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New Year’s Eve and the Last Twelve Books

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Well, it’s New Year’s Eve again. One year ago tonight (not to the minute or anything–I think it was later in the evening), I was sitting in my kitchen in Concord, NH writing a blog post about the five best books I’d read in 2013 when I decided I should read 50 books in 2014 and blog about them all.

Guys. I really sucked at the blogging part of that.

It’s the first time I’ve ever really made a resolution. I mean, maybe when I was little, but never before had I made a serious this is something I’m going to do next year commitment on New Year’s Eve. And I put absolutely zero thought into whether it was a reasonable thing for me to do–I figured I probably read at least a book a week. Actually, it was probably more. I think I spent a lot of the past few years taking a weekend and binging on a YA trilogy and rereading series that I’ve read a few times already and just fly through. I wasn’t figuring that a book a week was accurate to what I was doing at the moment. I was figuring that a book a week would be a good goal. Because if I’m reading too much more than that, then I’m clearly not challenging myself at all. And honestly, the books that took me a whole lot longer than a week were the ones I got the most out of.

I keep writing more, but I really wasn’t intending for this to be a reflecting-on-the-project type of post. I’ll do one of those soon when I discuss my 2015 project.

So this year, I’m having my favorite kind of New Year’s Eve. Reading and writing and maybe a little Mario Kart and some Chinese food. And the first thing I’m going to do is finish up last year’s resolution and blog about the final twelve books.

I didn’t read 50 books this year. Officially, by my notebook, I read 52 books this year. You could be really picky and say that since 1Q84 was three volumes in the edition I had but more commonly only one it should only count as one, but then I would point out the number books that I did not record. I read most of What If by Randall Munroe, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, and about 500 billion picture books but it seemed ridiculous to count every single Elephant and Piggie in my end-of-the-year tally. Anyway, even if you’re being picky and refusing to count 1Q84 as more than one book, I still read 50 books this year. (And my boss, aka the owner of a bookshop, says it totally counts as three books since they’re individually bound, so nyah.)

Anyway! Here are the final twelve.

Book 39: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Here’s the thing about reading Murakami. When you finish, it’s so easy to put the book down and get lost in questions about specifics, such as: What the fuck just happened? But if you do that, you’ll miss the point of his books. The story—the plot, the actual things that happen in the book—those things aren’t the point when you read Murakami, I don’t think. Those things make the point. And there will be some point in your future, whether it be five minutes later or eight months later, that you suddenly completely forget whatever you’re doing at the moment and say: OH! Because you figured it out. You realized what the point was. And not only did you realize what the point was, but you realize that it’s so applicable to your life at this very moment, because his books don’t make stupid small points. (In fact, he doesn’t try to make points at all, which is probably why whatever I figure out in terms of the points always seems super relevant.) If you’ve read this book, or if you’ve read 1Q84, let me know because I would love to hear what you got out of them.

Book 40: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve got to read this book. It’s about a group of scientists, human scientists, living in a research lab base on a planet that’s entirely under water (or some other sort of liquid, not sure if it was actual water), studying on of the native species there. But there’s another alien species out there that makes laws about this sort of thing, and the rule is that they can’t interfere, they can’t even let the species they’re studying know that they’re there. And the species they’re studying, it turns out they’re sentient, they’re intelligent, they’re scientific. And the thing that is so cool about this book, that brought it from being a pretty good science fiction story to something amazing, was that you get to hear each point of view. Each species has one representative with POV chapters. So instead of the whole book being about humans looking at the other, we get to think about ourselves as the other and realize that our point of view isn’t the only one that matters. And it was just so cool. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

Book 41: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I really, really like Saladin Ahmed. I follow the guy on Twitter, and his tweets either crack me up or make me think hard about something or, on a not-irregular basis, both. His book, The Throne of the Crescent Moon, was really good. I enjoyed it. It’s a fantasy detective sort of novel—well, he’s really a ghul hunter and not a detective, but it follows the same general idea—set in a medieval made-up Middle Eastern city. I loved the idea from the first time I heard about it, because, well, does anyone else get a little sick of everything in science fiction and fantasy being so…western? So that was this book. It was kind of like if you took the Dresden Files, except instead of making it about a wizard detective in modern-day Chicago, you made it about a ghul hunter in medieval Dhamsawaat. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, with detailed lives and thoughts going on behind their ghul hunting ways. The world is built well around the characters, too—I really liked that, while magic was a fact of this world, it wasn’t there only for the convenience of our main characters or villains. It was built into life in the city. Now, you might be reading this thinking, Rachael, this sounds like the sort of thing you’d love but up there you wrote that you “really enjoyed it,” which, I mean, I read your blog and you love saying you love books! And you’re right. I do love saying I love books, and I would be lying if I said I loved this book. I really liked it, and I wanted to love it, but characters had a touch more religious fervor than I generally like in my fantasy. So, since I was comparing to The Dresden Files already, if you’re a fan, imagine: Michael is Dresden’s constant companion through the entire series, but rather than responding the way he does to Michael’s religious comments, Dresden also talks about God a whole lot, just in a slightly different way. Now, I get that it’s completely reasonable within the context of the story for the characters to be highly religious. I didn’t think it didn’t make sense. It’s just not really my thing. On that note, however, I am very much looking forward to the next in the series.

Book 43: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Before I start talking specifically about Raising Steam, I want to talk a little about Sir Terry Pratchett. He’s hard to talk about right now because talking about him makes me sad and angry. For those of you who don’t know, Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer’s. I’m not sad and angry because I want more Discworld books than he will be able to write. I mean, I do want more, I want them to keep going forever, but that’s not why I’m sad and angry. I’m sad and angry because, over the years, I’ve read so many of his books and they have given me so much that I absolutely hate knowing what he’s going through. It’s awful. Of course, he writes about it better than I ever will, and I urge you to read some of what he’s written—both about living with Alzheimer’s and choosing to die.

Anyway. Raising Steam. Guys, this book was amazing. My two favorite Pratchett characters are Sam Vimes and Moist von Lipwig. I bought this book knowing it was part of the Lipwig series, but having no idea that Vimes would play such a major role! (Uh, I mean. Spoilers. Not big spoilers, though. Shh.) This is the third Moist book. The first, Going Postal, was about con man Moist von Lipwig after he’s saved from his execution only to be sentenced to a career as Postmaster General in a city where the postal system is a complete joke. Not surprisingly, a former con man is perfectly suited to government work. In Raising Steam, Moist has been a pillar of the community for a number of years when someone invents a steam engine. Like everyone else, Moist is drawn to the shiny new technology, but Lord Vetinari gives him a task that seems impossible…but is it?!! When I read these, I feel just like someone in the book: An outsider, looking in, completely enthralled, wondering how Moist is going to pull this off, completely convinced that he’ll fail, because how could he succeed? And it’s wonderful. If you want to read this book, though, I highly recommend starting with Guards! Guards! and reading all the Vimes and Moist books (at least) before starting on this one; you really need the context of both stories.

Book 44: Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll

This book was so good I added a sixth star to my rating system. It was like Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, Roger Zelazny, and China Mieville all had a brain baby and this was it. I read it while on a family vacation to visit my grandfather in Florida and at some point my brother asked what it was about, and I was about two thirds of the way through at that point, and I just—well that’s a really good question, I have no idea yet. If you don’t like being slightly unsure of what’s going on when you’re reading, or if you don’t like subtlety in your endings, this book won’t be for you. For everyone else, I still can’t tell you what this is about because there is literally no way to do that without spoiling the ending, so let’s just say it’s about humanity. It’s about the absolute necessity of human passion and curiosity and creativity. The one downside is that it’s only 280 pages. Over way too fast. (Also, has anyone ever taken a book on an airplane and had it grow? Like, even the guy sitting next to me commented on it. It tried to expand. Sadly, it didn’t grow more pages.)

Book 46: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I kept having to turn back to the front of this book where the author’s picture is located because, every few pages, I’d become absolutely convinced that “Robin Sloan” is a pen name that John Green used to write an adult book. I absolutely loved it. (I’m still wondering if authors who use pen names sometimes use a fake picture to really pretend it’s not them.) You’ve got a narrator who’s kind of in a weird point in his life, and he’s got this weird crazy group of friends who all have one completely random and very specific thing, and he meets this crazy weird fun quirky brilliant woman, and then weird stuff happens and there’s a crazy adventure and you learn something important about life when you’re done reading it. It’s so much fun, and you won’t be able to put it down, and then when you finish it you won’t be able to shut up about it for a while. Oh, and this is important: There’s nothing in this book that would make it inappropriate for anyone for whom John Green’s books are appropriate.

Book 47: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

There’s a science fiction book club in my town, and this book was the first book I read for it that I was actually able to make it to the meeting for. (The first meeting after I joined was about Neuromancer, which I read recently enough, but since the meeting was at a member’s house and he was cooking, I wasn’t about to show up and say, hi, you’ve never met me before, give me your food, I hated this book that you love. The second was for A Darkling Sea, and it broke my heart to be stuck on an airplane on the way back from Florida when they had that meeting because I loved it.) Everyone in the club who finished the book liked it, but no one seemed to have loved it. However, it did have a fascinating idea behind it that a lot of space opera fails to consider or creates an explanation around. Traveling faster than light seems like it’d be completely impossible. So let’s say, in a few thousand years, we’re at a point where people are scattered all over the universe. Traveling from one planet to another could take hundreds or thousands of years. So, in the book, they’re not human, they’re kind of post-human androids that can basically go into sleep mode for most of that time. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, what does that mean economically? Like, let’s say I hire someone. I pay them a certain amount to come do a job for me, and it takes them 400 years to get here. I’m still here and they’re still there because we’re kind of robots with uploadable consciousness, but what about the money? Economic systems and values change quickly enough that by the time they can use the money, it’s worthless. So in Neptune’s Brood, Stross writes about that. What does that mean? What systems might be put in place to avoid that? How could those systems fail? So if you’re into science fiction and economics, this is the book for you. If you’re not so much into economics, you might struggle through it at points, but it’s still a good story and fascinating to think about.

Book 48: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I very nearly read this entire book in a weekend, but I didn’t quite finish it, and then the week started, and the week was crazy and weird and I barely had any spare time so it took me a while to finish after an initial whirlwind of addiction (and a whole lot of exasperation when I really just wanted to sit down and read but had too much other stuff to do). It takes place in the early 1900’s in China, beginning in a first class courtesan house owned by an American woman named Lulu Minturn. The story centers around her daughter, Violet, as she grows up an outsider and is forced to face circumstances beyond her (or her mother’s) control. Over time, she begins to understand some of the decisions her mother had needed to make. In classic Tan style, it’s a beautiful story of the love that families have for each other, and it manages to be that without being even remotely boring. I absolutely loved it and I’m already looking forward to Tan’s next book. (I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything Amy Tan has ever written. I don’t think that’s true for very many authors who have written more than a book or two. Amy Tan and good ol’ JK are the only ones I can think of at the moment.)

Book 49: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

SO GOOD. (I’m becoming incoherent, huh? I can’t wait to go to bed!) I’ve decided that I’m going to continue buying any book that looks remotely interesting and has a quote from a review by Neil Gaiman on the cover, because seriously, I am never disappointed. This book is about a young hacker in yet another made up Middle Eastern city. He writes a code that shouldn’t be possible, then comes into possession of a book that shouldn’t exist, and finds himself on the run in the company of his next door neighbor, an American student, and a possibly evil djinn. This book has something for everyone—some politics, some love, some magic, some technology, all with well-rounded, interesting character and some beautiful writing. I absolutely loved every second of this book. It was about the importance of ordinary people doing things to try to change the world, even if they don’t think what they’re doing will matter, because everything matters. Or, you never know what will matter. It was wonderful.

Book 50: Dawn by Octavia Butler

How have I never read Octavia Butler before? I’m so disappointed in myself. This book was absolutely wonderful. I felt like I was reading a perfect episode of Doctor Who (except, you know, without most of what makes it Doctor Who). It’s science fiction, but the science is alien and so far beyond any understanding that we have of science right now that it seems almost like magic as you’re reading. And it’s about humanity, again, and I really think that all the best science fiction and fantasy is at its core about being human. Lilith has somehow managed to survive a world-destroying war, along with a small number of other humans, all of whom have been taken by an alien race onto their ship. But the aliens are going to use the humans to change themselves, and in doing so, change the humans and the future of humankind. As soon as I finished this I went and got the rest of the series and I’m looking forward to reading a whole lot more Octavia Butler in the future.

Book 51: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

You know what I said earlier, about eventually saying OH! and understanding what Murakami’s book was about? I finished this two days ago. That hasn’t happened yet. I’m still in the “…what?” phase of having finished a Murakami book. This one in particular is strange. It’s got a jacket that goes the wrong way around it. The font is huge and it’s got pictures taking up about half the pages, and the whole thing reads a bit more like a piece of art than anything else. It’s appropriate for younger audiences, but I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s a kids book like at least one review I’ve read. It’s definitely not a full-length novel—I think it’s a novella, or possibly a novelette, though I’m not sure what the difference is. Anyway, I’m looking forward to having my moment of epiphany and reading it again when I do.

Book 52: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Have you ever read a book that took place in a town where you lived? This book was extremely weird, because it took place in Concord, NH, where I lived for three years until this July. And damn does this author get Concord. It was so much fun to read it and say, yes, I know that place, I’ve been there, oh that restaurant where the people were having lunch makes the best burgers ever, and if you said the streetlight at Warren Street works I know exactly which intersection you’re sitting at, and that weird science fiction movie series is exactly the sort of thing that movie theater would do. It’s a pre-apocalyptic detective story. A giant comet has been discovered heading directly to Earth, and impact will occur in about six months. People all over the place are committing suicide, but when Detective Palace comes across what looks like another hanger, sometimes seems off. Most people think he’s crazy for pursuing it as a case, given the end of the world, but he’s got sort of a Batman complex and is determined to do his job. It had just enough science fiction in it to intrigue me, but I’m really not sure which shelf this belongs on. I read it in approximately two days and can’t wait to start book two.

 

Okay, readers, that’s all for 2014! I’ll be back soon for some big reflections on this year’s reading and details about what I’m doing next year, but for now, it’s almost midnight and I have plans tomorrow, so I’ll be watching the clock (well, no, okay, I’ll be reading) for a little longer and then going to bed. (Sorry about the lack of pictures and links here. I might come back and edit them in later, but I’m really not committed to it. I’m tired and I might actually have the flu and it just doesn’t sound like that much fun.)

Does anyone have any book-related resolutions?