Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 in Books

The Fever - Megan Abbott - Abbott continues the suburban sprawl leg of her books that began with The End of Everything (though, I suppose you could say it really started with Die a Little) exploring the profound unease and deceptively serene exteriors of the little boxes made of ticky tacky. Maybe though it's more the teenaged protagonist phase of her career that The Fever finds itself most obviously defined by. This time it's paranoia, hysteria and mean girls... and not so mean girls, and boys and sex and iridescent water that probably shouldn't be. Not as quietly disturbing as The End of Everything nor as irresistibly aggressive as Dare Me, The Fever keeps you in an uneasy stasis till it gets tired of playing with you and then the shit really happens.

Flat White - Bob Truluck - This. This a hundred times. Such a terrific and singular voice inside the worn out conventions of the private detective novel. No boy-scout, no hero, not particularly smart either, but too stubborn to lie down and too loyal to his pal to cut and run (but not loyal enough to not screw around with his best friend's wife). This one brings the trouble to your door and refuses to go away when you call the cops. It's got attitude and style to burn and is taking big ol' swings at the plate. Pulp fiction, but far from hack-writing. Get some.

The Guards - Ken Bruen - Ex-garda Jack Taylor funds his drinking by "finding things" and doesn't know it yet, but he's not even to the halfway point of his life's troubles. As the series progresses Jack takes more and more punishment, dips in and out of substance abuse, self abuse and pretty much every other kind. He's not even close to losing the few folks who matter to him and his already tattered faith in the church, the country and himself are yet to be put to any real test. So... a revisit to where it all begins for Jack was a good reminder of the disservice bland TV and  endless sequels can be to a true original. My first reading of The Guards (15? years ago) knocked me on my ass - and it was the fourth or fifth Bruen book I'd read. It broke my heart the way the Brant books did not and I still hold it as a high water mark for crime fiction of the new century... but I think I read too far into the series. This revisit had me marveling at many of the lines, but their impact didn't drop lower than my cranium packing anything stronger than a love pat - they felt too familiar. Which may mean a few things... a) Bruen is so amazing that it doesn't matter what book amongst the Jack Taylor chronicles you start with - that first pass is going to be one of the greatest experiences of your reading career - your eyes will be open to new ways of writing, your heart to new depths of tenderness and your dick to new grades of granite, and everything else is faint echoes and diminishing returns, the lightening got comfortable in the bottle and hung around for too many sequels, b) his influence is already pervasive enough (as it deserves to be) that the style feels familiar, c) it was an overrated experience the first time around or d) it's me who's changed over the last decade. Even lower shelf Bruen is worth a read - they guy's so damn good the peanuts in his crap are fresher and tastier than straight outta most writer's gardens, and The Guards is fucking top-shelf Bruen, so I reject option c right off. I'm inclined to believe it's a combination of the other three options. There's no going back to innocence and certainly the quality of his voice is one to aspire to and has launched a hundred lesser scribes (shit, I'm among them), and he helped raise my bar high enough I now dismiss outright plenty I'd have let slide before. So - if you've not read The Guards, for fuck's sake get to it. But maybe cool out on the sequels - read the first one or two or three, but... for the sake of preserving the power of the first, you may want to quit before you're jaded. And shit - read the hell out of his stand-alones - I command thee.

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton - An undercover policeman infiltrates a secret society bent on world domination and moral corruption. Read this on the suggestion of a friend and while it's not my usual cup of tea, I enjoyed the hell out of the first third (up through the election) - it's full of humor and insight - that combination I'd call captial-W wit - but the allegory got heavy and wore thin once the council began to meet properly in the second third and then the final act got delightfully weird and surreal. Glad I read it - a good palate cleanser, but never going to be my favorite kind of thing.

Nearly Nowhere Summer Brenner - A New Mexico mountain community is rocked by violence and scandal when Ruby, a teenaged girl, shoots her mother's ne'er do well boyfriend, without killing him, and runs away with some stolen money that will definitely be missed. Every bit as unpredictable in the moment as her excellent I-5, Nearly Nowhere is also a fast read, a dark and light portrait of characters living with the immediacy of crime and consequence where people aren't neatly divided into groups like criminal and square, but more easily sorted into survivor and opportunist with a couple salt of the earth types and dark-hearted scumbags around to keep it spicy.

No Brass, No Ammo - John L. Sheppard - This is a downbeat, funny and touching crime novel about absurdities and redundancies in the peacetime army. Imagine if Richard Russo wrote about career soldiers rather than academics and you'd be on the right track. No Brass, No Ammo does have a crime and espionage story that carries the anecdotal passages gently along until things get suddenly fucking crazy. Every sensational moment is earned and leavened by the very human characters, warm prose and real heart. It's funny, sad and one of the best things I've read this year.

Rust & Bone - Craig Davidson - Razor-sharp prose put some punch to brutal character pieces revolving around themes of fathers, sons, fighters, drunks and every stripe of broken down, busted masculinity. It's a thing I like. A lot.
Sensation - Nick Mamatas - I'm trying to imagine Morpheus's speech to Neo in The Matrix set in the world of Sensation where humanity are more or less cattle in the ongoing battle for planetary supremacy between spiders and wasps. The action mostly concerns Julia Hernandez, a woman with a marriage and steady job whose sudden transformation to assassin, international fugitive and revolutionary is perplexing to her husband and to those who knew her best. Some neato structural and narrative voice tricks that sound more sensational and attention grabbing in their description than they actually are - or I should say, Mamatas's employment of writerly pyrotechnics are so smooth and controlled you might trick yourself into thinking you could use them too. You couldn't. Go ahead, try it at home, just don't publish it. For all its far out elements it's a fairly muted tone - I mean, this sounds like it could be a Duane Swierczynski set up, but the tone is makes this a much different book than the Sweerz version.

Sex Criminals: Two Worlds, One Cop - Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky - Holy shit. I love this series.

Shotgun Honey Presents Locked & Loaded: Both Barrells Volume 3 - Chris Irvin, Jen Conley, Erik Arneson, Ron Earl Phillps (ed.) - This one features The Plot, my first published short story in four years? It also features names like Kent Gowran, Keith Rawson, Patricia Abbott, Owen Laukanen, Chris Rhatigan, Alan Orloff and Travis Richardson. A couple of stand-out stories from this collection are Bracken MacLeod's Looking For the Death TrickTwenty to Life by Frank Byrns, and Love at First Fight, a warm up to Angel Louis Colon's novella The Fury of Blacky Jaguar.

Steel Toes - Eddie Little - So pissed that there will be no more books from Little. This sequel to Another Day in Paradise is just as unpredictable and hardcore as the first one. This one starts as a prison novel, then becomes an escape and fugitive odyssey, a weird-ass laying low potboiler, a caper tale and a bit of revenge thrown in. The single wrong step is the immersion into the punk rock scene of the late seventies/early eighties (risks becoming a Forrest Gump-esque 'oh, shit he was at that show too!' alt-history that distracts slightly from the meat of the book). I wish that material had been saved for the memoir we never got. Eddie Little was a hardboiled poet whose junkie thief stories are worth a hundred thousand serial killers, private eyes and hitmen. Bonerjam.

Union Station - Ande Parks, Ray Barretto - The Kansas City Massacre at Union Station in 1933 where armed gunmen (Pretty Boy Floyd among them?) shot the shit out of Jelly Nash's Feeb escort on their way to Leavenworth freeing said gangster from the clutches of the law. A landmark in national crime important for its brazenness and the effect it almost certainly had in getting the FBI more funding and leverage to go after their quarry... Anyway, it's an ambitious, multi-faceted story to tell, and there's a lot names to keep track of, but Parks and Barretto have fashioned the action into a cohesive narrative and rendered it in stark black and white graphics. Beauty of a graphic novel.

Winterswim - Ryan W. Bradley - Beauty and terror in the natural world. Religious nuts. Psycho killers. Damaged children, the next generation. This is a handsome and slim novella that ought to weigh more than it does. Must be something in the prose. I think we read from the same sources.


Anonymous said...

You'e living proof crime writing is alive and well in America. The culture elevates by being dragged over the dead lump of civilization.

jedidiah ayres said...

Thanks, Chas. You know I loved TRIPS