Wednesday, December 30, 2015

That Time of Year

December 31, also known as New Years Eve. This is the time of year when I look back over what I read throughout the year and picky my favourites. For the first time in a few years I reached triple figures. I managed 101 books, which is a pretty fair effort.

Of that 101 I chose 11 favourites. Bear in mind though that I made a very conscious effort to reread this year, so some of those comprise the 101 and it's not really fair to include them in this list. The majority of them are recent releases, although there is one older work amongst them. As always this is in no particular order, I don't rank things like that. They're listed as I read them.

 The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

By the time I found out about this it had already been out for a while and I had trouble finding the trilogy opener down here. It's a hard one to classify. On the face of it, it's science fiction as the Tao of the title is a member of an alien species who have to use a human host when on Earth. There's a historical fiction component as many of Tao's hosts have been figures of historical importance (Genghis Khan and Vercingetorix to name two of them) and he's an awful name dropper. Tao basically turns his host, the hapless Roen from an overweight, ambitionless slob into an ass kicking covert operative in a fight for control of the world's future. It's a wild thrill ride with plenty of humour and thoroughly entertaining. The two sequels: The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao continue the fun and the story.

Soda Pop Soldier by Nick Cole

I loved Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and this is in a similar vein, although it has a harder edge, and while I never really felt that the Wade in Ready Player One was ever in genuine trouble I didn't get that with Soda Pop Soldier. The title refers to what the main character does for a living. He competes in an online war game for money and works for a soft drink company. He finds out that the combat he's engaged in is very real and for a lot more than he ever thought. The action is brilliantly done and the reader feels like they've been thrown right into the thick of it and they're getting into firefights along with the online gamers. Highly recommended, especially if someone liked Ready Player One.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

This is the oldie. Up until this I had only read the Hugo Award winning Among Others by Jo Walton. Tooth and Claw, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2004, is completely different to that. It is an extraordinary book. After reading this no one can ever look at dragons in fantasy quite the same way again. Jo Walton's dragons love their gold, and they're large scaly beasts who breathe fire and have ferocious tempers, but everything else comes straight from the pages of Jane Austen. If Jane Austen were a dragon then she would have written Tooth and Claw. Other authors I've read have tried to mimic Austen's style and language, but no one has nailed it the way Jo Walton did in Tooth and Claw. Recommended for lovers of dragons, Jane Austen and anyone who appreciates good literature.

Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I cheated a bit this year and included a few novellas in my list. Rolling in the Deep is one of them. Mira Grant for anyone who doesn't know, is the pen name of urban fantasy (October Daye, InCryptid) author Seanan McGuire. Whereas Seanan McGuire writes dark but often amusing urban fantasy, Mira Grant has made her name writing zombie fiction (Newsflesh, Parasitology). I really loved Newsflesh, especially the series opener; Feed, but was less taken by Parasitology, in fact I bailed after the second book and didn't bother with the third. After reading Rolling in the Deep, I am convinced that Mira should give up the zombies and branch out into other weirdness. Rolling in the Deep isn't about zombies, it's about mermaids. It's written about a team going in search of mermaids for the purposes of a mockumentary. Bit by bit they discover that mermaids are in fact real and that they should never have gone searching for them. It's done so well that while reading it I was convinced I'd seen it on TV. Someone should really pick this up and make it into a one off TV special. It would hardly require any adapting from how the novella is written.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis first came on my radar with the utterly brilliant Milkweed triptych (Gretel *shudder*). I was eager to read The Mechanical, the first of The Alchemy Wars trilogy. He did not disappoint. Ian Tregillis' books tend to defy easy categorisation. Milkweed had elements of science fiction, fantasy and alternate history. The Mechanical has all those and he's thrown steampunk into the mix this time. It's set in an alternate early 20th century where through their ability to control robots, the Dutch have become the world's pre eminent superpower and are engaged in a war on North America with the French, who are attempting to resist them. The story of the book follows Jax, a 'mechanical' who finds out how to resist the geas that compels him to do whatever his masters order him and thus becomes an important pawn desperately wanted by both sides for the potential and the threat that he represents. I've also read the sequel; The Rising, and if the 3rd book delivers then Tregillis has created another classic. Possibly one of the most underrated authors in the genre at present.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

An aptly named book. It's a short, nasty little fable. Brutal in both the way it is told and the language it uses. No one gets out of this one unscathed. I was often reminded of Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black books when reading it. The short punchy way Schwab tells her story is reminiscent of Wendig's writing, although she's less visceral. Nothing is wasted, though. It doesn't use many words and the reader doesn't need them. Plenty of others could take note of the bare bones approach and their own bloated tomes may benefit from application of it. The lead characters have powers that they don't want and rather than helping them, they have become a curse that they can't escape. A book that stays with the reader long after they have finished it.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

I really enjoy what Austin Grossman writes (he's the twin brother of Magicians author Lev Grossman). The only thing that his three books so far have in common is that they're all fictional autobiographies. Whereas his first two (Soon I Will Be Invincible and You) were about fictional characters, one set in a world that most definitely wasn't real and one in a world that was, Crooked is about Richard Nixon (yes, that Richard Nixon) and is by the former President of the US himself. It sets out to put the record straight. Nixon was wronged. He spent most of his life fighting to save the world from a dimension of demons that sought to control it. It would explain an awful lot if it was true. It's funny, scary and informative. It probably won't get the recognition it deserves, although io9 did list it as one of their favourites for 2015.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I don't generally rank one of these books above any of the others, but if pressed I'd have to put Becky Chambers' debut on top. It is an extraordinary book. I don't generally play well with science fiction, but this one held me from go to whoa. I literally couldn't put it down at times. I laughed and I cried. There isn't a lot of story really, but it's just a wonderful tale about the crew of the small craft as they travel through space doing their job and living their lives. It's one of the few science fiction stories I've seen where it has genuinely alien races that seem real. Becky Chambers managed to create a highly believable future. I felt that I could get in a time machine, fast forward a few hundred years and I'd be in her world. Everyone should read this, absolutely everyone!

Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

This is another of the novellas. I adore what Valente does with words. I'm convinced that she met the devil one night at a crossroads, pricked her finger with the point of a fountain pen, then signed a contract with her own blood to make her the best wordsmith in the world. I don't even really know what the story of Speak Easy was (it's apparently a retelling of the story of Twelve Dancing Princesses set in a lushly imagined jazz age), but I was just transported by her incredible descriptions and the concepts that she deals in. When I open up a Valente book I'm taken into a world of words and concepts so real that I can almost touch them, and I'm somewhat disappointed when I close it and know that this only exists in our imaginations.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

At just over 200 pages The Builders is long for a novella, but that's how it's described. Considering that some pages only contain a paragraph, the page count is cheating a bit. Polansky is considered one of the wave of grim dark authors out there, and The Builders fits that. Imagine if The Wind in the Willows had been discovered and adapted for the screen by Quentin Tarantino and you'll get some idea of what The Builders is. It's a sort of blood soaked Magnificent Seven, only Yul Brunner is a world weary, one eyed rat. I was held entranced by the whole thing, it's one of those ideas that seems so mad it can't possibly work, but it does. I read it over the space of a day. Well worth taking the chance on.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

This is the book based on the highly successful podcast. I hadn't actually ever listened to the podcast when I picked the book up (I have since and it's a wonderful little piece of insanity). I can't really describe the book. It's largely about two residents of the strange little desert community of Night Vale trying to escape the odd town. A town where librarians are dangerous and where angels all called Erika live with and help out Old Woman Josie. The whole thing made no sense, but at the same time was compelling in that if I thought about it I could see metaphors for everything so it therefore made perfect sense. One of the oddest things I've ever read, but also very satisfying.

That's my 2015 through the pages of a book.

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