If 2010 was my year of reading fantasy, 2011 has been my year of reading romance.  And it’s been mostly fun, comfort-food reading.  Like any other genre, some romances are stronger than others, with more memorable characters and plots.  But one of the problems I often have with the genre is that, as a whole, everything seems to be so easy: the couple meets, they fall in love, there are some obstacles along the way, but they overcome them and live happily ever after.

Then I started to read Megan Hart.  Though her books are classified as romance, they seem to transcend genre norms by featuring complex, nuanced characters in situations that cannot be resolved in a simple happily ever after.  I’ve read three of her books over the last month, and the one that stuck out as being the most interesting and emotionally resonant of these was Broken.

Here we are, at the midpoint of 2011.  I have read, according to my list, 164 books this year, including novellas and re-reads.  I read fast, but man -- I really need to get a life!  (Plus, I strongly suspect I forgot to include a few books on the list.  Seriously, I must really hate real-life, interpersonal interactions.)

About a month or so ago over on CC2K, I wrote a review of The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith, and I noted that it would easily make it onto a list of my top 10 reads for 2011.  Which started me wondering: what else would my list of favorite reads of 2011 consist of?  (And would The Greyfriar still make it, given the amount of time that's passed since I read it?)

The problem with doing lists like these is that they're so arbitrary.  Why include this book but not that one?  Do I only include books that were published in 2011, or books that I read in 2011?  What about re-reads, something I'm often known for doing and usually reserve for the books I really love?

So here's how I did it:

--I read a lot of "cotton candy" fiction, stuff that I might enjoy while I'm reading but disappears from my mind shortly thereafter.  These are books that are the empty calories of my literary experience.  (Fortunately, unlike real empty calories, these books do not have a tendency to reappear on my waistline.)  These books were easy to eliminate from contention.  If I can't remember a damn thing about the plot or the characters two months -- or two days -- after reading, there's no way it would make a top 10 list.  Don't get me wrong: I love me some cotton candy fiction.  Sometimes, you crave easy-to-digest empty calories, fictionally speaking.  But they're not generally books I would strongly recommend to my friends, my mom, my cat, and my CC2K readers.

--By the same token, memorability was a strong factor.  I read a lot.  Much of what I read goes in one ear (eye?) and out the other.  But if I still find myself thinking about the characters and the story months after I read it, that's a good sign it deserves a place on my list.

--I tried to look at books I read at the beginning of the year and the end of the year equally, but it's difficult.  Obviously, I remember books I read yesterday better than books I read six months ago.  I tried to weigh the more recent books on the same standards.  I had to ask myself: do I think this is the kind of book I'm still going to be thinking about in another six months?  Do I believe it's one of my 10 favorites for the year so far?  In that regard, it's almost easier to judge the books I read earlier in the year: they've already passed (or failed) that test.

--I counted books I read in 2011, not necessarily books that were published this year.  As such, Tempest's Legacy by Nicole Peeler, which was published in 2011 but I originally read as an ARC in 2010, wasn't a contender.  (Which is a shame, because it would have been a strong one otherwise.)

--I did not count books I originally read in previous years, but re-read in 2011 (e.g. Carolyn Crane's Disillusionist books, which I love with an unholy passion).  So really, once I take re-reads out of the equation, that probably narrowed the list of potential candidates down, 25 or so.  So instead of 147 books to choose from, I only had 139.  Big help...NOT!

But I did it.  So here, in all its alphabetical-by-author glory (cause there was just no way I could rank them), is my list:

Magic Slays by Ilona Andrews.
Every time I read an Ilona Andrews book, it seems to be better than the last one.  Slays isn't as happy or romantic as its predecessor, Magic Bleeds (which finally resolved the will they/won't they romance of Kate and Beast Lord Curran), but it's more emotionally intense and has some strong real-world parallels that the previous books didn't.  Now that the romantic arc has been resolved, we're learning more about Kate's heritage, which seems to be driving the series toward its conclusion.  I, for one, can't wait...except that the idea of no more Kate books makes me a little sad on the inside.

Hunt the Moon by Karen Chance. The fifth book in the Cassandra Palmer series (about a young clairvoyant who becomes Pythia) is the best in the series.  The action is non-stop, but it’s the character development that really gets you here.  You can see how Cassie has matured and evolved since the first book, and her relationships with both the half-incubus mage Pritkin and the vampire elder Mircea are furthered considerably.

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.
I enjoy Clare's Mortal Instruments series very much...but I think she's really hit her stride with her Infernal Devices series of YA books that seamlessly blend fantasy and steampunk -- at least, if the first book is any indication.  A teenage girl named Tessa travels from the United States to London to rescue her brother, gets captured, and finds out that she's a shape-shifter who can change into anyone if she possesses something of theirs.  She also discovers the world of the Shadowhunters, and meets two different -- yet equally intriguing -- young men: the angry and jaded Will, and the sensitive and sweet Jem.  The first love/love triangle themes are familiar territory for YA, but the richness of this world and these characters are so incredibly well done that it makes you feel like you're experiencing everything for the first time.

Demon Lover by Bonnie Dee and Marie Treanor. The only pure romance I have on my list, Demon Lover is a retooling of the Rumplestilskin fairy tale -- and, having read that one as a kid, I always did feel like Rumple got the short end of the stick.  In this version, the queen doesn't guess his name (which isn't Rumplestilskin) and gets taken to the demonic underworld with him.  The character development is very strong here, and I love the fairy tale retelling aspect.  And the sex scenes...well, the sex scenes are awesome.  It is, as I know from my own writing experience, extremely difficult to do a good sex scene.  These are among the best I've ever read.

Deadline by Mira Grant.
I honestly can't imagine that this book won't continue to kill me for the next year until the final act of the trilogy, Blackout, is released next year.  Saying too much would spoil Feed, its predecessor, so I'll be vague.  It's 2041.  Zombies -- the result of a viral infection that cures cancer and the common cold, but brings the dead back to flesh-eating life -- have been among us for over 25 years.  But zombies are just part of the landscape in the bleak, paranoid world Grant has created.  These are bleak, sad novels.  Grant is not afraid to put her characters through hell, and then make things even worse for them.  Grant's ability to combine pulse-pounding plot twists with pure, raw emotion is rare. 

The Greyfriar
by Clay and Susan Griffith.
Just when I think vampires have been done to death -- no pun intended -- someone comes in and writes a vampire novel that makes me rethink that position.  Part fantasy, part romance, part steampunk...and all awesome, The Greyfriar is, at its core, a character-driven story, and the delicate relationship that develops between its heroine, Adele, and the titular Greyfriar.  I suspect many readers will figure out the Greyfriar’s true identity long before Adele does, but the joy in this book is watching the journey of these two characters.

Hammered by Kevin Hearne. Urban fantasies often tend to be, as a whole, quite dark.  This one goes in the opposite direction.  Hounded is one of the brightest, funniest urban fantasies I’ve ever read.  Its protagonist, Atticus Sullivan, is a >2000-year-old druid who lives in Arizona and has extensive conversations with his Irish wolfhound (who may be the best character in the story).  I read some of this while eating dinner at Cosi, and I’m sure the people sitting at the table next to me were convinced I was insane, since I kept laughing to myself.  I didn’t care.  This is the third book in Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles (all of which were released this summer), and it seems to take the series in a totally different direction.  I can’t wait until 2012 to read Atticus’s next adventure.

City of Ghosts by Stacia Kane. I fell in love with Kane’s Downside Ghosts series earlier this year, raced through them all (three books have been released to date; this is the third) in one sitting.  They’re dark.  They’re dystopian.  They’re awesome.  The heroine, Chess, is a drug addict who uses chemical dependency to mask emotional scars.  The hero, Terrible, is an enforcer for a gang who looks like he’s been in a few too many fights.  This is an incredibly fucked up world, where ghosts feed off of life energy unless they are trapped underground for eternity, and the atheistic Church that runs everything has echoes of Puritan restrictiveness.  Chess works as a debunker for the Church (because, in a world where ghosts definitely exist, people still make shit up) -- knowing if they ever discover her addiction she’ll be cast out -- because it’s the only place she’s ever belonged.  These are messed-up characters in an even more messed-up world, and I root for them anyway.  That’s a rare feat.

Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning.
As the release date for Shadowfever, the fifth and final book in Moning’s Fever series, grew closer, my Twitter feed was all abuzz with speculation.  I had never read the series, and so I downloaded the first book to my Kindle to read over Christmas vacation.  I finished it, and the next three besides, in three days -- which might be a record, even for me.  Shadowfever provided an exciting and unexpected conclusion to a series that twisted and turned right up until the end.  We have a heroine who grew into her strength and power.  We have a hero who often falls on the wrong side of “morally ambiguous.”  We have the fae, who live forever and think of humans as toys.  And finally, we have the murder mystery that ties the whole thing together: who killed Mac’s sister, Alina?  This one kept me on my seat until the very end, and, although Mac and Barrons’ story might be done, I hope Moning continues to explore this world.

Nightshade by Michelle Rowen.
The start to a new urban fantasy series about a woman, Jill, who gets caught in a Mexican standoff and injected with a serum that makes her blood irresistible -- and poisonous -- to vampires.  It’s also killing her.  It’s the characters that hooked me here, especially tortured hero, Declan.  Declan is a half-vampire, forced to take a serum that suppresses his “urges,” but also buries his emotions.  Jill begins to see how messed up Declan’s world is long before he does, and the tentative relationship that grows between them is irresistible.  The second book in the series, Bloodlust, just came out last week; it’s just as awesome as the first.

Monday, 04 March 2013 01:00

Book Culture Wars

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Everywhere I turn lately, it seems like readers are condemning one another.  A few months ago, literary fiction novelist Edward Docx wrote an article critiquing genre fiction and lambasting its readers for not reading books with more substance.  (Read my response here.)  Then there were the reviews of Game of Thrones that belittled fantasy fiction (and again, my response).  Then there was that Wall Street Journal article critiquing YA fiction as being too dark.  (I didn't respond to that one, but honestly: does the writer remember being an adolescent?  Cause it was pretty dark, anyway.)  And recently, I discovered (by way of a fellow blogger I follow) an article from ridiculing the so-called “Mommy Bloggers” and e-book devices at the recent Book Expo America.

What’s up with this?  Shouldn’t we book lovers just be happy anyone’s reading at all?

I have a dilemma.  You see, I want to write a review of Deadline, the second book in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy.  It's one of those books that just knocked me on my ass so much I can't NOT talk about it.  (See what you've done to me, Mira Grant: you've reduced me to double negatives!)  Problem is, I can't review Deadline without spoiling Feed, the first book.  (Seriously.  I can't even quote the blurb without revealing a MAJOR spoiler.)  But reading Deadline makes no sense anyway unless you've read Feed first, which I assume most of CC2K's regular readers haven't.  And since they're both so awesome, they're both worth reading.

So I'll review both.  The review for Feed is up first; Deadline will be on the next page, under heavy spoiler warnings.  That way, if someone happens to stumble upon it...well, I can't say they haven't been warned.

Monday, 03 February 2014 00:00

The Virgin Dilemma

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Why are so many female leads in romance novels (and novels with significant romantic subplots) virgins?  Or maybe she’s not a virgin, exactly.  Maybe she’s done it before—once or twice.  Maybe the guy was a jerk.  And she definitely didn’t like it.  But of course, when she has sex with the romantic hero, it’s fantastic, Earth-shattering, and blah blah blah.  Multiple orgasms abound.  (Of course, the idea that a woman would have multiple orgasms during her first sexual experience is patently unrealistic, but that’s another story.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: summer seems to be made for a certain type of book.  It’s made for passion, intensity, and all of the more fiery emotions.  If I’m going to read a book with cool emotions, I’ll read it in the winter.  In the summer, I want heat. As CC2K’s book editor, I think I would be neglecting my duties not to give some recommendations of summer reading for you.  As a bonus, I’ve picked out books that I think would be particularly appropriate to read this summer, as opposed to any other summer.  Hey, you can’t say I’m not looking out for your well being.

Every so often, I find a book that I just fall in love with.  When I do, I want to shout it from the rooftops, tell everyone I know, sing its praises high and low.

The Greyfriar
by Clay and Susan Griffith is one of those books.

I just finished reading Chloe Neill’s Hard Bitten, the fourth book in her Chicagoland Vampires series.  I have enjoyed the series since I first read Some Girls Bite in late 2009, and I think the books keep getting stronger and stronger.  I love how Merit’s character has grown and evolved, has reluctantly come to accept and embrace her vampiric nature.  And the ending…it packs a punch.  

Neill took a risk with this book that not many authors would be willing to take, and not surprisingly the responses are all over the place.  But what surprised me is how many people were saying things—even on Neill’s own blog—along the lines of “You shouldn’t have done _____,” or “You need to do _____ in the next book.”

We all know the expression: don’t judge a book by its cover.  And it’s good advice.  After all, I’ve read good books with crappy covers, and I’ve read crappy books with great covers.

But let’s just be realistic: first impressions are important.  Even as an e-book shopper, the cover is the first thing I see, what makes me click on a certain book.  Then, the blurb and the first 5-15 pages may make the ultimate determination as to whether I buy a book.

Two years ago, I named Gayle Forman’s young adult novel, If I Stay, as one of the best books of 2009.  It follows a 17-year-old girl, Mia, in the 24 hours after her parents are killed and she is left hovering between life and death in a coma after a car accident.  

Where She Went picks up three years after the first novel.  Told from the perspective of Mia’s once-boyfriend, Adam, it shows what happened to both characters in the three years since Mia’s accident.  In its own way, Where She Went is just as harrowing as the first book, and just as beautiful.

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