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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The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L. J. Smith

May 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm (fantasy, fiction, L. J. Smith, novels, romance, young adult) (, )

NOTE TO READERS: This book review contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

My love affair with The Vampire Diaries started back in 1991 at the age of twelve. I took an immediate shine to Elena, Stefan, and the rest of the gang, and spent many a night snuggled under my bed covers with the latest volume in hand, letting L.J. Smith’s spare and fast paced prose transport me from my hot New York City bedroom to the tree lined streets of Fells Church, Virginia.

I was beyond psyched when I found out Smith was reviving the series after seventeen years, but like many of the grown women who as pre-teens formed Smith’s original fan base, I was immensely disappointed in the result. The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall contained more holes than a block of Swiss cheese and more filler than a jelly doughnut. Drastic changes in tone and world rules made the book feel like it belonged to a totally different series. I, however, took comfort in the knowledge that after writing something as awful as Nightfall there was nothing Smith could do to make The Vampire Diaries series any worse.

I was wrong, of course; dead wrong. In The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls, Smith finds new and creative ways to destroy her characters, plotline, and world rules.

Shadows Souls picks up right where Nightfall left off. To rescue Stefan from the menacing kitsune, Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith must descend into the Dark Dimension, a land of eternal twilight where demons and vampires rule, and damned souls live out eternity as slaves with little hope of ever ascending to Heaven.  As they search for the hidden halves of a mystical key that will free Stefan, Damon and Elena grow closer until Elena is unsure which brother she truly loves.

Shadow Souls sports many of the same problems as Nightfall. For one, the timeline is still screwed up. Not that I expected the original timeline to have been magically restored. There’s not really anything Smith could have done to fix it short of creating a time warp, or saying the events of Nightfall were all just a dream. I have to give Smith credit, though, for reducing the presence of 21st communication technology in Shadow Souls. While it doesn’t restore the timeline, it does make the story feel a little more “timeless” thereby making it easier to imagine the action taking place in 1992 (as it should have  had Smith stuck to her original timeline) instead of 2009.

And, while I’m at it, I also have to give Smith credit for reinstating the original symbolism behind the act of exchanging blood. In the original tetralogy, exchanging blood was a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, however, Smith killed the metaphor by asserting that vampires don’t actually have sex because blood lust takes the place of sexual desire. The shift wasn’t just abrupt and disconcerting to fans, but it robbed the series of its sensuality and removed the idea of pleasurable, consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the series.

But Smith attempts to correct that mistake page 4 of Shadow Souls in which Elena states that “vampires show love by exchanging blood.” Sure, it’s not entirely on target, but saying that exchanging blood denotes love is far more in line with the original metaphor than the sexless, loveless definition put forth in Nightfall. And since “making love” is a euphemism for sex, I’m willing to accept Smith’s little revision. In addition to the reduced presence of 21st century communication technology, her willingness to revise a problematic definition shows that Smith did indeed listen to her disgruntled fans, and made an effort to correct the problems as best she could.

Still, it’s not enough to save Shadows Souls. At 608 pages it is just as bloated as Nightfall; 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. Smith’s editor over at HarperCollins should be given her walking papers because she’s obviously not doing her job.

In Nightfall, Smith indulged in what I rather generously called “character back-tracking.” Other readers called it “total character decimation,” but I tried to cut Smith some slack. Though I recognized many of the abrupt character turn arounds as inconsistent and illogical, for example Damon’s inexplicable return to vain, bad boy head space after taking small but firm steps to coming a good person in The Fury and Dark Reunion, I still thought the behaviors as “in character” based on the previous books.

I can’t cut Smith any slack for Shadow Souls, though. This time she really has  successfully managed to annihilate one of her main characters. The victim? Elena Gilbert, herself.

One of the primary pleasures of the original tetralogy is watching Elena go from self-centered, conceited “mean girl” to caring, selfless, and ultimately noble human being as her narrow world view expands. She grows, she allows herself to be changed by her experiences, and by the end of Dark Reunion she is a totally different person than she was in The Awakening.

In Shadow Souls, however, Elena morphs back into the conceited princess she was at the start of the series. It’s evident on page 3 when she says, “I…don’t think it’s vain to say that I’m beautiful. If I didn’t know I was, I’d have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment.” And on page 14, when explaining that her supernaturally-charged blood is irresistible to vampires, she says, “… [N]aturally, they come after me…It’s as if the world is full of honeybees and I’m the only flower.” Elena has not talked about herself like this since The Struggle! Once she realized she was not the center of the universe, that there were people in her life who she loved more than herself, she stopped viewing herself as an object. Elena’s vanity is three books in the past, and seeing it pop up in Shadow Souls without any explanation or foreshadowing is jarring because it negates all the growth she underwent in volumes three through five.

Smith doesn’t seem to realize there is a disconnect between the selfless Elena of The Fury and Dark Reunion, and the selfish, conceited Elena who shows up in Shadow Souls. Throughout the book supporting characters go on about how caring, selfless, loyal, beautiful, and all around perfect Elena is despite the fact that she doesn’t do anything to warrant the praise, and actually does quite a lot to contradict it, the most obvious being *SPOILER ALERT* her decision to cheat on Stefan with Damon.

From the start of the book there is a heat between Elena and Damon that was not present in the last three volumes. Smith gives no explanation as to where this new passion came from or how it developed. Literally, you just open Shadow Souls and, boom, there it is. By page 26 Elena and Damon are “exchanging blood” and continue to do so right up until they rescue Stefan around page 500.

The fact that Elena cheats on Stefan, the boyfriend she claims to love so much she’d willingly die for him, and cheats on him with the brother who is responsible for putting his life in peril in the first place indicates a remarkable lack of caring and common sense on Elena’s part. She obviously isn’t thinking of Stefan’s feelings while she’s making it with Damon. She isn’t even thinking of Damon’s feelings. As Damon grows more attached to her, rather than end their little affair she fans the flames, continuing to tease and flirt with him, all the while claiming she could never ever be with him, that Stefan is her true love. Those don’t sound like the actions of a loyal, selfless, compassionate person, do they?

Smith realizes how badly this scenario reflects on her characters, so she uses magic to justify their behavior. She attributes Damon’s attraction to Elena to her supernaturally-charged blood that is virtually irresistible to vampires. He is thus compelled to “exchange blood” with her. By taking free-will out of the equation Smith saves Damon from being held responsible for his actions, much as being possessed by the kitsune excused him from being blamed for all the chaos he wrought in Nightfall.

Whenever they kiss a psychic link opens up between Elena and Damon, allowing them to access each others thoughts and internal landscapes. The first time they kiss Elena comes face to face with Damon’s inner child. (I’m serious. She really does. I’d tell you to stop laughing but…there’s no reason you should.) Elena feels such compassion for this scared little boy, wants so much to comfort him that she feels she must continue the affair with Damon just so she can save his inner child! By framing Elena’s conscious and repeated transgressions as compassionate Smith tries to redeem Elena in the eyes of the reader, but the whole inner child subplot is so ridiculous this attempt is a complete failure.

Now, I could have bought the Elena and Damon plotline if Smith had tried giving it some depth. Elena is only eighteen, and eighteen year olds DO do stupid shit like cheat on their boyfriends for no other reason than because they can. It seems like the only reason Smith included the inner child subplot was because she was unwilling to let Elena be imperfect. Ironically, it’s that choice that gives rise to Elena’s old vanity, destroys all of her previous character growth, and turns her into an unlikable heroine. Rather than watch Elena carry on the affair convinced of its necessity to saving Damon’s inner child, I would have liked to see her wrestle with her decision to cheat on Stefan. I would have liked to see her try to justify her actions to herself through non-magical means. I would have liked to see Elena experience some moral quandary or internal conflict over her feelings and actions. I would have liked Smith to allow Elena the luxury of being a person rather than an ideal. Doing so would have given the book some much needed grounding, and given Smith the opportunity to deal with relevant themes like honesty in relationships, desire versus love, and developing a of personal code of ethics. Furthermore, it would have allowed Elena to grow as a character. She would have had to face a new challenge – one just as frightening as any supernatural threat – and wrestle with questions she’d never had to ask herself before: Is it possible to love two people at the same time? Is it morally right? How do I deal with these feelings without hurting anyone? Is it even possible? What do my actions say about me as a person? Do I like what they say? These are questions teenagers across the globe ask themselves when entering the arena of sex and love. I have no doubt readers would have been receptive to a confused and imperfect heroine who was a little easier to relate to.

The only redeeming aspect of Elena’s “mean girl” persona back in The Awakening and The Struggle was her self-confidence and assertiveness. Elena Gilbert always got what she wanted and always had a plan for how to get it. Smith may bring back the bitch in Shadow Souls but she forgets the self-confidence and assertiveness. With her true love in mortal peril what’s Elena’s big rescue plan? Leave everything up to Damon. Follow Damon’s lead, let Damon decide what to do, do everything Damon says. Elena has virtually no agency and it’s really sad.

Oh, and did I mention that Elena cries or gets teary-eyed no less than 33 times through the course of the book? That’s once every 18 pages! Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Bonnie supposed to be the cry-baby? Tears punctuate emotionally moving experiences. But when a person cries at everything none of their experiences seem special. Elena cried so often that instead of sharing her pain or joy when she did, I just rolled my eyes at how overly-emotional she was being.

I did not recognize the Elena Gilbert I’d come to know over the course of five books in the helpless, thoughtless, conceited little girl who showed up in Shadow Souls. I spent all 608 pages trying to figure out why Smith was trying so hard to prevent her characters from growing and evolving, what narrative purpose was served by allowing Elena and Damon to regress. Then, it hit me: Smith doesn’t know how write anything else. All of her books contain the same recycled love triangle, the same seductive bad boys and resistant Mary Sues. She never gives the reader anything new or different. She hasn’t let Elena and Damon grow because she doesn’t know how to write growth or how to depict characters other than the tried and true “types” she has been using for decades. That realization was, for me,  a stake through the heart of The Vampire Diaries series.

I have a rule. I call it the two book rule, and the two book rule states that if any writer to whom I’ve been unwaveringly loyal writes two books in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I stop buying their books. I created the rule to save myself both time and money, and to affirm that I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on crappy books. Reading Nightfall and Shadow Souls wasn’t just a joyless experience, it was downright painful. So, it’s with great regret that I say I will not be buying any more books by L.J. Smith, not even the final installment of The Return trilogy. I don’t care about Elena, Damon, Stefan or the rest of the gang anymore because it’s obvious they are done growing, and where’s the fun in reading about people who don’t grow or change?

If you’re a fan of The Vampire Diaries I advise you to keep your distance from Shadow Souls. Reading it will only piss you off. This review only touched upon the most troublesome aspects of the story, but there are tons more. For instance, Smith’s continual use of female victimization and slavery as a plot device void of any social context or commentary. I could write a dissertation around that topic alone.

Don’t read Shadow Souls. Don’t read Nightfall, either. Instead, watch The Vampire Diaries television show. The writing, plot lines, character and relationship development, and pacing are all infinitely better. Smith could learn a thing or twelve.

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Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong

May 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm (fantasy, fiction, novels, short stories, urban fantasy)

In Men of the Otherworld Kelley Armstrong finally turns the spotlight on two of the most beloved characters in her popular Women of the Otherworld series. Readers get a glimpse life in the North American werewolf Pack through the eyes of Clay and Jeremy Danvers; learn about its history, and see how the organization functioned decades before Elena Michaels entered the fold.

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, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

Savage is the crowning glory of the collection. In it, Clay tells the story of how he became a werewolf, how Jeremy rescued him from the Louisiana swamps, and how, through patience and persistence, Jeremy gained his trust, admiration, and loyalty.

Savage feels familiar and new at the same time. Fans already know the basics of how Clay came to Stonehaven. They are familiar with both Clay’s and Jeremy’s individual habits and quirks. But to actually see where those quirks came from, and hear the details of how these two seemingly disparate men built such a strong bond delivers a great thrill. Armstrong maintains an easy pace throughout the narrative, and does an outstanding job laying the foundation and building blocks of their relationship.

Even though Clay narrates two of the four stories, Jeremy is the real star of this book. He is the only character who appears in every story. Infusion tells the story of Jeremy’s conception and birth, Savage details his relationship with Clay, Ascension is about how Jeremy rose to the rank of Pack Alpha, and Kitsunegari, the only story told by Jeremy himself, is about how he discovers the truth about his origins.

Jeremy is probably my favorite guy in all the Otherworld, so reading a story written in his voice was a major treat for me. I was surprised to discover that Jeremy has always seen himself as an outsider even within his own Pack; that beneath his calm, collected, and confident exterior lies a well of anxiety. It was also nice to hear how he feels about his girlfriend, Jaime Vegas, after years of hearing all about how she feels for him. In Jaime, Jeremy has found a partner to whom he can expose the most secretive parts of himself without fear of rejection; someone with whom he can find the acceptance he has never felt.

In her review of Men of the Otherworld, Donna over at Urban Fantasy wrote that the stories reminded her of why she connected with the series in the first place, but also reminded her how disappointed she was in the last two Otherworld novels. She’s referring of course to Personal Demon and Living with the Dead, both narrated by the much bemoaned Hope Adams.

I’ve never had a problem with Hope. I don’t love her, but I don’t hate her either. She doesn’t have much personality, but she’s not as annoying as, say, Paige Winterbourne. I may not have enjoyed Living with the Dead, but I adored Personal Demon. I loved the book’s complexity, as well as the dual narration.

Still, I can’t help but agree with Donna. Men of the Otherworld was so rich, so well written, and the characters so strong and engaging they made Hope look like a shadow. When it comes to ongoing series’ what keeps me, and I believe most readers, coming back book after book are the characters. Connecting with specific chararcters is like making new friends – you want to spend as much time with them as possible. Reading Men of the Otherworld was a warm and comfortable experience, like spending time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and stood in stark contrast to how I felt reading Living with the Dead.

Men of the Otherworld will rekindle interest and faith in the series among long-time fans, and make newcomers eager to explore Armstrong’s fascinating universe.

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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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Best and Worst of 2009

December 31, 2009 at 2:14 pm (Best of, fantasy, fiction, horror, nonfiction, romance, urban fantasy, Worst of)

It’s that time of the year again. Time to call out the five best and five worst books of the year. Though I only posted  eight reviews in 2009, I actually read eighty-three books. My excuse for my low output is the same as last year: I spent more time working on my own personal writing projects than blogging. Even so, that eight is five more than I wrote in 2008  so I am improving, and hope to post more reviews in the coming year.

Despite my low output reader response was much louder this year. I received more thank you emails from authors whose books I’ve positively reviewed, and that’s quite gratifying. There’s nothing like hearing someone you admire say that you’ve made their day. This is the first year I received threats of physical violence from enraged readers who disagreed with me. The post that seems to draw the most ire is a negative review I wrote on a book about bullying. Ah, the irony. Though I originally felt obligated to publish and respond to abusive comments and emails, I eventually realized that, not only do I not have to tolerate such abuse, I don’t have to give abusive individuals their own forum. I’ve since stopped publishing comments containing profanity, personal attacks, threats of violence, rants that have nothing to do with the content of the book in question, or any other form of harassment.

Returning to the topic at hand, the reason I split my year end top ten into a five best and five worst list is because normally I only end up reading five outstandingly good books and five unbearably awful ones. But, this year I read a truck load of books by authors with a talent for storytelling, world building, and character creation, and it made assembling my best of  list really difficult. Thankfully, I didn’t have the same problem with the worst of list. As in previous years I only read five cringe-worthy books in 2009.

In the past I’ve been more inclined to review books I enjoyed. This year, however, I was more inclined to write about books I did not like. I only wrote two positive reviews this year. For the first time ever it became more important to me to keep people away from bad books as oppose to attracting them to good ones. Because I did read so many good books in 2009 I think the bad ones stood out in my mind, and I tend to write reviews about books that stand out in one way or another.

All right, enough year end babble. Here are the five best and worst books of 2009.  As usual, the lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Heal Pelvic Pain by Amy Stein – In Heal Pelvic Pain Stein lays out the benefits of physical therapy to those living with pelvic pain syndromes. She offers laymen a clear and comprehensible lesson in pelvic anatomy, as well as exercises designed to stretch and loosen the muscles of the pelvic floor.  I suffer from a chronic pelvic pain syndrome. I was so amazed by the immediate relief I experienced after using the stretches suggested in the book, I went and got myself a physical therapist the next week. I didn’t really need to though. Stein’s recommendations would have served just fine on their own. But here I am, seven months later living almost entirely pain free and I’ve Amy Stein to thank for it. I can say that Heal Pelvic Pain literally changed my life and that’s why it tops the list this year.

2) Dirty by Megan Hart – I’m not a fan of romance novels, the work of Megan Hart being an exception. Hart is deft at creating realistic relationships, and no other book showcases her talent better than Dirty. Elle is a deeply withdrawn woman, and it isn’t until Dan starts picking at the emotional scars she has ignored for years that the secrets from her past begin bleeding out. Everything about this book is perfect: the characterization is flawless, it is beautifully paced, the romance between Elle and Dan is completely earned, and the sex scenes actually *gasp* advance the plot!

3) Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Kiernan has an unbelievable way with words. Her use of  language is so evocative  it’s practically a form of teleportation. From the very first sentence I felt like I was in this dark fantasy about how fear shapes our perception of reality.

4) Unclean Spirits by H. L. N. Hanover – How refreshing to read an urban fantasy in which the heroine does not have all her shit together, doesn’t always have the answer, and isn’t always a strong leader. The  joy of this novel is in watching the heroine, Jayne,  grow into herself. She  is a different woman at the beginning of the book than she is at the end, and that character growth is what distinguishes Unclean Spirits from the rest of the urban fantasy herd.

5) Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead – The first book in the Georgina Kincaid series is a perfect combination of all the preceding books. It’s urban fantasy with strong characters, crisp writing, an intricate story, and a believable romance.

The Worst:

1) Key to Conspiracy (Gillian Key, book 1) by Talia Gryphon

2) Key to Redemption (Gillian Key, book 3) by Talia Gryphon

3) Key to Conspiracy (Gillian Key, book 2) by Talia Gryphon

In my review of Key to Conflict I said I would not continue on to the next book in the series. However, the Gillian Key series turned out to be a train wreck I could not look away from. Key to Conspiracy was so atrocious I had to find out if the series could get any worse. The second and third books may not be worse, but they’re not much better either.  All three are poorly plotted, contain sloppy writing, and revolve around a completely unlikable heroine.

4) Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout – This modern day re-telling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok should have been interesting, but a plodding pace, mediocre writing, and hollow characters make it a real snooze fest.

5) Eve of Darkness by S. J. Day -This lackluster debut contains every bad urban fantasy cliche imaginable. Let’s go down the check-list: Generic sassy, sarcastic, caffeine addicted female protagonist? Check. Not just one, but two romances that turn into true love within 24 hours? Check. A “kick ass” heroine who spends more time sleeping with the heroes than actually kicking ass? Check.

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Living With the Dead by Kelley Armstrong

October 10, 2009 at 5:49 pm (fantasy, fiction, novels, urban fantasy)

Living with the Dead is the ninth book in Kelley Armstrong’s wildly popular Women of the Otherworld series. In it, we’re introduced to Robyn Peltier, a recently widowed public relations consultant still trying to come to terms with her husband’s senseless death. Luckily, keeping her demanding boss, “celebutante” Portia Kane, out of the tabloids is a great distraction. But when Portia is murdered police zero in on Robyn as their primary suspect. With the help of her best friend, tabloid reporter Hope Adams, Robyn must track down the real killer and clear her name.

Readers of Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld books expect certain things from the series. For one, they expect the books to be written in first person and told from the point of view of a single character. They expect the story to be told by one of “the good guys.” They also expect a developing romance to play a key role in the story.

In Living with the Dead Armstrong tosses reader expectations to the wind. Rather than tell the story in first person, she tells it in third. And instead of telling the story from the point of view of a single character she rotates between six characters. That’s right, you heard me.

Living With the DeadI don’t have any problem with third person in general, but it bothered me in this case because it stood in such stark contrast to the other books in the series. The structure of the previous books are all so similar a reader can pick up any one of them and immediately recognize it as part of the Women of the Otherworld series. Not so with Living with the Dead. Writing this book in the third person is such an unexpected deviation it’s difficult for a tried and true fan to get lost in the story.

Likewise, I don’t generally mind stories told through multiple narrators. I loved the eighth book in the series, Personal Demon, which is narrated by Hope Adams and Lucas Cortez. But, in the case of Living With the Dead, shifting the focus between six different characters does nothing to enrich the narrative. The chapters are short and Armstrong shifts point of view from chapter to chapter. So, we follow Hope for one chapter, then Robyn for the next, and Adele for the one after. The reader is never allowed to stay with any one character long enough to get to know him or her. As a result it’s hard to care about any of them.

The shifting point of view enables the reader to view some scenes through the eyes of more than one character. Unfortunately, having to read the same scene more than once slows the pace and rarely provides any new information or perspective.

Two of the four rotating points of view belong to the villains. Readers know right from the get go what motivates them to commit the crime Robyn is later accused of, and get to follow them as they run from the law. The problem with incorporating the POV of the villains in a thriller is that it kills the mystery. Half the fun of reading a mystery is trying to puzzle out the who, what, and why of a crime along with the heroes. While it is possible to write from the POV of a villain without spoiling that fun, Armstrong simply can’t pull off that gentle balancing act. Within the first few pages we know why Adele and Colm do what they do, and that makes watching Hope, Robyn, Karl and the rest of the crew figure it out something of a bore.

Armstrong has been writing this series for five years. I can understand her desire to shake things up a bit by trying something new, but the risk just doesn’t pay off. Overloaded with characters it’s virtually impossible to become emotionally invested in, Living With the Dead is out of synch with the rest of the books in the series. Devoted fans should not expect fireworks out of this one, and new readers would be better served by starting out with one of the previous books in the series.

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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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