Friday, July 1, 2011

The June Book List




July 1st, and y'all know what that means: it's time to share my erratic reading journey once again. I'm all over the map this month: history, classics, literary fiction, SF, horror, biography, and so on. I'm really intrigued by the idea behind the Pulp History series (represented on the list by David Talbot & Spain Rodriguez's collaboration Devil Dog) and I'm looking forward to trying some more of them out. Goodness knows I'd have been more likely to sit down and read a history book if it looked like that when I was a kid. I also really loved my second go-round with Matthew Dicks. He has a gift for making really outrageous situations seem plausible, plus he makes me laugh. Annie Jacobsen's history of Area 51 was right up my alley (those who remember my bookstore days will perhaps remember my fondness for the Insurrection/Conspiracy section), and I plan a more in-depth review of it, but if I had to pick a favorite, I think it would be the ARC of George Mann's The Immorality Engine. Tell the truth, Jim: you were reading the description, got to the words "seedy opium den," and automatically thought of me. Well you were right on, because that was pure fun to read. I've got The Affinity Bridge sitting on my stack even as we speak, and I can't wait.

So without further adieu, let me introduce you to the 22 books I read in June:


Atwood, Margaret The Penelopiad

Atwood re-imagines The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and the 12 young maids who were hanged upon Odysseus' return. Interesting, funny feminist twist with points to make about sex roles, history, and myth-making.

Burgess, Matt Dogfight: A Love Story

Alfredo Batista is 19-years old. He's a small-time weed dealer and he's broke, which means he can't do a lot for his 7-months pregnant girlfriend, Isabel. His violent older brother is about to be released from prison, and even if he doesn't believe that Alfredo ratted him out (as the rest of the neighborhood does), he's not going to be thrilled to find out that Alfredo got Isabel (who was HIS girlfriend) pregnant. Funny and sad.

Cleary, Beverly Dear Mr. Henshaw

A boy struggling with his parents' divorce writes a series of letters to his favorite author. Sad and funny and a good quick read.

Conlon, Christopher He Is Legend: an Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson

I'm a Matheson fan, so I came to this anthology with high hopes. I wasn't disappointed. The editor assumes that anyone interested in this anthology is well aware of who Matheson is and is already familiar with his stories. In most cases, the short description of the Matheson story that inspired the new story is enough to jog the reader's memory. Given that “Prey” is my favorite Matheson story, and that Joe R. Lansdale is one of my favorite authors, it's no surprise that “Quarry” tops my list.

Dicks, Matthew Something Missing

Martin Railsback is a thief, and he's very good at it. He is not, however, your typical thief. He takes things you won't miss: a couple of rolls of toilet paper, an extra bottle of Liquid Plumr, the dusty china at the back of your cabinet that you never use, or, brilliantly, one diamond earring. This enables him to return to the same houses over and over again, with no one ever suspecting a thing. Martin researches his “clients” thoroughly, and keeps up with their lives. In fact, he's now come to think of these clients as friends, and one day he takes the unusual step of actually helping out a client. It's complicated and way out of his comfort zone (which is small and OCD-like), but success is intoxicating. Now one if his clients is in real danger, and Martin has to figure out how (or even if) to help. Really funny, with likeable characters and a quick pace.

Ellroy, James The Hilliker Curse

Ellroy's second non-fiction book. The first was compelling and off-putting all at the same time, leaving you fascinated, but not quite sure that you'd ever actually like to meet the man. This one leaves no doubt. Written in clunky Kerouac-ian jive, this is Ellroy's story of the women in his life, starting with the beautiful mother that he wished dead only to have her actually murdered. Unsurprisingly, this messed him up and he's never quite recovered. While Ellroy doesn't shy away from his own mistakes and hang-ups, it's still difficult to connect with him, perhaps because his conversational style seems so artificial and off-putting.

Jacobsen, Annie Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base

Superior documentation, a thorough yet casual writing style and a real “Holy F___balls!” moment make this a treat to read. Jacobson tries to find a balance between the times when secrecy really did save lives and the times when it was simply used to sweep embarrassing (and lethal) failures under the carpet. Is the grand reveal true? I don't know. But it's certainly possible, and I wouldn't put it past anyone involved.

Jamshed, Nabila Wish Upon a Time: The Legendary Scimitar

There's a plot in there somewhere, but the author is far too in love with her own voice to make the journey pleasant. There's some fun stuff here, but over all it's jerky, draggy, and the characters and their motivations are often confusing.

Mann, George The Immorality Engine

I am late to the party on George Mann (this being book 3 & me having not yet read books 1 or 2), but I intend to make up for lost time. DAMN but that was fun (with steampunk, even!)! Check out these elements: Victorian England with steam-driven carriages & airships, seedy opium dens, secret agents, secret societies, reckless thieves, duplicate people, steam-driven shoulder cannons, clairvoyance, the occult, and, at the center of the web, Queen Victoria herself, literally heartless, with only clever machinery and a mysterious fluid keeping her alive. I will acquaint myself with the other books with all speed.

O'Brien, Robert C. Z For Zachariah

A 16-year old girl who lives in a valley believes that she's the only survivor of a nuclear war. She makes do on her family's farm as best she can, until the day she realizes she's not the only survivor. Mr. Loomis, in his early 30's, arrives in a radiation suit. He becomes ill, but as his strength returns, the girl realizes that his intentions are not honorable—he's killed before and won't hesitate to do it again. Very realistic, and therefore very depressing.

Peck, Richard The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts

An old-timey, turn-of-the-century type story told by a boy whose greatest wish (the death of his teacher, Miss Myrt) and greatest fear (his own bossy sister Tansy becoming the new teacher) come true. Hijinks ensue. It's a quaint book, with a lot of humor. Given that it was written in 2004, Peck does a fabulous job of capturing the early 1900's both in description and in style.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo Purity of Blood

Captain Alatriste agrees to help an old ally who has friends wishing to rescue their daughter from a degenerate priest in a convent, even though attacking a convent will put them afoul of the Inquisition. Unbeknownst to them, old enemies are in league with the Inquisition and a trap has been set. Alatriste escapes, but the narrator, 13-year old Inigo, is captured, tortured, and scheduled to be burned at the stake. Alatriste must decide whether to risk himself to rescue Inigo. Poetry, history, politics, religion, honor, venality, degeneracy—what more could you want in a book?

Potok, Chaim The Chosen

Potok's story of two very different Jewish boys growing up in the shadow of World War II is a classic, and justifiably so. Potok plays no favorites, letting the boys discover the pros and cons of their own choices and their own faiths. An absolutely beautiful testament to friendship.

Rhodes, Richard The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Rhodes' exhaustively-researched history makes for some fascinating (if math/chemistry/physics-intensive) reading. He produces as balanced a portrait as possible about the men and women who created the bomb and the reasons that they did. Still, perhaps because of its age (originally published in 1986), I wonder if some of the history might read differently today with some of the more recent declassified documents. In any event, a worthwhile read.

Ribowsky, Mark Ain't to Proud to Beg: the Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations

The story of the Temptations is complicated and fascinating. Ribowsky does a good job with the history, and most of the time with the descriptions of the songs (although sometimes he seems a bit over the top). It seems (to me, anyway) to be pretty fair to everyone involved—nobody is a hero, and nobody is completely a villain. Fast-moving and fun to read.

Talbot, David Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America

Devil Dog is the opening salvo in a new series called “pulp history,” where author Talbot and illustrator Spain Rodriguez use a myriad of techniques to tell the story of a forgotten historical figure, in this case Smedley Darlington Butler, one of the most highly decorated Marines ever. It's a fascinating story, covering the Boxer Rebellion, wars in Nicaragua and Haiti and World War I. Butler was a gung-ho Marine, but he was also an intelligent man who questioned the reasons behind his assignments and later used his fame to assist returned veterans being shabbily treated by our government and even to foil a plot against the President. Great story, and an interesting format.

Turner, Joan Frances Dust

Yeah, I know: I said I was done with zombies. It seems like every time I decide that, something comes along that sounds just interesting enough that I have to try it. I'm glad I did. Turner has a fresh take on zombies, and gives us a zombie-eye view of her world. You can't help but root for Jessie, and there are some pretty amazing twists and turns to be had here. It's gross and horrible and funny and sad and an excellent read.

Wilder, Thornton The Bridge of San Luis Rey

An ancient bridge in Lima, Peru collapses, killing 5 people. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan, investigates their lives to try to find out why God took those five people. Although a Divine reason is never found, love, in all of its forms is the bridge connecting both those 5 people and all others. The character portraits are absolutely stunning.

Willingham, Bill Fables 12: The Dark Ages

Having finally defeated the Adversary, a new scourge arises to make life miserable for the Fables. Gepetto has been given amnesty and moved to Fabletown (Pinocchio's price for the information that allowed the Fables to defeat Gepetto), but, not surprisingly, he is not having a smooth transition. His constant complaints about the way Fabletown is run actually make some good points, but no one's paying attention. As Gepetto's magical protection is slowly undone, powerful magic beings that he captured and harnessed are being released, and they're not happy. Mr. Dark, former owner of the Cloak, is awake and wants to punish those who've used it in his absence. He strips the magic from Fabletown, destroying it completely & forcing everyone to the Farm, where they proceed to marginalize the talking animals yet again. The other fallout from the destruction of the Cloak is the lingering illness and eventual death of Little Boy Blue. His friends hold out hope that his story is strong enough to bring him back, but no one knows what will happen. Tons of action, new characters, and further development of those we've already come to know. Fantastic.

Wyndham, John The Day of the Triffids

When a cataclysm that may or may not be man-made causes most of the population to go blind, civilization quickly falls (aided by mobile plants that may or may not be intelligent and may or may not be man-made). We follow William Masen in his attempt to find and make a new life. Ya know, I understand that this was written in the 50s and all, but jeezum crow I wish that all women weren't A) bubbleheads, and B) only useful as baby-makers. Sometimes I can let that go and sometimes I just can't. It's not that Wyndham doesn't have points to make about war, power, and Things Man Was Not Meant To Mess With, it's just that I have trouble following them over the grinding of my own teeth.

Yu, Charles How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu is a time travel repairman who uses his time machine to hide from life in this extended metaphor about loss, regret, and connecting. Funny, sad, and very clever.