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.

A Game of Thrones & Epic Fantasy

This past weekend while at ReaderCon, I finally completed George R.R. Martin's first novel in his Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, something I've been trying to do since I first bought the book in 2007. Epic fantasy doesn't do much for me: I'm annoyed at the sheer complexity of most of the stories, (most of it unnecessarily so) and while that's put me off from Martin's books for a long time, I'm coming to understand some key differences between his books and the others that I've often read. At the same time, I've been following along with the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, which helped me visualize which characters were which, along with the various storylines.

To my surprise, I liked A Game of Thrones, quite a bit, and not just because I enjoyed the television series. It was genuinely cool to read, and I can see where a lot of the praise comes from for the novels: the plotting is outstanding, but moreover, it sets itself apart from other epic fantasy by placing the reins in the hands of the characters.

From the onset, it's clear that there is a heavy push to define the actions of the story within the characters themselves. They drive the actions forward, rather than external factors: magical rings, destinies, prophecies, etc. Author and Times critic Lev Grossman claimed that Martin 'The American Tolkien', and I think that's an accurate description: in this modern day and age, the definitions that help to define the story have changed radically since the end of the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the environment that sparked J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The world isn't as polarized as it appears to have been back then: there's no epic war between the good of the Allies and the evil of the Axis powers. We live in a world full of problems that come from every side of the political spectrum, from across the world, and jumping into A Game of Thrones felt like something inspired by the last twenty years of geopolitics.

The reason for the complexity and incredible work on the characters here builds the story and keeps it running. Characters take on their own actions, and in turn, cause further actions. The attempted killing of Bran sparks anger from the Starks, who in turn kidnap Tyrion Lannister, which in turn sparks trouble of its own. The conflicts snowball, all within a greater story of politics and strife over the seven kingdoms.

This is in sharp contrast to other fantasy novels that I've read, notably The Lord of the Rings, which took the complete opposite approach: Frodo and Samwise aren't defining their own lives by taking the ring to Mordor, nor any of the supporting characters who aid them: their journey is defined by a greater need. Rather than their own strength of character defining their quest, the quest defines their strength of character. The books are no worse for wear due to the world view: Tolkien's own experiences during the 1st World War likely helped to shape is own world. The conflict that swept over Europe was so much larger and almost inconceivable to the person in the trenches: it's not a style of conflict where anybody would be able to influence the entire operation by themselves: the war defined the soldier's lives: it brought out the best that they had, and sometimes, asked for more.

The larger issue is one that falls out in A Song of Ice and Fire is the idea that a long lasting winter is coming, which pushes the first book into a bit of both worlds, and I suspect, the series as a whole, putting some constraints on what the characters will be able to do: just as much as we define the world around us, it has elements that are much larger, whether they're a destiny or simply the force of nature. What seems to set A Game of Thrones apart is that this larger problem is still approached through the actions of the characters: the conflicts of men go on in Westeros, while those manning the wall prepare for the inevitable worse as winter approaches.

There's other, character-based fantasy epics that come to mind: Harry Potter is a notable example of not only where characters help to define their actions, but actively seeks to contrast the idea that destiny and one's own choices define the character, especially in the run up to the finale in The Deathly Hallows. Of the two approaches, it's hard to say which is 'better' or even if it's a measure of quality for any given story. Certainly, it's worked well for A Game of Thrones.

Currently Reading

It doesn't take long at all for a reading list to get completely derailed, but this time, there's actually a couple of very good reasons for it. In the past month, I inquired, and was granted, a spot on SF Signal's personnel roster for contributors. Apparently, I have to buy bagels for everyone. But, in return, I get books to review, and that's starting to creep into my reading list. In addition to that, I've picked up a couple new speculative and Science Fiction/Fantasy literature blogs, and I'm beginning to see some other cool books that I might not have come across otherwise. I'm pretty happy with that, even if my wallet isn't.

On the pile that's since come together after a short scavenger hunt around the house is:

A Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin I'm working to savor this book as much as possible. I've started it a couple of times, but with it sitting by my bedside, I'm reading it a couple of chapters at a time when I'm not completely enmeshed with other books that I'm reviewing at the same time. So far, I'm impressed with Martin's world and characters, and I'm eager to see where this story goes (although it's obviously not in any hurry to get there.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Ten Years of Whatever, John Scalzi I'm a big fan of John Scalzi's blog Whatever since I came across it sometime last year after reading his first SF novel, Old Man's War. Scalzi updates it a lot, and I really like how he makes a practical sense of a lot of arguments. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is just entries from his blog, and while this isn't a book that'll hold a lot of practical appeal for anyone, I like his candor and view on the world.

The Hundred Thousand Kindgoms, N.K. Jemisin I first heard about this book from a glowing review from Aidan Moher's glowing review on his blog Dribble of Ink sometime last week, and went out in a storm to pick up Nora Jeminsin's book. So far, I'm really, really impressed with what I'm reading. I'm only a short ways into the book, but the world building and writing is really, really good. I can't wait to see how this one turns out. Even though I'm on page 33, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is already my favorite book of the year.

Shadowline, Glen Cook This is an upcoming book for an SF Signal review, and while I'm only a couple of chapters in, it's an interesting bit of space opera about escaped slaves and vengeance, and certainly better than my first review for the website. Unfortunately, it's a bit slow going at the moment, but I'll be able to sit down and read it completely this weekend, I hope.

The Mercy Men, Alan E. Nourse This past weekend, I drove out with my parents to the Country Bookshop, a wonderful store housed in an old country farmhouse. The book is literally stuffed to the rafters with old books, and I came across a number of interesting science fiction books from the 1950s -1970s, and I grabbed a couple. This particular one is about a man chasing another in vengeance for the death of his father, and chases him into a facility that uses humans as guinea pigs for medical advances. It's not well written, but it's entertaining.

I've got other books, but I'm not sure that there's any point in really listing them, beyond what I've got on my plate at the moment. I certainly don't need to buy any more for the next couple of years, but my personal library will certainly grow again this year. Still, that has me giddily excited for what's to come.