2020 in Books!

It’s only been 3 posts since the last summary post, but…I figured I’d do another, even if we all want to forget 2020 and hope for better from 2021 (despite how unimpressive the 7-day free trial’s been).

  1. How many books did you read this year?  34 – but don’t tell GoodReads; I technically missed my goal of 35 but accidentally marked The Girl Who Drank the Moon twice and couldn’t figure out how to correct that.  It’s enough that I got the “Completed!” ribbon instead of being taunted with my failure (like when I aimed for 65 in 2017 and whiffed it).
  2. Did you reread anything? What?  Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril, as I started a Dresden Files reread.  Unfortunately I have something of a feud with another AADL user, who keeps checking out the next book I want.  I also reread The Little Prince, The Four Loves, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and Out of the Silent Planet.
  3. What were your top five books of the year?  Spinning Silver, Anna and the Swallow Man, Plum Rains, The Girl who Drank the Moon, and…well, one of those I reread, I guess.  Or perhaps one of the mysteries – When in Rome or A Shilling for Candles.
  4. Did you discover any new authors that you love this year? Naomi Novik (wrote Spinning Silver) and Gavriel Savit (wrote Anna and the Swallow Man).  Also, while I’d heard of Ngaio Marsh earlier than 2020, I guess that was the first year I’d actually read any of her work (and she’s got about 3 dozen books to look into)!  Additionally, I’m not certain whether I love Kelly Barnhill and Adromeda Romano-Lax, but I’m willing to read their other books to make that call.
  5. What genre did you read the most of? Fantasy – at least 13 of them.  Must be down to Book Group Thing.  Other genres included sci-fi, teen, magical realism, and whatever Notes from a Public Typewriter might be.
  6. Was there anything you meant to read, but never got to? Always and forever.  I meant to reread all the Dresden Files, I meant to finish all the books friends lent me, etc. etc.  At least I got Anna and the Swallow Man back to the friend who lent it to me.
  7. What was your average Goodreads rating? Does it seem accurate?  3.4. That’s down from 3.7 in 2019 – perhaps I’m more critical than I used to be.  I definitely recall a lot of books where I wished for a 10-point scale instead of a 5-point scale, so as to distinguish between middling-fair and middling-poor books.
  8. Did you meet any of your reading goals? Which ones? I got close enough to 35 to content myself, and I mostly finished my Book Group Thing books early enough to discuss them with others.   
  9. Did you get into any new genres? Not really.
  10. What was your favorite new release of the year? The closest I got to a new release were Another Kingdom (May 2019) and The Starless Sea (November 2019).  Neither of them were great.
  11. What was your favorite book that has been out for a while, but you just now read?   A Shilling for Candles is from 1936, and When in Rome is from 1970.   
  12. Any books that disappointed you? The Starless Sea (too many motifs, trying too hard to be CurrentTM, soggy); The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (too depressing without a narrative payoff); Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (so much potential! So many threads left hanging).
  13. What were your least favorite books of the year?   The Starless Sea wasn’t great.  The Shadow of the Torturer went on and on forever, using obscure words for kicks, without giving me any characters I cared about.  Another Kingdom was so ridiculous in several ways.
  14. What books do you want to finish before the year is over? Well, it’s a bit late to ask that.  I managed to squeeze in that Out of the Silent Planet reread but did not quite finish rereading Perelandra before it was January. 
  15. Did you read any books that were nominated for or won awards this year (Booker, Women’s Prize, National Book Award, Pulitzer, Hugo, etc.)? What did you think of them?  Okay, so, I don’t think any of them got awards this year, but The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a Newberry winner.  I thought it was a lovely story with an interesting twist on witch tropes, city elders tropes, etc.
  16. What is the most over-hyped book you read this year? Starless Sea (you’re not as cool as The Night Circus!  You’re just not!); The Sunlit Night (you don’t deserve to be made into a movie); The Illustrated Man (I am very fond of Bradbury!  But it got to a point of just feeling like the same story told different ways). 
  17. Did any books surprise you with how good they were?   Spinning Silver.  It was SO tidy.  I appreciate stories that tie up so neatly and recommend it to anyone who enjoys fairy tales or fantasy.
  18. How many books did you buy? …let’s see.  I bought my boyfriend a book in February, my friend a book in December (which I still need to give her), and I was tempted to buy Huxley’s Music at Night in September before coming to my senses and going “You can just get that from MelCat once it’s up and running again!”  Which I did.  I should finish reading that.
  19. Did you use your library? Definitely.  The pandemic meant that 1-month checkouts turned into 3- or 5-month checkouts, which meant that I finished….like…3 additional books.  Maybe.  I basically didn’t finish anything in March, May, or July, which is why I had trouble meeting my yearly goal.
  20. What was your most anticipated release? Did it meet your expectations?  
    I’d anticipated Starless Sea, Particular Sadness, and Sunlit Night.  …seems I was most let down by the ones I anticipated most.
  21. Did you participate in or watch any booklr, booktube, or book twitter drama?  Nope.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.
  22. What’s the longest book you read? The Starless Sea: 498 pages.  Maybe part of what I disliked about it was how long reading it took.  Also, though Bitter Seeds, Shadow of the Torturer, and Titus Groan were shorter books, I think they all felt like they took as long.
  23. What’s the fastest time it took you to read a book?  An hour or two for a shorter book, especially since I had so many rereads (Best Christmas Pageant Ever is only 80 pages, which I’d forgotten, and The Little Prince has never been that long).
  24. Did you DNF anything? Why? I didn’t finish On the Map because someone else requested it from the library; ditto Outwitting Squirrels and Possum Living.  There were several sequels to Book Group Thing reads (Tombs of Atuan, Farthest Shore, Desert Spear) which I requested but never actually had enough interest to crack open.   
  25. What reading goals do you have for next year?   Some are the same as before – 33 books, get closer to keeping up with my library checkouts, read all the Shakespeare I haven’t yet, finish and returned borrowed books to friends.  But I also vacillate wildly: I should read more doctrinal books!  I should read more history and/or critical theory!  I should read all my cheap paperbacks and cull the ones I don’t love!  The list goes ever on and on, down from my pen where it began. 

    Tell me about your 2020 reading, or what you look forward to reading in 2021!
    If you’ve got a particular item for my TBR, I’d love to hear about it!

In the Event of Cylon Apocalypse, the World Must Be Peopled

What book will I bring with me on the emergency evacuation ship when the Cylons destroy civilization, and we have to start over again?

In true Apocalyptic form, I am late for this last meme question. That’s not because I didn’t have an answer, though.  No, I’ve always pretty much known that in the event of the alien invasion, I’m grabbing my Bible first, and then a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

This is what my copy looks like. Though I’m pretty sure I don’t have the “portable” edition. But a heavy book will do double duty as part of my personal defense system. Even alien robots pay attention when 20 lbs. of sonnets and tragedies come hurtling their way.

There really wasn’t a very complicated decision process here.  I asked, “Which book could I not bear to have perish from history forever?” and the Bard was the obvious answer.  No more Hamlet?  No Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet?  I don’t want to live in that world.  These are the stories that have shaped the imaginations of readers for generations.  They’re the books behind all the books I love today.  They’re the fertile ground from which springs much of modern English language and usage.  If we want to preserve our tongue and some piece of our storytelling tradition, we ought to keep these books alive.  I’m not really surprised by my choice.  After all, these are all the reasons I’m going to grad school to (God-willing) get a degree to teach English lit at a university setting.

Now, I hope I never have to take such action for real.  There are plenty of other books I’d weep to have to leave behind.  My Gaiman, my McKillip, Tolkien, Lewis, Jane Austen.  James Thurber!  I hope that by the time the Cylons come, I’ll have a Kindle with all my favorite books on it.  Heck, the need for a contingency plan might just be reason enough to overcome my technophobia regarding digital books and buy a Kindle.  I’ll be the first to admit, all this sci-fi that I read and watch has made me a little paranoid…

Best Villain: Murdered by Pirates Is Good

This was a tricksy one.  What makes the best villains?  If it were simply the ones I hated most, the ones who made me want to jump right into the book and—Jurisfiction be damned!—assassinate them for the sake of the heroes I loved, my answer would be easy enough.  Fei Wang Reed from the manga Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle by CLAMP, or the initially innocuous-seeming yet completely sadistic villainess from Coleen Doran’s graphic novel space opera, A Distant Soil.  But that’s not quite it.  The best villain should not just be someone you hate, but someone who contributes something to the atmosphere (the romance, perhaps?) of the story.  Someone who can’t be replaced by just any other antagonist or evil-doer.  Someone whose very character is integral to the Story.

So, who else could I choose but Captain James Hook?

I think a key part of the appeal of pirate couture is the swoopy hat feathers. I love me a swoopy hat feather.

He’s got all the makings of the classic villain.  He’s the hero’s arch-nemesis, with a crazy phobia, and an obsession for revenge.  He’s certainly got style: he could be a pirate fashion plate straight out of a Howard Pyle illustration.  He has an infamous history as Blackbeard’s bosun and is rumored to be the only man who ever struck fear into the heart of Long John Silver.  Despite being rightfully terrifying to the denizens of Neverland, he also stands, painfully, by his notions of “good form.”

Hook is an indispensable part of the romance and adventure of Peter Pan.  He’s the childhood villain we all dreamed of daring, and without him, English children’s literature would be a poorer place.

Honorable Mention: Baron Harkonnen

from Frank Herbert’s Dune

Because I apparently have an inability to pick just one candidate for any of these questions, I can’t let this one go by without mentioning a runner-up choice.  I’d actually forgotten all about the Baron till about half an our before writing this, but when I remembered him, I thought “Of course! How could I forget?”

I just figured out that Dune shared the 1966 Nebula award with This Immortal, a book by another of my favorite authors, Roger Zelazny.

The Baron’s size is certainly his most memorable characteristic.  In the words of my father, “The Baron is just the best bad guy!  I mean, he’s so corpulent he has to have little hover pods to carry all his fat rolls around.”  He’s not the most originally dastardly villain, but he’s as effective as the best at espionage, torture, and assassination.  Politically crafty, he aims at maneuvering himself into sole control of the planet Arrakis (also called Dune), a position which would give him complete monopoly of the melange spice market, and thus, control reaching across the universe.  Harkonnen is truly a force to be reckoned with, and his presence overshadows the fate of Dune.

Review: Finder

Alright, so this review may have got a little out of hand.  But I was super excited about this book, and wanted to record my thoughts on the subject.  And let’s be honest, once you get me talking about a book I enjoyed, it’s hard to get me to shut up.

This review is dedicated to our dear, late Borders, where I found this book on the shelf, thought, “Ooh, pretty,” and dived in.

Usually, I try to stick to the recommendations of friends or favorite authors when navigating the galaxies that are the sci-fi shelves, but sometimes I happen on a book that strikes my interest and I decide to take a chance.  Finder drew my eye with both its art and intriguing title, but on a preliminary skimming, I really wasn’t sure what it was about.  I actually left it on the shelf that day, but ended coming back for it later and I’m glad I did.

Finder by Carla Speed McNeil

As a graphic novel, Finder’s first appeal to me was certainly the art.  McNeil’s bold, clean style caught my interest immediately.  Her intricate linework without the use of greyscale really appealed to me, and reminded me of the work of CLAMP and Colleen Doran, two other favorite graphic novel artists.  Each page and frame is filled with detail, and certainly merits the reader’s attention.  A well-drawn graphic novel really does ask for a close reading, just as a good prose novel would.  But what I really fell in love with as I read was the fact that McNeil gives great care to continuity; the characters’ appearances tell the story as much as dialogue and action do.  Characters change outfits daily; Jaeger outgrows haircuts and grows stubble; something seemingly out of place in a character’s appearance has an explanation a few pages later.  There’s also tons of detail in the background, and it’s just fun to see the depth McNeil has given each page.

Now that I’ve mentioned him, I supposed I should officially introduce Jaeger as the story’s protagonist.  He’s a Finder, which is sort of an elite tracker or scout whose task is to find those things others have tasked him with.  He’s also a Sin Eater, a profession that is in some ways very much at odds with his role as Finder.  It’s fair to say that he’s very much a man of contradictions.  Jaeger is a half-breed in a world where one’s identity is very much caught up in membership to a homogeneous clan, so he’s spent most of his life on the move.  In fact, his nomadic lifestyle is further complicated by something very unique about him, but I won’t give that away.

The narrative itself starts out somewhat fragmented.  That is, while it is easy enough to follow the action within each episodic chapter, it takes some time to understand how the overarching narrative fits together; and at first, I felt like I was reading a rather odd story.  But things come together well enough once you get about a hundred pages in, which sounds like a lot, but really, Finder was so engrossing that it didn’t feel like a long read.  McNeil reveals details bit by bit, requiring active participation from the reader to make the complete picture, a quality that I really enjoyed.  I love knowing that an author has filled a work with clues, and is asking me to look for them.

While McNeil has filled her story with narrative details, she has also cleverly worked in hundreds of pop culture references, including many of her (which are often my) favorite books, movies, and music.  I’m sure I miss a lot of them, too, but the ones I get make me feel an affinity for McNeil as a storyteller.  (Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman, Chronicles of Narnia?  We’re already friends!)  Such details give her fictional world lushness and depth.  I also love that she’s incorporated a good deal of aboriginal motifs for a flavor of sci-fi that is rather underdone in the mainstream.

As far as thematic material, Finder, like much science fiction, engages in a lot of social speculation.  It deals with ideas such as social and gender identity, moral responsibility, mental illness, and dysfunctional family relationships (some of which are fairly disturbing).  In other words, yes, it contains some controversial and therefore mature themes.  Overall, I’ve admired McNeil’s presentation of her material.  She raises good questions and objections to societal norms without feeling preachy.  There are a number of scenes of nudity, but no explicit sex scenes (a far cry from most other graphic novels I’ve read).  McNeil does not exploit her characters, and what sex that has been implied has had a narrative purpose.  Also, I can’t say I always fully agree with character’s choices, but I do like that her characters act consistently.  They’re not  paragons of perfected virtue, but they are poignant portraits of the daily human struggles and triumphs of trying to live as well as one knows how.  Thus, while not perfect, I find the characters true pictures of the sorts of people we might meet anywhere.  If we consider that science fiction is often the genre of social commentary, I find McNeil’s work–by turns satyrical, humorous, and serious–a worthy and insightful addition.

Lastly, I have to say that I really appreciated the Dark Horse omnibus edition.  It’s a pleasantly hefty paperback with a well bound spine that doesn’t crack, despite the first volume spanning over 600 pages.  The color gallery of  individual issue covers at the back is a pleasing addition for newcomers to the series.  But the best part is 40 pages of author’s notes.  In addition to clarifying a few confusing passages in the book, they add depth to the story through providing details about the world and the author’s inspirations.  Reading the notes felt like getting to talk to my best friend about one of her stories.

En fin, Finder is a well-written, beautifully drawn, and insightful story, one that I’d recommend to fans of science fiction and graphic novels both. I’m glad it found me.  (And equally glad volume 2 is released in a week!)