"Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks : An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms," by Ethan Gilsdorf.
This book is of interest not only because of its subject matter, but because it has significant local connections, with the author having done research for parts of it in Milwaukee and Lake Geneva. The premise is that the author, who played Dungeons and Dragons for a time in high school, has rediscovered his old D&D materials, and wonders if he "dare" dip back into the mental world of fantasy adventure. In so doing, he surveys a spectrum of fantasy and SF-related hobbies, including Society for Creative Anachronism, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, Live Action Role Playing, and others. Unfortunately, "dip" is the operative word here, since all the chapters are shallow in approach and commitment, and don't go into any real depth or succeed in capturing "what it's all about" for the people who are still enthusiastic about their pastimes. I give him props for hunting up some of the surviving D&D old timers like Jim Ward and Frank Mentzer, and for going to major events like the Pennsic War rather than just finding a local chapter of SCA, but he still holds everything at a distance, rather like a twelve-step graduate agreeing to meet friends at a bar.
I was most interested by the chapter on Guédelon, the project to build an authentic Burgundian castle using period-authentic tools and methods, perhaps because that was one topic I was not previously familiar with. Overall, I was disappointed, since I didn't think Gilsdorf ever really engaged with any of his subjects and really "got it." On the other hand, at least it's generally positive, and would be reassuring to outsiders and parents who are wondering what their children might be getting into.
"The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East," by Neil MacFarquhar.
By contrast, here is an example of a book that surveys a broad subject and does it very well. MacFarquhar is a long-time Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, and wrote this book as a valedictory exercise preparatory to his retirement. Relying on contacts established over years of service, he took a tour of Mideast countries and, for each one, revisits their history, culture, politics, and the people's view of their neighbors, the United States, and MidEast issues such as war, religion, and civil rights. This is a very good exposition of the often startlingly different cultures of the region and their hopes, concerns, and grievances. I recommend this book highly since everyone ought to know more about what is happening in this volatile region.
"Boneshaker," by Cherie Priest
Given I've been reading a lot of Steampunk lately, a book that promised zeppelins, air pirates, zombies, and huge mining machinery run amok looked like a good read, and I was not disappointed. The story is set in an alternate-history America where the Klondike gold rush started in 1860, and the boom town of Seattle was devastated in 1862 by the test of an underground boring machine, the "Boneshaker" of the title, which not only undermined and destroyed much of the business district, but also released a deadly gas, the Blight, which causes its victims to rise again as "rotters"-the typical aggressive, cannibalistic zombie nuisances so popular today.
The action picks up fifteen years later. The Civil War is still going on due to the intervention of England on the side of the South. The Northwest is a neglected backwater, and the ruins of Seattle have been surrounded by an enormous wall that keeps in both the Blight and its victims. A writer interested in the disaster visits the widow of Leviticus Blue, creator of the Boneshaker, and this spurs her son to go into the walled city hunting for evidence that his father wasn't responsible for what went wrong.
This is a good, serious adventure story, suitable for the Young Adult market, which I found interesting and enjoyable.
"Soulless," by Gail Carriger
"Soulless" is an amusing foray into yet another alternate world, this time a Victorian Britain, in which werewolves, vampires, and ghosts revealed their existence hundreds of years ago. The chief vampire and chief werewolf are members of the Queen's privy council, and ghosts are-literally-paranormal investigators. The blurb begins, "Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she is being rudely attacked by a vampire to whom she has not been properly introduced!"
Fortunately for Alexia, her rare "soulless" condition gives her the ability to negate other paranormals powers with a touch, which brings her to the attention of Britain's chief paranormal enforcer, the werewolf Lord Maccon, and gets her involved in a mystery where werewolves and vampires are disappearing off the streets.
As might be expected from the blurb, the book is partly tongue-in-cheek, with the uncomfortable and humorous romance (leading to some bodice-ripper style sex) between Lord Maccon and Alexia being a main part of the action. The mystery solution has a reasonably plausible Steampunk/mad science macguffin. The writing is uneven, and the plot has a bit of a "Mary Sue" dénouement, but on the other hand, the book got picked as one of the year's Ten Best "Mass Market" books by Publisher's Weekly, so Your Mileage May Vary. I would rate it along with a good but not great comic book, and will read the sequel, "Changeless" when it comes out.