My Favorite Fiction of 2017

Is he ever going to stop with these 2017 Wrap Up posts? I know, I know…I’m sick of them. But I’ve already done most of the work on this one, I might as well finish…Also, it was supposed to go up Friday, but formatting problems . . .

Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to my re-reading books that I’ve loved for 2 decades.

I truly enjoyed all but a couple of books this year (at least a little bit), but narrowing the list down to those in this post was a little easier than I expected (‘tho there’s a couple of books I do feel bad about ignoring). I stand by my initial ratings, there are some in the 5-Star group that aren’t as good as some of the 4 and 4½-Star books, although for whatever reason, I ranked them higher (entertainment value, sentimental value…liked the ending better…etc.). Anyway, I came up with a list I think I can live with.

(in alphabetical order by author)

In The StillIn The Still

by Jacqueline Chadwick
My original post

Chadwick’s first novel is probably the most entertaining serial killer novel I’ve ever read. Without sacrificing creepiness, suspense, horror, blood, guts, general nastiness, and so on — she gives us a story with heart, humor and humanity. The second novel, Briefly Maiden is arguably better, but I liked this one a teensy bit more — and I’m genuinely nervous about what’s going to happen in book 3 (not that I won’t read it as soon as I possibly can).

4 1/2 Stars

The Hangman's Sonnet Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet

My original post

How do you possibly follow-up 2016’s Debt to Pay, especially with that ending, without dramatically altering the Jesse Stone flavor? I’m still not sure how Coleman did it, but he did — Jesse’s dealing with Debt to Pay in a typically self-destructive way, but is keeping his head mostly above water so he can get his job done, mostly by inertia rather than by force of will. Reflexes kick in however, and while haunted, Jesse can carry out his duties in a reasonable fashion until some friends and a case can push him into something more.

Coleman’s balancing of long-term story arcs and character development with the classic Jesse Stone-type story is what makes this novel a winner and puts this one on my list.

4 1/2 Stars

A Plague of GiantsA Plague of Giants

by Kevin Hearne

This sweeping — yet intimately told — epic fantasy about a continent/several civilizations being invaded by a race nobody knew existed is almost impossible to put into a few words. It’s about people stepping up to do more than they thought possible,more than they thought necessary, just so they and those they love can survive. It’s about heroes being heroic, leaders leading, non-heroes being more heroic, leaders conniving and failing, and regular people finding enough reason to keep going. It’s everything you want in an epic fantasy, and a bunch you didn’t realize you wanted, too (but probably should have).

5 Stars

Cold ReignCold Reign

by Faith Hunter

My original post
Hunter continues to raise the stakes (yeah, sorry, couldn’t resist) for Jane and her crew as the European Vamps’ visit/invasion gets closer. Am not sure what’s more intriguing, the evolution in Jane’s powers or the evolution of the character — eh, why bother choosing? Both are great. The growth in the Younger brothers might be more entertaining — I appreciate the way they’ve become nearly as central to the overall story as Jane. I’m not sure this is the book for new readers to the series, but there are plenty before it to hook someone.

5 Stars

Once Broken FaithOnce Broken Faith

by Seanan McGuire
My original post

Poor planning on my part (in 2016) resulted in me reading two Toby Daye books this year, both just excellent, but this one worked a little bit better for me. Oodles and oodles of Fae royalty and nobility in one spot to decide what they’re going to do with this elf-shot cure leading to a sort-of closed room mystery (it’s just a really big, magical room) with peril on all side for Toby and her found family.

5 Stars

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
My original post

There were so many ways this could’ve been hacky, overly-sentimentalized, brow-beating, or after-school special-y and Ness avoids them all to deliver a heart-wrenching story about grief, death, love, and the power of stories — at once horrifying, creepy and hopeful.

4 1/2 Stars

Black and BlueBlack and Blue

by Ian Rankin
My original post

Rankin kicked everything into a higher gear here — there are so many intricately intertwining stories here it’s hard to describe the book in brief. But you have Rebus running from himself into mystery after mystery, drink after drink, career-endangering move after career-endangering move. Unrelenting is the best word I can come up with for this book/character/plot — which makes for a terrific read.

5 Stars

SourdoughSourdough

by Robin Sloan
My original post

This delightful story of a programmer turned baker turned . . . who knows what, in a Bay Area Underground of creative, artisanal types who will reshape the world one day. Or not. It’s magical realism, but more like magical science. However you want to describe it, there’s something about Sloan’s prose that makes you want to live in his books.

Do not read if you’re on a low carb/carb-free diet. Stick with Sloan’s other novel in that case.

4 1/2 Stars

The Hate U Give (Audiobook)The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin (Narrator)

My original post

This was a great audiobook –and I can’t imagine that the text version was as great, I just didn’t have time for it. It’s the story about the aftermath — socially, personally, locally, nationally — of a police shooting of an unarmed black male as seen through the eyes of a close friend who was inches away from him at the time.

I think I’d have read a book about Starr Carter at any point in her life, honestly, she’s a great character. Her family feels real — it’s not perfect, but it’s not the kind of dysfunctional that we normally see instead of perfect, it’s healthy and loving and as supportive as it can be. The book will make you smile, weep, chuckle and get angry. It’s political, and it’s not. It’s fun and horrifying. It’s . . . just read the thing. Whatever you might think of it based on what you’ve read (including what I’ve posted) isn’t the whole package, just read the thing (or, listen to it, Turpin’s a good narrator).

5 Stars

The ForceThe Force

by Don Winslow
My original post

There may be better Crime Fiction writers at the moment than Don Winslow, but that number is small, and I can’t think of anyone in it. In this fantastic book, Winslow tells the story of the last days of a corrupt, but effective (in their own corrupt and horrible way), NYPD Task Force. Denny Malone is a cop’s cop, on The Wire he’s be “real police” — but at some point he started cutting corners, lining his pockets (and justifying it to himself), eventually crossing the line so that he’s more “robber” than “cop.” Mostly. And though you know from page 1 that he’s dirty and going down, you can’t help get wrapped up in his story, hoping he finds redemption, and maybe even gets away with it.

But the book is more than that. In my original post I said: “This book feels like the love child of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. You really feel like you understand how the city of New York is run — at least parts of it: the police, elements of the criminal world, and parts of the criminal justice system. Not how they’re supposed to run, but the way it really is. [Winslow] achieves this through a series of set pieces and didactic pericopes.”

A police story, a crime thriller, a book about New York — oh, yeah, possibly the best thing I read last year.

5 Stars

There were a few that almost made the list — almost all of them did make the Top 10 for at least a minute, actually. But I stuck with the arbitrary 10 — these were all close, and arguably better than some of those on my list. Anyway, those tied for 11th place are: <

Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey (my original post), Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb (my original post), Briefly Maiden by Jacqueline Chadwick (yes, again) (my original post), The Twisted Path by Harry Connolly (my original post), Bound by Benedict Jacka (my original post), The Western Star by Craig Johnson (my original post), The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire (see? Another Toby Daye) (my original post), The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (my original post), Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells(my original post).

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The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

The BlindsThe Blinds

by Adam Sternbergh

Hardcover, 382 pg.
Ecco, 2017

Read: August 17 – 19, 2017


I just finished this and am not sure how to talk about it. I don’t know what I can say without ruining things, so I’m just going to copy and paste from Sternbergh’s page:

Welcome to Caesura, Tx, aka The Blinds, a dusty town in the Texas Panhandle cut off from the outside world and populated entirely by former criminals and witnesses put in protective custody. The twist: None of these people know who they are, because all of them have had their memories of their pasts erased. All the better to give them a fresh start and a second chance. But one thing is clear to them: If they leave the Blinds, they will end up dead.

For eight years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has kept an uneasy peace—but after a suicide and a murder in quick succession, the town’s residents revolt. Cooper has his own secrets to protect, so when his new deputy starts digging, he needs to keep one step ahead of her—and the mysterious outsiders who threaten to tear the whole place down. The more he learns, the more the hard truth is revealed: The Blinds is no sleepy hideaway. It’s simmering with violence and deception, aching heartbreak and dark betrayals.

If I say one more thing about the plot/premise I’m afraid that I’ll ruin things for you. The book starts off with a whole lot of exposition, setting up the world (well, town, to be accurate) it takes place in — but Sternberg works that in well with the plot, so it doesn’t get bogged down with the exposition. Then once the dominoes are all set up, he knocks them down and you just sit back and watch.

But you don’t actually sit back — you lean forward in your seat and turn the pages quickly. At one point there are four or five conflicting plans at work, and it’s a footrace to see which will get accomplished first (and hopefully not get supplanted by another). At times it seems like any of them will end up working out — they’re all plausible.

It’s just so great. So compelling. Such a fun ride.

Yeah, the characters could be a bit more fully-developed, but that’s hard when part of their history, part of their personality — part of them — has been deleted. So, I’m not sure I can actually complain about that. We do get plenty about who the characters are in the here and now — definitely enough to get you invested in them.

In this driving plot, there’s some exploration of the nature of memory, of personality, of the nature of man, of evil. There’s some moments of triumph, of despair, heartbreak, and more than a couple of instances of “what??” You will learn a Russian phrase that will chill you to your bone and you will be ever so happy that Sternberg found gainful employment in journalism rather than turning to a life of crime.

On page 119, I wrote, “I’m either going to hate this ending or I’m going to be recommending this book for months.” And I didn’t hate it — Sternberg’s got another winner here. If his Shovel Ready wasn’t your thing, this is different enough that you should give it a shot. He’s got a strong voice, a twisted imagination and a knack for story telling — this book as secured him a place on my “auto-read” list.

Just go read the thing, I’m going to stop before I ruin something.

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

Near EnemyNear Enemy

by Adam Sternbergh

Hardcover, 306 pg.
Crown, 2015
Read: January 14 – 16, 2015I will admit to being a bit nervous about this — Shovel Ready hit me in a sweet spot and I wasn’t sure that Sternbergh was going to be able to follow it up with an unnecessary (I thought) sequel. Also, as long as I’m being honest — without looking at my post or notes, I’m not sure I could’ve described what about Shovel Ready appealed to be so much. It took less than 2 pages of Near Enemy for it to come back to me — yeah, good story, world building and all; but it was the voice and the distinctive way Sternbergh employed the voice that really worked for me. Obviously, in two pages I had no idea if he could pull it off in terms of story/character/etc., but that voice was there, so I was going to enjoy finding out.

Even more than Shovel Ready (I think), this is a Cyberpunk novel as told by Elmore Leonard. It’s been a year since we left Spademan and the rest, and if there’s anyone who expected a happily ever after for any involved, well, I think they didn’t pay close enough attention to the book. Perseophone and her baby are tucked away upstate, and Spademan’s back to work. Once again, though, he doesn’t complete a hit. He finds the target, Lesser, while he’s in the Limnosphere, and is persuaded to wait a moment until he emerges. Lesser gives the wildest story about what happened to him inside — so wild it’s technically impossible. Spademan’s curiosity is piqued, so he lets Lesser live while he looks into the veracity of his claims.

Spademan’s investigation leads him into a maze of politics, police corruption, Islamic activism, assassins that make Spademan look amateurish, and a strange quasi-religious/quasi-Luddite group. The plot’s really not that twisty — it can’t be while being told in Sternbergh’s minimalistic style — but it’s definitely not straight-forward. And though I saw the big surprise twists coming — their reveals were very satisfying. It’s violent — but not as violent as you’d think a novel about an assassin in a very dystopian New York would be.

One example of the violence is a fight scene in the Limnosphere that suggests the climactic battle in The Matrix missed a golden opportunity by not taking fuller advantage of the impossible and/or strange that would be possible in a virtual world.

Of course the ugliness isn’t limited to the damage that people can do to others’ bodies — there’s plenty of other trauma to be found. One example is Spademan’s description of how the City reacted to the last major terrorist attack:

Cops came after midnight.
Special ops. Special cops. The lethal kind, who never bothered to memorize Miranda rights.
Clad in black. Move in tandem.
Red laser dots dancing over locked doorways.
Hand signals. Gloved hands. Give the go-ahead.
Boots unleashed on doors. Doors caved in with a clatter. Suspects scrambling as they’re yanked from their beds, still tangled up in the sheets. Some half-dressed, some half-cursing, dragged into hallways under sweeping flashlight beams, wrists zipped up in plastic cuffs, then shoved down the staircase. Some more than shoved.
A few unfortunate escape attempts shot down as they fought back. Or at least that’s how it got written up in the reports.

At the same time, in the midst of the blackness, there’s moments of happiness, contentment, camaraderie.

There’s a real heart to this character, real sadness — maybe even hope. When you thinking you’ve got Spademan figured out — he does something you don’t see coming. There’s this flashback to a High School (maybe Junior High) English teacher working with Spademan that’ll tug on your heartstrings.

Near Enemy successfully builds on Shovel Ready expanding the world, characters and story strongly, as well as setting things up for (I’m guessing) a final climactic novel that is going to knock my socks off.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to call in sick, blow off appointments and resent the fact that you have loved ones that want to spend time with you (and that, ordinarily, you want to spend time with, too). It’s as immersive as the Limnosphere, with none of the side effects, and just as addictive.

Note:I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. Which was generous and cool of them, but didn’t impact what I said about the book.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Opening Lines – Near Enemy

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. Technically, I’m cheating here — I skipped the first eight lines (Chapter 1), this is from Chapter 2, but it’s my blog so I can ignore my own rules, right?

Dare you not to read the rest of the book

—–

This used to be a city of locks.
Every home, at least five, down the door, like a vault.
Chain lock.
Rim lock.
Fox lock.
Knob lock.
Deadbolt.
Funny name, that last one.
Dead. Bolt.
Neither word exactly conjures security.
But no one bothers with that many locks in New York anymore. City’s safer. Or at least emptier. No end of vacancies. And no one bothers to burgle anymore. Nothing left to burgle. Everything’s picked clean, and anyone who still lives in Manhattan and has something of real value to protect — family, dignity, vintage baseball-card collection — does it with a shotgun, not a deadbolt. So the real problem, for the burglar, isn’t getting in. It’s getting back out.
After all, if you apply enough force, deadbolts give.
Shotguns take.

from Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel ReadyShovel Ready

by Adam Sternbergh

Hardcover, 256 pg
Crown, 2014
Read: May 1 – 3, 2014

It’s the near future, NYC has been rendered nearly uninhabitable by terrorist attacks and most of those that are still there aren’t really in NYC — they’re permanently jacked in to a virtual reality, kept alive by IV feeding bags. (think of a dystopian vision of Ready Player One‘s OASIS)

One of the few not hooked to the VR world is Mr. Spademan, a hitman. He doesn’t care who, he doesn’t care why, as long as the money’s right and he’s given a name, he’ll take the job. Once he’s taken the job, you might as well consider it done, he never fails, he never quits.

Well, until this job. Otherwise, it really wouldn’t be much of a story now, would it? Something happens that keeps Spademan from doing what he does — and the aftermath is pretty deadly. Spademan, his friends/allies, and those around them will be fighting for their lives before long as they plunge into a world of the ultra-rich, ultra-pampered and pseudo-religious.

The voice that Sternbergh employs is strong — you want to hear this guy tell his story. It’s a little heavy-handed from time to time — particularly at the beginning. But there’s a purpose for it, I think — at first I thought it was just a product of this being his first novel, but that’s condescending, and blind. Sternbergh knew exactly what he was doing — persevere through the heavy-handedness and you’ll understand why it was there.

A great mix of noir, SF, and suspense — with a little extra thrown in. It’d be easy to just chalk up this book to a fun combination of style, setting, and premise. But it’d be a mistake, there’s real heart here. Heart, genuine suspense, and a good story (yeah, and style, setting, and premise).

—–

3.5 Stars