Book 42 of 52: "The Guard", by Peter Terrin

Holy hell, what a strange book.

A little bit of background: “The Guard” was originally written in another language, but was translated to English.  It’s won prestigious prizes in Europe, and is supposed to be an “apocalyptic fable.”  I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe the book, but it’s certainly… weird.

And not always in a good way.
The premise is pretty simple.  There are two guards, Michel and Harry, assigned to guard the basement of a luxury apartment building.  They live where they work, and have almost no contact with the outside world.

As the story goes on, we find that something bad, something apocalyptic, may have happened outside.  Or has it?  Annoyingly, our narrator, Michel, is also slipping into insanity, and by the end of the book, it feels impossible to tell what’s real or fake.

I finished this book, stopped, stared up at the ceiling, and then turned to the internet to try and figure out what the hell the ending even meant.  Unfortunately, it seems that no one really knows.  There’s such great suspenseful buildup – and then the ending just fizzles out into incomprehensibility.  It didn’t take long to read, but I want my couple hours back!

Or at least an explanation!

Time to read: 2 hours, mostly wasted.  Also, this book has 180 chapters in 300 pages.  It’s strange.

Book 41 of 52: "1634: The Baltic War" by Eric Flint and David Weber

Here we go, book 3 in the series!  This is, of course, the sequel to 1632 and 1633, following our time-lost Americans dropped back into 17th century Germany.  At least the naming scheme for the books is pretty consistent, right?

Well, up until this point.  From here on out, the timeline splits a bit as we follow around several different groups.  The book that is the apparent sequel to this one is called “1634: The Galileo Affair”, and is set at the same time as this book, but follows different characters.

It’s growing too much to keep track of!
This book, at least, sticks with the Grantville/USE (That’s United States of Europe) army, following along with several exciting battles, and a lot of slower exposition in between them.  That’s not so bad.

I am not yet done with the Galileo book mentioned above, but it’s a lot less military focused, and I’m having trouble getting through it.  I think that this was actually the same place I got stuck when I last tried to make it all the way through the series.  Now, the question becomes: should I give up, or slog on through?

To know, I guess you’ll have to stay tuned!

Time to read: 5 hours.

Book 40 of 52: "1633" by Eric Flint and David Weber

Last week, I read Eric Flint’s “1632.”  Given the title, it should be easy to guess that this book, “1633”, is the direct sequel – and you’d be correct!

Once again, we’re back with our time-displaced West Virginians in the middle of Germany, smack dab in the center of the 30 Years’ War.  Of course, by now our heroic Americans have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with – and word of their presence is spreading!  How are the other nations going to adjust?
I do like these sorts of “alternate history” books, but at the same time I find that they often get bogged down with a lot of historical details.  I’m not a huge history reader, and so when the names of dozens of royal monarchs and generals are being thrown around, it’s easy for me to get lost.  I felt that a little with this book, and even more with its next sequel, “1634: The Baltic War” (coming next week).

I almost need a flow chart to help with all the names.  Maybe include a glossary?

Time to read: About 5 hours – these alternate history books just keep on getting longer and longer!

Book 39 of 52: "1632", by Eric Flint

Ever dreamed of going back in time, maybe with a .45 caliber pistol to help smooth things over with the natives?  Well, in “1632”, an entire town of West Virginia hillbillies is magically/mystically teleported back to the middle of Europe, in the titular year, right in the middle of the 30 Years’ War.

How’s it happen?  There’s a brief little science explanation, but the “how” doesn’t really matter.  No, what truly matters is what happens next – and that’s four hundred pages of good ol’fashioned American ass kicking.
Reading “1632” makes me think of a favorite Reddit sub-forum (or subreddit), known as Humanity Fuck Yeah.  This forum features all sorts of stories about humans being awesome, stories which often have an ending so satisfying that I can’t help but cheer and pump my fist in the air.  Awesome heroes triumph over villains through firepower, courage, and daring!  Democracy kicks the ass of those cruel and vicious monarchs!

I’ve read “1632” before, but I’ve never managed to make it all the way through the series that it launches, with the following books including 1633, 1634: The Baltic War, 1634: The Galileo Affair, and many more.  This time, though, I’m willing to give it another chance.

Occasionally dense with history and politics, but with enough action to make up for it, 1632 is definitely a must-read for lovers of alternate history.  Up next?  The sequels!

Time to read: About 8 hours.

Book 38 of 52: "The Map of the Sky" by Felix J. Palma

Steampunk science fiction and fantasy has been a rising genre, in my eyes.  It’s often difficult for me to immerse myself initially in the complexity of the steampunk universe, trying to remember how I know names like Algernon Swinburne and Charles Babbage.  However, I’ve found that, after the first 100 pages, I’m irreconcilably mired in the story, and I can’t bring myself to close the book until I’ve reached the last page.

Of course, it’s helpful when the plot is sufficiently fantastic, as well.
Such is the case in Felix J. Palma’s “The Map of the Sky,” which happens to be the second of three books in his Map of Time trilogy.  Ideally, I’d read the three books in order, but this was the only one available at my library, so I’m going with it!  Not to worry – I have reservation requests in for the others.

In this story, our hero is none other than Herbert George Wells, cranky and irascible author of “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds”!  The man has just published War of the Worlds, and finds himself initially amused when the story begins to come true!  However, amusement quickly turns to horror as he finds that Martians truly are invading, and they appear unstoppable.

I won’t give away much more of the story, as there’s a significant plot twist that would quite spoil the ending.  However, I will say that I was able to guess this twist was coming – it was really the only “out” the author had.  That perhaps slightly dampened my enjoyment.

Still, the book was well written and engaging, and I’ll be reading the others.  Plus, at a hefty five hundred pages or so, it’s long enough for some decent world-building, without initially growing too overwhelming or fantastic.

Time to read: About 6 hours, all in two days.  Damn that immersive universe!

Book 37 of 52: "Mystery of the Blue Train" by Agatha Christie

More Agatha Christie!  Probably a quarter of all the books in my 52 Book Challenge for this year so far have been AC novels.  They’re just always so engaging, while still being a great way to unwind after a long day, sitting in bed with just a night light turned on.

Like many others, “Mystery of the Blue Train” is a Hercule Poirot mystery, although, as is often the case, the eponymous detective is not truly the main character.  Instead, the story revolves around Katherine Grey, a young but level-headed heroine who, upon coming into a large sum of money, sets off to see the world.  But scarcely is she away before she finds herself involved in murder!
Of course, there’s a whole host of suspects, including a husband set on divorce and on a downslide towards poverty, an American millionaire, a seductive French dancer, and an earnest secretary.  And, as always, I couldn’t guess the murderer by the end of the story.

One of these days, Agatha, I’ll have you figured out!

Until then, however, I’ll always enjoy another Christie novel.  The use of other characters as the main focus, instead of Poirot himself, is always refreshing.  Instead of being stuck inside the same man’s head for 43 different novels, we get different takes on the little egg-headed detective, seeing him through different lenses.

Time to read: 3 hours.  Pretty typical.

Book 36 of 52: "Redshirts: A Novel with 3 Codas" by John Scalzi

Shocking geek confession: I’ve never seen Star Trek.

However, even though I haven’t ever watched a single full episode of the show that this book parodies, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the fast-paced and wicked humor that runs rampant in this novel.  If you’ve ever watched an action movie and felt like the hero must have somehow acquired a suit of invulnerable plot armor, well, this is the book for you!

Be warned, however: there’s going to be some very meta themes.
I flew through this book, and the story felt very fast-paced – so fast paced, in fact, that I found myself finishing the story, reaching the end, with a good sixty or seventy pages left in the book.  What in the world?  Is this just an under-200-page story with a lot of padding?

No, as it turns out.  This is a story within a story, and then there’s another story wrapped around that one.  The characters of the first story are just that – characters – in the second story, and the third story is even more disconnected from those, another step out.

Like I said, meta.

Still, despite the unexpected shortness of the main story, I really enjoyed this parody, and I’d happily pick it up again.  It looks like John Scalzi has a lot of books out, so I will probably be reading more by this man – he can write!

Time to read: 3 hours.  Literally burned the whole thing in a single afternoon.

Book 35 of 52: "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

If I had only one word to describe this book, I think I’d call it “harrowing.”

If I had a few more words, I might call it “a harrowing, twisted look at life in the third world in a plague-ravaged, genetically twisted post-apocalyptic, calorie-starved future.”

Yeah.  That sums it up pretty well.
The Windup Girl weaves together several interconnected threads in the Kingdom of Thailand, some years into the future.  And a lot’s gone wrong.  The sea level has risen, and pumps must run continuously to hold the water back from flooding the city.  Genetically engineered plagues have killed off most of the natural plant life, and calories must come from generipped, bioengineered new foodstuffs that are created by companies.  The oil has run out, so all power comes from people – who need their power from precious calories.

Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

Some of the main characters include Anderson, a “calorie man” working to bend Thailand to his biotechnology company’s interests, Emiko, a genetically created individual known as a “windup”, Kanya, an officer in Thailand’s Environmental Ministry who seeks to fight the incoming plagues, and Hock Seng, a Chinese migrant who fled to Thailand after his family was slaughtered in Malaysia.

There’s a lot of violence, plenty of death and destruction, and some parts of the book that are nearly X rated, but the story is gripping and compelling.  Bacigalupi has said that he’s not likely to do a sequel, which disappoints me, but the book is still amazing.

Time to read: about 10 hours.

Book 34 of 52: "They Came to Baghdad" by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie.  It’s a name synonymous with mystery.

But this isn’t really a mystery novel.

It’s much more of an action-filled spy novel, with a mystery serving as a minor plot element.

And that’s a very good thing, in my opinion.
“They Came to Baghdad” features a mysterious meeting between heads of state being planned to happen, well, in Baghdad.  But powerful, shadowy forces want to disrupt this meeting, and they’re willing to kill in order to make sure it all falls apart.

Those shadowy forces might have succeeded – if it weren’t for one young, lovestruck woman, who decides to chase her new flame to Baghdad, and finds herself embroiled in the middle of this devious and twisting plot.

I’ve come to really appreciate Agatha Christie stories.  They always start out slow, but build in such a compelling manner that I just can’t put them down.  “They Came to Baghdad” was no exception, and I might even consider purchasing this one for myself.  Very good!

Time to read: 1 day.  I couldn’t stop!

Book 33 of 52: "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt" by Michael Lewis

Back to non-fiction – and one of my favorite topics, finance!  I’ve heard a lot of critical acclaim for Flash Boys, which seeks to take on and explain the mystery and complexity behind high-frequency trading, or HFT.

What is HFT?  In short, it’s the stock trading strategy of racing the market, finding out when a large order is going to be placed, snapping up all of those stocks before the large order can go through, and then selling them to that purchaser for a profit.

It’s a bit like seeing a lot of customers at a lemonade stand on a hot day, cutting to the front of the line, buying ALL the lemonade, and then turning around and selling it to the customers for a higher price.

Seems wrong?  I agree!  As do many people in this book…
The book follows a real-life trader, Brad, who slowly comes to learn about HFT – and sets out to create a stock exchange where traders are safe from HFT’s reach, trying to restore some fairness to the market.  There’s also a lot of background, and although the book does get technical in some places, I didn’t have too much trouble following along, even as a Wall Street outsider.

Time to read: 3 days, mainly in small chunks at night.