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.
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
Here are my ten favorite reads for the past year.
Yes, this list ignores publication dates, and the numbers are arbitrary.
1. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer
2. Memory by Linda Nagata
3. Snitch World by Jim Nisbet
4. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
5. Dagon by Fred Chappell
6. Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
7. Engine Summer by John Crowley
8. Fair Play by Tove Jansson
9. Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban
10. The Trouble With Testosterone by Robert M. Sapolsky
A slow month for reading since I’ve gotten involved with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Here are the books I managed to finish:
1. At Amberleaf Fair – Phyllis Ann Karr
A mid-80s fantasy novel set at a seasonal fair and featuring miss-matched lovers, petty theft, and magic. It’s a bit of a curiosity: a secondary world fantasy crime novel where much of the world building and conflict deals with a barter economy and the small ways magic is integrated into everyday existence. At times the styles of the crime genre and the fantasy genre clash, and too often the novel sits heavily on the fantasy side and suffers for it. Still, I enjoyed it because it’s a small scale secondary world fantasy and I’m a sucker for those.
2. A House in Naples – Peter Rabe
A 50s pulp crime novel about two American criminals in post-War Naples. It’s a quick read, full of unlikable characters, and very ugly, but it’s better than most. If you have any desire to read pulp crime, Peter Rabe should be on your list of authors to check out.
3. The Digger’s Game – George V. Higgins
Crime circa-1970s Boston, I liked it but not as much as Cogan’s Trade or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Still, when it’s good, it’s good and sections of the novel leap off the page. I should also thank Rick Bowes for making me read Higgins in the first place.
4. How To Make Friends With Demons – Graham Joyce
I could see a person hating this book. It meanders, withholds information, and for much of it you’re wondering when Joyce is going to a) get on with it, b) tell you what it’s all about. But if you accept those things and admire how he’s doing it all, then you’ll find much to enjoy here.
5. Storm of Steel – Ernst Junger
War is good! War is great! War! War! War! Junger was a German storm trooper during World War One. He enjoyed the war on the occasions when it wasn’t making him breakdown into fits of sobbing, and this book is his memoir of his experiences. There’s a part early on where Junger enters a field hospital after a battle and he describes the doctor as having a “cold, antlike efficiency in the middle of the carnage”. The book is full of a lot of that.
1. The Slave – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Singer’s The Slave tells the story of a Jewish man, Jacob, sold into slavery by the Cossacks and forced to live in a remote mountain village where he tries to maintain his traditions amid the idolaters and his own desire for Wanda the widowed daughter of his owner. Eventually the two fall in love only to have society, both Jewish and Gentile, spurn them.
It’s a terrific read, by turns beautiful and brutal, that attempts to explain why bad things happen to good people. Or maybe not even explain and just simply describe, so we can make up our own reasons why. When I retold the story to Mrs. Bad Habits, she gave me a look and said, “How could anyone possibly read something so sad?”
One thing I do love about Singer’s historical work is how well he fuses the natural and supernatural. The characters in The Slave live in a world of wonders, of ghosts, saints, and miracles, and that world view sings from almost every page.
2. Love is the Law – Nick Mamatas
Magick, murder, communism. If you liked the movie Brick but wished it was about a wise-cracking teenage girl with an orange mohawk, you’ll likely enjoy this. Surprisingly, unlike everyone I’ve ever known into Aleister Crowley, the main character doesn’t do heroin.
3. The Black Count – Tom Reiss
Pulitzer winning bio of Alexandre Dumas, father to the novelist, former slave, war hero, and revolutionary-era general – an overall fantastic read that not only focuses on the individual but the era he lived in. A must read for anyone who’s ever loved The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.
4. Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo
A bildungsroman set in modern day Beijing. Fenfang, a young Chinese woman, leaves her home village for the big city where she finds work as a film extra. She’s snarky, disrespectful, and critical, but through bad relationships, bad roles, and the indifference of Beijing she stays true to herself. In the acknowledgements at the end Xiaolu Guo addresses the difficulties she had translating the work, not simply because the prose shifted languages, but she as a person shifted her stance on how she felt about Fenfang and her world. It might not be for everyone, but I recommend it.
5. My Antonia – Willa Cather
A book that’s both ugly and beautiful, My Antonia tells the story of an immigrant girl growing up in late 19th century Nebraska as seen through the eyes of her childhood friend. The beauty is there in Cather’s eye for detail whether natural or personal, but the ugliness goes along with it. There’s the intentional ugliness such as when a tramp farm worker commits suicide by throwing himself into a threshing machine, but there’s also the unintentional ugliness where Cather’s worldview rears its head like when she spends a page and a half describing how “hideous” an African American is.
I recommend it, but you’ll likely find a lot here to shake your fist at.
6. Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
William and Neaera are two atomized and isolated individuals eking out their lives of quiet despair in 1970s London. William works in a bookstore. Neaera writes kids books. Each unbeknownst to the other starts having “turtle” thoughts after they visit the zoo and see the sea turtle enclosure. Soon their collaborating on a scheme to set the animals free. Fortunately for the reader it never becomes a romantic comedy, but something more life affirming.
It’s Russell Hoban. He could write derpderpderp for 200 pages and I would still like it.
7. Dirty Weekend – Helen Zahavi
Bella lives alone in a basement apartment, and her neighbor starts harassing her. One day she wakes up and decides she’s not going to take it anymore. What follows is a blood-splattered and violent weekend, where Bella transforms herself from victim to avenger. It’s a grim book, but compulsively readable that inverts the noir trope of the femme fatale, while reading like, as one tag on the book put it, Oscar Wilde writing Death Wish.
8. The Voyage of the Short Serpent – Bernard du Boucheron
An award-winning debut novel by a seventy-something year old author. Du Boucheron raises the bar for all of us.
In the Middle Ages a Catholic inquisitor is sent to the isolated Christian communities in Greenland where he finds a land ravaged by privation, cannibalism, and a host of other sins. One of those books where horrible people do horrible things and you know you can’t trust the first person narrator because they’re not telling you the true story. Yet despite all this the narrative remains compelling and the story unfolds at a rapid pace. Parts of it reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road, but even more of it reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s Wisconsin Death Trip-inspired horror novel A Prayer For the Dying.
9. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies – Robert Kirk, ed. Andrew Lang
An extremely short book written by a 17th century Scottish parson approaching the question of the second sight and fairies as both a believer and a naturalist with the express intention of refuting skeptics and atheists. In other words, it’s a loopy book written in a sanctimonious and turgid style, a fact not helped by having a Victorian “psychical” researcher as the book’s editor a century.
A slow reading month – I started and stopped a few books. Here are the ones I finished.
1. Finch – Jeff VanderMeer
A detective thriller unlike all others set in Ambergris a city unlike any other.
Detective John Finch works for the Gray Caps, the sentient fungi occupiers of Ambergris, and is sent to investigate a double murder amid a fractured city full of rival factions and loyalties. Finch is atmospheric and strange where the fantastic subsumes the detective genre.
2. Indoctrinaire – Christopher Priest
Priest’s first novel and it reads as such. It’s also very much a product of the 1960s so there’s drug use, paranoia, government coercion, and looming nuclear war all over the horizon. Indoctrinaire reads a bit similar to JG Ballard’s stuff from the same era, but it’s not as good.
3. Rapture (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #3) – Kameron Hurley
If my reaction to finishing the 2nd book in aseries is to immediately seek out and start book 3, you know the author’s doing something right. The Bel Dame Apocrypha have been some of my favorite books of recent years, and the series ends as messed up as it begins, but with enough closure to be satisfying. It’s also nice to see an author not closing down a setting just because the series is over. Instead Rapture ends with a much larger world being revealed.
I remember reading the opening of this weird SFF book back in high school where a guy’s kidnapped from the present and imprisoned in the future for a crime no one will tell him about. I never finished it. The thing I remember is the guy being interrogated at a table that had a holographic hand hovering above it. Anyway I set the book down or lost it or whatever, and probably couldn’t have told you who had written it – until today when I started reading Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest. That’s the book. I’m not sure how it found me here in South Korea.