2016 in Review: Reading

Last year I read 52 books, a very DC Comics-esque number that averages to one book a week. This year I didn’t read nearly that many, but I’ll go into why after the list.

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

Books (listed in the order in which I read them)

  1. The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine
  2. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
  3. Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
  4. Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George
  5. Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George
  6. Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Fridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George
  8. Bluescreen by Dan Wells
  9. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (DNF)
  10. Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 2 by Ridley Pearson
  11. A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  12. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  13. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  14. The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala
  15. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
  16. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling
  17. The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

As is standard for me, most of my reading is fiction. The only non-fiction title on the list is the highly-recommended The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala. I recommend it not just to INFJ writers, but to all writers and all introverts.

The book I liked best was Tuesdays at the Castle and the rest of the Castle Glower series by Jessica Day George. It’s kind of surprising that I only first read those books less than a year ago. The tales of Princess Celie and her magical castle already feel like classics to me.

The runner-up has to be Bluescreen by Dan Wells. I also liked the heck out of Calamity by Brandon Sanderson, and it was the book I read the fastest this year (two days), but the finale of the Reckoners series just wasn’t as satisfying to me as the freshman offering in the Mirador series. Bluescreen was just awesome — cool tech, great characters, and lots of question arcs to keep me turning pages.

52 to 17 books is a pretty steep year-to-year drop, and there are a few reasons for the plunge:

  • I spent nearly two months trying my hardest to enjoy The Blue Sword but I just couldn’t. I like Robin McKinley’s work, and I wanted to read The Blue Sword because I enjoyed its prequel The Hero and the Crown. But I eventually had to throw in the towel. (Though it bears noting that The Blue Sword was the only dead tree book I picked up last year. The media may have been part of the problem, as I exclusively read ebooks these days.)
  • In early August I started The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I’m enjoying it, but it’s long (especially for me), and it’s not on this list because I haven’t finished it yet.
  • I spent the second half of the year catching up on some TV shows I’d always wanted to try but long neglected.

That last item is a good transition to a new category in my 2016 Year in Reading Review:

TV shows (listed in the order in which I watched them)

  1. Voltron: Legendary Defender
  2. Stranger Things
  3. The Flash (Season 1)
  4. Supergirl (Season 1)
  5. The Flash (Season 2)

I loved all of these shows, but there’s no question about it: The Flash (season 1) was the best TV I watched all year and one of my favorite television stories ever. The Flash has been my favorite super-hero for a while now due to all of the amazing and creative applications of his lone super power. Season 1 of his TV show was masterful. The way the show’s mysteries (who is the Reverse Flash? what happened the night Barry’s mother died?) played out over the course of the season kept me glued to my TV, tablet, phone, or whatever device I could watch Netflix on.

The Flash (season 2) might have been my second favorite if not for its ending. Zoom was a frightening villain, a total monster heel who was genuinely scary, especially after he broke Barry’s back and after it had become apparent Barry simply was not faster than him. But that ending. Oh gosh… season 1’s ending brought all the feels. Season 2’s ending just made me want to slap Barry upside the head.

Because of The Flash season 2’s stumble at the finish line, my second favorite show of the year was season 1 of Supergirl. I didn’t think I’d like it nearly as much as I did, but a story mix that was equal parts the story of Supergirl and the story of Kara Danvers won me over. Cat Grant and her dialogue were also highlights.


So that was my 2015 in media consumption. There’s lots of good stuff coming in 2016. I’m especially looking forward to the conclusion of the latest Kingdom Keepers series, the finale of the Castle Glower series, and the next book in the Mirador series. I also want to get to Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s new novel and the first book in Veronica Roth’s new series. Yes, in some ways, I am Henry Bemis. May I never break my glasses.

2015 in Review: Reading

Howdy, strangers. I missed most of December ’round here because we moved into a new house early last month and I’ve spent the last three weeks unpacking. But it’s time to get back into it and I’m going to start with my 2015 reflections.

I know the fact that I’m still looking back at 2015 makes me look painfully behind the times, but it’s really only one of 1000 things that does that, and I don’t like to do my reflections on the past year until it’s actually over. What if something great happened on New Year’s Eve? (One year I went to Magic Kingdom Park with my brother and friend on New Year’s Eve. If I’d made my “best of 1994” list in mid-December, it wouldn’t have included the best day of that year.)

In the coming days, I’m going to take a look back at what writing I accomplished this past year and then I’m going to look forward at 2016. But I’m going to start easy. Below is the list of books I finished reading in 2015, in chronological order, because I really do put my entire life in OneNote.

Did you read any of these (either in 2015 or earlier)? What did you think? What did you read in 2015 that was awesome? Let me know in the comments.

  1. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis
  2. Firefight by Brandon Sanderson
  3. Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke
  4. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  5. Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  6. Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary
  7. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  8. I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
  9. Kingdom Keepers II: Disney at Dawn by Ridley Pearson
  10. The Christus Experiment by Rod Bennett
  11. Partials by Dan Wells
  12. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  13. The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  14. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  15. Fragments by Dan Wells
  16. Ruins by Dan Wells
  17. The Stars Were Right by KM Alexander
  18. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  19. Peter and the Secret of Rundoon by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  20. Peter and the Sword of Mercy by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  21. The Bridge to Neverland by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  22. Old Broken Road by KM Alexander
  23. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Kingdom Keepers III: Disney in Shadow by Ridley Pearson
  25. Kingdom Keepers IV: Power Play by Ridley Pearson
  26. Kingdom Keepers V: Shell Game by Ridley Pearson
  27. Kingdom Keepers VI: Dark Passage by Ridley Pearson
  28. Kingdom Keepers VII: The Insider by Ridley Pearson
  29. Kingdom Keepers: The Return I: Disney Lands by Ridley Pearson
  30. A Kingdom Keepers Adventure: The Syndrome by Ridley Pearson
  31. Armada by Ernest Cline
  32. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  33. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of A Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
  34. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
  35. Star Trek: Destiny, Book 1 – Gods of Night by David Mack
  36. Star Trek: Destiny, Book 2 – Mere Mortals by David Mack
  37. Star Trek: Destiny, Book 3 – Lost Souls by David Mack
  38. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
  39. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
  40. Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Zero Sum Game by David Mack
  41. Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Rough Beasts of Empire by David R. George III
  42. Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Plagues of Night by David R. George III
  43. Red Litten World by KM Alexander
  44. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
  45. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
  46. The Martian by Andy Weir
  47. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  48. The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, The Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes
  49. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  50. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  51. Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones
  52. House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

One-Scene Villains

In some stories the hero and the villain are former friends, like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Other times they’re enemies from the start, like Batman and the Joker. But regardless of their history, in most stories the hero and the villain meet multiple times, and the hero’s repeated efforts to beat the bad guy can make for an irresistible tale.

But what about those stories in which the chief antagonist appears in just a single scene? There aren’t many of them, but when pulled off successfully, that villain and his or her single scene can be amazing.

This article is a tribute to one-scene villains.

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I started thinking about this subject when I recently read The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. In that Newberry Medal winning book, Aerin reaches the wizard Agsded’s fortress, defeats her uncle in a battle of magic, and causes his fortress to crumble all in a single scene. It’s a great sequence in a great book and (spoilers) it’s not even the story’s climax. Aerin has to get home to Damar for that.

My favorite one-scene villain is Galbatorix, the chief antagonist of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle. What’s that you ask? Doesn’t the Inheritance cycle consist of four books and almost 3000 pages? Yes, it does, and the main villain appears in just a single scene.

But it’s awesome.

When they were perhaps thirty feet from the dais, they halted. Behind the throne hung thick black curtains made of velvety material, which stretched up toward the ceiling. A shadow lay over Galbatorix, concealing his features. Then he leaned forward, into the light, and Eragon saw his face. …

As Galbatorix spoke, the curtains behind his throne shifted and rose toward the ceiling. With a sense of shock, Eragon realized that they were actually Shruikan’s wings.

That moment when Eragon realizes Galbatorix’s throne room curtains are the wings of Galbatorix’s enormous black dragon is my favorite moment in the entire cycle. So, so cool.

As I have documented here often, my favorite video RPG and one of my favorite fantasy stories from any medium is Phantasy Star. The game’s main antagonist is King Lassic, whose troops murdered Alis’s brother Nero. Alis and her friends fight his monsters, his Shadow, and his gold dragon before they finally confront him. The battle is his one and only scene in the entire game. Phantasy Star II’s main antagonist, Mother Brain, is also a one-scene villain.

TheArchitectMatrixThe one-scene villain trick doesn’t always work. In the Matrix films, the Architect is sort of a villain, and he and Neo meet in just a single scene of The Matrix Reloaded. But that scene is infamously confusing. The story never even alludes to the Architect before that time, it just says Neo must reach the Source to save Zion, the last human city. And when the Architect does show up and starts saying “ergo” and “vis-a-vis” and “apropos,” the entire moviegoing audience says, “Huh?”

(Yes, the Architect appears in another scene at the end of the trilogy, but it’s an epilogue occurring after the trilogy’s main narrative has been resolved, so it doesn’t count. Actually, some would argue that The Matrix Revolutions as a whole doesn’t count.)

The key to a successful one-scene villain is in the journey to him. The story has to be more about the quest to get there than about the villain. That’s why the technique is so fraught with peril: the payoff of that journey must be a great villain! Otherwise, the reader or player or viewer is left saying, “I invested all my time for that?”

But when it works like in Inheritance or Phantasy Star or The Hero and the Crown, it makes for one fantastic story.

Tell me in the comments about any other one-scene villains you like.

Fantasy video game storytelling for the win!

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Brandon Sanderson has a new book out. Shadows of Self is the latest in his Mistborn series. I’m a fan of his Stormlight Archive series (though I think its books are too long) and I’m a huge fan of his Reckoners series (which I think is just about perfect), but I haven’t read any Mistborn yet. I will, though!

Sanderson recently posted an article about his long-term strategy for the series and how it differs from other epic fantasy series:

I pitched Mistborn as a series of trilogies, which many of you probably already know. Each series was to cover a different era in the world (Scadrial), and each was to be about different characters—starting with an epic fantasy trilogy, expanding eventually into a space opera science fiction series. The magic would be the common thread here, rather than specific characters. …

There will be some continuing threads. (A few characters from Mistborn will be weaved through the entire thing.) However, to make this all work, I decided I needed to do something daring—I needed to reboot the Mistborn world periodically with new characters and new settings.

Cool, right? But what fascinated me is that some folks consider this storytelling technique one that will hurt sales:

As a warning to writers out there, this is usually considered a publishing faux pas. Readers like continuing characters, and creating breaks as I have done (and will continue to do) often undermines sales. Readers naturally feel a momentum in finishing a series, and if you give them a break point—with everything wrapped up—the push to get out the door and read the next book isn’t there.

Sanderson adds that while initial reviews and sales for the first reboot have been positive, “I know my publisher is very concerned about this strategy.”

This concern struck me as very odd. I didn’t see what was so crazy or ground-breaking about Sanderson’s Mistborn strategy. And that’s not meant to knock Sanderson and say he’s not imaginative!

But then I realized something. I love fantasy books, but novels are not where my personal love of fantasy was born. My love of fantasy was born in video games. And fantasy video games employ Sanderson’s long-term strategy for Mistborn all the time.

Phantasy_Star_boxI adored the original Phantasy Star when I first played it in the summer of 1989. I was elated when I heard there would be a sequel. When I heard it would take place 1000 years after the original, I said, “Huh?” I wanted to see the continuing adventures of Alis Landale and her friends, and since none of them were immortal, I knew Phantasy Star II wouldn’t feature any of them. Maybe this is the publisher fear that Sanderson mentions.

But I still loved Phantasy Star II, and the rest of the games in the series. They didn’t continue the story of Alis Landale, but they continued the story of the Algo star system. The common thread among them was the place, the magic, the items, and the legends. And despite what I initially thought, some of my beloved characters from the original game did continue to return throughout the series.

Sounds pretty similar to what Sanderson is trying to do with Mistborn, doesn’t it?

Other video game series do the same thing. Each new Wild Arms game focuses on a new era in the history of the planet Filgaia, with all new characters. Heck, each new Final Fantasy game doesn’t even take place on the same world, and that series is undoubtedly the most popular video RPG series of them all. I suspect this technique is necessary for video RPGs to facilitate challenging gameplay. I spent a lot of time in Phantasy Star equipping Alis and her friends with the best weapons and raising them to their maximum experience level. It would be wildly inconsistent and feel like a cheat if the sequel had featured the same characters back at Level 1 wielding knives and wearing leather armor.

Sanderson’s publisher has nothing to fear. So long as the name “Brandon Sanderson” remains on the cover and the same top-notch storytelling is found inside, they’re going to sell books. But I’m grateful Sanderson’s post got me in a reflective mood and made me realize what a debt I owe to video RPGs. Many folks may hear “fantasy” and think Middle-Earth or Pern. Nothing wrong with that! As for me, the first place I think of is the Algo star system.

Three favorites: DS9 episodes

DS9crewRight now I’m reading Star Trek: Typhon Pact — Rough Beasts of Empire by David R. George III and before that I finished Star Trek: Typhon Pact — Zero Sum Game. That’s right, I’m getting caught up on the post-series Deep Space Nine books.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is, along with the original Twilight Zone, my favorite TV series of all time. With so many great episodes, is it possible for me to pick my top three? I found it wasn’t just possible, it was actually pretty easy.

“What You Leave Behind”
The final episode! “To the best crew any captain ever had. This may be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us… a very important part, will always remain here, on Deep Space 9.”

“In the Pale Moonlight”
All of DS9 asked the question, “How far to you go to defend paradise?” This episode pushed that question to its limits. “So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all… I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. Garak was right about one thing, a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. I can live with it… Computer, erase that entire personal log.”

Also: “It’s a fake!”

“The Visitor”
Jake Sisko spends his entire life — and makes the ultimate sacrifice — to save his father. “To my father, who’s coming home.”

Honorable mentions: “Far Beyond the Stars,” “Duet,” and 171 others.

The Never-Ending Sacrifice

My all-time favorite television series is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so I’ve greatly enjoyed the books from Pocket that continue the series’s story past season seven. They’ve been doing them for a long time now, too, long before continuing a canceled television series in comics or whatever was A Thing. But, it’s also been a while since I read one. It was time I got caught up!

The last one I’d read was The Soul Key by Olivia Woods, so up next was The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack. (Die-hard fans will note the book carries the same name as the in-story novel that Garak once described to Dr. Bashir as Cardassia’s finest piece of literature.) This one wasn’t a pure post-TV series story. It started in the series’s second season, after the episode “Cardassians.” In that episode, the station’s crew discovered that a Cardassian orphan raised by Bajorans had in fact been kidnaped by Cardassian political enemies of his parents. Commander Sisko and his crew returned him to his biological Cardassian father over the boy’s objections. That boy, Rugal, is the protagonist of The Never-Ending Sacrifice, and his story is used to take us on an intriguing journey.

While the Cardassians as a race were critical to the plot of DS9, we rarely saw life inside Cardassia. This book explores the entire series of DS9 from the perspective of that world. All of the series’s major events are seen from this angle. And after the Dominion War ends, the book continues documenting the adventures of Rugal as Cardassia tries to rebuild from the mind-numbing destruction it experienced in the war.

It’s almost like several books in one. The first part is the story of an outsider trying to fit in. Later the book becomes the tale of a young man attempting to make a life for himself. Later still it becomes an examination of the hells of war and the trials of reconstruction. In the end, it’s a biography of both Rugal and Cardassia.

I enjoyed this book, and I’m sure any other DS9 fan would as well.

As You Wish

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I don’t read much non-fiction. What can I say, I like stories. But As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (Westley) with Joe Layden is a first class example of the best kind of non-fiction. It tells the story of real-life events.

Who doesn’t love The Princess Bride? It’s one of the greatest films ever. It turns out the magic we all saw on the screen was largely a result of some magic happening behind-the-scenes. The perfect script, director, cast, and crew all converged to create something special. And you don’t have to take just Elwes’s word for it. The main narrative from Elwes is broken up often by anecdotes from all of the film’s surviving cast members. Every last one of them looks back at the making of this picture as a highlight not just of their careers, but of their lives.

As You Wish is non-fiction but I flew through it like it was a compelling novel. I recommend this one, and my friend Will says it’s even better in audiobook. Regardless of which format you choose to read it in, have fun storming the castle.