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Well, as always, I received some very nice books for Christmas (that’s almost always all that I want), most from my wishlist and a few surprises. Here’s what I received:
So that’s how I made out for Christmas. Some great stuff in there.
I anticipate getting a decent number of books for Christmas (what else would one give to the Bookworm as a gift?), but I’ve also acquired quite a few new ones this month due to travels, holiday sales, and complimentary review copies (which will be appearing here on the blog in January). I got to go to the warehouse location of Second Story Books in Rockville, MD, which I hadn’t been able to visit in years, so that led to some excellent finds. So here’s what I’ve picked up since the last acquisitions update:
Here’s a link to a video of a kid who gets books for Christmas and isn’t altogether pleased….
(I’ve tagged this one as “comedy,” because it really is pretty funny, but it’s also pretty disturbing, especially how the parents aren’t particularly concerned about the child’s reaction. It reminds me of the story a friend told me years ago about some kids who were acting up in Walmart. Their mother shrieked “If you don’t settle down and behave, I’m going to make you go home and read!” The kids were horrified and aghast by this threatened punishment and immediately settled down.)
A new interview with classic Doc Savage cover artist James Bama has just been published here. At 84, he’s still alive and kicking.
Here’s a link to a collection of many other Doc Savage covers.
Remember the old Ace Doubles, each of which included two novels/novellas printed back-to-back and upside-down, each with its own front cover? I love those, and am happy to report that Wildside Press has started a new series using this concept. Wildside Double #7 includes two science fiction novellas set in the same universe: Slaughterhouse World by Ardath Mayhar and Knack’ Attack by Robert Reginald. Both are fun science fiction tales involving humanity’s battle against an implacable alien race, the Knackers, with whom we cannot effectively communicate and who view humans as a culinary delicacy. I’d consider both works to be in much the same vein as the old Heinlein juveniles, in that they would appeal to teen readers but can still be appreciated by adult readers.
Minor plot spoilers follow.
Slaughterhouse World: Ardath Mayhar’s novella describes the (mis)adventures of an ordinary grunt, Joel Karsh, who is one of the few survivors of a human military unit operating on the eponymous “Slaughterhouse World,” which is a planet the Knackers are using as a processing center and transshipment point for human flesh. Joel just wants to survive and make it back to his rendezvous point, but along the way, he may just find a way to give humanity the edge it needs to win the war.
Knack’ Attack: I was initially concerned about the dialect in which this story is told – it’s a first person account by a fifteen-year old genetically-modified – in what way(s) we’re not sure, though she can’t eat “standard” food – human girl who has lived her entire life on a rural alien world. She speaks in kind of a “folksy” voice with lots of quaint expressions and contractions peppering her dialogue and thoughts, but it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the story as I’d initially feared it might. As I read, I found myself mentally pronouncing each word phonetically and that worked just fine and didn’t slow me down. In any case, this is a coming of age story about a young woman thrust into a situation requiring courage, wisdom, and leadership far beyond her years if she and her fellow settlers are to survive the Knacker invasion of their world. We also learn more about the aliens themselves and what’s going on in the larger war effort.
Despite the fact that the premise of both stories is one involving a pretty horrific situation – humanity is losing a war to an alien race that eats us – these are classic, fun, wholesome military SF tales. Since these are stories of courage, survival, and coming of age, I think they will especially appeal to teen readers.
I enjoyed both novellas very much and recommend them to anyone looking for some fun SF adventures. Don’t expect convoluted plots or hard science. These are rousing adventure stories. I give this duo of novellas a very solid 4 stars out of 5 and am very much looking forward to more tales of the Human-Knacker War
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers
I should note that before I read this first volume in the Dexter series, I recently watched the first season of the Dexter TV show on DVD, and I enjoyed that very much. This first book covers the events of the roughly the first half or so of the TV show, which was relatively faithful to the book, though I like some of the subplots and nuances they added to the show (I won’t provide precise spoilers on what’s in the TV show vs. what’s in the book).
This review will contain some minor plot spoilers, so be forewarned.
You’d get this much from reading the back cover, but Dexter is a blood spatter forensic analyst for the Miami police department. He also happens to be a serial killer, though one who only hunts and kills other serial killers, which, I suppose, makes him an oddly likeable anti-hero.
The problem with the book, in some ways at least, is that it uses a first person narrative structure throughout. On the TV show, the viewer sees Dexter on the screen, and he’s weird and awkward and clueless and maybe kind of stumbling and fumbling around when it comes to human interactions, but we see him as a person and want to like him, because he is so awkward. When the reader is inside of Dexter’s head in the book, we can see how truly alien his mindset is and how he rationally, coldly, meticulously calculates each and every one of his actions in public. And that’s both scary (which is all to the good I suppose) but it’s also distancing. I kind of like the Dexter of the TV show. I don’t much care for the Dexter of the book.
I was actually kind of disappointed in this one. It’s not a terrible book by any means, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of meandering and the actual resolution of the plot – such as it is – is unsatisfying, particularly since the TV show took the same elements and wove them together in a much more satisfying manner. I hate to keep comparing the book with the TV show, but both concern the same characters and the same major plot points. And the TV show is just better, with some subplots and additional nuance added in that really enhance the story over the book version. I give this one a very lukewarm 3 stars out of 5. I wanted it to be much better. I don’t think I’ll continue reading the rest of the books, but I am looking forward to Season 2 of the show.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers
I’ll be honest: I picked this one up because I was looking for some light reading and I had a coupon and enough money from a Borders promotion that meant I got this book for free. This is a short (110 pages or so) novella in large font with an additional ten pages or so of black and white line drawings. The author’s note mentions that the story was originally contracted by the Australian government as part of an initiative to promote reading, particularly among adolescent boys, and I can see that this is certainly a quick, exciting read that teenagers who think they don’t like to read might enjoy.
I should also note that this is actually the fourth work in Matthew Reilly’s Shane Schofield series (which I didn’t realize until after I read the book). That wasn’t a problem, as the protagonist and his comrades are only hastily sketched out and continuity/backstory for the characters is only briefly hinted at.
Plot spoilers follow.
A small team of Marines is sent, along with several other ill-fated special operations forces teams, to investigate a seemingly abandoned U.S. aircraft carrier that is docked at a secret island in the Pacific that has been used as a site of military experiments. The Marines soon find themselves the only survivors fighting against a horde of genetically-modified and cyborged gorillas who are armed and extremely dangerous. There are, inevitably, a couple final twists and turns, as things aren’t quite what they appear to be. The book is full of fun imagery and it’s a pure action movie kind of book. It’s an extremely quick read and essentially no thought is required. In fact, I could easily see this plot being the subject of one of those action movies that doesn’t do terribly well in theaters but is shown on cable for years.
I give this one 3 stars out of 5, because it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s light reading, and pure, non-stop action, in some ways a video game described in prose form. If that’s the kind of book you’re looking for, this might be a good choice, but just be warned: you’re going to need to take along a second book with you on the plane or to the beach because you can finish this one in an hour. But the book isn’t worth $6.99. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I ended up receiving this book for free. It’s worth a couple bucks, maybe $2-3 because the illustrations are pretty good and add to the story, but a single hour’s worth of light reading material isn’t worth more than that.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers
Here’s a great, lengthy article on the bookstore scene and book-related events in San Francisco in Sunday’s New York Times (I believe that a free login is required, so if you don’t already have one and don’t want to do that, contact me and I’ll get you a copy). I haven’t made it back out to San Francisco in a few years, but this piece definitely makes me want to do a bookstore tour of the West Coast.
And here’s an article on a project that is doing an analysis of the titles of all of the 1.7 million British books published in the nineteenth century. Everyone’s always fascinated by what those wacky Victorians were thinking. Frankly, I don’t know that this tells us much — we’d really need to do a content analysis of the works rather than just do keyword checks on the titles for deeper insights — but it’s interesting anyway.
Steampunk Prime provides a collection of fourteen British “proto-steamwork” short stories from the late Victorian and Edwardian era that include a number of science fictional elements that we have come to describe as characteristic of steampunk fiction. Though all the works now reside in the public domain, I suspect that most readers – like me – will not have previously encountered many (or any) of these stories. This anthology does exactly what I like anthologies to do: provide a decent-sized (usually a solid page) essay preceding each story that introduces both the author and the story, providing some context and an initial foray at dissecting the major themes of the story (while not spoiling the story, of course). Mike Ashley, our fearless editor, has graciously provided such essays here and I very much appreciate them, never having encountered any of the stories or authors before picking up this collection.
Please note that the below short discussions may contain spoilers.
Foreword by Paul di Filippo and Introduction by Mike Ashley: Both were short essays (perhaps too short) that set the stage for the stories that follow but not much else unfortunately.
Mr. Broadbent’s Information by Henry A. Hering (1909): A short tale about a mad scientist who creates automatons and animals with enhanced intelligence. Of course, he’s a proper Victorian gentleman. A nice little story, despite the fact that the mad science mostly happens off-stage.
The Automaton by Reginald Bacchus and Ranger Gull (1900): Another tale about an automaton, one remarkably similar to the real chess-playing “Turk.” This one has a surprise twist ending that I found to be reminiscent of Poe. A good piece.
The Abduction of Alexandra Seine by Fred C. Smale (1900): The story opens with a Victorian nonchalantly popping a cocaine lozenge into his mouth, so you know it’s going to be a good period piece. It’s an alternate steampunk future, set sometime after 1930 when there’s apparently been a huge siege of Paris. Everyone has an aircar, there’s constant real-time aerial surveillance imagery of all of England, and they’ve got access to long-distance telepathic communications devices. The actual adventure is melodramatic to the Nth degree, but I enjoyed this alternate future presented.
The Gibraltar Tunnel by Jean Jaubert (1914): Posits the creation of both the Chunnel and its successor, another undersea tunnel connecting Spain with Morocco and what happens to the inaugural train through the Gibraltar tunnel. Action-adventure story with minimal characterization, but not bad.
From Pole to Pole by George Griffith (1904): Poignant tale about the first expedition to reach the South Pole. They aren’t particularly interested in doing that just for the heck of it, however. They’re venturing there because they plan to travel through the tunnel that goes through the center of the Earth and pop out through the other side at the North Pole. Some interesting, utterly impractical science is involved. Fun.
In the Deep of Time by George Parsons Lathrop (1897): This was a rather long work that involves a Victorian man being placed in suspended animation and awoken three hundred years later (one would think the first test run of such a technology would involve animals and probably a much shorter period of time than three hundred years, but I won’t quibble too much with the story set-up). The Victorian then travels around the world of 2200 AD and sees all the amazing technologies that have been adopted and the effects of them on society. Some are surprisingly prescient, others risible (e.g., they never discovered refrigeration and send up liquid water in balloons to high altitude where it freezes and is then brought down as ice). They’ve also just made contact with the sapient race that lives on Mars, and as it turns out, the Martians are superior to humans in every way. Some interesting ideas here, but might have been more engaging had it been about half the length, and I’m not sure that we needed the plot with the technically and morally superior Martians.
The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1899): Not all that “steampunk-y” of a tale (save that the villain uses a piece of technology to commit a crime), but nevertheless a very good Victorian mystery. This is actually the sixth chapter of The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings, a novel composed of stories that seem to work well independently, so the title of it really should be “The Star Shaped Marks.” It was interesting enough that I plan to seek out the rest of that collection (it’s available online).
The Plague of Lights by Owen Oliver (1904): An extremely creepy “end of the world” kind of scenario involving inexplicable alien forces and a complete breakdown of British society. I liked it.
What the Rats Brought by Ernest Favenc (1903-04): The only dud in the book. Some strange plague is brought to the shores of Australia via rats (and bats?) on a derelict ship with no one aboard (very reminiscent of the Russian ship, the Demeter, in Dracula). Sadly, though, the plague comes and goes and it’s not really even particularly clear what’s going on or why the reader should care.
The Great Catastrophe by George Davey (1910): In some ways this is more a vignette than a true story, as it is an account of what happened when a “future” (from the perspective of 1910) London that increasingly relied on electricity experienced when some unknown problem caused massive death and destruction, killing almost the entire population of the city. The cause is left unknown, and it provides a cautionary tale about over-reliance on poorly-understood technologies. I found it to be pretty riveting.
Within an Ace of the End of the World by Robert Barr (1900): This is an odd little story. Malthus was right and the Earth starts running out of food, so we learn how to create synthetic food using the nitrogen in the atmosphere. Just one problem: we then deplete the nitrogen and a massive conflagration kills all but sixteen humans (eight British scientists and eight Vassar students – ha!). Interesting because it posits some of the same concerns we have today about genetically-modified foodstuffs. Also provides a shot aside on how the rest of the world didn’t respect the patents on this technology, which also resonates with concerns about the protection of intellectual property abroad.
An Interplanetary Rupture by Frank L. Packard (1906): A war between the great space fleets of Earth and Mercury (which has been settled by humans). Utterly predictable. I was definitely hoping for more with this one.
The Last Days of Earth by George C. Wallis (1901): The final hours of the last two humans on Earth in the far, far future. This turned out to be a far more poignant tale than I had expected.
The Plunge by George Allan England (1916): The year is 1940 AD or so, and life has become peaceful and boring. The protagonists are lamenting his drearily placid state of existence when their airship has a freak accident and they are thrust into a fight for survival. The purest action/adventure story in the collection.
I always find anthologies to be very hit-or-miss propositions, but this one was more “hit” than “miss.” I was exposed to a lot of fascinating stories I otherwise never would have come across and the editor’s introductory essays for each story were excellent. I liked almost every one of the stories in this collection, and found some of them to be excellent. Keep in mind that these are period pieces, and not generally as “action-packed” as we have come to expect of our science fiction. If you require complete character studies or psychological nuance, you will also likely be disappointed – these tales are very much products of the era in which they were created. Highly recommended if you enjoy the work of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, however. I give it 4 stars out of 5.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers