Author Archives: Jessica

Book rundown, 2016

Posted on

So you know what sucks? I haven’t read a book since September. It’s the longest I’ve gone in my life without reading for pleasure.

Depression is an ugly disease. Stay away from it.

But hey, I dutifully recorded all of the books I read. All twenty of them.

Twenty.  God.


Addison, Katherine. The Goblin Emperor. Fantasy, 2014.

An adventure story! It was super fun to read, and episodic in nature, so you know you’re going to get some new shenanigans with every turn of the page. The royal family dies in an accident (or was it sabotage?), so the forgotten son living out in the backwaters is hauled in a placed on the throne. Political intrigue ensues.


Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon. Fantasy, 2012.

Another rollicking adventure story! A cast of unlikely characters must band together to defeat the ancient evil attempting to infiltrate the court. Though not an Islamic story per se, Islam thoroughly influences the culture, characters, and setting, making this a welcome change from Western fantasy novels. I love my traditional European fantasies (see Hobb, Martin, and Novik below), but if that’s all you read, you’re missing out.

Beukes, Lauren. The Shining Girls. SF, 2013.

A serial killer travels through time to commit his murders. He should be unstoppable, but he meets his match when one of his victims manages not to die. (Disembowelment? Stop your whining. Shrug it off.) Great concept, solid writing: I didn’t fall in love with the book, but I can recommend it without reservations.

Dickinson, Seth. The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Fantasy, 2015.

I wanted to love it but merely liked it. After the evil empire colonizes her home, the brilliant Baru Cormorant decides to play an extremely long game: she decides to take down the bad guys by joining them. Some great stuff going on here with gender roles and sexual orientation, and it got a lot of good press, so it’s worth the read.

French, Tana. The Secret Place. Mystery, 2014.

Can we all agree that Tana French is the best thing going in the mystery genre? Actually I shouldn’t say that, since I don’t read enough mysteries to know the field, but it’s hard to conceive of anyone outwriting her. Every books she writes delivers strong characters, engrossing plots, and tight prose, all drenched in a moody atmosphere. This is the fifth book in her series, but they’re only very loosely linked so you could start here with no problems.

Hamilton, Gabrielle. Blood, Bones and Butter. Nonfiction: Memoir, 2011.

If you enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, this is… maybe a good choice? It doesn’t give you as much insight as to what it’s like to work in the food industry; that element is definitely there, but it’s not the only thing going on. But if you mainly liked Bourdain because he’s such a damn good writer, then Hamilton is absolutely for you. This was a joy to listen to as an audiobook.


Hobb, Robin. Assassin’s Apprentice. Fantasy, 1995.

This is one of those… not classics, it doesn’t inevitably show up on the lists of best fantasy novels, but it’s a mainstay in the genre. And now I can hardly remember the story. It was good, I guess? Enough so that I read to the end? Bastard son of the king makes himself  relevant by learning to kill political enemies. I seem to recall the prose being a bit clunky. I dunno, it was a good enough debut that I’m open to reading Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy.


King, Stephen. End of Watch. Crime, 2016.

A satisfying conclusion to the trilogy featuring a crusty old retired cop and his nemesis, the mass-murderer from the first book, Mr. Mercedes. Due to a severe brain injury, the bad guy is a vegetable for life…or is he? Though some elements verge on the supernatural, this is a straightforward thriller, palatable for people who dislike science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Lu, Marie. Legend. Young Adult SF, 2011.

One of the standouts in the YA dystopian scene, I found it to be forgettable. Lots of people love it, and I can see why (dazzling characters, love story, fighting the good fight against the oppressive regime), but it was all very meh for me.

Martin, George R. R. A Dance with Dragons. Fantasy, 2011.

If I ever learn to tell a story half as well as Martin, I will be invincible.

North, Claire. Touch. Fantasy, 2015.

This didn’t quite match the brilliance of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, but I’m hooked on Claire North for good. She’s an extremely competent writer with a gift for prose, and her concepts are riveting; in this case, our hero can possess new bodies just by touching them.

Novik, Naomi. Uprooted. Fantasy, 2015.

Total crack for a Russophile like me, this fairy tale-esque story pits our awkward heroine against a dragon–or rather, The Dragon, the title adopted by the jackass who whisks her away to his tower. Shades of Beauty and the Beast here. Man, I’ve got to read Temeraire.


Parker, K. J. The Last Witness. Fantasy, 2015.

Is K.J. Parker my favorite living fantasy writer? Depends on what day you ask me… but yeah, sometimes. His writing is dark and his characters are morally corrupt. In this story, the hero–and I use that word loosely–has the ability to completely remove unwanted memories from other people. What’s astonishing is that someone else out there seems to have the same gift, too… and she doesn’t like our hero very much.


Scalzi, John. Lock In. SF, 2014.

Variation on a theme of zombies: a virus locks people into their own bodies, trapping them in a waking coma hell. I enjoyed the novella prequel (freely available from but found the novel to be underwhelming. It was fine; I don’t regret the time spent reading it; but when Scalzi does it right, he is on fire, as was the case with…


Scalzi, John. Redshirts. SF, 2012.

So in the original Star Trek television show, you know how Spock and Kirk and company always survived, but the miscellaneous crew in their spiffy red shirts always died horribly? This is their story.

Stevenson, Noelle. Nimona. Young Adult Fantasy Graphic Novel, 2015.

Young girl with shapeshifting abilities and wide hips offers her services as sidekick to the evil Lord Blackheart, who practices his villainy against Sir Goldenloin. It should be obvious that the story is silly and fun, but there are moments of genuine pathos and melancholy. Also: very strong hints of a gay romance.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Classic/Adventure, 1883.

Oh hell this was fun. The nineteenth-century prose is a bit overblown, but nowhere near as bad as some of those guys got, and anyway who cares because BURIED TREASURE AND PIRATES.

Tweedy, Damon. Black Man in a White Coat. Nonfiction: Memoir, 2015.

Damon Tweedy is a black physician, which is still something of an anomaly. He doesn’t have the writing skill of fellow memoirist Gabrielle Hamilton, above, but I listened to the whole audiobook because I wanted to know more about the health and healthcare of black Americans.

Wallace, Matt. Sin du Jour. Fantasy/Comedic Horror, 2015.

So back when I had a literary agent–a story for another time–Matt Wallace was one of my agent siblings. I really enjoyed following him on Twitter, so I tried his novella and… and it wasn’t for me. I’m sorry, Matt. The prose was not my cuppa. That said, the book has received a lot of flattering press, and you can’t help but love the premise: a couple of down-on-their-luck cooks sign on to help a restaurant with a special project, the preparation of a heavenly angel to be served to a horde of demons.

Wells, Dan. I Am Not a Serial Killer. Young Adult Horror, 2010.

So back when I had a literary agent–excuse me, gonna go weep in the corner now–he suggested I read I Am Not a Serial Killer to get insight into lead characters doing unpleasant things. Which, yeah: the main character loves his job as assistant undertaker to his mother, and also he’s a sociopath and he’s really worried he’s going to turn into a killer, even though he knows it’s wrong. This kid is definitely not your typical protagonist. I liked the book well enough, so… I dunno, I get impatient with the prose stylings in most YA novels, so I’m not a great judge, but if you like horror or YA or trivia about serial killers then this book is for you.

Previous years:



Posted on

What gets overlooked, when people complain about the internet and modern life destroying our capacity to read books, is that we are writing more than we ever used to. We spoke into telephones rather than emailing or texting; before phones, we wrote letters, if we had the desire and the education. Most people didn’t.

Now we socialize by typing at one another. I made the mistake today–I don’t know what I was thinking–of reading the comments section of an article on gun control, and I was reminded again that lots of people are writing. It made me miss the good old days.

But it’s not all internet trolls. I’ve had to wean myself away from the wealth of wonderful essays freely available online. Who would have imagined that the essay would enjoy a resurgence? And there’s some fine journalism out there, sometimes from the established sources, frequently from smaller and newer enterprises that most of us would never have heard of, in other times.

The blog seems to be dying, though. Not so long ago it was common for people to post their essays and thought-pieces on blogs, but now the microblog is the heir apparent.

This blog mirrors the trend. I’m not going to kill it–it’s free, and not taking up physical space, and it’s a nice way to publicize my annual reading list–but I’m not going to tend it very often.

But since I am here:


Lois Duncan died today. She was one of the better Young Adult novelists when I was growing up, but I remember her best for her memoir, Who Killed My Daughter? You can guess from the title that it’s one of the saddest true crime books you’ll ever read.

I have been in a reading slump for…. five years, if we’re being honest, and acutely for the past two. I keep resolving to fix it. It is a struggle. The internet and modern life have destroyed my capacity to read books.

It’s a quality-of-life concern. I don’t know that I can be happy; I do know that I certainly cannot be happy if I’m not reading, regularly, daily.

It’s like having pets. I can muddle through without them, but I don’t see the point.

Though I cannot properly read if I’m letting the damn dog in every other minute. I may need to investigate dog doors.

Anyway. Lois Duncan. I hope there’s an afterlife and you get to ask your daughter what happened.

Book Rundown, 2015

Posted on

This was a terrible year for reading. My average, until 2015 came along and ruined everything, was 98 books annually, but all I have to offer for this New Year’s Day recap is 19 books.

Some of this change was deliberate, to free up time for projects like getting a dog and writing some stuff of my own. Some of this change was because reading just doesn’t seem worth the effort when you’re depressed.

For this year’s Book Rundown, I’m taking a different approach and offering brief annotations for each book, because honestly there are only nineteen, this really shouldn’t take me long:

  1. Babbitt, Natalie. The Devil’s Storybook
    • This collection of short stories was a favorite when I was nine. Sometimes the devil gets his comeuppance, and sometimes he gets a fresh new soul. I read this for inspiration, though maybe I shouldn’t be admitting that.
  2. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn
    • A classic of fantasy literature, this is the story of a unicorn worried about species extinction. Beagle upends some common tropes, and I liked it well enough, but it didn’t have much emotional impact on me.
  3. Beckderf, Derf. Trashed
    • I loved Beckderf’s memoir about his high school classmate, My Friend Dahmer. This sophomore graphic novel, unfortunately, had very little plot. I liked learning about trash collection and disposal, but those tidbits weren’t enough to redeem the book. It would have worked better as a work of nonfiction.
  4. Bond, Rebecca. Escape from Baxters’ Barn
    • The reviews likening this children’s novel to Charlotte’s Web overstated the case, but it’s still a good story: an antisocial farm cat, upon discovering the farmers’ plot to burn their barn for insurance, sounds the alarm among an ensemble cast of animals. They scheme to escape their would-be death chamber, which seems fairly straightforward until you realize nobody has thumbs.
  5. Buehlman, Christopher. Between Two Fires
    • Chris (I can call him that; I totally got to meet him) never writes the same book twice. After debuting with a Southern Gothic werewolf novel, he wrote this medieval horror story about a battle between angels and demons, set against the backdrop of France during the plague.
  6. Buehlman, Christopher. The Lesser Dead
    • So then my pal Chris wrote a vampire book, this time with a setting in the sewers of 1970s New York. It reminded me, and I mean this sincerely, of Catcher in the Rye, only with more carnage.
  7. Butcher, Jim. Working for Bigfoot
    • Jim (I can call him that; I totally got to… actually that’s a story for another time) believes in Bigfoot the way Republicans believe in Reagan: passionately, with no tolerance for criticism. The three longish short stories in this collection are donut holes: not big enough to really satisfy you, but obviously you’re going to eat them anyway.
  8. Cohlene, Terri. Dancing Drum
    • This is a Cherokee  myth, presented as a children’s picture book, a format much more digestible than James Mooney’s seminal but dense History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee People.
  9. Eichar, Donnie. Dead Mountain
    • I didn’t read a Russian novel this year — 2015 sucked, all right — but at least this work of investigative journalism is set in the Urals. Eichar presents a new theory to explain the gruesome fate of hikers who died in the Dyatlov Pass incident of 1959. I think he’s on to something, though he’s no great shakes as a writer–and I can only assume his copy editor died a similar horrible frozen death before she got around to his manuscript.
  10. King, Stephen. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
    • For all his naysayers, I find King to be an impressive writer (HIS copy editors are clearly alive and well) and, in my opinion, a storyteller of the highest order. Though not his best collection of short stories, this book hit all the right chords: some stories were quirky, some were funny, some were high body count-y.
  11. King, Stephen. Finders Keepers
    • I read mysteries sparingly, but it’s Stephen King, you know? As the novel opens, an ardent fan steals the final, handwritten manuscript of a renowned writer (John Updike, for all intents and purposes). Decades later, the thief goes to retrieve his precious booty–but someone’s gotten there first.
  12. Maier, Corinne. Marx
    • I don’t remember reading this. It was a nonfiction graphic novel, that much rings a bell, but… well, it may have been good, but it wasn’t very memorable.
  13. McCloud, Scott. The Sculptor
    • A young sculptor, frustrated with his life and his art, makes a deal with Death: he will enjoy boundless artistic talent for the rest of his life, which now numbers 200 days and counting. It’s only after sealing the deal that our hero finally falls in love.
  14. Nicholas, Douglas. Throne of Darkness
    • In this medieval fantasy, book three of four in a series, my buddy Douglas (we’re Facebook friends. shut up.) pits a family of traveling musicians against evil shape-changers. Which makes it sound like a Scooby-Doo episode, which is terribly misleading. I love the dark atmosphere of these books, and the careful use of historical details, and the sense of horror, which is quiet and subtle–until suddenly it isn’t.
  15. Onion Magazine. The Iconic Covers
    • A collection of magazine covers from the only news source I trust.
  16. Parker, K. J. Savages
    • KJP, who finally revealed his real identity this year–hullo, Tom Holt–is indescribably good, and I do mean “indescribably.” Any attempt to summarize his books sounds dull (“Well, there are military tactics, see, and office clerks, and economic factions, and lots of details about government bureaucracies”) but he’s one of my must-reads.
  17. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Huis Clos
    • I read this just to get to the “Hell is other people” line. Totally worth it.
  18. Vandermeer, Jeff. Acceptance
    • The first work in this trilogy, Annihilation, was sublime. That’s the book writers should study when they’re learning to craft atmosphere. I read books two and three this year, and though I liked them, they just couldn’t match the creeping dread of the first.
  19. Vandermeer, Jeff. Authority
    • See above.

Previous, more impressive annual rundowns:

Turkey revisited

Posted on

Happy Thanksgiving.

This is the third consecutive Thanksgiving I’ve spent alone. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

It throws my social isolation into sharp relief, as though it weren’t plain enough already. I would feel better if my reclusion were intentional, if I were a hermit monk available only by appointment, and only after a grueling trek through inhospitable mountains.

But I am enjoying four days, all in a row, with no need to leave the house or interact with others, aside from Gremlin. This morning I fed her Whiskas Turkey & Giblets. Approximately thirty minutes later she threw up her seasonally-appropriate meal, managing to get it on two blankets and — a first — me.


White like me

Posted on

I’ve never felt nervous upon seeing a police officer. Why would I? They have no reason to bother me. The police are there to protect me.

This is the perspective of a law-abiding white person. Those with darker skin and/or criminal records are probably not nodding their heads in agreement.

In a normal day, I’m not fretting about my skin color/Otherness: most of my coworkers look like me, only without the superior fashion sense. When I hop onto twitter to see the news from my favorite writers, I see people who look like me but with beards.

No one has ever commented on how articulate I am, as though my fluency with English were somehow unexpected.

When I was uninsured and unemployed, no one looked at me askance when I went to the free health clinic.

No one has ever perceived me as a threat to her child.

No one has ever looked at me in a crowded park and wondered if was going to shout Allahu Akbar and blow us all to smithereens.

Every single interviewer for every single job I’ve ever applied for has been the same color as me. When I did not get jobs, I didn’t worry that it was because of my color. When I did get jobs, no one accused me of being there to fill a quota.

I try to be cognizant of my white privilege, but I guarantee I don’t think about race as much as some people do. When I express an opinion, be it benign (“I like spicy food”) or stupid (“I’m pulling for Donald Trump”), I don’t pause to wonder how it might reflect on other people of my race. A small example: I have a bad habit of assuming whiteness when I read about a person in a book or in the news– unless that person is a manicurist or a maid at a hotel or a migrant farmer.

So, okay, fantastic: I’m educated about race and racism and race issues. Yay for me. Yay for the white person.

Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful makes me a sympathetic figure to my friends, who are mostly all liberals, who are mostly all white. Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful has not, however, prevented any racially-motivated massacres or burned churches or burned crosses.

Ordinary, casual, frequently-subconscious racism is bad enough. We’re all guilty of that sometimes, no matter our color, no matter our good intentions.

But Klan-style terrorism, man. What do you do?

No one has ever used a racial slur against me. I’m thirty-four year old and I’ve never even heard the word nigger, except in a strictly socio-linguistic context. I’m sure know people who think it and speak it privately, but most racists know better than to expose themselves in front of casual acquaintances. They don’t enjoy being publicly shamed any more than I do.

So it’s not like I can spread the gospel of not being an asshole to my friends or acquaintances. The only injustices I see are small. Recently I was asked to select images for a presentation from a large set of pictures. I went through and counted 120ish humans, six of whom were people of color. That’s pretty lame. It needs to be fixed. But it’s not an act of terrorism or even deliberate racism.

One option would be to join a grassroots campaign or a local civic group. For several reasons this does not appeal to me. One of those reasons is that I don’t want to correct injustice as much as I want to prevent it.

When I think about cultural problems, I invariably reach the same conclusion: teach your children well. There’s nothing you can do about the true nutjobs, but almost all children, and very many adults, can respond to education.

People can change. This guy did.

I do not have literal children and I have few figurative children. My acquaintances are few and my friends fewer. There’s not much racism to undo in the people I know.

Here’s what I’d really like to do: I’d like to work one-on-one with racists. Reading through the comments of an internet article will not change hearts and minds, especially if that article supports your opinion in the first place. Talking with a real human being makes you think about your positions. Sometimes it even makes you listen.

I’m trying to picture the Craigslist ad: “Dear racists: I am right and you are wrong. Let’s get together so I can explain why.”

Probably I need to work on that a little.

Violent acts

Posted on

sansaDuring a recent episode of Game of Thrones, one of the main characters was raped. The scene was a brutal and graphic.

The internet immediately exploded with condemnation. It was a trauma trigger for some viewers; others thought it was far too violent for television; still others thought it was an example of poor storytelling.

My reaction to these perspectives suggests that I am a monster. Perhaps I am.

If depictions of sexual violence are unwatchable for you, then do not watch a gritty medieval drama.

The recent rape scene offended many viewers for the excessive violence. Being offended is an understandable reaction– but those people who are only now protesting the violence in Game of Thrones are a bit late to the party. The show is in its fifth season, and we have already seen the rape of other characters, beheadings, torture, flayings, castration, death by molten gold, burnings at the stake, infanticide, and the stabbing of a pregnant woman’s uterus.

Why cry foul now? Why is the rape of a main character unacceptable when all the rest of it’s okay?

I do not like the sanctimony, the supposition that sexual violence should have its own set of rules. If you’re going to be morally outraged, be outraged about violence, period.

And the depiction of rape is not necessarily an example of poor storytelling. Rape is overused as plot device, but there’s nothing inherently uncreative or unwarranted about it, and sometimes the show writer or the novelist gets it right.

Would I prefer to see less violence in books and television or movies? I’d prefer to see it handled better. I like stories that explore the meaning of violence, or the lack of meaning, and the reverberations for the victims and the perpetrators.

Fiction helps me understand violence without having to endure it personally.

Book Rundown, 2014

Posted on

It’s January 1st, that one magical day of the year when you can depend on seeing my annual reading experience described in wholly unnecessary detail. Nice to know something around here’s dependable, as I rarely post here anymore. Time might come when I post here only on January 1st, but I won’t surrender this annual tradition. The public demands it! That is to say, I track my reading habits obsessively, and if an innocent member of the public lands here, the worst that will happen is a mild case of tedium. It passes quickly.

Depression is a nasty disease. Not nasty like Ebola or multiple sclerosis, and as a topic it has no business in my annual book review, except for this: whole months of 2014 passed with me reading hardly anything. I just didn’t want to. Still don’t want to, most of the time. I would check out new books by authors I adore — Christopher Buehlman, Tana French, and K.J. Parker, for instance — and return them to the library without having cracked them open.

So it should have been a better reading year. It should have been a better year, period.

But you aren’t here for the gloom! You’re here for the scintillating minutiae of my reading life! I completely understand if you can’t contain yourself a moment longer, if you simply must jump to the meat of the Book Rundown, but some of you may wish to revisit previous years’ entries to torture yourself with sweet anticipation:

And now, the real reason we’re all here: Book Rundown, 2014

Total books read, cover-to-cover: 92

Age levels:

  • Adult: 85
  • YA: 6
  • Children’s: 1

Books read that were published in 2014: 38

Books read that won’t be published till 2015: 1. The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new Steampunk series by Jim Butcher.

Nonfiction: 40. This includes a couple of poetry books and a collection of cartoons, which are murky from a classification point of view. Other people might class them as fiction.

Fiction: 52

Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 92)


  • Art and photography (collections): 4
  • Biography: 1
  • Cultural Criticism: 2
  • English Language: 1
  • Expose: 1
  • Feminism: 1
  • History: 5
  • Horror: 1
  • Humor: 8
  • Memoir: 9
  • Psychology: 1
  • Science: 4
  • Social science: 6
  • Travel: 1
  • True crime: 2


  • Classics/Literary canon: 2
  • Crime/Mystery: 3
  • Erotica: 1. Which should last me a lifetime, please and thank you.
  • Fantasy: 20
  • Historical: 2. Both by Douglas Nicholas. Superb medieval British Isles setting.
  • Horror: 13
  • Humor: 1
  • Literary fiction: 5
  • Mainstream: 1
  • Mystery: 3
  • Science fiction: 8
  • Steampunk: 1. Reluctantly– this is NOT my genre– but I wanted 2014 bragging rights for a book not pubbed til 2015, and anyway it’s written by my BFFF. (That extra F is not a typo. It stands for Frenemy. ‘sComplicated.)
  • Suspense/Thriller: 5
  • Western: 1


  • Audiobooks: 26. Would have been more, but I broke my own rule. Normally I listen exclusively to nonfiction, preferring to read fiction with my eyes, but I encountered such a strong audiobook review of a novel that I made an exception. I quickly recalled why I don’t listen to fiction: the pace, the literal pace, is too slow. Didn’t help matters that the novel itself was not to my tastes. I finally gave up on it sometime in summer, but I stubbornly refused to start a new audiobook till I’d finished the one in progress. The result: six months of no audiobooks. I ended the stalemate by reading the remainder in a print copy. Maybe now I can go back to audiobooks.
  • Collections/Anthologies: 18. 1 of cartoons (T-Rex Trying); 1 of fantasy art (Spectrum 20); 1 of speeches (by Kurt Vonnegut!); 1 of radio interviews (NPR’s Funniest Driveway Moments; not that funny); 7 of essays; 5 of photoessays; and 2 of poetry.
  • Graphic novels: 13, of which one was nonfiction.
  • Picture book: 1. Not for young children. This is a picture book for tweens and up, provided they have a bent sent of humor. It’s not as good as the first Patrick Rothfuss picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, but I enjoyed the continued macabre adventures of the princess and her stuffed teddy in this sequel, The Dark of Deep Below.


  • Annual fat Russian novel: First Love, by Ivan Turgenev. Positively slender, by Russian standards, but positively not-positive in theme and tone, so it counts as legitimate Russian fiction.
  • Annual classic: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s a coming-of-age novel, and I regret not reading it when I was a teen; would have meant more to me then. But I still enjoyed the hell out of it.
  • Annual language book: Bad English, by Ammon Shea.
  • Re-reads: 0. As in zero. I’d have to doublecheck my records, but I think this is unprecedented.

Authors: 87

New (to me) authors: 64, or 66 if we go with pseudonyms: I already knew Robert Gilbraith as J.K. Rowling, and I wish I’d stayed with Anne Rice and not tried her erotica pen-name,  A. N. Roquelaure. Two hundred  pages of spanking, that was.

New section for 2014! Authors by sex: Note that each author only gets one entry, so though I read three Stephen King books, I’m only listing him once. And I am treating Robert Gilbraith as a male, out of respect for JKR’s chosen pseudonymous identity.

  • Female: 21 (roughly one quarter)
  • Male: 66 (roughly three quarters)

Best book of the year, fiction: The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, published 2013. Baba Yaga is the antagonist. That fact alone guaranteed I would read it, even though my previous Buehlman book (Those Across the River, featuring werewolves) was merely enjoyable: liked it, didn’t love it. But this book? THIS BOOK? Astonishingly good. In contemporary upstate New York, Andrew is a mostly-out of practice necromancer, still mourning his dead wife but in love with a witch named Anneke, who loves him just as much. They’d be a great couple if she weren’t a lesbian. Instead Andrew meets his sexual needs, sorta, with a nearby carnivorous mermaid, who unwittingly murders an old man who had been dear to Baba Yaga, thereby invoking the wrath of the scariest, most powerful monster in all of European folklore.

The whole book has a moody tone. There are moments of horror, humor, violence, and pathos. Buehlman has a truly inventive imagination and sneaks in a lot of commentary on social issues such as alcoholism and sexual identity without being pedantic, and the climactic battle scene has a plot twist I promise you won’t see coming.

My only problem with this book? It is Urban Fantasy and Horror of the highest caliber, and nobody seems to know about it. Urban Fantasy fans know about The Dresden Files (hey Jim, love ya, noodlehead) and about folks like Kevin Hearne, Seanan McGuire, Myke Cole, and Chuck Wendig, but The Necromancer’s House isn’t getting the same marketing or publicity or con-time or whatever it is that makes established fan-bases aware of standalone novels like this.

Best book of the year, nonfiction: What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, published in 2011. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. This should be required reading for any civilian, and ESPECIALLY for anyone in a position of power to send troops into war zones– but this is not a political book about the Vietnam War, or even a philosophical book about the ethics of combat. This is the memoir of one Vietnam vet doing his damnedest to explain what it’s like to go to war.

Marlantes is a superb writer: his book Matterhorn stands alongside Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the early novels of Robert Olen Butler as some of the finest fiction on Vietnam. And only a superb writer could bring such insight and clarity to terrible subjects like violence, dehumanizing the enemy, trauma, and PTSD. (His book has helped me understand my own PTSD and depression.)

But what I admire most is the honesty of the memoir. Marlantes tells the whole picture, not just the parts that paint him in a flattering light. He could have concentrated on the “War Is Hell” theme: no one would have argued with that, and it would have been the truth. But it would not have been the whole truth. Marlantes is brave enough and honest enough to talk about the parts he enjoyed: the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the killing of the enemy. And he has the courage to reveal how, all these decades later, he is still haunted: haunted by what he did, haunted by the aftereffects echoing in his civilian life, haunted by the parts of war he still misses to this day.

Honorable mentions: 

  • Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Middle-grades/YA novel featuring human zombies, cow zombies, baseball, and a really strong argument in favor of local agriculture and strict food inspections.
  • Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. Most of us don’t read poetry for pleasure, perhaps because we had to count one too many iambs in grade school. It’s a short anthology, and you don’t have to read it cover-to-cover, but surely some of the poems will catch your fancy, as two in particular did for me. I was astonished at the over-the-top gruesome imagery (“What kind of sadist would write this?!?”) of a poem called “The Dead King Eats the Gods,” and then learned that it was inscribed on an ancient Egyptian pyramid. And I was charmed by the twisted fairy-tale version of God and his buddy Satan in “The Gardener,” by Stephen Dobyns.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, might be the best example of embedded reporting you’ll ever read. For three years Boo immersed herself among three-hundred some families in a slum in Mumbai. To bring the religious and ethic strife, the overcrowding, and the overwhelming poverty into focus, she follows the stories of a few select individuals, resulting in a narrative that boggles the Western mind. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who does an outstanding job of with the various accents.
  • The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new series called Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher. It’s not published yet, so I can’t say much, except that it’s Steampunk, and I don’t like Steampunk, and I found myself grudgingly liking it anyway.
  • The Magician’s Land, the third volume in the trilogy by Lev Grossman. No book will ever touch me as did book #2, The Magician King, but this was a fine conclusion to a series that pays homage to Narnia and Hogwarts.
  • I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes. Just bear with the slow start, okay? Once the action gets going, the pace of this spy novel does not let up. I’m bored with most contemporary thrillers, but Terry Hayes nails it. International terrorism, unnerving but badass protagonist, exceptionally good plotting, little details that make it all seem believable. Hayes reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Also? It’s a debut. That’s just annoying in a book this good.
  • Something Red and The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas. Nicholas is a poet, and it shows, but not in an obnoxious ooh-look-how-lyrical-and-erudite-I-am kind of way. Set in the medieval British Isles, and starring a family of four traveling entertainers, these first two novels in the series mix horror with magic and adventure and romance. The prose is lovely without bring pretentious, and I challenge even the nerdiest history buff to find a historical inaccuracy
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. Though I am leery of anything marketed as literary fiction, I’m a sucker for reincarnation stories. This sort of story has been done before (ha) but North has some unique angles. Quite reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. Our hero in this YA novel loves his girlfriend but suspects he might also be in love with his best male friend. That’s right: we have a bisexual/questioning teenage male protagonist. Not a bisexual girl — face it, everyone likes bi- girls — but a sexually confused male. It’s so damn refreshing. I could stop talking right now and rest my case. Except maybe I should mention that Smith writes with a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. And also maybe I should mention the humongous praying mantises poised to take over the world.
  • Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh. Another book too damn good to be a debut, this is a near-future thriller with just a little bit of science fiction. Our hero is an assassin. He really likes boxcutters. That’s the bright start of the novel: things tend to get a little bleak after that. Look, this is a really grim book, definitely not for everyone, but the prose is tight and I soaked up each page. Which possibly says something about me.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Perceptive reader that you are, I bet you can already tell from the title that this is going to be another one of those not-very-cheery books. Most of the characters die in the first few pages, so try not to get too attached. For that matter, don’t get attached to the survivors. They’re not especially likable. This is a short book of ecological science fiction, with not even a hint of levity to disrupt the tense atmosphere.
  • Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Though wary of any book that threatens to reveal itself as literary fiction, I took a chance on this one because 1.) it was short and 2.) there was an amazing amount of swearing, I mean even on the first page. Not quite sure how to classify this — satire? magical realism? Marxist lit? — but no matter: it is the story of a family in Mexico with too many children and too little money. Funny thing is, it’s not bleak. Plenty of horrible things going on, but the tone dances between ligth-hearted and surreal.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. Science fiction! Adventure! Survival story! Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts left him for dead, which is sort of unnerving to realize when you return to consciousness and realize that you’re alone. On Mars. With no transport. And no way to communicate with earth. With an inauspicious start like this, you’re probably expecting a short story– a very, very, very short story. But Watney has the ingenuity, the tools, and the chutzpah to not only treat his injuries but to establish his own one-person colony– and to start thinking up ways for a good-old-fashioned rescue. Props to Andy Weir for inserting all kinds of science and factoids without dragging down the narrative.


  • Nonfiction: Her, by Christa Parravani. This is not a bad book. Parravani is a gifted writer, and her story sounded like just my kind of memoir. Reading about other people’s struggles helps me understand my own. Parravani’s identical twin Cara was brutally, violently raped. She never completely physically healed, and it should go without saying that she never healed emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. Cara began abusing drugs, and one day she died of a heroin overdose. Christa somehow managed to function after her twin’s death, but spent years suffering from the deep depression and unhealthy relationships.I’m with you so far, Parravani. This is a gut-wrenching grief memoir. But then one day along comes Mr. Wonderful, they fall in love on their first date, marry a few months later, and next thing there’s a baby. I am truly happy you finally got a break, Christa, and I wish you all the best. But this was the worst nonfiction book of 2014 for me, personally, because it ends with a deus ex machina. Prince Charming showed up to rescue you. I read grief memoirs to draw strength from people who survive even though things don’t get better.
  • Fiction: Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler. Yet again overcame my wariness of Literary Fiction to give this one a try. I should know better by now: if all the critics love a LiFi novel, I’m guaranteed to hate it. But it was set in rural middle Wisconsin, an area I know well and love. Long story short: the prose is fine, no problems there, and the characters are pretty well-developed, only I didn’t like the characters. Not always a deal-breaker– I love George R. R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister, for instance — but they just didn’t interest me. I didn’t care about them. And my biggest disappointment of all was that the book did not evoke rural Wisconsin. Hey, maybe for some folks it did, but the setting felt more like Ruraltown USA than Eau Claire.

And finally, all ninety-two titles, arranged by author:

Adrian, Matt The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds
Alter, Adam Drunk Tank Pink
Azzarello, Brian Brother Lono
Bacigalupi, Paolo Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Barnstone, Tony and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, eds. Poems Dead and Undead
Buehlman, Christopher The Necromancer’s House
Blum, Deborah The Poisoner’s Handbook
Boo, Katherine Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Bourdain, Anthony Kitchen Confidential
Bryson, Bill I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Bryson, Bill A Walk in the Woods
Butcher, Jim The Aeronaut’s Windlass
Butcher, Jim Furies of Calderon
Butcher, Jim Ghoul Goblin
Butler, Nickolas Shotgun Lovesongs
Carey, Mike The Girl with All the Gifts
Cargill, C. Robert Dreams and Shadows
Ciaramella, Jason Thumbprint
Cole, Myke Control Point
Connolly, Harry Child of Fire
Cosby, Nate Cow Boy
Crockett, Alexandra Metal Cats
Crosley, Sloane I Was Told There’d Be Cake
Estabrook, Barry Tomatoland
Ettlinger, Steve Twinkie, Deconstructed
Farinella, Matteo Neurocomic
Fenner, Cathy and Fenner, Arnie, eds. Spectrum 20
Forman, Gayle If I Stay
Gaffigan, Jim Dad Is Fat
Galbraith, Robert Cuckoo’s Calling
Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers
Greenberg, Isabel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
Grossman, Lev The Magician’s Land
Harris, Alice Blow Me A Kiss
Harris, Joe The X-Files: Season 10
Hayes, Terry I Am Pilgrim
Hearne, Kevin Hounded
Hiaasen, Carl Team Rodent
Homans, John What’s A Dog For?
Ironmonger, J. W. Coincidence
Jemisin, N. K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Jessop, Carolyn Triumph
Kidder, Tracy Strength In What Remains
King, Stephen Danse Macabre
King, Stephen Mr. Mercedes
King, Stephen Revival
Kittredge, Caitlin Coffin Hill
Korb, Scott Life In Year One
Krakauer, Jon Three Cups of Deceit
Lovejoy, Diana Cat Lady Chic
Magary, Drew Someone Could Get Hurt
Krulwich, Robert NPR Funniest Driveway Moments
Malerman, Josh Bird Box
Marlantes, Karl What It Is Like to Go to War
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. I
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. II
McKinley, Robin Shadows
Mueller, Tom Extra Virginity
Murphy, Hugh T-Rex Trying
Nicholas, Douglas Something Red
Nicholas, Douglas The Wicked
Norman, Howard I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
North, Claire The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Parker, Robert B. Looking for Rachel Wallace
Parravani, Christa Her
Pratchett, Terry Raising Steam
Riordan, Rick The Lightning Thief
Robothan, Michael Watching You
Roquelaure, A. N. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Rosen, R. D. Throw the Damn Ball
Rothfuss, Patrick The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark of Deep Below
Schulner, David First Generation
Scott, Traer Nocturne
Sedaris, David When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Shea, Ammon Bad English
Smith, Andrew Grasshopper Jungle
Smith, Betty A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Solnit, Rebecca Men Explain Things To Me
Stechschulte, Conor The Amateurs
Sternbergh, Adam Shovel Ready
Su, Kat Crap Taxidermy
Talty, Stephan The Illustrious Dead
Tobin, Paul I Was the Cat
Tregillis, Ian Something More Than Night
Turgenev, Ivan First Love
Vandermeer, Jeff Annihilation
Vanhee, Jason Engines of the Broken World
Villalobos, Juan Pablo Quesadillas
Vonnegut, Kurt If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?
Waters, M. D. Archetype
Weir, Andy The Martian
Wood, Jonathan No Hero