Books of 2023, part 2

If my Goodreads summary is to be believed, I managed to read 53 books by the end of 2023. I don’t think that’s exactly right, but it might not be very wrong either. Some of these “books” were novellas that felt more like really long short stories. Others were actual short stories that are, for the lack of a better alternative, also labeled as “books”. If five substantial short stories or two novellas make a “book”, then the honest count would be 45. But, this year I read dozens of short stories that are not on Goodreads at all; also, I read some (gasp!) book-length fanfiction. So I’m good with “around 50”. It’s still twice as many as usual.

Let’s dive in!

I spent the summer months with the Murderbot Diaries by M. Wells. (That would be the novellas I mentioned earlier. Only one entry in the series is a novel.) I had a great time with these, enjoying in particular the simplicity and effectiveness of the language and the titular character’s cynicism. The gender-neutrality of the text is commendable: even after reading the entire series, I could not tell if the Murderbot’s physique is feminine or masculine. It (the Murderbot) is also fairly representative of neurodivergent humans, and I wonder it this was contrived or came about naturally through character development. Either way, entertaining and memorable. I’ll be glad to read any future installments.

I picked up the Into Shadow series of short stories by acclaimed authors thanks to T. Muir, whose Locked Tomb trilogy got me pretty excited last year. As usual with story collections, my experiences have been mixed (I still have a few more to go). The Six Deaths of the Saint by A. E. Harrow was impressive both in ambition and execution, and I enjoyed T. Muir’s story, Undercover, too. The rest I could take or leave.

S. King’s Dark Tower, the last in the series with the same title, was an expected but thorough disappointment. I wrote about the other six books in the first part of the yearly review. The first five were great, but the last two spoiled my fun completely. King’s worldbuilding is pedestrian and boring, and I find his attempts at philosophy shallow at best and laughable at worst. In the final book, he takes pains to show us that nothing really matters: lives of heroes and villains both are snuffed out with no discernible purpose other than to clear the board, and almost every plot device is a deus ex machina. I genuinely think it would’ve been better if the series had been left unfinished while it still had some spirit.

Next up is Why Willows Weep, another story collection I bought for the sake of a single author — M. McCann. The stories are about trees, and again, they were a mixed bag. McCann’s story was unremarkable: not bad, but not as good as some of the others, and it seemed too ambitious for the format, reminding me of my own struggles to fit too much into not so many words.

Then there was The Cabin at the End of the World by P. Tremblay. The blurb for this one mentioned that the kid on the cover had two dads, which is why I bought the book despite the ominous vibes from the rest of the blurb. I didn’t enjoy it. The constant tension tired me, the brutality of the violence desensitized me, and the premise barely kept my disbelief suspended. But it was interesting enough to warrant watching the movie adaptation, which pretty much told a whole other story. The movie made explicit a lot of things that were (I assume) purposely left to the imagination and the interpretation of the reader in the book, and I didn’t like these… revelations. At the same time, it did breathe more life and dimension into the “villains”, who are depicted rather flatly in the book, in part because the “truth” of the events is never spelled out. All in all, memorable? But I would not recommend.

The Winter World by A. G. Riddle was, in contrast, so unremarkable I’m struggling to remember it. It’s about alien machines come to harvest the energy of the Sun, leaving the Earth to wither in eternal winter — and the heroic efforts of humanity to escape this fate. It’s also a love story, kind of, but with leads so utterly bland and determinedly professional that it fell utterly flat. With the break-neck action that hardly lets you breathe, it was a chore to read and the only reason I didn’t drop it is that it was an audio-book I could listen to while drawing.

One of my several non-fiction reads (or attempts, at least), was Because Internet by G. McCulloch — a treatise about how the informal communication over the internet has changed the rules of language. I enjoyed this more than I expected! And it was a fairly insightful read that has helped me get a better grip of some of the modern concepts that elude or annoy me, such as emoji and memes. This, I’d very much recommend to anyone who loves words.

Next up is Coffee, Milk and Spider Silk by C. Edwards. I got this on a recommendation (I don’t remember from whom), and also out of curiosity, because I don’t know if I ever read something from the genre of “cozy fiction” before. I still don’t know what that’s even supposed to mean (I’m bad at genres), but my assumption that it means “there will be no suspense and conflict here” was wrong. It was, however, all quite light-weight and ultimately, forgettable. While I remember bits of some scenes and the overall arc, I don’t remember the names or even the species of the characters (they were various fantasy creatures), or if there was even any romance.

I somewhat struggled through J. Eugenides’ Middlesex, though I’m rather invested in the subject. The first person narration that magically transcends generational gaps to recount the intimate experiences of the narrator’s parents and grandparents was weird and occasionally distracting, though I understand why the choice was made. What I don’t quite understand is why these experiences needed to be rendered in the first place. The more contemporary parts, describing the narrator’s life and strange troubles, were more interesting, but still not as much as I expected. Shrug.

I had a similar experience with A River Runs Through It by N. Maclean. Based on extremely vague recollection of the movie, which I’d seen years ago, I kept hoping for some gay content, but no. The titular story was mostly boring, with occasional bursts of brilliant insight that had me re-reading this passage or that half a dozen times till I memorized it. Whether because I was disappointed by the lack of gay, or because I knew how it ends, the story failed utterly to click with me and I felt next to nothing throughout. There were two other stories in this book. I can’t recall their titles. One was about as boring and unrelatable as the first, but the other — again! — seemed to hold some faint promise of gay, which — again — nope. I was so frustrated by this that I briefly contemplated writing fix-it fic for it. Someone definitely ought to.

The next book is possibly my favorite of this post. Invitation to the Blues by R. Parish was an unexpected delight. I’ve owned this book since 2017, I believe, and I can’t for the life of me say why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. As with quite a few other titles in my sprawling library, it’s likely I at one point read the blurb, but forgotten everything about it except “depression”, and the single guy on the cover doesn’t really get the idea of “gay romance” across. As it turns out, it’s a beautiful gay romance featuring a deeply depressed character who finds an incredibly solid and generous partner when he least expects it. The strength of Faron’s character radiated from the pages in warm, soothing waves. I admit I developed a bit of a crush on him myself. It helped me deal with Jude’s somewhat melodramatic relapse, which might have caused me to put the book down otherwise. The trouble I have with reading about depressed characters, or characters who otherwise suffer from extremely low self-esteem, is something I growingly see as a flaw in my own character: it’s so distant from my own experiences, I can’t relate to it; moreover, I don’t believe it, which is a deeply shit attitude that I’m trying to correct. Anyway, talking about this book makes me want to read it again. A lovely little gem.

The Best of All Worlds by K. Lord was another middling read that cried for gay content but noped out of it hard. It’s something of a “classical” science fiction book, where you get to travel across a strange planet and meet all its diverse societies, while a romance between the main characters slowly unfolds as a side-plot. It’s a shining example of slow burn, and I warmed up for to it by the end, but my feelings were mostly invested in the possible secondary romance between a male and a nonbinary character — which, disappointingly, did not materialize. This book was so heteronormative I feel half-ashamed for half-enjoying it.

But! I had my dose of queer fiction with And Seek (Not) to Alter Me, edited by N. Waters and others, a collection of artwork and stories inspired by Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing published by Duck Prints Press (who will, if all goes well, also publish one of my stories this year). Before this anthology, I have read only a handful of standalone stories published by DPP, some of them a long time ago, and I picked this up in the way of gauging the standards I should aspire to in my own writing for them. And let me tell you, I was a bit intimidated at first. Like every story collection, this one left mixed impressions, but they were overall positive. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone with a thirst for representation of marginalized minorities.

Indecent Obsession by C. McCullough was a surprisingly difficult read. This one had some gay content, but for once, I would’ve preferred if it didn’t. The lead character, a nurse in a field hospital at the end of WWII, falls in love with a patient, a man she suspects is gay. But not only he’s not gay, he has a history with gay men also mistaking him for one of their own, and assaulting one of them. The actual gay man of the story is by all accounts the villain, and he villainously proceeds to proposition the allegedly non-gay main, who, even in chapters from his own POV, sends some mightily mixed signals. It all ends badly, with the evil gay dude getting murdered. In fairness, the non-evil, non-gay dude dies violently not so long after, so my sense of balance was gratified. Did I enjoy reading this? Not really. Do I think my time was wasted? Not at all. It gave me a lot to think about.

I picked up One Night in Heartswood by E. Denny because someone on Tumblr mentioned it as an example of medieval England gay fiction next to The Scottish Boy, which I loved to bits in 2020. Sadly, it didn’t come anywhere near. It’s like middle-tier fanfiction material: technically competent but otherwise immature. The pacing was oddly drawn out in some places and oddly compressed in others, way too much screen-time was given to way overemphasized insecurities of the characters. As usual with romances I end up disliking, the main obstacle in the way of the happy ever after is the entirely artificial failure of one or both lovers to believe that they can actually be loved by the other. I just don’t buy it and even thinking about it annoys me. Can’t the hundreds, if not thousands of authors in this genre come up with something better?

Near the end of the year I decided to close two non-fiction books without finishing them.

The first is The New England Mind – The Seventeenth Century by P. Miller, which I started almost a year ago, while planning and drafting my main AMLS fic. It’s an incredibly thorough and detailed book about Puritan thought; but reading it was a serious challenge. For my purposes, an entry-level text would’ve been much better. This assumes not only a working historical knowledge of the period (which I actually had after all my other research), but also a solid background in Christian philosophy (which I severely lack). Still, I could read it, little by little, and perhaps I would’ve gone on to finish it if my interest in writing said fic held up. But it didn’t, and at last I gave up, having just barely reached the half-mark.

The other is I hate you – don’t leave me by J. J. Kreisman and H. Straus. It’s a book about the borderline personality disorder that I picked up for much the same reasons as the previous one – as part of research for my AMLS fic – but put down for different ones. I reached the place where the detailed descriptions and case histories of BPD ended in favor of something entirely different – perhaps therapy methods (I can’t remember), that just wasn’t interesting to me. Regardless, it was great reading and I wish such books existed for all major psychiatric conditions.

The last book of 2023 was one I’d been looking forward to a long time: Giovanni’s Room by J. Baldwin. It’s a tragic tale of gay love. Different from Lie with Me (one of my favorite reads from 2022) in that gayness wasn’t the central issue. The central issue was rather one of… commitment. The main character refuses to commit to his beautiful male lover, clinging instead to an unorthodox, ill-defined relationship with a woman who he doesn’t love, under financial and social pressure. She learns, at last, that he likes men, and leaves him. But that’s only a footnote next to the real tragedy. I loved it, and yet it didn’t hit me quite as hard as some other more-or-less contemporary tragic gay romances I’ve read in recent years. Not sure why. It’s possible that I was too preoccupied, mentally as well as emotionally, with Baldur’s Gate 3 to fully appreciate this book. Some of the atmosphere in my inaugural BG3 fic, A Godsdamn Kraken, was inspired by it, especially by the lovely scenes of falling in love with Giovanni at first sight. Definitely worth re-reading at some point.

For 2024, I set myself the ambitious goal of reading 40 books. So far, I’m lagging behind. My haphazard curation in the last several years has resulted in amassing a lot of random literature that mostly fails to move me, which slowly erodes my motivation to read. Being “bad at genres” doesn’t help. I don’t actually know what I want to read, and even with my favorite books, my reaction is never “I want more of the same”. An exception to that rule might be fanfiction, but that’s a subject for a separate post.

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