2014 #50BookChallenge

Well, I finished my 2014 #50BookChallenge by the skin of my teeth. I was on a pretty good pace, but then life derailed me in October, and I didn’t feel like doing much of anything for a few months.

But here’s the final list for 2014.

1. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

The continuing saga of the Stark & Lannister families. Fast-paced with a lot of page time for Tyrion Lannister, who I’ve come to quite like.

2. The Ghoul Goblin by Jim Butcher

Another solid win for Butcher. Compelling story, beautiful artwork, solid dialog and really evil baddies. Harry gets out of Chicago, too.

3. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

BBC performance by an amazing cast of talented actors – Cumberbatch, McAvoy, Head – the list goes on. Going to read unabridged novel next.

4. Dawn by Eli Wiesel

The second in a trilogy, Dawn sees a young man face his own mortality & uncomfortable choices when he’s forced to execute an innocent man.

5. The No-Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide by Dan Romanchik

A necessary read for anyone wanting to obtain their ham radio license. Condensed breakdown contains everything you need to pass the test.

6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (read by Elijah Wood)

Elijah Wood is Huck Finn. He nails the dialect, boyish charm and likeability of Twain’s best character. Slavery commentary is eye opening.

7. Amulet #1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kabuishi

Beautiful artwork and alt-world storyline bring this book to life. Aimed at a younger audience, but still enjoyable for this adult. Rabbits!

8. Peter Panzerfaust Volume 1: The Great Escape by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins

Peter Pan set in Nazi Germany with a ragtag band of orphans as the Lost Boys. Solid story, great lettering, beautiful art bring this to life.

9. What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

This was a short read that provided insight into what successful CEOs do before beginning their work day. Bottom line is that the most succesful people tend to be those who get up early and set aside time for exercise, meditation/prayer and family. I enjoyed reading it and learned a few things to incorporate it into my daily routines.

10. Amulet 5: Prince of the Elves by Kazu Kibuishi

This was a great entry in this series with a compelling storyline and beautiful art. I’m enjoying it, even though it is a little too YA for me. But, I’ll finish it out since I’ve invested time into it.

11. Otherwise Engaged by Amanda Quick

This is my obligatory, once-a-year romance read, but I was pleasantly suprised by this year’s entry. Amanda Quick *finally* moved away from paranormal romance (a blah for me) and went back to her bread-and-butter historical mystery. I loved the storylien between Benedict and Amity. The dialogue was great, the plot moved quickly and the book kept me engaged. A solid read for anyone who is a fan of Quick’s books.

12. The Walking Dead Vol. 19: March to War by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (artist)

Rick, Jesus and Ezekial must join forces if they want to remove Negan and his band of Saviors from their lives. In this installment, the three men work diligently to implement a plan that will finally give the three communities freedom from the extortionist band of maruaders. But something goes terribly wrong and now, the three men and their groups face all out of war.

As always, TWD offers a compelling look into what a world without rules might look like. As more and more people look to Rick for leadership, he questions whether he’s making the right choices. In addition, he must work to ensure Carl’s safety. Beautiful, stark and often horrifying art complement this volume.

13. The Walking Dead Vol. 20: All Out War (Part One) by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (artist)

Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom have joined forces to launch an attack against the Sanctuary, where Negan and his band of men have gathered. Rick’s preemptive strike doesn’t go quite as planned, though, and Negan retaliates against Alexandria, forcing Rick and company to find safety elsewhere.

This volume was definitely action driven, with panel after panel of gunfire, grenades and not a whole lot of zombies. That last distinction is important, as we see humanity fighting not against the undead, but rather themselves – a theme that becomes prevalant in the next issue.

14. The Walking Dead Vol. 21: All Out War (Part Two) by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (artist)

In this volume, Rick and his group face one final battle against Negan and the Saviors. The latter invent the post-apocalypse version of the dirty bomb – taking their weapons and rubbing and rolling them in zombies, thus infecting them with whatever accelerates the zombie mutation.

As they advance to the Hilltop for one last stand, Rick and his army must decide how to meet them on the battlefied.

I really enjoyed this final installment in the war trilogy. I feel like Rick has finally found himself again and is becoming comfortable with a leadership role once more. Carl is still struggling to regan his humanity, but Rick is there to guide him along. As the survivors come together, they must decide whether they’ll continue to fight one another or band together to unite against the zombie enemy.

15. Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager

This book started off slowly. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but initially, it read like an interesting, but dry, history lesson; however, as the scene was set, the story began to pick up pace and become more intriguing to me. I enjoy history, so I’m sure that helped me get through it during the slow parts.

I really enjoyed this book, learning more about France’s history – much of it was new to me – and discovering the underlying factors which led to the French Civil War. If you’re a history fan, I recommend reading it.

16. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

If you like post-apocalyptic books, read this book. If you’re an animal lover, read this book. If you love Colorado, read this book.

Peter Heller has crafted one of the best-written, post-apocalyptics stories I’ve ever read. It’s evident he’s a Colorado resident. He paints his state with reverance and care, instantly transporting the reader to plains and mountains that dot the landscape. The story centers on Hig, a pilot who flies a 1957 Cessna, and his blue heeler, Jasper, as they navigate life after a flu and blood-disease wipe out most of the American population. Living on an airfield with a gun fanatic named Bangley, the two take life day by day, protecting their small refuge while trying to retain some semblence of humanity.

This book could have easily been just another PA-book, but instead, Heller infuses it with love, warmth, danger and sadness. I’m not going to lie. There was a part where I sat and cried for a solid five minutes, even though I knew the part was coming long before I got to that page.

Do yourself a favor and pick up this book. It’s worth the time and tears.

17. Amulet #2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse by Kazu Kabuishi

18. Amulet #3: The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kabuishi

19. Amulet #4: The Last Council by Kazu Kabuishi

The Amulet series is a wonderful YA series where humans have been affected by a disease that slowly turns them into various animals and sea life. It’s inventive, wonderfully drawn and filled with action. I recommend reading it if you like YA graphic novels.

20. The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens

21. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

22. Peter Panzerfaust Volume 2: Hooked by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Tyler Jenkins (artist)

23. Murder in Murray Hill by Victoria Thompson

24. Plugged by Eoin Colfer

25. Skin Game by Jim Butcher

26. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

27. The Artemis Fowl Files by Eoin Colfer

28. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

This dark, gripping tale is told in Gaiman’s usual haunting way. As a man sets out on a quest, his story unravels and the reader learns of the treachery that took his daughter from him and the cunning he employs to avenge her death.

29. Darkwing Duck: Crisis on Infinite Darkwings by Ian Brill

30. Darkwing Duck: Duck Knight Returns by Ian Bill

31. Darkwing Duck: F.O.W.L. Disposition by Ian Brill

32. Darkwing Duck: Volume 4 by Ian Brill

33. Darkwing Duck/Ducktales: Dangerous Currency by Ian Brill

34. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard

35. The Autobiography of Black Hawk by Black Hawk

This was an audiobook read for me as I traveled to Las Vegas. As a Native American, I’m well aware of the atrocities committed against my tribe and other tribes. But, I’m not always aware of other tribe’s histories. This firsthand account from Chief Blackhawk of the Sauk Nation was compelling and gave me a glimpse into the lives of the Plains Indians and their struggle as the white man introduced their ways into their society and worked to eradicate the Native American way of life.

36. The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, the Mummy That Was, and the Cat in the Jar by Gail Carriger

37. The Wrath of the Just (Apocalypse Z) by Manel Loureiro

The final installment of Spanish writer Loureiro’s post-apocalyptic tale that spanned the globe. At one point, his narrator shifted perspective and it really threw the book off. But once he returned to his usual style, the story picked back up and concluded with a satisfying ending.

38. The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer

39. The Ripper Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

40. Peter Panzerfaust Volume 3: Cry of the Wolf by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins

41. Peter Panzerfaust Volume 4: The Hunt by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins

42. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

I have never been able to read the Narnia tales. For some reason, they didn’t appeal to me. But doing them as audiobook was satisfying and learning how Narnia was created and meeting the characters seen in the more popular The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe book helped me to appreciate the world Lewis created. I enjoyed this story very much.

43. Waistcoasts & Weaponry by Gail Carriger

44. The Walking Dead Vol. 22: A New Beginning by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (artist)

45. The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

I love how Gaiman takes a well-known story and flips it entirely on its ear. With his gothic overtones, shadowy figures and dark morality, Gaiman effectively weaves a haunting tale that empowers women, makes you question the truth of what is told to us as children and leaves you wanting more.

46. Hard Magic by Larry Correia

This is quite possibly my new favorite series. Correia seamlessly melds 20th century history with magic and produces an alternate universe in which Actives shape the world as we know it. I was enthralled with Bronson Pinchot’s narration – his range of voices is absolutely incredible.

47. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

48. Mind Slash Matter by Edward Wellen

49. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

50. Warning: Contains Language by Neil Gaiman

Petticoats and Poison – Just Another Day at Finishing School

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Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School Series #1) by Gail Carriger

Sophronia’s knack for mechanics and a tendency toward mischief are hardly desirable qualities for a Victorian lady, but they do make her an ideal recruit for Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

When the 14-year-old girl arrives, she quickly discovers her school is unlike any other. Classes taught by werewolves and vampires are merely the beginning. Along with music and dance, Sophronia is schooled in the arts of espionage and intrigue – hardly subjects her mother would approve of, but ones she takes to with passion!

However, Sophronia quickly discovers school isn’t all fun and games and soon finds herself immersed in a mystery whilst pursued by flywaymen and shady characters intent on attacking the Academy. Armed with her mechanimal, Bumbersnoot, and a group of steadfast friends, Sophronia sets out to uncover the truth and, hopefully, put a little polish on her finish before returning home for the holidays!

Etiquette & Espionage is a delightful story, and Gail Carriger does a terrific job with her young adult debut. Filled with humor and witty dialogue, the story easily entertains and keeps the reader turning the page. Carriger’s penchant for creative character names is in full force with offerings such as Temminick, Mrs. Barnaclegoose and Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, and she delightfully weaves in a few familiar faces (albeit younger!) from her wildly popular Parasol Protectorate series.

If you’re a fan of Carriger’s earlier books, you won’t want to miss the newest addition to her colorful universe. And if, somehow, you’ve never heard of steampunk’s comedic genius, this book is a great introduction to a world turned topsy-turvy by treacle tarts, flamboyant vampires, empowered women and flying dirigibles!

Blood Oath’s Nathaniel Cade is a far cry from your Twilight vampire

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Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth

Nathaniel Cade is no ordinary vampire. Called to service by President Andrew Jackson in the late 1800s, Cade has been protecting the Oval Office from supernatural threats ever since.

When rising political hot shot,Zach Barrows, is assigned as the vampire agent’s new handler, the two are thrown into a plot to stop Dr. Johann Konrad (also known as Baron von Frankenstein – yes, that Frankenstein) from creating an army of unstoppable monsters. But as they race against the clock, they discover the monster army is only the beginning. A far more sinister government plot is afoot – one that involves officials at the highest levels – and their target is the President of the United States.

With the vampire craze well underway – Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, etc. – it’s no surprise to find a vampire employed by the U.S. goverment. Farnsworth’s book is enjoyable enough, although the plot could use a bit more fleshing out every now and then. And, his love scene read like a teenaged-boy’s fantasy.

Other than that, though, Blood Oath was solid and entertaining.

Cold Vengeance serves up hot chase across the globe

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Cold Vengeance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

In Cold Vengeance, FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast sets aside his badge in order to pursue a personal vendetta against the man he believes is responsible for his wife’s murder. But it’s during his own brush with death Pendergast uncovers a startling secret: Helen is still alive.

This revelation sparks the agent’s perilous journey to discover the truth behind his wife’s orchestrated disappearance. From the Scottish Highlands to the steamy streets of New Orleans and finally back New York City, Pendergast’s search pits him against an ancient group determined to stop him from discovering the truth – no matter what the cost.

Cold Vengeance is, perhaps, the most personal story thus far in the Pendergast series. Although readers have been given glimpses of his humanity in earlier stories, this particular tale showcases the agent’s humanity as he desperately seeks answers regarding the loss and possible existence of his wife.

Set across the globe, the story takes many twists and turns as Pendergast unravels the mystery and, in the end, the reader is left with more questions than answers; however unsettling this may be, it perfectly sets the stage for the next novel in the series.

Extraction packs quite a creepy punch

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Extraction by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

For most children, the idea of a Tooth Fairy is a pleasant one, but in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the reality is much darker than any children’s tale. For instead of leaving their tooth under a pillow, children must deposit their tooth in a small bowl on the porch of a recluse’s mansion lest the old man Dufour come after what’s rightfully his.

For years, young Aloysius Pendergast has always viewed this ritual with scorn and derision, and he’s horrified when his younger brother, Diogenes, adamantly insists on honoring the superstitious tradition. Determined to teach his brother a lesson, Aloysius retrieves his brother’s offering and discards it.

But when Diogenes disappears the next day, Aloysius begins to wonder if the legends might be true…

Set between Cold Vengeance and Two Graves, this creepy, little gem of a story provides valuable insight into the relationship between FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his brother, Diogenes. Although Diogenes didn’t become unhinged until later in life, it’s easy to discern how Aloysius’s actions unwittingly helped shape the monster Diogenes would eventually become.

As always, René Auberjonois’ narration was excellent. The dulcet tones of Pendergast seem to come effortlessly to him, and I cannot imagine listening to anyone else bring our favorite Special Agent to life. It’s always a treat to listen to him slip between the characters and the narrator, and oftentimes, I forget I’m listening to only one person read the story.

Set at 30 pages, the original short is a quick read. If you choose to listen to it as an audiobook, the story clocks in at a mere 67 minutes – easily finished within one or two day’s commute.

If, like me, you haven’t finished Cold Vengeance yet, take heart: this story can be read without fear of spoilers!

Phoenix Rising (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series #1)

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Phoenix Rising (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series #1) by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

There are plenty of options when it comes to choosing a steampunk title. While some positively shine with creative plots, witty dialogue and nefarious machinations, others languish in tired storylines, subpar banter and predictable villainy.

Although Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel certainly doesn’t fall in the latter category, it doesn’t quite belong in the former, either.

The book’s premise is this: When corpses wash up on the banks of the Thames, devoid of blood and bone, Eliza D. Braun and Wellington – agents within England’s Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences – are thrown together as the most unlikely partners. The two agents must race against time to discover who is behind the evil lurking in the streets of Victorian England before it’s too late.

The book’s tag reads: Malevolence has met its match in Agents Books and Braun.

It might better read: Mediocrity has found its home in Agents Books and Braun.

Harsh? Possibly. But, all in all, a rather fair assessment.

As much as the reader wants to dive headfirst into a new steampunk adventure, it takes quite a while to actually become interested in the book. Even though it started out with a heavy action scene, the story fails in creating reader concern for the two main characters.

Books and Braun – an obvious play on brains and brawn – are good characters, but they’re presented in a way that makes it rather difficult to emotionally connect with them. It takes several chapters before the reader develops anything that resembles concern for the duo. Braun is rash and blindly charges into situations. Books is the snappy intellect who provides the voice of reason, even if Braun rarely listens. The dynamic feels clichéd.

Like in most novels, the two leads develop an attraction for each other, and it’s here where the story loses any momentum it’s managed to build. The romance is rushed and, at times, even forced. Without giving anything away, a key scene in which Wellington escorts Braun home smacks of fan fiction clichés and is disappointing. The writers fail in establishing believable reasons for the agents’ eventual attraction to one another.

That being said, the storyline is fair and occasionally amusing. There are better steampunk novels out there – Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series comes to mind – and on the whole, this is, at best, mildly entertaining.

The second book comes out in May 2013. Being a firm believer in second chances, I’ll most likely pick it up and see what’s in store for Agents Books and Braun. Hopefully, the two agents will have gotten their steampunk legs and embark on better-constructed adventure with a more heart and a solid plot.

The Iron Wyrm Affair

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The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Steampunk is in its prime, and there’s no shortage of books to satisfy whatever steampunk flavor you crave. From werewolves to vampires to flying dirigibles and the undead… it’s all out there for the savvy reader.

However, The Iron Wyrm Affair takes steam in a new direction, combining detailed mystical elements with the familiar, yet still impressive, logic-propelled machines that color most steampunk novels. 

The premise of The Iron Wyrm Affair is this: Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress to the Queen, has been tasked with protecting unregistered mentath Archibald Clare, all the while trying to deduce who is out to control or destroy Britannia’s reign. Aided by her shield Mikal – who may or may not be trying to kill her – Bannon must battle unsavory sorcerers, magnificent mecha, wyrms and flesh-feeding gryphons. And if she can avoid destroying another expensive gown in the process – all the better!

What sets this book apart from so many others that litter the steampunk genre is its exquisite attention to detail and the lovingly-crafted world which pays homage to Holmes’ London. Oftentimes, steam authors gloss over world building in order to focus on character development or to drive the pace of the storyline. But not Saintcrow. Her Londinium is a labor of love, each section of the city expertly detailed and given life as Bannon and Company wind their way through its streets, tracking down another piece of the mystery.

Saintcrow fully develops the magic mythos that plays an integral role in her story, and by doing so, creates a storyline that is not only compelling, but also believable. Magic isn’t an afterthought in this story. It is a major propellant, and as such, the reader must focus and absorb the magical foundation as it’s carefully laid. It’s refreshing to read a story in which the author not only encourages, but requires, critical thinking from their reader.

While many steampunk stories feature leads who inevitably fall in love with one another, the lack of romance between Bannon and Clare is a welcome change. With no sexual tension between Bannon and Clare, the reader observes a true respect and mutual admiration develop between these two without any underlying motive.

All in all, the story adopts a steady pace that never once feels sluggish or rushed, and by the end, solid relationships have formed between the cast of characters and an excellent adventure comes to a close.

I look forward to reading the next adventure of Bannon and Clare, and I suggest you move their first case to the top of your reading list.