What’s Overdue? or Books I Wish I’d Read in 2013, Part 2

Thud swoosh thunk!
Jiminy kathunk zowie!

That is the sound of my 2014 reading list, created from books which I’ve checked out but not finished, piling higher and higher towards the planets and such. And I can’t seem to even make a dent in the list because I keep finding interesting, irresistible books such as 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger, The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago, How Music Works by David Byrne and Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews.

New unread books

I’m trying to change my reading habits so as to not miss out on any books that at one point seemed interesting, because once I return a book unfinished I seldom go back to it. The first portion of my 2014 list contains five titles, and of these I have so far read NONE. But am I daunted? Neigh I seigh, so I continue on compiling my list.

Universe versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Here’s one I’ve checked out three times, read a fair bit of, thoroughly enjoyed, yet set aside for other reads. A 10-year-old boy named Alex is struck in the head by a meteorite, which scars him both physically and socially, making him a favorite target of bullies. As punishment for vandalism that he didn’t actually commit, Alex is put to work for hermit-ish Mr. Peterson, and a friendship slowly starts to grow. But the story doesn’t start here, rather it begins with Alex at age 17 detained at customs with a large amount of marijuana. How did he arrive in this situation and where will he go from there?

City of TruthCity of Truth by James Morrow
Movies featuring people who are unable to lie (Liar Liar, The Invention of Lying) have bloomed in recent years, and the premise is an interesting one. City of Truth, written in 1990, is about a city called Veritas where people have been conditioned to always tell the truth. The result is a lack of tact, total candor in advertising (beef is “murdered cow” and car models include Adequates and Functionals) and generally amusing brutally frank communication. It is in this setting that Jack Sperry learns his son has a fatal disease and realizes that it might be in the boy’s best interest for Jack to lie to him. In Veritas, lying is not a simple decision; to lie is to become a subversive. This weighty subject is surrounded by abundant humor in a story that, although based in a fantastical framework, is actually a commentary on our very own society.

Janus AffairThe Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine
One of my favorite books of 2012 was Phoenix Rising: a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel. This Victorian steampunk thriller features Eliza Braun, a government agent whose first move in any situation is to throw a stick of dynamite, and her de facto partner Wellington Books, an archivist with wicked mechanical skills and no desire to leave his repository. The Janus Affair is book two in the series, this time finding the gear-flinging duo trying to discover why British citizens are suddenly vanishing in brilliant flashes of lightning. Will they once again save England from naughty evildoers and make the Empire safe for its citizens?

Ready player oneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
Here’s another highly-rated book that I got a ways into, enjoyed, and put aside. In the near-future the world has become an unappealing junk-filled dystopia. Many people frequent a virtual reality called OASIS, a much happier place, where one can go to learn, socialize, play, and engage in various aspects of real life. There’s a rumor that 3 keys exist within OASIS, and whoever acquires them will inherit the greatest fortune ever amassed. Scouring this virtual world for the keys is not without danger, but there are also puzzles, romance and a large chunk of 1980’s trivia. So if I understand correctly, one can escape our mundane reality by entering this fictional dystopia, which one escapes by entering a fictional virtual reality … umm … yes.

And so goes part two of my 2014 reading list. Stay tuned as I continue to amass next year’s reading choices, and agonize with me as I attempt to push aside temptations (hey, I haven’t read the last book in the Scorch series yet!) and actually finish (ooh, new Bill Bryson book!) these excellent books that I’ve (I wonder what Steve Hockensmith is up to?) set aside. Will he? Won’t he? Only time will tell!

Mr. Peabody’s Corner of Research and Revelation: Doc Holliday’s Wild West

Today’s topic of interest is a steampunk novel of the Wild West by Michael D. Resnick titled The Doctor and the Kid: a Weird West Tale.  In Resnick’s steampunk universe, first described in The Buntline Special, the United States ends at the Mississippi River with territories further west controlled by magically powerful medicine men, most notably Geronimo and his ally/nemesis Hook Nose. In an effort to combat this magic and expand U.S. borders the government sends inventor Thomas Alva Edison to Tombstone, Arizona to work on magic-negating inventions with fabricator Ned Buntline. Also prevalent in the story are Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers who try to keep Edison and Buntline safe.

The Doctor and the Kid picks up one year later with the infamous Doc Holliday losing his life savings in a drunken poker game, money he’d earmarked for a comfortable room in a sanatorium to ease his inevitable demise from tuberculosis. In an effort to recoup his gambling losses Holliday decides to hunt down the outlaw with the largest bounty on his head, newcomer Billy the Kid. But in order to have a chance to defeat the Kid (who has magical protection provided by Hook Nose), Holliday has to make a reluctant deal with Geronimo and to enlist the inventorly genius of Edison and Buntline.

Most of Resnick’s characters are real historical figures, although he plays around with timelines and circumstances. Still, I yearn to learn more about the history of the story’s setting. Here are some questions that come to mind and some titles that might help provide answers.

 1) In Resnick’s book Doc Holliday is 32 and nearly dead from tuberculosis. Is this an accurate portrayal of his medical condition?

2) What is tuberculosis and how prevalent was it in the late 19th century?

3) What events led Billy the Kid to a life of crime and murder? How much of what we “know” about the Kid is factual rather than apocryphal?          

4) Were medicine men thought to have magical powers?

5) What are some of the important inventions that have forever changed Americans’ lifestyles?

 6) Were violence and corruption part of everyday life in the Wild West?

And if you’re interested in historical fiction revolving around these characters, take a look at the following titles:

Can’t talk, lots more to learn.

Alternate Seattles

Ever wonder how Seattle might have turned out if, say for example, it was inhabited by zombies, werewolves and vampires? Or what if, perhaps, in the late 1800s a virulent gas that turned people into flesh-hungry undead monsters was released in an accident caused by an enormous digging machine? Answers to such ponderings abound as countless authors are turning Seattle into the supernatural capital of the literature world.

Not for the faint-of-heart, Battle of the Network Zombies  by Mark Henry tells of a present-day Seattle that is inhabited by ordinary humans (also known as “meat”) and supernatural beings of all sorts. Amanda Feral, flashy fame-seeking zombie, is in a financial crisis. She owes a large sum of money to the reapers—beings who provide medical services for the supernatural, look like young schoolgirls, and are as nasty as hellspawn—and her advertising business is about to go belly up. Oh, she’s also been attacked by an irritable yeti and dumped by her werewolf boyfriend. Other than that, everything is fine.

When Amanda is offered a role on a reality TV show, she sees it as an opportunity to gain clients and revenue for her struggling business. And when the host of the show is apparently murdered, well, what’s a zombie to do? She takes over the show, turning it into a hunt for the murderer! Sure to offend everyone (and I do mean everyone) at some point, this chick-lit-of-the-dead cum whodunit is a fast-paced, flippant journey into the nasty netherworld that lurks beneath the shiny bright sheen of the Emerald City.

In Boneshaker by Cherie PriestBriar Wilkes’ Seattle is not a happy place. Sixteen years ago the Boneshaker, a colossal machine designed to drill for gold in the frozen Klondike, ran amok below Seattle unleashing a toxic fog which turned people into ravenous undead monstrosities. In an effort to stop the spread of this blight, a massive wall is built around downtown Seattle. Leviticus Blue, the Boneshaker’s creator, is blamed for the disaster. 

 Now it’s 1880 and Briar, Blue’s widow, and her son Zeke, are simply trying to make ends meet. But her exhausting job at the water purification plant pays little, and her husband’s legacy continues to bring unwanted infamy. When Zeke, longing to clear his father’s name, sneaks into the walled city with little more than a vague notion and a gun he doesn’t know how to use, tragedy seems certain to follow. Flesh-hungry “rotters,” humans of varying ethical persuasions, and an evil inventor (who is eerily similar to Zeke’s allegedly dead father) all wait within the walls. It’s up to Briar to rescue Zeke while keeping herself alive.

This alternate history delivers heroes, demons, cool gadgetry and copious nail-biting in a slick steampunk package. Picture Here Come the Brides being remade as Here Come the Zombies.

Other alternate Seattles worth checking out can be found in the following titles: 



I got a kick out of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection when I read it last fall, but months went by before I realized it belongs to a niche category of fiction called steampunk.

In Berry’s book, Charles Unwin is reluctantly promoted to detective when his renowned gumshoe boss goes missing. But Unwin is determined to find his boss only so he can return to his comfortable clerkship on one of the lower floors of the massive Agency where they both work. The story is set in a perpetually rain-slicked city that is home to broken-down carnivals, manipulative dreamers (literally), and whole communities of sleepwalkers: a fantastic place for Berry to stage his large-scale crimes. In addition to this atmospheric dreamscape (and despite the modern-day language that makes it seem contemporary) the book is full of things that would tip off a seasoned steampunk reader – anachronisms such as typewriters, phonographs, wind-up alarm clocks, and even a flatbed steam truck. Readers are in for a wild ride in this twisty genre-bender that mixes mystery, the how-to manual, speculative fantasy and alternative history.

At the time of reading it, I noted that The Manual of Detection reminded me in some ways of the film Dark City and the retro-futuristic Mr. X comic books I’d enjoyed in the 80s, but I didn’t yet understand that a whole genre had coalesced around these characteristics. Since then, I have come to learn that steampunk novels are often built off the settings and technology found in the works of writers such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Victorian fashions and architecture are common, as are clockworks and other mechanical age devices including zeppelins, coal-fired trains, and steam-driven vehicles that billow their mist into these richly imagined worlds.

One of the earliest steampunk novels is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers from 1983. For a classic in the genre, the cognoscenti might point you toward The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling from 1991. Coming some years later are Neverwhere by the ever-popular Neil Gaiman, along with Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville. More recent titles include the clockwork-inspired trilogy by Jay Lake — Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion; Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker; The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer; The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming; and 2010 Hugo Award finalist, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

So wind the stem on your pocket watch and strap on your brass aviator goggles — the steampunk airships are here to take you away!