Favorite Reads 2015: A Baker’s Dozen
As is traditional around these parts I like to end the year with a list of my favorite reads. Overall it’s been a great year for reading even if I’ve had to bite my tongue and not complain overly much about books that have disappointed me. Why dwell on the negative when there are so many other books out there to enjoy? So here, in order from most old to most recent, are my favorite reads from 2015.
1. The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796): What a book! What a gory, extravagant, delightful mess of a book! Yes, I spent a good long time writing about this book this year, but wow, what a book! I lost count of the times it made me stop reading and go, “Wait! What the hell just happened!?!” Ghosts, demons, and dirty/sexy Roman Catholicism – this book has it all.
2. The Virgin of the Seven Daggers: Excursions Into Fantasy by Vernon Lee (1913): Probably the book I talked the most about this year as it was the one that surprised me the most since I’d never heard of Lee before I started reading this. From the first story in the collection I was hooked and felt the need to proclaim Vernon Lee as one of the great overlooked fantasy writers of the early 20th century.
3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927): Cather manages to write an epic novel in less than 300 pages as she relates the story of a pair of priests sent to the recently acquired New Mexico territories with the task of rehabilitating the church out there. As always Cather manages to convey both character and landscape with beautiful language. Yes, there’s no real plot and a lot of things happen “off stage”, but those aren’t real complaints. They’re gripes from people too hooked on TV Tropes.
4. Games People Play by Eric Berne (1967): Weird little pop psychology book about transactional analysis. It’s worth a read as it’ll make you look at the way people (yourself included) behave in social situations. You read it saying things to yourself like, “Oh, yeah, I know a person totally like that.”
5. Katie by Michael McDowell (1982): Violent, crazy good fun. McDowell writes the American penny dreadful you never knew you wanted to read. Download a copy today!
6. Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende (2001): A story collection set in the same milieu as Allende’s novel Eva Luna. Allende’s rich prose and use of recursive narrative structure knocked my socks off.
7. Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun (2003): One of the weirdest books I read this year with a plot more informed by medieval alchemical texts than logical cause and effect. If you like your books ripe with weird imagery this one’s worth tracking down.
8. Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (2009): The book that introduced me to Megan Abbott’s work. It’s a sad up-ending of noir tropes to tell the story of a friendship between three desperate but ultimately very different women.
9. Open City by Teju Cole (2011): Possibly the book I’ve thought the most about since finishing it. Cole pulls off a nice twist here as three-quarters of the way through the narrator learns a crushing truth about himself that calls into question his role not so much as a narrator, but as a sympathetic character.
10. American Monster by J.S. Breukelaar (2014): Once upon a time science fiction books were raunchy, messy, and lacking in predictable marketability. American Monster sits well in that tradition as an alien super woman prowls the scummy streets of a post-apocalyptic California in search of the man “with the perfect horn”.
11. Vermilion by Molly Tanzer (2015): Ghost-hunting gunslinger travels an alternate American west in the hopes of discovering who it is killing members of her community. If you like steampunk weird westerns and stories of monster hunters here’s your book.
12. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (2015): Hand writes the story of a psychedelic folk band that never existed, but you wished did, as they get caught in the kind of story that would make Arthur Machen proud – and she does it all in the form of a VH-1 “Behind the Music” style special.
13. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015): Low-rent space opera about the crew of a star ship that goes around the galaxy building worm holes. Very episodic, but a lot of fun as we live with the crew of the Wayfarer.
And if you want to read past years’ favorite reads here are the links to 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
A Day In Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter
My review of Lisa Shapter’s novella A Day in Deep Freeze is up over at My Bookish Ways. The book reads like a horror-themed slow-burn Philip K. Dick in the mode of Time Out of Joint with a narrator slowly crumbling beneath his paranoia and inability to confront hard choices about who he is. It’s one of those books where if the hero succeeds and gets what they want, it’s the worst possible solution they could achieve.
Anyway, I blather.
Check out the review. Check out the book.
One Book, Four Covers: Star Rider by Doris Piserchia
I’d never heard of Doris Piserchia until two months ago when someone on a webforum mentioned how great her books were, so I downloaded the Gateway reprints to my kindle.
And let me just say right now that you should too.
Piserchia’s style is hard to pin down – someone said she’s a bit like Philip K. Dick, but it’s the PKD of Clans of the Alphane Moons rather than, say, A Scanner Darkly. The writers she reminds me more of are the later Alice (post-Tiptree) Shelton and Clifford Simak (whose also a bit like PKD). Pischeria shares the same weird exuberance that just dives into a story, no matter how outwardly crazy, and runs with it. Case in point, Star Rider.
In the future mankind has spread throughout the galaxy by means of genetic modification that allows us to leap between worlds as long as we’re telepathically bonded to mounts which are like these space-dog-horses. Those that travel are known as Jaks, those that settle are called Dreens, and off on the sidelines are Vthe arks, which are a bit like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland – if the cat were made from pneumatic tubing. Everyone’s searching for the planet Doubleluck, and later this becomes a search for a method to hop across the galaxies, an act no ones been able to pull off without going mad. Into this situation comes Jade, a young Jak, who might or might not have the ability to make the leap, and it’s that mystery that makes the plot-shenanigans ensue.
The thing I like about the covers are how they all treat the mounts differently while still oscillating between the poles of dog and horse. The annoying thing is how most of them dress Jade in varying shades of chainmail bikini. The exception is the non-English book, which is my favorite of the four. It would certainly have been the version I’d have read if I was a German hippy in 1974.
Anyway, buy the reprints and start here or with A Billion Days of Earth, because that one has intelligent rats with metal hands that think they’re humans.
I’m still in thesis-hell, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Once June is finished, I’ll be over and done with my grad program. Hoorah! Anyway, I managed to squeak in some reading time this month, alongside the thesis reading and the books I have to review. When the thesis is done, I will make it a point to read ALL the books. On with it…
The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell (2006): Despite being incapable of making a conference call, resurrected “hero” Black Jack Geary has the know-how to save the day, all it takes is discipline like people had back in the old days. Military SF in the what-the-world-needs-now-is-a-grandpa subgenre with wooden prose and a plot stolen from Xenophon’s Anabasis. I actually don’t mind this subgenre, but as it was presented here, in as straight-forward a manner as a 2×4 upside the head, no thanks.
Unquenchable Fire – Rachel Pollack (1989): I kind of loved this book. It’s set in the same world as Temporary Agency, which is our own world after a spiritual awakening that makes certain New Age sciences possible. Yet the main character is outside this world as she’s a divorced woman trying to simply cope with being chosen by an awakened being to be the mother of, well, we don’t know, not the messiah, but certainly a prophet who will once again change the world.
After the Apocalypse – Maureen McHugh (2011): Short story collection that mixes the mundane with touches of the speculative. IT techs try to determine if their computer has gained sentience. A convicted killer turns naturalist after the zombie apocalypse. A proud woman with a penchant for survival takes part in a medical experiment. I love McHugh’s stuff and think she’s one of the best SF writers working today, but you sort of have to like your SF with a lighter touch.
Vathek – William Beckford (1786): 18th Century Gothic Orientalism written by decadent libertine hopped up on the Arabian Nights. I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s awful and about horrible people doing horrible things, but it’s also over-the-top and grotesque and as such has its charms. Vathek is a despotic prince who hopes to make a deal with the devil, but is thwarted by the devil and his own mom who’s a powerful sorceress.
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:
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.
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.
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
Wylder’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.
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.
January Books and General Ramble
It’s been a bit.
I went back to the USA for my vacation and played this game where whenever one of my friends posted a picture of whatever beach they were on in Thailand, I posted back a picture of an iced-over parking lot and maybe a snowdrift. It kept me warm, as one’s bitterness should. No, I kid. It was a great trip, and much too short.
Anyway, lots of time was spent on planes or in transit to other places, so books and what not got read. I may as well start with that one over there, Vernon Lee’s The Virgin of the Seven Daggers (2008). First off, great cover. When I saw it in the bookshop I knew I had to buy it, although I knew absolutely nothing about the author. It turned out to be a great impulse buy. The stories were pretty much all incredible, a bit weird fantasy mixed with 19th century historic novels and art criticism. So, yeah, if you see a copy on your local bookstore’s remainder table (or just want to do the Project Gutenberg thing), don’t hesitate! but buy the shit straight up!
Bury Me Deep – Megan Abbott (2009)
I loved this book. It’s based on a true crime case from the 1930s when a woman was found in the LA train station carrying around a suitcase containing the dismembered bodies of her two roommates. This book takes that incident and uses it to spill out a story about a young nurse abandoned by her junkie husband in Arizona and the friendship she forges with two other women, both of whom are bit too free and independent by what’s socially acceptable, and the chaos that ensues when the nurse falls for a local criminal/politician. Seriously, if you like Noir this book is pretty wonderful.
Open City – Teju Cole (2011)
A listless and over-educated 20-something male wanders around various cities and has conversations with people while musing on history and memory. You sort of have to stick with it, and even then the reveal might have you throwing the book across the room. I liked it, but I can’t rave about it. Still, it’s the kind of book that sticks with you, not least because it leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth.
2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love – Rachel Aaron (2012)
Aaron outlines how she’s been able to write 10K a day and crank out novels. What was interesting was that I read this not long after I read this piece by Kazuo Ishiguro about how he wrote The Remains of the Day, and what struck me was how both Aaron and Ishiguro were saying they same thing. The difference being that Aaron has to publish at least one book a year to cling to the claim of being a “professional writer”, while Ishiguro can publish one book every five years and have each be heralded as a literary event.
I then made the mistake of trying to read one of Aaron’s novels, and the less said about the attempt the better.
Lying Awake – Mark Salzman (2000)
I heard about this book from watching one of Robert Sapolsky’s lectures on youtube, and then while spending a couple of days in Province Town (and sweet chef boyardee, do I ever recommend going to Province Town in the middle of January) I stopped by the local bookshop and found it on the “Staff Picks” table and bought it.
The plot’s about a cloistered nun who has some notoriety after writing an account of her visions of God, but who then learns these were likely the result of a brain tumor, and the crisis of faith that then ensues. It’s a real slim book, and Salzman doesn’t linger on things, which is good, because I think the idea would break down if too much weight were put on it. As it is, the book works quite well, and if it sounds at all interesting, then I recommend you track it down.
The Memory of Water – Emmi Itaranta (2014)
A dystopian novel set in Northern Europe after the collapse of civilization and dealing with a world where fresh water is a scarce resource. My reaction to this one was a bit odd. I didn’t much care for the plot or prose style, but I liked the main characters, a pair of friends, and the narrator’s devotion to her job as a Tea Master and how everything she experienced was filtered through that fact. In that way, yeah, I recommend the book. The characters are pretty great, but some of the other bits? They sort of read like a road you’ve already traveled.
The Romance of Tristan and Iseult – M. Joseph Bedier (1900)
I never knew the story of Tristan and Iseult; I simply knew of it, so reading this was a neat experience. Bedier did much of the rendering while others (such as likely colossal asshole Hilaire Belloc) did the translating, and overall it’s a satisfying and exciting read with magic potions, curses, dragons, and knights who don’t have names, just articles in front of titles, like The Morholt. Another bit that sticks out is when King Mark first suspects Iseult of infidelity, he’s all ready to have her executed when a mob of lepers shows up and convinces him that no, killing her would be too good, and she should be given over to the lepers to be “used in common”. Shit like that makes you have to cringe, but if you enjoy the McMedieval Mythic Feudalism give this a read.
Hell, who am I kidding? You probably already have!