This Year in Books (2015)
Yeah, I know it’s a little late for an “end of year 2015” list, but I just had a newborn. Cut me some slack, DAMMIT. Sorry, I apologize, I don’t really sleep anymore and it makes me say funny things. Much like Jarvis I do alright for a spell and then I say the wrong cranberry.
Anyway, here’s everything I read last year and recommendations on what you should check out too!
January – Batman: Death of the Family (Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo)
A straight up horror tale told by the rising stars of the Batman universe: writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. It features the return of the gross, faceless Joker as he tries to make Batman see that the Clown Prince of Crime is the only friend the Bat ever needs.
As you can imagine, he does this by singing songs about it and being a cool person.
It’s a cool book, but damn is it brutal. There are some giant scares (both real and fake out) in this book, and it pulls the uncommon trick of making you think long-standing comic book heroes are actually in danger. Which is really all the recommendation you should need.
February – The Dresden Files #11: Turncoat (Jim Butcher)
If you like magic and you’ve never read the Dresden files, you gotta remedy that situation stat. Anywho, Turncoat is the 11th novel in the series, and boy is it a doozy. I accused the last couple books of being a bit formulaic, but this novel (and the previous one) really started kicking the door down.
Favorite characters, some going as far back as the very first book, are joining the choir invisible left and right. People getting maimed, long-standing institutions blowing up, friendships irrevocably boondoggled. Pacts with sentient islands; it’s nuts. This book also features one of the most terrifying and powerful villains Harry Dresden has ever faced (the Native American shapeshifting demon), and (like Death of the Family up above), the writer does a great job of making you believe long-standing, semi-invulnerable heroes aren’t going to make it.
March – The Magician King (Lev Grossman)
The sequel to the unique “The Magicians,” (which is being made into a SyFy TV show), The Magician King continues its homage to Narnia and Harry Potter by way of Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not sure if it’s better than the first book, but it does avoid the mistake of rehashing the first story.
There’s a dual story being told this time, one that is a direct nod to “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” (but with more sex and death), while the other is kind of an “Alice in Wonderland” tale told by Clive Barker.
It’s weird and great, and you should check it out if you like your fantasy with a side of darkness and wry humor.
April – A Darker Shade of Magic (V.E. Schwab)
A book I had no prior knowledge of – I saw it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble (yes, they still exist). I dug the cover, and as with every year, I try to mix in some authors and books I’ve never heard of before. Shake myself out of any ruts.
The premise is cool – there are three (or four) Londons sitting right on top of each other, separated only by a thin barrier between alternate dimensions. The main character, Kell, is one of the few people who can travel between them, and serves as a kind of interdimensional messenger boy between the three different kings (and queens) of Londons.
It’s a swashbuckling tale with a cool magic system, and I’d highly recommend it.
May – The Martian (Andy Weir)
Holy bones! I’d heard a crapload of buzz about this book (this was before the movie came out), and I figure I had to check out what people were calling the sci-fi book of the year.
Yeah, they weren’t wrong. This book is incredible. I finished it in literally one day, and it was a work day. The pacing is phenomenal, as is the characterization. Mark Watney is the new MacGuyver, if MacGuyver was a hilarious nerd with the refuse-to-give-uppyness of Spider-Man.
One of the big standouts was how scientific it was. The author never cheated – if it wasn’t something you’d logically have access to on Mars, than neither did Watney. The plot is a master course in fair-play and Man vs. Environment – if you liked “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Sign of the Beaver,” or “Call Me Courage” as a kid, “The Martian” is those books on steroids. One person, trapped all alone, refusing to die.
Even if you’ve seen the (great) movie, please check the book out. Some people say it has flaws (dialogue), which it does, but they’re minor quibbles in an amazing piece of storytelling.
June – The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
Every list of “best fantasy books” you could pull up on the interwoibs has this book sitting pretty on it somewhere. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven meets Kill Bill (set in a fantasy version of a Venice-like Renaissance city), and you’re halfway there.
Locke Lamora and his Gentleman Bastards have been trained since childhood as the city’s greatest con-men. I don’t want to say too much about it, because even discussing the plot beyond that is sort of spoileriffic, but what starts as a fantasy heist book becomes something else entirely.
It was great. Sumptuous world-building is pulled off effortlessly – you never feel like the book is taking an info-dump on you. The characters are all fantastically drawn and memorable, and the action is both swashbuckling at times and grim as shit.
July – The Dresden Files #12: Changes (Jim Butcher)
AHhhhhh. If I said the phrase “Holy Bones” in exclamation earlier, I was wrong. This book, the 12th was “holy bones!” times “oh shit!” mixed with “SWEET MARVIN GAYE.”
It all goes magnificently to heck (excuse my language) in this one. One of the plots that is set up in the very first book (12 books ago) is paid off in a spectacular fashion here. To borrow a quote from Eugene of the Walking Dead, “nobody gets to clock out today.” Every single character you’ve been following since the start gets a moment to shine or fail or fight or die, and it has one of the most epic climax battles since Helms Deep.
If this was the last Harry Dresden book, I’d completely understand. It’s a magnificent showing, and I can’t possibly imagine what Butcher is going to do to top it in the actual finale.
August – L.A. Confidential (James Ellroy)
The third book in the L.A. Quartet (after “Black Dahlia” and “The Big Nowhere,”) it’s nonetheless the most famous of the bunch because it was made into a Kevin Spacey movie. I almost said “Russel Crowe movie,” but I think he was pretty much a nobody at the time.
L.A. Confidential, like the two books before it, is only loosely connected to the other books in the quartet via side characters and shared background events. Ellroy is a master of turning terse, switchblade language into opera, and for that alone I’d recommend the book.
If you’ve already seen the movie about 1950s police corruption and unlikely friendship, you’re still in for quite a treat. The movie is a damn solid adaptation, but like any flick it has to cut plotlines, characters, and subtle detail. The book shows a messier, wider scope on the tale of Bud White and Ed Exley, making it all the more tragic.
September – The Little Sister (Raymond Chandler)
Apparently I was in a noir mood, because it was right into Chandler. I’ve read ALMOST all of Raymond Chandler’s books, and “The Little Sister” represents the second-to-last one for me.
The Little Sister follows ur-archetype Philip Marlowe through a relatively convoluted tale of familial wonkiness, and I’m sad to say it’s none one of his better books. Its great compared to, like, everything else, but in the Marlowe canon it’s strictly middle-of-the-pack. Marlowe always seems tired, but in this book Chandler seems tired. It’s not as bad as “The High Window,” what I consider to be the low mark of the series, but it’s nowhere near the heights of “The Long Goodbye.”
If you like Chandler or noir, it’s a must-read, obviously. If not, no big tragedy.
October – Finders Keepers (Stephen King)
The sequel to “Mr. Mercedes,” Stephen King follows up his rare unsupernatural, straight murder-mystery with another just like it. Why yes, I did read three detective murder mysteries in a row. DEAL WITH IT.
This one follows up on retired detective Bill Hodges, but only in secondary-character kind of way – the real main characters are psycho literature fan Morris Bellamy (who is basically the flesh-and-blood version of a YouTube comment section) and Pete Saubers, an unlikely kid who stumbles upon the most harrowing experience of his young life. Both become obsessed with the long-lost missing manuscripts of a world-renowned but reclusive writer, and both go a wee bit too far in their zeal to see how he concluded his famous unfinished book series.
While there is murder, I guess it’s unfair to call this one a murder mystery. It’s really more of a “Treasure Island” mixed with “Stand By Me” plus a tiny dash of “Misery.” This whole book is Stephen King’s comment on obsessive fandom and the deleterious effect it can have on creators and their works, and it’s a pretty unflattering statement. Definitely worth a bend, check it out.
December – The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 (Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard)
I’m a huge fan of the Walking Dead AMC Series, but I’d never peeped the comics before. No real reason, honestly – I like Kirkman, love zombies, and really dig on comics, but I’d started the show first and kind of just wanted to see how it played out.
However, I figured that with the show now at six seasons, I could safely check out the first volume of the comics (which caps at the end of the prison arc) and not get spoiled for the future.
I got Vol 1 for Christmas (which goes from issue #1 to around issue #44 or #45), and that thing is a brick. A little rough math tells me the book was over 1000 pages of pure black-and-white zombie goodness, and I finished it within about four days. Yeah. The pacing is that good.
As a show-watcher first, I gotta say I do like the show better. I’m not sure that’s really a fair statement, though – I imagine a “first love” kind of thing is clouding my judgement. But I’d argue that those who started as comic readers probably have a similar bias. Another factor is that generally I prefer TV to comic books, so it could be a medium thing.
The thing is, really, the show and the comic are two completely different beasts. While the characters share the same names and (sometimes) the same looks, almost none of them transfer 1-to-1. Show-Michonne, despite having a katana and identical looks, could not be more different from Comic-Michonne in both personality and storyline.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences, non-spoiler style:
Pacing – The comic’s pacing is faster, but it’s also kind of exhausting. The show takes a little more time to flesh out the characters and their motives, while the comic is much more “GO GO GO” from plot-point to plot-point. So that’s a personal preference thing. I prefer a more measured pace, and foreshadowing, which the show does much better. Almost every comic book villain, new character, or general threat literally walks up to the group and goes “hey I’m here now.”
Plot – The comic has a tighter plot, and its arcs are much shorter and generally tighter. The comic gets the win here.
Characters – Show, all the way. All the way show. It’s a trade-off thing – having a tighter plot and faster pace almost always leaves the characters a bit high and dry. Don’t get me wrong, I love both sets of characters, but I feel like I knew the TV characters better after the same amount of time.
There are exceptions. TV Andrea is terrible, while comic Andrea is pretty cool. I mean, she’s not really a deep character (tough sniper chick is pretty much as deep as it gets with her), but she’s at least rad, which goes a long way in my book. Comic Lori is much more likable and clearly motivated, where TV Lori just seemed like a drama bomb the writers used to fluff up storylines.
However, Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Carol, and Maggie are FAR superior to the comics, and since they’re pretty much the core of the story it gets the win for me.
Favorite Book of 2015 . . .
This year’s rough for picking a favorite, so I’ll cheat.
Best Characters: L.A. Confidential
Best Story and Pacing: The Martian
Best New World: The Lies of Locke Lamora
So, all told, this was a pretty damn fantastic year. Unlike last year’s rockier list, I enjoyed everything I read. If the low point was a decent Raymond Chandler novel, I call that a banner year. I didn’t read as many books as I’d like (I’m actually down like three or four from last year), but I chalk that up to becoming a new dad. Time just ain’t what it used to be, unfortunately.
I’ll see you next year with even more books! Go and read, it makes you smarter.