Thursday, August 7, 2014

2014 in Books: The First Half

Beautiful Naked & Dead - Josh Stallings - Moses McGuire is a burnt-out strip-club bouncer contemplating offing himself when one of the girls whose protection he takes as a serious vocation is murdered. Suddenly suicide can wait. Hey kids, it's a missing girl in LA, PI novel and I'm recommending it. How can that be? Well, it's by Josh Stallings, that's how. Dude breathes gravity into every word. His stories are familiar from decades of crime story consumption, but his characters walk, talk and bleed with an authority earned God knows how, but it must've been unpleasant. Fiction sun-fried hard on a death-valley stone.

City of Glass - Paul Auster, Paul Karasik, David Mazzucchelli -
A funny book adaptation of an intellectual detective novel by Auster. Why'd I pick it up? Uh... um... Curiosity and the added attraction of being able to ingest it in a couple hours rather than the days, weeks, months it would've taken me to finish the original novel. Dude's smart, I get it. He's read and can deconstruct genre fiction as well as many tomes of history, philosophy, religion, poetry and linguistics. Can he impress all of this upon me subliminally while entertaining me with an engrossing story? I don't know. It didn't happen here. Aside from the occasional, reluctant nod of ascent to the depth and breadth of his cleverness, I just didn't give a shit. Not the first Auster I've read. Maybe not the last, but I've yet to be converted to the cult.

Criminal: Bad Night - Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips - If you haven't read the Brubaker/Phillips Criminal series, you're only depriving yourself of the sublime. For crime fans like myself, these books provide a state approaching sexual excitement. They are a full immersion in an alternate and timeless universe where the tropes still seem fresh and immediate as well as inevitable. The Criminal series stands alongside the canon of films and books that inspired it at once fan and peer, encompassing all the lurid thrills the casual consumer looks for as well as the heartbreak and human tragedy that the truly hooked crave.

Cry Father - Benjamin Whitmer - Not as easily pegged as a crime novel, but certainly of a piece with Whitmer's debut Pike in its chronicling (as opposed to an inspection) of a broken and particularly American strand of masculinity spinning its sad, unnoticed wheels on the outskirts of a civilization that wants it to just go away quietly. Patterson Wells is dutifully running away from everything left that he loves (an ex-wife and home), as if he could make enough psychic distance to protect anything worth protecting when his inevitable self-destruction comes. While he waits out his terminus he does dangerous work with a chainsaw, interferes with the wrong tweaker's plans, goes on drunks, gets in fights, writes letters to his dead son, listens to bizarre pirate radio and digs a shallow grave. Themes man, themes are what drives this one as Patterson meets his equal and opposite, Junior - a drug runner with a short shelf-life of his own - and the two begin to orbit each other drawing their circle tighter slowly and surely leading up to the collision each has understood was waiting for them at the end of their respective roads. It's regally sad. It's too bad it wasn't around forty or fifty years ago to be made into a fucking amazing flick starring folks like Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern or Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef, Burt Kennedy... even Paul Newman in handsome bastard mode (ala Hud or Sometimes a Great Notion) at the fore. Shit, maybe even Clint Eastwood... Not to suggest a movie would ever be better or equal to Whitmer's prose, but just to y'know give you an idea of the flavor. Got it?

Dove Season - Johnny Shaw - Revisit! Jimmy Veeder goes home to see his terminally ill father before he dies. Dad asks him a single favor - bring him a hooker. A particular hooker who hails from across the border and shares a connection to the old man in a way Jimmy's not ready for. As much a family saga as a badass crime misadventure, it reads like Elmore Leonard on laudanum - which is to say the pace is easy and you don't mind at all. When the fit shans all the hell over, you'll catch the rotation of each spec and appreciate its trajectory. Shaw taps a wellspring of character, makes you laugh, cry, cringe and occasionally fist-pump in enthusiasm and I can't think of a stronger recommendation.

Flight: All Crime Comics #2 - Paul Grimshaw, Erik Warfield, Steven E. Gordon, Vince Musacchia - Very quick, bloody and beautifully stylized book. Hijacking... soccer... cons... It's quick. It's stylish. There is much murder. Happy.

The Good Life - Frank Wheeler Jr. - Earl Haack Jr. learned early the awful things that have to be done to establish order (the precursor to peace) as sheriff of a small Nebraska town that rests at a pivotal point along a major drug trafficking highway, and once his private dark places have grown some full-sized demons, he just might be the man to step into the power vacuum and establish that order. Meanwhile, he fantasizes about murdering his wife, he may have to off his own brother and dispose of the bodies of about half the residents of the area before the last page. All in a day's work for this good old boy. This is damnedest, most revoltingly violent small-town nightmare of crime novel since... I dunno, but it made my hair stand up, sit down again, roll over and puke up breakfast. That is to say, I loved it. Get some. 

Hop Alley - Scott Phillips - Bill Ogden is a learned man and a professional photographer who takes pride in the finer points of his craftsmanship. He's doing his best to maintain some dignity and self-respect on the frontier - having been forced to flee his studio and position as a prominent citizen of Cottonwood, Kansas all wanted for murder and shit. But it's hard out here for a pimp, and he's reduced to some flim-flam gigs and paying for the non-exclusive affections of an unstable woman in the plenty volatile frontier town of Denver, Colorado. Set against the Denver anti-Chinese riot of 1880, this slim volume packs punch and pie and plenty of memorable mayhem. I fucking love the Bill Ogden stories and hope there are more to come.

Koko Takes a Holiday - Kieran Shea - It's landed, it's here, it's amazing. Shea's short story of the same name first appeared in Plots With Guns in 2009 and just blew me away. The language, the carnage, the wit. Well, he's fleshed out Koko's world and even added characters with as much to offer as the badass, ex-merc, current pimp running boywhores on the Sixty Islands (not to mention amazing names). The short story in which Koko's easy semi-retirement is upset by a squad of mercenaries hired to kill her functions more or less as the opening chapter and things just get crazier from there (I loved, loved, loved the suicide cult especially). All action, all the time, plus the aforementioned wit and wiseacre wordslinging of a wry-smiling writer make this the most fun you'll have reading a book this summer.

My Brother's Destroyer - Clayton Lindemuth - Baer Creighton's dog disappeared. Didn't run away. Was kidnapped. Baer knows by whom and for what purpose - to be grist for the dog fights run by the most dangerous man in town - or as Baer will prove by the book's end, the 2nd most dangerous man in town. Dog fights are something of a theme for Lindemuth who read a particularly bloody passage from Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her featuring one at N@B this summer, and if you can stomach the gnarliness, I highly recommend diving in to his elegantly rough oeuvre. Dude's on a tear too. This is one of a half-dozen books Lindemuth's seen released in just a couple of years and from what I can tell, he's not slowing down any time soon. Blood's not the only thing on tap in this one either, Creighton is a bootlegger and the loving attentions shown by both character and creator to the process will create a deep thirst in the reader. Seriously. I want some of that shine, I could taste it on the page. Helped the other fluids spilled go down smooth.

Praying Drunk - Kyle Minor - When your heart breaks it may scab over as a hardened lump of granite or it could grow back larger and packing even more potential as a pain-radiating organ. Minor follows up his open-heart surgical debut collection In the Devil's Territory with an even more laser-precise display of throbbing, compassionate literary cry-making. It could perhaps even penetrate your callous nub of a heart and make you feel again. You've been warned. This guy. This guy.

Rolling Country - Joseph HirschRolling Country opens with Aaron Neblett, a long distance trucker with a finger in many pies, conducting a criminal transaction that ends with him killing the other party and disposing of the evidence with professional remove and efficiency. As we follow Neblett from page to page, layers peel away uncovering a character portrait in full demonic color and human depth. Alternately we follow the measured, steady, plodding progress of a private investigator named James Arklow who is looking for a missing girl. A former policeman and current community college instructor, Arklow wants, more than anything, the validation that would come by having a piece published in an online detective trade publication. As the two story lines drifted toward each other the assured pacing, fascinating detail and masterful characterization employed by the author made me take an envious green shit in my pants (cause I damn near read the whole thing in a single sitting). The most exciting discovery of my year - I see more Hirsch books in my future (and not just the Arklow titles like Ohio at Dusk and the forthcoming Flash Blood - I just got his latest Kentucky Bestiary and it looks like a winner).

Silent City - Alex Segura - Pete Fernandez is a journalist and a drunk and about five years past his 'best by' date when half-heartedly agrees to make a couple of inquiries for an acquaintance whose daughter is missing. History, mystery and... blistery meet up in the big sleazy -Miami! Vice! Heat! Sound Machine! It's all here, plus music, murder and mafia. Segura's Pete Fernandez series saga (three books - did I read somewhere that there'll be three Fernandez books?) is off to a swell, sweaty start.

Sixth Gun: Winter Wolves - Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Bill Crabtree - The weapons, they're... remaking the world. It's getting... apocalyptic in here, so take off all your clothes (I am getting so hot, I'm gonna take my clothes off). When this whole run is over, it's gonna be one of my favorites ever.

A Swollen, Red Sun - Matthew McBride - When Gasconade County Sheriff's Deputy Dale Banks stumbles upon a bag of money belonging to wild-asshole-with-a-(few)-gun(s)-#1, Jerry Dean Skaggs he sets in motion a chain of events that will rock the region to its foundation. I enjoyed Frank Sinatra in a Blender like everybody else, but damn, with A Swollen Red Sun, McBride has upped his game by 100%. On display are all the wild drugs and crazy violence of Sinatra but this time around there is a tangible dread at the center and emotional stakes high enough to hang yourself from. Read his stories Big Darlene the Sex Machine and The Tar Hole for an approximation of the scope and impact of this novel. It's a game-changer.

The Tilted World - Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly - As Armageddon descends upon Mississippi in the form of the biblical-scale flood of 1927 a moonshiner, a mother and two prohibition agents are set at cross purposes with deadly results. What do you get when you cross the lyrical prose of Franklin (that mad motherfucker who also gave us Smonk, lest ye forget) and the narrative sensibilities of a poet (Fennelly)? Something epic and beautiful and profane and profound. A yarn steeped in mud and blood and biblical imagery with more heart and soul than your typical western and more guts and grit than your average literary praise magnet. Worth your damn time.

Turn Down the Lights - edited by Richard Chizmar - A collection of horror and transgressive stories from authors Stephen King, Norman Partridge, Jack Ketchum, Brian James Freeman, Bentley Little, Ed Gorman, Ronald Kelly, Steve Rasnic Tem, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cemetery Dance publications. Slim and brimming with dark delights as I appear to be with fucking hackish alliteration.