Best and Worst of 2008

December 31, 2008 at 10:07 pm (Best of, Worst of)

Just because I only posted three book reviews during 2008 (and two of those were written within the last five days so they don’t count,) doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. I read 81 books this year, the most I’ve consumed since I started this blog back in 2006. However, writing about reading has taken a back seat over the last last twelve months as I’ve focused my attention on my own creative writing projects.

I know it is cliche to say a book changed your life, but in my case, Ariel Gore’s How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, actually did. In the review I wrote back in August 2007, I said the book had motivated me to generate my first literary essay in years.  It also motivated me to start writing poetry again even though, at the time, I hadn’t written so much as a stanza in over three years.

I spent the next seven months generating new poems and revising old ones. When I felt I’d accumulated enough decent material I started submitting to literary magazines, and, to my great surprise, I began getting acceptance letters. My first poem was published in April, my most recent was published two weeks ago. By the end of the year I will have had ten poems published in seven different online and print literary magazines.

I started writing short stories when I was ten, poetry when I was fourteen. For the last twenty years all I’ve wanted was to see my work in print, and now I have. I am very happy. My mom can’t stop bragging about me to her friends, and my friends can’t stop bragging about me to each other. Each success has pushed me to work harder and write more, which is why this blog has been languishing.

I hope to revive it though. You see,  the more I write, the more I want to read, and I have been devouring books at a pace that would make a Nascar racer sit up and take notice. There’s a reason for that. This year, I discovered genre fiction and, by extension, re-discovered the mass market paperback.  

All my life I’ve been something of a book snob. Ever since I out grew YA fiction back in junior high I’ve turned my nose up at genre fiction, buying into the view that it’s nothing but fluff written by substandard writers. However, having grown bored with the three primary tropes featured in most literary fiction (working out the mommy/daddy issues, surviving marriage, and dealing with death), I decided I needed to expand my horizons. Having always been a fan of fantasy films, I figured I might like fantasy literature if I gave it a chance.

I discovered that the fantasy genre is home to a number of talented writers and story tellers. I found that I tend to favor urban fantasy, so the books included in this years list will be heavily slanted in that direction. After developing a taste for fantasy, I decided to give science fiction a shot, then romance. I have yet to move on to horror or mystery and suspense, but I’m getting there. As such, you’ll notice most of the books on this years best and worst list fall into the genre category.  

The only reason I’ve been able to read as many books as I have this year is because I’ve  read almost nothing but genre fiction for the last six months, and genre fiction tends to come in the mass market paperback format. Not only are they shorter than your average piece of literary fiction, but they cost less as a result, something my aching bank account was thrilled to remember. I can purchase five genre books for under fifty bucks where the same amount of cash might get me three literary novels if I’m lucky, and with the economy the way it is that is a definite selling point.

Enough of my blathering. I’ve offered up my excuse for not keeping up this blog, now it’s time to tick off the best and worst books of 2008. As usual, the lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Landing by Emma Donoghue – With characteristic sensitivity and compassion, Donoghue writes about the pleasures and pitfalls of long distance romance in this effecting love story. In vivid prose, she paints a picture of two women struggling to reconcile conflicting desires; to maintain order in their lives on one hand, and to find a way to be physically together on the other.

2) The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy – Brian Malloy excels at creating characters with tons of faults who still manage to elicit an equal amount of sympathy from the reader. Last year, Malloy’s second novel Brendan Wolf was number two on my “Best of” list. His first novel, The Year of Ice, delivers a similarly compelling protagonist in Kevin Doyle, a high school senior struggling to come to terms with his mother’s death, his father’s infidelity, and his own sexual orientation. A rich and highly moving read.

3) Bitten by Kelley Armstrong – Like The Year of Ice, Bitten, the first book in Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, is a story about self-acceptance, albeit with a fantastical twist. Turned into a werewolf by her former fiance, Elena Michaels spends years trying to deny her wolf nature. She cuts ties with her pack and attempts to live a normal human life in Toronto. When an emergency calls Elena back to her pack, she is forced to deal with the family she left behind and parts of her personality she would rather ignore. Elena is a fully realized character, one who is easy to like and even easier to root for. Armstrong delivers a tale full of murder, mayhem, romance, and excitement that manages to evoke thrills while simultaneously provoking thought.

4) Keeping it Real by Justina Robson – Book one of Robson’s Quantum Gravity series is a delightful mix of fantasy and sci-fi. When a hole is torn in the fabric of the universe that separates the various dimensions of existence, inhabitants of the Earth-like Otopia must learn to live with elves, demons, and elementals. Enter Lila Black, a government commissioned cyborg who is charged with the task of protecting one of the most successful rock and roll musicians in the universe. Full of action, adventure, political intrigue, and tons of humor, Keeping it Real pokes fun at just about every sci-fi/fantasy convention imaginable, making it an incredibly fun read.

5) Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder – I have never been a fan of romance novels, but this one showed me that, when done well, they can be breathtaking. The story revolves around Yelena, a nineteen year old girl condemned to death for murdering her guardian. When offered the chance to avoid death by becoming the Commander’s food taster instead, she jumps at the opportunity, and leads the reader through a story of political unrest and constant suspicion. Snyder must be applauded for giving us a fully developed, well-paced, and completely earned romance, one that is both satisfying and essential to the plot.

The Worst:

1) American Youth by Phil Lamarche – This is one of those “coming-of-age” novels praised for the realism with which it portrays today’s teens. Books in this vein often depict kids doing drugs, getting drunk, having sex, and engaging in all manner of self-destructive behavior that is so over the top it’s hard to believe anyone could honestly view them as “realistic.” Set against the backdrop of an economically depressed town dealing with the aftermath of a teen shooting incident, this dull story serves up nothing but flat characters and a far too pessimistic opinion of American youth.

2) Conversations with the Devil by Jeff Rovin – My big problem with Conversations with the Devil was that Rovin lost the plot half way through the book. When Frederic, on of psychologist Sarah Lynch’s teenage patients, suddenly commits suicide  she is determined to figure out why. After discovering Frederic was a closet Satanist Sarah decides to conduct a ritual to find out what happened to his soul after death. When the Devil himself answers her call Sarah kind of forgets why she raised him to begin with and spends the rest of the book trying to get rid of him. Having become invested in Frederic I was disappointed that Sarah never followed through on her mission to find out what happened to him. That, in  addition to a cliched and anti-climactic ending, made this a thoroughly unsatisfying read.

3) WebMage by Kelly McCullough – It’s tough to buy into the premise that magic has gone digital when the author never really bothers to explain how or why it’s possible to merge sorcery with cyberspace. In a story full of one dimensional characters, a decent hook is mandatory and McCullough left his in the tackle box.

4) Fantasy Lover by Sherrilyn Kenyon – This book had everything I’ve come to expect of a bad romance novel. Superficial characters? Check. Cringe-worthy sex scenes? Check. Simplistic prose? Check. Provokes in reader an overwhelming desire to throw the book across the room? Check.

5) Touch the Dark by Karen Chance – I love vampires, but not even a herd of them could save the first book in Chance’s Cassandra Palmer series. In Touch the Dark, Cassandra  petitions the vampire senate to protect her from the vampire mob. Cool premise. But, far from being the kick-ass urban fantasy heroine the cover blurbs claim her to be, Cassandra Palmer is little more than your stereotypical blond bombshell who spends all her time running, hiding, and letting the men in her life protect her. That is, when they aren’t busy trying to get her into the sack. If I hadn’t been so invested in the hero, Mircea – a far more compelling character than Cassie – I would have never continued on to the second book. To be fair, book two, Claimed by Shadow, is better than Touch the Dark, and book three, Embrace the Night, is even better than book two. However, if you want to read about a REAL kick-ass heroine, try book one of Chance’s Dorina Basarab series, Midnight’s Daughter.

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