Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Genius of James Ellroy

Over the holidays and into the new year, I went on a James Ellroy tear, powering through almost his entire collection.  Many of the books were re-reads for me, but I was discovering new and brilliant things in each.  There are complex crime novels, and then there is Ellroy.  His plots are twisty and twisted and they snake back and forth until their inevitable and bloody conclusions.
Going through many of the books for the second time brought me a deeper appreciation of Ellroy and his unique talents.  From the first book of his LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia) through the second to last book of his Underworld USA trilogy, he is simply magnificent.  In that stretch (bearing in mind I still have to give Bloods a Rover a decent shot) he writes 1 for sure Pantheon novel (American Tabloid), two great novels that are borderline pantheon (The Cold Six Thousand, LA Confidential), two cusp of great novels (White Jazz and Dahlia) and a very good novel (The Big Nowhere).  Very few other crime writers can claim anywhere near that level of greatness.
Ellroy matches up against anyone, and I still have two novels of his to get through.  He is the one author who I delay reading to forestall getting to he end of his works.  All of his books are highly, highly recommended.
Also - Amazon's recently released series Bosch is really great! Surprisingly so, and the acting is brilliant (given that they use two awesome Wire actors AND he great Titus Welliver).  This show was well done because it remains tightly focused on a single case with two branches.  Hopefully future seasons will be equally as well constructed.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Best of the Year 2014

Another year has come and gone, and it is time to get the best books, movies and TV shows of the year up on the blog – you read that right!  The Best of the Year is expanding to include other pop culture beyond books.  Strap in for a ride down through the year…except for the fact that not all of the books, movies or TV shows necessarily need to be made in 2014; this is simply when I got to them.

Movies –

Admittedly, I do not watch too many movies but I saw three that are in contention and given the types of movies I generally enjoy they are pretty surprising choices;

Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain America: Winter Soldier; Snowpiercer

The first two movies are, obviously, Marvel movies but that does not take anything away from them.  Both Guardians and Winter Solider are more subversive Marvel movies, particularly the dark take on Captain America.  They are outsized and incredible and Guardians is one of the funniest movies of the year.  Each actor stole scenes from one another and the performances are off the charts.  Captain America is a 70’s style conspiracy thriller where the entire US government and their policies around terrorism are basically the “bad guy” – not to mention it is an intense and tightly packed action movie.  It is so good and intense that I actually watched it twice.

Snowpiercer on the other hand, is a stunning movie that is gruesomely, and punishingly dark and brutal.  It is a relentless take on the apocalypse in a frozen world where the only survivors live in a horrific class system aboard a never stopping train.  Additionally, there are characters who speak only Korean…and there are no subtitles.  It is not an easy movie to watch but it is incredibly filmed…but also tinged with nihilism and a subtle hope that things can be better.


TV Shows

I watched several good TV series this year: True Detective, The Knick, Utopia…but as I struggled to figure out what my favorite show of the year was, it smacked me in the face.  While each of the other shows had indelible features (Utopia the way it is filmed; The Knick with its incredible sense of place; True Detective with one of the most amazing tracking shots of all time) none of them sucked me in so completely and totally as The Missing. 

The Missing is both thrilling and meditative.  It is punishing and powerful and the performances are absolutely magnificent.  A simple plot rundown: a five year old boy goes missing, and we track the family in the immediate aftermath and eight years later when the father phones his (now) ex-wife and says simply, “I found something.”  From that moment, the viewer is drawn into an amazingly haunting and intricate world of shattered people in the past and present.  Each piece slots into every other piece like a puzzle the viewer simply cannot see in its entirety.  Stylistically, the colors contrast beautifully, from the  washed out palate of the present to the vividness and vibrant brightness of the past.  One of the reasons this is so successful is the fact it was an eight episode miniseries and there is nothing more or less than perfection.  One scene which stands out: a full on car chase from inside the police car that speeds with futility through the streets of a small town French village.  Then the episode ends with an explosive revelation that powers much of the next episode: but, none of it feels fake or cheap, but genuine and powerful.  An indelible viewing experience and one I highly recommend.

To the books!

Page Turner of the Year:

Fiction: Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly – Try putting down a Michael Connelly book, he draws you in and powers you through a tale of moral corruption as fast as you can turn the pages. 

Non-Fiction: Showtime by Jeff Pearlman – An amazing book about the history of the Showtime, LA Lakers and all the gossip that flowed through the era.  I never thought I would rethink my opinion of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but this book gave it a good shot.  A great, soapy and fun sports book that covers all five championships.

Smartest Book of the Year:

Brilliant Orange by David Winner – Try comparing the Swiss Watch abilities of Dutch football players to the versatility of the floor of Schipol Airport and you will have some idea of exactly how brilliant this book is.  This was a great world Cup primer, and not many authors could make the way the team uses the space on the field interesting.  Another fascinating feature was the incredible description of how much Dutch people hate the Germans, and why losing to them in the World Cup was the psychological equivalent of being invaded again.  Unreal and a must read.

Most Disappointing Books:

3) High Crimes by Michael Kodas – After reading other books about Everest and Mountain Climbing in general, this one was a terrible disappointment.  Do not go in expecting Krakauer because it is not even on the same planet.

2) The Racketeer / The Appeal by John Grisham – Both are entertaining reads and make you want to get through them quickly because Grisham is a great storyteller…but…both feature ghastly endings.  Grisham has apparently forgotten how to end a book with any semblance of decency other than the false feeling idea of “the bad guy wins”. 

1) Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Berry – It is about a long baseball game, and while it was entertaining at points…it is about a 33 inning baseball game. 

Topic of the Year

Part 1: Football Books – Specifically, books about football being bad: League of Denial, Against Football and King of Sports were three of the books I read which basically make the argument that the NFL is big tobacco and needs to radically change. 

Part 2: Futbol Books- Specifically, books about futbol!  I read about Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, tactical football, Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life, Inverting the Pyramid, and the business of football, The Football Business (a notable book for its harrowing and brilliant chapter about Hillsboro).  All are recommended highly, especially in the next World Cup or Euro year.

Harper Lee Award (Best Female Author)

Non-Fiction: Night Games by Anna Krien – Few authors, let alone female authors, have the gall to take on the role of rape and sexual assault within the culture of elite athletes.  This was a remarkable book about the depths our heroes feel entitled to sink to and how little we understand about the crime of rape itself.

Fiction: Code Name Verity / Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein – Heartbreaking and beautiful books about friendship amidst horrible circumstances during World War II.  One features resistance fighters in France, the other a pilot who ends up in a horrific concentration camp.  Both are well written and will pull all the strings of your heart. 

Best Books of the Year:


5) The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy – Rare is the author who can create and destroy a character like James Ellroy.  This is the one classic book he wrote that sat on my shelf for more than three years.  I finally dug in and it was more than worth the wait.  Brutal, dark and graphic, this is a crime story more complex than anything anyone else can put out.  Read the entire LA Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogies for the full effect.

4) Silo Saga (Wool / Shift / Dust) by Hugh Howey – An apocalyptic vision of a world underground and run by the most brutal of dictators, these novels are riveting and hard to put down.  The absence of hope pervades throughout and these books are melodic and beautifully written stories of an unimaginable (but frighteningly plausible) future. 

3) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – For years I avoided this book because I was scared it would be too depressing; well, spoiler alert, the book chooses to embrace life rather than focus on death.  This is an incredible book that stretches far beyond simple teen fiction.  Read it and enjoy.

2) World of Trouble by Ben Winters – Now seen in its entirety, Ben Winters, The Last Policeman Trilogy is one of the great achievements in pre apocalyptic fiction (probably the only one) and a series of amazing crime stories to boot.  The central focus of the series has been how people react to a world that is going to end, and frighteningly soon.  The first book was stunning in its originality, the second, slightly hopeful and melodic.  This one is all about the end, literally.  As the world counts down, and the reader wonders whether or not it will all be over, Winters takes his main character, Hank Palace on a desperate quest to find his wayward sister.  Palace is a man who cannot idly sit by and wait for the end, and there is always a mystery to solve.  How does it end?  All I will say is this: Winters could have phoned it in, or struggled, but instead saved some of his best writing for the final paragraphs.  A stunning achievement I cannot recommend highly enough.

1) Troubles Trilogy by Adrian McKinty – Mix Ireland in the 80’s, with its troubles, with a modern detective who solves ingeniously plotted crimes amidst a terrorist state.  Stir it all together and you get a haunting, stylistic and thought provoking meditation on Ireland and its difficulty reconciling with the past.  These books are my Fiction Book Championship Belt Holders for 2014. 


5) Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben – Many authors write about survival scenarios, but few discuss the aftermath and the cost of survival so eloquently. 

4) Griftopia by Matt Taibbi – On small planes in Africa I read about how the world financial market has been manipulated and controlled and I was completely captivated.  An awesome book and one which will help you understand the world in a whole new way.

3) Down by the River by Charles Bowden – An obsessive quest to solve a murder seemingly unrelated to Mexico’s burgeoning drug trade destroys the life of a DEA Agent, while across the border a shadowy Cartel boss and his empire traffic in death, blood and misery.  An amazing, hypnotic read.

2) Going Clear by Lawrence Wright – Having already read a great book about Scientology I tucked into this one feeling like I probably knew it all.  This blew my mind because, like Reitman’s wonderful Inside Scientology, Wright presents a sobering picture of exactly what Scientology is…and the depths it will sink to.  The difference being that he draws the horror out slowly, and methodically, showing exactly how much L. Ron Hubbard actually believed what he was doing was true at the outset, before being rejected and turning into a money making cult.  Fascinating and well worth the time.

1) Spillover by David Quammen – The 2014 Book Championship Belt Holder (Non-Fiction) has been at the top of the list since January.  Rarely have I ever wanted to read a book twice in the same year but I resisted the urge with this one.  Given how much coverage Ebola has gotten in the news, an astute reader would pick up this meditative and authoritative volume which combines wonderful writing with science facts.  It is not often that I want to re-read something about zoonotic diseases, but try putting this book down.  Also: please do yourself a favor and read Laurie Garrett’s fantastic The Coming Plague to fully understand Ebola and the dangers we face. 

Books I am Looking forward to in 2015:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killing (Everything about this book sounds awesome)

James Ellroy – Perfidia (Return of the grand master)

Don Winslow – The Time of the Wolves (One of my favorite books of all time gets a sequel?!?! And it is released right before my summer vacation?!?!? I know what I am doing on June 23rd…)

Robert Kurson – Pirate Hunters (One of the greatest Non-fiction authors ever releases a book for the first time since 2008!  Again, my summer reading schedule is filling up)

Dennis Lehane – World Gone By (The conclusion to the series he started with The Given Day and a direct sequel to the great Live by Night)

Marcus Sakey – Brilliance 3 (I have not written enough about this incredible series, but cannot wait for the third book after two incredible reads: Brilliance and A Better World.)

What did I miss?  What else deserves to be on the list?  Was Station Eleven a pantheon novel?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Hypothetical Book Championship Belt - Oct 21, 2014

Since January the Fiction of the Hypothetical Book Championship Belt Holder has been John Green's fantastic The Fault in Our Stars, this is a great book about celebrating life in the face of death.  There have been no serious challengers to this novel as this has been a year in which I have not read a lot of fiction.  Until the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend that is when I was able to finally finish Adrian McKinty's indelible Troubles Trilogy.  These novels, set amidst Ireland's 1980's are stunning, literate takes on the Detective genre.  They feature a wisecracking and way too smart for his own good man who just happens to be a Catholic on a mostly protestant police force.  Detective Sean Duffy is an intelligent, University graduate who has joined the force to make a genuine difference in a world torn apart by Civil war and reprehensible terrorist acts. 
Each of the three novels is a window into the soul of a terrifying time of uncertainty through a prism of a brutal crime.  The first The Cold Cold Ground features the murder of a homosexual man who also happens to be one of the top men in the IRA - and a victim who may be the target of a serial killer.  The second I Hear the Sirens in the Street is about an abdomen found inside a suitcase that links to American intelligence forces and a recently widowed woman.  In the shattering conclusion In the Morning I'll be Gone Duffy must utilize all his skills as a detective to solve a locked door mystery in order to gain access to an escaped IRA master bomber - who just happens to be his former high school buddy. 
The books are tinged with the darkness of the times, and link to key moments in British history under the iron reign of Margaret Thatcher (the miners strike, Falklands War, her re-election).  They are brilliant and powerful stories full of regret and sadness and like Duffy are a reflection of the modern times and commentary on the cyclical nature of history and time. 
Needless to say these are books one devours, and then, reflects upon afterwards.  They are the rare page turner that is actually saying more than simply what is on the page, and we feel every single ounce of Duffy's terror, regret, love and pain.  These are more than crime novels, they are an accurate portrait of a place and time of absolute chaos, where no one was safe and the line between right and wrong was haphazardly drawn.  Duffy is Bernie Gunther in Ireland - and for me that is the highest possible compliment I can give a crime novel. 
The trilogy is well worth the time and well deserving of the Hypothetical Book Championship Belt for 2014. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Best of Spring / Summer 2014

Been a long time since any book related activities were updated, and not for lack of reading (although I am on pace for my lowest reading totals since 2007).  Here are some of the best books I have read in the last few months:

Michael Jordan: A Life by Roland Lazenby - A really in depth view of the life of Michael Jordan, and his family background.  Stalls slightly with the things we already know (the titles / Bulls years) but overall a very well written biography.

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi - Incredibly rich look at the financial crisis in the United States and why the economy collapsed (and why it will again).  Taibbi examines all aspects of the crisis from mortgage disasters to oil speculation and beyond.  Highly researched and powerful reading.

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright - A book that forms a rough dark religion trilogy with Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven and Janet Reitman's searing Inside Scientology, this is the other side of a devastating coin.  Wright details the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the movement he started (and how he began twisting it into something it did not set out to be), and how Scientology is as rich and powerful as it is.  There is plenty of horrifying material here and it certainly cuts deep.

League of Denial by Mark and Steve Fairnua-Wade - The truth about concussions is much, more worse than you can imagine, and the impact much more devastating.  This book is a seminal work on a topic which demands more investigation.

The Hypothetical Book Championship Belt

At the last writing, David Winner's Brilliant Orange snagged it, but...
as time has passed, it has become increasingly clear that Spillover by Quammen is a much more important book and one that has had a bigger impact on my reading.  Quammen, in a shocker, regains the belt. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hypothetical Book Championship Belt - June 14, 2014

When we last touched base, the Hypothetical Book Championship Belt was firmly in the hands of David Quammen's peerless Spillover which is a borderline pantheon book.  No other book was going to make a serious challenge on the belt unless it too was Pantheon worthy.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the best football book ever written: David Winner's Brilliant Orange. 
What Winner has done is capture the very essence of something completely in definable: why the Dutch play football like they do.  He examines every aspect of their culture, history, architecture and personalities to explain what Total Football is and means to the people.  The book is a fascinating look at the players and their exquisite agony over repeated collapses on the world stage.  Take his heartbreaking rendition of the fateful 1974 World Cup Final against Germany which he argues, was the psychological equivalent of being invaded again.  His writing is clear and concise and so engaging it a very simple prospect to become completely engaged in the book for an hour or more with almost no time seeming to pass at all.  Do not get me wrong though, this is no page turner but a thoughtful meditation that challenges with its slim complexity.  (The book is only 251 pages but is intellectually twice that).
As the World Cup begins this is a perfect book to pick up, and joins my "sub pantheon" of Football books alongside Among the Thugs, Fever Pitch and Richer than God.  Read this book and prepare for an indelible experience - few other books can manage to be so engrossing when comparing both an airport and the countryside to football tactics.  An absolute must read and our new Hypothetical Book Championship Belt holder.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hypothetical Book Championship Belt #2

Another couple of months and another few books down - has something overtaken Quammen or Green?

Non - fiction contenders:
Showtime by Jeff Pearlman - I have always enjoyed Pearlman and his books, and this one was one of his best.  He expertly weaves the tale of the eighties Lakers and their brilliant control of the league during the period.  Given the sort of heat he took from the last book he wrote, about Walter Payton, this has been receiving almost universal praise and deservedly so.  The Lakers stories are full of tawdry affairs and Pearlman brilliantly weaves it all together with the success on the court.  Although I really liked Boys Will Be Boys about the Cowboys, this was a stronger book.  Perhaps the best part was the parts about enigmatic Laker Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  No writer has better explained who Kareem is and why he is he way he is.  Overall, a great read, which for Pearlman is business as usual.

Fiction contenders:
The Silo Saga (Wool / Shift / Dust) by Hugh Howey - If you like your dystopia rather totalitarian and grim, this is the series for you.  Released as an ebook, this was transformed by an incredible amount of reviews and press.  Howey has written a very good series that does not go in necessarily conventional ways - namely the second book completely ignores the characters from the first, and the third brings the two books together.  I could not put these books down, and they were very well written and the characters are immersed in a frighteningly real world that is too recognizable for comfort.  Prepare to go down a bit of a rabbit hole with these ones.

The belt holders: remains Green and Quammen

However...a serious challenge is being laid down by another book about viruses (I cannot get enough) called The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett...stay tuned.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Hypothetical Book Championship Belt

For the past couple of years I have read a lot of books, and I have used this blog to detail the best books I read every couple of months and then the best of the year.  In lieu of that, I have decided this year to hand out a hypothetical book championship belt.  Inspired by the "Hypothetical NBA Championship Belt" I will keep the belt with the best fiction and non-fiction books I read this year.  Only one question remains, which books are currently holding the belt? 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - For nearly two years I avoided reading this book mostly because I was too scared.  It is a book about two teens who are star crossed lovers, who also happen to have terminal cancer.  Not exactly a cheery premise but, after hearing nothing but praise for a very long time, I finally gave it a shot.  All I can say is it justifies the high praise; it is beautifully written, thought provoking and a passionate book that celebrates all the life to be lived.  Truly Green has written a book that juggles a tricky act near the line of life and death, and he pulls it off in spectacular fashion.  Worthwhile of the belt and a strong contender to hold it for some time.

Spillover by David Quammen - I am highly fascinated by two topics: astronauts and highly infectious diseases.  One of my pantheon books is Richard Preston's The Hot Zone about Ebola.  Quammen's book examines the zoonotic origins of many diseases and pandemics we are facing today (Ebola, AIDs etc).  While you might expect a heavy dose of science this is instead a fast paced, thrilling and genuinely enlightening read about diseases and their intriguing origins.  At times this is a terrifying book, at others a brilliant look at a world waiting, always, at the edges of our own and threatening, forever to crash in.