Best and Worst of 2010

December 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm (Best of, book review, books, Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, Kelley Armstrong, L. J. Smith, novels, reading, urban fantasy, vampires, Worst of)

It’s New Year’s Eve and that means it’s time to roll out the best and worst reads of the year.

I only read seventy books in 2010. That’s thirteen less than I read in 2009 and eleven less than I read in 2008. And even though I posted ten reviews this year, two more than I did last year, my output over the past six months has been pretty paltry. As usual I have my reasons, the most salient being that I spent the last six months orchestrating a move and finding a new job. Even though I’m all settled now I’m still trying to get into a comfortable routine, and for that reason reviews may be few and far between for several months to come.

But I do love a good year end wrap up. As regular readers know I split my year end top ten into two top five lists: the five best books I read and the five worst. The lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Feed by Mira Grant – This haunting tale follows a team of news bloggers covering the Presidential election in a zombie ravaged USA. The characters and relationships are strong, the world well conceived, and the consequences of living in a fear-based culture all too familiar and relatable. Feed was so good I couldn’t even write a review for it despite numerous tries. I was so in love, I couldn’t articulate all of the things I liked about it without sounding like a moronic fan girl. So, best advice? Go buy yourself a copy and see for yourself why I’m speechless.

2) Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan – All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present in this outstanding novel – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development.  Kiernan creates a Lovecraft-ian world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

3) Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong – Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld series, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

4) Psybermagick by Peter Carroll – Once upon a time I was a practicing pagan. This year I decided to weed my New Age book collection, and that included reading all the books I never got around to reading while I was still practicing. Although I know many pagans and ceremonial magicians who frown on chaos magick, they do themselves a great disservice by writing off Psybermagick. This extremely humorous look at magic and mysticism had me doubled over with laughter. A fine addition to any New Age library for the insider jokes alone.

5) Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring – This atmospheric fantasy novel was such a pleasure to read. Another book with strong characters and believable relationships, not to mentions loads of political intrigue and personal sacrifice, this story stayed in my head for weeks after I finished it.

The Worst:

1) Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly – This ho-hum horror novel is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences that make the book a nightmare to read. Craft considerations aside, the story itself is neither scary nor particularly original.

2) The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L.J. Smith – Like Hell Hollow this novel is overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Worst of all Smith killed all of the character growth her heroine Elena Gilbert underwent in the previous five books in the series, leaving nothing but a shallow, self-absorbed, and completely unsympathetic main character.

3) Sensual Celibacy by Donna Marie Williams – This book presented itself as an examination of celibacy within the realm of women’s studies, and turned out to be a study in false advertising. Despite the claims made on the jacket what I found was a book mired in stereotypically sexist assumptions about women’s sexuality, fanatical Christian declarations about the sinfulness of sex out of marriage, and out right lies about the effectiveness of birth control and sex education in schools.

4) The Path Through the Labyrinth by Marian Green – There’s a reason this beginner level book on magic and witchcraft is out of print. The advice and resources listed inside are dated and of little use to most modern day pagans.

5) Confessions of a Demon by S.L. Wright – I picked up Confessions of a Demon hoping for a detailed urban fantasy romp through my home town, but all I got was a predictable paranormal romance that treated New York as a backdrop rather than an integral part of the story.

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Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan

April 20, 2010 at 8:53 pm (Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, novels) ()

Caitlin R. Kiernan is my personal savior. Last year, after months of reading nothing but crap books and seeing my numerous prayers for decent reading material go unanswered, I picked up Kiernan’s debut novel, 1998’s Silk, and was blown away by the stunning imagery and creative wordplay. It kept me from drowning in an ocean of mediocre writing, and wound up coming in at number three on my 2009, end of the year “Best of” list.

Soon thereafter, I purchased Daughter of Hounds not realizing it was the third book in a series of novels revolving around the Silvey family. When I found out, I figured I should read the first two books, Threshold and Low Red Moon, before diving into Daughter of Hounds, only neither of them appealed to me. The synopses on their back covers didn’t grab me the way the one on the back of Daughter of Hounds had. So I left it languishing in my “to read” pile for a year as I tried to decide whether or not to buy Threshold and Low Red Moon.

But, as you can see from the number of bad and luke warm reviews I’ve churned out since the New Year, I’ve been having another run of bad luck with regard to reading material. After so many duds I desperately needed something good to read which is why I finally reached for Daughter of Hounds. And I am glad I did because, once again, Caitlin R. Kiernan put an end to my losing streak.

Daughter of Hounds takes place in a Lovecraft-ian world where ghouls and monsters, having been banished from the surface of the Earth, live in vast, underground cave networks, silently plotting  to take back control of the world. Soldier is a changeling with a mission. Stolen from her crib as a baby and raised by the ghouls, it is up to her to dispose of anyone on the surface who might stand in their way. Eight year old Emmie Silvey isn’t much of a threat. Struggling to understand the psychic abilities she inherited from her father, all Emmie wants is for her dad to stop drinking and her step-mother to move back into the house. But when their paths converge, Soldier and Emmie learn that the lives they have been living aren’t the ones they were supposed to live.

First off, you do not have to have read Threshold or Low Red Moon in order to understand Daughter of Hounds. The book is whole unto itself, and Kiernan gives as much background as is necessary to understand the story.

All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development. Kiernan creates a world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

What I appreciated the most about Kiernan’s style this time around was her willingness to trust the reader. So many of the books I’ve read over the last couple of months felt like they were written by authors who thought their readers were idiots. They spoon fed their story to the reader, not trusting them to make even the tiniest leaps of logic.

For example, when introducing a new character they would momentarily put the scene on hold to explain the new character’s entire background even if the details were irrelevant to the current scene. It was as if they needed to prove the character belonged in the story. Kiernan, by contrast, does not tell you everything you need to know about each character as they are introduced. Instead, she tells you what is important to know about that new character within the parameters of the scene, and allows additional information to trickle out as needed as the story progresses. Aside from building tension and giving readers an incentive to keep reading, Kiernan’s approach indicates confidence in her readers’ intelligence. She trusts they don’t need to know every connection, detail, and event in a characters life right off the bat in order to care about them or understand how they fit into the narrative.

Same goes for plot twists. I’ve read a lot of fiction in which each plot development warranted a complete re-hash of every event that occurred up to that point, as if readers are so forgetful they need to be constantly reminded of what they’ve read. Kiernan only spells out how particular plot twists relate to other aspects of the story when the relationship is unclear. Otherwise, she just lets the story unfold, and allows the reader to connect the dots. She expects her reader to have paid close enough attention to the text that she won’t have to spoon feed the story to them. Kiernan puts a lot of thought into her writing and expects her readers to do the same.

I enjoyed Daughter of Hounds so much I want to read the first two books now. I became so invested in this world and these characters that I need to know their back story. That’s what a good writer does – she makes you want to run out and buy everything she has ever written. And really, what sort of disciple would I be if I didn’t?

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Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan

May 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm (Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, novels) ()

After writing four negative reviews in a row, I promised myself I wouldn’t write another until I found a book I could say something nice about. I wasn’t expecting Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Silk to be that book. Once perched at the top of my “to read” pile, months of unhampered spending pushed Silk to the middle of the stack as I heaped new purchases on top of it. After being disappointed by my latest urban fantasy / paranormal romance / sci-fi adventure reads I decided I needed something different and Silk fit the bill. I hauled it from the heap and discovered a diamond.

Birmingham’s grunge  and goth scene may be flooded with posers, but Spyder Baxter is the real deal. A schizophrenic loner with her own novelty shop, Spyder is the definition of “eccentric.”  Young scensters follow at her heels whenever she steps out with her girlfriend Robin and best friend Byron. She may be the unofficial patron saint of alienated youth, but Spyder has a secret. There is something evil lurking in her basement and she is the only person who can keep it from getting loose and destroying everything she loves.

After months of bitching and moaning about flat characters it was refreshing to read a book over flowing with  fully fleshed out, three dimensional characters. Kiernan is well aware that showing trumps telling when it comes to characterization. Instead of telling the reader that her heroine Daria Parker has a bad temper, she offers several scenes in which Daria goes off on her junkie boyfriend. Instead of telling the reader Spyder is mentally ill we get to watch her down her meds every morning.

Character is everywhere in Silk,from the exposed brick facades on the run down buildings of downtown Birmingham to the contents of each characters pockets. Kiernan knows that people are built out of details. On page 7 Kiernan introduces us to Daria Parker. The first two paragraphs tell us worlds about the town itself as well as Daria’s place within it.

“Daria sat by herself on the sidewalk, fat spiral-bound notebook open across her lap, back pressed firmly against the raw brick, pretentiously raw brick sand-blasted for effect, for higher rent and the illusion of renewal, the luxury of history. The cobblestone street was lined with old warehouse and factory buildings, most dating back to the first two decades of the century or before and sacrificed years ago for office suites; sterile, track-lit spaces for architects and lawyers, design firms and advertising agencies.

The felt-tip business end of her pen hovered uselessly over the page, over the verse she’d begun almost a week ago now. A solid hour staring stupidly at her own cursive scrawl, red ink too bright for blood, and she was no closer to finishing, and the cold – real Christmas weather – was beginning to numb her fingers, working its way in through her clothes. Daria closed the notebook, snapped the cap back on her pen, returned both to the army-surplus knapsack lying on the concrete.”

Kiernan manages to paint a vivid picture of the Birmingham that exists within the novel, a  town well on its way to gentrification that still hasn’t lost its sense of history or its seedy under belly. She also uses location as a way of developing character. Seeing Daria sitting alone on the sidewalk outside of a warehouse, the reader automatically identifies her as an outsider. By watching her try, and fail, to write new song lyrics we discover she is an artistic type – a singer and musician. Her hovering pen and her decision to quit writing for the day hint at her own precarious place in the world; an inability to move forward that is echoed by the pretentiously down-trodden buildings around her that can’t quite decide if they want to be upscale lofts or run-down squats. By the end of the first scene I felt such a kinship with Daria Parker that I would have followed her into any story. Kiernan gives all her characters the same thorough and honest rendering, creating an intimate world of complex people.

As you can see, Kiernan has a way with words. Her language is so evocative  it’s practically a form of teleportation. From the very first sentence I felt like I was in the story; I could hear the streetlights as they flickered to life and see the cracks in the sidewalk.  

Silk is littered with intriguing descriptions and turns of phrase. On page 171 she describes a character who has been slapped as having “palm-print impressions framing his face like the tailfeathers of kindergarten turkeys.” On page 180, as Byron struggles to find the right key on an over-burdened keyring to fit a particular lock, when he finds it Kiernan says it slides in “cocksmooth.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t think to associate sex with the physical act of unlocking a door. It’s that unexpectedness coupled with Kiernan’s insight that makes her comparisons so remarkable.

Published in 1998, Silk has a distinctly post-grunge, Generation X vibe to it. Daria, Spyder, and Niki trip through the novel on a wave of uppers and downers that make the reader wonder how much of the story is real and how much is imagined. Though Kiernan builds great tension throughout the book, it ends with a sigh rather than the bang I was hoping for, and that’s my only complaint.

Silk is hypnotic. Kiernan’s engaging characters, evocative language, and Southern Gothic flavor will suck you in faster than the baddies in Spyder’s basement. You can bet I will be running out and buying the rest of her books ASAP, and this time I’ll make sure they stay at the top of my “to read” pile.

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