Here’s All the Stuff I Read in 2015

Dog-Reading-book1

Goodreads is a flawed website and I don’t entirely trust it not to sell my deepest, darkest literary secrets to the Russian mob, or whomever, but it’s still pretty useful in arranging and encouraging my reading habits.

According to my Goodreads stockpile, I’ve read an average of 45 books per year over the past five, with a busy 2014 being a down year (19) and an incomprehensible 2011 setting the curve (66). Thus 2015, with its 45 completed books, was, in a way, decidedly average.

To summarize my decidedly average year of reading, here’s a list of all the titles I consumed, plus blurbage. I’ve ranked them in order of enjoyability for your consuming pleasure. Early warning: There’s a lot of Game of Thrones and Freakonomics ahead. Strange bedfellows and all. This was also the first year in which most of what I read was non-fiction, which is what the kids call “adulting” these days.

Quick note: I’ve included some very advanced and scientific headings to break the books up into section, between which I feel there are gaps in quality/enjoyment.

Put a ring on these books

1. City of Thieves by David Benioff

Two young men in Leningrad desperately search for a carton of eggs at the behest of a powerful Soviet officer, all while the German army bombards the city. City of Thieves offers a little bit of everything: a moving coming-of-age narrative, dark humor, observations on the irony of war, vivid characters, an emotional parabola with happy highs and devastating lows, and the ever-endearing Kolya, who is one of those terrific characters an actor must salivate over when reading with an adaptation in mind.

I recently connected the dots and found that Benioff is one of the showrunners for HBO’s Game of Thrones, which I suppose helps explain its terrific storytelling. If audiobooks are your game, opt for the version (available on Overdrive) narrated by the actor Ron Perlman, whose approach to the work proves he really gets it.

City of Thieves might be my favorite novel of the past 15 years. Read it.

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I delighted in every moment spent in Marquez’ Macondo, the arcadian village around which he’s built what many consider his magnum opus. Solitude is a delightful and stylish book that never takes itself too seriously, though at the same time refuses to pull any punches. There’s a lot always going on, and it can be difficult to keep track of all the Arcadios and Aurelianos, but there are few reading experiences as rewarding as a historical jaunt with the legendary Buendía clan.

3. The Martian by Andy Weir

Not that I want to do this whole “I read it before it was a movie” thing, but I totally read it before it was a movie. It’s difficult to feel the same about something that’s since become so oversaturated, but I’d be remiss not to remember just how much fun I had with this one.

Astronaut Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars and it’s up to him to survive long enough for his buddies to come back and rescue him. The book features a plethora of neat MacGyver-in-space setups in which the intrepid Mark grits and schemes his way to survival. His adventures and experiments are fun and well-conveyed without ever getting bogged down in technical details (it’s obvious Weir did all his homework on the science-y stuff).

We’re also presented with a terrific side-story featuring all the different people around the world who make sacrifices to save Mark’s life. There’s a lovely message here about humanity’s propensity for helpfulness, as well as Weir’s optimistic portrayal of Earthlings’ abilities to set aside differences in order to accomplish one shared goal. It takes a precariously precise threading of the needle in order to make all this work in a believable manner. Weir knocks that part out of the park.

Finally, the real star of The Martian is Weir’s bold narrative structure. He constantly shifts from straight dialogue to reflective log entries to (rarely) a Voice of Mars third-person omnipresent, and then arranges them in ways that cause the narratives to interact. It’s all very well done and flows beautifully. The Martian was already a good story. It’s a great book for how it tells that story.

4. Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

Get the audiobook. I could listen to Alan Cumming’s sweet Scottish tenor read Mein Kampf, and I’d still think it was the most delightful thing in the world. I wish his dulcet tones could tuck me in at night. Marry me, Alan Cumming’s voice. Marry me!

Now that we’re past that, this insightful personal tale is one of love, fear, family, and understanding, but mostly of the importance of genuine honesty in our relationships. Cumming is a fabulous writer with a keen sense and understanding of what makes people tick, informed by a lifetime of painful events involving people like his detached, abusive father.

One of the key takeaways here: Shame and apprehension are too often blemishes on our personal relationships: fear of telling a lover how you really feel, withholding elements from a friend lest they judge you, feeling unable to convey yourself as anything less than a Superman to your child, etc. Getting past one’s fear is the first major step toward building lasting and meaningful relationships, and Cumming’s book exhibits many a situation in which this maxim rings true.

Really great stuff right here I tell you what

5. You by Caroline Kepnes

Boy meets girl.
Boy uses girl’s name to access all her online information, learning everything about her.
Boy stalks girl.
Boy surreptitiously manipulates girl’s life, inserting himself in the middle.
Boy thinks this is love.
Boy is not afraid to kill those who get in his way.

Now doesn’t that just sound like a healthy romance?

You is one of the most tense, disturbing, intoxicating thrillers I’ve ever read. It contains something between a first-person and second-person narrative, so you get to see all the nastiness beneath the hood our passionately disturbed protagonist, Joe. On multiple occasions I felt myself getting so deep into Joe’s twisted psyche and wrapped in the situational tension that I had to put the book down. You’re so intimately privy to all his narcissism and his obsessiveness, yet there are times when you can’t help but empathize in spite of the depravity.

You bothered me, but I guess in a good way. It’s not for the squeamish, certainly not for those who need to steer clear of vivid portrayals of misogyny and violence. At its most base level, You serves as a potent example of why your social media accounts ought to be private.

6. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky

I got really into workplace memoirs this year, as you’ll no doubt see. This one was my favorite, a fun summation of all the basic bullshit folks in hospitality/service have to deal with. It’s a must-read for anyone who deals in customer service, as well as an illuminating glimpse into everything happening behind the scenes at your favorite hotel. Hilarious, nasty, cathartic.

7. The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden

The subtitle gives most of it away, but this popular fiction account of North Korea’s rise is simultaneously illuminating and entertaining. You get a well-researched account of the totalitarian state’s seedy origins (it’s basically the only Stalinist system that never got de-Stalinized) alongside an exciting biographical account of a young man who sought to escape its clutches. A terrific introduction to North Korea for anyone who wants to learn more.

8. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson could write a biography of every follicle on Donald Trump’s head and I’d still probably read it. In this big freaking book, Bryson employs his wry and witty writing style to try and convey a world’s worth of scientific facts in an enjoyable digest form. I’m the kind of person who likes to know a little about a lot of things, so this sort of thing worked well for me. Very informative, very fun, very Bill Bryson.

9. Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein

Maybe one of my all-time favorite baseball books. Beyond all the glory and glamor, the crux of what makes the game interesting — particularly when you’re outside the Major Leagues — is the array of diverse characters populating its many teams and competitive levels. This book gets that.

Feinstein tours us around the minor leagues in search of players, umpires, coaches, and announcers; lifers, burnouts, dreamers, and prodigies. And each one is more than the name on a jersey, more than the uniform on the field. These are people, fully-fleshed humans, who want nothing more than the realization of their dreams and desires.

It’s a great book. Maybe a little repetitive here and there, but a great book all the same.

Liked these a whole lot too, just a little less than above, which is why they’re below this

10. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I bought into the craze this year and added this popular series to my reading list. I’m currently in the middle of Book 5, so that means I’ve read roughly a metric ton of Game of Thrones this year. There are a ton of reasons the series is so successful (mostly: it’s good!), but if there’s any fault you can find in Martin’s writing, it’s that “concise” is not a word in his dictionary.

If the first two books suffered from the occasional plodding, this is the point, roughly 2500 pages into the GoT saga, where Martin turns everything to 11. Twist upon twist upon twist. New and old characters reaching pivotal points in their arc. Big, revealing decisions made by characters forced to act (and those decisions change everything). Themes that were brewing over the series really come to a head. This is the bedrock of good drama and extremely rewarding for someone who has invested this much into the story.

There are literally hundreds of characters to keep track of, yet Martin manages to balance the storylines well. The lore is deep and rich. The tale is always interesting even if not emotionally captivating. Even with Books 6 & 7 still unreleased, it’s fair to assume this is the zenith here.

11. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Another great workplace memoir. Anthony Bourdain is a lot more famous now than he was 15 years ago when Kitchen Confidential was published. This book is a major reason for that.

I’ve never eaten anything the man’s cooked but if he’s as good at making food as he is at writing about it… well, you know where I’m going. The dude knows how to write. My favorite motif is his insistence that the kitchen is like a mangy, psychopathic crew of cutthroat pirates, and that he delights in being their captain. Bourdain’s brash, unapologetic tone cuts to his core and makes this one a delight to read.

12. The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight by Winston Groom

An entertaining and informative jaunt through a very exciting time in history. Groom is a master storyteller (most famously known as the author of Forrest Gump) who capably spins three biographies into one, using each thread to tell the larger story of early aviation. I was often on the edge of my seat, enthralled with the story’s tension and blown away by the feats of courage it brings to life.

One semi-problematic fault though: Groom too often flutters close to hero worship, choosing to focus almost entirely on the aviators’ heroic qualities while diminishing their wrinkles. Flattery is not innately problematic, but it’s difficult to argue that Groom offers a thorough biography of Lindbergh (for example) when he brushes off his anti-semitism and elects not to mention his devotion to eugenics. That said, there is something to be said about Groom’s insistence that the blemishes in these men’s characters should not draw our attention too fully away from their invaluable contributions. Heroism and humanity are not always the same thing.

13. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics is a lot of fun — a melding of economics, social science, and skepticism in practice. Levitt and Dubner preach a philosophy promoting unorthodox approaches to problem-solving, which is always welcome in a world where we constantly get bogged down in common knowledge and “the way we’ve always done things.” Their initial book has exploded into a massive Freakonomics empire, including several other books, a blog, and an enjoyable biweekly radio show/podcast. I consume it like candy.

14. Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos by Jonah Keri

A great lesson in “when SEO determines your subtitle,” Keri’s book is an in-depth anthology of the ill-fated Montreal Expos franchise, the remnants of which we currently enjoy in Washington, DC as the Nationals.

You can tell every page is a labor of love for the Montreal native Keri, which works both in the book’s favor and to its detriment. Sometimes you feel like you’re reading an objective history. At other times, the emotional musings of a passionate fan. Still, the book is full of terrific interviews, interesting anecdotes, and a blood-boiling analysis of the behind-the-scenes events that led to the Expos’ final, irreversible collapse. A great read.

Also: Put Tim Raines in the Hall of Fame already, goddammit.

15. You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

More or less an encyclopedia of logical fallacies and similar weaknesses of human psychology, this book (I think it’s a collection of blog posts) approaches the topic in an amusing and approachable way. There are constant revelations each chapter as you realize just how deluded you are by biases, heuristics, mental errors, etc. Thus, the title: You are not so smart.

The book serves as a useful trampoline text if you’re interested in human psychology and behavioral economics, as well as a good helper if you’re into self-improvement and want to think more rationally. Plus, it helps if you want to own people who post idiotic things on the internet, which I suppose is most of us.

16. Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

The restaurateur and media personality Huang has a ton of smart things to say about race in America — in particular about the experience of first-gen Americans struggling with holding onto the culture of their forebears and the unspoken urge to assimilate. It’s all stuff I could easily relate to and Huang offers a fresh, illuminating perspective. I don’t agree with some of his arguments and conclusions but I respect the hell out of all of them. Maybe my one pet peeve is how quick he is to discredit things he doesn’t understand; it’s hypocritical on the surface but also just part of being human, so he gets a pass.

Huang’s got a terrific writer’s voice. He incorporates slang and cultural references effortlessly. It’s never on the nose or forced — it feels very authentic, which you can tell is important to him. I wish more people were themselves enough to write this way. It probably means Huang’s a bit insufferable in real life, but damn does it make for good material. Pro tip: It’s worth it to spring for (or borrow) the audiobook because Huang’s narration really pops.

Finally, Huang’s most powerful argument is his defense of ethnic food as a cultural artifact. We’ve seen an extreme version of this argument at play in a recent “how is this not The Onion?” story out of Oberlin College, which is a disservice, because Huang’s got a good point about respecting where food comes from.

17. My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

I try and fit one Wodehouse in per year. This one was, as they always are, delightful.

18. Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan

So this was cool for me. Nintendo and video games in general were a huge part of my life growing up, but I had never taken the time to really investigate was was going on behind the scenes.

Super Mario provides a thorough history of Nintendo, its ubiquitous man in red overalls, and how Nintendo of America became the thing it is today. The book’s chock full of some really great nostalgic bits mixed in with vivid chunks of the story behind the story. I liked learning all about Nintendo wunderkind Shigeru Miyamoto’s many challenges, muses, and inspirations. The best parts of the book are at the beginning with the amazing story of how Nintendo got its start in the States leading up to the introduction and success of Donkey Kong.

It’s always fun to go back to a subject for which you only have a childlike context and relearn everything through an adult lens. I don’t think this will be the last book I read on the subject.

19. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

This is probably my 3rd time reading HP1 and first in about ten years. Observations from a now-steely, grumpy adult:

-The book isn’t as long as I thought it was. Perhaps it’s just because this was the first of the series and behemoths like Goblet of Fire are still to come. But it surprised me how little detail there was about certain elements of Harry’s life. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily; the pacing was actually quite swift and I felt like all the plot points hit just when they needed. Just an interesting observation.

-My perspective of the characters had been skewed by the movies. I forgot how silly Dumbledore is, how much they hated Hermione at first, etc. It’s hard not to see Richard Harris, Emma Watson, et al. in these roles. Their faces are now the faces in my mind. Not sure if that’s a bad thing or not, but it certainly makes a difference compared to how I first read this back in 1999-2000.

-The adults in these books are so dumb and irresponsible.

-My respect for this book over time can be measured in an upside-down bell curve. I was over the moon when I first read it. Then for a while I was a pretentious and snobby dickwad who turned up my nose to the thought of these children’s books possessing even a modicum of literary merit. Thankfully, that dude grew up and now I’m able to see HP for what it really is — a lovely and imaginative story well-written by a talented author who really gets kids and the issues that matter to them.

I’m looking forward to getting through the whole series (second book is below) though I’m hesitant that I’ll enjoy some of the angsty teenage HP books as much as I enjoyed this one.

20. Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

Moore’s got this token irreverent silliness that masks just how impressive his distinct brand of storytelling is. It’s magical realism, well-plotted, with a big ol’ red rubber nose. I liked this book as much as, if not more than, the book he’s most famous for, Lamb.

21. Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim

This is my jam right here: Think of it as Freakonomics, but with sports. The authors employ data analysis to confront and refute conventional wisdom, which is fascinating because, as Moneyball fans know, there’s no more inertia-bound arena in all of society than sports.

Although not everything in the book was groundbreaking, there’s plenty of good stuff here to satisfy, like a thorough investigation into home field advantage and the NFL’s almost ubiquitous ignorance of game theory.

22. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

You’d think it’d be difficult to write an ostensible biography of a man whose name appears maybe once or twice in any historically-viable document, but religion scholar Reza Aslan pulls it off with aplomb.

Zealot is broken up into three parts. Part one is a history of the Galilee region during Roman rule, particularly during the volatile times when Jesus would have lived. The second is an in-depth look at the man Jesus was, or at least whom we can perhaps presume he could have been. Aslan takes some iffy liberties with conjecture here and there, but the portrait of Jesus never stretches into implausibility. Part three covers the years following Jesus’ execution and the conflict between Jesus’ brother James and Paul the Apostle (née Saul of Tarsus), the latter of whom is primarily responsible for creating the Jesus we are familiar with today. A fascinating book that seeks to recontextualize the world’s most famous historical figure of whom we know almost nothing.

23. Think like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Again, I enjoy this series because the authors promote fun, divergent manners of thinking and analysis. This one is no different, and is the closest thing they have to a self-help book, though it’s just as much entertainment as it is advice.

24. Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World by Ian Bremmer

I don’t know all that much about foreign policy outside of “the U.S. hasn’t been that great at it recently,” so I picked this one up (Bremmer is a Big Think expert). The book offers a crash course on why America’s incoherent string of foreign policy non-strategies need to go away. Bremmer offers three potential strategies moving forward, presents points for each, and asks the reader to decide which is best for them. Informative, interesting; I feel I understand much more than I did before reading, which was the goal.

Pretty good, just not pretty great

25. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

As mentioned, I’m re-reading the Harry Potters so as to examine (and enjoy) them with adult eyes. I prefer the taut, down-the-rabbit-hole plot of Sorcerer’s Stone to Chamber of Secrets’ series-of-bothersome-predicaments storyline. But that’s not to say Chamber isn’t still plenty strong on its own thanks to its imaginative scenarios and our first glimpses into the teenage angst stuff that would become Rowling’s bread and butter in the later books.

Some tiny nitpicking: Elements of the plot and certain character flaws bugged me here, none more so than the fact that so many of the problems in the story could easily have been solved if Harry had just talked to an adult. The lesson here should be “if something is wrong, don’t just keep it bottled up.” It also makes you wonder why Dumbledore is regarded so highly when it seems like he just sits on his rear for the entire term waiting for bad things to happen. He’s basically Yoda from the Star Wars prequels, which is never a good comparison.

Finally, Hermione is the arguably the best character of the series and one of this this book’s biggest weaknesses is the fact that she’s put out of commission for quite a bit of it. I suppose it allowed Harry to solve a problem for himself (for once) but only just by the skin of his teeth.

Eager to read Prisoner of Azkaban next. It was my favorite as a child and I hope it holds up.

26. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The first book in the series. It’s an impressive and expansive epic that’s longer than it needs to be yet still interesting enough to keep you wanting more. It’s hard to rate the books on their own without considering the appeal of the entire series. It really is greater than the sum of its parts, as only one of the four books I’ve read thus far has been exceptionally great.

I’ll note here that one of the major reasons the TV series is superior to the books is because it latches onto the strength of Martin’s narrative and lets the visuals speak the details he spends literally hundreds of pages running through.

27. The Red House by Mark Haddon

I think this book gets a bum rap because so many people adore Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and thus unfairly judge The Red House against it. On its own merits, The Red House is a well-spun tale of a family’s many cascading crises presented through a unique narrative lens that keeps the characters fresh. Haddon’s real triumph here is taking 8 characters — 5-7 of which aren’t particularly likeable people — and painting them in a way that makes you want to continue to get to know them.

That said, while I think this is a very good book I wouldn’t quite call it a great one. You wish that these vivid characters were given more to do — there are a few really momentous events, but everything else is subtle machinations. Additionally, Haddon’s prose flirts with the self-indulgent at times. He’s trying to write the poetry of these peoples’ lives in novel form and sometimes that can weigh on the reader. Still, I enjoyed this one a lot more than I’d have expected.

28. A Load of Hooey by Bob Odenkirk

You probably know Odenkirk as Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Dude’s also a hell of a comedy writer and a master of the unreliable narrator device. It’s a short read, mostly a collection of short- and flash-fiction. You’re probably sick of me recommending audiobooks here, but go that route if you’re approaching this book. Odenkirk brings in a strong supporting cast on the recording, including long-time collaborator and part-time Tobias Fünke, David Cross.

29. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

This stuff is candy. Sure, it’s batshit, there are too many characters, it’s way too lore-heavy — but candy all the same. Martin takes a big risk breaking the narrative/characters into two simultaneous sections split over two books (this is the fourth in the series), and I’m not sure it works, especially since this one is so overpopulated by new people we don’t really care about.

But yeah, freaking candy.

30. How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen Petranek

A little book about big ideas by another Big Think expert. Petranek succinctly summarizes the challenges and strategies that will propel humanity to Mars. A very quick read that allows science and futurism to flirt with each other in an engaging way.

Mostly alright, I guess

31. Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone

An interesting glimpse into the magic subculture as well as a study on the neuroscience behind deception. The major issue is that it tries to be too much — tell-all, personal memoir, manifesto, history, popular science — without a strong enough thread to connect it all. I’m still glad I read it, particularly for a section in which he explains his controversial belief that magic’s obsession with secrecy is overrated. More or less: People didn’t stop watching wrestling when they learned it was fake; magicians should take a cue.

32. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

The second in the series. There was a point in reading this book where I realized I was reading just to get to the end and not so much because I was still in love with the story. The third book (above) saved everything, but Martin was running the risk of slogging everything down here.

33. When to Rob a Bank by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Another Freakonomics book. This one is something of a greatest hits collection of blog posts from the Freakonomics blog, featuring snack-sized insights throughout. Enjoyable, if just a bit unbalanced. There’s a particularly lovely section where Levitt shares his obituary for his sister that provides a welcome dose of reality and diversion from the norm.

34. Silence by Shūsaku Endō

A Jesuit missionary is sent to 17th-century Japan, where “hidden Christians” are tortured and killed if they choose not to apostatize. Endō spins a rich narrative rife with themes of moral ambiguity. At its heart and vital to the tale’s climax is a key Christian paradox, the author’s treatment of which I found refreshingly perplexing. It was also refreshing to read a piece of historical fiction set in a time and place not often covered.

Still, I didn’t really love this novel, but certainly respect it.

35. The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead

An interesting tome and investigation into the lives of professional poker players. The Noble Hustle also chronicles Whitehead’s personal experience being sent by his magazine editor to compete in (and write about) the World Series of Poker.

A lethargic and somewhat nihilistic layperson, Whitehead fills the book with poker observations filtered through his trademark vivid and airy language. He does an admirable job dancing the fine line between self-indulgent and illuminated. His editor probably should have stepped in to encourage some cleanup here and there, because it gets bogged down here and there, but overall it’s a good book.

36. Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

Not Moore’s best, but still boasts an entertaining plot with a solid cast of characters. I picked this one up because I’m determined to get through the entire Moore library. I suppose that’s the best reason to read it — otherwise there are other great novels in his collection to go to instead.

Eh

37. Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia by Michael Farquhar 

It’s an informative history of the Romanovs with a few gaps here and there. The author makes some questionable narrative decisions which lead to disjointed storytelling, and practically 1/3 of the book is just a full history of Nicholas II and his fall from grace, so it feels unbalanced in that regard. Still a decent read, though perhaps harmed by how it was marketed as funnier and more entertaining than it actually was.

38. White Death by Rob Morrison and Charlie Adlard

The only graphic novel on this list. This one’s a tragic and beautiful look into the fighting between Italian and Austrian forces during the First World War. It’s incredibly moving; I just wish there was more to it. It’s a very, very quick read, and that’s to its detriment.

39. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

This small book (and admirable bit of world-building) operates under the conceit that it’s one of Harry Potter’s textbooks. At 64 pages, there’s not much to it; I think it was published so that a percentage of its proceeds could go to charity. Now, it’s going to be adapted into a feature film starring Eddie Redmayne, which, sure okay, whatever.

40. Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

Same idea as the above, but with more Quidditch and less Eddie Redmayne. It’s clever, just wish there was more of it.

41. Nine Lives of Adam Blake by Ryan Gladney

Fascinating premise built into an elegant narrative structure: Whenever Adam Blake dies, he goes back to being a kid again, beginning life again as a 12-year-old. Gladney’s got a gift for smooth, descriptive prose. Sadly, he doesn’t have the same gift for dialogue. Most of what the characters say is static and on-the-nose. There’s very little subtext and very little of the dialogue actually does anything aside from inform us what the character is thinking. It doesn’t sink the book, but it’s certainly a glaring weakness.

There’s a neat sci-fi element to Adam’s plight, though at times you get the feeling Gladney hasn’t done all his homework establishing/ understanding the rules of the story’s universe. This leaves a few too many plot points a bit beyond belief. He also focuses much of the narrative attention on the love story between Adam and Tamar despite not quite earning the reader’s dedication to that relationship, especially up against all the other possible narrative directions that could come about given the circumstances of Adam’s particular condition.

Couple all this with an unfulfilling climax and you’re looking at a decent outing by a first-time author that, while I’m glad I read it, I can’t highly recommend.

42. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

The first 1/3 of this book is terrific. Libby finds out she has cancer. Her husband comes out to her before she can let him know. She goes batshit, kicks him out, quits her job, sells the apartment, flees to Puerto Rico. Pagán lays out this premise with quick wit and breakneck pacing. It’s one of the most entertaining mental breakdowns I’ve ever read.

And then, suddenly, Libby’s no longer given anything to do except brood for the final two-thirds of the text, contemplating whether or not she wants to undergo chemo, all while navigating a trite fling with the most transparent boytoy imaginable. It’s a missed opportunity for Pagán, a gifted writer with a knack for prose, who nonetheless allows Libby to tread water far longer than she ought to have.

Good bits and pieces here, but the thing falls short on the whole. I’d be interested to read something else by her though.

Meh

43. The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca

A fairly paint-by-numbers summation of the so-called unwritten rules of baseball that’s a little too light on the levity. You also get the feeling that it acts as a tacit endorsement of the code in-and-of itself, which is no bueno. The unwritten rules of baseball are archaic and and dumb and it’s not crazy to feel that way.

44. Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939 by Shigeru Mizuki

I wanted to like this. Mizuki is a celebrated manga artist. This is the first in his series of books chronicling some of the moment momentous periods in modern Japanese history. It’s difficult to rate a book so steeped in another culture’s customs and traditions, but all I can say is that, despite the benefit of learning about a time period I know little about (this was the goal of reading), I find that Mizuki’s form here is limited in its ability to present a complete and compelling account of this time period and its major moments/ramifications.

Bleh

45. The Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

The only book I really, really did not like.  It’s a bummer, because I dig the subject matter and Eastland quickly establishes a fascinating premise in introducing the enigmatic Inspector Pekkala, a relic of Tsarist Russia brought back into service by agents of Stalin. Yet ultimately, this book falters as it commits several key cardinal sins of detective fiction: little tension, meager stakes, no drama, and a frustrating dolt of a detective.

The novel jumps between two main narratives spanning different eras of Pekkala’s life. Unfortunately, the two never really play off each other and the former serves only to feed the reader exposition. Eastland builds Pekkala up as this respected ubermensch detective, yet despite all the narrative bluster we never actually get to see him outsmart anyone or cleverly solve a crime. What results is a character who lacks credibility. This only hurts Pekkala more when his open investigation of the Romanov assassination reveals that he’s not all that sharp a detective after all.

The reader often has to wait for Pekkala to catch up to their level of understanding — never a good thing in mystery fiction. Advancements in the plot are rarely spurred by Pekkala’s actions. Rather, Eastman will just toss in some random event and Pekkala is forced to react. Protagonists need to be the ones who move the story along. Pekkala isn’t this.

Also, for an ostensibly suspenseful detective story, there are few if any major twists and turns. Pekkala just moseys across central Russia interviewing people. We get some neat bits of historical learning out of these meetings — it’s obvious Eastman has done his research — but the individual scenes are such cut-and-dry Q&A’s that it feels like you’re reading the transcript of an academic lecture rather than “a novel of suspense,” as the book’s subtitle claims. There is one major twist near the end but it’s so dumb and filled with holes that it hardly counts.

If you dig historical fiction on this sort of topic, you might want to try somewhere else.

And there you have it. The goal for 2016 is to read 40 more books. Hopefully I’ll finish my retrospective on Harry Potter, complete the Freakonomics circuit, and finally make a dent in all the unread books on my shelf. I’m always accepting recommendations, so please fire away if you’ve got ’em.

R

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One thought on “Here’s All the Stuff I Read in 2015

  1. Pingback: Here’s All the Stuff I Read in 2016 | Robert Montenegro

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