Sunday, November 18, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, First Semifinal :: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis vs. Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

The first semifinal of the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books matches The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis against Taft 2012 by Jason Heller. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round.

The Coldest War: Tor Books, July 2012, 251 pages, volume two of The Milkwood Triptych, cover art by Chris McGrath. The Coldest War is a fantasy alternate history book set in 1963 after a different WWII. The Coldest War got here by edging out Fair Coin by E.C. Myers in the first round, and prevailing over Faith by John Love in the second round.

Gretel and Klaus, who have Nazi-developed special abilities powered by batteries, escaped a high security Russian research facility. Gretel is a seer and Klaus can "ghost" through walls. They crossed Russian occupied Europe to England. In London, Gretel located their former associate, Reinhardt. Gretel offered to give Reinhardt pieces of a battery blueprint for his unspecified future help.

William Beauclerk, younger brother of the Duke of Aelred, is haunted by things he did for Britain during WWII. He heads a foundation to improve relations between the UK and the USSR. Will and his wife Gwendolyn are invited to a reception at the Russian embassy. Will has a private talk with the ambassador and the cultural attaché. Gwendolyn is uneasy because she suspects the attaché is KGB. Will regrets that he hasn't yet been entirely truthful with Gwendolyn. Will is hurt in a taxi accident.

Gretel and Klaus turn themselves in, in startling fashion, to the Secret Intelligence Service. Gretel won’t talk until they bring in Raybould Marsh, who hasn’t worked for MI6 for years and is currently down on his luck. Marsh isn’t exactly happy to meet Gretel again, but he’s secretly thrilled to be asked to return to intelligence work. Gretel informs them that the Soviets are killing Britain’s defending warlocks.

Taft 2012: Quirk Books paperback, June 2012, 249 pages, cover illustration by Doogie Horner. Jason Heller is a culture journalist and author. Taft 2012 is his first novel. Taft 2012 got here by defeating Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine in the first round, and overcoming Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper in the second round.

Former President William Howard Taft mysteriously appeared covered in mud at a White House press conference in 2011, almost a hundred years after he went missing. Taft's identity was confirmed by DNA tests and his knowing a secret presidential ID code.

Secret Service agent Kowalczyk runs Taft’s security, and Prof. Susan Weschler is his transition liaison. When Taft goes out, he is immediately recognized and mobbed like a rock star. Kowalczyk unsuccessfully tries to make Taft incognito.

Congresswoman Rachel Taft (Ind.-OH) invites her great-grandfather to Thanksgiving dinner in Cincinnati. There’s tension when Taft meets Rachel’s husband, who is African-American, but it’s broken by Rachel’s daughter happily calling Taft "grandpa". Their dinner includes Fulsom TurkEase, which is reconstituted turkey, and afterward almost everyone suffers severe indigestion.

Taft goes on a TV program, Raw Talk with Pauline Craig. He hopes to help Rachel’s cause. Pauline surprises Taft by announcing a new grassroots political party; the Taft Party. When leaving the studio, Taft is surrounded by reporters and supporters of his candidacy. Taft saves Susan from the crush of the unruly crowd.

The Battle: We have a fantasy alternative history set in 1963 going against political satire set in an alternative 2011 featuring a Republican President from a century ago.

Taft 2012 utilizes a man from the past to poke fun at society today.  President Taft is portrayed as a likable, grandfatherly man, humorously rolling with the changes. I liked that Taft visited with a 105-year-old woman because she remembered the old days.  Taft cleverly becomes a media celebrity, inspiring clip-on Taft mustaches and Taft dolls. This book is a fast read.

Here’s an excerpt about Taft complaining about makeup for his TV appearance:
      "Susan," said Taft once the shears had been stashed and the makeup artist had left. "I won't argue with you about the need for this" -- he waved his hands around his face -- "this peacockery. But there's something unnatural about it. Do all politicians in this day and age subject themselves to such ostentatious falseness? Do masks now make the man? Are we all thespians?"
     "Oh, really, Mr. Taft." Susan sipped her tea and shook her head. "When has politics not been theater? In any case, the makeup doesn't show on camera. It just makes you look . . . normal. More like yourself."
     Taft snorted. "This century's infatuation with irony knows no bounds, does it?"
     "Scoff all you want, but the outcome of at least one presidential election -- between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 -- was influenced by makeup. Or the lack thereof."
The Coldest War is, in my opinion, well written. The plot is developing in ways I didn't expect, such as when Gretel and Klaus turned themselves in. I like that Klaus is puzzled by Gretel's motivations. There's tension building and the characters display strong, believable emotions. That I can follow the book, when it’s book two in a series, without a recap or an info dump, shows that the author is weaving in the backstory well.

Here’s an excerpt, Marsh is approached by two men while working on a gardening job:
      Help? No, not solicitors, then. But the way they carried themselves . . . Government men. Which raised another possibility.
      Finally, Marsh said, "It’s Milkweed, isn’t it?"
      And he knew he was right, because the quiet man, the one who hadn’t yet spoken, glanced nervously over his shoulder at Fitch. Milkweed: the dirtiest of Whitehall’s dirty little secrets. Milkweed: the real reason Britain survived the war. Milkweed: the org for whom Marsh had faced demons and supermen; the org for whose secret war he’d lost his only daughter; the org that had spit him out when he was no longer useful.
      "If you’ll come with us, sir."
      Marsh turned his back on the government men and returned to digging holes in the mud. Over his shoulder he spat, "I don’t do that work any longer."
     "She said you’d say that."
      Marsh froze. Rainwater trickled down his face. Quietly, carefully, he said, "What?"
     "The woman who asked for you. She said you’d say that. Also told us to remind you she once said you’d meet again."
Both these books are good and interesting.  After reading 100 pages, I would recommend them both.  I want to read them in their entirety.

I like Taft 2012, but partially because I (Amy) prefer reading books with more fantastic elements, I like The Coldest War more.


The Coldest War advances to meet either Silver by Rhiannon Held or The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others in the finals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012 :: Final Four

We are (finally!) down to the Final Four in the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books:

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis vs. Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

Silver by Rhiannon Held vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

This sixteen-book bracket contained a number of interesting books. All the books but one were by authors I (Amy) hadn't read before. Stopping reading good books after only 25 or 50 pages for Battle of the Books was sometimes difficult, but it allowed me to sample a wider selection of books and spread the word about more new books.

Only two of the four "seeded" books made it to the Final Four: The Coldest War and The Mongoliad: Book One. That's fewer than in the previous two brackets. Perhaps this was partially because the "seeded" books were selected by Aaron, and they were the books that he was most looking forward to reading.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a tremendous response to the Battle of the Books format; we already have enough new books to fill out three more brackets!

I've enjoyed judging this bracket, but I wish I was a faster reviewer. I haven't yet finished the summer bracket and we're already well into fall. I'll be handing Battle of Books back to Aaron for the next couple brackets. Aaron has already judged a handful of contests for the upcoming fall bracket, so stay tuned!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, Second Round :: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

For our final second round match, The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen squares off against The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Bassey and Cooper Moo. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will be the last entrant in the Final Four of this bracket.

The Land of Decoration: Henry Holt and Company hardcover, 306 pages, April 2012. Grace McCleen is a UK author and singer-songwriter. The Land of Decoration is her first novel.

In the first 25 pages, we were introduced to Judith McPherson a 10-year old British Jehovah’s Witness being raised by her father. In her room, Judith was constructing a model world out of collected scraps which she called The Land of Decoration. At school, a boy threatened to push Judith's head down the toilet. Judith worried herself sick over the threat. At the Meeting Hall, an impressive visiting speaker preached how faith can move mountains.

Judith remembers that school closed once because of snow. She thinks hard about snow. Judith creates model snow over her Land of Decoration using things such as white cotton, flour and shaving foam. A voice urges her on. The next morning it snows. School is cancelled and she doesn’t have to face the bully. Judith thinks the snow was a miracle produced because she had faith. Her father thinks she’s imagining things. Judith decides to test whether the snow was a coincidence. She models snow over her Land of Decoration for a second time. After a long day’s wait, it snows again.

The Mongoliad: Book One: 47 North, trade paperback, 448 pages. The Mongoliad was originally released in a serialized format online. Two more books are forthcoming in the series. Of the gang of seven authors, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear are well known science fiction writers, and Mark Teppo is the author of an urban fantasy series.

The year is 1241, after the Mongols defeated the Europeans at the Battle of Legnica. Cnán, a woman messenger, spies the knights of the Shield-Brethren near a ruined monastery and she is spotted by their sentries. She informs the men, a group of about a dozen men from different lands, that she was sent by Illarion, an injured friend of theirs.

The physician Rafael, hunter Finn, and young fighter Haakon accompany Cnán on a several days long trip to rescue Illarion. A Mongol has cut off Illarion’s right ear, thinking Illarion was dead. On the group’s return, they end up passing through the bloody ruins and refugees of Legnica. Illarion spooks a Mongol scouting party into thinking they are ghosts.

Meanwhile, in the capital of the Mongol Empire, Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, is tired of dealing with bureaucrats. He complains to his wives that all he does is eat and talk. His brother is rightfully worried about Ögedei’s drinking. Ögedei has a flashback to the decades earlier battle of Khalakhaljid Sands, where he was seriously wounded.

The Battle: Again, we have two very different books. The Land of Decoration features a religious girl who believes she can make miracles happen. The Mongoliad: Book One is set during the 13th Century invasion of Europe by the Mongols.

The Land of Decoration is certainly readable. Judith is an introverted girl with an interestingly skewed point of view.
     I know about faith. The world in my room is made out of it. Out of faith I stitched the clouds. Out of faith I cut the moon and the stars. With faith I glued everything together and set it humming. This is because faith is like imagination. It sees something where there is nothing, it takes a leap, and suddenly you’re flying.
If this was a genre fantasy book, I’d think Judith’s "miracle" snow was some kind of sympathetic magic. But since The Land of Decoration is mainstream fiction, and an Book of the Week, I expect a more mundane explanation is forthcoming.

The Mongoliad: Book One is a gritty, medieval epic.
     With a sweep of his arm, Illarion drew back the cloak that had swathed him for much of the last two days and hurled it aside, where it spun and flew for an uncanny number of yards, like a bat, then fell-–to precisely drape the picked skeleton and conical helm of a Polish knight.
     A knight who had almost made it to the forest before taking three arrows in the back.
     All heads turned, mesmerized by this.
     Bones rattled. The round hump of the skull shifted under the cloak, as if finding new life.
     Illarion reined his horse just to the left of the Mongol chief and canted his head with a careless jerk, exposing the swollen earless right side of his face....
The Mongoliad: Book One deals with violent times and contains unsettling scenes, such the group seeing the remains of the children of Legnica, who were killed to prevent them being captured by the Mongols.

I can't recall reading a book with this historical setting. I was intrigued enough to reference Wikipedia. So far, The Mongoliad: Book One appears to follow history.

This decision wasn’t easy for me. The Land of Decoration is good, the story is developing, and it certainly isn’t violent. On the other hand, The Mongoliad: Book One is brutal, it features a large cast of characters, and I want to find out more. Ultimately, it came down to this: The Land of Decoration is too close to the real world for my personal tastes. I (Amy) prefer books that take me further from reality.

THE WINNER: THE MONGOLIAD: BOOK ONE by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and five others

The Mongoliad: Book One advances to meet Silver by Rhiannon Held in the semifinals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.