2013 Reading Challenge Roundup

In January, I decided to take part in the Goodreads 2013 Reading Challenge.  I've been an avid reader all my life and since the tail-end of 2011, I've used Goodreads to keep track of what I've read and rated.   Although I didn't participate in their 2012 reading challenge, I read 43 books last year and set a goal of 45 books for the 2013 challenge, which I ended up a beating (although, technically, if you really want to be picky about it, this final number is somewhat fudged and includes one novella, London Twist by Barry Eisler, and a short-story, Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis, in addition to straight-up, official novel-length works). The Stats

Overall, I read 21,800 pages across 52 books.  In 2012, I had read 14,750 pages.  Not too shabby! You can find the complete list of books I read in 2013 here.

Nineteen of these books were horror, my most-read genre for the year. Another 18 were in the mystery/thriller category, which I defined rather loosely. For instance, Lauren Beukes wonderful The Shining Girls is about a serial killer who travels through time. There's definitely a strong crime-story aspect to this book, but also a smidgen of sci-fi. Some would place the serial killer aspect under horror, while others may take the multiple genres and just slap them under Fiction. I would think the same goes for James Rollins's books. So mystery/thriller kind of became a catch-all for these types of books, unless it was clearly delineated. For instance, I read five sci-fi books. Two were very clear-cut science fiction, with future-based stories and high-tech worlds with advanced technology. But I thought Jeremy Robinson's Project Nemesis was more sci-fi than horror, given the science run amok to create a Godzilla-like creature rampaging across the US coastline. To me, it was more sci-fi in the same way that Pacific Rim or ID4 were more sci-fi than horror. Categorizing some of these titles was tricky, given their cross-genre appeals, but where they ultimately landed on the charts worked well enough for my purposes.

The longest book I read was Speaks the Nightbird, by Robert R. McCammon, at 816 pages.  McCammon also held the crown for my longest book in 2012, when I read Swan Song.  After reading Swan Song late last year, I had made it a goal to read more McCammon in 2013, but, coming off the high of my introductory read to this author, Speaks the Nightbird was a moderate disappointment for me.  I'm chalking that feeling up to mood, more than anything else.  I had wanted more of a horror novel, but Nightbird was a pretty straight-forward piece of historical fiction that wasn't quite as engaging as the story's premise.  It went on a bit longer than was needed, and wasn't quite the page turner that Swan Song was.  Don't get me wrong, though. It was an OK book. I liked it, but it didn't really satisfy me.  That said, I do have a few more McCammon books on my to-read list for 2014.

My most-read month came in May, with 6 books. I was glued to the ultra-fast-paced Charlie Hardie series and then three Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These books had some real unrelenting momentum to them and the pages turned quickly.  I managed 5 books in January, with Gun Machine by Warren Ellis being my first book of the new year. Most months, I was able to read three or four novels pretty consistently, and I didn't take too much time off in between novels.

As I noted in a previous blog, I began embracing e-books this year.  Print books still maintained a solid lead over the electronic format for me, but I sense that gap will close over the next few years as my reading habits shift toward the ethereal.  Twenty-one books were read by way of Kindle, and I have quite a few titles on my virtual bookshelf that are still to be read.

I was much more generous in handing out 5-star reviews this year, for whatever reason.  Perhaps it was because of a less critical eye, or I was simply more impressed with the breadth of works read this year than in 2012.  In '12, there were a lot of 4-star reads, and only a few 5-star awards.  I hewed a little bit closer this year, I think, to the Goodreads ranking system, particularly for 2- and 3-star rankings.  If a book was OK, then it was just OK.  It didn't mean I loved it, but I also didn't hate it.  I only gave one title a 1-star rating, and that, unfortunately, went to one of my favorite authors, James Rollins.  The Blood Gospel was his first co-authored work, with Rebecca Cantrell, and it got off on rocky ground with me almost immediately.  The religious overtones were a bit much, and couldn't overcome my suspension of disbelief.  I knew almost immediately that when the main character, Dr. Erin Granger, was introduced as a rational scientist that she would have to be turned into a believer by the end of the story.  As an atheist, those types of stories never ring true to me.  With previous Rollins titles, I've appreciated how he is able to tackle religious myth with scientific inquiry to tell a fun adventure story.  Unfortunately, this approach was greatly diluted by the addition of a co-author, and a story that celebrated the journey of rational thought to blind belief amidst a pseudo-romance vampire novel rang too many false, hollow notes.

Some standouts for the year: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes were both terrific, 5-star reads.  Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy was a beautiful, lively, bit of reportage from the Motor City, full of verve and life.  Doctor Sleep, a sort-of vampire story from Stephen King, was a great follow-up to The Shining, reconnecting readers with Danny Torrance after 36 years.  I appreciated King's nod to the work of his son, Joe Hill, and the small bit of connectivity that binds their work with the brief mention of Charlie Manx early in Doctor Sleep.  Manx, Constant Readers will know, was the monstrous villain in Hill's NOS4A2.  Attentive readers can find a few Easter eggs and nods back to King in Hill's story, as well.

The Trends

Although I typically like vampire stories, the big winner this year for me were zombies.  I found myself attracted to quite a few zombie titles in 2013: Mira Grant's "The Feed" series, Brian Keene's The Rising, and the works of Jonathan Maberry.

Discovering Maberry was a real coup.  With Dead of Night, a 5-star zombie read if ever there was one, I instantly knew he would be an author to watch.  After reading the entirety of his "Rot & Ruin" series, which was collected in a hardcover box set, that hunch was cemented and I plan on seeking out more his work in 2014 (particularly the Joe Ledger series).  The final book of "Rot & Ruin," Fire & Ash, was a terrific tour-de-force, particularly the last couple hundred pages.  It was a terrific conclusion to this epic.

I definitely took a shining to series reads in 2013.  After falling behind on Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" novels, I got back into a groove and read three back-to-back.  I have another three on my Kindle, which I plan on getting to in 2014.  In addition to the "The Feed" and "Rot & Ruin," I also enjoyed The Charlie Hardie series from Duane Swierczynski quite a lot. Joe Hill got on a roll with NOS4A2 and, in addition to some mutual Easter Eggs between him and papa King, he introduced Christmasland to comic book readers with the limited series The Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, from IDW (you can read about my favorite comics for 2013 here). Issue #1 of the prequel series kicked off in November, and #2 is on stands now.

2013 also saw the return of Charlie Parker in The Wrath of Angels, another Sigma Force novel from Rollins, The Eye of God (which received a 4-star rating and was a remarkable relief that Rollins still stands on solid ground after the shaky work produced with Cantrell), and a new Jack Ryan book, Command Authority, from Tom Clancy and co-author Mark Greaney, which I wrote about here.

Ramez Naam shot onto my radar with Nexus at the start of the year.  The follow-up book, Crux was released during the fall.  An ex-Microsoft developer, he brought a lot of credibility to these futuristic thrillers, and looks to be a contender for heir apparent to Michael Crichton.  I'll definitely be on the lookout for his future works! He has also produced two non-fiction books, which I have yet to read, but am planning on getting to in 2014.

Chuck Wendig was definitely a go-to author this year. In 2012, I read three of his works - Double Dead, Bad Blood, and Blackbirds. Blackbirds introduced his series heroine Miriam Black, about an antisocial young woman who can see how people will die upon touching them. It was a stand-out intro and the best of that bunch. I liked the previous material I read from Wendig well-enough, but Blackbirds...man, that one got me hooked and made me a fan. 2013 saw three more Wendig books hit my reading list - The Blue Blazes, introducing a new series character, Mookie Pearl; his first young adult series, Under the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy, #1), and a welcome return to Miriam Black with Mockingbird (the third, Cormorant, lands December 31 and has been pre-ordered for quite some time. This will be my first book of 2014!).  Once again, each were stand-out reads, and I gave both Empyrean and Mockingbird a 5-star rating (The Blues Blazes got a 4, and a mental note to keep an eye out for future works in this series, as well). And those Joey Hi-Fi covers for the Miriam and Mookie books! Gorgeous works of art in their own right.  I should also mention that Wendig runs a terrific blog, which helped me discover some new-to-me authors, like Lauren Buekes, Alex Adams, and Rameez Naam, so do check it out for regular reading recommendations, the occasional recipe, and solid writing advice.

2014 Forecast

There are a few primary reading goals as I head into the New Year.  I need to read more non-fiction titles.  This was a serious weak point for me in 2013, with only three non-fiction titles under my belt (compared to nine works in 2012).  I have a slew of assorted non-fiction works ahead of me in 2014, and I feel it's important to expand my literary attentions beyond the tried and true comforts of genre fiction. In the new year, I want to explore more science-based non-fiction works, particularly regarding the topics of the singularity and evolution, as well as military history.  Currently on the docket: Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill, The Way of the Knife from Mark Mazzetti, two Richard Dawkins titles, Katherine Stewart's The Good News Club, and David Niose's Nonbeleiver Nation to name a few.  I hope to get through all of these, and more, throughout the year.

The fantasy genre is one I always want to get into, but never quite take the leap. 2014 might be time to correct that. I prefer the grim-dark genre of fantasy, populated by troubled men and women with storied pasts and dark deeds. When authors like George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker release their new works, they always jump quickly to my must-read ASAP list. I've dug what Richard K. Morgan has been doing with his recent fantasy trilogy although, I must admit I've only read the first one. The second book has been on my to-be-read shelf for too long now, and I need to get around to that one (and, hopefully, the to-be-released third novel) soon. I've heard good things about Peter V. Brett's work and have the first two books of his series waiting to be read. I read Steven Erickson's Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1) and struggled through it, although I also have book 2 on shelf. I'd like to give that large series a fairer shake and one more shot at getting my attention. Joe Abercrombie is another name I see frequently when it comes to standout fantasy works, and I've been intending to explore his books for quite some time.

I would also like to get caught up on several fiction series.  I'm still behind on Lee Child's "Reacher" novels, as noted earlier, as well as Brad Thor, Matthew Reilly, and John Sanford.  I have a few Robert Crais books, along with a few "Pendergast" novels from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  At some point, I managed to acquire to  majority of Richard Kadrey's "Sandman Slim" e-books during a big Amazon sale prior to the release of that series's latest, Kill City Blues.  I've heard a lot of good things about Kadrey's work, and getting nearly the entire set for less than the cost of one paperback copy was a win too easy to pass up.  This all barely skims the surface of my TBR pile, both physical and virtual, and who knows what goodies the publishers will unleash upon me as 2014 goes along.

Fond Farewells

While 2013 was filled with lots of good reads, I can't help but notice that there will be some empty spaces on the bookshelves in the years ahead.  On June 19, we lost Vince Flynn to prostate cancer.  He died much too soon, much too young, and with too many "Mitch Rapp" thrillers left untold. He was one of my favorite authors, so hearing of his death at the age of 47 was a tremendous blow.

That same day, we also lost actor James Gandolfini. Although not an author, he earned the respect of audiences around the world for his wonderful portrayal of Tony Soprano. He co-starred in the film adaptation of Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard, who would pass away two months later.

Leonard died August 20 at 87.  He produced volumes of outstanding material, a great many of them adapted for screens large and small.  Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown (based off the novel Rum Punch), and TV's Justified.  He was an incredibly skilled writer, who was able to blend humor and action, and, more often than not, the absurd seamlessly.  His characters were vibrant and alive, and his dialogue was always mesmerizing.

October 1, we lost Tom Clancy, 66.  He became one of my favorites after reading Patriot Games in high school, and I spent nearly the next twenty years patiently waiting for the release of each new Jack Ryan novel.  Between him and Flynn, the literary world of military thrillers was dealt a tragic, heavy blow. Clancy's final novel, Command Authority, was published on Dec. 3.

With the treasure-trove of works they have left behind, each are immortal.  We will, if we are lucky enough, have the good fortune to celebrate their past works for many more years to come. Each has left a terrific legacy and have an indelible mark on their readers, myself included.

Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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