Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Favorites of 2013

I didn’t keep track of what I read this year and I’m realizing that was a mistake. I’m figuring I made it darn close to 100 books if you include audiobooks and the did not finish pile, which for me can grow quite large. I’m impatient, what can I say?
I also made a concerted effort to read outside the crime genre this year. It yielded some good books like the nonfiction Lost In Shangri-La, which was a fascinating story very well told. It confirmed some things I thought I knew but wanted to test again, like the fact that I just don’t care for much Sci-Fi. But y’know, I tried brussel sprouts again this year after buying the hype that they were the poster veggie for all that is tasteless and lame about greens only to discover I love brussel sprouts. Go figure. The same did not hold true for The Martian Chronicles, which I found silly. And I tried one of the John Carter of Mars books but just couldn’t get into it.
I tried a few more “literary” titles. Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods on audio was a beautiful experience. The words were like honey in my ears and the reader was perfect. Not much happened in the book and I’d bet if I were reading it I would have put it down. Glad I did the audio instead. 
Keith Rawson will hunt me down and kill me for saying so, but I couldn't get into Once Upon A River. Well written, but it meandered like a lazy . . . well, like something I can't think of right now.
But on to the crime fiction books I loved. As always I am playing catch up with most titles and so not everything here came out in 2013, but I tried to keep it fairly contemporary. 

Angel Baby by Richard Lange is fighting hard for the top spot of the year for me. I knew nothing about it going in, which I love, and was totally enthralled from the opening. It is a dark tale and follows a structure I’ve come to find is my favorite type of book – a story of a crime or some bad folks told from several points of view as things spiral more and more out of control. It’s what I love in some of last years favorites like Last Call For The Living and The Terror Of Living
Lange spins a brutal tale that never wallows. The characters are all real and there is a real rooting interest here. At least once I think I audibly gasped when one plot point hit, and it was from sheer emotion. “No! You can’t do that to her!” I knew I was invested.
Happy to say Lange will be joining us at our Feb 9th noir at the bar. I’m hoping to have his other novel, This Wicked World finished by then. I immediately went out and bought it after Angel Baby.

Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen

The Professionals blew me away and it’s just not fair how well Laukkanen keeps up the tension and action in the second volume of his Stephens and Windemere series. Once again the focus is on the criminal more than the law officers who are the series regulars, and it works brilliantly because of it.
I’m not a police procedural guy and these books are the perfect antidote to the rote law enforcement books. By focusing on the desperate characters at the center of the mayhem, Laukkanen makes us feel for the real people behind the crimes to the point where we almost want Carter Tomlin to get away with it. Almost.
Laukkanen isn’t afraid to let his criminals dive deep into the muck. These books are the ultimate income inequality cautionary tales. This is 100% contemporary fiction that I guarantee will be just as good and relevant fifty years from now. They deserve to be around that long, too. Can’t wait for Kill Fee next year.

Out Of The Black by John Rector

Talk about criminals we care about. This book takes a man to his breaking point. It is not for the timid. As a father of daughters, it skirted the limits of what was comfortable and made me squirm. And that’s a good thing. I cared. I was right there with him every step of the way.
Rector is the modern noir master of “What would I do?” fiction. I felt that in every sentence of The Cold Kiss, Already Gone and now Out Of The Black. He also had the excellent novella Lost Things this year. 
Rumors that he may be slowing down his output make me antsy. I could read a new John Rector book every three months. 

Go With Me by Castle Freeman - Hard Cold Whisper by Michael Hemmingson - Driving Alone by Kevin Lynn Helmick

I group these three short novels together because they all came recommended from the same source - Brain Lindenmuth over at Snubnose Press. He put out a list of modern noir and I started buying them up, not to be disappointed yet. These three stood out.
Go With Me reminded me a bit of Barry Gifford, but with more focus. The prose is spare and the story slight. It doesn’t sink into the hyperbole many thrillers can devolve into. It’s a quiet book, but I was totally absorbed.
Hard Cold Whisper is nothing new. It’s a classic femme fatale noir tale, but for something that reads like an old Popular Library paperback, it’s truly modern. Brief and tough, this was a great just-gimmie-what-I-want story.
Driving Alone was like a fever dream. As sweat-soaked as a Louisiana summer this one grabbed me with it’s gumbo-thick prose and swept me along with a story I had to get to the end of and then realized I had no idea what to expect when I got there. Good, gothic noir fun.

A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones
I didn’t see the film adapted from this novel this year and it flopped, but when I saw the trailer I thought casting Sam Rockwell was a stroke of genius.
At first I thought this book was going to try to be all deep and literary on me, but as it evolved it became the rare perfect blend of a pulpy story with a masterful writer at the helm. One of those books than made me feel like all my own writing is shit. And really, isn’t that the best compliment a writer can give?

Pine Box For A Pin-Up by Frank DeBlase
The good folks at Down and Out books put out some really interesting stuff. I read this one in a single shot on an airplane and loved the hell out of it. It’s a loving homage to old school pulp fiction, but with a protagonist who rose above the pastiche and clearly marked signposts of this little amateur detective tale.
DeBlase has the pulp patter down to a T. It’s was a rich reading experience for someone like me who loves a great twist of phrase and never met a hard boiled simile he didn’t like.
I look forward to more adventures from cheesecake photographer Frankie Valentine. 

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson
Let’s be honest, this book ran the risk of being overhyped. Robinson has a hell of a lot of good will in the crime fiction community, this despite being a straight talking, bullshit free guy who will speak his mind to you only so long before his fists start to do the talking for him. But he’s done so much for the crime community with Thuglit (proud alumni here!) and with the NYC edition of Noir At The Bar. 
A lot of people were waiting with baited breath to see what Robinson could do in a novel. At first I thought this was going to be a fairly typical find-the-girl mystery, but what stuck with me - and readers all over - are the characters Boo and Junior. With charm, heart and foul mouthed humor they crash and burn the most inept but sincere investigation ever played out in the Back Bay.
I’m never a fan of the ‘world’s best’ this or ‘world’s deadliest’ that. These two clowns are not that. They are deeply human, screw up constantly and manage to walk away with the reader’s heart. Turns out Robinson has a gooey center underneath all those whiskers. 

Several of these writers were new to me this year. I also read several great books by writers I already love. Duane Swierczynski wrapped up the Charlie Hardie series with style in Point and Shoot. Jake Hinkson stunned again with his novella The Posthumous Man. I read more by Chester Himes, Lionel White and Day Keene that I really enjoyed.
A few other new writers I really came to love through their older books I feel need mentioning.

I was late to the party on two guys in particular and I’m so glad I remedied that this year. Grant Jerkins is a writer after my heart. His The Ninth Step and A Very Simple crime hit my sweet spot. He is a simple writer. There’s no pyrotechnics, just a compelling story told with a page turning immediacy that I really loved. He wears his influences on his sleeve, even dropping several Cornell Woolrich references into The Ninth Step and he has not one but two characters watching Double Indemnity in A Very Simple Crime. I immediately snagged his third novel At The End Of The Road and I’m looking forward to diving in very soon.
Another writer I had on my radar for a while is Roger Smith, the South African writer. I started at the beginning with Mixed Blood, his first novel. Holy crap. I loved it so much he couldn’t possibly do it again. Then came Wake Up Dead. Holy double crap.

These are brutal books. I read someone say once that the S. African tourism board must hate Smith (sorry I don’t recall who said it, but it’s dead on) and Smith’s Capetown is not one I want to visit. But damn he can spin a tale. I love how he tells several stories at once and at times it’s impossible to see how they will all link up, but they do brilliantly.
He does not shy away from any of the squalid life he sees on the streets and slums of Capetown and the prisons, squats and back alleys his characters live in. These are violent stories of characters trying to break free, trying to make do, struggling not to give up and to make their way in what are sometimes the only ways provided to them in a very limited list of options.
Smith has several more books out there and I’m looking forward to reading all of them. Why the hell did I wait so long?

So there you go. A whole lot to consider and a whole lot of books you’d be silly not to read. Here’s to a 2014 filled with just as many great reads.

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