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.
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: A heist novel full of grotesque characters narrated by a petty crook! So much to like and love here. Not only are people awful, but they have dandruff and leak fluids at inopportune times. My kind of book! Oh yeah, also the basis for some classic movie by some director that annoying film-buff friend of yours won’t shut-up about even though they’ve never seen any of the director’s movies.
Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn: Despite what it says on the Goodreads tin, this isn’t a dystopian novel. Sure it’s set after the collapse of civilization, but in the new society that emerges that’s more agrarian, and to be honest I quite like it. People walk around. The greatest sin is greed, over-consumption, and reproducing without approval. It’s quite utopian but in an acoustic guitar soundtracked 1970s film sort of way. Of course, I have questions about the setting and how did this collapse but that didn’t, but, eh, why pick nits? Part of this is bildungsroman as young Enid searches for her place in the world. The other part is a murder mystery as an older Enid, now an Inspector, must solve a murder in an otherwise peaceful community.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: Everything I read by Tove Jansson floors me. This continues the trend. It has a simple outline plot (young Sophia is spending the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland with her grandmother), insightful vignette chapters, particulars of the human condition that verge on the grotesque, beautiful, and/or the sublime, and Jansson’s pen and ink illustrations. There’s a kind of minimal stripped down prose that’s rare to find, yet somehow still manages to become dense and rich by how it points itself at what it’s describing. Jansson’s work is the epitome of that quality. (Other examples of it, for me, are Russell Hoban and Alan Garner.)
I did some traveling over July and that meant a lot of time spent on planes, trains, buses, and even a boat for a few hours. Also a lot of time sitting in airport lounges and awake at odd hours from jetlag.
Long story short this meant I read a lot.
A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I am a sucker for thrillers that involve little more than a nebbish protagonist traveling around the world so they can listen to various weirdoes monologue at length. Here a mystery writer gets fascinated by a death told to him by a Turkish police captain and out of nothing more than idle curiosity starts to investigate the dead man’s life. This promptly opens open a can of worms as the dead man had ties to international terrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Also fascinating glimpse into the 1930s.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby: This is a collection of self-scathing essays by someone who got their start by being funny online. Cringe-worthy much of the time, but also very funny almost all the time. If you see this and you enjoy the David Sedaris/Roxanne Gay wry confessional style, read this.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett: No one ever talks about how Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag is just grimdark Discworld. For me Pratchett’s a bit like Agatha Christie. Each of them has lots of books that my friends adore and which I’ve read a little by, but have never done a deep dive into. Their books are also more or less ubiquitous and one of the easier things to score second hand, so their a bit easy to take for granted. ANYWAY, I read this and The Colour of Magic and enjoyed them both immensely..
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin: You ever notice how almost all Le Guin’s SF novels have titles that sound a bit like Spaghetti Westerns? I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it’s kind of cool. I also like how she swears in her books and writes characters who are quietly and respectfully down to fuck. This novel is a series of linked novellas taking place on a pair of planets, Werel and Yeowe, where the populations were once sorted into “owners” and “assets”, but then a revolution occurred. The characters have either lived through that revolution or have arrived in its aftermath as a new society emerges. Harrowing stuff at times, and in another writer’s hands I’d be worried, but Le Guin does a great job here. (I also reread The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu from the Earthsea series and can still say I adore them.)
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: I adored this book! I want to call this folk horror, but it’s not quite horrific enough. I’ll call it instead folk horror adjacent contemporary fantasy. It’s the 1960s and Fern Cullen is the teenaged assistant to mammy, the local wise woman in a small English village. Most of their work is herblore and midwifery, but they also provide abortions where required. And it’s this that lands them in trouble. As the world changes around them and Mammy ends up hospitalized, Fern must decide whether she is willing to continue the work Mammy has taught her or adapt and change with the times. Like I said, I adored this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells: When we left Murderbot at the end of All Systems Red, they’d saved their humans but fled from their offer of sanctuary, choosing instead to learn the truth of their own past. And so that’s where we pick up here with Murderbot stowing away onboard ART, an Assholish Research Transport vessel, and returning to the site of the massacre they believe they committed. Of course this puts Murderbot in danger, bot only from humans but from other robots that see Murderbot as something of a role model. If you want fun, SF action entertainment these books deliver.
Yo. Here’s some of what I read and liked over the month of June.
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton: I like the spy novels that tumbled in on the wake of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and which positioned themselves as being distinctly anti-Bond. The nebbish cuckold of John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Len Deighton’s working class paycheck and expense account obsessed Harry Palmer. This is the first in Deighton’s Palmer series (which isn’t even the character’s name but the one Michael Caine gave him in the film version) and it’s an enjoyable spy romp involving nuclear tests, brain washing, and the international trafficking in prominent scientists. Sure, the scheming is topsy-turvy and the plot exhausting after a bit, but the voice carries you to the end. Dry, acerbic, and bemusedly aloof is my jam.
Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield: It’s 1328 and the Chatelaine of Hell has besieged the city of Bruges with her army of chimeras and the widow Margriet de Vos is mad at Hell and not going to take it any more. Also her husband won’t stay dead and still puts claims on the property Margriet sees as her inheritance, an ill-gained hoard of riches and a magic weapon that just happens to be the key to Hell. This forces her to flee Bruges with an assortment of companions, nearly all of whom are wronged women like Margriet herself. For such a small book there’s a lot going on in Armed in Her Fashion and while there were a few moments where I wished Heartfield zigged instead of zagged, I overall enjoyed the ride. Novels based on Brueghel paintings are my jam. Check out Dulle Griet.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley: I am a huge fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame series and this book is a collection of short stories that serve as something of a tangential prequel to that series. Former Bel Dame, turned mercenary Nyx is still a battered and rebuilt veteran of the ongoing brutal war on her world, and here she’s putting together the team she’ll have around her in God’s War. If there’s something of a through line to the book’s stories, it’s Nyx’s struggle to be slightly less awful than the default awfulness of her surroundings. She might not have a completely functioning moral compass, but it works from time to time. Violent bug-fueled science-fantasy is my jam.
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.
Here we go with what I liked and loved in the way of books for the month of March.
Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: This is a fun, picaresque science fiction novel. Star and her sister Nene are orphans living in a wagon caravan that travels between the far flung outposts of a blighted post-apocalyptic landscape. Star has hopes of ditching the caravan as soon as they reach the next big settlement, but events interfere with her plans and soon she’s traveling across the Obsidian Sea to do battle with a recently awakened war machine. The thing I liked most about this was that the world feels populated by all these characters and the plot’s not so much what they want, but how they react to this bigger event outside themselves.
So you have caravan scavengers, sheltered collapsing technological societies, half-dead super soldiers, and decadent merchants all put in motion and trying to make sense of this one war machine returning to life.
Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad: There’s this old RPG called Fading Suns that I never played but devoured every book I could find for it. It’s basically an intergalactic medieval society and while I’m not a 100% sure I would like to play it, as a setting I love it. Anyway, Child of Fortune is sort of like that. I love the setting, but not sure I completely love the execution. In more than a few ways I wish someone else had taken whatever notes Spinrad had for the setting and written their own novel for this.
On the other hand, I did really, really like this. It’s basically people in rockets traveling the universe looking for drugs, and that’s a sub-genre I can get behind.
So, in the far future people have figured out faster than light travel (via orgasms natch, because this book’s very much in the Hugh Hefner school of SF) and it’s become a rite of passage for youngish people to enjoy a wanderjahr after their main education is over but before they commit to whatever their adult work may be. Moussa Shasta LastnameIcan’tremember is a young woman who sets out on her own wanderjahr and in true classic bildungsroman sense grows from being a callous youth into a full-fledged adult. Along the way she joins a youth gang, the Gypsy Jokers, seduces their leader, Pater Pan, and barely escapes a planet made out of drugs, the Bloomenveldt, before she discovers the true purpose of her life as a ruespeiler.
Part of this book had me rolling my eyes, and part of me adored it. I suspect if I had read this book between the ages of 16 and 23, I would have loved it.
Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart: I described this as a smarter Dragonlance novel and the more time that passes from when I read it, the more I am impressed by how smart it is. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s still very much Dragonlance, with a Breakfast Club‘s worth of unlikely heroes brought together to complete quests for a wizard, BUT within that framework Dolkart has fun and subverts with the conventions by bringing some ugly reality to the tropes. The character injured early in the quest is permanently disabled by it, the character trained as a warrior is unnerved by killing, and the character “chosen” by a god is completely twisted by the event that he second guesses everything he encounters as being a further sign from his god. Not to mention the character raised by wolves who has a decidedly cavalier attitude towards sex and menstruation that fuels at least a few chapters worth of subplot. And none of which takes into account the dragons, the elves, the wizards, and the quests. Overall, if you have fond memories of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Weiss and Hickman, but wish they were a little bit more socially engaged and relevant, you might be surprised by how much you like Silent Hall.
Wagner the Werewolf by George W.M. Reynolds: I can’t even. Literally, I can’t. This book… this book has plot enough for maybe four or five other books.
To say this book is a mess is to insult both it and messes. To say it’s some of the worst prose I ever read with some of the most breakneck thrilling plot I’ve ever encountered is another matter. Both those things are true. This book was both a delight and a chore to read. All of which I feel is spot on for something that’s an actual, honest to god, Penny Dreadful. There are evil nuns, bandits, pirates, werewolves, demons, assassins, nobles, the Inquisition, and progressive Victorian views of the Other that are still racist, but slightly more palatable than their contemporaries. While I do think The Monk is a better book, Wagner is dizzyingly enjoyable as long as you don’t get hung up on the actual words and just keep turning pages.
Here are my three favorite reads from last month.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley: Easiest way to describe this is it’s like Watership Down except only the really trippy bits and about crows instead of rabbits. But it’s more than that. It’s a series of linked stories centered on the interaction of Dar Oakley an immortal crow and various humans – a bronze age shaman, an Irish monk, a Native American storyteller, a spiritualist medium in the 1870s, and a near future professor. But it’s more than that too. It’s about language, memories, names, love, and death.
The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip: I think the cover oversells the magic in this book and doesn’t depict the rather mundane majority of it, but so it goes. Phelan’s a teacher at the local bard college working on a dissertation about the legendary bard Nairn when strange things start to happen to him and his friends, all of which are tied to the riddle contest Nairn lost in the remote past. McKillip’s fantasy is more Ren Faire than Renaissance, but she uses that to her advantage. The fun for me was that she’s writing a story centered more or less in one location (a literal college town), and in a world that’s menacing but not cruel. (Also, am I wrong to see nods to William Kennedy’s Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game in this? Both novels are about guys named Phelan who have dads who are drunks.)
Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans: 1890s French novel about the ailing, misanthropic aristocrat Des Esseintes who decides to move to an isolated villa where he can indulge his taste for luxury without any interruptions. What follows then are chapter long musings on art, literature, nightmares, and diet as Des Esseintes roams about his home decorating and organizing his library. It’s a bit of an absurd book, and I don’t know how much of that’s intentional. Des Esseintes is a pretty awful human being, but sometimes comically so. I went back and forth between reading this as a black comedy and a horror novel. I also wanted to scream “Get a f—ing job!” at Des Esseintes. It almost made me happy that the Great War came along.