2024 in Books (January through June)

As with the 2024 in Movies post, I’m starting this on December 31, 2023 and will fill it in as I go throughout the year. [And as with the Movies post, I’m changing my mind and posting this halfway through the year! I’m so unpredictable! You never know what I’m gonna do! Ahem….] These are in the order I read them.

::  Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, the Man Who Created “Nancy”, Bill Griffith. This graphic novel biography of Ernie Bushmiller is a wonderful volume, serving as both a warm testament to a creator of one of the 20th century’s enduring comics characters, but also as something of a history of the newspaper comics industry itself in the 20th century. Griffith’s art is superb and he demonstrates real affinity and even love for Nancy, a comic strip that is easy to dismiss but whose cleverness and sophistication are there to be found by anyone attuned to it. I loved this book.

::  Stargazing: Contemplate the Cosmos to Find Inner Peace, Swapna Krishna. Lovely small book for beginning stargazers, but it takes the tack of stargazing as a path to meditative peace and tranquility in one’s life. I didn’t find much new here, but I liked its approach and the book itself is a lovely little volume.

::  The SUGAR AND SPIKE Archives, vol. 1., Sheldon Mayer. This is one of the high-quality archival books DC Comics has done over the years for its various properties. I had never heard of Sugar and Spike until I was at a recent Nickel City Con, perusing a comics dealer’s table, and I commented how I love the DC Archives editions. He said that they tend to sell very well for him, but then he noted that nobody seemed interested yet in Sugar and Spike. I had no idea, but I picked it up, looked through it, and said, “What the hell!” Then it sat on my shelf for a couple of years. Oops. Now I’ve finally read it, and it’s an utter delight. Sugar and Spike are toddlers who live next door to each other and become best friends on their various adventures (most of which end up with them sitting time-out in the corner). The idea of the comic is that they speak baby-talk to each other, but it’s a real language that only babies and toddlers can understand; the comic also has a healthy respect for the internal logic of a toddler’s world. In terms of respecting the logic of the main characters’ age group, I rank Sugar and Spike with Calvin and Hobbes and Cul de Sac.

::  Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, Ursula K. Le Guin. This slim volume of poetry is quite wonderful, as one would expect from Le Guin. Le Guin writes with a kind of meditative glow in these poems, and as with all the best poetry, you get the sense of flowing from one word to the next even as you know that each word is carefully selected for best effect. I will be retuning to this one.

::  The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read this classic way back in high school (though I don’t remember why, as it was not required!) and I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t really remember much about it, so I finally re-read it at the very end of 2023. I do still love it for its depiction of a group of relatively unsavory characters and the way their lives intersect in New York and Long Island during the Jazz Age, with its loosening social mores. There’s a pervasive sense throughout the book that no one really should be living like this, and yet they are, and they are forming obsessions and loves and hatreds even in the midst of all the partying and drinking that’s going on. Maybe the characters in Gatsby don’t come off well because they’re mostly trying to keep up with the world around them…and when the tragic denouement finally arrives, it’s not entirely expected but it’s also not the least bit surprising.

::  The Venetian’s Wife, Nick Bantock. I confess that I am a huge Bantock fan; I love his art and the way he manages to seamlessly blend his art and his writing into something vibrant and engaging. That said, I do think that sometimes he loses focus and his stories don’t always have satisfying endings. This book, epistolary in nature like the Griffin and Sabine series, is captivating until Bantock starts to near his climax, which arrives with surprisingly little build. The ending is disappointing, but I did enjoy the journey greatly.

::  Lost Spells, by Robert McFarlane (words) and Jackie Morris (art). Utterly captivating collection of poems about specific denizens of our forests (fox, birch tree, and so on), with equally captivating art. The book took on a meditative feel as I read it, almost like a liturgy. It’s not for nothing that Macfarlane calls his poems “spells”. The book is a follow-up to an earlier volume I now need to seek out. I bought this on sight at a bookstore in Ithaca a couple of years ago, and something about it really does put me in mind of that wonderful city and region.

::  The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel, by Antonio Iturbe (original novel), Salva Rubio (adaptation), Loreto Aroca (art). An occasionally harrowing tale of a young Jewish girl and her family who are sent to Auschwitz. They manage to defy the odds there by being assigned to a special camp that is maintained just to keep the Red Cross from becoming aware of the real work of the camp, and the book tells their story and the story of the people of this camp who try to resist in small ways. I was unaware that this is an adaptation when I checked it out of the library, but the existing graphic novel, while expertly made and drawn, does feel too short to me. Maybe the story needed a bit more breathing room…but it was still worth reading.

::  The Innocent Wayfaring, Marchette Chute. This was apparently my mother’s favorite book when she was a kid, and some years ago she gifted The Daughter with a copy she had tracked down. It had been on my TBR for quite a while, and I finally got to it…after Mom died. Seriously, people, try to read your loved ones’ favorite books while they’re still here. As for the book itself, I greatly enjoyed this tale of a young English girl in medieval times who wants no part of a life of embroidery and staid marriage to some lord, and who therefore does the only reasonable thing and runs away with her pet monkey. A dated prose style, as one should expect from a book written in the 1940s, but Chute wrote with wit and style.

::  Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage Trilogy, Book 1), Brian McClellan. This is the entry novel in a trilogy of fantasy novels in the “flintlock fantasy” subgenre. I haven’t read much flintlock fantasy at all, but I greatly enjoy it when I encounter it in the wild. (I wonder if Pirates of the Caribbean would qualify as “flintlock fantasy”?) The book opens in the days immediately following a revolution in the kingdom of Adro, where the military has risen up and deposed the king. As the story progresses, we follow a few of the leaders of that revolution as they grapple with the difficulties of establishing a new state while the neighboring realms see a fallen kingdom ripe for the picking. If you like magic systems, this one’s pretty good; the book doesn’t bog down in explaining all the magic, and it’s fun to read an epic fantasy novel with pistols and rifles along with the wizardry and strange creatures. Fun book.

::  White Fang by Jack London. I honestly don’t know what I’ve read so very little Jack London in my life: The Call of the Wild, and a couple of short stories. That’s it. This book is rather like The Call of the Wild in reverse, following a dog-wolf pup from birth in the wild to domesticated home life, and the journey is not the least bit peaceful or gentle. London does not shrink from depicting the harshness of this world or its brutality, particularly when the humans show up. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful read. I’m thinking I’ll be reading The Sea Wolf sooner than later.

::  Spock, Messiah!. I actually did a Booktube about this one. It’s a weird book that isn’t weird enough. (As I prepare to post this, I’m not sure I ever got the video posted…erm…hmmm. Stand by.)

::  Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin. Another slim sci-fi novel, of roughly the same vintage as Spock, Messiah!, this one is by a great author, though. And it shows. This is a “technological human stranded on a non-tech world” story, and it’s a grand one, with adventure and hardship throughout. Apparently this is set in a larger universe within Le Guin’s work, but I’ve read few of Le Guin’s novels, so I’m not sure how it all ties together.

::  The Lost Art of Reading Nature Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Find Water, Track Animals, and Other Forgotten Skills, by Tristan Gooley. I bought this at Odyssey Bookstore in Ithaca, the first year they opened, and after starting it that year, I finally went back and got through it this year. This is a wonderful book! I read it very slowly, basically just a few pages a day; Gooley packs a lot into this book, and at times it almost feels like one of those lengthy discourses Sherlock Holmes always gives when he explains how a bunch of details nobody would notice add up to identifying the killer or whatever. Gooley shows how various details in nature will help you find your way through it, and it’s all deeply fascinating; you can’t help looking for some of what he talks about when you’re out in the woods or strolling through a meadow. I have since bought two more books by Gooley.

::  Casino Royale is, naturally, the very first James Bond book. I read this as part of a long-term effort to get through all of Ian Fleming, and then to maybe read some of the non-Fleming Bond books that followed. CR is an able introduction, even if it is surprisingly low-key and economic if you’re used to Bond as a larger-than-life figure who has huge adventures. If you saw the 2006 film, much of this book’s story is in there, though the film makes poker the card game instead of baccarat, which is honestly not nearly as well-known a game these days (unless you’ve watched lots of James Bond movies), but the film invents a lot to surround the story of the novel. It’s fun seeing Bond’s starting point here.

::  Live and Let Die is the second Fleming Bond novel (the movies did not follow the book order in any way. I read this way back in high school but never since, so I barely remembered any of it. I was surprised to see how much of this book actually does turn up in the Roger Moore film. LALD is a mixed bag: you can feel Fleming’s skills as a writer starting to take over as he is figuring out what kind of character Bond is, and Bond himself comes off as a more sharply-drawn character here. But the sexism is still on display, and the racism is off the charts, particularly when Fleming decides to write some kind of phonetic approximation of how Black people speak, so you get a lot stuff like “Sho is, Boss!” The main attraction at this point is the kinetic energy of Fleming’s writing; he really moves things along, for the most part.

::  Kind of a Big Deal by Saul Austerlitz is about the movie Anchorman. Part making-of, part cultural-impact analysis, this book really hinges on your appreciation for the movie. I adore Anchorman, so I loved this book. If you hate Anchorman, I don’t imagine you’ll like this too much. Austerlitz does go a bit over the top in places in his praise for the film, but I’m generally fine with that. I tend to think we’ve all gone a bit too far in muting our enthusiasms, anyway.

::  After re-reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Angel of Darkness in 2023, I was looking forward to reading Surrender, New York this year. Those first two books are epic mystery tales set in late-19th century New York City, and they are wonderful period novels featuring a memorable “Great Detective” in Dr. Laszlo Kreisler, an expert in the new field of “psychiatry”. Surrender, New York takes place in the same universe, but a hundred years later, so the feel is as if a Scotland Yard novel set in the present day posits that Sherlock Holmes existed and his adventures have some historical influence. Sadly, this novel doesn’t reach the same heights as the previous two. The characters aren’t as engaging, and the mystery plods on and on without the historical interest of the earlier novels to help engage the passages where the story isn’t really developing. I had a hard time with this one. (I may re-read it in a few years, because this was a time when I had the vague sense that maybe I wasn’t quite seeing the book’s forest because the trees were in the way.)

A few days after I wrote the above, Caleb Carr died of cancer. I always hoped he’d return to Dr. Kreisler and fin-du-siecle New York. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

::  You know the genre where a novel (or a movie, or whatever) takes us into a big luxury hotel and follows the stories of some of the guests and the staff and how they interact and how some people have deep secrets and how all this stirs together to get the pot boiling? Now imagine that the luxury hotel is actually a big starship that travels from one star system to the next, and you have Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis. I found this book uneven: parts of it are really engaging and wonderful, while others–and it depends on which staff member or guest we’re focusing on–had me skimming just to get the gist of things. The larger plot starts to emerge about halfway through, but even after that point the book is uneven.

::  In Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves, a young woman in late-1800s Utah has a passion for astronomy and the stars, but it’s not really a time when young women are encouraged to do much beyond stay home and do all the domestic stuff while the men work. The novel follows this young woman’s adventures as she strives to get from Utah to Colorado where she will be able to see that year’s total solar eclipse. It’s a quick and breezy read, for the most part, but my enjoyment was tempered by the fact that the young woman isn’t just that, but she’s also a Mormon. Nothing against that, per se, but…oh, how to put this…I’ve known a number of Mormons in my life, and one thing I’ve noticed about almost all of them is a certain desire–in fact, they almost feel it a duty of theirs–to stick up for their religion, in a way that goes well beyond the duty for missionary work that their faith requires. A lot of Beyond the Mapped Stars feels less like a novel than an individual Mormon’s ongoing monologue of “We’re perfectly normal! Really!” And quite a bit of this is confirmed in the writer’s Author’s Note at the end.

::  Peter H. Gleick’s The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future is a fascinating and important book about the single most important resource our planet has for our continued existence. Gleick traces the history of human management of water, from our earliest settlements near water to our increasing efforts over the millennia to bring the water to us. He discusses the various mistakes we’ve made in our use of water and the ways these mistakes have led us to serious issues that will increasingly confront us, moving forward. Gleick firmly comes down as believing that water should be seen as a right, and not just another resource to be profited upon, and he prescribes a number of policy suggestions to ensure that all people have access to sufficient water in the future as our climate continues to change.

::  I must admit that if I wasn’t a big fan of BBC TV’s The Repair Shop, I almost certainly would never have read The Sun Over the Mountains: A Story of Hope, Healing, and Restoration by Suzie Fletcher. Fletcher is the leather repair expert on The Repair Shop; more than that, she is a master saddler and an equestrian expert, and any time anything leather comes into the shop, she’s involved. I knew that Fletcher had lived many years in the United States before she returned to Britain, and I knew that she had had a husband who had died of cancer before her return. Here she tells that entire story, and it’s a much darker story than I ever knew. Fletcher’s husband was handsome, a very hard worker, and…an abusive manipulator. Fletcher tells her own story unflinchingly, never shying away from the question “Why didn’t you leave?!”, to which the answer is almost always, “It just isn’t that easy.” Very little of this book has to do with The Repair Shop, but that’s fine. I’m glad Fletcher wrote this, even if she probably did so as a form of self-therapy than for any other reason.

::  Jeoffry: The Poet’s Cat by Oliver Soden is a fictionalized biography of the cat immortalized by poet Christopher Smart in the poem “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry”. Obviously nothing is known about the cat other than what Smart wrote, but Soden employs a lot of historical and literary research to recreate what that cat’s life might have been like. It’s fascinating and sometimes even moving, but the life of a cat in 1700s London would not have been a particularly happy one.

::  I re-read Brian Hayes’s Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape after I spotted it in the library while looking for something else. This book is a bit out of date now, but it’s still a grand tour of the infrastructure that makes our civilization work: how power plants are built and why they’re put where they are, the concerns facing water and waste distribution networks, how our communications and power systems work, and so on.

::  Ben Riggs’s Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons is a really good book about…the history of Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, that’s easy to note. However, it’s more about the history of the company TSR and the way it was run constantly by people who had no business running a company at all, so much so that it’s amazing D&D survived its managers to become one of the cornerstones of role-playing gaming, which is one of the biggest new entertainment developments of the last 50-60 years. This book is less about D&D as a phenomenon on its own than I might have liked, but it’s still a very entertaining and engaging read that any geek worth their salt should enjoy. I especially like how Riggs spends all of about a page and a half discussing what colossal nonsense the panic about D&D and its “connection to Satanism” in the 80s was, and he stops to mock the absurd TV-movie Mazes and Monsters.

That’s all the reading for the first half of 2024. It’s been an interesting year for books thus far!

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