Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Best Novels of 2013

... or at least the best of those I read:

3. Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer. Pat Tillman was an American icon, but not by his own choosing. He was a man who gave up an NFL career so he could serve his country in the aftermath of 9/11. He became an Army Ranger, fought in Afghanistan, was held up as an emblem of what an American could surrender in order to battle for his country, and was killed by friendly fire. Krakauer's reporting skills are at their best here. We get a moving portrait of a complex man and the hell that being in battle can be. This was the only nonfiction book I read this year, and it was worth every second.

2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Amy's introduction to us as a woman falling head over heels for this guy Nick at the start of the book is one of the best set-ups for a novel I have seen in years. She is breathlessly in love, swept away, in awe. But slowly, petal by petal, we see this flower of love begin to fall apart. Amy disappears. Was she murdered? Did Nick do it? Flynn details Amy and Nick so precisely, and it is eerily fascinating to watch the evolution of their relationship. A first-rate novel.

1. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. This man writes some of the most delicate prose, but it is his characters who carry the day. Each story Hosseini weaves leaves me feeling like I am eavesdropping into private lives, and I should turn away because the characters might catch me looking at them. He puts the fabric of those lives into a broad sweep of time, and each step of the way he gives me insights into Afghan life. I was wondering what I was getting into when the first chapter was the telling of a children's story, but by the end of the chapter I had the sense that the story was a bad omen of what was to come. I was eager to return to this book whenever I had a chance. It is highly recommended.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This isn't a book after the afterlife, but about the many realities one life has the possibility to become. In the first few pages, Ursula is born but dies in the process. Then she is born again, and dies again, and on, and on, and on. I am barely 80 pages into the novel, and I am adjusting to Atkinson's very British writing style. I await what Ursula's next life is going to be like. I will give updates as I continue to read.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's a Man's World on My Reading List

I had to compile a list of the authors whose works I read recently, and I came to an odd realization. I am a reader of male authors, almost exclusively. The one exception in the list is Gillian Flynn and her brilliant "Gone Girl," which by the way is being made into a movie with David Fincher as director. (The buzz is that Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike will play Nick and Amy. Feedback on those choices?)

My other reading choices in the past several months? In order, they are: "Live Wire" by Harlan Coben; "The Cold Moon" by Jeffery Deaver; "One Shot" by Lee Child; "Where Men Win Glory" by Jon Krakauer; "The Highway" by C.J. Box; "The Jefferson Key" by Steve Berry; "And The Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini; and (still in the process of reading) "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" by Jamie Ford. Next on my list? Probably "Live by Night" by Dennis Kehane, although "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson sounds like an intriguing alternative.

Where did "Gone Girl" fit into my reading schedule? It was between "One Shot" and "Where Men Win Glory." How is that for a trifecta? Jack Reacher to Nick and Amy to Pat Tillman.

My next blog will list my three favorites on that list. Anyone who knows me well want to venture a guess?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Action Thrillers Don't Thrill Me

I have nothing against Steve Berry. My writer friends who have met him at conferences say he is a genuinely nice guy. I admire the work he does through his foundation in advancing the study of history, and the man writes well.

The problem is that I don't like what he writes. His specialty is the action thriller, and he masters the genre. He is the king of the short declarative sentence. He keeps his storytelling at a rapid-fire pace. But why don't I like his work? His plots are intricate, and they are nicely formulated. He has a knack for taking historical fact and weaving it into his brand of fiction.

What I don't like is that I don't give a hoot about his characters. Cotton Malone is his protagonist. He is a man of action. He has POTUS on speed dial (which is a characteristic of more than a few action thriller main characters). He has a love of his life. I don't care about her, either. Her name is Cassiopeia Vitt. (I can't help but think of Katarina Witt when I see that name, and that brings up a whole other set of images.) She is a woman of action.

The problem? None of the characters has a heart and soul. They have no depth. They are literary equivalents to G.I. Joe toys, but that is a weakness of the genre. All action, no depth. That is a big reason I don't call my novels "thrillers" anymore. I think the most exact term would be "thriller*". I have action, I have mayhem, I have chaos -- and I have depth of character. That separates me from Berry, Vince Flynn and other thriller writers. (The problem, naturally, is that they are published and I am not.)

I tip my cap to Berry for his success. He is comfortable in what he does, and the way he does it. He just won't find me in the same literary room.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" by Jamie Ford. I considered picking up Ford's new novel, but I figured I should become familiar with his debut work first. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for a considerable time. It deserved to be there. Ford weaves interesting lives amid the tales of relocation of Japanese residents at the start of World War II. It is a haunting, emotional, satisfying work.

I also recently completed "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. It ranks among my favorites. Hosseini has a knack for building characters, and weaving lives together into a seamless creation. There are a number of memorable characters, but my three favorites are Pari (the elder, of course), Idris and Thalia. Two of those characters are pretty minor within the fabric of the novel, but their life stories stay with me long after I finish the book. Maybe I recognize them from people I know. Maybe I see bits of them in me. Anyway, I give the novel an enthusiastic recommendation.