Favorite books of 2013

Best of 2013

I haven’t even gotten past the title and already I feel the need to issue a disclaimer.

It would be easy enough to offer a subtitle and be done with it, just call it “Crime Fiction” or some such. But then there will be quibbles. At least two of the books here wouldn’t be considered crime fiction by their publishers or authors. And this list isn’t exhaustive. Yes, these were among my favorites, but there were others. Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street and Michael Kimball’s Big Ray came out in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but they were certainly favorites of mine this year.

And I read much more widely this year as I sought out authors for the Iowa City Book Festival, and thus fell in love with many non crime fiction books like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, and Tom Drury’s Pacific, among many others.

OK, so it is clear from this relatively short that I probably missed a bunch of great stuff this year. Participate in the 2013 Grift Readers Poll to share your own list and help spread the word about some great reads.

So, this is a list of my favorite books that loosely fall in the category of crime fiction as defined by me alone. A little bit about each, in alphabetical order. If you’re looking for plot details, they’re out there. These are the reasons why these stories connected with me this year.

Angel Baby – Richard Lange
Lange exploded on the scene with the story collection Dead Boys, followed with the novel This Wicked World. That one, with its socio-political backdrop, put him squarely in Pelecanos territory. With Angel Baby, Lange goes for the jugular with a taut thriller. The things that made his first two books so good are still here, but he amps things up with a tale of love, loss and revenge.  (Grift review of Angel Baby)

Drift - Jon McGoran
The one-time DH Dublin tackles genetically modified foods in a thriller that balances fascinating science with thrilleresque action. You never feel like you’re reading a textbook, but by the time you catch your breath, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to have learned something in the process.

The Double – George Pelecanos
Pelecanos has become a master of the short series, seemingly staying with a character as long as he has something to say. Spero Lucas is likely to be with us a while. This war veteran turned investigator reveals more layers — albeit reluctantly — with each outing, and in writing him Pelecanos continues to build his already prodigious talents.

Nothing Gold Can Stay – Ron Rash
I had never read Rash before now but always meant to. This story collection was the perfect entry point, as I could chip away while committed to other books. These stories grabbed me quickly, and then kept me hooked because they didn’t go where I expected. Great writing is said to end up in a place that is both surprising and necessary; you don’t know until you reach the end that this is exactly where it needed to be. Nothing Gold Can Stay is like a master class in proving that point, and it won’t be the last I read of Rash’s work.

The Hard Bounce – Todd Robinson
Robinson, known by those of us short-story peddlers as the Big Daddy Thug behind the rough-and-tumble Thuglit magazine, shopped this around for years. Every other publisher’s loss is Tyrus Books’ gain. Sure, Robinson might have lived this, might even be retelling some stories that got him through long, boring nights bouncing at a bar. But to weave it all together this skillfully, dare I say this artfully? Dude is a talent, and I for one can’t wait for the return of Boo and Junior. (Grift Interrogation with Todd Robinson)

Let Him Go – Larry Watson
The curve ball on the list (along with Rash, to an extent), but I defy anyone to find a more uncompromising story published this year. Watson’s story is deceptive, a seemingly quaint story that slides toward the darkness so subtly that you don’t see the bad things coming until they’re on your doorstep.

Country Hardball – Steve Weddle
Weddle, like Robinson, is a veteran of the online and small publisher short story world, and like Robinson’s debut, Weddle’s has been floating around a while. Guess what? Tyrus wins again, issuing this novel in stories that is powerful in the way an accretion of details builds a larger world. A seemingly tossed-off remark here carries devastating consequences there. Here’s hoping Weddle still has time to edit Needle amid the other demands this will surely create for his time.

The Maid’s Version – Daniel Woodrell
Big surprise: a new novel from Woodrell ends up on a “best of the year” list. Well, this wasn’t a given. Woodrell tried something new here, leaving the backwoods to travel back in time to offer a fictionalized account of a bit of his family lore. The result is a gripping, heartbreaking story that shows Woodrell’s chops know no bounds.

Hard Case to issue eight pseudonymous Crichton novels

What other books are out there under pen names, just waiting to be revealed as the work of a mega-selling star author? First was Robert Galbraith, who proved to be J.K. Rowling in disguise. Now comes John Lange, author of two good entries in the Hard Case Crime catalog, who was none other than Michael Chrichton.

Those books – Grave Descend and Zero Cool — were solid entries in the Hard Case lineup; the former even earned an Edgar nomination. Crichton, though he didn’t claim the work, worked with Hard Case’s Charles Ardai to get the books back into print. They were discussing which of the eight Lange novels to issue next, when Crichton succumbed to cancer at age 66.

Ardai announced today that he has been working with Crichton’s family and they have decided to allow Hard Case Crime to issue all eight novels under Crichton’s name. It is a coup for the imprint, which has a solid track record of working with the writing of older writers, exposing that work to a new audience.

The novels are Grave Descend and Zero Cool – previously issued under the John Lange pseudonym — and Easy Go, Scratch One, Binary, Odds On, The Venom Business and The Drug of Choice.

“The books are terrific reads, really delicious examples of Michael experimenting with the genres he would become famous for in later life – you’ll find sinister consequences of bioengineering (on a secret island vacation resort, no less!), you’ll find a race-against-the-clock political thriller penned long before the TV series “24,” you’ll find an archaeology professor hunting for a lost tomb in the Egyptian desert decades before Harrison Ford ever donned a fedora…plus a heist of a luxury hotel planned with the aid of a computer, a case of mistaken identity that pits an innocent man against a league of assassins, and more, all presented behind the gorgeous painted cover art of Greg Manchess and Glen Orbik,” Ardai writes.

Grift #2 is available now!

The second issue of Grift is now available!

Believe me, it was worth the wait. The issue includes an exhaustive (yet incredibly captivating) interview of Les Edgerton, another with Stuart Neville, and a look a the film noir woodcuts of Loren Kantor.

The fiction section is beefed up considerably from the first issue with stories from Erik Arneson, Jack Bates, Matthew Brozik, Lawrence Buentello, Holly Day, Salvatore Falco, Andy Henion, Davin Ireland, David James Keaton, Jon McGoran, Chad Rohrbacher, Helen Maryles Shankman, and Martin Zeigler.

Get it here.

Reviewers: write for Grift!

Are you a reviewer? Do you like free books? Writing for Grift may be for you.

We run the occasional book review, and publishers have taken notice. We have a modest selection of top titles available to review. If you pass muster, we’ll send you one.

To learn more about this exciting opportunity, visit our reviewing page. Act now!

Grift No. 2 coming soon!

Yes, it probably seems like forever since the debut issue of Grift was unleashed on the world, but it has only been about a year. No, we didn’t intend for Grift to be an annual, but tell that to life, which kept getting in the way of our earnest and heartfelt attempts to get the second issue out to you.

Fret no more: Grift’s arrival is imminent. As we iron out the last few items in preparation of launch, you can prepare yourself… or try, anyway.

The issue includes an exhaustive (yet incredibly captivating) interview of Les Edgerton, another with Stuart Neville, and a look a the film noir woodcuts of Loren Kantor.

The fiction section is beefed up considerably from the first issue with stories from Erik Arneson, Jack Bates, Matthew Brozik, Lawrence Buentello, Holly Day, Salvatore Falco, Andy Henion, Davin Ireland, David James Keaton, Jon McGoran, Chad Rohrbacher, Helen Maryles Shankman, and Martin Zeigler.

Keep watch on the site for word of when the issue will be available for order. And as always, Grift no. 1 is still available.

Review: Richard Lange’s Angel Baby

In 2007, Richard Lange seemed to have an uneasy relationship with the notion of “crime fiction.” I noticed that while the stories in his excellent debut story collection, Dead Boys, had appeared mostly in literary journals, the blurbs for the book came from crime fiction heavyweights like Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos.

“That the book is considered by some to be a work of crime fiction is fine by me, but I wouldn’t call it that,” he told me in an interview. “I do admit, however, to co-opting the language of crime fiction, particularly the hard-boiled stuff, and injecting it into stories that might have been fairly quiet ‘relationship’ pieces without it in order to heighten the tension and describe the violence being done to the characters’ psyches.”

He said at the time that his first novel, however, was a conscious attempt to write crime fiction. That book, This Wicked World, was another stunner, a rich tale that showed Lange understood the needs of the drama while feeling no need to rein in his considerable skills.

With his second novel, the new Angel Baby, Lange seems to have made the full transition to crime thriller writer. The book is a plot heavy thrill ride, with dense action  that still allows room for significant character development. But where his past works seemed more driven by those characters — as is typical of what is considered to be literary fiction –  here the story is behind the wheel.

Interrogation: Todd Robinson discusses The Hard Bounce

Todd Robinson

You want to damn a fella with faint praise? Try this: Todd Robinson is the reason I consider myself a crime writer.

Get the slings and arrows out of the way: “Why’d you have to go and do that, Big Daddy Thug?” (I did return the favor, publishing his Derringer-nominated “Peaches” in Grift #1. UPDATE: He just earned an Anthony nod for the story as well.)

He did it for me the way he did it for a lot of folks. As editor of the once-late-lamented now back and better than ever Thuglit, Robinson shepherded many writers into print. At the same time, like most of us on that side of the editor/writer divide, he was slaving away on his own stuff, cranking out short stories and working on a novel.

Anyone who paid attention knew about that novel. The Hard Bounce. A gritty crime tale drawn from Robinson’s own years working the door at some fine drinking establishments. He wore his heart on his sleeve, writing candidly about the frustrating path to — well, if not publication, perhaps “serial rejection” is the better term.

Anyone who knew Robinson knew that wasn’t an indication of quality. It was an indication that it hadn’t found its home yet. Fast forward a couple of years, and here it is, The Hard Bounce, out now on Tyrus Books, one of the best, most-adventurous independent houses out there. Of course this is where Robinson was meant to land. Ben LeRoy and his team are the right people to push this book.

Now that you have a chance to read it, you should do so without pause. There are Boo and Junior, two wisecracking club bouncers. There is a missing girl. A politician. A retired cop. Runaways. Violence. Humor. Etc. Etc. And the best news of all? Spoiler alert: Robinson says he’s working on a sequel.

Interrogation: Rob Cline and Lennox Randon

Cline-Randon

Let’s say a friend of yours asks you to read his novel. Let’s say this friend has no track record as a novelist. Let’s say this friend dares to tread into waters you yourself are trying, with limited success, to navigate. Let’s say this friend then asks you to read another novel by someone you don’t know. Let’s say this other guy is fighting a terminal illness. Let’s say you don’t feel as if you can say “no.”

Let’s say you’re glad you didn’t. (We’ll also agree to quit saying “let’s say,” OK?)

The friend in question is Rob Cline. By day the director of marketing and communications for Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa; by night (or rather, in the morning  before work), an aspiring mystery writer. The friend of your friend is Lennox Randon, a former police officer and technical writer who seems to have “publishing a novel” on his bucket list… a list that is top of mind thanks to the metastatic GIST cancer with which he lives.

Cline’s book, Murder by the Slice, is likely the only mystery who’s main character is a pizza delivery guy. It’s also the funniest such book, a compliment that should carry considerably more weight than it does (see the part about this being the only one). That delivery guy, Paul Chambers, stumbles into the aftermath of a murder, and spends the rest of the book trying to figure out what happened while working to avoid becoming the next victim. It’s an amusing book that will put readers in the mind of Lawrence Block, Lisa Lutz and Brad Parks.

Randon’s book Friends Dogs Bullets Lovers, has its funny moments, but it is a more serious, slightly grittier tale. Friends Noah and Lee are out walking their dogs one night when they see some mob guys dumping a body. Soon, these two are hustled away to Austin, Texas, in the Witness Protection Program. The problem? Noah is a cop and Lee is an EMT, and neither can practice their profession in their new lives…. which doesn’t stop them from starting their own private investigation firm on the side. The banter between these two will keep you invested in this story, reminding me of dynamic duos like Joe E. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard or the pair in Todd Robinson’s recent The Hard Bounce.

Review: The James Bond Omnibus 004

By Ed Quinlan

James Bond is a character that everyone has heard of, making him one of the most profitable fictional figures since Casino Royale was first published in 1953.  But Bond’s ubiquity means that everyone has a rather different mental picture of him.  The various Bonds from the movie series each have their admirers.  Others associate Bond less with an actor than with a persona from the films: the globe-trotting detective, the campy playboy, the metrosexual, the grim assassin.

But The James Bond Omnibus 004 will thrill readers interested in the roots of the world’s most famous spy.  Consisting of nine serialized comic strips, the Omnibus is the fourth Titan Books collection of James Bond Comics that ran in the Daily Express, and later in other British newspapers, from 1958 to 1984.  The strips in this collection date from 1971 to 1975, long after Ian Fleming had died and his original novels and short stories had all been adapted for the comics.

The James Bond Omnibus 004 features nine original stories by the strip’s writer, Jim Lawrence. Yaroslav Horak provides the simple but effective artwork for 007’s adventures.  Despite being released during James Bond’s cinematic heyday, Lawrence and Horak’s comics hark back to an earlier Bond.  When Ian Fleming first gained acclaim, he was regarded as a successor of sorts to Raymond Chandler.  And he wrote at a time when hardboiled spies were common staples in pulpy paperbacks.  Literary savoir-faire elevated Fleming’s Bond above his competitors.  But for all Fleming’s sophistication, James Bond was a pulp hero.  A very Tory pulp hero, to be sure.

Todd Robinson’s “Peaches” from Grift #1 earns Derringer nod

Congratulations to Todd Robinson, whose quietly brutal story, “Peaches,” from the debut issue of Grift, is a finalist for the Derringer award in the long story (4,001-8,000 words) category.

Nico’s voice floats over the bar as softly as the falling snow ontoManhattan. I close my eyes an dream of another time. The place would have to do.

I take a sip of the Lagavulin. The bottle is a finger from the bottom, probably the same bottle that Fat Ronnie had poured my first out of nineteen years ago.

It’s a great story, well deserving of the recognition. To read it and many other top-notch stories, pick up a copy of the issue today.