What have you learned about your reading habits this year? Were there any surprises?
Byron: I learned how moody I am. There were many times that I wanted to read a particular book — it had just come out, a friend had just read it, etc. — and I could not get into it at all. A few weeks later, I’d pick it up, knock it out in three days, and give it 5 stars. Clearly the problem was not with the book but with me. Therefore, I am very careful before I label something DNR; I might just not be in the mood for it yet. The year also confirmed how necessary reading different genres and styles is for me. I get bored or burned out if I read too much of one kind of thing.
Ardis: More than anything else this year, I learned that my instinct to write in the margins of my books is justified! Really, what I mean is that my memory is not sufficient such that I can write a book review unless I take copious notes while reading, and embed those notes within the context of the book. The subtle note-taking strategies I tried throughout 2017 were all lacking one way or another, and I am officially throwing in the towel on subtlety. Addressing this more fully will drive my personal book goals for 2018.
Are you happy with the way that you selected books to read? Would you do anything differently?
Byron: I’m generally happy with my methods. I probably spent too much money on new books rather than trying to get through my huge, huge TBR stack. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I usually do, so I might look to balance that out some next year. Maybe not.
Ardis: Though I wish I could say “yes”, I have to admit that I stayed firmly in my science fiction comfort zone (with a few tender forays into fantasy). When we peruse the “new books” lists every month, my eyes go directly to the SFF page. I wish I had paid more attention to the non-SFF lists, and I know I was too ready to bump books down my TBR list to make room for new scifi. More generally, the “new books” lists on the first of every month bring a great joy to my life, and I intend to continue that forever.
Did you find the Goodreads challenge to be beneficial to your reading efforts this year?
Byron: Yes, absolutely. I get distracted by shiny things, so having the Goodreads challenge and this blog helps me stay on target.
Ardis: My life was full of turmoil this year, and I’ll be squeaking that last book in under the wire. I know that without the formal challenge, I would not have made as much time for reading as I managed to do. It was inspiring and motivating, and certainly proved to be, well, a challenge.
What book did you read this year that surprised you the most?
Byron: Lonesome Dove, probably. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to be one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read. I can usually anticipate plot twists and where a story is generally going, but that book consistently zigged where I thought it would zag.
Ardis: I was openly blown away by Too Like the Lightning and I can say with no reservations that I was not prepared for that book beforehand. Reading it was an emotional and philosophical journey, and it really revitalized my relationship with the intentional act of reading. It was the jolt I needed.
Did any book you read this year have any profound emotional or intellectual impact on you?
Byron: I had an emotional or intellectual reaction to all of the books that I rated 5 stars. But the ones that stayed with me long after I finished reading them were The Sparrow, Homegoing, Hyperion, Exit West, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Wicked Wonders, Killers of the Flower Moon, Lonesome Dove, The Unwomanly Face of War, Eliza and Her Monsters, Noumenon, Tenth of December, and Kings of the Wyld.
Ardis: If I’m being honest, the book that had the most emotional impact on me was The Three Body Problem, a book I firmly DNFed. My relationship with that book was so negative, so deflating, so discouraging, that I spent the months after I finally put it down for good searching for understanding – and I found it. But a part of me will always be a little raw from that journey. If you’d prefer a positive impact, Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit spoke to my view of humanity and personhood more than any book has since The Sparrow. Reading it felt like discovering a part of myself.
What was the most fun book that you read this year?
Byron: Kings of the Wyld, Clockwork Boys, and The Rise and Fall of DODO were all really fun.
Ardis: The Collapsing Empire, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and All Systems Red were all wonderfully fun reads.
Did you discover any new-to-you authors that you plan on following in the future?
Byron: For sure. George Saunders, Ursula Vernon, Seanan McGuire, Nicholas Eames, Laini Taylor, Francesca Zappia, and Katherine Arden, to name a few.
Ardis: Most of the authors I read this year were intentionally new to me. In fact (and I went back to check that this was true), other than Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves every book I read this year was by an author I had not read before. (The Tamora Pierce books I reread while I was sick with the flu do not count toward this in my mind, but I feel honor-bound to confess them to you anyway.)
Do you think anything that you read was underrated?
Byron: The Wanderers and Chemistry seem underrated.
Ardis: I don’t know that I do. For every book I loved this year, I found an internet’s worth of fellow readers who also loved it. What more can you ask than that? If you pressed me, perhaps I’d say Ada Palmer and Becky Chambers both deserve medals, in my mind, for their contributions.
Do you have any specific reading goals for 2018?
Byron: I’d like to read more classics. I’d also like to keep grinding on NetGalley ARCs while also working on my backlog of TBR books. I could probably spend 2018 just reading all the 2017 books I haven’t gotten to yet.
Ardis: I’d like to read enough non-SFF fiction to develop a better sense of what I will and won’t like. And I’d really like to read more regularly, instead of the frenetic binges I indulged in throughout 2017.
Did writing reviews for the blog add anything to your reading experiences?
Byron: Yes. Instead of more passively consuming books for their entertainment value, I engaged with them more. I read things more deeply.
Ardis: Yes and no. Reading with reviews in mind helped me direct my active engagement with the text, but having to stop and record each observation worth remembering interrupted my reading process in a way I have resolved to address this coming year.
Do you plan to change anything about the way you write reviews?
Byron: I’m not totally happy with my rating system. I’ve looked back at some of my grades and disagree with my scores. I am particularly inconsistent with the 2 and 3 stars and what they mean. I need to firm that up. I also am still figuring out how to review anthologies and collections of short stories more consistently.
Ardis: I plan to write more of them, for one thing. I failed this year to write consistently – to reliably turn my private observations into reviews worth printing. This year I’d like to establish a schedule and keep to it.
What post are you most proud of?
Byron: Stylistically, I liked my Ninefox Gambit review the most. As far as expressing the essence of reading a particular book, I think I came closest with I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I’m also very proud of our write-ups for some of the major book awards: the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Man Booker. I really enjoyed my partnership with Ardis on that front, and I believe that we tackled the books in a totally fair way. I’m optimistic that our future award posts will be even better. We got kind of a late start on the Hugo awards, but I have a better understanding now of the timing of the award season.
Ardis: I think my Too Like the Lightning review is my best work so far for this blog, but that’s through no particular extra effort on my part. I had the remarkable advantage of simply caring more about that book than anything else I’d encountered. I wanted to know more about it, so I read more about the author’s process, inspiration, and intent. It was a joy to write that review, and I think it shows. But I think the work I’m most proud of is the direct partnership with Byron, and the posts we worked on together. If we’d asked instead “What are you most proud of”, my answer would simply be: “My partner.”
What did you learn by writing for the blog?
Byron: I originally envisioned having spoiler-free Reviews to serve as a kind of “buyers guide” along with longer Critiques that discussed books in-depth for those that had already read them. I could never find the time or energy for a Critique, though. I need to take better notes as I read so that I can refer back to the writing more easily.
Ardis: I learned that I cannot rely on my memory when taking notes for a review. I must develop a thorough note-taking system that doesn’t unbearably interrupt my reading, or I will not grow as a reviewer. I also learned that I’m too safe in my SFF world, and that I’m more of a cryer than I expected I’d be.
Do you have any plans for different kinds of blog posts in 2018?
Byron: I’d like to blog about different book-related events and finally get the Critique thing off of the ground. I’d also like more collaborative posts with Ardis.
Ardis: Collaboration posts! I’d also like to take the time to write more lists, and to respond more to the content out there in the world. While I’d love to write Critiques, I have a lot of note-related work to do before I can really plan on that. Until I can get there, I’d most like to bring more variety to the content I’m publishing here.
Voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards is in full swing! Here is how we voted:
Byron: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s about a young couple that flees their unnamed war-torn nation through one of the magic doors that have been appearing all over the world. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year (so far), with every word of this fairly short novel being precisely correct and beautiful.
Byron: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Ghosts in a graveyard narrate and comment upon the unprecedented event of a living person, Abraham Lincoln, visiting his son’s grave and holding his son’s body. It recently won the Man Booker Prize and is on the Carnegie Medal shortlist. It is boldly experimental, with three main (ghost) narrators/characters and another 160 or so other characters who provide (usually brief) additional lines, descriptions, and commentary. At various points, it is thought-provoking, funny, sad, and beautiful. Completely original.
Byron: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s book one of a fairy tale set in medieval Russia about a young girl who may be a witch. This beautiful story explores the roles available to women and the impact of Christianity on paganism. I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and this story reminded me a bit of their work.
Ardis: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This is such an amazing modern introduction of classic fairy tales, where sprites and spirits and gods large and small inhabit the world we mortals think of as our own. In a remote Russian winter home, a young girl (Vasya) struggles to balance the old traditions of home and hearth with the new intrusion of Christianity (and its believers who insist their ways must be followed). The Bear and the Nightingale is no sweet fairy tale, but a harrowing and otherworldly struggle that will ultimately determine the fate of not just Vasya but her entire family and their town.
Note: We both also voted for Katherine Arden and The Bear and the Nightingale in the “Debut Goodreads Author” category.
Ardis: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the continuation of Palmer’s “Terra Ignota” series, set in Earth’s far future. Here, the movers and shakers of global politics, religion, finances, art, science, and society are brought together in the wake of events of the last book to ensure the continuation of a global peace that is threatening, at last, to give way. Palmer proves with “Terra Ignota” that she knows what it is to be human – to feel awe when standing at the foot of great works, to fear the onrushing storm of war, and to reach deep within yourself to find heroic strength. Seven Surrenders is made all the more miraculous as Palmer tells this truly epic global tale through a very personal human-sized narrative. Her poetry, her emotion, her philosophy make this possible.
Byron: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It is about a U.S. government agency that uses witches to time travel. It’s a fun book with witty main characters and breezy dialogue. The time travel mechanic is unique and clever, and the world building is intricate and consistent. Truth-be-told, I haven’t read very much sci-fi that came out in 2017. I just couldn’t get into most of the sci-fi novels that I did buy. The The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., though, was a joy to read.
Young Adult Fiction
Byron: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. I flat out adored this novel. I read it in one sitting. The love story, the nature of fandom, the sources of creativity and the pressures that can arise, the family dynamics, portrayal of mental illness….gah….I love this book.
Ardis: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Byron recommended this book to me and I am thoroughly grateful. I think I consumed it in a single day – it almost might be more fair to say it consumed me. Eliza tells the story of Eliza, a teen writer whose webcomic has made her famous, even as she’s managed to maintain her total anonymity as the author for the years her webcomic has been running. When we meet her, Eliza’s world is about to become a lot more troublesome, as a new boy, depression, meddling parents, and a wide world of adoring fans all come crashing together in ways she never would have anticipated.
Young Adult Fantasy
Ardis: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. This book is the personal story of a young boy, Lazlo Strange, orphaned and raised in a library, who dreams of a fictional lost city. His dreams become reality in this daring and surprisingly emotional story of adventure and understanding, as Strange joins a company of adventurers off on a fantastic mission. I loved this book from the first page, and have recommended it more than any other book this year. Taylor is known for her poetic and fluid language, which is key in this book, but what shines for me in Strange the Dreamer are the rich, complex, and deeply human characters (even the blue ones).
Byron: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. A young librarian dreams of visiting a lost city. I only recently finished reading it, and I am still processing it. One thing I do know is that it’s one of the best books of 2017.
The 2017 Hugo Award winners are announced tomorrow. Awarded to the best science fiction or fantasy works of the previous year (so in this case, 2016), it is among the highest honors bestowed in science fiction and fantasy writing. This year, we wanted to get the full Hugo experience so we’ve been working tirelessly to read and discuss all of the nominees before the winner is announced. It’s safe to say that this is an excellent selection and a very tight race.
A Closed and Common Orbit is the sequel to Becky Chamber’s breakout hit The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and if it were possible to unilaterally bestow a Hugo award from this blog it would be this year’s winner. This book is no mere sequel, but stands as an evolution of the monumental narrative that came before it. In it we see honest human experiences, pain and joy and (more than all the rest) discovery, and through it we view a universe at once more bright and more terrible than our own. Everything about this book makes it a winner – from Chambers’ electric and relatable voice to the complete and immersive world she shows us. But what throws it out miles ahead of its fellow nominees are the characters and their journeys. Chambers does in A Closed and Common Orbit what science fiction authors strive to do – she illuminates what it means to be human: to grow, to want, to hurt, and to love.