Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Reading List

Here's my 2012 reading list. 156 books. Tomorrow I'll share my thoughts on 2012's best reads.

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”
--Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

1.         North of Nowhere, Steve Hamilton
2.         The Outlaw Album, Daniel Woodrell
3.         The Impossible Dead, Ian Rankin
4.         Forgotten Bookmarks, Michael Popek
5.         Lean on Pete, Willy Vlautin
6.         Before I Go To Sleep, S.J. Watson
7.         Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill
8.         Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James
9.         When The Thrill Is Gone, Walter Mosley
10.       Breach of Trust, David Ellis
11.       Rereading, Patricia Meyer Spacks
12.       The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke
13.       William Henry Harrison, Gail Collins
14.       Getting Off, Lawrence Block
15.       Let It Bleed, Ian Rankin
16.       The Most Dangerous Thing, Laura Lippman
17.       Cold Is The Grave, Peter Robinson

18.       Dancing Bear, James Crumley
19.       Vulture Peak, John Burdett
20.       Taken, Robert Crais
21.       Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz
22.       Wild Thing, Josh Bazell
23.       Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, ed. Leah Price
24.       Raylan, Elmore Leonard
25.       A Quiet Vendetta, R.J. Ellory
26.       All I Did Was Shoot My Man, Walter Mosley
27.       Blood Is The Sky, Steve Hamilton
28.       Feast Day of Fools, James Lee Burke
29.       Saints of New York, R.J. Ellory
30.       Ice Run, Steve Hamilton
31.       20 Under 40, ed. Deborah Treisman

32.       The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano
33.       At Home, Bill Bryson
34.       Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
35.       What It Was, George Pelecanos
36.       Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
37.       The Art of Joe Kubert, ed. Bill Schelly
38.       The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
39.       Carry the One, Carol Anshaw
40.       The Train of Small Mercies, David Rowell
41.       The Border Lords, T. Jefferson Parker
42.       The Great Leader, Jim Harrison
43.       Comanche Moon, Larry McMurtry
44.       And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields
45.       A Stolen Season, Steve Hamilton

46.       Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
47.       Night Work, Steve Hamilton
48.       The Beginner’s Goodbye, Anne Tyler
49.       Misery Bay, Steve Hamilton
50.       Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie
51.       The Rook, Daniel O’Malley
52.       Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron
53.       Wild, Cheryl Strayed
54.       The Book of Jonas, Stephen Dau
55.       Rizzo’s Daughter, Lou Manfredo
56.       The Wrecking Crew, Kent Hartman
57.       Triggers, Robert Sawyer

58.       The Digger’s Game, George V. Higgins
59.       The Drowned Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi
60.       The Technologists, Matthew Pearl
61.       The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
62.       When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
63.       John F. Kennedy, Alan Brinkley
64.       Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel
65.       Open Season, C.J. Box

66.       Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
67.       Room for Improvement, John Casey
68.       Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
69.       Home, Toni Morrison
70.       The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey
71.       Before the End, After the Beginning, Dagoberto Gilb
72.       The Uninvited Guests, Sadie Jones
73.       Canada, Richard Ford
74.       Railsea, China Mieville
75.       A Touch of the Creature, Charles Beaumont
76.       Johnny Appleseed, Howard Means
77.       All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

78.       In The Woods, Tana French
79.       Mission to Paris, Alan Furst
80.       The Likeness, Tana French
81.       The Wrong Man, David Ellis
82.       Alpha, Greg Rucka
83.       Journalism, Joe Sacco
84.       Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
85.       Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain
86.       Die A Stranger, Steve Hamilton
87.       Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel
88.       The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
89.       Johnson’s Life of London, Boris Johnson
90.       The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger
91.       The Monkey’s Raincoat, Robert Crais

92.       Broken Harbor, Tana French
93.       The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
94.       My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman
95.       Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante
96.       Phantoms on the Bookshelves, Jacques Bonnet
97.       Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner
98.       Give Us A Kiss, Daniel Woodrell
99.       Superman, Larry Tye
100.     Gold, Chris Cleave
101.     Whiplash River, Lou Berney
102.     The Listeners, Leni Zumas
103.     Leaping Tall Buildings, Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner
104.     Woe To Live On, Daniel Woodrell
105.     The Inquisitor, Mark Allen Smith
106.     And When She Was Good, Laura Lippman
107.     Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch

108.     Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan
109.     Winter Journal, Paul Auster
110.     Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
111.     Calling Invisible Women, Jeanne Ray
112.     Savage Run, C.J. Box
113.     A Million Heavens, John Brandon
114.     A Killing in the Hills, Julia Keller
115.     Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James
116.     The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
117.     Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson 
118.     The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny
119.     This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

120.     The Double Game, Dan Fesperman
121.     A Wanted Man, Lee Child
122.     The Bartender’s Tale, Ivan Doig
123.     Chickadee, Louise Erdrich
124.     The Big Burn, Timothy Egan
125.     The Round House, Louise Erdrich
126.     A Dark and Broken Heart, R.J. Ellory
127.     Marvel Comics, The Untold Story, Sean Howe
128.     Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon
129.     Pathfinder, Orson Scott Card
130.     Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman

131.     A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
132.     The Age of Desire, Jennie Fields
133.     John Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk
134.     Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie
135.     1356, Bernard Cornwell
136.     Blasphemy, Sherman Alexie
137.     Live By Night, Dennis Lehane
138.     Luther The Calling, Neil Cross
139.     San Miguel, T.C. Boyle

140.     Familiar, J. Robert Lennon
141.     In Search of Willie Morris, Larry L. King
142.     The Blackhouse, Peter May
143.     What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,
             Nathan Englander  
144.     Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire
145.     Standing In Another Man’s Grave, Ian Rankin
146.     Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
147.     Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson
148.     Joe the Barbarian, Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
149.     Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
150.     One for the Books, Joe Queenan
151.     The Black Box, Michael Connelly
152.     Dear Life, Alice Munro
153.     The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window
             and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson
154.     Building Stories, Chris Ware
155.     NW, Zadie Smith
156.     The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wide gulf separates Vonnegut the author and Vonnegut the man

Book 44: And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields

He was angry and depressed for much of his life. He neglected his children, cheated on his wife and betrayed the trust of friends.

This was the same man who gave us Billy Pilgrim, who came unstuck in time; the Tralfamadorians, who resemble an upright toilet plunger, exist in all times simultaneously and who used the phrase “so it goes”; the writer Kilgore Trout; and Montana Wildhack, the buxom star of a pornographic film.

Kurt Vonnegut was a wildly inventive writer who gave us one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century in Slaughterhouse Five, which tells the story of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. A bombing that generated a firestorm that destroyed much of this beautiful German city and consigned its inhabitants to a gruesome death. As a German prisoner of war, a young Vonnegut lived through that bombing and witnessed firsthand its tragic aftermath.

The gulf between the reality of Vonnegut the man and Vonnegut the author was wide, and perhaps to be expected. Author Charles Shields shows how Vonnegut’s experiences – growing up in Indiana with a family determined to shape his career path, caught up in the horror of the Second World War, raising an extended family –- shaped Vonnegut and his writing.

Eager to become an established writer and to prove family member’s wrong, Vonnegut abandoned a well-paying job at General Electric to write full time. Cranking out short stories designed to appeal to a mass market, Vonnegut was driven by financial need, desperation and pain. The pain arising from his mother’s suicide, the horror he experienced in Dresden and his abiding sense of injustice in the world.

Shields had an unprecedented level of access to Vonnegut near the end of his life, access that he uses in And So It Goes to deliver a compelling, balanced and sobering biography of the author’s life.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

O'Malley's The Rook a poor imitation of Stross's Laundry novels

Book 51: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Ya gotta hand to Daniel O’Malley.  What he lacks in skill as an author he makes up for in the size of his cojones.

The very idea of a secret government agency that protects England from the pillages of various things that go bump into the night, brandish an outlandish array of tentacles or are merely garden variety nasties is simply brazen.

Brazen because what O’Malley has attempted in his debut novel, The Rook, is the very thing Charlie Stross has been doing for almost a decade in his Laundry novels featuring the indomitable Bob Howard.

In that series, which began in 2004 with The Atrocity Archives, Stross crosses the classic British spy thriller with an assortment of Lovecraftian horrors. It’s delicious.

The same can’t be said of O’Malley efforts.  It’s decidedly derivative of Stross’s work -- the Checquy is the Laundry and his heroine Myfanwy Thomas is Bob Howard -- and dull in the bargain.   

Because his principal character has lost her memory much of the narrative context is supplied through a series of letters.  That epistolary approach brings the novel’s action – which comes far to late for my satisfaction – to an abrupt halt.

At one point, O’Malley even interrupts an interesting bit of action with another letter and another story. It’s not necessary – that particular segue could have been interjected later without harming the narrative.

The Rook’s not all bad, but it ain’t the Laundry novels. And O’Malley, he’s no Charlie Stross. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Comanche Moon, Reservation Blues not up to the best from McMurtry, Alexie

Book 43: Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

Book 46: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Book 50: Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

There nothing’s wrong with Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry and Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. Both are well written novels with engaging characters.

And yet . . .

Neither is quite up to the best work by McMurtry or Alexie. Consequently, both novels are vaguely disappointing.

Comanche Moon is a prequel to Lonesome Dove, which is a great American novel.  Comanche Moon introduces Gus and Call during their tenure as Texas Rangers, before they have left Austin for Lonesome Dove.

Comanche Moon lacks the energy present in Lonesome Dove.  Perhaps, McMurtry was weary of the characters by the time he sat down to write this novel or it may simply demonstrate the dangers of trying to write a prequel to a novel of such power and scope as Lonesome Dove.

Reservation Blues is the story of Coyote Springs, initially a trio of young Spokane Indians who are trying to make a go of it in the music business. Modestly talented at best, the band is aided by the mystical influence of Robert Johnson’s guitar.

At his best, Alexie depends on humor and irony to capture the modern-day plight of the reservation Indian. There are traces of both here, but in limited supply. The novel is weighed down by an overdose of earnestness.

As for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s the third book in Rowling’s tremendously popular series of young wizards. People keep telling me that the books “get better.” I’m still waiting.

It’s not that I dislike the books. I don’t. But I’m not overly impressed either.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Harrison shines, Tyler stumbles in valedictory novels

Book 42: The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

Book 48: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Valedictory novels from two of America’s great writers.

Valedictory for different reasons.  The Great Leader, in which an aging cop comes to grips with his mortality, clearly feels like a farewell from Harrison.

The Beginner’s Goodbye displays the waning of Tyler’s considerable literary gifts. The quirky characters whose stories added up to something meaningful and poignant are now just oddballs without depth whose stories are without interest or significance.

Set in Michigan’s U.P., The Great Leader is the story of Detective Sunderson. Despite being recently retired from the police force, Sunderson is in pursuit of the leader of a religious cult who is preying sexually on underage girls – the Great Leader of the novel’s title.

The story line is a McGuffin, incidental to what Harrison wants to accomplish.  The Great Leader isn’t a thriller or police procedural. Instead, Sunderson’s pursuit of the Great Leader provides a back drop for the story by a man confronted by his own mortality, consumed by the big questions of life as well as the loss of vitality and virility.

Sunderson is clearly a stand-in for Harrison, who is approaching 75. 

The Great Leader is the kind of novel we’ve come to expect from Harrison – wise and warm with an occasional observation on the state of current society that will produce a guffaw. 

It’s not his best work, but a fine addition to an impressive body of work.

I’d like to say the same for Tyler.  I’ve been a fan since the early ‘70s. Morgan’s Passing and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are among my favorites novels. But those books are decades old. The Beginner’s Goodbye isn’t in the same class.

Crippled since childhood, Aaron works at his family’s vanity press, which has a modest reputation for itsr line of “Beginners” books (think the Dummies series), i.e. The Beginner’s Childbirth, The Beginner’s Legal Reference.

Aaron’s wife Dorothy is killed when a tree crashes into their house, yet days later Dorothy reappears – to Aaron.  No one else sees her. The reconstituted Dorothy is Aaron’s grief manifesting itself as a hallucination.

The question is how long will the illusory Dorothy haunt Aaron’s life? Will Aaron ultimately break free from the grip of grief and find a new love and a new life?

None of those questions matter much. This is a tepid novel, lacking the quirky inspiration and insight that made Tyler’s early novels such delightful reads.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hamilton's U.P. thrillers are a great read

Book 41: The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker

Book 45: A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton

Book 47: Night Work by Steve Hamilton

Book 49: Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton

Four thrillers. I liked two – a lot.

First, the two novels that were OK, but only that – T. Jefferson Parker’s The Border Lords and Night Work by Steve Hamilton.

I’ll accept partial responsibility for my lukewarm stance toward Parker’s book. It’s part of a series, featuring Charlie Hood, an L.A. sheriff’s deputy on loan to the ATF. 

It’s always best to start a series at the beginning. Entering into the series at any other point is unfair to writer and reader. There’s so much back story; events that make complete sense to a dedicated reader of the series only mystify someone jumping in midstream.

The Border Lords is less about Hood than one of his ATF colleagues who goes rogue. The explanation for the agent’s bizarre behavior is equally bizarre. I won’t say more except to indicate I’ve never encountered anything like it in any previous novel.

Parker’s a talented writer. I thoroughly enjoyed his California Girl. Perhaps in the future I’ll give him another go, loop back to the beginning, read his first Charlie Hood novel and tackle the series in the way it’s meant to be read.

That’s exactly what I’ve done with Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series, which is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve now read the man’s entire oeuvre.

A Stolen Season and Misery Bay are both part of that series.  Night Work is a one-off.

Frankly, I didn’t like Night Work.  It’s the first book by Hamilton I haven’t liked.  It was slow developing and I never took to the character the way I’ve embraced McKnight.

A Stolen Season and Misery Bay are exactly what I’ve come to expect from Hamilton – great characters, a vivid setting and a plot that moves along briskly. 

My next “project” is too read the complete works of C.J. Box – in chronological order.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Three recent novels disappoint

Three books I had hoped to like, but didn’t:

Book 38: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Book 39: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Book 40: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

I admire the conceit behind Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  North Korea is one of the most insular nations in the world, so the idea of setting a novel there is intriguing.  

The plot largely revolves around a man assuming the identity of a high ranking North Korean official. Everyone knows he isn’t who he claims to be, but they all go along with the deception.

Although he portrays a fictional reality, Johnson succeeds in helping the reader understand the vast gulf between our comprehension of life in North Korea and the reality of life there. The reverse is also true: North Koreans are simply incapable of comprehending life in America.

I couldn’t help but think about the video on the nightly news following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that showed a nation of mourners. I’d felt they were faking, spontaneously erupting in tears and wails and gnashing of teeth to convince a Western audience of their love for their dearly departed despot. 

After reading Johnson’s novel, I wonder if the outpouring of grief wasn’t more genuine. Can something be both genuine, yet deeply insincere?

I applaud Johnson’s courage in writing this literary high-wire act, but that’s as far as I can go. The novel never truly leaves the ground.  

In the opening pages of Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, a 10 (?13) year-old girl dies after being struck by a car. The novel’s premise is that the girl’s death has a lasting impact upon the lives of each of the inhabitants of the car.

But Anshaw never closes the deal.

The girl’s impact upon the novel is so transitory that the entire premise of the novel never stands up. The reader never has a sense of who this girl is – not only why she was wandering alone late at night, but her likes and dislikes, her smile, her interests. Would she have been a good mom? An inventive lover?

If the reader isn’t haunted by the memory of the girl – and the adult she might have become – it’s impossible to believe her death has any continuing and significant impact upon the characters. Oh sure, they remember the accident and are saddened by her death, but influenced in any meaningful way – I don’t see it.

And I don’t think the characters do either.

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell is another novel with a promising premise that never takes off.
Robert Kennedy’s funeral train is making its way to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. There Kennedy will be buried alongside his brother.

Rowell tells the story of a handful of mourners and the merely curious who have come to watch the train pass by. The idea is both to illustrate the state of America in 196X and to show how Kennedy’s death brought the nation together.

At least, that’s what I think.  The problem here is that the lives of the characters Rowell has assembled are not in the least compelling.  There isn’t a single story that generates any real interest by the reader, or invokes any genuine emotion.

 Carry the One and The Train of Small Mercies demonstrate that it takes more than a promising premise to produce a good novel. These are disappointing books. The Orphan Master’s Son also begins with an inventive premise. It’s a bold effort and although it ultimately falls short, it’s not for lack of trying.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Art of Joe Kubert captures the career of a comic book great in word and picture

Book 37: The Art of Joe Kubert edited by Bill Schelly

Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, Tor, Hawkman, the Viking Prince.

These are just a few of the comics and characters drawn by Joe Kubert during his decades-long career as a comic book artist.

Although I was primarily a Marvel guy and Kubert worked mainly for D.C., his characters -- especially Rock -- populated my childhood imagination.  For me, only Jack "King" Kirby, outranks Kubert on my short-list of all-time favorite comic artists.

The Art of Joe Kubert, edited by Bill Schelly, captures the breadth of Kubert's amazing career in both words and illustrations. While still in high school, Kubert began hanging out in Harry Chesler's New York studio.  There he learned how comics were made and the fundamentals of comic art.

It wasn't long before Kubert's first published work appeared, "Volton, the Human Generator," and an extraordinary artistic career was launched. 

The Art of Joe Kubert is a delightful read as it tracks the arc of Kubert's career, but it's more fun, by far, to flip through page after page of Kubert's comic art. 

From his early work on Crime Does Not Pay to Our Army at War featuring Sgt. Frank Rock and the soldiers of Easy Company, the books leads to an obvious conclusion -- Kubert is among the greatest comic artists ever to put pencil to paper.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers among 2012's best books

Book 36:  Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the best book yet to appear in 2012.

It's all but certain to make numerous "best of" lists when December arrives.

 It is a non-fiction account of the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport.  The airport, with its gleaming luxury hotels, is separated from the slum by a high wall. On the wall, advertisements for Italianate tiles promise floors that will be beautiful forever.

Behind the wall, behind the "beautiful forevers," life is precarious. Families struggle to scratch out a meager existence; toiling for hours for a handful of coins. Many, including children, must resort to theft.  Everyone is surrounded by disease, alcoholism, corruption and -- worst of all -- indifference.

Boo focuses primarily on two families.  

Abdul, a Muslim boy in his late teen, belongs to a family determined to improve their lot.  Each day, Abdul sorts through garbage purchased from other denizens of Annawadi, which he then sells to recyclers.  

Abdul and his family are caught up in a legal nightmare that rivals Jarndyce and Jarndyce when a neighbor, angered by the family's relative prosperity, sets herself on fire.  Abdul, his father and sister are charged with inciting the neighbor to commit suicide.

Asha is also struggling to secure a better life for herself and her children.  From an impoverished childhood in rural India, Asha has become a political fixer in Annawadi.  Cross her palm with sufficient coin and problems have been known to vanish. 

Her daughter, Manju, is about to become the slum's first resident to receive a college degree.

Critical accounts of Behind the Beautiful Forevers note that the book reads like a novel. It does, which is to say that to Boo the story is of primary importance.  The author allows the people of Annawadi to tell their own story, in their voice. Boo is simply a conduit -- an extremely gifted conduit -- who permits the narrative of their lives to unfold with compassion, understanding and absent judgement.

In this way, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shares common ground with Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit.  

It is one of those rare works of non-fiction that weave together a powerful and magical narrative. A narrative that takes us into the lives of the residents of a Mumbai and allows us to understand that their hopes and dreams, their faults and failures, are not so different from our own.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Pelecanos at the top of his game in What It Was

Book 35: What It Was by George Pelecanos


George Pelecanos' new novel, What It Was, is just so smooth.

The DC-based writer has always been good. But it's apparent that his work as writer for The Wire, and now Treme, has taught him a great deal about pacing, mood and dialogue.

 Pelecanos seemed to struggle in recent years with books such as The Night Gardener and The Turnaround. They weren't bad books, but they lacked the attitude, the brashness, of his previous works. In striving to produce works of greater social and cultural awareness and sensitivity, books that could be approached as literature, Pelecanos lost his mojo. 

It's working now.  First in The Cut and now in What It Was, Pelecanos establishes himself as a legitimate successor to the king of cool, Elmore Leonard.

It isn't just due to Pelecanos' mastery of dialogue, although that's there.  He captures the rhythms of how men on the street speak; he captures not only how they talk, but what they say.  

Pelecanos also excels at evoking a time and place through music and movies, cars and clothes.  In What It Was he brings the Washington D.C. of the early 70s to life.  Reading his novel is as close to a time machine as anyone is going to come.

His characters are vivid. The good guys aren't too good; they have their weaknesses. But his bad guys are oh so bad.   

Finally, Pelecanos controls the pace of What It Was with the skill of an accomplished conductor. The novel begins and ends in a D.C. bar.  It could be today or tomorrow. Two men, Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos, recurring characters in Pelecanos' early novels, are having a drink. 

A song, In the Rain by the Dramatics, takes Strange back to the summer of '72 when he was trying to launch his career as a private investigator. A summer that a bad guy known as Red Fury "went off."  

And just that quickly we're off in a stirring, thoroughly entertaining thriller that demonstrates Pelecanos at the top of his game.