Tag Archive | reviews

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Favorite Reads September 2018

schoolboyThe 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.

dragonsA 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.

apprenticeThe 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.

garrettSweet 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.

abbottAbbott 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

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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

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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.

Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo

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I’m not much of a YA reader. The times I’ve made forays into recent YA blockbusters I’ve always been put off by how aggressively and enthusiastically bland they are.

Also the self-absorbed whining.

Also the love triangles.

But honestly I’m not really that well-versed in the genre, at least in its prose format and would probably have an easier time with graphic novels dealing with the same issues.

All that said I was happy to find Mary Turzillo’s Mars Girls anything but bland. It’s a YA SF adventure story that’s quite fun. Best of all, there’s no dystopia nor reality TV bloodsports, only a couple of 23rd century teenage girls on Mars caught up in a mystery involving murder, cultists, corporate geeks, and stolen tech.

Much of the fun comes from the differences between our two teen protagonists: Nanoannie and Kapera Smythe. While Nanoannie is the older of the two friends, she’s certainly not the wiser and while she is the protagonist, she’s much more the propellant whose over-active imagination fuels as much of the plot as solves it. Kapera on the other hand is more thoughtful and reserved. Also she’s more in jeopardy as it’s her family at the center of the plot. She also needs to get to an Earth Orbital colony for medical treatment. And while Nanoannie’s assistance is not totally altruistic, the price tag she offers is one totally in keeping with her character.

The fact that the book isn’t a cruel dystopia is a point in its favor. Overall 23rd century teen life seems recognizably teenish. Nanoannie’s obsessed with dating, fashion, and not being the boring corporate contract workers her parents are. There’s a future internet and attendant social media, but all she wants is to see a bit of Mars before she settles down. That she and Kapera are technologically precocious I’ll let slide. What teen isn’t more technologically savvy than their elders and who am I to raise an eyebrow at the notion of decently home-schooled by scientists teens making easy adjustments to their home nuclear reactor?

Turzillo’s Mars is a consistently hazardous place that feels real and consistent. There’s very little that comes out of left-field and throws you for a loop at least as far as the physics goes. Maybe Kapera’s hoodoo/intuition borders on a telepathic sixth sense, but that’s a rather small piece of the overall plot. And while the story is confined to Mars there’s a definite sense of there being a populated solar system beyond.

Earth’s still there and seems to be doing all right (or maybe Nanoannie and Kapera just don’t care) and there are orbital colonies and Lunar colonies that have industries solvent enough to want to up-sell their products to the unwary. The bad thing in the world might be indentured servitude to corporations seems to be a thing, and corporations have done away with owners and are now run by AIs programmed to maximize profits, which, surprise, surprise, turns out to be a bad idea. And while there were times I wish Turzillo went deeper into her setting, I’m the type that would rather have too little than too much.

Being curious about an interesting idea the author throws away is a much better thing than getting inundated under interesting ideas brought to their uninteresting conclusions.

On the down side there were a couple of corny bits that grated, such as “nuke” as a slang word for “cool”, and the occasional name that bordered on the campy (Elvis Darcy), but they also kind of gave the novel an aesthetic. And there were better silly bits that added to the fun: little details such as the Facer cult wearing symbiotic bindis that display their mood or the oft-mentioned author Naussicaa Azrael whose books Nanoannie has internalized all too well. (This latter one reminded me of Martha Wells’s murderbot in All Systems Red  and the “Narrative Disorder” idea Malka Older plays with in Infomocracy – Nanoannie would very well be the poster child for such a disorder.)

While it might be possible to say there’s something retro in Turzillo’s approach, I don’t quite think that’s the case. Sometimes I feel like a lot of genre fiction is trying too hard to be important or serious, and too often the structural bones writers are building their plots on can’t quite bear the weight they’re piling on. All of which leads to a bit of ponderousness when a lighter touch would be more suitable and advantageous.

This isn’t to say genre books should only be fun or humorous, but they can get a lot of mileage out of suggestion and throw-away gimmicks if only writers learn to harness and trust that energy. Stuff like Philip K. Dick’s kookier SF novels such as Clans of the Alphane Moon or Rudy Rucker’s novels – I miss that stuff, and while I certainly feel it’s receded or at least gone out of fashion in recent decades, it’s not altogether gone. I just want more of it. And much to my delight, Mars Girls gave me that and did it intelligently. So give it a shot. I recommend it.

Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo is published by Apex Book Company and set to be released on June 13th. You can order a copy here.

Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley

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My simple review for Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley is if you’re into the sort of thing these stories do, then you’ll like this collection, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, then you won’t.

Simple, right? Maybe.

Figuring out where you lie on that spectrum requires looking at what these stories might be doing and figuring out if that’s your thing or not. And an easy way of deciding that is asking yourself how do you feel about exquisiteness. Things delicate, beautiful, and potentially possessing more alluring surfaces than their interiors might warrant.

Beautiful Sorrows features twenty-seven stories, ranging from paragraph long micro-fictions to a single novella length. It’s a mix of the fantastic (Fairy Tale variety) and the dark (Neil Gaiman variety). But it’s the sheer exquisiteness of these stories that provides the through-line that holds them all together.

Whether it’s the painful briefness “Broken”, the macabre wryness of “The ABCs of Murder”, or the fairy tale tweeness of “The Boy Who Hangs the Stars”, these stories one and all are exquisite. What they might lack in substance they make up for in emotional content and taut shiny surfaces. So even if my impression of a story was that it was light and ephemeral like a bubble, the emotion that lingered after the bubble burst might be as much the point of the story as the pleasure that came from the words written on the page.

Or when the fae tweeness got so thick my eyes rolled back in my skull to rattle around for a bit, there was always this exquisiteness to keep my attention: the well-executed surface that I could admire. Although some stories did leave a bad taste after I’d finished them, and I suspect the reaction was not one Yardley intended. These however seemed to revel in those sorts of seductions that from my perspective border on the creepily abusive, but when presented in the book there’s no such rejection of that behavior. (“Sweet, Sweet Sonja T.” I’m looking at you.)

Overall these are well-crafted and richly imaginative stories. Whether they will remain in your mind once you put the book down I can’t say, but maybe not a requirement for you to enjoy or appreciate them. At least it wasn’t for me.

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

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Back in October 2016 I was on twitter whining about the fact that I couldn’t find anything to read in my particular corner of genre interest (a contemporary, well-written space-opera novel but short) and this started an exchange between myself, Paul Jessup, and Joe McDermott swapping book recommendations, the upside of which was Joe sending me an advance copy of his latest book, The Fortress at the End of Time. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s stuff since I read his book Last Dragon, so gladly agreed to writing a review of the book after reading it.

(The downside of that conversation was its eventual, though not unexpected, wrangling over how good or bad a book Moby Dick is…)

The short answer then is I liked it. A lot. The Fortress at the End of Time is very much my particular corner of genre interest as it reads a bit like a mash-up of Walter M. Miller JR’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes. While it’s not much of a space-opera it does deal with a galactic civilization. I’d call it more military SF, if milSF were truer to the modern day experience of the military – a lot of boredom and drudgery with a sideline of diplomacy in a place far away from home – than, say, any iteration of Space Hulk. (Another book in a similar vein might be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.)

Here’s what Fortress is about: Ronaldo Aldo is a young military officer sent to a far away military outpost located in orbit above a desert world, the Citadel. Actually it’s not Aldo himself, but his clone that’s sent as intergalactic travel is conducted via ansible, which is a bit like a Star Trek transporter. About a century before the novel’s events a war took place between humanity and another intergalactic species with the other species disappearing beyond an empty expanse of space. The outpost where Aldo is sent serves as a forward listening base in case the aliens return, but in reality it’s a horrible posting full of drudgery, boredom, and a high suicide rate.

Between the corruption of his fellow officers, the institutionalized sexual harassment, and the feud between the military outpost and the civilian monastery on the planet’s surface, Aldo quickly finds himself at a loss in dealing with those around him. Part of his problem is that he’s more than a bit of a sanctimonious prig who alienates those around him even when he’s doing the right thing. The other problem might be a bit more meta, in that the book is a first person confession by Aldo regarding a crime it takes over two hundred pages for him to come straight out and confess. As another reviewer on Goodreads said, “sometimes you wish you could punch Aldo in the nose” and that’s the truth. Even when Aldo commits his justifiable from the reader’s perspective defiant act of rebellion, he can’t escape that priggishness that makes you dislike him.

Now, like I said this book is very much in my little area of interest. Whether other folks enjoy 1st person Miller/Buzzati* mash-ups that have a good bit of crunch to them, but no answers (and you can’t riff on The Tartar Steppes and simply provide answers…) I can’t really say. When I finished the book, I had to wonder who else would go for something like this besides other weirdos like me, and we’re not much of a stable niche market. That Tor/Macmillan would put this out makes me immensely glad and continues my impression that the Tor.com novella series is a fascinating experiment, and The Fortress at the End of Time fits well in that list.

* Wasn’t Buzzati a Fascist? Yes. Yes, he was. If you feel weird reading him, you can always read Gramsci alongside him.