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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My Favorite 2017 New (to me) Characters

A few weeks ago, I started to describe someone as one of the best characters I met this year. Which got me to thinking about and honing this list. I’m limiting myself to characters I met this year, otherwise I don’t think there’s be much room for anyone — Spenser, Hawk, Scout, Harry Dresden, Toby Daye, Ford Prefect etc. wouldn’t really allow anyone else to be talked about. These might not be my favorite people in their respective books (although most are), but they’re the best characters in terms of complexity, depth and story potential I doubt I’d like most of them in real life (and can’t imagine that any of them would enjoy me), but in novels? I can’t get enough of them.

(in alphabetical order by author)

  • Aimee de Laurent from Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey (my post about the book)– she’s smart, she’s driven, she’s compassionate, she’s powerful, she’s fallible. She also flies around in a spaceship and does magic.
  • Lori Anderson from Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb (my post about the book)– She’s more than Stephanie Plum without the Lucy Ricardo DNA. She’s a tough lady, a dedicated mom, and more. This bounty hunter will impress you with her guts, get your sympathy with her plight, and make you cheer as she bests her opponents (I should probably add “make you wince as she takes some brutal beatings).
  • Ali Dalglish from In the Still by Jacqueline Chadwick (my post about the book)– Ali is a certified (and possibly certifiable) genius. She’s a criminal profiler working in Vancouver, BC after nearly a couple of decades away to raise her kids. But when a serial killer’s victim is found near her home, she’s drug back into the professional world she left with the investigation. She has the most creative swearing this side of Malcom Tucker, a fantastic and fast mind, a jaded look at life, and a sense of humor that’s sure to please. Early in In the Still, she asks questions of a police officer in a public forum and pretty much ruins the poor guy — it’s one of the best scenes I read all year. If you can read that far in the book and not become a Ali fan at that point, there’s something wrong with you. If I was ranking these, I’m pretty sure she’d be #1.
  • Nick Mason from The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton (https://wp.me/p3z9AH-2NI)– A convicted non-violent criminal gets released early from an Illinois prison only to find himself in a different type of prison to work off his debt for being released, making him lose the “non-” in front of violent. He’s a great character, on the verge (always on the verge) of redemption and falling further.
  • Dervan du Alöbar from A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne (my post about the book is forthcoming) — I could’ve named about half of the point-of-view characters from this book, but Dervan eked out a win. He’s a widower in mourning. A former soldier, wounded in duty, turned scholar, turned . . . well — that’s a long story. There’s something about his coming to grips with the new reality, his new vocation, his self-awareness and growth in his personal life just really clicked with me. He’s basically an unqualified fantasy hero, forced to step up and play a role in saving civilization (which actually describes many people in this book, but that’s for another day).
  • Isaiah Quintabe from IQ by Joe Ide (my post about the book)– South-Central LA’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. We meet IQ early in his career and, via flashbacks, see him begin to develop the gifts that will make him the super-detective he’s destined to become. He’s such a great take on this character, I can’t believe no one beat Ide to the punch.
  • Anci from Down Don’t Bother Me by Jason Miller (my post about the book) — yeah, her dad, Slim, is the series start and protagonist. He’s the one that goes trough all the hardship, the beatings, the investigative moves, not his 12-year-old daughter (who isn’t a young Veronica Mars clone, or Rae Spellman). But Anci is the heart and soul of the books — she’s why Slim goes to work in this field, and why he comes back. She’s smarter and wittier than any 12-year-old has any right to be (but believably so), she’s Slim’s conscience, and his reason for doing what he does.
  • LeAnne Hogan from The Right Side by Spencer Quinn (my post about the book)– comes back from Afghanistan after near-fatal injuries, and isn’t fit for the civilian life she’s thrown back into. She begins to deal with her grief and anger while hunting for the child of a dead friend with the help of a stray dog. She’ll break your heart.
  • John Rebus from Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin (my post about the book)– Wow. How do I sum up Rebus? 2017 was the 30th anniversary of Rebus’ creation and the first year I read him. He’s a wonderful, complex character. He smokes too much, he drinks too much, he ignores the rules and regulations (and maybe even the laws) in his ongoing effort to forget about himself and his life by pouring himself into his work. Tenacious with a capital “T”, he may not be the smartest police detective you ever read, but he makes up for it through not giving up (although he’s pretty smart — especially when not drinking).
  • Hob Ravani from Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells (my post about the book)– Tough does not begin to describe this biker. She’s all about surviving on this planet that’s not at all conducive to survival — from the environment, to the economics, to the politics — there’s just nothing on the planet that wants her or her fellow Ghost Wolves to survive. But somehow she does.

Briefly Maiden by Jacqueline Chadwick

I’d fully intended on getting this up earlier in the week, but it provoked enough thought that I had to sit on it a bit. Hopefully that comes through.

Briefly Maiden
Briefly Maiden

by Jacqueline Chadwick
Series: Ali Dalglish, #2

Kindle Edition, 317 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: November 30 – December 1, 2017


Vancouver Island’s Integrated Major Incident Squad has been called out again, and Ali Dalglish is brought along to consult — she’s official now, after the success of the case in In the Still, she got her credentials transferred to her new country. So she can help Inspector Rey Cuzzocrea with his profile of the murderer and get paid for it (which is probably useful after the recent disintegration of her marriage).

There’s a series of murders (not a serial killer, technically) in the perfectly pleasant little city of Cedar River (at least for most of the residents). They’re gruesome, clearly motivated by anger, with a sexual component. Ali and Cuzzocrea quickly note evidence of a pedophilia ring associated with the deaths. Which adds a level of complexity and tragedy to the crime — and makes it difficult to care much about the victims. While no one on the VIIMIS wants to help the killer with their campaign, they want to catch her(?) to help her recover from what they think must’ve happened to her(?). The obstacles standing in their way are not the typical or expected kind, and make this difficult case even more difficult.

As before, Ali is brilliant — not just when it comes to criminology, she’s just smart — she’s witty, she’s a font of trivia, and has a vocabulary that you just want to bask in (and borrow!). [Note: I’m not referring to her “blue”/”adult”/”4-letter” vocabulary, which is enough to put off some readers] Her emotional life is a mess, she’s in a slightly better place after the breakup of her marriage, but not that much. There’s some decent character growth at work here, too. She’s just such a great character I don’t think I can do her justice here.

It would have been very easy to make this a story about Ali, the brilliant psychologist helping out a bunch of cops who are fairly clueless (yet high-ranking and successful). But Chadwick doesn’t do that. The members of the Squad are capable — more than capable — and while they needed the perspective and expertise brought by Ali, there’s a good chance they’d have eventually put a lot of the pieces together on their own. For example, Superintendent Shaw would be easy to depict as a stuffed-shirt, unimaginative, by-the-book, and blind to anything that isn’t obvious — and most writers would depict him that way (I can’t help but think of Irwin Maurice Fletcher’s editor, Frank Jaffe, frequently when Shaw shows up) — but at one point he actually puts things together that no one else on the Squad did (most readers will be faster than him, but we have better information). Ali’s not blind to this either — yeah, she has an ego about her own expertise, but she is ready (if not always eager) to acknowledge when her teammates do good to work.

There were a few mis-steps, but when you’re doing so much right, you can afford a few of those. The one that I don’t understand is how little her friend/neighbor, Marlene, was used. Yes, her contribution was essential, but if Marlene had stayed home, Chadwick could’ve found another way to get those results. If you’re going to bring her along — use her. Her brief appearances were fun or pivotal, but there just weren’t enough.

I’ve spent some time over the last week trying to describe Chadwick’s writing style, because it’s so specific and so original. At one point, I decided that “aggressive” was the best adjective — it’s in-your-face, it grabs you by the scruff of your neck and shoves your nose into the text, daring you to even consider your Real Life responsibilities (family, eating, work, etc.) so it can smack the back of your head like Leroy Gibbs. But it’s also inviting, enticing, so you’re sucked in and love it — you want to wallow in the experience, desperate to find out what happens while not wanting to walk away from reading book for the foreseeable future. She’s entertaining and fun while writing about some of the most depraved and horrible things you’ve ever read — while never making the depravity or horror into anything other than evil and wrong.

Briefly Maiden is not a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts — but when the sum of its parts is so great, it can seem to be. If it was just Ali’s acerbic brilliance and skewed (skewering?) sensibilities pushing this story, it’d be something I’d tell you to read. Chadwick’s style is something to behold, no matter the subject. If it was just the heart-breaking and horrifying crime story, I’d give this a high commendation. If it was just for the inevitable but shocking conclusion, I’d say this was well worth your time and money. If it was just Ali’s vocabulary, you’d be smarter for having read it (I learned a few terms/words, and I bet you will, too). You put all that together, plus a few other points I should’ve made and didn’t (for whatever reason), and Briefly Maiden is one of the most effective (and affective) novels I’ve read this year. Stop reading this and go grab it — and In the Still, if you haven’t read that yet.

—–

5 Stars

In The Still by Jacqueline Chadwick

In The StillIn The Still

by Jacqueline Chadwick
Series: Ali Dalglish, #1
Kindle Edition, 422 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: July 8 – 11, 2017

Maybe the easiest way to describe this book is to say that I had to stay up so late finishing — because there was no way I was putting it down — that I fell asleep the next night writing up a post about it.

When I’d just started this book, I tried to describe it to my wife and this is what I came up with (and still think it works): Imagine Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, but instead of a delightful novel about a genius architect with zero social skills who leaves her profession to raise her child in Seattle, where she has no friends, no life outside of her house and an antagonistic relationship with her neighbors; this is a delightful novel about a genius forensic psychologist with zero social skills who leaves her profession to raise her children in a small town in Vancouver, BC, where she has no friends, no life outside of her house and an antagonistic relationship with her neighbors — and there’s a serial killer.

Yeah, that’s glib and shallow — but it’s kinda true.

Ali Dalglish is our genius former psychologist, she’s enjoying an early morning cigarette when the woman she’s been annoyed by and has antagonized for months shows up at her back porch needing to use her phone. Marlene’s dog has just found a body on the beach, and she doesn’t carry a cell phone. Ali hands her the phone and takes off to try to secure the scene — a good move, as it turns out, because the local police aren’t up to it. They don’t even take her name and address, much less a statement, before they send her home. Ali has already seen enough to conclude that this was no accident or a death by natural causes. This was murder. But the only one that hears her is Marlene.

Neither woman is inspired to confidence by what they see from the local police, and although police with more experience in this sort of thing are on their way, the two decide to investigate the murder on their own. Probably not the wisest choice they could make, but it’s an entertaining one. After a quick glance at the victim, Ali puts together a pretty thorough profile of the killer, and she knows this isn’t his first kill. The two ladies play amateur sleuths, nosing around their suspect pool’s houses and setting up opportunities to observe them. The specialists agree with their suspect lists and profile — even if they take longer to compile them than Ali. They’re also able to confirm many of her theories. Which only emboldens Ali and Marlene to keep at it — even as they brush up against reckless and dangerous plans (although they have some very safe ones, too).

When the book starts, Ali and Marlene can’t stand each other; but events conspire to keep them together, and before either realize it, a friendship is forged — one that I love, the interplay between the two is just fantastic. There’s sort of a Felix/Oscar-vibe between the two, just intensified. Ali also strikes up a friendship/mutual admiration society with one of the investigators that will probably progress interestingly as it continues. In the shadow of the murder, Ali is able to get out of her house and integrate a little with her town in a way she hadn’t found possible before.

Now, there is a dark side to this novel, there is a serial killer running around, after all. Ali’s profile of him is on the mark, we never get as much detail about what makes him tick as other writers give — and I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t have minded a little more, but what we got was good enough. Chadwick stayed on the right side of exploitative writing about the victims and their deaths. We got enough to see that he was a monster, but there’s no relishing in the suffering. There’s one scene where a stranger accidentally finds his way into the dungeon the killer keeps his victims in. This is such a good scene, it’s so powerful and the details are just perfect. What happens to this poor guy, on the other hand . . . On the whole, there’s not much in this part of the novel that we haven’t seen before (really, aren’t most serial killer stories pretty similar?), but it’s the way that Chadwick tells the story that sets it apart from the rest and elevates it.

There’s a great red herring. Dealt with in a way that almost no one else in crime fiction does. The police pretty much know he’s a red herring, but they have to spend the time to investigate him so they can write him off. This was done so well — don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy that character, I really didn’t like reading one particular scene with him. But what he does to the overall plot was great — even once he stops being a red herring, he still has a pivotal role to play.

For a first novel, this is put together really well. I was worried in the first few pages, because it was overwritten in a really off-putting way — thankfully, I realized it was because we opened with the killer’s POV. I’m not sure why it is that so many fictional serial killers are written that way, but it works. There were moments where we weren’t reading his POV that Chadwick dipped her toe into overwriting, but it was never too much, and after a few chapters it went away (or I got used to it). That aside, the plotting is brisk, the characters are alive, the humor is real and unforced, the pacing is great — I really can’t say enough good things about it.

I don’t remember ever having as much fun, being so entertained by a serial killer story — not for a second did this become some sort of feel-good romp, don’t misunderstand me. The horror is real, the stakes are high, but there’s a humanity running through this that I just fell under the spell of. There are two more books in this series coming out in the next few months, and you can believe I’ll be jumping on them.

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4 1/2 Stars