So, this year, the Top 25 list will be 21 books long. A good--maybe great--21. But this is my blog and MY Top 25 List and I reserve the right to do as I please. Full steam ahead.
As in the past, my rating scale is in Kovids, named after the programmer of Calibre, Kovid Goyal. Now, if you read eBooks rather than dead tree books, and have not heard of Calibre, hare thee off to Calibre's home page and grab this indispensable bit of software to manage your eBooks. And if you need to ask questions, MobileRead's forum devoted to Calibre will do all of that and then some. And when you are finished don't forget to tinkle the tip jar. You'll want to, just to let you know in advance.
Unfortunately, the one wee problem with Calibre is that the rating star system is capped at five. But with a little finagling, you can create your own star system. My STARZ system is a better ranking system, topping out at 10 Kovids. This helps me with the problem of the five-star system having no way to handle AVERAGE, which we all know would be 2.5 stars or 5 Kovids. But Calibre doesn't permit a half-star. My Starz range from ten (the list of which is contained here), down to scores like 8 (recommended to readers interested in the genre) to 5 or 6 (books that are average or just a titch better than average), to 3 (tripe, usually from writers who should do better) to 1 (couldn't finish the book) and all the way to 0 (an affront to all of mankind usually involving the unholy trinity of ideologies, Conservatism, Unchecked Capitalism or just plain old Crap repackaged).
By the way, all of the links I'm listing here are to author pages to be found at Fantastic Fiction. Not strictly a site for the imaginative, FF is the place I go to find out all the series information. It includes lists of what's coming out and roughly when. And it has links to the local Amazon from wherever you call a home base. Because so many of the books listed below are series entries, having one place to go to see what else is available and in what order they should be read, makes FF indispensable.
A good to great book vs a REALLY great book is the difference between getting a nine and being in that paragraph at the end that lists authors who put out good efforts this year and 10 Kovid writers who get a whole paragraph (or more) here on this most valued list. This year, I found THREE 10-Kovid efforts written by Mike Shepherd (AKA Mike Moscoe) and eighteen others that are worthy of (windy) comment. Surprisingly, despite having the largest plurality, Shepherd did not cart off the top prize.
For the second time in three years, the best book I read in the past year was authored by Keigo Higashino. Malice continues Higashino's uncanny ability to run a Columbo plot past the reader and engross the reader despite knowing whodunnit almost from the start. The trick this time out is that the book's villain is not only jailed quite early in the book, he also makes a full written confession!! And with many page clicks to go, I wondered if this was the first story in a short story collection. After all, rule number one is always to stop working once the customer says yes. Or something like that. As it turns out, the book becomes a whydunnit and solving THAT particular exercise is a wonderful delight.
I read a SF short story many, many years ago that has stuck with me throughout the decades although I couldn't tell you the author's name or the title of the story to save my soul. Alien invasion starts. The aliens have the ability to completely mimic us from head to toe and have been studying humans for years and years. They are completely and utterly ruthless and the invasion starts with one last scouting sortie to begin the assault. But the aliens-masquerading-as-humans are caught almost immediately and the high mucky-mucks of the alien fleet abandon their assault plans based on this seemingly impossible defence capability by the humans. The last sentence of the story reveals the twist. The aliens, dressed as they had observed humans dressed, were arrested immediately after leaving their camouflaged landing site, taking on human form and then arriving in a nearby small town. The aliens had landed in a nudist colony.
To read Higashino is to know that there's a literary nudist somewhere in the reveal. It's been that way through every book I've ever read that he's penned (two Professor Jupiter books published thus far on this side of the Pacific and this one in the Kyoichiro Kaga series). And yet I was completely compelled to get to that last sentence, page click by page click. It also helps that the killer and the victim are both writers, which appeals to me on several levels. Who among us have not contemplated the perfect crime? Writers take that one step further. Having writers play hero and villain in this book moves it another step beyond.
This is a delightful book. Do yourself a favour and delve into the Higashino library. It will be worth it. I guarantee it!!
The OTHER 18 books on this list can be broken down into Science Fiction, Fantasy, Sports, Mysteries/Thrillers, Humour and ... well, I'll get to THAT book down at the end of this post. You'll see why.
The afore-mentioned Shepherd has been awesomely entertaining. He sticks with military space opera and does it exceedingly well. The whole library pivots around his Kris Longknife, one of THOSE damned Longknifes. She's a tactical genius and the daughter of the Prime Minister back home and the grand-daughter of The Emperor and mostly responsible for the protection of humanity from a scourge that is becoming ever-more frightful every book that Princess Kris stars in ... which is now up to 12 with this year's Tenacious. By the way, there are assorted short stories and novellas that actually drive the total of Longknife books closer to 20 in all. Tenacious is a tad on the pessimistic side, with a lot of grim "Never again!" utterances. Ones that seems pretty legitimate. Shepherd has his cast of Longknife playmates intact, except for frenemy Vicky Peterwald. The book is more exploration than fight-filled which is entertaining in and of itself. But the stage for a video-gamer's dream has been set with Tenacious.
Vicky is off to a good start with her own series in Vicky Peterwald: Target. (And yes, there IS a preceding novella that was one of the better efforts left off of last year's list). Vicky is the Kris-equivalent from the totalitarian regime that had made her and Kris natural and enthusiastic enemies before the threats to humanity's survival showed up and made the frenemies more friends than enemies. I've lost count how often Vicky's life has been saved by Kris. But that's what best bud's are for. In Target, Vicky finds herself all alone, or almost all alone, back in the not so gentle embrace of the people who have tried to have her and her dad, the Wardhaven Emperor, knocked off--frequently. She gets bucked down to ensign and finds out her 'new' extended family comes replete with frenemies and actual support when the action requires it. It smells a bit of 'Kris Longknife: The Early Years.' But it's fun to start from the prospective of a spoiled brat, rather than the preternaturally brilliant Kris. Quite an enjoyable 'first' book.
Lastly, Shepherd has been writing Longknife prequel books about the Jump Universe/Society of Humanity under his own name. To Do or Die is the fourth book in that series, first as being by Shepherd, and it finally puts the two Kris Longknife grand-dads in the making, Future Emperor Ray the First and Trouble Tordon in the same place at the same time. Rita (who's back as a supporting character in the current Kris adventures) Longknife isn't around in this one, but Ray, Trouble and his missus, Ruth, are all that stands between the planet Savannah and a rigged election that will make official what's been going on for ages. The rule by thugs. The problem for the bad guys is that when you put Longknifes, Tordons and lots and LOTS of military hardware all in the same place at the same time, the bad guys don't fare well at all. By the end of the book, you'll be getting your hurrahs straight from the huzzahs and having a good time.
The rest of the Science Fiction faves run the gamut of Steven Gould's Exo to Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Skirmishes and then back to outright military space opera again with Jody Lynn Nye's The View from the Imperium and Jean Johnson's Hellfire. Each is a series book and each is stronger than other entries from each series I read this past year. Do they stand up by themselves? I'd say yes to Exo and to The View from the Imperium, but no to the entries by Rusch and by Johnson. But you might disagree.
Gould's Exo is possibly the best Jumper book since the first entry, Jumper. A year ago, I though the series was done. Not because of the damage done by the foray into a parallel dimension where a book that was a novelization of the movie had to be written. But because the natural progression that started with Davy, then his future wife Millie and then daughter 'cent (short for Millicent) seemed to have run it's course. it was interesting in each case to see the jumping capability become part of each of their lives. What would YOU do if you could literally jump to anyplace in the world in the blink of an eye? After about the third answer, ennui SHOULD have set in. But Gould takes 'cent off into a new direction with a true hard science SF story that took my breath away. I was sure that this book was going to be the top place finisher this year until Higashino arrived to snatch top spot late in the year. 'cent takes "I spy with my little eye ..." and let's a telescope take the limits of her imagination and smash it to little pieces. All the while doing battle with Big Gov and small minds. Old enemies show up and Davy shows he still has the mettle to protect his loved ones. This is a really great book. And I can't see ANOTHER book in the series happening ... but I've said THAT before and see how happy I was that I was wrong?
Rusch's Skirmishes is another Diving Universe book. It's probably fourth in the series, but if you count all the short stories Rusch has written in the Diving Universe, then there's at least two, maybe three more books worth of pages in the lot. But officially, this is DU #4. This is another hard SF book and we see so little of that these days, what with military space opera almost completely taking over from what little fantasy leaves in the SF/Fantasy publishing niche. Don't get me wrong. I like Military Space Opera, as this list shows. But good HARD SF, where the scientific extrapolation is top-notch is like little treasures when you find them. Thankfully, Rusch is incredibly prolific and dependable. We get more Ivoire back story here with Coop Cooper finding more answers and many, many more mysteries in the Sargasso of outer space called The Boneyard. Boss, who's attraction to Coop grows by the story, let alone by the book, has her own problems as Rusch continues to run the two story-lines almost separately. Boss and her team of divers into the confluence of dimensions that is old tech, is one of SF's most intriguing bunch of characters. You can't jump into this book without reading the others. i just wish i could give you the reading list and how to get hold of them. Raiding Amazon for the first three books and however many shorter works in the series is just a start. But a start you'll enjoy. I should also point out that the prolific Rusch is setting aside the Diving Universe in 2015 to concentrate on more stories from the Retrieval Artist series of SF Mysteries. IF she comes back with three entries on next year's Top 25, I might be the least surprised person in the world. I am REALLY looking forward to what's headed for my bookpile this year!
I've enjoyed Nye's work over the years. She has a sly sense of humour with an ability to flaunt authority. The good news is that The View From the Imperium is a wonderful start to a series that one-time writing partner Robert Asprin would be proud of. His Phule's Company books are clearly inspiration for this book that is described as "P.G. Wodehouse meets Space Opera." And for once, the billing lives up to the performance. Ensign Thomas Innes Loche Kinago turns out to be an able commander despite being the spoiled brat hanger-on of the true-born nobility that rules space eons from now. He's almost a royal, but carries himself off as a dandy of sorts. But a dandy who understands leadership. And the rag-tag group he eventually calls his command come to adore him, despite the issue of him being almost a royal and all. It's great fun and I pounced on the second book in the series Fortunes of the Imperium as soon as I finished The View. Alas, Nye followed up on another of her habits I've become accustomed to: the inability to maintain the momentum of a brilliant first book. See the Taylor's Ark series for example. The second book is not a bad read, it's just not a 10-Kovid follow-up. You've been warned.
Jean Johnson turns the Nye reading experience on top of it's head. Hellfire is the third book in the "Theirs Not to Reason Why" series. Don't get me wrong, i had enjoyed the first two books in the series, but had no reason to expect that Hellfire would be a big step up. All the way to the 10-Kovid level. Another Military Space Opera that steps away from her fantasy background, the Johnson series suffered from a major flaw. It's the 'Superman Conundrum.' Johnson's star of the books is Ia, who does Superman one better by being able to see the future. Otherwise, she's every bit the SuperWoman that Superman is in the comics. The powers are slightly different, but you can't tug on Superman's cape and that's basically true of what little Ia might be wearing at any given time, too. But somehow, Johnson gets around the conundrum in this third book and really brings all of 'the woman with the plan' into a mini-denouement. As it turns out, the trilogy is only the start. Two more entries in the series were published last year and I was expecting a sixth. But unlike Ia, my future forecasting seems a little off and I'll be reading Hardship and Damnation early in the new year. Don't expect a neat conclusion to every storyline in Hellfire. And obviously, no reading this book without reading the earlier tomes in the series. I wouldn't wait for my New Year's Day report next year, I'd pick up anything Johnson's written in this series.
Back at the start of the year, I thought I was headed for a monster year, reading-wise. I had just discovered Jean Johnson and there were books by old pros like Lawrence Block and Jeffery Deaver on the top of the pile. But I was MOST interested in getting to He Drank, And Saw the Spider by Alex Bledsoe. The fifth Eddie LaCrosse Mystery was maybe the best book in the series since the first one. And despite being a Mystery, the book is most definitely a fantasy. Eddie is the pre-eminent sword jockey of his time. A P.I. with a strong sword arm and a stronger sense of ethics. But a history where that wasn't always so. So, Eddie revisits the past to set things right by Isadora, a young baby he left with shepherds sixteen years ago. He failed the man who tried to protect Isadora from a mauling bear, but goaded by gal pal Liz, Eddie decides to revisit the scene of the tragedy. In doing so, a couple of kingdoms, a town of ... let's call them eccentrics, and Isadora herself all become embroiled in his attempt to, if not rewrite history, at least update it. There are sorcerers and all kinds of things to go bump in the night (and I'm not JUST talking about inebriated townspeople). It's all a fun frolic, if a bit deadly to some of the players. Highly, highly recommended.
Deaver and Block were followed later in the year by works from long-term favourites Barry Eisler, Brett Battles, Spencer Quinn, Clive Cussler and the omni-bus effort called FaceOff that featured pairings of famous characters by the likes of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, John Sandford, Jeffery Deaver, Lincoln Child, Dennis Lehane, Joseph Finder, Douglas Preston, Heather Graham, James Rollins, Linda Fairstein, Steve Martini, Linwood Barclay, Ian Rankin, Raymond Khoury, M. J. Rose, John Lescroart, R. L. Stine, Peter James, T. Jefferson Parker and F. Paul Wilson. You might notice that Deaver is in there too, giving him, in effect, two books to place second to Shepherd for the year. I'm leaving the link hunting for FaceOff at Fantastic Fiction to you.
Deaver's separate entry in the list this year is a novella-collection called Triple Threat. Both series character entries in Triple Threat work exceedingly well. There's a Kathryn Dance short called Fast and a John Pellam 'Stranger New in Town' type mystery called Paradice that both sing and zing. Fast has to adhere to the total pace as Dance races against a clock to deny a terrorist the chance to enter heaven with a death toll to pay the gate tax. It's a Mission Impossible task for the modern age. And neat. Pellam's story makes me wistful for more Pellam stories. His arrival in town when a crime and a killing or two are in the process makes for entertaining fodder. Points for having an interesting sheriff rather than a witless dope that merely serves as a witness. As for the third of the trio of tales? Game was the least of the efforts, but serviceable. Which was all the was required to keep this book at the 10-Kovids rating. Short stories have been something I've come back to of late. And I'm very, very glad that I did with this single-author anthology.
Now, as for the full-on FaceOff anthology, the conceit had each of the brace of authors taking their characters into a shared setting and letting loose with the consequences. Not every story in the book entertained me. But what worked, really, REALLY worked. And in doing so, I've added a couple of writers to my pre-approved set of authors. Given my long-time love for Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes and John Sandford's Lucas Davenport, it won't be shocking to commend that entry here. (Aside: Both characters have been played by black actors in movies ... despite neither character being black in the books). Deaver and Sandford weren't editor David Baldacci's only successful pairings. Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly had a great start-off mixup of Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch. That was followed by the equally solid pairing of Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Peter James' Roy Grace. I wasn't overly fond of the R.L. Stine/Preston and Child pairing, but found myself surprisingly entertained by M.J. Rose's Malachai Samuels meeting up with Lisa Gardner's D. D. Warren. Then an uptick yet again as Steve Martini's Paul Madriani had to tangle with Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper in a tale about courtroom justice. Of the rest of the stories, all decent, the one other effort that made me start looking for backlists, was John Lescroart's Wyatt Hunt teaming up with T. Jefferson Parker's Joe Trona, a pair of characters who I'd only heard of before, but have never read about in the past. That has already changed. I heartily recommend FaceOff, not because it's perfect, but because of it being a Yelp for mystery fiction.
Block's book store owner slash cat burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr, had special significance to me this year. I had inundated a sick friend with books and tv shows aplenty in what was the last few months of his life. His favourite? The Rhodenbarr books. As it turns out, in giving him the books, I discovered I had overlooked The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. What a delight!! Bernie's best friend, lesbian Carolyn, goes from after-the-fact complicit to criminal acts to being part of a burglary team. Maybe as a result, Bernie's plans don't work out quite the way they are supposed to. Until the end. By caper's end, Carolyn decides being only a little bit law non-abiding is better than being a burglar and leaves that to Bernie, once again. What I got out of the book was a remembrance at just how much fun Block had writing these books and how much enjoyment it and the other books in the series gave my dying friend. It is, and WAS, a rare, rare gift.
Both Eisler and Battles are frequent contributors to my best books lists. Eisler's John Rain and Battles' Jonathan Quinn both looked to the past for their eighth entries in their respective series's. The Rain book, Graveyard of Memories, serves almost as the secret origin of the man who would become the infamous assassin. Rain's fresh off the killing fields of Southeast Asia, working as a bagman for the CIA and battling with the Yakuza to start this book. He plays the role of a pawn in a game by higher ups, all the while acquiring the skills that would polish the one-time sniper into the feared, rightfully so, John Rain. While the Battles book, The Discarded, starts in the past, it most definitely finishes in the here and now. Quinn's beloved, Orlando, gets brought into the past by her mentor, Abraham. The mission he didn't see through to the finish line plagues him on the doorstep of his final resting. In need of the peace of knowing he did more right than wrong, Abraham begs, pleads and bullies his way into one last job. Orlando realizes what's going on, but the Quinn extended family of cleaners needs to do this for her honour and for the respect they all have for Abraham.
Spencer Quinn, aka Peter Abrahams, continued to charm me with the latest Chet and Bernie mystery, Paw and Order. I love Chet's dopey dog viewpoint because hard-of-remembering Chet is all hero. As is his human partner, Bernie. In Washington DC to visit Bernie's girlfriend Suzie Sanchez, the detective duo end up entangled with everything that makes DC stop ticking, including the requisite international conspiracy (what's a visit to America's capital if NOT to encounter an international conspiracy). This eighth outing (seems like a lucky number in 2014), goes along as it should. Chet sniffs out a mystery, and remembers enough in time to make Bernie a hero, in between dreams of food and nightmares involving a hamster. Or is Barnum a guinea pig? Say, what's the difference between a hamster and a guinea pig? What's for supper? Why isn't everybody reading Chet's adventures? And so it goes.
I miss Veronica Mars, erstwhile high school student by day, detective by night. Or in a skipped lunch period. (I've forgotten that third season in college, where all the fun of being in Neptune California was forgotten.) But 2014 we saw a new Veronica Mars movie released that resolved a few of the threads left over from the now forgotten TV show. And, a release of a Veronica Mars novel did not go un-noticed by me. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by series creator Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham was quintessential Veronica Mars. Brash and clever, touching in the way Veronica steps in for her dad, and interesting. Take March Break, add in miscreants, missing YA's, Mexican cartel royalty and mistakes aplenty by the law-makers and law-keepers of Neptune and add in Veronica's ability to take the shine off all of them and you get a page turner that would have been a dandy two or three episodes of the old series. I really miss Veronica Mars. When is the next book coming out?
Cussler didn't have a great year this year. He has so many series going with so many authors that, the whole seems lesser than the individual parts. It's obvious that the research for one series is being rehashed almost immediately in one the other series. In fact, at least two books this year from the Cussler production assembly line, featured Cuba prominently. Which isn't especially bad, when you also mix in Vikings, Baffin Island, Quetzalcoatl and archeoterrorists in Mexico, as Cussler and Russell Blake did in The Eye of Heaven, a Fargo's Adventure. I like the Fargo's, the 'Nick and Nora' of Cussler's stable of marine-interested characters. It's all lovey-dovey and hair-raising thrills as Cussler ties in the Vikings of yore, with the Toltecs, also of yore, with Caribbean sphere locales to come up with a page turner with all of the Cussler expertise. Entertaining DESPITE my usual plea for the factory to STOP putting Cussler in his books as a character. It's off-putting, juvenile and distracting to the goal of writing thrillers that aren't resolved by a mysterious man of a certain age and a certain ability to provide help from out of nowhere. Lazy writing. But the rest of the book is worth 10 Kovids.
As much as I miss Veronica Mars, I miss the Montreal Expos more. And the World Hockey Association. Two enterprises that needed documenting. And to a certain extent, Jonah Keri and Howard Baldwin have done exactly that. (You'll have to excuse the direct Amazon links, what with these books not fitting into the FICTION part of Fantastic Fiction).
Keri was an Expo fan who was there when Coco Laboy made the nascent Expos the story of Canada's baseball team. I'm from Toronto and cheered on the Expos in their opening-day win over the New York Mets waaaaaaay back last century. Keri details the rise and subsequent painful fall of Les Expos from the pained point of view of a Montreal fan, even after the team had fallen to second in the heart's of Canada. Keri's who's now one of the leading baseball scribes in the business, makes no bones about what Up, Up and Away is: A love poem to the team that was Canada's team before they became the Washington Nationals and left a whole country to cheer for MY home town Toronto Blue Jays. Up, Up and Away is a chronicling, year by year, of the Expos as they became the model modern day major league baseball franchise, culminating in being the best team in the game ... in the year they canceled the World Series. The year Bud Selig and the burghers of baseball stopped a third straight Canadian World Series triumph, following up on the two-time world champion Blue Jays. while that decision broke the spirit here in Toronto too, it proved fatal for the shoestring-budgeted Expos. There's so much heart in this book that Keri brings a rival's team's fate near and dear to my heart too. It's not a fresh release, but I read it in 2014 and I'm glad that I did.
Howard Baldwin's Slim and None isn't exclusively WHA, but it's got more details from one of the wildest and wackiest sports enterprises that ever existed. The rise of Baldwin, a ticket salesman for the Philadelphia Flyers, into the ownership of the New England/Hartford Whalers and later multiple NHL teams and even later into becoming an Oscar-winning Hollywood producer, is wacky all by itself. But the WHA parts is what makes this book a great read. As we now face a time when Gordie Howe might not be with us much longer, it's an interesting read as to how the 'Howe Family to the WHA' storyline developed and the behind the scenes maneuvering that brought the whole thing to fruition. It's timely, which is unfortunate. And it's a good read, which is just the opposite.
Leonard Wibberley broke big in the 50's with The Mouse That Roared, the story of The Grand Duchy of Fenwick going to war with the United States and defeating America with a handful of bowmen and a string of fortune that beggars incredulity. And thus was born the Grand Fenwick series. In each book, Wibberley would find a way for his perpetually stuck-in-the-past little Duchy to have sweetness and honesty (well, almost complete honesty) and memories of better days gone by succeed when intent and greed work against it. And somehow the Duchy always seems to be pulling the world's bacon out of the fire while doing it. Last year, I re-read The Mouse on Wall Street one evening when looking for something light and frothy and fun and a quick read. Check, check, check and CHECK!! It's difficult to find anything to complain about the book or ANY of the books in the series. Unless you're a too big for your britches Wall Street financier. Then, you might be shown for the type A person you are. The rest of us? We will all just enjoy the read.
And now we come to the conclusion of this year's list. Honestly, this really isn't the ChickLit section. More properly, this section should be ... gasp! The ROMANCE section!!!!
it was the first week of January and I was enjoying that time early in the year when the glow of Christmas is still all about and nobody's mind is back to work yet. And there I was reading one of the newfangled Marvel Comics prose novels. It was Marta Acosta's The She-Hulk Diaries. Now in my defence, I've been a long-time fan of Hulkie's lawyer cousin Jen, who Stan Lee turned into a distaff Hulk to protect Marvel's trademark, copyright and any other creative rights he could wrap up by making a She-Hulk before his Distinguished Competition could do the same thing. In name only, of course. She Hulk has been through a lot over the years, including five, if memory serves correct, solo series starring the jade-hued giantess. She-Hulk has been treated seriously and seriously made fun of. She's been part of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and other teams I'm having trouble remembering right now. She's been drawn by the likes of John Byrne and artists who shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as John Byrne. But her adventures have been entertaining more often than not.
Still, it was with little expectation that I picked up Acosta's book. And what I got was a healthy does of Sex in the City wrapped up in a black and green wrapper straight from the funny books. It was a romance of unrequited love and still filled with, you know, strong woman stuff. Like throwing trains around strong woman stuff. Not strong willed. Far from it. Turns out Jen's a bit of a wreck. And forlorn. Which can be a dangerous combination. Albeit, a hilarious combination.
I've tried writing/explaining/excusing about why and how it came to be that I read a Romance book. And I liked it. That IS how the refrain goes, doesn't it? There, I've said it. It bears never repeating again. But I read a Romance book in 2014, gave it 10 Kovids and plan to never do it again. Promise. Really, I promise. Probably.
2014's done and gone. I hope to do better in 2015.