2016 in Books

It has been so long since I logged onto WordPress that I almost didn’t remember how to do it… oops… And here we are, with only 3 posts between this one and last year’s book roundup! Wow… Not sure whether I should pledge to do better, or just give up the ghost entirely… Anyway, it’s January 1 which means it is time for my annual “stats and charts about books” post… You can read old ones at 20152014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

2016 reading challenge completed iconThis hasn’t been a banner year for personal reading. Having a baby in January, and having a 3-year-old to boot, will do that to you. Picture books, though — we read LOTS of picture books. So many, in fact, that this morning I realized that I’d left two favorites off and had to go back and add them, putting me at 204% of my reading goal instead of the 200% I’d thought I would end at. I set a goal for 52 books and, once you add in the 49 picture books that stuck in my memory enough to be recorded, I more than doubled that goal. Of course, that means that less than half of the books I read this year had page counts in the triple-digits or intended reader age in the double-digits… But I’m pretty okay with that.

challenge

Here’s the genre breakdown, showing a disproportionate allocation of books for the 6-and-under crowd:

genres

(To be completely accurate, a great many of those picture books were actually ones I read in two different batches while shopping for great new picture books to try to purchase for the school library.)

My genre identification is completely based on my own impression/opinion/perspective, and I tend to give a book no more than 4 labels (2 is better). With picture books I rarely add a more specific genre label unless they are nonfiction. When you look at the three largest wedges (excluding picture books) you should know that my preferred books tend to fall in all three of those categories — that is, the exact same books are represented by each of those three wedges.

Time to break it down by the months! I had some EXTREMELY weak months this year; October in particular was pretty laughable, with only 2 books and a total of 457 pages. The best month, if you focus only on the number of books, was June (I spent an afternoon binge-reading picture books) but February, when I was on maternity leave, wins with page count at 2,295.

books-read-in-2016

pages-read-in-2016

(Random side-note… in Excel my red and orange looked like distinct colors, but in WordPress they look almost identical. Oops. Sorry about that, those of you who care.)

This next graph highlights the disparity between book and page count so you can easily see the impact of a picture book-rich diet:

books-vs-pages

Ordinarily, the blue line should be considerably higher than the red line (design note: books are on a X100 scale). January through April show a normal distribution of books/pages. Then we get into May and June, where the red line is actually taller than the blue one — craziness! Lots of picture books those months.

It’s also instructive to examine the year’s reading in relationship to previous years. As you can see below, my total book level is well in line with past years.

books-read-2010-2016

My page count, however… well, the graph speaks for itself:

pages-read-2010-2016

Lowest EVER. Hahaha… That said, some of the 32-page picture books I read this year were better than many 320-page novels I’ve read in my life!

So what were the 106 books I read this year, and which were the best?

collage

popularityThis year, Goodreads made a nifty little infographic thingy that, among other things, told me that the most popular book I read in 2016 was The Martian. It was definitely one of the better books of the year as well. I loved the author’s voice and the way he threaded the needle with the perfect amount of scientific detail.

I also loved The Name of the Wind and am looking forward to reading the sequel, although I’m kind of dreading it because I know the final book in the trilogy is stalled.

At the Water’s Edge was a book club selection that I ended up liking quite a bit. Historical fiction with the Loch Ness Monster in it!

I also thoroughly enjoyed the graphic novel Phoebe and Her Unicorn and the latest installments in two YA/”new adult” series, Queen of Shadows and Court of Mist and Fury.

Which were my favorite picture books? The best ones came in my birthday present from my illustrator sister Meredith — a whole batch of beautiful books about books. It’s hard to go wrong with Oliver Jeffers/A Child of Books! But my very favorite picture book was the gorgeous and sentimental You Belong Here by M.H. Clark and Isabelle Arsenault. Definitely a “read to your little kids” favorite, but wonderful.

My worst two books of the year were MacRieve and Night Pleasures, neither of which were a pleasure. Bleh.

Oh, Goodreads also has this comparison to share:

book-length

On dock, I’ve got Hounded (recommended by many trusted reader friends) and The Aeronaut’s Windlass (first in a series by the author of my favorite series) in addition to the aforementioned The Wise Man’s Fear (sequel to Name of the Wind)I’m also midway through the second book in the Phoebe/Unicorn series and a YA mystery novel called The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, which sadly hasn’t done much to hold my attention but deserves to be finished.

Well, I’ve got kids climbing on me, so I guess I’ll wrap this up. Did you read anything great last year? Looking forward to any particular books in 2017? Let me know!

2015 in Books

_2015I’m going to go ahead and write my reading review before the new year this time, because I don’t have the slightest intention of finishing another book before 2016 rolls around. Aren’t you so happy? It’s like an early Christmas present, only it’s an early New Year’s present! That no one actually wants!

By way of shortcut, if you want a straightforward list of books read this year, you can get that here for another couple of weeks, and then here afterward. Or you can check my Goodreads 2015 reckoning if you’d prefer.

Every year I go through and make lists and graphs to analyze my reading, to absolutely no purpose because it’s not as if I ever make adjustments or anything. I read what I like when I like to read it and do my best to feel no shame when that ends up being a long string of vampire-infested romance novels. (Although, I’d argue strenuously that this year’s quasi-embarrassing series, The Black Dagger Brotherhood, might be more accurately described as romance-infested vampire novels.) Then I take those lists and graphs and turn them into a blog post that I’m sure pretty much no one actually enjoys except myself — and they are a highlight of my New Year every time. 🙂

If you’re the rare individual who actually does find this interesting, you can find my previous years-in-books here: 20142013, 2012,2011, and 2010.

I track my books on Goodreads and do their annual reading challenge, in which you just set a goal and try to read that many books. This wasn’t a particularly great year for my reading, and I honestly wouldn’t have met my goal if I hadn’t included a handful of picture books that I read with Henry or on my own in December. This has been a really full-speed-ahead year at work, plus I’ve spent the majority of the year in varying degrees of “pregnant with a two-year-old,” so my stats are down. But since I just do it for the fun of it anyway, I’m not concerned.

This year I set a goal of 75 books and ended up reading 81. That isn’t as great as last year’s even 100, but it isn’t the worst of the past six years I’ve been tracking.

Books_Read_2010-2015_View_2

That comes out to about 25,000 pages this year.

Pages_Read_2010-2015_View_2

As a teacher, I definitely have “seasons”  for reading. I obviously get a lot more read in the summer than in the school year, usually with a spike in December/January due to Christmas break and the really long dark evenings here. I like to track month-to-month reading, again just for the heck of it.

Here’s this year in books, monthly:

Books_Read_in_2015Pages_Read_in_2015
That’s a nice bump in books in December, but not so much pages — lots of picture books. 🙂 As anticipated, my real peak reading took place in July.

And of course, because there’s no such thing as too many graphs, I compared monthly reading for the past six years:

Books_Read_2010-2015Pages_Read_2010-2015

These are kind of interesting to me (although getting harder to read each year — may no longer be a usable format) because I can see not only how each year stacks up to the next, but whether I have a consistent trend in terms of when I’m doing my reading. Why was the late winter of 2011 such a humdinger? What was the difference between the late fall of 2011 vs. 2013? Intriguing.

As previously noted, this year I devoted a lot of pages to J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, which is an interesting beast. I absolutely despise the titles and covers of these books, to the point where I have on many instances refused to read them in public and do my best to hide my updates on them from my Facebook and Goodreads feed. Why, you might ask? Well, let me allow some pictures to speak for themselves.

covers

At a glance, it’s pretty obvious what these books are about, right? Lover this, lover that, shirtless people necking. What are you reading, Mrs. Baker? Scandalous!

In fact, although there are some pretty detailed steamy scenes in each of these, they really aren’t romance novels at all. They’re urban fantasy action/adventure stories about a group of vampiric soldiers who fight a (somewhat vaguely-explained) ongoing war against bad guy slayers while also battling various psychological or physiological battles in their personal lives. Lots of fight scenes, suspenseful storylines, intrigue, etc.. And in fairness, in each book, one of the vampires falls in love and is saved (literally and/or figuratively) by the object of his affection… so I guess that’s what makes them romance novels, in a blood-drenched Byronic sort of way. They’re fun, fast-paced, and don’t require a lot of emotional or mental investment, which is pretty perfect for me at this stage in my life. So yeah, romance-infested vampire novels, rather than vampire-infested romance novels.

But I mean… seriously. Were these titles and cover art decisions really necessary? Were they Ward’s idea or did she fall victim to a publisher who wanted to market these their way? The titles alone sometimes have only a tangential relationship to the plot — my “favorite” probably being Lover Avenged, in which vengeance played a really minor role in the big scheme of things. And the covers? Again — seriously? Of the sampling above, only Lover Avenged and perhaps Lover Mine (top left and bottom right corners) really reflect the characters within in any way; the others are all anonymous torsos airbrushed to emphasize the HOT SEXINESS of these books while I’m just sitting here, reading about vamp-warriors beating the crap out of bad guys and trying to hide the cover of my paperback. Stupid problems, I know.

I read a fairly unmemorable smattering of fantasy in an attempt to find another series that held my interest as effectively as the Dresden Files. The best of these was the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia, an author I wrestled with because I find his Sad Puppy associations quite distasteful, but whose books are pure fun for someone who likes the sort of books I like. His Hard Magic series, which was the interesting blend of alt-history urban fantasy, was also a lot of fun. I also finished, with some sadness, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series, which I enjoyed very much and will probably end up re-reading at some point.

I also read some rather good picture books, a couple of decent graphic novels, the slightly-disappointing next installment in Kiera Cass’s Selection series, the really-quite-good Seraphina, and the excellent-as-expected Lock In and The Human Division (AND I got to meet the author!) I also read a couple of good “serious” books, my favorite of which was All the Light We Cannot See by homeboy Anthony Doerr. Oh, and I read the first two volumes in the Game of Thrones series, which I enjoyed, but hadn’t been especially inspired to go on to the next book just yet.

My least favorite books of the year were Halfway to the Grave (just unremarkable), Go Set a Watchman (yep, should not have been published), As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride (which I really wanted to like but just found disappointing), The Unbearable Lightness of Dragons (ditto, but not surprised — I haven’t been able to enjoy these books since the focus shifted away from Aisling Grey), and Loki’s Wolves (for which I had high hopes, but turned out to be a weak Percy Jackson knockoff — and given my mediocre opinion of PJ, that’s saying something).

And my 2015 obscure recommendation for all y’all out there in DYHJ-land?

The Giant Beard that Was Evil

I really got a kick out of this graphic novel. It’s unlike anything I’d ever read before. Thought-provoking, aesthetically intriguing, and readable on multiple levels — like, I’ve had sixth graders check it out and find it fun and silly, and I’ve also imagined a unit where I use it with twelfth graders alongside 1984 to discuss dystopia/utopia, societal norms/taboos, and philosophy. It may be a little hard to get your hands on it, as it’s not the cheapest book ever, but it was published in October 2014 so you can still find it on Amazon and in your better libraries (like mine ;)).

Lest I forget, here’s my annual Pie Chart of Genre Happiness:

Genre_Breakdown_2015

 

I categorize books into as many genres as seem appropriate — usually between 1-3 — and see how things break down. Every year, urban fantasy/paranormal romance makes up a good chunk of my reading; it’s just what I like to read for fun, especially in the dark winter months. Picture books honestly make up a bigger chunk than is represented, but I only count them once, and then only if they have something akin to a plot, were worth the trouble to log into Goodreads and mark them down, and if I remember to do it (or am coming up short on my yearly goal and need to bump up my stats). This year was shockingly bad for MG/YA books — I’ve had a hard time getting my mind to focus on “professional reading,” which this is for me, and there haven’t been as many new releases that commanded my attention. Will need to try harder next year. Somehow my label for general/realistic fiction lost its tail; it’s the sagey-green wedge between fantasy and graphic novel.

 

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Originally posted at Guys Lit Wire. Not the review this book deserves — I could write a paper about the use of symbolism in AtLWCS alone, and I’m sure plenty of English majors will — but I’m fighting off a head cold so it’s the review that it gets. Y’all should read this book.

Boise, ID doesn’t have too many major league celebrities, so it made some pretty big waves when our resident author Anthony Doerr hit the bestseller lists and then proceeded to win the Pulitzer for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

Me, I’m a skeptic. The more hype something gets, the more reluctant I become to jump on the bandwagon. Not only that, but I’ve long betrayed my English major roots by doubting the readability and enjoyability of books that earn major awards. Consequently, I had no immediate plans to pick up the prize-winning WWII novel that everyone in town claimed to be reading until my book club named it as the choice of the month. Even then, I put it off until almost too late, and then began reading immediately to try to beat the clock.

Except… I couldn’t put it down.

All the Light We Cannot See takes place in France as it is occupied by the Nazis, and follows the lives of two children as they grow to young adulthood. The first is Marie-Laure, the French daughter of a locksmith, and the victim of severe cataracts that rob her of her eyesight by the time she is six years old. The second is Werner Pfennig, a German orphan with an uncanny ability to understand machines, which develops into a talent for radio repair that propels him into an exclusive military school for the Nazi elite. Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father, who hides a dangerous secret; Werner becomes a soldier for a cause he doesn’t embrace but lacks the wherewithal to resist. Her fascination with a clandestine radio transmitter, and his obsession with broadcast, tease at intersection.

Finally, inevitably, their paths cross in a French port town in 1944.

This is not a romance, except perhaps in a classical sense. Rather, it is a beautifully-crafted and engrossing window into two aspects of WWII life that most Americans don’t even know that they don’t know. Understanding how the war affected those who were neither Nazi oppressors nor Holocaust victims is priceless, but the truly great thing about this novel is how it lets the reader glimpse the humanity of some of WWII’s monsters. Doerr is no apologist, and in fact the majority of the Nazis he portrays are truly beastly — but Werner’s path toward becoming a Nazi soldier is a tragic and illuminating example of how nice, normal young men got swept up in an inexorable movement.

World War II continues to be a subject of great attraction to young American men, and a much-studied era of history in the schools. Anyone with an interest in this time or this war should take this skeptic’s word for it and run, not walk, to the nearest available copy of All the Light We Cannot See. And that goes for scholars of literature and composition, too — you’d almost think this guy won awards for his writing ability or something.

Review: Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia


Former underground fighter Owen Z. Pitt thought he had turned his life around, thought he’d finally found a way to have a perfectly boring, respectable life. After all, what’s more boring and respectable than being an accountant, right? But when his boss turns out to be an out-of-control werewolf, those less-respectable skills at buttkicking allow Owen to survive a vicious attack. Of course, the whole werewolf thing comes as a bit of a shock, but it all begins to come into focus when Owen is recruited by a mercenary bounty-hunting organization called Monster Hunter International, devoted to hunting and exterminating paranormal threats to the planet, and making big bucks in the process.

Monster Hunter International (and the other books in the series) is the paperback equivalent of a “movie for guys who like movies”: explosions, big guns, tough wisecracking men and women, helicopters, fight scenes, and surface-level relationships that give the characters some depth without distracting from the explosions, guns, and fight scenes. In short, it’s a total testosterone-fest, but one without sex scenes or gratuitous profanity, making it potentially appropriate for younger readers.

The bad guys are werewolves, vampires, trolls, zombies, wights, fey, and Lovecraftian “Old Ones” who weave evil just beyond human sight. The good guys are primarily survivors of attacks by these creatures, whose physical and mental tenacity deemed them worthy of Special Forces-style training and, if they don’t wash out, lucrative careers (and often short lives) in the monster-killing industry. The other bad guys, who are also good guys, are a MIB-esque secret governmental agency committed to covering up the existence of monsters at any cost. And then there’s a super-duper secret group called Special Task Force Unicorn (STFU — yes, really)…..

MHI stays true to the time-honored tradition of making its protagonist “the chosen one,” but avoids getting bogged down in weighty musings about fate and responsibility to humankind and whatnot. Nope; this series is pure science fiction/horror fun. It’s Vin Diesel with a rocket launcher against a swarm of zombies with heavy metal playing in the background: loud, awesome, violent entertainment.

The level of violence, scary situations, and occasional technical detail about weaponry probably means this book is a better fit for older teens and adults, but I can absolutely think of many middle school aged boys who would love every page of it.

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Sidenote for those who pay attention to such things: The author, Larry Correia, has been embroiled in the recent “Sad Puppies” brouhaha surrounding the 2015 Hugo Awards, and his politics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s little sign of anything especially controversial in this series. The characters, like their author, are major gun nuts (his term) and skew libertarian, but there’s no discernible sense of an agenda or any particular prejudice.

Cross-posted on the Guys Lit Wire website.

Posting Every Two Months Or So

How do mommybloggers do it? When do parents find time to write? I swear, every drop of my creative energy is poured into being totally interested in the Best Toddler Ever.

It’s been months since a real post. I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I’ll do a quick(ish) update on H’s talking.

We had to miss a speech therapy appointment due to a time conflict, and then our therapist is having surgery, so it’s been a while since she and H have met. Somewhere in there, I guess H just decided that he didn’t really need that stuff anymore, and started yakking. I mean, it’s not like he suddenly opened his mouth and started reciting Shakespeare, but sort of out of the blue he began connecting sounds and gestures to communication, and that was all she wrote. You could almost see it clicking as he figured out that the noises and movements people were making meant something, and that he could get things that he wanted if he did little things like taking our hands and leading us to the object of his desire.

It kind of seems like forever ago (early to mid March) that I was playing with him up in his room, and he turned to his wooden alphabet puzzle and shuffled through the pieces. Then he very deliberately found the Q, held it up, and said “Q!” I froze, shocked; he did it again, with about a third of the letters. How the heck did he learn his alphabet? This is NOT something we’d been trying to teach him! I guess it’s all of the toys and PBS shows… he does love Super Why… We played with this with him and discovered that if we sang the alphabet song and stopped at the natural breaks, he’d tell us the next letter. We never did get a great video, but his enthusiastic “Q!” and “thee-you-thee” (T-U-V) would melt your heart.

And then he turned into a little myna bird (do you, I always thought that was spelled “mynah” until just now, but apparently not), copying back everything anyone said. It started with little things, and then whammo! Everything!

Out of nowhere — and really, no one coached him on this, it was bizarre — he started saying, “Be happy!” So of course we had to jump on that and teach him to say it in response to, “Don’t worry”… and then he started saying that, and that was adorable and silly. Kid can’t say mama and daddy but he knows Bobby McFerrin.

He also sings “choo choo!” at relevant points during “The Chatanooga Choo-Choo,” punctuates the rubber ducky song with appropriate “ba-do-ba-do” and “foh foh foh-de-oh”s, sings parts of “C is for Cookie,” and does a passable Ernie laugh.

On April 11 we were at the bookstore and he was running laps around the picture book section. I was tired and hoping I could get him to settle down for a few minutes, so I picked up a brightly-colored Wonder Woman ABCs board book and called him over. I’m thinking maybe he’ll consent to letting me hold him and read a few pages, but instead he grabs the book away from me, opens it to a random page, points to the large yellow T, and says, “T!” He flipped the pages and I kid you not read every single damn letter in that book. Not the little words, and I guess it’s not too startling that he could recognize letters in a book if he could recognize them in his puzzle, but I was blown away. Since then he’s picked out letters in EXIT signs, television shows, and t-shirts. I keep telling him that he needs to learn to brush his teeth and use a toilet before he has to learn to read, but he’s not interested in my opinion.

This week he’s figured out animal sounds. I guess it’s not that impressive, given his age, that we can bray and he’ll say “donkey,” or we whinny and he says “horse,” but it’s such a huge improvement that it feels to us like he just got his Mensa membership. As of this morning he has monkey, donkey, horse, pig, sheep, cow, dog, and cat. He knows eyes, ears, and nose. He says “uh oh” and “okay” and “oh no” and “hi” and “okay guys” and “kiss” and “bye bye”. Once he said “okay go bye-bye be happy” as we were walking to the car. He says “shoe — feet” and “step up/step down,” except it usually sounds like “sh*t” instead of “step,” but we’ll take it.

He seems so happy. I mean, he’s always loved it when he realizes he’s entertaining. He likes to make people smile and laugh and applaud, and he gets a lot of positive reinforcement when he speaks. If only he knew how happy it will make me the day he says “mama” instead of just knowing what it means!

Also, it might be good for him to learn a few other useful words. I mean, sure, “monkey” comes in pretty handy, but names and things like “milk” or “fix” would probably make his life easier. I know it is my fault that he doesn’t know my name; he’s never had to annoy me to get my attention, or call for me from across the house. I’m too attentive to him, but I don’t regret it. I just really like being in his presence. And I figure he’ll come up with something to call me eventually. 🙂

2014 in Books

I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with blogging lately, but it wouldn’t be the new year without my annual stats-about-books post! As I said two years ago,

I keep track because I enjoy making lists and graphs, and because it gives me something nerdy to do every New Year’s Eve. Sort of a tradition, I guess. :) What I’m trying to say is, I’m not really competing with anyone, even myself — I just find it interesting to see what my reading does, and I like aiming for goals, especially when it comes to reading. This is kind of like the grown-up version of libraries’ summer reading programs for kids, only instead of earning prizes I earn… er… graphs!

(In honor of all of the thousands hundreds dozens absolutely zero readers who enjoy these posts, I thought I’d link to previous years. Sate yourself on 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. I also keep a complete list of all books read since I started keeping track here.)

As usual, I’ve only counted books that I completed — well, there are a couple of books in here that I almost completed, but they were nonfiction books with a chapter or two that I skipped due to irrelevance. I count picture books if they have plot, but they only count once, and a lot of times I forget to record them so that’s an inexact statistic.

So with no further ado: the 2014 book post!

2014 Book Collage

Looking back at the books I read in 2014, I see some trends or themes emerge.

First, I returned to some friendly author-voices. I had paused in reading The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, and in the second half of this year I got caught up with all but the final book in the series. I also found another series by Elizabeth Moon and enjoyed them as well. I spent some time with guilty-pleasures Laurell Hamilton and J.R. Ward, too.

Second, there’s a fair amount of YA in there — shock and surprise, coming from a middle school librarian — including some series that I really liked (Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance trilogy, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, the beginning of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, the continuance of Kiera Cass’s Selection series), some graphic novels, and some “older kid” picture books.

If I disregard series, my Best of 2014 were probably Styxx by Sherrilyn Kenyon (yes, technically part of a series, but works as a standalone), The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

best2014

Something for everyone there: award-winning historical fiction, magic realism, R-rated paranormal fantasy, and a picture book.

In 2014, I read a grand total of 100 books (and to quote last year’s post, “not including unfinished books, plotless picture books, and a ridiculous amount of non-book online reading because let’s face it, an iPhone is easier to read than a novel when you’re nursing wrangling a toddler”). For the first time in a while, January wasn’t my best month; I read the most pages in June, which makes a heck of a lot more sense, really. I had a serious dip in the fall, which coincides with the start of school and a lot more stress than usual due to training a new staff (and, as previously stated, wrangling a toddler).

Books_Read_in_2014

Pages_Read_in_2014

After skipping the genre breakdown last year because it was such a pain in the butt, I decided to beef up my Excel spreadsheet. Now it all but does the breakdown for me. Each book that I read could be categorized in up to three genres, allowing for a more accurate portrayal of what sort of things I was actually reading.

Yay pie charts!

Genres_in_2014

Lots of kid stuff (picture books and MG/YA), lots of fantasy — especially when you consider I usually tried not to categorize a book as both fantasy and urban fantasy.

And because I really love my charts and graphs and data and other such nonsense, here is FIVE years of data for your viewing pleasure. I can tell how titillated you are from here.

Books_Read_2010-2014 Pages_Read_2010-2014

Books_Read_By_Month Pages_Read_By_Month

In those last two — the line charts — 2014 is the blue line, so you can see that I ended up pretty much right in the middle. 2011 was a big year for reading but then again, 2011 was a long time before I had kids or a new line of work!

So what’s next? I have just picked up Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, which is a nonfiction book relating his efforts to build a simple reading and writing hut on his property. This is a major daydream of mine, and he has a pretty accessible reading style, so even though I’m usually a lightweight fantasy reader in the darker months I think I’m going to enjoy this. I also want to read two of the books my book club recently read (I’m on a book club hiatus): Eli Brown’s Cinnamon and Gunpowder and Graeme Simison’s The Rosie Project. Graeme is an awfully cool way to spell Graham. Apparently he’s a kiwi. Might explain it. (Shoot — is it okay to call people from New Zealand kiwis? That’s not derogative, is it?) I want to read John Scalzi’s Lock In but may want to save it for my Triumphant Return to book club. I also am looking forward to reading the next book in a few different series: The Witch with No Name (last book in The Hollows), Skin Game (book 15 in The Dresden Files) and Immortal (book 6 in the Fallen Angels series). I’d also like to read some of the books I nibbled at or sniffed around last year, like Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, 11/22/63, The Book of Deadly Animals, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers (another potential book club pick).  

And there are many, many more — especially the not-yet-published new additions to Kiera Cass’s and Sarah Maas’s series.

I initially set a goal of 52 books for 2013 and ended up surpassing it in May, then reset to 100 and almost didn’t make it in time. (I finished book #100 with only seven minutes to spare in 2014, and had to include two books that I only read because my homework forced me to read them!) I think I’m going to split the difference for this year and set a goal of 75 books. I can always add to it if things go well, right? 🙂 If you like books and stats well enough to have read this far, then you should definitely do the Goodreads challenge with me.

ontrack

What did you read this year? Any great recommendations? What’s on your to-read list? I’d love to know!
completed2011 completed2012 completed2013 completed-6b630d7e0aec7a2dd83b309f0257d8ef

Review: Mummies: The Newest, Coolest & Creepiest from Around the World

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

I picked up Shelley Tanaka’s Mummies: The Newest, Coolest & Creepiest from Around the World because it was featured on a “spooky book” shelf and because it looked like a fun, quick read. I wasn’t expecting to get completely wrapped up (ha ha) in it, much less to be murmuring “Wow!” every time I turned a page.

Published in 2005, Mummies is a 48-page illustrated nonfiction book at an 8.2 grade level. It meets the reader right where we’d all start when opening such a book: “Mummies… Right away we think of the ancient Egyptians.” Tanaka immediately pivots, explaining the broader definition of mummies and sending us around the world from Egypt to Chile, where the earliest mummies were found.

This is a book about death and corpses, and it neither sensationalizes nor flinches away from this. In a straightforward manner that will appeal to any reader (but probably especially young guys) Tanaka explains how ancient Chinchorro people skinned and dismembered their dead before reconstructing the bodies with the aid of sticks, fur, feathers, and clay.

She explains how the Inca performed human sacrifice by immobilizing/killing and leaving their “most beautiful and healthy children” in mountaintop tombs, where they were frozen and preserved so perfectly that their blood — even their eyelashes! — are still in place centuries later.

Readers learn about peat bog mummies in Ireland, the Iceman of northern Italy, medieval mummies as far north as the Arctic Circle, 4,000-year-old mummies preserved by heat and sand in a Chinese desert, and of course the famous Egyptian mummies.

Tanaka also brings mummification into the contemporary world by telling about researchers who reproduced the Egyptian techniques on a man who left his remains to science, and about Buddhist monks who mummify themselves before dying! She also talks about famous political mummies Lenin, Mao, and Peron, and about the plastinated mummies currently touring the country with exhibitions like Body World and Bodies: The Exhibition.

Mummies is full of glossy, full-color pictures of mummies, coffins, artifacts, and corpses — including an actual-size photo of the shockingly well-preserved face of an eight-year-old girl, and a far number of skeletal remains. Somehow they didn’t strike me as especially disturbing or disgusting, although I’m sure the majority of adolescent readers will be delightedly grossed out. And if they’re anything like me, they’ll find themselves intrigued, wanting to learn more about non-Egyptian mummies, making surprising connections to history and cultural geography, and probably passing the book around to all of their buddies. I read several sections out loud to my husband and son* and can’t wait to feature this book more prominently in our library collection.

* My son (who at seventeen months old has relatively little prior knowledge of mummies) leaned forward and kissed the picture of an ancient bust of Tutankhamun seen above, then stole the book from me and spent several minutes intently flipping through the pages of desiccated ancient corpses. As recommendations go, that seems like a pretty solid one.

Review: Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction

Editor Guy Haley opens this hefty volume with the sentences, “Science fiction is arguably the most exciting genre of entertainment. No other form of storytelling shapes our culture as much, or is as popular.” He’s certainly got a point, particularly when it comes to male readers (and watchers). Ask a room full of boys what sort of books they like, and you’re going to hear words like adventure, action, battles, and maybe more specific items like robots, time travel, lonely three-boobed green alien women. Obviously that’s not a universal preference, but ask a random guy and chances are you’re going to find he likes to read something that falls in the broad spectrum of science fiction.

The other thing that a lot of guy readers seem to enjoy is trivia — just ask my disintegrating copies of Guinness World Records and Ripleys Believe It or Not! annuals. The literary equivalent of a candy buffet is a fat book full of glossy color photographs and attractively arranged factoids, especially when the subject matter is something tasty like sports/games, gross stuff, or a beloved movie or TV series.

And so, Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction falls pretty tidily in the intersection of the school librarian’s Golden Venn Diagram:

Let’s start with the good stuff.

Sci-Fi Chronicles is impressively thick. At about 9″x7″, it’s no larger than your standard trade paperback, but it boasts 576 pages of thick, glossy paper. If you’re looking to become the local authority on all things science fiction (or at least look like it) this resource is going to catch your eye. Measured purely on quantity, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

Open this book to a random page, and you’ll likely find multiple color photographs or illustrations, a couple of columns of readable encyclopedia-style text (more friendly in tone than Wikipedia, but also less exhaustive) and — probably the neatest feature — color-coded timelines, subgenre headings, and a sort of “evolution of the text” that shows each of the editions/iterations of the story. The entry on Blade Runner, for example, starts with the book cover for the initial printing of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and progresses through the movie posters, video game packaging, and comic books. Your budding speculative fiction pedant will find hours and hours of interesting information here, in very attractive packaging.

Now for the less-good stuff.

I won’t waste more than a passing mention of the SF industry’s general grumpiness about the abbreviation “sci-fi,” nor of the title’s cutesy assumption that better speculative fiction isn’t being written elsewhere in the galaxy. These were stylistic choices that Firefly Books made for reasons of their own, and I, at least, am not pedantic enough to really care all that much. However, I see no way to avoid bringing up two significant flaws in this volume.

This is not the sort of book you read cover to cover, so as I sat down to review it I tried looking up random science fiction works to see how they were included. After all, if this is (as the back copy claims) “a definitive sci-fi guide for the 21st century… and beyond,” it ought to be — well, definitive, right?

I didn’t try to pick especially obscure pieces: The Man From Earth, Logan’s Run, The Postman, Sliders, Flight of the Navigator, Explorers, Zardoz, Starship Troopers. A fairly wide variety of science fiction classics, good and bad, commercial and otherwise. To the dismay both of myself and my indignant husband, only half of these had entries, and the other half weren’t even mentioned. What kind of “definitive” guide to science fiction neglects what is arguably the best movie of Paul Reuben’s and Sarah Jessica Parker’s careers? How could any visual history of science fiction leave out the glory of Sean Connery in long braid and red bondage wear?

Leaving aside Haley’s questionable criteria for selecting “the galaxy’s greatest science fiction,” I had a more seriously complaint. While Firefly Books clearly put a lot of energy into the graphic design for this book, it sacrificed attention to detail — specifically editing. The entry for Logan’s Run talks about the film’s “widespread appeal laying [sic] in a core concept…”. The Sliders page refers to a Professor Maximillian Jones, who doesn’t exist; it no doubt meant Professor Maximillian Arturo. It seemed that every page I flipped to had a grammatical or factual error — little stuff, but a darned shame in such an otherwise well-assembled volume. Heck, even the copy on the back cover commits the sin of repetitive word choice, boasting of “lavishly illustrated entries” on one line and “lavish photo features” only two lines down.

Ultimately, is this book actually “definitive”, “truly international,” “a must for all sci-fi fans,” or representative of “the galaxy’s greatest science fiction”? I’m skeptical.

But is it lavish? Yes. Fun? Interesting? Appealing? Yes, yes, and yes.

Does it have multiple pages of Doctor Who coverage for my rabid Whovians, a meaty section on Star Trek for my Trekkies (or Trekkers, since we’re being nitpicky), and a respectable amount of attention paid to the science fiction movies and shows contemporary young males are likely to have watched and enjoyed?

Yeah. Yeah, it does. So even if it’s sloppier than it should have been, and even if my household is offended by some of its blatant and inexcusable omissions and characterizations (my husband is still muttering under his breath about Logan’s Run being described as a minor work), I’m sure it will be well-liked by fans of science fiction and collectors of trivia.

[Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire]

Review: Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

In our middle school library, which is heavily frequented by boys, there are a few authors whose books never seem to touch the shelves before being checked out again. Chief among them are graphic novelists Jeff Smith (the Bone series), Doug TenNapel (Cardboard, Bad Island), and Kazu Kibuishi (the Amulet series).

I’m always hoping these guys will release another dang book — so when I realized that I’d somehow missed Kibuishi’s 2010 collection of his webcomic Copper, published by Scholastic, I ordered it right away.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this slim volume with a cute boy and his neurotic-looking but equally cute dog on the cover. What I got was a fantastic collection of short stories and one-page vignettes that demanded more time to read than I’d planned.

Copper is a boy — or is he a man, rendered small to reflect his childlike spirit? — whose sole companion is his dog, Fred. Copper is brave in a a reckless sort of way, and he is also recklessly optimistic. He wants to believe that crazy things are possible. Fred is cautious, worried, and battling an existential crisis. Copper wants to go check things out, and Fred wants to wait and see. The bright-eyed boy tends to get his way, and the result is a quiltwork of adventure and misadventure, both real and imagined.

I tried to read it as a kid and found myself thinking about Calvin and Hobbes, especially in the scenes where Copper and Fred dream themselves into wild escapades. (They seem to have plenty of wild waking adventures as well, and I spent a good portion of this book wondering what was real and what was dream.) If I follow that line of thought, Copper is a grown-up Calvin who has absorbed the best of his tiger friend’s philosophical maturity… and Fred is Hobbes crossed with a healthy dose of Eeyore.

Reading it as an adult, I was drawn in by the surprising depth of emotion captured in the short pieces. Copper often seems chipper and carefree, but his dreams are haunted by a sad girl trapped in a bubble, and his nights and days are painted over a backdrop of loneliness and a yearning for something more. Fred, meanwhile, is wrestling with his sense of his own mortality and his fears that no one cares enough to even notice him. Is Copper’s audacity really a frantic attempt to get to an adult life he fears he’ll never have? Is Fred’s reticence really a half-conscious attempt to slow the march of time? A better mainstream cartoon for comparison might be Family Guy, with its moral underpinning in the forms of canine Brian Griffin.

What you’re wondering is, is this book right for middle school guys (or high school guys, or….)? I submit that the answer is yes. It isn’t necessarily written “for” my rampaging hoards of eleven-year-old boys, but they’ll pick it up and they’ll read it. They won’t understand all of it — they’ll possibly miss the deep stuff entirely as they rush to soak in the gorgeous imagery and daring exploits. But I think seeds will be planted, and if they return to Copper as an older teen, as a man, as fathers — why, I think they’ll find that it’s a pretty dang literary work of sequential art.

(Speaking of art: hands-on types will love Kibuishi’s “behind the scenes” section at the end of the book. It was accessible, entertaining, and illuminating — a great resource for the budding graphic artist.)

Review cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Posting

Well, if you don’t have the password to read my protected posts, you’re probably thinking this is about the most boring blog you’ve ever seen, huh.

Usually I get bored and write (or do other online time-wasting) a lot during the summer, but this summer the opportunity for boredom never really hit me. I was really busy with a lot of different stuff, and thought several times of things I ought to be writing, but never did. In fact, I even slacked off on my weekly reading updates. Oops. 

If you are not a scary creeper person — if I know you in real life, or you’re a mom who likes reading about other peoples’ families, etc. — you can leave a comment (making sure to include your email, which won’t be published or shared) and I’ll happily send you the password to the other posts. They’re mostly just pictures of my little boy and recaps of things we’ve done, and I would love to share them with everyone, but you know how things are these days. I’m trying to save him some privacy. 

And if you have any ideas of something you’d like me to write about, comment with that, too. I tend to do well with assignments…