Reading Diary: Sawyer, Turtledove, Bacigalupi and more

Aug 24 2010 Published by under book review, reading diary, science fiction

I'm just finishing four weeks of vacation, a nice break from the regular routine. No, I don't get the whole summer off because I work at a university. I do get four weeks of vacation every year and when you work at a university it just makes sense to take it all in the summer.

Anyways, we didn't really go anywhere this year, for a variety of reasons. And hence, no summer blogging break, only perhaps a tendency to slightly lighter, summery blogging topics. And since we didn't spend much time at a secluded cottage with nothing to do but read, well, I didn't quite read as much as in previous years.

But I did read quite a bit just before and during my vacation. Here's the list, with a few comments after each one.

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. New York: Pantheon, 2008. 368pp.

A very cool and very amazing science fiction graphic novel. I've often though that we haven't seen that much really good original science fiction done in graphic novel form. Somehow horror and fantasy seem to work better, especially if you consider most superhero stuff science fantasy rather than true sf. But Charles Burns' Black Hole is a very good example of sf.

Basically, back in the 1970 a strange sexually transmitted plague descends on some Seattle suburbs causing strange mutations to most of the teenagers in that town. Seen through the reactions and adaptations of four of the teens, it's strange and fantasmagorical in spades, a very alienated and transformative view of the adolescent experience. Recommended.

Klages, Ellen. White Sands, Red Menace New York: Viking Juvenile, 2008. 352pp.

This is the sequel to Klages earlier novel The Green Glass Sea. That novel was set in Los Alamos towards the end of World War II and followed the daughter of one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. It was a terrific exploration of the time period, touching on the issues surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb. But, given that the novel was aimed at young adults, it took a more plot-oriented approach, keeping the story the main focus rather than the issue. It was a mature and moving work, to say the least.

White Sands, Red Menace picks up after the war is over and explores life in the southwestern USA during the late 1940s, a kind of lost era in North American history. It explores the lives of two early teen girls and their experiences growing up and navigating the shifting realities of the post-war era. The "adult issue" that this YA novel touches on is the anti-nuclear weapons movement, mostly in a non-obtrusive way. Just like it's predecessor, it concentrates on the story rather than the "issue."

Both of these books are very fine. The are recommended for boys and girls in the 12-15 age range as well as any one looking for a good story. These can be completely read as adult novels.

Turtledove, Harry. The Man with the Iron Heart. New York: Del Rey, 2009. 560pp.

This one's a fairly typical Harry Turtledove alternate history novel. Take an interesting premise, add a large cast of viewpoint characters, mix in a meandering and somewhat formulaic plot structure and spice with a bit of political commentary. What you get is a pretty good summer read.

Which is what I've been doing with Turtledove for years, reading his latest alternate history potboiler while on vacation.

The setting for this one is a world where the assassination attempt on Nazi SS governor of Czechoslovakia Reinhard Heydrich failed. Ultimately, Heydrich was able to convince the Nazi high command to prepare for mounting a strong resistance movement after he realized the war was lost. With a couple of years to prepare, the Nazi were able to create and sustain very significant insurgencies in all the allied occupation zones, causing a lot of damage and casualties.

Yes, Turtledove does want us to see Germany in 1946 as Iraq and Afganistan in 2008. And he mostly pulls it off. The resistance is effectively and realistically portrayed as is te various Allied reactions.

Maberry, Jonathan. The Dragon Factory. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010. 496pp.

Not zombies this time -- not at all like the first book in the Joe Ledger series, Patient Zero. This book is not quite as violent or over the top, not quite as breakneck or fast-paced, not quite as many violent blood soaked set pieces. Not quite, but still enough to satisfy my desire for a great horror/sf thriller.

This time around, Ledger and his merry band of government operatives battle, believe it or not, Nazis in a race to end the world and implement a kind of final solution from the grave.

Really cool book, by the way. In the end, slowing it down a bit made the book even better than the first.

Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker New York: Little Brown, 2010. 336pp.

A seriously terrific young adult novel by up-and-coming new writer Paolo Bacigalupi. The setting is vivid: in a post-climate meltdown future, water levels are much higher on the gulf coast of the USA, leaving much of it submerged, including New Orleans. Further up the coast, hardscrabble crews of men, women and children work at breaking down old oil tankers for salvage. One of the kids is the teen protagonist, Nailer. One day after a huge storm, he and a friend wander off quite a distance and discover a newly wrecked vessel. On board is a teenaged girl, claiming to be the daughter of a wealthy family who would pay for her return.

A great setup for a great novel. There's lots of action and daring do with engaging characters. Nailer in particular is very likeable in a tough and no-nonsense way, a kid who's grown up in the school of hard knocks. Don't worry that the book will feel too much like a kids book for an adult to enjoy -- it is a truly a book that will appeal to anyone from early- to mid-teens onwards to adults.

Sawyer, Robert J. WWW: Wake. Toronto: Penguin, 2009. 332pp.

It's not often you read a book while sitting on a plane with the author. As it happens, both Rob and I were invited to the recent Science Foo camp organized by Google, Nature and O'Reilly. We both flew to San Francisco on the Friday and flew back the following Monday. So, I though it would be cool to read the book while on the same plane as the author. I started it on the trip out and finished it on the flight back. Now, think of the possibilities. I'm reading, a part of the book sucks, and I stand in the plane, point at Rob sitting a few rows behind me and shout, "That man over there is the famous science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer and his latest paperback book SUCKS." Kind of pulling a Slater for the literary set.

As it happened, no such dramatic display was necessary. Wake is excellent.

It follows the story of teenage girl Caitlin Decter, an American living in Waterloo, Ontario with her family. She's blind, and it seems that a researcher in Japan may just have developed a cure for her rather rare condition and restore her sight. The operation is a success. after taking a while to calibrate the Internet-enabled implant that helps her brain process visual signals properly. Well, of course, this means that everything Caitlin sees is essentially streamed out into the Internet...what happens if the Internet is somehow aware and starts noticing...

Anyways, I won't give away any more. I'll only say that this first entry in the WWW trilogy is well worth reading and I anxiously await diving into the next two.

It's worth noting that both of the YA books I review in this post are also perfectly enjoyable by adults with no feeling that they are "dumbed down" for the teen audience. Wake is the corollary in a way, a book aimed at the adult market that would be enjoyed by any of the same teen audience that would enjoy Ship Breaker or White Sands, Red Menace. Buy it for yourself, share it with the kids in your life. I know I did.

Popoff, Martin. Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years of Rush at Home and Away. Toronto: ECW, 2004. 236pp.

Not much to say about this one -- it's a very fine documentary history of the
Canadian progressive hard rock band Rush right from the beginning of their career in the suburbs of Toronto up until their 30th anniversary tour in 2004. It takes an album-by-album approach. There's lots of interviews with the band and people around them to bring an intimate feel to the book.

If you like Rush, you'll like this book. If you don't care too much for them but are interested in learning more, it's a good place to start as it gives a good feeling for their appeal. One thing I would have appreciated is a discography with track titles at the end. It was a bit confusing at times not to have any track listings to refer to.

I also watched the Rush documentary during my vacation -- Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage -- which was also excellent.

Interestingly, I didn't finish any science or technology non-fiction books during my holiday, which is unusual. I usually read one or two information or science books while I off. I did have one going before I started but it's just not grabbing me that much. It's also interesting that I didn't read much, graphic novel-wise. I was sort of expecting to read quite a few but aside from the Burns and another I didn't enjoy much at all (so I'm not bothering to mention), I didn't really feel like it. I have about 8 collections of Walking Dead lined up, so I'm seeing a fair bit of that in the next little while, though.

As far as DVD viewing goes for the vacation period, we gorged on Six Feet Under watching seasons 4 and 5. It's an absolutely classic series, but a little on the depressing side taken in very large doses. We essentially watched all five seasons over the course of about 6 weeks. On a frothier note, we also watched the first season of Six Feet Under producer Alan Ball's new series, True Blood. We watched a bit of X-Files season one, but the very early episodes are a bit hard to get into.

(For those of you who care, this more or less marks my integration of my mostly defunct Reading Diary of John Dupuis into this blog. I'm not sure how much posting I'll be doing along those lines, but it's got to be more that I was doing on the other blog. Reading-wise, you can also keep up with what I'm doing on GoodReads.)

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