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A Year in Reading: 2015

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | Alphabetical Index

The companion piece to my film log, the book log keeps a listing of everything I've read over the course of a year, as well as giving me a place to type up a short review. As a handy reference, the book title of each listing provides links to the Amazon page for the book.

Starting in 2009, I began providing star ratings of the books I read. The ratings are out of five stars, with five stars being equivalent to an A, 4½ to an A-/B+, four to a B, and so on.

 

4-19 Engraved On
the Eye
, by
Saladin Ahmed
I first learned of Saladin Ahmed through his Twitter feed, where he posts all kinds of great stuff: his experiences as an Arab-American and a practicing Muslim, (awesome) panels from pulp comic books, his thoughts on modern science-fiction and fantasy, and lots more. So I was already impressed with the mind Ahmed displayed; what I wondered was whether his writing would measure up to that. Moreover, while the idea of fantasy from an Arabic/Muslim perspective sounded fascinating (seriously, how much modern fantasy trades on white Judeo-Christian stories?), I worried that the stories would be more interesting than gripping. But Engraved On the Eye, a collection of Ahmed's short fiction (available for free on e-readers!), put my mind at ease. Yes, Ahmed writes from a unique perspective, and it's inextricably linked to his characters and his worlds. His fantasy flows from the Middle East, not Arthurian times, and there's an importance to religion that nods at Ahmed's faith throughout. But more than that - and more importantly - Ahmed is quite simply a great storyteller, capable of humor, horror, drama, comedy, magic, awe, and just about every other emotion imaginable. Over the course of Engraved On the Eye, Ahmed writes classic fantasy stories, comic book homages, Westerns, and more, and all of them feel like little else out there; there's a unique perspective, a way of looking at the world you don't see in most fantasy. But there's also the propulsive and exciting plotlines, which involve everything from evil wizards kidnapping maidens to be their bride to supervillains planning massive rehabilitation programs, from medieval doctors asked to make demons to cybernetic soldiers whose AI is sending them messages from God. Sometimes the stories are pure pulpy excitement; sometimes they're thoughtful commentaries on the world; sometimes they're tongue in cheek; but always, they're fun and engaging, with rich characters, interesting worlds, and great writing. Engraved on the Eye is a knockout collection with nary a sour note to be found; it sold me on Ahmed even more, and I'm picking up his novel the next chance I get. And if you like fantasy, you owe it to yourself to check him out too. It's free, it's great, and it's your loss to miss out on it.
4-18 Captains
Outrageous
, by
Joe R. Lansdale
In a lot of ways, it's weird that the humor of the Hap and Leonard books is something I always find myself focusing on when I talk about them. After all, these are truly noir novels in every sense of the word; Captains Outrageous opens with Hap saving a woman from a brutal and horrific beating, and from there somehow evolves until our heroes are in Mexico dealing with a horrifically violent drug lord and his gargantuan henchman. It all more or less makes sense as it goes, but there's little funny about the story, which revolves around horrific and nightmarish acts of violence that scar the characters both physically and mentally, and not in a way that leaves them quick to heal. And yet, for all of that, I can't deny that when I think of the Hap and Leonard books, and when I think about my reaction to Captains Outrageous, I think first of how laugh out loud, constantly hilarious these books are. In the hands of Joe Lansdale, Hap and Leonard constantly bicker, joke, tease, and comment on the world around them, but in a way that never feels forced or feels like some bad sitcom. Instead, it feels like a bond between two old friends who love each other dearly and always have each other's backs, no matter what. And that bond between Hap and Leonard, ultimately, is the core of the books, driving the plot, driving the violence that scars the characters, driving the healing they go through, and driving the choices they make along the way. In other words, the series blends Lansdale's wonderful Texas drawl, brutal neo-noir, and character work to make something rich, funny, exciting, thrilling, and just plain great. And Captains Outrageous is among the best of the series, sliding through its story effortlessly, bringing out some hilarious moments, and making the violence and horror truly resonate and linger both with the characters and the reader. In other words? It's pure Lansdale, and it's hard to imagine much that could be better than that.
4-13 Acceptance,
by Jeff
VanderMeer
Anyone hoping for answers or clarity in Acceptance, the final entry in the Southern Reach series, was probably frustrated and irritated to no small degree. Instead, Acceptance moves around in time, following the mysterious lighthouse keeper in his final days before the "arrival" of Area X, catching up with Control and his companion after the end of Authority, and filling in some of the gaps that we've discovered along the way in the series. And as anyone who read the opening book in the series might expect, Acceptance ends as enigmatically as it all began, giving us hints, clues, and ripples moving away from events that we're never quite clear on and never fully comprehending. It's an ending that could be frustrating and infuriating for so many reasons, but it seems appropriate for the Southern Reach series, a trilogy which has always been about confronting the unknown and realizing that some things will ultimately be incomprehensible to us, no matter how much we think we know. It's a Lovecraftian idea, really, and at Acceptance's finest moments, it channels that vibe perfectly, whether it's the way he handles the arrival of Area X (in what becomes one of the most disturbing and nightmarish scenes of the series), the enigmatic climax, or the eerie, inexplicable touches that he peppers the book with but never pushes too far. As a trilogy, the Southern Reach is hard to explain; it's obvious that the first book is the best, and in some ways, the series never really needed a second or third volume. But taken as a whole, they create a fascinating mosaic effect, giving us a slew of pieces that add up to something incomprehensible and unsettling - and maybe all the more so because it feels so close to understandable, and yet so far. In some ways, it's a series I admire more than I truly like, Annihilation excepted, and yet I can't deny that as Acceptance picked up steam, I was entranced by its utterly alien world and its uncanny way of burrowing under my skin and never leaving. It's not a series that's for all tastes, and if you're looking for answers, you'll hate it. But for those who admire the atmosphere and unease of truly weird fiction, Acceptance is a perfect final chapter in this strange, unsettling series.
4-12 Infernal, by T.
Joseph Browder
I've been enjoying T. Joseph Browder's inventive, unsettling short stories, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was both intrigued and worried when he decided to make the move into novels. That's a whole different skill set, and I figured the result would either be phenomenal or stretched thin. And when I found out that Infernal at least somewhat revolved around the idea of the multiverse, I wasn't sure what to think; it's an idea that I usually enjoy, but that I seem to be reading a lot of variations on these days, and I hated to think of Browder's creative inventiveness to go somewhere that I'd seen before. But I needn't have worried; even if the idea of multiverses is familiar, to say that Infernal has more on its mind would be an understatement. To say much more would be to give too much away; suffice to say, Infernal moves beyond science into the realms of religion and faith, turning what could have been a science-fiction novel into something far more complex, thought-provoking, and profound, and turning a self-contained story into the beginning of a dense saga. What Browder does, then, is take all of the great gifts he brought to his short stories - his character work, his surprising plotting, his willingness to push limits, his ambitious refusal to adhere to genre boundaries - and moves them all effortlessly over to a much, much larger scope. Infernal has a couple of small, small issues - for instance, it wouldn't hurt Browder to cut down on firearm info occasionally, as it sometimes feels like it takes over action scenes - but they're small ones, and they're dwarfed by how rich and fascinating the story becomes. Add to that a great main character - Richard, whose loner existence in the opening pages only makes more and more sense as we learn more about him in pieces over the course of the novel - and plenty of chances for Browder to show off his imagination and range, and you've got a fascinating novel that only grows more so as you go through it. The biggest down side? Realizing that there's a big wait ahead of me before the next part comes out.
4-2 Trainspotting,
by Irvine Welsh
I'm sure there's no shortage of people who make it a couple of pages into Trainspotting and its dense, seemingly impenetrable Scottish dialect and give up, and I can't entirely blame them. It makes for a challenging read at first, and although you can eventually get into the book's rhythms to the point where you read it effortlessly, it's a big barrier to kick off the book with. And yet, as I reread Trainspotting this time, I really came to believe that the dialect is essential to the book for so many reasons, and part of the key to its greatness. Some of it, I think, is because it anchors the book and its inhabitants so clearly to Scotland; to me, much of the book's point is that these characters' lives, with all the drugs, petty crimes, aggression, and generally horrific behavior they contain, are in no small part a reaction to their environment, and the accent anchors the book so firmly into Scotland that it becomes another character of the book. But more than that, I think, is the way that the accents change the book from a novel to something closer to an oral history, regaling the reader with a slew of incidents ranging from the blackly comic to the disgusting to the horrific and beyond, and making it all feel less like the musings of an author and more like a series of stories told by the people you're sitting next to in a horrific Scottish dive bar. Is Trainspotting a disgusting book? Oh, without a doubt. Is it a slew of grotesqueries and horrific acts, a plunge into drug addiction, and a glimpse at a life most of us are glad we don't lead? Most definitely. But it's also a fearlessly honest book, taking on not only drug addiction, but class issues, social causes, gender relations, and more. And more than that, it's a frequently hilarious book, something that sets it apart from so many other drug tales. Trainspotting doesn't necessarily approve of everything its characters do - far from it - but it refrains from actively judging them, either, and is willing to present their stories in all their horror and their humor and let the reader get their own message out of it. And for those who can handle the language and the disgust and the anarchy, the reward is a funny, intelligent, thought-provoking, fantastic book that feels more honest and heartfelt than so many true testimonials I've heard over the years.
3-29 The Lost
Hero
, by
Rick Riordan
The Lost Hero is the first entry in the Heroes of Olympus series, author Rick Riordan's followup to the great Percy Jackson series, and in some ways, it feels like a book full of every single idea Riordan had for a followup. Why have one narrator when you can have three? Why limit yourself to Greek mythology when there's also Roman mythology to discuss? Why only focus on stories of the gods when there's also plenty of stories about mortals like Midas or Medea? The Lost Hero takes on all of that and more, and the end result feels awfully overstuffed at times. Each of the three narrators - an amnesiac fighter named Jason, a movie star's daughter named Piper, and a clever builder named Leo - has their own personal journey to go on, and Riordan has to juggle all of that as well as the disappearance of Percy Jackson, the possible kidnapping of Hera, the rise of an ancient evil, and possibly much more. And yet, it all works, by and large, thanks in no small part to Rick Riordan's skill at storytelling; in his hands, The Lost Hero moves like a rocket and hangs together better than it really should, driven by excitement, quick plotting, interesting characters, and as always, some fun humor that keeps everything from getting too dark. The Lost Hero is undeniably the first book in what feels like a much more epic saga than the original Jackson series, and it suffers at times from having possibly too much set up to do in its running time. But it's never really confusing, just cluttered, and Riordan has a way of making every individual scene enough fun that you don't really mind wondering sometimes if every single piece is really necessary to the overall whole. By the book's end, the point of this series is starting to come into more focus, and I'm hoping that the second entry finds Riordan tightening things up a little bit, now that he's not having to set up quite as many plot threads. Even so, it's still an enjoyable ride and a great adventure story, and it's still got my 8-year-old enthralled with its world and dying for more - and that, in of itself, is a pretty strong testament to its quality.
3-22 Eve Brenner:
Zombie Girl
, by
A. Giacomi
There's a glut of zombie fiction these days, to the point where the very mention of the word can turn off some readers. But there are some unique takes out there - I'm thinking, for instance, of Stephen Kozeniewski's wonderful Braineater Jones, which creates a zombie protagonist and tosses him into the middle of a classic noir detective tale. And at its best moments, Eve Brenner: Zombie Girl shows some promise of doing something interesting with the genre. Giacomi turns her protagonist into something closer to a werewolf or a zombie, with Eve constantly battling against her more bestial nature and baser (brain-eating) instincts to keep her humanity intact. And the book's ending, which sets up the second book in the series, promises to take things to a far more interesting place than what we've seen so far. So all of that is great...but what's not as great is Giacomi's weird juxtaposition of tone, which makes the book feel wildly jarring at times, and not in a good way. There's something intriguing about using the zombie to explore our baser instincts, but Giacomi features characters going from fretting about possible violence to smashing heads into walls until the brains literally splatter without ever so much as losing sleep over the matter. That's a problem, especially when one of the big themes of the book is Eve's struggle to make her peace with what she's become. Moreover, what's the horror of the book? Is it Eve's bestial nature, or is the splattery violence that increasingly dominates the book as it continues into its second half? I actually think that the second half is where Giacomi's interest lays, and it's one of the reasons I'm interested in reading the second book in the series despite my mixed feelings on the first; I feel like once Giacomi gets her setup out of the way, the book becomes a lot of fun; it's just that the payoff doesn't mesh at all with the setup, and it leads to some weird moments that never quite sat right with me as a reader.
3-21 The Amazing
Maurice and
His Educated
Rodents
, by
Terry Pratchett
The Amazing Maurice is one of the very few Discworld books I hadn't read before the death of Terry Pratchett, and for some reason I thought it was a relatively minor work. Maybe I was fooled by its labeling as a children's book, or maybe the title made me expect something cuter, or for even younger ages. But I should have known better; anyone who's read the Tiffany Aching books knows that Pratchett makes little distinction in subject material, writing, or theme between his "adult" and his "young adult" books, and The Amazing Maurice is no exception. In theory, The Amazing Maurice is Pratchett's take on the story of the Pied Piper, only with the cat and mice being intelligent, the piper being mostly a front, and the whole operation being a scam. But when the crew decides to pull one last job before getting away and end up in a town where something darker is lurking, everything goes haywire. As you'd expect from Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice is pretty frequently hilarious, playing with the expectations we have about stories, having a gleeful blast with its intelligent creatures, and just generally subverting expectations every chance it gets. But also as you'd expect from Pratchett, it's thematically rich, dealing with the ramifications of bettering yourself, fighting with your own nature, the risks of believing stories and fables, and so much more. And then, when you least expect it, it gets dark, with the creatures dealing with a very different evil than you might expect, and one that explores the book's themes in a rich new direction. In short, it's Pratchett doing what he always does, and taking a theoretically simple story and making it funnier, more complicated, and just plain richer than it has any right being. And while it's not a top-tier Discworld book, it's still a really good one - and it's worth remembering that even a mediocre Discworld book (of which there are maybe 1 or 2, tops) is better than almost anything else you'll read. It may not be Mort or Thief of Time, but it's funny, engaging, thoughtful, charming, hilarious, exciting, thrilling, and just typically great.
3-20 Thief of
Time
, by
Terry Pratchett
In the wake of the passing of Terry Pratchett, I felt myself wanting to revisit Discworld, only to realize that I'm almost out of new books to read in the series - something that's all the more painful now that Pratchett has passed. Instead, I returned to Thief of Time, which was the first book in the Discworld series I ever read. Would it hold up to my fond memories of it, or would I see that it was mainly remarkable because it was my first exposure to Pratchett's great writing? Turns out, not only did Thief of Time live up to my memories, it surpassed them, still delivering Pratchett's rich, funny, thought-provoking writing and giving you one of the best Discworld stories there is. Trying to explain the plot gets complicated, as it often does in Discworld; suffice to say that a race known as the Auditors are trying to build the universe's most accurate clock, which may result in the Apocalypse; as a result, a pair of monks, Death, and Death's granddaughter (now a school teacher) work to save the universe from its most recent destruction. What happens, though, is far less important than how it all happens, and the how is what provides Thief of Time with its gloriously funny comedy, its genuinely thoughtful and complex philosophy and cosmology, and its intricate plotting. With tangents ranging from the nature of time to the power of sensations, from the importance of temptation in shaping humanity to the way common aphorisms can truly reveal the universe, Thief of Time is boundless in its ambition and complexity, but Pratchett's skill and craft never makes it feel like it's losing control; instead, it always feels shaped and focused, no matter where its gleefully chaotic plot feels like traveling. I stand by my claim that Thief is a phenomenal starting point for anyone wanting to get into Discworld; yes, there are aspects you'll appreciate more having read some of the previous entries, but it stands on its own, and it's a wonderful example of how Pratchett isn't easily pigeonholed into any single category. Comedy, fantasy, science-fiction, drama, philosophy, science - it's all in here, all brilliant, all insightful, and all gripping and enjoyable. In other words, it's just more brilliance from Pratchett. And while it's awful that he's gone, at least he's left behind books like this for us to read and re-read for generations to come.
3-16 Authority, by
Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation, the first entry in the Southern Reach trilogy, chronicled a scientific expedition into the strange area simply known as "Area X." And as Annihilation unfolded, things went bad very quickly, as team mates turned on each other, secrets were revealed, and nightmarish realities came to life. Now comes Authority, the second volume of the series, which turns its eye from Area X and into the "Southern Reach," the government agency charged with overseeing and investigating Area X. In other words, at first glance, Authority is a far more conventional tale, following the new director of the organization as he tries to figure out what went wrong on the expedition chronicled in Annihilation and to make sense of an organization that seems to be every bit as insane as the area it's responsible for. And yet, Authority features that same strange sense that permeated Annihilation, giving you a sense that there's another reality lurking not far below the surface and just waiting for you to let down your guard. The result is a strange book, one that feels a little overlong and bloated at times, and yet one whose payoff is undeniably affective, as VanderMeer swings his plot in a whole new direction when you least expect it and does so while creating some of the most disturbing moments of the series so far. Is Authority a bit bloated and slow-paced? Undeniably, and it certainly doesn't help to trade the surreal, unsettling atmosphere of Area X for the more mundane world of government bureaucracy, no matter the hints of psychological damage on display. But Authority rewards those who stick with it, and while it's not the equal of Annihilation, it's a fascinating sequel to that book, one that feels like another piece in the overall mosaic that this trilogy seems to be.
3-7 The Last
Olympian
, by
Rick Riordan
One of the big complaints a lot of people had with the final entry in the Harry Potter series was its perceived length, with many readers feeling frustrated with the lengthy camping scenes and the fetch quest that took up much of the final book. And while I quite liked the final Harry Potter book, I can't help but feel like Rick Riordan took that reaction to heart when shaping the final Percy Jackson book, and the result is an undeniably exciting and gripping conclusion to the story, one that delivers nearly a book-length battle that's still filled with character work, nice plot revelations, and the series' usual gift for banter and humor. Everything comes together in this final entry, as the Titans launch an attack on the surface world, leaving Percy and the other demigods to defend New York City against a massive assault force while the gods handle their own battles. There are revelations about double agents, twists that have been building for books, romantic developments, and some really great surprises that come out of nowhere and are just as satisfying for their unexpected nature. More than that, though, there's a ton of action, and it shows off how Riordan has a knack for exciting battle sequences that deliver intensity and excitement without ever turning things grim, bloody, or excessive. Instead, it's just the right mix of danger and aggression for a YA series, and it manages to conclude both the story of this battle and the series' overarching plot beautifully with a climax that's both unexpected and perfectly set up a long time in advance. Riordan leaves things with just a hint about what the next series is going to be about, and I can't really blame him; as much fun as this world is to live in, I wouldn't want to rush out and leave it either. In general, the Percy Jackson books are a truly fun and enjoyable set, and between the inventive use of mythology, the quick wit, and the strongly drawn characters, I'd be just as willing to keep on going as he is.
3-4 The Battle of
the Labyrinth
,
by Rick Riordan
After a somewhat weaker third book, the Percy Jackson series gets back to form in The Battle of the Labyrinth, which finds our heroes navigating the fabled maze in an effort to protect the camp, figure out what Kronos is doing, solve the riddle of Pan's disappearance, and generally start drawing some of the series' plotlines to an end. Indeed, one of the best things about Labyrinth is the way that it rewards those who have stuck with the series, proving that Riordan has been pacing things out and crafting his plot far more intricately than might have been immediately obvious. Labyrinth is the penultimate book of the Jackson series, and it feels like a penultimate book, in terms of tone, plotting, theme, and everything else, but especially in the way that everything is starting to come together in ways that remind us the end is coming soon. If that's not enough for you, there's the Labyrinth itself, which provides Riordan a nice running throughline for the book, connecting his incidental plotting in a tighter way than usual while still giving him lots of room to play around in as yet untapped branches of Greek mythology. The result is an absolute blast and maybe my favorite book in the series so far; it delivers on Riordan's usual knack for action and humor while also proving that he's go some solid dramatic chops, including a couple of genuinely dark reveals that remind you of the stakes we're facing here. More that that, it finds Riordan heading in some wholly new directions, tossing out some really surprising twists along the way and really doubling down on how surreal and strange this wonderful world can be. And even one of my bigger issues with The Titan's Curse especially the over-reliance on Percy's dreams - is addressed here, with Percy's dreams being used as a way of penciling in background that pays off in satisfying ways later. All in all, it really feels like Labyrinth is the best of the series, delivering the fun and excitement that I've come to hope while also feeling like the most imaginative and the most carefully constructed of the series to date.
3-3 Hopebreaker,
by Dean F. Wilson
One of the hardest things about science-fiction and fantasy is the balancing act of setting up your world and its rules and your story. Lean too far into your story and the reader can be lost about what makes your world so special; lean too far into world-building and you can lose your way there, creating a rich world where not much every happens. In general, it's a balance that Dean F. Wilson handles well in Hopebreaker, delivering the bare minimum exposition needed to get his story running. We learn, very quickly, that this world is ruled by literal demons, who have established a government known as the Regime; that there are smugglers working to get people artifacts to let them fight back; and that there is a Resistance, which seeks to destroy and overthrow the Regime. Simple enough, and Wilson does a good job giving us what we need and getting into the meat of his story, which follows a smuggler with no real strong moral code as he finds himself involved with the Resistance as they mobilize in an effort to destroy some of the Regime's infrastructure. Wilson does a nice job of setting up his characters, and his battle sequences are fantastic, giving a good sense of what's going on and never losing his way with gratuitous descriptions or technobabble about his weapons (which seem to have an air of steampunk about them, albeit in a very subtle way). No, from a story perspective and a character-building perspective, Hopebreaker is solid stuff; where it's weak, though, is that you gradually start to feel that instead of giving us just enough exposition, he's given us not enough. There's glimpses and hints of some great backstory and ideas at work in Hopebreaker, but Wilson ultimately plays his cards so close to the vest that it gets frustrating. We get that the demons are evil, but we know almost nothing about them by the end of the book - certainly little more than we did at the beginning. And that ends up meaning that the stakes are hard to invest yourself in. Despite being the first book of a series, Hopebreaker feels more like the middle episode of a long-running saga. You can follow it fine, enjoy the characters and the scenes, but it feels like you're missing some of the context that would really make it come to life. And maybe Wilson is planning on diving into that more in later books in the series, and maybe not, but as it stands, Hopebreaker both works and doesn't. I enjoyed it fine, but left feeling unfulfilled, as though I wanted more of this world to make me care about it more and never got it.
2-28 The Titan's
Curse
, by
Rick Riordan
The third entry in the Percy Jackson series is the first where the overarching plot seems to come sharply into focus and the characters seem to have grown beyond their "pupil" phase of their lives. In that way, it feels like the second half of the Harry Potter series, where the characters have started to grow up and are forced into confronting Voldemort and his schemes. But where Potter went very dark, very quickly, Titan's Curse makes the transition more gradually, dealing with some darker themes - including the death of some supporting characters and the possibilities of greater loss - while still focusing on the light, adventure-focused tone that's made the series work so well until now. In some ways, Titan's Curse feels a little loose, with the characters being more driven by the plot than the other way around; at the same time, that's not really a deal breaker here, with even the characters being forced to deal with being a step behind at all times. There are a couple of tropes in the series that are starting to feel a little worn thin by now (namely Percy's ability to hear key conversations and see major events in his dreams), but there's also Riordan's clever ability to mix mythology and modern elements nicely, something that pays off here with the introductions of Apollo and Artemis (as well as a brief appearance by Aphrodite). The result is still an engaging, fun read, but it feels like the weakest of the series, as Riordan tries to shift the tone and move his overarching story forward in a way that ends up feeling a little forced at times. And yet, I still enjoyed it the book as a whole. Riordan knows how to write a great battle scene, with the book's climax really paying off beautifully. Add to that a couple of nice twists and reveals (especially the nature of the monster they're pursuing), and you have a fun enough entry in the series, but one that definitely didn't work for me as much as he others did. Given my son's continued excitement for the set, though, that may be as much a factor of my older age than anything else.
2-27 Trigger
Warning
, by
Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is a great enough writer that any new book of his feels like an event, and a collection of short stories only more so. But he's also good enough that anything he releases gets held up to almost impossibly high standards. How can any collection, no matter how good, live up to the incredible Smoke and Mirrors? And so you could understand if my first reaction to Trigger Warning was something along the lines of "Well, this is good, but it's not as good as Smoke and Mirrors." And yet, the more I thought about Trigger Warning, the more I realized that was selling the collection short. What other author could give you a fascinating blend of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into something both profound and disturbing, as Gaiman does in "The Sleeper and the Spindle"? Who else could take a story called "Adventure Story," begin it by ironically suggesting it's all about how everything is an adventure for his elderly mother, and then turn it into something whimsical and weird? And any Gaiman fan will find plenty to love here. Do you like the way Gaiman's stories often suggest forgotten folklore or lost fairy tales? You'll love "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...", a tale that starts as a quest for cursed treasure and evolves into something more as it unfolds. Do you love his homages to classic works of literature and storytelling? You'll savor every page of "The Case of Death and Honey," which finds Sherlock Holmes taking on a case far outside of his normal boundaries. Maybe you love his humorous side, in which case "And Weep, Like Alexander" is for you - if nothing else, you'll learn what an uninventor is. There's plenty more - the wonderfully odd "Orange," which gives you the answers, but not the questions, of a most unusual interview; the unsettling and elegant "Click Clack the Rattlebag," which reminds you of how creepy Gaiman can be; the wildly inventive "A Calendar of Tales," in which Gaiman spins a story for every month of the year based off of suggestions from Twitter; and "Black Dog," a novella that follows up on Shadow from American Gods as he makes his way through a dark night, a pub, and a local ghost. Sure, my instinctive reaction is to say that Trigger Warning isn't quite as good as Smoke and Mirrors, and maybe it's not; there are a few more middling tales here, and a few that left me a little underwhelmed. But even the weakest are still prime Gaiman, and it's a reminder that Gaiman has become that rare type of author, where even his weak work - and Trigger Warning is definitely not weak, just a little uneven - is still essential reading. And for a while, while you're lost in Gaiman's imagination, prose, and worlds, you'll remember how much you love this man's work and why you get excited every time a new book comes out.
2-20 The Sea of
Monsters
,
by Rick Riordan
Second entries in a series are often the best way to judge whether the series has long term potential. It's a chance for an author to stop world building and get into the meat of his story, as well as a chance to shed some of the flaws of the first entry and start improving his/her craft. And to that end, Sea of Monsters is a much tighter work than its predecessor, focusing its plotting down more carefully and losing some of the digressions that made Lightning Thief occasionally feel unwieldy. But Riordan keeps all of the first book's strengths, crafting a story that's still enjoyable funny and exciting while never losing track of nice character interactions. Moreover, in his focus, he ends up doing an even better job with his Greek mythological allusions, crafting a whole series of chapters that are fun enough on their own, but as an extended homage to The Odyssey, even better. You could easily make the argument that Percy Jackson feels a bit like a series of grand adventures with only a thin tissue connecting the books, and that would be fair enough; what appears to be the series' overarching plot (the possible return of the Titans) is only glancingly involved here, with the book instead focusing on the quest for the Golden Fleece in an effort to save Camp Half-Blood. But I quite like that aspect of the books; it feels more akin to the Greek myths in question, which always felt more like a collection of incidents than a cohesive whole. (That goes double for The Odyssey, which obviously serves as the primary influence for this entry.) And besides, when the adventure is this enjoyable and fun, who really cares if it works better individually than as a global whole? It's enough that it's kept me enjoying the series on its own terms and not just as YA, and that's enough for me.
2-17 The Lightning
Thief
, by
Rick Riordan
Recently, my son started reading the Percy Jackson series; not only that, he's fallen in love with the set, so much so that he's wanted to talk about it, make up games with it, learn more about Greek mythology, and basically just live in its world for as long as possible. Of course, all of that gave me the push I needed to check out the series; it's something I've been curious about anyway, and now it's given Aidan and I things to talk about. It's not hard to understand why he loves the series; author Rick Riordan has basically taken Greek mythology, mixed in a dose of the Harry Potter YA framework, and created an infectiously fun and enjoyable little adventure series, one that's doubly enjoyable if you know all the mythology that's getting referenced and repurposed. From the Lotus Eaters emerging as a Las Vegas casino to Charon's position as a doorman and beyond, Riordan takes in every aspect of mythology and gives it all a modern context that's pretty inventive and fun. (My favorite may be the decision to stick Dionysus into a forced probation from drinking and a position as a camp counselor despite his clear dislike of young children.) But as much fun as all of that is, The Lightning Thief doesn't work without its story. Luckily, Riordan creates a fun throughline for his hero, sending his hero (the offspring of Poseidon and a mortal woman) into a quest that finds him retrieving Zeus's lost lightning bolt in an effort to prevent war amongst the gods. And sure, there's some typical YA framework; sure, it's sometimes a little sprawling and unfocused, as Riordan seems as interested in building his world as telling his story. But it's also genuinely enjoyable and engaging, and Riordan does a nice job of bringing a sense of humor and genuine fun to the proceedings, something that sets the series apart in a world where every YA series is trying to out-grim each other. Add to that some small decisions that nicely humanize the story (especially the choice to have Percy suffer from dyslexia and ADHD, which makes him a hero for kids who might deal with the same issues), and you have a winning kick off for a series whose popularity is pretty easy to understand.
2-12 The
Professional
Freelancer
,
by Rory Scherer
Humor is a hard thing to do, and notoriously subjective. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another, so when you read a humorous novella, it's hard to say whether it's truly "bad" or if it just doesn't work for you. But it's honestly hard to picture people finding The Professional Freelancer all that funny, when most of its jokes are a single format that gets beaten into the ground and the characters little more than one-note punchlines. And that's a shame, because there's an engaging, funny story somewhere in here, as a laid-off worker finds himself working odd jobs and somehow getting involved with gangsters, cops, and more. Unfortunately, Scherer doesn't do the story any favors, filling nearly every other sentence (and I mean that quite literally) with heavy-handed similes and analogies that feel like they're meant to be jokes, but end up so thudding that it feels forced and contrived; worse, they happen so often that they get exhausting before you're all that far into the book. The characters aren't much better, with Scherer apparently giving each one a single characteristic and running it into the ground. (The worst example may be the hero's girlfriend, whose reason for dumping him is painfully unfunny and eye-rolling, but his best friend whose who personality seems to be "I'm addicted to porn!" isn't much better.) Add to that some awkward writing (I've said this before, but first-person narration is hard to pull off if you can't make it sound natural, and Scherer doesn't have that knack yet), and you have a book that just falls flat. And, again, I wish it didn't...because the plotting actually shows that Scherer has some good ideas and some interesting outlines. But as a humor book, it's not funny; as a thriller, it's trying to be funny too hard to be exciting; and as a novel, it's got too many flat characters and too much bad writing to work. With a few more drafts and maybe a co-writer, though? There's something here, underneath the flaws.
2-7 Annihilation,
by Jeff
VanderMeer
One of my all-time favorite science fiction books is Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, a strange novel with no real plot to speak of; instead, it's simply about the exploration of a vacant alien craft that has drifted through our solar system, leaving us nothing to go on except our observations and theories. It's a book that came to mind often as I read the astonishing, unsettling Annihilation, which follows an expedition into Area X, a strange area of the world that feels like nothing so much as a version of our world that's gradually becoming a Lovecraftian nightmare. There's little true "story" to Annihilation; instead, VanderMeer immerses us in this world and leaves us trying to figure out what's happening, what has happened, and what will be happening next, all simply by observing the strange world of Area X. There's fungus that spells a madman's rambling, a bloodstained room that hints of a horrific last stand, and much more, but what does it all mean? VanderMeer offers no answers, only unsettling, oppressive atmosphere and a nearly alien world to get lost in, and the end result is deeply satisfying and hard to escape, even long after you're done reading it. But even beyond his rich world-building, VanderMeer offers subtlety to spare, including the slow reveal that our characters aren't necessarily the blank slates they might appear to be. Trying to convey the feel of Annihilation is hard to do; it's a book that almost entirely works by immersing you in its strange world and the minds of its characters, and one that will only work for you if you can give yourself over to VanderMeer's odd, hypnotic prose. So it's not a book that will work for everyone...but for those that are intrigued, you'll find it a haunting, unsettling knockout, a strange horror novel that lingers with you, unsettles you at your core, and turns out to be incredibly hard to shake off.
2-7 Synthetic
Illusions
,
by Mary Fan
I quite enjoyed Artificial Absolutes, the first book from Mary Fan, which used its science fiction premise - a world in where it turns out androids have been planted among humans, sometimes without the androids themselves being aware that they weren't human - to not only tell a solid thriller story, but also to play with ideas of religion, faith, and more. Synthetic Illusions, Fan's follow-up to Absolutes, at first feels like a little bit more of the same. Once again, an android is forced to grapple with questions about his own origins; once again, Fan uses that to start speculating on matters of faith and religion, here questioning what the supreme being might be for an artificial intelligence - would it be a god, or simply a programmer? But once you start digging into Synthetic Illusions, it's clear that Fan is doing something different here, playing with questions of free will and choice. How much of what we do is our own choice? How much are we shaped by the choices and lives of others? And what happens if we have no free will of our own? And if Fan doesn't quite interweave her thematic ideas with her thriller, that's okay, because the thriller is far more engaging and satisfying this time around, sending her characters into a bizarre chase where one of them might be guilty of assassinating major political figures, even though he wasn't even there. For all that, Illusions stumbles a bit at the end with the reveal of its major villain, who's far more one dimensional and less interesting than he needs to be to drive the book's action. Still, it's a solid thriller, and I like how Fan is willing to play with bigger ideas while telling fun stories that work on multiple levels. It's fun science fiction with some thoughtfulness, and I'm all for seeing that in the genre.
1-30 The Girl on
the Train
, by
Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train has been getting a lot of comparisons to Gone Girl, and it's not hard to see why. Both are books that derive much of their pleasure from unreliable narrators; both orbit around a disappearance and possible romantic intrigue/affairs; both begin with assumptions about characters that are gradually toyed with and then undermined. For all of that, The Girl on the Train doesn't feel like a Gone Girl clone, developing a voice all its own. Indeed, the book's primary narrator, a (barely) functioning alcoholic, is fundamentally a decent person driven to destructive behavior by her addiction, and Hawkins does a solid job making her understandable, not monstrous - a sharp contrast to the gleeful misanthropy on display in Gone Girl. And though the plots have some superficial similarities, Girl on the Train stands out by having the case narrated not by the key players, but by someone barely connected to it at all, making the case feel all the more voyeuristic than it already is. Hawkins does a great job of juggling her characters and her pacing, and as she jumps back and forth in the story and doles out he revelations, she makes sure to constantly surprise the reader when it's the perfect moment. And yet, there's the ending, which feels unworthy of the book before it; without giving too much away, it's an ending that ends up hinging on a lot of coincidences and making the book feel more constructed than organic, much to its detriment. That being said, it's no surprise that this one is such a hit so far; it's a ton of fun, and Hawkins delivers a gripping read anchored by some great narrative choices. Now if she can just get her plotting up to the same level, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with.
1-21 The Hoard,
by Neil Grimmett
I've read two books by Neil Grimmett now - The Hoard and The Threshing Circle - and it's interesting to see a pattern already forming, only two books into his career. Both are books about how the past informs the present; both deal with the long shadow of warfare; both deal with descendants of murder victims investigating the deaths of their predecessors; both touch on the supernatural without ever focusing on it or letting it control the book. But for all of that, there's no confusing the books, nor is it possible to feel like The Hoard is just a rehash of The Threshing Circle; indeed, it's a stronger book in most ways, and one that shows off some aspects of Grimmett's writing ability that weren't as evident in Circle. Set in an explosives manufacturing factory run by the British military, The Hoard opens with a devastating explosion that kills a slew of men for reasons not yet known. Now, some twenty years later, the son of one of those men infiltrates the plant in an effort to understand what caused the death of his father - and, more importantly, who. The Hoard has a sprawling cast and a plot that unfolds only gradually; combine that with an environment that's entirely unfamiliar to many of us, and The Hoard could easily lose a reader. And yet, the book works, and that's largely due to Grimmett's knack for making his characters engaging and interesting. From the larger-than-life union representative whose gruff exterior hides a deep love for his men to a sociopathic police enforcer to a survivor whose mental state has fractured in the wake of the accident, Grimmett populates the book with characters than stand out and help keep the story clear, even when it occasionally gets a bit too labyrinthine for its own good. And though things occasionally veer dangerously close to the cartoonish (especially in some odd moments about a martial art and some acid torture), The Hoard is still an engaging, satisfying thriller that nicely weaves together history and family ties to make a rich mystery as much about a place as it is the men who work there.
1-19 The Hangman's
Daughter
, by
Oliver Pötsch
We're in a golden age of flawed antiheroes - men like Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and others, whose charisma and appeal is offset by their monstrous sides, ranging from violence to sociopathy to solipsism. So we're in a good era for books like The Hangman's Daughter, whose protagonist is a professional executioner and torturer for a small German town in the 1600's. Jakob Kuisl is a hard man, and an unpopular one, for obvious reasons; the town loves for him to do their dirty work, but they're uneasy with the cruelty and death he's capable of dealing out. And yet, Kuisl is smarter and more thoughtful than he appears, and when children are murdered in the village and marked with what appears to be a witch's sign, Kuisl questions the official story. And as if a child murderer isn't enough, there's the danger of mass witch hunts and hysteria, a rapidly approaching nobleman who could bankrupt the town, and small town politics that could change everything. Author Oliver Pötsch spins an intriguing tale, but one of the best things about The Hangman's Daughter is his command of historical details, which truly bring the era to life in all of its small, satisfying ways. More than that, Pötsch brings his characters to life naturally, letting their foibles and weaknesses show as much as their strengths. (It's worth noting that, according to the postscript, Jakob Kuisl was a real person and an ancestor of Pötsch, which no doubt prompted much of this research and some of the real-life details that pepper the book.) Of course, without a satisfying story, no mystery works; luckily, The Hangman's Daughter is a great yarn, one that's incredibly influenced by its setting without ever resorting to cheap dramatic irony or modern day ideas (mostly, that is; there is a conflict about modern science versus old methods, but that fits into the story nicely and feels natural rather than forced). And through it all, there's Kuisl, a brutal man filled with contradictions: he's merciful and merciless, brutish but brilliant, emotionally raw but ice cold. He's a compelling central figure for the tale, and as a window into a novel and compelling world, he makes for a pretty great ambassador. All in all, The Hangman's Daughter is a satisfying and fun mystery tale, and I'm intrigued to read more of the series at some point. Pötsch has created a fascinating world and a great cast of characters, and I'm curious to see what he does as he continues to explore this world he's brought to life.
1-15 The Feathers,
by Cynthia Lott
The Feathers has a slew of promising elements - strong character work, an intriguing hook, a nice use of historical details, and an ambitious ending that tries to avoid the usual trappings of the genre. But those elements have a tendency to make the book frustrating, as you keep seeing such great promise that's far more successful than the final product. Make no mistake, The Feathers isn't awful - far from it. It starts off with an intriguing murder whose suspect seems to be able to charm his way into homes with an almost supernatural ability, and whose predilection for targeting artists and stealing their talents leaves the police baffled. (It would leave the reader baffled too, if Lott didn't feel the need to spoil the murder's identity and motive on the back cover and in the promotional materials for the book, in a truly odd choice I don't understand at all. When your book builds up to a big reveal, why give that away up front?) Add to that some nice stylistic choices (especially Lott's choice to have each murder experienced through the eyes of the victim after the police investigate, which both emphasizes the strangeness of the suspect and the horror of the crimes), and you've got some great elements that could add up to something really special. But The Feathers feels weirdly rushed, especially as it moves towards its climax; just as we start figuring out who's committing these crimes and why, the book seems to lose patience with itself and rushes to get to its ending, eschewing some of the character work and depth it's nicely used up until that point. And then there's the ending, which tries something more emotionally rich than you might expect, but fails to pull it off (largely, I think, thanks to a strange narration shift in the final chapter that makes the mechanics of what happens very confusing, but also due to a lack of proper groundwork that would make it work). The Feathers has a lot of promise, and I think Lott has some good books in her - maybe even some great ones. But as it stands, The Feathers feels rushed and ultimately unsatisfying, even as I look to lots of individual pieces that I liked quite a bit.
1-7 Fortunately,
The Milk
, by
Neil Gaiman
A gleefully silly, anarchic little tale from the great Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, The Milk had my 8-year-old son in constant giggles from page one all the way until the end, and begging to read it again as soon as we finished it. The idea is simple: a father goes to buy milk, and when he's gone for a long time, his explanation for the delay strains credulity. But that in no way prepares you for the silliness and chaos on display in this book, which somehow involves inventive dinosaurs, volcano gods, time travel, pirates, and so much more. It all ties together in that sort of Alice in Wonderland way where you know what's going on, but trying to trace the logic of it all is a fool's errand. But who cares, when the book is as hilariously funny as it is, the drawings and artwork as charming and great as they are, the wordplay as much fun as it is, and the imagination evident everywhere? Fortunately, The Milk isn't about anything so much as it is the joy of a good story, and if it's all profoundly absurd, who cares as long as it's a good story - and this is definitely a good story, as long as you can give yourself over to the anarchy and enjoy the wonderfully weird, insane ride. And if you like absurd names for common objects, confusing prophecies, time-travel paradoxes, or a testimony about the sacred power of milk, well, you'll find even more to love. And if you've got children who love silliness and a constantly twisting story that's impossible to predict, it's a must buy for you. But don't blame me if you think about stealing it for your own giggling reads later.
1-7 The Wolf in
Winter
, by
John Connolly
Anytime you read a series, there's always a worry in your mind about how long the author can sustain everything without a) getting repetitive, b) wearing out his/her welcome, or c) getting bored with their own creation. And when there's a degree of serialization to the series, no matter how small, you're also acutely aware of the balance between self-contained works and the overarching story, and that the author can't stall that out forever without ultimately frustrating the reader or making the series feel like it's spinning its wheels. All of which brings me to The Wolf in Winter, the latest entry in John Connolly's masterful Charlie Parker series. In its early going, The Wolf in Winter feels like typical Parker - not that that's a bad thing, mind you; between Connolly's beautiful, often poetic prose; his masterful characters that defy easy categorization and truly come to life; his uncanny ability to blend crime with horror and create something wholly new; his knack for bringing to life truly unsettling versions of evil; and his fantastic plotting, even the weakest Parker book is a great read, and this one is far from weak. But as we learn about the small, secluded Maine town of Prosperous, where a young woman disappears not long before her searching father turns up dead, there's a sense that we're in pure Parker territory, where the ordinary world slowly peels back to reveal a twisted, dark core. And then, halfway through The Wolf in Winter, Connolly does something wholly new for the series, pushing Parker essentially offstage and throwing all of our expectations into disarray. And what follows from there is exhilarating, as secondary characters come to the foreground, old plot threads are pulled together in surprising ways, and the mythology of the series seems to evolve to be something entirely different than we might have originally expected. What does that mean for fans of the series? It means that not only are you getting a phenomenal, disturbing, thrilling, exceptional new entry in a great series, but you're also getting something wholly unexpected that leaves us uncertain as to what comes next. I don't know if Connolly is drawing the series to a close, or if he's shaking things up in order to push us into something new, or if the next book will be a return to the status quo - and honestly, I don't care, because when the books are this good, this riveting, this exciting, this unsettling, and this phenomenal, I'll read every one of them until the end and just be glad I got the ones I got. In other words, it's just another masterful thriller from one of the best and most underrated thriller writers working today. Did you really expect much less?
1-4 Princess
Labelmaker to
the Rescue
, by
Tom Angleberger
Unlike most of the other books in the Origami Yoda series, Princess Labelmaker doesn't really stand on its own; it all but requires you to have read The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Hutt, as it's basically a continuation of that book's ongoing way between students and the standardized tests that are taking over the school. That doesn't really make the book worse, though; if anything, it allows author Tom Angleberger to play a little more, given that his setup is already taken care of. There's an apparent traitor in the Origami Rebellion, depending on how you look at things; someone has given the rebellion's case file to Principal Rabbski, in what seems like an attempt to get the principal to better understand why the kids are fighting back so hard. I commented when I read Jabba the Puppet that as a teacher, I couldn't really hate any book that was so firmly against standardized testing, and the same feeling applies to Labelmaker, which nicely reminds you that it's unlikely that any teachers are all that thrilled about it either. Indeed, much of the point of the book is realizing that standardized testing is rarely the choice of anyone involved - it's not the choice of the students nor the school administration, but those in charge who seem more and more disconnected with real life in schools. (And the financial aspect of the testing is no small part of it - another point that Angleberger nicely makes without ever forcing the issue.) I don't like Princess Labelmaker quite as much as I liked Jabba the Puppet; it feels a little overlong and a bit repetitive at times, and it's lacking some of the nice moments of depth that I enjoy in the series a lot (although I continue to enjoy the glimpses we get of Tommy and Dwight's lives and how much Angleberger achieves with small hints instead of long monologues). But it's still an enjoyable, silly series, and I like how Angleberger manages to mix in some comments about the state of education with a silly, low-key middle school series.
1-3 The Wrath of
Angels
, by
John Connolly
A plane is discovered in some distant Maine woods, and in the wreckage are some handcuffs, a lot of money...and a list of names, and it's that list that sets the events of The Wrath of Angels into motion. Because a lot of very bad people want that list, and if that's not enough, there's something that looks like a young girl watching over that wreckage - something that looks like a girl but very much isn't. The Wrath of Angels may be one of my favorite John Connolly books, and that's saying something, given how much I love that man's work. But at his best, Connolly mixes horror and crime seamlessly, and he does that magnificently here, delivering both a gripping novel about crime and the influence of bad men and a truly unsettling horror novel featuring some of the most disturbing and creepy scenes I can think of in a book. And if that's not enough for you, Connolly also delivers his usual beautiful prose, waxing eloquent as to the nature of evil, the state of the world, and so much more. And just as icing, he can make you laugh out loud when you least expect it, bringing out genuine belly laughs in the middle of the grimmest scene. It's all part of what makes Connolly one of the best writers working today, and his Charlie Parker series one of the most satisfying series in recent memory. Yes, you've got to have some courage to go in here; few authors deal in evil as hauntingly and terrifyingly as Connolly does, and the images and characters he creates will linger with you long after you've turned the final pages. But those brave enough to enter into his "honeycomb" world (where the evil is can hide just out of sight and then attack you when you least expect it) will find themselves in a world unlike anything else in fiction right now, driven by some of the best characters and the most beautiful writing around. And even if Wrath isn't the best starting point (it trades off of your familiarity with the characters and the ongoing mythology of the series), that just means you get to experience this whole outstanding series for yourself from the beginning. So what are you waiting for?

 

e-mail me at
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page updated:
April 20, 2015