Monday, August 5, 2013

The Final Countdown

As we enter our final week, Team Everyone Else and I are locked in a very close race. Fewer than 50 pages separates us, so with 5 days to go, it's anybody's game. The race for the individual award (a Kindle Fire!) is just as close, so it's all going to come down to the last day.

Before I give you my reading list, I want to take a minute to thank you for helping me get the word out about the contest and for keeping the kids excited and reading. It's much appreciated.

Now, without further ado, the books:

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

There has been a wonderful trend recently of fantasies from a non-Western perspective. This has enabled authors like Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemison, Tobias Buckell, and Saladin Ahmed to enliven and refresh a genre that far too often feels repetitive and overdone.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the story of Adoullah Mahkslood, an aging ghul hunter having a crisis of faith. People are dying, there's intrigue afoot in the palace, and the ghuls are getting worse. Adoullah teams up with a dour and pious young dervish and eventually a wild girl from the desert nomads to fight the evil goings-on.

There's action and plot a-plenty, but the heart of this book is the characters, in particular the good Doctor. Adoullah is old, fat, cranky, and set in his ways. He's seen enough of the world to have some serious doubts about gods, power, and whether what he does is worth it, especially since it keeps him apart from the woman he loves. He's never without a quip or snarky put-down, and his love for his home and his friends shines through. It's a treat to spend time in his company.

Good Behavior by Donald E. Westlake

Nothing puts me in a feel-good mood like one of Westlake's Dortmunder novels, and this one may well be my favorite of the bunch. Dortmunder is a shlumpy, middle-aged career thief. His life goes something like this: get offered a job, plan the job, call the gang together, get to the job and watch as everything that can go wrong, does. Good Behavior ups the ante on that formula to hilarious results.

After an opening sequence involving a heist gone bad, a rooftop chase, an injured ankle, and dangling from a rough-hewn beam as a multitude of nuns attempt a rescue in total silence, we get the job: the nuns wish to hire Dortmunder to rescue one of their own who has been kidnapped by her wealthy father (think Donald Trump) to be deprogrammed from the Catholic Church. If he doesn't take the job, they'll turn him in. The girl is being kept on the upper floors of a Manhattan high-rise with state of the art security. Dortmunder has to convince the gang to help him out, and he has to make it worth their while.

Things spin deliciously out of control from here and we're treated to, among other things, a locksman just released from 48 years in jail and unable to control his mouth around women, a successful and semi-shady mail order business, and a mercenary army.

How can you resist?

Boys Life by Robert R. McCammon

Boy's Life is another old favorite. It's the story of Cory Mackenson, growing up in Zephyr, Alabama in the 60s. It's a little bit of everything: coming of age story, murder mystery, boys adventure story, but it all blends seamlessly into a marvelous whole.

I don't want to give it away, but if you like stories with eccentric characters, vile misdeeds, long-buried secrets, voodoo, river monsters, ill-tempered monkeys, ghosts, rock and roll music, car races, moonshiners, carnivals, race relations, storytelling, imagination, small-town values, friendship, comedy, tragedy, murder, gunfights, and Creatures from the Lost World, then you need to read this book.

Heck; EVERYBODY needs to read this book.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park are teenagers in the 80s. Park has always felt like an outsider, but Eleanor really is: mocked by the kids at school and no place in the family that threw her out a year ago. Sitting together on the bus they begin sharing music and comics and eventually fall hard for each other. It's intense, all-consuming, and doomed.

There's lots of issues here: interracial marriage, bullying, teen angst, blended families, and family violence. There's also a risk that portraying such an all-consuming love might either ring false or encourage eye-rolling. But Rowell walks a fine line, and Eleanor and Park both ring true, even when they're at their most exasperating.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Time-traveling serial killer? I'm in.

Harper Curtis is a serial killer. Not only has he never been caught, no one even knows he's out there, because he's found a house whose door opens into different times. This allows him to find the “shining girls,” young girls of intelligence, grit, and promise then visit them later in life to put out their light. Unbeknownst to him, however, he's made a mistake. He left Kirby Mazrachi to die, but she survived. While he's traveling to different eras to target and kill, she's grown up and has started to connect the dots on the killings.

It's complicated and bloody and sharp as a razor's edge. Kirby is awesome, both believably messed up by her experience and believably working through it. Harper is not an evil genius or a suave, smooth killer—he's a bad man who likes to do bad things and is presented with a way to do so on a grand scale. It's telling that, gifted with a house that let's him move between the future and the past, all he can think to do is kill women who are smarter than him, tougher than him, and better than him, even as he cuts off their potential.

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

Ballingrud's debut collection is a boot to the head and a punch in the heart. There are monsters here, often wearing human faces. The monsters are often only a secondary focus of the story, as Ballingrud concentrates on flawed people and the (often flawed) decisions they make. These aren't easy stories; these aren't easy people. Bad things happen and happy endings are just a pipe dream. But these are powerful stories that will hit you where you live.

Lunatics by Brad Denton

Jack has started acting strange,(he keeps getting arrested for public nudity during the full moon, for one) and his friends are worried. To keep him from jail, they take him out to a cabin in the woods once a month. What they don't know is that his strange behavior is because he's romancing Lily, a moon goddess. When they finally meet Lily, she decides to help out in all of their love lives, and chaos ensues.

I first read this book a long time ago, and rereading it has been a lot of fun. I enjoy the Austin setting; Austin likes to keep it weird, but even they might have some difficulties if they were to come face to face with Lily.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

Horror was “it” in the 80s, and those of us reading horror at the time had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. One of my favorites was Robert R. McCammon and his epic creation Swan Song. It is a great big doorstopper of a thing, and any fan of Stephen King's The Stand should do themselves a favor and check Swan Song out.

Swan Song is the story of the end of our world and what comes after. It doesn't shy away from the evil that men do, but it never loses faith that there are good people out there. It's also quite clear on the idea that being good isn't enough—you have to do good, too, and that good things sometimes require sacrifice. It's a huge, sprawling, epic post-apocalyptic story with a lot of points to make.

But although there are messages to learn here, they don't get in the way of the story, which chugs along quite nicely, skipping around from place to place and group to group to give us a wide picture of what's going on. Plus, McCammon really shines with his characters. We see good moments and bad, strong and weak. We get to see why these people act the way they do. For all of the fantastical elements to the story, the characters are very real (except, perhaps, for the big bad boogeyman, who nevertheless manages to be pretty gosh-darned scary).

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Knowing how much I love this book, and knowing how stuffed my reading time is right now, you nevertheless chose to bring up The Shadow of the Wind. Thanks a lot, Derek.

One of my favorite books ever. Daniel Sempere has lost his mother. He is inconsolable when he realizes that he's starting to forget what she looked like. To make him feel better his father, who owns a bookstore, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge secret labyrinth of old books that time has passed by. As it is his first visit, Daniel is told to choose a book. It will be his job to bring that book back to the world. The book he chooses is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. He stays up reading until he finishes the book, and then the story of his quest to find Julian Carax begins.

If you love books, you need to read this one. The story is in the gothic tradition, meaning it has lots of twists and turns, has some over-the-top characters, and wanders down some pretty seamy pathways. All of which is true, yet I love it beyond all reason. The characters' love of books--how they treat them and how they talk about them—is a balm to the soul of any book lover.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Former detective Andrew Yancey has problems. He's lost his job (a public attack on his married girfriend's husband involving a vacuum cleaner, the hose attachment, and a delicate portion of the anatomy), someone's building a house next door that's blocking his view and ruining a Key Deer habitat, and there's a human arm in his freezer.

This is Hiaasen, so you just know things are going slip the rails, and indeed they do. The action moves between Miami, the Keys, and the Bahamas and the plot involves insurance fraud, family feuds, Russian gangsters, shady real estate dealings, a former teacher on the lam from an affair with a student, a voodoo lady, and an extremely ill-tempered monkey rumored to have starred in Pirates of the Caribbean.

It's a bit formulaic, and I wouldn't rank it up there with my favorites (like Native Tongue), but it's still a wild ride and a lot of fun watching evildoers get their comeuppance.

Rotten by Michael Northrup

Jimmer (JD) Dobbs has been away all summer. When he returns, he finds that his mother has adopted a rescued rottweiler, which he christens Johnny Rotten. Although huge and scary-looking, the dog is afraid of people. As he tries to make friends with the dog, his human friends push for information on where he was all summer. An incident occurs, putting Johnny Rotten at risk. Snark is bandied about, friendships are betrayed , and confessions are made. Will Johnny be saved?

This description makes it sound like this is a heavy book, but it isn't. It reads fast, and although the danger to Johnny feels real, Northrup never forgets that these are a bunch of teenage boys, who say and do incredibly dorky things sometimes. Johnny, abandoned, misunderstood, afraid and needing someone to stick up for him is a clear stand-in for JD. Luckily, both of them find some of the things they're looking for.

Vordak the Incomprehensible 03: Double Trouble by Vordak the Incomprehensible (Scott Seegert, illustrations by John Martin)

What can I say? I'm a fan. Vordak's over-the-top pronouncements and overdone language simply beg to be read out loud. The plots are simple and goofy with a lot of humor (most of it deriving from just how bad of a supervillain Vordak really is) and the illustrations are fun. For my money, Vordak beats Greg Heffley any day.

This installment revolves around clones. Tired of listening to the Blue Buzzard brag about his success at the father/son supervillain picnic, Vordak clones himself at age 10. The problem is, his clone is (gulp!) NICE, and Vordak just can't understand it. Many frustrations and over-reactions later, there's a twist, but no matter how many twists and turns there are, you can always count on one thing: Vordak never wins.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

A special girl survives an encounter with a monster named Charles Manx, but it breaks her. She grows up and has a child of her own, but now she's convinced that she was crazy and all that stuff never happened. Which is fine until she starts getting phone calls only she can hear from the denizens of Christmasland, telling her that she'll be sorry for hurting Mr. Manx. If she's gone crazy again, that's bad. If the memories are real, that's worse. Now Manx has her son and she's trying to save him before Christmasland destroys him.

Hill is maturing as a writer, and this book is running on all cylinders. Manx is a monster and his henchman Bing is worse (perhaps because we get to see him become a monster, whereas Manx already is). Victoria's terror at possibly losing her mind is heartbreaking, and her ex-husband Lou is awesome: naïve and gentle, but ready to stand up and fight when it counts. The cops investigating her son's disappearance are all too willing to believe that Vic is crazy and behind the kidnapping. We know she's not, that her son really is in danger, and that really ratchets up the tension.

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