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?

A @YouAreCarrying Flash Fiction Challenge

This week’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenge is to retrieve an inventory from the @YouAreCarrying twitterbot, and use those items in a ~2000 word story. Here’s mine, a sub-2000 words spin on a pumpkin-themed fairy tale classic. I cheated slightly, turning the business card into a visiting card, but otherwise fit the remaining items in nicely.

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How The Determined Earn Their Admittance

Ella lies nestled in the soft fur of a bearskin rug set before the fireplace, and waits. She has been left here, shoeless, ragged. The hem of her once-vibrant gown is frayed from how they abused her into this room. The door behind her is locked, and will remain so until her captors request her. Her crime? She dared to dance with a prince, but was not royalty herself. That is not permitted here.

She is still, as unthreatening in appearance as she can manage, in case pity lives in any of her jailer’s hearts. Time creeps, and she remains, listening for the occasional click! of the peephole in the door, noting each time how the space between clicks grows wider.

If her guards haven’t pity, perhaps she’ll find solace in their neglect? Her hope is stoked by their dimming vigilance; they assume she merely sleeps in their makeshift prison. It soon becomes apparent they do not fear any girl brought so low.

Hours seem to pass before the interval between patrols widens enough, and she dares to move. The merest tilt of her head, enough to see the doorway, confirms the peephole is shut. Only then does Ella push up and take in her surroundings. Aside from the fireplace and rug there is a small table, with a pitcher and bowl upon it. The room is otherwise bare.

Ella checks the handle of the door and confirms it is locked. She still has the key given to her earlier, but the door it opens is at least two floors above. For now she is trapped, until others are ready to settle her fate. Ella moves to the bowl and pitcher, but the water in each looks as if it’s been standing since well before this evening. There’s a film on the surface of each, they are too dirty for washing or drinking. In frustration she snatches up the porcelain bowl and throws it into the fireplace. The water it held kills some of the fire. Her fists are balled, pressed hard against her mouth, holding back a scream. She implores herself to control her temper. Rage or despair would be indulgences now, with no discernible gain.

When the bowl exploding brings no attention she sits, and considers the weakening fire. She’s curious about the only unguarded exit to this room. Moving closer, she leans under the mantle to examine the damper guarding the flue, hoping the caretakers are as negligent in their maintenance as they are in their housekeeping.

Where the plate covers the throat of the firebox there is a gap; a flaw Ella has seen before in older, equally poorly maintained fireplaces. This small discovery, informed by a childhood spent tending hearths, offers a shard of hope. She prays the peephole remains shut.

Ella douses the rest of the fire with the stagnant water from the pitcher, and clears the spent logs aside. She stifles another cry – this one triumphant – upon finding the thin iron plate that covers the ashbox. She lifts the still-warm plate free, and tips it against the edge of the hearth to cool further.

She tears strips of cloth from her ruined gown to wrap over her hands and feet, for some meager degree of protection from whatever residual heat the chimney bricks hold. She drags the rug into the hearth. Then, using the iron lid as a wedge, Ella levers the gap between the stone and the flue guard wider until it comes free and drops, its fall muted by the plush bearskin. What little sound there is brings no investigation, so Ella proceeds. She ties a strip of cloth over her face, before ducking beneath the lintel, to shimmy into the now exposed flue.

Bracing against the chimney walls, Ella begins her slow ascent. Her gaze focused downward to prevent ash and creosote from blinding her, she claws and shoves her lithe frame further up into the narrow crevice. The climb is agonizing. Her hands and feet are barely insulated from the still hot bricks. The air is sharp with carbon, and the cloth over her face is a poor filter against the acrid stench. With steady, hard fought progress, she makes her way upwards through the pitch black shaft. Tar cakes the chimney, sometimes sticking her in place, other times slick, as she struggles for purchase.

The castle is unknown to her; even more so here, literally within its walls. But the lack of any stiff breeze tells her the shaft she’s in will bend eventually; there she can take a moment to rest. Hoping to find it soon, she continues to crawl upwards slowly, guarding against the shock of bumping too hard into the ceiling of the joint. That jarring blow might send her crashing back down the shaft. The bearskin still down there is soft, but it hardly offers enough padding to protect her if she stumbles now.

When her head gently presses against brick, she stops. Her legs and back brace hard against the chimney walls, though her muscles burn from the exertion. Tentatively, she feels for the angle of the bend, and shifts with great care, until she can wedge herself into it. Here she can savor the smaller effort needed to remain in place, partly reclining within the angle of the vent.

It’s a short climb from here to the peak, where this flue joins another, before the shaft continues up to the rooftop high above. But exhaustion consumes her, and there’s good reason to doubt she has the strength to make it the full distance. As she lies there, catching her breath a moment, Ella feels a tickling on her bare shoulder. An earthworm has crawled onto her. It no more belongs here than she does, and that strange kinship inspires her to spare it. If you hold on, little friend, she thinks, I’ll free you…once I’ve freed myself, of course.

Reaching down into the shaft at the other side of the junction, Ella doesn’t detect any heat. Probing the contours of the adjoining flue, it seems wider than the one she just climbed. It’s very reasonable for her to hope this one leads down to the kitchen, or at least an unoccupied room – ideally with no locked door to imprison her again. Taking great care, she climbs over the peak, swinging her legs into the other vent, and begins her slide down.

The journey down this side is faster, and slightly less painful. She can let gravity assist; using her battered hands, feet and back only as much as is required to slow her descent. The shaft opens into an enormous hearth, with fresh wood visible beneath an iron grating in the fireplace floor. The kitchen, mercifully empty. Ella drops down, then slides out, coming to rest on the stone floor.

She tears the cloth from her face, breathes deeply, and slowly removes the wrappings from her hands. With the cleanest strip of cloth she can find, she smudges some of the chimney’s filth from her eyes, nose and mouth. She’ll need proper dunking to come truly clean. For now she can see, but still cannot smell or taste more than black soot and ash. As she’s catching her breath a wiry man comes in from the yard, carrying a basket. They form a ridiculous tableau; the slight, tired girl, pitch-black and ragged, and the shocked, wiry cook, egg-laden. Neither is certain what to do.

The cook moves first, dropping the basket, racing for the door out of the kitchen, slipping on broken eggs as he runs. He tries to shout, a prelude to the alarm he’ll raise once the kitchen door is opened. Ella springs to her feet, grabbing the nearest weapons she can find – a pair of thick stirring sticks close by the hearth – and intercepts him, just as he reaches his mark. With the first stick, she collapses his knee. The blow brings him crashing against the door. He bounces off, stunned with pain.

Without pause, Ella brings the second stick down on his neck, and hears the meat give way beneath his skin. His eyes burst wide, but he can no longer shout. She stands over him as he gasps. After another moment, When she’s certain their scuffle hasn’t summoned the curious, Ella rolls him into the buttery and conceals him. No one will come for wine for hours. His body will remain there, undisturbed, for most of the day.

Cloaked in black soot and predawn shadow, Ella picks her way through the castle halls, avoiding guards who, by this time, must surely notice she’s gone. She is searching for the chamber unlocked by the key she was given. Taking utmost care, she finds the proper room, unlocks it, and slips inside.

“My God, it’s you! What’s happened to you?” The prince had been pacing, not sleeping in bed as she expected. His face brightens at the sight of her, regardless of the filth coating her. To him, she is no more than the girl he danced with for most of the night, and desperately wanted to bring to his chambers. Ella touches a blackened finger to her lips, and he quiets, abashed.

“It’s no matter now,” he whispers, “I thought I’d never see you again my dear.” he rushes to her, arms open, paying no attention to the boning knife she took from the kitchen until the blade slides between his ribs. She sets her mouth on his to muffle any cry, before leaving him, bleeding, on the chamber floor.

Ella wipes the blade clean. She secrets the knife against the small of her back in case it is required again. The dead prince’s visiting cards are stacked neatly on his writing desk. She takes one, and dips a corner in his blood. Her proof collected, she slips out, pausing to lock the room behind her as she leaves.

Ella heads back through the kitchen, the simplest route to the yard. It takes no more than a moment to find the mews. The shed doors are locked for the evening, their handles are bound fast by a massive chain. The surge of energy she felt during her escape and the prince’s assassination has long since deserted her, and the weight of all her exertions pervades her. No! And so close to safety! She picks her way around the mews, clinging to hopes she’ll a way inside. An unlatched window in the back of the structure is her salvation. Ella hoists herself awkwardly through, crashing into a pile of hay beneath. Inside there is no carriage awaiting her, as promised. In its place sits what looks like a cruel joke – a large, ripe pumpkin.

A gentle tickle at the nape of her neck reminds Ella of her own promise. She carefully removes her companion, and sets it on the ground. There you go, she thinks, even though I’m not yet free myself. Drawing out the knife, she looks for a means to escape this new prison.

No way out presents itself. Ella cries out, despairing, and stabs the blade into the gourd, bringing forth a gentle, crystalline sound. Curious and hopeful, she cuts, and discovers the impossible; a small brass bell, secreted inside. She rings the bell, and hopes.

Ella hears a voice behind her, as improbable and clear as the tiny bell. “Well?”

“It’s done, milady, just as you asked. Here is my proof.” Ella turns, and the woman now standing there takes the bloodstained card she offers. The card flares, instantly reduced to ash in her hand. She smiles warmly at Ella, who returns the matronly smile with a teary-eyed one of her own.

“Well done my child! I congratulate you, and welcome you to the ranks of my Godchildren.” The woman reaches out a hand, which Ella takes without hesitation. “Now, let’s get you home to clean up and rest. We’ll discuss later what the future holds for you, dear.”

The Big Reap Review

Here now is the review of The Big Reap I should have written before sticking it on my favorite books of 2013 list. It’s difficult to put into words the frustration of having an addictive book you want to read but you just. Can’t. Find. Time. Particularly once a delayed flight allowed you to get past the setup’s and you can see exactly what kind of journey you’re going to be taking.

For this one, Chris F. Holm again delivers a cracking Collector adventure. As previously seen in the equally entertaining Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye, Sam Thornton is damned to service with Hell as a Collector of souls. Years ago he traded his to save his wife’s life, now he wanders from body to body – some living, some recently deceased – collecting the souls of others who’ve made the same awful trade he did.

This time around, he’s been sent to dispatch a group of earth-bound monsters known as the Brethren. These former Collectors escaped Hell centuries ago, and have set up camp here as some of our most fearsome monsters. An uneasy truce has existed with them since their escape, but that’s recently been broken. An attempt to do away with them resulted in a cadre of demonic foot soldiers slaughtered, without so much as a scratch to the Brethren. Sam, however, has managed to kill one. Now he’s sent to find and destroy the remaining eight, all from within whatever frail human form he’s inhabiting at the time.

Holm has crafted great characters in Sam and his handler, Lilith. The rapport they’ve developed with each other over their years has given their conversations all kinds of subtext, and he writes their banter well. But the quality that makes this series truly work overall is how he’s mastered traditional hard-boiled patter. The distinctive voice of pulp, while it started in the trades, has become more recognizable thanks to classic films like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Whether in the writing of Hammett or the films of Huston, it has a louche, jazzy rhythm that we immediately recognize, and it’s very easy for a writer to get it wrong. The mix of world-weary narration and machine gun dialogue have been used and/or parodied so many times, both well and poorly, that they can kill a book before the plot even gets rolling.

By way of example, consider this still from The Maltese Falcon (I’m a huge fan of this movie and the book, but I’ll keep my slathering brief).

Bogart-Cook

Humphrey Bogart and Elisha Cook Jr., standing in a hall, provide the perfect contrast between pulp done well and pulp done poorly. Wilmer’s dressed in the proper garb for the genre – the big trenchcoat, the fedora – and looks like he’s swimming in those clothes. He looks puffed up, more like a kid wearing his dad’s coat and hat than a serious threat to Sam Spade.

The Big Reap, on the other hand, wears the pulp voice the way Bogart wears that pinstripe suit. Those clothes are tailored to accentuate his physicality and sharpness, just as the stylized writing Holm uses is both authentically purple and carefully cut to accentuate Sam’s struggle, along with his concern he’s beginning to like his job a little too much.The book breathes, expanding to allow his reflections on his situation before contracting to lean, efficient prose when describing the action and horror, to keep you turning pages.

So you can imagine the frustration of having to step away from reading such a well-executed story as often as I had to. Still, I’d gotten far enough and was entertained enough to know The Big Reap belonged on my year-end list of favorites. It has all the action, all the horror, and all the crispness of the earlier entries in the Collector series – but with a little more weight on Sam’s (borrowed) bones. Holm is a serious talent as an author with a particular skill for paying things off in a big way, and this absolutely deserved a slot. Now I’m just going to deal with the worry of whether I should have put it higher.

R.I.P. Richard Matheson

Recently my son has been delving more into classic Sci-Fi. A big Doctor Who fan, he’s been going back and rewatching the originals, including the old William Hartnell episodes. After watching the J. J. Abrams Star Trek movies he went back and watched some of The Original Series and The Next Generation. It was inevitable, I think, that he’d express an interest in the original Twilight Zone.

So we sat one morning and watched Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. For twenty minutes a ten year old was enthralled by a black and white TV show with sub-par special effects and capital ‘A’ Acting. He was riveted, and actively concerned whether the gremlin was a figment of Shatner’s imagination or really there, and whether the passengers were all going to die.

O may have been primed by other classic shows and movies to accept fewer bells and whistles than he sees in today’s media, but his interest and enjoyment went well beyond just liking or tolerating it, he was locked in on it. It takes a master to craft something that holds up as well as that episode does. It takes the same master who’s Duel launched Spielberg’s career, and who’s Bid Time Return was the basis of a movie still so beloved it still brings devotees to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan for a yearly convention. Richard Matheson’s contribution to the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror genres was immeasurable. He’ll be sorely missed.

The Shining Girls is a Must Read

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Lauren Beukes novel The Shining Girls is a strong contender for this Summer’s Must-Read book.  A dizzying cocktail of serial killer tale and time travel adventure, she’s written a tale that is already being buzzed about with a level of fervor practically guaranteeing you’ll see copy after copy on airplanes and beaches. Perhaps you’re the type of reader who looks at this kind of popularity critical mass and passes over the book in question. You draw the corollary that a certain level of popularity means a lessening of quality. You point to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code as your proof; that the enormous buzz and success of that book proves what’s popular with scads of “I don’t normally read” kinds of readers indicates a sub-par product. That’s certainly a choice you’re welcome to make but wow would that be a colossal mistake.

Harper Curtis, a forgotten man struggling for survival in Chicago during the height of the Great Depression, stumbles onto a key, which leads him to a house, where he has already written the names and posed pictures of young girls. These are his Shining Girls,  his carefully selected victims. This house he’s escaped into presents Harper with an opportunity for safety in a dangerous time, and he’s very willing to fulfill a destiny it seems he’s mapped out for himself.

One of his intended victims, however, has no desire to accept her place in Harper’s cracked vision. Kirby Mazrachi has managed to survive his attack, and is now hunting Harper. She digs for his trail, first through an overworked Chicago police system all too happy to mark her file closed and forget her.  Later she interns with the Chicago Sun-Times to mine their records for details that might lead her to the man who shattered her.  Her survival and the deaths of the other girls are a mystery confined to microfiche, shelved away and forgotten. Kirby refuses to accept this, and sets out to track down her killer through records, fading memories, and time itself.  She was after all attacked by Harper about sixty years after he found the house.

Beukes has given her readers rich, vibrant characters in both Kirby and Harper. Kirby is a bold, intelligent, fierce woman.  Harper believes the girls he targets have potential, a raw energy that sets them apart from the drab ordinariness of other lives.  Kirby embodies this, and each time she appears you pick up on how she vibrates a raw energy that makes her far from ordinary.

Harper as well is far from ordinary, though he tries to pretend to himself and others there’s nothing special about him.  Harper wears the guise of just another Hooverville dweller, knocked down and just trying to survive.  Under that, though, is a man who is careful and thoughtful in his preparations, and who was willing to kill even before discovering his Shining Girls.  He’s a ruthless killer, and dangerous to underestimate.

Beukes’ presentation of time travel is left intentionally vague, she doesn’t spend time explaining the mechanics of how the house functions.  She instead presents the unsettling effect moving through time has on her characters, describing events out of chronological sequence as they jump through time.  An approach like this requires a steady guide to give readers the assurance the author knows where they’re going.  You never doubt Lauren Beukes knows exactly what she’s doing, and builds a twisting, chilling story.  It’s the kind of rich storytelling those who demean genre will try to classify as “Literary.”  The Shining Girls is a captivating book regardless of what genre you normally read, the kind that steals time from you and demands you keep turning pages.

Throne of the Crescent Moon

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For all the different types of fiction I read, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy is one I normally avoid. My past attempts at reading in that subgenre have normally been foiled by the tendency of some authors to spend too much time on establishing the realm and too little on the characters or action. With Throne of the Crescent Moon I found myself torn. On the one hand, there was all the praise heaped on Saladin Ahmed’s debut. On the other was my reluctance about the genre. True, it was likely I had simply had the bad luck to choose substandard examples, but that didn’t make me any less concerned to try this book.

I decided to go for it in spite of those reservations, largely as part of a continued desire to explore outside my reading comfort zone. I am very glad I did, as Ahmed has produced a rich, exciting, and beautifully rendered world I would gladly return to. Ahmed has imagined a medieval Islamic nation, where demons prey on the innocent, and ghul hunters and dervishes are the strongest line of defense against such terrors. Shape shifters, noble thieves, and corrupt rulers populate a world steeped in a vibrant, dangerous land.

The Middle Eastern setting is one of the strongest assets of this book. Rather than some enchanted version of Europe, this setting removes the story far from any world I’m familiar with. Dhamsawaat, the setting, is the kind of exotic, bustling city rife with mysteries and danger readers could lose themselves in for days on end. Beyond that, the action sequences Ahmed develops are remarkable. The characters were also refreshing; it’s not every day your lead character is sixty-something. Dr. Adoulla is cranky, but also smart and savvy, and for every time he complains about his age there are many more where he boldly faces down evil. His assistant Raseed is earnest and at times unaware of the shades of grey that sometimes make choices more difficult. His bravery and valiant carriage sometimes annoys Adoulla, but his blade proves invaluable in their battles. When the shape shifter Zamia joins them, the dynamic between characters really begins to crackle.

I took longer to read this than the book’s length would normally demand, mainly due to the lush descriptions of Dhamsawaat and it’s surrounding areas. I let myself get lost in this book, and forced myself to read slower to make it last as long as possible. Sadly, I had to come to the end, but I’m heartened to know this is the beginning of what I hope will be a long career. I look forward to other journeys to the world Ahmed has created, and hope to return there soon.

The Twelve-Fingered Boy

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Something I’ve noticed over the years is how often people describe reading’s addictive qualities. more than once, it’s caught my attention when someone is recommending books, selling their most recent read in terms of how it consumed them while reading. This is an experience I’ve had often, and I look forward to finding those deeply addictive titles within my to be read list. John Hornor Jacobs’ newest book, The Twelve-Fingered Boy, was an explosive way to kick off my reading in 2012. I have not read either of Jacob’s previous books (I intend to remedy that with haste), and didn’t know what to expect, which probably allowed this one to sneak up on me, but once I began it, I was desperately hooked.

In the Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center for Boys, Shreveport Justice Cannon (Shreve to most everyone), has carved a neat little niche for himself among the population, supplying contraband candy and keeping himself safe with a quick wit and clever tongue. He’s selected by the warden to bunk with a new kid, Jack Graves, who has six fingers on each hands and something very dark buried deep inside. After a mysterious, sinister man shows up with an unnatural interest in Jack, Shreve takes matters into his own hands, doing what he can to protect the strange, damaged boy with whom he’s becoming friends. Amid confusion, they escape, and while on the run Jacobs deftly shifts the gear higher. Shreve is left an unexpected gift by Quincrux, the oily villain, and this gives the boys both the means to survive on their own and the tripwire that puts their freedom at risk.

Fast, fierce, and intense, Jacobs creates two vivid, wounded characters you’re pulling for throughout. Shreve is a particularly impressive creation. Years of coping with an alcoholic mother have honed him into a sharp blade, desperate to survive and equally eager to protect those he cares about, yet also hating the ruthless side he’s developed. You root for him throughout, and want him to find a way past the anger that fuels him. Jack is the quieter of the two, carrying guilt that walls him off from everyone, until Shreve begins to find the cracks in those walls.

There are dark mysteries in this book, the first in a trilogy. It’s wickedly entertaining, and deserves to truly take off in a big way this year. I don’t want to go into too many of the details here; I could really gush about it, but I read it without knowing what I was getting into and it blew me away. I’d like you to have that experience. Buy this book, by lots of copies. Do whatever you can to keep Jacobs writing these.