Thursday, December 2, 2010

Books of the Year - 2010 has once again released their list of The Best Books of 2010 so it seems more than appropriate to release my 2010 list. Like last year, this list will contain the good and the bad and will be expanded with a whole plethora of new catergories.
Now, without further ado - the 2010 Books of the Year
The Clive Cussler Award (Best Page Turner)
Fiction: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly - As I just recently wrote, this book got me through a weekend on the couch when I was sick. More complex and twisty than Connelly's usual offerings you will be put it down and pick it up a minute later.
Non-Fiction: Boys Will Be Boys by Jeff Pearlman - An examination of the 1990's Cowboys Dynasty, this book gets into the deep and the dirty secrets of the one of the best football teams of all time. Pearlman draws you into the characters who experience ridiculous highs and crashing lows before finding, in the most unlikely of times, redemption.
The James Patterson Award (Most Disappointing Books)
3. Dark Matter by Philip Kerr - The only time I have branched off and read a book by Kerr other than his phenomenal Bernie Gunther series. It will also be the last time. I understand what Kerr was trying to do; turn Isaac Newton into Sherlock Holmes, but the execution is off. Boring is a word I never figured I would associate with Kerr's writing but there you go.
2. Iron River by T Jefferson Parker - I really enjoyed the first book is his Charlie Parker trilogy and the second was a decent read. In this novel, however, Parker tried to be James Lee Burke. The main problem? No one can be Lee Burke but Lee Burke. This one had so much promise but ultimately fell apart under metaphysical circumstances that made no sense.
1. The Bodies Left Behind by Jefferey Deaver - Deaver's books are good for one thing: the jaw dropping twists and turns they take. In this one though, (which, admittedly I read after watching Inception) the "patented" twists were so telegraphed I had figured out the entire plot four pages in. Terrible, sloppy work from someone who has done much better.
Bill Simmons Award (Best Sports Book)
2. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden - A great portrait of the 1992 Philly Eagles, Bowden gets inside the world of Pro Football and his work is illuminating, well written and touching.
1. The Book of Basketball / Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons - Two of the best books I read this year.
Jon Krakauer Award (Best Non-fiction)
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - As advertised; I learned more from this book (and I had the illustrated version) than I did in 12 years of school. The best part? It is a page-turner.
Gary Smith Award (Best Article)
"Bleed Through" by Charles Bowden GQ September 2010 - One of the first articles to examine the impact of the Mexican Cartel Wars on Texas, this article is chilling, haunting and a very terrifying reading experience.
David Simon Award (Smartest Book)
The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke - A potential series swan song? Burke certainly throws all of his skills into one of the best final chapters of his career.
Books of the Year
5B. The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace - A dark, extreme noir ride through the years 1974 - 1983 in Yorkshire. Centered around the infamous "Yorkshire Ripper" Case, the books are a deep expose of police corruption and the impact of violence. A towering literary achievement and the final pages of voulme four will leave the reader completely staggered. Powerful stuff.
5A. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John LeCarre - The best spy novel of all time. Less is more for LeCarre and here is a taut, minimalist masterpiece about a deeply conflicted spy who desperately wants out.
4. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - So full of interesting information your head may explode when you read it. My favourite part? Calling "Darwin's singular notion" the greatest idea anyone has ever had in the history of the world.
3A. LA Confidential by James Ellroy - The plot is so brilliantly convoluted that it makes the movie look like about as complex as the Lion King. When the villain is finally revealed, the punch is so powerful you may drop the book.
3. Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons - A look at the Boston Red Sox and their ultimate title journey through the microcosm of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The most-apt comparison? 1986 was like the two years Andy spent being abused by "the sisters". Absolutely hilarious and rightly deserving of the accolade: the "Moby Dick of Red Sox books".
2. The Passage by Justin Cronin - Long, sprawling and at times there are wasted words. However, Cronin's dystopian future is so poignent and harrowing that it makes up for the slight (100 page) drag in the middle. A page-turner that means so much more then the words on the page, this is a book that will stick with you for some time.
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty - This is a Pantheon-level book (one of the best ever) and as a novel is absolutely stone brilliant. McMurty's characters are so beautifully drawn that their long (900+ page) journey could easily have been 900 pages longer. A singular achievement.
Author of the Year: Bill Simmons
Between his books The Book of Basketball, Now I Can Die in Peace and his columns and his podcasts, no one kept me better entertained this year. Truly, no other author was even really in contention once I read his incredible and hilarious book on the history of the NBA. He reignited a long dormant love of Sports books and is without a doubt my author of the year.
Looking Ahead - 2011's Most Anticipated Books
World War Z by Max Brooks - Supposedly the best zombie novel around, combining the best of horror and social commentary.
Fall of Giants by Ken Follett - Always a solid author, this one starts a new trilogy.
The Tiger by John Valient - A book about a tiger, hunting men in Siberia? I am in.
The Underground Empire by James Mills - Discovered in a used bookstore, this is a book from the 80's that tried to examine the full scope of the Drug Empires that have taken control of our world.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam - Widely considered the best sports book of all time.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson - His best book The Devil in the White City and its follow up Thunderstruck were great. No reason this one, set in Nazi Germany should be any different.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Lincoln Lawyer

Michael Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch mysteries but The Lincoln Lawyer was the first book he has written that I have truly enjoyed. Other books in his continuing series tend to be "slightly preposterous" and not dark or gritty enough for my tastes. I read The Lincoln Lawyer while I was sick and it got me through two days of not wanting to get off the couch. This book is nearly impossible to put down and was perfectly plotted with genuinely surprising twists and turns. The characters are not stock standard or easy to pin down and protagonist Mickey Haller is a moral mess of a defense attorney who only fears defending a "truly" innocent client.
A great read, fast paced and complex enough to satisfy even the snobbiest of readers looking for something light.
Other news:
Watch for my Books of the Year column in the next couple of weeks. I have read more than 60 books this year and the list will be a compendium of The Best, The Worst and will include my choice for Author of the Year.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty is everything it is purported to be: tense, beautiful, haunting, epic, powerful and among the best novels ever written. The story is simple and many writers would struggle to provide depth with such a premise, yet McMurty never faulters. Two cowboys and former Texas Rangers decide to leave a comfortable life in Texas to lead a cattle drive to the uncharted lands of Montana. Along the way their rag tag group of misfits and outlaws encounter all kinds of danger and adventure. Some, like young Newt, grow up and become men. Others, like Jake, meet a fate for which their entire lives have primed them. All of the characters resonate deeply in this book, even the mysterious and brutal Blue Duck whose reign of terror dominates the plains.
There is only one real complaint with this book: it could easily have been a thousand pages longer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How is James Lee Burke so consistently awesome?

Year after year James Lee Burke publishes a "cannot put it down novel" that consistently blows away all crime novel competitors. How has he been able to keep his characters fresh after 18 novels? Each novel interlocks and mingles with the shared past of the previous ones but can also stand alone. He writes about an "edenic" Louisiana that slowly reveals the darkness lurking beneath the steamy surface. Yet, the question remains: how is he so successful? A few reasons:
1) His characters are stuck in a moral minefield - Take three of his lead characters, Detective Dave Robicheaux, PI Clete Purcel and Sheriff Helen Soileau. Each of them exhibits a tremendous amount of depth and growth throughout the series, yet we are constantly reminded of the basket of snakes each carries inside them. Any one of them could easily be "the bad guy" in any given novel and yet they remain fully committed to their own vision of justice, regardless of the consequences.
2) The setting constantly shifts - New Iberia and New Orleans represent a beautiful cesspool of mobsters, gangsters, corrupt politicians, racist oligarchies and dirty cops. Each novel introduces a new set of characters who are fully fleshed out and ready to unleash their own version of hell on Dave and his friends. There have been continual elements like the Giancano Mob Family and Lee Burke weaves their rise and fall through several early books. He never ignores the history he has created for his characters and builds upon it brilliantly - not many other writers have this ability. Robicheaux has undergone several life changes (and wives) and each one has been written with subtly uniqueness and understated power.
3) The Writing - Lee Burke writes so well your senses are completely assaulted. You hear, smell, see and taste every part of his world - no other writer can do this as well as Lee Burke. Occasionally he throws in a big twist near his endings but usually the books build to a forgone conclusion you may or may not accept. Nothing ever ties up completely and the good characters do not always triumph over evil. Often, his main "hero" is wrong in his assessment of the bad guys. Few other crime writers take these chances.
4) He is the only one who can pull off the slightly supernatural elements - Lee Burke occasionally has supernatural or mystical elements involving life and death in his books and surprisingly it always works. I have read other novels where the authors have tried similiar things and it does not work. For Lee Burke, it always does.
His latest The Glass Rainbow (number 18!) is a fantastic summation of the entire series. All the elements are there and the book is fantastic. The great thing about his series is you can pick it up anywhere and get a great read. It is not necessary to read from the very beginning, but, each novel has to be read, and fully enjoyed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Now I Can Die in Peace / A Lost Heisman

Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons resonated deeply with me. It took me a long time to figure out why, and then it hit me: I understand as my team is also suffering a championship drought.
Living in Vancouver (in my opinion a cursed sports city) I understand the futility of watching your team fall short of expectactions year in and year out. In Vancouver, there is only one option for the Vancouver Canucks each year - winning the Stanley Cup. They have not yet won the Cup in their 40 year history. Twice they have made it before losing: in 1994 they pushed the Rangers to Game Seven and lost even though Trevor Linden hit the post twice. Ridiculous. Needless to say the team has yet to carry the championship belt. In 1994 the city shut down and banded together in cheering elation (then we lost and there was a riot) so you cannot say the fans do not deserve it.
Additionally, we had to suffer through The Vancouver Grizzlies (and #1 pick Bryant "Big Country" Reeves who had his nickname changed to "Sleep Country" before the end of his first season) who showed tantalizing potential in their first two games (winning both including a thrilling home opener) before embarking on several seasons of mediocrity and an NBA record 23 game losing streak. Then, to top it all off, new owner, Michael "I am so angry I cannot in good conscience put anything here without being censured" Heisley, moved the team to Memphis where they promptly learned how to draft quality players and made the playoffs.
Simmons was able to perfectly portray a tormented fan base, but also cut to the heart of the sports experience: you follow your team through all the good and band and ultimately they will reward you (unless you live in Cleveland). The beauty of sports is their ability to resonate with entire populaces which they draw together against common foes. Sports are a metaphor for life and despite the ups and downs we all fight through.

Now for something a little different: Reggie Bush voluntarily gives up his Heisman. Terrible. For shame, NCAA, for shame. Even though he was paid by a greedy agent (who recieves no punishment whatsoever and only came forward because he was burned by Bush) there is no denying that in 2005 he was the best player in college football (just watch the clip he was electrifying!) Now, they want to punish USC and Bush? Why? Bush does not play for USC anymore and given he has now voluntarily given up his Heisman what was the point? In all likelyhood a lot of great players take money and gifts - Bush got caught. Did it somehow affect his on-field performance? When the money was promised did that make him play harder? I doubt it. Now, Vince Young (who may have also taken money) wants the 2005 Heisman. Newsflash: It is not yours, nor will it ever be. End the stupidity NCAA, please.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John LeCarre is alternately tabbed as LeCarre's best novel and the best spy novel of all time. Very few novels live up to as much hype as this, however, this one does. Here is why:
1) The tension is so palpable it makes the novel impossible to put down - this is the Cold War at its height.
2) It is does not rely on action scenes - there are no fight to the death shootouts and the book is all the better for it. This is not The Bourne Series but a more meditative take on the cost of being a spy.
3) The mind blowing twist - you sort of see it coming but definitely not in its entirety. The rug is pulled clean out.
LeCarre has written a book that works on a number of different levels and highlights the ideological differences between east and west. This is a powerful, spare, lean novel that deserves the many accolades it has recieved for cutting the spy business down to the bone and then forcing readers to fully understand the moral freezone in which it operates.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Writer of the Year 2000 - 2010

Each year I read a lot of books. Narrowing down a "best book of the year" is hard enough but what about a Writer of the Year? I decided to try to pick mine from 2000 - 2010. I had a couple of rules: I had to pick one - no ties; there would be one alternate in case whomever I picked was unable to fulfill their duties. There were a few other criteria (people could win for the number of their books I read and enjoyed that year, or simply because they wrote one or two of the best books I read that year, or their books could have impacted me profoundly). Without further ado, my Writers of the Year, through the years.

2000 / 2001: Clive Cussler

Why: Clive Cussler dominated my early adulthood reading through his combination of staggering action and historically-driven plots. Stating that he writes page turners is like saying Russians know a little bit about ballet. During this period I devoured his Dirk Pitt prime from Raise the Titanic - Atlantis Found. Truly no other author I have yet found has ever had such a great succession of novels. As a tribute to Cussler and his impact on my reading habits there are no alternates.

2002: Robert Ludlum

Why: Pick up his Bourne Trilogy and you will understand how great a writer Ludlum was. This is before the franchise was picked apart by second rate-writer carry-oners. It is emminently readable, profoundly complex and dark. Really, the only thing the movies have in common with the books is the idea of an amnesiac main character who was used as a spy / assassin. The main thrust of the trilogy is Bourne's battles with (the infamous and real) Carlos the Jackal. Yep...they forgot that little point when they made the movies. The books however, are all the better for it. Another great Ludlum book for those interested - The Materese Circle a taut spy and conspiracy thriller you will be unable to put down.

2003: Sanika Shakur aka Monster Kody Scott

Why: Shakur's Monster was one of the first inside looks at LA's Crips and a searing portrait of inner city gangs and why young men are inevitably drawn towards them. Shakur does not shy away from his increasing prison time, nor his conversion to African-American activist. He grew up when the Crips became one of the most powerful forces in Los Angeles and his ascent...or is it descent? into his role as Crip leader and feared presence on the streets is fantastic. Gripping, horrifying and life changing, this was Autobiography of Malcolm X for the Crip generation.

2004: Jon Krakauer

Why: Jon Krakauer is a non-fiction writing god and this is when I first discovered his best works: Under the Banner of Heaven, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild. He releases a book once every 4 years and they are always worthwhile reads. Krakauer deeply researches his topics and then goes out and writes the hell out of them. He dares you to put down his books, and secretly knows you will be unable to do so. Additionally, he is really willing to get into his topic - he freaking climbed Mount Everest during one of the worst seasons in history! A true legend.

2005: Robert Kurson

Why: One reason only: Shadow Divers. Quite simply one of the finest books I have ever read. I passed this one on to everyone I know - they all loved it. My grandmother, who has read roughly 10,000 books in her lifetime called it the best book she has read. It is a non-fiction masterpiece and Kurson is one of the best writers ever, if you have not read it you are in for a serious treat.

Alternate: Nathanial Philbrick for his masterful works In the Heart of the Ocean and Sea of Glory.

2006: Dennis Lehane

Why: His Patrick Kenzie / Angie Gennero books are awesome, Mystic River is one of the richest novels of the 2000's and Shutter Island blew my mind. Do you need any more reasons? Okay, try this one: Darkness Take My Hand is the best serial killer book I have read and an incredible meditation on violence in our society and its propensity to swallow us all.
2007: Philip Kerr
Why: Kerr wrote the unbelievable Berlin Noir trilogy which follows a private detective, Bernie Gunther, in Germany during the Nazi era. They are among the most hard-boiled books I have read and the characters pop right off the page. As I finished the three books (which come to a twisty albeit sound conclusion) I discovered that after a 17 year hiatus Kerr had returned to write a new Bernie Gunther book that was easily his best work yet! Not many writers get better over time, but Kerr seems to.
Alternate: Herman Wouk for his magisterial books on World War Two The Winds of War / War and Rememberance which are the best fictional books about the war. Period.
2008: George Pelecanos

Why: Like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos owns the mantle of best crime writer of a certain city. While Lehane has claimed Boston as his territory, Pelecanos rules DC. His Nick Stefanos trilogy, followed by his DC Quartet and Derek Strange Quartet and his stand alone The Night Gardener (easily his Mystic River) cemented his place in 08. His works show the degeneration of DC after the war and the slow influx of gang crime which led to its ranking among the world's most dangerous cities. A fascinating and complex look through time which easily holds a place among the best crime fiction of all time.

Alternate: Michael Crichton - this was the year I discovered his earlier works which are all unique and all exceptional. One of my favourites: Rising Sun a page turner which makes you think and informs you down to the last page.

2009: Stephen King

Why: A shockingly tough year to pick a champ, despite the fact I read a staggering 14 books by King. He ultimately had the most impact, even though he did not write the best overall book I read that year. From his masterworks It and The Stand through his earlier novels such as Salem's Lot, King kept me more entertained than any other author. Fittingly, the last book I read in 2009 was King's latest opus epic Under the Dome.

Alternate: James Ellroy's American Tabloid was without a doubt the best book I read in 2009. In fact, it may be my favourite fictional book ever. His follow up The Cold Six Thousand was very nearly the equivelent. Awesome fictional accounts of the Kennedy conspiracies (and beyond!) these books are must reads for anyone interested in the noirish side of American history written by someone with a vendetta against any unecessary words. Powerful stuff.

2010: Bill Simmons

Why: So far, this year there are two possibilities for my writer of the year. However, when the full impact of reading (not only books but also weekly columns) is factored in there is no other choice but Simmons. His epic The Book of Basketball not only reignited a love of sports books for me, but also made me a huge basketball fan. Before I could take it or leave it, now, I cannot get enough. Thanks Bill for being so hilarious and such a pop culture master that your book literally had me laughing so hard I could not continue for long stretches due to serious stomach pains.

Alternate: David Peace whose Red Riding Quartet was the most literary work I read this year. Each of the four books ties so beautifully together that only when Peace's full vision is recognized does the reader understand the full, brutal impact of the journey. Haunting, harrowing and among the best crime fiction has ever offered.

Grandmaster Award - James Lee Burke
Burke really could have dominated in any given year due to the sheer volume of his works and the overall quality of each one. In 2007 I read three of his books; 2008 saw five go down; during 2009 I crushed four more; currently in 2010 I have made my way through three more. His works are incredible tributes to the Lousiana with all its seedy, mob-driven darkness and quiet almost mythical beauty. His books are not read but fully experienced. Pick up any one of the 15ish Dave Robicheaux novels and you will see what I am talking about.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Best Characters Part I

Great books are usually a solid combination of plot and character. Thus, I feel it is important for me to lay out some of the greatest characters in fiction.

1) Bubba - Dennis Lehane
Why: Lehane has created some solid secondary characters but he topped himself with Bubba who defies any conventional labels. He is (among other things) a psychopathic gun dealer who kills without conscience and whose apartment is rigged with landmines. Whew. A charmer you would love to bring home to mom...and he is one of the good guys?! Bubba only loves two people, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and helps them in Lehane's early books. Bubba may not be a star but he certainly leaves and impression and give Lehane credit for not overutilizing the character. He leaves you wanting more Bubba, not sick of him.

2) Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino - Clive Cussler
Why: Why not just one of them? Try picking Redford or Newman - not possible. They are a tag team hell-bent on doing what they believe is right. Naturally they end up saving the world multiple times and killing more bad guys than most small-market dictators. However, they are the epitome of the self-deprecating heroes who never sought the spotlight but made a real difference. They had the best peak (1976 - 1999) of any characters and within that peak the ten year run of Cyclops (1986) - Shock Wave (1996) remains one of the best stretches of thriller fiction in history. Quick with the one liner and endlessly sacrificial, these two had the adventures of a lifetime, thankfully dragging readers alongside.

3) Pete Bondurant - James Ellroy
Why: A pimp, shakedown artist, thug and murderer who ultimately proves he has a heart, Bondurant is one of a kind. He works for Howard Hughes, the CIA, Jimmy Hoffa and the mob and does so with a reckless abandon all his one. Big Pete, haunted by the fact that he murdered his own brother - and did not care!?, is one of the most compelling and morally ambiguous protagonists in modern fiction.

4) Lisbeth Salander - Stieg Larsson
Why: Lisbeth, the heroine of Larsson's Millenium Trilogy is a marvel of character. She is damaged, flawed, peerlessly brave and incredibly intelligent. In an era of strong women in fiction, she may be the strongest. From getting revenge on her rapist to brutally beating a serial killer and going right at evil head on, Salander does not shy away from anything. Thankfully, of course, for the reader.

5) Bernie Gunther - Philip Kerr
Why: Sarcastic, brutal and a complete thug almost as bad as the Nazi's he despises, Bernie is one of a kind. Truly a symbol of justice in the Nazi era (and beyond) he proved just how terrible a person had to be to survive - and thrive - in that time. The hero of six novels, Bernie is about to make his seventh (and final?) appearence in the fall. Here's hoping he is good as ever.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book of the Summer

Every once in awhile you read a book that you do not want to finish. For me, this is either because the book is so terrible that I cannot will myself to make the end; or because even though I am desperate to know what happens I am so thoroughly enjoying the novel I just do not want it to end.
The Passage - though not flawless - definitely fits into the latter catagory. As readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of Stephen King's epic The Stand. Cronin, like King, has managed to do what many others have failed to accomplish: he finds a unique voice. Given that you could slot this novel into the crowded "vampire" genre that means something. (Note: Calling this magnificent book a "vampire novel" is like saying Harry Potter is a simplistic children's book)
While I liked most aspects of the novel the one element that stands out is how well Cronin writes. His prose is a staggering achievement in a field which generally praises plot and ideas put forward through wooden dialogue and fake characters. Not so with Cronin who not only builds up his failing world from the expensive gas, destroyed and ruined New Orleans and unending wars in the middle east; all the way through its destruction via a Bolivian virus which transforms death row convicts into vampire-esque Virals.
Cronin builds his world through the eyes of his characters and then provides them with a glimmer of hope before it all falls apart - Amy, who is infected with the virus but does not become a viral, and who just might save the world.
Then Cronin takes a huge risk: he jumps ahead chronologically 92 years. Not many authors, having attached the reader to characters and destruction in such beautiful prose would attempt this, but you have to give him his due for pulling it off. Most novels would fall apart completely at this point and (I must admit) at the beginning of the new section I was a little put off. Then I kept reading. I am very, very glad I did. This is a book that is so much more than just the ideas it puts forth. It is deeply thematic and character driven. These are people who are struggling to be human in the most inhumane of times. Their journey is an incredible tale and well worth taking.
The book is the first of a trilogy and at the end I wanted to read the next installment right away, despite the fact it is probably two years from publication. I do wonder if Cronin can maintain his first effort but time will tell.
This is a fantastic beach read and while it can be a challenging book the reward makes it worthwhile. You will be hard pressed to find a better book this summer.
Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book #27

David Peace's seminal Red Riding Quartet is one of the most incredible examples of the potential for noir. His books are historical, crime ridden, corruption dense, conspiracy laden, thematic and contain enough literary juice to satisfy the bravest of Jane Austen scholars. The novels - Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty, Nineteen Eighty-Three- are compellingly dark, gritty and ultimately perfect. However, you cannot read one of the novels but rather must make your tangled way through each book before they can be viewed as one complete masterpiece. I thought about reviewing them separately but wanted to see how well it hangs together. The short answer: unbelievably well.
The series starts off with something amiss in Yorkshire in 1974, a little girl named Clare Kempley has gone missing. One crusading journalist discovers the disappearence may tie to many more. In 1977 two characters, one a decorated police officer and the other a drunk journalist investigate the gruesome Yorkshire Ripper killings. The murderer has a particular hate on for street workers and brutally mutilates his victims. In 1980 an IA officer named Peter Hunter tangles with the Ripper and the deepening murk surrounding Yorkshire. The brilliant 1983 ties the entire series together in an unexpected but beautiful way.
A warning - this is not bedtime reading, it is dark material and often disturbing. However, it is worthwhile to get through. Also, at times the book itself does not tie up all the loose ends but there is a payoff at the end so make sure to read them all!
Take my favourite moment from the entire series, (SPOILER ALERT) in 1980 (as in real life which Peace takes as his grounding) the Yorkshire Ripper is caught and confesses to thirteen murders. The one problem - several "ripper" killings remain unaccounted for. The police ask him if he did it, his response is so utterly perfect and chilling that it has become one of my all-time book moments:
"Claire Strachen?"
Yorkshire Ripper:"No."
Yorkshire Ripper: "It was him."
Yorkshire Ripper: "Other guy".
With that line, Peace transcends the genre and comes as close to Ellroy (while maintaining a distinct style) as anyone yet.
Highly recommended but make sure to keep your night light handy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Radical Departure - A Different Perspective on Miami Thrice

Now, for something completely different: since reading Bill Simmon's excellent Book of Basketball I have become quite the fan of the sport. I sweated through the finals and then eagerly anticipated LBJ's "decision".
However, I feel different from most out there: I love it.
Here we have three guys at the peak of their earning power taking less money than they could get to go to a team together in order to win championships. For one thing, I think we are all so stunned by the fact these guys turned down max contracts with other teams to realize what we are witnessing: the success of our current educational philosophy.
No one can believe that three of the ten best guys in the league would not want to beat each other instead of playing together but that is not how they were brought up. We have forgotten that MJ, Bird, Magic and even Kobe came up in a radically different time. Winning was allowed, competition was awesome - now? Not so much. Everything children are taught is about acceptance, equality and working together for a greater common good. LBJ, Wade and Bosh are just the first major step in what I believe will be a domino effect of "superteams".
Yes, none of them are Jordan, and they are not going to be creating the same legacy. My argument is they are ushering in a completely new era and will be the trendsetters, the first and always the best.
A few other arguments: Had Bird, Jordan, or Magic come up in this era would they have done the same thing? Hell yes. (Well, maybe not Jordan because there will never be another player like him in history) Plus, while we are busy roasting the Miami Thrice over the fire for wanting to play on a good team let's remember the teams the other guys had. Lebron has never had a great team (he made them great). Jordan played with one of the top 50 guys all-time, Magic won all his championships with a little known center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (arguably the 2nd best player ever) and James Worthy (top 50 all-time). Bird had MacHale and Parrish and Walton who dominated at one point or another. Kobe won three titles as a number two to Shaq, then could not even make it out of round one of the playoffs until Pau Gasol joined the Lakers. He has never, it could be argued done it by himself.
Now that Lebron wants to be Magic Johnson we are raking him over the coals? I don't buy it. We just hate the way he left Cleveland.
I love this team because they are being unselfish and have inspired other stars to join the team unselfishly (Mike Miller, Haslem) and they are primed for a title run.
Longtime readers (ha!) of this blog know of my dislike for Kobe Bryant, and the reason I love the Heat most of all is that they will take titles from Kobe in his prime. No longer will he walk over the Eastern conference. I love it. Maybe he never wins another, if so, I could not be happier.
Go Heat, might be time to plan that parade route out now.

Book #26

Longtime readers know how much I like James Ellroy - his book American Tabloid hit number one on my best of the year last year - and I really, really loved LA Confidential. I had seen and liked the movie but was completely unprepared for being sucked into the book. It devoured me. Reaching into this book is like putting your hand into a spider's web - you are instantly entrapped. Absolutely fantastic.
The book kicks off with a bang and does not stop for four hundred pages. Ellroy uses his three character format to radically redefine crime fiction; everything in this book makes what you have read before inconsequential. It is so complex and fascinating that you cannot put it down. Ellroy's Bosh / Wade / Lebron combo is Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes and Bud White. Each is struggling to expel their own demons and are so lifelike they jump off the page. Ellroy also used other excepts such as newspaper articles to fill in the pieces (yet hands nothing to the reader). The characters come together around the "Night Owl" shootings, a brutal crime in which six people are shotgunned to death. While the crime is brutal, the repeated solvings and fitting together of puzzle pieces is a breathless race to the last page.
When the final twist was revealed I literally dropped the book in complete shock.
It was that good. This is not a book for the faint of heart and fits in chronologically with Ellroy's LA Quartet trilogy. The story is so twisted and complex you will have spun clean circles when all is said and done. Do yourself a favour and read the one of the best crime writers at his peak, you will not be disappointed even if you have seen the movie.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Best Books of 2010 (Part One)

I read a lot of books. A lot. Last year, I posted a "Best Books of 2009" in November. This year, because I have already read so many great books, I decided to do one post for the first half of the year and one for the second half. I'm sure my adoring public has been waiting with baited breath, and will appreciate the extra recommendations...

The Clive Cussler Award (Could not put this book down):

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Given that his previous book in the Millenium trilogy won this award last year, it is only fitting to hand it to Larsson again. Deservedly so, as his second book kept me turning the pages so quickly I got windburn. After page 200 I dare you to attempt to put this book will not be possible.

The David Simon Award (Smartest Book):

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

Hilarious, witty, insightful - all these labels and more could be applied to this book that also displayed an inhumanly encyclopedic knowledge of basketball and pop-culture. If you want to understand basketball or even more about sports in general, you have to read this book.

The James Patterson Award (Worst Book):

Omerta by Mario Puzo

I almost went with the new Dan Brown book (unread) and, truly, this one really pains me to write about. Sigh. The Godfather is rightfully a classic but this was a poor attempt on Puzo's part. Not quite as bad as The Godfather Returns / Revenge but it might as well not have been written by Puzo. All the things that made his other novel so great were shunned and replaced with a terrible and predictable story.

The Rick Reilly Award (Best Written Line):

If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

(p. 454) "And if the house wasn't haunted, I knew I was, and probably always would be. Some of us die in a day. For some, like me, it takes much longer than that. Years, perhaps. We all die, like Adam, it's true, only it's not every man that's made alive again, like Ernest Hemingway. If the dead rise not then what happens to a man's spirit? And if they do, with what body shall we live again? I didn't have the answers. Nobody did. Perhaps, if the dead could rise and be incorruptible and I could be changed for ever in the blinking of an eye, then dying might just be worth the trouble of getting killed, or killing myself."

Ellroy Award*(Most Information Packed into One Novel - New!):

Exodus by Leon Uris

He literally could not have packed more info into this book about the birth of Israel if he tried. Whether giving the history of the holocaust, the Jewish state or religious background there are more facts in here than an atlas.

Top 5 Books of the First Half of 2010

5. Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

I am a big Stephen King fan - as evidenced by The Stand hitting number 3 on my list in 2009. This book blew me away for a couple of reasons: a) it is unlike anything else he has written before or since ; b) it is possibly the best romance story I have read. Romance? you say, Stephen King? In short order: yes, and yes. This novel, part of his epic Dark Tower series contains some of his best writing of his career.

4. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

This is an older novel and is highly regarded as a classic of the crowded, courtroom - drama field so overpopulated by John Grisham. Turow, in my humble opinion, has written the book Grisham always wishes he could. The story is realistic, moving and often insightful. The final twist literally takes your breath away.

3. If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels continue to amaze with their consistency and fantastic writing. And...somehow Kerr always manages to pull the rug completely out from under his reader with one stunning twist after another. This novel helped to shade the entire series in a new light for me - Bernie Gunther is a survivor who has bitten and clawed his way through one of histories darkest periods. His existence is a brutal purgatory where redemption and judgement always seem just out of his grasp (rightfully so?). I am eagerly awaiting the seventh offering: Field Grey due out in the UK in October 2010.

2. Open by Andre Agassi

1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

These two books were so close in the rankings that, in honor of Simmons, they demand a point-by-point breakdown.

Purpose of the book: Agassi sets out to hold a mirror to his entire life and truly reflect on his whole being. He comes to the conclusion that tennis, as much a part of his life as it was, is not the most important part. Simmons write the defining book on the NBA. Period. Edge - Agassi

Writing Style: Agassi is straightforward and his prose is incredibly open and shockingly not self-serving. Simmons breaks up his book with more statistical analysis than Wall Street. Add in Simmons hilarious footnotes and we have a winner. Edge - Simmons

Best Part of the Book: Agassi details his comeback that leads to him playing the best tennis of his life long after he has passed an age when people continue to play. It is thoroughly inspiring. Simmons puts up his Pyramid of the top 96 guys in the NBA and the reasons why. It is thoroughly hilarious. Edge - Even

Revelations: Agassi could not win a tournament once because his wig was falling off. He also used crystal meth at a dark chapter in his life and Stefanie Graf was a way larger part of his life than you can imagine. Simmons details MJ's baseball "sabbatical" and just about every other possible thing that happened in the NBA. Plus he includes his "runner up" best cocaine story and best cocaine story in NBA history. Gold...pure gold. Edge - Simmons

Intangibles: Agassi has written a book that forces the reader to take a look in the mirror and reflect on their own life. It is truly a life changing book, and it rightfully deserves consideration for the Pulitzer prize. Simmons has written a 700 page book on the NBA that includes a "What if..." chapter, a "Wine Cellar team" chapter and paragraphs such as "Imagine a guy was in prison and the warden told him if he grabbed 40 rebounds in 40 minutes he could be paroled. That was how hard Moses Malone hit the glass." Unfailingly insightful and funny. Edge - Simmons (by a freaking inch!)

So ultimately, Simmons takes it...but not by much.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Ballad of Bernie Gunther

How is it that Philip Kerr continues to ascend my list of top authors as easily as he does?
He is six books into his watershed Bernie Gunther series with a 7th due in October 2010. The first three books in the series (March Violets, A Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) were written in the late 80's and early 90's and were later collected into a one volume edition titled Berlin Noir. These books were tough, tough noir so hard it made your stomach ache like you had been chewing on broken glass. Kerr's books were so taut and twisty they released slowly like a coiled cobra.
One of the reasons the books were so effective was Kerr's lean and powerful prose which was aided immensely by the historical depth of the Nazi era. Of course it helped that his character, Bernie Gunther is a former German police detective with the morality of a pirate. Gunther gets to witness the Nazi depravity before, during and after the war.
Seventeen years after the trilogy finished, with a solid closure, Kerr resurrected Gunther with a novel (The One From the Other) so unbelievable and perfect that it easily kept pace with the other novels and in some ways expanded and surpassed them. This was Kerr writing retrospectively about the Holocaust and showing a new side of the history of his character during the war (during which he has not set a book).
A year later he put out A Quiet Flame which detailed a piece of history Argentina hopes will be relegated to few memories. The novel was set amid postwar decadence in the South American country and it is a slam bang thriller so well written it made my list of 2009's Best Books.
The sixth book If the Dead Rise Not fills in many of the gaps in Bernie's life and adds a worthy new chapter. Kerr's willingness to experiment with new narrative structures (such as two different time periods) has kept the series from growing stagnant or stale.
This sixth book, more than any other, further characterizes Gunther as a moral quandry. He is a reluctant hero, a man trapped by the flow of a dark piece of history and condemned to a brutal existence. He dishes it out - but has to take a fair amount too. And, he is forced to commit horrific acts that are morally reprehensible but understandable given his contemporaries. Gunther is a hero for his time, when a hero was a dark knight who had to be just as brutal as the Nazi's in order to battle them. More than any other character in noir, Gunther is a man haunted and hunted by his past. He is trapped by the sins of an entire nation but shows time and again how much of a surviver he is, as well as a stunning ability to overcome trouble.
One of the more brilliant twists Kerr devised was forcing his character to leave Germany and move to South America with the people he despised most. For the character it was shattering moment, and continues his Dante-like journey through the stages of hell. Kerr leaves the morality of his character's choices up to the reader and that is why the series is so successful.
It is my theory Kerr has written the seven definitive books on the Nazi era. He has gone far and beyond most histories and gives the reader a true feeling of what Nazi Germany (and Argentina....) were like.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book #25

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons offers more than just a completely in-depth look at the NBA from birth to present: it is quite simply the funniest book I have ever read. Not just funny, but burst-out-laughing-uncontrollably at least once a page. A couple of times I simply could not stop laughing for a half hour.
It is that funny.
However, as I said before, Simmons also offers the most comprehensive and astounding book yet written on the NBA. He weaves together a litany of pop-culture, NBA greats, awesome moments and random teams ("Best Bearded Team", "All Name Team") to make a stew of pure readabilty. You will devour this book and his witty references. Plus, I learned more about the NBA than I ever wanted and it made me love the game that much more.
Of course, the book is not without (Len) bias. Be warned Lakers fans, this will be tough to get through yet it is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding read, bookended by Simmon's Hall of Fame Pyramid and arguments on who is the greatest of all time. While the answer may not be a mystery to many - SPOILER ALERT it's MJ - the reasons why and who comes before him are nonetheless compelling.
Highly recommended for sports fans and non fans alike. If you only pick up one book on the NBA in your lifetime, this is without a doubt the one to read.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Redemption of...Steve Alten?!

Is Steve Alten actually evolving into a decent writer? Steve Alten, you ask - the same dude who wrote The Trench? Yes, the same Steve Alten who wrote Meg 4: Hell's Aquarium (which meant that not only did he write Meg 4 but he also had to write Meg 3: Primal Waters to get there) is potentially becoming a better writer.
Alten, of course, is the guy best known for the book pictured above: Meg which was a slam bang ride of a thriller which featured a sixty-foot shark as the protagonist. This novel was a best selling phenomenon for several reasons:
1) It was nearly impossible to put down. This was Jaws for the next generation and made people scared to go in the water again. It was not exactly the most "literary" of novels, but I have seen worse and Alten's ability to create tension and a shattering conclusion was virtually unmatched.
2) This was Jurassic Park for the freaking ocean! The main character was a disgraced former Navy Deep Sea diver / paleontologist (wow, it was more believable then I remember) who spotted a Meg years before the main narrative and panicked, killing a sub team in the deep ocean. Naturally, he goes back to the Trench and is proven right and finds some redemption. The novel was also able to inform the wide variety of readers about the Marianas Trench, which even to this day remains mostly unexplored. Alten used this to create a fascinating lost world where literally anything - even a massive shark not seen since the bloody Jurassic period - could be waiting.
3) Finally, the book came out at the write time and the right time. It was able to capitalize on the summer reading season (when everyone reaches for a page turner) and also on the success of Jurassic Park the movie. Everyone wanted more prehistoric giants and this book, like it or not, delivered.
Of course, Alten was unable to sustain the massive amount of hype and went through several Meg movie options, never really finding the right spot for development (seriously, will someone just make this movie so we can pan it already!). Then, he rushed a sequel which was critically panned and had an even worse sales reception. He looked like a one hit wonder, doomed to James Rollins-esque obscurity.
Then something happened.
Alten seemingly decided not to write crap anymore. His next effort Domain was about the Mayan Doomsday propehecy of 2012. While, it was written on the level of Steinbeck, Alten's research and theories / predictions were staggeringly well thought out. Keep in mind this is the guy who wrote Meg and 4(?!) sequels. For him, Domain was a massive and potentially alienating novel. He showed no fear in moving away from his core base of fans and he should have been massively rewarded for it. Domain is a fascinating novel that works on more than just a simplistic sketch outline and included more history than most textbooks.
Naturally, Alten wrote a sequel: Resurrection (which explored the concept of the afterlife / religon), and then several Meg books.
Not helping my cause Steve, not at all...
However, just when he seemed ready once again to drift into obscurity Alten went all in with The Loch a book which dealt with the history of the Lochness Monster and theorized on what it may actually be. Alten had written another "creature feature" but this was a well documented and thoroughly researched book (seriously...this book has more info and more up to date facts than Scientific American) that was impossible to put down. (Currently it is being fast tracked for a movie). Yet, on a different level Alten also showed an increasing maturity as a writer - his characters were a littler deeper, his plot more thought out. The Loch, which I devoured in a couple of days, was a surprisingly good read that really opened my eyes to a lot of Scottish History that tends to be neglected.
At that point, Alten, although lacking huge success had the makings of a solid career. Unfortunately he went through publishers like Michael Jordan went through poker tables and did not have the steady consistency he needed.
It is borderline miraculous then that this next book was as...small sigh...good as it was. Actually. I love The Power of the Dog which detailed the history of the rise of the Mexican Drug Cartels and Alten's next book The Shell Game reads like the big oil version. It was a stunning book, again, deeply researched and his conclusions are incredibly insightful. Of course it does needs to be taken for what it is - a "thinking persons" thriller. That said, it was a harrowing, powerful and ultimately poignant read. I know, I know. It takes a "what if" we run out of oil scenario and turns it into a sprawling epic of corruption. Yes...sprawling epic. At this point in his career this is Alten's The Power of the Dog, he may never write another book as good, but you keep hoping he will.
Take the number of reviews for The Shell Game: currently 115 (all the one star reviews are attacks on Alten's his "biased, nonsense opinions" - as they are say the least) and the overall rating stands at an average of 4.5 stars. That is pretty impressive and I implore you to read this book as it may not be a classic but it is a darn good read. You will learn something and you will enjoy it. (Please...please...please learn something and enjoy it!)
It is his next book, due out in October, titled Grim Reaper: End of Days that has me excited to read a Steve Alten book again. I know, I cannot believe I am writing this, yet here we are at the end of a very long post in which I have now convinced myself I am more of a Steve Alten fan then I originally thought.
Yet, this is also the guy who wrote Meg's 1 - 4 (Steve, just so we are clear, I will take back this entire freaking column if you write Meg 6).
Why, you may ask, am I so excited for this book by a man who has written 4 books about giant, prehistoric sharks? Check out the description on Alten's website which posits it as a cross between The Stand and Dante's Inferno (random, but I can actually see it working well), and has it as classic hero journey through good and evil and the nature of redemption. Oh, and the style is allegedly "reminiscent of (wait for it, wait for it...) Cormac McCarthy". Wow.
October suddenly cannot come fast enough...I am excited about a Steve Alten book.
Steve if you must turn this into a new series (and I am not so crazy about "end of days" being hitched to the title - just nitpicking) please make it a trilogy. We are in the midst of great trilogies and, let's face it, book #4 is always kind of a letdown.
Steve, just saw the cover for Meg 5 for the love of...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Article of the Year

Gareth Thomas is a rugby player and the subject of the best article I have read this year by SI's master Gary Smith. The article details Smith's reasons as to why Thomas is the World's Bravest Athlete - namely that he is:
"6'3 and 225 pounds of muscle. He's broken his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and lost eight teeth. He's drunk his mates under the table and brawled by their side. He's been named to the Welsh national rugby team more times than any other man. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's...the only openly gay male athlete."
What follows is another example of why Gary Smith may just be the best magazine writer - possibly writer - of his generation. Time and again Smith has captivated his readers with a tale they did not even know they wanted to be told. His prose takes one beyond the game and his stories are so gripping, so powerfully haunting and so evocative that they are nearly impossible to put down.
He has written some good ones (about Mia Hamm, the last Yankee) and some great ones (about a black coach in Amish country, about a first nations basketball team, about Andre Agassi) and every time one of his stories appears in SI it is a cause for joy. He has two collections of stories out and his work has been featured in "The Best American Sportswriting" more times than any other author.
With this story, he lives up to his stellar reputation. He gets inside the torment Gareth Thomas faced in fighting to come out, and he asks why, no one in American professional sports has come out while they are still active. We live in a society that accepts everyone (except for a few fringe religious elements) and it is time we got past our preconcieved notions of pro athletes.
Thank you again, Gary Smith, your writing is truly precious, not only for its entertainment, but also for its message.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Princes of Crime

I have written things such as "Lehane is my Boston guy" or "Burke is my New Orleans guy" without really explaining the context, so, without further ado - my princes of crime writing.
Dennis Lehane (Boston) - As I have explained multiple times (he made my Mount Rushmore of Fiction Writers) Lehane is an absolute master of the literate thriller. His books are profound, thought-provoking and meaningful. Boston is a fabulous city to write noir about, with a rich crime tradition as one of America's most important city. Lehane owns this town.
George Pelecanos (DC) - Pelecanos owns DC like Lehane owns Boston - with a shotgun pressed right into the face of his reader. His books are character driven, urban noir, semi-western and all awesome. He has written the definitive DC Quartet about the disintegration of the city into one of the crime capitals and continues to write novels that defy the usual conventions.
David Peace (Yorkshire) - Peace is in the unique position of potentially owning two cities as he has also written books about Tokyo after the war. His works about the real life Yorkshire Ripper are so startling and powerfully drawn that one wishes to look away but cannot. A warning, however, The Red Riding Quartet must be read completely before reflecting upon as his themes cross years and books.
Philip Kerr (Berlin / South America) - Kerr actually owns two places, mostly because his character travels quite a bit. However, I would ultimately call him the best novelist about the Nazi era, as his noir detective (Bernie Gunther) transverses their deeds and misdeeds before and beyond World War II.
Ken Bruen (Ireland) - Bruen's "detective" (in the loosest possible terms) "solves" (in the loosest possible terms) crimes in Galway, Ireland. He is a boorish, brutal drunk who has messed up his entire life. The books detail this and more in a prose that feels like poetry.
James Lee Burke (New Orleans) - Burke has been working for many, many years to write about New Orleans and in some cases, Montana and to find the seedy undercurrent that crisscrosses the hazy Southern states. His works are infused with the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Louisana. You do not read a Burke book - rather, you feel every single page. Haunting, poignant and beautiful.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A TV Show You Have To Watch

Having just finished the incredible third season of AMC's Mad Men it was high time I tried to explain the brilliance of a show that is way too underrated for its own good. This is not a show for the casual viewer: there is a complexity at work that is at times, completely daunting. It took me deep into the third season before I had the sudden ephiphany about how I could tie my love of Mad Men into a blog ostensibly about books. However, it can be done.
One of the best things about the show is how it ties literature into the dense, knotty plot. The plot by the way, is inherently too complicated to explain - it is about happiness, and the illusion of happiness seen through the eyes of a man who has everything. It is about his wife, and his office and it is about the 1960's.
Each season, and there have been three so far, the show displays one book that the characters are reading. Thematically, this book comes to represent many of the themes explored in the season. Without too many spoilers, they are Exodus by Leon Uris, Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons. The first season is about a man waging an eventual conquest on all around him and carving his own place - a better place - within the world. The second season focuses on this man fighting to reconcile the two halves of his own self within the larger context of his own happiness as well as that of those around him. The third season details the slow and ultimate decline.
I cannot wait for the fourth season.
Mad Men is the kind of show that can be watched over and again and each season so far has contained a scene so utterly moving and powerful that it simply blows the viewer away. The third season in particular contains one of the single best episodes of television I have ever witnessed.
If you have not watched this show before, rent it, buy it, beg for it...but watch it, and watch it soon - the fourth season is about to start.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book #24

Exodus by Leon Uris is an essential novel for understanding the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. Uris set out to write the definitive novel about the birth of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their own nation and he succeeds.
This is a powerful story: dense, complex and somewhat morally ambiguous. I do not really know how to feel about the novel's conclusions. It rightly portrays the Jewish people as a nation that has been forever persecuted and attacked, and they deserved a chance to return to their homeland after the Holocaust. However, the portrayel of the Arab nations is not without serious bias - this epic of biblical proportions chooses to take an "us versus them" stance as opposed to a more multi-faceted view. Yes, the Jewish people deserved a new homeland, but perhaps they should have worked peacefully with the Arabs to establish this, rather than setting up a military state ready to give their own children's blood for their new nation.
The characters are deeply drawn and serve as vivid and compelling anti-archtypes, particularly Ari Ben Canaan and Kitty Fremont. Ari's ultimate realization of the bloody cost of what he has undertaken is one of the most hauntingly realistic moments in the story. So too is the harrowing, brutal depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - time and again, the characters reveal themselves as true heroes and this is no exception.
The foundation of Israel was built on the statement "never again" and Uris does not shy away from the fact the people are more than willing to defend what they believe is rightfully - and biblically - theirs. A triumphant story that has to be read not only to understand one of the most important events of the twentieth century but also to gain a deeper understanding of why our world can never fully be at peace.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 26 Books Everyone Must Read

A year ago Esquire Magazine came out with its list of the 75 Books Every Man Must Read. I decided to do my own list, but am not presumptious enough to believe I know 75 books, so I arbitrarily picked 27 as the number of books I will recommend, enjoy - and start reading (in no particular order).
1) Sahara by Clive Cussler - The single greatest adventure novel written, try putting it down.
2) In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick - Liked Moby Dick? This is what really happened.
3) Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane - If you can figure out the ending, let me know. A complete, mind blowing experience.
4) The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow - Finished it for the 2nd time in six months, completely enthralled both times. Epic in scope, important in ambition.
5) Generation Kill by Evan Wright - The best book on Iraq. Period.
6) Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr - Could have put any of his Bernie Gunther books on, but this way you get to read 3 books in one neat package.
7) The Stand by Stephen King - Awesome. Also, read It. (Bonus book!)
8) Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - Quite simply the only book to make the history of religion fascinating.
9) The Winds of War / War and Rememberance by Herman Wouk - Interested in WW2? Here is a good place to start.
10) The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger - Fishing industry vs. mighty storm. Man vs. nature.
11) Monster by Sanyika Shakur - The definitive account of life inside the Crips and why young people turn towards, and ultimately away from, gang life.
12) Sphere by Michael Crichton - Great premise and just metaphorical enough to be re-read time and again.
13) Red Riding Quartet by David Peace - Dark, lyrical, brutal, savage and perfect.
14) Stalingrad by Antony Beevor - WW2 through the microcasm of a singular battle which defined a War.
15) Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson - So compelling you will read it at red lights. One of the best books of all time.
16) The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos - Haunting urban noir with characters so real you live and breathe in their world.
17) American Tabloid by James Ellroy - Staggering ride through the Kennedy conspiracies written in a machine gun style.
18) Homocide by David Simon - Want to know what it is like to be a cop? Read this.
19) The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke - Burke is a master, this is his take on Hurricane Katrina.
20) Priest by Ken Bruen - Years of animosity towards the corrupt Catholic Church come out through Irish Noir poetry.
21) There's a Boy in the Girls Bathroom by Louis Sachar - The best "childrens" book you will ever read...again and again.
22) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsson - America's first serial killer and the greatest World's Fair in history collide in an incredible account.
23) The Godfather by Mario Puzo - How does one man slide into a life of crime?
24) A Simple Plan by Scott Smith - See Godfather, The.
25) The Lost City of Z by David Grann - What do you know about the least explored part of our world? A lot more after reading this book.
26) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - The one book from school you will read again.
27) Exodus by Leon Uris - Why Palestine and Israel will never get along.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book #23

Island by Aldous Huxley is a true classic in every sense of the word. One could write a book on this book and I could spend the rest of the year blogging on a single quote. I will not do that obviously, but suffice it to say this qualifies as an extremely deep work of literature.
This is a book that has significant ties to, among other things: The Rise of Hitler, World War Two, Faith, Utopia, Love, and Lost(as in the show, not actually being unable to find your way somewhere).
Take this quote, for example:
"Faith is something different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalysed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words - people take them too seriously and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivilence of history - sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced as organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily faith, but deliever us, dear God, from Belief."
If that does not serve as one of the most powerful, and thought provoking things you've ever read, keeping thinking about it. Trying to unpack it would take a doctoral thesis or two but the ideas are so overwhelmingly complex it is definitely worth considering.
That said, this book is a surprisingly easy read, as the prose flows from idea to idea. You will have to put this book down several times and just think about what you have read, but it is more than worth it.
And now for something completely different...

I recently discovered Breaking Bad and my first reaction was "what the hell took me so long?" This show features the best decent into evil since the Godfather and some of the finest acting performances since The Wire. The first thing that truly struck me about this show was the staggering performance of Bryan Cranston. This is a man who has completely reinvented himself at least three times that I know of. A friend reminded me he was the suave Tim Wattley on Seinfeld before I remembered him as the incomparable Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. I thought Malcolm was one of the most underrated and brilliant shows in the history of television and part of that was Cranston's peerless depiction of an overworked, underpaid father to four boys. Seriously, try watching Cranston teach his son to figure skate to the song Funky Town, and then try picturing him in any other role. That is part of what makes his role on Breaking Bad so incredible. He is Walter White, man with incurable lung cancer who just happens to cook the best meth on the planet. His slow reconciliation with the depths of the man he is rapidly becoming leaves behind one, simple question: "Why me?" Watch it, and you will not be disappointed by the best show on TV.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Anticipated of 2010

Here now are some of the books I am eagerly awaiting in 2010...
1) Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Why: Supposedly thirty years in the making, this could end up being the novel about Vietnam. A very important story for the next generation, in order to help them make some sense of the conflicts in which we are currently entangled.
2) If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
Why: A new Kerr book about Bernie Gunther is like a visit from Santa Claus - you know you are going to get a deep story that will spin you around like a top before you finish. After you turn the final page it will haunt you far beyond.
3) Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Why: This one was a bit of a surprise - I read a review of it that singular work that has a chance to become the novel of the next ten years. A state of the world kind of book that intermarries everything from the coming of age story of one boy with string theory and the economic recession.
4) The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick
Why: It has been many years since Philbrick's fantastic last book (Mayflower) and he will continue to entertain and enlighten readers to previously misunderstood moments in American history. This time he tackles Custler v. Sitting Bull, sure to be a grand history none of us will forget again.
5) War by Sebastian Junger
Why: Junger has written some great true accounts and now he takes on one of the best topics around - the troops in Afghanistan. This book has the potential to rival Generation Kill.

6) Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Why: Lehane returns for one final visit with his intrepid (and twisted) Boston PI duo of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. This book is sixth in the series and works as a direct sequel to Gone Baby Gone and should re-establish Lehane as the master of modern noir. Welcome back Dennis, we have missed you.
7) The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
Why: Returning to his stand-by character Dave Robicheaux for the first time since his haunting Swan Peak, Burke is sure to have written on of the best books of the year. This time, he puts Robicheaux back in New Orleans to solve a series of grisly murders, this one will be memorable, atmospheric and powerful - what more could a reader ask for?

Book #22

In honour of "Irish Christmas" this week, I decided to review the best book by my favorite Irish author: Ken Bruen. If you have never read Bruen, you are in for a treat; he writes dark, lyrical, crime poetry. If those things seem to clash, and trust me - they do, it is all for the better. His books are a breakneck jaunt through a tormented, post IRA Ireland as seen through the eyes of his intrepid hero Jack Taylor. Taylor, a book-loving, drunk, former police officer, solves crimes as Ireland's version of a PI: in between totally destroying his life with drink and horrible deeds.
The books are sparse and the writing lyrically beautiful. Bruen does not waste a single word.
In The Killing of the Tinkers Taylor is asked by an outcast gypsy community to figure out who is brutally murdering their residents. He finds acceptance amongst them, destroys it, then lays the path for a staggering twist that gets him deeply indebted to the local crime chieftan. While reading this book, it is difficult to find time to exhale - let alone draw breath. It is a fast and furious read that can be demolished in a couple of days. Bruen's books may be lightweight when it comes to word count but are deep on meaning (the man has been nominated multiple times for the Edgar Award).
Bruen's take on Irish Noir has catapulted him to the top of the crime writers stratosphere and he has written seven Jack Taylor books thus far, each driving deeper and and deeper into the darkness of modern Ireland.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book #21

Mario Puzo's epic The Godfather is a true classic in every sense. To this day it remains a vivid, powerful saga that reflects cultural values and the idolization of the American dream. The story is rich and complex, full of well drawn characters who jump off the page through their savage acts of moralistic depravity. The Godfather, the Don of New York is the undisputed mafia kingpin but has trouble on the horizon. Other families have allied against him and a protracted war has begun. Into the fray come the Don's sons - Santino "Sonny", Fredo and Michael. Both Sonny and Fredo work with the Don, but Michael has chosen his own path away from the family business. However, the brutal shooting of his father changes everything for young Michael.
Here the phrase - "Godfather-like descent into evil" is born. Michael does not simply become a Don: he becomes the Don. Turns out, the kid is capable of doing very bad things in the name of legitimizing the family business. He takes over and his story begins a deep arc into a place from which he cannot return.
There is more to it than that, and some people point to the fantastic movie adaption as proof they know what it is all about. The movie, while great, is nowhere near as deep and thoughtful as the book. Puzo's journey through the heart of darkness and his illumination on the lives of the characters is fascinating. His short, direct prose elegantly captures the world he is writing about and fits hand in hand with his overarching plot.
The Godfather is a seminal work in fiction, and deserves not only to be read over and over again, but also to be deeply studied and comtemplated. A masterpiece that could not come more highly recommended.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book #20

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one text which caught me off guard. There was a lot of hype about this novel and I was not sure it could possibly live up to it. I was shocked to discover not only did the book match the hype, it blew it clean away.
Zusak has crafted a delicate and beautiful story set amongst the worst atrocities in our history. The main character is a young girl named Liesel whose father changes her life when he gives her a book called "The Grave Diggers Handbook". She becomes obsessed with reading to escape the brutality of the world around her. After the death of her mother and brother, young Liesel is sent to live with relatives she barely knows who ask her to keep the most dangerous of secrets - they are harboring a hidden Jewish man in Nazi Germany during the depths of the war.
The bond Liesel forms with other characters is poignant and wonderfully written. Yet, the most brilliant part of the book is that, quite simply, the reader knows what ultimate tragedy is on the horizon. How, you may ask, does the reader know? The entire story is narrated by Death - a weary, worn out traveller who has seen enough horror to last him an eternity. Death tells us he meets Liesel three times in her life and each time, tragedy has befallen her.
Yet, when those moments of anguish come for Liesel, they are moving and so shattering that the effect on the reader is not diminished in the slightest by the foreshadowing. In fact, the final twist is so gut-wrenching, harrowing and powerful the reader may have a hard time making it through. Yet, there are moments of brightness which cut through the gloom and some of the supporting characters are fantastically drawn and totally hilarious.
This is a story about the power of human strength, and how we can draw on our resources at unexpected times. It is also a story of tragedy and death, and the evil humanity is capable of. This is a story I cannot recommend more highly.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Banned Books vs. Religous "Types"*

For as long as there have been books, some religious "types"* (to discover what the * means, scroll down to the end) have sought to ban them. Their reasons are varied, but mostly come down to "in the bible or not / not awesome in the bible". One set of books widely critisized by various religious "organizations" is the Harry Potter series. Yet, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why? How could a book series - second in popularity only to the bible - that got hundreds of millions of children reading, possible be on the "hit list"? Various...and serious reasons, according to religious "types". Firstly, it contains witches, wizards, warlocks and all manner of supernatural creatures which are not looked upon kindly in that ol'sleepin aid - Secondly, some have argued the main character - himself, a wizard! - lacks a moral journey and progression through the books. Harry, evidently, missed out on the type of moral gravity that made the magic filled Chronicles of Narnia just dandy with the church.
Well, religious "types", prepare to be shock and awed: your arguments may be a little skewed.
First of all, have you read the bible? God is essentially a pretty powerful wizard throughout, conjuring up all kinds of crazy magic / plagues to help / smite (okay, mostly smite) various god-fearing folk. There are more fantasy elements on one page of the bible then in the entire Harry Potter series - seriously, cover to cover? People frequently live pretty amazing lifespans (hmmmm? I sense wizards at work...) and that garden of eden with its "tree of knowledge", sounds a little too sci-fi for my liking.
Secondly, to argue that Harry Potter does not go on a moral journey is incredibly flawed - but then again, you never took the time to read the series before passing summary judgement and banning it. (Editors note: Good thing religious "types" don't pass summary judgement very often!)
How can a story about a chosen one growing up to fight the ultimate evil not have a moral heart? Harry Potter, for the record, is dripping with more religious allegory than any good versus evil story has a dedicated right to: His character chooses to sacrifice himself for the redemption and survival of all his kind. Hmmm...sound like anyone you relgious "types" know?
I am willing to bet you would argue vehemently Jesus went on a "moral journey", yet you won't even concede the kid written in his image did the same? I must say, you religious "types" are sending out some mixed signals here.**
However, one of the largest mistakes you can make is to ban books, any books - specifically this series. If kids get super excited about reading good and evil stories, how long will it be before they turn to your "bible" for entertainment and not just because you force them to? Now, I am not the biggest Harry Potter fan in the world, but the books are entertaining and whatever gets children to read is awesome in my book - if not yours?
So when your (long-con pulling) religious "type" leaders, tell you what books not to read, ask them to give you a reason that actually makes sense. They can't? Interesting...
(* any time I write "types" I actually mean "nuts" - seriously, the picture of those two dudes at the top of the page was found on google by searching "religious nuts" under images)
(** I could have chosen more than a dozen examples but this one still remains the most ironic for me)