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2016 reading roundup | fantasy

Final post for my 2016 reading roundup! Now I have to come up with new content to post. I saved fantasy for last, since it can compete with sci-fi for sheer volume I read per year, and is further complicated by containing bits of several series. And while my love for the genre persists, I this year’s showing was less impressive.

Howl’s Moving Castle | Diana Wynne Jones

howlsmovingcastle2I’m really inviting hate here, but this book felt very much like a Neil Gaiman novel, but more effective. The best part of the writing is that humor and whimsy, and its meta acknowledgment of the tropes of fairytales. Occasionally the characters personalities grated on me (as trope, inequality in romantic relationships bugs me, especially when one character is falling for another over the course of a whole book and the other just sort of reciprocates at the last moment). But I was still very invested in how each mystery and misunderstanding would unfold. Of course, world building and side characters were also fun.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child | Not J.K. Rowling That’s For Sure

What the fuck did I just read? This play is a rollercoaster of bizarre from harry_potter_and_the_cursed_child_special_rehearsal_edition_book_coverstart to finish. Before I read it, I clung to a shred of hope that I would feel that spark I did with the books. Cedric was the only death (apart from Harry’s ‘death’) that made me cry in the books, so I was predisposed to forgiving the insane plot to save him. But this made no damn sense and the characterizations (particularly Ron) were so strange. Also, they should have just had Albus Severus and Scorpius fall in love. It was time.

Wildwood Dancing & Cybele’s Secret | Juliet Marillier

wildwoodWildwood ended being the second book about Transylvania and vampires I read this year without knowing that’s what I was getting into. I enjoyed the core story about a witch’s curse setting into motion a subtle plot that helps the main character fulfill her destiny without her realizing it. Unfortunately, both the story and the protagonist were bogged down with Tati’s subplot about falling in love with a not!vampire, both of whom were weak characters.

After Sarah recounted the plot of Cybele’s, I decided to cybelegive it a go since it was available as an audiobook from the library. I vastly preferred this to Wildwood, mostly because of the setting (Turkey) and historical context. Apart from the fact that once again a Marillier heroine chose the wrong boy, I felt uncomfortable with the plot twist about who the villain was. It was Dan Brown-esque, for one thing, and I don’t love the trope of feminazi villain. It had a lot of charming Marillier trappings, and was a pretty read. It’s hard not to compare everything she writes to Sevenwaters, but I found this duo fell short of her best.

 

The Historian | Elizabeth Kostova

the-historianI totally forgot that this book was about Dracula until I started reading it. I would have put it down after the disappointment of Sunshine, but I found myself thoroughly entertained. So much so, that I checked reviews to make sure it wasn’t outrageously popular and I just missed it, and that’s exactly what happened. Something about the mystery and the mood Kostova evoked was compelling enough that I even went along with the anti-climax. I’m someone who loves a lot of gothic sensibilities, but find myself less-than-impressed with many of things that describe themselves as such. So it was all the more pleasant to find an exception in The Historian

The Magician King & The Magician’s Land | Lev Grossman

I finally finished the sequels to The Magicians, and am upset that I let myself wait so long to do it.the-magicians I let myself believe people when they said they weren’t worth the time, but as flawed as these books are, I found and enjoyed so much in them that I simply cannot see anywhere else. Yes, sometimes the pacing is strange and there are some patterns with characterization that need straightening out. But at its core its about people whose identities are very tied to certain fantasy series from childhood, and is a realistic representation of what it is like to approach life from the lens of someone who think9780670022311_MagicianKing_CVF.indds in those terms. It’s the level of meta I want to engage with constantly, and allows me to appreciate that the author started out as a critic.

Apart from the occasional overly edgy line, they’re also genuinely funny. Janet’s emotional arc was incredible, and Eliot will always be my favorite. Even Quentin, who was as annoying as people said he was, grew in a satisfying way. I was surprised at how well I liked Julia’s journey with Reynard, and also how much I needed to confront Ember and Umber for their BS. As world-building goes, this series approaches the rare glory of Harry Potter, with less whimsy but fantastic bite.

lost-colonyArtemis Fowl: The Lost Colony & Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox | Eoin Colfer

It was a total joy to return to Artemis Fowl, which also merits a comparison to Harry Potter in how formative it was for me. (I am forever seeking clever modern fantasy, and am forever disappointed in recommendations.) I was worried about returning to the series, since many of my friends and I gave up on it for losing its way, but the low time investment combined with the genuine charm they still have made it worth it.

Seeing the reversartemisfowltimeparadoxcovere-Holmesian structure to Artemis’s schemes was a great nostalgia trip into the beginning of my predilection for the Tony Stark/Dr. House rude genius archetype. I also enjoyed the introduction of the world of dogmatic demons, which felt very Douglas Adams, and look forward to the antics of the rebelliously sweet No1, now that he’s joined the team. Aside from one of the villains being a bit cartoonishly evil for a kids’ series that is about moral gray areas, I totally respect where Colfer is taking the series. I decided to save the final two books for 2017, since a little middle-grade goes a long way.

2016 reading roundup | graphic novels

My takeaway from this year’s adventures in reading comics was: I’m largely not going to ‘get’ the massively influential or popular stuff, but sticking to the couple of series I know I enjoy is quite rewarding.

The Killing Joke | Alan Moore

So, I’m sittingkillingjoke in my living room, talking to my roommate about comic books. She’s a big fan of the bat family and I like hearing her opinions on the goings on of the DC universe. I make curmudgeonly comments about Christopher Nolan’s political conservatism; she begins to rant about how overrated The Killing Joke is, on top of which, the recent animated adaptation, she says, takes a mediocre story and makes it worse! Alan Moore himself don’t consider it to be among their better work. “Oh,” I respond, “well it’s too bad I borrowed it from the library today just to find out what all the fuss is about.” And this, my friends, turns out to be a better plot twist than what I found in The Killing Joke.

Sex Criminals, Volume 3  | Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky sexcriminals_vol3-1

I was worried this series would lose its charm as it got weirder, but it hasn’t. It’s still delightfully real, and while  I was not totally on board with how it broke the fourth wall, I appreciated the emotional honesty. It is also just refreshing to read something progressive enough that an ace character is a given, not something to search for between the lines. I usually find it difficult to stay invested with such long gaps between volumes, but I am so glad I have stuck with this one, and look forward to seeing where it will go.

The Wicked + The Divine: Fandemonium, Commercial Suicide | Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie

I’m glad I accidentally waited until I could read two volumes back to back, because graphic novels are a slightly unintuitive medium for me, and this allowed me to get into the story more. I am definitely raising this series in the ranks of graphic novels I care about, just under Sex Criminals. Pop-stars as gods is just a great idea to begin with, and I really hope we get to see more international cultures’ reverence/devotion/obsession with their equivalent celebrities come into the story. The plot is no longer as slow-moving as it had been in the past, and I’m beginning to get a sense of where it might go. Hopefully, given the release structure of comics, it isn’t forced into rushing a conclusion.

Pretty Deadly | Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Ríos

The art is pretty, but I have the same problem with it as I generally do wMARVELCoverTemp copy.indtith graphic novels: I don’t feel like I’m experiencing the heightened emotions I’m supposed to be feeling as I read. The images scream “WHOA PLOT TWIST LOOK AT THAT”, and I’m thinking “Uh-huh, okay”. The overarching effect is that I feel like someone is trying to manipulate my emotions via blunt force, which is already grating, but they’re also really ineffective at it, which is exhausting. I keep thinking if I read more I will adjust, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes | Neil Gaiman

sandman-vol-1Gaiman’s very hit or miss for me, and this was a miss. There were a couple of arcs that worked for me, like the one in hell and a bit of the Constantine stuff, but I don’t feel compelled to  finish the series. As with everything well-known that I read, I’m just happy to finally have a semi-informed opinion.

 

2016 reading roundup | recs from friends

As I was creating categories for my posts, I realized a group of books were emerging as ‘miscellaneous’, in terms of genre. Many of them were among the most challenging to get through, and all of them were recommendations from friends, so I gave them this post. Several of the books I sorted into other categories could go here, but catch-alls gotta catch-all:

Await Your Apply | Dan Chaon

This book wayras pitched heavily on a plot twist, a good portion of which I guessed at early. But as a person who believes strongly that figuring out the plot doesn’t ruin a story, I have to say my lukewarm feelings toward the story don’t come from ‘spoiling’ it for myself, but from a distaste for the characters. From a sad, desperate man searching for his shitty, delusional brother, to Lucy, the quintessential teenage-girl-as-written-by-adult-man, I didn’t care what happened to any of them. They all could have been redeemed if I felt I could trust the book to be saying something true and necessary about schizophrenia, but instead mental illness was used as a crutch for a plot twist, like in a Hollywood horror movie. That isn’t always a bad thing, but since this novel has literary fiction aspirations, I think it’s a worthwhile criticism to make. I did think the ending was fairly well crafted, and became somewhat drawn in at the last moment, but were it not a such a high recommendation, I would never have read that far.

Night Film | Marisha Pessl pessl_night-film

Marley recommended this book because it is a mystery unfolding around a cult film director, with the caveat that the final 30 pages are to be ignored. I completely agree with her on that last part. This book completely sucked me in with the ‘is it supernatural or not’ mystery, and even though it is 600+ pages long, it never drags and I tore through it. I found the each of the noir-lite characters bland, and the mystique around both the film director and his dead daughter quite cheesy at times. But I so rarely find compelling mysteries, so Night Film still remains one of the better ones I’ve read.

Waiting for the Barbarians | J. M. Coetzee

This book came as a recommendation from a friend who said it’s one of his top 3-5 of all time, so I feel guilty about just how much I couldn’t stand it. It’s actually a little insane how much the explicit politics of the book conflict with my reading of it. The main character is a magistratwaiting-for-the-barbarians-by-j-m-coetzeee of an unnamed (white) Empire in some made up land of brown people, and spends the book struggling with conflicted feelings about his people’s abuse of locals. The microcosm of this feeling is focused on this blind native woman who he has a weird fetish for, and takes in and ritually bathes for some reason, and doesn’t sleep with, until he does. Her point of view is totally opaque to him, because he’s just such an awful person he can’t empathize with her at all, despite being fascinated and infatuated. The book is supposed to reflect what it’s like to be part of a society that is oppressing others but also entangled in it and victimized by it, which as an American, I thought would be interesting, but I honestly was just disgusted the whole time. I can’t believe it won a Nobel prize.

Sunshine | Robin McKinleysun

This book came passionately recommended by three long-time friends and I was disappointed to find I did not like it. The main character was profoundly uncompelling and annoying. She felt like grown-up Lyra from His Dark Materials, but somehow even less special. Also, I am mystified by the sex scene in the middle of the book: sudden, unnecessary, and totally without practical or emotional consequence. Again, some decent world-building, but in an era of a thousand books and shows where magic is real in modern times, it wasn’t especially mind-blowing given how thin the plot was.

Lexicon | Max Barry lexicon-max-barry

Yet another female lead in the school of Sunshine and Lyra that I could never quite bring myself to care about (while the male lead is boring until he very suddenly isn’t). Nevertheless, Like Night Film, this was an entertaining and compelling read, if not nearly as intellectual as it thinks it is. Reading it shortly after Snow Crash highlighted very clearly how similar the core ideas are. I finished it quite quickly, because the central mystery benefits from the alternating narrator structure. It would be a real waste if it were never made into a film, since the pace and visuals almost scream out to be adapted.

2016 reading roundup | science fiction

I probably read more scifi than anything else this year, and given how 2016 has gone, some dystopia research did not go amiss.

Altered Carbon | Richard K. Morgan

altered-carbonWe meet again, cyberpunk. How’ve you been, besides lurid?There are a lot of fun places you can go with a story where people’s minds can be re-sleeved into different bodies, and to Morgan’s credit, he actually explored a decent amount of it with the story he crafted. (One of my biggest Hollywood sci-fi pet peeves is only narrowly exploring the technological/social premise your story.) It’s a noir and retains some of the eye-roll-worthy gender dynamics of the genre, but the plot and world building were on point. I look forward to the Netflix series, chiefly because James Purefoy will be in it.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency | Douglas Adamsdirk-gentlys-holistic-detective-agency

What can I say about one of my top three favorite authors, Douglas Adams? He’s is a one hell of a satirist, as well as an adroit, imaginative sci-fi writer, and thus Dirk Gently is many of my favorite things in one place. It’s not quite the nonstop delight that Hitchhikers’ is, but literally nothing could be. The plot is a bit of a jumble, but it’s more about the writing and living in the scenes, moment to moment, anyway. Also, if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll appreciate some of that influence here, since this basically takes place in that same universe.

oryx-and-crake-22Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood

The concept and plot of this book appeal to me, but this execution was frustrating to read. I was bewildered by how the book handled fetishizing children/child pornography and every other conceivable human depravity. Ultimately it told what should have been a compelling story in a boring way, which can occasionally be the case with Atwood. It’s an insane sci-fi apocalypse caused by three people, so the story is told through their very mundane love triangle. The highlight of it all was the incredibly pessimistic world building, where the most prescient sci-fi ideas often live.

The Left Hand of Darkness | Ursula K. Le Guin n779

This is one of the better sci-fi books I’ve ever read, and explored some ideas about gender that are still very relevant today. It was also fascinating to me to see a female author write tropes and dynamics that I’m so familiar with in fandom and fan-fiction, but in a hard sci-fi book from 1970. Despite all but one of the characters being an alien, I was more invested in the people in this book than any other on this list. Without giving away the end, I will say I found Le Guin’s comments on her decision to use ‘he’ as a gender neutral pronoun and make her futuristic human character still have hang-ups about homosexuality pretty illuminating.

Lathe of Heaven | Ursula K. Le Guin

This is the seco59924nd story I’ve read exploring the idea of solving social ills by way of a single character with the power to make their dreams literally come true. I preferred this to Octavia Butler’s take, since it took longer with the premise and explored more thoroughly what an oppressive responsibility that would be. The relationship between the dreamer and his ‘therapist’ had strong parallels to the relationship between younger and older generations, especially the frustration the latter have with the former’s so-called unwillingness to be bold and take control of situations, consequences be damned. And then, of course, blaming bad consequences, like a wrecked environment or social structure, on the weakness of that younger generation.

Snow Crash | Neal Stephenson 

img-snow_crashThe world building in Snow Crash is why this book is so well-loved and famous, and the praise is totally deserved. It is, after all, why avatars are called avatars and Google Earth is called Google Earth. But I had no idea it was going to be funny and satirical as well, which was a wonderful Hitchhiker-s-y bonus. (Because if this book were serious, it would be a serious book about a super elite hacker who walks around with katanas and is the best swordsman in the world…) The plot makes almost no sense at the end (oh, Stephenson) and some of the characterization, especially of the main female character, leaves a lot to be desired, but it is very much worth a read.

pattern-recognitionPattern Recognition | William Gibson

Pattern Recognition is a rare treat: smart sci-fi writing that blends high concepts and a deep knowledge of cultural trends, but doesn’t sacrifice character.  I was not especially emotionally invested, but subtlety can be so rare in sci-fi, that it was a delight to find myself reading so closely. The ending was slightly underwhelming, given how highly the book rated in every other area, but I will definitely be reading more Gibson in the future.

2016 reading roundup | LGBT edition

I was pleased to find that I read enough books with LGBT leads that they get their own post, hooray!

4703553The Cold Commands | Richard K. Morgan

As bleak, grimdark fantasy goes, I prefer Morgan’s style to a lot of others, but this entire series is incredibly hard to follow. I love that one of the leads is a black lesbian warrior who is the last of her intellectually and technologically and culturally sophisticated race left to advise an infuriating human king. I like the mix of sci-fi and fantasy. I am emotionally invested in Ringil (and just want him to be okay). But I can barely explain to you what happened in this book, so read it, enjoy it, and then explain it to me, please?

Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, Traitor’s Moon | Lynn Flewelling

These books are pure fantasy fun. The writing can be too over-the-top Ren-Faire at times for me, but the fantasy I read growing up was nevflewellings8er this classic sword and sorcery stuff, so it was nice to get a taste of it. Flewelling’s choice to be incredibly restrained with the readers’ insight into her characters’ emotional journey is the biggest drawback, though. I’m reading the book for the central relationship between Alec and Seregil, and it’s rendered kind of awkwardly in many ways. I do like the political games, and the female characters are diverse, strong, and well-drawn.

Gypsy Boy | Mickey Walsh 51lhjsz0tfl-_sx323_bo1204203200_

I had been searching for a book like this for a long time. As we all know, gypsies are among the most romanticized, maligned, and controversial minority groups out there, and because their communities are so insular, it’s rare to hear their story from their point of view. So when Stephen Fry recommended this autobiography, I picked it up at the book-go-round. Warning: it’s a relentlessly heartbreaking story, since the author is gay and did not fit in with his community, and was brutally abused by his father though his entire childhood. But the reward is a fascinating insight into an otherwise opaque world, and a real-life happy ending. I recommend it to anyone interested in traveling folk and gypsies; it’s a very quick read.

Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, Kings Rising | C. S. Pascat

captive-prince-seriesThey took me a few hours a piece and were so fun. The central romance takes a while to unfold (if incredibly emotionally oblivious point-of-view characters frustrate you, this isn’t the book for you) but the background politics and world-building were a good Kushiel’s-lite.  If you were thinking about reading them and hesitating like I was, go for it: they’re like candy.  Stray thought: I think these are considered fantasy, but there’s no magical or supernatural element, so maybe it’s sci-fi by way of speculative fiction?

2016 reading roundup | classics

Reading classics always feels like such an accomplishment, because you’re finally in on a bit of cultural literacy, and this year the ones I picked treated me particularly well, so it was doubly satisfying.

animal_farmAnimal Farm | George Orwell

There’s nothing to say here that hasn’t been said in a thousand high school essays, except I’m glad I got to it and had a chance to experience first hand just how relevant it still is. I genuinely enjoyed it, too, and was relieved to find it felt less repetitive than 1984. I definitely thought the most quotable and insightful lines were not the most popular ones.

king-800x0-c-defaultThe Once and Future King | T. H. White

The greatest unexpected delight on this list. This is actually a series of four books (Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, The Candle in the Wind), and each one was beyond charming. I don’t usually read young adult books, but as this was a very influential piece of Arthuriana, I picked it up for research for my pilot. Apart from the author’s obvious mistrust of women, I have no real criticism. It gave me some great inspiration for both Arthur and Lancelot, and was just so funny and poignant.

pride_prejudice_allen_thomson_coverPride and Prejudice | Jane Austen

I’d somehow never read Jane Austen before now. (Well, I gave up on Sense and Sensibility in seventh grade and deemed it old-timey chick-lit for a long time, but I finally came to my senses.) I savored it, and was surprised at how more or less every scene has made it into the adaptations I’ve seen, so there wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. Also, can we talk about how horribly dysfunctional the Bennet parents are? I feel like that gets glossed over, because Mrs. Bennet is straight up INSANE. Still, gotta love that banter. I need more books that really get into the minute information that is conveyed in social interactions and the flow of power between people because of them. It’s why I like so much of Orson Scott Card’s stuff, so I totally buy Austen as the mother of game theory.

Watership Down | Richard Adamswsd

Once again, I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Growing up, I never bothered with books with animal protagonists having faux-medieval adventures. But Adams is different. His incredibly imaginative rabbit society, mythology, and language is based on real research on how they live and so it felt like reading sci-fi. As with Once and Future King, I had to set aside that his female characters were terrible, but on the whole, I don’t regret reading it.

 

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde | Robert Louis Stevenson

I approach ol307104c277761bb2c2a4c2fdf35b25b3d-timey sci-fi with A LOT of caution, but for the fourth time on this list, I was pleasantly surprised. The writing and story is genuinely creepy and unnerving, and a breeze to get through. My instinct with something like this is always: why hasn’t someone done a strong, not-cheesy adaptation yet? The time is now, people.

2016 reading roundup | books by TV personalities

After a hiatus thanks to WordPress trouble, I’ve decided to abandon the idea of going in chronological order of the books I read in 2016 and group the books I read together by genre or some other theme.

51mss1f2edlThe Gun Seller | Hugh Laurie

It started out relying heavily on some annoying noir gender tropes, which exist throughout, but is more than funny enough to overcome them. I was very entertained and even laughed out loud at various parts, and remain jealous of Hugh Laurie being a what, like, quadruple threat? (He humanized himself in the middle though with this weird soapbox rant on the double standard of expecting men to last a long time in bed.) The ending is a bit long, but I would love to see a movie adaptation. 

Why Not Me? | Mindy Kaling 41w9cugrkwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

I listened to this audiobook this right before I knocked out my Mindy spec to have her voice in my head, which worked perfectly. Her approach to work, writing, and her career has always been something I have looked up to and felt like I should learn from– particularly because we’re such different people, but if I succeed I WILL be compared to her. So once again I appreciated the straight talk. The anecdotes about her life were more entertaining than her last book, and I ate up the whole chapter about her fling with Will-the-White-House-guy.

1015902-_0Back Story | David Mitchell

My favorite British panel show guest and angry-ranter! I was surprised at how much I learned from Mitchell’s autobiography. There were of course lots of delightful funny anecdotes about his career and friends, of course. But I got a lot out of the sections about how college works in the UK, and what the process of TV development is like over there. It felt like a very useful counterpoint to other comedians I’ve read, both in practical terms and his ‘philosophy’ on comedy writing. So thanks, Laura, for the birthday gift.

Not My Father’s Son | Alan Cumming static1-squarespace

I recommend listening to this on audio, because it’s a very personal and emotional story, and it’s best heard from the man himself. This isn’t a typical autobiography, it’s about one tumultuous summer and specifically about his relationship with his father. There are some moments that are slightly self-indulgent in their melodrama, but I chalk that up to Alan Cumming probably just being a lot more sensitive than I am. I also read it during a week of tangentially relevant craziness and found myself genuinely moved by the story.