The Best of 2021 in Books and Comics

Oh, 2021… it was, in many ways, quite similar to 2020, actually. We did a general summary of the year here, and now the time comes to sum up our reading/watching experiences. This year, we decided to combine our best and worst title is one place, one reason being it’s already mid-January…

Piotrek: and another, at least in my case, that I mostly made really good choices and there’s really not that much bad stuff to write about.

Ola: Oh, for me this reading year was more of a mixed bag, with some truly flabbergasting titles from NetGalley – and some truly amazing, too. It was generally a pretty good year, reading-wise. Lots of solid titles, not too many re-reads… I will also remember this year as my introduction to the marvellous metaverse of manga – and that journey will continue!

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Roy Plotnick, Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life (2022)

Author: Roy Plotnick

Title: Explorers of Deep Time: Paleontologists and the History of Life

Format: e-book

Pages: 312

Series: –

I’ll be very frank: Roy Plotnick’s book is a strange beast indeed; I have expected something along the lines of Dean R. Lomax’s Locked In Time, a pure palaeontology delight filled with descriptions of unique discoveries and fact-based interpretation of the traces of life long gone. What I got instead was an unusual mixture of a tiny bit of paleontological knowledge, a huge load of pages seemingly lifted from Who’s Who in US palaeontology, overflowing with personal information about various US palaeontologists in the last 50 years, complete with short biography boxes completely disrupting the flow of the book, and a fair amount of what looks like a memoir of Plotnick himself, with personal photographs. In short, if you want to become a palaeontologist in the modern United States, this book is for you. It’s filled with useful information about positions, institutions, big and small names in the field, the development of various palaeontology areas and subdivisions, and so on. But if you want to know a bit more about the contents of palaeontology itself – look somewhere else. I strongly suggest Lomax’s book, because it’s as illuminating as it is engaging. 

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Christopher Martin, Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan (2021)

Author: Christopher Martin

Title: Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan

Format: E-book

Pages: 310

Series: –

Christopher Martin is a US Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror, between 2007 and 2011. His war memoir, Chasing Alexander, is both like and unlike other War on Terror non fiction I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot; the similarities are obvious, and heartbreaking, while the disparities are what makes this book unique.

Firstly, there is a matter of style. I’m pretty sure Martin did his required reading, as his book bears more than a passing resemblance to Hasford’s The Short Timers and yet still retains a bit of the wide-eyed American idealism of West’s The Snake Eaters. It’s clear Martin wanted to write his own book – and in this, he succeeded. The style of Chasing Alexander is simple and direct, and reads very much like a student’s report: an honest, open account of how it was – or, more precisely, how Martin thought it was. And I mean it as a compliment. Many of these new war memoirs are becoming masks; tools, if you will, tailored for the author’s purposes. A common trajectory for modern veterans is to go into business and management after the time in the military; a book doesn’t hurt your chances at an executive position.

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Dean R. Lomax, Robert Nicholls, Locked in Time (2021)

Author: Dean R. Lomax, Robert Nicholls

Title: Locked in Time

Format: E-book

Pages: 296

This time, I have something different for you: a journey through millions of years, full of wonderful, saddening, and/or quite creepy discoveries, and ranging from nearly the beginnings of fossil records to the time of the Ice Age. While probably most of us were at some point in our lives fascinated with dinosaurs, ammonites, mammoths and smilodons, not many chose this childhood fascination as their adult passion. Dean R. Lomax did, and both this fascination, and this passion, are clearly noticeable in his book, which is as entertaining as it is informative. 

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F. Brett Cox, Roger Zelazny (2021)

Author: F. Brett Cox

Title: Roger Zelazny

Format: e-book

Pages: 224

Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction (University of Illinois Press)

A brand-new critical monograph on one of my favourite SFF authors – how could I resist? 😉 It also came out in an opportune time, when I was quite unhappy with the flat fun of A Master of Djinn after the highs of The Lords of the North, and needed something different to cleanse my palate.

Cox’s monograph delivered on both accounts; his writing is simple and informative, and very approachable considering the inherently academic character of his book. There’s obviously a long, quite exhaustive bibliography and a satisfactory amount of footnotes, but the language throughout is intentionally focused on communication instead of erudite fencing with other specialists on Zelazny’s work – maybe because, as  Cox indicates, there are no other Zelazny pros and very little academic output concerning his work. It may be, as Cox suggests, that the necessary condition of passage of time has not been yet fulfilled – Zelazny’s untimely death in 1995 might seem like aeons past, but it really wasn’t that long ago 😉. And while the genre itself has undergone several changes since then, it is still difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and conclude, with a degree of certainty, what can be considered a modern classic and what was just a work accident.

And indeed, Zelazny’s works are so varied in terms of style and themes and worldbuilding that it’s not a surprise some of his books are better than others – and with the author of Lord of Light, the good books are among the best of what SFF has to offer, and even the weaker offer a dazzling profusion of amazing ideas and impeccable, evocative language. It seems, however, that in the US-UK SFF circles there is even a longstanding consensus of considering Zelazny an unfulfilled promise who after a strong start became a commercial writer with no ambition. Frankly, remaining far removed from this little world of authors and critics I was surprised to learn about this piece of “conventional wisdom” – to me, some of Zelazny’s latest works are among his very best. And that’s basically what Cox is trying to prove in his monography: going chronologically through Zelazny’s work, the author of the monograph attempts to refute this stereotype and show that Zelazny conducted ambitious literary experiments in his writing to the very end, delivering varied books, but not generally worse than at the beginning – but as to whether Cox’s arguments are successful, you probably should ask someone else, since I never doubted this assertion😉.

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