A Baker’s Dozen of the Best Books of 2013

2013 blockAs 2013 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back and attempt to decide which books were the best of the year.

OK, so this list is the best of my year. Why not? Everyone else is doing it!

But seriously, it’s both a surprise and a delight to look back and see which books got one of the rare A+ ratings. Or even just an A. (Along with the discovery that I need to do a better job of tagging to make them easier to find.)

There aren’t a lot of romances on this list. Not because I didn’t read some good ones this year, but because, well “reasons” as Cass says. Mostly because I do a separate list of the Best Ebook Romances for Library Journal every year, and also recap that list here at Reading Reality. So romance gets pretty much covered.

And speaking of Cass, she contributed her trademark snark to this list. Along with a dose of draconic awesomesauce.

These are the books that stuck with me this year. Sometimes to the point where I was still telling people about them months later, or where I am haunting NetGalley, Edelweiss or the author’s website looking for news of the next book in the series or their next book, period.

Cass’s thoughts on her faves are very definitely hers. And her picks probably won’t surprise anyone who has seen her dragon shoes. (Note from Cass: Do you want to see my dragon shoes?! They are amazing!)

Whatever your choices were for this or any other year, I hope you enjoyed every single page of them!

Spider Women's Daughter by Anne HillermanSpider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman (A+ Review).  This is a case where life parallels art in a manner that is fitting and poignant. In the story, Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernie Manuelito picks up the case after retired “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn is gunned down in front of her outside a local diner. In real life, Anne Hillerman picks up the case of continuing her father Tony Hillerman’s mystery series by changing protagonists, using a female officer sandwiched between conflicting roles to solve the mystery of who shot the man she loves as an honorary father.


How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyHow the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (A+ Review) This was simply stunning, and there’s no other word to describe it. The light gets in through our broken places, and that’s what this 9th book in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series explores, the broken places in every single character involved. These are mysteries, but Gamache is not a detective who solves crimes by examing forensics; he solves crimes by studying people.

Imager’s Battalion (A Review) and Antiagon Fire (A Review) by L.E. Modesitt Jr. One of the things that I have loved about Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio has been his main characters. Both in the original trilogy (Imager, Imager’s Challenge and Imager’s Intrigue) and in this second series, we have a fantasy hero who is a grown up but still has to face the coming-into-his-power scenario. The women in the series are strong and resourceful in their own right, and the political challenges and machinations are never-ending but still make sense. I just plain like these people and can never wait to read more of their adventures. His protagonists make things happen without needing to be king or princeling. Fantastic.

Bronze Gods by A.A. AguirreBronze Gods by A.A. Aguirre (A Review) I just swallowed this one whole and came out the other side begging for more (which is coming, see tomorrow’s post). Bronze Gods is a masterful blend of steampunk, urban fantasy, mystery and police procedural, tied together with some truly awesome worldbuilding and the fantastic partnership of two characters who need each other to remain whole.  This one blew me away.

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest (A Review) If Bronze Gods is steampunk as urban fantasy, then Fiddlehead is steampunk as epic. Fiddlehead is the culmination of Priest’s long-running Clockwork Century alternate history steampunk epic, and it’s a doozy. She started with poisonous gas knocking Seattle back to the stone age in Boneshaker, and rippling that event into an endless U.S. Civil  War. With a reason for zombies to be part of the mix. Fiddlehead brings it all to roaring conclusion, and almost aligns history back to the world as we know it. Epic alternate history.

Garden of Stones by Mark T BarnesThe Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes (A Review) This one blew me away. Library Journal sends me books to review, and it’s hit or miss. This was one that absolutely surprised and delighted me. It is epic fantasy, and the world is not just complex, but the reader starts in the middle. There’s no gentle introduction. You feel that this place is ancient and has eons of history, as do all of the characters. It’s immersive and amazing. If you like your fantasy on the complicated side, with lots of betrayals, The Garden of Stones is a treat.

Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football by Rich Cohen (A Review) These are not the kind of monsters I usually read about, and this was not the kind of review I usually write. But the 1985 Bears were my team, and I’ve never been able to explain why that year was so damn much fun to anyone else. This book does it. And at the same time, I can’t watch a game now without thinking about this book, and what it has to say about CTE and the high cost of playing the game we all loved to watch.

The Story Guy by Mary Ann RiversThe Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers (A Review) This is the one carryover from the Best Ebook Romances list, because it was so good that I couldn’t leave it out. The Story Guy was Mary Ann Rivers debut story, and it was an absolute winner. What makes it so good is that the issues that have to be overcome in this story are real; there are no billionaires or fantastically gorgeous Hollywood types in this tale, just an accountant and a librarian (go us!) who have real-world roadblocks to get past to reach a happy ending, if they can.

The Grove by Jean Johnson (A Review) This one is in Jean’s fantasy romance series, the Guardians of Destiny. And that series is a loose followup to her Sons of Destiny series. I’ve read both, and they are just tremendously fun. The fantasy worldbuilding is terrific, the romance is hot, and her heroines and heroes are always equal. No alpha-holes and no doormats need apply. (Her military science fiction series, Theirs Not to Reason Why, is also marvelous!)

The Human Division by John ScalziThe Human Division by John Scalzi (A- Review) Last but absolutely not least, John Scalzi’s return to his Old Man’s War series. Old Man’s War is one of my favorite books ever, and I pretty much shove it at anyone who even hints that they like SF and haven’t read it. So anything new in the OMW universe is automatically worth a read for me. The Human Division took the story in the new directions that followed from the end of The Last Colony, but left LOTS of unanswered questions. There was quite a bit of Scalzi’s trademark humor, but this is not intended as a funny book like Redshirts. I think this story is going to go to some dark places before it ends. But it’s awesome.

Honorable Mention: Clean by Alex Hughes (A+ Review) I adored this urban fantasy set in a post-tech wars dystopian future. Her flawed hero reminded me so much of the version of Sherlock Holmes in Elementary, but her messed-up Atlanta looked like a bad version of a place we could all too easily get to from here. The ONLY reason it didn’t make the “Best of 2013” list is that I’m late to the party. Clean was published in 2012.

Contributions from Cass:

natural history of dragons by marie brennanA Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (5 Star Review) because it was THE LITERARY EMBODIMENT OF DRACONIC PERFECTION. There is no more amazing depiction of dragons out there. It easily soared above my previous Dragon Favorites, and utterly crushed the Dragon Posers people are always trying to torment me with.

UPDATE FROM CASS: I invented a new rating scale for this one. I did not give it a mere 5/5 stars – but rather 15 stars. Nothing Marlene read this year hit that level of awesome. Come back sometime in February (March?) and see my feelings on the sequel. 

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams (4 Star Review). Though I was a wee bit nervous when, at the WorldCon Mad Science Panel, certain contributors had some suspiciously specific ideas about how to rain mayhem and destruction down onto the audience. (Someone give Seanan a Hugo just to distract her from setting off an international incident. Please?)

parasite by mira grantParasite by Mira Grant (4.5 Star Review) Parasites freak me right the fuck out. There is nothing more horrifying to me than a society where MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS tell everyone to ingest a goddamn tapeworm as a cure-all. Could I see the sheep doing it? Yes. Which only amps the terror up.

So that’s our list for 2013. What’s on your list?

Review: Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

Fiddlehead by Cherie PriestFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, paperback
Genre: Steampunk
Series: The Clockwork Century, #6
Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Date Released: November 12, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Young ex-slave Gideon Bardsley is a brilliant inventor, but the job is less glamorous than one might think, especially since the assassination attempts started. Worse yet, they’re trying to destroy his greatest achievement: a calculating engine called Fiddlehead, which provides undeniable proof of something awful enough to destroy the world. Both man and machine are at risk from forces conspiring to keep the Civil War going and the money flowing.

Bardsley has no choice but to ask his patron, former president Abraham Lincoln, for help. Lincoln retired from leading the country after an attempt on his life, but is quite interested in Bardsley’s immense data-processing capacities, confident that if people have the facts, they’ll see reason and urge the government to end the war. Lincoln must keep Bardsley safe until he can finish his research, so he calls on his old private security staff to protect Gideon and his data.

Maria “Belle” Boyd was a retired Confederate spy, until she got a life-changing job offer from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton respects her work, despite reservations about her lingering Southern loyalties. But it’s precisely those loyalties that let her go into Confederate territory to figure out who might be targeting Bardsley. Maria is a good detective, but with spies from both camps gunning for her, can even the notorious Belle Boyd hold the greedy warhawks at bay?

My Review:

The end of the world as we know it makes for an exciting wrap up to an epic steampunk series. That’s the short version. The long version will absolutely “fiddle with your head”.

In Cherie Priest’s alternate steampunk universe of the Clockwork Century, an inventor created the Boneshaker engine that destroyed Seattle (I get a slight shiver writing that) instead of giving Russian prospectors a shortcut to gold in the Klondike.

Destroying Seattle unleashed a poisonous gas that turned everyone who inhaled it into zombies. Not only does that make things even scarier, but in the Clockwork Century timeline, knocking Seattle out of the Union, or effectively out of everything, extended the American Civil War by a couple of decades–and the zombie plague kept spreading.

By the time the series reaches Fiddlehead (book 6!) while the war has finally reached the same point it did in real time, that the CSA is simply running out of resources and the Union will win because it can outwait the Confederacy, there is effectively a third force in the war…the zombies.

That’s where Fiddlehead begins. Also what it is. Fiddlehead is a computer. Technically, it’s more like a Babbage engine. But that’s a matter of semantics. It’s an invention of Dr. Gideon Bardsley, and it has predicted that if the Union and the Confederacy don’t set aside their differences to fight the shuffling horde of hungry undead, then the entire human race is doomed. Just as the Fiddlehead spits out its dire prediction, a gang of mercenaries breaks into the building that houses it to murder Bardsley and destroy the device.

And the race is on. It’s a race between those who want to keep profiteering from the furtherance of the war, and just don’t give a damn how much it costs in human lives because they believe that all human lives are expendable, and those who believe that each life has value and dignity.

It’s glorious to see Abe Lincoln fight one last good fight, even half-broken by barely surviving the bullet meant to kill him in Ford’s Theatre. Ulysses S. Grant rises to one more military charge, from a lifetime of political compromises and drunken defeats, and he stands as the gallant general one final time.

But the story rises (and does it ever rise) on the strength of Gideon Bardsley and Moira Boyd along with those who aid them on their separate journeys. Bardsley, former slave and current genius engineer and inventor, is the man who creates the Fiddlehead and discovers the true nature of its threat. His discovery pushes the story forward, and his clarion call to stem the evil forces the actions of both good and evil. Moira “Belle” Boyd takes action out into the country at war, hunting down those on both sides who can not only corroborate Bardsley’s story, but those who must make a last desperate stand against inconceivable atrocity.

Escape Rating A: Fiddlehead, and the entire Clockwork Century series, is epic in scope and execution. If you like your fantasy/alternate history drawn over a very wide canvas, you will love this series.

boneshaker by cherie priestI’m sorry now that I haven’t read all the middle books in this series. I’ve read Boneshaker and Dreadnought (reviewed here) and highly recommend them both, but I haven’t YET read Clementine, Ganymede and The Inexplicables. Although enough backstory is explained to make Fiddlehead flow, I think I would have enjoyed the depths more if I had read everything. I’ll go back. The details seem absolutely awesome.

As it is, this story is incredibly layered. It’s not so much based on character as it is focused on action, and the action never, ever stops. Boyd and Bardsley have very little time to stop a very evil woman from hatching a dastardly plan. The survival of the human race is at stake.

I loved the way that Priest kept her alternate universe moving forward in time, yet still interwove the familiar elements of the history that we knew. U.S. Grant’s final parts of the story are particularly touching in this regard, they both match history, and don’t, and it’s just perfect and heartbreaking.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.


I snagged a copy of Dreadnought by Cherie Priest from the Tor booth at ALA Midwinter. (Many publishers give their books away the last day of the show.) Boneshaker, the first book in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series was one of those books that after reading you sort of shove at people with the admonition “you just have to read this.” Boneshaker was one of the books that makes steampunk so cool.

Back to Dreadnought. I picked up the print copy for my airplane book. I loved Boneshaker (and Ms. Priest’s paranormal/urban fantasy Bloodshot as well) so I knew Dreadnought would be awesome. I just couldn’t figure out why I didn’t already have it.

Embarrassing answer: I did already have it, in my B&N Nook app on my iPad. Which didn’t solve the airplane problem. I still needed a print book for the dreadful “please turn off all electronic devices” moments. Airline magazines are generally dull as ditchwater, and I can’t sleep on airplanes unless I’m beyond comatose.

So I realized I’ve had Dreadnought for over a year, but it got caught in the “so many books, so little time” vortex. The airplane gave me a chance to return to a writer I enjoyed and her carefully crafted steampunk universe.

Thank you Tor, and thank you ALA trip! I loved Dreadnought. It reminded me of everything I enjoyed about the Boneshaker universe, but it didn’t rely on it too much. Which was a great thing, because I remembered the big story but not the small details, since I read Boneshaker when it came out in 2009. And now I want to read it again.

In the Clockwork Century, the Klondike Gold Rush did happen, But Russian investors paid inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle to construct a steam-powered mining machine. And history went down a very different path then the one we know. Because Levi Blue’s “Boneshaker” didn’t just destroy a whole lot of downtown Seattle, it also unearthed a terrible gas that turned anyone who breathed it into a zombie. And the stuff was addictive in the bargain, so folks ended up hooked on it before they turned into the “living dead”.

But it was effectively knocking Seattle out of the U.S. economic and political picture on the eve of the U.S. Civil War that was felt back East. That War between the States didn’t wrap up in 1865, it kept going, and going. Five years, ten years, twenty years later, it’s still going on, to the point where grievances aren’t fresh, they’re inherited from fathers and brothers. And that’s where Dreadnought begins. In a Confederate hospital, with a nurse named Mercy Lynch.

Mercy receives two pieces of news, one right on top of another. She gets a visit from the famous nurse Clara Barton, who does found the Red Cross in seemingly every universe. Miss Barton was accompanied by a Union soldier who was given permission to cross the Confederate lines after he had been released from Andersonville Prison. That infamous place also existed. Mercy Lynch and her husband were from Border states. When her husband’s Kentucky home went Union, he enlisted with the Union Army. This Union soldier has come to tell her that he witnessed her husband’s death at Andersonville.

When Mercy was left alone, she became a nurse, and a damn good one. But Mercy was from Virginia. And Virginia was a Confederate State.

After getting the news that she was a widow, Mercy received a telegram from Seattle. Her father was dying and wanted to see her. Mercy didn’t know whether to be astonished or angry. Her father had abandoned her and her mother when she was a child, and had disappeared out West. Mercy hadn’t known he was still alive. But he wanted to see her. Seattle was a long way from Virginia. She would need to quit her position as a nurse and travel thousands of miles by airship and train. The war was between her and the coast.

Mercy felt torn by duty, but also free of duty. And she was tired of being pulled in every direction every minute. After a lot of soul searching, she set out for Seattle.

The journey is an incredible adventure. Dreadnought is a road novel, but the road is like no road story you’ve ever read. It’s not just that everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, it’s also that the kind of things that go wrong are nothing Mercy, or the reader, can possibly imagine.

Most people back East don’t know what has happened in Seattle, so Mercy doesn’t know what she is headed towards. Her world is the War. In Seattle, the War is far away. Their problem is the blight gas. And yes, those two problems do collide, multiple times, on Mercy’s trip, but not in the way you might think.

And wow, what a ride! You just know that when Mercy reaches her destination, her adventure has just begun.

Escape Rating A+: I forgot I was on a plane. I got so sucked into the story, I lost track of everything around me. Mercy Lynch is an absolutely unforgettable character, and the reader is pulled along with her every step and mile of the trip.

Dreadnought made me want to go back and read Boneshaker again, and read the next book in the series, Ganymede immediately, because I want to find out what happens next. (There’s also a loosely linked novel, Clementine sorta/kinda before Ganymede.)  I’m trying to restrain myself, and it’s just about driving me crazy. Dreadnought had me on the edge of my seat. If you like steampunk, read the Clockwork Century and find out what all the fuss is about. You’ll be glad you did.