Favorite Reads 2018
The first two are from December and can stand in for my favorite reads from December 2018 post.
Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman: Lamat is a mountain guide and Disaine is a religious woman come to climb the sacred mountain. A really marvelous piece of fantasy writing that does away with a lot of the grand epic storylines of modern fantasy to focus down on the personal and philosophical.
Semiosis by Sue Burke: Classic science fiction of the First Contact sort where the human colonists must figure out how to communicate and survive with an intelligent and arrogant plant. Also, weirdly, has a heavy undercurrent looking at parenting and partnering styles.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Everything changes for a quaint New Hampshire town when a mysterious auctioneer arrives. Soon people are giving away all their prized possessions so as to profit from the auctions, but the trouble keeps ratcheting up because the Auctioneer always wants to sell more. The scariest book I read this year.
Black God’s Drum by P. Djeli Clark: Fun alternate history fantasy adventure novel. A young pick-pocket in the Free City of New Orleans overhears a group of Confederate dead-enders plot to abduct the Haitian scientist responsible for the construction of Haiti’s deterrent super weapon. From such beginnings pulp adventures are born!
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: I read a few Eric Ambler novels this year, and I loved all of them. This one might have been my favorite because the protagonist, a sleazy taxi driver caught up in a criminal plot, is the most interesting. I also recommend A Coffin for Dmitrios.
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: A story about an elderly midwife and her apprentice living on the margins of a rural English village in the 1960s. It’s a deep dive into a small setting that’s almost folk horror but not quite. Highly recommend it.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: The Hong Kong gangster kung fu fantasy novel I didn’t know I needed until I read it. This was a ton of fun. And with the sequel set to come out in 2019, I’m eager to learn what happens next.
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: In the aftermath of a terrible intergalactic war, the galaxy’s intelligent species have decided they will instead settle their disputes through a musical contest much like the Eurovision contest of our world. Now it’s Earth’s turn to perform, and if we lose our planet is doomed.
Silent Hall by NS Dolkart: A fantasy novel about a world with very active gods and how awful that is for all. This reminded me a lot of the sort of fantasy I devoured in the 1980s, David Eddings, Weiss and Hickman, except Dolkart’s able to update that style with self-awareness to make it appeal to a more contemporary audience. I need to read the sequels.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymir by John Crowley: A story about a crow that’s sort of immortal as he lives on the margins of our world and watches human civilization develop. Bleak and beautiful.
The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington: A non-fiction history book that’s the biography of a single man, Franz Schmidt the 16th century executioner in the German city of Nuremberg. The portrait of Schmidt that emerges is that of a man of honor and integrity in a time and place that hardly warranted either.
An Unhappiness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A science fiction novel set onboard a generation ship and as is usual with that subgenre, everything that can go wrong does go wrong so the society that emerges is a horrible one. But despite all that, the book’s not one you can look away from.
Favorite Reads November 2018
Chuggachug-chugging along towards 2019… who knows what awaits?
Here’s my favorite reads from November.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: This was scary as all hell. Unrelenting and harrowing where the entropy dial is twisted all the way to 11 and the bad stuff keeps happening and the stakes keep ratcheting upward. To be honest I had to put the book down for a bit because I found it too unrelenting. The story’s about a New Hampshire town that finds itself falling under the influence of an out of town auctioneer with big plans for the community, but first he just needs to make some changes to the place. This was Samson’s only novel before she died from cancer. I’m happy to see it back in print.
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed: A weird secondary world novel set in the aftermath of what feels to be the equivalent of the Great War. Lt. Benjamin Braddock managed to survive the war that saw so many of his companions dead, but the ghost of his commanding officer and friend still haunts him. Even more so when Braddock starts taking over that friend’s life. What I liked about this book was that Braddock’s a nobody and his predicament is completely personal. As his friend’s family begins to groom him to replace their dead son, Braddock starts seeing the ways honor can be a curse as much as a gift. That in the end Mohamed zags when I wishes she would have zigged doesn’t take away from how fun the trip was.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark: This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in an alternate 1880s where the Civil War ended in a stalemate, New Orleans is a free state, airships ply the skies, and several Caribbean nations gained their independence by harnessing the powers of the former slave population’s African gods and goddesses. If it had only half those things I might have skipped it, but since it had all those things (and more!) I was hooked.
When a young pickpocket overhears a group of confederate terrorists conspiring to kidnap the Haitian scientist who harnessed the storm god’s power, she sets out on a mission to save the scientist.
Provenance by Ann Leckie: I eventually warmed to Leckie’s Imperial Radch series despite the amount of hype that had accumulated around them, which isn’t the books’ fault at all. In particular the second one, Ancillary Sword, was a fascinating example of military SF, except focusing on all the boring parts of the military like doing garrison duty in a peaceful allied nation. Provenance calls to mind that book. It’s a stand alone novel about history and identity and being from somewhere It’s also filled with quirky little details like how every human culture has their preferred drink and complains when they go to another culture and have to accept other drinks. Like think how much people argue about pizza today, now imagine if every planet in the solar system had multiple styles of pizza. There’s also a good bit in this about parenting, bad parenting in particular.
When Ingray frees a convict from prison to pretty much impress her adoptive mother, it sets in motion events that will see her having to stop the invasion of her planet.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht: A spy novel! A lesbian coming of age novel! A story of imperialism and disillusionment. How exciting! Vera Kelly’s a CIA operative in mid-1960s Argentina monitoring student activists and suspected communists. Vera’s also a teenage girl in 1950s Maryland coming to terms with her crush on a classmate and her failed suicide attempt.
When a coup occurs and one of her contacts betrays her, Vera finds herself trapped without any way of coming home, but also unsure where her home is. This was smart like a good Graham Greene novel mashed up with a Nancy Drew novel.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard: A science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by vietnamese cultures legends. Yên’s a failed scholar bartered away to the dragon Vu Côn by her elders in order to pay for the dragon’s intervention in healing a higher class child’s illness. Yên expects nothing but death at Vu Côn’s hands, but instead the dragon has a job for her, to tutor her two unruly children.
A lot’s made about sense of wonder in speculative fiction and how there’s a lot less of it now than before, to which I have to ask what the hell people are reading, because I find no end of examples of it. And this book would be a go-to example of it. De Bodard’s descriptions are vivid, not simply lush, but dazzling. Wonder (and terror and yearning) abound in this book.
… and that’s all until next time.
Favorite Reads October 2018
Reading is as much about the books as the journey inside your own head or out of it as the case may be.
Often times when I recall a book to mind I’m not just remembering the book and its events, but my state of mind at the time and the places where I read it. Needless to say this makes parting with books a bit difficult, which certainly plays hell with the notion of ever moving again.
Other Cities by Benjamin Rosenbaum: The obvious comparison is to Calvino’s Invisible Cities since Rosenbaum’s operating in the same mode: writing short vignettes describing fantastic cityscapes and societies. There’s the city of detectives, the city of forgotten pleasures, the city of the two sisters, the city that is actually a monster. It’s a mode I quite like, so no surprise that I enjoyed this.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse: Urban Fantasy Monster Hunter novel set in a post-apocalyptic American South West heavily steeped in the mythology and spiritual traditions of the local Tribal Nations. It’s a bit more gun-porny than I like, but the milieu more than makes up for that and those bits of standard Urban Fantasy tropes that annoy me. (Traumatized heroine? Check! Pit fighting? Check!) I’m curious to see where this series goes and how much of the wider world beyond the South West will we be shown.
Ports of Call and Lurulu by Jack Vance: Two of the last books Jack Vance had published. I have lots of feelings about Jack Vance, most of them conflicting. On one hand I think he was a phenomenally imaginative writer, on the other hand I feel like for all his ability creating weird and wondrous societies they often don’t really rise above that joke New Yorker cartoon caption of “Would you look at these assholes?” Not to mention that he’s hard pressed to write a woman character that isn’t an object of derision. Yet, I enjoyed these books. They’re both picaresque space opera following Myron Tany as he sets forth into the galaxy, first on board his Aunt Hester’s yacht, second on board the tramp space freighter the Glicca. Yet… well… okay, imagine Harry Mudd, that sleazy merchant/conman character from Star Trek, now imagine if that guy ran the Federation. That would very much be a Jack Vance universe.
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane: Another entry in the Brit Takes A Walk subgenre I enjoy. This one is a lively and engaging example of the type. In fact if your social media footprint at all resembles mine you probably already either follow Robert MacFarlane or have him retweeted into your thread multiple times a week. That’s not a bad thing, and should likely give you some idea what to expect here: an interest in the way landscape intersects with language, memory, and the way we think about our world. And here the way MacFarlane takes us into the landscape is by recounting a series of long excursion walks he took, mostly in the United Kingdom, but also in Nepal and the Middle East. I definitely recommend this if you enjoy the books about walking subgenre.
Favorite Reads September 2018
The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre: I feel like le Carre’s spy novels owe more stylistically to Dickens and 19th century literature than they do to Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. The cast of characters is huge, the plot’s oblique, and the prose ripe with caricature and grotesques. I love the world he crafts, but can understand anyone’s complaint that there’s not enough action. If anything le Carre deflates the action oriented spy story, as the more James Bond a character is, the more likely they are to get killed – and not only by enemy agents, but by their own country’s spy services in some inter-departmental spat.
Anyway, all that’s in here as George Smiley seeks to rebuild the British spy service post-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and sends agent Jerry Westerby to Hong Kong to unearth a Russian “gold seam” of covert money being paid to a Chinese tycoon. As Westerby follows the trail, he travels throughout South East Asia (circa the early-1970s and the final days of the Vietnam War) on a grisly odyssey.
It’s a slog at times, but I absolutely recommend it.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan: This is Book #1 in the Memoirs of Lady Trent and documents her youth where she developed a passion for dragons and naturalism, her debut in society and marriage to a husband who shares her interests, their expedition to study dragons in a remote region of their world, and the adventures that unfold there. It’s a fun blend of Jane Austen, 19th century travelogue and naturalist writings, and simple adventure story. I’ll likely continue with the series. It’s definitely fun and smart, and I’m curious how Lady Trent develops.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: My first foray into the Vorkosigan Saga and I liked it. Miles Vorkosigan is the disabled son of a military hero in a highly militaristic society (I imagined them to be like a planet full of Prussian Hussars). He fails to achieve his goal of making it in the military and so sets out to visit his mother’s homeworld, which is like a planet of efficient hippies (ever meet anyone who had a Montessori education? Beta Colony is a planet of those people). Soon Miles finds himself and his starship crew embroiled in a small interplanetary war and mayhem ensues from here.
This is fun swashbuckling space opera and yes I could side-eye bits of it, but I won’t. I also chose my favorite cover for this. It looks like a Soviet-era poster.
Sweet Silver Blues by Glenn Cook: I never really took to Cook’s Black Company books, but this I liked. It leans a lot on detective tropes, but I think the covers and ad copy sell that idea more than the book warrants. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Jhereg and the character Vlad Taltos. Very urban, secondary world fantasy, heavily informed by RPGs with the adventure being undertaken for mostly financial reasons. Some of the fun comes from upending expectations, the rest from Cook’s ability to have a plot sprout complications. The bad bit is that it is written in what I can only describe as the uninterrogated Testicular style where the characters spend a good bit of time exasperated by the existence of women. You have to wonder if Cook assumed that no one but guys would read his books.
Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivela, and Jason Wordie: I’m a fan of the paranormal detective genre and Abbott takes the usual tropes but puts them in 1970s Detroit. Our detective is Abbott and she’s a reporter for a local paper at odds with the powers that be, and she’s also someone with a history of having encountered dark powers. While the villainy might be familiar the milieu isn’t and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre.
Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.
“In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes” by Giorgio van Straten
A manuscript hidden away for decades in a bottom drawer discovered after its author’s death.
Another manuscript lost when the suitcase it was stored in gets stolen from a train compartment.
Or another manuscript destroyed to protect the author’s associates and families from scandal. Not to mention the other, other manuscripts destroyed by their authors for not being good enough. Or even no manuscripts at all, just the rumors of them. Books that may or may not have ever existed but which still manage to haunt readers because they might have.
Giorgio van Straten hunts for these books here, exploring eight of their stories and the mysteries that surround them. From certainty to speculation, from the lost manuscript Van Straten read but later learned was destroyed, to those he wonders if they’ve ever existed at all. There’s the Hemingway manuscript lost when his then wife had her suitcase stolen. There’s Lord Byron’s memoirs burnt by his associates to spare them from scandal. There’s Gogol burning the later parts of Dead Souls because they weren’t “good enough”, and then there’s Walter Benjamin, Sylvia Plath, Bruno Schulz, Malcolm Lowery, all of them with rumored “lost” manuscripts out there.
We start in Italy and the manuscript that in many ways typifies them all. This one written by Van Straten’s mentor, the Italian writer Romano Bilenchi. Here he knows the book existed. He saw it and read a copy, only to learn years later that Bilenchi’s wife destroyed the manuscript to protect her husband’s legacy. The second has Lord Byron’s associates meeting with his agent to burn his memoirs and keep them from publication to silence any possible accounts of homosexuality (less Byron’s and more their own). Then there’s the famous Hemingway’s lost suitcase and Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase too, although maybe his was empty. We read of Gogol’s and Lowry’s self-destructive perfectionism and how this as much as any thing destroyed their work. Last, are the tantalizing ones: Bruno Schulz’s novel The Messiah lost in the chaos of World War Two (even now hints of its possible discovery can generate plots that resemble spy thrillers), and the potential books by Sylvia Plath kept out of the public sphere by Ted Hughes’s control of her estate.
Overall this is a very enjoyable set of essays about an author’s obsession with an obsession-worthy subject, and the bug that’s as much fool’s quest as the object of wishful thinking on what might have been. If you can track down a copy, and are the kind who enjoys a good fool’s quest, this is definitely worth a read.
Favorite Reads April 2018
Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob: Schwob’s one of those decadent fin-de-siecle French fellows I’m crazy about. Here he plays with biography by writing a short set of in-depth profiles of various ne’er-do-wells, nobodies, and the corrupt. While the profiles aren’t absolutely accurate, they dig deep into the mundane and dredge up moods and ideas that resemble truths.
A fun little book, it’s easy to read this and see how its influence on later writers such as Borges.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: Zombies rise in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg and pretty much put a stop to the American Civil War. Now years after the War’s end some semblance of society has returned. In the wake of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act certain children get combat training so they might serve the wealthy as attendants, protecting them from zombies and other threats. Jane McKeene is one such woman studying at Miss Preston’s Combat School in the walled enclave of Baltimore where she ends up stumbling upon a conspiracy that soon puts her life and those of her friends in jeopardy.
While the larger setting here feels vague and put in with broad strokes, it’s the day to day stuff and the picture of Jane and her friendships that I found most endearing.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente: This is one of those books that has a buy in. So if the notion of a washed-up glamrock act having to compete in an intergalactic “Eurovision” style contest to prove humanity’s worth a damn sounds like something you might want to read, then yeah, this is that book. This is that book in spades. Part Ziggy Stardust, part Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s fun and funny, and even when it’s not you only have to read a few more pages for the funny fun to return. And if David Bowie Douglas Adams, doesn’t sound fun at least the book didn’t try to fool you by pretending to be anything other than what it was.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks: Hooks as always is insightful and unflinching, but there’s a lot of love and kindness in her words as she attempts to provide a frame work for men whom she feels have been either maligned or left behind in a lot of feminist theory. What she creates then is a call to action for men that instead of prioritizing patriarchal dominance and hierarchies challenges us to the heroic task of creating lives of integrity as nurturing presences within our communities.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: Wow. This book takes Game of Thrones and Hong Kong action movies, mixes them together, and makes a Kung Fu gangster epic around dueling families of magical jade-fueled warriors as they vie for dominance in the imaginary island nation of Kekon. This is secondary world fantasy, but set in a time period that feel like the 1970s/80s in a place somewhere like South East Asia. Whether the city of Janloon is Hong Kong, Saigon, or Singapore doesn’t really matter so much as the world Lee creates there is unique, vivid, and masterfully executed, so that by the end when she pulls back some to depict the brewing Cold War elsewhere in the world we have a clear understanding of what’s at stake.
If you ever wished John Woo put more magic in his gangster films, then this is the book for you. For serious.
Favorite Reads January 2018, and more
Before I get into a rundown of the books I wanted to acknowledge the passing of one of the greats, Ursula K. Le Guin. I fell in love with The Wizard of Earthsea as a kid, and later when I was in my 20s and doing a lot of thrift and second hand book store prowling I knew anything I found by her would be a treat. At some point I had the chance to see her speak and it was great. She was fierce and funny and kind in all the best ways.
Now, about the books… you see I went back to the USA in December and that meant a lot of time on planes and in airports and jet-lag making me to keep all sorts of odd hours. In other words I read a ton over the past two months, but as not to bore you all (my two readers) I’ll keep my reviews to a sentence or two.
So sit back and relax as I blather.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter: A Gothic novel set in 1960s London about a teenage girl sent to live with her creepy toy-maker uncle after the death of her parents. The first of the books I read that featured incest as not an awful thing.
The Faithful Executioner, Life and Death, Honor and Shame, in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington: A fascinating read about the life and times of one Franz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th century Nuremberg, using Schmidt’s own journal as its source. A must read for history and true crime fans.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A woman seeks to solve the mystery of her mother’s death on board an intergalactic generation ship that’s managed to replicate an approximation of the slave society of the American South. A rough read at times, but worth it.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: All the movers and shakers in the French Revolution knew each other from middle school and carried the hurts and rivalries from those days into the revolution, except for Danton. The sadness of this book is not simply the tragedy of the Terror but that it’s not hard to see your high school self in the various characters.
Head Lopper, The Island or A Plague of Beasts by Andrew Maclean with Mike Spicer: Head Lopper’s a barbarian swordsman who carries around a cackling hag’s head for reasons. Fun and weird.
The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel: Set in London during the 1780s, this is a tragedy about the conflict between the folk wisdom of the Irish giant O’Brien and the cold scientific materialism of Scottish Surgeon John Hunter. It’s a short, savage book, and a quicker read than A Place of Greater Safety.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz: Pirates and robots in the later half of the 22nd century. This was a great book to be stuck with on a trans-Pacific flight.
Collected Folk Tales by Alan Garner: Garner’s goal with this was to write a collection of folk tales that read less like anthropology and more as oral accounts you would hear spoken by family or friends. In that he largely succeeds.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng: The truth about Fairy land is that there is no truth, and the search for answers is less about the answers and more about the search. A great read, despite the inevitable incest.
Solution Three by Naomi Mitchison: A utopian novel set in a future where all the best gay pot smoking college professors have taken over and a poor heterosexual couple hopes to find a bigger apartment. Fortunately everyone learns the real enemy is greed.