Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Best Books of the Year 2012

Another year has drawn to a close, and another year of reading continues to wind down. and various other publications have now released their own "Best of the Year" lists (albeit with books written in 2012 only).  Once again please remember these are books I have read this year but they are not necessarily written in 2012 - though many are:

Clive Cussler Award (Best Page Turner) 
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane - After a couple of stumbles (notably the "pulled punches" of his previous effort Moonlight Mile) Lehane returned to form with this fantastic sort of sequel to his historical novel The Given Day.  Instead of focusing on the characters from the previous book, Lehane strikes out to create new terroritory with a Godfather-esque tale that slowly and subtly twists and turns.  The novel is Lehane at his dark best and features a brutal sequence set in prison that shapes the remainder of the tale. 
Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger - As the baseball season wound down I picked up this gem from the author of the classic Friday Night Lights and was not disappointed.  Bissinger breaks down a three game series between the Chicago Cubs and Saint Louis Cardinals through the eyes of manager Tony La Russa.  The book goes inside the world of baseball amd allows an unforgettable and intimate glimpse inside a world often viewed as simple or mundane. 

James Patterson Award (Most Disappointing Books of the Year)
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson - A horror classic and supposedly one of the scariest books of all time, this one actually read like a series of "and then...and then...and then..." and not one bit of it rang true in any way.  Ultimately incredibly disappointing, especially in the way Anson writes - without any tension or sense of terror. 
Snowblind by Robert Sabbag - Sabbag has to be complimented on one aspect of his book: it takes someone with great skill to make the story of a drug trafficker boring.  Zachary Swan was a drug dealer in the 70's who realized money could be made on cocaine...and then virtually nothing else happens aside from Sabbag's failed attempts at stylish writing. 

Harper Lee Award (Best YA / Female Authors)
Divergent / Insurgent by Veronica Roth - After finishing The Hunger Games one must turn to other dystopian YA series and Roth's is one of the best.  Her books are fast paced, interesting and twisty. 
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo - Dark, serious and powerful, this is a book that stays with you after you have read it.  Unlike other dystopian thrillers, this one is set in a world we do not recognize and one undergoing a transition to a new era.  Bardugo gets a lot of credit for literally manifesting the darkness in the world into a physical place ominously called "the fold".

Bill Simmons Award (Best Sports Books)
Richer than God by David Conn / Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby - Two sides of the same coin, Conn's book owes a great debt to Hornby's classic of the sport, and then becomes almost the sequel Hornby never wrote.  Both authors wrote about their teams (Arsenal and Man City) and both covered their own, autobiographical rises in relation to their love of said team.  Where they differ is Conn's attempt to understand the world of football beyond his own small sphere.  He examines the oil sheik who bought the squad and the impact of money in the world of the game.  Two incredible reads by any estimation.
The Dream Team by Jack McCallum - A whimsical and interesting look at the 1992 Olympic basketball team (with many parallels to the 2012 squad) this is a great, lighthearted read. 
The Best of Down Goes Brown by Sean McIndoe - In what could have easily been a series of blog posts (and is) the author elevates his material by being absolutely hilarious.  A quick and funny read for all those who miss the game we all love during this awful lockout.

David Simon Award (Smartest Books)
Supergods by Grant Morrison - A brilliant look at how superheroes reflect and shape our culture, Morrison's book is not an easy read.  It is however a rewarding one: challenging, complex and utterly fascinating this is a worthwhile book to understanding just why superheroes have been around for such a long time.
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Keen - Imagine sitting in Grade 9 Science class and having to learn about the periodic table.  Now imagine learning it is completely awesome thanks to Keen's great book which is interesting and enlightening about the elements we absolutely need and do not really know. 

The Best Books of the Year
(A Quick Note: this list does not include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn simply because I absolutely could not decide on the book.  Did I love it?  Did I hate it?  I simply cannot come to any final thoughts on it, but I did read it and acknowledge that it exists)
5. The Twelve by Justin Cronin - Like the first book The Passage this one is a post-apocalyptic story set after a virus radically changes twelve death row convicts (and one scientist).  Just like the previous book, Cronin shapes and molds a world that has fallen apart in absolutely breathtaking style.  In the hands of a less skilled writer this would have fallen apart completely but Cronin is such a great writer that the world he creates is beautiful and haunting.  His book deepens and complicates the world he created before and is so heart wrenching and sad that it makes up for a challenging (and chaotic) ending. 
4. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl - A stunning book that evokes the best of Harper Lee, this novel (the first of a series) is a powerful book about being an outcast and fighting to fit in.  Add a gothic setting and mystery and it all adds up to a wonderful novel.  The love story at the center of the story manages to be so real and tragic that the book elevates and challenges the reader to put it down. 
3. On Writing by Stephen King - A book about the ins and outs of writing that is actually good and readable?  You had better believe it, especially when it is written by Stephen King.  Absolutely fantastic.
2. Fever Pitch
And the best book of the year is:
1. The Last Policeman by Ben Winters - Many authors have tried their hand at post-apocalyptic tales that detail a world and civilzation jarred to a brutal end through some kind of devestating catastrophe.  Many authors have written hard boiled noir so dark, complex and thrilling that it is virtually impossible to put down.  Then there is Ben Winters who has written a flat out brilliant novel that sets a noir mystery against the backdrop of a pre-apocolayptic world slowly consuming itself and its citizens.  What Winters does is create a world held together by duct tape, and a man struggling to do the same within himself.  All his main protagonist has ever wanted is to be a policeman and now that he is getting his chance the world will be completely destroyed in six months.  The book moves through one haunting scene of desperation, decadence and devestation to another and all along the policeman keeps plugging along, following his instincts to solve a crime where the outcome does not matter.  Amidst all of this is a series of conspiracy theories and the frightening destruction of our society, piece by piece.  The book sticks with you long after it has been read, and Winters writes with such an emotional and deadpan style that perfectly gibes with the world falling apart.  One scene however sticks apart from all others: the policeman awakens one more to a vibrating rumble and believes the asteroid coming to Earth has arrived early.  His heart wrenching panic and the complete disintegration of his carefully constructed composure falls apart completely as the true horror of his future washes over him completely.  Then he realizes his phone is ringing.  He pulls himself back together, but it is still simply by bits and pieces that are barely hanging on.  What happens to the world when there is no hope, none at all.  As Winter's elegantly notes: some fall apart while other struggle to hold some sense of order together, no matter what the cost. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Scariest Books Ever

With another Halloween come and gone, it seemed a perfect time to reveal the Scariest Book I have ever read:

The Shining by Stephen King - Not sure why this book was so scary when I read it until I realized that haunted houses / creepy isolation terrify me.  This book is naturally a combination of the best of those two things so it makes sense it would be pretty scary to an old night.  For my money this is the most terrifying novel King has written.  You have been warned. 

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston - A non-fiction thriller about a highly infectious African disease that kills up to 90% of those infected?  No idea why this would be scary, no idea at all.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons - The main reason this one was creepy to me was because it reminded me so much of my friends and I hanging out during the summer.  This sort of thing (well, not all of it) could have happened to us.  Sure it goes slighly off the rails near the end but that does not take away the full effect of a creepy and dark summer horror.

It by Stephen King - A classic horror story that meshes every single scary thing into one giant stew of terror: evil clowns, monsters, and of course a giant freaking spider.  This is also a great book and one of King's true masterpieces (along with The Stand and The Shining). 

Bedbugs by Ben Winters - Winters set out to write a modern version of Rosemary's Baby and succeeded in writing a very, very scary novel about creepy crawly little bugs and losing your mind.  This is a taunt, top of the line novel.  Read it and prepare to do a lot of scratching. 

What other novels should I read to add to this list? 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Best Lately

Lately I have read quite a few note worthy books - here are some of the best:

Richer than God by David Conn - More than twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote an absolute masterpiece about football called Fever Pitch, now Conn has done a very similiar thing.  Writing about the rise of Manchester City and their trillionaire Oil Sheik owner, he is able to contrast the Premier League's business feel of today with the feeling of years ago when he was a boy.  The combination is incredible and his conclusions show just how much of a business it all is.  A fantastic read for any sports fan.

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg - A reissued noir horror classic, this novel about a private detective who has to track down a missing singer in the years after WWII is a stunner.  Dark, twisted and downright horrifying, it pulls the reader into a deep and horrifying hole.  The final twist is a shocker of epic proportions.  A great spooky read for Halloween.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean - How interesting is the periodic table of elements?  According to Kean, it is very interesting and he proves it with his fascinating and well written book about the elements we take for granted.  He delves into how each came about and breathes live into a fantastic cast of historical characters.  Additionally, he gives you brilliant tidbits about the stuff that makes up our lives and just how fragile it all is.  A wonderful read even if you do not love all thing science. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Great Book: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

In 2012 I have read a lot of good books and a few very good books, but I have not read too many truly "Great" novels yet this year.  All of that changed during the last week of summer when I read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. 
The premise of this novel is inventive and downright brilliant: In six months an asteroid (cleverly nicknamed "Maia") is going to strike the earth and wipe out all life.  There is no hope of salvation, no last second Armaggedon-like scenario and yet the world keeps on turning.  What would happen to that world?  Winters begins his story with a death, one of many, and a detective who is determined to do his job right until the last horrifying moments,  Winters intercuts his great story with a bunch of thought provoking lines and gives glimpses of a world without hope.  The book is deeply complex and full of horrifying scenes in a rapidly disintigrating world held together by the thinnest of strings.  As a noir mystery novel it is amazing; as a preapocalypse noir mystery story it elevates even higher.  Run out and get this book and while you are at it pick up another book by Winters Bedbugs   which is a fantastic update on the Rosemary's Baby-ish story of a creepy and psychological thriller set in a New York apartment.  It is a very dark and truly terrifying story.  Read it and prepare to scratch a lot...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Joy of Re-Reading

In the dog days of summer reading is a favorite occupation on the beach and in the parks.  Nothing beats reading in the sunshine with a cool drink.  Summer is a time for action packed, exciting books which require little or no deep thought. 
Another great joy of summer is re-reading some old favorites.  Occasionally I will re-read books, but generally only if they are complex enough to demand it.  This summer has been different: I have torn through three of my all-time favorites.  Here are my re-reading faves and perfect summer books:

Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane - I last read this book in 2007 and it has been awhile since I went back to this classic.  Reading it took me down a dark and deep rabbit hole and made me want to tear through the rest of Lehane's catalogue (if you have never read Lehane before start with the Patrick Kenzie series before hitting Mystic River).  This is a fantastic meditation on violence and the creation of darkness within all of our souls.  Prepare to spend way too much time on the beach trying to read this book in one day.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow - I read this one every couple of years, it is one of my favorites.  Taking on the Mexican Drug Cartels and the complex government conspiracies which allowed they to become emeshed into the fabric of Mexican society, Winslow has written a great book.  At times it stretches some credulity but overall it rings true.  This is a horrifying and deeply thematic book and is meant to be read and enjoyed over and again.

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum - It had been more than a decade since I read this classic (some call it the best book Ludlum wrote) and it lived up to my memory.  A deep action and plot driven book push this into the upper echelon of spy thrillers.  There is a complex web of intrigue going on in addition to a couple of great characters.  Thrilling and intense this is the perfect beach book. 

What are the books you re-read? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

2012 Best of the Year...So Far

Yes, it is mid-late July and only now am I releasing my Best of the Year...So Far.  My apologies for the delay but European Vacations tend to get in the way of things like, say, reading or writing about reading. 
In 2012 I have read a large amount of non-fiction; and a shocking (for me) amount of female authors.  Here are the best books I have read in 2012 thus far (keep in mind once again that not all of these books were written in 2012 but this is the year in which I have read them):

Clive Cussler Award (Best Page Turner)
Fiction: The Way it Was by George Pelecanos - Pelecanos really made a bit of a mini comeback for me after a series of disappointing novels in which he seemed to lose his way.  This was a gut punch of a novel; hard, fast and brutal.  Maybe writing it over the course of three blistering hot summer weeks contributed to that.  In any event this is simply impossible not to read in one sitting and flashes the immense talent of Pelecanos to us all once again.
Non-Fiction: American Lightening by Howard Blum - The exhaustive and well written account of the 1910 LA Times bombing is great.  Blum weaves the birth of Hollywood and modern cinema in with a domestic terrorist attack and class warfare in the early years of Los Angeles.  This is a detailed and rich story filled with riveting characters, simply try putting it down.

Harper Lee Award (Best Female Fiction / Non-Fiction)
Fiction: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia / Margaret Stohl - Comparing books is frequent and something all readers do as seeking connections allows us to understand what we read on a different level.  Never have I compared a book to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird until now.  Keep in mind I am not stating this book is on the level of a timeless classic because it is not.  However the themes the authors touch are similiar, as is the small town Southern injustice (and setting).  Detailed analysis would be wrought with spoilers so all I will say is this: give this book a shot.  It is beautifully written and lushly imagined. 
Non-Fiction: Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman - Writing a history of the controversial "religon" (Editor's Note: It is a CULT) takes some serious guts but the best thing about this book is that there are no judgements made by the author.  She simply presents the facts - horrifying as they are - and allows the reader to draw their own conclusion.  At the end she gives little doubt the twisted purpose of Scientology and the taut, frighteningly sad section on the brutal death of one of the members is one of the scariest things you will read all year.  Bravo to Reitman for exposing and rightfully airing all the dirty laundry of what amounts to little more than a criminal organization.

Bill Simmons Award (Best Sports Books)
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby - A delightful read about the nature of obsession and love for our teams, Hornby's book is a masterpiece.  Long before he moved on to novels, this was his magnum opus.  Hilarious and heartwrenching he shows exactly what it means to support your team. 
Among the Thugs by Bill Buford - The scariest book I have read all year does not rest anywhere near the confines of the "Horror" Section at any bookstore.  Rather, it sits, awaiting its next victim in the Sports Shelf.  Buford's book is horrifying and shows the depths and depravity that arise from disenfranchisement and our growing lack of a moral center, especially among the working class.  He follows English soccer hooligans through their remarkably organized chaos, death and destruction.  Absolutely terrifying. 
Unfinished Business by Jack McCallum - Going inside one of the last years of Boston's Big Three (as in Bird / McHale / Parish) allowed McCallum to get a true understanding of the cost of winning as well as what it takes.  This is a hilarious book which serves to humanize some of the gods of the 80's basketball. 

James Patterson Award (Most Disappointing Books)
Lords of the Line by David Cruise and Allison Griffiths - After reading the duo's amazing Net Worth I eagerly dug into this stinker.  It was okay...but apparently Canadian Railway History is just nowhere near as interesting as the financial history of the NHL. 
The Accountant's Story by Roberto Escobar - After spending most of the book arguing that he was not going to defend his brother (Pablo)'s actions...Roberto does just that.  He puts the blame on everyone but Pablo...all the while reminding you that he will not do so.  Frustrating, but somewhat interesting insider view of the life of the World's largest Cocaine trafickers.
Gone by Michael Grant - I read this one with high expectations and it simply let me down.  So much little execution.

Other Great Books I read this 1/2 Year:
Wild Thing by Josh Bazell - Highly entertaining and surprisingly deep.  Also check out his earlier book Beat the Reaper.
Wilt by Wilt Chamberlain - Hilarious, larger than life and, well, just like Wilt himself.  This book proves how self-centred the man was and how little he understood true greatness.  Still a great read.
Kings of Cocaine by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen - A detailed look at the world of Cocaine and the men who revolutionized it.  A dark portrait of some of the most powerful criminals of our time.
A Feast for Crows / A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin - Not as good as the third book but still quite good!  I understand the frustration of many of his readers but these were solid books. 
Collusion by Stewart Neville - Dark and twisty, this book continues the story Neville began in Ghosts of Belfast.  While this novel is not anywhere near as original as his first it is still a haunting tale of a country struggling to get over decades of strife. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

(4) Bruen vs. (13) Parker

Ken Bruen has written a series of ridiculously good, semi-poetic novels set in Ireland.  Parker writes about the twisty criminal landscape of Southern California.  Is this a battle...or a slaughter?

Quality of Books - We begin with Parker, the lower seed.  He has written a ton of books but for reasons I will soon get in to, I have only read six.  Here is how they stack up:
Great: California Girls
Good: LA Outlaws
Okay: Storm Runners, The Renegades
Not Good: Iron River, The Border Lords
Only two of six books fit into the Great - Good catagory...not a great percentage. 
Bruen's voluminous works on the other hand, break down like this:
Great: The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers, Priest
Very Good: The Dramatist, The Magdalen Martyrs, Cross, Inspector Brant series
Good: The Devil, Headstone, Sanctuary, We Were Cops, American Skin, Tower, London Boulevard
This thing is essentially already over.
Massive Edge: Bruen

Great Characters - Parker has one major series character, Charlie Hood, but the books become progressively bad the longer the series has gone on.  Hood is a somewhat interesting character made better in the good first book LA Outlaws due to the presence of "villain" Allison Murrietta.  Frequently scarred by tragedy, Hood cuts a dark figure and stands as the "good" against the "dark forces" around the San Diego border. 
Bruen has created two amazingly unique characters.  His drunk Irish PI, Jack Taylor, is an f-ed up force of nature who has made a career out of destroying those around him.  Everyone but Taylor dies, and he often pays the price for his brief acts of contrition.  The other creation is Inspector Brant, a brutally corrupt police officer who runs his crime squad like a medieval fifedom.  Both characters are darker than noir and find themselves frequently travelling from bad to worse.
Massive Edge: Bruen

Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Parker's books are page turners and often compulsively readable.  California Girls is a taut and haunting murder mystery played out over decades, and Parker expertly shows the effects on one grief stricken family.  However, some of his books are just plain bad.  In Iron River he attempts to pull a horrible James Lee Burke impression.  Only one man can write like James Lee Burke and he is seeded #1 in this competition.  Parker has talent and can write taut thrillers but he has been pulled in too many different directions (too much music!) and has lost his way. 
Bruen writes Irish noir poetry and his style is the most incredibly original thing in mystery.  Not a word is wasted.  In one three line sentence he often conveys more emotion than other writers get out of an entire chapter.  His books are spare meditations on violence and brutality and the creeping darkness that surrounds us all.  The best work he has written in my opinion is The Killing of the Tinkers in which his tortured hero, Jack Taylor, is given everything he could ever want.  Having to watch it snatched away piece by piece is gut wrenching and utterly horrifying.  Few mystery writers do it better or more consistently.  There is a reason Bruen is in my Mystery Writers Pantheon.  Additionally, try putting one of his books down.  You will read them all in one sitting and keep returning to his hauntingly beautiful style. 
Massive Edge: Bruen

No surprise here: Bruen destroys Parker and moves on. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

(3) Kerr vs. (14) Cain

This matchup in the Ultimate Mystery Writers Bracket pits Philip Kerr's historical mysteries set amidst the Nazi Era, against Chelsea Cain and her modern series set in Portland and highlighted by a brutal, female serial killer (Gretchen Lowell). Is this one that could be deceptively close?

1) Quality of Books - Cain has written four books featuring the same Task Force and serial killer Gretchen Lowell (though she only has a main role in 3 of them). How do her books stack up?
Very Good: Heartsick
Good: Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season
Kerr on the other hand has written eight Bernie Gunther novels which break down thusly:
Great: The One from the Other, A Quiet Flame
Very Good: Prague Fatale, The Pale Criminal, A German Requeim, If the Dead Rise Not
Good: March Violets
Okay: Field Gray
Kerr takes this one due to his two great books which are stronger than anything Cain has written. It should be noted though that Kerr wrote one book which landed in the "okay" catagory while Cain did not. However, Kerr has writen two great books and another (Prague Fatale) that I debated putting in that catagory.
Advantage: Kerr

2) Great Characters - Cain has based her series around the twin pillars of haunted Detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. The two have a twisted history that involves Sheridan leading a task force to track down a serial killer, all the while cheating on his wife with Lowell...who was inserting herself into the investigation and manipulating Sheridan all along. Then she tried to kill gets pretty twisted from here on. Suffice it to say that Sheridan is fighting a serious vicodin addiction and Lowell is still pulling strings from prison (and outside). The true star of Cain's lineup is Gretchen Lowell. Her gutsy and twisted female serial killer is a psycho without remorse who could teach other literary serial killers a thing or two. She is one manipulative and seriously messed up lady who cannot be trusted at all.
Kerr however has upped her in the creation of Bernie Gunther, a man whose life traces the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Gunther despises the Nazi's but has the morals of a pirate. He kills without remorse and shows us that in order to survive one of the darkest periods in history, he has to occasionally be even worse than some of the most reviled figures in history. From Argentina to Germany and back again, Gunther is a private detective unparalled in mystery fiction. His wit and intelligence (as well as horrible actions) make him a fantastic antihero. He is a brutal man with a soft spot from the ladies and no qualms about doing whatever he has to in order to survive all the while condemning all the misdeeds of those around him.
Lowell may be a genuine original in mystery fiction; but Gunther is one of the greatest fictious creations in literary history.
Advantage: Kerr

3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Cain's books are seize you by the throat page turners that often have shocking twists at the end (usually related to the Archie Sheridan / Gretchen Lowell dynamic). These are not books which are slowly savoured but must rather be devoured as quickly as possible. Each of them has been an enjoyable read and Cain's breezy style and psychological twistiness makes each book an entertaining experience. She gets into the heads of her characters and writes as steamily as she can. Overall, these are good but not great books.
Kerr relies on dense plots, packed with conspiracies and mystery. Each book ends with a jaw dropping twist and the novels are so taut and well written that you simply never want them to end. Gunther is always quick with a witty reply and is a witness to the horrible decadence of the Nazi's. His interactions with real, high ranking Nazi's feel real and Kerr never falls into cliche due to the fact that each book is slightly different. Even eight books in, Kerr avoids the trap of routine as he jumps through time (often contrasting past and present) and has so thoroughly complicated matters that it is virtually impossible to read the books "in order" (for example the most recent book Prague Fatale is the only to take part exclusively during the war, a time frame Kerr previously excluded). Kerr began the series as a simple trilogy set before and after World War Two, but seventeen years later he reached back and wrote the best book of the series The One From the Other set in Munich in 1949. No two books are ever the same - he keeps the series fresh, even when it does not quite work out (Field Grey being the best example; it simply jumps around too much and gets muddled). The latest has two chapters which cover 200 pages and function as a book within the book, a one take play set around a murder mystery at Reinhard Heydrich's country house. Few other writers are good enough to pull this off. Truly this makes Kerr special and very deserving of the 3 seed.
Cain's books are breezy but Kerr's are staggering.
Advantage: Kerr

Kerr handily defeats the younger Cain who has many more books to write about her characters. She can be cheered however by the fact that I would pit Kerr's eight book run against any other mystery series and be confident it could come out on top in almost any situation...or can it?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

(2) Lehane vs. (15) Bazell

Could this matchup of an upstart young writer and an established champ turn into a Duke - Lehigh situation? Bazell has only written 2 books, Lehane has 9 (*Note: I am excluding Lehane's The Given Day because it is not really a mystery book). Here we go.
1) Quality of Books - Again, we will start with the lower seed, in this case Josh Bazell. A young writer who has often been described as writing novels that are a cross between "The Sopranos" and "House" authored by Chuck Palahniuk...quite the combo.
Very Good: Beat the Reaper, Wild Things
Pretty high praise for the guy, how can Lehane's much more extensive bibliography stack up?
Lehane has written a long series in addition to two incredible stand alone novels.
Great: Mystic River, Darkness Take My Hand, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island
Very Good: Prayers for Rain, Sacred
Good: A Drink Before the War
Okay: Moonlight Mile
Percentage wise, Lehane takes it, but it is much closer than it we will discuss below.
Advantage: Lehane
2) Great Characters - Bazell has written two books from the point of view of Dr. Peter Brown, a former mob hitman turned life saver with a target on his back. Brown is hiding from his former employers and trying to maintain a low profile. In the second novel he is solving a mystery and protecting an archeologist. The man is cutting and sarcastic and able to kill with the efficiency of a secret agent. Altogether a great person to base a series around - additional bonus points for the fact that he kills someone by making a knife out of his own femur. As in the bone in his leg.
Lehane has created many, many characters and based a series around two private detectives, Patrick and Angie. The two have a fantastic back and forth and some of their interactions are hilarious. They also have a friend named Bubba. Bubba is a complete psycho and probably Lehane's greatest invention - a man completely without morals who will do whatever it takes to protect his friends regardless of the consequences. His stand alone characters (like crime boss Jimmy in Mystic River) are deeply flawed and complex people whom Lehane fleshes out in typically detailed fashion.
This one comes down to a relatively simple question: Is Bazell's one character better than any of Lehane's?
Advantage: Lehane
3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - This will surely be the tightest catagory between the two authors. Bazell has an interesting style, complete with the medically detailed footnotes one would expect from a doctor. Lehane's writing is gut wrenching and often a mediation on the cost of violence. Both write page turners, although Lehane relies more on the shocking twist including the one at the end of Shutter Island which seven years later I still cannot figure out. Lehane's take on the private eye world of Boston took us to the dark side of a city that had rarely been seen in the fiction world. Through a complex cast of characters and darkly twisted plots, Lehane made Boston his city. He owns it as thoroughly as Lee Burke does New Orleans. His best work? In my opinion, his take on the serial killer genre Darkness Take My Hand. The book was horrifying, twisty and took a wander down the dark path at the center of each of us. Truly a stunning achievement. However, Lehane did stumble somewhat in his last effort Moonlight Mile in which all the elements that made his earlier books successful were omitted without explanation. Basically: he pulled his punches and lost all the darkness and tension from the previous books.
Bazell's best is probably the thoughtful Beat the Reaper in which his main character reflects on how he became a mob hitman - and then a doctor - while completely destroying the American health care system. There is a lot going on here and much of it works brilliantly. While some of the plot is a little bit predictable, Bazell does anything but take a straight forward path getting there. As mentioned earlier, his footnotes are truly bizarre and understatedly brilliant.
Bazell may one day be at the top half of the seeding if he continues to do good work in the future, but...this is Lehane we are talking about and any of his great books is better than either of Bazell's.
Advantage: Lehane

Thursday, April 12, 2012

(1) Lee Burke vs. (16) Tana French

There are some matchups that are destined to see the underdog upset the grand master.
This is not one of those cases.
James Lee Burke has written 18 Dave Robicheaux books (for the sheer volume of his collection, I am omitting his other very good series); Tana French has written 3 Murder Squad books, each featuring a different character spun off from the previous novel.
Is there any chance for the talented French to overcome the odds stacked against her?
Lee Burke is the number one seed for a reason...

1) Quality of Books - Let's start with French who has three published books, each featuring a different main character (her fourth follows the same format). Here is how I ranked her three titles:
Good: In the Woods,
Okay: The Likeness, Faithful Place
However, if one was to give French ratings based on the synopsis's for her novels, she would be one of the greatest mystery writers alive.
Now we tackle the immense collection of Lee Burke...
Great: The Tin Roof Blowdown, Swan Peak, A Morning for Flamingo's, A Stained White Radiance, Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues
Very Good: Burning Angel, The Glass Rainbow, The Neon Rain, Dixie City Jam, Jolie Blon's Bounce, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, Purple Cane Road,
Good: Sunset Limited, Cadillac Jukebox, Crusader's Cross, Pegasus Descending, Last Car to Elysian Fields
Breaking down the percentages makes it pretty clear Lee Burke dominates - 13 of his 18 books are in the Great to Good range (72%), 0% of French's novels fall into the same catagories.
Gigantic Advantage: Lee Burke

2) Great Characters - Lee Burke has created two of the best characters in modern mysteries: his "hero" Dave Robicheaux and "morally complex" Clete Purcell. Robicheaux and Purcell are tormented, haunted men who lash out violently and are prone to self-destructive behavior. Purcell's best moment? Bulldozing a mobster's house. Lee Burke has brilliantly crafted two men who are not always likeable, but are shockingly compelling. I have not even gone into his villains who are often so real that you can picture them sitting next to you. There are no cardboard cutouts in Lee Burke books, every character is fully fleshed out. Rather brilliantly, I might add.
French rotates characters frequently and is intensely interested in how they fall apart throughout their various investigations. The pick of her litter? Probably Cassie Maddox who appears in two books and in the second has to impersonate a murder victim in order to root out the killer. Again, if you were giving points for the synopsis of a novel, French wins this thing by a mile.
Ultimately Clete Purcell may be the greatest character in mystery novels...ever. The man is at times a little boy, and at others a psychotic killer. Only Lee Burke makes him both, and a frighteningly flawed human being at the same time.
Huge Advantage: Lee Burke

3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Tana French's novels have been well reviewed (from the praise she has recieved many will be shocked to see her in the 16th slot) but her books are very, very overrated. She takes too much time setting things up when a simple half page description would have been more than adequate. French's books rely however, on jaw dropping twists and for the most part she succeeds. The end of In the Woods was so unexpected that I had to re-read it several times before I fully grasped that she had, indeed, taken me there. is my main complaint - in her original debute, she never solved the original mystery (that took place long before the books events). I have a major problem with this. French feels it is enough to have her character begin to emotionally heal from the traumatic experience, no! She needs to provide a genuine solution. Her meandering style should at least come to a strong conclusion, even with the twists and turns she takes. I tried to read French's books as fast as I could, not because they were page turners, but simply because I wanted to move on to something else.
Lee Burke often leaves unresolved threads in his novels as he incorporates mystical elements, but the reader always feels satisfied at the end. His books are page turners, and when he does twists (like in Heaven's Prisoner) he does them well. Lee Burke does not always have big game changers at the end of his novels, but rather small detonations throughout that reverberate long after he finishes writing. His style is untouchable, literary and so incredibly vivid that one does not read a Lee Burke novel but rather experiences it. You smell, taste, touch and hear everything in the book. Unlike French you do not skip passages, you devour them. Additionally, few authors have been better suited to write about a certain city than Lee Burke. He seamlessly weaves through the underbelly running through Lousiana and incorporates elements as diverse as neo-nazis, the best book ever on Hurricane Katrina and old school mafioso in the french quarter. Top that Tana French!
Advantage: Lee Burke

As expected it is a crushing, going away win for the master of New Orleans crime fiction.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mystery Writers Bracket Battle Royale

While writing a breakdown of Stieg Larssen and Jo Nesbo, I had the idea of pitting all my favorite mystery authors against one another in an ultimate battle royale that would finally select the greatest mystery author of all time (obviously having not read all mystery authors in the universe I am using my judgement and going with the best I have read).
The authors will be seeded and then 16 of them will go head to head as we wind down to just who is the best mystery author ever (or whom I have read).
Your first question: What criteria will I use to figure this all out?
Glad you asked!
I plan to break it down with three major catagories: 1) Quality of Books (what percentage falls into the "Great" to "Horrible" range) 2) Main characters (just how indelible are their creations...) 3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability (by which I mean how good a writer is the author).

The seedings
1) James Lee Burke - Dave Robicheaux novels
2) Dennis Lehane - Patrick Kenzie novels / Mystic River / Shutter Island
3) Philip Kerr - Bernie Gunther novels
4) Ken Bruen - Jack Taylor novels / Crime Squad Novels
5) James Ellroy - LA Quartet / Underworld America Trilogy
6) Jo Nesbo - Harry Hole novels
7) George Pelencanos - DC Quartet / Derek Strange novels / Nick Stefanos trilogy
8) Don Winslow - Stand alone novels
9) David Peace - The Red Riding Quartet
10) Ian Rankin - Inspector Rebus novels
11) Stuart Neville - Gerry Fegan / Jack Lennon novels
12) Stuart Macbride - Logan McRae novels
13) T Jefferson Parker - Charlie Hood novels / California Girls
14) Chelsea Cain - Archie Sheridan novels
15)Josh Bazell - Peter Brown Novels
16) Tana French - Murder squad novels

Agree? Disagree? Who got seeded too high? Who is too low? Are you excited by the matchups?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Throwdown: Stieg vs. Jo

Last fall, after watching AMC's tv series "The Killing", I read a review which suggested authors to read in order to get a mystery fix between episodes. It was the single greatest thing I ever did because it led me to Jo Nesbo's incredible Harry Hole series. The books feature a cover with a
stamp in one corner touting Nesbo "the next Stieg Larsson" which is one of the most utterly ridiculous proclamations ever made by the publishing world. Here's why:

Quality of Books - While this is not quite the most fair statement to hold against Larsson who tragically died shortly after completing his third Millennium novel, Nesbo has written seven Harry Hole Books which we go...much better than any of Stieg's novels. Before
you chuck the computer across the room, at least hear me out while I break it down starting with Stieg. Larsson's books have been nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and have sold hundreds of millions of copies. Two successful film franchises have been made about them (leading to two distinct and indelible portrayals of his heroine Lisbeth Salander) but when you look closer at the books Nesbo's superiority becomes very clear. Stieg wrote three
books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. He wrote one great book (the first) and two good books (the second and third). Stieg's legacy mostly resides in the fact he created one of the most undeniably unique characters in modern fiction.

Nesbo on the other hand, has written seven novels (six of which I will rank since I have yet to snag the brand new and potentially great seventh book Phantom).
Great: The Redbreast, The Redeemer.
Very Good: The Devil's Star, The Snowman[1], The Leopard
Okay: Nemesis

So the final tally: Nesbo wrote two books that fall into the “Great” Category, and three which fall
into “Very Good”. He wrote one semi-clunker. Stieg wrote one great book which showed how high the ceiling was for his potential, and then slumped significantly with his next two books both falling into the “Okay – Good” Range (I was generous giving them both good, but in their defense both were page turners). My ultimate point here: had
Stieg written 3 “Great” books, he would win this one. He did not, thus…
Advantage: Nesbo

Great Characters – Stieg, as we covered above, created Lisbeth Salander who has become one of the most popular characters in novel history. Nesbo’s creation Harry Hole is completely underrated in comparison. Like Salander he is a deeply flawed, haunted character who screws up as much as he succeeds. I have never rooted for a character as openly as I have for poor Harry
Hole. He is a tragic figure and a beacon for unyielding torment and even in his most damning moments I find myself on his side. Hole remains the only character that I have ever yelled at while reading a book. I yelled “No Harry!” when the character was about to break his tenuous sobriety and his frequent downfalls are heart shredding. Public opinion says to go with Salander, but…
Advantage: Even

Style / Inner Workings / Readability – Larsson’s novels are set in Sweden; Nesbo’s in Norway. Stieg’s books are very different, the first being a serial killer story, the second and third all conspiracy based. Nesbo’s detective Harry Hole deals with his destructive personality
while also being the best investigator in Norway. Hole frequently comes up against staggering
odds and Nesbo’s ability to make each book a defined and hauntingly complex
story is a testament to his writing skills. Larsson…is nowhere near as great a writer as Nesbo. His first book was plot driven (and virtually impossible to put down) and the next two sort of lacked in that department – preferring instead to be driven by Salander’s character (ironically done with
great foresight by Stieg). His writing style is ponderous and at times plodding and very, very detail oriented. That said: each book had a point at which I could no longer put it down. In the
second and third it often took two or three hundred pages, but eventually the pages were flying by. Stieg’s books examine the dark undercurrents of fascism in Swedish politics; Nesbo’s do a
similar thing with Norway. Where Nesbotruly sets himself apart however, is his jaw dropping twists. The beginning of each Nesbo book serves up a compelling theme which runs throughout the plot and weaves itself so expertly that it is only at the thrilling end that you understand just how brilliant the book was. Again, he is a vastly superior writer.
Huge Advantage: Nesbo

Ultimately, Nesbo takes it in a rousing victory. While Stieg has had some fortunate marketing and his indelible characters, Nesbo has written better overall novels – and will presumably continue to do so. The real matchup for Nesbo will come soon: Philip Kerr and his astounding Bernie Gunther series.

[1] The Snowman could arguably go into the
great category.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best of the Month: March 2012


A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin - Many fans of Martin's stunning series do not like this book for a few reasons: Martin took forever to put this book out, it features half of his characters (missing many of the fan faves) and cannot possibly match up to the previous book. In this slower and deeper fourth volume, Martin is spinning plots and building characters he has previously not written from the perspective of (like Cersei Lannister) to staggering depths. However, having had a little bit of distance from the 3rd book (and knowing the 5th is there waiting for me now) allowed me to fully enjoy this book. It is a complex read where tiny grains of detail await. I genuinely enjoyed it though it was nowhere near as action packed as Storm of Swords.


40 Years of Shite - Trying to gain some perspective on England's national team is never easy as a fan. The team has become increasingly dismal in recent years due to a complete inability to keep up with the football development going on in the rest of the world. The managers, players and everyone else involved have never been the right match for the job and this book expertly explores how it could have done better while skipping none of the agony of defeat. It is also funny and highly entertaining as one attempts to sort through each and every dismal defeat.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Best Books of the Month: February 2012

A quick note before we get into the books - again, none of them actually have to be written in 2012.


What it Was by George Pelecanos - The master of DC Noir has been very absent from my reading lists simply because his latest have been, in a word, terrible. Pelecanos, like many great crime writers (Paging Dennis Lehane!), got away from what made his books so great in the first place: the western-style, urban showdown. In his latest - a furiously written return to one of his greatest creations, Derek Strange, he shies away from nothing. Pelecanos has always been at his best when he is letting his characters tell the story of his hometown (in this case the 70's) and his villian in this book is a fantastic brute. This novel was actually hewn from his masterpiece The Night Gardener when one character spun the legend of Red Fury. Pelecanos never lets up in this book and it shows in the tense, taut thriller that I devoured in a day. Welcome back George, lets see if we can keep it up.

The Ghost by Robert Harris - Harris, who also wrote the fantastic Fatherland takes on the twisty world of a ghostwriter tasked with setting down a former Prime Minister's memoirs (think Tony Blair). The result in a gut wrenching thriller that slowly winds towards it stunning and heart breaking conclusion. Giving away any of the plot would be a crime, but the style also bears mentioning: many writers tend to overwrite everything. Harris's novel is, if anything, is underwritten perfectly and he ratchets the tension so expertly the reader can barely stand to put the book down. Brilliant.

Don't Fear the Reaper by Josh Bazell - Imagine Chuck Pahalniuk writing the Sopranos...set inside ER. Strange combo that Bazell just manages to pull off perfectly. His main character is a former mob hitman hiding out as a med student in New York. When he gets recognized by one of his patients chaos ensues. The novel is hilarious and completely deadpan, while taking the reader deep inside the medical world (the footnotes are incredibly helpful). Looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in March.


Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby - A delirious look inside the world of English Football ("Soccer" for the undereducated) Hornby is an Arsenal Super Fan. He describes his life through the prism of his fandom and the result is a hilarious spin through decades of obsession. His prose is brilliant and at times utterly devestating. He never shies away or hides from his complete insanity, and in embracing it sports fans get to see a little piece of themselves. Take the following passage:
"I was unable to defend my team’s inadequacies to my father – I could see them for myself, and I hated them – and after each feeble attempt at goal and every misplaced pass I would brace myself for the sighs and groans from the seat next to me. I was chained to Arsenal and my dad was chained to me, and there was no way out for either of us.”

Monday, January 9, 2012

Best of the Month January 2012

Here are the best books I have read thus far in January (again, none of the books actually have to be written in Jan 2012)


Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman - Reitman's brilliant and comprehensive history of Scientology virtually eviscerates the cult. The Rolling Stone reporter kicks down the doors of secrecy and shatters any illusions you have that this is not a cult. Bottom line: scientology is about the coin...and no one even pretends otherwise. The book breaks down into four parts: first a history of enigmatic con man L. Ron Hubbard, second the new leader David Miscavige's rise to power, thirdly the horrific death of a woman who was completely conned and finally a look at the church going forward - including the seduction of Tom Cruise. This book is brilliantly written and understated. Reitman simply presents the facts, horrifying as they are.


Fun and Games / Hell and Gone by Duane Swierczynski - The first two books in the Charlie Hardie trilogy are rip roaring rides through a twisted landscape of brutality. Deeper than the average thriller, these are books with serious guts. From the opening page they rip along like a runaway train, forcing you to blow through the pages without stop. I cannot wait until the 3rd is released in March 2012.