ABC’s Favorite Reads 2013, part 6: Pleun, Jouke, Tiemen

It’s my favorite part of the blogging year: our favorite reads! The ABC staff has looked through all the books and magazines they’ve read over the past year, or games they played, or stationery they used, and picked out their top 5 (or 4, or 8). Every single item in these posts comes highly recommended, and we hope to add some ideas to your 2014 reading list.

Of course, we always love reading tips ourselves, too, and so we hope you will send in YOUR favorite reads of 2013 to us. They don’t have to be books published in 2013, just read in 2013. Please mail your Top 5 (and why these books were so good) to social@abc.nl by December 31st, and don’t forget to include your home address so we can send you an ABC gift certificate in the new year as a thank you. As has become a tradition, your Top 5s will be published in January.

This sixth Favorite Reads post comes courtesy of

Enjoy!

Pleun

This year was the year I discovered Stephen King.  I know he’s been around for a while but somehow I never picked up a book by him until this year. What an amazing author! So don’t be surprised that my list is almost entirely dedicated to him.

11/22/63 – Stephen King
Jake Epping goes back to the 50’s to change history by stopping the assassination of JFK.
Masterfully-crafted story where you find yourself in the ’50s and ’60s.
I actually started reading more slowly because I didn’t want to leave the characters.

The Shining (ebook here) & Doctor Sleep (ebook here) – Stephen King
My first King was The Shining. I always loved the movie, but this is a totally different ball game.
The depth of the characters are amazing. Doctor Sleep, the follow-up to The Shining, is different but Danny is so wonderful as a grownup, trying to fight with his demons  and in the end come out on top. Wow!

The Dead Zone – Stephen King (ebook here)
What if you been in a coma only to come out and find yourself in a totally different world, with new powers that scare most people around you?

Stoner – John Williams (ebook here)
So serene and beautiful, so sad and wonderful. This book has it all. A classic!

Margot – Jillian Cantor
What if Margot, Anne Frank’s sister, was alive. Where would she be now? And how would she deal with standing in her sister’s shadow and the horrific events that happened? Heart-warming book!

Jouke

Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage #1) – Brian McClellan (ebook here)
This filled a Mistborn-shaped hole in my heart.
Enter an epic fantasy world that echoes with the thunder of muskets and the clang of steel. Layers upon layers of story and betrayal. Interesting levels of magic, with class-names like Marked, Privileged, Knacked, and things we haven’t been given names for yet. Featuring gods, demi-gods and people with god-like powers. You can’t go wrong with snipers, particularly of the gunpowdersnorting kind.
I’m very happy the second installment in this flintlock fantasy series will be released this February: The Crimson Campaign.
Blogmistress’s note: a (regular) paperback edition is expected in January.

Old Man’s War (Old Man’s War #1) – John Scalzi (ebook here)
This has been the year of military fiction for me, from thrillers to sci-fi to fantasy, and this one rules them all.
The idea of humans fighting wars in outer space with advanced technology is nothing new, but John Scalzi did an outstanding job of taking fresh approaches to this concept. The idea of an army made up of senior citizens is unique in itself, and the weapons and tech he came up with are also quite clever. It’s filled with rip-roaring battle scenes and the alien opponents are also several notches above what you usually get in these space war-type books. But the real hook here is the outstanding job Scalzi did with the characters and the sense of humor that he weaves into the story.
For fans of Ender’s Game (ebook here) and Ready Player One (ebook here).

The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller #5) – Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly is pretty much auto-buy for me and once I start his new book, I have a hard time putting it down. John Grisham has nothing on this guy.
Reading about Mickey Haller & Associates again was like meeting old friends. And it’s not easy to be objective about your friends. Great suspense-building with an emphasis on procedural aspects. Dénouements with twists.

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire #5) – George R.R. Martin
During the summer holidays I finally took time to dive into this, being totally hooked on the Game of Thrones TV-series, and having devoured the previous four parts back to back in 2005-2006.
One of only two books I gave 5-out-of-5 stars this year.

Magic: The Gathering
If I had to give up playing all games forever with the exception of one, that ‘one’ would be Magic: the Gathering. Without a shadow of a doubt. A collectible card game consisting of close to 14.000 different cards (and growing) allows for sheer unlimited deck customization. And I am blessed to have a playgroup of nerds that shares my enthusiasm.
P.S. ABC The Hague is hoping to be a sanctioned organizer of Magic: The Gathering prerelease tournaments, starting this February with the upcoming set Born of the Gods.

Tiemen

Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
My colleague Reinoud recommended this one to me. The story of Father Latour, who in 1851 is appointed as the first Apostolic Vicar of New Mexico, a vast and wild area. American territory but infused with Mexican and Indian customs and beliefs.
Even though it is a historical novel it has a strong Fantasy-like feeling. Cather’s descriptions of New Mexico feels mythic, there is a strange sense of wonder in the way she describes the red hills and arroyos. There is not an overarching plot except for the almost forty years in which Father Latour tries to spread the Christian faith.
Strange but at the same time reassuring stories about human nature and the majesty of the New Mexico wild.
Cather’s description of Father Latour at times feels like a hagiography; of course, as a priest, he has no feelings of love except for Jesus Christ his savior, but the wonderful prose describing the lands of New Mexico and its people are more than worth the read.

Constellation Games – Leonard Richardson
Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson is pure genius. This is not your run-of-the-mill space opera, no, this is a proper space opera soap opera. Richardson has written something quite strange and original and yet you could argue that at the same time he has continued the tradition of the epistolary novel.
Ariel Blum is a manchild/programmer/amateur game-reviewer blogger. Through his witty blog posts we read how Earth is contacted by a ‘federation’ of anarchist aliens. On the assumption that any advanced civilization will have computer games he emails them (the aliens have already connected to the internet) with the question if he can review their games.
What follows is a rather interesting mix of alien game reviews, humanity coping with First Contact and Ariel deciding what it means to grow up. This is a novel that makes you think about our perspective on the world and how many assumptions that we take for granted are hidden everywhere, even in things as ‘innocuous’ as games. Plus it is a very funny story of the kind Douglas Coupland would love to be able to write if he would try SF.

Stoner – John Edward Williams (ebook here)
Usually I try to steer away from hypes, but there was no escaping Stoner in the Netherlands in 2013. But, eh, in the end I’m actually kind of glad that for once I gave in. Stoner is a gem of a novel. At the beginning Williams makes clear that William Stoner is an ordinary fellow, who has lived an ordinary live as an English teacher at university and is soon forgotten after he dies. And yet, Williams describes the life of Stoner with such an intense passion that you cannot resist turning the pages until you have raced to the end of Stoner’s life.
It is rare that an author can compel such strong emotions and complex characters in just a few sentences and Williams does it time and time again.
The descriptions of Stoner’s hysterical wife felt a bit like a caricature, but the rest of the novel conveys a warm feeling of what it means to live the academic life and the joys of teaching.

River of Stars – Guy Gavriel Kay
A masterpiece. Guy Gavriel Kay proves that it is possible to write a fantasy epic that has a truly larger-than-life scope and still contain it within one volume… (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin.)
Actually calling Kay a fantasy writer might be a misnomer. Thomas M. Wagner calls Kay a cryptohistorian because Kay deftly creates fantasy realms closely based on actual historical periods. It gives his novels a kind of historical depth that one doesn’t often see in fantasy novels. River of Stars is no exception. Based on the period of the Song dynasty, it is the story of how small decisions can have great consequences, but at the same time how everything and everyone is impermanent and in the end bound to be forgotten.
There is a kind of poetic beauty to Kay’s prose and it proves just once again that a literary style and thrilling plot do not have to exclude each other.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (ebook here)
Wow, just freakin’ wow. Breq, the protagonist of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, is probably the most interesting character I have come across in a while now. Neither male nor female, and not exactly human, Breq is an artificial mind trapped in a human body that used to be a large starship. Yes, you read that correctly.
Ancillary Justice is a bit of a cerebral story, following the literary tradition of the great Ursula Le Guin.  It is at the same time a political intrigue á la Dune (ebook here) and an almost sociological essay about power, gender and obedience. Leckie is one of those writers whose writing will stretch your mind, making it view the world in quite a different way.
There is a persistent and ridiculous notion that women can’t write great space opera. Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is yet another piece of evidence that proves the folly of such an idea.
Science-fiction thrives on new ideas and different perspectives and I hope Ancillary Justice will be the first of many novels written by Ann Leckie.

Honorable mentions

I’m cheating because way too many books came out this year to limit it to a list of only five.

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (ebook here) is the geeky bildungroman slash James Bond with alien conspiracies novel. If you want a humorous feelgood book with a lot of action and also a few heartfelt emotional scenes you want to read The Lives of Tao.

The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua (ebook here) is a pure mindfuck. Dark humor, think Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets The Office. It is a story about the power of simulations and the power structures of… ehm… power.

Sunshine Patriots by Bill Campbell. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill earlier this year and I am so glad he gave me a copy of his Sunshine Patriots. I like military science-fiction but the last few years I’m having more and problems with the whole gung-ho aspect of it. Sunshine Patriots is the anti-Heinlein. Scathing, acerbic and just plain (very darkly) funny it is the story of a group of jarheads just trying to survive. Campbell makes a few poignant critiques about capitalism and commercialism but – even more – he writes science-fiction that deals honestly with questions about race and racism. Too often scifi just assumes race will be a thing of the past in the future. Campbell puts the lie to that notion and he does it in a no-punches-held-back way.

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 by Eric J. Hobsbawm (ebook here). The classic of the eminent British historian Hobsbawm. Delightful and insightful analyses of the period between the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848.

The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell (ebook here). A rather heartbreaking tragedy. It is not often that religion and science-fiction go hand in hand.

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (ebook here). A suspenseful political scifinovel. Entertaining but at the same time Saulter gives us a heartfelt message of the dangers of boxing people into existing preconceptions. A tale about the future that has much to say about our present.

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (ebook here). Gilmore Girls meets Ursula le Guin. Deceptively easy to read, but a pleasure to delve into its deeper meanings.
Blogmistress’s note: a paperback edition is expected in February.