My pick for the Best Book of the Year and other reading highlights of 2014

Total Books Read 207

 
The 5 enjoyed the most:

 
*My pick for the best book of the year*
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those books that you don’t want to finish and when it is you can’t stop thinking about it. Every one of the 530 pages is a gem. You follow two lives that are unknowingly, to them, intertwined – that of a young French girl that goes blind as a child, and a young orphaned German boy. I don’t want to tell too much of the plot because part of the joy of this story is its unfolding. It is nearly impossible to find the words to describe this elegant, mesmerizing, story of two people caught up in WWII and the unimaginable affect of science, music and words in a book.

The Martian by Andy Weir – There are some books that you can read and thoroughly enjoy, but a year or two later the memory of the book has faded. If you see the name of the book, you remember that you read it, but that’s about all. There are other books that you will always remember. For me, The Martian is one of those. An astronaut is presumed dead and left behind when a tremendous storm forces the rest of his crew to leave the planet in a hurry. But Mark Watney isn’t dead and is determined to survive. I don’t know how possible the scenario is. It doesn’t really matter to me, since this is fiction. But Andy Weir makes you absolutely believe it is possible and you cheer for Mark every step of the way.

The Samurai’s Garden – I finished this book by Gail Tsukiyama in tears. Stephen, a young Chinese, is at college when he contracts TB and his family sends him to their summer home in Japan to get well. He will be in the care of Matsu, an older man whom Stephen always felt was very remote. Away from the hectic, frenzied world of China Stephen finds himself in the quiet remote village. This book is not for anyone that demands action or conflict or high drama but it will be one of the treasures on my bookshelves. The writing is spare, clean and lovely.

The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin was the second in the Matthew Swift series that started with The Madness of Angels. I fell in love with this authors writing when I read the YA trilogy that began with The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle under her real name Catherine Webb. The plot, the characters are great, the writing brilliant. It is not a quick read, but it is enjoyable every single minute. Matthew Swift/blue angel is once again in a world of trouble. Yes, the plot is exceptional, the dialogue great, characters that you can’t help but be involved with – but the real greatness of the book (and all the other books by this writer) is the beauty of her writing. “Life is magic.” I find it sad that those people who think they wouldn’t like urban fantasy will miss knowing what a fantastic writer Kate Griffen/Catherine Webb is.

 
Measuring Eternity by Martin Gorst- What an excellent read! Measuring Infinity traces the search for the time the Earth was created, a search that began as early as 400+ years AD, and ultimately the birth of the universe as well.

It covers the scientists we are all familiar with and those we have probably never heard of. It covers the exciting ‘real’ discoveries and the amusing ‘mistakes’. It shows the great scientists, such as Newton and Einstein, making ‘right’ discoveries and their heartbreak when they were sometimes glaringly wrong.

The book shows the wide range of disciplines that were involved. The early naturalists – working to find answers through biology, fossils, geology and later the chemists and physicists.

The book is well written, telling you a tale of search, rather than being pages of data and formulas. It is a tale of people.

It’s even fun. At the end of the 1600s, people were trying to explain how fossils were buried in so many layers of the earth, – if they had been deposited by the Flood. One explanation was that ‘the water for the Flood came from an interior ocean hidden beneath the Earth’s crust. In the normal state this was held in place by gravity, but at the time of the Flood, God had momentarily suspended the full force of gravity and the water had spilled out.’ Later when God restored the gravity the fossils were sank by their density – therefore the heavier ones being lowest.

Other great reads
Two Old Women by Velma Wallis
Death of a Swagman by Arthur Upfield
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
Endangered Alphabets by Tim Brooks

Not so good
Concealed in Death by J. D. Robb
Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter
Dakota by Gwen Florio
Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block
Black House by Peter May

5 Most Enjoyed Hard-Boiled Detectives
The Last Cop Out by Mickey Spillane
Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estleman
Retro by Loren D. Estleman
Black-Eyed Blonde  by Benjamin Black
Ice Cold Kill by Dana Haynes

Enjoyed Sci-fi/Steampunk
Lock In by John Scalzi
The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder
The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick

5 Most Enjoyed Mystery Oldies
The Mouse In the Mountain by Norbert Davis
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Death of a Swagman by Arthur Upfield
Maigret and the Bum by Georges Simenon
Murder By the Book by Rex Stout

Series present challenges
Skin Game by Jim Butcher was a delight, more like the earlier books than the last few.
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan C. Bradley was a slight disappointment. Flavia had lost a bit of her brightness.
Another slight disappointment was The Long Way Home by Louise Penny. I didn’t enjoy Armitage in his ‘retired’ status.
Concealed in Death was awful.

Special Highlights
Sometimes a book is just ‘fun’ or it was just the ‘right’ book at the ‘right’ time.
The Corpse Wore Pasties by Johny Porkpie was one such. It wasn’t great writing, or even a challenging mystery, but it was tons of fun.
Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters seemed like the perfect historical mystery. Couldn’t see it getting any better than this.

 

May 2015 by a great reading year for everyone.

Blood on the Water by Anne Perry

blood on the waterThis is the 20th, and perhaps the best, book in the Monk series. Here, Monk is witness to the explosion of sinking of a pleasure boat on the Thames and the loss of over 200 people. The investigation should fall to Monk and the River Police, but it is handed over to the Metropolitan Police and the reason given is that it is ‘politically sensitive’. Monk watches as a man is quickly arrested, brought to trial and convicted of the crime, but flashes of memory of what he saw that night leads him to believe the wrong man has been found guilty. When evidence turns up that the convicted man could not have been the guilty party the case is handed back to the River Police.

They find and arrest another man, but it will be impossible to find him guilty in court as long as another person has been convicted of the crime. In order to prosecute, the first case must be overturned. Monk finds there is a lot of political ambition, and other motives at work to prevent this from happening, and they can’t find a motive.

As in the other Monk books, questions must be asked and answered about personal honor and integrity, the purpose of law, and how far can a person bend in order to protect the people they love without losing their moral compass.

The characters from former books in the series are here, as real as ever, but one could fully enjoy the book without having read any of the earlier books. The case has a good sense of reality about it. In our ideal worlds there is no corruption, no cover-ups, but in the actual world we know differently. The way the case evolves seems only too possible and the ending proves that truth, even painful truth, revealed at the beginning could never be as damaging as truth revealed after attempts to cover up the facts and corrupt justice. (A fact that people in power, and those that crave power, never seem to grasp.)

The book was tremendously enjoyable and I look forward to the next in this great series.

Shoot to Kill & Kiss the Dames – a fond look at hard-boiled detectives

The hard-boiled detective is America’s contribution to the mystery genre.  For a good hard-boiled detective story you need a sarcastic, licensed private eye, with a loyal secretary who often hasn’t been paid regularly due to lack of funds, a few gunshots, a dead body or two, at least one beautiful dame probably called ‘sweetheart’ and the gum-shoe getting fired from the case but sticking with it because of his/her own moral code. Get out your old books and enjoy!

 

Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer

Lew Archer goes mostly undescribed but in THE DOOMSTERS he is referred to as being 6’2″ with blue eyes. He drinks too much, is weary in his soul and thinks about his ex-wife a lot.

He did describe himself once:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself. I was a good Joe after all. Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all. The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile. All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer. The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms. If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.” (THE MOVING TARGET)

 

Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op

The Continental Op is unnamed but we do know he is short and fat. Tough as nails, he has no sentimentality and no sympathy. He is just trying to do his job in a very messed up world. The most feeling he shows was when he shot a woman: “I never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.” (THE GUTTING OF GUFFIGNAL)

He was described thus in THE DAIN CURSE:

“You came in just now, and then I saw -”

She stopped.

“What?”

“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

 

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

Hammett described Spade: “…he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Spade was also good with the one-liners as these from THE MALTESE FALCON show:

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”  

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Marlowe was great with the wise cracks, drank whisky, played chess, and didn’t have a secretary. He describes himself:

“There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade.” (THE BIG SLEEP)

“Okay, Marlowe,” I said between my teeth. “You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

Marlowe has reappeared in THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black. Honest, you wouldn’t know that Chandler didn’t write it unless I told you, it’s that good.

 

Leigh Brackett’s Ed Clive

At a time when the field was dominated by male writers, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer of short stories, created a hard-boiled detective named Ed Clive in her first novel, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE. The novel was so good that film director Howard Hawks told his people to “get that guy Brackett”. She wrote the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE among other big flicks.

Clive is a tough, tough-guy. He gets hit over the head so many times you wonder if he has a steel plate up there:

“Did it hurt much, getting hit like that?”

Clive laughed. “I hardly notice those things any more. You get hardened to it.

She studied his face intently. “I guess a detective has to be tough. Are you tough, Mr. Clive?”

“How do I look?”

“Tough. Awfully tough.”  (NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE)

 

 Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker

The things Walker doesn’t like would make a book – gun control, non-smokers, liberals, and feminists just to give you an idea. He’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in the side of the authorities. He’s the guy for whom the term “tough guy” was invented.

“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos responds to a suggestion that he see a doctor after he’s slugged (again). (THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR)

 

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Spillane never claimed to be a “good” writer. He wrote to sell books, and sell they did. His 13 Mike Hammer books sold over 225 million copies. Clad in the private eye’s traditional trench-coat with his hat brim pulled down low, Mike Hammer was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, private detective who carried a .45 Colt.

He wasn’t interested in catching the killers. He figured the legal system would mess it up. He cared about justice and he was more than willing to shoot to kill a killer. In the first five books of the Hammer series, Hammer dispatches 34 dirty, low-down killers.

Hammer’s saving grace may be that two good people were his friends and cared about him, Velda, his secretary, and Pat Chambers, Homicide Captain of the NYPD.

Spillane describes him thus: “Imagine this guys hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic] and knocks him out. You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic]; he’ll beat the crap out of you.”

There are some very modern lady detectives that are hard-boiled as well, and they are for another time.