Favorite Books of 2014

2014 got away from me as far as blogging goes, and posts have been… sparse around here. How much that changes in 2015 is still up in the air, but until then I wanted to at least finish the year with the ever-ubiquitous Favorites lists. I don’t have any intention to present this (or the movies and music ones that’ll follow) as comprehensive or definitive, it’s just nice to gather a list of those works I happened to particularly enjoy this year in one easy to access spot. These are the books published in 2014 I most enjoyed, and a couple published previously that also blew me away. I recommend each one unreservedly.

Shovel Ready: Adam Sternbergh’s debut about a hitman in a post-apocalyptic New York City is as razor sharp as the box cutter Spademan uses to dispatch his victims. The spare, near poetic style of the writing is visceral, shot through with pitch black humor. It’s doubly worth picking up before the next installment hits in early 2015.

One Night in Sixes: I’m admittedly a sucker for Fantasy stories with a Western setting, but Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson’s debut mixed the two far better than most. The way she used language and dialect to mark different classes of people was very well handled, and the scenes of frontier life and cattle drives read like McMurtry.

The Three-Body Problem: Cixin Liu’s award-winning novel (the first in a trilogy, with parts 2 and 3 coming very soon) is now available in English, thanks to a fantastic translation from Hugo and Nebula winner Ken Liu that ably brings a new audience all the complex science and heartfelt prose that made this a bestseller in China.

Broken Monsters: Possibly the most astute piece ofsocial commentary I read this year was woven into a dark and twisted piece of horror fantasy. Broken Monsters is what The Wire would have been if David Lynch had written it. Between this and last year’s The Shining Girls, fans of Stephen King who are still unfamiliar with Lauren Beukes need to rectify that gap in their reading.

Afterlife with Archie: Hands down my favorite comic currently running, the combination of Francesco Francavilla’s distinct artwork and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s efficient scripting makes the zombie apocalypse’s arrival in Riverdale more horrific and heartbreaking than you’d think possible, and elevates this run well past the gimmick it appeared to be when it was first announced.

The Last Policeman: Ben H. Winter’s fresh take on the police procedural didn’t come out in 2014, but it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and certainly worth inclusion, regardless. The final book in the trilogy actually did come out this year, and if that Henry Palace adventure’s even close to this one, it’s a lock for one of my favorites next year.

Phantom Instinct: Meg Gardiner deals strictly in barn-burners. Every book of her’s I’ve read flies along with a wicked mix of breakneck action and clever banter, and Phantom Instinct is no exception. The combination of a former cop with trust issues – thanks to a disability that makes his judgment suspect – and a heroine with a hell of a past makes for a seriously entertaining read.

Silent City: I started Alex Segura’s debut shortly after takeoff on my flight back from Ireland this summer, and don’t look up until landing. I devoured this Miami set mystery, and really want to see more Pete Fernandez stories in the future.

The Martian: Originally self-published a couple of years back, then released traditionally to great fanfare earlier this year, Andy Weir’s book deserves all the praise it’s gotten. The varied ways Mars tries to kill Mark Watney, and his humor and determination in the face of each one, had me grinning almost constantly as I read.

The Girl with All the Gifts: I was reluctant when I wrote about this earlier to give details, and that hasn’t changed. I still think this book is best approached knowing as little going in as possible, but I will say that, even among this list of excellent books, The Girl with All the Gifts is flat out the best thing I read all year.

So what’d you all enjoy reading this year?

The Girl With All the Gifts Not-Quite-Review

It might be folly, as I’m sure many other reviews have already given away the first reveal of M. R. Carey’s new novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, but I’m going to try and avoid detailing it here. This makes my thoughts on the book a little more difficult to form, but hopefully they’ll still make sense.

My reason for not exposing that first twist is to hopefully preserve for you the genuine moment of being struck dumb by it, and fully enjoy the compulsion to see how the rest of the story unfolds from there. There are very few stories I sincerely wish I could experience again for the first time, and this one shot straight to the top of that list. Carey does an incredible job, very similar to the way Shirley Jackson often did, of coaxing you in with his strange, off-kilter depiction of a world before you find yourself unable to resist continuing deeper into it. He builds a desperate desire to know what happens next by employing a genuine empathy with, and fascination for, his characters.

Those opening pages form a skillfully crafted trap. Not only do they present a fascinating lead character in Melanie, the young girl we’re initially introduced to, but they provide the perfect setup for the horrors that unfold as the book continues. Carey builds a delicious air of dread, presenting the reader with a situation that isn’t remotely tenable, and teasing it out with immense care for as long as possible until that tenuous balance is shattered. This is a violent book at times, with furious bursts of action. Those scenes are orchestrated and executed with skill and precision, enhanced by the emotional investment we’ve developed for the characters through the intimate details he’s built into them during the quieter moments.

The entire story builds to an incredible crescendo, and a satisfying and strangely (unsettlingly) hopeful conclusion. The only thing stopping me from going immediately back and rereading the book again is the knowledge it won’t be exactly the same experience, which is why I sought to give as little away as possible. That makes this piece more my general impressions rather than a complete review, but I hope it still convinces you to try it, and have that first-read experience for yourself. Because those first few pages are most assuredly a trap, but they’re an enticing one you’ll deeply enjoy stepping in to.

Afterlife With Archie 1-5

I think the last time I read an Archie comic I was in middle school. Even then, it may have only been cursory, flipping through the book because it was a gift and it was there rather than really getting into the story. In the intervening years, Riverdale has changed a lot.

While Afterlife with Archie is a special case, it’s built on the frame of that reinvigorated Riverdale. The Archie line’s picture of everytown America is a place where class, race, gender, and faith differences aren’t whitewashed. They’re all woven into the adventures of the characters, a part of the total picture that enhances the story, rather than ignored or tacked awkwardly on out of a socially conscious sense of obligation.

As a result of that solid foundation, Afterlife is able to hit the ground running. The first issue snaps into the action, focusing at first on Jughead and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and their attempts to save and then revive his beloved Hot Dog. The characters in this series have, for the most part, been around since the Forties in one form or another, so even if you don’t know them from reading the comics themselves, they’ve become an ingrained part of pop culture. That allows Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla to waste no time revisiting who these people are and how they overlap.

That keeps the scripting razor-sharp, and the pacing breakneck. Aguirre-Sacasa establishes early he’s applying the traditional horror story law, that anyone can die at any time. Adding to that intensity is the flat out gorgeous artwork from Francavilla. From covers that evoke classic era monster movies to interior art with rich motion, the cells practically deserve framing. Each issue is a work of art.

The first three are all kinds of wonderful, but for me their perfect convergence is in the fourth issue. Here they’ll break your heart twice when Archie is first saved by a loved one, and saves a loved one at great cost. It’s a beautiful, crushing installment. The fifth issue’s focus on the Lodge’s loyal butler Smithers is both moving and clever. It ranges from a pragmatic accounting of which survivors remain in the group, to presenting a lovely tribute to his devotion and care of Veronica, to reminding us why these characters still work after seventy plus years. It also sets them on the road from the town they love and know so well, as it burns and is overrun.

From what I’ve been reading, it’s been a successful run, enough so they’ll be doing the same thing with Sabrina the Teenage Witch beginning in October. It’s a welcome reinvention, and a reminder of how the appropriately-maligned concept of a “gritty reboot” is supposed to work. For all the violence and horror in these issues, they never lose the heart that made Archie an icon in the first place. These five issues conclude the first wave of a series I hope goes on for a while.

John Hornor Jacobs’ The Shibboleth

First and foremost, if you’ve not picked up The Twelve-Fingered Boy you need to go and do that, and quickly. Seriously, the book is one of the best books I read last year, a truly stunning work. It’s also essential to read it before picking up the recently released second book of Jacobs’ trilogy, The Shibboleth.

And you’re going to want to pick that up, because The Shibboleth is amazing. Jacobs picks up shortly after the events of TFB, with Shreve Cannon back in Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. His friend Jack is in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux, training with a secretive group to face the mysterious force gaining strength on the East Coast.

That force is affecting people worldwide now. An epidemic of insomnia is eating away at society. Violence is up, people are falling apart, and the world’s on the edge of burning. The other wards of Casimir Pulaski are being effected as much as anyone, and they’re directing a lot of that violence towards Shreve. He’s under near-constant assault from those around him, who all seem to believe he’s a thief. He’s not afflicted like the others, a result of him using his powers to pry into people’s minds. This allows him to soothe himself with their happier memories. He soon learns that he can now “eat” people’s memories, taking thoughts out as well as manipulating their actions.

It’s a tool he can use to help, removing their pain and taking away their insomnia. It also puts him back on Quincrux’s radar, now that he might be useful to his cause. With this new understanding of both what he can do and the continuing threat Mr. Quincrux poses, Shreve sets out to find and free Jack. He’s captured, and forced to join Jack in training as Quincrux and his operatives refine a group of super-powered children they’ve taken to calling “extranaturals,” or “Post-Humans.”

The Shibboleth is darker by a fair margin than TFB. Jacobs doesn’t shrug away from the more painful fallout when Shreve chooses badly, or when more powerful people assert themselves on him or his friends. This is still a young adult book, but on the decidedly more intense end of the YA spectrum. No punches are pulled, no quarter is given. Shreve still has his humor, but it’s taken a world-weary edge. His voice as a character just as strong as it was in the previous book, but also more interesting in the way he “borrows” turns-of-phrase or cultural references from the minds he delves into. He carries not just his experiences, but the emotional toll that accompanies the memories of those he’s near.

Once he’s taken into Quincrux’s clutches, he finds a group of allies and friends among the other kids being trained. Their mix of powers are being honed to face a terrible evil, and failure is not an option. Severe consequences await those who aren’t up to snuff. The mix of new allies takes some of the weight off Shreve; he’s much less isolated than in the first half of the book, but no less aware of how much danger surrounds those he loves. Widening that circle of people he cares about becomes both a blessing and a curse. Not being so alone also means having much more to lose, after all.

By the end we’re left with more of a cliffhanger than the first. This is in all ways a middle portion. In the same way The Subtle Knife or The Girl Who Played with Fire suffer if you haven’t read The Golden Compass or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’d be difficult to jump in here without having read the first part. Also the end will definitely leave you eager to read the conclusion, which is thankfully due next year.

John Hornor Jacobs is fearless in his execution, taking the fascinating world-building of the first book and guiding it deeper into a dark and dangerous world. You’re anxious going so far down into the pitch black territory he goes. It’s completely worth it, and you’ll be left desperate for more.

Reviews of Two Novellas: “Fierce Bitches” and “The Burning Men”

You have to know when to stop—and it’s a lot harder than you think. I’ve read several books that made me wish I had stopped at the actual satisfying conclusion instead of following the author into a hellscape of epilogues. This problem sometimes leaves me preferring short stories and novellas, in large part because the slim form keeps authors from rambling.

Two recent examples are Christopher Farnsworth’s “The Burning Men” and Jedediah Ayres’ “Fierce Bitches.” The Farnsworth is a newly released Kindle Single featuring Nathaniel Cade, while Ayres’ is an original short that got a lot of praise last year.

Taking Ayres first, “Fierce Bitches” represents my introduction to him as a writer. The thrill of discovering a new author usually has a tendency to raise their perceived value, but it’d be hard to overstate how talented and sharp he really is. In this novella, Ayres presents three linked stories that are as burned-black as noir gets. Set just over the Mexico/U.S. border, Politoburg is nothing more than a bar around which some shacks have been erected to form a makeshift town. It exists as a place for a crime boss in the U.S. to send his hired goons to disappear, where he then helps them burn through whatever he paid them buying his booze and drugs and prostitutes. The action kicks off when one of these goons tries robbing the bar and running away with the woman he’s gotten pregnant. Their flight leads into a story about how she ended up in Politoburg to begin with, which then flows into a tale about how the man tasked with running the town finds the tattered remnants of his humanity.

Ayres is a fearless writer who effortlessly swings between points of view and points in time. He even writes a section in second person without coming across as cute. He keeps his focus sharp and his words biting. None of these characters are anyone you’d want to spend time around in real life, but each one is engrossing to read about. There’s ample ground for more stories about Politoburg, so a return on Ayres’ part is possible, but this book as a whole is so clean and efficient it’d be a shame to pad it out. Thankfully Ayres doesn’t.

Taking a different tack, more towards the thriller and definitely into the supernatural. “The Burning Men” is Christopher Farnsworth’s latest adventure featuring Zach Burrows and Nathaniel Cade. I’ve written about the Cade books before, but to summarize: Nathaniel Cade is a vampire, bound by blood to serve the President of the United States, and tasked with defending the U.S. from supernatural threats.

I really loved writing that summary, because it sounds totally ridiculous distilled that way, and therefore leads to the inevitable follow-up “why would you read that?”

Because they’re remarkably entertaining. Farnsworth excels at writing political thrillers, and the supernatural underpinnings give them the perfect popcorn-like snap. Cade has the amoral, single-minded drive of Jack Bauer tinged with the sociopathy and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. He’s smart, cursed with preternaturally sharpened senses and physical attributes, and unrelenting in his commitment to his oath. His partner, Zach, is a classic political shark, sidelined from a promising career into handling a powerful creature who’s natural predilection is to kill, not maneuver.

The Burning Men” is a standalone, a placeholder until the next full adventure. Here, the broader political intrigue of the others in the series gets dialed down as Cade and Burrows investigate a case of human combustion that seems decidedly less than spontaneous. That leads them to a domestic terrorist group using dark magic to pass through any security, stand in a crowd, and engulf their victims in flame. This outing is a standalone, a satisfying taste of what the series does well. “The Burning Men” lacks the historical asides intimating Cade’s long history of service in the shadows, but it deftly shows off how effective – and to us, entertaining – he is. If you’re already a fan of these books, you’ll be satisfied, but probably eager for more. If this is your first taste, just know there’s three more excellent novels waiting when you finish, and hopefully more to come.

Both “The Burning Men” and “Fierce Bitches” are fast reads, and while Ayres and Farnsworth are very different in terms of style, but both are well written and damn entertaining. Both authors know how to get to the point, satisfy without wearing out their welcome, and leave the reader eager for more without feeling cheated or shortchanged. I already knew I liked Christopher Farnsworth, so “The Burning Men” just reinforces that knowledge. I had no idea what to expect from Ayres, but after reading “Fierce Bitches,” I’m absolutely going to be on the lookout for more.

Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, is a lean, dark thriller nestled in the heart of a dystopian New York not too far in the future. In the aftermath of terrorism, the city’s been left a shell of its former self, degraded to the level directors like John Carpenter and Walter Hill imagined. To survive in this brutal environment, some people have simply receded; they hide behind security doors and security guards, lost in immersive online worlds that became popular just before everything went to hell. Others huddle in camps resembling something between Occupy Wall Street gatherings and Hoovertowns, trying to build some kind of community among the forgotten.

Then there are those who need to keep working and moving, and the antihero at the center of this book is one of that group. Calling himself Spademan, he transitioned from legit garbageman to killer for hire in a world where that’s become a viable way to make a living. In his own words he’s “just the bullet”, it’s up to the people who hire him to live with the consequences. You give him a name, pay him his fee, and the job’s done, normally with his weapon of choice: his trusty box cutter.

The job at the center of this one is a problem for him, though. Normally hands off once the target falls into one of the few categories he won’t kill, Spademan finds himself stepping in to protect the girl he’s been sent after, and that leads down a dark and painful path. She’s tied to powerful men who view everyone around them as either sheep to be fleeced or roaches to be crushed, and have no qualms slotting Spademan into the latter category.

Which brings me to a brief aside, wondering what makes us follow antiheroes down these paths? Spademan is an anonymous killer, who won’t even tell us his real name. He’s upfront about what he is, we know it walking in the door. Why do we stay? In Sternbergh’s book it’s largely because of his voice as a character. In the maw of a crumbling world, he’s pragmatic and honest. There’s a dark, wry, cynical humor in his delivery. He doesn’t approach his work with ruthlessness; he’s a blue-collar guy. His world is brutal, and he’s just doing what’s necessary to function in it.

His opponents put a sheen on what they do, and in contrast Spademan’s honesty seems more trustworthy. Of course he’s also the narrator, and it’s always fun riding shotgun with a narrator who sounds trustworthy, even while behaving in ways that should make you question him. Donald Westlake mastered that trick in The Ax, and Adam Sternbergh does a pretty good job executing it as well.

Sternbergh keeps everything brisk; you know the weight on and around Spademan, but you don’t feel it, until you’ve gotten too close to get away. Peppered within his story, Spademan teases and hints, and each little breadcrumb leads you a little further into who he really is. There are heartbreaking moments hiding under the tough exterior, and Sternbergh, like his narrator, knows that the best way to draw blood is to get you in really, really close before striking.

Along the way there are a couple of extra twists that didn’t really seem necessary, but those are minor considering they’re mixed in with some beautifully executed ones you’ll have a tough time shaking. There’s also a very welcome door left open for additional installments, and I’m glad for it. I’m eager to spend more time with Spademan.

Ranting About Articles About Damsels

By now I’m sure the latest “Oh noes, women read romance!” article (Warning: article may cause eyerolling) has achieved it’s purpose and driven clicks to read yet another author’s ruminations on the poor damsels he perceives are in distress. Here again is a writer mesmerized by a woman reading a romance novel — You could read it, and marvel as he recounts the surprise he felt observing the reading material of choice of an apparently functional “woman” on his subway train, but you already know the drill: as he leered over her shoulder and sneered at the “sentimental, florid style of that genre,” it occurred to me that we’re pretty much doomed to constant repetitions of “thinkpieces” by writers trying to understand why someone so clearly not a shambling mess would stoop to what he perceives as low literary fare. After all, one can assume the writer prefers a more highbrow form, perhaps one in which noble men like him struggle to come to terms with the mediocrity of their lives. Basically anything else, so long as it follows noble people’s struggle, but literarily.

Then I realized the poor guy was probably wrestling with a deadline, and lacking the presence of a legitimate story in the news worthy of serious analysis in a capital “B” Business publication – say the latest sharp decline of Bitcoin’s value or potential fallout of that decline – the author did what any noble hero struggling with the constraints of time and imagination might do, and punted.

These “articles” on genre appeal – and romance’s appeal in particular – are to actual reporting “what hot dogs are to cuisine — quickly made, tasty, filling, temporarily satisfying, but with no nutritional value whatsoever.” as he so eloquently puts it. They’re nothing more than a couple hundred words dedicated mostly to stats and bullet points culled from a coffee break web search. Even given actual data on the significant economic success of the romance genre, and it’s popularity across cultural, political, and even gender divides, it remains stunning that seemingly intelligent (often male) writers can’t help but fall over themselves to deride its readers. They even go so far as to declare it a “guilty pleasure” with apparently no awareness of how well crafted many romances can be. He could have deigned to read one and actually examine their appeal, but with that pesky deadline looming perhaps he lacked the time? Barring that he could have examined our tendency to praise well-choreographed action over well-choreographed sex, but that’d involve not debasing sex and shaming those who enjoy reading about it.

Instead he wonders why women – “forty years after the women’s liberation movement, Roe vs. Wade and the pill have transformed [their] lives in the most dramatic of ways – continue to indulge in the fanciful tales of females so unlike them who live in fantasy worlds light years removed from their reality?” Why can’t they succor themselves with more highbrow fare? Clearly something must be missing in their lives; he can tell this is true, he found a goodreads.com quote. Perhaps if that poor woman next to him had only looked up from her iPad, she would have found the noble hero she was searching for in that tawdry prose right there, gazing into her lap on the 2 Line.

The choice of reading a romance novel is as much an “expression of distaste in hippie culture” (Seriously – he used the phrase hippie culture with no quotes, in utter seriousness, as if the moon was still in the Seventh House and that cool kid in the fringe jacket still wouldn’t pass him a marijuana cigarette) as the guy across the aisle – who’s shoulder wasn’t leaned over – reading the most recent George R. R. Martin book is due to “distaste” in how our anti-regency American culture once ruined all that wonderful tea. It’s certainly not an expression of distaste on par with recommending Jane Austen to adults. It may be true modern women have become unfamiliar with Austen in the 200 years since her death, but in fairness, it’s not as if she ever crafted a romance hero who speaks to women quite the way Mark Darcy did to Bridget Jones.

So we’re doomed to writers repeating this narrative. Over and over, there will be a class of author who fears his talents will be overlooked in favor of something they deem “lesser”. He’ll continue to ride the subway, alone and under deadline, until he sees someone he thinks he might connect with. Someone he perceives is as successful and intelligent as he is. Hoping to strike up a conversation he’ll peer longingly into this woman’s lap, only to be crushed to find her attention drawn not to him or even his publication, but to the latest best seller from Sylvia Day. And so he’ll trudge up to his office, and fulfill his deadline obligation with a sad, paternalistic rumination on the tragedy of her taste in prose not written by him, before staring out his window, and shedding a lonely tear.