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.

2016 reading roundup | part one

This year, for the first time since I began in 2011, I met my 50 book challenge! Usually I write a short review of what I’ve read on Facebook and recommend things to friends I think will like them. Since there are too many books for that this year, I’m parceling them out into five-book-blog-posts a couple of times a week.

So, without further ado:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed | Jared Diamond


I was pumped to read this book as research for a pre/mid-apocalyptic writing project I was working on, and while it had some interesting ideas and a number of very interesting anecdotes, I can’t really recommend it. Around halfway through, I became somewhat exhausted by the writer’s agenda. (This is often the problem with non-fiction: theses without enough interesting, relevant supporting evidence or arguments to fill a whole book.)

It is noble to want to create momentum around climate change, but this was starting to feel disingenuous, borderline intellectually dishonest toward the end. Turns out, I learned, my feelings were not unfounded: many experts in sociology and related fields find Diamond’s work wanting. In particular, his characterization of what happened to the native population of Easter Island is completely misleading. The upside is that I learned my lesson about pop nonfiction, and steered away from reading other books (like Malcolm Gladwell’s) that, in attempting to simplify complicated ideas, distort them.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat | Oliver Sacksoliver-sacks-1

I’d read pieces of this in various psychology classes in college and deeply enjoyed both the content and Sacks’s writing style. I’m so, so glad I finished it all these years later, because it exceeded my expectations by far. There are a couple of mildly patronizing and problematic moments, but overall, it’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s easy to find human interest stories about all the quirky ways brains can fail and the ensuing results, buts Sacks’s reflections about what that means our humanity are inspiring without being trite. It deserves its place among the most beloved non-fiction titles around.

This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress John Brockman

Another surprise hit for me! I heard about the book on Freakonomics and was continually impressed with how thought provoking and insightful the essays were. There was the odd dud, but I learned so much that it didn’t matter. It turned me into one of those people who couldn’t stop bringing up trivia from the book  in conversation.(Did you know testing medicine meant for humans on rats is nearly useless and we basically only do it because it’s convention?) I am tempted to buy a copy, since I’ve forgotten some of the essays and want to revisit them. Warning to anyone who wants to read it, the toughest, most esoteric essays are all at the beginning, so don’t get intimidated!

The Red Tent | Anita Diamant91duubslrzl

An old recommendation from multiple friends, which I finally got to this year. This book is essentially Mists of Avalon but for the Bible. A lot simpler, and I think possibly more grim as it lacks the spirituality of Mists, but an plainly written, worthwhile read. Because there are some tedious moments at the top, I was taken aback by how emotional I became at the end. If you grew up in a Judeo-Christian household it might mean significantly more to you than it did to me. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the subversion of legend and its refusal to pull its punches. 

The Cold Commands | Richard K. Morgan

4703553As grimdark fantasy goes, I prefer Morgan’s style to a lot of others, but the plot of this series is difficult to follow. I love that one of the leads is a black lesbian warrior who is the last of her intellectually sophisticated race, left to advise a petty and short-sighted human king. I like the mix of sci-fi and fantasy. I am emotionally attached to Ringil and fiercely want him to be okay. Yet, I couldn’t now tell you how the story fits into the overarching fantasy-meets-aliens plot of the trilogy, which is a shame because it seems sophisticated and subversive.

(I saw a lot of criticism of his explicit sex scenes on the fantasy subreddit, and while they are graphic, I don’t find them juvenile or off-putting. They’re on the same tier as his descriptions of violence. Another prominent fantasy author also felt he wrote his gay sex scenes in an intentionally baiting, in-your-face style, which leads me to think the discomfort has more to do with the male-male sex than it does with the ‘luridness’ of his writing style.)

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