5.03.2012

First Quarter Reading List – A Year Begins, I’m already Late For It

So January was here, and then it left very quickly again, and then February, and then March. And then, more than a week into April, I still hadn’t made good on my promise to start posting more frequently so I started writing this thing. In the interest of providing content, here are some thoughts on the things that I’ve read since the year began.

January:
Books - Jan 2012
There are occasional, glorious months where you seem to do nothing but read…
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (Tor, 2005) 320 pp.
And just like that I’ve jumped onboard with the John Scalzi fan brigade. Old Man’s War is wonderfully pulp science fiction with fun, memorable characters, an engaging and well constructed world, and a great hook. All in all it reads like Starship Troopers with significantly less of Heinlein’s jingoism and craziness, and characters who are people rather than constructs designed to promote political ideas. There’s nothing hugely original in the content or where it goes, but that never matters so much when it is so well written.
Winter Song, Colin Harvey (Angry Robot, 2010) 432 pp.
Winter Song is rather in the same vein as Old Man’s War (pulpy sci-fi space adventure just like mother used to make) but is significantly, well, lesser in most categories. Like Old Man’s War, it doesn’t really break any new ground, but it has a sort of flat effortlessness to it that is at odds with the harsh reality that it wants to project. Where it really shines is in the way that the characters grow and interact, and in some of its grander, less explored ideas (the ideological conflict between different schools of colonist could make a hell of a book in itself). On the whole, though, it has proven fairly forgettable.
The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie (Orbit, 2011) 560 pp.
Perhaps Abercrombie’s most self-contained and complete feeling book to date. There’s not a whole lot to this one in terms of the grand story—there’s another war on between the Northmen and the Union, and we’ve come down to the final, grotesque three day battle—but oh my god is there ever some meat on its bones. Over the course of the novel, the lines of battle change repeatedly as the sides are locked in stale-mate and a near-endless supply of fantastically realized and fun characters are trotted out to live and die and grow and rail against the inherent stupidity of the conflict. It’s kind of an amazing piece of work, even coming from a writer who has so readily proven himself at this early point in his career.
15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, L. Douglas Keeney (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) 384 pp.
Cold War/Atomic Era history has been of huge interest to me since I first played Fallout back in 1997. The juxtaposition of incredible optimism and deep, abiding paranoia is perfectly American, and somehow strangely beautiful. Keeney’s history of that period, told from the perspective of both the Strategic Air Command and the birth of deep-sea drilling, comes across as both incredibly comprehensive, and thoroughly researched. And while it is an interesting work, it suffers from a sort of repetitive dryness that makes it difficult to read for long. It’s good, but I’m not sure that--if I weren’t interested in the time period--I would be willing to keep reading this one.
Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden (Bantam Spectra, 2007) 304 pp.
This one has been sitting on my shelf for next to forever. I remember making a fuss about its release on a podcast that I was a part of back in 2007, but I like to carry my books with me and somehow I never found the time or inclination to carry an over-sized, illustrated hardcover novel around with me for a week.
Baltimore, though. Jeez. It’s a hell of a thing. A retelling of a Hans Christian Anderson poem, a sprawling piece of supernatural, WWI-era revisionist history…it’s a pretty serious piece of work. It is very much in the vein of the great horror novels like Frankenstein and Dracula, and has much of the same tone and pacing. As a result, it reads a little cord and distant but there is a fantastic slow-burn of rising dread from beginning to end. Mignola’s illustrations are lovely, as well, and he and Golden recently released a second collaboration that looks to be more heavily pulp in look and tone.
B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, Volume 2 – Gods and Monsters, Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, & Tyler Crook (Dark Horse Books, 2012) 144 pp.
This one seems a little uneven. Of the two stories within, Gods is a little bit more in keeping with recent B.P.R.D. The book has moved on in single issues, but at this point the writers are still in sort of a transitional phase as the book moves into its Hell on Earth cycle. The story told here is interesting, and neatly illustrates some of the emergent aspects of this new world with it’s normal population being forced to deal with an increasingly prevalent and aggressive supernatural presence. There’s not a whole lot of new character work, and the story is relatively self-contained, but it does open up some dreadfully interesting paths to be walked down later.
Monsters, on the other hand, has some big character moments for the ever-reliable Liz Sherman and some great, small action coupled with a little bit of gross-out gore. This is also the first foray into the series by artist Tyler Crook…which is perhaps why I have as much of a problem with it as I do. Guy Davis’s incredible art on the series since it made its shift into a more heavily serialized format has become such a tremendously vital part of the book for me, and there is bound to be some kick-back against anyone who comes in to replace him. Beyond that, though, there is a strangeness to this story that I think works against it a little bit. We haven’t seen Liz in quite a while, so any story that brings her back is going to have to work double-time to show us where she’s been and where she is now emotionally, and in the end—without giving anything away—I’m not sure that this introduction earned the deep, implied darkness of her journey.
The Walking Dead, Volume 15 – We Find Ourselves, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, & Cliff Rathburn (Image Comics, 2012) 132 pp.
We Find Ourselves, on the other hand, is almost the definition or earned character beats and development. The Walking Dead has been running for long enough now that it has a certain cadence to its pacing; there are a couple of books of larger action and the introduction of disposable characters, and then after things come to a climax there’s a book of denouement and subtler, more personal horrors. This is one of those books, and it works very well.
RASL, Volume 2 – The Fire of St. George, Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books, 2010) 112 pp.
Jeff Smith continues to build his rapidly expanding RASL world, this time delving some into the history of our protagonist and the technology/government project that birthed his inter-dimensional sojourn. Consistently clever characters, plot reveals, and some beautiful art make for the sort of breathless comics reading that Smith excelled at so beautifully in Bone.

February & March
Books - Feb & March 2012
…And then there are months where you just barely read at all.
Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight, Chris Onstad (Dark Horse Books, 2008) 104 pp.
Still the greatest of Achewood stories. I ordered this one last year during Onstad’s prolonged hiatus-thing and have read and re-read it several times since. The pacing is still amazing, the way that the prologue flows into the main plot is still hilarious, and the edition that Dark Horse put together is really lovely and features some fantastic extras. If you want to give the story a read for free, you can get it on the Achewood website here.
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam Spectra, 1993) 519 pp.
Maybe the greatest novel about colonization ever written. Robinson’s science is, as per usual, outstandingly drawn and presented, his characters are varied and wonderful, and the story being told is both massive and timeless. It is, as I described it the other day, a wonderfully written science textbook that somehow has an equally wonderful plot attached.
Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi – Apocalypse, Troy Denning (DelRey/Ballantine, 2012) 496 pp.
I’ve never really given credence to the claim that Denning is a “bloodthirsty” author. He tends to play things a little harder, morally speaking, in his Star Wars entries, and his violence is often more pronounced, but this time out I have to admit that I saw some of what everyone complains about. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many descriptions of blood spraying on things outside of a late ‘80s Stephen King novel, which is something that I’m still debating the place of in a franchise like Star Wars. That sort of thing, especially when all of your characters are under deep emotional distress, isn’t all that fun to read about…and I’ve always looked to Star Wars for fun. I’ve often been a proponent of the more “adult” direction that Lucas Books has been moving the franchise in since the New Jedi Order series started more than a decade ago, but after the rollercoaster of uneven quality and odd decisions that has made up the last couple of longer series, I’m glad that the publishers want to take a break from that format for a while.
As a book, there’s not a whole lot wrong with Apocalypse. You can never accuse it of not moving at a good clip, and it has some good beats. The ending feels a bit lackluster and rushed (especially looking at it as the end of a nine book cycle) and there are some grand ideas that I would have liked introduced at an earlier point in the series so that they could be explored in a more meaningful way…but one the whole I can’t complain too much. It just wasn’t ever as fun as I would have liked.
15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, L. Douglas Keeney (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) 384 pp.
Still good. Still working on it. I tend to read these kinds of books like I read anthologies, just one chapter here or there since they’re all relatively self-contained. See above for more.

Total Pages: 3507
Total Books: 10.5
Months that this article is late: 3 (at least in part)
So that’s that. I’m going to really try and commit myself to doing one of these a month from here on out, if only to produce some content. Of course, I told myself the same thing every month last year, and never posted a one. I was originally going to start this year of with a long post detailing every book that I read over the past year, but balked at the prospect when I realized how many books that actually was. I leave you now with the picture that I took for that article; all sixty-five novels and trade paperbacks that I read last year, minus a couple that got mislaid in the shuffle of moving, and one that was so absolutely wretched that I couldn’t even stand to keep it in the house after I finished it.
-Sean
2011 Book Pile
The book I ditched was the posthumous “Michael Crichton” entry Micro, in which Richard Preston shat on the man’s memory so thoroughly that it bordered on reader abuse.

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