Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Oh Bloody Hell Eleven Books Of 2013

11) The Flamethrowers:

Following a rootless young woman as she drifts from the Bonneville salt flats, through the pretentious art scene of 70’s New York and into violent revolution in Italy, The Flame Throwers paints a portrait of a character who is adrift in a world that is unmoored. Written with an eye for character, place, a wry sense of humor and a just this side of detached style that recalls vintage McMurtry, but wedded to a sinister undercurrent and global spanning, time slipping narrative that makes it feel like something else entirely, The Flamethrowers is hypnotic, ineffably disturbing and unlike anything else I read this year.

10) The Ocean At The End Of The Lane:

Neil Gaiman’s fable is deceptively slight and simple, but like all of the great man’s work it contains multitudes. Bringing the mystery and terror of childhood to life in a way that few books have. 

9) Double Feature:

What more canbe said of Double Feature than that one critical moment of schadenfreude made me laugh so hard in public that I actually disturbed passersby? It's not isolated either, and a consultation with a severely incapacitated poetry professor provoked a laugh nearly as loud. To give too much of the plot away would be the very definition of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that Double Feature follows the estranged son of a B movie icon, whose own career as an aspiring director takes some unexpected turns. Intercutting a modern day Amisian farce with wistful remembrances of the initial fracturing of the father son relationship. Funny and humane, Double Feature's final chapters do wraps things up just a touch too neatly. But then again there are far worse sins for a novelist to have than an abundance of generosity towards his characters. Funny novelists are rare, funny novelists free of misanthropy are virtually as common as Dodos. I eagerly await King’s next book.

8) The Double:
Despite featuring what is without a doubt the worst author’s photo I have ever seen, George Pelecanos delivered a superb sequel to The Cut. As he did two decades ago with Nick’s Trip Pelecanos really finds his rhythm on his second go round. The Double deepens Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran who works as a PI, making him a flawed man who try as he might can’t solve everything. And who Pelecanos seems to understand to his core. The plot of The Double starts with a neat set up and ends with a fray of unsolved strands and unavenged deeds, with Lucas not so much saving the day as performing triage the best he can. Pelecanos tends to abandon reoccurring characters after three or four books, but I truly hope he shoots for a longer run with Lucas. He has a rare hero here and despite his flaws Lucas earns that designation, one with a lot to learn and a lot to lose. Most authors would kill for a character this rich. I eagerly await seeing him do so.

7) In One Person:
About fifteen years ago Tom Wolfe engaged in a vicious feud with John Irving and I’m not even going to pretend I was on Irving’s side. But looking at their last two novels side by side I cannot help but feel that some particularly vicious act of literary karma has taken place. Wolfe has descended into shrill self parody going from one of the most engaged working writers to one of our most tone deaf, meanwhile Irving has produced two of his most vital works. Novels every bit as strong as those he wrote in his eighties heyday. I’m not saying Voodoo is involved but I’m not saying it’s not.

Either way In One Person is a remarkable novel. Crafted with Irving’s trademark open heartedness. This is simply put one of the most sympathetic novels, let alone mainstream novels, involving transgendered sexuality, or hell sexuality in general, that I've come across. Funny, tragic sweeping and generous In One Person shows Irving’s skills to be fully intact.

6 & 5) Doctor Sleep, Joyland

As do these two numbers. As I've written before I was genuinely frightened that reengaging with one of his best works would derail King’s late period winning streak, I needn't have feared. Doctor Sleep shows King doing what he does best, ripping into a porterhouse of a narrative, populating it with characters both light and dark worth getting invested in and setting up stakes that truly matter. King doesn't try and best The Shining, he just uses it as a base to tell one hell of a yarn. And if it takes it’s time getting started it’s only because how clearly it all matters to King, both the legacy of his original novel and Torrance’s experiences with addiction and recovery which feel nearly as raw as the material in On Writing.

Joyland, is a slighter novel, but no less pleasurable. Time, place and character have always been King’s tools as a novelist and Joyland excels at all three. Even if it does occasionally feel as though King would like to pull a Colorado Kid and just forget the whole mystery thing.  A few fans groused that together they represented a softer King, this being the same guy who recently wrote the end of Duma Key, Full Dark No Stars, and cheerfully BBQed an entire town at the climax of Under The Dome. But as I said of his son’s novel, generosity is no vice in a novelist.  Watching King practice his craft over the last seven years has been a pleasure. I can’t wait for the next three decades or so.

4) The Republic Of Thieves: Now this is an interesting little bugger. No one in the fantasy genre writes quite as well as Scott Lynch. Oh sure Patrick Rothfuss has the whole conversational literary style down pat, and Sanderson has his efficient world building and can plot like a mofo. But where Rothfuss can occasionally be ponderous when his humor fails him and slide into self parody when his reach exceeds his grasp (“Bless the moon for sending me this lusty young manling” and so forth) Lynch slides through his narratives with the propulsion of a con man convincing you to get a second mortgage. And while Sanderson makes his world building unobtrusive Lynch makes exploring his world feel not like a chore but fun

Lynch through fans for a loop by backing away from the high stakes of the first two novels for what seems like a particularly ingenious game of Spy Versus Spy. For all but the last thirty pages or so of the six hundred fifty page novel, all that seems at stake for the characters in The Republic Of Thieves is their hearts. It is testament to Lynch’s skill that seven year hiatus or no, this seems more than enough.  

3) You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me:

If you know Nathan Rabin, chances are you will be unprepared. I walked into You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, expecting one of Rabin’s trademark outsider looking in works. In the vein of his famous Year(s) Of Flops, or his sojourn through country music. That’s not what this is.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, is one of those happy books that increases your good opinion of the author (especially nice when you already like the author in question a great deal). Showing him capable of more than you expected. Simply put You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is self laceratingly honest, incredibly dedicated and howlingly funny. Rabin never condescends to his subject matter and instead throws himself into the loathed subculture of The Juggallos and Phishheads with an intensity that recalls Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. No I’m not shitting you.

Take that aforementioned work and mix it with the hurt, passion and soul of Scott Raab’s The Whore Akron and you might have some idea of what You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me reads like. Buy it. Buy it now. The next three books might be “better” but You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is easily the most undervalued book of the year.

3)Bleeding Edge:

This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel that hasn't read as a period piece to me (which is not to say the first he has written) and to be honest that kind of sort of scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to be unnerved for so long when the man holding the fun house mirror up to your own time is such a charming host. Bleeding Edge has all the head long energy, virtuosity, absurdest humor and manic paranoia of Pynchon’s best work. A cross between the Gospel according to Groucho Marx and Kafka’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Pynchon remains line by line the most brilliantly unpredictable writer I've come across. Like a man who walks into a drawing room with a sledgehammer which he uses to tap out a delicate version of Fur Elise. Slapstick broad one page (Perhaps no moment of my reading in 2013 was quite so odd as realizing that Thomas Pynchon had made a fucking Daikatana joke), almost unbearably delicate and poignant the next.

Like King Pynchon hasn't so much softened as he has chosen to highlight elements of his work that served as a background hum. Here he adds a wholly unexpected portrait of observant Judaism sans the usual neuroticism and regret, as well as a dedicated portrait of family life. Neither of which shield Pynchon’s heroine from his trademark waves of conspiracy and counter conspiracy and shadowy organizations who never quite coalesce. But which, Pynchon seems to suggest, might serve as consolation enough.

The world Pynchon writes is the world I see outside my own window (how perfectly Pynchonian was PRISM?) this is welcome news.

2) The Wes Anderson Collection: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection isn’t merely a scrupulous piece of criticism blended with an incisive career spanning interview. Instead it is a book with such a keen understanding of its subject that the book feels less like a book on Anderson as his films as it does an object from one of Anderson films. Few books have brought me as much pleasure. In fact only one book has…

1) N0S4A2: It seems dismissive to describe N0S4A2 as a complete blast and dishonest to call it anything else. At it’s core it’s a page turner, with a stripped down roaring engine of a story. The kind of book that has you glancing at your clock at 3AM as you try and convince yourself that you’ll function perfectly fine at work with five hours of sleep so you might sneak in a few more chapters.

But it only works that deviously because of how thoroughly Hill invests himself in his characters and in his world. N0S4A2 isn't a throwaway, and Hill’s empty devils and tattered angels aren't merely cardboard cut outs and or victims. But people who matter. Hill’s darkness is not simply the darkness of grotesquery but the darkness within the human heart, to be rejected or fed at our will. He gives evil its weight, and as a result good gets its own as well.

Simply put N0S4A2 is a great story told to its full potential by a master storyteller in full command of his craft. And if there’s anything better than that I haven’t found it. 

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