David Nickle (universally mind-bending), Picking Up the Ghost by Tone Milazzo (inclusive and trope-breaking) and The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet (poetic, fatalistic, haunting), as well as single-author collections by inventively far-ranging Ontario fabulist Ian Rogers (Every House is Haunted), Gothically intense Mediaevalist-poet Helen Marshall (Hair Side, Flesh Side) and the deceptively-mild/amusing Robert Shearman (Remember Why You Fear Me). To deny that these guys have great taste which happens to coincide rather neatly with my own interests would be as stupid as to claim I haven't profited by it thus far, so . . . there ya go.
Similarly, I was also impressed by my friend Leah Bobet's debut book Above, a YA Fantasy which turns Toronto the Good into a secret home for not-exactly-monsters—a boy with lion-feet, a sanguikinetic of indeterminate gender, a mentally ill girl who turns into a bee under pressure—and wrings the Beauty & the Beast TV show model out 'til it turns both surprisingly realistic and dangerously political. And the roster of great first novels by people I sometimes hang with is completed with Madeline Ashby's Vn, a powerhouse meditation on AI and its discontents that applies a ruthless Hard SF framework to the often-hoary anime-inspired image of One Robot Girl Against the World, couching it in language so emotionally vivid I didn't even care whenever my non-SF brain disconnected far enough that I lost track of what exactly was happening where/to whom and/why.
Other stuff I liked included: The collections Through Splintered Walls, by Kaaron Warren, and A Pretty Mouth, by Molly Tanzer, two equally unremitting imagineers; Australian witchcraft thriller The Dead Path, by Stephen M. Irwin, and Ontario ghost story The Guardians, by Andrew Pyper; all-but-indescribable queer eco-fantasy Green Thumb, by Tom Cardamone; the absolutely amazing Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, which mixes djinn-aided magical hacking with current Middle Eastern politics, managing to be consistently smart, acerbic and quotable throughout (“You have Internet here [in the Empty Quarter]?” “Brother, we have Wi-Fi!”); Appalachian memory-piece Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sharon Holman, which frames taking your skin off and practicing magic at night as a feminist act; much-lauded girl geek love-letter to one person's formative SFF canon Among Others, by Jo Walton; A Season in Carcosa, edited by Joseph S. Pulver, which allows an incredibly diverse group of authors—myself included—the opportunity to play around with Robert W. Chambers' intentionally indefinite Mythos however we see fit; and Nevermore: A Book of Hours, poetry by naturalist David Day, which turns his laments for various extinct species into polished slices of extraordinary sad beauty.
Overall, however, I think my favourite book of 2012 was Caitlín R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl. Once more, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll point out that I'm cited in the acknowledgments at the end, along with many other people—but the plain fact is, this book is a really staggering achievement, all the more admirable for being (in hindsight) only tangentially any sort of supernatural tale. Spun from the point of view of the ultimate unreliable narrator, it has difficult and true things to say about madness, creativity, sexuality, gender constructs and what it means to be a member of the United States' ever-increasing invisible class: People who fall beneath the radar, living—uninsured and uncared-for, ignored and unremarked-on, at the very outskirts of a social construct that seems designed to keep them marginalized—from cheque to cheque, job to job, relationship to relationship. Never has that old Neil Gaiman quote about Kiernan being the “poet and the bard of the wasted and the lost” been more directly applicable, without even the comforting distance of overt genre to separate us from an absolutely devastating portrait of what it's like to see through the eyes of a person for whom reality is an entirely negotiable concept.
Stuff I'm specifically looking forward to in 2013 includes Adam Nevill's latest, Last Days, and John Connolly's next Charlie Parker novel. Otherwise, I'm up for pretty much whatever comes my way . . . especially once that table-top has been cleared off.
Happy New Year, everybody.