Yes, I read a lot, averaging about one per week in the past few years. I’m now aided in this process by audiobooks in the car and Kindle downloads on flights, but that’s just circumstance. I finished the entire shelf of Perry Mason novels by third grade. I read the every book on the New York Times best-seller list in 1963, as well as finishing up Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I ran out of shelves in my little library, just in time for eBooks. I have a backlog.
Books have been with me, often instead of friends, since I was five, when I learned to read. An Army brat, I learned that books were more available and reliable than people. Tragic in one way. Liberating in another.
Thus, herein, I share my reviews of books with my highest ratings on Goodreads, where I post regularly. I have made no effort to provide a list of the best books published this year. For that, please go elsewhere. What you get is my take on what I enjoyed the most, a characteristic mix of mysteries, non-fiction, and literary fiction. I guess I just love stories, every possible kind. (Here’s the complete list for 2013.)
The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4) by Robert Caro
Caro is a great storyteller, and what a story he has to tell in this fourth volume of the massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. From the 1960 Presidential race through LBJ's transition to the Presidency following JFK's assassination, there is a wealth of dramatic incident, all based upon the author's legendary historical research. I've been a fan of Caro's since his debut book on Robert Moses, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and have a minor obsession about LBJ, having lived in Texas during some of the period covered in this book (I was in Junior High, if you must know). The vivid power struggle between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy is but one of the elements of the book which kept me gripped and turning pages. It was also revelatory to make comparisons on the iron grip of the Congress held by conservatives (in both parties) which LBJ faced in passing his domestic agenda -- it's not all that different today with progress impeded by die-hard conservatives, mostly from the South, except of course, most are in the GOP, and have been since Johnson's policies drove them out of the Democratic Party. One more volume to go, and you can bet I'll be reading it, as well.
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R. J. Smith
I saw James Brown perform twice, once at a high school prom on a riverboat in Memphis, Tennessee (1965) and once in a club in Aspen, Colorado (1980). In the first instance, like a lot of white kids, I wanted so very much to dig him, a kind of cultural expression of the same impulse that led to our support of the civil rights movement. We could dance too, maybe not as well, but there was solidarity from heel to ass to head. By the time of the latter encounter, his star, somewhat tarnished by an inscrutable association with Richard Nixon and "black capitalism", was in decline. Didn't stop him (and me) from getting on a table and flinging sweat all over the room, ears abustin' and joy abounding. This book brings it back, and much much more, a well-told story, a good biography. Brown clawed his way from poverty to a global iconic status few have matched, with an uncanny sense of how to grab and keep the spotlight, fueled by an innate and revolutionary understanding of music, rhythm and popular sentiment. He spotted and often crossed a transgressive line. Eager for respect, he often played the fool. He was mean to those with whom he worked and the women he loved. He used his fame, sometimes well, frequently poorly. He was an addict who had crusaded against drugs. Utterly fascinating book whose author clearly loves the man, the legend, and especially the music. But as much as I enjoyed reading about that, it ain't nuthin' compared to listening, which is what I'm doing now -- all of the hits and much more, convenient on Spotify. Check that out too!
Nesbø has earned his way into the top ranks of police procedurals, taking the time-worn conventions of crime, detection and detectives to a new level. Were it not for the foreignness of people and place names (Norwegian, of course), his Harry Hole novels would slide easily into the long and noble history of the best of the genre. I love Harry : damaged, idealistic, relentless, compassionate, brutal.
‘The Redeemer’, which I think was only recently released in translation, is the fourth in the series, well before Harry has self-immolated and left the force and decamped to Asia (spoiler), but all of the signs are there ... his on-again, off-again sobriety and struggles with drink, his willful disobedience of superiors, his dogged commitment and intelligent improvisation. The coda(s) contain some surprises, putting the whole corruption motif that suffuses this series into bas-relief. Who's the bad guy, anyway? It's never easy to tell in a world of grayness and moral bet-hedging.
Fast-forward to ‘Phantom’ (Episode 9), where we find Harry coming back to Oslo to save the son of his ex-lover Rakel, whose lives were endangered during the denouement of ‘The Snowman’. The kid has gotten lost in the city's drug culture that’s formed around "Violin," a synthetic form of heroin that is being manufactured in. As always, Nesbø delivers an extremely satisfying plot, with peaks and valleys of action tied to the unfolding of the mystery, which is as much about people as events. Modern Norwegian society is also a character, like all good policiers.
The Woods by Harlan Coben
Coben is one of those guys who have managed to fill up a shelf of his own at the library without managing to attract my interest, except when his mystery "Tell No One" was adapted for the screen in France a few years ago to great effect. There must be something there, I thought, and I picked up this audiobook. I find mysteries the perfect auto-companion in traffic-clogged L.A, and this did not disappoint. I've picked up several others, and I can now tell you, there is a fairly predictable set of Coben elements. What is amazing is how unevenly the formula seems to work. In this rather longer version of the Coben plot machine, we have a nice clockwork involving a seemingly dead murder case from the past (check), a mysterious gang of super-effective bad guys from whom escape seems impossible because they know everything (check); an Asian guy with lethal martial arts skills (check); ambiguous police ethics (check), a rich family obsessed with teaching Our Hero a lesson (check); a family foundation and a lot of legal shenanigans (check); and a deep and abiding love (check). On top of that, we also have a protagonist as county prosecutor in northern New Jersey (setting: check) and a pretty good legal thriller with a moral center. Kind of a suspense/potboiler in a way, but I enjoyed. Not so much the second and third time around -- q.v. my other Coben reviews.
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
Hiaasen was made for audiobook listening in the car, unless you hate the idea that other drivers might see you as you guffaw out loud. They can't hear you laugh, but they can see you. Around and about Los Angeles in the past few weeks, I was that guy laughing in traffic next to you, and I was crazy with delight. As usual with Hiaasen, we meet a cavalcade of crazies -- his heroes are just as likely to be missing one or two screws as his villains. To wit: former Key West detective Andrew Yancy, defrocked and demoted to restaurant inspector on account of stuffing a portable vacuum cleaner up the arse of the husband of his girlfriend in the middle of Mallory Square. And then wonders why that's a problem. Or the antagonist, a pudgy housewife type who holds a funeral for her late lamented husband's arm, the only bodily remnant available. The arm is a great character, too, but that would require a spoiler, which I won't do here. Suffice it to say, this is another entertaining charmer from the best satirist writing in America, well, at least in Florida.
I've crossed the threshold into serious obsession over Thomas Perry, especially the Tantor audiobooks featuring a great reader, Michael Kramer (No, I don't believe that he’s THAT Michael Kramer). Thomas Perry is just a killer of a writer: tense, clean prose that delivers a freight-train of a plot, or maybe a formula one race car, complete with twists and turns. There’s always a large cast of characters positioned along the good-guy/bad-guy axis, a scale that features much more gray than either black or white.
In ‘Strip’, a Bulgarian immigrant semi-crook runs a chain of nocturnal establishments on both sides of the hill in L.A. -- regular dance clubs in Hollywood, strip clubs in the Valley. What starts with the misidentification of a crook who has robbed him during a bank deposit, leads to the unfolding of a classic Perry switchback plot involving cops, major domo's, drug dealers, strippers, thugs, club hoppers, petty thieves, the requisite psycho's, and of course, the mysterious man whose identify was mistaken in the first place and is the closest thing we get to a protagonist. I got added pleasure listening to this in the car as I drove, often uncannily, at or near the various L.A. locations in the story. A new form of interactive fiction: my car was controlling the plot, maybe?
In ‘Silence’ it doesn't hurt that the characters are extremely attractive, amoral, and smart ... so much fun to watch them play. The protagonists (one man, an ex-cop PI; one woman, a former restaurateur on the lam) are liars, though managing a form of morality in love for their families. Really, I've not enjoyed a new suspense author discovery as much as I have these Perry novels since Michael Connelly. I really, really like 'em.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Chabon's near his peak as a novelist who can simultaneously deliver a merciless satire (in this case, uber-hipster interracial Berkeley) while making you care about his wonderful cast of sweet and crazy characters who stumble thru life with their hearts in their hands and their community in their hearts. What a great feeling to laugh out loud, repeatedly, while reading in bed. And to turn pages compulsively because you just can't wait to see how it all turns out. Chabon's assured pace lets the story build, incident after incident, woven together by the unforgiving hand of the past reaching into every moment to claim restitution, dare one say to exact pre-death karma, but that's certainly how it feels. I love the detail from a past that includes the Black Panther Party, velour track suits, big hair, vinyl records, jazz and blues, Tarantino groupies, confused teen sexuality, midwifery, analog amplification technology and so much more. This is a movie waiting for an audience of at least one: me.
A Delicate Truth by John LeCarré
Recent LeCarré-- by which I mean of course the lengthening list of novels he has written since the demise of the Cold War, his great narrative engine -- has drawn fire from critics who seem to believe that his idealism is too shrill. They take issue with plots centered around a parade of bad Western players, particularly American institutional villains like drug companies, banks, and corporate thugs of various sorts. They decry the loss of LeCarré’s unique contribution to the canon, namely the ambiguous gray nether-world of moral ambiguity within which spies on both sides of the Cold War found themselves inhabiting. Today's stories are too black-and-white! I for one am grateful to LeCarré for elevating his critique to the level of art, which is what he does here, well, at least the kind of art that kept me up into the wee hours flicking page after page to find out what would happen. The subject is a botched anti-terrorism episode engineered by a non-governmental cabal of right wing money and ambitious corporate security types living at the edge of the British and US governments. Seems ripped from the pages of the news to me, hardly an exaggeration. What makes it all so compelling are the characters, people with whom LeCarré has had decades of experience -- men (mostly) who navigate the halls of Whitehall and Westminster and the towers of Canary Wharf by means of lies, murder, cover-up and money. What makes it exceptional is the sheer skill with which, even at 89, this writer masters the tools of his craft.
Three Seconds by Roslund Anders
Taut - that's the word blurb writers use to describe suspense thrillers. This is so taut, the string nearly breaks. Also appropriate: ingenious, as in, ingenious plotting. Trains running on parallel tracks, at one point three or four, all barreling along to a tunnel that they must get through. Masterful plotting is what gets us there, though by the last 50 pages, the driver is wanting to verify what you already know. Still. I'd pay for ingenious.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
‘Life After Life’ delivers a kind of alternate-reality fictional take on the 20th century life of a British family with issues -- think of the movie 'Memento' and you'll get it half right, the other half being classic British family-drama fiction. Her beautiful writing and fully realized characters, tinged with moral dilemmas all over the place, save this from being a slightly hot mess, to be expected perhaps when a writer of her skill and stature tries to pull off such a high-wire act.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
A sweeping epic of New York left-wing Jewish life in the last half of the 20th century, Lethem creates an amusing, acerbic, knowing story in which a large cast (not all Jewish) navigate the touchstones of political and cultural life through a very specific lens. It's a lens I'm quite fond of, though it kind of ran out of steam 2/3 of the way through, in part because the prolix prose wears upon ones ears when trapped in a car with this stuff. This book didn’t come anywhere nearly as close to my heart as his divine Motherless Brooklyn, or even Chronic City, two great earlier works, but I give him extra points for ambition, which is clearly to pick up where Bellow, and especially Roth, left off.
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
I have loved Ms. Home's voice and fearless dive into contemporary psyches ever since I first began reading her short stories. Here again, she delivers the authentic first-person POV of a person of a different gender than herself as she tells the story, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, of a man in the throes of a horrendous mid-life crises. Spoiler: the fulcrum of the story is a fatal car accident triggered by his hostile older brother in which people in the other car are killed and the brother is hospitalized, though not for long. He self-discharges and goes home to find our protagonist in bed with the wife, whereupon he bludgeons her with a lamp. Complications, as they say, ensue, as if that wasn't complicated enough. This is a story of family, weird extensions and encounters that redefine family as this uncertain central character, a second-rate academic with an obsession for Richard Nixon, navigates the unfamiliar waters of deep emotional connection. There are the brothers' kids, already troubled, and the offspring of the car accident victim. There are the women he meets online. And parents all over the place. And African chieftains and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. There's a charming, shaggy-dog quality to the unfolding of the story, and a few preposterous plot points, but while in each scene, her language is always precise and taut, the voice clear and usually funny, and the gaze into the matters of the heart unblinking.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Chilling, stunning, nearly unbelievable: the story of Scientology told herein leaves one gasping. How could this have happened? The book, so well-written it hurts, tells us how a young L. Ron Hubbard stumbles from one scam and lie to another until he hits finally upon the idea of a "religion," and then proceeds to command a worldwide audience with the original Dianetics craze, and one of the most successful "self-help" books in history. We learn, mainly through the eyes of Paul Haggis, the fiilm and TV writer-director whose 35-year relationship with the "church" ended in a very public way, just how paranoid, powerful, rich and crazy the cult became, especially under Hubbard's successor David Miscavage. My own awareness of Scientology is episodic -- I remember the Ramparts Magazine story in the 70’s, tales of terrorizing critics and locking up those who wanted to leave. I became aware of the relentless recruiting and wealth aggregation by simply living in two of its main centers, DC and LA. And then the crazy Tom Cruise and Hollywood stuff, well, by then it had become very public. What I found most amazing was the early days of the movement. I need to go back and watch THE MASTER again. Very telling.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen
Of the mysteries McEwan spins, by far the greatest has to do with matters of the heart (and the body), the espionage aspect being a self-admitted bus-and-truck version of the kind of Cold War tale so well told by LeCarre. Indeed, the novelist has fun gently satirizing such genre conventions as the mechanics of trade craft, betrayals by double- and triple-agents, soulless bureaucratic snafu's and the angst that comes to those who lead a double life. Where he really excels, as always, are the mechanics of falling in and out of love and the atmospherics and tone of the Cold War settings in and around London. Not easy being a spy when the government is falling apart and everyone is smoking dope and screwing like bunnies. McEwen delivers his pleasures seemingly effortlessly, and even with heavy and obvious foreshadowing, the final reveal carries an especially yummy aha moment.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
I love David Mitchell's sentences, tone, ambition and talent. My bookish infatuation started when I stumbled across The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), thanks to my friend Alison. It's a historical novel set within the Dutch enclave of Edo-era Japan, but is like no other period piece I'd ever read. Then I devoured Cloud Atlas, and I was a goner. I loved that book so much, I gave copies as Christmas gifts two years ago and attended the movie its first night (liked, not loved the adaptation). I started Black Swan Green months ago, got interrupted, and it took a while to get back into it. This is a tiny gem, not an epic: essentially a coming-of-age story in a small English village. Not unlike Rowling's recent The Casual Vacancy, only better written and more focused on a single family. Not a lot happens of great note, unless you count divorce, infidelity, theft, bullying, teenaged lust, and revenge. Felt like updated Austen, actually.
The Nightmare: A Novel by Lars Kepler
THE NIGHTMARE is, without a doubt, a mystery, a suspenseful mystery triggered by a police investigation, but it is also a social-issue novel, fiercely uncovering the international traffic in illegal arms sales. This is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns, with the authors (yes, there are two writing together under a pen name) diving deeply into the history and psychology of many characters who are caught up in a nightmarish killing spree that is, ironically, centered around the villain's mind game centered on his victims' nightmares. There is a lot of over the top action, which began to wear on me ... how many times can the superhero hired killer track, kill, escape and kill again? And there are certain leaps of faith needed, especially for me, around the villain. But I was willing to cut some slack because the hero, a Finnish-born Swedish detective who was also the hero of THE HYPNOTIST and THE FIRE WITNESS (which I will finish soon) is everything you want in a hero. And because of the frequently lyrical depiction of relationships between the large cast of the broken and the brave.
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis
I can't for the life of me understand how I could have read so many books without diving into Martin Amis, whose reputation I've known for years. I loved Lionel Asbo -- the book, not the character, as he is an unrepentant thug, boor, slob, creep, and evidently, for Amis, a stand-in for everything that's wrong with England these days. A working class hero, indeed: this is what the poor would do if they got rich: basically the same thing as the rich, only without manners. I add a shout-out to the audiobook narrator Alex Jennings, who really performs all roles with intense brio and cheer, not to mention what to this Yank's tin ear, replicate the sounds of class-based English accents, replete with slang and short-hand. I doubt it would have made as big an impact on the page. I confess to be a bit confused by the ending. Who DID let in the dogs? Maybe we're not supposed to know.