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2020 50 Book Challenge

FlyingMonkey

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91. A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

This Nebula Award-winning novel from 2019, is set in a world that in the time of COVID (and we're just about to go into a full lock-down here in Ontario) seem much closer to home than when Sarah Pinsker wrote it. A combination of terrorism and a new plague has devastated the world, leading not only to countless deaths but to government measures that prohibit public and private gatherings and shutting down social life IRL almost entirely. Instead everything has migrated into a VR version of the Internet: people interface with the net through technologically-enhanced hooded tops, which has led to it being refered to as 'hoodspace.'

There are two main protagonists, whose intersecting stories are told in parallel chapters. The first is a rebellious rock singer-songwriter, Luce Cannon (geddit? but don't worry, it's her stage name...). Before the plague she as just getting there, one of her songs had become a hit, and she is actually on stage when everything is shut down. Rosemary Laws was a kid when all this happened. She has grown up in the new normal, so protected by her paranoid back-to-the-land parents that her entire educational and social life has been in hoodspace. She ends up working in customer service for the ubiqutous Amazon-alike everything store, Superwally (Super Wallmart? Perhaps...) until she unexpectedly gets offered another job worked for StageHoloLive, the company that has effectively replace both live and recorded music with VR-based music experiences. What's unexpected is that she isn't hired in the same kind of role she had for Superwally but as a talent scout. But how do you scout for musical talent in a world with no public gigs or concert.

Rosemary and Luce's lives collide as the naive (and possibly even autistic) new scout discovers the networks of illegal live music venues all over the USA, populated by outsiders and passionate fans, who come to listen to the likes of Luce and her musical rebels, most of whom don't trust Rosemary and want nothing to do with SHL's fakery. But together, can they perhaps do something that will bring the whole thing crashing down and help a new day to dawn? Of course, nothing is ever so simple or so easy.

This is a novel that creeps up on you. Halfway through I was still convinced that it was a mediocre and rather dull lesbian novel, and that I wasn't going to like it. However before I knew it I was riveted. Partly this was because of the musical element. It's really hard to do music in fiction, and music in science fiction is usually terrible and suffers from the need to show how 'futuristic' future art will be, thereby condemning it to be dated before it starts. Instead, Pinsker, who has released 4 albums and toured herself, keeps it close to the present: the bands and artists are a mixture of old-fashioned rock, arty stuff and more experiemental electronica. And she also hints at the fact that this is only one 'scene' - there are jazz and other things mentioned. But you feel the performances and the urgency and exhilihiration of being a live performer. The dirt, the blood, the vomit, the sweat, the terrible venues, the broken-down vans - it's all there.
 

FlyingMonkey

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92. Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos
Be warned, the thematically-linked stories in this fresh, experimental collection by this young Chilean author are frequently difficult. Sometimes what's going on is completely unclear, sometimes the protagonist is vague and only half there, almost all the time, everrything is haunted by absent parents, unfulfilled desires, and the everpresence of systems of oppression and violence, whether it's dictatorship or capitalism, universties or psychiatry. People are shiftless, bitter, stupid. They try to resist, or to turn the bad into something beautiful, but nothing happens, they don't go anywhere, cars catch fire. Some people seem to hate this book. And sure, not all the stories work as well as the best ones like The Student and the eponymous Cars on Fire. But in this case, the polarized reactions only go to show Riós has done something right.
 

FlyingMonkey

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93. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
After only 3 or 4 books, Charles Yu has already developed a certain style. His tales tend to be quite simple stories of love and family when all the frills are cut away, and set in very contained settings, pocket universes either literally of figuratively. In this one, he's expanding on his personal personal very much to the political: this is a story about being Asian in America (any kind of Asian, doesn't matter because they all look the same, right?). But rather like How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the American in which the protagonist lives seems strangely small and circumsribed by almost game-like rules.

Here it is Interior Chinatown, the state to which every Asian who has failed achieve the American dream is reduced, where despite their super-high GPAs and multiple languages and interests, they are forced to play generic Asian parts in a stereotyped police procedural, Black and White, the names reflecting not only those of the real stars, but also the identities which an Asian can never achieve. Our hero, the book's hero, Willis Wu, is never the hero of Black and White, he is almost always Generic Asian Man, or perhaps, if he is lucky, Recurring Asian Character, or Special Guest Star, in which roles he might last more than one episode before being killed, tragically, again... and again. But Willis wants more, he wants to be Kung-Fu Guy, the utlimate Asian role, like his Dad, who although he is just Old Asian Man now, was once Kung-Fu Guy and even Sifu, the wise Asian teacher. Surely there can't be any more than this for an Asian in America?

Interior Chinatown is very, very clever. It plays this all straight but also manages to tell the 'backstories', something of the real struggles of real Asian people in America, both individually and collectively. Chunks of real history arrive unepectedly, juxtaposed with scripts in progress from Black and White. Erving Goffman's famous research on the performance of everyday life is quoted. Even when Willis starts to achieve a measure of happiness it somehow seems even less real, however emotionally rich the experience might appear to be. If there are weaknesses, they are the same sort of weaknesses that How To Live Safely... had, which is that the emotionality can seem at once overdone and rather flat and facile. But this is still a throught-provoking, powerful, very sarcastic book that will stay with you after you've finished.
 

LonerMatt

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1. The Tangled Land
2. The Test
3. Grace of Kings
4. Wall of Storms
5. Where there was Still Love
6. The Secret Commonwealth
7. Children of Ruins
8. Hunger
9. Legacy of Ash
10. When we were Vikings
11. The Yellow Notebook
12. A Couple of Things Before the End
13. Agency
14. Sword of Fire
15. How to Fix the Future
16. The Topeka School
17. Beijing Payback
18. The Lucky Country
19. A horse walks into a bar
20. The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
21. The Secret Scripture
22. Stone Sky Gold Mountain
23. The Return
24. The Lost Decade
25. Shop Class as Soulcraft
26. Makers
27. Between the World and Me
28. How to do nothing
29. Amusing Ourselves to Death
30. The Bear
31. Eden
32. The Medium is the Massage
33. The Book of Koli
35. The End of Education
36. Exploded View
37. Quarterly Essay: Cry me a river
38. Water Knife
39. Dance Dance Dance
40. Norwegian Wood
41. Snow Crash
42. Being Ecological
43. The Trials of Koli
44. A Deadly Education
45. New Dark Age
46. The girl and the stars
47. Demon in white
48. Infinite Splendour
49. Legacy of Steel
50. The Practice
51. Three Body Problem
52. Dark Forest

52. Dark Forest

Well, everyone was right, this was a real rollercoaster and a good one at that. The book has a lot of twists and turns and satisfying development. Loved the impending sense of doom I felt while the blissfully optimistic future we walk into in this one. I won't write a long synopsis, but the author manages to move a triology substantially forward without it being repetitious or predictable, which is a huge problem in SF/fantasy series.
 

Geoffrey Firmin

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64. The Doors A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus.

Greil Marcus recounts and analyses his engagement with the Doors from live shows, driving and listening on the radio, the music, the lyrics and performance. And the idiosyncratic cultural impact of the band on American music and culture.
 

FlyingMonkey

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94. Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Well, I saved the worst until last for my Eco (re)reading. This is very late, and very lightweight Eco. For sure, it has the foundation for a classic Eco conspiracy novel, mixing real historical conspiracies (allied stay-behind forces in Europe after WW2 and the CIA-backed Gladio network of anti-communists formed from ex-fascists) and the fictional (the idea that Mussolini didn't die at the end of WW2 but was saved by the Vatican). But the basic plot about a fake newspaper serves no real purpose other than to bring the characters together and allow some very broad satire about politics and the media. Yet again there is a May-to-December romance between the ageing writer-protagonist and a much younger female journalist, although at least this time it's a real romance rather than a lifelong obsession. And it all just gets cut off when Eco seems to have become bored. Foucault's Pendulum, this ain't.
 
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samtalkstyle

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58. The Italian Gentleman - Hugo Jacomet

This is quite a high quality coffee table book.
Lyle Roblin's photos are absolutely stunning, and the presentation/binding/all the details are nailed.

While the written content has good variety, it does get a touch tiring reading the same type of story written about each maker, with the same few values espoused as if they're all copies of each other.
Some of the passages certainly border on reading like advertisements.
I understand that sentiment as many are probably personal friends of the author, but it does require reading at intervals.


This will be my final finished read of 2020.
I won't be doing the challenge next year, instead electing to tackle some longer books that I've been meaning to read for a long time.
War and Peace, Count of Monte Cristo and the like.
 

Geoffrey Firmin

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58. The Italian Gentleman - Hugo Jacomet

This is quite a high quality coffee table book.
Lyle Roblin's photos are absolutely stunning, and the presentation/binding/all the details are nailed.

While the written content has good variety, it does get a touch tiring reading the same type of story written about each maker, with the same few values espoused as if they're all copies of each other.
Some of the passages certainly border on reading like advertisements.
I understand that sentiment as many are probably personal friends of the author, but it does require reading at intervals.


This will be my final finished read of 2020.
I won't be doing the challenge next year, instead electing to tackle some longer books that I've been meaning to read for a long time.
War and Peace, Count of Monte Cristo and the like.
Hi Sam

while your reading may prohibit you from hitting the 50 mark feel free to post here. i’ve found this thread not only engaging but picked up a few books which are waiting to be read from other contributors or there is also the what are you reading right now thread
 

FlyingMonkey

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95. The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizu
I enjoyed The Honjin Murders (see my #86 a few pages back) just enough to read this second-translated but actually 6th in a sequence of dozens of Detective Kindaichi novels written by Seishi Yokomizu.The crimes in both are overly intricate and bloody, and in this case happen as the detective watches helpless, and while he eventually 'solves' the murders, he could have prevented them if he was really as clever as we are constantly told he is. Anyway, this one involves a damaged and disfigured man who returns from the war after his grandfather's death, wearing a rubber facemask to cover his injury. Is he really who he appears to be? And why did the rags-to-riches silk-baron patriarch of the Inugami family set up such a fiendish situation with his will, which seems designed to set sister against sister, brother against brother. Suspects are presented to us like a line-up: is it the impossibly beautiful adoptive daughter, Tamayo, or her brutish and protective retainer, 'Monkey'? Could it be one of the three half-sisters, each one born of a different mistress? Could it be one their sons? If you like old-fashioned crime novels that hinge on coincidences and hidden identities, and suspicious characters who are suddently introduced late on, you might enjoy this. The novels are really not great as crime novels, but they are quite interesting as family melodramas that cast some sociological light on Japan in the immediate post-WW2 era.

PS: this novel is also available as 'The Inugami Clan' - I'm not sure if the translation is the same, but the 'Curse' one is in the Pushkin Vertigo series, and the translation is reliably strong and reads naturally.
 

Fueco

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58. The Italian Gentleman - Hugo Jacomet

This is quite a high quality coffee table book.
Lyle Roblin's photos are absolutely stunning, and the presentation/binding/all the details are nailed.

While the written content has good variety, it does get a touch tiring reading the same type of story written about each maker, with the same few values espoused as if they're all copies of each other.
Some of the passages certainly border on reading like advertisements.
I understand that sentiment as many are probably personal friends of the author, but it does require reading at intervals.


This will be my final finished read of 2020.
I won't be doing the challenge next year, instead electing to tackle some longer books that I've been meaning to read for a long time.
War and Peace, Count of Monte Cristo and the like.
I said the same thing last year... Ulysses took almost a month to read, but I managed that and still made 50.

next year will start out rough, but since the youngest kid is almost sleeping through the night, I’ll eventually have time to read more. I’ve got a number of books, both heavy and light, queued up. I’m 17 pages from the end of my current book.
 

FlyingMonkey

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I've actually already made 100 because I have a few earlier reads to add. I'm not sure if this is more than usual because most years I don't keep count.

But the thing this has been good for is forcing me to write brief reviews. At present, I also put these on Storygraph, which is an emerging alternative to the Amazon-owned Goodreads (you never know if these initiatives will survive or what will happen when they eventually decide they want to monetize everything...).
 

LonerMatt

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I had an ok year, I had a really dodgy Feb/March where what I was reading bored me. I also tackled a few super long books that just took a while. But I read some great books this year. Some of my stand outs were:

- Tangled Land. Really well done episodic fantasy, subverts a lot of structural and cliched elements.

- When we were vikings. The Rosie Project with some edge - funny, engaging, a bit sad in parts, fun as. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome afflicted narrator who wants to have sex and save her brother (who's struggling to keep their family going).

- Stone Sky, Gold Mountain. Sad narrative about immigrants on the Victoria goldfields and how they try and live with and move beyond the squalor of those diggings. Really evocative and well done.

- Book/Trials of Koli - hot damnnnnnnn really good page turning post-apocalyptic, character driven writing. Reallly fun, really well written, the best kind of genre fiction. Enjoyable and curious without being saccharine or predictable.

- Infinite Splendor. My book of the year. Maybe the best Australian book of the last 10 years. Crushing.

- Three Body Problem/Dark Forest. Helllllll yeah.

What are some of your highlights for the year?
 

FlyingMonkey

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Geoffrey Firmin

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@ FlyingMonkey your right about SciFi its been interesting seeing an ecological shift but with the glory days of Cyberpunk behind us the future is not turning out. how it was. meant. to. be thats if it. iever was.

WTF. is. going. on. here. and is there. some glitch. in the Style Forum. Page..charming.

Top. Five for the year in no particular order

MIND F*CK Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World by Christopher Wylie

A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson

The Mirge by Matt Ruff

Winners Take All:The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

Boy On Fire The Young Nick Cave by Mark More

Honourable mention for The Plague by Albert Camus
 
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FlyingMonkey

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96. The Tale of the Heike (translated by Royall Tyler).
Over the last year and half I've been reading this Japanese mediaeval epic of family conflict for control over the imperial throne, a few pages at a time while I'm in the bathroom. People compare it to The Illiad, but it's as much like reading The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles at some points, because so much of it is lists of family lineages. It's also packed with allusions to Chinese and Buddhist tales, and full of eulogies to the countless nobles who die heroic deaths in battle or by suicide - especially towards the end as the Heike realise they have lost. Originally written for recitation / performance, it's never an easy read, but I'm glad I finally finished it!
 

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