2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here’s what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14)
This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I’d come across while I was working on my project. I’ve revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 – The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28)
This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 – The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8)
During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It’s a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 – We, John Dickinson (2-19)
This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 – Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24)
I watched the movie around the same time, and I’ve long like Gaiman’s works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 – Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4)
Scalzi’s Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 – Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6)
With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words – there’s some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19)
N.K. Jemisin’s first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It’s a very different blend of fantasy than I’ve ever read.

9 – Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29)
Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year – it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful – a good fantasy debut, and I’m already eager for the sequel.

10 – The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21).
Karin Lowachee’s Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 – The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17)
David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor – it’s a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 – Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28)
Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 – Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1)
Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren’t always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 – Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8)
This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It’s a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 – To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15)
Steinbeck’s book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It’s an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 – American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25)
This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 – The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25)
The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 – How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30)
This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I’ve read in a long time. It’s brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It’s an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 – River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2)
I’ve long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn’t picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can’t wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 – Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3)
This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 – Pattern Recognition (9-11)
William Gibson’s book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It’s a fun read, and I’ve already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 – New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22)
This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it’s more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 – Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26)
An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There’s some real gems in there.

24 – Andvari’s Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26)
A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 – The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30)
One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 – Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22)
A paperback version of Bacigalupi’s stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it’s one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31)
I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 – The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8)
The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They’re very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 – Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8)
This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 – Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10)
Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn’t have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I’d wanted to see in Boneshaker. It’s an interesting series, and I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

31 – Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13)
This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn’t make it. It’s a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 – The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14)
While I thought this book wasn’t worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 – Horns, Joe Hill (11-22)
This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It’s an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 – Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24)
This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola’s art = awesome.

35 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28)
36 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29)
37 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1)
38 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3)
39 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12)
40 – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15)
41 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18)
I’m not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 – The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman’s novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It’s a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 – Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it’s one of the best anthologies that I’ve ever read.

On to 2011!

2011 Books

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
As 2010 closes out, there’s the inevitable looking forward to the new year. There’s already a small, but growing list of books that are coming out that has been percolating in the back of my head. Some of these are authors that I’ve never read before, some are ones from familiar people, but all looked interesting to me. Here’s what I’ve got thus far:

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear

This is actually a 2010 release, but by the time that I buy it, it’ll be well into the new year. A man awakes on a far out spacecraft from hibernation and takes stock of his surroundings. It looks like a fast-based, stripped down sort of novel. Hopefully, it’ll be better than Pandorum.

The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John Volume 1, Catherynne M. Valente

I’m not usually moved by covers (There are some exceptions, like The Windup Girl), but this one looks interesting, and the blurb hasn’t deterred me at all:

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit.

Spellbound, Blake Charlton

Spellwright, by Blake Charlton, was a fun read that I came across earlier this year, and from the early (and now cut section) look that I had earlier, this looked very interesting, and a cool continuation of the world that he’s set up. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Leviathan Wakes, James A. Corey

Another one where the cover grabbed me, this start to a series looks to interstellar space, colonies, and ancient secrets lost in the solar system. Looks like it could be a promising romp in science fiction. Blurb:

Humanity has colonized the planets – interstellar travel is still beyond our reach, but the solar system has become a dense network of colonies. But there are tensions – the mineral-rich outer planets resent their dependence on Earth and Mars and the political and military clout they wield over the Belt and beyond.Now, when Captain Jim Holden’s ice miner stumbles across a derelict, abandoned ship, he uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire system into war. Attacked by a stealth ship belonging to the Mars fleet, Holden must find a way to uncover the motives behind the attack, stop a war, and find the truth behind a vast conspiracy that threatens the entire human race.

Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s an author that I’ve followed quite a bit over the past year, and while I haven’t read his followup books to ‘Old Man’s War‘ (have them, haven’t gotten to them yet), Fuzzy Nation is probably going to jump to the front of the list. It’s a reboot of a hugo-award winning novel, Little Fuzzy, something he doesn’t think has happened before. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Scalzi can put together a fun tale.

Embassytown, China Mieville

The City and The City is one of my favorite books that I read over the past year, and as he turns to science fiction and aliens, I’m confident that he’ll be putting a unique twist and look on the genre. In the meantime, I’ve got Kracken to read.

Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter

I actually don’t know anything about what this book will be about. But, it’s by Josh Ritter, one of the best singer-songwriters out there, and if this is anything like his music, it’s going to be a very good read indeed.

The Magician’s King, Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman blew me away with The Magicians last year, and this followup to the book has me really intrigued. Where the first one could be described as the anti-Harry Potter, I have a hard time seeing how this one could play out. The ending moved to a bit more of a traditional fantasy novel, and if he can craft something in the same vein, that should be interesting indeed.

Unknown, Austin Grossman

Brother of Lev Grossman, Austin is known for his fantastic novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Nothing much has come from the author since that was published a couple of years ago, but reportedly, he’ll have something coming out. I’ll be checking it out as soon as I get more information on it!
Of course, all of these books could be horrible. They could be brilliant. Time will tell, but I can’t wait to find out. Hype in any form is a dangerous thing for a book: it can raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, or it won’t be enough for a brilliant book to get off the ground. Things like cover art, while cool, aren’t the literature world equivilent of trailers, although they’re hyped up to be, and while I do love great cover art, it doesn’t always pay off by translating into a good book. Most of the authors on this list are ones that I’ve known and read before, although there’s a couple of newcomers. Fortunately, this is a small risk to take. I can buy a book based on the cover and advance reviews, and hope for the best. In some cases, it’s paid off. In others? I have a book that sits on my shelf, looking nice. Here’s to hoping that 2011 will be as good of a year as this year was.

Customers Aren’t Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It’s not a stretch to say that we’re both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don’t believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you’re working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous ‘key items’ that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I’d never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn’t pressured to buy something – they’re there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they’d earn $5 back. It’s a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it’s a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren’t interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people’s hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they’re not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don’t want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I’ve attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it’s clear that any business – especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales – this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I’ve had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company’s bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven’t needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven’t fostered a loyal following. People don’t tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they’re not satisfied, they’ll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as Amazon.com have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn’t practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they’re not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can’t adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.

Horns, by Joe Hill

A man wakes up to discover that he’s sprouted horns on his head overnight. Joe Hill’s latest book, Horns, starts off with a simple premise, one that unfolds into a wonderfully complicated and minimal story of murder, revenge and the inherent darkness that exists within people. At the same time, Hill brings out a deeply philosophical and intriguing look at faith and Christian allegory.

As Ig Parrish finds that people are influenced by the new additions to his head, the circumstances of personal tragedy (his girlfriend’s rape and murder, which he was blamed, but cleared of) begin to resurface as people begin to tell him their deepest inhibitions and secrets. As the story progresses, we are taken deep into the lives of each character, which fully explains and supports the events that send the story moving in the first place. The end result is a literary masterpiece that brings out a rich blend of horror and supernatural with a cast of fantastic and utterly believable characters. Every element, every mention of something comes to some level of significance to the story as a whole, and Hill brings out rock and soul music, personalities, and other numerous references to help support the story. This is a rare thing that I’ve seen, and possibly one of the best examples that I’ve come across where this is enacted and works: everything in the story supports the main premise and story as a whole.

Horns is wonderfully complex, yet minimal at the same time. The story jumps around from character to character and from the present to various points in the past, with a dedicated, focused purpose. Rather than wandering off to put together a story of epic proportions (and a story where a man grows horns on his head certainly calls for this), Hill burrows down and tells an intensely personal story, with a small collection of characters who’s stories intertwine around a central tragedy. This is storytelling at its best, where there are no arbitrary actions, but carefully crafted story. It’s a notable achievement, and I hope that Hill receives due recognition for this: it doesn’t happen all that often. The result is a superior, notable book.

This novel is one that left me disturbed on many levels. Rather than the horror being presented as Ig turns into a supernatural being, of sorts, the horror comes as Ig sees what people are capable of as they confess to him the darker thoughts that they’ve been harboring. At the same time, the events that put much of the plot into motion are horrible, terrible things, and in the way that the book is structured, the reader is conscious of what is likely coming, with a growing amount of horror. This is terror on a level that far transcends a monster or man in a mask: this is the horror of the inevitability of something coming down the line, with no way to alter its course.

Furthermore, there is a residual bit of horror in the ways that people interact with their faith. Hill puts together an interesting look at the relationship between God, Lucifer and People, with some interesting parallels and conclusions sure to piss off any devotee of Christianity, but not coming out as a lecture on philosophy: this is storytelling at its finest, and a story that is possibly one of the more important to examine in a critical fashion.

Horns is a stunning read, for the story, the characters and the allegory, which turns this into a novel holds up with some of the best books that I’ve picked up this year: easily comparable in quality to China Miéville’s ‘ The City and The City’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.

Dreadnought, Cherie Priest

It’s hard to mention the term Steampunk without also mentioning Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, an alternate history of the United States, featuring all of the bells and whistles that comes with the territory. The first novel, Boneshaker, was well received, as was the short novella, Clementine, set shortly after the events of the first book, while the latest entry in the series (there are two more planned), Dreadnought, picks up the story across the country and helps to flesh out Priest’s strange alternate world. An interesting follow-up to Boneshaker, Dreadnought never quite reaches the same heights that its predecessor reached, nor does it quite feel as unique. As such, Priest brings out new elements to the Civil War only hinted at in the previous books, and tells a fun story, one that is sure to be popular with the steampunk crowd.

Following Mercy Lynch, a nurse stationed in a confederate war hospital in Virginia, Dreadnought is set in the heart of the lengthened American Civil War. Lynch is summoned away by her father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, (careful readers will remember the name from Boneshaker). What happens next is a journey for Lynch that she could never have expected. An alternate title for this book could easily have been Airships, Barges and Locomotives, for her journey across the country covers not only ground, but the staples of the steampunk movement. Along the way, a number of storylines begin to form and collide as the war effort goes forward. A Texas Ranger is on the hunt for a missing Mexican army, while a Union scientist harbors a hidden and deadly cargo onboard the Dreadnought, a Union train bound for the west on a mysterious mission. As Lynch finds herself at the center of the conflict, we’re treated to a spectacle of action and movement as she makes her way across the continent to her dying father.

At points, Dreadnought is very good, particularly once things get moving west, when the titular Dreadnought becomes the main setting and as story elements begin to collide. Each storyline has their own main elements running forward and Priest has constructed a fascinating tale of the war without being set in the war, further telling the story of two sides that fail to quit fighting.

At the same time, however, Dreadnought proved to be a frustrating read as exposition took over in the beginning and end, and as the story seemed to merely drift along the rail road tracks to each major scene, with a host of forgettable characters to fill in the blanks. Where Boneshaker left me unable to put the book down, Dreadnought seems to be the sophomore slump (being the second full novel in the series, not the author’s second novel or story within The Clockwork Century) in the series.

Part of this might stem from the very nature of the book, spread out over a vast continent, with almost too much to look at: there’s a short, tantalizing section on the actions of the Civil War, then onto the fragmented nature of the country, then the native Americans, mad scientists, Texas Rangers and zombies. As a result, the main action takes its time to gather momentum. But, when it does, the book (forgive me) picks up steam and becomes an engrossing read that lives up to the best elements of its predecessors before ending quietly with a quick link to Boneshaker that serves well as an epilogue.

Steampunk has hit some major counter arguments lately from a couple of authors, making some pointed arguments that The Clockwork Century, nor Dreadnought are able to adequately answer. The main point that kept running through my mind during all of the stories was how the Civil War would be approached, and after reading through Dreadnought, it seems that there’s a certain level of the Southern inevitable cause that seems to have survived since the 1870s when it first originated: the South was destined to lose, but it fought the better fight. Thrust into the heat of the Civil War, the book goes in this direction, and as a historian, it’s a little frustrating to see such a revisionist vision come out. (This isn’t to say that Mrs. Priest is a diehard revisionist: just that her book seems to go in that direction)

Whatever the historical feelings are when it comes to this story, Charles Stross brings up a very good point with his own rant about Steampunk: namely that the genre seems far too rosy and nostalgic for the staples of Steampunk: the corsets, the goggles, brass and strange trappings that characterize the movement. Here, the south seems to have largely given up an element of bloody racism, lone women are free to run around the country largely without incident, and there’s really no feeling of the absolute brutality and dark nature that characterized this era of history. While Stross’s arguments miss elements of how history played out in the United States, there are still some relevant points. I would rather have this rather fantastic, romanticized past rather than the actual one, but when compared to our true past, this version feels somewhat hollow.

Keeping in mind that this is an element of historical fiction, aimed towards entertainment, these arguments are somewhat petty in and of themselves: there is no expectation of historical accuracy, especially when there is talk of a zombie army running around Utah, eating the Mormons who have settled there, but it feels like there is an incredible opportunity missed by not setting a story that looks to something besides a romantic version of the past. The reasons for not doing so are pretty clear: when marketing a product that you want to sell, you don’t really want to highlight all of the nasty or dirty elements, much as Apple doesn’t want to highlight the group of Foxxconn workers who committed suicide while building the ever popular iProducts that have become so common play. However, by ignoring these elements, Priest’s vision of steampunk is far more polished and perfect, which calls attention to itself.  But, that’s okay.

Steampunk is a genre that I’ve sought to avoid as much as possible, but Priest’s alternative vision in Dreadnought, no matter how polished, is a fun and exciting story that stands up well within her series, and it gives me no small amount of hope that even with a flood of material, there are still some authors who strive to tell a good story, rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off of an audience who’s looking the right way at the right time. Dreadnought is a good book – not a great one – that holds no pretense as to what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t overstep its bounds. For that reason alone, it’s worth picking up and reading. Steampunk itself might be a flawed creation, but so long as Priest stands at the front, I have an amount of faith that there will still be some good stories to be told within it.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

As the publishing industry has jumped wholeheartedly into the emotional Vampire trend that’s seen the release of the Twilight novels, it’s nice to come across a book that was published during this that really brings the horror back to the style of story. Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola is an engrossing read that both deals with vampires, and brings in a proper horror feeling to the story.

This unconventional novel was first recommended to me a couple of years ago, where I was drawn to the absolutely fascinating cover, drawn up by comic book artist and author Mike Mignola. Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy and BPRD comic series, is a favorite of mine, not only for his excellent artwork, but for his strange, gothic stories that pull me in. When I came across the book at a convention last month, I immediately picked up the book, and had it signed, as author Christopher Golden was one of the attendees.

Lord Baltimore, a soldier in the English military during the first World War, leads a night attack against German soldiers, when his entire squad is killed when they are spotted. Wounded, he sees something frightening: creatures coming out of the dark to feed on the men under his command. He attacked one of the giant bats, striking it in the face with his bayonet, scarring it. He is attacked in turn, and loses his leg as a result.

Those actions push the story into action, and the rest of the book is preoccupied with not Baltimore’s story, but of three friends of his: Doctor Lemuel Rose, the doctor who treated Baltimore’s leg after the attack (and ended up amputating it), Thomas Childress , a childhood friend of Baltimore’s, and Demetrius Aischros, who brought Baltimore home from the battlefield. Each man was summoned by Baltimore, and as they await his presence, it unfolds that each of them has had an encounter with the supernatural, and that they would help him in his mission.

Following Baltimore’s attack, Red King (the leading vampire who was wounded in the face) unleashes a plague against Europe in retaliation for his disfigurement. People passed away across the continent, and turned into vampires themselves, grinding the war to a halt as the death toll climbs. As Baltimore returns home, the King exacts his own revenge on his attacker by killing his family, then his wife, in an effort to break the man. The opposite happens, and Baltimore goes on a quest to kill the Red King. As the stories are told, they blend together towards a finish that was entirely unexpected, but rewarding.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire is s a good example of where a genre has been changed from largely traditional details, yet is able to stand on its own. Where books such as Stephanie Myer’s Twilight have been criticized because of the liberties that have been taken with the books, Baltimore was able to capture the horror of such individuals and come out as a work who’s antagonist doesn’t feel shortchanged. Having not read Twilight yet, I can’t accurately compare the changes to some of the more rooted versions of the canon, but I can say that Baltimore reaffirms my belief that canon isn’t always paramount, and that modern stories that take on vampires shouldn’t be rooted as firmly to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as we’d like.

Baltimore sheds away the Victorian gothic styling that comes with the territory and advances towards World War I. With its trench warfare, rapid advances in weapons and seemingly pointless nature to the attacks, the battlefields in France and Germany are the perfect setting for a horror novel, and under Golden and Mignola’s care, a time of industrial realism is blended together with a sort of surreal supernatural amongst each of the characters, in Italy, England and South America. Moreover, vampirism here seemed to be carried on by disease – a horrifying method of death in and of itself – rather than the bites and lives in coffins. These vampires are pretty scary in their own right – taking over towns, coming out at night and generally not good people to be around, especially as they feed and decimate the population of Europe.

In the end, the book serves as an interesting counterpart to the First World War. By the end, it becomes increasingly clear that both sides have become larger than their individual selves: they represent a larger picture, and with the war as a background, they have become two larger forces that collide endlessly, tirelessly and each unable to yield to the other. Baltimore is a fascinating read, one that pulls in the strange worlds that Mike Mignola puts together, (along with his art on every page) and the excellent storytelling of Christopher Golden.  The story shows that the vampire craze can be adapted into its own different ways, but that it retains some of the core facets: there are some things that are more horrifying than death.

A Stranger’s Gift

I have one particular addiction: books. There’s very little that I don’t like about them, from an orderly line of them occupying a shelf, the heft and weight, to their universal format that allows them to be accessed by everyone. (That sounds like a dig against eBooks, but it’s not). Inevitably, when I am drawn to a bookstore, I end up with a couple volumes that caught my eye under my arm as I leave the store.

This happen earlier today after a late lunch when Megan and I wandered back home. A local store, The Book Garden, is holding a sale for their used books, buy one, get another free. I’ve picked through the store pretty well, and I’m always happy to see that they’ve got a replenished collection every time that I go in. This particular trip, I found that they had a pair of Harry Potter novels, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Deathly Hollows, neither of which I had, and both in hardcover. I’ve bee working to get all of the book for my own collection (in hardcover), and used bookstores usually have a couple of them, I picked up the pair, intending on adding them to my collection (with just a couple of others (Books 4 and 6) left to pick up after that before I had the entire set.

The books bagged, We walked home along Barre St, where we came across a trio of children playing on the sidewalk. The three of them were bundled up against the cold, but looked like they were having fun. They spread out across the sidewalk and a demanded a password to cross, giggling. Megan guessed Cat (or Kat, they said it began with K) and I guessed people for mine, and they allowed us to pass. One little girl said that she could read the sign on the side of the truck parked across the road, and read it for me.

Impulsively, I asked them if they liked to read. Her dark face lit up with a wide grin and nodded. I pulled one of the books out of my bag, The Sorcerer’s Stone and handed it to them, asking if they wanted it. They took it out of my hand and look even more excited, and ran inside. I overheard the brother tell his mother that a ‘nice man gave us Harry Potter!’ as we walked by their apartment’s door. I hope that the mother’s reaction wasn’t that her children had just been given a book by a stranger, and throw it away or forbid them to read it, but accept it in the spirit that it was given: impulsively, with the intention that they will read a fun children’s story, one that I greatly enjoyed as a youngster. Their excitement was tangible, and he way that their faces lit up gives me some hope that the book will be enjoyed (maybe in a couple of years, or hours).

Books, I think, should be given out more freely, and their use encouraged in the instances when that’s not possible. It’s certainly something that I’d like to do more, and I wonder if i should start picking up books that would appeal to children and find some way to distribute them to those in need. Reading is important, essential, and some of the stories that I’ve heard from family members and significant others about the abilities of children in the school systems, I’m worried about some of them. Hopefully, I’ve inspired a couple of kids that reading can be, well, magical, interesting, and exciting.

China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

The City and The City is the first and only book that I’ve picked up that was authored by China Miéville, and it’s easily one of the best books that I’ve read all year. The story, from all accounts, is something that stands apart from Miéville’s other works as a minimal, stripped down affair. This book was well deserving of the latest round of Hugo Awards, tying with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the best novel prize.

The City and The City opens with the murder of a woman, which Inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with investigating. What sets this murder apart is its location in the city state of Besźel. Here, two worlds intersect with one another, two conjoined cities that have long been separated, occupying the same place. The two cities set up a storyline that is highly relevant, as Borlú digs deeper into the crimes that have been committed in order to find the killer, uncovering a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of the split of the two cities, and the shadow organization, Breach, that enforces the boundary between the two locations.

The complicated element of The City and The City was this split between the two worlds, and what Miéville has done is nothing short of spectacular: create a profound world, one that touches on some of the most relevant topics in today’s society. The book also does what all good speculative fiction stories should do: take a speculative element, and use that to set a story. Science Fiction / Fantasy readers will find that this book utilizes a single speculative element: the split between worlds. A common enough story element, but there’s no strange devices, mad science or magic gone bad: visitors from one side to another must take their passport with them, and must learn to ‘Unsee’ the other side, or they will run up against the Breach, a shadowy organization that steps in when accidental, and intentional breaches occur.

With the backdrop of speculation, Miéville sets his story in motion, and the pursuit of the woman’s killer. As Borlú digs deeper into the woman’s background, he discovers that her area of study goes to the heart of the separation between the cities, a radical who enflamed nationalists and unificationists on both sides (political groups who sought to unite the two cities) and uncovers a spectacular conspiracy that holds ramifications for both cities.

An underlying strength to this story comes in the world building that Miéville puts together. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma recall the nature of places such as Palestine and Israel, East and West Berlins, and Yugoslavia: distinct nations, ethnic groups and political organizations that share the same territory, borders and physical space, but the people’s hearts are elsewhere. Here, the separation is a reinforced one, where these societies have been split apart physically. Each city maintains its own culture, architecture, clothing, and languages, and between the two, Ul Qoma represents a modern world, with major foreign investors and trade, while groups in Besźel seek to change their surroundings.

This is where the book is at its strongest: this book is not one that retells the story of real life counterparts, but looks to them for inspiration, while a unique story is crafted around the inspiration that sets the world into motion. Miéville has put together a unique story that takes the bare minimum of speculative elements, while telling a story that is relatable to the modern reader. As such, the book sheds some insights into the mentality of some of the problems of the world: this accomplishes everything that science and fantasy fiction should be doing, and as such, The City and The City succeed wildly.

Miéville’s novel is one that slowly unfolds as the story progresses forward. What starts as what appears to be a fairly straight forward murder mystery (abet with strange surroundings) becomes larger as Borlú goes further and further with his case, travelling to Ul Qoma and eventually, committing an act of Breach in the course of his investigation.

The book is not without its flaws, and while the book lives up to much of what it intends to do, I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to some of the elements. Breach, an organization built to separate the two cities, doesn’t fully satisfy upon its reveal to the reader, and where there was much discussion about the nature of Breach, and an alternate, third city (Orciny), which never came together as expected, and the unexpected result isn’t quite as interesting.

The City and The City is a marvelous book, one that is both fast paced and immersive, a read that I found gripping, rich and easily the one of the best books that I’ve read all year.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while “drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.” Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I’m reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are ‘indecent’ or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren’t limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

After reading Ian McDonald’s River of Gods recently, I was compelled to read another science fiction novel that took place around the planet, interacting with a number of other cultures. As William Gibson’s latest novel, and the last of his ‘Bigend’ trilogy, Zero History was recently released, I picked up the first of the series, Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I’ve had the book for a number of years, but had never picked it up, or even cracked it open. My first surprise, upon doing so, was to discover that the book had been signed by Mr. Gibson.

Pattern Recognition, from an author that helped define the notion (and term) cyberspace, as well as much of the cyberpunk genre, might seem as a sort of step back. The book takes place in contemporary times, in a post-9/11 setting, in England, Japan and Russia. Media consultant Cayce Pollard is hired by a company, Blue Ant, who is redesigning a logo for a Tokyo firm. Pollard, who has an adverse reaction to logos and marketing, and a curiosity with a series of videos that have surfaced on the internet, is hired by Blue Ant founder Hubertus Bigend, who wants her to find the maker of the clips, because of the potential gain that can be achieved by learning everything about them, and why they attract so much attention. This job is one that takes her across the world, from London to Tokyo to uncover a code that would help connect the videos to a firm in the United States, and to Russia as more leads come about. Her trip around the planet is one of discovery, as she moves from world to world following information.

While the book is set in contemporary times, it fits well with Gibson’s notion that science fiction doesn’t have to be part of the future. Instead, this book does what the best science fiction stories do: amidst the science fictional elements that surround the story, there is a central element that defines the book. In this case, this book is about networking, and the ability of technology to bring a diverse set of people together. In 2003, this stage of the internet hadn’t quite happened yet: blogging was the big thing, and Facebook was still a year away, twitter three. Pollard’s quest? To find what’s arguably a viral video. In a large way, Gibson has recognized the rise of social media before it happened.

While the predictions of Pattern Recognition aren’t quite as revolutionary as Gibson’s were with Neuromancer, this book is far more relatable, relevant, and understands the heart of the internet. The story contains very few speculative elements: Pollard’s allergy to advertising (in some cases) and some of the technological elements that are at this point outdated. Author Dennis Danvers noted it best in his review:

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work.

In a large way, Gibson has demonstrated that he’s very good at figuring out how people will use various technologies, and in a way, the gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition (and presumably, its sequels, Spook Country and Zero History.) isn’t as far apart as when it first meets the eye. Pattern Recognition illustrates a reality that is cold, separated from humanity while being connected at almost all times through the internet. Gibson makes the point that the future isn’t far away, it’s right now, this very moment.

Indeed, Gibson is probably one of the few science fiction authors to see his works come to life – not only in the details as to what he’s written, but in how the future has been realized. It’s a bit of a given point, seeing how the book has been set, but between 2003 (when I entered college) and the present day (out of school and working for several years) the world has changed immensely, not just in the speeds and the availability of communications, but in how people understand and utilize the internet. This seems to have been anticipated, and while the real world is already leaving this story behind, it’s clear that there are some lessons here that can be learned: we’re all connected.

As a story, the execution leaves a book that makes me feel much like Chris Kelvin from Solaris: isolated, cold, somewhat depressed, and Gibson writes Pollard’s character as a fairly empty person, someone who is socially isolated, but at the same time connected to those people whom she shares mutual interests with. Pollard’s journey across the planet in search of a revolutionary form of marketing is an interesting one across a number of countries and subcultures that could only exist in the internet age. At journey’s end in Moscow, Pollard comes to meet the maker of the clips, and an interesting story of commercial viability vs. artistic creativity is brought full circle.

While it’s not as groundbreaking, Pattern Recognition succeeds by using science fiction as a mirror, demonstrating not only that we live in a futuristic world, it’s one that we’re only now fully realizing as we live it.