The Room in the Dragon Volant – Sheridan Le Fanu (1872):
A short novel about a young Englishman vacationing in France who falls in love with a countess and finds himself caught up in an adventure. Things aren’t all that they seem, and the story proceeds through strange turns involving stupefying narcotics, haunted hotel rooms, and premature burial. A fun read. Sort of a Gothic proto-spy novel.
Monsieur Maurice – Amelia B. Edwards (1873):
A novelette told from the POV of an old woman remembering a strange occurrence from her youth when her father served as the jailor for a mysterious prisoner. There’s a ghost in it, but its aspect is minor. More of the story involves the prisoner and the mystery surrounding his incarceration. Edwards also had a career as a travel writer most particularly of her trips to Egypt and down the Nile.
Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer (2014):
The third novel in the Southern Reach trilogy and a satisfying conclusion to the series even if some mysteries remain unexplained. One thing I noticed, and I’ve noticed this in a few books now, is that there’s been this twist to the Hero’s Journey. So instead of there being a broken world and the hero going on a quest to fix it, the shift is there’s a broken world and the hero goes on a quest to learn the skills or gain the knowledge necessary to live in it. It’s not a major shift, but a noticeable one.
Sunshine Patriots – Bill Campbell (2004):
A subversive anti-war, Mil SF novel that reads like the Warhammer 40K novel you always wished Ishmael Reed had written. Set in a universe where corporations own star systems, SP tells the story of one Aaron “the Berber” Barber and his platoon of Screaming Ospreys as they attempt to put down an insurrection on the planet Elysia. This book is flat out nuts. It’s grisly and bitter, and sometimes a mess of oblique plotting, but it’s a fun ride for all that. You have to laugh when cyborgs in the middle of a firefight get marketing calls from internet service providers.
Cave & Julia – M. John Harrison (2014):
A journalist gets involved with a former actress whose brother disappeared in a tragic accident amid the ruins of a nonhuman civilization. Fans of Ballard’s Vermillion Sands will likely enjoy this.
The 4th Domain – M. John Harrison (2014):
A rather feckless young man, Shaw, gets embroiled in a struggle between cultists in modern day London. Recalls Machen and Aickman in its approach to the weird in the everyday, and anyone who has ever spent more than twenty minutes cornered by a conspiracy theorist unloading their memes will feel some kinship to Shaw as he learns about the 4th Domain.
1 + 1 (+ 1) + Hot Water to Fill
September and October Books
At some point I should write about the books I stop reading. More often the problem’s not in them, but in my being particular. There are some things that are perfectly fine that I don’t like, and pretending they’re rubbish isn’t really useful.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (2013): Growing up, Rosemary Cooke had a brother and a sister, but now as a twenty-something college student she has neither, and it’s the unraveling of the why and what happened that makes up much of this novel. It’s a great read, and the secret’s not withheld for more than a 100 pages, so it’s not one of those books where you wish someone would just stop for a second and tell you what the big secret is.
Jump-Off Creek – Molly Gloss (1989): I loved this book. It’s a Western about a widow that heads out to the Pacific Northwest and becomes a homesteader. Gloss can really dig in and excavate the present moment her character’s experience. I got weepy when she read the letters from her mom.
Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone – Stefan Kiesbye (2012): Another short novel that reads like comic strips straight from Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey. The difference being that the asshole quotient has been turned way up to eleven. There’s a lesson here. In a book where everyone behaves like an a-hole, the reader will know people will do horrible things at any time because they’re a-holes, and that will rob the story of any and all tension. Overall a decent book, but at the end I couldn’t muster more than a shrug. People are a-holes. Thanks for reminding me.
A Year In Marrakesh – Peter Mayne (1953): Expat Englishman in 1950s Marrakesh that decently articulates the fact that often the worst thing an expat can encounter is another expat. Also less than 200 pages and I felt like I lived more here in these pages than I did in plenty of other books that have longer page counts.
Authority – Jeff VanderMeer (2014): The second book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, in Authority the Ballard meets the Strugatsky brothers of the first book shifts over to a weird spy thriller reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem in His Master’s Voice and Chain of Chance.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden – Joanne Greenburg (1964): Autobiographical novel about a precocious 16 year-old girl with a mental disorder in 1950s USA. Fascinating and heartbreaking. The main character constructs an elaborate fantasy world she uses as a coping mechanism against the real world, only to wind up tormented by her own creation.
The Other Side – Alfred Kubin (1908): A Gothic fantasy novel by expressionist illustrator Alfred Kubin, it influenced both Kafka and Peake, as well as provided a satire of all reactionary, idealistic utopias where one wealthy genius (or “man of ego”), heaves off to some isolated spot with his followers and impresses his will completely upon them to disastrous results. The kind of book you either love or hate. I loved it, but I enjoy a good, long slow train ride to decay and dissolution.
Trickster Travels: The Search for Leo Africanus – Natalie Zemon Davis (2006): Leo Africanus was a 16th Century Moroccan diplomat that was captured by Christian pirates and given to the Pope as a “gift”. In Italy, Africanus converted to Christianity and wrote several books on African geography while serving as a translator of Arabic texts, and then German soldiers sacked Rome and he fled back to North Africa and became a Muslim again. A fascinating book about a man trying to navigate between two hostile ideological movements while respecting them both.
Dinner at Deviant’s Palace – Tim Powers (1985): The myth of Orpheus set in a post-apocalyptic LA where an alien parasite has set itself up as the messiah. Fun and colorful.
The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future – Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2014): A book from the 24th century outlining the collapse of Western Civilization in the 21st century due to an inability to apply the scientific knowledge we have regarding global warming because of our faith in free market capitalism. It’s a short book, and worth the read.
Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys (1938): Modernist novel about a woman returning to Paris after a suicide attempt. She’s a lost soul, drinking too much and spiraling down, and the story’s told in disjointed stream-of-consciousness fashion. There’s a husband that left her, a dead baby, and a series of mistakes and bad decisions hovering around her like a cloud. While the final tragedy is kept off stage, by the novel’s end you know nothing’s going to be right again.
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms – Amy Stewart (2004): Not just the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms, but the only book I’ve ever read on the subject of earthworms.