Category Archives: Books and reading

Format change

It started innocently enough: my book group decided to read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis for our January 2020 meeting. I’d read Doomsday Book years ago—many years ago—but all I could remember was the premise and the ending, and that wasn’t enough to get through a discussion. But I didn’t want to buy a copy because I knew I wasn’t going to love it enough to want to keep it, so I tried to borrow it from the library. Naturally, with everyone in my book group wanting to read it, along with anyone in the Twin Cities who wanted to read about a historic plague just before a modern one came along, every copy of the print version and the ebook was checked out. However, the audiobook was available. I hadn’t dealt with an audiobook since December 2016, and then only because the book challenge I was doing that year had “listen to an audiobook” as one of its requirements.

Look, I told myself, this is doable. You’ve already read the book, you know generally how the story goes, and if you miss something while reading it, chances are you can fake it. So I took the plunge.

PROS

  • It was available when I needed it. Let’s not underestimate how important this point is.
  • So that’s how you pronounce those Middle English names! (Maybe.)
  • Being able to make progress in the book while doing something else entirely. Like, say, knitting.
  • Deadline looming? You can speed the playback up. I was still comfortable at 1.25x, but I eventually had to go to 1.5x to finish the book in time for the book club discussion. In print, Doomsday Book is 608 pages long; that’s 26 hours and 20 minutes as an audiobook.
  • Can be downloaded from the library or store.
  • Just as portable as ebooks, and can be accessed through a smartphone.

CONS

  • I’m more of a visual learner than an audial one, and I missed seeing people’s names written down. What I was hearing as “Lady Hermione” in Doomsday Book turned out to be spelled “Lady Imeyne.”
  • Not able to take notes in the book itself or bookmark interesting passages. Must write notes or quotes separately.
  • Hard to go back and reread a passage if your attention wanders. The software allows for 30-second rewinds, but it’s still a guessing game.
  • Even with speeding up the playback, it takes longer to get through an audiobook than reading a print edition.

But I made it through, went to the book club meeting, and that would’ve been the end of that except for the pandemic. I started working from home. Not surprisingly, I’m working on projects that can easily be moved out of the office. Some of them involve data entry, nothing I need to think all that much about. And sure, listening to music helps pass the time, but I realized there were other things I could be listening to, namely audiobooks.* Which is how I ended up listening to The True Queen by Zen Cho. By sheer coincidence, it had the same narrator as Doomsday Book—Jenny Sterlin—so oddly, they felt like a series, despite being written by two different authors 27 years apart.

The True Queen was a bit of an experiment in its own right. I’d read Doomsday Book before I listened to it, but The True Queen is a recent-ish release, a long-awaited follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, which I’d read long enough ago that it wasn’t going to help me much with its sequel. Could I follow the story just by listening when I didn’t know in advance how it would go? Yes—and that made me less nervous about tackling audiobooks in general. Oh, I still looked up the characters’ names, and how to spell polong, and hoped that Sterlin was giving me a good idea of how the Malay names were pronounced. But it was a lot more relaxing to be able to listen to the book without a deadline looming on the horizon; the narration sounds increasingly unnatural if you speed it up, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. And after listening to The True Queen, I wanted to reread/listen to Sorcerer to the Crown, and hey, that was available as an audiobook as well, narrated by Sterlin.

So six months after I started all this, I’m currently on my sixth audiobook of the year, figuring out what does and doesn’t appeal to me. For instance, I enjoyed Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, but I don’t think it was particularly effective as an audiobook. I’m not blaming this on the narrator, but on the structure of the novel itself. Much of the book, especially at the beginning, is Lavinia describing things: her poet, her family, the people of the area, her culture. Through this, I learned that I like audiobooks with more dialogue, where the narrator can use their skills to bring several characters to life.

With The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, I discovered another problem: if you just can’t warm up to how the narrator is reading the book, it gets in the way of enjoying the book itself. (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent for print books and ebooks…maybe if I hated the font?) In this case, I liked the story just fine and would like to read more by Seanan McGuire, but I didn’t care for how the narrator did voices. And now I’m back to “rereading”—I read Red Sister in print in 2018, and I’m curious if I’ll get more out of it by listening to it. (And it was available at the library when I needed a new book. Again, this is vital.)

It may take me awhile to branch out from these. If nothing else, it takes more time to get through an audiobook. I don’t want to buy audiobooks—I barely reread the print books I’ve got, and audiobooks cost more. I’m happy to check them out from the library, but around here, anyway, the selection is comparatively limited, and I’m not ready to subscribe to a service like Audible. However, six audiobooks in half a year is six more than I’ve done in most years of my life, so I may finally have gotten the hang of this format.


* And podcasts, yes, but I haven’t gotten into those yet.

Reading statistics 2019

I don’t know how to do anything complicated with statistics, but I have a warm spot in my heart for doing light statistical analyses of my hobbies, mostly because I think the charts look cool. Yet while I’ve been pretty constant about talking about my knitting/crochet stats for a few years now, it looks like I haven’t talked about my reading stats since 2014. I kept the statistics (I love a good reading spreadsheet or database), but my annual reading post has moved to being more about the memorable reads of the year rather than the numbers behind them.

I’m at home for the duration and need a break from my knitting. Therefore, you’re getting a stats post. 😈

Many people create reading spreadsheets and share them. The one I use is a moderately customized version of one that Book Riot offered a couple of years ago. (Here’s an article and link to their 2020 version.) This isn’t the same thing as a catalog of my library: it only covers the books I’ve read in a calendar year. I’ve been cataloging my books since childhood, but I only started looking at my reading stats in 2008 when I joined Goodreads. At first, all I counted was how many books I read in a year. By the early 2010’s, I was seeing more discussion about how people were reading more books by male authors than female ones, and curious, I tracked that for a year. (Year after year, I read more books by women than by men, without even trying.) The whole reading stats thing just grew from that point on.

The books

I finished reading 78 books in 2019 and gave up on another 9.

Click to enlarge.

Between fantasy, science fiction, and science fantasy (the last of those a genre I’d never tracked before, but I needed it for The Philosopher Kings, Gideon the Ninth, and The Book of the Ancestor series), speculative fiction is the core of my reading preferences, with the awkwardly-named body-mind-spirit genre close behind as my favorite nonfiction genre. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have you know that that one horror novel was The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s only there because my book group read it.

I deliberately tried to reread more books this year—I keep so many books, telling myself I’ll reread them someday, I figured I’d better get started!

When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why my dad would read nonfiction books. There was no story! Why wasn’t he bored silly by them? 😆

No, no audiobooks. I’m surprised there weren’t more digital books.

The occasional novella or tome is good, but generally, I seem to like the Mama Bear size of books: neither too long nor too short.

Click to enlarge.

I read three books of poetry last year: wow!

Apparently I was quite the grown-up in my reading.

The authors/artists

Oh look, I still read more books by women than by men. I’m pretty sure women write the majority of body-mind-spirit books. They also write a lot of the fantasy novels, although I’m not sure how the numbers compare with men in that genre. Of course, often what categories an author falls in are guesswork on my part. For instance, unless it’s spelled out in the about-the-author paragraph, I won’t know if an author is queer.

So, what were the protagonists of the fiction works like?

The main characters

I’m only counting main characters here, usually the ones who are POV characters or at least significantly direct the story. YA novels, for instance, often have parental figures who are older, but who are off on the sidelines somewhere while the teenagers do the interesting stuff. “Older,” here, means 35 and up or the equivalent for nonhuman characters, and sometimes I had to guess about that. No, I don’t consider people in their late thirties to be middle-aged, much less elderly. But I read fiction in genres that really focus on teenagers and 20-somethings, and even consciously looking for books with older main characters, I’m not having a lot of luck.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I’m keeping a spreadsheet for my 2020 reading. I’ve tweaked it a bit: added a category, recalculated other categories…that sort of thing. I’ve listened to a few audiobooks this year: that chart will be more colorful. Alas, my actual reading has gone down because of the pandemic: I did a lot of my reading during the commute to work, and that’s not happening now. We’ll see how it goes.

Reading 2019

I read 78 books in 2019, a respectable quantity, even if I didn’t fulfill the challenge I set for myself. I enjoyed reading most of them, but as usual, only some were truly memorable (“memorable” defined as “I can remember that I read this book and I have an opinion about it”).

As usual, in order of date finished. Here goes!

  • The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (8/10; finished 1/11/2019): The library sent me a message that this book was finally available for me. I’d forgotten completely that it existed, much less why I’d wanted to read it, but I trusted that my past self had had a good reason to put it on hold. The quick-and-dirty summary is Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day. Every day, Aiden Bishop wakes up in the body of one of the guests at Blackheath House. Every evening, Evelyn Hardcastle is killed. Aiden only has eight chances to break the cycle by discovering Evelyn’s murderer, and on top of that, he’s got competition. I was a bit disappointed with how Aiden’s framing story worked out, but I enjoyed the mystery that’s most of the book.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (8/10; finished 7/1/2019): The first time I tried to read this, back when it was newly popular, I didn’t finish it before I needed to return it to the library. Then I couldn’t renew it, and by the time I could’ve gotten it again, I’d gone on to other books. But I acquired the ebook for a good price, and I was determined to try again someday. I made it through this time! I get that Clarke was writing a pastiche of 19th-century novels. Probably what made it successful as a pastiche is what annoyed me about reading it: I’ve given up on some classics like Vanity Fair and Les Misérables because I lost interest in the tangents and wandering and side stories when I wanted more focus on the main plot. But it was frustrating that this book didn’t really hook me until I was about 40% of the way through it—in a book this size, that was around page 300 or so, and that’s an awful lot to invest in a book in the hopes that eventually your patience will pay off. It’s on this list in great part because my patience did pay off.
  • The Book of the Ancestor trilogy (and a novelette) by Mark Lawrence: My first real immersion into science fantasy, which I’ve decided shouldn’t be combined with either science fiction or fantasy as a genre. People work magic in these books and they have the vaguely medieval setting of many fantasy novels. But unlike many fantasy novels, the people of Abeth know it’s a planet orbiting a dying sun and that it’s their ancestors’ technology that’s keeping them alive. Imaginative world-building, yes, but let’s not forget the other good parts, like supremely skilled fighting nuns (!).
    • Red Sister (8/10; finished 12/31/2018—no, that’s not a typo: I read it in 2018, but I didn’t make one of these lists for that year, and it’s almost a 2019 read): Books on writing often discuss the importance of the first sentence and the impression it makes on the reader. Red Sister has a particularly fine pair:

      It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

      And I was hooked.
    • Grey Sister (8/10; finished 2/23/2019): In which I learned that Mark Lawrence had had the excellent idea of prefacing the book with a summary of what you needed to remember from Red Sister in order to follow this book. I happened to be reading the trilogy when the first two books were already published, but this would’ve been valuable if I’d had to wait a year or so between volumes. Also, some adult protagonists!
    • Bound [short story? novelette?] (8/10; finished 4/5/2019): Like I said, I started reading The Book of the Ancestor a few months before Holy Sister came out, and Bound helped tide me over after I finished reading Grey Sister. It’s always nice to see characters you like, and this ended up giving more context for a scene in Holy Sister.
    • Holy Sister (9/10; finished 4/23/2019): Some unexpected but rewarding twists and a generally satisfying end to the story. Yes, that sounds generic, but the closer you are to the end of a story, the harder it is to avoid spoilers.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (10/10; finished 10/8/2019): Love, love, love. Heck, I even played with divining the plot before reading it. It was appropriate October reading, what with its nine flavors of necromancy. Plus a star-spanning Empire, and of course, the oh-so-prickly relationship between Gideon Nav, makeshift Cavalier of the Ninth House, and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter and Gideon’s despised nemesis. Yes, I already have the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, on pre-order.
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (9/10; finished 11/9/2019): I am calling this a fantasy novel, and that’s what it’s been marketed as, but I don’t recall any magic appearing in it. It’s more like a political thriller set in a world that just happens not to exist. It is a good book. It is also a troubling book that does not end at all comfortably. I’m probably wimping out from giving it a 10 (which the quality merits) by how jangled I felt when I finished it. It’s the first book of a trilogy, and I both want to read the rest and don’t want to.
  • The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer (9/10; finished 12/24/2019): The only nonfiction book on my list this year, and the title pretty much says it all. This is the first of three books in which Bauer tells world history from many places at once, rather than focusing on one area like Chinese history or Roman history. She helps the reader navigate by finishing each chapter with a timeline that covers that chapter’s events or rulers and matches them up against what had happened in the previous chapter, and she’s generous with maps as well.
  • Conceal, Don’t Feel: A Twisted Tale by Jen Calonita (8/10; finished 12/31/2019): Literally discovered by serendipity. This was on a table at my local Barnes & Noble, and I kept walking past it on my way to my favorite sections. Eventually I noticed it enough to notice the “What if Anna and Elsa never knew each other?” on the cover, and was intrigued enough to pick it up. While I wasn’t paying attention to movie tie-ins, Disney came up with a line of “what if” books for their movies, of which this was the latest volume. The books in the Twisted Tales series are darker than their inspiration, marketed to YA audiences rather than middle-schoolers. As that tagline suggests, in this story, Elsa and Anna grow up separately, each believing herself to be an only child. I liked that it answered some questions I’d had about Frozen, such as who was regent until Elsa came of age, and whether there were any other towns in the kingdom of Arendelle besides Arendelle itself.

Challenge unmet, challenge accepted

2019

I gave myself two reading challenges in 2019. The Goodreads challenge was the same as any year: read X books in 2019. Happily, I did accomplish this one. Although at the moment, that’s not at all obvious on my Goodreads account, because somehow I forgot to mark four books as “read,” and so it looks like I didn’t quite make the challenge. I haven’t made myself sit down yet and compare two almost-identical lists of books read until I find the “missing” ones and update Goodreads.

A photo that has nothing to do with this post except that it’s of lots of books. And the books are pretty. Google Translate says “Geisteswissenschaften” means “Humanities.”

I truly didn’t meet my other book challenge, the one I’d dubbed “But I thought you wanted to (re)read this book.” I’d said I was going to read 40 books from my TBR pile and reread 10 books that I owned. I ended up reading 20 books from the TBR pile and rereading 9 of my owned books.

What happened? 2019.

No, I don’t mean that the year 2019 was so hectic, stressful, and/or hopeless that I didn’t read much. After all, I read 78 books for my 75 book Goodreads challenge. What I hadn’t been counting on were the books published in 2019 that I wanted to read. As I hadn’t heard of most of them at the start of the year, I hadn’t added them to the reading list. I knew about some of them ahead of time and listed them, but basically, I read 24 books published in 2019, and I only knew of about five of them in 2018.

2020

So with that behind me, I’m changing things a bit for 2020. Again, I’m doing the Goodreads challenge, currently set for 75 books. But for the more customized challenge, I’m building on last year’s experience. Apparently I like freshly-acquired books over what’s been sitting around my apartment for a while, so this year, I plan to read as many of the books I acquire in 2020 by the end of the year as I can. It doesn’t matter if I buy the book, get it as a present, get it from the library, borrow it from a friend, or find it in a Little Free Library—I want to read it in the same year that I get it.* At first, I called this the “You Get It, You Read It Challenge.” But here we are on January 31 and I’ve already gotten 20 books. So this is also the “Read Faster, Damn It! Challenge”—I’ve only read 20% of my new acquisitions so far! 📚


*Common sense suggests that books acquired in December 2020 should be allowed to roll over to 2021. They’ll probably be balanced out by the books I got in 2019 that I haven’t read yet.

photo credit: Rosmarie Voegtli The Reader via photopin (license)

My 2019 reading challenges

New year: new reading challenges. The Goodreads Challenge is about as straightforward as it gets: read X books in a year. I’m going to be reading anyway, so I may as well get reading challenge credit for any book that passes before my eyes (or though my ears, if I ever tackle another audiobook). But then there’s the fine art of choosing a personalized challenge. A challenge that interests me, that is more complicated than the Goodreads Challenge, and yet doesn’t repel me, make me feel guilty when I read a book that won’t fit, or has me reading so many books that are challenging that I read fewer books that I wholeheartedly enjoy. I have pored over The Master List of 2019 Reading Challenges, and am going with the 2019 Good Rule Reading Challenge. Or as I think of it, the 2019 But I Thought You Wanted to Read/Reread That Book Challenge.

Last year, while doing my A-to-Z challenge, I needed to reread books to get all my letters. I’d also reread some books in 2017 as I weeded my collection. It’s sinking in that I’ve kept a lot of books because I’m sure I’ll read them again someday, but then I don’t. Time spent rereading a book is time not spent reading a new one, and I feel like I’m shirking a duty. Meanwhile, a large portion of my home is filled with these books I think I’m going to reread. Well, this year, I’m committing to doing some of that. The bulk of this challenge is on reading new books—I still want to shrink that TBR pile! However, I’m adding a number of must-rereads, for a total of 40 new books and 10 old ones. I said I’d read 60 books for the Goodreads Challenge, so that still leaves 10 books to learn of in 2019 or get from the library or whatever.

A few of the proposed books, new and old.

Of course, some books won’t work out, from either category. That’s fine. But I plan to keep my initial balance of new to old books. So if I give up on a reread partway through, I will replace it with another old book. And just selecting books for the challenge is proving to be informative. I look at the books and ask myself, Do I want to read this one? With some of them, I’m instantly saying No. Really? Like I said, didn’t I want to read these books? If that’s no longer the case, I can let them go now and free up the shelf space.

A-to-Z: 2018—finished!

About a year ago, I committed to doing an A-Z reading challenge: 26 books, one for each letter of the alphabet. And lo, I have finished it.

  • A: The Astrological Moon by Darby Costello
  • B: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  • C: Circe by Madeline Miller
  • D: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
  • E: Elemental Divination: A Dice Oracle by Stephen Ball
  • F: First and Last: A Devotional for Hestia by the editors of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
  • G: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
  • H: Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years by James Kacian, Phillip Rowland, Allan Burns (eds.)
  • I: Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day by Carl F. Neal
  • J: The Just City by Jo Walton
  • K: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • L: Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • M: Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • N: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • O: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • P: Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis
  • Q: Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music, & Cosmology by John Martineau (ed.)
  • R: The Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone
  • S: The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan
  • T: Tarot Compendium by Sasha Graham (ed.)
  • U: Untold Tarot: The Lost Art of Reading Ancient Tarots  by Caitlín Matthews
  • V: Villanelles by Annie Finch (ed.)
  • W: The Wisdom of the Middle Ages by Michael K. Kellogg
  • X: The Phobia of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell
  • Y: Your Tarot Your Way: Learn to Read with Any Deck by Barbara Moore
  • Z: Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God by Tom Stone

It was the normal run of books for a year: loved some, liked more, made it through a few of them on willpower alone. While I didn’t find a book with a title that started with X, I didn’t have to resort to “Ex-“. Most of those books were first reads. I reread three books (J, V, and Z) because I didn’t want to buy books just to get my missing letters when part of the point of this challenge was to work on my TBR pile! And the rereading had value too, because why else hold onto these books after their first reading unless I was going to reread them at some point?

After deciding to read 26 books for the alphabet, I realized that some books on my TBR list have titles that start with numerals. So I extended the challenge by one book to cover that possibility. I then managed to misplace the book I was reading for #. I’m sure it will turn up again eventually, but I’d rather read it calmly and finish it next year rather than try to cram it in this late.

It’s tempting to do this challenge again in 2019, and I haven’t yet ruled out the possibility. I picked up the latest edition of Vogue Knitting a few weeks ago, so I already have one of my hard-to-find letters in hand. But there’s some appeal in finding a new challenge. Whatever challenge I choose, I want to read books that I’ll enjoy. I get that a challenge is supposed to be challenging (!), but there’s a fine line between moving out of your comfort zone for new experiences and forcing yourself to read something you genuinely dislike. But there are all sorts of reading challenges out there, so it might be nice to go in a completely different direction in 2019. We’ll see.

A lifetime of reading hasn’t prepared me for this

I am not someone who boldly steps forward and engages with life. Humans generally have messy lives, and I try to reduce the mess in mine by watching what other people do and working out potential solutions ahead of time. So a lot of what I know about life has been gained through reading instead of actual experience. I know, I know…real experience gets you real answers, life is meant to be lived, and so on. Yes, I’m exaggerating my lack of engagement a bit. Plus, I figure learning through reading exposes you to more than you might run into naturally. Thanks to all the advice columns I’ve read, I’ve learned many useful responses to relationship issues I will never encounter in my own life!

Besides advice columns, I’ve picked up on many new things through reading blogs. That’s where I first heard about various topics that are, ah, passionately discussed nowadays: trigger warnings, pronouns, cultural appropriation, and privilege. It’s been a lot easier to explore them through reading, where I have the space to realize and reflect and analyze and wince and absorb and regret and question in private.

And before blogs and advice columns, there were books, and there have always been more of them than the other two combined. In fiction, my favorite genre is fantasy. There’s lots to be learned about life in novels generally, but fantasy novels are often large scale, with the fates of nations and cultures at stake. So if I’ve been learning about how to relate to people one-to-one through reading, that’s probably also how I’ve been learning about politics. Not party politics—that’s more the stuff of blogs and social media—but the bigger issues of how governments work, how people behave in large groups, and how to be a good citizen. While these are always important issues, let’s admit it: they’re front and center now.

But here’s my problem: fantasy authors don’t set their stories in democracies. I’m absorbing lessons on how to restore a rightful king or queen to their throne.

The fantasy authors I’m familiar with live in countries where everyday people have the right to vote and their votes matter. But these authors mainly write about absolute monarchies and the struggles in their books aren’t contained within democratic norms. No one needs to worry about maintaining democratic institutions because there aren’t any.

Picture of woman on a horse and a kneeling male warrior on a fantasy chessboard.

Warning: fantasy characters in action. Do not try this with your real-life political situation.

Consider The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is a king because he’s the heir of Isildur. It’s great that he’s honorable, intelligent, has a sense of justice, and so on, but he’d still get to be king without any of that. Certainly the people of Gondor aren’t going to be consulted in the matter. And putting Aragorn on his throne doesn’t require getting out the vote, winning midterm elections, countering foreign hacking, or fighting voter suppression. Mainly it involves winning a war against an opposing army of orcs, trolls, Nazgûl, and humans that apparently aren’t like the Men of Rohan and Gondor. There’s no need to work out how you’re going to integrate the opposition into your society afterwards because you’re going to kill a lot of them, and anyway, most of them are literally not human and the different peoples of Middle Earth tend to stick to their own. Of course, this part of the war would achieve nothing if Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hadn’t gotten the Ring to Mordor and destroyed it. That’s a great story, but there isn’t much there to support the modern upholder of democracy except a general reassurance that even the most overlooked people can make a difference.

I don’t read as much science fiction as I do fantasy, but the TV shows and movies I’ve watched have been science fiction far more than fantasy. Democracy is much more likely to exist in an SF universe, but in many stories, we don’t see much of it. My dim memory of government in the original Battlestar Galactica was that the democratically-elected Council of Twelve was mainly an obstacle for the military (our heroes) to work around or ignore—not a good model when real people and everyday life are involved. The Republic in Star Wars is a odd mixture of democracy and monarchy that mainly suggests different people over several decades doing just enough world building to support the plot of each movie. I think Star Trek‘s Federation is a federal republic, but I couldn’t tell you how it’s perceived by average people living on Federation planets; we mainly see the effects of its foreign policy. Democracy is so far gone in Blake’s 7 and Firefly that the heroes aren’t worrying about preserving democratic norms day-to-day. Mere survival is higher on their agendas—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as applied to small rebel groups.

Comic books and graphic novels were a staple of my youth and, okay, off and on in adulthood. Here we have heroes, villains, and Good vs. Evil depicted about as clearly as it ever gets. Mind you, there’s not much beyond a supporting role for people without superpowers, and again, the methodology is “bash the enemy into defeat with nifty powers,” which is a lot more entertaining to read/look at than registering voters. Also, the villains often want to destroy Earth, not overthrow a government. Manga and anime? I’m having flashbacks to Sailor Moon. In that universe, the eventual future was going to be a monarchy, and the series never got into whether or not it’d be a constitutional one. Plus our heroines were using magic to fight for love and justice, not door-to-door campaigning.

But why does this even matter? Because unlike some of the things I mentioned at the start of this post, there aren’t many good resources. If I didn’t learn about relationship problems from advice columns, I’d have learned about them from personal experience and the experiences of people I know. Those topics I’ve found in blogs are being discussed everywhere now; even if I had to learn about them with others, I’d know about them. But our culture has offered me very little in what to do when your democracy (or federal republic) doesn’t seem as secure as you thought it was. I don’t need to have read stories about tornado drills because I’ve gone through them for most of my life. I apparently do need to read about preserving democracy, because I’ve never practiced that beyond voting and a lot of signatures on petitions.

So am I doing the normal, mundane things you do in the United States to be a good citizen? Yep. I’m registered to vote and I’ve read about the candidates in the upcoming election. But a lifetime of reading fantasy novels suggests that I should also be creating a voting amulet or a democracy talisman or something. Isn’t there a spell I should be casting?


photo credit: siliaFX CHECKMATE via photopin (license)

Reading 2017

2017 was my Year of Lowered Expectations. I’m hoping it retains that title so that I don’t have to pass it on to 2018 or some other future year. I read about 25% fewer books last year than usual. And I know it isn’t a competition, and I know you don’t get demerits for dying with a huge stack of unread books, but it was frustrating. Especially since I can’t figure out what I was doing that ate into my reading time (and my knitting time: not many finished projects last year either) so noticeably.

I did more rereading this year than usual—”usual” for me being “not at all.” I hold onto a lot of books, utterly convinced that I will reread them, and then get distracted by all the other interesting books I haven’t yet read. This year, though, I was trying to streamline my personal library, and I reread a number of books to see if I really wanted to keep them. (Often the answer was “no.” Not all once-beloved books age well.) In a couple of cases, I reread books because they worked for the 2017 Read Harder Challenge. At least that was economical. No reread books are in the following list, although I was sorely tempted to put Three Parts Dead in again, just for the amusement of including it for two years in a row.

This was a year of memorable series as well as memorable books, namely the Small Change trilogy and the Craft Sequence. I’d been intending to read the Small Change trilogy for the better part of a decade. When I finally got around to it, I devoured it as fast as the library could provide copies. It’s probably a good sign about the quality of a title (or three) if you have to get on a wait list for them even when they’ve been around for years. As for the Craft Sequence, all I can say is that I’d gotten distracted in 2016 with other books. I fixed that in 2017.

Covers of Farthing, Ha'penny, Half a Crown

  • The Small Change trilogy by Jo Walton: Farthing (9/10; finished 4/5/2017), Ha’penny (9/10; finished 4/24/2017), Half a Crown (6/10; finished 5/18/2017): Three linked novels set between 1949 and 1960 in an alternate England that made peace with Hitler and turned fascist. Unfortunately more timely than the author ever intended. I say more about it here.

Covers of Eleanor & Park, Plato at the Googleplex

  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (9/10; finished 8/15/2017): So, how many books by Rainbow Rowell have I read without getting around to her possibly best-known one? Yes, it’s quite good. It also gave me flashbacks galore to being in high school (I’m a few years older than the characters). I was reading it on the Megabus, and the woman sitting next to me—who was definitely not old enough to remember 1986 personally—recognized it and assured me that it was great.
  • Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (10/10; finished 9/15/2017): It’s always good to hear about a book, track down a copy, read it, and like it. There’s a special thrill, though, to going into a book with no real idea of what it’s about, and discover that it wasn’t what you thought it might be and still like it. I have no memory of putting this on my library wish list, and I decided to read it because everything else on the list was checked out. I thought it would be some earnest essay about philosophy in today’s world. Instead, Goldstein has written a series of short pieces, starting with the premise that Plato is alive and well and on a book tour in the modern United States. Each chapter consists of an essay on a theme in Plato’s work, followed by a fictional dialogue (lunch at the Googleplex, a debate at a Y in New York, and so on) that expands on that theme. Partway through, I returned the ebook to the library—the footnotes were badly linked, and they’re vital—and bought a print copy, already knowing I wanted to keep it.

Covers of Four Roads Cross and Last First Snow

  • Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone (10/10; finished 9/23/2017): This is the more-or-less direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, although if you read the series in order, there are three books between them. (Including Last First Snow, but I got mixed up and read it afterwards.) As sequels often do, it deals with the fallout from its predecessor; even triumphant endings have repercussions. And I went through the entire book happy to see Tara Abernathy and other characters again, plus getting all in suspense about the legal battle that builds during the story.
  • Last First Snow by Max Gladstone (10/10; finished 11/1/2017): This is fully part of the Craft Sequence (#4), but as the first novel chronologically, it has the feeling of a prequel, and I’m not always that fond of prequels. Sometimes they leave me feeling like I’ve just read the same story twice. Not so in this case: I came to the end of this book feeling like I had a much better grasp of the history of Dresediel Lex and several of the characters I’d already met. Featuring one of my favorite characters from Three Parts Dead: Elayne Kevarian (can I just say how wonderful it is to read a book where the “older woman protagonist” is over thirty?).

A-to-Z: 2018

I have a fondness for reading challenges. I must not be alone in this; as of this writing, The Master List of 2018 Reading Challenges had 128 challenges and the compiler is promising to update it through the end of 2017. I freely admit that I didn’t do terribly well at the two reading challenges I took on this year. I’ve done the Goodreads challenge since 2011, and I’ve usually managed 90-100 books a year. For whatever reason, I had to scale back to 75 books this year. I don’t know where the reading time went. I do most of my reading on the bus or while eating and I still do plenty of both. Maybe I just read thicker books this year?* And however disappointed I may be in how the Goodreads challenge is going, the 2017 Read Harder Challenge simply isn’t happening. I’ve made it to 13 books out of 24. Some books will count for multiple categories, so it’s probably closer to 15, but that’s as good as it’s going to get.

But hey, there is always another year and another challenge. Goodbye 2017, and let us turn to 2018.

I’ll be doing the Goodreads challenge again. I’m not doing the 2018 Read Harder Challenge, though. It’s a worthy challenge, and I hope many people do it and love it, but it’s not for me this year. I have learned that if I’m not enjoying something, no amount of self-motivation will get me to do it, and I can tell I wouldn’t enjoy that particular challenge. (Happy to look over the 2019 challenge when it comes out, though!) Instead, I am putting together my own challenge. Here goes:

  1. It’s an A-to-Z challenge. 26 books is achievable. Plus, the requirements are easily memorized, so I don’t have to constantly refer back to the challenge to find out what I’m supposed to be doing.
  2. Whenever possible, the books will come from my to-be-read collection. I only mark a book TBR if I own it, so the fact that LibraryThing says I have 300 TBR books was motivational as all get-out for doing this. Plus, I know a lot of my ebooks haven’t yet been added [wince]. There’s plenty to work with here. Also, any books I buy in 2018 are eligible, although I don’t plan to buy books just to have something to read for the challenge (see #3).
  3. I’m missing three letters: V, X, and Z. I have a few options here. I can reread a book I own that starts with one of these letters. I can look for a book at the library that works. Or I can buy a book, but that’s definitely the “if all else fails” option. Also, in the interests of keeping this a fun challenge, although I will prioritize book titles that start with X, “Ex” is acceptable as well. I’m not reading a book I loathe just to follow an arbitrary rule.

Photo of the book Quadrivium

Q!

I will not be reading the books in alphabetical order. And although I’m probably going to jot down a few ideas, I don’t plan to choose most of the books now. I’ll just see what I’m in the mood for when I need something to read. I plan to savor this year’s challenge. After all, I bought these books because I thought I would enjoy reading them. Now’s the time to find out.


*Maybe, but that’s not going to work as an excuse. Goodreads counts pages as well as books, and my page count for 2017 is down as well.

The Small Change trilogy

Short version: I recently read an alternative history trilogy by Jo Walton called Small Change. I think it’s good. Read it!

Long version:

The three books of Small Change are set in an alternate Britain that signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1941. Farthing and Ha’penny take place in 1949; Half a Crown is set in 1960. I’d heard about Farthing years ago (it was published in 2006), but I was in no real hurry to read it. I’ve had an iffy success rate with Walton’s books. I may be the only SF/F reader in the world who didn’t become a passionate fan of Among Others after reading it. I enjoyed it, but it was a kind of middling enjoyment. It was a great trip down memory lane for the books of my teenagerhood, but I kept wishing I was reading the story of Morwenna’s original fight instead the story of her recovery from it. I might not have ever have gotten around to reading another one of Walton’s books after that, but then she came up with the Necessity trilogy, and I couldn’t resist the combination of Greek gods and philosophy, all wrapped up in fiction. I loved that series enough to buy all three books in hardcover (!), but then I read My Real Children and liked it except for feeling like I was missing something obvious about the ending that I was certain everyone else understood. So, some books clicked with me and some didn’t. Farthing sounded interesting, but not pressing, and there were lots of other books to read. And then, well, November came and went, and January came and went, and things are different now, and Farthing rose to the top of my to-read list. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in this, because there was a wait list for every book in the trilogy at my library.

Small-Change

As with those other books I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed Small Change unevenly (my reviews of the individual books are linked at the end of this post). Farthing hooked me straightaway and I fell into the book until the end. It’s a classic British murder-at-the-family-estate mystery, but, well, fascism. I braced myself to be disappointed with Ha’penny for no better reason than that it was the second volume of a trilogy and middles are challenging. I ended up liking it almost as much as Farthing. Although Inspector Carmichael returns as one of the protagonists, Ha’penny is more of a political thriller than a murder mystery. It takes place a mere two weeks or so after the end of Farthing, but even in that short a period, there’s been a noticeable change in atmosphere. I was more frustrated with Half a Crown. So much of the tension in the first two books comes from the reader’s (my) knowledge that this history is “wrong” and that fascism is a threat, yet the characters are innocently—naturally, believably—dealing with their immediate concerns and not seeing this other danger. Ten years later, the characters have to deal with that threat directly. I missed the structure of a foreground story (the murder mystery, the political thriller) hinting at a bigger background story. But it was still a gripping story, whatever my disagreements with it, and I did want to know how the trilogy came out.

And the above is pretty much all I was going to say. Earlier, I’d avoided most reviews because I wanted to read the books without the filter of other people’s opinions. But afterwards, I started looking around the Internet to see what other people had to say, which is when I found this, by Jo Walton: 10th November 2016: How I feel when people reference Farthing.

(I’m assuming you’ve now read it. Beyond this point, there are spoilers for the trilogy. Assorted thoughts follow.)

If there’s any book I wrote that I wish was obsolete and that people would never be reminded of in any real world context, it’s Farthing. “Gosh, that’s dated,” I wish people would say about it. It wasn’t supposed to be a prediction. It wasn’t supposed to be an instruction manual. (The actual specifics of the post-Brexit shuffle and May etc really are scarily like what I have in the book.)

As I said, I was aware of Farthing before the 2016 Presidential election, but yes, that’s what motivated me to finally read it. For what it’s worth, I’m not recommending it to other people for that reason alone. Small Change is good and would be worth reading even if Brexit, May, Trump, etc. had never happened. But I found it impossible not to think of them while reading these books, and it wasn’t the experience I would’ve had if I’d read them back in 2006-2010.

People like the tragic ends of Farthing and Ha’Penny more than (spoilers!) the positive end of Half a Crown maybe because I didn’t do it as well, and maybe I didn’t because I was going uphill against the weight of narrative expectation and that’s hard. But it’s how fascism ended in Spain, King Juan Carlos did just what I had the Queen do in the book.

I remember this about Spain, and I’ve been holding on to this memory because there aren’t that many examples of dictatorships converting to democracies, and I need to have hope as well. But Juan Carlos had been laying the groundwork for the end of fascism for years. Nor was the world fascist in the 1970s and 1980s. At the end of Half a Crown, only Britain and a few other countries are democracies. Since we’re limited to Elvira and Carmichael’s points of view, it’s hard to tell if the Queen is as well prepared as Juan Carlos. Would Nazi Germany tolerate a Britain that was returning to democracy? Even if the Farthing Peace held, there’d be tension.

But learning this helps. Even though I’m still critical of this ending, I have more context for it now. Apparently what I need is The Annotated Small Change: With Author’s Commentary, Afterthoughts, and General Notes.

Did I mention Small Change was worth reading? Go on, try it.


My reviews of Small Change: