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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Reading Summary, 2015

This year, I read 22 books. Genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 5

Horror: 4

Historical Fiction: 3

Science Fiction: 2

General Fiction: 2

Mystery: 1

Mixed Genres: 5

This is a pretty typical mix for me, although usually I read one or two nonfiction books as well. Also, the distinction between “historical fiction” and “general fiction” is somewhat fuzzier than it’s been in previous years, since two of the novels I listed here as Historical Fiction were set in the early 20th century (1900s-1920s).

Favorite book: Northwest Passages, by Barbara Roden. This was a collection of short stories. Most of them fall into the horror category, but it’s a subtle horror that builds up an atmosphere of growing dread, rather than the jump-scare sort of horror.

Least favorite book: The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. I didn’t understand a lot of the actions of one of the major characters, and one particular stylistic choice by the author made the novel harder to read.

 

Happy New Year to all!

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“The Martian” by Andy Weir

Andy Weir originally self-published his debut novel, The Martian. It took off like, well, a rocket, making it onto the New York Times bestseller list and being produced as a movie. In addition to its runaway success, The Martian is known for being “hard” science fiction—being compliant with scientific principles as they’re known at the time of its writing.

Sticking to technology that’s plausible in the 21st century doesn’t diminish the novel’s ability to deliver an exciting story. From food shortages to hydrogen mishaps to communications malfunctions, I was interested to see how the astronaut, Mark Watney, would overcome each new obstacle he faced over the course of the book.

I also loved the narrative voice. Most of the book is written in first person from Watney’s POV. He has a wonderfully acerbic sense of humor that makes for some truly laugh-out-loud lines.

One challenge in writing a story about a marooned man is that he won’t have anyone to interact with, and having only one “voice” could become tedious. Weir avoids this in two ways: first, Watney does have communication with Earth for part of the story. Second, there are occasional sections that follow Watney’s crewmates who are traveling back to Earth and the scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who are working to save him.

Weir is reportedly working on a second novel. If it’s anything like The Martian, I’ll be eager to read it.

“Moriarty” by Anthony Horowitz

In addition to his original novels, mystery and suspense writer Anthony Horowitz has been tapped by the estates of two authors to write officially-sanctioned novels featuring their most famous characters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Moriarty is the second of Horowitz’s Holmes novels, and as one might guess from the title, it focuses on the aftermath of Holmes’s supposedly lethal duel with his nemesis at Reichenbach Falls.

Since the novel takes place during the period in which Holmes was believed dead, Holmes and Watson themselves don’t feature prominently in the story. Instead, it follows Athelney Jones, a Scotland Yard inspector featured in “The Sign of Four”, and Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton detective who has come to Europe in search of an American criminal who sought an alliance with Moriarty.

As one might expect from a Sherlock Holmes story, there’s a compelling mystery at the center of this novel, with a lot of twists and turns along the way. While I was initially disappointed to not see Holmes and Watson playing major parts, Jones and Chase grew on me. Also, Moriarty emphasizes the clever deductions and chains of logic that are characteristic of the original Holmes stories—Jones has studied Holmes’s methods and read his monographs on various esoteric subjects, so he employs many of the same tactics that Holmes is known for using.

The novel ends with a major twist, which I obviously will not spoil. However, I will say that while I had suspected something generally similar, the exact nature of what was going on took me completely by surprise.

“Through the Woods” by Emily Carroll

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.” This line sums up the theme shared by the five stories in Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods. Their main characters live in isolated dwellings on the edge of great dark forests. Sometimes, they must enter the forest, and encounter something odd, sinister, or downright terrifying there. Sometimes, the odd/sinister/terrifying thing comes to them.

Carroll also writes and draws webcomics, which can be read at emcarroll.com. (One of the stories in this volume, “His Face All Red,” is an adaptation of her comic of the same name, and “The Nesting Place” seems to be an expansion of “All Along the Wall.”) Readers of her comics will find the style of both art and storytelling very similar, although of course some of the comics feature elements that can’t be reproduced in printed medium—clicking on different areas of a single image to read parts of the story, for example, as in “Margot’s Room”.

The stories presented in “Through the Woods” share similar themes of isolation or displacement from the familiar. Most of them feature young women faced with a mystery. Both the art and the text help to build the sense of mounting unease through the story. In the introduction, Carroll talks about how, as a young girl, she used to read in bed at night with a lamp attached to the headboard. She was always afraid to reach around into the darkness to turn the lamp off when she was ready to go to sleep. This collection will make you similarly afraid to turn off the light and walk down the long, dark hallway to your bedroom after you’ve finished reading.

“Radiance” by Catherynne M. Valente

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Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, Radiance, is a fascinating combination of mystery, sci-fi, and alternate history. Inspired by early works of science fiction, it presents a world where humanity has colonized every planet in the solar system, as well as most moons and the asteroid belt. The central character, Severin Unck, is a famous documentary filmmaker, whose latest project seeks to investigate the mysterious destruction of a settlement on Venus. When Severin herself disappears and several members of her crew die, various parties become drawn into the mystery.

One interesting thing this book does is to put the reader into the role of an investigative journalist. Rather than straightforward narration, most of the chapters are in the form of film scripts, transcripts of interviews, book excerpts, and so on. While reading Radiance, you feel as if you’re sifting through different types of documentation, trying to fit them together like puzzle pieces to figure out what happened to Severin and the vanished town.

Another theme of the novel is the way stories are told and retold, being altered with each telling. At one point, a character says: “You look at her pretty little face on the screen emoting and stuttering and blushing and contemplating her rich girl’s life, and you think there wasn’t a script out of frame at her feet, rewritten to an inch of its life, every rewrite thatched in on colored pages to keep it straight…It was a rainbow by the end, every movie she ever made.” In keeping with this statement, Radiance is divided into four sections, with each one being named for these colored pages (“The Green Pages,” for example). This serves as a reminder to the reader that we’re seeing the story through the lens of other characters’ reported experiences: none of them have all the relevant information, and some may have agendas to uphold.

Valente does a masterful job of slowly revealing clues about what’s going on, often in an oblique way that prompts the reader to pause and think. I also appreciated how she made the various inhabited planets seem very different from each other, giving each one a unique culture. The relationships between the characters are compelling as well, and add an extra dimension to the mystery.