Thursday, December 31, 2015

My 2015 Top Ten Books

2015 Ten Best Books

10. Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.  A very impressive first novel about a young boy whose uncle was murdered by a famous serial killer and child molester.  With his family still traumatized by the murder of his uncle, the boy begins a secretive correspondence with the imprisoned killer in an attempt to discover where his uncle's remains are, hoping that finding the body will help end his family's suffering.  That saying 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions' is suitable here as the boy's plans have unforeseen consequences.  Issues of school bullying and the landscape of Exmoor also add to what was a very compelling read.

9. Disclaimer by Renee Knight.  Another impressive first novel.  The biggest selling book of the year seemed to be Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train (which I read and liked - I thought it was rather good for a mega-best seller - often such books are awful, not so with TGOTT - and I wonder if it will have any lasting effect on the drinking habits of its readers) and early on I kept seeing Disclaimer pitched as the new The Girl on the Train (which itself was the new Gone Girl).  In Disclaimer, a woman finds a new book in her new house that appears to be the novelized version of a dark secret she has but one that she has never told anybody.  We get her story and the fictionalized version in alternating chapters.  And very well done, I thought.

8. Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey.  I read 15 novels by Peter Lovesey this year, most of which were in his Peter Diamond series, about the chief of the CID in Bath.  Nothing more I love than reading a good series but often I have trouble selecting one as the best.  I've selected Stagestruck because I really thought I was going to hate it - the central mystery being who is behind the attack on a pop singer turned actress on her first opening night in the theater.  Most of the book is set in the theater and in addition to a murder or two, there was talk of ghosts.  Sounds terrible.  Instead, Lovesey worked his usual magic (a few of the other books in this series had what I thought were dumb set ups but turned out to be fantastic as well) and was rewarded with a great whodunnit, a thriller, and an interesting look at childhood sexual abuse and vigilantism.

7.  Burning Down George Orwell's House by Andrew Ervin.  A cynical and burned out Chicago advertising executive flees his collapsing life in Chicago to live in a rented cottage on the Isle of Jura where George Orwell once lived.  We get the story of how and why his life in Chicago collapsed as we watch our man potentially threaten the stability of a close-knit and isolated island community.  A dark and cycical comedy, I loved it.  Also, a first novel.

6. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.  So far, there have been five books in this series and I read them all at once.  I'm still not sure which one I like the best so this is more of a group award.  Rivers of London is the story of a young mixed-race (a touch I really loved and that I thought made the character so much more interesting) London cop who inadvertently discovers he has an aptitude for magic (one of the blurbs on my copy described the series as something like CSI crossed with Harry Potter for grown ups - which is the perfect summation, I think) and becomes apprenticed to the one remaining senior police official who practices magic and handles supernatural crimes when the occur.  The books are fast paced and wildly inventive and interesting and many of the storylines carry over from book to book.  Maybe the most fun thing I read all year.  Plus, Aaronovitch loves the architectural history of London and the books are chock full of interesting details.  In general, I do not read much science fiction or fantasy but these books are so much fun that I am wondering what else I may be missing.

5. The Reaper by Peter Lovesey.  A stand alone novel this time, not part of the Peter Diamond series.  A black comedy about a vicar who steals and murders to support and allow the lifestyle he wants while at the same time being a very good and much loved vicar.

4. Confessions by Kinae Minato.  The dark and twisted story of revenge that at Japanese middle school teacher takes on the students she thinks are responsible for the drowning of her daughter in the school swimming pool.  Unbelievable.  And amazing.  But so, so dark.  Not for the faint of heart.

3. Chocky by John Wyndham.  A short but sweet novel about an English family in which their adopted son may either be mentally ill or have an alien for an imaginary friend.

2. Glitz by Elmore Leonard.  I read a few other books by Leonard, my favorite male romance novelist, this year but I liked Glitz the best.  A Miami detective moves to Puerto Rico to recuperate from a gunshot would finds himself involved in the life a young woman whom he knows is going to get herself in trouble in the casinos of San Juan and Atlantic City.  At the same time, a rapist the detective once arrested has tracked him down in Puerto Rico and is seeking revenge.  All these worlds violently collide and order must be restored.

1. Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans.  This, by far, was the best book I read in 2015.  A precocious young boy in London during the Blitz is relocated to the suburbs after the loss of his godmother.  His new family does not have much use for him (aside from collecting the extra rations he qualifies for) until he uses his smarts to aide his foster mother's charity scams.  As in my number ten book, Blacklands, when children take on the adult world, things will invariably go wrong.  But sometimes a good, smart kid can engineer a happy ending.  Warm and funny, sometimes harrowing, always interesting, Crooked Heart is something like what I would imagine Dickens would have created had he lived through the Blitz and could work on a smaller canvas.  It hasn't been too long since I read Crooked Heart but I am already feeling like it is time to re-read it.  Or maybe the listen to the audiobook version of it.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Ultimate in Procrastination: My Year in Reading 2014

NOTE:  After starting to think about the best books I read in 2015 I realized that I never finished my best of 2014 reading list.  I found a few drafts of this posts but never got around to finishing any of them.  I am peerless when it comes to procrastination.

Wild? Unfocused?  Ill-disciplined?  Erratic?  Chaotic?  Unfinished?  In looking back on what I read in 2014, I realized that I started and abandoned dozens of books.  Some didn't pass the 50 page test.  Some had to be returned to the library before I got around to finishing them.  Some were good but then something else captured my attention and lured me away before I could finish them.  I started reading multiple books at the same time again (having dropped that habit maybe a decade ago) and I think the resulting lack of focus resulted in all this reading chaos.  But I did still manage to finish a lot of good books this year.

Archeological Find of the Year:  Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint.  This was a bestseller back in 1987 and was made into an awful (or so I have heard) movie.  I had no interest in the book back then and the paperback copy I acquired in the early 1990s is buried in a storage facility in another state.  And I am not sure why it popped into my head that I had to read this book now but I found a copy at the library and it was probably the most engaging thing I read all year.  When a securities analyst is caught in a explosion at a New Jersey research facility he isn't killed - he is rendered invisible.  And then has to figure out how to survive and live a life worth living while on the run from a secret government agency that wants to turn him into an intelligence asset.  I think most people imagine invisibility would be fun (and I was formerly one of them) but in H.F. Saint's world, it is a constant struggle to stay clothed, fed, safe, and even loved.  This novel is somewhat similar to Donald Westlake's novel Smoke but I think Memoirs is the better of the two.  

Country of the Year:  France wins the award this year for the four crime novels by Fred Vargas I read.  Plus the first novel in Pierre Lemaitre's Verhoeven trilogy, Irene.  (Which was actually the second to be published in English.  The second book, Alex, was published first.  And while I am thankful they were translated, the person who made the decision to publish these out of order should be sent to the guillotine as doing so ruined what would have maybe been the most devastating ending of any crime novel I can recall reading - with the possible exception of Mo Hayder's The Treatment.)  I also greatly enjoyed Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodile.  And further padding France's lead in the race were the new translations of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels published by Penguin.  (Penguin is publishing, IN ORDER, new translations of all 75 of the Maigret novels.  Thank you, Penguin.)  Special thanks to my sweetie for the orange caffe au lait bowls that became necessary for me to have because of all the coffee drinking I was reading about in French fiction.

My Top Ten List:

10:  Her by Harriet Lane.  A chilling revenge story.  Nina knows what Emma has done to her.  Emma has no idea who Nina is or that she has ever done anything to her.  Nina toys with Emma like a cat toys with its prey before taking her final revenge - something terribly shocking - but real world shocking (as in not gory, sadistic violence - but something plausible and far worse).  Comparable to the best of Patricia Highsmith.

9:  Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint

8:  A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel.  A confession - I have been a big fan of Mantel's work since the late 1990s.  I can't think of a writer who got better reviews for so long before she hit the big time, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  I feel like I am the only person who has read and loved early Mantel but hasn't been able to finish Wolf Hall.  Somehow I skipped this novel, the story of an English family in present day England that cannot escape the effects of trauma they experienced while working as missionaries in apartheid era South Africa.  This was a great book.

7:  The Secret Place by Tana French.  This is only French's fifth novel and the fifth in her ongoing series about the Dublin Murder Squad.  Two detectives must solve a murder at an all-girls school.  Page after page of amazing dialog.  French has been so good from the start that I would not be surprised if we were to find out she experienced a Robert Johnson/Crossroads type event before she wrote her first novel.

6:  LaBrava by Elmore Leonard.  Perhaps my favorite novel from my favorite male romance novelist.  A film noir story set in Miami just before the drug war exploded.

5:  Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer.  Three interlinked novels about a secretive government agency tasked with securing and studying a large chunk of Florida after an undefined environmental catastrophe.  Or maybe something like what John le Carre and J.G. Ballard would create if they turned the TV series LOST into a sprawling three part story - but better.  Area X is weird and at times I was unsure what was happening but I think that was by design.  An amazing reading experience - haven't read anything like it and I still think about it.

4:  True Believers by Kurt Andersen.  The story of a law professor who was unable to be appointed to the Supreme Court because of her anti-war activities at Harvard in the late 1960s.  Just what did she do?  I am not saying because I hate spoilers.  Lots of great material about James Bond in this story, too.  Kind of a crappy summary for such an engaging book.  Andersen is a long time magazine editor and has since morphed into a radio host and a witty and astute cultural critic.

3:  Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe.  A farcical spy novel set at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.  An unassuming English civil servant is forced to become an intelligence operative by two British agents who reminded me of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens from Michael Gilbert's short stories reimagined as a comedy double act.  (I have since learned they are modeled after two characters in Alfred Hitchcock's comedic thriller A Lady Vanishes - which I have yet to see.)  Also, a lot of James Bond material in this book, just like my number four choice, True Believers.

2:  The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe.  Yes, Coe takes two of the top three spots.  I got behind on reading him (I had nice UK editions of the books and didn't want to spoil them by reading them - took a while to obtain reading copies.)  Maxwell Sim takes a job selling environmentally-friendly toothbrushes and attempts to drive across the UK - but inadvertently (to him) ends up mimicking Donald Crowhurst's trans-oceanic voyage while at the same time reading about Crowhurst.  Coe has a lot of fun with structure in this book.  Generally novels that play games with structure are no fun but with Coe it is pure pleasure.  Again, I find it a bit hard to convey just how wonderful this book is.

1:  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  Technically, the best book I read in 2014 but as I look back, not much separates the top ten in this list.  The top ten are all pretty great this year. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has a twist in it that hinders my ability to discuss it.  Even acknowledging this feels like a betrayal but the book was nominated for the Booker Prize so many people will already know what I am on about here.  Let us say that this is the story of a family coming to terms with its role in a chimpanzee research project.  How can that make for the best book of the year?  Trust me, it does.  

So, a very good year in reading for me.  In fact, books by perennial favorites Michael Connelly, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, P.M. Hubbard, and Patricia Highsmith didn't crack the top ten.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dark Corners

I hate when I only start to read a writer's work upon learning of that person's death.  I can't say I do it all the time but it happens more than I would like it to.  I just made it under the wire and started to read Ruth Rendell last year (though I had been picking up used copies of her work for a long time, I hadn't read any of her work) and died in May.  I knew her books would be good (not a bold prediction, I know) but didn't know where to start and her Inspector Wexford series did not appeal to me.  I love English police procedurals but the primitive dowsing method I sometimes use to figure out what to read always pointed away from Wexford.  Then I read a Tweet from one of my favorite writers, John Lanchester:
And with this recommendation, I got my start on Rendell.  [Note:  I don't know how many people do this or if this is blindingly obvious but I get some of my best recommendations on what to read by following on Twitter the writers I like most.  If you don't already do this, try it.]

Ruth Rendell's final novel has just been published and I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy of it.  In Dark Corners a young writer inherits his father's house in London and decides to rent out the top floor so he can live off the rental income and write full time.  A sensible ideal, in theory.  In this case, however, the lodger turns out to be mildly unsavory (of all the tenants from hell stories I can think of, having one who attempts to blackmail his way to rent-free living isn't the worst possibility) and the writer's life begins to crumble.  There's much more to the story but I hate spoilers so I will have to leave it at that.

On the whole Dark Corners is very good.  It feels churlish to criticize the book given the circumstances surrounding its publication (distinguished writer finishes book, turns it in to publisher, has a stroke, then passes away) but I have the feeling that had Rendell lived, she would have tightened up a few minor plot lines.  There are some staggering coincidences in Dark Corners that are tangential to the main story line (terrorism and kidnapping, I'm talking about you) that beggar belief.  Which is unfortunate because there are other coincidences in the book that are essential to the story and handled well.  Still, Dark Corners would be a good place to start reading Ruth Rendell if one were unfamiliar with her work as she has a tremendous back catalog that promises much good future reading.  (So much good reading, in fact, that she published under two names - Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine.)