The best books I read in 2012

I am very busy, but I have a lot of audiobook listening time. I have a long commute and I always listen to books while I exercise (even while swimming, thanks to my waterproof armband and headphones). So I figured I could get through a lot of books this year, and in Goodreads’s reading goal thingummy I chose 100 books. By the end of the year, I had read 128. I liked most of what I read. On a scale of 1-5 stars, I only gave one book a 2, and the rest were 3-5. A book I think is decent gets a 3, a book I really like gets a 4, and a book I try to make everyone I know read because it’s so awesome gets a 5. The average for the year was 3.96, with one 2, seventeen 3’s, ninety-six 4’s, and fourteen 5’s.

Anyway, since I read a ton of books, I thought I would make some recommendations from some of the books I gave fives to:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I was browsing Audible for audiobooks and saw this book recommended to me. The cover looked creepy but it was the weird title that really got my attention. The reviews were very positive, so I downloaded it and listened to it on part of my drive to Seattle last June. It was much better than I could have hoped. It turns out that Shirley Jackson is a classic author who gets read in schools (except my school dropped the ball and we never read her short story The Lottery). There is even an award named after her, and several of her books are published as Penguin Classics. This books really is a classic. It is told in the first person by an unreliable narrator who is an unsettling yet very likeable character. She is one of my favorite characters in any book, and it’s the way she sees the world that make the book so unique. She is hard to describe, so I’ll just give you a sample. The book begins with this paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

After reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I had to read the other book Audible had by Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House was also narrated by Bernadette Dunne, who is brilliant with both books. I recommend both audiobooks, but this one should especially be listened to so that you can read it with all the lights off. It is a very scary haunted house story. Like the other book, it has a great unreliable narrator. It’s not a gorefest like modern horror movies; the horror is more psychological in nature, creating a sense of mounting dread in parts and just creepy weirdness in others, with some moments where you and the character come to a sudden horrible realization. It’s great. The Wall Street Journal said it was “now widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written.” Read it in the dark.

Railsea by China Miéville

This book is strange and awesome. It feels like an old literature kind of book, but takes place in a science fiction world where people live on mountains amid huge expanses of train tracks. The tracks are so thick that trains can go anywhere just by remotely controlling switches ahead of the train. Thus, this is a sea adventure, only with trains and no water. And instead of fish and whales, there are dangerous and huge creatures that burrow underground, so falling overboard is at least as dangerous as falling into the ocean would be. The book is inspired by Moby Dick, but different (it’s not the story of Moby Dick in another setting). While Captain Ahab was notable for his obsession with the white whale, in this strange world it is typical for captains to have an animal they chase obsessively. The story begins with a boy who works on a train with people who hunt for giant moles with harpoons. The story is good, but it’s the imaginativeness of everything, the brilliant writing, and fascinating world and characters that made this book stand out for me.

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg

The Soul Mirror is actually the second book of the Collegia Magica, a fantasy trilogy. They are about magic users in the upper levels of the society, with the royal magician and family and friends of the king. I gave books 1 and 3 each four stars, but the second one had a particularly great story arc, so it made this list. The main strength of the trilogy is the characters. They are so believable and interesting. They have hidden depths that feel genuine as you discover them, so as you get to know them better they feel increasingly real. You learn where you had wrongly pigeonholed them as additional layers of their character are revealed, just as with real people. There is a mystery at the heart of the story, but it’s much more than just a mystery story. Read The Spirit Lens first. You must not read these out of order!

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

This is the first of a series of American steampunk books called The Clockwork Century. If you like steampunk, then you’ve probably already read them. If you think brass goggles and all the steampunk aesthetic are stupid, give this a try anyway. It’s really just a historical fiction novel with airships (whose existence is justified) about an alternate history of the later 1800’s. In this version of America, the civil war has gone on for a long time, so it makes sense for technology to have kept going (hence airships and other steampunkish machines). Some of the devices in the books are actually based on real historical attempts at making new machines. I picked up Boneshaker for two reasons: I liked the audiobook narrator, Kate Reading, and the book takes place in Seattle, my favorite city outside of Europe. The book was much better than I’d hoped. As the introduction explains, in this alternate frontier Seattle, a drill unearthed a poison gas that made the city uninhabitable, and turned the people who didn’t get out in time to “rotters” (i.e., zombies). The survivors built a wall around the city to keep the gas and rotters inside and live on the outskirts. Boneshaker takes place mostly inside Seattle, and has great characters and some awesome scary moments. Cherie Priest is brilliant at scary and suspenseful scenes, and she creates a wonderfully creepy sense of atmosphere. I like all of her books that I’ve read, but for now I’ll recommend this one and its sequels, which take place all around the country (or countries, since the confederacy and Texas are separate).

My Favorite Movies of 2012

I saw eleven movies this year, so I thought I’d make a top ten list, but include the eleventh film so none of the movies will feel left out. I liked all of them, so I don’t mind having all eleven in the top ten.

11. Mirror, Mirror

This was a fun melodrama. It reminded me of The Great Race. It wasn’t as good, but the prince was a funny Great Leslie sort of person, and the queen was funny.

10. The Avengers

This was a good superhero movie, although I’m not crazy about it. It’s not even in the same league as The Dark Knight movies. Maybe I’m getting too old for summer blockbusters or I’m just not that into comics, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. It was well done and fun to watch, and that was it. But special mention goes to Loki, who is the coolest, so I was sad when (SPOILER ALERT) he got defeated. Hopefully he is in the next Thor movie a lot. In fact, they should just make Loki and How He Outsmarted Everyone. I liked him better in Thor, when he was mentally a step ahead the whole time as a trickster god should be.

9. Brave

This is my favorite Pixar movie, mostly because it has the most archery and Scotland. The story is all right and the visuals are amazing, but the accents! And the archery! And the Scotland! It was awesome. If you don’t have Scottishness as an important criterion on your list of things a movie should have lots of, then I can see why you might not like it as much as I did. But either way, it’s fun. See it in 3D if you can; the visuals deserve it.

8. The Amazing Spider-Man

This was a good origin story. I enjoyed it even more than the one that came out last decade. But the 3D spiders in the opening title gave me the willlies.

7. Skyfall

This was a good spy film in the tradition of the post-Bourne era. Less cheesy fun, more realism. The ending part of the movie was gorgeous. I love old architecture and it features a lot of that. This film also made me realize that Christopher Nolan could do a Bond film. Before I thought Bond wasn’t right for him, much like how Nolan isn’t who you’d get to helm an Adam West Batman movie. But James Bond has matured like Nolan’s Batman did, so at this point a Nolan Bond movie makes sense, and would be really awesome.

6. Life of Pi

This isn’t the type of movie I usually see, but I’m glad I did. It’s a great movie as a movie, and also an amazing visual experience. Like Hugo and Avatar, it shows what 3D can do in a skilled filmmaker’s hands. Do not watch this in 2D. Find a friend with a 3D TV and watch it at their house. With their permission of course. I am not advocating trespassing, just to be clear. To summarize: Life of Pi is good, and watching it in 2D is bad (and so is trespassing).

5. John Carter

This movie was a fantastic adaptation of a science fiction classic. The problem for many critics was that it was a little too classic. Like, it was so classic that every fantasy and science fiction adventure story after was built on the foundation it created. So when the hundred-year-old story finally came out as its own movie, it felt derivative because people had already seen what it inspired a hundred times. But remember that it came first, and enjoy it as a fun adventure movie in the old style, and you will like it too.

4. The Secret World of Arrietty

This film is ridiculously pretty. It’s got an old house, a beautiful garden, and Studio Ghibli made it so the animation is gorgeous. And the sound is even more fantastic, with household sounds magnified from the small people’s perspective to make the house seem huge and cavernous (which it is to them). The story and characters are great, and better than the books (it’s based on the Borrowers series). And last but not least, the soundtrack was done by Cécile Corbel, a French Celtic musician who is amazing. Buy all her CDs now. I don’t mean to judge, but if you don’t like her music, then you are probably a bad person who hates kittens and Christmas too.

3. The Hunger Games

I had read the book, and the movie did a fantastic job of adapting it. It had to entertain the audience with a violent movie about how violent entertainment is bad. It relied on suspense, not action, and did the opposite of glamorizing violence. It made the horror of being selected for the games, or entering the arena from the safe, festive pre-game area feel much more real than the book did.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan is my favorite filmmaker. He is awesome. His movies are always smart, exciting, and just really good. Inception is my favorite movie ever, and I love his Batman movies as well. This one was a brilliant finish to the trilogy. Hans Zimmer outdid himself again with the soundtrack.

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Hypothetically, suppose there was a movie that was boring, but watching it would cure you of cancer. Well, I guess first suppose you had cancer, and then make the previous supposition. Surely the film would be your favorite movie of the year. Giving The Hobbit the number one spot is for analogous reasons. The Hobbit was great as a movie, but it was not the best movie of the year. However, as an adaptation of an epic fantasy classic, it was brilliant. Epic fantasy fans love worlds full of backstory, so it feels like a real place and not just a backdrop for a plotline and some characters. The Hobbit doesn’t relentlessly follow the plotline, and in another movie I’d just call it plodding pacing. But for those who grew up reading about the mythology of middle earth, it’s a delight to spend some quality time there without a constant race to tick off the plot points until the finish. The Dark Knight Rises was a better film, but The Hobbit is special as a new way to experience Middle Earth, and for me that transcends the value of being a better movie.

Thank you for reading my blog! Stop now if you wish to avoid the anti-Luddite ranting part and have a nice day! Especially if you are a Luddite who doesn’t want the error of your ways pointed out to you.

Speaking of The Hobbit, there have been a lot of complaints about the high frame rate (HFR) in The Hobbit. Peter Jackson film the movie in 48 frames per second, which made the movie look much smoother than the 24 fps pretty much every other movie has been in. The camera could pan and move faster without annoying judder and jerkiness, and everything just looked a lot more real, like you were watching a play where the stage moved around and could zoom. It was unlike the 24 fps movies we have all gotten used to. According to polls, most people like the smoother video once they got used to it, and enjoyed how it was no longer the jerky slideshow that we have come to associate with cinema. But a vocal minority have complained that it ruins the magic since it doesn’t feel like a movie. It does take some getting used to, and no, it doesn’t feel like a 24 fps movie. Oh no, change! There are two ways we can go from here:

  1. We can get used to movies being smooth instead of jerky and have headache-free 3D and a new era of cinematography as filmmakers learn to do new things with the new capabilities of 48 fps.
  2. We can whine about taking the few hours total it will require us to become accustomed to the new format and thus condemn cinema to the jerky, blurry format we were stuck with until recently due to technical (i.e., not artistic) reasons.

I would select the first, but a depressing number of people select the second, so I had to drive 30 miles to see The Hobbit properly the second time since theaters decided not to bother if people would complain anyway. Does film need HFR? No, no more than it needed HD or color. But as with color and HD, people like to create false dichotomies in an effort to discourage progress, because it means change when the status quo is easier. For example, people have said things like, “I prefer a good storyline to ____,” where ____ is the latest technical advance in film, such as HFR, 3D, color, sound, etc. But it’s not one or the other. Did being 24fps and 2D do anything to improve the latest Adam Sandler movie? Change for change’s sake is not necessarily good, but it is foolish to resist change for status quo’s sake. HFR takes getting used to, but it’s worth it.