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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Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly

March 24, 2010 at 3:03 am (ARC, fiction, horror, novels)

You can identify good writing by how easy it is to take for granted. Tight, well-crafted, emotionally and intellectually engaging prose keeps the reader’s attention focused on the story. The words, sentences, and paragraphs flow so effortlessly from page to page there is no reason to consider that someone spent months, perhaps even years,  slaving over them, or that each unit of speech was deliberately put on the page to elicit a certain response from the reader. 

Bad writing, by contrast, draws attention to itself. A reader spends more time puzzling over poorly worded or clunky sentences, more time noticing grammatical errors and continuity problems, than following the story. Bad writing steals the spotlight and prevents readers from truly engaging the work.

If bad writing is an attention whore than Ronald Kelly is her pimp and Hell Hollow the brothel she calls home. When describing Hell Hollow to one of my writer friends I told her to recall every writing “don’t” she’d ever learned in class or workshop, mix them all together, and slap a cover on the mush. That is Hell Hollow in a nutshell.

This ho-hum horror novel follows four tween-age kids as they battle the evil Augustus Leech, a con-man, magician, and murderer who is basically the Freddy Krueger of Kentucky. I can’t tell you any more about the story than that because I spent all five hundred pages correcting grammatical errors, re-wording poorly written sentences, crossing out unnecessary text and dialogue, and wondering why Kelly’s editor didn’t fix all these problem before the book went to press.

The lack of craft here is mind-boggling. Hell Hollow is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences. Kelly has difficulty maintaining an age appropriate voice in his twelve year old protagonist, and the pop culture references his young characters throw around are twenty years out of date.

What bothered me the most was how Kelly tried to avoid using his characters’ names as a way of spicing up the narrative. For example, on page 170 Kelly writes, “The elderly farmer sat at the kitchen table and listened as the boy’s footsteps mounted the stairs,” when he could have written the shorter and more natural sounding, “Jasper sat at the kitchen table and listened as Keith’s footsteps mounted the stairs.”

I counted more than one hundred similar monikers throughout the book. Each primary character has at least six that Kelly uses liberally when attributing actions or dialogue. The villain alone has more than a dozen. Kelly refers to him as “the traveling medicine man,” “the sadistic traveling medicine man,” “the medicine show doctor,” “the man in the stovepipe hat,” “the lanky wanderer,” “the tall man, “the dark man,” and  “the murderess showman” all long after he has introduced the character by name.

Not only is this one of the many ways amateur writers attempt to liven up dull prose, but it indicates Kelly views his characters as “types” rather than people. He repeatedly refers to his four protagonists as “the city boy,” “the farm boy,” “the handicapped boy,” and “the girl.” And that’s all they are. They aren’t given much personality beyond the stereotypical image each of those monikers calls to mind. If you read this blog with any regularity you know I can’t get into a book unless it contains at least one three dimensional character. I think complex characters can save otherwise unremarkable stories, and it’s too bad Kelly didn’t bother to write any into Hell Hollow because I found it impossible to care about a world populated by stereotypes.

Perhaps worst of all, Hell Hollow isn’t scary. Kelly fails to build any sort of tension, and seems to think describing something as “dark” and “gloomy” automatically makes it frightening. At no point did I feel like the main characters were in real peril, even as they were fighting for their lives.

Actually, Hell Hollow is scary, but not for the reasons Kelly intended. The sloppy writing and lack of craft made me scream more than once, and the corrections I continually scribbled in the margins left my hands trembling. If you’re one of those masochists who read Twilight just to see how awful it was, you might enjoy picking Hell Hollow apart. But, if you’re looking for a chilling, well written and thought out horror novel, you’d best look elsewhere.

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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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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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