Monday, December 31, 2012

Beth's Best Reads of 2012

Time for my annual list of the best books I read this year!   Here's the rules: The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2012. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching links to my original review for each book.

10.  I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  This emotional, satisfying YA novel had me holed up on the couch for an entire day because I couldn't put it down.  The story of two brothers growing up with an schizophrenic father who is ruining their lives, I'll Be There is sweet and terrifying in equal measure.  The brothers, Sam and Riddle, meet a stable family that they become a part of for a brief time, but it's not until the boys' father takes them on a dangerous roadtrip that the book really gets good.  The book's middle 200 pages made me feel like my guts were slowly being wrenched out me from empathy for these poor kids and the choices they have to make.  The end gets a little too pat for my taste, but overall, I'll Be There really had me in its clutches.

9.  The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan.  I only read a handful of romances this year, but half of them were by Courtney Milan.  Although Trial by Desire featured my all-time favorite romance hero (Ned Carhart) and The Governess Affair was unlike any other romance I've ever read, The Duchess War is the one that came out on top.  It might be the single most emotionally-rewarding romance novel I've ever read, in which I felt that both the hero and heroine had to actually fight for their happy ending and earned it completely by the epilogue.  This is the first in a trilogy, and I absolutely can't wait to read the next two books in 2013. 

8.  Skin Horse, by Olivia Cronk.  One of the strangest and most interesting books of poetry I've ever read, Skin Horse is not for the light of heart.  Dark and domestic, Skin Horse's every page is completely unexpected, each line diverting from its original premise.  I can't say I understood what was going on through any of the book's broken narrative, but I didn't care.  I enjoyed the ride.

7.  Helsinki, by Peter Richards.  I read at least 50 books of poetry this year, but I can honestly say that none of them grabbed me in quite the way Helsinki did.  I read it the way I would a novel, devouring it in a single day.  The book read like some kind of low-key science fiction, where the protagonist encounters weirdness and heartache and homesickness through a heightened sense of language and image.  Of all the poetry books I read this year, Helsinki is probably the one I'll return to the most often. 

6.  Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to critically-beloved bestsellers, meaning I often don't get around to reading them until the excitement has died down a few years later.  But I couldn't resist the praise (or the great cover design) of Gone Girl for long.  Of all the books on this list, this one is definitely the only one that genuinely shocked me in any way.  The first half is really great, and then a major twist happens halfway through that absolutely changed everything I read up to that point.  The book's a genuine roller-coaster, and an incredibly well-written one at that.  The married main characters, Nick and Amy, are possibly the worst people you could ever imagine spending 400 pages with.  That being said, they were completely fascinating.  Nick Dunne was perhaps the most realistic character I encountered all year, an extreme version of everything I find intriguing and frustrating about Midwestern men.

5.  The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by Alan Sepinwall.  This nonfiction look at TV drama by one of my favorite television critics, Alan Sepinwall, feels like it was written just for me.  As a TV fanatic, I couldn't get enough of this book about the changing field of the TV drama over the last 15 years.  Sepinwall divides the book into twelve chapters, each about a different series that changed the way viewers and critics see television today.  I hope the book's surprise success will open the doors to more and more books being written about contemporary television.

4.  Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley.  When my friend Amy recommended this book to me back in January, she sold me on a few choice words: "zombies," "Sufjan Stevens," and "asshat."  And despite the fact that these three things are all in this terrific YA novel, they only hint at the awesomeness of the story itself.  The book's narrator, Cullen Witter, is a fairly normal, small-town teen with an awesome best friend (the ever-loyal Lucas Cader) and a cool little brother named Gabriel.  One day, Gabriel goes missing and everything changes.  Where Things Come Back is a book that covers all the important YA themes - friendship, family, what it means to grow up, etc - but it doesn't feel like anything else I've ever read before.  I was incredibly impressed by this tender, realistic, beautiful story, and I can't wait to see what Whaley does next. 

3.  Bandit Letters, by Sarah Messer.  Helsinki might have been the most intense of all the poetry books I read this year, but Bandit Letters still came out as my favorite.  As a poet interested in history and how we narrate history, I could not have read a better example of these interests than Bandit Letters, which plays with the romantic idea of the American Outlaw.  Messer does some fascinating things with gender and storytelling and role-playing in this book, and I was enthralled by the language and the way the poems were built from the first page to the last.

2.  The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater (audio version read by Will Patton).  This is the first time an audiobook has ever made this list, and it made it all the way to number two!  I have explained time and again on this blog that what I'm most interested in in fiction is a good, emotionally-satisfying story.  The Raven Boys brought that in spades.  The teenage daughter of a psychic, Blue Sargent, gets more adventure than she could have ever bargained for when she meets The Raven Boys, four students at the local private boarding school.  I'm a sucker for stories about male friendship, and this YA novel brought the goods, along with some really great plots involving class, family, and (most importantly) fate.  There are three more years of the Raven Cycle to come, and I am absolutely going to devour them.  I haven't been this caught up in a series in a long, long time.

1.  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  This was the very first book I read in 2012 and it remained at the top.  As I started putting this list together, I didn't expect The Art of Fielding to make it all the way to number one.  Yet as I looked at my candidates, I realized that the book I was most emotionally involved in was this one.  It's a fairly long book, but I finished it in a couple days because I couldn't get enough of its story about baseball and liberal arts colleges and relationships.  Best of all, The Art of Fielding featured my favorite character of 2012: the badass, troubled, delightful Mike Schwartz.  Harbach's novel has gotten a lot of backlash in the last year because of all the praise it got upon its release in 2011, but I don't care.  I loved this book, and it was the single most engrossing thing I read in all of 2012. 

Honorable Mentions: Drive, by James Sallis; Prepare to Die!, by Paul Tobin; Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Power of Television

Book Reviewed: The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by Alan Sepinwall

I love TV.  If you gave me a choice between TV and film, I will pick TV almost every time.  I love the way a series spins out over time, deepening characters and plots and often confronting some major themes or subject matter through story.  It's the closest visual equivalent we have to literature.  I follow a handful of TV series, and I own quite a few series on DVD.  I also follow a lot of TV critics, including Alan Sepinwall, who writes TV reviews and recaps for HitFlix. 

A month or so ago, Sepinwall self-published the ebook, The Revolution Was Televised, which takes the common knowledge that TV has been its best in the last decade or so and then spins that idea out further.  Sepinwall focuses on twelve drama series from the last fifteen years, using his own ideas about the shows, the words of their creators, and lots background stories, to talk about exactly why TV has been so good lately.  I used this book as the carrot at the end of the stick that was finals week, rewarding myself with it only after I finished all my papers and projects and settled back in at home for winter break.  It was completely worth it.  This is probably the best nonfiction book I read this year, and it's definitely the best (okay, maybe only) book I've read about contemporary television.

The book starts off on the premise that the drama revolution didn't start with The Sopranos, as most people think.  Rather, Sepinwall argues that it was actually the HBO prison drama Oz, created by Tom Fontana in 1997, that actually set off a chain reaction.  This strangely mirrors my own development as a TV fan, going from someone who casually enjoyed television, to a complete fanatic once I saw all the seasons of Oz in a one-month period as a college junior.  Despite how flat-out weird that show could be, especially by its last few years, Oz made me realize that television was wholly capable of spinning out long, strange, occasionally beautiful, deep stories over a period of years rather than hours.  I like movies but rarely feel emotionally involved in them.  TV gets me emotionally involved.  Oz was revolutionary because it had both the ability to create interesting characters and the benefit of premium cable, without language or nudity barriers, to actually make those characters more realistic and interesting.  It was the first in what would become a long tradition of great cable television.

From there, Sepinwall concentrates on eleven other shows, in chronological order: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  I've only seen 5 of these shows, and I only closely follow two of them (Mad Men and Friday Night Lights).  But even the chapters on shows I've never seen are fascinating, making an argument for the way television has built upon its successes to reach ever-greater heights.  Sepinwall proves himself a good journalist, as he gets a lot of juicy and fascinating information out of the show's creators, producers, and stars through interviews done for the book.  Sepinwall clearly loves television, but he's not afraid to show how often shows seem to come together almost accidentally or how the divisions between creative and business personalities often sink great shows.

My only criticism of The Revolution Was Televised is that it mostly concentrates on shows that worship at the foot of the anti-hero.  Obviously, it's the development of the anti-hero as protagonist that has single-handedly changed television the most in the last two decades.  Sepinwall mentions anti-heroes without really making them part of his argument.  In a way, the book doesn't have a clear thesis that argues for any particular reason why these TV shows all belong together in one book (except, possibly, an argument about the importance of a strong-willed, talented showrunner as the single most necessary ingredient in good TV).  For this reason, some chapters seem a little out of place.  Despite the fact that it is my single favorite TV show of all time and features some lovely insights from Sepinwall, the Friday Night Lights chapter is the most glaring example of a show that doesn't quite fit the pattern here.  FNL is one of the best shows of the last decade, and Sepinwall makes a strong argument that its production and airing was certainly revolutionary (NBC and DirecTV split costs in exchange for rights to air at different times, effectively saving the show after season two).  But as a show simply about realistic people trying to make good choices and coming up against social and economic barriers that force them into lives different from the ones they expected, it feels a bit out of place in this list of oft-violent TV series.

That being said, I still think this is a delightful and insightful book.  Sepinwall self-published it, but within a couple weeks it was reviewed by the New York Times and made Michiko Kakutani's Top 10 year-end list.  It's a book that anyone with a passing interesting in contemporary television absolutely must buy and read. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #9

Trashy Read 2012 #9: The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know by now that Courtney Milan has quickly become one of my favorite romance writers (probably second only to Loretta Chase).  Of the nine romances I have read in 2012, five have been written by her.  Last May, I became obsessed with her novella The Governess Affair, which was sweet and emotionally engaging in a way that's rare in historical romance.  That novella was supposed to be the prequel to a new series called The Brothers Sinister.  At the time The Governess Affair was published, the first full-length book in the series was due to be released later that summer.  Then it got pushed back to September.  Then October.  And then Courtney Milan admitted that she didn't know when it would come out.  Well, it finally hit Amazon as an e-book at the beginning of December.  I bought it the moment she posted the link on Twitter and began reading it as soon as finals week wound down.  I worried it wasn't going to be worth the long, agonizing wait I had spent until its release.  Luckily, I was wrong.

I loved The Duchess War.  I wrote on this blog once that the appeal of Nora Roberts's romances rests in the characters' inherent goodness.  I enjoy reading romances featuring protagonists who are good people trying to do the right thing.  I think Courtney Milan has become the historical romance equivalent of Nora Roberts.  Her books just make me feel warm.  A Milan novel is funny, sweet, and VERY emotionally rewarding.  This book in particular made me really feel the intense emotional struggles of its hero and heroine and then rewarded me with an ending that felt honest to these people.  I actually got a bit choked up at the end, and despite my generally-emotional reading habits, I never, ever cry while reading romances. 

The Duchess War takes place almost three decades after The Governess Affair, focusing on the son of that book's villain.  Robert Blaisdell, a duke (obviously), knows of his father's horrible past transgressions, and he's made it his life's goal to undo the man's mistakes.  He finds himself in an English industrial town, writing handbills under a pseudonym, trying to get pensions for workers and beat the corruption inherent in the factory system.  Robert wants nothing more than to be the opposite of his father.  He strives to be a good man who never takes advantage of anyone.  He meets Wilhelmina Pursling, the ultimate wallflower, who wants nothing more than to be ignored as she tries in her own small way to improve the lives of the town's citizens.  Minnie has a sad, weird past that she has been trying to avoid by becoming a non-person.  But Robert, of course, sees through the act to the real, passionate Minnie.  Their lives become more and more entangled, until they can't help but fall in love.

I'm not used to being surprised by romances.  In fact, I often enjoy them for the comfy formulas.  But The Duchess War genuinely surprised me in the way it unfolded.  Wilhelmina's secret is something I've never encountered before in romance, and it's nice to see a heroine's past be about a very different type of "ruin" than we usually see in historical romances.  Meanwhile, Robert's desire to be part of a family and his desire to be loved adds actual emotional stakes to the story rather than feeling like a crutch or a cliche.  The way the book's last fifth unfolds actually made my heart hurt.  I love romances because of the way they aren't afraid to be emotional, but I tend to read them with a bit of distance, enjoying the emotional ringers the characters go through without ever quite feeling involved in them.  The Duchess War kept me involved.  I could barely stand how much it made me feel for the hero and heroine, two people whose angst actually felt earned rather than dictated by an all-seeing author.  What makes this book, and by extension its author, so good is the feeling that everything is natural and earned.  I can't get enough of Milan's books, and this one might be the best yet.

Note:  This is probably my favorite Milan book in terms of story, although I'd say that Ned (from Trial by Desire) is still my favorite Milan hero.  He's probably my favorite romance hero ever, actually.  That being said, Robert was pretty great himself.

Note 2:  I absolutely cannot wait for the next book in this series, which focuses on Oliver, the son of the two protagonists in The Governess Affair.  Oliver seems made of win, and better yet, he's not a wealthy aristocrat!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #8

Trashy Read 2012 #8: Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry

Despite my love for romance novels of every shape and size, I have never read a category romance.  Category romances are those thin, cheesy-looking paperbacks that you see at the supermarket.  They cost much less than a regular paperback and come as part of a "line," such as Harlequin SuperRomance or Blaze or whatever.  There are dozens of them released every month, and they tend to be a lot less substantial, story-wise, than regular mass-market romance novels.  They make a lot of money and get a lot of attention from my favorite romance blogs, but somehow I have never been brave enough to pick one up.  They are daunting to me.  How do you know where to start?

Luckily, I listen to the Dear Bitches, Smart Authors podcast (hosted by Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Jane from Dear Author).  They often talk about romances from every subsection of the genre, including categories.  And they are always talking about their mutual love of Sarah Mayberry.  After I heard them praise a book called Suddenly You a month or two ago, I decided I'd give this category thing a try.  So I picked up Suddenly You from the library and gave it a spin.

It was a good experience.  The story revolves around mechanic/sometimes-bad-boy Harry Porter and his attraction to single mother Pippa White, who once dated and was mistreated by Harry's best friend.  Pippa struggles to raise her infant daughter and keep afloat financially, and she takes Harry up on his offer to help her fix her car and ramshackle house.  They can't fight their mutual attraction, though, and things get complicated when Harry realizes just what an asshole his best friend has been to Pippa in the last two years.  The story definitely feels character-based, which I appreciated.  Harry and Pippa's mistakes are based on their personalities (which, admittedly, are not particularly complex but which are pleasant to read about nonetheless).  Mayberry writes in a natural style, brief and to-the-point.  Overall, it was a perfectly reasonable and entertaining way to spend a few hours.

Suddenly You might not stick with me forever.  I enjoyed the interactions between Harry and Pippa, as well as the way the story lets them make actual adult decisions about their lives.  That doesn't mean it's going to end up on a favorite books list anytime soon, though.  Considering that I read romance just to spend a few comfortable hours in a fictional world that has nothing to do with my life as a frustrated graduate student, though, that's not a bad thing.  Best of all, I can now say I have actually read a category romance.  And you know what?  I would totally read another one.