Posted in Book review, Book stash, Books, Reading, Year in review

2019 in review: Books

Last January, I set my usual annual goal of reading an average of a book a week, or 52 books in a year.  I met that goal with 67 books read or attempted.  10 of those books went into the “didn’t finish” category, so 57 books were read in full.  Some of those were reviewed, but not many. I also included the plays I read or performed, because in my life, that counts.

One of my unstated 2019 goals was to read more non-fiction.  Of the 67 books, six were non-fiction. Two of those were left unfinished: one was character research for a play, and the other was Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Pipher’s book; I did, but I also felt like I was not the right age to read it yet. I got halfway through, and then turned it back in at the library. I’ll come back to it in a few years.

Of the rest of the non-fiction, two were standouts.

First, Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat is hands-down the best cookbook I’ve ever read.  The spouse and I were introduced to Ms Nosrat and her cooking through the Netflix series of the same title.  We binged all four episodes in an afternoon, and I ordered the cookbook the same day.  Ms Nosrat is utterly delightful in both the show and the book.  She thoroughly explains why and how the four elements of her title are critical to good cooking, and how they all work together to create sumptuous savories and sweets.  My cooking has definitely improved, thanks to this book.

The other knockout non-fiction title actually scared the pants off me, as its title might suggest: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward.  Now, it’s no secret my politics lean leftward, and I have always thought Donald Trump was an asshole, dating from wayyyyy back in the 80s when he made such a splash on the gossip pages with his marriages, affairs, and failed business dealings, but I think anyone who approaches this book with an open mind and a respect for Woodward’s reporting will come away absolutely terrified that such an unqualified, incurious, hate-mongering, self-dealing, anti-intellectual, prevaricating dipshit currently holds the highest office of the land.  But it’s 2020, election year; maybe the rest of the country has learned its lesson by now. We’ll find out in November, if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office first (not holding my breath on that happening, though).

Okay, fiction-wise: I read some good stuff, but honestly, not many lingered in memory once I finished them.  Here are the few that did.

My friend Alice recommended The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to me several years ago. This year I finally decided to act on that recommendation, and picked up the book at the library.  Wow.  In a tavern in a quasi-medieval society where magic (of course) is real, over a period of one night, or maybe two, the bartender and owner of the establishment tells a scribe the story of his life, starting with his wretched childhood and then his unlikely enrollment at the local university of magic.  Along the way, we are given some hints as to our hero’s, um heroic past, and vague references to how he wound up as a humble tavern owner in hiding.  This is the first of a series. As soon as I finished this one, I read the second book (and the series companion about a secondary character) in rapid succession, and currently await the next installment. However, I understand Mr Rothfuss is struggling with writing Book 3, and thus it is delayed.  Hopefully we won’t wait as long for Book 3 from Mr Rothfuss as we’ve been waiting for Book 6 from George R.R. Martin.

As I’m sure you and the rest of the English-speaking world know by now, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. As I waited for my turn at the top of the library waiting list for The Testaments, I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in probably 20 years. It’s still as horrifying as when I first read it back in the 1980s.  The Testaments is equally as horrifying, albeit it a tad more hopeful.  Telling the tale from the perspective of everyone’s favorite villain, Aunt Lydia, some 15 years after Offred got into the back of a van and vanished from the narrative, we dive into the inner workings of Gilead and learn, among other things, how Aunt Lydia came to her position of power.  Things are not always as they seem in Aunt Lydia’s sphere of influence: even the Aunts play politics.  I saw the twist coming, eventually, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

David Mitchell is on his way to becoming one of my favorite authors.  I’d previously read and loved Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, so when Slade House popped up on my radar, I grabbed it at the library at the first opportunity.  The titular residence either exists or doesn’t exist, and is inhabited or abandoned, all depending on the time of day, the year, and one’s unique personality.  Those who permitted to enter the grounds are forever altered.  A fascinating take on the haunted house trope.

My friend Jenny says Black Swan Green is her favorite David Mitchell novel.  Since I’ve yet to be disappointed in anything Mr Mitchell has turned out, I think I’ll put that one on the list for this year.

Speaking of “the list,” for 2020, I’ve again set a goal of 52 books.  This will include plays, of course, because I read a lot of them. In fact, I’m taking part in a challenge to read Shakespeare’s complete works this calendar year.  The organizer has come up with a schedule that gets us through all the plays and the poetry between January 1 and December 31.  Epic!  Twelfth Night is up first.  If you care to join in, visit The Shakespeare2020 Project and sign up.

And if you’re interested in the complete list of books read in 2019, click here.

Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos (Ilium, #2)Olympos by Dan Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MARS: Paris is dead. Hockenberry and Helen are lovers. Achilles and Hector have joined forces against the gods while the gods fight amongst themselves. Mahnmut and Orphu discover the quantum energy they’ve been tracking emanates from Earth rather than Mars, and it’s about to destroy both worlds.

EARTH: Meanwhile, Odysseus travels with Harman and Ada, seeking an end to Setebos. Daeman travels alone, seeking the same end. And the voynix drop their pretense of servitude; humanity’s continued existence is precarious.

Dan Simmons juggles many plates in the concluding volume of this epic duology. I admit to being a little lost at times, and occasionally needing to trudge my way through chapter 2017SFFReadingChallengeafter chapter in dogged determination. Yeah, the story bogs down now and then. So many moving parts! But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

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Book review: Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium (Ilium, #1)Ilium by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allosaurs, Greek gods, and space-going Shakespeare enthusiasts? Dan Simmons must have read my Christmas wish list.

Troy is at war. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, and the Trojans, led by Priam and Paris, wage pitched and pitiless battles, aided by the gods and observed by humans. These humans — the scholics — were once experts on Greek poetry and ancient history. They were reconstructed by the gods from their DNA, and then brought back to make sure the path of the war follows the path of the Iliad as laid out by Homer. Thomas Hockenberry is one such scholic, tramping around the battlefield in the guise of various soldiers, making notes and reporting back to the Muse. One day, after nine years of such a life, he is summoned by Aphrodite and told he is to alter the course of things. He is to kill Pallas Athena.

On Earth, humans live in an idyllic setting, pursuing a sybaritic lifestyle. The world is a constant round of dinner parties, picnics, long walks through the woods, and casual sex. No work, no worries, no schooling, no commitments, their every need is seen to by the voynix, mechanical servants who cook, clean, and care for them in their Eden. Daeman, who, like most others of society, is spectacularly incurious about the whys and wherefores of his world, and who collects butterflies and bed partners with equal vigor, arrives at the estate of his cousin, Ada, for a birthday party. He is shocked to discover that the party is not in celebration of someone’s 20th — after which they will be whisked away to the Rings and then returned after rejuvenation — but of Harman’s 99th. In essence, it’s Harman’s going-away party, for he has only one more year of life. But a chance encounter with an allosaurus changes everything.

On Europa, the Five Moon Consortium, a conclave of biomechanical beings, gathers to discuss the 600-year lack of contact from the post-humans and the more recent (in the last 200 years) apparent terraforming of Mars. The consortium is especially concerned with unusually massive amounts of quantum-shift activity centered on Mons Olympus, and decides to send an expedition to investigate. Mahnmut, a Europan moravec, is excited to be included in this expedition with his friend Orphu, an Ionian moravec, and looks forward to continuing their discussions of Shakespeare and Proust and literature in general.  The expedition sets off well enough but soon suffers a severe setback, leaving Mahnmut and Orphu to make the best of what may be a fatal error.

Simmons adopted three different voices to tell these stories. The Trojan saga echoes Homeric prose, to the point of opening the novel with a paraphrase of the opening lines of the Iliad itself; and it is in this opening paragraph that we first begin to understand the sorrow and tragedy of the scholic Hockenberry and the rest of the cast of characters Simmons introduces. The story of Daeman, Ada, and Harman is told in simple descriptive language akin to the childlike outlook of the humans themselves; while the conversations of Mahnmut, Orphu, and the rest of the moravecs are full of technobabble and high literary analysis. This narrative trick is effective, if occasionally jarring when 2017SFFReadingChallengemoving from artless human idyll to high Homeric tragedy.

Three settings. Three stories. Three disparate and wandering paths that lead to the same destination? We’ll find out when I read the sequel.

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Book review: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2)The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Fifth Season, we were introduced to Essun after the loss of her family. In The Obelisk Gate, we find out what happened to her daughter Nassun after her father killed her little brother and took off for parts unknown.

Essun works diligently to fit in and provide aid and stability to the underground community that has taken her and her traveling companions in. But politics and infighting, within the community and between the Stone Eaters who show up in unexpected places, make her situation precarious. Her Orogene abilities grow ever more powerful; meanwhile, Alabaster is dying, inch by inch.

Nassun travels across the ravaged countryside with her increasingly unstable father, until they reach their destination, a school that supposedly can cure Nassun of her Orogene nature. She, too, shows an increase in her power, much to her father’s dismay, leading to discord and treachery.

Environmental conditions worsen, vicious gangs roam the land; and the Obelisks approach.  And both Nessun and Essun are asked to consider the possibility of the prior existence of something called “the Moon.”

2017SFFReadingChallengeLike the first, illuminating excerpts from this culture’s foundational texts are sprinkled throughout the novel.  I love this method of providing back story and cultural context.

A worthy follow-up to the first volume. I can hardly wait for the third!

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning SF/F Challenge.  Click that badge over there to see what others have been reading.  And once there, consider joining us.

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Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2003 Review

Neil Gaiman is one of the most original writers currently publishing. He defies category: how does one classify an author whose work ranges from SF to horror to social commentary to parable and back, all within the pages of one book? His style is reminiscent of Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison, perhaps with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for seasoning.

AMERICAN GODS tells the story of the war brewing between the “old” gods of the United States — the piskies and brownies and vrokolaks brought over from the Old Country by immigrant believers — and the “new” gods of technology and progress worshipped by the descendants of those immigrants. One human, an ex-con called Shadow, is enlisted by a man calling himself Wednesday to help unite the old gods in resisting the new. Shadow, at loose ends after the sudden loss of his wife, agrees to work for Wednesday, and is plunged headlong into intrigue and strangeness, where people are not who they appear, time does not track, and even the dead do not stay in their graves.

A haunting tone poem of a novel. Highly recommended.

2017 Re-read

Although I had been intending to re-read this book for years, the impending debut of the Starz series (April 30!) finally got this book down from the shelf and into my hands in mid-April.

Seasons of ReadingIt’s funny how time can distort the memory of a once-read novel. I remembered this story as being mostly a road trip with Shadow and Wednesday. While there is definitely a great deal of travel involved, I had completely forgotten the events that take place in sleepy, quiet, wintry Lakeside. I had also forgotten the outcome of Wednesday’s machinations, and how truly noble Shadow turns out to be.

Now I’m prepared for the TV show. It better not be awful.

2017SFFReadingChallenge(Side observation: I expect researching this novel is what eventually led Gaiman to write Norse Mythology.)

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Read as part of the Spring Into Horror read-a-thon.  This is the only book I managed to finish during the time frame.  Join us next time!

Also read for the 2017 Award Winning SF/F Challenge.  You can still join in on that one.

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Posted in Books, Movies and TV, Reading

2017 Spring into Horror Read-A-Thon

I almost forgot to join in this annual event! And since horror/thriller/spooky stuff is one of my favorite genres, that would be a shame indeed.

I’m currently about halfway through a re-read of Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods in anticipation of the Starz series (with IAN FUCKING McSHANE as MR. WEDNESDAY!!!!! *swoon*) set to begin on April 30. I’ll probably finish it in the next few days.  Then, who knows what evil lurks in the heart of my bookshelf?

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Book review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It isn’t often I run across a novel that I almost literally cannot put down.

The Fifth Season is such a novel. I resented the time I had to spend away from it.

On a planet that might be Earth, a giant rift opened in the ground near the capital city Yemenes, creating volcanic eruptions and violent earthquakes that ripple across the land. In some areas of the planet’s single land mass, these eruptions and earthquakes have been mitigated by Orogenes, people with a special ability to quell the land and harness its power. Orogenes are despised and feared, even persecuted and murdered, by the ordinary folk, unless they wear the uniform of the Fulcrum — the school where Orogenes are trained to use their power in a constructive and controlled fashion.

But no Orogene can prevent the destructive atmospheric fallout from the Rift. The eruption has instigated a Season — ash coats the world, sunlight is obscured, plants and animals die off, and human life becomes increasingly precarious.

The story follows three women:

  • Essun, a middle-aged mother who hid her Orogene abilities from her fellow villagers, including her husband, but passed them along to her children
  • Damaya, a young trainee at the Fulcrum
  • Seyenite, a graduate of the Fulcrum, on her first big mission

These women live their lives, follow their orders, and try their best to stay safe. But their lives have an unexpected convergence; what one does in her youth severely impacts the life of another some ten years later.

Scattered throughout the novel are hints of the underpinnings and history of the cultural socioeconomics and societal structure. Pieces of lost technology (or “deadciv” artifacts) turn up now and then; some are benign, some are deadly. And just what are those large crystalline structures occasionally seen floating through the air?

2017SFFReadingChallengeFabulous world-building. Intriguing characters. Fascinating plot. Within 10 minutes of finishing this book, I bought the second of the series and pre-ordered the third. Yes, it’s that good. Yes, you should read it.

Why are you still here? Go get it now.

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

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Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The heat is nearly unbearable.

The ice caps melted; the sea-level rose; the fossil-fuel economy collapsed; worldwide famine ensued; and Asia took the lead in science- and technology-driven solutions. Unfortunately, the genetically-engineered crops produced by the agricultural research companies also produced horrific diseases for crops and for people, further decimating global population and food supply. Riots, black markets, corporate espionage, ethnic cleansing…the world of 100 years or so from now is not a pleasant place, unless one is very wealthy.

And in Paolo Bacigalupi’s future vision, one is either very wealthy, or one is not. The only denizens of a nearly non-existent middle class are the calorie-men, like Anderson Lake, the manager of the factory where much of the action of this novel centers.

Anderson Lake prowls the street markets of Bangkok, hoping to find pure, unaltered food — a real canteloupe, an actual vine-grown tomato — that he can purchase and take back to his employer for gene analysis and modification. What he finds, eventually, is Enniko.

Enniko — the Windup Girl of the title — is a “New Person”, the genetically-engineered, vat-grown human-like plaything of a Japanese businessman, who left her behind in Bangkok when he grew tired of her. Her unaccompanied presence in the city is problematic, and she places herself under the protection of unsavory individuals for her personal safety.

Around both of them, Bangkok is aswirl with civil unrest, thievery, police corruption, political assassination attempts, and the outbreak of a new and mysterious disease. There’s so much going on in this story that it’s nearly impossible to synopsize.

It’s not an easy read: lots of characters and subplots to follow; lots of Bacigalupi-created neologisms; lots of untranslated Asian-language words (presumably Thai, but I could be wrong). The word meanings can be gathered from context, but it makes for slow going initially.

Have I mentioned that I loved it? I did. It’s fabulous. Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, horrifying, and spectacular. Once I finally got into the story, I could hardly bear to put it down.

2017SFFReadingChallengeThis is not a story for everyone. But it was the story for me.

(If you like China Miéville, you will love this. Trust me.)

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

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Book review: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower #7)The Dark Tower by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh boy, how to review this without spoilers.

*thinks*

Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower drives him forward relentlessly and, as in the previous installments, people fall victim along the way. You’ll need a tissue. Maybe even a box of tissues.

Still, with the tears, we get grand resolutions, climactic confrontations, a few  gag-inducing gross-out moments, and an intriguing explanation for the presence of Character King (as opposed to Author King) within the narrative.

In the end, ka is truly a wheel.

My main quibble isn’t the presence of Character King, as seems to stick in the craw of other readers. Once that was explained, it made sense in context and I accepted it for what it was. No, my chief gripe was Mordred, as Susannah’s baby was named. As a concept, he was excellent: a child conceived from the line of Arthur for the purpose of destroying his father. As a character, he was pointless: simply a bootless boogieman, the promised confrontation with whom turned out to be…well, less than satisfying.

Said quibble aside, I enjoyed the time spent here, traveling with Roland and ka-tet, as we reached the Tower together, at last.

Safe travels, Roland. I’ll visit you again someday.

(NOTE: I read the Scribner first edition trade paperback published in 2005. This review links to the hardcover so it shows the correct cover art.)

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2016SFFChallengeThis review was written as part of the 2016 Award-Winning SFF Challenge. This challenge is now over, but you can find the sign-up for the 2017 Challenge right here.

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Book review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rob Broadhead is in therapy, even though he is resistant to everything his therapist suggests. But he keeps coming back, week after week, session after session, until finally, a breakthrough is achieved.

The story that underlies that eventual breakthrough is the story of Rob’s experience at Gateway, a space station that houses the mysterious spacecraft of a vanished race known as the Heechee. Rob was a prospector, a person who takes a chance and joins an expedition to one (or more) of the unknown destinations pre-programmed into the Heechee ships in the hopes of finding something spectacular and making a fortune.

Rob made a fortune. And it broke him.

Frederik Pohl constructed his tale in bi-fold manner: Rob’s therapy sessions with his AI psychiatrist; and his time at Gateway, learning about Heechee navigation and preparing for his trip into the unknown. It’s an effective tool, revealing Rob’s psychosis and its triggering event a little at a time. And the information revealed about the mysterious and long-gone Heechee is intriguing enough for me to seek out the rest of the series. Well done, Mr. Pohl.

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2016SFFChallengeThis review was written as part of the 2016 Award-Winning SFF Challenge. This challenge is now over, but you can find the sign-up for the 2017 Challenge right here.

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