“What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies “the best”? Are they our favorites? Are they “movies we got to see before the deadline”? In my case, it’s some combination of all three — but I’m really quite happy with the aggregate results.” — Jim Emerson
[Insert usual caveat here] With the increase of titles that Snubnose published in 2012 my personal reading dropped from years past but I still read some damn great books. Here they are.
-Driving Alone by Kevin Lynn Helmick & Driving Through the Desert by Donna Lynch – These two books are thematic cousins, that travel through the dark night of the soul, leading you to an end that, once there, you knew was coming all along no matter how much you denied it along the way. Both are elegiac, mournful, and worth your time.
-The Devil Doesn’t Want Me by Eric Beetner – I’ve published some of Beetner’s past work so clearly I’m a fan but with Devil, he moves to a whole new level. The beauty of a book like this, and it can be a hard line to walk, is that this is a book that a basement noir crazy and his/her mother will love. Not every book has that type of broad, crossover potential but Devil does. Eric Beetner is one of crime fiction’s biggest secrets.
-Blood Red Turns Dollar Green by Paul O’Brien – Blood Red is set in the territory days of professional wrestling, a time when a small and secretive group of men controlled all of the action across the country for decades under a sworn veil of secrecy. Sounds like organized crime doesn’t it? In a way it was and O’Brien explores this in a way that appeals to long time wrestling fans and those with no prior knowledge. The key thing about Blood Red is that it is firmly grounded in the recognizable humanity of its characters first and foremost and is a wrestling story second.
-Ghosting by Kirby Gann – A gorgeously written novel that contains some of the most evocative imagery and scenes that I’ve encountered all year. This is rural noir written as journey of self discovery firing on all cylinders with characters that ache for something that isn’t always findable but search they must.
-After publishing three novels and a collection of three novellas in 2012 I’m ready to declare this year Stephen Graham Jones’ and the rest of us are just living in it.
Zombie Bake-Off started off the year and remained one of my favorites as the year continued. This tale of zombies, wrestlers, and soccer moms all trapped in a locked arena was the most fun I had all year (and I can’t wait to read it again).
Then came Growing Up Dead in Texas, a book that defies easy categorization and is the better for it. What Jones does here is look at the events surrounding a devastating moment and how it affects the people in a small town. It is about community, the importance of small things, and the reverberations felt through time, space, memory, and history.
Later in the year, The Last Final Girl came out. If ever there was a novel that should have been bundled with Cabin in the Woods this was it. A ridiculously clever story that pokes at slasher films while being one of its best. This is the story that Scream wanted to be.
Finishing up the year is the collection Three Miles Past, with the novellas Interstate Love Affair, No Takebacks, and The Coming of Night.
-As I wrote over at Do Some Damage, the new publisher Ravenous Shadows was a big find for me. Two of my favorite reads of the year came from them. The first was Die, You Bastard! Die! by Jan Kozlowski, a book that you know is going to go full dark but still manages to surprise you when it actually does. This is a stunning, and never gratuitous, piece of dark fiction.
The Devoted by Eric Shapiro was the most suspenseful book I read all year. This story of the last hours of a suicide cult grabbed me early and wouldn’t let go. I HAD to see what was going to come next and it became unbearable in the best way possible. This is apocalyptic fiction writ small, on a human and intimate scale.
-The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett – This is a superhero story for crime fictions fans who like their fiction gritty, and violent. It’s also one of the most realistic superhero stories ever told as Jama-Everett makes every effort to figure out the real world applications of the powers. This is a compelling read that is a lot of fun. Fans of Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books would be wise to check this out.
-Lost in Clover by Travis Richardson – Lost in Clover is about a horrific crime that thrusts a small community into the national spotlight and the teen who played an integral part in the commission of the crime. This is a case study in compressed story telling as 10 years of time are fluidly and quickly presented to the reader. Much like Dennis Tafoya’s Dope Thief, where most crime novels end is only the beginning, as Trapped in Clover is more interested in the ramifications and aftermath of the crime.
-Flashover by Gordon Highland – Sometimes the best novels resist easy categorization, falling into the spaces between genres or mixing them so wholly and completely, never settling on one thing. Flashover morphs over the course of its telling, adopting different story modes as needed, and becomes in the end something increasingly rare, a truly touching story.
-The Posthumous Man by Jake Hinkson – The Posthumous Man has more heart and less nihilism then Hinkson’s debut novel Hell on Church Street but still retains a fatal ending. This hits my sweet spot for great noir and that is exactly what this is.
-Immobility by Brian Evenson – This book falls into the category of post-apocalyptic noir. The setting is post-apocalyptic but there is a strong noir tonal quality. Immobility also has one of the most unsettling endings I’ve come across, existential horror at its finest.
-Under the Dixie Moon by Ro Cuzon – In the past I’ve written that the PI novel is the haiku of crime fiction, there may be only 17 syllables but in the right hands those syllables will sing; that there is the potential for a lot of power in that framework. Ro Cuzon has written one of the freshest PI novels in years. Great characters, great sense of place, and great action. The third person POV allows a wider cast and more interactions that pays off strongly as the story lines come together.
-Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers – Wow, what a book. There is a lot to love about Pig Iron. A Riddly Walker attention to language filtered through a Traveler worldview that, by the end, becomes something else, something scary, like a Donald Ray Pollock story. Rich language, a singularly memorable narrator, and scenes of vivid and harrowing consequence that haunt the reader in a way that doesn’t compare to the scarring it must produce in the narrator. There is a moment, near the end, as the climax is building, where Pig Iron threatens to stage a Traveler Grand Guignol, and the prospects of it are truly terrifying. Myers has other cards that he wants to play though and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t pull it off (though it’s a lot of fun to imagine the other scenario playing out).
Honorable Mention: Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres – After harassing him for a glimpse at his longer fiction Jed allowed me to read a novel manuscript of his called Peckerwood. It was one of the best crime novels I read all year. Hopefully everyone else will get a chance to read this as it doesn’t deserve to languish in a drawer. I include a (so far) unreleased manuscript here not to embarrass Jed or book tease readers but instead to say that he is one to watch.
THE NERD OF NOIR
The Nerd of Noir’s Top Ten of Twenty-Twelve
Big Maria Johnny Shaw
Shaw followed up last year’s excellent Dove Season with a big fat, shambling adventure story, one about a no-shit quest for gold in them there fuckin’ hills, even. With a cast full of loveable losers and told with plenty of filthy laughs and a whole lotta hard-won heart, Big Maria was a straight-up hoot.
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn
This was the blockbuster of ’12, the book that everyone read (and should read) yet is more fucked up than most of the dirty shit I put in front of my eyes every week. This brilliantly told, deeply sinister and wickedly funny book is gonna be talked about for years and I’ll forever be up for weighing in.
Hell On Church Street Jake Hinkson
Plenty of great southern writers put up strong work this year but this was the one that really left me with scars. This creepy, dread-soaked tale of fucked-up religion and sexual obsession unfolds beautifully yet breathlessly at the same time, leaving me up past my beddy-bye to see how it shook out.
Lake Country Sean Doolittle
It’d been way too long since I’d had a Doolittle in my greazy mitts and, waddayaknow, his latest turned out to be one of his best. A ticking clock plot with an ensemble of some of the most complex characters of the year, Doolittle proved once again that he is undoubtedly one of our best crime writers.
Ninth Step Grant Jerkins
Jerkins only recently popped up on my radar but after going through all his shit I’m a devoted fan. Great as his previous two are, though, this one is my favorite. A simple, agonizing premise taken to the horrifyingly dark places it deserves to go, I want tickets to the movie dying to be made out of it now.
The Prophet Michael Koryta
Koryta took a swing at the ever-rare great American crime novel and, for the most part, fucking nailed it. It doesn’t get much more American than beautiful young dead girls, a failed industrial town and a great high school football team, and books don’t get much more emotionally powerful than this.
The Three-Day Affair Michael Kardos
A simple story of regular guys getting in over their heads, this was a ridiculously intense book that seems beautifully direct until the last few pages roll out just how sly and ingenious the plot really is. To say I’m looking forward to the next Kardos is mincing words something fucking terrible.
Vile Blood Max Wilde
Though Roger Smith gave us a stellar novel (Capture) and novella (Ishmael Toffee) in 2012, the Nerd’s favorite book the prolific writer popped out this year was this hugely bloody and highly original horror novel he wrote under the pen name of Max Wilde. The sequel simply can’t come out quick enough.
Wee Rockets Gerard Brennan
A story of a West Belfast teen trying to get out of his gang despite pressures from a local vigilante, his peers and his shithead dad, Brennan’s novel grapples with some hard questions and issues in a post-Troubles Northern Ireland while delivering the pulp thrills something fierce throughout.
Wolf Tickets Ray Banks
Banks has long been one of my favorites working today and while Wolf Tickets is undoubtedly his least subversive crime novel to date, it’s also one of the most balls-out fucking fun reads of the year. It’s a big, bold story told with a big, bold voice and full of humor of the darkest, most-utterly-fucked-up stripe.
R THOMAS BROWN
So, what hit me as great in 2012? I didn’t read nearly as many books or short stories as I would have liked, but I still found some really great things out there over the past year.
Novels (top 5, or 7 – depends on how much you care about counting)
1. Growing up Dead in Texas – Stephen Graham Jones
Is it a memoir? A novel? Real or fake? Really doesn’t matter because its compelling as hell and a great, great book.
2. This Dark Earth – John Hornor Jacobs
I’m not the world’s biggest zombie fan, but I do love good, original books that explore the drive for survival, it’s good and bad results. I liked this book more the second time I read it.
3. The Collector Series (Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye) – Chris F Holm
Great hardboiled feel to an urban fantasy mix of detective work and a different kind of soul searching.
4. The Miriam Black books (Blackbirds, Mockingbird) – Chuck Wendig
Miriam’s a tough bitch, but an easy person to care about. Caring about her gets people in trouble, sure, but at least it’s an interesting ride.
5. Edge of Dark Water – Joe R. Lansdale
A captivating mix of fright and compelling characters. It’s full of engaging characters and well drawn places and language that transport the reader into the scenes and their often ugly turns.
Short Stories (I picked 4 that piqued my interests. I am not bound by your list size expectations)
1. “Day of the Dead” by Hector Acosta at Shotgun Honey
2. “Nearly Extinct” by Rob Kitchin at All Due Respect
3. “The Things We Do For Love” by Patti Abbott at Shotgun Honey
4. “Slick Texas Money” by Frank Wheeler, Jr. at Beat To A Pulp
Bloodland by Alan Glynn
I don’t know why this dense, complex novel isn’t on more best of lists? I’d been circling Glynn for a couple of years, and when this came out at the beginning of the year in the U.S. I finally took the plunge. Bloodland can probably best be described as a Le Carre novel seen through the paranoid world view of James Ellroy. It’s an intense, grimly realistic read, and. at least in my opinion, cements Glynn as the very best of the current crop of Irish crime novelists. (And as you all know, it’s a very crowded field.)
Driven by James Sallis/Kings of Cool by Don Winslow
I paired these two together because: A) They’re continuations of each author’s most accomplished novels B) Both can be read as standalone novels and C) Both are masterful continuations, and yes, neither one needed to be written, but I’m glad that they were.
Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson/Cash Out by Greg Bardsley
The reason for the pairing, simple: Both are my two favorite debut novels of 2012. (You can check out my thoughts on Hell On Church Street at LitReactor) Both are daring, innovative reads, and no Cash Out is as far from a crime novel (Think of it as a Marx Brother’s film with a bit of ultra-violence. BTW, expect more non-crime reads later down the road.) but it is a masterful satire of the foibles of Silicon valley and of how far one man will go to keep his minuscule piece of the American Dream.
Sorry. Please. Thank You by Charles Yu/ A F*ckload of Shorts by Jedidah Ayres
The reason for the pairing: Innovation, innovation, innovation.
As most of you know, I’m a short story writer and proud to be one, and I love nothing more than getting my hands on GREAT short story collections and both qualify. Most Spinetingler readers are already pretty familiar with Ayres, (and if you haven’t read him yet, what the hell is wrong with you?) but if you haven’t read Yu yet, you need to. His style is comedic, playful, and effortlessly straddles several genres. By the way, I almost lumped Yu in with Winslow and The Kings of Cool not so much based on content, but because both authors have created a unique, stylized form of storytelling that is going to serve as templates for 21st century literature.
The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli/ Growing up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones
The reason for the pairing: A) Both authors are at the peak of their narrative powers B) Both authors have massive backlists with more than a few of them ranking as some of my all-time favorite reads. (All The Beautiful Sinners by Jones is about as perfect as thriller gets and Every Shallow Cut by Pic occupies the same landscape as the very best of Bukowski and Fante without the boozehound shtick.) C) In a perfect world, both of these novels should be breakout novels for the authors, and I mean household name style breakouts.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott
What more can I say about Dare Me? (If you haven’t seen it, you can check out my joint review of Dare Me and Gone Girl at LitReactor.) Just read the damn thing already.
Blackbirds/Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
Wendig occupies the same realm of fiction as Lansdale and Gaiman, i.e., he can pretty much write in any genre, but most importantly, he seems to include EVERY genre in whatever he writes. The Miriam Black books are a fantastic combination of horror/crime/comedy/whatever. Wendig’s conversational style of storytelling, constant action, and deft characterization keeps the pages rolling. Needless to say, I’ll pretty much read any book Wendig puts out into the world.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker/Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye by Paul Tremblay
Both of these came out of nowhere.
Yeah, I’d read Tremblay’s crime satires (The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland) on the recommendation of Dave Zeltserman and enjoyed the hell out of both, but Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye, damn. It’s a dystopian satire along the same lines as the very best of Vonnegut and Saunders. The vividness of Tremblay’s prose brings the worlds of Farm, City, Pier alive, and like The Last Kind Words and Growing Up Dead in Texas, in a perfect world, Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye would be Tremblay’s breakout novel.
The Age of Miracles is a breakout novel, and with good reason. I love apocalypse fiction, but my biggest beef with most of it is that the end of humanity is caused by zombies, nuclear war, environmental disaster, and it’s big, terrifying thing.(BTW, apocalypse novelists, don’t stop doing this, I like the scares.) It ends with a boom. With The Age of Miracles, humanity begins to draw to a close with a whisper, not a bang. A great, albeit quiet, piece of writing.
The Ninth Step by Grant Jerkins
This book is an emotional punch in the balls. Hands down my favorite novel of 2012 (You can see what I wrote about it over at LitReactor)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
So have you read Dan Chaon yet? You haven’t, well why the hell not? Seriously, gang, Chaon is a MASTER storyteller. The stories in Stay Awake are haunting, horrifying, (but not horrifying in the sense of look at all the blood and guts I’m playing around in/YAAARRRGGGHH there’s a guy chasing me with a chainsaw. Think every day horrors like my spouse has died and I’m such an alcoholic mess that I sent my children to live with a relative/I’m so depressed that I still live in the house where my parents committed suicide and I’m letting the house fall apart down around me.) and, ultimately, a beautiful to read. Stay Awake is my favorite book of the year, and one that has stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
There you have it, Spinetingler’s picks for the best fiction of 2012. How did 2012 treat you? What did we miss? Disagree with any of our choices? Let us know.