I used to review books on a dedicated Mastodon account, but I’ve since wanted to be able to show them to people outside the context of the fediverse. This was also spurred by the fact that, after moving, I read a ton of books without keeping up with the reviews, so I’d intended to do bunch of catch-up reviews… and that was in October 2018.
So what’s actually transpired is that I’ve kept a one-line entry for every book I’ve read including the title, author and finish date except for the stuff I read right at the end of 2018 and the start of 2019. So I’m going to share that list here and maybe talk about some of them a bit and see how I feel.
Also, I want to point out that this list doesn’t include comics, which I mostly read in trade paperback form, or stuff I read with my kids, which is mostly very short but has begun to include some chapter books. Many of those things have been lovely and totally worth recommending or talking about, but I figure I have to limit scope somehow and I didn’t happen to think to put those into my journal.
Let’s do some stats, shall we? Obviously I have to exclude some stuff from the duration stats on the basis of not knowing when I read it.
Number of Things Read: 47
Reading Time (in days including weekends, during which I generally don’t read):
- Maximum: 21 days (Jacobin 33 and The Prey of Gods)
- Median: 8 days (A Conjuring of Light and Jacobin 34)
- Minimum: less than a day (Artificial Condition, Exit Strategy, Capitalism & the State)
- Mode: 13 days (Washington Black, The Body Keeps the Score, Broken Stars and The City of Brass)
Things I Read in 2019
After On by Rob Reid (???)
I remember liking this book for the most part and a lot of the ideas were quite interesting, but it had a fondness and adulation for Silicon Valley start-up culture that I really couldn’t stand and the resolution to the main conflict boiled down to what a lot of authoritarian fiction (like super hero stories) does: A small number of smart/good/brave/powerful/special individuals should stand between everyone else and the problem. Bleh.
Temper by Nicky Drayden (???)
Drayden is a local author, which I like. The book is her first, as far as I know, and it sort of shows. But it has some neat ideas and, being fantasy set in modern Africa, had some angles and features not often seen in the genre.
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (???)
Okorafor is an author I like to return to. Her Binti series is delightful. The Akata stuff is, like Temper, fantasy set in modern Africa, but a different region and culture (Igboland). I love the way she writes, especially around themes of finding your identity and making a place for yourself when you aren’t sure how you fit into the society around you. Which this book has plenty of. It’s also an exciting adventure.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (???)
I read these back-to-back (and in the wrong order without realizing it, so read these in the other order, I think). They were incredibly good and incredibly hard, emotionally. They should be required reading for, uh, humans living in the US, I guess? Possibly other places? Especially for white folks (or people with other kinds of priviledge), it’s important to understand that the horrible events depicted in these books are extrapolations from things that are already happenning in this country to populations that mostly lack privilege.
Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban (???)
I’d read this in, I think, Jr. High. So this constitutes one of, like, 10 books that I’ve read more than once. I reread it because I recalled that by dad has said it blew his mind when he’d originally read it. I found it… fine. The story isn’t that interesting and it’s not clear to me what the author was trying to say or what themes were really under discussion. After I’d reread it, I asked my dad what had been so interesting about it and to him it was the language it was written in. It’s written in what Hoban imagined English might become if society fell and education evaporated and such. It’s hard to understand at first, but you get it pretty quickly. However, now that I know a fair amount about language change… this was really bothersome to me because the language change is more like if someone were very drunk than how language actually changes. Ah well.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (???)
The best way I can talk about this book is to say that it is everything that fans of Firefly think Firefly is (where it is actually not very those things). It is about found families and acceptance and healing and it takes place on a spaceship that is also a home. It’s so lovely.
Jacobin 31: Breaking Bank (???)
This is a quarterly socialist magazine. I have a note that this volume was about economics. Skimming through the table of contents just now, none of the pieces jump out at me as being amazing, but I do recall that it helped me understand what “the neoliberalization of economies” means and how it negatively impacts working people.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley (2019-02-06)
I’ve read all the novels in the Bel Dame Apocrypha and liked them. They’re all a buggy, gross, magical, self-destructive scifi mess in the best way. This book is a collection of short stories in that continuity that doesn’t dissapoint. I think they were largely published only digitally originally, which is why I’d missed them. I tend to prefer dead tree reading, so it was nice for them to be collected such.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2019-02-19)
My wife bought this for me after hearing a review of it on, I think, NPR. My impression is that she thought it would be more science fiction than it was. It ended up not being much at all, but I still enjoyed it all the way up until the end. I just incredibly did not understand what the author was trying to do or say with the ending.
The ABCs of Capitalism by Vivek Chibber (2019-02-21)
This is actually three pamphlets published by Jacobin: A: Understanding Capitalism, B: Capitalism & the State and C: Capitalism & Class Struggle. I’ve since loaned these out to a few people and I wish more folks would read them. The B volume in particular does a great job drawing a connection from capitalism on a fundemental structural level to injustice and explaining why the one increasingly causes the other over time. I think they also do a good job of making the point that there is only so far we can get to achieve justice for all without overthrowing capitalism and, thus, the limits we’re generally under if we constrain our efforts to electoral politics.
Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel José Older (2019-03-04)
I think this is a story about Lando and Han? There’s a non-binary character in it who was pretty cool, I think? And maybe it hopped between eras of, like, older Han and Lando, younger Han after getting The Falcon and younger Lando before even meeting Han. Which would imply L3 is in it, but… TBH, I don’t remember this book very well.
Catalyst Vol. 2 No. 3 (2019-03-14)
This is a quarterly, semi-academic journal published by the Jacobin (and edited by Chibber, above). It includes two pieces I liked a lot: Socialism for Realists by Sam Gindin and The Strike as the Ultimate Structure Test by Jane McAlevey. Both were really informative and gave me a lot to think about.
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (2019-03-21)
The first in a trilogy (the others appear below) that I quite enjoyed. It’s dark without being needlessly grim. The depiction of magic is interesting. The characters are likeable when they should be and believably flawed. I was pleased with the whole run.
Leia: Princess of Alerderaan by Claudia Gray (2019-03-27)
Gray writes really amazing Star Wars books, y’all. And she really seems to get Leia as a character. This book shows us Leia before her heavy involement in the Alliance to Restore the Republic and what it means to grow up as the princess of Alderaan. So good.
Jacobin 32: A True Story of the Future (2019-03-30)
This one’s got a cover that makes it seem like it’s just Bernie Sanders fanfic, which is frustrating. I went in with low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised. It has pieces discussing the possible for left progress within the constraints of electoral politics and also what some of those limits are. I do think this issue in particular reflected Jacobin’s general emphasis on electoral politics over other avenues of change. Personally, I think we have to consider electoral politics as one tool among many, not the sole or even primary arena of action.
Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells (2019-03-30, 2019-03-31, 2019-03-31)
These are all novellas in Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries series and follow the initial novella, All Systems Red. Murderbot is delightful and I love the way Wells writes them. I hear there’s a novel out or out soon or something and I’m looking forward to it. These are books about defining who you are for yourself, the drive to protect yourself based on past traumas, letting people past those defenses and, like much scifi that addresses AI and robots, what it means to be a person who is not human.
Kindred by Octavia Butler (2019-04-05)
This book was brutal to read (a theme in Butler’s work, I guess). It’s about a Black woman living in the 70’s who is married to a white man and spontaneously develops to “ability” to travel back in time to the antebellum US South. It’s not really an ability, though, because she can’t control it. I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to have spoilers in this post. I really liked the book, but it definitely took emotional effort to read.
A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab (2019-04-12)
See above about A Darker Shade of Magic.
The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox by Dr. Mark Burhenne (2019-04-16)
A friend lent this to me more than a year before I actually read it after I complained about sleep. I learned that the idea of “a healthy 8 hours of sleep” is sort of a broken myth. If you don’t sleep well it doesn’t matter a ton if you get 6 or 8 or 12 hours of sleep so much and if you are sleeping well, 8 might be more than you need. There was a bunch of information about apnea and other sleeping difficulties. Add it to the long list of stuff I should be doing as an adult that I don’t because of all the other things I should be doing as an adult (read: in our society we work too much to actually take care of all our responsibilities).
The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (2019-04-30)
This is book three in a series (start with Too Like the Lightning). I really love this series, but I understand why it’s not for everyone. In particular, the society depicted has some fucked up ideas about gender and related topics. I find them to be an interesting way to hold a mirror up to the ways in which our society’s ideas about gender are differently fucked up, but I think it’s entirely reasonable for it to be too uncomfortable for others to read. I feel like the world building is very skillfully done in that theirs is a world so different from ours that it is surprising how things work, but the book does a good job of making sure you know what you need to know about how things work before they become plot-critical. Also each book begins with an in-universe content warning, which is pretty rad.
A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (2019-05-08)
See above about A Darker Shade of Magic.
Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse (2019-05-23)
I found this book in my efforts to read more books by people who are not white men. It is a post-apocalytic novel by a Native American woman about a Native American woman. She’s writing about a tribe other than her own, but to my outsider’s eyes it seems to be written with care and kindness nonetheless. I like the main characrter and the mythology it draws on is new to me, so that novelty is nice to see. Some of the characters, including the love interest, are kinda meh, but I’ll probably read the next book she writes.
Jacobin 33: Home Improvement (2019-06-13)
This whole issue is about housing. It helped me form opinions about public housing and understand the awful effects that having having-access-to-a-place-to-live be subject to the market has. It also had some great historical context about housing costs, housing justice movements and that sort of thing.
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (2019-06-26)
This is a book about the long term physiological effect that traumatic events have on the human body. It was very interesting and had a lot of information I hadn’t been exposed to before. It made me think about my own life and my own reactions to certain things and whether I’m in as much control of those reactions as we all like to tell ourselves. After reading it, I had a conversation online with someone that pointed out that the author’s tone was pretty othering towards people who live with, say, PTSD, which I think is a vlid criticism.
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis (2019-07-03)
TBH, every time I see this book’s title I confuse it with The Power for a moment, realize that’s not right and it takes me a bit to remember what it is. I liked the story fine while I was reading it, but five months on, it doesn’t stand out in particular.
How to Make White People Laugh by Negin Farsad (2019-07-09)
This book is amusing and has some great perspective about growing up in an immigrant (to the US) family. It has some uncomfortable (and, thus, good-to-hear as a white person) things to say about race. It also has some vaguely anti-semitic sections (in the form of stereotypes about Jewish folks) that were uncomfortable in a different way.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (2019-07-18)
This book gets compared to The Handmaid’s Tale often because it has a similar framing device of academics dicsussing the historical events depicted in the book from the distant future. However, I feel like the framing device in The Power is much more integrated into the story in a thematic sense. Also, other than the framing device, the books have little else in common other than being, like, feminist fiction, I guess? The Power is fun and interesting and challenging. My favorite bit is that there’s a casual take-down of evolutionary psychology that just sort of drifts past and is devestating.
Catalyst Vol. 3 No. 1 (2019-07-30)
I think I read the fourth issue of volume 2, but I can’t find my paper copy and it’s not in my list, so who knows. This issue had an interesting interview with Noam Chomsky, but I don’t remember any of the other pieces in particular.
Lost Stars by Claudia Gray (2019-08-04)
Another Star Wars book by Gray. This one doesn’t have Leia, but it does have this wonderful star-crossed friendship-into-romance plotline and really humanizes (some) Imperials. Like… it shows what sorts of values and priorities which are not, on their face, evil might lead someone to still join and remain loyal to the Galactic Empire even in the face of their obvious evils. Given that most people come to Star Wars books to see the characters from the movies doing stuff, I think it was bold to choose to focus on original characters almost exclusively and I think it super worked.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (2019-08-08)
I loved Leckie’s Ancillary series of scifi books and this is her first foray into fantasy. She blew me away. It is one of those rare books that makes being in the second person work. Her take on gods and magic in that world was utterly new to me, which is great. The characters were interesting and I constantly couldn’t wait to see how things would develop next. Like the Ancillary series, I sort of expect people to talk about the gender stuff going on in this book more than the rest of it. And also just like the Ancillary serires, that’ll be a pity if true. While the gender stuff is cool and interesting, there’s so much more about this book that makes it great.
Broken Stars edited by Ken Liu (2019-08-21)
Liu translated the first and third volume of the Rememberance of Earth’s Past series (the first book of which is The Three Body Problem). He has a passion for Chinese science fiction and so has edited several collections thereof. And this is one of those. It has a lot of very weird stories in it, which is great. Some of them didn’t really work for me in a way that I think has more to do with cultural differences more than the quality of the writing. Regardless, I think it’s valuable to look outside the boundary of English from time to time to expose yourself to things you otherwise wouldn’t.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (2019-09-03)
This is fantasy set in an Arabia-inspired past. I don’t remember if there are any real-world locations off the top of my head, but there are definitely plenty of fantastical ones. It’s got a cool take on myths about Djinn and associated beings and the sense of the history of the hidden magical world they inhabit with political forces and past wars and such was great. The main character sort of runs face-first into political waters deeper than she’s prepared for and it’s good fun.
Jacobin 43: War is a Racket (2019-09-11)
This issue is about the military industrial complex, the role the military plays in systemic racism and classism and the lasting negative effects that being a soldier has on many. It also has a piece on the GI Bill and related soldiers’ benefits and how they show how wider social programs might work and a piece on armed leftist resistance that’s going on in Rojava. In general, I feel like it covered a pretty broad range of topics; specifically ones I don’t have a lot of personal experience with.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (2019-09-16)
Set in the same universe as The Long Way but with only slight narrative ties, this book is again full of heart and love. It’s about discovering and deciding who you are and who you want to be. It talks about the pain of having to hide who you are from those around you. It talks about the ethics and quandires of self-modification. All the people feel real and relatable and the cultures readers are introduced to are interesting and treated with respect. Chambers has quickly become one of my favorites.
Acceleratre by Nicole Forsgren et. al. (2019-08-22)
This is a “business book”, I guess. It’s about what things in common organizations that are good at meeting their goals with software have. I say it that way because they tried to be broader than just, like, “make a profit”, though that’s a goal most organizations that make software have. They talk about 4 key metris to track and establish that if these are all going up, you’re going to meet your goals. This is all backed by scientific research. They were surprised to find that many things software professionals often consider of high importance are not actually related to meeting organizational goals. I think the identification of these four metrics is great and awful at once. Great because they are easy to understand and compare to yourself over time. However, I’ve heard others that read the book over-focus on them and miss that in order to make those numbers go up, it probably takes real organizational change—it’s not something that an engineering organization alone can fix by just doing engineering harder.
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin (2019-10-04)
This is feminist scifi about linguistics, so… I loved it? Honestly, the characters could have been more whole and in many ways it shows it’s age (it was published in 1984) in things like the dialog. There’s a constructed language in the book that Elgin separately published and it has some ideas about encoding certain things into the language grammatically that I quite like. I keep meaning to look more into it. There’s also apparently another two books in the series, but I’m not sure if I’ll pick them up or not.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (2019-10-15)
I picked this up because I was at The Book People and saw a staff pick that if you liked whatever book I was reading at that time and really enjoying, you might like The Priory of the Orange Tree also by Shannon. But The Priory was hardback only, enormously thick and fairly expensive, so I decided to pick up something else by the same author. And I quite liked it. It’s got a neat magic system and a relatable main character. I plan to pick up the other two in the trilogy and then circle back for The Priory, for sure.
The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera (2019-11-08)
This is epic, martial arts fantasy about two women in love from an early age. It’s told mostly as a series of letters from one to the other recounting events they were both largely present for, but just kind of… in order to recount them to her. It makes more sense than that makes it sound. I just really love these women and their relationship and how epic they are. This is the third, though, fantasy book with a lesbian romance in it where one of the women has a reading problem (she has some kind of dyslexia that only affects the character-based writing system of one of their culture’s), which is an odd, to me, trend. I don’t know what about the modern lesbian experience that might be an allegory for or what. Anyway, I’m definitely going to read more from this author.
Catalyst Vol. 3 No. 2 (2019-11-22)
I think this whole issue is behind a paywall, but I’m going to link to things in the hopes that it’s a timed paywall and that eventually these links will be useful. This issue has A Socialist Party in Our Time? by Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella, which is about the party politics of the Democratic Party and the forces acting on socialist or other left candidates. I have thought a lot about it since reading it. Also included is The Mass Politics of Antislavery by Matt Karp about the abolition movement in the US North before our Civil War and how it formed and operated, and what problems it had, etc.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden (2019-12-13)
Drayden’s second book, this one’s also set in Africa (specifically South Africa). It takes place in a future where miniature personal robots have more or less taken over the role that smartphones have in today’s society. And then some ancient magical/god stuff happens. It was a fun read, but not super deep. Which I don’t mean to be damning. I hear her third book is out and on the strength of this and Temper plan on picking it up.
Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe (2019-12-29)
I think I picked this up because someone told me it reminded them of the Ancillary series. It has some similarities for sure (one of the characters is a ship-board AI), but I don’t think that’s a super strong comparison. I did, however, enjoy it. There’s hints of a larger something going on that I believe may become a statement about coroporations or capitalism or something, but this first book is about politics in a specific star system and keeping secrets and manipulating people. One of the main characters is this military lady and she’s real fun to have as a point-of-view character. I believe this is the start of a series and I entirely intend to read more.
Pinko No. 1 (2020-01-03)
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that I actually finished this one in 2020, but I read most of it in 2019 and also I just wanna talk about it some. Pinko is a zine about gay communism. I really liked it. In particular, it had a piece about how the phrase “gay communism” does meant “communism in which gay sex/people is/are present/omnipresent/celebrated/centered” but something wider. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but it definitely makes the idea of “fully automated luxury gay space communism in this life” (FALGSCITL; pronounced like “flag skittle” with the first L and A swapped) much more appealing to me.
Thanks to Alex and Bradford for helping edit this post.
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