Read in 2013

2013 was a light year for reading mostly because of graduate school and busy life things. I’ve moved most of my logging to GoodReads. Anyway,

2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day

 

Fiction

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (471)

As you can see from the rest of this list, this was a year of reading through Banks’ Culture novels. This one was far and away my least favorite. Any explanation of why would spoil the plot.

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (272)

I’m honestly a bit surprised that this got nominated for the British Fantasy Award. Really the only thing I could really get into was the New Weird elements. The plot, the dialogue, and the world was mostly forgettable. In my Kindle version, there were a number of odd usage and spelling mistakes. Some of them could have been on purpose as stylistic flourishes, but it just happened too much to think it was on purpose. For instance, Hellequin magnified 1000°? Did she mean 1000x? Is that a Britishism I’m unfamiliar with? And the name Hellequin is just cringeworthy when they do a flashback and you realize that is his given name and not a circus pseudonym. The last 20% of the Kindle Edition is a novelette about one of the extremely minor characters. Pass.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (499)

Really not as bad as everyone says it is. Is this one of those too-cool-for-school things to hate on? I found it enjoyable, if a bit uncomfortable at times.

The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin (400)

I struggled through this. It has the ambiguous political noodling that is characteristic of the sci-fi of the period, but I found the characters so woefully boring that it made it difficult to continue. An interesting book overall, but I bet if you ask me in a year, I will have trouble remembering anything about it. Lathe of Heaven was much better.

Excession by Iain M. Banks (499)

This was kind of inversion of the normal Banks flow for me. I was really engaged with the plot and characters for the first two-thirds and it kind of fizzled out at the end. I really like the idea of the “Outside Context Problem” as its a helpful label for a sci-fi trope yet still has enough potential to be worthwhile as long as it isn’t hand-wavy away. Isn’t it a good explanation for what happens in the Hyperion series eventually? And again, Banks has the best ship names in the genre.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (256)
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov (450)
Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (528)

The first three books here are excellent, absolute classics of Sci-Fi and still hold up well today. The final two here were written decades later and are frustratingly bad. The finale is extremely unsatisfying because it really has next to nothing to do with what made Foundation interesting (the Seldon Plan) and is terribly formulaic. Asimov is unfortunately a one-trick pony by the end. There is always another layer higher controlling the characters behind the scenes. The Foundation controls the Galaxy. The Second Foundation controls the Foundation. To avoid spoilers, there are at least two more levels of hand-wavy control. It takes away all agency from the bleak characters. He even explains away the main character’s stupid Zapp Branigan-esque tendency to sex his way out of any situation that involves a woman. Major plot points are just assumed to be true and never tested. Dumb dumb dumb and detracts from the brilliance of the first three.

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper (315)

Some sci-fi tries to tackle political or social issues to the detriment of the story. In some it fits so naturally that, if you are willing, you can ignore the allegory because the story works so well. This is the latter. Tepper is becoming one of my favorite authors. While the characters play into their stereotypes a little too well, there is a plot reason for it which is revealed at just the right time. I very much enjoyed it.

His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem (199)

I had a bit of a double-take when Goodreads said this was only 199 pages. It is so incredibly dense with philosophical asides that I could have sworn it was twice the length. Lem packs so much into every paragraph and here especially spends such little time on dialogue and set pieces. This is the prototypical science fiction book about Ideas. Man stumbles upon what may or may not be a message from the stars and the government sequesters Top Men in an abandoned nuclear testing facility (I know, right?) to try and “decode” it. I found the musings on language to make much more sense here than in Babel-17. While I can see how many could find this dull and plot-less, I thought it was charming and thought-provoking. The aside about halfway through where the scientist lambastes the uselessness of science fiction earned him many points with this reader. This book could never, ever be successfully converted to television or film.

Inversions by Iain M. Banks (343)

An odd change in genre for the Culture series. Lots of nods to Game of Thrones here, but it’s a great Culture story by the end. Unlike the previous one in the series, this one has actually good characters with meaningful personality traits.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross (335)

I was of mixed feelings about this book. It turned me off early by deciding to sound genuine about game designers and totally flubbing it (There aren’t lectures at E3 and no one says “Electronic Entertainment Expo”, they say “E3”.) And the game design ideas were things I’d lecture my students on as naive. But anytime a writer is writing for a job outside his element, he risks making those mistakes so I can forgive it for a good story. Unfortunately Mr. Peanut jumps all around and is largely concerned with casting women as inscrutable irrational creatures so fragile that they are willing to starve themselves to death just for attention. It was a little (a lot) tasteless. The middle third of the book changes perspective to a fictionalization of the Sam Sheppard case which is essentially irrelevant to the main plot with the exception of a few Twin Peaks-esque hints. Pass.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (288)

It’s amazing how easily I can be distracted by poorly-designed games in fiction – quidditch comes to mind. This novel really nailed the mindset of strategic play and how it affects a person’s workaday decision-making. And it’s a good sci-fi yarn.

Raising the Stones by Sheri Tepper (480)

Pretty much everything I look for in SF/F. The plot was lively and kept me interested. The characters were multi-dimensional. The sci-fi ideas made sense and served the story, the Big Ideas were meaningful and dealt with some relevant philosophical questions and there were just enough oddball things (like the Porsa) that the story will stick with me.

However, I can see this one being not for everyone. There are almost as many characters as Game of Thrones and it doesn’t seem like their stories will tie together…until they do. It also might be a little too magical for what starts off seeming pretty low fantasy.

Sideshow by Sheri Tepper (496)

While “Raising the Stones” was the best of the trilogy, I still enjoyed this quite a bit. Tepper reuses some of her plot points and can at times be a bit hand-wavy, but the societies she creates are just compelling. Unlike the first two, which were largely independent, you do need some knowledge of the events of those stories before jumping into this even though it is set centuries later.

State of the Art (199) by Iain M. Banks

I don’t think Banks works so well in the short form. His plots come off as pointless at this length instead of suggestive of a larger whole. I think he needs the length to make an attractive world for his ideas to sit and he just doesn’t get enough time here. The titular story left me feeling “so what”.

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (411)

I really struggled through the first half of this, almost giving up and putting it away. It all seemed so deliberately vague and pointless. Luckily the last 10% of the book pulls things together in such a compelling way that I went back and paged through a bunch of earlier passages just to pick up on the clues. It’s rare that a book starts slow and ends strong for me; usually it is the converse.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (359)

While reading it, I thought it was fairly mediocre global warming sf with awful dialogue and characters. But after putting it down for a few weeks, some of the ideas keep creeping back to me. The yellow cards, the “calorie men”, the kink-spring batteries. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here even if the novel itself isn’t that satisfactory.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer (1152)

I saw this massive anthology sitting on the “new” shelf at Barnes & Noble early in the year. Flipping through, it had so many of my favorite stories and a whole bunch I’d never heard of. Having earned my trust with previous Vandermeer anthologies, I bided my time for a Kindle version to come out as holding an almost 1200 page book night after night would be less than optimal, especially with the Bible-thin pages. It’s formatted perfectly, unlike some other e-anthologies I’ve tried, with a nice blurb about the author prefacing each entry. The anthology is organized chronologically, so you can really get the ebb and flow of influences over time (ghost stories, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc.) Every anthology must be missing something for readers to complain about. I found it odd the lack of Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick. But it is hard to complain about an anthology that has pretty much a who’s who of speculative fiction in it: Oates, King, Mieville, Gaiman, Barker, Butler, Kafka, Borges, Jackson, Chabon,. It even had a out-of-sorts SF story from George R.R. Martin that I kind of dug. I was turned on to numerous new writers as well. Highest recommendation.

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (256)

Hauntingly beautiful and a bit frightening. Painfully thick with metaphor, but nonetheless compelling and natural.

Non-Fiction

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright (430)

A page-turner. Wright paints an extremely vivid picture of the “prison of belief” from Scientology’s beginning to where it is today. He makes it quite clear (heh) how people are able to be sucked in and how innocent spiritually inquisitive people can be taken advantage of by a system that gets progressively more troublesome the higher you go. From the sad paranoid schizophrenia of the founder, to the sadism and terrorism of its current leader, the book’s characters and anecdotes get stranger and stranger. Where does the science fiction stop and reality begin? So many pains are made to attribute every claim made that the final third of the book is footnotes. Fantastic read.

How Do You Kill 11 Million People by Andy Andrews (83)

It’s shameful that they are charging for this. It’s a cliche-themed blog post with an interview with the author about how transformational it is. Let me save you the 30-minutes it takes to read this: politicians lie and “good” people do nothing. Well, no crap.

Quiet by Susan Cain (333)

Really interesting. It seems like a lot of the odd things that I thought were just personality quirks turn out to be fairly universally well-explained by the introversion-extroversion continuum.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (275)

I felt an overwhelming sense while reading this that the author hadn’t really set out to make any particular observations. You just join him in his stream of consciousness about the subject. Anecdotes are great (and there are some ones in here that pack a real punch), but they are best to support a thesis. You can’t just eat a bowl of sprinkles.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (544)

A nice review if you already know about Bayes and modeling, but mostly some good pop-anecdotes to review when someone quotes some junk prediction from the news as fact.

Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham (180)

I became a teacher with almost no formal training about how people learn. So when I saw this, while it is “popularized” science, I felt I could at least glean some useful takeaways. The book exceeded my expectations and should be required reading for those who want to teach, not just formally but informally as well. The book debunks popular teaching standards like “teaching modalities” and at least gives me something better to hang my hat on than my kneejerk reactions “teach kids biology by making hand puppets because some are tactile learners” hokum. Besides debunking the silly, there are a ton of great little conclusions that have practical application for teachers of all trades, even game designers.

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