I have been an utter slacker as a blogger during the last year. However, I have been reading, and here are the most notable books that I read and liked. Although most have been published recently, not all of them are new, some were published quite a while ago.
I loved this series (see my earlier reviews for Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War), which is an alternate history take on what would happen if the Nazis had supermen fighting British warlocks, both factions controlled by their respective spy cabinets. While the first novel took place in World War 2, the second one was in the Cold War era, this book has one of the main characters, Marsh, traveling back in time to WW2 to change history. I was worried I wouldn't remember events from the first book and this wasn't a problem--you get all the information you need as you read. Interesting how the two versions of Marsh are kept distinct: the future version has first person chapters while the one in WW2 has third person. A few interludes are from Gretel's POV, her ability to see the future is terrifying.
This book is dynamite, it combines a New York City cop procedural with Ellis' love of history and technology. John Tallow is the detective who stumbles into an apartment filled with guns, each of which has been used in an unsolved murder case. There is a story behind each of the guns, the room, and the killer who collected them. Ellis has a profane sense of humor that helps keep the story from getting too dark. He also gives Tallow a fun supporting cast in the two CSU characters, Scarlotta and Bat.
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
I listened to the audio book version, narrated by Reg E. Cathey from the Wire, who was fantastic. One of the best audiobooks I've ever experienced, I read that he was Ellis' top choice. Cathey's voice is dark and gritty during the intense scenes, light and sloppy during the funny scenes with Bat and Scarly. He even does a great Easter European mobster voice in one scene. Cathey has a fantastic range and this book gives a place to showcase that talent.
The Dinner starts off with the narrator (Paul) telling you with some dread about a dinner he and his wife Claire are going to with his brother (Serge) and his wife Babette. It's a very expensive restaurant and for the first few chapters, you think it's about yuppies and there's some extra marital affair going on. There's much more to be revealed, and the narrator in this book is somewhat unreliable, much like in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I couldn't see the twists coming and I was so absorbed I had to finish this in one day.
Where have these books been all my life? I've been looking for them.
This book was an utter delight to read. I saw Sanderson at a bookstore and when he related his idea to take his epic fantasy world for Mistborn into several different eras, I was sold. In this new series the world of Mistborn has evolved to the dawn of the Industrial Age. Electricity has come to the city of Elendel and there are trains delivering people and goods to the Roughs (frontier towns). Wax is the central character of the book, he's a sheriff in the Roughs but also possesses one Mistborn power (Coinshot) and one Feruchemical power (weight control). Wax suffers a big loss in the first chapter and goes back to live in the city to help restore his late Uncle's estate. Unfortunately for Wax, his partner in solving crimes, Wayne, has followed him there. Wayne is a character, able to imitate different accents and wears various disguises. He also has 2 cool powers on his own.
Most novels involving super powered beings almost always disappoint. The big exception previously was Wild Cards, but Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson sets a new standard for this type of material. It's got super powered people, called Epics, hardly any of them are heroes but become dictators and crime-lords. Steelheart controls the city of Chicago, who has transformed it into an efficient police state patrolled by lesser Epics and jackbooted police Enforcers. David, the narrator, sees his father killed by Steelheart upon his arrival and dedicates his life to enacting revenge. He meets up with a small guerrilla army dedicated to killing Epics. I think this story works well because the revenge premise is simple and gut level, yet how do you a kill a Superman? It also works as a dystopian novel, the entire world is changed by these beings and nothing is the same after they appear. There are also no costumes. Plenty of in joke references to comics creators in certain building names and street addresses.
This novel has literally blown my mind! The concepts around the Rithmatist, Rithmatics, chalkings, magical drawings that come alive to provide both offense and defense are staggering. While the book is aimed at younger readers, anyone who thrilled to the Harry Potter books will love this one. The lead character is Joel, the son of a chalk maker who attends a school for the mages known as Rithmatists. Joel himself is a non-Rithmatist, who nonetheless has studied the art & science of Rithmatics to a near fanatical degree. When young Rithmatist children start disappearing, Joel and his somewhat unconfident Professor, Fitch, become entangled in the investigation. The world these characters are placed in is one of the most imaginative I've ever read. An alternate version of the United States where each state is broken up into a separate island, where Europe was conquered by Asian nations and South America is dominated by Aztecs.
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen
Incredibly funny and twisted, this book by Hiaasen is his turn at detective procedural set in Key West and the Bahamas, featuring an insane cast of characters. I listened to the audiobook version read by Arte Johnson (of Laugh-In fame). Johnson is great at doing all the various accents. Yancy is the prime character, a detective with the Key West police department who gets busted down to "roach inspector" after an altercation with his lover's husband. The discovery of an arm in the ocean just can't stop his instincts from taking over and he uncovers a much deeper crime than an actual murder. As usual there are incompetent crooks, real estate developers, and corrupt policemen to keep the whole thing off-kilter and funny as heck. The actual bad monkey himself becomes quite a character in the overall plot. Hmmm...I wonder what would happen if the Bad Monkey ever met Clinton Tyree, aka Skink?
Little Known Facts by Christina Sneed
I was in the mood for a good Hollywood novel about how the rich & famous aren't very happy. However, this turned out to be a great novel because of the author's skill at writing from different perspectives. Renn Ivins is an aging superstar (think George Clooney if he had been married multiple times) actor & director who is the Sun and everyone else (son, daughter, ex-wives, lovers) is orbiting him. Each chapter is told not only from a different perspective but a different narration style: 1st person, 3rd person, 2nd person, etc. There are mysteries mentioned in one chapter and revealed in another one. In the opening chapter, Renn is directing a movie in New Orleans and asks his son, Will, to fly over and be his assistant for a few weeks. Will is over-spoiled by a multi million dollar trust fund, with no need to work, he seems incapable of making a phone call to a publicist for his father. Will cannot seem to move forward in his life because of his father's fame--he gets hung up on a 25 year old actress that his Dad is romantically involved with. At the same time, poor Will's girlfriend is also crushing on Renn. Will's sister Anna seems better adjusted--she's studying to be a doctor--but later you learn that her parents divorce has messed her up romantically as well. Later there are chapters from Renn's first wife, second wife, girlfriend, even an obsessed fan that steals things from Renn's dressing room. Very well written with lots of insight about why we are obsessed with famous celebrities but also how families fall apart.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The translator did a terrific job of making the story and setting relatable to people in the United States, changing the references to smartphones we know and sites like YouTube. In some cases his choices clash a bit, for example a reference to Oprah even though they are living in the Netherlands. But I think the success of this book in the US currently is certainly attributable to a great job of translation and adaption.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
I read this book in 1 day, it was possessed me from the start and wouldn't let go. Dana is a young african american woman living in Los Angeles with Kevin, circa 1976. For reasons unexplained, Dana is pulled through time and space to travel back to Maryland in the 1800s, where she is sent to rescue Rufus, the white son of a slaveowner. There is a reason why she gets pulled back in time and a reason why she returns back to 1976. She can spend months in this previous time and can return to find out only a few hours have passed. Dana experiences slavery firsthand, the whippings, the beatings, the threat of rape. There is an interesting contrast to her modern day relationship with Kevin and he is not left entirely out of this process. Dana is much more cool and collected than I would be in this situation and pieces together some of the mysteries fairly quickly. It's not an inspiring book, it's ultimately depressing, but you come out of it feeling like you experienced this holocaust from a modern first person perspective.
2013: The Year I Discovered Brandon Sanderson.
The Mistborn trilogy (Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages)
The action combined with the magic system makes this novel read like Star Wars combined with LOTR. That would be a good analogy but the creation of Allomancy and how the magical Mistborn use the burning of metals to achieve their powers is 100 times better than Lucas' use of the Force. There is a price to pay for using magic and it doesn't last forever. The Force example is a good one, because the Mistborn can Pull and Push other metals and even their own bodies in the air, their battles resemble what it would be like if beings using the Force were unleashed.
The characters in this series are memorable. It doesn't hurt that the lead character is a young woman named Vin, who starts out as a skaa (a lowly thief) and becomes a Mistborn through the tutelage of her mentor, Kelsier. She doesn't achieve the mastery over these powers without a lot of scars. Kelsier himself is quite a character with a rich backstory. There is only one part of the book that fell a bit flat to me, and that was the romance between Vin and Elend. But it's great to see a woman like Vin as the main protagonist and going on a Hero's Journey, which forms the structure for the first novel.
The second novel does drag a bit and there were times I wanted to stop reading, mostly in frustration of the character of Elend. I was glad that I stuck through it, because the latter part of the novel has a great climax and a setup for the final volume.
The third and final part of the trilogy gets off to a rollicking start and I even liked Elend after he went through some major life changes. The novel does drag a bit, but all the continued patience of the reader is thoroughly paid off as Sanderson answers many mysteries behind Vin's powers, her relationship with the mist, her brother Reen, as well as the Kandra, the Inquisitors, the Koloss, etc. Unlike some TV writers who create mysteries without knowing where they are going, Sanderson seems to be a very good architect and his payoffs are well worth it. And having all this knowledge about the world he created is just perfect when you get to...
The Alloy of Law
Allow of Law was such a fun read because of the high adventure (Mistborn powers in an industrial age is cool), romance (Sanderson did a much better job making me believe in that angle than in previous books), but most of all, the humorous banter between Wax and Wayne! Fortunately there will be more books featuring them together
The only problem is by the end of the book you will be begging for more. I just saw Sanderson at a signing and asked him why the Steelheart sequel would appear before Rithmatist 2. He said it was because he wrote Rithmatist a while ago and while he has outlines/notes on the story, getting back into the world takes some effort, while Steelheart is fresher in his mind. Either way I can't read to both of them.
Incidentally, I read almost all my books on a Kindle. However, for the Rithmatist, I picked up a hardbound copy at the signing and was immediately struck by how much richer and vibrant the reading experience was on paper! This is a handsome volume with artwork, drawings, book design that match the story. e-Ink just can't match the physical experience on this one.
Those were my highlights for fiction reading in 2013. Feel free to follow my reading activity over at GoodReads. Nuff Said!