I've decided to skip the soap box introduction this year for the simple fact that I'm struggling with a bad case of writer's block. Hell, it's taken me most of the day just to complete this blasted introduction. HOWEVER, I will take a moment to re-iterate a couple of points I discussed in last year's review.
First, do not take my opinions as the word of God. I am only ONE person and my opinions are mine and mine ONLY. If you agree, that's fine. If you disagree, that's fine too.
Second, this review is not restricted by a specific copyright date. Let's be real. Who reads ONLY new books? Maybe someone paid to do reviews? Right? If that's the case, then the reviewer probably uses lots of big words (like "deconstructionalism") and uses a witty foreign phrase (usually in French or Latin) in his/her review whenever possible. You will find none of that here. I don't know what "deconstructionalism" is and I only write (horribly) in English.
Third, I do not believe in judgment-based, one-two-three rankings. These type rankings force you to knit-pick selections just to fit the one-two-three scale. If a selection of books is equally strong, then they are equally strong. Why should you try to force the ranking? HOWEVER, if you value a one-two-three ranking, then rank by a number like ACTUAL sales (not shipped or distributed -- those numbers are worthless). Be sure to include enough data to be statistically significant or your results will be as meaningless as before. NOW since I do not have access to this type of data, all I can reliably offer is my humble opinion.
Finally, just READ.
This is an easy one. It's any (unabridged) book that you were forced to read in high school. Most likely you read Cliff Notes or even worse, setteled for the movie.
My Classics reading was disappointing. Instead of reading more Classics in 1995, I read less. I will have to do better in 1996. Much better.
Of the two novels, both are equally good and both should be required reading. There are very few that can match Verne in imagination and vision. As for Pyle, I would not classify him as one of the greats, however the stories more than make up for any of his short comings.
Before delving into either of these novels, be forewarned that they are incomplete. Consider the Star Wars saga where "The Empire Strikes Back" leads to "The Revenge Of The Jedi". "Empire" stands by itself as a film, but you need "Revenge" to resolve the major conflicts (e.g., the rescue of Han Solo, Luke's show down with Darth). The same scenario holds true for these novels. In the case of Pyle, there are three more novels relating to King Arthur's adventures. In the case of Verne, you need Around the Moon to resolve the explorer's lunar exploits and return to Earth.
Any work of fiction that is not a Classic, Science Fiction or Whodunit. In the book trade this catagory would be titled contemporary fiction. Is that like alternative music?
Seduction Theory is a collection of ten, inter-related short stories dealing with sex at the onset of maturity. The stories are humorous but have an edge of sympathy and understanding. Most readers should easily relate to Beller's main character as he struggles through his adolescent years in search for romantic adventure.
Rita Mae is amazing. I keep expecting -- although I don't know why I should -- that one of her novels will be a let down. What a stupid thought. They just get better and better. My only wish is that she would crank them out faster.
Southern Discomfort revolves around a small town in Alabama and how the town folk struggle with the issues of race and class. High Hearts is set at the beginning of the Civil War. It follows the trials and tribulations of the Chatfield family as it deals with the war and of Geneva Chatfield who secretly enlists in the Confederate Army to be with her new husband.
Both High Hearts and Southern Discomfort should be required reading (along with most of her other novels). If I had to choose between the two, I liked Southern Discomfort better, but only by the smallest of margins -- maybe one angstrom.
The Point is D'Ambrosio's first, published collection of short stories. The stories deal with people whose lives are dominated by tragedy and whose lives have reached a point of no return. In each case, the characters face a decision that will ultimately determine their destiny. Literature at it's best.
If you want to intimately know a writer, look no farther than Ernaux. In three amazing novels, she describes her relationship and feelings for her father (A Man's Place), her mother (A Woman's Story) and a lover (Simple Passion). These novels are translations from the original French versions which have sold over a half million of copies.
Building on the ground work laid in The List Of 7, Frost gives us a new, eerie tale involving Dr. Watson and Jack Sparks (Sparks is Holmes, although not in name) with The 6 Messiahs. This series is not a direct adaptation of Holmes and Watson, but more of a derivative based loosely on Conan Doyle's characters.
In this go-round Watson, Sparks and four mysterious strangers come together in the United States to face an evil that has the strength to destroy the world. A definite page-turner and highly recommended for those in search of adventure.
I would recommend reading them in order. Although The 6 Messiahs is not advertised as a sequel, reading The List Of 7 first will establish the connection between Watson and Sparks and the background for some of the other characters.
The novel Left Behind is based on the Millennium as described in the Bible. In this case, the Millennium has occurred with millions of people disappearing from the planet in an instant. What the book addresses is the lives and problems of those left behind, in particularly the lives of a handful of individuals.
The book has some obvious, religious overtones, but not enough to be bothersome. An interesting way to treat the subject matter and a solid piece of writing (as stated by someone who would surely be left behind).
What would happen if you received a letter from a secret admirer? Wouldn't you spend time pondering the identity of the admirer? Wouldn't you question every face as the possible culprit? The unidentified admirer is the basis for Schine's The Love Letter. One of the most enjoyable reads of the year.
If you have not caught "Bananamania", you are in the minority. Yoshimoto is one of Japan's most celebrated writers and had a major hit in the US with Kitchen in 1993. While Lizard is not quite as strong as Kitchen, it's still a solid collection of short stories written in Yoshimoto's usually quirky style.
After Einstein's Dream it was too much to expect that Lightman could follow it up with another winner. I was right.
I loved the first twenty-seven pages of this novel. It could be considered a story unto itself. A nice piece of writing. However, once we move onto page twenty-eight, we have an altogether different story. Even though the main character stays the same, the story lines are as different as night and day. In this case, the story line drags into something that was less than satisfying. What was even more disappointing, the second section never ties back into the first.
In all, as much as I like Lightman's work, I would skip Good Benito and wait for the next one.
In The Cut by Susanna Moore, Topping From Below by Laura Reese and Trash by Amy Yamada are all almosts, but not quites.
Although I loved the surprise (or almost shocking) ending of In the Cut, the suspense wasn't quite there. The same can be said for Topping From Below, although the ending was less of a surprise. In both cases, there novels are best described as erotic (heavy on erotic) thrillers.
Trash is best of the bunch and might have made the recommend list if I had read it recently -- it was one of the first novels I read in '95. It's a solid effort but lacks something that I can't pin down. I would recommend reading it if you are debating the case.
This category exists only as a collector for any work that can not be categorized elsewhere. I hate the title, but Mr. Roget couldn't supply a better one. Anyone have a suggestion?
If you are not familiar with Cynthia Heimel, you need to be. Her style is straight forward, but with a definite attitude. Both books are collections of her articles from Playboy, Village Voice and the Independent. There's a wide range of topics, including advice on men, women, and dogs. If you like a sharp wit and some honest words, then Heimel's for you.
What a sad year to be a comic strip lover. My big three retired. Gone are Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County/Outland), Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes). Now don't get me wrong. There are other good strips (especially Dilbert), but it will be hard to fill the void left by these three.
Turning to the books, The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is the best. Watterson provides insights into his work and into some of his more notable squabbles (i.e. his vacations and his requirements on strip layouts). Reading the book made me respect his work even more. One Last Little Peek, 1980-1995 is in the same vein as the Watterson book. It has the last runs of Outland followed with Breathed's comments on some of his more interesting strips. The Far Side Gallery 5 follows in the steps of it's predecessors, Gallery 1 through 4. It's a re-collection of work from three prior publications that also includes an excellent introduction from Jane Goodall.
I seriously doubt this will be the last we will hear from this group (Watterson has already stated that he has a couple of C&H books set for the coming year). The big question here is Larson. What will he do, if anything?
If you remember the "Fractured Fairy Tales" from Rocky and Bullwinkle, then you have a fair portrait of Scieszka's work (Smith and Johnson are the artists). All three books are take-offs on the original tales with Scieszka's own quirky twists and turns. The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales is the best of the bunch.
Of the photographers listed, Newton's work is the easiest to recognize. His photographs are always strong, especially his portrayals of women (look for the sky high heels). Selections From His Photographic Work is exactly what it states, a selection of works. A good introduction to Newton.
Snaps is Von Unwerth's first published collection. If her name is not familiar, maybe the Claudia Schiffer / Guess Jeans advertising campaign will help ring a few bells. Like Claudia doing her best Bardot, Von Unwerth's images tend to reflect scenes from past eras, but with an updated flair. Portions of her work remind me of Newton, but on the whole her photographs express a broader spectrum of emotions.
In Photographs, Demarchelier comes closest to the classic portrait, but far surpasses it with an unbelievable depth. The photographs of Cindy, Christy and Linda scream for attention. There are other images in this collection, but it's the portraits that make this book the best.
Klein's Underworld is collection of photographs based on the human body in various states of undress. Using 154 photos and 80 different photographers (some of which are unknown), Klein forms a solid collection that's very representative of its theme.
Last year's definition still applies. This category includes astronomy, cosmology, physics, genetics, biology, anthropology, paleontology, and just about any of the other -ologies out there. Also includes science and technological history.
The Last Three Minutes is part of the Science Masters series from Basic Books -- the series has leading scientists present cutting-edge ideas in an easy-to-understand format. As a contrast to Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, which examined the events that happened in the first three minutes of the Universe's creation, Davies' book examines several potential scenarios in the Universe's last three minutes. Very accessible and highly recommended.
Are We Alone? is Davies most recent work and is based on a series of lectures he made in 1993 at the University Of Milan. Davies discusses some of the current research being conducted in the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) and the implications and potentials of the results. There is not a lot of new material in this book -- Sagan and Drake have discussed much of this in earlier books -- but on the whole, a solid effort.
Pale Blue Dot may be Sagan's best. Even if you don't like Sagan -- I'll admit that he can be preachy at times -- you should purchase this book for the visuals. He (and/or his assistants) must have spent an enormous amount of time combing the NASA/JPL archives because the images are unbelievable.
Pale Blue Dot is advertised as a sequel to Cosmos, but I consider it more of an update than a sequel. Either way it provides an excellent perspective on man's past, present and future state in the Universe.
Due exclusively to the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin, I have modified my definition of Science Fiction. It's now Science Fiction and not SCIENCE Fiction.
Asimov's bread-and-butter are the series of Empire, Robot and Foundation. Last year I tackled Robot, so this year I went after Foundation. Empire is set for 1996. I'm two short on Foundation, but have read enough to recognize that this series is as solid as Robot. By themselves, I'm not sure that the novels are all that strong, but as a body of work, they are hard to beat.
I highly recommend that you read them in order and I also recommend that you read the Robot series before Foundation. Asimov tied all three series' together so order is important. I only hope that I don't find that I needed to read Empire before the others.
Bova's Mars reads more like a work of non-fiction than fiction. It's a superb tale of the first landing and exploration of Mars by human explorers. It's also a perfect illustration of the conditions and potential problems facing any such mission. This is SCIENCE Fiction, not Science Fiction.
A For Andromeda is a story about the detection of an unknown message from space, the translation of the message and the results of the message's information. Sound familiar? How about the movie Species? How about Sagan's Contact? I've not seen Species so I'll with hold judgement on the movie. I have read Contact and although there are some underlying similarities, Sagan's novel is much, much better. In any case, while A For Andromeda is not a classic, it still deserves a read for being a pioneer (1962) on this theme.
Kessel's Meeting In Infinity is a collection of fifteen short stories spanning the years 1981 to 1992. The best way to describe Kessel's writing is with an analogy. You are at the plate waiting for a pitch. Kessel (the pitcher) goes through his wind-up and releases what appears to be a fast ball. Your eyes follow the ball as it approaches the strike zone. It's coming fast and constant. You swing and miss. It wasn't a fast ball. It was a sinker (or a knuckle or a curve). That's the way Kessel writes. His stories come at you in a straight forward manner and then, at the last moment he throws you a curve that leaves you scratching your head. Good stuff all around.
I feel as if I'm (and the rest of the world for that matter) slighting Le Guin for categorizing her novels as Science Fiction. So much of her work defies categorization. I suspect there are virtually thousands of readers who would love her work, but refuse to try it because it's always found in the Science Fiction section of a store or library.
One such novel is Four Ways to Forgiveness. In the novel, Le Guin goes head-to-head with the issue of slavery and its effect on the whole of society. While the story takes place on two planets on the far edge of Universe, the themes easily translate to our own planet.
Following in the same vein, is Le Guin's much praised novel The Dispossessed. Again Le Guin presents two worlds and two cultures that are at opposite poles. Where the conflicts in Four Ways to Forgiveness are seen through the eyes of several characters, the conflicts in The Dispossessed revolve around the struggles and sacrifices of one, lone man. Both novels illustrate Le Guin's mastery at creating fictional cultures that highlight so many of societies problems.
A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu comprise Le Guin's Earthsea saga. Reading this saga was a major departure from my usual fair of Science Fiction. It's really more of a fantasy story than science fiction. In any case, if you like stories involving wizards and dragons, these become a must.
Bright Messengers is the first book of a two book series that is set in Clarke's Rama Universe. This is not a sequel/pre-quel to any of the prior novels, but a totally new adventure. I find it interesting that I can not discern a difference in writing styles between Lee versus Clarke and Lee together.
With Islands In The Net Sterling weaves a story that could easily be the history of the not-to-distant future. Cyberpunk at its best.
Spelled as properly pronounced. Think Christie, Marsh and Sayers. No hard-boiled, private detectives or policemen. No Grisham.
Pay Dirt is the latest release from Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie. While not as good as Wish You Were Here and Rest In Pieces, it's still a solid effort. Much better than Murder In Monticello -- I was lost in the who's who of historical names and relations.
One minor peeve with Pay Dirt. From a technical aspect, the computer virus scenario was a reach. Without getting into a lot of details of 'why', all I'll say is that I had to put aside my computer background for the virus story line to work. No problem. I did the same thing for the movie War Games. For the average reader, this won't be a problem.
Dexter, a master at weaving tight plots with intricate twists and turns, does it again with The Daughters Of Cain. As with The Way Through The Woods, each chapter starts with a quotation as a foreshadow to the text. Highly recommended.
Where Gash weaves his mysteries around antiques, Dunning builds his around his vast knowledge of books (especially first editions), publishing and collecting. The books should be read in order, with Booked To Die as the first.
Booked To Die is a little like beta computer code. Everything's there, but there are some minor problems that need fixing . Problems may not be the correct word. It's simply that this is Dunning's first mystery and it feels like he is searching for a style that makes him comfortable. It doesn't affect the story line, but you can feel it.
With The Bookman's Wake, Dunning has gone to general release code. The novel is a solid piece of writing.
Decider is my first Francis novel. It will certainly not be my last. One thing that struck me about Decider was its classic whodunit style with the absence of the classic murder victim. Decidingly different (all puns intended) and a nice change of pace.
To go along with my first Francis, I also read my first George. George has an interesting pair of Scotland Yard detectives with Havers and Lynley. Havers is the struggling, single woman with a depressing home and social life. Lynley is the is an Earl with money and an upper crust lifestyle. Add these two an intriguing plot and you have one excellent novel.
I've yet to understand all the hype about James' Dalgliesh. I've read three or four of the novels, but they have all left me wondering "What's the big deal?" On the other hand, if we were to talk about the Cordelia Gray novels, that would be a different story. I love An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (one of the year's best) and The Skull Beneath The Skin.
It's been thirteen years since The Skull Beneath the Skin was released. I thinks it's time for another Cordelia Gray novel. Don't you?
King is truly amazing. She's manages to maintain two, successful sets of story lines while most authors struggle at maintaining one. On the one hand she writes the Mary Russell series, which resides in my to-be-read pile. On the other hand she writes the Kate Martinelli series which includes the Edgar-winning A Grave Talent and To Play The Fool. The Martinelli series reminds me most of James' Cordelia Gray series, both in characters and in the quality of the stories. Highly recommended.
I discovered Ross quite by chance. While browsing through a selection of new fiction (yes, it was not in the mystery section), I stumbled across her first novel Cut To The Quick. The synopsis on the dust jacket sounded interesting, so I took a chance. A wise choice on my part.
If you are looking for a writer with the style of Christie, Marsh and/or Sayers, then Ross is your best bet. She can be best compared to Sayers, with her Julian Kestrel matching Sayers' Lord Peter. A Broken Vessel and Whom The Gods Love are the second and third entries in the Kestrel series (order counts) and are both solid efforts.
If it's affordable, I highly recommend that you purchase first edition, hard covers of Walter's novels. She's that good and she's quickly becoming that famous. I've read three of her four novels and each one is a winner. The novels are not based on series of repeating characters so reading order is of no importance.
If Gash's latest Lovejoy mysteries are any indication of what's to come, this series is in for some hard times.
By far, The Sin Within Her Smile is Gash's weakest effort. It suffers from a lack of everything -- conflict, story line, and even antique tips. Most of all it lacks that certain twist or catch that made novels like The Judas Pair or Jade Woman great.
As an atonement for The Sin Within Her Smile, Gash follows with a novel that has more information on antiques than any to date. The Grace In Older Women is really more of antique's encyclopedia. Of course the penalty paid for this wealth of knowledge is the lack of a credible story line. I found the plot hard to follow - it's so thin -- and the resolution totally inane.
I hope Gash is only suffering from a brief drought. I would hate to see his novels (and Lovejoy) go the way of the television series.
When Martha Grimes released The Old Contemptibles she was at the top. Since then it's been a slow ride down with her fans screaming the whole way.
Giving Grimes some credit, I think she realized she needed to make a change after The Old Contemptibles. Unfortunately, her fans were not ready. When she released The End Of The Pier, which was a totally new everything, fans hated (I liked it). Where was Jury? Where was Plant?
Again giving Grimes credit, she then released The Horse You Came In On to appease her fans with another Jury/Plant novel. It helped. But now the fans start rumbling about character development. Why don't Jury/Plant move forward in life?
So what does she do now? Try another The End Of The Pier novel? Try another Jury/Plant novel?
She went with Jury and Plant in Rainbow's End. Was it a mistake? I don't know.
The novel is the weakest of the Jury/Plant series. It's more of a see-what-is-happening-to-the-characters story than a mystery novel.
Now the fans are really screaming. Do something with the characters! Do something else! Just do something!
Grimes is definitely between a rock and a hard place. If she tries another The End Of The Pier novel the fans will scream. If she toys with the Jury/Plant characters, the fans will scream. If she does not toy with the Jury/Plant characters, the fans will scream. It's a no win situation.