Category Archives: Books and reading

Reading 2016

And welcome to my summary of the previous year’s reading. In some respects, this is much the same as previous years. I read 92 books in 2016. Some books were easily forgotten, others stuck in my memory. But looking over what I’ve chosen, I see only one nonfiction book this year. I did read more than that, and it’s not like it was all forgettable, but these novels were even more memorable. Plus, it’s easier for me to describe fiction than nonfiction.

Book covers of Three Parts Dead, Carry On, Children of Earth and Sky

  • Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (9/10; finished 1/12/2016): Okay, fine, you can’t judge a book by its cover (or I’d have disliked The Gospel of Loki (below)), but I really like this cover. And I really like the story inside this cover. (I’m not sure why it’s over a year later and I haven’t gotten around to reading the next book in the series. Note to self: do that.) The world intrigued me because of the combination of modern elements (necromancy bears an awfully close resemblance to contract law) with traditional fantasy elements like gods and vampires. But a fascinating world on its own is never enough. Good thing the plot had me turning the pages (well, tapping the e-reader screen) and the characters were realistic.
  • Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow by Rainbow Rowell (10/10; finished 2/17/2016):  I learned about this book when I read Rowell’s Fangirl in 2015, and had a moment or two of disbelief: seriously, Rowell went on and wrote the fictional novel in Fangirl? Well, yes and no. Carry On stands on its own, and I liked it more than Fangirl. Yes, it makes a gazillion references to the Harry Potter books (and The Magicians? and Twilight?)—that’s the point. But it would also do just fine in a world where none of those other series had been written.
  • Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (9/10; finished 5/25/2016): Every few years, my favorite fantasy author releases a new book. I automatically buy each one as they (slowly, so slowly) see the light of day. In this one, there is an alternate Renaissance Europe with many individual stories coming together to make a sweeping epic, made comprehensible by Kay’s skills of characterization.

Covers of Necessity, Roses and Rot, The Fifth Season

  • Necessity: A Novel by Jo Walton (9/10; finished 7/15/2016): Like I said last year, the Thessaly trilogy was due to wrap up, and I’d be getting that third book. It did and I did and this is it. The fantasy/philosophy novel became fantasy/philosophy/science fiction as the citizens of the Just City were moved to a new planet and a different time. (Greek gods and alien gods? Whee!) Definitely read the first two books (The Just City and The Philosopher Kings) before tackling this one.
  • Roses and Rot by Kat Howard (9/10; finished 8/22/2016): Back in college, I read Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and fell in love with it. And now I’ve found another retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad, and love it as well, without losing any affection for Dean’s version. As Disney has (finally) realized, there is true love beyond the romantic; in Roses and Rot, it’s sororal.
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (10/10; finished 9/21/2016): I delayed reading this book because I knew it was the first book in a trilogy, and I wanted to minimize the wait between reading it and its sequel. Only now I’m delaying reading the sequel to minimize the time between it and the last book. Yes, plot descriptions for The Fifth Season are a bit sketchy, but they have to be, in order not to be spoilers. A woman is on the hunt for her husband who killed their young son and then vanished, taking their daughter with him. Meanwhile, their world is dying from an induced volcanic winter. Did I mention the characters are engaging? Or that the world is interesting? Really, read the book.

Covers of Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Gospel of Loki, Moral Politics

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (8/10; finished 10/27/2016): I’m cheating a bit here. I’m going to remember this book because it impressed the heck out of me when I was a teenager, enough that I bought it and reread it in my thirties (understand, until recently, I didn’t do much rereading), and then re-reread it this year. It has and has not held up well over the years. Still love the language—nobody writes like Bradbury—but it really hit me this time how invisible women are in his writing, even when they’re characters.
  • The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris (9/10; finished 11/1/2016): Generally, my heart belongs to Greek and Roman mythology. I don’t think I was exposed to Norse mythology early enough in my life to imprint on it. But I’m happy to try to forge a connection anyway, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much I liked this novel. Keeping in mind, of course, that Loki is the epitome of the unreliable narrator!
  • Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think [third edition] by George Lakoff (9/10, finished 12/13/2016): In 2012, I read the second edition of this book and it ended up on that year’s most memorable list. Another election year (and a reading challenge with a requirement to read a book on politics), and I read Lakoff’s freshly-released third edition, highlighting furiously. Moral Politics is a detailed, somewhat academic, description of two metaphors for viewing the world. Strict Father morality is hierarchical and authoritarian, and its adherents see the world as inherently dangerous; Nurturant Parent morality promotes empathy and responsibility, and Nurturant Parent types tend to see the world as basically good, even if there’s lots of room for improvement. Lakoff maintains that people transfer their preferred metaphor to how they see the role of government: is government primarily for enforcing the laws and promoting discipline and morality, or should it help the unfortunate and encourage cooperation?

 

 

 

The audiobook and I

I have never taken to the audiobook as a format. It’s a matter of personal preference. I know some people love them, that they’re the only good format for some people, and I cheer these people on. But they’re problematic if like me, you’re not great at retaining what you’ve only heard, not read.

Back in January, when I started the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I guessed at which tasks might be the hardest for me to fulfill. Horror and the dystopic/post-apocalyptic novel were obvious problems, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about reading about politics, and then of course, there was the audiobook. As it turned out, I managed all of those without too much of a struggle, except the last. It couldn’t be just any audiobook, you see, but one that had won an Audie Award. So I kept putting this off and putting this off, and suddenly it was December and I had to decide if I was going to finish the challenge or not.

So there I was, floundering around, trying to figure out first what books had won Audies, and then cross-checking the winners against what was available at my library (audiobooks, it turns out, are noticeably more expensive than print books). But after less struggle than I probably deserved for all that procrastinating, I ended up with an audiobook that:

  1. had won an Audie Award,
  2. was owned by my library,
  3. hadn’t been checked out by some other procrastinating soul finishing up their own Read Harder challenge, and
  4. was something I thought I’d enjoy listening to.*

I am listening to Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson, the 2016 Audie winner for Humor. I suppose if I hadn’t put this off for most of the year, I wouldn’t have had the 2016 winners to choose from, so maybe procrastination was a good thing after all. (How am I supposed to learn from experience when experience keeps teaching me that my bad habits work out in the end?) Furiously Happy is ideal for my inexperience with audiobooks. It’s anecdotal and episodic. I don’t have to remember what the protagonist was doing when I shut the book off the night before—okay, I just said that I shut a book off, and that sounds so freaking weird—or what a key discovery from six chapters earlier was, or anything like that. The only constant “characters” are Lawson and her family. This, I can manage.

furiouslyhappycover

I found one! (And the cover art matches my mood really well.)

Many audiobooks are famed for their narrators. I hear some people will choose an audiobook more for its narrator than the book itself. Furiously Happy is narrated by Lawson herself. This means the narration is authentic as all get-out (+), but I’m missing the experience of listening to a professional narrator (-). Lawson doing a fine job; I’m just curious about what the difference might be, if any.

Even though this is going surprisingly well, I’m not sold on audiobooks yet. If my attention wanders, it’s a lot easier to reread a printed page—and that includes one printed in pixels—than relisten to narration. Also, I’m limited in what I can do while listening: I can’t do anything that involves language and words. (Like, say, writing blog posts. Although I’m getting lots of knitting done.) Plus, it’s frustrating that I could probably read this book in about 3 hours, but as an audiobook, it’s 8 hours and 20 minutes. Yes, I’m impatient. It took a while to figure out how to speed up the narration. I haven’t decided if I’m going to stick with that. It shortens the book and I can understand it just fine, but it makes Lawson’s voice unpleasantly shrill. And there are illustrations in the print book that I’m missing. I know, because Lawson talks about them. So far they haven’t been crucial to understanding what’s going on, but I feel like I’m missing out on something cool.

So will I listen to another audiobook once I’m done with this one? Maybe. I bet I’d enjoy the experience a lot more if I had no restrictions on what book I listened to and wasn’t listening to a deadline. Like I said, I haven’t yet heard a book with a professional narrator, and maybe I should try that. But at the same time, I note that there’s no audiobook-related task on the 2017 challenge. Guess how happy I am about that. 🙂

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* An unexpected bonus—at this point, I’d have taken a winner of Autobiography/Memoir even though the thought of a unenjoyed genre in an unenjoyed format is off-putting. Yes, you could argue that Furiously Happy is autobiographical. Don’t. I’m enjoying it.

Litsy

I was home with a cold, which means that I was mainly calculating how long my supplies of handkerchiefs and tea would hold out. So I may have been in a slightly vulnerable frame of mind when in a matter of hours, first a friend and then Book Riot mentioned a new(ish) social network/app called Litsy. And because I clearly don’t have enough book-related goodness in my life between Goodreads, LibraryThing, and this oft-neglected blog, I joined.

img_0118

One of my few posts. An entire post with picture is longer than will fit on the screen, but you get the idea.

Almost every description of Litsy I’ve read calls it a combination of Goodreads and Instagram, a description which I can’t improve on. I’d say it takes after Instagram more than Goodreads: a picture accompanied by a short bit of text, with the option for viewers to like and comment on it. You don’t have to take a picture of what you’re reading (or inspired by what you’re reading) to post, but it makes the post stand out better if you do. It was fun to play with in my time of illness. Even while sniffling, I could come up with pictures of the books I’d recently read and write short reviews of them. I couldn’t just copy my Goodreads/LibraryThing reviews over to Litsy: there’s a 300-character limit, slightly longer than two tweets. So of all the things I could say about a book, what was the one thing I really wanted to tell others?

Being in a social network in its early days is almost eerie. It’s…quiet. (But hey, I got my first choice for my username.)  A couple of friends joined as well, but my feed is mostly static because I’m not following anyone who posts frequently. I may have to follow some strangers just for variety, something I’m used to in Twitter, but rarely do in other networks. With so comparatively few members, posts on Litsy are skewed towards more popular types of books. I’ve had no trouble finding multiple posts on each YA book I looked up, but I’m the first person to post about the two philosophy/religion books I’d read.

Posts, by the way, are reviews, blurbs, or quotes. Reviews are pretty simple: the ratings are Pick, So-so, and Pan—or you can give up on the book partway through and say Bail. I’m fine with this; it’s a welcome change from wrangling stars and half-stars. Quotes are, well, quotes. 😉 And blurbs are everything else: the random comments you have about what you’re reading, what you want to say about the things that reading your book made you think of, and so on. But with everything limited to 300 characters, nuance is a challenge. Reading a bunch of super-short comments and reviews on the same book can give you a sense of how popular it is, but meaty discussion is elusive.

Oddly, given the subject matter, Litsy seems more for photographers who read than readers who take photographs. I’m primarily a word person, not an image person. I can come up with an occasional inspired idea of how to photograph a book cover, but that’s neither my strong point nor my main interest.How many pictures of the same book cover does anyone want to see, anyway? Reading e-books makes it easier to get a perfect shot of the cover, but it’s as generic as you can get, although I’ve seen some nice photos from people imaginatively staging their e-readers. So there’s this stress about making a good photo that I don’t have with either Goodreads or LibraryThing (and with Instagram, I don’t do anything until I have a good photo). Still, Litsy is only just getting going. There may be new features planned that I’ll adore, and maybe this will be the app that gets me to shed one of my other book networks. Or—realistically—maybe Litsy will close down, having never really found its niche. For now, I’m happy to hang in there and see what happens.

Another reading challenge

For several years now, I’ve participated in the Goodreads reading challenge. I’ve enjoyed it and it’s not complicated: declare how many books you think you’re going to read in the year to come and have at it. Read anything you want; all we’re after here is quantity, although if you can get quality as well, more power to you.

This year, I’m branching out. I’m still doing the Goodreads challenge, although I’ve dropped my goal by about 20%. I’d been reading thinner books in order to get more read (quantity) and I wanted to read thicker books this year without feeling like I was endangering my success rate. Besides the Goodreads challenge, though, I’m also participating in the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This only requires 24 books at most during the year; the challenge lies in getting you out of your reading comfort zone. Finishing it successfully will mean I’m going to have to read a horror novel (ick). And listen to an audiobook. You’re allowed to fit one book into as many categories as possible, so maybe I should listen to a horror audiobook because I’m bad at remembering what I’ve only heard, and I’m pretty sure I won’t want to remember the details of whatever horror novel I choose.

To space it all out, I only need to do two books a month. But somehow without really trying, I’ve gotten to the end of February and I’m already six books in.

  1. A nonfiction book about feminism or feminist themes: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. I had hoped this would be more of an analysis of spinsterhood; instead, it was mainly a memoir. Well, one is not required to love every book for the challenge; one must only find them and read them.
  2. A book that is by an author from Southeast Asia: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. This is a fantasy novel, so we’re squarely in my comfort zone here. In the 19th century, England’s first black Sorcerer Royal tries to both hold onto his position and find out why England is losing its magic. Although there were some rough spots, I liked the book enough to look forward to the promised sequels.
  3. Read a book out loud to someone else: Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach. I assure you, I read it only to consenting adults.
  4. A biography (not a memoir or autobiography): The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by Emily Williams. I don’t usually read biographies, so I was wondering how I would find a good one, when Amazon made this one of their Kindle Daily Deals and I grabbed it.
  5. A book over 500 pages long: Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow by Rainbow Rowell. More fantasy! I learned about this book after reading Rowell’s Fangirl last year. Sure, Carry On alludes heavily to the Harry Potter books, with a sprinkling of Twilight thrown in. But it would be a strong book in its own right if neither of those other series had ever been written, I liked it better than Fangirl, and I’m glad I tracked down a copy.
  6. A book under 100 pages: The Spook Who Spoke Again by Lindsey Davis. A novella set in the world of Davis’s Flavia Albia mysteries. The story is told by Albia’s brother Postumus, age 12 (or maybe 11¾), and after a while, I decided it was as if Flavia de Luce had been born a boy in 1st century CE Rome. I mostly enjoyed the story, but Postumus got annoying pretty quickly, and it’s just as well this wasn’t a full-sized novel.

March is imminent. I’m hoping to go read some non-challenge books for a while. Except that I have the challenge on the brain, and I can’t stop considering possibilities. Hey, maybe if I read a middle-grade horror novel, I won’t be traumatized for life…

Reading 2015

Last year, I set a reading goal for myself of 100 books and read 101. That was above and beyond the goal, but in reality, I barely made it, squeezing in a volume of manga and You Have to F**king Eat on December 31. This year, I want to feel less pressure to meet a quota, so I’ve dropped the goal to 80 books. I’m hoping I’ll be more inclined to read thicker books if I don’t have to push myself as hard.

But that’s the future. This is a post that looks back on the recent past and what I thought were the most memorable of those 101 books. Same old, same old, as far as the kinds of books go. Fantasy remains my favorite fiction genre, and over in nonfiction, I read plenty of writing, astrology, and divination books. I may be in a rut, but I like my rut, thank you.

And with that, the list:

  • Unequal Affections: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling by Lara S. Ormiston (9/10; finished 2/11/2015): Nothing deep and profound here, just an interesting alternative plot: what if Elizabeth accepted Darcy’s original proposal of marriage in order to secure her family’s financial future?
  • The Just City by Jo Walton (9/10; finished 2/20/2015):  Greek gods! Philosophy! Worked together into an interesting story! What’s not to love? The goddess Pallas Athene decides to create Plato’s Republic, populating it with people drawn from different cultures and different centuries. For reasons of his own, Apollo decides to live anonymously as a mortal in the Just City. And then Socrates himself is brought to the City… Followed by The Philosopher Kings, which I also enjoyed. The trilogy concludes with Necessity in 2016. Yes, I’ve already pre-ordered it. Why do you ask?
  • Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (8/10; finished 2/27/2015): In which I finally got an an explanation as to why bashing the poor has become socially acceptable. Actually, as this is the world I grew up in, it’s more that I learned that it wasn’t always acceptable to dis them.

2015-1

  • Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth by Benebell Wen (9/10; finished 3/13/2015): The thickest book I read in 2015, coming in at 896 pages. It covers practically every aspect of tarot, with stuff for all levels of experience. Really needed a more durable binding, though.
  • The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Solid Story by C. S. Lakin (8/10; finished 7/13/2015): This book and I got off to a bad start. The architecture analogy went on and on, and I got tired of the author’s efforts to sell me on her book when I’d already bought it. But then we finally got to those twelve pillars and it turned out she’d come up with some excellent questions to test the strength of your story against.
  • The Dark of the Soul: Psychopathology in the Horoscope by Liz Greene (9/10; finished 9/11/2015): Should anyone say that astrology is all newspaper predictions, vague personality descriptions, and matchmaking advice, I’m going to mention this book. Three seminars on psychopaths and genocidal national leaders. There’s nothing like analyzing the astrological chart of a serial killer to put a sparkle in your day.

2015-2

  • Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu (8/10; finished 9/29/2015): My tendency to read sobering, often gloomy, books in the fall continues. Admittedly, I don’t usually wander into the economics section to find them. Tokumitsu argues that the “do what you love” mantra encourages people to willingly work for less money and pressures them to be constantly passionate about their jobs, while unpaid internships multiply, formerly professional positions are “de-skilled,” and a two-tiered system of those who have desirable jobs and those who support them develops.
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (8/10; finished 10/18/2015): Given how much discussion of this there is in the world, this would probably be one of the most memorable books I encountered in 2015 even if I hadn’t read it.
  • Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1 by Peter Adamson (9/10; finished 11/17/2015): Transcriptions of podcasts, episodic, but well-connected. The book is a lot more readable than the title might lead you to believe, assuming you had any interest in the subject to begin with. I’m finally getting the hang of Socrates and Plato. And volume 2, Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds, awaits me on my bookshelf.

2015-3

 

 

One book, different cultures

I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Until recently, I was only familiar with the U.S./Canadian edition. But in updating my entry for it on LibraryThing, I happened to see the cover of the German edition. Yes, these really are the same book.

English and German covers of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The covers in question. Unanswered mysteries include why is “Japanese” capitalized on the U.S./Canadian cover when nothing else is, and why does the German edition have an English title?

The North American cover emphasizes the book’s gentler, more “woo” features. The soft colors in an abstract, watercolor-like design say you’ll be reading a book with more of a psychological, even spiritual, focus. The words are in black and red, but the all-lower-case serif font softens the impact. This is a cover that goes with Kondo’s advice to to thank your possessions for the service they’ve done you, to greet your house when you come home, to give your handbags and socks a rest. What it doesn’t prepare you for is the author’s uncompromising attitude towards clearing stuff out of your house. That’s not a secret: every book review focuses on it. But those first readers might have been a bit surprised to run into it.

In contrast, whoever designed the German cover focused on that aspect of Kondo’s book. Presumably this is what the German publisher figured would attract potential readers. Black, red, and pure white dominate, with just a touch of green from the only organic element: the little plant at the center. The sans-serif font is all-caps: you will declutter your house! There’s no misty watercolor effect here, just clean, straight lines and defined curves. How well did Kondo’s assertion that “your possessions want to help you” go over with her German audience?

Whether or not you can judge a book by its cover, it seems you can guess what its readers like. Or at least what its publisher thinks they do.

Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?