11-15 Night Music: Nocturnes
Volume 2
, by
John Connolly
If you've ever heard me talk about books before, chances are I've brought up and/or tried to make you read something by John Connolly. I've been banging the drum for Connolly since reading his debut novel, Every Dead Thing, and my love and admiration for his writing has only grown over the years. His Charlie Parker series is one of the best thriller series going today, blending horror and crime together into something that manages to be terrifying, exciting, and profound all at the same time. The Samuel Johnson trilogy is an absolute joy, delivering a hilarious tale about the gates of Hell and quantum physics that any adult would love and yet still feels perfect for its young audience. And now there's Night Music, Connolly's second collection of short fiction, and further testament to his astonishing writing, range, and talent. Trying to narrow down Night Music to a single genre is an exercise in futility, but that's half of the joy. If you want horror, it's undeniably on display. "On The Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier" ranks as one of my all-time favorite short stories, slowly peeling back layers of reality until you realize just what a nightmarish story you're really in. And Connolly's earlier Kindle single, the terrifying "The Wanderer in Unknown Realms," becomes part of a five story cycle that all combine to create a sense that there's a world beyond us at all times - and it's not a pleasant one. So, yes, there's horror. But there's also stories where the supernatural is just a starting point for something more subtle, and even beautiful, as in the 300-word "A Dream of Winter" or the melancholy "A Haunting." Meanwhile, bibliophiles will adore the quietly whimsical "The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository," which finds a man investigating what appears to be the suicide of a character from a famous Russian tragedy. And the follow up to that story, "Holmes on the Range," shows off Connolly's gift for comedy, diving into the world of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation with affectionate ribbing. And the whole collection culminates in the personal essay "I Live Here," wherein Connolly discusses his inspirations both literary and cinematic, all in his wonderful digressive style, before tying it all together with a strange final anecdote. All in all, it's a flawless collection from one of the best - and most underrated - craftsmen working today. It's a reminder that "genre fiction" doesn't automatically mean "bad writing," no matter what snobs will tell you, and that sometimes the joy comes from realizing that genre boundaries are all the more interesting when they're broken and disregarded. In short, I loved this collection; I can't recommend it enough, and my only regret is that I'm out of Connolly to read until his next book arrives.
11-8 The Bazaar of
Bad Dreams
by Stephen King
The only thing I may look forward to more than a new Stephen King novel is a new collection of his short stories. Yes, I love Stephen King, but even being a Constant Reader doesn't prevent me from being willing to admit that the man can - and often does - go long on his word count. There's something rewarding, then, to see King rein himself in, forcing himself to do as much as he can in a far lower number of words. Of course, this being King, that doesn't rule out some longer pieces here - Ur was originally a novella released as a sort of trial balloon for the Kindle Singles program, and Blockade Billy as well was a small standalone novella previously released by King. Others are far shorter, including two brief poems both originally published in Playboy. But whatever the length, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams serves as a reminder of both King's talent and prodigious gift, to say nothing of his stellar range. There's the unsettling alien horror of "Mile 81," the Raymond Chandler homage of "Premium Harmony," the black comedy of "Drunken Fireworks," the grim look at human nature of "Morality," the haunting case of ruined dreams of "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," and so much more. Want deranged, insane narrators? Enjoy "Under the Weather." Want a bizarre tale of a young child who seems to be evil incarnate? "Bad Little Kid" is for you. Want to read what feels like a mix between the climax of Revival and King's stint in physical therapy? Oh, man, will "The Little Green God of Agony" scratch that itch and give you some nightmares to boot. But whatever the story, they're all filled with King's rich voice, his ability to evoke humanity in every character, and a keen eye about the world that always rings true. And just when you think you've seen it all, he tosses out the concluding story, "Summer Thunder," which is a very different sort of story about the end of the world - one that's far more beautiful and heartfelt than you might expect. All in all, it's a fantastic collection, and if, like me, you're initially disappointed that you've read a few already, well, trust me: they're all worth reading again, and between King's rich introductions and the revisions he's made (mainly to Ur, but apparently to many), you'll enjoy them all over again. It's a great collection, and a reminder of what King can do, even without a broad canvas of pages to work on.
11-5 The Haunting
of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
Even if every other page of The Haunting of Hill House was bad - and rest assured, it is not - it's conceivable that the book could have been acclaimed as a masterpiece on the basis of nothing more than its incredible first paragraph, which sets up Hill House as a chilling, unsettling entity with only a few words. Luckily, every page of The Haunting of Hill House is as good as that first one, crafting a strange, unsettling tale about a malevolent house whose influence and power are unquestionable, but whose nature is all but impossible to pin down. Indeed, by the end of the tale, you'll have as many questions as you did earlier, and maybe even more, but there's no way to deny that the house has somehow corrupted and changed the paranormal research team that came to study the house. But did the evil arise from the house? Or did it arrive with our protagonist, Eleanor Vance, who brings with her no small amount of trauma and baggage that can't help but multiply in a place like this? Rather than give us answers, Jackson luxuriates in the ambiguity, giving us both rational explanations for Hill House's atmosphere and explicable events that only serve to unsettle us all the more for their apparent evil intent. More than that, she dives deeply into the fractured psyche of Eleanor, leaving us to wonder just how innocent this seemingly guileless naif might really be. That Jackson does all this in so short a time - less than 200 pages - is made all the more remarkable by how incredibly tense, unnerving, and unsettling the whole novel turns out to be, gradually increasing the horrors of the house and then refusing to give us an easy answer or any sense of closure. It's one of the all-time great horror novels, one whose brevity and apparent simplicity belie its rich complexity, constant dread, incredible atmosphere, and astonishing character work. Add to that Jackson's impeccable prose and you have an essential horror masterpiece in any sense of the word.
11-4 Seize the Night: New Tales
of Vampiric
, edited by
Christopher Golden
Vampires aren't my favorite horror creation, by and large; while there are some exceptions (Let the Right One In being probably the most notable), the genre's gotten pretty watered down over the years, thanks in no small part to the double whammy of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. So why, then, would I ever get excited about an anthology of vampiric fiction? Mainly, it's all down to a single name: Scott Smith. Yes, Seize the Night mainly grabbed me on the promise of a new story by the author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins, two absolute masterpieces. But while Smith's story turned out to be fantastic (no surprise there), Seize the Night turned out to be worth my time beyond that, delivering a slew of great vampire stories that mostly felt fresh, imaginative, and even - heaven forbid - scary. The idea of Seize the Night was to create vampire stories that were scary, eschewing the romantic elements that have crept in throughout the years and reminding the reader of the horrific roots of the genre, and thankfully, the authors here seem to be up to the challenge. Some, like Smith, use vampires as the backdrop to a far more human horror; Smith's tale is about an in-home caregiver who ends up stumbling across the dark secret of her new hometown, where the vampires may not be the only monster to be found. Others tapped in to more primal, bestial versions of the vampire myth; Michael Kortya's "On the Dark Side of Sunlight Basin" finds its basis in Native American legends, while the nightmarish monster of Rio Youers' "Separator" springs from a bizarre, disturbing story from the Philippines. Others defy description, and that's not a bad thing. Laird Barron's "In a Cavern, In a Canyon" creates something unsettling out of shadows and a voice calling for help, and little more; meanwhile, John Langan's "Shadow and Thirst" (one of the most ambitious pieces in the collection, and one of my favorites) creates a beast that's outside of time as we know it. Indeed, the best thing about the collection is the variety of ways in which people approached the topic; with vampiric books, unnaturally controlling schoolteachers, medieval peasants under assault, apocalyptic survivors, and even drivers on the prowl for hitchhikers (in a tale by John Ajvide Lindqvist, of Let the Right One In fame), the anthology has nothing if not variety and invention. Moreover, there aren't too many misses in the collection, with the weakest entries being mainly flat or too vague rather than outright bad. (I'm thinking here of the overlong "Mrs. Popkin" and the cryptic but odd "Blood" especially.) All in all, it was a pleasant surprise, and a nice reminder of how effective vampires can be as a horror figure, if you can get away from the romantic overtones that have become synonymous with the genre. And if, like me, you're mainly only interested for one or two of the tales, give the rest a shot; you may be pleasantly surprised with what you get.
10-27 Brother, by
Ania Ahlborn
It's hard to know how to discuss a book like Brother, which manages to both work incredibly well as a horror novel and yet be so extreme and abhorrent as to make it hard to recommend. Feeling like something that Jack Ketchum might have written, Brother eschews supernatural horrors for something more recognizably human, following a young boy who's been kidnapped by a nightmarish family living in the middle of nowhere. It's not enough that the family would kidnap a child and raise him as their own; they're also psychopaths, driven to appease their disturbed mother by capturing and torturing young girls before using the bodies for more culinary needs - and that's not even as bad as the book gets. In other words, this isn't a book for everyone, and while it's undeniably tense, unnerving, disturbing, and horrific, it's also so extreme as to be repulsive, and can be so relentless as to be hard to take. Combine that with a plot thread that only tightens the screws further and you have a book that's really, really hard to recommend to anyone except the most hardcore horror aficionados. And yet, for all of that, it's impossible to argue that the book isn't incredibly well-crafted, or that Ahlborn is a bad writer. Yes, the book is horrifying, but it rarely feels as if it's reveling in its nature more than is necessary; it's always more focused on the characters (and the impact upon them) than it is the bloodshed and gore around them. More than that, Ahlborn does a good job of exploring even her villains, making us realize that they themselves are shaped by their worlds - and that even those who shaped them were themselves a product of a different world. But for all of that, this is mainly an extreme, brutal, nihilistic thriller, no matter how well crafted it is, and while the characters are richer than you might expect and the craft better, there's not much to it beyond the freak show on display - no greater message, no wider meaning. Is it well done? Undoubtedly. But that doesn't make it easier to take, and it doesn't make it much easier to recommend.
10-20 Slade House, by David Mitchell
In some ways, Slade House is just another David Mitchell book (if "just another" is a phrase that could ever apply to anything Mitchell wrote). Multiple narrators, a story that spans decades, independent narratives that gradually connect to make something more than the sum of their parts - it's all of Mitchell's usual techniques, and they work beautifully, as usual. (In fact, for reasons I'll get into in a moment, you could argue they're working even better than usual.) But in a lot of other ways, Slade House feels like a departure for Mitchell. For one thing, it's much, much shorter than you'd expect from the famously verbose author - about 250 pages. More notably, this is the one of the first times that Mitchell seems to be working within a single, specific genre - specifically, horror, spinning the tale of a house that appears every nine years in a London alleyway and lures in victims chosen by its strange inhabitants. Nonetheless, Slade House is every bit as good as anything else Mitchell has written, and in some ways, even more so; the short length and the harrowing nature of the stories mean Mitchell has to choose his words carefully, building a world that's every bit as rich as anything he's ever done but with much, much less space. More to the point, the story is just as good; although it would be easy for this to feel like five variations of the same tale (a victim is lured into the house; a most unique hunt ensues; a final confrontation is mounted), Mitchell has something more ambitious in mind, enjoying the gradual shifts and evolution over the decades, and using these five incidents to give us a window into something far grander. (Those who've read The Bone Clocks will enjoy the tie-ins to that world and probably enjoy the final chapter a bit more than those who didn't; that being said, Slade House entirely stands on its own, although some of the explanations may be a little more cryptic for newcomers than veterans.) But most important, Slade House is further testament to Mitchell's skill as perhaps one of the greatest living novelists today, and shows that he's just as capable of doing unnerving, strange tales as he is more grounded drama or more ambitious sci-fi. Slade House is undeniably a horror novel, but more of a psychological one than a more "traditional" type; while it's never gory or violent, it has a way of constantly undermining any sense of reality, leaving you in question as to what's going on and plunging you into the role of prey in a hunt where you don't have a chance. In some ways, Slade House is a perfect starting point for people who've been interested in reading Mitchell's work; it's shorter, which makes it more accessible, and the fact that it's all of a single genre (and that the connections are more easily made) makes it a bit of an easier starting point. No, it's not quite on the level of Mitchell's best work, but here's the thing - it's still pretty much a flawless piece of writing, a spectacular thriller, a great novel, and a ton of fun. I can't recommend it enough; if you're a Mitchell fan already, it's essential, and if you've been curious about his work but haven't started, you could do far worse than jumping in.
10-17 The Reckoning,
by Carsten Stroud
When I was writing about The Homecoming, the previous book in the Niceville trilogy, I commented that as much as I was enjoying the series, it wasn't quite clear how much the two halves of the story - the crime saga and the horror saga - would collide, or even if they would ever meet. And having finished the series, it turns out that, well, they don't really. Yes, one major character from the bank robbery saga ends up with a part to play in the final confrontation with the horror that lives in Crater Lake, but by and large, the Niceville series ends up feeling like two really satisfying, engaging stories somewhat linked together. And on one level, I guess that should frustrate me, or leave me unhappy. But given how well Carsten Stroud tells those two stories, how much he enjoys using them to draw tension out of a situation, how much he plays between them to make you wait or to leave you wondering how one might impact the other, even indirectly, it's really not a major complaint in the end; even if the stories end up feeling a bit disconnected, it doesn't stop them from being really exciting, really unsettling, really involving, and just really well-crafted. The Reckoning brings everything together, watching as the surviving bank robbers end up angering some very bad men on a few different fronts, but more importantly, letting the simmering tension in Niceville explode into a series of brutal, nightmarish murders. And if all that's not enough, the various threads that have been unspooling through all of the books - the dark legacy of the Teague family, the mysterious parentage of Rainey Teague, the presence in Crater Lake, that ranch with its unusual Harvest - all start coming together to give us some answers, and they're not pleasant ones. The Reckoning is the "all hell breaks loose" book of the series, and it's also the one where the horror feels most able to stand on its own, to the point where I sometimes wished the bank robbery saga could have been set aside just so I could savor the nightmarish happenings in Niceville on their own terms. But Stroud has a lot of payoffs to deliver, and if there's some aspects of the ending that feel a little rushed or confusing (most notably an unexpected and probably undeserved act of forgiveness and a strange new partnership that both come near the end of the book), Stroud nails the resolution of his main storyline. More than that, he does so while still demonstrating the skill at crime, the skill at horror, and the skill at dialogue that's anchored the whole series. I don't know much else about Carsten Stroud; I don't know if he always blurs genres like this, or if he's a more "traditional" author. But whatever the case, he's fascinated and captivated me with this fascinating, unusual trilogy, creating a rich world, some truly compelling and fascinating characters, and demonstrating the ability to merge violence and horror into something wholly different and still incredibly successful. I loved the series, and if I thought a few aspects of the end were a little rough, those are minor flaws compared to how much I loved this funny, scary, tense, exciting, and just plain great series.
10-12 The
by Carsten
The Homecoming is the second book in the Niceville trilogy, a series that first came to my attention for the fact that it got heavy praise from the odd pairing of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. Having read the first two books, though, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate pairing for this series; part crime saga, part horror tale, and all told with great dialogue and strong character work, the Niceville series has hooked me pretty well at this point. In many ways, I'm surprised as to how closely The Homecoming follows up on the events of the original Niceville, given that that book felt fairly self-contained. But really, the two key events that drove Niceville - the bank robbery that left so many dead and the strange disappearance (and reappearance) of Rainey Teague - continue to make their impact felt in The Homecoming. The bank robbery still isn't solved, despite the arrest of a suspect at the end of Niceville; even so, that's less concerning than the fact that a slew of locked-up Mafia men have become aware of the incident, and more important, have become aware of the suspect who's been arrested - a man they're very keen on catching up with. As for Rainey, he's awake and adopted, but he's not the same boy he once was, and it's becoming very clear that whoever - or whatever - Rainey is now, he's inextricably linked to the darkness and horror that seems to lie buried (and not too deeply) in the little town of Niceville. To explain more would be to give away the fun of the book; suffice to say, there's a heck of a standoff in a surprising mall store, a trip to a most unwelcome sanitarium, a lot of revelations about the history of Niceville, and a whole lot of bloodshed to come. Stroud handles this all ridiculously well; his dialogue frequently has me laughing out loud moments before he sucker punches you with the violence and horror that permeates the book, and the result is a book that's equal parts entertaining, exciting, unnerving, tense, and just plain gripping. It's also hard to classify it, because as a crime novel, it's a great one; as a horror novel, it's also fantastic; and yet, it still hasn't become clear if those two halves will combine, and if they do, how that collision will go. Even if they don't, that's not going to stop the series from being something truly fantastic; I had planned on taking a break before reading the conclusion, but with the way The Homecoming ends, that's not happening; I need to know how this all goes. I have a feeling it's going to be very, very bad...but I can't wait to see it all happen. Well-written, exciting, funny, scary, and just plain great, I can't recommend the series enough - if you're adventurous enough to take on a crime/horror hybrid with a great wit, you're going to love the way this all plays out.
10-5 From Away:
Book One
, by
Deke Mackey, Jr.
When Deke Mackey reached out to me about reading and reviewing From Away, he mentioned that he saw the series as a paranormal mystery with Lovecraftian elements. And while that's a great selling point, it's also a worrying one; if there's an adjective that's been abused and overused in the world of horror, it's "Lovecraftian". And yet, From Away nicely fits the description, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than focusing on the cosmic horrors yet to come, Mackey nails the strange, oppressive atmosphere that Lovecraft did so well, particularly when it came to his standoffish, unwelcoming towns. And that makes sense here - while the first entry in this (reportedly seven-book) serial is more about setup than out-and-out horror, there's a real sense of Lovecraft in the isolated community, the fear of the unknown, the sense of an insular town that wants no part of the outside world, and so much more. After all, this is the story of a small island that's perfectly happy on its own, looks down on outsiders, and seems to actively resist any efforts to intrude or investigate - how much more clearly could you draw on Lovecraft's traditions? Of course, it's hard to judge From Away: Book One too much on its own terms; as I said, it's part one of a much longer work, and as such, it's hard to know how all of the stories will play out in the long run. But Mackey has set up some great plot threads in this first entry, from a young girl finally visiting that strange island where her father grew up, to a young boy who's starting to realize just how strange that island may really be, to a drug addict who's being asked to stop the construction of a bridge to the island. With cabals of old men who are the keepers of memory for the island, groups of nuns whose purpose is unclear and yet ominous, watchmen who don't even know what they're watching for anymore, and so much more, From Away: Book One builds a rich and fascinating world, fills it with interesting characters, and leaves you hungry to know more. If there's a complaint, it's that this is almost too short for a first entry in a serial; this still feels like prologue, to some degree, and I feel like just a little more depth and some initial payoffs might hook the reader even more. But given how mad I was when I realized I was at the end, and how much I wanted to read the second volume almost immediately, maybe he is doing something right after all.
10-3 A Song of
, by
John Connolly
It's not like I was going to wait long for A Song of Shadows anyway. Since debuting with the incredible Every Dead Thing, John Connolly has been a must-read author for me, delivering not just uncommonly terrifying and intense thrillers, but doing so with astonishing prose that leaves me in awe. Add to that the gripping saga of detective Charlie Parker, and I was already going to pick this up day one. But between the cliffhanger ending of The Wolf in Winter and the way Connolly has been asking European fans to keep quiet about the ending of this one until it got a US release, and I was even more eager than usual. So it's a surprise, in some ways, that A Song of Shadows is as quiet as it is. It makes sense, mind you; given the state Parker was in at the end of the last book, giving us a break in the intensity was almost necessary. But that quiet is deceptive, as Parker's convalescence ends up drawing him into the hunt for Nazi war criminals hiding in the United States, and forcing him into confrontations with villains who hold their own against any that Connolly has created. (And given Connolly's creations in the past, that should make you nervous.) And if that's not enough, there's also Parker's growing concerns about his young daughter, who's not acting quite herself lately. If there's a flaw with A Song of Shadows, it's that it feels like a few different stories kind of thrown together, and some don't quite fit; there's Parker's recovery and efforts to figure out his place in this life, there's his concerns about Sam, and there's the Nazi criminals. Sometimes, those come together nicely; other times, it feels a little forced. But that's forgivable, in many ways, simply because Connolly gives each story its proper weight and time, exploring each with his usual incredible prose, rich characters, and haunting moral depth. And some of the developments here, particularly the ending and the way it sets up a whole new chapter in the series, are rewarding not only as a long-time fan of the series, but also just as a reader. Why? Because it all means that Connolly shows no signs of slowing down. And when one of the way authors working today - not just one of the best horror/thriller writers, but one of the best, period - wants to keep on going, that's a treat for all of us
9-27 Thirteen Ways
of Looking
, by
Colum McCann
The good and bad of getting copies of books to review is that you never know what to expect. Sometimes, that can be a curse, as a book that sounds intriguing turns out to be terribly written. But sometimes, as with Thirteen Ways of Looking, it's a blessing, as a book you know nothing about turns out to be beautifully written and crafted, filled with exquisite prose and wonderful moments, and constantly surprising. Most of Thirteen Ways of Looking is filled with the titular novella, a haunting tale of a former judge now in the twilight of his life who's preparing to go out to meet his son for lunch. And yet, thanks to a series of alternating chapters, that this will be the last day of the judge's life, and that he will be murdered by the time the day is out. Rather than using this only for suspense, though, McCann turns the story into a meditation on the impact we leave behind us, as the judge thinks back to younger days, wonder how much he truly shaped the man who was once his little boy, and struggles to make his peace with his old age. It's a beautiful, moving piece of writing throughout, and McCann manages it all beautifully, using his obvious poetic skills (even before reading about McCann, it's obvious that he's a poet at heart) to spin meditations out of everyday moments, find the awful beauty in a murder investigation, and more. The short stories that follow are almost as good; while the first, a piece of metafiction about an author trying to write a story about a soldier in Iraq, feels a little empty despite its obvious care and craft, the next two are perfect, once again turning the drama of everyday life into something more. One finds a mother grappling with the sudden vanishing of her child and her realization that she may have already been losing him before his disappearance; the other finds a nun forced to confront her most buried traumas. That final story, along with the author's note that follows the collection, makes certain themes come into focus - the way trauma can linger with us, the way we reflect on our own lives and question our choices, the way the past bleeds into the present. But more than that, what you're left with is truly beautiful, astonishing prose capable of true insight, turning people's lives into works of art simply by virtue of their presence.
9-26 The Calling,
by Robert
The Calling doesn't make you wait long before laying it on the table for you. This is not a book for the faint of heart, Robert Swartwood seems to be telling you, but more than that, this isn't necessarily the book you expect, either. This is a book that opens with a recent high school graduate awakening to find that his parents have been butchered in the room next to him while he slept, and to find a mark which certainly seems as though he'll be next. But it's also a book that follows that scene with one in which that graduate grapples with the notion of God in a universe where such things can happen, and allows him to vent his rage at any deity that could allow it to happen. That's the first sense that The Calling isn't quite what you expect; it's a brutal, nasty piece of horror fiction, one that moves like a rocket and never really lets up once it's started. But it's also something more complex, diving into theology and spiritual warfare in an interesting way, all while never turning into preaching or cheap proselytizing. (Indeed, I'm not sure if Swartwood is a believer himself, or merely using the ideas for a horror novel, but it really doesn't matter to the quality of the book.) The Calling does some fascinating things over the course of its story, most notably in a graduation sequence that finds our hero seeing things in a very different way than he might have expected. If there's a shortcoming to the book, it's that, once you realize what's going on in this world, there's little in the way of surprises from then on out; there are a couple of interesting reveals (and a particularly nasty one near the end), but by and large, The Calling sets up its story and then unfolds pretty directly from there. But that's not really a bad thing, not when you have this interesting of a story to unfold, and not when it's told with this great pace and unrelenting tension. Swartwood knows how to stage a climax or a showdown, and knows the strength of keeping things brief (this is a man, after all, who's written a lot of "hint fiction," which are stories of 25 words or less), which helps the story ever keep from slowing down, and leaves you constantly asking questions. It's a gripping piece of horror, and if it doesn't quite become the book I expected from that brutal beginning, it's to the book's credit that the direction it does go is so interesting and unusual that I didn't mind at all.
9-21 Skyshaker, by Dean F. Wilson
I wasn't quite sure what to make of Hopebreaker, the first book in Dean F. Wilson's Iron War series, when Wilson first sent it to me to review. There was a lot I liked about it - an incredibly rich world, solid characters, great action - but I felt like Wilson rushed through the background, throwing us in without giving us much context, and ultimately leaving the villains of the series a little bit of a blank slate. Now, three books into the series (which Wilson continues to send to me, even with my misgivings, something that makes me admire his willingness to take a chance), maybe I'm getting used to the world; maybe I'm just resigned to the fact that the demonic occupiers of the series will always be a little cryptic; maybe Wilson is compensating by really fleshing out his human characters; or maybe the series is just getting better with each book. Whatever the case, Skyshaker - the third book in the series - is the best of the already solid set, finding the characters grappling with their own shortcomings, demons, and pasts, sometimes in a very literal sense. Each book has orbited around a single massive military vehicle - the tank named Hopebreaker, the titular submarine of Lifemaker, and now the flying warship Skyshaker - but something about the aerial combat brings out the best of Wilson's action sequences, as our heroes raid one of the great outposts of this war in a battle that takes place both on ground and air. More than that, death starts coming more and more often in this book, as Wilson shows a willingness to kill off even characters we might have assumed were safe throughout the life of the series, and to shake up assumptions we've made about others for three books now. The result is a really engaging, exciting, fun read, and the best of the set so far. I had assumed the Iron War would be a trilogy, but it seems like Wilson has bigger plans for the series; luckily, his world, his characters, and his storytelling seem like they're up to the task, creating a genuinely involving story about a resistance against an unimaginable foe. And if I still wish we had a little more depth on the invaders, well, that says something too; it's always nice when a book leaves me wanting more instead of wanting less, and this is one of the rare review copies I've gotten where I wish there was more to be found. If you're into military conflicts, into epic wars, and love a hint of steampunk without it being overwhelming, you ought to check this out. Start from the beginning; the price is low, and the enjoyment well worth what you'll pay as this series continues to get better and better as it goes along.
9-19 Ticket on
a Crippled
, by Robert
Robert Kettering is a pretty entertaining writer. He's got a great manic sensibility, and his voice works wonderfully in creating this ADHD-style narrator who's constantly juggling a bunch of different threads, plot ideas, a book, and multiple lovers. So, whatever else I'm going to say about Ticket on a Crippled Crab, know that I think Kettering isn't a bad writer. What he is bad at, though, is storytelling. I think, deep down, he even knows it a little bit; his narrator frequently comments that he's bad at focusing, and that he has a tendency to ramble on. But knowing you have an issue with something doesn't necessarily excuse it, and when you're telling a crime story - even a goofy, farcical one like this - you need to be able to find a throughline somewhere. Instead, Ticket is borderline incomprehensible, wandering all over creation, tossing together too many characters, not quite bringing enough to full life, and trying to put together a convoluted storyline that would be complicated even without a narrator who can't focus. The result, then, is a book whose cleverness and wit end up feeling exhausting and irritating, not fun. And that's a shame, because I would enjoy Kettering's anecdotes in brief doses, and liked the way he wasn't afraid to make his narrator the butt of the joke. But as a novel, what's entertaining for a few pages gets wearying, and the fact that the story makes no sense becomes frustrating, not funny. Kettering is clearly a gifted writer, and I bet his essays and short stories are a lot of fun. But this voice doesn't work for a novel; no matter how good the writing is, you end up feeling like you're trapped at a party with a rambling blowhard who's fun at first, but just doesn't know when to stop.
9-18 Faking Normal,
by Courtney
C. Stevens
It's not surprising to find out that Courtney Stevens has a background in counseling. After all, this is a book that begins with a funeral, and features not one but two teenage characters going through a healing process after suffering very different traumas. One is a teenage boy whose family was shattered by a horrific crime; another, Lexi (our narrator), is still a shell after an experience over her summer has left her hiding from the world and "faking normal". And whatever else you say about Faking Normal, you can't deny the verisimilitude Stevens brings to her characters, each of whom is struggling to figure out what to do next, and whose personalities feel genuinely shaped and influenced by these events. Indeed, much of the book's strength comes from its realistic and genuinely heartbreaking depiction of traumatic damage, as we watch these characters doing their best to forgive themselves and make their peace with those who've wronged them. What that means, though, is that Faking Normal works best as a character study; as the book attempts to get more plot-oriented, it works a little less well. That comes through the most in the choice to make Lexi's attacker a mystery, something which serves to intrigue but ultimately feels a little cheap, as though this horrific trauma is being used to set up a twist instead of informing her character. (That it retroactively makes some scenes less sensible doesn't help either, as you find yourself feeling like Stevens made her narrator hold back information to preserve the twist.) Even so, though, it's hard not to feel the genuine pain and emotion running through Faking Normal, and it's to Stevens' credit that the characters feel like real teenagers recovering from real pain, and not a bad Hallmark special or something. And more than anything, that's what makes the book so successful, even with its missteps; whatever the plot issues may be, Stevens makes these characters come to life, and respects their pain, making the story not about what it's about, but about how it goes about it.
9-16 Niceville, by
Carsten Stroud
Not a lot of books get blurbs by both Stephen King and Elmore Leonard, and it's not really hard to understand why; while the two men definitely have some commonalities, their respective genres of horror and crime are usually so disparate that there wouldn't be much call to have them both endorse a book. But here they both are on Niceville, and justly so; it's the rare book that's equal parts crime novel and horror story, and the rarer still that does both incredibly well. Summarizing the plot to Niceville isn't a simple task; suffice to say, the book opens with the disappearance of a young boy that rapidly becomes deeply unsettling, moves on to a bloodbath of a robbery, and finally ends up with a vicious custody hearing that becomes a humiliating defeat for a man with a seething temper. How all of these various plot threads connect is best left for the reader to discover, but rest assured, connect they do, and in such a way that feels natural and satisfying, even as things get more and more violent, the plot keeps twisting, and events keep becoming more and more inexplicable. I've never read Stroud before, but this is enough to make me a fan for years to come; even as he's juggling all of these plot arcs, he never lets his character work drop, creating literally dozens of characters and letting them all live and breathe in their own way, and filling the pages with great conversations and dialogue that makes the Leonard connection all the clearer. More than that, Stroud uses the crime and horror aspects beautifully, playing them off of each other to keep the book unpredictable and constantly unnerving, as you start to wonder when and how these events will connect - and who might survive. There are two more books in the Niceville trilogy, and while the ending of Niceville gives you a good sense of where we're going from here, it's still a self-contained, satisfying story, even if it leaves you wanting more. More than that, it's a good story, moving like a rocket, constantly surprising you, entertaining you, and giving you a serious case of the creeps when you let your guard down. I absolutely loved it, and I'm diving into books 2 and 3 as soon as I possibly can. And if you're the kind of person who wonders about a book that could get both Leonard and King's stamps of approval, you need to check this out post-haste.
9-9 Heroes of Earth,
by Martin
Whatever else I could say about Heroes of Earth, I can't say that it doesn't have interesting ideas. There's a lot going on in Heroes of Earth - the book may open with humanity controlled by a (somewhat) benevolent alien dictatorship, but by the time everything ends, there are parallel worlds, dragons, terrorist uprisings, visions of the future, another alien race which seems to find purpose in controlling our destiny, and much more. More than that, though, author Martin Berman-Gorvine is interested in the morality of choice, spending his time on each character as they choose the nature of their own rebellion. Are they creatures of violence, or creatures of a more philosophical bent? It's all satisfying material, by and large, but it's also pretty bludgeoning throughout. For a book that's so interested in the complicated morality of rebellion, Berman-Gorvine tends to beat the reader over the head with other points, letting characters and the environment make the points over and over again until there's not much nuance left. Moreover, all those ideas I mentioned at the beginning? They end up making the book feel a little cluttered at points, ultimately detracting from the ongoing story simply by virtue of having too much going on and not enough time to juggle it all quite well enough. For all of that, there's something still engaging for the way that Berman-Gorvine allows his characters to wrestle with the implications of their choices, and something satisfying about a book that makes its heroes question whether out and out rebellion and violence truly are the best path. Yes, I wish it had gotten less heavy-handed in the building of its world; yes, I wish Berman-Gorvine had reigned himself in a little bit. But it's still an engaging, interesting read, and if it tries a little too much, well, that's far better than not trying enough.
9-6 Beasts, by
Brendan Detzner
A solid, engaging, entertaining collection of short stories, Beasts boasts a lot of range, which is a good way to start making a name for yourself as an author. A woman is stalked by one of her murder victims, who keeps returning at a different (and younger) age. A detective takes a case which finds him investigating a murder - oh, and meeting a young man with wings. A (literal) skeleton millionaire prepares for his annual Halloween party. A woman gets into a tow truck and flirts with a driver, while strange spirits watch her from outside. And if that's not enough, how about nine very different takes on the age-old rivalry between Sasquatch and Chupacabra, told as everything from office politics to savage warfare? Detzner's got a great imagination, but more than that, he's got a gift for knowing how to use the limited real estate of a short story well. Nothing here overstays its welcome, and indeed, a lot of them leave enough to the imagination to be truly satisfying in a way that overexplaining wouldn't have accomplished. By and large, this is a horror collection, but it's hard to really pigeonhole it entirely as that; some feel closer to science-fiction of a Bradbury bent, while some feel more akin to Neil Gaiman's sense of strange closeness to something primal and magical. Some are just plain fun, while others are grim and unsettling in the extreme. The only real complaint I have about Beasts is that they're all good, but none of them are great in the way you want from a short story collection; I spent the whole read enjoying all of it but never quite feeling that push into out and out love that the best stories can make for you. But that being said, I still think it's a great collection, and it's a solid testament to Detzner's imagination and idea-generating capacity; it's definitely got me wondering what else he's got floating around that head of his.
9-4 Go Set a
by Harper Lee
It's hard to know how to approach Go Set a Watchman, really. I mean, let's set aside the complicated question about whether this should have been published for the time being; while it's a legitimate question to raise, the fact remains that the book is out, one way or the other. And it's undeniably a book that needed some work; whether it's a first draft of the story that would eventually lead to To Kill a Mockingbird or a follow-up or some hybrid of the two is hard to say; there are some elements that definitely suggest the "first draft" idea (most notably a brief allusion to the Tom Robinson case which strongly implies that the case originally played out much differently in Lee's mind), while much of the book simply doesn't work as anything other than a long-delayed sequel to the book. Indeed, the entire premise of the book - in which a now grown Scout (Jean Louise, these days) returns to Maycomb and is forced into realizing that her father isn't the man she thought he was - almost feels like a response to Mockingbird and the sanctification of Atticus Finch. Whatever Watchman is, it's without a doubt a flawed piece of work. It's uneven and piecemeal, peppering its length with wonderful stories of Scout's youth that never quite come together into a whole; moreover, while To Kill a Mockingbird handled its themes gracefully and lightly, Watchman gets heavy-handed and didactic, especially in the final few chapters, which become little more than dueling monologues. And yet, for all that, I still quite liked Watchman, which responds to the childlike simplicity of Mockingbird by reminding us that life isn't all black and white, and that the myth of the "great white savior" is just that - a myth. Watchman is an angry, frustrated book, and it's hard to imagine it coming out back in the 1960's; even today, it comes out swinging and doesn't hold back, and if it occasionally goes a bit heavy on its points, it's still a rich response to those who've argued that Mockingbird presents a man so good that he couldn't be real. Indeed, for all the controversy about how Lee has changed Atticus Finch, it's hard not to feel that this is indeed the same man of Mockingbird, only seen through the eyes of an adult, not an adoring child - and that the feelings of shock and betrayal that seemed to be everywhere on the release of the book mirror Scout's to a T. No, Go Set a Watchman isn't To Kill a Mockingbird...but honestly, did anyone really expect it to be? Instead, what we got is something undeniably flawed, but more complex, more adult, and less comforting...and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Do I wish Go Set a Watchman had been edited and revised a bit more? Without a doubt; there are seeds in here of an astonishing companion piece to Mockingbird, one that could have held its own, but they're covered by the early efforts of a writer who was still finding her voice (and doing it well). But even in this form, Watchman is a fascinating and complex follow-up to the book, and if it changes the way we think about Mockingbird, maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe there's something to be said for realizing that the world's a more complicated and difficult place than we thought it was when we were children, and that realizing that is part of what forces us all to grow up.
9-1 Throne of the
Crescent Moon
by Saladin Ahmed
As much as I love a good epic fantasy tale, there's something about a more old-fashioned fantasy yarn - something more akin to a swashbuckling adventure story than the sweeping moral allegory of Lord of the Rings - that always just works for me. But even knowing that fact, it's still hard for me to really explain just how much I thoroughly enjoyed Throne of the Crescent Moon, a great story that draws on Middle Eastern influences and legends (rather than the usual Arthurian fare) to create something that feels unique and fresh, but which truly works because of its wonderful character work. Yes, there's no denying the fact that Throne benefits hugely from its Arabic traditions, which include a protagonist whose profession is "ghul hunter," a far more religious populace (one that heavily draws on Islamic tradition), and a setting that feels more like ancient Arabia than it does medieval Europe. But while all of that makes Throne stand out, none of it makes it as fun as it is, as Ahmed spins a great tale about an ancient evil striving to take over the kingdom by way of forgotten lore, tribal warriors avenging the death of their tribes, and a vibrant city at the brink of civil war. More than that, though, Throne works because of its characters. Its main protagonist, Doctor Adoulla Mahkslood, is an aging man, and one of the last ghul hunters alive; he's a man whose chosen path has isolated him from the life he might have lived. And yet, for all of that, Adoulla is still a man of earthly pleasures - a man who loves his tea, his comfortable home, his books. And while he's undoubtedly a force for good, as well as a devout believer, he's also a down-to-earth pragmatist, which makes him a wonderful contrast to his young, fervent, strict partner, a religious warrior who's trained his entire life to battle evil with his swords. It's a great variation on the wise mentor and young hotshot trope, one that finds infinite joys in the conflicting perspectives, the wildly different worldviews, and the gaps in knowledge. That sort of approach leads to rewarding characters everywhere, whether it be the young tribal girl who carries a special ability, Adoulla's various friends and compatriots, or even the Robin Hood-like figure who lurks on the edges of the book. It all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written, exciting, and just generally fun read, and in a time when fantasy is increasingly a competition to see who can create the most dystopian world or the most epic saga, there's something so satisfying about something that sets out to be enjoyable, create a rich world, and fill it with an engaging, exciting adventure. It's a must read for any fantasy fan, and maybe even those who think they might not be that kind of thing. As for me, the fact that it's Ahmed's first novel only means that we have many, many more to come, and hopefully they'll be here before we know it.
8-29 The Paradiso,
by Dante Alighieri
(translated by
John Ciardi)
It's hard to know what one could possibly say about The Divine Comedy, one of the true masterpieces of literature. I first read The Inferno in high school, and loved it even then; there's something astonishing about Dante's vision, his imagination, his ability to create this fascinating world where sins are sorted, crimes are paid back with poetic and appropriate cruelty, and one man progresses through the layers, absorbing it all as he goes. But rereading Inferno this week - along with the choice to finally read the rest of the trilogy - made me appreciate Dante's skill on a far greater level. To read all of the Divine Comedy is to be staggered by the level of accomplishment on display, as Dante spins a truly epic piece of poetry about nothing short of the redemption of the soul and man's struggle to make sense of the universe. And yet, not content with the rich allegory on display, Dante immerses us in all three levels of the afterlife, be they the horrific punishments of Hell, the slow but painful rehabilitation of Purgatory, or the (literally) indescribable joys of Paradise. And linking it all together is Dante's astonishing language, creating rich metaphors, exploring complex questions of theology, linking his cantos and his stanzas in ever-growing complex manners, and generally just astonishing you with its beauty. Much of that, of course, probably owes some debt to translator John Ciardi, who brings his poetic perspective to bear in recreating Dante's work, but also provides rich and fascinating footnotes that provide much-needed context to the work. Indeed, more than that, Ciardi illuminates the poetic complexities on display through Dante while still making the work accessible for even more casual readers. (That may be more true for Inferno than the second two parts, which become far more complex, theoretical, and abstract.) It's hard to imagine there being a better translation than Ciardi's out there, really; many of the other ones I've read are either too stilted, too formal, or are so committed to fidelity that they lose the life needed for Dante's voice to truly come through. But in Ciardi's capable hands, The Divine Comedy comes alive, not just working as a complex allegory but bringing to vivid life Dante's images of the afterlife - images that remain as imaginative, vivid, and astonishing as they were 700 years ago when it was first written. It's a complex work, and as you get deeper into it, it becomes more and more difficult, grappling with difficult questions and depicting something which is truly beyond human ability to understand. And yet, that only makes it all the more rewarding to read it all, and leaves you in awe of the whole achievement both as a work of literature and as a look at what it means to be human, a believer, and a part of the universe.
8-28 The Purgatorio,
by Dante Alighieri (translated by
John Ciardi)
8-25 The Inferno, by
Dante Alighieri
(translated by
John Ciardi)
8-22 Tempus Fugit!, by Kenneth Joyce
I've certainly read worse-written short story collections than Kenneth Joyce's Tempus Fugit!. Indeed, whatever else I can say about this, the fact that Joyce has clearly proofread his self-published work, which is far more than sometimes happens. Unfortunately, that's about the best I have to say about this book, which manages to take any number of interesting ideas and turn them into astonishingly empty, pointless stories robbed of any suspense, nuance, or depth. In one story, a woman breaks up with a man, considers killing him, opts out of it, then lives happily ever after. That's it. No great insight. Nothing of note about her characterization. No big point. A thing happens and then she moves on. In another story, a man invents time travel and solves the JFK assassination...and no one cares, nothing happens, and he also moves on with his life. In fact, every single story ends with the equivalent of the captions at the end of American Graffiti that spell out every single thing in everyone's life, and usually manages to hammer a moral home in the least subtle way possible. (How unsubtle? The narration makes frequent use of exclamation points to make sure you're clear.) The narration manages to sour most of the stories, really; sometimes, it spells out plot points in a way that's eye-rollingly heavy-handed, while other times, it makes sure that the reader knows who's good and who's bad in every story. (There's no shades of gray here; just about every character is either a slimeball or a great hero, with little room for in betweens.) The result are short stories that have some interesting ideas, but are executed in ways that rob them of any impact, thoughtfulness, nuance, or depth, rendering all of them instantly D.O.A. It's among the most frustrating and infuriating collections I've ever read, not because it's so awful, but because it's so bland that it's more frustrating than something you could entirely dismiss. There's good ideas in here, but the storytelling has a way of robbing all of them of any life, spirit, or complexity they might have had.
8-21 Windeye, by
Brian Evenson
It's hard to describe the strange, unsettling stories of Brian Evenson in any sort of short review. Evenson's a horror writer, make no mistake, but he's an uncommonly literary one, which is not an adjective that finds use often in the horror genre. And, to be sure, when it does appear, it's often in a derogatory sense, with a sense that it's an author who won't fully commit to his horrors, or who's so cerebral that the stories are more satisfying on an intellectual level than a visceral one. That's not the case with Evenson, who's willing to use stunning acts of violence, but prefers his horrors psychological and moody. His stories create the sort of world where your sister disappears and leaves you questioning whether you even had a sister, or the sort of world where your ear begins to hear things that may be from someone else's body entirely, or the act of climbing into a diving suit becomes a gateway to some unimaginable realm. And the result is some unholy fusion of Lovecraft's unease about our world, Poe's keen sense of psychological deterioration, and Cormac McCarthy's stark, unforgiving prose. The experience, then, is unlike much else out there, and it's not for those who prefer their horror splattery and simple. Evenson is far more insidious in his craft, gradually undermining your sense of reality, your sense of self, and your sense of ease in the world, using his carefully constructed narratives to immerse you into the minds of people whose world is crumbling around them. Strange family farms atop caves inhabited by shadowy forms, houses with more windows on the outside than the inside, minds for whom sound is moving out of sync with the world around it - all of these and more are the playgrounds that Evenson dwells in, and in every tale, he traps you in his world and gets deeply under your skin. It's satisfying, gripping, disturbing horror, and it's another testament to Evenson's staggering talent as perhaps the most satisfying, unique horror author working today.
8-16 Bloodgate, by
Luis Filipe Alves
Like any good short story, "Bloodgate" moves quickly, setting up its ideas efficiently and neatly before moving quickly and ruthlessly to the inevitable conclusion. Things start calmly enough, as a pair of traveling salesmen return back to their idyllic little town to receive their new assignments. But close friends aren't as open as they once were, tempers seem to be running short, and then there are those dreams and thoughts of violence that keep cropping up...none of which bode well for our inhabitants. Alves demonstrates a knack for quickly building characters and atmosphere, making us attached to these people in short order and making us care about what they're going through, and that's a necessary part of making this story work. Given how things begin to evolve and change, "Bloodgate" could easily be about its twists and reveals, but it's not - it's about how those reveals affect the characters and their lives. With a title like "Bloodgate," it's no spoiler to say that things aren't as simple as they first appear, but Alves builds the tension nicely, stringing us along until the big reveal - and then still surprising us by giving us the ending we might not have expected. It's a satisfying, enjoyable little story, one that's got a nasty bite but works by investing us in the characters and immersing us in their perspectives as everything starts to unravel.
8-16 Trial Run, by Thomas Locke
You can't fault Trial Run for having a lack of ambition. Anchored around a series of experiments in which people have learned how to separate their consciousness from their body, Trial Run follows two factions, both armed with this power, as they find uses for this science in ways that have ramifications for both the government and for anyone wanting power. That's enough for most books, but Trial Run also tosses in a few love stories, a strange supernatural force that keeps capturing team members as they drift free of their corporeal attachments, a man receiving visions from his future self. and much more. None of that is necessarily bad, but it all lends to the overly cluttered feel of the book, as the reader often feels pretty lost as to what's going on, what side everyone is affiliated with, and what exactly anyone's goals are. Locke doesn't do the reader any favors, either; he provides almost no exposition whatsoever, leaving it to the reader to figure out the relationships between the groups, keep all the characters straight, and even figure out what's going on with people's bodies. In other words, Locke doesn't even explain the central conceit of the book - the ability to project consciousness - and instead expects the reader to figure it all out on their own. It's the old maxim "show, don't tell" taken to extremes, and the result is more frustrating than intriguing, making you feel constantly like you're a few steps behind anything that's going on and a little baffled as to what any of it means. Trial Run has some phenomenal ideas, and there's every sense that Locke has built a rich and interesting world, but he fails pretty badly at helping a reader understand that world. And the result is a thriller that frustrates more than it excites, leaving me constantly wanting to like it more than I ever could.
8-9 Fear City, by
F. Paul Wilson
With Fear City, F. Paul Wilson brings his Repairman Jack "early years" trilogy to an end, to say nothing of the character, who's moving into retirement for a while. It's hard not to feel that retirement might be the best thing for Jack; as much as I dearly love the character and his story, Jack has become so entwined in his mythology and the complex plotting of the series that it's hard to let him cut loose in the way that made the early entries in the series so much fun. At its best moments, the "Early Years" trilogy in general and Fear City specifically manages to recapture that sense of fun; at its weakest points, though, it feels like more of the same, a rich and exciting character whose life is so dictated by fate that there's not much room for his great personality. That problem gets compounded somewhat in Fear City, when the plot begins to align with real-world events in a way that never quite settles right for me. (Without spoiling much, those who had issues with Wilson's decision to incorporate 9/11 into the saga's arc may have similar issues with Fear City.) Add to that Wilson's constant use of Muslim terrorists as one-note villains and a slew of characters who all seem defined by their ethnicity, and you have a book that shouldn't really work, and honestly gets genuinely troubling and borderline offensive at times. And yet, somehow, Fear City still works as a great piece of entertainment. Part of that is Wilson's gift for plotting; it's genuinely exciting to see Wilson put the pieces together, as a couple of big reveals here legitimately shocked me, and left me smiling as I realized how carefully he plotted out this trilogy. Part of that is his knack for pacing and action, both of which come through in spades as everything builds to a climax that brings all of the book's threads together. And, to be sure, a lot of it is Jack, whose raw inexperience, enthusiasm, and personality still anchor a book every bit as well as it did back in The Tomb. Fear City (and the "Early Years" trilogy as a whole) isn't my favorite Jack story. It's filled with flaws, Wilson's fatigue with the character shows a bit, and the mythology ends up crushing some of the fun. But for all of that, it's a last run with a great character, and Wilson delivers in a way that counts, showing us some of Jack's formative experiences that legitimately feels like a flashback and not just "Jack with less wrinkles". It's not a place to start for newcomers, and it's probably a set of the series that's more for fans than for casual readers. But who reads the Jack books and doesn't become a fan, I ask you?
8-5 Dark City, by
F. Paul Wilson
I decided to re-read the first two entries in the "Early Years" saga of Repairman Jack before I finally caught up on the final entry, and while I'm glad I did - and I've enjoyed the reread - I can't deny that I've noticed a few more problems along the way this time. Wilson leans a little hard on some of his character beats, and it gets more noticeable any time we're talking about ethnic groups. (Has Abe's Yiddish always been so thick, or is it just standing out more for some reason?) That's most notable every time Wilson dives into his Muslim terrorists, a plot thread that's never quite set well with me even in Ground Zero, and it still bothers me as it paints with a pretty broad brush and comes dangerously close to lumping all Arabs together. (It manages to avoid that, but only barely.) And, yes, I still hate Wilson's recent trend of splitting storylines among books without even a sense of making the book have a self-contained climax or satisfying wrap up that works until the next volume. But even with some of those issues, I've also got to admit that the series works so much better as a prequel than it has any right to. So many prequels force themselves to answer every single question or spend forever setting up the main series; meanwhile, Wilson gives us a much younger Jack, pushing him towards the man he'll be in The Tomb and giving us a sense of how he got his start, and - more importantly - some signs of the learning curve he had to go through. And, if that's not enough, it's a great way to visit Jack one last time - mostly freed of the baggage that came with the Adversary Cycle, and back to the fixes and the wits that hooked so many of us in the first place.
8-1 Cold City, by
F. Paul Wilson
7-28 The Sisters
, by
Patrick Dewitt
There's little way to describe The Sisters Brothers without invoking Charles Portis's great True Grit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, both are Westerns with a bit of a revisionist/unique perspective, and both share a similar voice - an intelligent, slightly wordy, slightly awkward tone. But while that forms the obvious reference point, it doesn't really begin to describe the charmingly odd Sisters Brothers, which follows our titular brothers (whose last name is Sisters) as they make their way across the wilderness to track down a man for their boss. The brothers are guns for hire, you see, and they're exceptionally dangerous ones, and that might lead you to expect something incredibly violent, something akin to Unforgiven. Instead, The Sisters Brothers is wonderfully unpredictable, meandering its way through fancy dinners, unsettling witchcraft, mangled horses, possible alchemy, and so much more. But more than that, the book is anchored by the voice of its narrator, Eli Sisters, a man who's never quite comfortable in the role that fate has cast him in. Indeed, no matter what strange situation the brothers find themselves in, much of the joy of the book comes from Eli's musings and discussions, whether it's his considering of a diet to impress women, his deep love of toothpaste, or his odd kinship with the horse he sort of hates. Yes, The Sisters Brothers is a bit meandering, to put it mildly; it's very much a book that's more about the journey than the destination, and even if that final chapter is kind of beautiful, it's clear that the book is more about enjoying all of the incidents that make it up. But while that occasionally makes the whole feel like a little less than the sum of the parts, it's hard to detract from the great writing, the compelling characters, the rich setting, and the great episodes that keep the book moving along. It's a book that feels of a piece with True Grit, and especially the Coen brothers' wonderful take on the novel.
7-22 Trust No One,
by Paul Cleave
The fantastic, taut thriller Trust No One opens with a nasty little first chapter, in which a man confesses to a brutal murder while eying the female detective he's talking with and fantasizing about her. But as the chapter continues, we start to realize some things aren't adding up, and by the end, here's what we realize: this man isn't a murderer. He's a crime writer named Jerry Grey, and he suffers from Alzheimer's, which has caused him to begin to confuse his books with reality. That's heartbreaking stuff, and some other details in that opening chapter - him seeing his daughter, and realizing how cold she is to him, and that she only calls him by his first name, certainly doesn't bode well for their relationship - set up Trust No One as a rough read. But as the book continues, we start to realize that Jerry's innocence isn't as simple a case as we might think. Indeed, one of the many strengths of Trust No One is the fact that we're never really sure about Jerry, any more than he is. Is he a murderer, or a confused, sick man - or both? Cleave switches between Jerry's illness journal and the "current" events as they unfold in the book, allowing both to comment on the other and leave us constantly questioning Jerry's sanity and reliability as a narrator. And as things continue to spiral out of control, things get more and more complicated, and Jerry becomes less and less likely to emerge as a hero. The only real grumble I have with Trust No One is two big revelations at the end, one of which seems bizarrely out of nowhere (if it's even true, which is up for debate), and the other of which seems a little predictable. But that's forgiven for how well it's executed, and how well Cleave ties everything together in that fantastic closing chapter. Trust No One is a great piece of thriller writing, one that kept me glued to every page and constantly questioning everything that was going on all the way to the final pages. It's well-written, perfectly crafted, and absolutely tense with anxiety, and recommend it wholeheartedly.
7-19 Everville:
The Fall of
by Roy Huff
I get copies of books sometimes in exchange for reviews, and sometimes, as with The Fall of Brackenbone, they're entries in a series. Most of the time, I'm told that they work as stand-alone novels or easy gateways for new readers, but that's not always the case, and it's not really the case with Brackenbone. I still followed Brackenbone pretty well, mind you; it's a solid piece of fantasy writing that's partially set in our world, and partially set in a high fantasy world, one still reeling after a massive war that's only recently ended. That war - and all the drama that came along with it - provided a lot of backstory to Brackenbone, and it shaped everything from personal relationships to rules of the world, and this being the fourth entry in the series? It's not super interested in recapping everything. And honestly, it shouldn't - no long reader of a series likes recaps, and it's a sure way to make people complain that you're stalling. And, yes, as I said, I still followed Brackenbone pretty well, as it told of another power play by an evil force, a last ditch effort to save this small city, and the journey of their Earth-dwelling companions as they do their best to understand their own role in everything. Yes, I pretty well followed it all, and I enjoyed it on some level. Huff is a pretty solid writer, and his imagination seems fertile and rich, creating a slew of races, political shifts, and complex worlds. But the entire time I read Brackenbone, I couldn't help but feel that I was missing out on a massive amount of background, and it felt as though I'd be enjoying the book so much more if I'd read the previous books in the series. What's that mean, when you try to write a review? I think Brackenbone is a pretty solid piece of fantasy - it's well-told, it's got some interesting ideas, and it feels like it's got a great world. But I don't feel like it stands on its own in a satisfying way. Is that a bad thing? Not really - not when you're four books into a series. But it does mean that it may not be the best entry in the series to send out for reviews. I think Huff seems like a solid writer, and I think this seems like a solid book...but it's honestly a little hard to know for sure.
7-17 Silver Screen
, by
Patton Oswalt
I really enjoyed Patton Oswalt's first book, a collection of essays called Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, but I'll admit that it's uneven and a little scattered. Still, I was a fan, and am still a fan of Oswalt in general, so I knew I'd be reading Silver Screen Fiend even before I found out that it was about Oswalt's cinematic addiction (an illness I can definitely understand). What I wasn't prepared for, though, was how far Oswalt has come since Wasteland, how much his writing has grown, and how much I would really love Silver Screen Fiend. Using his cinema addiction as a way of crafting his early days in stand-up comedy and showbiz, Silver Screen Fiend is a far more focused book than Wasteland, following Oswalt's growth both professionally and personally as he finds his comedic voice, has a fair-share of screw-ups, and gradually starts to shift his priorities in life. As he did in Wasteland, Oswalt makes an effort to be searingly honest, even when it's less than flattering; he's more than willing to be brutally honest about his flaws and mistakes, and he goes out of his way to be respectful to those he's quarreled with over the years, admitting his own faults and then some. If that's not enough, he gives you a great window into his process, the boom and bust of the stand-up comedy balloon, the joys of success, and any number of great film anecdotes. It's a heartfelt memoir, an honest one, and one written by a truly passionate fan - of film, yes, but also of comedy, of media, and of art. It's a great, intelligent piece of storytelling, and I think it's the book some of us were hoping for when Oswalt first announced he'd try his hand at writing.
7-16 Wings, by
Terry Pratchett
Ho, hum, just another wonderful, funny, rich, intelligent, exciting, moving, fantastic, and just plain great piece of writing from Terry Pratchett. A trilogy of books (and while you can read each book individually, they work better as a continuous story, and buying the collected edition is really the way to go) about small creatures named Nomes, the Bromeliad Trilogy follows the Nomes as they leave the department store that's been their entire world, only to find that everything they thought they knew about the world is pretty far off from the truth. It's a bit of a fable, one about pushing beyond your limits and seeing more of the world (which becomes crystal clear once the title is explained), but as always with Pratchett, there's so much more going on. There's looks at religion and faith, science, cultural shifts, gender roles, language, and so much more that I can't even name it all...but as usual, Pratchett handles it all so adroitly and carefully that it's easy to miss that you're learning anything at all. And that's okay too, because the story itself is a joy on its own terms, delivering a great story, a slew of great comedy, surprisingly moving character beats, and a truly satisfying ending that makes us realize just how far the characters have come. Moreover, it's perfect for just about any age; kids will love the adventure and the comedy, and adults will be fascinated by Pratchett's keen social commentary and philosophical ideas (and the comedy. I mean, seriously. Adults can like that too). The Bromeliad trilogy doesn't get quite as much attention as the Discworld books, and I can understand that, but if you're skipping this, you're skipping a great read that holds its own against anything else the man has done. And if you've never read Pratchett and want a place to start, you couldn't ask for much better than this wonderful, funny, fantastic piece of storytelling.
7-13 Diggers, by
Terry Pratchett
7-9 Truckers, by
Terry Pratchett
7-7 Extremely
Loud and
Incredibly Close
by Jonathan
Safran Foer
Roger Ebert always said that films were not about what they were about; they were about how they went about it. It's true for films, and it's maybe even more true for books, where a writer's craft is often more important than the story. That's definitely true in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose story could easily become cloying or twee and instead becomes profoundly moving thanks to Foer's wonderful, evocative prose. On a basic plot level, Extremely Loud is a novel about a young boy whose father died in 9/11, doing his best to unravel a strange note he finds left behind in his father's belongings. Simultaneously, it's the story of the boy's long-absent grandfather, his reasons for being gone, and his relationship with the boy's grandmother. But in a broader sense, it's about the ways in which people grieve and cope with loss, about the way that war can affect our lives, about the way we heal from our traumas or run away from them. That all sounds like heavy, haunting material, and the book is often as powerful and draining as you might expect from that. But it's also surprisingly funny and joyful, finding humor in its characters and their odd worldviews, going slightly more absurd than you'd expect, playfully toying with the form of the book itself, and just generally being surprising and full of life. It takes what could be an absurdly quirky and oh-so-wacky story and turns it into something far richer and more beautiful than I was prepared for, bringing all of its characters to rich and vibrant life and making their pains and hurts all the more moving. And instead of feeling like some crass exploitation of a national tragedy, it becomes a wider meditation on loss and humanity, one that only uses 9/11 as a starting point for something more universal. It's a book that shouldn't work but does, and that's thanks in no small part to Foer's rich, funny, intelligent, wonderful prose.
7-3 A Long Way
, by
Ishmael Beah
There may be no human experience more utterly alien to me and many other Americans than that of the child soldier. It's all but impossible for us to imagine our lives going in such a direction that we could find ourselves wielding a weapon, burning down houses, shooting and torturing prisoners, and generally losing ourselves in a haze of war and bloodshed. And that, I think, is why Ishmael Beah's book is so essential for people to read, as he documents his life before the change, as a young, innocent, troublemaking child; his descent into madness and violence; his rehabilitation and gradual escape from that life; and, most importantly, his life after the war, as he struggles to cope with the guilt of his actions even as he realizes that he was only a child, and victimized by those in charge. It's a haunting tale, and Beah does it justice, never letting us forget the horrors that have been committed, and never justifying them; only depicting, and letting us understand the experience as he lived it. It's a far more effective method than speaking in generalities; it helps us to understand how he could end up doing the things he did, but it also shows us the lingering damage, as this young boy has his childhood ripped away from him and never returned, leaving scars that will last for a lifetime. It's not a surprise to find out that Beah studied with storytellers later in his life; he has a knack for the process, using details well and distilling his tale to its essence when he needs to, all while never letting us lose sight of the person he is/was at the core of everything. The result is a haunting, disturbing tale, to be sure. The actions taken during Beah's time as a soldier are deeply horrific, and if they're that bad to read about, living with them can only be worse. But Beah doesn't ask for our forgiveness, but our understanding - he wants us to walk a mile in the shoes of these boys, and understand why they end up in this life, and why it's so hard to escape it. It's a powerful book, and a haunting one; it plunges us into a world that most of us are fortunate enough to never have to experience, and makes us see what it's like through the eyes and souls of those who lived it, leaving us thankful for our own sakes and the sakes of our children that we avoided that fate.
6-29 Morality Play,
by Barry Unsworth
It's hard to know exactly how you'd categorize Morality Play. On one level, it's a historical drama, following a medieval priest who's left his order as he falls in with an acting troupe who makes their money drifting from town to town and performing morality tales. On another level, it's a murder mystery, as the troupe becomes fascinated with the recent murder of a young boy and begins to incorporate it into their plays. And on a final level, it's a truly literary novel, one fascinated by the play between entertainment and reality, by the power dynamics of the Middle Ages and how they might be reflected today, and much more. That the book manages to do all of these things and do them well in less than 200 pages is no small feat, and yet Morality Play manages somehow. Indeed, not only does it do these three very different things, but it does them all remarkably well, bringing the time period to rich, detailed life, spinning a gripping narrative around these murders, and exploring any number of themes in a satisfying way that feels organic to the story rather than like some tacked on theorizing. And on top of all of that, it's wonderfully written, most notably during any of the plays themselves, when the story and the characters find a new sort of life that's impossible to describe, even to themselves. If there's a knock on Morality Play, it's the ending; having set up a rich mystery in the middle of this historical drama, Unsworth doesn't quite stick the landing, rushing things to a point where you feel like you want one more chapter than we got. (I actually quite like the aspects of the ending we see, but it feels like we need a little more wrap up than we get, especially given how invested we've become with the characters at this point.) It still makes for a great read, but the abrupt end left me a little dissatisfied in some ways, and that's a shame; it's the one somewhat sour note in this otherwise rich and fascinating little tale, which does so much in its short length that it's hard not to want more of it when you're done.
6-27 I Am Malala, by
Malala Yousafzai
and Christina Lamb
For many of us, Malala was first known to us as a young girl shot by the Taliban in retaliation for her constant advocacy for female education. And while that incident is assuredly part of her story, the main thrust of Malala's memoir is to remind us that she is more than just a violent incident and a miraculous survival. She is the child of an outspoken father who raised her with the values that defined her and a mother who's always supported her. She's not only a fierce advocate of education, but a dedicated student, one who hates to get second in her class and can be reduced to tears at the thought of missing her exams. She is a forced refugee, cast out of her homeland because of her desire to better it. And beyond any of that, she is a bottomless optimist, always seeing the best in people, the chances for improvement, the hope for betterment. Indeed, it's hard not to feel inspired by Malala, not just through her tireless striving for change, but for her uncrushable spirit, which handles blow after blow, setback after setback, all without ever flagging in its dedication to the cause. Would Malala's memoir be better served in the hands of a better writer? In some ways, yes; Malala's prose is functional, but never shows the signs of one whose rhetoric is so inspirational. And when you're dealing with something as complex as the intricacies of Pakistani history, power struggles, tribal feuds, and more, there are definitely times when you wish there was someone with a little more gift for explaining things to an uninformed audience. But for all of that, it's hard to imagine this book without Malala's voice. Yes, it's raw, and earnest, and a little immature. But so is Malala, and in many ways, the book works as well as it does by bringing this girl to life as more than a symbol or a victim or an advocate. She's a person, a sister, a child, a student, a teenager, a Pakistani, a Muslim, and so much more, and there's something about reading her own words that makes her jump out of the page. It's a remarkable story about a truly remarkable girl, and one who it's not hard to view a role model, an inspiration, and a hero once you read her story, no matter how much she might try to deny it.
6-22 Locke & Key,
Vol. 6: Alpha
& Omega
by Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
Ending a horror story is always difficult. By its nature, horror is a genre about battles between good and evil, which means that nearly every horror story ever written comes down to a final showdown. And when the stakes get high, as they have in Locke and Key (and exactly how high those stakes are becomes nightmarishly clear over the course of Alpha and Omega), it's easy to lose sight of the character beats and investment that's made a good story work. (It's a struggle that Stephen King often has, I think, and what separates his best books from the others.) But Joe Hill has shown a knack for threading that needle adroitly, and he pulls it off here in beautiful fashion. Make no mistake: the final showdown of Locke and Key is a spectacular one, with a devastatingly high body count, a lot of personal sacrifices, and a lot in the balance. But just when you start to wonder if Alpha and Omega is going to be all spectacle, there comes the closing issue of this chapter and of the entire series, a quiet epilogue that focuses not on the story, not on the plotting, but on the characters. We see efforts to heal and cope with loss. We see final chances for redemption. We see attempts to find peace with the traumas of the past. And more than anything, we see legitimate efforts as closure, at recognizing that life will move on beyond the end of this series. It's a beautiful final issue, and the ability of Hill and Rodriguez to shift so perfectly from the brutal chaos of the climax to the quiet grace of the ending is just further testament to how great this series is. All in all, Locke and Key is a spectacular read, a wonderful mix of horror, drama, mythology, and more that combines to make something really gripping. It works as horror; it works as character exploration; it works as wonderful and imaginative myth-making; and most of all, it works as great storytelling. Just read it. Trust me - you won't be sorry.
6-22 Locke &
Key, Vol. 5:
by Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
It's no surprise, given the cliffhanger that ended Keys to the Kingdom, that Clockworks often feels like the darkest, bleakest entry in the Locke and Key series. After all, by the end of that entry, lots of blood was on the hands and hearts of our heroes, and Dodge, their inescapable foe, had found a truly horrific new form. What is surprising, then, is that Clockworks largely sidesteps all of that, spending most of its length filling in the gaps that have popped up throughout our tale until now. The origin of the keys, the nature of the Omega key, the story of that famous Tempest production, how Dodge became the unnatural hybrid he's become - Clockworks fills in all of that and more, but does so in an inventive way that prevents the pages from being simple exposition. Instead, as always, Hill anchors his story in his characters, having them grapple with their choices, their culpability in the events we watch unfold, and the knowledge they've gained about those they thought they knew. In some ways, it's probably the least essential entry in the series; it's a place-setter, finally clarifying some things we've either assumed or wondered about for the series and giving us a sense of the stakes that we're watching unfold. But for all of that, it's no less engaging or exciting to read, and Hill's ability to tie the plotting into the growth of his characters keeps things involving by forcing us to realize that there's a thin line between good and evil in the Locke and Key universe. Yes, it's an exposition-heavy entry, and yes, the main storyline doesn't advance much. But for all that, it works as a window into the characters, and does a remarkable job fleshing out people we thought we knew into something far more complex and less simplistic than we might have assumed. And, if nothing else, it makes you realize just how major the stakes are going to be in the final battle that's looming in the next - and final - volume.
6-21 The Martian,
by Andy Weir
There's a comic strip I read about The Martian that says it's a book for people who saw Apollo 13 and wished the whole movie had been more of the scene where the NASA team struggled to connect two pieces with a boxful of parts. And while that's a little bit of a simplification, it's not really entirely wrong, either...but it also doesn't convey just how much fun the book really is. The Martian has a ridiculously simple premise: due to a series of accidents, an astronaut is believed dead and left stranded on Mars, and the next expedition won't be coming for a long, long time. Weir strips The Martian down to its core, making the book not about a spiritual journey, not about making your peace with death, but simply making it the tale of a man doing everything in his power to survive. And what that "everything" involves is a lot - a LOT - of science. From boiling the hydrogen out of compounds to making arable soil on Mars to tearing apart habitats for materials, The Martian immerses us in our hero's fight for survival, counting on the innate appeal of watching people do things to keep us hooked. And hooked I was. Yes, The Martian sometimes gets bogged down in minutiae and figures (especially as it comes to the math behind some of the chemical work), but it works for the book nicely, making Mark's survival feel like not the work of a writer, but like the natural processes of an intelligent man. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of The Martian is that it's a book about intelligent people acting intelligently, rather than people doing dumb things or acting out of ignorance. It makes for a really engaging and enjoyable survival tale, one that keeps you gripped as much out of enjoyment of the problem-solving skills on display as your investment in the character's survival. In other words, it's MacGyver on Mars, and it's as much fun as that sounds. And if that's not enough, it's frequently funny, often exciting, and constantly evolving in in expend directions. It's an uncommonly smart one, an exciting adventure story, and just a generally great read.
6-16 Eeny Meeny,
by M.J. Aldridge
For as much as it's being hyped as something wholly new in crime thriller fiction, Eeny Meeny feels an awfully lot like something that might come from the mind of Val McDermid - and while that might mean that this isn't that original or groundbreaking, it means that it's still awfully satisfying and engaging. Eeny Meeny revolves around a serial killer of a unique variety: she (and it's evident early on that we're dealing with a female perpetrator) abducts pairs of people, and leaves them stranded and starving until one kills the other. It's grim stuff, and Aldridge does the scenario right, diving into the desperation and horror that would come in such a situation until we understand how normal people could be driven to violence and murder when forced. And, to her credit, Aldridge rarely gets ghoulish about it; only one abduction, near the book's end, gets graphic or grotesque to the point of being a little over the top. Instead, Aldridge anchors her story in damaged psyches, never letting us forget the damage suffered by the surviving victims or the pain felt by those closest to the abductees. But more than that, Aldridge explores the minds of her heroes and lets them be just as damaged, most notably her heroine, Helen Grace. Grace is the one who most reminds me of McDermid, as her deeply traumatic past - which we touch on throughout the book - leads her to find therapy in a most unusual manner. And even the supporting characters get their chances, dealing with bad divorces, illicit romances, and more. If there's a knock to be had about Eeny Meeny, it would be that everyone gets their own trauma, but it's hard to complain too much when Aldridge handles them all well and gives them the weight and respect they deserve. Eeny Meeny is solid stuff, and if it's not quite as groundbreaking as all the cover quotes would have you believe - the characters, while rich, are nothing truly new, and the plot is satisfying while never feeling really shocking - it's still a solid, engaging read, and the kind of thing that will make thriller readers happy this summer on the beach. It moves fast, it's engaging and well-written, and it's nice to find a book that allows death to have some weight instead of just being a plot mechanism. Aldridge plans on more books with Helen Grace, and I think the best thing I can say is that I definitely plan on reading more; while this one is solid, I think there's room for growth, and I'm eager to see where Aldridge goes from here.
6-12 Into Thin Air,
by Jon Krakauer
It's hard to entirely explain Into Thin Air and why it works, especially since the very elements that make the book work as well as it does are also the ones that hold it back, in some ways. Into Thin Air is the story of what was, until recently, the deadliest day on Mount Everest. It's not an event that's easily summarized, nor one where there are clear lessons to learn; yes, there was a horrific storm, but there are countless other factors, from oxygen deprivation to overconfidence, from medical conditions to isolationist groups, from bad planning to human error. That makes for a sprawling story, and a shapeless one at times, and what it needs is someone able to take all of this information and process it coldly. Instead, we get Krakauer, a notable nonfiction author who was on Everest at the time of the expedition and, in ways both direct and indirect, contributed to some of the disaster. Krakauer's involvement means that Into Thin Air is never a cold or dispassionate work, and while Krakauer does a superb job of explaining the background and the context that's led to the commercialization of Everest (an aspect of the book which was fascinating to me), this is as much writing as catharsis or confession as it is storytelling. The result is a book that's a very subjective account of a nightmarish situation, with Krakauer trying as much to explain what happened to himself as to any audience. It's a fascinating book, largely because the very thing that makes the book so powerful and effective - Krakauer's involvement - is the same thing that keeps the book from attaining the focus or clarity that might make it better in some ways. And yet, I think the personal element is what makes Into Thin Air so gripping, as we experience both the confusion and chaos of the mountain as well as Krakauer's deep and inescapable guilt about the part he may have played in the disaster. It's a quietly haunting read, and while there may be better nonfiction looks at what happened, it's hard to imagine them being as painful as this is, or as memorable.
6-7 Inceptio, by
Alison Morton
With her second book, Perfiditas, Alison Morton plunged me into a fascinating alternate history where the Roman Empire didn't entirely die out; instead, a breakaway group formed a new Rome, one that became more of a matriarchy and yet held true to Roman values through the years. In that book, Morton created a satisfying, engaging mystery, one that used its setting well while never neglecting the characters or the story. And while I had no problem following Perfiditas, I was always curious how Morton began her series - which brings me to Inceptio. Inceptio is a little overstuffed - it begins by following our American heroine as she learns of her roots in New Rome and her link to a major corporation, moves on to to her new life in her homeland, then evolves into a crime novel as she decides to get involved in the fight against the drug trade that's moving into the country. The fact that the book isn't done there makes it all sound a little cluttered, and it definitely is; there are times where you feel like Inceptio is at least two books in one, if not three. And yet, somehow, Morton makes it all work for the most part, grounding her plotting so much in her characters and their arcs that you're willing to overlook the fact that it keeps changing to a new storyline. Moreover, as she proved in Perfiditas, Morton has put in a lot of work and research into the creation of New Rome, and it pays off by creating a rich, complex setting that informs the characters and yet feels organically created. (Even the choice to have New Rome be a matriarchy works well; rather than feeling shoehorned in, it's handled so matter of factly and effectively that it never occurs to you to question it, and instead you just enjoy the fact that it gives the book a nicely different dimension than many books like this can handle.) I'm actually glad I started with Perfiditas, which I think is a better book than this one, but Inceptio is still a great read, one that marries alternate history, drama, action, and crime to create something that's a little crowded but always engaging, and nicely written to boot. It's a series well worth checking out, and I'm glad I made the time for Inceptio after my great enjoyment of its sequel.
6-4 Locke & Key,
Vol. 4: Keys to
the Kingdom
by Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
Just when you think you've got a handle on Locke and Key, along comes Keys to the Kingdom, the most playful, unexpected, and best entry in the series to date. Yes, in the broad strokes, Keys to the Kingdom continues the story, as Dodge does his (?) best to get to the Omega key, and from a story point of view, Keys to the Kingdom is a doozie, culminating in a pretty jaw-dropping ending I had no clue was coming. But really, that's only partially what makes Keys to the Kingdom so good. Yes, it's great to watch the characters develop, as Ty begins to try to grow beyond his trauma and fill the void let by his father, or as Kinsey starts to deal with the ramifications of some of her past choices. Yes, this arc once again finds Hill just as capable of dealing with more than just his plotting, as we see a little deeper into the mind and traumas of Sam Lesser, or as we explore racial politics in a surprisingly well-handed manner, or as grief touches the characters in different ways. But perhaps most exciting of all is how much Keys to the Kingdom feels like a chance for King and especially Rodriguez to cut loose and experiment. After all, here's a horror comic that features an issue-long tribute to Calvin and Hobbes, and has another issue frequently dip into pulp war comics. There's the first true two-parter in the series, delivering some massive shocks as Hill plays with the chronology of his story. And then there's "February," which covers the entire month of February in a few pages, allowing Hill and Rodriguez to hint at a much more epic scope of their story without losing their way. Whole storylines rise and fall, new keys are revealed, battles are fought, characters shift, and Hill and Rodriguez navigate it all beautifully, moving us along and never losing the thread all while rocketing through the month. The end result is one of the most surprising, engaging, fun, and horrifying entries in Locke and Key so far, and for my money, the best of the first four. And with that absolute beast of a cliffhanger, it's not long before I'm on to the next volume to see what happens.
6-4 Locke & Key,
Vol. 3: Crown
of Shadows
by Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
Joe Hill has commented that he always saw Locke and Key as breaking into three 2-part acts, which means that Crown of Shadows represents the first part of Act II of the story. And if Act I was all about the Locke children coming to understand the nature of their new home and the gifts that the keys provided, Act II seems to be about the entity only known as Dodge and his/her efforts to get the mysterious Omega key. Dodge is a fascinating character, and Crown of Shadows uses Dodge's enigmatic nature to maximum effect, increasing our unease as he works his way into the Locke's lives while simultaneously revealing himself to be a dangerous, implacable foe. Without giving too much away, Crown of Shadows is about Dodge's first major effort to get that key, using supernatural abilities to bring forth demonic and horrific forces against the Locke children. It gives artist Gabriel Rodriguez a chance to shine, filling the page with dark visions that tap into the horror aspects of Locke and Key before giving us a deeply satisfying payoff that couldn't be done in any other format. And if all that's not enough, Crown of Shadows delivers a devastating emotional payoff at the end, hitting you with a plot thread that Hill's kept simmering before letting it explode when we're least ready for it. What it proves is that Locke and Key has become gripping not only as horror or story, but on a character level, as we've become invested in these characters and their emotional health. And while it's clear Dodge won't give up here, it's also clear that the Locke family is beginning to heal, and to do so in a way that might leave them stronger than they were before. And I'm excited to see it happen.
6-4 Finders
, by
Stephen King
As much as I enjoyed Mr. Mercedes - and I did, quite a bit - I still wasn't entirely sure about the fact that King wanted to write a trilogy about detective Bill Hodges. Part of the appeal to Mr. Mercedes was the treat of seeing King take on something new for him; between the fear of being a retread and the way Mercedes's cliffhanger suggested the sequel would go, I just wasn't all that excited about the idea of two more books. But Finders Keepers allays those fears and then some, finding King moving to a very different kind of crime novel while still using all of his various strengths to tell a great story with some compelling undercurrents. Finders Keepers kicks off with a 1970's-set home invasion at the home of a reclusive author who once one heralded as the voice of a generation, and although the robbers steal plenty of money, it's evident that the unpublished manuscripts - and the way they might change the author's reputation and the fate of his most famous creation - are going to be the key to this whole story. How Hodges fits into it doesn't come until much later, by which point King has a half-dozen plates spinning, somehow keeping them all afloat without dropping a one. And when, to mix a metaphor, he starts pulling all of these plot threads together, Finders Keepers takes off like a rocket without ever slowing down again. From a plot perspective, Finders Keepers is pretty straightforward; while Mr. Mercedes was a psychological duel between two men, Finders Keepers is a more streamlined crime novel about a heist, the loot, and everyone who wants it for themselves. The fact, though, that the loot may be less financial and more intellectual is one of the things that makes Finders Keepers so engaging, especially for any book lover who might find themselves identifying more than they'd like to admit with the book's villain. It's a really richly satisfying and truly exciting read, one that sinks its hooks in quickly and then drags you along without ever really giving you a chance to catch your breath - and that's part of what makes it such a good read. Apart from that, there's King's usual knack for character work (particularly with regard to the Saubers family in general, and Pete specifically, without whom the book wouldn't work at all), his engaging prose, and that thematic richness as he explores the idea of who books and characters really belong to. Yes, the book's final pages give me pause as I start to get an idea where the third book in the trilogy will go (and the reported title seems to confirm those suspicions)...and yet, I can't deny that Bill Hodges seems to have lit a fire with King, delivering a pair of great reads. So why worry too much about the third just yet - especially when there's as great of a read as Finders Keepers to enjoy first?
6-2 Pines, by
Blake Crouch
All I really knew about Pines going in was that it was heavily inspired by Blake Crouch's love for the iconic and surreal Twin Peaks, a show that I have a lot of love for as well. But really, there's little of Twin Peaks to be found in Pines, which concerns a Secret Service agent deployed to the small town of Wayward Pines to find out what happened to two missing agents. What he finds, though, is a weirdly antagonistic town that seems intent on questioning his story and undermining his belief in who he really is. It's to Crouch's credit, though, that he takes an unusual tack here: he lets us know early on that our agent is really an agent, showing us his wife and son grieving his absence. It seems like an odd choice, and one that should detract from the story's suspense...except that in doing that, Crouch allows us to move past that question and on to another one: what exactly is going on in Wayward Pines? Why does time seem so slippery and ill-defined here? And why can't anyone seem to leave this town? Pines isn't anything profound or brilliant; the prose is pretty simple, the character work basic. But Crouch knows how to tell an addictive story and keep it moving like a rocket, and I was never less than hooked in Pines's strange story and the mysteries it offered up. And the ultimate answer certainly satisfied and then some, answering all of the various mysteries in a way that made sense and yet left me reeling. (I've seen several people claim they guessed where it was going early on; I'm not calling them liars, but this is such a bizarre resolution that I have to say it never even entered my mind, and I'm genuinely surprised that anyone would guess it.) There's two more books in the series, but Pines is a satisfying standalone novel, and I like the ending so much that I'm almost hesitant to read any more. It's not going to change your life, but it's a fun, enjoyable thriller that's mind-bending, exciting, and a lot of fun.
5-29 Locke & Key,
Vol. 2: Head
, by
Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
Any time you read a graphic novel, you can't escape the importance of the art. In the best entries, the art and the story intertwine beautifully, each supporting the other and making something more than the sum of their parts. Such is the case in Head Games, which finds the Locke children discovering a new key that leads to the ability to get into each other's heads...quite literally. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez did fine work in Welcome to Lovecraft, but he brings a whole new level out here in his minds apes, which are so packed with detail and nuance that I feel you could spend hours just unpacking everything on display. And the fact that it all supports Joe Hill's ever-complicating story only makes it all the more effective, as the Locke kids start to realize that there's more to their family estate than they ever realized. Meanwhile, we start to dive more into their ever-changing nemesis, who's currently masterminding a hostage situation of his own, and whose past starts to give us hints that we're coming in much later into this story than we ever realized. (Just how late is hinted at in a postscript concerning the keys, where we learn a possible time frame for their creation that's not at all what I expected.) If Welcome to Lovecraft was set up, Head Games delivers on that and then some, complicating the story while also diving more deeply into the characters, their pasts, and - quite literally - their minds. And as Act One of the story concludes, Hill and Rodriguez have me eager to learn more about these keys, the crimes that have been committed, and to see what happens next.
5-29 Locke & Key,
Vol. 1: Welcome
to Lovecraft
, by
Joe Hill and
Gabriel Rodriguez
Collectively, the first two books of Locke and Key - respectively titled Welcome to Lovecraft and Head Games - form the first act of the Locke and Key story, which follows the Locke family as they retreat to the family home after a horrific home invasion that leaves the family's patriarch dead and the rest reeling from their individual traumas. Welcome to Lovecraft opens with that act of violence, and that sets the tone for Locke and Key nicely; this is a dangerous world, but moreover, it's one in which violence has consequences both physical and emotional. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez covers the former aspect in brutal detail without ever feeling like we're wallowing in depravity, and yet never lets us forget the visceral impact of every punch, of every assault, of every attack. And as for the emotional side, leave it to the ridiculously talented writer Joe Hill to explore that half beautifully, diving into each of his character's psyches in painful detail. That's enough for most books, but all of that is only setup for Welcome to Lovecraft, which turns out to be a very strange story indeed, one that involves a mysterious figure that lives in the property's well, some keys with odd properties, and some family history that seems to be buried not as deeply as anyone would have hoped. It's all the opening segment of what's clearly intended to be a complex saga, and as such, its primary job is to hook you in - a job that it does beautifully. But it's also a fantastic self-contained story, one that reaches a natural stopping point that both satisfies you as a reader but leaves you eager to see what comes next, and begging for the answer to so many questions (my biggest: that yearbook picture!). It's great stuff, and I'm beyond excited to keep reading this now that I finally have all six volumes ready to go.
5-28 Bradbury
Stories: 100
of His Most
, by
Ray Bradbury
I've read some Bradbury stories and novels over the years, but the chance to read 100 of Bradbury's stories in a single collection - to say nothing of the fact that they were chosen by Bradbury himself - seemed too good to pass up. And as you might expect, the resulting collection is a wonderful read, giving you both a sense of Bradbury's wide range - with stories both optimistic and chilling, both realistic and futuristic, both whimsical and horrifying - and his fixations and tropes, whether that be stories about a small pub in Ireland, men named Douglas, great authors of the fantastic, or his stand-in for a prototypical American town, here named Green Town. More than that, reading this anthology of stories, which doesn't hew to a time period like one of his published collections normally would, allows you to see Bradbury's prose as it developed and changed over time. I've made the comment in the past that Bradbury was a fairly simple writer, and while that's true in some ways, there's little denying that he's capable of much more, something that especially shines in his tales of Dublin life and the playful prose that he brings to bear on these passages. Moreover, look at the impact he can bring out in a single sentence - look, for instance, at the final sentence of "The Whole Town's Sleeping", which ends the story on a perfectly chilling note without going very far at all. Or look at the wonder that Bradbury subtly weaves into "And the Moon Be Still as Bright", the tale of a man horrified by the boorish behavior of the men with whom he finds himself exploring the utterly alien world of Mars. Sometimes, he can be hilarious, like his satirical look at trendsetters, "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse"; other times, as with "Zero Hour", he slowly undermines his usual small-town optimism to unnerving effect. But most often, as with the surprisingly moving "Toynbee Convector", Bradbury inspires, battling against his own grim worries for humanity and the present to try to find hope - a quality that infuses so many of his stories, and one that sets him apart from many science-fiction authors. Bradbury may be capable of chilling darkness, but you'd never consider him a purveyor of darkness or horrific tales. He's a man who loves humanity, even as he worries for it, and finds the humor and warmth in more situations than most authors ever would. And his stories are always, forever, and inescapably human to their core, leaving me as a reader moved by his deeply thoughtful spirit and keen observation, and in awe of his immense talent, range, ability, and gift for spinning tales.
5-23 Last Train to
by Shayne Youngblood
Shayne Youngblood specializes in tight, rapid-fire noir novellas in the style of James Ellroy, all set in the seedy crime underworlds. These are stories of bad men, psychopaths, criminals, and even a few people with a code of honor, unconventional though it may be. And Last Train to Casablanca is as good as any of his books, following our "hero" as he makes the choice to rescue a girl from a life of sex slavery and then deal with the ramifications of that choice. As always, Youngblood's prose is relentless, paring down his sentences to their core and distilling his characters to their actions, all of which leaves us judging people not by what they say, but by what they do. And what they do can be very, very bad indeed. If there's a knock to be had against Youngblood's books, it's that they all blend together a little bit, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying every single one of them as I read them. They're great, crackling noir stories, made more gripping by Youngblood's knack for bringing this underworld to vivid, compelling life. And if this one feels a little more trope filled than usual - a damsel in distress narrative seems like something more obvious than Youngblood usually shoots for - it's still exciting, well-written, and just generally a fun, tight little piece of reading.
5-23 The Farm, by
Tom Rob Smith
Eschewing the Cold War setting of the Child 44 series, Tom Rob Smith's novel The Farm finds its tension on a far smaller scale: in a conversation between a grown man named Daniel and his mother. By the time that conversation begins, we've heard Daniel's father's warnings - that his mother is mentally ill and paranoid, that she could be a danger to him or to other people. But when part of her narrative is that such accusations are to discredit her, it all comes down to who you choose to believe. Much of The Farm is dedicated to this long conversation, in which the mother spins the tale of a small rural community hostile to outsiders, the strange incidents she witnesses, and the horrifying conspiracy she begins to discover as she digs into things. What makes The Farm so gripping, though, is that the tale is so ambiguous; much of it can be taken as either dark foreshadowing or the paranoia of a damaged mind. And indeed, it's Smith's commitment to that ambiguity that makes The Farm so compelling, as we're constantly forced to question the mother's tale and Daniel's reactions to that tale. Ultimately, we know this has to come down to Daniel's choice: is this all true, or is it indications of insanity? And yet, even then, Smith doesn't let us off that easily, tying everything together in a way that both makes total sense and yet feels genuinely surprising. The Farm is a great psychological thriller, one that uses the idea of an unreliable narrator and makes it the central question of the book, all while still spinning a gripping tale that forces us to question the things we're seeing and how we interpret them.
5-20 The Blood of
, by
Rick Riordan
The worst thing you can say about The Blood of Olympus is that it doesn't really go anywhere you don't expect - but I don't really mean that in a bad way. The rest of the Heroes of Olympus series has set up so many plot threads - whether by prophecies, dire warnings, character relationships, or just complex plotting - that The Blood of Olympus is mainly spent paying those off. But, again, that's not a bad thing, given that Riordan does it all so beautifully, weaving together his slew of complicated plot threads, letting his characters continue to surprise you with their development, and doing it all while delivering the action you've come to expect from this series. The Blood of Olympus, of course, deals with the final fight between the demigods and Gaea, but it also follows Reyna, Nico, and Coach Hedge as they deliver the statue of Athena to Camp Half-Blood in order to prevent a war. It's to Riordan's credit that this plot thread ends up as gripping as the main one; indeed, by spending so much time investing us in Nico, finally getting to step into his head is kind of a joy, as he finally becomes the complex, finely realized character he's been revealing himself as during the other books. Moreover, Nico gives Riordan the chance to keep expanding his voice, given that Nico is far darker and less optimistic than our typical heroes, and definitely not the jovial, joking presence that Leo's been bringing to the series. The Blood of Olympus is a pretty great climax to the series; it uses Riordan's gift for action sequences well, and it uses all of the foreshadowing throughout the rest of the series to fine effect, deepening the tension and the suspense beautifully on every page. And by the time our heroes are joined on the battlefield by their perfect partners, it's a genuinely fist-pumping moment, one that delivers on all sorts of themes and ideas that have been going since The Lightning Thief. Like I've said before, when this all started, I wasn't sure Riordan needed to write more Percy Jackson; now, I'm kind of sad that he's moving on to other mythology, if only because I love this world and its characters so much.
5-17 Wolf Hunt,
by Jeff Strand
Sometimes, you just want something pulpy and fun, and Jeff Strand's Wolf Hunt delivers on that front and then some. The setup couldn't be more simple: a couple of hired goons are told to deliver a prisoner in a cage to another man, and then warned that he's a werewolf. Sure, they're skeptical, and rightfully so, and it's to Strand's credit that he keeps us unsure if and when the truth will be revealed - yes, this is a horror novel, but we have a bit where we wonder what he's got up his sleeve. And then, when you least expect it, all hell breaks loose, and Wolf Hunt turns into gloriously over-the-top carnage and mayhem, with a pair of hitmen after a sociopathic, hateful werewolf. If the tone of Wolf Hunt wasn't what it is, the book could be misery-inducing; it's undeniably violent, and much of the book's tension comes from the danger of putting a violent, terrifying psychopath in the midst of a lot of innocent people. But Strand manages to keep the story fun, even when it's horrifying; he spends as much time on the repartee between the characters, and their sardonic, increasingly irritable commentary makes the book more amusing than it might otherwise be. Plus, Strand keeps things moving at a rocket's pace; this is a pulp book, and he knows that people are reading it for thrills and fun, and it's that idea that drives the book to never let things slow down. Strand throws in some great set-pieces and complicates the story just enough to keep it compelling, but in the end, this is a simple tale of good vs. evil - well, evil vs. less evil. And by the final brutal showdown, if you're not having a blast, well, I don't know what to tell you. It's pulpy, gory, horror adventure stuff, and I really enjoyed it.
5-15 Running from
, by
Julian R. Vaca

I feel a little bad about how unimpressed I was with Julian Vaca's Running with Lions, because if you can take it in isolation, it's really not a bad book. The story of a young girl on the verge of adulthood in a post-apocalyptic society, Running with Lions follows our heroine as she sees a strange craft hurtling out of the sky one night, and continues as this craft throws her society into chaos. Vaca's a good writer, and his focus on his characters is the best thing about Running from Lions, as he humanizes the strange alien creature who becomes known as Rubik and makes him far more compelling than a simple enigma would be. So why did the book leave me so cold? Maybe it's just general fatigue of dystopian YA fiction; really, no matter how good the characters are, almost every element of Vaca's world seems familiar to the point of boredom (or even parody - much of the setup feels like it could come from the great Twitter parody account @DystopianYA). And while the characters themselves feel rich, their pre-defined roles make everything that unfolds feel a little rote, from the troubled boyfriend to the evil villain who's not the simple figure you might assume him to be. I guess I'm getting tired of dystopian YA without much new to say, and while the ending of Running from Lions gives you a sense that the series might have somewhere interesting to go, I just wasn't involved enough in anything that happens to keep me going. Those with less fatigue of the genre, though, will probably love this one; as I've said, it's well-written, has some great characters, and has some promise tucked in there. For me, though, it felt like a decent enough book I just didn't care that much about.
5-10 The House of
, by
Rick Riordan
Essentially feeling a lot like The Mark of Athena part 2, The House of Hades picks up right where its predecessor left off - which is a new technique for Riordan, who's always been content to let each book function more as its own independent work than part of a whole. Instead, House of Hades feels like The Mark of Athena never stopped, as the giants and Gaea continue to rally, the group struggles to find unity and trust, and Percy and Annabeth do their best to survive their horrific new environment. It's that latter plot thread that's the most compelling element of The House of Hades; by plunging two of our heroes into Tartarus, Riordan gets to take the series to some grim places, putting them in some of the most hopeless and nightmarish environs we've seen throughout the series, and populating the world with foes both new and old. (Maybe the most inventive are those who, when slain, unleash curses from previously defeated foes, giving the whole battle unexpected pain both physical and emotional.) That driving story allows Riordan to let his main plot thread develop well, as our heroes do their best to shut the Doors of Death, while also allowing the split groups to interact with each other and get into some fertile emotional material. That delivers some genuine surprises along the way, including a reveal about one character's sexuality that's handled perfectly, both informing the character (and his self-loathing) while also never over-dramatizing the moment or turning it into a stigma or gimmick. In general, The Heroes of Olympus series seems to have given Riordan a whole new set of worlds to explore, from Roman mythology to the horrors of the underworld, and House of Hades shows that he's also capable of focusing his plotting down as well; there's no way that the Riordan who gave us the fun but scattered Lightning Thief could maintain a running storyline across two books like he does here. And, it's worth noting, he does all this - the darker world, the heavy emotional beats - while never turning the series into the grim, brutal world that so much YA fiction lives in; it's all still incredibly fun, often funny, and just generally a blast to read, and that goes a long way. I wasn't sure, after The Last Olympian, whether we really needed more Percy Jackson stories, but in The Heroes of Olympus, Riordan has managed to take what he did and make it different enough - and better - that I don't mind the return to the characters in the least.
5-5 The Mark of
, by
Rick Riordan
Finally bringing together his sprawling cast of characters and his two disparate world of Greeks and Romans, The Mark of Athena feels like the first true book of the Heroes of Olympus series, if only for the way it finally kicks off all the threads that have been set up throughout the first two books. And if you were worried about Riordan's ability to juggle seven different characters, don't; it turns out, he's pretty adroit at giving all of them the spotlight, letting every character have their own arc, pairing them up for unique conversations, and just generally exploring all of them while never veering too far from his story. Indeed, The Mark of Athena is the most tightly plotted Riordan book to date, even with all of its characters and plots, and the result is a truly epic-feeling adventure that sells how serious what's going on is. And as our heroes battle monsters, make their way through underground mazes, meet up with characters we'd forgotten about, and more, Riordan keeps everything moving and sensible, anchoring it all in the characters and their personalities. It all ends up feeling like Riordan's most ambitious book to date, and if it all comes back to relationships a few times too often, as some have complained...well, it never bothered me. (In fact, to me, it only emphasized certain themes - Leo's isolation, Percy's devotion to his friends, and so forth.) What matters more is that it's all incredibly exciting and, as usual, funny. Of course, it all builds up to a pretty big cliffhanger ending, but the joy of catching up on these late is that I don't have to wait to see what comes next.
4-29 The Son of
, by
Rick Riordan
The Lost Hero, the first entry in The Heroes of Olympus series, found Rick Riordan taking a familiar idea - his own take Greek mythology - and populating it with new characters, allowing us to get used to our new cast without feeling like we were too far at sea. Now comes The Son of Neptune, which reverses that formula, giving us familiar characters in a wholly new world, and the gambit pays off beautifully. It feels like The Heroes of Olympus is going to be a far more ambitious series than the first Percy Jackson books, and as a result, Riordan decides to broaden his scope beyond Greek mythology and into Roman mythology as well, using Percy as a way to contrast the two worlds. What results, as you might expect from Riordan, is equal parts informative, exciting, funny, engaging, and just generally great, as he gives the Roman world its own distinct personality without ever losing the feel of the world he's created so far in the series. The plot is typical Percy Jackson adventure fare, involving a quest to defeat a giant and a series of fantastic encounters along the way, but by viewing everything from a new perspective, Riordan makes the story feel fresh and alive in a way that a seventh book in a given world doesn't always manage to do. Moreover, the book feels more focused than anything in the first Jackson series, as though Riordan has worked had to tie his plotting together more neatly and make everything fit together to make a more cohesive tale. Add to that some great new characters and a great overarching story that makes you excited to see the worlds of these first two books collide, and you have another engaging, entertaining read from Riordan. It's really no wonder that his books are so popular with a young audience; what's pleasantly surprising is how much this older reader is enjoying them, and even learning from them - and how eager I am to continue.
4-26 Lifemaker, by
Dean F. Wilson
I liked Hopebreaker, the first book in Dean F. Wilson's "Great Iron War" series, well enough, but I couldn't help but get frustrated with it; for everything it did well - hitting the ground running, crafting great battle sequences - it ended up feeling a little shallow and empty at times, as though I was missing some of the story. Now comes Lifemaker, which finds the Resistance retreating to their massive underwater submarine as they flee from the Regime and do their best to regroup. In some ways, Lifemaker feels like the literary equivalent of a bottle episode, forcing its characters into a confined space and letting everyone take a breath for a bit before getting back into the war. And maybe it's the confined environment, or maybe it's the fact that such confinement forces us to dive into the characters' backstory more, or maybe it's the fact that Wilson finally gives us a little bit of a glimpse into his villains (yes, it's a very small one, and only about one character, but it's a start). But whatever the reasons, Lifemaker works far better than Hopebreaker did, even though less happens. Wilson gives all of his characters a chance to breathe, and by getting into their backstories, he brings them to life beyond the broad archetypes they sometimes fell back into during the first book. I still have some issues with the series - as I commented in my review of Hopebreaker, I feel like Wilson needs to give us more of a sense of who the Regime is and a sense of what's being fought for - and ultimately, while the character work really makes the book work well, you end up feeling like not much of note happens over the course of the entire novel, which makes you wonder what the point of this whole sojourn is. Nonetheless, I can't say I didn't enjoy the book, nor that Wilson doesn't do a great job of building characters, writing action sequences, or creating interesting interactions. It's just that so far, the series still feels like a collection of great pieces that don't quite add up to a complete whole.
4-21 Eve Brenner:
Zombie Agent
by A. Giacomi
The second book in the Eve Brenner series finds author A. Giacomi moving beyond some of the "been there, done that" situations of the first entry and pushing the storyline into new and far more interesting directions. A zombie outbreak? We've seen that before. But using an undead girl as a secret agent to fight a growing worldwide infestation of zombies? That's far more interesting, and Giacomi makes the most of her idea to approach Eve's zombie infection as something more akin to lycanthropy, finding her battling her violent and bestial instincts but unable to survive without them. But once again, tonal issues plague Giacomi's world. It's not the violence this time, at least; while Giacomi still has a taste (heh) for the splattery, it's better integrated into the story this time, and less jarring against the everyday reality of the characters, who seem to live in a far more violent world than the students of book 1. No, with Zombie Agent, the bigger issue is the queasy questions the book raises without meaning to, such as the thorny issue of Eve's food supply, which seems to be supplied by prisoners. That's a morally complicated idea, especially given how horrific their deaths are, but the book glides over it too easily, and it ends up making you feel a little more iffy about our hero than I think Giacomi intends. Then again, given some of the late-book revelations, maybe those questions were intended all along...but they're never really addressed or followed up on, and the end result is that a characters just suffers an abrupt personality switch when it's time to become "evil". (And the less said about the evil plan, the better; suffice to say, it's pretty generic and makes little sense, especially within the context of the book's events.) I still think there are some cool ideas at play here, and when it's on, the book is a lot of fun. But it feels like it needs some tuning and adjusting here and there, and often feels as though it needed a read through from a reader who was willing to point out some of the jarring tonal shifts and undercurrents that flow through the book. It's still fun, and it's a big step up from book 1, but I don't quite think it's fully successful yet.
4-19 Engraved On
the Eye
, by
Saladin Ahmed
I first learned of Saladin Ahmed through his Twitter feed, where he posts all kinds of great stuff: his experiences as an Arab-American and a practicing Muslim, (awesome) panels from pulp comic books, his thoughts on modern science-fiction and fantasy, and lots more. So I was already impressed with the mind Ahmed displayed; what I wondered was whether his writing would measure up to that. Moreover, while the idea of fantasy from an Arabic/Muslim perspective sounded fascinating (seriously, how much modern fantasy trades on white Judeo-Christian stories?), I worried that the stories would be more interesting than gripping. But Engraved On the Eye, a collection of Ahmed's short fiction (available for free on e-readers!), put my mind at ease. Yes, Ahmed writes from a unique perspective, and it's inextricably linked to his characters and his worlds. His fantasy flows from the Middle East, not Arthurian times, and there's an importance to religion that nods at Ahmed's faith throughout. But more than that - and more importantly - Ahmed is quite simply a great storyteller, capable of humor, horror, drama, comedy, magic, awe, and just about every other emotion imaginable. Over the course of Engraved On the Eye, Ahmed writes classic fantasy stories, comic book homages, Westerns, and more, and all of them feel like little else out there; there's a unique perspective, a way of looking at the world you don't see in most fantasy. But there's also the propulsive and exciting plotlines, which involve everything from evil wizards kidnapping maidens to be their bride to supervillains planning massive rehabilitation programs, from medieval doctors asked to make demons to cybernetic soldiers whose AI is sending them messages from God. Sometimes the stories are pure pulpy excitement; sometimes they're thoughtful commentaries on the world; sometimes they're tongue in cheek; but always, they're fun and engaging, with rich characters, interesting worlds, and great writing. Engraved on the Eye is a knockout collection with nary a sour note to be found; it sold me on Ahmed even more, and I'm picking up his novel the next chance I get. And if you like fantasy, you owe it to yourself to check him out too. It's free, it's great, and it's your loss to miss out on it.
4-18 Captains
, by
Joe R. Lansdale
In a lot of ways, it's weird that the humor of the Hap and Leonard books is something I always find myself focusing on when I talk about them. After all, these are truly noir novels in every sense of the word; Captains Outrageous opens with Hap saving a woman from a brutal and horrific beating, and from there somehow evolves until our heroes are in Mexico dealing with a horrifically violent drug lord and his gargantuan henchman. It all more or less makes sense as it goes, but there's little funny about the story, which revolves around horrific and nightmarish acts of violence that scar the characters both physically and mentally, and not in a way that leaves them quick to heal. And yet, for all of that, I can't deny that when I think of the Hap and Leonard books, and when I think about my reaction to Captains Outrageous, I think first of how laugh out loud, constantly hilarious these books are. In the hands of Joe Lansdale, Hap and Leonard constantly bicker, joke, tease, and comment on the world around them, but in a way that never feels forced or feels like some bad sitcom. Instead, it feels like a bond between two old friends who love each other dearly and always have each other's backs, no matter what. And that bond between Hap and Leonard, ultimately, is the core of the books, driving the plot, driving the violence that scars the characters, driving the healing they go through, and driving the choices they make along the way. In other words, the series blends Lansdale's wonderful Texas drawl, brutal neo-noir, and character work to make something rich, funny, exciting, thrilling, and just plain great. And Captains Outrageous is among the best of the series, sliding through its story effortlessly, bringing out some hilarious moments, and making the violence and horror truly resonate and linger both with the characters and the reader. In other words? It's pure Lansdale, and it's hard to imagine much that could be better than that.
4-13 Acceptance,
by Jeff
Anyone hoping for answers or clarity in Acceptance, the final entry in the Southern Reach series, was probably frustrated and irritated to no small degree. Instead, Acceptance moves around in time, following the mysterious lighthouse keeper in his final days before the "arrival" of Area X, catching up with Control and his companion after the end of Authority, and filling in some of the gaps that we've discovered along the way in the series. And as anyone who read the opening book in the series might expect, Acceptance ends as enigmatically as it all began, giving us hints, clues, and ripples moving away from events that we're never quite clear on and never fully comprehending. It's an ending that could be frustrating and infuriating for so many reasons, but it seems appropriate for the Southern Reach series, a trilogy which has always been about confronting the unknown and realizing that some things will ultimately be incomprehensible to us, no matter how much we think we know. It's a Lovecraftian idea, really, and at Acceptance's finest moments, it channels that vibe perfectly, whether it's the way he handles the arrival of Area X (in what becomes one of the most disturbing and nightmarish scenes of the series), the enigmatic climax, or the eerie, inexplicable touches that he peppers the book with but never pushes too far. As a trilogy, the Southern Reach is hard to explain; it's obvious that the first book is the best, and in some ways, the series never really needed a second or third volume. But taken as a whole, they create a fascinating mosaic effect, giving us a slew of pieces that add up to something incomprehensible and unsettling - and maybe all the more so because it feels so close to understandable, and yet so far. In some ways, it's a series I admire more than I truly like, Annihilation excepted, and yet I can't deny that as Acceptance picked up steam, I was entranced by its utterly alien world and its uncanny way of burrowing under my skin and never leaving. It's not a series that's for all tastes, and if you're looking for answers, you'll hate it. But for those who admire the atmosphere and unease of truly weird fiction, Acceptance is a perfect final chapter in this strange, unsettling series.
4-12 Infernal, by T.
Joseph Browder
I've been enjoying T. Joseph Browder's inventive, unsettling short stories, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was both intrigued and worried when he decided to make the move into novels. That's a whole different skill set, and I figured the result would either be phenomenal or stretched thin. And when I found out that Infernal at least somewhat revolved around the idea of the multiverse, I wasn't sure what to think; it's an idea that I usually enjoy, but that I seem to be reading a lot of variations on these days, and I hated to think of Browder's creative inventiveness to go somewhere that I'd seen before. But I needn't have worried; even if the idea of multiverses is familiar, to say that Infernal has more on its mind would be an understatement. To say much more would be to give too much away; suffice to say, Infernal moves beyond science into the realms of religion and faith, turning what could have been a science-fiction novel into something far more complex, thought-provoking, and profound, and turning a self-contained story into the beginning of a dense saga. What Browder does, then, is take all of the great gifts he brought to his short stories - his character work, his surprising plotting, his willingness to push limits, his ambitious refusal to adhere to genre boundaries - and moves them all effortlessly over to a much, much larger scope. Infernal has a couple of small, small issues - for instance, it wouldn't hurt Browder to cut down on firearm info occasionally, as it sometimes feels like it takes over action scenes - but they're small ones, and they're dwarfed by how rich and fascinating the story becomes. Add to that a great main character - Richard, whose loner existence in the opening pages only makes more and more sense as we learn more about him in pieces over the course of the novel - and plenty of chances for Browder to show off his imagination and range, and you've got a fascinating novel that only grows more so as you go through it. The biggest down side? Realizing that there's a big wait ahead of me before the next part comes out.
4-2 Trainspotting,
by Irvine Welsh
I'm sure there's no shortage of people who make it a couple of pages into Trainspotting and its dense, seemingly impenetrable Scottish dialect and give up, and I can't entirely blame them. It makes for a challenging read at first, and although you can eventually get into the book's rhythms to the point where you read it effortlessly, it's a big barrier to kick off the book with. And yet, as I reread Trainspotting this time, I really came to believe that the dialect is essential to the book for so many reasons, and part of the key to its greatness. Some of it, I think, is because it anchors the book and its inhabitants so clearly to Scotland; to me, much of the book's point is that these characters' lives, with all the drugs, petty crimes, aggression, and generally horrific behavior they contain, are in no small part a reaction to their environment, and the accent anchors the book so firmly into Scotland that it becomes another character of the book. But more than that, I think, is the way that the accents change the book from a novel to something closer to an oral history, regaling the reader with a slew of incidents ranging from the blackly comic to the disgusting to the horrific and beyond, and making it all feel less like the musings of an author and more like a series of stories told by the people you're sitting next to in a horrific Scottish dive bar. Is Trainspotting a disgusting book? Oh, without a doubt. Is it a slew of grotesqueries and horrific acts, a plunge into drug addiction, and a glimpse at a life most of us are glad we don't lead? Most definitely. But it's also a fearlessly honest book, taking on not only drug addiction, but class issues, social causes, gender relations, and more. And more than that, it's a frequently hilarious book, something that sets it apart from so many other drug tales. Trainspotting doesn't necessarily approve of everything its characters do - far from it - but it refrains from actively judging them, either, and is willing to present their stories in all their horror and their humor and let the reader get their own message out of it. And for those who can handle the language and the disgust and the anarchy, the reward is a funny, intelligent, thought-provoking, fantastic book that feels more honest and heartfelt than so many true testimonials I've heard over the years.
3-29 The Lost
, by
Rick Riordan
The Lost Hero is the first entry in the Heroes of Olympus series, author Rick Riordan's followup to the great Percy Jackson series, and in some ways, it feels like a book full of every single idea Riordan had for a followup. Why have one narrator when you can have three? Why limit yourself to Greek mythology when there's also Roman mythology to discuss? Why only focus on stories of the gods when there's also plenty of stories about mortals like Midas or Medea? The Lost Hero takes on all of that and more, and the end result feels awfully overstuffed at times. Each of the three narrators - an amnesiac fighter named Jason, a movie star's daughter named Piper, and a clever builder named Leo - has their own personal journey to go on, and Riordan has to juggle all of that as well as the disappearance of Percy Jackson, the possible kidnapping of Hera, the rise of an ancient evil, and possibly much more. And yet, it all works, by and large, thanks in no small part to Rick Riordan's skill at storytelling; in his hands, The Lost Hero moves like a rocket and hangs together better than it really should, driven by excitement, quick plotting, interesting characters, and as always, some fun humor that keeps everything from getting too dark. The Lost Hero is undeniably the first book in what feels like a much more epic saga than the original Jackson series, and it suffers at times from having possibly too much set up to do in its running time. But it's never really confusing, just cluttered, and Riordan has a way of making every individual scene enough fun that you don't really mind wondering sometimes if every single piece is really necessary to the overall whole. By the book's end, the point of this series is starting to come into more focus, and I'm hoping that the second entry finds Riordan tightening things up a little bit, now that he's not having to set up quite as many plot threads. Even so, it's still an enjoyable ride and a great adventure story, and it's still got my 8-year-old enthralled with its world and dying for more - and that, in of itself, is a pretty strong testament to its quality.
3-22 Eve Brenner:
Zombie Girl
, by
A. Giacomi
There's a glut of zombie fiction these days, to the point where the very mention of the word can turn off some readers. But there are some unique takes out there - I'm thinking, for instance, of Stephen Kozeniewski's wonderful Braineater Jones, which creates a zombie protagonist and tosses him into the middle of a classic noir detective tale. And at its best moments, Eve Brenner: Zombie Girl shows some promise of doing something interesting with the genre. Giacomi turns her protagonist into something closer to a werewolf or a zombie, with Eve constantly battling against her more bestial nature and baser (brain-eating) instincts to keep her humanity intact. And the book's ending, which sets up the second book in the series, promises to take things to a far more interesting place than what we've seen so far. So all of that is great...but what's not as great is Giacomi's weird juxtaposition of tone, which makes the book feel wildly jarring at times, and not in a good way. There's something intriguing about using the zombie to explore our baser instincts, but Giacomi features characters going from fretting about possible violence to smashing heads into walls until the brains literally splatter without ever so much as losing sleep over the matter. That's a problem, especially when one of the big themes of the book is Eve's struggle to make her peace with what she's become. Moreover, what's the horror of the book? Is it Eve's bestial nature, or is the splattery violence that increasingly dominates the book as it continues into its second half? I actually think that the second half is where Giacomi's interest lays, and it's one of the reasons I'm interested in reading the second book in the series despite my mixed feelings on the first; I feel like once Giacomi gets her setup out of the way, the book becomes a lot of fun; it's just that the payoff doesn't mesh at all with the setup, and it leads to some weird moments that never quite sat right with me as a reader.
3-21 The Amazing
Maurice and
His Educated
, by
Terry Pratchett
The Amazing Maurice is one of the very few Discworld books I hadn't read before the death of Terry Pratchett, and for some reason I thought it was a relatively minor work. Maybe I was fooled by its labeling as a children's book, or maybe the title made me expect something cuter, or for even younger ages. But I should have known better; anyone who's read the Tiffany Aching books knows that Pratchett makes little distinction in subject material, writing, or theme between his "adult" and his "young adult" books, and The Amazing Maurice is no exception. In theory, The Amazing Maurice is Pratchett's take on the story of the Pied Piper, only with the cat and mice being intelligent, the piper being mostly a front, and the whole operation being a scam. But when the crew decides to pull one last job before getting away and end up in a town where something darker is lurking, everything goes haywire. As you'd expect from Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice is pretty frequently hilarious, playing with the expectations we have about stories, having a gleeful blast with its intelligent creatures, and just generally subverting expectations every chance it gets. But also as you'd expect from Pratchett, it's thematically rich, dealing with the ramifications of bettering yourself, fighting with your own nature, the risks of believing stories and fables, and so much more. And then, when you least expect it, it gets dark, with the creatures dealing with a very different evil than you might expect, and one that explores the book's themes in a rich new direction. In short, it's Pratchett doing what he always does, and taking a theoretically simple story and making it funnier, more complicated, and just plain richer than it has any right being. And while it's not a top-tier Discworld book, it's still a really good one - and it's worth remembering that even a mediocre Discworld book (of which there are maybe 1 or 2, tops) is better than almost anything else you'll read. It may not be Mort or Thief of Time, but it's funny, engaging, thoughtful, charming, hilarious, exciting, thrilling, and just typically great.
3-20 Thief of
, by
Terry Pratchett
In the wake of the passing of Terry Pratchett, I felt myself wanting to revisit Discworld, only to realize that I'm almost out of new books to read in the series - something that's all the more painful now that Pratchett has passed. Instead, I returned to Thief of Time, which was the first book in the Discworld series I ever read. Would it hold up to my fond memories of it, or would I see that it was mainly remarkable because it was my first exposure to Pratchett's great writing? Turns out, not only did Thief of Time live up to my memories, it surpassed them, still delivering Pratchett's rich, funny, thought-provoking writing and giving you one of the best Discworld stories there is. Trying to explain the plot gets complicated, as it often does in Discworld; suffice to say that a race known as the Auditors are trying to build the universe's most accurate clock, which may result in the Apocalypse; as a result, a pair of monks, Death, and Death's granddaughter (now a school teacher) work to save the universe from its most recent destruction. What happens, though, is far less important than how it all happens, and the how is what provides Thief of Time with its gloriously funny comedy, its genuinely thoughtful and complex philosophy and cosmology, and its intricate plotting. With tangents ranging from the nature of time to the power of sensations, from the importance of temptation in shaping humanity to the way common aphorisms can truly reveal the universe, Thief of Time is boundless in its ambition and complexity, but Pratchett's skill and craft never makes it feel like it's losing control; instead, it always feels shaped and focused, no matter where its gleefully chaotic plot feels like traveling. I stand by my claim that Thief is a phenomenal starting point for anyone wanting to get into Discworld; yes, there are aspects you'll appreciate more having read some of the previous entries, but it stands on its own, and it's a wonderful example of how Pratchett isn't easily pigeonholed into any single category. Comedy, fantasy, science-fiction, drama, philosophy, science - it's all in here, all brilliant, all insightful, and all gripping and enjoyable. In other words, it's just more brilliance from Pratchett. And while it's awful that he's gone, at least he's left behind books like this for us to read and re-read for generations to come.
3-16 Authority, by
Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation, the first entry in the Southern Reach trilogy, chronicled a scientific expedition into the strange area simply known as "Area X." And as Annihilation unfolded, things went bad very quickly, as team mates turned on each other, secrets were revealed, and nightmarish realities came to life. Now comes Authority, the second volume of the series, which turns its eye from Area X and into the "Southern Reach," the government agency charged with overseeing and investigating Area X. In other words, at first glance, Authority is a far more conventional tale, following the new director of the organization as he tries to figure out what went wrong on the expedition chronicled in Annihilation and to make sense of an organization that seems to be every bit as insane as the area it's responsible for. And yet, Authority features that same strange sense that permeated Annihilation, giving you a sense that there's another reality lurking not far below the surface and just waiting for you to let down your guard. The result is a strange book, one that feels a little overlong and bloated at times, and yet one whose payoff is undeniably affective, as VanderMeer swings his plot in a whole new direction when you least expect it and does so while creating some of the most disturbing moments of the series so far. Is Authority a bit bloated and slow-paced? Undeniably, and it certainly doesn't help to trade the surreal, unsettling atmosphere of Area X for the more mundane world of government bureaucracy, no matter the hints of psychological damage on display. But Authority rewards those who stick with it, and while it's not the equal of Annihilation, it's a fascinating sequel to that book, one that feels like another piece in the overall mosaic that this trilogy seems to be.
3-7 The Last
, by
Rick Riordan
One of the big complaints a lot of people had with the final entry in the Harry Potter series was its perceived length, with many readers feeling frustrated with the lengthy camping scenes and the fetch quest that took up much of the final book. And while I quite liked the final Harry Potter book, I can't help but feel like Rick Riordan took that reaction to heart when shaping the final Percy Jackson book, and the result is an undeniably exciting and gripping conclusion to the story, one that delivers nearly a book-length battle that's still filled with character work, nice plot revelations, and the series' usual gift for banter and humor. Everything comes together in this final entry, as the Titans launch an attack on the surface world, leaving Percy and the other demigods to defend New York City against a massive assault force while the gods handle their own battles. There are revelations about double agents, twists that have been building for books, romantic developments, and some really great surprises that come out of nowhere and are just as satisfying for their unexpected nature. More than that, though, there's a ton of action, and it shows off how Riordan has a knack for exciting battle sequences that deliver intensity and excitement without ever turning things grim, bloody, or excessive. Instead, it's just the right mix of danger and aggression for a YA series, and it manages to conclude both the story of this battle and the series' overarching plot beautifully with a climax that's both unexpected and perfectly set up a long time in advance. Riordan leaves things with just a hint about what the next series is going to be about, and I can't really blame him; as much fun as this world is to live in, I wouldn't want to rush out and leave it either. In general, the Percy Jackson books are a truly fun and enjoyable set, and between the inventive use of mythology, the quick wit, and the strongly drawn characters, I'd be just as willing to keep on going as he is.
3-4 The Battle of
the Labyrinth
by Rick Riordan
After a somewhat weaker third book, the Percy Jackson series gets back to form in The Battle of the Labyrinth, which finds our heroes navigating the fabled maze in an effort to protect the camp, figure out what Kronos is doing, solve the riddle of Pan's disappearance, and generally start drawing some of the series' plotlines to an end. Indeed, one of the best things about Labyrinth is the way that it rewards those who have stuck with the series, proving that Riordan has been pacing things out and crafting his plot far more intricately than might have been immediately obvious. Labyrinth is the penultimate book of the Jackson series, and it feels like a penultimate book, in terms of tone, plotting, theme, and everything else, but especially in the way that everything is starting to come together in ways that remind us the end is coming soon. If that's not enough for you, there's the Labyrinth itself, which provides Riordan a nice running throughline for the book, connecting his incidental plotting in a tighter way than usual while still giving him lots of room to play around in as yet untapped branches of Greek mythology. The result is an absolute blast and maybe my favorite book in the series so far; it delivers on Riordan's usual knack for action and humor while also proving that he's go some solid dramatic chops, including a couple of genuinely dark reveals that remind you of the stakes we're facing here. More that that, it finds Riordan heading in some wholly new directions, tossing out some really surprising twists along the way and really doubling down on how surreal and strange this wonderful world can be. And even one of my bigger issues with The Titan's Curse especially the over-reliance on Percy's dreams - is addressed here, with Percy's dreams being used as a way of penciling in background that pays off in satisfying ways later. All in all, it really feels like Labyrinth is the best of the series, delivering the fun and excitement that I've come to hope while also feeling like the most imaginative and the most carefully constructed of the series to date.
3-3 Hopebreaker,
by Dean F. Wilson
One of the hardest things about science-fiction and fantasy is the balancing act of setting up your world and its rules and your story. Lean too far into your story and the reader can be lost about what makes your world so special; lean too far into world-building and you can lose your way there, creating a rich world where not much every happens. In general, it's a balance that Dean F. Wilson handles well in Hopebreaker, delivering the bare minimum exposition needed to get his story running. We learn, very quickly, that this world is ruled by literal demons, who have established a government known as the Regime; that there are smugglers working to get people artifacts to let them fight back; and that there is a Resistance, which seeks to destroy and overthrow the Regime. Simple enough, and Wilson does a good job giving us what we need and getting into the meat of his story, which follows a smuggler with no real strong moral code as he finds himself involved with the Resistance as they mobilize in an effort to destroy some of the Regime's infrastructure. Wilson does a nice job of setting up his characters, and his battle sequences are fantastic, giving a good sense of what's going on and never losing his way with gratuitous descriptions or technobabble about his weapons (which seem to have an air of steampunk about them, albeit in a very subtle way). No, from a story perspective and a character-building perspective, Hopebreaker is solid stuff; where it's weak, though, is that you gradually start to feel that instead of giving us just enough exposition, he's given us not enough. There's glimpses and hints of some great backstory and ideas at work in Hopebreaker, but Wilson ultimately plays his cards so close to the vest that it gets frustrating. We get that the demons are evil, but we know almost nothing about them by the end of the book - certainly little more than we did at the beginning. And that ends up meaning that the stakes are hard to invest yourself in. Despite being the first book of a series, Hopebreaker feels more like the middle episode of a long-running saga. You can follow it fine, enjoy the characters and the scenes, but it feels like you're missing some of the context that would really make it come to life. And maybe Wilson is planning on diving into that more in later books in the series, and maybe not, but as it stands, Hopebreaker both works and doesn't. I enjoyed it fine, but left feeling unfulfilled, as though I wanted more of this world to make me care about it more and never got it.
2-28 The Titan's
, by
Rick Riordan
The third entry in the Percy Jackson series is the first where the overarching plot seems to come sharply into focus and the characters seem to have grown beyond their "pupil" phase of their lives. In that way, it feels like the second half of the Harry Potter series, where the characters have started to grow up and are forced into confronting Voldemort and his schemes. But where Potter went very dark, very quickly, Titan's Curse makes the transition more gradually, dealing with some darker themes - including the death of some supporting characters and the possibilities of greater loss - while still focusing on the light, adventure-focused tone that's made the series work so well until now. In some ways, Titan's Curse feels a little loose, with the characters being more driven by the plot than the other way around; at the same time, that's not really a deal breaker here, with even the characters being forced to deal with being a step behind at all times. There are a couple of tropes in the series that are starting to feel a little worn thin by now (namely Percy's ability to hear key conversations and see major events in his dreams), but there's also Riordan's clever ability to mix mythology and modern elements nicely, something that pays off here with the introductions of Apollo and Artemis (as well as a brief appearance by Aphrodite). The result is still an engaging, fun read, but it feels like the weakest of the series, as Riordan tries to shift the tone and move his overarching story forward in a way that ends up feeling a little forced at times. And yet, I still enjoyed it the book as a whole. Riordan knows how to write a great battle scene, with the book's climax really paying off beautifully. Add to that a couple of nice twists and reveals (especially the nature of the monster they're pursuing), and you have a fun enough entry in the series, but one that definitely didn't work for me as much as he others did. Given my son's continued excitement for the set, though, that may be as much a factor of my older age than anything else.
2-27 Trigger
, by
Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is a great enough writer that any new book of his feels like an event, and a collection of short stories only more so. But he's also good enough that anything he releases gets held up to almost impossibly high standards. How can any collection, no matter how good, live up to the incredible Smoke and Mirrors? And so you could understand if my first reaction to Trigger Warning was something along the lines of "Well, this is good, but it's not as good as Smoke and Mirrors." And yet, the more I thought about Trigger Warning, the more I realized that was selling the collection short. What other author could give you a fascinating blend of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into something both profound and disturbing, as Gaiman does in "The Sleeper and the Spindle"? Who else could take a story called "Adventure Story," begin it by ironically suggesting it's all about how everything is an adventure for his elderly mother, and then turn it into something whimsical and weird? And any Gaiman fan will find plenty to love here. Do you like the way Gaiman's stories often suggest forgotten folklore or lost fairy tales? You'll love "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...", a tale that starts as a quest for cursed treasure and evolves into something more as it unfolds. Do you love his homages to classic works of literature and storytelling? You'll savor every page of "The Case of Death and Honey," which finds Sherlock Holmes taking on a case far outside of his normal boundaries. Maybe you love his humorous side, in which case "And Weep, Like Alexander" is for you - if nothing else, you'll learn what an uninventor is. There's plenty more - the wonderfully odd "Orange," which gives you the answers, but not the questions, of a most unusual interview; the unsettling and elegant "Click Clack the Rattlebag," which reminds you of how creepy Gaiman can be; the wildly inventive "A Calendar of Tales," in which Gaiman spins a story for every month of the year based off of suggestions from Twitter; and "Black Dog," a novella that follows up on Shadow from American Gods as he makes his way through a dark night, a pub, and a local ghost. Sure, my instinctive reaction is to say that Trigger Warning isn't quite as good as Smoke and Mirrors, and maybe it's not; there are a few more middling tales here, and a few that left me a little underwhelmed. But even the weakest are still prime Gaiman, and it's a reminder that Gaiman has become that rare type of author, where even his weak work - and Trigger Warning is definitely not weak, just a little uneven - is still essential reading. And for a while, while you're lost in Gaiman's imagination, prose, and worlds, you'll remember how much you love this man's work and why you get excited every time a new book comes out.
2-20 The Sea of
by Rick Riordan
Second entries in a series are often the best way to judge whether the series has long term potential. It's a chance for an author to stop world building and get into the meat of his story, as well as a chance to shed some of the flaws of the first entry and start improving his/her craft. And to that end, Sea of Monsters is a much tighter work than its predecessor, focusing its plotting down more carefully and losing some of the digressions that made Lightning Thief occasionally feel unwieldy. But Riordan keeps all of the first book's strengths, crafting a story that's still enjoyable funny and exciting while never losing track of nice character interactions. Moreover, in his focus, he ends up doing an even better job with his Greek mythological allusions, crafting a whole series of chapters that are fun enough on their own, but as an extended homage to The Odyssey, even better. You could easily make the argument that Percy Jackson feels a bit like a series of grand adventures with only a thin tissue connecting the books, and that would be fair enough; what appears to be the series' overarching plot (the possible return of the Titans) is only glancingly involved here, with the book instead focusing on the quest for the Golden Fleece in an effort to save Camp Half-Blood. But I quite like that aspect of the books; it feels more akin to the Greek myths in question, which always felt more like a collection of incidents than a cohesive whole. (That goes double for The Odyssey, which obviously serves as the primary influence for this entry.) And besides, when the adventure is this enjoyable and fun, who really cares if it works better individually than as a global whole? It's enough that it's kept me enjoying the series on its own terms and not just as YA, and that's enough for me.
2-17 The Lightning
, by
Rick Riordan
Recently, my son started reading the Percy Jackson series; not only that, he's fallen in love with the set, so much so that he's wanted to talk about it, make up games with it, learn more about Greek mythology, and basically just live in its world for as long as possible. Of course, all of that gave me the push I needed to check out the series; it's something I've been curious about anyway, and now it's given Aidan and I things to talk about. It's not hard to understand why he loves the series; author Rick Riordan has basically taken Greek mythology, mixed in a dose of the Harry Potter YA framework, and created an infectiously fun and enjoyable little adventure series, one that's doubly enjoyable if you know all the mythology that's getting referenced and repurposed. From the Lotus Eaters emerging as a Las Vegas casino to Charon's position as a doorman and beyond, Riordan takes in every aspect of mythology and gives it all a modern context that's pretty inventive and fun. (My favorite may be the decision to stick Dionysus into a forced probation from drinking and a position as a camp counselor despite his clear dislike of young children.) But as much fun as all of that is, The Lightning Thief doesn't work without its story. Luckily, Riordan creates a fun throughline for his hero, sending his hero (the offspring of Poseidon and a mortal woman) into a quest that finds him retrieving Zeus's lost lightning bolt in an effort to prevent war amongst the gods. And sure, there's some typical YA framework; sure, it's sometimes a little sprawling and unfocused, as Riordan seems as interested in building his world as telling his story. But it's also genuinely enjoyable and engaging, and Riordan does a nice job of bringing a sense of humor and genuine fun to the proceedings, something that sets the series apart in a world where every YA series is trying to out-grim each other. Add to that some small decisions that nicely humanize the story (especially the choice to have Percy suffer from dyslexia and ADHD, which makes him a hero for kids who might deal with the same issues), and you have a winning kick off for a series whose popularity is pretty easy to understand.
2-12 The
by Rory Scherer
Humor is a hard thing to do, and notoriously subjective. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another, so when you read a humorous novella, it's hard to say whether it's truly "bad" or if it just doesn't work for you. But it's honestly hard to picture people finding The Professional Freelancer all that funny, when most of its jokes are a single format that gets beaten into the ground and the characters little more than one-note punchlines. And that's a shame, because there's an engaging, funny story somewhere in here, as a laid-off worker finds himself working odd jobs and somehow getting involved with gangsters, cops, and more. Unfortunately, Scherer doesn't do the story any favors, filling nearly every other sentence (and I mean that quite literally) with heavy-handed similes and analogies that feel like they're meant to be jokes, but end up so thudding that it feels forced and contrived; worse, they happen so often that they get exhausting before you're all that far into the book. The characters aren't much better, with Scherer apparently giving each one a single characteristic and running it into the ground. (The worst example may be the hero's girlfriend, whose reason for dumping him is painfully unfunny and eye-rolling, but his best friend whose who personality seems to be "I'm addicted to porn!" isn't much better.) Add to that some awkward writing (I've said this before, but first-person narration is hard to pull off if you can't make it sound natural, and Scherer doesn't have that knack yet), and you have a book that just falls flat. And, again, I wish it didn't...because the plotting actually shows that Scherer has some good ideas and some interesting outlines. But as a humor book, it's not funny; as a thriller, it's trying to be funny too hard to be exciting; and as a novel, it's got too many flat characters and too much bad writing to work. With a few more drafts and maybe a co-writer, though? There's something here, underneath the flaws.
2-7 Annihilation,
by Jeff
One of my all-time favorite science fiction books is Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, a strange novel with no real plot to speak of; instead, it's simply about the exploration of a vacant alien craft that has drifted through our solar system, leaving us nothing to go on except our observations and theories. It's a book that came to mind often as I read the astonishing, unsettling Annihilation, which follows an expedition into Area X, a strange area of the world that feels like nothing so much as a version of our world that's gradually becoming a Lovecraftian nightmare. There's little true "story" to Annihilation; instead, VanderMeer immerses us in this world and leaves us trying to figure out what's happening, what has happened, and what will be happening next, all simply by observing the strange world of Area X. There's fungus that spells a madman's rambling, a bloodstained room that hints of a horrific last stand, and much more, but what does it all mean? VanderMeer offers no answers, only unsettling, oppressive atmosphere and a nearly alien world to get lost in, and the end result is deeply satisfying and hard to escape, even long after you're done reading it. But even beyond his rich world-building, VanderMeer offers subtlety to spare, including the slow reveal that our characters aren't necessarily the blank slates they might appear to be. Trying to convey the feel of Annihilation is hard to do; it's a book that almost entirely works by immersing you in its strange world and the minds of its characters, and one that will only work for you if you can give yourself over to VanderMeer's odd, hypnotic prose. So it's not a book that will work for everyone...but for those that are intrigued, you'll find it a haunting, unsettling knockout, a strange horror novel that lingers with you, unsettles you at your core, and turns out to be incredibly hard to shake off.
2-7 Synthetic
by Mary Fan
I quite enjoyed Artificial Absolutes, the first book from Mary Fan, which used its science fiction premise - a world in where it turns out androids have been planted among humans, sometimes without the androids themselves being aware that they weren't human - to not only tell a solid thriller story, but also to play with ideas of religion, faith, and more. Synthetic Illusions, Fan's follow-up to Absolutes, at first feels like a little bit more of the same. Once again, an android is forced to grapple with questions about his own origins; once again, Fan uses that to start speculating on matters of faith and religion, here questioning what the supreme being might be for an artificial intelligence - would it be a god, or simply a programmer? But once you start digging into Synthetic Illusions, it's clear that Fan is doing something different here, playing with questions of free will and choice. How much of what we do is our own choice? How much are we shaped by the choices and lives of others? And what happens if we have no free will of our own? And if Fan doesn't quite interweave her thematic ideas with her thriller, that's okay, because the thriller is far more engaging and satisfying this time around, sending her characters into a bizarre chase where one of them might be guilty of assassinating major political figures, even though he wasn't even there. For all that, Illusions stumbles a bit at the end with the reveal of its major villain, who's far more one dimensional and less interesting than he needs to be to drive the book's action. Still, it's a solid thriller, and I like how Fan is willing to play with bigger ideas while telling fun stories that work on multiple levels. It's fun science fiction with some thoughtfulness, and I'm all for seeing that in the genre.
1-30 The Girl on
the Train
, by
Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train has been getting a lot of comparisons to Gone Girl, and it's not hard to see why. Both are books that derive much of their pleasure from unreliable narrators; both orbit around a disappearance and possible romantic intrigue/affairs; both begin with assumptions about characters that are gradually toyed with and then undermined. For all of that, The Girl on the Train doesn't feel like a Gone Girl clone, developing a voice all its own. Indeed, the book's primary narrator, a (barely) functioning alcoholic, is fundamentally a decent person driven to destructive behavior by her addiction, and Hawkins does a solid job making her understandable, not monstrous - a sharp contrast to the gleeful misanthropy on display in Gone Girl. And though the plots have some superficial similarities, Girl on the Train stands out by having the case narrated not by the key players, but by someone barely connected to it at all, making the case feel all the more voyeuristic than it already is. Hawkins does a great job of juggling her characters and her pacing, and as she jumps back and forth in the story and doles out he revelations, she makes sure to constantly surprise the reader when it's the perfect moment. And yet, there's the ending, which feels unworthy of the book before it; without giving too much away, it's an ending that ends up hinging on a lot of coincidences and making the book feel more constructed than organic, much to its detriment. That being said, it's no surprise that this one is such a hit so far; it's a ton of fun, and Hawkins delivers a gripping read anchored by some great narrative choices. Now if she can just get her plotting up to the same level, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with.
1-21 The Hoard,
by Neil Grimmett
I've read two books by Neil Grimmett now - The Hoard and The Threshing Circle - and it's interesting to see a pattern already forming, only two books into his career. Both are books about how the past informs the present; both deal with the long shadow of warfare; both deal with descendants of murder victims investigating the deaths of their predecessors; both touch on the supernatural without ever focusing on it or letting it control the book. But for all of that, there's no confusing the books, nor is it possible to feel like The Hoard is just a rehash of The Threshing Circle; indeed, it's a stronger book in most ways, and one that shows off some aspects of Grimmett's writing ability that weren't as evident in Circle. Set in an explosives manufacturing factory run by the British military, The Hoard opens with a devastating explosion that kills a slew of men for reasons not yet known. Now, some twenty years later, the son of one of those men infiltrates the plant in an effort to understand what caused the death of his father - and, more importantly, who. The Hoard has a sprawling cast and a plot that unfolds only gradually; combine that with an environment that's entirely unfamiliar to many of us, and The Hoard could easily lose a reader. And yet, the book works, and that's largely due to Grimmett's knack for making his characters engaging and interesting. From the larger-than-life union representative whose gruff exterior hides a deep love for his men to a sociopathic police enforcer to a survivor whose mental state has fractured in the wake of the accident, Grimmett populates the book with characters than stand out and help keep the story clear, even when it occasionally gets a bit too labyrinthine for its own good. And though things occasionally veer dangerously close to the cartoonish (especially in some odd moments about a martial art and some acid torture), The Hoard is still an engaging, satisfying thriller that nicely weaves together history and family ties to make a rich mystery as much about a place as it is the men who work there.
1-19 The Hangman's
, by
Oliver Pötsch
We're in a golden age of flawed antiheroes - men like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and others, whose charisma and appeal is offset by their monstrous sides, ranging from violence to sociopathy to solipsism. So we're in a good era for books like The Hangman's Daughter, whose protagonist is a professional executioner and torturer for a small German town in the 1600's. Jakob Kuisl is a hard man, and an unpopular one, for obvious reasons; the town loves for him to do their dirty work, but they're uneasy with the cruelty and death he's capable of dealing out. And yet, Kuisl is smarter and more thoughtful than he appears, and when children are murdered in the village and marked with what appears to be a witch's sign, Kuisl questions the official story. And as if a child murderer isn't enough, there's the danger of mass witch hunts and hysteria, a rapidly approaching nobleman who could bankrupt the town, and small town politics that could change everything. Author Oliver Pötsch spins an intriguing tale, but one of the best things about The Hangman's Daughter is his command of historical details, which truly bring the era to life in all of its small, satisfying ways. More than that, Pötsch brings his characters to life naturally, letting their foibles and weaknesses show as much as their strengths. (It's worth noting that, according to the postscript, Jakob Kuisl was a real person and an ancestor of Pötsch, which no doubt prompted much of this research and some of the real-life details that pepper the book.) Of course, without a satisfying story, no mystery works; luckily, The Hangman's Daughter is a great yarn, one that's incredibly influenced by its setting without ever resorting to cheap dramatic irony or modern day ideas (mostly, that is; there is a conflict about modern science versus old methods, but that fits into the story nicely and feels natural rather than forced). And through it all, there's Kuisl, a brutal man filled with contradictions: he's merciful and merciless, brutish but brilliant, emotionally raw but ice cold. He's a compelling central figure for the tale, and as a window into a novel and compelling world, he makes for a pretty great ambassador. All in all, The Hangman's Daughter is a satisfying and fun mystery tale, and I'm intrigued to read more of the series at some point. Pötsch has created a fascinating world and a great cast of characters, and I'm curious to see what he does as he continues to explore this world he's brought to life.
1-15 The Feathers,
by Cynthia Lott
The Feathers has a slew of promising elements - strong character work, an intriguing hook, a nice use of historical details, and an ambitious ending that tries to avoid the usual trappings of the genre. But those elements have a tendency to make the book frustrating, as you keep seeing such great promise that's far more successful than the final product. Make no mistake, The Feathers isn't awful - far from it. It starts off with an intriguing murder whose suspect seems to be able to charm his way into homes with an almost supernatural ability, and whose predilection for targeting artists and stealing their talents leaves the police baffled. (It would leave the reader baffled too, if Lott didn't feel the need to spoil the murder's identity and motive on the back cover and in the promotional materials for the book, in a truly odd choice I don't understand at all. When your book builds up to a big reveal, why give that away up front?) Add to that some nice stylistic choices (especially Lott's choice to have each murder experienced through the eyes of the victim after the police investigate, which both emphasizes the strangeness of the suspect and the horror of the crimes), and you've got some great elements that could add up to something really special. But The Feathers feels weirdly rushed, especially as it moves towards its climax; just as we start figuring out who's committing these crimes and why, the book seems to lose patience with itself and rushes to get to its ending, eschewing some of the character work and depth it's nicely used up until that point. And then there's the ending, which tries something more emotionally rich than you might expect, but fails to pull it off (largely, I think, thanks to a strange narration shift in the final chapter that makes the mechanics of what happens very confusing, but also due to a lack of proper groundwork that would make it work). The Feathers has a lot of promise, and I think Lott has some good books in her - maybe even some great ones. But as it stands, The Feathers feels rushed and ultimately unsatisfying, even as I look to lots of individual pieces that I liked quite a bit.
1-7 Fortunately,
The Milk
, by
Neil Gaiman
A gleefully silly, anarchic little tale from the great Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, The Milk had my 8-year-old son in constant giggles from page one all the way until the end, and begging to read it again as soon as we finished it. The idea is simple: a father goes to buy milk, and when he's gone for a long time, his explanation for the delay strains credulity. But that in no way prepares you for the silliness and chaos on display in this book, which somehow involves inventive dinosaurs, volcano gods, time travel, pirates, and so much more. It all ties together in that sort of Alice in Wonderland way where you know what's going on, but trying to trace the logic of it all is a fool's errand. But who cares, when the book is as hilariously funny as it is, the drawings and artwork as charming and great as they are, the wordplay as much fun as it is, and the imagination evident everywhere? Fortunately, The Milk isn't about anything so much as it is the joy of a good story, and if it's all profoundly absurd, who cares as long as it's a good story - and this is definitely a good story, as long as you can give yourself over to the anarchy and enjoy the wonderfully weird, insane ride. And if you like absurd names for common objects, confusing prophecies, time-travel paradoxes, or a testimony about the sacred power of milk, well, you'll find even more to love. And if you've got children who love silliness and a constantly twisting story that's impossible to predict, it's a must buy for you. But don't blame me if you think about stealing it for your own giggling reads later.
1-7 The Wolf in
, by
John Connolly
Anytime you read a series, there's always a worry in your mind about how long the author can sustain everything without a) getting repetitive, b) wearing out his/her welcome, or c) getting bored with their own creation. And when there's a degree of serialization to the series, no matter how small, you're also acutely aware of the balance between self-contained works and the overarching story, and that the author can't stall that out forever without ultimately frustrating the reader or making the series feel like it's spinning its wheels. All of which brings me to The Wolf in Winter, the latest entry in John Connolly's masterful Charlie Parker series. In its early going, The Wolf in Winter feels like typical Parker - not that that's a bad thing, mind you; between Connolly's beautiful, often poetic prose; his masterful characters that defy easy categorization and truly come to life; his uncanny ability to blend crime with horror and create something wholly new; his knack for bringing to life truly unsettling versions of evil; and his fantastic plotting, even the weakest Parker book is a great read, and this one is far from weak. But as we learn about the small, secluded Maine town of Prosperous, where a young woman disappears not long before her searching father turns up dead, there's a sense that we're in pure Parker territory, where the ordinary world slowly peels back to reveal a twisted, dark core. And then, halfway through The Wolf in Winter, Connolly does something wholly new for the series, pushing Parker essentially offstage and throwing all of our expectations into disarray. And what follows from there is exhilarating, as secondary characters come to the foreground, old plot threads are pulled together in surprising ways, and the mythology of the series seems to evolve to be something entirely different than we might have originally expected. What does that mean for fans of the series? It means that not only are you getting a phenomenal, disturbing, thrilling, exceptional new entry in a great series, but you're also getting something wholly unexpected that leaves us uncertain as to what comes next. I don't know if Connolly is drawing the series to a close, or if he's shaking things up in order to push us into something new, or if the next book will be a return to the status quo - and honestly, I don't care, because when the books are this good, this riveting, this exciting, this unsettling, and this phenomenal, I'll read every one of them until the end and just be glad I got the ones I got. In other words, it's just another masterful thriller from one of the best and most underrated thriller writers working today. Did you really expect much less?
1-4 Princess
Labelmaker to
the Rescue
, by
Tom Angleberger
Unlike most of the other books in the Origami Yoda series, Princess Labelmaker doesn't really stand on its own; it all but requires you to have read The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Hutt, as it's basically a continuation of that book's ongoing way between students and the standardized tests that are taking over the school. That doesn't really make the book worse, though; if anything, it allows author Tom Angleberger to play a little more, given that his setup is already taken care of. There's an apparent traitor in the Origami Rebellion, depending on how you look at things; someone has given the rebellion's case file to Principal Rabbski, in what seems like an attempt to get the principal to better understand why the kids are fighting back so hard. I commented when I read Jabba the Puppet that as a teacher, I couldn't really hate any book that was so firmly against standardized testing, and the same feeling applies to Labelmaker, which nicely reminds you that it's unlikely that any teachers are all that thrilled about it either. Indeed, much of the point of the book is realizing that standardized testing is rarely the choice of anyone involved - it's not the choice of the students nor the school administration, but those in charge who seem more and more disconnected with real life in schools. (And the financial aspect of the testing is no small part of it - another point that Angleberger nicely makes without ever forcing the issue.) I don't like Princess Labelmaker quite as much as I liked Jabba the Puppet; it feels a little overlong and a bit repetitive at times, and it's lacking some of the nice moments of depth that I enjoy in the series a lot (although I continue to enjoy the glimpses we get of Tommy and Dwight's lives and how much Angleberger achieves with small hints instead of long monologues). But it's still an enjoyable, silly series, and I like how Angleberger manages to mix in some comments about the state of education with a silly, low-key middle school series.
1-3 The Wrath of
, by
John Connolly
A plane is discovered in some distant Maine woods, and in the wreckage are some handcuffs, a lot of money...and a list of names, and it's that list that sets the events of The Wrath of Angels into motion. Because a lot of very bad people want that list, and if that's not enough, there's something that looks like a young girl watching over that wreckage - something that looks like a girl but very much isn't. The Wrath of Angels may be one of my favorite John Connolly books, and that's saying something, given how much I love that man's work. But at his best, Connolly mixes horror and crime seamlessly, and he does that magnificently here, delivering both a gripping novel about crime and the influence of bad men and a truly unsettling horror novel featuring some of the most disturbing and creepy scenes I can think of in a book. And if that's not enough for you, Connolly also delivers his usual beautiful prose, waxing eloquent as to the nature of evil, the state of the world, and so much more. And just as icing, he can make you laugh out loud when you least expect it, bringing out genuine belly laughs in the middle of the grimmest scene. It's all part of what makes Connolly one of the best writers working today, and his Charlie Parker series one of the most satisfying series in recent memory. Yes, you've got to have some courage to go in here; few authors deal in evil as hauntingly and terrifyingly as Connolly does, and the images and characters he creates will linger with you long after you've turned the final pages. But those brave enough to enter into his "honeycomb" world (where the evil is can hide just out of sight and then attack you when you least expect it) will find themselves in a world unlike anything else in fiction right now, driven by some of the best characters and the most beautiful writing around. And even if Wrath isn't the best starting point (it trades off of your familiarity with the characters and the ongoing mythology of the series), that just means you get to experience this whole outstanding series for yourself from the beginning. So what are you waiting for?