Books December 2013
1. A Song of Stone – Iain Banks
I liked this 250-page novel better when it was an 8-page short story by JG Ballard.
After some undisclosed catastrophe causes the collapse of civilization an aristocrat and his sister-lover find themselves involved in a psychological game of cat and mouse with a Lieutenant and her rag-tag force of irregulars. Sophistry, nihilism, and an over-arching unreliable and unlikable narrator all make an appearance.
2. Hild – Nicola Griffith
I loved this book.
Fans of George R.R. Martin, Robert Graves in I, Claudius mode, and Mary Renault should all check this out. It’s the 7th Century, England is a cluster of squabbling kingdoms, and Hild’s the child of a slain king, her whole life enmeshed in a web of courtly intrigue, spun by her mother, and picked up and tended to by Hild as a way to keep those she loves safe. Griffith does a great job making you feel the tension and pain of someone who sees all the ways the world ties together.
3. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre
Cold War espionage – when filing paperwork meant the difference between life and death! Seriously. So much of this novel revolves around who saw a file folder where and when, that, having worked in enough offices, I have to laugh. To Le Carre’s credit he makes it a riveting read the whole while, but still, file folders. The plot revolves around file folders. Genius.
4. Thursbitch – Alan Garner
A somewhat stunning read that makes me wonder if a book can be simultaneously lean and dense. The themes are reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood being not quite horror so much as awe and wonder at the world, but the prose is utterly stripped down and sparse. To be honest I had to stop a third of the way into the book and restart it in order to catch hold of what was going on. Definitely recommended.
5. Nightshade and Damnations – Gerard Kersh
A collection of short stories from the 1940s and 1950s, somewhat pulpy, but it’s a testament to Kersh’s style and POV that he has aged better than most. I’d heard Kersh’s name for a while now and knew his work from Jules Dassin’s “Night & the City” before I knew who he was. I definitely recommend this book.
6. Orlando – Virginia Woolf
A classic genre novel about a gender-bending immortal trying to find love while attempting to write a novel, the set pieces (the frozen river, the 17th century travelogue, the damp of the 19th century) worked more for me than the English lit fan-service.
Goodreads has a 5-star rating system. I find it pointless to give a book a less than 3-star rating. If you don’t like the book that much, why keep reading it? (Although I did give 1-star in a fit of pique to a SF novel a few years back, likely because acquaintances raved about it.)
If a book gets 3-stars that’s my way of saying it was okay, and I liked it enough to finish it. 4-stars mean I liked it enough to recommend. 5-stars mean it was great, and I hope to reread it some day.
But over Christmas I just finished reading Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone. It was so unenjoyable, but he’s a writer I like so much that I couldn’t drop the book.
So now 2-stars means this book stinks but I finished it out of brand loyalty.
Carts and Horses
I’ve got these students, smart kids, but you ask them a question and they can’t answer it. Not because they don’t know the answer, but because they don’t think the question is the question. They think the question is a trick, a distraction, from another unasked question. And what they’re trying to figure out is the answer to that question.
Maybe you don’t do the same. I know I certainly do.
Someone asks you a question and you respond to some other, imagined question. Not what was asked, but what you imagined was asked. And sure, some people are Machiavellian assholes all too eager to trap people and get them all mixed up. And yeah, some of these people are teachers, and they’ll boast about how clever they are and stupid/gullible their students are. But those folks are something else entirely. Very rarely is life like some deathtrap dungeon of spiked pits and pendulum scythes (at least it hasn’t been so far). Instead life is rather straightforward. Better to answer the question asked than respond to the one from the imaginary conversation going on inside your head.
Stuff read this year, not including single short stories or stuff read for grad school. I do feel like I’m not reading widely enough, which I know is probably an insane conclusion, but yeah.
In other news Pohang got some light snow. This meant, since it’s somewhat southish, the city was in panic mode because they don’t have sand trucks or plows or anything to deal with half an inch of snow apparently.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness – Edward Abbey
Elisha Barber – E. C. Ambrose
War Fever – J.G. Ballard
The Face in the Frost – John Bellairs
The Queen, The Cambion, and Seven Other – Richard Bowes
Mindplayers – Pat Cadigan
My Antonia – Willa Cather
Dagon – Fred Chappell
Engine Summer – John Crowley
Scattered Among Strange Worlds – Aliette De Bodard
Status Anxiety – Alain De Botton
Babel-17/Empire Star – Samuel R. Delany
The Enemy Within: A Short History of Witch-hunting – John Demos
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
The Mapmaker’s War – Ronlyn Domingue
The Voyage of the Short Serpent – Bernard du Boucheron
The Werewolf of Paris – Guy Endore
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Lois the Witch and Other Stories – Elizabeth Gaskell
Red Shift – Alan Garner
Thursbitch – Alan Garner
Trafalgar – Angelica Gorodischer
Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo
Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand
Empty Space: A Haunting – M. John Harrison
Cogan’s Trade – George V. Higgins
The Digger’s Game – George V. Higgins
Poets in a Landscape – Gilbert Highet
Fremder – Russell Hoban
Linger Awhile – Russell Hoban
Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
Sword of Fire and Sea (Chaos Knight Book #1) – Erin Hoffman
The Discovery of Witches – Matthew Hopkins
In A Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes
Rapture (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #3) – Kameron Hurley
Infidel (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #2) – Kameron Hurley
An Artist of the Floating World – Kazou Ishiguro
Fair Play – Tove Jansson
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
The Desert of Souls – Howard Andrew Jones
How To Make Friends With Demons – Graham Joyce
Storm of Steel – Ernst Junger
At Amberleaf Fair – Phyllis Ann Karr
Nightshade and Damnations – Gerard Kersh
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies – Robert Kirk
Fury – Henry Kuttner
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre
The Best of All Possible Worlds – Karen Lord
In The Enclosure – Barry N. Malzberg
Bullettime – Nick Mamatas
Love is the Law – Nick Mamatas
Last Dragon – J.M. McDermott
Hong Kong – Jan Morris
Memory – Linda Nagata
Snitch World – Jim Nisbet
Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
The Company – K.J. Parker
Temporary Agency – Rachel Pollack
The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
The Glorious Ones – Francine Prose
Indoctrinaire – Christopher Priest
The Record of a Quaker Conscience – Cyrus Pringle
A House in Naples – Peter Rabe
Yellow Black Radio Broke-Down – Ishmael Reed
The Black Count – Tom Reiss
Your Brain At Work – David Rock
A Stranger in Olondria – Sofia Samatar
The Trouble with Testosterone and other essays on the biology of the Human Predicament – Robert Sapolsky
The Witches of Karres – James H. Schmitz
The Status Civilization – Robert Sheckley
The Slave – Isaac Bashevis Singer
A Pretty Mouth – Molly Tanzer
Alchemy and Alchemists – C.J.S. Thompson
Finch – Jeff VanderMeer
Meet Me in the Moon Room – Ray Vukcevich
God Save the Mark – Donald E. Westlake
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Dirty Weekend – Helen Zahavi
End of the Year
I’ve read a few of these End of the Year posts now and they’re all starting to resemble: “I had a great year, three dozen stories published, my collection came out and got translated into 800 languages, and two agents fought a duel over which of them got to accept me as a client…”
Mine resembles: “I wrote a lot but only finished five stories, got nearly three dozen rejection letters, and failed to write a new novel.”
And when I say resemble, I mean that’s it. That’s my end of the year update.
Five stories written. Three dozen rejection letters. An unfinished novel.
But you have to take the bad with the good. You can’t hide under a rock simply because you’ve had a shit year. I could pull my output apart some. Two of the stories are what I’m calling “promising failures”, pointing me towards better stories. Not better drafts of these same stories, but better new stories.
I had one story published, Last Rites For A Vagabond. I like that story quite a bit and am pleased with it in so much as one can be pleased with these things. It’s bitter-sweet, discordant, and has a nice random sketches feel to it. If you listen closely you can hear it expiring quietly from neglect. But so it goes. Some folks might wish they had even my level of success. Shit, complete strangers left comments on the story and appeared to like it, so no complaints.
The novel on the other hand…
I am finding novel writing to be like this Bill Nye clip describing how scientists plan on determining the nature of Jupiter’s core. Of course, I’ve launched myself into this story somewhat blindly, and as I write I find I keep “wobbling” each time I encounter pockets of dark matter AKA plot holes. This is probably because I’m making my life difficult by trying to write a secondary world fantasy that doesn’t involve too many “the rogues crept from shadow to shadow” type sentences. So that’s where the writing goes and will continue to go for the near future.
One Book Four Covers: Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
Another one of those books I can just pick up and read when I have nothing else to read is Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon.
I’ve mentioned him here before, but the book deserves some singular attention. It’s a novel without characters except the general human race that reads as the history of the next several million years documenting the rise and fall of civilizations on Earth, then Venus, and later Neptune. There’s a war against Martians, Venusians, and others. Glimpses into religious ideals of the various civilizations and like a thousand ideas for your role-playing game. Every page holds its brilliant little kernel of ideas:
For some thousands of years the race remained in a most precarious condition, now almost dying out, now rapidly attaining an extravagant kind of culture in some region where physical nature happened to be peculiarly favourable. One of these precarious flashes of spirit occurred in the Yang-tze valley as a sudden and brief effulgence of city states peopled by neurotics, geniuses and imbeciles. The lasting upshot of this civilization was a brilliant literature of despair, dominated by a sense of the difference between the actual and the potential in man and the universe. Later, when the race had attained its noontide glory, it was wont to brood upon this tragic voice from the past in order to remind itself of the underlying horror of existence.
Shit. What was their breakfast cereal like?
Anyway the covers are secondary to the book itself. The first cover makes you expect an Armageddon disaster novel, the second’s cool in its way, the third bland but colorful, and the fourth gets points for getting in your face with the Ernst Haeckel. The covers don’t matter. This is one of those books people foist on you, mad-eyed like, “YOU GOTTA READ THIS!”.
So let me be one of them: for folks that want some big idea SF that they can read in desultory fashion, this book is the answer.
Play vs. Play
This will be an RPG update post. If that sounds boring, tedious, and/or excruciating, then I suggest you look away.
For the past six months or so I’ve been playing in a face to face Pathfinder game down the road in Gyeongju. It’s been great fun (although I can’t really be bothered to learn all the rules of Pathfinder and do all the accounting – honestly, I don’t think I’ve updated my character’s skills in levels), and it’s made me realize how much I missed regular face-to-face games. Don’t get me wrong, G+ games are fun; I can’t believe I’ve run a game for two years now. But, having a local gaming group that meets regularly and rolls the funny dice together? Can’t beat it.
Of course, the buddy from town that makes the trip with me and I are talking about starting a new game here in town. Our current idea is to run a campaign where every character is the same class (either fighters or thieves, so every adventure is either a Black Company novel or a heist movie – also maybe start characters at 2nd level, so they can have 1 level in another class).
But trying to get a game together here in town is proving to be a bit on the silly side. There are lots of stealth gamers and lots of enthusiasm, but no one wants to set the time aside to actually do it. Not only that, but it’s been fun to once again witness that creeping shame of not wanting to look a nerd when you mention RPGs that some people never get over.
It’ll be interesting to see if anything actually happens. As it is I’m pleased to have the game groups that I do.
Back in 2010 when I first moved to South Korea and was living in a town of ~200 people, friends back in the States sent me some books (thank you again Rick, Kris, Jeff, and Geoffrey!)
Among the books and magazines were a few paperback anthologies from the 60s and 70s. A more innocent time when paperbacks had cigarette ads in them, and you could put a half-naked hooded fat man in tights on the cover and no one at all would look at it and think maybe it’s not a good idea.