A Year of Great Books (with a small baby-pause)

As you should know, dear reader, I am a contributor to Bookriot. Every month, we write a mega-post where each contributor writes about the best book they read that month.

Here are nine of the books I’ve picked in the last 12 months as my favorite that month. These books have the official Johann Thorsson seal of approval.

March 2014

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This is a book I had heard a lot about. It was described as a horror story but I was also told that the formatting of the book itself was weird and clever. It was this formatting¹ that kept me from taking a closer look all this time because usually clever formatting makes for a not-so-clever reading experience. Man, was I wrong. The is odd, there is no doubt about that. The word “house” for instance, is always colored blue. There are serious amounts of footnotes and appendices and whatnot. Basically however, the book is about a family that moves into a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and has a door that opens out into what should be the yard but is really an endless dark ha l l w a y². The story itself is told as commentary about the documentary the owner was making, called The Navidson Record³. It is deeply creepy and pushes the boundaries of what a horror novel can be and is therefore novel in the absolute meaning of that word. Highly recommended.

¹ See Formatting in 21st Century Fiction, Amsterdam Journal of Literature, September 8, 2006.

² Oddly enough, there is no entry for “Hallway” in any editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

³ The Library of Congress had 3 copies of The Navidson Record, though only 1 remained when I went to take a look myself. Upon hunting it down and finding a VCR player, the two-hour tape turned out to contain 15 hours of silent static, though a very low growl can be detected by people with especially acute hearing. The tape has now been sealed.

February 2014

WonderbookWonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer

I read quite a bit in the last month, books of all sorts; novels and novellas and short stories.Every one of them was “genre”; fantasy, horror or science fiction. But a book about how to write fiction of that sort actually blows them all out of the water.

Wonderbook is a big book, so full of advice and thoughts on writing that “bloated” is almost a good word to describe it, if not for the negative connotation. In it, Jeff teaches would-be genre writers everything there is to know about the craft, with plenty of diversion and examples. It is an illustrated guide, so there are also plenty of images. There is instruction, inspiration, pragmatic advice, interviews with writers, examples of prose styles… everything! It also looks good on a coffee table.

You can tell that this is something Jeff both knows a lot about AND that he has a sincere passion for genre writing. If you have even the smallest interest in writing genre fiction, this book is for you. Wonderbook is full of wonder.

– (Slight break here, as I have a baby. She’s very cute but she eats time.) –

September 2013

eastofedenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck

I started East of Eden back in May, I think. It is a great book, one of the world’s greatest works of literature but takes a little getting used to. I would read a few chapters and then set it aside for a while. But it is so very worth it. East of Eden tells the story of the Trask and Hamilton families in and around Salinas, California at the beginning of the twentieth century. We watch the heads of the family grow old and die and watch their children grow up. In East of Eden we are presented with a host of characters, most of which we fall in love with. I’ll admit however, that some of the girls in the book are not as memorable as the boys, and felt blurry to me, apart from the family mothers, Cathy and Liza. Cathy Trask, the vilest character I’ve read in a good long while, stands head and shoulders above other characters in the book in terms of memorability. Manipulating and cold, she only knows how to hurt, and after reading one is left with a foul taste. Steinbeck’s writing is magical, though the Cain/Abel allegory gets a little tired towards the end, but that is really my only criticism of this book. It is simply one of those books you have to read before you die. Seriously.

August 2013

The Illusion of Separateness Simon Van Booy CoverThe Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

I bought this book after seeing it in a previous Riot Round-Up (Amanda’s pick for June). The way she described it ticked all my get-this-book boxes, and so I ordered it right-quick from the internets. A few short weeks later (I live in a faraway land), and it was in my hands. The cover is beautiful, and so is the writing.

The Illusion of Separateness tells a number of interwoven short stories, starting with Martin, who volunteers at a nursing home and is often mistaken for one of the residents. The story goes back and forth both in time and place, between France and the US, between the present and the Second World War. There were times where I wanted to reach into the book and hug the characters gently, informing them that everything would be all right, and that they would meet their loved ones later. It shows us people being genuinely and selflessly kind to each other, often by sacrificing a piece of themselves. There is nothing about this book I didn’t love, and I will be giving copies of this to people come Christmas.

July 2013

Give Us a Kiss Daniel Woodrell CoverGive Us a Kiss by Daniel Woodrell

Any time I read a Woodrell book it is very likely to be my favorite book of that month, and Give Us a Kiss was no exception. As with most of his books, Woodrell pulls us right in with the opening line. “I had a family errand to run, that’s all, but I decided to take a pistol.” The book then tells us about the trouble Doyle Redmond gets into as he goes in search of his older brother Smoke, hiding out in the Missouri Ozarks to evade the law. It involves guns, certainly, but also hillbilly love and past-life experiences.

Give Us a Kiss is different from Woodrell’s recent novels in that there is less focus on the pretty prose (though the prose is all sorts of good) and more focus on moving the story along. We are still in familiar territory, with unsavory characters in the Missouri Ozarks up to no good, and we just can’t help but love all the misfits Woodrell drags onto his pages. There is a point in the book where Redmond describes how he sees himself as a writer, and this so mirrors how I imagine Woodrell sees himself as a writer that I felt a pinch of vertigo for a moment, like I was having an out-of-book experience:

“I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a ‘genre‘ life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.”

Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

June 2013

City of Glass Paul Auster CoverCity of Glass by Paul Auster

It all starts when Quinn, who writes detective novels under the pen name William Wilson about a private eye named Max Work, gets a phone call asking for Paul Auster. Quinn tells the caller that it’s the wrong number, but when they call again he says that he is indeed Paul Auster and takes the case, protecting Peter Stillman from his father, also Peter Stillman. Still with me? City of Glass is not what I expected, but is wonderful nonetheless. We go along with Quinn as he loses his identity in an attempt to save the young Peter Stillman from his father, but then we get to wondering whether there ever really was a case, or indeed if there ever was a Quinn to begin with. In the end, all we are left with is the wonderful book we just read.

May 2013

the night circusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I had actually not intended to read this book. I blame marketing. I thought it was a sweet, sweet, slightly girly romance fantasy that took place in a cute circus. It did not appeal to me. But people kept recommending it, and everyone just seemed to love it. I picked it up at an airport bookstore to go along with GRRM’s Dance With Dragons in a 2-for-1 book deal that was going on. DWD was a bit heavy to start reading on a short plane ride, so I opened The Night Circus instead, and was immediately whisked away into a complete and detailed world of magic and intrigue. Sure, there is romance, but this is not a romance novel. It has often been compared to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I think it a fair comparison; both books are long and intricate, both books have interesting characters that perform magic, and both books are an absolute joy to read. Believe the hype, buy this book.

April 2013

ones you do daniel woodrellThe Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell.

The Ones You Do is the third book in Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. It is about the return of John X Shade to Frogtown, where he reunites with his sons, who hardly know him. The book is mostly about his relationship with his children, but also about the lives these children have created in the absence of a father. John X Shade does not come to his family by choice, though, but because he is being chased by a man who thinks that Shade stole quite a bit of money from him. There is quite a bit of violence in the book, and a great cast of colorful, broken characters. Woodrell’s writing is very good, and is a treat to watch as he improves from one book in the trilogy to the next. Not just a book that is fun to read, it is also great to see a writer come into his own and find his voice.

March 2013

harlan 101Harlan 101: Encountering Ellison

Harlan Ellison is well known in the circles of speculative fiction, having won the Hugo nine times and the Nebula Award four times He’s even won a Grammy. Encountering Ellison is a collection of some of his most well known stories and includes seven essays on the craft of writing. Either of these, the stories or the essays, would be totally worth the hefty price ($39.95). The stories include his most famous ones, The Deathbird and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Harlan writes science fiction and a sort of dark contemporary fantasy (speculative fiction) that is among the best out there, and the stories age really well. If you write short fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you want this book. Trust me. The book has an introduction by Neil Gaiman in which he says: “You are lucky to be holding this book in your hands.

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