Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Books Read in 2011 - Part 1

I read.  A lot.  It's what I do.  And since I started this blog, I've been keeping track of the books that have kept me company during the year. 

It's been quite a year.

The first time I posted one of these lists I wondered if anyone would even bother to read it.  There have been four of these posts so far (last year's being split into three parts), and at one point all four were in the top ten all time most viewed posts for this blog.  Which I suppose means that I should keep doing this.  Or write more interesting stuff for my other posts.  Whatever.

So while I work getting the story of our holidays written down, here are the latest books.


Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)

I'd read this before, but Lauren gave me a new copy as a birthday present, so I read it again - and it was worth it. Richard Mayhew stops one night to help a stranger and finds himself thrust into the world of London Below - a parallel city inhabited by the people and objects that have fallen through the cracks of London above. On one level a fantasy, on another a romance, on still another an existential novel of abject horror, it is a story full of memorable characters and fascinating ideas and one that heartily rewards a second reading.

The Half-Made World (Felix Gilman)

This is a Western gone mad. A psychologist from a vaguely European Old World heads out to a west even more vaguely reminiscent of the 19th-century American frontier to visit a mental hospital there and gets caught up in the ongoing war between the Line (an industrial culture centered on conformity and railroads, as best I could tell) and the Agents of the Gun, who serve spirits embodied as weapons. There are also First Folk, roughly analogous to Native Americans in some ways, and the whole thing centers on whether anyone can retrieve the idea of a weapon from the ruined mind of a general. This summary doesn’t begin to capture the odd angles, deeply thought-out worldbuilding and rich characters of the book, though. Gilman left room for a sequel, and I’ll look for it.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 (John Scalzi)

I first ran across John Scalzi’s blog “Whatever” in 2007, following a link to his description of a visit to the Creationism Museum – a description that had me laughing out loud for days. And then, being a true nerd, I went back through his archives (which were all available then) and read his entire blog, in order – a monumental task that was well worth the time. This is his “greatest hits” collection, though by his definition rather than anyone else’s. Oh, the big ones are here – the Creationism museum tour, “I Hate Your Politics,” “Being Poor,” and so on. But there are a great many others that are just there because he liked them. They’re all worth reading, even if you – like me – have already read them before.

Smile (Raina Telgemeier)

Raina is a sixth-grader with all of the usual woes and concerns that come with that description, plus one more – she has accidentally knocked out her two front teeth. The rest of this YA graphic novel follows her dental work and middle-school years as she learns to accept herself and find friends who will as well. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age story, one that has the grace to end on a realistic rather than triumphant note. Lauren very much wanted me to read this one, as it is one of her favorites.

The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse (Martin Greenberg, ed.)

An uneven collection of stories about different facets of the end of the world, as advertised. What wasn’t advertised was how much overlap this collection has with Beyond Armageddon, a different collection Greenberg edited in 1985 that shared about a quarter of the material. So the collection was interesting, but still somewhat of a disappointment.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I (Samuel Clemens, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al).

I can see why this book has caused such controversy. It isn’t necessarily because of anything Clemens said – he offers a great many opinions and reminiscences, some of them heartbreaking, some of them stinging, all of them interesting, but about issues and people long gone and ideas long forgotten – but because of the way it was packaged and sold. This is not a popular book of the sort that one sits down and reads all the way through. It is an academic monograph, complete with textual analysis, endnotes, and a fair bit of partisan sniping by the current editor against previous editors of Mark Twain’s writings. When the editors let Twain have his say, it’s a fascinating window into this country’s most original and emblematic writer, but far too often Twain is obscured by the academic apparatus.

The Unadulterated Cat (Terry Pratchett)

A thin, slight book by one of my favorite authors, mostly about the difference between Real Cats and, presumably, unreal cats. It’s funny, in the way that Pratchett’s books are – my favorite line in it was “Cats make ideal time travelers because they can’t handle guns.” - and it is clearly something that non-cat-owners can skip without remorse, but it was a pleasant diversion on a grey February day.

The Fuller Memorandum (Charles Stross)

Charles Stross missed a great opportunity when he named this series “The Laundry Files” rather than “The Laundry Cycle.” The Laundry is a branch of British intelligence tasked with defending the Realm (and, by extension, the rest of us) from invasion by aliens, gods, spirits, demons, and things even harder to define or describe. Bob Howard – computational demonologist – is here, in this third installment of the series, faced with all manner of threats to his immortal soul, things that make him wish he could retain the “standard British atheism” he came into the Laundry with. He is here put through the wringer, and whether the ending is happy or not is a matter of opinion. After a somewhat disappointing second book (The Jennifer Morgue), Stross has returned to the level of The Atrocity Archives and perhaps even surpassed it. Now I want a NecronomiPod too.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Michael Chabon)

When a junkie is murdered in a flophouse hotel, of course it’s the task of the world-weary down and out detective to piece it all together. But this is the Sitka District – a chunk of Alaska set aside for the world’s Jews in the wake of the collapse of Israel in 1948 and soon to revert back to American control – and that was no ordinary junkie. Detective Landsman, his half-Jewish/half-Tlingit partner, and his ex-wife commander all work to make the pieces fit together, in a might-have-been world of Yiddish community that sounded awfully familiar to someone who grew up in an area where the public schools had Rosh Hashanah off. Well written, atmospheric, occasionally funny, and deeply fatalistic, this was a story of lost potential and redemptive – well, not love, perhaps, but close enough.

The Dark Side of the Sun (Terry Pratchett)

Another of Pratchett’s early works, and it shows. This is an oddly philosophical space opera, one that includes a sentient planet, a vanished race of interstellar elders, a reluctant hero and a lot of speculation about how these things all fit together. An interesting book, but definitely one that suffers by comparison with his later stuff.

Everything Is Going To Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour (Rachel Shukert)

I once read an impassioned plea by a New York Times book reviewer to have the entire memoir genre declared off-limits to ordinary people and held in reserve for those who have done great things. And to him I direct a heartfelt raspberry. The stories of ordinary people, if told well, can be fascinating. This one is told well, though at times you do just want to smack her with a dead fish and tell her to stop being such a fool. Adrift in Europe after graduating from drama school, our heroine finds friendship, casual sex and disastrous relationships in equal measure and writes about it all with a disarming and alarming candor.

Voyage of the Shadowmoon (Sean McMullen)

When a vastly powerful weapon set off by a scheming warlord goes horribly wrong, it sets off a vast tapestry of high adventure and low comedy involving kings, generals, sea captains, spies, priestesses and the Moonworlds’ only vampyre, an exile from a far distant and quasi-mythical place called Earth. With sharply drawn characters set against a fully-realized world, full of intrigue, battle, love and a fair amount of screwball-comedy repartee, this is a marvelous book even on the second read-through.

Glass Dragons (Sean McMullen)

The further adventures of the Moonworlds, which remain a place of intrigue, adventure and comedy. Set some months after the events of Voyage of the Shadowmoon, this volume introduces some new characters to the mix and sends them off in several different directions, all to combat the threat of the Dragonwall – a sorceric device that gathers energy from throughout the world but can be tapped by anyone for any reason. That’s not good. McMullen writes intricate plots and peoples them with three-dimensional characters that you grow to like as friends, and thus we move on to the next in the series.

Voidfarer (Sean McMullen)

Continuing McMullen’s habit of taking minor characters from previous books and building stories around them, this one focuses on Inspector Danolarian of the Wayfarer Constables and his two subordinates – Constable Riellen, whose quasi-Marxist rants are meant to convert the monarchies of the Moonworld to “electocracy,” and Constable Wallas, formerly a royal musician and currently a large talking black cat. Somehow McMullen wedges these characters and their world into a retelling of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, as invaders from another of the Moonworlds try to conquer Verral. Adventure and comedy ensue.

The Time Engine (Sean McMullen)

Not so much a continuation of the previous book as a story set during the same time with many of the same characters, this time-travel story has Inspector Danolarian and Constable Wallas thrown forward thousands of years and then backwards millions, all the while trying to resolve events in his own time. An interesting meditation on causality and humanity that still retains enough of McMullen’s humor and adventure to make it fun.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud)

Bartimaeus is a djinni – a spirit from the Other Place, and a sarcastic one at that. He’s been around for millennia, has seen empires come and go, and has no particular love of the humans who enslave him and his kind for their magical power. Nathaniel is an apprentice magician, 11 years old and full of the snotty emotional baggage that comes both with his age and the treatment he receives from his master. He lives in an alternate Britain where magicians rule and spirits serve. When Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus and commands him to play a role in an adolescent revenge fantasy, nothing good can come of it. Except the book itself, which is a lot of fun.

In Your Dreams (Tom Holt)

Paul and Sophie survived their adventures in The Portable Door and continue to work at the London firm of J.W. Wells & Co., purveyors of sorcery and magic. When Sophie dumps him to take a position in the Hollywood office, Paul ends up staffing the Hero division of the firm – a job that gets him into all sorts of trouble. Witty, fantastical, and oddly bittersweet, it makes me look forward to tracking down the next volume in this series.

The City & the City (China Mieville)

Nobody does weird like China Mieville, and while this is far more straightforward than Perdido Street Station, it still inhabits that odd zone where the bizarre is normal. In some ways this is a simple noir-ish police procedural about the murder of a young woman. The sticking point is that this crime happens in Beszel, a city that shares physical space (but not legal or social space) with the city of Ul Qoma. The cities overlap, in other words, with some spaces being entirely in one or the other city and some spaces being “crosshatched” areas where the two bleed into each other. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad has to figure out the machinations behind the murder in both Beszel and Ul Qoma, all while trying to avoid Breach – the fearsome enforcers who ensure that the two cites remain separate. Natives of the cities learn to “unsee” the intrusions of the other city into theirs, and this line must be maintained. As with any noir, nothing is as it seems.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Golem’s Eye (Jonathan Stroud)

A couple of years after the events of The Amulet of Samarkand and things are not going well in magical London. Nathaniel has been promoted but his new boss is more than happy to sacrifice him to her rivals. Bartimaeus is back and unhappy about it. And the Resistance is causing chaos. With Nathaniel and Bartimaeus trying to get to the bottom of it all and Kitty, a foot soldier in the Resistance, trying to keep things stirred up – not to mention further trouble from other quarters – the situation is grim. Stroud does a nice job of keeping his world full of greys and nuances rather than stark black and white choices between good and evil, and the series benefits from this.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Ptolemy’s Gate (Jonathan Stroud)

Moving forward a couple of years further in the lives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and Kitty, and magical London is in even worse shape than before. Nathaniel has become an important minister in a failing government. Bartimaeus is a wisp of his former self. Kitty is in hiding. And when it all falls to pieces around them, they will have to depend on each other to survive. A satisfying conclusion to an unexpectedly dark and thoughtful series, one that follows the story where it needs to go rather than where you’d expect it to go and that gives to each of its main characters a depth unusual in works of this kind.


Random Michelle K said...

Weirdly, as much as I love Neil Gaiman, and have read all his other books multiple times, I have not read "Neverwhere" I own a copy. I just haven't brought myself to read it.

Yiddish Policeman's Union is another book I have but have not read. Prob because I have it in hard back.

I really love The Bartimaeus Trilogy. The first book is one I've given some of the young people in my life, and I can't wait until the rest get older, so I can give 'em this too.

Got any recommendations for reluctant young readers? Got a 7 year old niece that just just doesn't read (but her older brother is an avid reader.) Last gifts were A Cricket in Times Square and Bunnincula.

Also: I LOVE BOOKS! (That is all.)

David said...

Well, you should read those!

A friend of mine recommended Bartimaeus last year – even sent me the first book – and I really enjoyed it, though I’m not sure why. The only character in the whole series that was remotely likeable was Kitty. And yet when I heard that there was a fourth book out now, it immediately went on my To-Read list. I suppose that's a sign of good writing.

When Lauren was that age she enjoyed Junie B. Jones (I was sorry when she outgrew that series). She also loved anything along the lines of Ripley’s or the Guinness Book of Records or similar compilations of short oddities. The Babymouse series was also a favorite – Lauren loves graphic novels and that series is pitched about that level. Lauren also loved the Magic Treehouse series, for reasons that escaped me.

Tabitha recommends Garfield – which, actually, is probably not a bad idea. Reading is reading, and if you have to be sneaky and start with comics, so be it. :)

Random Michelle K said...

Babymouse is added to future gift possibilities.

She most likely has access to Junie B Jones at school--I try to find books that they are unlikely to get elsewhere.

Which reminds me: The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai Francois Place

I've given this book out lots--got it for myself and loved it. No idea if young people like it, but I adore it.

David said...

I will have to look for that one!

If you're interested in great books that are not often found in this country, look for Sven Nordqvist's Findus & Pettson books (which, I am happy to note, are mostly available at Amazon now, at reasonable prices! This is new...) They are some of my favorite kids books - they have exuberant illustrations, interesting characters, and a sense of melancholy and mischief mixed together.

Get the ones that say Findus & Pettson - some earlier translations call them Mercury & Festus for some reason.

I don't know if a 7-year-old would read them or if you'd have to read them to her - they're right on the borderline - but they are wonderful.

Random Michelle K said...

Oooh! I'll check those out.

And I have book recipients the full age range: 1 year to (gulp) teenagers.

(How do my friends have teenagers?! [Nevermind all my friends got married late, so it's not like we shouldn't already have college-aged kids...)

David said...

I'm trying not to think about the fact that this time next year I'll have a teenager in my house as well. It is most strange.

Somewhere you'll find a good recipient for the Nordqvist books. My favorites:

1. The Fox Hunt (which seems to have a new title with the new translation)

2. The Birthday Cake (sometimes with the word Pancakes in the title)

3. Poor Pettson (Kim had to translate this one herself).

But they're all good.

Actually, he has another one called The Hat Hunt that has other characters, but is so marvelously bittersweet and mischievous that I still read it even after the girls moved on. I sense a blog post coming on... :)