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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovel Ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Elmore Leonard, Rest in Peace

There are going to be many tributes to Elmore Leonard today, all of them deserved.  The man was a phenomenal talent.  I began reading his writing at the sametime as I read Chandler, Hammett, and the MacDonalds, Ross and John D. (no relation).  He was an easy writer to read, and it wasn’t until years later I truly understood what that meant.  I gained the words to describe it watching Bob Costas in Ken Burn’s Baseball, when he talked about how we watch players, deceived by the simplicity of the game into thinking it’s something we ourselves could do.  “If it sounds like writing, re-write it” has become a mantra for countless authors who’ve tried to write on his level.  Some of them have actually managed to come close.

The Doll

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Taylor Stevens’ latest Informationist novel hits the ground running. The Doll opens the instant following a sudden crash involving Vanessa Michael Munroe, the heroine of the series, after which she’s spirited into an ambulance and disappears. The accident was witnessed, though, by Miles Bradford, her lover and the owner of the security consulting firm currently employing her. Bradford springs into action, assembling his team to begin tracking Munroe down, and the novel’s off to a cracking start.

If you haven’t read the first two Informationist novels, you might find the beginning a little difficult to sink into. Vanessa doesn’t really appear until a few chapters in, as we follow the race to discover what happened, and who took Munroe. When we do discover the plot (she’s being blackmailed by human traffickers to deliver another kidnapping victim), we’re deep into the dark world of these novels, where all the skills Vanessa had to develop to survive are tested in her efforts to save herself and those precious few people she cares about. She’s holding a lot of rage in check to keep focused on survival, but when someone close to her dies, a taste for vengeance becomes too powerful to ignore.

Taylor Stevens is a talented writer, with a real skill for keeping the action moving forward. There’s a darkness to her books that has drawn comparisons to Stieg Larsson, and it’s an apt comparison given the histories of both heroines. But beyond their common background as survivors of violence, both are utterly driven, intelligent individuals, who see the world as a place where it’s sometimes necessary to respond to brutality with brutality. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a character who’s been defined by the horrors she’s lived through, and she’s emerged with very sharp edges. I would almost find it hard to like her if not for her desire to protect others. Ultimately I did like her, and this book.

As a side note, last year it was announced James Cameron had optioned the first book in the series, which is still my favorite. I sincerely hope he’ll actually bring it to the screen, as it would be an excellent way for him to move away from sweeping Epics and back to the kind of gritty films he mastered back with Terminator and Aliens. Both had strong heroines and relentless action, and Vanessa Michael Munroe fits nicely with Sarah Connor and Ripley. If you haven’t discovered it yet, this is a series worth catching up on. If you’re already a fan, you’re going to love The Doll.

Syndrome E

A mysterious film, purchased in an estate sale by a cineast collector, is at the center of Syndrome E, an icy, brutal best seller from French Author Franck Thilliez. When the collector watches the mysterious movie, he is struck blind by what he sees. The frightening, violent world this film unlocks makes up the heart of Thilliez’s first novel translated into English.

Franck Sharko, the recurring character at the center of Thilliez’s novels, is a classic noir detective, possibly more haunted than most. He suffers from a form of schizophrenia, yet is allowed to continue working due to his brilliance and effective methods. He gets results and so is allowed to continue working while under treatment. It takes a little time, as an American, to accept this premise. Even where our own damaged detectives, like Tony Shaloub’s mild mannered Mr. Monk, are allowed to investigate crime, it’s as a fringe element, not an actual part of the force.

What allows Sharko to continue working is, in part his treatments. The science described here is bleeding edge, which is appropriate, considering the level of violence also described. I did find myself wishing either I read French, or Thilliez had written in English, as the translation stumbles occasionally. Also, this is the fourth book to feature Franck Sharko, and while I didn’t feel I was missing backstory important to the mystery, there were moments when felt I was missing something. Neither the translation or that feeling were major stumbling blocks, but I do think they kept me from losing myself completely in the story. What he is excellent at on the other hand is building tension, and equally ruthless in describing violence. If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was too violent for you, this is one you might want to avoid.

I understand this has been optioned as a movie (really, what crime thriller these days isn’t?). Whether it works better as a movie than it did as a book will be interesting to see. What is more interesting is that this eels to be the opening gambit in an attempt to find the next Steig Larsson. Whether Franck Sharko will capture imaginations like Lisbeth Salander remains to be seen, but I do hope more of Thilliez’s books are translated. <a href=”http://Syndrome E may have left me cold, but I could tell there’s something intriguing there. This wasn’t ultimately the thriller I was hoping for, but I was intrigued by his writing, and curious to see what else Franck Thilliez can do.