June 14th, 2013


Books that I read in May

Books that I read in May:

30. Gibson, William & Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine (429 p.)

31. Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle. Lucifer's Hammer (640 p.)

32. Spoor, Ryk E. Grand Central Arena (671 p.)

33. Peters, Ellis. The Heretic's Apprentice (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, v. 16) (250 p.)

34. Foglio, Phil. Zap Gun for Hire (Buck Godot, v. 1) (60 p.)

35. Christie, Agatha. The Regatta Mystery, and Other Stories (214 p.)
(Contents: The Regatta Mystery; The Mystery of the Badgad Chest; How Does Your Garden Grow?; Problem at Pollensa Bay; Yellow Iris; Miss Marple Tells a Story; The Dream; In a Glass Darkly; Problem at Sea)

36. Ashley, Mike, ed. The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy (524 p.)
(Contents: Peregrine: Alflandia, by Avram Davidson; Pizza to Go, by Tom Holt; A Malady of Magicks, by Craig Shaw Gardner; Golden Apples of the Sun, by Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, and Michael Swanwick; Death Swatch, by Esther Friesner; Press Ann, by Terry Bisson; Troll Bridge, by Terry Pratchett; The Toll Bridge, by Harvey Jacobs; Alaska, by John Morressy; The Cat with Two Tails, by Terry Jones; The Warlock's Daughter, by Anthony Armstrong; The Glass Slip-up, by Louise Cooper; The Distressing Damsel, by David Langford; Tender is the Night-Gaunt, by Peter Cannon; Shoggoth's Old Peculiar, by Neil Gaiman; Looking-Glass Land, by Lewis Carroll; The Story of the Four Little Children, by Edward Lear; The Disadvantages of Mind, by James F. Sullivan; The Return of Max Kearny, by Ron Goulart; The Unpleasantness at the Baloney Club, by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre; A Fortnight of Miracles, by Randall Garrett; Aphrodite's New Temple, by Amy Myers; The Fifty-First Dragon, by Heywood Broun; The Boscombe Walters Story, by Robert Rankin; Fall'n Into the Sear, by James A. Bibby; The Cunning Plan, by Anne Gay; War of the Doom Zombies, by Richard A. Lupoff; The Tale of the Seventeenth Eunuch, by Jane Yolen; An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth, by Lawrence Schimel; Queen of the Green Sun, by Jack Sharkey; Wu-Ling's Folly, by Alan Dean Foster; Mebodes' Fly, by Harry Turtledove; The Return of Mad Santa, by Al Sarrantonio; Ruella in Love, by Molly Brown; Been a Long, Long Time, by R. A. Lafferty)

37. Clark, John D. Ignition! : An informal history of liquid rocket propellants (214 p.)

38. Christie, Agatha. The Secret Adversary (215 p.)

39. Foglio, Phil. PSmIth (Buck Godot, v. 2) (72 p.)

May total: 3,289 pages
2013 YTD total: 13,741 pages

Only a little late this month, but it took a while to find the time to do writeups for this many books. (Wow--the year isn't even half over yet, and I'm only 11 books and 1,300 pages away from my usual primary/minimum annual goals. It looks like I should be able to pass one or both of my usual stretch goals this year--75 books & 25K pages.)

When I picked up The Difference Engine, I was expecting to get some proto-steampunk. It isn't, really. Alternative Victorian-era history, yes, higher-than-actual technology level extrapolating from period-accurate scientific knowledge, yes, but the typical "sensawonder" & action that's more typical of steampunk just isn't there. It's really just a Victorian-era alternative history, and is almost a series of short stories linked by a Macguffin. The story doesn't so much build as simmer in fits & starts, and the only significant ramping up of tension comes with the various reactions to this timeline's version of "The Great Stink" of London. It's okay and somewhat interesting for what it is, but I kept expecting it to break into something spectacular, and it basically didn't until suddenly exploding into action in the last act, then fizzling out back to mediocrity as suddenly as it started. The concept of Babbage's Difference Engine being used to create the equivalent of the modern CODIS database, as well as a type of moving picture system using physical bits in place of electronic pixels were intriguing, but got somewhat lost as the main characters muddled through their lives.

Overall, Lucifer's Hammer is one of the better apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic novels I've read, but I don't know that it really needed an entire army of cannibalistic ex-military religious zealots. It was timely, with a couple of asteroids passing close to Earth being in the news recently, though I think it's starting to show it's age more than a bit and move into the same category as When Worlds Collide and, for that matter, Wells' The War of the Worlds--the depicted technology may have been state of the art at the time, but it's been since surpassed in ways that would probably drastically change the story and make the characters non-use of what's now "modern" technology feel odd. (Much like reading old mysteries or suspense stories that would be three pages long if set in the age of cell phones.) I'd still generally recommend it, though.

Grand Central Arena reminded me a lot of a cross between several other authors' work, and every time I think about it, I add another one to the list; I guess that means it has successfully tapped into the collective unconscious. (Phil Foglio's Buck Godot: The Gallimaufrey may be the closest read-alike I can think of, though of those two, I think I liked GCA better than Gallimaufrey, though now I feel like I need to re-read the latter to make sure.) However, I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, it has plenty of high-octane adventure, political intrigue, and continual raising of stakes through the stratosphere and then some more beyond that, to the point where it was very hard to put down. On the other hand, it felt a bit long (though in the book's defense, I can't think of a single thing I'd cut and only things I'd add) and the entire time I was reading it, I felt like it was missing something crucial that would've propelled it into the realm of being a classic for the ages--I just wish I knew what was missing. In any case, I definitely recommend it. (Disclaimer: Ryk and I have known each other online since way back when we were both Usenet dinos on rec.games.frp.dnd.)

Speaking of Phil Foglio, the graphic novels Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire & PSmIth (with The Gallimaufry being the third in the series) are long-time favorites of mine that I like to pull down and read every couple of whiles, and are large parts of the reason why Foglio was my absolute favorite comic-book creator for a while. (The illustrations to Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures books being the first of his work that I saw and, in my opinion, still up there with best examples of his work.) Zap Gun for Hire is four short stories, and PSmIth is one long one. Both are very near the level of "everyone should read these at some point", but each has its flaws. In Zap Gun, it's the somewhat sketchy & inconsistent artwork (and some nudity & "adult situations & dialogue" in movie ratings parlance keep it from being something I can recommend to just anyone) that hold back the excellent & creative stories; in PSmIth, the art is excellent and the content is more PG, but the story feels like a shorter story that got padded out a little bit too far. Even so, I think PSmIth is just over the line into "No really, everyone should read this", and Zap Gun for Hire is just a hair under it, but still very highly recommended. The introductions of both books, where "P'Foglio Livy" outlines Buck's future history, are by far the best part, though. There is so much grist in that universe for great stories, in particular the enigmatic Law Bots; I wish Buck Godot had become as popular as Girl Genius has become, so that we'd've seen more of those stories.

The Heretic's Apprentice turned out to be a somewhat timely read for me, as a counterbalance to some discussions I'd recently had on Facebook. The murder mystery is pretty much the B plot here, and I'd pretty much figured out the whodunnit before it was revealed, but the A plot about punishing someone for heresy for trying to think for themselves about the nature of salvation rather than blindly accepting on faith the writings of Augustine and a few other early (but non-Biblical) religious philosophers struck a chord, for multiple reasons.

Dame Agatha usually comes through for me, and these two were no exception. The short stories in The Regatta Mystery got in, made their point, and got out, while still including all the hallmarks of a Christie mystery. My favorites were the stories that featured Parker Pyne, followed by those with Poirot, but the Marple stories here didn't annoy me as much as Miss Marple stories usually do. All in all, a good collection. The Secret Adversary, on the other hand, was flat-out excellent, start to finish. It's the origin story of the characters Tommy & Tuppence, and the pair's banter and sleuthing/adventuring are excellent. With the exception of some events that require a recent large-scale war, it could even almost be set at any time in the 20th century. Strongly recommended.

The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy is exactly what it says on the tin. It's mammoth, a book, and features stories that are comic & fantastic. Some are sillier than others, and most are in the "wry smile" category rather than the "knee-slapping hilarious" category, but I'd say most of these stories are quite good & worth reading. Those that really stuck out for me include "Pizza to Go", "Death swatch", "Troll Bridge", "The Warlock's Daughter", "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar", "The Return of Max Kearny", "The Fifty-First Dragon", and "Wu-Ling's Folly", to name a few. I didn't find "An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth", in particular to be at all comic-- it's creepy supernatural horror without anything to chuckle about that I could see. "The Return of Mad Santa" is basically the template (even if actually completely unrelated) for the character of Robot Santa from Futurama (and can be considered "comic" rather than "horror" for the same reasons, though it's perhaps a close call). There's a lot to enjoy here.

Ignition! is possibly the first e-book I've read start to finish as such. It's a history & memoir of the history of rocket propellants, from the earliest days up to the late 1960s, by a man who was right there in the thick of it. For being what should amount to a high-level chemistry textbook, it's surprisingly readable (though it certainly helps to be familiar enough with chemistry to be able to nod and smile when the details move too far beyond entry-level chemistry). Clark has a hilarious way of telling anecdotes about mishaps with high explosives (from poor planning by administrators to questionable safety procedures to fizzles to catastrophic failures) that keeps the book moving right along and keeps the book interesting, even when it gets deep into the weeds of chemical equations, diagrams, and terminology. I highly recommend reading this--mainly for the humor, but also for the fascinating history & science. Unfortunately, it's long out of print and as far as I can tell, the company that owns the rights seems to have no interest in a new print run or even print on demand, so finding a PDF online is the easiest way to read this book these days.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf