Monday, January 25, 2016

Comfort reads

Between Husband leaving after a long stretch of being home, which always makes me a bit melancholy, plus a cold (very brief – I’m learning how to take care of myself! Self-care is important!), coupled with a whole bunch of DNFs (seriously, this is the worst run of DNFs in a while), I’ve been enjoying comfort reads.

Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons is the first in her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it’s by far the best. The others are worth reading – Mendenbar is pretty great, and Telemain is awesomely insufferable – but the first one is just such a perfect gem of a book, with an unforgettable heroine and just exactly the right tone of love and absurdity. It might not feel all that original now, but its story of a princess who didn’t want to do princess-y things and ran away to have adventures was utterly unique at the time. It was one of my childhood favorites, and in fact, for a while, I didn’t know there were any sequels.

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was not a childhood favorite, but a recent release that immediately became one of my favorite books. It marries a retelling of a Russian folk story with the rugged harshness of 1920s homesteading Alaska. I re-read it every year now, with the first snowfall of winter. Each time, I get something different out of it. My first read focused on the central tension, “is she or isn’t she real?” with special attention paid to the way that Jack and Mabel seemed to embody realism and imagination respectively, but ended up almost switching roles. My second read was all about the violence of the Alaskan winter and of hunting, and I marveled at how different my experience of The Snow Child was. This time, I spent the whole book wondering if Faina existed at all, or whether she was an embodiment of the Alaskan wilderness itself, shaped to the needs of the people she interacted with. It’s amazing how a good novel can produce so many different responses, and even more so when the book itself is a debut.

Then I got sick. And when I’m sick, I get apathetic. I don’t want to watch anything, I don’t want to read anything; I just sit staring at my bookshelf or DVD shelf getting steadily more frustrated that nothing calls out to me. With a fuzzy head, I don’t have the desire to read something new, so I always end up with a comfort read of some kind. First, I tried Piers Anthony’s first Xanth book, and got so angry I almost threw it across the room. Oh my goodness, the suck fairy (c.f. Jo Walton) has visited this childhood favorite in a big way. Sexism, objectifying women, rape culture, toxic masculinity, it's all there. I was amazed and appalled and will probably give this omnibus back to my father. So instead I read a little-known cyberpunk series that, most improbably, has always held a place among my deepest loves. Raven in Hex (first of Rhiannon Lassiter’s Hex trilogy) is a manic-depressive, psychotic, antisocial, selfish, violent, rock music-loving computer genius, and I wanted to be her. Hex isn’t the best-written book, and it doesn’t clearly fit into a category anymore because it was published before YA became a thing (so it’s middle-grade length with YA concepts, but without any romance). But I have loved it for so long that it will always hold a place on my bookshelf.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


I’ve been rediscovering my geek roots. Getting back to sci-fi and fantasy novels was just the start. This past winter break was a pretty spectacular time for rediscovering my love of fandoms and fan culture. It all started with Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which came out last semester. I’d adored the concept of her earlier novel, Fangirl, though I didn’t love the execution – it’s a story about a Cath, a first-year college undergrad and fanfic author writing what’s essentially the last Harry Potter book before it comes out. Instead of Harry Potter, it’s Simon Snow, but Fangirl was unmistakably a book about HP fan culture. Cath’s fanfic, Carry On, Simon stuck in Rowell’s head even after Fangirl was published. So she wrote that story – not as Cath would tell it, but as she, Rowell, would. So Carry On is a realization of a fictional fanfic of a fictional alternate Harry Potter. It’s fantastically meta and yet another love story to fan culture. (Although yet again, I adored the concept but not the execution. Rowell’s prose and romances just don’t do it for me.)

And then for Thanksgiving, Amazon had a huge sale, and Husband and I splurged: we bought ourselves all 8 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, which we’d begun watching together in our summer in London. My university library only has the first 5 seasons, so we’d been considering buying the later ones...but the sale was too good to pass up. So now we own all of them. And after Husband finished his semester and came home for a solid month (I was a happy wife, let me tell you), we watched them all. Now, Big Bang Theory has its problems. It is often unconsciously offensive, completely tone deaf in its depiction of power relations, sexist, racist. It doesn’t understand academia at all. It gets stuff wrong about the very geeky things it depicts. But it depicts geeks loving geeky things without embarrassment. And a lot of the those things are things I love, or at least, I used to. Stuff like the board game Talisman, Dungeons & Dragons, collectible card game tournaments at comic book stores, sci-fi conventions, wanting to grow up to be a Vulcan or a hobbit. A lot of things I haven’t thought about in a while, but being reminded, now I miss them.
So I read Sam Maggs’ fabulously affirming Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, which introduces names of fandoms, gives a guide to attending cons, even outlines major concepts in feminism and how they apply to the geek girl’s experience. It’s a light, frothy sort of book that reads more like an informal blog post with all its internet jargon, and it was super fun. I read it in a single afternoon.

Then I turned to David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. The good: a detailed story of the early history of the making of D&D: where the ideas came from and how they were brought to life and marketed as what would become the world’s most successful role-playing game ever. I loved the discussion about how role-playing shapes your creativity, your ability to problem-solve, your teamwork. But, and here’s the serious but: when the title says “Of Dice and Men” it means it. This is not a story about “the People Who Play It.” This is a story about the men who play D&D, with almost no recognition throughout the entire book that women have, can, and do play it. There was exactly one reference to a woman playing D&D in the entire book – one, I counted! The worst bit was when the author criticized an acquaintance for being sexist without realizing that he himself had been sexist throughout the whole book. Well, newsflash, David M. Ewalt: women play D&D too. There’s no gender essentialism that says only men can ever be interested in role-playing. Stop being surprised that we might ever care. Women are not some foreign species, we share all the same interests as you men.

Oh, and more geeking out: Husband and I watched all seven of the Star Wars movies over break too. I’m planning to buy Hot Topic’s awesome corset-top TARDIS dress. Stephen Moffat is leaving Doctor Who (next step, female doctor??!). And I’m a hundred pages into John Crowley’s totally ethereal and sensuous novel Little, Big.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Favorites, series, and disappointments of 2015

2015 was generally a really fantastic reading year. I feel as if I've come into my own as a reader of several very different genres. SF/F and British domestic fiction aren't normal bedfellows, but they are both my great loves, and alternating between them has kept my free-reading time feeling fresh. It's been fun to go through my lists for 2015 and note some highlights for the year:

Series read this year (hmm, mostly SFF! Perhaps because domestic fiction doesn't as often come in series?):
  1. Moomins, Tove Jansson (except for Great Flood, the rarer first book which I still have yet to acquire)
  2. The Hero’s Guide, Christopher Healy
  3. Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson
  4. Inheritance, N. K. Jemisin
  5. Memoirs of Lady Trent #1-3 (all that’s been published so far), Marie Brennan
  6. Xenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler

 Series I was really expecting to love but ended up abandoning after the first one:
  1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman
  2. Finishing School, Gail Carriger
  3. The Queen’s Thief, Megan Whalen Turner
  4. The Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare

Most disappointing DNFs:
  1. Black Dove, White Raven, Elizabeth Wein (I expected to love this; perhaps it couldn't grab me the way her WWII novels did because I didn't know anything about the political situation in Ethiopia)
  2. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (loved the female-gendered pronouns! But I couldn't get into it)
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (680 pages in and I'm setting it aside. This book is just too long and drawn out, with a far more interesting beginning than middle.)

Favorite Re-Reads:
  1. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  2. Guard Your Daughters, Diana Tutton

And now, the most important and most fun list: favorite new reads! I loved each of these books for very different reasons. Some are among the best in their genre; others were simply what I needed at the time. Some were beautifully written; others were not so well-written but stuck with me for one reason or another. I found it impossible to narrow this list down to ten. What do I leave in? The books that I still think about, or the books I couldn't put down? The books I've had the most conversations about? The books that moved me deeply at the time, or the books that still make me smile when I think of them? This list of fourteen encompasses a lot of SFF, but even a lot of those are genre-crossing in other ways (such as Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw, a Victorian manners novel starring dragons). There's even a ballet novel.

Favorites New Reads:
  1. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  3. The Greengage Summer, Rumer Godden
  4. Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton
  5. The Crown of Embers (Fire and Thorns #2), Rae Carson
  6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritence #1 and #2), N. K. Jemisin
  7. Among Others, Jo Walton
  8. Greenglass House, Kate Milford
  9. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  10. Wake, Anna Hope
  11. The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
  12. Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2), Octave E. Butler
  13. The Martian, Andy Weir
  14. Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman