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.
My simple review for Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley is if you’re into the sort of thing these stories do, then you’ll like this collection, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, then you won’t.
Simple, right? Maybe.
Figuring out where you lie on that spectrum requires looking at what these stories might be doing and figuring out if that’s your thing or not. And an easy way of deciding that is asking yourself how do you feel about exquisiteness. Things delicate, beautiful, and potentially possessing more alluring surfaces than their interiors might warrant.
Beautiful Sorrows features twenty-seven stories, ranging from paragraph long micro-fictions to a single novella length. It’s a mix of the fantastic (Fairy Tale variety) and the dark (Neil Gaiman variety). But it’s the sheer exquisiteness of these stories that provides the through-line that holds them all together.
Whether it’s the painful briefness “Broken”, the macabre wryness of “The ABCs of Murder”, or the fairy tale tweeness of “The Boy Who Hangs the Stars”, these stories one and all are exquisite. What they might lack in substance they make up for in emotional content and taut shiny surfaces. So even if my impression of a story was that it was light and ephemeral like a bubble, the emotion that lingered after the bubble burst might be as much the point of the story as the pleasure that came from the words written on the page.
Or when the fae tweeness got so thick my eyes rolled back in my skull to rattle around for a bit, there was always this exquisiteness to keep my attention: the well-executed surface that I could admire. Although some stories did leave a bad taste after I’d finished them, and I suspect the reaction was not one Yardley intended. These however seemed to revel in those sorts of seductions that from my perspective border on the creepily abusive, but when presented in the book there’s no such rejection of that behavior. (“Sweet, Sweet Sonja T.” I’m looking at you.)
Overall these are well-crafted and richly imaginative stories. Whether they will remain in your mind once you put the book down I can’t say, but maybe not a requirement for you to enjoy or appreciate them. At least it wasn’t for me.
Here are the March books I loved.
The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley: A space opera set on a Dyson sphere made up of organic planets, also a quest story and a love story, and gross and grotty as hell. There’s a lot of weirdness and a lot of political machinations and a lot of things that bleed goo the characters eat. But even with its modern SF tweaks, it’s still classic in its leanness, resembling the works of Brian Aldiss or Alfred Bester. So good.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy: I have a weakness for over the top novels set in any one of France’s revolutionary periods and the Scarlet Pimpernel delivers on that and sweetly – despite being absurdly purple in its prose, snobbish, and xenophobic as all hell. What I liked most of all is that the Pimpernel is not the hero, but the macguffin. He’s what everyone’s after. Fun stuff. Also you don’t have to dig too deeply under the surface to find a fairly decent BDSM kink novel.
Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell: This is a nonfiction classic. A pair of long portraits of an eccentric Greenwich Village crank that originally ran in the New Yorker and are ripe with sadness, humor, and insight. Goul’s described as “like finding the right man while walking down the wrong street” and you get that along with all the foibles and hang-ups. In the end this turns into a portrait of wasted potential, but even there Mitchell finds something courageous in Gould. If you’ve never read Mitchell, this is a good place to start.
The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley: A collection of essays by 1950s rhapsodic naturalist Loren Eiseley, some I’d read before, and some I hadn’t. Eiseley stands out both on account of his style and for his awe-tinged view that takes in both the horror and the wonder of the natural world.
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe: A taxi-driving Nigerian immigrant in New York City hatches a scheme to return to his home village and steal the idol worshipped there by his uncle in order to get rich and out of debt. Unfortunately, things get complicated very fast. I could see some folks bouncing off this book, because you do feel for the main character Isaac even when you know he’s doing awful things, and that bystander to tragedy aspect might turn off readers. But I dug it, and this book was neat for walking the line between mimetic fiction and genre fiction, hopping about from immigrant narrative, horror story, and noir with skill.
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan: Weird secret government agents versus monstrosities-from-beyond-the-stars-hoping-to-put-our-brains-in-mason-jars type fiction, the narrative flips between the agents and the cultists they’re investigating. It felt a bit like the opening novella to a longer piece, but there was enough here to feel like a solid concise stand-alone unit. If there are more I’m definitely sticking along for the ride.
A simple month…
The Fury of Black Jaguar by Angel Luis Colon: Blacky Jaguar is an ex-IRA thug recently returned to New York City and this pulpy short novel details the havoc he unleashes when some criminals think it’d be an easy score to steal his car. What follows is a splatter-saturated ultra-violent comic strip in prose form.
The New Weird, assorted Ann and Jeff VanderMeer editors: I’m skipping the essays here, or maybe saving them for a later time, and focusing instead on the fiction. A lot of these authors are among my favorites writing today, but I kind of feel like the New Weird never fully materialized, getting swamped under the twin rising tides of Steampunk and GRRM knockoffs instead. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the weird/new weird should be sort of indefinable and hard to pin down. And it might never be something to pin a whole genre to and more a strain within a genre. Whatever it is, this is a great collection and a fun one. Track it down.
And a last, sad note…
I think the days of the expat bookstore have come and gone. I’ve rambled about these stores before. Fewer teachers, shifting demographics, and ebooks have all done their part, but their days are numbered and I’m sad to see these stores fade away. They were one of the few places I could go and roam and have that thrill of finding some odd/fascinating/sought after book while in South Korea. (It’s not like I can go to the library.) A lot of them also served as a community hub, holding classes or having a movie night. While I doubt What the Book in Seoul will disappear anytime soon, the fact that larger cities like Busan or Daegu can’t support such a store anymore makes me pause and bow my head in memoriam.
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances A. Yates: Fascinating bits, even if I suspect a lot of Yates’s scholarship might now be outdated, especially where concerned with the Rosicrucians. But otherwise the book shines in so many other ways: the popularization and influence of kabbalah and alchemy on Catholic reformers and Shakespeare, the Arthurian cult and how that got applied to Queen Elizabeth (makes me want to read Spencer’s The Fairy Queen), and the weird history of early Protestantism makes this worth tracking down.
The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax: The crew of the hospital ship travels from port to port tending to victims of unknown civil disturbances. No one knows what’s happening, because the radio operator is slightly mad. And then the ship enters the Mediterranean and finds nothing but crucified bodies waiting for them on the piers. A 70s brit-lit novel curiosity, a bit apocalyptic new wave SF and a bit Graham Greene – all shuffled together with pages from a medical textbook. I liked it but it’s not a book I can really recommend, unless any of the above sounds neat. Where I think it ends is in showing two ways humanity can go forward: a mechanistic way and a compassionate way.
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack: Imagine Neil Gaiman’s American Gods except as a lesbian love story that riffs more on fairy tales than mythology. This was the first fiction book in a while I had to set aside for a week because the events in the plot started to get too intense. Pollack’s three for three with everything I’ve read by her being really, really good. I downloaded her latest and hope to read it in the next few months.
Look at that cover though! It’s so much a Sandman cover you can almost pinpoint the month in the 1990s when the book hit. Not to say Pollack’s ripping off Gaiman, I just think both came to the same place independently of each other.
Kill the Boss Good-by by Peter Rabe: Syndicate boss Tom Fell cracked up and went to a sanitarium leaving his lieutenant Pander in charge. Now Fell’s back and wants to get back in charge, but Pander has other ideas. A simple straightforward crime novel, but an enjoyable ride all the same. Rabe was one of the steady producers of Gold Medal novels, the same paperback original line that published Jim Thompson and David Goodis and others. Rabe also was a psychiatrist by trade and this makes the bits when Fell’s having a manic episode read as observed details. There’s a Black Lizard reprint that might be possible to find or the Starkhouse reprint I read.