And so here we are, another year of book tracking. My goal for this year is to read at least one book a month written in the past ten years, something which I failed to do this January. Here are some things I read that you might like to track down.
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming: I am not a big James Bond fan and find the character’s continued existence to be puzzling. I can never get around how they keep changing actors without there being an explanation. At least with Doctor Who there’s an explanation behind their regenerations! Still, I find myself fascinated with the Bond novels and the power fantasy they portray. We think about the movies with all their gear and supermodels, but the books are much more about indulging in the ear marks of the jet-setting lifestyle and are full to the brim with lavish descriptions of food and local customs where Bond is never simply a tourist spectator. Bond’s also really good at card games your grandmother plays. Like a whole subplot might revolve around a high stakes Rummikub tournament. Anyways, Goldfinger has Bond attempting to foil the plot of the villainous Auric Goldfinger who plans on robbing Fort Knox. Pussy Galore shows up as does Odd Job and a lot of anti-semitism, misogyny, and anti-Asian racism.
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis: Nothing shatters your national heroic narrative about an event like books written during that event. Lewis served in British Field Intelligence during World War II and his book on the occupation of Naples gives a sobering account of life during wartime. Did you know the US mafia managed to get in good with Allied Command and profit from a flourishing black market? Did you know US soldiers had orders to kill all German soldiers taken prisoner in the war (even being told to beat their heads in with their rifle butts if necessary to save ammunition)? Did you know food was scarce in Italy after the war, but candy was plentiful? The details are often heart-breaking and anger-making, but they’re just as often blackly comic and absurd. Whether displaying one face or the other, Naples ’44 will shatter any sort of rosy view you might have held about the US’s actions during World War II.
Hospital Station by James White: This is the first book in White’s Sector General series about an intergalactic hospital and the problems doctors face treating alien patients there. It’s a collection of short stories that tend to follow a certain pattern: mysterious alien shows up at the hospital, alien wreaks havoc or does very strange things, doctors try to figure out why the alien is doing what it does, finally the heroic Doctor Conway follows his instincts and discovers the right way to treat the alien. There’s clever stuff here: empathic spider aliens (who work in the children’s ward naturally…), a shapeshifter having a nervous breakdown and wanting to return to the primordial ooze womb of its species, and a surgeon made from pure energy that wants to develop a brontosaurus’s telepathic abilities. White was a self-professed pacifist and these stories make a nice counter to the militarism in a lot of the SF of his peers. That said, and for all the wonderful imagination White exhibits in depicting weird alien physiology, he can’t imagine a human doctor with a non-Anglo name or a woman he doesn’t then go on to describe as “curvy”.
Welcome back to the Back Water Book Club or the BWBC as I’m going to call it from now on. This week we hit the stories!
To start off is Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over”.
It’s a ghost story. Sort of.
It’s more a metaphor story, but for what I don’t know. This story has ambiguity dripping all over it. A middle-aged brother and sister living in an old house find themselves at odds with a nameless unseen “they” that shows up one they and starts taking over their home. At first it’s only part of the house, and the brother and sister flee behind a sturdy oak door into another part of the house, but before long the unseen “they” take over even this part, and the brother and sister are forced to flee the house entirely.
But who are “they”? It’s uncertain. They simply appear and instead of confronting them, the brother and sister let them take over the house. Is it scary? Are the brother and sister actually ghosts haunting their ancestral home? Is the haunting actually an indictment of the brother and sister, as the intruders appear to have much more life than either of the pair? The story offers no answers. My reading’s that the “they” are metaphorical, a symbol of the unseen majority that will push the marginalized into the streets unless confronted.
Scary? No. Strange? Kinda. Ambiguous? Oh yeah.
Following that, we have a more traditional story in Robert S. Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea”. This one features the recognizable Victorian trope of two old educated bachelors of opposing personalties who manage to be great friends despite their differences. Instead of Holmes and Watson, it’s a Father Murchison and a Professor Guildea. Murchison’s the sentimental idealist, while Guildea’s the man of pure intellect and reason. The two meet and get into debates about the human condition. Then Professor Guildea finds himself haunted.
And it’s here where we encounter the “ick factor” I talked about back in the introduction, because whatever the entity is that attaches itself to the Professor, its main characteristic is that it’s mentally disabled and the chill of the story comes from that fact. The entity that haunts the Professor is described as an imbecile (and not so flattering as such), and this makes both men shudder. While the entity seems to mean no harm, the very affection that it shows the Professor is deemed unnatural and a thing to be feared. And so the men set out to rid themselves of the thing with mixed results.
So, is this scary? Sort of. From the entity’s initial appearance as a ragged form on a park bench to the Professor’s slow discovery of its nature, and the dawning realization of what it wants, the story manages to get under one’s skin and linger. But that it relies on ableism to do so can’t be denied.
Next week… a possible hoax and some more ick factor from Tennessee Williams!
Not writing an October post nagged me all November, but I was traveling and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
Here are the books I liked from the last two months.
The Compleat Guth Bandar by Matthew Hughes: Set during Earth’s penultimate age, Guth Bandar is a noonaut who voyages into humanity’s collective unconscious while traveling around the galaxy. Boyish and wry like Jack Vance, which it nods at heavily, but it lacks Vance’s cynicism and cruelty. Also spelling “complete” as “compleat”? That’s hot!
Headlopper Vol. 2 by Andrew Maclean and Jordie Bellaire: I didn’t like this one as much as Volume 1, but I liked it more than Volume 3. Heads get lopped as do limbs.
The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee: The book cover that needs to be airbrushed on the side of a van. I wrote about this one on the Patreon. For 1USD you can read about it and a bunch of other old weird books. This one is a cringy mess of 1970s fantasy tropes, but if you’re susceptible to that Conan itch like I am, and enjoy Tanith Lee, this is a must-read.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: Another one from the Patreon. And for 1USD yadda yadda… This one lays out the template for the Gothic novel but isn’t nearly as bat-shit loopy as The Monk. Although, that’s not to say it isn’t bat-shit loopy in its own special way.
The Deadly Sky by Doris Piserchia: This one is set on a far future Earth where a young scientist becomes obsessed with the sudden appearance of a hole in the sky. This was Piserchia’s last published book and it falls a bit flat at the end, leading me to think it was rushed to publication. Piserchia can be a ton of fun, but if you’ve never read her I don’t recommend you start here. Instead check out Star Rider.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown: A very 1960s SF novel about a hip, swinging space detective named Sibyl Sue Blue. She’s a mom, a cigar smoker, and always down for a good time. Not only do we have warp drives by the year 1990, but women regularly rouge their knees to keep up with fashion.
The Delicate Dependency: A Story of the Vampire Life by Michael Talbot: Of all the books here this is the one to read NOW! Even if you don’t like vampire books, this one is a great ride full of twists and turns. When Dr. Gladstone’s carriage strikes down a hauntingly beautiful young man on the streets of London, the event sparks an obsession in the doctor that brings him and his entire family into contact with a shadow world beneath the everyday one he believes he knows.
Here are my favorite reads for September.
Not included are my non-favorite reads like the “hard” science fiction novel that kept using “North American” as a stand-in for White. In my defense, or to further incriminate myself, its cover looked like it could have been an old Traveler module.
On to the books I greatly enjoyed!
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall. This cover does not do nearly enough to sell the Planescape meets El Topo vibe of this book. A stranger with a shady past comes to seek the guardian-god at the border between worlds. If you like New Weird fantasy where people hop between 999 worlds each overseen by a unique ruthless monarch from a court full of strange creatures, then yeah you should be buying this book now. It’s fun.
Red As Blood by Tanith Lee. A short story collection of reworked fairy tales that sits comfortably somewhere between Angela Carter and Fritz Leiber. Favorites were the Red Riding Hood, Frog Prince, and Rapunzel retellings. Part of the fun was seeing how far and in what direction Lee would twist the material. The rampant Satanism might be a bit much for some as might the sexualization of teens, but there you go. That’s Tanith Lee for you or the 1970s or something.
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Beston de Trevino. Juan de Pareja was a Spanish painter who served first as Velzaquez’s slave then later assistant after Velazquez granted him his freedom. His portrait by Velazquez hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This book is a historical YA novel from the 1960s and while it hasn’t aged that well, it’s still a fascinating read. The friendship between the two men comes across clearly as does their slow journey towards trusting each other. My main complaint is that de Pareja comes off as a bit too innocent and naive. Still, it’s an enjoyable read.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. A novel about the friendship between a gifted engineer named Pepper and a “young” AI trying to adapt to living in a synthetic body, both of whom are trying to process their own maladaptive tendencies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Chambers is my go to comfort read. It’s mac & cheese, but it’s near perfect mac & cheese. It’s also another book in that cozy aesthetic like the one I read back in June, Kate Diamond’s The Cloudship Trader. There’s drama and tension, but there’s a kindness too, since you have two damaged people trying their best to understand each other. Give it or one of her other books a try!
Here I am.
I have insomnia.
Let’s talk about books.
Embers by Sandor Marai: A Hungarian novel from 1942 that’s a rediscovered masterpiece yadda yadda yadda. This book’s about two old guys who haven’t seen each other for forty years. One’s a general, and the other was once his best friend. One day they and the general’s wife went out hunting. THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED. Now the two guys meet again and sit down for a long dinner. The book’s pretty much the general making a long speech that boils down to “Did you fuck my wife?” While that makes it all sound trite, I got hooked by Marai’s exquisitely lean prose that evoked a lost world.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl: 1970s sci-fi that hits the right spot of being smart and entertaining, without having aged too badly. Humanity’s finds a trove of alien spacecrafts on an asteroid near Venus. We have no idea how to operate or control them, but we know they work, and so we send people out blindly in them to travel around the galaxy in the hopes that they make discoveries. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, a lot of times they die trying. The story’s told via flashbacks as Robinette Broadhead goes into therapy after making an astounding discovery.
The Foot-Path Way: An Anthology For Walkers, edited by Hilaire Belloc: This one was a Patreon read. I suggest you avoid it.
Lucian’s True Story: This was another Patreon read. It’s better than the Belloc book. I absolutely recommend it. It’s a hoot!
How to Make Friends With Demons by Graham Joyce: I read this ten years ago and it stuck with me. Rereading it now I still found myself caught up in it. Joyce has written some of my favorite books. He’s also written a book that I hate. Both that book I hate and this one revolve around a guy who has fucked his way into a nervous breakdown, but I feel like here Joyce makes the most of that concept by really putting the screws to his character. On a technical level, I feel like it’s a masterclass of not so much plotting as laying on so many complications that they start interacting with each other and moving the story on their own. Also, it’s about an art forger, and what’s not to love about that?
I tried to read The Silmarillion this month and stalled out at page 150ish. There are so many names. Also it’s not that exciting. This is probably my fifth attempt to read this thing. I will say Tolkien sure liked himself some stark black/white binaries. All the books listed here were read alongside or to take a break from The Silmarillion.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs: I live across the street from an English language library (ELL) now. Most of what it has are YA and MG books, although there’s a surprising amount of other stuff. Bellairs was one of the authors listed at the back of the Basic D&D rule book, and so has always stuck in my head as someone to read. I quite liked this. A young orphan goes to live with his Uncle. The Uncle and his friend turn out to be magicians, and it’s on the three of them to stop a long dead wizard’s plan to destroy the world. If you’ve ever read a MG book, you’ll know what to expect, but this has Edward Gorey illustrations and it’s still early enough in the genre that the whole thing is rough around the edges. Could you get away with Uncle Jonathan smoking a hookah and funny smelling hand-rolled cigarettes now?
Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray: Another one from the ELL. This one is a fun, coming of age novel that’s a bit high school drama with some light espionage. (Is Harriett the Spy the ur-text of girl’s literature? And if so, is Harriett based on Nellie Bly?) Leia comes across as likable, savvy, and confident, and this is a must-read for any Admiral Holdo fans. The final moments hurt a bit, because you can’t hate a character who puts the fate of their planet ahead of the galaxy’s.
Gates of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh: I was a big Michael Moorcock fan growing up (Corum more than Elric) and loved the idea of the Eternal Champion. This novel about the woman Morgaine is very much in that mode, but with Cherryh’s more down in the dirt style. It helps that the POV character is not Morgaine, but the honorable outlaw Vanye who’s pledged himself to her. If you’re hungry for some good sword & sorcery (that has some SF underpinnings) you should give this a shot.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part memoir, part essay, part indictment of the USA, this is one of those books you need to confront face on.
Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene: This was my antidote to Tolkien’s stark binaries: a nice blackly comic novel about moderately awful to awfully awful people. Retired bank manager Henry meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time in decades at his mother’s funeral. Quite quickly he gets swept up in his septuagenarian aunt’s world and is soon accompanying her on trips that may not be quite 100% legal. Soon Henry finds himself caught in a web that involves CIA agents, the police, a drug smuggler, his aunt, hippies, and possibly a Nazi war criminal. Parts made me laugh out loud, and there’s nothing that isn’t lampooned in this book.
Working IX to V by Vicki Leon: This book describes over 100 jobs from the eras of Greece and Rome: funeral clown, orgy planner, arm-pit hair plucker… it’s a long list. While Leon’s tendency to make pop culture references (that have already dated themselves) gets annoying at times, overall the book’s informative and entertaining. And the fact that it’s all short entries makes it perfect to read on your phone when you have five minutes to kill.
I am a fan of the English Person Goes For A Walk genre, which seems to have been a thing in the 19th century, but which still crops up today, although, thankfully, the scope’s broadened out quite a bit. And while the English Cream of it all can be more than a bit much at times, plenty of writers I like took a hand at writing essays about walking. So my plan for July and August over at my Patreon is to do something a bit different and take a long leisurely stroll through an early 20th century book called The Footpath Way: An Anthology For Walkers. It contains essays, poems, and bits by such notables as Chuck Dickens, Wally Whitman, Tommy De Q, Bob Stevenson, Bill Hazlitt, and everyone’s favorite cinnamon doughnut eater, High Definition Thoreau. The plan’s to read thirty – forty pages a week over the next eight weeks and make a weekly post.
Feel free to come along!