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.
Before I get into a rundown of the books I wanted to acknowledge the passing of one of the greats, Ursula K. Le Guin. I fell in love with The Wizard of Earthsea as a kid, and later when I was in my 20s and doing a lot of thrift and second hand book store prowling I knew anything I found by her would be a treat. At some point I had the chance to see her speak and it was great. She was fierce and funny and kind in all the best ways.
Now, about the books… you see I went back to the USA in December and that meant a lot of time on planes and in airports and jet-lag making me to keep all sorts of odd hours. In other words I read a ton over the past two months, but as not to bore you all (my two readers) I’ll keep my reviews to a sentence or two.
So sit back and relax as I blather.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter: A Gothic novel set in 1960s London about a teenage girl sent to live with her creepy toy-maker uncle after the death of her parents. The first of the books I read that featured incest as not an awful thing.
The Faithful Executioner, Life and Death, Honor and Shame, in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington: A fascinating read about the life and times of one Franz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th century Nuremberg, using Schmidt’s own journal as its source. A must read for history and true crime fans.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A woman seeks to solve the mystery of her mother’s death on board an intergalactic generation ship that’s managed to replicate an approximation of the slave society of the American South. A rough read at times, but worth it.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: All the movers and shakers in the French Revolution knew each other from middle school and carried the hurts and rivalries from those days into the revolution, except for Danton. The sadness of this book is not simply the tragedy of the Terror but that it’s not hard to see your high school self in the various characters.
Head Lopper, The Island or A Plague of Beasts by Andrew Maclean with Mike Spicer: Head Lopper’s a barbarian swordsman who carries around a cackling hag’s head for reasons. Fun and weird.
The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel: Set in London during the 1780s, this is a tragedy about the conflict between the folk wisdom of the Irish giant O’Brien and the cold scientific materialism of Scottish Surgeon John Hunter. It’s a short, savage book, and a quicker read than A Place of Greater Safety.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz: Pirates and robots in the later half of the 22nd century. This was a great book to be stuck with on a trans-Pacific flight.
Collected Folk Tales by Alan Garner: Garner’s goal with this was to write a collection of folk tales that read less like anthropology and more as oral accounts you would hear spoken by family or friends. In that he largely succeeds.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng: The truth about Fairy land is that there is no truth, and the search for answers is less about the answers and more about the search. A great read, despite the inevitable incest.
Solution Three by Naomi Mitchison: A utopian novel set in a future where all the best gay pot smoking college professors have taken over and a poor heterosexual couple hopes to find a bigger apartment. Fortunately everyone learns the real enemy is greed.
A dozen of my favorite reads from the past year in no particular order. Not all books were published in 2017. In fact, most weren’t.
Day of the Arrow By Philip Loraine: Folk horror among the 1950s jet set. If you like William Sloane and Shirley Jackson this might be for you.
The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong: A brief history of the internet’s development, online harassment, and how we got from there to here. The internet is garbage.
Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell: If Huck Finn meets A Clockwork Orange sounds like a thing you’d like, then read this.
Laura by Vera Caspary: 1950s murder mystery that’s near to perfect if you overlook the single page near the end where the heroine goes on a racist tirade.
Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell: A criminal dynasty squares off against a moralistic judge’s family in 1880s New York City, but the fun comes from McDowell skewering Victorian morality.
Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip: The book you bounce off the head of those people who go on about “realism” in fantasy novels.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells: A pitch-perfect SF adventure novella. Smart and fun with a character exchange that still makes me laugh to this day.
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria: Italian journalist investigates mysterious library and learns that supernatural forces beyond time will use terrible magic for ultimately petty purposes.
The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley: Grotty biogunk SF at its best.
The Fortress at the End of Time by JM McDermott: An introspective SF novella in the vein of CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ with an enjoyably frustrating main character.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng: Stanislaw Lem meets George MacDonald meets VC Andrews meets Sylvia Townsend Warner. If having your expectations swung back and forth sounds like fun give this a go.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell: Post-apocalyptic but optimistic novel that shows that the dad in The Road had it easy because he never had to worry about getting his kid into a good school.
Good books, but do they stick the landings?
First, the books that do.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles: Captain Jefferson Kidd is an old widower and war veteran making his living by traveling through Texas from town to town and reading the news to paying audiences. On his latest trip he gets hired to return a ten-year old girl taking captive by Kiowa tribes people four years before to her relatives in San Antonio. What follows is a very sweet and beautiful western novel that’s part adventure and part elegy to landscape and the interplay between the wilderness and civilization. A great read.
Reynard the Fox: A New Translation by Unknown, translated by James Simpson: If you’re reading this blog I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with the Reynard character. If not, he’s the protagonist/antagonist in a series of medieval tales where he outwits his many enemies in the Lion’s court, by his quick-wit and murderous cunning. I wasn’t quite ready for how horrible and violent these stories were, but I guess they reflect an era where casual violence was a staple norm. Imagine Sam Peckinpah’s version of Disney’s Robin Hood.
Day of the Arrow by Philip Loraine: James Lindsay’s a young painter living in Paris. His former lover Francoise is now married to his one-time friend, the aristocratic Philippe de Faucon, Marquis de Bellac. When Francoise turns up seeking Lindsay’s help she brings a strange story in regarding Philippe’s sudden personality shift. He’s become cold towards her and fixated on his impending death. Francoise wants Lindsay to come to Bellac and investigate. What Lindsay uncovers is a Folk Horror plot that reads like a mix of William Sloane and Shirley Jackson. Definitely track this down.
Now the books that are good but wobble for various reasons at the end.
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: This is a fragmentary novel that starts with two Asian-American kids growing up in the Mid-West bond over reading comics. From there it spins sharply into an assortment of superheroes discussing resistance and political action in the modern world, and goes on to careen between the two. I was rooting for this book and had no problem with the jarring leaps, but I fear at the end the threads spun too far and needed a miracle to bring them back. A fun trip even if it makes me wonder how do smart people do anything without analyzing it endlessly?
The Enclave by Anne Charnock: This is very slice of life in some post-collapse but not complete collapse future about Caleb, a young refugee, and the life he leads in England working for a recycling gang. and the people he meets as he travels across Europe to England. While it doesn’t just end, it doesn’t also conclude so I wonder if there’s a sequel to it in the works. From further reading it looks to take place in a larger world, and maybe the other novels set there would fill in the gaps here. Also with a name like Caleb though I have to wonder where he came from originally. He says Spain, but Caleb?
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson: Molly grows up on an isolated farm with her parents and quickly learns the rules she needs to survive. Whenever Molly bleeds a new Molly is born and intent upon killing her. Needless to say this makes Molly a rather odd person to be around. What I loved in this is that there’s something of Victor Frankenstein to Molly Southbourne as she grows and studies her situation. A cold intelligence involved in a gory investigation. While the ride was great, it may well have ended with a To Be Continued. But I’ll definitely read the next installment.
Yeah so, this month was great for reading, mostly.
Selected Poems of Kim Sakkat translated and edited by Kevin O’Rourke: Kim Sakkat was 19th century Korea’s version of the failed scholar turned wandering drunken poet. He’s sort of an embarrassment, but well-regarded. Most of his poems deal with the mundane or scatological with a side order of self-pity and/or pointed rage. Of course throughout the book there’s a varnish of respectability layered on his work that probably shouldn’t be there.
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer: Rachel and Wick are a pair of scavengers living in a ruined city crawling with deadly biotech, factions, and a colossal flying bear named Mord. One day while out scavenging Rachel discovers a strange egg-like creature that she takes home and names Borne. From there things start to get weirder and weirder. I liked this a lot but preferred the Southern Reach books.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde: I’m really glad I tracked this down. It’s more The Crucible than a historical novel in that it’s an exploration of contemporary issues through the lens of the past. Tituba’s life is one of tragedy and power in which she has a gift as a witch only each society she moves through has a different meaning and reaction to that claim.
The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong: Jeong’s a tech journalist with a background in copyright law. This long form essay is an exploration of the internet’s history and the development of online harassment. It’s a great read. One thing that stuck with me was that very early on in the internet’s development it became apparent that mass-mailed email spam would be a problem, so that became an issue that was dealt with from the start with money and tech invested in countering out. What wasn’t foreseen was how the internet would embolden stalkers and harassers, and how anti-harassment and safety measures lag so far behind anti-spam infrastructure.
The Fissure King by Rachel Pollack: Another supernatural detective except this one is more John Silence than Harry Dresden. If you like Blackwood or 90s era Constantine and haven’t dug into Pollack yet you’ve got a treat ahead of you. Be warned this is a fix-up/mosaic novel of interconnected stories, which is a form I like but I know some folks get annoyed with. In this case, I feel it suits the subject matter quite well.
Also I loved these two short stories:
Give’em a read!
I’m thinking of renaming this blog “Me & My Garbage Opinions”.
Also, thinking of starting a patreon where every month I talk about all the books I didn’t like enough to finish, or simply thought kinda meh. Because there are always some.
But here are some books I thought pretty great! You should check’em out!
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson: Vellitt Boe is a professor at a Woman’s College in Ulthar in the Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft fame. One of her students runs off with a man from the waking world (our world) and it falls to Vellitt to find her. Of course, not everyone wants the girl found and various forces set out to keep Vellitt from succeeding in her quest. Okay, I’m a big fan of Lovecraft’s Dreamland stuff and the recent spat of self-aware returns to Lovecraft’s work by contemporary writers. Vellitt Boe’s a great character and as the story progresses and she learns more about the waking world there’s a great sense of why someone from a fantastic world such as hers would become captivated with ours.
The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell: Last month I talked about Anne Charnock’s SF exploration of the future of reproduction technology in Dreams Before the Start of Time and mentioned how it set aside conflict to get deeper into the ramifications of the technology she investigated. Like Charnock’s book Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones explores the future of reproductive technology, but it’s all about the conflict that technology will produce. In a plague ravaged future Inez might be the answer to the world’s problems, but she has a lot on her plate, not the least of which is making sure her cloned daughter manages to get into a good school or not. I can’t really describe this except by saying it’s Flowers for Algernon meets The Road except the Road guy had it easy compared to Inez.
Hercules, My Shipmate by Robert Graves: I think Graves’ The White Goddess stuff is a bit horseshit and what happens when Edwardian Public School educated Brits discover magic mushrooms and want to justify their serial infidelity with 19 year olds. (“Is it really cheating if all women are aspects of the same goddess?) On the other hand, The White Goddess is great world-building for a fantasy novel, and that’s what we have here in Graves’ retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. While I prefer Mary Renault’s Theseus retelling The King Must Die, this book has its wild and weird moments. I’m also happy that Butes the bee-guy survived.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: This was fun. More importantly I think it was perfectly pitched. In a world where Goblins and Elves are the same species, a half-goblin son of the elf emperor finds himself appointed emperor when everyone before him in the line of succession gets killed in an airship crash. Thrust out of exile and dropped into the elven court the goblin emperor quickly proves himself if not prepared than capable of learning how to rule in a just and noble fashion. If I have any criticism it’s that our hero is too likable, which isn’t much of a complaint because it’s not that kind of book.
Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell: This is a killer book, beautiful, violent, and lean. Set during the American Civil War on the border between Kansas and Missouri, the novel follows Jake, son of German immigrants, as he and his friend Jack join a group of Confederate irregulars (terrorists) as they wreak havoc upon the Union. As the war progresses and the atrocities mount, Jake’s idealism gets stripped away until the realities of what he and his associates are slowly dawns on him. A week after reading this I realized it’s A Clockwork Orange as if written by Mark Twain.
I read some books and I have things to say about them.
Winged Victory by VM Yeates: If you follow me on Twitter you would have seen me talking about the depressing book I was reading and wondering whether the protagonist would die or drink himself to death. Whelp, that book was this one about World War 1 RAF pilots. It’s good, but it’s bleak. It’s an unrelentingly depressing autobiographical novel loaded heavily with dollops of cynicism and despair that’s by turns horrifying and beautiful. I liked it, but it’s certainly not for everyone and a lot of it is repetitious, but still if you like war novels this is a good one.
Also, biplanes!?! Can you imagine being 15,000 feet in the air in basically a wooden go-cart? That’s nuts!
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock: I LOVED this book and really recommend it. It’s a series of vignettes following two families (and various others) into a future where technology heavily impacts reproduction and our concepts of family. It’s a fascinating read, and Charnock stays to the core of the situation without getting too hung up on logistics. For one, I’m glad there’s no plot regarding religious conservatives objecting to the technology. On the other hand I can see that bugging people, the way the world situation and reactions to the technology get glossed over. The two complaints I had with it are slightly different. First, nearly all the characters are upper middle class, or near to it, and second, they’re all white-Anglo seeming. (It wasn’t too hard to imagine characters being West Indian, but overall the book doesn’t dig too heavily into the politics or economics of the tech it explores.) But yeah, if you like plotless social SF this is worth the read.
Moriah by Daniel Mills: This is some straight-up Hawthorne darkness going on here. Civil War veteran and broken man Silas Flood heads to Moriah Vermont to examine a family of spiritualists. It’s heavy and stark with dark secrets brewing below the surface, but if you like atmospheric horror centered on the human condition and our inability to cope with our own frailty, then track this down.
Hex-Rated by Jason Ridler: Retro-pulp smut that reads like a cartoony Rockford Files mixed with a porno flick that’s trying to ape Hammer Horror. While the 1970s veneer might be only skin deep and Brimstone’s sensibilities clearly our own, it’s fun reading along as he punches his way through Nazis, cultists, and devils. Sure, it might be cartoony, but it’s nice to read something that delights in being so richly itself.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss: In a way this is like the Brimstone book in that it’s cartoony, only the cartoon’s a different one. Where Brimstone’s like something from Heavy Metal magazine, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is like Penny Dreadful by way of the 1960s Adam West Batman. Until I got my head around that, this was a bit hard to get into, but once I saw POW! word balloons and lurid 1960s colors on this Victorian romp I was on board. And like with Penny Dreadful, this is a who’s who of Victoriana as various female protagonists, led by Mary Jekyll, attempt to solve a series of crimes linked to her father’s experiments. It’s fun.