#BestReads2016: Year of the Graphic Novel

Lists from previous years:

Best Reads 2012

Best Reads 2013

Best Reads 2014

Best Reads 2015

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It’s the time of the year again when we sit down and gather our best reads from the past year, the books and stories that made us laugh or cry or dance, dream and think beyond our lives or about our lives in different nuances. It’s the last days of 2016 so as a tradition on this blog as is on many other blogs, it’s time to look back and share which novels made an impact on me.

Last year I went on something close to a rant about myself and my inability to finish bigger works of fiction or non-fiction during 2015. I put my faith in short-story collections and then tried to apologise that the majority of my best reads list consisted of short-story collections. That was 99% stupidity. The Best Reads lists make themselves in our heads as we flip page after page, read book after book and gasp in awe at comic book after comic book.

Short-story collections are one of the best things to exist. They have been my guide, my encyclopedia through fiction. They have been a constant fuel and inspiration. If one genre tops your Best reads list it means it sucked you in, it transformed you and inspired you. It made you think, it made you love. It sat with you through gloom and sunshine, a blanket of words and pictures tightly wrapped around your arms.

Best Reads lists should show all that. I’m ever glad they exist and that we as avid readers can share what stories we fell in love with, what stories moved us. It’s a fitting way to say goodbye, farewell to a passing year because these stories reflect our view of 2016, they mirror what we felt, where we were, who we were. In a way, at least.

Here’s my Best Reads 2016 list!

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FANTASY

A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords 1 by George R.R. Martin

fhahefhaFive years ago I bought the first book of the series “A Game of Thrones” and didn’t read a single page from it until this past summer. It would sound like a bad excuse but the tv adaptation “Game of Thrones” is to blame for that.

But I’m ever glad I finally started the series especially with the huge hiatus between season 6 and 7 of the tv show. I have plenty of time to catch up on the source material.

A lot of people joke about how much banner talk (I nearly wrote bathroom talk, smh) there is in these books. They aren’t wrong. I’ve lost track of the number of houses, banners, sigils and names George R.R. Martin has come up with. The heraldry in the series is insane. And unlike the people who find that a snore fest I quite enjoy the long paragraphs introducing an endless array of cousins and nieces and houses.

I found an interesting thing when reading the books. They set a very steady rhythm with me. I can read for hours and never the voice in my head drifts off. I don’t know whether it’s because each chapter is told through the POV of different characters or simply because Martin has a way with words that even monologues roll of your tongue with ease and they are quite poetic and sing-song like often times. I hadn’t read much fantasy in the past years so the fact that “A Song of Ice and Fire” clicked with me with ease is the best thing. I can’t talk about the plot of the series, that just feels wrong because it’s just this huge, huge thing today that even if you are not a fan you know the basic premise – a war, a family torn apart, lots of death, lots of Machiavellian mischief and dragons of course.

What I love about the series is the vast diversity in its territories. The transitions are easy to set the mood appropriately for the desert, for lost cities, for rain and mud, snow and frost, lavish fields, and barren castles. Each land just by its description creates a legend – there are a great many legends of the world on their own, but the things Martin doesn’t write but hints at are what makes this story so grand for me.

I won’t stop to talk about the characters because there are so many fantastic personages. I’ll tell you however who one of my favorite characters in the series is – Littlefinger.

HORROR

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

25458371This is the type of novel I finish and can just say “Oooh”.  The Guardian called the novel “a gothic masterpiece” set on the northwest English coastline, two things that quickly made me want to read “The Loney” – a mystery near the bleak, bleak sea. I was looking at reviews the other day and found a surprising amount of 2 star reviews and mentions how the novel did not live up to the hype and how it left much unfinished and unexplained. But the novel is a lie in a way, news you receive at the last page so you go back to the beginning and wonder how much you trusted it when you started reading and how much you trust its narrative now that you’ve finished it. I don’t know. I trust the uncanny, the unexplained, the pagan, mystic, horrible part of it but I also entertain the other possibility. It’s open to interpretations.

The story carries us on a deeply religious pilgrimage that bares the hope that a mute and institutionalised boy, will be cured of his affliction through the ancient powers of a shrine belonging to a desolate, dank, foreboding land giving way to grey sea. Whether a healing process occurs I will not say. The novel dabbles in surreal horror and each character carries a sense of spiritual crisis, a downfall of faith through faith. They seek redemption and we see their nuanced experiences into reaching one or failing to do so. The story battles with the unquestioned love for a past sadistic Father and the mistrust of his successor who interprets faith in a different way.

I vastly enjoyed the novel and it became my train read on late nights coming back from uni. If anything tickled your interest, go see for yourself. If its blank, it’ll show right away.

***

Whitstable by Stephen Volk

16163489“1971. A middle-aged man, wracked with grief, walks along the beach at Whitstable in Kent.

A boy walks approaches him and, taking him for the famous vampire-hunter Doctor Van Helsing from the Hammer movies, asks for his help. Because he believes his stepfather really is a vampire…”

                                                                               – from Goodreads

Whitstable is probably my favorite read from this year. I put the description here on purpose because if you haven’t figured out who this novella is about or dedicated to just by reading it…well I’ll tell you.

It’s about Peter Cushing.

I don’t want to sound like one of those fans but my first introduction to him was through Star Wars: Episode IV as Grand Moff Tarkin. Of course when I watched it I had no idea who he was. I was a wee child! And much later on becoming better versed in the classic horror movies I recognized him and saw him in a different light – as the hero. As Doctor Van Helsing.

Whitstable is a crushingly poignant story exploring in frightening depths the darkness inside us. It’s a story mixing fact and fiction but Stephen Volk balances that masterfully. His language is rich and detailed in his rebuilding of Cushing’s world of grief and solitude after the death of his wife Helen.

The story true in its main character and his difficult period in life, fictionalized an event which awakes Cushing from his peripheral, private existence and asks of him to be brave again, to step into the shoes of the actor but do so in a new role that begs of him to be cunning and fight a much more real monster of flesh and bones, but not with stakes and sunlight – with compassion, with understanding.

I urge you to read this novella. It’s equal parts sad and uplifting. You don’t have to be acquainted with Peter Cushing or his career to enjoy this. Just know that whilst fiction in the sense of the narrative, it’s also a true to life story. It’s a very human story.

The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

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Blackwood became a favorite with “The Willows” which I read for #NaNoReMo ( a.k.a The National Novel Reading Month) in 2015. I scared me beyond words and its howling winds are still audible in my nights. But when I saw there was a novella called “The Wendigo” I got over excited. Wendigos are one of my favorite creatures in folklore by far surpassing werewolves. I believe some areas in Canada still see practiced the wendigo taboo ceremony. It was performed in times of famine when the human soul was thought to become greedy and the human flesh a craving. Thus the evil spirit was awoken and it took over the human transforming or possessing him with the Wendigo spirit.

 

It was really cool to learn that Blackwood’s Wendigo is considered to be the first appearance of the creature in literature. And although it vastly differs from its folklore description – a cannibalistic monster, an evil spirit – Blackwood’s monster of the wilderness is a force to be reckoned with.

I’ve watched a lot of movies and tv shows featuring a Wendigo – namely Supernatural, Hannibal even games like Until Dawn (where the story was set in Blackwood Mountain). So I was aware of what a Wendigo looked like, how it behaved, what it wanted. Algernon Blackwood surprised me with his vision of the spirit of the wild. It befalls at first two men camping in the Canadian wilderness during their moose-hunting trip. Again as with The Willows though not as rich in details, the novella carries with sounds, night noises that are outside of the world the characters inhabit, unnatural and provoking the telling of legends and spirits, that of the Wendigo. When divinity student Simpson sees his guide Defago run out of their tent seemingly called by a voice high above the trees, he panics and follows only to discover two sets of footprints – one of unnatural proportions and one human, oddly transforming with each stride until they too become unnatural, belonging to some entity of giant proportions.

The brave but delirious student Simpson finds his way to the main camp and calls for reinforcements. Alas Algernon Blackwood is unforgiving and his characters cannot brave the sights they see, the scents they smell – if you’ve ever wondered how a Wendigo smells, its odor is that of lions in a cage – the voices and words they hear. Wendigos have their feet on fire. The heroes fall in deep beliwderment and as they recollect the events frightening images of the dark depths of the Canadian wilderness form.

Artist: Matt Fox

Artist: Matt Fox

Photo belongs to Sffaudio.com

Photo belongs to Sffaudio.com

CRIME

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie #3) by Kate Atkinson

3289281I approached this novel series from the middle but that’s because I couldn’t find the other books at the time. I assured myself it wouldn’t be that much of a problem since I was familiar with Case Histories, the tv series based on Atkinson’s famous PI Jackson Brodie (quality drama!).

I used to love reading crime novels. There were plenty of books at home, noir, mafia novels, lots of Puzo, Chandler, Greene and others more diverse it seemed to me with elements of sci-fi and horror. So I always had a crime to solve in the face of a novel or a short story and still do.

This novel is a train wreck both in its narrative where a train literally crashes and in terms of the lives of its characters. People deceive, people lie and people’s destinies lay on the same path. Junctures lead to a highway of sadness, memories, passion, friendship, love and family. And of course mystery. Jackson Brodie is a pretty neat character – he’s cheeky, smart, determined, loyal to his work as a private investigator. And somewhat unfortunate as he always gets tangled so deeply in people’s lives that the ordeal often threatens his own life. I grew fond of him via the tv series and whilst reading this novel couldn’t help but blend the episode based on it with the written word. I was actually quite pleased with how they had approached the episode. The novel has buckets and buckets of dark humour in the midst of all the drama which sets the pace quite nicely and the novels becomes easily gripping. One can only hurry to finish it as the story doesn’t allow you to catch your breath. There’s a healthy dose of Scotland as the events unfold there. What’s not to love?

SHORT-STORY COLLECTIONS

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

22522808I would betray myself and the tradition of creating these lists if Neil Gaiman isn’t included. This year he is more than present not only with this collection but with a few graphic novels. Right off the start I want to say how gorgeous this William Morrow paperback edition is. I love the cover and the print is fantastic as well.

Gaiman’s short-story collections have always been amongst my favorites starting with Fragile Things, my first introduction to him. I mention Fragile Things because it surprised readers with an additional novella – “The Monarch of the Glen” – about Shadow Moon, the protagonist from Gaiman’s most celebrated novel “American Gods”. Trigger Warning repeated that gesture with another novella about Shadow set again after the events in “American Gods” called “Black Dog”.

I remember there was some controversy surrounding the title as people didn’t consider the stories and poems published in this body of work to fit the meaning behind a “trigger warning”. If my memory serves me right there was a backlash of sorts and people were genuinely offended.

This is an excerpt from the introduction of “Trigger Warning”. You can read the full piece here.

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead…..”

“We build the stories in our heads. We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?”

I urge you to read the full introduction even if you are not interested in the collection itself. It discusses a topic considering creators of content from movies to books to art everywhere and Gaiman’s opinion or theory is a solid one that I too share.

I’ve talked about Neil Gaiman many, many times on this blog. His stories are worth your time. In this short-story collection they come from distant places, they are different from one another controversial to the traditional way short-story collections are constructed. So you go near and far within the span of a few pages. You travel light and never land in the same narrative.

You get to visit a tribute to Bowie, run alongside the 11th Doctor in a nightmarish scenario. You journey to caves withholding gold for a price. I love how Gaiman says that this short-story collection fails the consistency test but that’s why I quite love it. It’s hazardous and in that unknown between each story hide other smaller trigger warnings. I like to do this thing that after I’ve read a story or two I go back to the beginning of the book at the behind the scenes of each story. Beforehand I try to figure out where Gaiman might have written it, for whom, why. I never guess correctly but am always surprised at the reveal.

I had many favorite stories here so I’ll just point out a few that gave me a fright at night or rattled my bones. You’ll have to discover what hides behind these titles on your own: The Thing About Cassandra (which I looked for, for ages even convincing myself at one point Gaiman hadn’t even written), Down to a Sunless Sea (which you can read here), The Case of Death and Honey, Jerusalem, The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, Observing the Formalities, In Relig Odhrain and Black Dog.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

The Sandman – Issues 40 to 75 by Neil Gaiman

sandman_no-1_modern_age-comiccoverAfter so many years I finally had the chance to finish my favorite comic book series. The unraveling of its protagonist Dream of the Endless, Morpehus, Lord of Dreams ending with him becoming a tragic hero is a one of a kind journey from the dimmest corners of dark horror through the multilayered fantasy LSD trip incorporated with classical and contemporary mythology ending with the masterful artwork of Michael Zulli.

I actually don’t know what to write here. This comic book series was the highlight this year as it was with its first 39 issues years back when I first discovered it. It combines everything I love in fiction ticking off genre after genre – urban fantasy, epic fantasy, occult, superhero, mythology, history. I couldn’t summarize it in such a short space here, this legend of the late 80’s and titan by the time it ended its original run in 1996.

Dream of the Endless is perhaps my all times favorite character. I’ve always thought there’s a hint of Gaiman himself in his visual.

sandman-046-06m

I was trying to pick an issue or issues that I really loved but it’s very hard. Worlds’ End is amongst them in which travelers from different universal plains or realms are stuck in an endless inn called “Worlds’ End” whilst a reality storm roams outside. They tell stories to pass the time and each story is narrated by a different character. “A Tale of Two Cities” is told by a city dweller who one day finds himself in what he thinks to be a dream or opposite version of the city in which he lives, but then he meets an old man stuck there who explains his fear that the cities will someday awaken because they too sleep and are aware of wandering people through them.  “Cerements” the fifth story is told by a ‘prentice’ from the necropolis Litharge which is basically a city devoted to the processes of multicultural burial.  During these storytelling sessions a funeral procession crosses the sky and that perhaps is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen drawn on paper. It’s also a neat foreshadowing.

The Sandman: Overture has been sitting on my shelf since last bloody Christmas and I’m really excited to be able to finally read it because I didn’t want to start it before The Sandman was done.

If you haven’t by this day and age read any Sandman please, please do so especially if you enjoy the genres it combines. You will not regret it.

***

The Dark Night: A True Batman Story by Paul Dini

dark_night_a_true_batman_story_vol-1_1I actually did an extended review on this autobiographical graphic novel some weeks ago. You can check it out here. It includes some additional thoughts and memories about Batman, some personal aspects regarding the idea behind the Caped Crusader and is filled with links to cool blogs and videos.

I will shamelessly pull out a paragraph from that review and paste it here!

Dini, a lifelong Batman fan is a lucky man as he is writing stories for his idol. Alas he isn’t a happy man. In the first pages of the graphic novel Dini tells the story of a loner, battling low self-esteem and fighting to float above but always drowning in his self-manufactured misery that generates from falling for shallow women mistaking him with a BFF ticket to a Hollywood success. Then one night, in 1993, as he is taking a long walk home Dini gets attacked, mugged and brutally beaten. He survives the attack but spirals down a cycle of self-pity, self-harm, alcohol and abstinence from Batman.

“So…I got beat up.”

That’s how the autobiographical story opens and throughout it we as readers get to experience a painful yet oddly humorous transition from the pretend happiness of a loner to the downright scary self-harming psychological daymare infested with Batman’s cast pouring criticism and bullying Dini into submission or opposition.

I really enjoyed it not knowing what exactly I was getting myself into and after I read it I was confused for a while until my brain processed the brutal impact this story delivers and how true it speaks for the darkness lurking inside of us in moments of vulnerability. I highly recommend it.

***

The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal

2128495By far the weirdest thing I read this year. I remembered the movie Immortel (ad vitam) which was really bizarre to me and I got the vague notion that it was based on a graphic novel. Truly it is, written in French by Yugoslavian born Enki Bilal between 1980 and 1992.

So, check this out. The central plot of the science fiction trilogy, set in a dystopian, technopolis 2023 Paris, follows one Alcide Nikopol, a man returning, more like crashing to Earth after a  30-year sentence spent orbiting our planet in a cryopreservation chamber/capsule. He finds himself in France under fascist rule following two nuclear wars. Also there’s an Egyptian pyramid doubling as airship hovering above the capital. Le immortel gods are stuck there because they don’t have fuel and the government doesn’t want to give them any. Also they want to revive their rule over humanity. Can you imagine a pyramid hovering above Trump tower demanding fuel or promising destruction? I can.

Alas, Horus isn’t having any of that, so he hopes down to Paris and possesses crashed Nikopol’s body sharing his immortality with the fragile human. Together they concoct a conspiracy that would overthrow the regime and screw the ancient gods plans.

If any of this doesn’t grab your attention here is a snapshot.

butnt_142

Hellblazer, book 2: The Devil You Know & book 3: The Fear Machine by Jamie Delano

2382804I guess Hellblazer will always have a place on my Best Reads lists until the day I finish all issues and all spin-offs. I’m madly in love with it. Book 1 was rightfully included in my 2015 list and back then I said how much I loved Constantine as a character. He is right there with Morpehus from The Sandman, an equally complex character though vastly more nuanced. He’s only human after all, though he dabbles in inhuman practices.

Once more I can only urge you to introduce yourself with the multidimensional, dark and oft gory universe of Hellblazer, the charming John Constantine battling demon after demon. It’s quite political at times as well, so mind that.

***

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman

18956270Death of the Endless is my second favorite character in the Sandman universe. I really wanted to go as her this Halloween but couldn’t muster the courage. She is a complex character as Death should be and when I saw that there was a separate story involving her as the protagonist I had to read it.

Simply put one day in every century, Death has a tradition to walk the Earth in order to better understand people, those to whom she takes the hand last. She becomes a young mortal girl named Didi.

Didi befriends Sexton, a teenager typing his death note on the computer one afternoon. It isn’t a suicide note to say. It’s a way to say he’s tired. It’s all pointless.

But after accidentally meeting Didi he spends the most remarkable time in his life in her company and together they help a 250-year old homeless woman find her missing heart.

death_-_high_cost_of_living_-_1_-_15-1

It’s a heartwarming story of life, love, ones place in the world and of course Death. She as a character both mortal and immortal is enigmatic and comforting as she lays her pale hand on your shoulder and gently guides you away without fear, without concerns. Reading the three issues was a pleasing adventure offering a different mindset.

***

The City of Shifting Waters (Valérian, 1)  by Pierre Christin 

7810429This was a pleasant surprise. I kept hearing about the movie and how faithful it would stay to the comics. Now I’m a sucker for comics and for the original source, so naturally I had to see what the fuss was about. It turned out to be a very neat sci-fi comics with charismatic protagonists Valerian and Laureline, two Spatio-Temporal agents jumping from adventure to adventure in time.

The comic carries that 70’s style of talk and walk. It’s comical and bright in the best possible way with all the crazy sci-fi talk you’d expect.

*         *        *

So there you have it – my #BestReadsList of 2016. Why can’t I never keep this thing short and simple? I’ll try to behave in 2017.

I’ve got my hands on Foundation by Asimov, Red Rising, some Hunter S. Thompson with his Hell’s Angels memoir and an array of horror novels like Let the Right one In, The Ritual and many, many more. I’m looking forward to a diverse list for next year – classics meeting new age fiction. And a Gaiman story. Otherwise I’ll break my tradition. It’s like that House Stark saying that there must always be a Stark in Winterfell. There must always be a Gaiman in my Best Reads Lists. Funny thing that.

What did you read this year? What made you excited about reading and about literature? Share your lists! This is the best way to exchange books!

I also want to wish you a Happy New Year! I hope you will be the best you in 2017, that you will love and be loved, share happiness and comfort and you will be patient and understanding. I hope you read the best books and write the cleverest stories. Cheers guys! Xx

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