What I Read in February
February was an okay month in terms of my reading. I only had three bails towards the end of the month. Which is considerably better than last month’s bail total. Anyway, here is what I read in February (not including the bails).
I started the month with Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone. I love Gladstone’s world building. It is the purest cyberpunk fantasy I’ve ever read. And a proof that New Weird ain’t dead. But, I am torn on the plot. It is a good plot, but the twist requires that the protagonist be a complete moron. Which, unfortunately, makes him a pain to follow.
Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert is exhaustive and dry.
Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain by Jin Yong and translated by Olivia Mok needs two reviews. I love this novel so much. It is amazing. There are stories within stories. There is scheming and back stabbing. But the translation sucks. Oh my is it bad. Fox Volant needs a new English translation.
Following Fox Volant, I read China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Edward Lewis. I love this book. It is a wonderful history of the Tang Dynasty. It is especially strong in regards to urban life and international relations.
Next up came The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. I must admit that I am disappointed by this book. It could have been better if shorter. Like an essay.
The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson is another disappointment. The blog is better.
Again with the disappointing nonfiction: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup is interesting, but the writing is dull.
Ghost on the Throne by James Romm is (thankfully) a very good history of the Wars of the Successors. Needs more Ptolemy, though.
Towards the end of the month, I realized I was missing a Miss Marple novel. So, I read The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I really enjoyed this novel. The plotting and characters are very well done. But I do feel that one of the red herring characters could be more developed into the story.
I ended the month with a history and a politics book (baring the three science fiction and fantasy bails).
SPQR by Mary Beard is exhaustive and exhausting.
How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is the best book I read in February. An amazing exploration of the break down American democracy from the 1980s through the election of Donald Trump explicated through the lessons of the crumbling of democracy around the world.
That is it for February. May March be better!
A Book Haul Over Several Months
Since December, I’ve accrued quite a few books.
For Christmas, I got from Barnes and Noble:
Pastel Pointers by Richard McKinley
The Art of Pastel Painting by Alan Flattmann
The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans
Keeping with writing guides, from Alibris and Amazon I got:
The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson
Wonder Book by Jeff VanderMeer
Crafting Novels and Short Stories from the Editors of Writer’s Digest
Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland
The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester
Moving on to fiction, I got:
Five Classic Murder Mysteries by Agatha Christie (Including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Secret Adversary, The Boomerang Clue, The Moving Finger, and Death Comes as the End)
Heroic Fantasy edited by Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt
The Best of Leigh Brackett by Leigh Brackett
The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
Mage’s Blood by David Hair
Finally, fiction from Amazon:
Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham (including A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter)
Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk
Now, I’m in need of a new bookshelf.
What I Read in January
I started the year’s reading on a rough note. I bailed on thirteen books. I am pissed off by that. I hate bailing on books. But I don’t have time to continue on with books that don’t interest me. That said, I did enjoy several of the books I read this month.
I won’t list the bails. So, I will only write up the books I completed.
Star Trek: Treknology by Ethan Siegel is okay in a workman like fashion. The science is interesting. But Michio Kaku’s Science of the Impossible is far better.
Someone by Alice McDermott is good. But I found it rather dull as the story goes on.
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie is delightful even on reread. A much needed reprieve from my reading slump.
Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook is a very useful source for learning to editing one’s own writing. But, the book is dated.
Alexander the Great and His Empire by Pierre Briant is amazing. I absolutely loved this book. Probably my second favorite book this month.
Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy by Lauro Marines is exhaustive and exhausting.
Texas Blood by Roger D. Hodges is an idiosyncratic exploration of Texas through one family’s generations long experience in the state. It mixes family and personal memoir, history, reportage, and literary criticism. The problem is that Hodges fails to capture what it means to be Texan (largely because that is an impossible task). Indeed, the book lacks focus. I will say the critical analysis of Cormac McCarthy is engaging, though.
The Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp is my favorite book of the month. It is an awesome exploration of Southern dominated American foreign policy in the years before the Civil War.
The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham is exhaustive and exhausting.
The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans is a wonderful guide to writing science fiction and fantasy. I especially like his question heavy strategy.
Pastel Pointers by Richard McKinley is a really good intermediate book on pastels. Of especially interest will be the chapters on plein air and the business of pastels (which, let’s face it, is never usefully explored in any of these books).
So, that is all the books I finished in January. Hopefully, I will have a better month in February.
The Best Novels Read by Me in 2017
2017 is winding down. Good riddance. This year was horrible.
But I did read some great novels this year. Here are the top ten novels I read in 2017.
10) River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. A thrilling adventure set in an alternate America where hippos have replaced cows as the primary source of meat and horses as a means of transportation. I really enjoyed this book. My lone complaints are that the world building needs fine tuning and the plot twists are rather obvious.
9) Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. A wonderful, original space opera set in a solar system riven by planet based conflict. I bailed on this book when I first read it a few years ago. But on a reread this year, I really enjoyed it even with its faults (Miller).
8) Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. Sword and rap adventure dealing with a caravan fighting against the monster stalking them. I love Wilson’s writing. The language is spectacular.
7) Charming Billy by Alice McDermott. This is a surprisingly engaging exploration of one man’s life. I am, honestly, surprised I love this novel.
6) The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle. This is a powerful novel of how two people relate to a troubled young man. I am, again, surprised how much I enjoyed this novel.
5) Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. This Is Space Opera! Damn I love this book. It is so good. The characters! The world building! The complexity!
4) The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Boddard. In a Paris shattered by magical war, a new fallen angel ignites a long simmering plan of vengeance. This novel is wonderful. I love it!
3) The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Boddard. In a Paris shattered by magical war, the Dragon Kingdom hidden in the Seine becomes the locus of House Hawthorn’s ambitions and fall. This novel is even better than the first! I love it!
2) Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. Saga, the legendary band, reunites to rescue a daughter trapped in a city besieged by a horde of monsters. This book is awesome! I love it!
1) Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. What happened to the documentary filmmaker Severin Unck? This question drives an exploration of an alternate solar system in which most of the planets are habitable. The writing is so good. So so good. The characters are amazing. The world building is amazing. I want to live in this universe. I love it so much.
So, that is my top ten list. Will 2018 be even better? I certainly hope so!
What I Read in December
I end 2017 on a positive note. The last book I read was amazing. Though I started the month off in the reading doldrums. Here is what I read in December.
I began the month with the disappointing Spineless by Juli Berwald. A book on jellyfish should focus on jellyfish. And a book on jellyfish should not be a closet memoir.
I enjoyed The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker. The latest planet science is fascinating. But there are some serious grammatical issues.
I needed some comics this month so I read volumes one through three of Teen Titans (the second New 52 run) and volumes one through three of New Avengers (by Al Ewing). Mediocre is a good description of all of them. As much as I like Bunker, the Teen Titans in the New 52 are shit. End of story. New Avengers is more enjoyable, though I’m not a fan of Ewing’s humor. And it needed more Wiccan and Hulkling.
After the disappointing comics binge, I bailed like a bat out of hell on The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear, Age of Assassins by RJ Baker, The Hearts Invisible Furies by John Boyne, and The Bostonions by Henry James. I may return to The Stone in the Skull and The Hearts Invisible Furies one day. But probably not the others.
I am torn on A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson. I like Wilson’s writing and imagination. But I do not understand what he is getting at in this story. I want to write a more in depth review of this novella along with the other Tor.com novellas I read in November.
I have already reviewed The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. It is like two posts down. Check it out. I do not know if I want to continue the series. I am still bitterly disappointed.
Finally, the last book of 2017 (and one of the best). The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Boddard is just amazing. I loved it from beginning to end. Expect a review at some point.
That is it for 2017. Should I continue this into 2018?
What I Read in November
Yikes! I am way behind on my November reading wrap up. Time to correct that.
I started the month with Becky Albertali’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. I wanted to like this novel, but I just did not enjoy it. Maybe I just should avoid YA for the time being?
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien came next. I bailed. I may go back to it and give it another go. The writing is good. But the story is too reminiscent of Amy Tan for my taste.
I also bailed on Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. I just didn’t care for it. But maybe I should give this one another go, too?
One book I may not give another look after bailing on it is Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. I did not care for this at all.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem showcases Joan Didion’s stylistic mastery. But the subjects are, at times, not terribly compelling.
I have been wanted to read The Moon’s Deep Circle by David Holly for a some time. Finally got around to it. The sex is hot if passionless. The writing is shit. The plot is beyond ridiculous. And the characterization is cardboard.
I reread Variety Photoplays and Stars in My Eyes by the poet Edward Field. I’m said to say that I have fallen out with Field’s poetry. Which is a shame, I used to really enjoy it. Hell, I wrote a thesis on it years ago.
People by Alan Bennett is a disappointment. It is a confused mess that tries and fails for meaning.
I really enjoyed The People are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore by Jared Yates Sexton. This book is an amazing exploration of the rage fueled 2016 Presidential Election.
At some point, I wanted to do a Good Murakami/ Bad Murakami or Murakami vs. Murakami challenge. Unfortunately, before did not check out any Haruki Murakami novels before I started on Ryu Murakami. I bailed on both In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies. I did not care for either book.
Another disappointment is Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. I grant you she is a fantastic writer. But her stories did not appeal to me. However, this is definitely a case of me wanting to revisit the collection at a later date.
As much as I enjoyed the Yates book, I cannot say the same for Jeremi Suri’s The Impossible Presidency. I bailed.
I initially enjoyed Logical Family by Armistead Maupin. It is a delightful memoir. But I may have been too generous.
The Relive Box and Other Stories by T.C. Boyle is in the same boat as Her Body and Other Parties. I did not care for it initially. But I do want to revisit at a later date.
I rounded the month off with three Tor.com novellas: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, Black Tides of Heaven , and Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang. I won’t say too much about these three because I want to write proper reviews. Which I have yet to get around to. I really liked River of Teeth, I thought Black Tides of Heaven could do with some editing, and I liked Red Threads of Fortune well enough.
I finished November with Release by Patrick Ness. The book would be a hundred times better without the ghost plot that had, as far as I could tell, no relation to the more realistic narrative. In the end, I thought the book okay. But I probably should avoid YA in the coming year.
That is what I read in November. Expect December’s wrap up and my favorites list in a few hours.
The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun: Review (At Last)
The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun is the first novel in a probable trilogy called The Wrath and the Athenaeum. Erik Allen, a former child star, comes into his divine super powered inheritance and finds himself a soldier in a war to save Earth. Lil, an apprentice librarian, similarly finds herself thrust into the effort to save her world of Zebub. The threat to both worlds is the same. Can the heroes and their allies save both worlds? Or will the incompetence of those in power lead to doom for all?
I really want to like The Root. The novel has a lot going for it. But the novel also has serious flaws that frustrate me to no end. So, in the end, I am disappointed.
The Root is an epic fantasy with a split narrative featuring two different genres. The narrative starring Erik is urban fantasy, and the narrative starring Lil is new weird.
The biggest selling point for the novel is Tilahun’s imagination. Zebub is an amazing construction deeply indebted to the New Weird. That world is deeply strange, monstrous, and awe inspiring. The imagination extends to the less “human” of the descendants of the gods called either Angelics or Antes depending on world. Many of the descriptions of those characters are amazing.
The Root is also noted for the diversity of its characters. Erik is a gay teen among several lgbtq characters, people of color outnumber white characters, and there are about equal representation along gender lines.
Erik’s character initially sold me on the novel. He is a compelling mix of guilt and rage. I love the chapters from his perspective.
Lil is more conventionally a fantasy protagonist but no less compelling than Erik.
Now, I have to get into the negatives.
I love Erik’s character. I want more chapters from his perspective. Hell, I want all the San Francisco chapters from his perspective. Pity, he has to share with practically every other character.
And that is the biggest problem with The Root. The narrative is hopelessly muddled by too many point of view characters that do not add anything to the narrative. I almost bailed on the book sixty or so pages in because of this. And I think that was the character’s only chapter.
The Root would be a stronger novel if Erik and Lil are the only point of view characters. But the epic genre tends to require multiple points of view even if they, in the end, add nothing to the overall story.
Another major problem is Tilahun’s tendency to exposition. Telling trumps showing. The most glaring example is Erik’s awakening his power. The reader is told what happened. Never shown. Even though a lot of authorial soap boxing would be enhanced if he described the event rather than relate it in conversation.
The plots are individually quite good. But the two strands do not cross. I expect they will though in book two.
In the end, I want to love The Root. But I just can’t. The excessive points of view and propensity to exposition wreck the pleasure of the reading. Maybe if I give the book a third go in the new year I will change my opinion. I hope so.
Captain America: Civil War (I Just Came for the Fights)
A series of terrible mistakes lead to the Avengers falling apart. Until Thanos shows up to wreck Earth next May.
As the title says, I love the fights featured in Captain America: Civil War. All of them are very good and excellently choreographed. My favorite fights are the chase in Vienna that sees Black Panther fighting Captain America and Bucky, the massive battle at the airport that features the Avengers tearing themselves apart, and the final fight between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky.
I didn’t care for the rest of the film.
The performances were okay, I guess. I really liked Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Elizabeth Olsen is also pretty good as Wanda Maximoff. I feel Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. phone in their performances. Downey’s performance improves dramatically when Stark breaks down in the final act, though. The rest of the cast is hampered by the fact that there are just too many characters who demand attention.
Daniel Bruhl’s performance as Zemo is understated and subtle. Perhaps too understated. But, with so many big egos to compete with, maybe a villain that doesn’t chew the scenery is necessary.
The writing is lacking. Part of the problem is the film is too busy. There is the Sokovia Accords plot, there are the Bucky plots, there are the simmering tensions among the Avengers plots, etc. Captain America: Civil War can’t help but be a mess.
What annoys me the most, and this may just be nitpicking to the extreme, is the lack of research in the world building.
Why is the U.S. Secretary of State (General Ross) also the Warden of the Raft (or, at least, why does he have such an active role outside of leading the U.S. negotiating team on the Accords)? Wouldn’t Everett Ross, Sharon Carter, or Tony Star fill that role better?
And don’t get me started on so many heroes holding idiot balls, a game of dodgeball could be played.
As much as I want to love Captain America: Civil War, I just can’t. I love the fights. I love the spectacle. I love some of the performances. But the story isn’t there.
Riverdale, Season 1
Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead, and the rest of the gang find themselves ensnared in the disappearance and murder of Jason Blossom when Archie comics meets teen soap opera in Riverdale.
I watched the first episode of Riverdale shortly after it premiered on the CW website (I don’t get CW on my local cable plan). I liked it, but didn’t keep up with it until the series became available on Netflix. I have finally finished the first season, and I feel in the mood to review.
I enjoyed the first season immensely.
The acting is good. Certainly better than other examples of the teen soap genre. K.J. Apa grows into the role of Archie throughout the season, but his performance is consistently good. Lili Reinhart captures the multifaceted Betty beautifully. Camila Mendes is amazing as Veronica. And Cole Sprouse captures the idealism and pessimism of Jughead wonderfully.
The story is compelling. The viewer is never quite sure who killed Jason Blossom until the end. The subplots and individual character arcs sprinkled throughout the season are all well written and interesting.
The look of Riverdale is quite stunning. The intentional anachronism creates a halcyon and wholesome veneer that belies the corruption endemic to the town. Thematically, well done!
But, as much as I enjoy the series so far, I do have some issues.
As much as I like the look of Riverdale, the fictional city, I am not sure the writers thought through the world building. Does Riverdale have its own police department, or does the county provide all law enforcement? Why is Riverdale High so nice looking whereas Southside High looks like it comes from the gritty 1990s? Surely some parents would sue! Okay, I get that, thematically, the differences between glittering Riverdale High and gritty Southside High have to be extreme, even if the two schools are in the same school district. But the contrast might be too extreme.
Another issue I have is with Kevin Keller. Casey Cott is in every episode. Why is it only in the second season that he is in the main cast? It makes one wonder. . . (Expect a variation of this criticism if I ever get to reviewing Iron Fist and The Defenders in the case of Madame Gao).
In the end, Riverdale is an engrossing and enjoyable teen soap opera that takes the idealism of Archie and turns it on its head to interrogate the wholesome illusion.
What I Read in October
October was a busy reading month. It was also a month in which I bailed on a lot of books. Without more preamble, here is what I read in October.
Let me begin with The Malice, the sequel to The Vagrant by Peter Newman. I suspect I am being too harsh on both books. So, I am going to revisit the entire Vagrant trilogy in the new year. Maybe I will enjoy the novels more on a second look.
Anyway, I started the month with Everyday Life of the Etruscans by Ellen Macnamara. I found the book useful, but incredibly difficult.
I then read Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock. A good one volume biography of Mary I. But, I don’t think the goal of rehabilitating Mary I’s reputation is quite achieved. More attention, I think, should have been paid to Mary’s accomplishments as queen.
I moved from Tudor England to Ancient Egypt with my next book. Joann Fletcher’s The Story of Egypt is amazing. It is a positively refreshing new history of Ancient Egypt. One of my favorite books of the month.
Next, I fell under the sway of the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, China Mieville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is terrible. Mieville is a terrific writer, one of my favorites, but his politics can blind him at times. This book is more polemic than history.
Fleeing Russia’s revolution, I headed back to the ancient world with Kingship and the Gods by Henri Frankfurt. The ideas are interesting. But the book, on the whole, is outdated.
I next read White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. I found the book a very interesting and well researched history of America’s white underclass. Maybe too exhaustive, though.
Next I read a new take on Greek Myths in The Universe, Gods, and Man by Jean-Pierre Vernant. I didn’t particularly care for this book. Too repetitive and overly selective.
Keeping with mythology, I read Gods in the Desert: Religions of the Ancient Near East by Glenn Stanfield Holland. I enjoyed it. A very useful resource, I think.
Moving to the history of the region, I read Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History by Trevor Bryce. I love this book. It is engaging if too brief. My one problem with the text is that Bryce loses interest as he approaches 200 CE.
Going back to Greek Myths, I read When the Gods Were Born by Carolina Lopez-Ruiz. I was disappointed. Too specialized, too academic, too disjointed. Ultimately not the book I was hoping for.
Leaving the ancient world behind, I return to the twentieth century with Hitler’s Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang by Jillian Becker. Not a terribly good book, I must say.
Next up, I tried Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. I didn’t like the writing or the direction the story was going. So I bailed.
I next picked up the eagerly awaited The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. I am not happy with my first reading. The narrative structure bugged me. I didn’t care for the world building. The story needed work. But, I grant I may be too harsh and need to give The Tiger’s Daughter another look in the new year.
The disappointment continues with Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Again, I did not care for the writing. So I bailed.
The only novel I enjoyed reading this month was Charming Billy by Alice McDermott. I don’t know why, but I loved this charming novel of an Irish American family in New York.
The bailing, unfortunately, begins again with The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute and A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume. I really did not like either book. Especially The Beans.
Abandoning fiction for a bit, I read The Militant South by John Hope Franklin. I enjoyed the book immensely. An important look at the intellectual conditions in the South that led to the Civil War.
I followed The Militant South with The Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse by John Nichols. A great field guide to Trump’s minions. But does not have the depth I had hoped for.
I ended the month bailing on more fiction. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall is a cold, characterless novel that produces zero sympathy for the characters save a troubled boy who lacks the love and attention he desperately needs; Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg did not engage me at all; and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell failed to gain my interest namely due to the very wooden writing style.
And so, October ends on a sour note. I read a lot. But didn’t like much of what I read. Maybe November will be better.