August 2021 Books

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (2015)

First, a brief plot summary: a ragtag crew of aliens and humans set out on a journey to a job that is long, possibly a little dangerous, but will pay well. The book is a travelogue, so there are vignettes of their various adventures and we spend time with each of the crew getting to know them and what their species is like. This book though, is less about the plot and more about “hey here are a colorful cast of characters!”

I’ve heard both rave reviews and also complaints about this book, so I expected to love or hate it. I neither loved nor hated it: there were things I enjoyed about this book but more things that didn’t really work for me.

Pros: This is not grimdark sci fi, so if you’re looking for a lighter tone, you might enjoy this. This is a hopeful universe with few true villains and the story doesn’t dwell on the darkness.

There is also great world building where humans are just one race among many intergalactic species—Chambers populates the galaxy with an array of species who are mostly just trying to get along and live their own lives.

Cons: If you like plot-driven stories, this will not be for you. There’s a loose journey, but this is more about the characters’ lives.

The characters, while interesting, seemed a little two-dimensional to me. This could be in part because there are a lot of characters, but no one really made choices that surprised me or were unexpected. And while some situations were a little fraught, everyone nearly always seemed to make the right choice.

For example: one of the ship’s techs is named Kizzy, and if you’ve seen the show Firefly, imagine Kaylee but make her Asian, and that’s Kizzy. She’s pretty much exactly the same, and that annoyed me. She felt completely lifted from that show.

I think that’s my real complaint: other than some interesting worldbuilding, there was nothing about this book that grabbed me. Situations seemed to almost always resolve in the best-case scenario. I don’t need a book to have a lot of unexpected twists, and I’m ok with a book that’s more about character than plot, but this book didn’t delve deeply enough into its characters to show their complexity. It shied away and changed scenes just when something was about to go deep, and conflicts felt too easily resolved.

★ ★ ★

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

This was for my 50 Classics project and has its own review here.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (2021)

After loving Weir’s first novel, The Martian, and being disappointed by Weir’s second novel, Artemis, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Project Hail Mary. But the tone of this book is much closer to Weir’s first novel, so I’m glad he went back to a style that suits him better. Part of the problem was, I think, with the female narrator in Artemis. Some authors are not great at writing deeply in the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender, and Weir does better when he sticks with the male protagonist perspective.

It’s hard to say much about the actual plot of the book without giving things away, but the story opens with a man awakening from a coma, alone, and with no memory of who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. His memory slowly returns in bits and pieces as he figures out where he is and what his job is, and we get flashbacks as he remembers pieces of what brought him to where he is now.

Thankfully for him, he’s fairly resourceful and intelligent, and while not knowing who he is for some time is frightening, he makes the most of opportunities for scientific research.

I enjoyed the unfolding story style, though the book takes an unexpected turn partway through which is definitely a spoiler to discuss, but if you’ve read the book I’d love to know what you thought!

While there are lots of similarities to Weir’s first book, I enjoy his style, so if you enjoyed The Martian’s snarky yet exceedingly resourceful character, you’ll probably enjoy Project Hail Mary.

★ ★ ★ ★

Ok, I’m leaving some space to say a little more about the plot, but it’s spoilery, so if you don’t want to know, click away now…

…more spoiler space…

…yet more space, because space is vast…

…almost there…

Ok. So partway through the book, our protagonist, Ryland Grace, has first contact with an intelligent alien, whom he dubs Rocky. I thought Weir did a pretty good job of keeping the book grounded while introducing alien life, and I enjoyed the ways that Rocky and Grace learned to communicate despite their huge differences. Both are scientists who are trying to save their worlds, and that curiosity and desperation brings them together.

I did not see the twist of meeting an alien coming at all–I expected the book to be more like The Martian where our lone protagonist had to solve the problems himself, so I enjoyed the two working together to figure out how to save both their worlds. Did I think it was slightly contrived that both space ships only had one survivor by the time they got to the Tau Ceti system? Yes. But I’m ok with that because I thought Weir executed the story well.

Pride and Prejudice Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a review of Jane Austen’s work is superfluous. Yet here I am anyway.

Pride & Prejudice book cover

This is one of my all-time favorite books. From my first reading as a teenager, taking extended “bathroom breaks” to read the small hardback with tiny print which I hid under the sink for such occasions (sorry, Mom!), I fell in love with Austen’s wit and style, her characters, and her well-paced story.

Published in 1813 and popular from the beginning, there is plenty of scholarship out there if you are interested in that. And it’s so well known that I don’t know that I can add much here but if for some reason you’d like a refresher, here’s a summary:

Mr. & Mrs. Bennet live in a village in Hertfordshire with their five daughters. They are not poor, but having no male heir and not being frugal, the daughters will have to rely on marrying well for future economic stability.

The novel opens with the arrival of two handsome and eligible bachelors to the neighborhood: Mr. Bingley (sweet and outgoing) and Mr. Darcy (introverted and has some…pride). The story follows the shenanigans of Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to marry off her daughters and how that works out for them all.

The Bennets’ second daughter, Elizabeth, is the protagonist of the novel, and she is active, energetic, outgoing, smart, and witty—and also opinionated and believes strongly in first impressions (so she can be…prejudiced). She is a fun character to follow, and she goes through a lot of growth by the novel’s end.

The characters are so well-drawn and the comic characters are both pretty great and ridiculous (but also can be dangerous and/or disappointing to their families). The book balances getting to know the many characters with a good bit of plot–we don’t sit around too long before the next event, and I appreciate that she keeps everything moving.

This book is rightly considered a classic, but I think it’s pretty approachable as well. While there are details like the entail of the Bennet property and other manners that can be confusing to the modern reader, the plot moves along and the characters are interesting that parts of it feel fairly modern. While the 19th century was a while ago and manners have changed, people are still people–that has not changed.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Making a Comeback

Hello friends! It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted in ye olde blog. I started off strong in January with the books I’d read, and then in February and March I completely fell off the posting wagon. Honestly, the pandemic isolation was getting to me and it was hard to find motivation to do anything extra. Once some time passes, the level of difficulty in trying to catch up becomes greater until…it feels too hard to catch up and then you turn around and it’s August.

I don’t think I can go back and write up all the books I’ve read this year (I’m at 24 so far), but I will write up the two classics I’ve read for my challenge, and I’ll list what I’ve read from February – July here:

  • A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik ★ ★ ★
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
  • The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis ★ ★ ★
  • Perelandra, by C. S. Lewis ★ ★ ★ ★
  • The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal ★ ★ ★ ★
  • That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis ★ ★
  • The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson ★ ★ ★ ★
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre ★ ★ ★
  • Love Lettering, by Kate Clayborn ★ ★
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Tell Me More, by Kelly Corrigan ★ ★ ★
  • Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones ★ ★ ★
  • House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones ★ ★ ★
  • Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes du Mez ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
  • The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr ★ ★ ★ ★
  • Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh ★ ★ ★
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers ★ ★ ★
  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

My plan is to start with my August reads early next month and continue with writing up book thoughts after that. If there’s anything particularly you’d like to hear about, let me know or if I know you in person, ask me! I’m delighted to talk books any time.

Looking back at the list, I’ve mostly read nonfiction and sci fi/fantasy, with a few exceptions. I’m just going to keep leaning into that, though I need to add in some classics in the fall to catch back up. I might need to extend my classics timeline to get through 50. I blame the pandemic for derailing my plans!

If you have any tips for Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers,” let me know. I didn’t realize it was a travelogue and not an overarching story, so I kept waiting for the main story but now that I’ve listened to 11.5 hours (out of 32.5!) I think I’ve figured out the style. It’s entertaining in places, but whew, Dickens could have used an editor big time, as some of the stories are less good than others. I’ll let you know if I go back to this one or if I abandon it on the side of a country road (metaphorically, of course).

January 2021 Books Read

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke (2006)

When I mentioned that I was having trouble focusing on anything long, my friend Maggie suggested this book of short stories, which turned out to be perfect for the end of December and beginning of January. I finished 2/3 of the stories in December, but since I finished it this month, it counts as the first read for 2021!

These stories were delightful forays back into the world introduced in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. They all take place in Clarke’s alternate-nineteenth century, full of the twisty magic that was part of that book. Mr. Strange even makes an appearance in one of the stories. If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you’ll enjoy these stories.

These stories a great side-adventures, and feel like they would not be out of place in a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales. The stories also feature more female magicians, who were overlooked by Strange and Norrell, and I enjoyed them very much.

Two of my favorites were “John Uksglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”, and “Mrs. Mabb.” The first story is about the king getting a comeuppance (somewhat accidentally) from a lowly charcoal burner who feels himself injured by the king’s thoughtlessness, with entertaining result.

Mrs. Mabb is about a young woman determined not to give her suitor up to the titular fairy’s attentions. It’s suitably tricky and sometimes hilarious to figure out how to defeat a fairy antagonist.

Great fun, and a great way to kick off the new year.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I started a conversation with my husband this way, “I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but…” and he laughed, which was fair. Since I haven’t read Martin’s tomes, it’s probably unfair to compare this to those books, except that I know those books are fantasy with political maneuvering, and this book is also high fantasy with kingdoms, political machinations, magic, and yes, dragons (two types of dragons, and the water dragons have human riders).

The most evil fire dragon, The Nameless One, is prophesied to rise again, a thousand years after he was defeated, and the disparate human kingdoms and queendoms of the world must unite to stop him before he destroys them all.

As with some high fantasy, especially fantasy heavy on plot, there is not as much about characters’ inner lives, and some characters are more well-drawn than others. There are four perspective characters whose adventures we follow: Ead at the court of Inys, Tané in her quest to become a dragon rider, Niclays as he tries to claw his way back to his home and relevance, and Lord Arteloth as he (somewhat haplessly) wanders about, connecting threads.

Of the four, Ead was my favorite and felt the most fleshed-out. We start the story with her at court as she rises in influence and seeks to hide her true nature and mission from Queen Sabran (another interesting character).

In many fantasy stories, the heroes are mostly men with women as love interests or guides, and only occasionally adventurers in their own right, so I appreciated that Shannon’s world was populated with powerful women—queens, mages, warriors, schemers, pirates, and courtiers.

As this book is quite long, there were places where it dragged a bit, and it took a while to really kick into high gear, and Niclays Roos especially was an annoying character because of his constant self-pity and selfishness. But everyone had a part to play by the end. It’s not super nuanced, but if you like fantasy with political stakes and a world-ending quest, you might enjoy this book.

Content warning: sex, some violence (though not too graphic)

★ ★ ★ ★

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry pic

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry (2004)

While I’ve read a few essays and some poetry by Wendell Berry, I’ve somehow missed reading any of his novels. I got Hannah Coulter for Christmas, and started in on it. As expected, the writing was beautiful and spare, and the story was very human.

Hannah Coulter narrates the story of her life, reflecting on her 70+ years and its joys and sorrows. In some ways, it was a low-stakes book, as the characters are all ordinary people living in ordinary times, but in other ways it reminded me that we are all making choices and setting the course of our lives one moment at a time, and that ordinary lives are beautiful too.

Hannah reflects on her marriages (she’s now twice-widowed) and her children, her community, and the land she’s been farming and which has supported her in its own way. They cared for the land and the land cared for them. And living a “slower” and “smaller” life has kept her more connected to who she is, tethered in a way she fears her children are not.

I look forward to reading more of Berry’s novels—if you have suggestions of which one to read next let me know!

★ ★ ★ ★

Favorite Books of 2020

I do not completely understand why people write their “best of 2020” lists in December. On the one hand, it’s the last month of the year and things are wrapping up. On the other hand, it’s still 2020, and what if you read something great right at the end of the year? It’s too late to include that amazing read from Christmas break if your “best things I read” list was published on December 15th!

So here are my ten favorite reads from this year, in no particular order (except for my favorite, which I’ve noted):

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Lovely writing, an interesting set-up (a man is sentenced to life imprisonment…in a fiver-star hotel), and the importance of human connection. Interesting to read about someone stuck in one place for an extended period of time, though he did have the advantage of many humans to interact with (and I have the advantage of a vaccine coming to restore interaction)!

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, because I’m always worried they’ll be a bit self-indulgent. But this audio version, read by the author, was highly entertaining, interesting, and horrifying without going too in-depth about life in apartheid South Africa.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

A court intrigue story…in spaaace. Interesting plot and characters, and a mystery to unravel while the protagonist raced against the clock trying to find her place in an unfamiliar world. Plus the goofy naming convention of the court (everyone’s name is a number plus a noun, for example: Nine Seagrass) was highly entertaining.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown

Challenging and eye-opening very personal look at race and the American church.

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

A tough year calls for some re-reads, and escaping into Middle Earth was just what I needed this summer. A classic adventure story that sets up the larger events of The Lord of the Rings and is great fun in itself. I forgot how funny Tolkien can be and a straightforward adventure is great.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

There were parts I liked and parts I wanted to skip past, but the “girl makes a deal with the devil” premise was great and it went in directions I didn’t expect. I found the parts from Henry’s perspective were my least favorite, but I liked Addie and her clever determination to stay alive and outwit her antagonist.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

A twisty story about an infatuated young man, a mysterious woman, and the way unchecked speculation can really go awry. It’s not as popular as Rebecca, but I thought it was just as good.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

A lonely man, Piranesi, is almost alone in the world—a house full of statues and strange tides. But the house provides for him, so he is cared for and loved. But he starts digging into his story a bit and finds all is not as it seems. A perfect little seashell of a book.

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

A re-read, but still great. Gaskell and Jane Austen definitely have some overlap, but Gaskell is a little less witty and a little more concerned with the plight of the working-class. Still great.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Yes, she’s on the list twice, because she’s that good. A 21st century book about English magicians written in a 19th century style. Excellent writing, magnificent world-building, sprawling storyline, great characters, amazing footnotes. It’s nice and long, and I love sinking into a good book, so this was basically everything I love rolled together. This was my favorite read of the year.