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Books of 2017

My new year’s resolution is to migrate all the material on this blog to my actual site and maybe even format it so it both looks professional and is up to date. By the time I finish updating my online presence to where I am now, I will be somewhere else, right?

But you’re not here for that, you’re here for the books. Feel free to scroll down past all the data if all you care about is the Top Ten List.

In my third year as a parent, I finally broke 100 again! Thank goodness for’s novella series. This year I read 118 books and, honestly, I think I did a pretty good job. Let’s see.

Ratings 2017

Ratings Pie Chart. 8% 5 star, 57% 4 star, 33% 3 star, and 2% 2 star.

Apparently I really liked my books this year. The 4 star books significantly outnumbered 3 star books and, even when accounting for the fact that Goodreads now allows you to add rereads (which I mostly refrained from doing), I read more 5 star books this year that I had in a while. And three of those books were by authors I had not read before, which is always reassuring.

Publication Year 2017

Pie Chart of publication year. 80% of the books I read this year were published in the last three years and half of those books were published in 2017.

Turns out my current reading remains extremely current. I think this is the most recent recently read selection I’ve managed in a while. Maybe next year’s resolution – make a dent in my books before 2015 TBR pile.

For the next few charts, the Y axis (which is unlabeled, I know, I’m sorry!) refers to number of books.

Genre 2017

A bar chart of all the genres I read this year. Fantasy is ahead by a landslide, followed by science fiction, followed by speculative fiction. I have a type.

I realize there is something specious in breaking fantasy out into historical, fairytale, epic, and not otherwise specified because it makes it look like I’ve read less fantasy than I have. That’s not the point; I read a LOT of fantasy and I revel in it. (I feel like I need to start linking to previous posts on the subject). But they are different subgenres in my my mind and they are distinct enough to warrant their own Goodreads categories. This invites a conversation about whether fantasy–and speculative fiction more broadly are a kind of story or a setting for a story. The obvious answer is that they are both and an author can use the narrative conventions of the genre outside of a fantastic setting and end up with historical fantasy or, instead, take a fantasy setting and impose a police procedural on it. One could twist Samuel Delany’s definition of science fiction to give fantasy primacy of place and argue that all fiction is fantasy and realist fiction is just fantasy with very little imagination… I have my biases, same as everyone else.

Genre II 2017

A bar chart of all the genres I read this year, with genre defining the kind of book – novel, poetry, story collection, young adult – rather than the theme.

I’ve added a new category this year and it’s all’s fault. They’ve been publishing really excellent novellas and they’re kinda the perfect length to devour in one sitting. So in the interest of quantifying all the things, here is the genre breakdown according to a radically different definition of genre. I’m not sure what it says, other than that I would have passed last year’s book count even without including the novellas, which I find validating indeed.

Diversity Statistics 2017

A bar chart of the diversity of my book selections. Women outnumber men 3.3:1 and white people outnumber people of color 2.65:1. One person identifies as non-binary.

Okay, this time the Y axis is unlabeled for a reason. It’s because it refers to number of authors read in dark blue and total number of books read in lighter blue. As usual the women dominated and also dominated rereads. (A large light blue block means I read multiple books by a single author, although Lois McMaster Bujold and Megan Whalen Turner are outliers and they skew the results.) On the bright side, you can tell that I took my resolution to read more people of color seriously this year since this is the first year that more than a quarter of the books I’ve read were by people of color. I am aiming for one third for next year. Not counting the one reread that snuck its way in there, one half of my 5 star books from this year were by people of color. So the payoff isn’t just in the numbers, it’s in the quality of works I read. Since I started this project, I’ve read more widely, discovered writers who could make my least favorite genres sing, and nearly excised uncomfortably objectifying portrayals of women from my reading experiences. Totally worth the three hours total I have probably spent over the course of the year curating my reading list.

And now, in no particular order, my top ten books of 2017.

  • Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney. The first of two short story collections that make up my favorites from this year. I can’t quite explain what it is about Cooney that makes me love her so much. It might be her approach to myth and narrative or maybe it’s the utterly glorious exuberance of her style. Or maybe it’s the descent into hell with scary clowns. There’s really no way to tell.
  • Roses and Rot by Kat Howard. I don’t think I realized just how deep my love for retellings of Tam Lin went until someone mentioned on Twitter that this book was one and I dove for it. Howard does an amazing job of transposing the faerie ballad into the realm of modern day anxieties while maintaining the sense of magic and mystery that envelopes the fae in the original.
  • Ninefox Gamit by Yoon Ha Lee. Lee’s a genius, let’s just get that out of the way. His work deliberately looks for the limits of space opera and then pushes. It’s infuriating, mesmerizing, fascinating, and sets the bar ridiculously high for others trying to innovate in the field of space ships attacking other space ships. (Interestingly, the other figure I’d put up there is James S.A. Corey–who is actually two people–as a writer on the other side, pushing space opera towards its most realistic. Both, I think, define the limits of what the genre can do.) But Lee’s major talent is in his ability to build impossibly real and vivid characters out of what appears to be three personality quirks and some chewing gum.
  • The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. Turner’s name gets thrown around with Pierce and McCaffrey and McKinley as a writer who EVERYONE read as a child and was blown away by. As it turns out that I didn’t read everything as a child, I was a bit leery of this series since there are many books I read as a child that do not hold up and what if everyone else was wrong. Everyone else was not wrong, this book and its sequels were just as good at 30 as they would have been at 13.
  • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. She’s two for two with Hugos for this series and, God and the voting public willing, she’ll clinch the third as well. She deserves it. It felt like there was nowhere to go after The Obelisk Gate, but Jemisin takes her readers through the worst to find that there is a future after destruction and desolation. Which, more than anything else, is the path that speculative fiction can pave for us.
  • Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon). Last year, I wrote about Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway as a book for those of us who never stop opening wardrobes and looking for Narnia. Summer is a similar sort of book, although more for those of us who have grown up and wondered whether we really would have been as brave and true (and Christian) as the Pevensies, for those of us who have learned that our bravery is not about being a knight, but being a Lorax.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I read this book on Yom Kippur and basically sobbed. Which is not, in retrospect, a great move when you are trying to conserve liquids. There’s a reason this book has been on the NY Times bestseller list for as long as it has and it’s because Thomas is a glorious writer telling a story we all need to hear.
  • Strangers Drowning by Larissa Macfarquhar. Help me, I have become the kind of person who reads a book because the author was interviewed on On Being. This book was not entirely satisfying, though I doubt any treatment of the topic could be, given that we are talking about empathy and altruism and what it means to give of the self. I still don’t know what to do with it, but it won’t leave me along and so it too gets a place here.
  • Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler. Butler’s a genius. She’s one of the greatest writers that speculative fiction has ever seen and I’m going to read at least one book by her every year until I’ve made it through her oeuvre. I finished this book and the first thing I wanted to do was write a syllabus around it. It’s that good and dense and yet so utterly readable that I enjoyed it while sitting on the floor at an SAR shabbaton.
  • If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan. Memoirs are great because they can make even the most distant figure seem like a kindred spirit. And then there are memoirs where, yeah, you understand everything motivating the author because you know exactly what they mean. And its not just because you get all of their literary references. Kurshan’s memoir was that for me. It made me fall in love with the Talmud all over again and its not like I ever fell out of love with it.

And there you have it. 2017 in books. The books were excellent and my reading list keeps growing. May 2018 be as good as the books I am planning to read in it.


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Books of 2016

Books of 2016

There are less than two and a half hours left of 2016 and I can’t wait to say good riddance to the thing. But it’s the end of the year as we know it and I haven’t had my celebratory drink yet, so let’s do this thing.

This year, I read 91 books, which is one more than last year. So despite having been a parent this entire year rather than just the last month, I still managed to beat last year. I imagine it’ll be another 20 years or so until I hit 2014 numbers ever again.


Someone is #sorrynotsorry.
Also, for the purposes of convenience and experiment, I wrote this entire thing on an iPad. Thus the truly hideous excel chart colors. The management apologizes.

Anyway, here’s this year’s breakdown.



As with last year, nearly half of my books were published this year. And another quarter were last year. It seems like the 20th century made a bit of a comeback since last year though. I blame that on the course on Science Fiction I taught over the summer. Hard to teach a retrospective without delving into the 20th century.

Ratings wise, I’m doing better than previous years with the majority of books receiving four stars. I’m getting better at picking them, although the duds were pretty memorably terrible.


Numerically speaking, I branched out slightly more than last year since my 5 star books weren’t all by authors I’d already read. Go me!

And then there’s the genres…I read a lot of things that fall under the category of science fiction and fantasy.


No, but seriously. There are so many fascinating books coming out in the field of SF&F, so many interesting authors doing new and exciting things, it’s hard to find time for something else. And I freely confess to a bias towards what fantasy writers in particular can do with their words and their worlds. It seems like the SF&F community is leading the vanguard in thinking about the future. It’s a good place to be. The vanguard, I mean. Not so sure about the future.

And for the diversity question,


Since I’m too lazy to fight with Excel any longer, the percentages are 68% women and 20% POC, so nearly the same as last year. I’m pleased I didn’t get worse. I’m not thrilled I didn’t get better. Quality-wise, the books by POC definitely stand out.

Alright, onto the exciting bit. My top ten books list in more or less the order that I read them


  • The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell. I loved this book. It’s space exploration and new worlds and religion and meditation on God and tragedy and life. It’s what I want science fiction to be. It treats faith and science with the same delicacy. It’s gorgeous.
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. It’s rare that I actually want to hug a book but, although this one started off slow, it built itself into a wonderful version of steampunk fantasy that teetered just on the edge of the normal world. It had the elegance of one of its own watches in its construction and the emotional core needed to drive the intricacies.
  • A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab. I always appreciate when a sequel is even better than the first and this book definitely exceeded expectations. Schwab fascinates with her world-building, her magical rules, and her brilliantly awesome women who can’t help but steal the show.
  • Planetfall by Emma Newman. Even if this were only a book about the mysteries of a planet’s founding and the slow unraveling of a pack of lies, it would deserve a place on this list. But Newman combines it with one of the most sensitive and deft portrayals of mental illness in fiction and that itself deserves praise. Combined, it’s brilliant. And since there are more books set in the world, I won’t even ding her for the ending.
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Let me preface this by saying that Seanan doesn’t usually write the kind of books I like. But this book won me over. It struck the exact right chord. For everyone who looked in the wardrobe to find Narnia, who waited for their Hogwarts letter, who searched surreptitiously for the grail…you will know this book. It’s also the literary equivalent of a slasher film, which honestly only improves the experience.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Okay, not everyone needs a mash-up of the 18th century novel and complex heterotopian science fiction. But I do, you guys. I really do. If this book is your thing, it will be your thing utterly and completely.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Butler has been on my to-read list for a long time, but I finally read her in the summer of 2016 and her narrative of the US’s descent into autocracy, abuse of power, the ravages of climate change rings frighteningly true. Somehow, Butler makes this narrative into a story of hope, not of despair.
  • The Jewel Hinged Jaw by Samuel Delany. This book is a work of literary criticism and I’m sad I had never come across it earlier because Delany writes and analyzes with clarity in both mind and prose. I want to think his thoughts and write his words. Even the most complex ideas come across – he does not make them relatable, but his mastery of his own knowledge is so evident that the reader practically absorbs it from him.
  • Infomocracy by Malka Older. I would recommend reading this book before the 2016 election but, since time travel hasn’t been invented yet, you’ll have to settle for wishing for a world like the one Older imagines. Another instance of science fiction imagining a real and possible future that is neither u- nor dystopian, but a concrete version of our world that is both a vision of what could be better and an understanding that perfect is impossible. Older captures a future that shines as real, if not always realistic in our depressing world. The best part of it is how hard it is to disseminate fake news.
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. It’s like Firefly with diversity and without sexism. No, but seriously, it’s a vision of space opera without battles, of narrative development without ongoing conflict. It’s an almost meandering stream of stories tied together by people and I love that it works so well as a novel precisely because it feels more like a television show at times and that shouldn’t work, but of course it does and beautifully.

So there you have it. My top ten books of 2016. They’re not all five stars, but they are the books that moved me, that stuck with me, that changed the way I read and think. They are the books I will return to in my mind if not to actually reread them. They are the ones that feel the most like they have become a part of me. So, to their authors, thank you for that.

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Books of 2015

Or why I still have a blog.

Once again, it’s time to examine my year in reading. This year, I have read 90 books, which is a full 57 books fewer than last year.

Wonder how that happened…


Baby looking surprised as if she has no idea what effect she has on my reading

Anyway, let’s see how this year stacks up. It looks a lot like last year, interestingly enough.

Publication Years 2015

Books by Publication Year, heavily biased towards 2015

Nearly half the books I read in 2015 were published in 2015. One will be published next year – I read the Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) and have no regrets. About 90% were published this decade. Basically, this was a year for reading new books as they came out and little else.

Ratings of 2015

Books by Ratings

The ratings look about the same as last year – mostly 4s and 3s. Interestingly enough, I read the same number of 5s this year as I did last year. Which suggests that I’m getting better at picking the books I’ll love. And all of those books were written by authors I’ve already read. I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or not. Still, a pretty good track record.

Genres of 2015

And, once again, Fantasy wins out by a landslide. This comes as no surprise. And, honestly, most of the historical books are also either fantasy or speculative fiction. I’m beginning to wonder whether the genre differences are specious. I’m not sure what they actually tell my readers about my reading habits.

Although it will always be more interesting to look at the actual books than the stats, the stats are important too.

Books and Authors Inclusivity

Books by Inclusivity

This particular set of stats, for example, is quite important. Also, wow, not reading any non-fiction has really skewed the gender ratios. And I did much better than last year in terms of reading authors of color. 1 out of 5 is not good – 50/50 would be better, but, it’s definitely an improvement over last year. Progress requires effort and, honestly, I found that while I was more aware of race and gender as they applied to books this year, I’m not sure how much actual effort I put in. I was, at least, determined to track down new releases by authors of color that I was pretty sure I would like. So I’m both pleased to be a little better and determined to continue embettering myself.

Okay, now that we’re done with all that, let’s move on to the fun bits. Favorite books of the year, as sorted vaguely by category.


  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This was so good. This was so far beyond good, I don’t even know what to do with it. Jemisin has always been a master of world-building, but the care with which she crafts (and destroys) this one is unparalleled. More importantly, the world and the characters in it make strident points about the workings of power and oppression by being compelling characters in richly detailed settings. She tells a good story and, in doing so, shows what epic fantasy is capable of.
  • Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone. Gladstone is my most read author this year, with all four published books of the Craft sequence on the list. He’s an equally interesting example of what epic fantasy becomes in the hands of a talented writer. Gladstone’s books ask, rather simply, why epic fantasy is always set in medieval realms with sword fights and great armies clashing. What happens if it’s set in a more contemporary setting? Well, the battles move to the courtrooms, the desks of accountants and lawyers, the slums about to be gentrified. Start with either Three Parts Dead or Last First Snow.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. A bit less serious than my other recommendations, but no less enjoyable (and will not rip your heart to shreds, unlike my first recommendation). Cho clearly enjoys the Regency romance and the conceit of setting magic in 19th century England, which makes her book a loving pastiche rather than a vicious skewering. The latter may be enjoyable, but they are rarely good stories. Cho’s book blends romance and fantasy in a way that makes both better and, really, what more can you ask from a genre mashup?

Science Fiction

  • Radiance by Catherynne Valente. …This might not actually be sci-fi. It is set in the science fiction novels of the first half of the 20th century–before we know what we know now about the solar system and intrastellar travel. But it’s also set in an alternate version of the 20s, what Valente calls Decopunk, with silent movies and the silver screen on Luna and it all sounds incredibly madcap. Valente also tells much of the story through transcripts, movie pitches, and screen plays, which makes the book feel like it should be a movie even when it is so obviously unfilmable. The use of other forms of written media to tell a visual story is brilliant and I still can’t quite believe she pulls it off with such a degree of panache.

Speculative Fiction

  • The Just City by Jo Walton. Quite literally speculative fiction, Walton’s premise is that, for reasons best known to herself, the goddess Athena collects an array of humans from throughout history to set up Plato’s Republic on an island far in the past. It’s a gedankenexperiment masquerading as a story, but it works because it’s also a story about the people of the city, the governed and governing and what it means to have agency. Walton’s brilliance lies in her understanding that all good thought experiments about people only work when feelings are involved as well. I’m not sure if this is the work of speculative fiction that I enjoyed the most this year, but it’s certainly the one I found the most interesting.


  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Given that I read so few books that are not genre and given that I think Atkinson is brilliant, this book was kinda a shoe-in. It’s a companion to Life After Life and, while it mostly lacks the conceit of its predecessor, Atkinson tells the story with the same disregard for chronology that made Life After Life so successful. She makes a mystery out of ordinary life, piecing together the clues that make one man the man that he is, and uses that one man’s life to tell the story of Britain during and after WWII. It’s a genre that, though often reworked, never gets old when done well.


  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Everything I wanted in a young adult novel. It’s like returning to all my favorite authors from when I was a teenager without the lurking presence of the suck fairy. (When you go back to a beloved childhood classic to discover that it is racist, sexist, filled with wooden characters, badly written, or all of the above, it has been visited by the suck fairy. Clearly it could not have been that bad when you were younger. Something must have happened.) I’m not sure if I can pinpoint why this book is so good–the story is innovative although not new, the plot pales before Novik’s telling of it and it’s not as though female character driven YA is new or anything. She does what she does so well, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Wait, two WWII novels about pilots on this list? Code Name Verity is no less brilliant for being shelved in the YA section. Wein’s story about the women’s auxiliary branch of the airforce during WWII is fascinating, packed full of information I’d never even guess. All of which is secondary compared to the two brilliant women at the heart of the narrative.


  • Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Cetury by Shaul Stampfer. A niche market, I know, but if you happen to be interested in what it was like to attend Volozhin during the 1800s, look no further.

And there you have it, the books of 2015. Maybe next year I’ll aim really low. Like 50 books.

For more details, in depth reviews and a look at my ratings, feel free to check out my books of 2015 on Goodreads and I will see you all next year!

My Year in Books on Goodreads

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Deborah Romm, The Talmud and a Seriously Successful Kickstarter

So I received a request to tell a more detailed version of my “How the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was a 19th Century Kickstarter” story from Facebook. Never let it be said that I neglect my friends.

Two notes, before I begin.

  1. This is a narrative. I did my best to keep it historically accurate, but it’s a narrative about events that happened 150 years ago. I don’t have transcripts and I don’t have a time machine. The dialogue has…some contemporary flavor added, but it is mostly reconstructed from memoirs.
  2. M y main sources are Ze’ev Gries’s article in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Romm Family” and Shafan HaSofer’s memoirs of the Romm press, “A History of the Romm Printing Press” (alias of Shmuel Shraga Feigensohn), which is available online to anyone with an NYPL library card and a hankering to read pixellated Hebrew published posthumously in 1960.

Let me set the stage. We’re in Vilnius, Lithuania and it’s the 1860s. For the past 30 years, the Russian government has refused to grant printing licenses to all but two printing houses in the entirety of Lithuania. One of them is a little firm called the Romm printing house.

Then things take an interesting turn. The law gets LESS anti-semitic and Czar Alexander II removes the ban on Jewish printing houses. Around the same time, David Romm, head of the firm, dies.

His widow, Deborah, looks at her husband’s surviving brothers and says the 19th century equivalent of “I am NOT trusting these goons with MY business. My dad (R’ Harkavy, who subsequently dies in 1864) and I are running this joint.” So Deborah gets the plurality of the money and the name of the firm is changed to The Widow and Brothers Romm.

Her brothers-in-law are not pleased with this development and, by 1867, the in-fighting is getting pretty hairy. Deborah decides that they need a director who can get the firm back on its feet and she pulls in Shmuel Shraga Feigensohn.

Feigensohn, based on the number of exclamation points he uses in his memoirs, runs around excitedly screaming about how to fix everything. He convinces the brothers Romm to grow up and then sets out to modernize the press.

“You are the actual biggest printing firm in the entire city, how are you operating with five hand-operated presses? Haven’t you heard of the copy machine? This is the 19th century, we have steam, damn it!” (Feigensohn probably didn’t say damn it, but only because Yiddish has far more eloquent curses).

Fast forward a few years—with Deborah’s blessing, Feigensohn goes to Berlin, buys the new-fangled stereotype machines (”The goyim have had these for decades now, what is wrong with you!?”). With the old presses, every time they wanted to reprint a siddur (prayer book) or chumash (5 books of Moses), they had to redo all the layout and the type. With the new machines, they could make plaster molds of every page and use that to make full-page metal casts. Basically, when a book ran out, they could just pull out the stereotypes and reprint the books from those without dealing with the fiddly type-setting business ever again. Once a book was typeset once, it was good to go.

Now, obviously, you don’t stereotype everything. Of course, that didn’t stop the type-setters from going on strike as soon as they heard about the new machines. Feigenzohn tried to reassure them that someone needed to do the typesetting to MAKE the stereotype copy and there would always be new books… In the end, the staff found a salary raise to be far more reassuring.

Stereotyping, I speculate, gave them an idea. They were going to use this new technology to make the biggest, bestest, most complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud EVER. And Feigensohn had the bright idea to just put the Russian censors on the payroll (yes, seriously) so that the censors would look at the books before printing. That meant that once a book went to press, it was safe to sell.

By 1879, the employees of the Widow and Brothers Romm had gone hunting through 1,000 years of Talmudic commentary and were ready to start printing the greatest Talmud ever. The thing would be comprehensive. It would have everything and it would be proofread up the wazoo. Other books would be jealous!

They showed it to the rabbis. The rabbis looked at it and said “This is amazing and beautiful and no one in their right mind would pay this much money just to get an edition of the Talmud with Rabbeinu Hananel.”

And Deborah Romm had to admit, they had a point. They were printing a 20 volume oversized Talmud and that could bankrupt the firm if it didn’t make back cost. She talked to Feigensohn who was not going to let a little thing like scaredy-pants rabbis get in his way.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” says Feigensohn. “If I can get 4,000 people to subscribe to our Shas—that’s 4,000 people who sign up to buy this thing—we can go to press.” The thinking was that even if fewer than half of them come through, they’re already in the black.

And thus the Kickstarter for the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was born. They made mock-up pages and advertised the Shas in the newspapers right around Rosh Hashana time. They promised 40 new commentaries! They had 14 dedicated proofreaders working on this thing!

Over 10,000 people signed up to buy it.

And in 1880, the Widow and Brothers Romm published the first volume. In 1886, they released the last one. In that time, they moved up from their base goal of 40 additional commentaries to meet a stretch goal of over 100 additional commentaries from the 8th century to the 19th. They did this despite a warehouse fire interrupting production in the middle.

And now, I guarantee it, go pick up any copy of the Talmud, any one at all, and you will find, in Hebrew, on the title page:

“Printed and Published by The Widow and Brothers Romm”


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Books of 2014

Well, it has been a while since I’ve used this thing, but my end-of-the-year Book Review 1 has to go somewhere.

Because it’s not a year until I’ve quantified my reading. This list is current as of December 21st, 2014. Any books I read over the next 10 days may or may not be included as I see fit. Also, because Goodreads does not let you add reread dates (which annoys me to no end, but there you go), this is actually a list of books that I read for the first time in this particular medium in 2014. So there may be a reread or two that made their way on here because I listened to them for the first time. This explains some fairly noticeable lacunae (such as why none of the books I taught this summer are on the list – if I was reading them for the first time as I was teaching them, we would be in trouble).

With that out of the way, let’s look at the data. I read a LOT of recently published books.

Year Pie Chart

Over 1/2 of the books I read were published in the past 3 years and 1/5 were published this year. Which means I’m kinda keeping up, but it also means that if I missed it, I missed it. Over 80% of the books that I read were written in the 21st century. So there is a noticeable bias there.

Next up, the inscrutable rating system. As a reminder, unrated means I read it for school and those don’t really fit on a scale that tells you how much I liked them.

Rating Pie Chart

Overall, a smaller percentage of books got 5 and 4 stars as compared to last year, while more books got 3. We do not tolerate grade inflation except that we totally do. And I either “like” or “really like” the vast majority of things. If I don’t at least like it, the odds are good I won’t get through it and then it probably doesn’t end up on goodreads in the first place. The nameless pile of half-finished and all-forgotten tomes is not a part of this round-up.

I also read a lot of fantasy.

Genre Bar Chart

Like, a disproportionate amount. And while genres are not mutually exclusive–which is to say that a book can be both fantasy and historical–this means that nearly half the books that I read this year qualify as fantasy. I’d complain, except fantasy is really good and I refuse to buy into the literary versus non-literary divide. Some of the best books doing the most interesting things qualify as genre. And, even if you disagree, de gustibus non est disputandum. So there’s that.

And now we move to the more important things.

Gender Pie Chart All

The first chart refers to how many books I read by male versus female authors. The fourth chart refers to how many male authors versus female authors I read. So the first chart would count two books by the same woman as 2 books, while the second would count that as 1 author. What this means, basically, is that I was more likely to read several books by a woman than by a man.

Either way, I was really good about gender this year! And, for those of you who missed the brief twitter rant, here’s the deal. It’s still easier for men to get published, to get good marketing, to get recognition, to get reviews and not to have their works dismissed. Whether we’re still in the realm of Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing 2 or not, there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve parity. So if you don’t go out of your way to read books by women, you will inevitably end up with a disproportionately male reading list. A lot of really excellent work fades because of how bad the industry is at promoting women’s work. So, in the interest of fairness, I’m trying to take up some of the slack, at least in my own reading and have been doing so for the past several years 3.
And, in this case, I was successful.

I was…decidedly less successful when it came to race. 97% of the books that I read this year were by white authors. I don’t need to show you what that pie chart looks like, right? You can imagine it.
And everything I just said about gender holds doubly true for authors of color. If you think being a woman and getting published in SF&F is difficult, just wait until you throw race into the mix.

So this is next year’s resolution (made easier by the fact that both N.K. Jemisin and Aliette de Bodard are publishing new books next year). Read more books by authors of color – catch up with Junot Diaz, read more Nnedi Okorafor (who writes really good middle grade fantasy, but just published a book for adults), give Nalo Hopkinson a try, finally read Octavia Butler and Samual R. Delany (I know, I know!) and, of course, take on the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms omnibus. I, umm, will also take recommendations for non SF&F.

So much for the quantitative analysis. Now for the good bit. What were the greatest books I read this year? Divided by genre and I reserve the right to have several favorite books within a genre. Because.

  • Fantasy
    • The Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. First book is Range of Ghosts. Really good at everything you want epic fantasy to be good at.
    • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. Narrated by Euan Morton. I’ve read this before, but this was my first listen and it was just as wonderful as I remembered. If you enjoy complex fantasy worlds and have an interest in the Abrahamic religions during the golden age of Spain, you will appreciate this book.
    • The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher, penname of children’s book author Ursula Vernon. It’s kind of a retelling of Bluebeard, but also very much its own fairy tale and it manages to be lyrical and lovely while still absolutely laden with common sense and scary as anything.
  • Science Fiction
    • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. After winning the triple crown (The Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula and Hugo awards) for her previous book, there was some speculation as to whether the sequel could possibly live up. It does.
    • Dust by Elizabeth Bear. I stand by my description on goodreads that Dust is the space-opera/arthurian-romance mashup I never knew I needed. I think I love this one despite its strangeness and I admit it’s probably not for everyone, but it seriously worked for me.
  • Speculative Fiction (yes, it’s a different category than either SF or F. It’s something that fits in neither.)
    • Railsea by China Miéville. I’m going to quote my own review again – “[I]f Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey had a very odd looking baby, it would be something like this book.” It’s wonderful, though. Miéville is at his best when he’s not writing solely for adults.
  • Historical Fiction
    • The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. A late entry and not even the highest rated book in the genre, but I really liked what it tried to do and, even though it doesn’t quite succeed, I appreciate it nonetheless.
  • Romance
    • The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Kate Rorick and Bernie Su. Narrated by Ashley Clements. Yes, there’s a book adaptation of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries series. Yes, of course I read it. And it was delightful.
  • Young Adult
    • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Sniffle.
    • Both Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy trilogies finished this year and while I started them last year, the end is the most important for trilogies that are really one story stretched across 3 books 4. First books are Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Unspokenrespectively.
  • Fiction
    • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I really should have read more Ishiguro by now, but I’m working on it!
  • Non-Fiction – which is all critical literature this year. So my favorite work of theory…

And…that’s all folks. A gross of books, 39 of which I read for school/work.

  1. Now with 300% more pie charts! 
  2. The quotes on the cover say it all – “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…” 
  3. I should not need to say this, but just in case. This project has not made the quality of my reading go down. (Which just keeps making the point that the best is not always what is most heavily promoted). Quite the opposite – the stories I read are more interesting, they push the bounds of stagnant genres, they create characters who feel more fully realized. They are, in short, more innovative and exciting because of what their authors bring to the table. 
  4. IMG
    The management would like to apologize for putting jokes in the footnotes. 

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Podcasts and Cast Ons

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably let you know that I should be doing something else right now.

Writing the prospectus for my dissertation comes to mind.

It’s amazing how I can have such a clear idea of what I’m doing and why and then I sit down to type out all my thoughts and it all comes out in this jumble of academicese and passive voice. The past two days have been all about turning lines like this: “This project opens up the possibility of the exploration of” into “I will explore” and even then I find myself relying too much on ex words. I’m making a list and every time I get through a paragraph without using explore, explain, examine or extrapolate, I explode with joy and the desire to exsanguinate someone is extinguished.

So this post is me actively taking a break from dissertation work to talk about something else. Like crafts.

I learned how to knit over winter break. It was very exciting. First, I made a misshapen square (the technical term for which is a trapezoid, I suppose). Then I made a longer one, which moved into misshapen rectangle territory (which is still a trapezoid, so perhaps I should just stick with that term). Then I made a coffee cup cozy,. I used to think that coffee cup cozies were the most useless things in the universe, bar none. Of course, when you need to knit something fairly simple that does not need to fit a human being and should be completed within a reasonable amount of time even when you are a rank beginner, the purpose of the coffee cup cozy becomes clear.

I made two.

The second ended up larger than anticipated and is actually a small tea cozy that lives on the small tea pot (it holds two medium or one very large mug’s worth of tea) that lives, in turn, in my office. It looks very…handmade, which I suppose fits in well with the larger ethos of our lab.

After that accomplishment, I decided I wanted to do something bigger. Something I could wear. Not something as ambitious as a hat yet, because those tended to have designs and cables and things more complicated than I could handle. So I made a cowl.

Teal CowlIn retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried knitting in the round until I had made a few more things not in the round, because it was significantly more difficult to keep an even tension (which I can’t do anyway). But the thing has achieved thinginess–it has become the object I was intending to make–and I now have a cowl to keep my face warm when the temperature drops to the low 50s at night.

You all hate me right now, don’t you?

And now, because I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I only produce misshapen round objects that keep things warm, here was my other fiber project. This one was crocheted and I’ve been crocheting on and off since I was 15 and fairly consistently for the past few years. So I’m mostly past the ‘it’s a very nice blob, what is it supposed to be?’ stage.

IMG_0072I would have posted this one earlier because I am quite proud of it except I wanted it to be a surprise for its recipient. Well, for its recipient’s mother. Its recipient is 6 months old and does not read my blog. Actually, the “my blog” in that statement is probably irrelevant. In any case, that was a thing that I made.

For reference, this was the picture I sent to a certain spouse of mine three quarters of the way through the process with the caption “Bunny Antoinette”

IMG_0214Apparently, the history department has just taught the French revolution that week. Every so often, my timing achieves impeccable.

This sudden increase in crafting has had a few other effects. Knitting is just one of those things that can’t be done with a book in hand and, honestly, part of why I try to spend some time doing this stuff is because it’s time that can’t be spent working, but is still time spent making things. I feel productive because I am, after all, producing a thing. But I also get bored easily and I need something to do while I knit or crochet.

The obvious answer is television. Except…not. It’s not that there aren’t really good shows on and it’s not that I’m not consistently impressed with the quality of acting and storytelling on tv these days. It’s just that I sit down to watch tv and think of something else I want to do. I find myself reorganizing my closet by color (which is not as absurd as it sounds; it helps me get dressed faster in the morning) or roasting squash for later in the week. I have television issues. I’ve been in the middle of the same season of Game of Thrones for nearly a year even though I really enjoy the show (thank you, Peter Dinklage!) , but I just can’t convince myself to watch the rest.

However, this is not a post about the weirdness of my psyche. The obvious solution to my problem is audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve been getting particularly into the latter recently because there is something nice about listening to entertaining people talk about things in the comfort of your own home. I don’t really want complex narratives or impressive world building. I just want people to amuse me for an hour or so at a time. It’s not so much to ask and podcasts readily deliver.

Also, unlike real people, you can pause them when the thing on the stove it about to boil over because you’re trying to knit and cook at the same time.

The moral of this story is “don’t knit and cook at the same time”.

So, dear readers, any of you podcast people? Any recommendations for me? Feel free to comment or pick some other part of this post to respond to.


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Best of Books, the 2013 Edition

So graduate school has had a measurable effect on my reading. The year I started at UCSB, I read 119. The year after I read 99. This year, I’ve read 82. At this rate, I won’t be reading anything at all by the time I get my Ph.D. Which, as I understand it, is traditional.

This year was a bit odd, though, because I couldn’t figure out a good way to count books that I read for my exam and, worst for me, Goodreads only keeps track of books that one has read, not books that one has reread. So I chose to reread fewer books this year because Goodreads doesn’t add that to book count. So the number of pages that I’ve actually slogged through this year is significantly higher once you take into account that I reread Middlemarch, Bleak House and Vanity Fair, each of which are charmingly huge doorstoppers although the first two in particular are some of my favorites.

So, without further ado, this year’s reading graph:

Books of 2013


For those curious, last year’s graph can be found here: Textual Retrospective, 2012.

Notes – I realize that there is a section for fantasy, science fiction AND speculative fiction. These are all different things, I promise. Fantasy and SF are exactly what they say, speculative fiction refers to fiction where something in the premise of the text is outside of the realm of realism, but is not well-enough defined to fit into either genre is particular.

As with last year, I will also be listing my standout favorites from each genre with more than three books. And then any other really great books. You should, by the way, assume that any fictional book that makes it onto this list will have fully-realized and complex characters as well as an excellent depiction of the setting.

  1. Best Classic reread – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Given that fully half of this section is Faulkner, this came as no surprise.
  2. Best Speculative Fiction – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Brilliant premise (even though all the reviews saying “OMG, this is so clever!” left me feeling a bit like it was overhyped) and the way that she melded a sweeping historical novel with a realist British novel and then put a speculative turn to both of them was an impressive feat. This isn’t really a mystery, at least in Atkinson’s traditional sense, but it uses the same tools that her mysteries do in that it relies on character’s reactions to events to make things memorable and expects the reader to use what they know about the characters to piece together what is happening. And Atkinson’s characters are always so great that you want to delve deeper and figure out what makes them tick.
  3. Best Science Fiction – The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. She reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold in that her science fiction focuses on what happens to people in radically new situations usually brought about by science. This book focuses on questions of culture shock and displacement, using an intricately conceived future world as the background for playing out what it means to be a person.  (Runner up is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie for, actually, the exact same reasons.)
  4. Best Fantasy – Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, which narrowly beat Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. So many good books on this list, but Wilson’s stood out to me perhaps because I’ve seen other authors attempt this kind of world (Ian McDonald in Dervish House, Saladin Ahmed in Throne of the Crescent Moon), and while those were good, Wilson’s is the first that seems transcendent. This book manages to be everything: cleverly post-modern, heavily mythical, balancing denouments that rely on a computer whiz with others that pay homage to Arabic traditions. And she handles the religious aspects of working within an Islamic society incredibly deftly, which allows her religious characters to achieve a level of complexity that people who care about religion rarely get to reach in fantasy. The thing that struck me the most about this book, especially given that it’s a first novel, is that Wilson never seemed to me to falter.
  5. Best Nonfiction – Scripting, Reading, Motions by Manuel Portela wins for most useful content and presentation, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian England wins for best written and most fascinating tidbits. I can’t really recommend anything on this list, although if you like reading stuff from University presses and care about New Media, Psychology of Reading or the Bookishness of Books, feel free to ask for my thoughts.
  6. Best Young Adult Fantasy – The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson. It probably beat out the other two contenders because I got to finish the whole trilogy this year and that’s informing my choice. Still, it was awesome! It revolves around a female character whose growth is incredibly realistic and who isn’t forced into traditional strong-like-men roles. Also, Carson takes religions in fantasy seriously, not as excuses for gods to intervene or to invent swears, but as real practices that inform people’s lives and actually have schisms, laws and rituals constructed around them.
  7. Best Not-Appearing-in-Other-Lists – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s book is brilliant on several levels, but what worked best for me was how it, like Atkinson’s balanced the macro and micro levels of events. On the one hand, this was a book about what it means to be African in the US rather than African American. It was about identity and what it means to suddenly be different and become part of someone else’s history. At the same time, it’s the story of two people reflecting backwards and forwards on the choices that defined her life and the compromises she made or did not want to make. But they’re not really two stories, in the same way that no one is separate from their cultural identity, precisely because Adichie understands how the two aspects of the same story are meant to be woven together.

So that’s it for this year. For more information, such as the full list and my occasionally useful ratings and reviews, feel free to meander over to my Goodreads Page.

And, of course, if you have any comments on these books OR any recommendations for me, please let me know in the comments.

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