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A Year in Reading: 2014

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | Alphabetical Index

The companion piece to my film log, the book log keeps a listing of everything I've read over the course of a year, as well as giving me a place to type up a short review. As a handy reference, the book title of each listing provides links to the Amazon page for the book.

Starting in 2009, I began providing star ratings of the books I read. The ratings are out of five stars, with five stars being equivalent to an A, 4½ to an A-/B+, four to a B, and so on.

 

4-17 Trouble in
Mind
, by
Jeffery Deaver
Between the return to form for Lincoln Rhyme that was The Kill Room and the absolutely fantastic The October List, Jeffery Deaver has been coming back into his own lately, and that made me awfully excited to check out a new batch of short stories. I'm a big fan of Deaver's first two collections (Twisted and More Twisted), and the promise of more of Deaver's no-holds-barred twisty tales had me awfully excited. Unfortunately, Trouble in Mind is a pretty big letdown, with a bunch of stories that run the gamut from "fine" to "passable" to "dull," depending on the one you read. There's a pair of Lincoln Rhyme stories, with one being utterly predictable ("The Obit") and another having a great central idea that never goes anywhere especially interesting ("A Textbook Case"). Kathryn Dance makes an appearance in "Fast," which finds the interrogator working against the clock to solve a bombing, and for all my lackluster feelings about the Dance books, the story works better than most in this collection. "Paradice" feels like a step towards neo-noir, but it never comes together quite as well as you hope it's going to; "The Therapist" starts off great but falls apart into silliness; "Bump" and "The Plot" are pretty predictable as they unfold, while others ("Reconciliation" and "The Weapon") just kind of fizzle from the get-go. It all ends with an enjoyable enough novella called "Forever" about a statistics-happy officer who ends up working a murder case, and while it's a fun read, it never feels especially great or essential in any way. Deaver's capable of great work and great short stories, but these mostly disappoint; while few are outright bad, none achieve the peaks he's capable of, and as a collection, it mainly feels mediocre and old-hat.
4-10 The Absolutely
True Diary of a
Part-Time Indian
,
by Sherman Alexie
I first became aware of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian when I was reading a list of the most "challenged" (read: banned) books in public schools, and as usual, all the banning made me do was want to read it more. And having read it, it's insane that a book this good, this moving, this effective, has to fight its way into people's hands. In interviews, Alexie has mentioned that the pitch-perfect suburban life of so much YA fiction always made him laugh, because his own life was so horrific, and he wanted to convey that darkness in his book. But for all of that, Absolutely True Diary is far more optimistic and hopeful than you'd expect, even as it's honest and unflinching in its details of poverty-filled life on an Indian reservation. Alexie's narrator is a much-bullied misfit on the reservation who decides to leave behind the reservation school to attend school in a nearby far more affluent (and far more white) neighborhood, and while Alexie never lets us forget that his protagonist is the child of an alcoholic, that his tribe is a place without much hope, or that he's from a horrifically poor family, he also doesn't let that despair and pain overwhelm the book. Is it present? Without a doubt - there aren't many YA books I can think of that so perfectly capture what it's like to be poor and not fit in with your classmates, and fewer that are as honest about the pains of alcoholism or what it's like to be a minority in America. But it's also a laugh-out-loud funny book, one that's trying to find hope and humor in a situation where there hasn't been any, and indeed, that struggle to find hope and optimism in many ways becomes the entire plot of the book. There's no major story to Absolutely True Diary; it's basically the story of this freshman year at a new school, and the events that happen along the way. There's no big exam, no big showdown with a challenging figure - it's just a slice of life, told with humor, great artwork, a cynicism that's earned but never overwhelming, and a heart that absolutely wrecked me. And those much vaunted objectionable passages? There's some teenage boy talk about teenage boy life, from traded insults and profanities to a frank couple of paragraphs about that most teenage-boy pastime of all. That's it. In other words, it's a YA book that doesn't talk down to its audience and seems to acknowledge the realities of their world. And if you ask me, that cements its greatness. It's funny, it's moving, it's powerful, it's thoughtful, and it's just plain astonishingly great.
4-8 The Grim
Grotto
, by
Lemony Snicket
We're starting to get closer and closer to the end of the Series of Unfortunate Events, but there's little sign that Lemony Snicket (or his alter ego, Daniel Handler) is slowing down or tying up loose ends. While there are more hints about the nature of V.F.D. and a bigger sense of how some of the disparate characters of the series are tying together, The Grim Grotto raises as many questions as it answers - actually, it asks WAY more than it answers. New characters (including a doozy of a new arrival to end the book), new threats that seem to intimidate friend and foe alike, more shifting alliances, and more moral shades of gray all combine to make just another knockout entry in this incredible series. Grim Grotto doesn't have some of the emotional heft that Slippery Slope had; what it does have, though, is a fantastic sense of humor, bringing some of the funniest scenes of the series, including a tap dance recital gone horribly wrong, a sea captain with bizarre running narration, Olaf's irritation at his newest "colleague", and so much more. It's a blast of a book, all told with the usual great writing, clever wordplay, and surprisingly rich character work that's made the series so good to begin with. And more than that, it continues to be one of the few book sets for young audiences that explores morality in shades of gray and raises questions to which there are no easy answers - no small accomplishment in the often cut-and-dried YA adventure world.
4-3 Mayhem, by
Sarah Pinborough

Based on a true series of brutal murders that coincided with the Jack the Ripper killings, Sarah Pinborough's Mayhem follows the police investigation into the killings as it follows the trail into the deepest, darkest parts of human nature. It's a solid, engaging piece of thriller writing, one that doles out its violence and gore sparingly but to maximum effect, allowing the horror of the crimes to build gradually and take a toll on its characters realistically. And then, just when you start to have a feel for where the book might be going, it shifts into a whole new direction, becoming a dark supernatural thriller as our hero tracks down the killer alongside a pair of unusual allies. Mayhem is a fun read; for all its dark atmosphere and grim feel, it moves fantastically, keeping up a good pace and twisting the story in new and interesting directions as it goes along and building up to great moments of tension and unease. That being said, there's no real meat to Mayhem; it ends up feeling like a really fun popcorn book but not all that much more, and the somewhat abrupt ending only adds to that feeling - it ends up feeling like a book that's all about its thrills and doesn't have much else going on. That being said, that's not necessarily a bad thing; Mayhem is told well, keeps you fascinated, and delivers its tension and mood spectacularly. It may be a little disposable, but it's well done and well crafted, and if you're up for something a little fun and dark, it'll scratch that itch nicely. You just may feel like you've eaten the literary equivalent of empty calories when you're done with it.

3-31 Busted
Valentines and Other Dark
Delights
, by
Frank De Blase
Like a lot of people, I've always been in love with classic noir detective stories. Whether in film or in print, those stories not only influenced me directly, but also through all the works they themselves influenced, from the rat-a-tat 1940's prose of James Ellroy to the jaded antiheroes that fill so many detective books I still read. But there's something that usually doesn't work when people try to re-create stories from the time period; with the exception of Ellroy, who truly is a master, most mimics fall short, either injecting too much modern perspective and/or irony, or aping the words but missing the spirit of the tales themselves. But not Frank De Blase, whose dynamite collection of short stories genuinely feels like something that could have been lost in the 40's and only found today. The prose is spectacular, bringing the rhythms and beats of the period to life while never feeling forced or affected, and the material matches it perfectly, never winking or trying to update the feel of what we're reading. No, what we get is great crime stories - private eyes investigating infidelities, mob enforcers who find themselves targeted by their own men, card sharks in rigged games, photographers used as part of stings...it's all classic noir stuff, and it's executed with style and sense of fun that's so often missing from this sort of thing. Admittedly, a couple of the stories are a little obvious in where they're going, and a couple end a little abruptly, but neither of those things ever really detracts from what you're reading. Instead, what you get is a genuinely engaging and gleefully dark set of tales about dark, violent men engaged in dark, violent deeds, all told in a slang-filled prose and with a rhythm that sucks you into the femme-fatale filled world De Blase creates. If you're a fan of Ellroy or his forefathers, you'll find a lot to love here; it's homage, but it's homage done right, and I loved them.
3-31 Forever Free,
by Joe Haldeman
A direct sequel to The Forever War, Forever Free follows up on William Mandella, now living a relatively isolated existence with his wife and their two children along with other veterans of the Forever War. Still feeling disconnected and mistrustful of Man, the new hive mind version of humanity that evolved over the centuries, Mandella and his companions have carved out a niche for themselves, but they remain anxious about feeling like little more than an imprisoned breeding program for Man. In short, all seems set to follow up on the ideas and themes of The Forever War, focusing on the isolation of soldiers from their own people, the disorienting effects of war, and the difficulty in adjusting to a new, calmer way of life. And as Haldeman tells the tale of Mandella's idea for a bit of a rebellion and an attempt to make their own way in the universe, the book develops nicely...and then, in the final act of the book, things take a very, very strange turn. Without giving too much away, Haldeman's characters find themselves in an utterly alien situation that forces them to confront the nature of reality and the purpose of human existence. That sounds like heady stuff, but the reality is, the final sections of Forever Free feel like a whole different book grafted on to the series; moreover, the book's climax feels less like the profound moment it needs to be and more like a baffled shrug, leaving us with just as many questions as before, if not more so. It's a disappointing and weak end to the series, especially when the book's first half is such a solid continuation of the ideas The Forever War began. It's a strange, muddled book, and while parts of it work on their own terms, as a whole, it's a muddled misfire.
3-31 Forever Peace,
by Joe Haldeman
Despite the title, Forever Peace isn't a direct sequel to The Forever War, a fact Haldeman states up front in a note that precedes the book. Rather, he says, it's an attempt to discuss some of the themes and ideas of the original book in a new way, one that reflects the changes in the world. And in many ways, it's hard to not feel that Forever Peace is even more relevant now than it was on its publication in 1998. After all, here is a book about war as viewed by jockeys who control their machines from a distance, bringing death and warfare through remote controlled machines and struggling with the disconnect between what they witness and what they're responsible for. By the time you factor in religious zealotry and worries about a project that seems very similar to the Large Hadron Collider, you really feel like you're reading sci-fi from the Obama era, not the Clinton era. And yet, that might be chalked up to how much Haldeman's insights about warfare and the life of a soldier ring true no matter what period we're in. Forever Peace may be a sci-fi book, but it's a book about mankind's tendency toward war and brutality, and the question of whether we could ever attain peace and how. The answer Haldeman comes up with is elegant in its simplicity, but Haldeman never lets that extend into its ramifications, which he explores in thoughtful, philosophical detail. Forever Peace is more elegant and polished than its predecessor - a fact that's due in no small part, I imagine, to the 20+ years of writing experience that Haldeman has had, as well as the very different story. And while it lacks the streamlined focus of The Forever War, it makes up for that by taking its time to think about the issues it raises in an intelligent, gratifying way. It's a worthy companion piece to its predecessor, and that's no small feat.
3-30 The Forever
War
, by Joe
Haldeman
There's so much greatness in The Forever War that it's almost surprising to find how accessible it really is. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of the book is finding how unpretentious and straightforward it is; it sets out to tell the tale of a soldier in an intergalactic war, and does so, and along the way it ends up becoming something far more complex than it seems to be at first. What I mainly remembered about The Forever War was the way it emphasized Mandella's isolation and increasing alienation from the Earth, and how much that paralleled not only the experience of Haldeman and other soldiers returning from Vietnam, but indeed, many soldiers who struggle to re-adjust to everyday civilian life. And while Haldeman's tale is one that finds humanity progressing through the millennia, ultimately, it's a story about a man from the past who sees his race leaving him behind as he struggles to keep them safe, and that's heartbreaking, powerful stuff. But the battle scenes are no less effective, if only for the sheer chaos and confusion that Haldeman conveys in every one. These are not stereotypical war stories, with heroic sacrifices or inspiring speeches; they're filled with violence and mayhem, where death comes without warning, or men die before we realize it, or a battle ends up changing in front of our eyes into something different. Mandella doesn't survive because he's a great hero; he survives through luck and chance, and once again, it's hard not to hear Haldeman the veteran speaking through this experience. But for as much as The Forever War speaks to the life of the soldier or the state of the country after Vietnam, it does that will still being a fantastic story - a classic piece of sci-fi that's both exciting and thought-provoking, all while creating an intriguing character that allows Haldeman to do much more than just tell a war story. And the fact that he does all these things while making it to easy to get into and read is just further testament to the greatness of this book and its enduring legacy.
3-29 Reading the
Dead
, by
J.B. Cameron
Sarah Milton is a good cop. She's a great profiler, and she's got an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of killers. But she's haunted by the murder of her mother at a young age...oh, yeah, and she has an imaginary friend who's been with her most of her life and just might be real. If that sounds pretty cliched up until that final point, well, that's because it is, and that's part of what keeps Reading the Dead from being as interesting as it should be. Sarah is a good character, and in Cameron's narration, she provides interesting, engaging narration that allows her to be an interesting character. But every time the plot comes in, there's an undeniable sense that we've seen this all done before, and Reading the Dead doesn't add that much to the story to make it stand out apart from Milton. The one big thing that sets the killer apart - his ultimate motivation - feels abruptly thrown into the story, as though Milton just made the jump and we should too, because we have a climax to get to, even though the climax, once again, feels really familiar. And yet, for all of that, I didn't hate Reading the Dead as much as it might sound like I did. Milton really is a good character, and while I found her "friend" Anna more annoying and obnoxious than funny and charming, I liked the way Cameron used the device for more than just plot solving. There's some interesting ideas here, and if Cameron can get away from a hackneyed and uninteresting plot, this series could go to some fun places. But right now, it feels like a great heroine who deserves a better story to serve her needs.
3-24 Big Machine,
by Victor LaValle
It's hard to describe a book like Big Machine - when something manages to be this ambitious while also being unmistakably "strange" (in a good way), trying to talk too much about it runs the risk of ruining some of the fun that comes along with discovering everything this book has on its mind. But let's start with this: the book opens with a recovering junkie named Ricky Rice being invited to work for a mysterious library. He doesn't know why, doesn't understand the point, doesn't even know what he will be doing for them - but he goes, if only to fulfill a promise he made to himself many years ago. From there, Ricky starts to understand the library's purpose, and then finds himself being recruited into field work to preserve the library - or, maybe, to take it down from the inside. That all sounds like ideas you've seen before, but there's really nothing familiar about Big Machine, which takes on everything from race and class all the way to religious fanaticism and supernatural horror, from belief and doubt to apocalyptic theology, all while never losing its grounding in its characters. Ricky Rice is a genuinely engaging, compelling narrator, and one of LaValle's many strengths is creating this man and leaving all of his flaws and weaknesses intact - indeed, not just leaving them intact, but letting them drive the character and the reactions of those around him. It's no coincidence that Ricky is a recovering junkie, that he's done terrible things in his past, that he grew up in a religious cult, but LaValle makes it all seem like just another aspect of his life that made him the man he is. Flawed humans fill the pages of Big Machine, with all of them struggling to make meaning out of their lives and trying to find redemption for both themselves and the world around them. Even a seemingly disconnected scene early on about an encounter on a bus ultimately gives way to musings on how we treat the less fortunate and how we react to those in need of our assistance. That all of this is done while telling a compelling supernatural thriller...well, it's a remarkable feat, and it all comes together to make a deeply satisfying and even moving piece of fiction. There may be those for whom Big Machine is too out there - too unclassifiable, too strange, or perhaps too much about the ways of the world instead of being about its story. But for those who are in tune with its ideas, the end result is fascinating, blending horror and drama into something profound and beautiful about the nature of the world and the way we have to treat our fellow human beings.
3-18 The Vanishers,
by Heidi Julavits
I got turned on to The Vanishers in an article discussing books that might be of interest to fans of True Detective, and having read it, it's not really a recommendation I entirely understand. To be sure, The Vanishers uses the framework of a mystery to tell a far more character-driven and introspective story than you might expect, much as True Detective did, but that in no way really prepares you for just how strange this book really is. From a purely plot point of view, it's strange enough, revolving around a once-promising paranormal talent who's under constant psychic assault by her one-time mentor, a shadowy film director whose boundary-pushing films have earned her a passionate and strange set of acolytes, and an institute dedicated to helping people vanish from their lives. But the book's focus is really on its deeply damaged and broken protagonist, the former up-and-comer whose life has been inexorably shaped by the suicide of her mother when she was very young. There's not a characters in The Vanishers who's not damaged by their mother in some way or another, and one of the things that Julavits does so well is explore the various ways that that maternal bond can twist into something horrible and destructive in the wrong hands. Indeed, the whole book, in many ways, is about the damage we can wreak on another human being, either consciously or unconsciously, and about the hollow shell of a person we can end up being without ever understanding how we've come to be there. If all this sounds like it doesn't have much to do with that mystery story...well, it doesn't, really. Julavits is using her paranormal story to explore deeper themes, and between her prose, her characters, and the strong emotional beats she hits, the result is more satisfying than you might think. But it's also very, very strange at times, and often it seems less like a single story and more like a series of moments strung together thematically into a novel. The Vanishers isn't a bad book by any means, but it's not quite what I expected, and I can't help but be a little disappointed with how intrigued I was by a story that ended up evolving into something else entirely. And, in some ways, maybe that does make it the perfect recommendation for a certain population of True Detective fans.
3-15 Perfiditas, by Alison Morton
Despite the alternate history trappings of Perfiditas' setting - a present in which the ancient Roman empire did not collapse, but survived in a far more matriarchal form due to a splinter group - Alison's Morton novel feels less like a science-fiction or fantasy tale and more like a solid thriller in a world we've never known. And if that sounds like complaining, it shouldn't; it's to Morton's credit that her focus is on crafting a smart, engaging story that couldn't be set in any other world but never insists on letting the background outshine the characters or the story. That may be due to the fact that Perfiditas is the second volume in the set; for all I know, the first book was far more about introducing the reader to what's going on. But whether that's the case or not, Perfiditas stands alone, telling a great story that never had me confused about the world or the characters involved. Moreover, though, Morton does some interesting things with that story; while it starts off in somewhat familiar territory, as our heroine finds evidence of a conspiracy against both the country and the man she loves, Morton takes it to unusual places, as our heroine embraces her darker and more pragmatic side - and then, more surprisingly, lets the case wrap up in enough time to deal with the fallout from that decision. In other words, Morton doesn't just tell a great thriller story; she takes the time to explore the aftermath of all the betrayals, shocks, and decisions along the way, and invests those with just as much care and energy as she does the plotting along the way. It's a fun thriller, and Morton's not only created a good world in which to set it, but also good characters with which to populate it.
3-11 The
Nightrunners
,
by Joe R.
Lansdale
In some ways, The Nightrunners is a departure for Joe Lansdale, if only for the fact that it seems to be classifiable in a single genre fairly easily. Lansdale's books almost always defy categorization, from the weird blending of horror, sci-fi, and thriller that was The Drive In to the comedic noir of the Hap and Leonard series, so The Nightrunners' horror tale seems atypical. But even within the standard beats of the horror novel, Lansdale's doing something that makes it stand out from the crowd. What at first glance seems like the tale of an innocent couple being pursued by a vengeful ghost becomes something far darker and more complex as Lansdale burrows into the twisted psyche of the attackers and finds the twisted humanity within them. Blending Nietzsche's idea of a superman with the utterly amoral worldview of a sociopath and mixing in something that's not quite supernatural but not quite explainable, Lansdale creates something unique and wholly unsettling, and that goes for the book as a whole. Characters you assume to be heroes may not survive; secondary characters who seem like an afterthought end up becoming key to the entire thing. And just when the book seems to commit to one explanation for its horrors, it hints at something far different, leaving you constantly in the dark about what's going on. And what is going on is an absolutely spectacular horror tale, a nightmarish blend of Straw Dogs and The Shining that's as much about the inner darkness of its characters as it ever is the horrors on display. It's an unflinching look at our innermost impulses, and while it doesn't find much hope there, it still tells one hell of a story along the way.
3-9 Hammurabi
Road
, by
Steve Vernon
A trio of men drive through some isolated woods with a fourth men bound and gagged in their backseat. So begins Hammurabi Road, Steve Vernon's outstanding novella about revenge, nature, guilt, and so much more. Vernon kicks off the story with a fantastic voice that brings out an appealing, surprisingly comic accent to the proceedings, but it doesn't take long for the tale to spiral into something far more complicated than you might originally expect. By the end, the story's managed to involve everything from wild bears to a most surprising method of paying for your sins, and it's all handled beautifully - it manages to be funny, exciting, unnerving, and unexpectedly moving in a very unique way. Hammurabi Road is a great piece of short fiction, one that wears its length perfectly and uses it to tell a revenge story that's unlike most that I've ever read. There's no easy moral here, no simple platitudes about the cost of revenge; instead, you have something more visceral, more primal, and more human than such stories often manage to be. It's like some glorious blend of Elmore Leonard and Joe Lansdale, and that's no small praise. Between this and Sudden Death Overtime, I'm a fan of Steve Vernon's work - here's hoping he's got a lot more tales to tell.
3-8 Mind's Eye,
by Douglas
E. Richards
Mind's Eye starts off in a somewhat familiar way - an amnesiac being hunted down by dangerous men for reasons he doesn't know - but if you stick with it for a few pages, you'll see that author Douglas Richards has a lot more originality than you might think from that start. Within pages, it turns out our amnesiac seems to have acquired a way to read minds...and as if that's not enough, he soon discovers that his brain may be capable of accessing the Internet as well. What follows from there is an engaging, fast-paced thriller that manages to both rocket along and yet takes the time to develop its characters nicely - and, to top it off, manages to work in conversations about the implications of this man's gifts and what it could mean for him, industry, the country, and mankind as a whole. Mind's Eye is a lot of fun, and its fast pace both keeps the story moving nicely while never lingering too long on any of the implausible moments along the way. That is, until the last few chapters, when Richards starts hiding information from the reader to provide a few twists and surprises that feel more like cheats than they do like pleasant shocks. It's not just the sudden shift in narrative style that does it; it's also the incredible lengths of plotting that go into these reveals - plotting that ultimately feels more absurd than believable. But even with those missteps, Mind's Eye is a fun read, and it's not hard to see how Richards has earned himself quite a few readers along the way. While his endgame here is a little weak, the ride is really enjoyable and exciting, and Richards does a great job making it all engaging while never neglecting the intellectual and character-driven aspects of the book. All in all, it's a solid thriller, and one I really enjoyed, even though I wish it stuck the ending better than it did.
3-4 The Ones You
Do
, by Daniel
Woodrell
The Bayou Trilogy - comprised of the books Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do - represents some of the earliest efforts by author Daniel Woodrell, who came to my attention after penning the superb Winter's Bone. There's no denying that these are earlier works; they lack some of the polish and flair of Woodrell's later craft, and while they share a lot of traits - both books are Southern noir, and both wear their influences on their sleeve - The Bayou Trilogy lacks the emotional wallop and stark environment of Winter's Bone. But the biggest question is not how The Bayou Trilogy compares to Woodrell's later work; the question really should be, do they work on their own terms? Generally, the answer is yes, although each successive book is an improvement over the one before it. Under the Bright Lights is the simplest tale, orbiting around a local politician who gets murdered and the cover-up that results. It's a solid police tale, but even here, you can tell that Woodrell's passion is in the side trails and the world he's created; here, though, he steadfastly sticks to the plot, and while it's engaging enough, it feels like an assured debut, but not a great one. Muscle for the Wing is a bit looser in its plotting - here, the tale is about a gang of robbers who anger some very powerful men and kill a policeman, and end up bringing down hell as the police align with the town's criminal element to dispense justice. Woodrell gets more leeway in his storytelling here, and his already murky moral lines become fascinatingly gray and flexible and the story spins out of control. Again, the "story" part of the book is probably the least interesting element (though, again, it's perfectly fine and gripping enough); what works best, though, is the character development, the way Woodrell explores the pasts of these men as a way of illuminating their presents. But it's The Ones You Do that finds Woodrell really hitting his stride. The plot here is the simplest yet, involving a long-absent patriarch who's on the run from an angry criminal, but the simple story allows Woodrell to focus on the emotional beats of all of his characters, and to follow them wherever the tale leads them. Sometimes that's into long detours, such as an encounter with a country couple that turns deadly; other times, it's a late-night encounter that ends up telling us far more than we expected about one character's past. But it ends up being the most satisfying of all of the books, and that's largely because Woodrell seems to feel more willing to follow his muse wherever it leads him. It's left me eager to see how Woodrell filled in the years between these books and Winter's Bone - given how The Ones You Do finds him writing, I have a feeling I'll be more than satisfied with whatever I read.
2-26 Muscle for
the Wing
, by
Daniel Woodrell
2-22 Under the
Bright Lights
, by
Daniel Woodrell
2-19 Talk to the
Hand
, by
Lynne Truss
I thoroughly enjoyed Truss's Eats Shoots and Leaves, a book in which she discussed her love of punctuation and grammar and how such things could make the world a better place. So when I ran across a followup book of essays about manners, I was ready to check it out, and I'm glad I did. More than a few people have complained that Talk to the Hand is a bit of a lecture or a scolding book that's mainly "tsk,tsk"-ing about the state of the world, and while I can't deny that there's a little bit of that in the book, Truss is undoubtedly aware of it and even calls herself out on it a few times. Indeed, it's her self-awareness that makes the book work; without her wry sense of humor and her willingness to admit her own faults, Talk to the Hand would be the lecturing book people have accused it of being. Instead, it's a fun little book about the decline of manners and courtesy, one written from a most British perspective (a fact that only added to my amusement with the book, especially when she turned her eye to American strengths and weaknesses). Whether she's charting the effects of profanity's prevalence, realizing how many of us simply want someone else to take care of issues, or discussing the differences between celebrities being relatable and being targets, Truss makes her book insightful, thoughtful, and funny. Sure, some of it is easy targets, and some of it does the very things it admits it shouldn't do, but with the sense of humor and fun that pervades it all - and considering how much doom and gloom the book could have turned into - I enjoyed it quite a bit. And, yes, maybe I did think of a few people who would benefit from a read...
2-19 Sleight of
Hand: Shadow Games
, by
Jennifer Fales
Sleight of Hand: Shadow Games is a sequel - or, more accurately, it's the second book in what's at least a trilogy, if not an ongoing series. That's not a fact that was made immediately clear when I picked up the book as a review copy, and it's something that any reader really needs to be aware of before getting into the book. Shadow Games makes little effort to adjust the reader to its world, and given the conceits at play - that humanity has bred a secondary made up of humanoid animals, or that the government is now a religious theocracy, or that feudal houses seem to be ruling the city - that's a lot of information that you have to pick up on the fly. That's not really the biggest problem, to be honest; Fales creates such a vivid world that the environment never feels too overwhelming. The character interactions, though? That's another story. There's apparently a lot of water under the bridges here, and Fales gives the bare minimum exposition needed to catch a new reader up. That applies to the characters themselves, who get almost no description or explanation; I was halfway through the book before I realized that some characters weren't even the same species I had assumed them to be, and given the politics of the world, that makes for some serious rethinking of motivations I had to do. For all of my puzzlement (and frustration) with navigating the backstory, I can't deny that Fales is a pretty good storyteller. She's got a lot of elements in play here, and she leaps between them nicely, giving each of the characters some personality and a nice interplay that brings the story to life. The problem, though, is that Shadow Games was apparently never meant to stand on its own, and as its own book, it's incredibly frustrating. A huge amount of the book is dedicated to the aftermath of the first, while the ending feels like it's setting up for something big that never arrives (to say nothing of basically omitting its own climax, for some reason). I think Fales makes some strong characters, and I love some of her individual scenes. But Shadow Games basically doesn't work on its own terms, and while that's not really the fault of Fales or the book - after all, a series is, by its nature, designed to be read together - I wish the book had made it clearer that it's a middle entry in a set, not something you can jump in on.
2-18 The Great
Gatsby
, by F.
Scott Fitzgerald
A reread, thanks to teaching the book for the first time this year. I reread Gatsby a couple of years ago to get try to look at it with fresh eyes as an adult, and I ended up loving it; now that I'm teaching it, I'm even more convinced of its beauty and perfection. It's a gloriously simple tale, and it uses that simplicity to devastating effect to craft a story that manages to be about so much while still being about little more than a doomed romance. Any teacher will tell you that teaching a book forces you to know it inside and out, and as I've spent days dissecting each chapter of the book, analyzing the characters and their motivations, discussing the bigger themes of greed and ambition, or simply reveling in how much Fitzgerald leaves unsaid, I've come to love Gatsby even more than I did. It's a meticulously crafted book whose every word is chosen for maximum impact, and whose short length belies the complexity to be found within its pages. I'm sure all of this sounds pretentious (or confirms your worst stereotypes about English teachers), but all I can say is that I thought Gatsby was incredible when I re-visited it last year, but teaching it has made me really fall in love with it in a whole new way - and in a much deeper, richer way at that.
2-17 Pyramid Lake,
by Paul Draker
Within two books, Paul Draker has shown himself to be a pretty fantastic storyteller, mixing sci-fi plot threads with strong character work and complex plotting - oh, and a taste for insanely brutal levels of violence that escalate really, really quickly. Moreover, Pyramid Lake shows off that Draker has a love for unpleasant characters - and if you thought the crew of New Year Island was nasty to deal with, just wait until you meet Trevor Maddox, the protagonist of Pyramid Lake. At first glance, Maddox seems like the prototypical computer genius - brilliant beyond words, difficult to deal with and amazingly arrogant. And given the quality of the work we're seeing Maddox do for the government (DARPA, specifically), it's not hard to see why people tolerate him. But it doesn't take long for us to realize that Maddox isn't just some brilliant but abrasive personality; he's nearly a sociopath, one capable of dealing out incredible cruelty without so much as a second thought, and someone who's only interested in himself and his own needs. And as dead bodies start to show up around Pyramid Lake, it's not all that hard to believe everyone who thinks that it's Trevor's work, even though it doesn't seem like it should be possible...and then Trevor's brilliant AI program begins to develop into something more. Pyramid Lake takes a long time to come into focus; I spent a lot of the first half of the book feeling like the whole thing was pretty sprawling and meandering, but Draker's got things plotted a lot more tightly than you might expect, and watching the plot threads come together in surprising and unexpected ways makes for a pretty great read. That being said, this one takes some patience in the early going; while Draker's character work is always strong, and his scenes engaging and involving, there's definitely a sense that Pyramid Lake could use some pruning in the first half, a little tightening here and there. And then there's Trevor; while he's a fascinating character, and it's great that Draker doesn't feel the need to soften his edges, he can be hard to take at times, and his selfishness can be frustrating if you're wanting a hero who thinks of anyone other than himself. All of that being said, Pyramid Lake kept me incredibly engaged, and it comes together into a pretty spectacular climax that once again escalates to insane levels of violence (and a body count) that you might not expect. It's a really fun book, and while I didn't like it quite as much as New Year Island, it's still a blast of a read, and one that seems to bode well for Draker's hopefully long and solid career.
2-13 Red Seas
Under Red
Skies
, by
Scott Lynch
There's always something unnerving about reading the sequel to a book you really enjoyed, especially when that book was a debut. Will the author be able to continue the series, or will it be a tired rehash? Will that first great book be a fluke, or is it the beginning of something great? Based off of Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch certainly seems to be in the latter category, and I'm so thrilled that he's only just beginning his writing career. Set a few years after The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas finds the surviving Gentlemen Bastards in a new land, working a new con that's going to make them very, very rich man. But before things can even get going, the boys find themselves outplayed by a few very dangerous men, and our conmen find themselves playing every side against each other while still trying to do what it takes to stay alive. What that means, then, is that we get a gloriously complicated plot, one that finds our heroes cast into the underdog role (and, it must be said, in the student role instead of the master) and fighting to survive - a choice that gives the story an intensity and a ticking clock that makes the book even more addictive than its predecessor. But Lynch still drives the story by his characters, and while Red Seas would stand on its own satisfactorily, it follows up on the events of Lies of Locke Lamora in a solid way that focuses on the emotional aftermath every bit as much as the plot developments. In other words, it's every bit as good as the first book and then some. And while I know some of what's to come in the third book (knowledge that helps temper the nasty cliffhanger Lynch has waiting at the end of Red Seas), it's to Lynch's credit that I'm still eager to get to it as soon as I can. Between the great world, the strong characters, and the great plotting, the Gentlemen Bastards series is shaping up as a must-read series for me, and shows no signs of letting up.
2-6 Shovel Ready,
by Adam
Sternbergh
The best way I can summarize the feel of Shovel Ready to you is to imagine that James Ellroy read a lot of William Gibson and decided to write his own cyberpunk novel, but with his own unmistakable imprint on it. The staccato prose, the brutal characters, the absence of pulled punches, the plunge into pure noir - it's all here, but in place of Ellroy's beloved LA, Shovel Ready is set in New York City after a dirty bomb has mostly emptied the city of its population. The rest of the country is more or less okay (as far as we know, anyway; Shovel Ready doesn't ever leave the confines of the city in the physical world), but the population...well, that's another story. Much of the country's wealthy population has retreated from the real world into a cyber dreamscape, leaving the world's poor to struggle and fight with what's left of the planet. And in all of that, there's Spademan, our narrator - a former garbage man turned professional killer. Don't think that Spademan is a killer with a heart of gold, either; he's brutal, cares nothing about your reasons, and doesn't much care about right or wrong, either. But he has a few hard and fast rules, and when a new target seems to be a violation of those rules, Spademan finds what's left of his moral compass coming into play. Shovel Ready has a lot on its mind - the appeal of the Internet, the realities of a post-9/11 world, the dangers of zealotry and hypocrisy, the way organized religion can be used to manipulate people - but it's all covered in understated and effective ways that never get in the way of the story. And what a story it is - it's a visceral gutpunch, one that earns its grim feeling by creating gripping characters that we understand, even if we don't like them very much. Shovel Ready is pretty pitch-black stuff, to be sure, and for a lot of people, it may be too much to handle. But for those who love their noir uncompromising and bleak, and are willing to follow that philosophy into a cyberpunk realm, Shovel Ready is a must-read. It's a gleeful blend of genres, and it does them all every bit as well as it needs to in order to work.
2-4 The Slippery
Slope
, by
Lemony Snicket
I remember The Slippery Slope being one of my favorite books of the Lemony Snicket series, and in general, it lives up to that memory, if only for a moment early on where Violet and Klaus are given a moment, for the first time in the series, simply to realize how much they've lost and how wildly out of control their lives have become. It's a genuinely touching and emotional moment, and it's to Daniel Handler's credit (the real author behind Snicket) that such a goofy, macabre series is still capable of such great moments that are anchored in our attachment to these characters. But there's a lot more to be had in Slippery Slope, from a reminder that Sunny Baudelaire is growing up to the arrival of a fairly surprising character, from glimpses into what exactly V.F.D. is to a realization that Count Olaf may not be the only villain out these these days. And, of course, Snicket does all this while still telling a story that's exciting, laugh-out-loud funny, and manages to both develop his complex mythology and deepen the themes and ideas that he's been playing with all along. Key among those: what, exactly, makes someone a villain? And at what point is crossing that line appropriate? It's a difficult question, and it's to the series' credit that it doesn't offer cheap or easy answers. Instead, it ends every bit as conflicted and unsure as its characters, and there's something refreshing in that honesty and refusal to condescend to its audience, no matter how young they might be. The cliffhangers at the end of each book are getting harder to walk away from, but even if they weren't, it would be hard to walk away from the Snicket books at this point - not when we've gone from laughing with the series to being genuinely and honestly moved by what it has to offer.
2-2 Countdown
City
, by Ben
H. Winters
As Countdown City opens, there's 77 days left until an asteroid smashes into Earth and basically triggers the end of humanity as we know it. And former detective Hank Palace - yes, the titular Last Policeman is no longer in the police, with the local departments dissolved as the apocalypse looms - is still crusading for justice and trying to do the right thing, even while the world around him crumbles. If there's a complaint to be made about Countdown City - and it's not a small complaint - it's that for much of the book's length, this basically feels like The Last Policeman Redux, with Hank investigating a crime that no one else is interested in (here, it's a missing person, as opposed to the possible murder of the first book), questioning his own stubborn refusal to let things go, and struggling to understand what exactly survival means in the face of imminent destruction. But there's a darker undercurrent to Countdown City, and as the book continues, it becomes clear that Winters didn't move the timetable forward for no reason; instead, this is a book in which an already dying society begins to truly move into the end times, and everything begins to collapse. Simply put, Countdown City isn't as original or as immediately gripping as its predecessor, and at first, you may feel like it's more of a sequel and less of a continuation. But give the book some time, and watch how Winters uses the ever-increasing breakdown of society to explore people's reactions to the news, whether it's conspiracy theories, holy missions, retreats from societal norms, or simple panic. The case at the heart of Countdown City doesn't end up being as satisfying or as rewarding as the case in Last Policeman, but as Winters explores more of his world and develops people's reactions, it becomes far more satisfying than you might originally expect, and ultimately left me eager for the final volume of the series.
1-29 The Old Man
and the Sea
, by
Ernest Hemingway
It's been many, many years since I last read a Hemingway novel, but the idea of reading more of his work now that I'm older and appreciate him more has been on my mind for a while, and The Old Man and the Sea seemed like the place to start. It's a book that's absolutely pure in its simplicity; it's essentially Hemingway's pared-down prose turned into a story, as the book focuses only on an old man and his efforts to catch a massive fish. Yes, there are undeniably metaphorical and symbolic moments throughout the book (most notably a line or two that fairly directly compare the old man to Christ), but one of the things that makes The Old Man and the Sea work so well is that those elements are largely beside the point. Instead, this is pure storytelling, as Hemingway immerses us in the old man's perspective and brings him to vivid life, whether he's lamenting the fact that he's without a companion, thinking back to younger days, opining about baseball, or simply battling with the fish; no matter what's going on, Hemingway tells it simply and directly, allowing the natural drama of the story to come through beautifully. Moreover, the story never feels maudlin or overly sentimental; the drama is natural and earned, the old man's emotions believable and understandable, and the pain and triumph genuinely affecting. Like many people, I was turned off by Hemingway in high school English classes (yes, I recognize the irony), but revisiting this book has made me aware of just what I was missing out on, and left me deeply satisfied by this simple but rewarding tale.
1-29 The Lies of
Locke Lamora
,
by Scott Lynch
Although author Scott Lynch (presumably) doesn't know me, it's hard to see how he could have geared The Lies of Locke Lamora more directly to my interests. It's a fantasy book that's fun instead of heavy and pretentious; it's the intro to series that focuses on stand-alone stories and characters instead of dense plotting; it's laugh-out-loud funny, brutally violent when it needs to be, richly suspenseful, and always anchored in its characters and world; it's about con games and heists - the list of things I love about this book just goes on and on. Indeed, it's hard not to rave about The Lies of Locke Lamora as a welcome breath of fresh air that fantasy has been needing for a while - it eschews the "final battle between good and evil" trope that's bogged down the genre for so long, builds a rich and detailed world without feeling the need to answer every question about it, but more than that, it has fun, something that not enough fantasy does anymore. The story's a rich and complex set of cons and thefts - part Ocean's 11, part Mafia power play, part revenge tale, but all mixed perfectly so that its complex and complicated story is never hard to follow and never overwhelming, but somehow is always surprising. More than that, Lynch knows the key to making a book like this work: the characters. And every character here - from the titular thief to his victims, from a malevolent wizard to a Mafia-style chieftain, is well-realized, compelling, and interesting, no matter how big or small their role is. The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the most purely enjoyable and great fantasy books I've read in years - it takes the best elements of the genre and tries to do something fresh and enjoyable with it, and it succeeds beyond my wildest hopes. I loved every page of it, whether I was laughing, gasping in shock, or just staring in admiration of how sharply plotted it was. I can't recommend it enough for any serious fantasy fan, and honestly, for fans of heist films whether you like fantasy or not. Read it and have a blast.
1-25 The Penultimate
Truth
, by
Philip K. Dick
Nuclear war has ravaged the earth. What remains of humanity has mostly moved into "ant farms" - giant colonies that exist below the surface, sealed away from the hazards of radiation that lurk aboveground. And yet, the head of one of the farms has to make his way up top in the hopes of saving a fellow worker - and from there, everything comes apart. The Penultimate Truth is unmistakably a Philip K. Dick novel - it's full of twists and lies, political theorizing, moral complexity, and more shades of gray than you could possibly count. Of course, the fact that it's a PKD book also means that sometimes it doesn't quite make sense, or that some aspects don't entirely coalesce. But that's a small price to pay for a book that develops in such unexpected ways. You might suspect what awaits our hero on the surface, but what does that have to do with the speech writer we meet in the opening chapter? And even if you understand that aspect, how do we get to assassination machines? Or leaders hoarding black market artificial organs? Or even to the possible identity of Christ? Because The Penultimate Truth handles all of that and more, starting with one premise and developing it into something far more complicated than you ever dreamed. And, as always with Dick, it forces you to think about the world - about how television can be used to manipulate the masses, about the nature of religion and belief, and about the complicated play between morality and authority. In other words, it's pure Philip K. Dick - it may be flawed, may be uneven, but it's fascinating and riveting, thought-provoking and surprising, and just plain brilliant.
1-20 Palo Alto, by
James Franco
If you looked at most of the stories in Palo Alto (with one notable exception I'll mention in a moment) on their own, you'd find them to be passable enough, I suppose. Yes, it all feels a little bit like someone attempting to capture the excess and amorality of a Bret Easton Ellis in a high school setting, but the writing isn't bad (though it undeniably needs work) and the ideas are interesting. But when you read Palo Alto from front to back, it becomes a chore - a repetitive, dull slog, one in which every story is almost identical, every character indistinguishable, the excesses dull through monotony, the plots non-existent or negligible...and so on, on and on and on and on. The further I got into Palo Alto, the more frustrated I got with the book, as every character spoke identically, acted identically, and brought nothing really of interest to the table. And yet, every once in a while, there's a fine moment scattered in Palo Alto - a moment of nice loneliness in "Lockheed," an instant of self-reflection in "I Could Kill Someone" - and that's enough to make it all the more infuriating. Because it's obvious that Franco is capable of better than you see for most of Palo Alto. And if you really doubt it - and trust me, by the end of this deadeningly dull march through tedious debauchery, you will - check out "Yellowstone," the final story in the collection. After dozens of tales of bad behavior and immorality, Franco presents the story of a young boy on a trip with his father and his younger brother, and gives you something genuinely surprising: a human, honest moment. And while it makes all the difference in the world in terms of what I thought Franco was capable of, it's in no way good enough to salvage the rest of Palo Alto. "Yellowstone" may be a good piece of work, but the rest? Just awful.
1-18 The Woman
Who Stopped
Traffic
, by
Daniel Pembrey
Daniel Pembrey does a lot of things right in The Woman Who Stopped Traffic. He's a solid writer, one who knows how to control his scenes and his characters, and he knows how to take the time to develop his main character. He's got no shortage of ideas, and he does a fine job of integrating discussion about them - for example, discussions about the business and origins of sex trafficking - into his narrative without turning it into speechifying. At the same time, though, Pembrey needs to work on pacing - or, perhaps, needs to work on knowing what to prune. According to its Amazon page, The Woman Who Stopped Traffic comes in at about 250 pages. And over the course of those 250 pages, Pembrey deals with an IPO for a new web business, a killer who's murdering business owners in the company, an effort to buy out the company covertly, a sex trafficking ring that uses the company as a front, a MMORPG world that seems to link to the trafficking ring, a scandal that forced our heroine from her last job, fake social media pages, and even a failed romance - and honestly, I'm leaving out a few details. If the story all came together as neatly and tidily as Pembrey seems to think it does, I could live with that; as it is, though, the book feels massively overstuffed, and seems to jump between the stories without rhyme or reason, and simply assumes that because he knows they're connected, his characters will too. It's not a bad book, really, but I frequently got lost in it, and I like to think that I'm a pretty solid reader. (It doesn't help just how many characters are in this book, either; again, in only 250 pages, the sheer number of characters gets overwhelming, especially when some of the secondary characters blur together until suddenly they don't.) I think Pembrey is a good author, and with some patience and pacing, I think The Woman Who Stopped Traffic could be a knockout - if nothing else, the ending it a great sense of the book Pembrey wanted to write, and if the buildup to that ending set it up better, you'd have a great book. As it is, it's a few too many plot threads and not enough words to support them all.
1-15 Rumble
Tumble
, by
Joe Lansdale
In some ways, I guess Rumble Tumble is the weakest of the Hap and Leonard books I've read so far, but that makes it sound far worse than it is; the reality is, I still had an absolute blast reading it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it highly; it just doesn't quite match up to the standards set by the earlier books in the set. As you might expect from a Hap and Leonard book, Rumble Tumble finds our heroes getting involved in a criminal situation that might be above their heads - in this case, it happens to be retrieving the daughter of Hap's girlfriend from the biker gang that she's recently been sold to. How that path ends intersecting with a dwarf pimp, a once-violent man of God, a violent crime lord, and too many other colorful characters to count...well, I'll let you discover that for yourself. That being said, it's worth noting that the plot in Rumble Tumble is a little disappointingly straightforward, especially by the standards of the series; there's not much here that's going to shock you, and things go more or less as you'd expect, if not better. Even so, that doesn't do anything to hurt the book's strengths: the great dialogue, the fantastic banter, the hard-boiled redneck noir prose, the fantastic characters, the intense action - in other words, all of the usual things that Lansdale knocks out of the park effortlessly. Rumble Tumble may not be terribly surprising, but its prose, character work, and willingness to explore the shades of gray that color in its characters' morality more than make up for any shortcomings along the way. Is it as good as the best of the series? Well, no...but is it better than most of what you'll read in any given day? Oh, most definitely, yes.
1-14 Meditations in
Green
, by
Stephen Wright
I'm not sure what I can say about Meditations in Green that I didn't say already - and better - in my 2009 review of the book, so all I can say is, you should probably go read that for better, more coherent thoughts about the book. Like I said in that review, Meditations feels like nothing so much as Catch-22 as filtered through a Vietnam war perspective, and that includes substituting the bleak, horrific gallows humor of Vietnam for the more easily amusing antics of Yossarian and company. But it also means infusing the book with the drug culture that so permeated the war, whether that means hallucinogenic visions of chlorophyll marching off to be converted into oxygen or midnight joint-passing sessions as mortar fire and helicopter battles provide a nighttime display that dazzles and amazes. It means bringing to bear the modern state of media, from a soldier obsessed with turning the war into a new work of film to the way George Romero's movies are received by soldiers who see more horrifying images every day. It means turning the character's issues with the war from fear and terror into something more philosophical and moral, in some ways. And, more than anything else, it means bringing to bear Wright's astonishing, riveting prose, which sweeps you into its visionary style and dazzles you on every page with what it has to say. None of this, of course, gets into the plot of Meditations, and that's fine; it's an almost impossible book to summarize, if only because it feels more like a series of vignettes than a single vision, even if those vignettes come together to create something more than the sum of their parts. But more than anything else, it's simply a staggering book, and the fact that it's so little known (and out of print!) makes me deeply sad, as there's little I've read that astonishes me in so many ways as this book.
1-11 Oracle of
Philadelphia
,
by Elizabeth
Corrigan
Oracle of Philadelphia starts off promisingly, with a great premise - a psychic woman who has been cursed to immortality navigates life in the modern world while also dealing with the constant struggle between Hell and Heaven. In Corrigan's hands, that makes for some nicely enjoyable reading; the characters are interesting (particularly Bedlam, the demon of Chaos who's every bit as erratic as you might expect), the moral questions intriguing, and the power dynamics involving. It's a shame, then, that the book never comes up with a story that's as interesting as the world it depicts. The idea is solid enough - in which our Oracle does her best to save a man who's sold his soul - but it never feels as though Corrigan is all that focused on the story. Look, for example, at the way the back half of the book turns into a fetch quest that finds our protagonist going through first one demon's realm, then another, then another in a series of encounters that does nothing but slow the story to a crawl as Corrigan explores her characters and their world. But it's to her credit that, although the story never really comes to life, the world certainly does, and while I never really felt that we needed to see every realm of Hell, Corrigan makes the details and the characters interesting enough that I still enjoyed it all. I'd be curious to see Corrigan's next book in the series - with all the setup and world building she does here, I'd be interested to see if her next book is more plot-focused and less sprawling. I almost hope so, because the world here is so rich and interesting that I'd hate to see it wasted.
1-10 Dead Harvest,
by Chris F. Holm
From the Dashiell Hammet-inspired title to the gloriously pulpy cover art, it's hard to miss how much of Dead Harvest is intended as a tribute to classic noir detective stories, and the characters presented fit in just as well. The lead is selfish and brutal, the villains manipulative and shady, the "good guys" questionable...it's all great noir style writing. But what makes Dead Harvest stand out, though, is the central premise - because instead of a classic private eye, the protagonist of Dead Harvest is a collector of souls employed by Hell, and the forces he finds himself dodging are the allied troops of God and Satan. The result is a fascinating blend of horror novel, urban fantasy, and noir detective story, and it's to Holm's credit that all the various elements end up working out in such a satisfying and engaging way. More to the point, Holm gives all of the elements their due, and explores them all in great ways, whether it's questioning the nature of redemption and goodness, demonstrating the powers inherent when your hero has no physical body of his own, or diving into some of the mythology and origins of the heavenly host. Of course, no classic detective tale would be worth anything without a good story, but Holm succeeds here, too, as the Collector ends up being tasked with taking an innocent soul to hell - a task that could trigger a war between Heaven and Hell if he does it, but that will trigger his own torturous fate if he fails. Dead Harvest is an engaging, exciting, and just plain fun book, one that blends a slew of influences together and comes up with something original and genuinely exciting in the way it blurs the lines until they don't exist anymore. As always, here's the biggest testament to the book's quality: within the first thirty pages, I was pretty sure I'd want to read the next two volumes; by the end of the book, I wasn't just sure - I was checking out prices to see how quickly I could get them in my greedy little hands.
1-7 Without
Mercy
, by
Louis Masterson
Your enjoyment of Without Mercy will probably vary in direct proportion to how much you love classic Westerns - indeed, if you're a fan of authors like Louis L' Amour, you're probably going to have a blast with this introduction to the Morgan Kane series. Who's Morgan Kane, you ask? Kane is a Texas Ranger, and a legendary figure in the Western genre...if you live in Norway, where the hardy and tough creation of Kjell Hallbing (the real name of author) became an icon. But Kane has a new lease on life, thanks to ebooks, and having read the first entry in the series, I have a feeling it'll be a successful rebirth for the character, as long as it can find the right audience. Kane's an archetypal gunslinger - a tough lawman who tolerates no crap, seduces women easily, plays cards well, and shoots to kill. But the book brings some edges to life here and there, and turns Kane into something more three-dimensional and engaging than you might expect. Keep in mind, though, this is no conflicted anti-hero; he's just a tough marshall out for revenge, and plans on getting it no matter what it takes. So don't come looking for complex stories or internal debating here; this is pure pulp Western stuff, and it's all the more engaging for it. There are some problems here and there with the book, most notably the fact that it often abruptly and with no warning changes scenes, narrators, or both, and it makes for an incredibly choppy read (so much so, in fact, that I have a feeling it's a translation problem, and not a choice by the author, but I don't know that for sure). And yes, the women characters are always a little fast to fall in love with Kane, to the point where it's a little silly. But the book takes itself just seriously enough, and it makes for a fun, pulpy ride. I don't know how well the Kane series will go over with readers who expect more nuance and depth to their worlds, but if the series can connect with fans of classic dimestore Westerns, I foresee nothing but big things in the future for the set, because they're absolutely going to love it.
1-6 Dark City, by
F. Paul Wilson
As much as I was frustrated with the non-ending to Cold City, I had faith that Wilson would begin to give us some payoffs in the second volume of his "early years" trilogy - and boy, does he ever. Dark City picks up a few months after Cold City ends, and Jack hasn't made much progress in his life from where we last saw him. There's still a lot of people looking for him, all with their own reasons; he's still struggling to help his friend Julio deal with his pair of troublesome issues (one mob-related, one business-related); and he's still trying to figure out a place for himself and what he wants to do. By the time Dark City ends, though, all three of those are dealt with to some degree or another, and for the first time, we begin to truly understand how the young, naive Jack of Cold City could become the seasoned, tough operator we met in The Tomb. With Cold City having provided a lot of the heavy lifting, Dark City gets to start tying things together beautifully, providing a slew of great sequences in which plotlines combine in surprising ways, Jack finds his skills developing, and plans begin to change for everyone - often with a lot of violence involved. The Jack of Dark City is undeniably younger and rawer than the Jack of The Tomb; look, for instance, at his poor choice of tailing vehicle, or how often he struggles with his temper at bad times. But Wilson does a great job of letting Jack evolve and learn from his experiences, and you can see him start to change in reaction to his mistakes and the events that life is throwing at him. Dark City isn't perfect by any means, mind you. Wilson leans on the crutch of "destiny" a little too often for my taste (even if you acknowledge fate's being manipulated by another figure, it still feels a little like cheating), and some of the sections that don't focus on Jack's evolution struggle a bit (most notably the plot about the Muslim terrorists, which gets pretty one-note at times, although I'm still not sold on Jack's love interest and their relationship, either). But they're not deal breakers by any means - more just weaker areas. And given how well Wilson seems to be tying things together into a cohesive whole, I'm curious to see where they do in the final entry in the series. What I'll say for now, though, is that Dark City pays off the faith I put in Wilson after my mixed feelings on Cold City and then some; it delivers an exciting, engaging book that justifies the idea of giving us a prequel series to Repairman Jack and manages to recapture the fun of these books in a great way.
1-6 Cold City, by
F. Paul Wilson
I still get frustrated with the ending - or, more accurately, the lack thereof - of Cold City. In so many ways, Cold City feels like a prequel to the book Wilson really wanted to write, and having read Dark City, there's a glorious amount of payoff to that book, But for Wilson to have the payoffs he wanted required a lot of setup, and so we get Cold City, which finds Jack new to New York City, developing friendships with Julio and Abe, and starting to find the things he's good at in his life. So I guess it's testament to the book that, even though I knew I wouldn't get any sort of an ending, I still rocketed through Cold City and even enjoyed it deeply. There are so many ways that prequels can go wrong, and Cold City more than most. After all, the Repairman Jack series has become so dense with mythology and cosmic import, and it's something that developed over the course of the series. To go back to the beginning means that Wilson has to step back from all of that and get back to Jack himself, and while he doesn't entirely get away from the mythology, he does remember who Jack is - and, more importantly, who he was. The Jack of Cold City is naive, and makes mistakes, and is out of his depth - and yet, he's still unmistakably Jack, and there's no mistaking the man he will become. But it's to Wilson's credit that he's not that man - not yet, anyways. And while the series could have been bogged down with cheap dramatic ironies, Wilson instead finds a neat way to start pushing Jack toward his destiny without resorting to heavy handed foreshadowing. In fact, it's a joy to find that the "Early Years" series so far works just fine on its own, and doesn't need the rest of the series to succeed - and that's a strong testament to its strengths so far.
1-5 Chasing
Charlie Chan
,
by J.L. Abramo
It's not that I didn't like Chasing Charlie Chan, which is a solid enough modern noir novel about a private eye whose partner gets killed in strange circumstances. Abramo is a pretty good writer, and his cast of characters would fit in beautifully in any classic detective tale - from the hardened old detective mourning a partner to his young sidekick who's eager to help, from the crooked cops to the detective whose nasty exterior hides a man dedicated to justice, there's a bunch of great archetypes here brought to nice life by Abramo. No, the problem comes more with the plotting - or, if we're being more specific, the pacing of that story. The book ends up having a few different climaxes of a sort, and it ends up stopping and starting several times, most notably in the final section, which takes place after the main story almost entirely feels wrapped up. (In fact, there's almost a sense that this is three different books/stories put together; with the way each section frequently reminds the reader who characters are, I wonder if Abramo originally published these separately. That would certainly account for some of the weird pacing issues.) That wouldn't be an issue if Abramo navigated the ups and downs well - after all, the whole point of that final section is that our hero simply can't let it go and keeps on digging past the official story. But it ends up feeling less like a continuation and more like a very, very long epilogue to the story, and never quite ties in as tightly as you might have hoped. Add to that the awkward framing device that crops up now and again throughout the book (in which our hero is telling this story to his new partner) and the whole book just kind of needs some focus and streamlining to make it flow better. There's a great story in here, and some great characters. But the book feels a bit like a Frankenstein - part prequel to Abramo's other series, part murder investigation, part old Hollywood scandal story - and the parts never coalesce into a whole. All that being said, I feel like Abramo is still a solid author, and I'd be curious to read some of his other books that aren't saddled with being a prequel to another series; I have a feeling his focus and structure would be pretty satisfying without being stretched as thin.
1-3 The Creeps, by
John Connolly
In just about every way, The Creeps is everything you would want from a final volume in the Samuel Johnson series, which began in The Gates and continued The Infernals. Is it funny? Howlingly so - between the return of the dwarfs, the increasingly difficult-to-faze population of Samuel's town, and some of the more colorful supporting characters, you never go very long in The Creeps without a line or a scene that had me laughing out loud. (In fact, The Creeps contains the single funniest moment of the series for me, which involves what the dwarfs have been keeping in their basement.) Is it still creepy and unsettling in just the right ways? Oh, yes - as Samuel's small town opens up and a local toy store becomes a nightmarish world, Connolly once again brings out the horror writer that lives within him, all while toeing the line about what could still work in a mostly YA novel. But most importantly, Is it a satisfying wrap-up for the series? And that's the easiest question of all - it's a wonderful wrap-up to the series, especially in a final chapter that's absolutely beautiful in all the most perfect ways it can be. If there's anything that's weak about The Creeps, it's probably the plotting; while the story here is fine enough, it feels like a little bit of an afterthought at times, and feels like Connolly is more interested in playing with his characters, delivering some really great scenes (both of the horrific and the comedic variety), and finishing up the arcs of Samuel and Nurd, among others. But that's a good priority to have, and while the main storyline feels a little perfunctory (especially the addition of a new, potentially fantastic set of villains who seem to never be used all that much), Connolly still does a nice job of tying up some loose ends, and even takes some time to wrap up a lingering question or two you might have about the original book. All in all, it's a great ending to a great series, one that's not just riotously funny or effectively creepy, but both, while still managing to be moving and sweet as well. That's no small feat, but somehow, Connolly manages. And while I'm sad to see the series end, I'm glad it ends as well as it does, going out with a solid, satisfying final volume like this.
1-2 The Infernals,
by John Connolly
There's no denying that The Infernals is much, much darker than its predecessor, The Gates; after all, while The Gates was about the forces of Hell invading a small British town, The Infernals finds Samuel Johnson and a few other characters drawn into Hell itself, and in the hands of master writer John Connolly, Hell is every bit as nightmarish as you might expect. And yet, for all that, The Infernals is still a wonderful piece of YA fiction; as unsettling and disturbing as many of the denizens of Hell end up being, Connolly's tone stays just as fun - and funny - as it did in The Gates. In fact, at points, it may even be funnier, which is high praise indeed; while The Gates had me cracking up, The Infernals benefits from some of the new characters, most notably a batch of drunken, belligerent dwarfs who leave destruction and theft in their wake at all times. That being said, in most ways, The Infernals is a more grown-up book than The Gates, and that's appropriate, given how Samuel is growing up as well. There are power plays, political maneuvering, forces of war, and behind it all, the Great Malevolence himself, whose insanity has Hell echoing with his mad laughter. The Infernals shows off just how rich and dense John Connolly's imagination is; his creations here are astonishing and rich, and his ability to create unease from an environment is wonderful. But more than that, the book is also a testament to his writing ability; the story is rich, the humor funny, the horror effective, the characters endearing, the plotting complex, and the overall book a knockout. The fact that it may be better than The Gates is no small feat, and I'm eager to see how Connolly concludes the series in The Creeps.
1-1 The Gates, by John Connolly
The first time I heard about The Gates, I was a little taken aback. A YA novel from John Connolly, whose Parker series is one of the darkest and most unsettling series out there? And yet, not only is The Gates a fantastic YA book, it's still unmistakably a Connolly book, with all the beautiful writing, sharp humor, and even a little bit of terror you've come to expect from his writing. Even the plot - in which a precocious young boy and his dog end up being resistance fighters against the forces of Hell, who have been summoned by bored suburbanites - has that wonderful mix of realism and the supernatural that Connolly does so well. But rarely has he played it as goofily as he does here; The Gates is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, whether it's following two demons through their first encounter with beer, outlining some of the lesser demons of hell, or discovering the rules that pertain to demons under a bed. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's also wonderfully ambitious; how many YA books aren't just about their story, but also make time for quantum physics and the Large Hadron Collider? And none of that even gets into the numerous other pleasures of the story, from the rich, interesting characters to the Pratchett-esque use of footnotes to the clever plotting and beyond. All in all, The Gates is an unbridled joy, and every time I re-read it, I find myself laughing and enjoying it all over again, just as much - if not more - as I did the first time.

 

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page updated:
April 19, 2014