in Blog, Books

Perfectly Cromulent Reads of 2016

Multiple people have complained to me that I seem to only read books that I hate.

This is untrue — but it’s also an understandable mistake. I read lots of books*, but I mostly only have things to say about them if they’re a) mind-blowingly good (see Uprooted, The Goblin Emperor), or b) truly awful (to my tastes) in some way (mostly I just rant about these in friends-only spaces).

*okay, relatively speaking

Just to assure you that I do read stuff that I like, here are the other books I’ve read this year — ones about which I had nothing dramatic to say. I’ll say a few more words about each, but in general they were completely satisfying literary products, and no slight is intended by their inclusion here.

The Girl in the Garden, by Kamala Nair. Recommended to me by EB. I found it entertaining, but not as profoundly awesome as EB did. An Indian-American woman recounts a tale of a fantastical childhood summer visiting her family’s home in Kerala. At first glance, it seems like the genre is magic realism, but the only magic turns out to be that of a family keeping secrets too long and too deeply…

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Having won the “triple crown” of SFF (the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards), I had high expectations for this book. They were not entirely met, but it was still an enjoyable read. The main character, Breq, is a ship’s AI that was severed from her ship years ago, for Reasons. She’s trying to find reasons to live and get revenge on the Empire that made her what she is.

One of the things that gets a lot of buzz in this book is the pronouns: Breq was programmed by a culture that doesn’t recognize gendered pronouns in language, and she can’t read gender by the myriad cultural clues most humans recognize instinctively. The upshot is that she refers to everyone as “she.”

It’s an interesting effect, but I didn’t think it was the most clever thing about the book. The core mystery that Breq is trying to solve is kind of brain-bending ontological one, and I found it simultaneously frustrating and yet clever. Either by intention or by style, Leckie doesn’t explain anything, so you are kind of thrown into the abyss trying to figure out why so–and-so ordered such-and-such to do the Thing.

I also read some of the third book, Ancillary Mercy, as part of the Hugo voter packet. Man, that was hard to follow without having read the second book.

Overall, the way I tend to describe this series is “meditative” — it’s going somewhere, but it’s taking its time getting there.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear. Karen is a prostitute at an upscale brothel in steampunk-y 19th century Seattle/Portland. She finds out the ladies of her house are in danger from a serial killer, and gets embroiled in the political plot of the region in order to keep her chosen family out of danger. This book has voice by the gallon. It has a Singer sewing machine mecha. It has girls in love. It has loads of characters of color. It is very, very entertaining, but at the end of the day it didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I would like.

Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal. The final book of the Glamourist Histories, where Jane and Vincent go to Antigua to try to manage Vincent’s deceased father’s plantation. Very dramatic and enjoyable. I thought the racial issues implicit in the setting were addressed head-on, and yet deftly and honestly handled. As always, we the reader are aware of all the ways in which Jane is privileged, and when she does boneheaded things with that privilege, it’s always clear how we should feel about that. Sometimes she uses it to do some truly awesome things, too, and I appreciated that as well.

Let me say, too, that as someone who has no desire to have children, MRK does a BRILLIANT job of making me care about the Vincents’ wanting to have children. This is what’s cool about good writing — it really is a form of mind-control.

Overall, I was definitely sad to say goodbye to Jane and Vincent, and kept feeling like there should be more adventures with them just around the corner. They are one of my favorite fictional couples, because they simulate SO beautifully what it is like to be a happily married couple that still has issues. Also, they have same anniversary as Matt and me, so I feel some personal investment 🙂

And yet on the same note, this was probably not my favorite one of the series — Valour and Vanity hit a high point with Lord Byron and gondola chases.

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. This is a memoir by a NY Post reporter who was afflicted by a rare type of encephalitis, and was imprisoned in her own mind for months while doctors tried to figure it out. I borrowed from the public library on a night when I really needed a treat, and knew it had to be something I’d want to read right away, and not let it sit on a table for weeks. I thought this book would fit the bill, and I was not wrong — it was fascinating and yet terrifying. I think medical memoirs hit the same thrill-seeking part of my brain as true crime, and thus are becoming the same guilty pleasure…

Honeymoon in Purdah, Alison Wearing. A Canadian woman decides to visit Iran in the 1990s, under the guise of being on her honeymoon. Funny story to how I picked this book up — I was at a Mennonite thrift store near Stratford, Ontario, waiting for my mom to finish shopping. I started reading this and found it hard to put down, so I bought it and read it before I even left Canada. It is truly fascinating, although occasionally the author’s incredible privilege — and strange, not-always-successful poetic language — got on my nerves.

The Truth About Stories: a Native Narrative, by Thomas King. I picked this one up in the Stratford Festival gift shop — it’s a series of essays (based off lectures) by King about the power of narrative, and in particular how it’s used for meaning-making in Native American/First Peoples communities. He illustrates it with stories from his own life as a Native American, traveling and lecturing across the U.S. and Canada. One of the things I found most interesting was the author’s concern, when he was a young man, with looking “Indian enough” to fit people’s narrative of what an Indian should look like. It’s not something I’d thought a lot about in terms of how people experience their identity.

Also, I love this quote so much I pinned it to the top of my Twitter feed: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Young Men in Spats, by P.G. Wodehouse. A collection of stories — some about the Drones Club, some Mr. Mulliner — about clueless Wodehousian young men getting in trouble. I’d read (almost?) none of these before, and it seemed just the sort of silly frippery to get me through my cat Brianna being sick. It was indeed a perfectly cheering, perfectly acceptable piece of Wodehouse to read. (And Brianna turned out to be fine).

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. She of the Happiness Project blog writes about habits, giving us, as she so often does, several frameworks towards understanding how to form habits more reliably. Most of them are framed in terms of distinctions: owl vs. lark, underbuyer vs. overbuyer, etc.

One in particular which has helped me understand myself is the abstainer vs. moderator distinction. This describes how you react to reducing your intake of something like food, i.e. do you find it easier to cut a food out of your life entirely, or to have a little bit now and then? I’ve discovered I’m an abstainer, so I thrive better on “you can never have french fries” than I do “you can have french fries once a week.” With the latter, I find I spend too much mental energy trying to calculate whether or not I can actually have fries. (Also, never having French fries doesn’t apply to what I — after Gretchen — call “planned exceptions,” which is a premeditated cheat).

Overall, I like it, like I like all of Gretchen’s stuff, because it feels genuinely human and kind in its outlook. So much self-help/advice is about guilting people into behaving a certain way; hers are more about figuring out what makes you tick and trying to work with that. (And the fact that I tend to refer to her as “Gretchen” should be taken as a sign of how warmly I regard her).

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. I talked about this briefly in my “outleveling GRRM” post, so I’ll refer you to that. But mostly? I wanted to love this book more than I did. It gets talked up as being quite smutty, and while it does have quite a few graphic sex scenes, it’s mostly a ginormous novel of political intrigue in which BDSM occasionally plays a part. If you don’t dig that, it can actually be quite boring. I do like it, but it still felt rambling and directionless at parts.

Plus, like any novel written in the first-person, it lives or dies by voice. And Phèdre, the main character, has a voice that’s… polarizing. I feel like you either love it or you hate it. If you hate it, you won’t get very far in this book! I found it tolerable, with occasional quirks that drove me nuts. “There’s little to tell about such and such thing… but let me tell it anyway.”

I doubt I’ll read anything else in the series, as I was perfectly happy to leave Phèdre et al at the end of the book.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. Another nonfiction book, this one about using one’s instincts to escape incredibly dangerous situations. Yet another “I started reading it in a bookstore and had to finish it” book. I will say, by the end I got quite bored of it; it boils down to “you have good protective instincts and you should totally listen to them.” But you can’t really teach instinct, so there’s a certain intangibility to the advice. Although, he does take various signifiers in dangerous situations apart and tell us why they are subtle clues that our prehistoric hindbrain gloms onto before we have time to intellectually process them, which is interesting.

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her first post-Glamourist Histories book! I was sold from the minute I read the blurb on her website. Mary is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

This book promised me “WWI mediums serve as a super-secret espionage corps of the British army,” and it delivered. Ginger, the main character, is serving as one of these mediums when she stumbles into a plot to infiltrate and destroy the Spirit Corps. She’s even more invested when the danger becomes personal.

I liked many things about this book, and I enjoyed listening to the episode of Writing Excuses where they took it apart. (One I could finally listen to without spoilers! Hooray!) I have strong emotional memories of certain scenes in the book, like one of the final ones. But overall, I didn’t feel as invested as I would have liked, and I’m not sure why. It hit some high notes, but not enough, I guess.

The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington. Sleep is awesome and you shouldn’t do what the author did, where you become so sleep-deprived that you pass out and break your cheekbone on a coffee table. But no, honestly, this validated what I already knew: that sleep is not optional, and we suffer from sleep deprivation more than we imagine, both physically and mentally. I am literally a different, more terrible person when I’m sleep deprived, which has made me a bit of a sleep zealot. This is also why I say: if you think you have sleep apnea, get checked, yo.

Grunt, by Mary Roach. More nonfiction. I’ve actually never read any of Roach’s more famous books, but I enjoyed this one, which touches on bits of military science that don’t involve shooting people — things like sweat and birdstrike and zippers. Also, the first chapter takes Roach to the Natick Army Labs, which is down the street from where I work, so that’s pretty cool, I guess.

If I have one big complaint, it’s that the book never delves as deeply into a single topic as I would like. I feel like we’ve just started learning about performance fabrics when she wisks you away to talk about how the bottom of tanks are shaped. Also the segues between topics sometimes feel a little forced.

The Magpie Lord and A Case of Possession, by K.J. Charles. Really… these novels are fantasy m/m erotica. If you don’t want to read about boys fucking, nothing I’m going to say is going to convince you to read these. (And even if you do, it’s a little bit representative of the “gay men as written by straight women” genre, so bear that in mind).

And yet… the craft on display in these novels is superb. The main character, Lucien Vaudrey, the eponymous magpie lord, is a disgraced 19th-century nobleman who’s spent his whole life in Shanghai to keep his scandal far, far away from home. His father and older brother are killed mysteriously, and thus he returns to take the title he never expected to hold. He soon finds that whatever is trying to kill his father and brother is after him too — with magic. Into his life comes Stephen, a magician/detective who’s helping him to unravel the crime. And whom Lucien Totally Does Not Schtup Before the End of the Book. Because, again, this is smut.

The second book continues in this vein, with a series of killings related to old Shanghai acquaintances of Lucien’s. And more smut. There’s a third book, too, but I’ve reached my limit of “money I’m willing to spend on boysmut” for the year, so it’ll have to wait a bit.

One of the things I like about these books is how… refreshingly anti-colonialist they are. Steampunk/neo-Victorian stuff has a tendency to romanticize British imperialism, and I feel like this veered successfully away from that. Having a main character (albeit white) who lived most of his life in China — and clearly views it as a more civilized land — provides a sane, outsider point of view, while having him be back in Britain means we don’t risk fetishizing the “mysterious east” or some such. At least, that was my take on it — I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this aspect of the story.

Basically I call these books “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with smut.” Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a really good review of them on Goodreads, so if you don’t trust me, trust a multi-Hugo-Award-winning author.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. A perfectly acceptable book of advice about editing your own words. It approaches the text on several different levels, from structural to word-level. I’m not sure if it taught me anything that I didn’t already know, to be honest? Not much of it has stuck with me.

Writing Fight Scenes, by Marie Brennan. Mostly I recall being surprised that Brennan contradicts one of the rules I’d already heard for writing action scenes — use short sentences. She disagrees with this, although I think her advice boils down to “make it feel fast and immediate through a variety of tools, not just shorter sentences.” Although I’ve been told I have good action narration, so the necessity for this book may be limited.

How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, by Leil Lowndes. At first glance, this is a kitschy book with a kitschy title. In fact, I found this so cutesy in parts that I had to take occasional breaks. And yet… it’s largely smart advice. (Yes, I seem to be on a kick of “making up for social skills I somehow skipped in Girl classes”). All the stuff about phone usage is dated, of course, and the ebook has some very odd formatting issues, but all in all a valuable read, and I think about the tips I learned often.

Books I’m currently reading which I may finish before the end of the year:

Maplecroft, Cherie Priest. Despite my kvetching over certain plot details on Facebook, it’s not a terrible novel by any means. I feel like Priest’s writing has a lot of the same weaknesses mine does (pale characterization, overexplaining), which may be why I notice it more. But you know, I’ll still probably give this book two or three out of five stars, depending on the ending.

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser. An ambitious book, this one — it’s a history of (primarily British) women in the 17th century. Very relevant to Lioness, it turns out!

Also, I was traveling to Dorset when I was reading about the Parliamentarian siege of Corfe Castle (in that county), and the defiant Royalist countess who wouldn’t give it up. I found myself wanting to visit the castle, only to find out it was razed. Alas. But! Someone at Consequences who was from Bournemouth told me it’s not completely gone — it was large enough they couldn’t complete raze it — so I’d kind of like to go see it some time I’m nearby.

One annoying feature of the book is that, in referencing personages that Fraser has mentioned before, she won’t often give you page numbers. So you need to refer to the index to find out which countess married whom and did what, and why we should now care about her.

Also I am even more convinced now that we would know startlingly less about the 17th century if it weren’t for the Verneys being packrats and Samuel Pepys writing about all his amorous affairs in a terrible mix of French, Spanish, and Latin — because it’s rare to find a book about this era that doesn’t source Pepys’ journal or the Verney collection of letters.

Anyway, this is a useful and fascinating book, but it’s also dense, and slow-going.

… wow, I think totally by accident I read mostly books by female authors or authors of color this year. That’s pretty rad.