Reading Round-Up: August 2022

Oh, August. Is it the worst month of the year? Very probably. But at least there were books to read to take my mind off things:

  • Some Great Thing (Lawrence Hill)
  • Caliban’s War (James S. A. Corey)
  • Abbadon’s Gate (James S. A. Corey)
  • Nothing More Perfect (Marty Gervais)
  • The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass on Tour (Adrian Plass)
  • Cibola Burn (James S. A. Corey)
  • Nemesis Games (James S. A. Corey)
  • Book Lovers (Emily Henry)

At this point you may be sensing a theme. In August I continued my foray through James S. A. Corey’s sprawling “Expanse” series of sci-fi doorstops. The trouble with reading them all in a row is that they’ve blended together in my mind to a certain degree — which makes sense, I suppose, since they’re telling one big story. In the first book of the series, Leviathan’s Gate, humanity has populated the solar system but not beyond; the sudden and violent introduction of an alien virus/technology/something changes solar geopolitics (solarpolitics?) forever, as well as the lives of countless people on Earth and far beyond. In these further installments, Corey expands the original cast and continues to explore the political, scientific, and social ramifications of that upheaval, with the requisite amount of wacky sci-fi stuff, space battles, alien landscapes, etc. Interestingly, the focal shift from book to book also engenders a tonal shift. Nemesis Games was very personal and intimate, and included a lot of character backstories that I’d been dying to read. Abbadon’s Gate was a bloodbath, easily the goriest of the series so far. Cibola Burn was almost a settlement-of-the-West-style colonial narrative. I’m always curious to see how the next book is going to shift, as well as to find out what happens next in the overall story.

Nothing More Perfect is a short book of poems by Canadian poet Marty Gervais. They’re have a sweetness and a sincerity about them that a lot of contemporary poetry eschews, but it’s quite refreshing, actually.

Lawrence Hill rose to fame in Canada with his powerhouse of a novel, The Book of Negroes (American title: Someone Knows My Name), which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, among others, and was later adapted as a mini-series. It wasn’t his first novel, however; that space is taken by Some Great Thing, which follows Mahatma Grafton, a cynical journalism graduate who moves back to Manitoba and takes a job with The Winnipeg Herald at the height of the controversy over official French-English bilingualism in the 1980s. It’s sharply-biting satire, and seriously funny.

Book Lovers delighted me, because it’s romance that plays with rom-com tropes in a brilliant and deliberate way. We all know the Hallmark type of story where the protagonist moves to a small town to support their ailing parent or bail out the family bakery or whatever, meets a wholesome hayseed, ditches their terrible career-focused city love interest, and lives happily ever after in Podunk, Wisconsin. But what happens to the person they left behind? Nora Stephens, a cut-throat New Yorker literary agent, has been dumped for the podunk life four times. Is lasting love just not possible for someone like her? (Spoiler alert: it is.) I also really appreciated that the things keeping the star-crossed love interests apart were not dumb romance tropes (She can’t admit she has amnesia! He’s really his own twin!) but simply the facts that life is complicated, practical circumstances can be big barriers, and sometimes you have to work through your own stuff before you’re healthy enough and ready enough to be with someone else. It’s a clever, clever book. Also quite smutty in parts. Reader be advised.

Adrian Plass on Tour is one of the “Sacred Diarist” series of short and hilarious novels by Adrian Plass (the author), featuring Adrian Plass (the character) and a bevy of his fictional friends and relations. In this installment, Adrian is going on tour as a Christian speaker, along with his wife Bridget, his son Gerald (now a wisecracking Anglican vicar), their irrepressibly-odd friend Leonard Thynn, and Thynn’s new girlfriend, the improbably-named Angels Twitten. Adrian Plass (actual person) is always a pleasure to read, now being enjoyed by a third generation in my family — my parents introduced me to his books, and I’ve introduced them to Anselm! They’re heartwarming as well as hilarious (The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn may be one of my all-time favourite books.)

Reading Round-Up: June & July 2022

Two months’ worth of reading in one post today. Here are the books I spent my time with so far this summer.

June:

  • Glamorous Powers (Susan Howatch)
  • LaserWriter II (Tamara Shopsin)
  • Rattle #72 — Tribute to Appalachian Poets
  • What If? (Randall Munroe)
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed (John Green)
  • The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
  • Ultimate Prizes (Susan Howatch)

July:

  • Mrs. Sherlock Holmes (Brad Ricca)
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
  • All the Seas in the World (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Second Sleep (Robert Harris)
  • Rattle #73 — Tribute to Indian Poets
  • Ragnarok (A S Byatt)
  • Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King)
  • Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business (Dolly Parton)
  • Rattle #74 — Tribute to Prisoner Express
  • Leviathan Wakes (James S A Corey)
  • The Holiday Swap (Maggie Knox)

I quail a bit at the thought of finding something to say about all of these at once — but let’s see if I can give them each a sentence or so, anyway. Working back to front:

The Holiday Swap was light and charming, which was a nice palate cleanser after Leviathan Wakes, which blew my mind (if you like detective noir and/or space opera, give it a go!). Dolly Parton is funnier than I knew, Rita Hayworth and the Etc. was better than the already excellent movie it inspired, and it was nice to encounter Norse mythology in a non-MCU setting in Byatt’s Ragnarok. The Second Sleep fell a little flat for me at the end but was still worth reading (don’t look up any blurbs or synopses for this one, just read to the end of Ch. 2 and you’ll know if you want to continue). All the Seas in the World made me cry more than once, Alice Through the Looking Glass was enticingly zany, and Mrs. Sherlock Holmes‘s interesting subject matter was thoroughly let down by its structural issues and terrible writing.

Moving on to June. Ultimate Prizes is another excellent exemplar of the Starbridge series, but best to start from the beginning with these. The Joy Luck Club was much more moving than when I read it in high school, and The Anthropocene Reviewed was tender and sincere. I only finished What If? by occasionally wrestling it out of Anselm’s hands (we keep renewing it and he’s read the whole thing through, oh, at least eight times). LaserWriter II had its own post here, and Glamorous Powers requires a brief suspension of disbelief re. psychic powers but hangs together well if you can get over that.

Rattle continues to be one of the best poetry magazines out there. The issues blend together in my mind, of course, but all of them have their share of turned-down corners marking poems that particularly touched me for one reason or another.

On deck for August: I’m eagerly awaiting Susan Howatch’s Scandalous Risks (coming via Inter-Library Loan and so arriving anytime between now and next year, apparently) and Caliban’s War, the book that follows Leviathan Wakes. Hurry up, library! (My friend Rebecca put me on to this series & has resorted to buying some of the books when the library holds list was too long — after reading Leviathan Wakes I understand the impulse!)

Reading Round-Up: May 2022

I completely forgot about last month’s round-up. We’re 23 days into June so this will be an interesting exercise in whether I actually remember anything about the books I read. Shall we begin?

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksander Solzhenitsyn)
  • You’ve Been Volunteered (Laurie Gelman)
  • At the Water’s Edge (Sara Gruen)
  • The Office BFFs (Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey)
  • Glittering Images (Susan Howatch)
  • Class Mom (Laurie Gelman)
  • Yoga Pant Nation (Laurie Gelman)
  • Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)

First off, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie Gelman’s “Class Mom” series, even though I accidentally read it out of order! You’ve Been Volunteered is actually the second novel (Class Mom is the first), and while I definitely missed some background stuff, it stood well enough on its own that I didn’t realize it was part of a larger series until I had just about finished. These books are funny, irreverent mom-lit centered around the drama of an elementary school PTA and the parents who make it up. They’re fun.

Glittering Images is the first novel in Susan Howatch’s six-book “Starbridge” series. All together they span about thirty years, the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, with a cast of characters whose lives all revolve around the Church of England’s (fictional) Starbridge Cathedral. In Glittering Images the Rev. Dr. Charles Ashworth, a bachelor theologian at Cambridge, is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discreetly investigate the private life of the charismatic and controversial Bishop of Starbridge, Dr. Alexander Jardine. Needless to say, he finds more than he bargained for. Susan Howatch is deeply wise about psychology, spiritual pitfalls, and the healing of psychic/spiritual wounds. Even if they don’t want to read all six novels (which is a commitment; they’re dense) I think that ordained or wanting-to-be-ordained persons would really benefit from reading this and the concluding novel, Absolute Truths.

Here’s a fact: I love The Office (the American version). It’s a perpetual rewatch show for me, something I throw on for background noise or when I need something familiar and comforting. I’ve read most of the books written by cast and crew of The Office, I listened to both of Brian Baumgartner’s Office-centered podcasts, and since mid 2020 I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s rewatch podcast, Office Ladies. It’s lighthearted and chatty, and I like to throw it on while I do chores. It feels like I’m just hanging out with some friends, gabbing about a show we all love. The Office BFFs is their new book, another behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Unlike Baumgartner’s disappointing Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (essentially just a transcript of his podcast episodes), The Office BFFs was about 90% new material as far as I could tell, and included a lot of Jenna and Angela’s personal stories and photographs. If you’re also an Office fan, this is a great one.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (made famous by her debut novel, Water for Elephants) is set mostly in Scotland during the second world war. American socialites Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off from Ellis’s father’s fortune after embarrassing the family in a drunken New Year’s debacle; determined to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, Ellis brings Maddie and his best friend, Hank, to the Scottish Highlands in the middle of the war. His goal? To succeed where his father failed, in hunting and capturing the famous Loch Ness Monster. Although Maddie is an adult through the whole book, it has a real bildungsroman feel as she struggles to find her place in this new milieu. My one criticism is that by the end of the novel the villain felt a little too villainous — other than that, it was a well-written and engrossing read.

Kitchen Confidential is a crazy look back at the coke-and-booze-fueled restaurant kitchens of the 80s and 90s. It’s funny, it’s grim, it’s fascinating… mostly though, by the end it left me feeling sad, just because of knowing how Bourdain’s life ended. Throughout Kitchen Confidential you get the impression that’s he’s been looking his whole life for — something — but in the end, I don’t think he ever found it.

And last but certainly not least, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of an ordinary day in a Siberian gulag. I first read this novella back in high school; as the books got passed out and we opened them up for the first time, a heavy snow immediately started falling outside our classroom window, which provided an excellent segue into a discussion of the pathetic fallacy. A few images had stayed with me from that first reading, but by and large I was able to appreciate this book with fresh eyes. It felt especially poignant to be reading it against the background of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the kidnappings/deportations and “filtration camps” currently happening in Russia-controlled territories. Plus ça change…

Reading Round-Up: April 2022

Big list last month. Let’s jump right to it:

  • Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  • Tangerine: Poems at 94 (Tangerine Bell)
  • Rattle #75
  • Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher)
  • Nurk (Ursula Vernon)
  • Madness, Rack, and Honey (Mary Ruefle)
  • When It Happens to You (Molly Ringwald)
  • Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)
  • Rattle #70
  • Little Town in the Ozarks (Roger Lea McBride)

April is (inter)national poetry month, so I deliberately went heavier on that than I usually do, reading one full-length collection of poems (Tangerine), two issues of Rattle (my all-time favourite poetry journal), and one collection of essays about poetry (Madness, Rack, and Honey). Surprisingly, I hadn’t actually read any poetry yet this year — too busy mainlining Brandon Sanderson novels — so it was really refreshing to dive back in. I especially enjoyed Mary Ruefle’s essays, which were beautiful and strange. It would also be greatly remiss of me not to mention that Tangerine Bell is my grandmother! She published Tangerine: Poems at 94, her first major collection of poems a few years ago. Tangerine is still alive, but she lives very far away and communication is getting more and more difficult as she ages, so it’s really meaningful to me to have this collection of her thoughts, words, and voice. (PS. buy her book)

T. Kingfisher is the pen-name of Ursula Vernon, who writes sweet children’s fantasy under her own name, and weird grown-up fantasy under the Kingfisher moniker. Nurk is subtitled “The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew” and is pretty much what it says on the tin. It was a quick read, and I think my kids would really enjoy it. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking starts with one of my favourite openers, namely a dead body somewhere it’s not supposed to be — in this case, on the floor of the bakery owned by Mona’s aunt. Mona is a magicker, though only in a small way as her magic only works on dough. But with someone hunting down the city’s magickers, and the Duchess’s army and chief wizard away, Mona soon finds herself called to greater deeds than she ever believed possible. This one felt like a standalone but I hope that Kingfisher/Vernon takes us back to Mona’s world again sometime.

I read Shadow Divers for the first time about six or seven years ago, I think, so this one was a re-read for me. It follows the story of Captain Bill Nagle and his crew of deep-sea wreck divers, who discovered a mystery U-Boat wreck off the New Jersey coast in 1991, far from where any known U-Boats were supposed to be. Kurson chronicles the discovery, the divers, and their deadly six-year journey to finally identify the “U-Who” and the men who served upon it. Even though I remembered the rough outlines, it was still absolutely gripping. See also: the men of U-869; “Everest at the Bottom of the Sea” (this is about diving the Andrea Doria but the ethos is the same).

I enjoyed Molly Ringwald’s (yes, that Molly Ringwald’s) novel-in-stories When It Happens to You. I would say that the plot was that of a fairly typical unraveling-family story, but the structure — telling it as a series of interconnected short stories — worked very well and added a lot of the experience.

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page was a standard Vinyl Cafe offering: amusing and tender as always. And Three Men in a Boat remains a perpetual re-read, and one of the funniest books I know. (See also: this post from… 2009, wow.)

Reading Roundup: March 2022

March books! As you can see, I’m still on my Brandon Sanderson kick, albeit not so overwhelmingly this month. Here’s the full list:

  • The Flight (Dan Hampton)
  • Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson)
  • And It Was Good (Madeleine L’Engle)
  • Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
  • Twelve Angry Men (Richard Rose)
  • Elantris (Brandon Sanderson)

The Flight was a library discard book I picked up at my local branch, and it chronicles Charles Lindbergh’s world-changing solo flight across the Atlantic. Although there is some necessary biography mixed in, the book’s focus really is an hourly play-by-play of his 33.5-hour flight. Dan Hampton is also an aviator, which made his narrative rich in technical details, although I found his prose somewhat clunky. It was a slow read, but I now know a bunch of facts about aviation in the 1920s, which is not the worst thing in the world.

Warbreaker is an early standalone novel in Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere, set on a planet that uses a magic system based around Breath (with a capital B) and colour. A tense peace exists between neighbouring nations Idris and Hallandren, and Idrian Princess Vivenna has been training her whole life for a treaty-negotiated marriage to Suseron, the Hallandren God-King. At the last moment, however, her sister Siri is sent in her place. Vivenna is determined to rescue her hapless sister, but soon enough both women find out that nothing they’ve assumed about Hallandren is as it seems. (Fun fact: Warbreaker was written two years before Apple’s virtual assistant was released, so the name “Siri” is purely coincidental — but if you read the book with Google’s ebook reader, it changes her name throughout to “Google Assistant,” with predictably hilarious results.)

And It Was Good is one of L’Engle’s nonfiction offerings, this one a long meditation on the first chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham. It’s a bit of a meandering text, sprinkled throughout with both memoir and short fiction as she works to relate these Biblical stories to her own life, and to imagine some of the stories that scripture doesn’t give us (what did Eve feel when she birthed Cain?). L’Engle is ultimately building a universalist case for salvation, which I don’t think is true and correct, but I appreciate her willingness to engage with the texts and to challenge some of my own assumptions.

And It Was Good actually sent me to Jayber Crow. I’ve read some of Berry’s poetry, but this was the first time I’d read any of his fiction. The novel is written in the form of a memoir by the eponymous Jayber Crow, the barber in Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. It’s much more than Jayber’s life story, really, making up a long elegy for a way of small town American life that began to pass away in the 1950s-70s with the advent of large-scale commercial farming and the construction of the highways and superhighways that suddenly connected small enclaves like Port William to the outside world, for both good and ill. The prose is beautiful (no surprise) and, as with this passage that L’Engle quoted, often indicting:

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. I thought of Athey’s reply to Hiram Hench.

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

I’ve heard many times that the 1957 film 12 Angry Men was an incredible movie about a jury trial, but I wanted to read the stage play before I watched it. So I did. It’s a quick read, and a great play. The movie is also available for free on vimeo — at least until whoever owns MGM these days notices and takes it down.

Elantris was my other BrandoSando book in March, also concerning a treaty wedding — except when Princess Sarene arrives in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, she finds out that he has died. Except Raoden hasn’t died — he’s been hidden, cast into the lost city of Elantris, after being taken by the shaod… which is sort of like being turned into a zombie? Except living. Mostly. While Raoden works to survive in Elantris and figure out what has happened to the shaod — which, until ten years ago, deified instead of zombified — Sarene must figure out how to prevent a holy war against her adopted nation, led by the grim Derethi priest Hrathen. This was Sanderson’s first published novel, and it shows. It’s not a bad book, I enjoyed it, but it’s full of bewildering fantasy names, many of which sound nearly the same as each other, and doesn’t have the tight plotting or polished prose of later books. Still worth a read, but if you’re starting Sanderson, I wouldn’t start with this one.

Reading Round-Up: February 2022

You may notice a theme here. Last month I read the following books, most of them door stopper-sized and every one of them by Brandon Sanderson:

  • The Way of Kings
  • Words of Radiance
  • Edgedancer
  • Oathbringer
  • Dawnshard
  • Rhythm of War

Only six books… but those books together held over 1.7 million words, so by that measure it was still a pretty heavy reading month!

These are the books that currently make up Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, which is part of his overarching fictional universe, the Cosmere, which is a little hard to explain without ending up looking like this guy:

In my (admittedly still limited) understanding, the Cosmere is a universe in which a group of ~15 persons conspired to and managed to kill their god/the universe’s creative force, Adonalsium, who/which shattered into a bunch of pieces that flew off into different planetary systems. Those sixteen “shards” of godhood/creative force, each carry one aspect of Adonalsium’s divinity (or whatever) and ended up picked up various individuals in each system, who took on each specific aspect/power and functionally became gods of their planetary systems. Each planetary system has its own distinct magic system, and one of the Cosmere’s overarching themes is what happens when fallen humans end up with divine powers. The books in the Cosmere span thousands of years in time, and although each one is set on a particular world, there are characters who appear in different books/worlds, known as “world-hoppers”. With 18 Cosmere books currently in print and something like a total of 40 planned, there is a lot to explore.

Anyway. The six books I read last month take place on the planet Roshar, part of the Rosharan system. Edgedancer and Dawnshard are novellas that fill out the stories of some minor characters. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, and Rhythm of War are all novels, part of Sanderson’s planned series of 10, and provide the meat of the story. Point of view rotates between a large cast of characters that gradually expands as the series progresses, detailing the war between the Alethi princedoms and the not-quite-human Parshendi peoples on the enormous battlefield known as the Shattered Plains. In The Way of Kings we begin with the stories of Dalinar Kholin, brother of the Alethi king whose assassination opens the book; Kaladin, a darkeyed slave sent to fight on the plains; Prince Adolin, Dalinar’s son; and Shallan Davar, a young woman sent to steal an important piece of technology from one of the preeminent scholars of the day, in hopes of saving her family’s fortune. From there, things get… considerably more complicated.

One of the things that I absolutely love about Brandon Sanderson’s work is his worldbuilding. Roshar is unlike Earth; it’s also unlike other planets in the Cosmere. It’s a watery world, and its people live on one huge continent (there are many more kingdoms/peoples than the Alethi and Parshendi). Roshar is subject to terrible recurring storms, highstorms, that sweep across the continent from East to West before circling the globe and passing over again. You don’t want to be caught out in a highstorm — but you do want to set out your gems, set in glass spheres, so that they can be refreshed with stormlight. Stormlight is the basis of Roshar’s magic system; captured in gemstones, it functions as currency, provides illumination, and is used to power the “fabrials” of Rosharan technology as well as provide the energy needed by Soulcasters, who can transform materials (people into stone, stone into grain, that sort of thing). Also the animals are mostly crabs which is… surprisingly charming. And unlike in this paragraph, Sanderson doesn’t info-dump his worldbuilding; he just plops you right in the action and you piece it together as you go. I love that.

Sanderson also does some interesting things with Rosharan societies. In the Vorin religion, followed by a large swath of the continent, gender roles are highly stratified: for example, only women are literate. This means that a man who wishes to read a book needs a female scribe to read it to him, which in turn means things like noble Alethis going to war as married couples — the husband to fight and lead troops, and his wife to manage the scouts and any reports that need to be read or sent. In Vorinism, a woman’s most private and erotic body part is her left hand, so Vorin women keep it covered at all times — the poor with a simple glove, and the right with a full encapsulating sleeve. And speaking of rich and poor, Alethi society is a caste system. This one isn’t based on skin colour (they uniformly have tan skin and black hair) but on the lightness or darkness of one’s eyes. The dark-eyed masses make up the lower classes, and the light-eyed rule. Members of the ruling caste are therefore addressed as Brightlord or Brightlady.

This was my second time reading through these books; I first encountered the Stormlight Archive about a year ago, as briefly touched on in last year’s round-up post. It had been long enough that I remembered most of the outlines but had forgotten most of the details, which to my mind is just about the perfect condition for a reread. This month I’ve branched out into further reaches of the Cosmere, which you will hear about (though probably not at this length!) later 🙂 I’m so happy to have discovered Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, and I’m sure that I will be reading him for years to come.