Favorite books of 2018

“What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies “the best”? Are they our favorites? Are they “movies we got to see before the deadline”? In my case, it’s some combination of all three — but I’m really quite happy with the aggregate results.” — Jim Emerson

This year’s end of year piece is bigger than previous ones I’ve written. 2018 was my biggest reading year in a long time. My job duties changed and I am spending more time driving, so I decided to make the most of it and started listening to audiobooks. By far, my greatest consumption was audiobooks. Because of the higher number I decided that I would err on the side of robustness for my end of year round up.

The form I eventually settled was: Book of the Year (on because there was one), top reads of the year (not limited by release year), and finally a longer list of notable reads (2018 releases, re-reads, older releases, graphic novels, and non-fiction).

Book of the year: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – On the surface, Indian Horse is about hockey and the Indian Residential School system in Canada, but it encompasses so much more: trauma, loss of culture, loss of identity, growing, and the long hard path to righting your ship when so many forces were hell-bent on sinking it. It’s told in an intimate, confessional way that draws you into the narrative, deeply investing the reader into the story of Saul Indian Horse.

Top 10 read of 2018

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello – This fantastic essay collection uses the form of a bestiary and well known animals as a starting point to explore various topics. It is witty, insightful, and entertaining as hell. If you ever have  chance to hear/see the author perform the final essay, do so (Koko the gorilla using her limited vocabulary to tell the infamous joke, The Aristocrats).

Brother Anhia Ahlborn – Brother is sharply told, has characters that will evoke strong feelings, some you will support, some you will loathe. By the time you suspect where the story is heading it is too late, you are strapped in for the ride. And as bad as you think it will get, it winds up being worse.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay – Potent mix of home invasion story and end of the world story. Probably the tensest book I read all year.

Cockblock by CV Hunt – Cockblock is a fresh take on the zombie story, one for the Me Too era. It also acts as a critique on the pervasiveness of technology and how quickly information can spread. The world created here is a patriarchal system cranked up to 11 with women leading the larger resistance that must take place to stop the President. It veers from the horrific to the humorous while maintaining a relentless drive forward.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemison – NK Jemison won the Hugo award in 2018 for The Stone Sky, the third book in the Broken Earth series. Her consecutive wins  courted some backlash from those against a more inclusive genre. This seemed to be the perfect time to read one of her books, so I went to the library and grabbed a copy of The Fifth Season. The Fifth is a sophisticated book that demands the readers attention. You start off in the deep end of a of a new world and Jemison masterfully doles out information and developments as needed to control how the world expands and opens up and succeeds in keeping the reader hooked.

The Last Cowboys by John Branch – An insightful book about a multi-generational ranching family increasingly relying on a multi-generational dominance in the sport of rodeo. This is a fascinating peek into a world that is shrinking with time.

Sisyphean by Dempow Torishima – The most original piece of fiction I read all year. There is an astounding amount of imagination on display here.

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard – A fractured narrative about a dying man, written by a dying man, each fracture is a crystalline moment that provides yet another fleeting glimpse of the themes that Sam Shepard grappled with. No conclusions are reached at the end of a life examined. We wouldn’t have Sam Shepard’s final book any other way.

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley – I was a big fan of Hurley’s God’s War from a few years ago and I look forward to each new book she writes. This one is from last year.

There There by Tommy Orange – Tommy Orange takes a braided approach to give the reader a cross section of modern Native American life in America, specifically in Oakland California. And it ain’t always pretty. Sometimes it is messy and sometimes it is raw. But it will always be real.

Notable Books by Category

Notable 2018 ReleasesThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente, Green Sun by Kent Anderson, Sunburn by Laura Lippman, The Line That Held Us by David Joy, Where the Bullets Fly by Terrance McCauley, Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias, Lost Films anthology, Pull & Pray by Angel Luis Colon

Notable re-readsSadie When She Died by Ed McBain, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain, Shane by Jack Schaefer, Lew Griffin series by James Sallis, Fat City by Leonard Gardner, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, Warlock by Oakley Hall, A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean

Notable older releasesThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, The Rider by Tim Krabbe, Death Wish by Brian Garfield, The Day the Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton, Certain Dark Things by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Notable Graphic NovelsTetris by Box Brown, Paper Girls by Brian Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Saga by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling by Aubrey Sitterson and Chris Moreno, Cousin Joseph by Jules Feiffer

Notable Non-fictionKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, Lady Killers by Tori Telfer

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Advent Days 10, 9 & 8: Horror

There’s a slim possibility that I may have to adjust my advent list before I’m finished, and not for the first time. Blackkklansman was something I watched less than a week ago, and we’re on a new show now that just might make the cut.

So, it’s a bit of a gamble putting all three of these movies out there already because it limits what else can be taken off, but I figure if I really get stuck I’ll just add a bonus item.

This was the year that I finally let Brian indulge his inner horror film geek in October, although only one of these three films is from that month. I honestly don’t think much of slasher flicks. Back when they were new, the 80s versions of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and Chucky freaked me out, and not in a good way.

This year, I watched a number of horror films that I liked. Three made my list.

Hereditary

This likely comes as no surprise, since it was a big hit this year. I had to pick up a dead bird’s body the next day at the dog park, though, which was not cool. Not cool at all.

It Comes At Night

Psychological horror at its best. I was really surprised by this story. Some aspects of it are beautifully simple, but I think that’s the key.

It

I never watched the original and I saw this version alone. Really well done. Strong cast. No surprise it was well received.

 

PS: If you’re in the mood for more horror, Hulu had a strong showing with Castle Rock. There’s an episode with Sissy Spacek that’s absolutely amazing. If I was doing a list of the best episodes of the year, there’s no doubt in my mind that episode would be on it. The entire season would be worth watching  just for ‘The Queen’, as though the amazing cast and fascinating storyline wasn’t enough of a reason to watch already.

Advent Day 11: Barry

Advent Day 12: Salt

Advent Day 13: Blackkklansman

Advent Day 14: Dark

Advent Day 15: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

Advent Day 16: Terror is our Business: Dana Roberts’ Casebook of Horror

Advent Day 17: Freeze-Frame Revolution

Advent Day 18: Haunting of Hill House

Advent Day 19: Wind River

Advent Day 20: Letterkenny

Advent Day 21: Black Mirror

Advent Day 22: The Oddling Prince

Advent Day 23: The Americans

Advent Day 24: Fight Fascism

Advent Day 25: Bodyguard

Advent Day 26: Baskets

Advent Day 27: Literature

Eclectic Mayhem 2: The Native Flu

coyoteCoyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

On a map it’s easy to look at a line and call it a border. Down on the ground though, borders are amorphous spaces where people and things blend and mingle and aren’t always so clear cut. Within that blending, magic happens. That’s one reason why walls suck. Coyote Songs takes a mosaic approach to showing us some of the stories on the border. Stories with heart that have some genuinely awesome moments and some genuinely moving moments.

Coyote Songs at times occupies some of the same limnal space as “The Cowboy Bible” by Carlos Velázquez and “The Kidnapped Space” by B Traven. Which, to be clear, isn’t to suggest that Coyote Songs is derivative in any way, but only that this mosaic novel is itself, one tile of a larger mosaic of Border fiction.

brotherBrother by Ania Ahlborn

The great writer Derek Raymond, influenced by classic 20th Century American hardboiled crime fiction wrote of the black novel. He said, in part, that, “The black novel…describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals with the question of turning a small frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle — the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain.” The black novel is similar to noir.

Sometimes the best noirs are what I call accidental noirs. Meaning, the author didn’t necessarily set out to write a noir story, but one emerged out of the darkness. I’m often wary of noir used as a descriptor or marketing term. If an author or the marketing surrounding a story categorize it as noir, I’m skeptical. But those accidental noirs, the venture out into the darkness? Those are special. Brother isn’t, strictly speaking, a noir. But it is a black novel and any basement noir crazies out there should check it out.

Brother is sharply told, has characters that will evoke strong feelings, some you will support, some you will loathe. By the time you suspect where the story is heading it is too late, you are strapped in for the ride. And as bad as you think it will get, it winds up being worse.

lineThe Line That Held Us by David Joy

The Line That Held Us got me thinking about the Lindenmuth men in my own family. My great-grandfather, Old Heck, was a trapper in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He would spend months at a time out trapping, come back to town to sell his pelts, drop off some money to my great-grandmother (presumably), and head back out. My grandfather had a large nose, so people around town started calling him Old Hook. He was an avid and life long hunter. My grandfather took my Dad hunting when he was a boy. He sighted a deer and, in that moment, realized he didn’t want to shoot it. He also realized that he couldn’t tell grandfather this so, in an elegant solution, shot the ground off to the side of the deer, scaring it. You see, he realized that the most important thing for him to do, in the moment, was to pull the trigger. It was better to pull the trigger and miss then to not pull the trigger at all. And I have never been hunting (but I have no problem with it, to be clear).

Over the years this progression has been jokingly called both the evolution of man and the de-evolution of man. While it makes for a good punch line, it sacrifices accuracy. If one is feeling generous, they could place the Lindenmuth men along a kind of continuum that might represent the wild on one side and something like civilized on the other.

The three main male characters in The Line That Held Us fall at different places along a similar continuum. Dwayne is wild and not fit for town living. He follows more primal ways and cuts right through the often unspoken norms that bind a society. Calvin is a guy who lives and works and succeeds fully within the bounds of society. He has a job, a woman that loves him, and goals and things he wants to accomplish. In a way that most of us understand, he has the most to lose. The man that connects them is Darl, who has a foot in each world. He wants to spend as much time as possible out in the woods, hunting. But he needs his connections to those in his small circle of family and friends. His presence in each world recharges his battery for his presence in the other.

The men on this continuum will clash and the outcomes won’t be neat. How they clash and the messiness that ensues is for the reader to find out.

8193+a8LxALIndian Horse by Richard Wagamese

On the surface, Indian Horse is about hockey and the Indian Residential School system in Canada, but it encompasses so much more: trauma, loss of culture, loss of identity, growing, and the long hard path to righting your ship when so many forces were hell-bent on sinking it. It’s told in an intimate, confessional way that draws you into the narrative, deeply investing the reader into the story of Saul Indian Horse.

Richard Wagamese died in 2017 and I’m sorry it took this long to read him, I’m now a fan and can’t wait to read his other books. He has said on numerous occasions that Indian Horse, originally, was intended to be a “Shoeless Joe does hockey” novel. I have no doubt that Kinsella’s novel was the starting point and structure and inspiration for Indian Horse but it is more akin to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, especially in the sections of the book that describe hockey and everything that it means and is capable of. But also in the way the it deals with the helplessness of wanting to help someone but not being able to or knowing how.

Upon finishing Indian Horse I had the rare feeling of wanting to immediately read it again. And I’m sure I will again, soon.

Side note: The hilarious and profane Canadian TV show Letterkenny has a running joke about the Native hockey teams. In the world of the show, the Native teams are so tough and so feared that when teams have to play them, some players are inevitably sick and can’t play those games. Those players that call out are said to have “the native flu”. After reading Indian Horse, and its representation of how the Native players learn the game, and the conditions they play under, especially when compared to their white counterparts, it’s easy to see how that reputation can develop.

Indian Horse was made into a movie and released earlier in 2018. I look forward to checking it out when it becomes available.

Online Issue 19: Countdown To C-Day

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Following the Thanksgiving goodies in Issue 18 (Rusty Barnes, Susanna Beard, Barbara Winkes, Jenn Stroud Rossmann) we return this week to a transitional issue.

First, Wendy Webb talks about Daughters of the Lake. Imagine experiencing the dreams of a dead woman. Creepy!

CJ Lyons not only shares the goodies on her TBR pile (Laini Taylor, Ben Winters, Joseph Luzzi to name a few), but she also talks about the inspiration for The Color of Lies.

“What if someone’s entire life was colored by what they wanted to believe instead of what was real? Answering that question led to The Color of Lies.”

And I kick off the Christmas festivities for this issue with Day 27 of my advent calendar.

‘Best of’ lists are limited; no single person has read every book or seen every movie or TV show released in a year. No single person has read any book even in just one genre.

I can only say what I’ve enjoyed from what I’ve consumed. To say it’s the ‘best of’ the year is, at best, inaccurate. At worst, conceited.

That’s why I’ve decided to do an advent calendar, leading up to Christmas, featuring something I’ve enjoyed from the past year every day from now until December 24. This advent special will include books, movies, TV series and more.

What I’m featuring on the Advent calendar is presented in no particular order.

My first Advent feature is a book I read in the summer, and you can find out more here.

Eryk Pruitt, Vicki Hendricks, Gary Philips, Christa Faust and more: what Rusty Barnes has on tap for holiday reading

What are some of the titles in your current TBR pile?

Townies-Cover-DesaturatedI only buy new books on Kindle these days, so what’s on deck is mostly newish material: My Darkest Prayer, by S.A. Cosby, The Long and Faraway Gone, by Lou Berney, Townies, by Erik Pruitt, Peepland, by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips, Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks, The Girl from Blind River, by Gale Massey.

What book are you currently reading?

Some Die Nameless, by Wallace Stroby. The opening action scene seems to me to be a clinic in how to do it well, and so far, it’s taking a grizzled old plot–the over-the-hill special operative brought in for one last job–and making it new for me again. I’m also reading the poet Philip Larkin’s letters over. He was a complicated and curmudgeonly man who wrote some the most beautiful and feeling poems I’ve ever read while simultaneously being an often repellent personality, at least in some of his correspondence.

What do you hope to add to your TBR pile soon and why?

There’s a new biography of Ross MacDonald I’ve been itching to get to after reading his correspondence with Eudora Welty, as it’d be tough to find two more distinctly different writers. I’m a fan of Welty’s from way back when my obsession with things Southern began twenty-five years ago in the Kmart bargain book lot when I discovered Larry Brown and now I want to become a fan of MacDonald’s based on the letters.

Bonus: Which author do you want to see have a new book out soon?

I have a hankering for Appalachian literature lately having finished my friend Charles Dodd White’s most recent–and great–book In the House of Wilderness, so it would be especially nice to see a new Ron Rash or Pinckney Benedict novel or to see Chris barnes-the-last-danger-3Holbrook or Chris McGinley publish a new book. They have a knack for the vernacular and a love for the country,which shows in the writing. I’m always on the lookout for new crime writers, too, but I keep my ear pretty close to the ground on those.

Rusty talks about his latest novel, The Last Danger, here.

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Rusty Barnes is a 2018 Derringer Award finalist and author of the story collections Breaking it Down and Mostly Redneck, as well as four novels, Reckoning, Ridgerunner, Knuckledragger, and The Last Danger, His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies. He founded and edits the crime journal Tough.

 

Online Issue 17: “Living My Best Life”

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This issue begins and ends with mourning. We mark the passing of long-time reviewer and crime fiction enthusiast, Theodore Feit, with his final review.

We’re also reeling with the fresh pain from the news that Evie Swierczynski has passed away after her fight with leukemia. Many years ago, I was hired to travel to Philadelphia and interview Duane Swierczynski for a magazine feature. I got to meet his children and Meredith. I’m lucky enough to say I’ve known Duane for many years, and yet I do not know him and his family well … and yet Duane’s posts over the past several months have made many of us feel as though Evie was a part of our family, because he captured her spirit and shared her with us all.

All I really know today is that their grief is unfathomable. In the days and weeks ahead I’ll be thinking of Duane, Meredith and Parker as they begin the unfathomable journey forward without Evie.

One thing Duane mentioned months ago was that Evie always said, “Living my best life.” For her, it was a statement of sarcasm in response to misfortunes. (DS FB June 7)

May we all cherish the moments we have and truly live our best lives.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll see a list of ways to pay tribute to a loved one’s memory.

Sticking with the Music Theme

Paul D. Brazill’s Supernatural Noir is out in stores now, and he’s sharing his new work’s playlist with us.

Author Interviews

Kelli Owen talks being a Nerdy Klutz, how that impacts her zombie apocalypse plan, and what a vampire story has to do with prejudice.

Brian Lindenmuth chats with Terrence McCauley about writing westerns.

Robert White talks about Thomas Harris, David Lindsey and Martin Cruz Smith, his protagonist’s biggest fear, and how real life events inspired Northtown Eclipse.

When The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale Collide: Barbara Winkes talks about her Dystopian tale, Cypher.

Reviews:

Sandra Ruttan takes a look at In The Galway Silence, the latest Jack Taylor novel by Ken Bruen.

Brian also has a horror review column up, just in time for Halloween.

And, in sad news, the review of The Line by Martin Limon marks Theodore Feit’s final review. Our condolences to Gloria on Ted’s unexpected passing last month. He was a long-standing reviewer who was committed to sharing his love of books, and will be missed.

Actors Wanted

Tom Leins picks the Actors who Could play Joe Rey, the Gunrunner, Slattery and Wila.

To Be Read Features

Wondering what some of your favorite author are reading these days and hoping to crack open soon?

What Do John Verdon, Annette Dashofy, Gwen Floria, Eric Beetner and Kyle Mills Have in Common? JJ Hensley talks recent reads and more.

J.L. Abramo talks about global events that impact his current reading, works by Erik Larson and Bryan Burroughs and his hopes for new Tim O’Brien novels.

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Eclectic Mayhem – Halloween Horror Edition

I spent October reading horror. Here’s a couple of quick take reviews.

Cockblock by CV Hunt (Grindhouse Press) – I’ve been a fan of CV Hunt for a couple of years now. I missed it back in June when it first dropped but scooped it up with the quickness when I was prepping my reading list. The President is delivering a speech across all technologies that turns men to mindless rapists. The only way to stop them is a shot to the balls. Cockblock is a fresh take on the zombie story, one for the Me Too era. It also acts as a critique on the pervasiveness of technology and how quickly information can spread. The world created here is a patriarchal system cranked up to 11 with women leading the larger resistance that must take place to stop the President. It veers from the horrific to the humorous while maintaining a relentless drive forward. This is a very zeitgeisty novel without being overly obvious. Highly Recommended.

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Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books) / My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books): Grady Hendrix, with these books, writes what I’ll call horror with a light touch. They largely maintain a sense of fun, even through moments of genuine horror. There is nostalgia for the 70s/80s horror boom (an era we know Hendrix likes) without feeling like regurgitations or reproductions. Horrorstor is a haunted house story where the “house” in question is an Ikea knockoff store called Orsk (included are product descriptions that get increasingly more horrific). My Best Friend’s Exorcism seasons in some 80s nostalgia (never over the top) and brick by brick builds the great relationship between the two girls, building the the titular exorcism that will test them.

The first thing that needs to be said is that the physical versions of these books are gorgeous and are worth owning. Horrorstor is designed to look like, in part,  a store catalog. The paperback version of My Best Friend’s Exorcism looks like an 80s VHS tape.

It’s almost the kind of think you hate to say but, these two books might be a good fit for folks who say they don’t really like horror. Both Highly Recommended (though I liked My Best Friend a bit more).

 

 

The Last Safe Place by Rob Hart – Hey, remember that time Rob Hart, author of the successful Ash McKenna series, wrote a zombie novella? Wait, what? It’s out of print now but he did. In The Last Safe Place Rob Hart places his zombie apocalypse survivors on Governor’s Island in New York. They have cobbled together a surviving, but not necessarily thriving, community. Then shit goes wrong, as it always must. Clocking in at a little over 100 pages, it is the perfect length for Hart to get in, establish some characters and their relationships and dynamics then quickly jump to a couple of zombie action sequences. It’s lean, mean, and moves quick, exactly the way you want a story like this to be. Recommended

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Lost Films edited by Max Booth III and Lori Michelle (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing) – One of the things that I appreciate about this anthology, and what the fine folks at PMMP are doing, is that it can, in no way, be considered run of the mill. It’s unlikely they will ever publish an anthology with some general theme, like Haunted Houses. With them you get anthologies about haunted films, haunted sounds, or pizza horror. And that original starting point pushes the authors out of their comfort zones some, with some strong fiction as a result. Recommended.

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