Favorite Reads March 2019
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.
Favorite Reads February 2019
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.
Favorite Reads January 2019
Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.
Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.
Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.
Favorite Reads November 2018
Chuggachug-chugging along towards 2019… who knows what awaits?
Here’s my favorite reads from November.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: This was scary as all hell. Unrelenting and harrowing where the entropy dial is twisted all the way to 11 and the bad stuff keeps happening and the stakes keep ratcheting upward. To be honest I had to put the book down for a bit because I found it too unrelenting. The story’s about a New Hampshire town that finds itself falling under the influence of an out of town auctioneer with big plans for the community, but first he just needs to make some changes to the place. This was Samson’s only novel before she died from cancer. I’m happy to see it back in print.
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed: A weird secondary world novel set in the aftermath of what feels to be the equivalent of the Great War. Lt. Benjamin Braddock managed to survive the war that saw so many of his companions dead, but the ghost of his commanding officer and friend still haunts him. Even more so when Braddock starts taking over that friend’s life. What I liked about this book was that Braddock’s a nobody and his predicament is completely personal. As his friend’s family begins to groom him to replace their dead son, Braddock starts seeing the ways honor can be a curse as much as a gift. That in the end Mohamed zags when I wishes she would have zigged doesn’t take away from how fun the trip was.
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark: This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in an alternate 1880s where the Civil War ended in a stalemate, New Orleans is a free state, airships ply the skies, and several Caribbean nations gained their independence by harnessing the powers of the former slave population’s African gods and goddesses. If it had only half those things I might have skipped it, but since it had all those things (and more!) I was hooked.
When a young pickpocket overhears a group of confederate terrorists conspiring to kidnap the Haitian scientist who harnessed the storm god’s power, she sets out on a mission to save the scientist.
Provenance by Ann Leckie: I eventually warmed to Leckie’s Imperial Radch series despite the amount of hype that had accumulated around them, which isn’t the books’ fault at all. In particular the second one, Ancillary Sword, was a fascinating example of military SF, except focusing on all the boring parts of the military like doing garrison duty in a peaceful allied nation. Provenance calls to mind that book. It’s a stand alone novel about history and identity and being from somewhere It’s also filled with quirky little details like how every human culture has their preferred drink and complains when they go to another culture and have to accept other drinks. Like think how much people argue about pizza today, now imagine if every planet in the solar system had multiple styles of pizza. There’s also a good bit in this about parenting, bad parenting in particular.
When Ingray frees a convict from prison to pretty much impress her adoptive mother, it sets in motion events that will see her having to stop the invasion of her planet.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht: A spy novel! A lesbian coming of age novel! A story of imperialism and disillusionment. How exciting! Vera Kelly’s a CIA operative in mid-1960s Argentina monitoring student activists and suspected communists. Vera’s also a teenage girl in 1950s Maryland coming to terms with her crush on a classmate and her failed suicide attempt.
When a coup occurs and one of her contacts betrays her, Vera finds herself trapped without any way of coming home, but also unsure where her home is. This was smart like a good Graham Greene novel mashed up with a Nancy Drew novel.
In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard: A science fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by vietnamese cultures legends. Yên’s a failed scholar bartered away to the dragon Vu Côn by her elders in order to pay for the dragon’s intervention in healing a higher class child’s illness. Yên expects nothing but death at Vu Côn’s hands, but instead the dragon has a job for her, to tutor her two unruly children.
A lot’s made about sense of wonder in speculative fiction and how there’s a lot less of it now than before, to which I have to ask what the hell people are reading, because I find no end of examples of it. And this book would be a go-to example of it. De Bodard’s descriptions are vivid, not simply lush, but dazzling. Wonder (and terror and yearning) abound in this book.
… and that’s all until next time.
Favorite Reads October 2018
Reading is as much about the books as the journey inside your own head or out of it as the case may be.
Often times when I recall a book to mind I’m not just remembering the book and its events, but my state of mind at the time and the places where I read it. Needless to say this makes parting with books a bit difficult, which certainly plays hell with the notion of ever moving again.
Other Cities by Benjamin Rosenbaum: The obvious comparison is to Calvino’s Invisible Cities since Rosenbaum’s operating in the same mode: writing short vignettes describing fantastic cityscapes and societies. There’s the city of detectives, the city of forgotten pleasures, the city of the two sisters, the city that is actually a monster. It’s a mode I quite like, so no surprise that I enjoyed this.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse: Urban Fantasy Monster Hunter novel set in a post-apocalyptic American South West heavily steeped in the mythology and spiritual traditions of the local Tribal Nations. It’s a bit more gun-porny than I like, but the milieu more than makes up for that and those bits of standard Urban Fantasy tropes that annoy me. (Traumatized heroine? Check! Pit fighting? Check!) I’m curious to see where this series goes and how much of the wider world beyond the South West will we be shown.
Ports of Call and Lurulu by Jack Vance: Two of the last books Jack Vance had published. I have lots of feelings about Jack Vance, most of them conflicting. On one hand I think he was a phenomenally imaginative writer, on the other hand I feel like for all his ability creating weird and wondrous societies they often don’t really rise above that joke New Yorker cartoon caption of “Would you look at these assholes?” Not to mention that he’s hard pressed to write a woman character that isn’t an object of derision. Yet, I enjoyed these books. They’re both picaresque space opera following Myron Tany as he sets forth into the galaxy, first on board his Aunt Hester’s yacht, second on board the tramp space freighter the Glicca. Yet… well… okay, imagine Harry Mudd, that sleazy merchant/conman character from Star Trek, now imagine if that guy ran the Federation. That would very much be a Jack Vance universe.
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane: Another entry in the Brit Takes A Walk subgenre I enjoy. This one is a lively and engaging example of the type. In fact if your social media footprint at all resembles mine you probably already either follow Robert MacFarlane or have him retweeted into your thread multiple times a week. That’s not a bad thing, and should likely give you some idea what to expect here: an interest in the way landscape intersects with language, memory, and the way we think about our world. And here the way MacFarlane takes us into the landscape is by recounting a series of long excursion walks he took, mostly in the United Kingdom, but also in Nepal and the Middle East. I definitely recommend this if you enjoy the books about walking subgenre.
Favorite Reads September 2018
The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre: I feel like le Carre’s spy novels owe more stylistically to Dickens and 19th century literature than they do to Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. The cast of characters is huge, the plot’s oblique, and the prose ripe with caricature and grotesques. I love the world he crafts, but can understand anyone’s complaint that there’s not enough action. If anything le Carre deflates the action oriented spy story, as the more James Bond a character is, the more likely they are to get killed – and not only by enemy agents, but by their own country’s spy services in some inter-departmental spat.
Anyway, all that’s in here as George Smiley seeks to rebuild the British spy service post-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and sends agent Jerry Westerby to Hong Kong to unearth a Russian “gold seam” of covert money being paid to a Chinese tycoon. As Westerby follows the trail, he travels throughout South East Asia (circa the early-1970s and the final days of the Vietnam War) on a grisly odyssey.
It’s a slog at times, but I absolutely recommend it.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan: This is Book #1 in the Memoirs of Lady Trent and documents her youth where she developed a passion for dragons and naturalism, her debut in society and marriage to a husband who shares her interests, their expedition to study dragons in a remote region of their world, and the adventures that unfold there. It’s a fun blend of Jane Austen, 19th century travelogue and naturalist writings, and simple adventure story. I’ll likely continue with the series. It’s definitely fun and smart, and I’m curious how Lady Trent develops.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: My first foray into the Vorkosigan Saga and I liked it. Miles Vorkosigan is the disabled son of a military hero in a highly militaristic society (I imagined them to be like a planet full of Prussian Hussars). He fails to achieve his goal of making it in the military and so sets out to visit his mother’s homeworld, which is like a planet of efficient hippies (ever meet anyone who had a Montessori education? Beta Colony is a planet of those people). Soon Miles finds himself and his starship crew embroiled in a small interplanetary war and mayhem ensues from here.
This is fun swashbuckling space opera and yes I could side-eye bits of it, but I won’t. I also chose my favorite cover for this. It looks like a Soviet-era poster.
Sweet Silver Blues by Glenn Cook: I never really took to Cook’s Black Company books, but this I liked. It leans a lot on detective tropes, but I think the covers and ad copy sell that idea more than the book warrants. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Jhereg and the character Vlad Taltos. Very urban, secondary world fantasy, heavily informed by RPGs with the adventure being undertaken for mostly financial reasons. Some of the fun comes from upending expectations, the rest from Cook’s ability to have a plot sprout complications. The bad bit is that it is written in what I can only describe as the uninterrogated Testicular style where the characters spend a good bit of time exasperated by the existence of women. You have to wonder if Cook assumed that no one but guys would read his books.
Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivela, and Jason Wordie: I’m a fan of the paranormal detective genre and Abbott takes the usual tropes but puts them in 1970s Detroit. Our detective is Abbott and she’s a reporter for a local paper at odds with the powers that be, and she’s also someone with a history of having encountered dark powers. While the villainy might be familiar the milieu isn’t and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre.
Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.
“In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes” by Giorgio van Straten
A manuscript hidden away for decades in a bottom drawer discovered after its author’s death.
Another manuscript lost when the suitcase it was stored in gets stolen from a train compartment.
Or another manuscript destroyed to protect the author’s associates and families from scandal. Not to mention the other, other manuscripts destroyed by their authors for not being good enough. Or even no manuscripts at all, just the rumors of them. Books that may or may not have ever existed but which still manage to haunt readers because they might have.
Giorgio van Straten hunts for these books here, exploring eight of their stories and the mysteries that surround them. From certainty to speculation, from the lost manuscript Van Straten read but later learned was destroyed, to those he wonders if they’ve ever existed at all. There’s the Hemingway manuscript lost when his then wife had her suitcase stolen. There’s Lord Byron’s memoirs burnt by his associates to spare them from scandal. There’s Gogol burning the later parts of Dead Souls because they weren’t “good enough”, and then there’s Walter Benjamin, Sylvia Plath, Bruno Schulz, Malcolm Lowery, all of them with rumored “lost” manuscripts out there.
We start in Italy and the manuscript that in many ways typifies them all. This one written by Van Straten’s mentor, the Italian writer Romano Bilenchi. Here he knows the book existed. He saw it and read a copy, only to learn years later that Bilenchi’s wife destroyed the manuscript to protect her husband’s legacy. The second has Lord Byron’s associates meeting with his agent to burn his memoirs and keep them from publication to silence any possible accounts of homosexuality (less Byron’s and more their own). Then there’s the famous Hemingway’s lost suitcase and Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase too, although maybe his was empty. We read of Gogol’s and Lowry’s self-destructive perfectionism and how this as much as any thing destroyed their work. Last, are the tantalizing ones: Bruno Schulz’s novel The Messiah lost in the chaos of World War Two (even now hints of its possible discovery can generate plots that resemble spy thrillers), and the potential books by Sylvia Plath kept out of the public sphere by Ted Hughes’s control of her estate.
Overall this is a very enjoyable set of essays about an author’s obsession with an obsession-worthy subject, and the bug that’s as much fool’s quest as the object of wishful thinking on what might have been. If you can track down a copy, and are the kind who enjoys a good fool’s quest, this is definitely worth a read.