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.
Ever notice how you never see what people read in the month of December because they’re always posting Year’s Best lists and stuff like that? Yeah, me too. So there will be none of that here. Instead you just have the same old end of the month review. Enjoy!
The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski: Read this! If you at all like dark, weird, and old fiction it’s well worth your while to track this down. Grabinski’s sort of considered Poland’s Poe, and his work certainly has the old horror vibe, but he wrote in the earlier part of the 20th century and Grabinski’s obsession are all his own. Demon-haunted trains, dueling your own doppelganger, coal smoke elementals, undead gravediggers, sex with ghosts – if any of that sounds cool, read this book. You’ll not be disappointed.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: I blathered about this book two posts ago.
The Fortress at the End of Time: I’ll likely blather more about this book later this week. I liked it quite a bit. It’s military SF, as long as you realize for a lot of people being in the military means being extremely bored extremely far from home.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz: A fun, fascinating book about mass extinction that makes you feel hopeful that humanity might manage to adapt to most apocalyptic scenarios and manage to bounce back against a hostile universe. Newitz’s approach is to look across species boundaries to see what strategies have worked for animals along with looking at those used by human populations to survive. To this she also adds the “remember” part and tries to capture ways fiction, and in particular, science-fiction can point a way forward. A neat book.
Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee: I did not read this version. I wish I had, because who doesn’t love 70s cleavage… I mean, the e-book was full of horrible typos. Anyway this is the second book in a series I haven’t read any other book in and despite that I quite liked it. It’s SF of the gender-swapping far future society that’s all David Bowie//Studio 54 scenesters all the time variety and it embraces that notion absolutely and completely, but the real story happens when the narrator gets exiled from that society and takes up gardening outside in the desert. Somethings you could only get away with in the days of cheap paperback novels. But I really should read more Tanith Lee, because this was fun.
And that’s all.
This year I was toying with the idea of writing about the books I don’t finish and talking about those, but really I haven’t found anything in a book I didn’t like that wasn’t covered in this post here.
I guess one reason I’d add to the list of why I might stop reading a book is a personal one regarding subject matter: I find losers and dirt-bags of most varieties far more interesting to read about than good students no matter how corrupt the system those students struggle against. It’s a shame, but that’s the truth. And it’s also number one on that list.
It’s the end of the year and everyone is posting their best-of-the-year list and I thought I would do mine a little bit different. These aren’t so much my favorite reads but books that for one reason or another have stuck with me and I’m still thinking about days/weeks/months after I read them. And as always these aren’t books published this year, but read this year.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: A pulp novel written in the early 1940s about a European refugee on the run in wartime USA. Julie Guilles the daughter of American expatriates in France flees to the USA where she’s not a legal citizen and hopes to keep a low profile fearing both the FBI and the Gestapo. Things don’t go as planned and when a former associate gets murdered on her door step, Julie takes off across country because she can’t trust anyone and has learned of the existence of a human trafficker in New Mexico that may know the whereabouts of her cousin. It’s pretty simple hard-boiled stuff, but it’s the wartime details that stuck with me because they were fresh and a bit startling. Like right now when we talk about WW2 it’s over and done, it can be reduced to a narrative, and it’s talked about in certain ways. This book was written while the end was yet to be determined, and Julie’s as afraid of ending up in a US concentration camp as a German one. There’s likely an education to be had in reading hard-boiled pulp written during and set in WW2.
Bleak Warrior by Alistair Rennie: Hey did you know I like to write fiction and sometimes it even gets published? Did you also know that Bleak Warrior has a guy in it with a dick-shaped club who ejaculates semen cold enough to kill the people he rapes by frostbite and another guy that eats pickled intestines like they’re spaghetti? What do these things have to do with each other? Well, let’s just say that sometimes when I’m working on a thing and tying myself up in knots to make it all make sense knowing there’s a book like Bleak Warrior out there fills me with hope, kind of the same way reading The Blackbirder gets me over the hump when it comes to thinking about “plot”. Both books are pulpy and trashy, but smart about it, and what they riff on is other prose not just some TV show, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Rennie’s internalized Michael Moorcock here, twisted all the dials to 11, and then smashed the control board just to see what would happen. Bleak Warrior’s a weird awful book, and while that doesn’t mean more ice-dick, it’s liberating in its embrace of all that it is.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: I described this to friends as a post-apocalyptic version of The Wire. Set sometime in the latter half of the 21st century after various calamities have brought much of the world to its knees and thrown technology back nearly two centuries, City of Bohane deals with the gang war between factions attempting to control the titular Irish city. It’s a jargon-rich slangy violent book (which is why it’s on this list) that took a while for me to get into but when I did I found myself caught up in all the squalid dealing, back-stabbing, and betrayals set amid the occasional weirdness and flourishes. And all at half the length of a Song of Fire & Ice novel...
Definitely not for everyone, maybe even less so than Bleak Warrior, but if you think it might be up your alley, hell friend, you’re already doomed.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: I hold with the notion that society is a sea of often unexamined ideas and we’re all swimming in it largely unaware of the historical context of a lot of the mental landscape around us. Painter picks apart more than a few of those ideas in this book. Whether it’s addressing the institution of white slavery and the abuses rendered upon the Irish, or the weird fascination much of Europe had with Nordic purity and skull shape, or the way German nationalism is based on a chapter from Tacitus’s Histories, or really dozens of other things, Painter dives right in and writes about them all in an engaging and accessible style. This is a history of ideas and concepts that are largely accepted without question, and by shining a light on them and showing their seams and connections shows how much they’re a creation and not some universal truth.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: This book is a mess, but a fascinating mess. Imagine a mash-up between JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Patricia Highsmith and you might get an idea of the mood of this book. Alice Stockton is a recently divorced writer who’s moved to the south of England to start her life over, only to have a nuclear reactor in France meltdown and start dropping radioactive fall out all over her region. While officials say everything is fine, Alice’s latest manuscript has been confiscated by the government and her one friend in town has been murdered by persons unknown. As she adjusts to her friend’s death, the woman’s son appears and starts taking an interest in Alice’s life.
The overall mood of this book is paranoid and sitting right on the edge of something awful, that ends up being not quite the apocalypse you thought you’d get. Yet… yet… even if it doesn’t all fit together and make sense, there’s a lot of bits of this that get under your skin, or at least my skin, as it’s a snapshot of the emergent surveillance state and maybe a commentary on 80s excess.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I’ve only read one other contemporary Korean novel, Kim Young-Ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and based on that book and this one I’m starting to suspect Milan Kundera was something of a huge deal in contemporary Korean Lit. HUGE. With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I didn’t much like it on initial read, especially the early two-thirds of the book as I could only feel contempt for all the characters, but the last third remedied that and now after a few months I’m thinking back on the earlier two-thirds and seeing them in possibly a better light. The plot of The Vegetarian is a young Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian and by doing so she throws her whole world into turmoil. The first two-thirds of the book are narrated largely from the POV of her husband and brother-in-law, and they’re both awful people, but awful in different ways (that I’ll call Right Wing/Left Wing South Korean male styles). The last third is narrated from the woman’s sister, and that’s where the heart of the book was for me and its most damning elements. Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane.
But, the more fascinating thing was how I heard this book talked about, because no one in Korea talked about the message of the book or what it might be saying. All the commentary was on how beautiful the writing was. It was one of the weirdest silencing techniques I’d ever witnessed, like praising a N.K. Jemisin novel for the quality of its prose while centering all discussion on “prose quality” and adamantly ignoring any discussion of race suggested by her books. And this wasn’t simply that I couldn’t follow discussions on this book. My wife said the same: all public commentary on the book praised the quality of the writing and ignored anything it might have been saying. Weird.
And there you go.
Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler: This was the first book I read by Butler years ago. I remember finding this exact edition at the library and reading it over the course of one summer afternoon. This is a weird book. A sort of cyberpunk Hills Have Eyes except the cannibals are the good guys. At some point five years in the future, the USA is a hellscape of misery and violence – and somewhere in the desert something from another world is breeding, reshaping humanity in an isolated settlement. A lone doctor and his two daughters get captured by the settlement’s altered inhabitants and violence ensues. This is part of Butler’s Patternmaster series but can easily be read as a stand alone novel.
Fifty Shades of Louisa May by L.M. Anonymous: This is a porn novel purporting to be a recently discovered manuscript by Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other such books you probably should have read but didn’t. It’s funny, silly, and treats its subjects with appropriate irreverence whether it’s Emerson’s morphine habit, Thoreau’s BO, or Herman Melville playing Peeping Tom to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson: Wilson’s A Sorcerer of the Wilddeeps was likely my favorite fantasy novel in recent years and A Taste of Honey is a decent follow-up. Again we have a love story between two gifted men, only here that love story is in the foreground as the story centers the struggle of one of the men to choose a life that fulfills himself or that satisfies his family’s expectations for him. And it does that while still kind of being a Sword & Sorcery story.
How to Cook A Wolf by MFK Fisher: I first heard of this book from the Apocalypse World RPG’s suggested reading list. It’s a cookbook written during World War Two, a time of shortages and rationing, and as such it’s a fascinating peek into that era. Fisher’s intention is to provide a means to confront hunger, the wolf of the title, head on without losing one’s dignity or enjoyment for food. Lots of soup and stew recipes and tips on how to stretch a meal, and lots of weird asides like how hard it is to get fish now that a) the coast is mined, and b) the population that fished, Japanese-Americans, have been interred. Worth tracking down. (Fisher updated the book nine years later and these bits are in parenthesis and at times this is distracting like you’re invited over to watch her argue with herself.)
This was a great month for books. I read a ton of fun stuff. Here are some highlights:
The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss: I’ve been slogging through this for months, reading a chapter here and there and then putting it aside for weeks on end, but you shouldn’t take my slow progress as a judgment. It’s a thick history book and I can’t be blamed for wanting some occasional zap/pow/boom along the way. The weirdness of the time comes through, but I’m sure it could be even more deeply explored (if you know of a book that does, I’d love to hear of it). But yeah, this is one of those people’s histories so draws on a lot of first hand accounts from various outsider sources such as kitchen servants, pamphleteers, and soldier-preachers.
Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy Hughes: Weird pulp crime novel that reminded me of Nightmare Alley while managing to be even pulpier. Sailor is a Chicago gangster who works as the personal secretary to a corrupt senator. When a deal goes bad and the senator cuts ties with Sailor, Sailor tracks him to New Mexico where they play cat and mouse in the midst of a fiesta. Meanwhile McIntyre, a Chicago cop, is trying to get the goods on the senator and hopes he can convince Sailor to do something good with his life for once. I will probably do a “One Book Four Covers” for this book, but I absolutely loved it.
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente: An AI/human hybrid teaching itself how to love by listening to stories? Maybe. I was along for the gorgeous prose and imagery. The story unfolds at its own pace, so you need to give this time as it puzzles itself apart and reveals its workings to you. I’d say the journey is worth it.
Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie: This is a bad book for bad people and as good as they say. It’s the grim dark genre pushed to absurd lengths and a long form riff on Elric and his like. Imagine Elric by way of GWAR by way of the WWF if Jodorowsky were in charge of the script. If you can imagine it and can stomach copious amount of violence, more violence, and genital violence, then get your hands on this book. It’s something.
The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein: This is the fourth book in Kirstein’s Steerswoman series, and the most recent. I plowed through all four this month and will do a longer post on the series some time this month. Safe to say I adored them and they did so much right that most speculative fiction gets wrong in regards to pace and plotting. This book has Rowan the Steerswoman still on the trail of the wizard Slado and the mystery of “routine bioform clearance”, but has her staying in a small town as she tries to uncover more of Slado’s history. The thing I loved was how the entire book stayed focus on one locale and situation, and didn’t do the standard spec-fiction thing of sending people running all over the world to discover plot tokens. The downside is that there are still two more books to go in the series.
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas: An enjoyable book that satirizes fandom or at least the areas of it I’m partially familiar with. The Summer Tentacular is an annual HP Lovecraft convention that draws a host of weirdos to Providence, RI. Only this year a notoriously disliked author has been murdered in the hotel and his room mate decides to play detective and tries to find out why no one cares that a murder has happened among their members. A fun read that at its worst becomes a Lovecraft sitcom or riff on Bimbos of the Death Sun, but at its best is funny, sad, and a little bit terrifying.
And there we go…