Friday, May 28, 2010

Books I've Read in 2010

May
Fiction

  • The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell. [A good book. Review here.]
  • The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross. [Not as good as the first few books in the Merchant Princes series, and feels a bit like it rushes to the ending. Longer review here. ]
  • The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming. [A very unusual story centered on an equally odd romance between a mechanic from Idaho who is helping to build the brand new New York subway system and a princess/mathematical prodigy from the Kingdom of Toledo, which may or may not have ever existed. Edison, Tesla, and J.P. Morgan all make appearances. The novel blends a bit of urban history with colonial history mixed liberally with totally made up history from a closely parallel world, complete with sections replete with thorough footnotes to sources that might or might not exist. There's also a very vaguely described deus ex machina involving instantaneous travel through time, space, alternate universes, or possibly all of the preceding. It's a strange, confidently written novel that kept me turning the pages. As literary fiction with a touch of the fantastic cloaked as weird science, it works. As literary science fiction, it fails, mainly because it's incoherent as to the causes and effects of its central plot devices. So your level of enjoyment will probably be colored by what you're expecting to read. I was in the mood for something odd yet mainstream, so I enjoyed it. I think the faux history sections helped with that; they break up the momentum of the narration a bit, but are very cleverly done.]
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay [Another poetic, epic, and deeply engaging Kay novel, this one set in a fantastic version of the Tang Dynasty in China. It begins with the middle son of a decorated general in the midst of carrying out the task he has chosen to mourn his father's passing: burying the thousands of dead soldiers (from both sides of the conflict) left untouched for many years at an isolated mountain battlefield at the very edge of the Empire. This unusual act draws attention to him, that, combined with less dramatic events in his past and the ties of his family to the Imperial Court, changes his life, and the course of the Empire itself, irrevocably. Highly recommended.]
  • The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Williams. [An epic fantasy that mixes the modern-day with an everything and the kitchen sink compilation of mythologies, folklores, and legends. The world is about to be overwhelmed by the Dark Lord of the Dreaming. The last guardians of the old order are the only ones who can stop it, but to do so they're supposed to bring about the end of the world. As you might guess, this leads to some hesitation. Can be a little confusing at times, but has lot of interesting imagery. The way in which so many different mythological elements are blended together is intriguing. And the sense of how the passage of time and the simple human capacity to forget can erode the power of those who were once legendary.  Ends on a total cliffhanger, with the fate of the world literally in the balance. A really powerful imagination at work here.]
Nonfiction

April
Fiction

  • The War in 2020 by Ralph Peters. This book is now nearly 20 years old, so its predictions of future conflict involving a still solvent Soviet Union, a white-controlled South Africa, and a militaristic Japanese economic powerhouse all seem quite dated in some respects. In others, such as its depiction of the threat posed by the warmongering tendencies of various ethnic, nationalist, and fundamentalist Islamic factions in Central Asia, the collapse of order in Mexico, the tension between needing high-tech solutions to battlefield problems and the need for trained and dedicated soldiers to implement them, and social disruption at home, it seems eerily prescient. Not a book that glorifies combat or warfare, but one that does laud the honor and sacrifice of those who fight for their country. More nuanced and better written than much military fiction, though the female characters fall pretty flat. 
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. [Intriguing and engaging first novel, a fantasy about gods, power, and family politics. The world is ruled by a single family due to the fact that they were the chosen of the Sky God, who won a terrible war with the two other founding deities of his pantheon, killing one and enslaving the other and all his children. So this family holds its power through the simple fact that it has bound gods and demi-gods into its service. At the same time, one must be very careful how to unleash their power. A young woman whose mother, once the heir apparent, was exiled from the family for marrying beneath her station, receives a sudden summons to the Court after her mother's death and is named one of three potential heirs. The rest of the novel is her struggle to understand the true history of the god war, to survive her encounters with her relatives and the enslaved gods, and to understand her true place in the world. An understatement to say that the final transformations involved are quite dramatic.]
Nonfiction
  •  Young adult books on the Maya, Aztec, and Inca.
  • Yellow Smoke, a book on how technology and changing geopolitics have impacted the status and goals of the modern American Army. Perhaps a bit too sanguine in its assessment of how technology will supplant the fighting and killing role of ground forces, who will be transformed from primary fighters to recon units who target enemy forces for destruction by a wide array of weapons platforms operated remotely or fired from a great distance. But a lot of interesting insights into how the U.S. military system works and how it could be improved over time.
March
Fiction

  • A Gentleman's Game by Greg Rucka. [A well-paced, engrossing espionage novel based on the characters and situations from Rucka's black-and-white Queen and Country comic series. This tale is about an MI-6 Special Ops agent named Tara Chace who is given the assignment to assassinate a prominent imam with suspected ties to a terrorist attack on London. Does a good job of showing how complicated and dangerous the job can be when almost everything goes right according to the plan, because of the politics that emerge when the U.S., British, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian governments are all involved.]
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. [A Young Adult novel that deals with the very serious themes of how civil rights, technology, and national security can intersect with frightening results in the age of terrorism. I read nearly the entire book in one day on my iPod Touch. Some pretentious British jackass who teaches literature poo-pooed this book's Hugo nomination as an example of dumbed-down pap dominating the awards. But this book was very engaging.]
February [6 completed]
Fiction

  • Counting Heads by David Marusek. [See my lengthy review of this interesting but flawed science fiction novel.]
  • Mainspring by Jay Lake. [An enjoyable steampunk fantasy about a young man on a quest to repair the mainspring that turns the brass clockworks of an Earth in a literal clockwork universe. I liked the first half of the novel better than the second, and the ending was a bit mystical for my tastes, but overall it was a fun read.]
  • Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. [Not a dazzling novel, but a well-crafted and well-written story that doesn't play games with the reader or try to impress us with metaphysics. I enjoyed it and have already checked out the sequel. Longer review here.]
Nonfiction

  • Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon [Another great collection of essays about writing and fiction that filled with me wonder and envy. My reading habits and experiences with writing courses in college seem to have paralleled Chabon's very closely, but his drive and talent created light years of distance in the final result.]
  • Supercapitalism by Robert Reich [A decent look at how the growth of corporations has undermined the democratic process. Essential argument is that corporations in the global marketplace maximize benefits to consumers and investors but ignore the needs of citizens, all the while growing more involved in the political arena to the detriment of our good as a society and a democracy. Does a nice job in showing how we got to this point since World War I. Falls flat in prescriptions for change: limit corporate spending on politics (a goal nullified by the recent, obnoxious Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) and stop the legal fiction of treating corporations as individuals.]
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein [This slim volume attempts to illustrate some of the essential concepts of various philosophical thinkers through the use of jokes whose humor is based on those concepts. It's funnier than my description makes it sound. Not sure that I have a deeper grasp of philosophy, but I did laugh at a fair number of the jokes.]
January [2 completed]
Fiction
  • Lamentation by Ken Scholes [Impressive novel blending sci-fi and fantasy.]
Nonfiction
  • Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon [Great collection of essays about being a son, father, and brother.]

6 comments:

Aaron DaMommio said...

Hey, I have that Squadron Supreme in the original limited series format. I'm trying to collect the Supreme Power stuff...I have Supreme Power 1, and the hardback Vol 2 (which I bumped into for cheap at Half Price Books)...so I'm missing the intervening paper vol 2, and I've been resisting reading the hardback vol2 until I get the missing volume. ;)

Doug said...

Ooh, the original issues? That's cool. There's just no comparison between that thoughtful, idea-filled series and the melodramatic hackwork of Crisis on Infinite Earths, though they came out very close to each other.

Half Price Books . . . how I miss thee.

Aaron DaMommio said...

Thanks for updating this list, i added several of these to my to-get list.

Doug said...

I keep meaning to expand the review comments on some of the books that I liked.

Heyoka said...

I can't remember if I've mentioned how happy I am you enjoyed Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but I am! It was the first ebook I bought, because I'd been hearing so much pre-release buzz, and had been rather impressed by some of her blog posts during Racefail last year. And I was not disappointed!

I happened to come across a listing for Under Heaven the day before you posted this! Wasn't sure about it, but your review is encouraging. Annoyed that it's harder to find in electronic format, though. Such is life.

Doug said...

I picked up Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on a whim from the New Books shelf at the library (which is also how I got The Kingdom of Ohio) and was pleasantly surprised. She drew her characters well and had a very readable style.

Under Heaven is certainly worth a read in hardcopy or electronic format.