14 for 14: My Best Books of the Year


2014 digital numbers

I do three different “best of the year” lists in different contexts. This is my personal list, but…I also do a Best Ebook Romances of the year for Library Journal, and I’m one of the judges for the SFR Galaxy Awards, which is effectively a best SFR of the year list.

So there are repeats. After all, if it was one of the best in one context, there’s an awfully good chance it will be one of the best in another if applicable. Even so, when I looked at my A+, A and A- reviews for the year, I had too many choices.

That being said, I have wondered whether I could (or should) keep going with the theme of “besting” the same number of books as the year. So far, it is working all too well.

bollywood affair by sonali devIn the romance category, I have three that stood out from the other terrific books I read this year. A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev was an absolute standout. (It’s also on my LJ list). Dev’s book is a slow burning romance and an introduction or exploration into Indian-American and Indian culture. Her heroine is a good girl with a little bit of defiance, and her hero is a bad boy who discovers how much fun it can be to be good.

Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala is a great fantasy romance and the first book in her Twelve Kingdoms series. In this one, what I loved was the number of different ways that the road to hell gets paved. Her hero and heroine want to do the right thing for both their peoples, and are lucky enough to fall in love in the process. But this is a story about the fight for the soul of two kingdoms, and a lot of men do evil in the name of either good or power. This one goes surprisingly well, if sadly, with Maleficent.

Robin York, better known as Ruthie Knox, told one of the best New Adult stories I have read so far in the genre in Deeper and Harder, the story of Caroline and West. These are real people facing real problems, including a “wrong side of the tracks” type of love story. They overcome a lot of obstacles, with a lot of love, but also quite a bit of heart-rending pain.

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI read a bit more nonfiction than usual this year, and two titles have stuck in my head long after I finished. Partially for the topics they cover, and also significantly for the marvelous writing style. No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald reads like a spy thriller, but it is a cautionary tale about the case of Edward Snowden, the NSA papers he released, and the subsequent persecution of the reporter who covered the story. It will make you look at everything you read that purports to be true with a much more critical eye.

Forcing the Spring by Jo Becker reads like a legal thriller, but it tells the story of the fight for marriage equality using the lens of the case against Prop 8 in California. Becker was embedded with the legal team during the five years that this case wound its way to the Supreme Court, and her “you are there” style of reporting will keep you on the edge of your seat.

ryder by nick pengelleyTwo books don’t fit into categories at all well. Ryder by Nick Pengelley is action/adventure, with a heroine who is a combination of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Robert Langdon from The DaVinci Code. Ayesha Ryder kicks ass, takes names and discovers secrets that weren’t meant to be revealed in a delightful thriller.

The Bees by Laline Paull feels like a bit of an allegory – it is social commentary about human behavior disguised as bee behavior. But it is also a story about listening to your own inner voice and absolutely NOT blooming where you are planted. You will find yourself rooting for the bee, and laughing at some of her observations that hit close to home about both bees and us.

The urban fantasy series Mindspace Investigations by Alex Hughes continues to wrap me in its web. This year’s entries in the series are Marked and Vacant, and the one word titles represent something in the life of the series protagonist, Adam Ward. Adam is a recovering drug addict, a police consultant, and a telepath. He’s also in love with his equally damaged but otherwise normal police partner. The layers created in this post-apocalyptic but still mostly functioning version of suburban Atlanta are fascinating. It is just close enough to now to recognize what is still going right, and what went wrong.

queen of the tearling by erika johansenIn epic fantasy, my favorite this year was The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is in the classic mold of the hero who is raised in obscurity to become the ruler, but the hero is a heroine. This one has the feeling of the King Arthur story, but with a Queen instead. So Queen Kelsea is a fish very much out of water who has to learn fast to save her kingdom. Unlike so many retellings of the Arthur story, Kelsea operates in shades of grey; good choices can have every bit as costly an outcome as bad choices, sometimes more costly. She is learning by the seat of her pants while attempting to preserve her kingdom and fighting with everyone on all sides. A marvelous coming-of-age epic fantasy on a grand scale.

But this year, so many of my memorable reads were in my first love, science fiction.

Two books that I am not going to say a lot about because it’s all been said. These were bestsellers and were covered everywhere.

ancillary sword by ann leckieJohn Scalzi’s Lock In is a murder mystery wrapped in a near-future science fiction setting that, as is usual for Scalzi, has as much to say about our current society as it does about the future in which the book is set. This one works on multiple levels, and has a surprising twist that will tell you a bit about yourself as well. Great fun and an awesome read.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is a worthy sequel to the “sweeping all the awards winner” Ancillary Justice. This series is fantastic space opera with a unique point-of-view character from a galaxy-spanning empire with a fascinating culture and a very different way of managing its far-flung holdings. Whatever you might have heard about how good this series is – it’s even better than that.

damnation by jean johnsonJean Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series concluded this year with two books, Hardship and Damnation. Johnson’s series, like Leckie’s, is epic space opera, but Johnson is firmly in the military SF camp with this series. Her heroine rises through the ranks of the Space Force as the story is told, while she fights an interstellar war, first as a grunt, but eventually as Commander of the Armies. The thing that makes this series unique is that her heroine, Ia, is a precognitive who knows what has to happen, but still has to move heaven, earth, the central command, and everyone she ever meets into the right place at the right time to save the universe in a future that she will never live to see. Awesome from beginning to end.

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn was a complete surprise. Zahn is probably best known for his Star Wars fiction, but this is something completely different. As with Scalzi’s Lock In, Soulminder is SF of the laboratory type, where it is a scientific discovery that fuels the story arc. Also as with Lock In, there is a definitely plot thread about the way that humans will take something potentially good and pave the road to hell with it. (Soulminder was published before Lock In, so any resemblance is unintentional). For hard science SF, Soulminder has a surprising amount of story concerned with keeping one’s soul. It is a tale that embodies the principle “for evil to flourish, it is only necessary that good men do nothing.” It’s also about what happens when those good men stop doing nothing.

forever watch by david ramirezLast but not least, The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. If you threw Gorky Park, Blade Runner, one of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang into a blender, along with spice from The Matrix and Madeline Ashby’s Suited, you might come up with a story that has some resemblance to The Forever Watch, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. The Forever Watch is epic SF of the generation ship type, and it was one of those books that I shoved at people because I was so captivated. And it has one of those ending plot-twists that makes you re-think the entire story.

And that’s my top 14 for the year. 2014 was a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store! What were your favorites of 2014? Do share! We all need more awesome books to read!

Review: No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genre: current affairs
Length: 272 pages
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Date Released: May 13, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In May 2013, Glenn Greenwald set out for Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source who claimed to have astonishing evidence of pervasive government spying and insisted on communicating only through heavily encrypted channels. That source turned out to be the 29-year-old NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and his revelations about the agency’s widespread, systemic overreach proved to be some of the most explosive and consequential news in recent history, triggering a fierce debate over national security and information privacy. As the arguments rage on and the government considers various proposals for reform, it is clear that we have yet to see the full impact of Snowden’s disclosures.

Now for the first time, Greenwald fits all the pieces together, recounting his high-intensity ten-day trip to Hong Kong, examining the broader implications of the surveillance detailed in his reporting for The Guardian, and revealing fresh information on the NSA’s unprecedented abuse of power with never-before-seen documents entrusted to him by Snowden himself.

Going beyond NSA specifics, Greenwald also takes on the establishment media, excoriating their habitual avoidance of adversarial reporting on the government and their failure to serve the interests of the people. Finally, he asks what it means both for individuals and for a nation’s political health when a government pries so invasively into the private lives of its citizens—and considers what safeguards and forms of oversight are necessary to protect democracy in the digital age. Coming at a landmark moment in American history, No Place to Hide is a fearless, incisive, and essential contribution to our understanding of the U.S. surveillance state.

I chose this book for 9/11, not because it’s a story about the terrorist act, but because I see a clear bright line that can be traced from that day to the fear-mongering that birthed the Patriot Act and all of its restrictions on civil liberties to the security state that Edward Snowden (and Glenn Greenwald) defined in Snowden’s release of the NSA documents.

I keep thinking of the Ben Franklin quotation; “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Because that is exactly what has happened.

The reduction in civil liberties, and the rise in the government’s ability to track every single thing we say and do and write in any online context, including supposedly private emails, chat and telephone calls, does not seem to make us any safer.

But it does make it much easier for anyone, including the government, to exploit our every action to keep us from even thinking about the power that holds them in place.

Everyone has something to hide. Not just supposedly “bad people” but everyone. We hide things all the time. What we really think of our bosses and co-workers. Information about our health. Whether we are happy or unhappy. Whether we brushed our teeth and whether we lied about it to our parents when we were children.

Think about all the things you do in a day. Would you want to have to explain it all? One of the points of No Place to Hide is not that the government will necessarily do that to every person, but that the fact that they can has a chilling effect.

Compare it to the effect of management attending a union meeting to get the idea of that chilling effect. Or the effect of your parents (or your children) watching you having sex with your spouse.

The book is about courage. It’s about one person, or a very few people, having the conviction to try to change the world. Or at least to make sure that people have information and talk about the changes that have already occurred.

The title “No Place to Hide” is a message for us. The price of being connected in our society is to give up various bits of privacy to every company we do business with over the Internet. But do we expect to give it all? And should the government be able to take it all?

The revelations that Edward Snowden released in the NSA papers reads as mundane when you look at the actual memos. With all of the included and obfuscating jargon, they read like any set of internal corporate memos. It’s the meaning of them that chills. That gathering more and more data more and more secretly is a game to the government that they are determined to win at all costs.

In addition to the analysis of the documents themselves, the book also tells the story of the creation and release of the articles that contained the documents, which reads like a spy thriller but is even more chilling for being true.

The recitation of the way that the media has handled the story and the cosy relationship between the media and the government, recalls another famous quotation; “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Reality Rating A-: Two of the three parts of this book are a compelling read: the story of Snowden reaching out to Greenwald to arrange for the release of the documents and the story of the way that the media and the government handled the story after it broke reads like a spy thriller, except that it is a true story.  The description of the media  and governmental backlash, including the threats to the journalists’ safety and freedom makes the reader think about the way that news and opinions are represented. His essay directly discussing the relationship between corporate media and the government should frighten anyone, because anyone can be demonized in an instant. (Think of the coverage of the Occupy movement as a very recent and chilling example) The way that Greenwald demolishes the argument that “only bad people get targeted” should be read by every thinking adult.

We can all be defined as “bad people” by someone who sees simply talking about changing the order of things as a sign of instability or resistance. And if you don’t believe this, think of any employment situation and the cost of telling truth to power if that truth is negative.

While the NSA’s internal agency correspondence are not scintillating in and of themselves, the sheer level of intrusiveness into online life around the world will make you shiver, especially when it is followed by the analysis that confirms what many of us have suspected while taking off our shoes at the airport; all this data collection isn’t making us more safe. But it has the potential of making us less free.

As a professional librarian, I am a member of a profession that takes the individual’s right to read what they want without interference or oversight as a central tenet of the profession, and of a citizen’s right to privacy. The freedom of the press loses its meaning without the accompaniment of the right to read what that press has published. Librarians have been watching the expansion of the Patriot Act, including the provisions that gag any person or institution served with a warrant resulting from the powers in that act, with grave concern.

This story, and the way that both the whistleblower and the journalists have been treated as a result of breaking this story, should concern us all.

***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.