A failed reading challenge that’s encouraged me to pick up the habit again in 2023
Thanks largely to a day job that’s consumed most of my free time over the year, I didn’t meet my reading goal for 2022. However, I didn’t read any real duds over the course of the year, which is a first. And trying to cram in a few over the Christmas-to-New Years break has reminded me of how much fun it is to get completely lost in an entertaining book. That’s a nicer takeaway than my usual, which is just, “I don’t read enough and am a bad person because of it.”
20 books in 2022
15* read. (My Kindle ran out of power, forcing my to finish up the last book on New Year’s Day instead of Eve)
Favorite Book of Literacy 2022
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It’s got such an interesting main character, and is so stylistically clever at re-interpreting and re-contextualizing time-worn elements from gothic horror, that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
MVP of Literacy 2022
Anthony Horowitz. I’ve only read two of his novels this year, but in addition to being unfailingly entertaining and engaging, they’ve also spun off into recommendations for other mystery authors, as well as renewing my interest in reading Agatha Christie books I haven’t read before, or re-reading some of the classics from a new perspective.
Goal for Literacy 2023
Sticking with my modest goal of 20 books for the new year, and cautiously optimistic that I’ll have more time to exceed it. Two books a month might be a little too ambitious for my pacing.
Sub-Goal for Literacy 2023
To finally finish The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I started this one back in 2021, I think, and probably had unreasonably high expectations since The Night Circus is one of my favorite books of the past decade. But it’s been a slog that never holds my interest. I’ve just read a glowing review from a friend, so I’m hoping I can power through it.
Call to Action
I’ve already got a huge list of books in my Want-to-Read section, more than I’ll be able to read in my lifetime, but I’m always looking for more suggestions!
A short, pleasant Agatha Christie mystery to finish off the year
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
Book 4 in the Tommy & Tuppence mysteries
While visiting an irascible aunt in a retirement home, Tuppence Beresford has an odd conversation with one of the residents, suggesting that something sinister is going on, and the other residents’ deaths might not be of natural causes after all.
- Charming and extremely British, exactly what you’d expect from Christie’s stories of upper-middle-class English people solving murders with curious detachment
- The now-middle-aged married duo of Tommy & Tuppence, who I thought were extremely dull when I first read Christie’s books, now seem genuinely endearing, a kind of lower-energy Nick & Nora Charles without all the alcohol
- The idea of solving a cold case with literally no information apart from a painting, a vague memory, and a railway map, is an intriguing one
- Resolutely middle-aged, hinting at scandal and adventure without straining plausibility
- Short but not too slight, has the feel of the hour-long televised mystery stories that somehow Christie might’ve predicted would be made from her works
- Meandering and roundabout, and unlikely to be palatable to anyone who isn’t charmed by Tommy & Tuppence’s married-couple banter
- Not really much of a detective story, since there are a few interesting bits of actual deduction, but most of the case is solved by the protagonists just asking various people to provide exposition
Charming and comfortable, if you’re in the mood for a more languid and lackadaisical detective story. I believe that this is one of the few Agatha Christie books I didn’t read in middle and high school, and I only picked it up because it was mentioned in one of Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries, as an example of a detective story that accomplished a lot in a brief space (227 pages). Very well-suited to cramming in last-minute entries for a reading challenge.
Anthony Horowitz’s third book casting himself as Dr. Watson to a brilliant but abrasive fictional detective
A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz
Book 3 in the “Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate” series
To promote the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the author and former detective Hawthorne are invited to a literary festival on a small English island. As tends to happen, they’re pulled into a murder investigation, in which the other writers and the island’s close-knit community are all prime suspects.
- Horowitz has proven himself to be a master craftsman when it comes to old-fashioned murder mysteries, and this one might be the most accessible and satisfying of his that I’ve read so far.
- The meta-gimmick of this series — in which Horowitz casts himself as Watson to a fictional detective Holmes — isn’t as overpowering and distracting as in the previous books, being used instead to establish the premise and then mostly fade to the background.
- None of the clues are artificially obscured or dropped onto the reader at the last minute, there’s a satisfying sense that observant readers had everything they needed to solve the mystery.
- Breaks free of the template of the first book, which had already started to wear thin in the second: there’s no need to artificially introduce an action-packed climax into every detective story.
- I was able to guess the identity of the murderer, but it was neither too obscured nor too obvious, and I felt like if I’d been reading more slowly and carefully, I would’ve been able to piece together the relevance of all the clues.
- Very cleverly uses the format, and the idea that Horowitz is thinking in terms of writing a murder mystery as the mystery is playing out, as a way to sum up information and throw in red herrings.
- Hawthorne is still an abrasive and unlikable character by design, but I still haven’t reached the point where he’s more fascinating than just plain annoying.
- Horowitz’s self-deprecating comments are still in full effect here, as he casts himself as the eternally disrespected and under-appreciated second fiddle to a brilliant detective. The charm is wearing a little thin. It invariably comes across either as a humblebrag, or as someone who’s not hapless so much as spineless.
- I welcomed the fact that the metatextual gimmickry was played down in this book, but it did have the side effect of making it seem more like a traditional murder mystery without the novelty in The Word is Murder.
Another satisfying, old-fashioned murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. It does feel less experimental and innovative than the first two books in the series, but avoids feeling like a repetitive formula while still using its clever premise to its advantage.
Mary Roach applies her accessible and funny style of non-fiction writing to the topic of ghosts, reincarnation, and the afterlife.
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Roach looks into the history (and present) of varying attempts to prove the existence of the afterlife around the world, including researches attempting to document and verify cases of reincarnation in India, the history of Spiritualism and mediums in the UK and US, and recent research into electromagnetic fields and ultrasound to explain ghost sightings.
- Roach’s introduction establishes herself as a skeptic who needs verifiable proof, but still intends to approach the subject with a fair an open mind instead of dismissing people outright.
- Very funny throughout, Roach is on-point with her asides and tangential observations about the details she finds delightful.
- Extensively researched but never dry, Roach includes a complete bibliography, acknowledges when the more scientific material made no sense to her, and interviews people directly involved wherever possible.
- Roach’s template for these books — magazine article-length essays on various topics with segues leading into the next topic — works perfectly here, giving full accounts of her time “in the field” drilling down on a single subject, while still feeling more like a unified work than a collection of loosely-related essays.
- Extremely accessible and fun to read
- The mission statement of the book is in the introduction: find some verifiable, repeatable evidence. As a result, it feels entertaining if not particularly deep. This is not likely to be a book that will change anyone’s perception of life or the afterlife, because it’s not necessarily intended to.
Excellent, and it’s solidified me as a fan of Mary Roach. (Even though I might be a bit too sensitive/squeamish for her other topics, like Stiff and Bonk). In my opinion, this is exactly the right way to combine humor with science/nonfiction writing.
The last “grown-up” Discworld novel affectionately leaves its characters with comfortable lives in a world that’s changing for the better
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
Book 40 in the Discworld series
The invention of the steam engine brings irreversible change to the Discworld, and also proves to be the one thing that might stop a faction of technology-hating dwarfs from being able to stop progress.
- All the spirit of a Discworld novel, with its no-nonsense celebration of common sense, hard work, and integrity, and rejection of arrogance and selfishness
- Cleverly uses the train as both a metaphor for progress and the physical embodiment of progress and the magic of invention
- Checks in on many of the beloved characters from throughout the books, reassuring us of their happy endings
- Combines ideas of technological progress with social progress, giving us an ultimately optimistic vision of what we can accomplish when we work together
- The pacing seemed a little off; there are long stretches where not much seems to be happening, and then moments of key action that seemed a bit rushed
There’s no such thing as a bad Discworld book, since you always want more time with these characters and Pratchett’s no-nonsense worldview. I haven’t yet read any of the Tiffany Aching books, and there are a few more in the series that I haven’t gotten to yet, so I’m not “done” with Discworld. Still, this felt like a satisfying conclusion, with an optimistic vision of a potential future for the world that we’ve spent decades growing to love.
A classic gothic horror story that can’t help but be compared to Dracula (but holds its own pretty well!)
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
A young woman is stricken with increasingly severe nightmares and an unexplained illness after her father takes in a strange guest, a beautiful, beguiling, and oddly familiar girl named Carmilla.
- Lesbian vampires! (Kind of)
- Predates Dracula by 20 years, and is also much easier and engaging to read.
- Starts out strong with a moody castle, a lonely narrator, a strange and scary encounter in the night, and then what feels like a queasily uncomfortable romance.
- Has a very 1800s take on vampires: less powerful than the modern versions, fewer weaknesses, more mysterious and dangerous with a less-defined set of rules. And all with the confidence that they can be dealt with by a bunch of well-educated upper-class men using science.
- Does a fantastic job of exploring the seductive aspect of vampires, without ever needing to become too lurid or too graphic.
- It’s pretty short, but is still literary enough to count against my book challenge!
- The story kind of peters out, with the climax treated more or less like an afterthought.
- Still has, long sentences, separated by commas, as does much of the writing of the 1800s, where the point, as it were, of a sentence, can be lost.
- Lots of intriguing details seeded earlier in the story are left hanging by the end. Who exactly are the various other strangers who were in the company of Carmilla?
- Difficult to tell how much of the story has lost its power due to over a hundred years of vampire stories following.
Very interesting for those of us who were excited by the potential of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but disappointed once we actually read it. It’s probably readable and enjoyable even for contemporary readers (like me) who find Victorian novels to be a slog. But you can also see why Dracula became the definitive vampire novel, as Carmilla has a bunch of components of a great story that doesn’t feel quite complete.
Patton Oswalt’s psuedo-memoir in essay format
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
A collection of essays, some purely comedic, others a kind of memoir about Oswalt’s suburban nerd childhood and early career as a stand-up comedian. All are loosely themed to the idea of “Why is Patton Oswalt like that?”
- A variety of formats, including a short comic story, change up the tone and prevent it from becoming a repetitive memoir in short-story format.
- The alternating stories give a more complete idea of Oswalt as a person: here’s a story about me or my family, here’s an example of what I find funny. It’s kind of like a comedy routine with behind-the-scenes segments.
- If you’re a fan of Patton Oswalt’s style in stand-up comedy — hyper-literate, nerdy, earnest, raunchiness — these essays are like extended segments from one of his performances.
- The essay giving punch-up notes on a (fictional) wedding comedy script is a highlight.
- I’ve seen from Oswalt’s work that he has a genuine love of stand-up as an art form, he loves the process of perfecting the wording and delivery of a joke, and he loves seeing how comedians innovate with their performances. This was the first time that I got a real sense of why he likes it so much, without its being too “inside baseball.”
- Even when you know 100% without a doubt that a writer is in no way homophobic, it turns out there is a limit to how many times you want to read them ironically using slurs. For me, that was about 2/3 of the way through this book.
- Being a stand-up comedian still sounds miserable to me, even though I have a slightly better understanding of why people are so passionate about it.
- I’ve liked Patton Oswalt forever because he’s always seemed to strike the right balance of being earnestly enthusiastic about stuff while still being openly critical of laziness, falseness, and cynicism. But this book did still feel like total immersion in the Generation X mindset and reminded me how grateful I am that the 90s are over.
- The two appendices, with Oswalt writing in the “voice” of bad writers over-enthusiastic about movie treatments and reviews, came across as distractingly snobby and more rambling than entertaining. I ended up saying “Yes, we get it,” and skimming over them.
As funny as one of Patton Oswalt’s comedy albums, but more personal and more introspective. I just read a friend’s review of the book that speculated this would probably work better as an audiobook, where the lines are improved by Patton’s specific delivery, and I agree 1000%.
A light children’s mystery novel
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
In his last will, an eccentric multi-millionaire summons a group of seemingly unrelated “heirs” to solve a puzzle to find his murderer, the prize being the inheritance of his fortune.
- A light-hearted mystery story that seems like it might be well-suited to its target audience of around pre-teens.
- Fairly progressive for a children’s book written in 1978, with some anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and pro-feminist ideas taken as a matter of course without being too strident.
- Doesn’t shy away from presenting the adult characters as real, flawed, people, but also works to provide satisfying endings for everyone that feel earned.
- Keeps the feel of a murder mystery while staying almost entirely free of actual violence.
- Must’ve felt very contemporary at the time, but seems like it would be too dated for kids to relate to now. (Especially all the references to stock market trading).
- Impossible for me to tell if the two central puzzles were intended to give a flash of recognition to younger readers, but felt frustratingly obvious for me as someone reading it 40 years “too late.”
- The implications of the puzzles aren’t revealed until long after you’ve figured out the solution, because information is withheld until the last minute.
- Flirts with some more mature ideas for its adult characters, but they’re still so shallow that it doesn’t feel like there’s a genuine ethical or moral arc for any of them.
Feels a bit like a novella-length Encyclopedia Brown mystery, where everything revolves around one or two puzzles. This definitely feels like a children’s book instead of an “all ages” one; it’s difficult to tell if I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was in the target age range for it.
Michael Schur’s light and conversational introduction to key ideas in moral philosophy
How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
Michael Schur increases his own personal wealth by writing a book based on the research for which he’d already been compensated by NBC to make The Good Place.
A light and conversational introduction to the concepts behind some of the major “schools” of moral philosophy, including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, consequentialism, ubuntu, and existentialism.
- Extremely accessible (almost to a fault). Reads more like a series of blog posts than a book about moral philosophy.
- Every topic is explained as simply as possible, but still with the sense that the implications are being mentioned. Schur points out where each field is useful and what are its main criticisms and failures.
- Unlike every other book on philosophy that I’ve read (which is not many), uses concrete examples (although many of them are hypotheticals) and refuses to get bogged down into the types of details that philosophers care about but aren’t suitable for practical use.
- Opinionated and personal. Schur often describes what he likes or doesn’t like about an idea, and how he has or hasn’t applied it to his own decisions.
- Describes the topics not as academic, but as tools we can use to make ethical decisions in our own lives.
- Stresses the idea of our ethical behavior in terms of the things that we owe to other people, which is a really nice way of thinking about it.
- Schur just seems like a nice person who’s perpetually conscious of trying to do the right thing and bring that sense of optimism and kindness into the real world.
- Over-uses footnotes for comedic effect.
- Can come across as a little try-hard in the beginning until it settles down.
- Extensively quotes two of my least favorite articles ever posted on the internet, but at least he manages to paraphrase one in a way that gets rid of my main objections to it.
- Describing his entire career path as, ostensibly, an illustration of how much of our success is based on luck, was fine but just on the edge of being too much talking about himself for me to be entirely comfortable with.
Feels like a much less dry and more accessible version of the lessons Chidi probably gave to Eleanor in The Good Place. Carries on the optimistic, kind-hearted secular humanist feeling of that series, always emphasizing that the actual goal is not to be perfect, but to never stop trying to be.
A series of essays about people’s attempts to live peacefully with wild animals.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
Mary Roach travels to various locations around the world with a history of animals coming into conflict with humans. At each place, she talks to local experts about how they’re working to coexist with the wildlife (or in some cases, eradicate it).
- Roach’s wry tone throughout the book keeps the subject matter from getting too serious, even as she’s talking about people maimed or killed in bear or tiger attacks, or the people who test humane ways to kill invasive species.
- Each essay leads into the next, making the book feel like a connected narrative instead of a series of isolated essays. (Even when the transition isn’t that graceful, the forced connection makes it funny).
- Mostly maintains an attitude of respect towards both the human and the animal subjects — there’s little of the ghoulish mocking of the Darwin Awards, for instance.
- Especially towards the end of the book, Roach’s style of writing is charming, combining what seems like exhaustive research with the tangential details she finds delightful.
- Shows real dedication to the stories, combining some traditional research with on-site interviews with experts in India, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and others.
- Reminiscent of The Straight Dope in its combination of humor and matter-of-fact, thoroughly factual examinations of sometimes uncomfortable topics
- At least early on, the tone can come across as either flippant or trying too hard to be funny.
- Even with a writer walking the tonal tightrope between disrespectful and macabre, some of the topics are just depressing to dwell on. It doesn’t make for light, fun, reading to realize that you’ve got to go through an entire chapter talking about killing stoats and possums and rats with traps or poison, and monitoring their humaneness by observing how long it takes them to die.
This is the first book by Mary Roach that I’ve read; as I understand it, the rest of her work is similar: a collection of essays combining research and wry humor, all centered on a specific topic like sex, death, or paranormal encounters. I wouldn’t classify these as humor, since they aren’t laugh-out-loud funny so much as attempting to keep dry or difficult topics readable. I’m looking forward to reading Spook.
Does exactly what it says on the cover, and it does it really well
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in the 1950s, young socialite Noemí Taboada is summoned from her home in Mexico City to respond to a desperate letter sent by her recently-married cousin Catalina. She travels to the family home of Catalina’s new husband, an aging gothic mansion next to a silver mine in Hidalgo. There, she’s haunted by increasingly disturbing nightmares as she uncovers secrets about the family’s dark past, and she suspects that Catalina’s illness and apparent mental breakdown might be caused by something more sinister.
- Stylistically fascinating. The prose itself is straightforward language that rarely gets too flowery or poetic, but often gives the sense of poetry via rhythm and repetition. Details are withheld to stretch out intrigue and give passages forward momentum. Words and ideas are introduced as innocuous foreshadowing, and then repeated with increasing frequency as the idea grows more urgent.
- Noemí is an outstanding protagonist. The aspects of her personality that would usually be characterized as “flaws” in a less nuanced (or frankly, more misogynistic) story — her impulsiveness, vanity, stubbornness, youthful arrogance, and manipulative streak — are instead acknowledged as essential parts of who she is, and they even become assets. She’s an extremely intelligent and ambitious character who happens to enjoy the kind of life that shallow people also enjoy.
- The author deftly presents an extended metaphor for colonialism embedded in a story that explicitly deals with colonialism. Instead of feeling redundant, it feels as if the details of Mexican history pre- and post-Revolution refuse to sit inert as factual history; they’re given more emotional weight and made to feel more present by seeing the manipulation and abuse played out in a more supernatural Gothic horror.
- Steadfastly anti-racist and anti-sexist without ever feeling stridently so.
- The author’s notes, along with her essays about the history of gothic romances, and the real Mexican town that inspired the setting of the book, are more interesting and valuable than 99% of novels’ after-words tend to be. They show how much thought went into crafting this book.
- It doesn’t descend into pastiche, and it isn’t a deconstruction or a re-interpretation of a Gothic Horror or Gothic Romance novel; it is unabashedly and unashamedly a Gothic Horror/Romance novel. All of the standard elements are used to great effect, without feeling like re-tread or parody. Overall, it feels like a novel written by someone who understands the appeal of the format and its tropes, and is able to counteract the genre’s limitations without also losing what makes it appealing in the first place.
- One decision in terms of pacing the book was extremely jarring and killed my enthusiasm for getting back into it for a day. I was loving the build-up and ever-increasing sense of dread for the first half of the book… and then, a scene happened right after the halfway point that I still believe should’ve been left closer to the climax. I understand the reasoning behind it: stretching it out for much longer would’ve made Noemí seem like a simpleton, because things had developed long past the point of hiding or overlooking the sinister. Still, it felt jarringly sudden.
- As a result of the above: an entire chapter is just devoted to exposition, with a character explaining everything that had happened before. I wish that this had been stretched out longer, with Noemí discovering these details and more actively piecing them together, instead of having it all spelled out for her.
A truly excellent, compelling horror novel that proves genre fiction can be intelligent, and that familiar tropes can be applied to novel settings. Even with my one big reservation about the climax happening too early, I think it sticks the landing. The resolution had the satisfying feeling of checking off all of the ideas and all of the details that had been set up over the first half of the book. As a white American with little knowledge of Mexico beyond a bunch of random, unsorted facts about its history, I’m really looking forward to reading more by Moreno-Garcia.
Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit is a classic for a reason
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Ten strangers are called to a house on a secluded island, invited by a person they’ve never met. When the first death comes right after dinner, the other guests start to realize they’re all being murdered, one by one.
- Stylistically, it’s much more interesting than I remembered from reading it in high school. The narration jumps around freely from person to person, switching between inner monologues and dialogues, so it never feels quite like a novel but not a screenplay, either. It’s more like someone telling a story to you in person, and they can’t wait to get to the next part.
- It’s been decades since I last read it, and almost a century since it was written, and surprisingly little of it feels dated (now that they’ve changed the awful original title and framing nursery rhyme, two times over).
- My copy has an author’s note taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she essentially says that she wrote And Then There Were None mostly to prove that she could do it. Which is unquestionably a baller move.
- The setup is so intriguing that it’s easy to see why it inspired countless homages and outright rip-offs.
- I liked the structure at the end, of having a chapter of recap and then an epilogue laying out the entire mystery. It invites the player to be completely engrossed in the mindset of the characters while the mystery is still happening, and then go back and reconsider the clues after the events have finished.
- The epilogue wasn’t strictly necessary, and just felt more like Christie justifying how she’d plotted the whole thing.
- I kind of call foul on it as a whodunnit, since the clues were pretty weak. I can understand Neil Simon’s frustration when he calls out detective novel writers in Murder By Death for making clues too obtuse or pulling plot developments out of thin air.
It’s an intriguing concept, told in a really engaging way. You can totally see why it’s become such a classic. I’m not convinced that it’s that great as a murder mystery, but if you instead read it as a horror story, it almost feels contemporary.