This was one of the best years for books in a long time. There were no huge standouts, like Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, or Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel The Terror, but even still, of the 108 books I read this year, a surprisingly large number were of outstanding quality…so much so that winnowing this list down to just ten required a lot of purely subjective hair-splitting.
My list is made up entirely of books released during 2010. That meant that some of the 108 books I read this year weren’t eligible, even if they would have otherwise earned a spot here. Jeffrey Eugenides’ serio-comic epic novel Middlesex and John M. Barry’s haunting history of the 1927 Mississippi flood, Rising Tide, are just two examples of books not included for that reason. But beyond date of release, I was fairly open-ended on format, length and genre. Novellas released as a single work, such as Norman Prentiss’ Invisible Fences and Brian James Freeman’s The Painted Darkness got equal consideration with huge epic-sized novels, multi-author anthologies, short story collections, histories and biographies. Some of the books on this list I read in PDF as advance reader’s copies, or listened to on CD, or enjoyed as just plain old dead tree editions, and in most cases I explain that in each entry.
So, here they are, in no certain order…my favorite reads for 2010. Enjoy the list!
Horns by Joe Hill
Both a very funny book and at the same time a well-crafted one, Horns is far better than Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Heart-Shaped Box was a good book, mind you, and his debut collection, Twentieth Century Ghosts, was a great book, but Horns is a cut above either of those. Part Kafka, part Kurt Cobain, part Gallagher, Joe Hill is rapidly becoming one of America’s best novelists, and Horns will show you why. I listened to this one on CD, which helped the humor a lot, I think.
The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman
Like Horns, an extremely funny book. Zeltserman has made a name for himself as a writer of intense psychologically-driven crime fiction, making this rural horror story a bit of a departure…but I’m so glad he made it. I hadn’t gone twenty pages into this book before I knew it was going to make this list. Good old fashioned hardcover for this one, and worth every penny.
Pariah by Bob Fingerman
Zombies are big business, so it takes a lot of talent to rise above the crowd. Between James Roy Daley’s Best New Zombie Tales #1 and 2, Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, Ben Tripp’s Rise Again, Greg Lamberson’s Desperate Souls, Patrick D’Orazio’s Comes the Dark, Craig DiLouie’s Tooth and Nail, Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse, Chris Golden’s The New Dead and John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2, 2010 brought out some of the best zombie stuff I’ve ever read. So the competition was extra tough. But my favorite zombie release of the year was Bob Fingerman’s novel Pariah. In addition to being a great zombie book, it was also a beautiful meditation on isolation and the stark, horrifying beauty of post-apocalyptic landscapes. Another good old fashioned dead tree read here, which helped a lot. I generally listen to audio books while driving to and from work, which makes it impossible to give a narrative your full and undivided attention. Inevitably, the idiot cutting you off is going to usurp some of your mental energy, regardless of how good the book is. Bob Fingerman’s description of his characters’ complex emotional states is so finely developed though it really merits the extra attention you have to give a printed book. Listening on CD would have frustrated me here.
Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett
Mr. Shivers is one of three debut novels on this year’s list. I was on a panel with the author at ArmadilloCon in Austin earlier this year, and I was so impressed with his comments on researching that I stopped off at the Barnes & Noble on the way home and bought his book. His story of hobos looking for revenge during the Great Depression was a delicious mix of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Stephen King’s first Gunslinger novel. I flew through the mass market paperback in a single afternoon, and I can’t wait for his next novel, The Company Man.
Invisible Fences by Norman Prentiss
Besides being a genuinely classy guy, Norman Prentiss can write horror stories of such subtlety that you will find yourself going over the work three and four times just to see how he managed to do so much with so few words. He’s made a name for himself as a short story writer whose work more closely resembles the fiction found in the New Yorker than in the bulk of horror’s blood-soaked anthologies, but with his debut novel, Invisible Fences, Prentiss has written a short, but moving story that, to be honest, transcends any sort of attempt to pigeonhole it in a genre. I read this one in a limited edition trade paperback, and getting your own copy may prove difficult. Just don’t come looking for mine. You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.
In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay
This was a great year for single author short story collections. I loved Michael Louis Calvillo’s Blood and Gristle, Jeremy Shipp’s Fungus of the Heart, John Little’s Little Things, Laird Barron’s Occultation, Scott Edelman’s What Will Come After, Harry Shannon’s A Host of Shadows and Lisa Mannetti’s Deathwatch, but Tremblay’s In the Mean Time just left me breathless. Calvillo’s work had more energy than Tremblay’s. Shannon’s collection had far better action and variety. Edelman’s had zombies. Mannetti’s had beautifully handled historical fiction. Each of those collections did something better than Tremblay did in his book, but the overall feel of In the Mean Time sold me on this work. It reminded me of a Pink Floyd album, the way it just fit together. I read this one as an ebook and found his apocalyptic visions to be so gut-wrenching that at times I had to go hug my kids just to remind myself that things were going to be okay. A tough read, but ultimately, one you’ll be glad you made.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
This is one of three non-horror books to make this year’s list. Marlantes’ debut was thirty years in the making, but it was worth the wait. I listened to this book on CD, and was simply blown away. I have a feeling Matterhorn will go up on the shelf next to O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as one of the best war novels ever written. Just be prepared for a very gritty, true to life description of war and all its horrors.
The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
Like Bob Fingerman, I found out about Brenna Yovanoff through the table of contents of John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2. Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin would have made this a good year for YA all by itself, but Yovanoff’s modern day tale of changelings told the age old teenage drama of fitting in with such originality and beauty that The Replacement transcended its YA field. Perhaps even more impressive is that this is a debut novel. There were some great debuts this year, such as Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s Black and Orange, Lisa Morton’s Castle of Los Angeles, Gregory Hall’s At the End of Church Street, and Lucy Snyder’s Spellbent, but Yovanoff’s book connected with me personally because I have two daughters about to enter that age where they will be trying to define their place in this world. Your mileage may differ, but this one is still highly recommended for anybody in the middle teens and older.
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowdon
I’ve been reading an awful lot about the Texas-Mexico border recently as research for an upcoming novel, and Bowdon’s book is one of the best on the subject. He doesn’t go into a great deal of depth about the political reasons behind Mexico’s drug war, but focuses instead on the personal stories of those caught up in the violence and tragedy that defines life in today’s Northern Mexico. After reading this book, I suspect that you, like me, will be furious with the U.S. government and the American media for directing so much attention on the other side of the globe, while one of the most immediate and verifiable threats to U.S. security is at a full boil right next door.
Selected Stories by William Trevor
William Trevor’s stories have been growing discernibly darker in tone over the years, and this volume, which brings together the Irish author’s last four short story collections, goes a long ways toward demonstrating that trend. But Trevor is also capable of writing intensely funny stuff, and you can still find that trademark humor here. William Trevor may very well be the best writer in English working today. His stories, which are always so full of sharp insights into love and ambition and power of major events, such as weddings or the end of an affair, to change many lives, never disappoint. This list isn’t in any sort of order, but if it was, this book would own the top rung. Well worth investing in the hardcover.
And finally, because I’m such a fan of Spinal Tap, I’m turning this list up to eleven and giving you one that almost made it.
Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
Remember Plato’s Parable of the Cave? In the story, Socrates (pronounced So-Crates, according to Bill and Ted) relates the tale of a group of people who spend their entire lives chained to posts, facing a blank wall. There is a fire behind them that projects shadows on the wall. Because these people lack any other frame of reference, the shadows become their entire world, and their only idea of reality. If you’re familiar with the story, you must have wondered what would happen if those people suddenly got loose and joined the rest of us. Imagine the horror of that much reality crashing in on their minds at once. Well, Emma Donoghue did just that. She tells her story from the point of view of five year old Jack, who lives with his Ma in a single room, with the routine broken only by nighttime visits from a man named Old Nick. The prose is tricky, as it is meant to be that of a five year old, but nonetheless effective, and very frightening.