Off the Bookshelf: Island Reading 2016

One of my family’s long-standing traditions is spending time at our friends’ cabin on Butler Island on Lake Champlain. It’s rustic in the extreme (though less so than the early years) with minimal power, an outhouse, and (thankfully) no Internet. It’s a great opportunity to hang out with the family, hike, swim, and read a ton of books.

And that’s exactly what I did. By the time July 2016 was over, I’d completed nine of the 16 books on my list, seven of the eight graphic novels, and a novella set in The Expanse universe. The books I took to the island were cherry picked for that purpose, either because of genre (space opera! steampunk! giant monsters!) or format (print books aren’t dead yet). Naturally, all of these books are part of my Summer Reading List for 2016.

Karen Memory

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a steampunk alternative history novel set in a late-19th century mashup of Portland and Seattle. The Alaskan gold rush is still on, Oregon is a territory rather than a state, the Civil War ended in a draw (I think), and Rapid City finds itself simultaneously dealing with international intrigues, a mayoral race, and a serial killer. The main character is Karen Memery (yes, Memery, not Memory; don’t worry, the title of the book makes sense by the end). She’s a “seamstress” working in Madam Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie, a high end bordello (one of the city’s conceits is that anyone be a “seamstress” as long as you pay the licensing fee).

Karen and her friends are quickly drawn into a high stakes showdown with another bordello, one whose owner seeks to be the next mayor of Rapid City. Soon after they also find that “seamstresses” are being targeted by a serial killer who flogs his victims to death with a whip. This introduces one of the book’s protagonists, the former slave and current Marshal of the Indian Territories, Bass Reeves .

The book’s diverse cast of characters is the sort of thing that some on the Web love to rail against as inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake. Karen Memory doesn’t feel that way to me though; the characters all make sense within the context of the larger story and the alternate steampunk history that Bear’s created. Karen’s profession is handled matter of factly, without a prurient attention to detail. The book drifts toward suitably pulpy waters in its second half, introducing the sort of steampunk heroes one might expect (including an airship and one bad ass sewing machine).

My only complaint about the book is the murder subplot that lit the story’s fuse. It’s introduced, and it drives many of the characters reactions, but it wasn’t a thread that Bear follows too closely. Perhaps my wife’s sucked me into watching too many crime procedruals, but I wanted to see Marshall Reeves’ investigation into the murders in greater detail. I realize that would have been difficult given that the book is told from Karen’s first person prospective, but it tugged at me contiously. It’s more a distraction than a flaw, and means that I’ll happily read a novel about Reeves’ further adventures in the weird west).


Kurt Anderson’s Devour was an impulse buy. I saw its cover — a giant crocodile-like monster rising from the ocean to attack a cruise ship — while browsing the paperbacks at Barnes & Noble and had to get it. After all, one of my favorite creature features is Deep Rising, about a tentacled horror that also attacks a cruise ship, so I could I not?

Devour is everything you want from a summer creature feature — menacing monster prowling the deeps, unsavory criminal types engaged in the game of the century, and a scrappy fisherman who gets caught up in the mess. It was a guilty, fast-reading pleasure, and one I’d recommend to anyone who needs a good beach book.

Crusade (Destroyermen, Book 2)

Two books -- Lobster Johnson and Crusade -- rest on rocks next to a fire pit. A fire can be seen burning in the upper portion of the photograph. The sky in the background is overcast.
Two of the books on my summer reading list, resting by the fire pit.

Crusade by Taylor Anderson continues the story of the Walker, a World War I era destroyer lost on an alternate Earth. Despite its vintage, the crew were actually serving in the ramshackle Pacific Fleet at the dawn of World War II. In the previous book hey had escaped a Japanese cruiser by entering into an otherworldly storm.

They found themselves on an Earth in which the dinosaurs were never wiped out. Still largely prehistoric, the world has two intelligent races: the Lemurians (cat-monkey people … or maybe monkey-cat people) and the Grik (terrible reptilian hunters intent on wiping out the Lemurians).

The Walker, with her big guns and sail-less propulsion, suddenly becomes a major power in this world, and is able to help the Lemurians turn aside the reptiles. In the second book, they discover just how dangerous the Grik threat is and start trying to for the disparate and strife-prone Lemurians to form an alliance against the mutual enemy.

As a kid, I could never get enough of Land of the Lost, the TV series about a family that gets lost in an alternative, dinosaur-filled universe. As an adult, I love Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the 19th century British navy. Destroyermen combines both of those into a fun, though not stellar, series.

Imperfect Sword (The Lost Stars, Book 3)

The Lost Stars series is a Lost Fleet spin off that tells the tale of the Midway star system, which is rebelling against the villainous, totalitarian Syndicate Worlds government, and how its leaders are waking up to the nature of morality. Those leaders, President Gwen Iceni and General Artur Drakon, were CEOs in the old Snydic government, exiled to the remote system of Midway for being too loyal to their own employees, and falling short of the cutthroat standards of the Syndicate Worlds.

Book 3 of The Lost Stars sees the Midway star system free of Syndic forces. Iceni and Drakon have managed to assemble a small fleet and are continuing their efforts to build a regional alliance. That potential alliance is threatened, however, by the rise of another former CEO in the nearby star system of Ulundi.

Like the two earlier books in the series, Imperfect Sword is filled with political scheming and potential double crosses, with the two main characters seemingly spending half of their internal dialogue contemplating who is going to betray them next. This being a Lost Fleet-related book, there’s still plenty of starship battles, but they’re on a smaller scale than the fleet actions depicted in the original series. There’s also far more ground combat, which Campbell does a decent, if not inspired, job of depicting. The problem with Imperfect Sword, as with the Lost Fleet books, is that Campbell’s never comfortable letting his heroes truly fail. Yes, they have a few setbacks, but in the end they’re almost always able to see through their enemies’ schemes.

That said, the book was still an enjoyable read (or I should say, an enjoyable “listen” since I listened to the book while driving to and from Lake Champlain).

Command Decision (Vatta’s War, Book 4)

The Vatta’s War series made its way onto my summer reading list in 2013. Guessing that The Lost Fleet series wouldn’t go on forever, I wanted to find some comparable military science fiction / space opera novels. I succeeded.

Vatta’s War involves a rogue space fleet attempting to seize control of the galaxy’s space ways, and Kylara Vatta’s attempt to stop them. Ky begins the series getting kicked out of her home system’s space academy . Her family is a huge interstellar shipping concern, and gives her the job of running an old freighter out to a distant star system to be scrapped.

It’s during the mission that the rogue space fleet — originally identified as pirates, but clearly something much more organized, strikes. They kill most of the Vatta family and shatter the galaxy’s faster-than-light communication network. In the subsequent books Ky goes looking for revenge, but does it smartly by working to assemble a space fleet to counter the pirates. In Book 4, she’s finally realized her goal and is struggling to keep the fleet intact by winning victories against her enemies.  The fourth book sees Ky coming into her own as the  commodore of her own small fleet. That includes combat action, but it also includes negotiating with sympathetic forces — e.g. mercenary companies with their own agendas — and antagonistic planetary governments.

I really enjoyed Moon’s Ky as a protagonist, mostly because while she’s smart, she’s not perfect. She comes up with good stratagems for defeating her enemies, but makes her share of mistakes (particularly on the interpersonal side). She does spend a little too much time worrying about whether she’s become a bloodthirsty killer who likes killing, but these moments are fleeting. I’m looking forward to concluding the series next year with Book 5.

Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus

Hellboy and B.R.P.D. graphic novels are a staple of my summer — and island — reading lists. This year I branched out a bit and included Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus. Lobster Johnson is a pulp action hero who showed up occasionally in the Hellboy novels, punching Nazis and fighting occult threats (much like Hellboy himself).


His first stand alone graphic novel, The Iron Prometheus, promised more of the same. It delivered. The graphic novel, originally published as a 5-part comic book series in 2007, features Johnson going up against a villain who (of course) is trying to bring about a world-ending prophecy. Some of the more recent Hellboy and B.R.P.D.  have become too morose and brooding; this was a nice return to two-fisted (or at least, fist-and-claw) action.

%d bloggers like this: