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.

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.

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.

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.