Top Ten Books of 2009

Time for my seventh annual list of what I consider to be the top ten best books of the year. These are books that I enjoyed, and that I think my readership will enjoy. They are one man’s opinions. Your mileage may vary. I’ve been told by authors and booksellers that my list helps their sales. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if so, then cool.

The rules are fairly simple. The edition of the book or graphic novel listed here must have been published during the year for which it is being considered. (For example, I recently read an advance review copy of Norman Partridge’s Lesser Demons. It is a wonderful short story collection, and the title story is worth the price alone. It would be on this list, except that it won’t be published until next year. The same goes for Robert R. McCammon’s Mister Slaughter.) Also, if I contributed in any way to a particular book (be it an introduction, afterword, etc.) then it is disqualified from the list (if this weren’t the case, Nate Southard’s Broken Skin would be in this year’s Top Ten).

A note on nepotism. Every year, one or two pinheads will cry, “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” Well, if that was true, then the entire list would be suspect. After working within the genre for over a decade, I pretty much know everybody. Publishing is a deceptively small community. Suffice to say, nepotism plays no part in this list. I read many books by many close friends this year that won’t make the list.

I read 246 books in 2009. That’s pretty close to my yearly average. 2008 was my worst year, given that, since we had a newborn baby in the house, I only had time to read 120 books. You can peruse all of the books I read in 2009 by clicking here and then clicking the ‘Read In 2009′ tag near the top of the page. This year’s list was very difficult to compile. Publishing may be undergoing an apocalypse, but the quality of published works has certainly improved. I had trouble resisting the urge to turn this into a Top Twenty, rather than a Top Ten. Suffice to say, there are many excellent works that, while they didn’t make the top ten, are certainly deserving of a read.

And so, without further ado, the Top Ten Books of 2009:

1. DROOD by Dan Simmons – Although those of us who’ve yearned for a good doorstop-sized novel have reason to rejoice this year, Drood might seem intimidating to a generation of readers weaned on quick, flash entertainment–at least at first glance. Put your fears aside. Drood is a thoroughly engrossing read that, despite its size, is over far too quickly. Narrated by Wilkie Collins, Drood is the story behind the story of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In the aftermath of a grisly train crash, Dickens encounters a seemingly supernatural being that will soon alter his life drastically. Dickens’ obsession becomes Collins’ obsession as well, and their individual quests for the truth take the reader on a twisting ride, that will leave you guessing. Is he Jack the Ripper? Dracula, perhaps? A resurrected Egyptian pharaoh? A figment of the imagination? Something else? The prose is rich and textured, as are the settings and characterizations. Simmons does a remarkable job of capturing the era in which it takes place. This slow build drips with atmosphere, and the tension rises with each subsequent chapter. A masterful, mature work by a masterful, mature writer. I didn’t think Simmons could ever top The Terror, but he has. Read this!

2. BAD THINGS by Michael MarshallBad Things has all of the things you’ve come to expect from a Michael Marshall novel – a hybrid mix of crime and the supernatural (what some call dark crime), heartfelt characterization, bits of humor in unexpected places, a Pacific Northwest setting, changing narrative points of view, and an unexpected ending that hits you like a speeding tractor trailer. A stand-alone from the popular Straw Men trilogy, Bad Things is a dark, sinister tale about a father whose life has fallen apart after the death of his son. Except that his son may not be dead after all. A seamless blend of suspense and rustic witchcraft, Bad Things is Kiss the Girls meets The Blair Witch Project (actually, such a description does it injustice, but I’m currently working on something for some television people, and my mind is stuck in Hollywood pitch mode).

3. DEPRAVED by Bryan Smith – Pulp horror fun at its absolute finest, Depraved is a fine example of just how much Bryan Smith’s prose has evolved since his debut novel, House of Blood. He’s grown as a writer, found his voice, and is much more comfortable now, and it shows. My God, does it show. Depraved starts out like every pulp horror novel or slasher flick of the last two decades — and then Smith flips the script, rolls the script up, smokes it, and punches you in the face. But he’s doing it with a grin, and by the end of the novel, you’ll be grinning, too. Depraved is Richard Laymon’s The Woods Are Dark and Jack Ketchum’s Off Season thrown in a blender with just a dash of bizarro and then turned up to eleven. If you haven’t read Bryan Smith, start here. If you read him and didn’t think he was for you, try again with this novel.

4. NORTHLANDERS Vol. 2: THE CROSS AND THE HAMMER by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly – Don’t let the fact that this is volume 2 dissuade you. Northlanders: The Cross and the Hammer is a stand-alone tale that can be read with no knowledge of the other volumes in this series. Set in A.D. 1014 Ireland, this graphic novel tells the story of Magnus , a lone nomad who launches a vicious, bloody one-man insurgency against the Norsemen occupying his country. He fights not for freedom or his fellow countrymen, but for something far more noble — his young daughter, Brigid. But there’s a twist. That’s TWIST with big fucking capital letters. The ending is worthy of the best of Alfred Hitchcock,Rod Serling and M. Night Shyamalan — a punch to the gut that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

5. THE LITTLE SLEEP by Paul G. Tremblay – I raved about The Little Sleep earlier in the year, so it should come as no surprise that this novel, featuring crime fiction’s first narcoleptic detective, makes the list. As I said before, The Little Sleep is fresh, original and extremely entertaining. It owes a lot to Raymond Chandler, but Tremblay’s voice is his own — and what a voice it is. If you read it already, re-read it before next year’s follow-up.

6. APESHIT by Carlton Mellick III – If there has ever been a more apt title for a novel, I don’t know what it is. Apeshit is Carlton Mellick’s absolutely ape-shit bizarro homage to the 80’s slasher genre. It has all the trappings. A carload of surplus, expendable teenagers. A remote, backwoods cabin. Strange local inhabitants. A killer lurking in the woods. But these tropes are soon vivisected, examined and then sewn together into new things, as the best fiction of the bizarro genre often does. Hilarious, insightful and absolutely over-the-fucking-top, Apeshit will appeal to both traditional slasher fans and readers who want something a bit heavier. Plus, the scene with the girl who uses her own intestines as a rope is the grisliest – and funniest – thing I’ve read all year.

7. SHADOW SEASON by Tom Piccirilli – Like Michael Marshall, Piccirilli is skilled at writing dark crime (which seems like a natural progression, given that many of his previous works were in the horror or crime genres). While Shadow Season has no overt supernatural occurrences, there is a sinister, creepy undertone running throughout the book that will certainly leave the reader squirming. Unconnected to Piccirilli’s previous dark crime novels, Shadow Season tells the story of a blind college professor whose dark and mysterious past may have come back to haunt him — just as a blizzard leaves him and a handful of staff and students snowed in. Piccirilli’s prose is as poetic as ever, and he does a remarkable job of “seeing” through the main character’s eyes.

8. JOHNNY CASH: I SEE A DARKNESS by Reinhard Kleist – If (like me) you saw Walk the Line and were dissatisfied with the film’s ending, then this graphic novel is the book for you. Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness is the first and only authorized graphic novel biography of the man in black. It touches on many of the same things from Walk the Line — Cash’s childhood, his time in the military, his first marriage, meeting June, the Folsom Prison concert, his struggles with drugs and alcohol, etc. But it succeeds over the film because Kleist understands that the best part of Johnny Cash’s life story was the second half — the things that happened after he found redemption. And that is where this book shines; its depictions of his time with Rick Rubin, etc. are haunting and melancholy, yet ultimately triumphant, much like Johnny Cash himself. And that’s a story that will appeal to everyone, regardless of whether or not they are a fan of the Man in Black.

9. THE RESURRECTIONIST by Wrath James White – Wrath James White is often compared to Edward Lee, and indeed, when it comes to pure gross-out, White and Lee are in a class all their own. But while Lee’s stories are often delivered with amischievous grin and a knowing wink, White’s are played straight. In lesser hands, that would probably be a disastrous mix, resulting in nothing more than a list of atrocities and gore. But White is deft at building characters you care about, and when things get bloody (and trust me, there are gallons of blood) the gore is delivered in an an eloquent, poetic fashionreminiscent of Charlee Jacob or Poppy Z. Brite. The Resurrectionist is a perfect example of this style. The novel tells the story of a serial killer who has the ability to bring his victims back to life, so that he can murder them again and again and again. It is an uncomfortable, enthralling read.

10. YOU MIGHT SLEEP by Nick Mamatas – Characterization has always been one of Mamatas’ strongest skills (see my review of Under My Roof), and this new short story collection is populated with a number of unforgettable characters both real and imagined — Joey Ramone, Edgar Allan Poe, Joan of Arc (who has a Blog), a busboy who can kill people with just a glance, and an office temp who plots a revolution. A wonderfully-chaotic and quirky mix of science-fiction, horror, fantasy, humor, politics and social commentary, You Might Sleep offers something for everyone, regardless of your tastes in fiction.

So there you have it. As I said at the beginning, this was a great year for reading, and this could have easily turned into a top twenty or thirty list. Indeed, had I kept going, here would have been numbers eleven through fifteen:

Honorable Mentions:


PRIMITIVE by J. F. Gonzalez

BARFODDER by Rain Graves

NECROPOLIS by John Urbancik


Also, you can post your own list here in the comments or on this thread at The Keenedom.

13 thoughts on “Top Ten Books of 2009

  1. Kevin Lucia

    Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” is the first of his I’ve ever read, and it was awesome. Fabulous characterization, and the pace never let up. Ever. “Drood” will be bought this week, for sure, because Dan Simmons is one of my favorites, and “The Resurrectionist”? I’m only halfway through, but thanks to Wrath I’m now horribly afraid of skinny weirdos moving in next door to me, and I’m going out to buy awful-looking, horrible paisley bed-sheets JUST IN CASE. Wonderful. ;)

  2. Paul

    No Broken Skin? I’m surprised and disappointed. I haven’t read everything on the list, but it (for example) blew Primitive out of the water. Ah well, no subjective list is ever going to be perfect and please everyone.

  3. Brian

    Paul, you must have missed the entire second paragraph that says, “Also, if I contributed in any way to a particular book (be it an introduction, afterword, etc.) then it is disqualified from the list (if this weren’t the case, Nate Southard’s Broken Skin would be in this year’s Top Ten).”

    Unless your comment was meant as a joke?

  4. Theresa Distelrath

    One of my favorite books besides anything written by Brian Keene is As the World Dies Siege (book 3) by Rhiannon Frater. An awsome book with some kick *** female lead characters battling zombies. A definite must read!

  5. Jamie

    I was surprised that my favorite book this year was a short story collection by R. Thomas Riley, The Monster Within Idea. and if my brother doesn’t get it back to me I am going to have to kick his ass in front of his kids.

  6. paul

    Brian: Yes, actually, I did miss that, thanks for pointing it out. The scroll wheel on my mouse kind of of flicks down in big clicks; I’m assuming it went two clicks and scrolled me past that paragraph. I’m breathing a sigh of relief now–your past lists have been pretty solid, I’m glad to see there’s an explanation for such a sore-thumb omission.

    And thanks for resisting the urge to outright call me an idiot (even though I deserved it :P). I’ll be sure to tell my avid reader friends that Brian Keene is one cool cat.

  7. Brian Russell

    If you guys get a chance you need to read Berserk by Time Lebbon. This book is awesome I can’t put it down.

  8. James Watkins

    If your looking for a good horror novel you should check out Tim Curran’s hardcover Resurrection… was great and at 666 pages a very quick read


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