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.