Booklist for Summer 2011
Here are the books I have either read or am planning on reading this summer (if I've read it a grade goes next to it, and I will try to edit in a review here):
Declare, Tim Powers (A): A really, really good mashup of spy fiction (compared to Le Carre, but the comparison I would make is a pulpy Robert Ludlum), Cold War history, and fantasy (maybe a little on the Eldritch Horror side). The world-building is well done and mixes together fact and fiction as well as does Eifelheim, which is the undisputed champ in the fantastic-history realm (see below). Oddly enough, Declare also deals with faith and redemption the way Eifelheim does. Declare's only issue is that it is really dense (you have to know a little Arabic and French, and be willing to read Wikipedia a lot), and often the density obscures the plot, which is suitably twisted but sometimes obscured by all the stuff Powers throws in.
The Parafaith War, L.E. Modesitt (re-read, B): Fun space opera. Some extremely preachy and particularly offensive sections dealing with the enemy "Revenants" (basically, the worst of Muslims combined with the worst of Mormons, with a little racism thrown in too) keep it from being a real masterwork. Uses the gender-neutral word "ser" as a sign of respect; oddly enough, so does Startide Rising and The Uplift War.
The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross (re-read, A-): Second book in the Laundry Files series. Probably the wittiest of the three (to date) Laundry Files books; this one deals with the stereotypical James Bond-type plot in amusing fashion.
The Fuller Memorandum, Charles Stross (re-read, B): Third book in the Laundry Files series. Stross goes into a little more detail and turns up the H.P. Lovecraft "existential horror" factor, laying groundwork for a presumable Apocalyptic confrontation later in the series, but this novel isn't as witty or engaging as the previous two; the comparative lack of droll satire (sorry, but the "zombie janitors, zombie librarians" don't match what he put together in The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue) combined with the heavier stakes make this one feel unnecessarily weighty, and makes us less forgiving of the unexplained plot turns and such.
Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Ecco
Dune, Frank Herbert (re-read, A-): Comparisons to The Lord of the Rings cycle is apt; it can be dry (heh heh, cause deserts don't have much water, geddit?), and the characters are all acting out the parts of Heroic Fantasy Archetypes, but the world-building and level of detail Herbert sprinkles (heh heh, cause spice gets sprinkled on stuff, geddit?) combine to make for an engrossing read. The way he bases the story on mythology of Europe aristocratic gamesmanship and the Middle East uprisings makes it familiar but not predictable/boring, and the presence of words and concepts that are no longer quite obscure in American culture (like jihad) gives the reader an uneasy view of the story, much like Stephen King's The Gunslinger.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen
Wolves of the Calla, Stephen King
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson (re-read, A+): Favorite book evah? Favorite book evah. You really have to read it three or four times to "get it", but its surface-level material is so entertaining it doesn't feel like a chore. A certain amount of Renaissance-man-type geekiness is required to appreciate the extensively-researched jokes, and I can certainly understand why people believe he needs an editor with a firmer hand. But that doesn't detract from how incredibly multi-threaded yet well-integrated the novel is. I've never read any of Pynchon's work from start to finish (sorry Mason and Dixon) but this is how I imagine it to be, if Pynchon wanted you to actually enjoy his writing. There is an army of distinctive characters drawn in Dickensian style, but including a handful of well-developed and developing ones that show up in the three/four plot threads. It is written like an epic, but feels like a character piece until you really start to get into it. I hope someday to write something as good as Cryptonomicon, but I doubt that I can.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernst Hemingway
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (re-read, A-): Also one of my favorite novels, but not quite as earth-shatteringly good as it was when I first read it. Partly because the tech is outdated (but, unlike Cryptonomicon, does not ground the story in a peculiar time period), partly because Distraction did mostly the same thing, and partly because the satirical elements become a little too unwieldy after you've been surprised by them once. Still a lot of fun, and the description of Hiro's worries (or lack thereof) about Raven will go down as one of the all-time great tracts.
Distraction, Bruce Gibson (re-read, A-): Almost a carbon copy of Snow Crash, but just wry enough and inventive enough to make it stand on its own. Gibson approaches the idea of a collapsing Pax Americana much differently than Stephenson does; rather than exploring the libertarian hyper-consumerism of an '80s capitalist nightmare, he draws on trends from the early 00's (open-source, non-hierarchical organizations) and takes a little more liberal view of transhumanism. Fun times.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarkson (re-read, A): Neil Gaiman described this book as "the finest work of English literature of the past 70 years", and while I wouldn't go that far (has he read Cryptonomicon? /chandlerbing), it's definitely one of the top 5 or 10. Clarkson is a wonderful world-builder with a great handle on how to parody 19th-Century literary style in a way that is readable and yet hilarious at the same time. The magic she describes in her story is effective, ghostly and avoids being trapped in the same Tolkienesque/D&D valley that many authors, including myself, resort to (no lightning bolts and Magic Missiles flying around) (oddly enough, Tolkien's was a relatively low-magic world compared to most of his descendents). And the story, while being set in a fantastical universe full of little mysteries for the reader to unravel (conveniently set aside in little footnotes so well-thought-out they have a poetic quality), never loses sight of its flawed, but sympathetic characters.
Eifelheim, Michael Flynn (re-read, A): More delicious world-building, but the world is our own. One reviewer described the book as making you feel like you could speak German and live in a small 14th century village by the end of it, and I definitely agree. I can't talk about comparisons to Eco's The Name of the Rose (maybe on next year's booklist), but Flynn does a wonderful job of infusing a modern sensibility into the main character while keeping everyone firmly grounded in the correct time period, and then using a science-fiction element to explore the limits and wonders of their belief system. It has a quiet, understated beauty in its themes, but never preaches or prattles, and my Friend Who Will Be A Priest admired its apt handling of classical philosophy and Catholic dogma.
Startide Rising, David Brin (re-read, A-): When I first read this, I couldn't believe that it won both a Hugo and a Nebula, but once you get into it, it's so much fun you stop worrying about whether it stands up with the greats and instead have fun with the sheer amount of crazy ideas and action that Brin throws at you, in a very Heinleinesque fashion. It has talking dolphins! And alien empires! And mysteries! and intrigue! and Action! And while Brin can get a little preachy, it's so much fun even he can't ruin it.
The Uplift War, David Brin (re-read, B): The sequel/sidequel to Startide Rising is very slow-going at first, and doesn't feel like a complete story, more like a setup for the Big Thing Coming Down the Line, but it is also chock-full of fun ideas (still not as many as Startide Rising). The allegorizing of the invading army and their fanaticism gets very thin, though, as does the whole chimp Vichy thing.
Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command, Timothy Zahn (re-read, A-, B, B): Timothy Zahn is the Christopher Nolan/Stephen Moffat of space opera: he creates clever, multi-threaded stories that leave emotional development mostly for you to appreciate rather than empathize or feel. Zahn, more than any other writer in the SW Expanded Universe (and I've read most of them) gets the feel of Star Wars right: epic without being portentous, semi-mythological without getting mystical, adventurous while still bearing thematic weight (clones? anyone?). His dialogue sounds like something Harrison/Carrie/Mark would say on-set, and he doesn't try to mix Star Wars' adventure space-opera with other genres.
Other books I may try to tackle if I have time:
Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower, Stephen King
Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin