Well, mini-reviews at least. I always enjoy other peoples’ “what I read last year” posts, so here’s mine.
I don’t think I read much of anything in the first part of the year — I was too focused on Twenty Mule Team. But in March, after I’d finally hit that bucket-list goal, I started to relax and read for fun. And then I got pregnant, and I felt like crap a lot of the time, and I wasn’t spending money on running or endurance, so I just gave myself an unlimited book budget. A tank of gas for hauling a trailer = a ton of ebooks!
Lucy got me hooked on the Iditarod, so I read two sled dog racing books:
My Lead Dog Was A Lesbian, Brian Patrick O’Donoghue. Totally hysterical, first-person account of getting into mushing solely for the purpose of running the 1991 Iditarod. (Equivalent, in our terms, to buying a horse and learning to ride so that one can ride Tevis.)
Yukon Alone, John Balzar. An “embedded journalist” follows the 1998 Yukon Quest (the lesser-known, harder, possibly more prestigious sibling of the Iditarod.) Great character sketches — you really feel like you get to know each of the mushers. (Go Aliy!)
I’d heard good things about Elizabeth Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy, so I gave them a shot and loved them. A certain type of reader will love them: fantasy, but very much modern fantasy. Does it ever bother you that the Lord of the Rings is basically White Male Protagonists Have Adventures? Ahh, try Range of Ghosts. Believable yet heroic horses, male and female protagonists, rich cultures based off of non-European historical equivalents, and a good plot drawing you along. I loved the trilogy.
I feel like I should like Margaret Atwood, so I tried Oryx and Crake. Somehow I made it 30% of the way through before I came to my senses, remembered that life is too short to slog through bad books, and metaphorically threw it across the room. I never really figured out what was going on: somehow there were only three humans left on the planet, after some sort of bioengineered apocalypse, and they were crazy and trapped in an epic love triangle or something. It just never worked for me. All the allegory was way too heavy-handed, and I’m not really interested in depressing dystopian bullshit futures right now. (I must be contrary; I really loved them before they were cool, maaaan, but now that that’s all anybody wants to write, I’m not studying it.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman. If you love Gaiman, you’ll like this. It’s a look back at a magical, dangerous, truly creepy childhood, told in a lovely flashback style, with a somewhat-unreliable narrator. The creepy bits reminded me a little bit of Coraline, and of course Gaiman has a particular style of gods/powerful beings that runs through all his books.
Aarene said The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater was good, and she’s right. Magical realism, lovely horse-characters, a really lush setting in the British Isles.
Skin Game, Jim Butcher. Announcing that I read this is kind of like a Marvel fan announcing that they’d gone to see the latest Avengers movie — if you haven’t read the previous fourteen novels in the series, you won’t care what happened in this one, and if you already are a fan, of course you know about it. tl;dr: It was good. Harry’s character develops a bit more, the meta-plot remains interesting and opaque, and half of my favorite characters appeared.
Next I tried another YA novel: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. I made it 40% of the way through this one before I Did Not Finish’ed it. I wanted to like it, but I never could make it click. Based rather closely upon late-medieval France, except with magic, and lots of female characters, and assassinations — why didn’t it work? I don’t know, but I think YA is just hit-or-miss with me. A gifted writer (Robin McKinley) can make the limited vocabulary, sparse prose, and simple plot arcs fresh and wonderful every time, but this book just didn’t do it for me. It was first person present tense, and it read like a diary. I was way too trapped inside the teenage assassin narrator’s head.
(I don’t think there IS a way to write late-medieval protagonists in first-person and do it at a marketable young adult level, honestly. They’re always going to be doomed to be wallpaper historicals. You can have two out of three — medieval mindset, first person, young-adult genre — but not all three.)
To hell with young adult stuff, let’s go wallow in my favorite guilty-pleasure genre: space opera. After the passing of the sainted Iain Banks in 2013, there’s really only one author left writing doorstopper space operas: Peter Hamilton. Great North Road is really, really good for the genre, and incredibly short for being a Hamilton. The man makes Neal Stephenson look succinct, but GNR is a standalone instead of a trilogy. It’s almost a thousand pages, but it does all wrap up at the end, really quite well.
One of the hallmarks of Hamilton books is all the train porn. I don’t mean actual porn — I mean the man can go for pages and pages describing the imaginary train systems of the far-future worlds he’s built. Type of engines, number of cars, rail gauge, blah blah blah. Just skim it; if it doesn’t start to get on your nerves it’s kind of charming.
I thought Hamilton did a better-than-usual job of working in some non-default characters: not everybody important is a straight white male or beautiful straight female. They’re not the most compelling or realistic characters, but you don’t read hard space opera for the characters, and I think he is improving in that regard.
Another DNF that I really thought I should like: Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal. I made it 58% of the way through this one.
Here’s the Amazon book description: “The fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written. Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.”
Somehow when I read that I skipped right over the part where I can’t fucking stand Jane Austen and fixated on the bits about fantasy, JS&MN, and Regency-England-with-magic. But alas, I can’t stand Jane Austen, and when I got halfway through and realized nothing had happened or was likely to happen for hundreds more pages, I pitched it. Sorry, MRK, I really like your writing style.
I still had a hankering for Regency love, so I got two Courtney Milans: The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy. I love Courtney Milan, and if you come up in here trying to convince me that her books are just a different kind of wallpaper historical, I will fight you. I think I’ve read all the other books in that particular series. I really enjoyed Heiress Effect, but Countess Conspiracy didn’t work so well for me. Not my catnip. Go look ‘em up on SBTB if you want real reviews.
I also really love Sherry Thomas regency romances, so when I heard she’d branched off into YA fantasy, I immediately gave The Burning Sky a try. DNF at 36%. Did not compel me. There’s a weak love story and a weak conflict and the world-building wasn’t up to my spergy lifelong SF/F nerd standards. Bah. I’m most irritated that I paid $9.15 for it — I pick up most of my books on sale for $3-5, so I feel like I wasted the equivalent of three books on one that wasn’t good enough to finish.
(What a weird world publishing is. I don’t know what kind of contracts Sherry Thomas has with her publisher, but her YA/fantasy is always going to list for 2-3 times the price of her romance novels — and I suspect her romance novels earn a better profit. I have a lot of Thoughts about the Genre Ghettos, but I refuse to get distracted from the main point of this post.)
Dust, Elizabeth Bear. Here we go again: I love Elizabeth Bear! I love space opera! Look, she wrote a space opera, let’s just dive right in and … 4% DNF. Four percent. It was just awful and did not click at all for me. I can’t even explain why because I didn’t read far enough to figure out why. Some kind of stupid generation-ship with mutated humans or something.
Apparently I was on a losing streak. Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan got set aside at 42%. In its defense, I will go back and finish it at some point. It’s really well-written disaster porn: the true story of a dude who hit a whale in a storm in the mid-Atlantic and his little sailboat sank and he managed to bail out with a life raft and only the most basic of supplies. Somehow he survived for — spoiler alert! — 76 days before he finally drifted close enough to the Caribbean to get picked up by fishermen. The experience profoundly changed him. Very cool stuff, I just wasn’t in the mood to finish it.
Next: more genre sequels!
The Rhesus Chart, Charles Strauss. Book 5 of the Laundry Files is Bob vs. Finance Vampires. The vampires were extremely amusing. Bad things happen to characters you love. The meta-plot continues to get more and more terrifying. Good stuff, totally worth full list price.
I follow her tumblr, but for some reason I forgot to keep up with Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye books and I got behind by two. Ashes of Honor and Chimes at Midnight were both good. See the Jim Butcher “review” — if you’ve read the first five Toby Daye books, you’ll be happy with the next two, etc.
I grabbed another Seanan next: Indexing. It was originally released as a serial e-book, which shows in the flow of the story, but it’s not too distracting. I don’t really know how to describe this one: urban fantasy, in a world where fairy-tale archetypes (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) impose themselves on normal people’s lives. There’s a bureaucracy set up to deal with these fairy-tale incursions, and of course it’s staffed by archetypes. Things happen. It’s a lot of fun for $3.99.
The debacle of the Toby Dayes (I seriously forgot about one of my favorite series for two years?) had me checking back through all my favorite authors, and I found a new Mercy Thompson! Night Broken, Patricia Briggs, book 8. A plot synopsis would just be more insider baseball.
I’m inherently distrustful of any “male vs female” stereotypes, but at the same time, dude, there’s such a difference between male-author urban fantasy and female-author urban fantasy. Book 15 of Harry Dresden had a lot of plot explosions and character level-ups plus some very long awaited relationship developments. Book 8 of Mercy Thompson was primarily character development and relationship work, with enough fights and meta-plot stuff to keep the meta-story going. I really enjoyed both books, but they’re very different series.
Dirty Magic, Jaye Wells. 33% DNF. Cop noir urban fantasy, with a Tough Girl heroine, and magic as drug abuse — all tropes I usually like. Appeared to be headed toward an awkward romance subplot. Didn’t work for me.
A Taste of Blood Wine, Freda Warrington. 90% DNF. Ninety percent and I did not finish. I guess I’d say it was irritating yet captivating, but in the end, more irritating than anything else? Some familiar vampire tropes, some overdone Gothic writing, and in the end, I fucking hated all the characters and don’t care what happens to them.
Back to Seanan, who hasn’t done me wrong yet. Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire. It sort of reminded me of Gaiman’s American Gods — instead of faded old gods in America, this is a story about urban legends in a shadowy afterlife in America. It’s a standalone, and a good starting point to see if you like McGuire.
Midnight Blue-Light Special, Seanan McGuire. Book two of her InCryptid series, which I still don’t know if I actually, inherently like, or if I just like because they’re so well written and dependable. The protagonist is an ass-kicking girly girl, and I don’t like girly-girls, but damn, I keep reading these books because I’d rather read Seanan’s girly-girls than someone else’s cardboard (or wallpaper!) tough chicks. (Sorry, Dirty Magic. Not sorry.)
Another long-awaited sequel: The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman.
One of the things that irritates the shit out of me is when certain stories are deemed to have risen above their genre-ghetto origins and are treated as High Literature. The trope-setters are usually in this category (Tolkien’s books, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jane Austen’s books), but sometimes, apparently at random, other books are Chosen to ascend to the platform of Literature. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is obviously just Napoleonic Britain With Magic, exactly like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. But JS&MN is considered Literature and was reviewed by Serious Reviewers and marketed to Serious Readers. If Serious Critics like you, you’re considered to be a Serious Author; if you get pigeonholed as a SF/F (or romance, or mystery) writer, your books are silly airport fluff.
But that doesn’t usually have anything to do with the book itself, so I magnanimously try to be open-minded about these Chosen Books. Lev Grossman’s first book, The Magicians, was a Chosen Book. It’s a snarky take on Harry Potter’s boarding school for magically gifted children, with some surprisingly sweet and earnest love of Narnia mixed in. It doesn’t follow the usual plot structure, and most people (me included) finish the book still wondering if they even like the main character. A couple years later, Grossman wrote a sequel; this year he finished out the trilogy. The story finally does feel complete. It’s not a neat monomyth-type trilogy, and I still don’t know if I like Quentin — but I like him a lot more after book three than I did after book one. And I no longer think he’s the main character — he’s just the point-of-view character. The trilogy is really about one of the other characters (no spoilers, read it yourself and email me if you want to talk).
Since this is a Chosen Book, it’s been reviewed to death by Serious Reviewers. You can google for what other people thought of it and read some really on-point criticisms, but the Magicians books are just flawed, not broken. I really liked them. I hate to admit it, but they may actually be closer to Real Literature than “just” fantasy (and that’s more of a criticism of genre’s predictable formulas than praise of modern lit’s ability to tell a good story!)
Back to romance. The Hidden Blade, Sherry Thomas. I don’t know why, but I really only enjoy historical romance, and I’m fairly picky about my historical periods to boot. (I cannot stand Scottish kilt-wearing stuff — maybe it’s the ridiculous attempts to spell out Hieelan’ broooug?) I do like Sherry Thomas (at least her romance stuff), and I like historical novels set in the Orient, so this one seemed like a good bet. It was ok: I finished it, but I haven’t felt compelled to seek out the next book in the series. It does have a female Chinese martial arts protagonist, so if that’s your catnip, go for it!
Hope springs eternal with the young-adult-fantasy crap. Graceling, Kristin Cashore. The heroine is a classic Chosen One, with a magical power — the power of death! Yep, another historical fantasy assassin. At least this one was third-person past-tense, but again, I made it 14% of the way and DNF’d. Boring.
Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings, Neal Stephenson. Only of interest to the True Fan ™.
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson. Nice to have a clean copy of the entire trilogy in ebook. Again, not something I even try to convince newbies to read — if you think you maybe want to read Stephenson, start with Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, or REAMDE. If you loved any of those, you’ve already read (or got on your to-read bucket list) the Baroque books. It’s 1.5 million words, or three times the length of Lord of the Rings, and yes, I did reread it this summer. Pregnancy has not been fun for me, and I’ve been queasy and/or exhausted for a lot of the time.
Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey. 50% DNF. I bought this one off of a Goodreads “if you like Peter Hamilton, you may like these” list, and it should’ve been a good fit. Solar-system near-future noir-detective space opera. But the two male/POV protagonists irritated me. The idealistic one was Too Stupid To Live. The washed up alcoholic noir detective was unlikeable because he’s a washed-up alcoholic noir detective, fixated on a Beautiful Dead Girl. But it was certainly readable, and those tropes don’t always bother other people, so I’m not, like, de-recommending it. It’s popular enough to have sequels. If the Beautiful Dead Girl hadn’t annoyed me so much I might’ve pushed through.
The Corey book did tide me over til another Hamilton came out later that month. The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Peter F. Hamilton. First of a two-book series set in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe. I zipped through it, and I’ll read the sequel happily, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Great North Road. (Even though there was even less Hamiltonian Train Porn in this one!)
The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Patrick Rothfuss. 10% DNF. I totally didn’t do my homework on this one. I mean, it’s been three years since he put out Book Two of his big trilogy, and here’s a new book by him, oh just click and preorder it… As it turns out it’s sort of a side story — the backstory of one of the minor characters from the main books. I guess it’s good? I wasn’t in the mood for his overblown prose — it’s a rough transition from no-nonsense space opera straight to flowery high fantasy — and the MC is the most manic of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and it just didn’t catch me at all.
Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch. Lucy turned me on to the PC Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, and I’d entered the “nesting via needlepoint” phase of pregnancy, and I just ripped straight through all four extant audiobooks in like a week. Really kind of embarrassing. There’s a new one coming out on January 6th, and my fondest hope in the entire universe is that I’ll get to read it while blearily breastfeeding the baby and not while I’m still pregnant argh.
Anyway, the series: London-based urban fantasy. The MC is a black cop who stumbles into the barely-hidden world of magic. Like all good series, there’s a meta-plot that stretches over several books, and you really get the feeling that the author has a Grand Plan for how it’s all going to turn out after ten books or something. Something that starts in book one comes to a conclusion that feels almost inevitable at the end of book four, and I love that kind of craftsmanship. The audiobooks are particularly wonderful because they’re narrated by a black British dude, and like most white Americans, I just adore that combination of accents. He just sounds exactly like a tired, seen-it-all London copper.
The Winter Long, Seanan McGuire (who totally wins the most-read category this year.) Another Toby Daye, yippie! On her blog, Seanan said that The Winter Long is the book she had in mind when she first started the series, and she had to write the seven before it to lead up to this one. It was good; I like how the minor characters and subplots are slowly, carefully unfolding. There’s still more to tell in this world.
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker. 47% DNF. Another one that felt like I should’ve liked it, but I never really got into it. I finally quit when I realized I was almost halfway through the book, it felt like nothing had happened, and it felt like nothing ever would happen. Lovely writing, lovely world-building, the characters were nuanced and likable enough, but nothing ever happened. (That’s not entirely fair or accurate, but it’s how I felt about it.)
Shadows, Robin McKinley. McKinley is one of my always-read authors. Two of her books are on my top-ten comfort-reading list. And at this point, I’m going to call her the only YA author I know I’ll like. Shadows reminded me a lot of Sunshine – the protagonist uses a lot of world-specific teenager slang that quickly drops you into her universe (or, should you be some kind of heathen who hates McKinley, rapidly drives you insane). Something about the story arc or the pacing wasn’t quite as formulaic as most books, but I can’t be more specific than that, really — it just felt like the tension built and was resolved at nontraditional points in the narrative. The ending wasn’t too rushed. Maybe the danger to the characters didn’t feel real enough? Or maybe the resolution didn’t feel grown-up enough? I don’t really want to go into detail, because spoilers, but if you’ve read it (or you love spoilers) email me and I’ll try to go into more detail. Anyway, I never regret a McKinley.
Oh boy a new series! A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch. First in the Charles Lenox Mysteries series, and it looks like there’s eight of them so far. These are Victorian London murder mysteries, solved by a gentleman detective. They are so indescribably fluffy I can’t even. I started this series right before the winter solstice, at like 37 weeks pregnant, and fluffy Victorian murder mysteries are exactly what I needed. If you’re not willing to overlook a completely modern-minded saint of a main character, I bet they’d get old fast, but if you want a book where the good characters are all decent and kind and you know the mystery will unfold at about 80% and the secondary plots will end on a warm fuzzy note in the last 20% — well, these are books for you, my friend. It looks like I’ve read three of them, and I may or may not go back for a fourth this month. Chicken soup for the soul.
Viscount Vagabond, Loretta Chase. Another Regency by an author I like. Didn’t sound all that good, but it was on sale for free, so why not? Stalled out at 16%, probably won’t finish it — I don’t adore either of the main characters. I liked The Devil’s Delilah a whole lot more, so I’d recommend it instead of this!
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi. I don’t really understand how it took me this long to get around to OMW, but I finally read it, and I liked it. It’s being developed as a TV series or something, so there’s a lot of recent press about it. I think I’d describe it as “Starship Troopers, but with reasonable adults instead of teenagers, and a love story instead of a right-wing milporn libertarian screed.” Highly readable, and hard for me to believe it was a first novel. Scalzi is good.
There’s a couple more books I bought in late December and haven’t finished or haven’t started, so they’ll have to get rolled over to next year.