Favorite reads for June. I put down more books than I finished… or am still stuck in the middle of them. Of the few I finished here are the highlights:
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: Probably the book I liked the least here. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s a mix of neat/cool facts and un-neat/un-cool rhapsodically waxing architectural that had not enough of one and too much of the other. But as a quick read, skimming to the neat bits such as monastic book thieves, tunneling bank robbers, and the guy they dubbed Spiderman who lived in a secret apartment he built in a Toys R Us, it’s a lot of fun. Added bonus feature! If you read it before bed it might give you home invasion nightmares!
The Looking Glass War by John LeCarre: A sad spy novel that the former CIA head Allen Dulles believed depicted what spy work actually was like. If you’ve read the George Smiley/Circus books you might like this one, because here they’re the villains standing aside as another British intelligence agency attempts to field a mission a bit too far beyond their capabilities.
Company Town by Madeline Ashby: A cyberpunk novel set on a city-sized oil rig about a body guard and her new assignment looking after the heir apparent to the corporation that bought the rig. It’s cyberpunk in the good way, focusing on those undermined or otherwise on the bad side of progress. I’ll warn you that I don’t think Ashby quite sticks the landing, but she’s close enough that I can appreciate the ride and the ambition she had attempting to pull it off.
Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey: I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, but have come around to not standing it in 99% of its modern forms (Epic, Grim, Sword & Sorcery, it’s all *blerg*). But when I find a book that sits in that 1%? Holy shit! I’m in love. This is one of those books. It’s brutal, but from the first sentence I was hooked.
There is a scarred, twisted old madwoman in a cage in the court yard.
Here we are already into June and I haven’t told you what my favorite reads were for May. How can any of us possibly go on?
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: A family memoir from an iconoclastic writer about having a baby with her transgender husband – it’s quite funny and brutal but also a bit up its own ass in that PhD sort of way where a conversation (or butt sex) isn’t satisfying unless you deconstruct the post-structural nature of Lacan’s concept of the Other while you do it. Fun fact: in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the ship, the Argo, was slowly repaired and rebuilt piece by piece, so the ship that returned home entirely different ship, despite bearing the same name.
Hellspark by Janet Kagan: First contact story. I loved it. I loved the worlds and all their cultures. I loved the science of “proxemics” (body language) and the nature of the protagonist’s abilities. If you think a book pitched somewhere between China Mieville’s Embassytown and CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series might be a neat thing, then, yeah, track this down.
Cortez on Jupiter by Ernest Hogan: Loved this too. As much as I loved the world building of Hellspark, I suspect the future will be more like this with shitty fast food, everyone making micro-documentaries of their lives, and a reality TV show built around the high fatality rate of astronauts trying to contact the aliens that live inside the red spot of Jupiter.
The Destructives by Matthew De Abaitua: Theodore Drown is a recovering weirdcore addict and former accelerator currently lecturing on intangibles at the University of the Moon in the year 2060, forty years after The Seizure, the world-shattering event that saw the emergence of AIs. Someone’s been reading their PKD and M. John Harrison. Great cover by RAID71. I’m all for book covers looking like covers to weird comics. Great stuff.
Get Carter by Ted Lewis: A dudely, dude tough guy novel about a gangster coming home to bury his not a gangster brother and solving the mystery of the brother’s death. Even if you’ve seen the Michael Caine movie (or live in the horrid reality where there was a remake made starring some mumbler), the book still has a lot going for it. Very clipped. Very tense.
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar: Epic fantasy that doesn’t read like Epic Fantasy is my favorite Epic Fantasy (unless we’re talking about novellas, in which case I have more patience for 400 page “world building” tom foolery). The Winged Histories is that kind of Epic Fantasy. Less a sequel to A Stranger in Olondria than a continued journey into the same world of, in The Winged Histories we follow four women as each tells their stories and is caught in the turmoil of the Olondrian civil war. Some of them are archetypal Epic Fantasy characters such as the Warrior Woman, but Samatar manages to subvert and comment on these characters, as she delves deeper into her setting. I loved this book.
Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand: This is Hand’s third novel featuring the fascinatingly horrible person Cassandra Neary, who’s less an amateur detective than a destructive bystander. If you haven’t read any of these before this one is a decent one to start with, as Cass ends up in London and collides with various counter-culture victims and survivors, and a mystery straight off the Graham Hancock web page. There’s sort of this preposterousness to the novels, like who knew such attention to rock fandom from the 1970s would prove to be so important in 2015, but yeah, if you can swallow that and stomach Cass’s general awfulness the novels are great fun.
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter: A latter stage cyberpunk novel from the late 1990s, The Fortunate Fall tells about a 24th century journalist on the trail of the truth concerning some 23rd century atrocities. It’s weird, smart, and fun while it gets at concerns regarding free will in a world of manufactured personalities. If you’ve read and liked Pat Cadigan’s stuff, you’d likely enjoy this. Unfortunately, it appears to have been Carter’s only novel (to date) and it’d be fascinating to see what they would publish now twenty-years on deeper into The Matrix. Are we still on schedule for the Unanimous Army to free us from conscious thought with their drill-bits? Or was that a best case scenario?
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: The other covers for this are a lot cooler, but this one was the one I read. The Blackbirder is a 1940s crime novel about a refugee woman from France in the USA illegally on the run from the Gestapo and the FBI when an old acquaintance gets murdered on her doorstep. The chase is fast and rich with paranoia as Julie Guilles flees across country from New York City to Santa Fe in the hopes of finding the mysterious “Blackbirder” who smuggles people across the US border. This is a good thriller, along the lines of Graham Greene’s The Third Man or The Ministry of Fear. This kindle edition was kind of shitty, but if you see a copy or anything else by Hughes, you’d be wise to pick it up.
Clade By James Bradley: Eco-collapse as viewed by four generations of one family. Young couple Adam and Ellie have a daughter. That daughter grows up and has a son. Along the way the family picks up other members – a more or less foster child – and a second husband when Adam and Ellie’s marriage falls apart. Some folks don’t like the whole linked short stories as novel schtick, but I love it, especially when done well as it is here. And it’s that broadness that makes the book ultimately optimistic. Terrible things happen, but people survive. The world’s never ending. It’s always beginning.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle: This is an update on HP Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook” with LaValle adding an ersatz Harlem jazz musician and small-time conman, Thomas Tester, into the mix. But don’t feel like you have to be to up on your Lovecraft to know what’s going on, Lavalle’s focus is more on depicting how the dreaded cosmic indifference of the Elder Gods likely paled beside human evil, prejudice, and injustice.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson: I’m calling this post-Oscar Wao sword & sorcery. At it’s base this is the story of a wizard traveling with a merchant caravan through a science fantasy setting. It’s focused on the day to day interactions mora than any larger plot, although the larger plot is there it just arises almost as an after though to this story of men on the road. Also, can I just say secondary world fantasy that’s less than 250 pages long? Yes. More please.
The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas: An antisocial alcoholic know-it-all survives the zombie apocalypse and lives out his days drilling the recently dead (though more often they’re the currently dying…) while getting drunk in what remains of San Francisco. It’s a genre mash-up that takes genre A (horror: zombie apocalypse) with genre B (American Lit: alcoholic slob) and crafts something that’s funny, abrasive, and awkward at the right times often enough to be enjoyable.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: An utterly fascinating read that looks at the fluid concept of race as it’s evolved in Europe and North America from ancient times up to the 20th century. Much of the focus does settle on the United States of America in the 19th and 20th centuries looking not only at the concepts of race, but also at immigration and eugenics. Like I said, a fascinating read because of the subject matter and because Painter writes in a casual and often wry style.
And I read some other stuff that ranged from the goodish to the meh to the Beetle.
The Victorian Thriller that out sold Dracula!
And which time then subsequently, and rightfully, forgot!
This is an awful book, written in the Victorian era’s worst style, although this last bit isn’t what makes it awful. It’s awful parts come from its Victorian preoccupations and assumptions (and its habit of dipping into aspirated dialect to provide local color). I read it hoping it would be better than it was, a bit of a lost gem, but really it’s your bog standard Victorian racism and obsessions set down on the page: evil gender ambiguous foreigners and their diabolical rites to ancient gods that sacrifice white English women and sap the vitality from virile young men by loathsome ways.
In it’s day The Beetle was a best-seller and its preoccupations obviously touched upon something warm and throbbing within the Victorian psyche (“gender ambiguity and foreigners are bad”), but reading it now it’s all one long, badly written tease to a hysterical denouement populated by wooden characters, the liveliest of which can’t seem to meet an invalid or a woman without wanting to thrash and shake them.
Lovecraft has rightly earned his epitaph as a racist. There’s no arguing that, but I’ve seen it argued that he unconsciously freed the English horror story from being solely obsessed with racial degradation (scare quotes all over that shit), and gave it something else to be horrified by with stories about humanity’s insignificance on the cosmic scale. If The Beetle is any indication of what the English language horror genre looked like at its widest reaching before Lovecraft, then there’s a debt owed to him for unwittingly shaking it free from its tiresome preoccupations.
Mission Child by Maureen McHugh: What a book! I’m not sure how to describe it except to say it’s in the Ursula K. LeGuin corner of social science fiction, except it’s not really pushing any kind of utopian vision. Janna is a young woman growing up as a hunter-gatherer in a remote area of her lost colony world that’s only recently regained contact with Earth. When her village is destroyed by raiders Janna forced on an odyssey that last decades and carries her over the entire breadth of her world, transforming her in unexpected ways. This is the second novel I’ve read by McHugh and like in China Mountain Zhang, which you should absolutely read, the focus isn’t on the movers and shakers of the world, but on a single “mundane” individual and how they navigate their SFnal world. I LOVE THAT STUFF and it seems to have been a 80s and 90s trend that has fallen somewhat out of favor (although if you disagree and want to recommend some books feel free). I’ve heard someone say McHugh called this a trilogy in one book, and that it is. If you can find a copy, read it!
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: St. John Fox is your average mildly misogynistic 1930s mystery writer with a tendency for murdering off his heroines. One day his muse Mary Foxe shows up and calls him a serial killer. The two then engage in a game of cat and mouse across a number of St. John’s stories. However St. John’s wife, Daphne, is not so keen on her husband spending all his time with an imaginary woman he made up to combat his PTSD after World War 1, so she decides to push her way into the narrative. What happens then is a weird, slightly po-mo love triangle as the three start struggling against and allying with each other. Or a love story for Angela Carter fans who sometimes secretly wish Bluebeard could have been rehabilitated.
Maze by JM McDermott: Men and women from various times and places disappear and find themselves trapped in a strange maze full of monsters. A weird science fiction book from Apex Book Company that sort of makes sense if you squint at it or look at it side ways, just don’t ask me to explain it. Nothing gets explained, and it reads a bit like an early 20th century fantasy novel (think William Morris or David Lindsay) on 21st century drugs more than it does Philip Jose Farmer’s Dungeon series. I liked it a lot more than I have most recent fantasy novels from bigger presses.
The Liminal War by Ayize Jamal-Everett: This is gonzo-pulp of the best kind with super powered humans not quite allied with a sentient fungus god time-traveling to hang out with Bob Marley and play guitar with Robert Johnson while fighting kinda-sorta-not-quite-vampires and an evil drug dealing Professor X type guy. Halfway through the book there’s a scene where the protagonists are on a ghost ship traveling through time and the villains attack them with prehistoric sharks while the messiah of the fungus god brands himself with the souls of dead Africans lost in the middle passage, and I have no idea what’s going on or why, but SUPER POWERED FIST-FIGHTS WITH PREHISTORIC SHARKS! Think Octavia Butler meets Andrew Vachss with a healthy dose of gonzo thrown in and if that sounds ind of great read all of Jamal-Everett’s books.
Ice by Anna Kavan: A stark slipstream novel I flippantly described as Cormac McCarthy’s Frozen. Three unnamed characters, two men and a woman, chase, flee, and collide with each other as the world slides into a glacial apocalypse. This is one of those books you read for the experience, as opposed to the sense it all should logically make. I have no proof but I suspect this novel influenced both Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann and Jenn Brissett’s Elysium, two books that have been on my year-end favorite reads lists.
The Great Wash by Gerald Kersh: This reads a bit like Arthur Machen trying his hand at a James Bond novel, which if you’re me sounds pretty cool. Two bachelor writers uncover a diabolical plot involving the world’s scientists and do their best to stop it. Much of it is written in “That was a fascinating story you just told, it reminds me of this fascinating story I am now going to tell you” style, which makes for a breezy read.
The Pleasure Merchant by Molly Tanzer: A raunchy, irreverent historical novel set in 18th century London about a shop boy turned social climber who ends up in over his head as heroics transform into villainy and the villains behave most heroically. If you like your books to poke fun at and skewer social customs than this is your historical adventure novel. Not that you’ll be above the skewering yourself. Tom Dawne’s climb has its triumphs, but also plenty of cringe worthy elements that cut more than a bit close.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters: A twisty Dickensian novel of thieves and con-artists that’s a delight to read, which is a very nice way of saying OH MY GOD THIS BOOK IS FUCKING AMAZE BALLS YOU GOTTA READ IT WHAT PUT DOWN THAT THING YOU’RE DOING READ IT READ IT NOW *gasp* *sputter* So, yeah, I thought it was pretty good. I’d been hearing about it for years and always had it mind to read it. My wife watched the BBC series when it came out, but it wasn’t until I heard that Park Chan-Wook director of Old Boy, Snowpiercer, and Stoker was going to adapt this into a Korean movie that I pushed it to the top of my TBR pile. If you at all like the melodramatic twisty Dickensian style, but wish it had a more modern sensibility then run don’t walk to read this book.