10 – And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard (Burnt Bridge) – Weird westerns can go one of a couple ways and the path that this novel chooses is a more subtle one. There is a creeping dread as the unknown is unleashed by an old west mining company. All the way up to the end the mystery of what was unleashed remains, working as a blank canvas for the reader to project their own imagination on to. The town is presented as a nice cross section with different people from different parts contributing to the narrative. And the Hills Opened Up puts the wild in The Wild West.
9 – The Contractors by Harry Hunsicker (Thomas & Mercer) – The Contractors is a straight up crime thriller. It takes flawed, real characters, and runs them through the paces in a plausibly modern setting. While this is a big book with lots of action it’s the characters that are at the heart. Those pages are used wisely to build the characters up so that you care when they are put through the wringer.
8 – Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview Publishing) – Lamentation evokes a strong sense of place and atmosphere, with heartfelt characters, and tells a hell of a story.
This should be Clifford’s breakout book and is his strongest to date.
7 – Guns by Josh Myers (Copeland Valley Press) – Guns takes a crazy cast of crime fiction characters and takes them to unexpected places. I normally don’t like doing this kind of thing but the greatest compliment that I can give to Guns is that it is like a Duane Swierczynski novel but crazier.
6 – Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint) – Gangsterland is the best gangster novel to come along in years. It shouldn’t be pigeonholed into that sub-genre though; it’s just a flat out great novel. A hitman who needs to hide, gets plastic surgery and becomes a rabbi, then gradually goes native as he explores the similarities between these two worlds and takes advantage of them. I love this quote: “You could never quite unfuck yourself, when it got right down to it, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t be a better person after making a bad choice.”
5 – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals) – Weird, lush, surreal, alien landscape explored by characters who may not be who they say they are sent by a shadowy government organization. The completed trilogy (all published in 2014) is a monumental achievement of fantastical and weird fiction.
4 – Half World by Scott O’Connor (Simon & Schuster) – The CIA ran the MKUltra project, officially, from 1953 to 1973. During that time the Government took citizens off the street and drugged and abused them in order to find ways to control their minds. This was done all over the country and in parts of Canada. Perhaps the most well known of these sites was in San Francisco where some have argued that CIA administered LSD started the counter culture. A quick Google search shows that notable test subjects include Ted Kaczynski, Ken Kesey, and Whitey Bulger. The official documents pertaining to the project were destroyed. You can see from this reductive summary that this has all the ingredients of a potent brew. O’Connor makes the most of it. Half World is scary, and paranoid and haunting. The first part is like a great paranoid 70’s movie, the actions of which will cast a shadow over the rest of the novel.
3 – The Door That Faced West by Alan M Clark (Lazy Fascist Press) – The Harpe Brothers were spree/serial killers around the time of the start of the United States. Their story is fascinating and, arguably, contains elements of the American psyche built right in. The Door That Faced West, the story of the Harpe Brothers told from the perspective of one of their wives (there were three in total), is a stunning portrait of early America and a compelling and entertaining story reminiscent, at times, of True Grit.
2 – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco) – Fourth of July Creek may just be the most acclaimed book of the year. Those readers that have a built in backlash against these types of heavily lauded books should ignore that urge and go read this now. This is a brilliant novel that takes chances and pays off big.
1 – The Family Hightower by Brian Francis Slattery (Seven Stories Press) – There is a curious mixture of crime, business, and history as the beating heart of America. The exploration of this overlap has been done before. One of the core struggles, for example, in The Godfather, is the desire to more the family into more legitimate enterprises. Or the one last score then I’ll be free of the life stories. But this isn’t a purely fictional idea. The Kennedy’s, one of the great American political dynasties of the 20th century, made their family fortune in bootlegging. Apple’s origin story consists of its founders making blue boxes that ripped off the phone companies by allowing consumers to make free calls. I’ve argued before that people like Tookie Williams, Rayful Edmond, Sonny Barger, Danny Greene, and Lori Arnold have influenced society more then presidents and generals. There is almost a secret American history written on the backs of gangsters, and in their blood. The Family Hightower is that story. It’s the story of a crime family that goes legitimate, and the exploration of the multi-generational cost. It’s the story of the American 20th century. It takes a theme that has seen a lot mileage over the years and gives it power by never forgetting that it is always about family. The Family Hightower also takes the great American myth of the self made man and stabs him in the heart.