Here’s my Top 10 from 2012, and for 2013, I’m cutting it to a top 5. I’m not one of those 100+ books a year readers. I only read like 35 books last year, but I only finish about one in ten that I start, some going as far as sixty seventy percent before putting them down. Stories have to have characters I enjoy reading and give me an emotional investment in their journey, and the author has to create enough escalating and surprising conflict that I’ll be engaged enough to stick with it to the end. The books below fulfilled these characteristics to an outstanding degree.
1. Fiend by Peter Stenson
Fiend by Peter Stenson – Best read of the year. Best zombie book, ever. Masterful illustration about how painful and overwhelming addiction can be – over love, over family, and over being a good human being, even in the face of losing one’s life to a zombie horde. The cover image of Peter Stenson’s Fiend and the combination of meth addicts in a zombie apocalypse created hesitancy in whether this book would be right for me, making me wonder if I was hardcore enough. I guess I am, because I absolutely loved this book.
I want every book I read to enthrall me as consistently and emotionally as Fiend did.
2. Via Dolorosa by Ronald Malfi
Via Dolorosa by Ronald Malfi – Ronald Malfi is one of my favorites. He writes Horror that twists the heart instead of the stomach and in a story so beautifully written that the experience is a mixture of awe and soul-wringing catharsis. I am amazed at how much this story moved me. It is art that is felt as art. All the details of the island hotel, the mourning people he meets, the conversation with his wife and how they are struggling to admit and forgive in order to love again, the mural he is painting in the lobby and how it illustrates his inner turmoil and the turmoil you feel reading his story… All of this had to be read because it so magnificently blended together in sorrow and angst, a longing for a fresh start so that love and peace could heal them of their past mistakes.
3. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 by Stephen King – Like many authors, Stephen King has his hits and misses. This one started off strong, but then had a kind of bloated middle. I wasn’t sure I’d finish, and thought I’d have been okay not to, but I am so glad I did. I can’t remember the last book that made me cry. The ending, in particular the touch provided by the audiobook, is so powerful, I implore anyone with a pulse to ride this journey to the end.
As with most Stephen King books, 11/22/63′s greatest strength is in the characters. The main character is intensely likable and put in an impossibly difficult process to do what is right. The desire to find a happy ending to the love story is the chief source of conflict, but then add to that a mysterious power that manipulates events to prevent the main character from changing the past. The big question is one that relates to all of us: how to find a balance between living a happy, normal life when doing what is right requires us to make sacrifices.
4. No Return by Zachary Jernigan
No Return by Zachary Jernigan – No Return displays the kind of prose, worldbuilding and depth of characterization that place Zachary Jernigan securely within the top tier of Fantasy authors. The prose pulls you in like a piece of art, forcing you to slow down and observe. The worldbuilding makes you imagine maps, bar room brawls over differences in customs, kids praying to the god who lives on the moon, women making sex spells, warriors becoming one with their self-controlled, mutating body suits … all in a way that separates the world in No Return from generic fantasy–this world is alive! (Even as I call it Fantasy, it is just as much Space Opera because the potential for exploration goes far beyond just the planet described in No Return.) On top of this praise, my favorite part is the characterization. In No Return, you get to know the characters so well, you might even know them more deeply than you know yourself, and then in return, you know yourself even better. If Zachary improves his pacing on his sequel and beyond, we could be looking at a member of Fantasy’s next generation of A-listers.
5. John Dies at the End by David Wong
John Dies at the End by David Wong – I have to give credit to the author for writing some of the funniest lines and scariest moments I’ve ever read. In spite of some shallow characterization and tiredly silly moments, I laughed out loud at least once in every reading session, and was truly terrified at how real and creepy the otherworld was that his characters experienced.
Imagine, for example, walking through a mall and Stairway to Heaven blasts out of the speakers using your name throughout, and listing all your sins and vices throughout the lyrics. That’s the kind of spine-chilling sense that you get reading his story.
I don’t want to ruin the one-liners, but here’s a taste of the humorous voice used: “On Judgment Day, I’d be able to proudly state that when I thought the hordes of Hell were coming for a local girl, I stood ready to shoot at them with a small-caliber pistol.”
Timothy C. Ward has been podcasting since 2010, first as AudioTim, and now with AISFP. His newest story, Scavenger: A Sand Diver Tale, is available on Kindle and Smashwords for $.99. His novel in progress, Order After Dark, is a Post-apocalyptic Fantasy set in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss. Sign up to his author newsletter for updates on new releases.