Thursday, January 02, 2020

Reading in 2019


I had a good reading year in 2019. I've been participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last few years and set myself a goal of 40 books this time. My goal has been steadily increasing each year, but 40 was still under the number of books I actually read in 2018. I thought maybe I'd hit 50 or so again. I read 102.

That's a hard number for me to believe, even counting that a lot of those were graphic novels and short stories and audio books and a couple of novels that I abandoned because I wasn't enjoying them. I have no illusions about doing that number again next year, but I do plan to continuing making reading a priority.

Goodreads provides cool, end-of-the-year stats and estimates that I read 20,017 pages last year. The shortest book was HG Wells' short story "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid," which is only 10 pages long. The longest book was Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. But that's where I see a hole in Goodread's system. I didn't actually finish all 798 pages of The Divine Comedy. I marked it Read, because I didn't intend to come back to it and Goodreads doesn't have a separate category for Did Not Finish. I didn't give up on many books last year, so 102 is still largely stuff that I actually read, but Goodread's estimation that my average book length was 196 pages is undoubtedly off.

The most popular book I read last year was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley with 1.2 million people recording it as well. I suspect that Dracula would be up there too, but I logged the annotated edition that I have, which would have less readers than whatever Goodreads' main entry for Dracula is.

The highest rated book on Goodreads that I logged was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, another book I didn't finish. (And another monster-sized novel, further skewing my page count.) I was listening to it on audio book and didn't like the reader, so I gave that up. I do intend to come back to it in actual book form one of these days. In addition to hearing great things from a couple of trusted sources, Goodread users give it an average of 4.22 stars.

Rather than listing out all 102 books, I'll just mention some of my favorites from various categories: novels, short stories/children's books, and graphic novels:

NOVELS

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


This was a re-read for an episode of Filthy Horrors. Actually, I listened to Dan Stevens read it on audiobook, which I highly recommend.

As always, Victor Frankenstein is an infuriating, but believable personification of privilege and moral weakness. His Creature is an icon of loneliness and despair born of rejection. Shelley's novel is a beautifully horrible story about the harm that we do others when we push them aside and it is still extremely relevant.

Joyland by Stephen King


I sometimes forget how great King is. He's earned a reputation as a wordy writer, but even his longer books are immersive and compelling. When he's tighter on the story - like he is in the less-than-300-page Joyland, he's magical. King is always strong on grounding horror in relatable characters and situations and that's true in this story of losing a first love, working a memorable summer job at a beach-side amusement park, and finding the serial killer responsible for putting an actual ghost in a haunted house.

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


This was my second time reading Relic, because I'd like to continue the Pendergast books, but it had been long enough since reading the first one that I wanted to re-familiarize myself. It's as propulsively thrilling as I remembered. Cool characters in a cool setting where unexplained, gruesome deaths are occurring. It's a great mystery that turns into a suspenseful horror story.

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore


Moore has written a really fun mystery that unfolds in two different time periods. A Sherlock Holmes expert turns up dead in a hotel room after claiming to have found a missing journal of Arthur Conan Doyle. While a fellow expert tries to solve that murder, the novel flashes back to the time of the missing journal when Conan Doyle is trying to solve a different group of murders. And in addition to the two cases is the mystery of how they might be connected.

Moore's prose and characters keep the story moving and both time periods are equally captivating. I felt for the titular Sherlockian investigating the case in the present. He's super smart, but also lonely and I got invested in seeing how/if his relationship would develop with the journalist who asks to tag along on the investigation.

Even more, I loved the characterization of Conan Doyle as a talented writer who's desperate to escape the shadow of his greatest creation, in part by proving that Conan Doyle himself is the actual detective. Partnering him up with his real-life friend Bram Stoker was a genius move and I want a whole series of novels by Moore with Conan Doyle and Stoker solving crimes in Victorian Britain. At the very least, it got me wanting to know more about Stoker who comes across in this novel as a real stand-up guy.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley


A lovely book about a precocious 11-year-old girl who's growing up in the English countryside in the mid-20th Century and also solves a murder. The first of many, apparently, and I'm not sure why I'm only just now hearing about them. Flavia de Luce is completely charming and the novel never cheats to help her put together clues or bring the villain to justice. I'm eager for more.

Dracula by Bram Stoker


This was another re-read for Filthy Horrors. The first time I read it, however many years ago, I read my annotated edition, which wasn't the best way to dive in. I got lost in the notes. They're enlightening, but they also disrupt the story if you keep reading them as you go. This time, I was just about the story and I enjoyed it even more.

Two highlights: First, it's a feminist work. After reading about Stoker as a fictionalized character in The Sherlockian and then reading Dracula again, I'm fascinated by him. Mina Murray Harker is (by Van Helsing's own admission) the smartest of the hunters, but she's sidelined by the well-meaning men of her group who want to protect her. And as long as that's the case, Dracula succeeds in his schemes. It's not until Mina is brought back into the party that they start to make headway against the Count. This isn't subtext. Stoker underlines it, circles it, and draws big red arrows pointing at it.

My other big take-away this time is how the epistolary (essentially "found footage") approach of the novel forces readers to put pieces together for themselves. It's not hard work and Stoker explains enough that you're never in danger of losing the whole story, but there are all of these little revelatory moments where I went, "Oh, that's what that was about!" I love that.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and JD Barker


I very much enjoyed this prequel to Dracula co-written by a relative of Bram Stoker, but I did have an issue with its using Stoker's epistolary format. Stoker made great use of it in Dracula, but it's not needed in Dracul and the book isn't convincing about why someone is recording all of this live.

That said, Dracul is super engaging. Bram Stoker and his siblings are characters in the story and great ones. I also loved the question about Bram's real-life childhood illness and the fantastical speculation about what may have cured it. That's a wonderful springboard into mystery and adventure.

Best of all, though, the book is scary with chilling scenes and images that haunted me for a while after I put it down.

SHORT STORIES, CHILDREN'S BOOKS, AND POETRY

Mary, Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà


This is a lovely biography of Mary Shelley written for children and with absolutely captivating illustrations. But more than that, it's encouragement for young writers - especially girls - to find and tell the stories within themselves.

"The Mysterious Key and What It Opened" by Louisa May Alcott


Without even thinking about a new Little Women film coming out at Christmas, last year I explored some of Alcott's pulpy genre stuff (the kind of stuff that Jo March is writing at the beginning of Gerwig's movie). "The Mysterious Key and What It Opened" was my favorite. It begins with a shocking mystery that - as the story progresses - looks to have a familiar solution, but then dodges at the end to not only surprise me, but move me emotionally. Between this and the new movie, I'm adding Little Women to my reading list for 2020.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost; illustrated by Susan Jeffers


I try to read this every winter, usually around Christmas, because it's probably my favorite poem. I especially love the edition with illustrations by Susan Jeffers. She adds a purpose to the narrator's forest visit that isn't exactly necessary to the poem, but is nonetheless lovely.

Christmas: Penhaligon's Scented Treasury of Verse and Prose edited by Sheila Pickles


In her Introduction, Pickles describes the value of this collection of essays and story excerpts as helping her keep Christmas in context. I'd forgotten that as I read, but recalled it as I felt the same effect working on me. It's so easy to let the holiday get out of control and these writings (mostly from the 19th Century) either describe very simple, but joyful holidays or communicate thoughts about Christmas that grounded me in its meaning. This will be an annual reading from now on.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

Lady S, Vol. 1: Here's to Suzie! by Jean Van Hamme and Philippe Aymond


An amazing spy story; gorgeously drawn with exquisite detail. There are twists and turns and jumps in time, but the story never confuses. Most importantly, I love the main character. I'm extremely eager to dive into Volume 2.

Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido


Brilliant, hard-boiled mysteries with anthropomorphic animal characters. The art is expressive, detailed, and beautiful. The mysteries are complex and full of memorable characters.

The first mystery, "Somewhere Within the Shadows," is a fairly standard noir-type murder investigation, but the following two, "Arctic Nation" and "Red Soul," get into serious issues like racism and McCarthy-esque scare tactics. Both were big problems in the '40s setting of the comic, but are also sadly troubles that persist today.

Prez by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell


I'm a big fan of Ben Caldwell's art, so that was the initial draw for me. But I also appreciated the idea of using the goofy teen-President concept from old DC comics as a way to comment on current social trends and politics. The result is quite insightful and - super important for satire, but often overlooked by would-be satirists - funny. More than that, I very much relate to the main character Beth Ross and her struggle to find and follow the morally right course of action in a culture that doesn't often reward that. Prez doesn't offer any simple answers to the questions it raises; it's honest about how complicated things have become. But Beth is an inspiration to continue trying to do the right thing even when it doesn't seem practical or even possible.

Sadly, the series was cancelled after this volume. I'd love to read and learn more.

Rachel Rising by Terry Moore


Rachel Rising is possibly my favorite thing I read this year. I've always loved Terry Moore's elegant, black-and-white drawings with their super expressive characters, but I had a hard time getting into the story of his most iconic work, Strangers in Paradise. Rachel Rising has a horror hook that worked better for me: a woman who wakes up in a shallow grave with no memory of how she got there. As she investigates, the story gets into witchcraft, demons, flashbacks to 17th Century New England, and an adorable little girl who also happens to be a serial killer.

Jonah Hex, Vol. 1: Face Full of Violence by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Luke Ross, and Tony DeZuniga


Luke Ross is the artist for five of the six stories collected here and his art looks great. He leans toward realism and I love how his Jonah Hex looks like a horribly disfigured, young Clint Eastwood. Seems appropriate for the character without being distracting.

Jonah Hex' co-creator Tony DeZuniga draws the other issue and his scratchier, grittier style is also very cool. I haven't checked, but I hope he came back for other issues in the series.

What surprised me most about the collection is that each issue is a self-contained adventure. That's a style of comic that we don't see enough of anymore and it's especially welcome when each story is as powerful as these are. They occasionally build off Western tropes, but always with a focus on character and building tension. I finally "get" Jonah Hex and can't wait to read more.

Fables: Book One by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Lan Medina


This is a re-read because I want to finally finish the series. I fell behind at some point when these were coming out as single issues, but I love these characters (especially Snow White and Bigby Wolf, but all of them) and using a variety of genres to tell their stories is genius.

The first volume starts with a cool murder mystery, but even more than that, I love the political allegory of the second story, a la Orwell's Animal Farm, which just so happens to take place at the remote farm where the talking animals and other non-human Fables have to live. I didn't realize how much I needed to see a story about Shere Khan hunting Snow White with Reynard the Fox running interference.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita


I really dug into classic Spider-Man last year and read several of the Masterworks collections, getting up into the John Romita years with the introduction of Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. The melodrama can be much, especially during the volatile relationship between Peter Parker and Betty Brant (which could not end quickly enough for me). And I was surprised by how much I disliked Aunt May's presence in Peter's life. The series leaned hard on her frailty and excessive emotional reliance on Peter as a source of his angst and constant worry.

I was also surprised (but enjoyed) that Peter met Gwen and Mary Jane at about the same time. I always imagined that he began and finished his relationship with Gwen before MJ entered the picture. Instead, he meets them both, they're both clearly attracted to him - and vice versa - but Gwen starts to feel more serious about it first. There are hints that MJ is more interested in Peter than just flirting, but she keeps that to herself until it's too late. I loved all that stuff as well as the introductions of so many classic villains and of course J Jonah Jameson being J Jonah Jameson all over everything.

Little Book Of Horror: Dracula by Steve Niles and Richard Sala


Dracula as a children's book. It's a fun, adventurous take. Niles' text is entertaining and funny, while Sala's illustrations are gloriously gothic, sexy, and funny themselves.

All-Action Classics Dracula by Michael Mucci and Ben Caldwell


Possibly my favorite version of the story, including Stoker's. That's maybe going too far, but it reminds me of how I feel about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings vs Tolkien's. Michael Mucci and Ben Caldwell keep the story and characters of the original intact while making a few, carefully considered changes to help illuminate some things or keep the story moving.

It loses the puzzle-solving that the epistolary nature of the novel forces on the reader, and that's something I miss, so I'm glad to have the story in both formats. This is the perfect introduction to Dracula for anyone interested in the story, but intimidated by what they've heard about the novel.

Koma by Pierre Wazem and Frederik Peeters


I love this series more the deeper I get into it. I'm pretty sure that I've re-categorized its genre with each volume, too. It felt like horror at first, then fantasy, and with the third volume (as far as I've got, currently) it's science fiction. The tone and setting haven't changed, just the way I've perceived them because of the emerging plot. It's a cool world with an amazing look and a fascinating story that I'm still figuring out as I go.

The Bloody Cardinal by Richard Sala


And finally, Richard Sala is always awesome and The Bloody Cardinal is yet another example of his aesthetic and my tastes creating a ven diagram that's just a circle. It's the story of a series of murders that may or may not be the work of a masked killer who's been presumed dead. Various concerned parties on both sides of the law investigate and the bodies keep piling up. As always with Sala, it's funny, scary, and sexy all at once.

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