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2008 Top Ten

Good morning bookies!

Something a little different today. Everybody else does Top 10 lists, so here’s mine. It’s not genre specific, it’s just the 10 best books that I read last year. And no, The Secret Speech doesn’t count, I finished it January 1. These are in no particular order, by the way.

Pavel and I by Dan Valeta. Here’s the review that I wrote for ILAM: “There seems to be a growing sub-genre, or perhaps even a sub-sub-genre, of noir mysteries set in post-war European capitals. Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’ used Vienna as a character as much as it did Harry Lime, Elizabeth Wilson’s ‘The Twilight Hour’ could not happen anywhere except 1947 London, and now Berlin is the setting for its second stylish thriller in as many years, with Dan Vyleta’s ‘Pavel and I’ following Pierre Frei’s brilliant ‘Berlin.’ And really, the allure is obvious. Devastation, desperation, degradation, ingredients just asking for a story to be woven around the rotting corpse of a continent laid waste. A place alive with crime and only because of crime, where anything is possible, perhaps even probable.

‘Pavel and I’ is set in very late 1946 and early 1947 in the one capital more devastated any other, the capital of The Third Reich, Berlin. Life is cheap, sex is cheap, food is expensive, cigarettes are money. Living in a battered flat is Pavel Richter, a former American GI with a shady past, suffering from kidney disease and writing poetry. What is he doing there? Why is a GI slumming in the British sector of a city struggling to come back from the dead? Don’t expect an answer.

Do expect a cast of equally damaged characters weaving through the narrative in ways you will not expect. A boy shows up, Anders, a 12 year old trying to survive in a pack of other children who rob and cheat to eat. Pavel reads to him and the boy likes it. There is Sonia, a piano playing whore who lives on the floor above and is mixed up in spying and intrigue, a virtual slave to the grossly obese British Colonel Fosko. There is General Karpov, the suave, cold Russian who wants to know what Pavel knows. And there is the dead midget, brought to Pavel’s apartment by a soon to be dead friend, whose tiny body is on everyone’s mind. And there is the narrator, a torturer and executioner, who tells the story from the disconcerting viewpoint of First Person Omniscient.

If ‘Pavel and I’ is ever made into a film it should be shot in black and white. There is no color here, no joy, just shades of gray. There are no heroes, not even many likeable characters. But there is fascination and there is talent to spare. A tremendous first novel that will gather accolades like shards of broken glass littering the once-fashionable Kurfurstendamm. ‘Pavel and I’ is not to be missed. A-.” Let me just add that this was a very original, partly unsatisfying but overall fabulous book.

Hell’s Bay by James W. Hall. Just Jim is an old favorite of mine and this was no exception. My review for ILAM read “Nice guys don’t just finish last, their friends and lovers often wind up dead. That’s reality in the world of Thorn, James W. Hall’s loyal, loner nice-guy fishing guide, who nobody in their right mind would want to stand anywhere near.

‘Hell’s Bay’ is the 10th installment in what is fast becoming the defining series for modern Florida crime fiction. Such a discussion invariably dredges up comparisons to John D. MacDonald’s seminal hero, Travis McGee, but while Hall may have drawn inspiration from his predecessor, in truth he may one day surpass him in the canons of crime fiction. Indeed, it might already be the case. The man with one name, Thorn, with no past after his parents died in a car wreck on the way home from the hospital with their baby boy, an aging beach bum fisherman who knows South Florida like the wrinkles of his own palm and can barely afford to buy himself a beer, this unlikely character has evolved into a metaphor for Florida itself: beaten, battered and badly used, but still alive and still fighting back.

‘Hell’s Bay’ finds Thorn hiding from the world. He has lost yet another love, yet another quirky friend is dead because of Thorn, it just seems better to hide and do what he does best, sit on his porch overlooking the Atlantic and tie fishing flies. Indeed, it has become something of a running joke with Thorn’s (remaining) friends that it’s not healthy to be anywhere near him. The guilt weighs heavily on his soul.

An old flame, however, wants him to get out again, come back to life. Ridge, the only female fishing guide on that stretch of coast, has a dream to build a luxury pontoon boat that would take vacationers deep into some unknown lakes hidden in the Everglades. She has commissioned an aerial map of the area that has never been compiled before and if she is right, there are unfished lakes just waiting to be explored. It’s a lure that not even Thorn can resist. He signs on as first mate is excited again for the first time in a long time. Naturally, this is a very bad idea.

The first passengers are…let’s say people Thorn never knew existed, much less expected to meet. From the very beginning there are ominous signs that this trip isn’t going to be a joy-ride.

The recipe for one classic thriller contains the following ingredients: Four passengers, Thorn and Ridge as crew, two assassins, one dead old lady, Thorn’s best friend Sugarman investigating her drowning, a black, female sheriff of questionable motives, more Machiavellian twists than even Machiavelli could have dreamed up and, most importantly, one absolutely brilliant writer to bring it all together. It’s a typical Thorn novel.

Hall began life as a poet and it has long since blended seamlessly into his work. But unlike other, unnamed southern writers whose prose is beautiful but who write the same book over and over, Hall seems obsessed with re-inventing this character with each book. And be warned, reader: this is the book where you learn everything about Thorn that you ever wanted to know. Miss it at your own peril. The same advice holds true if you have never picked up a Hall book before, because, in truth, there simply isn’t anybody out there who does it better than James W. Hall. Maybe you could argue there are others as good, but there is nobody better. ‘Hell’s Bay’ simply reinforces what his fans already knew. A.” Maybe his best, maybe not. Blackwater Sound may stand as his opus.

Black Widow by Randy Wayne White. It’s Doc Ford, what more do you need? Again, from my ILAM review: “Doc Ford is fretting, something he never expected. He has resigned from his old job as an operative for a shadowy government agency that often wound up killing bad people and is now working for the bureaucratic CIA. The tidy marine biologist had thought this would be better, only to find that it’s not. Thus the fretting. But for the moment there’s no time for that.

Doc’s goddaughter, Shay, is getting married soon. And before the happy day she and her bridesmaids take one last trip to the Caribbean to party, a girl’s weekend before the commitments of marriage would make such a thing impractical. Only it didn’t work out the way it was planned. Some local boys happened by, the girls had a few drinks with them and the next thing you know, all sorts of embarrassing things happened. Things they would not want their men to discover. Things that wound up on video tape, with bad people asking for blackmail money. Enter Doc.

When people in his life are threatened, Doc Ford knows how to deal with those doing the threatening. Traveling to the island to investigate, Doc finds things are far more complicated than he had ever imagined. He finds a British senior citizen secret agent who could double for James Bond in a pinch, a valuable, entertaining and resourceful ally. There is a witch who runs the island and whose connections are far different than any might have imagined. Lush vegetation, deadly Mastiffs roaming cliffsides covered with orchids and massages guaranteed to make sex the first and only thing on your mind.

As in the best of the series, Doc has to unravel a mystery that is not what it seems at first, and along the way he and we learn much about him and his world. And when he learns that Tomlinson (explaining close friend Tomlinson would take a page in itself) might be right and that he can communicate with whales, it’s not the sort of leap of logic Doc Ford likes to make.

Black Widow is terrific. Most of the books in this series are, of course, with some better than others. But this 15th entry has an easy feel that allows Ford to understand himself more than ever, to figure out his place in the universe, which is not something he does naturally. If you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it like you have all the rest. If you are just now discovering the pleasures of reading Randy Wayne White, you are to be envied. A-.” Nothing to add.

Under Vesuvius SPQR XI by John Maddox Roberts. My review at ILAM is still up, no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say that I love this series. Not only is it accurate, it’s also very funny in a cynical, Roman sort of way.

When the Devil Dances by John Ringo. For the sake of accuracy, I’m combining this with Hell’s Faire as one book, since that’s the way it was written. The third and fourth entries in Ringo’s massively entertaining series about a race of carnivorous centaurs invading the Earth. My comments on both books in my journal: “Third in the series about the Galactic War that has brought the ravening hordes of lizard like centaurs called Posleen to Earth. A bit long in spots, with a big cast and lots of familiar faces from the first two books. But fun, fun, fun and a direct lead in to the follow-up, Hell’s Faire. For aliens-on-the-march lovers, this is a must. A-.” And for Hell’s Faire “The second half of the book that was supposed to be ‘When The Devil Dances’, before 9-11 happened. The Posleen and slogging through the passes of North Carolina and Georgia trying to penetrate to the plains beyond and finally kill the USA once and for all. The President gives the go-ahead to use nukes, the ACS are fighting to the death, Bun-Bun is back in action…great fun, again, compulsively readable. A-.”

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. And, just so you know, yes, I have read the sequel, The Secret Speech, no, I won’t give a review here as it will be forthcoming in a later issue of ILAM, but I will say this much: it’s at least as good if not better, but also different. From my ILAM review of Child 44: ” There is no crime. Not in Stalin’s USSR of 1953. The Soviet society is so perfect, so ideal, that there is no reason for crime and therefore it follows that crime does not exist. Which makes it very hard to catch criminals.

Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the State Security Police, a prestigious job that requires him to hunt down and arrest traitors and spies. And while there might not be crime in the Soviet Union, there are lots and lots of traitors to the Revolution. They can be anyone, anywhere, and treason may be nothing more than a momentary lapse in revolutionary zeal, a thought, a doubt, that betrays independent thought that works against the common good. Protecting the state from such deadly internal enemies is Leo’s job, and Leo is very, very good at his job. Too good, as it turns out.

Two vignettes, seemingly unrelated to the following plot, should not be ignored. A boy disappears in the forest while chasing a cat during the years of collectivization, when millions of Russian citizens were intentionally starved to death. The cat isn’t his pet, it’s to be his dinner. Later, in Moscow, two brothers have a snowball fight that turns ugly.

Like all truly great thrillers, the place and time are as much a character as Leo, or his wife Raisa, or his commander. The paranoia of the times pervades all. A mis-spoken word isn’t necessary to condemn a person; a glance at the wrong moment at the wrong person is plenty to bring a death sentence. Life is lived knowing that no one has rights and at any moment a sinister knock may bring twenty years in the gulag. There is no color here, only gray, bleak and cheerless.

And the criminal that does not exist, the one Leo becomes obsessed with catching, is a serial killer of children. Unless this man is a spy, or perhaps unbalanced or homosexual and therefore outside the norms of Soviet society, unless there is a reason for his actions, then having a criminal in their midst contravenes the rules of the state. In turn, that means the state can be wrong, which is not possible. So it must be subversion.

Child 44 is a riveting story in itself, but it is also a story that teaches while keeping the reader glued to their seat. There is very little dialogue here, and at first it can be annoying. But as the pages turn the reader realizes that in Soviet Russian the spoken word was precious, people never spoke their mind and so speech was innocuous, meaningless. What dialogue there is becomes special, cherished. A neat trick by a new author, from whom one can only expect great things. A.”

In the Woods by Tana French. Utterly stunning book. Here’ swhat I said about it: “Warning: Readers wanting a fun, fast beach read, something light-hearted that can be put down and picked up in between drinks with little umbrellas in them, should avoid In the Woods like a nude beach infested with sand fleas. On the other hand, readers wanting something highly intelligent, demanding of attention and slightly toxic, should carve out whatever time it takes to read this book.

Adam Ryan was 12 when he and best friends Peter and Jamie all went into the woods of Knocknaree for a typical day of summer play. Adam was found later, clinging to a tree with his shoes filled with blood; Peter and Jamie were never found. He remembered nothing.

20 years later, Robert Ryan is a detective in the Murder Squad of the Irish police, operating out of Dublin Castle. He and partner Cassie Maddox are horsing around in the station one day when a call comes in that a body was found. In Knocknaree. In The Woods. Sure, they’ll take the case, Cassie says. Why not? Why not, indeed.

Knocknaree itself is really little more than a small subdivision near Dublin, a place with grand pretensions that somehow never came true. And just outside the estate is a grandly important historical site, with ruins dating back to at least the druids, a place that could, perhaps, rival Stonehenge in importance. There’s a small castle, too. And, of course, The Woods. The big problem with all of this glorious history is that a highway is being built right over that spot. It is suspected that palms have been greased to run the highway through that small patch of land to make a few people rich, but finding facts and evidence isn’t going to be easy. And the government’s answer is predictable: can’t be moved, sorry, it’s our only choice, bit of a shame but what can you do?

You can fight it, that’s what. Which is exactly what Jonathan Devlin is doing. He’s organizing protests and filing injunctions and doing everything he can to move the roadway. That is, until the body turns up on the site, on an ancient sacrificial stone, the body of his 12 year old daughter Katy. The murder that Adam (now Robert) Ryan is sent to investigate.

He knows he should tell his boss that the missing boy from 20 years ago is the one investigating the new case. He should because there is no way it will stay hidden. But if he does, there is no way he will stay on the case, which may well be tied to the disappearance of his best friends. What’s a man to do? Lie, of course.

This is not a book about murder, per se. This is a pscyhological thriller, meant to tease and tempt you down the wrong path on every page, to make you believe what you want and then show how you went wrong. It does this very, very well.

In the Woods is an intelligent book. It demands your attention because, from page one, the author exhibits a considerable intelligence and story-telling ability that is impressive, if not a bit intimidating. Believe nothing or believe anything, in the end it won’t matter. This is not a perfect novel, far from it, but this is a great novel. The different is that when Rob takes a turn that seems forced by the author to advance the plot, which he does, the reader realizes that to that point the author has been so spot on with everything she has done, that this must be what really happened. It’s willing suspension of disbelief in spades. It’s rare, but it’s In the Woods. A+.

The Likeness by Tana French. The best book that I read last year. The review is at ILAM I still haven’t stopped thinking about this one. A++.

Blood Alone by James R. Benn. Review at ILAM, but the third Billy Boyle novel is the best yet. WW2, the mafia, Germans, it’s great fun.

Dirty Money by Richard Stark. Presumably the last Parker novel. If so, then Donald Westlake went out on a high note. The direct sequel to Nobody Runs Forever is outstanding.

That’s it folks. Anybody care to post their best reads?


Splice and Rice


Rumors, interviews and a death sentence


  1. Gail- Long time no see, thanks for dropping in. In the Woods is outstanding, almost captivating, but The Likeness is even better. I was genuinely sorry when it ended.

    I beat you to the new Tom Rob Smith, The Secret Speech is every bit as good as Child 44. The new Hall and White I could really enjoy.

    As for what happens when east meets west, well, this year west wins.

  2. ladyvolz

    Okay Bill, I am buying In The Woods based on your glowing recommendation. I had passed on it because of some reviews, but yours pushed me the other way. If I don’t like it, you know what happens when East meets West……….

    PS already have James Hall, Randy W. White and Tom Rob Smith.

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