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.
Faces Under Water by Tanith Lee: The first book in Lee’s alternate Venice series full of alchemy, masks, magic, and skullduggery with a lot of the vivid prose Lee is known for. I had a great time with this. When Furian finds a strange mask floating in the canals of the city of Venus it leads him into a conspiracy full of madness and murder. Of course, he’s an obnoxious ass and the book’s full of all sorts of the awful and horrific (rape’s a plot reveal), but as someone who grew up loving Clive Barker and Sword & Sorcery this felt like the two streams coming together. This cover, however, is crap.
Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney: The first book in Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series about Thomas Ward, who’s the seventh son of a seventh son and the apprentice to Old Gregory the Spook of the county. Spooks are basically ghost finders and witch hunters that protect a region from supernatural foes. The setting’s vaguely 17th century after the English Civil War of Not Quite England. I’m not sure if Thomas is the main character of the whole series, or it shifts to others. I’d say it’s alternate history fantasy with horror overtones.
Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser: Walser was the guy critics compared Kafka to before critics started comparing writers to Kafka. I wrote about Jakob Von Gunten over at my patreon. You can click here to subscribe and read it.
To The Resurrection Station by Eleanor Arnason: This is an early book by Arnason and mashes up science fiction tropes with Gothic ones. It’s a book that’s fun, but a product of its time, and likely Arnason would do a better job with the same story now. For me, the charm was in protagonist Belinda Smith’s “magic power” that bends reality around her and makes the impossible possible. It was a neat conceit.
The Cloudship Trader by Kate Diamond: I liked this book, but I also reacted weirdly to it. This is the first book in my memory that instantly brings to mind a Studio Ghibli movie. It doesn’t matter which one. It captures the Miyazaki aesthetic and sticks with it. The plot revolves around enslavement of non-human characters, bad things happen, one character is fleeing an abusive relationship, but there’s nothing systemically bad in the world, hell, there doesn’t even seem to be any force of entropy or the simple cussedness of inanimate objects. All the evil is performed by a few bad actors acting mostly in isolation and the characters believe that if they calmly state their case and reveal the facts to a person in charge, everything will be okay. No one could abide letting an injustice occur and would go to great lengths to repair the wrongs done, even if that meant destroying a cultural object of great significance or tearing apart a treaty. I like a good comfort food read from time to time, and this is certainly one, but it’s also Comfort Food as an aesthetic and I found myself at time having a hard time swallowing that. But the appeal of such an aesthetic is clear.
I got lazy. Then I decided to move. Then I moved. Now I’m getting back to it. So here are the books I read and liked.
The Comedians by Graham Greene: A novel about morally compromised people making bad decisions as the world falls apart around them. Here we have Mr. Brown, a jerk of a hotel operator, obsessing over his affair with a diplomat’s wife in Papa Doc’s Haiti and the friendship he strikes up with two other dubious characters, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. Their nondescriptness is what draws them together. Overall the whole thing comes off as a farcical tragedy. Somehow through a series of awful events characters’ patheticness and pettiness manages to get twisted into something almost virtuous. I can think of plenty of reasons why someone would hate this book. It’s about privileged people being petty and awful in the face of suffering. And yet, or maybe because I am an awful person too, I love it.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie: A self-contained fantasy novel!?! Who would’ve thunk it possible!?! The thing I really liked is that Leckie manages to write a bottle story where the characters are confined to a single place and time, yet she still manages to make the scope wide and far-ranging. This is a world full of politics and gods, but also individuals and their day to day problems. I feel like this book is one that could serve to welcome people back into the fantasy genre.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World by Erica Benner: I loved, loved, loved this book. And blathered about it on my Patreon. Did you know I have a Patreon? This is my Patreon. Why not support my Patreon? SuPpOrT mY pAtReOn. Support me and my writing, and receive my gratitude in return!
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: This book depressed me. You should read it.
Far North by Marcel Theroux: A grim post-apocalyptic road novel that’s as stripped down and lean as The Road but a bit more interesting because the narrator has a richer backstory. She’s the descendant of a religious back-to-the-land commune that sought to escape the impending collapse by settling in Siberia. The book nods heavily at the Western genre and its utopian yearning for some promised land that must exist just out of reach over the horizon.
Edges by Linda Nagata: Far future SF with downloadable minds, lives lived on various layers of virtual reality, and sentient alien artifacts that outlive their creators. The characters are a bit broad strokes, but the world and technology are fascinating. In particular I love the ideas that humanity’s great knack is our ability to subvert technology and merge with it no matter how alien it might be, and the universe is less populated by aliens than it is by the systems and devices they left behind. Fun stuff and while it stands alone it brings back characters from Nagata’s Nanotech series.
Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason: This is an alternate history novella of the quiet sort (as opposed to the Rommel-and-Patton-team-up-to-fight-Hitler-and-Stalin-oh-my-god-I’m-so-hard-right-now sort) that posits the existence of wooly mammoths in the American West during the era of Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark expedition, and what their continued existence means in relationship to and as metaphor for the coming struggle between Native Americans and European settlers. Not much happens and it’s very much a told story, but I was caught in it and enjoyed the ride.
Some things I read or listened to this past March that I loved.
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell: Sometimes I want to read a book that’s as straight forward as a well put together cheese burger. This was such a book. Trouble Dog is a sentient warship that commits a war crime, but renounces violence after the war by becoming a emergency rescue ship. This story’s about what happens then.
Prophet by Brandon Graham and various: I read through this all series in a week and it was delirious fun. The whole story feels emergent in a way that might be annoying to some, but which I liked. The overall impression is of an anthology book set in a single creator’s loosely outlined universe. That it’s all inherited from a very different earlier creator is just part of the fun.
Roadtown by Edgar Chambless: I wrote this up as a Yesterweird post over on my Patreon page. My plan is to make all the Yesterweird posts free once I get over the 50USD mark. Maybe you’d like to help make that happen.
Akhnaten by Philip Glass. This has been on repeat for at least a week. Give the first fifteen minutes a listen. It’s a trip.
Mithra by Ager Sonus. I like cinematic ambient drone as much as the next weirdo, but this album stands out from the usual air conditioner hum and whistles. Here’s a link to it on Bandcamp.
Morien by Jessie L. Weston: A 14th century Dutch poem about Sir Morien, the Moorish knight of the Round Table. I wrote it up on my Yesterweird patreon. Short version: I recommend it!
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun: This is a very Thomas Ligotti sort of book and I am not a Thomas Ligotti fan, so I didn’t really like it, but maybe you will. A stranger comes to a hellish city to do an unpleasant job and paranoia, misery, and degradation ensues. One thing I couldn’t shake while reading this is that Hye-Young Pyun was imagining what it must feel like to be an expat living in Korea, except she can’t shake a tendency for self-loathing and making misery porn.
Digger’s Game by George Higgins: A quarter of the way into this I realized I’d read it before, which is fine, it’s a quick read. Higgins wrote about Boston’s criminal underworld like an anthropologist and it’s fascinating to dip into that worldview. Although if you’re only going to read one thing by him The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the one.