This year I tried to read A LOT, and I did. Here’s what I read, in no particular order
Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis
This book is an excellent example of narrative voice, and the main character has a lot of charisma. It’s about a young black orphan named Bud Caldwell living in the early 1900s, who is trying to find his father. It’s a children’s book, and a winner of the Newberry award and the Coretta Scott King award. Five stars.
When I heard that every book that Baldacci has ever written has hit #1 or #2 on the NYT bestseller list I figured I couldn’t lose. Zero Day is cheeseburger writing at its best. Everyone loves a cheeseburger, right? It’s not gourmet food, but it goes down easy and you get a satisfying meal. Reading Zero Day you can pick out all the tools and tropes of modern schlock, all tastefully served up. There’s the super-short chapters that increment the plot (sometimes tediously so), the constant use of hooks to keep you going (and make you feel like you’re reading one long sales-pitch), the stakes that steadily mount until you’re certain the world is about to blow up, and the super-big pay-off at the end. It was an enjoyable read, all in all. If you like military spy thrillers, you’ll like this. Four stars.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
This was one of the most creative books I’ve read in a long time. I can’t say too much about it without giving a whole bunch of the plot away. I had two gripes, although they were not fatal. First, I thought the main character was too complacent with the fact that she got turned into an old lady. Most girls (as in, just about every girl) I know would totally freak out. That pulled me out of the story for a while, but it wasn’t enough to put the book down. The other problem I had was that the writing in places felt kind of rough. All that said, my overall impression is still rather fond. Jones did a good job on this story. Four stars.
The Long Goodbye
Chandler is one of the definitive detective noir authors from the early 1900s, and his writing is really good, but in the case of this story I don’t think it lives up to his past work. It’s tedious, there are no stakes, and there is no reason for the main character to stay involved, yet he does. I give it two, maybe three stars.
Trouble is My Business (anthology)
Chandler is the author of 1,000 one-liners. One of my favorites has to be from Farewell, My Lovely: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” I read short stories because they give a lot of insights to the craft of writing, and they can be difficult to pull off. I thought that the cleverest story from this book, was Goldfish. The title doesn’t sound like much, but the plot was clever. I also liked Trouble is My Business. I can’t remember anything about the other two, which says enough. Three Stars.
Matthew J. Kirby
I really, really liked Icefall. It’s advertised as a juvenile mystery, but I’d definitely classify it as early medieval fiction. This is the kind of thing that I really love. I’m really tired of epic fantasy, and the way it all feels the same. Icefall was so different and refreshing. The characters are Scandinavian, the children of a war-lord who’ve been sent away by their father to be hidden for their protection. I love the way Kirby brings out the early medieval lifestyle and mindset, it’s nothing like the high fantasy schlock that you see so much of these days. Five stars.
The Lost Kingdom
Matthew J. Kirby
After reading Icefall, I was jazzed for something else by this author, but I found it kind of hard to get into this story. Maybe it was a little too young for me, or maybe it was the way I found all of Kirby’s science way too much of a stretch. Meh. Did not finish.
The Graveyard Book
This was a really good find. I love the opening hook: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” I read that to my writer’s group, and they were all impressed. Then I said, did you notice the blatant use of passive voice? That got us into a nice little argument about why passive voice works in some cases but not others. I still don’t think it’s nearly as evil or taboo as people say (I’ll get off my soap-box, now). This story was a case-study in milieu. An evil man has killed everyone in a family except for the toddler, who wandered out of the house and into an ancient graveyard a couple blocks down the street. The ghosts in the graveyard take responsibility for the baby and raise him. I could write a whole blog-post about how this book puts you into a place. The graveyard is filled with different types of ghosts, and forbidden places. Add this one to your list. Five stars.
Different Seasons (anthology)
I don’t read Stephen King, so much as I study Stephen King. Again, short stories are a really great way to see how authors put together plot, characters, concepts, setting, and narrative voice. The best way to learn how to write like a great author is to read stuff that they write. The best two stories in this book are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Body. I could go on and on about these two (Shawshank Redemption was made into a movie). I also liked Apt Pupil. Stories about children becoming corrupted and turning evil are always disturbing. Five stars.
The Fifth Element
This is one of Pratchett’s better stories. It started humorous, then it got kind of serious and sentimental and I-don’t-know-what in the middle, then it became humorous again at the end. Even still, it was a good read. Five stars.
My only gripe about this one is that it was so short. It’s just 80 pages. The concept is brilliant, but it’s kind of like an amusement park ride: a thrilling rush, and over way too soon. Sanderson could spin a whole series on this one. If you’re looking for a nice snack to take the edge of your reader’s hunger, give this one a try. Four stars.
The Last Kingdom
This was a re-read. Again, I study my favorite authors. Cornwell really understands the warrior’s mindset…not that I’ve actually been in the military…but he does really put you into the action. He writes absolutely the best battle scenes, and for the most part his stories are historically accurate. So, you are entertained for 300 pages—and—you learn a bit of history, too! Can’t lose there. My copy of this book is so heavily underlined it looks like I’ve studied for a college course. I gotta put in a quote here:
Tears were blurring my sight, and perhaps the battle madness came onto me because, despite my panic, I rode at the long-haired Dane and struck at him with my small sword, and his sword parried mine, and my feeble blade bent like a herring’s spine. It just bent and he drew back his own sword for the killing stroke, saw my pathetic bent blade, and began to laugh. I was pissing myself, he was laughing, and I beat at him again with the useless sword and still he laughed, and then he leaned over, plucked the weapon from my hand, and threw it away. He picked me up then. I was screaming and hitting at him, but he thought it all so very funny, and he draped me belly down on the saddle in front of him and then he spurred into the chaos to continue the killing.
And that was how I met Ragnar, Ragnar the Fearless, my brother’s killer, and the man whose head was supposed to grace a pole on Bebbanburg’s ramparts, Earl Ragnar.
ooh-ho-ho! (insert nasal French laugh, here) Il est si bon!! It’s like a Swedish massage with words. Five stars—no, this one gets a five-plus!
James S. A. Corey
This was okay. It was pretty good as far as hard sci-fi goes. I thought Corey did a good job portraying the unforgiving reality of space. Still, I’m not sure what I thought of it, overall. It had some good stuff. 3 to 4 stars.
The Alchemist: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Juvenile urban fantasy cheeseburger writing. This had some interesting ideas, but I didn’t get all that into it. Not sure why. I wished there was a little more character development, for one. 3 stars.
The Hound / The Colour Out of Space
H. P. Lovecraft
My wife picked up a book of Lovecraft’s stories. I’m not sure why, she’s really not into horror, but from time to time she’ll check out an anthology from the library and then pick out the stuff worth looking at, and give me a list. I was interested in The Hound, because it was another black-dog story, like Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m keenly interested in black-dog stories, because the sequel to Mage’s Craft (the novel I wrote) is going to be kind of about this. Not sure what to rate these. 3.5 stars.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
I had really mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, the story is brilliant. This is worthy of a Stephen King award for horror / speculative fiction, or something. It’s that good. On the other hand I’m not sure about Bradbury’s writing, per se. Bradbury is a master of metaphor, but sometimes he overdoes it to the point where you really can’t tell what’s going on. There was quite a bit of that in this novel. I had to re-read several scenes, and some of them I just had to shrug and move on. And on top of that, the main character’s father (the librarian) talks with the same heavily metaphorical voice as the narrator, which makes me wonder who’s narrating, and who’s speaking in dialog. Anyway, I’m probably a heretic for saying this because Bradbury is so well respected, but 3 stars.
This was really well done. I’ll probably pick up the sequel. Someday. I’d be more excited about it if there weren’t so many post-apocalyptic novels out there. Even still, four stars. Go read it.
I have mixed feelings about Scalzi. On the one hand I don’t appreciate the way he uses his fame and his clout in the Sci-Fi community to push his heavily liberal agenda and shame other authors who don’t follow his beliefs…and on the other hand, his writing is just so gawl-dang good! Scalzi isn’t Stephen King, and he’s not Bernard Cornwell. He’s not that kind of good. He’s more like…hilariously entertaining Terry Pratchett kind of good. He fancies himself as a comical sci-fi writer, like Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but I don’t agree with that so much, either. I never took Adams seriously—and I was never meant to—but I do take Scalzi seriously. He has a way of being able to spin a serious plot, weave in a social issue (sometimes a little in your face), and pull it off in a way that feels really entertaining. I can zip through 30 pages like it’s nothing. Something else about Scalzi’s writing, too, is that he never describes his characters, and he never describes scenery. His stories are always page after page of witty, tight, charming, serious-yet-funny, repartee. Yum! Five stars. Oh, wait…the book is about a bunch of crewmen on a space-ship—er…never mind, that will totally give it away. Just read it!
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I read this because I’m looking for character sketches for the sequel to my novel, Mage’s Craft. Nurse Ratched is at the top of everyone’s top-ten list of all-time villains. When I heard that the movie was made from a book, I checked it out from the library. The writing is super-good. It’s Stephen King good. You literary snobby types will love it, too. Five big-ones.
I think I grew half a uterus reading this. Tedious, tedious, tedious. There’s a lot of emotional working-it-out kind of internal struggle, which as I guy made me want to slap the main character and tell her to pull her crap together. That said, I DID finish it. Am I made into a better person? A more caring sort of man, in touch with his feminine side? Not really sure. That said, I think the book merits some serious praise. You’ll like it. Even if you’re a guy. It’s worth it. 3.5 to 4 stars (depending on how many X-chromosomes you have).
This is another anthology. It’s got a nice mix of stuff in it, and all of it short. I read short story anthologies when I’m between books and looking for a snack. Something light. I’m still working my way through it, but currently I’m stuck in the middle of Fuzzy Nation (another Scalzi book), and after that I’ve got something else that I grabbed off the library shelf at random.
So…that’s nineteen books, and some spare change if you count the Lovecraft stories. Wow, a record for me. It’s been a very full year.
So what have you read this year? I’m always looking for something new. Leave a comment below.