Thursday, January 28, 2016

Top Ten (Or So): Books Read in 2015

I'm going to call 2015 "The Year of the Slightly Disappointing Sequels". Oblivion, Stone in the SkyWinter, A World Without Princes and The Last Ever After... Most of them weren't bad--in fact, some, like Winter, were quite enjoyable and I read them at a break-neck pace. But all of them lessened my excitement of the series to a certain extent, changing it from one I'd want to run out and recommend to everyone to one I still liked, but that was tinged with a slight "meh" feeling.
Amazing fanart by shiftingpath of one of my new favourite books

And yet, it was a pretty good year all together. I found a couple new books to add to my all-time favourites (see illustration to right). I found a new author--Brandon Sanderson!!--and I want to devour every single thing he wrote. I spent many hours on blogs and Goodreads, finding new reading avenues to explore based off my favourites from this year (lots of adult speculative fiction and religious non-fiction coming up next year, I think*). Any disappointment comes not from it being a bad reading year, but just not being the best year ever!!, which at one point during the year, I thought it might be.

Anyway, partly because of this, I only have six real favourites. Which isn't enough for a top ten list, so I added the best of the runner ups. They were still great, great books, sometimes more enjoyable for me in some ways than the ones I actually chose as favourites. Plus, my opinions are so fluid and difficult to pin down that by the time I write next year's top ten list, my favourites could all have moved around. (In fact, I'm already starting to think of some changes already... but it's too late now! I have to stick with something eventually.)

So without further ado, in sort-of approximate order from least to most favourite, are some of the best books I read in 2015:

Section Three--the "probably should have been in the runner up section, except I needed more main entries" section:

--The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell. A beautiful children's book that made me want to take up blacksmithing. It's about mending things: physically, mentally, emotionally... Although a little slow at first, once I got into it, it was just lovely.

--Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci. Super fun YA scifi. Really liked the heroine, Thula, and her survival among the many alien cultures of the space station was gripping. Plus, there was a somewhat surprising romance that I actually liked!

--Arriving at Amen by Leah Libresco. The only reason why this isn't in Section One or Two is because I've heard many of the ideas she writes about here on her blog as well. So my enjoyment of it was not quite as high. They are splendid ideas, though, so well suited to me in particular, and to any pretty geeky Catholic who is trying to become more awesome. Plus it has an amazing cover.

--Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. The twists are great, from the central conceit (all superheros are evil) to all the (spoilery) twists on tropes that happen throughout the book. Sanderson gets at the reasons behind things and either explains or subverts them in a way I haven't quite seen before in this kind of book. Plus it's just written in a really entertaining style. (Artwork to the left from squeegood on DeviantArt.)

--Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer by Thomas H. Green, S.J. Practical but deep, a book that made a distinct and positive difference to my life. Fr. Green was a spiritual director for a long time, and it shows. I would recommend this to any practising Catholic looking to really start their spiritual life.

Section Two--the section with my actual favourites of the year:

--The Pirates! In an Adventure With the Romantics by Gideon Defoe. Soooo funny. Seriously, this is one of the funniest series I've read. Plus you get all those awesome Romantics as characters (Lord Byron!).

--Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet. Friendship has always been something I've loved to read about, and this is not so much about homosexuality (although it is a lot about that too) as it is about community and friendship. An important book, I think! No matter what their relationship status, humans need community, and modern times isn't very good at providing it.

The amazing Lunar Chronicle characters, from lostie815 on DeviantArt

--Cress by Marissa Meyer. The Lunar Chronicles series was such immense amounts of fun, and I think this was my favourite. Cinder and Scarlet and Winter were great, but Cress had the hilarious faux-captain Thorne, unlike Cinder, and the adorable hacker Cress, unlike Scarlet, and the not quite as overwhelmingly large a cast of main characters as Winter.

--The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. The lack of hand-waving when it comes to the magic system is so refreshing. He actually tries to make it make sense! And not boring! At the same time! There is a love of knowledge at the heart of this book and of many of the characters that I adore. Plus the writing is very gripping and entertaining. I can't wait to read everything else Sanderson has written.

Just one of many cool and informative illustrations found in The Rithmatist

Section One--the new additions to my all-time favourites:

--This Is How You Die ed. by Ryan North. Also including The Machine of Death, because they're basically two volumes of the same book. TIHYD is the one officially listed, though, because I found it more inventive and twisty than the first. But both are fabulous. These are short stories of my favourite sort, playing off a single idea in as many different ways as possible. What with To Be or Not to Be's co-win last year, Ryan North is obviously now someone I have to read as much as possible.

The Dinosaur Comic by Ryan North that started it all

--The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. This book is so good. So, so, so good. I can't even... The main character and his growth, the secondary characters and their relationships, the language, the politics, just everything. This easily became one of my favourite all-time books, and will gladly recommend it to almost anyone.

Runners Up (In No Order Whatsoever and Possibly Missing Some Good Ones Because I'm Really, Really Bad at Making Up My Mind)
--Fluent in 3 Months. Helpful, easy to read, inspiring; about the fascinating thing that is language.
--The Case of the Missing Moonstone. Young Ada Lovelace! Young Mary Shelley! Adventures!
--The Uninvited Guests. Weirdly appealing. Also just weird in general.
--The School for Good and Evil. Female friendship and backwards fairytales.
--Homeland. Dark but interesting world and some surprisingly complex characters.
--The Forever War. A gritty and realistic look at the horrors of interstellar war.
--Making Habits, Breaking Habits. So much useful information.

P.S. See also the Top Ten (Or So) lists from previous years: 2012, 2013, 2014.

* In fact, weirdly enough, I'd thought I'd read so much adult speculative fiction this year as well. Till I looked at the list of books and realized how many children's and YA scifi/fantasy there were. I think the fact that I'd done so much Goodreads research mixed up my brain somehow.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Top Ten (Or So): Covers of Books Read in 2015

I love book covers. A really good one makes me very tempted to buy the book, even if I already own it. Even if I already own it with that very same cover. And if they are beautiful or unique and fit the beautiful and unique content inside, they fill my heart with warmth and pleasure.

So here they are--in only approximate order--favourite to least favourite, the best covers of the books I read in 2015. These first three are in a group by themselves: my favourite favourites. They are all pretty much equal in my mind, and the ordering is basically random. (Note that I am not in any way an artist or designer or anything, so these are based purely on what I like in book covers.)

Arriving at Amen. It's a rosary in the shape of an atom superimposed on a galaxy. What combination could possibly be better? Plus I just really like the colour scheme.

As you can tell by Knife, by Arriving at Amen above, and by a couple covers mentioned below, I have a tendency to like more monochromatic and minimal covers, especially when they're blue. Add to that the fierce but delicate stance of the title character, and you get an awesome cover indeed.

There is just such distinctiveness in Cinder's cover: the striking single image, made more striking by the eye-catching red shoe; the faint strangeness of the mechanical insides that you don't see until looking closer; the vaguely steampunk feel given by the single-word title text. I always noticed this cover in stores or blogs, and it's simplicity appealed to me. Note: I am including a nod to the rest of the series here as well (ScarletCress, and Winter), because the series as a whole has has a lovely consistency in colour scheme and noticeability (Scarlet especially).

Now here are the rest, which are also really good, but distinctly not as enjoyable to me as the first three. But like the first three, they are fairly equal in preference to each other, the ordering depending more on mood than anything else.

Another favourite kind of cover, besides monochromatic ones, are covers with well-depicted character illustrations. The first two books in this series were on the favourite cover lists of their perspective years, and The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw follows their lead. All the characters are so decidedly themselves and so different from each other, and it just looks so fun. The same artist illustrated the inside of the book as well, and it was one of my favourite parts of reading this series.

Steelheart is another beautifully monochromatic cover, but in grey this time. I also love the contrast the bit of blue/green text makes with the grey, and the swirly bits with the more angular buildings. It looks really nice beside the other Sanderson books by same publisher. (I bought this from the UK Amazon despite heavy shipping fees, because Sanderson's UK covers are WAY better than the US ones.)

The horse, the cloak and dress, the golden sunlight, the dragon in the distance. Handbook for Dragon Slayers is the kind of illustrated cover I love.

The light!! The Castle Behind Thorns cover is all about that beautiful, golden sunlight for me. Although the illustration is very nicely drawn in a similar way to the other Merrie Haskell book above (I'm presuming it's same artist), Handbook for Dragon Slayers has more interesting content and this one has the best light.

The Hollow Boy cover is creepy in a good way and has nice shades of green. I like the image of the pale mask sitting on the chains. It also makes a lovely set with the previous books in the series.

I'm not sure if the cover of The Goblin Emperor appeals to me aesthetically very much (thus being last on the list), but it is definitely a distinctive and interesting cover. Like Cinder, it would always pop out at me in bookstores or the internet. I like how heavy the weight of the city-crown looks, and the goblin underneath it, mostly hidden and peeking out.

Runners Up (in No Particular Order): The Forever War because of the light and the green and the single person who stands out in a lonely way; The Machine of Death because it's interesting and makes you wonder what on earth the book is like; Cruel Beauty because I like how the rose melds into the stairs, and also the swirly shape of them; A Wicked Thing because, even though I don't normally like covers with real, non-illustrated girls in frilly princess dresses, something about the colour scheme really appeals to me; Gone Girl because it's one of the only movie tie-in covers I've ever liked the look of; Illusionarium because of the clockwork around the edges and the pretty clothes and how nicely it fits with Heather Dixon's other book, Entwined; The Uninvited Guests because... well, actually, I have no clue why I liked it, I just know I really liked that part of the experience of reading it (similar to my feeling on the book itself, actually); Making Habits, Breaking Habits because it's clean cut and has that little, lone, orange juice at the bottom-right.

P.S. See also my previous lists: 2012, 2013, 2014.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Making Habits, Breaking Habits

by Jeremy Dean

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • Full of lots of helpful ideas & thoughts to get you to effectively change your life.
  • But unlike many "self help" style books, this is backed up with many, many scientific studies.

And Why You Might Not:
  • Sometimes he presents the studies in a way that is too generalized for my taste. (Academic studies are often misread in this way, I find. People misunderstand how specific these sorts of results are supposed to be.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

To Hold the Bridge

by Garth Nix

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • Charter magic! Gloriously competent bridgemistresses! Beings of terrible power! Sherlock Holme's odd cousin! An annoyingly invasive Rapunzel!
  • Basically, a collection of short stories both original and fun, with some fascinating worlds and splendid characters.

And Why You Might Not:
  • There are a lot of stories in this book, and sometimes reading too many short stories by the same author in a row makes each story loose its distinction.
  • Some individual stories were less good or enjoyable than others, of course, although you'll get that in any decently large collection like this.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Forever War

by Joe Haldeman

Story summary: William Mandella, one of Earth's best and brightest, is forced into the military to fight the new war against the aliens. But this is a war of the stars, where unimaginably huge distances and the effects of relativity cause time dilation--where a few years of Mandella's life mean centuries on Earth, and the war goes on for endless ages.

Why You Might Like This Book:
  • Fascinating view on what interstellar war would actually be like (complete with fancy new tech, time delays due to relativity, interesting and unusual war tactics, etc.).
  • Written by a real veteran of the Vietnam War, so has a distinct realism (despite the sci-fi elements).

And Why You Might Not:
  • There are parts of this story that take place in what was then the near future, and is now the present. People who try to predict the near future are almost always wrong in many ways, and it brings me out of the story somewhat.
  • Many people have found it too grim for them. I didn't personally, but it might be an issue for others. It was written by a war veteran, after all.