April Books

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I’m still gill deep in thesis-land and so have been avoiding books. To keep me from falling down novel rabbit holes I reward myself for reading about “Metacognitive Learning Strategies In Second Language Acquisition” by letting myself read a short story or novella every now and then. Here are some high and low lights:

The good….

Guys and Dolls and Other Writings – Damon Runyon

I can’t believe I’ve never read these stories until now. They’re kind of corny mainly because they’ve been riffed on to the point that their originality is buried under decades of imitation. But when you get over the corny, there’s a lot to love.

Stories – Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

A fun collection of grim stories. I’m not done with it yet, but so far some highlights have been: “Blood” by Roddy Doyle – A weird horror story about a modern day 40-something Irish banker that suddenly finds himself obsessed with the idea of drinking blood. “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates – Creepy story of the relationship between twin brothers from their birth to their deaths. It’s not a horror story, but it uses a horror story’s tone, and is really quite well done. “The Truth is a Cave in The Black Mountains” by Neil Gaiman, which would be a drive-to-the-story story in less talented hand, but here it’s a story of vengeance set during the era of Border Reivers.

Fantasy – Edited by Sean Wallace and Paul G. Tremblay

Once upon a time Fantasy was a print magazine that became a webzine that became part of another webzine called Lightspeed. This book collects stories from the print era all the way back in 2007. We were all so young then… It’s a good collection too with stories that presage later trends but aren’t harbringers yet, so they’re still weird and crunchy and have odd bits poking out from them. A fun read if you can track it down

And now the not so good…

The Last Defender of Camelot – Roger Zelazny

Zelazny’s a weird author that I know I should like more than I do, but I don’t. What I think the problem is, is that I come to Zelazny too late and all those spots where he’d sit comfortably I filled with other writers. So I read him and think things like, “that was a pretty great story, I’ve seen other people write better.” Maybe it was the collection. This book’s volume X in the collected short fiction of Zelazny, and maybe more completest than a highlight reel. As it was I finished the book thinking how Zelazny’s a great writer of bad stories that I don’t much like.

Cat picture…

20150415_191900(1)Oh and I guess I kind of lied or forgot or whatever. I did read some longer things, novellas, novelettes, and an actual novel.

Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

Weird novella from 1938 about a chess match onboard an ocean liner between a rustic, crude savant and an obsessive doctor who’s recently escaped from the Nazis. It’s fairly straightforward, but with something ominous underneath it.

Sir Orfeo – JRR Tolkien

It’s weird to think that the medieval European world had no idea what the Iliad was about and had to make do with oral accounts that they reskinned with their own reality, so Achilles is a knight and the Trojan War like the Crusades. Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus where Eurydice gets abducted by the King of Fairy and Orfeo’s a king that renounces his crown to become a minstrel. It offers both Mythic McMedieval Feudalism and splendid and profane secrets.

The Cyclops Goblet – John Blackburn

Pulpy thriller about a conman and his wife getting wrapped up in a scheme to steal a hoard of Renaissance gold hidden on a plague-ridden island off the coast of Scotland. Loathsome characters, plenty of double crosses, and a page count that guarantees events move along at a fast clip. It’s a Valancourt reprint. Check it out.

The City and The City – China Mieville

I kept reading this expecting something horrible to happen that never quite did. I appreciated that. This is a great weird thriller that might not be genre but it’s certainly genre adjacent, where the best bits of it read like Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side dragged forward and left gasping for breath in the 21st century. A detective in an Eastern European country tries to solve a murder case that sends him to a different Eastern European country that happens to be his own viewed from a different frame of mind.

Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Vermilion Cover

The story of pyschopomp Lou Merriwether, a woman able to guide the dead from her world into the next. Half-English and half-Chinese, Lou continues in the trade her father practiced before his untimely death, making her living in the latter decades of an altered 19th century San Francisco. Ghosts and other supernatural monsters exist and threaten the living, and western expansion has stalled due to tribes of sentient bears who swayed the course of the Civil War…

My review of Molly Tanzer’s Weird Western ghost hunter novel Vermilion is over at My Bookish Ways. Dig that cover.

Things I’m Doing Instead of My Thesis

I should be working on my thesis. Instead I’m doing something else. What am I doing? Take your pick!

1. I’m reading a book. Look at my to read pile. LOOK AT IT! These books aren’t going to read themselves! And if I don’t, who will!?!

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2. I’m totally building the setting for that 5e campaign I was talking about in the coffee shop last week. The sword and sorcery one where the only classes available to players are Barbarian, Bard, Monk, Paladin, and Warlock; and the only playable races are Human, Dragonborn, and Tiefling (and they have to roll for random mutations). I might even be working on the map!

3. That novel I’ve been fiddling on for the past two years or so. The one that’s now like <i>Jane Eyre</i> meets <i>True Grit</i> on <i>Dune</i> with Mr Rochester as a sandworm! Yeah, I’m totally working on that.

4. Or if not, that than one of the dozen or so short stories I’ve written over the past year, but are still in the scrawled in crayons on recycled paper stage. I put them in a folder and everything! So like I’ll totally get to them… some time… and why not now, when they make very effective procrastination devices against writing my thesis paper?

5. Or, maybe, I’m actually working on my thesis and weeping, because I’m screwed.

March Books

It’s April Fool’s Day, the day when you find out which of your friends are dull-witted pranksters. Unfortunately, I live in Korea so I’ve had hours of pranks to sort through already, but I’ll lose on the time difference and will still have hours of dullwitted pranks to wade through tomorrow when I wake up. So without much further ado, get offa my lawn… I mean, here’s what I read in March.

Wylder’s Hand – J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)

Awful Victorian novel that is sometimes deliciously awful, but in the end I finished it in a mad bout of rage-reading. It consumed much of the month’s leisure reading time. You can read my blather about it here. Or just scroll a bit down the page.

Tea From An Empty Cup – Pat Cadigan (1998)

A later cyberpunk novel that rages fast and furious with crazy ideas. Parts of it were kind of boring, but only because they now accurately describe the world we live in. Other bits were as pointed and insightful as they were back then. Yeah, yeah, the fetishism of Japan was a bit much and who the hell was programming all those virtual realities, but I make allowances for 300 page science fiction novels that deliver on the crazy.

Dream Houses – Genevieve Valentine (2014)

Amadis woke up alone. At least, she thinks she did. Claustrophobic novella set on-board an intergalactic spacecraft with a psychotically needy AI. It’s great and gets dark and then it ends and you’re like, fuck. I recommend it. Also Valentine has a new book out, Persona, which you can read about here.

The Explorer – James Smythe (2013)

My second trapped on a spacecraft and dying a slow death alone book, because why settle for a little claustrophobic paranoia when you can have a lot? Anyway this has all the despair and nihilism of a Peter Watts’ novel except with mopier characters and less cool SFnal stuff to take the edge off the bitterness. The main character’s an astronaut, yet still fucking blogs as his world goes to shit around him.

Fain the Sorcerer – Steven Aylett (2006)

You’re all fans of Aylett’s work already, I presume, so this doesn’t need any description. I just have to nod and be like, “Right?” and you say “Yeah”, and that’s all we have to do? Aylett’s one of those writers that will either have you in stitches or perplexed with confusion as the person beside you roars at a joke you don’t get. This is sort of like a Jack Vance Cugel story with a quick-witted scoundrel as its hero and a hundred brilliant bits of weirdness dropping from every page. Okay, I exaggerate, but if you want a short, entertaining read that’s like a sword & sorcery version of The Mighty Boosh, then track this down.

Vermilion – Molly Tanzer (2015)

A weird western set in an alternate USA where monsters, vampires, and ghosts make life difficult for the living. It’s a bit like Mr. Vampire meets The Magic Wagon except with a cross-dressing Chinese-American woman as its main character. I wrote up a review of it that will likely be online next week. Suffice to say I enjoyed it and you might too. Tanzer wrote one of my favorite books in recent years, A Pretty Mouth, and if you haven’t read that, you should. It’s smart and fun.

Wylder’s Hand by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

6150285Wylder’s Hand by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1864)

A Gothic tales of Victorian real estate… which means there’s murder, blackmail, and at least one mentally maladjusted relative wandering around the estate like a ghost.

I have to admit to being the type of person that’s skeptical of popular books unless they’re over a hundred years old. I have no patience for the page turning genre bullshit of today, but give me some Karl May novel or a forgotten “sensation novel”, and I’m there. Maybe I should approach contemporary page-turners in the same way, because it’s fun to breeze through a book, scanning pages, snidely commenting on how awful it all is – there’s a 1st person narrator in this book, but only for a third of it, yet he knows everything! How!?! WHY!?! No explanation – Wylder’s Hand is awful, but for a good bit it’s deliciously awful. The problem being that it then becomes awful again.

At the end you realize the plot could have been solved by the two heroines moving to Switzerland and becoming lesbians sooner. At least they were one of the two couples in the book that showed any affection for each other. The other was the Vicar and his wife, but their relations were so insipidly treacle-laden that I needed an insulin shot just to get through their chapters of endless, “Wha’does’wittle’wapsie’tink’I’should’do’boo’?” It was horrible.

But, geez, what a great cover – and for all the rage-reading I ended up doing at the end, skimming vast swaths of the book because it was written like this, “The cart road leading down to Redman’s Dell and passing the mill near Redman’s Farm diverges from the footpath with which we are so well acquainted, near that perpendicular block of stone which stands a little above the steps which the footpath here descends…” I have to admit I want to read another one of these great, clunky, shittily-written beasts of a Gothic novel. But if you want to read Le Fanu, don’t start here. Find a copy of In A Glass Darkly. It’s the better book by far.

When the Clear Days Come

“A L’Entrada Del Temps Clar” is a 12th century Occitan poem celebrating spring’s arrival. Its name means “When the Clear Days Come”. And here in Pohang Spring has arrived, so enjoy:

When the clear days come, eya
To be joyful again, eya
And to annoy the jealous ones, eya
The queen wants to show
That she’s so amorous.
Go away, go away, you jealous ones,
Let us, let us,
Dance together, together.

She had a message sent everywhere, eya
That as far as the sea, eya
Let there be neither maiden nor young man, eya
Who shall not come to dance,
The joyous dance.
Go away, go away, you jealous ones,
Let us, let us,
Dance together, together.

The king comes, eya
To disturb the dance, eya
For he is very afraid, eya
That someone will want to steal,
The April Queen.
Go away, go away, you jealous ones.
Let us, let us,
Dance together, together.

But she wouldn’t let him do it, eya
For she needs not an old man, eya
But a graceful young one, eya
Who would well know how to comfort,
The delightful lady.
Go away, go away, you jealous ones,
Let us, let us,
Dance together, together.

Whoever would see her dance, eya
And her pretty body move, eya
Could well say, in truth, eya
That in all the world she has no equal,
The joyous queen.
Go away, go away, you jealous ones,
Let us, let us,
Dance together, together.

The translation comes from here.

February Books

Books read last month. I started more than I finished

Shadows on the Rock – Willa Cather (1931)

Life in late 17th century Quebec as seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl, Cecile. Odd to start the month with this and finish it with Revenants. Of course, there’s nothing supernatural here. Well, sort of, I guess it depends on how you feel about Catholicism. Cecile’s father is an apothecary and attends to the count who oversees the colony. The count is involved in feuds with the two head churchmen in the colony, who in turn feud with each other. Meanwhile Cecile’s father employs a deformed handy-man and has friends among the trappers and itinerants within town. There’s little in the way of overt plot, but I found it a page turner. If there’s any conflict it’s between Cecile’s attachment to the colony versus her father’s attachment to France.

The Witch of Napoli – Michael Schmicker (2015)

A historical novel based on the life of Italian spiritualist Eusapia Palladino. It started off great, and I had hopes it would be up there with John Harwood’s stuff, but in the end it pulled too long on the is it or isn’t it supernatural thread. It finally comes down on the supernatural side, but by then the novel’s over and done with when really in a way it’s just starting.

It would be like ending Scanners right after the guy’s head explodes.

Let Me In – John Ajvide Lindquist (2010)

My usual complaint: I would have liked this more if it were 100 pages shorter. As it was I started off liking it quite a bit, then lost interest as the narrative fragmented into multiple POVs. People tell me the movies did away with a lot of the extraneous stuff.

Revenants – Daniel Mills (2011)

I blathered about this elsewhere.  Read it. It’s good.

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