Thursday, February 19, 2015

My Favorite Books Read In 2014 (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller)

In 2014 I read 70 books; they were all novels, in the genres of mystery/thriller and fantasy/science fiction. By far, the biggest fraction of books that I read are mystery/thrillers. I have recently made it through all 18 of Peter Robinson's DCI Alan banks mysteries and am currently making my way through Michael Connelly's Detective Harry Bosch series (which I think is quite good) and Leighton Gage's Chief Inspector Mario Silva's series, which is also good and tragically cut short by the author's untimely death.

I had previously read all of Henning Mankell's Inspector Kurt Wallander books and the Steig Larsson trilogy and now definitely consider myself a full-fledged fam of Scandinavian noir. I was unprepared for how good the Inspector Harry Hole thrillers by Jo Nesbø are and surprised by the level of suspense in the first Department Q novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen!

Overall, however, my favorite reads of the year were from authors familiar to me (James S.A. Corey, Peter F. Hamilton, Daniel Abrahams, Brent Weeks, Tana French) continuing to bring me joy with their work.

I'm always looking for good books and authors to start reading! Feel free to make suggestions of books or authors you think I would like in the comments.

Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2014: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the best-selling space opera series known as The Expanse. I have been a huge fan of these books from day one, and am very excited that the television adaptation of the books is slated to come to SyFy as a 10-episode miniseries later this year. Cibola Burn follows events in a planet which has opened up outside of our solar system as a result of the events that occurred in Abaddon's Gate. Cibola Burn is space opera at its best, with interesting ideas about conflicts between corporations and colonists, all in the context of a visionary future for humanity combined with non-stop action and peril for the familiar characters of Holden, Nagata, Amos and Avarasala. Corey also introduces some new characters and resolves some plot points which have been developing since the very first book in the series (Leviathan Wakes). This was my favorite novel (of any genre) that I read in 2014. At this point, I fully expect that Book 5 in The Expanse, Nemesis Games, to be my favorite science fiction and overall read in 2015. And from what I can tell about the television series so far, I expect that to be one of my favorites as well.
Yes, these are really that good.

Runner-Up Favorite Science Fiction: The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a return to the Commonwealth Universe for British sci-fi maestro Peter F. Hamilton, whose earlier books like The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist turned me on to space opera in the first place. This book is intended to be the first book in another Hamilton duopoly called The Chronicle of the Fallers. His first duopoly in this universe was the brilliant Pandora's Star / Judas Unchained books which he returned to, somewhat obliquely, with his Void Trilogy (which are set a few thousand years in the future from the events in the first two books and inside a space anomaly called The Void in which advanced technology is stifled but mental powers like telekinesis and telepathy are possible). Despite the intriguing setting, The Void Trilogy were not as successful as the original Commonwealth Saga books (in my humble opinion). However, in The Abyss Beyond Dreams Hamilton has been able to combine the best parts of both of these prior works to produce a work which, while not as groundbreaking as the classic sci-fi of his Night's Dawn trilogy, is still as enthralling and engaging as anything the genre has to offer. And it's fun and funny as well. That being said, I am pretty surprised (and somewhat pleased) that I have found an author in James S.A. Corey who I think produces space opera as good as anything Hamilton has produced, but on a much more frequent timetable. It was still nice to see that the old master was able to show that "he's still got it" with his latest book, and I look forward to the concluding book in the series an I hope that he does NOT follow his promise (threat?) of never writing in the Commonwealth Universe again after he finishes the Fallers duopoly. (Unless he does so because he goes into Confederation Space, because that would be awesome!)

Honorable Mention (Science Fiction): Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross.
I have had difficulty finishing Charlie Stross books before despite the fact that he regularly gets recognized as producing some of the best speculative fiction around (multiple consecutive Hugo and Nebula nominations in the last decade). I picked up Neptune's Brood because it was nominated even though this is the sequel to Saturn's Children which I had not read (and still have not). This book was a whole bunch of fun, brimming with exciting ideas and lots of action set in well-imagined universe. Exactly what I love to get out of reading science fiction. One of my favorite sci-fi genre reads of 2014.

Favorite Fantasy Novel Read In 2014: The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

I actually read the all three of the currently available books in Brent Weeks Lightbringer series in 2014: The Black Prism (2010), The Blinding Knife (2012) and The Broken Eye (2014) and it's hard to say which of the three is the best. I think the third book has had the biggest impact on me of the three since now I have lived with these characters for well over 2,000 pages I am very invested as to what happens to them in the future. I believe that Weeks is improving as a writer; this series is already better than his Night's Angel series and there's (at least!) one more Lightbringer book to come. The main character is Kip, who is an out-of-shape, socially awkward 16-year-old who also happens to be the illegitimate son of the most powerful man in the world (Gavin Guile, known as The Prism for his powerful abilities to convert all spectra of light into solid objects and other forms of energy). Weeks has developed a fantasy series with a very interesting magic system  based on the seven colors of the rainbow and incorporated this into a complicated but intriguing political system and culture with many nuanced characters and exciting plot developments. The action is often breathless and the humor sometimes off-putting but once you start one of Brent Weeks novels they are often very hard to put down, and you are very glad that you didn't put it down until the end.

Runner-Up Favorite Fantasy: The Widow's House by Daniel Abrahams

I think of myself as someone who likes fantasy novels, but a review of my reading list in 2014 reveals I'm much pickier about titles in the fantasy genre than in the others that I consume. If I don't get caught up by a fantasy book early I am far more likely to give up on it than I would be if it were a mystery or science fiction book. One fantasy book I greatly enjoyed in 2014 was The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham. It is the penultimate book in the Dagger and the Coin series which is scheduled to be five books long. Amazingly, Abrahams has managed to keep to a schedule of releasing one book per year in the series for the last four years. Even more amazingly, he has been doing this while he has been adhering to the same schedule as one half of the writing team that produces The Expanse novels under the name of James S.A. Corey (see above). I don't know how they do it, but I am very happy that they do! The last book in the series will almost certainly come out this summer, and I expect The Spider's War to be awesome. Somehow Abrahams manages to have multiple strong female characters in a sword and sorcery tale that has monetary policy as one of its central organizing principles. If you are (or were) an economics major then this series is the one for you!

Favorite Mystery Novel Read In 2014: The Black Echo (and others) by Michael Connelly

Well over half the books I read last year were mysteries and 2014 was finally the year I discovered Michael Connelly. I'm not sure why it took so long; I like police procedurals and mysteries, and have read books of this genre set in Dublin (Tana French), Edinburgh (Ian Rankin), northern England (Peter Robinson) and London (Robert Barnard and Richard Galbraith) for years. I live in Los Angeles and love my adopted hometown. I knew intellectually that Connelly and Robert Crais set their books in this area but it wasn't until this past year that I discovered the joy of recognizing the setting in a book as a place I know in real life all too well (i.e. traffic on the 101 freeway, Griffith Park, Echo Park, et cetera). I still haven't read anything by Crais, but I expect that will happen eventually. I read twelve Harry Bosch books in 2014 and its hard to decide which is the "best" but I'm pretty confident the first one, The Black Echo, would be on the shortlist. I would also say that The Concrete Blonde, Trunk Music, The Last Coyote, A Darkness More Than Night and The Narrows are all excellent. I am only reading the Bosch series, not the other Connelly books featuring what I consider "side" characters (Mickey Haller, Terry McCaleb). I would say that The Overlook was not very good and so I hope that Connelly returns to form with the more recent books in the series. I'm not sure what I am going to do when I finish the last one, The Burning Room, published in 2014. I don't think I am interested in watching the Amazon series based on the books (called Bosch) but I am hopeful that regardless of its success as television fodder, Connelly will continue to produce more books featuring Harry Bosch.

Runner-Up Favorite Mystery: The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French has long been my favorite mystery writer, (in)famous for her literate, genre-defying novels based around various detectives in the Murder Squad of the Dublin Police Department that began with stunning debut In The Woods (2007). Sadly, she has only written five books so far and some observers think that her first work was her best and things have gone downhill from there (I disagree). French's books are collectively known as the Dublin Murder Squad series and I think it is an interesting choice the author has made to not stick to a single main detective whom readers get to know more about and become comfortable with in book after book. (I think this may have been a problem with Peter Robinson's books--towards the end of that series the books were definitely declining in quality. However, my counterexample would be Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, which I think got better as it went on, but that may have happened because Siobhan Clarke's role grew larger and so the cast of characters to care about was expanded.) Anyway, each of French's books is very different, and about very different mysteries. The Secret Place is about the death of a teenage boy on the grounds of a private girls school where one of the quartet of prime suspects is the teenage daughter of one of the few characters who has appeared in more than one of French's books: Francis Mackey. This ensures tha longtime fans of French's work are heavily invested in the outcome of the mystery in The Secret Place (could Mackey's daughter really be a killer?) The story involves digging into the tangled webs of deception and desire and envy and emotion that connect nearly a dozen hormonal teenagers and resulted in one of them on the ground with his head bashed in. The reader gets to see the investigation both from the perspective of the police investigators and from the student suspects; it is an interesting tightrope that French pulls off well. There are some aspects of the book which will not wear so well on some readers: much of the dialogue is in the argot of contemporary teenage girls and texts are central communication mechanisms to the story. In my opinion, the most glaring of these weaknesses is French's ill-advised decision to include actual supernatural elements as part of the narrative. Overall, The Secret Place is another unusual but memorable novel (with some flaws) from a superior mystery writer.

Favorite Thriller Novel Read In 2014: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø.
In addition to Harry Bosch, 2014 was the year that I discovered Harry Hole, the Norwegian alcoholic serial killer hunter. Hole springs from the creative mind of Jo Nesbø, who along with fellow Scandinavian authors Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson is one of the creators of a subgenre of mystery/thrillers known as Nordic noir. I think it is true that if you liked Mankell's Kurt Wallander books you will enjoy Nesbø's Harry Hole books. However, I would say that Nesbø's series on a whole is superior to Mankell's. They are for more suspenseful and action-filled, for the most part. Hole is an even more self-destructive anti-hero of the books than Wallander, but somehow the reader becomes attached to Hole and the supporting cast of characters in the Oslo Police Department. I read the first eight of Nesbø's Harry Hole books in 2014: The Bat, Cockroaches, The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil's Star, The Redeemer, The Snowman and The Leopard. In general I would say that each book is better than the last with The Snowman perhaps edging out The Leopard for the most thrilling read I had in 2014. I would strongly recommend the Harry Hole books for anyone who likes detective mysteries with pulse-pounding action and suspense. Nesbø will give you that and have you gasping for more even while you despair for Harry's future.

Runner-Up Favorite Thriller: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen.
This book was a complete surprise to me. The Department Q novels, of which this is the first one, were recommended to me because of my interest in Jo Nesbø books by's algorithm. (I guess my attraction to Nordic noir was easy to suss out from my wishlist and browsing history.) Jussi Adler-Olsen sets his books in Copenhagen, and his main detective is Carl Mørck, a detective who has been relegated to his own department of cold cases, in the basement of the police station primarily because no one else wants to work with him and because his bosses feel sorry for what he went through when two of his colleagues were shot right in front of him. This was a tougher slog to get through than any of the Michael Connelly books because Carl is not a compelling character but his sidekick, a Syrian emigre named Assad is great and kept me coming back to the story through the initial slow bits. And the ticking time bomb plot device (which I don't want to spoil here except to say it involves an abduction and kidnapping) makes the book literally impossible to put down from about halfway through the book. I had previously grouped mysteries and thrillers together as one genre but now I see that books like The Snowman and The Keeper of Lost Causes are more than just about solving the mystery of who did the crime, but also about drawing in the reader so that they are honestly worried about the well-being of the characters and curious and concerned about their ultimate fates. The Keeper of Lost Causes had me almost skimming the pages in order to advance the story to find out what happens, and isn't that what one wants in a thriller?

Honorable Mention (Thriller): The Quiet Game by Greg Iles.   
This is the first book in the Penn Case series of mystery thriller written by Greg Iles set in Natchez, Mississippi. After reading the first one I quickly devoured the next three (Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl and Natchez Burning) and am looking forward to the forthcoming The Bone Tree  with baited breath.

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