8.31.2010

The List 2009-2010

It's that time again. Here are the books I've read during the previous year:
  1. The Becoming, Jeanne C. Stein
  2. I, Lucifer, by Glen Duncan
  3. The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia
  4. The Sword of the Lady, by S.M. Stirling
  5. Walking Dead (Book 1), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  6. We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee
  7. Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry
  8. An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon
  9. Walking Dead (Book 2), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  10. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
  11. Walking Dead (Book 3), by Robert Kirkman, et al.
  12. The Devil's Food Dictionary, by Barry Foy
  13. Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey
  14. Soulless, by Gail Carriger
  15. Bite Marks, by Terrence Taylor
  16. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
  17. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett
  18. Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
  19. Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
  20. The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett
  21. Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett
  22. Tempest Rising, by Nicole Peeler
  23. Heat Wave, by “Richard Castle”
  24. Darker Angels, by M.L.N. Hanover
  25. Ghost Ocean, by S.M. Peters
  26. The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson
  27. Terra Incognita, by Ruth Downie
  28. Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs
  29. Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada
  30. The Art of Detection, by Laurie R. King
  31. Forever Flowing, by Vasily Grossman
  32. Blood Price, by Tanya Huff
  33. Blood Bound, by Patricia Briggs
  34. Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn
  35. Kitty Goes to Washington, by Carrie Vaughn
  36. Kitty Takes a Holiday, by Carrie Vaughn
  37. Kitty and the Silver Bullet, by Carrie Vaughn
  38. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand, by Carrie Vaughn
  39. Kitty Raises Hell, by Carrie Vaughn
  40. Kitty's House of Horrors, by Carrie Vaughn
  41. Divine Misdemeanors, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  42. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by John McWhorter
  43. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
  44. Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
  45. Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, by Jasper Fforde
  46. The Fortune Cooke Chronicles, by Jennifer 8 Lee
  47. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  48. Waiter Rant—Thanks for the Tip, Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, by Steve Dublanica
  49. Far North, by Marcel Theroux
  50. Day After Night, by Anita Diamant
  51. The Law of Nines, by Terry Goodkind
  52. Blackout, by Connie Willis
  53. Cooking Dirty, by Jason Sheehan
  54. Black Magic Sanction, by Kim Harrison
  55. The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin
  56. Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose
  57. Blue Nowhere, by Jeffrey Deaver
  58. Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  59. A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss
  60. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
  61. A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss
  62. A Touch of Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  63. Changeless, by Gail Carriger
  64. Bite Me, by Christopher Moore
  65. Midnight Guardians, by Sarah Jane Stratford
  66. Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
  67. Bean Trees, by Barabara Kingsolver
  68. Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
  69. Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  70. Dead to the World, by Charlaine Harris
  71. Dead as a Doornail, by Charlaine Harris
  72. Definitely Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  73. All Together Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  74. From Dead to Worse, by Charlaine Harris
  75. Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris
  76. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris
  77. Serpent's Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey
  78. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
  79. Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley
  80. 61 Hours, by Lee Child
  81. Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis
  82. Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larrson
  83. Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories, by Jonathan A. Edlow, M.D.
  84. Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
  85. Lost World, by Michael Crichton
  86. Breathers: A Zombie Lament, by S.G. Browne
  87. Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland
  88. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
  89. Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
  90. Burning Wire, by Jeffrey Deaver
  91. Sizzling Sixteen, by Janet Evanovich
  92. Passage, by Justin Cronin
  93. City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
  94. Naamah's Curse, by Jacqueline Carey
  95. City of Ashes, by Cassandra Clare
  96. City of Glass, by Cassandra Clare
  97. Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr.
  98. Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corson
  99. Blood Oath, by Christopher Farnsworth
  100. Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones
  101. Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard
  102. Kitty Goes to War, by Carrie Vaughan
  103. Moonshine, by Alaya Johnson
  104. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  105. Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva
  106. Day by Day Armageddon: Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne
  107. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
  108. Persona Non Grata, by Ruth Downie
  109. Timeline, by Michael Crichton
  110. Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson
  111. World War Z, by Max Brooks
  112. Mila 18, by Leon Uris
If you're curious, this is a new personal record.

8.29.2010

Mila 18, by Leon Uris

Mila 18
Mila 18
Leon Uris' Mila 18 may be the most depressing book I've ever read. It's based on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the events leading up to. To anyone who knows their history, it's a nail-biting and heartbreaking read because you know exactly what's going to happen and that the odds of any of the characters surviving is pretty much nil.

We meet our cast of characters in 1939, a scant handful of days before the Germans invade Poland. Some of the characters serve in the Polish Army, which was shockingly outdated. (One of the main characters was even in a cavalry regiment. They were ordered to go up against Panzers.) Before long, we're in a besieged Warsaw. About a third of the way through, the anti-Jewish laws and directives start to get passed and the ghettos are established. While most descriptions of Mila 18 that I'd read before I started the book make it seem like the book is primarily about the Uprising, it's actually mostly about how people survived in the ghetto. On the one hand, you've got the puppet Jewish Civil Authority who try to save lives by compromising. On the other, you've got the Zionists and the Communists and other political groups who form a kind of shadow/underground government.

Not only does Uris show us characters in both of these organizations, but he also shows us characters on the Nazi side. At first, the book seems very Zionist. I thought for the first hundred pages or so that it was going to be a rah rah book for the Jews, like Inglourious Basterds but without the humor or the revenge fantasy. But the characters grew more complicated as the book rolled along. There were cynical Nazis who knew that what they were doing was a crime, Jews who were out to save their skins and make money while others suffered and died, and Poles and Catholic priests who both helped the Jews in the ghetto and turned their backs on them. Some characters start out good and slowly drift towards being self-serving and cowardly. Others go the other direction. Meanwhile, there is the history telling you that no matter what any of them do, a lot of people are still going to die. This complexity helps make the book terribly real.

Uris, especially in the last quarter of the book, works hard to not only get the reader to see what life in the ghetto was like, but also to hear and smell it, too, especially when most of the Jewish characters have to move permanently into their bunker at Mila 18. While nothing can compare to what it was actually like to be in the ghetto, Mila 18 was, at times, almost unbearable to read because you always know that the horrible, soul-crushing things that Uris is describing really did happen.

Whenever I read or watch something about the Holocaust, I always end up asking unanswerable questions. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did people let it happen? Why didn't more people help the Jews and other people targeted by the Nazi regime? But one thing that makes Mila 18 different from other books I've read and movies I've watched is that it describes one of the times that the Jews fought back. Even though I new most of them were doomed, I also know that some of them survived. Some of them, even made it to Israel. At the end of the Uprising, these escapes became more important that fighting back the Germans and their allies. One of the characters comments, "There is a line which we cross when it is no longer our duty to die but to live" (512*).

Mila 18 is one of the hardest books I've ever read, but I would recommend it to strong readers who want to experience a slice of history.

* Bantam Books paperback edition.

8.18.2010

Julian Comstock, by Richard Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock
Julian Comstock
It's hard to know what to make of Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson. First of all, it's set in the twenty second century, but there is a distinctly old Western setting and tone. It reminded me a bit of Firefly in that respect. Second, there are hints dropped all over the place that the subject of the book is a major historical figure, but the book ends up being more about the narrator, Adam. I can't say much more about this bait and switch without totally giving away the ending. The book is a pile of contradictions. Entertaining, but contradictions nonetheless.

The book is narrated by a young Adam Hazzard, a childhood friend of Julian Comstock. While setting the scene and remarking on the unusual history that derailed the future into an odd recreation of the nineteenth century, Adam pulls us into the conspiracy surrounding Julian. In this America, the Presidency is inherited. While Julian is the President's nephew, the President is trying to kill Julian. There is a vague plan to conscript Julian into the army and send him to the front lines in Canada, but Adam and Company manage to evade death. The first third to half of the book reminds me a lot of what I've read about the American Civil War. They even have blue uniforms. Along with Adam's folksy Twain-flavored prose, the nineteenth century feel really starts to come through. And yet, it's set 160 years in the future.

Adam and Julian's Army adventures were my favorite parts of the book. After they leave the Army, things start to get out of hand. I don't just mean that the plot starts to heat up--which it kind of does--but the book derails a little bit.

SPOILERS AHEAD. I'M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE ENDING, SO IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS, SKIP OVER THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.

Adam has been dropping hints about how people in his future write books about Julian's Presidency, how turbulent a time it was, etc. etc., but I just don't see anything Julian does that merits that kind of attention. It's not like he permanently overthrew the status quo. He didn't right many past wrongs. He just seems to spend most of his time as President pissing off the clergy and working on his movie about Charles Darwin. For most of the book, Adam builds Julian up as a hero, but Julian just doesn't live up to the hype.

END SPOILERS

Julian Comstock is an interesting story about a possible (but highly unlikely) future for the United States. It's also a good Western(ish) yarn. I had a lot of fun reading it. The only major complaint I have is that it's too condensed. Even though it's over 400-pages long, it feel abbreviated because Adam keeps glossing over what he thinks are the uninteresting parts. (Not only that, but the narrator calls attention to this all the time.) While it does keep the book from possibly bogging down, I wanted to spend more time in the world of this book.

Timeline, by Michael Crichton

Timeline
Timeline
Barring the interesting--and probably wildly inaccurate--science, Michael Crichton's Timeline has a lot of surprising similarities to Jurassic Park: a megalomaniac capatlist who wants to use the amazing technology his company invented to create an amusement park, a ticking clock, and a Faustian warning that just because you can, doesn't mean that you should.

In Timeline, this cautionary tale begins with an escapee drawing attention to a company that's up to something secret. Then the academics are introduced. In Timeline, they are historians, currently excavating a castle in France. The historians are flown in to investigate the technology and, because it's a Crichton novel, things go to hell right rapidly. The technology, based on some interesting ideas about quantum physics, effectively transports people through time. You'll have to read the book to find out how the science works, because I know it will sound ridiculous if I try to explain it.

One more similarity between Timeline and Jurassic Park: the technology fails right when they need it. The historians are stranded in the past until the time machine gets fixed.

The historians get transported back to their castle during one of the hot points in the Hundred Years' war. And just like we learned in Jurassic Park, Timeline reinforces the point that the past is a lot more dangerous than we give it credit for. The middle ages, as Crichton portrays it, are not a place of courtly love and ignorant peasants. The knights are deadlier than raptors if only because we know to stay the hell away from the raptors. Within seconds of arriving in the past, the historians' guides are dead and they are on their own. I lost count of the number of times they almost got killed.

Even though it's even less believable than Jurassic Park, Timeline is a fun read. It's one of the few works of historical fiction that I think actually get close what life was like. The only thing that could have made it more real was if the publishers put scratch and sniff on the pages. Crichton did a terrific job of describing the sights and sounds of medieval France. With the clock ticking down the minutes until their time machine irreparably fails and the historians trying not to die, the plot just hums along.

8.08.2010

Persona Non Grata, by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata
Persona Non Grata
I finally got my hands on a copy of this book. I've been looking for it since I finished the last book in the series. Persona Non Grata is the third book to feature Gaius Petreius Ruso, a senior surgeon of the XXth legion and the wars in Britannia. In this book, Ruso answers a summons from home and the man who plans to take that family to court promptly drops dead in his home.

Downie has the same talent that my other favorite writers of historical fiction have: the ability to share historical detail without bogging down the narrative. It's clear that Downie--a part time librarian--has done her homework. She even prints a short bibliography of sources at the end of the book. Roman history fascinates me. Their laws were complex and sophisticated, even if they could be surprisingly brutal. Every time I read about Rome, I wonder where we would be if Rome hadn't fallen and the Dark Ages hadn't happened.

One of the other things that drew me to this series is to see a possibility of how murders and other mysteries might be solved without anything like a police force or, in this case, without even thief takers. As in the other books, the investigation amounts to Ruso asking questions and trying to piece together what really happened. Also as in the other books, Ruso has the help of Tilla, a Briton who used to be a slave. Of course, her kind of help often works at cross purposes to what Ruso is up to and then spend about half of their conversations arguing with each other. The sparks of their relationship really help being this series to life and gives the main characters a lot of personality.

Along with her refusal to dump information on the reader, Downie also doesn't over-write the books. It's a pleasant challenge to piece together the world of this book from just the necessary adjectives and details. Compared with the last book I read, Leviathan, with its illustrations, it was wonderful to have to use my imagination again. This goes for the mystery as well. There are so few clues at first that it's hard to see how Ruso's going to solve it and find out who really murdered the slimy Severus.

Persona Non Grata is a wonderful escape book, with just enough challenge to it that it pulls you along--but not so much that you feel like you need a degree in criminal psychology and ten years experience in law enforcement to fathom what's going on. The only problem I had with it was that I only took me a day to read it. I wish I could have spent more time with Ruso and Tilla.

8.07.2010

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield

Leviathan
Leviathan
I surprised myself by reading another young adult novel this week. Normally, I shun them as unsophisticated and message laden. But Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is dark enough and imaginative enough that I enjoyed it quite a lot.

This alternate history is set in 1914, as Europe gears up for what in our history would be called the Great War. Germany and Austro-Hungary are literally gearing up for war against Serbia, France, Russia, and Great Britain. What makes this historical timeline different from ours is a very early discovery of DNA and the ability to manipulate it. In addition to the alliances, Europe is also divided into two technological camps: the Clankers and the Darwinists. Germany and Austro-Hungary are Clankers, who build war machines from engines and gears. The rest are Darwinist, who build their own war machines out of genetically fabricated animals. It sounds a little unbelievable when you put it baldly like that. (Come to think of it, the plots of a lot of the books I read are like that.) But in this world it works. And normally, I pass on books with illustrations. I like to imagine the characters for myself, thank you very much. But here, they're a great addition, especially when they show the fantastical beasts the Brits have created.

The story follows to adolescents, one Austrian and one Briton. The Austrian is the orphaned son of the Archduke Ferdinand, Aleksander. The Brit is Deryn Sharp, a girl in disguise who joins the Air Corps at the beginning of the book. Their paths collide rather spectacularly near the end of the book. Before they do meet up, we get a lot of simultaneous background information and action sequences. It's very deftly done and no expository characters in sight.

As I said before, one of the things I appreciated about the book was its darkness. Even though the characters are about 15, they're in mortal danger for big chunks of the book. Deryn's airship gets blown out of the sky by German zeppelins. Aleksander gets in a fight to the death with a German soldier. Westerfeld doesn't soften anything just because the characters are young teenagers. Because of the high tension level, it was easy to get caught up in the book and to genuinely worry about the characters.

This book claims to be the first in a series, but I haven't seen any news about a second book--not even on the author's website. But if a second book is published, I will gladly spend another couple of evenings in Deryn and Aleksander's company.

8.01.2010

Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne

Beyond Exile
Beyond Exile
After reading Day by Day Armageddon's sequel, Beyond Exile, I feel like I need to watch a comedy or something before I can get to sleep tonight. Reading this book is like playing Left 4 Dead late at night; it freaked me out. I'm really glad that I read it broad daylight. Holy cow.

We met our nameless hero in the first book in San Antonio. In order to deal with everything and to keep a record of his life--for however long it lasts--our hero keeps a roughly daily journal. Beyond Exile finds him at Hotel 23, a missile silo somewhere in Texas with the other survivors that he collected in the first book. Just when it seems like there's no one else alive, the crew at H23 intercept a distress call from a group of marines. After rescuing the marines, Nameless' people makes contact with what's left of the US military.

Things hum along at Hotel 23 until a reconnaissance mission goes wrong and strands Nameless more than two hundred miles away from his safe haven, all on his own. The rest of the book (more than half) is all about his attempts to get home to his girl and safety. It's a bit like reading a narrative version of Max Brooks' Complete Zombie Survival Guide. It's all about fighting off hordes, noise discipline, and finding shelter. It's a cracking read. Even though the writing style is spare and our hero doesn't do a lot of reflective thinking, you feel like you're right there, riding along on Nameless' shoulder, dodging the undead and trying not to die.

The book ends with a clear set up for a third book and I am very much looking forward to spending another day reading. (I sure as hell won't read it at night.)

The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva

Rembrandt Affair
The Rembrandt Affair
In The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva, shows our hero Gabriel Allon getting back to his roots. After chasing down Palestinian terrorists and evil Russian oligarchs, an old friend asks Gabriel to track down a stolen $45 million painting of Rembrandt van Rijn's mistress. The book even opens in in Port Navas, Cornwall--where Gabriel hid/lived during the early books, after the death of his family. Not only that, but the book is peppered with appearances from old characters. And even though it was 460-odd pages, I blistered through it yesterday.

After a few chapters to set the scene, an old friend visits Gabriel to enlist his help in tracking down the stolen painting. It takes a little arm twisting by Gabriel's wife, but soon Gabriel is headed for the Continent to track down the painting by finding out its provenance. Meanwhile, we get to see what's happening to the painting. For a while, it seems like the painting is just getting further and further away while Gabriel turns up old horrors about Dutch Jews being forced to give up their property before being deported. The provenance trail leads to Argentina, then to a wealth Swiss industrialist with a spotless reputation.

It is a law of fiction that two apparently unrelated plot lines will eventually converge. When they do, a simple (for a given amount of simple) job of recovering a painting turns into an operation involving the intelligence services of three different countries. Nothing ever goes off without a hitch in a Silva novel. The only problem I had was that most of the action took place in the last sixty pages. Everything else was background and buildup. Until the big finale, I felt like Gabriel was taking a back seat to the action. I kept waiting for him to take the lead, but it just wouldn't happen until almost the end of the book.

I was reminded as I read it of my favorite books in the series, the ones that weren't just about terrorists. But it wasn't quite as good as those books. I saw a few things in this book that worry me and make me worry about the future of the series. Is Gabriel going to start taking a more behind-the-scenes role? Are his fighting days really behind him? If so, who's going to be the new Gabriel? I hope this isn't the end of the line for my favorite assassin/art restorer.