Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Best Books of the Year 2013

Here are the best books I read in 2013 - please remember not all of these books were written in 2013 this is just the year I read them.  I know I am behind the ball as Amazon and other outlets have long since released theirs, but I just kept reading good books and did not want to fail to include them.

Clive Cussler Award (Best Page Turner)
Fiction: Michael Connelly books - This was the year I discovered that Connelly's books are sometimes well written, very engaging,  and ultimately pretty impossible to put down.  I tore through two of his Mickey Haller books, five Harry Bosch novels and the serial killer classic Blood Work.  Not all of the books are great, but many are very good and all of them are page turners.
Non Fiction: The System by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian - This was not necessarily a page turner, but I simply could not stop reading it.  The way it was organized; each chapter almost a self contained article, lent itself to struggling to put it down.  It was a fascinating look inside college football and the world around it.  An incredible, investigative journey.

David Simons Award (Smartest Book)
Difficult Men by Brett Martin - The new golden era of television demanded a comprehensive study, and this look at the creators of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men and others was an in depth and very intelligent look at the men who changed television forever as well as how the medium grew from cheap entertainment to true art form.

Topic of the Year
College Football -  One of the hot button topics of the year was the corruption of the college game, and I managed to read several books that were quite illuminating, and at times, downright terrifying.  Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls by Stewart Mandel was a witty and funny look at the craziness of how champions and Heisman trophy winners are chosen.  The System was indelible and momentous, a panoramic shot of the whole rotten apple.  If the Benedict book was an all encompassing look at the system, the brilliant Scoreboard, Baby is a microcosm of all that is wrong with College Football.  That the book was not only one of the best sports books of the year, but also won an Edgar Award for Best Crime Fact tells you a whole lot about the subject matter.  A horrifying look at the abuses and criminal activities committed by the 2000 Washington Huskies.

James Patterson Award (Most Disappointing Books)
1. Ancients by David Golemon - Once in awhile you read a book that is not very good, and once in a while you may read something that is downright terrible...and then you might read something on the level of Golemon's truly horrible book.  This one might be in contention for worst book I have ever read. 
2.LA Noir by John Buntin -   Too grand for its own designs, this is a book that managed to make the story of the first police commissioner and Mickey Cohen into a drab and wholly uninteresting story.
3. The Big White Lie by Michael Levine - Horribly boring and pretty hard to do when you are writing about drug lords and the DEA.

Bill Simmons Award (Best Sports Books)
Muck City by Bryan Mealer - Cross Friday Night Lights with the Wire and you end up with this book, all about football in the Florida Everglades (one of the poorest areas in the United States).  One poor, crime ridden area has sent a shocking amount of players to the NFL.  This is a heart breaking book, full of tragedy, pain and ultimately deliverance.
Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman - There are two types of sports biographies; those that completely glorify their subjects and gloss over anything slightly real, and those that seek to take the full measure of a man and provide a full portrait.  No need to guess which one this is.

Best Crime Books
A Man without Breath by Philip Kerr - Once again Kerr manages to write a stunning thriller that transcends its genre and looks deep into the heart of evil.
Countdown City by Ben Winters - The sequel to last years Best Book of the Year, this one picks up the story with 77 days to go.  The best part about these books is the sense of melancholy that seeps into every part of the story.  Hope fades and dies as the world falls apart, but in the end, the smallest gestures end up the most meaningful.  Counting the days until the third book arrives.

Harper Lee Award (Best Female YA)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein - Prepare to have your heart broken by this wonderful historical novel, full of character, life, love and death.  Two girls in World War Two must show their courage amidst insurmountable odds.  Well written and very poignant.

Twist of the Year
Alliegent by Veronica Roth - She went for it, she really, really went for it.  This is a writer with some serious cojones.

The Five Best Books of the Year
5. One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard - An inspiring, life altering book about a coach and a baseball team that nearly went all the way against all the odds.
4. 11/22/63 by Stephen King - What if you could go back in time and change the past?  What if the past did not want to be changed?  King has created a world that lives and breathes and makes nearly a thousand pages fly by. 
3. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser - A classic and rightfully so.  This book is staggering, teeming with facts and an indictment of the way we eat. 
2. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight - A child dies, and then, suddenly, the book spins back to tell both the story of the child and that of the mother desperate for answers.  A worst nightmare that tells a powerful story of how disconnected youth are from our lives, and we, from theirs.
1. The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey - As Yancey writes in his introduction to the fourth and final book, he set out to write a series about chasing monsters: those that terrify us and haunt us, and those that are more difficult to see.  Yancey is ultimately more concerned with the darkness that wells up and grows inside each of us.  Of course, he says, if you spend long enough looking into the abyss, eventually the abyss will look back.  The achievement of these books is monumental.  They are marketed as YA fiction but are much more than that.  These are simply great books, among the most complex and beautifully written as you will ever find.  They are horrifying, gory and at times difficult to read (bleak is a word that could be used) but the challenge is well worthwhile.  Rarely has an author dared to seek the monsters inside all of us; the ones we try hardest to hide from.  Right down from the smallest character, to the two main ones, Yancey has succeeded brilliantly in creating a series of four novels (The Monstrumologist, The Curse of the Wendigo, The Isle of Blood and The Final Descent) that will withstand the test of time.  As a bonus he wrote another great book this year: The Fifth Wave that was also among the best of the year.  Pick up these books and prepare to settle in for what might be the best horror series, well, ever.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Best of September / October

Some recent reads:


The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon - A dark and twisty novel that has been compared to the first Harry Potter books, this is one of the most intriguing series debuts in a long while.  Shannon has created a rich and horrifying world that is complex and deep.  Her main character is a powerful young woman who drifts through the world, and in many cases more than one.  To say more would be spoilerish, but the main issue with this novel is I struggled to see where it was going.  There was a lot of world building without a lot of plot (at least until the propulsive ending).  The rest of the Seven book series bears watching and reading.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey - Ironically similar to the Shannon book, the main premise of Sakey's brilliant novel is that in the 1980's people began being born "brilliant" (or with intellect and the ability to see patterns far beyond that of normal human intelligence).  Humanity, obviously, panics and begins "acadamies" to deal with the brilliant children.  Nick Cooper is an agent of DAR, an organization which hunts down suspected Brilliant terrorists (led by a shadowy figure named John Smith) and then kills them.  Sakey has created a frighteningly real world amidst the shadows of our own, and allegories that touch on everything from today's War on terror to the civil rights movement and the holocaust.  The result is one of the best novels I have read this year - the only conceit: at the end, it seemed as if there were too many balls in the air.  Then it ended and there was a preview for "Book 2".  While the main plot was resolved, much of the world was left up in the air - and the reader is hungry for more.


The System by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian - An amazing, insightful book into the world around college football, the authors have written an investigative report that shows all aspects of the sport.  Fantastic, well written and completely immersive this is an important and landmark book that needs to be read to understand a complex game. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Crime Spree

Summer is a great time to catch up on a number of books you may have missed over the years, and sometimes to discover an author who has been staring you in the face for a very long time.  My reading is (obviously) eclectic but one genre has remained a pretty solid part of my rotation: mysteries / crime fiction.  This year for some weird reason I had not read a lot of crime thus far; that has definitely changed this summer, here are some of the reads I have enjoyed this summer:

Michael Connelly - Previously to this summer, I had read 3 Connelly books; 1 Harry Bosch novel and 2 Lincoln Lawyer books.  All of that changed when I picked up The Fifth Witness while on vacation.  Since then, I grabbed and tore through the following novels: The Drop, The Black Box, The Black Echo, The Reversal, The Black Ice, Blood Work.  So...I went back and read some of the earliest Harry Bosch books in addition to some of the first ones.  The breakdown: Connelly is a good writer, in some books a very, very good writer.  The best ones I read: Blood Work, The Drop and The Black Echo.  All the books were enjoyable and well done overall.  Connelly has a new convert and I am looking forward to making my way through his catalogue.

The Innocent Man by John Grisham / The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston - Two true crime books that for some reason I find inextricably linked and that somehow I missed before.  I know why I skipped the Grisham novel as it came out right after I read Sebastian Junger's brilliant A Death in Belmont.  The two seemed too similar so I avoided the Grisham book and should not have, as he tells a truly outrageous story of corruption and horrible miscarriages of justice.  The Monster of Florence tells a rather bizarre story of a serial killer who operated in the scenic hills around the famous city.  Another tale of bad investigating and terrible miscarriages of justice, this one is interesting because of the author inserting himself into the story.  Still it is worth a read.  Both books were interesting and well written.

Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy - I have read about Bulger before, but this is the first account that covers his entire life and criminal career.  He is a fascinating character who has never really had a full measure taken of his life, and it is a testament to the authors (who followed his career for more than 30 years) that he becomes a three dimensional person and not simply a cartoonish bad guy.  The book is well written and a deep dive into an incredible story.  Given the plethora of books on the topic (for an overall look at Irish criminal history check out TJ English's excellent Paddy Whacked )  it is important to make sure you reach for a good one, and this is definitely one of those.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Holiday Reading

Reading while on Holiday is one of the best things ever - but you have to make a decision as to which direction you are going to go: easy, beach reads or, now that you have the time, more complex works? 
During my recent vacation I decided to try and do a couple of both. 
Firstly, in praise of classic Clive Cussler - the man, regardless of his later works wrote 12 good to great books.  The writing is deep, the ideas are somewhat complex and he genuinely tackles social and global issues.  They are action packed and somewhat unbelievable but they are very well done and he writes in such a way as to make the stories logical.  The books become better and better when you consider the writers Cussler is unfairly lumped in with: Matthew Reilly, James Rollins, and of course, David Golemon.  Cussler is a good writer (for 12 books or so) but the others ignore all the things that made the Dirk Pitt series so great: the writing and the social conscious.  Compare two plots: Cussler's Treasure and Golemon's Ancients.  In Cussler's story there is an international conspiracy of criminals; in Golemon's the same.  In Cussler's there is a treasure Golemon's not so much.  The writing and plot is where Cussler excels - not even taking into account his characters, who, although somewhat stereotypical are at least interesting.  Golemon's book was pure nonsense about the evil legacy of Julius Caesar.  Not only that but Cussler genuinely tried to do different things stylistically, consider the following:
Raise the Titanic - A thrilling novel that is only a Dirk Pitt adventure on the surface and moreover a deep and resonant story of the Cold War. 
Vixen 03 - Features a lengthy section about Apartheid South Africa, in addition to being one of the most sensual of the Dirk Pitt novels. 
Night Probe - Has two different protagonists, and our hero, Pitt, loses the girl at the end (Spoiler Alert!) not to mention the fact that this is a spy novel in which there is no clear person to root for. 
This is simply a smattering of the ways in which Cussler is infinitely better than the generation of thriller writers who came afterwards (as a final point: Cussler also wrote a way better novel simply on Atlantis than Golemon did.  Atlantis Found is a much superior novel in every way, including the worldwide conspiracy actually making sense.)
In my opinion there is only one writer Cussler can accurately be put in the same category as, and that is Michael Crichton.  Obviously the two wrote very different books but their ability to put forward a driving plot while also informing and engaging the reader.  No one of this generation has been able to do so. 
I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that later Cussler (post Atlantis Found) has done exactly the opposite of his earlier works and essentially trashed his previous reputation.  The new editions of his books have all gotten new covers / descriptions that cheapen them and the relative complexities within.  These days he simply provides outlines and cashes cheques for novels which are beneath his earlier works and are mostly written by other people.  A sad end to a legend, but at least us true fans have a twelve book stretch to revisit time and again. 

The other side of holiday reading took on a much more complex form this year:

Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo - A rollicking tale of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916, this book is virtually impossible to put down.  It tells the story of a rogue shark that killed multiple people during the summer of 1916 and transformed American understanding of the dangers of sharks.  Before these attacks sharks were completely misunderstood, afterwards they were even more so.  A great picture of a different time, this book is well worth a read.

Difficult Men by Brett Martin - The second book I have read about the "Golden Age of Television", this takes a very different approach than Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution was Televised because while Sepinwall focuses on the plots of the shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire, Martin choses to focus on how the shows got made and how they changed the world of television.  It is a brilliant book, a complex one that examines the importance of television and the rise of the antihero.  Well worth while and a perfect companion to the equally good Sepinwall book.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

2013's Best Books of the Year - So Far

With 2013 half over and summer here tomorrow, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the best books I have read thus far this year.  Once again, these are books I have read this year...not necessarily that have been published this year. 


Area 51 by Annie Jacobson - Instead of delving into a huge amount of conspiracy theories, Jacobson instead chooses to focus on the facts and Area 51's history as a military base.  What she digs up is almost better than any theory.  Area 51 revolutionized the American Military and their testing.  This book is well written, doggedly researched and excellently argued. 

Ballad of the Whisky Robber by Julian Rubenstein - A madcap adventure through post-communism Eastern Europe, this book features semi-pro hockey, bank robbery, pelt smuggling and brutal alcoholism.  Prepare to turn the pages faster than a Grisham novel. 

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser - I tried to read this book a couple of times and was not successful because I simply was unable to get through the introduction.  So, it sat, unread on my kindle for more than a year, and then suddenly I was struck by an urge to read it.  Am I ever glad that I did: this was one of the better books I have read this year.  Well written and an in depth look at how fast food changed America and ultimately the world.  Disturbing, fascinating and at times completely horrifying (the slaughterhouse sections are among the most terrifying things I have ever read).  If you only read one book about the food industry ever, make it this classic.  One of the best books ever on the subject.

Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman - Sometimes it is important to get the full measure of someone, even when they have been deified by everyone around them.  Jeff Pearlman does this in his biography of Walter Payton.  Does he occasionally detail not so great aspects of the legendary running back?  Yes, he does, and does he also detail the incredible and good things?  Yes he does.  This is a well measured, and overall compelling book about an ultimately tragic figure.

One Shot at Forever by Chris Ballard - Imagine a tiny school making the state championships in baseball thanks to a hippy coach who changed his small town forever.  One of the most inspiring books I have ever read, this is an instant classic of David vs. Multiple Goliaths.  Read and enjoy.


Reconstructing Amelia  by Kimberly McCreight - Imagine if Gone Girl and Gossip Girl had a baby, and now imagine this baby is the most taut and intense thriller of the year.  I did not care for Gone Girl but this was one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read.  A stunning thriller that spins the reader in so many different directions and then actually has a logical ending.  Not a happy book, but a truly deep and resonant one.  The plot is twisty and engaging: a high priced lawyer gets a call from her daughter's private school.  The daughter, Amelia, has been caught cheating.  By the time her mother gets there her daughter is dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.  However, a text from a mysterious source states: she didn't jump.  Saying any more would spoil all the depth and incredible turns.  Maybe the best book of the year so far.

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr - Once again Kerr releases a book and once again it is a stunning literary achievement.  This one set deep in the second world war has antihero Bernie Gunther trying to figure out who is responsible for a mass grave in the Katyn Forest.  If the Russians were the killers, Germany has a huge PR coup - but if the Germans are responsible it needs to be hushed up quickly.  The most meditative of Kerr's works, this is a stunning book that is one of Kerr's better novels.  Deeply thematic and full of action, twists and turns, you cannot help but cheer for Bernie even as he sinks as low of the Nazi's he utterly despises.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Best Books of April and May

Here are some of the books I have read and enjoyed in the past few months.

The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey - YA and Teen books are often characterized by two things: the first being simple writing, the second being simple characterization.  Yancey's incredible books feature neither.  These are elegant tomes full of darkness, deep themes and very vivid character growth and development.  The series also does something that very few authors (YA or otherwise) dare to do: be complex.  Yancey presents the deep and twisty story and allows his reader to draw conclusions.  Nothing is spoon fed and the answers are neither clear nor pretty.  Each of the novels could be read as a standalone but work best as a series exploring the darkness within all of us.  The first book The Monstrumologist serves as stark reminder that the real monsters are among us; The Curse of the Wendingo flits with the fantastical, and the nature of myth and reality (to this point the novel could be interpreted a couple of different ways, it might just be the Shutter Island of teen fiction); the final novel (so far, as #4 comes out in Fall 2013) is The Isle of Blood which again ties together the theme of monsters among us and the true horrors of the world being right in front of us.  One of the more remarkable things about these novels is that at no point did I feel like I was reading a teen book.  They are gruesome, haunting and resonate deeply.  I am still thinking about them long after I finished reading.  The characters are neither simple or one dimensional.  They are real, flawed and strikingly complex.  Read this series and enjoy it as quickly as possible.

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubenstein - A madcap adventure featuring a backup hockey goalie in post- Soviet Hungry who becomes a bank robbing, whiskey swilling, pelt smuggling, Robin Hood-esque hero to the people.  The man, from Romania (and more specificially from where Dracula made his bones) is a fascinating character whose experience serves as a microcosm for a truly bizarre time in the history of Eastern Europe. 

Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman - So many biographies are straighforward and refuse to take into account the whole measure of a person.  Pearlman's subject, the much beloved Walter Payton, has been deified for a very long time and this book does a wonderful job of humanizing him.  There are no punches pulled - all of Payton's faults and dark moments are captured in this moving and well written account.  One can see why Pearlman took a lot of heat about "slamming his subject" but that is simply not true.  He has written a great, balanced and full measure of the man known always, and forever, as Sweetness.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Best of Jan, Feb and March

There are a lot of books to read, and in the past few months I have read some good ones.  Here are the most notable:

Area 51 by Anne Jacobson - Imagine a book that does not shy away from the mysteries of Area 51 but rather addressed them in a genuine and logical manner.  This, my friends, is that book.  For one of the first times an author pulls back the curtain on one of the most secretive locations in the entire world.  Jacobson is a great writer and some of the secrets she divulges are shocking - but always truthful.  She does not write about aliens and conspiracies (other than a whopper of one around Roswell 1947) but rather focuses on the military history of the installation.  There is truth here, and Jacobson writes it fluidly.  Believe her or not, this is a solid book.

Ashfall / Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin - In dystopian fiction there is often a very dark tone, and in many cases this is well deserved.  There is dark and then there is what Mullin writes - these books are incredibly bleak.  Set in a world where the Super Volcano underneath Yellowstone unexpectedly erupts throwing the entire United States into chaos, the struggle to survive is desperate and brutal.  For the two main characters Darla and Alex, life becomes a dire prospect which grows dimmer with each passing day.  As the two find love in a dying world, the importance of things we take for granted like water, food and vitamins take on an added dimension as unthinkable actions (like cannibalism etc) become commonplace.  These are richly imagined books and the world Mullins destroys and then rebuilds is fascinatingly realistic.  Truly an achievement leaving me eagerly anticipating the third volume.