Continuing to wrap up 2009 – the Reads!

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That’s right, folks! I read seven books this year!  Considering how slowly I read, that is actually a bit of an accomplishment for me.  Oh sure, I also read a lot of Jim Bouton’s iconic Ball Four (which I will finish some day) and a zillion articles about the Phillies.  There were also a few short stories, cartoons, comic books, tweets, status updates, briefs, cases, opinions, blog entries, articles and instruction manuals along the way.

But, ever since high school, I’ve really loved the novel – with it’s long format and character development, it is a feast for the mind, a smorgasbord for the imagination.  The problem for me with novels is that I usually read a book so slowly, I want to be as certain as possible that it will be worth my while.  That’s where John Scalzi’s Big Idea project has proven to be quite helpful.  Scalzi is a real professional with the written word.  He was writing for money well before ‘making it’ as a sci-fi novelist.  After gaining huge success, he has devoted a great deal of attention to directing his fans to more good ‘genre’ fiction.  All seven of these titles are sci-fi/ fantasy and four come from Scalzi’s Big Idea.

The Dark River, by John Twelve Hawks; this is the second book in the Fourth Realm Trilogy, and embodies a lot of the same intense paranoia that worked so well in book one – The Traveler.  The world looks these characters inhabit looks like ours, but under the surface there is a desperate battle between evil corporate forces that would rid the world of Travelers, a spiritual master that can go between parallel realities and bring enlightenment.  Although this second installment didn’t have the punch of the original, these books both offer the most horrifying concept of panopticon that I have yet come across.  Imagine a world where literally everything you do is monitored and digested by corporate interests who know everything you’ve said, every place you’ve been and everything you’ve done.  There is no where to hide and there is no escape!

WWW:Wake by Robert J. Sawyer; this title comes right off The Big Idea list and does nothing more than hypothesize a way in which the internet (you know, the internet) wakes up and begins to form a consciousness.  Talk about HEAVY!!  This is also the story of a young girl who is blind and is learning through technology, to see.  She becomes the webs first friend.  If all of this sounds like it’s a bit far fetched, then you don’t know Robert J. Sawyer.  All of his science checks out and holds up – no senseless psychobabble allowed.  Despite the amazing tech, Sawyer manages to bring the emotional side into play as young Caitlin and her big friend try to find their way in a frightening world.  This was a GREAT read.

Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi; this book tells the same story of Scalzi’s previous effort “The Last Colony” but from the point of view of another character.  Young Zoe is not the main player in the action of Lost Colony, but she does play a pivotal role that happens outside the action of the story.  Scalzi pulls a neat trick by now revealing what that action consisted of.  His professionalism and skill allows him to deftly shift gears and give the story a sincere freshness with this young girl’s voice.  It must help that Scalzi has a daughter routinely plays a role in his various blog entries.  Like all of his other books, Zoe’s Tale is tremendous fun, but with an added sense of genius that elevates the storytelling from pure escapism to enriching pulp.  I just love carrying around those little mass-market paperbacks.

Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout; this is a great first novel that retells the awesome battle of the gods Ragnarok.  Neil Gaiman’s American Gods did such a beautiful job with the character study of Shadow, but didn’t succeed as well in the cataclysmic part of the myth.  No such problem for van Eekhout’s debut novel.  We get big battles that rattle California almost to ruin.  The characters left me wanting a bit more, but I realize that in a 290 page novel about the battle that brings about the end of the world, you can only do so much.  Suffice to say that the dialog and action are just what I wanted and I sped right through this selection from the Scalzi Big Idea list.

Mark of the Demon, by Diana Rowland; this is another debut and it was great.  The book is part X-Files, part CSI.  There are no little green men, but there is a whole lot of magic.  The setting is Louisiana and the main character is a young detective who also just happens to have the magical skills to summon demons from other realms.  It may be a crazy premise, but it is set up with such careful development and deliberate pacing that it all works beautifully.  There are certain aspects that seem to be a bit contrived detective novel stuff, but then I come back to the insane premise and I can’t get enough.  This is another selection from the Scalzi list and it just kept getting better and better.  I’m waiting to see if Ms. Rowland can get the series picked up.  Writing is no easy game!

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey; this book was an absolute riot.  As slow as I read, I plowed through this bloodbath in just a few days.  Stark, a young magician, got sent to Hell by some unscrupulous associates and now, after eleven years of murder, mayhem and torture, he’s back for revenge.  Kadrey is a total rock star with the one liners and his taste for violence is varied and expansive.  It was great to read this book right after the Diana Rowland because a lot of the magic is similarly described.  But Kadrey goes the extra mile by referencing spaghetti westerns, samurai stories, Dirty Harry, Tom Waits, and everything in between.  Somehow, this books is really offensive and really likable at the same time.

Green, by Jay Lake; I save the best for last, even though it’s already been a few months since I finished Green.  This is one of the best things I’ve ever read, and the ending made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my eyes fill with tears.  A young girl from a fictional land is sold by her father to become the property of an ageless tyrant in a far away civilization.  From that horror, she goes on a journey that will form her into a young woman, a religious zealot, a merciless killer and a potential savior of gods and men.  This is a book of extraordinary power and emotion and it deserves it’s own post, which I will try to attend to before the year is out.