Off the Bookshelf: Summer’s End 2015

Summer is long over, and the end of the year is looming large. Fortunately I can look back on a summer and know — despite all the long work days — that I read a hell of a lot of books.

I ended up reading all but one of the novels on my summer reading list, while adding several additional tomes. I planned to read 12 books and five graphic novels. I succeeded in reading 15 books and nine graphic novels.

Surprisingly (as in, I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this), I beat last year’s tally of 13 novels and five graphic novels. Not to shabby for a crazy summer that I thought was going to leave me with no time to read.

The book that got away was John Scalzi’s The End of All Things (Old Man’s War). The novel was released late in the summer — on August 11 — and I didn’t crack it until I got back from my vacation at Lake Champlain. I’d hoped to sprint my way through it and be done by Labor Day … but alas, real life intervened.

The new books I added to my list were:

  • Engaging the Enemy (Vatta’s War) by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield by Jack Campbell
  • Into the Storm (Destroyermen) by Taylor Anderson

The new graphic novels were:

  • Aliens Vs. Predator Omnibus, Vol. 1,
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon
  • Hellboy, Vol. 3: The Chained Coffin and Others
  • Hellboy, Vol. 4: The Right Hand of Doom

The additional graphic novels were a happy accident. I was out buying summer reading books with the kids at our local used book store, Hooked on Books, and stumbled across the graphic novel section I didn’t know they had. I picked up the two Hellboy books — which just happened to be the next two volumes that I needed — and the Hawkeye book. I bought Aliens vs. Predator from Amazon mostly because I was in a monster movie sort of mood and the actual Aliens vs. Predator movies were … disappointing.

Evaluating the Novel List

Here are my quick hit thoughts on the list:

Nemesis Games (Book 5 of The Expanse) by James S.A. Corey: The fifth novel in The Expanse series ups the ante considerably by threatening Earth itself. It also works through the impact of humanity having access to hundreds of new human-friendly (or at least, human-habitable) worlds around the galaxy. Easily one of the best books on my list this year.

Leviathan (Book 5 of The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier)by Jack Campbell: Black Jack finally meets a threat that he can’t easily out manuever: a rogue fleet commanded by a ruthless artificial intelligence. A worthwhile conclusion to the Beyond the Frontier series, although it leaves plenty of plot lines still hanging.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson: The moon is destroyed by an unknown force within the first few pages of this book; the rest of the novel is given over to figuring out how to survive the resulting cataclysm. Seveneves is light on characterization and heavy on engineering, but I enjoyed its relentless problem solving.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: My mistake with Aurora was reading it right after Seveneves; both deal with inevitable calamities: Seveneves with the destruction of the moon, Aurora with the crew of a generational starship realizing their destination star system wasn’t as habitable as they’d hoped. Aurora is all about the viability of humanity surviving outside the cradle of Earth, and while Robinson does an exceedingly good job of working through the technical challenges that involves, I felt his characters were prone to giving up too easily. The second half of the book seemed rushed, as though Robinson was in a hurry to get to the end and fully explain his Big Idea. It was a decent book, but not a particularly hopeful one.

Armada by Ernest Cline: I loved Cline’s Ready Player One, which nicely combined cyberpunk with 1980s pop culture nostalgia. Unfortunately that formula doesn’t work as well with Armada. In Ready Player One the rampant 80s references made sense because all of the characters were teenagers obsessed with winning a multibillion dollar prize; knowledge of the decade was the key to finding that prize. Armada, with its The Last Starfighter inspiration, takes place in the modern day. While it might make sense for the main character — who lost his father as a baby — to be obsessed with his dad’s favorite decade, it makes no sense for the rest of the world. The book would have been better served mixing the memes of today with those of yesterday.

The End of All Things (Old Man’s War)* by John Scalzi: Originally on my summer reading list, I didn’t finish it until late in the fall. The book is a series of long short stories — or maybe short novellas — filled with the galactic politics of the Old Man’s War universe. Those looking for the military SF action of the early books will be disappointed to find little of it here, but it does wrap up the outstanding plot lines nicely.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch Book 1) by Ann Leckie This gender-nullifying, identity scrambling book took a while to get going. I started the audio book in the early spring, but kept getting distracted by podcasts and other books, and only returned to it in the summer when I pushed through it as part of my summer reading list. I’m glad I did — the book has an excellent payoff that answers the question of what happens to a hive mind when one of those minds starts thinking for itself.

The Courts of Chaos (Book 5 of the Chronicles of Amber) by Roger Zelazny: My long re-read of the original The Chronicles of Amber ended this summer with The Courts of Chaos, which was every bit as excellent as I remembered. I’m debating reading the next five books in the series — they’re not as good as the originals, but they do take the universe in some interesting directions.

Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1) by Steven Erikson: I tried reading the print version of this book a few years ago. When I learned that Erikson had written the book based on his shared GURPS Fantasy campaign and that the series was widely regarded, I decided to give it another try in audio form. I liked the book’s magic system, and its core team of adventurer-like Bridgeburners, but the narrative structure was difficult to follow, and he packed far too many side stories into one book. I’m not sure if I’ll continue this series; I hear it improves, but book one did not impress me.

The Yellow Admiral* (Aubrey/Maturin Series, Book 18) by Patrick O’Brian: The Yellow Admiral is one of O’Brian’s periodic interim books, in which his heroes return to England after rousing adventures at sea and have to deal with everything that had happened while they were away. It’s a book of politics and day-to-day life, enjoyable in its own way, but not one of the more thrilling books in the series. It’s the sort of book you read because you enjoy these characters, and you’re willing to follow them on land because you know eventually they’ll return to the sea.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds: Yet another novel — actually novella — on my list about the slow-motion collapse of humanity aboard a starship. The idea behind this one is that a bunch of former soldiers awaken from stasis to find they are trapped on a dying spaceship. Each with a “slow bullet” embedded in them serves as a virtual dog tag with all of their essential information and memories. The bullets play a minor role in the book — from the setup I was (mistakenly) expecting the soldiers to some how be firing memories at one another. That was just weird enough to be intriguing, but what we get is a pretty standard space disaster story. It’s ok, but not near Reynold’s best.

Engaging the Enemy (Vatta’s War, Book 3) by Elizabeth Moon: The release schedule for my summer reading list led to lulls where I was in danger of not having any thing to read. I avoided that with Engaging the Enemy, the third book in Moon’s Vatta’s War series. In the two prior books its heroine, Kylara, was kicked out of her solar system’s space naval academy, signed up as the captain of one of her trading family’s junker starships … and then saw her family’s holdings ruthlessly attacked by space pirates. In Book 3, she starts taking the fight to the pirates while attempting to rebuild her family’s shipping business. What I like about these books is that Kylara — the main character — is a smart and strategic young woman who isn’t infallible. A lot of her decisions are the right ones to make (or one of the right ones) but how she goes about them cause her a lot of intra-family strife or consternation among her trading partners. It’s a realistic depiction of a wunderkind building her own space fleet and a welcome from change the increasingly infallible Black Jack of the Lost Fleet series.

The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield (The Lost Stars, Book 2) by Jack Campbell: The Lost Fleet tells the story of the legendary admiral “Black Jack” Geary returning from the dead (actually cryosleep) to save his people’s seemingly-lost battle fleet and triumph over their enemies, the ruthless, merciless “Syndicate”. The Lost Stars tells the story from the Syndic side, focusing on the newly-independent system of Midway and the two former Syndic “CEOs” who had been exiled there for the crime of ethics. Book 2 sees the two CEOs, each inspired by Black Jack’s moral code, struggling to govern their new star system without falling back on the oppressive Syndic ways. Simultaneously they need to figure out if they can trust each other as well as how to survive the their Syndic masters come back looking to reclaim the system. The scheming between the two can get a bit tiresome in places, but it’s fun to watch them fighting their dictatorial urges while coming up with strategies to defend Midway.

Into the Storm (Destroyermen, Book 1) by Taylor Anderson: I read most books on my Kindle, but when I go on vacation I make sure to bring at least one print book just in case the device fails. This year that was Into the Storm, a pulpy novel featuring an old World War I-era coal-fired destroyer that’s pressed into service in the opening days of WWII. After racing into a storm to avoid certain destruction by the Japanese fleet, they suddenly find themselves transported to another world. It’s like ours, but populated by intelligent lemurs and raptor-like dinosaurs. If you’re looking for a book with a strong Land of the Lost vibe combined with traditional naval culture, this is the book for you.

Reviewing the Graphic Novel List

Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon: Easily one of the best graphic novels on my list, My Life as a Weapon is about what Hawkeye does when he’s not being an Avenger. This is the Marvel comic book version of Hawkeye, so he’s kind of a jerk, has a string of well-meaning ex-girlfriends, and struggles to find some sort of “normal” life during his downtime. It’s funny, well-written, and deserving of its own Netflix series.

Aliens Vs. Predator Omnibus, Vol. 1: An anthology of Aliens Vs. Predator stories loosely centered around a Predator hunt on the planet of Ryushi. The setup is similar to the movie, in that the Predators hunt Aliens both as a right of passage and as a means of determining the best hunter within their tribe. The series kicks off with the Predators seeding the planet with Alien eggs, which promptly infect the local livestock, overrun the nearby settlement, and go about establishing a Queen-led hive. A number of the other stories in the book touch on that setting, though there are a few — such as a Predator hunt on Earth — that don’t. It’s worth a read if you like the idea of AvP but can’t stand to watch the films again.

Hellboy, Vol. 2, 3 & 4: My re-read of the Hellboy series continued, and progressed further than expected thanks to a lucky purchase at my local used book store. These are some of the best Hellboy stories, full of ancient mythology and a quippy, knowledgeable, big red protagonist.

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth Vol. 4, 5, & 6: Good but not great. The second cycle of B.P.R.D. is returning to familiar ground — giant monsters ravaging the earth in The Devil’s Engine (vol. 4), the gory resolution of a long standing storyline involving Ben Daimio in The Long Death (vol. 4), and the resurrection of an old enemy in The Return of the Master (vol 6). Fortunately there were some throwbacks to old-style ghost/monster stories in The Pinkens County Horror and The Transformation of J.H. O’Donnell (vol. 5) that broke up the stories of the other two volumes nicely.

About the Featured Photo

The cover art from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.  Credit: Orbit Books