It was an astonishing fortnight for books I did not finish, with thirty in that category. Wow. I also have been having a hard enough time that even with that I finished, shall we say, several others.
Michael Ajvaz, The Golden Age. This was amazing. It started out feeling like a formless travel narrative of a particular sort, and instead it was substantially recursive and self-referential, with pieces of nearly everything you might be looking for, infinitely textured. I really liked The Other City. This was better. Is there more Czech lit like this? Is there more non-Czech lit like this? What is it? I would like it, please.
David Biello, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. A book about the Anthropocene, the era of human influence on climate and nature. Short, mostly stuff that you will know if you’re reading Nature cover to cover every week, a decent primer if you’re not.
Maurice Broaddus, Buffalo Soldier. Novella that is very, very densely worldbuilt. So much worldbuilding. The North America and Caribbean depicted are simultaneously very recognizable and very different, and Broaddus gives us an unusual pair of central characters with very clear relationship in their vivid world.
Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, Rebel. Discussed elsewhere.
M.R. Carey, Fellside. The cover image of this book felt calculated to imply that it was related to The Girl With All the Gifts, to me, but it was definitively not. This is a women’s prison story and a ghost story, the story of an addict whose life went to hell and the ghost who needs her, the story of the corruption inside a prison. There’s no way its elevator pitch didn’t have Orange Is the New Black in it. And yet Carey’s writing is compelling, despite the fact that I don’t really like either of the genres he’s mashed up here. He’s pretty good at writing things I don’t want to read and making me keep turning the pages anyway.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. This started out with all sorts of juicy facts about the kingdom of Serbia in the first two decades of the twentieth century (plum jam exports! heirs kicking their valets to death!) and went on to answer crucial questions like who was actually making the foreign policy decisions in each of the national capitals and what their background was for doing so. I found it very compelling and ended up squirming through the book despite having the ending spoiled for me by the title and, er, the entire rest of the last hundred years of history.
Paul Cornell, The Lost Child of Lychford. When it comes to balanced novellas, with setting and character and plot and everything all playing their role at their proper scale, I’m not sure anybody does it better than Paul Cornell. And I’m reading a lot of novellas lately. I particularly like the vicar in this setting–she is lovely and so well drawn–but really all the characters, I like the whole thing. I see why this has gotten attention.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life. Reread. I have been going through some of my shelves and considering whether I still want to spend the space on some things, and books about writing are getting a particularly careful eye. I had cleared out several of the “show don’t tell” level of writing manuals several years back but kept the more emotive, essay types. I revisited this one to see what it had to share with me, and…this was maybe not the best time. Because there are some passionate passages that still made me smile, certainly. And there were also pieces of…how do I say this. Self-aggrandizing bullshit. Dillard suggests, for example, that it is possible to be too healthy to write. This is not the sort of thing that someone dealing with a chronic health condition finds charming. She also compares writing a novel to sitting up with a dying friend. Since I am writing a novel this month and also have had a friend die this month, none of my responses to that were polite. We were not the level of close where his wife, another friend, would have called me to sit with him even if his death would have been more lingering, but even so, on the whole, I think I may safely suggest that this is the kind of self-important assholery that makes writers feel dramatic and important and should be avoided.
Mike Goldsmith, Discord: The Story of Noise. The first third of this rambles on annoyingly through the history of sound at large. I suppose it might not be annoying to everyone, but it seemed like the odds that someone would pick this up and not know that, for example, sound travels as a wave…really? Who is that target audience? Anyway, it picked up somewhat later, although there was a serious skew in the author’s interests toward talking about environmental pollution (which: fair enough) and away from talking about what factors might practically be used in weighting different kinds of pollutant (not fair enough, actually, if you’re going to write the book actually show up for your book) and also away from topics like how cultures and individuals grow more acclimated to discord in their music. He didn’t have to write the book of the last topic, I just…would like it from someone, please. And there were some bits where he was off his main expertise and flat-out wrong, related to that. (Do not listen to him about Stravinsky. Dude knows nothing about Stravinsky. He is not even trying to know about Stravinsky.)
Linda Legarde Grover, The Dance Boots. A collection of short stories about Ojibwe people from up in Duluth and surrounding areas, families over several generations. Repercussions of mission schools/Indian schools and other abuses. Traditions loved and reclaimed. Other traditions mourned and deprecated.
Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, Real Friends. Discussed elsewhere.
Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss. This book is like gravel and broken glass, so much damage, so much pain, so much desperation to be somewhere else. A little bit of learning to be okay somewhere, a lot of ocean and small town. And drugs and photography and punk. Did I like it? I’m not sure. I’m glad I read it. I think it’s well done. I guess I should say it is a novel, that’s not clear from what I said.
Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass. Discussed elsewhere.
Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. This is a memoir of Hayes moving to New York and his relationship with Oliver Sacks. It is tender and quirky and funny, and Oliver Sacks is weirdly worried about fireflies. There are journal notes, there are interviews with strangers and friends and the guy who sells them magazines. It’s short. I’m glad I read it.
Carlos Hernandez, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria. I rarely come into speculative fiction short story collections completely cold these days, and this one I did, and it was glorious. I loved it so much. It made me wish that I was on book recommending terms with Samuel R. Delany so that I could verify that he has read this. He has, hasn’t he? Does one of you know? Can somebody poke somebody else who can check? Because the story with the pandas and the robot suits, that is the story that somebody who actually knows him ought to hand him and say, “I am so excited, look at this field, look what this person is doing, he did it on his own, but if you hadn’t made this field what it is, he couldn’t have, so well done both of you.” (If nobody gets back to me on this I will go find him at Readercon. I mean it. But it will be a lot more awkward because I don’t actually know him.)
A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad. Kindle. I read this in the intermission of the symphony, and I had read several of the poems in it before, but never all at once. They point. They point toward the coming Great War, so it was good to read with The Sleepwalkers like that. There are some beautiful things, the cherry trees, I like that. And there is some bitterness, anger, frustration, some stuff that where you can see the taking of the Queen’s shilling not being all it is cracked up to be. You can see the dulce et decorum est cracking, you can hear him telling people, trying to tell people, that while the athlete dying young is being praised for his wisdom this is maybe not completely wise. He thrashes. He flails. He comes around to “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” which I have loved for years, which I never fail to read all of, never. Okay, be angry, be frustrated, have some poetry and some cherry trees and wonder whether it’s enough. I will read his later poems soon and see what shape that makes. I hope he’s still flailing.
Gwyneth Jones, Proof of Concept. This science fiction novella goes off into the deep blackness of beyond with so many characters. So very very many characters. I like Jones in general, but by the time I got myself oriented within the cast we were almost done. Novellas are hard to balance.
Margaret Killjoy, A Country of Ghosts. This is an anarchist utopia with an embedded journalist who gets converted. They are fighting a war against imperialists, sort of, inasmuch as anarchists in a utopia do anything so organized as fight a war. It is exactly what it sounds like. Some of them make things to eat or things to eat out of, and they explain how their society works. People get hurt and take care of each other. There are people of different colors, gay people, disabled people. It is a lot nicer than most utopias, and the fact that there is a war (-ish) and a person being converted gives it as much structure as its length really requires. And when I picked it up, it was a good day for reading about a bunch of people trying hard at a thing, even if some of them were going to get hurt or die. Dreadfully convincing? Not really. Reasonable to read? Yah.
Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change. This is not just the sort of thing that a person who’s reading Nature all the time will know but the ten years out of date version of it. Still worth a quick read if you’re interested in knowing what other people will be hearing about these topics, but not the first thing you should reach for probably.
Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason. Ah, the eighteenth century. Time when people hoped they had some idea what the heck was going on, and totally didn’t. The Lisbon Earthquake is very telling about the rest of Portuguese culture at the time, and the merchant cultures that fed into it, and their assumptions. A particularly interesting read after Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell.
Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home. A direct sequel, full of ramifications from Binti. Emotion, family, and aliens are centered here, all things I enjoy very much, and there’s a lot going on for something that’s only novella length.
Helen Phillips, Some Possible Solutions. This was blurbed by other short story writers in the weird and interstitial area whose work I have recently enjoyed, Kelly Link, Karen Russell. I could see why Phillips was put in with them, why they were given her collection to blurb, and yet where they hit dead center for me, she was off, and I couldn’t tell whether it was her or me or the combination of the two of us. If you’re passionate about those two, pick this one up. It has a nastier edge, less kindness. If you’re iffy on them or really don’t like them, you probably won’t like this one either.
Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know. I was so excited about this for something like 85% of the book. It was erudite and discursive. I had no idea where it was going, and I was excited about that, excited to be along for the ride, for the footnotes that went here and there in music and culture and history and literature. It was as though David Foster Wallace had some heritage in Bangladesh and Britain as well as the US and also was not a jerk. And then. And then the plot twist at the end, the plot twist was the most incomprehensibly boring plot twist–there was a plot twist, first of all, and it was staggeringly dull, it made the entire book worse. I had this from the library, and up until the last 50 or so pages I was all set to buy a copy for Mark’s birthday, and then he had to make this plot twist about interpersonal melodrama in this book about friendship and learning and what we think is worth knowing and why. And since he put it in the middle of things, he made it so it was supposed to ramify out, what ramified out was…distasteful, melodramatic, small, petty. Oh. Well then.
Sharon Shinn and Molly Knox Ostertag, Shattered Warrior. Discussed elsewhere.
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Largely though not solely about the relationships among Black slaves, the free Black community, white Americans, and the British during the War of 1812. Informative but not particularly inspired.
Loung Ung, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites With the Sister She Left Behind. This is a parallel memoir/biography: Ung describes her life as a new immigrant in America and also her next-eldest sister’s life staying in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There are a lot of things about which she is gratifyingly honest, but the threads of her life are not necessarily pulled together very well–how does she get from despair to direction? She doesn’t really say, it happens between incidents. Ung has written other memoirs, so perhaps it could be pieced together there, or perhaps the fragmentary recollections are the kind of story she wants to tell.
Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, Spill Zone. Discussed elsewhere.
Kate Wilhelm, Storyteller. Reread. This is another how-to-write that I kept past the initial purge because I enjoy the writer’s other works, but it’s really very basic show-don’t-tell stuff, in addition to a few things that are memoir about the early days of Clarion. I didn’t go to Clarion and don’t have emotional attachment to it–mostly what I felt was horrified at the levels of sexism Wilhelm felt obliged to cope with even when she didn’t seem to think she was describing the overt sexism–so I will feel comfortable letting this one find a new home with a much younger storyteller than I am.