I’ve always been a fan of the written word. I’ve been a devoted reader my entire life, and have been working at being a writer for the last six years or so. Stephen King once said that, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write.” I happen to strongly agree. I read at least 100 books a year. I’ve been keep track since ‘97, and in that time I’ve only missed once, and that was a bad year on a lot of fronts. I also know I got an award in junior high for reading 200 books one school year, so let’s just say I read a lot.
With that in mind, these are my personal top five books I read this year, with a few other mentions below them.
A tip of the hat to the Goodreads group “Dragons and Jetpacks” which specializes in fantasy and sci fi recommendations, has introduced me to some great books (including three of the ones below) and just plain has a really cool name.
In no real order:
Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch– Blending genres can be a tricky thing, and I’ve seen it done not very well before. Not this time. This was a brilliant crossing of a very elaborate con job in a fantasy setting. The main character, Locke Lamora, is an amazingly resourceful con man who could give anyone a run for their money. He is also shown to have his own moral code which he follows even at risk to himself and his elaborate schemes. There are many unexpected plot twists, some dizzying, some heartbreaking. Add in a well developed supporting cast, good world building and some creative versions of magic for the fantasy world and it’s a great story. I’m looking forward to finding the next book in the series.
Grand Theft by Timothy Watts– This is a very tightly written crime drama. Don’t look for a shining hero here, everyone is shades of gray. The main character is a car thief, and a very adept one. He gets caught up in a struggle between different groups of organized crime and different branches of law enforcement with his idiotic brother making things a lot more complicated. The plot is complex, but understandable. The resolution at the end makes sense, and doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina wave of the hands. I very much enjoyed the story, and would love to see this as a movie. I like characters that are smart and resourceful, and forced to really stretch themselves, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn– I really think it’s a tribute to this author that I had several different reactions to the book as I read it. Initially I was enjoying it. Toward the middle, I felt disappointed and thought something along the lines of, “I’ve seen this so many times, you’re really going here?” And then, at a certain point, which you’ll know if you’ve read it, things take a major, creative twist which left me going, “Ok, that was freaking brilliant.” I’m not going to go into ANY specifics. The story seems to be about a man who whose wife goes missing, and it does look really bad for him. What happens later is some very masterful surprises. I’ve heard rumor of this being made into a movie, which I actually have mixed feelings about. But the story is fantastic. Great suspense, and this writer has a truly devilish mind.
Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss– This is an epic fantasy story with some great world building. The story takes place in the main character’s youth, and in his present, when he’s considerably older. I often don’t like tales that jump back and forth like that, but I think it’s very well done in this case, and there’s actually a reason for the hero to be reliving his early days. Our hero goes through some heartbreaking tribulations as his life is changed by tragedy. He sets his sights on getting into the one place he can learn magic, and that becomes a fiendishly complicated quest. There’s a temptation to compare it to Harry Potter (kid goes to school to learn magic), but that’s a disservice to both series. They are very different. The story in both the past and the present is very compelling, and I really enjoyed both time-frames. I didn’t find myself thinking, “Ok, can we get back to the real story now?” in either time. This, too, is part of a series, and I’ll be hunting down book two when I can. Fair warning, it’s a big book. If you find that daunting, well… I still think it’s worth it.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline– This is my only sci fi book for this list. It’s a dystopian future, which has been done a lot, certainly. But this is a good take on it, with a lot of creative spins and ideas. It also deals a lot with video games, and geekdom in general. I recall references to Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, Firefly, Ghostbusters, and so very many more. The main character gets sent on a quest that could change his life, but here’s one twist: everyone in the world has the same opportunity. There are tons of 80’s references, and the video game mentions range from the early arcade games like Pac-Man and Joust to modern complex online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life (which isn’t a game, but that’s another story). This will strike chords with anyone who lived through the 80’s, plays video games, watches action movies, or spends time online in the modern world. I’m being vague a bit, but I really don’t want to give anything away. I read it off the group I mentioned before’s recommendation, and I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. That would have been my loss. For those who care about such things, the other two from them were Name of the Wind and Lies of Locke Lamora.
Now, as I’ve said many a time before, I can talk about books all day, so I’ll add in a few other things here.
Most Disappointing Read: Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries were a fantastic series that I really enjoyed. They cover modern policing, traditional beliefs, and some who are caught between both worlds. There are no stereotypes and a very good view of life on the reservation comes through, as does a lot of great insight into Navajo culture and beliefs. I was saddened when I learned Mr. Hillerman had died, and then very happy when I heard his daughter was going to take over. I was premature.
I wanted to love this book, I was excited about it. But it had problems. When you call it a :”Leaphorn and Chee mystery” on the cover (those being Hillerman’s two main characters in the series), there are certain expectations. One of those two being shot in the head on page three, and the other becoming a supporting character to someone who’s been a very minor character up to this point are NOT among them. There was some of Hillerman’s touches here, but it just didn’t quite get there for me.
Most Uneven Read: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker I read about this book a review, and I thought it sounded interesting. It’s an in-depth study about stories, how they are told, and it reduces almost every story ever told to one of the titular seven plots. I had my doubts about the theory, but it holds up remarkably well. The first 2/3 of the book is fascinating, and I strongly recommend it to writers and anyone who cares about the craft behind stories. The author even comes right out and admits there are some stories that fit into multiple categories, and that the relatively modern innovation of the detective story doesn’t fit in at all. Relatively, of course, when you consider how long mankind has been telling stories, and that the mystery/detective novel arguably started with Edgar Allen Poe.
Then, in the last third, the book just kinda goes nuts. I can’t shake the image of the author standing on his lawn shaking his fist at modern stories. He seems to feel that the classic story model broke down starting in the 1960’s, and he oddly seems to blame first James Bond, then the strong heroines of Alien and Terminator. He also rants at length, trying to make everything in the world fit into Jungian archetypes, which I don’t think even Carl Jung himself could do. The last portion of the book just gets weird.
I really do recommend the first part of the book, as I said above. Then, while I am compulsive about finishing books I start, I really do suggest you STOP. I took copious notes, which I shared with both writing groups I belong to, and learned a lot. But he should have quit while he was ahead.
Reliably Delivering Series: Ok, that’s a bit awkward, but I couldn’t come up with a better way to phrase it. There are series I eagerly look forward to, some of which have gone on for quite a while (30 or 40 books in some cases). I love seeing another slice of these worlds, seeing the characters solve their crisis du jour, and essentially checking in with the ever-expanding casts. I’m planning on doing another piece later about what makes a series good in my view.
Robert B Paker’s series: I was very sad when Parker died, appropriately enough at his writing desk. His Spenser series is my absolute favorite of all the ridiculously large amount of books I read. I then got nervous when I read that his various series were being handed off to other writers. Even in the midst of that, I was amused to note that it was going to take three different authors to carry on for the prolific Parker. Well, his heirs do a great job. The continuing adventures of PI Spenser, Police Chief Jesse Stone, and even a Western series featuring Cole and Hitch (recently made into a feature movie, Appaloosa). All three had books come out this year, and all three were up to Parker’s standards in my opinion. His biggest strengths, in my opinion, was making men of honor seem like real people and not caricatures, great dialogue, and the easy comradery of his characters.
“In Death” by JD Robb: One of the reasons I enjoy this series so much is it combines several genres at once, and does it very well. The books are part romance, part sci-fi, part action, and part mystery. The chronicle the cases of Eve Dallas, a police Lt. about a hundred years in the future. The sci fi is light touches, believable out-growths of existing tech. We finally have flying cars, for one thing, and there was a passing reference once to the “Law and Order network” which just cracked me up. Eve is a great character, a very strong female action hero who I love reading about. Her co-workers continue to get more depth and background, and her social circle gradually expands, both in believable, natural ways. I was worried that the series seemed to be veering towards only complex conspiracies, but this year’s offering was back to a simple homicidal maniac. Ok, that sounds really wrong, but you know what I mean.
John Sandford’s series: Sandford created a great character in Minneapolis homicide investigator Lucas Davenport. Not satisfied with Davenport’s “Prey” series, he did two other linked series, one about a somewhat shady character named Kidd which seems to have ended, and one about a different investigator named Virgil Flowers. All the series have great dialogue, deep characters, and exciting plots. They are all related, in the same world, but you don’t need to read them all to get what’s happening in any of them. I recommend you do, I think they’re all great, but that’s me.
The Dresden Files: I mentioned earlier that the Spenser series is my favorite series. This is a very close second, and may eventually take the lead. Harry Dresden is a wizard in modern day Chicago, and his world is a dark, scary, and confusing place. Harry is an old school hero, Mike Hammer or Sam Spade would recognize him as a fellow knight in battered armor. Jim Butcher takes pieces from folklore all over the world to weave a very involved and complex world. His spin on magic is creative and enjoyable. Butcher is also branching out a bit. This year saw an original Dresden story in comic book form from Dynamite Comics called “Ghoul and Goblin,” as well as another short story in an anthology. While the other shorts have almost all been about Harry, this one is from the point of view of his apprentice Molly Carpenter, in the collection “Dangerous Women.” I love urban fantasy, and this is certainly my favorite series in that genre. I also picked up the Dresden Files Role Playing Game recently, and if I never play it, it was still worth buying. The book is “written” by one of the supporting characters in the Dresden Files, and has comments from Harry himself, and his helper Bob. The interplay between them captures the flavor of the novels perfectly, and there are some in jokes about mistakes Butcher himself made early in the series, as well as about the short lived TV show that Butcher absolutely loathed.