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. ūüôā

If you’re the rare individual who actually¬†does find this interesting, you can find my previous years-in-books here: 2014,¬†2013, 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. ūüôā 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.

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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.

 

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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.

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: Dangerous by Shannon Hale

8585924(Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

When you think of authors who write “books for guys,” the name Shannon Hale probably does not come to mind. Better known for her more feminine offerings (Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Ever After High), ¬†Hale is one of the big names in the middle grade to YA fantasy market. But her latest book, Dangerous, is a departure from the land of fairy tale and into a world in which Joss Whedon and Michael Bay would find themselves at home.

The protagonist of Dangerous is Maisie Danger Brown — yep, Danger is literally her middle name — the only child of a pair of eccentric scientists. Despite having been born with only one arm, Maisie dreams of being an astronaut and is elated when she wins a scholarship to an elite space camp run by a goofy, “mad scientist” character. It quickly (I’ll come back to that) becomes clear that there is more going on than teen education at the space camp. Maisie and her companions end up accidentally absorbing alien technology, develop superhuman abilities, and stumble into their own version of a Fantastic Four comic book.

Dangerous¬†is a casserole of “team of superhero” stories with a bit of an Ender’s Game¬†aftertaste. The bulk of the book deals with the kids being pursued by various agencies (commercial, scientific, political) who want to harness their superpowers for their own purposes. Maisie, who is scientifically brilliant but who has little experience with other people her own age, finds herself trying to navigate the tricky waters of friendship, destructive peers, romance, betrayal, and sacrifice at the same time that alien technology uses her mind and body as a playground. In the end, as is expected in this sort of story, the fate of the world is in her one hand.

This novel is populated with interesting characters of both genders and several ethnicities. One of my favorites is Dr. Dragon Barnes (yes, Danger and Dragon; Hale was clearly having fun here) who works for the “mad scientist” and whose devotion to her, and later Maisie, is truly touching. Plucked from a group home into adventures with extraterrestrial technology, he provides wisdom and a parental sort of love while Maisie’s own parents are out of the picture. (Maisie’s parents are fun characters, too, although as an adult reader I wished they had been a bit more fleshed out.) There’s an odd dynamic between Maisie and her male best friend, Luther, that will probably irritate many readers but is an excellent strike for those who believe that girls and boys can, absolutely, be Just Friends. Most of the other kids in the book are a little one-dimensional, but since they (spoiler alert) seem to exist mostly as filler and/or cannon fodder, that didn’t strike me as much of an issue.

The best part of this book, in a lot of ways, is Wilder. He’s a formidable character with complicated motivations, mysterious and alluring and funny and powerful and utterly untrustworthy. Up until the very end of the book it’s near impossible to decide whether he belongs in the Justice League or the Legion of Doom. His emotional ties pull him in two different directions, and ultimately (from an adult perspective, anyway) the question of how his story will eventually end is much more interesting than the requisite-to-YA-books-with-female-protagonists romance between him and Maisie.

Earlier, I mentioned how quickly the gist of the plot solidified. If I have a criticism of this book, it is about the pacing. Obviously, the important part of the story occurs after the superpowers are acquired — but when weeks of the long-anticipated space camp are zipped through in a matter of paragraphs, I find myself disoriented and struggling to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In Ender’s Game, we understand the characters and their motivations better for having read chapters full of practices, tests, and dormitory skirmishes. Dangerous¬†fast-forwards through all of that, and I missed it.

Many reviews of this book focus on the thinness of some characters and the plot holes left after, I presume, paring the book down to its essential comic book plot line. I agree that Dangerous¬†leaves something to be desired for the adult reader, but as a book written for young teens, I think it’s very successful. And although the protagonist is a girl who suffers the misfortune of losing her heart, the violence, action, intrigue, and technology will captivate male readers. Fans of The Avengers¬†and X-Men¬†will find plenty to enjoy in this novel.

Reading Update 28

SGF Reading

Reading Update:¬†Today is Thursday, July 17. As of today, I have read 69 books toward my goal of 100; two of them have been since the last update. The two books I’ve read so far are:

books28

Siege and Storm is the sequel to¬†Shadow and Bone. I like this series, although it falls in kind of a strange zone for me. For the most part, it seems to be middle school level — but then there’s this undercurrent of darkness and sexuality that makes it more YA. I mean, there’s nothing happening or anything, but there’s this sort of sense that it will, y’know? Anyway, it’s a pretty great dark fantasy sort of thing, with interesting characters (albeit somewhat thinly written).

Dangerous is the latest by Shannon Hale, and it’s science fiction! It’s a superhero story, an alien story, a love story, and an adventure story. It reminded me of both¬†The Fantastic Four and¬†Ender’s Game. I liked the characters, especially the strong female protagonist, and I liked how it wasn’t nice and neat and whitewashed. I didn’t like the way that huge spans of time were wiped away in a single sentence, but I guess that comes from trying to edit a book down to a length and pace appropriate for young readers. It wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’m hoping for a sequel.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I need to find a good read to review for GLW. I put Ready Player One in my bag this morning but am not enthused.

Review: Redshirts

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Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 3.75 to 4 out of 5

John Scalzi is one of my favorite science fiction authors, for three reasons:

1. How can you not love someone whose Goodreads bio says, “John Scalzi, having declared his absolute boredom with biographies, disappeared in a puff of glitter and lilac scent”?

2. On top of being a fairly prolific novelist (and a contributor to Stargate Universe), Scalzi maintains a terrifically smart and entertaining blog.

3. On top of being prolific, smart, and entertaining, Scalzi does something rare and exceptional: he writes really great¬†funny science fiction — of which¬†Redshirts is only the most recent offering.

If you are a fan of¬†Star Trek, you probably get the reference in this book’s title. If not, I’ll try to explain. Have you ever noticed — or heard people joking about the appearance that — horror movies casting black actors as the expendable buddy who falls victim to the ax murderer/vengeful ghost/etc. early on in the film? The “black dude dies first” trope¬†(you can substitute “meme” for “trope” if that makes more sense to you) doesn’t actually happen that often in contemporary horror, but it happened often enough that it’s become heavily parodied (see Scary Movie — or don’t, because that’s a terrible movie, but it’s an example).¬†This is an echo of the redshirt phenomenon¬†from classic¬†Star Trek. When the episode included an away mission, they would send the “important characters” (your Kirk, Spock, etc.) who obviously needed to survive — but¬†someone has to fall victim to the malevolent natives, right? Often-nameless crew members in red uniforms (meaning they were part of the security detail) were expendable cannon fodder, dying horrifically to advance the plot, and becoming a catchphrase among geeks everywhere.

Scalzi latches on to this trope for this hilarious and thought-provoking, self-aware parody of the original¬†Star Trek series (self-aware in that it eventually acknowledges the relationship between the novel and the TV show). In¬†Redshirts, the lower-ranking crew members of¬†the¬†Intrepid¬†have begun to realize that, in their words, “everyone on this ship [is]¬†monumentally f***ed up¬†about away missions.‚ÄĚ And no wonder; every mission seems to follow the classic ST model. Not only do new recruits get mysteriously mowed down in an almost orchestrated setup for the glorification of a handful of “important” crew members, but random bits of exposition and motivation seem to pop into their heads as if being uploaded. It’s bizarre, ominous, and — as our protagonists quickly discover — often fatal.

A few plucky redshirts band together to try to unravel the mystery in time to avoid gruesome death vis-a-vis whatever inexplicable battle or situation arises next. With the assistance of a yeti-like ship hermit and tongue-in-cheek application of heavy-handed deus ex machina, our protagonists bust through the veil dividing their reality from that being parodied. The results are not only funny and smart, but surprisingly touching as the two worlds collide and improve one another.

If you’ve ever stayed up late over coffee (or your “conversing about hypothetical issues with friends” substance of choice) bouncing crazy ideas about multiple universes and time travel with your equally geeky friends, or if you’re the sort of person who likes to sit in the back of the theater and make snarky comments about implausible plot developments and the abuse of your suspension of disbelief, you will probably get a HUGE kick out of this book. (Being a fan of¬†ST¬†isn’t a requirement, although it will enrich your reading experience as you draw connections between characters and cast members.) This would be an amazing book club selection, for the right book club; I find myself itching to ask other readers about one of the central characters and his power over the craziness aboard the¬†Intrepid. The three “Codas” — short story epilogues that add some rather lovely layers to the story — provide some excellent food for thought and discussion as well.

Redshirts isn’t liable to win the Pulitzer (although it did debut at #15 on the hardcover fiction best-seller list), but it was exactly the sort of book I needed on a cold February night (and yes, it flies — once you get sucked into the tractor beam of this novel, be prepared to lose a few hours). This novel is transportive, grin-provoking, and the literary equivalent of sharing a great inside joke with a clever friend. And if you’d like to give it a try, you can actually read the prologue and the first four chapters for free.

You can also read¬†Wired‘s interview with Scalzi — it’s pretty good, too.