Top Ten Reads of 2013

Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at my Top Ten list this year, 2013 was a good year for me in discovering new writers. Those new discoveries aren’t completely unrepresented here – both Gary McMahon and Aaron Dries made the list – but there would be a lot more unknowns if it hadn’t been such a strong year for established authors. The King family dominates the first three spots, and may have been even more of a presence had I had the opportunity to read the releases by Owen King (Double Feature) and his wife Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself), both of which I hope to get to in 2014. Ace Atkins has become a perennial favorite with dual releases each of the last couple of years in his own Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels (this year’s Spenser, Wonderland, is another unfortunate victim of didn’t-get-to-it.) Tom Piccirilli is a mainstay on my yearly list of favorites, as are Daniel Woodrell and Justin Cronin in the years they release books.

If I have any reading goals for 2014, it’s simply to read more. More variety. More volume. Catch up on the ones I missed last year and stay ahead of the curve this year. Revisit some old favorites and seek out new talent. Chop down that massive to-be-read pile. Yeah – good luck with all of that. The great thing, and the cursed thing, about books is they just keep coming.

So, without further adieu, here’s my Top Ten Reads of 2013. I’ve linked to full reviews of the books when appropriate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the list, as well as your own top reads of 2013 – the comments section is at your disposal. Thanks to all of you for visiting October Country in 2013 – Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

1. Joyland by Stephen King
2. 
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
3. Doctor Sleep by Stephen
King
4. The Broken Places by Ace
Atkins
5. The Maid’s Version by Daniel
Woodrell
6. Turn Down the Lights edited by Richard Chizmar
7. The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom
Piccirilli
8. The Bones of You by Gary McMahon
9. The Fallen Boys by Aaron Dries
10. The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Book Review: ‘Hot In December’ by Joe R. Lansdale

HotInDecemberAll Tom Chan wanted to do was grill up a little supper for his family. He was just doing what he’d probably done a hundred times before – standing at the grill, looking out at the quiet suburban street he lived on, thinking of nothing in particular. But instead of the usual calm, forgettable scene, what he saw was a neighbor run down by a speeding car – a car that kept on going while the woman lay crushed and bleeding in the street.

From that point on, things in Tom Chan’s life turn upside-down.

Joe R. Lansdale spins another unforgettable tale in Hot In December, available now in a variety of editions (from ebook to deluxe limited) from Dark Regions Press. Nobody writes better blue collar, “regular joe,” down-to-earth characters than Lansdale, and Tom Chan is the kind of guy we can all relate to. He’s done his time in the military and had hoped that all of that sort of conflict was behind him. He’s got a strong moral center, though, and when he gets a glimpse of the hit-and-run driver he knows he has to help the police bring him in. Unfortunately, the man he saw at the wheel is in deep with the Dixie Mafia – deep enough that even the cops are willing to let Chan off the hook should he “forget” the face of the driver altogether.

Caught between what he knows is right and the potential danger doing the right thing could bring to his family, Chan turns to a couple of his military buddies for advice and assistance. One of his buddies is Cason Statler, an award-winning journalist. The other is a guy called Booger, a cold, remorseless killing machine. The three hash out a plan that will protect Chan’s family even as it puts him square in the sights of some of the baddest men in LaBorde, Texas.

This is a novella with roots in a lot of Lansdale’s other works – the Dixie Mafia is a prominent player in the “Hap and Leonard” novels Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, and Cason Statler’s grandmother is none other than Sunset Jones from Sunset and Sawdust. I love it when authors weave their various stories into a single world, and Lansdale has a lot of fun dropping these little tidbits throughout Hot In December without pulling the focus away from the business at hand.

It’s a dark story, but Lansdale brings his trademark wit to the table, providing plenty of needed levity even as Chan falls deeper into a rabbit hole of danger and violence. His prose is sharp and lean, and his characterization is spot-on as usual. If you’re a Lansdale fan, I don’t need to sell you on this. If you’re not, this short book is as good a place to jump on as any.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger You Know’ by Andrea Kane

the-stranger-you-know-by-andrea-kaneAndrea Kane’s The Stranger You Know is the third book in the Forensics Instincts series. Forensics Instincts is a crack investigative group that draws on top talents in disciplines like surveillance and behavioral science, headed up by its tough, intelligent founder, Casey Woods. I’ve not read either of the previous F.I. books but it wasn’t much of a disadvantage, as Kane finds ample opportunity to bring new readers up to speed on the skills and relationships that inform the team’s dynamic.

The Stranger You Know centers around a character from one of those previous F.I. books, The Girl Who Disappeared Twice. In that book, serial killer Glen Fisher was caught and locked away by the team, and even though he remains in jail he’s found a way to go after them, and Woods in particular. Girls with physical similarities and deeply-buried connections to Woods are dying, and somehow Fisher is pulling the strings from prison. The body count is mounting on a daily basis, and the man responsible is making it clear that Woods herself is the intended endgame.

Much of this is going to be familiar ground to regular thriller readers. Serial killers seeking revenge on their pursuers, the prisoner manipulating events from his cell, the “random” victims who aren’t random at all – it’s all standard thriller fodder. Kane does introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of F.I. teammate Claire, an “intuitive” (i.e., a psychic) whose abilities help the team hone in on the killer. Claire’s presence is a strong asset for the F.I. team, but Kane is for the most part judicious in her use of the character, resisting the urge to let the convenience of psychic ability pave over every difficult plot point.

Overall, The Stranger You Know isn’t breaking any new ground. As far as I’m concerned, though, familiarity doesn’t automatically breed contempt. You can tell me a story I’ve heard before as long as you tell it in a compelling way, and although I never got deeply invested in these characters or this story, Kane did at least hold my interest throughout.

The main stumbling block for me in this book is the dialogue. Achieving a natural conversational flow in dialogue is essential in building compelling characters, and Kane really struggles with this in my opinion. For example, when describing a crime in progress to a police officer, one character says, “It could be a fait accompli already.” Later on, someone says, “I’ll be doing yoga in the third-floor office where I store my mats.” It’s too stilted, too specific when compared to the way people actually talk, and lines like this popped up multiple times, pulling me completely out of the story each time.

Misgivings aside, I found The Stranger You Know to be a solid thriller. It’s got the convoluted plot and brisk pacing that you want, but it lacks the strong characterization and innovative approach that would elevate it for me. As it stands, Kane’s new novel is a fine diversion and fun, if ultimately forgettable, read.

Subterranean Press to release limited ‘Books of Blood’ set in 2014

The_Books_of_Blood_by_Clive_Barker_Volume_SixStart saving your pennies, kids.

Subterranean Press has announced plans to publish a six volume signed limited edition set of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in 2014. This will mark the first U.S. publication of the set in six separate hardcover volumes. Previously we’ve only gotten them separately here as paperbacks, with the first three volumes going under the Books of Blood banner and the last three titled after individual short stories (volume four was The Inhuman Condition, volume five was In the Flesh, and volume six was Cabal, which lumped the short stories together with the title novella).

The set will also feature Barker’s original dust jacket art from the UK first edition hardcovers.

Books of Blood is one of the most important and influential collections in modern horror fiction, and it launched the career of one of our most treasured creators. Subterranean (which has released a 25th anniversary edition of Barker’s Weaveworld and has Chilead: A Meditation in the works) does beautiful work, and I have no doubt they’ll craft a worthy vessel for Barker’s stories.

Book Review: ‘The Last Night of October’ by Greg Chapman

LastNightOctoberHorror stories set on Halloween night are a dime a dozen these days, particularly among American horror authors. It makes sense; many of today’s active authors grew up in the time when Halloween was still a rite of passage. It was a night when you set out on your own, just you and your pals, seeking out candy and mischief. Sure, you were only out for a little while, and you were in the relatively safe confines of your own neighborhood, but for many it was the first taste of real freedom.

But that freedom often came tinged with the first taste of real fear as well. It was the first time out in the night, alone, without the comforting (if slightly annoying) backup provided by Mom and Dad. Everyone was clad in costumes that might look like cheap rubber and plastic in the light of day, but were much more effective in the shadows of night. That mix of exhiliration and uneasiness is wonderful to look back on, and countless authors try to capture it year after year with decidedly mixed results.

Greg Chapman is from Australia – a country for which Halloween has had very little significance in the past – but with The Last Night of October he’s quite successful in his efforts to invoke that mix of fear and wonder associated with the holiday.

Gerald Forsyth is a man who feels genuine terror each time Halloween approaches, and for good reason: what started out as a typical night of trick-or-treating for him many years ago took a sudden, tragic turn, and the old man has been dodging the consequences ever since. As the book opens he’s going through his typical Halloween night routine, which is to lock the house down tight and sweat out the hours ’till dawn.

One of the reasons this novella works so well is the way Chapman slowly doles out the backstory. We’re in the dark for much of the first half of the story as to why Forsyth is so scared. The same can be said for Kelli Pritchard, the young home health care attendant who shows up just as night is falling to check on the sickly old man. Kelli is subbing for Forsyth’s regular nurse, and her stubborn commitment to her job is a broken cog in the man’s carefully orchestrated routine. It’s Kelli that answers a knock on Forsyth’s door, inadvertantly letting in the one thing Forsyth is desperate to keep out and setting off a chain of events that has been a long time coming.

Chapman weaves his story with cold, economical precision. There’s very little fat here, especially once Forsyth, Kelli and their strange visitor are locked in together. Even as he takes us back in time to relive Forsyth’s worst Halloween he keeps the story moving forward. The result is a quick read that will linger much longer than a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Don’t wait until next Halloween to give this one a shot – The Last Night of October will deliver chills all year ’round.

Book Review: ‘Doctor Sleep’ by Stephen King

doctor-sleep-01In the afterword to his new novel, Doctor Sleep, Stephen King notes that he approached writing the book with some trepidation. Trepidation is exactly what I felt when I first heard it was coming out – and if you know me, you know that’s an unusual reaction to news of a new King book.

But this isn’t “just another book,” and it isn’t even “just another sequel.” It’s a follow-up to one of his most successful and enduring works. The Shining was part of that initial, volcanic output that announced King’s arrival, and it holds a very dear place in the heart of his massive fanbase. King knew this, and he was worried about letting people down. I was worried about a letdown, too.

Fortunately, King is too smart and too talented to succumb to the traps that kill so many sequels. This is not The Shining 2: Shinier, where a group of ghosthunters camp out at the ruins of The Overlook Hotel to be picked off one-by-one by the vengeful spirit of Jack Torrance. Doctor Sleep shares a character with The Shining, and its events are influenced in many ways by its predecessor, but it’s not trying to be The Shining. And that, Constant Readers, is why it works.

Where The Shining is a classic ghost story, Doctor Sleep is a high-concept thrill ride. In The Shining we see King using the traditional elements of haunted house stories – isolation, unseen presences, noises in the night, spectral figures, etc. – to great effect. In Doctor Sleep, we have confrontations between two groups, we have missions that must be carried out in tight timelines, and we have an eclectic group of villains, about whom nothing – from their colorful names to their unique powers – is traditional.

As usual, it’s King’s strong character work that elevates the material for me. In Dan Torrance, King transitions effortlessly from the little boy we’ve all been wondering about for the last 36 years to the adult known as “Doctor Sleep.” Dan is older now, and he’s damaged, but there’s no doubt that it’s the same character. I have a hard time referring to him as a character, to be honest; to me he’s a person, and that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can possibly pay to King as a writer. He makes these people come alive, and that’s why his work endures.

Just as we’ve wondered what happened to Danny, I’m betting we’ll all be wondering about Abra Stone in the years to come. King writes her with the perfect mix of rebelliousness, confidence and vulnerability. Too much of any of those would have rendered her flat and lifeless, but here she lives and breathes.

Rose the Hat, leader of the True Knot clan of psychic vampires, is a shallow creature, and that’s exactly what makes her so complex. Here’s someone who’s survived on a mix of gut instinct and wisdom gathered over centuries, but who hasn’t quite mastered her ego. Her power, and the powers of those in the Knot, have paved a clear path for them over the years, and once the road gets bumpy she learns what she’s truly made of. Watching her unravel from cold calculation to white-hot rage is as immensely entertaining as it is genuinely frightening.

The best moments of Doctor Sleep, though, are the quiet ones. There’s a place early in the novel when Dan is demonstrating just how he’s picked up his odd nickname. He’s sitting at the bedside of a man named Charlie Hayes, a man who’s just entered the book and is close to exiting. It’s a touching and beautiful moment as King compresses an entire lifetime into a few sentences, and we find ourselves mourning a man whose good and decent journey is coming to an end.

King’s made his living scaring the hell out of us, but it’s writing like this that will make his legacy. It’s writing like this that keeps me coming back. And it’s writing like this that makes writing a sequel to The Shining seem like a damn good idea.