Ah, that rare moment when it happens. You start reading a book, and at some point (usually early on) you realize that it isn’t a book at all, but a BOOK. A revelation. A work of art. This doesn’t happen often, and many times it is by chance. It is wonderful to be surprised in such a way. This happened to me not long ago, and that book kicks off our third annual Random Book Day blog.
Here by Richard McGuire
I could start by saying that Here is a graphic novel, but that is so limiting. Graphic novels (and I blogged about them before) simply tells us the format of this book. It has pictures. It is illustrated. A much better descriptor of Here is “literary force of nature”.
Here tells the story of a particular room, or more accurately a particular place. Each page is like a snapshot of the room at a different period in time, from the distant past to the far future, but mostly focusing on the last 100 years or so. We can see what was happening there throughout the years, and see the people who were there. Birth, death, happiness and sorrow. Ultimately the story is not as much about the room but about the life that happens there, and believe me life suffuses this book start to finish. Maguire both wrote and illustrated it, and I think he deserves a medal.
I finished reading it while on my lunch break, and it is a good thing I did so because otherwise I would have been late coming back. There was no way I was not going to stop reading it. It wasn’t just my favorite book of the year, it was the best book I read this year.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Speaking of rooms, my next book is called, umm, Room. It is told from the perspective of Jack, a five year old, which that alone would be interesting, but Jack’s life is not typical. He has spent his entire life, all five years, in the same room. His mother was kidnapped and imprisoned in the room by the only other real life person Jack has ever seen, Old Nick. Jack does not realize this man is his father via the rape of his mother.
Okay, you can tell already that this is an intense story. I had reservations about reading something that would be such a downer, but it came well recommended. As in I asked my wife for something to read and she literally stuck this in my hand. While it is intense, everything being filtered through the innocence of Jack (who thinks the entire world is contained within the room) softens the blows a bit. And, mild spoiler alert here, when they escape Jack is thrust into a world of wonder that also terrifies him.
The emotional impact of the book can be rough at times but it is well worth the effort. Many others would second this. And now there is a movie of the book, starring the talented Brie Larson, that is on my must watch list.
Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb
And now for something completely different. McCrumb mostly writes contemporary historical fiction set in the Appalachian Mountains. This is not one of those books. It is a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. A prickly author is killed, and the convention attendees are left to both keep the show going and try to discover who the killer is.
Bimbos (the title is the name of a book one of the protagonists had written) serves as a perfectly fine mystery, but also realistically captures the feel of both the setting and the people who inhabit it. There are a lot of stereotypes involved, but McCrumb never makes them seem cliche. Plus, just like me, you can learn about filk music (that is not a typo).
This book may seem at first to be lowbrow, especially considering the pulp style cover, but it rises well above the masses. In fact, it won an Edgar Award. A good choice to do some genre breaking. it is also fun to see the differences in technology, such as a lead character talking about this new thing called email they are using at the university he teaches at.
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
Hobbs debut novel is quite impressive. Jack is a career criminal, a ghostman, a man who can hide in plain sight and disappear without a trace after a job is finished. Jack is very good at his job, but a mistake he made years ago comes back to haunt him, and to pay off his debt he is off to clean up a botched New Jersey casino heist. Of course the job is not as straightforward as it sounds, and Jack has to use all of his skills to come out alive.
Hobbs does a great job of keeping the suspense high, and of giving an inside view of how a man like Jack operates. I was honestly surprised that a new writer could craft a book is such a masterful way. Fans of Lee Child and Robert Stark are doing themselves a grave disservice by not reading this. Granted, the follow up Vanishing Games certainly falls short of the high mark set by Ghostman, but I am still looking forward to what else Hobbs produces.
In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
I mentioned I was going to read this not long ago, and indeed I did read it. And it was good enough to add to this list. Set in a small town in Poland in the early 20th century, In Red is a mixture of gritty realism and fancy surrealism. I found myself reminded of The Grand Budapest Hotel in some ways, and also of Salvador Plascencia’s wonderful book The People of Paper. Bouncing from character to character, one scene will be a straight telling of standard doings in the town and the next will feature something like a girl whose heart had stopped refusing to die and going about her regular routine of reading French romance novels, or a bullet that was fired years ago striking someone after completing its circumnavigation of the globe.
I started to grow disheartened as the end of the book, as it all seemed to be heading towards an incredibly sad ending, but Tulli reminds us that these are all just stories, and that stories are told in many different ways. This book is told in a very entertaining way, and my hat is off to both Tulli and Johnston, who translated it so well. Also, I don’t typically wear hats.
Armada by Ernest Cline
I feel a bit bad for this book, because Cline’s first one, Ready Player One, was not only a really fun read but had such a distinctive voice to it that it makes it hard for Armada to get out from under its shadow. Nevertheless, Armada is a fine read, a rollicking sci fi adventure that does some clever lampshading.
Zack is a pretty standard high school kid. Having lost his father at a young age he has some anger issues to deal with, which gives his character depth that many teens depicted in fiction do not. He of course spends a lot of time playing video games, and one day while sitting in class he looks out the window and sees a spaceship directly out of Armada, his favorite game. It turns out that the game all along was intended as a training simulator for an inevitable alien invasion. Zack, being one of the best players in the game, is recruited along with many others to combat the alien threat.
The book stays focused on Zack, but because of his skills and his background he is exposed to the highest levels of the military and we get to follow both his story and the big picture of the invasion. Armada is filled with sci fi and 80s references, but not to a distracting degree, and not to a level that you feel like you are missing out if you don’t get all of them. I also really liked how Cline pokes some good natured fun at the genre. Zack realizes quickly that this invasion has massive plot holes in it, much like so many books and movies do, and he starts asking questions and doubting the official narrative. A fun read, and one that has a bit more depth than is first evident.
Swan Song by Robert McCammon
Well, enough of the fun and whimsical reads. Swan Song is horror, and lives up to the genre. It tells the story of survivors of a nuclear war who find themselves on the opposite sides of a conflict between good and evil. Sounds a bit like Stephen King’s The Stand you might be thinking, and you would be right to a degree, although Swan Song is certainly not a derivative work.
One thing that happens is that many of the characters start being afflicted by growths that cover much of their bodies, especially their faces. In this way even some of the good guys have the outward appearance of monsters for much of the story. On one side is the girl Swan, who has the power to bring life back to sticken plants, and her ex-wrestler protector Josh. On the other side is former survivalist Colonel Macklin, and his protegee, a teen by the name of Roland who shows us that real monstrosity comes from within.
Swan Song is a long book, and set in the 1980s it is a bit dated now. Plus you really have to wait for the payoff at the end. But that payoff is certainly worth it. In fact it was the co-winner of the first Bram Stoker Award, along with King’s Misery, so that should give you an idea of the quality of this book.
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
So in full disclosure I will say that I work with someone who is related to the author. That being said, I wouldn’t talk about this book if it wasn’t any good. The title is pretty self explanatory. Waring Wax is the proprietor of a small independent video store in a small college town in North Carolina. Wax muddles drunkenly through life without much concern until threatened by the arrival of a shiny new Blockbuster across the street.
See what Hawkins did there? This is a new book, published in early 2015, and we all know that there are no more Blockbuster stores anymore (sort of). Hawkins presents a standard enough story that has a lot of non standard elements. Wax has to overcome his personal issues, and his employees who chip in to help have to overcome theirs. Throw in a director of a movie being filmed in town who believes himself haunted by the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock and you end up with quite the tale.
Hawkins has said he was influenced by the BBC bookstore comedy Black Books, but I think there is some A Confederacy of Dunces in their too, and there is nothing wrong with that. Plus it has a really cool cover.
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
This was my favorite book of the year up until the point I read Here. I wouldn’t have said it was the best book I had read, but I sure did enjoy it. Like Ghostman above it is a debut novel, and it was recommended to me by the same person who recommended Ghostman. Hmm, there is another book on my list he told me about. I think I ought to read that one too.
The Rook is the story of a woman who awakens in a muddy park surrounded with bodies and with her memory largely gone. She finds a letter in her pocket addressed to her that starts explaining things. Her name is Myfanwy (sounds like Tiffany) Thomas, and she works for a secret British organization that is basically a supernatural MI6. She herself is a high ranking member of the unit, a Rook. The memory loss was the result of an attack by a rival, and anticipating it she had written the letter in the pocket, and many others as well, so her future self might have a chance to survive. And to track down her assailant, an enemy who poses a threat not just to her but to the Britain itself.
On the surface one might think this was a version of James Bond crossed with Lara Croft, but it isn’t really. Myfanwy is not so much the action type, and in fact previously was loathe to use her powers. Her new self, however, isn’t as timid, much to the chagrin of her enemies and rivals.
I liked the various powers characters had. Many felt fresh in a genre where it seems like we have seen it all before. The book does have a conclusive ending, but is well suited for a sequel(s). Something I am eagerly awaiting.
Well, that wraps up Random Book Day 2015. I hope you’ll find your own random, or not so random, reads this year that will make you want to share them with the world.