Books I read in 2018

  1. The Circle of Ceridwen, Book One by Octavia Randolph. The story is told well; Randolph’s craft is clear. The language and situations are somewhat mild. I feel like I never got into anyone’s soul, or looked into the eyes of evil or fury. Not that I like violence, but I want to feel more. I was developing a growing respect for Yrling and Sidroc and felt that their qualities outshone anyone else in the book, so I was dismayed when Ceridwen easily brushed them off and fell all head over heels for an angry self-righteous immature lord.
  2. 1491 by Charles C. Mann. What were the Americas like in 1491 – right before you-know-who came and wreaked his havoc? A book to help you understand more about yourself by explaining, based on what we know, how much we don’t know about ourselves. I like the style of this one, which does not plod methodically chronologically, and does not resemble an educational textbook despite being distinctly educational. Mann chooses a point he wants to make, and then tells whatever he needs to tell to get you to understand. He’ll go backwards and then forwards in time, talk about 2009 even though the book is called 1491. He tells you what specialists have said, what the common understanding was until the 50s, why that changed, and what his own personal opinion is now that he wrote this book. Then, next point, and bounce through time again. He revealed so much misunderstanding that has now been clarified, that I realize everything I thought I knew about the American continents was flawed, if not absolutely incorrect. As an American Indian, it’s refreshing to hear my ancestors talked about with intelligence, realism, and no patronization.
  3. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Published in 1896, Wells pokes at some contemporary tender spots: genetic modification, designer babies, animal cruelty, mental health disorder. I see that there have been a couple movies. I haven’t seen them. The book is disturbing but believable, mostly because the mad scientist, Dr. Moreau, is portrayed as almost reasonable, except when you remember exactly what it is he is doing, which is surgically altering animals to create humans. And the protagonist is believable too, going through what I would probably go through: terror, tolerance, appreciation, suspicion, and then terror again. I like it because Wells wasn’t judgy. He just lays it out there: here is this wild world, and here are the details. What is the definition of human? What means toward perfection are acceptable? It’s up to you to make a conclusion.
  4. The Music Lesson: a Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten. Would you like to find daily joy? Be your best self? Get over that roadblock and start breaking new ground again, like you used to? It’s a story about a musician getting his groove back, and as you join him in that journey you might learn how to get yours back too. This book was recommended to me by a musician, and I’m going to guess that it is better suited for a musician than anyone else. However! I have zero musical knowledge and still understood the concepts presented by Wooten. Music is merely his tool to help make his point. The story drifts into some spiritual concepts that my practical mind rejects, but I just ran with it for the sake of enjoying the story.
  5. The Neuromancer by William Gibson. Written in 1984, it holds up today as absorbing science fiction. This well-constructed, multi-level plot with humor, space travel, AI, military secrets, sex, deception, and cryonics, is solid. I am awed that it’s Gibson’s first novel. The main character was a computer hacker but got in trouble and had his nervous system altered so he could no longer access cyberspace. Then someone offers to fix his nerves if he’ll do a hacking job, and he agrees. If you like plot twists and trying to figure out what’s going on while you read, this one’s for you.
  6. Artemis by Andy Weir. I had to read this one because I love The Martian so much, also by Weir. Artemis is not as good, but still entertaining. The setting is a colony on Earth’s Moon, main character is a woman porter, who smuggles on the side to supplement her income. It’s expensive living on the Moon! She’s so used to low gravity that she uses it to her advantage, while rolling her eyes at the tourists trying to walk. Tourism is the main industry there, and Weir makes the economy, the classism, the safety measures, the staff requirements, all very easy to believe. I was fascinated with the explanations of the construction of the colony, transportation, surface walks, air storage, food, waste, and the politics behind controlling it all. The heroine, though… she’s supposed to be sexy and exotic and scrappy (the fictitious ‘cool girl’), but she’s predictable. I almost didn’t notice the fact that her character is the same one I’ve seen in science fiction stories for forever, because I’m so used to it that I expect it. But maybe that’s a sign for male SF writers to step it up?
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Eighty years after its publication, this story is still selling. And I know why. Du Maurier wrote a dark, disturbing murder mystery novel with a group of awful humans. You simply can’t look away. Everyone is SUCH a character, but never so eccentric that you stop believing in them. Except maybe the exceptional Rebecca, who dies in the flesh prior to the story, but is kept viscerally alive by everyone else, particularly by her replacement, the narrator of the story, who never met her. The new Mrs. De Winter repeatedly loses your respect due to her crippling shyness and naivete, but you become as desperate to know what happened to the previous Mrs. De Winter as she does. Only if you were there, you would certainly speak up and demand more answers.
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Er, this was an experience. Early on I became frustrated and confused and then scornful. “Why on earth is this book so treasured?” In order to keep reading the book, I had to let it all go and just try to ride the wave. Magical Realism, apparently, is not the ideal writing style for an INTJ like me. (ooh, I just realized that explains why 4. above was also a bit much) Anyway, the story follows one family in one town through generations and generations. Their intentions seem good enough, yet still such catastrophes result. Disasters strike, curses, magical diseases, so. much. sex. It’s such a long book that I was in danger of getting bored and putting it down, but I was reading it on the recommendation of a friend, so I forced myself to keep going. And finally, by the last page, I decided I liked it.
  9. Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein. Published in 1951. (Interesting how many old ones I’ve been reading.) This was a pretty fun SF novel, and Heinlein seriously did make an attempt to generalize and futurize his technology references so that we future people could still be immersed, but… there was no way for him to imagine the way technology would change. Despite those little hiccups (which in some sense add an interesting filter) it’s worth a read. The protagonist is in boarding school on Earth when his parents call him home to Mars. On the way he docks at a transport station in space, and while there it’s taken over by rebels and comm lines are cut. He refuses to return to Earth as the captors insist. He’s not allowed to go to Mars, and manages to get to Venus instead. As soon as they launch, the transit station is blown up, and they find out later that the shuttle to Earth was destroyed on its arrival. The boy then resigns himself to life on Venus until space travel resumes and he can go to Mars and see his parents. He becomes tangled in the Venutian civil war, even joins the military himself.
  10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I reviewed it in 2015, so go check that out. I read it again to get ready to see the movie. The movie was beyond a letdown, and full-on offensive in some places. It turned this mindblowingly fun, funny, and smart young adult novel into a predictable and soft kiddie show, where the bad guy Nolan Sorento gives a little I-love-puppies smile in the end to show that he really does have a heart. The final scene removes one of the main heroines – a black lesbian – from the celebration stage with all the hetero white kids, and puts her off to the side, being questioned by the police. That scene made me nauseous. The book – AMAZING. The movie – a fucking insult.
  11. Down in the Bottomlands by Harry Turtledove. This a novella, so pretty easy to get through. Set on Earth, possibly in present times, but in an alternate course of history where the Mediterranean Sea is a desert, and the sea water is held at bay by a mountain range. You follow a tour group into the basin, now a park, led by a tour guide. Right away there is a murder of one of the tourists from a country likely to cause a political row. Government investigators fly in, and the tourists are held in the hot and inhospitable ancient sea basin until the murder plot is revealed.
  12. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’m reading this one again because – finally! – it has been so long since I last read it that I forgot some things. I love re-reading my favourites.
  13. The Silk Roads:  A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. This is a history of human civilization and politics, and specifically the financial aspects of those, from a thesis that the core of it all was in West Asia. It makes sense to me and I eagerly listened to world developments that shaped all of humanity and – gasp! – sometimes had nothing to do with Europe at all. Frankopan consistently comes back to trade, and I agree that it’s a thread that links us all. I made of list of some of the things I learned:
    • Chinese cobalt pottery was derived from Arab pottery inventions.
    • The angel Gabriel spoke to Mohammed, and that was the beginning of Islam.
    • Buddhists only started making statues of the Buddha and writing down tenets of their faith because of the insurgence of other showier religions that were wooing their converts. Stupas were created, and then guidelines for approaching and worshipping at the stupas. These writings shaped and crystalized the Buddhist faith.
    • Mongols were strategists, killing brutally but selectively. They spared artists and craftsmen and brought in skilled farmers to rebuild communities quickly after they had been conquered. When they spread into Europe they were seen as an opportunity to join forces and change the power balance related to the crusades going on. Their presence influenced European fashion.
    • William of Scotland attacked in the 13th century, which is primitive in European history. At that time, however, there were massive wealthy centers of commerce, arts, education, and politics in the Middle East.
    • Because of the severe population decrease after the bubonic plague, power shifted from the elites to the peasantry. Consumerism rose with wages, and arrangements between people benefitted both, rather than the one with more power. In some places, women entered the work force and their own power.
    • The story that the Aztecs believed Cortez was an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl was invented later. It is a myth.
    • Queen Victoria was renamed Empress Victoria in order to impress the Indian colonists and thus strengthen the front against Russia.
  14. Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde. This well-written story tells a convincing series of events that overtake the two heroines and thrust them together when they don’t have anyone else. Both criminals (because society defines them that way, not because of any malicious intent) and on the run, they don’t even like each other at first. The pair make a coastal road trip from California to Washington, stopping for attractions and meeting people who help them change perspective. They travel nearly the length of the West Coast in a weeks-long police chase and develop a bond uncommon among granddaughters and grandmothers- even among those who are actually related. Fifteen year old Allie only spends a little time in jail, and once it’s all over they decide to stay together for the long term.
  15. Now I Lay Me Down by Faith Phillips. An investigation of a triple murder case in a tiny Oklahoma community. The author is Cherokee, and the autographed book was given to me by a Cherokee friend; no surprise since Oklahoma is Cherokee country. Phillips uses too many flowery adjectives when describing people and places that warm her heart, but when it came to walking her readers though the facts of the gripping story, she was spot on in every paragraph. I’ve recently binged on all 30+ episodes of the Undisclosed podcast about the Adnan Sayed case, and I’m currently listening to the Cleveland court stories unfold in Serial season 3. With some of the most professional productions of crime drama freshly in my mind, Phillips holds her own and I was swept into the astonishing story.
  16. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This was assigned reading during a mediation class at Brandeis. It was powerful then and now, and I highly recommend the book on multiple levels. South American politicians want the financial support of a wealthy Japanese man and lure him to talks in the Governor’s home by bringing his favourite opera singer as the evening’s entertainment. Rebel terrorists seize the Governor’s home on the belief that the President was attending the talks. He is not. Their new plan is to exchange the hostages for money. Read it if you only want a mesmerizing story. Read it also if you want an examination of character motivations and how art can bring people together when words are failing.
  17. The Reckoners: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson creates one more imaginative world for me to dive into! His writing skills are exceptional and with him I never lose track of the story because I am annoyed at the writer’s sloppiness (and that usually happens a lot because I am a snob). Steelheart is action-packed, funny, and surprisingly relateable even though it’s in an alternate future world of the United States after a calamity called Calamity, in which a few humans get superpowers, turn evil, and then corrupt the world for their own pleasure. The Reckoners are a very small band of people who has had enough and decide to fight back against ridiculous odds. The main character, David, has been a superfan throughout his childhood and now that he’s grown up he wants to join them.
  18. The Reckoners: Mitosis. A Short Story by Brandon Sanderson. One of the superhumans, called Epics, is called Mitosis. His power is the ability of limitless self-replication. It’s up to David and the rest of the Reckoners to figure out his weakness. Every Epic has a weakness. Does Mitosis really get dumber the more copies of him there are?
  19. The Reckoners: Firefight by Brandon Sanderson. David is pretty sure he’s in love with an Epic named Firefight but after their last battle in Steelheart, she disappeared. Eventually he finds out she’s stalking him, but in a good way – she keeps saving his life when no one’s looking. Finally they meet again and call a truce. She and David figure out that Epics aren’t naturally evil, it’s the power of their Epic abilities that actually make them evil. David convinces Firefight to stop using her powers and sure enough, she’s nicer to him. Together they try to convince other Epics to do the same. Oh, and also somehow save the world from High Epic Regalia who has joined forces with Calamity himself.
  20. The Reckoners: Calamity by Brandon Sanderson. David has realized that there are so few Reckoners, and so many Epics (new ones all the time), that their MO of killing Epics one by one is pointless. Also, he’s really uneasy about killing them when he believes that their powers make them evil and they are actually victims. There’s only one way to put an end to everyone’s suffering and that’s to take on Calamity himself. No, it’s not a star in the night sky like everyone believes. Calamity is the biggest, baddassed Epic of them all.
  21. Righteous by Joe Ide. Not a bad detective novel at all. I don’t love Isaiah Quintabe, nicknamed IQ, as much as my favourite literary detective Dave Robicheaux, but he’s a similar character. Inquisitive and motivated by the death of his brother, IQ puts his sharp intelligence and just plain good sense into the latest puzzle. Unfortunately his wits don’t save him from realizing he’s been tricked into working on the mystery by a woman he’s secretly been in love with most of his life. Not until the very end, when he has cracked the case. So, there’s that.