Favorite Books of 2010
I read a lot of great stuff this year...
But I should preface this list with the admission that I haven't read every '10 release I would have liked. In fact, I'm staring at the city skyline of TBR stacks in my office and I can see from here Ron Rash's Burning Bright, Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Hills, Hilary Davidson's The Damage Done and a just-published posthumous collection by Barry Hannah: Long, Lost, Happy—four titles that I'm sure belong here based on reputation and reviews alone. Probably fodder for another blog post, right? For the paperback enthusiasts: The Best Fiction Released Last Year That I Didn't Read Until This Year...or something like that.
Anyway, here's some recommendations for what to spend those holiday gift cards on:
A perfect companion to Ellroy's first foray into memoir-land with My Dark Places, The Hilliker Curse is an absolutely fascinating piece of literary psychoanalysis. I couldn't help but feel like a voyeur while reading this, as Ellroy meticulously catalogs his relationships with women in that telegraphic prose that belongs in the Smithsonian. Every obsession, spank session, brood job, perv-out, tryst, toxic relationship, divorce, heartbreak and awkward interaction is all there on the page—the minutiae of Ellroy's sexual history, with his mother's ghost languishing over him through the decades. I'm convinced that Ellroy is a functional sociopath, and if it wasn't for his literary success he'd be on a park bench somewhere, eye-fucking women from afar, rubbing himself through his pants. Thank god we discovered and appreciated his talents while he was still alive. But after reading The Hilliker Curse, I couldn't help but feel bad for Ellroy. Despite the public persona he's cultivated during a bestselling career, underneath was a fragile personality, a man seeking love and sex on his own selfish terms, and a life full of personal disasters to show for it. Certainly not the best place to start if you're curious about James Ellroy, but an amazing peek behind the curtain of a genius.
I recently got hip to what is technically John Rector's debut novel, although you don't have to read more than a few pages to figure he's got a few (publishable) books hibernating on a hard drive, and another (The Grove) that I'm eager to read. Rector's prose is so economical, so effortless that my first impression was that Raymond Carver had, uh, risen from the grave, watched Fargo and decided to write crime-noir fiction. What I loved about The Cold Kiss was Rector's ability to pile on the bad, a technique I'm a big fan of. As in how much bad can my main characters take? And how many bad (but not stupid) decisions can they make? That makes for great fiction, which The Cold Kiss most certainly is.
The novel that landed me an agent was partially inspired by Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty, and to a larger extent inspired by the Oakland Raiders teams of the 1970's. Although my novel was set in the world of NASCAR, it was the spirit of that renegade franchise that captivated my imagination and influenced the writing without a doubt. Peter Richmond's tale of the NFL's wildest decade, and in particular the most outlaw squad ever to step on a football field, proved to be one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the past decade. Drugs, booze, hookers, pistols, gambling, driving motorcycles through a bar...and that was just training camp. Jack "the Assassin" Tatum, George "the Hit Man" Atkinson, Kenny "the Snake" Stabler, Gene "the Governor" Upshaw, Fred "Freddy" Biletnikoff and John "Tooz" Matuszak. Today's game is a Pop Warner grab-ass by comparison.
I've been a big fan of Tom Franklin for years now, one of the South's best talents (along with Ron Rash and William Gay) that seem hell bent on carrying the torch lit by Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah and before them Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, Welty, Erskine Caldwell and Thomas Wolfe. But Crooked Letter works on so many levels: a crime novel at its core, a coming-of-age story full of estrangement and tragedy that could appeal to a mass audience, and a commentary on the lies and misunderstandings that can haunt a life spent in the “country”…all written by a guy firmly rooted in the aforementioned literary tradition. It's a challenge for a marketing department, sure, but all I know is that Tom Franklin can write like a motherfucker. Nobody has captured race relations and rural decay in the 21st Century South quite like Franklin has with this novel, the fringe existence of folks in his Mississippi no different from what you might find in Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama and no less depressing. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has heart and soul, an authenticity you can't teach, and that magic that the finest storytellers are able to perform.
Expiration Date really defies categorization. This is the second novel by Duane Swierczynski that I've read, and a brain-busting treat it is, with dialogue that pops and sizzles and a plot that I can only describe as galloping. His latest is unique in that it refuses to sit still or be defined by genre trappings. It's a thinking-man's thriller, a post-modern mystery, a love letter to his hometown of Philadelphia, a sci-fi noir and ultimately, a story about a man scouring the Microfiche of his shattered family history for closure. Not to simplify what Swierczy pulls off here, but ED really does for astral projection what Inception did for dreams or 12 Monkeys did for time travel...all with an ending that is absolutely knee-buckling. But the highest compliment I can offer to any work of fiction is to say how much I learned by reading it. And I learned a helluva lot about writing by reading Expiration Date.
My review from Amazon with a few alterations:
Schow has written the thriller of the year...
But INTERNECINE is not just a thriller. It's a satire, a spy novel, a roid-raging Doc Savage action yarn and a post-modern gun porn masterpiece. INTERNECINE is seven novels working seamlessly at once.
1) GUNS: As in Stephen Hunter would give this novel an enthusiastic double tap. The weapons are exotic, realistic, loud on the page, sinister when holstered, blamming and blaaaawhing every other paragraph and killing EVERYONE. INTERNECINE is righteous literary Peckinpah.
2) LOS ANGELES: INTERNECINE is one of the best novels about L.A. well...ever. Bruce Wagner would smirk with jealousy. Michael Connelly would scratch his goatee in admiration. James Ellroy would shrug his shoulders in arrogant indifference and Raymond Chandler would barf up his liquid lunch in appreciation.
3) SATIRE: This is the post-modern, ironic, meta-transgressive Don Delillo novel Chuck Palahniuk wishes he could write. But Schow is too articulate, too original and far too deft to mimic any voice but the one he's created in INTERNECINE. It is a first person narrative that should be studied in writing seminars.
Believe the hype here, folks. Want to read a thriller with brains? Put down the Patterson and Koontz novels for that flight and let INTERNECINE be your legacy at the crash site.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Farris is a writer from Cobb County, Georgia. His debut novel will be published by Tom Doherty Associates/Forge Books next winter. Find him raving and drooling at the Sentence Salvo