Tuesday, February 14, 2017
The Best of What I Read in 2016
I love books and I love ranking things, so here's this for another year. If you've never read a list of my annual favorites, it should be noted that these are of what I read for the year, not what was released. I for sure do not have that kind of time.
1. The Circle by Dave Eggers
This book messed me up, and not just because it's a thoroughly engaging warning of social tech's dangerous potential. I recognize my place in the story as someone enamored by the capabilities of social media. Yet, if Facebook, Google, and Apple were to emerge as one company, we have to wonder at what point would we ultimately become the most invasive and self-absorbed versions of ourselves. Honestly, this thing should be required reading for millennials, if only to prompt a dialogue about what lays ahead in social tech, what we want from it, and what we expect the ideal balance to be.
2. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
First of all, oh my god holy hell, Holly Golightly should not be glamorized. The woman is an entitled loon who uses everyone for everything and then loses her shit when she doesn't get her way. She deserves total loneliness...even though she's, like, pretty endearing and...*sigh*...no, deep down, I guess I don't want that for her...but goddamnit, she's so frustrating...and lovely...UGH. Alright, maybe I get it; I don't know. She's awful and alluring. Anyway, secondly, and more importantly, this novella is fantastically written. I can't believe some of the sentences Capote can string together. His writing has a musical quality to it. It's not exactly sing-song, but it's truly rhythmic and wonderful and, as a writer, it beats syrupy in the nerves.
3. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
For a series I expected to be action-packed like previous medieval fantasy I've read (which, granted, isn't much), the reliance on characters and conversations is gorgeously rewarding here. I haven't watched the show, but this does a superb job of sprinkling in personal violence alongside the epic battles in the fight for the strange future of the kingdom. Each character is sharp without everyone playing too smart. Characters have their own voice and even the rogue brutes have a say worth hearing. With each chapter, a character develops a little more and you watch them grow. Seriously, few books take as good of care as Martin does in such a wild setting and he does it with so much detail and appreciation for them as fictional characters who want a great deal from the world.d
4. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
See above. It definitely kept its pace in the second book, my goodness.
5. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
I read this start to finish on a flight home and I kind of wish more books were written like it. This is a fun, frantic, and fast read—all dialogue, no action—and it reads like a millennial indie action movie that was penned at the last minute. It also touches on contemporary entitlement in ways that both intrigued and infuriated me, with our generation having spent the entirety of adulthood seeking purpose in the oddity of a post-9/11 digital-heavy world. This lone wolf Thomas just took matters into his own hands to, once and for all, figure himself out in a most unexpected way, by kidnapping an astronaut.
6. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
This is the first non-Potter book I've read of hers and it was delightful. She created real characters in their own little world, a small town where everything feels bigger than it is. In certain instances, it feels like her own personal evaluation of human nature, often reveling in pettiness and mean spirits. At first, I believed it to be a comedy of errors, but the tale eventually evolves into real people with real problems, mostly with each other. Centered around an open seat on the local council, the problems of local adults and their teenage children clash and overlap with each other, ultimately piling up. It never goes into truly devilish, uncomfortable territory—a la Franzen—but it gets under your nerves without cheap bandages.
7. Drown by Junot Díaz
While some of the narrative voice here is silly—almost perplexingly so—this collection truly gets at you. It's young lothario fiction with all of the realism, grit, self-loathing, and wonder that comes from strength and weakness formed with the same intensive force and bond. Díaz presents a youthful wasteland that's explored with a peculiar balance of screwball spirit and gut-wrenching tragedy.
BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS [Ongoing Series]
1. East of West [Volumes V-VI] written by Jonathan Hickman with artwork by Nick Dragotta
This series makes me feel like a kid reading comics again and I never bounced through anything half as simultaneously out there and sane as this festival of genres. Western in tone, fantasy in premise, sci-fi in execution, historical in vibe, this is the tale of The Message and how the seven territories of the fictionalized United States — a nation as grounded in the 19th Century as it is the 22nd— deal with completing the religious doctrine, which can only mean the Apocalypse. Not everyone agrees if it even should be done or how it would be, but three of the Four Horsemen aren't having it, all while the literal pale rider of Death has gone rogue for love and in search of his son. Everyone's headed to war, whether they like it or not.
2. Saga [Volume VI] written by Brian K. Vaughan with artwork by Fiona Staples
Never before has a comic book so very thoroughly satisfied both my inner child and adult self so precisely. It is honestly everything I love in a narrative told exceptionally well with glee. It's pure devotion to its characters, its readers, and its story. It never compromises and yet somehow delivers so very in full. Each new volume arrives to one lanky idiot who can never get enough. I fan boy out every time. But, seriously, how could you not when two soldiers on opposite sides in an indefinite intergalactic war fall in love and have a kid (who's also the narrator) and sometimes get separated and try to keep their shit together while they're being pursued by both sides who want them dead as traitors?
3. Black Science [Volumes IV-V] by Rick Remender with artwork by Matteo Scalera
For starters, this includes one of the most astounding meditations on regret, reflection, and getting your shit together I've ever read. Secondly, the rest of it is sci-fi action, so, hey, best of both worlds. After selfish and abrasive scientist Grant McKay, once of the Anarchistic Order of Scientists, triggers the peeling of overlapping realities, he has to find his remaining family, crew, and way back home. It is not easy and he's more lost than ever.
4. The Wicked + The Divine [Volumes I-IV] written by Kieron Gillen with artwork by Jamie McKelvie
Colorful, contemporary and calculated, the series follows the 90-year return of a dozen gods and goddesses who possess college-aged youths to be akin to pop stars, except their "concerts" alter people's minds and souls. Alas, the gang rarely gets along with each other and one huge fan finds her way into their inner circle, only to witness the beginning of their mysterious, murderous demise.
5. Paper Girls [Volumes I-II] written by Brian K. Vaughn with artwork by Cliff Chiang and Matthew Wilson
This has all the makings of a classic youths-experiencing-the-supernatural-on-bicycles-in-1980s-suburbia. A group of paper delivery girls get wrapped up in a crashing of realms and realities, and they're suddenly time-traveling and dimension-hopping. Big, crazy, and wild things are happening and they're flying by the seat of their pants.
6. Hellboy in Hell [Volumes I-II] / Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. [Volumes I-II] by Mike Mignola
I will miss you, Hellboy. You were consistent and grand and all your stories were wonderful horror pulp romps. You were an honorable hero who was as much worn out by the evil of the world as you were delighted by its good. I very much appreciated the entire fantasy of apocalypse harbinger turning out to be a badass who is a friend to all. Now, Hellboy is laid to rest, after being dragged to Hell and wandering its empty forever streets. A moment of silence for Right Hand of Doom.
7. Low [Volumes I-III] written by Rick Remender with artwork by Greg Tocchini
The best way to break a reader's heart is to establish a dying world's most hopeful woman and then keep trying to take everything away from her. Told with a purposefully messy retro-future watercolor style, this tells the story of Earth billions of years from now, when the sun is on the verge of devouring our planet. Mankind has thus lived underwater for centuries and is now running out of oxygen. After the once-perfect Caine family was torn apart years and years ago, mother Stel has learned that one of her probes in space has discovered an inhabitable planet far beyond the depths of their ocean. Now she must save humanity—or at least her remaining family.
8. Nailbiter [Volumes I-V] written by Joshua Williamson with artwork by Mike Henderson and Adam Guzowski
Given my apprehension to engage any literature focusing on serial killers, this was a surprising delight. It's cartoonish enough stay mischievous and evil enough to give weight to the characters and overall risk. A town has produced 16 brutal serial killers, each with a strange specialization either in victims, process, or execution, and no one knows why? That's some seriously mysterious shit and I'm gonna get to the bottom of it! Ugh, this sounds like I'm rounding up my neighborhood friends to ride bikes with flashlights in the dark. I sound like a nerd with that closing. But I love mysteries! Ugh, I did it again.
9. Descender [Volumes I-III] written by Jeff Lemire with artwork by Dustin Nguyen
A sci-fi adventure with a tender beating heart, this thing's a good reminder that humans are rarely the smartest or most compassionate entities they naturally assume themselves to be. Sometimes, a robot can be the best there ever was—or someday anyway. The central character, an empathetic android child named Tim-21, is sweet without overdoing it and the story is emotional without sacrificing chaos and violence. One day, giant machines attacked the solar system. Ten years later, we still worry about their return, even though we never understood them in the first place. But a child robot built exclusively for companionship may be the key to everything.
10. Criminal [Volumes I-V] written by Ed Brubaker with artwork by Sean Phillips
This is such sharp writing for the love of pulpy noir. Nobody's to be trusted and everyone gets theirs. Somehow, over the course of five totally different stories, the lives of those in the not-so-underworld weave throughout each other's world. Put together, it practically reads like a Coen Brothers script if they left out all the humor and quirks. It's straight to the point with just enough bells and whistles to dance.
11. Bitch Planet [Volume I] written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with artwork by Valentine De Landro and Robert Wilson IV
Well, hot damn, feminist meditation by way of sci-fi satire is one hell of a thing. I can't think of anything I've read like this. In this timeline's future, women who aren't "compliant," which could be anything from murder to being generally disappointing, go to a correctional facility on another world, the one nicknamed Bitch Planet. There, it takes on a Death Race action tale where a team of female prisoners play a violent sport against men for what's supposed to be their hopeful release. All the while, you learn how bonkers the patriarchy has become institutionalized, almost similar to V For Vendetta, but way more patronizing and available. It's a hell of a read, especially with the fake ads and missed connections in between the issues, all biting mockery of patriarchy and how it informs every facet of society. Damn.
BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS [Closed Narrative]
1. V For Vendetta written by Alan Moore with artwork by David Lloyd
What a beautiful story, and it's not because it romanticizes anarchy. It's beautiful because it doesn't rely on or even aim for beauty. It goes for blood, simply put. This is a stunningly comprehensive story that shows the flaws of mankind without dragging them through the mud. Government officials will be corrupt because they can be and people will grow tired of it because it is inevitable, but only if they know such a thing is even possible. Moore's ability to construct ruthless inspiration in the form of its two main characters is daunting. He makes fascism a terrifying prospect rather than a villainous opponent or obstacle. It is a tidal wave of bricks, ready to box you in, but if you have a martyr who is more idea than man, there is nothing to stop the revolution.
2. Airboy written by James Robinson with artwork by Greg Hinkle
Sort of like the comic book world's answer to the film Adaptation, this tells the story of a self-loathing writer—a Hunter S. Thompson type if he ever saw himself as way past his prime—and naive artist having the block of a lifetime adapting the old-timey character of Airboy to modern works. Then said heroic comic book character—basically Captain America if he was a Boy Scout mascot—comes to vibrant life. It's madcap and silly while achingly genuine and self-critical at the same time. It's basically two lost souls lamenting "I wish I could get better" and "I wish I could be better" until everything goes insane and they have to figure out everything even though nothing makes sense, all with the help of booze and drugs.
3. Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
I'll read anything Bryan Lee O'Malley does forever. Like his past work (Scott Pilgrim, Lost at Sea), this is as self-aware as it is fun as it is emotional as it is light as it is tender. It's a delight to behold his work. In this, second chances play a huge role alongside time-altering, as chef Katie aims to move on with her life, only to stumble upon the opportunity to "fix" things, which will always be a selfish hopeful's undoing. From start to finish, it's wonderful.
4. Alex + Ada written by Jonathan Luna with artwork by Sarah Vaughn
Artificially created love doesn't seem so surreal when the world has a tendency to be bleak. Such is the case with Alex, a quiet young man who has lives clean and just shy of content. When he reluctantly accepts a lifelike female android named Ada for companionship, he realizes that he isn't sure what counts as consciousness, morality, or independence anymore. He essentially decides to jailbreak Ada with free will and things don't go as planned. Rather than bucking wild with sci-fi action, however, the story is done with so much heart and patience that the focus on characters feels like a meditation on human interaction and expectation.
5. Tokyo Ghost written by Rick Remender with artwork by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
If Bladerunner was the relevant, defining, and semi-campy dystopia tale for Gen X, this one suits Millennials pretty hard. A luddite named Debbie Decay patrols the streets with the only (violent shell of a) man she ever loved, but he's these days he's a one-man, tech-spaced wrecking crew named Led Dent in the wasteland where distraction is a drug. But there's rumor of a verdant and fertile garden paradise in Tokyo, but escape from the badlands of metropolis ain't easy.
6. The Fade Out written by Ed Brubaker with artwork by Sean Phillips
Bless the Golden Age of Hollywood for the weird way it operated and allowed for grime and grit in the cracks of its glory. Here, a nervous writer gets tangled up in the murder of a starlet, one that the studio seems to be covering up. Everyone on set or around town is either asking questions or dropping hints. Noir always feels more sinister when the surroundings have a shine to them.
7. How to Talk to Girls at Parties written by Neil Gaiman with artwork by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
This thing reads like a journal entry/fantasy from a young teenage boy who grew up reading too many books. Two teenage boys go to a party and soon discover the girls are more powerful than they could possibly have imagined—one's cocky, one's shy. Truly, though, when you're that age, attraction can pretty much melt your brain. Here, the fantastical daydream-like courting process of teenage boys gets proper mystic treatment in its glowing colors of pages as the supernatural comes 'round.
8. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters written by Neil Gaiman with artwork by Yoshitaka Amano
What a fantastic read. Such old-world mysticism is at play here with a contemporary voice that understands the strengths of bard storytelling and modern pacing. It sharpens the whimsical tale, where the first half takes its time, but once the story comes into focus, the narrative confdiently strolls, knowing it has you. Nothing is rushed and everything is given its due. Wonderful.
9. The Secret Service written by Mark Millar with artwork by Dave Gibbons
Adapted into the film Kingsman: The Secret Service, this ends up being a case of the movie being better than the book. Still, the source material is a whole lot of fun. The story of a troublemaking youth in Britain becoming a smooth-as-hell spy under the wing of a loyal older guide is all there; it's just more rushed and less refined. You're left wanting more.
10. The Nobody by Jeff Lemire
This had my full attention within two pages. Lemire's ability to give so much with such little dialogue or narration is profound. This is like a good pulpy short story, offering enough to be curious but not promising too much to expect more. It's a brief tale, but a rewarding and surprising one with a minimalist lean on regret, loneliness, and hope. It all starts with a mysterious man covered in bandages rolling into a quiet town.
11. Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Man, O'Malley can capture what it means to be 18-20 years old damn well. Here, a tale weaves young spirit without defining it. Teenagedom can be articulated, even if the narrative is supposed to be chaos, but that strange gap between youth and adulthood is so perplexing, because it jumps between sides. You have enough to look back on with new eyes, but that's what makes it all the more baffling. In this tale, an 18-year-old girl finds her very shy, quiet self on a road trip with sorta-friends from school, heading back home. She misses what she had and who she was and doesn't know how to handle or even explain the change. But the thing is, at that age, everyone's kind of like that, dealing with their own identity crisis with brief instances of sanity and insight and briefer moments of total calm and confidence. In this, you watch a girl exist, trying to make sense of her world, even in its most mundane of surroundings.