Last month I was hospitalized. This month I became a university professor. What a crazy few weeks it has been. Here are my favorites out of everything I read.
All Systems Red (The Murder Bot Diaries) by Martha Wells: There’s something to be said for having a light touch – or at least knowing how heavy a touch a book requires. Martha Wells knows just how much and what kind of weight to put on this story of an introspective and rogue security robot doing its best to protect its humans from danger. A bit of the fun is how much the robot comes off as an angsty, emotionally over-wrought teenager (with colossal firepower) who doesn’t care and just wants to be left alone to watch TV.
The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov: This is an awful cover to a fun novel. Early 20th century Russian Symbolist poet transforms his f’d up love life into a Gothic novel about witchcraft set in 16th century Germany. If you don’t think I’d be all over something like that, umm… welcome to my blog, and that’s the kind of thing I’d be all over like maple syrup on pancakes. I don’t really care that this might not work well as a novel and the protagonist more or less floats from incident to incident; I was on board from the start. If you like the yesterweird, you should definitely check this out. Bryusov wrote some SF that I’ll now be on the look-out for.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo: This is a YA adventure novel set on Mars, and I’ll be reviewing it next week as part of the Mars Girls blog tour. I’ll tell you up front though, it’s good. If you want some fun non-dystopian science fiction, check this out.
Polaris by Ben Lehman: OK. Technically this is a role-playing game, but its premise (tragic Arthurian/Dunsanyian apocalypse) is just so rich that I think of it as a novel. The whole ritualization of the game experience and the poetic sensibility the players are expected to bring to the table make this feel to my mind like what I imagine role-playing would be. Not that anyone in my current gaming group would want to run or play it, but yeah… Actually this reminds me of two things: 1) a highly stylized tabletop version of HG Wells’s Floor Games that a psychiatrist might use to get a sullen teen (or murderbot) to work out their issues, 2) the actual tabletop scenes in Mazes & Monsters.
The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner: There’s a whole subgenre of lit books about suburban college profs swapping wives and having affairs while they drink themselves to death. Well, The Wreckage of Agathon is that kind of book except set in BCE Sparta during a Helot rebellion. It’s a fun, if at times aggravating trip as it meanders all over the place. Between this and The Fiery Angel I’m starting to think I might have a thing for autobiography dressed up as a historical novel.
Rosewater by Tade Thomson: I thought this book was a mess, but such an enjoyable and fascinating one that I’m going to blather on about it. In a lot of ways Rosewater is exactly the kind of genre book I want from a small press publisher: a strange mess full of ideas.
The setting is 23rd century Nigeria after the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial spores that have begun reshaping our habitat to better suit themselves. Kaaro is a former thief turned government agent. He’s also one of the few people made “sensitive” by the alien spores and gifted with a sort of telepathy. While most people see the alien spores as a blessing , Kaaro is less enthusiastic, but when something or someone starts killing off other sensitives Kaaro finds himself getting involved.
On one hand there’s a very cool cyberpunk novel in here as we follow Kaaro’s journey from thief to agent and onward, one made more interesting by the theme of colonization that pushes its way forward in moments. But it’s never didactic and beating you over the head with polemic. It still pitches floating cannibal mutants, weird sex, and weirder fungi at you. Where the problem comes in, in my opinion, is that it’s not simply that there’s too much here, but the order feels off and whenever I felt like I understood the setting and what things were about, Thompson piled on another idea that made everything wobble and tumble down. Not only that, but there were times things felt redundant – like we’d read for pages Kaaro’s journey into the fungi xenosphere, which is kind of like a trippy internet, only to have him come out and log into his 23rd century internet – and I’ll say it, we’re so post-Gibson and Stephenson at this point that describing how people use your super-cool super-futuristic internet is basically eating regurgitated pizza slices from 1997.
So on the other hand, I wish some better editing had happened and reins were tightened just to hone the story down to the essential bits, because those bits are good, very, very good. Anyway, if you’re in the market for some bewildering, but enjoyable near-future weirdness give this a look.
I read a ton this month mainly because I was sick and spent nearly a week lying in bed.
Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell: I sang the praises of Katie when I finished that, and now I sing to you the praises of Gilded Needles. Set in 1880s New York City Gilded Needles is about a pair of families, the criminal and matriarchal Shanks clan that operates out of New York’s infamous Black Triangle, and the wealthy and upright Stallworths, and the feud that develops between them when Judge Stallworth decides to get tough on crime. The fun comes from how much our sensibilities have changed from the Victorian that we can enjoy rooting for the Shanks family as their matriarch goes about her ruthless quest for revenge against the upright (bigoted) Stallworths. Track this down and read it! It’s so much more fun than it has any right to be!
Infomocracy by Malka Older: A near future science fiction political thriller about twenty-first century elections. This book was neat. It presents a world of micro-democracies and the political operatives moving between them. There’s an overarching tech company that’s a bit like Google that controls it all, but the down on the ground stuff comes alive that you can easily imagine what life in this world is like. Definitely neat and interesting to see someone positing a political landscape beyond our own.
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria: A 1970s “cult” novel from Italy. It’s a quick read, but an unsettling so one. A nameless businessman is obsessed with the “Library” an institution in Turin where people could leave their diaries and journals and access those of others including complete strangers. As more and more of the Library gets flooded by hateful screeds against the defenseless, a plague of insomnia affects the population, until finally a series of brutal murders occurs. This leads to a cover-up and the closing of the Library. Twenty years later, our nameless narrator starts investigating what happened and why. Some see the library as a precursor of the Internet and the book as a commentary on the rise of Fascism in Europe since the 1960s. Whether the book is or isn’t, it’s definitely worth the read.
The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood: What a miserable episode in human history this was. From the opening salvo in Bohemia and the assorted defenestrations to the closing years of the Hapsburgs fighting the Bourbons, it’s a horrible three decades of war, misery, and misguided principals. The best of a generation threw themselves into the war and a later generation came out of it cynical and less dogmatic. In snatches you get glimpses of rulers more afraid of their own armies than their enemies, the plight of towns and cities after years of deprivations, the infuriating machinations of nobles who can meet to negotiate a peace treaty only to spend six months discussing who gets to enter the room first. This isn’t an easy read, but worth it.
The Princess and the Goblins / The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald: Princess Irene lives in the mountains where Curdie is a miner. The pair of them discover the goblins are plotting mischief and set about trying to stop it. Later Curdie leaves the mountains to help Princess Irene when her father’s threatened by devious courtiers. These two books were delightful. Yes, there’s some Christian parable getting laid on pretty thick in The Princess and Curdie, but it’s less annoying than in the Narnia books. If you enjoy Tolkien’s The Hobbit and want more of the same definitely track these down. They’re quite fun.
Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip: I’m late to the McKillip party I know, but this was the perfect follow-up to the Macdonald books. Both exhibit the level of world-building I enjoy that’s more linked poetic associations than actual nuts and bolts details about when the giants ruled and magic systems. Ombria’s an ancient city ruled by the Greve family. When the Prince dies, the evil Domina is set-up as regent over the new young prince much to the dismay of the dead prince’s bastard brother and his former mistress. The pair set about doing their best to undermine Domina Pearl and rescuing the young prince from her influence. This is kind of Gormenghast-lite, which I wish there was a lot more of in the world.
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.