30 September 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: September 2012

And so the next "reading year" begins, with a pretty nice first haul...

Pick of the month: Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman. Perhaps, as someone who is both shy and cynical, I was predisposed to like this book. As someone who is a Rob Shearman fan, however, I was predisposed to love it. Never have a more horrifying and disgusting group of love stories been gathered together, and I cannot remotely complain about that fact.

All books read:
1. A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy by John F.W. Herschel
2. Scott Pilgrim in his Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O’Malley
3. Sapphire & Steel Annual 1981 by Peter J. Hammond
4. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 by Mary Poovey
5. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation by John Stuart Mill
6. Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman
7. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens
8. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
9. Barry Gifford’s Perdita Durango by Bob Callahan
10. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe edited by Harold Beaver
11. Armadale by Wilkie Collins
12. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
13. The Sandman Presents: Thessaly: Witch for Hire by Bill Willingham
14. Space and the ‘March of Mind’: Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain, 1815-1850 by Alice Jenkins
15. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
16. JSA: Black Reign by Geoff Johns
17. Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn
18. Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
19. JSA: Lost by Geoff Johns
20. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle

All books acquired:
1. The Lifted Veil, Brother Jacob by George Eliot
2. Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles; Or, Pirates of the Second Aether!! by Michael Moorcock
3. Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
4. Armadale by Wilkie Collins
5. Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2011 edited by Clayton Hickman
6. Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2012 edited by Clayton Hickman
7. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Rough Beasts of Empire by David R. George III
8. Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations by Christopher L. Bennett
9. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Seize the Fire by Michael A. Martin
10. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game by Dayton Ward
11. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Paths of Disharmony by Dayton Ward
12. Star Trek: The Next Generation: Indistinguishable from Magic by David A. McIntee
13. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Plagues of Night by David R. George III
14. Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn by David R. George III
15. Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne
16. "This is NPR" by Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renée Montagne, and Ari Shapiro
17. About Looking by John Berger
18. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz by Eric Shanower
19. The Flash Omnibus by Geoff Johns, Volume Three by Geoff Johns with Greg Rucka
20. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
21. What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George
22. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George
23. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
24. Star Trek: The Prisoner of Vega by Sharon Lerner and Christopher Cerf

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 447

28 September 2012

Review: The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment by Amanda Anderson

Trade paperback, 196 pages
Published 2001
Acquired April 2012

Read July 2012
The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment
by Amanda Anderson

Anderson looks at the concept of "detachment" in a range of Victorian texts, both literary and critical, especially those by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde. One of the best parts of the book is perhaps here mere coinage of the term detachment to "encompass not only science, critical reason, disinterestedness, and realism, but also a set of practices of the self, ranging from stoicism to cosmopolitanism to dandyism" (7). Her emphasis is not on science itself, but it easily applies to it.

Anderson makes a couple good critical moves that make this book very worthwhile. One is that she takes the authors she studies and turn their concepts back on themselves, pointing out that though Dickens may lambast certain forms of detachment in his novels, his novels are just as detached in ways that have more in common more than they differ.

Secondly, she's not afraid to advance a position: The Powers of Distance doesn't just analyze detachment, it attempts to reclaim the practice from the bad reputation that (she argues) it has unjustly received in modern critical circles. (I largely agree with her on this point.) She points out that modern critics love irony, which is another form of detachment of course, but also that irony is cheap: you can critique one thing without having to embrace another. Stop being afraid of commitment! Detachment is acceptable, and the fact that it occasionally or even always fails doesn't stop aspiring to it from being worthwhile.

26 September 2012

Audio Catchup: Doctor Who: The New Fourth Doctor Adventures, Season One

I can't be bothered to do elaborate posts for what are essentially links, so here are all of the releases in the fourth Doctor's first-ever season of adventures for Big Finish Productions, which I've worked my way through over the last three months:
I'll excerpt my summative comment from the final one:
I’d like to take a step back for a moment and talk about this first season of the “New Fourth Doctor Adventures” as a whole, now that it’s come to an end. I was initially turned off by Big Finish’s marketing for it, since it was primarily nostalgia-based; I have no particular affection for Tom Baker over any other Doctor, and “Saturday night tea time in 1977” is an event I’ve literally never experienced. Destination: Nerva felt like it confirmed all my worst suspicions, but I found The Renaissance Man and The Wrath of the Iceni both very enjoyable — though Energy of the Dalekswas a big, big low point.

The consistent strength of this season, though, has been Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. I mean, I knew they were good on television, but it’s easy to get complacent with that sort of thing; even in Energy of the Daleks, they’ve never done less than give the Doctor and Leela their all. Every word that comes out of either character’s mouth is a joy to listen to, and that’s no small feat. The writing helps, too, of course: though Leela is a great character, one often felt that Louise Jameson made her so by overcoming scripts that didn’t serve her well. Justin Richards, John Dorney, Alan Barnes, and even Nicholas Briggs have really played to her strengths in a way one more usually associates with a “modern” companion like Charley or Evelyn, and she’s been all the better for it.

So, to my surprise, I find myself actively looking forward to the second season of the New Fourth Doctor Adventures. Tom Baker in action again, Mary Tamm back as Romana, Jonathan Morris penning a Wodehouse pastiche, John Leeson back as K-9, David Warner appearing in multiple episodes, and Nicholas Briggs writing 50 percent of the stories. What’s not to look forward to? (Don’t answer that.)

24 September 2012

Review: Barry Gifford's Peridta Durango by Bob Callahan

Comic trade paperback, 112 pages
Published 1995
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2012
Barry Gifford's Perdita Durango

Script Adaptation: Bob Callahan
Art: Scott Gillis

There's hardly a review of the absolutely stunning graphic adaptation Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli did of Paul Auster's City of Glass that doesn't mention that it was originally commissioned as part of the "Neon Lit" series of graphic novels, which was intended to adapt contemporary crime/mystery fiction into graphic format. Upon a recent rereading of City of Glass, it occurred to me that I'd never even heard the title of another work in that series, so I went and looked it up.

Well, there was only one other, and it's this. Perdita Durango was originally a novel by Barry Gifford, second of his Sailor & Lula series; Bob Callahan scripted a comics adaptation of it that was drawn by Scott Gillis. Perdita Durango isn't terrible in any way, shape, or form, but coming on the heels of City of Glass, it's not remotely in the same league. The story doesn't do anything near as interesting with word/image interplay, it's simply a somewhat over-narrated tale of journey across America by two criminals. I don't know how long the original piece was, but this feels overly compressed; they've crossed America before they've even left.

Perdita Durango is dark, twisted, and occasionally funny, but perhaps its failing-- the thing that stopped me from ever really engaging with it-- is that you finish it without understanding Perdita. And not in a oh-isn't-she-such-an-enigma way, but in a we-have-nothing-interesting-to-go-on-not-even-an-interesting-lack-of-knowledge way. I have only the barest hint of who she is and what she does. Good prose-to-comics adaptations are capable of much; unfortunately, Perdita Durango does not achieve it.

21 September 2012

New Republic Week: Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy by Mike Baron with Timothy Zahn

Comic hardcover, 436 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1995-99)
Acquired December 2010
Read July 2012
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy

Scripts: Mike Baron
Pencils and Inks: Olivier Vatine, Fred Blanchard, Terry Dodson, Kevin Nowlan, Edvin Biukovic, and Eric Shanower
Art Assists: Vincent Rueda
Colors: Isabelle Rabarot, Pamela Rambo, and Dan Brown
Lettering: Ellie DeVille
Adapted from the novels by Timothy Zahn

Though I've read the novels many times, this was my first time reading the comics adaptation of Timothy Zahn's trilogy of Star Wars novels, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, making this a different sort of climax to my time of rereading New Republic-era Star Wars novels.

Unfortunately, although it was rarely bad, mostly this book served to remind me of a much superior work. Zahn's Thrawn novels are distinguished by their large, complex political plots; abbreviated into comics, each story is nothing but a series of haphazard and rapid scenes. Characters go places and do things for reasons the reader doesn't quite know, referring to things the reader hasn't seen. Though Baron gets better with this as the adaptations go on, they never become involving or deep.

The art itself is nice. Olivier Vatine and Fred Blanchard have a very distinctive style-- I love their narrow-eyed Thrawn-- and I certainly enjoy the work of Terry Dodson and Eric Shanower. (And since I complain about it so much elsewhere, never once did I feel here that a female character had been gratuitously sexualized, not even Mara to my surprise.) While it's nice to get visualizations of some of the story elements, this comic fails to add much of a new level of meaning to the original. Mostly, I just want to read the original now.

20 September 2012

New Republic Week: Star Wars: Tatooine Ghost by Troy Denning

Hardcover, 327 pages
Published 2004 (originally 2003)

Previously read February 2004
Reread July 2012
Star Wars: Tatooine Ghost
by Troy Denning

Would it be that Troy Denning had been writing Star Wars novels ten years earlier, because in many ways, this is the novel that The Courtship of Princess Leia should have been. Bridging the gap between Courtship and Heir to the Empire, Tatooine Ghost takes Han and Leia to Tatooine so that they can recover an important painting at auction. But what it ends up doing is confronting Leia with her past: the grandmother she never knew and the father she doesn't want to.

Tatooine Ghost links elements revealed in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones into the original Star Wars characters to great effect: the sequences where Leia reads the diary of Shmi (surely one of the most underrated Star Wars characters) are excellent, even riveting, despite their flashback status. These are used to drive Leia's emotional journey-- which is paralleled with her physical journey. This is a harrowing escapade for Leia, Han, and Chewbacca. I doubt that any other Star Wars stories have revealed the harshness of Tatooine quite so effectively as this one.

What Denning also does well is write the Han/Leia relationship. I think this can be a tricky one to manage, because you have to be true to the films in depicting their characters-- which don't really show Han and Leia in a committed relationship very much. But Denning manages to get their characters spot on, and yet portray the depth of the commitment they have to one another.

There are a lot of things to like about this book: a good role for Chewbacca, random prequel characters like Kister and Wald, a Thrawn cameo, and best of all, the Squibs! Denning doesn't forget that Star Wars should be zany and funny.  I loved it everytime they showed up and caused trouble, well-intentioned in their own way.

The pacing could maybe be better-- the second half drags a little bit as they travel through the desert so much-- but on the whole this is one of my favorite Star Wars novels.

19 September 2012

New Republic Week: Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton

Hardcover, 327 pages
Published 1994

Acquired March 2008
Reread June 2012
Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia
by Dave Wolverton

There's some interesting ideas here, but they're wrapped up in a book that manages to get the characters of Leia and Han completely wrong. Who you would think would be the key component of a book about their engagement.  Luke is written fairly accurately, at least.

18 September 2012

New Republic Week: Star Wars: X-Wing, Book Seven: Solo Command by Aaron Allston

Mass market paperback, 341 pages
Published 1999

Reread June 2012
Star Wars: X-Wing, Book Seven: Solo Command
by Aaron Allston

Before reading The Courtship of Princess Leia, I decided to reread Solo Command, the X-Wing novel that serves as a prequel to it. It's the last of the "Wraith Squadron" novels, all of which I have not read for many years, though I remembered liking them.

It's okay. I honestly don't have a lot to say about it. Fans like to hold this book up as superior to the book it leads into, but I don't really see it. Warlord Zsinj and the other villains might have a little bit more style, but they have no more substance here than there; they are simple black hats on which to hang a plot. The pilots aren't exactly deeply characterized, either, though I wonder if they would pop more if I'd just read the previous two novels featuring them.  Wedge Antilles is the highlight here, a man burdened with responsibility but eminently capable of shouldering it. On the other hand, I found it hard to imagine Han Solo saying the lines here where he is being all general-like.

The best part is the uneasy and unofficial alliance the New Republic and the Galactic Empire make to take down Zsinj. Rogriss is how I like my Imperials: earnest and not gratuitously evil. It's a standout subplot in an otherwise average book.

17 September 2012

New Republic Week: Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover

Mass market paperback, 379 pages
Published 2010 (originally 2008)
Previously read January 2009

Acquired June 2010
Reread June 2012
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor
by Matthew Stover

So, having three books (this one, The Courtship of Princess Leia, and The Thrawn Trilogy) on my to-be-read list that all took place in the years following Return of the Jedi, I decided to read all three in a row, plugging in some old books I had to fill the gaps (X-Wing: Solo Command and Tatooine Ghost). This one was first, and like almost all the books on that list, it was actually a reread; I borrowed the book from the library in hardcover before I bought the paperback.

Last time I read it, I thought that The Shadows of Mindor was one of the best Star Wars books ever published; now I know it to be true. This book has everything a Star Wars fan should want: tense battles, cool Force powers, witty banter, Lando Calrissian. All the heroes of the classic trilogy are here, down to Wedge, and they all get together and do their thing with no infighting or despair or whatnot; they're just heroes in the most idealistic sense of the word. Seriously, this book is just a delight to read from start to finish, and if you only ever read one Star Wars novel, this one ought to be it.

That said, if you read many Star Wars novels... and comics... and sourcebooks... and technical guides, The Shadows of Mindor is a different sort of achievement. The whole book is built out of a passing reference in The Courtship of Princess Leia to Han and Leia having a picnic on Mindor surrounded by dead stormtroopers, and over the years, various Expanded Universe releases added tiny tidbits to the Battle of Mindor. What makes The Shadows of Mindor impressive is that you can read it and not know this: the continuity, despite its sheer bulk, still exists to serve the story and not the other way around. Every little reference is accounted for in some way. After suffering through Darth Plagueis, I actually kinda needed a reminder that continuity can indeed be a force for good.

14 September 2012

Review: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

Hardcover, 343 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1789)
Borrowed from the library

Read June 2012
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
by Jeremy Bentham

There's a certain delight to be got from following the turnings of a highly intelligent mind at work, even if they take you through the twisted turnings on the way there. I got the same delight out of reading this book that I did reading Darwin's Origin. His explanation of utilitarianism is (to my amateur philosopher self, anyway) well-argued and compelling, as is his call for a science of government (not that that's worked out the way that he hoped). Of course, it gets boring in Part III when he just ends up classifying laws, but then I just turned to aggressive skim-reading and made it through to the end.

12 September 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XVIII: Death: At Death's Door

Comic hardcover, 192 pages
Published 2003
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2012
Death: At Death's Door
by Jill Thompson

This is the third volume in the Death series (though it's labeled #1 for some reason), and it sees Jill Thompson taking over for Neil Gaiman, Chris Bachalo, and Mark Buckingham on the series. It's also done in "manga" format; it's digest sized and in black and white. It also jumps backwards: while the previous volumes told stories of Death interacting with Sandman characters after their appearances in The Sandman, this retells a Sandman story (Season of Mists in The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two) from Death's perspective.

Sort of. It opens the same ways as Season of Mists, and it soon gets to the same point, where Lucifer opens the gates of Hell, releasing all its souls back to the mortal world. Only they all invade Death's apartment, and with the help of her sisters Delirium and Despair, she has to throw the ultimate party to keep them all distracted!

Sounds fun, right? These bits are fun. This Death isn't Gaiman's all-knowing pleasant sage, but an exasperated fashionable girl-- she's perhaps more human here than she's been in other of her own stories. It's especially nice to see Despair to get to do some stuff, since she's usually one of the least-focused-on Endless. She even gets a quasi-romance here!

But large portions of the book are given over to retelling Season of Mists. And not just from Death's perspective, but from Dream's. Why? I remember the story, and this adds nothing new. It seems to verge on a 50/50 split. Even the scene where Dream is told that the Justice Society of America is trapped in a simulation of Ragnarok is in here, and that was irrelevant to the original comic, much less this one. The constant cutting to the Dreaming really dampened the potential of the book, and it kept the party plot repetitive and linear. (At least I am giving Thompson the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that with more space she could have done more!) At Death's Door is a nice showcase for Thompson's cute art, but it could be more than that.

11 September 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XVII: Endless Nights

Comic hardcover, 152 pages
Published 2003
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2012
The Sandman: Endless Nights

Written by: Neil Gaiman
Lettered by: Todd Klein

Neil Gaiman's triumphal return to The Sandman is a series of seven short stories, each one covering a different member of the Endless, those squabbling anthropomorphic personifications who exist beyond gods and time. Each one is drawn by a different artist, and they take place across a whole range of times.

Death: "Death and Venice"
Artist: P. Craig Russell
Colorist/Separator: Lovern Kindzierski

I'd actually read this story before, in The Absolute Death. You bet I love any chance to experience P. Craig Russell's glorious art, and it's as sharp and clean here as ever. He draws Death at her absolute prettiest, and that's how I prefer her. The story has its moments-- many of them, in fact-- but somehow never fully engages me. I'd nearly completely forgotten it until I reread it, except for the dancing paper men, and though that's not super-important, it's not a bad thing to remember, either.

Desire: "What I've tasted of Desire"
Artist: Milo Manara

This is about a Celtic village in the pre-Roman period, or something like that anyway, where a woman gains the power of Desire in order to make a man want her. Unexpected craziness ensues. Like before, there are some very great moments, but I'm not sure what they're all in aid of. Milo Manara's art looks like he's been tracing glamour models: every woman has big pouty lips, has long perfect legs, and is always on the verge of showing her ass if she leans over just a little bit more in that short skirt. It turns "desire" into something crass, which is against the whole idea here.

Dream: "The Heart of a Star"
Artist: Miguelanxo Prado

Though this story is about Dream, the character, it's not really about dreams. If anything it's more about Desire, the character, than "What I've tasted of Desire" was! Set near the beginning of the universe, this story shows Dream bringing his girlfriend Killalla of the Glow to a party with a number of the Endless in attendance. It's supposed to explain the antipathy between Dream and Desire, but it doesn't really. At the beginning of story, Dream has some super-exposition dialogue about how much he loves Desire, then Desire betrays him. We neither see the friendship between them nor understand the motive for betrayal.

There are some awesome ideas here, though, playing with the toys of the DC universe in a way that The Sandman has avoided for a long time, but what works about the story has little to do with Dream or dreams, as we understand neither better at its end.

Despair: "Fifteen Portraits of Despair"
Artist: Barron Storey
Designer: Dave McKean

This is not a comic story, but a series of collages, words overlaid on text, about people in moments of despair. You feel depressed and anguished after reading these things; they're definitely the best and most appropriate stories in the book.

Delirium: "Going Inside"
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz

A number of delirious people are recruited for a mission by Daniel, the second Dream. Bill Sienkiewicz's art really captures the art and the concept, and though the ending doesn't make any sense, it's hard to imagine how a story about Delirium could. Matthew the Raven puts in a brief appearance, which is always nice. I think by the time this was published he had died in The Dreaming. Oh, and Barnabas is here, too. I like him. This story is clearly a fragment of a larger picture, one we'll probably never see, but it's probably better that way.

Destruction: "On the Peninsula"
Artist: Glenn Fabry

This one-- about an archaeologist digging up artifacts from the future-- is a nice little story. Probably my second-favorite in the book. A simple, personal story, and we get good appearances from Destruction and Delirium, picking up right from the previous story, in fact.

Destiny: "Endless Nights"
Artist: Frank Quitely

The art by Frank Quitely is of course very nice, but it's not a story. More a kind of poem maybe? Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold was pretty pointless, so maybe it's for the best that there's no attempt to use Destiny as the key character in a story.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. Most of the art is top-notch, and the imagery and ideas are great. But as I often find with Neil Gaiman, there's a noticeable gap between the story we did get and the story we could have gotten. These things could stand to be in focus a little bit more. Though, I suppose that if they were, he wouldn't be Neil Gaiman anymore.

10 September 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XVI: The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives

Comic trade paperback, 102 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2001)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2012
The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Penciller: Bryan Talbot
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Willie Schubert

My long, ambling journey through all things Sandman continues with The Dead Boy Detectives, which brings back two character who previously appeared in Season of Mists (and in only one issue, I think): Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine. Edwin was murdered at boarding school in 1916 and went to Hell, but escaped during Season of Mists. Charles, attending the same boarding school in 1991, was murdered during the same storyline. Due to the general chaos, both of them escaped Death and were not forced to go to the afterlife.

By the time of this story, they've set up as detectives. Why not? I'm sure there are worse ideas for Sandman spin-offs out there. And it's written by Ed Brubaker, who did an excellent off-beat take on the police procedural in Gotham Central, giving me confidence that he could do a mystery here.

Unfortunately, the book itself is not as fun as the premise "teenage ghost detectives" would imply. The mystery is as about as simplistic as simplistic could be; the characters spend the whole book being blatantly mislead, which is just frustrating to the reader. Who wants to read about a pair of detectives who are complete idiots? And like too many stories set in The Sandman universe, it revolves around the realm's ill-defined mysticism a little too much. Ghosts have the power to make miniature ghost versions of themselves, apparently. Why?

Worse, the characters are just dull. I couldn't ever remember which one was which, and given that one of them comes from 75 years before the other, that's a problem. At the very least Edwin could have been given comedy about being out of the loop from 1916 to 1991 (the story takes place in 2001). But we don't even get that. They're just interchangeable enthusiastic kids with creepy eyes.

Good premise, but nothing interesting after that point.

08 September 2012

Reading Roundup Year in Review, 2011/12

I'm a little behind on reviews, but we mustn't let that distract us from other things-- it's the end of the reading year. The first month I kept a list of what I read was September 2003, which means my "reading year" runs from September to August. So how have things been going this past year?

Year Books Read
2003/04 151
2004/05 129
2005/06 141
2006/07 129
2007/08 152
2008/09 161
2009/10 157
2010/11 139
2011/12 183
SUM 1342

As you can see, I read the most books this year of any year since I started! Nice! My wife accuses me of cheating, which I think means "reading a lot of comic books," but if you subtract comic books out from this year and last year (where I followed the same plan of ILLing ~3 comic books per month), it still comes out to an increase of 20 books over last year, so I'm apparently just reading more.

Here's what I've been reading this year: (I broke out series/authors only if I read more than one book of that series/author)

Doctor Who 27 2.3 14.8%
Star Wars 13 1.1 7.1%
Star Trek 1 0.1 0.5%
Sapphire & Steel 1 0.1 0.5%
Media Tie-In Subtotal 42 3.5 23.0%

Isaac Asimov1 2 0.2 1.1%
Other SF&F 17 1.4 9.3%
General SF&F Subtotal 19 1.6 10.4%

The Sandman 3 0.3 1.6%
Legion of Super-Heroes 3 0.3 1.6%
Green Arrow 3 0.3 1.6%
Other DC Comics2 16 1.3 8.7%
Spider-Man2 7 0.6 3.8%
Other Marvel Comics 8 0.7 4.4%
Scott Pilgrim 5 0.4 2.7%
Starslip 4 0.3 2.2%
Harvey Pekar 4 0.3 2.2%
Other Comics 16 1.3 8.7%
Comics Subtotal 69 5.8 37.7%

Elizabeth Gaskell 4 0.3 2.2%
Thomas Hardy 2 0.2 1.1%
Other Victorian Literature3 13 1.1 7.1%
Frances Hodgson Burnett 13 1.1 7.1%
Inspector Lynley Mysteries 2 0.2 1.1%
Other Literature 5 0.4 2.7%
General Literature Subtotal 39 3.3 21.3%

Other Nonfiction4 14 1.2 7.7%

1. This also includes books related to Asimov (i.e., Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis).
2. These also include novels about these comics characters.

3. This also includes nonfiction written by Victorians (e.g., John Tyndall's Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews), but not nonfiction about Victorians (e.g., Ursula DeYoung's A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture).
4. Nonfiction connected to a particular series is included in that series's count.

I was utterly flabbergasted when I made this chart: I only read one Star Trek book this year! And it wasn't even a novel, nor an official release; it was Michael Piller's Fade In, about the making of Star Trek: Insurrection. I'd felt like I'd fallen behind on my tie-ins, but apparently Star Trek more than most (though many of the Doctor Who books are actually Professor Bernice Summerfield books). I continue to read a decent, if not stellar amount of Victorian literature, which is good, 'cause that's supposedly my job these days! I bet that number will be really high this year.

As I have the past couple years, I've selected a "Pick of the Month" every month. I won't try to rank them amongst each other, because that's nearly impossible, so here they are in alphabetical order by author:
Except I did pick a best book of the year:
This one's main idea still sticks with me. Is it ironic that my favorite Gaiman comic was not written by Gaiman? Russell is good. Overall, it's a pretty pleasing mix of books: four 19th-century novels, four very different comic books (except that two are by Chris Ware!), a couple sf tales, and even two (albeit unofficial) tie-ins. Ain't no one gonna call me a literary snob!

If you really want to see how my habits have shifted over the years, this chart sure reveals it:

2003/04 2004/05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 ALL
Star Trek 41.1% 38.0% 25.5% 14.7% 21.1% 13.7% 8.9% 4.3% 0.5% 18.0%
Doctor Who 16.6% 15.5% 18.4% 11.6% 13.2% 6.2% 10.2% 3.6% 14.8% 12.2%
Star Wars 10.6% 11.6% 11.3% 15.5% 12.5% 11.2% 2.5% 6.5% 7.1% 9.7%
Other Tie-In 0.7% 6.2% 3.5% 3.1% 1.3% -- -- 0.7% 0.5% 1.6%
SF&F 9.9% 6.2% 21.3% 15.5% 20.4% 23.0% 22.3% 25.9% 9.8% 17.1%
DC Comics -- 4.7% 0.7% 3.1% 8.6% 11.2% 21.0% 26.6% 21.9% 11.3%
Other Comics -- -- -- 2.3% 3.3% 0.6% -- 7.2% 15.8% 3.6%
Victorian Lit -- -- 1.4% 7.0% 0.7% 7.5% 7.6% 1.4% 10.4% 4.2%
Other Literature 14.6% 10.9% 14.9% 24.0% 15.8% 20.5% 20.4% 14.4% 11.5% 16.2%
Nonfiction 6.6% 7.0% 2.8% 3.1% 3.3% 6.2% 7.0% 9.4% 7.7% 6.0%

Would 2003 Steve have thought he'd read so few Star Trek books nine years in the future? Or so many comic books? Or any Victorian literature at all? Probably not. The only real regret I have this year is how few non-tie-in SF&F novels I managed to read. My non-Victorian literature also isn't so great.

Or look at it graphically:


Well, I'm required to read over a hundred books for my exams, so I know I'll have a good year this year. And I wager that that Victorian slice will be much bigger!

You can compare this to previous years if you're that interested: 2007/08, 2008/09, 2009/10. (I didn't do one for 2010/11.)

07 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 1950-75)
Acquired June 2012

Read August 2012
When the People Fell
by Cordwainer Smith

I got this book in a Baen eBook Bundle-- for paying twice as much as I'd pay to get one book, I got five. I dimly knew Cordwainer Smith as someone who wrote classic sf, but I didn't have very specific memories of him except enjoying "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal."  This book-- which collects about about half of Smith's short fiction, most of it set in the "Instrumentality of Mankind" future history-- won me over in short order. Even when the stories aren't plot- or character-interesting, the ideas are amazing and lyrical, the prose completely unlike anything else from 1950s sf, the narratives playful with stories layered inside stories. I mean, I love Isaac Asimov, but it's hard to imagine that at the same time that he was churning out robot and Foundation tales, Smith had come up with something as distinctive as this.

It's enough to make me do a story-by-story review, something I don't do much anymore.

"No, No, Not Rogov!"
One of several  World War II-centric stories in the book, this is about a pair of Soviet scientists, their keepers, and the machine they built to read American brainwaves that connected them to something they couldn't have imagined. There's a tragedy of repression and detachment here, hidden under a (perfectly) perfunctory style.

"War No. 81-Q" (Rewritten Version)
In the future, wars are licensed and no one dies. The elaborate mechanics of this premise make the story a delightful and imaginative read, no matter what it actually does with the premise.

"Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon"
These were probably my least favorite stories in the book. The ideas come thick and fast, but too much so: they feel random and arbitrary (though I can't be displeased with the talking bear) rather than part of an immense universe. They're about a couple of German girls launched into space during World War II who crash back down in the far future and end up leading a not-very-interesting revolution against not-well-defined bad guys.

"Scanners Live in Vain"
Apparently I read this before, as I called it a "highlight" in an old review, but I only remembered the vaguest of outlines. I can't tell why, as this story is amazing. The difficulties of love, an incredible and unique future with a cool civilization, a terrible choice. Like the best sf, it reveals to its reader both an unknown world and something of himself. Few stories are this good. And to think that having come up with such a premise, Smith only mined it for one story-- Asimov would have kept the Scanners going with increasingly unnecessary sequels for decades.

"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul"
About Helen America, the first woman to pilot a sleeper ship through space, and her strange love story. Pretty sweet.

"When the People Fell"
Despite giving its (great) title to the collection and some strong imagery, this one doesn't have a lot to offer for some reason. As close to perfunctory as Smith's stories come.

"Think Blue, Count Two"
One of those stories that makes you hate yourself for being a human being, but in a good way. A girl who has the right personality to make anyone think she's their daughter is guarded by a telepathic mouse brain in a plastic cube.

"The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All"
This one is all right again. It gets a little goofy, but I didn't mind too much.

"The Game of Rat and Dragon"
In the future, the only way for ships in deep space to protect themselves against telepathic mind-destroying dragons is to link human telepaths to cats who fly football-sized spaceships that launch light bombs.   Yup, you read that right. Another great idea done well.

"The Burning of the Brain"
Somehow, less happens in this one than you would think.

"From Gustible's Planet"
Delightfully bonkers story about a race of aliens who inadvertently rekindle humanity's carnivorous instincts. Near-genocide has never been so hilarious.

"Himself in Anachron"
A man travels through time backwards, and Smith uses this as an excuse to mess up cause and effect. I'm surprise Steven Moffat hasn't ripped this off for Doctor Who, but it's smart.

"The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal"
This one is still "so mad it has to be brilliant."  I summarized the plot to my wife and her advisor while we were driving together, but that doesn't do it justice. Much love to the turtle people who crew Suzdal's spaceship for generations while he sleeps.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Good, but not as good as the title.

This is pretty similar to "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All". One is a rewritten version of the other, but I'm not sure which way it goes. Maybe it's just because I read it earlier, but "The Colonel" was better. I'm not sure why they're both counted as in-continuity, unlike the two versions of "War No. 81-Q."

"A Planet Named Shayol"
The Instrumentality's prison-planet turns out to be the most horrifying thing I could have imagined: a planet where people are infected with a cancer that makes them grow body parts that can be harvested to use as spare organs-- and they live forever. Gross, but triumphant.

"On the Gem Planet"
The first of three stories about Casher O'Neill, a man wandering the galaxy to find the resources to reclaim his home planet from his dictator uncle. In this one, he helps some people figure out what a horse is for. There's more to than you'd expect from that description, I guess.

"On the Storm Planet"
Casher O'Neill returns in one of my favorite stories in the book, a harrowing journey into a house no one ever returns from... because no one ever wants to. The twists never stop, and Casher is a great protagonist, and he gets an ever greater companion here.

"On the Sand Planet"
The resolution to the Casher stories is not everything it could have been. There are some great moments, but then he discovers a secret telepath city which doesn't have anything to do with anything as far as I could tell. There is room for dozens of Casher adventures between "Gem Planet" and "Storm Planet"; someone should write them.

"Three to a Given Star"
Three people have their minds turned into the controls of a spaceship, a giant robot, and a terrible weapon. It's epic and heartfelt.

"Down to a Sunless Sea"
This is the only story in the book where looking at the title didn't remind when what it was about. Either it was bad, it was forgettable, or I was in a hurry because the book was almost over.

There are just a few non-Instrumentality stories at the end. "Western Science Is So Wonderful," about a Martian demon who tries to join the Chinese Communist Party but moves to Connecticut instead is the best, but the only uninteresting one is the original version of "War No. 81-Q." Despite not being set in the Instrumentality, most have the same feel, and I imagine its tiny things that keep them "out" of that continuity.

When I finished this, I immediately knew I needed to read more Cordwainer Smith; he's the first new writer I've read in a long time who provoked such a reaction. An sf great whose career was tragically short.

06 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: Voices from the Past edited by Scott Harrison and Lee Harris

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2011
Acquired May 2011

Read July 2012
Voices from the Past
edited by Scott Harrison and Lee Harris

Once again, I picked up this book because Paul Cornell has a story in it; I really am obsessed. Voices from the Past is the first (and apparently only) publication of H&H Books, collecting 1,500-word stories from almost thirty of British sf's best authors, released for charity. (Though "British sf's best authors" has a curiously high correspondence to "people who write Doctor Who tie-in fiction".) The linking theme seems to be the title itself; nearly all of the stories have literal or metaphorical "voices from the past." (Rob Shearman's, though, has a creepy man-dog creature. We love you, Rob!)

The main thing I learned is that the 1,500-word short story is immensely difficult to write; many of these stories are just an idea, but they're slightly too long to get away with only being an idea. Worse than a story that's just an idea is a story that's just a twist, and that's an all too prevalent mode here. Especially if that twist is just a cliche or a joke I've heard before. I could complain about a lot of those, but instead I'll focus on the good ones, such as Alastair Reynolds's "Ascension Day," which is about a spaceship that stays in a place for years upon years... but is about to take off. But of course, like all good twists, it's not twist, but simply a revelation about what's come before.

Other good ones: Cavan Scott's "Just Do It" was striking and creepy, Jasper Fforde's "Shuttle" had a great, vivid concept, Joseph Lidster's "Success" feels like the flipside of an aliens-invade-London episode of Russell Davies Doctor Who, Maura McHugh's "Mustn't Grumble" puts a poor father/son relationship into a disturbing light, Mur Lafferty's "750,000 of Your Friends Like This" was a great idea and funny even if it wasn't much of a story, Paul Magrs's "The Curious Package" was charming fun, and Robert Shearman's "The Runt" was darkly true in that way that Shearman always is.

So there's some good stuff, but the hit ratio is slightly lower than one might hope for. They're all over quickly, which means that most of the bad ones don't outstay their welcomes (though there are some capable of doing that anyway!). It's an okay book in the end, but you'd kinda hope for better from many of these authors.

All that said, for an eBook-only release, the formatting on this thing (at least in the Kindle edition) is terrible. I can (begrudgingly) understand bad formatting on print book also released as an eBook, but when a book is only an eBook, every line of text consistently being indented on the left side is inexcusably sloppy. Check your work, people!

05 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: Asimov's Science Fiction July 2011

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2011
Acquired May 2011

Read July 2012
Asimov's Science Fiction July 2011
edited by Sheila Williams

My Paul Cornell obsession continues, bringing me to an issue of Asimov's-- I don't even know what the last time I bought a single issue of an sf mag was. But damn straight I was going to get my hands on the next Major Jonathan Hamilton story... even if I didn't like the previous two very much. (And even if it took me over a year to get around to reading the issue!) But "The Copenhagen Interpretation" is the story that finally does it for me, providing some depth for Hamilton, some emotional complexity, and a fabulous merging of an old pseudoscience idea with a bit of actual modern science. There's a very cool sequence that a character tells us about that you kinda wish Hamilton was seeing for himself, but other than that, it's a very good story. (In between my reading it and my writing this review, it failed to win the Hugo.)

There's other stuff, too, of course, and it ranges from okay to good to great. Chris Beckett's "Day 29" is pretty good, about what people would do if they knew they wouldn't remember what they were doing now.  I also enjoyed the setting of Josh Roseman's "Bring on the Rain," a sort of anti-Waterworld where people roam about on ships because water is so scarce you have to get to it as soon as it rains. The best story in the issue, though, is without a doubt "Twelvers" by Leah Cypess, about a girl who spent twelve months in the womb (in a future where this was briefly common) and is mocked by her classmates for this, as she experiences her own internal problems. A very realistic look at the cruelty of children.

There are also some misses, though: I don't know what happened in Theodora Goss's "Pug," Norman Spinrad has once again mistaken idea for story in "The Music of the Sphere," and I may have to reconcile myself to just never being able to accept Kristine Kathryn Rusch's short fiction as being remotely sensical.

04 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: Dark Currents edited by Ian Whates

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2012
Acquired March 2012

Read July 2012
Dark Currents
edited by Ian Whates

This is a loosely-themed-- very loosely-themed-- anthology of short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, themed around the vague phrase "dark currents" or "dark tides." I went for it because Una McCormack, whose written some excellent Star Trek and Doctor Who tales, was in it; virtually all the other contributors, as well as the editor, were new to me.

The book gets off to a bad start with Adrian Tchaikovsky's "The Fall of Lady Sealight." It might be a good story, I dunno. Were I ever to be so privileged as to edit an anthology, I would not lead off with a story that is hard to get. Short stories, through necessities created by their shortness, can often require a lot of work to figure out what's happening, and that's work I think the reader should be eased into. Start off with something simple. This was a lot of work to figure out what was happening, and I did not yet feel like doing it. So it could be a good story, I just never figured out what was happening ay all.  It wasn't the only story like this, but it was the most memorable unmemorable one!

I don't read a lot of horror, and my only foray into short horror produced mixed results, but I ended up liking most of the horror offerings here. Many of them revolved around the ocean as you might imagine, and they managed to produce varying degrees of unease to great effect. "The Age of Entitlement" by Adam Nevill is about a man who finally realizes how spoiled his best friend is in a weird, postapocalyptic setting. "The Barricade" by Nina Allen was a wonderfully disconcerting story about doubt and a collapsing relationship and a painting with unearthly power. And "Bells Ringing Under the Sea" by Sophia McDougall, about a man trying to explain what happened to the love of his life, was splendidly creepy, perhaps my favorite story in the book.

Some of the stories are supershort and cute in exactly the way that short fiction should never be because it makes it terrible; Tricia Sullivan's "Electrify Me" is such a tale, for example. On the other hand, some are long and still feel like lopped-off beginnings of novels. Rod Rees's "Electric Currents" is a fun story of a 19th-century Martian invasion featuring Nikolai Tesla and Theodore Roosevelt (even if it does have some weird plotting), but then it just stops without a real end in a way that makes you think the author ran out of words. Finn Clarke's "Loose Connections" also has an interesting set up (even if the world-building doesn't wholly convince), but again, the story just stops right as it's getting started.

But on the whole, this was an enjoyable anthology. Some were forgettable, sure, but then there were gems like "Lost Sheep" by Neil Williamson, about a wannabe-privateer who meets a spaceship full of nuns who are part-sheep!  Strangely and unfortunately, "In Tauris" by Una McCormack ended up not leaving much of an impression.  But a thin theme turns out to be a good theme: "dark currents" is vague enough to keep the stories diverse, but it still ties the book together and produces some things you suspect the writers wouldn't've thunk up themselves.

(A small note of complaint: my Kindle eBook edition could be better done. Each story ends with a link to the "author notes," but this take you to the beginning of the "About the Authors" section, not the entry for your specific story. When there's no headers atop every page, it's too easy to forget who wrote a story by the time it's over!)

03 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: The Sensible Folly by Paul Cornell

Pamphlet, 15 pages
Published 2011
Acquired July 2011

Read June 2012
The Sensible Folly
by Paul Cornell

My mania to collect all of Paul Cornell's work has lead me to this, a pamphlet by him published to support the Folly Tower in Faringdon. It's a history of the Folly (a tower with no real purpose beyond decoration), written from its point-of-view. Mildly informative, I suppose, and cute. When The Complete Short Fiction of Paul Cornell is published a century hence, I can brag about owning an original copy.

01 September 2012

Reading Roundup Wrapup: August 2012

Pick of the month: When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith. Is there a better single-author collection of classic science fiction? Probably, but none could match this one for ideas. Smith edges out Legion Lost, Endless Nights, and Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness, all of which could have handily won this thing in a different month.

1. Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks by Paul Scoones
2. Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks by Jon Preddle
3. When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith
4. Music to My Sorrow by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
5. Miss Wildthyme and Friends Investigate by Stuart Douglas, Cody Schell, Jim Smith & Nick Wallace
6. Man-Kzin Wars XI by Hal Colebatch and Matthew Harrington
7. Legion Lost by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
8. The New Adventures: Tempest by Christopher Bulis
9. The Pelican History of England: 7. England in the Eighteenth Century by J. H. Plumb
10. The Obverse Quarterly, Book Two: Señor 105 and the Elements of Danger edited by Cody Quijano-Schell
11. The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives by Ed Brubaker
12. Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews by John Tyndall
13. Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino
14. The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman
15. Death: At Death’s Door by Jill Thompson
16. Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O’Malley
17. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove
18. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O’Malley
19. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O’Malley

All books acquired:
1. Antrobus Complete by Lawrence Durrell
2. The New Adventures: Tempest by Christopher Bulis
3. Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobelman
4. The Obverse Quarterly: Year Two, Book One: Tales of the City edited by Philip Purser-Hallard
5. When It Changed: Science into Fiction edited by Geoff Ryman
6. Time, Unincorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives, Vol. 2: Writings on the Classic Series edited by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?
7. Star Trek / Legion of Super-Heroes by Chris Roberson
8. R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Son and the Stars by Tony Bedard
9. R.E.B.E.L.S.: Sons of Brainiac by Tony Bedard
10. Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 3 by David Michelinie and Walter Simonson with Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Louise Jones, and Michael Fleisher
11. Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 4 by David Michelinie, Mary Jo Duffy, Archie Goodwin, Linda Grant, and Roy Richardson
12. Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...., Volume 5 by Jo Duffy with Randy Stradley, Ann Nocenti, and Archie Goodwin
13. The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore
14. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Eric Shanower
15. The Marvelous Land of Oz by Eric Shanower
16. Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower
17. Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
18. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II by Alan Moore
19. Adventures in Oz by Eric Shanower
20. Wiped!: Doctor Who's Missing Episodes by Richard Molesworth
21. Star Trek: Corps of Engineers: Out of the Cocoon by William Leisner, Kevin Killiany, Phaedra M. Weldon, and Robert T. Jeschonek
22. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
23. R.E.B.E.L.S.: Strange Companions by Tony Bedard
24. Winsor McCay: Early Works IV by Winsor McCay
25. Winsor McCay: Early Works V by Winsor McCay
26. Winsor McCay: Early Works VI by Winsor McCay

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 432