China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…
Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.
Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.
Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.
Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.
Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)
Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.
Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters
I picked this up while I was browsing the mythology section for faerie books. I didn’t find any, but I did find this, a history of the Western conception of monsters and monstrosity. It was interesting, but alas, not as good as I would have liked. I found by the end of the book that I was having to fill in the details of examples he was using from my own knowledge — not that the stories were wrong, per se, just drastically incomplete. This makes me distrust the earlier bits of the book where he was discussing things I didn’t know much about already. At least I acquired a nice long reading list from it.
The Walking Dead volume 5, Robert A. Kirkman
I do not understand the appeal of this series. It’s full of situations that would be traumatizing on their own, but presented as they are, it’s just One Damn Thing After Another. Trauma, melodrama, melodrama, trauma, horror, trauma, melodrama. And I can’t stop reading it. (Book six on hold now!)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
A book about the dysfunctionality of the American criminal justice system, and how it (mostly based on the War On (Some) Drugs) functions as a social control system that keeps black (and brown) Americans in the position of second-class citizens. Overall I found it was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but having it all in one book, with all the connections drawn, was illuminating. Alexander says she hopes that this will open a dialogue about the problem, rather than being the definitive work on the subject, and I hope that it does, because I don’t see any way of fixing the problem without replacing all our legislators with pod people who believe in rehabilitation over punishment.
Ellis Peters, Monk’s Hood
More Cadfael! (I find Cadfael strangely soothing.) I did not have the redundancy problem with this book that I had with the last one, largely because the ending of Monk’s Hood the TV adaptation is completely different than the ending of Monk’s Hood the novel. For one thing, the novel has much more Welshness. (I should get my sister to read these, she studied abroad in Wales and has become very fond of the place.) Cadfael is also causing me to dig up more histories about twelfth century Britain – did you know about the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maude?
Borders of Infinity, Miles Errant, Memory, No Plot? No Problem!, The Leper of Saint Giles, Miles in Love
At last, the final list of books from 2010. And a happy new year to you all! May 2011 be an improvement in all ways.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Borders of Infinity
Three novellas in the Vorkosiverse, “Labyrinth,” “The Mountains of Mourning,” (both of which I read in their earlier omnibus volumes) and the titular “Borders of Infinity,” in which Miles really does start out with not so much as the clothes on his back and end up performing the most dramatic prison break in history. All with the frame story I always love, the “you’re running drastically over budget, what the hell” complaint. What, someone has to foot the bill for all these shenanigans.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant
MARK! Er, I may be very fond of the new character introduced in this set, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (with “Borders of Infinity” again). Basically, a crazy Komarran terrorist made a clone of Miles to use to assassinate his father. But remember, Miles is somewhat physically deformed due to a prenatal assassination attempt, so in order to make them interchangeable, Mark had to undergo a whole lot of fairly unnecessary surgery. While being lectured on all of Miles’s amazing achievements. Talk about sibling rivalry. Mirror Dance is basically the book in which Mark becomes a human being, and I love it deeply, as strange and traumatizing as it is. I may have read most of it at work simply because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for eight hours at a time. *shifty eyes*
Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
Now this is a work of staggering genius. I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious — or maybe I’m just more paranoid than Miles — but I adored the character development in this book. It’s Simon Illyan’s book, really; he’s been lurking in the background since the beginning of the series, but here he becomes a person. A fragile, failing person in a lot of pain. The general consensus online is that the most tragic line in the book is, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” And I might have to agree.
Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
And then in the middle of all this I read the NaNoWriMo book. Yes, in December. It was checked out of the library all through November. I actually came out of this liking the whole concept of NaNoWriMo much more than I did by the end of November, when I’d barely scratched 35,000 words and had completely lost the thread of my novel. The book is very big on finishing something by the end of the month, where I had just set my goal as having the word count. I think next time I’ll shoot for actually finishing the story in a month, even if that means having to write whole chapters in two-sentence paragraphs. (After all, the original point of NaNo is to become a Novelist, so you can go to swanky parties and impress people by talking about your manuscript.)
Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles
It took me forever to get through this Cadfael, what with all the Miles books I also had to get through. This is one of the ones, too, where I’d seen the adaptation, which was very true to the book, so there were no real surprises. I enjoyed it, even though it was a little boring what with knowing everything that was going to happen. More Cadfael on request from the library as we speak.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love
Komarr and A Civil Campaign. I actually liked Komarr much better, possibly because I really like Ekaterin and enjoyed spending all that time in her PoV. One of the things that actually got me to read this series was the commenters at Making Light talking about how awful and awkward the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign is to read, so I was expecting it to be horrible, but I found I actually enjoyed it. I usually don’t like embarrassment comedy, but I apparently have an exception for when the person being embarrassed really, really deserves it. And hey, at least Miles learns from his mistakes. Eventually.
Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sun Dancing
I was a little disappointed in this book — it was advertised as an imaginative retelling of the history of one of the white martyr monasteries in early medieval Ireland, with documentation to back up the retelling. Most of the documentation was pretty vague stuff about the history of the Celtic Church, though, rather than anything in support of the actual events he was talking about in the retelling section. Which was interesting, but not awesome. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think I’ll run out and read it again.
Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
After watching Derek Jacobi be awesome all over the TV series, I figured I ought to actually read the Cadfael series. I’d brought one of them home from the epic weeding project I did last spring, but it turned out to be not only very late in the series but actually a direct sequel to the first book, so I didn’t actually read it. severa lent me her copy of the first book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Pretty good medieval setting, excellent main characters, and a murder mystery that is supported almost entirely by characterization rather than by some kind of elaborate double-bluff. I am now plowing through as many of the rest as I can get my hands on.
Carrie Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
The sequel to the amazing Forest of Hands and Teeth, almost immediately after I bought this I read a review that said it was terrible, so I took forever to get around to reading it. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t as good as the first one. It covers roughly the same kind of territory — growing up, and becoming an actual person, in a post-zombie-apocalypse society — but with a very different main character and a very different part of that society. It was a little slow to get going, but it really picked up in the second third and I enjoyed it very much by the end.
Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
The latest Tiffany Aching book. I love Tiffany. Best witch ever. Yes, even better than Granny Weatherwax — especially for narration, because when she makes mistakes, she doesn’t always know they’re mistakes right off, the way Granny does. This was also great fun because pretty much everyone had a cameo: Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Nobby Nobbs, Magrat, Carrot, even Esk… I was just sad that Tiffany didn’t get to meet the Patrician. Now that would have been entertaining.