“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write,” is a quote I’ve seen attributed to Stephen King. Whether it’s his or not, I think it’s a great, and very accurate, quote. There are a lot of reasons for a writer to be an active reader, including researching the genre you’re writing in, and seeking inspiration, either of the “I wish I’d written that,” kind or the “Ok, if THAT got published, there’s hope for me,” type.
I aim for at least 100 books a year. I’ve managed that every year since I started keeping track in 1997 except once, and that one was well over 80 at least. I’m not saying that to boast, it’s just to show that I have a pretty big field to draw on.
So, in no particular order, here are my five best reads from 2014:
Hyperion by Dan Simmons: I got pointed at this one from a group I belong to on Goodreads. The group is called “Dragons and Jetpacks,” and if you’re a fan of sci fi and/or fantasy at all, I really recommend giving them a shot. Anyway, the book. To me, Hyperion seemed like a science fiction version of the Canterbury Tales. Seven travelers are going to see the Shrike, a powerful alien being that is beyond man’s comprehension. All of their lives have been touched on by the Shrike in some way or another. What I loved about it was that each character had a different kind of story, and the style of writing changed accordingly. There was a noir-ish PI, a space action hero, a desperate father, and several others, and the writing shifted to fit each genre. I thought it showed that Dan Simmons has a lot of talent, and I really enjoyed it.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: I don’t share the bias that some seem to have of turning on popular writers. I think King is a master, and shows it well in this book. This book is a sequel to The Shining, set many years later (about as many as have passed in the real world between the two books, I believe). There are well fleshed out characters and some truly creepy goings-on. This was definitely a case where the hero didn’t live happily ever after. Jack, the kid from The Shining, has had a rough life since then. Just as he’s getting himself together, he gets pulled into a new and dangerous threat. Jack is a very flawed character, but he reads well, and the villains here are really eerie. I thought this was a well written story, and, while I wouldn’t have said The Shining needed a sequel, this worked really damn well.
The Red Knight by Miles Cameron: I admit to being a bit burned out on fantasy series. There are just too many and a lot of them seem to echo each other. But, this one was suggested to me, and I gave it a read. I’m really, really glad I did. This is the start of an epic fantasy series that’s actually worthy of the word “epic.” It has some amazing characters, and the writer knows arms and armor really well. There are some very realistic battle scenes, and some fantastic ideas. Magic, combat, mystery, they are all here. This was one of my few five star reviews. I give those out rarely, but this one got one. The story focuses on a mercenary company led by an enigmatic figure. They become committed to defending a remote keep from a huge force of wild creatures, led by an amazingly powerful creature. The twists and turns are great. While it is book one of a series, it can easily be read by itself. The fact that this is Cameron’s debut novel is just astounding to me, although that appears to be a pen name for an established author.
Skin Game by Jim Butcher: I am an unapologetic fan of the Dresden Files. I love the idea of a wizard/PI in modern day Chicago. The fact that Dresden is a wise-ass, sci fi geek, and gamer, just make me enjoy the character even more. This is book 15 of the series, and while I think you could read it on it’s own, I’d really recommend reading the other books first. Harry Dresden has made a lot of bad, desperate bargains over the course of his career, and some of the debts are appalling. Mab, the Fae Queen, essentially loans Dresden out to discharge some of his debt, and one of her own. Harry gets sucked into an elaborate heist. Consider it Ocean’s Eleven with a magical frame behind it. Harry must ally with old friends and bitter enemies to steal a very powerful artefact from an even more powerful being. Butcher manages to go with the theft story but still progress all the various plot-lines that have been building in the series. I won’t spoil the twists and turns, but I had a lot of surprises and a few jaw-dropping moments. This, too, was a rare five stars from me.
As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson: This is book eight of the Longmire series. The books came to my attention through the tv series on A&E (which they foolishly cancelled, and it was picked up by Netflix). While I would recommend reading the series in order, you don’t strictly need to for this one. Walt Longmire is the Sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming. He has a motley band of deputies under him, and his faithful dog, Dog (long story). Walt and his best friend are scouting locations for a wedding when they see a woman fall to her death, and they get swept up in the investigation. More complications arrive in the form of the FBI, a rookie Tribal Police chief, family history, and politics within the Tribal Council (Walt’s territory borders on the Cheyenne Reservation). Like most books that deal with modern Indians, there is a mixture of humor, myth, and tragedy, all of which Johnson shows very well. Walt, Vic, Henry, and the rest are really well defined characters you can’t help but root for. There’s a streak of mysticism in the books the show pretty much missed, and I think it adds a great flavor. This series has rapidly become a favorite of mine, and I think this is the best book in it.
Those are my five best, and now here are a few more books to discuss:
Biggest Let-down of the year: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve heard so much about this book, and it’s regarded as a classic by so many. I’ve read my share of classics, and enjoyed most of them. This one, not so much. This book took forever to read, and I’m a speed reader. It went on forever, taking bizarre side trips. What was included vs what was excluded was weird– characters were involved in politics, but the nature of what they actually did was vague, while we got pages of one rich guy deciding to go cut hay with the peasants. SPOILER– Even the death of the title character wasn’t enough to end this book. It kept going for a few chapters after that. I was beginning to wonder if I’d need a stake and holy water to put this book down. Sorry to fans of it, but I couldn’t stand this book.
Favored Series: In addition to the books and series mentioned above, there are several others I’m consistently enjoying. Among them:
“In Death” by JD Robb. This is a unique mix of sci fi, mystery, romance, and action. Set in the near-future of New York, Eve Dallas is a kick-ass cop who, as the series grows, surrounds herself with a growing and enjoyable cast of characters. Eve herself goes through a lot, making some advancements on her various issues. Her various support characters all have their own lives, and meet their own milestones as the series goes on. Lots of fun.
Spenser by Robert B Parker and then Ace Atkins. I read a LOT, so I don’t say things like this lightly: Spenser is my favorite series, narrowly edging out Dresden Files. Spenser is a private investigator in Boston, and he has some elements of the typical PI, but many not. He’s very well-read, an accomplished cook, and stays loyal to his lover. His supporting cast grows throughout the series, and, unlike some series, Spenser goes back to consult former clients if their specialty comes up. Also, people he’s helped and really made a difference with tend to recur, not instantly forgotten as the next book starts.
The Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch. This struck me as an odd genre blend when I first heard about it. But the combination fantasy/thief con-man has really grown on me. Lynch has some nicely developed main characters with a great friendship, and his world is richly detailed. The ins and outs of the schemes are dizzying, and I almost never get them figured out ahead of time, which is rare for me. I’m eagerly (read impatiently) awaiting the next one to see what Locke Lamora gets himself into, and how he gets out of it. He actually reminds me a bit of Gail Simone’s Secret Six in one regard: he’s far from a hero, but he won’t let himself be bad enough to be an effective villain. He’s somewhere in the grey area in between.
Those are some of my high (and low) -lights of the year.
What were yours?