2017: My Year In Books

I meant to write this post ages ago, like at the end of December so it could be scheduled and published towards the beginning of January, but that didn’t happen. Still, it’s better late than never, so I figured I’d write about my favorite (and least favorite) reads of 2017.

First off, I read a fair amount of books in 2017. 105, to be exact. That is fewer than the 2016 number of 126, thank goodness. Reading-wise, 2016 felt very stuffed to me. I didn’t like feeling stuffed. Books are good, but reading to the exclusion of other fun things, like knitting, is not good. If you’re interested, I wrote a post about my 2016 reads last year.

But back to 2017. Goodreads has a nice little summary of everything I read that you can access here. (Note: if you’re a Goodreads user and you want to share your own summary, you have to use the share links at the top right. Don’t just copy the URL because that URL doesn’t have your unique user ID and therefore people will not be able to see your unique summary!)

If the books I read in 2017 had a theme, I’d have to say it was very much a science fiction and fantasy theme. I haven’t actually gone back and counted, but I feel like I read a ton of fiction in general, especially science fiction and fantasy. I don’t think I read much nonfiction at all. In fact, I think I’ve read more nonfiction so far this month than I did all of 2017. I’m not sure why that happened—I didn’t deliberately plan that!

Anyway, to get into the details: out of everything I read, here’s what stood out, both good and bad.

Best general fiction

I think this one has to go to Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester. I rarely buy brand-new books, but I snapped this one up as soon as I saw it in the book store because I am a Jane Eyre enthusiast. It did not disappoint. I think you have to read Jane Eyre first to fully appreciate it… but if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, what are you waiting for?!

Best science fiction

If you don’t know my answer to this, you probably haven’t been reading this blog for very long! 🙂 Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn was by far the best science fiction of the year. It’s one of my favorite books, period. And there is a sequel coming out that I’ve posted about (and have a countdown for on this blog—only four more months to go!), so go read this book if you haven’t already.

Best historical fiction

This book, Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, was a surprise hit for me. I thought it was just going to be okay. It was fantastic. It focuses on one year in Doc Holliday’s life (though it mentions a lot of other parts of his life as background) and the quality of the writing is fantastic. I finished it months ago and sometimes I still think about it. To me, that’s the mark of a good book. I’d never heard of the author before I picked it up, but I will have to read more of her work.

Most disappointing

Thus far, I’ve talked about books I like. Now I’m going to be a little less positive. One book I was really looking forward to reading was Sean Danker’s Admiral. The title is awesome, the cover is awesome, and the summary sounded awesome. Unfortunately, the book itself is not awesome. It starts off decently enough, but then devolves into an uninspired tale of first contact. The book is a first in a series and I don’t think I’ll be reading the other two books (I think it’s a trilogy but I’m not sure) because of my disappointment with this one. If you haven’t read it—well, let me just say there are better works of science fiction out there.

Best nonfiction

I don’t want to end this post on a negative note, so the last book I’ll spotlight is best nonfiction. As I said, I didn’t read much nonfiction in 2017, so this book didn’t have much competition… but even in a year where I read solely nonfiction, I think this one would come out on top. I’m talking about John Laughland’s Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice. You know when you read a book and sometimes you have to go back and read things because they’re so amazing? And you learn so much from even just one sentence? And then as you read the book, you realize that the author is basically a genius and no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to come up with all the original thoughts and connections he (or she) has? That’s what happened to me when I read this book. Laughland is brilliant, there’s no question about that. I’ve been following Balkan history and politics for about ten years now and I have a very contrarian view. Laughland does as well, and his book makes you think.

So, that’s my year in books! What books did you like (or dislike) in 2017? What books are you looking forward to in 2018?


When To Quit Reading A Book

At what point when you’re reading a book and not enjoying it do you call it quits?

When I was younger, I never quit books. Even if I despised them, I kept reading and stuck it through to the bitter end. This was pre-Goodreads days, so I didn’t even get to do any cathartic venting online when I didn’t like something.

After I started working and had limited time to read, I started being more picky about what I read through to the end. Plus, I enjoyed the freedom of not being in school anymore. In school, I had to read a lot of books, many of which I didn’t like. But they were required for class, so not reading them wasn’t really an option. (Unless I wanted a bad grade, which obviously I didn’t.)

Suddenly, after I started working, I realized there were a lot of books I just didn’t want to read. Moreover, I realized it wasn’t a bad thing that I didn’t want to read them. If I started something and just couldn’t get into it, I would dump it.

I still do this. My local library has a fantastic ebook collection and I’ve started many books that I didn’t end up finishing. It’s actually liberating because it means I have more time to read what I want. This doesn’t mean that I don’t force myself to read difficult books. I’m slowly working my way through Jane Austen’s works. I think they’re difficult reads, but I still enjoy reading them.

At least the cover is cool?

No, the type of books I’m talking about quitting are ones like Red Queen. Years ago, everyone was talking about this book. I decided to read it last year—only to put it down in disgust after a few chapters. I just couldn’t get into it. I figured it wasn’t for me.

Earlier this year, one of my coworkers said her sister recommended it to her. My coworker hasn’t read it, but said her sister loved it. I decided to try it again. I made it a bit further than last time, but I still didn’t get very far.

Last week, I saw that the library had the audiobook version of Red Queen available. I’ve been somewhat getting into audiobooks lately, so I thought I’d give this book yet another try. Third time’s the charm, right?

You’ve got to give me some credit: I made it over halfway through this time. I still ended up abandoning this book, though. I just don’t care for it. I think the plot is dumb and the characters are like cardboard. I know it sold well, so obviously I’m missing something here. I guess it’s just not my kind of book. And that’s okay because I will spend time reading books that are my kind of books.

When do you quit reading a book if you don’t like it? Have you read Red Queen? If you have and you liked it, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. When I look at good reviews of it online, I feel like everyone who wrote a good review read a different book than the one I did!

Everything Wrong With Mark Henshaw’s ‘The Fall of Moscow Station’

At least the cover is nice…

Okay, the tile of this post is slightly misleading. There may be more wrong with this book—Mark Henshaw’s The Fall of Moscow Station—that I don’t know about because I stopped reading on page 70. (To put things in perspective, there are 338 pages in this book.) All of the inaccuracies have to do with Russia or the Russian language. They drove me so crazy that I could not finish this thing. I’d had really high hopes for it, too.

  • Page 24: A character says, “I am familiar with military tattoos. The one on the victim’s shoulder is not uncommon among soldiers of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate. You might know them as the GRU, the old masters of the Spetsnaz Special Forces.” Honestly, this isn’t wholly inaccurate—the Spetsnaz served in the GRU, but they’re also in other branches of the military and intelligence services. Perhaps the author knows this and omitted it from the book because it was beyond the scope of information we needed. However, I’ve been unable to locate any information about tattoos specific to the GRU or Russian military. I could be wrong, but I feel like the author might be confusing this concept of tattoos with the Russian criminal underworld, where there are specific, distinctive tattoos used.
  • Page 27: “‘Spasibo.’ Arkady Lavrov ignored the American in favor of the sentry. ‘Pozhaluysta zakroyte dver.‘” Maybe it’s just me, but throwing in a pozhaluysta (please) when asking someone to close the door boggles the mind, especially since the speaker is an intense spy who’s the director of the GRU. To me, it would be more likely he’d bark in Russian, “Zakroyte dver,” with the implication in his tone that if the door wasn’t closed promptly, there’d be hell to pay.
  • Page 42: On a CIA dossier describing a character’s resume, we have the following information: “Listed as Vice President for Communications Security, ‘Zelyonsoft’ [zelyeniy is Russian for ‘gold’].” No, zelyeniy [зелёный] is green. Zolotoi [золотой] is gold.
  • Page 60: Remember that GRU director on page 27 who was ever so polite in asking for the door to be closed? Well, here we have this sentence about him: “But the FSB general was a solider and appreciated the willingness to take the initiative.” People, the FSB and the GRU are two totally different intelligence organizations! The FSB grew out of the KGB when the Soviet Union fell. The GRU is foreign military intelligence. And then there are other intelligence organizations like the SVR for external intelligence (though allegedly the FSB works in this area as well). My point is, they’re all different and you’ve got to keep them straight if you’re including them in a book. Wouldn’t it be rather silly to mess up the FBI and the CIA in a spy thriller?!

And there you have it. I was so frustrated with the book because I kept being jolted out of the story by these issues, so I stopped reading it on page 70. Maybe I’m picky, but there are lot of books out there and limited time to read them, so I’ve got to be choosy. I finished reading an alternate history recently (SS-GB by Len Deighton) and I’m still plugging away at Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard in Russian. If someone else has read The Fall of Moscow Station and tells me it greatly improves later, maybe I’ll finish it. But until then, I think I’ll read other books.

2016: My Year in Books

A couple of other bloggers I read, K.M. Weiland and Kiera, wrote posts about the best books they read in 2016. Usually, by the end of the year, I forget which books I read that year, but thanks to Goodreads, this is no longer the case. 2016 was the second year I tracked my reading on that website. This year, there’s even a convenient little page that sums up all of one’s reading.

I read a lot in 2016—126 books to be exact. It was actually fewer than 126 because some of those were short stories that tied in to series I’d read. But still, even without counting those, I still read a ton of books. Here are some of my favorites.

Continue reading “2016: My Year in Books”

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.

The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.

This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.

It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.

Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.

Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.

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Review: Star Nomad

Star Nomad
Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In recent years, it’s become increasingly rare for me to become so absorbed in a book that I stay up super late reading and neglect doing other things in order to finish it. It’s not that books have been getting bad over the years—it’s that I don’t have time anymore to do this.

However, this book is an exception. I started reading it late on June 3. I stayed up to probably 2 am (I was too scared to look at the clock!) trying to finish it. I didn’t finish it, so I went to bed and finished it the next day, on June 4. Then I immediately went and bought the next one when I saw it was out.

I’ve read a ton of Lindsay Buroker‘s books before. I devoured her Emperor’s Edge, which I highly recommend if you like character-driven stories set in a fascinating fantasy universe. (They have magic and scary creatures and an empire and all sorts of good stuff.)

However, I usually prefer science fiction to fantasy, which is one reason I enjoyed this book so much. The plot is intriguing—the protagonist has to work with a character who fought in the same war she fought in, but he was on the opposite side—and the characters are great. That’s one thing I like about this author’s work: she always makes her characters seem like real people. Their banter is always fun to read, too. It’s very realistic and often quite funny.

As I said, I immediately went out and bought the second book in the series and finished it within an afternoon because it was also so good. Now on to the third book. Here’s to hoping the author releases three more books very soon!

Note: I didn’t receive a free copy or any sort of payment in exchange for this review. I just really, really liked this book!

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Review: Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher by Tim Stevens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why can’t every spy thriller be this good? Not only does this book have unexpected plot twists and turns, but it’s actually properly researched. The Russian characters have real Russian names—what a shock! There are no random names of historical figures that aren’t actually common in Russia, like those that appear in Christopher Reich’s Rules of Vengeance. (To be clear, I really like Reich’s book. I was disappointed that he gave one of his characters the last name of Witte, though. Sergei Witte was a famous tsarist minister, but his name is actually relatively uncommon in Russia. It’s as if the author plucked it from a history book without knowing.)

Anyway, back to the review of Ratcatcher. This book is fabulous. The author even gets the tensions between Russia and Estonia right. If you want to read a fast-paced spy thriller with believable, realistic characters and a fascinating situation heavily influenced by historical events (I’m an amateur historian, so I appreciate when authors are aware of historical events), check out this book. When I got it, it was free on Kindle, so you really have nothing to lose by giving it a try.

If I could give it SIX stars out of five I would. Well done indeed.

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Review: Starforgers

Starforgers by Ken McConnell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think the plot of this novel is quite interesting, but there were some problems that kept me from enjoying it. In no particular order:

-Comma usage was so not right. There were commas missing where they should have been and commas added where they didn’t belong. Remember, when someone is addressed directly by name, title, etc., that needs to be set off with commas. For example: “I’m so glad we had the chance to fly together, Devon.” That comma before Devon is NOT optional! Not having it is a glaring omission and one that this book had throughout.

-Typos and/or misuse of words also occurred. A few I remember off the top of my head: shudder should have been used instead of shutter; purr instead of pure; from instead of form (this is one I’ve done myself many times!); and furry instead of fury. There may have been more that I don’t recall.

-Head hopping was also rampant in this book. I think the author was trying to do third-person limited point of view, but there was way too much jumping around into other characters’ heads in the middle of scenes, especially towards the end. I was practically getting whiplash!

-Finally, this book doesn’t just end mid-sentence—it ends mid-word. (I don’t think it was supposed to. This isn’t some literary device, as far as I can tell. It’s an error.) I’m assuming the last part of the last sentence is supposed to read “the next thousand years” but it says “the next thousan” and just ends like that.

Seriously, I liked the concept of this book. If the above technical errors were fixed, I would have given it four stars. (I’m docking a star because the author killed off one of the most interesting characters, a villain who I thought was one of the more well-drawn characters in the novel.)

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Inaccuracies In Russia-Related Novels

The cover isn't too bad, I guess...
The cover isn’t too bad, I guess…

I’ve been slowly working my way through my to-read list on Goodreads and it’s been a very interesting experience. The library system where I live has most of the books on there and I’ve been checking them out and seeing how they are. Some books aren’t as good as I expected, so I often don’t read those. In fact, there’s one in particular I was really looking forward to, but it had so many problems that I had to stop reading it. It’s called The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne.

History buffs and Russia fanatics (both of those terms describe me to a T!) will recognize the title as a reference to the merchant’s house that the last tsar of Russia and his family were imprisoned in before their execution in July 1918. (In Russian, it’s Дом особого назначения, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been obsessed with the Romanovs for years, so I couldn’t wait to read this book.

Now, I should make one thing clear: I understand that authors can take “poetic license” when writing fiction. They invent characters that didn’t exist, almost certainly invent most dialogue (because what historical document contains a word-for-word description of every conversation ever), and sometimes slightly change the chronology of events. However, poetic license does not give anyone the excuse to be a sloppy researcher. And that was my problem with this book: there were so many glaring inaccuracies that I cannot help but conclude it was sloppily researched.

Let’s talk about the names in the book. The main character, Georgy Jachmenev, has a good friend named Kolek Boryavich Tansky (p. 27). Kolek is not a real first name. As far as I can gather, it would be a diminutive/nickname form of the name Nikolai. Kolya would be a more common nickname, but I can work with Kolek. The patronymic, Boryavich, is completely inaccurate, though. In Russian culture, a person’s middle name is called the patronymic and it’s formed from the father’s first name. There are different endings if the person is a man or a woman, but the fact remains that Boryavich is not a patronymic. I’m guessing the author took the name Borya and made it into a patronymic. Except Borya is not a first name, either—it’s the diminutive/nickname of Boris! Patronymics are never formed from a diminutive. They come from the full first name, so this character’s patronymic should be Borisovich.

This isn’t the only character with a messed up name, either. I could tolerate it once. The main character’s father is named Daniil Vladyavich Jachmenev. That patronymic isn’t right, either. I’m not sure what the author was aiming for here. Vladimirovich? Vladislavovich? Your guess is as good as mine.

The odd thing is that other characters have perfectly correct names. For example, Kolek’s father is named Borys Alexandrovich Tansky, which is perfectly accurate. The spelling of the first name is a bit unconventional, but not technically wrong.

And now let’s talk about the main character’s wife’s first name: Zoya. At one point, the main character says of her name: “A Russian name, of course. It means life” (p. 8). I know how to say life in Russian, and it isn’t anything like this! (It’s жизнь [zhizn], if you’re curious.) I actually researched this because it bothered me so much. As it turns out, Zoya comes from the Greek word for life. So while I guess the author was technically correct here… I do think he’s misleading because it doesn’t mean life in Russian and in multiple places he implies it does.

And then there’s the main character, Georgy. Early on, he acquires an odd nickname: “At the age of six I was a foot shorter than all my friends, earning myself the nickname Pasha, which means ‘the small one'” (p. 30). Again, this isn’t right at all! Pasha is a nickname, but not for Georgy, nor does it mean “the small one.” Pasha is a nickname for the name Pavel, which is the Russian form of Paul. I cannot imagine why a child named Georgy would be nicknamed Pasha. It’s just inexplicable.

Anyway, after these rampant errors—seriously, in a couple of chapters it felt like there were multiple bad patronymics and characters addressing our protagonist as Pasha on nearly every single page—I grew disgusted with the book and decided to stop reading it. Then I had an idea: it would be so fitting, I decided, if the plot twist was a certain stupid, overdone one when it comes to the Romanovs. I flipped to the end of the book to find out…

Warning: spoiler ahead! Though by this point, you’re probably completely put off from this book…

…and sure enough, I was right. It’s revealed at the end of the story that Zoya is—surprise, surprise—actually the Grand Duchess Anastasia, tsar’s youngest daughter, who somehow managed to escape execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks that terrible night. Sigh. This idea has been so overdone throughout the years that it bores me.

I realize this may seem paradoxical since I’m an ardent admirer of the Romanovs. After all, if I have some kind of affection for them, you’d think I’d want at least one of them to have survived, right? Of course I wish they hadn’t been executed. What annoys me is when facts are overlooked. I’ve read so many accounts of their last days, in English and in Russian, and the fact will always be it was impossible for anyone to have survived that execution. The forensic evidence also discredits any survival theories, too.

If you’re going to pull this trick as an author and have one or two of the family survive, you’ve got to do it in such an outrageous way, as part of a massive, crazy yet amazing plot that I would never have come up with on my own for me to enjoy it. I actually just finished reading such a book and I will certainly write a post about it, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you know of any good books—fiction or nonfiction—concerning imperial Russia, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and let me know.

Review: Brandenburg

Brandenburg by Glenn Meade
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I can’t say I really enjoyed this book, to be honest. First off, the writing style and use of language drove me insane. One thing I kept encountering were sentences like, “Tell me what you intend doing.” (That’s one’s from page 360 of the edition I read.) While this may be correct in British English, it sounds so jarringly wrong to my ear that I kept getting annoyed by it.

The next issue was with the dialogue. It was so stilted and characters kept addressing each other by name. In general, people don’t actually use each other’s names a lot when they speak, which is why beginner writers are usually cautioned against this. Apparently whoever edited this book hasn’t heard of that rule before.

Warning: some spoilers ahead!

Now, for the plot-related issues. The plot started off really interesting. I liked the first bit that took place in Paraguay. But then it just got boring, mainly because I didn’t really like or care about the main character, Joseph Volkmann. I get the idea he was supposed to be this somewhat troubled intelligence agent, but the author didn’t fully pull that off.

And don’t get me started on the utterly STUPID plot point involving Hitler’s son. First of all, there’s no real proof that Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal, were actually romantically involved. Don’t get me wrong, I really hate Hitler and think he was evil, but I’ve never seen definitive proof of this. Eminent historian Ian Kershaw says there’s no proof one way or the other, and I agree with him on this. But I digress.

Anyway, there’s an entire plot point involving Hitler’s son, who was spirited out of Germany as a small child. He later returns and leads a neo-Nazi movement that—surprise, surprise—tries to take power in a (failed) putsch, just like his daddy did. At the end of the book, we have a lot of characters dead (including Hitler’s son and a Paraguayan journalist) and a lot of pointless screeds about how the left-wingers are going to save Germany from going Nazi again.

Seriously, this book is a bit long. Save your time and read something else. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. I was so disappointed in this one that I don’t know if I’m going to read the other Glenn Meade book I got from the library, The Romanov Conspiracy. (And anyone who knows me will know I’m a sucker for anything Russia- and Romanov-related. Something has to be pretty bad to make me contemplate passing up a book involving Russia and the Romanovs.)

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