Friday, January 01, 2016

My Top 25 (or so) Books of 2015

First, let me start by pointing out NOT to bother counting how many books are in my Top 25. I MIGHT have enjoyed MORE books than that number to the fullest extent of the Kovid scale and I think trying to hit 25 right on the nose. And of course, my favourite book of the year turns out to be eight books in all. I admit to my mathematical failings completely.

What is The Kovid Scale. It's a one-to-ten scale named after the originator of the Calibre eBook Database program. It is quite possibly the most important piece of software on my computer. Helped a little in the early days getting it going. That makes me feel good. But I haven't had an idea worth fixing or implementing in years at this point. Kovid Goyal has assembled a dedicated team of programmers to update the program on a virtual WEEKLY basis. I think there were 46 updates in 2015. But I might have mentioned previously that, of late, math is not my strong suit. But regardless of whether I'm off by an update or three, the shear doggedness of Kovid et al in making a FREE program WORTH PAYING MONEY for, is worth a donation here via button in the upper right hand corner. Get it if you do ANY eBook collecting, whether through Amazon or not. It's simply an amazing piece of software.

All of the books I write about (except in a couple of comparisons) I rated as 10 Kovids out of a possible score of ten. That's NOT to say that each book is perfect or even great literature. The Kovid scale is based purely on my enjoyment of the process of reading the book, whether I devoted time to reading it rather than watching TV, eating, sleeping or (sorry about this Boss) doing money-making work.

Take for example, Aliette de Bodard's multi-award nominated SF book, On a Red Station, Drifting. It's easy to see why that three-part novella had chins wagging and typists typing. It's flowery with outstanding imagery and solid extrapolation of a future Vietnamese-based society. But for me, getting through all of that mannered description was TOO MUCH HARD WORK. So, I abandoned the book two-thirds of the way through it. The book (yes, I'm calling a novella a book, as I do three short stories on this list) is not in my Top 25. Reading for me, is either work-related or fun. I want a page turner that brings a smile to my face every now and then. Don't much like horror in any form nor incessant crude language. I want to escape my current existence and be somewhere else for a few hours.

Or a lot of hours in the case of the eight books in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Anniversary Day Saga, which takes place in her Retrieval Artist universe set a hundred years from tomorrow. The Moon is colonized and humanity has found a working relationship with various alien species by adopting one set of over-riding laws: The Law of the Land (Society or Planet) prevails. So Humans have to behave as per the local customs when they step outside the confines of our solar system. Which, being human, they frequently don't. This leads to the creation of Retrieval Artists, detectives of a sort who search for people who have abandoned their life because of a ruling that they have contravened the laws somewhere else. Often draconian laws that go beyond death sentences to having their children taken away. Rusch does an immensely good job of constructing believable aliens that really aren't just humans with funny nose appliances. In particular, the Peyti. There's a bit of a Jewish allegory here, but it's in the background rather than being heavy-handed.

The prior books in the main series present a truly unique detective noire approach to a possible future, that has been detailed in seven books I've enjoyed immensely over the years. What takes this year's effort by Rusch to another level is that she churned out the last six books of the series so that her publisher, WMG, could release them one a month for the first half of the year. In October, I sat down and read the complete set of books in a fortnight. And these weren't novellas, not at all, on average being 350-page books, thank her very much! But she constructed this decades-long battle by subversives to break the federation of planets and their Law of the Land, terrorizing the Moon multiple times over. It's a mystery and a conspiracy thriller all wrapped up in one (or rather eight) books. It's a wonderful accomplishment by a writer who also publishes a short story EVERY Monday and blogs incessantly about the business of being a writer. How she does it, I am completely baffled. I hear she doesn't sleep. And unlike writing factories like Clive Cussler and James Patterson, she does ALL the writing in these books. Did I mention she also writes romance and mysteries TOO?!?!

Now, I'd start by reading the first seven books in the Retrieval Artist series (there's a couple of short stories involved too). But if you don't want to spend three months in one place in space, I think you could probably just dive in with Anniversary Day. Blowback and A Murder of Clones also came out in hardcover before this year. But I read eBooks and paperbacks, so as far as I'm concerned, A Murder of Clones got January off to a good start. After that, Search & Recovery, The Peyti Crisis, Vigilantes, Starbase Human and then the finale, Masterminds, completes the intra-series.

I DID have quibbles. Masterminds STILL leaves a few threads unravelled, in particular a murder by some cops. Miles Flint comes across as slightly too rigid to be believable where it comes to his daughter Talia, a clone of his actual real daughter, dead since the first book in the whole series. He tries to give Talia everything, other than honest support as she goes through HER troubles assimilating losing her mother and discovering her father is far from dead, as her mother had told her. I honestly assume I would break every single self-rule I ever imposed, if given a second chance like he gets. On the other hand, Talia spends so much time in panic mode that I find THAT a tad unbelievable. Although, I admit, I've never been a teenage girl and never lost-- and found-- a parent. Still, the uber-smart and talented Talia is played for more of a victim than a heroine to save the day. I wanted to scream at the both of them. "TALK TO EACH OTHER!!!" So, I guess, that says it all about these books. I was invested.

KK Rusch's Anniversary Day saga is the most enjoyable book of the year. All 2000+ pages of it. George R. R. Martin, eat your heart out!!

What WOULD have been the book of the year had I not spent October mooning over Rusch's writing? Honestly, it would have been a baseball fantasy by Bill Branger called The New York "Yanquis" or a short story about feudal Japan, with fantasy underpinnings, called Only A Shadow by Steve Bein. Bein's first book in the Fated Blades series won the top spot two years ago, and you will find the series capper a little bit further down. But I can't believe how delightful a little slice of life in Bein's series was. And we are certainly in a new world, where a writer like Bein, can find himself with a little story that can't fit into his novels but that he can release as a short story electronically that took less than an hour to read. I'm hoping we do hear from Tada in the future.

Branger's book was a tour-de-farce, postulating a time that has now come and gone, where a bombastic owner of the New York Yankees could get so disgusted with his team of over-paid, under-performing superstars and decides to replace the lot with Cubans. Embargoed Cubans. How that is done and what happens next, had me laughing throughout. It's a delight little book, told from the viewpoint of a tired old pitcher on his last leg with an uncertain future in automotive sales before becoming the guy to wrangle all of these young and naive baseball wunderkinds from Fidel Castro era Cuba.

So, we're up to ten recommended books at this point. Now's the time to put them out there in no particular order. I'll do it by niche. If you aren't into SF or computers or whatever, you can skip those parts. I promise you that there are super-entertaining reads scatted throughout these sections. Pick and choose according to your preferences.

Science Fiction

This is the domain of Jack Campbell and Mike Shepherd. And sure enough, both writers are here. Shepherd for just the second book in the Vicky Peterwald series, Survivor, because I didn't get the annual Kris Longknife book until this past week. So, just the single Shepherd entry. Peterwald and Longknife share the same crazy SF universe. Both are princesses, Longknife using her position to make life better for humanity. Peterwald's the spoiled opposite who has seen the error of her ways and is trying to make up for lost time. Shepherd is innovative alien-wise and seems to have an interesting insight into the Machiavellian intrigues of courts, good or bad. And let's face it, I LOVE anything Shepherd writes.

Or that Campbell writes. Which explains ...

Campbell hits the list FIVE times altogether. Campbell's original Lost Fleet series has now spun off to produce top-notch fourth and fifth books in the Beyond the Frontier intra-series follow-up called Steadfast and Leviathan respectively while the OTHER off-shoot of Lost Fleet, The Lost Stars series #3, Imperfect Sword, that follows one of the losing group in the original series to interesting places. It's becoming more and more apparent that trust is building between President Gwen Iceni and General Artur Drakon in Imperfect Sword. That trust now seems built on actual action, rather than being forced upon them by circumstances, which is good for the newly independent Midway star system. The budding democracy there is entertaining, as was Steadfast and Leviathan, where Black Jack Geary performs his strategic masterpieces to battle a new enemy from an old foe. The AI (artificial intelligence) warships have been created to battle Geary's space Navy with Geary's own history of tactics forming the AI's strategies. What's worse, Geary's battle to the death is against an armada created by a splinter group of his own commanding officers, led by an admiral with a grudge and no clue what evil he has unleashed.

A three-story collection of Novella's called Swords and Saddles adds to the Campbell claim to fame. Three very strong stories, including what might be called the fourth story in the Paul Sinclair (think JAG in space) series. But the true gem is the first story, The Rift that tells the story of valiant marines not only surviving against intractable odds, but actually winning a battle that seems impossible, but logical in its conclusion.

That leaves me with one further Campbell book, but that is in the Fantasy section.

And what would a SF section be without a NINTH book from Rusch, this one a novella in the Diving Universe series of books and shorter stories. The Application of Hope provides readers with greater depth of understanding of the distance-hopping foldspace technology that fuels the series with stories from all over the universe. It's a tale of hope sustained, realized and ultimately doomed. Heart wrenching. 

Continuing on with SF, we have The Martian by Andy Weir, Murder in Orbit by Bruce Coville, Andromeda's War by William C. Dietz, Lock In by John Scalzi, Cutting Edge by Kendrick E. Knight, Red Tide by Larry Niven and Battle Cruiser by B.V. Larson. That's a pretty good list of constant favourites (Dietz, Scalzi and Niven) with four newcomers to my recommended author's list.

Dietz' book is the concluding book in the Prequel trilogy to the Legion of the Damned series of books. Whew! It features the heroics of one-time Royal, Andromeda McKee, now a leading presence in Dietz' imagined continuation of the French Foreign Legion in space. My next door neighbour would hate this book on principle alone, but Andromeda makes for a fierce warrior who finds ways out of pickles and into the halo of victory.

Contrasting that military SF are a couple of impact technologies books. Niven's book is an expansion of his short story Flash Crowd. It's actually Niven writing with Brad Torgerson and Matthew Harrington, rather than going it alone. So the writing isn't completely smoothed out. But this examination of what personal teleportation could mean in a future Los Angeles. Makes you think. A lot. Niven, with or without co-writers, is always worth reading. Scalzi has continued his clever extrapolation ways as he combines the effects of a global pandemic that creates bed-ridden sufferers unable to move a muscle, along with the ability of some people, especially the locked in ones, to temporarily take over the bodies of other people. It leads to a most unusual society and a difficult one for newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane, who needs to solve a diabolical murder. On his first day on the job. Scalzi's long hot streak continues.

The newcomers did it different ways. 'It' being making this list. Weir's book is very much better than the big summer movie. More details, more sense of impending futility to our wayward Martian's survival. Worth the time to read ... even if you saw the movie. Coville's book is a young adult novel that features Rusty McPhee, a child in a man's environment--a space station. McPhee finds a (presumed dead) body while working in the waste disposal unit. He tries to report that, but the necessarily super-efficient waste processing destroys the evidence. And that's not the only murder. So how does this 'Boy Who Called Murder' go about nabbing the bad guy before the bad guy bags him? Good stuff. Larson's book is, what else, another Military SF book, a start to a new series, and a book that can compete in the Jack Campbell stratosphere. Larson's accomplished in the niche and this book left me looking for more. Recommended goes without saying. The Kendrick book also kicks off a series. It's wildly imaginative, laugh out loud funny and lots of fun to read. The follow-up didn't quite match the mania of the original, so I'm only awarding Cutting Edge a perfect ten. But the second Nick Blade book is fun too and I'm looking forward to Knight continuing the series.


In the Dark Ages, information was hoarded like it was gold. Unfortunately, hoarding information became endemic and remains to this day. Jack Campbell has taken that idea and run with it in creating the Pillars of Reality series. Mari is a Mechanic, a guild member that has not only been taught the art of making machines work, but is even a sort of computer expert. Think "Steam Punk" computers, Mari being a master already with legendary prowess before being out of her teens. Campbell realises you basically have to have magic in a fantasy and he sets up Alain of the Mage's Guild to be the yin to Mari's yang. Alain operates under the belief that the world is nothing but an illusion, to change as he desires, leaving him with all of the social skills of a juvenile rhinoceros. The two have a meet cute that's supposed to end with them both being dead. Instead the two of them spend all of The Dragons of Dorcastle finding a way to truly communicate, despite their upbringings. I really enjoyed this departure from space opera that Campbell (actually John Hemry) has mastered. The second book was like the second Knight book. Good, just not perfect. And I now have the third volume, ready to include it in NEXT year's Top 25.

Putting Steve Bein's Disciple of the Wind here is a requirement due to the magical elements emanating from the Inazuma Blades down through the years in Japan. Present day Tokyo cop Mariko Oshiro has her hands full with the crazed antics of The Wind leader, Joko Daishi. Daishi's a nutcase with access to a magic sword AND a demon mask that lets him create a showdown with Oshiro despite being shot point blank by one of his followers and generally getting beat up whenever he and Oshiro go head to head. Tokyo is terrorized in ways ISIS could never imagine. Well, that is until the finale. Oshiro's world crumbles a lot in this book, what with her going rogue and being off the force for most of it. The present day stuff is balanced against the late 16th century tale of Daigoro, the Bear Cub, recovering HIS Inazuma Blade, his name and his lands. That's really the stuff I was most interested in, because the Joko Daishi stuff was a bit beyond the pale of belief. But it's all good Japanese stuff and a treat to read and be informed.


A novel and a bio. The novel is Mike Lupica's Fantasy League. The bio? Keith Glass' Taking Shots.

While Fantasy League wasn't the only YA I read that mined the same territory (kid trying to make it as a football player in the local youth league, while having an in with the owner of the local NFL outfit), it merited mention here instead of Tim Green's effort because of heart and likability. Charlie 'The Brain' Gaines has a girl for a best friend and that girl is the grand-daughter of the pro team owner. He's a wiz with tactics, not so much with his body. He, Anna and Grandpa Joe make for a quirky, if uber likable lot. The ending is pure schmaltz. Just what I wanted.

Keith Glass is a sports agent with a conscience. A rarity. He's also a man who has spanned College, NBA and Minor League basketball in a way that I found fascinating and informative. He played and coached in high school and college. And he's represented all-pros and never-were NBA pros. He's the Jewish agent who represented Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), the Muslim who wouldn't stand for the American anthem. His clients included players who were colossal failures and some who were colossal over-achievers. He even makes sense out of family friend Larry Brown.


Jennifer Lynn Barnes is a master of YA fantasy but takes a shot at teenagers and back room deals in The Fixer. It's a determined move into the Ally Carter oeuvre and it's really a good read. The anger that exists with sixteen year old Tess Kendrick as she's forced to move cross-country and into the home of her older sister Ivy is a bit of a reach. But if you buy the "you abandoned me" rationale for the tension, then the rest of this book will be easy. There's a lot more to the book than sisterly disaffection. Both sisters are 'fixers,' experts at getting through problems for other people. It's an ability with power inherent. And naturally, the needs of both fixers come into conflict. Just how do they fix their relationship AND handle a crisis in the country that includes death in the White House? Looking very much forward to the sequel in mid-year.


Joel Spolsky's Smart and Gets Things Done is a book from the early Aughts. A lot of the book is outdated in terms of names. But the concept of creating an IT department or a pool of programmers with ideas is timeless. I'm still a one-man programming shop, but I feel like I'd be a bit better prepared if I was to suddenly win the lottery and start up a team to do the coding while I just Architect the software. And really, if you were wondering why I'd keep working after winning the lotto, don't be. I really enjoy the creative process. Would not want to quit, no way, no how.

I struggled with whether to put the Linus Torvalds' biography, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, in the Computer section or into Non-Fiction. But it ended up here because some of the geek-speak in the book would be a turn off with all the technological details. It's a fascinating book about a fascinating man, even if he calls journalists (I'm a past member) 'scum.' The sections written by co-author Dan Diamond read like magazine interviews with lots of tech data and 'what we were doing during the interview' distractions. But Linus on Linus is pretty raw and I find that I like Linus a whole lot. Still don't use his O/S, but I respect him immensely after reading how the solitary by nature Finn took on Microsoft and Apple to more than hold his own in the world of operating systems today.


Porter Erisman was the lone Westerner in on the beginning of Jack Ma's uber-UBER-successful Alibaba, the Chinese answer to Google, eBay and Amazon. It's bigger than all three now. But it wasn't a mere dozen years ago after Ma, an English Teacher in a far-off part of China who overcame failing his college entrance exams TWICE, started the journey to global domination by starting the little Internet company he called Alibaba. The journey from a hole in the wall office to where they are now makes for interesting reading by Erisman, who completely puts aside his ego in telling the story of the company in Alibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business. Really informative.

Mysteries and Thrillers

If you skipped the Fantasy section, go back for Steve Bein's book. Just think of the 'fantastical' elements as hallucinations and misperceptions. If you have ANY interest in modern day or feudal day Japan, the book qualifies here too.

A handful of series continuations (I live for series), with two of them extensions of cancelled TV shows. Greg Cox brings back the Leverage gang for The Bestseller Job. If you liked Leverage and who DOESN'T LOVE caper shows?, then the extra hook here is the ability to imagine writing a best-selling book overnight. I miss the show, but not as much now.

And Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham are continuing the Veronica Mars universe with the second book as the follow up to the TV show. Mr. Kiss and Tell has Veronica making the move back to detective from New York lawyer, much to her father's continued consternation. The whole gang's back (even Logan) for yet another sheriff election in Neptune. Full of witty repartee and unwitting danger. More of the same, but with a more adult edge then we are used to. Wish Thomas could find time for another movie.

And of course, what would any Top 25 list be, if John Sandford wasn't on it. Not a great year for Lucas Davenport, but he's at least present and partially accounted for as a supporting rol in the latest Virgil Flowers book, Storm Front. Take the most laid-back of all laid-back detectives in the employ of the Minnesota BCA and match him with a Mossad agent with an agenda. Did I mention how sexy the female agent is? How distracted Flowers almost becomes? Of course, having the Middle East and all of its troubles come to Minnesota does have some dangerous implications. At the end, Flowers finds the stone at the heart of all of this and a few more places to toss out his fishing line. That IS why they call him That F'in' Flowers, isn't it?

Now, going 180 degrees away from discussing epithets starring Virgil Flowers, let me praise the fifth Theodore Boone book by John Grisham, called The Fugitive. Well, maybe not 180 degrees, unless you focus in on Theo Boone being a kid lawyer in the making. Not like youngish adult, no like YA. This outing sees Theo off to Washington for some school trip learnin' only to see the Pet Lawyer and son of lawyers, young Boone turn into sleuth Theo Boone. There's a bad guy from an earlier book in the series that needs nabbing. Will Theo re-direct his future ambition to becoming an FBI agent? Well, been there, done that rules that out, I think. DO NOT let the YA label put you off. Pay more attention to the Grisham name on the cover.

I've exchanged words with Lee Goldberg over my (slight) disappointment in his O'Hare and Fox (or is it Fox and O'Hare?) books. Liked the debut novella and the first two books in the series. Decent enough reads. But with Goldberg teaming up with chicklit superstar Janet Evanovich, who I also adore for here Stephanie Plum series, I expected rapid-fire 10 Kovid recommendations for the next few years. Goldberg, the man behind MOST of the Mr. Monk novels and several loved standalones, and I verbally sparred over my not being over the moon. I said I anticipated better, he said look at the sales stats. Could hundreds of thousands of readers be wrong? I let the matter drop. Mostly because I KNEW 2015 had started off with the third book in the series, The Job, earning 10 Kovids. I've described this series as a modern-day Nick and Nora Charles. I'll stick with that. It's the best parts of two REALLY GREAT writer's, adding RomCom sensibilities to Goldberg's tension-filled writing about exotic locales. It's almost the perfect caper book in a series about capers. Now, I hope Lee won't notice that the fourth book, The Scam, missed the list (Hate cliff-hangers when I was going to read the next book ANYWAY)

Lastly, a standalone short story by Andy McDermott, doing some sideline work while away from the Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase books. Murder on the Orient Excess is a superb locked room (on an airplane) murder mystery starring infuriating know-it-all Leviticus Gold. He's sort of the opposite of Sherlock Holmes, while sharing the eagle eye for detail. I really hope the story turns into an ongoing series. So should you.


So, how many books did this whole list eventually come to. If you got thirty-seven, then I think I agree with you. That's 37 out of the approximately 105 books, novellas and short stories I got through this year. Pretty good average. Most are gimmes coming from existing series that I have enjoyed a lot. Still, it makes it obvious why I so enjoy reading.

Hope you have as good a year and an even better 2016!

[EDIT] For reasons best left blamed on health, old age and a rush to get the job done this year, the list originally failed to include John Grisham's The Fugitive and Lee Goldberg and Janet Evanovich's The Job, both properly now placed in the Mysteries/Thrillers section. Jan 13/2015

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