Staring down the barrel of 2015 is making me nervous, down to my bones. With the exception of a rough December, 2014 has been a banner year for ‘ole Agent Bobby. Got my first book back on its feet and at a bigger publisher. Managed to sneak a Hog McMasters story into the CQ Anthology alongside Piers Anthony. Snagged the best dayjob I’ve ever had, in the form of IT guy for a school district.
2013, on the other hand, was as awful as 2014 was sweet. So as long my luck don’t play leapfrog, I guess I might be alright in 2015. It certainly has a Star Wars movie and Avengers 2 coming out, so I guess it can’t be too bad.
Anyway, here’s all the books I read this year: why I read ’em, and if I liked ’em.
January: The Dark Half (Stephen King)
Why I Read It – Why did I check out The Dark Half? There’s no shit here, Sherlock, and thus Watson must turn back to his shovel – Stephen King is my dude. I’ve said it a hundred times, but he’s my favorite author, bar none. He’s my role model for writing, and I one day hope to create stories as accessible and yet somehow as bugfuck bonkers as King’s. He doesn’t treat the reader like a moron, but he also doesn’t chide them for not putting on their best dinner jacket either.
Did I Like It – It’s hard for me to hate a King book because the brother could write about armadillo migration and he’d make me really care about those fucking roly-poly dirt rats. However, The Dark Half might be my least favorite of all of his novels. Something just doesn’t work. The book is about a writer (surprise), who learns that his pseudonym has actually somehow sublimated (or deposited, it’s been awhile since high school Chemistry) into an actual physical twin. And of course, this pseudonym brother is a real weapons-grade shitbird.
King is (perhaps unfairly) known for his Deus Ex Machina endings, and if that were true all of his books would look like The Dark Half. The ending is so abrupt and lacking any kind of fair resolution that it just kind of had me throwing my hands up and making a fart noise with my mouth. A good portion of the early book dragged pretty hard too. The main character literally spends about half the book sitting in his living room, having increasingly long conversations with his wife and the local sheriff. I’m not even joking. Half of the book is three people chatting amicably on a sofa.
February: The Big Nowhere (James Ellroy)
Why I Read It – The Big Nowhere is the second part of the L.A. Quarter, which is a grip of Acid-Noir novels taking place in Los Angeles circa 1940s to the 1950s. I’d read the previous book, The Black Dahlia, and been blown away by the writer. James Ellroy is a master poet asked to catalog a sewer, and the language is as brutal and sensual as the best kind of noir. He turns an unflinching eye to the hypocrisy of what it is to be human – which is to say, the problem with being a primordial jungle monkey in a world full of primordial jungle monkeys trying to act fancy.
The first book had that special quality that, as a writer, made me as ecstatically happy as it did utterly depressed: I’ll never write anything this good, but holy shit is it fun to visit.
Did I Like It – If it isn’t obvious by my horrible gushing up there, yes, I fucking loved it. 5 stars. 6 stars. 200 ninja stars, whatever. The Big Nowhere is only loosely connected to The Black Dahlia. While the Black Dahlia focused on post-WWII masculinity and purposelessness, The Big Nowhere touches on the Red Scare in 1950’s Holllywood, as well as some other fun stuff like homosexuality and racism.
James Ellroy is a fucking genius, as far as I can tell. He tells the interconnecting stories of a mob enforcer, a newly-minted deputy, an old detective, and an ambitious DA all trying to climb on top of an ever churning mountain of bullshit. Watching four people’s lives completely dissolve is a fascinating exercise in schadenfreude mixed with “oh God I’m glad this isn’t me,” and it offers a bleak picture of rotting floorboards and bright lights.
March: Divergent (Veronica Roth)
Why I Read It – A) I like Young Adult literature, mainly because Coming-of-Age stories are full of choices, which is kind of the essence of story boiled down to a reduction sauce. B) It’s hugely popular, and I like to make an attempt to keep a finger on the pulse. Hence why I read all the Twilight books. Yes, that’s my story and I’m sticking to that fucker like Gorilla Glue. C) I write Young Adult, and it’s good to keep on eye on the competition.
Also my wife said it was good, and she’s got great taste.
Did I Like It – Except this time. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know the book is about a regular girl and a dude with too much face fighting the system. It’s a neat idea, the “emotions as factions,” and for the most part the book delivers a solid YA yarn. A YArn. You can have that, you’re welcome. However, somewhere around the climax of the book the writing gets really odd – a book that previously covered every detail of every exercise regimen now skips through hugely dramatic moments like the death of main characters. It almost feel rushed, like the editors were leaning over her shoulder whispering deadlines into her ear.
April: Batman: Dark Victory (Jeph Loeb)
Why I Read It – Because Batman.
Did I Like It – Dark Victory is the sequel to the graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween. The Long Halloween is a seminal Batman book, and is probably considered to be in the top ten of the best Batman stories. Much of the movie The Dark Knight that everyone loves so much is from The Long Halloween, and the book deserves all of the praise it’s received. Dark Victory, on the other hand, probably doesn’t. It pulls the cardinal sin of sequels – it’s basically the first book with the names switched around. The story follows the exact same pattern: sort-of famous characters are killed on holidays, Harvey Dent is suspected, the Falcones are involved, and it takes Batman a whole year to solve it. They added Robin’s origin story to try to spice it up, but he really just fills the hole that Catwoman left in the story. With less sexy stuff between them. Hopefully.
I get what they were trying to do, but the repetition doesn’t read like the spooky echo they were going for. It just reads like repetition. Skip it.
April: Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan)
Why I Read It – I heard that it was a really excellent cyberpunk/noir mashup, which is like telling me that the sandwich you’re offering me is a really excellent pastrami/lasagna mashup. Of course I’m ripping it out of your hands and shoving it into my mouth. My reading mouth, in the metaphor.
Did I Like It – LOVE!!! If I was properly skilled with emoticons I would do a little joyously squinched Japanese girl face with hearts for eyes and both hands throwing peace signs. The background would be some swooping colors, and the sequence would end with me dressed in some kind of scanty but colorful armor.
Altered Carbon stars main character Takeshi Kovacs, a badass “Envoy” who’s part detective, part soldier, part criminal. The setting describes a galaxy where your consciousness sits in a micro-hard drive implanted in your spine called a “cortical stack,” which means that if you get killed you can be resleeved into a new body. Sometimes the body is a clone of you, if you’ve got money, and sometimes it’s just the body of some poor schlub who lost his own body for committing crimes. It’s a brilliant premise, and the writer has the nerve to explore just how much that concept would change society. Plus he couches it in a noir murder case, giving us an easily recognizable entry point into the bizarre. It’s a flat-out smart, fun, violent, sexy, thoughtful romp through a unique and dirty world that somehow manages to feel wholly real.
May: Small Favor – The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)
Why I Read it: The tenth book in the Dresden Files series, the bestselling Urban Fantasy story about the only wizard listed in the phonebook – Harry Dresden. I read it because I’d read 9 previous, and they were all pretty damned good.
Did I Like It (Again): Yes! Very much so. I was worried, too. Here’s what I said last year about the ninth book in the series: “I feel like the series needs to change its formula up. Again, I enjoyed the book, but I’ve gotten to the point where I know exactly when a shocking swerve is going to happen, when a character is going to betray someone, when the big fight is, when the ally comes in to save him, etc. The formula has worked wonders for Jim Butcher, and for the readers (including myself) but after 9 books it’s just too easy to see it.”
Well, Butcher must have felt the same way, because this book starts breaking out of the pack. The stakes feel higher in Small Favor, and the consequences more far-reaching. Main characters get put out of commission, previously established sacred cows get turned into burgers, and overall there’s a feeling of weariness in Harry. He’s trying, but the world is getting harder, and he’s not always coming out on top any more.
June: Paper Towns (John Green)
Why I Read It: My wife recommended it, and for the reasons I read Divergent up above – popular, finger on the pulse, competition, etc.
Did I Like It: This time, as most times before, my wife hit a fucking home run with this recommendation. Maybe she felt she had a lot to make up for with Divergent, or maybe she didn’t even remember that and probably still doesn’t care that I didn’t like Divergent. Who can say? I can say. It’s the second one. She’s just liked it and then told me about it. The problem with writers is that we craft stories out of nothing – even in real life. Anyway, I don’t want to wax too poetic about Paper Towns, because I already wrote a gushing and long-winded dissection of the entire story right here. Anyway, I loved it. It tells two conflicting stories in the same prose-space, and both stories are damn fine. Read it for your inner teenager, and for your outer, angry adult.
July: Doctor Sleep (Stephen King)
Why I Read It: Like I said earlier, because Stephen King. I’m trying to burn through his catalog as fast as I can, but the fucker writes like three books a year.
Did I Like It: Of course. King’s the master of situation and character, and he returns to the world of “The Shining” with a real verve. The book follows a grown-up Danny Torrance (the “redrum” kid from The Shining), and it’s the opposite of the Dark Victory example earlier: the book is a sequel that doesn’t feel anything like the first book. It gives us more of the world, but it’s really just a continuation of Danny’s story. Which is great. In fact, other than his power and his own struggle with alcoholism, the book keeps as far away from the original as it can. Even the few hat-tips are subtle and well-earned. It’s a weird story, Stephen King weird, but it’s couched in characters that feel real and a world that makes sense. Definitely recommended.
July: Gates of Gotham (Scott Snyder)
Did I Like It: I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. It’s less of a story and more of what an RPG enthusiast might call a “splat book:” it enriches the history of the setting (namely Gotham), but it doesn’t really tell a story on it’s own. It’s almost like a prologue to the entire Batman series: it fully flushes out the time period where Gotham went from “just another town” to the sprawling gothic megalopolis we know today. The modern day villain that Batman is chasing, the one that ties into the backstory, is fairly one-note, and the climax relies on the physical geometry of a particular bat gadget that just feels forced. Read it for the backstory on the city, but don’t expect a major knuckle-biter.
August: Mr. Mercedes (Stephen King)
Why I Read It: Because I got it as a Christmas present the previous year, and because of the Stephen King stuff I said earlier.
Did I Like It: Mr. Mercedes is kind of a departure for King. Now, King has actually written books in tons of genres, and isn’t the “just Horror” guy that many people think he is. However, Mr. Mercedes, one of his newer books, is pretty much a “Who Dunnit” detective story without any supernatural events or wacky occurrences. It’s a straight murder mystery, really what they call a “How Catchem,” because you know exactly who committed the murders right from the beginning. The story is just how the detective figures it out. I love seeing my heroes branch out, and Stephen King still proves he can flex his muscles and try something new.
September: Promise of Blood (Brian McClellan)
Why I Read It: I sometimes fall into patterns of reading (as you may have realized with all the Stephen King / Batman / Noir stuff up above), and so I like to read a book or two a year that charts new territory. I’d never read anything by the author, Brian McClellan, and I’d never heard of the book. It’s got a kind of French Revolution-with-magic vibe, and I thought I’d give it a go sight unseen.
Did I Like It: Holy crap was I glad I decided to break out of my comfort zone. What a fantastic read. It’s fantasy, but it doesn’t get too high-and-mighty about it. This is a grungy story about Revolution, and it follows a bunch of characters all on the same side of a coup that deposed the King. That’s not a spoiler – it’s like in the first chapter. Not only is the world fully-realized, but the characters are exciting and varied. You’ve got the old grizzled general who lead the coup, his weary sniper son, a common scullery maid, and a middle-aged Victorian-esque detective all showing you four sides of the same awful war. Throw in a plot to resurrect a fallen god and a truly unique magic system based off gunpowder, and you’ve got a book you’ve never read before. Go grab a copy. For me. For yourself.
October: Broken Angels (Richard K. Morgan)
Did I Enjoy It: Boy was I not disappointed. The same great writing, characterization, and fascinating world of Altered Carbon with a brand new story. The book’s even a different genre – where Altered Carbon read as cyberpunk/noir, Broken Angels is pretty much a sci-fi heist movie masquerading as a war movie. As you may have noticed, I love sequels that go in a completely different direction (which is also why I loved both Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead). I think I like the idea because real stories don’t follow a genre. Some days my life is a comedy, sometimes its a Coming-of-Age story, and sometimes it breaks right into depressing Oscar-bait.
Broken Angels rocks, to summarize. I don’t know if it’s better than Altered Carbon, but they’re at least at the same level of awesome, which is saying something.
November: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree (S.A. Hunt)
Why I Read It: I was trying to break away from my usual vein, like with “Promise of Blood.” New author, new story, let’s do this.
Did I Like It: Well, sometimes lightning don’t strike twice. I actually didn’t finish this book, which means I’m not qualified to give it a proper review. So I won’t. I will say this: S.A. Hunt is a good writer. He’s got a Neil Gaiman/Stephen King vibe that is probably going to serve him very well. It’s a rare talent, and serious kudos to him. I didn’t finish the book, however, because there were some character consistency problems that I couldn’t get past. If your main character is a war vet just returned from Afghanistan, you can’t say he’s “pale and flabby” in one scene. If he’s not a cooking expert, you can’t have him rattling off French cooking terms for every dish that gets dropped in his lap. The first-person narrator turned into the real writer a few times, is my guess, and I just couldn’t dig it anymore. However, I think a different person could enjoy this book very much. There were parts I seriously loved, and the premise is fantastic. I’ll definitely give his other books a shot.
December: Revival (Stephen King)
Am I Enjoying It: Oh helllllllll yeah. I started reading it last night and blew through half the book in one sitting – which is quite a feat for a Stephen King novel. Not a knock on the dude, but he loves to fill them pages. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m positive I’ll finish it today (maybe tomorrow, I do have to clean the kitchen). It’s one of those “here is my life” kind of stories, and it follows a kid name Jamie Morton from early childhood to well past middle age. King is at his best when he’s playing this song – his characters feel lived in, they’re grounded in their eras, and they’re surrounded by the kind of unbelievable people that pepper real life.
The story is the character – Jamie Morton’s, specifically, but he also plays Ishmael to the Ahab of a reverend named Charlie Jacobs. At first I though Jacobs was going to be a classic “evil Reverend” type, but the story took a real swerve early on that proved me very wrong. I’m not saying he ain’t a bad guy, but I am saying he starts as a very good guy whom life takes a big steaming dump on. Really fascinating, so far, and shaping up to be some of King’s best.
Update: I did end up finishing the book in three days, and holy shit is it terrifying. The ending is just . . . man. Check it out, seriously.
Favorite Book of 2014
This one’s a toughy, believe it. I hate to be a total cop-out, but here we go: it’s a three-way tie. The Big Nowhere, Altered Carbon, and Paper Towns all sit proudly at the top spot. Not only are those three my favorite books of the year, they probably all jumped into the top twenty of my favorite books of all time. A close second comes Promise of Blood. This year in reading was more of a rollercoaster than last time. Last year was all pretty good books, and this year had some fucking great ones and some real stinkers.
Last year I pledged to read twice as many books (so, 24), but I only landed on 14. Still, that’s two better than last year, and progress ain’t bad.
What did you read this year? Did you get some . . . tale?