It’s been a long time coming—I had a computer to build, and a bunch of queued posts to make. But here it is, a look back at 2011: the best, and the worst, books I read last year.
Needless to say, a chunk of the reviews I posted were for things I read in 2010 (or earlier), and a good number of what I read in the spring and summer of 2011 have yet to be reviewed. (Not much of value was lost.)
Top 5 Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels:
Probably a shorter list than it should be, since I read a huge stack of solid SF&F novels this year. Then again, I read a lot of mediocre, average, and crap novels as well, and several of the bigger and better books I reviewed were ones I read last year.
- The Faded Sun Trilogy, by C. J. Cherryh. Technically I read the first two books in December 2010, and I still haven’t written a review yet, but here’s what it’ll say: “Faded Sun has everything: well-defined alien cultures that are actually alien, some intriguing philosophical questions, a Soft SF look at cultural integration and extinction, a fluid struggle of political intrigue, developed planetary ecology, and a proper epic backdrop of galactic war for this amazing space opera. In a nutshell, it’s my ideal science fiction novel. While sluggish in the center, it builds steam for a fantastic conclusion that’s more than worth the price of admission. Every SF fan should give this series a try; I promise it won’t disappoint.”
- Downward To The Earth, by Robert Silverberg. Deep and engaging, it raises some profound philosophical issues in its post-colonial look at an alien planet. Never a dull moment, this novel embodies everything good about Soft SF and the New Wave. An exotic and deep journey. Review posted.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a living legend, and this book exemplifies that fact. The dark twin to Dandelion Wine, the non-plus ultra of evil carnival and Halloween stories. Many of its scenes—those with the dust witch, the finale—are still rolling in my head. Art, pure genius art. Review posted.
- Hunt the Space Witch! and The Planet Killers, by Robert Silverberg. Some of his earliest works, rough around the edges and facile, but still enthusiastic, enjoyable fun. For the author who later wrote Downward To The Earth and Hawksbill Station, these can’t hold a candle. For a twentysomething first-time author trying to break into the ’50s science fiction market, they’re damn good. Reviews posted.
- Voyage of the Space Beagle, by A.E. van Vogt. In my review, it may have sounded like I didn’t like this novel. It certainly had flaws—van Vogt is not good writer, much less a perfect one—but he’s still strangely engaging and compelling. Voyage is a complex little collection of pulp adventures as scientists ply the stars. Review posted.
Top 5 Mystery, Thriller, and Spy Novels:
This list is going to be a lot shorter and simpler than it should be; I didn’t read as many crime/mystery novels as I thought I did—most of my reviews were ones I wrote years ago and unearthed when cleaning out my dead PC’s hard drive. It was looking like a “top three” until I come up with another two solid contenders… though this list is very top-heavy in terms of quality.
- The Tailor of Panama, by John le Carre. Brilliant satire within le Carre’s preferred genre: a dark, wry, and witty look at intelligence and political affairs in the post-Soviet era… such as how easily manipulated, and how eager to believe, the top brass are. It has everything a spy novel should, but makes a profound and sardonic statement about the whole affair.
- Casino Moon, by Peter Blauner. A slick and multi-layered tale of an Atlantic City mobster’s son trying to get out of the Syndicate. It drifts almost to melodrama, but engaging characters and a steady increase in plot twists and depth makes it memorable… and almost downright literary. Strong writing, strong characters, and plenty of bitterness to be had by all.
- The Wounded and the Slain, by David Goodis. A sucker-punch to the gut; love, loss, and redemption in a seedy Jamaican resort. Not uplifting, not for everyone, a stark and poignant little crime tale. Review posted.
- Losers Live Longer, by Russell Atwood. I like first-person detective tales. This one doesn’t disappoint. It’s got a sardonic, Woody Allen-esque loser as its plucky gumshoe, and he prowls up and down a New York City you can reach out and touch. Fast and engaging. Review posted.
- Lucky At Cards, by Lawrence Block. A fun and straightforward crime romp about a gambler tying to pull a fast one on a rich asshole, with some assistance from his (very loose) wife. Simple, but well done, some nice twists and decent gambling action. Review posted.
And the Biggest Disappointments:
With the good comes the bad. Not everything can be a winner, and as happens too often, digging too greedily and too deeply into the bargain-bin of history has… unfortunate results.
- AMD’s Bulldozer processor. If AMD is true to its over-arching grand plan, and its next CPU has a 10-15% increase over Bulldozer, that CPU will be back on-par with AMD’s last-gen Phenom chips. Not the way to do it, guys.
- Cowboys and Aliens. Indiana Jones and James Bond battling aliens in the old west, how can it go wrong? To a greater or lesser extent, it didn’t; it just didn’t go right, either. A mediocre and predictable plot riddled with holes, poor characterization, and pandering to a host of overused clichés. It’s telling when Harrison Ford’s character is built up as the meanest, most ornery black-hat around, only to make him an asshat with a heart of gold twenty minutes later.
- Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. (Casino Royale, Moonraker, and From Russia with Love.) I wasn’t expecting excellence—I’ve already seen the movies, I already know the plots, and Fleming isn’t a trained writer—but man, Fleming is such a rotten author. The books weren’t terrible, in terms of plot, pacing, etc., but Fleming has a very particular style… one that can’t write its way out of a paper bag, and has a Clancy-esque habit of explaining everything in very fine “realistic” detail. But only details about Soviet spies and their office arrangements, so Fleming can toot his own “I was a spy” horn, even though he spent most of his tenure flying a desk.
- The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer. It could have been an exercise in introspection, like other cerebral Soft SF works of its era. It could have been an entertaining adventure quest, like (I’m told) Farmer’s many other series. Instead, it’s a muddled mess of world- and plot-building that peters out quickly, a cast of two-dimensional stock characters, a Mary Sue of the worst caliber, an unfocused and unfinished execution, a lack of purpose—or point—and wanton misogyny. The more I read, the more like I felt I was wasting my time. Reviews posted.
- Jem, by Frederik Pohl. A novel I tried so hard to like, but was pushed away every other chapter. A book that tries to be an Orwellian dystopia merged with a utopia and plenty of post-colonialism (namely, slavery), and goes about it with a cast of asshole characters, melding bitterly sardonic black humor with over-the-top social satire. Vonnegut (amongst others) did this better. An incohesive drag, though one with a fine sense of politics/intrigue and world building… two strengths that don’t outweigh its flaws. Review posted.
Thankfully, nothing overtly terrible… except for the third Riverworld book, The Dark Design. A hodge-podge of disappointment and failure I hope to have forgotten by the next time I post one of these.
Looking Forward: 2012!
I’m still trying to work out the balance between mystery and science fiction reviews, but since I’m running out of mystery reviews to post, and my reading whim has been leaning SF, I’m not sure how that’s going to pan out. It really depends on what interests me at the time, so I’ll play it by year.
In terms of reviews, for the short-term: Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop, Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, some more Silverberg, and a handful of other Hard Case Crime novels: Lawrence Bloch’s Killing Castro (which I realize I’ve mentioned like twice in other reviews) and Roger Zelazny’s unpublished attempt at crime fiction, The Dead Man’s Brother.
In the long-term… I did pick up a nice (random) selection of crime/sleaze paperbacks, and ended up with a bunch of westerns, a genre I’m more used to watching than reading, so there’s potential for variety. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a temptation, and I picked up most of John Burdett’s Bangkok novels (the first one rocked). For SF, I acquired a number of interesting books about time-travel (for some reason), so expect that to be a running theme; not that it’s a particular fetish of mine or anything, but one book led me to another, and it might be interesting to compare them. I have a disproportionate number of Jack Vance, along with some C. J. Cherryh, some Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Ed Hamilton, George Alec Effinger, David Brin, Vernor Vinge, and a few other surprises.
In terms of general posting: I’m planning on doing more Adventures in Art posts, going over various artists and magazine/book covers between genres over the past hundred years or so. I like art, need to do more of that kind of stuff. Have to make time for that.