The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 31, 2012

The Fifth (OMG! Really? Five?) Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

'Tis the season for indulging in sweets, liquor, debt and, you guessed it, best-of lists. You'll only get the last here though; those first three things you'll need to seek elsewhere.

So here's the blah-blah-blah: the Lowhead Dam Awards are based on what I read this year, not on what I read that was published this year.

For the Give a Dam Award, intended for a book published at least 30 years ago - and that's 1982 or prior if you're averse to mental arithmetic - I had to choose between Dashiell Hammett's RED HARVEST (1929); William Goldman's THE TEMPLE OF GOLD (1957); Josephine Tey's MISS PYM DISPOSES (1946); Patricia Wentworth's THE GIRL IN THE CELLAR; Gene Stratton-Porter's A GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST; and Mark Twain's HOW TO TELL A STORY AND OTHER ESSAYS. This category was swiftly reduced to just two candidates: RED HARVEST and THE TEMPLE OF GOLD. And I'm about to tick off Hammett fans because the award goes to THE TEMPLE OF GOLD. Why not RED HARVEST? Because for me the book does not hold up well, unlike THE GLASS KEY or THE THIN MAN. RED HARVEST has a heavy-handed quality that surprised but did not delight me. THE TEMPLE OF GOLD, a coming of age story about a young man who avoids maturity until it stands him up and stabs him in the heart, is not a crime story. It is a remarkably well-written debut novel that, at 55 years old, remains spry and relevant and, in my opinion, superior to the better-known CATCHER IN THE RYE.

The Water Over the Dam Award honors both a book and the person who recommended it. Hm, I don't really know who in my book club recommended Jussi Adler-Olsen's THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES (our club selects books at year end for the following year) but I do know that this book was also recommended by the ever wise and tasteful Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts. I should listen to her more often, yes? Yes. THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is a terrific procedural whose leading cop who's give-a-damn is well and truly busted. Fortunately his immigrant janitor-assistant is smarter and works harder than our hero. The story is one of dark revenge that the author has wisely leavened with humor. Thanks, Jen, and you know. Whoever.

Josephine Tey's MISS PYM DISPOSES, disregarded in the Give a Dam category, takes full honors for the Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award, given to the most overrated work of crime fiction. Fraught with Tey's notions of easy psychoanalysis and simply dull for most of the story, Tey finally drags a murder into the final pages and solves it with a clue so obvious that it made my head hurt. Chief attribute of this book: manipulative.

This year I hate giving out the Dam Your Eyes Award (you know, for the book most anticipated but least enjoyed) because I have to bestow it on the latest entry in a series I have, until this year, enjoyed immensely. But because Nelson DeMille's THE PANTHER took 600+ pages to tell a story not worth half that, because the John Corey series has now been unnecessarily adulterated by the presence of Paul Brenner (from DeMille's THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER) solely, as far as I could determine, for the purpose of adding quips and witticisms to situations in which it would have been inappropriate for the smart-alecky John Corey to speak them, and because I was underwhelmed by the story as a whole, this book easily earned this dubious award. Brenner and Corey are essentially the same character so I can see why the author picked the former to supply the requisite number of one-liners but the story was far too thin, the villains and the outcome too obvious to support the shenanigans.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award, given to the best, most-overlooked - underhyped, if you will - work of crime fiction goes to the bittersweet tale about the bonds of friendship between two underprivileged but otherwise very different London youths: ABIDE WITH ME, by Ian Ayris. Worthy of a much wider audience than it has received to date, the story is funny and moving -- wrenching even -- but written in a succinct vernacular that yet conveys much about the quiet catastrophic events in children's lives, and about the inchoate feelings that they can rarely express to adults. There are authors who make me wish I was a big-league publisher so that I could provide the support and marketing they deserve. Ayris is one of those writers.

And that brings me to a trio of short-story awards, the Dam Skippys, one each for online, digital, and hardcopy. This is based on the format in which I read the stories, not simply the format in which they are available. I've not counted how many short stories I read this year, but I'm sure it hasn't been as many as in years past. I regret that but can only try to read more next year.

The Dam Skippy (Online) Award goes to Patti Abbott for IS THAT YOU?, published at All Due Respect last June. The story is about a cafe owner who tries to help a homeless teen but fails him in a way that demonstrates the banal nature of evil. This is a quiet story that leaves the reader shrieking.

The Dam Skippy Award (Digital) Award goes to Roger Smith's harrowing novella, ISHMAEL TOFFEE.  The story is about Ishmael, a recently released felon who wants to leave his violent past behind. Ishmael tries very hard to ignore the evidence that his employer is sexually abusing a little girl, but even his hardened heart can only endure so much. Nobody juxtaposes the haves and have nots of the world quite so effectively, or brings the two together with such dark, explosive force as Roger Smith. If you haven't sampled his work -- and everything I've read by him has been brilliant -- this is a good place to start.

The Dam Skippy Award (Print). This was the most difficult of the short-story awards to decide on. Before I tell you about the story which receives the award, I want to tell you about three other stories that are also winners unto themselves:
WITH CROOKED HANDS by Robert Crais, published 1977 in CLARION SF, an anthology edited by Kate Wilhelm. This is a poignant tale about what one man will sacrifice and endure for beauty. If you haven't read any of Crais's early short stories, you've been cheated. Makes me feel sorry for SF fans that the author opted to devote himself to crime fiction but very happy that he did.

BIG MIDNIGHT SPECIAL by James Lee Burke, from the anthology DELTA BLUES, published by Tyrus Books this year, and edited by Carolyn Haines. The story is an excellent one, about a convict who just wants to be left alone with his guitar. The characters and place are painted with the gritty lyricism that is a hallmark of Burke's writing.

PEACHES by Todd Robinson, from the debut issue of GRIFT magazine, edited by John Kenyon. PEACHES is a moving story about a transvestite babysitter who knows you can’t go home again, but has to, just one last time. Robinson is perhaps better known as the editor of Thuglit, but a quality story like this one argues that he should be better known for his own stories. (Check out his first novel, THE HARD BOUNCE.)
And the story which receives the The Dam Skippy Award (Print) is THE BRIDGE PARTNER by Peter S. Beagle, from THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2012, edited by Robert Crais and Otto Penzler. Beagle penned a brilliant tale about a timid woman whose new bridge partner wants to kill her. Funny how murder just brings some people to life, eh?. There are so few pages to short stories that it seems odd to call one a "page turner," but that's what this story is.

Finally we come to the Hot Dam Award, aka The Best Novel I Read This Year. Anyone who bothers to read my Facebook or (rare) Twitter posts already has a pretty good idea about which book landed at the top of my list this year. But let me just say a few words about some of the other excellent books I read this year.

I don't have an award for non-fiction books since I read so few, but if I gave such an award I have no doubt that SATAN IS REAL by Charlie Louvin and Benjamin Whitmer would claim it this year. This biography of Louvin, a country music legend, is what marketers love to call "unvarnished," meaning it tells the truth and the truth will shock you. But that's not the aim of this book. The aim, and its aim is true, is to tell Charlie's story, from dirt-poor childhood to completely-broke success to music legend; and about the bonds that united and the ties that unbound him from his older brother and singing partner. My only regret is that Charlie couldn't stick around long enough to read the reviews.

Does a year go by that doesn't find me praising a new title from Dave Zeltserman? Fortunately, no. His MONSTER: A NOVEL OF FRANKENSTEIN is an unusual piece from him. Not because he doesn't write fantasy; he does and very nicely, thank you. But MONSTER takes Mary Shelley's classic tale and spins it around to the point of view of the monster. For this to work, Zeltserman needed to capture the early 19th-century tone of Shelley's original without simply writing the same story again. The author neatly pulls off this difficult trick, but don't ask me how he managed to get the feel of a story written long ago without resorting to the longwindedness and roundaboutation that is too often the hallmark of such attempts. By adding the Marquis de Sade and some assorted vampires and other creatures of the night, the author created a tale both fresh and familiar, as well as chilling, and one which sits quite comfortably on the shelf next to Shelley's book.

There is no flaw to be found in Megan Abbott's DARE ME, a story of friendship and rivalry and murder all bound up in cheerleading. If you've ever disrespected cheerleading and the PYTs who engage in that activity (and let's face it, most non-cheerleaders have at one time or another), here's a story that will make you re-think what those girls are thinking. Abbott's whispery silk-on-sandpaper style adds to the tension, itself tinged with the desperation and passion only teenagers know.

James M. Cain's COCKTAIL WAITRESS is an amazing piece of noir. And that's noir by anybody's definition. When I say this book is as good as anything from Cain's heyday, that may be an understatement. Joan is recently widowed, and she leaves her job as a cocktail waitress to marry a man who can provide financial security for her and her child. But Joan's got a yen for another man. And there's some question about how Joan's first husband died. Joan is a singularly unreliable narrator, thanks to Cain's adept drawing and re-drawing of her as events spin out. If you've never read pure noir, there's no better place to start than right here with this book.

The Hot Dam Award goes to Wiley Cash for A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME. From Mr. Cash's web site:
Families are supposed to shield children from the horrors of the world, but one Sunday nine-year-old Jess Hall watches as his autistic brother is called into a little church in the mountains of North Carolina. What happens next forces Jess to question everything he once believed.
I picked this book up just because of the jacket blurb from Clyde Edgerton, whose writing I greatly admire: "This book will knock your socks off." And it did. It does.The graceful prose captures a powerful drama -- a Greek tragedy -- about two children in a small Southern town where a snake-handling preacher wields enormous influence. The characters will not depart when you close the book; they will call to you long after they've told their story. Read the harrowing first chapter and I believe you, too, will be transported into the world of young Jess and his brother. This book has received greater kudos than I can provide, so if you don't take my recommendation, look who else admires the story:
New York Times Notable Book of 2012
Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction of 2012
Library Journal Best Book of 2012
Winner of the 2012 John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award

What I'm saying is, just read it.

My thanks, as always, to the authors for their hard work and perseverance in the face of dwindling royalties, vanishing bookstores, harsh critics, and worst of all, an indifferent public. It's a hardy breed, the contemporary writer. I'll drink a toast to you all this night!


  1. Thank you so much. That was a story that I wasn't sure anyone read. It was one of my favorites though. I must read the Wiley Cash. As someone afraid of snakes, it is hard to get by its beginning, but I am going to try again. Thanks to you I did read Adler-Olsen and have his next one ready to read. Roger Smith-also on my shelves. So many books, so little time left. And Dave, I just have to get to that after CARETAKER, the best book I read a year or two ago,

  2. The snakes won't bother you much after that first chapter. At least not the animal snakes. The human snakes take over from there.

    CARETAKER was one of my favorites in 2010, and looking back I think I missed the call that year by not giving it the Hot Dam. I gave it to JL Burke for GLASS RAINBOW, which is a fine, fine book. But as time has passed I recognize CARETAKER as a genuine classic.