Thursday, January 2, 2014

HitList 2013: Top Ten Best And Worst Books Of The Year

All right, here's the first post of the new year, and it's a retrospective look on the books I read this year!

As some of you know (at least those who have seen my Facebook posts over the last year), I have had a lot of "book binges"--which I was not shy about publicizing the stacks of books I would accrue on a weekly basis. (I blame the fact that I started volunteering at a ministry just blocks away from the COOLEST LIBRARY IN WASHINGTON and I just couldn't help myself!)

In the spirit of literary abandon, I intended to post about the best and worst books I read each month... Unfortunately, I was remiss in keeping track of that at the beginning of the year (and I'm pretty sure there were a couple months after I got a job in the local school district where I was so busy that I missed going to the library completely!), so I will have to settle for two Top Ten lists: the Best and Worst Books of 2013.

(note: all summaries contained in quotes and preceded by an asterisk are taken from goodreads.com; SVL = "Sex-Violence-Language")

Top 10 Best Books of 2013 (1 = absolutely enjoyed it; 10 = really liked it)

1. Storybound/ Story's End--Marissa Burt
These two stories are a recent discovery--and I positively adored them! Avid reader Una Fairchild discovers a book with her name in it--purporting to tell her story! Opening the cover literally transports Una into the fantastic world of Story, where the inhabitants are characters, and they study and train for various roles like Hero and Villain, Lady, or Sidekick. Every type of character you've ever known exists here. Una has been "Written In"--but those with the power to do that have not been seen or heard from for at least a few generations... and rumor has it that they turned evil before they disappeared.
My review: I loved every minute I spent reading these books. Una's no Mary-Sue--and neither is the "Princess-in-Training" she meets in Story! Peter is trying his hardest to pass his "Hero exam"--and the entrance of this strange girl named Una not only causes him to fail, but she continually complicates his life more than he would like! These books carry a clear message of friendship and courage, of honesty, and the value of character over power.

2. Hollow Earth/ Bone Quill--John and Carole Barrowman
Annnd... cue the shocked squeals from the Whovian community. Yes, you read that right, everyone's favorite bad-boy time-traveler teamed up with his big sister and wrote a book or two! Twins Matt and Emily Calder are Animare, who possess the special power to animate drawings at will. It's an ancient power, and there are those who would like to use their abilities to open the realm of Hollow Earth and unleash the hellish beasts that had originally been illustrated in the Book of Beasts. Will they learn to control their powers to withstand the powerful enemies coming against them--or will these enemies succeed in unleashing the darkness that lies just beyond the surface of comprehension?

My review: These books are fantastic and enthralling, with spectacular characters and vivid descriptions. There is magic, yes, but it always comes with a price, and it never quite gives a person all the power they want from it. Spoiler Alert: The second book, Bone Quill, ends on a particularly painful cliffhanger, and I'm positively STEWING as I wait for the next one!

3. The Cuckoo's Calling--Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
(*) "A brilliant debut mystery in a classic vein: Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide. After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, thelegendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man. You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike."

My review: Casual Vacancy (Another of Rowling's adult novels) made me apprehensive about this one--would the fact that she was using a male pseudonym mean that she could be even more gratuitous with the SVL graphic-ness? Luckily, this was not the case. Instead, Rowling was free to craft characters as colorful and real as the ones we loved to read about in the Harry Potter series. Detective Strike, his "temp secretary" Robin, the client John Bristow, the series of suspects that crop up as clues are uncovered... This is definitely a must- read for 2014!


4. Divergent--Veronica Roth
(*)"In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. .... Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. ... Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her."

My review: Okay, so I felt I couldn't do the book justice in writing my own summary... but the one listed on Goodreads does sound a bit schmultzy, I'll admit. I enjoyed Hunger Games, and I loved Divergent. There's none of the smarmy love-triangle business, the whole virtual-reality aspect creates an intriguing psychological twist--and I am very excited for the upcoming movie adaptation! There is more mystery and friendship and less angst in the Divergent series than in Hunger Games. Divergent is about people having to band together and work together--those who are in it for themselves only invite ruin, and isolation will make you vulnerable. At first glance the two might look very similar, but Divergent paves its own path and creates a unique solution to the problem of corruption in the government that doesn't involve full-on anarchy and mutiny.

5. Beautiful Creatures--Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
(*) "Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she's struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever. Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town's oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.
In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything."

My review: This book was truly a beautiful read. True, it has some level of magic and supernatural curses and "family spirits" and whatnot--but they are merely devices in a story that enchanted me from the first chapter to the last. I really love the style and the flow of this novel, and it was definitely among the best and most enjoyable reads of 2013.

6. Airman--Eoin Colfer
(*) "In the 1890s Conor and his family live on the sovereign Saltee Islands, off the Irish coast. Conor spends his days studying the science of flight with his tutor and exploring the castle with the king’s daughter, Princess Isabella. But the boy’s idyllic life changes forever the day he discovers a deadly conspiracy against the king. When Conor tries to intervene, he is branded a traitor and thrown into jail on the prison island of Little Saltee. There, he has to fight for his life, as he and the other prisoners are forced to mine for diamonds in inhumane conditions. There is only one way to escape Little Saltee, and that is to fly. So Conor passes the solitary months by scratching drawings of flying machines on the prison walls. The months turn into years; but eventually the day comes when Conor must find the courage to trust his revolutionary designs and take to the air."

My review: This was one of the first Eoin Colfer standalone novels I read after devouring the Artemis Fowl series. Colfer immediately plants the reader in a world where flight was regarded as an impossible dream--science fiction of the late 19th century. Yet in this time, one young man manages to use materials and methods from the era, and his own "futuristic" ingenuity to fashion himself a pair of wings and become the first "airman" Ireland had ever seen. Couple that with a truly gripping conspiracy, a love and a hope deferred--Airman is one of those books I would recommend to anyone. (Also recommended by Colfer is W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin, the start of a new series set about the same time, in which a character from Airman makes a surprise appearance!)

7. King of Diamonds--Simon Tolkien
No, it's not a coincidence of two unrelated authors. Simon is the barrister grandson of the inimitable J.R.R.--and his writing is every bit as stellar! This is the sequel to his book The Inheritance, which I had read the year before, an intriguing mystery introducing with the astute Detective Inspector Trave. In King of Diamonds, Trave is back, and so is the intrigue. A young man convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend's lover escapes from prison on the same night that the girlfriend is then found murdered. As the evidence mounts, Trave must figure out what is truth, and what is circumstantial--lest an innocent man go to jail.

My review: This book is wonderful. I still remember seeing "Tolkien" on the spine of The Inheritance and thinking, "I didn't know J.R.R. wrote mysteries, too!" How delightful to discover a mystery author in the same family as the man who gave us Middle Earth and Elvish. Simon shows the same care in crafting the story and its characters as his grandfather, and these mysteries will keep you guessing till the reveal that sparks the race to the finish!

8. Full Disclosure--Dee Henderson
One of my favorite Christian authors ever. Full Disclosure tells the story of a FBI "murder cop" who is teamed up with a secretive Midwest Homicide Investigator to uncover the truth behind the murder of seemingly random victims, and a faceless serial killer who has never been caught.

My review: One of the main reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that it basically references everyone's favorite characters from all the preceding books--because apparently one of the detectives is the writer who wrote those stories? Dee makes a compelling, intriguing mystery and pokes fun at herself and her own characters all at the same time. Full Disclosure is a great novel--but it really should be regarded as the intersection of her O'Malley series and the Uncommon Heroes series. If you read those first, you'll get all the references. If not, it's still a great mystery; you'll just get even more insight into the characters when you then go on and read the two series! 

9. The Great Train Robbery--Michael Crichton
Imagine if Danny Ocean traveled back to the Victorian era and the Bellagio was the newest invention of the Industrial Age: the steam locomotive. And the "vault" was an "impregnable" safe requiring four keys (kept in four different locations) to open it, and under close watch. How could one man mastermind such a heist?
Enter Edward Pierce, the smoothest operator in London. Known in both high society and in the gutters, he meticulously devises a plan to prove himself the most formidable person in England with a rousing adventure that kept me turning the page till the very end!

My review: Single-handedly the best Crichton novel I have read (and there have been several; Timeline was a close second!) One wouldn't think a heist of this nature was even possible in the Victorian era--but Pierce is a mastermind with a veritable chess set of people with specified skills that will carry his plan all the way to its goal. Interspersed with flashes forward to the trial of Edward Pierce, this book stands the test of time and remains among Crichton's best.

10. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close--Jonathan Safran Froer
(*) "Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father's closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace."

My review: I got this book after hearing a friend rave about it. Like Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, I was a bit caught off-guard by it's unconventional style, but once I entered the rhythm of the rambling narrative of a semi-autistic young boy whose strongest anchor has just been ripped from his life, I was immediately enthralled by the depth and strength of the communication from the psyche of a nine-year-old boy to mine. This was indeed a powerful book, full of heartache, heartbreak, mystery, adventure, friendship, and hope. This book definitely earns a spot in my Top Ten Best Books of 2013.

Now that that's up, here are books you might consider avoiding:

Top 10 Worst Books of 2013 (1 = totally the worst; 10 = mediocre at best)

1. American Gods--Neil Gaiman
All-around disappointment. I found this one in the Young Adult section and--recalling how much I enjoyed films like MirrorMask and Stardust, I thought, "How bad could it be?"

Answer: very bad. Very bad, very dirty, and very pointless. The plot has no point, the characters are just angry and uncooperative all the time, there are far too many characters to gain any sense of distinction or to even keep track of and FOR THE LOVE OF INNOCENCE WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOUNG ADULT THAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT THIS LEVEL OF GRAPHICNESS IS STILL OKAY????
Seriously, it took me a couple fantasy-adventure novels to get the images out of my head--and I'm an adult! You're telling me it's okay for kids and teens to read this crap?
No; just... no.

2. Casual Vacancy--J.K. Rowling
It is with a heavy heart that I place this novel near the top of my "worst" list. I dearly love Rowling's style and her work--but Casual Vacancy, though well thought out as a novel, was too heavy in the "graphics department" for me to be able to recommend it at all. I finished it compulsively (I just wanted to find out how it all turned out... and the end was a bit lackluster, too) and moved on from it. (The spectacularity that is Cuckoo's Calling covered over a multitude of Casual Vacancy, though; so she's still among my favorite authors) At least she billed this one as an adult novel without any of that "young" hogwash like *another* author I read...

3. Let's All Kill Constance--Ray Bradbury
Farenheit 451 was one of the iconic books of my reader-life. So naturally, I assumed it was the quality of the writer that made the story so amazing. This was the second Bradbury book I've ever read--and it scarred me so much, I believe it will be the last. Take a crazy, superstitious ditz, give her a book which lists the names of people who then begin dropping like flies, throw her in the path of a perpetually-drunk, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed detective... Forget Constance. Let's all kill Bradbury's publisher.

4. The Selection--Kiera Cass
This marks the last time I'll ever believe Facebook "suggestion" ads! "If you liked Hunger Games, you'll love The Selection novels!" They crowed at me.

Yeah. Right.

If Katniss were a scrawny, do-nothing ninny who argued with her family all the time and got "drafted" into the Capitol because the prince needed to pick a bride, leaving her best boyfriend behind--and then, after getting all cleaned up and dressed nice by devoted, gossipy maids, she ends up striking the prince's fancy and forgets said boyfriend. (who needs a boyfriend from one's own social class when one can have a prince?) Of course said boyfriend then shows up at the castle, convinced that she still loves him, so what does Faux-niss do? Why, an affair, of course. Throw in thirty other vindictive teenage Kardashians to be eliminated as possible "Elite", and you have a book that is all fluff and angst and definitely NOT HUNGER GAMES.

5. The Falcon's Malteser--Anthony Horowitz
I never thought this would happen, but it did. Anthony Horowitz managed to squander his incredible talent on a couple of dirt-poor, idiotic London boys who eat nothing but beans on toast (Because they have a lot of those and can't afford anything else) and solve cases by sheer accident. Frankly, this felt like the "dregs" of Horowitz's imagination, what's left after he's finished coming up with the latest Alex Rider novel. My friends, I give you the "junk fringe" of the Alex Rider novels, everything that should have stayed on the cutting room floor... Read those, not this.

6. The Host--Stephenie Meyer
I suppose I was just asking to read a bad book when I decided to see if Stephenie Meyer's incredible lack of taste in writing extended into the extraterrestrial realm as it did in the supernatural.
It does. We have a love triangle--only this time, it's the girl who's the alien--er, possessed by the alien. We have two girls in one body, and each girl loves another guy, so they're fighting over control of the body so they can get the guy they want, but one or the other has to die for the body to live... and so it goes.

7. The Last Dragon Chronicles--Chris D'Lacey
As an avid fantasy-lover working in elementary schools, I confess I would always be intrigued by seeing these same books about dragons in every school I worked in. I decided to go to the library and check it out myself. After the first book, I was raving; after the second, I was willing; by the third book, I was wondering when we left the whole excitement of the existence of dragons behind and got into the mumbo-jumbo superstition... Book four prompted its placement on the Worst list instead of the Best list. The books seem stuck on a downward spiral, and I don't think it's worth it to see if it ever recovers.

8. Plugged--Eoin Colfer 
Trust me, I don't like it when one of my favorite authors writes a book that ends up on my "Worst Book That I Will Never Re-read" list, either! Colfer is a grand author with a great style--but for some reason, Plugged ends up as disjointed, foul, hokey, and too-graphic-to-be-interesting as Neil Gaiman's American Gods. It bills that there is a ghost as one of the characters, but then it turns out that the "person" whose ghost it's supposed to be isn't actually dead after all, so perhaps the ethereal voice was an alcohol/drug-induced hallucination of the man's own tortured psyche... This book was a definite "no-go" for Eoin Colfer fans.

9. Disclosure--Michael Crichton
I believe this makes strike four in the "overly graphic SVL rating" arena. Once again, I go to pick up a book by an author that I am acquainted with and enjoy so much of... only to be revolted and repelled by the subject material and the relish and clarity with which it is delineated. This isn't your ordinary techno-sabotage tale of intrigue... The "red herring" surface conflict is too much to be borne. It's #9 because of how much I like the author, but this definitely belongs on the "Worst" list.

10. The Swan Thieves--Elizabeth Kostova
I'm going to get flak for this... probably (depending on whether my Kostova-reading friends read this blog post or not).
As heartily as this book was recommended to me, I really didn't enjoy it very much. It labored on in the "mostly-intriguing" state, but the tale was not compelling enough, and neither were the characters. I might read the prequel to this one, called The Historian, but I didn't enjoy this book enough for it to make it on the "Best" list. (Though its position at #10 tells you this one was the best of the worst--there wasn't a lot of really bad in this--but there wasn't a whole lot of good, either. It was poetic, and lyrical--a bit like the old, classic painting the story revolves around... but old, classic paintings do only contain so much interest. 

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What books would you recommend for me in 2014?