Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010 Reading Year in Review ... and a Dog

Here's the obligatory, I've-got-a-blog-and-talk-about-books-on-it-so-here's-my-best-of/year-end-summary-post.

I read a lot of books in 2010, but considerably less than 2009. 68 in 2010 compared to 82 the previous year. Getting that puppy in July really cut into the reading time, but I wouldn’t change it at all. I said last year I’d “be cutting back on the number of reviews I post” for various reasons and on that count, I suppose I was accurate.

The first picture I have of the dog, when she was 10 pounds (above)

In 2010, I posted 32 reviews to SFFWorld and 6 to the Sacramento Book Review /San Francisco Book Review, plus a couple here at the blog.

I also read more non-review books, too. Books I’d wanted to catch up with for some time, like Jim Butcher’s Dredsen Files and begin a re-read of Glen Cook’s Black Company, which I did. I also embarked upon something I’ve been wanting to do for a couple o years – a re-read of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. At this point, I’m more than one third, but not quite half-way through the series and have enjoyed the revisit quite a bit. As I mentioned in my overview last year, David Weber was my top "new to me" author of the year, so I plowed through books 2 and three of his Safehold, series which has a Battlestar Galactica vibe to it for me, and I'm currently reading his late 2010 release Out of the Dark.

Here are some stats:
  • 25 can be considered Fantasy
  • 22 2010/current year releases
  • 20 books by authors new to me
  • 16 can be considered Science Fiction
  • 18 Graphic Novels
  • 8 debut novels (this includes books not released in 2010 like Ariel)
  • 6 Books by women (plus stories in the anthologies by women)
  • 5 Omnibus volumes (which if broken out into single novels, can bring my annual total up to 75 books)
  • 2 Anthologies
  • 3 can be considered Horror
  • 1 Non-fiction

All that said, on to the categories for the 2010 … Robloggies? ManBearPiggies? Stuffies? Sullys? I don’t know! This isn’t a typical top 10 or 12 or anything, but whatever you want to call them, here are some categories for what I read in 2010 and what I put at the top of those categories.

Rob Favorite Science Fiction Novel(s) Read in 2010

I loudly proclaimed David Louis Edelman’s debut novel Infoquake “…a stunning debut novel by a lucid, precise, and talented new voice in the genre…. This may be THE science fiction book of the year.” Well, with Geosynchron the concluding volume in the trilogy having published this year, it should come as no surprise it gets my top spot in SF for 2010.
Geosynchron is a book that was very high on my 2010 anticipated reads list, I found Infoquake to be one of the most impressive SF debuts I’ve ever read and the sequel, MultiReal continued the trend and impressed me just as much. So, it was with this anticipation that I opened the first pages of the book and was immediately swept into Edelman’s intricately constructed future. Although Edelman provides a summary of the first two novels in the trilogy as an appendix, his fluid style and ability to draw the reader into the story helped to stir the memories of the two earlier books very well.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about Edelman’s writing throughout the trilogy is how he straddles the line between plausible futuristic technology and a sense of history bordering on myth. Between the lost time preceding the era of the novel, and the legendary family of the Surinas, Edleman has informed his world with an authentic and seamless sense of history. When characters talk of the Surinas, it is with reverence. When Natch begins to see visions of the deceased Margaret Surina, the feeling Edleman elicits is revelatory, almost like an epiphany. It comes across both mysterious and profound, and ultimately effective,

The next book I’ll mention in the SF section of our program can be categorized in many ways: horror, post-apocalyptic, vampire, and science fiction. Since the premise is science fictional in nature and the post-apocalyptic setting is also SFnal, I’m mentioning Justin Cronin’s The Passage here:
It begins in the year 2017 with a young girl who is born of an affair between a waitress and a traveling salesman. The novel then turns to a scientific research mission, then to a chase-thriller and finally to a post-apocalyptic novel with civilization clinging to life as humanity protects itself against the virals of the night. In many ways, Justin Cronin’s epic doorstopper, with its continual shifts in narrative voice, shouldn’t work. But these various methods of laying out the story give The Passage its backbone and authenticity as a chronicle of what might happen if Vampires were genetically engineered and run roughshod over humanity.

While the early portions (about ¼) of the novel set the foundation for the new world, the remainder focuses on a stronghold in California where the people have been able to survive for the intervening 92 years since the original breakout. Here Cronin focuses his story on a group of people born after the outbreak - our heroes Peter, Michael, and Alicia. In this compound, Cronin steps back from the shifting narrative of the first third of the book and slows down the pace, and while it may seem a stretch that such an abrupt shift would work, the opposite is indeed true. By illustrating the daily life people of the barren United States have to endure, Cronin establishes a good slice of life and exactly what the stakes are for the world and more importantly, the people.

Rob’s Favorite Fantasy Novel(s) Read in 2010

As is often the case, my reading patterns fall into the fantasy end of things. 2010 was a year with no shortage of quality fantasy novels (despite books from Martin, Rothfuss, Bakker, and Lynch still not appearing). A number of strong novels rated closely, but the one I enjoyed the most was The Desert Spear, the second book in Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle which began with last year’s The Warded/Painted Man. Here’s a snippet of what I had to say about Brett’s 2010 release:

Mr. Brett set the bar pretty high for himself, and perhaps unsure of whether or not The Desert Spear could live up to the promise of The Warded Man, I did not read The Desert Spear immediately upon the book’s publication. I shouldn’t have hesitated because Brett follows his superb debut with a novel that is at least the equal of its predecessor in The Desert Spear and in other cases, improves upon the foundation he initially laid.

I found The Desert Spear to be a gripping read, a novel that built upon its predecessor in many good ways, as well as adding new elements to the growing story. In short, The Desert Spear is just about everything one could ask for in the second volume of a fantasy series. Because of Brett’s narrative style and how he chose to tell the story in this book, it might work without having read the previous volume. Regardless, I recommend the novel without reservation and hope that Brett continues to produce the remainder of the series with both the timeliness and great storytelling ability he has with The Desert Spear.

Probably the strongest opening volume to a fantasy series I read this year is Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which is the first novel in his 10-volume Stormlight Archives:

Set on Roshar, a world with a harsh climate, Sanderson’s novel is a tale of war on a grand scale and the effects of that war on a personal level. For a novel that tops out over 1,000 pages, Sanderson’s tale does not falter in its narrative pull nor does his ability to evoke tension waiver. His narrative switches effortlessly between these three characters. Kaladin’s portion of the story is told with a particular flair for the epic, Sanderson switches between his current timeline as he goes from slave to leader of Bridge Four – a crew of bridgemen; and how Kaladin, whose skill and natural leadership abilities at war emerge over the course of the novel, went from being a doctor’s son set to follow in his father’s footsteps to a slave at the beginning of the novel. Though reminiscent of both the legendary Spartacus and Maximus from Gladiator, Sanderson’s skill at making familiar and resonant elements his own shines through greatly over the course of Kaladin’s journey as a character.

As intimated earlier in this review, the world itself is much of a character. The depth of the world’s history is a thing to behold, not in the way Sanderson simply lays out the facts, but in the way the characters reveal the history of the world. Or rather, how they reveal what they think they know of the world. Rent by powerful storms on one portion of the world, the rich are comforted in a scholarly setting in another, but both environs evoke a past obfuscated by the rage of years, storms, war, and lost historical records. Hints of demonic monsters in ash and red prophesized to destroy the world, chasmfiends – large insectoid monsters hunted for the shards and jewels in their bodies, men encased in what amounts to power armor, are just a few of the things that give this world a depth of character. I hesitate to go into more depth mainly because the joy of this novel is discovering and connecting with Sanderson’s powerful novel as it is laid out on the pages. There’s a mystery underlying much of what Sanderson reveals in The Way of Kings that only hints at what he has in store in the future 9 volumes of this projected 10-volume saga.

Rob's Favorite Debut(s) of 2010

Last year it was Orbit Books who impressed me with their debut novels, this year it is Tor, who published: Anthony Huso’s The Last Page which I thought “In the end though, Huso’s pure writing strength and ability to convey his imagination won out over any minor quibbles I had with the novel. The Last Page is another strong debut novel for the year, powerful in its breadth of imaginative setting, engaging in its characters, and impressive across the sum of its parts.”

Tor also published Spellwright, which I thought that was a notch above standard fantasy fare with a nicely developed magic system … but Charlton’s inventive magic and likeable characters help to raise the quality of the novel. One way I would describe might be “Perfectly Acceptable Entertaining Epic Fantasy.”

My favorite debut of the year, also published by Tor; was easily Ian Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds, the first The Milkweed Tryptich. This book just took a hold of me and was a terrifically fun mash up of Lovecraft, alternate history, superheroes, WWII, horror, magic, and science fiction.
World War II is one of the most widely used historical periods in any genre, including Science Fiction. Ian Tregillis, a veteran short story writer, uses this setting to depict a familiar war fought with arcane weaponry and soldiers. The Nazis have bred, for all intents and purposes, supervillains similar to the Fantastic Four, the X-Men or even the Justice League. These superpowered beings are fully under the control of the Nazis and specifically Herr Doktor von Westarp, the man who used his twisted science to genetically engineer these super soldiers. The English have, through knowledge and lore passed down over several generations, access t o the Eidolons, beings outside of time and space which essentially grant the allies the power of dark magic.

All told, Tregillis takes some familiar things – World War II, Metahumans (a.k.a super heroes/super villains), spy fiction, dark magic, secret societies, horror, Science Fiction – and weaves a damned entertaining novel. If Bitter Seeds is any indication of what’s to come, then Tregillis will have a fertile writing career. The novel receives my highest recommendations and will likely be very close to the top of my best of 2010 list.

Favorite Author Whose Work I Revisited in 2010

This one is also very easy. I’ve kind of strayed from his work over the past couple of years, but did a major catch up of his current series, which just concluded in December. I’m, of course, writing about Tad Williams. In big fashion, he concluded Shadowmarch what was once a trilogy and is now a quartet. For my part, I read books 2 ( Shadowplay, Shadowrise, and Shadowheart [review forthcoming]) through 4 this year and thoroughly enjoyed all books. Let’s put it this way, I came to realize again why I’ve placed Tad Williams so high in my echelon of favorite writers. I was also lucky enough, with the help of the great Hobbit of SFFWorld (aka Mark Yon) to interview Mr. Williams for SFFWorld this year.

A bit from my Shadowplay review:
One of Tad Williams best qualities as a writer and storyteller is his ability to create worlds that feel real and with the Shadowmarch saga, that ability is on full display. Each faction of civilization or race inhabits a unique part of the greater world. From the castle of Southmarch, to the dark caverns of the Funderling town, to the ethereal and hazy world of the Twilight Lands, each portion of the world is a character unto itself. Subsequently, the society we see the most of in their homeland in Shadowplay is probably the Funderlings, and by doing this Williams only further enriches that world and those people. The Funderlings are modeled, in many ways it seems, on Hobbits with a flavor of down-home goodness. In other words, there’s both an air of familiar to them, with a decent amount of freshness.

Forum members here at SFFWorld know I’m a very big fan of Tad Williams’s writing and on that basis, Shadowplay worked very well for me. I did; however, crack open the book with some trepidation. I’d seen a few less than overwhelmingly positive reviews around the Internet and it had been quite a long time since I read the first volume – five and half years when Shadowmarch first published. Maybe that time away did help me enjoy the novel more than I might have if I had read it immediately. Despite the lack of “what came before,” something the majority of Tad Williams’s multivolume novels include, I was able to ease back into the magical, chaos ravaged world of Southmarch and the world beyond the Shadowline – the Twilight Lands.

A bit from my Shadowrise review:
Where to start with a review of the third book in a four-book sequence? A third book that was thought to be the concluding volume of a trilogy, but was then split so the author could comfortably tell his story in four volumes? With questions like that, I suppose. Fortunately for readers of Tad Williams’s sequence begun with Shadowmarch, the questions are less ambiguous and are answered, if not definitively, then with an eye towards an answer.

Though in concept, one of the conceits revealed in this novel can be considered a bit cliché, it is the process through which this conceit comes to light in the characters eyes that makes the novel so great and enjoyable. In a sense, this is one of Williams’s strongest traits as an Epic storyteller, familiar story beats told in a refreshing and entertaining manner. For all the mythic action and world building, Williams never skimps on his characters. The whole cast is relatable, engendered a sense of empathy, and general concern-for-what-happens-to-them in me. With each chapter that brought a close to that particular episode in the characters story arc, I was frustrated it ended, but conversely comforted by the movement of the story to another character about whom I cared.

MVP Author of 2010

Quite a few authors managed to have multiple books on the shelves in 2009, but few had the impact and reach of who I’ve dubbed the MVP author of 2009 and it should come as no surprise since he was named as such in my year-ender last year:

Brandon Sanderson

Continuing to pick up the reigns of revive The Wheel of Time, the defining Fantasy Saga of this generation and dropping a rat-killer sized book on shelves The Way of Kings, both of which reached the New York Times best seller list (hitting #1 with Towers of Midnight) will help to do that.

Favorite ‘New To Me’ Author(s) of 2010

This year, I’ll mention one SF and one Fantasy

For the SF, it was Mark L Van Name. I’d seen good things about his writing, particularly from Liviu at FantasyBookCritic, so when Baen put together an omnibus, entitled Jump Gate Twist of the first to novels (One Jump Ahead and Slanted Jack), I pounced on the opportunity to review it for the Sacramento Book Review /San Francisco Book Review

Jon is the human protagonist and first person narrator while Lobo is the living, space-faring warship who provides dry responses to Jon’s rhetorical questions. The dialogue between Jon and Lobo is entertaining and provides a strong narrative current. I was reminded a bit of Steven Brust’s assassin Vlad Taltos and his familiar Loiosh in that both duos communicate on a silent, mental wavelength.

While the setting of the books is a vast galaxy, Van Name does a great job of making these stories personal and intimate deftly balancing character and action. One of the cooler SF-nal elements allowing for such widespread travel are the Gates, which allow quick travel across galaxies and are thought by some to be relics of an ancient civilization or even gods. All told, I highly recommended this book both as an introduction to Van Name’s work and a great value for containing two flat-out entertaining science fiction novels.

For Fantasy, it was Elizabeth Moon. I know she’s a veteran and award-winning author, but with the release of Oath of Fealty I really became a fan of her work. Like Tad Williams, Mark and I interviewed her for SFFWorld, thought quite honestly Mark did more of the legwork on this one. I’ve got two of her omnibus volumes on the ‘to read’ pile staring at me, The Deed of Paksenarrion and Heris Serrano, that keep making me feel guilty for not reading them. In 2011, I will read at least one of them!

Elizabeth Moon is one of the brand names writing Science Fiction and Fantasy today who has shown the ability to easily jump between the sibling sub-genres. She’s received awards, sold a lot of books, and has an impressive fan base. While her recent novels have firmly been of the Science Fiction variety, the trilogy that launched her career is the popular and acclaimed Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. This latest novel, Oath of Fealty is set shortly after the events that closed out the trilogy, published over twenty years ago.

Oath of Fealty is enough of a fresh start in the world Moon created over twenty years ago to keep new readers (like myself) engaged throughout without having to rely on the history told in those books. I expected more action and sword-fighting (although action and physical altercations are present and engaging), but the story deals more with political and courtly maneuvering and is an engrossing read nonetheless. I will even say it is a case of expectations not being met, but in an entirely satisfying manner and I don’t think I’d want to book to have worked any other way. I was very pleased to meet characters who were well rounded, strong, admirable, believable and engaging. In this respect, Mrs. Moon met (and at points exceeded) the expectations I had based on the reputation for strong characters that preceded her.

I'm noticing a pattern between the two "new to me" authors of this year and one from last year, the authors are currently publishing with Baen, or have published significantly with Baen in the past. Hmm...

Most Disappointing Reads of 2010

I don’t mark these books as disappointing with any pleasure, since in one way or another, I was very much looking forward to reading them.

At the top of these The Evolutionary Void by Peter F. Hamilton. I really enjoyed the first two in the series and was very much anticipating this book. However, the narrative wasn’t strong enough to keep my attention throughout the duration of the novel as well as the previous two books. This isn’t to say I dislike the book, just that my high hopes were not met.

Following on that theme of “I-didn’t-dislike-the-book-,-just-that-my-high-hopes-were-not-met” would be Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold. I really wanted to enjoy the book, and parts of it I did, but I think a lot of the positive attention the book garnered when it initially published in the UK may have raised my expectations a bit higher than was fair. That said, I’ll be continuing the series at some point:
While I did have some issues with the novel and didn’t quite remain consistently connected to the narrative throughout, it is clear to me that Tchaikovsky has something interesting going on with this series. This novel could be considered a prelude to something greater, a larger movement to come. What’s more, for all the richness of the world building on display in Empire in Black and Gold, I don’t get a sense that Tchaikovsky has revealed all the cards in his hand. This could be a series to watch here in the States as folks who’ve read the UK editions have been watching with anticipation for a couple of years.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson was another major reading disappointment of 2010. I figured after a couple of aborted attempts at his landmark Mars trilogy, this would be a good fresh start for me. Unfortunately, I think I just don’t connect with KSR’s fiction

Odds and Ends of 2010

The Walking Dead, which came to TV Screens this year in the US prompted me to burn through the first four hardcover releases of the series, essentially the first four years worth of comics. Great, terrific comic book series.

Inception was hands down the best movie I saw in 2010

Mrs. Blog o’ Stuff gave me a PS3 for our 10th Wedding Anniversary and I became addicted to God of War III and am now addicted to Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’ve also got Dragon Age and Bioshock on the docket as well.

Batman or rather, Bruce Wayne, came back from the dead in grand fashion this year at the hands of Grant Morrison. I’ve been enjoying what Grant’s been doing with the Bat family and particularly like Dick Grayson as Batman.

Regrets of 2010

These are the books released in 2010 I didn’t get a chance to that I wanted to read. This just goes to show how many good books are released each year. I’m not including books that are more than a book or two away from the most recent book in the series I read, i.e. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

  • Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R.R Martin and Gardner Dozois
  • The Wolf Age by James Enge
  • Firedrake by Nick Kyme
  • Surface Detail by Ian M. Banks
  • Echo by Jack McDevitt
  • The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valentine
  • Twelve by Jasper Kent
  • Out of the Dark by David Weber (I’ll be reading it very soon, though)
  • The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
  • The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
  • Discord’s Apple by Carrie Vaughn
  • Kraken by China Miéville
  • Shadow’s Son by John Sprunk
  • Speculative Horizons edited by Pat St-Denis
  • Distant Thunders by Taylor Anderson
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Prince of Storms by Kay Kenyon
  • The Starfishers Trilogy (reissue) by Glen Cook
  • Heretics by S. Andrew Swann
  • State of Decay by James Knapp
  • Empire by Graham McNeill (and it’s predecessor Heldenhammer from the previous year for that matter)

Oh yeah, as I may have stated, Mrs. Blog o’ Stuff and I got a dog in the summer. Sully’s (that's the dog's name) been a handful, but a furry fun, handful at that. Here are a couple of pictures of the puppy, now 8 months old and over 70 pounds.

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