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Man, it’s been a long year. I started out with a reading goal of 60 books, enough to surpass last year’s record; since I was half way to that goal in June, I upped it to 75… and then my reading habits took a nose-dive when I picked up a new job. I still managed to read 68 books this year—a number only slightly inflated by a few graphic novels—and ended up reviewing most of them. I didn’t quite reach my second goal, but passed my first (and read 9 more books than I did last year, which was the point of the goal in the first place). So, wave Mission Accomplished banner, write year in review post, prepare to pull some more overtime to buy books I don’t have time to read in the first place.

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For 2013, I’m keeping things up in the air, but after a year heavy in ’60s-70s science fiction I’m itching to read some more thrillers, maybe a horror novel or two. The pendulum swinging back in the other direction as it were. The year is still young—well, not yet born—so we’ll see what I have time for. I’m planning on reviewing some books for Vintage SciFi Month, and have a few on my list I’m hoping to get to: Wilson Tucker’s grim 1952 apocalypse novel The Long Loud Silence, Ward Moore’s satirical 1947 apocalypse novel Greener Than You Think, and some from Singularity & Co.‘s recent ebook offerings.

My Top Five Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Reads

I read a bit more SF than anything else this year, focusing on a lot of classics (e.g. those on a lot of best-of lists) and a lot of undiscovered classics (e.g., books that used to be on best-of lists years and years ago). A huge chunk came from the ’60s and ’70s, which are decades I haven’t read nearly enough of—from authors I haven’t read nearly enough of, like Ursula LeGuin and Stanisław Lem. It was hard paring this list down to five books, from a list of several dozen qualified contenders. I’m not quite sure how I managed it.

  1. Roadside Picnic by the Brothers Strugatskii (1972, translation 2012). A mind blowing gem and true classic, detailing scattered mysterious debris from an alien landing site and the humans who salvage these artifacts. The new translation has very vivid and human characters, excellent prose, and is intimately thought-provoking. I’m still pondering through its implications.
  2. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss (1958). A band of outcasts trek through corridors of overgrown tangle—remains of a hydroponics garden run amok—seeking a mythical “control room” that will give them control of their savage world. A classic that’s both action-packed, imaginative, and thoughtful.
  3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin (1973). George Orr’s dreams re-write reality, which makes things interesting when his psychiatrist becomes power-mad and forces him to dream again and again in a vain quest for utopia, sacrificing parts of the world on behalf of its own “best interest.” Another cerebral work that’s pure genius, which is probably a theme for my favorite SF books I read this year.
  4. The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany (1967). A bizarre trek across an apocalyptic post-human world, aliens seeking answers in the rubble of humanity. Sardonic and surreal, but brilliant in its own way—perhaps too brilliant, since I feel what I took from the book is small and insignificant compared to the novel’s overall staggering brilliance.
  5. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (2010). Criminals, burdened with magical animals for their sins, become second-class citizens reviled as outcasts and loved for their mystique. One in particular searches for a missing girl the South African slums, finding a nefarious plot lurking in the underworld. Impressive and imaginative, a dark neo-noir that reinvents urban fantasy as something refreshingly original.

My Top Five Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Reads

I don’t think I read as many mysteries or thrillers as I did last year, but I did start out on some new directions. I read a half-dozen of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, loved most of them, and have another half-dozen to read. I dove into more Wade Miller, and have yet to be disappointed; I picked up more Gil Brewer, was introduced to Charles Williams, and found out that E. Howard Hunt was a damn fine author.

  1. A Touch of Death by Charles Williams (1953). Ex-football jock gets more than he bargained for when he tries to rob a widow and ends up her partner in crime. Williams keeps a lot of balls in the air, and creates tension with seeming effortless ease. An intense, slow burn.
  2. The Mugger by Ed McBain (1956). The first 87th Precinct police procedural I read, and it’s a keeper. A mugger preys on women in a New York City knockoff; it’s up to the 87th’s boys in blue to arrest him. Great dialogue and characterization sold me on the series; a well-paced plot intertwined with multiple story threads make it an engaging read.
  3. Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips (2004). The best modern noir that I’ve read, closest in tone and demeanor to the noir of old. The plot is a bit typical of the “bad girl gets help from average Joe Shmoe,” but the writing is exquisite, the dialogue razor-sharp, and the plotting fine-tuned. It’s easy to see why it won the Shamus award, and comes with a masterful cover to boot.
  4. Stolen Woman by Wade Miller (1950). I finally found some more Wade Miller novels, and they were all winners; this one sticks with me as closest to my favorite. An intricate tale of romance, deception, murder, and adultery south of the border, a chain reaction set off when its protagonist kills his mistress’s husband on accident after being discovered in her bed. Great writing and brilliant characterization in a memorable exotic setting.
  5. House Dick by E. Howard Hunt (1961). A top-shelf Shamus story by one of the Watergate burglars, set in a ritzy Washington, D.C. motel. Deception and extortion abound. Hunt was a better author than I expected, and the writing is a dream: smooth like silk and laced with bitter violence, served with plenty of twists and turns. A real winner, and I’m looking out for more of Hunt’s work.

My Bottom Five

Every up has at least one down; while the books I read this year were better on average than the ones last year—and I didn’t read as many truly terrible ones—there were still five that easily fell to the bottom of the heap for being terrible, painful, dull, uninteresting or a failed promise.

  1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005). The only stinker I read, and it’s a boring, predictable, misogynistic pile of shit; I gave up writing a review since it kept turning into a rant. The Mary-Sue protagonist sleeps with every middle-age woman he meets in the course of a locked-room murder that would have been fascinating had I not predicted it back in the prologue. And right when you think the book’s over it’s time to delve into another hundred pages of monotonous Swedish legal thriller, continuing boring parts from the sluggish opening chapters that you’ve already forgotten.  I’m lost as to why everyone and their cousin was reading this, other than hype that—on second inspection—wasn’t really there to begin with. (The reviews from professional critics I’ve read have been pretty lukewarm. This is far more accurate.) Maybe it’s because Larsson is gone that everybody loves these.
  2. The Hour of the Horde by Gordon Dickson (1970). Bog standard space opera is bog standard. Next question.
  3. The Tall Dolores by Michael Avallone (1953). Avallone has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, but I felt like most of his jokes had already been made, and were funnier the first time around—to say nothing of the generic private eye plot. Still, he’s got plenty of unique ideas, and a lot of promise, so it’s really hit or miss: others seem to like him well enough. Maybe I’m being too hard on the guy. I’ve got more of his books, and I’ll be willing to give them a shot, but his first Ed Noon novel didn’t impress me.
  4. The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner (1960). Not a terrible book, but not a good one either; it brought back fond memories of growing up watching TNT’s Monstervision creature features on late-night TV. Though to be honest those memories were more entertaining than this book; it has 3-4 brilliant moments, but is otherwise lost in its cheesy predictability.
  5. The Peddler by Richard S. Prather (1952). It’s important to make the distinction: we’re already out of the “terrible” books and into the “meh” ones. A lot of people apparently love this one, but I thought it was just a very generic crime fable about a poor kid who rises to become a criminal overlord before his inevitable downfall. I’m sure I’ve read this same tale a half-dozen times before. Lots of cardboard characters and a predictable ending surrounded by decent prose, so not all is lost.