At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal (through Goodreads) to read at least 40 books this year. In 2010, I’d barely managed 25. This year, I hit 42.
I think a lot about reading. It’s one of my longtime favorite activities and as a writer, it is absolutely essential. It’s good in so many, many ways but, just like a lot of things which are good for us, sometimes we simply don’t take the time to prioritize and fit them into our lives. I had a lot of time through my job last year and through riding the bus every day. But now, sans job and therefore also bus, I’m going to have to be a little more conscious about making sure I do read.
And being a little more conscious about what I’m reading and what I’ve read so that in a year or two or ten, I haven’t completely forgotten everything. Goodreads has helped with that, but I’m still not very good at writing down my thoughts. So I collected together all forty of the books I read last year and wrote a little bit about each – a short blurb on what it’s about, then what I thought. I’ll share with you just the last fifteen or so, but in the coming year I’m going to have a monthly weigh-in post on what I’ve read and my thoughts. Because I freaking love books and a lot of what I’ve read recently has come from fellow bloggers’ recommendations and I’d like to pass that along.
Read on for a 2011 review – in books:
- The Dervish House by Ian McDonald – A strange, semi-futuristic… thriller? set in Turkey with three different storylines and too many characters and some interesting side plots. I say too many characters because I thoroughly confused several of them for a number of chapters, resulting in otherwise not-there incest and awkward situations. The ideas were interesting and sometimes the story bordered more on surreal than sci-fi, and it got more and more complicated and intricate and intriguing, only to come together a little too neat and perfect at the end. It was good, if somewhat hard to see what the heck was going on, and I might try other stories from this author in the future, but he won’t be on any of my “must read!” lists.
- Embassytown by China Mieville – What happens on the edge of the universe when a species learns to lie. Which is in no way, shape or form a proper description, but I cannot otherwise condense the immensity and complexity of the plot into a single sentence. I am an avid fan of Mieville’s (go read City and the City NOW) and loved this immensely. It is a step up and away from his previous books, heading distinctly into a more hardcore sci-fi direction, but without losing that fantastical, bleeding edge. Plus, this book is all about Language and Metaphors and Similes and it’s a linguaphile’s wet dream. I had a hard time getting into it and getting situated in such a bizarre world, but it was so worth the effort.
- Feed by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) – This solidified my love for Seanan/Mira. In a world where the zombies have risen and civilization did not wholly collapse, bloggers have largely taken over for traditional news. And presidential campaigns go on. Georgia and Shaun win the bid to be the official news team for that campaign, but a string of “accidents” hint at a conspiracy that could endanger not only the election, but the country. This is a freakin’ awesome book, and not only because it takes the zombie genre and runs like a kid hopped up on pixie stix, but the characters are awesome, the intrigue is awesome, and the author actually tried to make the science make sense. I would recommend this whole-heartedly. It’s not surprise Feed was nominated for this year’s Hugo Award.
- Deadline by Mira Grant – The sequel to Feed, we’ve graduated from a presidential campaign to a full-on national CDC conspiracy, complete with clones, mad scientists, and, of course, zombies. This is the second book in the trilogy – the middle child, if you will – but the story is self-contained and the action constant and, well, it just doesn’t disappoint as middle
childrenbooks are wont to do. If you took my advice and read Feed, then you damn well better read Deadline and Blackout when that comes out next May. Then, in the meantime, you and I can think on all the ways we’d like to throttle Mira for that ending in Blackout.
- Cryoburn by Lois Bujold – Miles, a king or inquisitor or something from a nearby world, is sent to Kibou-daini to investigate some strange going-ons with the local corporations and their cryogenic industry. It’s the nth of a long ongoing series, with Miles being one of the beloved main characters, which is very easy to pick up considering how thoroughly the story oozes with love for Miles. Frankly, it made me sick of him within a chapter or two. Maybe I would have liked this story if I’d read the series from the beginning, because so much was assumed and so much was inside jokes and so many of the characters were just blah in the presence of the Amazing Miles. Including the plot. It was an obnoxious read and somehow made corporate embezzling of cryogenically frozen grandmothers boring. Yes. Boring.
- A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin – The killing off of favorite characters and the reader’s hope is continued too many years after the somewhat disappointing Feast of Crows. Oh, Mr. Martin. Your writing is amazing and I have long since forgiven how you murder everyone whom your readers hold dear. If you have read the previous books in this series, then you’ll read this. If you haven’t started on this series, then I would advise you to wait until it’s done, so you don’t have to worry away at your fingers while waiting long and patiently for the next installment.
- Dune by Frank Herbert – Paul Atreides is but a boy when his father is murdered and he and his mother are forced to run and hide in the unforgiving wilderness of the desert planet Arrakis by the rival Harkonnen family. He’s also been raised in the mystical tradition of his mother to be an exceptional fighter and leader, so you know he’s not going to have that hard of a time of it. Dune is one of those books I was culturally aware of, but hadn’t ever gotten around to reading. It was an easier read than I had been led to expect and somewhat of a disappointment at the time. Now that I’ve had months to step back from it, I realize too much of my disappointment was colored by false expectations. It’s a perfectly cromulent book, and I can see why all the fuss was made even if it didn’t tickle me absolutely pink. Paul may be a bit OP and the other characters a bit stilted, but, well, sand worms!
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Having been abducted by aliens, Billy becomes unstuck in time, traveling back and forth from his capture and time in Dresden during WWII just prior to the firebombing and the rest of his sad life. I’d read a number of Vonnegut’s works, but somehow hadn’t touched on any of his more well-known novels. This one was typical Vonnegut, with that thin line between reality and fantasy so often rubbed out that you’re not sure whether or not to believe Billy was abducted by aliens, or if he’s just suffering from PTSD. It’s amusing and bleak in the way only Vonnegut can be. I can see why this particular one became a classic, even if it’s not my favorite of Vonnegut’s.
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – On a mad island in the Caribbean, the three children of Dr. Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atom bomb, hold his last invention close to heart and hostage: ice-nine, a kind of ice with a specific molecular structure that forces every molecule of water which comes in contact to take on that same structure and turn to ice. I picked up Cat’s Cradle thinking huh, that sounds familiar and was about halfway through when I realized that yes, I have actually read this before. That didn’t stop it from still being a uniquely interesting read, even a second time. Vonnegut explores not only the possibility and aftermath of a world-ending scenario, but also the absurdity of religion, and the madness of genius. It’s delicious, insane, depressing and probably my favorite of Vonnegut.
- The Lady who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky – The Lady was betrayed and killed, but her soul is bound in a gem and summoned regularly for days, years and centuries after. It’s a short story about immortality that couldn’t be any longer (or shorter). It’s also an interesting way to show the change brought on by time and shifting civilizations through the distorted view of someone whose own people are soon buried by time. The Lady is a musing on history, on women’s magic, on eternity, and on time.
- Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett – Football comes to Ankh Morpork, along with inevitable and heated sports rivalries and a demand request from the Patrician that the professors and students of Unseen University form their own team. They’ve also been instructed to integrate the candle-making and mysterious Mr. Nutt, who turns out to be both a pro at football and a number of other things. Oh, Pratchett. It’s been a while since I last read a Pratchett book and so this was simply a delight and a fun trip through Ankh Morpork and the Unseen University. It wasn’t as strong as some of the previous Discworld books and sometimes it wandered a bit too far from the main plot with side observations and quips, but it’s all true in that strange way Pratchett has and worth the detours. And at this point, I’d read anything by Pratchett, even (especially) his grocery list.
- The Last Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko – When a young man dies in Edinburgh from massive blood loss, obviously it must have been a vampire. But it’s never that simple for the Night Watch, the Others who keep an eye on the denizens of the Twilight who have opted for the “dark side” of free will, and Anton will have to match wits with Merlin to figure out what three rogue Others are searching for and (hopefully) stop the end of the world. Whew. Last Watch is a fitting end to the short Watch series, tying up all sorts of loose ends while giving us an answer to what the Twilight is. I also appreciated finally giving Anton, the MC of the series, some decent OP-ness for once, instead of having him constantly step aside for his betters. The Watch series has a lot of weaknesses, but overall its characters and stories are worth it and I’ve especially enjoyed the uniquely Russian take on urban fantasy. So on the one hand, I would probably read another book in this series if Sergei kept going, but I also hope this is it, because it just ties up well here.
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg – This is just a short and jolly little tour of this particular writer’s brain and methods. I picked up a number of books on writing back in September on a whim and a way to try and expand my otherwise nonexistent writing education (outside of just reading, of course, which I still maintain as the best writing education). It was one big eh for me, although I can see how it might help others. It’s a bit too full of typical writerly jibberish, which all sounds well and good and lyrical, but isn’t actually helpful and doesn’t really show or tell you how to do anything useful.
- Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose – The author goes through a number of selections in chapters which start by focusing on individual word selection and grows to larger themes like plot and characters and picks apart what they do right. Overall, I came away with the impression that anything works, as long as it’s written well, but not with an idea of how that well is achieved. Although an interesting tour through one writer’s – and reader’s – interpretation of literary classics, it shied away from what would have turned the book into a real learning experience: examples of failed writing. The author could have stood to be tenfold more critical, instead of accepting literary classics as the standard of all that is good and holy. I came away with a greater appreciation of simple sentences but a nasty aftertaste of literary pretension.
- A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night, Late Eclipses, and One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire – Toby gets into trouble and nearly dies in quite a few and wonderful ways throughout the continuing saga of her life while continuing to dance around the overarching question of who she is and why she was turned into a fish. I read the first in this series – Rosemary and Rue – back in the spring and decided to finish what was out there in one go. I really enjoy Seanan’s writing and characterization and style; she has fun when she wants, but doesn’t shy from occasionally darkening the story and murdering some of our beloved side characters. I will definitely be keeping with this series as it comes out, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their urban fantasy filled with caffeine-dependent fae.
- The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kitely – Another writing book, but this one is more of a writing prompt book, complete with some really interesting prompts. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of writing and starts with an overview before going into a number of prompts and then explaining why each prompt is the way it is. It’s a good read just to see the machinations behind writing and to think of some typical tropes in new ways. I did a few of the prompts, but I’m hoping to go through and do quite a few more in the coming year.
- Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride – Sam, a recent college drop-out, is content enough with his fast food gig, and very ignorant of his latent necromancy tendencies until an accident involving a potato and the headlight of a very expensive car brings him to the attention of Douglas, a wonderfully creepy, powerful, and rich necromancer, with some violent and unfortunate consequences. I may have been a bit more than thrilled by this book, and I will be the first to admit that yes, it has it’s flaws, yes, it’s not lyrically written, yes, it relies on some boring tropes, yes, some of the character jumping around could have been avoided. But, but, but – necromancy! And-and, Douglas! He is a man after my own heart. And there is a sequel coming out in May and I am going to read it and if it doesn’t have any psychopathic necromancers in it, I am going to be super disappoint.
Obviously, this may say more about me than it does the books themselves. If I were to recommend just one book to you, reader, to take away and read from this year, it would be Embassytown by China Mieville. It is gorgeous, haunting and smart, as well as frankly linguistic-tastic. If you love language – and I don’t know a writer who doesn’t – this is a must-read book.
What about you? How was your year in books? Is there anything in particular which stood out above all others, which you’d recommend in a heartbeat? As I set up my reading list for 2012, I’m looking for new things, so please share!