Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012: What your blogger read

     Another year has passed, and entertainment writers will be compiling best-of and worst-of lists in all sorts of categories, including books.
     As I've posted before, I can't attest to the actual best and worst, since I've read only a small subsection of all the books published in the past year, and I haven't confined my reading to books written in the past year. Maybe none of you care, but I find it helpful to examine what I read, what I liked, and what disappointed me.
     First, here's what I read:

     The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder (Burton & Swinburne No. 2)
     Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
     The Night Eternal by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (The Strain No. 3)
     Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
     Pronto by Elmore Leonard (Raylan Givens No. 1)
     The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (Unincorporated Future No. 1)
     Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel
     Timeless by Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate No. 5)
     The Mirage by Matt Ruff
     Steampunk Poe by Edgar Allan Poe and Zdenko Basic
     The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy)
     The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
     The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
     Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles by Kim Newman
     Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
     Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences No. 1)
     The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences No. 2)
     The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
     The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter: A Steampunk's Shakespeare Anthology, edited by Matt Delman and Jaymee Goh 
     Me the People by Kevin Bleyer
     Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch (Peter Grant No. 3)
     Hit and Run by Lawrence Block (Keller No. 4)
     Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
     A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison
     Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
     Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank
     The Annotated Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift and Isaac Asimov
     Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
     The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn
     A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Barsoom No. 1)
     Jumper by Steven Gould (Jumper No. 1)

     That's 33 books, one more than I read last year. About half are series novels (the series identified in parentheses following the title and author). About three fourths are science fiction or fantasy; one-fourth are steampunk. Slightly less than a fifth are nonfiction.
     Looking back, I realize it has been a disappointing list in that there are few books about which I was very enthusiastic. I liked the vast majority of them,  but I don't know that I loved any of them. There were some to which I was looking forward, but which failed to approach my expectations.

     It was a bad year for steampunk in particular.
     Mark Hodder's second volume in the alternate history adventures of Sir Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne lacked all of the virtues I found in the first volume. (A third volume has now been published, which looks like it exacerbates all of the sins of the second, so I don't think I'll give it a try.)
     Then the Steampunk Shakespeare anthology, which sounded so promising (even though they rejected my submission!) turned out to be mostly a failure, both in terms of the success of merging its subjects (brass and Bard) and in marketing; no one besides me seems to have heard of it, let alone read it.
     A Map of Time seemed like sort-of steampunk, but may not even be science fiction, and The Bookman just didn't seem to gel. Steampunk Poe could have benefited from a better selection of Poe's tales to illustrate.
     Also, I read or re-read a couple of proto-steampunk novels, Morlock Night and A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, but found them more interesting than enjoyable.
     And Gail Carriger ended her "Parasol Protectorate" series with a whimper, not a bang. While five books is more than enough to tell a compelling saga, Carriger seems to have arbitrarily decided on that number. Many unanswered questions remain (some possibly to be revealed in a prequel series about the lead character's father).
     Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris' first two "Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences" series were a bit more engaging with their X-Files/Fringe Division-type government agency in the 19th century, but they're a bit long for the plots, adding complications to prolong them. Still, I'd probably read a third volume.

     Other science fiction was more to my liking. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, while not a breakthrough concept, was more than competently plotted and written. I read them virtually back-to-back and the pace never flagged. I wanted to know what happened next.
     The Unincorporated Man also impressed me with its Libertarian economic future, harkening back to the best Robert Heinlein and even to Ayn Rand, though I was disappointed to see that volume two in the series seems more action-oriented, less intellectual, and so I passed on it. Volumes three and four are now out, so I may relent and see how it ends.
     The most pleasant surprise may have been the most recent book I've completed: Jumper. It's the first book of a series about people who can teleport. Again, this is not a new concept, as the author states in an afterword (it's most well-known antecedent is Alfred Bester's Tiger, Tiger or The Stars My Destination, but a more recent series using the concept was Kevin O'Donnell Jr.'s Journeys of McGill Feighan series, long out-of-print), but it's well-developed. The reason I say "surprised" is because I first saw a film version of the book that went its own way beyond the initial concept. In the film, the "jumper" lives the good life via a life of crime once he discovers his ability to teleport, until he discovers there's an organization of anti-jumpers who want him stopped not for his crimes but for his abilities. In the book, he commits one robbery because he is a runaway (his father abused him) and he can't earn money legally (underage, no social security card, no i.d., no birth certificate), then goes about educating himself, leading a relatively quiet life until a terrorist act prompts him to use his ability to stop terrorists. This then brings him to the attention of government agents.

     Although nonfiction was a relatively small part of my reading list this year, it was also a highlight. Vive la Revolution and The Last Gunfight retold history in an entertaining way and with a viewpoint. Time Traveler's Guide went into a little too much detail at times, but should be required reading for any writer attempting a novel set in medieval England. And while Me the People sometimes went astray with its conceit of the author writing a new Constitution, the history about the writing of the actual U.S. Constitution was enlightening and should be required reading for all of Congress.
     The most fun I had reading a book may have been Moriarty: Hound of the D'Urbervilles, which I reviewed at length. The idea of a fleshed out account of the Moriarty-Moran relationship akin to that of Holmes-Watson, paralleling and parodying the Holmes canon and incorporating cross-literary references from Zane Grey to Thomas Hardy (as well as cinema) was amusing and well-executed. Unfortunately, I seem to be the target audience for this sort of whimsy, so I don't know if there are enough others to warrant a sequel or similar books, alas. It's much more entertaining and true to the canon than most of the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes titles.

    So, what did you read last year? Tell me about it.


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