I’m thinking of renaming this blog “Me & My Garbage Opinions”.
Also, thinking of starting a patreon where every month I talk about all the books I didn’t like enough to finish, or simply thought kinda meh. Because there are always some.
But here are some books I thought pretty great! You should check’em out!
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson: Vellitt Boe is a professor at a Woman’s College in Ulthar in the Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft fame. One of her students runs off with a man from the waking world (our world) and it falls to Vellitt to find her. Of course, not everyone wants the girl found and various forces set out to keep Vellitt from succeeding in her quest. Okay, I’m a big fan of Lovecraft’s Dreamland stuff and the recent spat of self-aware returns to Lovecraft’s work by contemporary writers. Vellitt Boe’s a great character and as the story progresses and she learns more about the waking world there’s a great sense of why someone from a fantastic world such as hers would become captivated with ours.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell: Last month I talked about Anne Charnock’s SF exploration of the future of reproduction technology in Dreams Before the Start of Time and mentioned how it set aside conflict to get deeper into the ramifications of the technology she investigated. Like Charnock’s book Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones explores the future of reproductive technology, but it’s all about the conflict that technology will produce. In a plague ravaged future Inez might be the answer to the world’s problems, but she has a lot on her plate, not the least of which is making sure her cloned daughter manages to get into a good school or not. I can’t really describe this except by saying it’s Flowers for Algernon meets The Road except the Road guy had it easy compared to Inez.
Hercules, My Shipmate by Robert Graves: I think Graves’ The White Goddess stuff is a bit horseshit and what happens when Edwardian Public School educated Brits discover magic mushrooms and want to justify their serial infidelity with 19 year olds. (“Is it really cheating if all women are aspects of the same goddess?) On the other hand, The White Goddess is great world-building for a fantasy novel, and that’s what we have here in Graves’ retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. While I prefer Mary Renault’s Theseus retelling The King Must Die, this book has its wild and weird moments. I’m also happy that Butes the bee-guy survived.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: This was fun. More importantly I think it was perfectly pitched. In a world where Goblins and Elves are the same species, a half-goblin son of the elf emperor finds himself appointed emperor when everyone before him in the line of succession gets killed in an airship crash. Thrust out of exile and dropped into the elven court the goblin emperor quickly proves himself if not prepared than capable of learning how to rule in a just and noble fashion. If I have any criticism it’s that our hero is too likable, which isn’t much of a complaint because it’s not that kind of book.
Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell: This is a killer book, beautiful, violent, and lean. Set during the American Civil War on the border between Kansas and Missouri, the novel follows Jake, son of German immigrants, as he and his friend Jack join a group of Confederate irregulars (terrorists) as they wreak havoc upon the Union. As the war progresses and the atrocities mount, Jake’s idealism gets stripped away until the realities of what he and his associates are slowly dawns on him. A week after reading this I realized it’s A Clockwork Orange as if written by Mark Twain.
I read some books and I have things to say about them.
Winged Victory by VM Yeates: If you follow me on Twitter you would have seen me talking about the depressing book I was reading and wondering whether the protagonist would die or drink himself to death. Whelp, that book was this one about World War 1 RAF pilots. It’s good, but it’s bleak. It’s an unrelentingly depressing autobiographical novel loaded heavily with dollops of cynicism and despair that’s by turns horrifying and beautiful. I liked it, but it’s certainly not for everyone and a lot of it is repetitious, but still if you like war novels this is a good one.
Also, biplanes!?! Can you imagine being 15,000 feet in the air in basically a wooden go-cart? That’s nuts!
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock: I LOVED this book and really recommend it. It’s a series of vignettes following two families (and various others) into a future where technology heavily impacts reproduction and our concepts of family. It’s a fascinating read, and Charnock stays to the core of the situation without getting too hung up on logistics. For one, I’m glad there’s no plot regarding religious conservatives objecting to the technology. On the other hand I can see that bugging people, the way the world situation and reactions to the technology get glossed over. The two complaints I had with it are slightly different. First, nearly all the characters are upper middle class, or near to it, and second, they’re all white-Anglo seeming. (It wasn’t too hard to imagine characters being West Indian, but overall the book doesn’t dig too heavily into the politics or economics of the tech it explores.) But yeah, if you like plotless social SF this is worth the read.
Moriah by Daniel Mills: This is some straight-up Hawthorne darkness going on here. Civil War veteran and broken man Silas Flood heads to Moriah Vermont to examine a family of spiritualists. It’s heavy and stark with dark secrets brewing below the surface, but if you like atmospheric horror centered on the human condition and our inability to cope with our own frailty, then track this down.
Hex-Rated by Jason Ridler: Retro-pulp smut that reads like a cartoony Rockford Files mixed with a porno flick that’s trying to ape Hammer Horror. While the 1970s veneer might be only skin deep and Brimstone’s sensibilities clearly our own, it’s fun reading along as he punches his way through Nazis, cultists, and devils. Sure, it might be cartoony, but it’s nice to read something that delights in being so richly itself.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss: In a way this is like the Brimstone book in that it’s cartoony, only the cartoon’s a different one. Where Brimstone’s like something from Heavy Metal magazine, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is like Penny Dreadful by way of the 1960s Adam West Batman. Until I got my head around that, this was a bit hard to get into, but once I saw POW! word balloons and lurid 1960s colors on this Victorian romp I was on board. And like with Penny Dreadful, this is a who’s who of Victoriana as various female protagonists, led by Mary Jekyll, attempt to solve a series of crimes linked to her father’s experiments. It’s fun.
I’m out of the Transfer Towns for better and worse. Better, because after six years dirty ole Pohang has started to feel a bit like home. Worse, because I had a book-reading writing/gaming buddy I could hang out with almost everyday living right up the street. I haven’t had anything like that in years, possibly even decades. It was great!
On to the books…
The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France: Most summers I get this desire to read Arthurian tinged stuff and that led me to reading Jessie Weston and she got me reading Marie de France. Decent editions of both are available at Gutenberg. In France’s lais we’re dipping into the Chivalric tradition centuries before Mallory with stories of knights and their lady loves, magic oaths and spells, even a noble werewolf (BISCLAVRET!!!) Collected together these make for a series of great words and the like a collection of fairy tales you can dip in, read one or two stories, then put the book aside. Although you can certainly read it straight through. One thing that makes France’s handling of the material so enjoyable is how separate it is from the Christian tradition. That tradition is present but it’s not hitting you ever the head like it would by the time Mallory’s recounting the Grail Quest. I might use this for a yesterweird series of posts.
Jhereg by Steven Brust: Suddenly so many of the D&D characters my friends and I rolled up as teens make sense. Wicked Awesome Super Assassin Wizard does wicked awesome super assassin wizard stuff with his wicked awesome super assassin wizard powers and wicked awesome super assassin wizard friends. Yes, I’m mocking this book a bit, but it was a fun romp and I enjoyed its pace and flippant attitude. I know there are a lot more books in the series, but I’m in no real rush to read them. I’d rather save them as treats between other books.
Laura by Vera Caspary: Of all the books I read last month this one had me running around the most and recommending it to friends. Laura is pitched as a Femme Fatale, but really she is a modern professional woman in the world of 1940s advertising, doing her best to be an independent woman. What results because of that is like a Gothic novel set in the hard-boiled worlds of New York cops and savage murderers. Definitely give this a shot if the hard-boiled tradition is at all a thing you enjoy.
A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel: I haven’t read a lot of romance novels, but I’ve been told that there are two kinds: the first kind has the love-struck characters boning in the first twenty pages, and the second kind where there’s pages and pages of angsty, yearning, and flushed groin business before the boning happens somewhere in the 3rd act. This book is the latter type. It’s about a lovable thief and con-artist masquerading as a noblewoman in order to escape her criminal past. Of course she falls in love with the Earl who believes she is his cousin. To Kimmel’s credit, by the time the boning happened I was more interested in all the plot machinations and wished the groining would finish quick so the character could go back to resolving the plot.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson: If you had handed this grim fantasy ballad to the Viking era to 13 year old me, I would have gobbled this up and thought it was the greatest book ever: a dark brooding antihero, a quest to forge a demonic sword, monsters, war, sexy weird elves… the whole book is a witch’s brew of moody heroics that even though I’m less in love with such beverages now I can remember how much I loved the taste of them back then. If you’re a pulp fantasy fan and you’ve never read this, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt: The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, work for as hired killers for the Commodore and the Commodore wants them to kill a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm. So begins a picaresque novel as the two set out from Oregon and make their way to the gold fields of California. Along the way they encounter an assortment of odd characters and circumstances, all of it narrated by Eli Sister the more pensive and over-weight of the two brothers. This was a fun if deceptively easy read and with a level of artful construction that I appreciated. If you like atypical westerns this is worth tracking down.
And special mention goes to…
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand: This is a delight of a book, and if you have an afternoon to spend and want to spend it with a wry smile plastered to your face this is the book to do it with. How can you not love a play that gives stage directions such as: “A MUSKETEER, superbly mustached, enters”?
North Korea claims to have successfully tested an ICBM, and what if I got incinerated without letting people know what I read and liked in June!?!
So here we are – prepare to have at least one calamity rectified.
Sadly, June was kind of shit for reading. Most of what I read made me shrug at best, while some of it actively annoyed. The high-lights on the other hand were few and far between.
Highlight the first:
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan: Yeah, this was as good as the hype claimed. The focus is on 1st century CE Palestine with attention paid to all the various sects and factions at play in the region. If Iron Age politics are your thing, you definitely should check this out. Also, Aslan’s investigation of how Jesus of Nazareth becomes Jesus Christ and the history that not only shapes Jesus’s message but how we approach it (hint: the destruction of Jerusalem in ~70CE is a HUGE deal) makes for fascinating reading.
Highlight the second:
The Blazing World, and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish: If you at all like science fiction and fantasy and are interested in its roots, you must read this. Cavendish was a 17th century English noblewoman who was a philosopher and an essayist, and The Blazing World reads like her riff on travel narratives mixed with speculative natural philosophy. A princess finds herself transported to another world where the inhabitants make her the queen and she has adventures. It’s loopy. and you might skim some of it, but there’s enough wondrous stuff in it that you’ll occasionally want to slow down and pay attention.
I’m not much of a YA reader. The times I’ve made forays into recent YA blockbusters I’ve always been put off by how aggressively and enthusiastically bland they are.
Also the self-absorbed whining.
Also the love triangles.
But honestly I’m not really that well-versed in the genre, at least in its prose format and would probably have an easier time with graphic novels dealing with the same issues.
All that said I was happy to find Mary Turzillo’s Mars Girls anything but bland. It’s a YA SF adventure story that’s quite fun. Best of all, there’s no dystopia nor reality TV bloodsports, only a couple of 23rd century teenage girls on Mars caught up in a mystery involving murder, cultists, corporate geeks, and stolen tech.
Much of the fun comes from the differences between our two teen protagonists: Nanoannie and Kapera Smythe. While Nanoannie is the older of the two friends, she’s certainly not the wiser and while she is the protagonist, she’s much more the propellant whose over-active imagination fuels as much of the plot as solves it. Kapera on the other hand is more thoughtful and reserved. Also she’s more in jeopardy as it’s her family at the center of the plot. She also needs to get to an Earth Orbital colony for medical treatment. And while Nanoannie’s assistance is not totally altruistic, the price tag she offers is one totally in keeping with her character.
The fact that the book isn’t a cruel dystopia is a point in its favor. Overall 23rd century teen life seems recognizably teenish. Nanoannie’s obsessed with dating, fashion, and not being the boring corporate contract workers her parents are. There’s a future internet and attendant social media, but all she wants is to see a bit of Mars before she settles down. That she and Kapera are technologically precocious I’ll let slide. What teen isn’t more technologically savvy than their elders and who am I to raise an eyebrow at the notion of decently home-schooled by scientists teens making easy adjustments to their home nuclear reactor?
Turzillo’s Mars is a consistently hazardous place that feels real and consistent. There’s very little that comes out of left-field and throws you for a loop at least as far as the physics goes. Maybe Kapera’s hoodoo/intuition borders on a telepathic sixth sense, but that’s a rather small piece of the overall plot. And while the story is confined to Mars there’s a definite sense of there being a populated solar system beyond.
Earth’s still there and seems to be doing all right (or maybe Nanoannie and Kapera just don’t care) and there are orbital colonies and Lunar colonies that have industries solvent enough to want to up-sell their products to the unwary. The bad thing in the world might be indentured servitude to corporations seems to be a thing, and corporations have done away with owners and are now run by AIs programmed to maximize profits, which, surprise, surprise, turns out to be a bad idea. And while there were times I wish Turzillo went deeper into her setting, I’m the type that would rather have too little than too much.
Being curious about an interesting idea the author throws away is a much better thing than getting inundated under interesting ideas brought to their uninteresting conclusions.
On the down side there were a couple of corny bits that grated, such as “nuke” as a slang word for “cool”, and the occasional name that bordered on the campy (Elvis Darcy), but they also kind of gave the novel an aesthetic. And there were better silly bits that added to the fun: little details such as the Facer cult wearing symbiotic bindis that display their mood or the oft-mentioned author Naussicaa Azrael whose books Nanoannie has internalized all too well. (This latter one reminded me of Martha Wells’s murderbot in All Systems Red and the “Narrative Disorder” idea Malka Older plays with in Infomocracy – Nanoannie would very well be the poster child for such a disorder.)
While it might be possible to say there’s something retro in Turzillo’s approach, I don’t quite think that’s the case. Sometimes I feel like a lot of genre fiction is trying too hard to be important or serious, and too often the structural bones writers are building their plots on can’t quite bear the weight they’re piling on. All of which leads to a bit of ponderousness when a lighter touch would be more suitable and advantageous.
This isn’t to say genre books should only be fun or humorous, but they can get a lot of mileage out of suggestion and throw-away gimmicks if only writers learn to harness and trust that energy. Stuff like Philip K. Dick’s kookier SF novels such as Clans of the Alphane Moon or Rudy Rucker’s novels – I miss that stuff, and while I certainly feel it’s receded or at least gone out of fashion in recent decades, it’s not altogether gone. I just want more of it. And much to my delight, Mars Girls gave me that and did it intelligently. So give it a shot. I recommend it.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo is published by Apex Book Company and set to be released on June 13th. You can order a copy here.
Last month I was hospitalized. This month I became a university professor. What a crazy few weeks it has been. Here are my favorites out of everything I read.
All Systems Red (The Murder Bot Diaries) by Martha Wells: There’s something to be said for having a light touch – or at least knowing how heavy a touch a book requires. Martha Wells knows just how much and what kind of weight to put on this story of an introspective and rogue security robot doing its best to protect its humans from danger. A bit of the fun is how much the robot comes off as an angsty, emotionally over-wrought teenager (with colossal firepower) who doesn’t care and just wants to be left alone to watch TV.
The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov: This is an awful cover to a fun novel. Early 20th century Russian Symbolist poet transforms his f’d up love life into a Gothic novel about witchcraft set in 16th century Germany. If you don’t think I’d be all over something like that, umm… welcome to my blog, and that’s the kind of thing I’d be all over like maple syrup on pancakes. I don’t really care that this might not work well as a novel and the protagonist more or less floats from incident to incident; I was on board from the start. If you like the yesterweird, you should definitely check this out. Bryusov wrote some SF that I’ll now be on the look-out for.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo: This is a YA adventure novel set on Mars, and I’ll be reviewing it next week as part of the Mars Girls blog tour. I’ll tell you up front though, it’s good. If you want some fun non-dystopian science fiction, check this out.
Polaris by Ben Lehman: OK. Technically this is a role-playing game, but its premise (tragic Arthurian/Dunsanyian apocalypse) is just so rich that I think of it as a novel. The whole ritualization of the game experience and the poetic sensibility the players are expected to bring to the table make this feel to my mind like what I imagine role-playing would be. Not that anyone in my current gaming group would want to run or play it, but yeah… Actually this reminds me of two things: 1) a highly stylized tabletop version of HG Wells’s Floor Games that a psychiatrist might use to get a sullen teen (or murderbot) to work out their issues, 2) the actual tabletop scenes in Mazes & Monsters.
The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner: There’s a whole subgenre of lit books about suburban college profs swapping wives and having affairs while they drink themselves to death. Well, The Wreckage of Agathon is that kind of book except set in BCE Sparta during a Helot rebellion. It’s a fun, if at times aggravating trip as it meanders all over the place. Between this and The Fiery Angel I’m starting to think I might have a thing for autobiography dressed up as a historical novel.
Rosewater by Tade Thomson: I thought this book was a mess, but such an enjoyable and fascinating one that I’m going to blather on about it. In a lot of ways Rosewater is exactly the kind of genre book I want from a small press publisher: a strange mess full of ideas.
The setting is 23rd century Nigeria after the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial spores that have begun reshaping our habitat to better suit themselves. Kaaro is a former thief turned government agent. He’s also one of the few people made “sensitive” by the alien spores and gifted with a sort of telepathy. While most people see the alien spores as a blessing , Kaaro is less enthusiastic, but when something or someone starts killing off other sensitives Kaaro finds himself getting involved.
On one hand there’s a very cool cyberpunk novel in here as we follow Kaaro’s journey from thief to agent and onward, one made more interesting by the theme of colonization that pushes its way forward in moments. But it’s never didactic and beating you over the head with polemic. It still pitches floating cannibal mutants, weird sex, and weirder fungi at you. Where the problem comes in, in my opinion, is that it’s not simply that there’s too much here, but the order feels off and whenever I felt like I understood the setting and what things were about, Thompson piled on another idea that made everything wobble and tumble down. Not only that, but there were times things felt redundant – like we’d read for pages Kaaro’s journey into the fungi xenosphere, which is kind of like a trippy internet, only to have him come out and log into his 23rd century internet – and I’ll say it, we’re so post-Gibson and Stephenson at this point that describing how people use your super-cool super-futuristic internet is basically eating regurgitated pizza slices from 1997.
So on the other hand, I wish some better editing had happened and reins were tightened just to hone the story down to the essential bits, because those bits are good, very, very good. Anyway, if you’re in the market for some bewildering, but enjoyable near-future weirdness give this a look.
I read a ton this month mainly because I was sick and spent nearly a week lying in bed.
Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell: I sang the praises of Katie when I finished that, and now I sing to you the praises of Gilded Needles. Set in 1880s New York City Gilded Needles is about a pair of families, the criminal and matriarchal Shanks clan that operates out of New York’s infamous Black Triangle, and the wealthy and upright Stallworths, and the feud that develops between them when Judge Stallworth decides to get tough on crime. The fun comes from how much our sensibilities have changed from the Victorian that we can enjoy rooting for the Shanks family as their matriarch goes about her ruthless quest for revenge against the upright (bigoted) Stallworths. Track this down and read it! It’s so much more fun than it has any right to be!
Infomocracy by Malka Older: A near future science fiction political thriller about twenty-first century elections. This book was neat. It presents a world of micro-democracies and the political operatives moving between them. There’s an overarching tech company that’s a bit like Google that controls it all, but the down on the ground stuff comes alive that you can easily imagine what life in this world is like. Definitely neat and interesting to see someone positing a political landscape beyond our own.
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria: A 1970s “cult” novel from Italy. It’s a quick read, but an unsettling so one. A nameless businessman is obsessed with the “Library” an institution in Turin where people could leave their diaries and journals and access those of others including complete strangers. As more and more of the Library gets flooded by hateful screeds against the defenseless, a plague of insomnia affects the population, until finally a series of brutal murders occurs. This leads to a cover-up and the closing of the Library. Twenty years later, our nameless narrator starts investigating what happened and why. Some see the library as a precursor of the Internet and the book as a commentary on the rise of Fascism in Europe since the 1960s. Whether the book is or isn’t, it’s definitely worth the read.
The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood: What a miserable episode in human history this was. From the opening salvo in Bohemia and the assorted defenestrations to the closing years of the Hapsburgs fighting the Bourbons, it’s a horrible three decades of war, misery, and misguided principals. The best of a generation threw themselves into the war and a later generation came out of it cynical and less dogmatic. In snatches you get glimpses of rulers more afraid of their own armies than their enemies, the plight of towns and cities after years of deprivations, the infuriating machinations of nobles who can meet to negotiate a peace treaty only to spend six months discussing who gets to enter the room first. This isn’t an easy read, but worth it.
The Princess and the Goblins / The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald: Princess Irene lives in the mountains where Curdie is a miner. The pair of them discover the goblins are plotting mischief and set about trying to stop it. Later Curdie leaves the mountains to help Princess Irene when her father’s threatened by devious courtiers. These two books were delightful. Yes, there’s some Christian parable getting laid on pretty thick in The Princess and Curdie, but it’s less annoying than in the Narnia books. If you enjoy Tolkien’s The Hobbit and want more of the same definitely track these down. They’re quite fun.
Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip: I’m late to the McKillip party I know, but this was the perfect follow-up to the Macdonald books. Both exhibit the level of world-building I enjoy that’s more linked poetic associations than actual nuts and bolts details about when the giants ruled and magic systems. Ombria’s an ancient city ruled by the Greve family. When the Prince dies, the evil Domina is set-up as regent over the new young prince much to the dismay of the dead prince’s bastard brother and his former mistress. The pair set about doing their best to undermine Domina Pearl and rescuing the young prince from her influence. This is kind of Gormenghast-lite, which I wish there was a lot more of in the world.