Contemporary, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Top Picks, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 


Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

Fiction, Humour, Middle Grade, Science Fiction

Fortunately, the Milk

Cover images for Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Skottie Young (US) / Chris Riddell (UK)

ISBN 978-0-06-2224077-1 (US) / 978-1-4088-4176-1 (UK)

I think there should have been some nice wumpires,” said my sister wistfully. “Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.”

“There were not,” said my father.

Mum has gone off to a conference to present a paper on lizards, and Dad is left alone with his two kids. He thinks he has the situation under control, but after making tea and hot chocolate, there’s no milk left for breakfast cereal, or worse, for that essential morning cup of tea. Dad goes out for milk, and returns much later, spinning a wild tale about being kidnapped by aliens, held captive by pirates, traveling through space and time with a stegosaurus, and nearly being eaten by wumpires before finally making it home. Or possibly he got caught up talking with Mr. Ronson from over the road. But whatever happened, fortunately, the milk made it home, too.

Playfully told by Neil Gaiman and comically illustrated by Skottie Young (US edition) or Chris Riddell (UK edition), Fortunately the Milk is an imaginative lark through space and time. Dad’s adventure is filled with shameless exaggeration and matter-of-fact ridiculousness. Parents will appreciate the lengths to which Dad will go to spin his story, and kids will delight in the way his children try their best to catch him out. The plot has a slightly Whovian feel, albeit the sort that you might find from a Dad telling his kids a story about the legend of the Doctor, as opposed to an episode of the show itself.

The American edition is illustrated by Skottie Young, whose exaggerated art style lends itself excellently to Gaiman’s over-the-top narrative. Look especially for Sister’s imagining of “nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.” Young also wins extra points for depicting bottled milk, while Riddell opts for a carton.

The Dad of Chris Riddell’s book is reminiscent of Gaiman himself, although the hair isn’t nearly wild enough. If you are reading the UK edition, don’t skip the afterword on the artist; keep a special eye out here for the wumpire Pale and Interesting Edvard. There is also a fantastic fold out page in the middle of the book, featuring Splod, the “god of people with short, funny names.”

The good news is that no matter where you live and which edition you will be getting as a result, Fortunately, the Milk is an excellent tongue-in-cheek adventure. Though different, both artists bring their own sense of humour to bear to complement Gaiman’s writing.


Also by Neil Gaiman:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Chu’s Day

The Graveyard Book

Sandman Volume 1

Click-Clack the Rattlebag 

Fantasy, Fiction, Speculative Fiction

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman by Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0

Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?

A man returns to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the reception he finds himself exploring the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn down the old flint lane to the Hempstock farm, a property and a family so old they are listed in the Domesday Book. Sitting by the duck pond, he remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who called the pond her ocean. But he also suddenly remembers other darker, more impossible things, things that cannot possibly be true. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence.

When I first heard the story behind the writing of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I expected it to be a long novel; I set aside an entire day to read it. After all, it began as a short story, and then grew into a novelette, then a novella, and then a full blown novel. However, at 178 pages, it is considerably shorter than Gaiman’s other adult novels, or even his children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I was prepared to be disappointed, but instead of falling short, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story. I was pulled under immediately, and misty-eyed by page eleven for a delicate, bookish little boy I related to whole-heartedly.

Despite being billed as an adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane hovers on the cusp—about children, yet not quite for children, and yet more like being a child again than reading about one. Gaiman’s unnamed protagonist “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that, they just were.” In much the same way, The Ocean at the End of the Lane just is, a touch too dark and heavy to be for children, but requiring more willing suspension of disbelief than many adults are capable of. Magic is rife in the novel, but explanations are sparse and, for me at least, would only spoil the sense that children know but adults have forgotten. This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.” If you were ever a bookish child, and if you’re an adult who still loves tales of unbelievable magic, you don’t want to hear any more about this book. You want to go read it.


Also by Neil Gaiman:

Chu’s Day


Click-Clack The Rattlebag 

Children's, Fiction, Humour

Chu’s Day

Cover image for Chu's Day by Neil Gaiman and Adam RexWritten by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Adam Rex

“When Chu sneezed, bad things happened.”

For a little anthropomorphic panda named Chu, every day is fraught with a burning question: will he sneeze today? Because when Chu sneezes, the disastrous consequences are out of all proportion with his size. Everything, from book dust at the library, to pepper at a diner, to animals at the circus, might be the thing that sets Chu off. And nobody wants to be around when that happens.

Neil Gaiman is a wonderfully diverse author, and Chu’s Day is one more example of that fact. Chu’s Day is for younger children, and unlike his older children’s books—Coraline and The Graveyard Book—it isn’t at all creepy. Quite the opposite, in fact. As suggested by the bright yellow cover and soft, warm illustrations, the story is light and humourous, with mild fantastical elements. Adam Rex’s large, bright illustrations, including several lavish double-page spreads, make Chu’s Day a perfect story time book. The repeated almost-sneezes have great read-aloud and audience participation potential. Best of all, the story is charming enough that adults shouldn’t get bored when they are inevitably asked to read-it-again!

Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novel, Horror, Mythology, Speculative Fiction

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Cover Image for Preludes and NocturnesWritten by Neil Gaiman

Art by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

ISBN 978-1-4012-2575-9/ 978-1-4012-3863-6

“I find myself wondering about humanity. Their attitude to my sister’s gift is so strange. Why do they fear the sunless lands? It is as natural to die as it is to be born. But they fear her. Dread her. Feebly they attempt to placate her. They do not love her.”

Preludes and Nocturnes is volume one of ten in the Sandman tradepaper slipcase set released by Vertigo in November 2012.  It contains the first eight issues of the Sandman comics, which were originally published between 1988 and 1989. The edition has been recoloured, and includes the original issue covers by Dave McKean. The first seven issues tell the story of Dream (also known as Morpheus), a member of the Endless who is captured by a magician and held prisoner for over seventy years. The artefacts that give him power over sleepers and the Dreamtime are stolen and lost. When he finally escapes from his captors, he must track down his lost artefacts and reclaim control of the Dreamtime. To do so he must travel through the earthly realms and to the gates of Hell itself. The eighth issue is the odd story out in this volume, as it introduces Dream’s sister, Death, the intended victim of the magician’s spell in issue one.

The series gets off to a slow start, as Gaiman explores the implications of imprisoning Dream, which manifests as a strange sleeping sickness. The action begins when Dream’s patience pays off and he is able to escape and begin his quest to find his lost objects of power. He meets a number of DC Universe characters, including John Constantine, The Scarecrow, and members of the Justice League. Overall, these comic book heroes and villains feel out of place in Gaiman’s darker, more mythology based world. The highlight of this initial sequence is issue four, A Hope in Hell, in which Dream must travel to Hell to try and find the demon that now possesses his helm. Here we are first introduced to Lucifer Morningstar, who co-rules Hell with Azazel and Beelzebub. Sam Keith’s dark, oozing Hell has a sickening aspect, but it is also perhaps the only section of the book which is not greatly improved by the recolouring work done for this edition.

The eighth issue, The Sound of Her Wings marks a turning point in both the art and the tone of the story. Mike Dringenberg, the inker for issues 1-5, became the penciller beginning with issue 6. His version of Dream is more solid and present, whereas Sam Keith’s Morpheus always seemed to be on the verge of melting off the page. Gaiman also hits his stride, blending the dark ruminations on mortality with light references to Mary Poppins in his strangely happy-go-lucky version of Death. For new readers, this story is an awkward place to end a volume, as it doesn’t fit with the previous issues, and offers little idea of how the story will proceed. However, for fans of the series, it is the story in which Sandman begins to stand apart from the DC Universe, for the better.

Physically, the tradepaper editions are much less appealing than the Absolute Sandman editions. The glue bindings are much less sturdy, and as is common with box sets, it becomes harder to fit the volumes back into the slipcase after reading. However, the paperbacks are much more reasonably sized and priced than the Absolute Sandman volumes, making them a good value proposition.

Children's, Fantasy, Fiction, Speculative Fiction

All Hallow’s Read: The Graveyard Book

Cover Image for The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimanby Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0060530921

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”


Nobody “Bod” Owens gets off to a Harry Potter-like start in life when his family is killed and he is nearly murdered in his crib. Bod escapes largely due to chance and his adventurous spirit, and is adopted by the benevolent ghosts in a nearby cemetery, where he is granted the Freedom of the Graveyard. Bod is able to gain a unique glimpse into their world but, because he is a living boy, he is never able to fully become a part of it. Although the graveyard provides some frights and dangers of its own, the constant threat comes from the world outside, where the man who murdered Bod’s family searches for him still.

Neil Gaiman brings the graveyard to life, giving it a culture all its own, including holidays and traditions. The ghosts from various periods provide a light primer on significant events in English history, including the Roman invasion, the plague, and the witch trials. A book that takes place almost entirely in a cemetery has the potential to be boring, but Gaiman uses the setting to advantage, rather than allowing it to limit the scope of the plot. The mood of the book is only enhanced by the eerie black and white illustrations by Gaiman’s frequent collaborator, Dave McKean. Like Coraline, The Graveyard Book is a dark and scary tale, but Gaiman leavens the gloom with humour, wit and sometimes downright absurdity. For example, the less-than-benevolent ghouls of the graveyard have, with cheeky self-importance, named themselves after famous political figures from around the world.

Gaiman references Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as one of the primary inspirations for The Graveyard Book, and the narrative structure follows a similar pattern of cumulative short stories and events that add up to Bod’s coming-of-age in the graveyard. The odd incidents and challenges that make up his day-to-day existence are more important than the facts of how and why he came to be there.  However, this structure leaves many questions unanswered at the end of the book; readers who want everything neatly explained may be disappointed.­

Gaiman caps the book off with a bittersweet ending which trusts that young readers are capable of appreciating and understanding more narrative complexity than many authors give them credit for. Combined with Gaiman’s high-level vocabulary, this is an excellent selection for precocious readers, or for parents and children reading together. Although there are some asides designed to help young readers understand things that are obvious to the adult reader, this is otherwise an excellent read for grownups as well as children.


All Hallow’s Read is an initiative by Neil Gaiman to encourage readers to share scary books at Halloween. Learn more at:

Fiction, Horror, Short Stories, Speculative Fiction

Special Review: Click-Clack the Rattlebag

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a short story written and performed by Neil Gaiman for All Hallow’Cover Image for Click-Clack the Rattlebags Read. You can download the story for free at and for every download Audible will donate a dollar to Donors Choose. This story is only available until Halloween, so download your copy today.  If you’ve missed the download, the story will be available in the Impossible Monsters anthology from Subterranean Press in 2013.


In Click-Clack the Rattlebag, Neil Gaimain turns his normally soft and soothing voice to the work of sending chills down our spines. This is only the beginning of the many ways Gaiman is able to defy the reader’s expectations in this short outing. The story features one of the precocious children Gaiman has rendered so well in past works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Don’t let the name fool you; the original monster of this story is much scarier (and grosser) than the ghosties and ghoulies that often comprise the horror genre.  For a story of only ten minutes duration, to say much more would be spoiling. Don’t forget to turn off the lights before you listen.


Read about All Hallow’s Read here:

Read Neil’s blog post about the story here: