2011 Reading Census

This year has been an interesting reading year for me, fluctuating between a bunch of really, really good books, and a couple that really sucked out any interest that I had in reading at that time, with a number of books in-between that I thought were fun reads. Here’s what I got through in 2011:

1- Grey, Jon Armstrong (1-8)
2- The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (1-21)
3 – Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (1-23)
4 – Hunger Games, Suzanne Clarke (2-1)
5 – The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2-4)
6 – At The Queen’s Command, Michael A. Stackpole (2-19)
7 – Mossflower, Brian Jacques (2-20)
8 – Embedded, Dan Abnett (3-7)
9 – Kraken, China Mieville (3-9)
10 – Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (3-17)
11 – Little Fuzzy, H Beam Piper (3-28)
12 – Fahrenheit 451 Graphic Novel, Ray Bradbury (4-13)
13 – Yarn, Jon Armstrong (4-13)
14 – Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon Van Gelder (4-19)
15 – Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi (4-25)
16 – Spectyr, Philippa Ballentine (4-26)
17 – Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh (4-27)
18 – Blackout, Connie Willis (4-30)
19 – Locke & Key, Joe Hill (5-8)
20 – Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, (5-22)
21 – Deathless, Catherynne Valente (5-27)
22 – Embassytown, China Mieville (6-18)
23 – Hex, Allen M. Steele (7-2)
24 – The Gravity Pilot, MM Buckner (7-4)
25 – A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (7-15)
26 – The Big Roads, Earl Swift (7-19)
27 – Spellbound, Blake Charlton (8-2)
28 – The Magician King, Lev Grossman (8-4)
29 – Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter (8-5)
30 – Grave Peril, Jim Butcher (8-13)
31 – Spook Country, William Gibson (9-6)
32 – Machine Man, Max Barry (9-10)
33 – Crisis in Zefra, Karl Schroeder (9-15)
34 – Halo: The Fall Of Reach, Eric Nylund (10-1)
35 – Germline, TC McCarty (10-5)
36 – The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (10-16) Audio
37 – Halo: Glasslands, Karen Traviss (10-29)
38 – Red Herring, Archer Mayor (10-20)
39 – Ganymede, Cherie Priest (11-11)
40 – Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (11-20)
41 – Ready Player One, Ernie Cline (11-26)
42 – Open Season, Archer Mayor (12-5)
43 – Seed, Rob Zeigler (12-11)
44 – Rule 34, Charles Stross (12-??)

In the pipeline: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, by Michael A. Stackpole, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl and The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education by Craig M. Mullaney. Rogue Squadron is something I’m going to finish up sometime this weekend, and All You Need is Kill is somewhere behind that. The other two are a bit denser, and while they’re interesting, they’re taxing to get through.

Interestingly, this was the first year where I really read books electronically. I’ve dabbled with it in the past, ever since I bought an iPad, but this year, I made the jump and read a small percentage digitally: 7 in all: Grey, Lifecycle of Software Objects, Embedded, Little Fuzzy, Crisis in Zephra, Ender’s Game and Open Season. Add in Game of Thrones, with which I alternated between my paperback and ecopy, and that’s 19%, or just under a fifth of my book pile existed on a hard drive somewhere, rather than a bookshelf.

An interesting thing about eBooks: there’s really only a single novel that I read in which I felt really took advantage of the book’s digital nature: Crisis at Zephra. This novel, a short novella, really, was published by the Canadian Military, and incorporated a lot of data about new and upcoming technologies, and trends in said technology. I was limited in that I was reading on a wifi only iPad when I was away from the internet, which left me unable to click on the links scattered throughout the text, with explanations as to what the terms, technology and theory meant. This, I think, is where eBooks will eventually head: less reading experiences, and more immersive and interactive ones.

I’ve also been doing a bit more with book reviews, on a number of different sites: SF Signal, The Functional Nerds, Kirkus Reviews, and my own blog, with a total of 15 books (34%) read for a review. In this instance, I’ve written reviews for a number, but these are books that were given to me by either the website that I wrote the review for, or sent by an author or publicist for my own purposes, even if a review wasn’t necessarily expected or promised. Just under a full third of my reading this year was subsidized by someone else, for review purposes. Of those books, I had a bit of fun, although my reviews weren’t universally positive. The caveat to this, of course, is that a majority of my reading, (29 books in all – 65%) are for my own pleasure, and a minor attempt to whittle down my own to-read list. I’ve got a feeling that I’ll never destroy the growing pile.

I’ve always described myself as a science fiction fan, rather than a fantasy one, and in years past, I’ve typically read more fantasy than science fiction. This year? I read 27 Science Fiction books (61%), 11 fantasy books (25%), 2 mystery novels (4.5%), 2 YA novels (4.5%), and 1 each of history and steampunk (2%). This year was certainly more science fictional than years past, which I’m happy about.

Interestingly, while I describe this year as being up and down, when looking over the list as a whole, there’s only four books that I really didn’t like. I thought just under half (20) were good, while just under a quarter (10%), were okay – decent, but nothing that really wowed me. 10 books in all really blew me away (22%). Of the books that I read this year, the more memorable were the really great ones, and of those, three really stood out for me: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh, and The Dervish House, by Ian MacDonald. (See my top 10 list for the full number of ones that impressed me this year.) These books are astonishing reads, and I really hope that we’ll see The Magician King and Soft Apocalypse get the attention they deserve: Grossman has gained a considerable amount of acclaim, but McIntosh’s first novel feels like it’s under the radar a bit, the underdog of the year. If you haven’t read it: I can’t recommend it highly enough. The Dervish House was nominated for a Hugo, but somehow ended up at the bottom of the polls. Still, it’s nice to see it nominated.

Of the really bad books, these all stand out as ones that I had the most trouble getting through: Seed, by Rob Zeigler, The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner, Deathless, by Catherynne Valente and Hex, by Allen M. Steele. I believe that the reason why they stand out so much is because they were all books that I had high hopes for: Seed was lauded as the successor to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and utterly failed at that, The Gravity Pilot looked interesting, and didn’t work, Deathless was wonderfully written, but was a book that I simply couldn’t get into, and Hex was part of Steele’s Coyote universe, which started off so well, and has fallen so far with this book. There were some others, like Jack Campbell’s Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, which was so abysmally written that I couldn’t even get through the first chapter, and Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North that I had a lot of trouble getting into and didn’t finish.

Everything else in the middle was entertaining, and some excellent novels: Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games was an excellent read, although the sequel was a bit too much of the same for my liking. I haven’t reached #3, Mockingjay, and I’m awaiting that one’s release in paperback. China Mieville’s Embassytown was interesting, a little flawed, but brilliant all the same, although I have to say that I liked Kraken quite a bit more. Leviathan Wakes was a lot of fun to read, and a promising start to a new series, while John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation was something I tore through in just a couple of hours on a plane. I finally got in on A Game of Thrones, and it lives up to the hype, somewhat. I even broke out of the SF/F genres, and picked up the fantastic The Big Roads, by Earl Swift, which was a fascinating look at the construction of roadways in the US. Karen Traviss’s entry into the Halo universe was also a fantastic one, and it’s dragged me in to that particular expanded world, as I picked up several other Halo novels, which will likely get read next time I’m on a Halo kick. I re-read Mossflower after Brian Jaqcues passed away, as well as Ender’s Game, and found both books really lived up to my memories of them. Ernie Cline’s Reader Player One was a fun, entertaining book, but it was lacking in other departments. Finally, I had a chance to go back and revisit Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which lives up to my first impressions wonderfully.

So, why quantify my enjoyment? I’ve generally been accused from people of taking things like this too seriously, in reviewing films or books that should be ‘just for fun’. I’ve never subscribed to the ‘turn your brain off while you read/watch/listen’ train of thought, because I think that does a disservice to the author. Certainly, there’s books or films that I’ve done that with, enjoying them because they were written to be enjoyed. But, distilling a year’s worth of reading down into some easy statistics?

A couple of reasons: one, it helps me better understand my own interests by grounding them in reality. As mentioned, I firmly describe myself in the science fiction camp, but over the past couple of years, I’ve generally been surprised when I’ve read more fantasy than science fiction. My interests are all over the place, and I don’t generally remember at a glance what I’ve read as a whole. I was a little surprised that I hadn’t finished more than a single history book this year, despite the intense work that I did on various history projects: I’ve read portions of numerous historical texts, mainly about World War II and military history (including a couple that are still technically on the reading list), but never finished them, or needed to finish them. This might also be me forgetting to stick a book onto the ‘Read’ List.

Reading is an important part of what I do. I typically read at night, before I go to bed (increasingly, if I’m using my iPad, or at the beginning of the day, when I can get through 10-15 pages while I’m waiting for my computer to load up at work. Weekends usually mean a lot of time to blow through something, and when I was on public transportation for two trips earlier this year to Washington D.C. and Belgium, I read a lot: three books for each trip (for the DC trip, that was one book for the airplane, one for the second day on the train, and the third for the flight home, all in a couple of days.) Better understanding my own reading habits help me to read more, I think, and while it’s not quantity over quality, I’ve got a massive backlog of books that I’ve bought. Looking over my list from this year, I had a total of 6 books – 13%! – came off of that list, which currently numbers around 100. These are all books that I’ve owned for more than a year, while a huge number of books that I picked up this year were released this year, and this also comes as a bit of a surprise.

My thoughts going into 2012 is that I’ll be whittling down the to-read list. There’s a lot of books that I do want to get to in the near future. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number that are edging up the list: George R.R. Martin’s second entry in the Song of Ice and Fire, Clash of Kings is most certainly going to make it onto the list when the next season hits, the entire X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston will get re-read prior to the next novel in the series, Mercy Kill. I also want to revisit Timothy Zahn’s Icarus Hunt. I’ve also been wanting to begin David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake, finish out William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy with Zero History and get into Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks, and generally blow through a bunch of paperbacks and history books that I’ve had for a couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get through a portion of that, and hopefully, I’ll slow down the growth of my own library – we’re running out of shelf space (again).

It’s been a fun year, with a lot of good stories all around. It looks like 2012 will be just as much fun.

The Best Books of 2011

2010 was a good year for reading, and this year, while it had some significant downs, also had its share of really great reads. I’ll be posting a full list of the books read in 2011 in the next week or so, but in the meantime, here’s the books that I most enjoyed this year:

 

Soft Apocalypse

1 – Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh

My absolute favorite read of the year was Will McIntosh’s debut novel, Soft Apocalypse. Already the recipient of a Hugo award, this book is one that I hope will follow suit. A bleak and outstanding look at what the future might hold, McIntosh weaves a tale that’s outstanding in its character growth and understanding of how the world works on massive scales. It’s tragic and heartbreaking on one hand, and unmistably beautiful on the other. (Review)

The Magician King

2 – The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I didn’t think that Grossman would be able to top The Magicians, and I was wary of it earlier this year: Where the first one could be described as the anti-Harry Potter, I have a hard time seeing how this one could play out. It turns out, it played out very well: Grossman not only topped the first book, he created a story that was brilliant in all regards: further building up the characters from the last book, and making the stakes from this book much higher, darker and deeper than I thought possible. The story is simply stunning. (Review)

Leviathan Wakes

3 – Leviathan Wakes, James A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is a book that grabbed me at the cover and refused to let go. I’ve long had a soft spot for space opera, and this book really fits the bill, with an exceptional world within our solar system. There’s a bit of everything in this story: military action, detective fiction, weird science and space Mormons. I already can’t wait for the followup, Caliban’s War, due out next June. (Review)

Rule 34

4 – Rule 34, Charles Stross

I’m currently in the middle of this book, but I’m confident of it’s place here. I met Stross at ReaderCon in 2010, where he told me that his next book opens with a man getting murdered by a viagra enema. It’s set in the same world as his prior novel, Halting State, and in a way, the book is a cross between the J.J. Connolly’s Layer Cake and William Gibson. (Review to come at the Functional Nerds)

Embassytown

5 – Embassytown / Kraken, China Miéville

I loved Miéville’s book, The City and The City, and the 2 books that I read from him this year both deserve a place on this (Kraken was a 2010 release). Both are wholly fantastic books: an alternative, weird London in one, and a totally alien world in the other. Miéville is a master at fully understanding the worlds, and both are fantastic examples of a brilliant story meshed with a perfectly conceived setting. (Review / Review)

Spellbound

6 – Spellbound, Blake Charlton

Charlton did a nice job with his first novel, Spellwright, and his second is a worthy followup that expands and builds upon his world in grand fashion. I loved his understanding of magic: this book is almost a science fiction novel, running on a bit of a slightly different frequency. It’s a great addition that builds on the first novel, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. (Review)

Halo: Glasslands

7 – Halo: Glasslands, Karen Traviss

I’ve long loved the Halo franchise, and I got into it hardcore: bought several other books, bought and played through Reach, Combat Evolved and got my wife hooked on the armored folks. This novel has a great story to it, which is sort of par for the course for Traviss, revolving around the end of the Human-Covenant War, continuing the storyline into new territory. I’m excited to see where she goes with it. (Review)

Fuzzy Nation

8 – Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

John Scalzi embarked on a bit of an experiment with Fuzzy Nation: it’s a literary reboot of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. It’s a fun read, with an pointed, relevant message. The book is a quick read, and it’s got about the same level of substance to it, but it’s a hilarious read, one that had me laughing out loud throughout the couple of hours that I read it. (Review)

Machine Man

9 – Machine Man, Max Barry

Max Barry’s Jennifer Government was a book that showed me that great science fiction could be really funny and ridiculous at the same time. Max Barry returns with Machine Man, partially written online, and falls with much of the same level of humor that Jennifer Government held. It’s ridiculous at one level, but then, when you look at our increasingly technology filled lives, it’s not so far fetched. (Review

At the Queen's Command

10 – At Queen’s Command, Michael A. Stackpole

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Stackpole’s books, going back to the X-Wing Series and some of his other fantastic novels. He’s now back, under the Nightshade Books banner with an alternate history novel that reimagines the early days of the British colonies in the Americas with magic, zombies, necromancers and dragons. It’s a fun, vivid read. (Review)

Other Notables:
A couple of additional books that I enjoyed were Ganymede by Cherie Priest, Germline by T.C. McCarty and Ready Player One by Ernie Cline.

Out with a Whimper: Soft Apocalypse

In Will McIntosh’s debut novel, Soft Apocalypse, the world as we know it ends with a whimper, not a bang. The end of America and the rest of the world comes out of our over indulgence, use of resources and all of the problems in society reaching a dull roar that tears down the world as we know it. This story takes a small cast of characters and looks at them over a much longer point of time than more novels, providing a unique perspective on what the future might hold.

Unlike most post-apocalyptic fiction, there’s no dividing line between what was then, and everything afterwards, where stalwart survivors push on to rebuild a broken landscape the day after the world ends. In this future, everything is far more subtle: there’s one instance that changes everything forever: no nuclear attack, change in the climate, overbearing governmental officials driving society into the ground, but a multitude of small factors (including the ones just listed) that drags society down into the depths, and takes the main characters, Jasper, Colin, Sophia, Phoebe, Cortez, and Ange, (and the various others that come and go) along with it.

Starting in 2023, Soft Apocalypse stands out because it takes its time to tell the story over a much longer period of time: chapters jump ahead days, weeks, months, hours and years at a time, pulling the characters along as they work to continue living in this new world as the world falls down around them. There are a lot of speculative fiction elements here: science, dystopian and post-apocalyptic parts are all here, as well as some intensely personal stories from the vibrant cast of characters that rotate in and out of sight. This is a story that takes a lot of the big events and science and shoves it into the background in favor of a strong character story.

McIntosh’s story here is frightening because it feels like it could very well be one of the more realistic end of society (not necessarily the world) stories that I’ve come across. Barring major political screw-up, we’re no longer likely going to be blown into dust by nuclear annihilation, and climate change is more likely going to have more of a gradual impact on society, rather than something sudden and jarring. People will survive, adapt and work to rebuild. What McIntosh demonstrates here is the biggest change that people will need to readjust to: finding a new set of realistic expectations for their standard of living. As the United States faces ecological and criminal elements, everything changes.

Amongst this new world, we follow Jasper, a sociology major, and some of his friends. He isn’t an influential figure in the world, or even someone who’s prepared for the new world, but is caught up with the events, capturing energy from alongside highways and the sun and trading charged batteries for food. We follow him and his friends over the course of a decade, as they take comfort in themselves and with others that they come across, falling in and out of relationships, gangs, and ecoterrorists along the way. Genetically engineered viruses decimate the human population as corrupt governments attempt to control populations, crazy social scenes open up, crime runs rampant, and a bunch of rogue scientists engineer a strain of bamboo designed to overtake infrastructure to slow down the government and its practices.

From this perspective, we get an interesting story, especially over the time that this post-apocalypse takes place – a decade. The book starts off a bit mixed, and if you’d asked me after the first chapter, I would have described it as a story about a hipster at the end of the world trying to continue some form of shallow existence, but after moving through the book, it’s clear that that’s a vital starting point, and by the end of the book, the changes that all of the characters go through is very clear: most of the trappings that they (and by extension, we) have become accustomed to, are superficial and won’t help us in the basics of life. There’s some rather pointed commentary here throughout the story, which makes the book all the more relevant. Considering this year, we’ve seen things like a nuclear disaster, a distrust of executive authority and other natural disasters: this book could very well be underway.

Soft Apocalypse also tracks an interesting progression in society that also helps it stand out: not everything collapses equally: throughout the novel, we see the activities (often corrupt) of police, fire, military, civil defense and gangs, and there’s certainly a shift in how these organizations interact with the public. Once again, the slow death of America here turns this style of story on its head, and by doing so, it tells some stories that might not have otherwise surfaced.

Particularly interesting throughout the book is the way that people adapt and rebuild, even as everything comes down. Jasper and all of the other characters continue to run into each other over the years, not just out of coincidence and for story convenience, I think, but because they need some level of normalcy: Jasper likewise seeks some sort of romantic interactions with various people over the years, not because of the sex, but because it’s normal, something to distract him from everything that’s going on. At the end of the book, we see people adapting to a new life: there’s new political and social structures, pushed because of the onslaught of bamboo outbreaks and genetically engineered viruses that change people’s minds. Rebuilding and society occurs because it’s natural, just as it seems particularly natural for a collapse to wipe away some of the darker things that we’ve done as a society.

By the end, Soft Apocalypse is certainly one of the better books that I’ve read all year, which surprised me quite a bit for an impulse buy, one that’s given me quite a bit to think about, fitting in with a lot of things that have been on my, and the general public’s mind, for a while, especially when it comes to consumerism and waste in society. The book is a triumph in linking together the story and themes into a cohesive, strong character driven narrative.