Books – Fiction
My reading in 2018 was dominated by westerns, poetry, graphic novels, non-fiction and some crime fiction (both old and new).
Let’s talk graphic novels first. If you aren’t reading Paper Girls you should be. It’s like a gender flipped Stranger Things that has a slightly harder edge and fully embraces the fantastical. More crazy shit happens in a couple of issues than most stories have in their entirety. I don’t know where the story is going but I’m in for the ride. Nameless is a genuinely unnerving cosmic horror story. Trashed is a workplace, coming of age comedy that sneaks in a crash course in refuse. After reading Trashed you will look at the trash you are disposing of differently. Oyster War was a surprise, I hadn’t heard of it at all and I grabbed it at the library because it looked fun. And it was! It has high adventure, low scoundrels, and dastardly villains. If you have younger kids, read this with them (with voices).
The best graphic novel that I read in 2018 was My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. A big city, mid-20th century, murder mystery filtered through the notebooks and imagination of a young girl obsessed with monsters who is coming of age. It is all of that plus so much more. It’s a beautiful book, with each page an explosion penciled art on pages lined to replicate a notebook.
My favorite poetry collection was The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka, a cycle of poems about the life of boxer Jack Johnson. The collection has appeal to many different audiences and types of readers. Please consider checking it out. Others that I enjoyed were Magic City Gospel by Ashley M Jones, Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield, and One Man’s Dark by Maurice Manning.
After reading The Force I revisited a couple of my favorite cop novels. First I grabbed my old paperback copy of Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here by Ed McBain. This is probably my favorite cop novel of all time. An underrated gem that has all of the detectives working their own cases and truly features the precinct as its own character. There’s enough story in this slim novel for multiple novels, and lesser writers would have padded it out. I’m actually thinking about doing a fuller re-read of McBain’s novels in 2018. The second book was Report to the Commissioner, a forgotten cop novel from the 70s. It has a cool structure. The entire book is literally presented as the actual report to the Commissioner, filled with reports, interview transcripts, etc, that piece together an incident that went bad. The gears of the system decide who the scapegoat is going to be for the clusterfuck and the paperwork shows them sighting their target then grinding him up. Fantastic book.
In the Valley of the Sun takes the vampire story and runs it through a Cormac McCarthy lens. Woolgathering by Patti Smith was one of the books I read after Sam Shepard died. Meditative and contemplative, there’s nothing better if you are in the right mood.
American Static by Tom Pitts and The Student by Iain Ryan were both standouts. Both of these writers are on the rise, read them, spread the word, and get on board now.
Ray Banks quietly dropped a new novel in 2017 and no one talked about it.
My two favorite crime fiction novels were She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper and Lightwood by Steph Post.
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper is Lone Wolf and Cub meets California noir. Swift, brutal, and sometimes touching. Polly is one of the great crime fiction characters in recent years. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper is a fine addition to the canon of California crime fiction.
Lightwood by Steph Post. Loved this book. Judah and Ramey are great characters. If I stop and think about it too much the comparison may not hold up, but, on a gut level, these two characters remind me of Sailor and Lula. I think it is because both sets of characters elicit the same emotional response, I want them to strive, thrive, and stay alive. When you read it, either for the first time or a re-read, pay attention to their hands. Judah and Ramey’s hands are a motif gliding through the book that plays out all of their feelings. Their entire relationship dances out in their hands.
I read some good westerns this year and, for now, I’ll briefly point out a couple of them.
My favorite western that I would recommend to a general audience is Epitaph by Maria Doria Russell. It take an old west event that most people have heard of, The Gunfight at the OK Corral, and provides a fictional, but historically accurate, look at everything that lead up to it and all that came after. The gunfight itself, mythologized a million times over, was really just one small link in a larger and much more interesting chain.
My favorite western that I would recommend to a western audience is the out of print The Twilighters by Noel M Loomis. Loomis is a forgotten western writer and The Twilighters is, arguably, his best book. As I said in my review, “Two qualities mark the best of Loomis’ work. First, he wrote about violence in a way that that was ahead of its time and still remains relevant today. Second, he was able to find these pockets of history where really interesting stories could be told that were unlike any others.”
The western that I would recommend to EVERYONE, general and western audiences alike is The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker. This is an unjustly forgotten masterpiece (that can be had inexpensively for the Kindle). It is a novel about a group of cowboys who team up with a group of Cossacks to drive a herd of cattle across a Siberian wilderness in 1890. This is a classic western, an inverted western, a clash of cultures story, a fish out of water story. It’s also your new favorite novel, you just don’t know it yet. The beauty of The Cowboy and The Cossack is its broad appeal. If you are a hardcore western reader and haven’t read it yet, do so. If you aren’t a western reader, this is for you also. It’s a great story, impeccably told, with broad appeal.