A strange thing has occurred: I am having a hard time reading. I keep starting books then setting them aside, and I’m not sure what the cause of the trouble is. Here’s two months worth of what I’ve finished.
Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: I’m a big fan of boring and absurd spy novels and this book delivers both. Ashenden’s a thinly veiled Maugham stand-in and these stories all take place between the start of World War I and the Russian Revolution except the war’s far away and it’s more about intriguing in Swiss hotels than carrying out missions behind enemy lines. Maugham has a great skill in using prose to paint a portrait. One sour note is that these stories take place very deep in the Colonial project and so you get the bigotry that goes along with it.
Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones: I am not up on my Chaucer scholarship, but Terry Jones is. Here he takes to task scholars who see Chaucer’s knight as an exemplar of chivalry, instead of the cut throat mercenary he is. Using The Canterbury Tales, Jones goes into the details of each and every reference, trying to get at how Chaucer’s contemporaries would have reacted to them. Instead of an exemplar of chivalry, Chaucer’s knight is revealed to be a blood-thirsty mercenary typical of the era. Part of what I loved about this book was how bite-sized it was. I could read a few pages one day then put it down for a few days while I read something else.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov: A seminal text, in fact dare I say… foundational? Eh? Eh? So I’d never read this before and was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Granted, I was amused by how the Foundation’s great project revolves mostly around setting up bogus religions and pyramid schemes. Every chapter is sort of the same too: two characters in a room first they react to plot event, then they plot more events. You simply keep cycling from character and events. And the tech is pure fantasy. Still… this was a big greasy meal and I regret nothing.
The Sign of the Labyrs by Margaret St. Clair: This is going to sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it that way: the faster I read this book, the better it was. The story takes place in the future after some unspecified apocalyptic event in an underground maze-like mega-structure. There’s a plague and traps and monsters, and a whole lot of Wiccan style paganism on display. This reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, another post-apocalyptic SF novel that embraces the whole witchcraft versus church idea. This one is a heady ride.
How are you all holding up? What have you enjoyed reading lately?
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”.
And so here are my favorite reads from this past year. As usual very few of these books are recent books. Some like the Westlake and the Pohl I’d been meaning to read for years. One delight from the past year was reading Tanith Lee. I wish I had gotten to read her work sooner. One thing I didn’t read much of this past year was non-fiction. Maybe only two or three other books beside the Machiavelli one listed below.
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
The first of Westlake’s novels featuring his jinxed crook protagonist Dortmunder. This is a great fun heist novel where a simple jewel heist turns into something so much more complicated. Westlake writes a world that bends not simply crooked but cussed.
The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot
A thriller novel about a doctor and his family who become drawn into the vampire subculture of Victorian Europe. It’s a mess of breakneck events, that is a lot more entertaining than it needs to be.
The Compleat Guth Bandar by Matthew Hughes
I am susceptible to the occasional Jack Vance itch
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Chambers might be my favorite for writing mac&cheese comfort food science fiction.
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall
Hallucinatory secondary world adventure fiction that’s like a Spaghetti Western version of the Planescape setting.
Gateway by Frederick Pohl
A classic of 1970s science fiction that digs into the grot and grit of fabulous technology. Humans discover a cache of alien ships and the desperate start piloting them around the galaxy at much risk to life and limb.
Embers by Sandor Marai
A tense little book about two old man confronting their past relationship and the dark secret that binds them. One of those books that’s basically about two people eating dinner atop a roiling sea of subtext and back story.
Gates of Ivriel by CJ Cherryh
Eternal champion style immortal swords woman awakens from her eternal sleep and throws the world in turmoil as she attempts to complete the mission that brought her to the world in the first place. Told from the perspective of the eternal sword woman’s companion, a barbarian warrior bound to the woman by a debt of honor.
Faces Under Water by Tanith Lee
An alternate renaissance Venice full of intrigue, alchemy, and a good bit of skullduggery as a scholar discovers a cursed mask beneath a mysterious woman’s window one night. Gets downright hallucinatory by the end.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner
An oddly uplifting book about a republic in crisis due to the overweening pride and arrogance of a few men, and the dedicated man of principle who must walk a narrow path through the era. Hard to say why I loved this book, but I pretty much recommended it to everyone I knew at some point.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
The kingdom of Iraden houses many secrets as Eolo the warrior discovers as they assist their friend in reclaiming his position as the Raven’s Lease. Interesting world building here in part constrained in focus and scope to all the plot occurring in one location.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Straight forward fantasy novel about a group of adventurers tasked with stealing an artifact to aid a kingdom. This earns its spot here by its attention to detail and the depth it goes in developing its small cast of characters and slim plot.
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.