Thursday, January 1, 2015

My 2015 Reading List

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Last year's New Year's resolution was to read more, and for some reason I decided to keep track of what I read by keeping a reading list on this blog. Unfortunately, that was the only thing I did on this blog for the entire year. I'm not sure if I'll ever start blogging again on any kind of regular basis, but I've decided to make another reading list, so here goes...

1. The Smoke at Dawn -- Jeff Shaara

By my count, this is the eleventh Shaara book I've read, so I'm a big fan of the formula. Since this book covers the Civil War battles for Chattanooga, you can find something of a review on my Chattanooga Civil War blog.

2. Gray Mountain -- John Grisham

Not as good as the last Grisham novel I read (Sycamore Row), but an interesting look at the evil coal mining companies of Appalachia.

3. Mr. Mercedes -- Stephen King

Somewhat of a surprise. None of the horror or monsters (except the human kind) you might expect from Stephen King, but a fairly straight-up crime story.

4. The Wild Blue -- Stephen Ambrose

The first non-fiction book of the year. Subtitled "The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany," this interesting book focuses on George McGovern's WWII squadron.

5. Fuzzy Nation -- John Scalzi

Scalzi calls this a "reboot" of H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy universe, "not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams 'reboot' of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science.)" Piper's Little Fuzzy delved deeper into the philosophical questions surrounding sapience, but Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation is a more entertaining book.

6. Void Moon -- Michael Connelly

It's very odd to read a Connelly book that isn't about homicide detective Hieronymus Bosch, FBI agent Terry McCaleb or defense attorney Mickey Haller. This is more of an Elmore Leonard-style plot with the bad guy (in this case, a woman) trying to stay ahead of the even badder guys.

7. Fear City -- F. Paul Wilson

I'm a big fan of Repairman Jack, one of the coolest crime fiction characters of all-time. The cover said, "Repairman Jack: The Early Years," so I snatched it up. When I cracked it open to start reading it, I noticed that the title page said, "Fear City -- A Repairman Jack Novel -- The Early Years Trilogy: Book Three." Yikes! I started to take it back until I could get around to the other two books, then realized that I've read a good bit of Wilson's "The Secret History of the World" ALL out of order anyway, so what the hell. Except for a few parts (What the hell's the deal with Tony?), it works very well as a stand-alone book, telling the "secret history" of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

8. Underworld -- Don DeLillo

After some lightweight page-turners, I was looking for something a little more substantial. This book more than fit the bill. A big sprawling contender for the title of Great American Novel, perhaps a tad overly long and ambitious. The prologue, a recounting of Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World, is incredible sportswriting.

9. The Red Badge of Courage -- Stephen Crane

More than what I expected. This falls into the category of "Books I Should Have Read 35 or 40 Years Ago."

10. King's Mountain -- Sharyn McCrumb

I'm a big fan of McCrumb. I've read almost everything she's written and especially enjoy the Ballad novels that deal so extensively with Appalachian life. That said, this book, a fictionalized account of the Revolutionary War's Battle of King's Mountain, was fairly disappointing. Although the actual battle lasted just barely longer than an hour, I would have thought the telling of it would have taken more than the limited number of pages McCrumb devoted to it.

11.  A Sense of History

Subtitled "The Best Writing from the Pages of American Heritage," this book is an excellent collection of essays on a wide variety of historical topics, showing what a national treasure we all lost when American Heritage magazine folded.

12. The Uncivil War -- Robert Mackey

Nonfiction. Subtitled "Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865." Not exactly what I was expecting -- I was hoping to learn a little something about East Tennessee Unionists -- but an interesting look at the various types of irregular warfare the Confederates used (guerrillas in Arkansas, partisans -- Mosby in Virginia, and raiders -- Morgan and Forrest in Tennessee and Kentucky) and how the Union eventually defeated them.

13.  Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom -- Cory Doctorow

A short, fun sci-fi story. You've got to admire an author who shows such reverence for Disney's Haunted Mansion.

14.  No Country for Old Men -- Cormac McCarthy

Not a bad book, but for various reasons I wasn't nearly as impressed as I thought I'd be.

15.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk -- Ben Fountain

A blurb on the cover says that this could be the Catch-22 of the Iraq War. No, but it's close, damned close.

16.  Rise of the Warrior Cop -- Radley Balco

Nonfiction. I put this on my reading list after watching the police in Ferguson drive up in armored personnel carriers, pointing assault rifles at peaceful protesters. Subtitled "The Militarization of America's Police Forces," this book might best be summarized by the words of an unnamed police officer: "These guys got new toys. They want to use them." A must-read for any American, regardless of your political persuasions.

17. Echo Park -- Michael Connelly

It took me a little bit  -- maybe fifty pages or so -- to realize that this was one of the sources of the Amazon series Bosch. Typical fast-paced, entertaining Connelly.

18. Faster Pastor --  Sharyn McCrumb and Adam Edwards

An outlandish plot leads to an amusing tale of what life is like in the lower echelons of NASCAR racing.

19.  Gone Girl -- Gillian Flynn

It didn't seem like my cup of tea, but I thought I'd read a bit and see how it goes. Much more entertaining than expected. A very enjoyable psychological thriller.

20.  The Art of Fielding -- Chad Harbach

Sorta, kinda reminded me of some of John Irving's better novels, if Irving had ever had much to say about baseball or Steve Blass Disease.  An awesome debut novel.

21.  The Girl on the Train -- Paula Hawkins

Another awesome debut novel, this one an entertaining psychological thriller/murder mystery featuring a lot of screwed up people. I didn't figure out whodunit until about ten pages before the big reveal.

22.  The Man in the High Castle -- Philip K. Dick

I've read a handful of Dick's books before, and put this one on my list after seeing the pilot episode of the upcoming Amazon series. This was a very good alternative history book, but didn't bear much relation to the pilot episode I saw -- which is par for the course for Dick's books. I'm still looking forward to the series though.

23.  Tree of Smoke -- Denis Johnson

I almost quit this one about 100 or so pages in, but it shaped up to be a very good book about the Vietnam War. Perhaps a little disjointed and overrated to be a National Book Award winner.

24.  American Tabloid -- James Ellroy

About as noir as a book can get -- from the opening scene of Howard Hughes mainlining codeine while watching the news to the end. Like F. Paul Wilson's Secret History of the World (see #7), Ellroy has crafted a secret history of the Kennedy years culminating in the president's assassination.

25.  White Doves at Morning -- James Lee Burke

Burke takes a break from the crime/mystery novels to write an enjoyable Civil War tale based on his family's history.

26.  The Girls of Atomic City -- Denise Kiernan

Like The Wild Blue (see #4) this is a non-fiction book about the WWII years, relating the experiences of the ordinary Americans who were there -- in this case, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working on The Project, refining The Tubealloy that would power The Device that would end the war.  Kiernan's Daily Show interview (Part 1 and Part 2) explains the book very well.

27.  Heavenly Days -- James Wilcox

Sorta, kinda reminded me of a Southern-fried Garrison Keillor -- the whole small town, lost in the modern age, comic kind of story. It might have been better if he had a spent a few more pages fleshing out the story a bit.

28.  The Girl Next Door -- Ruth Rendell

I'm not sure why I've only read a couple of Rendell's books. I've enjoyed the ones I have read. This book -- one of her last -- is not much of a mystery; you learn all about the murders in the opening pages, leaving the rest of the book to see how it all shakes out.

29.  The Five -- Robert McCammon

Back in the day, McCammon was like a hidden treasure -- an author who could write a horror/thriller comparable with Stephen King, who very few people had heard of. Then, after writing his best books -- Boy's Life and Gone South -- he quit writing. For a decade. He came to mind a while back, and I put some of his newer books on my reading list. Here, McCammon shows off an encyclopedic knowledge of rock music to tell the story of a struggling band on their last tour through the Southwest.

30.  Winter's Bone -- Daniel Woodrell

Wow. I've read a lot of good books this year. This short novel, less than 200 pages, might just be the best. 

31. The Steel Wave -- Jeff Shaara

Typical Shaara military history. The second of four books on World War II, this one focuses on D-Day -- the planning, the invasion, and the subsequent battles that allowed the Allies to establish a foothold in France.

32.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- Neil Gaiman

Like Winter's Bone (#30), this is a brilliant, but short book -- less than 180 pages. Other than that, the two books are nothing alike. This one is a great bit of contemporary fantasy.

33.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Robert Pirsig

Part memoir of a motorcycle trip through the west, part autobiography, part philosophical discourse. I've never been a big fan of philosophy -- it starts out with grand, interesting concepts, then gets bogged down in the weeds. Zen was the same; it started out great, then Pirsig got bogged down for a couple of hundred pages talking about Quality, which made this a chore to pick up for a while, then finally got interesting again toward the end.

34.  Hidden Prey -- John Sandford

Needed some lighter reading for a change of page. Not one of Sandford's best, but a fairly decent crime novel.

35.  Fight Club -- Chuck Palahniuk

A fairly bizarre little book. This might make a good movie.

36.  The Last Colony -- John Scalzi

Typically entertaining Scalzi sci-fi; book three of the Old Man's War saga.

37.  A Prayer for Owen Meany -- John Irving

Not my favorite Irving book (that would be The Cider House Rules), but an enjoyable read. Took a little too long to get where it was going and telegraphed the ending way too far in advance.

38.  Lost Light -- Michael Connelly

A typically entertaining page-turner from Connelly.

39.  Horns -- Joe Hill

Probably my least favorite of Hill's three novels, but still a gripping horror novel. A little frustrating in that he transformed the protagonist into a demon with a few nifty demonic powers, but not enough to keep him from getting his ass kicked a few times.

40. The Black Dahlia -- James Ellroy

Ellroy is quickly becoming a favorite. An intense crime noir novel loosely based on the real-life crime story.

41.  Finders Keepers -- Stephen King

Another page-turning crime novel from King; a sequel of sorts to Mr. Mercedes.

42.  No Less Than Victory -- Jeff Shaara

Typically interesting military historical fiction from Shaara. This is the third book of his trilogy on the WWII European Theater, covering events from the Battle of the Bulge to (spoiler alert) the fall of Germany.

43.  A People's History of Sports in the United States -- Dave Zirin

Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation, explores the strange intersection where sports meets politics. I thought it might coulda been a little more comprehensive, but a great addendum to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

44.  Speaks the Nightbird -- Robert McCammon

I was really surprised that this story of a witch trial in 1699 Virginia was actually a mystery instead of a horror novel. I was also surprised that over 700 pages of small type went by so quickly.

45.  Station Eleven -- Emily St. John Mandel

The most sedate apocalyptic novel I've ever read, but extremely compelling.

46. Washington's Spies -- Alexander Rose

Non-fiction. History. Subtitled "The Story of America's First Spy Ring," this interesting book is the basis of the AMC series Turn.

47.  Night Over Water -- Ken Follett

Follett has written dozens of books; I've read a handful of them. The story, which is kind of meh, is made interesting by the account of the beginning of trans-Atlantic passenger flight aboard Pan Am's Boeing 314 Clipper coinciding with the beginning of World War II.

48. Welcome to Braggsville -- T. Geronimo Johnson

To all authors everywhere: Please, for the love of God, quit writing novels that don't have quotation marks. It's confusing, distracting, and irritating as hell. Other than that, this is an incredible novel, sort of a coming-of-age, sort of a Berkeley meets the Old South culture shock story, written in a variety of styles that plays havoc with a lot of social conventions.

49. The Big Nowhere -- James Ellroy

Book #2 of Ellroy's L.A. Quartet. Takes place after The Black Dahlia (see #40), but is not really a sequel. Can be read as a standalone novel. Another intense, noir crime novel.

50. Zoe's Tale -- John Scalzi

Book #4 of Scalzi's Old Man's War series. Mostly retells the story in Book #3, The Last Colony (See #36), from a different point of view. You must read the other books to know what is going on in this one.

51.  Jacksonland -- Steve Inskeep

One of the best books I've read on the plight of the Cherokees; written by the host of NPR's Morning Edition.

52.  Naked Prey -- John Sandford

Another typically entertaining crime novel from Sandford. More entertaining than the last Prey book I read (Hidden, #34).

53.  The Queen of Bedlam -- Robert MacCammon

Book Two of the Matthew Corbett story that began in Speaks the Nightbird (See #44). Corbett goes from magistrate's clerk to detective, investigating a serial killer in NYC (among other things) in the very early days of the 18th century. It is not essential that you read Speaks the Nightbird first, but is highly recommended.

54.  Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley

I've decided to go back and reread some of the classic sci-fi I grew up with. I read this back when it was first published in the, seriously, it has been almost 40 years. I first read this when I was in high school in the 1970s. Not quite as good the second time around, but holds up pretty well.

55.  The Bazaar of Bad Dreams -- Stephen King

An entertaining collection of 20 stories.

56. Nora Bonesteel's Christmas Past -- Sharyn McCrumb

A novella starring my favorite McCrumb characters, Nora Bonesteel, Spencer Arrowood and Joe LeDonne.

57.  The Fateful Lightning -- Jeff Shaara

Typically entertaining and informative historical fiction from Shaara. This is the fourth and final book of his series detailing the western campaign of the Civil War. This one covers Sherman's march through Georgia, then South and North Carolina.

58. Aftershock and Others -- F. Paul Wilson

A collection of short stories. Some are better than anything in Stephen King's latest collection.

59.  Christmas Stories -- Charles Dickens

I'm slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the works of Dickens, and vowed that this would be the year that I finally read A Christmas Carol, but I wanted to wait until close to Christmas to do so. This volume of Dickens's novellas contains A Christmas Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.

60.  Wayfaring Stranger -- James Lee Burke

Deeper than I thought it would be; one of the few Burke novels that doesn't feature detective Dave Robicheaux. The New York Times calls it "a sprawling narrative rumination on good and evil, with a plot conveniently attached," which is pretty much on the mark.

The books got a little better this year compared to last because I finally figured out the secret of Georgia's PINES library system. If you live in Georgia, go to your local library and get a library card and a login code for the PINES webpage, go to the page and set up an account. You are now set up to place a hold on almost any book in almost any library in the state of Georgia. They'll track down the book and send it to your local library for you to pick up at your convenience. Great, huh?

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