My reading endured a sustained slump over the month of July. I had personal issues to deal with throughout the month. And I did not have much luck with the books I selected baring a few exceptions.
The first book I read, or rather attempted to read, in July was N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I wasn’t too pleased with what I read of the novel. I admit that I do have trouble reading Jemisin’s work. I have yet to enjoy her fiction, though I do think she is an excellent critic of science fiction and fantasy. But I recognize that I really should go back and give the The Fifth Season a second shot.
Following The Fifth Season, I read Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History Sybille Haynes. I liked the book well enough. But I didn’t get a sense of Etruscan history.
Next came The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. It is a comprehensive biography of Jim Jones and his ministry/ cult. The book is pretty good if a bit overly sensational.
By this point, I realized my reading slumped. So, I decided to binge on some comic books. I started Dennis Hopeless’s All New X-Men volume “Hell Hath No Fury.” I like Hopeless’s work on characterization- the personal dramas are written well. But the super hero plot stank. That is one of the worst interpretations of the Goblin Queen I’ve ever read. Next up came Wonder Woman “The Circle” and “The Ends of the Earth” by Gail Simone. I can’t say I enjoyed these volumes. Wonder Woman as a secret agent with limited access to her power has never been appealing. Wonder Woman should never be in a white catsuit. Following disappointment, I reread Geoff Johns et al.’s amazing Sinestro Corps War crossover. Still an amazing work of comics storytelling. But, I’m not sold on Johns’s interpretation of fear, especially when Kyle Rayner becomes possessed by Parallax- he should be filled with rage, not fear. And I didn’t care for the focus devoted to Sodam Yat in the second half of the arc. The focus should have remained on Hal and company. Finally, Superman/ Superboy Prime should never be used. As a hero, as villain, as whatever. He is a dumpster fire of a character. Period. The last comic book I read was War of the Gods by George Perez. There is so much wrong with this story I don’t know where to begin. Parts of the narrative seem missing, Circe’s plan is nonsensical, the conclusion is a massive disappointment, etc. Over all, my comic book reading for July bummed me out.
After comics, I read a few more histories: 1381 The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker and The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir. I enjoyed both books. I prefer 1381 because of the sources used and the convincing argument. The Wars of the Roses, though well written, suffers from Weir’s penchant to enthusiastically sensationalize and pass moral judgement on her subjects.
Next up, I finally got around to reading Brad Watson’s short story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. Before I DNFed the collection, I did not care for the stories I had read.
The bright spot of my reading in July was Agatha Christie Mallowan’s Come, Tell Me How You Live. It is a delightful loose memoir of Agatha Christie’s life working with her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological expeditions. While I like the book, there are a lot of problems. Christie plays very loosely with events and facts. This is an impressionistic memoir rather than a solid piece of autobiography. The writing isn’t the best, if I’m honest about it. And Christie is quite condescending to the natives who work for her husband though she doesn’t intend to be. But, I still enjoyed the book.
Next up is a surprising find at my local library (okay, every book save The Fifth Season comes from my local library system), The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson. The book is okay. It is more an incomplete encyclopedia rather than a history or critical analysis of superheroines and other female characters in comics.
The penultimate book I tackled in July is my third or fourth attempt on The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m conflicted when it comes to this novel. The writing is amazing. It is lush and gorgeous. The story is interesting and engrossing. But the characters are all pieces of shit (which is, of course, the point). And I don’t buy Richard’s obsession with the Classics Clique. Needless to say, I still have issues regarding The Secret History. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Or maybe I’ll just give up.
Finally, I read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. The novel is well written. But I found it a slow, dull slog before I gave it up.
That concludes my disappointing July.
Nine days into August, things are looking up.
Crap. Over a month since I last posted. Unfortunately, June and early July saw my mother hospitalized twice for extended stays. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get more blogging done now that mom is back home.
Anyway, on to the books.
The first book I read in June was Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo- Saxon England by Barbara Yorke. For an academic audience, the book is likely indispensable for students of Anglo-Saxon England. But too academic for a general readership.
I followed with a significant number of books I did not care for including: The Wilds by Julia Eliot, The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, Prepare to Die by Paul Tobin, Boycam by Sam Stevens, The Storm Lord by Tanith Lee, Gutterboys by Alvin Orloff, and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell.
I also read and didn’t particularly like The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.
I’m disappointed that so many books didn’t work for me. Some of them are genuinely bad. And some of them may just be the victims of me being in a reading slump or pressed for time.
The lone novel I enjoyed this month was Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. The book is wonderful and enjoyable. But Lee does not flesh out later generations of her characters.
I enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing. King presents the reader with good advice. But he could have cut out the memoir part.
For research, I read Witchcraft Continued edited by de Blecourt and Davies. Some of the essays are interesting and useful. And some of them are neither interesting or useful.
Rounding out the research books, I read Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology, a decent textbook, and Eric H. Cline’s very good Three Stones Make a Wall. My one complaint is that Cline gets a wee bit repetitive.
By far the best book I read in June is Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. I loved the book. It is engrossing, provocative, and deeply satisfying. But, and there is always a but, the world building could be better. I plan on doing a review once I finally read Wilson’s follow up A Taste of Honey.
Any way. That is what I read in June.
May has been an interesting month in terms of my reading. I read some really good books. And I read some stinkers. To be honest, I think I am in a mood for more science fiction and fantasy rather than realistic or literary fiction. I am also reading more books for research. And finding good and useful research texts is hit or miss.
Anyway, here is what I read in May:
I already reviewed Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (which I loved) and The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (which I hated).
The best book I read in May was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It gets everything I want in a fantasy novel right. Just an awesome book.
I followed Kings of the Wyld up with Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele and Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Both books are disappointing. I enjoyed Steele’s reboot of Captain Future better than Vandermeer’s phoned in biopunk new weird novel.
I reread Sappho translated by Mary Barnard. I enjoyed the poems, but the don’t have the same impact they once had.
Keeping with Greek mythology, I read Colm Toibin’s House of Names. There is so much wrong with this novel. Especially the lack of consistency in narrative perspective. A worthy competitor with The Night Ocean for worse book I read this month.
I reread two novel by Kawabata Yasunari this month. Thousand Cranes and Master of Go lack the impact that they once had. This is similar to my experience with the poetry of Sappho. Maybe I am turning away from the literature I once loved.
To round out my fiction reading, I attempted The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. I like what I read. But taking a few days off to read other things ruined my desire to return to the book. I will return to it in a few months. Hopefully I will love it on the second attempt.
Before I touch upon the research texts, I want to skim over the graphic novels I read. I was not fond of Titans volume one “The Return of Wally West” (I do like the art though), Apocalypse Wars (a terrible idea in three comics), and Wonder Woman volume two “Year One” (the only part of Rucka’s jettisoning of the New 52 Wonder Woman I like is Nicola Scott’s artwork).
Now, what research books have I tackled?
The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder is a disappointing look at Arthurian myth. The First Decadent by James Laver is a disappointing (and likely dated) biography of J.K. Huysmans. The Road from Decadence, a collection of Huysmans’s letters is useful for Huysmans scholars, but not for what I want to write. I did enjoy the very useful Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman. Less enjoyable and useful is Janine Chapman’s The Quest for Dion Fortune. A. Norman Jeffares’s W.B. Yeats is an interesting if very dry biography of Yeats. The Etruscans by Raymond Bloch is not exactly what I want from a book on the Etruscans. Maybe a newer study/ history is in order? Another disappointing look at an ancient people is Jean Markale’s The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture.
I also read Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise. I enjoyed the book. Nichols raises many interesting and cogent concerns about current American culture. But I can’t help but point out that Nichols’s writing is hampered by repetition and the settling of political scores (who else is writing outside of their area of expertise besides Noam Chomsky, hmm?)
Finally, I want to return to novels before I close out what I read in May.
I am in a bit of a gay erotica craze at the moment. To satisfy my craze, I read Brad by Ken Smith. Where do I begin? I have so many issues with this novel that I want to do a detailed review. But would anyone want to read a review about a gay erotic novel?
That is what I read in May. On to June.
In honor of Star Trek Discovery debuting sometime later this year on CBS/ CBS All Access/ Netflix, I want to rank the Star Trek films and television series to date (save the animated series which I have never seen).
Let me begin with the films, from low to high.
13. The Motion Picture is very dull. I’ve watched it once or twice and feel nothing for it. I wouldn’t mind never seeing the film again.
12. The Final Frontier. Has some interesting bits. But Spock’s brother and his search for God is lackluster.
11. Star Trek. The Abrams helmed reboot is a disappointment. Pretty effects? Yes. But that does not excuse the fact that this film has horrendous world building that leads to a horrid plot.
10. The Search For Spock. It has its moments. But a poor follow up to a much better movie.
9. Into Darkness. The reboots need an original plot. And to not whitewash Khan. I do like that the supporting characters are branching off into their own subplots (which the original series’s films never did).
8. Insurrection. The worse of the Next Generation films. My problem with this film is that it takes place during the Dominion War. And the Enterprise is not engaged in the war? Really?
7. Nemesis. A clone of Picard really? Cool battle sequence. And I love the fact that the Romulans realize their mistake and aid the Enterprise in preventing genocide.
6. The Voyage Home. I really don’t like this film. But I do like the fact that characters other than Kirk, Bones, and Spock have subplots, if only minor.
5. Generations. An okay movie. My favorite bit is Lursa and B’Etor. And Whoopie Goldberg.
4. First Contact. I love the exploration of Picard’s character, the Ahab comparison and touches of PTSD are excellent. I even like Data’s continued exploration of his nature. But I wish other characters had gotten more chances to shine. (Data is my least favorite Next Generation character.)
3. Beyond. Damn I like this movie. The effects are well done. The villains make more sense than they usually do. And the cast has finally made the characters their own. And the crew stand on their own separate from Kirk, Bones, and Spock.
2. The Wrath of Khan. What? Number two? Yes. I love Wrath. It is one of the best example of space opera on film. But. . .
1. The Undiscovered Country. I really love this movie. It is my favorite Trek film. I love the usage of politics in the film. The acting is really good. The themes are incisive and well executed. Just an amazing example of space opera on film.
Now. What about the television series? Again from low to high.
5. Enterprise. The third and fourth seasons are good. Unfortunately, the first and second seasons are disappointing in the extreme.
4. Star Trek. Blasphemy! I know. I just am not too terribly fond of the Original Series. There are great episodes. But there are also some terrible episodes. The problem with the Original Series is that it hasn’t aged well (which is a problem with a lot of science fiction over time).
3. Voyager. There are good episodes. And there are bad episodes. I enjoyed it when I was younger. But revisiting the series recently, I must admit that it does not hold up well.
2. The Next Generation. My first experience with Star Trek. I like the series. But I’m not sure how well it holds up. Introduced me to Wesley Crusher.
1.Deep Space Nine. By far my favorite series. It has, honestly, improved with each viewing. I love the extended plot arcs that typified the later series. There are some issues. The Mirror Universe episodes are terrible. The Ferengi episodes are disappointing. But over all, I love Deep Space Nine.
I am a fan of Star Trek. I don’t consider myself a Trekkie, though. But I do hope Star Trek returns to form and produces more excellence. More Trek is always needed.
The Hexarchate is facing a catastrophic defeat. To stave off a crippling loss, Kel Cheris recommends using the tactical genius of Shuos Jedao, an infamous general who slaughtered his own troops to achieve victory centuries ago. Damn, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is freaking awesome. Yoon Ha Lee has crafted an amazing blend of intellectual science fiction, military science fiction, space opera, and weird fiction.
The world building is excellent. And quite weird. Melded with real physics is a sort of consensus physics by which many exotic effects are achieved through adherence to various calendars. To rebel against the hegemonic calendar is to enact heresy, which threatens the entire fabric of the society of the Hexarchate. And many of these exotic technologies have become essential to the continued existence of galactic society.
Which explains why the Hexarchate is a very authoritarian, brutal culture to live in.
Several reviews I have read remarked upon the difficulty of following along with the weird/ exotic science Lee develops for Ninefox Gambit. But I do not agree. I find no problem understanding the science, even if it is weird.
In fact, I had no problem following along with the cultural world building either.
Ninefox Gambit is a relatively slim novel that packs quite a punch. Especially during the siege and battle that takes place over the last third of the novel. The Siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles is one of the best science fiction battles I have ever read.
My one criticism, though, is that I wish the Neo Liozh Heresy had been more of a match for Jedao and Cheris. I wish more had been done with Vahenz (whose communications with Liozh Zai are delightfully hilarious) to make her a more credible antagonist.
The characterization is subtle and very well done. The reader feels for these characters. The readers rage at Kel Command with Cheris, feel for the soldiers fighting in the battle (and often dying), and come to recognize the ignored importance of the servitors. The characters, no matter how short their appearance, come across as multidimensional.
My one major criticism is that Ninefox Gambit is only 317 pages in the edition I have. I want more. I want to know what happens to Cheris after the end of the Siege. I want to see her next moves.
Did H.P. Lovecraft write the Erotonomicon, a diary of forbidden sexual desire and experience? Did R.H. Barlow fake his suicide in Mexico City to live a new life in Montreal? Who is L.C. Spinks? What drove Charlie Willett to suicide. That is what Charlie’s wife, Marina Willett is determined to find out. But will Marina’s quest drive her to the madness that claimed Charlie? If you want to find out, read The Nigh Ocean, Paul LaFarge’s own Lovecraftian pastiche. Or is it parody? In either case, I would urge a prospective reader to pull back before it is too late.
The Night Ocean is not a good novel.
The plot is ridiculous and convoluted, surviving on the audaciousness of the salacious implication that H.P. Lovecraft may or may not have been fond of teenage hustlers. And R.H. Barlow. Before readers jump to Lovecraft’s defense (and spoiler alert!), the Erotonomicon is revealed to be a forgery. Like the rest of the various narratives designed to evoke Lovecraftian paranoia and madness.
It is all a bunch of hot air that does not even capture the evocative power of Lovecraft, even at his worse.
The characters are all flat and unrealized. Especially as the novel is told second and third hand.
Are there any redeeming features of the novel?
Yes. There is one.
I did enjoy the scenes of Barlow’s life in Mexico City before his suicide. That is, for me, the sole interesting thing in the novel. Pity the novel is not about Barlow in Mexico City.
Otherwise, this is just a truly terrible novel.
I’m late on this post. I intended on going to Golden’s Book Exchange the first week of March and picking up some books on sale. But circumstances prevented me from going. I’m hoping I can go in June (or earlier). We will see.
Anyway. While I did not go to Golden’s, I did accumulate quite a few books from Amazon and Alibris over the past few months.
Here they are.
From Alibris, I bought:
Brad by Ken Smith
The Black Halo by Sam Sykes
The Skybound Sea again by Sam Sykes
The Third God by Ricardo Pinto
Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Hawkmoon by Michael Moorcock (an omnibus edition including The Jewel in the Skull, Mad God’s Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff)
The Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee
Starring Miss Marple by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including The Body in the Library, A Murder is Announced, and They Do It With Mirrors)
Five Complete Poirot Novels by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including Murder on the Orient Express, Thirteen at Dinner, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile)
From Amazon, I bought:
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
The Mirrored Empire by Kameron Hurley
Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
Almost Infamous by Matt Carter
Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Blood on the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Kings of the Wild by Nicholas Eames
Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan
The Vagrant by Peter Newman
The Malice by Peter Newman
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donelly
The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes
The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. Barnes
The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes
The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett
The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks
An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
A pretty impressive amount of books, I should think.
What will I haul next? We shall see.
My April reading has continued the general trend of my readings over the course of the year so far. But, there have been rays of light. I know what has been plaguing me. I’ve been forcing myself to read a lot of literary fiction. And I’m just not in the mood for those books. Instead, I am hungering for science fiction and fantasy. Also, I have cut down on the massive numbers of books I’ve checked out of the library at any one time. Not having so many books lessens the pressure on me to speed up my reading.
Any way, what did I read this last month?
The best two books I read in April, and contenders for the best books I’ve read this year, are Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente and The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard. Both books are awesome. And I posted reviews of both novels Monday.
I also finally read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and Burger’s Daughter to a disappointing end. I talked about my feelings for both books in a previous post as well, so I won’t spend much time on either of those.
The first book I read in April was The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales. I can’t say much about this collection except that I was less than impressed with it. What is it about literary speculative fiction that so often falls flat?
The second book I read was Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. This novel is definitely not my cup of tea. I never connected with the characters or the writing.
Next up was Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. I really enjoyed “Jump” and a few other stories. But other stories were not terribly compelling.
I also read Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge. I didn’t care for it at all, I’m sad to say.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift was boring. Why did I have it on my to be read list again?
I really liked The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The story of the people who fell in love with octopuses is touching and well done. But I wish more attention had been paid to the octopuses.
Finally, I read Ismail Kadare’s Broken April. This novel is evocative and haunting. I enjoyed this story of early twentieth century Albania.
That is what I read in April. On to May’s readings!
In a shattered Paris ruled by fallen angel dominated houses, House Silverspire is fading, its past glories departed with its former master. A dark power rises, intent on shattering Silverspire’s very foundations. So begins The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Boddard.
I love this book.
The world building is amazing. The incorporation and realization of so much mythology into the world is extremely well done. The postapocalyptic look of Paris is stunning in its magically induced state of perpetual ruin. The magical systems on display are eclectic, differentiated, and well thought out.
The writing is lush and gorgeous. The narrative subtly differentiates itself depending on narrator, which is so rare to read.
The characters are especially strong. Each character is fully realized and amazing in their own right. The three lead protagonists particularly so.
Selene, the last apprentice of Morningstar, struggles in a role she was never intended for: head of Silverspire. She must balance her innate compassion and moderate nature and the ruthless demand of her position as she confronts the greatest test Silverspire has faced since Morningstar’s disappearance. Selene’s arc is amazing as it is frustrating, in a good way.
Madeleine, the alchemist of Sivlerspire, goes through the motions of killing herself through the abuse of a magical drug. On the run from Hawthorne, a rival house to Silverspire, Madeleine finds herself drawn into the threat facing Silverspire, only to find herself drawn inexorably back to Hawthorne.
Phillippe, a seemingly young man from Annam (the name of Vietnam in the text), is a mystery to those around him. Originally part of a gang and openly hostile to the Houses, Phillippe finds himself drawn into the fall of Silverspire when he becomes psychically connected to Isabelle, a recently manifested fallen angel.
Of the three protagonists, Phillippe is the most interesting. It would be so easy to romanticize Silverspire and the courtly politics and intrigue of the Houses. But Phillippe puts a cold stop to that. His rage and impotence is raw and clawing. His desire for home, for what he has lost, is powerful. And heart breaking.
But, Phillippe is a frustrating character in both good and bad ways. The reader struggles Phillippe, forced to think about losing one’s place in the world, colonialism, post colonialism, and the struggle to survive.
Phillipe is also frustrating because he is impotent. There are moments in the novel where I, personally, am screaming at the book for Phillippe to be more active, to fight back. Especially when he has the power to do so.
This is where my big problem with The House of Shattered Wings comes in. I wanted Phillippe to be more active. I wanted him to fight back. I wanted him to leave Silverspire to its well deserved fate. But he doesn’t. Like so many other initially unhelpful antihero protagonists, Phillippe’s connection to Isabelle forces him to go back to Silverspire to attempt to save the day. Even if the narrative description of his internal struggle to help or not is not convincing.
Despite my criticism, The House of Shattered Wings is amazing and fun. The frustration is a good thing. It forces the reader to think about things that are so easily glossed over in most fantasy. And fantasy needs more of that.
In an alternate universe where every planet in the solar system is inhabitable, Severin Unck, documentary filmmaker, vanishes while filming in a mysteriously destroyed Venusian village. What follows is an amazing homage to old Hollywood and science that never was through the lens of the weird.
I adore Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. But how do I write a glowing review?
The book is amazing, the best thing I’ve read so far this year bar none.
But talking about why I like it is so damn difficult. There is no one thing that I can point to. And many of the elements of the novel may be off putting to other readers.
Catherynne M. Valente is a difficult writer. She melds science fiction and fantasy with a highly experimental literary sensibility. She does not always succeed. But when she does, the work is amazing.
The writing for Radiance is gorgeous. It is baroque and ornate and fits the social milieu of the characters like a glove.
The structure is amazingly well crafted, telling the story through textual home movies, diary entries, film scripts, radio scripts, transcripts, and the ever changing novelization of a film that will never be made. All the narratives combine to create both a powerful homage to a lunar Hollywood that never was and a complicated narrative of grief and the search for solace.
The characters are amazingly realized even as the artificiality of the movie industry transforms the characters both physically and mentally.
My words cannot do this novel enough justice. Just know that if you want to read a novel that reaches the heights science fiction can achieve when it marries literary ambition and experimentation, Radiance might just be the novel for you.