Friday, July 18, 2014

Hit List: 12 Books Your Shelf Needs Right Now

It's summer! And let me guess: by now you've probably exhausted your activity resources, so you resort to reading blog posts about books to read to keep your brain occupied... Because let's face it, you've tried going to the library but all you see is books that you don't want to read... You're not satisfied with the selection of books offered on Amazon or iTunes because the interesting ones are far too expensive and the bargain ones are not at all interesting.

Eventually, I'll get around to writing a "How To Library" post, along the same vein as my wildly-popular "How To Book" post (gosh, thanks, y'all!) but for now, allow me to offer a selection of books, both ebooks and print format, that I found very much enjoyable over the last year or so; a few are recent releases by independent authors, so take this opportunity to ford new horizons in reading! It's not all vampires and witches out there, I promise!

Who: R. R. Virdi
Where: Paranormal sci-fi (e-book)

What: (synopsis from Amazon.com)
Thirteen...
As far as numbers go, it isn't a great one. Hell, it's not even a good one and Vincent Graves is going to find out just how unlucky of a number it can be.
Because someone, or something, is killing people in the Empire state, and whatever it is, it gives people everything they ever desired and more. And it's the more that's the problem!
Well...it's one of the problems.
Vincent's investigation also seems to have drawn the attention of a relentless FBI agent and then there's the little bit where he has only thirteen hours to solve the case, or he dies.
Talk about your literal deadlines...
...No pressure.
By the end of this case Vincent will come to understand the meaning of an age old proverb: Be careful what you wish for - because you just might get it!
Why: This book was amazingly entertaining right from the opening sentence. As a writer I know how difficult that first sentence can be; often it takes a whole paragraph to rev the motor of your story. Virdi manages to set the tone for the entire book. It was intense, inventive, humorous, touching, and everything in stunning high-definition visuals! This book is worth the read for those who enjoy a rousing paranormal adventure without the sappy romantic smut that typically goes along with the genre.
Warnings: prodigious cussing, and a lot of mythology and demons and spirits—treated no differently than a superhuman alien species. (Think "Supernatural" meets "R.I.P.D.")

Who: Katie Bridges
Where: Sci-fi adventure (print book)

What: (synopsis from Amazon.com)
Tarek Ortzen wants what any twelve-year-old kid wants, a day to himself so he can play games in his gaming booth. He gets his chance when he signs up for the role of Stone in the latest war game, Warriors of the Edge. He figures the game will help him escape the real world and its troubles. But after one day of nonstop play, Tarek wishes he'd never heard of Warriors of the Edge. The game has brought nothing but trouble into his life.
When the game begins to blur the line between reality and fantasy, Tarek finds himself caught between those who believe in the game and those who oppose it. Is the game trying to warn him of danger or lead him into it? Tarek doesn't know who to believe.
As Tarek's home world faces the threat of destruction, he must determine whether the character he plays can make a difference in their real lives.

Why: This book ranks among my top Most Enjoyable Reads. The virtual reality world, the allegorical references, the fact that each character has a purpose in the end, and there are no "wasted bodies" in the whole adventure. My imagination fires on all cylinders when I read a thought-stimulating book like this!
Warnings: None whatsoever.

3. The Inheritance, King of Diamonds, & Orders From Berlin
Who: Simon Tolkien
Where: Crime fiction (print)

What: Follow Detective Inspector Trave through three harrowing mysteries: from an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill in the midst of the Second World War, a hunt for a priceless relic in France at the war's end, and a man convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend's lover who escapes from jail to prove his innocence. The evidence always points clearly to one person, but Trave knows that cases are rarely so simple, and one must continually follow leads to find the truth and catch the real culprit.

Why: The apple doesn't fall far from the family tree. Simon's treatment of character and mystery feels like a section of the same cloth. His background as a barrister lends an air of realism to his scenarios and an air of intimate detail to the procedures. The detail and the imagery bring the scenes to life in the imagination of the reader. The twists, clues and red herrings are served with deliberate pacing and intentional directness. Truly enjoyable.
Warnings: Mild cursing, some graphic violence and perhaps some description of intimate anatomy, but nothing too graphic.

Who: Shiv Ramdas
Where: Dystopian sci-fi (e-book)
What: (synopsis from Amazon.com)
 A suicidal machine. A child with a secret that can change the world. The man trapped between them.

In the City, where machines take care of everything, lives Albert, an ordinary citizen with an extraordinary problem: He's being blackmailed into becoming the first person in living memory to actually do something.

What begins as a chance encounter with an outlaw child swiftly spirals out of control as Albert is trapped between the authorities and the demands of his unusual blackmailer. Forced to go on the run for his life, he finds himself in a shadow world of cyber-junkies, radicals and rebels, where he discovers the horrifying truth behind the City, a truth that will make him question everything he has ever known.
Why: If you're looking for intense sci-fi with a cast full of unique, distinct characters, wild twists and turns, and trailing mysteries with cliffhangers that leave you breathless, this is the book for you! Ramdas establishes characters of every context and background, with their own unique motivations and personalities that causes one to stop and consider, making this more than a mindless thrill ride.
Warnings: Some cursing, rather intense violence.

Who: Sophronia Belle Lyon
Where: Adventure (e-book)

What: (synopsis from Goodreads.com)
Oh, you're a Steampunk fan. You just don't know it yet. The Alexander Legacy company includes a diverse collection of classic characters on the track of a ruthless enslaver of souls. Prowl the foggy London streets. Encounter a nightmare from an Indian jungle. Travel the Thames in Sluefoot Sue's giant Catfish. Soar on a stealth glider with a Bohemian prince. When Oliver Twist unwraps an Algerian mummy at Charley Bates' funeral, will he discover his true enemy? Or is it all just another "Dodge"?

Why: Classic Victorian literature is all well and good—but one can only read so many books at the same time. What recourse does the adventure-novel enthusiast have? This book combines key/favorite characters in one epic excursion! A grown-up Oliver Twist is an inventor who heads up a group of characters from far and wide who somehow all end up in London. Causes from the Victorian era are still championed, with some new observations prompted by new circumstances because of many different characters all thrown together in a motley huddle. This book was every bit as enjoyable as the classics, and rightfully earns a place among them.
Warnings: None; this book was written like the tactful classics on which it is based.

6. Code Name Verity & Rose Under Fire
Who: Elizabeth Wein
Where: Historical fiction (print book)

What: (synopses from Goodreads.com)
Code Name Verity: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.
When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Rose Under Fire: While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that's in store for her?

Why: I am not much a one for historical fiction, but this book hooked me right from the start. Both books are told in journal style from the points of view of two girls in the army during World War II–one Scottish girl and one American, both involved in their respective Air Forces. What follows is a fresh, first-hand experience of battle lines and capture, espionage and survival. "Code Name Verity" in particular might seem slow and dry at first, but KEEP READING. It will all be worth it, I promise. These books left me breathless.
Warnings: Liberal cursing, and graphic wartime violence—but no more than you'd read about in biographies from this era.

7. Cuckoo's Calling
Who: Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
Where: Crime Fiction (print book)
What: (synopsis from Goodreads.com)
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, the legendary 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. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.

Why: Rowling (er, excuse me, "Galbraith") is a master at two things: character and descriptions. Having endeared herself to the world with a land of magic and wizardry, she plies that same skill with a masterfully-paced whodunit that kept me entertained by the antics of the various characters, every clue led me to an inevitable conclusion that ended up being the wrong one anyway, and the twist ending that I should have seen all along but never guessed till the end-all of this speaks volumes to the level of mastery that has been achieved. I was excited to read it, and even more so once I finished it. Welcome to the world of mystery writing, Cormoran Strike!
Warnings: Cursing, some graphic descriptions of intimate anatomy
*Update: I placed a hold on the sequel, "The Silkworm", not long ago; no guarantees, but I have high hopes of the same quality adventure in the sequel that this one provided!

8. Storybound & Story's End
Who: Marissa Burt
Where: Juvenile Fantasy (print book)

What: (Synopsis from Goodreads.com)
 In the land of Story, children go to school to learn to be characters: a perfect Hero, a trusty Sidekick, even the most dastardly Villain. They take classes on Outdoor Experiential Questing and Backstory, while adults search for full-time character work in stories written just for them.

In our world, twelve-year-old Una Fairchild has always felt invisible. But all that changes when she stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, opens the cover, and suddenly finds herself transported to the magical land of Story.

But Story is not a perfect fairy tale. Una’s new friend Peter warns her about the grave danger she could face if anyone discovers her true identity. The devious Tale Keeper watches her every move. And there are whispers of a deadly secret that seems to revolve around Una herself....

Why: I found this in a casual browsing of the library shelves, and since the premise was one near and dear to my heart, I checked it out praying that it would not fall into the cliche traps of so many premises like it.
What a relief and a joy to find that from beginning to end, it did no such thing! The world of Story is truly unique, and the concepts espoused therein—populated by characters who must train for their eventual Roles, and most of all to learn the Back-Story of the World—were fascinating and very neatly presented, and even the "supernatural" element of the Muses who "write characters in and out" was neither hokey nor overly spiritualized. The morals and principles supported are truth-based and positive ones. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who wishes there were more fairy tales like Chronicles of Narnia.
Warnings: None; it's a children's book so there's minimal violence and even less swearing. It is fantasy, so magic exists, but no more than, say, Lord of The Rings or Narnia.

Who: Mary E. Twomey
Where: Dystopian sci-fi (e-book)

What: (synopsis from Amazon.com
In a world not divided by race, creed or color, but by blood type, Blue Anders finds herself on the wrong end of fortune’s mercy. Born with a lesser blood type, Blue is raised in The Way, a work camp for A-bloods.

Why: I'd seen society divided by race, by personality, by occupation, and by resilience—but blood type? That was new. Ponce de Leon actually discovering the Fountain of Youth? Also new. Society finding a new way to discriminate because the Waters of the Fountain only reacts with a certain blood type? Very new, in a retro sort of way. 
Being naturally squeamish, I wondered if this book would still sit well with me. I resolved if things got too nasty, I would stop—and then I made it through the whole book without a problem. Twomey's cast list is relatively short, but what few characters she has, she presents with vivid personality and rich back-stories. Motivations are clearly drawn, and even something as miraculous as eternal youth has credible drawbacks and side effects. I would definitely recommend this book to people who are looking for something exciting to read after the Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies.
Warnings: The central plot device is blood, so there is considerable violence, but nothing that turned me away. There is one scene of potential sexual behavior, but it is treated with the revulsion it deserves, and it only happened once.

10. Reckless & Fearless
Who: Cornelia Funke
Where: Young Adult Fantasy (print book)

What: (synopsis from Goodreads.com)
Ever since Jacob Reckless was a child, he has been escaping to a hidden world through a portal in his father's abandoned study. Over the years, he has made a name for himself as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. He's also made many enemies and allies--most important, Fox, a beautiful shape-shifting vixen whom Jacob cares for more than he lets on.
But life in this other world is about to change. Tragedy strikes when Jacob's younger brother, Will, follows him through the portal. Brutally attacked, Will is infected with a curse that is quickly transforming him into a Goyl--a ruthless killing machine, with skin made of stone.
Jacob is prepared to fight to save his brother, but in a land built on trickery and lies, Jacob will need all the wit, courage, and reckless spirit he can summon to reverse the dark spell--before it's too late.

Why: One can only read of the same old unicorns-and-rainbows for so long. What about a world where fairies are more like the vengeful beasties from Shakespeare's age? What about a man who travels through a mirror and makes friends with skin-changers and dwarves and folk in a battle against stone-skinned Goyls, all of whom are more seriously folk-tale-ish than the bubbly, doe-eyed caricatures we see in kiddie movies?
As with the Inkheart Trilogy, Funke weaves a masterful tale that not only challenges the way we perceive fantasy, but the real world as well.
Warnings: It's a dark, twisted magic in these books. It definitely carries with it a lot more intense action and violence than your average fantasy novel—but if you're old enough for YA, it's definitely worth the read!

11. Fairy-Tales, Re-Told
Who: Regina Doman
Where: Young Adult Fantasy (print book)

What: It's the story of "Snow White and Rose Red" like you've never heard it before! Sisters Blanche and Rose Brier live in upstate New York. When a scruffy stranger named Bear shows up one dark and stormy night, the girls are thrust into an adventure that will stretch them to the limits! A mysterious pastor who seems to have some sort of blackmail scheme against Bear and his brother, a malevolent event coordinator who threatens Blanche and drives her to seek refuge in a modern monastery with seven Franciscan monks, and a jealous woman who nearly kills Rose in an effort to keep her away from her true love... These tales are proof that all of life still holds a bit of magic.

Why: As with Reckless and Fearless, I could only read the battered copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales so many times before I knew them all by heart. Looking for your favorite stories in a fresh new light? Look no further than these! Regina Doman has updated the tales with such skill that half the time I am carried away thinking I am reading a really great YA adventure—then something happens and somebody says something and I remember, "Oh wait... But it's re-telling a fairy tale... But it's an awesome mystery, no magic involved! But... It's still based on a fairy tale..." How can a story seem so familiar yet so fresh and new? This series nails it with flying colors.
Warnings: Only read the first three books. The rest I am told are more spin-offs and are not as good. I can vouch for the former and say that there is nothing to be concerned about.

12. King & Maxwell Series
Who: David Baldacci
Where: Crime fiction (print and audiobook)

What: Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are former Secret Service agents turned private investigators. They meet on a case involving the attempted assassination of the president when there is evidence that there is another killer out there, and the partnership is struck. Their experience with the federal government gets them access to many high-level cases--but it also gets them into a world of trouble as sometimes they find themselves on the trail of a killer who targets one of them! From the kidnapping of the president's niece to the investigation of a top-secret community of super-geniuses, to the most ingenious national security program devised by man--King and Maxwell will take you on the thrill ride of a lifetime!

Why: I was first introduced to this series listening to the audiobook of the third installment. I got so wrapped up in the mystery and intrigued by the characters, so I immediately went to the library and checked out the book to finish it and find out what happens! Baldacci's skill is evidently the result of years of practicing and honing his craft to razor-edged perfection. His characters are engaging, balanced, realistic, and a lot of snarky fun to read! His mysteries take you behind the scenes from the perpetrator's point of view and back and forth with measured finesse, so that every wrong conclusion or assumption made by the protagonists makes perfect sense--until more truth is discovered, and you realize a connection that was made long before, but you missed it because it didn't seem significant to you. Baldacci's novels are ones that may be read with the same level of excitement over and over again!
Warnings: I can vouch for the superior quality of all six books except "Hour Game" which I skipped because I heard it was "more intense" than the others. Baldacci does take the reader through some pretty psychologically intense characters, but he balances that out with fascinating and light scenes, so it was never too much for me. There isn't an inordinate amount of cussing, and a bit of physical intimacy, but that all definitely takes a back seat to the thrilling mystery and the turns you never see coming!