2021 is coming to a close. But before it ends, I thought I’d reflect on the books I finished reading this year.
I did a book retrospective in 2020, and it was a good final “send-off” to what I read. Despite having a GoodReads account, I don’t write book reviews in the app or elsewhere. And it feels wrong to finish books and shelve them without further acknowledgement. I recall writing book reports for fun when I was younger. Maybe that’s the itch I’m trying to scratch here.
I barely survived 2021 (allegedly), so it was a weird year for reading. Thankfully, I stuck with the habit and my original goal of reading eight books this year. Here are the results!
The Peripheral — William Gibson (2014)
After reading Neuromancer, Gibson’s seminal 1984 cyberpunk novel, The Peripheral was on my to-read list for many years. Seemingly any Gibson title is a feast of slick, inventive sci-fi prose — but not all of his novels revolve around branching timelines. The Peripheral does.
Gibson is a master of depicting convincing sci-fi worlds, and in that sense, The Peripheral was a delightful read. By resisting the urge to rely on real-world colloquialisms and linguistical tropes, Gibson uses every available word to affirm his characters’ worlds as otherworldly. The results are so effective that I found myself fully immersed in his strange sci-fi dystopia after reading just a page.
Unfortunately, as much as I love Gibson’s prose and world-building, the same can’t be said for The Peripheral’s story. It’s not a bad story, but rather, a good story told passively: Most of the plot just happens to the characters rather than the characters driving the plot. With some structural tweaking, I think The Peripheral could be an even stronger read. But as-is, it’s still damn good. This is one novel to pick up if your reading ego needs a challenge: Skim through The Peripheral with presumption, and you’ll be left scratching your head.
Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different — Chuck Palahniuk (2020)
I love Palahniuk’s work (Fight Club), so I picked up Consider This thinking it’d be full of practical writing insights. It is, but Palahniuk — a self-professed lover of stories — wraps up his sage advice in disjointed, tangential anecdotes.
I’m flipping through my saved passages from the book now, and there’s a lot to like. But I can’t help but feel that Palahniuk spends more time gushing about stories and the people that write them rather than story-crafting itself.
The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age — Gordon Marino (2018)
From what I can recall, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide is sort of a beginner’s guide to existentialism — a branch of philosophy concerned with making sense of human existence.
Marino tackles life’s ambiguities through the lens of classic existentialists Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and others, contextualizing their ideas and pairing them with anecdotes from his own life. The resulting book is akin to a meandering but enjoyable college lecture.
I’m completely unfamiliar with the works of Kierkegaard et al., so I enjoyed this one. However, readers well-versed in classic existentialism might not find it nearly as interesting.
A Game of Thrones — George R.R. Martin (1996)
I’m pretty sure I bought my copy of A Game of Thrones in 2011. Ten years later — and after multiple reading restarts — I’ve finally finished it.
I didn’t have trouble finishing the first installment in Martin’s esteemed fantasy series because it was bad: Rather, I didn’t have the patience. Although well-written and engaging, A Game of Thrones is exceptionally long and slow-paced. That’s understandable, though, because Martin tasks himself with establishing a broad roster of characters and the politics surrounding them. As a result, there’s not much excitement until the book’s latter third. And if I’m not mistaken, Martin rewards his readers’ patience with even greater twists and climatic pay-offs in the sequels.
All in all, A Game of Thrones is a solid, but ponderous read saved by excellent prose. Martin has a weird penchant for interrupting dramatic scenes to garishly describe female features, but I can’t blame the man for being horny: A writer’s life is often solitary and secluded.
Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence — Alex Berenson (2019)
Sometimes, I find myself so inundated with the viewpoints of one argument’s side that I seek out the other. That’s certainly the case with cannabis, a drug that now has a positive cultural reputation following decades of politically-driven obfuscation and disinformation (think 1936’s Reefer Madness).
In Tell Your Children, Berenson believes the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. And in a review of scientific literature and criminal cases, he attempts to highlight the drug’s dangers that pro-cannabis culture and industries have swept under the rug.
The resulting exploration is certainly intriguing but often feels alarmist: There are multiple stories about adults murdering their partners/children/neighbours after using cannabis. I’m not a psychologist, but psychosis seems complex and multifactorial. And without all the facts, it’s hard to be persuaded by Berenson’s cherry-picked studies.
In summary: Tell Your Children is engaging but does little to temper skepticism in its core ideas.
Axiom’s End — Lindsay Ellis (2020)
I picked up Ellis’s extraterrestrial sci-fi thriller Axiom’s End because it was recommended in an online article. And, much like Ellis, I’m also writing a story about humanity beginning relations with a foreign species, so I hoped to find inspiration in her writing.
Axiom’s End is vividly thrilling at times — akin to a Hollywood movie — but its plot falters. Its prose could also use some polish, with frequent redundancies and clunky sentences that set off my editor-brain’s alarm bells. An example:
It took a while to get all the way from the back of the complex to the entrance, as one had to wind through a network of hallways that weren’t exactly a straight line. (34 words)
I count eleven articles and prepositions in that sentence. Hallways that weren’t a straight line? What were they, then? What purpose does that sentence have? Why not:
The long walk back to the complex entrance took her through a series of mazelike hallways. (16 words — 53% shorter)
Anyway, I didn’t intend for this to become a grammar lesson. But if you like sci-fi thrillers and you’re not picky about prose, you might enjoy Axiom’s End.
Bull Mountain — Brian Panowich (2015)
Bull Mountain was the second novel I read hoping to get inspiration for my own. It’s a brutal intergenerational thriller set in rural America. And there’s a lot to love about it.
Unlike Axiom’s End, Panowich’s prose is lean, punchy, and effortless to read. And the story it tells — one of revenge and corruption on both sides of the law — is full of cinematic twists and turns. Really solid stuff, especially if you liked The Place Beyond the Pines (a 2012 film featuring Ryan Gosling), which also features an intergenerational-style narrative.
Star Wars: Light of the Jedi — Charles Soule (2021)
I often feel guilty reading big-franchise tie-in novels since there are so many great original titles out there. But I was craving Star Wars, and Light of the Jedi is set centuries before the Star Wars movies in a new series, “The High Republic.” In other words, it’s exactly how I like my Star Wars: A galaxy far, far away from pre-established characters and stories.
However, from page one, Light of the Jedi makes some strange choices. Its story sees the Jedi and Republic working in unison to thwart an environmental disaster and punish those responsible. But rather than focusing on one squad or platoon of characters, author Charles Soule focuses on dozens. The narrative bounces from the perspective of six Jedi, two pilots, an engineer, a Republic Chancellor, an Admiral, a Captain and his subordinates, and several other characters whom Soule introduces and kills within their respective chapters.
Like A Game of Thrones, Light of the Jedi has a large character roster. But unlike Martin, Soule pits his characters against an urgent crisis from page one, so he doesn’t have time to properly establish them or what their lives are normally like.
Given my lukewarm reception of some of these books, I’m going to be more selective about what I read in 2022. Sometimes I try to be open-minded, but there’s so much good stuff out there, and I only have so much reading time.
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