Monday, December 27, 2010

Honor Roll, 2010!

Even so, 700-something is a big number. As vituperative and well-meaning as these 'Top 10'-style lists are, they can only cover so much ground - a great many titles I loved in 2010 are inevitably left out. I read a small pile of paperback romance novels, for instance, and an equally-big pile of murder mysteries. This was a very good year for military history, and a very bad year for Star Trek fiction - and I read a lot of both. Even with both Stevereads and Open Letters Monthly as regular outlets, there's just no way to cover it all while still tending to my basset hound full-time. So just like last year, I'm offering these few additional books as a Stevereads Honor Roll - they're all really really good, they all deserve your money and your attention!


Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz - this panoramic novel about a handsome young working-class Jewish boy from Philadelphia and his rise to the heady world of Manhattan's moneyed elite is remarkable for many things, but what struck me most was its texture - it's one of those fictional narratives stretched over many decades that really conveys a sense of the time passing in the story. The main character is by far the most interesting part of the novel, but even so the story wouldn't get far without Pomerantz's sure-footed knowledge of what makes a good story. I was disappointed that more people didn't try this book.

Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari - Two feckless Americans decide to take a side-trip to Taiwan's Taroko Gorge and encounter a trio of Japanese schoolgirls who've likewise taken a side-trip away from their visiting school group. When they go missing, this slim, vastly readable debut novel takes off. Ritari's characters are all memorable individuals, even the students in all their vapidity. The point of view shifts all throughout the novel, but Ritari's control of what he's doing is never in doubt, and the climax of the thing is refreshingly well-0rchestrated.

King, Ship and Sword by Dewey Lambdin - Ive praised Lambdin's ongoing chronicle of the adventures of his rascally main character Alan Lewrie before (maybe even here at Stevereads - I'll have to check), and it's no slight to this slam-bang thrill-ride of a novel to say it's no different from its predecessors. Peace has broken out between England and France, which throws Captain Lewrie on his own considerable resources for a while, but the plot's twists and turns are twisted one extra time when the war resumes and Lewrie is given a fighting command. Thrills abound, and they're all the more delectable since Lewrie shares none of Hornblower's honor nor Jack Aubrey's scruples.

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman - this dark fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy, for no discernible reason) owes more than a few debts to Gene Wolfe - and repays them amply by being so grabbingly good on its own merits. It's the story of 16-year-old Cale and his friends, who escape from the grim Sanctuary of the Keepers and find themselves embroiled in the ferment of a coming war. The action sequences are low-key and memorably intense, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting more. I thought this was a fairly weak year for fantasy and science fiction, but I'm fairly certain this novel would have stood out even in a strong year.


Nesting Season by Bernd Heinrich - Any book by this author is a cause for celebration, and this one follows the splendid pattern he himself established with such classics as Ravens in Winter. This is a long, personal, fact-filled, utterly captivating study of the mating and nesting habits of birds, and woven throughout its many examples is Heinrich's valiant call for a change in the way we think about the wildlife we study, a questioning of whether or not the strident anti-anthropomorphizing stance of a century ago is all that wise or does all that much justice to the commonality of living things.

The Lost Peace by Robert Dallek - This was one of the most thought-provoking works of history I read this year, a book bursting with new readings of familiar events in postwar 20th century. Dallek's fascinating insights into how virtually all the world leaders blundered into the aftermath of the Second World War certainly wouldn't play as a Tom Hanks movie: it's his contention that the best chances the world had for lasting peace were squandered by Western powers hell-bent on fighting the war they'd just won. Again, I was disappointed by how little attention readers paid.  Every serious student of history should read this book.

Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott - The apocalyptic Battle of the Somme, with tens of thousands of casualties happening in a single afternoon, has long been a used as a symbol of war's utter futility and waste. Philpott challenges that characterization - holding that the Somme, however bloody, deserves to be remembered as a victory for the Allied powers - and he does it in the best way a historian can: with masterfully assembled facts and a very winning prose style. Books on the Somme are incredibly numerous, but Philpott here has managed a rarity: he's written one that's indispensable.

Habeas Corpus by Paul Halliday - I'm a big fan of legal history and constitutional scholarship, but to put it mildly, this book towers over its competition. As an examination of its core principle - that people accused of crimes have a basic legal right not to resist simply disappearing under the weight of those charges - this book is the best of its kind ever done, but its merits go well beyond that. The crystalline quality of Halliday's prose sneaks up on you, and the quiet work he's done to make his prodigious research amicably readable is everywhere apparent. This is the kind of magnum opus most authors deliver only once in their careers - I'm hoping that isn't the case here! I enjoyed this book far too much for it to be one of a kind!

Teen Fiction

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins - a breezy and quite funny episodic account of 16-year-old Ry's various misadventures on his way to camp, this is a spirited teen version of life being one damn thing after another.

A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker - the improbably-named Walker crafts a wonderful, warmly inclusive story out of those dumb fake-marriage exercises that used to be popular in some high school civics courses. She has the requisite spunky heroine, cool jock, and unlikely romantic interest, but she infuses it all with a more palpable tinge of nostalgia than you usually find in teen novels. It's a winning combination.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride - Main character Sam is an ordinary young college drop-out killing time and hanging out with his friends when one day he learns that he has the potential to be a Necromancer, a sordid class of sorcerer capable of communing with the dead.  Sam is no happier about this revelation than are Seattle's other Necromancers, and a fast-paced, funny, and ultimately oddly charming plot quickly develops. I expected the titillation and teen-speak (although I didn't see either done better in 2010 than here), but what surprised me about this book was its fine ear for the various meanings of friendship. Much like its main character, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer has some interesting depths underneath its too-cool-for-school exterior.

Great Moment in Comics
And we'll end things with a bang here as Stevereads signs off for 2010! The best payoff scene for me in any comic this year happened at the conclusion of Marvel's violent, problematic, and ultimately kinda-sorta uplifting mini-series "Siege." Some of you will know the story behind this moment: psychopath Norman Osborn, decked out in super-powered armor and calling himself "Iron Patriot," has finagled his way into control of S.H.I.E.L.D., the US government's most powerful covert paramilitary organization. And after months in control, Osborn's old megalomania has begun to reassert itself, and he's decided to dispense with that 'covert' part of his job description in the most dramatic way imaginable: by leading an armed assault on the mystical city of Asgard, which at the moment is hovering over Broxton, Oklahoma (it's a long story, of course). Osborn leads his super-powered shock troops in an all-out attack, and the city is defended not only by a whole mead-hall of ticked of Norse gods but also by Thor and the Avengers.

The fight seems to be going badly for the good guys when suddenly one of Osborn's lieutenants warns him to look up. He does, and somehow artist Oliver Coipel manages to work arrogance into the inexpressive lines of  "Iron Patriot"'s armor. At first, we see nothing:

Then in a delightful quick sequence of panels, we see what's coming: the best, most satisfying reinforcement the good guys could ever get:

Watching that sequence unfold, you just known that when Captain America's shield finally hits its target, Norman Osborn's reign of terror in the Marvel Universe is about to come to an end.

Another thing coming to an end this time around (though hopefully not a reign of terror! Ulp ... walked right into that one, didn't I?) is Stevereads for 2010, but I couldn't sign off without extending my thanks once again to my dear darling colleagues at Open Letters Monthly for giving the autobiography of my reading a new home on the Internet, to all my readers far and near, and to all the dogged members of the Silent Majority who let me know that despite the bleak and empty wasteland of my Comments fields, my play here is read and appreciated. 2010 was an extremely odd and awful year for me - sudden and prolonged homelessness will take the starch out of anybody's collar - and I can honestly say Stevereads played a big part in keeping me tethered to the dock. And that was because of you readers - so my deepest thanks. See you all on the other side.


Thom said...

Will there be dishonorable mentions for 2010?

PatD said...

Top Ten Historical Fiction?

I ordered the Lambdin and McBride based solely on your say-so, Steve.

Sam said...

What a great coda to the year. Stevereads has been one of the most pleasurable constants of my year, too. Thanks immensely for that! I look forward for more of everything and anything new in 2011.