read in 2014

Lists of books!

For those of you who like Lists of Things, I did some blog maintenance thing yesterday and updated my ‘Read in 2014‘ list and created ‘Read in 2015‘. Go see! They are sort of terrifying, aren’t they? How much free time do I really have?

If you want to know why I keep lists of things I read, it’s because I am one of those People Who Like Lists, because it’s fun, and because I tend to remember events in my life through books. A book can remind me where I was or what I was doing when I was reading it. I read Anthony Marra’s The Tsar Of Love and Techno while camping this summer. I read Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls while waiting for a plane to Toronto in January. I obviously went through some period this summer when I wanted to read only emotionally wrenching books, judging by this lineup:

  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs Of Children
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

All of these are very good, by the way. But not light.

Other reading trends:

1) There are some graphic novels I read and reread in a span of a few weeks. I am a dedicated comics rereader. A) they don’t take a long time and B) I like to binge on series in comics. I have my annual reread of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan whenever I start feeling too good about people.

2) There is way more poetry in 2015. Me reading poetry is something relatively new. There was an entire period in my life when I was convinced I could only read poetry in my native language. Now it’s more or less a staple of my reading diet.

3) More plays in 2015, also a new phenomenon.

4) There is way less speculative fiction in 2015. I had what I call ‘genre-fatigue’ for a few months (one of the reasons I stopped writing here). I could only take my sci-fi/fantasy in comics form.

5) Apparently I read Alex + Ada volume two, but not one? Doesn’t seem right.

6) I don’t list single-issue comics. It’s a personal preference.

7) I’ve read 192 books in 2014. Didn’t quite make it to 200. TOTAL FAILURE. Kidding.

So there you go. Lists. Now onwards to read 200 books this year!

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Reading update: Stephen King’s Revival

In case you didn’t know, Stephen King has a new novel coming out tomorrow (November 11th). He is up to 54 or so books now, which means he has a separate ‘Bibliography’ page on Wikipedia. It also means it’s quite unlikely to find a reader who loves everything King has ever done.

I always say I like King in general. I like his mode of storytelling, his style, his imagination. I also really don’t like some of his books (*cough* Dreamcatcher *cough*). Gunslinger is still one of my favorite books, but I never finished the Dark Tower series because I could not get through the last three volumes.

revivalAnd now there is Revival. It’s a cool story. A young minister comes to a small town, befriends a kid named Jamie Morton. After a family tragedy, the minister delivers a sermon filled with loss of faith in god and is subsequently banished from the town. The novel follows Jamie Morton through his life. He meets the minister again. There is rock-n-roll, and drugs, and terrible dark things.

And yet, I plodded through this book. It might be that it was not dark or weird enough. It might be that the pacing was not to my liking. Whatever the reason, I was not along for the ride. That said, my friend, who was looking for a less terrifying read, liked it. We are just different King fans, I guess. Maybe I should go and finally read The Stand instead.

One interesting thing I noticed is how much of himself King puts in his novels, and in what ways. I’m not talking about meta-writing himself into books (see the later Dark Tower volumes), but more about having characters reflect his worldview and philosophy. In most cases, I don’t even know if his characters think and voice his opinions, but it feels like they do. There is a certain lack of subtlety and palpable desire to work some things out through fiction, especially in King’s later works. All writers do that, I think, but they do it in different ways at different times in their careers. The cool thing about King is that because he has so many novels out there, you can get a glimpse into his mind and decide which King you like best.

Absurdist non-fiction: Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible

pomerantsevIt looks like I’m on a non-fiction bent again. This time it’s Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. It’s a great book in many ways. Pomerantsev is a sharp observer, and he is both critical and empathetic in his observations. The book is non-fiction, but as you read it, you realize that you almost cannot believe all the stuff inside. It reads like an absurdist novel. See this quote:

Sorry, said the dean, though the Institute of Cybernetics was still officially a university, the salaries were so low all the staff were now involved in trading fish.

It’s like an Ilf & Petrov novel. Diamonds sewn into chairs. Douglas Adams comes to mind. Absolutely ridiculous things, and yet I know they are true. I lived in that country. I remember when the whole new class of nouveau riche appeared. There were jokes about dudes trying to outdo each other with money (‘the ashtray in my Mercedes got full, so I bought a new Mercedes’ or ‘you paid $240 for this tie? I got the same one for $350!’-type stuff).

At one point Pomerantsev calls the new Russia ‘the vast scripted reality show’, and a sort of ‘postmodern dictatorship’ (i.e. the country that ‘uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’). Reality is bent, news is faked, and Russian ‘business’ terms are impossible to express in English when Berezovsky and Abramovich have a showdown in the courtroom:

…historians are called by both sides to explain the meanings of “krysha” (“protection”) and “kydalo” (a “backstabber in business”)…

It might seem like just another book about how bad Putin is, and how corrupt everything is in Russia, but it is a valuable and in many ways unique account. Pomerantsev worked in Russian TV, and that alone allowed him greater access to people and sources. There are many heartbreaking, terrifying, and almost unbelievable stories. This book reminded me of why my parents were so eager to leave the country,  and why my father did not want to run a small business there. He left because he knew he could not be successful and honest at the same time.

Reading update: Brust with more Brust and some more Brust

hawkbrustI apologize for falling into a sink hole of Real Life this week and not posting anything longer than what you should read while you wait for the new Game of Thrones book. Work has been extremely busy, my laptop is still out of commission, and most nights I don’t really want to do anything but sit and read something fun. Which brings me to my next point: at least four people on staff are now reading all of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books. It’s an epidemic. There is a new one coming out next week, in case you want to join us in our reading/rereading obsession.

I have a terrible confession to make: I had not read a single book by Brust until two days ago, when I got The book of Jhereg (my friend this morning: ‘You have never read Brust?? I feel like I have failed you.’). Well, do not worry, I have already plowed through Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla. This reading is cutting into my sleep time, and it almost cut into my being-at-work time one morning. I doubt I will review these, unless I do a reread, but there are plenty of delightful write-ups out there: Little Red Reviewer has a few blog posts (you can start with The Book of Jhereg, if you want), and Jo Walton did a series of posts on these at tor.com as well.

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

Reading update: Scalzi, Atwood, Leckie

It’s been a pretty good week in terms of reading. After deaccessioning some of my book collection, I once again picked up a pile of books at work because of the powerful bookstore mind control aura, and thus had to initiate a new phase of the ARC Pile Demolition Project.

I also realized that my job now includes a number of rather tedious solitary tasks that are perfect for listening to podcasts and short fiction. I have a notoriously bad history with audio books, but short fiction is just short enough to hold my attention. Clarkesworld is currently my favorite when it comes to short stories on audio.

Paper books were also consumed this week:

Lock In by John Scalzi. In my opinion, this is Scalzi’s best book so far. I’ve read most of his stuff, though I did not finish the Old Man’s War series (not because it wasn’t good, it just sort of went the way of all unfinished series, even good ones). I do not belong to either Scalzi super fan camp nor to his haters/detractors’ camp. I was not impressed with Redshirts, but I enjoy most of his books, and I definitely enjoyed Lock In. This one has great ideas and a setup that for the first 100 pages or so will make you feel like your brain is about to turn inside out.  As is with all Scalzi’s books, it’s fast-paced, dialogue-rich, and yet it’s much less funny than his other fare. It is very much social sci-fi, as it touches on health care legislation, minority group culture, and relations with Native Americans, among other things.

stonemattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is, as always, snarky, pithy, bold, and honest. This collection could almost have a subtitle of ‘people obsessed with sex’. Well, of course they are. In this case, most of these people are older, with a slew of marriages, divorces, children, and other assorted life experiences on their dance cards. The first three stories are interlinked, but the rest are standalones. Atwood is damn good whether she sticks to mostly realism, or wades into fantastical. This is out on September 16th (look! I read an ARC!)

My short story obsession continues with something like four anthologies and  collections in progress/rotation. I also rediscovered my long-dormant love of horror, so dark and disturbing tales will crop up in my post in the next few weeks. If short stories are your thing too, you can join Matt at Books, Brains and Beer for his Jagannath readalong, which is a fantastic little collection of stories.

I have also attempted to consume my bookgroup book for this month, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is my second attempt, and it is with great sadness that I announce my inability to get past page 50. This book is now officially the Ulysses of my genre reading. I really wanted to like it, and there are some interesting themes in it, but the prose seemed so bland that I felt my eyes just moving along the page without capturing any meaning.

Also, my laptop keyboard gave up the ghost and now types zeroes between every letter. Useful for my KGB missives, not so useful for blog posts. It’s going to be that kind of week.

Curiosity killed the explorer: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

One cannot meddle in the affairs of other species across interstellar distances without spacecraft.

All kids allegedly want to be marine biologists when they grow up. I don’t know if this is really true, but I did want to be one. I remember having a lovely illustrated encyclopedia of marine life that I lugged everywhere for at least one whole summer. I knew it by heart. I can still see it in my mind, usually opened to the cephalopods section. I still harbor deep love (One! Two! Two marine puns!) for things with tentacles.

Crustaceans were not really my thing. But objectively I could see they were also fascinating. If they are your thing, however (and not just with garlic butter), you will enjoy A Darkling Sea. Crustacean aliens are one of two alien groups you will meet within. The other one is not an underwater species, but it’s equally as odd.

All action takes place on the planet humans call Ilmatar. It is covered in a thick sheet of ice with a layer of ocean underneath. A group of humans occupy a base on the bottom of the ocean, where they study Ilmatarans, an intelligent underwater species. Having a base on the bottom of the ocean, of course, is not as easy as just plonking down a bathyscaphe Captain Nemo-style. There are pressure and temperature challenges, to name just a couple of things. There are little infodumps throughout the book that tell you how you, too, can send a team to live and do science under the sea.

Where the explorers go, conquerors and exploiters always follow.

darklingIn a nutshell, this is what another alien species called Sholen think of humans’ attempts to study the Ilmatarans. They consider humans ‘a stain on the world’ of icy Ilmatar. Sholen have an uneasy truce with humans: as long as humans don’t disturb (and Sholen determine what that means) the underwater aliens and don’t interfere with their life and culture, they can conduct their studies. Unfortunately, this arrangement crumbles when one of the humans decides to go out and take a closer look. It sounds like fun and games until a group of Ilmatarans capture him. For science. They don’t really mean him harm, but not being human, they are not up-to-date on human physiology, and so they end up dissecting him out of curiosity.

There are many layers to this book. Sholen are not simply meddling ‘grand panjandrums of alien contact’. The couple sent to Ilmatar to investigate the researcher’s death face their own political hurdles at home, and their decision about whether the death is an accident or not can have serious consequences. Ilmatarans have a pretty complex society themselves, and different groups of Ilmatarans end up having different types of interactions with both human and Sholen.

Curiosity is really the thing that ties the novel together. Humans are curious about Ilmatarans, Ilmatarans are curious about humans, certain humans are also curious about Sholen (for example, how their foodmaker works, not to mention their leader/follower relationships that hinge entirely on pheromones, physical contact, and sex). It’s a powerful force that appears to tie all the cultures together.

A Darkling Sea is a nice mix of adventure, first contact, cultural miscommunication, and a slew of other themes that don’t seem like tropes mostly because the book is a lot of fun to read. Plus, it has some neat discussion of language and writing systems, if you are into that sort of thing (see ‘sound writing’ on page 204), as well as amazing descriptions of food. Doesn’t your mouth just water when you read this:

The meal began with subtle vegetable tastes mixed with stimulants, progressed to strong spices and disinhibitors to improve the conversation, and wound up with aphrodisiacs and a mild narcotic with a blend of pickled fruit flavors.

Or maybe this is more up your alley (or underwater trench):

There are cakes of pressed sourleaf, whole towfin eggs, fresh jellyfronds, and some little bottom-crawling creatures Broadtail isn’t familiar with, neatly impaled on spines and still wiggling.