The Year In Books (Part 1)

For the past several years, I’ve read a lot fewer books than I used to. Most people blame this on a lack of time, but my undoing was comic books. Comics come out on a weekly schedule, each one updating something from the last month. The system is set up to make sure that you keep up on them, while it’s easy to put off a novel for a while, since it will still be on the shelves months, if not years, later.

I realized how bad this had gotten a year ago, when my birthday and Christmas presents included almost 20 books, but I’d only read about 5 all year. I decided to make more of an effort on novels for the year.

In the end, I read 19 books in 2010. It’s not an incredible number, especially since several of them were novellas or children’s books. Considering that I did it without dropping back on my comics reading, though, I’m happy. This year I’m planning on 25-30.

Rather than going back and doing full articles on things I read in the past, here are capsule reviews. It’s still pretty long, so I’ve split it into two parts. The books I read in the first half of the year are below, and I’ll follow up with part two in a couple days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gone-Away World cover

The Gone-Away World

 

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Conveniently enough, I found my favorite book of the year right at the start. Written in a style you could confidently show to your most literary friends, but packed with ideas that would turn away all but the most die-hard genre fans, it’s a unique work. Just consider the elements that are mixed together: The setting is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but to get there you must read through an often-heartwarming account of the narrator’s childhood.  The conflict that destroyed the world is recounted sometimes as an action-packed war adventure, and other times as a Catch-22-style parody of the military.  That same satirical attention is given to corporate culture, which manages to thrive even after civilization’s collapse.  And, of course, a Kung Fu story is woven throughout the entire novel.

The plot is similarly schizophrenic. Despite the breathtaking quality of the writing, the book has several annoying tics: The narrator is lucky enough to be in all the right places to give a behind the scenes account of the world’s undoing, and that level of coincidence extends to the random characters who appear in one scene, and then somehow manage to wander back into the story 100 pages and half a world away.  The bureaucracy and paranoia of the pre-apocalyptic culture is too exaggerated to feel exactly like our world, and therefore doesn’t have the satiric bite that was intended. And in an overly-cutesy gimmick, the narrator never gives his name.  For a time, I worried that these issues would weigh down an otherwise-excellent novel.  But as the secrets of the book begin to unfold, it turns out that there are reasons for many of these quirks. Not all of them are justified (no, I’m not going to spoil which ones), but enough to make me fully accept the book again.

Not only does it wrap up with a satisfying conclusion, but there turns out to be an actual point behind the musings on corporate culture. This is the rare book that manages to be fun, startlingly original, and still find something to say.

Grade: A


 

 

 

 

 

Makers cover

Makers

 

Makers by Cory Doctorow

This was a painful book to get through, especially after I let my expectations build so high. Doctorow’s Little Brother is one of the best and most important books of the post-9/11 era, and I was hoping for something similar here. But while Doctorow’s shallow characters and pedestrian prose may have seemed appropriate to Little Brother‘s teenage narrator, this book’s complexity just highlighted those flaws. Also, Little Brother‘s plot was tightly focused on one issue, which helped restrain Doctorow’s tendency to cram every techie factoid possible into the plot.  Makers, which chronicles the epic rise and fall of a near-future geek culture, encourages his worst tendencies.

The book isn’t a total failure.  As it relates the evolution of upcoming technologies, Makers manages to make some strange ideas seem natural.  I also admired the fact that the geeky point-of-view characters turned out to have some pretty serious flaws and disagreements with each other, instead of just being the Mary Sues that they appear to be at first.  However, the sprawling, sometimes tragic nature of the plot is more than Doctorow’s writing skills can handle: The glory days of the Maker culture appear to last only a few months, yet characters later look back on it as if it were a long Golden Age. Though the main characters are centered in a whirlwind of technological advancement, all other aspects of technology seem stagnant. And when the book finally ends, it isn’t because of any natural plot resolution, but just seemed to be because Doctorow reached his contracted word count (or got distracted by a shiny new project). Not that I was too disappointed to see it end.

Grade: D


 

 

So You Want To Be A Wizard cover

So You Want To Be A Wizard

 

So You Want To Be A Wizard,

Deep Wizardry,

High Wizardry,

A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane

For several years of my childhood, my favorite books were the ones in Duane’s Young Wizards series. I re-read them for the first time last year. I’m currently reading the fifth book, and a more thorough review of the series will go up after I finish that.

These four books were actually spread out through the year. For the most part, I alternated adult novels with children’s or young adult ones (both this series, and otherwise). I don’t plan to continue that pattern into this year, but I’m glad I did it. It was very interesting to put books targeted at different ages side-by-side, and realize that while they might have different content, they often had fairly similar levels of sophistication.


 

 

The Android's Dream cover

The Android's Dream

 

The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s casual, lighthearted writing style has made him one of the more popular author-bloggers out there. Ironically, it also means that when I read his books, they seem too familiar to me. When I pick up a science fiction novel, I don’t want to feel like I’m just reading an extra-long post from a blog I visit daily.

The Android’s Dream is Scalzi at his most lighthearted, weaving a plot out of sheep DNA, wacky religious beliefs, and the diplomatic maneuverings of a galactic U.N.  The reader needs to accept that the protagonists can make giant leaps in Artificial Intelligence technology or learn advanced military strategy in the space of a chapter if it’s needed to move the story forward.  And while there are several plot threads with quite a few characters, it’s easy to remember whether someone is good or evil: The good guys all share Scalzi’s sense of humor.

Though the book never aims to be more than a pulpy comedy, it also never falls short of that goal. And when the various plot threads tie together to make a pretty clever ending, it helps to elevate the book above the ranks of the other forgettable action-SF romps that get published every year.

 

Grade: C+


 

 

Odd and The Frost Giants cover

Odd and The Frost Giants

 

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

While this is probably the least essential of Gaiman’s recent books, it’s by no means bad. At this point, he could write a good story in his sleep (and he may well have done so – nothing in here will be unfamiliar to someone who grew up on a diet of mythology and adventures about boys whose parents are conveniently not around).  Even though this book doesn’t have as many hooks to interest adults as most of Gaiman’s other juvenile works, I know this would have thrilled me as a child. It has the sense that the text just barely touched on this magical world, and that a clever boy could keep exploring forever in his imagination.

Grade: B-


 

 

Boneshaker cover

Boneshaker

 

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

This was a disappointment. Everyone else couldn’t stop talking about what a great novel this was. Steampunk! Airships! Zombies! Yes, it had all those things, but above all, it had a pretty boring plot. One of the benefits I got from alternating between adult and young adult novels was being able to put books like this next to books like Leviathan, and realize how little being “adult” can count for. Boneshaker has a promising setting (and I can understand why Priest is returning to it for future novels), but all it manages to do with it is to send two characters off on a fairly standard adventure, with less interesting results than I can find in children’s books.

Apparently, a lot of people gave this a pass because they love Steampunk. Before I read this book, I thought I loved Steampunk, too. It turns out that the things that make that sub-genre so fascinating don’t necessarily work for me in prose format. It’s a very visual movement, and the book’s descriptions never made it come alive for me.

Boneshaker isn’t as bad as I make it sound here. I’m just reacting to all the hype that put this on everyone’s Best-of-2010 lists. In reality, it’s a fairly standard genre adventure story. I will admit that the setting has stuck in my mind pretty well 9 months later, and the last few chapters added a little more action and an interesting conclusion. Still, I can’t imagine recommending it.

Grade: C+


 

 

The God Engines cover

The God Engines

 

The God Engines by John Scalzi

This is more like it. After complaining that Scalzi’s novels were written in the same voice as his blog, I tried his new dark fantasy novella. This is proof that he can excel in different writing voices. Yes, the “Scalzi style” is still noticeable sometimes, especially in the dialog between the human characters, but it’s much more subtle even when I was alert for it. And the setting itself is very interesting: Basically, it’s a science fiction story but where the basic laws of nature are replaced by fantasy. (This is another departure from the other Scalzi work I’ve read, which relies heavily on a universe populated by standard sci-fi technology and quirky aliens.) The story makes good use of that setting, as we get spend the first half of the book learning about the way things work and the second half watching it unravel.

The novella length works perfectly for this story: To make it longer, it would have needed to be fleshed out with various subplots that would have seemed irrelevant as the main plot unfolded. Scalzi also found the perfect length to make us invested in the characters, without feeling so attached that we require a happy ending.

Grade: B+


 

 

Leviathan cover

Leviathan

 

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield

Forget all the hype about Boneshaker. This is the alt-history Steampunk novel of the year. Set in the dawning days of World War I, we follow the son of Archduke Ferdinand as he flees from a conspiratorial group in his own government. His paths cross with a British girl who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the Air Force. Will these natural enemies learn to work together? Well, of course. You can tell that as easily as you can tell that I’m describing a YA book: An orphaned boy trying to preserve his royal legacy and an adventurous girl passing herself off as a boy are two of the most common characters in young adult literature. But Westerfield uses these tropes because they work well, and he puts plenty of originality into the setting of the book: The German and Australian forces have Steampunk technology, including Mecha-style war machines. Meanwhile, England and its allies have based their science on the teachings of “Mr. Darwin”, and have genetically engineered advanced tools from the animals around them. (The Leviathan that gives the book its name is an enhanced whale, filled with hydrogen and turned into an airship.)

If the technology sounds far-fetched, Westerfield makes it work. It requires some suspension of disbelief, of course, but he’s thought through the details of both systems. The Leviathan, for example, has an entire ecosystem based on feeding the crew, generating the hydrogen that levitates the whale, and maintaining the organic weapons that can be launched from the ship. The point-of-view characters must learn how to work their technology, and seeing the scut jobs assigned to the children helps the reader experience the technology much more intensely than a simple description from an adult’s point of view could do. The book also uses occasional illustrations, a very effective trick that would probably not be accepted in an “adult” book. The prose still carries the story, but with some pictures to help the reader imagine the details and majesty of the world, everything feels much more real.

Grade: B+


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  1. Just a thought in passing: did you know that there are nine YW books now? …If you want to review the series after book 5, OK, but I just thought I’d mention. 🙂

  2. Diane – There were only 3 books when I discovered them as a kid, so I was pretty excited a few years ago when I learned the series had continued after all.
    In general, I’m planning to blog about books as I read them. In this case, since a lot of my thoughts cover the whole series rather than individual books, and I was about to read the fifth book anyway, I figured that it made sense for me to put off a larger review until that point.
    I plan to read more of the books, but probably just a couple per year mixed into my other reading, so when I finish Wizard’s Dilemma I’ll be ready for my “review so far”.
    Thanks for commenting!

  1. January 9th, 2011
  2. August 30th, 2011

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