Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018 Reading Year in Review

Been a few years since I did a reading year in review here at the Blog o’ Stuff, the most recent being 2015. For completeness sake, here are the previous years I’ve put up a reading year in review, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006. Much of my writing has been divided between about twice-per-month book reviews over at SFFWorld and one or two posts per week at my beer blog, The Tap Takeover. So, without further adieu, of the 80 or so books I read in 2018, below are those I enjoyed the most.

OK, back to the books. I’ll start with some stats as I do every year: I read 80 books in 2018.  In 2018, I posted 28 reviews to SFFWorld and 3 to The Tap Takeover.

Here are some stats:
  • 34 2018/current year releases
  • 43 can be considered Fantasy
  • 24 can be considered Science Fiction
  • 25 can be considered Horror
  • 19 audiobooks
  • 14 total debut
  • 3 Non fiction

The first two (three if you consider slot #1 to be two books) on the list below are easily the top two reads of the year for me, the remainder can pretty easily swap places as they all were fantastic so I’m going alphabetical by author’s last name. Rather than a top 10 list of entries, like in year’s past, I went with 12. Because there are 12 months in the year.

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. 

I’m lumping these two together because they form a single story and were published in back to back months. These are the two of the best Science Fiction novels I read this year, and some of the best Science Fiction I’ve ever read.

A wonderful, seamless blend of character study, hard science fiction, and alternate history. In 1952, the space race is in its infancy and the world is changed, one may say shattered, when a meteor crashes into the ocean off the East Coast of the United States. Told from the first person point of view of Elma, Mary Robinette Kowal gives a personal, bird’s eye view of the global catastrophe and humanity’s efforts to survive. Elma and Nathaniel are directly involved in the salvation efforts; Elma was a WASP (the Women Airforce Service Pilots) in World War II who also happens to be a physics and mathematics genius. Her husband is no slouch either, Nathaniel is chosen to become the lead engineer in the space program.

I was completely absorbed and enthralled with Elma York, a character who immediately leapt to the uppermost reaches of favorite first-person narrators. She’s a hero, a person we can all look up to for the “faults” in her character and how forward-thinking she is. I almost think of her as Leslie Knope (from the great TV show Parks and Recreation) with Nathaniel as her Ben for their hopeful attitude as individuals and their complementary, supportive, and empowering relationship as husband and wife. Hell, if this wonderful novel ever makes it the screen, there’s your stars.

In The Calculating Stars, Kowal takes an exciting time in human history, shakes it up on a global scale, makes it more exciting, and on top of that, takes us on an extremely, intimate personal story. This is the type of Science Fiction we all need right now, such a wonderfully forward-thinking and smart novel told through the voice of an immediately classic protagonist.

The characterization is remarkable throughout. Nathaniel, Elma’s husband, isn’t in the novel as much as he was in The Calculating Stars. This is logical and understandable, Elma spends much of her time in space while Nathaniel is back on Earth. However, their relationship, through their coded letters, is still a highlight and a backbone of who Elma is. As I said in my review of The Calculating Stars, their marriage is probably one of the strongest, most realistic, most loving, and supportive relationships I’ve ever read in any novel.

This book turned out to be the one I was most looking forward to reading and the one that absolutely delivered on the promise. I reviewed this over at my beer blog, here's an excerpt of the review:

As the title suggests, the book is quite evenly divided between “Barrel-Aged Stout,” which chronicles the rise of Goose Island and “Selling Out,” which chronicles Anheuser-Busch InBev’s purchase of the brewery. Soon after that purchase, AB InBev itself launched into a spending spree gobbling up regional craft/independent breweries that in hindsight, seems like a very calculated move, but at the time was a very jarring few years.
Candid, factual, gripping, emotional, educational, eye-opening, fascinating – all these things and more. Anybody who appreciates well-crafted beer will enjoy this book. Readers looking for a unique peek into how a multi-billion dollar conglomerate operates (regardless of your beer preferences) will be fascinated to see how an economic landscape can change in just a few short years.
Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out is an un-put-downable book that tells a gripping story of perhaps the most important post-Prohibition handful years of Beer History in America. This is definitely a book that will remain within easy reach for reference and for re-reads.

From my SFFWorld reviews (linked above):

Our protagonist, accomplished thief Sancia Grado, is hired to steal a highly-sought after box. She also receives instructions not to open this box but of course curiosity gets the better of her. When she opens the box, she sees a key. It doesn’t seem like much until she grabs it and it speaks to her. Literally. This key, whose name is Clef, connects with Sancia very strongly in large part because of the plate in her head that makes her a scrived human. That “modification” is also part of why she’s such a good thief, she is able to gain a fundamental, almost elemental understanding of anything she touches. Sancia had no choice in this “modification” so naturally seeks revenge against the larger powers that be who allowed this to happen. Those powers are the four houses, or “campos” that run everything in the Venetian inspired city of Tevanne.
Foundryside is a deft combination and weaving of story that was incredibly difficult to set aside. With heist and crime fiction elements that are reminiscent of Scorsese’s The Departed, mythic, fantastic world building that reminded me of both Brandon Sanderson and Rachel Aaron*, and characters that both shine on their own and echo some iconic characters (I found myself comparing Gregor to Batman in some scenes), Bennett has once again unleashed an imaginative epic that is a reading delight.

What Does this Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson

For those not in the know, Bruce Dickinson is the lead singer of legendary British Heavy Metal band, Iron Maiden. Maiden happens to be one of my 3 or 4 favorite bands so this was a delightful book to “read.” I consumed this via audio book, with Bruce Dickinson providing the narration, that seemed the best way to read it and I think I was correct. In addition to having a powerful singing voice, Bruce is a charming fellow. Through this autobiography, a little light is shed on Bruce’s early years, with much of the book focusing on his time in the limelight with Iron Maiden. A must read/listen for anybody who enjoys music biographies and especially Heavy Metal music.

Sure, I’m grouping these two together, but I read them both this year and separated only by a few short months. From my two reviews (linked above): Heavy Metal/Hard Rock and Fantasy have long been intertwined, just look at some album covers from the 1970s and 1980s from bands like Iron Maiden, Manowar, or Ronnie James Dio (whose first band was called Elf) to more recent bands like Blind Guardian or Rhapsody. You’d think there’d be a novel like Kings of the Wyld years ago. You’d be wrong and sure a band of mercenaries and a world described in Rock/Heavy Metal metaphors is a neat hook, Eames has such great humor and storytelling chops that the novel rises above even that great idea.

Although Bloody Rose is set in the same world as Kings of the Wyld six years after the conclusion of the novel and features some of those characters (i.e. a major plotline in Kings of the Wyld was Gabe’s quest to save Rose), the novel can work on its own.

Eames’s tells his story in a very easy-going fashion which ultimately, exudes a great sense of fun. That said, Eames tackles some headier themes, of bad parents, PTSD, abuse, becoming a parent, and how responsibility can be smoothed over. Sure, he’s having a lot of fun with the story, but the story also has Some Things To Say.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

As most folks know, Mira Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire. I’ve become a convert to all of her fiction over the past year and this is a very strong, creepy, science-fueled novel. Mermaids are real in this novel, and a deep sea expedition is trying to find them. This novel is equal parts horror and science fiction and quite simply a powerful, wonderful novel. I consumed this one via audio book and that added to the creepiness. As much as we all know mermaids are likely not real, McGuire packs enough real-life science into so much of the plot that the mermaids might just be believable. Great characters and a wonderfully brisk pace make this a fantastic read. I’m cheating a bit on this one because it first published in November 2017, but I read the audio early in the year and the paperback published in May 2018.

Scourged by Kevin Hearne

This book is the finale in Hearne’s long(ish) running Iron Druid Chronicles series. 10 books in total (9 novels and a collection of short stories as well as randomly released short stories) over the course of about 8 years, I’ve found these books immensely enjoyable. Hearne does a wonderful job of throwing as many world mythologies into the stew of this series with Atticus O’Sullivan at the heart of the story, especially as he’s become the lynch-pin of the Norse Ragnarok. This one may have made me shed a tear or two, but not in ways I expected it to do so.

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

This was an absolute blast for me, especially given that my favorite genre of music is Heavy Metal. Over the course of a very short time, Grady Hendrix is becoming one of the preeminent horror writers.

In a brief amount of time, Grady’s become a leading voice in the horror genre and although I’ve only read one other novel (the outstanding My Best Friend's Exorcism) by him, it is clear to me he’s a writer with great skill and honesty in his fiction. In We Sold Our Souls Grady managed to combine two of my favorite things in the world with this novel: heavy metal music and horror fiction. To that combo, he added a phenomenal protagonist in Kris Pulaski, the lone woman in the band Dürt Würk and our primary P.O.V. character. Kris is at the bottom of her rope despite having a once moderately successful gig as the guitarist for 1980s Metal band Dürt Würk. That all changed when her one-time best friend and lead singer of Dürt Würk Terry Hunt broke away from the band on “Contract Night.” This was a night few can remember, but changed the fate of the band forever. Grady does a masterful job immersing the reader in the heavy metal world and playing with some dark elements like Black Iron Mountain, the driving force behind Terry’s new band Koffin.

Grady takes readers on a cross-country journey that never falters, never takes a guitar solo of a break and is a relentless novel. Highly, highly recommended. This novel as dark, cynical, fun, and a wonderfully paced vision quest.

October Daye by Seanan McGuire

For the series binge that brought me the most reading enjoyment, I have to go with this series. I traveled quite a bit in 2018 and what helped through many of those plane rides were books 2 through 7 of McGuire’s best known series. These are mysteries wrapped up in an urban fantasy setting that are wonderful page turners and a long-game of a character study on the eponymous Toby Daye. McGuire has a deft hand with character and an equally smart vision of world-building for a world that seems like our own, but is actually connected to the world of Fae.

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon.
I’ll subtitle this as my favorite re-read of 2018

McCammon was up there with King, Straub, and Koontz in 1980s horror and this is his biggest, most audacious novel. Often compared to King’s The Stand, I would argue Swan Song is a stronger novel. I’d been wanting to re-read this novel for years and finally sucked it up and read it via audio. I do love using just one credit for these big audio books, especially when as masterfully performed as this one was by Tom Stechschulte. Nuclear War/World War III happens and the remaining bits of humanity are scattered across the world. Some make it out of the war OK, but not many, and all are changed in some way. Either by their experiences, but trinkets they pick up, or scarred “Job’s masks” they grow. This is a powerful, dark, yet hopeful look at the end and how humanity might claw its way back to life.

Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell

I blame Grady Hendrix for this one, who featured the old paperbacks in his Paperbacks From Hell overview of the Horror Genre of the 1970s-1990s. Counter to that, I did this one via audio since audible had the 6 short books of the series as one volume masterfully narrated by Matt Godfrey. This masterful, gothic, familial saga traces the legacy of the Caskey family from the appearance of a strange women named Elinor Dammert during the disastrous flood that struck Perdido, Alabama in 1919. The Caskeys have long established their place in Perdido’s lumber tycoons. What unfolds is pure beauty and joyful reading experience. I’d love to see Guillermo del Toro focus his film-making lens on this gothic saga.

Speed of the Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Moon is a master storyteller, having written what is arguably a very definitive Military Fantasy series in The Deed of Paksenarrion as well as a finely crafted Military SF series, Vatta’s War. While those novels are very good, Moon turns to something a bit more grounded – Autism and a potential corrective/cure for it. Set “twenty minutes from now,” Moon tells the story of Lou Arrendale and wonderfully captures his voice and the struggles he deals with on a daily basis. A powerful novel that deservedly received the Nebula Award for Best Novel


Bob/Sally said...

I had no idea Bruce Dickinson narrated his own story. I'm not one for audiobooks, but that I could definitely give a listen.

RobB said...

Yeah, he does a great job.