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.
It was staycation. Here are the books I read on the couch.
1. Infidel (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #2) – Kameron Hurley
The Bel Dame Apocrypha has been my favorite SFF series from recent years. The books are an amazing blend of assassins, shape shifters, pistol-packing magicians, and giant insects on some sad sack, craptastic, hellscape planet. They have great world building and a great cast of characters, and I say both those things as someone who hates in-depth world building and large casts of characters.
2. The Record of a Quaker Conscience – Cyrus Pringle
Pringle was a Quaker and objected to the Civil War on religious grounds, refusing to pay anyone to be his substitute upon being drafted. He refused to fight and was sent to prison on one of the islands in Massachusetts Bay. Later he got moved down to Virginia where he ended being tortured. His case and that of his companions would reach Lincoln and he would excuse them from service. Later, Pringle would go on to become a renowned botanist making expeditions into the American South-West. The book is available via Project Gutenberg and you can read about Pringle on wikipedia.
3. Sword of Fire and Sea (Chaos Knight Book #1) – Erin Hoffman
An enjoyable summertime read that reminded me a lot of the enjoyable summertime reads of my youth. It’s secondary world fantasy with elemental magic, gryphons, and stalwart sea captains. Also Hoffman can summarize action so you don’t have to be led about by the hand.
4. Poets in a Landscape – Gilbert Highet
A series of biographies of Roman poets mixed with an Italian travel guide circa 1957. Highet’s a classicist of the urbane over-educated type, but he has a passionate love of his subject, an inviting style, and the ability to share why he feels so passionate about his subject matter. Plus, he gives the occasional “fuck yeah, books!” battle cry that I love. An example:
“History is a strange experience. The world is quite small now; but history is large and deep. Sometimes you can go much farther by sitting in your own home and reading a book of history, than by getting onto a ship or an airplane and traveling a thousand miles. When you go to Mexico City through space, you find it a sort of cross between modern Madrid and modern Chicago, with additions of its own; but if you go to Mexico City through history, back only 500 years, you will find it as distant as though it were on another planet”
“These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice, as inaudible as the streams of sound conveyed by electric waves beyond the range of our hearing; and just as the touch of button on our stereo will fill the room with music, so by opening one of these volumes, one can call into range a voice far distant in time and space, and hear it speaking, mind to mind, heart to heart.”
5. A Pretty Mouth – Molly Tanzer
A collection of horror stories documenting the history of the decadent Calipash family. It can be read as a novel or historical inquiry, and while the stories might begin as pastiche, they rise above their source materials by subverting and playing irreverently with them. I definitely recommend it. It reminded me of Caitlin Keirnan’s Dandridge Cycle of stories.
6. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness – Edward Abbey
Great nature writing by a combative anarchist misanthrope, Abbey mixes an outdoorsman’s contradictory elitism (more people need to see nature – tourists ruin nature) with a poet’s eye, while reveling in the simple necessities of being a living and highly fallible creature on this ball of dirt we call home.
7. Memory – Linda Nagata
I totally enjoyed this book. It’s set in a world that might be a computer simulation, but also might not be since it’s set far enough in the future that the words they use to describe their existence might not completely match our definition for those words. It’s an adventure story about a young woman searching for her brother in a world haunted by a strange mist that reshapes the land each and every night.
A bumper month for laying about on the couch reading!
1. Mindplayers – Pat Cadigan
In 1955, EC Comics launched a comic called “Psychoanalysis”, and it was pretty much exactly what you’d expect for a comic called Psychoanalysis with a nameless doc talking to people laying on a couch. <i>Mindplayers</i> is sort of like that comic, except it’s SF from 1992, so the psychoanalysis is done via VR you access directly through your optic nerves after you remove your eyeballs. The book has more an episodic than a three-act or whatever structure. I suspect it might be a fix-up. It’s not a problem, but it’s the novel’s style and expectations should be set accordingly.
Also lots of eyeballs get removed and that takes a bit of getting used to.
2. The Glorious Ones – Francine Prose
The Glorious Ones are a troupe of actors made up of archetypes and each tells their story, parading forth their dreams and obsessions. It’s set in 17th century Italy but you wouldn’t know it from reading it. One of those books about stories and the power of stories, probably not for everyone, but a refreshing read just the same largely because it is short.
3. Yellow Black Radio Broke-Down – Ishmael Reed
A pulpy irreverent satire of America’s founding with voodoo priests, drag queen cattle ranchers, nymphomaniacs, beatnik presidents, and the pope – in other words something to offend everyone. Definitely worth tracking down.
4. Status Anxiety – Alain De Botton
I suppose there are some folks out there that object to De Botton’s “pop” philosophical style and shake their heads at his conclusions. I’m not one of those people.
5. Hong Kong – Jan Morris
A fascinating read. I definitely recommend it even though it took me a few months to make my way through it. Hong Kong’s history is depicted in alternating chapters of past and present (1989), and as it is I’m curious if and how Morris has expanded the book in recent years since China regained control of the colony. Morris writes in a Mandarin (in the Cyril Connolly sense), somewhat gossipy style; she seems to know everything about everyone, and in a lot of ways lives up to her description of a student of British Imperialism. In more than a few sections I was reminded of China Mieville’s Embassytown.
6. The Discovery of Witches – Matthew Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins was an infamous 17th century Witch-finder active during the English Civil War who took it upon himself to hunt for witches around the area of Norfolk, all for a modest fee of course. This pamphlet contains the transcript of Hopkins’ interrogation at the hands of magistrates hoping to understand his qualifications. It’s largely a question and answer tract on Hopkins’ witch finding methods and casually brings up torture, imps, and the differences between devil’s marks and hemorrhoids. All in all if the magistrates sought to intimidate Hopkins with their question, they failed, because he turned their questions around and made the whole case an advertisement for his abilities and services.
You can download a copy at Project Gutenberg.
7. and 8. Babel-17/Empire Star – Samuel R. Delany
Two fun reads that play with SF adventure stories and have a neat relationship with each other. In the Babel-17 universe all the characters reference Empire Star and it’s character Comet Jo as he’s sort of the Harry Potter of the future.
9. Elisha Barber – E. C. Ambrose
A historical thriller with magic, warfare, and buckets and buckets of bodily fluids. Elisha Barber can be an exhausting read where all the character spin on their heels and snarl breathlessly instead of speaking. That said, I dug it.
10. Nightside, the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
I used to make this joke about how I wished more secondary world novels featured mundane details, like, and this was my go-to example, I wanted to see how people bought groceries. Well, I have now read that novel and I liked it.
The whole story takes place over two days in a massive hollowed out intergalactic generation ship where a slum priest learns his parish was sold to a crime boss. The priest decides to break into the boss’s house and talk to him. It’s the dullest heist ever, but it’s pretty great too. Then there’s an exorcism, but before that the priest eats some green tomatoes. Nightside, the Long Sun has to be the most mundane of all mundane SFF novels ever (actually no, that prize goes to China Mountain Zhang). It’s… something. Unfortunately it’s not a stand alone novel.
Counting books finished, ‘cause no one cares about the books stacked up on the back of the hopper/beside the bed/couch.
1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman.
Oh wow. A book for adults by Neil Gaiman… which means it’s 10 pages of a sad man remembering being a sad kid, then a 170 pages of him as a sad kid and his adventures with the magical pixie dream girl that lived down the road, until finally ten more more pages of the sad man sighing while he looks at a body of water. Yeah, “for adults”… well, at least it was short.
2. The Mapmaker’s War – Ronlyn Domingue.
I hate bloated epic fantasy with a white-hot hatred that could blind the baby Jesus, and the fact that your standard fantasy novel nowadays is 500+ pages of grimdark neckbeardio “world building” only makes my blood boil. So when this book crossed my radar, likely via amazon algorithm, the first thing I did was check out the page count. It was less than 300 pages. That was enough to make me want to read it.
Domingue’s The Mapmaker’s War reads like a blend of William Morris, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Jeanette Winterson mixing social allegory and utopian yearnings with keen-edged, descriptive prose. Fantasy fans deeply embedded in the genre will likely view the book with suspicion, since it’s “literary” in unacceptable ways: 2nd person narrator, unconventional dialogue tags, and lots of summary. Don’t be one of those people. Give it a read. It’s refreshing to read a secondary world fantasy novel completely orthogonal to the genre.
3. The Christmas Witch – M. Rickert.
So I have a stack of old SF magazines from the past 20 years and I’ve been slowly flipping through them. Most stories are meh, but some are not meh. This is a non-meh story, er, novelette. What a novelette is I can’t be bothered to care, likely it has to do with word count and is only important during award seasons. Anyway…
This is a creepy story about a creepy kid set in a small New England town where you’re not sure if the fantasy elements are real or imagined, and honestly, that hardly matters unless you’re a pedantic dope. It’s Stephen King country, but it’s not. If you have a stack of old of SF magazines from the past 20 years sitting around the house, this story is definitely worth checking out.
4. The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe.
A reread. Three interlinked novellas, the first is a coming of age story set in a brothel run by a genetic engineer, the second is a “tale” told by aliens about the events leading up to the arrival of intergalactic colonists, the third is a security “report” about a prisoner in a remote prison, who may or may not be a shape-shifting alien. If you’ve never read the book, I recommend it.
5. Meet Me in the Moon Room – Ray Vukcevich.
A short story collection by turns funny, sad, whimsical, and absurd. Most of the stories hone in on small moments and instances like an alien possession while folding one’s laundry, and they conclude and let you go almost as if they were jokes. My favorite story was “Beatniks with Banjos”.
6. Empty Space: A Haunting – M. John Harrison.
Some folks read books to be entertained, others to have a good experience. I read books for their mind-altering capabilities, and M. John Harrison delivers the goods. Definitely not for everyone, but if it’s for you it’ll twist around the way you look at the world.