The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien

When I was quite young and still a very new reader, I asked my dad for something to read and he handed me The Hobbit. I read that book and then immediately wanted to reread it, I loved it so much. But instead I went to my dad and said, Do you have any other books like this? He handed me all three books of The Lord of the Rings. I think it took me almost the entire summer to read them all, but I was hooked. I probably didn’t understand half the words I read, but I loved them so much. I had no idea that books could evoke such strong emotions. I was hooked. For years, when I was younger, I read these books almost every year. Around my early 20s, I stopped reading them, I’m not sure why. I probably felt like I’d read them enough. (I did read The Hobbit to my kids, though. They weren’t swept away by quite like I was.)

Earlier this year, when I lost my job and the world started catching on fire, literally and figuratively, I found my mind returning to The Lord of the Rings and I began to want to read them again.

So I did.

I think it was the right choice. There’s a sort of time travel magic in rereading books from long ago, I find. A way of walking a path with my past self. Only with these books, I found myself walking a path with a decade or more of my past selves. Reading these books was such a cozy and also fortifying experience for me. I found nuance and subtlety that I’d never noticed before. The kindness of Sam and Frodo felt much richer. The Shire felt infinitely more pleasant. I found that all of the things that bored me as a child (the long walks through the countryside, the long conversations about what to do with the ring, the digressions) were the things I never wanted to end. I would’ve happily read a book about hobbits gamboling their way through the countryside for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Thank you, Professor Tolkien. Your books have proved a mighty treasure in my life.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I decided to read this book because a book club at my work had just read it. I checked it out from the library only to later realize I had somehow ended up with my own copy. Funny!

I enjoyed this book about books and bookstores and readers. There’s a bit of drama in it, but for the most part it’s about decent people trying to make the best of things. To my mind, This kind of book makes for a good airplane or long car ride read. Short enough to read in one long sitting and engaging enough to hold attention. But not so engaging that it’s easy to set down if someone wants to chat. A fine balance.

Zeuglodon by James P. Blaylock

I don’t think I’ve read everything that James P. Blaylock has written, but it’s close! He’s been one of my favorite writers for about three decades now.

Zeuglodon doesn’t disappoint.

Some kids go on an adventure. There’s a sea voyage, a submarine, dinosaurs, and plenty of creepy villains, and other things. My 11 year old liked it too. A fun read!

Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd by Chris McDowell

Occasionally, I’ll read roleplaying game books. (Far more rarely will I play them.) I can’t speak to the game, but I dig this book’s style. It’s got an Art Deco style that can’t be beat. Dig it:

The whole book is full of the pellmell energy of this running girl, a sort of 19th century Dickensian energy that I can get behind. I look forward to the day when I can sit around the table with some friends, sharing snacks, and playing up some stories together.

Communication Failure by Joe Zieja

(This is book 2 in the Epic Failure series.) As very silly books go, this one is up there. For some reason, science fiction comedy is tough to do. This one does a pretty good job. Throw in a dash of military/naval humor and you’ve got a pretty fun read. Not a bad way to while away the time. You’re probably all right reading this one on its own if you don’t have the first one to hand.

Given where we are, this book about incompetents running the show didn’t both me as much as I thought. Perhaps because they’re well-meaning incompetents.

Oh yeah, this book also has an extremely odd love triangle!

The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson

This is a charming and sweet story about three sisters in early 20th century London. They have a rich and vivid fantasy life. The book gets especially funny when the object of one of their stories (a local judge) happens to meet one of them. There’s some delightful dialogue in here. Another example of the ways in which the English tolerate eccentricity in a way that seems deeply odd from an American sensibility. It’s also a portrait of world before television when, if you were a narrative junky, then one of the easiest ways to get some narrative was just to make that up for yourself. If you’re looking for a book full of kindness, this is worth your time.

Tears of the Truffle-pig by Fernando A. Flores

The shade of Philip K. Dick is haunting this book! Specifically, I’m thinking of Do androids dream of electric sheep? No one does cyberpunk like Mexican cyberpunk, I guess. This has got some wild bio hacking tech, a disaffected private eye, some weird drugs and creatures, and just slow, dragging badness.

Gritty and raw. It’s got some funny bits too.

Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Warning: Do not read this book before reading Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. This book is extremely difficult to parse and I can’t imagine what it would be like without the context of the first four books.

This is a fever dream of a science fiction novel. It has scenes of arresting strangeness and delirious dialogue. It leaps about in time like a scared rabbit and finally ends up in a such a mind-bending conclusion that I probably had to set the book down. Truly strange. I’m happy I read it, but I’m not sure I could recommend it.

I’m fortunate that I had a friend to chat about this book with, because it was a book I wanted to talk about after reading. The book started to make more sense once I’d had a little time to think about these five books all together. Ambitious in scope and a strong execution. Through his efforts, Wolfe makes a strong case for science fiction as a true literary genre.

Reading Slowly

In spite of having a lot of extra time, I feel like my reading speed has slowed way down. It’s not that I’m reading any less than I normally do–though I’m not reading more–but I’m making my way through books much more slowly. I don’t think this is a good or a bad thing, but simply an observation. Still, I’ve read a fair amount, I suppose.

Erasure by Percival Everett: I think his book of short stories, Half an Inch of Water, is still my favorite book of his, about people living in extremely rural settings. This one, Erasure, is some pretty brutal satire about a black academic who deliberately writes the worst book he can about a street thug and drug dealer. The book goes on to become a runaway success and win a prestigious national award. Dark.

The Monkey’s Wedding: and Other Stories by Joan Aiken: Delightfully weird and charming and funny little stories, mostly about love and relationships. Definitely worthwhile. I especially liked the title story and “Spur of the Moment”.

Die: Split the Party (v2) by Kieron Gillen: People from our world go into a fantasy world, only it’s the fantasy world they cooked up as kids for their roleplaying game. Mostly about hurting people behaving badly in desperation. The art is pretty slick. I don’t really know where the story is going at this point.

Jade City by Fonda Lee: An organized crime story set in a fictionalized Taiwan (maybe? I’m not really sure) with magical powers–bestowed by jade jewelry, but also addictive and destructive. I don’t normally go in for organized crime stories, but this was solid and I enjoyed it.

The Vorrh by Brian Catling: Super weird. There’s a cyclops with miraculous and contagious healing powers and a hunter with a sentient bow and a photographer who’s mysteriously affected by light and a group of zombies exploited by capitalists, to name a few things. Fascinating stuff, but pretty dark, and definitely not for everyone.

Potted Meat by Steven Dunn: Exactly the type of book being skewered by Everett in Erasure. So, I had that in the back of my mind the entire time I was reading it. Still, not without some merit.

The Invisibles (Book 1) by Grant Morrison: I hadn’t read this since about 2000 (or maybe 2006?). It holds up pretty well, I’d say. It seems less sophisticated and groundbreaking since then, but I think that’s because so many have borrowed Morrison’s writing techniques and subject matter since these first came out.

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by same. Weird like Aiken, but without the warmth and humor. That seems harsher than I intend, but the starkness of these stories caused them to hit harder for me. Some days I want warmth and humor, some days I don’t.

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea: Sometimes I want a quick dumb read. This science fiction action story fit the bill. This would be a perfect beach book. Koko is a semi-retired assassin/mercenary who gets roped back into things when a former colleague decides to take her out. Had some good action scenes and a sort of sly humor.

Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett: If you like historical fiction, Dunnett’s up there at the top of the list, I’d say. (I don’t read a ton of this genre, so I’m sure there are many writers I’m completely ignorant of.) The writing is superb and the characters are fascinating, especially Francis Crawford, who is sort of like a Bruce Wayne of the 16th century. Some very funny scenes. Also, the rooftop chase is an exceptional piece of writing and makes the whole book worth reading just on its own.

Permutation City by Greg Egan: Reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or, Dodge in Hell. Explores the question of the nature of consciousness when that consciousness is being simulated in a computer. This book gets pretty science/mathy and I’m not sure I was in the right headspace to grok it, but there’s some pretty fascinating stuff here. I’m pretty sure I read his book Diaspora too and enjoyed it slightly more than this one. If you like crunchy science fiction, Egan’s worth checking out.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: I’d been meaning to read this book for years. I think I’ve perpetually had it checked out from the library for basically years. (It’s amazing how many times you can renew a book when no one else wants to read it.) I finally got around to it and I’m glad I did. I’d put Mantel up there with Dunnett as far as historical fiction goes. There’s no one like Mantel for putting you in the headspace of a 16th century Englishman. And Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating one at that. Everything in this book underscores how important being able to be in a room with someone else is for understanding…. well, everything. I’d certainly recommend reading Wolf Hall before this one, but I think it would stand on its own pretty well.