Tag: Danny the Champion of the World

Best Books I Read in 2013 Part 1

I read 53 books in 2013, but a bunch of those were cheats. I count comic books in that number, though they often don’t take more than an hour or two to get through. So for this list I’ll combine the comics into series and we’ll see what the actual number is by the end of it all (37, it turns out). In all other ways, this will be much like any other list. Pictures, a quote, and a little review. And I didn’t hate a single one of these books, though those last five weren’t really very good. Here’s part one! Part two to follow later this week!

37. The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

“Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like day before yesterday,” said Apollonius. “I see your remaining days each as quiet, tedious collections of hours. You will not travel anywhere. You will think no new thoughts. You will experience no new passions. Older you will become but not wiser.”

I read this right after I read Something Wicked This Way Comes because I was told it’s a spiritual father of that story. I get that, a lot. The majority of this novella focuses on the weird stuff at a weird circus. It just doesn’t have much of a plot or really a reason for existing. Nice, but nothing I’ll ever think about again.

36. Dial H Vols 1 & 2 by China Mieville

China Mieville is one of my favorite writers working today and his take on a forgotten superhero should have been really interesting. Instead we get kind of boring things with moments of brilliance (see the chalk version of Batman, for example). Mostly disappointing, though.

35. Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge, and sometimes it never does. Still, with a plan, you only get the best you can imagine. I’d always hoped for something better than that.

Besides all the dead baby talk and the necrophilia, the story of this is a little less than what I was expecting. I love the idea of a haunted house real estate business and the idea of the song that will kill anybody who hears it is fantastic. I don’t even remember how it ends, though.

34. Railsea by China Mieville

People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There’ll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned-out lights.

Another semi-disappointing story from Mieville. I get that it’s for kids but UnLunDun proved that he could do that kind of thing while still maintaining a high degree of awesome. There’s room for improvement here, if he ever decides to return to the rails.

33. The Walking Dead Vols 1-8 by Robert Kirkman

Now I get why the TV show is so uneven. After years of hearing that the comic is better I thought I’d put that to the test. Turns out it is better, slightly. There’s still a lot of bad dialogue and the situations are sometimes quite silly. Still, as half a soap opera and half a kickass zombie story, it’s mostly interesting.

32. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

God, how we get our fingers in each other’s clay. That’s friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of each other.

The prose is uniformly beautiful. The pace, on the other hand, is super slow. Maybe five things happen over the course of the whole book. It’s robbed of its immediacy and therefore less scary than it could have been. Fortunately, Bradbury wrote another Halloween story…

31. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

You know how it goes, young woman travels to a fairy land in search of adventure, finds it. It’s well done and references those giants that came before it nicely. It’s good.

30. Prophet Vol 1 by Brandon S. Graham

Really pretty and mostly interesting story of the last humans flung across space. Here’s hoping it comes together at some point, because as of the end of Vol 1, there’s not a whole lot actually happening.

29. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The 1143-year-long war hand begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was “Why did you start this thing?” and the answer was “Me?”

The most interesting aspect of this story is it’s take on space travel and the time stretching and compacting that happens as the first intergalactic soldiers go out to the front line. It’s a Vietnam parallel and an obvious one at that, but it’s no less powerful for it. The sense of alienation in the middle segment is fantastic.

28. Lexicon by Max Barry

Good words were the difference between Emily eating well and not. And what she had found worked best were not facts or arguments but words that tickled people’s brains for some reason, that just amused them. Puns, and exaggerations, and things that were true and not at the same time.

Another book about the power of words but a lot more successful than Lullaby. Barry continues his trend of fast moving and funny books that feel like a really well done blockbuster movie. That’s a high compliment coming from me.

27. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

I had schooled myself since the war-days never to speak of my enthusiasms; when other people did not share them, which was usual, I was hurt and my pleasure diminished; why was I always excited about things other people did not care about? But I could not hold in.

There isn’t a whole lot of conflict in this story, the first in a trilogy about a small town in Canada, but it thrives thanks to the really great character work. The main character would have been a side character in any other story, and the choice to focus on him gives us wonderful segments like his war experience and his friendship with a Jesuit. It’s not exactly fun, but it is a really great read.

26. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?

Often recommended as a “what to read next” suggestion after catching up with the Song of Ice and Fire series, it shares that saga’s grime and plotting machinations. The characters are often interesting, even those that seem one-dimensional at first glance. I’m eager to catch up with the rest of the series.

25. The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

Too many of us take great pains with what we ingest through our mouths, and far less with what we partake of through our ears and eyes.

My 2013 audiobook consumption was dominated by Brandon Sanderson, first with his book that appears later on this list and then with this one, the second in the Mistborn series. There’s maybe too much build up to the big siege scene, but boy does that scene deliver. Sanderson is a master at making a world and magic system feel entirely realistic and thoroughly considered.

24. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The silence wasn’t uncomfortable or hostile but exhausted–the quiet of people who have a great deal to think about but not a hell of a lot to say.

Anybody with sense in their head might tell you that King writing a sequel to his beloved haunted hotel book, The Shining, which takes place 20 years later and concerns itself with psychic vampires and a death-sensitive cat would tell you it’s a bad idea. But he pulls it off, mostly. The bad guys are at once sinister and kinda silly. King justifies them remarkably well, though, and uses this opportunity to talk about alcoholism in a really great way. Danny Torrence was often overshadowed by his father in The Shining but here he, uh, shines.

23. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

A troupe learns to play like we all learn to screw, stumbling and jostling until everything’s finally in the right place.

I don’t know much about Scott Lynch’s personal life but the skinny on the ‘net seems to be that he was suffering until recently from depression and the end of his marriage. That makes a little bit of sense, as this is the least fun of the Gentlemen Bastards series so far. He again switches back and forth between a previous point in the characters’ lives and their current situation and again the “modern” story is a lot more interesting. Stop showing us the past, Scott! Despite all that, it’s still really good.

22. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.

The only reason why this is so low is because it was a re-read. It’s still one of the best books for young readers with a fantastic father-son relationship and superb writing throughout. It’s on my top 50 books of all time list for a reason.

21. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.

There’s a movie parallel to be made here with Stories We Tell. Both offer us the idea that we are who we say we are, and that the act of constructing ourselves is one in which we actively engage rather than just having it happen to us as we live our lives. There’s existential crises and a suicide and a really fantastic scene involving a river that runs backwards. And it’s so short I read it in an afternoon.

20. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The difference between childhood and adulthood, Vic had come to believe, was the difference between imagination and resignation. You traded one for the other and lost your way.

Much like his father’s Doctor Sleep, Joe Hill’s 2013 output is about a psychic vampire. Charlie Manx is a fantastic villain, both obviously evil and certainly demented. He steals kids and sucks their lifeforce to power his own in a pseudo-winter-wonderland from hell. Only one girl has escaped and now he’s out for her son. It’s big and long but it moves like a bullet and is quite well written.

19. Fables Vol 1 & 2 by Bill Willingham

I already love fables and fairy tales as a genre, so this comic series which imagines those characters we all know (The Big Bad Wolf and The Three Little Pigs, for example) as modern day refugees from the old world which was taken over by a malevolent darkness. Now they are private eyes (Bigby, the wolf) and communists (those pigs, also borrowing from Animal Farm). I’ll keep reading this series as long as Willingham comes up with clever situations to put these characters in.

18. The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Miraculously, smoke curled out of his own mouth, his nose, his ears, his eyes, as if his soul had been extinguished within his lungs at the very moment the sweet pumpkin gave up its incensed ghost.

Half adventure, half lesson, The Halloween Tree is a much more vital and exciting Halloween themed story than his more popular Something Wicked This Way Comes. Though I have no need to ever learn about Dia de los Muertos again, the rest of the historical instances of the celebration of death are fascinating. Bradbury knows what he’s doing.

Halfway there! Come back later this week for the rest of the list!

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 30-16

You’ve seen my 50-31 books of all time, now it’s time for the next 15. Get ready for 30-16. Remember, series only count as one spot. Click on the titles that are links for fuller reviews.

30. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

I reviewed this book a few weeks ago and it won’t even be the most recent entry onto this list. Just go read that review to find out why this books is so awesome.

29. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle

“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

A hilarious novel about trying to form a soul band in northern Dublin. Doyle writes music better than anybody else I’ve seen. It’s hard to do but he pulls it off.

28. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”

This story is the definition of ‘wonderful’. Roald Dahl is one of the best kid-lit authors there ever was, and this charming tale of a boy and his dad and their pheasant-snatching escapade is top notch Dahl.

27. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

This, like the Magician series in the previous post, came out after the Harry Potter boom. It deals with magic and magicians, although in a completely different manner. It takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and it is written to emulate the literary style of the time. There are two magicians with wildly differing points of view on how magic can be used to beat the short Frenchman which, of course, builds to an epic rivalry. It’s a large book but completely worth the length.

26. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”

What starts off as a man on a quest to write about the invention of the atomic bomb becomes the funniest post-apocalypse story you’ll ever read. Vonnegut does the sci-fi and the humor perfectly, as always. And the Koans of Bokonon, some guy who made up his own religion, are delightfully insightful while also making fun of the idea of religious living.

25. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

I first heard this series as my father read it to me every night before bed. Then, when I got older, I read it myself. I went back and reread it again semi-recently and it was just as good. Lewis’s Narnia is a vast and intriguing universe with all kinds of different stories to be told within it.

24. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss

“And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

This is basically a stand-in for all Dr. Seuss books. They formed such an important part of my childhood that they must have a place on this list. His felicity with the English language is something all writers should strive for.

23. Maus – Art Spiegelman

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a functioning adult”

This book (or pair of books) is a memoir and a family history of the author’s father and mother and their fight to stay alive during the Holocaust. Also, they’re all mice. The device of making each nationality a different species is the hook, but the meat is probably the best Holocaust story I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

22. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is growing his talent. He started by writing plays, then he moved on to short films (he won an Oscar for Six Shooter), and this year he’s releasing his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. All of his stories, regardless of medium, share a dark sense of humor and a distinct sense of place. There’s also a surprising amount of heart in each of his stories. It’s quite a feat to get so dirty and then pull out an emotional climax.

21. Watership Down – Richard Adams

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

This is the story of talking rabbits. It should not, however, be confused with kid-lit. It is a very adult book, full of allusions and philosophical musings. It’s a road book and a settling book and a war book and an escape book. It’s a book about talking rabbits that is as profound as anything else on this list.

20. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

Shakespeare is a funny guy. Even his tragedies have wordplay and clever little exchanges like the one quoted above. I don’t know why, then, I don’t like his comedies all that much. He’s a master of tragedy (historical or not), but the comedies never come together for me. Give me Hamlet’s sarcasm any day of the week. Also, ghosts.

19. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.”

Here’s a strange book. A collection of short stories, some with an idea of a recurring character, though he takes different shapes depending on the story that is being told. Each story takes on a scientific concept and extrapolates it out into a kind of fairy-tale. Calvino’s mixture of science and fiction is unlike any other sci-fi you’ll read.

18. Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Pooh is a bear of very little brain. That doesn’t make him useless. He’s a vital part of our cultural heritage and the world would be a better place if everybody read this collection of short stories every five years. Sometimes it’s important to remember how things really work, and how to have fun, and what’s important, truly. Pooh, despite his very little brain, remembers.

17. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

Both of Foer’s fiction works have been adapted into films. Both films lose large chunks of the story in order to fit everything into a two hour package. It is those missing chunks that are vital to the power of his stories. They are about everything. Love and loss, happiness and sadness, history and family. This book incorporates two timelines, a diary, a fictionalized version of the author, and a magical realist book that tells the history of a small town in Eastern Europe. It’s beautiful.

16. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

“Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.”

I could have just as easily picked another quote from this series to stand in for all seven books worth of writing: Go, then, there are other worlds than these. It is a eulogy of sorts in the book, but it gets at the overriding idea of the series. It connects most of King’s works into a grand universe unparalleled in fiction. It’s a huge series, full of pulp and profundity, like all of King’s works.