Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Favorite Reads of 2013

2013During the course of 2013, I read 159 books.  Some were audio books, some were collections of comic books, some were published this year, some were not.  Looking back, these are my favorite reads of the year.

If you haven’t read any of these yet and are looking for something to read in 2014, I highly recommend all of them.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
This one had been sitting on the to-be-read stack for a long time and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it this year.   The story of two Jewish immigrants who pioneer one an iconic comic book line during the golden age of the medium.  Fascinating, compelling and one of those books that was over far too soon, but still left me utterly satisfied.

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
One of those books that I couldn’t tear myself away from.  Full of people making horrible decisions and have the worst possible outcome.  It’s like a season of Breaking Bad on the printed page.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Any year with a new novel by Gaiman is a good thing.  When it’s his first novel written for older readers in a long time and it turns out to be this good, it’s a wonderful reading experience.

The Onion Girl by Charles DeLint
Every time I read anything by DeLint, I keep wondering why I haven’t read more by him.  Set in his mythical town of Newford, The Onion Girl brings Jilly front and center, filling in her backstory and exploring her character fully.  Not a great entry point for DeLint, I’ll admit, but it’s still great.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This is one I picked up after seeing it on a number of other “best of 2013” lists.   While visiting an art museum, young Theo Decker is caught in a bombing that kills his mother and finds him with a rare piece of artwork tucked into his backpack.  The novel unfolds as the story of Decker’s ups and downs from that time (a lot of downs).  A rich use of language and some compelling passages make this one of those books that will have you sit back and marvel at how well constructed some of the sentences and passages are.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Gailbraith
While I may not have found this books as quickly had the publisher let the cat out of the bag that Gailbraith is really J.K. Rowling, I hope that I would have eventually stumbled across this one.  A solid, entertaining mystery with a couple of new, interesting character additions to the genre.  Put aside any pre-conceived notions about Harry Potter and give this one a try.

Tempest by Julie Cross
A young adult time-travel romance.  Jackson Myer is a nineteen-year-old college freshman who is totally in love with his girlfriend, Holly.  He also has the ability to jump back in time.  All is going well until one day, Holly is killed and Jackson jumps back in time two years and can’t get back to his own time to try and save her.  What unfolds is a well done, compelling and believable romance all within a story that examines the implications and impact of time travel.  There’s more to the time travel aspect that initially meets the eye and I’m curious to see what Cross will do in the next novel in the trilogy (which is languishing on my to-be-read pile as we speak!)

Joyland by Stephen King
What if Stephen King wrote an episode of Scooby Doo?  That’s the essence of this entry from the Hard Case Crime series. But there’s more to it as a coming of age story and further evidence of King’s later life renaissance.

Snow White Must Die by Nele Nuehuas
The first English-published novel in the Bodenstein and Kirchief series from German writer Neuhaus.   This is actually the fourth in the series and I’m hoping we’ll get the entire series translated sooner rather than later.

Batman: Court of the Owls, City of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Thanks to Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast, I heard a lot of hype about the work that Scott Snyder was doing on the New 52 Batman.   So, I sought out the collection of the Court of the Owls storyline and was prepared for them to not live up to the hype.  Funny thing is that they did live up to the hype.

Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
After two books of teasing us about Sabetha, Lynch brings her fully into the universe of the Gentleman Bastards.  And her effect on Jean and Locke makes for a fun, fantasy novel.  One of the more anticipated books of the year by many and one that lived up to the expectations.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
Another books from the YA section of the library or bookstore.  Senior Ezra Faulkner seems to have it all until a car wreck takes away all of what he thought defined him.  Enter Cassidy Thorpe, the new girl at school and former debate squad queen.   If it sounds like your typical teen angst novel and romance, it’s not.  Schneider zigs when you think she’s going to zag and pulls out some nice surprises.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
This is not a book to read to cure insomnia or to try and wind down for the night.  Haynes’ debut novel is a compelling, character driven mystery and one that had me hooked from the first page.

And one last book that I got to read in 2013 but isn’t hitting library and bookstore shelves until January of 2014.  (Thank you Amazon Vine program)

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
A return to form from Lippman.    Like many of her best works, After I’m Gone looks at the impact a crime has on the characters and community and not just solving the central mystery.  In this case, it’s what happens to the family and mistress of Felix Brewer after he disappears in the night for what many presume are greener pastures.   A stand-alone entry from Lippman but it does have ties to her Tess novels.


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Review: Pandemic by Scott Sigler

Pandemic (Infected #3)

Podcast novelist (and self-proclaimed future dark overlord) Scott Sigler burst onto the horror scene a couple of years ago Infected. If you’ve read (or listened to) Sigler’s original novel, I need only say two words to make you shudder involuntarily — chicken scissors.

With that moment, Sigler created something iconic, memorable and utterly horrifying. And it feels like in many ways, Sigler has been chasing that moment, trying to find that same horrific peak that had this reader glued to the page.

Part of what made that moment work so well wasn’t just the horrific use of the chicken scissors. Part of what made it work was that Sigler had created a character in Perry Dawson that the readers had some investment and relationship with. We cared about what happened to Perry because we’d been included in his apparent descent into madness as a virus from outer space ravaged his body and Perry fought back, desperate to win back control.

It’s that emotional investment in the characters that’s been missing from later Sigler works and is, unfortunately, lacking in his latest novel Pandemic. And for a novel that weighs in at close to five-hundred pages, not having a character or two that we can like, identify with or have some type of investment in their fate means there are large stretches of the story where you’re just waiting around to see how dies next.

And make no mistake — Sigler isn’t afraid to kill of characters. He’s more than willing to create a few dozen and find ways for them to shuffle off this mortal coil in interesting and horrific ways. And there are some genuinely page-turing moments of horror in Pandemic as humanity struggles to fight back against an alien virus that wants to conquer our world and wipe us all out.

But unlike the masters of the horror genre (Stephen King, Richard Matheson), Sigler’s downfall is that we don’t have any characters we can identify with. Both King and Matheson are masters of putting an ordinary, flawed person into a horrifying situation and allowing the reader to see how he or she reacts to the situation unfolding. Sigler had that with Dawson, but has been struggling to find that type of character in each of his novels since.

Reading the novel on the printed page, I kept wondering if Pandemic might be more effective as a podcast novel — unfolding episodically and with time between each segment to allow certain events to sink in a bit more and to forget about other threads that never quite held my interest.

And while Pandemic is an improvement over the second novel of the Infected trilogy, it simply doesn’t come close to the raw, page-turning power that the original installment had. Infected had me losing sleep, eager to read just one more chapter and to see what would happen next. Pandemic has a few such page-turning moments but they’re a bit more scattered across a huge page count.

Pandemic is a good novel that could have been great.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of Pandemic as part of the Amazon vine program in return for a fair, honest review.

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Review: Mystery Girl by David Gordon

Mystery Girl: A Novel

In an early chapter of David Gordon’s Mystery Girl, our first person narrator (and all-around film buff) Sam Kornburg makes reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

If you’re familiar with the film, this reference gives away a lot of what’s to come in the later sections of the novel. It unfortunately takes what could have been a great mystery and turns into it just an interesting one — and one that isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Kornblum is a struggling novelist, perpetually working on a book that eve he acknowledges no one will want to read. When his wife requests a separation, Sam attempts to get his life back in order to win points in their counselling sessions and hopefully win her back. Responding to an advertisement, Sam becomes an assistant to a private detective. His first case is following a woman and keeping tabs on her for his boss.

Sam’s not exactly a professional at the job and he finds himself become more and more fascinated by the woman he’s following. This leads to a far more complex mystery.

As I said earlier, if you’ve seen Vertigo, it’s not difficult to figure out where some of the treads of this story are leading. And while I was initially drawn in by the uber-intellectual that Sam wants to be, I rapidly found his first person narration to be a distraction to the story rather than adding to it.

All of this added up to a rather disappointing mystery and novel. I realize that Gordon isn’t trying to “transcend” the genre of the mystery novel (Sam makes several references to reading pulp mysteries that don’t that) but I kept hoping that the novel would be something more. It’s got some good pieces, but it never adds up to being more than the sum of its parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Ten Tiny Breaths by K.A. Tucker

Ten Tiny Breaths (Ten Tiny Breaths, #1)

Whenever she felt overwhelmed, Kacey Cleary’s mother taught her to stop, pause and take ten tiny breaths to calm down.

Four years after a tragic accident that took her parents, her boyfriend and left Kacey recovering, she’s still using the technique to try and cope with the wounds she still feels — physical, mental and emotional. After her appointed guardians gamble away she and her younger sister’s inheritance and the uncle makes inappropriate advances at the younger sister, the two escape to Miami. Living in a low-rent apartment, Kacey begins to make friends and tries to find a way to help she and her sister play the hand the world has dealt them.

But as much as Kacey tries, there’s still part of her that is angry and hurting from the accident four years before. As various people try to get close to her, she continues to push them away, preferring to hold the world at arm’s length and not acknowledging or dealing with the pain she’s still feeling.

K.A. Tucker’s Ten Tiny Breaths is a fascinating character study of Kacey. And while the novel does have some of the conventions of your typical romance novel (there’s a hunky neighbor who makes Kacey goes weak in the knees from the first time she meets him and there’s even a bit of a love triangle plotline), the story unfolds as almost the opposite of your typical romance. A lot of that lies at the feet of the main character, Kacey, who is conflicted, angry and sarcastic. Kacey’s way of dealing with her family’s death (at first) is by using alcohol, drugs and sex. Determined now to be a better older sister, she’s working to be responsible, even if that means denying herself all the things she wants — and it’s not just the hunky guy in the apartment near by. It’s also putting her dreams of further education on hold to help save up for her sister’s college fund.

At several points during the story, Tucker zigs when you think she’s going to zag and ends up making this novel a much more rewarding and interesting experience for it. There are moments in the story that I became frustrated with Kacey, but I believe that Tucker intended that reaction.

Ten Tiny Breaths wisely focuses on a character arc that is highlighted by romantic elements. An interesting novel that may lead me to giving other installments in this series a try.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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TV Round-Up: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD — The Bridge

shield_thebridgeOn paper, there is a lot I should have liked about the winter finale of Agents of SHIELD.

From familiar faces from the first nine episodes to the promise that certain threads might finally be coming together, I had high hopes for the episode as it unfolded.   Even putting aside the rumors I’d read about the installment having a “huge cliffhanger” that would “leave us guessing,” I kept waiting for that moment when everything would come together, click and I could finally say — “At last, I’m really excited again about this show.”*

*Looking back, I only had to wait 24 hours for a show to do that with the mid-season finale of Arrow that not only delivered on its promise but also raised the game for the second half of the season.

Watching “The Bridge,” I felt that instead of seeing a culmination of some threads from the early part of the season, instead I was getting an episode that suffered from the same thing that many middle installments in a trilogy do — reminding us of what we liked about the original installment but not moving too many things too far forward so we can have something to pay off in the final installment.    Instead of serving as a bridge to the second half of the season, I felt more like “The Bridge” was content to tread water and keep us in the same spot we’ve been the past few weeks.

I feel like a broken record for saying this, but I really, really hope that they do something about what happened to Coulson soon and stop teasing us with it.  Having him kidnapped because of his death may finally force this plot line forward…but then again, I feel like I’ve been hoping for that for weeks now and the show is merely content to tease me on the answers may be coming and then deny them to me again and again.  At some point, the full disclosure of what happened to Coulson will be so built up that no payoff or resolution can ever live up to it.  Has the series reached that point yet?  It’s possible.  I will wait and see if the episode coming out of this hiatus in January offers any answers.

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Review: Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

Bad Wolf

Nele Neuhaus’ American debut with Snow White Must Die put the Bodenstein & Kirchhoff on my mystery radar.

For her next American release, American readers are treated to the sixth novel in the series, Bad Wolf. I’m not sure why the publisher chose to skip the fifth novel in the series, but I’m hoping they’ll eventually translate and publish the entire series for American readers. There are certain events in the personal lives of Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein that are delved into here, but I kept feeling like I’d missed some developments in the fifth book.

Luckily, a solid mystery and intriguing characters help make up for that feeling and put Neuhaus (once again) firmly on my “to be read” list for mystery writers.

When a young woman’s body washes up in a river, Kirchoff and Bodenstein are tasked with finding out who she is and the identity of her killer. Meanwhile, a local talk show host is pursuing a story that could put her back on the map when she’s attacked. There is also a young mother who has concerns about her daughter’s change in behavior while dealing with her husband’s infidelity and the impending arrival of her second child. Set during a heat wave in Germany, these three elements (and a few more) help keep tempers short and emotions just below the surface.

These (at first) disparate plot threads seem to have little or no connection. But as the story unfolds, Neuhaus ably weaves them together, all while ratcheting up the suspense and stakes. Bad Wolf kept my guessing about how the threads would fit together and just who exactly is the lead suspect in the case. And just when I thought I had it all figured out, Neuhaus managed to surprise me.

As I raved with Snow White Must Die, Neuhaus reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George. Bad Wolf reinforces this opinion and only makes me hope that the rest of the series will be translated and published soon. (And hopefully in the published order!)

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Review: Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner

Here’s a word of advice when it comes to Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner — don’t start reading it to get you settled into bed at night or to cure insomnia when you wake up in the middle of the night.

If you do this, be prepare to not get any more sleep and to not care that you’re missing it. Or that your eyes are becoming drowsy, but you just can’t put the book down.

Haynes’ first novel, written during November’s annual novel writing month, is a first-rate suspense thriller. When Catherine meets Lee as the bouncer of a local club, she’s instantly attracted to him. Sparks ignite between the two and soon their flame is burning brightly. But is Lee too good to be true?

Unfortunately for Catherine, the answer is yes. Lee is controlling, manipulative and doesn’t want to let her go.

Years later, now known as Cathy, she’s struggling to start her life over and fight her OCD urges. These urges are having an impact on her professional and personal life. Cathy also knows that Lee will soon be released from prison and could come looking for her, despite her best efforts to vanish and get away from him.

Into her life comes the new neighbor upstairs, a charming man who is willing to help Cathy with her insecurities and possibly learn to trust a man again. But as before, Cathy and we begin to wonder if he’s not too good to be true.

The story unfolds in both the present and the past as we slowly discover what happened to Catherine and what is happening to Cathy. Haynes’ style carries the novel and she knows exactly how to drop hints and clues to keep not only the reader guessing but also make you want to read just one more chapter. Haynes also does a solid job of delivering twists and turns that feel earned and not like they’re thrown in just to keep the novel’s momentum going. She also avoids several cliches and had me second-guessing some of my assumptions about where events would take Catherine/Cathy in the novel.

If you’re looking for a good way to lose sleep, this is just the way to do it.

I know that I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the next offering from Haynes

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Reviews: Attachments, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park

After thoroughly enjoying Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, I was curious and eager to pick up her earlier works, Attachments and Eleanor and Park.

Reading them all within a relatively short span of time may not have been a great idea because I began to notice similarities between all three. These are things I might not necessarily have seen had I read them with a bit more space in them.

Rowell tells the story of unconventional romantic entanglements. But these aren’t necessarily your Hollywood formula romantic comedies, though her first novel Attachments comes the closest to following that formula.

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder work for a small-town newspaper that has recently adopted an e-mail system (the novel was written a few years ago when e-mail was both fun and relatively new). To keep things professional, all messages are monitored. That job falls to Lincoln O’Neill. Each night, Lincoln checks flagged messages and warns the offending parties of their transgressions.

That is until he begins reading in on Beth and Jennifer’s personal messages, detailing their lives and romantic frustrations. Instead of warning them, Lincoln finds himself slowly drawn into their lives and that he might just be falling in love with Beth. Of course, the road to a relationship has some pitfalls including that Beth is still tied to her college boyfriend who is also a musician and Lincoln lives at home following the break-up of the only significant romantic relationship he’s ever had.

Oh and there’s the small detail that he’s reading the private e-mails as well.

The quirk and charms of the characters help carry the novel, even after the premise starts to lose some of its charm. Seeing Lincoln debate about if and how he should tell Beth gets a bit tedious after a while. In many ways, it feels like a drawn out “will they or won’t they” romance on a situation comedy. I found myself being far less interested in when these two star-crossed romantic foils might finally get together and more curious about the complications of one side knowing the other more intimately that the other to start a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of that in the novel’s final pages. We do get some glimpses of how things work out for everyone (Jennifer and her husband are having difficulties starting a family), but I found myself wishing Rowell had explored more of the unconventional relationship once it got rolling than a lot of the build-up to it.
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Review: Sycamore Road by John Grisham

Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance, #2)

The fall of 2013 is proving to be a season of sequels for several New York Times best-selling authors. Stephen King took us back to the world of Danny Torrence in Doctor Sleep and now John Grisham takes us back to the world of Jack Brigance with Sycamore Row.

While King’s novel moved Danny forward to modern times and filled in the gaps of the best several decades, Grisham only takes us forward three years after the events of his first (and still his best) novel A Time To Kill.

Jake Brigance is still living off the reputation he gained in Ford County for his past victory. But winning in the courtroom hasn’t necessarily made everything rosy for Jake and his family. Still living in a rented house after theirs was burned down by the KKK, Jake is battling the insurance company for a settlement and trying to keep his legal business afloat. Jake has a lot of cases, but money isn’t necessarily rolling in like he hoped it would.

Then one Monday morning, Jake opens the mail to find the will of Seth Hubbard send to him. The new will, written a day before he took his own life (Hubbard is dying of cancer), cuts out his children and leaves a small portion of his estate to his church and a large portion of his estate to his housekeeper, Lettie. He also instructs that Jake is the lawyer for his estate and not the high-priced law-firm with whom he wrote his initial will.

Jake is told to keep these details under wraps until after his funeral. Jake does this, racing the courthouse to file the new will minutes after Hubbard’s funeral is over.

Needless to say, this turn of events doesn’t sit well with Hubbard’s family nor his former legal team. For one thing, they were all counting on a huge windfall when Hubbard shuffled off this mortal coil. For another, Lettie is African-American and questions of exactly why Seth would leave her a huge amount of money (we’re talking millions here) arise.

Lettie has no more clue than anyone else since she says the relationship with Seth was purely professional and never entered into the realm of romance. She did take care of Seth in his dying days as the cancer slowly ate away at him.

If you have fond memories of A Time to Kill, you’re going to love Sycamore Row. Grisham goes back to his early days as a writer with Jake and invites readers to come along with him. Just as he delved into issues of race and justice with A Time to Kill, so Grisham attempts to do here. And while the legal dilemma isn’t quite as electrifying as an African-American man killing a couple of white men for allegedly raping his daughter, it’s still a compelling one. Grisham keeps the twists coming to help ensure you’ll want to read just one more chapter.

And while Grisham does a solid job of characters in this one (Lettie especially gets a lot of development), there are still several who feel underdeveloped or that come across as little more that adversaries for us to dislike and root against. I’m thinking specifically of Seth Harper’s children, who are presented with few redeeming qualities and never get any more development than being money-grubbers who took their father for granted. Looking back on the novel, I wish Grisham had put a bit more development into them or given us some better understanding of their motivation to help them seem less black and white.

Sycamore Row is one of the better novels that Grisham has written of late. It comes very close to being as good as A Time to Kill, but it unfortunately falls a bit short. Whether that’s because it’s competing with my memories of a A Time to Kill or whether it’s that Sycamore Row has a couple of flaws, I’m not sure. It may send me back to the original for a re-read to find out.

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Review: Heaven Is Paved With Oreos by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Heaven Is Paved with Oreos (Dairy Queen, #4)

Catherine Gilbert Murdock returns to the town of River Bend, Wisconsin for her latest novel. And while D.J. and several other characters from the first three installments of the series appear, Heavnen Is Paved With Oreos centers on Sarah Zorn.

Told in journal entry style, Sarah details the events of her life. She and her “boyfriend” Curtis (they have an agreement to let everyone think they are together, even though they’re really not…or are they?) are working on a science project and she’s riding to the big city a couple of times a week to take care of her grandmother Z’s dog. When Z invites Sarah on a trip to Rome, Sarah is put at a crossroads and one that could spell the end of her relationship with Curtis. But it’s one that could allow her to grow closer to her zany grandmother and to learn more about one of her favorite relatives.

As with the other novels in the series, Murdock captures the feeling of small town life well on the printed page. Sarah’s dilemma over whether she really likes Curtis or if the feelings run deeper and are reciprocated drives the early part of the novel. But it’s once Sarah and Z take off for Europe that things really take on a different, interesting dimension.

Another solid entry in the series and one that fans will eat up like Oreos.

In the interest of full discretion, I received an ARC of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a fair review.

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