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?

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.

RIP VIII: Closing up Locke and Key

Readers Imbibing Peril VIII Review Site

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Seven years, seven books, and we’re now one issue away from reading the end of easily one of the greatest Fantasy stories of the last ten years. If you consider what else has come out in that time, you’ll see this has been no small feat. But even very good things must come to an end, so we’re about to say goodbye to the Locke family and leave Lovecraft, Massachusetts. I finished rereading the series in part for Stainless Steel Droppings’s RIP VIII, but also in preparation for the end of the series. It’s impressive not only how well it holds up, but how much else there is to find.

Locke and Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s massive graphic novel, has followed the Locke family as they return to their ancestral home at Keyhouse in Lovecraft. They’ve been driven there after a shattering, at the time apparently senseless attack. A stunned collection of wounded individuals, the Lockes are trying to feel their way forward. In that haze of grief and trauma the youngest, Bode, befriends an echo of a spirit in the Wellhouse on the property, and begins discovering the keys.

Over the course of seven more books and two standalone stories, Hill and Rodriguez open spectacular doors throughout Keyhouse, and even in the characters themselves. We follow them as they piece together their family and try to find their way back into the world. Their struggle to bury the past is that much harder as they discover a dark force searching for one particular key to a very sinister door, deep in the caverns beneath Keyhouse.

Locke and Key is remarkably expansive in its treatment of concepts and ideas, reaching far back into the past and deep into the psyche of its characters for rich, masterful storytelling. Take particular notice of the subplot where Kinsey Locke removes her fear and sorrow, or the inner life of Bode’s friend Rufus Whedon. Hill explores very complex, emotional ground throughout the books, pushing all the way to the margins to fill this world with an amazing field of ideas. He’s able to go so far thanks in large part to Gabriel Rodriguez’s masterful artwork. A great example of where these artists merge is in the moment Bode shows Tyler and Kinsey the Head Key. As they look inside you could lose hours unpacking what’s going on in that panel.

Or better yet, take a moment to sample the kind of storytelling and artistry available throughout the series distilled and intensified in its two standalone issues. Grindhouse and Open the Moon follow stories outside of the main arc of Locke and Key. Though they reveal some of the keys and doors differently than when the Locke kids discover them, ultimately those moments don’t spoil the fullness of the rest of the series. What they do is present two facets Locke and Key excel at brilliantly. Grindhouse, the second of the two, shows the darker, pulpier side of the storytelling. Here Depression era gangsters attempt to take an earlier generation of the Locke family hostage and hole up at Keyhouse, only to discover true terror when the House is unleashed upon them. Hill and Rodriguez are in full EC comics heaven here, with all the Grand Guignol trappings. Follow that with Open the Moon, which tells a touching story of fatherly love for his sick son. This time Joe Hill gives us a story worthy of (and dedicated to) Ray Bradbury, while Rodriguez brings it to life with beautiful illustrations that evoke Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland.

All of that’s about to come to a close. In one more issue, those of us who have followed this series are going to slip off to a quiet corner and “absorb” those last moments (I think we’re going to be a bit weepy). We’re about to learn what finally happens to Tyler, Kinsey, Bode, and the rest. It’s going to be emotional for us; probably all we’ll be thinking about for a bit. It’ll be sad to see this series end, but in that good way that’s informed by the knowledge you’ve experienced something that’s going to stick with you for a very long time.

Daredevil Back at Marvel Studios

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Blastr reports that the rights to Daredevil have reverted to Marvel, after Fox failed to get a reboot off the ground.  Given Marvel’s current “Can Do No Wrong” image when it comes to comic book adaptations, there’s plenty of reason to suspect they could add another winning franchise to their roster.  Considering how the last version was…lacking…it would be great to see someone really take the character in an interesting direction.  Even though he wasn’t great playing Matt Murdock, perhaps we can see if Ben Affleck would fare better directing Daredevil?  Or perhaps bring Joe Carnahan in, and go in a grittier direction (warning, the clip that links to is a little NSFW)?  Either way, it’s more interesting to consider what a powerhouse Marvel Films could become, if they could bring the rest of their properties under the same banner.  A vast Marvel Universe across movies, TV, and print could produce some epic storytelling.

Saga #12

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Yesterday Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples excellent comic SAGA lit up the internet, on the news Apple was not making the 12th issue in the run available for in app purchase based on graphic content*.  The content in question was two images depicting graphic gay sex.  It feels odd to describe this as the objectionable material, because if you’ve followed the series, you’re well aware graphic depictions of sex have been pretty much de rigueur, and plenty of those depictions have included same sex couples.  So the decision seems odd to say the least.

I’ve read Brian’s letter announcing the decision to fans, and Fiona Staples’ comments to Comic Riffs as well, and my general feeling is this is more a failing of Apple’s “Walled Garden” approach, rather than a shot against the gay community.  By relying on manual review of material to vet it as appropriate before including it in their marketplace, an uneven standard will eventually be applied.  In the past, Apple’s review system was probably being more cursory, this time around Vaughan and Staples didn’t slip by.  It’s no different in my opinion from the MPAA ratings system, which often lets violent or sexual material toe the line between PG-13 and R, but an indie musical about buskers?  There a single curse word earns an automatic R.

So to keep up with the series and read the current issue, I bought it not through the Comixology App (from which Apple normally gets a piece of the sale), but through the Comixology website (where Apple gets no cut).  I’ve used Comixology to read most of the comics I pick up for a variety of reasons, but mainly because as a parent, when I want to read something I don’t want my son to read, the iPad is the best option.  I have a passcode to unlock the device, and my son doesn’t have the code.  Physical books around the house, on the other hand, are fair game.  He’s picked through my old comics and has his own, so his attention will go right to any comic I leave lying around.  I encourage this, but since it’s not appropriate to discuss the larger themes that make SAGA outside his reading age bracket, I’d rather not leave material lying around that’ll trigger those conversations.  This is where I find myself disappointed in Apple’s decision.  As an adult, I can determine what I consume, and I can limit how I share that with others myself.  I really don’t need Apple determining what content I can access, and this kind of irritation only serves to remind me how easily I can get content without using Apple as a middleman.  that’s an important reminder that will definitely impact my buying habits, and one others should consider as well.

The attention this kerfuffle has generated has an upside for Image and SAGA, though.  What Apple has done is increase visibility of the series, which is fantastic.  Through twelve stellar issues, Vaughan and Staples have constructed a vibrant, dynamic, and simply stunning world, where literally anything is possible.  They’re reveling in a form of storytelling that has no boundaries, whatever Vaughan conceives of Staples can draw.  With that freedom, they can tackle grand, expansive themes and require their readers to dig deeper.  Issue #12  adds new and dynamic twists to the story, introducing D. Oswald Heist, the author of the novel that set the central plot in motion.  For those who already love this series, you’ve already devoured this issue and can’t wait for more.  For those of you who learned or were reminded about SAGA and want to see what the fuss is about, be ready.  This isn’t a series with an easy entrance point.  Even issue #1 is strange, but the pleasure of reading SAGA is in that strange journey.  It’s a lot like finding yourself in a foreign city, with no map.  Once you start to get a sense of the pattern of the streets, and a flavor of the dialogue, you ease into your environment.  Your comfort isn’t handed to you, it’s something you have to find on your own.

Overall, I suspect Apple will quietly allow this back into in app marketplaces, with no formal comment on the matter.  I haven’t checked, but word is it was always available through the Apple bookstore, so I take that as evidence this is a glitch in a very imperfect system rather than a slight against any group.  The dustup will settle, and everyone will move on.  But for those who do decide to take a look at SAGA, to see what the fuss is about, I hope you stick with it, as it’s one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had.

[*Between writing this, and shortly after it published, Comixology released a statement that the fault was with them, not Apple, and the issue will be up in their app soon (read the statement here).  Although this changes where responsibility lies, it doesn’t change my thoughts in general about the problem stemming from Apple’s “walled garden” approach.]

Rediscovering Graphic Tales

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Panel from The Living and the Dead

The other day I wrote about Royden Lepp’s new graphic novel Rust.  I mentioned learning about Lepp’s book when it was announced Joe Cornish would be adapting it into a feature film.  What I didn’t discuss was how graphic novels and comics ended up back on my radar.

When I was growing up, comics were a big part of my life.  I didn’t but them with a collector’s eye, I bought them in packs of four and five at my local grocery store.  On the occasions I did get to a comic book store I poured over books that die-hards probably wouldn’t give a second glance.  I was so focused on browsing boxes and shelves of comics that never got past 495 My parents saw no problem leaving me alone in the basement comic stores in the middle of Harvard Square or Newbury Street while they shopped in completely different buildings, knowing when they came back two hours later they’d find me right there.

But as I got older I fell victim to the sense comics were for children, not adults.  I eventually read Watchmen and Frank Miller‘s work, but I considered these as a wholly new artform, rather than an extension of the same superhero books I read well past midnight every night I could remember.

Now my son has started getting into comics.  My wife actually opened this door initially, reading the old Uncle Scrooge and Tintin comics with him.  From there we picked through the meager remnants of my own childhood collection.  (We had them when my parents were clearing out their house and brought them to us, in case I wanted to try and see what they were worth.  Of course they weren’t worth a cent, as I’d read them so often many had no covers.  I never put them in bags, like I said, I wasn’t a collector).  We didn’t spend a lot of time on my old ones, as half the heroes I read haven’t exactly been on the front burner for DC or Marvel.

From there we’ve started going to a local comics dealer.  Thankfully, we don’t need to drive as far, so we can go more often.  I’m much more wary than my parents were, and so I stay in the store with him while he picks through the shelves.  I tend to drift a little ahead of his browsing, distracting him from Walking Dead covers and making sure to tell him the titles on the higher shelves he can’t reach without climbing.  Since we started making these trips, I’ve discovered artists and titles that appeal to me both as a reminder of why I liked comics in the first place and what I love about storytelling as an adult.  A good example of this is Royden Lepp’s Rust, or the works of Norwegian cartoonist Jason.  Jason’s The Living and the Dead, from his collection Almost Silent, ranks as one of the best zombie stories I’ve ever read, all told in black and white with almost no dialogue.  I’m starting to work my way through Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: the Last Man now, and kicking myself with each issue I didn’t devour this when it originally came out.

Looking at titles with and in parallel to my son, and talking about what I read and what he wants to read, has made that itch flare up all over again, and I’m looking forward to scratching it.  For the graphic novel fans out there, aside from the heavy hitters that have mainstream attention (Alan Moore’s books, for example, or Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga), what should I seek out?

Rust

Rust, by Royden Lepp

One of the most lamentable developments for film over the last few years was how terrible John Carpenter has become. The genius who brought us some of the most exciting and entertaining Science Fiction and Fantasy films of the late Seventies and early eighties struggled through the nineties to recapture the glory of his earlier work, and lately his output has been abysmal.

What makes this such a sad development is that his particular blend of action and suspense has proven difficult for other film-makers to reproduce. Carpenter was comfortable working on little or no budget, knew when to be retrained and when to let the story off the leash, and always maintained the humanity of his characters. Just look at Michael Bay and see how, with enormous budgets, he utterly fails to pace his films or give you characters you give half a damn about.

Which is part of what made Attack the Block such a thrill. Joe Cornish’s debut feature was easily last year’s most impressive action film, something both wholly original and comfortingly familiar. Cornish nailed several of the story elements Carpenter used brilliantly, most notably introducing a “hero” you initially view as a villain, who rises and changes into a character you root for against all odds. The movie is a thrill, and remains a thrill over repeated viewings.

Since Attack the Block, Joe Cornish has been tied to several projects, most notably Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s mind bending Sci-fi novel. Snow Crash is a beloved work, destined to inspire a lot of teeth-gnashing throughout the internets as its devotees dissect every detail of production. It may be early to say whether Cornish is up for the task or not, but I hope he is.

The other notable project, somewhat flying a little under the radar, is his acquisition of Rust, Royden Lepp‘s graphic novel. I sincerely hope this is the one he tackles next. Rust, which is only moving into its second volume, has everything Joe Cornish excels at. It tells the story of a young family scraping by on their family farm after a devastating war. One day a young man with a rocket pack arrives, just ahead of a gigantic robot. Who is the boy? Why are robots, which were used by one side in the aforementioned war, drawn to this boy? Will the family continue to shelter him as more danger is drawn towards them by his presence?

This is like a steampunk Shane, and grafting Sci-fi on a Western frame is a pretty good start for a story. It’s the kind of start Carpenter used to great effect throughout his career, and one I sincerely wish he’d find his way back to. It’s also the kind of storytelling Joe Cornish proved more than adept at with Attack the Block. Track down the graphic novel today, and keep watch for Rust to hit theaters.