Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Reading List

Guess what?  It's time.  Yes, yes, time for another in-depth look at my personal reading list for the previous year.  What more could you want out of life?  Just try to hold on to your seats as we set off on this epic voyage of literature and self-growth. 

I read 28.5 books this year (more on the half-book below), down from 31 books last year.  One thing of note is that I only finished one book - a non-fiction piece - after November 7.  That was because I began a very, very long novel after that, which took me until the 4th day of January to finish, so that's part of the reason why my numbers were a bit down this year.  The book I just finished on January 4 was three or four novels in length alone.  

Anyway...

As usual, at the end of the list, I will choose a Serene Musings Book of the Year, which will then be added to the gallery at the bottom of the main page.  This is a highly coveted award, and this year's competition has been fierce.

So let's get to it.  Italicized titles are non-fiction books.  Books with an asterisk (*) are nominees for Book of the Year.   

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Summer of Night* – Dan Simmons

Like most of Dan Simmons' books, this one was probably longer than it needed to be and displayed his unbelievable ability to write twice as many words as is strictly necessary to get his point across. But despite his inevitable long-windedness, I enjoyed this book about a group of boys facing an ancient evil inside their small Illinois town in the 1960s.  It was nostalgic with an underlying sense of dread that is frequently the hallmark of writers like Stephen King.   

The River of Souls – Robert McCammon

This was the fifth book in the Matthew Corbett series of historical mysteries set in colonial America at the turn of the 18th century.  It wasn't quite up to par with the previous books in the series, but it was still enjoyable.  I recommend the series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but would definitely start at the beginning.    The first book in the series - Speaks the Nightbird - won the Serene Musings Book of the Year Award in 2012.

The Fire Seekers – Richard Farr

This was a genre-blending novel that I got for free as a Kindle owner and Amazon Prime member.  It had a great premise that mixes archaeological adventure/intrigue with a bit of science fiction, but the author didn't really pull it off all that well.  It plodded along.  

Miramont’s Ghost – Elizabeth Hall

Another free book from Amazon.  A Victorian ghost story.  It was just okay.  

Guardians of the Night – Alan Russell

Free book from Amazon.  Gritty detective story set in L.A.  Better than the previous two but a bit weird as well (it involved the death of what appeared to be an angel...yeah). 

Blue Labyrinth – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Another quality book in the long-running Agent Pendergast series.  

Desert God – Wilbur Smith

My favorite author is over 80 now, and he's started pulling a trick I absolutely despise - allowing no-name authors to write books for him, which he then approves and puts his name on.  I absolutely refuse to read any of those books, but Wilbur wrote this one himself, and while his ability has definitely waned in his old age, this one was better than the last two or three.  It's a return to his Ancient Egyptian series, starring the eunuch and sage Taita.  

A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters

This is the first book in a series of historical mysteries set in 12th century England and starring a monk who likes to solve mysteries on the side.  They were written starting in the 1970s and going up through, I think, the 1990s.  The writing style is very, very British, but if you like that sort of writing, these make for good cozy mysteries with an authentic medieval setting.      

The Third Gate – Lincoln Child

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Few hugely popular books actually live up to the hype (Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code are a few exceptions), and this one was no different.  Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the book.  I just am not quite sure why it broke out to take the fiction world by storm last year.  

The One That Got Away – Simon Wood

Another freebie from Amazon.  A thriller about a woman who is being stalked by someone who already almost killed her once.  It was decent.  

Savor – Thich Nhat Hanh & Lilian Cheung

As you may have noticed, I didn't read much non-fiction this year.  This was one co-written by one of my spiritual heroes, Thich Nhat Hanh, about mindful eating.  

The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in a long series set during the Viking Age in England - the late 800s - and centering on the reign of Alfred the Great.  It's narrated by one of Alfred's fictional warriors, Uhtred, who, despite being English, grew up with Vikings before returning to his ethnic roots and fighting for Alfred.  I first read this book when it was first published around 2005, but decided to re-read the entire series this summer in order to re-familiarize myself with the stories in preparation for reading the newest novels in the series.  

This is one of the problems with long-standing series books that have an ongoing plot arc. They go on for so many years that you forget what happened in previous books.  

The series has recently been made into a television series running, I think, on BBC America.  

The Pale Horseman – Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North – Bernard Cornwell

Sword Song – Bernard Cornwell

The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

The Pagan Lord – Bernard Cornwell

The Empty Throne – Bernard Cornwell

One thing I discovered after reading all these books, back-to-back, is that Cornwell is really just writing the same book over and over.  It's actually kind of annoying.  I wish he'd go ahead and close it out, instead of stretching it on endlessly in an effort to make more money.  This is actually one of the realities of modern publishing (why write a standalone novel when you can write a 10-book series?) that I despise.  Everything these days has to be a series.  I miss the standalone novel, or, at best, the classic trilogy.  

There are still two books left in this series that I haven't read yet; all the preceding were books I've already read in years past.  And as far as I know, the series is still ongoing.  But rather than go straight to the new books after I finished this re-read, I decided to read something else because I was, basically, burned out on Vikings and 9th century warfare.  

The Devil in the White City* – Erik Larson

This is the highly-touted account by popular historian Erik Larson of America's first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, who operated during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.  It was brilliant.  I loved it.  The author goes back and forth between describing the fair and its creation, and describing the serial killer who was plotting his dark deeds in the shadow of the fairgrounds.  It's supposed to be made into a movie soon starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  

The Dead Key – D.M. Pulley

Yet another Amazon freebie.  This was probably the best book of all the freebies I read this year, although it did bog down a bit towards the end.  It's about a structural engineer, surveying an abandoned bank, who discoveries a 30-year-old mystery while snooping around in the old underground vault.  Great premise, and mostly great delivery.

The House of Silk* – Anthony Horowitz

One of the few Sherlock Holmes stories to be officially sanctioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. If you like Holmes stories, this is an absolute must-read.  I've read most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and the narrative voice is dead. on.  It could easily have been a real Conan Doyle composition.  The plot devices and narrative flow are all very authentic too.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  

Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz    

A follow-up to the House of Silk, this makes a twist on things by actually involving Watson, but not Holmes.  It supposedly takes place during the period of time (in the late 1890s) when Holmes was presumably dead and living incognito in Europe.  It wasn't as good as The House of Silk, but it wasn't bad.  

The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

A very weird horror novel from the early 20th century that's a bit like taking an acid trip.  If you like creepy old literature, read it.  Otherwise, don't.  

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon (only half the book)

Someone first suggested the Outlander series to me several years ago, and after investigating it, I thought it sounded excellent, and went ahead and bought the first two books in the series (they were both on sale for, I think $1.99 when I got them, which is the only thing that makes me feel a little bit better about how things ultimately turned out). 

In a word, I hated it.  I have literally not quit a novel in the middle since I was in college and quit Stephen King's Needful Things because it was making me anxious and depressed.  But I just couldn't keep on with this book. (Some of my more savvy readers might recall a "half book" that I had a few years ago, but that was a non-fiction book.) 

It has a mix of genres that include romance and historical fiction and science fiction, and it's basically about a British nurse in the 1940s who travels back in time to the 1700s in Scotland and gets caught up with a group of Highlanders who are Jacobites - supporters of the Scottish claimant to the British throne.  The premise was wonderful; the reality of the story was awful.  It's horribly violent, the dialogue is written in annoying 18th century Scottish dialect, there's way too much sex, the pacing is terrible, and the love story is absurd.

I just. couldn't. even. 

So I quit.  

Unprotected Texts – Jennifer Wright Knust

This was an enlightening book about sex in the Bible and how misconceptions inform our common views about sex and religion.  The subtitle was "The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire."  Written by a Boston University biblical scholar.

The Einstein Prophecy – Robert Masello

Not to sound repetitive, but this was another freebie.  It was decent.  A thriller set at Princeton University in the 1940s and including Einstein as a side character.  

Why You Drink: And How To Stop – Veronica Valli

I started feeling towards the end of last year like I was drinking too often, so I decided to read a book to give me some advice.  This was written by a British therapist and while much of it didn't apply to me directly (I'm not an alcoholic), there were a lot of good tidbits that helped give me a different perspective on drinking and what drives people to drink.  I've been doing significantly better since reading it.  

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So, you might have noticed that there weren't that many nominees for Book of the Year this year. Honestly, it was kind of an off-year for me.  I spent too much time re-reading old books and reading free books from Amazon that I would never have bought on my own.  

The nominees were: 

Summer of Night
The Devil in the White City 
The House of Silk 

And the winner is...




























With such little competition, this was really a no-brainer this year.  Devil in the White City was the only book I read this year that I really loved.  This marks the first year since 2010 that a non-fiction book has won this coveted award, and it's the first time ever that a non-fiction book dealing with something other than religion has won the award.  So a big congratulations to Erik Larson.  I just KNOW he appreciates this accolade.  

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015