Friday, January 11, 2019

22 Novels I Read Last Year

Here are all the novels I finished last year, from least favorite to most (more or less).

The Arizona Clan by Zane Grey

I picked this up when we visited Arizona a couple of years ago, because it takes place in an area where we spent a lot of time, but I just now got around to reading it.

Grey is a legendary writer, but this is a lesser work filled with paper-thin characters, hokey dialogue, and an uninspired plot about warring families and the drifter who gets caught between them because of a pretty girl.

The landscape descriptions are nice though and make me want to go back and visit Arizona again.

The Complete Adventures Of Senorita Scorpion, Volume 1 by Les Savage Jr

I was fully on board with a series of stories about a female, masked Western hero, but that's not what these are. Señorita Scorpion grows into an heroic character, but it takes a few stories for her to get there and she never does throw on a mask.

In the first tale, "Señorita Scorpion," we meet her through the eyes of a typical, male Western hero named Chisos Owens. He's not unlikable, but he's not compelling either and he's certainly not what I signed up for when I started the book. But Señorita Scorpion (better known in the stories by her actual name, Elgera Douglas) is a cool, mysterious character and I looked forward to getting to know her better in the sequel stories.

Sadly, she's used terribly in "The Brand of Señorita Scorpion," which has her as a helpless damsel in distress for Owens to rescue and help. Totally skippable.

"Secret of Santiago" is better and starts to let Douglas play a role in her own fate, but is still giving equal time to Owens and a new character, sheriff Johnny Hagar. The lawman is introduced to create a romantic triangle, which still makes this Owens' story with Douglas as the prize and Hagar as the obstacle. But Douglas does get to participate more in the action, so it's an improvement.

My favorite of the collection is "The Curse of Montezuma," partly because it's the most pulpy with its cult of Aztec revivalists who operate from a hidden city and exert mind control over their enemies. But mostly I love that it takes Owens out of the story early and lets Douglas actually become the hero, protecting her interests, taking revenge for the suffering of her loved ones, and ultimately saving the day for several people. I'd given up on the idea of Volume 2 until I got to this story, but finished it interested in continuing. If the rest are closer to this, I'd like to read them.

She: A History of Adventure by H Rider Haggard

It started a genre - or at least a popular trope within the genre - but the seminal Jungle Queen/Lost City story is long on description and philosophy and short on convincing characterization. It begins as a generational revenge adventure and ends up being about a couple of sad guys with inexplicable Stockholm syndrome.

Seed Seeker by Pamela Sargent

I didn't realize that this was the third in a trilogy until I was almost done with it. And to the story's credit, I don't know that I ever would have known had I not gotten curious about the author and gone looking for more information. Since the trilogy is a generational saga, Seed Seeker stands well on its own.

I may go back and read the other two novels as prequels, but not right away. I enjoyed Seed Seeker, but it's not what I was hoping for from it's description of a young woman traveling upriver, looking for answers from a mysterious and closed off civilization. I was looking for a riff on Heart of Darkness, but Seed Seeker is interested in other things. That's not the book's fault, but I'm still adjusting. If it stays with me for a while, I'll want to check out the first two.

I quite liked the theological questions Seed Seeker raises with its metaphor of a colonizing spaceship as God. And I liked its answers just as much. It's a compelling read, because I wondered right alongside the characters what Ship was up to and how it would judge the colonists it left behind. And I wondered what that would reveal about Sargent's worldview. That was all pretty great, but I never fell in love with any of the characters and was ultimately lukewarm on the book.

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

I know that Stevenson liked to work in different genres, but the 1953 Errol Flynn adaptation of this novel had me expecting (and frankly, hoping for) another Treasure Island-esque swashbuckler. Instead, The Master of Ballantrae is part psychological thriller and part Shakespearean tragedy. It's exciting and gripping, but not in the way I expected and the experience was disrupted by my constant waiting for the adventure to kick in. It's on me that I didn't enjoy it as much I might have.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

One of the challenges of writing utopian fantasies is creating sufficient drama to propel a story. Perkins Gilman does it by telling her story from the point of view of three men who've discovered a perfect society made up entirely of women and girls. Each man has his own way of relating to women in his world: one worships them, one wants to possess them, and one (the narrator) is more detached and scientifically curious.

But even though there's tension in how the men relate to this civilization and how they may impact it, Perkins Gilman is more interested in fleshing out the culture and thinking through what a perfect, female society would look like. The book is super light on plot (and not too strong on characterization, either), but it presents some fascinating, provocative ideas.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Very atmospheric, modern, gothic literature. I was pulled along by its mystery and enjoyed the tension between thinking that I might have it figured out and the knowledge that Harwood had left himself plenty of room to surprise me.

Traditional gothic literature has trained me not to grow impatient with plot. There's a lot of meandering in the classics, but it's all good stuff when I let myself relax and enjoy it. The same is true of The Ghost Writer. The short stories written by one of the characters (and presented in full in the text) are great pastiches of Victorian ghost stories and are as engaging as the main thread in their own ways.

I didn't love the ending, though. It's not very fair of me and only a downer because Harwood got me invested in something that I wanted to be resolved in a particular way. It's a testament to the authenticity of his characters, but I'm still bummed.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

My gut reaction on finishing this was that I hated it. James has a billion different ways of describing "I know there are ghosts in the house and I'm pretty sure these kids know it too, but there's no way I'm going to talk to them about it." And he's not afraid to use them. For page after page after page.

Considering it a little more, I decided that I simply disliked it. There are some memorable scenes and creepy moments and as much as the plot hinges - Three's Company style - on no one actually communicating with anyone else, within that framework, James effectively creates a disturbing atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.

I finally decided that I actually kind of like it though once I realized that there are multiple ways of interpreting it and that the more mundane readings are ironically the more haunting ones. This is a story I'll want to revisit from a different point of view and could potentially fall in love with.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

A really fun adventure story with plenty of humor as well as pirates, mermaids, and secret societies trying to either protect or subjugate humanity.

It works pretty well as a prequel to Peter Pan, but rushes at the end to get a couple of last pieces in place. And some of the origins of specific Peter Pan elements aren't satisfying.

I'm curious about the sequels, because the writing and adventure is quite good, but I'm concerned that my brain would rebel against the assertion that the series is a legitimate precursor to JM Barrie's classic story.

Jane by Robin Maxwell

Maxwell takes generous liberties with Burroughs' versions of the characters, but there's an in-story explanation for the differences and they're mostly for the good. I'm not crazy about how Maxwell treats Paul D'Arnot (one of my favorite characters in the Burroughs novels), but her Tarzan is as awe-inspiring as he should be and her version of Jane is as improved as I hoped it would be.

I don't always like Jane in this book, but I do always relate to and empathize with her. And I despised the villain. So great characters all around; even D'Arnot, whom I resented. He still adds an important element to the story. The novel is an exciting, fresh look at the Tarzan legend that updates the worldview and makes it more palatable for modern readers.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I rewatched the movie adaptation last year and rededicated myself to finally reading the novel so that I could continue the series in book form. I need more Easy and Mouse and Odell in my life.

Because I'm so familiar with the film, there weren't many surprises in the novel, so that affected my enjoyment some. But there are differences that - along with Mosley's style - kept me engaged.

One specific disappointment though is that one of my biggest questions about the film remained unanswered. There's a character in the movie - a man in Easy's neighborhood - who is obsessed with cutting down trees. There's no explanation for his obsession in the film, so I hoped for some insight from the book, but the character isn't even there. Maybe he appears in later novels. Another reason for me to keep reading.

Steel by Carrie Vaughn

A lovely book about a young woman who's transported through time to the Golden Age of Piracy. Vaughn has done her research and presents a realistic version of the period while still letting herself have fun with some of the details.

It was those details that kept me interested and immersed in the world. So much so that I didn't give the characters a lot of thought until I got near the end and realized that I really didn't want the main character to go back home and leave them. I won't spoil how that plays out; I'll just say that it was way more emotional than I expected.

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

There are three mysteries in one book, all of them pretty great; two of them get solved.

The main character is a former police officer named Ted who was falsely (we're led to believe) accused of raping a teenage girl. Mystery No. 1 is a) whether or not he committed the crime, and b) if he didn't, who did? Ted strongly denies that he's the perpetrator, but admits that he's an unreliable narrator where the events of that day are concerned.

When Ted moves to the Australian outback to try to rebuild his life, he meets and becomes partners with a private investigator named Amanda who was herself accused and jailed as a teenager for murdering a classmate. Whether she did that or not is Mystery No. 2.

Mystery No. 3 is Amanda and Ted's first case as partners: A highly successful YA novelist has gone missing and his wife needs proof of his death in order to collect insurance.

I won't spoil which two mysteries are solved, but even though the third is left for sequels to unravel, significant progress is made, both in the case and (more importantly) the detectives' emotional journeys. I'm looking forward to more, but even if I never read another book in the series, I feel like I got a complete story with this one.

Because of the nature of the crimes (especially the one Ted was accused of) and the reactions of people to those crimes, there are deeply unpleasant moments. That's the point though and working with the characters to get through those moments and out the other side is what makes Crimson Lake a powerful reading experience.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This was my second time through. I remember struggling to keep up with the mystery the first time. It's cool how the object of Marlowe's investigation shifts partway through the book, but it can also be tough to keep straight what amounts to two or three different, but connecting plots.

Knowing the basic structure beforehand works well though. It was much easier to focus on the dialogue and descriptions, which is where Chandler especially shines. I'm also more interested now in reading his other Marlowe mysteries, rather than being tired by the idea.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Ang Lee's adaptation of this book is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I wanted to finally read the original. Lee's version is extremely faithful to the point that there was little suspense for me in the novel, but I enjoyed the peek into the thoughts of various characters; especially Elinor.

Lucy Steele's shenanigans come off even worse in Austen. Lee doesn't let her off the hook, but Austen draws her as deliberately malicious where Lee leaves me room to think that she's just opportunistic and threatened.

In both versions, Marianne's last-second attachment to Brandon is too sudden and a weakness, but it's a welcome enough development that I forgive it.

Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle Barbot de Villeneuve

It was great to finally read the original story after enjoying so many film adaptations over the years. It's easily my favorite fairy tale thanks to the good-hearted monster theme that I love so much.

Some of the film versions have gotten close to faithfulness, but none that I've seen have captured the horror of the Beast or made him seem as stupid and wholly unlikeable as he is in the novel. Film versions anthropomorphize him and make him gruffly romantic, which I like, but the book is remarkable for giving him no redeeming qualities other than his generosity in looking after Beauty's needs.

Another huge change is that the adaptations only cover the first half of the book. I was shocked to get to the halfway point and the Beast has already turned human again. I couldn't imagine how de Villeneuve was going to finish out the story. It's not as fascinating as I thought it might be though. The second half is all prequel, explaining every detail about both Beauty and Beast's backstory. The events themselves are cool, but they're presented in a huge dump of exposition and it would take probably a whole trilogy of novels to relate them properly. I'm kind of surprised that no one's written that yet. I'd read it.

Bane and Shadow by Jon Skovron

Excellent follow up to Hope and Red, which I read in 2017. I fell in love with the characters in the first book and the sequel continues to put them through exciting and emotional ordeals. It was great to spend more time with them as well as new characters like Lady Hempist and Captain Vaderton.

It does suffer slightly, being the middle book of a trilogy. It's neither a beginning nor an end, so while it adds some detail to the world and advances the characters' stories, it's still building to something that can't pay off until the final installment.

Blood and Tempest by Jon Skovron

A wonderful finish. I was upset to end it. What a lovely, thrilling, uplifting adventure series. And what great characters. Not just the main two. I need to read something else by Skovron right away.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

David and I started listening to this in audiobook form shortly after watching Murder on the Orient Express in 2017. It's the first Hercule Poirot novel and David was interested in more of the detective's mysteries. It took us a while to get through, because we mostly listened on the way to school and that's a short commute, so we didn't finish until 2018.

I love Christie's writing. There are lots of twists and turns, but best of all, she's funny. And there are always layers to her clues: how the narrator Hastings interprets them, how the reader (who is smarter than Hastings) interprets them, and then the truth (aka, what Poirot knows).

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

What a perfect, cozy mystery. Not a murder mystery; just a bunch of odd people who show up in an inn over a snowy Christmas break. When items go missing, the lovable, preteen sleuth who lives in the inn with his parents decides to figure out what's going on.

Wonderful characters and setting, a fun puzzle to solve, and a really cool twist or two along the way.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

As compelling as it is heart-breaking. Not at all an optimistic book, but it's not without hope, either. Which pretty much sums up my current outlook about race relations in the US. Getting to where we need to be is a tough, almost impossibly steep hill, but we can do it and it's critical that we do.

Four Color Bleed by Ryan McSwain

I helped Kickstart this book because I'm Twitter friends with Ryan, he seemed like a smart and creative person, and the novel's concept sounded awesome. But I'm such a slow reader with such a large reading pile that it took a while for Four Color Bleed to work its way to the top of my list. I'm sorry I waited so long.

The novel is so strong on character and drama that you don't have to be a comics fan to enjoy it. But boy does it ever scratch that classic superhero itch in a powerful way. I really hope Ryan does more in this universe.


Paxton said...

I'm in the midst of writing my year end round up articles for reading and watching. I love seeing what you read, I feel like it's usually more interesting than mine. She? Master of Ballantrae? Turn of the Screw? All books I had on my list to read, but never got to. I'm bad about returning to my "classics" pile and stick to more mainstream. I need to work on that. I used to be pretty good about it, but not lately. For instance, the only Jane Austen I've read was Pride and Prejudice, and I read the revisionist Pride and Prejudice and Zombies version. So.....yeah.

Senorita Scorpion. Ugh. I read that second story and was like..."I'm done." I may give that last story, Curse of Montezuma a shot though before I start using the collection as a door stop. ;-)

Excellent list as usual my friend. I should have mine out soon. Probably next week because this week has been....let's say busy.

Michael May said...

Oh, man... Senorita Scorpion. So disappointing. Except that last story. Would love to hear what you think if you get around to it.


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