Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Year in Review, plus the Worst of the Worst

I had a pretty good year in regards to finding books I loved. However, every rose has its thorn. In 365 days and 81 books, 10 of those thorns insulted, outraged, and disgusted me enough to merit a C- grade or lower. With the year drawing to a close, it's time to bring these books to justice and go all Judge Judy on them for their Crimes Against Literature.



Last Summer at Mars Hill, by Elizabeth Hand. Fantasy, Anthology. C-
Charged With: 3 Counts of Boring Writing, Bottom-Heavy Plotting, Gratuitous Sex and Violence, Inexplicable Plots, Pretentious Unpleasantness.
Verdict: This story collection is a pretty mixed bag of gross, inexplicable and pretentious nonsense. Two or three stories are actually good, but the rest are so ugly or difficult to understand that it's not worth purchasing the collection. I sentence this anthology to being turned into a pig and eaten alive by convicted murderers turned into dogs, as seen in the "Justice" story in this collection.

Fathomless, by Jackson Pearce. YA, Fantasy. C-
Charged With: Criminally Stupid Worldbuilding, Overuse of Violence Against Women as a Plot Point, Improper Use of Werewolves, Failure to Explain Ending, Assault with a Poorly-Written Split Personality.
Verdict: Pearce's modern adaptation of The Little Mermaid started off decently enough, until it reached the halfway point and jumped off the Crazy Cliff to smash against the rocks of Terrible Ideas. Like how being internally conflicted and indecisive automatically means you have an alternate personality who wants to murder you. Or how mermaids eventually turn into soul-stealing, twin-eating werewolves because science. Oh, and thanks for yet another violent story where the exploited and kidnapped victims are exclusively women. Awesome. I sentence this novel to sleep with the fishes.

Altered, by Jennifer Rush. YA, Science Fiction. D+
Charged With: Unregistered Use of a Man-Worshiping Placeholder Heroine (see: Bella's Law), Unlawful Objectification of Underage Scientifically-Enhanced Boys, Plotting Under the Influence of Hot Abs, Criminal Lack of Female Supporting Characters.
Verdict: Altered is, by far, one of the silliest reads of the year. Our dim bulb heroine spends her days cooing at the hot, drugged-up teenage boys her scientist dad keeps caged in his basement, obliviously content with their confinement, until they escape to find out who they really are - and only the heroine can decode the clues they have tattooed on their abs. I'm dead serious. I sentence this novel to take a cold shower and pass a university-level course on bioethics.

The Burning Sky, by Sherry Thomas. YA, Fantasy. D
Charged With: Unlawful Use of a Mary Sue, Cheap Worldbuilding, Insufficient Plotting and Stakes, Completely Unnecessary Cross-Dressing Subplot, Overuse of Magical Plot Devices.
Verdict: My regular readers know I adore Sherry Thomas' romances, so it surprised the hell out of me that The Burning Sky, her first fantasy-YA effort, was such a weak and contrived mess. Combine a stereotypical Mary Sue heroine who is perfect at everything (including cricket on the first try!), a poorly-established and overly-convenient magical system, derivative worldbuilding, plus repetitive plotting and you have a read that is stultifying and irritating by turns. I sentence this novel to three years reading Tamora Pierce - that's how you do cross-dressing other-world fantasy!

Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal. YA, Fantasy. D
Charged With: Assault with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Unlawful Use of a Gary Stu, Reckless and Erratic Tone, Misrepresentation of Mental Illness, Improper Use of Ghost Narrator. 
Verdict: This book was one crazy hot mess - I could never determine whether it was a disgustingly inappropriate Middle Grade book or an annoyingly immature Young Adult book. The tone varies wildly from infantile set-pieces to torture dungeons, leaving plenty of room to introduce a cheap Token Gay Character for sympathy, a Mentally Ill Character to heal with the Power of Love, and a Pedophile Character for laughs (yes, it's funny when the local police officer's in love with the 15-year-old heroine!). I sentence this novel to several weeks of in-depth psychological therapy and to enrol in sensitivity training on how to properly represent Women, Gay People, People Struggling with Depression, Repressed German Ghosts, and Pederasts. 

You Can't Hurry Love, by Christine Ridgway. Romance, Contemporary. D
Charged With: Second Degree Slut Shaming, Plotting while Above the Legal Limit on Matchmaking Prequel Characters, Possession of an AlphHole Hero, Romanticization of Violence, Unauthorized Use of a Psychic Power, Improper Use of Ghost Characters.
Verdict: Christie Ridgway is another author whose novels I've loved - but not this clunky and contrived conclusion to a less-than-stellar trilogy about a family winery. Nothing happens naturally in this novel. The characters don't behave like people so much as blank cogs forced to spin a certain way to power the machine of the plot. And the patronizing, manipulative, alphhole hero and stereotypical "wild slutty Italian" heroine make a terrible pair - with the hero "patiently" controlling the heroine's "urges." I sentence this novel to abstain from all alcoholic beverages for a year - especially magical plot device wine! 

A Matter of Class, by Mary Balogh. Romance, Historical. D
Charged With: Criminal Neglect of Character Development, Possession of a Dumb as Hell Plot Twist, 1 Count of Boring Writing, Insufficient Conflict.
Verdict: I made the mistake of paying top-dollar for a hardcover edition of this novella about two protagonists rich in bad decision-making skills and poor in personality who trick their parents into letting them get married - by enacting as boring and conflictless a plot as they can. I sentence both protagonists of this novel to get personality transplants.

Sanctum, by Sarah Fine. YA, Paranormal. D
Charged With: Misrepresentation of Mental Illness, Intolerable Plot Cruelty.
Verdict: Despite a strong heroine, Sanctum's hideous story concept trumped any attempt to enjoy this novel. Our heroine discovers people who commit suicide are sent to a gloomy, horrific city in the afterlife where they shuffle around getting eaten by demons or trying to kill themselves again. The novel touts the concept that suicidal people are defective and deserve to be punished for their weakness - including the hero, a guardian of this gruesome purgatory, who killed himself while in Auschwitz, only to be told that his suffering didn't "earn" him a "free ticket" out of his apparently rightful punishment. Everything about the novel's concept was repugnant. I sentence this novel to Literary Hell to suffer FOREVER.

Nobody's Baby But Mine, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Romance, Contemporary. D-
Charged With: Gross Misogyny, Objectification of Women, Second Degree Slut Shaming, Racism, Positive Demonstrations of Abusive Behaviour, Stereotyping Over the Legal Limit, Criminally Stupid Plot.
Verdict: Our heroine is a professional physicist and amateur bigot who believes she has to bone a mouth breather if she wants a baby who isn't a freaky super-genius like her. Our hero is a 36 year old football player who believes all single women over 30 are desperate and "turning brown at the edges." And they decide to procreate. How wonderful for the universe. What follows is a daisy-chain of terrible choices made by a racist intellectual elitist and a chauvinist pig. You're welcome. I sentence this novel to play professional football without a helmet.

And AnimeJune's Absolute Worst Read of 2013 is:

Everything and the Moon, by Julia Quinn. Romance, Historical. F+
Charged With: Gross Misogyny, First Degree Male Privilege, Romanticization of Abusive Behaviour,  3 Counts of Rape as Plot Device, Misrepresentation of Heroine's Consent, Rape Culture in the First Degree, TSTL Behaviour.
Verdict: The only thing worse than a Rapey Romance is one that tries to be cute and fluffy while being a Rapey Romance. The sociopathic narcissist disguised as the hero engages in several "hilarious" hijinks to get the heroine to marry him - these include stalking her, assaulting her, getting her fired from her job, and abducting her to his isolated seaside rape cottage to "persuade" her to say yes. But our silly heroine keeps trying to foolishly escape! Thankfully, the novel shows us how petty and vindictive the heroine is by remaining too "focused on the past" to consent to sex. 
I sentence this novel to be thrown at a wall as hard as it possibly can. And then burned in a dumpster fire.

The Best of the Rest:

In This House of Bredeby Rumer Godden. Fiction, Contemporary (circa 1960). A
Pros: Diverse cast of female characters, eye-opening examination into monastic life. Cons: No real plot.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. YA, Contemporary. A
Pros: Lively and relateable heroine. Great examination of creative process. Hilarious skewering of fandoms. Cons: A wee bit on the long side. Love interest is great - but maybe a little too perfect?

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. YA, Historical. A
Pros: Excellent twist, well developed heroines, great historical detail, emotional ending. Cons: Bit slow to start.

The Last Hellion, by Loretta Chase. Romance, Historical. A
Pros: AMAZING heroine, great writing and plotting. Cons: Villain is an inconsistent cartoon.

Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz. YA, Fantasy. A
Pros: Effective setting, heart-tugging characters, thought-provoking themes. Cons: Some unresolved issues. Uneven ending. Extremely dark.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Thriller, Contemporary. A
Pros: Phenomenal writing, excellent pay off. Cons: Sluggish pacing in the middle, creeeeepy creepy storyline.

Someone Else's Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson. Fiction, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Great writing, well-developed characters, interesting themes regarding faith and fact. Cons: The resolution is a bit sudden and pat.

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancy. YA, Science Fiction. A-
Pros: Fantastic heroine, strong concept, interesting themes, entertaining romance. Cons: Plot is a bit unfocused, too much depressing navel-gazing.

Deerskin, by Robin McKinley. Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Retelling. A-
Pros: Gorgeous writing, exquisite detail, excellent build of tension. Cons: Slow pacing, ending is a bit abrupt.

 Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce. Fantasy, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Fantastic writing, well-developed characters, great use of themes. Cons: The actual fairyland scenes pale in comparison to the rest of the novel.

Kiss the Morning Star, by Elissa Janine Hoole. YA, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Thoughtful integration of religion into the plotline. Exquisite writing style. Cons: Wonky pacing, inscrutable character decisions, abbreviated ending.

First Comes Love, by Christie Ridgway. Romance, Contemporary. B+
Pros: Amazing and effective setting, hilarious dialogue, excellent female characters. Cons: Unbelievable initial set-up that makes heroine look like a crazy person.

Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst. High Fantasy. B+
Pros: Interesting worldbuilding, great exploration of sacrifice. Cons: Confusing and contradictory conclusion. 

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein. YA, Historical. B+
Pros: Well-written, great themes and use of storytelling. Cons: Emotionally distancing.

The Third Angel, by Alice Hoffman. Fiction, Historical, Contemporary. B+

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik. Fantasy, Historical. B+
Pros: Dependable world building, nice character development, excellent historical detail. Cons: Meandering plot. Middle-book-itis.

Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez. YA, Contemporary, LGBT. B+
Pros: Good pacing, well-drawn characters and themes. Cons: Writing style is skewed a little young.

The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman. Fantasy, Fiction, Short Story Collection. B+
Pros: All solid stories set within the same setting along a chronological time period. Cons: One or two of the stories don't really go anywhere, but that's about it.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson. Mystery, Fantasy, Historical. B
Pros: Interesting setting, colourful characters. Cons: Repetitive plot, so-so mystery.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Fantasy, Contemporary. B
Pros: Lively humour. Cons: Not very memorable.

One Perfect Rose, by Mary Jo Putney. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Protagonists are refreshingly reasonable, happy people. Cons: Cliche-laden. Silly ghost ending.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Middle Grade. B
Pros: Lovely writing style, nicely balanced tone. Cons: Weird, unsatisfying ending.

Written On Your Skin, by Meredith Duran. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Exquisite writing, great dialogue, good heroine. Cons: Slack pacing, no real suspense plot, couldn't connect with story.

Reconstructing Ameliaby Kimberly McCreight. Mystery, Contemporary. B
Pros: Interesting examination of mothers and daughters, excellent use of alternate POVs. Cons: First half of the novel is really slow, main character is rather terrible at crime solving.

Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg. YA, Contemporary, LGBT. B
Pros: Interesting concept, original discussion, good characters. Cons: Main character is a bit whiny and privileged, ultimate pay off a little too obvious.

The Sweet Dead Lifeby Joy Preble. YA, Fantasy. B
Pros: Great heroine voice, delicious descriptions of Mexican food. Cons: Wackadoodle plotting.

The Hidden Heart, by Laura Kinsale. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Exotic settings, developed villains, good heroine. Cons: Meandering plot, too-angsty-to-live hero.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence. YA, Contemporary. B
Pros: Humorous writing style, interesting subjects. Cons: Unfocused plot line.

The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin. High Fantasy. B
Pros: Original and detailed world building, interesting plot, diverse characters. Cons: Uneven worldbuilding leaves plot holes, characters are colourful but shallow.

The Bridal Season, by Connie Brockway. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Fluffy and charming - plus a lovely Beta hero. Cons: Unrealistic, a bit shallow.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick. YA, Contemporary. B-
Pros: Explores life and death and how children are failed by parents and authority figures. Cons: Couldn't connect to hero, some pretentiousness.

A Woman Entangled, by Cecilia Grant. Romance, Historical. B-
Pros: Lovely writing, as always. Unconventional set-up. Cons: Lame pay-off, too little conflict, passive heroine.

The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan. Romance, Historical, Novella. B-
Pros: Doozy of a conflict. Cons: Not in the right mind to really enjoy it.

Hot Under the Collar, by Jackie Barbosa. Romance, Historical, Novella. B-
Pros: Mature, reasonable characters. Some nice drama. Cons: Conflict is solved too easily.

Speechless, by Hannah Harrington. YA, Contemporary. B-
Pros: Excellent character development, original concept, great themes. Cons: Childish writing style, weak ending.

Trial by Desire, by Courtney Milan. Romance, Historical. C+
Pros: Awesome heroine, interesting dramatic plot. Cons: Condescending jerkface hero.

The Infinite Moment of Us, by Lauren Myracle. YA, Romance. C+
Pros: Good development of heroine's parents, nice supporting characters. Cons: A poorly-drawn Evil Slut Villain, no real plot, goopy romance.

Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb. Fantasy, High. C+
Pros: Interesting world building. Cons: Too much fanservice and repetitive exposition, too little actual story. Incredibly slow set-up and abrupt ending.

Simply Love, by Mary Balogh. Romance, Historical. C+
Pros: Nuanced heroine. Interesting mother-son relationship. Lovely setting. Cons: Slow pacing and too little conflict. Overabundant and intrusive prequel- AND sequel-baiting.

The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney. YA, Contemporary. C+
Pros: Excellent depiction of recovery from assault. Awesome female characters. Cons: Central gimmick is just that - a gimmick, and a boring one at that.

How to Say Goodbye in Robot, by Natalie Standiford. YA, Contemporary. C+
Pros: Original characters. Cons: Male protagonist is an assface, heroine's family problems are resolved too easily.

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion. Horror, Contemporary. C
Pros: Lovely writing, interesting themes. Cons: Poorly developed setting and world building, pretentious message.

Follow My Lead, by Kate Noble. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: Unconventional Regency setting. Charming hero. Cons: Boring top-heavy plot, TSTL ninny heroine.

Christmas Beau, by Mary Balogh, of the Christmas Bride/Beau compilation. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: The setting, I guess. Cons: Dithering martyr heroine, vengeful asshat hero, drippy secondary romance.

This is W.A.R., by Lisa Roecker and Laura Roecker. YA, Contemporary. C
Pros: Revenge. Cons: Cliched, unlikable characters. Badly constructed plot.

Just Like Fate, by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young. YA, Science-Fiction. C
Pros: Great concept, some interesting implications. Cons: No follow-through on concept, lame romance.

The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Fiction, Historical. C
Pros: Detailed setting and history. Cons: Distant characters, unfocused plot.

Forever and a Day, by Jill Shalvis. Romance, Contemporary. C
Pros: Decent writing, good plot set up. Cons: Incompetent heroine, unbelievable and cutesy small-town setting.

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire. Urban Fantasy. C
Pros: Excellent world building, original characters. Cons: Boring plot, reactionary heroine, really obvious villain.

To Catch a Bride, by Anne Gracie. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: Interesting setting (at first), strong and practical heroine (at first). Cons: Nothing gold can stay - also, insensitive portrayal of barren women.

The DNF Graveyard:

The Assassin's Curse, by Cassandra Rose Clarke. YA, Fantasy. DNF
Pros: Pirates and assassins. Cons: Boring, stupid, and whiny pirates and assassins.

The Postmistressby Sarah Blake. Fiction, Historical. DNF
Pros: Historical detail, decent writing. Cons: Utterly boring and a complete lack of plot.

Hope's Follyby Linnea Sinclair. Romance, Science-Fiction. DNF
Pros: Great worldbuilding, lots of detail. Cons: Too much detail, drowning in detail, boring boring detail, just not enough story.

Never Lie To a Lady, by Liz Carlyle. Romance, Historical. DNF
Pros: Excellent setting and detail, complex character backgrounds. Cons: Overly-complex backgrounds, boring characters, hero is inexplicably and melodramatically angsty, too many details not enough plot or emotional investment.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Year in Review - the Best of the Best

Since I already told you how many books I read in 2013, now you'll want to know how many of those books kicked almighty ass - and which ones stunk to high heaven. Yesterday was all about how I did this year as a Reader. Today is all about how I did as a Reviewer. Specifically, which books blew my socks off. For my next post, I'll talk about the books that just, well, blew.


A Christmas Bride, by Mary Balogh, from Christmas Bride/Beau. Romance, Historical. A+
Best Redemption of a Villainess
Yup, Balogh's A Christmas Bride makes a heroine of Helena, Lady Stapleton, the slutty stepmum who scared the pants off the hero of A Precious Jewel in every way but the literal one. Her unsuccessful attempts to bone her husband's emotionally-vulnerable son left her with enough baggage for a thirteen year guilt trip. Which makes her so fascinating! Balogh doesn't sugarcoat Helena's sins, nor is Helena some simpering martyr. She's still not a very nice person - but she's definitely an interesting one, and her redemptive holiday romance is a darkly spiced treat.

To Have and To Hold, by Patricia Gaffney. Romance, Historical. A+
Best Book That Makes Me Wonder If I'm a Bad Feminist for Loving It
This novel is so good, and crammed so full of problematic elements that in normal circumstances I would despise. WTF, Gaffney? The hero rescues our abused heroine from an unfair prison sentence in order to exploit her for sex. And yet I couldn't stop reading it - and not in the "I must see how much stupider this gets" way. The author makes much of what a bad, bad boy the hero is - the better to torment him once he gets his Good Guy epiphany and realizes the woman he coerced and raped is the One for Him. 

It sounds like the plot of Whitney My Love. AND YET IT'S NOT. Thanks to a bizarre, potent alchemy of breathtakingly lyrical writing, a well-realized heroine, and an intriguingly self-aware hero, this hot mess of an idea somehow works. Really, really well.

Burn for Burn and Fire With Fire, by Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han. A+
Best One-Two Punch of Awesome Crazysauce Girl Power
The three heroines of the first two novels in the compulsively-readable Burn for Burn trilogy are the definition of crazy-good. Sure, they might spike your drink with liquid E, or publish your Secret Emo Poetry all over school, or blow out all the lightbulbs in the gym with their latent psychic powers, but they're so sympathetic and well-realized and thought-provoking! These girls come with layers, and real problems - and so do the characters they target for vengeance. The final book, Ashes to Ashes, is due to arrive NotSoonEnough-uary 2014. 

OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu. YA, Contemporary. A+
Best Novel That Makes Me Itch Just Thinking About It
Also known as the book I'm too scared to read again. Corey Ann Haydu takes us deep into the mind of a teenager struggling with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - maybe a little too deep. It's not all about saying the same catch phrase five times or washing your hands. Sometimes it's just thinking about scary things - thinking and thinking and not being able to stop until you do something - even if that something is silly and irrational. This book will make you rethink saying, "I'm a little OCD" to explain your meticulously-organized Blu-Ray shelf. 

Can't Buy Me Love, by Molly O'Keefe. Romance, Contemporary. A+
Best Use of a Supermodel Mum
There's nothing particularly special about the story - other than the fact that the hero, Luc, has an awesomely fierce French-Canadian supermodel mum. We have a pretty standard Angsty Aging Athlete hero paired with White Trash Con Artist Made Good Heroine. No, what lifts this novel above the other romances I read this year is the flawless execution, the refusal to rely on hoary and often sexist stereotypes (see: Supermodel Mum, and how she is not a frigid, superficial bitch), and utterly amazing writing. You can't buy me love, but you can buy this book, and you'll love it, so  um, I'm not that good at metaphors. Just read it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. High Fantasy. A+
Best Doorstopper Fantasy That Isn't About How an Oblivious Empowered Orphan Finds the Magical Thingee Of Indescribable Power before The Obvious Bad Guy Does
Nope, this doorstopper fantasy is all about a gang of brilliant con artists and what happens when their meticulously planned con goes horribly wrong - in an intricate and original fantasy setting. It's got disguises! It's got trickery! It's got murder and betrayal and swords named after ladies! It hits all my High Fantasy buttons (complicated politics, in-depth magical worldbuilding, high stakes adventure)  without rehashing old High Fantasy formula. 

Black Silk, by Judith Ivory. Romance, Historical. A+
Best Use of Illicit Hand-Drawn Pornography as a Meet-Cute
Judith Ivory wins me over yet again with this beautifully written, unconventional romance that explores the concept of perception and point of view. When our heroine's husband dies, she tracks down his former ward to uncover the provenance of the box of unsavoury art her husband bequeathed to her. The hero and heroine discover they have vastly different perceptions of the heroine's husband and his immediate family. And what do their respective perceptions say about themselves? Slow-moving and thoughtful.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. Fiction, Contemporary. A+
Best Wedding-Ruining Wheelchair Slowdance Scene
The author lures you in with an extremely formulaic opening set-up - a kooky but cute screwup is inexplicably hired to care for a curmudgeonly quadriplegic who's given up on life (even though he's still handsome and rich!). And then it whacks you over the head with the Reality Club and throws you down a well of Feels. Moyes demonstrates that romantic, heartfelt stories don't have to have the rough edges sanded off. 

The Diviners, by Libba Bray. Fantasy, Historical, YA. A+
Best Excuse to Remind People about Cloche Hats and Egg Creams
This book is just the cat's pyjamas! The duck's quack! The ocelot's clocked stockings! Despite being roughly the size of a cinderblock, this historical paranormal YA novel zips along at a frantic clip thanks to its zany, slang-spouting heroine (who is capable of accessing memories from inanimate objects), an enormous cast of interesting characters with paranormal powers, and a 1920s setting so well-realized you can hear the jazz piano and smell the cigarette smoke.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Fantasy, Historical, YA. A+ 
Best Joint Review With Magic-Fantastic Reviewer Fox Meadows
You've got dragons. You've got people. You've got half-dragons who are also people, although they have to hide the half-dragon part. You've got prejudice. You've got murrrrrrder. You've got retired knights. You've got a handsome prince who's also a detective! You've got interracial politics, and music, and magical powers galore. A novel that plays into what's awesome about YA fantasy without falling prey to the awful stereotypes of YA fantasy (no instalove!). 

So there you have it - my favourite reads of 2013! Stay tuned for my next post - where I go all Judge Judy on my worst reads of 2013.