I’m sitting here at my desk, and instead of working on moving my WIPs to the “Ready for Humiliation” folder, I’m staring at my bookshelf. I’m gazing at the spines of Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, and I’m thinking about reading them again.
I recently finished the third book, The City of Mirrors, and it’s one of few trilogies that I can legitimately, honestly say I loved. It has everything (well, many things) I look for in fiction: a fantastical, alluring world; rich mythology; risky storytelling; deep characters; solid writing that is at times literary; complexity in just about everything. In a word: depth.
I loved it, but I’m not thinking about reading it again only because of how I felt about it. You see, The Passage is one of the only trilogies or series I bought into immediately. I can’t recall any others that I picked up before they were all completely written. And Justin Cronin isn’t cranking out a new novel every quarter. He’s putting three or four years of his life into a book, and that’s a lot of time for a reader between books. But it’s part of the reason they are so good.
I’m increasingly of the mind that good fiction cannot be rushed out the door, that authors need to live in their worlds and with their characters to truly grant them the substance they need to create meaning and allow readers to leave and take with them whatever it is they find there in those pages.
Granted, I know plenty of authors who put out really good work annually and semi-annually. Those people are freaks.
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I don’t know if this is the book you deserve, but it’s the book you need. (That’s clever, you see, because there are a lot of Batman references in this book… ahem, anyway.)
Blake Twenty-Three by Slade Grayson begins with a message the literary world needs to hear: “Just have fun.” We often forget reading and storytelling is supposed to be something we enjoy. Many of us get so stilted and wooden with our critical analysis and pushing our nerd glasses up on the bridges of our noses that we overlook an integral part of the reading experience: escape. If one-half of storytelling is information conveyance, the other half is signal quality. Maybe “integrity” is the right word there. I don’t know, but what it boils down to is a measure of enjoyment.
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I’ve been reading Craig DiLouie’s work for a while. I believe his career is worth watching. Last year, he published Suffer the Children, which I fell in love with, and it was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Craig has unquestionably made his mark on horror.
But there comes a time in every artist’s career where they get fidgety and want to try something new. That’s what Crash Dive is.
In the grand scheme of Craig’s progression as an author, Crash Dive feels almost calculated. It’s a relatively short novel. It’s hard-and-fast in a genre that he clearly has a strong affinity for. It’s somewhat safe, but he’s testing waters (he even writes in an afterword that, if Crash Dive gets a good response, he’ll turn it into a series … also, pun intended).
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Reading Rich Hawkins’ novella, Black Star, Black Sun, is a bit like waking up and finding the world has already been consumed by fire, and the final embers are burning the ashen remains. It is a fearless journey into an abyss of despair.
Why would anyone want to read that? Because it’s hauntingly beautiful.
We begin with Ben Ottway returning to his hometown, a small village in England, after the mysterious disappearance of his wife, but this is no thriller with plot twists you can see coming a mile away or that are surprising because they’re utter nonsense. Ben’s wife is gone, and the point is his world has ended, yet he fights it and remains hopeful.
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It’s been almost a month since I put The King of Clayfield by Shane Gregory down, and it’s lingered with me all this time. I don’t attribute its staying power to any raw emotional experience I had with it, nor do I find its relentless grip in any particular shock or horror. The King of Clayfield sticks with me to this day because I’ve yet to be able to truly pin it down. Certain stories fall clearly within a genre, adhering to established guidelines and rules. The King of Clayfield is somewhat unique in that it flows naturally, as if it were grounded in reality instead of someone’s imagination.
Of course, The King of Clayfield has many imaginative and creative elements, but while it isn’t strictly an epistolary, it reads almost like a journal. Shane’s prose is no-nonsense, written in natural language. At times, it may be reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. He steps out of the way and lets his character tell the story. What’s notable here is that, in my experience with first-person narratives, I’ve found many writers tend to overdo this. They adopt certain tendencies to attempt to force the voice through. Shane doesn’t. The difference is he seems to trust his story and his characters to be interesting rather than trying to make or contrive intrigue. The aspect that interests me the most, though, is that The King of Clayfield is almost formless in its presentation. It is anything but formulaic, but it isn’t without structure or deliberate momentum. It doesn’t lull, but it doesn’t force action. It doesn’t adhere to the typical “three rising actions, climax, resolution,” but it follows a logical pattern of building tension to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.
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Amid personal distractions, big events, work, and other happenings, I didn’t get to read as much in 2014 as I would have liked. But I did read some really good books that I connected with in ways that either surprised me or continue to affect me. Please note, I read some really good stuff this year, and these are just the books that struck a personal nerve.
Without further ado, here are my favorite novels that I read in 2014.
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When I picked up Autumn Moon by Slade Grayson, I was excited because I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a werewolf novel that I enjoyed. Autumn Moon is enjoyable, satisfying, and so much more. It contains a world full of almost-magical intrigue and allure and a narrative that keeps moving logically and naturally to a fulfilling conclusion.
I think the thing I appreciated most about Autumn Moon is it seems self-aware. I’ve come to this novel with the knowledge that it will contain werewolves, and Slade never is coy with that idea. It might seem disingenuous to treat the revelation of the shapeshifters as some great mystery, and while there is a moderate surprise, it isn’t overdone. Mainly, it seems to be for the characters’ benefit, not for ours, a case of dramatic irony that is handled expertly.
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When I finished Deep Black Sea, I found myself dwelling on its strengths. Of course, not many works are without faults, but there are some really powerful elements here that I found creative, interesting, and entertaining.
One of Deep Black Sea’s greatest strengths is its foundation of plausibility. In a nutshell, the United States elects a new president who effectively guts NASA’s funding for a mission to Mars in favor of pursuing deep-water research. While such a broad and far-reaching decree in a democratic society is unlikely, it isn’t an unfamiliar point of consternation in the scientific community: the idea that we should understand our own planet before we explore others, and we still know so little about life at the bottom of the ocean.
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It’s hard for me to pinpoint the precise moment when Rich Hawkins’ work in The Last Plague won me over, but I know it came within the first fifty pages.
If you took Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and slammed it into 28 Days Later and then opened a trans-dimensional gateway for Cthulu to join the party, you might end up with something like The Last Plague. It begins like any other modern horror story in that we’re presented with a group of friends who go off for a weekend of fun. The difference here is they aren’t going off into the unknown where evil awaits. While they are gone, the world changes, and when they return to it, they find the aftermath of the initial wave of an infection.
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The pitch for Joe Hill’s Horns is almost too coy. One morning, Ignatius Perrish wakes to find he has grown horns. Weird. It’s this one strange development that’s supposed to pull you in with mystery, and going into it, I worried it would be a bit too hokey. Having only read Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box before, I just wasn’t sure what kind of mileage was there, and I worried it would flounder and ultimately be unsatisfying. But as I read Horns, I decided this focus on Ig’s sudden and inexplicable “mutation” was deliberate, like a sleight of hand from a magician. Where as Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is a genuinely good supernatural thriller, Horns brings something entirely new to fiction, and it’s an interesting mixture of the horror and thriller genres.
It could almost be a spoiler to tell you that this story goes places, and while it may seem to linger at times, it’s all necessary and all satisfying when the payoff comes. But, Horns finds its heart in a murder/mystery. It is almost an injustice to simplify it so much, but after reading Hill’s first two novels, I think this is where he may distinguish himself as an author, which will prove to be a difficult thing to do given his father is the king of horror.
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