The Best Of 2015

The time has come for ‘Best of 2015’ threads and to reflect on all the wonderful books I enjoyed over the year. This piece will address my top 10 reads published in 2015, but is missing some of the amazing older books I read throughout the year. I read roughly 80 books this year, about half of which (40) were published in 2015, and the following books are my top picks. I found the new releases this year surprisingly less powerful than many sequels. Last year I gave over half the top 10 spots to new releases, whereas this year only three made the cut. It has been a year of very powerful sequels, in particular second installments of series. With that said, let’s talk about some of 2015’s gems and please note that some of the blurbs link to my full reviews of the books.

 

2354736410) Knight’s Shadow by Sebastien De Castell – one of my top five books from 2014 was Traitor’s Blade, the first of the Greatcoat series, for its incredible humor, emotional impact, and great cast. The follow-up, Knight’s Shadow, was a great addition that explored some large growth in the trinity of main characters, while still keeping the same powerful voice and tone from book one. The plot evolved nicely and the general quality of the book stayed consistent with Traitor’s Blade, but there was slightly less emotional impact in the second novel. With two demonstrations of consistent talent I am eagerly awaiting De Castell’s third entry, Saint’s Blood, in 2016.

 

234444829) The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – The first of the three entries on the list to not be sequels. The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a story of cultural warfare and a young girl whose home is eaten by an oppressive republic in her youth. To fight back, she becomes a cog in the great machine that is the republic and tries to bring it down from the inside. While suffering from some pacing issues, The Traitor Baru Cormorant brought a ton of new ideas to fantasy warfare and is a very different journey than your typical fare. The book has a fast pace start and end, but suffers a little in the middle. Regardless I am looking forward to more from Seth Dickinson.

 

twelve-kings_final-sm2-200x3008) Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The first of a new epic fantasy based in an Arabian setting. The story follows a girl named Cena, a gladiator in Sharakhai, as she tries to survive in an incredible city ruled by twelve kings in the center of a desert. The book had a very slow start but picked up pace rapidly after the first 20%, continuing all the way to the last page. With Bradley having found his groove I cannot wait to pick up the sequel to see where the story will go.

 

51pmvmp67ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_7) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis – I read a lot of good historical fiction this year, with The Mechanical taking the win by a small margin. With its original setting, steampunk science, and character growth it was a refreshing read that distinguishes it from its competition. The story of The Netherlands and France has had me looking for historical fiction of a wider subject than WWII or England. The sequel, The Rising, releases next week and I will be picking it up immediately.

 

208838476) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan – The only finale to make the list, The Autumn Republic finished off a series I don’t feel close to done with yet. McClellan’s world is gigantic, and with the close of this series I feel like we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Despite the ending feeling a little too quick, McClellan has finished a series to be proud of that maintains a high quality and exciting ride the entire way through.

 

 

61j8lp2b-eol-_sy344_bo1204203200_5) Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey – The Expanse novels are rapidly becoming my favorite purchase every summer (as they are released consistently every year in June). This series has now released five out of its nine novels and I have been blown away every single time. Every novel follows new perspectives, new challenges, and pushes the conflicts to new heights. I do not know how Ty Franik and Daniel Abraham are going to top the levels of panic and excitement Nemesis Games gave me, but I have said that about every single release. The books continue to both be a continuation of the greater series, and almost completely self contained at the same time. If you haven’t picked up any of The Expanse series yet, or have been waiting to read more, I highly encourage you to do so.

 

157044594) Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Published early in the year, lots of people have overlooked this sleeper. Steelheart, a novel about powerless humans hunting super heroes, was a surprise hit with me. I decided to read it on a whim, despite not loving the premise,  and was blown away by the result. That being said, the first novel was very self contained and reached a pretty definite conclusion at the end, giving me a lot of concern where Sanderson was going to take the series or if it could remain good. The fact that Firefight is so much better than Steelheart was very hard to process at first. Sanderson takes his winning formula from book one, and makes it deeper, more intense, and simply a lot cooler. Sanderson’s talent for weird magic is on point with his collection of interesting super powers and the plot has a lot more emotional weight than it did in book one. The finale, Calamity, comes out next February and is one of my most anticipated books for 2016.

 

233463353) The Price of Valour by Django Wexler – The Shadow Campaigns keeps creeping up my lists the more and more I think about it. The third installment of five, The Price of Valour is proof that Wexler can learn from his mistakes and has no shortage of imagination. The Thousand Names, Wexler’s debut, was an incredible flintlock fantasy about a remote military campaign that was fast, exciting, and surprising complex. Its sequel, The Shadow Throne, was an attempt to expand the world from the first book and double the cast. While The Shadow Throne had a metric ton of new things I liked, it also felt like it lacked the exciting pace and style of Wexler’s Debut;however, The Price of Valour has it all. With the pacing and intensity of book one, and the amazing cast from book two, the third Shadow Campaign novel is the strongest so far and continues to unravel the gigantic web of mystery that covers the series.

 

220552832) Half the World by Joe AbercrombieHalf the World is the strangest book on this list to me. The second novel of The Shattered Seas trilogy, it stands miles above its prequel and sequel. Half a King (book one) and Half a War (book three) were both good Abercrombie novels (for those of you who know what that means) but neither is close to the level of Half the World. The second novel follows two perspectives, Brand and Thorn, that play off of one another in a truly magical way. It is the story of two people finding their place in the world, realizing who they are, and going on a journey. I have never seen better use of multiple perspective and the book led me on a emotional roller coaster from start to finish. This book is definitely one of Abercrombie’s finest pieces of writing.

 

91ishiycq1l1) Golden Son by Pierce BrownRed Rising is a really enjoyable book. It simultaneously steals all the things that are good from series like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones,  and Ender’s Game while also creating both an imaginative and original setting and an exciting plot. It could simultaneously be described as a guilty pleasure, and an imaginative look as space colonization and class segregation. Red Rising had a pretty damn good thing going for it at the end of book one, and sets itself up to just reuse the incredibly powerful formula again in the sequel Golden Son… and then Pierce Brown decided to throw all of that momentum out the window and go in a completely different direction. The result is a book that felt like a massively different experience from Red Rising with the connecting theme being that both books are incredibly good. I was so confused as to why Pierce Brown would ditch his Red Rising gold mine until I was 10% in and read the entire book in one sitting. This book made me feel like a child again, discovering the wonder of reading for a first time and blowing my mind at every twist and turn. The finale, Morning Star, comes out in February and I highly recommend you check the series out.

The Mechanical – Fear The Netherlands

51pmvmp67ol-_sy344_bo1204203200_I have read a lot of historical fiction this year, and I’m pretty tired of England. When writing a historical fiction, writers tend to go for a well known and popular time in history to make the book more appealing. There is nothing wrong with this, these times (like WWII) are popular because they are interesting. On the other hand, it has been causing me some historical fiction fatigue. This is just one reason that The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis, a steampunk historical fiction about The Dutch vs. the French in the early 1900s, is one of my favorite books of the past year.

In The Mechanical we meet Jax, a clakker automaton slave to the Dutch Empire. He is one of our three main protagonists, and a mechanical man, built and given sentience by the Dutch to serve them for all time. He and his brethren have given birth to a golden age for the Netherlands, advancing their science and industry at unparalleled speed and making their armies unstoppable. However, Jax is not a willing subject of The Netherlands, but a slave with no free will; something he hopes to change. Clakkers are treated like furniture, with not a thought or care for the minds trapped inside these powerful machines. Clakkers do occasionally break free of their chains, but the early pages of the book treat us to the horrors waiting for any clakker who escapes from the mental geas that controls them.

In addition to Jax, we have Luuk Visser and Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord (their names are a handful). Our final two protagonists are a spy and spymaster for France, the final country holding out against Dutch tyranny. Luuk is a spy in the field operating out of Amsterdam and Berenice is spymaster living in France’s final stronghold in North America. The French have managed to hold out against the Dutch with their brilliant chemistry that allows them to combat the Dutch mechanical men. Thus we have the setting for our story; Jax searching for freedom, Luuk trying to survive in the enemy capitol, and Berenice trying to find a way to stop the unstoppable behemoth that is the Dutch.

The character development in the story is impressive. Jax goes on a journey of self discovery and growth as he slowly works towards his freedom. Luuk struggles with his allegiance to France as he is put through horror after horror in Amsterdam. Berenice copes with having to achieve the unachievable, turning the tide in a war that is already lost. Each character brings a lot to the table, and leaves with even more. The 1900’s that Ian Tregillis has built is imaginative and detailed in its use of steam, engineering, and chemicals to build a fascinating world. From living airships to weaponized adhesives, there are lots of fresh ideas (at least for me) that kept me excited to learn more and more.

The book is short and sweet, with a well paced plot that kept me interested the entire way through. My one complaint is that the book ended on a fairly large cliffhanger at the end of the story that felt a little abrupt. However, I will soon be able to satisfy my need to discover what happens as book 2 in the series, The Rising, comes out next month. If you are a fan of historical fiction, and are looking for something a little off the beaten path, I encourage you to pick up The Mechanical. Even without its unique flavor it is a solid book, but the combination of fresh ideas and talented writing made this one of my favorite books of the year.

Rating: 8.5/10

Thoughts On A Book Club

About a year ago I started a book club. In the club are about 12 people from various parts of my life, who live in different parts of the country, and like reading. I had become a book recommendation machine to many of them, and I thought it might be a fun idea to try and start a virtual book club with all of them. It was. A year later I find myself finalizing the syllabus for 2016’s club and welcoming multiple new members and extremely excited to start this months book.

The club meets once a month via Google hangout for an hour where we discuss the book we read for the month. The books were chosen by each member secretly nominating 5 books, each member voting on which books they wanted to read, and me doing some slight back end curation to make sure there was a nice mix of genres and subjects. The result was the list here. The book club went very well, but we learned a lot about running it along the way. Below you will find a list of some of the insights that various members of our club had throughout the club. Hopefully some of you will find these bits of wisdom helpful in running or starting you own book clubs.

Andrew (Me):

  • A good book is not necessarily a good discussion book (see Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell rating).
  • You will never have a book that everyone likes.
  • If you don’t like something, make sure you think about why you don’t like it so that you can articulate it.
  • Do not be offended when people don’t like the book you put forth, just stop being friends with them… I joke. Mostly.
  • Discovering an incredible book with all your friends at the same time is an amazing feeling.
  • You will find people read books for very different reasons such as pure fun, escapism, exercising their imagination, and feeling smart.
  • Try to ask the quiet ones in the group questions to get everyone involved.

Favorite 2015 Book Club Book: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Why: The book is a tribute to the beauty of reading and writing and generated interesting discussion. I can’t think of a more fitting title for a book club read.

Will:

  • When making a joke suggestion to the list, ensure everyone is aware that it is a joke suggestion, or you may end up reading poorly written smut. (See 50 Shades of Grey rating).
  • No matter how good a book may be in its second half, if it takes 3-400 pages to get there, people will not finish it.
  • Sometimes, just picking a book with a really cool cover is enough to get people to read it.
  • The larger the group discussing a book, the shallower the discussion will tend to be.
  • It is best practice to carefully curate the length of the books to the reading speeds of the participants.
  • It is difficult to balance switching up genres to maintain freshness, and not straying too far away from people’s taste.

Favorite 2015 Book Club Book: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Why: I think that it has enough moment-to-moment action to keep the majority of readers invested, while still exploring large enough issues to give a group more to discuss than “REMEMBER WHEN THAT STUFF EXPLODED?” It definitely strikes an excellent balance between popcorn action and high level concepts, and would be a great addition to any book club.

Sean:

  • Make sure you have someone to lead discussions during book group or conversation can stagnate. If you can have prepared discussion points, all the better.
  • Google Hangouts works well for getting people in different time zones together (mostly)
  • Graphic novels are hard to do in a book club.
  • Have drinks (to loosen everyone up a bit) and snacks available. We are all in different time zones, so I suggested everyone always have some wine or craft beer during book club.
  • Finish off each week by have each member give an overall 1-10 ranking of the month’s book, with a brief explanation of why they gave it that rank.

Favorite 2015 Book Club Book: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Why: It had been a long time since I went on such a well conceived and executed adventure/treasure hunt. The book thrilled me from start to finish and got my mind working overtime trying to fathom the possibilities of the Oasis. Also, all the video game and cultural references were right up my alley. And lastly, there were plenty of topics to discuss in book club including anonymity and it’s affect on race/gender/age, virtual reality’s advantages and disadvantages, the myriad and possibly overdone 80’s references, and the book’s twists and turns.

Alex:

  • Having notes about your own reading experience helps add to the discussion, especially when you feel enthusiastic about something
  • How a book makes you feel is just as important as to how it makes you think
  • You can like a book based on it’s premise, but hate it for it’s execution
  • It’s okay not to finish a book, but it always feels better finishing a book you didn’t like than to not finish at all.
  • I will read almost anything, if there are others to share in my pain

Favorite 2015 Book Club Book: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Why:  Mostly because the book itself made me feel conflicted about the book itself. It caused me to take notes and evaluate my feelings as I proceeded through the book. When I got to the end, all I wanted to do was talk about it with someone else who read the book, whether or not they felt the same. I wasn’t searching for agreement, just discussion.

Hopefully some of you found this helpful. I will leave you with the declaration that this club has been barrels of fun and that I highly encourage anyone who likes reading to try and start their own book clubs. You will learn a lot about books, reading, your friends, and yourself.

Sleeping Giants – 2016’s Gigantic Dark-Horse (See What I Did There?)

When it comes to publishers telling me their books are good, I tend to not trust them. I firmly believe that a company would never tell me their product was bad, so why should I trust them when they say its good? With this in mind, I was very skeptical of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel. I received an ARC copy of the book, which comes out of April next year, and was told it was “the next big thing”. Needless to say, it came as a huge surprise to me that I think the publisher is right, this book is going to do well because it is fantastic.

Sleeping Giants is the story of a literal giant, and a team of scientists who discover and study it. The giant is a scientific marvel, and is in pieces strewn all across the world. The job of the team is to recover all the pieces no matter where they lay, reassemble the titan, and bring it back to life so to speak. This is a problem for a variety of reasons, such as the giants presence is as subtle as a building demolition, parts of it are in hostile countries, and the team does not have a clue as to what it is or what it does. Thus begins a novel full of political drama, boundless curiosity, and scientific wonder.

The story is told in an offbeat manner, with the entire book written almost exclusively in dialogue from interviews about the project, reminding me fondly of World War Z. However, Sylvain Neuvel still manages to pack in tons of descriptions and storytelling through clever use of the interviews, occasional journals, and a few real time narrations of discoveries. The cast of characters in the story are varied and interesting, but none of them are particularly deep. The focus is much more on the constant discoveries the team makes, and the slow unraveling of the mystery of the giant. In fact. the deepest character is likely the interviewer himself who builds a lot of character as he talks to everyone else. The book is actually quite short, but is still very gripping and exciting. There are many minor twists that keep you on the edge of your seat and the novel does a great job exploring the cost of progress in mankind.

However, my one complaint with Sleeping Giants is that there didn’t really feel like there was a climax at the end of the book. The novel maintains an intense steady burn that kept me hooked page after page, but at the end of the novel I felt a bit like I had read the first half of a book and wished it had come to a more definitive end. However, it also felt like I read the first half of a really good book, so I was not that upset.

A lesson I learned with Sleeping Giants is not to review a book 6 months before it comes out, because now the wait for book 2 is even longer. The book is short, sweet, and thrilling and I definitely recommend it for all readers. Look for the fantastic Sleeping Giants in April of next year.

Rating: 8.5/10