The Books that Fell Through the Cracks: The Year-End Grab Bag

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Midway last year, I instituted a “grab bag” post, wherein I detail all the books I read, but didn’t review, in a single, long entry. I decided to set up the grab-bag posts because I realised that I do a lot of “in-between” reading: that is, I read a lot of books that I don’t really intend to review in my usual long-form format, but which still turn out to be remarkably wonderful – or remarkably horrible, depending on the book.

This is especially true towards the end of the year, when my reading tapers off because of an inability to focus for a variety of reasons (primarily: the holidays). Still, I do have an opinion on the books I read, and I think it’s only right – both in the interest of completion and in the interest of those who read this blog – to at least share what I think of what I’ve read, even if I don’t do it in my usual long-form fashion.

And so, allow me to present 2015’s Year-End Grab-Bag of Books that Fell Through the Cracks.

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The Exile (The Fae #1) – C.T. Adams

I was intrigued by this novel because of its premise, which echoed that of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books, but with more action and less sex. At first, it felt very promising, but after a few chapters it started to lose some of its charm. While the characters were interesting enough (for the most part) to hold my attention to the very end, the plot itself didn’t seem very well-structured. Adams’ language is also a bit jarring in some places, which does not help the plot very much. As for the world-building, I found it sufficient, but not inherently satisfying. This is a middle-of-the-road kind of read, but still sufficiently interesting to warrant a try at the second book in the series. Hopefully the quality will have improved by then.

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The Extreme Life of the Sea – Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi

I will admit that I picked this up because of the cover, but it turned out to be an entertaining read. The Palumbis showcase the wonders of the ocean, from shallow coral atolls to deep abyssal trenches, and do so in a way that isn’t dry or boring. It’s pretty much run-of-the-mill, in that sense, no different from a hundred other books like it out there, except that the Palumbis have a more entertaining narrative voice than some other books on a similar subject currently available.

What I liked most about this book, though, is that the Palumbis were careful to source their references from material that would be readily accessible to the lay reader. No paywalls here: just reputable open-source material in a variety of media, from articles to videos. It’s the sort of thing I wish more non-fiction writers would do; after all, there is nothing more annoying than to be intrigued by a tidbit of information and attempt to trace it down to its source, only to find oneself blocked by a paywall that can only be surmounted by having a university account, or by paying an exorbitant one-time access fee.

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Archangel’s Enigma (Guild Hunter #8) – Nalini Singh

As I mentioned in the mid-year grab bag post, I have a very soft spot for paranormal romance, and Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series is one of my favourites (along with J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series). While the books involving the archangel Raphael and the Guild Hunter Elena Deveraux aren’t always comfortable to read (there are some elements about their relationship that might discomfit some readers, if not outright disturb them), the other books – the ones that focus on other characters besides Elena and Raphael – often go down a real treat. Fortunately, Archangel’s Enigma is one of those books, and was exceptional fun to read. Singh has a gift for balancing thriller-type plots with romance in much the same way Ward does, and that really comes through in this novel. However, as it is the eighth book in a series, it doesn’t stand alone very well, and so the reader needs to begin at the beginning of the series.

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Spirals in Time: The Secret and Curious Afterlife of Seashells – Helen Scales

If I were to trace my interest in science down to its most earliest manifestation, I would have to say that it began when I started playing with the seashells my maternal grandmother collected. My interest in all things Mollusca hasn’t faded, which is why the decision to pick up Spirals in Time felt like almost no decision at all. Fortunately it’s a charmingly-written and informative book: Scales doesn’t skimp on the science but balances out the details with personal anecdotes and a wider look at the historical, cultural, and economic significance of seashells. There is also a clear focus on ecology and conservation; Scales is especially concerned with the trade in rare seashells for collectors, and takes time to explain to the reader ethical sources and methods of collection. Scales’ language is lucid enough for the average high-schooler (or precocious middle-grader), and its focus on conservation means that it’s something more younger readers should be encouraged to pick up.

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Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1) – Cherie Priest

I picked this up when Kameron Hurley said some rather nice things about it on her Twitter, namely (and I am paraphrasing here) that “it [had] all the good bits of Lovecraft, with none of the bad” – the “bad” being Lovecraft’s deeply-embedded racism, classism, and misogyny. I am glad to report that Hurley was entirely right: Maplecroft does indeed feature the creeping horror I so love about Lovecraft’s work, but featuring a female protagonist – in this case, Lizzie Borden of axe murder fame. Fortunately, the reader does not need any knowledge of the “real” Lizzie Borden to enjoy this book, though perhaps the reader will need some patience with Priest’s rather choppy pacing – a small problem, but one that can be a hindrance to immersion, which is something I find vital when reading horror.

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The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV – Anne Somerset

This is a classic case of a book with an intriguing title and subject matter, but executed rather poorly. The main story of Somerset’s book is a period of time during the reign of Louis XIV when a mad combination of poisonings, gullible officials, and scandalous affairs affected far more lives than it ought to have. While it might seem hard to make such an event sound thoroughly unexciting, Somerset simply isn’t very gifted as a storyteller: the book’s plodding pace and somewhat-rambling narrative do little to make her subject matter as exciting as the title suggests. Perhaps she made her narrative choices out of a sense of scholarly responsibility, but other writers have proven that there are ways to ensure a book’s scholarly integrity while making it read in an entertaining manner, so it is unfortunate that Somerset is just not one of those writers.

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The Wicked + The Divine, Vols. 1-2 – Kieron Gillen (Writer) & Jamie McKelvie (Illustrator)

It has been ages since I last read a graphic novel, but I was encouraged to pick this up by my friend Hope, who thought I would enjoy the art and the mythological elements of the series. She was, as always, correct in her assumptions, and I am now waiting the next volume on tenterhooks. Gillen’s writing is excellent, and his characterisation is intriguing and enjoyable to read. McKelvie’s art is also amazing: there were times when I would just stop on a page and sigh over how wonderful it looked. Some readers might find it hard to relate to Gillen’s chosen setting (the music world and its various “scenes”), but intimate knowledge isn’t necessary for enjoyment: Gillen is careful not to let the story rest too heavily on it, relying instead of McKelvie’s art to make the references that insiders would recognise and enjoy.

One caveat: this series is somewhat graphic, so if the reader is sensitive to blood and gore it might be wise to tap into one’s support system in case one is triggered.

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The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human – Noah Strycker

This year is turning out to be a year of birds for me, because this is the second non-fiction book about birds I decided to pick up (the first one being The Birds of Pandemonium). Strycker manages a good balance between humorous personal stories and informative scientific insight, so there is plenty here to interest both the average reader and the long-time bird fanatic. For my part, I was drawn to Strycker’s discussion of hummingbird behaviour; it turns out they are not quite so adorable as I (and likely others) thought they were.

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Saga, Vols. 1-5 – Brian K. Vaughan (Writer) & Fiona Staples (Artist)

This was another recommendation from Hope, and, as so often happens with her recommendations, I inhaled this whole and have not looked back. There are some shades of Star Wars here, yes, but to compare Saga to Star Wars would be doing both series an injustice. Saga stands on its own, and needs to be judged on its own merits. Fortunately, those merits are not insignificant: excellent world-building, complex characters, a plot with more twists than one can shake a stick at, and gorgeous art that matches the epic scale of its world, while at the same time capturing all its grit and darkness.

As with The Wicked + The Divine, this series is fairly graphic (blood, violence, and sex are portrayed), so the reader is advised to have his or her support system on tap in case of a trigger event.

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ODY-C, Vol. 1 – Matt Fraction (Writer) & Christian Ward (Illustrator)

Another recommendation from Hope, one that is founded on the fact that we both love Homer’s epics, but since I have an especial fondness for The Odyssey she thought it imperative that I should read this. She was absolutely right: Fraction and Ward have basically taken one of my favourite epics and given it several new spins, while still remaining true to the spirit of Homer’s original. Yes, it is set in space. Yes, all the characters (gods included) are gender-reversed. But this is still very recognisably Homer’s epic – not least because Fraction does a remarkably good job of replicating the dactylic hexameter of Homer’s original, and in a graphic novel, no less. And Ward’s art is just as incredible: eye-meltingly confusing in some places, perhaps, but still breathtakingly beautiful, providing great space-opera contrast to Fraction’s archaic-style writing. I already know how this one will end (as anyone who’s read The Odyssey does), but I look forward to seeing how Fraction and Ward will bring the rest of Homer’s epic to life. (And I can also perhaps nurture a small hope they shall turn their attentions to The Iliad, eventually.)

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Enslaved by Ducks: How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order – Bob Tarte

Again, another Hope recommendation, who picked this up because she was taking of care of a duckling (now duck), and which she suggested I read because it was funny. She was right: Enslaved by Ducks is indeed funny – not least because Bob’s situation is one more than a few pet owners will recognise (hopefully with amused pleasure). It isn’t all fun and games, however: Bob also talks about the deaths of a few of his beloved pets, as well as his own psychological issues. This makes it much meatier than the average fluffy pet memoir, and I like it even more because of that emotional substance.

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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words – Randall Munroe

Anyone who is familiar with Munroe’s comic xkcd, or read his book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Questions, is probably already familiar Munroe’s art style and sense of humour – both of which are excellent, and both of which are deployed extremely well in Thing Explainer. The idea behind Thing Explainer might seem absurd: to explain complicated things (like nuclear power plants and plate tectonics – both of which are tackled in the book) using art and simple words. By “simple”, Munroe identified the thousand most commonly-used words in the English language,and used those almost exclusively to explain more complicated systems and mechanics. The result is hilarious for the technologically- and scientifically-inclined, who will likely be familiar with the actual words used to explain the things Munroe does, but conversely, the simplicity of the language in combination with the artwork might make this book a good selection for introducing children to more complex scientific and engineering ideas. The language might irritate some readers, but those readers might find pleasure in Munroe’s gorgeous illustrations, which are easy to focus on when the language starts to grate on the nerves.

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Cesare Vols. 1-9 – Fuyumi Soryo

I have been reading this manga on and off since I discovered it in 2010, which is about the same time that I seriously started feeding my interest in the Borgias. It was merely through sheer luck that I stumbled across it, but ever since I read that first volume, I’ve fallen completely in love with it and try to catch up with it whenever I can. Soryo’s art is magnificent: the backgrounds and clothing, in particular, show how meticulously she has researched the locales and the period in which she is writing. This is especially true with the exteriors and interiors of buildings: readers who have visited Italy and have been to see the places Soryo uses for her settings will likely be delightfully surprised by the accuracy with which she captures the architecture, paintings, and sculptures. Her characterisation and writing are also top-notch, telling a different kind of story from what other, Western writers have told about Cesare. I look forward to seeing where she takes this story, and how she unfolds Cesare’s story, and the stories of those around him.

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Megane Collection Vol. 4 – Shin Kawamaru

Those who know me personally and who are familiar with my involvement in manga and anime know that I have a thing for guys in glasses. Therefore, when I saw the first three volumes of this series in a bookstore, I snapped them up immediately without thinking too hard about it – despite my mother’s amused comments on the purchase. I kept a lookout for the fourth volume since that time, and snapped it up again as soon as I spotted it. Kawamaru’s writing is light enough and her art charming enough that even beginners in the world of manga can pick this up and not have to worry about a encountering a steep curve in terms of engagement – as long as the reader is interested in light, romantic stories, then this should be an entertaining read. The stories are pretty much of the same quality as the first three volumes, and are a mix of continuations from previous volumes and some new short stories. Since the references back to previous stories are mostly negligible, readers can pick up this volume without having to get the first three – though I do recommend getting those, too.


2 thoughts on “The Books that Fell Through the Cracks: The Year-End Grab Bag

    1. Oh yes, still very pretty, but gosh, now I understand why the Aztecs made their war god’s avatar a hummingbird – and this is the AZTECS we’re talking about. If any culture would know anything about war and violence, it would be theirs.

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