2016 — my year in books

Liam reads an Elephant & Piggie book to Kellan

I made a New Years’ resolution in 2016 to diversify my reading — not by genre, but by author. I had realized that in 2015, of 26 books that I read, 22 were written by white men — an astounding 85%. So I had a goal to flip that percentage in 2016. Here’s how I did, in a quick summary of books:

  1. Golden Fool (The Tawny Man Trilogy #2), by Robin Hobb
    I love everything by Robin Hobb, and have loved every page of now 8 Fitz books by her. They’re true page-turners in the best meaning of that.
  2. Brooklyn, by Colm Toíbín
    I hated this book. I read it because of reviews and the movie (which I also hated) … and I should’ve stopped about 20 pages in, but I just kept reading, alternately to see whether it would redeem itself (no) or what it felt like to hate-read an entire book (not good).
  3. Fool’s Assassin (Fitz & the Fool #1), by Robin Hobb
    This new series, set when Fitz is much older, is heart-breaking for fans of the series and so, so good.
  4. Fool’s Quest (Fitz & the Fool #2), by Robin Hobb
    See above.
  5. A Man In Love (My Struggle #2), by Karl Ove Knausgård
    If my darkest inner voices were given public attention, perhaps they might sound like this. It is brutal honesty (although fictional? maybe? I hope? A devastating book.
  6. A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
    So! Much! Fun! I don’t know why I didn’t immediately get the next one in the series, except that I wanted to let Kell ruminate in my mind for a while, this was such a lovely tale.
  7. The Hidden Oracle (Trials of Apollo #1), by Rick Riordan
    So, I’ve read all of the various Percy Jackson-related books to, and with the kids, so I got this one too — and the magic is gone, and Liam didn’t care and I regret reading this.
  8. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie
    Onto book two, where the gender-fuck of the first book has become normalized and the characters, story and setting can truly shine. This is my favourite of the series.
  9. The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1), by N. K. Jemisin
    An amazing, different take on magic in a dystopian (future?) society. Possibly my favourite book of the entire year.
  10. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
    The buzziest book I read all year (an Oprah bookclub selection!) that totally held up despite the hype. I loved the magic-realism of the device of a real underground railroad, and it was heartbreaking and hard and beautiful. Contains the most gut-wrenching sentence I read all year (which, for spoiler reasons, I won’t share).
  11. The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2), by N. K. Jemisin
    Not quite as good as The Fifth Season as it normalizes into a fairly standard fantasy/odyssey book, but still well-worth the journey if you love the characters as I do.
  12. Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3), by Ann Leckie
    Read this as a meditation on the a nature of identity and empathy and, well, yeah. There’s so much going on in this book, in this series. It should probably be the subject of several academic think-pieces.
  13. The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman
    I needed a Neil fix, and was getting on a plane, and this did the trick (It’s a solid habit to read one book by Neil Gaiman every single year, IMO). It’s all over the place. The best thing though is his unabashed love of Books, in all their forms, and the humans who write them. I added a dozen books, by a dozen authors, to my wishlist from reading this (NB: I’m still reading this. I have read a few sections between each of the rest of the books this year).
  14. A Heart so White, by Javier Marías (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
    I struggled mightily with this book — It came highly recommended by my mum, who rarely is wrong about these things, and, much like reading Shakespeare, it takes a while to wrap your head around the language and format, but once I did, wow! I read it nearly twice over.
  15. Charmed Life (Chrestomanci #1), by Dianna Wynne Jones
    Silly, simple fun. Ends before I was ready for it, but also definitely felt a little dated.
  16. Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6), by James S. A. Corey
    The best entry in the series since book 3. Either you love The Expanse, or you haven’t read it yet.
  17. The Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1), by Ken Liu
    I learned of Ken Liu through reading Cixin Liu, and, am so much the richer for it. This book deserves all the accolades it received, but, it took me a while to get through it, as I didn’t get fully into until about 100 pages in.
  18. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers
    This book is sci-fi equivalent of a Belle & Sebastian album. It is lovely and twee, and not quite what I hoped it was. That being said, I immediately started reading the follow-up, so there you go.
  19. A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
    The first book in the series was self-published — I don’t know if this one was, but it feels so much tighter that I wonder if it at least a new, better editor was found. A similar feel to the first one, only moreso, in all the right ways.

I fell way short of my goal for reading this year — I was aiming for 40 books, and didn’t even crack 20. Of 19, 6 were written by men, or 32% — which also fell way short of my goal of reading only 10% white men. But, a definite improvement over my previous habits. Noticeably, when browsing the Kobo store, the recommended books are much more diverse in authorship than they were prior to this.
I’m hoping for follow-ups from Robin Hobb, V. E. Schwab, N. K. Jemisin & Ken Liu this year, and will continue to try and diversify who I’m reading.

Marvel Unlimited & digital media ownership: some thoughts

I’ve been buying comics weekly since I’ve had an allowance – about 30 years or so. 98% of them are Marvel comics – and in particular the X-men and the “street heroes” (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Spiderman). About 4 years ago, I more or less stopped buying physical comics and switched to buying Digital Comics – this coincided, not at all incidentally, with my buying my first retina iPad. But I was still spending a fair amount of money each week on comics, and, while physical comics come with definite ownership, the built-in DRM of the Comics apps (Marvel, Image, Comixology) meant that I didn’t really feel like I was buying comics any more so much as I was  licensing them. I have a similar experience with other digital media.

And because I wasn’t really buying them anymore…the thrill, the urgency was gone. When I stopped buying physical music, I stopped caring so much about “owning” the music. And so I got an Rdio subscription – which suits me fine. More or less unlimited music, great discovery tools, for a small monthly fee. I kind of feel like I’m renting the world’s greatest music library.

When I stopped buying physical movies, I likewise stopped caring. I still will buy some movies on iTunes, but you know what? 90% of the time I’m perfectly content to wait for the movie to show up on Netflix: again – I’m happy to pay to rent access to a large library.

Books…I haven’t found my Netflix for books, mostly because the digital reading experience for me is much more intimately tied to the device I consume it on. I read only Amazon-purchased books when I had a kindle. Now I have a Kobo (almost entirely because of, at least publicly, how poorly Amazon seems to treat Authors/Publishers), and I buy Kobo books. Also: I *really* like the Kobo hardware. Much more than either Kindle I owned prior. If there was an on-device “Netflix for books”, I’d likely stop buying & immediately sign up for that. But I don’t like reading books on my tablets, so the existing services might as well not exist for me.

So we come back to Comics. About 2 months ago, I decided I no longer needed to be buying digital comics weekly. The pull of some 18,000 back issues available for rent in the Marvel Unlimited app was such a great draw. And so I downloaded it, and it’s been…ok. On to the original point of this, here’s some good and bad things on the Marvel Unlimited app:

  • Good: The experience of reading an individual issue. The pages/images are crisp, and really reward a high DPI screen. I can zoom in to see detail I often couldn’t with physical media. It’s just like the purchased digital issues.
  • Fantastic: Content. Seriously. If you’re a fan of Marvel comics, there’s almost no excuse to not have this app just to get access to all that content.
  • Meh: How the app handles rotation. Some pages/panels are better landscape, some portrait. As you rotate back and forth, it sometimes gets lost and you end up zoomed, or more oddly, back a page. Likewise, it sometimes has issues loading in the issue. Consistently, for me, every 3rd issue in a session, I need to exit, restart the download, before I can finish the issue
  • Good: consuming “official” events. You can just keep reading the next issues.
  • Missed Opportunity: Search. The Marvel Wiki is an amazing resource for discovery. It seems terrible that I can’t leverage that knowledge base, directly in the app, for discovery.
  • Bad: Inter-issue linking. If a comic says “as seen in [title]” in one of those little editor notes, the meta-data for that issue should always link me to that.  This, to me, is an almost unconscionable omission in this app. It’s a rabbit-hole app, and should take every opportunity to send me further down the rabbit hole. Same goes for Cross overs. If an X-Factor story links to a She-Hulk issue, when I finish that X-factor issue, show me the She-Hulk title! Cross overs are nearly impossible to read in the Marvel Unlimited App.
  • Bad: No wish-list. Seriously. Even if it was limited to, say, a dozen titles. let me wishlist items to read later. I can’t keep 18K comics in my head, but I might come across a title while browsing that I want to read later, but not right now. Why can’t I store that desire somewhere? Again. This is a rabbit-hole app. So help go further down that hole.
  • Potential: Sharing/social reviews. I’ve got friends who’re using this app. But I have no way to learn what they’re reading, what they liked, etc. Sharing what comics I’m reading has always been part of my comic culture. So why I can’t I share my reading list with my friends? Or publish quick reviews of issues/titles/storylines to Social Media? Seems a really easy missed marketing opportunity for Marvel

So what’s my overall? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Marvel Unlimited is the worst of all Comic Reading apps – except for all the others. The content is so great that it absolutely trumps the varied experience of consuming the content. But, there’s so much opportunity to grow this app into something amazing, that I’m actually a little sad how poorly executed it currently is.

Ed Note: Marvel – I’d love to help make this app better. Want to hire me?

2nd Ed Note: The cover image has very little to do with the post. But I like coffee and comics. They go well together.