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?

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 Deaths of Tao

Four years ago Roen Tan was an out of shape, directionless lump when Tao changed his life forever. The eons old alien entered Roen out of necessity, and shaped him into a soldier in a war that’s been raging for hundreds of years. A war Tao’s side is losing badly. The two’s uneasy partnership proves more successful than either could have hoped, but the odds are still very much against them.

In Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Priest lays out the three parts of any magic trick; The Pledge, The Performance, and The Prestige. The Lives of Tao was Wesley Chu’s version of the first part, The Pledge, where the magician establishes his or her reality on the stage. Lives introduced us to the Quasing, who crashed on earth and have survived inside living beings for thousands of years. To develop a way back to their planet, they’ve shaped the course of history. Along the way they split into two groups; the Genjix, who are willing to slash and burn their way towards their goal, and the Prophus, who believe destroying mankind to achieve their purpose is wrong and unnecessary. Their conflict has been roiling for years in the shadows of world history.

The Deaths of Tao picks up several years after the events of Wesley Chu’s debut, and things are not going well. Roen married his girlfriend Jill and the two have a son, but Roen’s abandoned them to continue fighting. Spurred on by Tao, he’s been off gathering evidence the Genjix have been pursuing a potentially game-changing new tactic in their war against the Prophus. The implications of the Genjix approach would mean the Prophus’s defeat, and dire consequences for the rest of earth. Their cause has been righteous, but the damage to Roen and Jill’s relationship is severe and the effect on both is obvious. Now the Prophus are scrambling to thwart the Genjix against formidable odds, with Roen and Jill on opposite sides of the globe, struggling to survive.

Deaths has Chu taking his characters to a darker place emotionally. Where Lives mostly channeled espionage thrillers, Deaths marches its characters into the throat of the Quasing’s war as it begins to spill out of the shadows. The enormous toll it takes on them, physically and personally, is handled very well. The interplay between Tao and Roen, one of the many strengths of the first book, has more of an edge here. The guilt Roen feels at leaving his family for a noble cause, and the fear that choice was wrong, just works so well, even in the middle of a global conflict. Tao makes decisions with thousands of years’ experience, but the toll this has taken on his host and friend weighs on him. They still get impressive results together, but there’s a heavier tension between them this time around.

The scale of The Deaths of Tao is in and of itself impressive.  The story barrels towards a conclusion played out on three fronts in the midst of full out war. Chu’s given us a much more intimidating villain this time around, who’s desire for power and belief in his superiority pushes him to cross lines that worry even the Genjix. He’s monstrous enough to order the most extreme operations, and sets into motion events that lead to a stunning conclusion and irrevocably change everyone’s lives.

Which brings us to the cliffhanger ending. The final gambits on both sides end up completely altering the course of events for humans and Quasing alike. Chu concludes with a series of twists that are positively jaw-dropping. This Performance, where the reality has been transformed into something extraordinary, has set the stage for The Prestige, the payoff of this amazing performance. It’s going to be difficult to wait to see how he pulls it off, but Lives and Deaths have given ample evidence he will, and in grand style.

 

Ascension Review

Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel, Ascension, is beginning to generate a small amount of buzz, but it deserves much more attention.  The hard Science Fiction world she’s developing, and the characters she’s created, are fresh and sharp.  There’s a definite sense here of a writer who’s not afraid to think in grand strokes.  If you’re going to announce your presence in a room as contentious as the SFF world can be, particularly these days, you’d be hard pressed to find someone taking as bold a step forward.

Alana Quick is employed as a space surgeon, but she’s never actually gotten the opportunity to get off-planet and into space.  She loves working on the ships reaching deeper into the universe, and near desperate for a chance to get work up in the Big Quiet.  She’s a classic gearhead, sometimes more drawn to tech than people, and adept at teasing out maximum performance from the ships she works on.  Her desperation for more work is pushed harder by Mel’s Disorder, a chronic condition that makes pain management a major part of her daily life.  When the Tangled Axon arrives, looking for her sister Nova, Alana sees an opportunity to get off-planet.  She stows away, starting her relationship with the ship’s crew on the worst possible footing.

A significant strength of the story is in the way she presents the character’s relationships, and particularly Alana’s with her sister.  Nova’s an in-demand spirit guide, which gives her enough wealth and power to make things very tense between her and the barely scraping by Alana. All the interactions between characters are where this story truly shines, as Koyanagi fills her book with rich, complicated people. The buzz I referred to earlier is around the diversity and complexity of her cast.  How believable the characters are in their actions and behavior is a significant determinant of whether you as a reader embrace them, and Jacqueline Koyanagi is fantastic at filling in the emotional details of her characters.  She creates three-dimensional people you’re eager to learn more about, but insists you do so on their terms.  If there’s a key to her perspective, It’s in a discussion of the Tangled Axon’s current engineer, Ovie.  In speaking about him, one character says, “People don’t exist for us to get.”  The diverse background of her characters are an integral part of who they are, and how they interact.  We’re invited to learn about them on their terms, rather than being presented worn-out tropes dressed in different clothes.  She’s not just taking the standard Cis White Male Hero and swapping him with a Gender Queer WoC.  Alana’s actions and choices are derived from the complexity of who she is, rather than being a boilerplate Sci-Fi hero fused on a unique frame.

The only small marks against Ascension for me were in pacing and detail.  Koyanagi has a very visually descriptive style of writing, which frequently meant vivid descriptions of the strange tech and aliens encountered.  This established rich contours to the world she created, but slowed the book down in the process.  It also means, as a reader, there are more opportunities to see the seams of the reality she’s stitching together.  Having said that, I do applaud her going big right out of the gate like this.  I love when creators, regardless of their medium, swing for the fences rather than playing it safe.  In general, creating a complex universe from the ground up often has areas one can nitpick, so the fuzziness doesn’t lessen my estimation there are more surprises yet to come from Jacqueline Koyanagi.  Ascension is a strong debut, and I’m eager to see where she goes from here.

Under the Empyrean Sky Review

In Under the Empyrean Sky, Cael McAvoy’s an angry kid who’s been handed the shit end of the worst stick life has to offer. He lives in Boxelder, a town in the Heartland, farmland that’s overgrown with mutated corn the ruling class in Empyrean use for biofuel and plastics. It’s inedible, and doesn’t so much grow as infest to the point the poor souls left to tend it really just search for ways to keep it at bay. Their little town is overseen by a clique of useful idiots who carry out Empyrean’s orders and keep grinding everyone else down hard into the nearly spoiled earth.  Meanwhile the real rich and powerful live on pristine flotillas, drifting high above while Cael’s people suffer below.

Cael and a crew of friends try and scavenge what they can to get a little ahead, but Boyland Barnes Jr., the son of the town’s mayor, uses his daddy’s connections and money to thwart Cael every chance he gets. To make matters worse, the girl Cael loves, his first mate Gwennie, has just been betrothed to Boyland. In this world you do what those above tell you to, including marrying who Empyrean allows you to, not who you love.  Those who defy the system end up even further under the boot.  Not only will you suffer, your children will suffer.  That on top of rampant illness, including The Blight (a sort of botanical leprosy), there’s not much room for hope.

So Cael is facing years of crushing poverty, married to someone he doesn’t care about while his true love moves on, and scraping by on the vermin they scavenge among the stalks of corn.  Oh, and what can charitably be described as the table scraps thrown to them by Empyrean.  That’s all until the day he finds a little clear patch between the stalks, and a small garden filled with peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables that have no earthly business in the hard dirt. Somehow, they haven’t been overtaken, and in fact seem to be thriving. They’re dangerous though; the kind of contraband the powers that be would crush you for daring to possess, much less sell to get ahead. They lead to a mystery, deep in the corn, which could be their salvation or ruination.

Cael’s all jagged edges, trying to see past his rage towards some sort of pathway out of the Heartland. He’s bold and brave, with a sense of duty to family and friends.  He wants desperately to take those he cares about away from Boxelder’s dead-end poverty and disease, and he’ll take great risks to make that happen.   He’s great to follow, the kind of hero who’s mouth gets him in all kinds of trouble.  We spend nearly all our time with Cael, and I found myself on a couple of occasions wanting to get more insight into his crew: Rigo, Lane, and especially Gwennie.  Those characters are well written enough to give you the sense their angle on life under Empyrean would be different enough from Cael’s to broaden the story as we learn more about them.  That’s certainly ground that can be covered in future stories.

For now, Wendig taps right into the fighting spirit of his teenage heroes, confused and angry at the ruined world they’re expected to inherit. Within that raw emotion, though, is the carefully laid foundation of a rich setting for Wendig’s dystopian vision.  He’s hitting all the sweet spots for Science Fiction.  With a rich concept, and peopled with sharply drawn characters, Under the Empyrean Sky is a raw nerve of a book.

Pacific Rim Review

Of all the phrases dragged out during the summer movie series, the most risible to me is that one should “turn off your mind.” I can’t stand either the idea popular entertainment is inherently stupid, or that it should be OK for the makers of blockbusters to forego character or story to entertain. Even still, I can understand people resigning themselves to that mindset. It gets difficult to avoid as the summer wears on, and more movies come and go that try to overwhelm with spectacle and emotional angst to distract from their lack of actual story. They get caught between the extremes of Michael Bay (all the explosions, none of the character development) or Christopher Nolan (brooding, dark, joyless heroes). They’ve lost the magic classic adventure movies like Star Wars and the Richard Donner Superman had, where they were filled with plenty of visual stimulation while presenting actual fun characters who aren’t weighed down with agita.

Pacific Rim is amazing, and welcome for finding that rarified ground. Guillermo del Toro’s monsters vs. robots spectacular practically thrums with his love of classic Kaiju movies. It’s built from a fan’s understanding of the archetypes and revels in the excesses of the genre. Everything is outsized; the set design, the special effects, the score and performances are all dialed up as far as possible. The movie is populated with characters with names like Stacker Pentecost. When Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau strides into frame, with his capped gold teeth and gold tipped shoes he’s clownish, and completely appropriate.

Everything flows straight out of the premise. A breach between dimensions deep beneath the Pacific Ocean allows giant monsters dubbed Kaiju to cross into our world and proceed to destroy everything in their path. To combat these monsters the various nations create Jaegers, 25 story tall robots piloted by a neural link between machine and man. The link is so powerful it requires at least two minds working together across what’s known as “the drift.” Controlling the Jaegers is too taxing for one mind, so sharing the load is necessary.

The drift also means that Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother and co-pilot are in each other’s minds when Yancey is killed during a Kaiju attack. Raleigh quits the Jaeger program, and moves to helping build the walls humans begin constructing to defend against the more powerful monsters that start coming through. This is all prologue, setting up how the human race initially managed the threat, then began losing. The main plot picks up with the aforementioned Pentecost (Idris Elba, who commands the screen) bringing Raleigh back to the Jaeger program as they prepare one last-ditch gambit to save the planet.

There’s no time wasted with Raleigh debating whether he can or can’t get back into a Jaeger, which is so refreshing. There’s also nothing inherently unique about Raleigh. He’s chosen because he’s the most familiar with the controls of one of the few remaining Jaegers, not some special snowflake fulfilling a destiny. It’s simple and efficient which, under the bombast of the visuals, is exactly the setup the story needs. Two plus hours melt away, as almost no time is spent on the existential hand-wringing that’s come to define so many action movies. There are some moments where Pentecost is reluctant to allow Mako Mori (the phenomenal Rinko Kikuchi) to serve as Raleigh’s co-pilot, but those are dispensed of rather quickly. He knows there is a greater good at stake, and so he casts aside doubt quickly. Just in terms of that mindset, the last time I can remember a movie with characters who thought that way was Apollo 13.

Which is another strength. Pacific Rim doesn’t dwell on the action beyond it’s core characters, even when we see how the people still living in the coastal cities experience this reality. We see the warning systems and safety bunkers. We even see a cult devoted to worshipping the monsters, and a biologist who’s fascination with the creatures has extended to getting tattoos of them. Guillermo del Toro and the screenwriter, Travis Beacham, spend just enough time away from the main characters to establish the reality of this world without getting bogged down with too many subplots.

For example, the way they handle the relationship potential of Mako and Raleigh. Rather than shoehorn a sexual side to their relationship, we barely see the first sparks of the attraction between the two. The impending threat of attack is never far, so the story concerns itself with their preparation for battle. The respect and admiration that develops between them is believable, and in keeping with the film’s steadfast focus on addressing the Kaiju. From that perspective, she’s as intelligent and battle ready as any of the men, without being either over-sexualized or stripped of her gender.

That last point and the earlier one about Apollo13 sum up what satisfied me so much about Pacific Rim. For the entire running time, everything was focused on Kaiju versus Jaegers. Every decision related to how humanity would fight back, with nothing wasted or forced. Everything here was lean, distilled down to just what was necessary to tell the story and keep the audience entertained. I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s for twenty years now, and as long as he keeps his storytelling as efficient and effective as this was, I expect to be a fan for many more.