Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Stuff the Stocking!

Books make wonderful gifts. What are your recommendations this year?
- from Frank
Everyone's tastes vary, but here are some book that I don't think you can go wrong with, if you dig the subgenre they're in.

I'm only including ones I've already read. If  I drew from my TBR pile, either this list would scroll forever, or my head would explode in an attempt to pare things down to a reasonable number of entries.

Also, it is my goal to eventually read books by all of my fellow Criminal Minds bloggers in 2020, if I haven't already. Each of them is now on my TBR list, either physically sitting on my nightstand, or on my Kindle, waiting its turn in line. I hope you'll join me in this endeavor and explore some great, varied fiction.

Onto the list...

Cast the First Stone by Jim Ziskin

DSP0101207It took me forever to finish this book, because as I was reading it, a glut of books I'd reserved at the library repeatedly came available. Since I own my copy of Jim's book, it was easy to pause where I was and come back to it once I'd read the library book with a due date. Now, some might take it as a criticism that Ellie Stone was easy to put down and pick back up, but it isn't. It is a testament to good writing that I could come back to the pages after a week or two away and fall right back into the story.

The story is a classic slow burn mystery, and done masterfully. Even with stretches of time in between reading sessions, I experienced no fall off in story tension. My interest remained in seeing how Ellie would resolve the mystery, and I was instantly back in the early 1960s Hollywood setting within just a few paragraphs.

This is a classy book.

The Long Cold Winter by Colin Conway

TLCW - Transparent - Cropped.pngNot the first (or last) book in the 509 series, but my favorite one. Conway does a lot right here. He handles two separate mysteries, one new and one very cold case, while letting us share the grief of Detective Dallas Nash throughout the investigation. Recently a widower, Nash's grief is palpable on every page. This runs the risk of dragging down the tale or becoming too much, but the way Conway handles it causes just the opposite. Nash's journey through his grief is one the reader experiences and explores as much as Nash does, and the novel device of Nash waking with music in his head keeps this experience fresh (as well as adding another small mystery).

In the end, this book is an excellent police procedural in its own right, and fans of that genre will be well pleased on that count. But The Long Cold Winter goes even further to capture the heart-wrenching internal journey that we usually only find in noir or detective stories. I found it to be emotionally engaging, and it left an impression on me that hasn't faded yet.

All the Way Down by Eric Beetner

All V6.jpgHow this wasn't a runaway hit, I'll never know. A high-concept thriller with a bad guy cop who maybe wants to turn back to good but can't thanks to the drug dealer he's been doing dirt with...and then he gets a final shot of redemption when the mayor's daughter has been taken hostage. She's held in the top of floor of a fifteen floor building in an abandoned industrial park, a veritable gangster fortress. The action starts in earnest when the hero goes to the top to get her and they have to fight their way out floor by floor, trying to get...all the way down.

Written in rapid-fire, breathless bursts, this book doesn't take a break. Part Die Hard, part Game of Death, and all classic Eric Beetner, All the Way Down is a thrill ride.

For best results and maximum contrast, read immediately before or after Ziskin's book. Both books are amazing, but stylistically polar opposites. It really makes you appreciate the art of both men if you experience it one after the other.

Under a Dark Sky by Lori Radar-Day

Under a Dark SkySince I first became aware of Lori Radar Day when Eryk Pruitt referenced her during my podcast interview with him ("She scares me," he confided), it was clear she doesn't need me to pump her tires. Her fans and peers alike have attested to how good her books are, and if you're reading this blog, you probably know, too. But let me tell you what did it for me when I read this novel.

It wasn't that it was a good mystery (it was), or that it was set in an interesting locale (it was). It wasn't that the locale had a meaning several layers deep (it did), or that Radar-Day wrote about a lead character that wasn't a cookie-cutter hero (she did). And it wasn't that there were surprises along the way, either (there were). All of these elements were enough to make this a worthwhile entry. But what put it over the top for me was simply this -- at some point in the novel, I suspected virtually every character of being the culprit...including even the narrator, who I wondered if she might be an unreliable one.

That's a mean trick to pull off. Two or three good suspects is hard enough. For almost every single character to be a potential suspect takes some serious skill.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Recursion: A Novel2016s Dark Matter was a mind-bender, and I loved it. I'm a sucker for time travel or multiple reality stories. I loved Stephen King's Dark Tower series and 11/22/63 for exactly these reasons. Dark Matter took me for a ride, and so I was looking forward to Recursion quite a bit. Blake's reading at Bouchercon 2019's Noir at the Bar did little to dampen my enthusiasm.

The core of this story resides in an examination of our memories, and what they mean to who we are. Not only who we are, but to our entire life experience. Kristi and I recently started watching a sci-fi show on Netflix, ironically also called Dark Matter, in which six spacefarers awaken from cryo-sleep with no memory of who they are or how they got there. For much of the first season, they are trying to discover their pasts, which turn out to be unsavory. The question becomes, are they still those people, if they don't remember being that?

Crouch takes a step further in his novel, with memory implants giving people new lives. Of course, this wreaks havoc with the fabric of time and space, and as the story progresses, the stakes go from personal to existential.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Image result for a wizard of earthsea"Let me close with a classic that I hadn't read since my teen years. I recently listened to the audiobook production, which was well done, and I am interspersing the rest of the series into my rotation every so often as a palate shift from crime fiction. Barring a new one from G.R.R. Martin, I'll get my fantasy fix here for a while.

I grew up on fantasy and science fiction - Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Lloyd Alexander, Andre Norton, Spokane's own David Eddings...and LeGuin. I've always held this first Earthsea book in high regard, loved the tale of how Sparrowhawk became the wizard of renown from humble beginnings and after causing great pain to himself and others. It is a wonderful fantasy story, beautifully and simply written. The younger me appreciated all of that, and the older me didn't miss the allegorical nature of the tale, either. Face your demons, people. Don't run from them. Ms. LeGuin had the right of it.

And a few more, offered without comment...

Land of the Blind by Jess Walter
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
(yeah, I know the least two are probably on someone else's list a couple of years ago, but still...great books).
Lamb by Christopher Moore
That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton
Dune by Frank Herbert (put on your big reader pants and do it).

If you try any of these books (or have already read 'em), I'd love to hear your thoughts on them in the comments.

Blatant Self Promotion Brought To You By Me

Next month, my new novel, In the Cut, will be released by Down and Out Books in January. It is avaliable for pre-order now.

This novel is the second in my SpoCompton series, which focuses on telling stories from the perspective of those on the wrong side of the thin blue line -- the criminals. 

Boone has been prospecting with the Iron Brotherhood outlaw motorcycle gang for almost a year, trying to earn his patch with the club. When a simple muscle job goes terribly wrong, his world changes forever. He is quickly plunged deeper into a world of drug and intimidation, and the lines between right and wrong blur. The bonds of brotherhood that he forges with other members clash with the dark actions they take. His girlfriend, Faith, represents a danger of another kind, but Boone can’t stop himself where she is concerned, either.

When someone closest to him dies, and rampant rumors of a rat in the clubhouse puts everyone in danger, Boone comes to learn what it really means to live his life…in the cut. 

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