Friday, December 31, 1999

Book Reviews 2009

Somewhat embarrassingly, I just ran across a file full of book reviews from 2009.  Looking at the posted reviews, I find that my original file (here) covers only January through April.  Here's the remainder of the year. 

68. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
69. Fool Moon  by Jim Butcher
70. Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

71. Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
This was one of the weaker entries in the series (it's #11)- it has less resolution of its own, and leaves some pretty big loose ends for the next book.  If you like the series, this will be another installment.  If you haven't read them, by all means start at the beginning.  

72. Longeye by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
I was rather cautious about reading this, as I'd been quite taken aback by some of the plot elements in the first book.   This had a lot less sex (for me a relief, as that was one of the things I didn't care for in the first).   The tone of the book was much lighter, and the two main characters meet up fairly quickly so it didn't suffer from the split personality of the first. The plot was – rather diffuse.  I thought that the various plot elements resolved rather too easily, and there were many left unexplored and or unexplained. There were many lovely elements to the world-building I'd have liked to have found out more about.   

73. The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA by Edward Ball
The story starts with the author finding locks of hair in an old family heirloom.  He intersperses chapters on his exploration of commercially available genetic analyses with stories of his family.   The book was readable enough, but it had the feel of a project that was intended to be a book from the start, and when the results didn't turn out to be as interesting as the author had hoped, he wrote it anyway.   Mildly interesting, reasonably well written,  not compelling.   

74. The Guardian by John Saul
This book has been languishing in my To Be Read pile for...quite a number of years.  I got it as a promotional freebie at a convention, and the author signed it.   It was well paced and had good characterization.  And.  I really wasn't the target audience.   I wanted this book to be either more of a mystery or a thriller, and it wasn't, it's horror.  I'm just not the target audience.   I expect a horror reader would have found it satisfyingly chilling.

75. Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
76. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
77. Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay
These were all similar enough that I'm reviewing them together.   They're mystery-thrillers where the main character- and hero- is a psychopath and a killer.  (They're also the basis for the Showtime TV series Dexter, which I haven't seen.)  The author does a good job of making Dexter likable despite his deficiencies, and much of the entertainment of the book is in watching Dexter struggle to fit into a world he understands only superficially, and relate to an interesting cast of secondary characters.    The mysteries are not especially clever, however, and there is a lot of explicitly described violence.   Interesting as a fresh take on the genre, but not for the squeamish.  

78. Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's 

79. Boyfriend by Barbara  Oakley
80. A Crack in the Lens by Steve Hockensmith
81. Bengal Station by Eric Brown

82. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
The author spends two years exploring the world of American Civil War re-enactors and other hobbyists and people obsessed with the war, particularly in the South.  It was extremely well written, and in turns funny, depressing and appalling as it explores how modern day enthusiasts think of the war and of their relations to it.  I can't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but I feel it was worthwhile to have read.  

83. The Haze by L.E. Modesitt
It's possible that this was a subtle, deeply layered story.  If so, it was so subtle as to be incomprehensible to a long-time SF reader.   The book switches back and forth between present and past in the life of the character for no apparent reason.  Possibly the author intended to contrast the three political systems that the character encounters.  Unfortunately, they all were so similar and or vaguely described that there was no evident point to the comparison.    The main character, despite being the viewpoint character, has few distinguishing characteristics, and mainly functions as an observer.  I had very little more sense of who he was at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.  Except that he likes dogs.    The ending of the book made as little sense as anything else in it.   Not recommended.  

84. Xenopath by Eric Brown
This book had a lot going for it- I really wanted to like it.  Interesting setting, well-drawn characters, a puzzle.  It's very rare to find authors who are trying to do good SF mysteries.  This came close to being successful- it missed mainly because the author tried to cram a lot into the back end of the book- and because too many of the problems of the book are resolved by chance or the actions of the secondary characters.  It would have made a decent SF thriller with a little more development.   I can't call this one a success, but I do think it probably suffered from being a later book in a series where I haven't read the beginning- I'm sufficiently intrigued that I plan to seek out some of the earlier books and see if they are less flawed.  

85. Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend by Barbara  Oakley
The book explores what modern psychologists and geneticists have discovered about the effect of genes on behavior and personality, especially in extremely disturbed people who have nevertheless risen to positions of power and importance.   I found this a fascinating read, both in its discussion of gene-linked personality traits, and in the explorations of individual histories of people affected by severe personality disorders, including the author's sister.  

86. Rubicon by Tom Holland

87. Oath of Swords by David Weber
88. The War God's Own by David Weber
89. Shade and Shadow by Francine Woodbury
90. A Pint of Murder by Charlotte MacCleod (writing as Alisa Craig)
91. Project Farcry by Pauline Ashwell
92. Unwillingly to Earth by Pauline Ashwell
93. Wind Rider's Oath by David Weber
94. Murder Goes Mumming by Charlotte MacCleod (writing as Alisa Craig)

95. WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer
I hesitated to read this because it's the first of a trilogy, but Sawyer doesn't leave you perched above a long drop, cursing him and the equine he rode in on.   At the same time, the book is not strongly plotted, consisting of a leisurely exploration of the main character's situation, and developing various B-plots that will presumably bear fruit in subsequent books.   His extremely likeable main character and her challenges, along with the exploration of ideas and issues, carry you along with enough plot development to hold your interest.  I await the next volume with eager anticipation.  

96. High Fall by Susan Dunlop

97. The Dangerous Days of Daniel X by James Patterson
Patterson's Maximum Ride series bends science to the limits of probability- this volume goes beyond it.  Patterson falls into the trap of thinking that SF has no rules, and his main character wanders around aimlessly accomplishing nothing until he arrives at the climactic scene...which could just as easily have occurred on p. 2.  Not recommended.

98. Identity Theft and Other Stories by Robert Sawyer
Robert Sawyer, like many SF authors declines to pursue short fiction these days because the level of difficulty is high and the rate of pay so low.  A terrible shame, as these represent some excellent work.  Sawyer is one of the few authors writing classic idea-based SF in the genre and these are a solidly entertaining addition to his repetoire.  

99. Scat by Carl Hiassen
A charming mystery which, though it greatly resembles his previous YA Hoot, was distinguished by a considerably more appealing cast of characters.  

100. The Sharing Knife: Horizon

101. The Modular Man by Roger McBride Allen

102. Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

103. Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

104. Terrible Lizard by Deborah Cadbury

105. Shards of Honor
106. Barrayar
107. The Vor Game
108. Brothers in Arms
109. Memory
110. Komarr
111. A Civil Campaign
112. Winterfair Gifts
113. Diplomatic Immunity
114. The Curse of Chalion

115. Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson
I happened across this, and picked it up on the grounds that YA books are often good stories.  I found it utterly appalling, not because of the writing (which was expressive and engaging), but because I thought the underlying messages in the story were completely toxic.   The ones I noticed:

1) Girls aren't meant to be successful, even if they're bright, talented and disciplined, they'll just screw it up.  
2) When you fail, you should give up instead of trying to fix it or find another way.
3) Ignoring problems is the way to deal with them.
4) If you've done something wrong, the answer is to be more nurturing.  Even if you're already spending a lot of time caring for people who neither need, want, nor appreciate it.
5) An appropriate way to deal with people who treat you badly is to be more understanding and give them the opportunity to continue the behavior.

Oh, and let's not forget the boyfriend who is convinced by the events of the book that studying history is impractical, and he needs to study something 'real'.  

Girls already grow up in a world of mixed messages and conflicting cultural expectations about what makes them good or valued members of society. This is a story designed to undermine ambition and sow doubts about the very things that bright and talented girls already worry about.  I'm very grateful that I didn't read this as a teen, when I might have found it more persuasive.  

116. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
A new Pratchett is always cause for celebration, but it must be said that this is not his best work.  The story suffered from the lack of a clear protagonist (point of view bounces around between four major characters) and also lacks an antagonist and lack of a clear through-plot.   It's quite hard to figure out even what the final confrontation is intended to accomplish (aside from winning a game).  
It's possible I simply missed a lot of the jokes not by not being a fan of soccer (football, in British).  But not even that could have made up for the other omissions.  

117. Dead Until Dark by Charlene Harris
I'd heard a lot about the Sookie Stackhouse series and decided to check them out- this is the first one.   As a fantasy, it has a lot in common with the other books of the genre.  As a mystery, it suffers from the characters spending a lot of time sitting around waiting for the next attack/murder until the murderer is finally caught in the act.

118. The Skeleton Man by Jim Kelly

119. A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

120. Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinen

121. How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

122. Flinx Transcendent by Alan Dean Foster.  I read the first of these books as a teenager, and never lost my fondness for them.  Who wouldn't love a story about a uniquely talented young man and his flying snake, set in galaxy littered with mysterious ancient alien artifacts and site of wild adventures?  However, after the serious disappointment of the last few books, I was somewhat reluctant to essay this one- and yet, how could I not? It promised to be the last Flinx book, the final resolution of decades of dark hints scattered over a dozen books.  

I'm happy to say that I'm glad I read it.  It's not without flaw- the first part of the book is a long digression that turns out to be utterly pointless to the plot, the references to previous books and adventures come so thick and fast that only someone who has read the majority of the books will even be able to follow it.  But it has a strong through-plot, it has reappearances from a vast number of beloved secondary characters, including non-trivial roles played by two of my favorites, the inimitable Bran Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex.   The threats that Flinx faces are credible, even in the face of his burgeoning Talent, and Foster comes up with a seriously surprising twist for the climactic obstacle.  

Trying to end a series of this longevity and beloved by so many fans could never have been an easy task.   While it's not a tour de force, it does provide a satisfying and enjoyable resolution to the epic saga, with lots of nods to the history of the character, and rewards for loyal long-time readers.  

113. It's Superman!

114. SuperFreakonomics

115. Mr. Popper's Penguins

116. 1776 by David McCullough