A List of Books I Read in 2018 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year and in 2016. The list includes all the books I read in 2018 and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this.

nonfiction

universenutshell

  • The Universe in a Nutshell — (Stephen Hawking)
    • Engaging and interesting as always, Hawking unveils the inner workings of the universe on a level that even plebs like you and I can understand. With his passing in March of 2018, it just feels right to put him at the top of the list.

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  • To Lose the Madness: Field Notes on Trauma, Loss and Radical Authenticity — (L.M. Browning)
    • L.M. Browning published this little (and I mean little) book in the wake of devastating trauma and loss in her personal life. She has a lot of important things to say to someone in the same position, but much of it feels more like therapy on behalf of the author. That’s totally fine, but I don’t know that I would recommend reading it unless you are seeking a kindred spirit in your own personal grief.

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  • Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People — (Joan Roughgarden)
    • Easily my BOOK OF THE YEAR, this vitally important work was written by a transgender biologist who provides a clear, evidence-laden discussion of how gender operates in society and the animal kingdom. Not only is the book crucial for understanding gender and sexuality in the modern era, but it is unbelievably interesting. The animal kingdom is so incredibly diverse, and so are human cultures throughout history. Anyway, I did a whole powerpoint on this book for a friend’s party, so I could go on and on. Read it!

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  • God and the State — Mikhail Bakunin
    • The father of anarcho-syndicalism/libertarian-socialism, Bakunin can be thought of as the chief ideological opponent to the more government-oriented versions of “the Left.” This work lays out his philosophical and moral framework, and it is probably only interesting to those of us who are on the Left and feel like we should familiarize ourselves with foundational texts.

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  • Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice — (Rudolf Rocker)
    • I struggled with whether or not to make this one a recommendation. It is stuffy, has more of a history-feel than actual theory, and is surely only going to be read by Leftists. A primer on anarcho-syndicalism (which I have been told is the thing that most appropriately describes my personal political views), this book by Rocker goes through the timeline of the ideology as well as its notable implementations (primarily in Spain circa WWII).

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  • The Book of the Year 2017 — (No Such Thing As a Fish Podcast Members)
    • More of a coffee table book, The Book of the Year 2017 was given to me on Christmas last year and I finished it… just after Christmas in 2018. The podcast on which it is based is a trivia podcast by the researchers behind hit British TV show QI (Quite Interesting), and the book reads with the same comedic/informative vibe. It’s fun, but at the end of the day it is only a coffee table book.

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  • Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down: The Official Behind-the-Scenes Companion — (Gina McIntyre)
    • Maybe I’m just recommending this because I got it for my wife for Christmas and then ended up devouring it before she read it. Or maybe because, even though I wasn’t all that into Stranger Things, this book still held my attention and captivated me with its look at design and writing choices. A little too self-congratulatory, the book nevertheless is a decent look at the strange story of this first major Netflix “blockbuster.” Also, sic on the double colons in the title.

fiction

mystery

  • theMystery.doc — (Matthew McIntosh)
    • I had high hopes when I saw this colossal monstrosity of a book. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to immerse myself in extra-long and experimental books, so theMystery.doc seemed right up my alley. Instead, I ended up with no clue what this book was trying to be. There’s a strange narrative in there of a man who wakes up one day and has no memory, and then learns that he is apparently an author working on the next big American novel. But it doesn’t connect in any discernible way to the random images, poems, or bits of dialogue that make up half the book’s pages. Just… strange and ultimately abortive.

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  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said — (Philip K. Dick)
    • The wiki on this book classifies it as “paranoid fiction,” and I’ve never heard a better term for a PKD book. Flow My Tears is vintage Philip K. Dick, featuring a dystopian police state in which a genetically engineered TV star wakes up one day and realizes that there is no evidence that he has ever existed. No one remembers him, his long-running show apparently never aired, and he is stuck as a nameless man in an oppressive society. Poignant, harrowing, sad, and prophetic, this book should be on the shelves of sci-fi nerds worldwide.

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  • Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier — (Mark Frost)
    • It seems I read a lot of books about films and shows this year. This one was a fascinating summarization of the events of David Lynch’s famous show Twin Peaks. I’d recommend it for anyone who enjoys the show and wants to test out their own theories.

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  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. — Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
    • A 2017 Christmas gift, this book was one of the first I read in 2018. It is a phenomenal collaboration between Galland and Stephenson. While I have not read Galland’s work before, and though I am an avid Stephenson fan, it is clear to me that Galland elevated his work to a new height. The story is about a covert government agency that is seeking to advance the interests of the United States through… magic. For those of you who are wary of Stephenson and his infamous difficulty with endings, you may take some solace knowing that I thought this one ends particularly well. It actually seemed like a logical and coherent conclusion.

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  • Ham on Rye — Charles Bukowski
    • My first Bukowski, this book is apparently autobiographical in nature. It is a study in growing up in the era of the Great Depression, and it is easy to see (if Bukowski’s own childhood was anything like that depicted in the book) why he ended up with the views and vices he had. This grim view of normal, everyday life represents somewhat of a departure from my usual fare, but it delivered tremendously.

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  • Universal Harvester — John Darnielle
    • Written by Darnielle of The Mountain Goats fame, this second novel of his follows a clerk in a small town video rental store (remember those?). When a few complaints are lodged that some of the tapes have unexplained footage spliced into them, the hunt for the culprit is on. Darnielle weaves haunting imagery throughout the novel, and he has no right to be as good at prose as he is. It is obvious that his background in music greatly influences his writing. With the exception of VanderMeer (elsewhere on this list), I rarely have read writing that sings quite like this does.

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  • The Emissary — Yoko Tawada
    • This astonishing novelette follows a young boy and his grandfather in Japan after a devastating tragedy has forced the nation to close its borders, isolate itself from the rest of the world, and tend to its children. The result of the tragedy is that kids are born with incredibly weak bones and terrible health problems, while the elderly seem to be immortal. Weird and absurd, the book won the 2018 National Book Award, and I cannot disagree. Tawada shows her mastery of imagery and description.

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  • Rendezvous with Rama — Arthur C. Clarke
    • Rendezvous with Rama is the story of a mysterious spaceship that comes into the solar system, apparently lifeless and with no discernible purpose. It is the story of the crew that visits the ship and slowly explores the mysteries inside. While it may be sacrilegious not to recommend an Arthur C. Clarke book, and while I did enjoy Rendezvous with Rama, the book ultimately is more about the quest than the answers and often comes off too cold and disinterested in what would be the most astounding moment in all of human history. I’m by no means trashing it, but it was not my favorite Clarke of the year.

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  • Childhood’s End — (Arthur C. Clarke)
    • Speaking of favorite Clarke of the year: here it is. Scratch that. This may be one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. The book is set in the future, when mysterious beings called Overlords visit earth and begin to shepherd the human race… but for what purpose? Wildly imaginative, expertly paced, and believably written, this book is a testament to why Clarke is often called The Prophet of the Space Age.

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  • It — (Stephen King)
    • My first foray into Stephen King in a long time, and my first of his novels, It was a stupendous surprise to me. Frankly, the quality of this novel made me upset at my college professors, who used to scoff at King as if commercial success meant he was a lower-tier author. The man can write his ass off. These characters are fleshed out to an incredible degree, the pacing is (mostly) perfect, and the tension builds to terrifying crescendoes. If you haven’t read this classic, you absolutely should. Though Evolution’s Rainbow claimed my BOOK OF THE YEAR, It probably claims my NOVEL OF THE YEAR designation.

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  • ‘Salem’s Lot — (Stephen King)
    • This was my Year of King, basically. I enjoyed this novel and King’s ability to craft interesting, real-seeming characters in an exceedingly creepy environment. Not as good as It, but still worth a read. If you like vampire books, that is.

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  • Pet Sematary — (Stephen King)
    • This was one of the more disturbing books I’ve read. As a father, I was exceptionally moved by this harrowing story of a man who learns of a secret burial ground that brings the buried back from the dead. Once again, King builds characters that we care about. That’s the secret to his success. There are plenty of horror writers with similar technical ability, but King is able to create characters that feel like real people. This means we get attached to them and share in their inevitable distress.

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  • Lord of Chaos: the Wheel of Time, Book 6 — (Robert Jordan)
    • I will finish this series, dammit. After stalling out for over a year, I returned to the unbelievably complex world of the Wheel of Time. I won’t spoil anything here, but it suffices to say that Lord of Chaos is aptly named. It’s a chaotic narrative with many moving parts and many important developments in the story of The Dragon Reborn.

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  • The Familiar, Vol. 5: Redwood — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
    • One of my favorite experimental authors, MZD continues his epic tale of a young girl named Xanther and her special cat. The only bad thing I can say about this series is that I was looking forward to reading Vol. 6 this year when I learned that the promised 27-book cycle has been put on hiatus. Perhaps it was inevitable with a series this long, but it was still a crushing blow and I hope Danielewski is able to get back to it soon.

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  • The Monstrumologist, Book 4: The Final Descent — (Rick Yancey)
    • My wife introduced me to the Monstrumologist series a few years ago, and it is one of the best series out there. The books are framed as collected excerpts from an old man’s diary, gathered together by author Rick Yancey after the man (whose past is unknown) passed away at a nursing home. The notes reveal that the man was an apprentice to a Monstrumologist many, many years ago and was learning to study the monsters that exist all around us. A fascinating story coupled with beautiful and skillful writing, this series comes highly recommended. If you don’t trust my judgment, trust my wife’s!

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  • My Best Friend’s Exorcism — (Grady Hendrix)
    • My Best Friend’s Exorcism is an ode to ’80s horror films in book form. The story of a young girl whose friend, she believes, becomes possessed by a demon, the book clips along at such a good pace that I finished it in a day. Normally an ’80s love-letter would feel heavy-handed, and some of my friends said that they felt this way about MBFE, but I felt that the references to pop culture were organic and made in a way that made sense within the framework of the story. Check it out if you’re in the mood for quirky, teenage-drama horror with real emotional vibrancy.

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  • The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) — (Jeff VanderMeer)
    • The books on which the film Annihilation was roughly based, the Southern Reach trilogy tells the story of the mysterious Area X. 30 years ago, an undisclosed “event” warped the landscape there, and no amount of research teams has been able to figure out what is going on. We begin the story with “the biologist,” who enters Area X as part of the latest expedition. Jeff VanderMeer may be, frankly, the best author I read this year. His writing is absolutely astounding, almost prose poetry in some ways. Beautiful, cold, stark, the language tinkles across the page like shiny bits of broken glass, and it kept me reading at a record pace. Highly, highly, highly recommend this trilogy.

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  • Pen 33 — (Roslund and Hellström)
    • Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. It is a crime novel from Sweden’s top crime novelist duo that centers around the most taboo crime in all of human society: child rape. The writers do not shy away from the details, and there is plenty of tragedy to go around in this book. At its core, the book is about society’s trust in the justice system and its willingness to abide by laws even when situations are not cut-and-dry. If you can stomach the gory details, I suggest checking this one out. It was the last book I read in 2018, so maybe this isn’t saying much, but I’m still thinking about it.

graphic novels

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  • SAGA, vol. 6 and 7 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • I’ve written about this series in both of the previous Books I Read lists, so I’ll spare you. It’s a brilliant story with stunning artwork and should be a must-read for comics aficionados.

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  • The INCAL — (Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius)
    • I recommend this one to fans of Jodo and Moebius, but not to others. While Moebius is a genius and Jodo has incredibly complex and interesting ideas, Jodo’s actual writing leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion. I still loved the graphic novel, which is about a futuristic society spanning galaxies and took many ideas from Jodorowsky’s failed bid to direct a film based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the story seems thrown together in some ways.

Alright, that’s it. That’s all the books I read this year… I think. It’s a bit of a slow down from last year, but I plan on getting back into the swing of things in 2019. I’d love to hear about the books you read this year as well, so let me know!

 

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A List of Books I Read in 2017 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year. The list includes all the books I read in 2017 (unless I forgot one or two), and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this. Here we go.

nonfiction

Onwritingcover

  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft — (Stephen King)
    • This is an oft-touted work that is simultaneously a sort of autobiography and a how-to on the craft of writing. I admit, I read it far later than I should have. It’s very good, and I recommend it to writers or aspiring writers, but I haven’t bolded or italicized this one because it isn’t the best work on writing I read this year. And, frankly, like all how-to works, this one is a mixed bag of advice, IMO.

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  • The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing — (Margot Livesey)
    • Ok, this one is the best book on writing that I read this year. Livesey confines herself to very strict goals in her essays, a very limited scope or theme in each one, and this really serves to make her advice more easily digestible (if not easily followed… writing is difficult). If writing is your thing, check this one out for sure.

TheFearcover

  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe — (Peter Godwin)
    • The Fear is a tale that centers around author Peter Godwin, a journalist, returning to his home country of Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe lost his first election in 30 years in 2008. A harrowing story of corruption, violence, and confusion, this book is even more relevant now that Mugabe has been ousted.

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  • Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon — (Frank Close)
    • In light of the eclipse that saw totality track across the United States in 2017, Frank Close (an eclipse chaser) wrote this book to describe the allure of the phenomenon and to encourage others to chase totality as well. It’s a good book, partly a memoir of his adventures chasing eclipses and partly a science-y breakdown of an eclipse’s mechanics. However, it felt a little too in-between for me, as if the book (and author) was not sure what it wanted to be.

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  • The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code — (Margalit Fox)
    • Margalit Fox hits gold with this one. She details the unraveling of the ancient Linear B script, which was a triumph of the twentieth century. Not only that, but she honors both Michael Ventris (the eventual code-cracker) and Alice Kober (the somewhat unsung hero whose meticulous, almost obsessive work made the solution possible). Treat yourself to a well-written historical tale while simultaneously learning the intricacies of the Linear B problem and its elegant solution.

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  • How to Mellify a Corpse: and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition — (Vicki León)
    • León tries to weave together a raucous romp through history with her unique humor, but frankly I’m not so sure it works. The idea was very good, and seemed right up my alley with topics like ancient mechanical engineering, Pythagoras and his mathematical discoveries and odd quirks of habit, and much more. However, the book simply isn’t as interesting (or as much of a page-turner) as the title would suggest.

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  • Sin Bravely: My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell — (Maggie Rowe)
    • Maggie Rowe used to have a problem worrying, obsessively (like, clinically obsessively) about going to hell. This is her raw, personal story of spending time in a Christian mental health facility and, eventually, overcoming that fear. It is a brave work that anyone who identifies, or has ever identified, as an Evangelical should read.

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  • Both Flesh and Not: Essays — (David Foster Wallace)
    • I agree with some reviewers that this posthumous collection of previously unpublished Wallace essays suffers from the usual posthumous malady: these pieces were never intended by the author to go together, and they sometimes feel odd at the seams. However, I mean… it’s David Foster Wallace.

Proofiness

  • Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception — (Charles Seife)
    • This is an interesting analysis of the way in which modern media uses numbers unscrupulously to promote whatever idea they want viewers to believe. It’s a look at the way the human mind treats numbers and a primer against being taken in by faulty or misrepresented mathematics. This is very important in the modern age, and Seife does a serviceable job explaining these things, but the book does suffer somewhat from its position between popular nonfiction and academic work. If this stuff interests you, you’re probably going to gravitate toward more dense works.

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  • Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — (Masha Gessen)
    • Perfect Rigor tells the story of Grigori Perelman, who in 2006 solved the Poincare Conjecture (a topological problem so complex that I don’t even understand its question, much less its solution). The PC remained unsolved for more than a century and was thought by some to be literally unsolvable. After Perelman solved the problem, he refused the one million dollar prize and became somewhat of a recluse. Perfect Rigor details, with clarity and with the appropriate amount of compassion, his early life in Russia’s mathematical schools as well as his eventual solving of the PC. None of this synopsis gives justice to how interesting the book is. I couldn’t put it down.

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  • The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction — (Neil Gaiman)
    • Alright, this is blasphemous, but I didn’t really enjoy this collection from Gaiman. Maybe I’m souring on his style, or maybe the stories and essays felt too mashed together and incompatible… I don’t know.

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  • Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life — (Richard Cohen)
    • I’ve never read Cohen before, but I plan on reading more of his work after this. Chasing the Sun is perhaps my BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR, though I have trouble declaring such superlatives. The book is the culmination of eight years of research and covers the sun’s influence in science, physics, art, food, culture, clothing, music, etc. etc. etc. I cannot recommend this book enough.

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  • Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief — (Lawrence Wright)
    • It’s been in the news a lot lately, but guys: Scientology is weird and bad and you should stay away from it. This is an excellent analysis of the “religion’s” history and philosophy. Check it out.

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  • A Palette of Particles — (Jeremy Bernstein)
    • This short book is an interesting primer on particle physics and its history, but I think it suffers from a few fatal flaws. First, it’s too short to cover anything in the sort of depth that something as complex as particle physics requires. Also, its diction is too academic for the book’s goal. If the diction is right for you, you probably already know what’s in the book and don’t need to read it. The book also seems unsure of what it wants to be: historical analysis, physics textbook/primer, memoir, etc.

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  • Confessions of a Young Novelist — (Umberto Eco)
    • Eco is very hit-or-miss for me, and in this short work he misses the mark. The idea behind the book is to combine a few “confessions,” essays, and speeches made by Eco over the years regarding his thoughts on the craft of writing. However, I find much of Eco’s thoughts too, dare I say, pretentious. Of course, he’s a genius. But there is too much self-congratulation in the work, too much self-praise. Perhaps in his native Italian it comes off as more explanatory, but in the translation he seems more concerned with showing his genius.

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  • Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners — (Alan Emmins)
    • This one is very straightforward. Emmins spends time with the professionals who clean crime scenes (and, yes, it does get gory and gross at times) and details his experiences. There’s a complicated man at the center of the business, and I’m not sure how I feel about Emmins’ portrayal of him, but nevertheless the book retains interest well and shows the reader a rarely-glimpsed corner of society.

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  • Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life: An Agony in Eight Fits — (Robin J. Wilson)
    • Don’t let the title scare you off. This is another contender for BOOK OF THE YEAR for me. Incredibly accessible and incredibly fun, this work details the life of Carroll in a compassionate manner. Don’t believe the rumors of Carroll’s odd behavior around kids, this well-researched book says. Instead, let Wilson show you Carroll as he was: a brilliant, loving man who made great strides in both mathematics and literature and who is every bit as interesting as his zany characters.

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  • Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics — (Paul Halpern)
    • On the back of the recent confirmation of the Higgs Boson, Halpern details the story of Einstein and Schrödinger and their quest to arrive at a Grand Unified Theory of physics that eschewed the random dice in Einstein’s famous quip. The book does not shy away from these controversial characters and is a delight to read for anyone interested in physics who, like me, is worse than a layman.

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  • Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language — (Clive James)
    • An unbelievably well-thought-out catalog of the poetic arsenal, James’ book has given me much to think about regarding my own use of language in my writing. A must-read for writers of all shades.

 

poetry

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  • The Best American Poetry 2007 — (ed. Heather McHugh)
    • I have to say, with a sigh, that almost all poetry collections are going to go unrecommended from me. There are gems in all of them, but alas, there are far too many that seem like linguistic masturbation. With poetry, usually, the key is to find a poet you love rather than a hodgepodge of poems.

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  • Best of the Best American Poetry — (ed. Robert Pinsky)
    • See above comments.

 

fiction

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  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — (Haruki Murakami)
    • This was, I think, my first Murakami book, and I was not impressed. Though perhaps the translation can be blamed, the language seemed dead and detached. The titular Tazaki seemed by turns foolish, pitiable, and evil, and the plot itself seemed disjointed and odd in an unintended way.

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  • The Strange Library — (Haruki Murakami)

This is what I imagined Murakami to be after hearing his praises for years. Here, he seems like a master of language subtly crafting a story that is bizarre and, well, strange in ways that seem utterly intended. He maps a dream world that often doesn’t make sense, but it’s not about the making-sense. It’s about the feel of the thing, and Murakami is writing a concerto for the way dreams/nightmares feel. Highly recommend.

 

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  • The Pleasure of My Company — (Steve Martin)
    • Yes, that Steve Martin. Honestly, he has no right to be this good at writing. He’s already had a great comedy career and is super into art or whatever. Leave some for the rest of us, Steve. (If you’re interested, his novella is about a man with clear OCD issues overcoming all of his harmful obsessions to fully realize himself, and it’s damn good).

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  • Normal — (Warren Ellis)
    • This one is tough. Warren Ellis is a legendary figure on the comics front, but this is my first foray into his novels. Normal is… anything but. It’s weird and philosophical, insular and kind of oddly stilted and compressed in its scope. The story of a man who previously worked for the government being placed in a sort of camp or secluded retreat (involuntarily), Normal goes to weird places and waxes philosophical about the future of humanity. It’s very good, but I’d reserve a recommendation only for those who are familiar with Ellis’ previous work. It feels very much of a piece with Transmetropolitan.

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  • Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? — (Dave Eggers)
    • 2017 was, it seems, a year of firsts for me. This, my first Eggers book, is a story told entirely in dialogue that features a man who decides to kidnap an old classmate of his who became an astronaut. From there, it only gets weirder, but Eggers manages to make the plot seem somehow reasonable and human.

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  • The Familiar, Vol. 4: Hades — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
    • Danielewski continues his 20-some-part epic about a young girl, her cat, and her city. This volume returned to a slower pace, but it was still incredibly readable and enjoyable. If you haven’t started the series yet, get on it. It represents, for me, a return to form for MZD.

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  • Numero zero — (Umberto Eco)
    • I said earlier that Eco is hit-or-miss for me, but this one is somewhere in between. Extremely short by Eco standards, Numero zero has some truly interesting and mind-bending ideas and historical puzzles, but it ultimately falls flat in its plot and remains forgettable. I’m having trouble remembering a lot of it, which does not bode well for a recommendation.

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  • The Name of the Rose — (Umberto Eco)
    • This book, with which Eco originally burst onto the authorial scene, is simply a masterpiece. A mystery set in an ancient monastery, the level of detail and complexity is staggering. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, a page-turning dissertation on medieval life. It’s a lot of things, and one of them is “good.”

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  • Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories — (Robert Aickman)
    • Lent to me by a friend, this collection was my introduction to Aickman. He is a master of the craft and weaves unsettling tales better than pretty much anyone I’ve read. From a strange hotel from which guests cannot leave to creature-horror set in a European castle’s lake, this collection shows Aickman at what I can only assume is his best.

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  • The Marvels — (Brian Selznick)
    • Selznick is the award-winning author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and he returns to the same kind of half-written, half-drawn storytelling M.O. in this book. For my money, though, The Marvels is more intense, more emotionally gripping, and an all-around better book. Selznick deserves all the praise and awards he’s earned.

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  • A Confederacy of Dunces — (John Kennedy Toole)
    • A classic, this book was one I had never read until this year. More’s the pity. It is hilarious, snide, cutting, interesting; its characters seem real and fleshed-out; its plot moves along steadily, retaining interest. Though it does flag a bit at the end, the novel is a work of art that I think everyone should read at least once. Practically every sentence drips with sarcasm, and I believe I actually laughed aloud while reading it.

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  • The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — (Neal Stephenson)
    • This was originally suggested to me by Hugh Howey, who cites it as one of his favorites of Stephenson’s. I tried to start it a few years ago and got bored, but now I don’t understand how that was possible. The book features Stephenson (who is probably my favorite extant sci-fi writer) at his world-building best. The tech and geopolitical realities are superbly wrought. Though, as usual, Stephenson seems not to care about wrapping up his stories and resorts to Deus Ex Machina type devices to end things, the novel is still excellent and provides an interesting commentary on ideas like the education system, politics, the speed of technological advancement, and more.

 

graphic novels

 

  • SAGA, vol. 4 and 5 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • I mentioned this last year when I started SAGA. It’s a wildly cool story about interspecies war and love, childhood, parenthood, kindness among strangers, meaning in the universe, etc. Expertly written, its equally stunning visuals are drawn by Staples at the absolute height of her power. Do not miss out on these works.

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  • Swamp Thing, Vol. 1-6 — (Alan Moore’s run; with John Totleben and Steve Bissette)
    • I’ve been a fan of Moore since his Watchmen brought me into graphic novels and comics (I know, I know, so original, Mike). I own Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and some of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work, but this is my first time reading his highly acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. Needless to say, it’s a work of staggering genius. Moore may be a weird dude, but as a writer he is nearly unrivaled.

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  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — (Chris Ware)
    • Okay, so I recommend this one, but only as long as you go into it knowing that it’s unbelievably depressing. That said, it’s a monument to the struggles of the average modern man and is at times poignant and emotionally cathartic. We pull for Jimmy; we weep for Jimmy. We are Jimmy. It’s just… Jimmy’s very sad.

 

bonus book I didn’t know how to categorize

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  • The Paleblood Hunt — (Redgrave)
    • Just as last year featured the genre-bending work “Darths and Droids,” so this year features a “book” that many might say doesn’t belong on a list of this nature. The Paleblood Hunt is kind of a blend of scholarly work and fan fiction. It’s author, a man whose online alias is Redgrave, is one of the leading lore historians in the Bloodborne community (yes, yes, the video game). The Paleblood Hunt is his synopsis of Bloodborne’s often obscure and difficult to parse story, and for my money it is the best working theory of the game out there. The length of a novella, TPH should be required reading for anyone playing the game who wishes to join the greater lore community.

A List of Books I Read in 2016 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

 

THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.

nonfiction

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  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
    • One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).

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  • Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
    • Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.

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  • The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
    • Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.

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  • Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.

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  • Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.

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  • Free Will – (Sam Harris)
    • Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.

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  • On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
    • I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.

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  • A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
    • As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).

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  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
    • Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.

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  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.

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  • A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
    • I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.

the controversial books**

**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).

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  • God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
    • This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.

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  • Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
    • A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.

books of poetry

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  • 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
    • A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.

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  • High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
    • Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.

fiction

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  • The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
  1. One Rainy Day in May
  2. Into the Forest
  3. Honeysuckle and Pain

    • Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.

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  • The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings
    • Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
    • Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.

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  • Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
    • Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.

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  • Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
    • This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.

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  • The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
      • The Fires of Heaven
      • Lord of Chaos
    • I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.

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  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
    • This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.

graphic novels

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  • Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
  1. Welcome to Lovecraft
  2. Head Games
  3. Crown of Shadows
  4. Keys to the Kingdom
  5. Clockworks
    • Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.

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  • SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.

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  • Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
    • This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.

webcomics

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  • Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
    • Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.

Book Review: J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

If I was only given one thing to say about ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ it’d be this: “Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t.” If that seems mixed up, convoluted, and indiscernible, then I have succeeded in describing my feelings about the book. Two days after finishing it and vowing to write a review, I’m still sitting here sort of at a loss on how to start this thing and explain exactly how it made me feel. But I think the best way is probably to go back to Rowling’s opus and describe the reasons why I think her writing style succeeded so very, very well in a work like Harry Potter. In this way, maybe I can figure out just what about her newest book I liked – and just why I think it ultimately fails to live up to the hype.

I could write theses on Harry Potter, and I am sure that that very thing has been done. But for your sake, readers, I’ll try to keep this brief. Rowling succeeded with her debut series for (more or less) three reasons: she is ridiculous at world-building, she is one of the best character writers I have ever read, and the genre of fantasy lends itself to these two attributes. Anyone who has read Harry Potter will tell you that, while you are reading the books, you feel like you’re in the world. Rowling’s world-building feels complete. She spends loads of time providing details whose sole purpose is to capture your imagination and create the sense that you could travel to England and visit Platform 9 ¾ , or roam around the English countryside until you found Hogwarts (I know, I know, it’s hidden by spells… but you get my point). The problem, as I have said in a previous piece about Neal Stephenson, is that when these expert world-builders apply their skill to the real world, the result is a book that tells me too much about stuff that I’m already too familiar with. In ‘The Casual Vacancy’ this problem, coupled with Rowling’s definitive writing style, leads to prose that feels too “flowery” (to quote my wife). It is as if Rowling tried to take the same approach to this novel that she took to the Harry Potter series, not realizing that what works for a children’s fantasy series will not necessarily work for an adult book about the suckiness of everyday people.

One thing that does work, though, is Rowling’s ability to write believable and relatable characters. Let me tell you something: I did not like the thematic elements of this novel. I didn’t like the arc of the story (SPOILER: absolutely nothing good happens in this story. It’s literally shit happens, shit happens, shit happens, the end. Which I found somehow lazy and lacking). And I didn’t like the writing style, for the most part. But I kept reading because of the characters. That’s how Rowling hooks you. Do you remember rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione? Do you remember being distraught when Dumbledore died? If so, then you know the power that Rowling has in getting you to buy into and root for certain characters. That quality of her writing is not lost in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ You will find yourself reading on to find out what happens to characters you both genuinely care about and genuinely despise long after the story itself has lost you.

Even with the character development being as good as it is, it isn’t enough to outweigh the fact that the whole thing just feels like Rowling picked the wrong genre. When I originally started the novel, I hadn’t done a lot of research on exactly what kind of book it was. The cover seemed very noir-esque to me, and so I went into this thing thinking that it would end up being some kind of mystery. I liked that idea, because a mystery story would be a way for Rowling to showcase some of the things that made Harry Potter great (think Prisoner of Azkaban, and you’ll see that she can write a killer mystery) while still allowing Rowling to write a book with adult themes and a real-world setting. But it isn’t a mystery. It’s a straightforward novel about the politics of small-town life. If that sounds boring to you, you are not alone. Almost from the very first page, I was uninterested and unconcerned with the plot itself. Of course, the characters made me read on and sit on the edge of my seat regarding the next plot development, yada yada yada. But I didn’t care about the story all that much. Which is not good.

So I’m left with that weird one-liner from the opening paragraph: Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t. Because it seems like Rowling approached this book the same way she approached her first series, and the story of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ doesn’t lend itself to that approach. I understand that she wants to break free of children’s books and write stuff for adults (her original fans are almost all adults now, anyway). But please, Rowling, pick a genre that is suited to your strong suits as a writer. This one, as far as I’m concerned, missed the mark.

OVERALL SCORE: 6/10

Book Review: Dune Messiah

In light of the fact that last week’s review was so long, I’m going to keep this one relatively short. Dune Messiah, the second book in the Dune Chronicles, is in my opinion much more focused than its predecessor. As the title suggests, the plot of this novel centers on Paul Muad’Dib Atreides – the Kwisatz Haderach of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and newly crowned emperor. In the twelve years since Dune, Paul has become the focal point of a new religion. He is worshipped as the Mahdi of the Fremen, and he is the impetus for a great Jihad that spread through the entire Imperium. So, in a sense, Dune is about Paul (the Atreides ducal heir and boy of fifteen), and Dune Messiah is about Muad’Dib (the Fremen Mahdi, man-god, and Emperor of the Known Universe). As such, it allows Herbert ample space to provide his own thoughts on religion.

At one point in the novel, Muad’Dib is having a conversation with a Guild Navigator in which the latter points this out: “It seems to most observers, however, that you conspire to make a god of yourself. And one might ask if that is something any mortal can do… safely” (p. 126). Indeed, Paul Muad’Dib struggles throughout the entire novel to come to grips with the fact that he is now a religious symbol, a god worshipped on countless planets across the universe. What must it feel like to be such a figure, trapped by your own mythos and the religious ideals of billions of people? I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, but Muad’Dib’s response, when pressed by a friend, is: “There are problems in this universe for which there are no answers…. Nothing. Nothing can be done” (p.320).  And in an epigraph for one of the book’s sections, he is quoted as saying “I’ve had a bellyful of the god and priest business” (p. 183). Simply put, Herbert’s analysis of Messiah-ism is that being a mortal human, knowing full well your own limitations and humanity, and being thrust up as a Messiah or god would be really difficult to bear. As Paul does throughout the novel, such a figure would struggle constantly to keep his or her own personality and individuality separate from the mythos generated by worship.

The second big theme of this novel is Time. Muad’Dib is worshipped as a god almost exclusively because he possesses the power of prescience: he can seemingly see into the future. Herbert uses this power of Muad’Dib’s to expound upon his own theories of time and temporal existence. On page 181, Muad’Dib is told by his sister not to grieve someone’s death before that person actually dies. Since both of them can see into the future, this admonishment makes a sort of sense. But Paul’s response is this: “Tell me, little sister. What is before?” And even Muad’Dib’s enemies must struggle with temporal awareness, since trying to conspire against someone carries even greater risk when that person could have known all along that you were conspiring against him. One of the conspirators rather wisely points out that the Kwisatz Haderach is “a being filled by the spectacle of Time. It is a form of existence which cannot be threatened without enclosing yourself in the identical threat” (p. 189). As a Calvinist who struggles with the ideas of predestination, determinism, and moral responsibility, I was very interested in and captivated by Herbert’s take on the philosophy of time and free will.

I said I’d keep this one short, so I’ll go ahead and wrap it up. Herbert weaves a wonderful story of betrayal and Imperial politics around these philosophical ideas, and he does so without seeming too far out of reach for the average intellect. The man was quite possibly a genius, so keeping the story readable for someone like me is definitely a feat worthy of admiration (although the book was published in 1969 and so I wonder how much was genius and how much was just the drugs talking… not to besmirch Herbert’s legacy). Because of its limited scope and lack of the detail-richness that Dune had, this book scores lower. It was still enjoyable, but I felt that the writing was a little lacking. In any case, I’m sure Herbert struggled for a long time to match the masterpiece that was and is Dune. I’m not sure it can be done.

OVERALL SCORE: 7.5/10*

*Yes, I can give decimal scores. Who asked your opinion, anyway?

Book Review: Dune

Dune is a work of such staggering depth and complexity that it’s necessary for this review to have numerous sections focusing on different aspects of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. I won’t cover everything that is in this novel, but I will try to hit all the major points. Anyway, here we go:

I. The Politics

The book is set in the year 10,191 (though this year itself is delineated from an event called the Butlerian Jihad –which is an event that happens millennia from our time and which I will discuss later), and the universe is ruled from the Golden Lion Throne by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. This emperor has political power over the entire Known Universe, but obviously it would be ridiculous for him to try and govern each individual planet. So, there is a class system in place (called “faufreluches”) in which the patriarchs of Great Houses govern the planets on which they live. For example, the main character, Paul Atreides, is the son of Duke Leto Atreides and thus is heir to the ducal fiefdom. The Atreides start the novel out by ruling a planet called Caladan, but they end up wresting the government of another planet (Arrakis, or “Dune”) from their arch-rivals House Harkonnen.  In short, each planet is ruled by a planetary governor in the name of the Padishah Emperor – and each of these governors belongs to a certain Great House.

In order to protect themselves from absolute power by the Emperor, the Great Houses are all a part of a political group called the Landsraad. Note that this includes House Corrino, which is Shaddam IV’s House. Basically, this group serves as a way to make inter-House laws. For example, the Landsraad has banned the use of atomics against humans. Also, the Landsraad itself could combine its power to (theoretically) depose the Emperor. So the inter-galactic political system has its checks and balances.

One of the most important things to mention here, even though it is not technically a “political” power, is a company called CHOAM. This stands for Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles, and it is basically the economic arm of the Landsraad. It’s a universal development initiative in which the Emperor and other Houses of the Landsraad have stakes. Even in this unimaginably distant future, power is ultimately derived from wealth, and the CHOAM company is the source of that wealth. When a House gets in trouble or does particularly clever maneuvering, its CHOAM holdings can be revoked or expanded, respectively. This in turn keeps the Houses from becoming stagnant, in that they always must be on the lookout for ways to reap higher profits from CHOAM. This economic aspect of the novel is a little complicated, but an in-depth understanding of CHOAM is not really needed to enjoy the novel. All you really need to know is that the company is controlled by the Emperor and the Landsraad, and that it is the chief economic power.

II. The Miscellaneous Powers

Aside from the political system of Imperium and Landsraad, there are also a few ancient groups that wield a certain amount of power in the universe of Dune. The Bene Gesserit is a school of women that focusses on control of mental and physical faculties. This school was established after the Butlerian Jihad (which I will talk about shortly… quit rushing me). Ostensibly, the Bene Gesserit are women who have learned complete control over their bodies, and who have been trained in the way of observation of minutiae. For an example of this complete control, pregnant Bene Gesserit can reportedly ensure the sex of their babies. They are able to use a faculty called “the Voice” as well – which is a way of conforming the tones and undertones of their voices to manipulate others. However, the Bene Gesserit have been secretly perfecting a human breeding program involving many of the Great Houses over millennia, and this is their chief function. The goal of this breeding program is to produce what they call the “Kwisatz Haderach” – the man who will one day be born who will possess the faculties and abilities of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.

The second not-necessarily-political- power is the Spacing Guild. This group has a complete monopoly on inter-stellar space travel. Their Navigators have the ability to fold space so as to make almost infinitely long trips take a vastly shorter time. They are extraordinarily secretive about their process of space travel, and most people are not allowed in the presence of a Guild Navigator. It is reported that this is because the use of the spice (I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it) transforms their bodies into something not quite human anymore. Anyway, their monopoly on space travel makes the Guild a force to be reckoned with, as anyone who opposes them can have their shipping privileges revoked, and will thus end up stranded on their planet.

Okay, so THE SPICE. It is the all important element of the universe in Dune. It is called mélange, and it is the source of the Guild Navigator’s space-folding powers; it’s the source of the Bene Gesserit’s powers; and it’s the main source of economic stability. It is literally the most important product in the history of the universe. And it can be found on only one planet in the Imperium: Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). The import of this is that the Atreides have just been given governorship over Arrakis at the start of the novel, so basically they are in control of the production of the most important thing in the universe.

III. The Religious Aspects

Herbert was apparently very interested in religion. The amount of research this man must have done in order to envision the religious history of a future millennia upon millennia from our own present must have been just incredible. But basically, the fulcrum of all religious thought in the Imperium is something called the Butlerian Jihad. This was the war that occurred after man had created thinking machines and then had to destroy them. After this war, all the major religions of the universe banded together to create the Orange Catholic Bible – essentially a collection of the religious ideals that all religions had in common. The chief commandments are “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul” and “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” This O.C. Bible is accepted and used all over the Imperium.

When talking about religion on Arrakis, though, it is necessary to discuss the Fremen. These are the natives of Arrakis – the desert people. Descendants of the Zensunni Wanderers, they hold law and religion as the same thing, and much of their language and religious ideas are similar to Islam. They worship Shai-Hulud (the “Old Man of the Desert”), which is basically a deity that consists of all of the giant sandworms on Arrakis. This is difficult to explain unless you read the book, but somehow Herbert makes it very understandable. Anyway, the Fremen await their Mahdi (“Messiah”), their Lisan al-Gaib (“Voice from the Outer World”). Such legends are thought to be the work of the Missionaria Protectiva – the arm of the Bene Gesserit school that is charged with implanting such superstitions in order to create cultures amenable to the Bene Gesserit. In any case, the Fremen are supposed by Duke Leto Atreides to be the key to controlling Arrakis.

IV. The Ecology

Each planet in the Imperium has its own ecology, obviously. But I’ll just focus on Arrakis, since that is the main setting for the book. Arrakis is literally a giant desert. There are qanats, or small canals of water, but basically there is very little water on the planet. The Fremen survive by wearing stillsuits that replenish the body’s water and protect against the loss of water through things like breathing, sweating, and getting rid of waste. Yes, in these stillsuits you re-drink the water that your body releases. It is a necessity in the deep desert where the Fremen live.

In this desert, the main predator is the giant sandworm. These things are HUGE. They live mainly below the sand, and they are attracted to rhythmic vibrations. You know, like the sound of humans walking naturally. Therefore, when walking in the desert one has to adopt an odd arrhythmic walking pattern so as not to attract the gigantic deathworms. These animals are worshipped by the Fremen as Shai-Hulud, and it is noted that the sandworms always come to the spice mining facilities (which facilities must be promptly air-lifted out so as not to be eaten).

Speaking of spice mining, Arrakis’ only real importance to the Imperium is that it is the only known source of the spice mélange. Without the spice, the Guild can’t navigate and the Bene Gesserit can’t do their crazy mind-and-body stuff. Also, the spice has exceptional geriatric properties, extending one’s age for long after the natural life expectancy. However, the spice is very addictive and thus most of the universe (or at least, those rich enough to buy the spice) are now dependent on spice production. Despite its importance to the Imperium, little is known about its origins.

V. The Philosophy

I won’t go into too much detail here, but Herbert pumps his novel to the max with philosophical musings. He has a very specific view of time, and how free will and determinism interact. He seems to see time as lots of nexuses of decisions. Basically, I think Herbert was trying to imagine a universe where we could possess prescience but also have a sort of free will. It is interesting and difficult, but it helps the story along. There are also numerous musings about the interplay between politics and religion, and Herbert insists (probably rightly) that the key to ultimate power is to be both the center of politics and the center of religion. A deified dictator takes a while to depose – just look at North Korea. Or think back to the days of a Japanese Emperor. But probably central to Herbert’s philosophy is the dignity of humankind. He seems very concerned with morality and purity of soul, to the extent that he imagines a future in which all religions realize their common commandment is to not disfigure the soul. What I am trying to say is that Dune is not just science fiction: it is science fiction with a purpose.

VI. The Writing Style

Herbert writes in the third-person omniscient perspective.  He sort of jumps around between different characters’ viewpoints, even in a single scene. I like this a lot, and it really works for the story, but I’ve been finding it difficult to figure out exactly why. I think it’s because Herbert, by jumping around like this, is able to fully reveal and develop his world. It would not make sense for one character to tell us all about the universe – because which one of us could explain every aspect of the governments and economic systems just on our own planet? But by switching viewpoints between people involved in very different aspects of the universe, Herbert can show the reader the depth and complexity that his imagination has spawned. Anyway, the writing’s point of view works.

The style of the writing is also really interesting. Herbert writes with a certain amount of spirituality or philosophical authority. I sense that this is probably because the man did a lot of research for the novel, and thus he can write with knowledge and believability. But as I hinted at in the Philosophy section, Herbert’s writing is imbued with moral and ethical undertones throughout the entire novel. And he shows that he is a master of dialogue. The book is just simply well written. End of story.

Finally, Herbert includes a glossary in the back of his novel, which is an interesting and useful item to have, since many of the words and names used in the book are not familiar to us (after all, this is set ridiculously far into the future). But don’t let the fact that a glossary is necessary deter you from reading this book. It’s really easy to flip back and check the definition of a word like “Fremen” or “Shai-Hulud,” and if you can’t find the definition back there it probably means the term is not that important. This novel is perhaps unrivaled in its depth, but that should not scare the reader from the story. Herbert handles the complexity of an entire universe with amazing aplomb, all the while crafting a compelling story around the world he built.

OVERALL RATING: 9.9999/10*

*(there were some typos, so I can’t really give it a 10/10)

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire, Part Two (A Game of Thrones)

*Author’s note: This is the second in a series of reviews on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

**Author’s second note: Some minor SPOILERS are in this review, so read with caution.

FIRST IMPRESSION

When I began reading A Game of Thrones, it was after hearing its praises sung by numerous individuals whose opinions on literature I trust to be similar to my own. What was funny was that the book was recommended from people in so many different areas in my life. One of my fellow Creative Writing classmates hailed Martin as being one of the best living fantasy authors (and yes, Kindle Store, these books are fantasy – not science fiction). Another individual, one of my coworkers, extolled the intensity and depth of the world that Martin wrote about. I heard the book’s title being discussed in hallways as I walked past, and there were rumors that HBO was starting a television series on Martin’s epic tale. So it seemed fated that I would end up reading the books.

When I did, I have to admit that the first novel – A Game of Thrones – didn’t grab me right away. As I said in the last review, the sex scenes seemed really over the top and kind of creepy in that old guy staring at a young girl kind of way. But, I had to admit that the world itself was very interesting. All the Houses of Westeros had their “words” (or family motto), colors, castles, etc. And Martin makes sure to delve into all of the history behind practically every character. This was really fun in a nerdy sort of way, yet I also felt that the story was moving too slowly for my taste. See, I had gone into the thing expecting a fast paced, battle-filled, gritty epic. And while parts of A Game of Thrones are like that, most of it is concerned with setting up the characters and the multitude of plots for the rest of the series. Once I realized this, I started to like it more. The title is apt, since Martin is primarily preoccupied with the complexity of Westerosi politics. And might I add that the depth to the political intrigue in this novel is reminiscent of our own world’s politics. There are plots within plots within plots.

By the end of my reading of A Game of Thrones, I was thoroughly interested in reading the next books, but part of me still hoped for a change of pace. I still feel that the first novel is mainly a setup for the remainder of the series, and because of this it is probably my least favorite of the books (though it vies for that spot with A Feast for Crows, the fourth book).

LOOKING BACK (note: SPOILERS)

The reason I have to qualify “least favorite” with “probably” is that I have realized there is so much more complexity in the first novel now that I’m almost finished with the fifth. Sure, the direwolf being killed by the stag in the beginning of the novel is not a very subtle example of foreshadowing. But when you look back and realize that the two people Arya spies discussing an overthrow of the Iron Throne are Varys and Magister Illyrio, and that they are plotting to reinstate Daenerys Targaryen in place of Robert, you start to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Martin is a master at planting tiny little details that you forget about in the midst of the overall plot, and then all of sudden making you realize that there was a purpose to it all along. Combine that with the fact that he does this with almost every detail in the series, and you begin to see why people rave about him.

This book also starts to setup the characters, and along with that the fact that Martin will kill any character he pleases at any given time. Take Daenerys’ storyline: Martin explores and builds the world of the Dothraki, giving pages and pages away to the development of Daenerys’ and Khal Drogo’s relationship, and the ends up just killing off the Khal and changing the course of the entire story line. This is tough to do as a writer. You tend to get really attached to the characters and the story, and changing it on a whim like that is sometimes heartbreaking.

Of course, everyone’s favorite dwarf also plays a big role in this book. Tyrion Lannister’s capture and trial by Catelyn Stark is was pushes the two houses to the brink of war, and thus is the impetus that leads into the next book. But Martin also cleverly uses Tyrion to show the vileness of his father Tywin and his sister Cersei. You can tell from the treatment of the characters which ones we are to consider the bad guys and which ones we’re supposed to root for. But as I said in the first review, no one is without serious flaws (even noble Ned Stark is foolish and naïve). Though I guess a few of them have no redeeming qualities (I’m looking at you, Cersei, Tywin, Joffrey, and Viserys).

Overall, I’d say it’s a good start to a great series. If you’re interested in reading this book, though, make sure you go into it understanding that the pace is sometimes slow because Martin is laying down the foundation for the rest of his novels. Give it time; let it grow on you. I’m sure you’ll end up liking it.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10