The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole, 1764. Gothic novel.
Micromegas, by Voltaire, France, 1752. One of the great wits in all of literature tells the story of Micromegas, a 120,000-foot tall traveler from the distant star Sirius, and his journey to Saturn and Earth. In this long short story or short novella, an early forerunner of science fiction, Voltaire skewers the philosophers of his day and hands a cosmic comeuppance to the semi-intelligent germs that comprise the human race.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, Crown Publishers, 2015. Nonfiction. In April, 1915, with all of Europe aflame in the worst war the world had yet seen, the great British luxury liner Lusitania, brimming with civilian passengers, men, women, and children, leaves New York and heads for its home port of Liverpool. Into the war zone. Few realized that the world had already reached a tipping point in barbarity, in which civilian populations had become fair game, enemies just as much as actual combatants were. Larson paints a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking picture of the great tragedy of the Lusitania. For those seeking to understand the shape of the 20th-century, Dead Wake is a must-read. Highly recommended.
Shadows and Teeth: Ten Terrifying Tales of Horror and Suspense, Vol. One, Darkwater Syndicate, 2016. Horror Anthology. I love me a good short story anthology and, in particular, anthologies of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Still, there is usually a degree of inconsistency in quality of stories within. In this anthology, there's not a stinker in the bunch. Indeed, quality ranges from good to excellent. If I had to pick my favorites, they would include "Water, Ice, and Vice," a dark comedy by Antonio Simon, Jr; "Spawn," by Paige Reiring, a fascinating take on emotions come to life; "Riana in the Gray Dusk," by Viktoria Faust, an exploration of the downside of near-immortality; and "Back Through the Mist," by J.S. Watts, a genre-bending police-procedural. Interestingly, these are ones with supernatural overtones. That's perhaps personal inclination. Yours may be different, and may tend more towards the real. If so, you'll be rewarded by the tales of human psychosis in this collection. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
The Roswell Swatch, by Scott Michael Powers, Off-University Press, 2016. Thriller. A young military veteran finds her life turned inside-out when she inherits some highly interesting memorabilia--a scrapbook and a piece of fabric with other-worldly properties--upon her grandfather's death. She's got it but others want it, and are not above killing in order to obtain it. A first novel, but it sure doesn't read like one. Powers has brought decades of journalistic experience to the table and weaves a breakneck, twisty thriller with science fiction elements, rendered with an eye for precise journalistic detail. Lots of fun here, and the surprises keep coming right to the end.
The Obsidian Chamber, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2016. Thriller. He's ba-aaack. Fans of the Special Agent Pendergast novels will guess who I'm talking about. An enemy from the past returns and makes things miserable for Pendergast and Constance. An entertaining read, as always, but not among my favorites in the series. That may be because the novels in which the villain has appeared have not quite done it for me.
The Algernon Blackwood Mega-Pack, by Algernon Blackwood, Horror & fantasy short stories and novellas. Blackwood was a pioneer of the horror genre as we know and this is a treasury. "The Willows" and "The Wendigo" are must-reads for all fans of the macabre. Good stuff here, and it's easy to spot the influence on H.P. Lovecraft.
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ticknor and Fields, 1851. Drama. A curse follows the wealthy Pyncheon family of Salem, Massachusetts, one directed at them by the tragically wronged victim, old Maule, during the age of witch trials. But the truth of the story is that the Pyncheons suffer from their own wrongdoings, passed from generation to generation. Hawthorne's theme is powerful, his characters authentic, his language poetic. Yet the novel is a difficult slog for the modern reader, rendered as it is in a Romantic, effusive style. Enter only with the greatest of patience.
The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, 1903. Thriller. In what is often regarded as the first modern spy novel, two young British adventurers sail into the treacherous shallows off the North Sea coast of Germany, piecing together what seems to be a planned invasion of England. Childers is clearly a master of nautical skills and knowledge and this is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the novel. The detail is fascinating, yet sometimes bogs the pace (or more appropriately, runs it aground in the sands). This book captured the attention of the British public, bringing to the fore the expansionist aspirations of Kaiser Wilhelm, and spurring preparation for the looming war.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, 1915. The murder of an old acquaintance sends two-dimensional action figure John Hannay on the run through the English and Scottish countryside, trying to elude both the police and the actual murderers. Plots are afoot to plunge the continent into war, mirroring the actual sequences of tragedies that started the Great War in 1914. Hannay created the "man on the run" thriller with this novel. At times, the book is successful and entertaining, yet slips over the edge of implausible coincidences too many times.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818. Science Fiction / Horror. This is the story you only think you know. So much of Shelley's novel has been distorted or eliminated by movie adaptations, the depth and beauty of the novel remains unknown to the vast majority of the public. The monster is not a sluggish, grunting slab of meat with neck bolts. Okay, he is a slab of meat, some eight feet tall, and immensely powerful. But he is also swifter and more agile than any natural-born human. More importantly, he arrives in the world as a blank slate, unaware of everything about him, and partially blind because his eyesight has not yet developed. But he is innately, supremely intelligent, and teaches himself language and its most articulate usage. Spurned and scorned wherever he goes, his burgeoning moral code grows warped with each new humiliation, driving him to violence and revenge against his creator. This great novel gives you plenty to think about and sticks with you long after you finish reading. The first true science fiction novel. Read it.
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 2015. Nonfiction. Terrific account of the two brothers that invented the future in December of 1903. Wilbur and Orville, for some reason, seem to be regarded in popular view these days as tinkerers that got lucky. The truth is, luck had nothing to do with it. What they accomplished was nothing short of brilliant, and McCullough paints a complete picture of just how innovative, tenacious, and fearless these guys were. Highly recommended reading.
Beyond the Ice Limit, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2016. Thriller. Years ago, the authors wrote a standalone novel titled The Ice Limit. Quite a good thriller, that. This, the long-begged-for sequel, is better. Wow.
The mysterious "meteorite" of the first novel is still there, inaccessible and at the bottom of the southern ocean. And it's growing. The enigmatic and unlikable Eli Glinn has enlisted terminal patient Gideon Crew in his battle to correct his past mistakes, and eliminate the meteorite before it eliminates us. The lines are drawn and the stakes are high, and you just have to hang on for dear life and race to the finish. Hard to put this one down, folks.
The Second Death, by Peter Tremayne, 2016. Mystery. In 7th-century Ireland, Sister Fidelma must unravel the mystery surrounding the deaths of a young man and woman traveling with a troupe of performers on their way to the great fair of Cashel. As she digs into the confounding threads of the murders, she and her companions become embroiled in a conspiracy tied to the clash between the religion of old and that of the new. I read this novel on a recent trip across Ireland, and it enriched the entire experience.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allen Poe, Harper and Brothers, 1838. Adventure. A young man decides on a lark to stowaway aboard a merchant sailing ship bound for the Pacific. But things quickly go awry, as mutineers seize the vessel. And things get worse from there, as murder, starvation, and wreckage ensue, and at last an excursion farther south than any explorer has ever ventured, to the very heart of Antarctica, where an unknown culture dwells.
Although certain scenes are terrific, and Poe's mastery of language is as sharp as ever, Pym is not a great read overall. It often lacks the pacing of the modern thriller. So don't read it for that. Read it for Poe's brilliance as a wordsmith and for its influence to the adventure and thriller genre.
Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1923, T. Fisher Unwin. Mystery. The naked corpse of a man turns up in the bathtub of a house. The residents have no idea who he is or how he got there. No one does. So the well-to-do Lord Peter Wimsey can't let it alone. Sayers delivered a stylish, witty sleuth in Wimsey, but what makes him come to life for me is the shell-shock flashbacks from his days in the trenches of World War I. That sets him apart from the fictional sleuths that are just given quirky behaviors or fussy habits.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie, 1926, William Collins and Sons. Mystery. The death of Mrs. Ferrars is the talk of the small English village of King’s Abbot; that is, until the subsequent murder of local bigshot Roger Ackroyd. Of course, their deaths are linked by the comings and goings of the caddish and self-serving Ralph Paton, Ackroyd’s nephew. The local constabulary quickly decide Paton is the fiend responsible.
Fortunately, the wily Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has just retired and moved into the area and is naturally drawn into the case.
Christie spins an elaborate web of details, some relevant, some red herrings, to keep the reader off-balance. The novel is renowned for its denouement and twist at the end, which has astounded readers for decades. I’m happy to brag that I had correctly identified a quarter of the way in who the killer was, not so much because I brilliantly deciphered the many clues. I didn’t. I did so because I understood the fiction techniques Christie employed in the telling. The story remains engaging nonetheless, experiencing as you do the clever reveals and side plots throughout, and indeed for the humorous musings of Caroline, King’s Abbot’s resident Van Gogh of gossip.
The novel first appeared in a fifty-four part serialization in the London Evening News in 1925.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, Harper, 1938. Suspense. A shy young woman of modest means falls for and marries a fabulously wealthy English widower and moves into his world of jaw-dropping opulence and luxury at Manderley, the family estate in Cornwall. Stuff of dreams, right? One would think so, but the results for all involved are more of a nightmare. The young protagonist, the new Mrs. de Winter (we never learn her given name), must live in the long shadow of Rebecca, the gifted, beautiful, and brilliant first wife of Maxim de Winter.
All is not as it seems. Not at all. And the slow unveiling of the past paints a complex, disturbing story of class and power.
A remarkable thing about this book is du Maurier's mastery of English both old and new. The first-person narrative sails along in the sort of high-toned Victorian formality of the end of the 19th-century. But in moments of self-doubt and stress, her narrative elegantly shifts gears into short, clipped sentences, sentence fragments, disjointed thoughts; Modernist prose takes over. It's as if Charles Dickens collaborated with Ernest Hemingway to pen a genre-overlapping tale of suspense, and the resulting wordplay dazzles.
I can see why opinions on this novel vary widely; it IS a slow read. But slow in a savory way. The excess attention to detail becomes part of the rhythm of the prose, highlighting the growing dread and sense of inescapable fate. Some won't like it. I loved it.
Electromancer, by Daco, Crimson Romance, 2016. Romantic Suspense. High fun, high camp, this novel reinvents the superhero for the 21st century in ways unexpected. Alexa Manchester, pulled in multiple directions by her professional and personal lives, finds herself suddenly imbued with an array of powers, and just in the nick of time to fight the evil Momo and his henchmen. All this while trying to sort out a complicated love life. If you have imagination and aren't afraid to use it, you'll love this book.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, 1939. Mystery. Christie's classic whodunit remains highly entertaining to this day. Ten persons converge for various reasons on a tiny English island, find themselves stuck there, and find themselves dying one by one. The only explanation is that one of them is doing the killing. A delicious mystery treat.
I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane, 1947. Mystery. Being a fan of the hard-boiled school of mystery, I wanted to like this book. I really did. The racism and misogynistic outlook are bad enough (and they are really bad), but the endorsement for beating and shooting information out of anyone that gets in the way finally did me in. I quit reading halfway through.
Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, 1871. Horror. Before Stoker and Dracula, there were Le Fanu and Carmilla. This novella succeeds on multiple fronts, bringing us a vampire and a theme that had to be testing the limits of Victorian prudence. All that, and beautifully written too.
Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 2015. Thriller. Another fine installment in the saga of Special Agent Pendergast. Constance Greene joins Pendergast on a routine investigation in a small Massachusetts fishing village. Routine? Nah. All hell breaks loose in short order, as mysteries and crimes of the past bubble to the surface.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre, 1963. Thriller. Cold War Berlin, Brandenburg Gate. What a marvelous backdrop to open a novel! I read this novel many years ago and was anxious to revisit it. News flash: it's even better the second time around. LeCarre pretty much defined a place for spies in a morally ambiguous world, one in which ends meant more than means. More importantly, he digs into how this world takes a toll on its inhabitants. This classic works on multiple levels.
Jacqueline, by Jackie Minniti, Anaiah Adventures, 2015. Historical novel. A young girl in occupied France, 1944, clings to a desperate belief that her missing father will return to her family in Rennes. The forging of new friendships in a broken world help her through, and the unexpected help from an American GI infuse this story with warmth, grace, and honest emotion. Based on the author's father's real wartime experiences, this short novel is written for audiences of all ages, and highly recommended for all as well.
The Gullwing Odyssey, by Antonio Simon, Jr., Darkwater Syndicate, Inc., 2015. Fantasy satire. Sailing the seas and soaring the skies of a fantasy world that's like Westeros on laughing gas, Simon's hapless mailman, Marco Gullwing, gives us a memorable character and high adventure worthy of Jonathan Swift. Simon is mining the territory of Goldman's The Princess Bride, and suffers not in the comparison. Treat yourself, buy this book, and dive in.
Fearful Symmetry, by Michael McBride, Thunderstorm Books, 2014. Audiobook thriller. Decades after a Nazi scientific expedition into the Himalayas met with disaster, an American geneticist leads another expedition deep into the hidden valleys of the towering mountains. His goal: finding a splinter species of the human lineage, one that may hold the key to the mysteries of evolution. McBride is a master of the science thriller, knowing when to challenge readers with cutting-edge research and when to scare the living hell out of them. A fun book, this, and the audio narration by Scott Thomas is on target and dramatic.
Doctor No, by Ian Fleming, 1958. Spy thriller. Fleming takes us and James Bond to his beloved Jamaica to do battle with his archetypal villain, the criminally insane Doctor No. Short novel, clever writing, good fun. A slight ethnocentrism and British elitism creeps into the prose, but Fleming was a product of his times. Set that aside and enjoy.
Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices, by Parker Francis. Windrusher Hall Press, 2013. Short Story Collection. Francis puts his versatility on display in this engaging group of short dark tales. In "Texting April," the murder of a young girl sets a town on edge, and her digital messages from the Great Beyond terrify a teenage boy. In "Wimmer's Luck," a bank robbery takes unexpected twists that would leave Hitchcock jealous. And the brilliantly constructed "Ghostly Whispers" builds upon each scene and gathers momentum like a freight train racing toward the finish, and still manages to surprise when you think you've nailed it all down.
Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler, 1940. Mystery. A run of the mill private eye job takes a jarring turn to open this novel, as Philip Marlowe digs into the seamy side of Los Angeles. The brutal murder of a peripheral person by the colossal Moose Malloy leads Marlowe into a spiral of crooked cops and racketeers, each seeming to play off each other. Along the way, Marlowe meets the beautiful and brazenly wanton wife of a filthy-rich geezer, and the threads of seemingly unrelated things come together into a spider web.
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, 1951, Michael Joseph. Horror. Post-apocalyptic novels and movies are so commonplace (and frequently unoriginal) now it’s difficult to imagine the shockwaves created by the first few novels to tackle the theme. John Wyndham’s novel is one of those, coming to us early in the age of the atomic weapon. Wyndham wisely chooses to briefly touch on the use of atomics but gives his apocalypse a completely different look. He imagines a world suddenly gone dark, the vast majority suddenly afflicted with total blindness. And then plague breaks out.
As if that isn’t bad enough, the triffids, genetically engineered, carnivorous, walking plants, achieve their moment of ascendance in this country of the blind. Though this may sound like a bad 1950s B-movie concept, Wyndham makes it both unexpected and believable. All three calamities, it is hinted, are the results of colossal, simultaneous mistakes on our part, misguided efforts to stay ahead of all those other, less savory nations out there. The central idea, then, is that our cleverness has gotten us this far, but is almost certain to be our undoing. Sort of like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Cat’s Cradle, which unequivocally states that we cannot be trusted with technology. We’re children playing with loaded guns.
Wyndham’s prose and dialogue, at times, seems a little dated and stiff. Give him a pass on that, as it was probably true to the upper-middle class Londoners that inhabit the book. That said, the characters are solid and motivated honestly, and the author doesn’t give them or the reader any easy outs. The conflicting thoughts on the monumental tasks of building something from the wreckage of civilization are worth the price of admission on their own.
The Troubleshooter: The Most Dangerous Dame, by Bard Constantine, 2015. Dieselpunk noir. In the dystopian future of New Haven, private investigator Mick Trubble finds himself pursuing the merciless killer of an ex-girlfriend, who also happens to be the daughter of an organized crime kingpin. The closer he gets to the truth about the murder, the closer he gets to understanding his own erased past and memory...and the truth is far from pleasant. Imagine Philip K. Dick collaborating with Dashiell Hammett and you'll have a good idea of this novel, and I mean that in a good way. Constantine writes with his usual high craftsmanship, and although he intentionally couches the narration in the wit and style of the hardboiled conventions of the 1940s, and indeed reinvents it for a future time and place, he never allows that to distract from the essential grittiness of the story. Another winner from Constantine.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, 1934. Suspense. Birth of the hardboiled noir, Cain's short novel packs more punch than almost every current day mystery. A true classic, and a revolutionary one in its day. Read it!
The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey, Orbit Books, 2014. Horror. A little girl attends class with other small children in a very special class, watched over by soldiers. They accept their lot as prisoners, not even realizing that's what they are. And indeed, they are far more than that. Carey writes with style and elegance, and paints a picture that is compelling, tragic, and terrifying. This is a fantastic novel.
The Kraken Project, by Douglas Preston, Forge, 2015. Thriller. "Dorothy", a complex, self-correcting computer program, designed to manage a deep-space probe on the Kraken Sea of Saturn's moon of Titan, becomes self-aware and escapes into the Internet in a desperate bid of self-preservation. Confronted there by the sheer lunacy online and pursued by viral bots, Dorothy struggles with "her" own purpose and the viability of the human race. Wyman Ford is back, teaming with Dorothy's programmer, the enigmatic Melissa Shepherd, in trying to hunt down the elusive program before it's quarantined and pressed into criminal use. A highly original take on AI, and one that's not easy to put down.
Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of 1928, by Eliot Kleinberg, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003. Nonfiction. From where does true horror come? On the night of September 16, 1928, an unnamed monster of wind and water slammed into Palm Beach and barreled into the interior, shoving the waters of Lake Okeechobee over its banks in a great rolling flood. Thousands of poor whites and blacks died in a single terrifying night, and a watery landscape stretched in all directions for many days. Bodies floated and rotted in the sun, the sheer numbers and the breakdown of infrastructure teaming up to make proper disposal almost impossible.
Kleinberg's tale is thoroughly researched, riveting, and heartbreaking. This is a book that needs to be read; if it is, it will save future lives as it renders the past in vivid detail.
Desolation Row, by Kay Kendall, Stairway Press, 2013. Mystery. It's 1968. Living among Toronto's ex-pat community of Vietnam War draft resisters, Austin Starr stumbles--quite literally--upon the body of a murdered antiwar firebrand. Her husband quickly finds himself behind bars, charged with the crime, and Austin's life slides into chaos and despair. To save her husband and her own sanity, and because the police are satisfied they've got their man, she begins investigating the murder herself, only to find that in doing so, she's putting her own life in mortal danger.
Kendall writes from the heart and from her own past experiences in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. So many mystery writers these days try to separate themselves by tagging the hero with odd habits and quirks, and ever more frequently, severe emotional problems to the point that they're becoming cliche'. Kendall wisely avoids that, letting the zeitgeist of the movement provide the separation. She's crafted an engaging heroine and a fully realized supporting cast, and keeps the mysteries fresh and uneasily revealed. This is a fine debut novel and installment one in what promises to be a clever and moving new series. Keep your eye on Ms. Kendall.
The Monuments Men, by Robert M. Edsel, Back Bay Books, 2009. Nonfiction. War casualities, as we've seen recently with the monstrous actions of the Taliban and ISIS, are not only human, they're cultural. Amidst the carnage and destruction of World War II, a tiny group of men--artists, architects, museum curators--were assigned the nearly impossible yet visionary task of trying to save the cultural treasures of Europe, even as the bombs fell and the bullets flew about them. This is an absorbing story of courage and commitment to philosophical ideals, and the world is a better place today for the efforts of the Monuments Men.
The Forgotten Room, by Lincoln Child, Penguin Random House, 2015, audiobook performed by Johnathan McClain. Thriller. Jeremy Logan is summoned to a prestigious New England think tank to investigate the bizarre suicide of a respected and loved scientist. He uncovers a strange trail of covered-up research from the institutions past, and finds himself the target of those who wish the research to remain forgotten. Intriguing story backed by some intriguing science. McClain's performance is outstanding.
Under the Green Star, by Lin Carter, DAW Books, 1972. Fantasy. In a desperate bid to escape the confines of his paraplegic body, a young man studies the out-of-body methods of the ancients, and succeeds in letting his consciousness break free of the flesh. He is drawn almost magnetically across light years to a misty planet circling a green star, and is pulled into the undying body of a warrior during a time of crisis for the city of Phalon. I first read this short novel as a teen and have hung on to it across the decades. Although the prose tends to purple up quite a bit, it still holds up well for what it is, a Burroughs-type fantasy adventure.
The Martian, by Andy Weir, Broadway Books, 2011. Science fiction. Many years ago, as a kid, I saw a movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Astronaut is stranded on the Red Planet, struggles to stay alive. Andy Weir's novel may not be the first work of fiction to tackle the subject, but by golly, it's the best and by a long shot. When Mark Watney is left for dead, he sits down to work out the cold equations of just how long he'll need to survive for any chance of getting off planet. The chances aren't promising. No, they're damned near nonexistent. But he goes about it with resolve, ingenuity, and a wicked sense of humor. Great debut novel.
Carrie, by Stephen King. Audible.com audiobook edition, performed by Sissy Spacek. Originally published by Doubleday, 1974. Horror. Most everyone knows the basic story. The bullied and humiliated teen with the latent gift of telekinesis finally snaps and takes revenge upon her tormenters. What scoops you in and keeps you spellbound to these words is the building sense of dread and doom, mixed with compassion and heartache for the long-suffering title character. There's no getting around it: King's first novel is one of his best. Sissy Spacek proves her remarkable talent once again in a riveting performance.
Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History, by Douglas Preston, St. Martin's Press, 1985. Nonfiction. Having recently visited the American Museum of Natural History, and being a big fan of Preston's anyway, I was eager to give this book (one of his first) a go. Good choice. This book brings to vivid life the characters and collections of one of America's national treasures. I loved every minute of it.
Hurricane Island, by Parker Francis, Windrusher Press, 2015. Mystery. Hurricane Freda bears down on Cedar Key, Florida, as private detective Quint Mitchell and charter boat captain Woody Carpenter desperately comb the island for their missing loved ones, praying that the murderer of a local woman doesn't strike out at them out of frustration. Good stuff. This is the second Quint Mitchell mystery I've read, and I don't intend it to be the last.
The Children of Men, by P.D. James. Science Fiction. James is an exquisite, poetic master of language and character. There's no denying that, and she's better at that on her worst day than I am on my best. However, these gifts can and do get in the way of her story. While this novel has its moments, it certainly takes some determination to get to them.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, Vintage, 2010. Nonfiction. In 1925, world-famous explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett, his son Jack, and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimell, entered the rainforest and vanished. Grann pieces together the story of Fawcett's rise to fame and his growing obsession with a lost civilization that experts agreed never existed. Fascinating, gripping, and tragic, this is a dynamite book. And, oh yeah, Fawcett's folly--the dream of discovering this phantom El Dorado--ultimately is revealed to have been true by the astonishing archaeological findings of recent years.
The Lost Island, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Thriller. Gideon Crew is off on another fast-paced adventure (his adventures have to be fast-paced, because he's a terminal patient), this time to a remote corner of the Caribbean. A potential new drug is at stake, one that might just save his life, along with that of puppet-master Eli Glinn. Hints of Homer's The Odyssey illuminate the way.
The Dakota Cipher, by William Dietrich, Harper, 2009. Thriller. Ethan Gage, fresh from the dangerous intrigues of Napoleon's court, is commissioned by President Jefferson to undertake an expedition into the vast American interior, ostensibly to explore and map, while effectively aiding his Norwegian friend's search for the hidden secrets of the Norsemen. And treasure, he hopes. Told with wit and style, the novel rolls along from one escape and escapade after another, and the frontier and its ways are brought vividly to life.
Blue Labyrinth, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Thriller. Special Agent Pendergast confronts his family's past and ill-gotten fortune in a tale that, as the title suggests, lays out an intricate path of deception that must be meticulously uncovered. Not the best in the series, but still pretty darned good.
The Aberration, by Bard Constantine, Non Omnis Moriar, 2012. Horror/fantasy novella. Other-dimensional evil bleeds into our own world and unleashes horror upon the workers in an industrial flour mill. Guy, one of the workers, realizes that the nightmarish visions he’s been suffering were preludes—in fact, actual memories from previous lives—to his immortal battle with the evil that returned.
Constantine is a versatile writer with the ability, talent, and backbone to plumb multiple genres and make them his own. The Aberration—two parts in-your-face horror to one part out-of-body fantasy—demonstrates this ably, and will keep you turning the electric pages quickly.
Techno-Horror Anthology, multiple authors, Dark Hall Press, 2014. Science fiction short story anthology. Ten short stories from ten talented authors, and I'm happy to report that there's not a bad effort in the lot. Hard to pick my favorites, but since you asked, I'd probably select "The Arkenholz Sonata," a clever steampunk tale by Oliver Smith; "Implants," a highly original look at post-apocalyptic desolation and one survivor's definition of hell within it, by Michael Bray; and "Modified," a very probable not-too-distant-future take on how we insist on changing our bodies, by Tim Jeffreys. Good stuff.
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, 1973, Harcourt, Inc. Adventure. Everyone’s favorite movie turns out to be just as good a novel. Goldman give us Westley, Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik, Vizzini, Prince Humperdinck, and Count Rugen and sets them on the road to true love and high adventure with all the wit and style we love. What a fun read!
I actually read the 25th-anniversary edition (1998), containing the additional (and moving) "Buttercup's Baby," plus great intros about the initial publication and subsequent movie.
Matanzas Bay, by Parker Francis, 2011, Windrusher Hall Press. Mystery. When a close friend is charged with the grisly murder of one of St. Augustine’s beloved civic leaders, private investigator Quint Mitchell is hired by the victim’s wife to find out what really happened. The trail leads Mitchell deep into the twisted workings of greed, politics, and buried family pain, and the ancient city’s violent and racially charged past reaches forward to contaminate the present.
Author Parker Francis channels John D. MacDonald in a way that would make the Godfather of the Florida mystery proud, and indeed outdoes MacDonald in a number of ways. The novel is layered, complex, and superior to the bestselling mystery novels I’ve read in the last few years. Keeps you guessing, keeps you hooked right to the end, even when you smugly think you’ve figured it all out. Terrific addition to the mystery genre.
Silent Empire, by Bard Constantine, 2013. Dieselpunk science fiction. Franklin Gamble undergoes an awakening of conscience and memory in the Sovereign Empire, a soul-crushing totalitarian state, and finds himself drawn in different and competing directions as he comes to grips with his place in the State, and in an underground opposition to the same. Silence is Golden, the Empire tells us; if you speak out, expect a none-too-pleasant visit from the Dogmen, the brutal brownshirts that keep the “peace.”
Echoing Orwell’s and Bradbury’s totalitarian nightmares, Constantine imbues this novella with an astonishing depth and scope in an economy of pages, and writes with the imagery and language of a great poet. All this, and he keeps you guessing right up to the last page. Really good reading here, folks.
Lenin's Harem, by William Burton McCormick, 2012, Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012. Historical drama. In 1905 Latvia, young Wiktor Rooks sees his life of privilege swept away in a popular uprising of native Letts against the landed gentry of German descendants, and he’s thrown into turmoil, war, and revolution over the ensuing years. Wiktor gets pressed into service among the Latvian Riflemen, a crack outfit mockingly termed “Lenin’s Harem,” and molds the world’s future though his only real goals are survival for himself and his loved ones.
Though this novel could easily be called “epic,” McCormick’s lean and lyrical yet muscular prose propels the story from one vital scene to the next so that it never bogs down, as is the norm in years-long “epics.” The writing is precise; the description of the gas attack in the trenches of World War I is one of the most gripping scenes you’ll ever read, the flowing gas cloud becoming almost a living thing in McCormick’s hands.
This novel needs to be read. Not only is it thrilling, it’s deeply moving, passionately felt, beautifully told, and a splendid lesson on an overlooked history. McCormick has delivered a classic.
Changed, by M.J. Carlson, 2014. Science fiction. In the Florida of a century hence (hint: it's even hotter than it is now), average guy Kel Wilson one day realizes that he has somehow…changed. He suddenly possesses amazing powers of calculation and movement. And he doesn’t know how he got them. But others seem to know and have a keen interest in him, and what he means to their competing agendas.
In an auspicious debut novel, Carlson spins an exciting tale in an imagined future that is plausible, consistent, and fully realized. His characters are complex and alive, and the dialogue hits those fine, true notes that tickle the ear. So glad to have picked this one up. SF fans will find a writer here they’ll want to keep their eyes on.
The Guns of Navarone, by Alistair MacLean, Collins, 1957. Thriller. In a desperate attempt to save a trapped British garrison in the Aegean Sea, a small band of commandos must disable two whopping big and heavily fortified German artillery pieces which loom over and deal death to any ships which pass. MacLean captures the feel of the mission and the danger and hardships which must be overcome. Good war story which doesn’t whitewash the terrifying details of what warfare means.
Wool, by Hugh Howey, 2011, Science Fiction. The human race—what remains of it—dwells in a vast underground silo, sheltered, isolated, and forbidden from the toxic world outside. The past is forgotten, the truth buried with it and jealously guarded. The good citizens of the Silo tend to their jobs and duties faithfully…until doubts and questions bubble to the surface, as they do every few generations with catastrophic results. Howey has given us a fully realized self-contained world, its customs, history, philosophy, truths, and lies all rendered with insight. Frightening, exciting, and touching, Wool is a classic SF novel, but unlike any I’ve read before. Highly recommended reading.
Die Fabrik (The Factory), by Charles A. Cornell, 2014. Horror. This novella of atmospheric horror, a prequel to Cornell’s Dragonfly, takes a decidedly different and darker tone than that dieselpunk adventure, and a gripping one at that. Die Fabrik plumbs the depths of evil of both the real and the fantastic. Describing the production of the Blutskriegers, an army culled from concentration camp prisoners and transformed into monstrous, unthinking, biomechanical killing machines, soon to be unleashed onto the fields of battle. Cornell’s prose is compelling and artful, his storytelling spot on. Accompanying the book are gorgeous illustrations to round out the story, but the imagery and detail of the words are far more powerful than the illustrations. Die Fabrik is worth every penny and a lot more. (Note: Dragonfly is reviewed below).
HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean, Collins, 1955, thriller. A WWII British cruiser, its crew already exhausted, is sent immediately back out on another harrowing escort run for a 36-ship Russia-bound convoy through the North Sea. Pounded and hounded by extreme weather, U-boat packs, and German bombers, the ship and convoy endures
MacLean’s first novel brings naval warfare stunningly to life. The imagery is so clearly drawn, and the depth of detail so exhaustive, you can see and feel these ships plowing through snow and mountainous waves, as one-by-one, they fall prey to the elements and the enemy. An excellent read.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, Harper Perennial, 2011. Novel. An emotionally wounded medical researcher goes to the Amazon basin to learn the truth about the death of her friend and colleague, and to size up the progress (or lack thereof) of the company’s research there.
Patchett writes gorgeous prose, there’s no denying that, and she paints a vivid picture of the oppressive heat and claustrophobia-inducing jungle, rife with peril at every footstep. And if you can get through a repetitive and dull first half of the book, you’ll be rewarded by a moving second half. I’m glad to have taken the journey with Dr. Marina Singh, but I only wish we could have gotten there a hundred pages sooner.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson, Broadway Books, 2011. Nonfiction. In 1933, historian William Dodd is appointed American ambassador to Germany. His first year on the job coincides with Adolf Hitler’s first year as chancellor, and Dodd and family get a close-up view of the swift and frightening changes that sweep the country. Larson wisely limits the focus to Dodd and his adventurous and promiscuous daughter, Martha. Culminating in 1934’s infamous Night of the Long Knives, the violent purge that secures Hitler’s ascension to absolute power in the land, this book illuminates the scary truth of how easily good people get brushed aside—often willingly—by the bad.
Crota, by Owl Goingback, 1996. Horror. A seismic shift awakens a beast out of legend and unleashes it upon a small Missouri town. The Crota hunts and kills with abandon, and does so with such frightening efficiency and mayhem that almost no one can accept what is really happening. Sheriff Skip Harding and Jay Little Hawk, a Cherokee shaman, team up to stop the thing, and plunge into the deep caves to confront it in its lair.
Goingback’s novel garnered the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. I can see why; the Native American lore fascinates, the writing crackles and pops like the charged air around the creature, and suspense pervades the story from start to finish. Quite a scary thrill ride, this one.
Following the Equator, by Mark Twain, 1897. Travel. On a year-long lecture tour, Twain circumnavigates the globe, hitting Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, India, Madagascar, and Africa. True to form, Twain illuminates each place with style, wit, and depth. Not one to gloss over any nation's troubles or unseemly moral lapses, including his own nation's, he turns travel writing into a literature for the world. Reading this book, I learned more honest history of these places and gained more insight into their people than I had in my life up to this point. Thanks once again, Mark.
Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez, IDW Publishing, 2014. Graphic novel. Fascinating twist(s) on the old haunted house story. Great dialogue, great story, great artwork.
DragonFly, by Charles A. Cornell, 2014. Dieselpunk science fiction. Imagine an alternate World War II: America pulls out, Hitler is dissuaded from invading Russia, and Great Britain is left to face a German invasion alone. Pilot Veronica Somerset is thrust into action with a top-secret airplane, the DragonFly. Operating from the ancient castle Enysfarne, recently appropriated by the British, Somerset struggles to gain the trust of her comrades and the mysterious, mystical lord of the old castle, and engages fictional high-end Nazi war machines and psychic warriors. The thrilling climax, the German invasion of the British Isles, rages up and down the coast, outdoing any big action flick for sheer sweep and menace. Cornell hits a home run with exhaustive research of historical fighting machines, and with pure invention of new dieselpunk fighting machines.
As a bonus, I bought the richly illustrated edition, easily worth the extra buck or two for the gorgeous fictional airplanes alone.
Rock Star, by Rick Soper, Rock Hard Press, 2013. Thriller. Troubled FBI agent Jon Stevens is back, and heading a cast of characters involved with a series of events erupting in and from the wealth of Carmel, California. A gruesome ritual murder, a shadowy organization with reach and power, Russian mafia, and disaffected rock stars, all provide a lurid landscape for Stevens and associates to delve into. The first part of a large, ambitious work, Soper has the skill to pull this off with clearly drawn and intriguing characters.
Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, by Michael Paterniti, Delta, 2000. Nonfiction. In 1955, Dr. Thomas Harvey, the physician autopsying Albert Einstein, removes the great scientist’s brain and just…keeps it. At his house. In his basement. Decades later, when author Paterniti learns of this bizarre bit of Americana and verifies it, he convinces octogenarian Harvey to let him chauffeur him cross-country with the brain to visit Einstein’s granddaughter. The journey makes you ponder questions big and small. You wonder what you’d say when you’re in the Wendy’s drive-through in Greater Shithole, Kansas: “Does that come with fries?” Or “Space-time warps around everything, including a Frosty.” Or “I’ve got Einstein’s brain in a Tupperware container in the trunk.”
Fascinating reading, and a revealing peek into what motivates us to do the strange and great things we do.
Unmanned: The Last Man, Books 1 & 2, by Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr., Vertigo, 2003. Graphic Novel. In a clever twist on the "last man on Earth" premise, Yorick truly is the last man. All other males, including the males of all animal species, die suddenly and without warning, leaving only females. Although the dialog dips occasionally in the heavy-handed, this is a crisp, insightful exploration into what such a world might quickly look like.
White Fire, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Thriller. Special Agent Pendergast is back, helping Corrie Swanson in her criminology thesis work on a cold case (an extremely cold, subzero case) in a posh ski resort in Colorado. Corrie is investigating the true cause of death of 19th-century miners, allegedly killed by a grizzly bear, and discovers that the truth is much more horrifying, with deadly repercussions that trickle down to the present day. The implication of Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into the tale adds to the mystery and fun. For those of us that have always seen Pendergast as the Sherlock Holmes of our time, this is a special treat, and indeed a Sherlock treat is ensconced within these pages. The game’s afoot!
White Fire pulls Pendergast away from the continuing family-related trilogies of the recent novels, a welcome change. I'm more partial to his stand-alone mysteries than the multi-novel stories.
American Vampire, by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, and Stephen King, Vertigo, 2010. Horror Graphic Novel. The vampire legend gets (finally) some fresh blood. This exquisitely illustrated graphic novel alternates the story of Old West gunslinger-turned-undead-fiend Skinner Sweet, and that of his reemergence in 1925 Hollywood. Gruesome, scary, and gripping.
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard, Ballantine Books. Fantasy. Before creating Conan of Cimmeria, Howard gave us Solomon Kane, the dour 17th century Puritan wandering the world, armed with rapier, dirk, and flintlock pistols, righting wrongs and confronting nastiness. The best of the stories, all written for the pulps of the 1920s and 30s, venture into the macabre, with Kane battling ghosts, demons, evil queens of lost cities, and bloodthirsty creatures of legend.
Although the prose frequently tends toward the purple, Howard at his best could turn a brilliant phrase, and certainly had a gift for storytelling and action sequences. The writing also tends to be a bit ethnocentric, although not really outside the norm for the times in which they were written, and certainly would have been the predominant thinking of Kane’s day. So give Howard a pass on that, and enjoy the fun.
The King, by Rick Soper, Rock Hard Press, 2013. Mystery. FBI agent Jon Stevens is back, racing the clock to save kidnapped tech genius and Internet King, Billy Stone. Stevens has a bad feeling, and for good reason.
Soper veers from his earlier whodunit storytelling technique and into white-knuckle thriller land with this short novel, and with great success. His characters are marvelously drawn and compelling, and pull the reader along. Keep your eye on young Mr. Soper.
A word of caution, kids; this one is not for the faint of heart.
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, 1959, Beacon Press. Frankl's psychoanalysis career was interrupted when he was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, where he was starved and tortured for three years. Under the most terrifying and crushing of circumstances, he managed to survive, and ultimately derive his principles of logotherapy. The persons that could find meaning in their lives, even meaning in suffering, he saw, were the ones that had the best chance of surviving and ultimately achieving happiness. This is a book that illuminates with clear-eyed vision the good and bad everyone is capable of, and the importance of getting to the essence of what makes a human being more human.
The Bainbridge Killings, by Rick Soper, Rock Hard Press, 2013. Mystery. Struggling with inner demons, FBI agent Jon Stevens prowls the small Pacific Northwest island town of Bainbridge, assigned to solve three double-murders disguised as suicides. Soper successfully invokes the traditions of the hardboiled detective, and indeed this satisfying short novel brings to mind Dashiell Hammett in tone and style. A convincing performance by the author, and a protagonist that makes you want to know more.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick, Doubleday, 1968. Science fiction. Having heard so much about this novel over the years, I finally got around to it. Glad I did. Dick tells the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he goes about the business of “retiring” androids that try to go undetected in a bleak human society. How do they, when they look and act exactly like humans with all their flaws? Empathy is the giveaway, and supposedly we have it and they don’t. Confusing the matter, they may not even be aware that they’re not human, having been given false memories. Brilliant novel, great writing, and asks difficult questions: What is human, what is not, and what constitutes murder of something thinking and feeling yet artificial?
This novel, by the way, was adapted to the big screen in Blade Runner. But you already knew that.
Havoc, by Jack DuBrul, Dutton, 2006. Thriller. Opening with the riveting crash of the Hindenberg, Havoc sweeps across continents as Philip Mercer tries to prevent a nuclear tragedy. The underlying mysteries of Alexander the Great and an obsessed, delusional 20th century academic provide the narrative fun binding the action together.
Kydd, by Julian Stockwin, Scribner, 2001. Adventure. A young Englishman is "pressed" into service in the English navy. That is, he's basically shanghaied and forced to serve aboard a Ship of the Line, one of the great sailing warships, in a hastily drummed-up war against the French Revolutionaries, who represent a threat to monarchies everywhere. Making the best of the situation, Kydd grows into seamanship. The hardships of sea life and the brutality of the war spring to life in amazing detail. Good reading on the high seas.
Ravenous, by Ray Garton, Leisure Books, 2008. Horror. Something wicked—and very toothy—this way comes. In a small Northern California town, Sheriff Arlin Hurley has his hands full with a sudden rash of gruesome killings, and a stranger tells him he has a problem. A werewolf problem. Garton’s novel offers a new twist on the lore of the monster, and although there are a few times when you wonder why the sheriff doesn’t do the obvious, the terror keeps you glued to the page. One of the scariest things I’ve ever read.
Boiling Point, by K.L. Dionne, Jove Books, 2011. Thriller. A volcano erupts in remote Chilean Patagonia, and researchers are thrust into the maw of hell, drawn to the violence for different reasons, some good, some selfish, some evil. A brilliant French scientist has taken it upon himself to geoengineer the planet out of climate change, and the volcano is his instrument.
Dionne has crafted a fine novel of suspense peopled with fully realized, complex characters. There are no fully good guys or fully bad guys; there are only flawed people scratching their ways through, and deeply personal motivations inform each action. Dionne’s descriptions of the volcano’s raw power leave you with new respect for this uneasy planet.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, 1974. Science fiction. Mandella, a young pacifist, is drafted to fight a war in the far reaches of space against an unknown enemy. He fights in the very first campaign against the Taurans, and more than a thousand years later, he’s still a young man—by his own time—but ancient by Earth reckoning, and still fighting. Time dilation--the constriction or elongation of time depending on one’s relativity to faster than light travel--renders him an anachronism. So many dozens of Earth-years elapse for each handful of months he’s on a campaign, technological and societal changes make him more and more obsolete.
This would be a terrific novel if even just for the multitude of ideas about fighting in mindbogglingly hostile environments, and the technical hurdles of executing a campaign many light years from home. But this is much more than adventure.
Haldeman, a combat soldier in Vietnam, wrote this shortly after that war. Make no mistake, this multiple award-winning novel is about the Vietnam War—its vague goals, mysterious enemy, spurious reasons, logic-defying strategies, and war-without-end outlook—and it leaves the reader feeling the confusion and alienation of the era.
Not many novels truly deserve to be called “great.” This is one that does.
The Libra Affair, by Daco, Crimson Romance, 2013. Thriller. A spy enters Iran on the most dangerous of missions, and the best-laid plans go awry when she is followed there by a jilted lover. Daco weaves an intricate, fast-paced plot, with a twist and turn after every turn and twist. The characters are heart-felt and fully realized, and the ending is emotional and satisfying. A very good read.
The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson, 1956. Science fiction. Matheson takes us into the life of Scott Carey, who, through a freak combination of chemical accidents, has begun to shrink a seventh of an inch each day. Everything modern medicine tries to reverse the process fails. Between white-knuckle scenes of terror in which he battles a gigantic—to him—black widow spider, Carey struggles to scavenge food and water, amid crippling despair and anger misdirected at his family, and the ultimate truth that he soon will simply cease to exist.
The novel works on multiple levels. Carey’s shrinking suggests the diminishing power of the individual in the modern world, while also suggesting that the individual can still overcome monstrous obstacles.
The movie adaptation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, was one of the better movies of the 1950s, and was named to the National Film Registry in 2009 as culturally and artistically significant. The movie stayed faithful to Matheson’s novel, probably because Matheson was the screenwriter. When I was in college, one of my architecture professors did a showing of the film, as it is a terrific study in perspective and scale.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, 1884.
In the classic satire of human manners disguised as adventure, Huckleberry Finn fakes his own death and sets off on a raft down the Mississippi with the runaway slave, Jim. The good and bad are shown in the characters they meet, and no punches are pulled.
A favorite moment is heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time. Huck takes up with a family that has lost a teenage daughter, Emmeline. In her short life, young Emmeline pumped out morbid, sentimental rubbish, and was quite put out whenever someone beat her in dashing off a tear-jerker tribute to anyone recently deceased, as in these verses from her ode to a young drowning victim:
Despised love struck not
That head of curly knots
Nor stomach troubles laid him low
Young Stephen Dowling Bots
O no. Then list with tearful eye
Whilst I his fate do tell
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, Gold Medal, 1954. Horror. What if there were nothing unnatural about vampires? What if they were merely victims of disease? In his 1954 classic, Matheson takes the legends, strips them down, and makes them walk afresh among the living again. This novel has been put on the big screen at least three times, in the Vincent Price low-budget Italian flick, The Last Man on Earth, in gun-nut Charlton Heston's Omega Man, and in self-important Will Smith's I am Legend. Although not bad, the movies fell shy of the dread and despair of the novel, in which lone survivor Robert Neville struggles to uncover the science behind the plague of undead. A great read.
Hominid, by John C. Boland, Perfect Crime Books, 2011. Thriller. Homo sapiens goes on about its ways, unaware that it shares the world with another hominid species. One that is superior. And only one of them can be selected out by evolution. Boland constructs a believable scenario and backs it up with intricate, accessible science, in a superbly crafted thriller that left me hoping for a sequel.
The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson, Crown Publishers, 2003. Nonfiction. In 1893 Chicago pulled off a miracle, creating the greatest world's fair ever, The Columbian Exposition and its stunning "White City", changing how Americans saw themselves and their communities. Larson's bestseller tells two stories; that of the struggle of architect Daniel Burnham and landscape architect Frederik Law Olmsted to create the great, ephemeral city , and that of the evil lurking in and and around it, the psychopath H. H. Holmes. The juxtaposition of genius and depravity is compelling, and the era is captured brilliantly in a novelistic voice. This is a marvelous book, and an ambitious one. As Burnham said, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
The Science Fictional Dinosaur, ed. by Robert Silverberg, Charles G. Waugh, & Martin Harry Greenberg, 1982. Science fiction short story anthology. This collection from the 1950s through the 1980s serves up—as you may have guessed—dinosaurs. Mostly entertaining, although you have to trudge through Robert F. Young's sentimental "When Time Was New" (1964) and Brian Aldiss's standard overwriting in "Poor Little Warrior!" (1958) to get to the good stuff. The best stories are true gems: Isaac Asimov's "Day of the Hunters" (1958), Frederick D. Gottfried's "Hermes to the Ages" (1980), and Robert Silverberg's "Our Lady of the Sauropods" (1980). Because our understanding of dinosaurs has changed greatly over the decades, some of the info is dated. But, hey, even the bad stories have dinosaurs, so stop whining.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, Vintage Books, 2006. Fiction. Alone in a dead nightmare world, a father and his young son struggle to survive the road from their home to the sea. With the language of a poet, McCarthy crafts a bleak yet moving vision of a terrifying future that is within reach. Highly recommended for those who aren't squeamish pollyannas or boosterish panglosses (although on second thought, those are exactly the types that need to read this the most). The movie adaptation (starring Viggo Mortensen) was quite faithful, but not nearly as powerful.
The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett, Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1931. Mystery. A senator's son is murdered as local elections loom, and two corrupt factions fight for control of city government and all the lucrative jobs that will be the spoils. As a fan of The Maltese Falcon, I was eager to read this book when I found a worn paperback copy. Hammett's trademarks are all there, the concise, razor-edge dialogue, the cynical outlook, yet the book disappoints. The protagonist's motivations are hard to swallow, and the book suffers from a multitude of confusing viewpoint problems.
In Xanadu: A Quest, by William Dalrymple, Flamingo, 1990. Nonfiction.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
In 1271, Marco Polo journeyed from the Middle East to Xanadu, the splendid country palace of Kubla Khan, ostensibly to bring the emperor into the Christian fold, but mostly to see what money could be made. Cambridge grad student William Dalrymple follows (as closely as he can) Polo's historic steps from the Holy Land to China, crossing Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan along the way in extremely remote areas, including vast stretches off-limits to Westerners for many decades, illuminating life and landscape along the way with wit, insight, and humanity. If you like travel writing in the pull-no-punches tradition of Mark Twain, pick up this book.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959. Science Fiction. Are we as a species doomed by our lethal combination of intelligence and aggression? What's more, are we doomed to destroy ourselves again and again, never learning the lessons of the past? Beginning 600 years into the dark age of the future and spanning another 1200 years beyond that, the monks of Saint Leibowitz steadfastly safeguard the Memorabilia, scraps of puzzling writing from the time of the great Flame Deluge of the 20th century, and keep alive a dream of literacy and enlightenment. Witty, terrifying, and brilliant, this novel refuses to give easy answers.
The Third Gate, by Lincoln Child, Doubleday, 2012. Thriller. An expedition to discover the tomb of Egypt's first pharaoh leads to exploration into the very nature of death and afterlife. Child has crafted a literate and genuinely creepy tale that dabbles in science while diving headlong into the supernatural. The climactic, claustrophobic scene of escape from the muck of the Sudd is one of the most nerve-wracking sequences you'll read this year.
The Science Fiction Megapack: 25 Science Fiction Stories by Masters, Various Authors, Wildside Press, 2011. Science fiction anthology. Such a disappointment. The bulk of these stories were written in the 1950s, and by and large, reflect attitudes of the day, with a fixation on war and male dominance. But that's not the real problem. A good number of these stories are simply shitty. "Shipwreck in the Sky", by Eando Binder, is laughably horrible.
To be fair, a handful are well-done, and the bulk are mediocre.
I do have to comment on C.M. Kornbluth. The guy is highly regarded among SF fans. This book contains the third story of his I've read. Each exudes disdain for people of lesser intelligence and none-too-subtly portrays them as a problem for the long-term health of the species. I don't know who picked on him in high school, but he'd have made quite an effective Nazi in order to get even.
Two Graves, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2012. Thriller. In the third installment of the "Helen Trilogy", Special Agent Pendergast is nearly out of control as he pursues the truth about his wife, Helen. The secrets of her life are revealed in all their horror, and stunning revelations take Pendergast into Mexico and the Brazilian rainforest to put things right. Great stuff, marred only by two superfluous side stories involving Corrie and Constance. Nonetheless, the main plot is worth the price of admission.
Rocket Boys, by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., Delta Books, 1998. Memoir. In 1957, the USSR launches Sputnik, beating the USA into space and stirring Cold War angst. Hickam writes of his high school days in a tiny coal mining town in the mountains of West Virginia, struggling for the acceptance of his father and community. Sputnik inspires him to want a career in aerospace engineering, and he convinces his pals to design and build their own rockets, becoming local heroes in the process. But this is not a gee-whiz rocket story; it's a heartfelt, moving reminiscence about community, family, and love. An excellent, beautifully written memoir (later made into the film October Sky).
The Amber Room, by Steve Berry, Ballantine Books, 2003. Thriller. An old man, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, is murdered in Atlanta, and his letters to his daughter set in motion a hunt across Europe for a fabulous work of art—the Amber Room—missing since World War II. Berry constructs a story with multiple antagonists bent on recovering the Amber Room for themselves, and serves up a tantalizing feast of historical clues about a real-life treasure once dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Thriller, ed. by James Patterson, Mira, 2006. Thriller short story anthology. The first of the International Thriller Writers annual short story compendiums, this is that rare collection stories wholly taken from the thriller genre, and it's a doozy. Thirty stories, and not a bad one among them. My favorite, though, is Ted Bell's "The Powder Monkey."
Echoes of Valor II, ed. by Karl Edward Wagner, Tor Books, 1989. Fantasy short story anthology. Collected here are forgotten pulp fiction stories of the 1930s and 40s, by Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Manley Wade Wellman, and Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, running the gamut of heroic fantasy. Despite the glub-glub title, this is an entertaining mix. Howard’s “The Frost-King’s Daughter” is quite good, as is the novella “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury (Brackett, it seems, had to abandon the story to focus on screenwriting for “The Big Sleep”, and turned it over to a young, wide-eyed Ray Bradbury to complete). I wasn’t all that enthralled with Moore’s swashbuckling spaceman, Northwest Smith. Wellman’s Cro-Magnon hero, Hok, was fun reading in “Hok Visits the Land of Legends.”
Genome, by Jerry E. Bishop & Michael Waldholz, Simon & Schuster, 1999. Nonfiction. Bishop and Waldholz document the beginnings of the effort to map the human genome. You get a feel for the painstaking complexity of finding a single gene’s location among the 23 pairs of human chromosomes, and then you realize there are 100,000 or so genes to be mapped. It’s staggering, yet it’s getting done. Similarly, the rewards and dangers are quite staggering. Will we at last conquer disease, and even aging, or will we simply establish genetically privileged classes and genetically unemployable underclasses? We’ve entered a brave new world, ready or not.
The Other End of Time, by Frederik Pohl, Tor Books, 1996. Science fiction. A small group of humans is whisked across the galaxy, pawns in the intrigues of rival interstellar races. Sounds exciting? It's not. Most of the time is spent worrying about where to use the bathroom. It's not a bad book, and certainly there are some interesting ideas, but very little seems to happen and very little is resolved.
Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland, Bantam Books, 1996. Novel. In Hegland’s novel, the apocalypse doesn’t come with a bang. Society just comes apart under the stress of too many humans with too many conflicting aims. Nell and Eva, two teenage sisters, endure the breakdown, struggling to survive in the forest of Northern California. Hegland weaves a captivating, moving--and at times gut-wrenching--story with exquisite style and language. Wow.
Universe 2, Edited by Terry Carr, Ace Books, 1972. Science fiction short story anthology. For short stories, science fiction has always been my favorite genre. I love a good anthology of “year’s best” science fiction for the sheer brilliance of concepts and ideas. Sadly, this anthology is not one of those. This is an anthology of original shorts, not standouts, and the unevenness is disappointing. There are a few gems, however: “Retroactive,” by Bob Shaw, “Stalking the Sun,” by Gordon Eklund, are good, and the closer, “Tiger Boy”, by Edgar Pangborn, is excellent.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt, Random House, 1994. Nonfiction. A murder shocks the high society elite of Savannah. Berendt brings the beautiful old city and its manners and quirks to life, and there isn’t a single page that doesn’t entertain. Everyone who’s been to Savannah and everyone who hasn’t should read this book.
Nightmare in Pink, by John D. MacDonald, Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964. Mystery. I've read a good number of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. This, the second in the series (no, I haven't read 'em in order), was quite tedious for the first half, bogging down with little action amid long-winded, self-aggrandizing sex scenes. How could a book this short be this boring? I was tempted more than a few times to put it aside unfinished. Then came the brilliant hallucinatory drug scenes and gripping threats of brain and personality tampering, and the novel goes from plodding don't-care-whodunit to frightening can't-put-it-down. Glad I stuck it out.
The Ocean Dark, by Jack Rogan, Ballantine Books, 2010. Thriller. In his debut novel, Rogan imagines a tiny Caribbean island that has become a graveyard of boats of all sizes, an island that swarms with a creature out of myth. He writes some of the most fully realized characters you'll find anywhere and drops them into a true nightmare. Keep your eye on this guy.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain, Charles L. Webster & Co., 1889. Novel. For some reason, this novel passes through the public consciousness with the reputation of a lighthearted romp. Certainly, it begins that way…but this is Mark Twain, people. Twain skewers the romantic notion of Arthurian England as a noble, righteous age of heroes and damsels in distress. Life in the Dark Ages, he rightly describes, is short, nasty, and brutish, and its “heroes” are, by and large, oppressive, dimwitted thugs.
When the narrator finds himself inexplicably yanked from the 19th century and dropped into the 6th, he’s appalled that the humanity has been pretty much beaten out of the underclasses, and that nobility prefers it that way. He determines to use Yankee ingenuity to subvert the society and build a just civilization of equality for all. He makes great strides to actually doing so, only to see the whole enterprise crumble as human nature and institutionalized debasement conspire to throttle all his achievements.
The novel is funny, biting, satirical, moving, and heartbreaking. Twain is a national treasure; it’s a pity he’s not read more.
The Keep, by F. Paul Wilson, William Morrow and Co., 1981. Horror. To hell with hunky, conflicted, sensitive vampires! Give me the good old-fashioned kind, the kind that would tear your throat out before he discussed his feelings with you. The kind that eats Nazis for breakfast. I had to go back to 1981’s The Keep to find one. I found a good one, one that turns vampire myth inside-out.
Scary and original, with thoughtful examination of the nature of good and evil, The Keep is hard to put down.
With Full Malice, by Brenda Hill, Five Star Publishing, 2012. Mystery. A secret society picks up where the justice system fails…and becomes itself part of the problem it exists to fix.
Hill has crafted an elegant mystery that pits our emotional desire for justice against our intellectual desire for the rule of law. With good writing and well drawn characters, she offers what promises to be a compelling new series.
Gideon's Corpse, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2012. Thriller. The second installment in the Gideon series had me worried. I’m a big fan of Preston & Child, but this novel flirted early on with cop-buddy movie stuff. Not to worry…it deftly sidesteps that cliché, turns it upside down, and takes you on a wild ride with an intriguing hero who knows his mortal limits all too well.
The Devil's Bones, by Larry D. Sweazy, Five Star Publishing, 2012. Mystery. When the skeleton of a child turns up in a dried-up pond on the outskirts of a small Indiana town, policeman Jordan McManus’s life spins suddenly out of control, as sordid events of the past bubble to the surface. The town’s dark side—its treatment of Mexican farm workers, and its hidden meth labs—fuels the narrative with moral anger and a clear-eyed view of depravity. If John Steinbeck had collaborated with John D. MacDonald, this is the novel they might have written.
Alternating scenes between present and past, Sweazy deftly weaves a story that gets to the heart of good and evil, and keeps you guessing to the end as to the secrets and motivations of those on either side of that thin line. Well-written and tightly plotted, The Devil’s Bones delivers the goods like a .38 slug to the gut.
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, Bantam Books, 1989. Science fiction. Reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s desert planet of Dune, Grass is a fully-realized planet dominated by a single ecosystem, vast unending grasslands. The human population, entrenched for a thousand years or so, has developed an aristocratic, insular society, self-assured and arrogant…and blissfully unaware of how little in control it really is. This is a complex novel with complex human--and nonhuman--motivations. Although slow at times, Tepper's provocative novel ultimately rewards.
Orange Blossom Boys: The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise, and the World's Most Famous Fiddle Tune, by Randy Noles, Centerstream Publishing, 2002. Biography. Decades ago, growing up in rural South Florida just north of Big Cypress Swamp, I used to hear about this grizzled old swamp rat, Ervin T. Rouse, who wrote “Orange Blossom Special,” the biggest, baddest fiddling tune in the world. I’ve been intrigued ever since.
The “Special” is an exuberant bit of breakneck musicianship that fast-forwarded old-time Appalachian music into a sound that would become a whole new style of music, Bill Monroe’s bluegrass. Rouse’s adventures, his musical genius, and his slow tragic slide into alcoholism and mental illness, make one of the great, little known stories of American popular music. Randy Noles’ biography of Rouse and his sometime collaborator, bluegrass pioneer Chubby Wise (who claimed co-authorship of the “Special,” a claim Noles conclusively disproves), is a brilliantly rendered, moving, and highly entertaining portrait.
The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry, Ballantine Books, 2006. Thriller. Retired intelligence agent Cotton Malone finds himself drawn into a search for the vast treasure of the Knights Templar. Twists and turns abound in this intricately plotted adventure, and there's enough historical detail and mystery to send you Googling for more.
Last Chance to See: In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams, by Mark Carwardine, Harper Collins, 2009. Nonfiction. Some years ago, I read Last Chance to See by Douglas (Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) Adams. Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine traveled the globe in 1987 to see eight animal species that had been pushed to the brink of extinction by human pressure. As the title suggested, it was perhaps the last chance to see them, and the book was funny, insightful, and moving. Adams died in 2001, much too young, but Carwardine has penned a follow-up as invigorating, passionate, and entertaining as the original, revisiting (with Stephen Fry) the places and animals he and Adams had chronicled, to see how they’d fared. Sadly and shamefully, we've allowed two magnificent species—the northern white rhino and the Yangtze river dolphin—to disappear from the planet during that brief 20-year interlude. Others continue to struggle, and others increase in numbers and outlook. To anyone who cares about wildlife—and even more so to anyone who does not—I highly recommend both these books.
The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi, Grand Central Publishing, 2008. Nonfiction. As a longtime fan of novelist Doug Preston, when I saw a recent interview he gave about Amanda Knox’s conviction and his own harrowing experience with Italian justice, I wanted to read this book. Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, was the scene of a string of horrifying double-murders in the 1970s and 80s. Preston and his Tuscan colleague, journalist Mario Spezi, investigate the trail of a twisted killer, the lunacy of the police investigation, and the ensuing swirl of outlandish conspiracy theories. The authors find themselves embroiled in the lunacy, accused of complicity in the murders themselves. What starts as a gripping true-crime mystery evolves into an engrossing tale of Italian society, abuse of power, and freedom of the press.
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest, Touchstone, 1995. Novel. Two rival stage magicians take their feud to levels that destroy their families and haunt their descendants for generations. The story is like an elaborate illusion in itself, with misdirection and sleight-of-hand keeping you guessing. I saw the movie a couple of years ago and was drawn in. The novel is even trickier and more involving, even though I already knew the secret of The Great Danton's master illusion. I loved this book.
Night, by Elie Wiesel, MacGibbon & Kee, 1960. Nonfiction. Wiesel gives a gut-wrenching account of his experiences in Buna, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, the murder of his family, and the turning of his life into an endless dark night. Profound, disturbing, and beautifully written.
In the Dark, by Simon Read, Berkley Books, 2006. Nonfiction. The true story of the "Blackout Ripper." It's winter, 1942, and London is under mandatory wartime blackout to confound the German Luftwaffe. But criminals thrive in blackouts, and one dashing but twisted young RAF officer goes on a gruesome spree, murdering one prostitute after another in the span of just a few nights. The discussion of fingerprint identification is fascinating; it's more art than science, and not nearly as cut-and-dried as Hollywood pretends.
Shakespeare: The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson, Harper Perennial, 2007. Nonfiction. Bryson weaves an entertaining narrative of Shakespeare's life and times, and convincingly demonstrates that, yes, Shakespeare really did pen those dazzling words himself, not some other mysterious genius lurking in the shadows (the number of other authors now claimed to be the true author is more than fifty...the people that keep this nonsense alive really need to just go away). Once again, Bryson writes with style and wit.
Black Ice, by Matt Dickinson, St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2001. Thriller. Dickinson is a talented writer best known for chronicling real-life adventure. With this novel, he delivers a riveting story of survival on the Antarctic ice.
A Mapmaker's Dream, by James Cowan, Warner Books, 1996. Novel. A Venetian friar of the Renaissance compiles his map of the world without ever leaving his cell, relying solely on the testimonies of travelers. Interesting premise, beautiful language (often to the point of being precious), but a disappointment. I'm not sure it can even rightly be called a novel. Call it instead a fictional musing.
Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. Thriller. Special Agent Pendergast is ruthless in tracking down the truth behind his wife's murder...and finds that she wasn't at all who he thought. This novel continues the storyline begun in Fever Dream. Hard to put down.
The Country of the Blind, and Other Science Fiction Stories, by H.G. Wells, Dover Publications, Inc. Short story collection. The title story remains a classic, in which Wells gives the blueprint for world-building to fantasy and science fiction writers. This Dover edition includes the extended, little-known, version of the story.
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. Nonfiction. Societies with superior technology have historically always swept aside those without it. Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book explains how environment and geography--not human biology--dictated technological advances, beginning with agriculture, and why technology spread faster across the Eurasian land mass than others. Fascinating stuff. Racists will hate this book.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, Anchor Books, 1996. Nonfiction. Krakauer paints a tragic and moving portrait of Chris McCandless, a complex young idealist who enters the Alaskan wilderness to test himself and live off the land, and succumbs to lonely, painful death. An excellent book.
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, Tor Books, 2009. Steampunk science fiction. Great title, great cover art...not so great novel. Although it was mildly entertaining at times, I was a bit put off by redundant dialogue and disorienting point-of-view mistakes. I really wanted to like this novel, but...oh well.
The Longest Single Note, by Peter Crowther, Leisure Books, 1999. Fantasy and horror short story collection. Mixed review here...some of these stories are good. Really good. In others, the prose tends toward the purple range. Don't get me wrong...I enjoy a little over-the-top writing now and then, but you can overdo it.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Penguin Books, 2000. Nonfiction. An account of the doomed 19th century whaleship that inspired Melville's Moby-Dick. This is one gripping read and one great book.
Directive 51, by John Barnes, Ace Books, 2010. Science fiction (first of a trilogy). Barnes delivers a disturbing and plausible apocalypse for the near future. What if, he asks, technological civilization (the "Big System") is brought down not so much by external or internal enemies as by an idea spread through the Internet, like a global flash mob of disparate, disaffected people with grudges against the modern world? Barnes is a gifted writer and Directive 51 offers some fascinating ideas, but somehow this book loses its way. Should have been a hundred pages shorter.
Gideon's Sword, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central Publishing, 2011. Suspense. Preston & Child introduce a new series character, Gideon Crew. Interesting hero...Gideon's masterful at solving impossible predicaments on the fly, with special acting and bullshitting skills. A fun read.
The Bonehunters' Revenge, by David Rains Wallace, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. A nonfiction account of the bitter 19th-century feud between rival paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. These guys were brilliant jackasses.
Chrysalis 7, edited by Roy Torgeson, Zebra Books, 1979. Science fiction short story anthology. The best stories are "The Artist in the Small Room Above," by Al Sarrantonio, and "A Long Way Home," by Paul H. Cook.
Fantasy Annual III, edited by Terry Carr, Pocket Books, 1981. Fantasy short story anthology.Stephen King was exploding when this was published, so "The Crate" was included as the lead-off story. Hmm. Not the best effort ever by Mr. King, and not really even a fantasy story. Such was the power of the King franchise.
Impact, by Douglas Preston, Forge Books, 2010. Thriller. A rousing adventure by approximately one-half of the Preston/Child writing team. This story features a pair of compelling characters and one hell of a scary weapon. Good stuff.
Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, Harper Collins, 2003. Thriller. A 1950s maximum security "hospital" for the homicidally insane...what a great setting for a suspense novel! Lehane builds an intricate, atmospheric tale brick by blood-stained brick. Scorsese's movie adaptation is extremely faithful.
Regenesis, by Julia Ecklar, Ace Books, 1995. Science fiction. A collection of four novellas featuring Rahel Tovin, conservationist and biologist for the Ark, a sort of interstellar Sierra Club of the future. Tovin, a prickly sort who has little patience for humans or any other intelligent species, works slavishly to protect endangered species across the known galaxy. Fascinating and well-written.