Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Year-end Wrap-up

I honestly had thought that I was unlikely to ever read 50 books a year again.  I almost abandoned the blog completely as most of my other friends and compadres did in the 50 books challenge.  I have always been one to record things, though, and kept it going just to at least have a list of which books I read when. Thank goodness, because a new, unexpected energy seized me this summer and I found the time, discipline, energy and interest to get back into reading again.  It's been really great and I hope to keep it going.

I started the blog and challenge in 2005, so 2017 is the 13th year.  I achieved 50 books 7 out of the 13 years, but also went way over in several years.  I am currently averaging 44.62 books a year.  I have a total deficit of 70 books to catch up to make an average of 50 books a year (assuming I also read the 50 each year which cleary has not been a given).   My far and away worst year was 2016, where I read only 18 books.  Interestingly, this resurgence year, I read 58 books which is the exact same amount I read in 2005, the first year!  A real rebirth!

And speaking of birth, I am pretty clear on the various factors that inhibit or support my reading habits.  The biggest one is the birth of my daughter in late 2012.  I really let go in 2013, after my parental leave (where I was reading a ton, thus the strong 2012 itself).  I am not exactly sure how her existence slowed down my reading, I think just a general attack on free time and sleeping.  The second factor is job responsibility.  I went from lowly but relaxed and available office manager to extremely busy and sometimes quite stressed head of IT and Administration for my org in 2012.  I was enthusiastic about this as well and spent more time developing my skills and reading non-fiction.  The third factor, and the real killer, is social media.  I spent so many hours hunched over my phone or laptop scrolling through twitter and Google+ where I could have been reading fulfilling genre fiction.  There were some positive elements in that world. The amazing resurgence of my basketball team, The Golden State Warriors, going from decades of mediocrity to the hated crushers of all your loser teams was an incredible journey and I experienced much of the community around that online.  Also, the tabletop RPG world over at Google+ is an incredibly creative and cool bunch and we went through a lot of drama there that presaged all the internet shit that broke out in the rest of the world. Still, there was a lot of time wasted there.  I see now, though, that it's not any of these three factors on their own, but rather that deadly cocktail of childcare, work stress and social media.  The first two fry your brain to such a point that all you can do once you get the kid to bed is sit there and zone out.

I have a better handle on my job now (specifically disassociating myself from the politics) and a new position in the new year that should be a lot more focused.  My daughter is 5 and that brings a whole slew of other issues but also she is more independent and I am starting to find more time to read and even exercise (!).  Again, the biggest lesson for me of 50 books is that you never can predict your performance, but things are looking up for next year.  My fundamental goal is to read 50 books in 2018.  My secondary goal is to try and get past that to whittle away at my deficit.  We shall see!

As far as what I actually read in 2017, it was a real hodge-podge, defined only by my burning need to churn through the dust-covered row of books in my on-deck shelf.  I did do this, to great satisfaction, which led in turn to me keeping that whole area much better organized because I have more space there now (reading consistently as my friend Dan points out tends to encourage other good habits in life).  I did get through some classics that had long been on my list including all the Thongor books but 1 (great fun once I got past the nerdiness), the T.H. White King Arthur stories, a final showdown between Lehane and Pelecanos (Pelecanos wins), a massive sci-fi classic (Cyteen, which was really good) and finally lots of enjoyable and easy to get through mysteries and thrillers.

Unfortunately, my gender balance swung strongly back towards the male in 2016.  There were several highlights (as they usually are with female authors in mystery and fantasy), including C.J. Cherryh (still looking for the first Chanur book of hers), another excellent Margaret Millar (and more to come), finally finding and appreciating but not really loving Eleanor Arneson.  I am very excited for 2018, because I finally found some Elizabeth Sanxay Holding books and will continue to work on my overall gender balance.

Looking back at the books I read this year, there are some truly exciting finds.  Crawlspace by Herbert Lieberman really stayed with me.  A Dangerous Energy by John Whitbourn was incredible, one of the best portrayals of magic use and a convincing and engaging story of someone turning evil.  He has several more books out there and is now on my list.  He also seems to have read my review and since I can't find his books used, I will look for them new.  That's a strong endorsement by cheapass me!  The Cut by George Pelecanos was just fun.  Finally, The Furies by Keith Roberts, which looked really cheesy by the cover (giant wasps destroy the world!) turned out to be an intense and well-thought out PA novel, definitely should be included in the must-reading for fans of that genre.

So all in all a good year, thanks to whatever magic got me back on track.  I wish all of you a wonderful and book-filled 2018.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

59. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I picked this up at the behest of my brother-in-law and nephew, who both quite enjoyed it.  Interestingly, there seems to have been some snooty critique of Ready Player One by some whom I follow on Google+ and generally trust.  So I was a bit torn, but the appeal of easy reading won me over.  I have to say that it is a thoroughly entertaining read and people who poo-poo it because it has a lot of obvious 80s references need to get over themselves.  This was just straight-up cartoony, post-apocalyptic nerd fantasy and quite a page-turner.

This whole 80s thing is quite odd to me.  It's kind of cool because it makes me feel sort of special at a time in my life when all the glory is behind one, but it is also really puzzling.  The 80s were a time of cultural desperation.  It's not really something I would ever want to go back to.  As a kid, you were constantly looking for something cool and interesting and even if you had the money, which you rarely did, you couldn't find anything cool anyways. There was like one cool record store within any reach and it was usually in a city far away.  There were gaming and comic book stores, but they were hard to get to.  You could find out stuff on cool college and public radio stations but it was almost impossible to be able to actually get your hands on it (thus we recorded the actual radio shows and traded cassette tapes of them).  This was one issue I had with Stranger Things, the kids had all the cool stuff.  It just so was not like that.  One kid had a cool movie poster and all the other kids would be super jealous of it.  In Stranger Things, the kids rooms each have a perfectly curate museum of 80s cultural artifacts.

I wonder if a lot of the appeal today is precisely because it was a time when the search for culture was as important as the culture itself.  Today, it's the opposite where you can get every music, book, movie or videogame within seconds.  Maybe today's youth have a nostalgia for that search.  It was cool, I made friends because of it and checked into neat scenes.  But you have to understand there was also a lot of sitting through shit and boredom, listening to the worst AOR pop metal crap every single day on the school bus or your classmates seeing your King Sunny Ade album and saying "is it funny?".  I walk into a restaurant today and they could be playing some really cool minimalist electronic music or some bangra dub or whatever.  That never happened in the 80s.  Today, D&D is like an industry way to become a screenwriter.  Back in the 80s, mothers were burning your books and protesting after school programs because of the devil.  Don't get too nostalgic, people.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

58. Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason

I am not sure why I put Eleanor Arnason on my book hunting list.  I thought it was more for her fantasy but so far I have only found her sci-fi books.  I am starting to suspect that she is not totally to my style.  Ring of Swords is the second book of hers that I have read.  The first, To the Resurrection Station, was also her first book and you can see in Ring of Swords that her skill as a writer and developer of themes is significantly more mature and evolved.  It's the story of Anna Perez, a biological researcher on a remote planet where humans also happen to be trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the alien Harwarth.  She gets accidently involved in the negotiations when she befriends the human traitor/translator, a naval officer who had been captured decades before in one of the earliest skirmishes with the aliens.

It's a quiet, thoughtful book. Ultimately, it is about two very different cultures trying to figure each other out.  The perspective is mainly from the Harwarth side, who are militarily more powerful and extremely rigid about gender roles.  It is a strictly homosexual society, where the males all go out and fight and have relationships with each other.  The women stay back on the home planet and tend to make the broader strategic decisions.  War for the Harwath follows strict rules that only men can be killed.  Their dillemma is that us humans don't follow those rules and they have to decide how to engage in a war with such an enemy.

It's quite interesting and thoughtful and very well-written.  This is a true science fiction book for people who like reading about complex social thought experiments and to look critically at our own social mores and gender constructs.  From that perspective, it was a worthwhile read.  For myself, it was just a bit too close to non-fiction and I had trouble really getting into it. I think I need to find out what is the one classic of Eleanor Arneson, read that and then put her on my backlist.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

57. An Air that Kills by Margaret Millar

Dark Carnival, to which I get to be in proximity during the holiday season, is under threat of closing down, though thankfully still remains open as of this writing. They have books by several hard-to-find authors that I hadn't purchased for several reasons.  I think that I can no longer afford that luxury and accordingly picked up a two-book volume of Margaret Millar's.  It's really not in a format that I like and the layout and typography is frankly quite bad.  I feel terrible saying that, because I really appreciate Stark House and the quality of the others they get out, but they really need to hire somebody to do their design.  This book was hard to read at first because of the typography.

Fortunately, we're dealing with Margaret Millar here, where "hard to read" is about as far away as you can get.  I really can't get into a deep review here, because the pleasure is in the reading and anything I share with you in this meagre "review" will only weaken that pleasure when you finally make the right choice and dedicate your life to finding all of her books and reading them.  I will say that my primary enjoyment of Millar is her depiction of the characters and their myriad flaws.  She is as unsparing and exposing as Highsmith, yet somehow always maintains a slight tinge of empathy.  People are weak and confused and damaging yet you always get a little hint of why with Millar.  What this book in particular reminded me of, though, is that Millar is also a master crafter of the mystery form.  I can say no more than that.

This story takes place in Toronto and cottage country in Ontario in the 50s.  A successful and disconnected husband is leaving his wife and children for a fishing weekend with his buddies in their lake cottage.  He never gets there.  Why not and did his stopping over and having a drink with the wife of one of the buddies mean something more than just a missed connection?  The plot thickens, friendships and social mores of uptight 50s Toronto are tested.  Great stuff.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

56. Persuader by Lee Child

Nothing like a Jack Reacher novel for when you need to warm up your genre fiction reading gears after going cold turkey from a deep videogame addiction.  This one has been on my on-deck shelf all year and been brought on I believe every trip I went on and yet never actually read until it was the easiest thing left as I struggled to pull myself out of an Assassin's Creed: Origins tailspin.

This one starts off with a bang.  Reacher interrupts an attempted kidnapping of an undergrad at a small private college somewhere in New England.  He drives the kid to his parents isolated and super-protected home on a walled and gated rocky peninsula on the Maine coast.   We learn early on that the kidnapping attempt was a giant set-up to get Reacher into the family so he can save a discovered undercover agent and get to an old nemesis he thought was long dead.

It's a great premise and stays nicely focused.  Reacher has to stay with the family and so we get some nice unity of place.  He gets up to some extreme badassedness in the Reacher style (like simply killing the dude who cottons on to him by breaking his neck in the trailer office while the rest of the baddies are waiting for them outside).  There is some real nasty stuff as well and the lower-level baddies are creatively horrible.  Unfortunately, the two main antagonists are without any character at all and remain ciphers which robs the ending of its impact.  Still all in all a really enjoyable read.  Has a nice Jack Reacher/Lee Child nerdy factoid that I particularly liked:  Villaneuva is spanish for Newton.  Think about it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

55. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I found it for 50 cents at a bazaar
probably the worst cover possible
When doing a 50-book challenge, you must never forget that past performance is no indication of future results.  No matter how much momentum you have going, no matter how many books you are cranking through in a month, no matter how good you are feeling about your long-term book reading prospects, there is always the potential for it all to come undone.

I was project myself into the mid-60s this year, given my excellent summer and fall of reading.  Ah, the arrogance!  A daycare father who works at Ubisoft kindly gave me the new Assassins Creed: Origins game.  I am not a big gamer, but will dive in every now and then.  The second to last Tomb Raider and Stardew Valley were two I really got into in the last couple of years and I was slowly working my way through Rime, an obscure and relaxing exploration puzzle game.  I was not ready to be blindsided by Assassin's Creed, as I thought my days of obsessing over videogames were long behind me.  Oh man, this game has sucked me in.  There is nothing particularly original about it overall.  You play a dude in ancient egypt who has to fulfill a bunch of quests or can just wander around the land, exploring, causing trouble, hunting and so on.  You upgrade your gear, increase your skills and see more territory.  It's just that it is all done so well and richly. The visuals are beautiful and sneaking up on a guard encampent and taking them out with silent arrows is deeply satisfying.  See even in this review of an all-time literary classic, I am indulging myself by talking about this friggin' game.  All this to say, my reading rate has plummeted dramatically at the end of the year.

So thank goodness for my Google+ Roleplaying book club.  I had a commitment to them and it forced me to keep on reading Kim (an activity which would have required zero force a month ago).  What a strange and fascinating book.  I didn't know what to expect except that I knew it was considered a classic work of fiction in the colonial period.  Kim is a young British boy raised on the streets of India, happy in his life.  He meets a wandering Lama from Tibet and decides to be his Chalesh, the boy who begs for the monk.  He is also on the side taking jobs from a horse trader who is an agent in the Great Game.  Much of the first half of the book is Kim and the Lama making their way across Northern India, seeing and interacting with the rich culture.  In the second half, there is a more specific spy mission that he goes on, although even that seems sort of subsumed under the business of his interaction with all the various characters and locations.

I found it hard to read at times, partly because the language has so many references to cultural things from Colonial India that I don't know.  Also because Kipling makes transitions very subtly.  He doesn't tell you when people leave conversations or move to a different location and you have to infer it from the dialogue.  There were also some really great moments, like the amazing description of the Grand Trunk Road and the hilarious insult exchanges between Kim and various locals.

I need to study the history of India more.