Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Favorite Books Read In 2015 (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller)

The headline is not a typo; it has taken me almost an entire year to finally summarize my best reads of the last year. In 2015 I read 74 books; almost all of these were novels, primarily in the genres of mystery/thriller and fantasy/science fiction. By far the biggest fraction of books that I read in 2015 were in the categories of science fiction and fantasy (in 2014 mystery/thriller predominated my reading list) were mystery/thrillers. I made it through all six of Karin Slaughter's Grant County mysteries, continued reading Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series and finished making my way through Michael Connelly's Detective Harry Bosch series and Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole thrillers.

Overall, although most of my favorite reads in 2015 were from authors familiar to me (James S.A. Corey, Louise Penny, Peter Brett, Jo Nesbø) whom I had read before I was also introduced to several new authors who I am confident will become some of my favorites for years to come: Brian Staveley, Cixin Liu, Ben Winters and Karin Slaughter.

I'm always looking for more good books and authors to start reading! Feel free to make suggestions of books or authors you think I would like in the comments after seeing what books have resonated with me previously.

Below are my favorite reads for 2015 in the genres Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller.

Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2015: Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5) by James S.A. Corey

Nemesis Games is the fifth book in the best-selling space opera series known as The Expanse. Each of the four previous books have been some of my favorites (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's GateCibola Burn) in the year it was published and, happily, the trend continues with Book 5: Nemesis Games. The authors (James SA Corey is the nom de plume of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) boldly move the story of a visionary future for humanity combined with non-stop action, political intrigue between planetary powers and intense peril for some of my favorite characters (Holden, Naomi, Amos and Avarasala). In Nemesis Games Corey 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 2015. I totally expected that Book 6 in The Expanse, Babylon's Ashes, would be my favorite science fiction and overall read in 2016. However, since the 6th book has been postponed from it's June release to December I have decided to postpone my reading of Babylon's Ashes until January 2017.

Runner-Up Favorite Science Fiction: The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu.

The Three-Body Problem is the first book originally written in a foreign language to win the most prestigious award in science fiction and fantasy (the Hugo award). Cixin Liu has been described as the Chinese Isaac Asimov and  The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are definitely space opera in the classic tradition of the most well-known Grandmaster of Science Fiction. Both books have ideas which are so original they are unlike anything I have read in other books. These original ideas come from the setting, which include multiple time periods set in China, including Maoist China is not only the setting, but also the story itself, which involves a slow-motion invasion of the Earth by an alien race who live on  planet called Trisolaris located hundreds of light years away in an improbable and unstable trinary star system.  There are far more details of the story which I don't want to give away here.  Basically, the tension in the plot(s) revolve around how specific people respond to the knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe by (1) collaborating with our future alien overlords and (2) coming up with brilliant strategies to defend Earth despite being technologically outmatched by the Trisolarians. The Three-Body Problem is primarily about the discovery of the Trisolarians and is dominated by the idea that there exist humans who would willingly collaborate with beings who are devoted to their species' extinction. The Dark Forest is primarily about humanity's realization that the Galaxy is a dangerous place for species once they reach a level of technology that allows them to perceive and interact with other civilizations on interstellar scales.

Honorable Mention (Science Fiction): The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.
One of the most engrossing reading experiences I had all year was with the David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. Mitchell is most well-known for his award-winning Cloud Atlas which was adapted into a gloriously disappointing movie starring Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry directed by the Wachoski siblings. Cloud Atlas was also one of my favorite books of the first decade of the 21st century. I will not be surprised if Mitchell's The Bone Clocks makes the list of my favorites for this decade. Bizarrely, it is one of two books I read in 2015 which has the idea of consciousness shifting between bodies (the other is Claire North's Touch). Like Cloud AtlasThe Bone Clocks is written as a series of interlocking chapters, some of which are long enough to be considered novellas or novellettes. Part of the delight of the book is trying to figure out the connections between the characters in the consecutive chapters as the story continues to move forward in time. However, The Bone Clocks is memorable for much more than any one particular plot device or literary trope it deploys; it is memorable because it is a stunningly original story brimming with mordant social commentary all in the service of a captivating SFnal plot.

Favorite Fantasy Novel Read In 2015: The Emperor's Blades (The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #1) by Brian Staveley

I had seen multiple references to Brian Staveley and his epic fantasy series The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne on Goodreads and Amazon due to my positive reactions to the work of Brent Weeks, Peter Brett and Daniel Abraham. In 2015, I finally got around to reading The Emperor's Blades, the first book in the series after seeing very positive reviews for its sequel, The Providence of Fire. However, what I didn't realize is that if you start a trilogy and discover that the first two books are awesome before the third book comes out then you will have months (and possibly years) of anxious anticipation ahead of you.  This is precisely what happened with The Emperor's Blades. It is the story of three siblings, Adare (the eldest daughter), Kaden (the heir) and Valyn (the spare) who are the children of the Annurian Emperor, Sanlitun Malkeenian, who has been assassinated as the story begins. We are thrust into a maelstrom of power struggles while simultaneously being introduced to three very different main characters and a well-crafted world full of magic and mayhem. This is epic fantasy operating at the very highest level of effectiveness and excellence.

Runner-Up Favorite Fantasy: The Skull Throne (The Demon Cycle, #4) by Peter V. Brett 

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 of my favorite fantasy authors that I have discovered in recent years is Peter Brett, and the bestselling series that he is known for is The Demon Cycle, which began with The Warded Man (back in 2009) and is now up to Book 4 with The Skull Throne. The Demon Cycle is set in a world where humanity is in a state of pre-industrial technology (i.e. flintlock rifles and no electricity) terrorized by the nightly appearance of various deadly creatures (called Demons) which materialize out of the ground but can be deflected by intricately drawn symbols, called Wards. This latest book shows how rich the story has become, having expanded far beyond the confines of Leesa, Rojer and Arlen from their small town of Tibett's Brook. Now we have an entirely new set of characters from the Muslim-inspired Krasian desert: Ahmann Jardir, Inevera and Abban. In The Skull Throne the stakes are raised as high as possible as the clash between the two competing civilizations comes to fruition.  Brett surprised me (and shocked fans) by killing off one of the main characters in this latest book, while simultaneously removing the titular Warded Man for most of the story. I can't wait to see how Brett will resolve the entire tale in The Core (scheduled for release in 2017).

Favorite Mystery Novel Read In 2015: World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3) by Ben H. Winters.

Nearly two thirds of the books I read in 2015 were science fiction or fantasy which is much higher than it was in 2014, when about half the books I read were mysteries or thrillers. What I have been looking for for years is a really good book that combines both genres (mystery/thriller and science fiction/fantasy). Amazingly, this year I finally discovered not one but four books that meet this standard. Three of them are part of Ben H. Winters' Last Policeman trilogy, which consists of The Last Policeman, Countdown City and World of Trouble. The entire trilogy is astonishingly good, but the third and final book is (literally) earth-shattering. The situation is that these are murder-mystery police procedural books with the twist that the Earth is about to be destroyed by a collision with an asteroid in the next six months. It was a complete eye-opener to me that a pre-apocalyptic work of fiction could be just as compelling as much of the post-apocalyptic work that has pervaded popular media. All good genre works force the reader to confront questions and the questions raised by Winters' The Last Policeman trilogy are devastating. Why are people still killing each other when there are only 6 months for every human being to live? Why should the police still try to find and punish evildoers? The very nature of responsibility and the usually hidden rules and protocols by which civilization functions are exposed by the imminent end of everything. And through it all we follow Hank Palace, a tall, geeky young police detective in Concord, New Hampshire as he lives, loves and sleuths before the world is destroyed in a final fireball. It is incredibly compelling, with both the mystery/thriller (Hank is originally called to the scene of yet another suicide and realizes it is actually a murder) and the science fiction (the way Winters portrays the many little details of how civilization falls apart as the asteroid gets closer feels very realistic) aspects executed with great flair and panache.

Runner-Up Favorite Mystery: The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson.

After years of searching for mysteries that successfully include science fiction elements and failing repeatedly, I actually found more than one in 2015.  Following my discovery of Ben Winters' The Last Policeman trilogy and enjoying it so much I redoubled my efforts to find other mystery-scifi hybrids. I ran into Patrick Tomlinson's The Ark and took a chance on it despite the limited number of reviews and ratings it had received. However, I was blown away by how much fun it is. The setting is on an arkship containing 20, 000 survivors of an Earth that was destroyed by a collision with a black hole 200 years ago. The protagonist is Bryan Benson, a former sporting hero who is now the police chief on the ship. He finds a dead body and has to grapple with the fact that there is someone on a ship containing the last vestiges of humanity who is a murderer. And that they have a secret so important to them they are willing to kill one of the few remaining humans to keep it. The story becomes quite thrilling as the stakes are incredibly high since the ship contains all of humanity.

Honorable Mention (Mystery):  The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache, #11) by Louise Penny.
The mysteries of Louise Penny have been some of my favorite reads for quite awhile. They are rather traditional: set in the mythical small town of Three Pines, with a cast of quirky characters that we have slowly been learning more and more about as the series progresses. The main protagonist is Armand Gamache who is a (former) Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec but the attraction of these books is the familiar rhythm of the interactions between the characters, which are complemented by the deviousness of the murders.

Favorite Thriller Novel Read In 2015: Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

One of the great author finds I made in 2014 was Greg Iles, whose The Quiet Game  was an Honorable Mention for my Favorite Thriller Read in 2014. That is the first book of Iles' Penn Cage  thrillers set in Natchez, Mississippi.  I devoured all the available books in the series (Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl, Natchez Burning) very quickly. Cage is a former prosecutor who becomes a best-selling author who returns to his hometown of Natchez and eventually is elected mayor. Natchez Burning is the beginning of a new trilogy featuring Penn Cage and includes a parallel time line set in the civil rights era when Penn's dad Tom Cage was a family practice doctor in Natchez who had black and white patients. There is almost non-stop action in both time lines as the race-based hate crimes, murders and other events that happened in the 1960s influence what people do and think decades later. There are so many extremely dangerous situations that Penn and his fiancee Caitlin Masters (publisher of the local newspaper) are placed in as they seek to unearth secrets and crimes that lots of people will go to extreme lengths to prevent them from being revealed.

Runner-Up Favorite Thriller Read in 2015: Phantom (Harry Hole, #10) by Jo Nesbø.

Jo Nesbø was another one of the great author finds I made in 2014, after his books were recommended to me by Amazon and Goodreads because of my positive reaction to the Kurt Wallander books by Henning Mankell (all 10 books which I have previously read). Nesbø, Mankell and Jussi Adler-Olsen are all purveyors of Nordic Noir which is starting to become one of my favorite sub-genres. For example, The Snowman (Harry Hole, #7) and The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q, #1) were both some of the best thrillers I read in 2014. Phantom (Harry Hole, #10) is the latest (and some think possibly, the last) Harry Hole book to be published. The significant emotional wallop that Phantom has is heightened by the fact that it is the 10th book in a series where we have followed these characters over years of fictional developments. One of the key relationships that Harry Hole has is with Oleg, the young son of the love of his life, Rakel. Harry has basically retired from being a police detective and is in exile in Hong Kong when he discovers that Oleg (now a teenager) has been arrested for murder and accused of being involved with a heroin ring. What follows next is an incredibly complex and exciting series of events which had me gasping for breath at it its (very satisfying) conclusion.

Honorable Mention (Thriller): Blindsighted (Grant County, #1) by Karin Slaughter.
Another one of the great  author discoveries I made in 2015 was Karin Slaughter. In some ways her Grant County series has a lot in common with Greg Iles' Penn Cage series: they both involve a married couple living in a small southern town trying to investigate murderous and other criminal behavior. Slaughter, like Iles, does an excellent job of placing her central characters in extremely dangerous situations which are very harrowing to the reader.

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