Whoa, end of the year. That came FAST.
2015 ends in about 12 hours, so I’m going to call my year in reading officially finished. I don’t think I’m going to be finishing anything else, particularly since I’ve just cracked open Django Wexler’s The Price of Valor. This year I read 99 books — definitely a solid year in reading. If you’re curious, you can check out my previous literary high-points in First Quarter, Second Quarter, and Third Quarter. And I might do a full reading round-up later in the week, depending on whether I think anyone might be interested or not.
Anyway, of the books that I read between October and December, six left a major impact on me. Here they are, in the order that I read them:
1. The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
Nan and Jinny St George have both wealth and beauty in generous supply. In the New York society of the 1870s, however, only those with old money can achieve the status of the elite, and it is here that the sisters seem doomed to failure.
Nan’s new governess, Laura Testvalley, herself an outsider, takes pity on their plight and launches them instead on the unsuspecting British aristocracy. Lords, dukes, marquesses and MPs, it seems, not only appreciate beauty, but also the money that New York’s nouveaux riches can supply.
A love story of love and marriage among the old and new moneyed classes, The Buccaneers is a delicately perceptive portrayal of a world on the brink of change.
For a long time, the only thing I’d read by Edith Wharton was Ethan Frome, which I read in high school. That…. did not leave me with the desire to read more Wharton. But over the last year, I taught a college short story class, and the anthology had several Wharton stories – the delicious comedy of manners ones. This was a different side to Wharton – though, in fairness, I’m pretty sure that a lot of that style of writing might also have gone over my head as a sixteen-year-old. However, I’m really not interested in re-reading Ethan Frome to find out – that book was motherfucking depressing. I can say, however, that I absolutely adored The Buccaneers, and would highly recommend it to others. Others being, obviously, everyone who reads this blog. So consider yourself recommended!
2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges.
Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling. Once again Grossman proves that he is the cutting edge of literary fantasy.
I think it’s honestly hard to beat Grossman for prose quality. For me, he’s right up there with Gaiman and Morgenstern (Erin, not the made-up Princess Bride author) for sheer beauty of language. I love his sentences, his wryness, his delicious embrace and commentary on the absurd, the cliché, and the beautiful. It’s entirely possible that I could read just about anything by Grossman and be very well pleased. The Magician King had the same issue as the first book – namely, there’s a point where as a reader I think to myself, “This is all quite lovely, and I’m having a nice time, but is there going to be a plot at any point?” – and, full credit to Grossman, the plot does emerge soon after. But the writing itself is so fantastic that I still enthusiastically gave it five stars when it came time to rank it. I also really enjoy the way that Grossman cuts the fairy-tale sweetness and safety with some extremely nasty and scarring elements – kudos, and I’m looking forward to picking up the third.
3. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
I have a great respect for Kameron Hurley as an essayist (plus, I follow her on Twitter – so, yeah, there’s that), but I hadn’t read any of her epic fantasy, though I think I would have had to be dead to have missed the buzz. This was my first – and all I’d heard was “gender-bending” – listen, who in their right mind views THAT as the takeaway here? I see multiple intricate societies with very different social and power structures, carnivorous fucking plants, PEOPLE RIDING BEARS, and the incredible mind-fuck of the mirror universe except without distinguishing beards. The fact that one society has three genders, another has five, and another one just seems to have two (but also what appeared to be a giant praying mantis as an Empress – at least I think that’s what it was) is so far down the list of interesting things that it wouldn’t even make my final cut. Anyway, I liked this a lot – but while I sort-of enjoyed it for the first half, the second half is when shit got real. Very interesting, very mind-fucking, an interesting mix of grim and hopeful, definitely not like anything I’d ever read before.
4. Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
The people of Fall River, Massachusetts, fear me. Perhaps rightfully so. I remain a suspect in the brutal deaths of my father and his second wife despite the verdict of innocence at my trial. With our inheritance, my sister, Emma, and I have taken up residence in Maplecroft, a mansion near the sea and far from gossip and scrutiny.
But it is not far enough from the affliction that possessed my parents. Their characters, their very souls, were consumed from within by something that left malevolent entities in their place. It originates from the ocean’s depths, plaguing the populace with tides of nightmares and madness.
This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.
Dear lord, was this Lovecraftian. In fact, I think Cherie Priest just out-Lovecrafted Lovecraft. I know we just (finally) retired the Lovecraft statue, but maybe we could’ve found a compromise and created a bust of Cherie to hand out as an award.
I’m not really one for contagious madness as a story device (in fact, it skeeves me out good and proper), but this was incredibly done. Priest uses a lot of different characters to tell the story, and is incredibly good at depicting the slide into madness. Plus, a lot of good creepiness fact, and the historical fiction element. She’s got a lot of balls in the air here, but never drops a single one. Utterly impressive.
5. Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Jeanne Marie Laskas first met the young forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2009, while reporting a story for GQ that would go on to inspire the movie Concussion. Omalu told her about a day in September 2002, when, in a dingy morgue in downtown Pittsburgh, he picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he’d never intended. Omalu was new to America, chasing the dream, a deeply spiritual man escaping the wounds of civil war in Nigeria. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old named Mike Webster, aka “Iron Mike,” a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the greatest ever to play the game. After retiring in 1990, Webster had suffered a dizzyingly steep decline. Toward the end of his life, he was living out of his van, tasering himself to relieve his chronic pain, and fixing his rotting teeth with Super Glue. How did this happen?, Omalu asked himself. How did a young man like Mike Webster end up like this? The search for answers would change Omalu’s life forever and put him in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful corporations in America: the National Football League. What Omalu discovered in Webster’s brain—proof that Iron Mike’s mental deterioration was no accident but a disease caused by blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game—was the one truth the NFL wanted to ignore.
I picked this up at an airport kiosk and read it during my flight. Now, I picked it up for one simple reason – Jeanne Marie Laskas was one of my professors during grad school. See, my graduate MFA program had this whole idea about making sure that its graduates were at least somewhat well-rounded as artists – there were three tracks that you could study – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. We all had to take one course in a track other than our primary field of study – which meant that whenever you took one of the big overview courses (of which there were three, one for each) about 2/3rds of the people in that course were some very grumpy people who were having to study outside of their field of interest.
It was character building.
Now, since I am not even close to being a poet, and in fact have not studied poetry academically since high school (which, incidentally, did not stop me from acting like I knew what I was doing when I had to TEACH poetry in a basic college literature course two semesters ago – but, very importantly, that was about paying my mortgage, so I made it work. With, it must be said, some assistance from NPR.), so I took the non-fiction overview with Laskas. It was, I must say, fantastic. I gained a whole new appreciation for memoir, a deep and virulent hatred for the misleading narrative transgressions of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and overall had a lovely semester. I also always have an interest in Laskas’s work, as she is a really excellent writer. Concussion was born out of a GQ article that Laskas wrote on the same subject, and honestly the material is slightly thinner than you’d like to see for a full-length book project, but it’s a fast and extremely illuminating work.
6. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Rock star, crowdfunding pioneer, and TED speaker Amanda Palmer knows all about asking. Performing as a living statue in a wedding dress, she wordlessly asked thousands of passersby for their dollars. When she became a singer, songwriter, and musician, she was not afraid to ask her audience to support her as she surfed the crowd (and slept on their couches while touring). And when she left her record label to strike out on her own, she asked her fans to support her in making an album, leading to the world’s most successful music Kickstarter.
Even while Amanda is both celebrated and attacked for her fearlessness in asking for help, she finds that there are important things she cannot ask for-as a musician, as a friend, and as a wife. She learns that she isn’t alone in this, that so many people are afraid to ask for help, and it paralyzes their lives and relationships. In this groundbreaking book, she explores these barriers in her own life and in the lives of those around her, and discovers the emotional, philosophical, and practical aspects of THE ART OF ASKING.
Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet. THE ART OF ASKING will inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot – it functions well as a memoir, but also as an overall statement of belief and purpose in shared communities and in voluntary acts of support and gift-giving. It’s a lovely book to read around the holidays (I read this on Christmas), since so much of it is Palmer showing the massive extent to which she is willing to trust complete strangers, and also the large extent to which that trust is honored. And, for those interested in these sorts of things, the book also offers some extremely interesting and on-point insight into how Palmer was able to use Kickstarter to fund her album, in the most successful Kickstarter at the time (obviously, she has now been blown out of the water by the Oatmeal cat card-game). Hint: the answer isn’t something that would appear on any Market Yourself And Your Book In Ten Easy Steps! blog-post or self-published pamphlet.
Did you read any of these this year? If so, what do you think? Did you read others that were awesome? If so, throw them in the comments section! And most importantly — have a fantastic 2016!
So far this year I’ve read 26 books. Some of them were okay, a few were kind of shitty, and then there were the other ones — the ones I absolutely loved and think everyone should run out and read right the fuck now.
These are those books, in no particular order except the one I read them in.
1. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
The Forsyte Saga is John Galsworthy’s monumental chronicle of the lives of the moneyed Forsytes, a family whose values are constantly at war with its passions. The story of Soames Forsyte’s marriage to the beautiful and rebellious Irene, and its effects upon the whole Forsyte clan, The Forsyte Saga is a brilliant social satire of the acquisitive sensibilities of a comfort-bound class in its final glory. Galsworthy spares none of his characters, revealing their weaknesses and shortcomings as clearly as he does the tenacity and perseverance that define the strongest members of the Forsyte family.
A groundbreaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.
Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.
Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and reimagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.
The fascinating story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.
4. The Martian by Andy Weir
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, tho, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
5. Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
6. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
Sam leads a pretty normal life. He may not have the most exciting job in the world, but he’s doing all right—until a fast food prank brings him to the attention of Douglas, a creepy guy with an intense violent streak.
Turns out Douglas is a necromancer who raises the dead for cash and sees potential in Sam. Then Sam discovers he’s a necromancer too, but with strangely latent powers. And his worst nightmare wants to join forces . . . or else.
With only a week to figure things out, Sam needs all the help he can get. Luckily he lives in Seattle, which has nearly as many paranormal types as it does coffee places. But even with newfound friends, will Sam be able to save his skin?
7. White Fang by Jack London
In the desolate, frozen wilds of northwest Canada, White Fang, a part-dog, part-wolf cub soon finds himself the sole survivor of a litter of five. In his lonely world, he soon learned to follow the harsh law of the North—kill or be killed.
But nothing in his young life prepared him for the cruelty of the bully Beauty Smith, who buys White Fang from his Indian master and turns him into a vicious killer—a pit dog forced to fight for money.
Will White Fang ever know the kindness of a gentle master or will he die a fierce deadly killer?
A classic adventure novel detailing the savagery of life in the northern wilds. Its central character is a ferocious and magnificent creature, through whose experiences we feel the harsh rhythms and patterns of wilderness life among animals and men.
8. Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop
The Others freed the cassandra sangue to protect the blood prophets from exploitation, not realizing their actions would have dire consequences. Now the fragile seers are in greater danger than ever before—both from their own weaknesses and from those who seek to control their divinations for wicked purposes. In desperate need of answers, Simon Wolfgard, a shape-shifter leader among the Others, has no choice but to enlist blood prophet Meg Corbyn’s help, regardless of the risks she faces by aiding him.
Meg is still deep in the throes of her addiction to the euphoria she feels when she cuts and speaks prophecy. She knows each slice of her blade tempts death. But Others and humans alike need answers, and her visions may be Simon’s only hope of ending the conflict.
For the shadows of war are deepening across the Atlantik, and the prejudice of a fanatic faction is threatening to bring the battle right to Meg and Simon’s doorstep…
9. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
First published in 1899, The Awakening is widely regarded as one of the forerunners of feminist literature alongside Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
Over one long, languid summer Edna Pontellier, fettered by marriage and motherhood, gradually awakens to her individuality and sexuality and experiences love outside of her passionless marriage. But as she discovers emotional freedom, so she comes to realize the true extent of her psychological and social confinement, and its terrible consequences for her future. This tender, brilliant, seductive, and devastating novel is as beautifully written as it is politically engaging. The Awakening is as relevant today as when it was first published two centuries ago.
10. The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents . . .
Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.
Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.
The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.
11. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
In her New York Times bestselling and Morris Award-winning debut, Rachel Hartman introduces mathematical dragons in an alternative-medieval world to fantasy and science-fiction readers of all ages. Eragon-author Christopher Paolini calls them, “Some of the most interesting dragons I’ve read in fantasy.”
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
12. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians, the prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the #1 bestseller The Magician’s Land, is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren’t black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
In this stunning debut, author Scott Lynch delivers the wonderfully thrilling tale of an audacious criminal and his band of confidence tricksters. Set in a fantastic city pulsing with the lives of decadent nobles and daring thieves, here is a story of adventure, loyalty, and survival that is one part “Robin Hood”, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…
An orphan’s life is harsh — and often short — in the island city of Camorr, built on the ruins of a mysterious alien race. But born with a quick wit and a gift for thieving, Locke Lamora has dodged both death and slavery, only to fall into the hands of an eyeless priest known as Chains — a man who is neither blind nor a priest.
A con artist of extraordinary talent, Chains passes his skills on to his carefully selected “family” of orphans — a group known as the Gentlemen Bastards. Under his tutelage, Locke grows to lead the Bastards, delightedly pulling off one outrageous confidence game after another. Soon he is infamous as the Thorn of Camorr, and no wealthy noble is safe from his sting.
Passing themselves off as petty thieves, the brilliant Locke and his tightly knit band of light-fingered brothers have fooled even the criminal underworld’s most feared ruler, Capa Barsavi. But there is someone in the shadows more powerful — and more ambitious — than Locke has yet imagined.
Known as the Gray King, he is slowly killing Capa Barsavi’s most trusted men — and using Locke as a pawn in his plot to take control of Camorr’s underworld. With a bloody coup under way threatening to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the Gray King at his own brutal game — or die trying…
14. Undercity by Catherine Asaro
BOOK ONE IN A BRAND NEW SERIES by Nebula and Hugo Award Winner Catherine Asaro set in the world of her Skolian Empire universe. In the galaxy-spanning future, Major Bhaajan is a tough female P.I. who works the dangerous streets of Undercity.
Major Bhaajan, a former military officer with Imperial Space Command, is now a hard-bitten P.I. with a load of baggage to deal with, and clients with woes sometimes personal, sometimes galaxy-shattering, and sometimes both. Bhaajan must sift through the shadows of dark and dangerous Undercity—the enormous capital of a vast star empire—to find answers.