Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Round-Up#49: The Best of 2011

The Best Books of 2011:

Note: Not all of these titles were published in 2011, but they were all reviewed in 2011.

Deeper by Jeff Long: The Descent was one hell of a novel (excuse the lame pun), and it single-handedly turned me into a Jeff Long fan. So you can imagine how I felt when I realized that Long had written a sequel, called Deeper. To say I had high expectations would be an understatement. To say I was satisfied with the sequel would be open to discussion. You see, Deeper is a very good novel, occasionally even great, but it left me somewhat ill at ease.

I won’t discuss the plot much, aside from saying that it features the return of Ali and Ike, the two protagonists of The Descent, and, boy, have they changed. The novel opens with Ike going back underground, looking for Satan, and years later all hell breaks loose, literally, when Hadals, the demonic species that was discovered in The Descent, ascends to the surface and starts kidnapping children. To say any more would be unfair to you and the novel. But I’ll say this: If The Descent was dark, Deeper is much darker. The Satan featured here is even more malevolent and vicious than the one depicted in The Descent, and Long makes his characters suffer; really suffer, and it isn’t pretty. And, basically, that’s the problem with Deeper. It’s too damn dark. Although The Descent wasn’t exactly Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it still had a sliver of hope shining through its narrative. But here things are bleak from the get-go, and they only get bleaker as the story goes along. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t good or it’s ending unsatisfactory, but it sure is one dark book.

Still, Jeff Long is one of the most underrated writers around, and his skills as a storyteller are on full display here, as he weaves a hypnotic and atmospheric web of death, violence, and metaphysics. So, fans of The Descent will want to read Deeper to know what happens next. Recommended, but definitely not for the faint of heart.

Dweller by Jeff Strand: I picked up this book solely due to the fact that it's written by Jeff Strand, one of the co-writers of Draculas, one of the best horror books of 2010. Before reading Dweller, I wasn't really familiar with the author's work. After reading Dweller, that will have to change, as Strand is an immensely talented author, who is able to transcend genres and come up with highly original plots, as evidenced by this near-masterpiece.

The story is simple: A young boy, a loner and an outcast, stumbles upon a frightening creature that dwells in the woods near his home, and, slowly, they become friends. This strange relationship survives the test of time and the boy, now a man, and the beast stay the best of friends. But when the man gets involved in a relationship with a young woman, all hell breaks loose.

That synopsis just skims the surface of this thought-provoking, multi-layered, and well written novel, which is unlike anything I've ever read. It's a coming-of-age drama, a horror tale, a tragedy, and a meditation on the nature of evil that dwells in the hearts of all men, all rolled into one gut-punching novel. Unmissable.

Run by Blake Crouch: In keeping with the spirit of this bullet-train of a novel, let's get right down to it: Run is powerful, terrifying, touching, and brutal.

The plot - about a family on the run after most of America's population contracts a psychological/spiritual plague that compels them to kill everyone in sight who's not affected - is not original. But author Blake Crouch isn't really out to break new ground when it comes to premises and plotlines; what he wants to do, and which he succeeds at magnificently, is pull you into a story that grabs hold of your attention, slams you in the chest and leaves you breathless and shaky at the knees. Thanks to a set of characters so well-drawn and three-dimensional that you feel every nick, wound, bruise and pain they suffer, and a pace so masterful that you just can't stop reading, halfway through this ambitious novel genre-boundaries are blurred and you discover that you've fallen under its merciless spell.

For Crouch, this is a ground-breaker, as his writing here reaches new heights; the prose is breezy, the pace near-perfect, and the way the story flows is sheer magic.

But be warned, this is a brutal, violent, emotionally devastating piece of fiction. So before turning the first page, get ready and get comfortable, because you ain't gonna get up till the heartbreaking and strangely uplifting climax.

Available at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Dracula: Asylum by Paul Witcover: Designed as a sequel to Universal's infamous 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring the immortal Bela Lugosi, Dracula: Asylum is a rare book, in that it took me by surprise. As a huge fan of the 1931 film directed by Tod Browning, I sought out the book primarily due to it being an official sequel to that film, expecting a fun, quick read, with a thick-accented Dracula roaming the streets of London, drinking blood and spouting one-liners. What I got was something else entirely.

Author Paul Witcover uses the 1931 film and Stoker's novel as a starting point and then proceeds to transcend both, with a novel so well-written, so ambitious in its complexity and ideas, that it becomes a masterpiece of dark fantasy that manages to achieve the impossible: Add a new twist to the Dracula mythos.

The book takes place in London during WWI, following Dr. Lisa Watson, a psychiatrist who is transferred to the Seward Sanitarium for shell-shocked British soldiers, hoping to help her fiancée get back his memory, which he's lost due to the traumatic experiences he suffered in battle. Now he thinks himself Sherlock Holmes and doesn't remember anything about his true identity. Meanwhile, in the catacombs of the asylum, Renfield, who is still alive, but has become a mentally damaged mute, discovers that the corpse of Count Dracula, his master, is still there, with a stake through its heart, waiting to be revived. So he pulls out the stake, reviving the dark Count, and all hell breaks loose, as Dracula, whose slumber for the past twenty years has strengthened his psychic powers, plans to destroy the world.

Although the above synopsis doesn't do the story justice, the less told about the twists, turns and revelations of the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that if you think you know where the story is going, think again, as Witcover has a multitude of ideas and surprises under his sleeve, and, with his rich, stylized Gothic prose, lays them out one by one, continuously delving into darker psychological territory. Witcover's Dracula is the most cunning, malevolent version of the Count since Bram Stoker's; an evil, shrewd master of darkness and manipulation who is much more dangerous than previously thought. This Dracula's evil is almost biblical in scope. While the main characters, Lisa and Denis, are three-dimensional and flawed, and Witcover allows us to go under their skin to see the light and darkness within them.

Despite the novel's overly dark tone and Witcover's lifting of a couple of ideas from the films They Might Be Giants and Dracula 2000, the writing is so rich, the attention to detail so admirable, the story so original and well-plotted, that this novel deserves to be called a masterpiece of dark fantasy that transcends genres. And, if there's any justice in the world, it should become a classic.

Helltown by Dennis O'Neil: Part of the DC Universe line of novels that came out a few years ago, Helltown focuses on the origin story of one of DC Comics' lesser known but most intriguing characters, The Question. But that's not all this book is about. No. This is a damn fine novel that combines action, pop philosophy, atmosphere and strong, smooth writing to produce something truly enjoyable.

The story: Vic Sage returns to his hometown, Hub City, in search of his parents' identity (he was brought up in an orphanage), to discover that it has become a cesspool of violence and hatred run by criminals and corrupt politicians. Soon after his arrival he attracts the attention of the mayor and his thugs, which leads to him being beaten almost to death and rescued by a mysterious warrior who calls herself Shiva. He is then taken to an enigmatic mentor named Richard Dragon, who, at the request of Shiva, begins to transform Sage into a warrior. But Sage feels that something is missing in his life, questions that need to be answered. So he decides to return to Hub City, and, as a vigilante named The Question, find those answers, no matter what the cost.

The Question, as envisioned by veteran comic book writer Dennis O'Neil, is a complex, enigmatic character, that is both unique and reminiscent of the greatest characters to ever grace the pages of comic books. He is a conflicted character on a dark quest, an intriguing, norish hero. But what truly sets him apart are his flaws, his humanity, and his background. Here is a character that's neither rich nor formally educated, has no sidekicks or friends, no gadgets other than his costume and mask (that change color at will). He is human, has no superpowers, and isn't really a great detective. But that's what makes him interesting. O'Neil, who also penned the ground-breaking comic book series about The Question back in the Eighties, has a masterful command of the complex nature of the character and his inner struggles. He also anchors the story in reality, giving the book a gritty, somewhat bleak feel, which suit the character and his quest. And despite the appearance of Batman, who plays a major role in the story, he doesn't overshadow Vic Sage/The Question, which is a testament to O'Neil's strong writing.

Although the main villains of the book are borderline caricatures and the main mystery is so slight it's almost a McGuffin, this is a multi-layered, well-written, compelling book that is a must for fans of DC Comics, comic books, and mysteries. An overlooked gem.

The Criminalist by William Relling Jr.: Stories about psychics who help solve crimes have become a cliche. From numerous TV shows (most of which are lackluster) to dozens of paranormal romance series that feature psychic detectives, this sub-genre has been seemingly bled to death. But then comes William Relling Jr.'s The Criminalist to prove that there is life yet to this kind of tale.

The plot: Kenneth Bennet, a clairvoyant who is grieving for the recent loss of his wife, has a vision that provides him with vital clues to catching a serial killer preying on children in a small town. So, Bennet, who has been warned by his psychiatrist that he is on the verge of physical and mental collapse, drags himself to the small town afflicted by the murders to offer his help. But local law enforcement refuses his help, which leads him to try to solve the case on his own, while trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife and maintain his slowly dissolving sanity.

Describing the plot of this novel isn't easy, as it's multi-layered and centered on characters rather than events, which is somewhat peculiar for the genre. But Relling Jr. uses the genre and the psychic angle only as a McGuffin, and, instead, focuses on the lives and psyches of his characters, which are, for the most part, interesting and three-dimensional. Though on the surface the novel is a murder mystery, in truth it's a novel about grief and life choices. With the Kenneth Bennett character, Relling Jr. creates a living, breathing man who is flawed, devastated, almost paralyzed with grief, and who happens to be psychic, something which grounds the tale in reality and makes the proceedings much more interesting, with Relling Jr. following Bennett as he tries to gain control of a life spiraling out of control; and the journey is both tragic and touching. Relling Jr. also has a penchant for fleshing out almost every character, even ones that make a brief appearance, something which, while it doesn't always work, gives the novel a depth sorely lacking in many novels of the genre.

While the novel has its flaws (the pace is uneven, the plot meanders, the serial killer is never really fleshed out, and the ending is somewhat of a disappointment), this is a clever, touching, and engrossing book, and the best novel about psychics since Stephen King's The Dead Zone.

From The Corner of His Eye by Dean Koontz: Dean Koontz can be a hell of a frustrating author sometimes. Some of his books are superb, filled with imagination and storytelling prowess, driven by inventive central concepts and an irresistible atmosphere of menace. On the other hand, some of his books, especially ones published later in his career (from the mid-90's, onwards), are so repetitive, preachy, and thinly plotted, that one wonders how they could have been written by the same man. From The Corner of His Eye is one of the good ones. In fact, it's one of the very good ones. It combines Koontz's masterful ability to keep the reader intrigued, turning the pages effortlessly, with a plethora of imagination and likeable characters and a plot that defies categorization.

The plot: Junior Cain, a handsome young man with a twisted mind, throws his wife off a cliff to inherit her money. After her husband dies in a car accident, Agnes Lampion gives birth to a young boy who grows up to be a prodigy with a strange and magical ability to glimpse other realities that exist parallel to ours. After getting raped by a white man, Phimie White, an African-American young woman, gives birth to a baby girl, Angel, and dies in the process. Detective Tom Vanadium, an enigmatic man with a penchant for unnerving murder suspects with his mind-boggling coin tricks, doesn't believe that Junior Cain's wife's death was accidental, and so embarks on a journey to harass the prime suspect, her husband, till he breaks and confesses. Together, all those people's live are about to intertwine, with consequences that might change the face of the world we live in.

I know the synopsis is murky. But to tell any more of the plot would be unfair to you and to the book's wonders. As part of the thrill of reading this lengthy novel (it's over 700 pages long) is unravelling the layers of the plot one by one, discovering surprises, some pleasant, some disturbing, along the way.

Although Koontz gets on his soapbox one time too many, and the novel is about 100 pages too long, these flaws don't detract from the fact that this is a wonder of a novel; a book filled with stories within stories and memorable characters. The novel is also one of Koontz's most tightly plotted in a long time, with one delicious twist leading to another. And despite Koontz's genre-hopping (the book is part Sci-Fi, part mystery, part ghost story, part love story, and part historical novel!), he pulls it off, delivering a book that has a satisfying ending and is never confusing.

So who is this book for? Fans of Koontz, of course, are the primary audience here, as, by now, they are used to his style and his penchant for juggling genres. But it's also a good introduction to Koontz, a good choice for people who like long, multi-layered novels, and readers who like their novels atmospheric, fast-paced, and well-plotted. No matter what your preferred genre is, this is must-read book, that's entertaining, humane, suspenseful, and immensely rewarding. One of Koontz's best.

The Best of Extra! 2011:

Extra! Cutter's Way: This Extra! selection is the film Cutter's Way, starring Jeff Bridges and John Heard, and directed by Ivan Passer. This is one atmospheric and intelligent thriller, with well-rounded characters wonderfully brought to life by a great cast, a smart script, and stylish, assured direction. A forgotten gem from the 80's.

Extra! The Door in The Floor: This Extra! selection is the film The Door in The Floor, starring Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Jon Foster, and directed by Todd Williams. A fascinating, touching, and disturbing film about damaged people and the loss of innocence, this is a superb film featuring wonderful performances by Bridges and Basinger, and masterfully directed by Williams. An undiscovered classic.

Extra! 30 Days of Night (Film Novelization) by Tim Lebbon: This Extra! selection is the novelization of the film 30 Days of Night by Tim Lebbon. Novelizations are usually hit or miss, ranging from the entertaining to the trashy. But that's not the case here. Tim Lebbon takes a flawed script and turns it into a suspenseful, dark piece of horror fiction in which the characters come to life (unlike the ones in the film) and the atmosphere is so thick you can almost touch it. This is a very good horror novel in its own right, and is a rare beast, in that it is actually better than the film. A must read for horror fans and fans of the 30 Days of Night franchise.

Extra! Dracula's Daughter: This Extra! selection is the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter, the sequel to the 1931 classic film starring Bela Lugosi. Dark, disturbing, and surprisingly daring for its time, this stylish film directed by Lambert Hillyer is worth re-discovering.

Extra! Bring On The Night by Jay and Don Davis: This Extra! selection is the horror novel Bring On The Night by Jay and Don Davis, a superbly entertaining vampire novel from the 80's, with plenty of atmosphere, well-drawn characters, and one hell of a villain in Kane, a ruthless vampire stalking the streets of Chicago. Worth re-discovering.

Extra! New York Dead by Stuart Woods: This Extra! selection is the novel New York Dead by Stuart Woods, a superb, super fast-paced murder mystery, filled to the brim with sex, plot twists, and action, and one of the most fun books I've ever read. A must read.

Extra! Whiskey Sour by J.A Konrath: This Extra! selection is the novel Whiskey Sour by J.A Konrath. This is a fun, fast-paced mystery/thriller with a wicked sense of humour and one hell of a central character in Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels, an insomniac, middle-age detective, with a troubled life. Also, the novel is strangely touching considering the subject matter. A must read.

And, of course, there's my latest novel, Coffin X, a horror/dark fantasy novel, which is available at Amazon.

That's it for me. Till next year, keep browsing those shelves!

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