I managed to consume 32 books this year. Most came from small presses, and were quite good. Plenty has already been said about the big titles, so I focus on reviewing the underserved authors worthy of your attention. Because I’m lucky to get my book recommendations from readers with similar tastes (and because my to-read pile numbers in the hundreds, allowing little patience for lousy reads), it’s time well-spent, with a high signal:noise ratio. These are the books that got me talking this year—yes, many of them written by people I know.
The Cost of Living – Rob Roberge
It refused to be put down. I read it in one day—one itchy, bloodshot, selfish, nostalgic, regretful, guilty, euphoric, and glorious day. Our guy in yet another hard-earned recovery faces the pressures of reuniting with his glory-days band and its attendant temptations of relapse while in a showdown with his estranged, dying father still mum about the mother who disappeared long ago. Roberge’s writing is always sharp, witty, and pacey, but never more poignant and affecting than it is here.
Junkie Love – Joe Clifford
I’d feel less guilty for liking this book so much were it not true. Some passages are matter-of-fact, while others are more fanciful literary flights (I’ll let you guess which ones are about scrapping for dope versus shooting it). It’s an apt title, as Clifford often equates or conflates his heroin highs with those of female affections any given week. Some protagonists frustrate me with their endless failings to do the right thing until it’s too late in the story, but I had no such issue here, knowing that junkies never really kick, tempering my expectations and leaving them open for anything to happen. Junkie Love will surprise you both in its depths and heights of human behavior. Repeatedly.
We Live Inside You – Jeremy Robert Johnson
We meaning these stories. It’s a compliment when I say I wouldn’t want any of these characters’ lives, however vicariously I may’ve enjoyed them for 15 minutes a pop. JRJ’s one of my favorite writers, losing nothing since his previous collection, with a language focus that elevates his work above most of his peers. These tales are bodily, conspiratorial, darkly comic, and often experimental. They’ll find you squirming while at the same time looking around to see if anyone suspects the involuntary grin living inside you.
Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig
Wendig is a master of inventive cursing, for which his character Miriam Black is an ideal foil: a hard-living hot mess of a fatale with a “gift” for seeing people’s death upon skin contact with them (I wonder if she knows Tobe Mohr from my novel Flashover …). This evolves from a begrudged method for her to make a quick robbery buck into something personal, maybe even dutiful. It’s a plotty page-turner perfectly balanced with visual descriptions, and a flair for clever simile. Yeah, Miriam does read like a guy much of the time—which she’d probably kick my ass for saying, and then steal the bacon off my plate and my car off the lot—or maybe we’re just not used to such unfiltered women.
I immediately burned through through Mockingbird, the follow-up (nearly as good, though Kindle typos abound—strange, given the popularity of Wendig’s prolific and hilarious writing/publishing advice), and await her next adventure, The Cormorant, mere hours from now. I can’t honestly remember the last time I read a series. There was the Phineas Poe trilogy by Will Christopher Baer, which are among my favorite all-time novels, and I guess the John Dies ones, which have their moments. And someday I want to get to Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. But I’ll keep riding shotgun with Miriam as long as she’ll have me.
Angel Falls – Michael Paul Gonzalez
There’s a talking monkey. Nuff said.
Monkey is also the wheelman, the wisecracking, womanizing, doubly-immortal sidekick who saves the day more than once, all while shuttling Lucifer and his ragtag posse from one adventure to the next in an underworld race to the Pearly Gates to thwart a cunning demon from executing a Heavenly coup. Think Kevin Smith’s Dogma through the lens of Christopher Moore’s best satire, with a lot more CGI.
Our (anti-?)hero Lucifer has Hell running pretty much the way he likes it, delegating its regional management to a variety of untrustworthy entities we meet along the way. As with the sarcastic, lazy narrator, Gonzalez imbues these iconic characters with insecurities, multiple personalities, addiction, and wry wit. It’s a classically-structured epic, a journey populated with enablers and obstructers and mentors and princesses. And like Bill Cosby always reminded us kids, “if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done.” It’s staggering, the amount of research this beast must’ve required, as most of it is rooted in canonical myth.
Also impressive is the level of detail in the often-ethereal surroundings: rivers and chasms and skies that morph in all manners of unholy transience. It can be disorienting in spots, yet effective when you consider the characters are equally stupefied. Don’t get comfy in any one location, and trust no one.
Gonzalez’s vision of Hell mirrors our top-side lifestyles, enabling a layer of social commentary that provides some of its best moments, whether that’s the dregs of being condemned to a service-industry job, the long, vindictive memories of spurned lovers, or vapid reality-TV stars and their purse-dogs. We all make the Long Walk alone, but Angel Falls is a happening place to kill some time after death. And try the manna cakes at The Garden of Eatin’; they’re divine.
Flushboy – Stephen Graham Jones
You thought your teen years were awkward, imagine working the window of your family’s drive-thru urinal business. This novel is about as high-concept as Jones gets, and he covers it from every conceivable angle, damn-near well enough to submit a business plan. It’s a unique framing device for exploring otherwise-typical teen angst: chercher la femme and getting out from under your ambitious, near-beer-guzzling father’s thumb. Most of Jones’s books I recommend reading quickly, given their density and complexity, but Flushboy, though simpler in many ways, I had to take in trickles (by which I don’t mean 20 seconds at a time, standing, using my free hand), because over extended periods, its pervasive urine vapors can begin clouding your lungs. Painfully funny stuff, and the narrative adolescent voice is spot-on.
Country Hardball – Steve Weddle
A great read, with lots of heart and just enough grit to sate fans of modern hick-lit. It was actually refreshing that so much of its violence occurred off the page and kept us focused on the interactions of its cast, giving the book more humanity than some of its peers as it dealt more with the aftermath of tragedy or the circumstances that lead to bad behavior rather than just the spectacle of them. I had trouble in spots keeping up with all the characters, which I attribute to its short-story origins, where each chapter would need to stand alone; but compiled, there are a lot of subplots and family trees to track. And of course baseball analogies abound.
May We Shed These Human Bodies – Amber Sparks
Sparks uses some very creative mechanisms for compartmentalizing the sections in these stories, like lists or ingredients or itineraries. I did occasionally grow weary of such methods (seeming like writing-exercise prompts), but overall they enhanced my enjoyment of the stories within them. There were many gorgeous and insightful lines I found myself rereading in awe. She often employs a fairy-tale-like rhythm with a simplicity and repetition that lends those stories an objectivity I found pleasant, on multiple occasions referring to characters as “the mother” or “the father,” etc. A few of the more surreal bits weren’t to my personal tastes, but still well done. Unfortunately, the Kindle Edition has no functional ToC, which should be mandatory, especially for story collections.
The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Vol. 3 – hitRECord
Adorable. While reading, I pictured Zooey Deschanel strumming a uke in the corner. I’m a big fan of microfiction, and these entries curated from Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hitRECord community (80,000 strong) allow the reader to unpack their own notions of what these li’l fictions hint at. It’s participatory. The accompanying artwork here is the best of the three hardcover volumes, and serves to offer one—often unexpected—interpretation of each. I wish all three volumes were collected into a single, more substantial work, but that would kinda defeat the purpose.
Cipher Sisters – various
Another good-looking book from ThunderDome Press. They always have such cool print designs. This themed anthology has its contributors speculating about real-life mysterious twins found dead with no claiming kin or record of their existence. Many authors chose the vaudevillian, carnivalesque path, which I’d expected (would be tough to resist). Most also crafted opposing personalities for the sisters, for contrast, though others used their identicality to more ambiguous effect. On any given cluster of pages, they might be promiscuous, demure, or conniving. There were a few mediocre entries, and a couple whose overwrought prose prevented me from investing in their stories, but most were creative interpretations I enjoyed muchly. The highlight for me was a three-story stretch of “The Cipher Sisters and Kid Nosferatu Dance the Bally-Kootch” by Edward Morris, Amanda Gowin’s “Asymmetry,” and “Darcy and Lucy Among the Flowers” by Andrew Davis.
With an obvious bias due to my participation, here are two more 2013 anthologies I loved.
The Booked. Anthology – various
Even if I didn’t have a story in here, or hadn’t met and caroused with 17 of its contributors at some point or other, the ultimate rating would stand. These authors will kick your ass, break your heart, and have you thanking them for it. Smart storytelling with wicked prose chops. Most of them lean dark, whether classic- or neo-noir, domestic, lit-fic, sci-fi, or bizarro. All-new stories; no reprints here. Each contributor has been a guest of the namesake podcast during its 180+ episode history, which is a unique criterion for an anthology, especially given how cohesive the result reads. Odds are good that Booked has reviewed something you’re thinking about reading, or talked to your favorite authors, dropping some knowledge and smack and hilarity in the process.
There were only a few stories I didn’t care for, though I’ve no doubt they’d appeal to other readers in their genres. A few highlights for me were Paul Tremblay’s “Scenes From the City of Garbage and the City of Clay,” with its grimy, cinematic depictions of 1970s New York City; “Short Tendon” by Amanda Gowin, whose surreal prose renders a technology-vs-nature competition for a neighborhood’s vanity; “Surrender,” a horror-house tale by Richard Thomas, whose patriarch character’s suffering may be of his own making; and Fred Venturini’s “A Pound of Flesh,” which kicks things off and sets the bar with a home invasion culminating in a brutal dilemma.
Not only does Booked tell you what to read, now they publish what you read.
The Tobacco-Stained Sky: An Anthology of Post-Apocalyptic Noir – various
What I find most fascinating about this anthology is the amount of crossover in equal measure with originality. Each story inhabits the same fictional universe established in Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, but that source novel obviously still left enough to the imagination to allow for all the variations you’ll find here. There are always Deviants pursued by Seekers (and we ride along with characters on both sides of the law), and always the haves and have-nots who either inhabit the Dome or endure the toxic rainwater outside. But it’s fun to read each author’s creative interpretation of all its tangential elements, like cosmetic surgery innovations, virtual-reality gaming, political machinations, or even the underground milk trade. Like a really long deleted-scenes reel from your favorite DVD.
The book is violent, hilarious, colloquial, nostalgic, manipulative, and probably some other Australian adjectives I’d need a glossary for. Graphic-story interstitials break things up frequently, and while I marveled at the stylistic diversity of artwork and panels, their small print makes some of those hard to read. I digested this anthology slowly, one story at a time (it helps to clear your mental palate after each), and was highly entertained.
Gordon Highland is the author of the new collection Submission Windows: stories and verse, as well as the novels Flashover and Major Inversions.