December 03

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My Top Ten For 2015

Last year was a debacle: I couldn’t get to ten books to recommend from the hundred I’d read that year. This year, I have so many excellent choices I’m going to cheat and give some extras.  I may also come back and add a few in the comments, if I read something extraordinary over the last few weeks of December.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

This book has been surprising in how little controversy it has evoked, with even mainstream journals of economics noting its depth of research and persuasive arguments. Piketty’s basic thesis is that global society has the choice between a progressive capital tax or the continual concentration of money and influence into the hands of a tiny elite, He manages to develop this thesis in several different ways, and surveys the history of the concentration of capital.

Book club discussion questions are in my earlier post.

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The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking is about the formation of a supportive community around the artist (and narrator) Amanda Palmer, and the role which asking and giving has played in her professional success.

The book is a memoir, and covers her early professional life, marriage, the extraordinary success of her Theatre is Evil kickstarter. It’s an apologia for several of her projects which have attracted internet backlashes. As the book concludes, Amanda is forced to choose between supporting her best friend, who has a life threatening illness, and  keeping her promises to her fans.

It’s an extraordinarily intimate book, about how Amanda’s life is changed and sustained by the generosity of others.

Book club discussion questions available.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Who knew a book about homogenous hiring could be so engaging? For those not into business-speak, that’s the habit of individuals to hire copies of themselves. In Ready Player One, an eccentric billionaire named Halliday has left his fortune to whoever can solve a puzzle in the virtual world he created. He doesn’t just find his successors, he creates them. To solve the puzzle a player needs to love what Halliday loves. The victorious player is essentially a clone, patted on the head with some paternal advice at the end. More, Halliday creates a society in which his younger duplicates can thrive. That Halliday is reproducing himself memetically while terraforming the world so that his descendants can thrive, is the most interesting element in the story. Book club discussion questions available.

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Life with Archie: Volume #6

This is a great graphic novel, which I recommend widely.

Archie Comics has been a highly experimental company for the last few years. I think readers miss that because their subject matter seems nostalgic. Archie Comics give the impression that they sell easy Americana. It’s all small town life, love triangles, and teenage japes. This makes it difficult for people to notice that the comics are politically subversive.

In Archie Comics, small town America, middle America, has always been in favor of racial integration. It has always supported gay people. It has always acted compassionately to people with disabilities. People who do not share these values are the villains. As American politics has moved to the right, Archie Comics have seemed to move to the left. Archie Comics is subversive because it insists, against any an all evidence, that virtually all Americans are good, decent people and that stridently conservative values are an aberration.

In the conclusion of Life With Archie, Archie dies. The comics leading up to this had been telling two stories, the first story in each issue assumed that Archie had married Veronica Lodge, the second that he had married Betty Cooper. The final few issues merge both universes, through clever placement of speech bubbles, obscuring the face of Archie’s wife, and the use of pronouns rather than proper names. This is well done, a suitably clever ending to the two stories.

The ending allows the Archie comics to do several vital things. It allows them to talk about contemporary issues. Gun violence. gay marriage, and corporate corruption aren’t what you’d usually expect from nostalgic Americana. This also open the door to new storytelling possibilities, which is important for the business as a commercial, if artistic, concern. The tonal shift to succeeding series like Afterlife with Archie, which is a zombie apocalypse, and Chilling Tales of Sabrina, also a horror title, is easier for the audience to navigate. This also sets Archie up for a reboot in Archie : Volume 2. Continuing readers have seen the characters being used to talk about significant, modern things. That tone shift, now it is bedded down, lets them update the art without losing too many current readers.This transforms the series to something marketable to a wider audience. This, in turn, makes it possible to create spin-off media as extra revenue sources.

So, well written, uses the format cleverly, strategically repositions the characters…if you are into graphic novels, this is well worth a look.

The Library Service has the complete series of the Life With Archie revival series.

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Ms Marvel Vol. 1 : No Normal

An excellent origin story for a new Marvel heroine. Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman, living in the United States, who gains shapeshifting abilities. She navigates approaching adulthood, her cultural identity, her generational niche, and her developing powers. The writing is engaging, and this is an excellent step-on title for the flood of young women coming into the hobby. The Library Service has copies available.

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Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This is an interesting collection of short stories, told in graphic novel form. The art is drawn in what seems like an imprecise, flat style, but that’s apparently for deliberate effect: making the pictures more child-like. The stories are atmospheric rather than gory. I enjoyed the collection and would recommend it to those who enjoy horror or graphic novels. please note, however that the author deliberately leaves all of the stories unfinished. This works well, I feel, but it’s a divisive choice.

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

I’ve enjoyed the rest of this series, and Stross delivers again. The lead character, Bob, is a middle-aged public servant who works for the Laundry. This is the part of the British Civil Service that faces occult threats using higher mathematics. In this story, Bob needs to deal with his terrifying ex-girlfriend, and the fact that no-one seems to be able to believe in vampires.

Copies are available from the Library Service.

Paladin of Souls by Lois Mcmaster-Bujold

A deeply satisfying fantasy novel, that does not depend for its interest on cheap trickery. Ista, the dowager queen of a kingdom saved in a previous book, is being driven mad by her confinement in the capital. She decides to go on pilgrimage for her sanity, which disturbs her courtiers. She has had periods of mental illness due to the touch of the Mother, a goddess, and her carers think Ista’s desire to head for the hills is her affliction returning.

Ista’s visions are returning. The gods, who blighted her life but cannot so much as lift a leaf without the aid of a mortal, want more and worse from her. Her new visions are not, however, coming from the Divine Mother, but from her son, the Bastard. He is the the source of death magic, the prince of demons and lord of things out of season, but also, as she discovers, granter of tiny mercies in desperate need.

If you enjoy fantasy novels, seriously consider this book. It is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, but can be read alone.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The week before Halloween, a carnival train arrives in a small American village. The freakish performers of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show offer the residents of Greentown their secret desires. Only two teenaged boys, and a man weighed down with age, understand the threat the town faces.

Book club discussion questions are available.

Labyrinths by Jorge Louis Borges

Complex short stories about the relationship between the text and the reader, and the author and his characters. The book repeatedly uses motifs of symmetry, mirrors, mazes, and libraries. I enjoyed this book a great deal, although I’d suggest that unless you fervently enjoy magical realism, it might be best to space the short stories out, reading other texts between them. Too much Borges is literally exhausting.

The Library Service doesn’t have any Borges fiction in English, so I’m putting in an order for his more famous collection, Ficciones. If you’re reading this post a little while after publication, there should be some holdings. Ficciones and Labyrinths share some fiction pieces, although Labyrinths has a few essays added.

The Tale of Terror by Edith Birkhead

If you are an avid horror reader, and want to mine the early authors in the genre, I highly recommend this book. It was a thesis, so it’s not as lengthy as a modern reference book. Read aloud it is only seven hours long. Much of its content was taken (with attribution) by H.P. Lovecraft for his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, so if you have already rummaged through that for recommendations, you may find this covers similar territory. That being noted, Birkhead has a different approach and philosophy to Lovecraft.

The Tale of Terror traces the history of a particular style of horror writing, starting with the Gothic Revival and The Castle of Otranto. It then works its way through the works of Mrs Radcliffe, claiming a feminine progenitor for the genre in a way I’ve not seen in other scholarship. The next chapter discusses The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer. It then winds its way through oriental romances, short stories, and American writers.

I found its treatment of Mary Shelley, in particular, refreshing.So much writing about her seems to want her to be a child-genius who redeems the sci-fi genre from perpetual blokishness. Her father’s work is given an entire chapter, and the links between it and Frankenstein are described. The flaws in Frankenstein are addressed candidly. Her dystopian novel, The Last Man, is given more space than usual which makes Birkhead’s work surprisingly topical, given how common dystopian fiction has become. Birkhead weaves all of the authors into a continuing tapestry, showing how the genre develops as they borrow from their contemporaries and predecessors.

Part of our reading challenge for this year is to read a book aloud. Reading aloud is a wonderfully different experience, and I’d like to advocate it strongly for those of you who have not tried it. I’m not suggesting you read every book aloud, but there are some which are excellent for this. That’s better as the subject for another post, so I’ll leave my usual paean to reading aloud there.

I recorded this book for Librivox, so it is available in audio. The audio’s webpage also has links to free .e Tale of terror coverpub and HTML versions of the text, available through Project Gutenberg.

The Iron King by Maurice Druon

The Iron King is the first book in a seven part series, which charts course of the French monarchy from the reign of Phillip the Fair, through the tempestuous reigns of his sons. It concludes during the Hundred Years War, against England’s Edward III, himself a nephew. This book spends much of its time setting up key players for the conflicts later in the series.

At the volume’s centre is Phillip, who is the most powerful man alive. He has crushed all of his enemies, enslaved the Church, and forged France into a tool of his will. His sons are foolish, his daughters-in-law adulteresses, and his courtiers scheme against each other. When Phillip finally incinerates his last potent foe, the leader of the Templars, his house is cursed. In the first volume, we watch Phillip’s power fracture, so that his heirs can squabble over it. Once the battles begin, this dark time, oppressed by a king more statue than man, will be looked back upon as a golden age.

Book club discussion question are available.