Consider this a tally of sorts, a (re)count of my days. Except I keep time, and count, slightly differently than most… I think. I note how many books I’ve read, or at least I did this past year. In 2013 I set myself the challenge of reading (and listening) to 60 books.
I might’ve been slightly mad when I decided I should do this. But who am I to argue when it was a ringing success? I managed 60 books in 2013 and here they are:
The year started off with a bang. I read five Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher: Proven Guilty (Dresden Files #8), White Night (Dresden Files #9), Small Favor (Dresden Files #10), Turn Coat (Dresden Files #11) and Changes (Dresden Files #12). I did this in January. More specifically, I read White Night – Changes all in the last week of January, which means that the plot of the last four novels sort of merged into one. But they are good, all of them, and Changes has one of the biggest oh shit! moments in a book that I’ve read, rivaling a certain wedding scene in a certain book. Jim Butcher is absolutely on top when it comes to plot construction. It’s frustrating really, to see how effortlessly he weaves elements of plot here and there. Also, Harry Dresden has to be one of the best heroes in modern fantasy.
With the year off like that I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s a good book and I can see what a nostalgia trip it is but I just didn’t get why people were as excited for it as they (the internet) made it out to be. Parts of it kinda felt like scenes out of book I read when I was ten. But like I said, I liked it, I just… felt left out of the excitement party I guess?
Next up was Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. Now before I go any further I must add that Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers, especially Wonderboys (which I also read this year) so I might gush a bit. But Gentlemen of the Road is a really great book! It’s a remarkably self assured book for one. It revolves around two traveling companions: Zelikman, a physician and Amram, an ex-soldier, and it takes place in and around the Caucasus Mountain in A.D. 950. It’s a classic story about two rogues who unwittingly (and sometimes unwillingly) get dragged into conflicts they’d rather just be left out of. The whole premise feels like it should reek of nostalgia (like Ready Player One) and suffer from it, but Michael Chabon makes the story feel fresh (which he also did with John Carter, the movie, but that’s a different story).
Around that time I started listening to Stephen Fry’s biography, Moab is my Washpot, and well, what’s there to say? He clears the checklist well enough: it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s witty, it’s not exactly revelatory but has enough mild surprises that it’s engaging and most of all it’s pure Stephen Fry. And really that’s the reason I listened to it (narrated by Stephen Fry) and the reason I enjoyed it.
Then it was Ian Rankin’s The Black Book, an Inspector Rebus novel and a damn good procedural. I have to admit though that parts of it were a bit confusing, but that might be me not used to listening to an audiobook and mixing up the names.
Then it was the second part of Stephen Fry’s biography, The Fry Chronicles. Which was really just more of the same. Which was good.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book that I’ve attempted to read a few times in the past and somehow never made it past the falling whale part. I know now, to my shame, that I should’ve known better. The book (read by Stephen Fry) is absolutely fantastic. I’m not sure if I just needed to wait to read/listen to it until 2013 so that I could get it, or if Stephen Fry’s reading made the book somehow click for me. At any rate I’m glad I finally got around to experience it.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite books. It’s up there with Wonderboys, The Hobbit and The Bone People. And as with those books I can’t quite put my finger on why I like it so much. Why it speaks to me as it does. There’s something about Ged’s journey through Earthsea’s lonely corners that utterly fascinates me. Le Guin’s simple sentence structure and evocative language is one of the best I’ve seen (probably only surpassed by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre) and Le Guin’s worldbuilding is really refreshing.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is hands down the scariest book I read all year. At a certain point during the book I had to stop reading it in bed just before going to sleep because I was convinced I would see the Quaker ghost, with his straight razor gleaming and staring at me as if I was Judas Coyne, the novel’s protagonist.
The God Delusion is a book that I’ve wanted to read for a long time (I even have a copy in Iceland somewhere). It’s good, and Dawkins’ arguments are well constructed, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit masturbatory. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I just tend to think that good people are good people regardless of creed and will do good things regardless of creed. Or maybe I just wasn’t enamored with Dawkins’ hawkish writing style. At any rate the book is good, and it’s an especially good argument for scientific thinking. But I’m unsure how good an argument it is to persuade the faithful to abandon their faith.
Then I went on a sort of a James Bond binge. I listened to the first nine Bond novels that Ian Fleming wrote: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia With Love, Doctor No, Goldfinger, For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball.
Listening to the books I realized that Bond only really works when he’s just a plain old spy fighting against other spies (and the like). As soon as you power up the megalomaniacal supervillain with his secret lair, posse, weird tech and near mythic animals (seriously, Bond fights a giant squid in Doctor No), he becomes boring. Casino Royale, Moonraker, From Russia With Love and For Your Eyes Only really work because they’re classic spy thrillers.
This is also totally ignoring the sexist and misanthropic nature of Bond as a character. The films don’t really show the true extent of his misanthropy but it’s clear as day in the books… and there are parts that are very unpleasant to read.
Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker, is a book that I was gifted by a friend a few years back with assurances that I would really like it. I tried it then and didn’t really like it, set it down but somehow kept the page-marker on the correct page. Then this year I tried again and I’ll be damned if I didn’t really like it. It’s creepy in a fun way, and it manages to subvert the invention of the printing press into something a lot more fantastical and strange.
I’m going to group George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into one heading, because frankly, I’m getting tired just thinking about writing something for each individual book. Suffice to say that I started listening to them in early July and only finished in late November. I listened to all the books in the series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons as well as the three Dunk and Egg novella’s: The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and the Mystery Knight. Each book packed a walloping 70 hours of listening material so I was prepared for it to take a long time, but not that long!
The books themselves are good though, the only major criticism I have of the series is the Mereneese Knot which I wrote about here. I also enjoyed the books more this time around. The reader, Roy Dotrice, is pretty damn good (even though the later books suffer a bit from accent misplacement for some characters and weird name pronunciations — Brienne and Catelyn most notably) and really helped set the mood. I also read a lot of forum posts and theories which helped me get the most out of the books (and they are dense!).
Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered was a book that I read in short bursts throughout the year, never really committing to it and I kinda wish I had committed to it. It’s eye opening for sure. A history/archeology book about the European “Dark Ages” and how that description is a gigantic misnomer. The author, Peter S. Wells, argues that the idea of a cultural vacuum in Europe after the Roman empire fell is completely dependent on biased historical sources: namely historians and scholars who were so influenced by Roman culture that they never even looked at the possibility of a self-sustaining Northern European culture thriving after the fall of Rome. Wells provides good, evidence supported, arguments that the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and the area that now covers the Czech Republic and Slovenia all had interconnected cultures that were independent of Roman influence (his biggest example is London which shows massive cultural influence from Northen Europe as well as Roman influence). Reading the book gave me a constant “huh! I did not know that” feeling, which I absolutely love.
Bossypants by Tina Fey was an impulse read. I’d heard good things about the book and I’m glad I read it. But at the same time I kept wondering, when I was reading it, if this was something I wanted to know. That is to say, did I really want, or need, to know how she grew up? Did it inform my enjoyment of her shows? I’m still not really sure to be honest.
For my birthday this year I got The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This was a book that I had been waiting to read for a while and I was not disappointed. At the same time however, I’m not entirely sure I know what to do with it. It struck me so quickly and silently that I still can’t process it properly, even if I know exactly which lines did the deed:
”I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than that. They just were. Adult stories never made sense, and they were slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
“Words save our lives, sometimes.”
And they do, and they confuse and somehow at the same time make you more sure of who you are even if you don’t know who that is, or at least can’t articulate it.
Shotgun Gravy by Chuck Wendig is a bombastic novella. It’s written in his usual, fast paced, profane laden style which I enjoy in small doses (I don’t think I could binge on his novels). Like his first book, Blackbirds, it features a smart ass girl who gets in way over her head and a fast paced plot that leaves you out of breath when the story is over. He seems to have a trick and he does it well.
Sinner by Mark Teppo is a novella set in the Foreworld… world, the setting for the Mongoliad books (which are fantastic and deserve more exposure). It’s a calmer story than the other Foreworld stuff I’ve read. Two knights of the Ordo Militum Vindics Intactae stumble onto a murder plot and a small village roused against a local woman who is accused of being a witch. It’s good, especially for people who’ve enjoyed other stories from the Foreworld.
Wonderboys by Michael Chabon is a bit of an odd book. It’s a story about a middle aged novelist and English professor who’s struggling to finish his latest book, a struggle that’s been going on for 7 years. Michael Chabon has been very clear that he wrote this book as a way to distance himself from a never ending book, Chabon is in essence Grady Tripp, Wonderboys’ protagonist. This book is also one of my all time favorites. From the way it doesn’t pull any punches with Grady’s flaws (and they are many), but also doesn’t demonize him. The whole part where Grady visits his soon-to-be ex in laws, a subplot so full of love and regret, of missed opportunities and wasted chances that I have a hard time reading it without putting the book down every page or so. There’s James, Grady’s student who sort of, accidentally, tags along and allows the reader to see why Grady is worth reading about. And then there’s the scene where Grady decides to finally man up, help his friend (and publisher) and right things he made wrong. It’s touching, heartbreaking but ultimately so very worth it.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem that I should’ve read a long, long time ago. I remember it part of my reading syllabus during my first semester as an undergraduate student at my Uni’s English department, and I distinctly remember trying to read it but giving up. I read it on my phone’s Kindle app while I waited in the emergency room for a cardiologist to come see me. I was concerned (though not yet afraid) and the poem calmed me down, and reminded me of the many stories I somehow missed during Uni because I didn’t want to study. I think I’ll try to read more of them this year. Heart of Darkness is on my list (though I’ve read it before and loved it), and I’m reading it now on my phone which is an experience very much like reading the Ancient Mariner, both surreal and calming.
The Invisibles #1 is a comic book like no other. I haven’t read it again since I finished it in November, which I probably should because I’m not sure I understood even half of it. It’s a mind bending book which challenges you to read it slowly, absorb it and just go with the flow. It’s the kind of book that reassures you that it’s ok not to get everything on the first go. That it will demand re-read and it will reward you for it. And it turns out I actually did learn something during my undergrad studies because I recognized Shelley and Byron at once. So much for small victories I suppose.
Then I read the first four Hellboy trades: Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin and Others and The Right Hand of Doom. The writing is clear and simple, and it’s supposed to be that way. At least for the first few trades Hellboy doesn’t tell a very complicated story. It’s very pulpy and it’s told very well, but it kinda leaves you no room to discuss it. At least not from a writerly standpoint. Also, the main story has already been told (or at least I saw it first) through the first Hellboy movie and did it better.
But that’s not what stands out when you read a Hellboy comic. What stands out is Mike Mignola’s art. Holy shit is it good! I would find myself just following the art in the panels sometimes, not caring about the speech bubbles. It fits perfectly for the story and it gives the whole affair a brooding quality, as if the forces of evil (vampires, werewolves, Baba Yaga, Golems, Medea, Nazis etc.) are just breathing down Hellboy’s neck the entire time.
The Anarchist in the Library was a book that I picked up at my Uni’s library on a whim that it might help with my graduate dissertation. It’s ok, though very dated (it was written in 2004). The author, Siva Vaidhyanathan, is trying to write a book that can balance, and encourage useful discussions, about copyright, peer-to-peer networking and torrenting. In the end though the book waffles on both ends of the argument while seemingly staying on the side of “anarchists” (that is to say, people who illegally download). The book is by no means bad but it’s neither good. Like it’s central argument, is just sort of waffles somewhere in between never getting to the point.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a book that I’ve had on audio CD for years now but never got around to listen to it. Again, why did I wait so long to read this book? There’s something about Neil Gaiman’s style that is so effortless and so assured that you can’t help but be swept along, irregardless of any flaws in the story that might crop up (not that I found any in Coraline, but American Gods has a few).
Coraline is also a brilliant heroine. She’s smart and resourceful but Gaiman doesn’t make her into another wise-ass kid character. She’s smart, but she’s also afraid and because she’s afraid we see her courageous.
I listened to World War Z in two parts because for some reason the production company decided to do two abridged versions of the book with each part standing as its own separate story of the Zombie War. The books are both narrated by a stellar cast that includes Nathan Fillion, Martin Scorsese, John Turturro, Simon Pegg, Henry Rollins, Mark Hamill, F. Murray Abraham, Frank Darabont and Alfred Molina. The book(s) range from downright terrifying (especially Alfred Molina’s part as an astronaut who spent most of the war locked in an orbiting space station watching helpless as the plague devoured Earth) to sad and finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
What’s else World War Z actually provides a fresh outlook on zombie stories. It’s not a survival “grind” story where the hero has to outlast the zombies in decreasingly shitty situations (I’m looking at you Walking Dead) that seems to dominate most zombie stories (maybe rightfully so since they are all based off the same mold George Romero cast). The book(s) is terrifying yes, but it’s hopeful. It starts after we’ve won the war and spends the rest of its time telling us what it was that made victory possible. In some cases that option wasn’t pretty, but overall the feeling you get from World War Z is hope. And I’ll be damned if that’s not something we need more often.
Speaking of hope, the next two books are All Star Superman vol. 1 and 2. by Grant Morrison. I have to admit it’s hard for me to explain the impact Morrison’s run on Superman had on me. But at the core of it, I think, is that he taught me that fiction can be engaging, tense and every other emotion that fiction plays with… and hopeful. That there is always room for hope in the party.
This was the second time I read the series all the way through (I’ve dipped in here and there to read choice passages) and I started picking out details that I hadn’t before (like how when Superman looks in the mirror he doesn’t see Superman but Clark Kent) and the whole Leo = Lex deal to Lex’s “This is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”.
When I read it for the first time it gave me hope when I had precious little left and when I read it again it showed me that it’s never wrong to hope, that if you endure and hope things will work out, somehow, for the better.
Salvation’s Reach by Dan Abnett seems like the reverse of that sentiment. It’s the thirteenth novel in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, a Warhammer 40K series, which follows the Tanith First, a regiment in the Imperial Guard. The universe it takes place in is very bleak. Humanity is on the brink of extinction and only the combined might of the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard stand between humanity and the countless hordes of daemons, orks, chaos beats and xenos.
And that’s basically what you get with these novels. It’s balls to the walls, ass-kicking action where you see the heroes (the Tanith First) outnumbered and outgunned against increasingly dangerous foes. After thirteen novels of this you would think that the series would either succumb to epic bloat (that is the increasing emphasis on bigger as better) or that the author, Dan Abnett would just run out of things to say. It’s a testament to Dan Abnett’s skill that it doesn’t. The writing is always engaging and he wisely keeps the character roster large (it is a regiment after all) so that the he can always shift the focus onto new character… or kill off old, and dearly beloved ones which he has done more than once (what? I’m not bitter).
Even after thirteen books I eager for a new Gaunt’s Ghosts story and that’s the highest praise I can give the book.
A Study in Emerald is a novella written by Neil Gaiman that by any and all measures is a fanfic mashup, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story set in a cthonic London where Queen Victoria is a tentacled monster, and the world’s nations are ruled by different cthonic monsters. It’s based on the classic (and first) Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. There’s not a lot I can discuss without spoiling a pretty central plot point (one that isn’t in the original A Study in Scarlet) but like most other stories by Neil Gaiman this one is well written and blends the two universes (and styles) in a way that makes believe that that’s how it always used to be.
The House on Pooh Corner is a book that I always meant to read to Emil. It was the first book I remember buying specifically for him when he was a newborn and I did read it to him, or at least parts of it. This time though I read it for myself and I loved all of it, well, except for Eeyore, he’s an irritating dickbag. The book is filled with innocence and willingness to accept everyone (even Eeyore the dickbag) for who they are which is a wonderful sentiment and often forgotten (re: Eeyore dickbag). The book, and by extension Winnie the Pooh remind us that it’s ok to act like children, to be scared and not know the answer to everything and that it’s ok to do nothing: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is another novella by Neil Gaiman, and one that I would use as a textbook except… I cant’ seem to find any intergalactic girls to hit on. This is Neil Gaiman in top form, writing in an area that he feels comfortable in and in a format that stops him from dragging on for too long. It’s a classic Neil Gaiman story in a sense: two guys wandering around our ordinary world when suddenly the fantastical starts to bleed into our world. The heroes think it’s cool to begin with (or don’t catch on to what is happening) before being scared away by the enormity of the fantastical world.
Youth is an odd novella by Joseph Conrad. It’s a story told by Marlow, the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Chance (though he’s not the narrator of Heart of Darkness), about his first voyage to the East as the second mate on a ship called Judea. It’s a fairly short and to the point story which still manages to punch you in the gut if you aren’t careful. It’s about wanting to be someone more than you are, and how you can fight desperately to achieve it and still fail. Like Conrad writes in the book:
“You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something – and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little – not a thing in the world – not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to it’s port of destination.”
Some might interpret the quote (and book) as pessimistic but I would disagree. It isn’t in the result that we should measure ourselves but in the effort that we put into our goals. It’s trying, and trying as hard and as well as you can that matters. Maybe I’m naive for thinking that way but that’s how I read the book. And indeed, Marlow isn’t a bitter man by the end of the book. On the contrary, he earned his first command and a good story to tell.
Mouse Guard by David Petersen is another book which I bought a long time ago and never got around to reading. The premise is interesting, mice from colonies away from the prying eyes of humans and larger animals. In order to get supplies and news from one colony to another the mice use the mouse guard and elite company of boarder patrol mice who ensure the safety of the colonies.
The story itself is fairly simple, the mouse guard realize that there is a plot, from within the rank of the mouse guard, to attack one of the strongholds and they have to rush from one of the frontier positions back home to try and prevent it. And while the story is simple it’s well told. The art however is gorgeous. Each mouse is unique and the use of color almost makes it seem like an old children’s book.
Fantastic Four 1 2 3 4 by Grant Morrison continues the theme of re-reads or forgotten books. In this case I had read it years ago and then forgotten I had it until this Christmas when I was rummaging around my old boxes I keep at my mom and dad’s house in Iceland. I didn’t remember anything of it except that I didn’t like the first time I read it. However I convinced myself that it might be just that I was unfamiliar with comics (and Grant Morrison) when I first read it.
Unfortunately I was right the first time. There’s just something so inherently unlikable about the Fantastic Four, for me, that I can’t connect with them. I don’t care at all about Ben Grimm’s anger over being stuck as the Thing, or Susan’s desperation as Richard Reid keeps himself shut in a thinking box (or something to that effect). Ultimately the book, and the Fantastic Four, fall short like a spit that sort of dribbles down your chin instead of arching through the air.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller is one of the defining Batman comic books out there. While the art is fantastic (how David Mazzucchelli drew Batman’s speech to the Falcone dinner party is breathtaking) it’s Frank Miller’s writing that really stands out here. There’s energy in the writing that propels the story forward and gives weight to it, allowing it to be more than just “Batman being awesome”. Jim Gordon is given an even share of the story and I have to admit that I found his arc much more fascinating than Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s. You get to understand that both Batman and Gordon are pretty alike, they are both driven to protect Gotham and willing to sacrifice a lot to achieve it.
Miller’s writing echoes Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest where you see the main character so totally driven that they hardly stop to look at the trail of destruction left behind. Batman or Jim Gordon could even be the Continental Op (the protagonist in Red Harvest) for all their similarities. The story benefits from this connection to the old pulp stories but at the same time Frank Miller has also dragged along the misogyny into the story in the form of Catwoman and Detective Sarah Essen. Both are only there for titillation and more worryingly Catwoman is for some bizarre reason prostitute – apparently women in Batman: Year One only have one function, to seduce (Sarah Essen’s role in the story is only to lead Jim Gordon away from the marriage path).
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman was the last Batman story before DC rebooted their universe. It tries, and succeeds, to show us how and why Batman can be so wildly different through the many comic book eras (gold, silver, bronze etc) and how he keeps surviving his many (comic book)deaths. It’s a good story and the illustrations by Adam Kubert are fantastic, somehow managing to evoke the different styles Batman has had without seeming like they’re straight copies of them.
The plot itself also has a few nice twists on how we perceive Batman such as Alfred’s confession and Batman’s love affair with the Catwoman. But in the end the book attempts to close a chapter on a Batman era while still giving Batman a way to come back. And Neil Gaiman succeeds, partly because he doesn’t avoid the comic book death trope but embraces it and turns it on its head.
I read this book and Batman: Year One back to back and it was perfect. The two books complement each other very nicely showing the reader a hopeful and driven Batman first and then the result of his hard work.
Losers: Part 1 and 2 by Andy Diggle is the best, fast paced crime caper story you can find in comic books. It’s funny and suspenseful, and manages to tread the line between thriller and comedy so well that I am very envious of Andy Diggle. It moves at a clipped pace (at least parts one and two do, which were included in the trade paperback I own) never forgets that it’s supposed to fun. Which is exactly why I like it, it’s pure and simple fun.
Doolally that was over 5000 words! This post was definitely an experiment for me. I wanted to see if I had anything to say about the books I read last year and more importantly I wanted to see what I had to say about the books I read last year and how they affected me. The year, I think, was very much about trying to reconnect with some part of me that I felt I had lost. Wonderboys, The Wizard of Earthsea and All Star Superman all represent for me a part of me that I set aside when I came to Denmark and reading them again helped mend that a bit. Likewise, reading all these books that I bought years ago and never got around to reading represents a similar attempt to reconnect with who I used to be.
Writing this helped me realize that my books helped me much more than I could’ve ever realized, or as Neil Gaiman put it: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
This was my (book) year. How was yours?