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As December’s days tick by, I think it’s time to do my best-of post and bid 2014 adieu. Kindred was the only book I read in December that made my tops list, though the others were contenders—I’d like to think I read all my best books in November or earlier to get it out of the way. Heck, my original plan was to just post some filler reviews of pulps and graphic novels and call the year done after Halloween. I think I made the better choice by keeping calm and reading.

I read more books this year than I planned! I read an entire book in January 2014, and another one book in February 2014, and had to drive myself to get back into the reading habit by picking up some ARC’s and doing a couple of challenges and guest posts and whatnot. It’s a pitifully minor accomplishment, but I beat my book-or-more-a-week goal again and read a grand total of 58 books in 2014, despite best attempts by work and life to interfere.

2014 was a pretty good year, for reading at least. I read a number of excellent books and didn’t have that many stinkers. (Really, it was just my disappointment with The Midwich Cuckoos and The Iron Heel that comes to mind.) There’s a number of things I’d change if I had a do-over—reading more books would be number one—but overall, the “best books” this year topped some of the “best books” I read in previous years. Some real standouts in there, or at least some new favorites. Best of all, my blog views total passed the 100k mark on December 21st, so I guess I’m finally a real blogger now. My total is 208 books reviewed, plus or minus a few dozen novellas and magazines. Not too shabby, if I don’t say so myself.

A big thanks to all the publishers who provided promotional ARC’s and e-ARC’s for review: in chronological order, Chalk Line Books, Open Road Media, Dover Publications, Princeton University Press, and (last but certainly not least) Pegasus Crime. Thanks to Project Gutenberg for its ongoing mission to digitize works in the public domain. Thanks to all those publishers who deeply discounted or gave away their Kindle editions, which I realize is making up more and more of my reading list. And thanks to all the second-hand book shops—John King Books/John King North and Dawn Treader in particular—and public library bag sales, for those of us who still love to feel a dead tree edition in our hands.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Click here to see the complete report.

Top 5 Mystery/Thriller Books I Read in 2014

My number one was never in doubt; nor did I have to wonder what my top two and three would be. Really, it was the four and five spots that were in contention, and a number of worthy candidates didn’t make it out of that scuffle—Whit Masterson’s Dead She Was Beautiful and Hugh Rae’s Shooting Gallery being close contenders.

  1. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze (1953). The hardest of the hardboiled, and without a doubt the best Gold Medal novel I’ve read. The tale is an old one—a perversion of the American Dream, writ in blood and hate and greed and death—but its execution is flawless, with an uncanny, Jim Thompson-like depth to its fractured and sadistic characters.
  2. A Night For Screaming by Harry Whittington (1960). Not just a pretty cover, this is masterwork of thrilling pacing. A man on the run bites off more than he can chew when he decides to hide out at a not-so-peaceful-after-all farmstead that employs vagrants and prison laborers. One heck of a fast-paced read.
  3. Don’t Speak to Strange Girls by Harry Whittington (1963). You know he’s made an impression when two of his books show up in my top five list. This one is a very slow-burn novel, a story of a aging actor who falls for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Just because it’s a slow-burn doesn’t mean it pulls any punches.
  4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (1935). Having read several gothic novels this year, I have to say du Maurier’s was both the best and my favorite. Her Cornish moors seethe with atmosphere and intrigue, as young Mary Yellan discovers the deadly secret of her uncle’s establishment.
  5. The Captain Must Die by Robert Colby (1959). More of a seething, slow-burn noir about three G.I.s  jailed by their strict captain while performing home front training duties; when they get out of jail years later, their plan is to make their captain suffer, stealing away his wife, his money, and then his life. The action heats up at the finale, where the ex-captain refuses to adhere to their plans.

Top 5 SF/Fantasy/Horror Books I Read in 2014

Another year of great books makes for some tough choices on my bests list. Objectively, there’s a few that deserve to be on here—Inverted World absolutely floored me and most deserved to be on here, Merchanter’s Luck and Broken Sword were definite winners, and Schismatrix defied my expectations in a very good way. Subjectively, there wasn’t room for all of them, and these five works listed made more of an impact on me for one reason or another.

  1. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979). I’m all tuckered out of gushing over this book. It’s a powerful tale of a 1970s black woman thrust back into the antebellum past, coming face to face with issues of race and gender in an era where neither had power over landed white gentry. Go forth and read it or I’ll gush about it some more.
  2. Greybeard by Brian Aldiss (1964). I wasn’t expecting this book to impress me so, but I was sold by its intoxicating visions of entropic England in the years after all large mammals become infertile. Aldiss’ aged characters and their environs are so well-realized and tangible, and the plot is fairly tight. I’ll be coming back to Aldiss at least twice more in 2015.
  3. Forty Thousand In Gehenna by C.J. Cherryh (1983). Another work that reinforces my belief that Cherryh is one of the greatest living science fiction authors; this is the tale of a colony world that consists mostly of clones, abandoned to the elements and left to develop its own society over hundreds of years. What would take other authors an eight-book series of interminable length and plodding plot takes Cherryh 400-odd dynamic pages.
  4. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984). Gibson’s the true king of cyberpunk, and his razor-sharp first novel is a standout even outside that subgenre—it’s still turning heads today. The jargon-heavy dialogue is one key part of the impressive world-building, with the plot a near-future heist in a grim world dominated by high technology and omnipresent corporations.
  5. Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977). I think my love-hate struggles with Pohl are well documented, so I’m more than pleased to find that his award-winning Gateway is the masterpiece I can use as a sort of touchstone, a reference point to say that, yes, I can get into Pohl’s works if I try. Now I need to find those dang sequels.

Looking At 2015

So there’s three things that I’d like to change moving forward; these should be a bit obvious in hindsight if you look at how the last quarter of 2014 was trending.

  • Reading more books by women. I read seven books by women this year, an all-time low; even if I don’t strike parity, this year I struck a pretty bad balance and I’d like to rectify that.
  • Reading more books not written in the 1950s-60s. That’s kind of the peak of my “reviewed books” bell curve, and I’d like to spread out a bit.
  • Read more books that aren’t a sure thing. I think I got away from gambling on lost gems in favor of reading/re-reading masterworks and award winners, and I need a better cycle of expansion (reviewing more authors new to me) and consolidation (reviewing authors I found I really liked in previous years). (So, I want to write some scathing reviews of unknown, crap books that you’ve never heard of for a reason.)

I’m gearing up to participate in the Vintage SciFi Not-A-Challenge in January, and I’ll try to use that to hit some of the bullet points. I haven’t decided what I’ll read, but contenders include Frank Herbert, Leiber, Ed Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Damon Knight, Le Guin, Anderson, Kornbluth, Sheckley, Avram Davidson, and a number of off-the-beaten-path authors I acquired through Singularity & Co. So, lots of SF for the foreseeable future. Let’s see how many I can pack into January, and how many more will show up over the year.

Other books on my to-read pile that I’d like to read next year include, but are not limited to:

  • a pair of pulp “lost world” adventure stories
  • a bulk lot of woman mystery/suspense authors I picked up last year
  • my ever-growing collection of science fiction anthologies from the ’70s
  • more of Michael Crichton’s early John Lange thrillers
  • China Mieville
  • Helen MacInnes
  • John Brunner
  • John D. MacDonald
  • a very specific Ray Bradbury I’ve been meaning to read for the past three years and will force myself to read this year, come hell or high water
  • and more volumes in some series I started reviewing earlier