Bookshelf

  1. Currently Reading:
    Cover of The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War

    The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War

    by Felapton, Camestros
  2. Currently Reading:
    Cover of Swag

    Swag

    by Leonard, Elmore
  3. Currently Reading:
    Cover of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

    Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

    by The Venerable Bede
  4. Cover of Hamlet

    Hamlet

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
  5. Cover of Never Say You Can't Survive

    Never Say You Can't Survive

    by Charlie Jane Anders
    ★ ★ ★

    Never Say You Can't Survive

    by Charlie Jane Anders
    ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

    This book on the craft and process of writing fiction has some solid practical perspectives for aspiring authors. The advice is nicely non-dogmatic and goes out of its way to make the reader feel empowered and positive.

    But it's funny to read this kind of thing from a writer with so few major novels under her belt. Somehow it seems like jumping the gun toward something that feels more legitimate coming from elder statespeople of the craft. When you read books on writing from Stephen King or Ursula K Le Guin or Ray Bradbury, you know they've been in the trenches for long time, writing millions of words and running into every obstacle along the way. This lacks that kind of authority.

    Another interesting and, to me, mildly disagreeable aspect of this book is Anders' focus on encouraging you to write fiction that avoids the unpleasant. I'm pretty convinced that Kurt Vonnegut had it right when he said that you must put your protagonists through hell so that we can all see what they're made of. Not that every story has to follow this rigidly, but great adversity generally makes for strong characters and compelling tales.

    Anders repeatedly says that the world is turning into a dumpster fire, and that's why our fiction should be warm and safe and escapist. And I find that perspective rather unfortunate. Partly because, while the world is certainly facing some difficult times lately, many, many things continue to get better. And also because it's such a passive, bury-your-head response to the challenges of our era. Fiction can mean a lot and change a lot for a world in peril, but only if it faces those things head-on. Just look at The Jungle, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Brave New World.

  6. Cover of Contact

    Contact

    by Carl Sagan
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Contact

    by Carl Sagan
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    I had seen the Robert Zemeckis film version of Contact several times and always mostly enjoyed it, but until now I had never read the novel. Like any bonified science nerd, I love Carl Sagan, but I knew this was his only book of fiction and the film certainly has some ungainly elements to the story, so I was cautious. Now that I've finally read it though, I have to say that it is a monumental achievement.

    What surprised me isn't the depth and detail Sagan brings to the scientific and political aspects of this story of humanity's receipt of an alien signal—Sagan was after all a real-life astrophysicist who had collaborated with NASA. No, what surprised me is the human depth of his protagonist and the mastery with which he weaves the threads of story together. The subject matter is so big that it's amazing any author was able to keep it so grounded, let alone a writer new to fiction.

  7. Cover of Romeo and Juliet

    Romeo and Juliet

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Romeo and Juliet

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Romeo and Juliet is among my very favorite plays. In popular culture it's usually treated as this great romance, but I think that idea misses the point entirely. Romeo and Juliet are teenagers, children really, and their love has all the adolescent intensity, rashness, grandiosity, and impulsivity you would expect from teenagers. (Could I be right in thinking this is the only play in which the Bard makes a point of mentioning his protagonists age? Eh, maybe in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Tempest also?) No, what makes this play great is the texture and life of the entire cast of characters, the tight and lively storytelling, and the deft use of tragic irony.

    Speaking of the youth and impulsivity of the title characters, something that stood out to me on this reading was the relationships they have with their parents. Romeo's parents seem supportive in the abstract, but I can't recall that he ever actually shares a scene with either of them. They're just absent. Juliet's parents, on the other hand, are very present in her life, marrying her off to a man she barely knows at a young age and threatening her when she protests.

    An interesting related thought to consider is that Romeo and Juliet each have a surrogate parent (Friar Laurence and the Nurse, respectively) who supports them, councils them, conspires to marry them, and helps them like true parents should.

    Romeo and Juliet's psyches are not so deeply explored as Hamlet or Macbeth or Richard III, but the tapestry formed by all the relationships makes the play just as rich as those. Its these relationships between the characters, the complexity and effervescence of the interactions that give this play such staying power.

  8. Cover of A Psalm for the Wild Built

    A Psalm for the Wild Built

    by Becky Chambers
    ★ ★

    A Psalm for the Wild Built

    by Becky Chambers
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

    Possibly one of the blandest stories I've ever read.

    The main conflict is that the protagonist doesn't feel quite perfectly happy in a perfect progressive society surrounded by a supportive community and given the freedom to seek any kind of work they choose for fulfillment. The hardest choice they have to make is whether to be friends with the perfectly nice robot who wants to be friends with them.

    On top of that, the scifi just isn't very imaginative. Picture the world as run by Brooklyn hippie-yupster moms. A robot who talks, acts, and thinks just like a human. A monk in a religion that barely exists in the story and that seems to have no impact on the monk's behavior or life other than a few vague mentions of gods. Bland, bland, bland.

    I like that Chambers wants to be positive in her stories, but you still have to tell a good story or it just falls flat.

  9. Cover of Elder Race

    Elder Race

    by Adrian Tchaikovsky
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Elder Race

    by Adrian Tchaikovsky
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    This is my kind of scifi, one that juxtaposes technology and mythology, past and future, language and ideas. I hesitate to say more, lest I should spoil anything for the reader. Suffice it to say that I will be voting for this as my Hugo award pick for the novella category and that I will be getting my mitts on more of Tchaikovsky's books very soon.

  10. Cover of Across the Green Grass Fields

    Across the Green Grass Fields

    by Seanan McGuire
    ★ ★ ★
  11. Cover of The Tempest

    The Tempest

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    The Tempest

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    Does it make me a bad Shakespeare fan to say that while I like this, one of the most popular plays, I don't love it? Maybe I just never saw a great production.

    Don't get me wrong. There are some great images (Prospero with his book, Caliban discovering booze), and some great language. But the story never really seems to fit together for me.

    There's this fantastic thread of this powerful, almost inhuman sorcerer with a grand plan for terrible vengeance, prepared over years, and finally begun with the title storm. And he... calls it off and forgives everyone? It's a letdown.

    And then there's Miranda, grown up isolated from all mankind save her father and the brutish Caliban, who has this fantastic feeling of epiphany when she is exposed to wider humanity ('Oh, brave new world!'). I really wish we see her story as she is taken to Milan and joins civilization.

    For me, the only really satisfying feature of the conclusion to the tale is Arial's release from servitude.

    I suspect that much of the play's enduring focus comes down to viewers looking for the voice of Shakespeare himself, heading for retirement in Stratford even as Prospero breaks his staff and drowns his book. And, yeah, that does kind of get me too. All I'm saying is it's a mixed bag when taken as a whole.

  12. Cover of She Who Became the Sun

    She Who Became the Sun

    by Shelley Parker-Chan
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    She Who Became the Sun

    by Shelley Parker-Chan
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    This book strikes a great balance: 85% historical fiction and 15% fantasy, and in some places it's hard to tell whether the fantasy elements are really there or are just a figment of the characters' perspectives.

    And while this book in many ways resembles its epic fantasy forbearers, with themes of power and destiny played out against grand landscapes and mighty battles, the setting (late medieval China) and the characters feel very fresh to my eyes, which are too used to seeing only fantasy with a European bent.

    Finally, and perhaps this is most important to me here, it's great to see a contemporary novel that lives up to all the best instincts of the current wave of inclusivity-centric genre fiction (non-white, queer, and otherwise diverse POV characters) but without letting the craft of storytelling suffer. All the motivations feel real and the characterization is deep. There are no Mary Sues or tokens here. And there's none of this silly business where the author thinks that the characters must never be hurt or do anything wrong in order to be represented. In fact, the story is pretty tragic in multiple ways.

    I really look forward to volume two in this series!

  13. Cover of King Lear

    King Lear

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    King Lear

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    For me, Lear is the most tragic of all Shakespearean tragedies, and it hits harder as I grow older. Both Lear and Gloucester are aging, and both are betrayed by their own progeny, the worst of the new generation casting aside their parents like worthless garbage. And it's all the worse because Lear's mind is slipping and Gloucester's loyalty is unbreakable.

    I also love this play because it is among the most surreal of the canon. So much of the story is set in these nonspecific and liminal spaces, all moors and heaths and storm. And then there's the image of this half-mad king wandering the darkness in the company only of the acerbic fool, or the image of the blinded exile led to the edge of an illusory cliff by a beggar he doesn't know to be his own son. It's practically postmodern.

    One of the Bard's very best.

  14. Cover of A Master of Djinn

    A Master of Djinn

    by P. Djèlí Clark
    ★ ★

    A Master of Djinn

    by P. Djèlí Clark
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

    I decided to read this novel for two reasons: First, I'd read and generally enjoyed P. Djèlí Clark's previously Hugo-nominated short story The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington and the previously Hugo-nominated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which is set in the same fantasy alternate-history Cairo as A Master of Djinn. Second, I'm shooting to read all the Hugo nominees this year, something I haven't done for a while, but which gives one a great feeling of being a part of something that matters.

    While the indirect prequel The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is certainly fairly light popcorn entertainment, I enjoyed the unique world and the relatively understated characters and conclusion. Well, A Master of Djinn keeps and even dives further into the popcorn, but it loses the understatement, with a world-threatening cartoon supervillain and characters drawn cartoonishly broadly.

    Actually, let's focus on the word cartoon for a moment. Throughout the time I was reading this novel, I kept thinking that the writing felt somehow less mature than what I think of as Hugo Award faire, though it's a trend I seem to detect in several of the nominees of late. I suggested to my wife that they feel like YA novels, but she shut that down, correctly pointing out that many YA novels are dark as all getout and often have a surprising amount of character depth and meaning. It was only when I made it to the pew-pew-stop-the-world-from-ending climax that it hit me: This feels like an actual cartoon. Maybe like a classic Saturday morning action cartoon or possibly even more like a Dreamworks animated tentpole (not near enough texture or emotional depth to be compared to Pixar).

    And since this seems to be representative of a whole wave of popular scifi and fantasy, it set me to wondering, is this something like a Marvel-effect, where popular entertainment aimed at twelve-year-olds is informing all the stories we tell as a culture? Or is it something else about this cultural moment that is focusing our stories on elements other than textured and deep characters? I think it might be a little of both, really, but I want to dig into the latter just a bit.

    Something undeniable about the current wave of popular sci-fi and fantasy is that there is a strong focus on inclusive stories by diverse authors, which is wonderful. But I hypothesize that there might be something of a Mary Sue phenomenon at work (or might I call it the Rey-from-the-new Star-Wars-movies phenomenon?), where we want to show that lots of different types of people can be great protagonists, but in our desire to show how awesome they are, we shy away from giving them the foibles and conflicts that create truly deep characters and nuanced situations. I could be way off here, but it's a thought.

    Which brings me back to one of the things about this novel (and these kinds of novels) which doesn't work for me. All of the central protagonists are just far too nice and understanding of each other. Sure, there are some extremely shallow moments of temporary disagreement, but it's always resolved in no time flat. Not that I want miserable characters who hate themselves and everyone else, but there's a level of mature interaction that is extremely lacking. This is a story that nominally follows the structure of classic hard-boiled noir detective fiction. But when no one gets any emotional scrapes

  15. Cover of One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    by Gene Weingarten
    ★ ★ ★

    One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

    by Gene Weingarten
    ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

    I picked up this book because, as a history fan, the idea of looking at a single day in history seemed intriguing. For me, history is a tapestry of interwoven strands, all affecting the others. And it seems probable that any random moment in time can be examined to find important moments on a thread.

    It was something of a disappointment, then, to discover that this book isn't really about history at all. Weingarten does indeed examine one randomly chosen day, but he's less interested in examining how the the events resonate down the strands of history, and more interested in simply finding juicy stories (with a few historically relevant gems sprinkled in along the way).

    And don't get me wrong, Weingarten is very good at telling his stories, as it seems that so many journalists are when they turn to longer form writing. It's just that his interests aren't as aligned with my own as I wanted. In fact, there are a couple of chapters centered around sports stories that I skimmed or skipped altogether. At the end of the day, a fun read, but not a high ranker.

  16. Cover of Twelth Night

    Twelth Night

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    Twelth Night

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
    Classic Shakespearean comic tropes, deftly executed. Not one of my favorites, but plenty enjoyable.
  17. Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    by Arthur Conan Doyle
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)

    by Arthur Conan Doyle
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
    Holmes makes me happy every time. Delightful.
  18. Cover of Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    Foundation's Edge (Foundation #4)

    by Isaac Asimov
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    As fun, compulsively readable, and original as Asimov's other works. My only note is that, for me, the ending feels just a bit too pat. It's a quality of the earlier Foundation novels as well that the brilliant hero masterminds events just so, but in this one the plan of Gaia feels more like a scheme of the author's than something that is totally believable within the world of the story. Overall, I still loved it though; minor complaints only.

  19. Cover of Much Ado About Nothing

    Much Ado About Nothing

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Much Ado About Nothing

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    One of the best comedy plays, with a rather intricate plot and little of the formula that governs most of the others. I read the scenes between Beatrice and Benedick as a forerunner to the screwball comedies of the early twentieth century. And the character of Dogberry is a sort of silly that is timelessly funny,

  20. Cover of Stand on Zanzibar

    Stand on Zanzibar

    by John Brunner
    ★ ★

    Stand on Zanzibar

    by John Brunner
    ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

    I didn't finish this book. The reasons I picked it up were that it won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 1969 and that Jo Walton, in her An Informal History of the Hugos, gives it a lot of praise. And based on those factors I stuck with it until about halfway through (of a fairly long page count), but ultimately I couldn't do it anymore. I understand why it impressed people when it came out.

    The tone of hip cynicism is very representative of the time it was written, and the slightly psychadelic found-text montage style is unique and again very of it's time. But the point of view and culture it depicts are downright nasty. Every nonwhite character is invariably refered to by their race as defining characteristic whenever they are mentioned. All females are referred to entirely as sex objects. A riot starts in a black nieghborhood simply because the locals are stirred up by a white man walking through. On top of all that, the none of the protagonists have any redeeming qualities and the plot is vague and meandering. I don't have to have my characters and stories easy to swallow, but there has to be something to make me want to keep reading.

    I doubt I'll pick up another Brunner novel any time soon.

  21. Cover of Oil!

    Oil!

    by Upton Sinclair
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Oil!

    by Upton Sinclair
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    I really enjoyed reading Sinclair's The Jungle when I was in high school, but had never yet gotten around to any of his other works. Then a few years ago I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant and chilling There Will be Blood, which I learned is loosely inspired by this novel and its seemed like the perfect excuse to get back to Sinclair's work.

    The first thing I have to report is that the writing is superb. Lovely prose, fantastic structure, characters you can believe, sardonic humor, and messaging that is (almost) never heavy handed. I mention messaging because this book is all about capitalism versus labor (and socialism and communism). Written a hundred years ago, all the big questions it asks are still shockingly relevant today. How do we know who's version of events to believe? Where is the line between getting things done and cheating the system? How do you find balance when your beliefs are opposed to those you love most?

    It's a very long book, but one that kept me hooked the whole way through.

  22. Cover of Othello

    Othello

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    Othello

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    I've always enjoyed Shakespeare's villains. He paints them with such texture, such depth. You can really revel in Richard III's Machiavelian scheming or feel yourself sinking into Macbeth's guilt-haunted madness. And I enjoy Iago as well, but Othello is the most painful story to witness.

    Shakespeare starts the play by showing you an unlikely couple who struggles against difficult odds to be together, only for us to watch Iago destroy them both utterly, without mercy or even much explanation beyond his own slighted ego. And it's all the worse because every other character believes him to be the most trustworthy and honorable of friends.

    So perhaps of all the Bard's tragedies, this is the most tragic. It's also among the best paced and best structured. And Act IV Scene III is among the most emotionally gutting things ever written.

  23. Cover of What Technology Wants

    What Technology Wants

    by Kevin Kelly
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    What Technology Wants

    by Kevin Kelly
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

    What Technology Wants is a book after my own heart. It looks deeply at the nature of not only technology, but of the trajectory of life, the universe, and everything. Much of what Kelly observes and posits runs parallel to my own ideas about how technology fits into the past, present, and future of the world, but he examines the issues with far more detail and nuance than I ever have.

    This book is dense with ideas—reading it, I probably highlighted more frequently than in any other book I've read—and many, many of them caused me to drastically reconsider or reframe the way I look at something.

    I'm demanding that my book club take this one up as our next read just because I want to see what others have to say about these big concepts.

  24. Cover of As You Like It

    As You Like It

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★

    As You Like It

    by William Shakespeare
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

    I'd consider As You Like It to be one of the best of the comedies. It certainly features some of the Bard's most famous turns of phrase and most eloquent speeches. The plot does meander quite a bit, but, with the help of an actual deus ex machina, everything comes together at the end and none of the threads are left dangling.

    Among the most interesting aspects of the play is Shakespeare's particularly meta-level play with gender. Toward the end, you have the boy actor who would have played the female Rosalind, masquerading as male Ganymede (a name with homoerotic mythological origins), who is play acting as a female love interest for her own unwitting lover, whilst also becoming the love interest of a female character (again acted by a boy). One can't help but wonder whether Shakespeare was just having fun or there was more behind it. (Given his sonnets, it's not unreasonable to guess that there might be.)