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.

Permalink Leave a Comment

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.

Permalink 4 Comments

Best and Worst of 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best:

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst:

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

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

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

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

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

Best and Worst of 2007

December 30, 2007 at 5:24 pm (Best of, Worst of)

With 2007 on the way out it’s time to post my annual list of the five best and five worst books of 2007. This year I read 31 books. That number doesn’t hold a candle to the 45 I read last year, but then again I wasn’t on medical leave at any point this year.

I learned a couple of things about myself as a reader and a reviewer while compiling this year’s list. First off, I learned that I am more likely to review books I like rather then those I don’t. That’s because I find it far more important that people get their hands on good books rather then seeing that they avoid bad ones. Lousy books are a dime a dozen. Good books are a rare find. I also realized that I can’t stand characters who refuse to help themselves. You will find many examples of this in my list of the five worst books.

As usual, the list consists of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore– Gore adopts the role of cheerleader rather than mentor in this smart, sassy, and highly readable guide to literary stardom. Encouraging writers to utilize self-publishing options such as blogs, zines, and print-on-demand services Gore reminds us that there are times when it is more important to get our work out and read by an audience rather than tooled to absolute perfection. I found this book so inspirational I began writing and submitting work to literary magazines again after a three year hiatus. It really changed the way I view my own work and that is why it had to be number one.

2) Brendan Wolf by Brian Malloy – It isn’t often that I find a book I can’t put down and Brendan Wolf was the only book on this year’s list that I was glued to. With a main character of great depth and a well paced story with a gratifying pay off, Brendan Wolf shows off Malloy’s impressive style and technique. It captures the complexities and ambiguities of friendship, kinship, and personal responsibility with a clarity found only in the work of the most accomplished writers.

3) The Unbinding by Walter Kirn– This novel set a lofty goal for itself by attempting to look at the ways national security, celebrity, consumerism, and information technology intersect, and Kirn managed to pull it off with flare. A master storyteller, Kirn not only weaves an intriguing tale, but physically engages the reader through format. Told through the characters’ personal letters, memos, and blog entries the reader is forced to recognize his own voyeuristic tendencies and reflect on the role he plays in the story simply by reading it.

4) Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey– In this Pulitzer Prise winning collection of poetry Trethewey takes dictation from those history has rendered mute. With cinematic clarity she describes the experience of growing up bi-racial in the Jim Crow south and the systematic racism so prevalent in America that not even the Civil War could stamp it out. A powerful collection that stands as an example of what poetry should be.

5) Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay – Ansay is the rare author who truly paints with words. In this novel about a couple coming to terms with the untimely death of their son, she lays out the story in language that borders on cinematic. The entire work is so crisp and fresh it is all but impossible not to get sucked in.

The Worst:

1) Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland – Normally I like Coupland, but this slow story about a bunch of wayward friends rubbed me the wrong way. None of the protagonists were the least bit likable and none of them ever attempted to better themselves. When, through no effort of their own, they are all delivered from lives of mediocrity in the book’s climax, I wanted nothing more then to drop it right then and there. Happy endings are nice, but not when they aren’t earned.

2) Please, Stop Laughing at Me… by Jodee Blanco– In this poorly written memoir Blanco describes the brutal bullying she endured as a child. She paints a picture of herself as the perfect child – gifted, intelligent, kind, and morally upstanding. It is this description that makes it plain to the reader why Blanco was teased by her peers. She comes off as a whiny tattle-tail who is completely full of herself. So, while Blanco is never able to figure out why everyone hated her so much, the reader is all too aware. She is not a very sympathetic protagonist and her ordeal pales next to her own lack of self-awareness.

3) The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hallowell– This novel had the potential for greatness. Set against a backdrop of religious fanaticism Hallowell has every opportunity to address issues of celebrity, consumerism, escapism, desire, and faith. Instead she sticks to the most obvious and formulaic of plot twists.

4) The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone – This radical feminist “classic” was forgotten for a reason. Not only does it reek of racism and classism but it is wholly irrelevant in today’s society.

5) Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemus – Lemus is a capable writer, unfortunately this tale of love, desire, family, and transgenderism never quite comes together. The psychological hang ups of the primary characters get really old really fast as they engage in the same destructive behavior time and again never once attempting to do anything to remedy the situations.

Permalink 1 Comment

Best and Worst of 2006

December 22, 2006 at 12:26 pm (Best of, Worst of)

This year, with the help of All Consuming, I kept track of every book I read, 45 in all. And since this year is drawing to a rapid close I thought it would be appropriate to draw up a list of the best and worst reading material I devoured in 2006. Mind you, the list will consist of books I read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year.

Most people draw up top ten lists, but I’ve chosen to do a couple of top five lists, mainly because there were only about five truly stunning books I read this year, and likewise, only five books that, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, were not to be tossed aside lightly, but thrown with great force.  I give you my top five best and worst books of 2006.

 The Best:

1) Household Saints by Francine Prose – This achingly beautiful novel follows three generations of an Italian-American family as they deal with issues of religious faith, assimilation, and the strength of family ties. It also explores the nature of myth making and story telling. A truly stunning read.

2) Blue Angel by Francine Prose – This year I fell head over heels for Francine Prose, hence why she holds the top two spots. This novel focuses on the relationship between a bored university professor and his favorite student. Prose is fond of ambiguous endings, and this one made me want to turn right back to the beginning and start it all over again. Masterfully written and executed.

3) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – This book isn’t considered a classic for nothing. Set in the rural south, this tale of a deaf mute and the confidence he inspires in those around him provides a layered look at the nature of friendship, justice, and free will.

4) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – Like Prose and McCullers, Ishiguro is a master of the craft. He strikes that rare balance between revealing just enough to satiate the reader and holding back enough to keep them reading as this compelling novel about three boarding school friends unfolds.

5) The Hungry Gene by Ellen Ruppel Shell – The only nonfiction book to make the Best of List, The Hungry Gene takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the weight loss industry and the search for obesity related genes.

The Worst:

1) The Bitch Posse by Martha O’Connor – This heavy handed coming-of-age tale consists of little more then a handful of flat characters and a “plot” whose arch and resolution a discerning reader can tease out of the first page. Don’t waste your time with this one. Take it from me, I learned the hard way.

2) To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel – This tale of love and ESP has three strikes against it; it too consists of flat characters, the pacing is intolerably slow, and the ending is anti-climactic. I walked away wondering why Seigel felt it necessary to tell me this story. I always know I’ve finished reading an awful book when I close it and think “Now what was I supposed to get out of that?”

3) Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffet – Drugs, money, crime, and sexual deviance, what more could a reader want? How about relief from the constant onslaught of hopelessly narcissistic and naive characters?

4) Life Mask by Emma Donoghue – I actually adore Emma Donoghue, but this historical novel about lesbianism and upper-class morality was just too long and too slow.  

5) The Ghost Writer by John Harwood – Harwood gets points for actually being a good writer. He loses points for concocting the most absurd suspense novel I have ever read. It was fine until the end at which point my mind boggled at the sheer ridiculousness of the climax I’d become so invested in reaching.

Permalink Leave a Comment