These are the top ten books I read in 2012:
#10 Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
Walls wrote The Glass Castle and this book is kind of a prequel to that book. This is the story of the author’s grandmother, Lily. It begins with Lily and her brother and sister racing to climb a tree as a flash flood overwhelms their farm. And it only gets crazier after that. Lily Casey Smith was breaking horses at six. When she turned fifteen, she rode a horse 500 miles on her own, to become a teacher in a frontier town. Books like this make you wonder if the next older person you see is a walking adventure.
#9 Unwholly by Neal Shusterman
This is the sequel to Unwind, in which young men and women in the future must hide from authorities or be literally dismantled for parts. I had the opportunity to meet Shusterman in Fort Collins and he mentioned to the group that he always tries to make each book in a series better than the previous one. Too many times Volume I of a series is the high point of the series and the rest of the books are just attempts to collect a little more cash with the concept. Unwholly picks up where Unwind left off, following the lives of Conner, Risa, and Lev as they deal with the growing conflict surround the Unwinding Laws. We also meet some new characters such as Miracolina (a tithe who is apparently determined to achieve her own death), Starkey (a sly manipulator who is a growing threat), and Camus (a bizarre concept-character that I will not ruin by describing). Shusterman has taken a great idea and made it even better.
#8 Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers
An exploration of the effects of technology through the ages. Each section uses the philosophy of a specific historical figure to not only explore the repercussions of advances in their time, but also repercussions of similar advances in our own. A real eye-opener. I have already used various ideas from this book in conversations and classes.
#7 The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt
Hard core sci-fi by one of the best living sci-fi writers. It is the 23rd Century and archaeologists are exploring the ruins of various worlds. They have discovered signs of a race they call the Monument-Makers. The protagonist Priscilla Hutchins is a pilot for one of the archaeology teams. Inevitably she becomes intrigued and eventually involved in the mystery of the Monument-Makers.
#6 The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
A gruesome and downright creepy horror tale that is actually decent as far as language issues. But it is certainly not for the light-hearted. Will Henry is an orphan taken in by the eccentric and strange Dr. Warthrop who is the Monstrumologist. Their relationship is kind of a cold father/son arrangement that has a great depth that is missing in most YA books. Together, they investigate the real possibility that terrible monsters called anthropophagi are in the area. These creatures are somewhat human in shape, but have no head. Instead, their eyes and mouth are in their torso. And wow—talk about vicious. Not recommended for younger kids. And only for some adults.
#5 Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Another classic Dickens tale that focuses on a small industrial town and the people of extremes who live there. Sissy is abandoned by her father who works at the circus and she is then raised by the meticulous Gradgrind who smothers imagination and nurtures cold facts. Gradgrind’s own son and daughter face a grim life because of their father’s teachings. The plot is mild by comparison to other Dickens novels, but the characters (as always) shine. This is probably the shortest of Dickens novels.
#4 The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The first of a ten-book epic, this will prove to be one of the fantasy monstrosities well worth the wait and the weight. The world is called Roshar and it is brutalized by storms of incredible magnitude. All life must submit to the merciless tempests. Armies collide, the victory shaped by those who possess powerful weapons and armor called Shardblades and Shardplate, which make any man almost impossible to defeat. On the Shattered Plains, a broken man named Kaladin struggles to survive one of the oddest and interesting terms of warfare I’ve ever read. Meanwhile, a girl named Shallan, posing as an apprentice, infiltrates a palace planning to steal an artifact of great power. Brandon Sanderson is the author who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and will clearly be a significant voice of the fantasy genre for years to come.
#3 The Help Kathryn Stockett
Despite some occasional crude language, this is a great book about several women in Jackson, Mississippi, during the racial tension of the 1960s. The movie was great, but the book is better in that it gives you a much closer experience of the lives of these women. Each chapter is written in first person as a different character. A one-of-a-kind book that makes you smile, makes you angry, and makes you want to read more by this author.
#2 Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
This is what you might call a very literary book with poetic depth and a kind of disregard for pop-style fiction. It is the story of Will who at the age of twelve goes to live in the Indian Nation, running a trade post on his own. During his life he encounters a wild array of people and events that give the reader a more intimate idea of that time period. Entangled in the fate of the Cherokee, Will becomes a key figure in a nation under transformation.
#1 The Most Human Human by Brian Christian
This is a non-fiction book about a contest. Every year, the Turing Test is held to see if programs of artificial intelligence can fool judges into thinking they’re human. At the end of each competition, an award is given to the Most Human Computer. In order to make the contest balanced, actual humans also play along, interacting with the judges through computer screens. At the end of the contest, an additional award is given out to the Most Human Human. The author uses this unusual arena to explore what it truly means to be human and reveals some extremely interesting observations about those of us now deep into the 21st Century. This book will be in my head the rest of my life.