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.

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.

Fairy Tale, Remixed: Drawn Out of Need

Since the last time out was such fun, I’ve decided to keep trying flash fiction. Luckily, Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenges offer fantastic prompts, with the kind of insidious complications thrown in to make me take chances I might not normally consider.

Take this most recent one: the challenge is to rewrite a fairy tale, no more than 1,000 words. Piece of cake for a parent; bedtime often means practicing script-free re-tellings of classic tales. I had a couple I used to tell my son; surely one could be adapted to fit. I began thinking about one in particular, a Japanese tale about a boy who conquers demons with the help of his drawings of cats.

The twist in the challenge was to roll (or use a random number generator) to pick a number between 1 and 20, and write the story in the corresponding genre. I rolled three – erotica. Well fuck.

Still, the purpose of a challenge is to get out of one’s comfort zone, right? So I (sort of) kept the tale, flipping the hero’s gender, and making it a story about a woman drawing a different sort of cat to help her conquer a more personal demon.

***

As the night wore on, more and more couples drifted upstairs; Kira accepted she was the “extra” guest at the party, and resigned herself to a night in her room, alone.

Lying in bed, she wondered why she bothered to go in the first place. Her friend Cathy had said there’d be lots of guys, and even offered to introduce her to her fiancé’s roommate, Curtis.

“He’s right up your alley. You know, quiet. Like you are.”

Kira smiled. “Sure, like Sam was.”

“Sam was an asshole,” replied Cathy. “You were right to leave him.”

“He left me, remember?”

“The one time he did something good for you! Kira, he was a lousy boyfriend and-your words-‘a terrible fuck.’ Forget him. Move on.”

She hadn’t really been out with friends since the split, and as introverted as Kira sometimes felt, isolation was worse. “Fine, but please don’t push me on Curtis. I don’t like being rushed.”

“OK, move at your own pace. I’m warning you, though; I’m getting married next year, and no one under 15 is invited without a date-especially my oldest friend.”

“Whatever. Just help me find an outfit.”

She settled on a t-shirt with a barely too-low neck and form-fitting jeans. She wore her straight black hair pulled back and was more careful than usual to get her makeup just right. Kira went downstairs feeling every bit as attractive as she looked.

She might look pretty, but no-one approached her. None of the guys, and not even her friends. They had already paired off, aware enough of her presence to shift forward or back to avoid bumping her, but not enough to converse.

Eventually she stopped even trying to mingle. Kira found a seat, a pencil, and a napkin. Knowing no one would notice, she began to sketch a face using her favorite features from the men present. Warm brown eyes behind wire-framed glasses from one, soft lips and an easy smile from another. Tousled hair, strong chin; eventually she stopped glancing up for reference. When she realized the party was winding down she headed to bed, her sketch in her pocket.

Lying there, she wished things had gone better with Sam. Their one time together-her first time-had been terrible; she hadn’t known what to expect, and he hadn’t cared. Sam dumping her was inevitable, and her only regret was that she was left knowing what she didn’t like, but clueless as to what she did.

Cathy was right about Curtis; he was someone she could see being with.  But he deserved better than someone looking for “Not Sam.” If she were going to be with him, she wanted it to be for a while.

Unable to sleep, she pulled the sketch from her pocket and imagined the man who could get her past Sam. She unfolded the napkin; smoothed it out on the bed next to her. She found another pencil and, eyes closed, sketched other parts of the man she’d started assembling in her mind. She drew broad, strong shoulders above a toned chest and powerful, athletic legs. Feeling warmer in her cheeks, she continued, adding defined arms and the hint of a cute, firm butt. With a lazy smile, she set the pencil down and rolled over, asleep almost immediately.

Later, under warm blankets, she felt a new weight on the mattress behind her, a welcome firmness against her back. A soft breath crossed her ear, whispered “Kira.” A strong hand rested on her bare belly. She didn’t tense; Kira somehow knew this was the man she’d envisioned, this was how she’d move on. She lifted her head and lowered it onto his bent arm, and allowed his other hand to pull her flush. She arched back to press against his hard, eager flesh.

His hand stirred from her belly and skilled fingers feathered over her breast, teased the nipple hard. She rocked her hips, her butt pressed against him, moaning as his tongue brought the lobe of her ear between his lips. Kira rolled over and pressed herself into his chest. His hands found her ass and drew her still closer. Their lips met, parted, then pressed harder together.

She didn’t need to look at him; she knew each contour of his body. He eased her to her back and moved his mouth from her lips, to her breast, to her belly. She opened her legs wider to allow him space between them, to let him continue down her body. His fingers, then his skilled tongue, found her center. She ran her hands through his hair as he tasted her, before flinging her arms wide as heat coursed throughout her body. He rose and, lithe and intent, entered her.

Kira wrapped arms and legs around him as he pulsed in tandem with her, whispering her name a breath above her lips. She kissed him, and wished she’d written a name beside her sketch that she could scream out, just before they both stiffened and she lost all knowledge of speech.

She slept soundly the rest of the night, first with her arm draped over his shoulder, then with a hand resting on her sketch. In the morning she dressed, made the bed, and set the napkin on her desk.

Cathy was downstairs, laughing at something her fiancé had said. Kira saw that her friend had made coffee before they tackled the party’s aftermath, and she helped herself to a cup.

“I was wondering if Curtis met anyone last night?”

David smiled. “He helped Jenna find a cab, then went home alone.  Why?”

Kira pretended to ignore the knowing tone on that ‘why.’ “I was just thinking about Cathy’s suggestion…”

“Really? You’d let me set you up with him? That’s great, I really think you’d be good together!”

Now Kira let slip her own knowing smile. “Well, I certainly have some ideas…”

***

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.

Favorite Books of 2013

As we leave the month marked by rough first drafts and apparently not shaving, we now find ourselves in a time of reflection; where we look back over the first eleven months and sum up the high points. Yes, we’ve reached the time when bloggers’ Best of Lists abound. This is the first of the lists I’m planning, and I’m starting with books. It’s possible I’ll come across something in the next couple weeks that I’ll wish I included but, given how what I’ve got stacked next on my TBR isn’t a 2013 book, I think I’m safe. I’m also going for “favorite” rather than “best,” because my reading wasn’t comprehensive enough this year to die on that particular hill. I will say with certainty you can’t go wrong with any of these selections; 2013 had scads of great books, and these were my favorites.

10. The Big Reap – Chris F. Holm. I haven’t reviewed this yet because I actually haven’t finished it yet (I’m definitely far enough in to highly recommend it). I’m taking my time, and really savoring the way Holm mixes horror and hard-boiled crime writing.

9. The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories – Connie Willis. Kind of says it all in the title, but what I particularly enjoyed about this collection were the afterwards she wrote for each story, pulling back the curtain a bit for the reader.

8. SAGA. – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Rich storytelling, brilliant artwork, and a willingness to push every button possible make SAGA unmissable each month.

7. The Twelve-Fingered Boy – John Hornor Jacobs. Strange, dangerous powers roiling in damaged adolescent boys is a hell of a starting point for this new YA series.

6. Locke and Key vol. 6, Omega and Alpha – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. The magnificent symphony of fantasy writing and art Hill and Rodriguez have been performing since 2007 is coming to a stunning close, and it’s been glorious to watch.

5. The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao – Wesley Chu. I read Lives near the beginning of the year and Deaths near the end, and both are so loaded with action and great characters, I had to include both.

4. The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes. A serial killer who travels through time, being pursued by one of his victims. Beukes’s book practically begs to be read with a premise like that, and her talents as a writer are more than up to the task of exceeding the promise of the concept.

3. Under the Empyrean Sky – Chuck Wendig. Cornpunk YA stuffed to bursting with honest to god young adults, Wendig’s doing everything a great dystopian story should excel at.

2. NOS4A2 – Joe Hill. It’s thickness makes the word “distilled” an odd choice, but this is everything Hill does well, boiled down to it’s richest possible permutation.

1. Country Hardball – Steve Weddle. Hands down the best book I read this year.

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.