End of year lists are fluid; the best book you read in January may not make a list made in December, even if it is, in many ways, a better book than one you read in November. Stellar prose, tight plotting, even memorable characters are not enough to keep a book in mind for three months, let alone 12. This may seem harsh, but for a book to truly belong on a Best Of list, it has to meet one extra, often forgotten criterion: it must be engaging. “Best books” must capture the reader on not just an intellectual level, but on an emotional one, too.
If booklists have their own particular trend—and I think they do—this list presents an interesting, even surprising, take on 2010. Five of the 30+ titles present here are comics collections; many are dark and twisty, full of horrors that are sometimes a little too close to home (Super Sad True Love Story). More are “retro” or “vintage”, written in, or inspired by the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet most unexpected is the number of crossover titles on the list—not just two young adult novels (The Thief, For the Win), but adult novels with teenage protagonists, like Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, Jayne Ann Philips’ Lark & Termite, and Emma Donoghue’s Room, narrated by five-year-old Jack.
While these reflections on the past—and somewhat dreary prophecies of the future—may seem depressing, they’re not all as pathos-inducing as the reissue of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Tucked into this list are several small glimmers of something sweeter, something to temper the Literary Drearies we all love and appreciate. And that’s just the way it should be.
Peta Jinnath Andersen
These are adventure stories spanning the years 1940 to 1980, a time which saw the initial rise of the comic book, Senate investigations into their effect on young readers, Marvel’s ascendance as a publishing powerhouse and the beginnings of the cross promotional blitz of the Hollywood blockbuster. In academia and popular history alike there are ideological battles over bias and intellectual canon, and comics are no different. Nadel writes he deliberately avoided greats like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby because their work is already widely anthologized. The artists in this collection who are widely known, like Harry Lucey, are not represented by their best-known material, but rather by the departures from the norm caused by creative and financial impulses. Nadel writes that the history of comics is “really the story of the slow march toward a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic”. On every page of this book we see that idea in action, and it’s exciting to know there are more examples out there waiting to be discovered. Jeremy Estes
Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III
Not many superheroes get headlines in the mainstream press like “The red-headed lesbian is unleashed at last” or “Holy Lipstick Lesbian!” DC comics’ new incarnation of Batwoman has garnered both praise as a compelling character and wholly predictable criticism from homophobic culture warriors. Batwoman:Elegy finds this creative team working at the height of their powers. What doesn’t always work is the use of magical and supernatural themes. In Elegy, Batwoman struggles with her previous nemesis “The Religion of Crime”. These covens dedicated to an ancient religion of chaos bring a whole boatload of hocus-pocus into the story. This sometimes has a jarring effect given that the world of the Batwoman feels like it should be all about gritty-street level crime. Nevermind though. Rucka and Williams know what they are doing. They skillfully make use of the magical elements of the story to reconstruct Kate Kane’s inner worlds and prepare us for the big reveal at the end. We see the dénouement coming for quite a few pages but it still surprises with its power. What could have been Lifetime movie of the week melodrama in the hands of some becomes almost Homeric here. W. Scott Poole
It might be tempting to call the short story writer Lydia Davis a minimalist as her stories, in length, are about as short as you will see. But her style is not minimalist; it is diverse and always shifting, sometimes favoring short and simple sentences, sometimes unfurling into long intricately structured thoughts. In their breadth her stories are really maximalist, taking in a wide variety of subject matter and writing styles to best articulate a narrative. Her basic storytelling approaches vary widely in range; she uses many storytelling voices from first to third person, formal and informal, limited and omniscient narrator and; she uses rhythm and repetition within her stories to replicate the cadence of songwriting. The sequencing of the collections feels track listed; the stories breathe and flow into each other, inhaling and contracting and there is a thrilling sense of play that is both loose and precise. Indeed, this book is a master class in the endless vitality of the core tools used by writers. Michael Buening
J. G. Ballard
In 1943, the British author James Graham Ballard, then a boy of 12, was detained and imprisoned within a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Ballard’s experiences in the camp, where he remained for almost two years, became the basis for his celebrated 1984 novel Empire of the Sun. While the novel is autobiographical and realist, there is present in it many of the same characteristics that marked Ballard’s remarkable science fiction, much of which is collected here. It is surrealism—a reaction to mechanized carnage—from which Ballard draws most. One finds in his work the desolate plazas of De Chirico, the blasphemy of Dali, and the sharp-focus absurdity of Magritte. Although frequently lumped in with the “serious” science fiction produced by Orwell and Huxley, Ballard’s criticisms were seldom overtly political. Ballardian Man is already adept enough at repressing himself without the aid of totalitarian government. Even stories with putatively political subjects—“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennegy Considered As A Downhill Motorrace” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”—were satires of media and celebrity, not politics. Ballard once stated that he wrote not of the future, but of “the visionary present”. His work is unique among science fiction, and among 20th century literature. M.M. Wolfe
Megan Whalen Turner
The fourth (though stand-alone) installment in Megan Whalen Turner’s award-winning Queen’s Thief series, A Conspiracy of Kings is everything a political novel should be: intricate, deftly plotted, and full of intrigue. When Sophos, a king’s son more interested in poetry than war-making, is captured during an invasion, and later sold into slavery, he knows he should act—his father is dead and the kingdom, Sounis, is on the brink of collapse. Yet Sophos is also at the edge of a collapse: torn between his duty and the simpler, kinder life he wishes for himself. Much like Tolkien and Le Guin, Turner’s fantasy world is rendered in exquisite detail, as is Sophos’ inner life. Fans of the series will appreciate meeting familiar characters once more, but the story’s true strength lies in Whalen Turner’s exploration of what it is to be at odds with one’s self. Peta Jinnath Andersen