Umney's Alley Picture GalleriesThoughtsFilm LogBook Log

 

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.

 

11-19 Wolf in White
Van
, by
John Darnielle
No matter how much praise I was hearing for Wolf in White Van, finding out that it was written by John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats fame) gave me pause - not because of anything inherently wrong with Darnielle, but because of so many bad experiences with people famous for another field who dabble in writing. But Darnielle does himself proud here, because whatever my issues with Wolf in White Van (and I do have some), there's no arguing that Darnielle is a fantastic writer, one who can create remarkable images, astonishing scenes, and a beautiful sense of mood that permeates every page of Wolf in White Van. Nominally the story of Sean, a disfigured young man whose main interactions with the world come in a text-based adventure people play through the mail, Wolf in White Van ultimately doesn't feel like it's about anything so much as it's an examination of Sean's mind and the experiences that made him who he is. Oh, there are things that happen in Wolf in White Van - a court case, a strange correspondence with a player, and the cause of Sean's disfigurement, among others - but Wolf never seems to be interested in its story so much as it's interested in how Sean expresses himself and deals with the world. And to that end, Wolf in White Van is filled with incredible scenes and moments, from an exploration of Sean's imaginary game world to a surprisingly honest conversation with two teenagers outside of a convenience store to his imagined stories of his medications that help him cope with his reliance upon them. The problem, ultimately, is that Wolf in White Van feels a little more like a collection of beautiful, wonderfully-realized scenes than a coherent whole; the lack of throughline can occasionally become frustrating, and while Sean is interesting, there's never really a sense of focus or clarity to the novel. Is it an exploration of Sean's sadness and the painful incident that shaped his life? Is it about how his game helps him to cope with the world? Is it about how coping mechanisms and escaping from reality can ultimately lead us to retreat too far from the world? Or is it just about exploring Sean's psyche and traveling through the rooms of his mind like players travel through his text-based world? Ultimately, it's hard to say whether Wolf is about any of these, or all of them, or something else. And yet, you can't easily dismiss Wolf, either, not when it's as beautifully written and hauntingly told as it is. I walked away from Wolf in White Van impressed with what it accomplished and adoring Darnielle's writing, but wishing he could focus a little more and pull his ideas into something more cohesive and whole. Is Wolf in White Van worth reading? I'd be hard pressed to come up with a reason why you shouldn't, but be aware that, to borrow an idea from Darnielle's other career, it feels more like a collection of great songs than it does a single album, if that makes sense.
11-18 Revival, by Stephen King
There's no denying that Revival is more about the buildup than the payoff. Framing its story through the eyes of Jamie Morton as he grows up, struggles with his own life issues, and occasionally runs into his former minister, Charles Jacobs, and his ever-increasing obsession with electricity, Revival often feels like an attempt to tell a story entirely through the eyes of a secondary character - one who's not privy to everything that's going on, but keeps finding himself drawn in again and again to something he's not entirely aware of. And in lesser hands, that could be disastrous; after all, in the end, Revival is a horror novel that's mainly about one scene - one big payoff, after a long, long buildup. But in the hands of Stephen King, it's hard not to revel in the world Revival builds, as King immerses you in Jamie's life and fills in his story with the kind of details that make his character work so strong. From Jamie's addiction problems to his career in music to his scattered love life, King makes Jamie come to life and invests us in him so deeply that we don't mind spending time with him, even as we become more and more aware that the story is ultimately about Jacobs, not Jamie. And each time we run into Jacobs, we understand a little more the ominous tone that opens the book, and why it is that "present day" Jamie seems so conflicted about someone who seems like such a fundamentally decent, good-hearted man. Revival reminds you that few authors are as capable of tense, unnerving buildup as King is, and while you may start to have suspicions about where the story goes (particularly if you catch some of the allusions being tossed around), it doesn't make the buildup to the climax any less unnerving and unsettling to get through. Indeed, it's hard for me to think of a horror novel that's made me more uneasy and anxious than Revival, even as I acknowledge that it ultimately does very little except build in mood and suspense gradually and inexorably. But is the payoff worth it? For me, it's undeniable; the climax of Revival is truly nightmarish and horrifying, and results in one of the bleakest King endings in memory. And if Revival isn't as relentless as some of his best work, the restraint and novel framing of the story make it still a wonderful success, investing you in King's world and his characters only to slowly undermine everything you think you understand about it. Revival may be more suited for King fans than for newcomers, but as a long-time fan who's stuck with him through peaks and valleys over the years, Revival is a knockout, marrying his recent focus on character work with some old-school horror beats that more than satisfy. And if you're worried that the horror section of the book is so relatively brief, let me just say: it's the quality, not the quantity, that matters. And, man, that quality.
11-15 Smoke and
Mirrors
, by
Neil Gaiman
As much as I love Neil Gaiman's novels - and I truly do - there's something about his writing that seems to fine perfect expression in shorter pieces. Maybe it's the way he so often gives us only glimpses of something bigger and more mysterious, allowing his stories to feel more like windows into magic than a full exploration of a world. Maybe it's how good he is at establishing characters quickly, leaving us wanting more btu satisfied with these moments of life. Or maybe it's just that short pieces allow him to indulge his impulses in a way that longer pieces don't always allow, giving him more freedom to defy your expectations. There's no way you could write a novel about, say, an old woman finding the Holy Grail at an antiques shop and the ensuing negotiations with a very confused knight, but in short form, Gaiman has a blast with the concept, bringing out both the humor and a bit of wonder when you least expect it. You couldn't make a full-length work out of the concept of marrying Peter Cook and Dudley Moore banter with H.P. Lovecraft, but "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" allows you to play with the idea in just the right amount of time. And at times, the short length only adds to the beauty of the tales, giving us a sense of something bigger but leaving us wanting more, as with "Murder Mysteries," a haunting tale of L.A. and the first murder ever committed (and my favorite story in the collection). Gaiman is renowned for his ideas, and Smoke and Mirrors reminds you why, as he mixes light comedy with chilling horror, erotic moments with supernatural nightmares, nostalgia with pain, and so much more, all while cascading you with wondrous moments that other authors would give their careers to achieve just once. There's the gleeful black comedy "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale," whose tonal shift still delights me, even knowing it's coming; there's the bittersweet Hollywood tale "The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories," which creates a lingering beauty that's hard to ignore; the grim horror of "Snow, Glass, Apples," which finds Gaiman reversing a classic tale into something horrifying; there's the beautiful and even moving "Troll Bridge," which takes another classic tale and turns it into something more mature and beautiful. And there's so much more here to discover, and not a misfire in the batch. Sometimes, you may just pause to admire the language, while other times it's the imagination on display, and sometimes it's the heartfelt pain and emotion that Gaiman invests in even the silliest premise. But whatever it is, Smoke and Mirrors reminds you of the range, talent, and power of Gaiman's writing, and shows you that there are few writers alive who can capture the range of experiences and the variety of genres that he does, and does perfectly. Some are hilarious, some are heartbreaking, some are terrifying, but they're all unmistakably Gaiman, with all the wonder, imagination, beauty, and darkness that implies.
11-9 The Threshing
Circle
, by
Neil Grimmett
I somehow got into my head that The Threshing Circle was a supernatural thriller, or even a horror novel, before I started into it, and yet the early going of the book certainly wouldn't convince you that that wasn't the case. Opening with a violent incident in a small Greek town during World War II, The Threshing Circle jumps forward to the present day, as a cafe owner and a town patriarch (more or less) find themselves drawn into a cycle of vengeance, secrets, and family vendettas. There's quite a bit to like about The Threshing Circle, and no small part of that comes from the Greek setting, which is both fully realized and fascinatingly informative, diving into Greek culture, history, and morality in a way that renders the setting inextricable from the book. Moreover, it makes the book's play between past and present all the more compelling, as author Neil Grimmett truly immerses you into this Greek world and the complexities that we may not understand. And while the story gets a little iffy sometimes (I feel like I lost the thread a couple of times, but that may just be me), Grimmett holds it all together nicely, delivering some fantastic emotional payoffs and some gripping climaxes that he's smart enough to spend the time setting up and delivering nicely. The biggest issue I had with the book, honestly, comes with the characters - it's not that they're not well-drawn (they are); it's not that they're not compelling (they are); it's that far too much of the book found the main character, a female cafe owner, going back and forth over how much she liked the old man she was working with. Disliking him but coming to appreciate him? Fine. Disliking him and mostly liking him but still disliking some aspects? Fine. But over the course of the book, she liked him, then disliked him, then trusted him, then quit trusting him, and so on until it got a little repetitive and distracting from the book. It's the one plot thread that really needs some focusing, and if that was taken care of, The Threshing Circle would be a much stronger book. As it is, though, this is still a great read; it's a compelling tale of revenge and family honor, and the setting is strong enough and intriguing enough that the reader is fully on board with many of the strange, haunting touches along the way. I just wish that one character dynamic was stronger, because as it stands, it really detracts from the book in a frustrating way.
11-8 Dark Digital
Sky
, by
Carac Allison
There's something satisfying about a book that's about hackers and actually makes some effort to know what it's talking about. Hacking is one of those things that's become so ubiquitous in culture that a lot of authors like to just handwave their way through stories and assume it will all work thanks to computer magic, so it's nice to read something like Dark Digital Sky and feel like the author (and the character) have some grounding to them. Moreover, Dark Digital Sky has a great main character; yes, he seems to have no social skills whatsoever; yes, he seems to have some serious mental issues at various points; yes, he undeniably wouldn't be someone you'd want to befriend. But he's a great main character for a detective story, and he makes for a great entry into this tale that begins with a quest to find out whether a man's sperm donations led to any births and ends up in a revolution against America. My biggest problem with Dark Digital Sky comes in the plotting; trying to trace the thread of the book gets frustrating, to put it mildly, and it often feels a little forced, as though you can see the author pushing the character along, or creating a connection between story threads that strains a bit of credulity. But while that hurts the book, it never cripples it, because Allison is a strong writer, and he makes our investment in the character and the story enough that we overlook the strained contrivances sometimes necessary to keep it going. Moreover, all of the individual pieces are pretty fantastic, from hacking sequences to cruel interrogations to strange conversations in the middle of a desert, so if the connective tissue is a little weak, the pieces are strong enough to make the whole thing work well. I liked Dark Digital Sky quite a bit on the whole; there's a great story there, some fascinating characters, and an intriguing world being built that feels like it could go to some really unusual places. Allison's got a lot of talent as a writer, and I think as he continues to write, if he can tighten up his stories, he's going to be a powerhouse to watch out for.
11-7 The Bone
Clocks
, by
David Mitchell
At first glance, The Bone Clocks might seem like Mitchell just doing what he's done in books like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas - telling a complex, interconnected story through a slew of different narrators, and using his structure to jump through times, settings, perspectives, and more. And if that's all it was doing, The Bone Clocks would still be masterful, as few people create as complex and interesting characters as Mitchell does, or display such skill with their writing that they can create multiple fully realized voices over the course of a single work. But what makes The Bone Clocks truly fascinating is the way that it's somehow more ambitious than Cloud Atlas in one way, and in another way, far more intimate and narrow in score. The ambition comes from the fact that The Bone Clocks is, in a sneaky way, a gripping thriller, one that we only get glimpses of from time to time until Mitchell is ready to law his cards on the table. That slow pace doesn't detract from the book at all, though; it allows us to luxuriate in these characters until we're reminded of this fascinating, dangerous story on the outskirts of their lives. But while the thriller is solidly done and great, what truly makes The Bone Clocks such a masterpiece is the slow realization that, in many ways, this is the story of a single life, and that choice allows Mitchell to grapple with issues like mortality, regret, grief, loss, and love, all while still telling a sprawling story that seems on the verge of spinning out of control but never does. Even better, as you start to see the connections between the stories and the book starts coalescing into a whole, you begin to see just how intricately structured it all really is, and how every detail - the thriller, the character choices, the connections, the deaths and losses - all tie into a much larger portrait of the human experience. It's no small thing for me to say that The Bone Clocks is every bit as good as Cloud Atlas, given how staggeringly good that book is; the fact that it might even be a little better is even more remarkable. But whatever my feelings on it, it's a truly incredible book by one of the best writers alive today, and I genuinely can't say enough good things about it.
10-25 The Surprise
Attack of
Jabba the
Puppet
, by Tom
Angleberger
It's hard for me not to love any kids' book that's as adamantly against standardized testing as Jabba the Puppet is - after all, I'm a teacher, so reading a book in which a student rebellion rises up to fight standardized testing and return focus to electives in schools kind of warms my heart by default. But that wouldn't matter if Jabba the Puppet wasn't an entertaining book on its own merits; luckily, the book feels like a return to form for the Origami Yoda series, which was starting to bog down and lose its focus in the last entry. It helps that there's a tighter plot to this one, and that the Origami Star Wars characters feel more integral to the story at this point; while they're not as essential as they were in the first entries, having them evolve into a symbol of resistance and defiance is a nice move, and allows the series to play with the Star Wars allusions in interesting ways. I still have issues with the series, here and there; while the cast of supporting characters keeps expanding, some more depth and nuance might be satisfying, and that's doubly true when it comes to adult characters. (That being said, the way Angleberger keeps creating home life for his characters through allusions and throw-away lines is really satisfying - look at the picture we're starting to get about Tommy and Dwight's home lives and just how difficult they might be.) I don't think Jabba is as solid as the first couple of entries, but it's a definite step in the right direction, and I'm excited to keep reading the series to see how this final plot thread develops over the last few books. (And if it makes kids resent standardized tests in advance, hey, all the better!)
10-5 Meet Mr.
Wright
, by
Omar Scott
There are certain styles of writing that really require you be able to control your prose, and foremost among them is any type of first-person narration. If you can't write dialogue or convincing prose, your first-person narration won't work; it'll sound clunky, unnatural, off, and just not work. Sadly, that's one of the many issues with Meet Mr. Wright, which finds a dying gangster narrating his life story to a nun who's come to hear his confession. Even without the prose problems, Wright is seriously clunky; there's not one but two framing stories before you get to Wright's tale, and it ends up feeling like the framing stories are only there to drop a couple of twists on the reader by the end that just feel gratuitous. And there are other issues, to be sure, including character consistency (characters who are described as racist on one page are two pages later commented on as being incredibly inclusive and welcoming to all) and control of tone (particularly when it comes to handling betrayals or transitions from shock to other emotions). But the bad dialogue and prose really kills the book...and that's a shame, because there's actually some interesting material in Wright, which feels like its own unique spin on The Godfather that finds its character both wanting redemption and refusing it, to say nothing of the thematic riches to be found from the way the book juggles nature and nurture in shaping the lives of its characters. But ultimately, the flaws in Wright far outweigh the strengths, as characters jerk around as needed, betrayals come without much impact, tones weirdly shift, and the framework becomes more and more shoehorned in. There's some interesting material in here, but it's a few drafts away from being as good of a book as it could be.
10-5 At Their Own
Game
, by
Frank Zafiro
At Their Own Game is pretty much pure neo-noir, from the first page; from the grizzled prose to our "hero" (a former cop who's been bounced from the force and is now working as a petty criminal) to the plot (which finds our protagonist juggling a violent drug dealer, a possible informant in his crew, a cop with a vendetta, and a former lover who re-enters his life), there's so much of an old-school feel to At Their Own Game that I almost wanted to clap a little. Because even though he's clearly working in the tradition of everyone from Hammett to Lehane, Frank Zafiro still makes the story his own, finding some intriguing moral complexities as his characters try to decide which lines they will and won't cross and how far they're willing to go to protect themselves and make a life that's all their own. There's a lot of disparate plot threads going on in At Their Own Game, and it's to Zafiro's credit that the book never feels like it's going to spin out of control; there's undoubtedly a chaotic feel to the proceedings, but he uses it beautifully to undermine his character's confidence and leave them just as overwhelmed as we are. And watching him string the threads back together is a treat; it all comes together in a great climax that left me both deeply satisfied and wanting a little more - always a good place to leave your reader. If you're a fan of neo-noir, particularly people like Lehane, you owe it to yourself to check out Zafiro's book. This is the only book of his that I've read, but seeing that he's got a lot more out there, I'm very eager to check out more of this guy's tough, morally complicated world.
10-3 Braineater
Jones
, by
Stephen
Kozeniewski
Having your noir story open with an amnesiac detective recovering after a failed attack on his life? That's a bit of a cliche. But having that attack succeed and the amnesiac awakening to discover he's undead and needs some booze to keep the rigor mortis from setting in? Now that's something more interesting, and that's what you get in Braineater Jones, a gloriously weird blend of horror, black comedy, and noir detective tale that manages to create something that feels wholly original out of its strange blend of elements. Author Stephen Kozeniewski succeeds in no small part by creating a nicely vivid world for Braineater (his self-applied nickname) to live in; it's a world where the undead unofficially exist and no one likes them much, where zombie brothels allow you to mix and match parts to make your own ideal woman, where booze is what literally keeps everyone moving, and where a severed head can make a pretty good career out of pretending to be a parrot carried around in a cage. But Braineater Jones wouldn't work without its glorious noir setting, prose, and plot, all of which combine to make a really intriguing story that definitely threw me for a loop more than a few times. Add to that a gleefully dark sense of humor and you have a real knockout - something that genuinely reads like little else out there and feels like a fully formed success from page one. It's exciting and grotesque, funny and thoughtful, engaging and entertaining, and just generally a great read. (And if, like me, you're a little wary of the growing "zombie" trend everywhere, don't be; this is so far from most zombie fiction that the label almost doesn't apply. This is more like a noir where dead people just don't take a hint, and keep walking around and stinking up the joint, and it's fantastic.)
9-28 The Idols,
by CVRRAN
Whatever complaints I might have about The Idols, the prose certainly isn't one of them. Using a dense, somewhat formal prose, author CVRRAN (I'm assuming it's supposed to be in all caps?) gives The Idols the feel of a parable, which fits the story nicely. After all, this is a morality tale of sorts about a modern business man who one day is suddenly swept away from the world (along with the sidewalk he's standing on) and finds himself in a strange land, being forced to get away from his modern trappings and more in touch with the natural world. And CVRRAN's prose gives the tale a solid weight to it, feeling like a lesson or a sermon more than simply an adventure story. But ultimately, the lesson is a fairly obvious one, and the story's big revelation near the end obvious for a very long time beforehand. The Idols is a well-told tale, and I really enjoyed the reveal about the title, which felt like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. But the fact that the ending reminds me so much of a Clarke tale gets to my biggest issue with the story; there's very little about it that doesn't feel like it came from somewhere else. Look, for instance, at the classic short story "By the Waters of Babylon," which does a lot of what The Idols does, and does it a lot faster, better, and in a more surprising way. There are some nice moments here and there in The Idols, and CVRRAN does a nice job of telling his story slowly and gradually, allowing the character to evolve in his situation. But it never feels like it has much to say that you haven't heard before, and it's never doing anything that you haven't seen before, and done better. It's certainly not a bad book by any means, but it's not as good as it needs to be to move beyond the "What else you got?" feeling it left me with. Would I read something else the author wrote? Probably so - there's some talent here, and some good storytelling work. But the plot on display here never feels like anything too innovative or interesting, sadly.
9-27 Summer House
with Swimming
Pool
, by
Herman Koch

Herman Koch's novel The Dinner, his first to be translated to English, was a gleefully twisted tale of parents doing anything to protect their children, astonishingly sociopathic people who seemed normal at first, and the dangers of trusting the narrator of any story. And at first, I assumed Summer House with Swimming Pool was going to be a similar ride, opening with a long chapter narrated by a doctor who's beginning to feel more and more detached from his patients and who's been accused of having something to do with the death of one of his patients. And true to Koch's form, Summer House unfolds marvelously, revealing some dark undercurrents to our narrator, some genuinely surprising revelations, and a story that you're going to have little clue about going on. But while The Dinner felt like twisted fun, Summer House is darker fare; while its characters may not hit the sociopathic extremes on display in The Dinner, the crimes at the heart of this book are a lot more haunting in some ways, and the actions taken by the characters all the more understandable - and hence, more disturbing for us as the viewer. Summer House isn't as much fun as The Dinner, and it lacks that book's tightness (unfolding across the time of one meal is very different than this story's tale of years) and claustrophobia, and it trades wonderfully vicious characters for more human, understandable ones. But in doing that, Koch may have made a better book, one that lingers for longer than The Dinner does and pushes you to some far more uncomfortable places along the way. And he does all that while demonstrating just how good he is at using first-person narration to its utmost potential, both telling his story and unfolding a deeply strange psyche along the way. It's not as twistedly fun as The Dinner, but it's every bit as well-written and compelling, and maybe even richer for its more grounded tale.
9-20 Personal,
by Lee Child
Personal marks the 19th full entry in the Jack Reacher series, not counting some short stories and Kindle singles along the way. That's a long time to keep a series like this going, especially given that it always follows a pretty typical formula - Reacher gets pulled into a dangerous situation, works his way through the situation using a combination of brains and brawn, and wraps everything up in his own usual iconoclastic way. And yet, the Reacher series has held up remarkably well through the years, delivering a pretty consistent level of quality that almost always leaves me entertaining, excited, and just having a blast. There are some knockouts (Gone Tomorrow, 61 Hours, Persuader), and a couple of weak ones (Tripwire, Running Blind), but mostly, the Reacher books provide entertainment, clever plotting, great action, and stories that solidly engage the reader. And Personal fits right among most of the series, switching to a first-person narrator (something Child's only used intermittently in the series) for a story about a man Reacher once arrested who may have tried to assassinate the President of France, and might be aiming for something far more serious. How that ends up leading to territorial grudges between international intelligence organizations, a turf war among British gangsters, and a fight with a massive giant remains to be seen, but in typical Child fashion, the elements blend together nicely, and the story keeps evolving into something new just when you think you've got a handle on it, all the way to the ending which pulls together a slew of loose threads in a satisfying, if slightly abrupt, way. Personal is a lot of fun, and while it's never quite the grudge match the title and premise seems to suggest, it's still a solidly engaging read, with a surprising story and some fantastic action sequences. Are there parts that strain belief? Sure, but if the story is this much fun, who cares?
9-7 Mildred, by
Ryan Sean
O'Reilly
Mildred is billed as a "novelette of suspenseful fiction," but the problem with it is that it fails to deliver much in the way of suspense, making the whole thing a bit frustrating. I've enjoyed O'Reilly's previous writings, especially The One Who Turned Them On, a strange little novella about abandoned robots on an alien world. And Mildred starts promisingly, focusing on a young woman who ends up living in a house that feels like a hoarder's paradise, only to start feeling like she's less and less alone there and that there's more to the story than she realized. The eventual reveal of Mildred is actually a satisfying one, but the problem is that the story ends up reaching it so abruptly and without fanfare that there's little buildup or tension, and the whole thing just feels like a quiet little drama or a short little play between characters. There are clearly some efforts at suspense, most of which revolve around noises in the house, but most are never followed up on or resolved in any satisfying way, and they end up feeling like threads from an earlier draft of the story that might have had some supernatural elements. Indeed, much of the book feels like a first draft of some promising ideas: an intriguing mystery, a strange diary, an odd handyman, a slew of packages...but none ever escalate or do much than give up answers quickly, and it leaves you wondering where the suspense is supposed to be coming from. Mildred is written well-enough, and the story intrigued me, but there's no buildup, no tension, no sense of escalation - just an odd situation that gets cleared up quickly and feels like it should be the prelude to something more. It's not bad, I guess, but it doesn't deliver in the genre it's claiming, and that ultimately makes it a failure, even if it's never bad enough to truly irritate.
9-7 The Hanging
Tree
, by Michael
Phillip Cash
I really wasn't a fan of Michael Philip Cash's Stillwell, a short novella about a haunted house that fell apart thanks to some bad pacing and an inability to figure out exactly what kind of book it wanted to be. So I approached The Hanging Tree with reluctance, but I ended up feeling like it was a much more solid and engaging light horror story than Stillwell, and one that shows Cash is a better writer than I had given him credit for being. The Hanging Tree unfolds in two time periods, telling the story of a teenager couple whose romantic solitude is observed by the ghosts confined to the titular tree while occasionally flashing back to the stories of some of those lost souls trapped there. Both sets of stories are pretty engaging, and Cash does a better job than many authors of evoking the dialogue and rhythms of the past without making it feel silly (most notably in the story of a witch from the 1600's, where the language and the narration feels nicely aged instead of forced). The Hanging Tree is never all that scary, to be fair, and the ultimate answer as to what's going on feels a little simplistic and anticlimactic. But it's an enjoyable enough yarn to that point, one that mixes its light scares with some nice humor and a belief in redemption that you don't often find in the horror genre. If, like me, you prefer your horror to be on the "take no prisoners" side, you might find The Hanging Tree to be a little tepid, but I thought it was pretty enjoyable for what it was: a light ghost story about the sins of the past and the struggle to make the most of ourselves.
9-7 The Universe
Builders
, by
Steve LeBel
There comes a point where you start to feel like almost every book you read, no matter how good, is just a variation on another staple or genre. And then you read something like The Universe Builders, which is the story of Bernie, an apprentice god who has to make a new universe, but has to contend with his own limitations and insecurities, a jealous older god who keeps sabotaging his work, and a chaotic side that keeps blowing up his life when it gets bored. Oh, and as if all that's not enough, there's also the fact that there are some things going on in his universe that's he's completely unaware of, and they make Bernie's actions matter a lot more than he realizes. The idea of a business where gods compete and make universes for a living is good to begin with, and LeBel mines that material beautifully, getting into astrology, universe design, evolutionary theory, and the ways that every universe reflects its god all without ever turning the book into a weighty tome. Instead, it's engaging and rich, bringing their perspective to life without ever losing track of the story. But because that idea isn't enough, LeBel also explores the lives of the gods themselves, and he makes his hero not an all-powerful deity, but a put-upon loser who's doing his best just to keep things from falling apart. And because having those two levels still isn't enough, LeBel finds a way to retreat from the god's eye view and give us a sense of what it's like to be a life form on a planet made by an iffy god, giving the book some extra weight you don't expect. The end result is a complete blast of a book, one that can be genuinely funny, surpassingly sweet, incredibly profound, and even a little frightening. But more than that, all of those elements sound like they could lead to a mess of a novel, but they don't, instead interweaving into a richly satisfying tale that engages both as a character piece and as a fantastically original story. The Universe Builders could use some minor trimming here and there, and LeBel occasionally lapses into some clunky dialogue, but those are really small marks against the book, and they're easily outweighed by the originality, the fun character work, and the surprising intersections among all the various levels of the story unfolding. I really, really enjoyed this one a lot, and the fact that LeBel is apparently planning other Universe Builder tales makes me quite happy; this is a great idea for a story, and it's got a lot of room for other stories and other characters. And if they're as enjoyable as this, I'm all for that.
9-4 The Secret of
the Fortune
Wookiee
, by
Tom Angleberger
I've mostly enjoyed the "Origami Yoda" series, which mixes a love of Star Wars and odd characters with typical middle school drama (tension between boys and girls, the urge to fit in), but The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee is the first one that felt aa bit uninspired and dull. Part of that just comes from the structure; when you take Dwight, the creator of Origami Yoda and the wonderfully weird figure who the first two books orbited around, and remove him from the story, you're basically taking the most interesting character out of the story and hoping everyone else can carry it. And while Fortune Wookiee is fine enough, it definitely feels less anarchic and fun than its predecessors, and it lacks some of the heart that Darth Paper started to bring out. There are still some nice moments, mostly revolving around the kids starting to realize how Dwight is changing at his new school and why it might not be for the best, but in general Fortune Wookiee is a disappointing entry in the series, one that lacks a lot of the fun and whimsy of the other entries and ends up feeling more generic and dull than you'd expect. It's still got some nice moments here and there, and the derails into Dwight's life are always welcome and nicely done, but in general, I didn't enjoy reading it with my son the way I did the first two. That all being said, the elements in here that set up the fourth book are really intriguing, and I'm looking forward to see if Jabba the Puppet is a nice return to form for the set.
9-1 It's Best to
Shoot in
the Head
,
by Shayne
Youngblood
I quite enjoyed Shayne Youngblood's first neo-noir novella, A Man From Rio, which I commented felt like someone had truly embraced the staccato, rat-a-tat prose of James Ellroy while still making it their own, but I felt that the book was a bit chaotic and overstuffed at times, making it all hard to follow. I didn't have the same problem with It's Best to Shoot in the Head, Youngblood's follow-up and a prequel to Rio (that stands on its own, if you're concerned). Youngblood pares down the plotting here to a more streamlined style that works infinitely better, following our hero as he gets married, tries to make a normal life for himself, but gets drawn into a gang war that he wants no part of. Youngblood delivers no shortage of violent, psychotic characters, but he never lingers on the violence or fetishizes it like so many authors do; instead, it's doled out in just enough detail to make it all the more horrifying and disturbing for the reader. The plot of Shoot is pretty simple; it's the kind of thing you've seen before. But a book like this is all about the style, and the style is a knockout, with clipped conversations, sordid affairs, brutal violence, and a fantastic immersion into a crime war that most of us will never see. This is a fast read, but you won't feel ripped off by it; Youngblood packs every page with content, great prose, memorable characters, and intense storytelling that really makes this one pack a punch. I liked his first, but I love his second, and I'll be eager to see if he keeps on getting better from here on out.
9-1 Daimones, by
Massimo Marino
The author of Daimones, Massimo Marino, may be among the most overqualified authors I've run across - how many self-published authors were doing advanced particle physics in their first life? But knowing that doesn't really prepare you for Daimones, which is less hard science-fiction and more something akin to the works of Robert Charles Wilson, where the story is more about how people react to an event than the event itself. That event here isn't a minor one - it involves a father who awakes one morning to discover that, apart from him and his family, everyone on earth seems to have died overnight at the same moment. What follows is equal parts post-apocalyptic fiction, mystery story, science-fiction tale, and philosophical musings about humanity's place in the world and the universe, and Marino does a nice job telling his story and investing us in these characters' fight to survive while slowly but effectively moving the plot along. Marino's writing can be a bit clunky, especially when it comes to dialogue; his characters tend to speak in that overly written way instead of the way people actually talk, and when you combine that with a first-person narration choice, you have a book that probably needs another pass or two to make it sound more conversational. But Marino's plotting and storytelling are sound, and the final couple of chapters open up a slew of intriguing possibilities that I'd definitely be curious to read more about in the next volume of the story. If you can get past some weak writing, Daimones is a pretty fun little read, one that plays with solid ideas but engages nicely as a survival tale, too.
8-30 And Death
Will Seize the
Doctor, Too
, by
Jeremiah Swanson
I wasn't all that impressed with the opening chapter of And Death Will Seize the Doctor, Too, which plunges into the action so quickly that it rapidly proves bewildering, subjecting the reader to a slew of betrayals with little impact, introducing them to too many characters in not enough time, establishing villains that seem cartoonishly drawn, and just generally leaving a reader confused and overwhelmed. But I stuck with the book, and I'm glad I did, because And Death Will Seize... turns out to be far more satisfying, complex, and intriguing than that cluttered opening would suggest. The story of Christian, a man who can grant life but only by taking it from others, And Death Will Seize... follows its lead character as he works with a shadowy organization that seems both interested in helping him and yet threatening in an unclear way, and the novel gets a lot of mileage out of the mystery of that organization, leaving you every bit as uneasy as Christian is about whether what he's doing is morally okay or not. Meanwhile, the novel also gives us glimpses of Christian's backstory and how he got to the dire straits of that opening chapter, and while that's intriguing stuff, the jumbled chronology that the book uses is more confusing than effective; you can't help but feel that the book would be just fine having one extended flashback section before moving forward again, rather than randomly jumping back and forth without much indication or clue as to when we are in the story. (Similarly, I kind of feel like certain plot threads, especially the long Africa story, could be cut out of the book without losing much.) But even with those structural issues, And Death Will Seize... is an intriguing, satisfying book, one that's far more interested in moral ambiguity and letting its characters evolve than the opening chapter might suggest. The idea of a healer who must take from others is a solid one, and author Jeremiah Swanson does a nice job exploring it in a variety of ways, all while never losing sight of the toll it's all taking on Christian. And Death Will Seize... has some major lumps along the way, but in all, it's a satisfying novel, one that does right by its concept and its shadowy, intriguing mythology.
8-29 Adam...
Forever
, by
Lawrence Lapin
You certainly can't claim that Adam...Forever suffers from a lack of intelligence or a lack of ideas. Centering around a doctor who discovers the secret of immortality while trying to help his dying wife, Adam...Forever focuses on grappling with the moral questions raised by its story and its premise, and takes that same approach to secondary stories about animal research and genetic engineering. So, as a thoughtful exploration of issues and moral dilemmas, Adam...Forever works pretty well. What it doesn't work well as is a novel. There's not a single character to be found in Adam...Forever; there are mouthpieces for ideas, archetypes that represent concepts, and some absurdly one-dimensional villains that seem to exist mainly so there are evil villains without motivation beyond cartoonish greed. Moreover, while it's clear that the author is more interested in complex morality than storytelling, that often leads the book to include story threads that add nothing to the story, including a long arc about a frozen mammoth embryo that never adds anything to the story other than length. Like I said, there's little denying that Adam...Forever is intelligent and thoughtful. But it's never engrossing on any level beyond intellectual, and that's difficult, especially when the book is nominally driven by a love story that never works at all.
8-27 World of
Trouble
, by
Ben H. Winters
By the time World of Trouble begins, we're in the final days of Earth, as the asteroid that's been heading for our planet has less than a week until impact. And Hank Palace, the former detective who's clung to his need for justice even as the world has crumbled, is doing his best to track down his sister to make sure she's okay. The relationship between Hank and his sister Nico has been simmering through the previous two novels in the series, but World of Trouble brings the relationship to the foreground while never abandoning the "police work in a dying world" feel that's made the series so compelling so far. Indeed, much of what's driven the Palace trilogy in its previous entries is that sense of Hank as a crusader who can't let go of his ideals, even as the world crumbles, and World of Trouble brings that even more into focus as we hit the final days and leave behind any semblance of society as the world prepares for the upcoming apocalypse. There's some surprising plot developments in World, including revelations about the group Nico's been traveling with and their plan to stop the asteroid, World is ultimately more about trying to find closure in a world that may not have enough time to provide it. In the end, World of Trouble feels like an appropriately character-driven finale to the Henry Palace trilogy, which has always been a series about how individuals cope with disaster, not about the disaster itself, and that carries through to the final chapter, which ends at the perfect time and captures a lot of complex feelings that go into its closing moments. You could argue that the two books in the Palace series after The Last Policeman never truly feel necessary, as though they're simply expanding the already great premise of the first, and it wouldn't be entirely wrong; there's never a sense that Winters is doing much more with the books from a story perspective, and mainly just allows us to spend more time getting to know Hank. But it's hard not to enjoy the way Winters pencils in the details of his world on the verge, and by the time the book ends, we feel as though we've seen a compelling portrait of how humanity might cope with such a devastating event.
8-26 Neverwhere
(BBC radio
adaptation),
by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere was my first exposure to the work of Neil Gaiman, who's become one of my favorite authors over the years. And while I've never gone back to re-read the book, it's lingered with me in so many ways, still remaining my go-to recommendation for a newcomer who wants a sense of just how well Gaiman blends imagination, fantasy, horror, and even comedy to make something rich and wonderful. So I was wary about checking out the BBC's radio play adaptation of Neverwhere, even though Neil Gaiman himself raved about it; after all, radio plays can be incredible (the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) or awful (the audiobook play of The Mist), and I didn't want to have something I loved so much ruined. I needn't have worried. It's not just the incredible, astonishing cast, even though all of them nail their parts perfectly. I mean, how perfect is James McAvoy as Richard Mayhew, the ordinary man who finds himself plunged into a world he doesn't understand? How great is Natalie Dormer as the mysterious but wonderful Door, or David Harewood as the selfish and cunning Marquis de Carabas, or Benedict Cumberbatch as the cryptic, unearthly angel Islington? For my money, though, the series is stolen by Anthony Head and David Schofield as Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, the fascinating, violent, verbose assassins and cutthroats. So, yes, the casting is incredible. And the adaptation of the plot is wonderful, rendering the story perfectly as an audio play so vividly that you can almost see every scene unfolding and never feel lost or as though you're missing out on Gaiman's imagination or prose, even though they're not there. But it's also the rich and brilliant production that turns the play into something more, plunging you into a vivid and deep world that's filled with sounds, echoes, chatter, and more. Whether it's the roar of unfolding angel wings, the dark wind of an isolated chasm, the small talk of a crowd, or any other moment in the story, Neverwhere brings the story to life so perfectly that I didn't even feel like I was listening to an adaptation of the book; I just felt like I was listening to a great story unfold, and I loved every second of it. It's funny, it's scary at times, it's even moving, and it's all done in a way that honors Gaiman's imagination and brings it to more life than you might ever expect. A complete treat, not only for fans, but for anyone who loves stories and imagination in general.
8-25 Raising Steam,
by Terry Pratchett
It's not really that surprising that the Discworld books have gotten so dense as the series has continued. After all, even if you set aside the fact that Raising Steam marks the 40th entry in the series , the past several entries in the series - Thud!, Snuff, and others - have found Discworld changing and evolving, bringing new species into its acceptable society, and that means that every new action has ripples beyond the human population. So while it's understandable that Raising Steam is so dense with events, it still means that Pratchett has lost some of the tightness and focus that marked the best entries in the series, and it leaves you feeling that he's cramming his books more tightly than he used to as he gets older. For all of that, though, when Raising Steam hits its stride, it reminds you that no one is as capable of Pratchett as evoking the magic and mystery of an evolving world and of new technologies that change the world in front of your eyes. Raising Steam is about the coming of the steam engine to Discworld, and in the book's best moments, Pratchett simply explores the wonder that comes along with such an incredible invention, from gathering crowds to the monetary possibilities to the changing realities of diplomacy and war. And Pratchett still delivers no shortage of fantastic scenes apart from that, from a battle on a train to some wonderful exchanges between Sam Vimes, Moist von Lipwig, and Lord Vetinari. Combine that with Lipwig's constant scheming and planning, dwarf terrorists, and the constant threat of war, and you have a stuffed book that moves well...but that also feels too busy at times, and even Lipwig's ability to keep all the plates spinning seems like it's stretched to the limits to include it all. Raising Steam is an enjoyable read, and it's a reminder of the wonder and beauty that Pratchett can find in so many experiences. But it also gives you a sense that the series is getting overly full, and it may make you miss some of the more focused and tightly controlled novels of the set. Still, for any fan, you'll enjoy this one quite a bit. Maybe not among the tops, but still a great read nonetheless.
8-13 Plague, by T. Joseph Browder
Even before you read the afterword that explains what a bleak place author T. Joseph Browder was in when he wrote Plague, the stark and brutal atmosphere of the story is evident from the get-go. This is a story that opens with a man butchering his wife with an axe as his children look on in horror, and it doesn't let up from there. In some ways, Plague is a zombie novel; yes, nominally, it's a story about a rabies epidemic in which this iteration of the disease is far more horrific, but there's no missing the zombie parallels. But this isn't a story about the walking dead; it's the story of a man who's forced to ask himself how far he would go to protect his family and how he can live with the choices he has to make. In the wrong hands, Plague could feel like a subpar Walking Dead knockoff, substituting shocking violence for emotional depth. But thanks to Browder's strong, rapid-fire writing, Plague works as a devastating, brutal horror story, one that keeps ratcheting up the stakes and the horrors while never losing track of the effects and impact of all of it on our narrator, all the way to the inevitable but still haunting ending. To some degree, Plague feels like something you may have seen before, and it lacks a little bit of the wonderfully odd originality of his masterful collection Dark Matters. But even so, there's no missing the heartfelt pain and anguish at the core of Plague, nor is it hard to miss how personal of a story this is for Browder - a fact made clear in the afterword. Plague isn't for the faint of heart, but for horror fans, it's a stark, brutal read that takes the zombie genre and reminds you just how effective of a genre it can be.
8-10 Patriarch Run,
by Benjamin
Dancer
I wasn't really all that thrilled with the beginning of Patriarch Run, if I'm being honest. It opens with an amnesiac government operative (presumably an assassin) wandering away from an attempted bombing, pursued by killers, and all I could think was "Oh, this old chestnut." But despite that stumbling beginning, Patriarch Run soon becomes more interesting and novel than you'd expect, turning into something more nuanced and thoughtful than its generic premise would lead you to hope. As our operative connects with his estranged son, Patriarch Run becomes a story about fathers and sons and the legacies we leave behind, and it's far more interested in familial relationships and bonds than it is in its action or plotting. Even the story's villain - and discovering exactly who the villain is, and to what degree they actually are a villain, is an interesting thread in of itself - turns out to be more complicated than you'd expect in a story like this, and his motivations are more nuanced, thoughtful, and understandable than his plan might suggest. Patriarch Run may use a cliched plot to get things going, but it ends up being a thoughtful exploration of morality, a meditation on the evolution of humanity and politics, and a look at what we have to pass on to our children - if, indeed, there is anything we should pass along. It's a fascinatingly spare and stripped down book, with Dancer's prose often leaving out the details or length you might expect, and instead allowing the characters to develop through their actions, not through their inner monologues. Some aspects of the book never quite work as well as you might hope; the amnesia story, for instance, never quite becomes more than a cliche, and certain characters only really work as symbols or archetypes. And, to be sure, some of the plotting never quite makes sense, at least beyond the surface. But on an emotional level, Patriarch Run works well, giving us some complex moral exploration to chew on and anchoring its silly plot with a thoughtful story about fathers and sons. It works better on an emotional level than a plot one, but that level is well-done enough that it makes up for some of the book's shortcomings.
8-9 The Magician's
Land
, by Lev
Grossman
Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy is a fascinating fantasy series, in some ways, for all the things it doesn't do. It doesn't follow the usual Joseph Campbell-inspired hero's journey, for one thing; indeed, much of the book's power comes from Quentin's being forced to realize that he's not anyone special - that just because he can do magic, he's still himself, and that won't change. Moreover, it's a fantasy series that's not explicitly plot-driven in the way so many fantasy series are. Each book has been its own independent tale, and while elements - mainly the characters, but some details - overlap from book to book, it's always been a series more driven by its characters and their pain than by any story or mythology. And The Magician's Land follows through on that perfectly, ending the trilogy in a way that may not satisfy those who want more details as to the lives of the gods or the truth about magic, but will satisfy those who are invested in the growth of Quentin and his friends. If The Magicians was about the way our dreams fade in the harsh light of reality, and The Magician King was about what we're willing to pay to make our dreams come true, The Magician's Land is about learning to grow up once we realize that our dreams may not happen. That sounds harsh, and Grossman's series has always had an undercurrent of melancholy and depression underlying its fantasy elements. But in many ways, The Magician's Land is the most optimistic book of the series, finding a way to rebuild and grow, to say nothing of finding meaning in our lives beyond selfish wish-fulfillment. In some ways, it's the logical culmination of Quentin's arrested adolescence that filled the first book; The Magician's Land finally finds Quentin at a sort of peace, figuring out who he really is and trying to atone for his past sins. Of course, this being Grossman, all of this is wrapped in an exciting, involving adventure that finds Fillory in danger, Quentin involved in a magical heist, and some old characters coming back into play. It's fun, wonderful stuff, and Grossman continues his knack for making magic truly wondrous in the truest sense of the word, as though we're seeing things we may never understand, but that inspire awe and wonder from us. And it all culminates in some final chapters that are absolutely perfect, ending the series in a moment of transcendent beauty that I never quite expected. The Magician's Land brings the series together wonderfully, ending Quentin's story in a rich, satisfying way that makes the series into something that's equal parts post-modern meditation on Harry Potter, coming of age story, and literary portrait of our modern age and the post-school life many of us face. It's absolutely wonderful, and it's saying something that it just might be my favorite book of the series - no small praise at all, considering how great the first two are.
8-8 Darth Paper
Strikes Back
, by
Tom Angleberger
The "Origami Yoda" series is an odd little YA series, one that essentially plays with some basic middle school themes - friendships, early romances, school stresses - but tosses in a lot of love for the Star Wars films to give it all a hook and a nice little comic sensibility. Moreover, the format of the books - they're essentially a "case file," with lots of different kids writing their stories and other kids writing retorts, doodles, and other responses - makes for a fun, engaging little read that gives you a nice array of perspectives and voices, all while telling a single story. So, yes, on one level, this is a story you've seen before: a group of friends band together to save their odd friend, Dwight, from being expelled from school after his fortune-telling finger puppet makes what's construed as a threat. But what makes Darth Paper work is its willingness to follow its silly ideas through to the end, as characters quote Star Wars, create new puppets in response, and fill the book with enough references to delight any fan of the movies. But more that that, Darth Paper Strikes Back is filled with some interesting details, from glimpses of Dwight's home life that go a long way toward explaining his odd behavior, comments about school priorities that ring home (especially as a public school teacher myself), and a surprising ending that ends up working well for the story being told. More than that, Angleberger does a more interesting job mixing perspectives in this book, giving us a better sense that we're seeing the story through different eyes and only getting bits of the bigger picture, especially as Harvey and Dwight's struggle is often seen developing in the background. Yes, parts are definitely a little silly, and other bits strain credulity (which, to be fair, kind of goes along with the whole question of whether Origami Yoda is real). But it's a fun book for a middle school audience, and even my younger son enjoyed it - he's a Star Wars fan, so the jokes and references work for him, but he likes the characters and the little individual stories. It's an interesting book in some ways - you can't help but feel that the hook came first, and then the story - but it works well enough and it's enough fun that it's hard not to have a good time reading it all.
8-3 The Magician
King
, by Lev
Grossman
When I first read The Magician King on its release, I commented that I thought the book was superb, but that it didn't really interweave its theme throughout the text as seamlessly as The Magicians did. But a re-read has proved me wrong, because the main thrust of The Magician King - the costs we must pay to make our dreams come true - is evident from almost the first page. True, the book doesn't make the full costs evident until the final two chapters, which are devastating, but the idea comes up again and again, and not just in the two main characters. Yes, two; while The Magicians was Quentin's story, The Magician King also fills us in on what happened to Quentin's friend Julia in between her sitting for the Brakebills exam and her appearance at the end of the first book. So while Quentin spends The Magician King on a magical quest to save Fillory, Grossman interweaves it with flashbacks to Julia's own quest to learn magic and the toll it took on her. It makes for a compelling pair of stories, as Quentin's provides the adventure while Julia's gives the book an emotional heft, but for much of the book, it seems like just a solid narrative hook. But as the book continues, Grossman's theme becomes more and more explicitly clear, as both protagonists are forced to give more and more of themselves, push themselves in new and painful ways, and ultimately have to question whether their dream is worth what they've become. All of that makes The Magician King a fascinating counterpart to The Magicians, with its questioning of whether a dream can truly change your life, and it's to Grossman's credit that The Magician King doesn't feel like a regurgitation or rehashing of the original. Instead, Quentin's story allows Grossman to explore the magical world of Fillory and create a Narnia pastiche, Julia's story allows him to explore his mythology more deeply and expand our view of his world, and the book's ideas and themes tie it all together, creating something truly beautiful. The final volume in the trilogy comes out in just a few days, and I'm equal parts excited (to see how it all ends) and saddened (that there will be no more) - and I don't think there's a more telling reaction than that.
7-30 Boxers &
Saints
, by
Gene Luen Yang
I loved the way that Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese synthesized Chinese myths and a coming of age story to make something more, to say nothing of how it used its graphic elements beautifully to underline the themes and ideas at play. But none of that really prepared me for Boxers & Saints, a two-book set that finds Yang telling the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two sides. Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, a young boy who decides to fight back against "foreign devils" and their influence in China; meanwhile, Saints tells the tale of Four-Girl (who's so unwanted by her family that she's only known by a number), who finds hope and purpose in the "foreign devils" and finds herself allying with the Chinese Christians. In other words, Yang gives us not one, but two stories about the time period, each from an entirely different perspective, allowing them to collide here and there, but mostly allowing them to exist on their own terms. And yet, despite the fact that these are two separate books (and you can really read them in either order, although your choice may influence your reaction to the second volume you read), this is definitely a case where the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. Yang interweaves both stories with religious iconography - Chinese gods in Boxers, and visions of Joan of Arc in Saints - which allows him to explore zealotry, religious fervor, belief, and doubt, all while letting the opposing perspectives undercut any sense of moral superiority the characters might have. Moreover, it makes the violence we see equal parts understandable and utterly horrifying, forcing us to see the war from two very different sides and deal with the questions that then arise - namely, is there any difference at all between them? And for all of this heady material, both stories stand on their own magnificently, working as coming of age tales where the young people are forced not only to take a stand but also to take action and deal with the consequences of that action. Boxers & Saints is astonishingly powerful, not only as history but also as an exploration of ideas about history, religion, and self; the fact that it's done in graphic novel format makes no difference as to its greatness (although the use of color and lack thereof in both novels is fascinating and makes the choice of medium utterly essential to underlining the themes). This is powerful, strong stuff, and a window into a time in history many of us (myself included) know nothing about.
7-29 Cursed
Children
of Naor
,
by Justyna
Plichta-Jendzio
It's been a while since I read some true "high fantasy" fiction - something with such a richly realized world, dense cosmology, and intricately created bloodlines and races - as Cursed Children of Naor, three novellas from Polish author Justyna Plichta-Jendzio all set in her world of Naor. Naor is a rich, fully realized world, and each story sets you into the middle of things, setting up a threat - a werewolf, a spectral assassin, and a dragon, respectively - only to later delve into the history of the creature and explain how it came to be. And that brings you to the title of the collection, as each story is about a curse - some literal, such as the case of the werewolf, while others are the more metaphorical curse of villainous families or evil forces. It's complex stuff, but Plichta-Jendzio handles it all well, all while managing to create interesting characters and interactions that help to explore the dynamics of her world. There's female fighters in a male-dominated world, sexual dynamics, class warfare, and more, but it's all nicely integrated into the story without ever feeling forced. Plichta-Jendzio is Polish, but her prose is beautifully rendered, feeling every bit as polished and ornate as the material seems to suggest, with none of the awkwardness that sometimes comes with translations. (There are a few misspellings along the way, but it seems more like typos than grammar issues.) The biggest issue with Cursed Children, really, is the plotting; between the swarm of odd names and places and the intricate family histories (and, it must be said, the fact that sometimes the past comes out in a burst of exposition), the background can often be confusing and muddled, leaving you reading passages over and over again to try to figure out how everyone is connected and linked. But the main plots of the stories are always engaging, and it's fascinating to see how much detail Plichta-Jendzio has put into her world. And if I sometimes felt a little at sea, it was never a dealbreaker; the novellas are still solid work and tell great stories (although, I gotta say, the ending of the second is really, really abrupt and a little frustrating). If you're a fan of high fantasy, this is great stuff; it's well-executed and richly realized, and the triptych shows off Plichta-Jendzio's talent and skills nicely.
7-25 The Magicians,
by Lev Grossman
When I first read The Magicians, the phrase I (and so many others) used to describe it was "Harry Potter for grown ups." It's an odd descriptor in some ways, given that The Magicians in some ways has more Narnia in its DNA than Hogwarts, but there's really no denying that to no small degree, The Magicians feels like a response to the Potter series, taking the fun and adventure of that series and making you question if suddenly finding yourself in a world of magic would really be such a wonderful thing. The Magicians is an amazing book - it's frequently hilarious, always engaging, rich in its details, and features fascinating characters - but in some ways, it's nowhere near as fun as you might hope, and that's part of its greatness. In The Magicians, magic isn't a simple matter of waving a wand and knowing a faux Latin word; it's an intense amount of work, involving arcane study, rigorous practice, scientific knowledge, and more. And more than that, magic doesn't bring you into some wonderful world of wonders; instead, one of the running themes of The Magicians is that whoever you are? That's still you, no matter if you can now do magic or not. While Harry Potter found refuge from his horrible life in his magical world, Quentin (the protagonist of The Magicians) gets no such escape, realizing that he's still the same isolated, lonely, damaged person he was before he learned magic. In many ways, The Magicians is more of a coming-of-age story than an adventure story, despite the fact that it follows an adventure pattern (especially in the book's second half, which leaves behind the school setting for the unease of the post-college world); it's ultimately less about the quest and more about the characters coming to term with who they are, and dealing with the fact that their powers have incredible, devastating consequences and costs beyond what they ever expected. But there's so much more that The Magicians grapples with, from struggling to find a purpose for your life to dealing with the painful choices we all make to reconciling ourselves to our own worst impulses. That it does all of that so well while still telling a fantastic, engaging, astonishing story about magic and magicians is only testament to what an incredible accomplishment this book is.
7-23 American Born
Chinese
, by
Gene Luen Yang
A deceptively simple graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese is a triptych of stories, all of which revolve around the idea of assimilation. One is about a Chinese-American student struggling to fit in to a predominantly white school; one is about an "all-American" kind of kid who's mortified by the behavior of his Chinese cousin, who's almost literally a walking ethnic caricature; and the third is about the Monkey King and his struggle to be accepted by all of the other gods. That's an odd collection of stories, ranging from the realistic to the absurd to the supernatural, and yet, thanks to Yang's beautiful artwork, the three work perfectly together, allowing the pieces to reflect off of each other and interact in subtle ways before eventually letting them come in a fairly surprising way at the novel's climax. Taken at face value, American Born Chinese is engaging, funny stuff; it's a trio of great stories, and although they connect eventually, each story has more than its share of joys on its own terms, from a painful first date to a gloriously weird martial arts battle to a party amongst the gods in heaven. But there's a greater richness to American Born Chinese than just the sum of the parts, creating a tapestry about what it's like to feel excluded because of who you are, the pressures of conformity, and how fitting in can ultimately hold you back. Sometimes that's done through simple symbolism, as when the Monkey King finally discovers how to free himself from his prison; sometimes, it's more complex, as when we finally see Danny (our all-American) confront his cousin. It's a novel whose accessibility and simplicity belies its complexity and richness, and whose bright and colorful art belies the thoughtfulness that goes into every panel and every choice. It's perfect for adolescents, not just of Asian-American descent, but any of them who've struggled with acceptance, fitting in, and what it's like to stick out in a crowd - in other words, almost every teenager ever.
7-22 Under the
Skin
, by
Michael Faber
After falling in love with the incredible film adaptation, I was intrigued to read Michael Faber's novel Under the Skin, even as I heard that it had little to do with the film apart from its general premise. That premise - in which a strange woman named Isserley drives around Scotland and picks up hitchhikers for her own reasons - is a great one, especially as Faber slowly begins to offer clues that all is not as it seems. Indeed, reading Under the Skin and knowing the reality of the situation probably detracts from the book a little bit, because one thing Faber is brilliant at is the slow, slow reveal, only gradually pulling back the curtain to make us realize that our assumptions have been massively, massively wrong. And although the resulting book ends up blending genres beautifully (mixing horror, science-fiction, and drama), it works best not as a genre exercise, but as a psychological drama about a deeply damaged woman coping with the changes in her life. As a novel, Under the Skin has more political heft than the film did, as Isserley's reasons for picking up the men turns out to be far more surreal and nightmarish than we ever expected, and it turns the book into a black satire of a sort. But it's never the heart of the book; rather, what makes Under the Skin so gripping is Isserley's perspective, from her feelings about the men she picks up to her shifting relationship with her actions and the people she's preying upon. It's a fascinating, unnerving novel, one that plunges you into an utterly alien perspective and immerses you there until you identify with her completely, following her crisis of conscience and her unusual way of viewing the world. Under the Skin doesn't quite know how to end, but that's okay; this isn't really a novel about its story, but about its characters, and as a plunge into that mind, it's phenomenally successful. Add to that Faber's beautiful, strange prose and you have an utterly engrossing experience that's unlike almost anything else you've read.
7-21 The End, by Lemony Snicket
I don't really blame people for being angry at The End. Here's a final volume of a 13-book series that's full of mysteries, conspiracies, unanswered questions, and unknown fates...and it gives us almost no answers at all, instead leaving both us and the characters to live with the questions and try to make their own lives beyond the boundaries of this series. It's a bold move, but it's in keeping with the rest of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, which has always been less interested in its plot and more interested in turning its simple story into something more profound and complex than you expected. By the end of the final volume, villains get a chance at redemption, heroes fall pitifully, leaders fail their people, and the book becomes more and more fascinatingly symbolic, becoming - in some ways - a meditation on death and the unknowns in each of our lives. That's heady stuff for just about any book, much less a children's book series, but it's part of what made me love the Snicket books so much, and part of what I love as an English teacher about the set - what better way to introduce children to complex concepts and postmodern literature that comments on itself, experiments with its form, and shatters its fourth wall so many times that it becomes non-existent. But as much as I love a lot about The End, I can't deny that the main story of the book - which involves an island community - is an odd one that feels a bit like filler or an afterthought, disconnected from the rest of the series and essentially a bit disconnected even from some of the themes and ideas at work throughout the rest of the book. Still, I love The End - I love how odd it is, and how much Snicket is willing to risk angering people to deliver the ending that the series deserves, one that embraces the mystery at its core rather than unraveling it. And it does it all while still being funny, gleefully odd, wonderfully complicated, and surprisingly emotionally moving. A good ending to a great series, and one whose gutsiness elevates the series as a whole to something more than the sum of its parts.
7-21 Ravencroft
Springs
, by
Logan Masterson
The word "Lovecraftian" gets tossed around so often that it's lost a lot of meaning over time, so when I say that Logan Masterson's Ravencroft Springs is incredibly "Lovecraftian," let's focus on what that means. It means that the story uses a fantastic slow burn, adding in a lot of small details that build an air of unease gradually, only to let things explode into chaos and destruction in the final pages. It means that the story uses its small town atmosphere to create not a charming folksiness, but a sense of doom and isolation, one that finds our hero - a recently arrived author - feeling more and more unwelcome in his new home town. And, yes, it means that there's a sense of something far more primal and horrific hiding just underneath the surface, even if the story never goes full on Elder Gods. For all those strengths, though, Ravencroft Springs still has some issues, mainly some odd structural issues that make it feel like it's too long to be a short story, but too straightforward and brief to even be a novella. That same odd pacing makes the abrupt ending a bit dissatisfying; while the sudden burst of chaos and violence is incredibly effective and jarring, there's still a sense that the story we've been enjoying is just over without warning, and it leaves you a bit frustrated that you're not getting much of a wrap-up or a conclusion. Even so, I quite enjoyed Ravencroft Springs, and I'm intrigued by Masterson's hints that there might be more of the story to come; given the sudden ending, a sequel might be just the way to go, and make Springs feel more like the first entry of a story and less abrupt. It's solid horror stuff, and shows anyone who's wondering that Masterson has a knack for atmosphere, dread, and knowing how to escalate the situation at just the right times. And I'm eager to see what comes next, especially if Masterson writes a full-length novel or a set of stories rather than this odd blend that's halfway between the two.
7-21 The Cuckoo's
Calling
, by
J.K. Rowling
Written under the pseudonym "Robert Galbraith," it took a few months before the world discovered that The Cuckoo's Calling wasn't just the work of a debut crime author, but a private eye novel by J.K. Rowling (who no doubt might have liked to enjoy the lowered expectations that came with an assumed name). And having read it, it's not a surprise that it took someone leaking the news for anyone to figure it out; Cuckoo shows neither the light-hearted whimsy and fun of the Harry Potter books, nor the grim cynicism and social awareness of The Casual Vacancy, but instead delivers a pretty standard, if solid, private eye novel about a model's suicide that might be murder instead. Rowling creates a pretty entertaining lead in Cormoran Strike, a war veteran with a bit of a messy personal life, and his play with his sunny, upbeat, optimistic secretary is probably among the book's biggest charms. In fact, as usual, Rowling does a solid job creating interesting characters, giving each of Strike's interrogations and conversations their own unique tones and sensibilities. And while the plot is pure private detective pulp (good luck trying to summarize it to anyone, even though it all makes pretty clear sense along the way and works well), it's engaging and nicely paced, with Rowling displaying a knack for knowing exactly when to introduce clues, when to let us know what Strike's thinking and when to keep him more oblique, and more. For all of that, though, The Cuckoo's Calling isn't really anything all that special; it's a lot of fun, and as private eye books go, it's a fine one, one that does right by the genre. It just doesn't bring anything particularly new or superb to the table, and I can't help but feel like it got a little more praise than it deserved thanks to Rowling's name being attached to it. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and I'll still be checking out the follow-up; it may not have blown me away, but it's still an engaging, enjoyable read.
7-17 The Devil
in Silver
, by
Victor LaValle
Pepper isn't really a bad guy. He's a big guy, mind you, and when he stood up for that woman, how was he to know that the guys he started fighting were cops? But now Pepper's being committed to a mental health institute, and it turns out that there's something else living in the home - something that seems to have a history of killing the patients. That's the setup for The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle's ambitious entertaining novel that manages to be both comedic and horrific, cynical but warm-hearted, and character-driven to a fault. Indeed, the biggest knock that can be made against The Devil in Silver is that it's more than a bit unfocused; by the end of the novel, we've had escape attempts, suicides, murders, political refugees, racial bantering, commentary on the mental health system in this country, love stories, book club meetings, and more, all in a relatively short number of pages. That's not to say that The Devil in Silver is bad; far from it. It's constantly entertaining, and if it feels like it changes direction a lot, there's something rich about that, something that feels particularly life-like and interesting, especially since the book clearly has its own ideas to express but is willing to follow its characters wherever they might lead. But it also keeps the book from developing much momentum, and as much as I enjoyed it all, I had a hard time sticking with it at times, feeling like it was a little all over the map. Add to that some surprisingly low-key and informal prose (complete with lots of fourth-wall-breaking parenthetical comic notes) and some odd touches (including a chapter from the point of view of a huge rat), and you have an odd book that, frankly, doesn't entirely work. And yet, I loved all of the individual pieces, and it's hard not to feel moved by The Devil in Silver and its look at the outcasts of society. It just feels a bit unwieldy and unfocused at times, but the strengths are so strong that it works on the whole, more than not.
7-9 Virgin, by
F. Paul Wilson
Virgin isn't one of Wilson's more well-known books; it was originally published under a pseudonym, and even now it doesn't get the attention of some of his newer books. But it's far better than its obscurity might make you think; it tells a gripping adventure story, unfolds like a rocket, and features Wilson's usual strong character work and interesting thematic richness. The plot revolves around a pair of ancient scrolls uncovered in the Middle East and the possibility that they might lead to the discovery of the burial place of the Virgin Mary, but that doesn't really prepare you for everything that Virgin has going on, from a tormented guardian trying to protect the Holy Mother to a senator whose presidential ambitions may be threatened by his gay son. But most of the book focuses on a priest and a nun who work in a soup kitchen, and it's to Virgin's credit that the book deals with questions of faith and religion in an interesting way that's compelling without ever pushing for easy answers. Wilson keeps it all moving at a great pace, letting the story unfold in all kinds of unexpected ways and keeping things escalating and constantly surprising the reader with new developments. It's all pretty great...until the very end, when Wilson makes two missteps. The first is when a fairly interesting character suddenly becomes more of a traditional, cut-and-dried villain who's far less interesting than he has been before; the second is stopping the book cold for a bit of a sermon that allows some themes and ideas to be stated pretty explicitly, a la Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator. Even with those missteps, Virgin is a pretty great read; it's a fun adventure story, and the fact that it's got some thoughtfulness behind its excitement and some rich ideas makes it even better. And if it stumbles a bit at the end, it's not bad enough to ruin the book; it's just a small flaw that holds back the book from being quite as great as it had been until then. It's still a great read, though.
7-5 Max Cutter
and the First
Black Book
,
by Jacob Tate
Max Cutter, the eponymous hero of Max Cutter and the First Black Book, is a journalist - of a sort. He investigates and documents paranormal events, and he publishes them through his wildly successful website, Supernatural Pudding. Whether it's reports of a Cyclops living in Greece, meetings with the Grim Reaper in a local graveyard, or the truth about Santa Claus, Max investigates and documents it all, and it makes him a nice bit of money, to say nothing of helping his site's reputation as the place to go for supernatural information. So it's no surprise that Max might get enlisted into the hunt for one of the infamous "Black Books" that detail the legend and lore of werewolves - including how to become one. Max Cutter and the First Black Book is definitely the first book of a series; there's a sense of world-building here as Tate establishes Cutter's job, his interactions with the supernatural, and just what kind of person he is when things get dangerous. And to Tate's credit, there's a solid effort to create a unique voice for Max, making him a joking, sarcastic, pop culture referencing hero who's far less interested in being the good guy and more interested in staying alive and being successful. None of that is necessarily bad; what is bad, though, is how often the jokes, the banter, and the comments feel forced, hackneyed, or irritatingly childish. The argument could be made that that's the point - that Cutter is just that kind of person - but the reality is that many (not all, but a lot) of the quips feel like Hollywood punch-up, where jokes have been added to bring laughs even if it jars with the tone or distracts from the story. Moreover, it sometimes makes Max a bit grating as a hero; he's less the cool, detached pro and more the guy who thinks he's funny but who's really just embarrassing. Max Cutter isn't really a bad book, but it's uneven to a frustrating degree; the humor ends up feeling added in after the fact at times, and the pacing (especially via the chapter breaks) is erratic and frustrating, making certain scenes feel unending and others feel rushed. At the same time, it's a fun idea, and it's clear that Tate has a neat world, some fun stories, and a character that ought to be fun once he gets the edges smoothed out. It's not a bad read, but it's got some rough edges that keep it from being entirely successful and end up making it merely okay.
7-4 Child of God,
by Cormac
McCarthy
In the early going, you might be forgiven for thinking that Child of God is going to show you a lighter, or even comic, side of Cormac McCarthy. As the book opens and a local outcast gets evicted from his home amidst a carnival atmosphere and then wanders the town, a bit of a local legend, there's a sense that McCarthy is playing with Southern folk tales, bringing his usually stunning prose to a character who seems less deserving of it than usual. But as Child of God continues, we rapidly begin to realize that there's a dark side to our outcast, and that this isn't a lovable misfit, but a dangerous and unstable man whose eviction from society has loosened him from whatever restrictions he had holding him back. And by the time Child of God hits its stride, it's some of the most unflinching and nightmarish depictions of depravity you've read, all done in McCarthy's harsh, descriptive, poetic, bleak prose. Clocking in at less than 200 pages, it would be easy to consider Child of God a lesser McCarthy work, but in paring down his length and creating a more picaresque narrative rather than something more grounded, McCarthy creates something akin to a fable or a folk tale, spinning a story that feels like it suggests a moral or a lesson without ever coming out and making that clear. Indeed, if there is a moral, it's a cautionary one about the dangers of excluding people from society and the fear of what isolation could wreak, to say nothing of reminding us of how to treat even the "least of these" (as the title certainly seems to allude). But that's not what you'll probably come away thinking; what you'll come away feeling is uncomfortable and horrified, as McCarthy shows us a man unraveling without psychobabble or any sort of inner monologue, instead forcing us to watch as a passive audience. It's a unique experience, and a harrowing one, perhaps all the more so for the black humor that McCarthy keeps injecting when you least expect it. The result is impossible to categorize, hard to recommend, and yet easy to admire and be fascinated by. In other words, it's of a piece with McCarthy's other work, with all the greatness, violence, horror, and brilliance that usually suggests.
7-3 The Collection
of Heng Souk
,
by S.R. Wilsher
It seems, from my limited exposure to the self-publishing market, that much of it is filled with genre works of one kind or another - sci-fi, romance, urban fantasy, and so forth. It's rarer to find something like The Collection of Heng Souk, a novel about people who have been marked and shaped by the Vietnam War and their involvement with it. There are no thriller elements, no grim secrets from the past that change everything you think you know about the world; just a man who wants to know the fate of his father, an old Vietnamese man dying of cancer, and a young woman who's been sent to deliver something to her uncle. How they call connect and what it has to do with a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp is the plot of The Collection of Heng Souk, but ultimately, it's less about how these people are connected and more about how their connections shaped their lives and their minds. How does a man live with his conscience after a lifetime of interrogation, torture, and murder? How does a woman deal with revelations about her family and the realization that life isn't as cut and dried as she assumed? More importantly, how do forgiveness, justice, mercy, and even religion fit into such a dark and violent place? From a technical perspective, The Collection of Heng Souk has some issues; there are run-on sentences a plenty, and the dialogue is often a bit clunky and unwieldy. But the emotional beats at the core of the tale are strong ones, and first-time author Wilsher does a superb job of anchoring his tale not in the horrors it depicts unflinchingly, but in the hearts and souls of its characters, making the stakes clear from the outset. It's a nicely human book, and one that taps into issues we face not only with soldiers and those who have done brutal things during their service to the county, but with many other aspect of our lives, including how we relate to family and to our own pasts and collective experiences. The Collection of Heng Souk is sometimes awkward, sometimes ungainly, and sometimes a little on-the-nose. But it's also effective and honest, and it has some heartfelt power that offsets those weaknesses and gives the book its strength.
6-29 Mr.
Penumbra's
24-Hour
Bookstore
,
by Robin Sloan
If you imagined The Da Vinci Code but with a sense of playfulness and fun, gave it to a much better writer, and changed it from an exploration of religion into a love letter to books, you might end up with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, an absolute joy of a novel about secret societies, the joys of research, the changing face of publishing, and so much more. Penumbra starts simply enough, with a laid-off graphic designer taking a job at an odd bookstore, but as he begins to watch the patterns of some of the store's more consistent customers, he begins to discover that there's more to the store than he once realized. Penumbra is the first book by Robin Sloan, but you wouldn't know it; this is an assured, confident debut, one that's willing to mix in social satire about the tech world, character depth that delights in its details, and odd details about the book world, all while telling a story that unfolds wonderfully as it goes. More than that, though, Penumbra is the odd book that's both in love with paper and physical books but also willing to acknowledge that technology can be an incredible thing, and that willingness to straddle both worlds is part of what makes the book so successful. Rather than feeling like a screed for or against either side, it feels like a book that's more optimistic about the future without feeling like it needs to turn its back on the past - a feeling that nicely informs the plot as well, as the characters dive into a centuries-old puzzle using every tool at their disposal. Penumbra absolutely flies by, and feels like a joy as it does it; it's optimistic but thoughtful, funny but emotional, complex but character-driven, and all in all just a real treat of a book. I absolutely loved it, and the more of a bibliophile you are, the more you'll love it too.
6-27 The Bottoms,
by Joe R.
Lansdale
The Bottoms has earned a lot of comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, and on a superficial level, I understand those comparisons. Both are coming of age tales told in the Depression; both essentially orbit around a central crime; both deal heavily with racism; and both are set in the South (although there's a world of difference between Alabama and Texas). But the devil is in the details, so they say, and it's the details of The Bottoms that make it feel wholly like its own book and allow it to live and breathe on its own terms without ever feeling like a "rip off," as some less than charitable critics have called it. The Bottoms is not about a rape that wasn't, for example; it's about a series of brutal and horrific murders, the work of what may be a serial killer who's preying on local prostitutes. And while that seems like just a small change, it's that element of grim darkness that permeates The Bottoms. The racism on display here is ugly and pulls no punches; there are scenes here that are genuinely traumatic and horrifying, and you get the impression they've left scars on our narrator, who sees them all unfold as he accompanies his father (a local constable) on the investigation of the crime. Indeed, racism and the relationship between blacks and whites permeates every aspect of life in The Bottoms, and that choice allows Lansdale to truly understand why these events unfold in the way they do. Of course, what makes The Bottoms such an outstanding read isn't the plot, gripping though it is; it's Lansdale's writing and ability to weave a tale. Lansdale is an accomplished writer by any standards, but his ability to create the point of view of a young boy is outstanding here, and in doing so, he tells a story on multiple levels - that which our narrator understood at the time, and that which he (and we) understands now. It's a tough act to pull off, but Lansdale does it beautifully, infusing his portrait of the past with a mixture of nostalgia and naivete that makes it all come together perfectly as the memories of someone who both loved his childhood and also understood the deep problems that lived there. The Bottoms is an outstanding read from an outstanding author, and while it may lack some of the genre-bending that marks my favorite Lansdale book, it shows that the man isn't just a good horror writer or a good genre man; he's a great writer, plain and simple. The Bottoms is a genuinely great book, and it says something that if the book is heavily influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird, it holds up well and ultimately feels not like a knockoff, but like its own solid book.
6-25 Artificial
Absolutes
,
by Mary Fan
A solid, if a little shaggy, science-fiction tale that manages to grapple with some bigger questions in a satisfying way, Artificial Absolutes is the story of Devin and Jane Colt, a brother and sister who belong to one of the most powerful families in the universe - a fact that tends to loom over their mostly unremarkable lives. But when Devin becomes convinced that his new fiancee isn't what she appears to be and draws Jane and himself into the investigation to find out what happens, their simple lives become far more dangerous and confusing than either was prepared for. What follows is pretty typical stuff from a plot level - shootouts, hostage situations, an authority figure fixated on tracking down the fugitives - but author Mary Fan does a nice job of bringing all of her characters to life and making them more interesting than you'd expect, whether it's through having Devin grapple with his difficult past, Jane engage in thoughtful conversations about religion with her sort-of boyfriend, or even diving into the minds and worlds of secondary characters. Artificial Absolutes is still a bit shaggy in parts, as though Fan had great ideas for scenes and settings and just couldn't bear to cut them (I'm thinking mainly of a late-book detour to a particularly violent setting that messes with the pacing of the book and really serves little purpose that couldn't have been handled in lots of other ways). But none are so bad as to truly ruin the book, only make it a little less successful. And helping the book is the fact that Fan seems so willing to engage in substance behind it all, from the nature of self to the role of religion in our lives, all without ever feeling heavy-handed or dull. Artificial Absolutes is a fun read for science-fiction fans, one that combines ideas, characters, and a solid world to make an engaging, enjoyable thriller that's more satisfying than you might expect.
6-20 The Dinner,
by Herman Koch
The Dinner has been marketed as "a European take on Gone Girl," and it's hard not to agree with that assessment. From the tight and concise storytelling to the twisty plot, from the less-than-heroic characters to the willingness to go for broke, The Dinner manages to hold its own in the comparison to Gillian Flynn's dynamite novel, and that's no small thing. Unfolding over the course of a dinner at a nice restaurant, The Dinner follows two couples - two brothers and their spouses - as they catch up, share small talk, and circle around something that's going on with their children. What exactly that something is and the nature of the relationship between these brothers (and, for that matter, between them and their spouses) is at the heart of The Dinner, which unfolds neatly, following the dinner as it unfolds but being willing to zigzag along as our narrator shares memories, answers questions, and gets us through the story in an emotional throughline. The result is a fast read, but a devious one, with red herrings and shocks aplenty, but also some intriguing characters who develop nicely before our eyes, until the ending feels as inevitable as it is shocking. And then there's Koch's gleefully unreliable narrator, who's definitely not all he seems to be - or, well, he is, just not in the way you think... Here's the thing: The Dinner is best experienced knowing as little as possible. What it delivers is a satisfying, rich, gleefully nasty little read that's engaging on a variety of levels and works on almost all of them. By the end, you may have a few nagging questions left, but it's to Koch's credit that he works as quickly and efficiently as he does, leaving you curious for more. It's a great little read, and the rare book that lives up to a comparison with a publishing juggernaut like Gone Girl.
6 -18 Sleazoid
Express: A
Mind-Twisting
Tour Through
the Grindhouse
Cinema of
Times Square
,
by Bill Landis and
Michelle Clifford
Sleazoid Express started off life as a fan zine, a copied and mimeographed set of article chronicling the grindhouse films and theaters of Times Square before its famous cleanup. But for those of us who missed the era, there's this collected book, which ties together the magazine's articles and pieces into explorations of various genres and theaters. Each chapter of Sleazoid Express describes one of the Times Square theaters in (often nauseating) detail, from the bathrooms to the clientele, giving us a sense of what it was like to attend a film at these theaters in rich, grotesque detail. From there, each chapter segues over to a general overview of a specific grindhouse genre, from the exploitative documentary making of Mondo films to the race-baiting pre-blaxploitation films, from the blood horror of Herschell Gordon Lewis to Eurosleaze or women-in-prison films. It's an in-depth, detailed look at sleaze, smut, gore, S&M, shock film, and all kinds of other trashy, exploitative movies, meaning that it's a world you're either fascinated or disgusted by. Landis and Clifford give a detailed look at some of the films, leaving you dying to see some and horrified to find out that some even exist. And while Landis and Clifford tackle some genres better than others - for instance, their take on blaxploitation and kung-fu films are both pretty weak, and those are two massive chunks of the exploitation film market that ought to be covered. And while the look at the theaters is fascinating, you can't help but feel like the book ends too abruptly, ending without so much as a mention of the fate of some of the theaters or the decline of the Times Square that the magazine loved so much. But for all those flaws, Sleazoid Express is a pretty entertaining dive into a gloriously trashy era in cinema, and in its description of the theaters, the films, and especially the crowd reactions, it gives you a great glimpse into an era that many of us missed out on.
6-15

Urban Hunters:
Books 4-8, by
Gary Taaffe

Book 4: Budgie
Smugglers

Book 5: Bullies

Book 6: The
Orphanage

Book 7: Bowels
of Hell

Book 8: Final Straw

The Urban Hunters is a serialized story by author Gary Taaffe telling the story of an aborigine named Billy, who's on his walkabout as part of his becoming a man. I thoroughly enjoyed the first three books in the series, which mainly focused on Billy's time in the tribe and his early days in the city; this part of the story mainly focuses on Billy's attempts to survive in the city, which mainly means he's hunting wild animals in the park, meeting a few new people, and trying his best to explain the way he sees the world to them while they do their best to help him understand technology. It all sounds simple, but one of the joys of the Urban Hunters series is that simplicity. This isn't a tale about modern prejudice, or about the tragedy of modern life, or the simplicity of the aborigine lifestyle; it's simply about a boy and his adventures, and Taaffe never forgets that, finding the hook for his story in Billy's day-to-day activities. It's an odd way to tell a serialized story, given that that type of tale usually draws its power from hooking the reader with cliffhangers. Instead, Taaffe draws us in by making us care about the characters, be it through Billy's relationship with a homeless girl, his encounters with a group of orphaned children, or simply through wondering where each meal will come from. (Answer to the last question: usually from killing and cooking feral animals, ranging from rats to cats and beyond. As a content note, anyone who doesn't want fairly graphic descriptions of animals being killed and eaten might want to look elsewhere; that being said, this isn't presented as cruelty, but rather a hunter who hunts to survive, not for fun.) Each book in the series is nicely self-contained, building on the previous entries while still essentially telling it's own arc in Billy's life (for instance, his meeting with the man who owned his dogs, or his encounter with the aforementioned orphans, or the backstory of the young girl he meets); that being said, it's hard to separate the books from each other, especially when you read them back to back - it's evident that they're a single work, broken into sections. And while Urban Hunters may never feel like a high-stakes story, it's still an engaging, fun one, one that tells an interesting story about a character we like and immerses us in his unique worldview, and that's enough to make this a great read. Combine that with its insights into aborigine culture and you have a series that I'd highly recommend for all sorts of reasons.
6-12 Bleeding
Shadows
, by
Joe R. Lansdale
I'm a big fan of Joe Lansdale, and one of the reasons why is his versatility, a quality on fine display in Bleeding Shadows, a collection of short stories, novellas, and even a few poems. Few authors can slide between genres as effortlessly as Lansdale can, and this collection manages to contain everything from grim drama, Westerns, horror, homage to legendary authors, and all-out Lovecraftian nightmares - to say nothing of the aforementioned poems. It even manages to showcase Lansdale's glorious sense of humor, most prominently in a gleefully odd tale about a man who ends up meeting Smokey the Bear and finding out that the great icon has a seriously dark side to him. What other author could manage to create both his own John Carter tale and his own Huck Finn story, and have them somehow be both unmistakably his own work and yet feel exactly like the voice of the authors he's mimicking? What's even better about Lansdale is the way he touches on rich themes without ever making them overshadow the stories he's telling - look, for instance, at the pair of tales about a black gunfighter in the post-Civil War era, where racism factors into the story heavily without ever feeling like the focus of the gloriously violent and entertaining tales being told. Meanwhile, "The Bleeding Shadow" finds Lansdale updating the classic tale of a musician selling his soul to nightmarish effect, while "The Stars are Falling" is the tale of a war veteran coming home to a world that no longer wants him. There's not a bad story to be found in Bleeding Shadows, and that's a rarity in a collection such as this, but it's just a reminder of how talented Lansdale really is. And while I think The Best of Joe R. Lansdale is a better starting point for newcomers, any fan is going to devour this and love every minute of it.
6-9 Locke and
Key, Vol. 1:
Welcome to
Lovecraft
,
by Joe Hill
It's hard to review the first part of something, particularly when what you're talking about is the first half of the first act of a three-act story. And yet, Welcome to Lovecraft is presented as a self-contained story, one that's designed to both introduce the larger picture of Locke and Key while still remaining a self-contained story on its own terms. Add to that the huge acclaim Locke and Key has collected over the years and my love of Joe Hill's work and you have a recipe for disappointment. But somehow, Welcome to Lovecraft lives up to expectations, delivering the rich, complex character work Hill is known for while also creating a rich, genuinely unnerving and horrific story that consumes their lives. And make no mistake: Locke and Key is a horror story, through and through. It opens with a home invasion that leaves two people dead, and while the violence never quite returns to that graphic level of the beginning, there's an undeniable air of dread that hangs over Locke and Key even before the horror elements begin to enter into the story, as the surviving members of the family move into a family home and begin to realize that there's more to the house - and its keys - than they ever expected. What follows is incredibly unnerving, not only in the story beats, but in the art, which mixes realism and the supernatural perfectly, creating unease out of blood and shadows equally well. It's hard to judge Locke and Key based solely on this first entry, but taken on its own, Welcome to Lovecraft is a fantastic read, one that leaves me wanting more and has left me scouring the libraries nearby to see how quickly I can pick up volume 2.
6-9 The Lightning
Bolts of Zeus
,
by D. Alan Lewis
A blend of steampunk, alternate history (is that pairing redundant?), and James Bond novel (by way of Joss Whedon), The Lightning Bolts of Zeus follows a pair of sisters that work for the American Secret Service as they investigate a series of robberies before discovering something that might set the world on the course for war. If that sounds like a mess, it really isn't; Alan Lewis wastes no time jumping right into this world and simply allows the reader to catch up naturally, letting the exposition come in as needed without ever making the book feel like it's stopping to fill us in. I enjoyed the ideas of Lewis's first book, The Blood in Snowflake Garden, but I felt that Lewis's dialogue and writing skills weren't quite good enough to sustain them. Luckily, he's largely improved with this one; he's got a gift for fun action sequences that convey the chaos and excitement of his battles without ever feeling confusing or dull the way they do in so many authors' hands. (That being said, his dialogue still needs a bit of work, especially when it comes to action; even so, it's a big step up from where it was in Snowflake.) And Lewis is clearly having a blast here; Zeus is a pretty action-packed novel, and it's paced well, flying from one setpiece to another and escalating the plot nicely as needed, keeping things moving while never making us feel like it's getting out of control. The Lightning Bolts of Zeus is a lot of fun, and don't let the steampunk setting drive you off; if anything, this is closer to Joss Whedon doing James Bond, as I mentioned, with all the fun that's implied with an idea like that (think ass-kicking female secret agents). It moves well, the characters are nicely drawn, and the setting is great without ever overwhelming the fun story it's telling. Well worth a read.
6-7 Mr. Mercedes,
by Stephen King
It's a bit surprising that Stephen King has never really tried his hand at a serial killer novel; given his ability to get inside the heads of even the most disturbed villains (and heroes, for that matter) and his gift for building tension, it seems like a natural fit, if outside of his usual wheelhouse. And yet, Mr. Mercedes is his first stab at the genre, the tale of a retired policeman who decides to hunt down the man who drove a car through a crowd of people and may plan to strike again. Maybe it's the new genre, or maybe it's the stripped down nature of the story (which essentially focuses mainly on these two men), but Mr. Mercedes shows us a focused King that we haven't seen in a while, delivering a book that never really slows down all while delving deep into the minds of both of its lead characters. There's a wide array of novel touches to Mr. Mercedes - present tense narration, a lack of supernatural horrors of any kind, some surprising swerves in the plot - but the end result feels like King branching out in a different direction than he normally does, but that's in no way a bad thing; it's a treat to find that King can still surprise a reader this long into his career, much less that he can do it this successfully and strongly. Make no mistake, Mr. Mercedes is a Stephen King novel, through and through (and it becomes more obvious the further into the book you get), but it feels like he's stretching himself, and it works well here. The plotting is far more surprising than you might hope for, misleading the reader nicely at times only to move where you least expect it, but at its core, it's a duel between two men - just not the kind of duel you might expect. But that's part of the pleasure of Mr. Mercedes, in which Stephen King gives his own take on the "hunt for a serial killer" novel, and does so in an exciting, gripping way that both plays to his strengths and does some interesting new things as well.
6-2 The Universe
Versus Alex
Woods
, by
Gavin Extence
At age 10, Alex Woods got hit by a meteorite and became famous; now, he's 17, and he's in the news again, after getting stopped crossing back into England with a glove compartment full of marijuana and an urn containing the ashes of an old friend. How those events connect forms the story of The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a warm, engaging, funny first novel from author Gavin Extence. In some ways, The Universe Versus Alex Woods feels a bit like The Fault in Our Stars without the romance angle, but there's much more to this book than a simple formula. With a love of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, a wonderfully British perspective on the world, a willingness to tackle a complex moral issue and settle without compromise, a sharp wit, and a wonderful voice that's perfectly honest and straightforward at all times, Extence's novel is an absolute joy that feels like nothing so much as itself, even as you're noticing all of the inspirations that helped to shape it. And if some of the plot beats are a little familiar and rote by this point, none of that really detracts from how engaging and full of life Alex Woods is as a book. In lesser hands, this could easily be a bad Hallmark book, or a generic inspirational story, or a bland YA book; somehow, though, Extence makes it into something richer and more enjoyable than it has any right to be, mainly by giving it a wonderful perspective in the form of a narrator who's both literally scarred by the world and shaped by his fascination with it. There's no reason for a first book to be this enjoyable, well-written, and engaging, and yet The Universe and Alex Woods is all those things and more. And the fact that it's his first hopefully means we have a lot more books that are this good to look forward to.
6-2 The
Penultimate
Peril
, by
Lemony Snicket
The Penultimate Peril may be my favorite entry in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, and that's saying something, when the series has so many wonderful entries. But there's something deeply satisfying about the way The Penultimate Peril starts to deliver on the themes the series has been building up to, especially as it comes to blurring the lines between good and evil into non-existence. So many books for children clearly divide the world into good people and bad people, but The Penultimate Peril finds the Baudelaires taking truly horrible actions - some by accident, some intentionally so - while simultaneously forcing us to realize that painting Count Olaf as a villain isn't as cut and dried as we might like it to be. It's rich material for any book, much less a children's series, but to have it done as well and as elegantly as it's done here would almost be enough by itself to make me love this book. But The Penultimate Peril has so much else going for it, from absurd courtroom scenes that take the idea of blind justice too literally to moments of quiet reflection that are wonderfully, perfectly honest in the best ways possible. And even though it's the last book of the series, The Penultimate Peril gives us the last bow of many beloved characters, clearing the stage for the final act to come. There's only one book to go in the series, and since I've read it before and I know what to expect (and what not to expect), re-reading the series has been a chance to savor all the details - not just the literary in-jokes and the sly comments that work better for a 34-year-old dad than his 7-year-old son (how many children's books contain jokes about Antonin Scalia?), but the character development, the wonderful way that author Daniel Handler uses his books to explore grief, the pains of adolescence, and a huge spectrum morally complex questions. And The Penultimate Peril does it all as well as the series ever did, and did it in such a way that's both satisfying on its own terms and sets the stage for the finale to come. No small feat.
6-1 The Poe Consequence,
by Keith
Steinbaum
After he's killed in the crossfire of a L.A. gang battle, Warren Palmer becomes a self-appointed supernatural force of justice, killing every gang member who commits murder, but only after subjecting them to a series of horrifying revenges courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe. Meanwhile, Warren's young son, Seth, struggles to make his peace with the death of the father and the racist hate he's feeling towards not only the Hispanic gang members who killed his father, but towards all Hispanics everywhere. That's the two threads that drive The Poe Consequence, a painfully mediocre blend of horror and drama that has some good ideas, but never makes any of them work anywhere near as well as they should. On the horror front, the book suffers from a lack of escalation - Steinbaum lays all of his cards on the table from the get-go, so instead of a slowly building reveal as to the true extent of the horrors, we know everything from the start, leading to a numbing amount of chapters that play out in nearly identical fashion. (It doesn't help that Steinbaum removes any mystery from what's going on in the first two chapters, leaving us bored as we wait for everyone to catch up to where we already are.) As for the emotional arc, that's more effective, but it takes far too long for any character to evolve beyond anything but a flat, dull caricature of a person, usually established by hammering one character point at us again and again. The one exception is a gangbanger named Alex who slowly develops into something more, but it takes too long before we see anything beyond the same broad stereotypes we see in every other gangbanger, meaning that the depth is too little, too late. The Poe Consequence isn't a bad idea for a book, but it's poorly executed, and it's a reminder that even a good idea needs some skill and some style to truly work well.
5-26 The Skin
Collector
, by
Jeffery Deaver
After a few weak books, Jeffery Deaver has been on a bit of an upswing lately, so I wasn't really sure how to feel about the fact that he was writing what seemed to be - based off of the title and the premise - his first truly direct sequel. For Deaver to revisit The Bone Collector, the first Rhyme book and one of Deaver's first major hits, at this point seems like a bit of desperation, unless there's a good reason for it. Turns out, there is a bit of a good reason for it: it's really about marketing, because The Skin Collector stands primarily on its own. Yes, there's a bit of a tie-in to The Bone Collector - the serial killer hunting and tattooing his victims seems to be inspired by or somehow connected to the case - but it's never really a major part of the book. Indeed, you can't help but feel that the connection was a little forced in at times...but that's okay, because, as I said, the book stands on its own. As usual, Deaver paces his book wonderfully, and the reveals in The Skin Collector are pretty genuinely surprising, if a bit out of left field sometimes. In general, The Skin Collector feels like a solid, if not top-tier, Deaver book; while it's not the knockout that the best books of the series can be, it still works well, delivering some fun twists along the way and nicely teasing the reader with plenty of hints and clues along the way that misdirect every bit as much as they help. In other words, it's a typical Lincoln Rhyme novel, with all the usual joys that implies. And if it's not a truly surprising one, it's still a great way to spend a few days.
5-21 The Republic
of Thieves
,
by Scott Lynch
The third volume of the Gentlemen Bastards finds the remaining Bastards still reeling from the conclusion of Red Seas Under Red Skies; indeed, as much as the first third of Thieves feels like nothing so much as the conclusion of the book before it. That being said, if all transition periods could be this gripping, involving, and charming, no one would mind them. But in the end, The Republic of Thieves is a very different book from its predecessors - it's a book in which the Bastards are working not on a heist, but on an election, and they're working against an old friend who knows all of their tricks as well as they do. As usual, Lynch cuts between his main story and a story of the Bastards in earlier years, when the troupe was forced to go work a grand scheme and assist a struggling players company. The throughline connecting the two stories? Locke's relationship with Sabetha, the love of his life whose specter has hung heavily over the first two novels in the series. For some, the fact that Lynch pushes the scheming to the background may be a demerit against the book; indeed, both stories are less interested in the tricks and deceptions employed, but in the characters and their relationship. For me, though, that was just another aspect of the book that I loved, as Lynch slows down for the first time in the series and explores what makes all of these people tick and lets them have a little fun. There's some definite stage-setting going on for later books, of course, and some glimpses into how all of the stories so far may be tying together more tightly than we've realized. But in general, this is a little lighter and looser than its predecessors, but it's no less charming, funny, engaging, and entertaining; if anything, it might be a little more so, just because we're finally getting the chance to watch this crew play instead of survive. I loved it every bit as much as the first two books in the series, and the instant book 4 is released, I'll be jumping right back in again without so much as a second thought.
5-6 The Man from
Rio
, by Shayne
Youngblood
A tight, violent noir tale set in the streets of Rio De Janeiro, The Man From Rio owes a heavy debt to James Ellroy. With ruthlessly pared-down prose, jagged fragments, and rat-a-tat pacing, there's no denying how much author Shayne Youngblood has to have been influenced by one of the modern noir masters. But while a lot of people have tried to emulate Ellroy, not many succeed as well as Youngblood does here, delivering a nasty little noir tale of revenge, gang wars, and police corruption, all while immersing you in the violent worlds of the Rio underground. A Man From Rio never quite works as a novel; it feels closer to a series of loosely interconnected vignettes, with Youngblood drifting through his world as his muse deems fit. But the result is never really confusing so much as it is chaotic, giving the sense of a teeming crime scene that's constantly in flux and never stable. A Man From Rio is a fast read, and that's to its credit, I think; given that it never quite coheres the way it needs to, if it went much longer than it does, it would risk falling apart entirely. But as it stands, it's a nice little noir piece that's all the richer for how it takes the tropes of the genre and finds that they work just as well in an international setting as they did in 1940's LA.
5-6 Immobility, by
Brian Evenson
There's no author quite like Brian Evenson, whose books often feel as though Cormac McCarthy was writing Edgar Allan Poe stories of madness and horror. His prose is razor sharp and complex, but never difficult; while his storytelling is often done through implication or ellipsis, his mood and atmosphere are second to none, creating a dark, apocalyptic feel to even the simplest tale. And whether exploring the madness that often comes from religious focus (a frequent theme) or the poetry of violence and cruelty, Evenson does it while telling compelling, original stories that feel like no one else's work. Immobility may be Evenson's most accessible (and, it must be said, least unique) work, in terms of storytelling; it's the story of an amnesiac thawed out in a post-apocalyptic society and asked to retrieve an object, and what follows is a strange, unsettling blend of noir tale, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and philosophical musings on humanity and our role on the planet. But while the story is simple to follow (at least, in terms of the plot), the book is not so easily categorized. As always, Evenson's prose is astonishing, immersing you in this broken, off-kilter world where questions are never answered as simply as you'd like, people are driven by their own agendas, and nature itself seems to have turned against us. It makes for an odd blend of science-fiction, post-apocalyptic horror, and postmodern fiction, but it's to Evenson's credit that it all works as well as it does, spinning a riveting tale that we quickly become invested in all the way to the inevitable yet surprising ending. Immobility may not pack the visceral impact of some of Evenson's short stories or the jaw-dropping Last Days, but it does show that he can do something more traditional and mainstream while losing none of the voice, mood, and atmosphere that makes him one of the most gifted writers working today. And even if Immobility feels a little more familiar and less bracingly original than Evenson's other work, there's no denying the talent that's on display in every cutting sentence, every chilling description, and every rich exploration of ideas from religious zealotry to what it means to preserve human life.
5-3 Vengeance is
Mine
, by Harry
James Krebs
Despite its grim title and the fact that it's about a serial killer that leaves his victims' decapitated bodies behind as part of a grim tableau, Vengeance is Mine feels surprisingly light-hearted in general. It's not that author Harry James Krebs doesn't invest his scenes with a sense of menace, or that he short changes the horrors on display, or that he's not capable of a nicely dangerous-feeling scene. But there's a playfulness to Vengeance is Mine that feels closer to the tea-room cozy end of the spectrum than, say, the Thomas Harris end of the spectrum. That's not a bad thing, mind you, not when the author is doing the kind of work that Krebs is doing here. The characters are all rich and interesting, and there's not a one that doesn't come to life, even when you only seem them briefly or for a moment. And in his main character, Benjamin Tucker, Krebs has created a great narrator, one who's bemused by the people around him, aware of his own flaws, but also capable of good insight and investigation skills. Vengeance is Mine isn't just Krebs' first book, but the first book in the Tucker series, and while the fact that he's planning on the long haul certainly explains a lot of the setup for what will obviously be later material (most notably a traumatic event around Tucker's 18th birthday), there's still a little bit of fat that could use trimming in Vengeance, as though Krebs has great ideas but decided to only leave glimpses of them sometimes (the big one for me was a bizarre scene between Tucker and a one-time fling that never really fits into the book around it, nor earns much of a follow-up beyond "Well, that was weird"). And while the plotting is pretty engaging and solid, the climax feels more than a bit rushed, with one major question waved away as random coincidence and the last showdown resolved by an almost literal deus ex machina. For all that, though, I quite enjoyed Vengeance is Mine. It's a fun, engaging little read that moves nicely along and always kept me entertained. And even though it's not perfect, it's a solid start for Krebs and his sardonic narrator.
5-2

Galveston, by
Nic Pizzolatto

It didn't take me long into True Detective to decide I needed to check out Nic Pizzolatto's writing; given the rich texture of the show, the way it wove complex themes into a traditional detective story and created something wholly new, I was excited to see what Pizzolatto could do on his own terms. And while Galveston may not be as ambitious as True Detective was, there's no denying that it's an outstanding piece of work that once again takes its genre in unexpected directions. The name of the game here is neo-noir, but it's rare to find a neo-noir that's as regretful and mournful as Galveston is; from the opening paragraphs, where our narrator finds out that he's due to die of cancer soon, there's a feeling throughout Galveston that accounts have to be settled, one way or the other, and not always for the better. Indeed, much of the action of Galveston springs from actions that occur long before the book even opens; whether it's a betrayal over a past love affair or a murder whose motivations long predate it, Galveston is as much a book about the way the past defines us as it is anything else. That it's so well-written is no surprise to anyone who's watched True Detective; like that show, Galveston muses on deeper themes about justice, fate, purpose, and more, all while never neglecting its story of an ex-con on the run from some dangerous men. But also like True Detective, Galveston has more on its mind than simply telling a mystery tale; it's far more interested in its characters and their own quests for redemption and peace, in whatever form that might take. And while the plotting of Galveston (particularly the ending) might feel a little rough or incomplete, there's no denying that the character arcs are rich ones that culminate beautifully, giving us the sense that while the story may not be quite over, the important parts already are. Galveston is a knockout piece of work, one that draws heavily on its inspirations - everyone from Lehane to Hammett and everyone between - while making something all its own. Those who loved True Detective will probably love Galveston, but even those who haven't seen the show should check it out. Pizzolatto is a true talent, a natural writer, and a man whose love of noir combines with his understanding of people to make a rich, satisfying piece of storytelling.
4-27 Capes and Clockwork,
edited by
D. Alan Lewis
I'm generally a little bit wary of themed short story collections - too often, the stories feel hamstrung by their restrictions, while others end up feeling like authors have taken already-existing works and forced them into the theme with some monkeying around. But neither is the case with Capes and Clockwork, a collection of short stories about steampunk superheroes. Steampunk gets a bit of a bad rap sometimes thanks to some of its more passionate (some would say "obsessive") followers, but as it's used in Capes and Clockwork, the concept ends up bringing in everything from a fantasy tale about submariner dwarves freeing magically bound slaves to the games played by children when they're alone. The best stories here, to me, embrace the pulpier aspects of the theme, giving us origin stories, the latest chapter in what feels like a serialized struggle with their archvillain, or just fisticuffs and action stories. Some are serious - the aforementioned submarine story feels like part of a dense, complex fantasy universe - while others have a more playful feel to them (for instance, John Hartness's "White Lightning," which makes a hero out of a belligerent drunkard named Bubba). Some put the clockwork in the foreground ("Tuesday Morrow," the tale of a mechanical man that's developed its own life); others, the capes (Azrael Wolf's "Captain Amy and the Steam-Driven Kittens of Doom" or Logan Masterson's "Clockwork Demons"); and a few manage to make something all their own out of the theme while still playing fair with the idea (I'm thinking mainly of "Indestructible," by Alexander S. Brown). It's not a perfect collection; while there's not an outright bad story in the batch, a few end jarringly abruptly, while some feel like they're treading familiar ground by the end of the collection (always a peril of themed collections). But in general, I really enjoyed Capes and Clockwork: the stories are engaging, fun, and provide enough variety that even within the guidelines of a themed collection, you feel like you're getting a nice spread of perspectives, styles, and ideas.
4-23 Vigilant
Guardians
, by
David Alan Glynn
On a purely technical level, Vigilant Guardians is a pretty good book. It's a conspiracy thriller, which puts it right in my wheelhouse, and author David Alan Glynn knows how to write a solid tale. His characters are nicely drawn, coming to life even when we only meet them briefly, and he knows how to pace out his revelations, his twists, and his reveals. If only the book were about anything - and I do mean anything - else. Because the conspiracy at the heart of Vigilant Guardians...is the "truth" behind 9/11 - that it was an elaborate scheme by Bush and Cheney, that the towers were brought down by explosives, that Flight 93 was an elaborate fake - you know the drill. If Vigilant Guardians were about any other conspiracy imaginable, I'd probably have been able to really enjoy Vigilant Guardians, which follows a man trying to turn his conspiracy theory into a book in the hopes of exposing as many people to the truth as possible. Instead, it's a "truther" novel, and worse than that, it's a frequently smug one that's often more interesting in preaching the "truth" than it is telling a good story. Glynn stops the book cold for our heroes to lecture other characters and "open their eyes" (something that's said verbatim in the book a few times) - and the reader can't help feeling lectured as well. And given the strawman-heavy approach to any sort of discussion about 9/11 (when there is a debate - pretty much, everyone simply agrees that 9/11 is nothing but lies and that scientific explanations about what happened are all faked), if you're not a believer, you're going to find yourself rolling your eyes a lot at this one. I normally do my best to set aside any personal beliefs when I read a book, but 9/11 conspiracy theories are pretty absurd, and Vigilant Guardians is so much a book written by and for true believers that anyone who doesn't have much use for them is going to be let down - and that's a shame, because Glynn is pretty evidently a good writer and a good storyteller.
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.

 

e-mail me at
clydeumney@gmail.com

page updated:
November 20, 2014