Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011 Reading List

It's that time again, time for the posting of the annual reading list.  I am sad to say that this was my worst year ever in terms of the number of books completed (worst, that is, since I started keeping track in 2004).

I'm not sure what the problem was this year, other than simply having a lot of things that got in the way of reading.  Also, I did read a number of very, very long books this year, so that's part of it.  Still, I'm embarrassed to say that I finished only 18 books this year.  This is only the second time I've been below 30 since 2004, and the first time below 20.

Oh well, on with the countdown.


The Diamond Hunters – Wilbur Smith

This was my second reading of this great little Wilbur Smith adventure novel from the early 70's. It's vintage Wilbur, set in southern Africa and centering on the diamond mining industry.

Lion in the Valley – Elizabeth Peters

I started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries starring Amelia Peabody in 2010 and I love them. They are set in the golden age of Egyptology - late 19th and early 20th centuries - and they are perfect "fireside" mysteries. They are also really funny, particularly if you appreciate dry British humor.

When Christ and His Saints Slept – Sharon Kay Penman

I just discovered Sharon Kay Penman this year, and I absolutely love her. She is a writer of medieval historical fiction, and When Christ and His Saints Slept is the first book in a trilogy about the tumultuous 12th century in England and France. It covers the period of English history known as "the Anarchy," when Stephen stole the throne from his cousin Maude, instigating a 20-year civil war. If you like historical fiction, and if you like the Middle Ages, this is a must-read.

Altar of Eden – James Rollins

This is the first book Rollins has published in several years that was NOT part of his Sigma Force series - which explains why I read it. I got bored with his series novels and gave them up, because they had become so totally predictable and irritatingly formulaic, but I gave this one a shot because it was a stand alone novel. It was okay. It didn't impress itself upon me all that greatly.

Time and Chance – Sharon Kay Penman

The second book of the above-mentioned trilogy. It centers on Maude's son, who became Henry II, and his infamous clash with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett.

Swan Song – Robert McCammon

I love Robert McCammon. He's Stephen King, but without the extra 500 extraneous and meaningless scenes that don't move the plot forward in any appreciable sense. He writes with immense emotional depth and his prose is extremely descriptive and high quality. Written at the height of the Cold War in the 1980's, Swan Song is a masterpiece of post-Apocalyptic fiction that imagines what life might be like for the few people who survive a nuclear holocaust. Fans of Stephen King's "The Stand" might recognize the theme, because it's virtually the same (replace "nuclear holocaust" with "biological holocaust"). Both books even have a human version of Satan as the main protagonist. I've read both books. Both are very long. McCammon's is significantly better.

Forged – Bart Ehrman

Yet another fantastic book by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, this time centering on the issue of forgery in early Christian writing, including texts of the New Testament.

Devil’s Brood – Sharon Kay Penman

Book 3 of the trilogy, ending with the ascension of Henry's son, Richard the Lionheart.

Gone South – Robert R. McCammon

Another great McCammon book, this one not quite so dense as Swan Song. It's about a murder investigation in the deep south.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

As many people have said, this book starts out really, really slowly. It's almost perplexing how slowly it moves at first. From everything you hear, you expect this to be a fantastic thriller novel that just captivates you, and yet it just lollygags along like a Sunday driver. In the first 300 pages, the plot hardly moves forward at all. Then, it suddenly - and finally - takes off and starts really drawing you in. Then the story ends, and yet, oddly, there are still about 50 or 75 pages to go.

What it boils down to is that there are two books in this novel. One is about the main character's life as a journalist, and all the trouble he gets himself into, and the other is about him getting hired to investigate a murder mystery. The journalist part takes up the first 300 pages or so, and the last 50 pages or so. The murder mystery part takes up the middle 250 pages. The murder mystery part is the good part. The rest is boring, extraneous crap.

I have done everything in my power to figure out just what the hell the publishers of this novel were thinking. The author, of course, died shortly after sending the manuscripts to the publisher, so presumably they were not able to work with him through a long editing process. Is this why the book was published this way? Was this first book originally two books, and the publisher simply wanted to cram them together so that the entire series could be a trilogy instead of a quartet? Did the publisher just not realize how boring the first 300 pages of this novel are?

Of course, the amazing thing is that it worked! Despite breaking virtually every rule of novel writing and publishing standards, somehow this novel, and its two successors, have managed to sell tens of millions of copies and make enormous amounts of money for the publisher and the unfortunate, dead author.

Which just goes to show you how important good marketing can be.

Gideon’s Sword – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Preston & Child have started a new series with a new lead character, and this is the first book. It was very much "Meh." They need to stick with Agent Pendergast, the greatest literary detective in history.

The Jesus Dynasty – James D. Tabor

I wrote a whole blog post about this book, so I won't rehash it here.

The Winter King – Bernard Cornwell

One of my favorite historical novelists. This is the first book in a trilogy fictionalizing the life of King Arthur. I had a thing with trilogies this year.

The Girl Who Played With Fire – Stieg Larsson

Unlike the first book, this book is actually good from page 1.

Enemy of God – Bernard Cornwell

Book two in the Arthur saga.

Those in Peril – Wilbur Smith

This is Wilbur's most recent novel, and it was sort of ho-hum. He's definitely lost some of his powers in his old age (he's about 80). His writing is a bit more sappy than it used to be, and he seems to be struggling for new ideas. He also seems to have lost some of his inhibitions because this book has some extremely explicit sex scenes, as well as some immensely shocking violence. Wilbur has never been one to shy away from sex or violence, but he blazes new pathways with this book. He also throws in a few overt political commentaries as well, which I always find somewhat irritating, whether I agree with them or not. Finally, he seemed to be attempting to write high-tech military fiction - a genre that is extremely popular right now. He's not really all that good at it.

Mystery Walk – Robert McCammon

An old thriller book from the early 80's, earlier than any of the other McCammon books I have read. It was pretty good, though not quite up to par with some of his later works. After starting strong, it seems to fizzle out a bit as it goes along.

Cold Vengeance – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The most recent Agent Pendergast novel. Typical Preston/Child fare. Very good.


To inaugurate this new year of 2012, I am going to start a new Reading List tradition - naming my favorite Book of the Year. Wish I had thought to do this before.

Anyway, among these paltry 18 books that I managed to get through this year, my favorites were: When Christ and his Saints Slept, Swan Song, the Winter King, and Forged.

And the Book of the Year award goes to....

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