5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: November/December 2015

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

Daniel Ford: I’ll admit, I picked up The Axeman’s Jazz because of its stellar cover. However, after a slower start than I anticipated, Ray Celestin’s macabre novel proved just as good inside its book jacket. The book is set in 1919 New Orleans and features troubled detectives, plucky Pinkerton investigators, and even jazz great Louis Armstrong. The plot, which revolves around a Crescent City serial killer who loves bludgeoning his victims with an ax and New Orleans’ signature sound in equal measure, moves along at a good clip, but the book’s emotionally heart lies in the relationship between Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot and his young protégée. Celestin expertly crafts a mood befitting an immigrant story, turn-of-the-century noir, and suspenseful thriller, while also touching on topical subjects like race relations and women’s rights. Based on true events, The Axeman’s Jazz will have you tapping your toes while diving under your bed to avoid the killer’s wrath.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Daniel: I was reluctant to sing the praises of Marlon James’ meaty Jamaican epic after it won the 2015 Man Booker Prize over Writer’s Bone favorite Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, but it was as good as advertised. James’ haunting characters, crackling dialogue, and Caribbean locale made every page in the weighty tome a true pleasure to read. Also based on the true-life shooting of Bob Marley, A Brief History of Seven Killings follows gang members, American journalists, shadowy government agents, and everyday Jamaicans throughout several turbulent decades in Jamaica. The cast of characters seems unwieldy in some sections, but it’s anchored by love struck Nina Burgess’ story. At the beginning of the novel, she’s pining for “The Singer,” hoping he’ll remember the night they spent together, but by the end she’s a lot like the Jamaica James depicts throughout the book: battle-scarred, weary, untrusting, but still proudly standing.

All lovers of language will appreciate the words and phrases the author employs to tell his tale. “Bombocloth,” “r’ass,” and “fuckery” are all words I quickly came to love and would use daily if I were the right skin color. Much like Dimitry Elias Léger's God Loves Haiti, James’ award-winning novel not only tells a passionate, violent story, but also sheds a light on a country America knows too little about despite our close proximity.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Sean Tuohy: If you need to get yourself into the mindset to write your next novel, short story, or screenplay, pick this book up. Written by two ex-Navy SEALs, Extreme Ownership helps you develop the mental skills necessary for you to meet your goals and complete your tasks. Helpful, well written, and filled with thought-provoking stories, this book is a must for the nightstand.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Daniel: I originally read (and fell in love with) Colum McCann’s short story “Sh’khol” in The Best American Short Stories 2015, so I was pleasantly surprised that I had the opportunity to enjoy it all over again in the author’s collection Thirteen Ways of Looking. The short fiction compilation only includes a novella and three short stories, but what it lacks in pages, it makes up for with punch. The title novella, which features the final day in the life of an elderly judge, perfectly captures a wintry New York City and seamlessly mixes past and present. “Treaty” throws faith, violence, forgiveness, and ambiguity into a tale about a broken nun with fantastic results.

However, “What Time Is It Now, Where Are You?” might be the story must useful for aspiring writers. A writer struggles to develop a fiction piece for The New Yorker, but ends up brainstorming a story that is just as captivating as the author’s writing process. I felt I learned more about writing and reading in 10 pages than in the thousands of pages I’ve read throughout 2015. I’m a neophyte when it comes to McCann’s work, but I’m eager to pick up the rest of his oeuvre in the new year. You should do the same.     

Cold Hit by Stephen J. Cannell

Daniel: Sean Tuohy has this uncanny ability to put the right book in my hands at the right time. Coming off of A Brief History of Seven Killings, I needed something light and adventurous. Dr. Tuohy proscribed television guru Stephen J. Cannell’s Cold Hit, which I breezed through during my Thanksgiving break. It had everything I could possibly want from a thriller: wise-crackin’ detectives, a zippy plot, a calculating serial killer (that’s two in one post…maybe I have a problem), and shady authority figures. Was it a little hammy in parts? Of course! I really could have done without the subplot featuring Detective Shane Scully’s son getting recruited by college football coaches, but it didn’t take away from the tender moments the surly gumshoe had with his wife (who is also his superior) throughout the novel. Scully also has to deal with a drunk, broken partner who threatens to ruin Scully’s case and career multiple times during the narrative.

Cannell also makes some really insightful comments on our national security/criminal justice system following 9/11 that most thrillers don’t take the time to dive into. How many personal liberties are we willing to give up to assure our security? Does stooping to the terrorists’ level in hunting them down strip away our moral imperative? Cannell doesn’t necessarily provide concrete answers to these questions, obviously, but the fact he was raising them made me feel a lot better about where this genre is headed.