My annual review of my favorite books of the year. You cannot go wrong with any of these Best of the Best.
The City of Mirrors
Justin Cronin’s finale to his magnificent ‘The Passage Trilogy’ is everything a fan of the series could want and much more. Heartfelt, suspenseful, emotionally gripping and ultimately uplifting, The City Of Mirrors devastates in the best of ways. The characters Cronin creates are rich, complex and beautifully human. I’ve rarely cared so deeply about the people I follow through a series. I loved the first two novels so much I was a little worried: as wonderful a writer as is Cronin, could he actually pull the finale off and write something that would satisfy the enormous expectations he set up? Oh my. Did he ever.
If you’ve read the first two, do not miss this book. If you haven’t read the series, get The Passage and start now.
Scott Frank is one of the best screenwriters working today. I teach every year two of his masterworks, Out of Sight and Minority Report. This year, he published his first novel. Wow. Your first novel is this good, Scott Frank? What’s with these talented people? I’d be annoyed but damn did I love this book.
It’s hard to define Shaker. The novel is a mystery of sorts and kind of a thriller, yet it is literary in many ways and often very, very funny. I love how hard it is to describe in one word. Perhaps the best single word to use is original. Shaker also ranks with the best of narratives that explore and celebrate Los Angeles, a city I love passionately. The novel begins with an earthquake. Frank’s sharp description of the quake and its aftermath is both scary and hilarious. Perhaps most surprising to me was the emotional weight the novel had by the end. I gasped out loud a couple of times in the final pages and was appropriately shaken for days afterwards. I’ll say it again, I love this book.
(BTW, please find and watch another movie written and directed by Frank, his slam dunk adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among The Tombstones. Few people saw this movie when it was released, which is such a shame. The movie is so rich and detailed you still feel as if you are immersed in a novel. This guy Scott Frank is going places.)
This at times heartrending book about an important aspect of American culture is insightful, beautifully written, quick to read, often quite funny and will appeal to and affect readers of any political stripe. How many books can you say all that about? Just about none. J. D. Vance is a former marine and Yale Law School grad. In Hillbilly Elegy he writes personally and vividly about the collapse of the white working class and in doing so captures the feelings and despair of many Americans. If you want rich insight into much of what is going on in our country presently, this is a must read. But it’s a wonderful read for any occasion.
Last Days of Night
Another immensely enjoyable novel by a talented screenwriter. Graham Moore won a well deserved Oscar last year for the fact-based The Imitation Game, another screenplay I teach given its triple narrative/triple mystery structure. In The Last Days of Night he tackles another real life drama, the brutal battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the light bulb. That may sound a bit dry but this thrilling novel is anything but. It has everything: gripping suspense, numerous mysteries, towering real life characters, a wonderful romance and cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter. Moore struggled mightily to keep the facts as true to life as possible so I actually learned a lot reading the book along with having a great time. The Last Days of Night is a quick, fun, thrilling read. Oh and as someone who attended Thomas Edison Junior High School and only knew Mr. Edison as “that amazing guy who invented the light bulb”… wow, did I have a big slap in the face coming!
The Crooked House
If you like a dark twisted gothic suspenser, look no further than The Crooked House. Atmospheric and filled with dread, this novel was often compared to Daphne Du Maurier upon its release, given the setting and mood and also because it is a psychological thriller as much as it is a mystery. The main character, a 27-year old woman with two names (I will give away nothing) is a complex and compelling character forced to revisit her tragic past. Kent is a master at revealing information and will make you think twice before ever visiting small coastal towns of England.
I was a big fan of Blake Crouch’s insane, violent and very fun Wayward Pines trilogy. (I did not see the TV show.) But there was no way Wayward Pines could prep me for the mind-bending dance of Dark Matter, a terrific thriller that while gripping and suspenseful throughout also morphs into a novel more weighty and philosophical than I ever expected. Crouch is nothing if not daring. He will try anything in his plotting and as far as I can tell, he always gets away with it. Combining the best of metaphysical science-fiction with killer thrills, Dark Matter is a blast of a novel with powerful emotional payoffs.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive on a Monday night the week it opened in 2001. For about three-quarters of the film I was completely entranced. Then it took a narrative left turn that by the end of the movie made me so angry I wanted to hurl my empty popcorn bucket at the screen. I fumed and railed for days about the movie and the ending… but I could not get it out of my head. Four nights later I had to return. I left the theatre the second time hailing the movie as the masterpiece it was and remains.
I had a similar experience this fall with Ian Reid’s brilliant novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When I first finished this book, so slender it is basically a novella, I was irritated: it was so compelling I tore through it in one sitting yet a wild narrative left turn toward the end, as well as events seemingly left unexplained, made Ending Things seem obtuse and maddening. Yet like Mulholland Drive Reid’s book stayed with me for days, I could not stop thinking about it. Given it is not very long (you can read it in a long afternoon) I had another go. As I read it a second time I began to realize what a magnificent accomplishment Reid pulled off. With the final pages he blew my mind.
I will admit this is not the most audience friendly novel. Even though short with easy to read prose it takes work to process and much thought afterwards to piece it all together. But the effect is dazzling and heartbreaking and so worth the effort that goes into reading the book.
Oh and at times I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as scary and unnerving as hell. Sign me up.
Last on the list only because I haven’t finished it yet! I guess Moonglow could go completely off the rails in the second half. But the new book by one of my favorite authors is so far as dazzling as usual. Check back later if you need more assurances but I trust Chabon completely and am having a wonderful time.