Time for my ninth annual list of what I consider to be the top ten best books of the year. These are books 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, publishers, and booksellers that my list helps their sales, which means you guys are buying things based on my recommendation. So here we go.
The rules are fairly simple. Rule #1: The edition of the book listed here must have been published during the year for which it is being considered. Rule #2: If I contributed to a book (be it an introduction, afterword, my Maelstrom imprint, etc.) then it is disqualified from the list. Cover blurbs do not apply to rule #2. Every year, someone says, “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” If that was true, then there would be no point in doing a Top Ten list. After working within the genre for almost 15 years, I 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.
And now, the Top Ten Books of 2011…
Ostensibly a tale about a high school English teacher traveling back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination and thus, prevent other world events like the Vietnam War, 11/22/63 is really a story about love — true love, lost love, and unrequited love. It is a book about soul mates. It is also one of the best books of King’s distinguished and varied career, narrowly edged out by only (in my opinion) his magnum opus The Stand. A poignant, wistful examination of not only our parent’s generation, but our generation, as well — 11/22/63 features some surprising and unexpected twists (including a return to IT’s Derry), a few moments of sheer terror, and King’s most heartbreaking ending since Pet Sematary or Cujo. If you have ever loved someone with all of your heart and all of your passion, only to have that love torn asunder and taken away by forces beyond your control, then fair warning — this book will do the same to your soul. An absolute knock-out punch, and one that had me sobbing in honest-to-God tears. Buy it here.
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs, Night Shade Books, Paperback and Kindle
This debut novel from John Hornor Jacobs combines three of my favorite things: H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, the Blues legend of Robert Johnson, and the hard-boiled detective story. It results in a compulsive read that is in equal parts mesmerizing, touching, funny, and absolutely horrific in the most glorious, pulpiest sense of the word. Effectively utilizing those three elements in a historical-fiction novel would be a difficult task for even a veteran writer, but Jacobs does a masterful job with it in his first book-length work. There are a few slight stumbles, indicative of any first novel, but they are easily overlooked and forgivable, because the overall book is simply magnificent. Indeed, if Southern Gods is any indication (and I believe it is) then we may very well be looking at the bona fide Next Big Name In Horror. Which would be fine, except that I suspect Jacobs can easily expand beyond the trappings of the genre. Whatever he chooses to write next, I can’t wait to read it. You shouldn’t wait either. Congrats, Mr. Jacobs. Welcome to the party. Buy it here.
After the Burn harkens back to the glory days of 1980′s post-apocalyptic horror and science-fiction. You know the type of story I’m talking about. Earth has been radically altered in the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon, and the survivors must struggle against all manner of mutants and monstrosities. From Mel Gibson’s Mad Max to Joe R. Lansdale’s “Tight Little Stitches In A Dead Man’s Back”, I love those type of tales. They fill me with a gleeful sense of fun that I rarely get from other forms of fiction. Maybe that’s a result of growing up in the 70′s and 80′s, when nuclear war was a distinct possibility, and playing Mad Max, rather than Cowboys. All I know is that since the end of the Cold War, it’s been hard to find good post-apocalyptic survivalist fiction that isn’t either a) zombie or b) a neo-conservative wank book. Kelly’s After the Burn is neither. What it is, is a ton of fucking fun, and the perfect whimsical escape during your lunch hour or the end of the day. Buy the Kindle edition here (the hardcover is long sold-out).
The nepotism criers (mentioned above) will point out that Argento writes for the same newspaper I used to freelance for, and occasionally plays in a band with my brother-in-law (Case 150′s Ken Geist), but the nepotism criers can suck it, because Don’t Be Cruel is an off-the-wall, insanely fun bizarro crime-thriller that reads like what you’d get if you put Joe R. Lansdale, Dwayne Swierczynski, Dave Barry, Ray Banks, Carlton Mellick, Quentin Tarantino, and Bill Hicks together in a blender. A brilliant, satirical look at the same Pennsylvania small towns I examine in my own fiction — except that Argento might even be crueler than me. As I said in my cover blurb, “Bizarre, clever, and full of pitch black humor, DON’T BE CRUEL is one hell of a debut novel! Argento’s voice, prose, and wit are sharp as razors. Highly recommended!” And I meant it. Buy it here. (Oh, and speaking of Joe Lansdale…)
Joe R. Lansdale is a writer’s writer and a man’s man, and his works generally do not come to whistle ‘Dixie’ or fuck around. There is always a dark savagery lurking just beneath the surface, no matter how whimsical the tale. The best Lansdale books feel dangerous in your hands, and even some of the more comical bents (like some of the Hap & Leonard series or The Drive-In series) have poignant, touching, moments — as well as that aforementioned danger and savagery. So it should come as no surprise that this young adult novel is no exception. Don’t let the fact that it’s written for and marketed to teens fool you. This is prime Lansdale, albeit the work of a more mature, measured author whose muse and style have grown as he has grown (quite like the more recent work of Stephen King, F. Paul Wilson, and Gene O’Neill). There are echoes of Steinbeck and Twain in this Dust Bowl coming-of-age novel set during the Great Depression, but the characters, dialogue, passion, energy, and by-God-story are pure unadulterated Lansdale. I don’t know about you, but for me, reading doesn’t get any better than that. (There are also thematic echoes of Lansdale’s own The Magic Wagon and “White Mule, Spotted Pig”, and for me, that just makes it all the better). Buy it here.
The German is a sharp, unsettling crime-thriller set against the backdrop of World War II. The protagonist, Ernst Lang, is a former member of the Nazi party who fled his homeland and resettled in America, assuming a quiet life of obscurity in a small Texas town and trying to forget about his past. But indeed, it is Lang’s past that comes into question when a killer begins to horrifically slaughter young men. The clues point to Lang’s past — but is it really his past? The character of Lang is masterfully created — a realistic protagonist that we feel sympathetic for one moment and find ourselves questioning the next. The German will stick with you long after you finish it, and will make you squirm. This is as dark as it gets. For some reason, Amazon doesn’t have the paperback and Kindle versions linked, so buy the paperback here and the Kindle edition here.
Simmons takes a turn from his three previous historical fiction novels (The Terror, Drood, and Black Hills), looking instead to the near-future. Set around the year 2021 (or so) Flashback offers a dark, dystopian future that would make Alex Jones, Ron Paul, and Jesse Ventura gnash their teeth. Years of Republican and Democrat cronyism, combined with the destruction of our economy, and a general crumbling of everything from our morals to our infrastructure (you know… sort of like what is transpiring right now) leaves America a third world nation and an emaciated shadow of its former self. Vast swaths of the countryside are like something out of The Road Warrior or Escape From New York, and the cities aren’t much better. Our population is addicted to a synthetic drug called Flashback, and we sit in blissful ignorance, lost in our past while the New World Order (or maybe just Japanese corporations) buy and sell our very souls. Set against this backdrop is an engrossing, character-driven detective yarn with a human element missing in much of today’s science-fiction. The book does get bogged down in a few places, but the overall experience is satisfying and well worth it. Buy it here.
Earlier, I mentioned John Hornor Jacobs as one of the most exciting new voices in this Sixth Wave of modern horror writers (for more on that wave, I refer you to my keynote speech, Roots). In addition to Hornor Jacobs, there are a lot of varied and exciting voices in that wave: Kelli Owen, Nate Southard, Cameron Pierce, Kevin Lucia, Lincoln Crisler, J. David Osborne, Michael Bailey, Scott Goudsward, Thomas Erb, etc. (and what’s more, there is evidence of a Seventh Wave behind them, with authors such as Dustin LaValley, Wesley Southard, Alyn Day, Garrett Cook, etc., but that’s the subject for another Blog entry and now I’m digressing.)
Lee Thompson (not to be confused with Lee Thomas above) is certainly one of the most promising and talented voices of the Sixth Wave. His work reads very much like a young Tom Piccirilli, which should come as no surprise, since he lists Piccirilli as a major influence. But this is not merely a young author wearing his influences on his sleeve. Thompson’s voice is his own — strong, hypnotic, and unsettling. Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children is a bleak fucking book, and therein lies its danger. So beautifully-constructed is Thompson’s prose, that the reader is often caught off-guard, mesmerized by a turn of phrase or a descriptive passage, until the book grabs you by the balls and rips them right off, breaking your heart and your psyche in the process. This is the first thing I’ve read by Thompson, but it won’t be the last. Get in on the ground floor with this guy. Buy it here.
Let’s Play White is marketed as a horror collection, and make no mistake, these stories are certainly horrific. While Burke’s prose tends to run on the quieter, more sublime side of the genre (evoking a style more reminiscent of Shirley Jackson or Joyce Carol Oates than Edward Lee or Wrath James White), these tales still have plenty of blood and grue. But I would label this collection as more magic realism than straight horror (or perhaps dark fantasy). While not inter-connected, there is a trailing, gossamer-like theme in the overall stories of race and how it impacts us, regardless of the color of our skin. Deeply thoughtful and deeply moving, this is a book that will challenge you. It’s also a beautifully crafted and packaged paperback, softer to the touch than an average paperback and very easy on the eyes (if, like me, you have to wear bifocals). Buy it here.
Subtitled ‘A Weston Ochse Reader’ this collection spans the last decade, covering everything from Ochse’s early “redneck” tales to his southern gothic turn to his more mature, nuanced, recent work. And oh, what a gamut that is. In equal parts whimsical, gross, poignant, and thrilling, Ochse is a thinking man’s pulp-writer — the brilliant and poetic if demented offspring of Ray Bradbury and Robert E. Howard. Wonderfully packaged and including an enlightening introduction by Joe R. Lansdale, this is a must-read, and the perfect introduction to Ochse’s unique voice. My only complaint is that, while the publisher’s website indicates there is a trade paperback edition, I cannot find it for individual sale. But the Limited Edition Hardcover is in stock and well worth the price (and nicely priced at that). Buy it here.
And, because somebody always asks, here are the Honorable Mentions — numbers 11 through 15 (out of the 140 books I read this year):
11. Nightjack by Tom Piccirilli (Kindle and audiobook, buy it here)
12. Sensation by Nick Mamatas (Paperback and Kindle, buy it here)
13. Neonomicon Alan Moore (Hardcover and paperback, buy it here)
14. The Morbidly Obese Ninja by Carlton Mellick III (Paperback and Kindle, buy it here)
15. Red Sky by Nate Southard (Limited Edition Hardcover — sold out)