Summer is here and BSC has the car packed up and we’re taking a road trip. We called some friends and the only thing left to do is load up the cooler with potluck 6-packs. See who brought the imports, who brought the microbrews, who brought the kennel of Black Labs and who snuck in that skunked case from last year hoping nobody would notice.
Fish around until your hand turns numb, make sure you get the bottom, grab a fresh book, crack it open and enjoy.
I’ve read several books this year that I’ve enjoyed, a couple are ones that haven’t been released yet so since this is a summer reading list I’ll leave them off. But watch this fall for BOULEVARD by Stephen Jay Schwartz and BREATHING WATER by Timothy Hallinan.
Here’s my six-pack in no particular order:
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO by Stieg Larsson – This is the first of the late Larsson’s Millennium books. It is wonderful character driven mystery/thriller that lives up to all the hype. (I’ve read the follow up, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, and it’s even better…but I don’t think it’s not out in the States yet.)
THE DEAD MAN’S BROTHER by Roger Zelazny – An international thriller from the late, great sci-fi writer Zelazny and put out by Hard Case Crime. This is one of those quick, wonderful reads that is perfect for vacation. And that’s exactly when I read it. Exotic locales, unexpected danger, with an almost Apocalypse Now type ending. Tons of fun.
WHISPER IN THE DARK by Robert Gregory Browne – Since Rob is one of my best friends, some might say I’m just pushing him because of that. But they’d be wrong. Rob’s a great writer. And WHISPER is my favorite of his books so far. Creepy, mysterious, and damn right scary at times.
SAFER by Sean Doolittle – In the tradition of Coben’s TELL NO ONE and Barclay’s NO TIME FOR GOODBYE, SAFER is a top notch domestic thriller. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, the kind that you can’t help turning the pages, but at the same time are occasionally reluctant because of what might happen on the next page.
GONE TOMORROW by Lee Child – What more can I say about Reacher that others haven’t already said. I love the whole series, but GONE TOMORROW just might be my favorite of the bunch.
Y: THE LAST MAN by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudzuka, and José Marzán, Jr. – Y is a 10-volume graphic novel and is simply outstanding. If you’ve never read a graphic novel before this one would be the place to start. Here’s the premise…Suddenly all human’s who have a Y chromosome die, i.e. all the men. That is ALMOST all the men. Brilliant.
(Brett Battles lives in Los Angeles and is the author of two acclaimed novels in the Jonathan Quinn series: The Cleaner, which was nominated for a Barry Award for Best Thriller and a Shamus Award for Best First Novel, and The Deceived. The third book in the series – SHADOW OF BETRAYAL – will be out late June, 2009. He is at work on the fourth book in the series.)
Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. Patrick McCabe specializes in unreliable narrators, and Francie McCabe is as unreliable as they get. The book is a frightening, yet lyrical, portrait of a boy descending into madness. For my money, McCabe is the most unique talent alive.
Slammer by Alan Guthrie. Guthrie is as brutal a writer as there is, and Slammer just might be his best work. Dealing with the inner workings of prison, we watch as prison guard Nicholas Glass is forced further and further into an abyss. Unlike most of Guthrie’s characters, Glass is a likable fellow, but he is as fragile as his name might indicate.
The Widow by Georges Simenon. The Widow details a fatal encounter between two outcasts, Tati and Jean. Tati is recently widowed, Jean is recently paroled. This book was written the same year as Camus’s The Stranger, and in some ways it is superior. Simenon is the master of dread. You’ll have a hard time believing this book was written in the 50’s.
While the Devil Waits by Jackson Meeks. Meek’s odd debut novel can also be compared favorably to The Stranger. The unnamed narrator in this novel is so mild, so meek, that you find yourself wanting to strangle some life into him. That is, until his rage comes to the surface. An interesting take on traditional crime fiction.
The Butcher’s Granddaughter by Michael Lion. I know, I know, I read a lot of books dealing with butchers. Hell, my own book The Disassembled Man has some nice slaughterhouse scenes. Michael Lion’s book is an atmospheric L.A noir with one of the cooler protagonists you’ll find in crime fiction: Bird. This book is Raymond Chandler on steroids. Highly recommended.
Asylum by Patrick McGrath. McGrath is one hell of a storyteller. This one is told from the point-of-view of a psychiatrist named Peter Cleave who is a beautifully unreliable narrator. But the most interesting character in this book is an artist named Edgar Stark who is in the madhouse for murdering his wife with a hammer. Naturally, the wife of the deputy superintendent falls in love with him. And we wait and wait for Edgar to take care of her too.
(Nate Flexer is the author of The Disassembled Man”>The Disassembled Man, out now in paperback from New Pulp Press. Born in New York City , he currently lives in Colorado where he teaches high school English. He has had several short stories published in such crime magazines and e-zines as Crime Spree, Thuglit, Hardluck Stories, and Darkest Before Dawn.)
Magic Burns (Book 2 in the series)- Illona Andrews One of those rare, delightful series that just gets better as it goes along. We see some friendships forged in this novel–which just makes the lone-ranger character, Kate Daniels, that much more appealing. When you have friends and they are in trouble, well, there’s work to be done. While Kate is up to the task, it isn’t easy. The authors create a wonderful, tangled plot with some imaginative settings.
Magic Bites (Book 3 in the series) – Illona Andrews As a third book in a series, they don’t get any better. I think what I enjoyed most was how the main protag’s circle of friends got larger. Still told from one POV, yet other characters were important and exciting elements with their own endearing and unique traits. Some all-important background that has been hinted at is revealed, old secrets poked at and even some evil characters soundly developed. The romance plot gets some excellent airtime in this novel; some nice rescues (from both parties), some deepening friendships and an overall great read.
Laughter of Dead Kings – Elizabeth Peters This is the sixth and last book in the Vicky Bliss series. It’s a good book, especially for those that loved and read the previous five. Like seeing an old friend, there’s some refreshes, some newness, some nostalgia. I’m not sure the book would be as good if you haven’t read the earlier ones; Vicky does some things that might seem strange without the background. But for fans, it completes the series nicely, putting finishing touches on some old questions and rounding off the romance–of all the main characters. It’s a delightful cozy and a very nice way to spend the afternoon.
(Maria is a reviewer for BSC Review. Her latest short story, Toil, Trouble and Rot, was published by Coyote Wild Magazine.)
High Life by Matthew Stokoe
When my mom comes to Phoenix, she insists on going to two places while she’s here: Bookman’s in Mesa, AZ and the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. I—of course—have no issue taking her to either, saying that I spend a good portion of my meager free time hanging out at both stores. My mom will also insist that she buys a stack of books for me any time we go. High Life was one of the ten books my mom generously paid for on her 2008 Christmas visit. Up until Akashic reissued High Life through Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint, the novel was almost an urban myth. (The same thing can be said of his first novel, Cows.) The novel was out of print and used copies were going for as much as a hundred dollars. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I scored this.
The story is simple enough, Jack is a wanna be celebrity living in Hollywood. He spends his free time obsessively watching celebrity gossip shows and consuming copious amounts of drugs. His girlfriend is a hooker, she ends up disemboweled and Jack goes on the hunt for her killers. I’ll be the first to admit that High Life is not an easy read. The imagery is brutal and the abundant sex scenes are at times repugnant. But Stokoe is a very skilled story teller and his second novel cruises along at a break neck pace. Highly recommended if you’re a fan of American Psycho or the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.
The Hunter by Richard Stark
Also part of the said Christmas stack. I just about busted a nut when University of Chicago Press announced that they would be reissuing all of Stark’s Parker novels. Stark—along with Jim Thompson and Mcbain’s 87th precinct novels—was my first exposure to hard-boiled/noir fiction. Stark’s lines are minimal and razor sharp and Parker is the quintessential hard man; a cold blooded sociopath who has only one purpose in life: Money. Rereading The Hunter after so many years was like reliving my teenage years, sans the adolescent pot belly and angst filled brooding.
PS. Stark (AKA Donald Westlake) is the father of modern (along with Charles Willeford) hard-boiled/noir fiction. So if you’re writing hard-boiled fiction and haven’t read Stark, well what’s fucking wrong with you?
Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith
What more can I really say about Hogdoggin’? I’ve written reviews, I participated in the blog rally over at Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips; I posted every rally piece on my Facebook page. What I can say is that with Hogdoggin’, Smith made a huge narrative leap with his fourth novel, going from being the editor of Plots with Guns and author, to simply being the Author of the Billy Lafitte saga and Hogdoggin’ deserves to have an enormous audience.
So go out and buy the book already you cheap bastards.
Big Bad Love by Larry Brown
I should probably call 2009 my year of discovering post-modern Southern literature. In the past seven months I’ve read pretty much all of Larry Brown’s catalog, the remaining two Daniel Woodrell novels I hadn’t read, Tom Franklin, Kyle Minor, and I’m finally getting around to William Gay. But I’ve truly enjoyed Brown’s books, especially his short story collections. The man was just a master of the craft when it came to short form. Don’t get me wrong, his novels are classics—both Joe and Fay in particular—but if any one writer was born to write short form, it was Brown.
I read both Rogue Males and McDonald’s near flawless second novel, Toros & Torsos this year, and pretty much had to flip a coin on which one to pick for this little six pack of literary nuggets. Rogue Males won out, even though I enjoyed both books equally. McDonald is a very talented novelist, but as an interviewer, he has very few peers who can match his ability to get his interview subjects to open up about their creative process and origins of their writing careers. The Sallis and Bruen pieces are worth the price of the book alone, but you also get great in depth profiles of Daniel Woodrell, James Ellroy, James Crumly, and Elmore Leonard just to name a few. Great stuff.
This was another coin toss for me, considering I also read Banks third book in the Cal Innes quartet, No More Heroes, and absolutely loved it. But the reason I selected Gun over No More Heroes was basic accessibility. I’d recommend Gun to casual readers if they wanted to get a taste of modern crime fiction without investing the time and energy into a three hundred page novel. Plus, Banks little fourteen thousand word piece of nasty is just down right entertaining and a great introduction to a writer who is quickly becoming the preeminent noir stylist.
. . . .And because you can barely catch a buzz from a six pack . . .
The Deputy by Victor Gischler
Yeah, you can officially call me the unofficial president of the Victor Gischler fan club after this one. I picked up this ARC of Gischler’s sixth novel at 6 AM on a Saturday morning and didn’t put it down until the last page was turned and my wife was bitching at me to get my nose out of that fucking book and help her with our daughter. It’s some serious pulp genius, so make sure to pick it up when it hits in August.
(Keith Rawson lives in the Phoenix, AZ suburb of Gilbert with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared (or are waiting to appear)in such publications as DZ Allen’s Muzzle flash, Powderburn flash, Flashshots, Darkest Before the Dawn, A Twist of Noir, Bad Things, Crooked, Crimewav.com, PulpPusher, and Yellow Mama. He blogs at Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips.)
Battle Royale Ultimate Edition (manga) by Koushun Takami – vicious and gratuitous sex and violence
Dear Husband (short stories) by Joyce Carol Oates – viciousness in the guise of propriety
The Ghosts of Kerfol (short stories) by Deborah Noyes – gothic tales connected through time by a lonely woman’s sad mistake
Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen – timeless stories of love and deception
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (graphic novel) by Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry – stunningly beautiful dark fantasy
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George – young adult fairy tale
(Medora is a young adult librarian with an affection for Henry James, chinchillas, water slides and a reviewer for BSC Review. You can visit her at Forging an Art.)
Palos Verdes Blue by John Shannon: Back on my blog in April I said,”a surf -noir masterpiece, wedging in all sorts of ugliness and desperation against the cold, fading heartbeats of America’s empire of greed. The book moves with a swift, dark current and is, by far, the best surf-related crime novel I’ve ever read.” Amen, brother, amen.
Small Crimes by David Zeltserman: Fuck your darkest hour, this is the real post-modern noir. Achingly upsetting and cold as a rusty needle left in the corner of a damp basement. Follow the disgraced Joe Denton, a corrupt cop, on his journey of penance that leads downward to a delicious, Goodis-like zero.
Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen: Ken’s parents should have named him Ainfean…Irish for storm; violence; and fury. A jacked-up American take on bad cops from the fallen angel-poet among us, scribbling crime. Smell that? Movie deal.
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace: Wallace committed suicide this year and broke off a piece of my chocolate bunny heart. I’ve always been astonished to run into people who have actually read (and got) his magnum-sized opus Infinite Jest. You can find this Kenyon College commencement speech online, but they packaged it into a book. Call it shameless marketing if you want, I call it a cheering epitaph megaphoned at the stars.
Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: I’m late to Lansdale’s gifts. But this is another pitch-perfect tale of promised riches gone deep south. Clippy, fried dialogue and true voice. A damp southern breeze off a landfill that doesn’t cool you at all.
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty: What? A Cuban woman cop as avenger? Wow. Is this the same guy who wrote Dead I Well May Be that I pushed on all my friends to the point of annoyance? You will be hooked in seventy seconds, I swear.
(Kieran Shea’s crime fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Thuglit, Pulp Pusher, Dogmatika, Demolition and in the transgressive noir bellwether, Plots with Guns. In his own words he is a “Writer and self-deprecating débrouillard, I aspire to beat the crime fiction house at their own game…one broken, bloody bone at a time…”. He blogs at Black Irish Blarney.)
Of the 75 books I’ve read this year, to come up with the six best, I first removed all of the re-reads which brought it down to 56 books. Still a tough decision. Here is what I came up with in my read order:
Eyes of Crow by Jeri Smith-Readdy – This was a very original story with interesting characters and a fresh new world. With clear homage to the American Indian culture and an interesting view of magic, conquest and what people will do to survive.
Shadowmagic by John Lenahan – while the worldbuilding could have had more scope, this ‘fish out of water’ story kept me turning the pages with characters I cared enough about to follow around.
Bones of Faerie by Jamie Lee Simner – an unusual take on the apocalypse tale involving Faerie and nuclear war. Acceptance, survival and the importance of shared knowledge make this a new ‘coming of age’ story.
Thirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold – from one of my favorite authors, this is a compact and interesting story based on Chinese myth and the history behind MahJongg.
Blood and Iron Elizabeth Bear – another version of ‘humans are killing the planet, let’s get rid of them’ where our myths and legends are real and becoming extinct due to our misuse of the Earth and our continuing self-centeredness.
Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold – this last one is a later book in a series but one that I find to have meaning that I can relate to. In this one the author shows us how progress can be bad but could be good if we just paid more attention to where we are going. With ties to our own American Old West, it evokes that kind of cowboy saunter with purpose.
(Amberdrake is a reviewer for BSC Review.)
Here are six terrific books I read this year. Happy summer reading.
THE FORGERY OF VENUS by Michael Gruber – I’m a big fan of Gruber, and his latest is fantastic. The Forgery of Venus moves at breakneck speed, tickling the adrenal gland while also engaging the brain. Psychological suspense at its finest.
RED LEAVES by Thomas H. Cook – Thomas Cook writes achingly beautiful prose, and Red Leaves is a heartbreaking story of a family destroyed by mistrust. I loved this book.
QUEENPIN by Megan Abbott – Sexy and dangerous and a hell of a lot of fun. QUEENPIN is a superb story of greed and duplicity, and Megan Abbott’s prose perfectly captures the poetry of noir.
INDENTITY THEORY by Peter Temple – I was already a fan of Temple’s Australian novels. In Identity Theory he leaves Oz and tackles the international action thriller. And he nails it. A complex story of political intrigue, brutal violence, and the lingering effects of violence.
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman – Okay, I was a little late coming to this book. Better late than never. American Gods rocks. A tilt-a-whirl ride that takes you into a parallel netherworld of gods and humans, where the living and the dead coexist and don’t always get along.
BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene – I’ve read this one many times over the years, and recently returned to it again. If you’ve never read Greene (shame on you) then start here. And if you have read him, pick up Brighton Rock again. You’ll thank me later.
(Formerly a private investigator in Chicago and New Orleans, Sean Chercover now writes full-time. His debut novel, BIG CITY BAD BLOOD, won the Shamus, Gumshoe, Crimespree, and Lovey awards for best first novel, and was shortlisted for the ITW Thriller, Arthur Ellis, Barry, and Anthony awards. TRIGGER CITY, his second novel, received the 2009 Dilys Award. And his short story, “A Sleep Not Unlike Death” is an Edgar Award nominee.)
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie – Abercrombie is at the top of his game in this tale of revenge that is an excellent stand-alone companion to the First Law Trilogy.
The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett – This book starts off as a rather standard fantasy story, though later it turns into a darker, more tantalizing tale. Check out this series by new author Peter Brett.
Tides from the New Worlds by Tobias Buckell – Tobias Buckell has established himself as a fresh new voice in science fiction with his Satrapy novels. Now here’s your chance to read some of his short fiction.
Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey – Santa Olivia is a character-driven story that follows the early life of the Loup Garron, the daughter of a genetically engineered soldier, who fights injustice by taking on the persona of her town’s patron saint.
The City and the City by China Mieville – China Mieville’s latest novel blends several genres in this murder mystery set in two fantastical cities. Should be an interesting read for both fans and new readers.
Lamentation by Ken Scholes – A terrible cataclysm destroys the religious and intellectual capital of The Named Lands. A bevy of politics and intrigue follows in the frenzy to establish a new order and marks this as a new series to watch out for.
(Beniowa79 is a reviewer for BSC Review.)
BLOOD HARVEST by Brant Randall – Blood Harvest is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s a chilling tale of the hatred, racism, and violence spread by the Ku Klux Klan, not in the South, but in New England in the early part of the last century. It’s the story of two rival bootlegging families––related by marriage but separated by prejudice. What makes this book a pleasure to read, and to re-read, is Randall’s unique voice. Blood Harvest is well plotted and its writing fresh, but characters and dialog sell this one.
CRAZY FOOL KILLS FIVE by Gwen Freeman – Crazy Fool Kills Five is a zany romp, like something out of the Marx Brothers, while at the same time it’s a traditional “British Rules” murder mystery. In short, it’s hilarious and cleverly written. Fifi Cutter, the protagonist of Freeman’s series, is a cranky, biracial, Gen Y diva that teams up with her slothful half-brother, Bosco, to solve the mysterious death of a workers compensation cheat. Please. They become entangled in a high stakes courtroom drama that could only happen in Los Angeles. The writing is fast and hip with one-liners you’ll steal to use.
WEIGHTLESS ROAD by Vincent De Souza – Weightless Road is a well-chosen collection of extraordinary, award-winning poems––gutsy and relevant. Vincent De Souza’s influences go back to the beat generation, to Burroughs and Kerouac, and you’ll be glad they do. He speaks with confidence of biker life on the road and love and loss in a sometimes-raw voice and measured tone that mesmerizes. He speaks of death and breaks your heart––you’ll end up wanting to see everything through his eyes.
DEAD WRITE by Sheila Lowe – Dead Write, the third in Sheila Lowe’s series, takes her handwriting expert Claudia Rose out of her L.A. comfort zone and gives her a taste of the swanky side of New York City. Rose tackles the high price of revenge in this nasty tale of a phony baroness matchmaker and her wealthy Manhattan clientele. Lowe knows her subject and writes a page-turner. Don’t be fooled by the set up, Dead Write ain’t no cozy––too many murders, too much action.
SHELL GAMES by Kirk Russell – I recently re-read Shell Games, the first book in Russell’s John Marquez series, and found it just as compelling the second time around. Suspense, dynamite prose, and fresh characters keep your nose to the page, but the truly interesting angle on this writer is the challenge he accepted with a protagonist who protects wild life for the Department of Fish and Game. See what I mean? Well, you know what––he mans up just fine with an eye-opening, unpredictable plot that introduces people you care about and bad guys as bad as they get. You’ll end up reading everything he writes, but start here.
SHANGHAI MOON by S.J. Rozan – In addition to S.J. Rozan’s Shanghai Moon having the coolest title ever, it is an intriguing addition to her series featuring Chinatown P.I. Lydia Chin and her sometime partner, sometime lover, Bill Smith. Chin is a complex and sympathetic character who is obliged to struggle with culturally imposed stereotypes, guilt, and family pressures while investigating a present day murder that draws her into the search for a fabulous jewel, lost in Shanghai during World War II. Are you hooked yet? The back-story of a young Austrian Jew, one of many refugees who were exiled to Shanghai at that time, is woven into the tale and provides a fascinating glimpse into a turbulent time.
(ROBERT FATE is the author of the Baby Shark crime series. He is a Marine Corps veteran who studied at the Sorbonne in France, has rough necked in the oilfields of Oklahoma, fashion modeled in NYC, sold show scenery in Las Vegas, and been a chef in Los Angeles. As a Hollywood F/X technician, he won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, a ceramic artist, and his daughter, a senior at USC. He has a dog, four cats, and a turtle named Pharrell.)
Here’s my recommendations for the best releases of 2009 (so far and in no particular order):
Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey – Carey is back in form with the first installment in her new d’Angeline series. She has wisely abandoned the cast of the previous six books and set this new story several generations later. This story contains everything that one expects from Carey’s pen: an enhanting heroine (in this case the half-Alban, half-d’Angeline Moirin, who has a subtle magic rooted in the natural world), convoluted intrigues at the d’Angeline court, sumpteous settings, decadent eroticism and exotic locations – all of it delivered in Carey’s trademark sensous style. Naamah’s Kiss might not be deeply innovative but it is certainly a very entertaining mainstream fantasy of very high quality.
Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey – Carey’s other publication this year is a significant departure from her other work. Santa Olivia can best be described as a kind of post-apocalyptic Western, which is deeply inspired by the superhero mythos of popular culture. Different from her heroic fantasies in both style and subject-matter, Santa Olivia is a fresh and compelling story about a girl with superhuman powers. Loup is the daughter of a genetically engineered man and she has inherited his strenght and speed as well as his inability to feel fear. She grows up in Outpost, a bordertown located in a political and legal no-man’s land close to the Mexican border, a place where all the inhabitants have been deprived of their civic rights, they exists solely to cater to the needs and pleasures of the soldiers patrolling the border. Angered by this and other injustices Loup and her fellow orphans start to fight back, hidden behind the identity of the town’s patron saint Santa Olivia, delivering a much needed spark of hope among the people of Outpost. The novel is very well-written with a lean and mesured prose and a cast of interesting and well-drawn characters.
Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox – This novels is an exquisite and elegant piece of literary fantasy and must say that its rich texture of impressions and sensations ought to be savoured slowly, like a piece of high-quality dark chocolate – with leisure and delight. Without being too presumptuous I feel that Dragon in Chains”>Dragon in Chains should be counted as one of the best fantasies published this year and it should appeal to fans of Ursula le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Virginia Wolf. Very highly recommended.
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente – A strange, beautiful and intoxicating novel, written in a lyrical and deeply sensous prose. It is dense, multi-layered and enchanting. Incredibly beautiful but also grotesque and horrifying.
Hand of Isis by Jo Graham – Hand of Isis is a very good historical fantasy in the vein of Marion Zimmer Bradley. She successfully reinterprets history from a female perspective thus vindicating a much reviled historical figure while at the same time evoking a vivid impression of the ancient world. The supernatural is for the most part discreet and subtle, and if the novel lacks the haunting quality that made Black Ships such an intense and extraordinary reading experience, Hand of Isis is still very good entertainment that can be recommended to anyone who likes both historical and fantasy fiction.
(Trinuviel is a reviewer for BSC Review.)
Shanghaied by Eric Stone – In the fourth Ray Sharp novel, Eric Stone outdoes himself. Set in the aftermath of the British handover of Hong Kong to China, series star and idealistic ne’er-do-well Ray Sharp investigates a Chinese bank for a Tibetan monk. At times harrowing, at times hilarious, Stone takes advantage of his experience as a journalist in southeast Asia to spin a yarn strange and harrowing and utterly genuine. Shanghaied features quirky sex, off-beat characters, gritty, hardboiled action and a shocking twist. One of my must-reads for summer. After all, who can resist a story which features assassins disguised as girl scouts?
The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – The advent of summer means long days and evenings spent in the hammock under the trees. It’s also means the return of Walt Longmire, Craig Johnson’s wry, headstrong, deeply compassionate Wyoming sheriff. In his fifth outing, Longmire goes undercover to determine if a former NFL cheerleader really did put six bullets in her husband’s head. Not that she can be blamed if she did—the fellow burned her horses alive in their stables. Rich, deeply engaging characters populate all of Johnson’s work, and The Dark Horse is no exception. Johnson is a simply gorgeous writer, and with each new installment he just gets better and better.
The Devious Book for Cats – I have mixed feelings about promoting a phenomenon which is an adjunct to and exploits a larger, wholly manufactured phenomenon, (i.e., The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls) but what can I say? I’m a cat person. My daughter gave me this book for Christmas, and it dwelt in the bathroom for some time, there to be enjoyed in, well, I don’t want to say bite-sized chunks, but you get the idea. Anyway, it is charming, silly, and at times, I confess, a bit forced. But I liked it. If you have a cat, love cats, or are bemused by cats, this tome will make you purr.
Spook Country by William Gibson – I looked forward to Gibson’s follow-up to Pattern Recognition for some time, though curiously once I got the book it languished on my TBR stack for over a year. I only wish I hadn’t taken so long. Gibson seems to have both enlarged and become more personal in his later work. Part crime caper, part meditation on contemporary existence, the prose sings and challenges and the story haunts and allures. That said, this book may not be for everyone. Those who long for the headily prescient Gibson of the 80’s might find this book too muted. I found it intimate and unsettling, the mature work of an author who started out great and has only gotten better.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – This book is on my list of books everyone should read before they die. In fact, it’s on my list of books everyone should re-read before they die. This year, I re-read A Canticle for Liebowitz for perhaps the fifth time. The novel takes place in three parts, showing the recovery of civilization after nuclear holocaust over the course of many centuries. A stark, grim, yet strangely hopeful take on life in a post-apocalyptic landscape, Miller explores themes of progress and decline, the conflict between faith and reason. Each time I return to A Canticle for Liebowitz, I see something new and challenging. It’s a powerful, profound novel which still resonates fifty years after its original publication.
(Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, gritty Portland-based mysteries LOST DOG and CHASING SMOKE. His stories have appeared in Spinetingler, Killer Year, and Portland Noir.)
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan – The best noir crime novel I’ve read this year won’t be found in the mystery section of your local bookstore. It’s a science fiction novel that takes place several hundred years in the future with a setting that feels like Blade Runner and a narrative that is pure Raymond Chandler. This was Morgan’s first novel and it’s extraordinary. I’m now reading everything this guy has written, including the graphic novels, and the bar just gets higher and higher.
City Of Thieves by David Benioff – Janine at The Seattle Mystery Bookshop thrust this into my hands, and I cannot thank her enough. Again, not a new book, but this historical novel by the author of The 25th Hour has writing so clean it’s hard to believe he covers as much territory and develops such rich characters with so few words. His screenwriting background is apparent as he pulls off a novel that is touching, charming and poignant in a story that would take most accomplished authors twice as many pages to tell.
Betrayal by John Lescroart – A thriller that drops you right into the middle of a situation so effortlessly you feel the momentum with the first page. Lescroart uses dialogue to bring humanity into his stories in a way that makes the characters feel like people you know, but he doesn’t compromise on the pacing. Too many thrillers sacrifice character for action, which is why Lescroart continues to produce some of the most memorable books on the bestseller list and remains a favorite of mine, no matter what he’s writing.
Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty – McKinty has been a favorite since Dead I Well May Be and his latest is amazing. The man writes like a poet, and his characters are complex and all too human. One of the best new books of 2009.
Safer by Sean Doolittle – This guy should be a household name, consistently writing some of the best crime novels of the past few years. Safer takes a simple, believable premise and ratchets up the tension until you cannot put the book down, and it’s the sheer familiarity of the setting that makes the story so compelling. No need for over-the-top, save-the-world plots with writing like this. A great book written by an absolute pro.
Money Shot by Christa Faust – Tight, unapologetic noir in a great read from Faust and Hard Case Crime. Reminds you of when you first fell in love with crime fiction in the days when all great novels could fit in your pocket.
(Tim Maleeny is the award-winning author of the Cape Weathers series and the new standalone JUMP, which Publishers Weekly called “a perfectly blended cocktail of escapism, with or without the beach towel.” He can be found at www.timmaleeny.com)
You don’t see me covering too many books personally this year but it doesn’t mean I can’t play the publican and offer you a choice Summer six-pack to spend the rest of the ’09 reading until the end of year lists come out.
Sandman Slim is the second novel I’ve enjoyed from Richard Kadrey. Every year I always hope to run into that book that can play with and implement numerous elements, genre(s) ideals, and ideas that can excite a William Gibson (it did), but does so via a protagonist that classic Crime Fans or ’50s Fantasy Fan reading Gnome Press editions collecting Robert Howard work can relate to—the name takers, the ass kickers. The modern fans of speculative fiction know other names: Joe Pitt, Carl Marsalis, Cain, Jesse Custer, Goon.
These are names of characters that tend to catch hell (and I guess even heaven with Sandman Slim) from all the weirdos who have and take sides. James Stark walked out of Hell after spending more than a decade being the toughest sob down under and came back to settle a score. Catching beef from Demons, Angels, some more of God’s bastards you don’t even know about yet, and worse of all other humans, we see the birth of Sandman Slim. In the midst of the chaos we all understand. In the end, and from the beginning, it’s about a girl.
I touched on Jack London in Paradise earlier this year. It’s Paul Malmont’s second novel following up his very enjoyable The China Town Death Cloud, and is departure in all ways excluding quality. Going from pulps to writing about a true larger than life historical figure isn’t really that much of a transition., but there is a certain celebrity that I think we don’t properly sense in such people of the past and Malmont offers that while giving us a look at the man behind the adventures we mostly prescribe to him via his work. Rarely have I been confronted with such a visceral feeling of love that wasn’t always spoken, it just existed. Fierce Love.
Malmont turn the hyperbolic man, myth and legend statement into reality through fiction.
The reason why I know how much I appreciated Robert V.S. Reddick’s Red Wolf Conspiracy so much is because of how much I hated the last 2 dozen pages. You literally had no idea where Reddick was going with this story of a battle of nations, seafaring adventures, and littles. Yes LITTLES. It has this unlikely ability to being able to see adapted as a serious HBO drama or a made-for-kids animated feature.
It struggles seeming to feel as it had to end before it naturally was meant to, or that Reddick realized that he had to get in some groundwork for a next novel. None of that is really my beef though, it’s that in doing so it set up this statement of “I’m really a fantasy novel” including the promise of teaming up to defeat the next book’s coming great evil, with now powered up the protagonists. Before it did this it was a fantastic novel that need not to have proclaimed it.
I realize this all seems rather negative but the first 400 pages is the introduction of an author and series that demands the attention of fantasy fans. There is a damn Disney movie in this book somewhere, and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways. Very nice debut that kind of broadsided me like Felix Gilman’s debut from last year. There is ton of new Fantasy series every year, but this is one that deserves to stick.
I also spoke on Brush with Passion earlier this year. This look at the life of Dave Stevens will at times bring you to tears. In the comic book medium everybody knows who Stevens is. Outside, everybody knows his work – Rocketeer – but may not know his name. Stevens is one of the great talents the medium has offered in recent memory, and to read about the struggles post-success and about the self-criticism is something that seems alien to a comic fan who is daily inundated with millions of press releases about ‘creators’ who haven’t done shit that are about to (maybe) do something (which often times is mediocre enough to the point new never hear from them again until they are about to do something else).
A look back at Stevens is look back at true accomplishment, not of publicity puffed bullshit–though he deserved it. A rare contemporary artist whose work says all that has to be said. A Brush with Passion is for those who didn’t have the privilege of hearing the first time.
At the end Brush with Passion no longer just describes the fuel behind Steven’s hand, it describes the reader who cannot avoiding finding themselves moved. If you weren’t a fan before, you leave feeling like you missed a friend.
Thus far 2009’s novel of the year was not an immediate winner for me. China Mieville is one of my favorite half dozen or so writers, and when I received the galley early this year I was a bit skeptical of the editor’s note that came with it. It spoke on an admitted reigning in of one of the most dazzling talents in the field.
It would be like Wayne Fontes announcing Barry Sanders would no longer make cuts and just run dive plays the whole year. What we get however is what may be China’s most accessible novel and while it certainly has that fantastic and crime/mystery anchor I actually was struck at how much I felt like I was reading the something like The Unconsoled–which is written by one of the best writers on the planet.
Mieville puts down a work that some are calling homage. It’s almost impossible for any person to create something that isn’t in some way an homage, but I view The City and the City more as the new blue print that writers dwelling in all genre need to examine. No less deserving of your shelf space than any Chabon or Auster, Mieville exchanges taking you to lands beyond, and the safety granted that we might be able write off as excursions- and instead steps out of the picture, out of the mirror, and offers us his most controlled and immediate novel.
I’m not sure if China is any more observant and willing to share here than he is in previous works, but with The City and the City he is so with less dipping into fictional monster manuals, a diversion that some don’t tolerate. I’m not convinced it’s the shot of awesome (a critical term) that Perdido Street Station or The Scar bring to life, there is a type of satisfaction here that I didn’t know China had in him without taking a step back (which in some way I think people viewed Iron Council). China may be the only author who really has to play being less cool for others to understand and listen.
I understand your style, China.
I really struggled with what to choose for the sixth book as I had a few in mind that I felt could be in this feature. I found myself sitting on a few continuations of series by authors that include Alan Campbell, Felix Gilman and Lane Robins. I also thought about Underland’s repub of Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot, but as I sit back and reflect on the first half of this year I think about authors whose voices we will never see put to paper again. The speculative fiction fan has lost J.G. Ballard, David Eddings, and Philip Jose Farmer–lets pick up a book a find them again.
If you’re real enough; if you’ve walked vermillion sands, or if you know where scattered bodies go, or if you were raised on Fantasy when you could say Silk was one of your favorite characters ever; before you get too involved with the six-pack, pour out a little.