A Year in Reading: 2015
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.
by Neil Grimmett
|I've read two books by Neil Grimmett now - The Hoard and The Threshing Circle - and it's interesting to see a pattern already forming, only two books into his career. Both are books about how the past informs the present; both deal with the long shadow of warfare; both deal with descendants of murder victims investigating the deaths of their predecessors; both touch on the supernatural without ever focusing on it or letting it control the book. But for all of that, there's no confusing the books, nor is it possible to feel like The Hoard is just a rehash of The Threshing Circle; indeed, it's a stronger book in most ways, and one that shows off some aspects of Grimmett's writing ability that weren't as evident in Circle. Set in an explosives manufacturing factory run by the British military, The Hoard opens with a devastating explosion that kills a slew of men for reasons not yet known. Now, some twenty years later, the son of one of those men infiltrates the plant in an effort to understand what caused the death of his father - and, more importantly, who. The Hoard has a sprawling cast and a plot that unfolds only gradually; combine that with an environment that's entirely unfamiliar to many of us, and The Hoard could easily lose a reader. And yet, the book works, and that's largely due to Grimmett's knack for making his characters engaging and interesting. From the larger-than-life union representative whose gruff exterior hides a deep love for his men to a sociopathic police enforcer to a survivor whose mental state has fractured in the wake of the accident, Grimmett populates the book with characters than stand out and help keep the story clear, even when it occasionally gets a bit too labyrinthine for its own good. And though things occasionally veer dangerously close to the cartoonish (especially in some odd moments about a martial art and some acid torture), The Hoard is still an engaging, satisfying thriller that nicely weaves together history and family ties to make a rich mystery as much about a place as it is the men who work there.|
|We're in a golden age of flawed antiheroes - men like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and others, whose charisma and appeal is offset by their monstrous sides, ranging from violence to sociopathy to solipsism. So we're in a good era for books like The Hangman's Daughter, whose protagonist is a professional executioner and torturer for a small German town in the 1600's. Jakob Kuisl is a hard man, and an unpopular one, for obvious reasons; the town loves for him to do their dirty work, but they're uneasy with the cruelty and death he's capable of dealing out. And yet, Kuisl is smarter and more thoughtful than he appears, and when children are murdered in the village and marked with what appears to be a witch's sign, Kuisl questions the official story. And as if a child murderer isn't enough, there's the danger of mass witch hunts and hysteria, a rapidly approaching nobleman who could bankrupt the town, and small town politics that could change everything. Author Oliver Pötsch spins an intriguing tale, but one of the best things about The Hangman's Daughter is his command of historical details, which truly bring the era to life in all of its small, satisfying ways. More than that, Pötsch brings his characters to life naturally, letting their foibles and weaknesses show as much as their strengths. (It's worth noting that, according to the postscript, Jakob Kuisl was a real person and an ancestor of Pötsch, which no doubt prompted much of this research and some of the real-life details that pepper the book.) Of course, without a satisfying story, no mystery works; luckily, The Hangman's Daughter is a great yarn, one that's incredibly influenced by its setting without ever resorting to cheap dramatic irony or modern day ideas (mostly, that is; there is a conflict about modern science versus old methods, but that fits into the story nicely and feels natural rather than forced). And through it all, there's Kuisl, a brutal man filled with contradictions: he's merciful and merciless, brutish but brilliant, emotionally raw but ice cold. He's a compelling central figure for the tale, and as a window into a novel and compelling world, he makes for a pretty great ambassador. All in all, The Hangman's Daughter is a satisfying and fun mystery tale, and I'm intrigued to read more of the series at some point. Pötsch has created a fascinating world and a great cast of characters, and I'm curious to see what he does as he continues to explore this world he's brought to life.|
by Cynthia Lott
|The Feathers has a slew of promising elements - strong character work, an intriguing hook, a nice use of historical details, and an ambitious ending that tries to avoid the usual trappings of the genre. But those elements have a tendency to make the book frustrating, as you keep seeing such great promise that's far more successful than the final product. Make no mistake, The Feathers isn't awful - far from it. It starts off with an intriguing murder whose suspect seems to be able to charm his way into homes with an almost supernatural ability, and whose predilection for targeting artists and stealing their talents leaves the police baffled. (It would leave the reader baffled too, if Lott didn't feel the need to spoil the murder's identity and motive on the back cover and in the promotional materials for the book, in a truly odd choice I don't understand at all. When your book builds up to a big reveal, why give that away up front?) Add to that some nice stylistic choices (especially Lott's choice to have each murder experienced through the eyes of the victim after the police investigate, which both emphasizes the strangeness of the suspect and the horror of the crimes), and you've got some great elements that could add up to something really special. But The Feathers feels weirdly rushed, especially as it moves towards its climax; just as we start figuring out who's committing these crimes and why, the book seems to lose patience with itself and rushes to get to its ending, eschewing some of the character work and depth it's nicely used up until that point. And then there's the ending, which tries something more emotionally rich than you might expect, but fails to pull it off (largely, I think, thanks to a strange narration shift in the final chapter that makes the mechanics of what happens very confusing, but also due to a lack of proper groundwork that would make it work). The Feathers has a lot of promise, and I think Lott has some good books in her - maybe even some great ones. But as it stands, The Feathers feels rushed and ultimately unsatisfying, even as I look to lots of individual pieces that I liked quite a bit.|
The Milk, by
|A gleefully silly, anarchic little tale from the great Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, The Milk had my 8-year-old son in constant giggles from page one all the way until the end, and begging to read it again as soon as we finished it. The idea is simple: a father goes to buy milk, and when he's gone for a long time, his explanation for the delay strains credulity. But that in no way prepares you for the silliness and chaos on display in this book, which somehow involves inventive dinosaurs, volcano gods, time travel, pirates, and so much more. It all ties together in that sort of Alice in Wonderland way where you know what's going on, but trying to trace the logic of it all is a fool's errand. But who cares, when the book is as hilariously funny as it is, the drawings and artwork as charming and great as they are, the wordplay as much fun as it is, and the imagination evident everywhere? Fortunately, The Milk isn't about anything so much as it is the joy of a good story, and if it's all profoundly absurd, who cares as long as it's a good story - and this is definitely a good story, as long as you can give yourself over to the anarchy and enjoy the wonderfully weird, insane ride. And if you like absurd names for common objects, confusing prophecies, time-travel paradoxes, or a testimony about the sacred power of milk, well, you'll find even more to love. And if you've got children who love silliness and a constantly twisting story that's impossible to predict, it's a must buy for you. But don't blame me if you think about stealing it for your own giggling reads later.|
|Anytime you read a series, there's always a worry in your mind about how long the author can sustain everything without a) getting repetitive, b) wearing out his/her welcome, or c) getting bored with their own creation. And when there's a degree of serialization to the series, no matter how small, you're also acutely aware of the balance between self-contained works and the overarching story, and that the author can't stall that out forever without ultimately frustrating the reader or making the series feel like it's spinning its wheels. All of which brings me to The Wolf in Winter, the latest entry in John Connolly's masterful Charlie Parker series. In its early going, The Wolf in Winter feels like typical Parker - not that that's a bad thing, mind you; between Connolly's beautiful, often poetic prose; his masterful characters that defy easy categorization and truly come to life; his uncanny ability to blend crime with horror and create something wholly new; his knack for bringing to life truly unsettling versions of evil; and his fantastic plotting, even the weakest Parker book is a great read, and this one is far from weak. But as we learn about the small, secluded Maine town of Prosperous, where a young woman disappears not long before her searching father turns up dead, there's a sense that we're in pure Parker territory, where the ordinary world slowly peels back to reveal a twisted, dark core. And then, halfway through The Wolf in Winter, Connolly does something wholly new for the series, pushing Parker essentially offstage and throwing all of our expectations into disarray. And what follows from there is exhilarating, as secondary characters come to the foreground, old plot threads are pulled together in surprising ways, and the mythology of the series seems to evolve to be something entirely different than we might have originally expected. What does that mean for fans of the series? It means that not only are you getting a phenomenal, disturbing, thrilling, exceptional new entry in a great series, but you're also getting something wholly unexpected that leaves us uncertain as to what comes next. I don't know if Connolly is drawing the series to a close, or if he's shaking things up in order to push us into something new, or if the next book will be a return to the status quo - and honestly, I don't care, because when the books are this good, this riveting, this exciting, this unsettling, and this phenomenal, I'll read every one of them until the end and just be glad I got the ones I got. In other words, it's just another masterful thriller from one of the best and most underrated thriller writers working today. Did you really expect much less?|
the Rescue, by
|Unlike most of the other books in the Origami Yoda series, Princess Labelmaker doesn't really stand on its own; it all but requires you to have read The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Hutt, as it's basically a continuation of that book's ongoing way between students and the standardized tests that are taking over the school. That doesn't really make the book worse, though; if anything, it allows author Tom Angleberger to play a little more, given that his setup is already taken care of. There's an apparent traitor in the Origami Rebellion, depending on how you look at things; someone has given the rebellion's case file to Principal Rabbski, in what seems like an attempt to get the principal to better understand why the kids are fighting back so hard. I commented when I read Jabba the Puppet that as a teacher, I couldn't really hate any book that was so firmly against standardized testing, and the same feeling applies to Labelmaker, which nicely reminds you that it's unlikely that any teachers are all that thrilled about it either. Indeed, much of the point of the book is realizing that standardized testing is rarely the choice of anyone involved - it's not the choice of the students nor the school administration, but those in charge who seem more and more disconnected with real life in schools. (And the financial aspect of the testing is no small part of it - another point that Angleberger nicely makes without ever forcing the issue.) I don't like Princess Labelmaker quite as much as I liked Jabba the Puppet; it feels a little overlong and a bit repetitive at times, and it's lacking some of the nice moments of depth that I enjoy in the series a lot (although I continue to enjoy the glimpses we get of Tommy and Dwight's lives and how much Angleberger achieves with small hints instead of long monologues). But it's still an enjoyable, silly series, and I like how Angleberger manages to mix in some comments about the state of education with a silly, low-key middle school series.|
|A plane is discovered in some distant Maine woods, and in the wreckage are some handcuffs, a lot of money...and a list of names, and it's that list that sets the events of The Wrath of Angels into motion. Because a lot of very bad people want that list, and if that's not enough, there's something that looks like a young girl watching over that wreckage - something that looks like a girl but very much isn't. The Wrath of Angels may be one of my favorite John Connolly books, and that's saying something, given how much I love that man's work. But at his best, Connolly mixes horror and crime seamlessly, and he does that magnificently here, delivering both a gripping novel about crime and the influence of bad men and a truly unsettling horror novel featuring some of the most disturbing and creepy scenes I can think of in a book. And if that's not enough for you, Connolly also delivers his usual beautiful prose, waxing eloquent as to the nature of evil, the state of the world, and so much more. And just as icing, he can make you laugh out loud when you least expect it, bringing out genuine belly laughs in the middle of the grimmest scene. It's all part of what makes Connolly one of the best writers working today, and his Charlie Parker series one of the most satisfying series in recent memory. Yes, you've got to have some courage to go in here; few authors deal in evil as hauntingly and terrifyingly as Connolly does, and the images and characters he creates will linger with you long after you've turned the final pages. But those brave enough to enter into his "honeycomb" world (where the evil is can hide just out of sight and then attack you when you least expect it) will find themselves in a world unlike anything else in fiction right now, driven by some of the best characters and the most beautiful writing around. And even if Wrath isn't the best starting point (it trades off of your familiarity with the characters and the ongoing mythology of the series), that just means you get to experience this whole outstanding series for yourself from the beginning. So what are you waiting for?|