Best novels of 2014

Happy New Year everyone! 2014 was a great year for reading, especially after a somewhat lacklustre 2013. As I think back, it seems that this was a year for making much-needed changes, challenging myself, and trying new things. That made it a tough year, at times, but also an exciting one that sets the stage for an even better year in 2015 ūüôā

I can only hope that there’ll be just as many great books as I read in 2014. Here are my favourites, in the order that I read them:

The Broken KingdomsThe Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

It feels like such an age since I did this¬†read-along¬†that I was a bit surprised to see this on my Goodreads list of 2014 reads ūüôā N.K. Jemisin’s Interitance Trilogy showed me that I actually should be reading epic fantasy because it can be so, so awesome. In this sequel to¬†The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin expands on the mythology, adding new perspectives to a story that seemed clear cut at first. The protagonist is a blind artist whose had a lot of gods in her life, because their magic is the one thing she can see clearly.

Besides being simply amazing fiction, The Inheritance Trilogy is also the perfect option for anyone looking to diversify their sff reading.

 

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir must be the biggest self-publishing success story –¬†The Martian¬†started as a free serial on his blog, got picked up by major publishers, and is now being made into a big Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon (due to be released in 2015).

At first, I wasn’t sure this would be the book for me – a survivalist story set on Mars with lots of hard science? But I wanted to challenge myself and it paid off in spades.¬†The Martian¬†is a fantastic page-turner, and although there is a lot of hard science, the author makes it palatable enough for any reader. I was worried that it’d get boring, with most of the narrative focused on a man¬†alone on Mars, but Mark Watney’s endlessly optimistic and humorous personality kept me entertained. I can’t wait to see the movie.

 

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente! Her name is enough to sell me a book, and I snatched up a copy of this Subterranean Press limited edition when it came out. Valente’s writing and imagination is like nothing else out there, and I particularly like her use of myth and fairy tale.¬†Six-Gun Snow White¬†is dark, brutal and just as strange and beautiful as I hoped it would be.

Now can someone please do special editions of the rest of her books? I will just give you my money.

 

 

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

It’s the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920s New York.¬†The twelve Hamilton¬†sisters are forbidden by their father from ever leaving the house, but Jo, the oldest,¬†takes them out every night to go dancing in the city’s speakeasies. It’s the best life she can give her sisters, until their father decides to solves his financial problems by selling them off in marriage. Historical fiction isn’t normally by thing, but stepping out of my comfort zone has been one of the best things about 2014. Valentine’s book was sheer joy to read.

 

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Out of 2014’s favourites, this one was the most thrilling, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring… It was extremely fucking impressive. I love gods and mythology, and like N.K. Jemisin, Bennett has created his own to make one of the most amazing fantasy worlds I’ve ever read. I also love it because its protagonist is a skinny, bespectacled, unassuming woman who turns out to be the only one badass enough to save the world specifically because¬†she’s a total geek.¬†That said, I also have a very soft spot for her assistant Sigrud, a hulking berserker who is single-handedly responsible for the best action scene in the book.

 

Devilskein and DearloveDevilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

I’m very picky with YA, but I was thoroughly enchanted by this South African take on¬†The Secret Garden.¬†It’s set in one of my regular Cape Town haunts – Long Street – with characters who are charming, belligerent and despicable (occasionally all three). It’s rather dark, with its friendship between a grief-stricken young girl and a demon who wants her heart, but that’s why I like it.

 

 

 

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Now THIS is the kind of horror I like. Tense, disturbing, and gets gory only when it really means something. Horror stories often falter when the monster is revealed, but Malerman neatly eschews this problem with creatures that people have to avoid looking at, because one glimpse will cause them to commit gruesome suicide. The characters blindfold themselves whenever they’re outside, knowing they could be surrounded by monsters at any time. It’s not flawless, but it scared the hell out of me.

 

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This book was so good I decided not to read another novel after it just so I would end my year’s reading (of novels) on a perfect note. Like¬†Life After Life¬†by Kate Atkinson,¬†its protagonist lives his life over and over again, but this book is¬†so much better because Harry August remembers everything about his past lives.¬†The way his experiences build on one another makes for a fascinating personal struggle in itself, but the main plot of the book is an impending apocalypse – one of these time travellers is causing the world to end, and it’s happening faster and faster. Harry is in a position to do something about it, but his first question is why he should do anything at all; the world will end eventually.

To explain what he ultimately chooses to do, Harry relates the story of his many lives. His introspective journey eventually builds into quite a nail-biting thriller, but the real beauty of this book is the way all Harry wrestles with ethical questions, influenced by the weight of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s one of the most accomplished new novels I’ve read. I want to re-read it right now, and it feels like it could become one of my long-term favourites.

 

So tell me, did you have a good 2014? And what were your favourite reads?

Advertisements

Top 5 Reads of 2013

I’m feeling lazy and took all morning to write about two paragraphs of the review I’m working on, so instead of that I’m offering you my Top 5 Novels of 2013. It wasn’t a great reading year for me, as opposed to 2012 where my top 5 reads stood out bold and brilliant. On 2013’s list, only one or two books were that amazing. The others were fantastic, but didn’t have as much of an impact on me, or had little flaws that were just a bit too noticeable. That said, after finishing off the reading year with three very disappointing books, I can’t say how happy I am that I had the chance to read these beauties. Here they are in the order that I read them:

The Shining Girls collectors edition

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

A brutal time-travelling serial killer, the talented ‘shining’ girls he murders, the punk who shouldn’t have survived his attack, and an otherworldly house where it all comes together. SA’s literary it-girl Lauren Beukes brings together all sorts of things I love about sci fi, crime thrillers and serial killers in her trademark edgy style. It’s a slick, creepy book, and the scene where Harper tries (and fails) to murder Kirby was one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve read, and not only because of the violence.
My review

SIlently and Very Fast

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m a big¬†Valente fan, but I think part of the reason I enjoyed this so much is that Clarkesworld’s podcast director Kate Baker read it to me in her lovely voice. Over the past year I’ve been listening to short story podcasts regularly, and I think I played¬†Silently and Very Fast¬†about three times. I was disappointed to find that I could no longer buy the limited edition print copy of this novella, but it is included in the collection¬†The Bread We Eat in Dreams.¬†It’s the most beautiful story about artificial intelligence I’ve come across, incorporating myth and folklore, told in Valente’s spellbinding prose. Highly, highly recommended. You can read or listen to it for free at Clarkesworld magazine, where it has been split into three parts.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

I don’t often read or review non-fiction, but I would if I found more books like this. Ruby Blondell’s study of Helen of Troy is an in-depth literary analysis of the world’s most beautiful woman as she appears in various texts. It’s also a study of the nature and meaning of female beauty. I learned so much more about the mythical Helen and the society that created her than I thought there was to know. In addition, the discussions on female beauty offer fascinating and fundamental insights that are relevant to so many things that I read and watch all the time. Just this morning I read a blog post by Foz Meadows on contemporary issues of female beauty that related very strongly to what I’d read in Blondell’s book. This might sound overwhelming academic, but it’s not – Blondell is an excellent scholarly writer and her book is smoothly articulated. An elegant, captivating read.
My review

Red Seas Under Red SkiesRed Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

When review copies of¬†The Republic of Thieves¬†became available and the hype started to intensify, I figured it was time I checked out this Gentleman Bastard series that everyone was raving about. I liked the first book,¬†The Lies of Locke Lamora, but after all the hype I found it good but slightly disappointing. I didn’t know much about¬†Red Seas¬†though, and that might be why I enjoyed it more. The fact that it’s got Zamira Drakasha, a fucking awesome pirate captain who also happens to be a black 39-year old mom, is another reason. And I liked that Jean starts to be more of his own character rather than just a sidekick. Also, it has a casino heist AND a thrilling pirate adventure. And it’s funny. Actually, there are a of reasons I loved this book. Even after doing a read-along for¬†The Republic of Thieves, it remained my favourite.
My review

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

This one stirred up a lot of interest and quite a few award nominations when it came out and Jemisin’s name has come up frequently in the online world I inhabit. But I didn’t look too closely since I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy. I figured LOTR and A Song of Ice Fire was about as much as I could handle. Thank god some of the bloggers I’d met through the Scott Lynch read-along invited me to be a host for¬†The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms¬†read-along. Jemisin doesn’t waste time with the long-winded easily-forgotten world-building that I dislike about the genre and her characters defy the straight/white/male standards that plague epic fantasy. It’s full of fresh ideas, and complex characters who are never just good or evil or easily described.¬†Plus, the book is about enslaved gods who have been forced to serve a powerful family as weapons, tools and whores for the past two thousand years. It’s awesome. It’s something you should be reading.
Read-along:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

There are a few other books I wanted to mention. Carrie by Stephen King and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Both could have made this list, but they were re-reads and I wanted to stick to new reads.

There are also short story collections that deserve a mention:
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor
Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran
and The Color Master by Aimee Bender

I enjoyed these all very much, but short story collections tend to be at a disadvantage because I never enjoy all of them, I usually find at least one or two quite boring, and their fragmented nature means that they’ll never make as of an impact on me as a novel can. One of the stories may well be that powerful, but it’ll always be watered down when viewed as part of a collection. Nevertheless, these four had plenty of good and great stories and I’m glad I read them.

Now, on with 2014!

Best Reads of 2012

This was meant to be a “Top Ten” post, but it turned out to be too difficult to pick ten books. Or rather, there were six books that absolutely had to be on the list, but I couldn’t make up my mind about the other four. My simple solution was to list the six that stood out so clearly. They all made a strong impact on me this year, and when I think of them, the first thing I recall is the wonderful feeling of reading them, closely followed by thoughts of all the things that made them so great.

They aren’t all 2012 publications, but the oldest is still very recent (published in 2010). I’ve listed them in the order I read them, and you can click on the title or the cover to see my review, if I’ve written one.

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok by AS Byatt Grove Press

Rich, exquisite writing relating Norse myths and a young child’s experience of reading them.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
The Rook by Daniel OMalley

This is one of those wonderful books that has everything Рhumour, mystery, action, weirdness, loads of people and creatures with supernatural powers, and a touch of tragedy. If I was listing these books according to sheer entertainment, The Rook would undoubtedly be at the top.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

The Habitation of the Blessed by Cat Valente

The only novel that could possibly compete with Ragnarok in terms of writing is this beauty. In fact, I think Valente would win.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Gorgeous retellings of fairy tales in the form of prose poems. They’re dark and twisted, full of violence, sensuality, and taboo desire. The writing is both elegant and snarky, and the whole is utterly lovely.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’ve heaped praise on this ever since I read it. One of the best psychological thrillers ever.

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
The Etymologicon by mark Forsyth

Subtitled “A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language”,¬†The Etymologicon leaps delightfully from one word to another, exploring their connections and etymologies. Anyone who likes trivia will love this, and if a friend or family membe or other victim is sitting beside you when you’re reading, you will frequently turn to them with the words, “Hey! Did you know…”

Honourable Mentions…

The following books didn’t have as much of an impact as the top six, but I really wanted to give them a mention in this post because they were great books nevertheless.

Enormity by W.G. Marshall РMarshall takes a weird, silly, and often gross premise of a small, lonely man turned into a 6000-foot tall colossus and crafts a surprisingly engaging story out of it. Great, quirky sf.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern Рthe romance made me wary of this book, but it turned out to be as delightfully magical as all its fans said it was. One of the few occasions  when popular fiction lives up to the hype.

God’s War by Kameron Hurley¬†– unique sf set in the midst of an Islamic war between two far-future post-Earth societies. Excellent writing, an unforgettable main character, an Islamic society ¬†where women rule, and bug-tech.

Railsea by China¬†Mi√©ville¬†I wish this kind of adventure – rather than romance – was the face of contemporary YA.¬†Mi√©ville’s latest is one of his msot entertaining novels, with lots of his characteristic weirdness and wordplay.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk¬†¬†gorgeous historical fiction for foodies and ¬†myth-lovers

vN by Madeline Ashby Рthis sf novel has the perfect balance of character, action and ideas, musing on the possibilities and problems of AI as a part of human society.

 

And that’s that! Here’s to more brilliant books in 2013!