Top Ten for 2012

It's year-end list time & I'll contribute with my top ten favorite reads of 2012. Not necessarily published this year, but discovered & loved by me since January 1, 2012. Presented in alphabetical order:

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore - Kristin Cashore is one of those authors who just works for me. Everything she writes, everything about her writing. She's the preacher, I'm the choir. I loved Graceling so much I didn't think Cashore would be able to top it -- but what makes the Seven Kingdoms books so amazing is that she didn't try to hit the same bull's eye over and over again. She built different targets and took fresh aim; Fire and Bitterblue are so different from Graceling and from one another.

Bitterblue is the most ambitious of the three; it's less perfect than Graceling, which plucked every string of my heart and left me in a swoon, but also bigger. It tackles bigger issues in a more nuanced way; it places the heroine in an impossible situation where escape is failure, and her goal is incremental change rather than success.

As an unpublished author, the story of how Bitterblue was written -- outlined with photographs in this post  -- is pretty inspiring.

The Information by James Gleik - An excellent book that shows the extent to which how we think affects what we think; that the methods of communication available to us (speaking; writing; the telegraph; the internet) mold and shape our view of the world, ourselves, everything.

This is another pet subject of mine -- I love thinking about how the medium affects the message (and the messenger), and discussions of how we offload parts of our brain onto the material world -- and this book is the best treatment of it I've run across since a favorite volume that Gleik cites in his first chapter, Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

Riveting, entertaining, thought-provoking. Give the first chapter, about African talking drums, a try. It totally hooked me.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant - Hands down the best historical romance I read this year, the best straight-up genre romance I read this year, and then, of course, just plain one of the best books I read this year. I explain why I loved it so much in my review, so I won't go over all the reasons again.

I read the second in Grant's Blackshear Family series, A Gentleman Undone, and admired it on its own but also as a companion piece to A Lady Awakened - the two books are mirror images of one another, stand-alone romances that are nonetheless more satisfying read in combination than in isolation. A good example for other romance writers who want to create series that are more than the sum of their parts.

Dirty by Megan Hart - Dirty was a revelation to me. It was the first, but not the last, erotic romance I read this year and showed me that erotic romance provides a really different set of narrative possibilities than the mainstream offerings. Dirty contains very explicit sex scenes, it's about the early stages of a relationship, and it closes on a positive note, but Dirty is pretty much never romantic.

It's darker and grittier than most romances, and even at the end the heroine's ability to trust and commit is uncertain. It's also beautifully written.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - The word that comes to mind when I think of Seraphina is sublime. This YA fantasy is set in a sort of...late-medieval/early-Renaisance world and the heroine is a musician. It's a story about the clash of cultures (dragon vs human, in this case) and all the ugliness of war and prejudice are here, in an unstable peace treaty and everyday acts of violence, but what I remember most is the exquisite, gothic-cathedral perfection of Hartman's pantheon of saints, the way Seraphina is transported by music, the joyful strangeness of her garden of grotesqueries. The prose is exquisite, too, and it contains a very lovely romance.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is one of my favorite authors, partly because every one of his books builds on his previous work in such interesting ways. I adored The Possibility of an Island and, perhaps, he couldn't get any more Houellebecquian than he did in that book with its definitive mix of brilliance and guttermouth filth, of pulp and erudition, of critique and fantasy. I call him post-individualist.

In any case, The Map and the Territory went in a different direction - he tackled the myth he's created of himself by making himself a major character & did so with, of all things, a wicked sense of humor. The book is overtly about making art, in isolation and in the spotlight, and about the experience of fame, which he seems to have finally grown comfortable with. It's amazing and thoughtful and way, way less virulently misanthropic than his earlier books (despite the fact that the main characters are still misanthropic loners).

Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon - I love a good mystery/romance series, and I loved Adrien English in particular for the dexterity of Lanyon's writing. I took a photography course back in college, long ago enough that we spent as much time learning to develop pictures in a darkroom as learning to take them. One thing my professor said that's stuck with me is that one indicator of a well-shot black and white picture is that it contains the whole range of shades from pure white to pure black. A lot of writers tend to get stuck on one side of the scale; light and funny or dark and angsty, but Lanyon's books hit every shade on the scale. As a character, the titular hero Adrien is good-natured and witty but also sensitive and frail, and Lanyon's prose can switch gears from invisible to lush at the drop of a hat.

The Adrien English books also pulled m/m (male/male) books out of the ghetto for me, which has led to a whole slew of other wonderful discoveries.

Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat - For example! Captive Prince is not a published book (yet). It is free online fiction and if I had to pick an overall favorite among the books I've read this year, it might win the top slot. It is, hands down, the best enemies-to-lovers romance I have ever read. And enemies-to-lovers is just about my favorite trope.

If you want to know why it's so great, check out this post that the author wrote for Anna Cowan & accept my assurance that the author understands tension because she executes it so perfectly in her books. Or just read Captive Prince. I think the beginning is a little rough but the first two volumes are complete and, by the end, I was book-drunk in a way that doesn't happen all that often anymore.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - Most of these books arrived on my list thanks to a home-team advantage, as it were. I was already a fan of Cashore's prose and world; of Houellebecq; of mystery/romance series; of enemies-to-lovers; of information theory. Wonder is the exception. It hits none of my buttons. I do not seek out middle-grade books. I do not like 'issue books'. And yet I loved Wonder; it made me cry happy tears and it stunned me as an authorial tour de force.

R.J. Palacio's prose is simple. The chapters are short and straightforward. Really, this is a book for kids. And yet it is ultimately so complex, so nuanced, so open-hearted and generous. It's the multiple points-of-view that made the book for me, along with how effortlessly Auggie holds center stage.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - And now we arrive at a book that didn't just push all my buttons - it mashed at them with a sledgehammer. It's an Angela Carter-esque erotic retelling of Cinderella that reimagines Cinderella as a black witch, Charming as a cursed prince, and the evil step-mother and step-sisters as cunning prostitutes. It picks up every element you remember from the Disney movie and either inverts, subverts, or perverts it.

It's perfect.