Category Archives: Books
I am okay with my reading in August. I am still in something of a slump. But I am getting out of it. Now on to the books I read.
I have already written about Dark Valley Destiny and Blood and Thunder in my last post, so I won’t repeat what I have already written.
There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon is the first novel I completed in the month of August. It is a tale of one woman’s experiences during and years after the Spanish Civil War interspersed with her relationship with her granddaughter. I like the novel well enough. But the remembrances aren’t visceral, there is an insurmountable remove from the memories of the past.
Next, I completed two Poirot novels by Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun and Peril at End House. I really enjoyed both novels quite well.
Following Christie, I decided to tackle one of the novels on my much neglected Historical Fiction Challenge by reading The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory. Oh my. That book was just not for me. I’m not sure giving Elizabeth Woodville the voice Gregory gives her is the best idea. It immediately put me off. Probably won’t return to her work.
Next up, and again following my Historical Fiction Challenge (I think) came Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I like it better than The White Queen, but I think it drags. And I am not fond of the characterization.
For a change of pace, I read Street Angel After School Kung Fu Special by Jim Rugg et al. I am not in the target audience. I didn’t see a point to the story. Nice art though.
By this point in August, I yearned for some contemporary literary fiction. So, I checked out The Ministry of Utmost Hapiness by Arundhati Roy. The writing is good. But I wasn’t feeling it at the time. I may return to it later on. Or not.
I had the same feelings for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Just not for me.
The bright spot of August must go to Elizabeth Mowry’s Landscape Painting in Pastel. An amazing instructional work. I really should buy it when I get the money.
I wanted to get a fantasy series read in the month of August, so I chose to finally read The Sundered Realm by Robert Vardeman and Victor Milan. Okay. I wish I had paid more attention to who the publisher was. Yikes. This novel is bad. From poor characterization, cartoon villains, bad plotting, and so much more, I still marvel how I finished the novel.
August also saw me interested in returning to literary criticism. I chose to read one of my favorite literary critics from my first literary theory anthology. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time to dive into R.S. Crane’s work.
I finally watched Stranger Things in August. Given that Stranger Things has been compared to Paper Girls, I decided to give the later a look. I did not like the series at all. Nothing to really recommend it, in my opinion.
The last novel I read in August wass The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. I really wanted to love this novel. But I don’t think the novel really works all that well.
The final book I read in August was The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce. This is an amazing, thought provoking book. It certainly opened my eyes to an interpretation of the malaise that has swept the “West” since the end of the Cold War. My one complaint is that Luce posits a hypothetical war with China as the opening of his chapter titled “Fallout” that doesn’t truly advance his thesis. Rather, it detracts from it. But over all. The Retreat of Western Liberalism is a must read, even if it will enrage the reader.
And so ends what I read in August. September is already looking to be a better month. But we will see.
This blog post is inspired by an article at Black Gate titled “A Tale of Two Robert E. Howard Biographies” by James McGlothlin. The article is a review of (obviously) the two Robert E. Howard biographies: Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague DeCamp, Catherine Crook DeCamp, and Jane Whittington Griffin and Blood and Thunder by Mark Finn. I was inspired to make interlibrary loan requests for both books to see what I made of them. Ultimately, both books have their merits and flaws. And, in all honesty, a new biography is needed.
Surprisingly, I preferred Dark Valley Destiny (I had assumed I would prefer Blood and Thunder based on McGlothlin’s article). The writing is very good. The narrative dives deeper into Howard’s life and background. And the light amount of literary criticism is interesting.
But, Dark Valley Destiny is infamous for using psychoanalysis as the theoretical/ interpretive strategy deployed to explicate Howard and his work. I agree that, while the approach elicits interesting readings of Howard’s work, the technique also serves to critically pathologize Robert E. Howard.
Which begs the question, what is the purpose of attempting to psychoanalyze Howard? Is it a necessary consequence of using Griffin as a cowriter? Is there a darker purpose? I don’t know enough to hazard a guess.
Another problem with Dark Valley Destiny is the tendency to step away from the narrative and spend chapters discussing subjects out of time. While the chapter long biographies of Hester Ervin and Isaac Howard are necessary, the chapter long history of Texas is superfluous.
Blood and Thunder is more defensive of Robert E. Howard’s life. And argues a place for Howard in Texas Literature. I’m not entirely sure Finn succeeds in his aims.
Blood and Thunder is about a hundred pages shorter than Dark Valley Destiny and it shows. The events of Howard’s life are noticeably presented with less depth, though it does give more attention to Cross Plains and Howard’s menial jobs.
I also fault Blood and Thunder with the handling of Howard’s racism. It is defensive to the point of anemic. Finn deflects the issue by attacking politically correct readers who cannot/ refuse to read Howard in context. At least the DeCamps and Griffin tackle Howard’s racial beliefs head on (even as racist language is used throughout).
I am also not too impressed with the attempts at literary criticism or Howard’s placement in Texas Literature.
So, ultimately, I do believe a new biography of Robert E. Howard is needed.
What type of biography do I want to see?
I want to see a biography give Howard the depth of narrative coverage that Dark Valley Destiny gives him (preferably with new research). I want to see a new biography jettison the outdated at best/ thoroughly debunked at worse psychoanalysis of Dark Valley Destiny in favor of multiple current theoretical/ interpretive strategies. I liked that Finn attempted to place Howard in the context of Texas Literature, and I want to see that thread expanded. Using culture studies as an interpretive foundation would be very interesting. I would also like to see other interpretive strategies deployed like: poststructuralism, deconstruction, literary marxism, new historicism, etc. I also want to see Howard’s racism confronted head on. Do not hide from it. Do not deflect from it. Take the damn bull by the horns.
If I finished my Master’s. If I progressed to receiving a Ph.D. In another life, I might have been the person to write this biography. But I didn’t.
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.
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.