11 January 2008

Here is a story about Christmas and its most important part, getting books.

This year, LibraryThing ran an event called SantaThing.  It was essentially a Secret Santa event-- all the participants paid $25 to LibraryThing, who then connected all of the participants to one another.  You could post comments about what you wanted, and then your SantaThinger would select books for you, which LibraryThing would order off Amazon-- so no exchanging of addresses with Internet strangers.  You were limited in your purchases to books available from the appropriate regional Amazon (US, UK, or Canada), worth less than $20 total, and numbering no more than two.

I decided to sign up because it sounded like it could be fun-- I love picking books, and I love getting books even more!  This is what I put:

The authors currently on my "target list" are (hold your breath): Edwin Abbot, Paul Auster, Beryl Bainbridge, Iain Banks, James Blish, Octavia E. Butler, Italo Calvino, Paul Cornell, Lawrence Durrell, C.S. Forester, Elizabeth George, David Gerrold, James Hamilton-Paterson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, David Lodge, Scott McCloud, Walter M. Miller Jr., Alan Moore, Christopher Morley, Larry Niven, Dan Simmons, Ali Smith, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Neal Stephenson, Karen Traviss, and P.G. Wodehouse. Basically, any book I don't already own by these folks would be marvelous.  No Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or other media tie-ins. If I wanted it, I would've bought it myself.
I know, it's a lot, but I didn't want to limit anyone.  I figured that with that many, one of those authors had to be a favorite of whoever my SantaThinger was, and that there had to be a beloved book by them I didn't already own.  (The wonderful thing about LibraryThing is that you know you are not going to buy someone a book they already own.)

Meanwhile, I was selecting a book for someone else.  This is what he put:
I like urban fantasy, histories of food, surreal comedies, mysteries (if the protagonists have a sense of humor)....what I'd really like to try is some world lit. I have always read mostly American / Western European authors & there is a whole wide world out there that I'm missing.  Please, please no sports books. Or anything with World War II.
Talk about broad!  The first thing to pop into mind for "surreal comedy" was James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca, which I read last semester in Dr. Hardesty's modern British literature class and thought vastly amusing.  Plus, the protagonist is a sports biographer and hates it, so I figured that would be appropriate.  That came up to just $10.17, so I decided to find another book-- something non-Western, to fulfill one of his other desires.

The problem is that, on a normal Amazon discount, a normal trade paperback comes to $10.17!  It was impossible to find a second book of the appropriate price!  The other problem was that I'm not very familiar with non-Western literature, so I didn't know what to suggest.  But, thanks to my Kafka class from a year ago, I had heard of the author of Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, so on a whim I decided to get one of his books.  As luck would have it, his book A Wild Sheep Chase seemed to be surreal and a detective story, fulfilling a number of my SantaThingee's desires!

But it was $10.17.  I searched for ages for something cheaper, but with no success.  Finally, I gave in and just plunked both into my request, figuring that I wasn't even fifty cents over the twenty-dollar limit, and who could get bothered about that?

Meanwhile (this was late December after all), my Aunt Janet had contacted me-- she had me in the family gift exchange this year, and were there any books I particularly wanted?  I sent her my target list, a list of authors (usually with specific books attached) that I search for every time I enter a used bookstore.  Obviously there was some overlap with my SantaThing author list, but I figured that with such large lists, the possibility of coincidence was low.

My book from SantaThing showed up a couple days before Christmas Eve-- James Blish's A Case of Conscience.  This is what my SantaThinger (LibraryThing's sysadmin, actually!) wrote me:
I have agonised over this. I'm recommending A Case of Conscience by James Blish, ISBN 0345438353.

This user lists James Blish as one of the authors they're after. They also have several of his books - star trek novelisations!! And yet they *don't* have this book, a hugo award winner and (IMHO) one of the best examples of "good" sci-fi. I had some reservations because it's not a very long book, and at $19 I've put all my bets on the one horse. As well as this, religion (specifically catholicism) is central to the plot, and so some knowledge in this area would be helpful. Still, this is all about surprises and the opportunity to read something you might otherwise not have picked up off the shelf, right? ;)

Here's a note for the recipient:

Hi! I noticed you're after more from James Blish, but don't have "A Case of Conscience". This is one of my favourite SF books so it seems like a good choice. It's unconventional sci-fi - it explores the concept of morality with a Jesuit biologist as the main character - but it's well written with believable characters, and a worthy winner of the Hugo award. I hope you enjoy it!
He needn't've worried!  I read Blish's The Devil's Day a few months back, and A Case of Conscience was one of the other two books in his loose After Such Knowledge sequence-- essentially, it or Doctor Mirabilis were the books I had meant when I put "James Blish" down on my target list!  As as for Catholic/Jesuit knowledge... well, I certainly have no shortage of that.

My selections were approved, but I don't know what my SantaThingee thought of them; he never contacted me.  In fact, they haven't even been added into his library!  But then, neither has anything else since November.

Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, my Aunt Janet did well-- I received the next two of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries-- Deception on His Mind and In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner-- as well as Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales from Earthsea.  All not only books I wanted, but books I really wanted.  Aunt Janet reported that she had fun perusing the used bookstore as well, and she'd even figured out my list's organizational system.

And luckily enough there was no overlap.  I hope SantaThing is run next year as well, for I found it good, solid fun.

07 January 2008

Archival Review: Doctor Who: Short Trips #15: The History of Christmas edited by Simon Guerrier

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published 2005
Acquired July 2006

Read December 2007
Doctor Who: Short Trips #15: The History of Christmas
edited by Simon Guerrier

Inappropriately enough, I got this book for my birthday in July of 2006.  Appropriately enough, I read it just after Christmas 2007.  The second of Big Finish's Christmas-themed Short Trips books, it was enjoyable enough, though towards the end I started to get tired of the Christmas theme coming again and again-- a problem that never afflicted me with Paul Cornell's A Christmas Treasury, despite the fact that that book had more stories!  I feel as though the earlier book had a wider variety of stories, but this book was by no means poor.  My favorite was probably Eddie Robson's "Not in My Back Yard", with Joseph Lidster's "She Won't Be Home" a close contender-- no surprise there, since they're both among my favorite Big Finish writers.

Archival Review: Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury by Aaron Allston

Mass market paperback, 368 pages
Published 2007
Acquired and read December 2007
Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury
by Aaron Allston

By now, we all know what to expect from a Legacy of the Force novel: Jacen-- sorry, Darth Caedus--  will do evil, and the Jedi won't react enough to it.  They're going a bit more proactive in this installment of the series, but the metaplot is still only crawling along, even as the stakes heighten.  Caedus is a bit of a clumsy villain, too.  I feel that Allston is less suited to the grand plots found here and in The New Jedi Order and more to the smaller scale of his X-Wing novels, but he still writes a solid entry; his command of the characters, especially Luke, Ben, Wedge, Jag, and Han/Leia is what really recommends this book.  Mostly fluff, but enjoyable, well-written fluff.

Archival Review: The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Hardcover, 750 pages
Published 1978 (content: 1967-78)
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Dragonriders of Pern
by Anne McCaffrey

Last March, a friend of my mother's gave me the opportunity to look through those books that had belonged to her now-deceased brother and make off with what I wished.  He was an sf fan, and almost all of the books were sf ones, including some old Star Trek hardcovers.  This is the first of that collection of books I have gotten around to reading; it collects the three novels in the original Pern trilogy, Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon.  I enjoyed the first-- Lessa is an interesting protagonist, full of contradictions, strong, and sometime too much so.  Unfortunately, once time travel entered into the mix, the story became a bit too predictable-- it was all "wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey" in a way that removes all concept of jeopardy or suspense.  Dragonquest I found somewhat tedious-- the internal political squabbles of the dragonriders hold little appeal-- but it established my love for Masterharper Robinton.  The White Dragon was better, focusing as it did on one boy and his struggles.  But while I found the books themselves average, the world McCaffrey has built, centered around aiding the Weyrs and fighting the Threads, yet fallen away from both ideas, fascinates me, perhaps more than the stories themselves, and it was always the reason I wanted to keep on reading.  It and Robinton, at least.

Archival Review: Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt

Trade paperback, 304 pages
Published 1993 (originally 1992)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
Angels & Insects
by A. S. Byatt

This is another of my catchup reads from my last semester of school.  This book is actually two novellas, tenuously linked by the fact that they both occur in the Victorian era.   We read the first, Morpho Eugenia, in class, but not the second, The Conjugial Angel, so I added the book to my list.  The Conjugial Angel is a story about grief and how people move on; Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. plays a heavy role in the proceedings.  I'm not sure if I could explain what happened, but I love Byatt's way of writing-- she has a playful tone that jumps all over the place and (gently) mocks her characters, but becomes suitable somber when events warrant it.  Ideas are her forte, though, and Byatt explores those of grief, mourning, and judgment quite well.  I look forward to reading more by her.

Archival Review: The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

Mass market paperback, 270 pages
Published 1986 (originally 1956)
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov

Apparently, I'm on a bit of an Asimov kick these past few months.  Or rather, I was when I acquired all these books last spring.  This isn't one I loaned and lost, though; rather, I never owned it at all for some reason!  Still, I'd borrowed the library's copy several times, so it wasn't unfamiliar.  But acquiring means reading, and so I did.  I enjoyed it as much as ever-- it's a typical Asimov mystery, though not as good as The Caves of Steel.  Asimov gets in some of his best world-building with Solarian civilization, the mystery is fairly decent, and a visit from R. Daneel Olivaw is always a treat, even if Elijah Bailey is rather cruel to him at times.

Archival Review: The Malcontent by John Marston with John Webster

Trade paperback, 136 pages
Published 1998 (originally c. 1603)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
The Malcontent
by John Marston with John Webster

This is one of the plays we were supposed to read in the revenge tragedy course that I took last spring, but after I had purchased it, the professor dropped it from the syllabus in favor of Titus Andronicus.  My interest in Tudor revenge tragedy was sparked by the (brilliant) cinematic adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy, and none of the other examples of the genre have ever quite lived up to that one-- full of wit, melancholy, and cheerful violence. (Well, Hamlet is better, of course, but it's not exactly a typical revenge tragedy.) Still, I was looking forward to this one, but as I was reading it, I was struck by the fact it sure was taking a while for the revenging to happen.  Well, it never did.  Marston wrote a subversive take on the genre, where everyone reconciles in the end.  I don't know if it was good or not; I just wanted my bloodbath!

Archival Review: Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Incorporating the Junior Doctor Who Book of Lists) by Chris Howarth and Steven Lyons

Mass market paperback, 224 pages
Published 1996
Acquired December 2006

Read December 2007
Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Incorporating the Junior Doctor Who Book of Lists)
by Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons

This book is two men listing everything they can think of relating to Doctor Who in alphabetical order, and it is hilarious.  Featuring entries on items as diverse as "cunning disguises of the Master" and "wooden acting", it's the guide "packed with information so trivial we guarantee it will have no relevance to your life (if you have one)."  There's apparently both a sequel and a Star Trek version; I must seek them out.

Archival Review: The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

Hardcover, 204 pages
Published 1993
Acquired March 2007

Read December 2007
The Positronic Man
by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

This is another of those Asimov books I loaned off six years ago and never got back.  Like Nightfall and The Ugly Little Boy, this is Silverberg expanding an Asimov short story into a novel, and this is the most successful of the lot.  Unlike Nightfall, where the extra bits felt extraneous, Silverberg's expansions onto the already-excellent "The Bicentennial Man" just make a good story even better, providing detail where Asimov skimped-- it is, after all, a story that has to cover two centuries!  One of my favorite Asimov stories, and it was even made into a decent Asimov movie.

Archival Review: The New Doctor Who Adventures: Just War by Lance Parkin

Mass market paperback, 272 pages
Published 1996

Read December 2007
The New Doctor Who Adventures: Just War
by Lance Parkin

I'd heard the Jacqueline Rayner audio drama of this novel, which changes it from a Doctor Who story to a Professor Bernice Summerfield one (in fact, it's literally my current car listen), and I've always found it quite excellent, so I was eager to read the book, both to see if it was as good, and to see just how Rayner turned a story featuring the seventh Doctor, Benny, Chris and Roz into a story featuring Benny and Jason-- with a good deal less "running time"!

It was every bit as good as the audio-- I'd be hard-pressed to pick the better one, because they both do what they set out to do exceedingly well. Parkin captures all four protagonists perfectly, and his story's many subplots (the Doctor scheming, Benny tortured, Chris as action hero, and Roz in love) are all very different yet cohesive. The audio drama leaves Benny's part largely intact (though it gives her some of the Doctor's), and what remains of the Doctor's, Chris's, and Roz's plotlines wind up dumped on Jason. As I said before, I knew I needed more Paul Cornell in my library, and now I'm starting to think the same about Lance Parkin.

Archival Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Trade paperback, 400 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1914-15)
Acquired January 2007

Read December 2007
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce

I read this in high school.  I liked it all right, but I like Joyce's short fiction better.  I had to read it again in a class I took in the spring of 2007, but a misunderstanding in our assignments meant I fell behind and had to skip sections 3 and 4 so I could give a presentation on section 5.  So I slotted the book into my list, and finally got around to reading those missing sections.  They're the parts where Stephen renounces sin (following the amazing description of hell) and then, some time later, also rejects the priesthood.  Which ties into what our professor told us-- Stephen has to reach a point where he doesn't make one of two choices, but rejects the choice altogether.  Whatever.  It's James Joyce, and he really needs to discover the quotation mark.

Archival Review: Star Trek: Titan: Sword of Damocles by Geoffrey Thorne

Mass market paperback, 352 pages
Published 2007
Acquired November 2007

Read December 2007
Star Trek: Titan: Sword of Damocles
by Geoffrey Thorne

I think that, of all the current ongoing concepts in the world of Trek fiction, it is that of Titan that excites me the most.  I will very likely renege on that with some other review, but it's true enough now.  The latest installment in the series was my favorite yet.  It's got some complicated time travel stuff that made my head hurt (and normally I like those sort of things), but the handling of the characters, especially Vale, Dakal, Modan, Xin, Huilan, and (most of all) Jaza made it shine; Dakal is rapidly shaping up to be a favorite character of mine. The amount of exploration that can be done within Titan as well as without continues to impress; I look forward to the series continuing after the Destiny mega-event at the end of the year.

Reading Roundup Wrapup: December 2007

At the beginning of last month, I maintained a high reading rate-- about one book per day!  Of course, you shall soon see that wasn't a difficult rate to maintain, though, given the books I read.  The Dragonriders of Pern killed all that, as did Christmas festivities and trips to exotic lands.  Still, I eked my way through a couple more books.

In the month of December, I read fifteen books, and this is what they were:

1. Star Trek: Titan: Sword of Damocles by Geoffrey Thorne
2. Wisdom: Rudiments of Wisdom by Paul Cornell
3. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
4. Star Trek: Klingons: Blood Will Tell by Scott Tipton and David Tipton
5. The New Doctor Who Adventures: Just War by Lance Parkin
6. The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
7. Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Incorporating the Junior Doctor Who Book of Lists) by Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons
8. The Malcontent by John Marston with John Webster
9. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
10. Marvels by Kurt Busiek
11. Angels & Insects by A. S. Byatt
12. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
13. Troubled Waters by C. Cuadra and R. Miel
14. Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury by Aaron Allston
15. Doctor Who: Short Trips 15: The History of Christmas edited by Simon Guerrier

Books acquired in the month of December:1. Star Trek: Klingons: Blood Will Tell by Scott Tipton and David Tipton
2. Better Home and Gardens Step-By-Step Household Repairs3. Isaac Asimov's Caliban by Roger MacBride Allen
4. A Case of Conscience by James Blish
5. Star Trek: Corps of Engineers: Creative Couplings by John S. Drew, Glenn Greenberg, Glenn Hauman, Aaron Rosenberg, David Mack, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, J. Steven York, and Christina F. York
6. Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Fury by Aaron Allston
7. Troubled Waters by C. Cuadra and R. Miel
8. Doctor Who: The Encyclopedia: A Definitive Guide to Time and Space by Gary Russell
9. Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
10. Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George
11. In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner by Elizabeth George
12. The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Words by Anu Garg
13. Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary by Andrew Darling, Kerrie Dougherty, David John, and Simon Beecroft
14. Doctor Who: Short Trips 18: Time Signature edited by Simon Guerrier
15. Wessex Tales: That Is to Say, The Three Strangers, A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four, The Melancholy Hussar, The Withered Arm, Fellow-townsmen, Interlopers at the Knap, The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy

I have some stories to tell about some of these acquisitions, but those will probably come later, in another entry.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 117