Best books of 2014

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

Okay, that title may be misleading, it should say “Some books that I read during 2014 and think that you should, too” as some of these books were not published in 2014 (Lady of Mazes was published in 2005, for example). Of course, if I were to actually put that as the title, the Headline Writer’s Guild would blacklist me (don’t laugh, they are scary, secret, and very powerful. haven’t heard of them? my point exactly). In any case, you’ve made it this far, so I should probably give you some actual content. This is a list of books that I read and enjoyed last year, and is not in any particular order.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Far and away my favorite book of last year, but also the one I am most hesitant to recommend. Watching the main character, Maia, trying to do the right thing without letting his new position destroy his values was amazing. I loved everything else about this book, too: the setting, the plot, and the language. The last one is kind of the issue, however. The book is full of jargon, and it was annoying to have to refer to the glossary in back constantly. But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to have me experience the same thing that Maia was going through; just as Maia was overwhelmed by his new position I was being overwhelmed by the jargon. When I stopped worrying about knowing exactly what people were talking about and just allowed myself to experience the slight confusion as I read, the book really came together for me. Which is precisely the reason that I have such a hard time recommending it, as I can see it being too literary-minded for many fantasy readers and to fantasy-minded for many literary readers (which isn’t to say that fantasy readers can’t handle heavy literature or vice versa, but rather that they have different preferences). In any case, best book of the year, go read it (but make sure you read at least two chapters, the first chapter has a different tone than the rest of the book, and doesn’t give a good sense of what you’re getting into).

Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine a Science Fiction dystopia that reads a bit like Lord of the Flies if all of the characters started off as sociopaths. Red Rising (so far, it is only the first installment in a trilogy) is everything that I wanted The Hunger Games to be. It is dark, but amazing. I loved it. The audiobook was fantastic, too, I could listen to that guy read the phone book. Also, some people seem to think that this is a Teen book, and yes, the main character is a teen, but the book is very adult in its sensibilities, expect to be horrified not just by the things that the characters do (though it really isn’t that graphic, the worst of it happens offscreen), but by the cold, rational way in which they go about it.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – I had made an attempt to read Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, a few years back but it didn’t take. I tried it again this year after hearing that I really needed to read it from a trusted friend (thanks Linda!). It was brilliant. Then I read Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second book. It has a lot of the same elements that made Gone-Away World so good, but in a tighter, more finely-crafted package (hence why I chose it over the debut). Imagine a British, leftist Neal Stephenson (Angelmaker has some parallels with Cryptonomicon, actually) with pop culture sensibilities writing about things like identity and free will. These books take some work, but they are pure fun and totally worth it (usually I don’t care much about ‘style’ and ‘voice’ but I would read a technical manual on the manufacturing of manhole covers if Harkaway were to write it). The audiobook of this was great, as well, the narrator reminded me in turn of Jason Statham and Bill Nighy (favorite line: “I can sue anything.”). I would not be surprised in the least to see Tigerman on next year’s list.

The Martian by Andy Weir – While not my favorite book of the year, this was definitely my most recommended book of the year. At this point, something like half of my coworkers have read it due at least in part to my proselytizing. If you like Science Fiction, read it. If you like adventure (particularly man vs. nature), read it. If you like space, read it. If you like gallows humor, read it. If you like entertainment, read it. If you like science, read it. If you are not completely dead inside, you should read this book (and if you are dead inside, read it anyway, it might help, who knows). Instead of summarizing the plot, I’ll just go ahead and suggest that you click on the link and read the description on Goodreads.

Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf – History books usually aren’t my thing. I’m not reading them to build the foundation a master’s thesis, I’m reading so that I can get some sense of the general patterns of the world. Rome: An Empire’s Story is exactly what I want in a history book. It takes a close look at a handful of periods of Roman history that exemplify what was happening in the empire. It was entertaining and informative, and it never outstayed its welcome, thanks in part to its brevity. If you are reading for more serious reasons, however, I would still recommend this book. It covers a lot of things, and has a truly massive reading list included, making it a great place to start for the more academic minded.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder – Karl Schroeder has long been one of my favorite short story authors, but his novels hadn’t grabbed me the same way (the Virga series was good, but not great, in my opinion), until this year. Lockstep is his shot at reinventing space opera, a genre which I usually don’t go in for, and it was amazing. The central idea is that of a culture that gets around resource scarcity and lack of Faster Than Light travel by hibernating in lockstep. Everyone goes int cryostasis for thirty years, then wakes up for one month, then goes back into stasis. This allows them to live in marginal environments by having machines stockpile resources while they hibernate. As a side benefit, if someone travels to another planet several light years away, they would spend the entire transit asleep, meaning that it would just be like waking up the next day on a new planet. This book is everything that epic science fiction ought to be: mind-bending and hope-giving. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible cover. Look at it: two generic people in some sort of . . . environment (perhaps it is the future, perhaps it is a Japanese luxury hotel, who can say?). Yay? It would be a perfectly fine cover for a thriller or a novel without cool visuals . . . but Lockstep has Denners. What are denners, you ask? Picture a cross between a cat and an otter, with embedded net access. Adorable and really freaking cool. So why the hell aren’t they on the cover? In any case, read the book, it is excellent.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder – I tried to keep this list down to one book per author (see entry for Angelmaker, above), but Lockstep and Lady of Mazes are very different, and each is very cool in its own way. Whereas Lockstep reinvents space opera, Lady of Mazes takes a shot at the singularity. It is set in the far, far future (complete with implanted computing and ringworlds), but is really about (for me, at least) social media and the incursion of the virtual into the real (see Google, Facebook, etc), and the ways it will affect us. Whereas reading one of Schroeder’s short stories is like having a firecracker set off in your mind, this is like having a whole damn string of the things, but you are having such a good time with the pretty lights and loud noises that you hardly notice that your worldview is being tampered with. This is a big, sprawling adventure like Lockstep, but where Lockstep was largely about family, this is largely about society. Also, they didn’t botch the cover.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes – A juvenile book, really? Well, yes. A sequel? Yeah, that too, so this also, perforce, an endorsement of the first book (Darkbeast). This book may be aimed at younger readers, but it is more emotionally mature than 90% of what I read (and to be clear, emotionally mature does not mean sex and violence). The book manages this by talking to its audience, not at them. The reader gets to watch as Keara makes mistakes, deals with them, then grows up a little. Aside from that, the world is fascinating: every child gets magically bonded with an animal (their Darkbeast) and is taught to give their animal all of their undesirable traits and impulses. The catch is that, when they turn twelve, they have to kill said Darkbeast. In the first book, Keara refused to do so, and this book is the continuation of her struggle to survive the continuation of that decision. As far as I can tell, the publisher only contacted Keyes for two books in this series, and although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, I really, really hope that more get written.

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Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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News and Weekly Reading 4.13.12

April 13th, 2012  |  Published in Reading

First of all, a bit about what has been going on with me. I’ve finished the rough draft and first pass revision of the next Broken Shores story, so that should be posted by the end of the month, if all goes well. I’ve also started the next Horizon story, and hope to have that done by the end of the month as well. In addition, I have been doing a bit of work on the ShoStoWriMo site, which I hope to have ready sometime next week.

Books

  • Ashes, by Ilsa J. Bick – A YA book that combines zombies and an EMP pulse that wipes out much of civilization. It was fun, but be warned, it feels like a prequel. It made me want to write a story where zombies come and do a lot of damage and then die off, leaving people to rebuild.
  • Feed, by M.T. Anderson – Another YA book, this one a look at a dystopian post-literate society. The first half was fun, and the second half was depressing, mostly because I didn’t feel that the main character was making any attempt to change things that he knew were broken. The audiobook production of this was phenominal.
  • Just My Type, by Simon Garfield – A book about fonts. More fun than it sounds, really. My only complaint was that it was a bit light on the history (for example, I would like to know a bit more about the history of serif and sans-serif fonts or why the letter J was eventually added to the alphabet).
  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell – I wasn’t really expecting to like this one, but I ended up loving it. I had expected it to be a critique of socialist ideas, but in the end I took the message to be: Once you stop struggling forward, you start to slip backward. In addition, this book is a prime example of why you shouldn’t read forewords or introductions, I don’t like being told what to think about something before I read it.

Articles

  • Welcome to the New Third World of Energy, the US – Depressing but relevant.
  • Why e-books cost so much – Interesting article that argues that the main cost in books isn’t paper, but rather marketing, editing, art, etc. and therefore e-books are being underpriced. There is probably some truth in this, but until I see evidence of publishers maketing (when was the last time you saw advertisement for something that wasn’t already a huge hit?) or editing (how often do you read a new book by a popular author and wonder why an editor didn’t request a rewrite?), I’ll remain skeptical.
  • The rise of e-reading – Pew just released a study indicating that people who read e-books read more (e-books and paper books) than people who read only paper books, which is heartening.

For next week, I am in the process of reading The Art of Memory, which is just as dense as it sounds, so I may not have much for you. Be warned.

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