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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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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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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