Friday, July 12, 2013

The Best (and Worst) Books Thus Far: 2013 Mid-Year Edition

I know that it’s really past mid-year, but I decided July was close enough to do a sort of mid-year review of some of my favorite books of 2013, as well as some of my personal disappointments. A lot of this will be a reiteration of previous reviews (I will provide links), but I’ll also have a few books not yet mentioned, and some that have moved categories as time has passed.

Best thus far (kind of in order):

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
This is a total cheat as it is not actually released until the end of August, but I’ve read it, was enthralled, and can easily say that it is my hands-down favorite of 2013 thus far. I’m fairly certain that won’t change, but we shall certainly see, after all Veronica Roth’s Allegiant is still awaiting its Fall release. To get my full take on this brilliant psychological suspense read my full review, to be posted on this Blog on August 15, 2013.

Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
I can’t say enough about Beth Hoffman’s abilities as a storyteller; she sucks you in with her charm and keeps you with her intelligence and depth. Looking for Me is the perfect sophomore effort from this talented author. Click here for my in depth review.

Lexicon by Max Barry
Max Barry’s last book, Machine Man was awful—I do have to mention that it was a book put out on serial form via emails from Barry prior to publication as a paperback original, but this has no bearing on its quality—it had all the earmarks of a great Barry satire, but was unrestrained to the point of not just ridiculousness, but bad storytelling as well. I’m a huge Max Barry fan (please, please read Jennifer Government or Company), so this was said with difficulty, but Machine Man sucked. That being said, Barry is back to his roots in his brilliantly satirical, and as usual, insightful new novel Lexicon. Barry is a fantastic writer, and as a rule his characters are both unlovable idiots, and oddly compelling heroes, whose characteristics beautifully touch on what is wrong (and occasionally right) with our world. Lexicon has made this list not just because Max Barry is hands-down one of my favorite authors, but because it completely redeems him from the mess that was Machine Man.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

For this one, I will let my brief in-store review speak for itself:
The Passage meets The Road meets I Am Legend, The 5th Wave is almost a genre in itself. Cassie Sullivan might be the last person left on Earth, or at least the last human. When The Others came, some thought they might be gentle aliens, something out of a movie, but instead they unleashed terrors that quickly decimated the human race. Now alone, desperate to find her five-year-old brother, and determined to stay alive no matter what she has to do, Cassie must fight, hide, and kill her way into the heart of The Others stronghold. This is one intense ride. From page one readers are sucked into Cassie’s frightening world. Science fiction, warfare, coming-of-age, and even romance are all themes that find their way into this multi-dimensional novel. Beware that there is quite a bit of violence, some of it disturbing; and I would only recommend this for adults or older teens, but recommend it I do, it’s one heck of a fast-paced, entertaining read.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Scarlet, Book 2 in The Lunar Chronicles is one of the few YA books I really enjoyed this year. In the midst of fairy tale madness, this sci-fi twist to the age old stories is fresh and exciting. I highly recommend both Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) and its predecessor Cinder (Cinderella) for fans of science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales. I can’t wait for Book 3, Cress which will grace bookstore in February of 2014.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
I loved this quirky, dark mystery/drama involving two troubled Scottish sisters and the lengths they go to cover the deaths of their neglectful parents. O’Donnell does a magnificent job of vividly recreating the Glaswegian slums for her readers, sucking them into a multi-layered world where everyone has something to hide.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
This epistolary novel will probably not make my top 10 list for the year, but I feel the need to mention it because it has largely gone unnoticed. Frances and Bernard is the not so simple story of a friendship told via letter over the course of many years. Deeply philosophical and introspective, author Carlene Bauer creates two fascinating and highly intelligent characters. I have to admit that it took me a little longer to get into this book, but once I discovered its rhythm, found myself drawn to both the flawed characters, and the intellectually stimulating prose. It’s my hope to see more readers discover this little gem of a novel.

The next several books are ones that while not the worst books of the year (I just won’t read those), were disappointing to me in some way. Whether it was a weak part of a series or a book by a well-liked author that just didn’t quite make the cut, these books just weren’t as good as they should have been.

The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls
I just wrote about The Silver Star, so I won’t pontificate too much, but this one was a disappointment. Coming off of her two previous bestselling works (The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses) it would be expected that Walls could competently tell a story in its entirety, however the lack of cohesiveness and conclusion really detracts from what is, in the beginning a very good coming-of-age narrative. This story just ends, the world is still crazy, the periphery problems are solved, but the deeper issues are left hanging out like yesterday’s laundry. I’m fine with open-ended stories, but this one just didn’t work, and for that it gets to reside on the negative list.

Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Forman’s first two novels, If I Stay and Where She Went were unbelievably good (reviews here). They were tear jerkers with heart and a tremendous amount of soul. Because of this, I was expecting much the same from Just One Day, but instead found characters that were stereotypical, and a plot that ended up falling right into the realm of every other teen angst book I’ve ever read. Perhaps the story will redeem itself when the other side of the story is told in Forman’s upcoming Just One Year, but for now, the almost unlikeable characters, and ho-hum plot of Just One Day make it one of my 2013 disappointments.

Prodigy by Marie Lu **SPOILER BELOW**
Legend was great!(see my review here) Its sequel, Prodigy falls a little short. I think the main reason I was disappointed with this one was that it had a very “middle book in the series” ending that left the readers frustrated with a bit of the same old, same old. Romantic triangles and a surprise terminal illness make for uninteresting reading. We’ve been there; done that too many times to count—give us something new! Most middle books in a trilogy fall a little short and are redeemed by the conclusion, but this past year has been a disappointing one for series ends (Sapphire Blue, Reached, Shades of Earth), let’s hope Lu pulls out some of that magic she produced for Legend in Champion the final book of the trilogy (out 11/13).

Always Watching by Chevy Stevens
In her first two books Stevens used this really brilliant plot devise, the story is told to the reader via conversations her protagonists have with their psychiatrist, Dr. Nadine Lavoie. Now, the readers get to hear Nadine’s story. Unfortunately, Nadine’s story is just not that great. It lacks the deeply disturbing psychological tones of Still Missing and Never Knowing (see my Still Missing review here). Instead, you get a quasi-interesting look at a creepy cult, and the not so interesting story of a sexually abused drug addict daughter (for such an innovative author, this was just too clichéd) that just doesn’t make the cut. This is a passable suspense, but I expected more from this author.

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack
From the publisher: “JJ O' Malley, adopted from a Romanian orphanage by a single father in the west of Ireland, grows up a permanent outsider, and yet he finds his place in the community. At least until his world is shaken by the death of his best friend, and he volunteers for the "Somnos Project," an experimental program testing deep coma as a potential option in the EU penal system. In a prison ship docked in Killary Harbour, JJ is hooked up to monitoring devices that feed out to the Internet, and he and his fellow guinea pigs become global celebrities. “
This one had all the elements that usually work for me; multiple narratives, satire, science fiction, a timeline that swerves back and forth, but instead of hooking me, this highly stylized novel bored me to tears. It was just too odd and too slow; so, after about 90 pages (pretty much half-way through the book) I put it down, and then gave it away. I don’t often stop reading books, but I couldn’t find a reason to stay with this one.

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
The entire Across the Universe series has its problems, but overall it held up as a space travel dystopian series (say that five times fast). It had moments of violence; a suicide, rape attempt, murder; which seems like a lot, yet it wasn’t enough to turn me off, or stop me from recommending it. With the final book, Shades of Earth the series goes off the deep end with some horrific and meaningful deaths, and a plot that is jagged and reckless. This is one of those books that leaves a bad taste in your mouth—and it’s the final book in a trilogy—it should be doing the exact opposite. Trilogies can have darker endings, just look at The Hunger Games, but it has to have some underlying intent, and a glimmer of hope. Shades of Earth might have a glimmer at its conclusion, but if there is some hidden meaning in it all, it is lost amidst the violence and jerkiness of its narrative. I just hate spending time with a series to see it end in such a poorly contrived and dark place.

And to top it off…

Sequels I’ve put off reading. These two books make the list because they belong to two books that frustrated me, The Twelve by Justin Cronin and Angelopolis by Danielle Trussoni.

Cronin’s tomb of a book The Passage was a really great read…until you got to the end, all 784 pages in, and realize that nothing has been tied up, and the story is left hanging over the edge of a precipice with no clues to a conclusion. This was one of those “throw the book across the room” reads upon finish. I’ve been told The Twelve is good, but the three years in between books did two things a) made me forget the details of The Passage and b) reminded me of my previous frustrations—who wants to pick up the second book in a trilogy when it takes the author three years to write a book and said writer left you on an anger inducing cliffhanger?! So, I’ve yet to read this one and, based on sales, a lot of other people are holding off too.

As for Tussoni’s Angelopolis, this is another book that was three years in the making. Book one, Angelology, was interesting, if a little slow and even more predictable—perhaps if the market hadn’t been inundated with Angel themed books in the interim people would have locked on to Angelopolis, but the time in between, and the over-used genre made it timeworn and an afterthought. I won’t be reading this one, I’ve just lost interest.

So, here we are the end of my mid-year musings. I’ve pondered, remembered, and scraped together thoughts on what is out there for public consumption and can only hope readers will find something new, or avoid something mediocre as a result.

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