Saturday, September 1, 2012

Hitting 300: Saving the Best for Last

As I've mentioned, I read for entertainment. Literary merit, cultural significance -- the qualities that turn a book into a classic -- don't really concern me. The books that I rate 5 stars, I'm not saying these are the greatest books ever written, just like all of my 1-star books aren't trash. My ratings answer one simple question: how much did I enjoy reading this? And no one should infer any conclusions about these books other than that.

Last time, I said that the occasional 1-star book is the price I pay for taking chances in my reading. Today, we look at the other side, the happy accidents. A lot of the 5-star books listed below aren't exactly surprises. But there are several that I wasn't expecting. This is what keeps me willing to explore, despite the occasional dud. It's knowing that I may never have read some of my favorite books if I hadn't taken a chance.

Still Alice is a great example. This book was hyped like crazy. Some books are deserving of their hype, but a lot aren't. And even the ones that are can often become victims of overselling, where the book itself, no matter how good, just can't live up to the expectations everyone now has for it. So I'm always wary of reading these super-popular titles. But this one blew me away. I thought it was worth every bit of praise it had received, and it ended up being my only 5-star book that entire year.

The Bells is another. I expected to like it; it had to do with music, after all, and it would be a couple weeks before the crushing disappointment of Good Things I Wish You. What I didn't expect was just how much I would love it.

Dante's Equation is a title worth mentioning. It was a thriller recommendation that I'd come across, so it's not exactly a surprise that I would like it. Still, I've had my fair share of disappointments when it comes to trying out a new author, even in a genre I like. And this one was strange. I actually rated it only 4 stars when I first read it, because I liked it . . . but I was a little too overwhelmed by the strangeness of it. Months later, I'd started working at Borders and someone asked the inevitable "what's your favorite book?" (a question I always hate, because how can you choose?), and this was the first thing that came to mind! And it shook me. How could I possibly say this was my favorite book if I'd rated it lower than all these others? So I was forced to reevaluate. I read it again, and sure enough, I loved it. It was just hard to grasp that on a first reading, because it was so different.

And then there are the books that aren't shocking at all. Five by my favorite author (six if you count an alternate nom de plume). A few of the Harry Potters.

Anyway, in an attempt to keep from gushing, I'm just going to list out my 5-star reads along with my (short and sweet, remember?) GR review. No adding new information allowed!

(*All average ratings are obviously fluid, but these are the numbers as of the time of this posting.)

Wit'ch War, by James Clemens
(published 2000, read in May 2009, avg rating 4.08*)

The Banned and the Banished series as a whole was pretty good, but I loved this book in particular. The ending marks a turning point, a shift in focus for the main characters. Perhaps it's for this reason, combined with some truly great moments, that this book really does feel like the highlight of the series, more so even than the conclusion.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
(published 2007, read in January 2011, avg rating 4.23*)

In terms of story-telling, the book flowed very naturally and was easy to read. The story itself, however, was very emotional. I felt like I was in a haze after finishing it, so good a job it did sucking me in, and telling this story from the point of view of someone whose mind is going. I'm very glad I finally read this, and looking forward to Lisa Genova's second book.

The Bestseller, by Olivia Goldsmith
(published 1996, read in January 2012, avg rating 3.85*)

This was a long book for what it was, but once I got into it, I was completely hooked. I had to suspend my disbelief, as there were several convient coincidences, and even the mundane and distressing aspects of the book business seemed to have an unrealistic hint of glamor to them, but it was still a pleasure to read. I love reading about writing, even (especially?) when it's fiction, and I'm sure I'll read this book again.

The Last Child, by John Hart
(published 2009, read in March 2010, avg rating 4.01*)

The prologue didn't really do anything for me, and left me feeling a little ambivalent about the book. But within the first few chapters, I was hooked. I absolutely loved how the story unfolded. What struck me most when reading was the fact that, instead of grabbing me by the collar and not letting go, the author slowly drew me in, scene by scene. I'll definitely be picking up more books by John Hart.

The Bells, by Richard Harvell
(published 2010, read in March 2012, avg rating 3.99*)

This is one of those books that just speaks to me as a reader. I was pulled very quickly and deeply into the world of this young boy. There were certainly some disturbing parts (to be expected in a story about a castrato). For me, though, any unpleasantness was eclipsed by two things: music and love.

Dante's Equation, by Jane Jensen
(published 2003, read in July 2009, avg rating 3.62*)

I'd recommend this for anyone who enjoys thrillers, and isn't afraid of something different. Because it is VERY different. But it is also an intense, entertaining story, with a great variety of characters, and some thought-provoking ideas. I absolutely loved it.

Judgement Day (aka Millennium Rising), by Jane Jensen
(published 1999, read in February 2010, avg rating 3.55*)

This is exactly the kind of large-scale, high-stakes story that I love to read, and Jensen executes it beautifully. It is a fusion of faith, philosophy, politics, all blended together in an extremely intense novel. I love that it doesn't shy away from where it's going, and really makes you think. A must-read for any thriller fan.

That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis
(published 1945, read in February 2006, avg rating 3.82*)

This is a thrilling conclusion to Lewis's Space Trilogy, though this one has a much different feel than the first two books. It takes place entirely on Earth, there's a broader cast of characters, and it's about as long as the other two put together. Despite the drastic shift (or because of it), I liked this story best out of the trilogy. I've re-read it several times, and while it isn't a book that I can just pick up and read any time, it's definitely one of my favorites when I'm in the mood for a more literary read.

Dance of Death, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
(published 2005, read in April 2010, avg rating 4.08*)

There is so much tension here, each event more compelling than the last. Suddenly Pendergast, the mysterious and infallible FBI agent who somehow always manages to come out on top, has met his match. We get to see him as an actual human being. Or, to look at it another way, the battle between the two Pendergast brothers almost takes on the quality of the ancient Greek or Roman gods fighting on a level no one else can touch. This book is the highlight of the trilogy, my favorite in the entire Pendergast series.

Deep Fathom, by James Rollins
(published 2001, read in July 2006, avg rating 3.94*)

I'm a big fan of James Rollins, and this is my favorite of his earlier works. I liked all the characters (except of course the ones you aren't meant to), the subject really intrigued me, and I absolutely loved the conclusion. I'll admit it bordered on deus ex machina, but that in no way detracted from its enjoyment. This is a really fun and entertaining novel that I can -- and have -- read again and again.

Ice Hunt, by James Rollins
(published 2003, read in November 2006, avg rating 3.91*)

This is another fun and entertaining novel from James Rollins. It's fairly typical for him, the blend of science and action, immediate threats with some buried mystery. The ideas presented in this story were more interesting to me than those in some of his other novels. Also, I must say that while several of his epilogues tend to be on the darker side, this one is the most terrifying of all. Not, of course, that that's a bad thing.

Black Order, by James Rollins
(published 2006, read in November 2006, avg rating 4.05*)

This is my favorite of the Sigma Force novels, and still early enough in the series that it stands alone well. It was nice to see an old but familiar face in the introduction of Dr. Lisa Cummings to the series. I thought all the various plot lines came together well. Some parts were also quite thought-provoking, which is always a nice addition to something mostly just for fun and entertainment.

The Doomsday Key, by James Rollins
(published 2009, read in July 2009, avg rating 4.10*)

After feeling a little let down by The Last Oracle, The Doomsday Key was just what I needed to restore faith in my favorite author. If you're new to the Sigma novels, however, this may not be the best one to start with. It's a great thrill ride, one of my favorites in the series, but it does assume a certain level of familiarity with the characters and their histories together.

Bloodline, by James Rollins
(published 2012, read in June 2012, avg rating 4.25*)

This is a great addition to the Sigma Force series. All of the regulars are here (and Kat is back in the field!) as well as a couple new faces. Kane totally stole the show. I loved the scenes from his POV . . . and did I mention he's a dog? This could have been really gimmicky, but I thought Rollins did a great job capturing the way such an animal might see the world. The story was yet another compelling, high-stakes adventure; nothing new for the Sigma team. But some things that have been building for the past several books finally come to a head, and overall I thought it was a great payoff.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
(published 1999, read in August 2007, avg rating 4.42*)

This was my favorite book of the entire series. It contains some darker moments for Harry, with a lot of revelations about what happened when his parents were killed. The kids also get the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher they'll ever have. All in all, this was a great story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
(published 2005, read in August 2007, avg rating 4.44*)

This book was packed with background information on Voldemort. In fact it was basically one big setup for the final installment, but that didn't detract from its enjoyment. The climax was great, and this book more than any of the others made me glad I waited until the whole series was out before I read them. I don't know that I could have waited two years for the conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
(published 2007, read in September 2007, avg rating 4.53*)

This book answers so many questions from throughout the series, and it is really interesting to go back and read the other books again, knowing those answers, and seeing how they've been worked in from the beginning. Also interesting to read this one, then immediately jump back to the first book, to see how much everyone has changed in those seven years. I could have done without the epilogue, but overall this book is a wonderful conclusion to the series.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
(published 2006, read in February 2010, avg rating 3.90*)

Despite being very different from what I normally read, I absolutely loved this book. The story itself was intriguing, but more than that, I think, I just fell in love with this world of storytelling. This is one to curl up with on a rainy day with a cup of hot chocolate.

Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
(published 2011, read in April 2012, avg rating 3.80*)

This is by no means a perfect book, but MAN did it suck me in! Because of the main character's situation, it's very hard to know what's real and what's not. For most of the book, it just seems like anything could be possible. That said, I think most readers will figure out the mystery long before the character, but even once I knew, the book still had me in one of those can't-stop-reading frenzies. Despite its faults, it's an intense whirlwind of a story that kept me completely hooked, and even -- at times -- made me forget that I was reading a novel.

And there's one 4-star book that I have to give an honorable mention to, because it was such an unexpected pleasure:

I've Got Your Number, by Sophie Kinsella
(published 2012, read in June 2012, avg rating 3.91*)

This was surprisingly good. Most chick lit I read is enjoyable enough for a diversion, but this one seemed on another level. Sure, some parts were a little goofy, but others were pretty intense and emotional. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I couldn't help being invested. What I wanted when I picked this up was a quick and entertaining read; what I got was a much more fulfilling novel than I'd expected. Very pleasantly surprised.

You might notice that -- with one exception -- all of these books are quite recent. After That Hideous Strength (1945), the next oldest book was published in 1996. Opening it up to 4-star books, you get a few more "older" books -- a couple more by C.S. Lewis, a couple by Tolkein, some classic science fiction by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and Orwell's 1984. But even the oldest of these was published in 1938; they're still babies as far as literature goes.

What does this mean? Just what I've been emphasizing from the beginning, that I read what I like. Are any of these going to make it onto a "Top 100 Books of All Time" list? Probably not. But they serve my interests just fine.

And thus concludes my "Hitting 300" extravaganza! It's actually been quite fun looking back. Here's to another 300!


Read the rest of my "Hitting 300" blog series:
Part 1: A Look Back
Part 2: Let the Devil Sleep
Part 3: They Can't All Be Winners
Part 4: Saving the Best for Last

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