Wednesday, January 01, 2014

BOOKS: My Favourite Books from 2013

[Do NOT click on ANY LINK found in the comment section of this blog. No matter how innocuous the link MIGHT appear to be, it is MOST LIKELY SPAM or a link to MALWARE. I am disheartened by the need to do this, which accounts for the sparsity of posts this year.]

In my Calibre system, the default rating system is the classic 5-Star system. I've always been troubled by that. A 3-Star book is above average and a 2-Star book is below it. But some books are just plain average. Which will it be? And there was a raft of low scores I wanted. 0-Stars and even 1-Star represent drek, pure drivel (think anything Ann Coulter writes). But there had to be a rating that was for books I couldn't finish, but that had redeeming qualities. Or just plain bad books, less than average. Thus was born the 10-Kovids Scale.

The Kovids Scale is named after the programmer who gave the world Calibre. It is my favourite piece of software and gets better every week. Incrementally of late, since most of the heavy lifting of this eBook database/conversion/editing program had been done in the months leading up to 2013. Still, there has been lots added in just the past year and there's promise of more to come. IF you have eBooks, you have to have Calibre. It's not an option, it is an imperative.

Alright, I am going to end the suspense early and just declare the best book I read last year was a late November release, The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly. It's the fifth book in the Mickey Haller series. And the third one to get the list-qualifying 10-Kovids ranking. Is it better than #1 The Lincoln Lawyer and/or #4 The Fifth Witness? It's been hard enough to striate the Kovids Scale, so I can't really say. It's the most self-aware, repeatedly referring to the EFFECTS of The Lincoln Lawyer movie (although I can't remember if THAT is the title of the fictional equivalent). I still think the original is best because this book has some jarring jumps in time when turning the page. But it's less a punch to the gut that The Fifth Witness was, so I place it a hair ahead of it and a hair behind The Lincoln Lawyer. Happy? It's not quite perfect, but it was the few hours with the Kindle that I enjoyed most this year.

What follows is a sort of shambling grouping of the other 10-Kovids books. No ranking, just a promise of a good read. The rules are simple. If I read it in 2013, it qualifies. If I didn't, it's not on this list. Does not matter a whit when it was published. After all, aren't these lists just link bait for most readers?

Mysteries and Thrillers

In a lot of ways, Brett Battles and Barry Eisler farm the same rich soil that is Anti-Hero protagonists.

Battles has the little team called Jonathan Quinn and friends. Can't just call it the Jonathan Quinn series anymore. Quinn's protege has even taken to BEING Quinn on occasions, all to keep the group family business together. What business? The Quinns et al are Cleaners, the folks who follow murderers and assassins around and clean up the killing field(s) so tidily, even the CSI guys and gals can't determine a crime has been committed. Or when. I really enjoyed the seventh volume in the series, The Enraged, which picks up immediately in the aftermath of the violent and shocking sixth book, The Collected. And BOTH make the list this year as 10-Kovids titles. The Collected takes place in a Caribbean prison, long abandoned. And The Enraged deals in revenge. Battles has fleshed out (the original) Jonathan Quinn extremely well over the years, using the novella format to perfection. At last count, I had seven novels, three novellas and one short story to tell us a lot about Quinn. But not enough. I somehow missed out on another short story, The Assignment. But that one, centred around lady love Orlondo, must await NEXT Year's List.

Eisler moves the Anti-Hero just a BIT further to the bad side with his series about assassin John Rain. A somewhat reluctant assassin these days, but a killer nonetheless. And oddly enough, Rain isn't the star in EITHER entry on this year's list to take the coveted 10-Kovids rating. Early in the year, I quite enjoyed a short story starring Delilah, the ranking Rain paramour and every bit as deadly, called London Twist. Late in the year, a short story about Dox, Rain's best pal and sniper extraordinaire, called The Khmer Kill. Both stories require extensive back-reading in the Rain series. Both were short, but memorable reads.

Greg Rucka has always been a favourite of mine for his Atticus Kodiak books and the slightly lesser Tara Chace books. But, unfortunately, he's spent a LOT of his time writing comic books (and I'm a comic book reader and fan) and stayed out of the long-form novel world. He was back in 2013 with the first of what I hope will be a long-running series about ex-Black Ops good guy Jad Bell. Alpha has Bell becoming the new security head of a Disney-esque theme party with a sudden problem. His daughter is visiting (he's divorced) on a day when terrorists take over the park. There MIGHT be a little too much Die Hard in it, but any story that takes advantage of the ability of the deaf to (more than) overcome their handicap is alright with me. THIS book is why I want Rucka out of the comics biz and back doing what he does so very, very well.

The last book in this group is one that was published almost two years ago. I'm a little slow on the uptake these days. John McEvoy's Blind Switch, a pure mystery, has an awful lot going for it. Series star Jack Doyle is an advertising executive who's never been particularly successful, whether it be in boxing, at work or at home. A couple of ex-wives attest to that. What he is, when not underwater in a bottle of booze, is resourceful and a pretty decent guy ... with friends in low places, which happens to be Chicago, a character itself. Naturally, Doyle's smarts surface at the oddest of times. Doyle rebounds from a race-fixing brouhaha to go to Kentucky and play a pivotal role in outfoxing the REAL bad guys, intent on killing horses as part of an insurance scam. Good start to a series and a good introduction to a new writer (to me).


With Harry Potter receding further and further in the rear-view mirror, I have to admit to a somewhat declining interest in Fantasy (no jokes about my personal life, please). That said, I FINALLY broke down and bought Goblin Tales after I couldn't con anybody into buying it for me. Filling in the edges of the Jig the Goblin series proved to be a very enjoyable couple of hours. Jim C. Hines has proven time and time again that he's the go-to guy for turning schlubs not too unlike me into heroes. Not that I'm blue or carry around a kitchen knife. Short, near-sighted (although recently reconfigured) and reluctant to stick my neck out? Yep. I THINK you could read this book without reading the original Jig the Goblin trilogy. But why would you derive yourself of that pleasure?

Steve Bein writes police procedurals that enjoy a tight continuity with ancient feudal Japan. The fantasy element in Year of the Demon is a mask, and to a lesser degree, a sword, that hold an almost mystical grasp on characters from various points in Japanese history and the bad guys in modern day Tokyo. The same group that occupies the thoughts and deeds of  Detective Mariko Oshiro. Bluntly, the non-ending of some of the historical stories is the only reason this book isn't on the top of the heap. It reads like what it is, the middle book of a trilogy started in 2012 with Daughter of the Sword. Oshiro's Inazuma Blade goes missing in the midst of a cult initiative that bears unfortunate similarities to the Aum Shinrikyo characters who gassed the Tokyo subway with sarin. The wackos seem driven by having the sword and an ancient demon mask forged centuries before. While huge chunks of the book take place in the current Heisei era and in the Azuchi-Momoyama period at the end of the 16th century, the real meat of the book comes in the Muromachi era, about a century before Daigoro's travails in the 1500's. Kaida is a crippled young girl who is her village's best ama, an underwater diver. She's there for the forging of the mask in question and comes of age because of it. Her story never finishes. Curses. I await the third book. But that flaw aside, great book.

Young Adult

So, sue me. I like Ally Carter's writing. While her Gallagher Girls series concluded in 2012, she kept The Heist Society series going strong. A delightful short novella (not really short enough to be a SHORT story) called Double Crossed led later in the year to Perfect Scoundrels. The former was actually a cross-over into the Gallagher Girls universe and featured the two series leads sizing each other up and finding the competition invigorating. The latter book worked by delving much more heavily into the backstory of Kat Bishop's sort of significant other, WW Hale V. It's a delightful romp through the occasionally gothic history of a dynastically rich family. Better to be the daughter of a thief than the son of wealth. At least so this story proves. No question Kats turning SOSO into XOXO. And I'm going to enjoy that read when it happens officially.

At least one blogger touts Robin Benway as the new Ally Carter. Certainly, Maggie Silver in Also Known As bears incredible similarities to Kat Bishop, right down to having a family with certain ... let's call them extraordinary skills in the high worth acquisitions field. The Silvers are spies. Spies with an interesting set of guidelines for their daughter. One of which is to go to ground while allowing Maggie to spend a year in school in New York. And naturally, Maggie finds high school to be every bit the dangerous cesspool that acquiring super-secret secrets is. There's a boy. There's always a boy. And a distressing number of them are called Jesse, like in this book. But there's also a best friend, Roux. And Roux is, while not totally unique, just damaged enough to be a best friend rather than a rival. If Carter can keep churning out Heist Society material 24/7 there might not be room for a rival. But since she can't, I'm quite looking forward to the next Maggie and Roux story, due out this year.

Science Fiction

At last, a good year for Science Fiction and John Scalzi almost handled that by himself with his Old Man's War-set short story The B-Team followed up later by his serially-published novel called The Human Division, from the same universe. I was late to the Old Man's War series, not getting to it until last year. Read the whole original quartet in nothing flat once I got started. While the third and fourth books of the series (and short stories aplenty) waned to 6-Kovid ratings, Scalzi was back on his game for the latest additions. The B-Team was laugh out loud funny from start to finish and reminded me that others read Keith Laumer's Retief and enjoyed those books immensely. The B-Team invoked the best of Retief, and that is very good indeed. Meanwhile, The Human Division incorporated The B-Team completely and then re-vitalized the whole Old Man's War with a return to Earth. A return with an explosive ending. Which is a new beginning, I am sure. Just hope Scalzi doesn't do the serial next time. I couldn't wait and read through the book in fractured moments between other books. In retrospect, i would have preferred waiting for the whole book. Next time I will. And so should you. Read it, I mean. NOTE: Just to be clear, The B-Team is the FIRST part of The Human Division and thus, is included in the full book.

A 10-Kovids rating is a tough peak to climb to. Regular top-ranked author Mike Shepherd (aka Mike Moscoe) just missed with a novella and a short story in the Kris Longknife universe. Other perpetual enjoyment machine Jack Campbell didn't miss with his latest Black Jack Geary book, Guardian. It's the tenth straight Lost Fleet universe book to go perfect, although this year's second entry in the sub series, The Lost Stars, broke it with an 8-Kovids outing. Guardian is more political science than outright military SF this time out. Sure, there are Syndicate Worlds and the Enigmas and the Kicks (described as an psycho paranoid combination of Teddy Bears and Cows) to worry  about, despite the help from the Dancers. The issues this time are with humans. Partially in the Syndicate Worlds, but more along the home front. Campbell weaves the story competently enough so that I don't mind the reduction in space battle scenes. Which Campbell does as well as anybody. If you like the niche genre, then nobody fills it better than Campbell. At least Black Jack's story stays perfectly perfect.

Some old friends returned in a big way in 2013 with 10-Kovids outings by Eric Brown in Helix Wars, Allen Steele in Apollo's Outcasts, Robert J. Sawyer in Red Planet Blues, Steven Gould in Impulse and finally, the biggest surprise, a three-decade old book called Tambu from the late Robert Lynn Asprin.

Brown's Helix Wars is a sequel to Helix, set a couple of centuries later. Like in Larry Niven's Ringworld, the giant artificial construct/world called Helix is a major star in the book. And it works exceedingly well. There's a personal story involving the engaging pilot Jeff Ellis and the healer Calla. Jeff is stuck in married--but cuckolded--hell, Calla is on the final journey of her brief, but productive life. They get wrapped up in an invasion of Calla's lands by the Nazi-like Sporelli. And that's the major difference between this book and its predecessor. There's no religious background to all of this, despite the SF trappings on a story told many, many years ago in Lord of the Rings. The 'world' hopping between New Earth, Sporelli and Phandra takes many, many paths until the reader comes to a greater understanding of Helix and even the founders of New Earth. Years in the making, but worth the wait.

You can extrapolate two things: There will be a lunar colony, although probably not in my lifetime. And the omnipresent right wing kooks in the US will be an ever-present threat to stage a coup (unless all intelligence flees the good people of America, the right wing is done as anything more than a regional pain in the butt), As a result, I have no quarrel with the backstory to Steele's Apollo's Outcasts, a stand-alone novel featuring Jamey Barlowe. Barlowe's led a tough life on good ol' Terra Firma because he was born on the Moon and the greater gravity on the ground is life-altering. But the events of a coup puts Jamey back on the Moon and in the embrace of the residents of Apollo. Naturally, the kooks want him back for political reasons in a showdown that doesn't exclude the military option. But having home field advantage makes the Apollo folk tough to beat down. Good for them.

I've had a declining appreciation for Sawyer, coloured partially by the impressions of the man I've gleaned through personal appearances, web-sites and media broadcasts. Some of my favourite books are signed first editions that sit proudly on the shelves in my living room. The Quintaglio books and the Neanderthal Parallax books were 'idea' books that made you think. Even his standalones always had the 'one big idea' to fuel long hours of reading. But lately? The big ideas have been pretty low-brow, if high concept. Red Planet Blues is not a return to form. It's a SWITCH in form, a marriage of Sam Spade and Mars Expedition advocate Robert Zubrin. A mystery wrapped up in the enigma that is the Red Planet. It's actual several mysteries as the book has more than once case for PI Alex Lomax to solve. It's a neat execution of what Isaac Asimov once called the most difficult task in writing, the science fiction mystery. Extremely well done.

Gould shares some of the same history with Sawyer. Two very good books followed by a botched third book done for the less than good graces of the movie industry. I like the Jumper movie better than most, but HATE the book the sprang from it, the 4-Kovids rated Griffin's Story. Gould repaired some of the damage with an interesting short story side-trip with Shade a few years back. But he came completely back into my good graces with Impulse. Not surprisingly, the feature player in this book is the off-spring of original jumpers Davy and Millie. Young 'cent has all the fun of discovering jumping, given the head jump of her knowing her dad and mom can already do that. Of course, Millicent's acquisition of her jumping abilities and the other talents that manifest themselves does not go smoothly. Discovering new skills and vulnerabilities is what drives the Jumper series. There's a sheer joy that permeates this entry in the series, even when danger looms. There is one problem with the series. Short of having a baby come out of the womb jumping, I'm not sure there's another idea worth a full book out there. But I wouldn't mind a short story of two about Cent as she matures further.

Lastly, I come to Tambu, published in 1979. It was just sitting around, gathering dust. It looked like a prototypical Ace SF book of the era. "The True Story of an Interstellar Genghis Khan" proclaimed the garish cover, one that combined space ships and butterfly wings. How good could it be? Well, it had a good pedigree. While not a fan of his fantasy, I'd loved the Phule's Company pastiches of Hogan's Heroes/Sgt. Bilko. And I remain regretful there'll never be another Time Scout book. So, some spare time during a baseball rain delay became all the time needed to start and finish Tambu. What can I say? Tambu is as billed. He's clever and media-savvy. He's a winner who has become trapped on the pinnacle without becoming a whiner. Given an "Interview with a Vampire" setting, Tambu exposits a future time when 'an Interstellar Genghis Khan" might be needed. And does a great job of doing so. Highly recommended.


So, my Top 25 for 2013 only had 19, maybe 20 books in it. That's the price for enforcing high standards. Mike Shepherd, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Clive Cussler, Michael Lewis, Spencer Quinn, Brittney Dussault, Steve Simmons, Waverly Curtis, Jeffery Deaver, Janet Evanovich and Andy Stark almost made the list. So, more books for you to do your own searches at Amazon for. That's it for me until next year (assuming the drugs keep me alive until then).

1 comment:

Emma Thompson said...

classic 5-star system. You've done well and what can be brought, we can understand and realize that. friv 4