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, Speculative Fiction, Urban Fantasy

Happy Hour in Hell (Bobby Dollar #2)

Cover image for Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williamsby Tad Williams

ISBN 978-0-7564-0815-2

 “A moment comes in pretty much everyone’s life, or afterlife in my case, where they can’t help but wonder, What the fuck am I doing here? I have more of those than most people (a couple a week, on average) but I’d never had one quite like this before. See, I was just about to walk into Hell. Voluntarily.”

In the first Bobby Dollar book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Bobby “Doloriel” Dollar, an angelic public defender for departed souls, stumbled over an illicit agreement between an archangel and a demon, and fell in love with the demon’s lover, Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Although Bobby still has the angel feather which was supposed to be Eligor’s insurance against being betrayed by the still-unknown archangel, Eligor has spirited Casimira back to Hell, where he holds her prisoner. To make matters worse, an immortal killer called Smyler is on Bobby’s trail, presumably in search of the feather. The incidents of The Dirty Streets of Heaven are under investigation by the heavenly Ephorate, and Bobby has been laid off from his job in the meantime. Never one to do things by halves, Bobby decides to borrow a demon body and go into Hell after Casimira. It’s impossible to die in Hell, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a dangerous place to be, especially for an angel.

Full of dark humour, wit and puns—in Hell, “bad puns are considered a particularly ripe form of torture”—Happy Hour in Hell picks up the fast-paced action and gritty atmosphere of the first book, and takes it to the next level. Volume two never suffers from middle book lag, and delivers some significant revelations about the overall plot, and the complicated inner-workings of Heaven and Hell. It’s also a site of significant development for Bobby’s character; having always regarded himself as somewhat broken, rebellious, and maybe even partly fallen, Bobby’s altruism comes face to face with the brutality and indifference of Hell, and what it truly means to be damned. Bobby gets himself into trouble again and again just by being himself, and giving in to his impulses to help others. But Hell also brings out Bobby’s darker impulses, his anger, and his aggression, and the longer he stays, the more Hell seems to get to him. Already troubled about the justness of Heaven and Hell, his journey is likely to leave him even more conflicted about the efficacy of the system. Though some of the damned are every bit as horrible as you would expect, others hardly seem to deserve eternal torture, and may even be actively seeking redemption in their own way.  

Extensive descriptions of Hell are always difficult, but Tad Williams succeeds marvelously, imaginatively conveying brutality and horror without becoming tiresome or overbearing. Of course, that isn’t to say you won’t be horrified and appalled; Williams’ Hell is terrifying, make no mistake. Casimira is kept in the story through the use of flashbacks, which serve to break up the horror with romantic interludes, while also providing further insight into the time she and Bobby spent together in The Dirty Streets of Heaven. This story has fewer elements of detective fiction or urban fantasy than The Dirty Streets of Heaven—though Bobby still narrates like noir detective—and more of the hero’s journey about the plot, but there is still plenty of mystery left to be tied up in Sleeping Late on Judgment Day, which is due out in September 2014. 

Challenges, Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Urban Fantasy

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (Bobby Dollar #1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williamsby Tad Williams

ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1

“I already know some of the questions you want to ask. The answers are:

1) Yes, it’s pretty darn interesting being an angel.

2)  No, I haven’t met God. Yet.

3) I can’t tell you which religion was right after all, because it’s not exactly clear.

4) As to what Heaven’s like…well, bear with me and I’ll try to explain.”

Bobby “Doloriel” Dollar is an earthbound angel whose job is to serve as a heavenly advocate for the souls of the departed—a public defender for the final judgment of the soul. Despite his respectable day job, he also asks himself the hard questions about heaven and hell, and is more likely to drink vodka in the event of a “spiritual emergency” than pray to the highest. As a low level angel, Bobby doesn’t know much more about God and Heaven than anyone else. He’s never met God, and he isn’t sure he can trust the Archangels and Principalities he reports to. Moreover, they aren’t sure they can trust him. When one of Bobby’s clients, a recently departed soul, goes missing before judgement, Bobby worries that if he doesn’t solve the mystery, he’s the one who will take the fall to prevent an inter-afterlife event between Heaven and Hell. To make matters even more complicated, someone has stolen a valuable object from a Grand Duke of Hell, and the word on the street is that Bobby has it. Too bad he doesn’t even know what it is, let alone where to find it.

Casually and perhaps somewhat unreliably narrated in the first person, The Dirty Streets of Heaven blends noir detective fiction and urban fantasy. Bobby has a distinctive narrative voice, and the vocabulary emphasizes his dual nature; one moment he is talking like a heavenly advocate, the next he sounds painfully human. With one foot in both worlds, Bobby can see the grey areas that his Heaven-based superiors are unable to appreciate, getting him into a lot of sticky situations as a result. And if that doesn’t complicate matters enough, living in a “meat body” means he is subject to all of the emotions and temptations that make human life so interesting. There are very few human characters in this novel, but no shortage of humanity; Bobby forms friendships and romances with the other supernatural denizens of San Judas, and enjoys the earthly freedoms and privileges not available to him in Heaven.

Despite the focus on Heaven and Hell, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is by no means sanctimonious or moralizing. Tad Williams manages to engage with Christian lore without explicitly ruling out other ways of conceiving of the universe. Set in California, the system is, as one new angel comments “so…American,” but the reality is less than clear. The Countess of the Cold Hands doesn’t seem to have had a heavenly advocate at her damnation, and Bobby suggests that what constitutes a damnable offense has changed over time. While what we see in San Judas is decidedly from the Christian tradition, a great deal is left open for interpretation or for exploration in the next two books in the planned trilogy. The potentially heavy subject matter is seasoned with a healthy dose of humour, and the fast-paced, action-oriented plot allows little time for moral introspection.


2013eclecticreaderThis title fulfills the Urban Fantasy requirement for my participation in the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.



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