Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Halfway There: The Best of 2014 To Date

Friends! It's my birthday! Those of you who are so inclined may celebrate by sending me Kobo store credit.

(No, no, I kid. Unless you really want to shoot me $3, in which case: thanks!)

July 2nd isn't just my birthday; it's also the exact middle of the year. To my mind, that makes it the perfect day to look back on the best books I've read so far in 2014.

And so, without further ado, I give you the titles I just can't shut up about.

New-To-Me Standouts

Let's start with the new books, in more or less the order I encountered them. Everything listed below is a prime contender for my year-end Top 5 list.

cover art for Hunter's Oath, featuring two white men with blonde and brown hair running with several dogs against a forested background. A horned, humanoid figure looms in the background.

Hunter's Oath and Hunter's Death by Michelle West - 4.5 stars each

I always say I won't consider rereads for yearly Best Of lists because they have an unfair advantage, but HUNTER'S OATH and HUNTER'S DEATH by Michelle West have inspired me to institute a 15-year statute of limitations on the issue. After that long, I might as well be reading a book for the first time, and that makes it fair game.

These books, which I returned to this January after a fifteen-year break, blew me away. This is solid secondary world fantasy, my friends, packed with fabulous characters, great worldbuilding, and plenty of epic sweep.

I loved the duology so much that I've embarked on a quest to read everything Michelle West has ever written. Said quest hit a hiccup when I discovered my library didn't own the series that follows this one chronologically, but they've since bought the lot. (The Suggest A Purchase button is every library user's best friend.) I look forward to forging onwards in August, when I shan't be weighed down by Hugo nominees.

cover art for A Game For Swallows, featuring a black and white cartoon of eleven people of various ages and genders gathered together in front of a sea of cars in black and yellow. The silhouette of a city is visible in the background

A Game For Swallows by Zeina Abirached - 5 stars

A GAME FOR SWALLOWS is the best memoir I've ever read, and I'd be hard pressed to leave it off my personal list of Most Affecting Comics In All Of History. It succeeds in absolutely every respect: characterization, sense of place, paneling, pathos, and pure narrative drive.

It engaged me to such an extent that I forgot I was reading a book. That almost never happens.

cover art for Stolen Songbird, featuring a pale girl holding a glowing rose. Her face isn't visible. She stands in a cave

Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen - 4.5 stars

As I said in my review, STOLEN SONGBIRD might have been written just for me. It lays all my favourite things out as a rich, captivating smörgåsbord of music, underground shenanigans, slow-burning romance, beautiful monsters, dark magic, eighteenth century French inspirations, and Beauty & the Beast parallels.

I'm liable to get a tad gushy about it, given half a chance.

Unfortunately, STOLEN SONGBIRD's publisher has ceased operations, meaning the book's future is uncertain. The same holds true for its sequel, HIDDEN HUNTRESS. We must all hope the series finds a new publisher soon so the world can discover what comes next for Cécile and Tristan.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - 4.5 stars

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR was my most anticipated book of 2014, and it did not disappoint. It's rife with gorgeous characterization, political intrigue, and a pleasing focus on How Stuff Works. I wallowed in it, plain and simple, and cannot wait to reread it next year.

It's one of those books that's just brimming with heart, you know? The protagonist tries so very, very hard, and he wins people over with his efforts, and he often doesn't even recognize what he's done because he had such a hard childhood, and it's wonderful, and oh gods I'm getting all emotional just thinking about it.

cover art for Shadows of Asphodel, featuring a young woman standing in an empty town plaza, a sword in her hand. The image of a woman and a man kissing is superimposed on the sky above her.

Shadows of Asphodel by Karen Kincy - 4.5 stars

Three cheers for fantasy that allows magic and technology to coexist! Add in some incredible romantic tension, inventive worldbuilding, and more action than you can shake a stick at, and I'm a happy girl indeed. I've been recommending SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL to all and sundry since I finished it, and y'all can bet I'm not going to quit any time soon.

Please don't ignore this one because it's self-published. It offers ample proof that indie books can be wonderful.

cover art for What Makes This Book So Great, featuring the title printed across a stack of mouldering old paperbacks as though it was the title of the topmost book.
What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton - 4.5 stars

This collection of essays about Jo Walton's favourite (and sometimes least favourite) science fiction and fantasy novels is nothing short of an inspiration. It made me reconsider my own relationship with fiction, particularly the stuff I've reread multiple times. It also saddled me with an extremely long, unwieldy list of titles to check out in the nearish future (by which I mean sometime in 2015; damn you, glacial reading pace and large TBR!).

You have to read it, please and thanks.

cover art for Ember, featuring a woman's pale, hennaed hands, palms up, cupping the title in letters that evoke a banked fire. The background is black with whirls of smoke.

Ember by Bettie Sharpe - 5 stars

What's this? Another self-published book?

Yep. Another self-published book, and a particularly awesome one at that. This dark fairy tale knocked my socks off. I gripped my e-reader tight and sobbed my heart out as it tore along to its stunning conclusion.

And I reviewed it just last week, so I shall say no more than that.

cover art for Misbehaving, featuring translucent red swirls against a white background. We're gonna assume they're hard candy, okay? Because the alternative is pretty gross?

Misbehaving by Tiffany Reisz - 4.5 stars

I reviewed this one recently, too; in fact, it went live two days ago, as I write this (but probably not as you read it, the Internet being forever and all).

Lest I repeat myself, I'll leave you with the author's own words regarding her spectacularly entertaining romcom: "MISBEHAVING is not for anyone who doesn't appreciate the fine art of a choice butt-sex joke."

So true, friends. So very true.

Girl Genius volumes 1 to 13 by Phil & Kaja Foglio - 3.5 to 5 stars, depending on the volume in question

GIRL GENIUS is a partial reread, but since only six of the thirteen volumes were already familiar I figure it's more than deserving of a place in the new-to-me section.

This epic comics series is bloody brilliant, y'all. It's got adventure! Romance! Mad science! People who get really frickin' excited about everything from designing death rays to drinking the perfect cup of coffee. Cats talk, verdigrette warrior princesses search for their lost homelands, and painfully talented young women harness the powers of mad science for the greater good (and maybe for fun, too).

I'm bummed I've now caught up with it and must wait for new pages like the rest of the world, but I'm oh-so glad the the story shows no signs of winding down. Here's to a long and storied life for Agatha Heterodyne and her cronies.

Notable Rereads

Late last year, I decided 2014 would be the Year of the Awesome Reread. To this end, I set about annihilating my TBR so I could reread to my heart's content without feeling guilty.

Friends, I failed in my goal; but under Jo Walton's influence, I've decided I don't much care. 2014 is the Year of the Awesome Reread, as evidenced by the titles below, and I'm sure I'll add heaps more to the list before December rolls around.

cover art for Howl's Moving Castle, featuring the title in bold black type against a background that shifts from indigo in the upper left corner to leaf green in the lower right. The title has various chimneys sticking out of it, plus wizards, scarecrows, and bubbling beakers.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones - 4.5 stars

I swear, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE gets better every time I experience it, and it was frickin' awesome to start with. For this, my third time, I plucked the audio off the library shelf and experienced a treat of another order. I'm currently percolating a proper review, but it basically amounts to:

Sophie! Calcifer! Michael! Pastry! Dog dude! Howl! "I need you to blacken my name to the king!" Sophie again! OMG MAGIC! Scarecrow dude! Fairy tales! Fabulousness!

You know?

cover art for The Vintner's Luck, featuring a white marble statue of a crouching angel. The statue is half in shadow with tones of burgundy in the background.

The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - 4.5 stars

THE VINTNER'S LUCK, too, was even better the second time through, and it was all the more enjoyable because I read it with my friend Lynn. Not only did I get to experience subtle plotting, elegant language, and characters who slipped quietly into the recesses of my very soul, but I got to gush about it in good company.

It doesn't get much better than that, my friends.

cover art for Saga volume two, featuring the man from the first cover holding a lowered sword. He is drenched in blood with a pair of mangled, feathered wings visible in the background
Saga volumes 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - 5 stars each

SAGA is perfect. I mean, I know it isn't really, because nothing is, but you've gotta give me this one, okay?

Because, perfect.

The art; the story; the dialogue; the characterization; the every little thing. I can't think of an area where SAGA does not succeed, though of course it's entirely possible it'll fizzle out as it goes along. Let's ignore that possibility, though, in favour of the gorgeous feast of literary and artistic goodness we have before us today.

I feel a little high whenever I think of SAGA. It's that good.

I reread the first two volumes this June so's I could evaluate the second one for the Hugos, and I doubt it'll surprise you to learn it has my top vote for Best Graphic Story. (GIRL GENIUS comes in a surprisingly close second, though. I didn't predict that one.) I'm saving Volume Three for a rainy day, or possibly my birthday. I might be reading it right now, as you skim this post. And I'll bet I'm having a blast with it.

cover art for Ship of Magic, featuring a pale skinned man wearing a kerchief and carrying a sword arrayed against a background of ships' sails cover art for Fool's Errand, featuring two pale skinned men, one of whom has long white hair, riding black and white horses down a hill with a wolf beside them
The Farseer, Liveship, and Tawny Man Trilogies by Robin Hobb - 4.5 stars most of the way around

I've been meaning to reread these books for years and years and years, but they're looooong and I always have so very many other books to get through and, well, it's easier not to read nine hefty tomes, right? Even when you know you love them?

So I waited and waited and waited, until Hobb announced the impending publication of FOOL'S ASSASSIN and I could wait no more. I mean, my head damned near exploded from the sheer excitement of it all.

You can imagine my mental state when the publisher gave me an ARC.

Once I'd processed this, I dove into my reread and decided I'd actually done right to wait so long. While the characters remained fresh in my mind, I'd forgotten big chunks of the plot, and that made it all the more fun/heart wrenching to read on. I fell in love with the books all over again, and the characters? Oooh, boy. They're beyond wonderful. Malta has won a place on my highly exclusive List of Favourite Literary Characters, and I strongly suspect the Fool belongs on there too. I'm still waffling, since I'm a slither-outerer at heart, but his chances look pretty durned good.

I've already posted gushy, not-entirely-coherent reviews of the Farseer novels, and I have extremely long outlines for equally long, gushy, not-entirely-coherent reviews of the other two series. If the stars align in my favour, I'll tell you about the Liveship Traders books next week and the Tawny Man the week after that; if not, bump that estimate back by a week.

cover art for The Great Hunt, featuring a bipedal canine creature wearing heavy black armour. It looks towards a patch of light in the upper right hand corner, in which an indistinct man stands with a curved horn in his hands

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan - 4.5 stars

And here we have the biggest surprise of the summer.

Eleven years ago, I decided I'd reread (and catch up on) the Wheel of Time once the entire series was complete and in paperback. The moment came this January... and I let it pass me by, since I rang in the new year with the whole no male bylines deal.

Then, of course, I proceeded to read other things instead (see: slither-outerer).

This I'll-get-to-it-later attitude persisted until the series was nominated for a Hugo, at which point I could slither out no longer if I wanted to keep to my "I take the Hugos super seriously" thing. I finished rereading Robin Hobb and began rereading Robert Jordan.

I was actually pretty excited about it... until THE EYE OF THE WORLD failed to fully engage me. This might have been because I read it immediately after FOOL'S FATE, but it was a blow nonetheless. Still, I felt oddly compelled to move straight into THE GREAT HUNT--and y'know, I couldn't put it down.

This is one of those weird cases where I can't pinpoint why I loved it so much. I suspect it was a combination of nostalgia, epic sweep, half-remembered details taking on new meaning, and the sudden realization that I'm finally going to see how the series ends.

Twelve-year-old me is really frickin' excited. Hell, thirty-one-year-old me is really frickin' excited. This is an excitement-rich zone over here.

I loved THE DRAGON REBORN, too, though not quite as much, and I suspect most of my still-substantial glee stemmed from Mat's promotion to POV character. Mat was always my favourite (at least once I stopped hating him. Past Memory did not have Current Memory's fondness for jackasses). Now I'm taking a wee break before I dive into THE SHADOW RISING, but I'm looking forward to that one, too.

I know I won't finish the entire series before the voting deadline, but I'm gonna have a lot of fun trying. And sometime in August, or maybe early September, I'm finally gonna see how it ends.

Like I said, twelve-year-old me is pretty excited.

And that's that. What were your favourite books in the first half of 2014?


  1. Oh man, a lot of things. I have read a lot of crazy good books so far this year. The People in the Trees is the one that knocked my socks off the most, and then everything I've read by Daryl Gregory has been AMAZING. And also Fangirl was so good. And I am reading The Raven Boys right now, and I can't even deal with how good it is. So, all of those for me.

    HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE YES. It never stops getting better. Calcifer!


      Ditto FANGIRL. I'm really frickin' happy about FANGIRL.