12 Months of Books: A Summation

BC Johnson – With the year ticking down to its final explosive finale (you know, with champagne) I thought I’d take a look back at the books I’ve read this year. And, with the aid of Amazon, Goodreads, and my Kindle, it actually makes it a little easier to figure out just how many books I read this year, and the order in which I read them. Looking back, this 2013 was kind of a slow year for me, book wise – I averaged about 1 book permonth. Consider my New Years resolution to read at least twice that amount next year. Books!

January: Dance with Dragons (George R.R. Martin)

Why I Read It – Well, I’ve already burned through an entire forest of e-paper reading the other 9000ish pages of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series (or “Game of Thrones,” for TV-only fans). I had to know which of my favorite characters were going to be brutally murdered, their goals made pointless, storylines rendered inert, etc.

Did I Like It – I enjoyed it, because George R.R. Martin is a master storyteller. As a writer who struggled in his last book to follow just two viewpoint characters, I am in total awe of Martin’s ability to juggle, like, twenty. Doorstops though they may be, those books are seldom boring. However, I felt Dance with Dragons dragged pretty hard – it feels like some storylines are retreading old ground, or just marking time for the finale, Dany in particular. There aren’t any big “WHOA” moments that the series is known for, save for perhaps one of the very last chapters. I’m excited to read more, but it wasn’t my favorite book of the series by far.

February: White Night (Dresden Files – Jim Butcher)

Why I Read It – The Dresden Files series is the perfect distillation of Urban Fantasy, for me. You’ve got a fast, witty tone, a badass-but-overworked main character who lives by his smarts and his magic, solid worldbuilding, and overlapping storylines. White Night is like the 9th book, and give or take a few bumps, the series is still going strong.

Did I Like It – I did, but I feel like the series needs to change its formula up. Again, I enjoyed the book, but I’ve gotten to the point where I know exactly when a shocking swerve is going to happen, when a character is going to betray someone, when the big fight is, when the ally comes in to save him, etc. The formula has worked wonders for Jim Butcher, and for the readers (including myself) but after 9 books it’s just too easy to see it. I’ve heard the books changesignificantly in the next few entries, which I’m down for checking out. I also thought the conclusion of the “Lash” storyline was a tad weaksauce.

March: Lady in the Lake (Raymond Chandler)

Why I Read It – I’ve actually read this book before, but I was in a noir mood, and so there it goes.

Did I (Still) Like It – Yarp. The nice thing about Chandler is that his plots are incomprehensible and over-complicated, so its nearly impossible to remember how they went – it makes for perfect re-reading. I could not recall for the life of me whodunnit, so I got to just sit back and enjoy Chandler’s language mastery all over again. My favorite Chandler book is still “The Long Goodbye,” but “Lady in the Lake” is still great.

April: Living Dead Girl (Elizabeth Scott)

Why I Read It – I watched a YouTube review by a teenage British girl, and I was compelled to read it.

Did I Like It – I don’t think it’s possible to like “Living Dead Girl,” but I do think it’s a good book. The story is gutwrenching and horrible, and the main character is a sexually and mentally-abused little girl who’s had most of her personality stripped away by her captor. It’s a nasty little piece of fiction, and it ends ambiguously, but damn if it isn’t effective at giving the feels. I only recommend it if that’s something you can handle, and you’re not depressed. It knocked me into a funk about humanity for a good while, and I started out pretty cheerful. I honestly think it might push a depressed person even deeper. Written spectacularly, though.

May: Soon I Will Be Invincible (Austin Grossman)

Why I Read it: This is another re-read. At the time, I was thinking about writing a super-hero novel, and I wanted to refuel my tank. As this is the only super-hero novel I’ve ever read, I looked to it once more for inspiration.

Did I Like It (Again): Absolutely. This novel is a wonderful take on the idea of superheroes, and manages to deconstruct many of the cliches, examine them smartly, and then put them back together in the end. It’s spectacular, clever, and well-written examination of the super-hero genre from someone who clearly loves it.

June: Neuromancer (William Gibson)

Why I Read It: Because I wanted to continue William Gibson’s epic “Sprawl Trilogy.” However, Neuromancer is the 1st book in the trilogy. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to accidentally read book series in the wrong order – I started the Dragonlance books with the seventh book in the series, for example. I actually read Gibson’s Cyberpunk trilogy completely backwards, starting with the 3rd book, “Mona Lisa Overdrive.” I just threw up my hands, said fuck it, and decide to read 2, then 1.

Did I Like It: I loved it. I’m a huge sucker for Cyberpunk, and Neuromancer is often credited as creating the genre whole-cloth. It tells the tail of a cowboy hacker with drug problems, a sexy cyborg “razor girl” badass, multiple AIs, mega-corporations, urban sprawl, the works. It’s not as epic as “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” and it’s not as convoluted as “Count Zero,” and I think it might be my favorite entry in the series.

July: Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

Why I Read It: Neil Gaiman.

Did I Like It: I enjoyed the story – really a novella – but I didn’t love, love, love it. The language was fantastic, capturing that perfect folksy-but-classy tone so unique to British authors. It’s a fantasy story about a grown man in England recalling his odd childhood experience with witches, otherworldy Lovecraftian terrors, and just being a dumb kid. It’s a lovely little story, one of those one’s you might call “cozy.” Reading it by a fireplace on a rainy day would yield the optimal results. The main character, the little boy, is a touch too passive for me – he’s more an observer than an actor – but Neil Gaiman has said he was trying to capture how powerless children feel, so he achieves what he set out to do just fine.

August: Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Laini Taylor)

Why I Read It: My wife recommended it to me, and I also have an undiagnosed obsession with angel lore and angel-based fiction. Not like, cherubs, but the sort of horrifying angels the Bible actually describes, wheels of fire and fifty eyes and badasses with swords, etc.

Did I Like It: Honestly, the was the most conflicted I felt about any book I read this year. There were parts I really liked – the world-building is extremely unique, the magic system is something I’ve never seen before, and angel/demon “war” is explored in an entirely new way. However, the story takes FOREVER to explain any of it – all this lore I’m talking about is in, like, the last four chapters. The rest of this (long) book is spent teasing, presenting mystery after mystery without answer, or even without HINT of answer. A real mystery is one you can figure out if you’re paying attention, and that’s not the case here – the author knows, you don’t, and you’re just gonna have to wait until she’s good and ready to deliver the answers. The characters and the narration even have to do backflips and bend over backwards to maintain the mystery – there are scenes full of characters who know all the answers, talking to each other very vaguely to keep the audience out of the loop. It gets a little silly at times.

At the end of the day, however, the worldbuilding is unique enough that I’ll at least try the next book in the series. I recommend it with a warning – the story doesn’t really get going until near the end of the book.

September: Carter Beats the Devil (Glen Gold)

Why I Read It: Wil Wheaton tweeted it was his favorite book, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Plus I also like stories about stage magicians getting in trouble – in clever hands, they’re always full of mind-bendyness.

Did I Like It: This book was another “like,” not love. The writing is good, and the research required must have been monumental – the 1920’s time period is recreated with exacting detail, as Carter (the magician) weaves through multiple real-life events in a kind of pseudo-alternate history storyline. The “magic” is well done – some of it is explained in full detail, while some of it is left to the imagination, which to me is the perfect way to write a stage magician story. There are plenty of mind-bendy twists – my only complaint is that the story is overstuffed. Carter’s involved in one too many monumental moments, for me – it’s almost Forest Gumpian in nature. My Dad might describe the book as “long in the tooth” – there are about twelve subplots going on, and there are multiple times in the book where I wasn’t sure which one was the main story. I experienced that “What’s the point of this?” feeling more than once during the read.

Overall good, but a tad more focus would have made it great.

October: The Shootist (Glendon Swarthout)

Why I Read It: I was planning on (and did in fact write) a western-influenced fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month, and like the super-hero book above, I wanted to immerse myself in delicious western seasoning. I googled “best western book,” got about 2,000 hotel results, then googled “list of western books” and found “The Shootist” at the top of almost every list.

Did I Enjoy It: Profanity alarm – Um, fuck yes. Easily jumped into my list of favorite novels. It’s a sleek story with no clutter about J.B. Books, the last remant of a gunslinging wild west in a world that is moving into the future. With cancer nipping at his heels, and his final weeks on Earth staring him in the face, Books has to come to grips with mortality, his own legacy, and deciding just what he wants to leave behind. The story is thoughtful without being maudlin, honest without being mean, and makes you really appreciate what actually matters in life when all the bullshit gets stripped away. The climax and the ending are AMAZEBALLS. Not to get too literary on you.

November: The Shining (Stephen King)

Why I Read It: Stephen King. He’s my favorite author, role model, and spirit animal – when I cast “Expecto Patronum,” an aging New Englander with huge glasses and a limp pops out. I also want to read Doctor Sleep, the sequel to the Shining, so it only made sense.

Did I Like It: Of course – I’ve yet to read a Stephen King book I didn’t like – even the “meh” ones are better than, well, everything else. “The Shining” didn’t blow me away though, and I’m not sure if that’s from the book itself or my over-familiarity with the subject matter. I’ve seen Kubrick’s (not very faithful, but still rad) movie adaption half-a-hundred times, and I’ve also spent plenty of time with the more faithful TV mini-series. I’ve seen multiple Jack Torrances go Costa Rica in the brainpan and hunt his family with a terrifying hammer/axe way too many times for it to be scary anymore. The book delves a little more into the history of the Overlook than either movie, which I definitely enjoyed. The book also manages to make Wendy a more interesting character, a definite improvement over both live-action versions of the story. Danny is still weird and unlikable, a hallmark across the entire “series.”

Also, funny story, the end is different from both the Kubrick film and the mini-series, though it hews a bit closer to the mini-series. The ending isn’t as dark as Kubrick or as saccharine sweet as the mini-series, and strikes a nice balance that I prefer over either ending.

Now, it’s not the book’s fault I’m too familiar with the story, so I do recommend it.

December: Naked Sun (Isaac Asimov)

Why I’m Reading It: I just started this one, but I’ll definitely zip through it before the year’s out. “Naked Sun” is the sequel to “Caves of Steel,” one of the watershed sci fi novels that had a huge hand in creating “robots” as we know them today – hell, Isaac Asimov even coined the term “robotics.” As you can see from above, I like rotating through genres to avoid fatigue, and I hadn’t done sci-fi in awhile.

Am I Enjoying It: So far I’m really digging it. Isaac Asimov has a dry-but-smirking voice that is definitely unique to him. It’s intelligent without being stodgy, witty without being glib in a very under-the-radar way, like a friend leaning over and whispering a joke to you during a serious meeting. He’s the master of presenting ethical quandaries, but without being too academic – these books follow the adventures of a human detective in the future named Baley and his human-looking andorid partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, investigating murder, robots, and robot murder. If that sounds like the new Fox show “Almost Human,” it’s because they stole the concept. Womp womp.

Well thanks for joining me for “This Year in Books” or something, whatever this was. If I had to pick a favorite for this year, I’d go with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” with “The Shootist” close behind.

What did you read this year?

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