Tag Archives: Good Reads

Top 10 Books of 2009

It is once again time for the Internet–that glorious collection of tubes–to overflow with “best of” lists. This year, I actually kept a list of every book I read, which caused an interesting problem when it came to picking just ten to include on this list. So, because I am the king of this little kingdom, I’ve decided to cheat. If I happened to write a review of a book during the year, it will not appear on this list and will, instead, appear as a link at the end of this post. It’s good to be king.

What follows is a list of the ten (remaining) books that I read this year and thoroughly enjoyed. And, like always, they were not necessarily published in 2009, I simply read them in 2009. So, in no particular order:

1. Hunt at the Well of Eternity, by Gabriel Hunt

I grew up on the Indiana Jones movies. I love ridiculous globe-trotting adventures of a pulpy nature. That’s what this series, from the good folks at Dorchester Publishing, is all about. If you’re adult enough to realize that sometimes a book can just be a rippin’ yarn without trying to teach you anything, then follow treasure hunter Gabriel Hunt as he straps on his Colt revolver and rescues damsels, punches thugs, and searches for the Fountain of Youth.

2. Dull Boy, by Sarah Cross

Dull Boy is the story of Avery Pirzwick, a typical teenager who just happens to have superpowers. As he learns to deal with his abilities, Avery is unwittingly drafted into a team of similarly gifted teens. Cross is obviously a hardcore comic fan and not just following along with the latest popular trend, and it shows in her writing. If you like YA fiction or superheroes, you should read this book. Stat.

3. The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard

I really love Howard’s Conan stories, so I was looking forward to checking out one of his other characters. Solomon Kane, the Puritan swordsman, is a great character: equal parts Conan and The Man With No Name. The only problem I had with this collection was the lack of variety in the stories. Kane is a wanderer, but the bulk of the stories take place in either England or Africa.

4. City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare

The second book in Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy (or, is it a tetralogy now?). Clary Fray–who continues to be one of my favorite characters in modern literature–is still trying to find her place in the world of the demon-slaying Shadowhunters. If the angsty teen love triangles aren’t for you, the Buffy-esque humor and action scenes will probably make up for it.

5. Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher

The latest book in Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. Get used to seeing these books on my end of year list, since a new one comes out every year and they continue to be awesome. This time around, Harry finds himself trying to save the reputation (and life) of someone who has made most of his adult life a living hell.

6. Death of a Doxy, by Rex Stout

Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin never disappoint.

7. Black and White, by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge

An interesting counterpoint to Cross’s Dull Boy, Black and White is set in the near future, where superheroes are trained, branded, and owned by corporations. Jet is the hero of New Chicago; Iridium is a wanted vigilante. But, these two rivals used to be best friends. Alternating between Jet’s POV and Iridium’s, the narrative bounces back and forth from the present to the past, when hero and villain were both students at an elite academy for superheroes-in-training.

8. The Last Oracle, by James Rollins

Another in Rollins’s Sigma Force novels. This entry finds the scientist-soldiers of Sigma facing a radical faction within the former Soviet Union that’s intent on bringing forth a new Russian Renaissance, even if it means irradiating the world’s leaders with the remaining fallout from Chernobyl. There are also gypsies, psychic twins, and a chimpanzee with a brain implant.

9. Heretic, by Bernard Cornwell

For my money, no one writes historical action scenes like Cornwell. The final book in his Grail Quest Trilogy is just as action-packed as the first two volumes. Heretic follows Thomas of Hookton on his reluctant quest for the Holy Grail, but does so in a thoroughly realistic manner. While Cornwell’s characters may believe that the Grail is real and possesses supernatural powers, he never once lets that hocus-pocus invade his historically accurate prose.

10. The Lightning Thief & The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan

         

Riordan’s series about Percy Jackson is not a rip-off of Harry Potter (or, if it is, than the Harry Potter series is a rip-off of Oliver Twist). Percy isn’t a wizard, he’s a demigod. That’s right, Mavis, a demigod. He’s the son of Poseidon, the motherfucking god of the earth and sea. Percy (short for Perseus–yeah, he’s not sure why either) fights monsters, goes on quests, and trains at a summer camp called Camp Half-Blood. There’s a lot of fun world-building going on in this series to explain how gods and monsters from Greek myth are currently residing in the United States–Mount Olympus appearing atop the Empire State Building? Hades ruling beneath Los Angeles? Sure, why not. If anything, I’d say that these books are more like a middle grade version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods than the story about the Boy Who Lived.

Very Honorable Mentions:

My Soul to Take, by Rachel Vincent

Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin

The Codex Alera series, by Jim Butcher

 

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Top 10 Books of 2008

As the year ends, people start rolling out their lists of the best whatevers of the year.  Why should I be any different?  So, like I did last year, I’ve compiled a list of the ten best books that I read in 2008 (even if they weren’t published in 2008).

1. The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, by Paul Malmont

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The reason I like reading historical fiction is the chance of seeing actual historical figures popping up in the story.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  It works in Malmont’s novel, which tells the story of some of the greatest pulp authors of the ’20s and ’30s coming together to solve a mystery worthy of the Golden Age of Pulps.

2. City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

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I’d never have read City of Bones if it hadn’t been recommended to me.  I’m glad it was.  Clare’s novel–about a girl who finds herself thrust into a world of magic, demons, and demon hunters–appealed to the Buffy, Harry Potter, and Harry Dresden fan in me.  City of Bones is the first book of a trilogy, and I’ll be coming back for books two and three.

3. Vagabond, by Bernard Cornwell

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The sequel to Cornwell’s The Archer’s Tale (which made last year’s list), continues the story of Thomas of Hookton, archer and unwilling seeker of the Holy Grail.  Again, Cornwell doesn’t skimp on the brutalities of war (and life) during the Hundred Years’ War. 

4. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard

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As a child of the ’80s, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer have a certain place in my heart.  But, as much as I love these movies, they can’t compare to the original source material.  Howard’s Conan is the shit, pure and simple.  If Lord of the Rings is a classical symphony, than Howard’s Conan stories are thrash metal–Conan punches, strangles, stabs, or slices anyone (or anything) that gets in his way.  He’s also not above thieving or dallying with the occasional maiden.

5. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

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There’s a reason that Vowell’s book is the only piece of non-fiction on this list.  That reason is this: Sarah Vowell is awesome.  No, I’m serious.  As a history dork how could I not love Vowell’s historical dorkiness?  Plus, she’s not afraid to make liberal references to popular culture.  It also doesn’t hurt that she was the voice of Violet in The Incredibles.  This time around, Vowell turns her particular brand of historical analysis upon the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

6. DC: The New Frontier, by Darwyn Cooke

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I’m not really sure where to start with Cooke’s New Frontier.  It’s the story of DC’s Silver Age heroes, with none of the “gee-whiz” nostalgia often ascribed to the era.  No, Cooke’s story is a Cold War story, with all of the paranoia one would expect from the McCarthy Era.  Also of note is Cooke’s art, which balances detail and economy of line.

7. White Night & Small Favor, by Jim Butcher

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Butcher’s Dresden Files series is, hands down, my favorite book series currently in print (possibly of all time, I’ll get back to you on that).  These two titles, the most current of the series, continues the tale of Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing professional wizard, as he deals with the escalating war between the wizards and the vampires, demons, faeries, as well as a possible traitor within the White Council, the governing body of the wizard community.  How much do I love these books?  Well, I broke my rule about not mixing paperback and hardcover books within a series and actually bought Small Favor in hardcover.

8. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

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Gaiman’s newest book tells the story of Nobody Owens, a boy raised by the ghosts of the eponymous graveyard.  Early reviews of the book described it as being a retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  Now, the only exposure I’ve had to Kipling’s stories is from the old Disney movie, but I think it’s a valid comparison–from Nobody’s stern guardian (clearly a revised Bagheera) to the menacing figure stalking the Owens boy (can you say “Shere Khan”?  I knew that you could).

9. The Shadow: Crime, Insured, by Walter Gibson & Doc Savage: Dust of Death, by Lester Dent

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I’d heard about the re-issued Shadow and Doc Savage stories for a while, and I’d wanted to check them out.  Then I read Malmont’s Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, and I had to read them.  Both of these are just good, old-fashioned fun.  If you like a darker, noir-inspired crime story, check out The Shadow.  If two-fisted, globe-trotting do-goodery is more your speed, then you’ll love Doc Savage.  Hey, would I steer you wrong?

10. X-Men: Messiah CompleX, by Ed Brubaker, Mike Carey, Peter David, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost

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I’d given up on the X-Men around the time that Grant Morrison was writing them.  I’d tried to keep up with the basic premise of what was happening, until I had enough of Marvel all together.  Then something funny happened: DC pissed me off and I gave Marvel a second chance.  I really liked what Brubaker was doing in Uncanny X-Men, so I thought I’d give Messiah CompleX a shot.  I wasn’t disappointed.  After the events of House of M, mutants are a species rapidly approaching extinction, until a mutant child is finally born.  That sets off a race to find the baby and, depending on who succeeds, either protect or destroy it.

Writers That Thrill (And, Possibly, Inspire)

You know how it is at the beginning of a relationship, when you’re all goony and moon-eyed, and everything you see, hear, smell, whatever reminds you of that other person? I think the same thing can be said for writers (and most artists, really) at the beginning of the creative process. I’ve been working on something for the last few days and, I’ll be honest, I’m completely smitten. I love the idea. I love the main characters. I can’t wait until I can spare a few hours and get my sorry ass to the library and do some hardcore research (until then, thank you Wikipedia!).

At times like this, I can’t help but think about some of my favorite authors. I have a lot, I’ll be honest. I love Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen. I’ve repeatedly devoured the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Harry, Ron, and Hermione coexist quite nicely on my bookshelf next to Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn. And, I don’t think there’s a detective around who can hold a candle to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, or Philip Marlowe. But you just don’t get the same giddy anticipatory nerd-gasms from these folks that you get when a contemporary author you love comes out with another book.

So, just because I can, I’m going to share some of my favorite contemporary authors with you. Maybe you’ll be inspired to pick one of their books up and enjoy them as much as I do. At the very least, you’ll kill a few minutes of your day reading this post.

1. Jim Butcher

I’ve mentioned Jim Butcher before. Several times. He’s just that good! Remember a while back, when I said there isn’t a detective around who could hold a candle to Holmes, Wolfe, and Marlowe? Well, that’s not entirely true. Butcher’s Harry Dresden can. Actually, forget the candle, Dresden could light them all on fire, if he wanted to. Harry’s a wizard and a private detective working in Chicago. He’s pretty hardboiled (in the “I get the stuffing beat out of me by the bad guys for about 250 pages” kind of way), but he’s also the king of the pop culture reference. I confess that I don’t really get the whole Urban Fantasy thing, but I get Dresden. Plus, I’ve met Jim Butcher and he’s a hell of a guy.

2. Steve Berry

Poor Steve. I think he got overshadowed by the colossus that was The Da Vinci Code. I get why. A lot of his books deal with the Catholic Church (and religion, in general). They usually involve decoding various riddles and puzzles handed down through history. But, Berry is a much better writer than Dan Brown (and I like Dan Brown, so I’m not being a dismissive jerk). Plus, it’s easier for me to believe that Berry’s Cotton Malone can run around and dodge bullets and fight crazed zealots because, unlike Brown’s Robert Langdon, Cotton used to work for the U.S. government. He also owns a used book store in Copenhagen and has a photographic memory. How cool is that?

3. Neil Gaiman

I’m going to take for granted that most, if not all, of you at least know who Neil Gaiman is, even if you’ve never read anything he’s written. For my money, Neverwhere is one of the best books ever written. And, if you ever want to see how to portray pagan deities in a modern setting, read American Gods or Anansi Boys. Then there’s Good Omens (which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett)–think the Book of Revelations as written by Monty Python.

4. James Rollins

I’ve only read Rollins’s Sigma Force novels, but they’re pretty awesome.  The basic premise behind them is that there’s a top secret government agency staffed by “soldier scientists”–members of the military who were sent to earn advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, physics, what-have-you.  They mission is to protect America’s technological superiority.  Frequently that involves investigating things like ancient batteries or anti-matter.  Rollins stated that some of his favorite books growing up were Tarzan, Baum’s Oz books, and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells…and it shows.  His Sigma Force books are the literary equivalent of a big summer blockbuster: pure, unadulterated fun.

5. Michael Crichton

In 1992, during Christmas break, I read a little book called Jurassic Park (maybe you’ve heard of it?  I think there was a movie or something based on it).  That summer, I read pretty much every novel Crichton wrote up until that point–except The Great Train Robbery and Terminal Man, but I’ll get around to them, too.  Lucky for me, the nation was caught up in Crichton Fever–which could almost be a plot from one of his books–so his older novels were everywhere (I got mine at the local Pathmark).  I credit Crichton for introducing me to the “techno-thriller”, a friendship that continues to this day, much like I credit Caleb Carr’s The Alienist for introducing me to the historical novel.  Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way (I’m looking at you, Disclosure), but I’ll still pick up every new novel that has Crichton’s name on it.

6. Stephen King

Thank the gods Uncle Stevie decided to continue publishing books (remember when he said that after he finished up Dark Tower, he’s stop publishing?), otherwise I couldn’t include him on this list.  He’s the Master.  No doubt about it.  He put the “pro” in prolific–I guess he could have put the “fic” in it, too…I’m not sure.  Sure, some of his books end a tad abruptly, but I for one always enjoy the journey.  Here is a man who loves what he does, and I think it shows.  Besides, IT is still the creepiest, most disturbing book I’ve ever read.

Top 10 Books of 2007

‘Tis the season for lists of this sort.  However, unlike most other Top 10 of the Year lists, not all of these books came out in 2007 (hell, some of them are almost as old as I am!)…I just happened to read them in 2007.  So, in no particular order, here we go:

1. The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy

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The second book in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.  Like the first book, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere builds upon actual events: the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the Zoot Suit Riots.  A brutal string of sex murders is rocking L.A., but the Law is too busy hunting down Commies to give a damn.  There are three separate storylines that all slowly come together.  The best one?  The story of Buzz Meeks–disgraced cop turned mob bag-man.

2. The Archer’s Tale, by Bernard Cornwell

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Set during the Hundred Years’ War, this first book of Cornwell’s Grail Quest Trilogy,  introduces readers to a young archer named Thomas of Hookton.  The Archer’s Tale doesn’t try to sugarcoat history: the mid-14th Century was a pretty bad time not to be royalty, and Cornwell doesn’t hesitate covering his archers and infantrymen in blood, gore, mud, and shit.  Oh, and for sheer entertainment value, Cornwell throws in a family secret, multiple sackings, revenge, and what may be the Holy Grail.

3. The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

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So, imagine that Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe found himself dropped into the middle of a Robert Ludlum novel.  Now imagine that the entire thing is told to you by Bertie Wooster.  That’s pretty much all you need to know about Laurie’s espionage pastiche about government conspiracies, arms-dealing, and being in the absolute worst place at the absolute worst time.

4. The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry

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Poor Steve Berry…he’s been unfortunate enough to get lumped together with dozens of post-DaVinci Code authors.  I understand the comparison.  Many of Berry’s books have cryptic historical puzzles that need to be decoded.  There are frequently Church conspiracies and cover-ups.  But, I’ll be honest, Berry is a much better writer than Dan Brown (and I enjoyed Brown’s two Robert Langdon books).  The Templar Legacy begins when former U.S. government agent Cotton Malone, now a bookseller in Copenhagen, witnesses a purse-snatcher commit some kind of ritual suicide.  From there, Malone is pulled into the search for the fabled archives of the Knights Templar, which reportedly contains information that would destroy modern Christianity.

5. IT, by Stephen King

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After over 15 years, I decided to revisit King’s classic about an evil force that masquerades as an evil clown in a small Maine community.  I had forgotten how truly fucked-up IT actually was–and if you’ve read the book, you understand why it’s so funny that I have forgotten details over time.  It’s not scary, per se (although I’m the first to admit that I don’t scare easily), but it is quite disturbing in the “small-town conspiracy of silence” way, like another of King’s novels, ‘Salem’s Lot

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

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I feel like anyone who doesn’t know what the deal is with this book probably (a) doesn’t own a computer, or (b) has no idea what the internet is.  What I will say about the final book in the epic story of “The Boy Who Lived” is this: despite a few hiccups, it really is an amazing book.  I feel like Rowling kind of beats us over the head a bit with the “This is just what Nazi Germany was like and our society is heading there, too” metaphor, but I credit her with creating the kind of suspense that has you worried that some beloved character will die at any moment (she delivers, of course, but the near-misses are the ones that really get your heart racing).

7. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

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Fans of Moore and O’Neill’s first two League volumes rejoice.  It is now the 1950s, and Moore’s alternate Britain has finally emerged out from under the oppressive regime of Orwell’s 1984.  Mina Murray and Allan Quartermain are on the run from British Intelligence–including a gadget-laden, thuggish lad named Jimmy–after stealing the titular Black Dossier.  Once again, Moore shows that he’s not only read every book ever written, but he can also copy the writing styles of countless writers from numerous centuries (his “lost” Shakespeare play is a prime example).  However, Moore doesn’t limit himself to literary characters, as this volume also includes references to characters from music, film, TV, and radio.  Despite the total awesomeness of the book, I think I would have preferred a straight comic narrative with the excerpts from the Dossier in the beginning and the end, rather than having them inserted into the current storyline.

8. Proven Guilty, by Jim Butcher

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In Butcher’s eighth Harry Dresden novel, Harry–the only professional wizard to advertise in Chicago’s Yellow Pages–is given the unfortunate task of bringing his best friend’s daughter before the wizard’s ruling body, The White Council, for breaking laws she didn’t know existed.  To make matters worse, Harry has to deal with the seductive spirit of a Fallen Angel that’s taken up residence in his subconscious, as well as the on-going war between the Wizards and the Vampires.  Luckily, Harry’s got friends on his side who’ll back him up when his do-gooder tendencies get him in over his head.

9. Black Order, by James Rollins

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James Rollins grew up on adventures stories about Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan.  He turned his love of adventure stories into a career as an author of techno-thriller adventure stories.  Black Order is the third novel featuring Rollins’ Sigma Force–a top-secret unit of Special Forces soldiers who also happen to hold doctorates in various scientific disciplines.  These “soldier scientists” are tasked with defending America’s technological superiority, and this time around that involves hunting down a device that fundamentally alters a creature’s DNA.  Did I mention that this device was built in the 1940s by the Nazis and that Sigma Force has to outrace two factions of still-active Nazis with differing philosophies?

10. Hack/Slash: First Cut, by Tim Seeley, Stefan Caselli, and Federica Manfredi

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Another comic book, this one about young Cassie Hack and her hulking, simple-minded sidekick, Vlad.  Cassie was the sole survivor of the serial killer called the “Lunch Lady”, who also happened to be Cassie’s mom and a Slasher–a person who is filled with so much rage at the time of their deaths that they come back from the grave as an unstoppable killing machine.  Cassie and Vlad travel the country, hunting down and dispatching Slashers wherever they find them–think a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.  This volume collects the first three Hack/Slash one-shots, which were followed by subsequent one-shots and an ongoing series in May of 2007.