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Steph’s Top Reads for 2014

| 5 January 2015 | Reply

The right book can inspire you to dream a little bigger, make you more observant of the world around you, or send you running for the safety under the covers. Sometimes it will do all three.
The right book will draw the reader in and won’t let them go until they turn the last page. Sometimes not even then.
The best books will stay with you, long after you’ve run out of people to recommend them to, and will call to you long after you put them back on the shelf.

These are the books that had me wanting to forget I had read them so that I could do it all over again. The books that have stayed with me throughout the year, and that I expect to stay with me going forward.


10: Prophecy of Bees by  R.S. Pateman


When Lindy, a recently widowed American expat, buys a large manor house in the Cotswolds, she thinks it’s the fresh start she and her wayward daughter Izzy need. Stagcote Manor is a large, rambling house with a rich history and Lindy is thrilled at the prospect of their new life there.
Izzy, however, is less convinced. She longs to be back in the hustle and bustle of London. There’s something unnerving about the house that she can’t quite put her finger on. And as Izzy begins to immerse herself in Stagcote life, she gradually realises the locals have a lot of strange and disturbing superstitions, many of them related to the manor.
When Izzy begins to investigate the history of the house, her unease soon darkens to fear as the manor’s dark past finally comes to light.

The Prophecy of Bees is great read for anyone who loved the creepy small town phase in movies and books ten years ago,  and anyone who likes their mystery with a little more supernatural thrill, rather than crime scenes.

9: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

stony mayhall

In 1968, after the first zombie outbreak, Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters discover the body of a teenage mother during a snowstorm. Wrapped in the woman’s arms is a baby, stone-cold, not breathing, and without a pulse. But then his eyes open and look up at Wanda — and he begins to move.
The family hides the child — whom they name Stony — rather than turn him over to authorities that would destroy him. Against all scientific reason, the undead boy begins to grow. For years his adoptive mother and sisters manage to keep his existence a secret — until one terrifying night when Stony is forced to run and he learns that he is not the only living dead boy left in the world.

Highly recommended for people who love zombies, and people who aren’t so sure on how they feel about zombies. A story for anyone who has ever felt themselves singled out or been considered one of the minority. And for anyone who likes a well written, well fleshed out story, full of characters you are sure you’d be great friends with, if they weren’t stuck inside the pages of the damn book!


8: Bird Box by Josh Malerman


Most people ignored the outrageous reports on the news. But they became too frequent, they became too real. And soon, they began happening down the street. Then the Internet died. The television and radio went silent. The phones stopped ringing. And we couldn’t look outside anymore. Malorie raises the children the only way she can; indoors. The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows. They are out there. She might let them in. The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall. Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them. Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.

Bird Box is a story about banding together and surviving, about group dynamics and how things can drastically change those dynamics as the world disappears around you. It’s a story that gives us insight into how we would deal if something so very integral (to a lot of us) was taken away.


7: Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell


The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases, hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex, that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.
Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.
Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies, and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law and Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.

This book is a fun, fascinating, and sometimes devastating read for anyone who has ever been interested in forensics. It deals with some rather difficult situations, but has enough humorous moments, interesting factoids about how certain causes of death manifest, and things that make you go “ewww” to keep you glued to the page.


6: The Martian by Andy Weir


Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.
It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Apollo 13 meets Cast Away in this grippingly detailed, brilliantly ingenious man-vs-nature survival thriller, set on the surface of Mars.
If you like space, if you like science, and if you ever, even for the shortest period of time, dreamed about becoming an astronaut, this book is for you.


5: The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst


It was only meant to be a brief detour. But then Lauren finds herself trapped in a town called Lost on the edge of a desert, filled with things abandoned, broken and thrown away. And when she tries to escape, impassable dust storms and something unexplainable lead her back to Lost again and again. The residents she meets there tell her she’s going to have to figure out just what she’s missing–and what she’s running from–before she can leave. So now Lauren’s on a new search for a purpose and a destiny. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll be found…
Against the backdrop of this desolate and mystical town, Sarah Beth Durst writes an arresting, fantastical novel of one woman’s impossible journey…and her quest to find her fate.

This was a slight twist on the old trope of a town you can never leave, as well as another overdone plot device that I can’t mention without spoiling it for you. However, the power of the story wasn’t in its twists on cliches, but rather in its people. 


4: Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss


The world can tip at any moment… a fact that fifteen-year-old Pearl is all too aware of when her mum dies after giving birth to her baby sister, Rose.
Rose, who looks exactly like a baby rat, all pink, wrinkled, and writhing. This little Rat has destroyed everything, even ruined the wonderful relationship that Pearl had with her stepfather, the Rat’s biological father.
Mum, though… Mum’s dead but she can’t seem to leave. She keeps visiting Pearl. Smoking, cursing, guiding.
Told across the year following her mother’s death, Pearl’s story is full of bittersweet humour and heartbreaking honesty about how you deal with grief that cuts you to the bone, as she tries not only to come to terms with losing her mother, but also the fact that her sister — The Rat — is a constant reminder of why her mum is no longer around.

Highly recommended for anyone who has ever been or come into contact with an emotional teenager, anyone who’s ever suffered a loss or known someone who has, and anyone who’s sick of young adult books about grief turning into just another teen romance.


3: Cracked by Eliza Crewe

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Meet Meda. She eats people.
Well, technically, she eats their soul. But she totally promises to only go for people who deserve it. She’s special. It’s not her fault she enjoys it. She can’t help being a bad guy. Besides, what else can she do? Her mother was killed and it’s not like there are any other “soul-eaters” around to show her how to be different. That is, until the three men in suits show up.
They can do what she can do. They’re like her. Meda might finally have a chance to figure out what she is. The problem? They kind of want to kill her. Before they get the chance Meda is rescued by crusaders, members of an elite group dedicated to wiping out Meda’s kind. This is her chance! Play along with the “good guys” and she’ll finally figure out what, exactly, her ‘kind’ is.
Be careful what you wish for. Playing capture the flag with her mortal enemies, babysitting a teenage boy with a hero complex, and trying to keep one step ahead of a too-clever girl are bad enough. But the Hunger is gaining on her.
The more she learns, the worse it gets. And when Meda uncovers a shocking secret about her mother, her past, and her destiny… she may finally give into it.

This book had all the right feels in all the right places, and even when I saw one twist coming from a ways off, I enjoyed the reveal, and there was sure to be another twist I didn’t see coming, close on its heels.
If you like a snarky, sarcastic main character, this book is for you! 


2: Lock In by John Scalzi


Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.
One per cent doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the United States, that’s 1.7 million people “locked in”…including the President’s wife and daughter.
Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.
This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

There’s action, there’s adventure, there are thoughts on what it means to be human, and there’s a big ol’ mystery to solve.
If you can appreciate good world building and a dark sense of humour, and if you like your sci-fi plausible, read this book. Now.


1: The Imaginary  by A.F. Harrold, Illustrated by Emily Gravett


Rudger is Amanda’s best friend. He doesn’t exist, but nobody’s perfect.
Only Amanda can see her imaginary friend – until the sinister Mr Bunting arrives at Amanda’s door. Mr Bunting hunts imaginaries. Rumour says that he eats them. And he’s sniffed out Rudger. Soon Rudger is alone, and running for his imaginary life. But can a boy who isn’t there survive without a friend to dream him up?
A brilliantly funny, scary and moving read from the unique imagination of A.F. Harrold, this beautiful book is astoundingly illustrated with integrated art and colour spreads by the award-winning Emily Gravett.

The Imaginary is about friendship, and about loving people as they are, even if the way they are is a little strange. It’s about imagination, and about being a kid. It’s about using your imagination from time to time, even if you’re “too old”, even if you forgot you had one for a while.


2014 Honourable Mention:

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Not every gift is a blessing…
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.
When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a ground breaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

I received an advance copy of this book through my work at a bookstore, back when I wasn’t reviewing every book.
The Girl With All the Gifts came out in 2014, but I read the proof copy in 2013. As such, and because I haven’t written a review, I can’t place it in the standard rankings. But it definitely needs to be on your to read list!
This was a book that kept me reading late into the night after long days at work. It’s a unique take on a well populated genre, and it doesn’t stoop to coddling it’s readers. This is the end of the world, guys. Shit happens.


“Well worth a re-read” Honourable Mentions:

Sometimes you need to re-read the really good titles, the ones you loved when you were growing up. Honourable mentions go to these three re-reads which I have not written reviews for, but which offered a well needed reset from time to time in a sea of new and unknown books.

3: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett:

Sara Crewe, an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative student at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies, is devastated when her adored, indulgent father dies. Now penniless and banished to a room in the attic, Sara is demeaned, abused, and forced to work as a servant. How this resourceful girl’s fortunes change again is at the center of A Little Princess, one of the best-loved stories in all of children’s literature.

A Little Princess is a book about imagination and about confidence. About not letting you circumstances get you down, and about friendship from unlikely places.


2: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine:

At birth, Ella is inadvertently cursed by an imprudent young fairy named Lucinda, who bestows on her the “gift” of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. Another girl might have been cowed by this affliction, but not feisty Ella: “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”
When her beloved mother dies, leaving her in the care of a mostly absent and avaricious father, and later, a loathsome stepmother and two treacherous stepsisters, Ella’s life and well-being seem to be in grave peril. But her intelligence and saucy nature keep her in good stead as she sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery as she tries to track down Lucinda to undo the curse, fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way. Yes, there is a pumpkin coach, a glass slipper, and a happily ever after, but this is the most remarkable, delightful, and profound version of Cinderella you’ll ever read.

Forget that awful movie ten years ago, with all the singing and dancing. This tale has some seriously dark moments. Ella has to throw away her hopes and dreams in an effort to protect those she loves from being dragged into the same cursed existence she leads.
This is a young book, with the ideal reading age somewhere between 8 and 14, but it doesn’t fail to put a smile on this twenty-eight-year-old’s face, and at a little over two-hundred pages, it’s an incredibly quick read.
If you ever loved princess stories, quirky heroines, or just a really good take on the Cinderella tale, try and get your hands on a copy of this one!


1: The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman:

Young Lyra is a feisty orphan, ward of Oxford’s Jordan College, in a world so very like ours, but in some ways incredibly different.
For one, each person in Lyra’s world is born with something called a daemon(demon), which is an embodiment of their soul.
A visit from her Uncle, and another from the glamorous Mrs Coulter, and Lyra goes from having clay wars with the children of Oxford, to travelling north in search of kidnapped children, and the true meaning of “Dust”.

The first book in this series is Northern Lights(UK) or The Golden Compass(US).
The trilogy features various battles between groups of people, all trying to gain the ultimate power, with a little girl caught up in the middle.
But Lyra is no victim; she’s the sort to go out there, take destiny by the hair and tell her, “No, I am not going down without a fight.”
She’s the sort to travel to the ends of her world, and then a few more besides, in an effort to help her friends.
Fair warning, this trilogy WILL break your heart, but it will stay with you forever.



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