Top ten reads of the year
As 2016 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back at some of the best books that have appeared here at this blog over the past twelve months. I spent the last year working on a master’s degree, so I didn’t have as much time for pleasure reading as I would have liked, but I ended up reviewing about 90 books for Old Books by Dead Guys. This year’s top crop features a surprising 6-out-of-10 preponderance of science fiction, supplemented by two Georges Simenon thrillers, one nonfiction book, and only one true pre-modernist classic, from Balzac.
The ten titles below are books that I have read (or reread) and reviewed in the past calendar year. Of course, since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, many of these works were published decades ago, but some of them were new to me and may be new to you. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.
Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1846)
An aging spinster schemes to get revenge on her more fortunate cousin by teeming up with a beautiful seductress who robs men of their money and morals. Balzac gives us his most cynical view of Parisian society. Just about everyone in the book is despicably greedy, corruption and depravity are commonplace, and love is just another commodity to be traded. It all adds up to an immensely entertaining read, with a few valuable moral lessons taught along the way.
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karl Capek (1920)
Czech playwright Capek was the first to coin the term “robot.” This science fiction drama is the precursor to all the movies you’ve seen and books you’ve read about robots becoming self-aware, but Capek’s take on the ethics of artificial intelligence feels remarkably fresh almost a century later. The play is also quite lively and entertaining, with an absurdist sense of humor reminiscent of the Dada movement.
The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon (1931)
When Parisian police detective Inspector Maigret is sent to investigate a murder at a country crossroads, the result is something akin to an American gangster film noir. Though usually quite patient and methodical in his investigations, here in the seventh installment of the series Maigret’s a regular action hero, dodging bullets and punching out perps. This may be atypical of the 100 or so adventures in Maigret’s casebook, but it’s one of the more entertaining ones.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (1948)
An epic tale of adventure, all the more thrilling because it’s true. In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five sailed a balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia to support his theory that the Pacific islands were settled by South Americans. His account of this bold archaeological experiment makes for a wild and exciting ride.
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948)
One of Simenon’s roman durs (hard novels), Dirty Snow is about as dark as noir gets. Taking place in what might be Nazi-occupied France and told from the point of view of a 19-year-old thief and killer, this excellent and disturbing novel calls to mind Camus and Kafka as it transcends the crime thriller genre and ventures into existential philosophy. Possibly one of the best novels of the mid-20th century.
Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin (1956)
This one is a throwback to my childhood. Danny Dunn was the star of 15 novels by Williams and Abrashkin, published from 1956 to 1977. Danny is a precocious boy who loves science. Luckily for him, a real live scientist, Professor Bullfinch, is a lodger in his mother’s house. Danny and his friend Joe usually end up commandeering the Professor’s futuristic inventions and getting themselves into a mess of trouble. This first volume, about space travel, is good fun for kids and a great trip down memory lane for those who grew up reading the series, which is now being rereleased as ebooks by Open Road Media.
Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper (1957)
H. Beam Piper’s sci-fi adventures of the 1950s and ’60s are consistently inspired and exciting, and here is one of his best novellas. This story of archaeologists investigating an extinct culture on Mars really captures the thrill of exploration and the joy of scientific discovery. All of Piper’s work is in the public domain, so you can read it for free, or get his complete works in one download for 99 cents with The H. Beam Piper Megapack from Wildside Press.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The grim future presented by Atwood in this dystopian science fiction novel is scarier than most because it feels like it could actually happen in our lifetime if we’re not careful. The story is narrated by a woman forced into servitude as a surrogate birthing slave, or “Handmaid,” in an ultraconservative society ruled by a religious oligarchy. This is a powerful and moving novel that casts a dark reflection on the state of women’s rights and civil liberties in America today.
I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 1 (2015)
Clifford D. Simak, one of the most respected and award-winning science fiction authors of the 20th century, was active from the early 1930s to the mid-1980s. Open Road Media aims to reprint all of his short stories and novellas in a 14-volume series, The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, available in ebook and paperback. Simak’s science fiction was truly visionary for its time, and today’s readers will find his stories show almost no signs of age. You might even run across a western or a horror story, because Simak wrote those as well. This series may be my best discovery of 2016.
The Big Front Yard and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 2 (2015)
And Volume 2 is even better than Volume 1!
And since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, the top ten lists never go out of style. See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, and 2015. Keep on reading old books by dead guys in 2017!