Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Virtual Lunch: Eric & Holly's 2016 Book Wrap-Up

by Holly West & Eric Beetner

When I lived in L.A., Eric Beetner and I would occasionally have lunch together, during which we'd talk about books, gripe about publishing and shoot the shit about life in general. I've missed those lunches since I've moved, so when Eric suggested we get together to write a post about our favorite reads of 2016, I happily agreed.

During these meals, I learned, among other things, that he doesn't eat french fries. Not because he doesn't like them, but because, HEALTH. While this isn't an entirely foreign concept to me, it is one of the key ways Eric and I differ. When given the option, I take the fries.

Eric is, in all things, a more disciplined person than I, but if that's obvious from our food choices, it's even more so in our reading and writing output. Eric reads at least six books and probably writes more than ten to my one. I could probably figure the exact numbers but math is hard and I've got this blog to post.

So here they are, in all their glory, our favorite books of 2016:

HW: I'm gonna start with the last book I read, IQ by Joe Ide. It's a unique take on the modern P.I. novel--Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ) is an East Long Beach-based high school drop-out and former criminal whose intelligence and observational skills would make Sherlock Holmes stand up and take notice. IQ solves neighborhood crimes, charging his clients whatever they can afford, but to pay his bills, he has to take on higher profile cases.

Calvin Wright is a drug-addled rap superstar, who, much to the consternation of record company execs, can't seem to get his latest album recorded. Someone puts a contract out on his life, hiring a lunatic hitman whose first attempt at murdering Calvin involves a monstrous attack dog. Definitely haven't seen that before, and to be honest, the dog-breeding stuff in the book is an interesting side-topic. As for who hired this guy, there's no shortage of suspects, from a bitter ex-wife to two former bandmates turned glorified assistants/lackeys.

IQ is a mystery novel that doesn't read as a typical who-dun-it. It's urban setting sounds and feels authentic, which isn't an easy thing to pull off without falling on stereotypical language and attitudes. I loved the book and thought it was a fresh take on a sometimes tired genre.

EB: I've heard good things about IQ. Glad you liked it. I had a good year of reading. I read 83 books and I'll probably get to 85-86 by year's end. Not my best year, not my worst.

I'll go back to the start of my year and a book called MONTANA 1948 by Larry Watson. It's older - from 1993 - and  honestly I don't know what compelled me to pick it up at a Goodwill, but something about the time and place spoke to me so I tried it for a dollar. Man, I really loved it. It has a crime in it but it's not a crime or mystery novel, really. I seldom read straight up literary books, but this one really did the trick for me. Watson's writing is so simple and direct that I really got deep into the narration. There are secrets being kept, societal proprieties that must be met, a coming of age and a solid family in a trying time. All of this wrapped in a story with a deep sense of time and place.
I loved it so much I ended up reading four Larry Watson books this year. AMERICAN BOY was another standout.

HW: This is where I admit I haven't read a printed book in well over a year, although I do still occasionally buy interesting out-of-print books when I find them. Most recently, I purchased several "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" volumes at a local antique store.

But since you've gone old(er) school with your first pick, I'll do the same. Published in 1973, THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT by Sidney Sheldon is an over-the-top potboiler, but nevertheless, a page turner and thoroughly entertaining. Sheldon was never an author I aspired to read, but this book was mentioned as an example in a non-fiction writing book I'd agreed to review and since I was looking for mainstream, popular fiction to read at the time (for research purposes, mostly), it seemed a good choice. I won't argue it's literary merits, but the story, which focuses on lives of Catherine Alexander and Noelle Page, takes place before, during and after WWII. Beyond calling it pop fiction, it's hard to nail down its genre--it's not a love story exactly and there's certainly crime and suspense, revenge and death. The Noelle Page character is particularly interesting since she's basically a sociopath who achieves worldwide success as an actress just so she can gain revenge on a lover who jilted her. As you do.

EB: Ah, Sidney Sheldon. One of those writers forever classified as a guilty pleasure. I've never read him, I'll admit. This year I tracked down one of those writers I'd heard of but never got around to buying the book, and I'm glad I went for it. Steph Post is a current writer and her debut, A TREE BORN IN CROOKED, was great. Southern noir done right. Backwoods crime, family drama, great action. I dug it and when I was able to get an advance copy of Post's next book, LIGHTWOOD, due out in January, I ended up liking it even better. LIGHTWOOD is going to be on several best of lists next year, mark my words. Definitely in my top five for this year, and next year as well.

I'll admit, part of what I liked is that it seemed so much like a book I would write. Not sure what that says about me, but Steph ended up reading my book RUMRUNNERS and felt the same thing. We have very similar sensibilities and I keep telling myself it's not narcissistic to feel that way about a book.

I will take this moment to mention that this was the year women went dark. Maybe it was just happenstance but several books I read by women authors were much darker and more in the noir vein than ever. Neliza Drew in ALL THE BRIDGES BURNING, Marietta Miles with ROUTE 12,  Sarah M. Chen with CLEANING UP FINN. I've struggled in the past to find books by women to recommend on the hardboiled or noir spectrum, but after this year I have several.

Did you read anything from outside of America?

HW: You beat me to the punch in mentioning Neliza Drew's ALL THE BRIDGES BURNING. It was one of the best debuts I read this year, particularly because I love her protagonist, Davis Groves. She's a woman with a troubled past (to put it mildly) whose managed to make a life for herself but is forced to confront said past when the little sister she's always felt guilty for abandoning is accused of murder. Sure, we've seen that sort of storyline before, but it's been awhile since I've read such a compelling character and Drew's take on the subject matter is absolutely unique as a result. I'm looking forward to seeing where she takes the series. Beyond that, Drew is a terrific writer who, if I'm being frank, can write circles around me.

Since you asked, I did read one book from outside America: BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty, set in Australia. In spite of Moriarty's bestselling author status, I'd never heard of her until a friend recommended it when we were discussing the pettiness and competition among parents that sometimes crops up in school communities. In BIG LITTLE LIES, this dynamic takes an exceedingly dark turn, which intrigued me, though not having kids myself, I've never actually experienced it. Turned out, I loved the book and I'm now looking forward to the HBO series based on it.

EB: One of the best books I read this year was also from Australia. GUNSHINE STATE by Andrew Nette is a crime thriller which launches from a story about a classic heist crew - always a welcome plot to me - and then veers off into a chase story and a revenge story. My favorite quality on a book is a narrative that moves forward constantly and GUNSHINE STATE did that. Expect unexpected turns and a main character who will appeal to fans of Parker and other anti-hero mainstays. And it was just foreign enough to be very intriguing and give the sense of being in a different place while remaining relatable.

NOTHING SHORT OF DYING by Erik Storey was another one that hits the ground running and never lets up. Pure thriller territory. Despite Storey having a tragic misspelling of his first name, this series appears to have legs, as they say.

I'll also mention two books that fall into the category of batshit crazy thrillers that I'll admit are not for everyone. IF YOU'RE NOT ONE PERCENT by Todd Morr and GENUINELY DANGEROUS by Mike McCrary are both gonzo, over the top crime novels I wouldn't recommend to your mother. Bloody, tense and relentless in pace, both books satisfied my inner Tarantino.

HW: I like how you wouldn't recommend these books to my mom, but you will recommend them to Do Some Damage readers. You know our audience.

My next pick is non-fiction. REACHER SAID NOTHING: LEE CHILD AND THE MAKING OF MAKE ME by Andy Martin. I've long been interested in learning about other writers' processes, even better if it's a best-selling author like Lee Child (plus, I just like the guy). I think it's because I'm forever looking for the magic formula which will make writing easier and me more prolific. I know the only real solution is to simply get to work, but I'll keep looking because certainly there's some trick somewhere that will suddenly transform me into someone more disciplined in practicing my craft.

REACHER SAID NOTHING gives a narrow look at Child's life and habits (a copious amount of cigarette smoking is involved) while he writes MAKE ME, the twentieth novel in the Jack Reacher series. Ironically, I've only read the first Reacher book and while I liked it well enough, I never made it any further. But this book about writing a book is enticing because it provides a glimpse of a life I think I'd like to lead--that of a successful crime fiction writer who takes summers off to travel and relax, who lives in Manhattan but also globally and seems to enjoy the existence he's built for himself. Lee Child's life isn't glamorous--he's nothing if not a "working" writer--but it does afford him opportunities that seem appealing, if only from a distance. Never mind the fact that in my old age I've become increasingly intolerant of my neighbors' noises (so that Manhattan apartment is out) and I'd much rather stay home, petting my dogs, than to, say, take a trip to Paris.

I just hope it's not the cigarette smoking that's the key to Mr. Child's discipline and success because, well, my ultimate take away from the book was to be concerned about his health.

EB: From what I understand it's not only cigarettes he smokes while he works.

You ever have those books where they hit your radar but you don't get around to them for years? Then when you do you're like, "Why did I wait so long!???!" That book for me this year was COLD QUIET COUNTRY by Clayton Lindemuth. I was aware of it since it's debut in 2012 and I think it sat on my Amazon wishlist since then. I finally went for it this year and holy hell did I love it. Definitely my favorite narrative structure is the 360 degree view of a crime. Writers like Urban Waite do this so well. Sam Gailey in DEEP WINTER, Peter Farris in LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING, David Joy in WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO.

COLD QUIET COUNTRY is one of those stories that keeps dragging you deeper. Loyalties shift as you root for the anti-hero and end up rooting against the cop on his trail. Although, the way Sheriff Bittersmith is introduced is one of the best I-know-all-I-Need-to-know character intros I've ever read. He's a first class son of a bitch and you even shift gears on him. I was just so engrossed in the story and the setting (1970 Wyoming in the winter) that I wanted that book to go on for longer, and let me be clear – I NEVER feel a book is too short. The fact it was a debut novel is almost infuriating. I'm amazed Lindemuth hasn't conquered the (publishing) world since then. But you and I are not bestsellers either so clearly people have no taste.

I'll also throw in another debut I just read recently that I adored – THE LONG FALL by Lynn Kostoff. Another debut that is such pure net-noir that it sat squarely in my wheelhouse. It's everything you want in a blood and bitterness-soaked noir tale. I've read others by Kostoff but this was my favorite by far.

HW: I'll admit you've convinced me I should read a few of your recommendations--both of Steph Post's books and COLD QUIET COUNTRY by Lindermuth are now on my list. So good job.

Early this year, I read THE PASSENGER and HOW TO START A FIRE, both by Lisa Lutz. I loved them both but THE PASSENGER stands out among all the books I read in 2016. Tanya Dubois is an unreliable narrator from the minute she drives away from the house where her husband's body lies in the basement and she doesn't get any more trustworthy when she demands a new identity from a mysterious colleague. But over the course of the novel we realize that Tanya isn't a murderer so much as she's a victim of her past whose never known what it's like to feel secure in any identity. With the help of an equally questionable bartender named Blue, she navigates a world where it's near impossible to live off the grid. But they both have the guts--and desperation--to try.

EB: I've talked a lot about books that are older that I'm just getting around to, so let me mention some current reads that I loved this year. Two novels that are quintessentially L.A. are ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis and A BETTER GOODBYE by John Schulian.

ALL INVOLVED is a multi-narrator account of the L.A. riots but it approaches it from the fringe and shows us a slice of life during that time of chaos and some of the criminals who took advantage of the lawlessness. It's about the voices. I listened to this on audio and I think it enhanced my enjoyment of the narration. In distinct first-person sections you get such a great sense of the lives swirling around the desperation in east L.A. and the sudden freedom of a 48-hour free pass from the law. It's frightening how savage these people become when given free reign, but it was a deeply involving read.

A BETTER GOODBYE is pure L.A. noir. A down-on-his-luck Everyman, a woman with some secrets, a desperate longing for connections in a city that too often separates people by its vast geography. This was a simple tale, elegantly told and one that drew me in like a modern POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. It's a love letter to Los Angeles, too, albeit the seedier side of L.A.

HW: Every year, I do a lot of "professional" reading to prepare for panels and interviews. In 2016 I was fortunate to read more than a few good ones. Stand outs were LAKE OF FIRE by Mark Stevens (the body of a reclusive environmentalist is found during a Colorado wildfire and hunting guide Allison Coil is thrust into the mystery), CORRUPTED MEMORY by Ray Daniel (Boston computer hacker Tucker finds a body outside his front door and learns it's the half-brother he didn't know existed), CITY OF MIRRORS by Melodie Johnson Howe (Aging actress Diana Poole is trying to make a comeback when her tempramental co-star is murdered), DOWN & OUT IN BEVERLY HEELS by Kathryn Leigh Scott (former actress Meg Barnes finds herself homeless thanks to a con man husband) and DESIGN FOR DYING by Renee Patrick (Legendary costume designer Edith Head as an amateur sleuth? Why didn't I think of that?)

EB: One last book that blew me away this year was HOUSE OF BLAZES by Dietrich Kalteis. It's the language in this one, a unique vibe almost like a fever dream telling of a tall tale involving the great quake of San Francisco and some stolen treasure and a whole cast of rogues, scoundrels and salty dames. Even the cops are corrupt. This one transported me and drew me into a sordid tale that is based loosely in fact, which I learned when I did a few reading events with Dietrich this year. I really loved this book even if it's hard to describe why.

Thanks, Holly for sharing your picks. And thanks for having me here to share some of mine.

HW: That was fun! We'll have lunch the next time I'm in town, but until then, I'll let you pick up this check.

That's me out until next year, folks. Have a great holiday and I'll see you in 2017.



Claire Booth said...

What great picks! My TBR pile just got bigger!

Holly West said...

Eric really picked some interesting ones. My TPR pile got a lot bigger, too. Just what I need. :-)

Lauren said...

Fantastic post with some great picks! Do this every year, please? Or maybe on a six-month schedule. Holly, I have to say I loved your Sidney Sheldon pick. I read his books as a kid and loved them. This one was recently on sale for a buck or some such thing and I bought it thinking some day I would read it again. The best part is I remember loving it and yet your description did not ring one damn bell. That plot and those characters were foreign to me. So I guess the fact that I'm saving books to read again when I retire is actually an all new library just waiting for me. Love the Aussie shoutouts, and I'm so glad you talked about the Child/Reacher book. It's been on my list and I hadn't heard anyone talk about it, so now I know I can move it on up!