Thursday, December 29, 2011

A look back, part 2: The Best?

     When 10-best lists come out at the end of each year, and some of my favorites aren't included, I wonder if the critic (and if you're declaring something the best or the worst, you are by definition a critic) had read them. How can you declare something the best if you haven't actually read everything?
     Also, unless you confine yourself to reading only books published within the last year, probably some of your "best" will be from past years.
     So I can't compile a "best" list. I can only compile a "favorite" list. Of the 32 books I read this year, in no particular order, these were some of my favorites (some of which I’ve already reviewed in earlier posts):

Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm
The Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
     I’ve already reviewed “Zanesville” at length (see zanesville). I’ve written about the other two, (see midnight riot 1midnight riot 2 and dragon tattoo), but not reviews as such.
     “The Rivers of London” was published in the U.S. as “Midnight Riot,” but I greatly prefer the original title. The fantasy novel, the first in an ongoing series, involves Peter Grant, a young mixed race London police officer who is recruited into a special department investigating supernatural crimes. The main crime is a ghost that possesses people, first making them kill other people, then twisting their own face into an approximation of the character Punch. Since the human skull is not designed to accommodate this shape, they quickly bleed to death. Grant has an old-school sorcerer superior, but Grant finds ways to use science to help explain and enhance his magic. The original title refers to anthropomorphic embodiments of the rivers who are tangential to the main plot, but who are integral parts of the book. They may play a bigger part in future books. Book three is due out in 2012.
     I saw the Swedish film version of “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo” before reading the book, and I haven’t seen the American version yet. Sometimes the book is so much better than the movie, or vice-versa, that fans of one can’t bear the other. In this case, I’d say it’s a draw. The film was faster paced, the book more detailed, but I enjoyed them both about equally. Of course, as a journalist, I’m interested in a book with a journalist hero. If you don’t know the plot, it involves a disgraced journalist and a damaged computer-hacking young woman investigating the disappearance and presumed murder of a young woman several decades earlier. This soon leads to the discovery that a serial killer of young women has been at large for at least that long, and may still be active. Not the most original plot, but the characterizations are compelling and the tension is palpable. Not for the squeamish.

 Steampunk’d, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (see spring heeled)
The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers (see steampunk bible)
Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers (see gaslight)
     I’ve already written full posts about the last three, but I read “Steampunk’d” before I started this blog. It’s an original anthology of steampunk short stories of varying quality, but overall very good. The story that particularly sticks with me is “Scourge of the Spoils” by Matthew P. Mayo, a steampunk Western, with several entertaining twists.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson (see shakespeare)
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (see wordy)
The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur (see history)
Thunderstruck by Eric Larson
     Again, I’ve already reviewed three of these. The fourth, “Thunderstruck,” conflates Marconi’s development of the telegraph with the events leading up to the disappearance and presumed murder of Dr. Crippen’s wife (although evidence uncovered since the book was written calls both Crippen's guilt and his wife’s death into doubt). The hook is that Crippen was caught due to Marconi’s telegraph while on a ship bound for North America. It’s not always a compelling link, but the separate stories were interesting enough to keep me reading. 

     That’s my top 11. Any favorites of your own you’d like to mention? Let me know.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A look back

   For the past 10 years or so, I've been keeping a journal of all the books I've read in the previous 12 months. Here's what I've read since January 2011:

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, edited by Ann and Jeff Vendermeer
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Horns by Joe Hill
Steampunk’d, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan Forward
The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur
The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers
Zanesville by Kris Saknussemm
Clementine: A Novel of the Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
The Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
Thunderstruck by Eric Larson
Moon over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
Heartless (Parasol Protectorate Book IV) by Gail Carriger
Sherlock Holmes: The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Richard L. Boyer
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Sherlock Holmes: The Peerless Peer by Philip Jose Farmer
The City & The City by China Mieville
Great Tales from English History, Vol. 3 by Robert Lacey
The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years by Ted Riccardi
Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan Forward
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
The Fall: The Strain Trilogy, Vol. 2 by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Hot & Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers

   By my count, that’s 32 books, which is the best I've done since I started keeping track. Eight of them are undeniably steampunk related. Eight or nine are nonfiction (one is nonfiction about steampunk), of which three are by Sarah Vowell. All the fiction contains either a mystery and/or an element of the fantastic, of which three are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. A few of them I have reviewed on this blog.
   I only consider three or four of them to have been a complete waste of time. Hot & Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance, turned out to be more for the romance novel fan than the science fiction fan even though it was compiled by the same editors and written by some of the same writers as Steampunk’d, which I throughly enjoyed. Clementine was a sequel of sorts to a steampunk novel I didn't like, but the book was available at the library so I thought I'd give the author another chance. I won't bother trying again. I've already reviewed Sherlock Holmes: The Giant Rat of Sumatra and listed its shortcomings. I might add The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes to that worthless list because, although I admired the concept of the book ~ following Holmes' adventures after the world believed him dead at Moriarty's hands ~ they weren't in keeping with his character and behavior in Doyle's stories and they weren't sufficiently interesting on their own.
   My favorite titles are harder to decide. Maybe I'll save them for another post.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Variations on 'A Christmas Carol'

     This is supposed to be a blog about books, but Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a book, so I’m going to use that as a loophole to mention my favorite telefilms inspired by the book, plus one or two other pieces of nontraditional Christmas entertainment.  
     First is a British program of which my wife and I seem to be the only local fans. In fact, she says I’m the only person she ever met who even knew of its existence: “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” (1988). It was a special show featuring the cast and characters of several related British historical comedies involving a despicable man named Edmund Blackadder. The series starred Rowan Atkinson (best known on this side of the Atlantic for his “Mr. Bean” character and as the novice vicar who mangles the second wedding ceremony in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) in different historical periods, including a nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and the man servant of Prince Regent George IV. In these series he is conniving, duplicitous and only out for himself.
     In “Christmas Carol” he plays Ebenezer Blackadder, the kindest man in all of Queen Victoria’s England, who is taken advantage of by everyone he knows or meets. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by a ghost (Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” films) who thanks him for being the only decent Blackadder ever to have lived, and then makes the mistake of showing him visions of his ancestors at Christmas. Ebenezer Blackadder is surprised to discover that being evil can pay off. He further discovers, due to another unfortunate vision from the ghost, that if he were to become evil, his distant descendant would end up ruling the universe. The next morning, Blackadder has become as wicked as his ancestors, although the conversion proves to be ill-timed. (Look for the episode for more details; it’s included on the “Blackadder III” DVD.)

     “A Very Sunny Christmas” (2009), a special episode of the FX series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” also borrows some of the “Christmas Carol” format. Dennis and Deandra Reynolds try to finally get some Christmas presents from their father, Frank (he’s always bought himself presents at Christmas and flaunted them in front of his children) by enlisting Frank’s old business partner (who Frank cheated out of his half of the business) to pose as a sort of ghost of Marley. Then Frank tries to shoot him, and the partner says he holds no grudge against Frank. The plan eventually seems to work, but complications ensue. (In a parallel plot, the series’ other two regulars, Mac and Charlie, compare their families’ Christmas traditions, and realize that things were not really as they remembered.) It’s available on DVD or Blu-ray.

      Then there was an obscure anthology show called “George Burns Comedy Week” which included “Christmas Carol II: The Sequel,” a followup to Dickens’ story one year later. Scrooge (who I thought was played by James Whitmore but who isn’t listed in the IMDB credits) is now being taken advantage of by everyone, including Bob Cratchet. The ghosts visit him again to tell him there is a middle ground between being a miser and being foolishly generous. To my knowledge, this is not currently available anywhere. Maybe it will pop up on one those extra digital channels you only get with the Digital-to-Analog TV Converter Box; they seem to show a lot of otherwise unavailable old TV programming.

     While it’s not "Christmas Carol"-derived, I have to mention “Saturday Night Live - The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse” (2008),  which includes a bunch of Robert Smigel Christmas parodies, including variations on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Rankin/Bass (“The Narrator That Ruined Christmas,” “Santa and the States” and Darlene Love singing “Christmastime for the Jews”), as well as Christmas-themed episodes of “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” and the “Harlem Globetrotters” cartoon.

     Finally, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials” includes Joel and the ’bots commenting on the classic bad film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (Pia Zadora’s first film!), plus the inspiring “Road House”-inspired song “A Patrick Swayze Christmas.”

     Do you have any nontraditional Christmas favorites? Let me know.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: 'Ghosts by Gaslight'

‘Ghosts by Gaslight:
Stories of Steampunk
and Supernatural Suspense’
Edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers
Harper Voyager, $14.99

     Yes, it’s another post on semi-steampunkery. I apologize. But this blog is meant to be my thoughts on books, and the books I’m thinking of and am qualified to comment upon are those I’m reading. I refuse to read Charlaine Harris or Stephen King just so I can write about them. Currently I’m reading a lot of steampunk: vaguely Victorian science fiction with its own idiosyncratic technology and alternate history.
     What does and doesn’t qualify as steampunk is a matter of opinion, sometimes of contention. As I’ve mentioned before, many novels marketed as steampunk include a supernatural element. Cherie Priest’s “Clockwork Century” books have flesh-eating zombies. Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” books feature vampires and werewolves. As the title suggests, “Ghosts by Gaslight” focuses on ghosts and ghostly phenomenon, which makes more sense than zombies, vampires and shapeshifters because the Victorian Age was the heyday of spiritualism, i.e. table-tipping and speaking with the dead.
     In general I prefer my steampunk without the supernatural, but I’m not dogmatic. I dislike Priest, but not solely because of her hungry corpses. Priest’s zombies are created by some unknown gas released as the result of a steampunk machine drilling into the ground. It seems a one-off; the zombies are confined to one walled city, and I don’t believe there are any other instances of a similar gas or zombie infestation elsewhere. Carriger, by contrast, has integrated her vampires and werewolves as full and open citizens of the British Empire. The werewolves are fierce and valued soldiers. The vampires are politicians and counsels. And that they exist may be the what-if element that caused steampunk science to thrive.
     Since the title “Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense” spells out that there will be not only ghosts but supernatural elements in these tales, if you are firmly opposed to that, you needn’t purchase the book.
     One such reviewer on bought the book ~ or at least read it ~ anyway, and gave it a poor review because of it. Nick Gevers, one of the book’s editors, commented on that poor review, pointing out that some of the seminal steampunk books contained supernatural elements, notably “The Anubis Gates” by Tim Powers. 
     (Still, professional writers and editors shouldn’t feud with readers online; it seems petty and isn’t necessary. The misspellings in the reviewer’s comments are enough to discredit him.)
     I chose to purchase the book anyway for several reasons:
1.              1.  Nick Gevers edited “Extraordinary Engines,” the anthology that reintroduced me to steampunk and introduced me to several new steampunk authors, some of whom are in this anthology as well.
2.              2.  The Table of Contents included several other favorite writers, including James Morrow, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg and Lucius Shepard.
3.              3.  I like supernatural fiction, too.
     Overall, I enjoyed the book, though I sometimes see the obnoxious Amazon reviewer’s point that some of the stories have plenty of supernatural, but little or no science, steam-driven or otherwise.
     What really annoyed me about a couple of the stories was that that they were too obvious. The Silverberg tale in particular, “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar,” irked me, containing elements of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” and James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon,” but with nothing of significance new to add. The writing style, and length, did nothing to mitigate against the lack of originality.
     But there are more winners than losers. “Christopher Raven” by Theodora Goss was a typical ghost story, no extraneous science at all, but not painful to read. “The Grave Reflection” by Marly Youmans, featuring Nathaniel Hawthorne as a character, was a little long-winded, in the Hawthorne style, but more rewarding.
     My favorite story in the anthology was probably the first, “The Iron Shroud” by James Morrow. It does involve ghosts of a sort, but also a couple pieces of steampunk science: an unbreakable substance that can be used to capture spirits as they depart the body, enclosing them in a malleable armor, giving them form and an afterlife on earth as “golems”; and the “science” of vibratology by which the golems’ spirits might be freed. It neatly mixes the supernatural and scientific.
     I also greatly enjoyed "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder As Experienced by Sir Magnus Holmes and Almost-Doctor Susan Shrike" by Garth Nix. The Victorian Age was also the time of Sherlock Holmes, and this story introduces a cousin of Holmes who investigates supernatural crimes. Sequels (or a novel) seem, planned, and I look forward to them.
     And “Rose Street Attractors” by Lucius Shepard addresses a not-very-often considered aspect of steam punk technology: the vastlv increased amounts of soot from all the coal-burning required to power that technology. A scientist’s device for capturing that soot also attracts things ghostly, including his late sister.