UPDATED December 31, 2020, 2:45 p.m. PT: The past few years I have set a goal to read more than I did the year before. I love books. I have since I was very young. The feel and scent of the pages, the heft in my hands, the thrill of finding out what happens next. Unfortunately, I am not a constant reader, I am a streaky reader. That is to say I go long periods of hardly reading anything except news and social media posts. I’ve been known to crawl around on the floor in bookstores, and one of my favorite Irish pubs is literary themed. Now, as a published author myself, I have a greater understanding of the process and work that goes into bringing a written story to life.
When I started setting this goal each year a couple of years ago, I managed to increase my consumption by exactly one book per year (7, 8, 9). Thanks to COVID-19 causing a stay-at-home order in California in March and my employer deciding not to be such anymore, I have had many more waking hours to read. For several months I took it upon myself to make a dent in my to-be-read (TBR) pile. I have been known to keep a TBR pile of biblical proportions. Every time someone suggests that I read the books I have before buying more, I have a nice chuckle.
So, what exactly have I been reading? I’m glad you asked. I have read 35 books this year and here is a look at each.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker (1986)
I have read quite a bit by Barker over the years including Weaveworld, The Scarlet Gospels, Books of Blood, The Great and Secret Show, and I am big fan of the 1987 film Hellraiser. However, I had never read the novella that spawned the movie. There are some key differences from the film and, if you have seen it, the book is a quick read. Graphic and disturbing, this was a defining work for Barker. The Scarlet Gospels is a down the line sequel. This book and the movie spawned a cottage multimedia industry.
Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)
My best friend Jean-Paul turned me on to author Laird Barron and I’m glad he did. This collection of weird tales is riveting. Barron doesn’t shy away from controversial characters or subject matter, and he writes some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2013)
Another friend recommended Brown’s five-novel science fiction epic that begins with Red Rising. I must admit, I didn’t like it at first. I put it down for awhile and came back to it. It caught the second time and I rocketed through the book in short order. Another dystopian “chosen one” tale, Brown does bring some new things to the genre and plays with established tropes. However, that friend has since moved away and I have yet to seek out the other four books. As a matter of fact, he still has my copy of The Silent Corner.
The Whispering Room by Dean Koontz (2017)
Dean Koontz is my favorite author but in all honesty I had never finished any of his series – Frankenstein or Odd Thomas. When the Jane Hawk series was announced I made sure to preorder each one, but I waited until they all arrived before reading them. Koontz is living on the edge of prophecy in this series. In the first book, we were introduced to FBI agent Jane Hawk, whose husband committed suicide. Hawk goes rogue to investigate his death and to protect her young son. The Whispering Room is the second book in the series, I read the first, The Silent Corner, at the end of 2019.
The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (1958)
The King of the Beats. It has been said and written that nobody could write about jazz the way Kerouac did, and that his prose was a form of jazz itself. This book was supposed to based on the New York underground jazz scene but instead it was set in San Francisco, where Kerouac’s many adventures took place. Written around the time On the Road and The Dharma Bums were penned and published, The Subterraneans is a bit of a manic mess. But if you like Kerouac, this book is frantic bebop ride through San Francisco and neighboring Oakland that you’ll enjoy.
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King (2017)
I am also a big fan of Stephen King. His son Joe Hill has started to make a name for himself as an author and in this one, Stephen collaborates with his other son Owen to weave a tale of a global pandemic (talk about prophetic). A mysterious condition is affecting just the women of planet Earth and one mysterious woman appears to be at the center of it all. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. I wouldn’t have sought it out on my own but a friend gave me her hardcover copy. I’m glad I did read it because I can check it off the list of Stephen King works I’ve completed as I try to read all of his books.
Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971)
The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles has become one of my favorite places to shop for books. I had heard of Bukowski but I had never read any of his stuff. He is prominently featured in the store’s “LA Authors” section. Post Office is funny, irreverent, and I read it in one sitting. I found myself laughing out loud many times. If you like Beat literature, Bukowski is right there. I need to read more of his stuff.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
A few years ago, I was tempted to try Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and abandoned it early on. Part of the challenge was to read a banned book. I had Lord of the Flies in mind but purchased Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov instead (which appears later). I picked up Lord of the Flies at a black-owned bookstore in Sacramento. It’s a great store I hope to visit again soon. Golding’s tale of British children who survive a plane crash and commit brutal acts as they turn feral is considered required reading in many schools now.
Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (2005)
I was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, for three years when I was in the United States Navy and I have been watching several TV thrillers set in Iceland. I came across this book at another of my favorite bookstores, Dark Carnival in Berkeley, California. Sigurdardottir weaves a tale of murder and suspense while taking the reader on a tour of the capital city of Reykjavik. I enjoyed reading something set in a place I adored. Apparently this is the first of six novels involving the main character. So much to read, so little time.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
I have seen all of the movie adaptations of this book but I had never read the novel. Since adopting a long-haired tabby we named Church, this book became a must-read. Again, a quick read since I was familiar with the story, you realize how much was left out of the movies. This is a chilling tale of loss and grief and interpersonal relationships and how they can dictate our actions – good and bad. Even if you have seen the movies, the book is worth the read.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
You would have thought that I would have purchased something like Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel while visiting the black-owned bookstore. You’d be wrong. However, Whitehead has been on my radar after seeing a great interview with him on CBS Sunday Morning. All I can really say about this book without giving away too many spoilers is that it is a disturbing tale of racism and abuse finally brought to light. Whitehead’s compelling storytelling with an economy of words is worth the read alone. Step out of your comfort zone and give him a read. This was another I got through in one sitting.
Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (2001)
This was definitely something different and another I read in one sitting. It’s basically a possessed book with a story told to the reader in first-person by the demon infiltrating the pages. Written and told in a jovial, jocular manner, you don’t know if you should be rooting for or condemning the demon. I enjoyed it because it was just plain different.
Mr. X by Peter Straub (1999)
I have watched interviews with Peter Straub and I have watched interviews with others talking about Peter Straub. He collaborated with Stephen King on The Talisman and Black House. So, while shopping at The Last Bookstore in LA, I picked this up. There was a lot to like, but I was confused by quite a bit of it as well. Conflicting timelines, confused identities, convoluted plot. I’ll never say that I am poorer for finishing a book, but I didn’t care for this very much.
Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond (2019)
I am a fan of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Author Gwenda Bond was commissioned to pen the first official novel of the series and she turned in an interesting backstory that introduces us to a couple of pivotal characters. Seemingly written for a younger audience, I enjoyed it nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this book.
Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut (2008)
Of the more than 30 books I completed in 2020, there were very few I didn’t like. I didn’t care for this collection of essays, short stories and missives from one of the preeminent writers of the 20th century. I think I enjoy Vonnegut’s style, command of the language, and his reputation better than the content of his stories, if that makes any sense.
The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1974)
It even says it on the cover: “fang-in-cheek.” Here is another I didn’t like. The story of Dracula told and recorded on tape by the Count himself as he tries to justify his actions described in Bram Stoker’s novel. I liked the idea for this but the writing and the execution left a lot to be desired. Supposedly, Saberhagen’s effort had some influence on Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which was published two years later. I don’t believe in throwing books away but this one met with an accident and fell apart. It could not be saved.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)
Dick is one of the more influential science fiction writers of the last 100 years, especially the latter half of the 20th century. He is the man responsible for what became Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). This reads as much as a noir detective yarn and/or ghost story as it does science fiction. Exciting at times, cerebral at others, entertaining all the way through, I enjoyed this even more than I did Androids.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
This one is near and dear to my heart for numerous reasons, but I hadn’t read it in quite a long time. I re-read and wrote a piece about Dracula not that long ago so I figured this one was worth another look as well. I firmly believe that Mary Shelley created the science fiction genre with this novel. I love gothic horror and I am a big fan of Universal horror from 1925-1956. The Frankenstein franchise is a very important piece of the Universal Monsterverse. The book is very different than just about every screen adaptation save one. The language and prose is a bit thick at times, but you have to take into consideration when the book was written. This is essential reading for any literature lover.
If it Bleeds by Stephen King (2020)
A collection of four new novellas from the master of horror, If It Bleeds is part of a bit of a renaissance for King. The writing is tight and provocative. Of the four, there was only one I didn’t like. Mainly because it is written in reverse order and I didn’t quite get it. One story focuses on recurring King character Holly Gibney (The Outsider) and another inspired a memoir from yours truly. The fourth is a delightfully claustrophobic tale of isolation and terror. Over the years I have enjoyed King’s novellas and short stories as much, if not more than his novels.
Noir by Olivier Pauvert (2005)
As much as I love horror stories, I have really tried to branch out and read things I normally wouldn’t. I think that is important for so many reasons. This dark, dreary dystopian ghost story of sorts is a perfect example. Authoritarianism and racism are brought to bear in a futuristic thriller. It’s different and makes you think.
Under My Skin by Lisa Unger (2018)
I bought this one because of the unique cover design, started it and put it down 60 pages in. Not that I didn’t like it, I just decided to read something else. I had to start it from the beginning and I enjoyed it. Unger crafts a thriller with a couple of unexpected twists and a protagonist we can relate to and root for. This is one I can’t say too much about lest I give it away.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)
Everyone knows I am a huge James Bond fan. I have seen all of the movies multiple times. But I had never read any of the books. I picked up Casino Royale and Dr. No with the intention of reading all of Fleming’s Bond novels. The filmmakers and Sean Connery did a remarkable job of extrapolating one of the greatest movie characters of all-time from the idiot in this book. Read it and judge for yourself. There are some major differences between the book and the film starring Daniel Craig, including the card game (baccarat in the book, poker in the movie), and Le Chiffre’s motivations.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017)
This is a delightful story written by the award-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Mobsters, U.S. Navy divers, family ties and much more, this tale set in mainly during World War II is full of twists and turns, parallel and intertwining story arcs and memorable characters. This was another I started and set aside and came back to. I had to start over from the beginning but it was well worth it. I loaned this to my friend Chris in exchange for Goon Squad.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov (1955)
Purchased as part of an effort to complete an aforementioned reading challenge, this is one I started and put aside several times. Not because I found it objectionable, but because of Nabakov’s prose. Once I did start it from the beginning (again) and read it all the way through, I found it to be one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Nabakov’s beautiful writing gives way to a tale of pedophilia. Although the descriptions of what transpires are not graphic or erotic, the reader gets the point. Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert is one of the most reprehensible characters ever created in literature. I’m glad I finally read this book because of it’s reputation, but my goodness.
Broken by Don Winslow (2020)
A collection of six novellas from the author of Savages and a lot of other things, Don Winslow spins a half dozen brutal crime stories. From police raids and chases along the border to gentlemen thieves and a chimpanzee with a gun, Winslow keeps readers engaged with exciting action, suspense, and unexpected humor.
The Crooked Staircase (2018), The Forbidden Door (2018) and The Night Window (2019) by Dean Koontz
I decided to binge the last three novels in the Jane Hawk series and it was a fun ride. Hawk weaves her way through a conspiracy involving high-ranking government and corporate types and mind-control technology. We meet several unlikely allies-turned-heroes as Hawk eludes capture while trying to expose a nefarious fascist plot. The five Jane Hawk books mark the longest series I have ever read. I highly recommend it.
Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (1990)
When I finished the Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz, I decided that a Stephen King binge was in order. I really do want to read everything he has ever written, or come as close as I can. Four Past Midnight contains The Langoliers, Secret Window, Secret Garden, The Library Policeman, and The Sun Dog. The first two of the four have been made into movies of some variety, both widely panned. Secret Window was definitely better than The Langoliers. The written stories were much better than the screen adaptations. The second two were suspenseful and full of dread and terror. All four stories were fantastic.
Needful Things by Stephen King (1992)
I had read this when it first came out and loved it. I was thoroughly disappointed by the movie version. Kindly old Leland Gaunt comes to Castle Rock, Maine, and opens a curio shop called “Needful Things.” The things in the shop are not exactly what they seem (neither is the proprietor), and Gaunt sets about to turning the good people of Castle Rock against each other in devilishly creative ways. This is a very long read but worth every word.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
Not many authors appear on this list more than once but I just had to read Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The story focuses on intertwined, overlapping sets of friends and acquaintances in the music business over the course of a couple of decades. Written in a delightful way, Egan uses new and experimental literary devices to tell this tale.
The Science of Stephen King by Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence (2020)
Back to Stephen King, sort of. Science of … books are not new, I own one about vampires. The title is pretty self-explanatory. There are some great interviews and Q&As with all kinds of folks talking about everything from psychology to aliens from outer space as they pertain to the works of Stephen King. It could have gone a little deeper in some areas, and there was a big swing and a miss when it comes to IT, but overall it was well-done.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum (1989)
The author behind the pen name Jack Ketchum died roughly two years ago. I had the thought that maybe I had become desensitized considering all of the horror I have read and watched over the years and I desired a shock to the system. This is hands down the most disturbing book I have ever read. I am not even going to give a synopsis. It’s a study in how cruel we can be to our fellow humans and how we can turn a blind eye to it. I needed a shower when I finished this in one sitting.
The Horror Writer compiled and edited by Joe Mynhardt (2020)
Sometimes we writers have to study the craft, no matter how much we think we know. This is a great book for any writer, not just slingers of tales of the macabre. There are plenty of articles, interviews, and Q&As about the genre, publishing, marketing and more. This is just the second book on writing I have read, with the first being Stephen King’s On Writing.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula Starring Bela Lugosi by Robert Napton, original story by Bram Stoker, Artist El Garing, Art Director Kerry Gammill (2020)
Twenty years in the making, this fantastic new graphic novel depicts Bram Stoker’s titular count as if Bela Lugosi starred throughout the story rather than the 1931 movie adaptation that was based on the theatrical production. The artwork is stunning and the narrative is as close to the book as such a thing can be.
I am currently 200 pages or so away from finishing the almost 1,000 pages of Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King. I doubt I’ll complete it by the time the clock strikes midnight on 2020. So, this marks 35 completed reads for the year. I lost momentum for some reason, but I’ll get it back. Out of the 35 books I finished, I can honestly say there were only a few I didn’t enjoy. And there are a few I will read again. Santa Claus brought me some more books that’ll probably go right to the top of the TBR pile. In 2021, I hope to become even more prolific in my reading. I have plenty to read.
Happy reading, everyone.