Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: A Year in Review, Many Thanks and a Resolution or Two

2013 has been pretty damn good to me. I got married to an amazing women who is the love of my life and has encouraged me in all of my geeky pursuits despite having no interest in them other than the fact that they bring me so much joy. I was awarded my third degree black belt, a level of accomplishment and skill that I never in a million years thought I would attain. I finally managed to finish my first piece of speculative fiction, which was widely praised by my beta readers. And as you know, I've read. A lot. Seventy titles, which is my most productive reading year to date. I owe most of that to this blog, which keeps me reading when other interests threaten to encroach upon what free time I have.

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is one of the notable female authors who I decided to make a point of reading this year. It's only appropriate that I end this year's reviewing with the last of her novels I've read this year. After being thrilled with Feed and finding Discount Armageddon a serviceable start to a series, I was looking forward to starting McGuire's October Daye series. Rosemary and Rue doesn't disappoint and given its status as McGuire's first novel, I am certain that the series will reach even greater heights. With lush world building, a engaging and unexpectedly human protagonist and plenty of action, the adventures of October Daye will appeal to fans of the works of Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, and Kevin Hearne. In spite of some flaws, this is a fantastic start from the pen of one of the genre's most well respected names.

Friday, December 27, 2013

She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky

My review of the final Lowtown novel is likely to be the shortest review I've ever written for a novel I enjoyed so thoroughly. But delving too deep into this story would risk spoilers, so I'm forced into brevity.  I loved the preceding two volumes of the Lowtown trilogy and was both excited and saddened to know that my time with the one of the most irredeemable and yet most compelling protagonists I've ever encountered was coming to a close. Polansky has been labelled as a 'writer's writer' by folks with far more education and experience than I, but I would go one step further and say that these novels are perfectly suited to any reasonably well read person who isn't likely to be put off by a novel that takes a long, unflinching flinching look at the darkest parts of society and human nature. These books aren't easy to read, they are violent and profane with hardly a decent person in sight, but they are so compellingly well written and so deft in their observations about the cold facts of human nature that it's a definite shame they haven't found a wider audience.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Best of 2013: Year End Edition

With the holidays over, I imagine that many of my fellow bookworms have gift cards and Christmas cash burning a hole in their pocket. With that in mind here are the ten best novels, I've read this year minus a few of the bigger names that the vast majority of genre fans have purchased long ago. I made the decision not to include some novels that were all but sure things simply because, there are lesser known novels that are just as good and could definitely use some publicity, no matter how small. But rest assured, though you may not see a King, Gaiman, Butcher or Brett in residence here, these authors are in no way less worthy simply because they don't have the benefit of decades in the business of a successful franchise to their names. 2013 was a year of discovery for me, and I'd like to share the very best of those with you all. Happy Holidays and I hope you find a novel you've not yet read in this list.

10. Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole: Sophomore novels are tricky, especially when the first novel is well received. Myke Cole did the unthinkable and bested his debut, Control Point in every way. Fortress Frontier adds depth to the cast, concept, world building and even the prose itself all while still drawing heavily on all the traits that made it's predecessor such a hit. There's action a plenty, character growth that leaves reader's cheering, and an authenticity born from the author's life experience. Military fantasy rarely gets better and Cole has proven again that he's a major talent. I'm likely to make the final book in this trilogy, Breach Zone one of the first books I read this year.

9. Generation V by M.L. Brennan: I gotta admit, I wasn't expecting to like this novel half as much as I did. I mean, vampire protagonists are overdone, right? But Brennan's Fortitude Scott is a different animal all together. He doesn't want to be a vampire, and given the ingenious fact that Brennan's vampires are born, rather than turned, he doesn't have to be one, not in the ways readers might expect. Fortitude doesn't exude sex, or handle himself well in a fight. He's a push over, vegetarian,with an art degree and a dead end job. But shit gets real. With the help of a kitsune and his own refusal to give up on a losing battle, Fortitude takes his first steps to becoming a vampire, and more importantly a man. Brennan succeeds on the merit of her new take on a tired trope and the strength of her every man protagonist. I, for one, can't wait for the sequel.

8. The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu: Another type of novel I rarely read is the comedy, but Wesley Chu's uproariously funny debut was an welcome exception. This sci-fi thriller/comedy reminded me of all the best parts of television's Chuck with an engaging premise reminicent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Add in the coming of age tale of the slacker extraordinaire Roen Tan and the pitch perfect and often laugh out loud action sequences and it's easy to see how this debut has catapulted Chu to rising star status. The sequel, The Deaths of Tao may have deviated heavily from the formula of it's predecessor but it showed off a completely different set of writing chops that guarantees I'll be reading Chu's work for the foreseeable future.

7. Vicious by Victoria Schwab: My love affair with superheroes is an old one, but rarely do I find a novel that effectively captures what I love about the genre. Vicious' manages that with its obvious nods to its four color parents ranging from the seminal graphic novel Watchmen and the dynamics between two friends whose acquisition of superhuman abilities destroys every bit of good feeling between them. But better yet, the broken time line structure and the moral ambiguity of the two leads makes for an engrossing character study on the nature of good and evil and the blurring of the line between. I hear Vicious has been optioned  by none other than Ridley Scott, and I certainly hope we eventually get to see Victor and Company on the big screen sooner than later.

6.  The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig: If I were going to crown an author of the year it would be Chuck Wendig. I've read three very different novels from him this year and each of those has been a cut above the crowd. The Blue Blazes is simply the best of these. With an unforgettable protagonist in the larger than life and yet tragically broken Mookie Pearl, bombastic action sequences that literally chew up the scenery, and richly bizarre world building Wendig delivers plenty of punch per page. But it's the emotional core of dysfunctional family values that makes it stick in your mind long after the last page is turned.

5.  Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh: This compelling novel shouldn't have worked for me. It's science fiction, romantic comedy, and essentially has no real action sequences to its name. But despite not fitting into my wheelhouse at all, Love Minus Eighty kept me enthralled. With pitch perfect characterization, fascinating commentary on the role of technology in our social interactions, and more subtle themes about the trials of forming real connections with the people around us, McIntosh delivers a novel that reminds me of no one more than Phillip K. Dick, where the science is only the vehicle that exposes the beating heart of humanity hiding beneath it. If you don't like sci-fi, romance or books with out explosions, check your baggage and read this book. You'll thank me later.

4. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler: This year was the year of books that took me by surprise. I'm not a fan of military fantasy, but Wexler's debut kept me turning pages late into the evening. Departing from the stereotypical knights and swords tropes of the genre, this flintlock fantasy has all of the grit and mystery of the early volumes of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and the military realism of Bernard Cornwell, with a cast packed with compelling characters and the best treatment of female characters I've seen in a book of its type. Wexler is all but guaranteed to grow in popularity as the series continues and I can't wait to lay my greedy paws on the next installment of this fantastic new series.

3. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: Sadly science fiction and fantasy isn't known for the beauty of its prose. Beukes' time travel thriller is set to change that. With lyrical prose from the first page, this story about a time travelling serial killer and his victims charms and disturbs with equal measure. This novel celebrates the women who fall to the killer's knife with a poignancy and grace that makes them so much more important than the animal that ends their lives. These Shining Girls are the real stars of the novel, and the exact mechanism of the house that allows the murderer to escape justice is left nebulous because it's not the point. As a character study, Beukes' tale is elegant, haunting, and sure to tug at the heart strings so much so that the lack of explanations hardly matter at all. Spend some time with these women and then hand this novel to anyone who turns their nose up at your genre of choice.

2. No Return by Zachary Jernigan: No novel took me more by surprise than No Return. It's chock full of classic sci-fi elements that I couldn't care less about. Robots, truly bizarre aliens, and aloof and terrible gods are all integral to the plot. I freely admit to being less than impressed at the outset, but as I wound my way through the dense narrative I found myself more and more riveted by the fate of Jernigan's characters and the thematic aspects that are wound so deftly into his world building. No Return is a novel that gains depth with examination and I plan to return to its rich and odd depths soon. Jernigan is a talent that bears watching and deserves far more attention than he's gotten due to the implosion of Night Shade Books.

1. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: I've been a Stephen King fan since I was a teenager, so it goes without saying that I've followed his son's career with interest since his debut. While I certainly enjoyed his work, none of those books struck the same chord as some of my favorites of his fathers. NOS4A2 changed that by the end of the second chapter. Hill turned in a story that is so unsettling and profoundly intimate that I can't think of a single novel I've enjoyed more this year. Vic McQueen is a heroine for the ages and don't even get me started on where Charlie Manx ranks in my best villains of all time list. This is a novel chock full of atmosphere, chilling evil, and characters so real that they practically breathe. Rarely does a novel chill my bones and warm my heart at the same time, and that is why Hill's latest earns top marks this year.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Interview with Django Wexler

The Thousand Names is easily one of the best books I've read this year, and a strong contender for debut of the year besides. So it's no surprise at all that I asked Django Wexler for an interview. We covered the usual questions about concept, influences,character, plotting and more. I was impressed by his candor and his sense of humor and quite enjoyed myself as I'm sure you will too. There are some links to other content by this talented author included, be sure to check them out. They're well worth your time. I even bookmarked one for reference later. 

Well, that's enough from me. Enjoy.

52 Reviews:  I'll start with a soft ball question. What can you tell us about the genesis of The Thousand Names? Did the original concept change much through the course of writing? 

Django Wexler:   So, The Thousand Names basically came from my reading two books – George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (and sequels) and David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon.  Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Martin, and I really liked what he did with his setting – he took the standard knights-and-castles fantasy and brought it down to earth, so to speak, by introducing a big dose of historical realism and modeling it more closely on a particular time period.  I decided I wanted to do something like that, a secondary world with a strong historical basis and magic with a pretty light touch.  But since the knights-and-castles era was pretty well covered, I thought it would be more fun to base it on a very different time in history.

When I read Chandler’s book, the Napoleonic era seemed perfect.  Big, sweeping battles, lots of interesting political changes, and not something you see much of in fantasy.  Influenced by the old S. M. Stirling and David Drake series The General (military SF retelling the campaigns of Belisarius) I originally planned to do a fictionalized version of the actual life of Napoleon, with Janus as the Napoleon character.  Once I started developing the world a bit more, and working on the characters and their backgrounds, it became clear that wasn’t going to work, and the current version of the story only has faint similarities to the actual *course* of history.

I think Winter’s story was the last part to fall into place.  I knew I wanted the second POV to be female, but for a while it was Janus’ little sister, or Marcus’ girlfriend, or similar.  Once I realized she needed her own story, it worked much better, and the result is that her plot ended up taking over the series to the point where she’s probably the key character!

52 Reviews: While I also loved Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I was really impressed that none of your viewpoint characters were from the ranks of the privileged few. Did you intentionally choose to focus on the common men and women, or was it more a function of the historical period that provided the basis for the novel? 

Django Wexler: It’s a function of a couple of things, but mostly the setting.  I wanted the viewpoints to be two characters at opposite ends of the military hierarchy – one to give the rankers point of view, and then one at the top to talk strategy and help explain what’s going on at a higher level.  The ranker was obviously going to be a commoner, and that ended up being Winter’s role.  For the officer, I wanted someone who basically knew what he was doing, and the way the Vordanai army is put together that mostly means commoners as well.  (In the Vordanai army, a captain has to rise from the ranks or be trained at the War College to achieve his rank, a colonel just buys his.)  Janus is the exception, of course, but I knew I didn’t want him to be a point of view – that kind of “genius” character works best when viewed from the outside, the Holmes and Watson or Thrawn and Paelleon.

In The Shadow Throne, the next book, the third point of view is Raesinia, the heir to the Vordanai crown.  Fortunately, she is a very long way from the pampered princess archetype, and using her helps us peek into the inner workings of court politics.

52 Reviews: Janus is definitely a fascinating character and I applaud your choice to keep his motives and tactical decisions largely obscured. One of the other things I've noticed is that while the Colonel appears to have a great deal of genius regarding military matters he seems particularly obtuse to more common concerns. Was it necessary to provide this blind spot to allow Marcus a more important role to play? Or was this to keep Janus from becoming too larger than life and this unrealistic as a character? 

Django Wexler:   Hmm, it’s a little bit of both.  As the POV character, Marcus needs a story of his own, he can’t just be standing around saying “Brilliant, sir!” all the time.  But also I think it helps Janus be a more identifiable character.  We all probably know somebody who is a master of one particular field of expertise, but who isn’t too good at day-to-day stuff.  It feels realistic, somehow.  It also fits with Janus’ backstory – mostly unrevealed as of yet, but it’s safe to say that it involved a lot of reading and study at the expense of real-life experience.

52 Reviews:  Moving on to Winter, I found myself drawn more to her story than any other in the novel. I love how you placed her so firmly in a man's world and yet she never comes across as mannish. What led you to the decision to have your principle female character live as a man, and what challenges did you face as a result? 

Django Wexler: It’s funny, because I originally made the decision for boring, practical reasons – I wanted Winter to be in the army, rather than a camp follower or something, and having a fully gender-integrated army wouldn’t have fit with the society I’d designed.  But once I made that choice, and worked through the implications for her character, it really helped turn her into a full-fledged person.  I had to figure out why she was the kind of person who would do that, take this big risk, and it made her very interesting.

One thing I *didn’t* want is for the story to be about the mechanics of her hiding her gender.  That can be a good story, especially combined with a coming-of-age plot, but it’s not what I was going for.  So when the book starts, she’s been doing it for two years or so, and I just sort of assume she knows what she’s doing.  Hopefully I didn’t damage anyone’s suspension of disbelief too badly by not going into the details of supportive undergarments and furtive bathroom breaks.

52 Reviews: With the bulk of the novel taken up with the various stages of a military campaign, how much research and planning went into getting the feel if not the specific details just right? What advice would you give to aspiring writers on research and how to avoid using pre-writing to keep them from having to write the actual prose? 

Django Wexler:  Fortunately for me, a lot of the “research” is just the stuff I read for fun.  I wouldn’t have gone for this kind of story if I didn’t enjoy the historical stuff enough to go through it.  So it’s hard to say exactly how much was actually involved – once I started working on it as a book, I did make an effort to seek out some lower-level, first-hand accounts of what battles and marches were like, so I could get that right along with the strategy and tactics.

Research can definitely cross the line into procrastination.  While it’s important to get things right (I think) you can’t let fear of getting things wrong paralyze you.  In particular, relatively minor details are easy to change in a later draft, so it’s not worth giving up your writing momentum in order to figure out some tiny piece of combat drill or military etiquette.  Just mark it somehow (I use Word comments) and move on, take a look on the next pass.

Also, I think a lot of writers fall prey to the idea that, “Oh, it’s epic fantasy, I’ve got to have a big battle in it!”, which is completely not true.  And even if you DO have a big battle, you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) give us the blow-by-blow.  I wrote a guest post on this subject for A Dribble of Ink that contains a lot more of my thinking.  

52 Reviews: I noticed that much like Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you use magic fairly sparingly and often with a lot of mystery. The magic that is used seems devastatingly powerful and possibly game changing and yet sees very little actual page time. What led you to those choices, and will we see a continuation of that theme, or will future volumes see a dramatic increase in the open use of magic?

Django Wexler:   The lack of magic is definitely a “by design” feature of the world, for a couple of reasons.  First, not having ubiquitous magic means it’s easier to use historical precedents for cultures, technologies, and the like.  (I’ve never really liked the worlds where the wizards only blow things up, and never help with farming or diseases.)  Second, I was interested in the military, tactical stuff, and I wanted that to actually matter, which meant not having real battlefield magic in the style of, say, Steven Erikson.  (Not that I don’t love Erikson’s books!  But having armies always seemed sort of pointless when it usually comes down to which all-powerful demigod beats the other.)  So even the strongest magic we see in The Thousand Names wouldn’t make the user a match for a hundred soldiers in the open.

Magic in the world of The Shadow Campaigns is finicky and poorly understood, so while it can be a 
powerful force it’s hard to rely on.  The Shadow Throne definitely continues the trend of magic being relatively subtle; there’s probably a bit more, page for page, but it’s not so much flash-and-bang fighting magic.  As the series goes along, I think the role of magic will increase a little, though, if only because Winter and the others will find out a little bit more about it.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite aspects of the novel was that everyone seems to have secrets. Not only are they present in the story arcs of the characters, but there also are many hidden agendas and secrets that are kept from the general populace as well. Even the title of the series seems to hint at this theme. What led you to this overarching aspect of the story, and how do you manage to not telegraph the numerous reveals in the novel?

Django Wexler:  Hmm.  I actually find this a hard question to answer, because I think that’s a basic part of how I write – a story is always more interesting when the characters have secrets, even if only little ones.  In this book in particular, for the reasons we talked about regarding the magic system, I knew I wanted the reality of magic itself to be a secret at the beginning of the story – as far as the characters are concerned, it’s a myth.  Then Janus has secrets, both because of his goals and because that’s the kind of guy he is, and once Winter’s story fell it became kind of a theme.

The tricky part is giving appropriate hints without giving the game away.  It’s very hard to do, but the perfect reveal is one that completely blindsides the reader when they first see it, but then is totally obvious in retrospect.  That’s a pretty narrow range to calibrate too, though, and it’s different for each reader, so I just did the best I could.  A couple of the biggest secrets, the READER is privy to all along, but not the characters – Winter’s gender is revealed in the first chapter, and the fact that magic is real in the prologue.  Then the trick is making maximum use of the dramatic tension provided by the reader knowing something the characters don’t.

The title of the series definitely plays into the “secrets” theme.  I sort of imagine it as the kind of thing that won’t make it into the official version of history, so that the Shadow Campaigns are the hidden, true story.

52 Reviews: Switching gears a bit, I'd like to talk a little bit about your experience as a debut author. With your first novel under your belt what was the most challenging aspect of the process, and what advice would give to aspiring writers attempting their first novel?

Django Wexler:  I always feel like a little bit of a cheat being called a debut author.  My book Memories of Empire was released by Medallion Press in 2005, and another book, Shinigami, in 2006.  Medallion is a small press, so I qualify for various debut-author things because the pay wasn’t pro-rate, but it was still honest-to-goodness advance-paying publication.

The main advice I would give to aspiring authors is a) keep writing and *finish projects*, and b) don’t assume that your first completed novel will be your first publication.  Very few people end up selling the first thing they’ve written.  It’s certainly worth trying, but you send it off and then start something else.  I finished at least four novels before writing Memories of Empire (it depends how you count), and The Thousand Names was #8 or #9 total.

The hardest part, for me, was actually finishing the stories.  Starting new projects is always more fun than banging the last few nails into old ones, and without a clear goal it’s easy to drift in a sea of half-completed manuscripts.  Actually getting a piece into final, submittable form and sending it out is a big milestone, and worth working toward.

52 Reviews: Continuing along this vein, what's been the most rewarding aspect of your experience as a writer considering the critical success of The Thousand Names? 

Django Wexler:  I’m not sure if we’ve got “critical success”, but I guess the response has been reasonably positive.  For me, talking to people who enjoyed the book is always wonderful.  It’s a bit of an ego-trip, obviously, but it’s also great to see how you made people happy.  For the same reason I like responding to mail, signing copies, and so on; it’s little things that take me a couple of minutes, but it can make someone’s day.  That’s a really rewarding feeling.

I’ve also been privileged to meet quite a few other writers, either on Twitter or at cons, and they’ve been pretty uniformly awesome.  Getting to be a part of that community is a lot of fun.

52 Reviews: I like to end my interviews by giving the authors a chance to talk about whatever strikes their fancy. Feel free to pimp upcoming projects, recommend other authors, or just share something you think might interest the readers. Or you could talk about your secret pact with Napoleon's ghost made on a crossroads on the island of Elba. The choice and the floor is yours.

Django Wexler: The next big event for me is the release of my middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, in April of next year.  I’m really excited about that one, it’s a new area for me and I hope people like the book.  The Shadow Throne, sequel to The Thousand Names, releases in July.  I’ll probably also have a novella and some short stories out in there somewhere, either in e-bookstores or on the web.

And completely off-topic, for anyone interested, I’m now writing a regular anime column for SF Signal.

Thanks for having me on!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reflections on Gender Bias

After my round table on Gender Bias, I've been striving to improve the gender parity of the books I read and review. With a little less than three months of paying much closer attention to the results of these efforts I've come to the following conclusion.

Reviews on male written work generate more traffic. I've reviewed five male written novels since the first of October. These novels only account for approximately thirty six percent. Even with female written novels accounting for sixty four percent of the novels reviewed in this period, posts that feature male authors generate approximately 20 more hits than their female counterparts. Perhaps readers are more likely to check out a review for novels they've already noticed in book stores or authors with more name recognition.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Delia's Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

True story, I found myself making an impromptu trip to my local book seller and I knew I wanted a debut author, preferably female for my next read.  I reached out to Twitter for recommendations but my trip was a short one and I didn't get a response fast enough, so I chose a book from the new release section only to find out the author of my chosen novel had suggested it. That novel was Jaime Lee Moyer's Delia's Shadow and I'm pleased to report that it was just what the doctor ordered. Fantasy is not a genre known for it's subtlety and Moyer's delicate and graceful tapestry of historical, romantic, and supernatural elements is as far from the blade wielding heroes, wizened mages, and fire breathing dragons that most associate with the genre as you can get, both in terms of subject and delivery. Even with ghosts and killers prowling the pages, Moyer delivers a subdued yet rousing tale about two people both haunted by their past drawn together to create a future. Moyer is definitely an author to watch.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Interview with Will McIntosh

I loved Will McIntosh's science fiction take on the romantic comedy, Love Minus Eighty and Will was kind enough to take the time to do an interview. We discussed everything from the genesis of this fantastic novel, to world building, internet dating and upcoming projects. It was very enlightening to get a look into the writing process behind one of the best novels I've read this year. Rather than waste time with a lengthy preamble, I'll just get one with the main attraction. I hope you all enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

52 Reviews: Tell us about your process for beginning Love Minus Eighty? I'm aware that you wrote a short story that touches on the Bridecicle program. How did the reception of that story influence the eventual novel and how did your take on the longer work change with more space to tell a more involved tale?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

I'm just going to come out and say it, military fantasy and science fiction isn't really my bag. I prefer my combat scenes one on one and I'm not a huge fan of massive battles full of flanking maneuvers, artillery exchanges, and the like. Imagine my surprise when I found myself totally engrossed with Django Wexler's tale of a military campaign, The Thousand Names. Wexler's debut was a hasty add on to my list of books I'd like as a birthday gifts at the end of the summer, and it took me a long time to get to it. I'd noticed the buzz surrounding the novel, but hadn't read any reviews and only glanced at the description before deciding to give it a go. I'd enjoyed Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood, and Wexler's book looked very similar. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

I've been making a concerted effort to read more science fiction this year, and I've found some real standout novels for my trouble. Rachel Aaron's newest novel, Fortune's Pawn is just the latest discovery. Written under the pseudonym of Rachel Bach, Fortune's Pawn is the first in the Paradox series, and it's a fantastic start. Packed to the gills with action, mysteries, and featuring a compelling protagonist this is a novel that fans of space opera won't want to miss. Bringing to mind such genre darlings such as Firefly and Alien, Bach makes good use of the familiar while injecting enough mystery and originality to make such comparisons nothing more than superficial.  I'll definitely be looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season is potentially the most hyped debut in speculative fiction right now. There are movie rights and talk about Shannon being the next Rowling or Collins. With all of that build up, I was tempted to just skip it, but I decided that I'd give Shannon's debut a go to see what all the fuss was about. While I can't say that she's the next Rowling or anyone else for that matter, I will say this is a strong debut that has many parallels to popular series that are bound to keep The Bone Season flying off shelves for the foreseeable future.  Those who dismiss Shannon because of the hype surrounding the novel will be making a mistake, there is plenty of promise in the world and characters here and I am confident that Shannon's next effort will be even stronger. This is a novel with strong bones, even if I found it less than breathtaking.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Best of the Back List: 2013 Edition

I've been gearing up to do a year's best books list since the end of the first quarter. But in looking over the books I've read thus far (I'll probably add at least four or five more by the end of the month) I realized that I've read a pretty large number of older works and that perhaps including those doesn't give a wholly accurate view of this year's best novels. So with that  in mind, I've decided to do a separate list for books that were released prior to this year. Thanks to the realization that I had been reading with a bias toward male authors this fall, I've been making an effort to seek out books by female authors that I may have overlooked. I'm happy to report that many of those authors have made their way not only onto this list but also into my "must buy" list of authors. I'll be posting a list of the best of 2013 closer to the end of the year.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Feed by Mira Grant

Zombies are a bit of a cultural phenomenon, in case you’ve been living in a cave somewhere. With the success of The Walking Dead there are plenty of novels about the living dead to choose from and I’ll admit to liking more than a few of them. I’d heard of Mira Grant’s Feed earlier in the year, but passed on reading it because it was told after the zombacalypse. I’m a huge fan of end of the world tales and the idea of a novel that was set after the exciting parts were over just didn’t do it for me. But after realizing my own gender bias was brought to my attention, I started seeking out female genre writers and after sampling one of the Seanan McGuire’s (Mira Grant is a pseudonym) other work and enjoying it, I decided to give Feed a go. And despite my earlier misgivings, I couldn’t be happier with this unique and refreshing take on the world post-zombie outbreak. Feed easily ranks as one of the best novels I’ve read this year and it’s taking all of my willpower not to rush out and dive into the rest of the Newsflesh trilogy.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

One of the best things about being connected to the reviewing community is hearing about novels that I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up on my own. Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty is one of those finds I wouldn’t have made if not for social media. After seeing review after glowing review in my Twitter feed, I picked it up and set it on the top of Mount To Be Read, where it was promptly buried. It took a few months before I had time to pick it up, but I managed to devour it over the weekend, despite being fairly busy with other social obligations. I don’t normally read a lot on the weekends due to a fairly busy schedule when I’m not working, but McIntosh’s fascinating tale of love and technology just wouldn’t let me go, so I finished it in record time. I’m happy to report that despite having a strong romantic element to its story line that Love Minus Eighty is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Miserere by Teresa Frohock

Teresa Frohock’s Miserere is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a far too long. Sadly, as is the case with a lot of debut novels by female authors, I’ve had a hard time locating a copy in my local bookstore. But eventually I gave up looking and just ordered myself a copy. When I concluded my Round Table of Gender Bias in SF/F, I gave readers the opportunity to choose my next read To Be Read pile and Miserere was the clear favorite. I dove right in, and immediately regretted that I’d waited this long to delve into Frohock’s fascinating debut. With engaging world building, deeply realized characters and  plenty of pathos Miserere is a debut novel that begs for a wider readership.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Urban fantasy is a tricky business, especially when the author uses a first person point of view.  But when it’s done well, the results can be exceptional. Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon is a good example of how the strength of the viewpoint character’s voice can carry the story in spite of some questionable story choices.

Discount Armageddon is the story of Verity Price, a crypto-biologist who dreams of a being a professional ballroom dancer but is torn between her personal ambitions and her place in the family business studying cryptids, monsters of both the sentient and non-sentient variety. When female cryptids begin to disappear, Verity discovers Dominic Deluca, a member of the Covenant of St. George, an ancient organization that views cryptids as threats to humanity that should be exterminated operating in Manhattan. Is he the culprit or is there a larger threat to both humanity and cryptids alike?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan

It’s always an interesting proposition when an author jumps to another genre. Will the elements of their successes in one venue parlay into equal success in another? Will the story be as entertaining as the previous works, despite a complete change of storytelling scenery, with different tropes and expectations? Readers of this blog are well aware that I’m decidedly more comfortable with fantasy novels, only branching into science fiction rarely. So when I heard that Michael J. Sullivan was using Kickstarter to produce a science fiction story, I was curious to see if my love for Sullivan’s work would extend to a story outside of the Riyria series. I’m happy to report that not only does Hollow World establish Sullivan as a force to be reckoned with in any genre he chooses to ply his talent to, it also is a prime example of one of the reasons speculative fiction is so important. Hollow World is an excellent and thought provoking novel that tackles big issues yet does so in such a way to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions once they reach the end of this thoughtful, entertaining and compelling science fiction murder mystery.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I’ve been following Joe Hill’s career since the beginning. As a long term fan of his father, Stephen King, I was curious to see what his son might contribute to my bookshelves. Hill has yet to disappoint. His novels, while not as compelling as some of his father’s standouts, were well written, compelling, and showed a promise of greater things to come. Hill’s latest effort, NOS4A2 is the fulfillment of that promise. Hill has created a novel full of terror, heart ache, and redemption that is a strong contender for the best book I’ve read this year. NOS4A2 fires on all cylinders, and is a thrilling ride from start to finish and is populated with characters so full of life that I found myself putting off the end of the novel, so our time together wouldn’t come to a close. With so many books waiting in the wings, it’s not often that I feel so strongly about a story. It appears, the undoubtedly proud papa should be watching his six, because Junior has definitely arrived.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

I always approach sophomore novels with a certain amount of trepidation. Things like middle book syndrome, sophomore slump,and rushed to market always seem to come to mind. The more I liked the debut the more hesitant I am to crack the cover on their second effort. And there's no doubt how I felt about Chu's breakout success The Lives of Tao, it's currently on my list of the best books I've read this year. So it goes without saying that I was worried that Chu may not be able to catch lightning in a bottle the second time around. Due to some gutsy writing choices, I was in for quite the roller coaster ride as my expectations were mowed down like red-shirted extras in the opening chapters but Chu manages to sell a story that while standing in the shadow of its predecessor manages to shine on its own, very different merits.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Round Table: Gender Bias in SF/F Part Three

This round table on Gender Bias, has been an eye opening experience for me. I had no idea how prevalent and subtle this issue was at the onset. But through my discussion with Stina, Zach and Maz I've found myself in a unique position to do something about a problem. To perhaps have a chance to have some slight impact on my audience other than sharing my opinion about the books that I devour each year. Because, gender bias is real and it's a problem we as a community can take steps to solve. 

I hope that some of the fledgling bloggers or aspiring ones, can learn from my experience and save themselves a public and sobering lesson and help educate the readership about the amazing writers who need our support to continue to tell more stories. The next Kameron Hurley, Stina Leicht, Lauren Beukes, Erin Morganstern, Emma Bull, M.L. Brennan, and countless countless others may be on the edge of giving up. We can help those stories get told, by simply making sure we read those stories that aren't told by heterosexual white guys. 

And I'm happy to say that I think we've done some good. The numbers are encouraging. The first part of this round table is already the most viewed item on this website's history. Part Two didn't get as much traction, but people are reading. And hopefully, they'll pick up one book by an author they might have otherwise looked over. It's something, and In would be lying if I didn't say I was proud. 

So here's the latest installment. I'm sorry it's taken so long, but life gets in the way at times. But to make up for it, I'm going to let the audience which book in the above picture of my To Be Read pile I need next. Comment below with your vote. I'll announce the winner in a week. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

My love of genre fiction was cemented at an early age. I voraciously devoured The Chronicles of Narnia and every one of Frank L. Baum’s Oz novels I could get my eight year old hands on. Those books were my gateways to the fantastic and even though I’ve certainly dabbled in other genres my reader’s heart has always belonged to stories of magic and unexpected heroism. Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairly Land in a Ship of Her Own Making is cut from the same gossamer cloth of those classic tales and reminds me simultaneously of those childhood classics and more recent standouts such as Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vicious by V.E.Schwab

I’m a comic book fan from way back. I learned to read in four colors. I spent thousands of dollars of allowance money on the adventures of my favorite heroes and villains up until I graduated high school and moved on to other things. I’ve read a few books in the superhero genre, but they are few and far between. But when I read the blurb for Victoria Schwab’s Vicious, I knew I had to give the book a read. Schwab’s story of two college friends whose quest to become Extra-Ordinary not only changes them both in astonishing ways but propels them toward an eventual collision that is all but guaranteed to leave one of them in the grave. Schwab’s exploration of the nature of good and evil and heroes and villains kept me turning pages into the wee hours and challenged my expectations of the level of realism that can be brought to the four-color genre. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Round Table: Gender Bias in SF/F Part Two

Life's been pretty hectic lately, but in the best ways possible. I tied the knot two weeks ago and am settling into life with the best wife on the planet. The honeymoon was followed by a trip for a promotional exam for my second job as a martial arts instructor. So between things marital and martial I've had precious little time for anything. But I am finally getting back to my usual schedule. So with out further preamble the second part of the Round Table on Gender Bias in SF/F. I've included my response to the first talking point, which leads into this part of the discussion. A link to first post is
                                            provided below if context is needed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of those writers who I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Her body of work is universally well regarded, and many reviewers whose opinion I trust have raved about Range of Ghosts. I’ve recently made a commitment to gender parity in the reviews on the site, and Range of Ghosts was the first title that immediately came to mind. It’s really a shame that I waited this long. Bear turns in a unique and exquisitely layered tale that avoids almost every trope in the epic fantasy handbook without ever risking alienating the entrenched fans of the genre. Bear has vaulted easily onto my list of must read authors with this opening volume of her first foray into epic fantasy.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Gender Bias in SF/F Round Table: Part One

I like top ten lists, they generate a lot of traffic, are fun to write, and don't take a lot of time. So I do one once a quarter or so and they've been very successful, but when I posted my latest Fall Edition, I got a eye opening tweet from a fellow reviewer.

"All men. Had you noticed that?"

In the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, I'll admit that I hadn't. And my first reaction was to be angry that I'd been called on the carpet and to dismiss it out of hand. But once the initial bout of defensiveness wore off ( I'm proud to say it didn't take more than my drive to work) I knew this was something that I needed to talk through. I'm not a person who considers myself a sexist or a some one who marginalize anyone based on any reason of color, gender, or any such identifier. So I reached out to Stina, whose opinion on these matters I have come to greatly respect, and we exchanged some emails that left me feeling slightly embarrassed, a great deal more educated and determined that this topic bears discussion on a public forum.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview with Tad Williams

Tad Williams was the first professional to ever ask me if I'd like a review copy. I was hardly getting started, and was astonished when I received Tad's message. That book was The Dirty Streets of Heaven. I was too green and intimidated to ask for an interview that time around, but after reviewing Happy Hour in Hell, I found I had a lot to say about some of the criticism I read. So I thought, I'd ask for an interview and ask Tad about some of those topics. I was ecstatic when he agreed and then intimidated as I wrote the questions. I've done plenty of interviews, but this one was the first with an author I read as a teenager. Just another awesome perk of screaming my opinions into space. Tad was gracious enough to answer my sometimes rambling questions and I hope you enjoy the results. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I've been thinking a lot about rankings lately. Which is odd, because other than my quarterly Trending Ten posts, I spend very little time "ranking" books. I don't use a star rating or 5 point scale on my reviews. I just don't like taking my love of words and turning it into anything more than the most elementary of math. I'll use Goodread's rating system but that's about the long and the short of it. But because of The Shining Girls I'm going to talk about the only criteria that I can come up with that explains what makes a five star book for me.

The Shining Girls is the latest from Lauren Beukes, whose Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel in 2011. While her latest effort doesn't rely so heavily on genre trappings, reading much more like literary fiction, there are plenty of strange goings on in this dreadfully beautiful mash up of thriller, horror, and speculative tropes. Fans of Stephen King, James Patterson, and Audrey Niffenegger will not want to miss Beukes' nuanced and page turning tale of a time-travelling serial killer and the "shining girls" he is drawn to kill.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

A lot of people feel that Joe Abercrombie is the heir apparent, if not the king, of the fantasy genre. I suppose that depends on your world view, reading habits, personal tastes, and the phase of the moon. While I’ve enjoyed Abercrombie’s work, finding the genre subversion, over the top violence, and gallows humor to be an engaging change of pace from the staples of the genre, I don’t know that I could place his work at the top of the genre pyramid. In fact, I put off Red Country for a long time, not in the mood for the bleakness and the grit that I knew it would contain. I feel foolish for that decision now. Red Country showcases all of the things I love about Abercrombie’s work, his deft hand with character and dialogue and a blending of unexpected genre tropes that kept my knuckles tight on the pages for the considerable duration of his exploration of the Western viewed through the grime encrusted lens of his oeuvre.

It’s important to note that I cut my reading teeth on westerns. Though I abandoned the Wild West for Middle Earth and similar environs, I never lost my appreciation for stories of hard men and women prying a life out of a hostile world. Abercrombie shows an masterful understanding of the genre whose trappings he borrows and as expected promptly uses the best of those to turn in a rousing tale, that while not blazing new ground never disappoints.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Trending Ten: Fall Edition

1. The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett: Even after almost a year no title has managed to budge The Troupe from its place on top of the growing heap of books I've read this year. Even now, more than six months later I consider the characters that became my friends and the nuance of the theme and Bennett’s prose. I haven’t recommended any book this highly since Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. And this one is even better, and I doubt there will be a sequel to tarnish its good name. Though I intend to read American Elsewhere before years end. Maybe Bennett can conquer himself.

2. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey: I don’t do sci fi often, but when I do I hope they are all as good as Leviathan Wakes. Full of complex and unexpected heroes and a heavy dose of commentary on politics and human nature told through a tense and action packed narrative. Even though it's full of battles with bullets and torpedoes alike, it's the internal struggles of the characters that elevate this above a paint by numbers space opera. This book is so good, it’s no wonder it took two guys to write it.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: I’m sure Gaiman will land on many “Best of” lists this year, and he deserves to. Gaiman has firmly cemented his mastery as the premier author of fables for adults and children alike. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is packed with Gaiman’s unparalleled talent for weaving modern day mythologies teeming with whimsy and insight. There is a strong sense that this is the reader’s story while also being Neil’s own, which makes this a tale with universal appeal. 

4. No Return by Zachary Jernigan: No Return makes this list for some unusual reasons. Not to say it isn' an excellent novel, because it is. But it was a difficult read for me. The world, characters, and themes of Jernigan’s debut are dense, packed with layers of meaning and subtlety I didn't grasp fully in my initial reading of the novel. Later reflection shone a light on the work that only served to elevate my opinion of the novel and my critical thinking skills moving forward. Jernigan definitely has with important things to say, and he does it in a sweeping style not unlike some of the grandfathers of the genre.

5. The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig: This novel marked my first foray into the mad, profane and bombastic imagination of Chuck Wendig. If you read his excellent blog, you’ll see that the author seems much like his work. The Blue Blazes is blood spattered; noir flavored family drama in an intriguing take on urban fantasy. To sum it up, imagine the characters from Sin City battling the best of Dungeons and Dragon's Monster Manual.  This book is like nothing I’d ever read and I found myself promptly reading two more of Wendig's novels in short order. 

6. Joyland by Stephen King: King is one of the few authors that rate a hardcover purchase with every new release. And Joyland is emblematic of all of the things that King does best. Fans of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Body shouldn't miss this story of nostalgia, growing up and growing old and the friends and lovers you make along the way.

7. The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu: Chu’s debut novel, a comical mix of spy thriller and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is a heart warming coming of age story that taps into the finding yourself living a life without joy and purpose and discovering the only way to change your life is to change yourself. Add in the protagonist’s running banter with his resident alien and action sequences that could only be written by an actual stuntman, and there’s no question that Chu has a stellar career ahead of him. 

8. Three by Jay Posey: Jay Posey's atmospheric post-apocalyptic adventure hit my from left field. The story of the titular Three, making his way through a futuristic wasteland with a troubled mother and her enigmatic son is full of world building and imagery as sparse and desolately beautiful as it's setting. Posey's tale of humanity lost and finally found is sure to gather plenty of jaded genre readers in its wake. The ending shocked and puzzled me, and I can't wait to see how Posey constructs a sequel from it's ashes.

9. Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson: I majored in history in college and while it has been helpful in my own attempts at writing, D.B. Jackson has certainly put his PhD to good use. Thieftaker's blend of historical fiction and urban fantasy is a breathe of fresh air and his world weary protagonist, Ethan Kaille is just the hero needed to navigate the treachery of Pre-Revolutionary Boston. Thieftaker succeeds as an exemplary novel in both of the genres it straddles. 

10. Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein: With twenty years as a martial artist, I've an affinity for Japanese culture, history, and most importantly swordsmanship. Bein's blending of police procedural, historical, and subtle urban fantasy struck all the right notes with me. Using the series naming, Fated Blades as characters in and of themselves was a stroke of genius and allows readers to experience Japanese history and cultural through a variety of time periods. I'm anxious to discover what direction the series takes next. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

Prequel stories are a dangerous proposition; just ask George Lucas. The knowledge of what comes after, of the end game if you will, can taint the enjoyment of these stories from the very beginning. The stakes are even more daunting when the principle property is beloved by a legion of fans. Even after reading Michael J. Sullivan’s excellent first prequel novel to his uber-successful Riyria Revelations series, The Crown Tower, and loving it, I was a bit concerned that he might not be able to catch lightning in a bottle again.

While not as satisfying as the previous effort, The Rose and the Thorn is still packed with all of the things that made Sullivan such a powerhouse in the genre. There are banter and battle in equal measure, a touch of romance, sharply drawn characters, and the wonderful blend of nostalgic sword and sorcery that hearkens back to the books that led many thirty and forty-something readers to the genre in the first place.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Interview with M.L. Brennan

After my review of M.L. Brennan's Generation V, I was fortunate to enough to be granted an interview. The result is a fascinating look at the process of writing a vampire novel that doesn't sparkle, but shines with originality in a sub-genre that is all too rife with cliche. I found Brennan's answers to be surprising forthright and often out and out surprising. Hopefully you'll find them as enlightening as I did. 

52 Reviews: Tell us a little about the genesis of Generation V? Did the story idea come to you fully formed, or did it change significantly over time?

M.L. Brennan: This was definitely a story that developed. I began by thinking about vampires -- now, I really like vampires in fantasy, but when you look at them from the perspective of how they would fit into a real world ecosystem, they would be more devastating than rabbits in Australia. They live forever, they don't age, they can make more vampires with just a few drops of blood -- it's a population nightmare waiting to happen. So I was thinking about how I would adjust vampires to make them make sense -- how would they work? How would the population maintain a balance with their food supply (that is, humans)? I decided that my vampires would need to be born rather than turned, which meant that they needed to be a species, and that made me think about what a vampire family would be like.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Happy Hour In Hell by Tad Williams

As I've stated before, I've always found Tad Williams’ body of work a mixed bag. I loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn but everything since has left me cold. Until I read The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams’ first foray into urban fantasy. The first of the Bobby Dollar series moved Tad back to my must read list. I was fortunate to get a review copy directly from the author, and spent most of my Labor Day weekend following the further adventures of Heaven’s most love struck angel. I won’t sugar coat it, fans of the rapid fire pacing of the stereotypical urban fantasy novel may find Happy Hour in Hell to be a step backward from the frenetic pace of its predecessor, but those who are accustomed to the door-stopper sized novels from Williams’ previous work, will find the richer world building comforting and familiar. Happy Hour in Hell may suffer a bit from middle-book syndrome, but it is still a worthy addition to the series and Tad’s oeuvre as well.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond

I’m fairly certain that The Woken Gods is only the fourth YA novel I've read this year. But the blurb sounded promising and the idea of gods walking among men seemed close enough to my wheel house to all but guarantee that I would enjoy it, so I took the plunge. After reading, I've decided that the novel is pretty typical of the reasons why I read so little Young Adult fiction, yet continue to dip my toe in the water from time to time. This is not to say that I didn't like the novel. I did. Despite some disconnects, The Woken Gods gets a lot of things right and makes for an interesting and easy read. And there is nothing wrong with that.