The last year wasn’t as great for my reading as the previous few. Having read 30 books in 2021, I set myself the goal of reading 36 in 2022, and fell short by a dozen. Mostly I blame my Darksiders obsession, which rendered me unable to focus on most other things throughout the first half of the year. But a part of the blame lies on the poor choice of books as well. Most of them simply bored me to varying degrees, with a few striking exceptions.
According to my Goodreads summary, the first book I finished last year was the book on writing by T. S. Buckell, “It’s All Jus a Draft”. I liked it. It doesn’t attempt to advise or teach: it’s more of an autobiography, where the author shares the practices and influences that helped him make a living out of writing, and many of the tips felt worth considering.
I already reviewed “Strange Angels” by K. Koja, so I’ll move right on to “Sword Dance”, the first book in a trilogy by A. J. Demas. Basically, it’s a gay romance, but it has several twists that made it feel fresh and original despite the confines of the genre. The setting is a fantasy pre-industrial Mediterranean, and the plot draws on the conflicts of a multiethnic, multicultural region till recently ravaged by war. One of the protagonists is a soldier forced into an early retirement by a disabling injury. The other is a sword-dancer, a eunuch and a recently emancipated slave. The plot they navigate is decently developed, but it’s their love story that the book is really about, and it’s a love story fraught with all sorts of insecurities, special requirements and trauma from the past. If not for two singularly ridiculous and largely gratuitous scenes, I’d have zero objections for this book, and even with them, it was a pleasure to read.
So much so that, later in the year, I also read the sequel, “Saffron Alley”, where the two lovers reunite after a period of separation and a whole world of unforeseen circumstances conspires against letting them have some well-deserved alone-time. This book was better in that it had no ridiculous scenes, though the shining success of its very obvious mission to frustrate the reader (who just wants them to fuck, already), is a dubious quality. Either way, it was a good, fun read and I will absolutely want to read the final book of the trilogy when I get a chance.
Next up is another writing book, “The Three Story Method” by J. Thorn and Z. Bohannon. This was bad in so many ways I’m not sure where to start. The first third of the book consists of different ways to say “before we divulge our magic method for writing a bestseller that will instantly turn you into a millionaire, let us take a look at another long quote from another book on writing because we don’t really have anything of substance to fill these pages with”. And then the method is something so unremarkable that I can’t for the life of me remember what the three stories are. Prescriptive, useless crap that in another setting I’d call an outright scam.
Then there was “Warmage”, a book self-published by an online acquaintance, K. W. Leone. Out of respect for the author, I will not go into details on why I was unable to go on reading past the first 30 or so pages.
I already reviewed “The Golem and the Jinni” by H. Wecker, and it wasn’t altogether a positive review, but I’m delighted to report that the sequel, “The Hidden Palace”, that I read near the end of the year, was a massive improvement with regards to the things I critiqued. I loved it throughout, and I was especially moved by the ending. I think I’ll want to write a dedicated post about it eventually, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
“Waiting for the Flood” is the third book by A. Hall that I read. Just like the second one (“Boyfriend Material”), it’s a far cry from the first (“For Real”), but it had some good moments, one of which inspired me to conjure an odd and original scene for one of my Darksiders WIPs.
Next I picked up “The Leftovers” by C. Parkin, which tackles the disturbing subjects of abuse by a member of the family or a caretaker. I’m not entirely sure why, but I was unable to empathize with the lead character and the book utterly failed to move me. I was bored throughout and putting it down was a relief.
To clean my palate after that, I decided to read a book that was supposed to be a treat: “The Remains of the Day” by K. Ishiguro. In 2021, I was enraptured with another book of his, “Never Let Me Go”, and as “The Remains of the Day” earned him the Nobel prize in literature, I was primed to be swept off my feet. Instead, I was bored. I kept waiting for something of substance to happen, some shocking insight or revelation, but nope. I’m still stunned from the disappointment.
But then finally I did read something that cleaned my palate: “Lie With Me” by P. Besson, an autobiographical tale of first love, its echoes in later life and its tragic ending. I found it genuine and familiar and devastating. A superb reading.
The third writing book of 2022 was “The Heroine’s Journey” by G. Carriger. This was an illuminating read, though it’s rife with repetition that seems to aim at drilling ideas into the reader by force, which I didn’t appreciate. I’ve wanted to blog about it since the summer, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Hopefully I’ll manage it this year. The subject matter is compelling enough.
Then I took up “This Magnificent Dappled Sea” by D. Biro. It started well enough, with a story about a boy dying from leukemia and a middle-aged rabi from another side of the world turning out to be an unlikely bone-marrow donor… and then, by degrees, it transformed into a story about the Holocaust. There’s nothing wrong with stories about the Holocaust, but it’s not what you sign up for when you start reading this book. Even though it was consistently well-written and heartfelt throughout, it overstayed its welcome and then some. I ended up fairly itching for it to end already so I can put it to rest.
Next was “The Virgin Suicides” by J. Eugenides. For a book with such disturbing contents, it did remarkably little to stir me. I felt nothing from start to end. Was that what the author intended? It’s not unheard of: to set off the tragedy of a situation by a narrative voice that makes it impossible for the reader to develop an emotional response. I can’t say it bored me: it was interesting enough, and had a number of surprising moments. But I expected more.
“The Hive” by G. Olsen is a meticulously plotted murder mystery that, like every other murder mystery I’ve tried so far, fell completely flat for me and felt like a waste of time even though I can’t think of anything bad to say about it. Just not my genre, but I keep picking it up in the hopes that I’ll passively absorb some of the plotting craft, or at least find some ideas I could adapt directly for my own fiction. No such luck with this one.
“Sorrowland” by R. Solomon was, on the other hand, a hugely pleasant surprise. I don’t remember where I heard of this book or the author, or what I heard, but somehow I didn’t expect science fiction. (I read the blurbs of the books I buy, when I buy them, but often it’s months or even years before I get to actually read them, by which time I’ll have largely forgotten when and why I got them, not to mention any meta.) Even more delightfully, I didn’t realize it is science fiction till about the half-mark. I just love it when you can’t tell if the events of a book are truly fantastical, or the result of the skewed perception of the protagonist, who in the case of “Sorrowland” might be drugged, psychotic, or both. Turns out she wasn’t, but the period of uncertainty was delectable. I was also impressed by splendid characterization and the achieved tension. The latter even made me put down the book on several occasions and pick up a “boring one” to calm myself down (in this case, “The Island of the Day Before” by U. Eco, which I perused to put myself to sleep over many months and only finished last week, so it’ll be featured in the next year’s reading overview). All in all, “Sorrowland” was a great pleasure to read and study. I’ve already procured some other books by this author.
Next I read the western story collection “Mistakes Can Kill You” by L. L’Amour. I haven’t read anything in this genre since childhood, and it was an interesting experience. The stories are flawlessly crafted despite the cardboard characters, and some of them stuck with me, which is more than I can say for most short stories in general, especially in loose collections.
Then came “The Elements of Eloquence” by M. Forsyth, a brilliantly written nonfiction book (gasp!) enumerating something like 40 rhetoric forms with an abundance of examples ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary prose and poetry. A great craft resource that was, surprisingly, also great fun to read.
“Zombie” by J. C. Oates is a book I discovered through The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, which I’ve been following since last summer. I must’ve heard dozens, if not a hundred short stories from TNY by now, and they’ve almost all been enjoyable and accessible enough but ultimately forgettable. My recent interest in short fiction probably deserves a post of its own, as I’m generally confounded by what apparently constitutes a good short story. “Zombie” was one of the few that actually managed to intrigue and excite me, and the book was a dark and disturbing pleasure to read. I need to find more literature with deeply deranged POV characters, it seems to work for me better than anything.
“Verity” by C. Hoover was another stab at mystery, and similarly disappointing, though the premise was interesting and surprising enough. There was too much gratuitous sex, bordering on outright vulgarity; my overall impressions would’ve been better if not for that. The final revelation cast the entire story in a more favorable light, as you find that the most tasteless and brutal aspects of it were fiction within fiction. I guess this was a decent read.
And then there was “The Cruelest Stranger” by W. Renshaw, which definitely wasn’t. I picked this up based on cover and blurb, for science. I wanted a taste of a trashy het romance. But in the end, I couldn’t finish it. Not so much because it’s trashy, but because the kind of tension it builds didn’t agree with me. Which isn’t to say the book is not trashy. It certainly is. The characters are flat and stereotypical, at the same time predictable and unconvincing. The love/hate relationship that “develops” between them out of intense personal antagonism “balanced” by mindless physical attraction, which was supposed to somehow persuade the reader that “hate sex” is a thing that exists outside of fanfiction, is laughably arbitrary and artificial. I think I’ll stick with classy historical gay romance, thank you very much.
Next came “The Good Omens” by T. Pratchett and N. Gaiman. I’ve read some Gaiman in not-so-distant past, and perhaps some Pratchett too when I was a teen, and based on these previous experiences, my expectations were rather low. Actually the main reason I wanted to read this is a Tumblr rumor that (as most Tumblr rumors) proved incorrect. Namely, I read a post where a literate-sounding user said that, at the time the book was published, it was not feasible to openly represent the two protagonists, the angel Aziraphael and the demon Crowly, as a couple; and that it was lovely to see this constraint lifted in the Netflix show. For me, the book was a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it quite a lot, and even found the humor funny here and there. And then I went on to watch the Netflix show, awaiting the moment of ‘lifting that constraint’, but, as you already know if you’ve seen it, there’s no such moment. The protagonists do exude a considerable air of an old couple, but there’s nothing to even remotely confirm it. Perhaps in the next season, but somehow I doubt it.
Then I took up “The Burning God” by R. F. Kuang, the third book of the “Poppy War” trilogy that I started reading in 2020:
I picked up the first two books in THE POPPY WAR series by R. F. Kuang. Kuang is an author I’ve been following on social media, one very young for the kind of success and praise she has been enjoying, and I wanted to see for myself if her work is worth it. But even after reading these books, it’s hard to say. The premise is fresh enough, I suppose: like Harry Potter, on drugs, in medieval China, with a sprinkling of dark themes and generously inspired by historical events. The writing is competent but by no means awesome, the characters unique and varied but prone to random stupidity, and the overarching story tiptoes at the verge of plausibility. I had no problem returning to the books to keep reading them, but part of my interest came from a morbid fascination with just how much I disliked the main character and everything she did. The third and final book of the series appeared in press a couple months after I finished the first two, or I would have read that too, no doubt. I remain divided.https://www.smehur.com/my-2020-in-books/
After reading this third installment, which was the flattest, the most boring, and the most obviously a copy-pasta of historical events, I’m no longer divided. The fame of this series is all down to pervasive marketing and the only value I got from reading it is of the “what not to do in own writing” sort.
The last book I finished in 2022 is the best I’ve read not only last year but, I think, ever? “As Meat Loves Salt” by M. McCann moved me as no book has ever moved me before. Unwisely, I finished the reading on Christmas morning, and my devastation was so profound that I had trouble holding back tears during the family lunch. The entirety of my winter break was colored by this extraordinary experience, and AMLS still lingers in my thoughts. After denying myself the pain and pleasure or rereading it for these three weeks since I put it down, I picked it up again just yesterday. I haven’t reread a book immediately after reading it since I was a teen. I might even go on to write fanfiction for this, which will be a first. In any case, AMLS is very much material for a post (or a few) of its own. I’ve been journaling about it almost daily, but now that I’m reading it again, I’ll wait till I’ve finished the second pass, because I sense I’ve missed many an important detail in the immense thrill of the first reading. What a book!
For this year, I’ve set myself up with the achievable goal of reading 30 books, though I feel I should be able to aim higher, especially since nowadays I’m able to listen to audiobooks with full attention while drawing. We shall see.