Best Reads of 2014

I’m still getting used to WordPress’s format for posting and writing, because I used Blogger for so many years. The goal is to have this be my main blog (I haven’t posted at On A Grahampage since my 30th birthday), but honestly blogging hasn’t been a priority for the last several months. Got too much else going on and all of it is more relevant than this.

Still, I like doing these posts. Good books should be shared, so here are the best of the books I read in 2014. (2013’s list is here.)

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ALL YOU NEED IS KILL (Hiroshi Sakurazaka). Audio version. The Tom Cruise flick Edge of Tomorrow is based on this Japanese light novel. I’ve read some Japanese novels that suffered during their translation to English (looking at you, BATTLE ROYALE) but this wasn’t one of them. The writing was extremely well done, the flow was as smooth as Gatorade on a hot day, the characterization was intriguing and the backstory on the aliens was of great benefit to the reader. Basically the movie got all the bits that looked sensational on screen (not a complaint, that’s what movies are for) plus Bill Paxton as a Kentucky Master Sergeant–executed to perfection. The book, however, explained a lot of things that were left as wide-open gaps in the movie, and had a very different ending.

Content warning: let’s call it “realistic military profanity.” Nothing held back. The fight scenes were also graphic.

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TRUE GRIT (Charles Portis.) Audio version. I might never have read this if not for the film adaptation (2010, Jeff Bridges. Still haven’t seen the John Wayne version.) This transcends the ranks of a genre western and reaches the prosaic level of literature that just happens to be a western. I don’t mean that as a pejorative toward genre fiction (I mean come on), this one is just clearly a cut above its peers, based on tone and the strength of the narrator’s voice. Clever, witty, engrossing, and compelling. With the exception of one single scene in the movie, this book was almost an exact script for the film, right down to the dialogue.

Content warning: Some profanity, nothing worse than an aggressive PG or a mild PG-13. Western-style violence. (Shooting and such.)

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THE SHADOW THRONE (Jennifer Nielsen.) Read in print. I’ve gushed about the Ascendance trilogy before. This is the final book in the series. Nielsen held nothing back. It’s rare that a first book (THE FALSE PRINCE) that is that awesome can deliver follow-up volumes of equal or greater caliber. If this trilogy doesn’t get made into a series of movies, it’ll be a travesty. Plot twists, brilliant characters, unbelievable sleight of hand…all set in a fantasy world without magic or nonhuman races. Just ingenious.

BONE (Jeff Smith.) Read in print. I can’t narrow this down to just one volume, because it’s a huge epic that spans ten books if you’re reading the color versions. (There’s a black and white omnibus out there, but I wanted the real deal.) Best way to describe it? Like a Disney movie that you read, with all the color and heart and humor and gravity and cute critters and funny one-liners and…it just keeps going. All ages, all tastes, I recommend this series.

The Unwind dystology–specifically UNSTRUNG, UNSOULED and UNDIVIDED (Neal Shusterman). All read in print. I read the first two books (UNWIND, UNWHOLLY) over the last two years. UNSTRUNG is a digital short that follows one of the characters who fell off-screen in UNWIND, and makes it so that the events of UNWHOLLY and UNSOULED make just a touch more sense. UNDIVIDED really brings it home. Horror, sci-fi, and present-day politics wrapped in a future civil war make this series a timely cautionary tale about numerous things. I can’t overstress Shusterman’s talent for dressing up a controversial social issue (abortion) in the garb of a sci-fi novel while keeping his own opinions somewhat clandestine on the matter. He shows all sides while keeping you riveted, desperate to know how it ends.

As to the level of awesome it reaches, well, let me say it this way: if there are only three series allowed into The Club, and those three series are Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Unwind, then you can’t put together a better mix than that.

Content warning: Some mildly PG-13 level profanity, a handful of sexual references (mostly in a technical sense), and psychological horror.

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THE MARTIAN (Andy Weir) Read in print. I blogged about this one a few months ago. Genius, genius, genius. Excited for the movie, even with Matt Damon in it.

Content warning: ongoing profanity, numerous F-bombs, some sexual references.

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SKULLKICKERS: FIVE FUNERALS AND A BUCKET OF BLOOD. (Jim Zub, Chris Sims, Brian Clevinger). Read in print. A frigging hilarious graphic novel series about two mercenaries who keep getting into all kinds of stupid trouble. The way they set up jokes and knock them down all throughout the story is worth studying. The creators of this series have taken humor, smacked it around, put it in the kitchen and forced it to make sandwiches for them. And humor makes a mean sandwich, I tell you what. So dang funny.

Content warning: the depicted violence gets graphic/gory/bloody.

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RELIC (Renee Collins) Read in print. Another highly recommended western, with magic, romance, wit, charm, and a compelling magic system that promises even more discovery down the road. I eagerly await the sequel.

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HARD LUCK HANK: SCREW THE GALAXY. (Steven Campbell.) Audio version. Great fun–it’s a sci-fi in the tradition of Star Wars. A big tough indestructible mutant guy on a space station has to fight local mobs, overpowered henchmen, the police force, and the incoming navy…along with an alien invasion. Hilarity and great cleverness ensue. Looking forward to reading BASKETFUL OF CRAP, the sequel.

 

 

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THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND (Dan Wells). Read in print. Wells hasn’t missed a step, I’ll tell you that much. Still plenty of gas left in the tank on his signature series. He not only has plenty of ideas left; he’s not afraid to bring those ideas to a conclusion. At the start of the book, I thought to myself Okay, I see what the next three books will be. By the end, hoo boy…I have no idea what happens next, and yet I have full confidence it will be intelligent and engrossing.

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CODE NAME VERITY. (Elizabeth Wein.) Audio version. I could think of a few complaints to register here, but they’re trivial. This is an extremely well-done story, and I think it will satisfy a breadth of readers. Wein, who is herself a pilot, writes about female pilots in WW2, and she manages to include nice details that paint a clear picture of the war and the world at the time, without bogging the reader in a bunch of boring explanations. I also thought it was neat that the two main characters (female) were portrayed like they were normal people, and not just a bunch of airheaded/catty/slutty placeholders like so many female characters in stories. It’s a spy novel first, and a woman’s story second, without carrying anything in the way of a preachy feminist message. I thought it was cool to see that side of the war for once.

Content warning: a pair of F-bombs, some other language. Some war violence and prisoner torture scenes.

 

Russell Crowe’s Best Film Involves Him Punching Nobody

Recently the Empire Podcast–which is like Top Gear for movies–had a discussion on movies that feature no weapons or fighting, an interesting topic amidst a glut of action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/six-pack ab flicks.

The hosts listed a bunch, some of which had qualifiers on them, most of which I hadn’t seen. But the first movie that came to my mind was “A Good Year”, a 2006 adaptation of a Peter Mayle novel.

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, portrayed an on-screen romance between Jor-El and Talia al-Ghul. (Srsly, it’s Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard.) For as much as Russell Crowe is lauded in films where he beats the crap out of people, I think this is his best one, and he never throws a single punch.

The premise is simple: a British stock trader fat cat guy finds out he inherited his eccentric uncle’s wine chateau in Provence, France. Going there stirs up a ton of old memories, and he begins to question what he really values in life. This flick hits a ton of emotional chords, and has a lot of solid performances in it. Kind of underrated if you ask me, as it’s in my top five of all time.

iTunes Radio Still Gets One Station Right

Couldn’t ever hope to tell you why, but when iTunes updated to its present incarnation, it really screwed up its radio apparatus. I liked the old format, where you could search for a topic, then key into radio stations all over the world and listen to all kinds of cool stuff (including local sports games.)

Nowadays when I even try to listen to something as innocuous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I get eight renditions–in a row–of the same Christmas song, in July.

It’s not like MoTab doesn’t have a broad corpus of ouevre from which to draw.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that their soundtrack stations like Two Steps From Hell and Epic Score still get it right. This gem was first on the playlist a few days ago and I thought it was worth sharing.

Writing Corner: September 20th, 2014

Hey gang. If you’re following along on Facebook, I’ve been illustrating SUICIDE RUN. What I learned from REBEL HEART is that it’s better to start with the small pieces, move to the character-one shots, and then do the sweeping sketches that will fill entire pages. At present I have 38 drawings left to do–10 character one-shots, 8 illos without background, and 20 full-scale drawings.

Of course I’m still writing. I’ve hammered out the rough edges of an outline for a new sooper sekrit project, with a working title of RIDE THE NIGHTMARE. And of course, no sooner do I accomplish this, then does another book idea hit me, and I decide to run with it…one day I’ll learn self-control. At least NaNo is right around the corner and I can use it as an excuse to drive myself insane and blow a fuse in the production department. If my brains start leaking out of my nose, just plug them back in and set me at the desk. I’ll figure it out.

Allergic to Studying

A Cautionary Tale…

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This is the second of Trent Reedy’s novels that I’ve read, after STEALING AIR–a middle-grade story about three young boys that build a highly experimental aircraft out of stolen materials, sort of like the Red Bull Flugtag event.

DIVIDED WE FALL is a very different kind of book.

I’ll save you the detailed rundown, because you can get a sense of what it’s about via Amazon or Goodreads or wherever. The basic premise is that a 17 year-old member of the Idaho National Guard accidentally fires a shot during a riot, and the ensuing conflict sparks the next American Civil War.

Obviously there’s more to it than that. Read the book.

It has its pros and cons, and its sense of realism is very much in the former camp. Among its strengths are its timeliness, and how the characters (especially the media pundits and the partisan politicians) will go nuclear on their opposition at the drop of a hat. At the core of the problem is ideological contention, and Reedy does an excellent job of painting a picture where the only possible outcome is an armed conflict.

Watching the news and seeing how events are unfolding on the world stage, as well as here at home, it was hard not to read this book and think that things could definitely go down this way in my lifetime–one governor of one state decides to nullify a federal law, and the next thing you know, it’s 1 versus 49, with more fractures to come.

I really can’t say more than that without repeating many of the subtle arguments that Reedy presents within the pages of his own book, and for that reason it’s worth the read.

The only real problems that I had came in the form of dialogue; there was a “realistic” level of teen profanity (I generally read YA to avoid coarse language), and a lot of times the speech between characters felt…off. Unrealistic. Could just be me. The drama was very real, though, especially as it pertained to the military and political aspect of the conflict.

(Oh, and screw the media. Reedy nailed that portrayal.)

Trent has a Tumblr that you could follow if you were so inclined.

Michael Bay has made his final dollar off of me.

I posted this to Facebook a while back, and I’m posting it here so that the rest of the world knows.

I recently realized something about Transformers 4, a movie that sucked horribly bad. This is a long post, but it’s worth the read.

Transformers 1 had plot holes and annoying characters with first-grade potty humor and awesome action scenes. I was willing to overlook all of the former because the latter was the main attraction. I saw it four times in the theater, plus a fifth in IMAX.

Transformers 2 had even more awful plot holes, riddling inconsistencies, terrible acting from terrible characters, and reams of high-octane action that dwarfed the first film. Saw it three times, plus IMAX.

Transformers 3 had fewer plot holes, a head-scratcher on the moon, a cameo by Buzz Aldrin, plenty of bad acting, and action scenes that put the previous two films to shame. Saw it twice in 3D, including IMAX.

What did Transformers 4 have? Plot canyons. Bad acting. Bad premise. Overlapping stories that tugged it all apart. Confusing motives. Confusing characters. Confusing backstory. Zero payoff to any of it’s actual good ideas. Some decent action, most of which was wasted on an effort to make the audience wonder what they’d just done with ten dollars.

But none of that was the worst part: the worst part was that Transformers 4 was BORING. You heard that right. Halfway through the film, I was BORED. And that had never happened to me with Optimus Prime on a gigantic cinema screen. Nay, it should never happen to me while I’m waiting for Optimus Prime to come riding into battle cavalry-style upon the back of a robot dinosaur.

Yet that is what Michael Bay delivered to me, for $11.50 on a Friday night. I’ll give him this much: it was the most artistic way that any human being has ever flipped me off with both hands and a smile.

The most unsettling thing about all of this is that I will tolerate Michael Bay annoying me; I will put up with him mistreating my intelligence, offending my sensibilities, wasting the potential of a childhood favorite, and laughing at me all the way to the bank…yes, all of these things, I will gladly endure…

…but I won’t put up with him boring me. Somehow, after all that, I waited for boredom to be the final straw.

So why did I hate Transformers 4 so much?

On top of everything else, it made me realize that *I* was the problem.

And that’s why I won’t be watching a 5th.

If this story were to happen in real life, we’d probably ruin the moment out of sheer stupidity.

A few months ago, Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary) recommended a book on the “Writing Excuses” podcast. The book was THE MARTIAN, by Andy Weir. He sang its praises and described the basic premise–I was instantly intrigued, so I downloaded a copy of the audio and listened to it over the course of a week.

 

It’s probably the best book I’ll read in 2014.

The setup? In the near future, a NASA mission on the surface of Mars is hit by a violent storm. The crew have to evacuate right away. As they run to their escape module, one of them gets hit by debris and is assumed dead. The others have to leave. The castaway, Mark Watney, survives his injuries and the storm.

Now, he has to survive Mars.

The best part about it? It’s a hard sci-fi. Weir did his homework, and it shows. Even the parts that come off as science lectures in the narrative are intriguing. The main character, Watneym, has an analytical mind and a sense of humor that are both vital to his continued existence, especially if he plans to A) communicate with Earth and B) live long enough for them to figure out how to save him. (And believe me, he really sells the “will they, won’t they?” aspect all throughout the book. It doesn’t end the way you think it does.)

I’ll say nothing else, because the book is worth the read, and the discovery aspect of it is highly rewarding. (Although be warned, there’s a “realistic” amount of Adult Language in it, if that bothers you.) My main point in discussing this book is based on something that kept occurring to me as I read it:

Imagine something like this happening today, in our world–a world full of conspiracy theorists, false-flag fearmongers and tinfoil hat-wearing know-it-alls with multiple Twitter accounts and too much time on their hands.

Imagine something like this happening in a world where the government cuts funding to space exploration and grounds the shuttle program so that they can spend more money on [pick anything, really–the TSA, the IRS, the NSA, whatever].

Imagine something like this happening in a world where the warring parties in our government absolutely refuse to work together to accomplish something that might help the other–and many of them do so at the behest of their rabid voter base.

Now imagine you turn on the news one evening and hear these words: “The Ares 3 mission control has just received confirmation that Mark Watney is alive on the surface of Mars. NASA and the White House have pledged all available resources to his safe return, no matter how long it takes, and no matter the cost.”

In the fictitious world of THE MARTIAN, this pulls everyone together. At the risk of avoiding specifics and spoilers, I’ll just have to prod you to use your imagination. The effort to save one man on a planet 140 million miles away will cost billions of dollars in emergency legislation. There would be news coverage of it ’round the clock for over a year. Nobody would rest easy until they knew there was a way to get their boy back.

Maybe back in the 1960s, in the early days of the space race and the prospect of putting a man on the moon, this would have ignited a scientific renaissance among the youth of America. I fear that in our day, it would just unleash a hellish typhoon of snark on Reddit–a “Snarknado”, if you will–with everyone shouting solutions instead of asking questions about the problem. Nobody would seek to understand; they would demand to be understood, at any cost.

The conspiracy theorists would have their day as well; they’d claim that this was the plan all along, to force Congress’ hand to give more money to NASA, which in turn would give it to private corporations. The stranded astronaut would just become a straw man for a bunch of bull crap arguments on the Internet.

I fear that a plurality of our society would be more focused on having their say–and having it be “right”–than they would be focused on Watney’s actual plight, how he was surviving, what he was learning, and what were his chances of rescue.

In the 1960s, Neil Armstrong’s Moonwalk made a million American youths want to study math and science.

Today, Mark Watney’s Martian Marooning would likely start a flamewar on the Internet, get sliced-and-diced by politicians during an election year, and the actual scientific results of his sojourn would go largely unread by the masses.

Don’t get me wrong–the book isn’t like that. Weir doesn’t waste your precious time and attention with garbage. This is a can-do extravaganza of awesome on all fronts. I just lamented knowing that present-day America has, at large, abandoned the values that would have turned a moment like this into a saga of heroism and national pride.

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical. I hope so, I really do.

But whether I am or not, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s tense, it’s educational and informative, and it’s too real to ignore. Weir deserves all of the praise and success he’s garnered for it since it came out a few years ago (AND HE SELF-PUBLISHED THE ORIGINAL VERSION! AYFKM?!)

Okay, rant over. Go read THE MARTIAN. You’re welcome.

Need a Title? Just Run it Out.

One of the things that has helped/hindered the success of my book, REBEL HEART, is that there are a lot of other books out right now with that title. (I actually pilfered it from an instrumental by The Corrs, and it still screwed me.) I mean it helps because people who are searching for the other, more well-known versions might discover mine, but what if it hinders me  because they’re ticked that my book isn’t the one they thought it was?

This vexes me. I am terribly vexed. Maybe I should only use one popular word in a title and make the rest unique. Yeah! That’s it. Okay, let’s see…”Runner” sounds cool. Plenty of action in that word. All right, we’re on track. Just gotta make sure it’s not taken.

The Runner

Crap. Okay. I’ll just check the rest.

Blade Runner

That looks weird. Where’s Han Solo?

The Kite Runner

Stupid–kites don’t run.

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)

Okay, sure. Cool. I’ll keep looking.

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Grrr, that would have been a great title! Maybe I’ll riff it. Switch the words or something.

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Seriously?

Night Runner (Night Runner, #1)

Well…I can tweak that a little bit…

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OH, REAL MATURE.

Runner Runner (2013) Poster

Runner Runner

Runner. RUNNER.

I officially give up.

Maybe there are some, like, vampire ideas that haven’t been taken yet.