fantasy

Readings: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

When I was writing a draft of this post, it started with ‘I just listened to the new David Bowie, and it might have broken my mind.’ This was on Sunday morning. Then he died and broke everything in my body, mind, and soul. I rarely mourn famous people. I see announcements, ponder about mortality for a second, and move on with my life. This one was different. I’ve been playing his music non-stop for the past ten hours. I’ve seen all the tributes, I’ve read all the tweets. I’ve drunk all the wine. I might form some coherent longer thoughts about it later, but not right now. The last time I remember being this sad was when I was thirteen, and Freddie Mercury was dead.

I leave this with the most appropriate tweet from Monday morning:

Screenshot (2)

And also this short story by Neil Gaiman.

Let us move on, since we have to.

51CnHfrWXnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have finished The Census-Taker by China Miéville, and did not particularly like it. I appreciated the style, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s as if the entire book were chiseled out of a gray stone, with gray town, gray people, and gray things happening in it. Perhaps it’s the almost complete absence of names (but no, that can’t be it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation did not have names either), perhaps it’s the length. I always find novellas awkward. They spread out past short story length, but feel half-formed, like dough that has risen but not baked. I might not be able to articulate precisely why I didn’t have fun reading it, but the verdict remains that this was definitely not my favorite Miéville. He has another book out later this year (The Last Days of New Paris), so we will see how I fare with that one. As I mentioned before, my favorite writers are those who are hit or miss with me, because that means they are trying different things. I love Miéville’s writing, and I will definitely continue reading his books.

And now I am off to work on my secret thing.

Short story Sunday, January 10th

I want to read more short fiction this year, and with that, I am resurrecting a series of posts that used to exist here for a brief second: Short Story Sunday. I am not going to write reviews of short stories. It is too easy to make your review seemingly longer than the story itself, and I am not looking to write long criticisms and dissect every paragraph. I’m just going to note a few really excellent short stories read that week, with links included if such exist. I have a lot of anthologies and collections that I bought and never read (or didn’t read completely), and there are a lot of digital magazines that publish great things.

If you ever sit around and think about where stories come from, or if you are suffering from a certain lack of inspiration, read Neil Gaiman’s introductions to his short story collections, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. I like him a great deal as a short form writer, more than I like him as a novelist, and he has an enchanting and wonderful way of portraying magic as hard work and vice versa.

I have read 10 short stories this week, and here are the the best of them (I am going to collapse the New Year long weekend into this week, since I missed the boat for 1/4):

Even In This Skin by A. C. Wise (Shimmer # 28, November 2015) – gorgeous story, with a gender-fluid component. I would very much like to read more things by A. C. Wise.

The next two are somewhat of a set, in that they are by the same author and are both alternate versions of queer history. The Heat Of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History by Sam J. Miller (Uncanny #2, January/February 2015) is a fantastical version of the Stonewall riots. Angel, Monster, Man (Nightmare #40, January 2016) is Miller’s short fiction take on the AIDS epidemic.

The Virgin Played Bass by Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny #8, January-February 2016). This one is a little longer, novelette-length. Headley is pure magic, and she combines seemingly unrelated parts of storytelling tradition in a way that is occasionally dark, or funny, but always incredibly vivid and brilliant. Her writing is just as good in novel form. I just finished her Queen of Kings and enjoyed it a lot.

Readings: Theodora Goss and the wonderfully strange

Here in our nation’s capital we are heading into that time of the year when it’s already dark at 4:30, the evenings are interminable, and one can barely get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t get a lot of snow, so winter is essentially a bleak parade of cold and disgusting days. They aren’t cold enough for fur hats and multiple layers, but they are too cold for anything more vigorous than drinking wine and reading under blankets.

It’s also the time of the year when I feel like reading something weird and strange. The problem with weird is that it is a spectrum, and it’s not always clear where on it the exact weird you need lies. Do I feel like Jeff VanDermeer-style weird? John M. Harrison? Catherynne M. Valente?

Occasionally one feels like finding something that could be described as ‘wonderfully strange’. I guess that’s what I needed, and I eventually found it in a book I bought a year ago on a whim. It’s a collection of stories by Theodora Goss called In the Forest of Forgetting.

DNOA4910The first story in the collection is a retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, and while I am normally not very much into fairy tale retellings (I like them when they are well-done, but I do not seek them out), this one was great. The second story pretty much hit the ‘weird’ I had been seeking, and so I by the time I read the incredibly beautiful third story, I was thoroughly in love with Theodora Goss and her wonderfully strange tales.

Short stories are my wavelength right now, mostly because I’m writing my own and I need to read other people’s to learn from and be inspired. I am trying to write every day, and I am hacking my brain by using Habitica to do this, because apparently doing tasks for fake gold works. The next step is to also draw every day. I don’t think it’s possible to have a more than full-time job, write, draw, read, and also get enough sleep, so something has to give. I’d like to hope it’s not sleep.

Incidentally, my next read on the ‘weird’ stack is John M. Harrison’s Light. I know a couple of people in my blog feed have been reading Harrison’s stuff, so let me join the collective subconscious that is obviously hungering for something truly odd this time.

Readings: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I bet a lot of reviews of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On start with ‘I don’t really read fan fiction’. Well, neither do I, though not because I think it’s rubbish. Once upon a time I read fan fic, but I am no longer so deep into my fandoms that I seek extra stuff related to them. It’s also a time and reading online issue. I tend to forget about the fact that one can read things electronically. And so fan fiction needs to materialize as a real book for me to pick it up. Enter Rainbow Rowell with Carry On.

KRJF7220Carry On is a fascinating book because it’s sort of a self-aware, meta fan fiction. If you have read Fangirl, you will recognize the name Simon Snow, as he is the character in protagonist Cait’s fan fiction. Carry On does not hide the fact that it is fan fiction and in fact offers some interesting insights into its source (Harry Potter), as well as into main themes of said source (being the chosen one, prophecies, having a Scooby gang (sorry, mixing fandoms here) to help you save the world from evil dark things, and so on). Fan fiction gets all kinds of disdain from people who think it’s a low and silly form of literature, but let me be clear, Carry On is a good book regardless of its provenance. If I never read Harry Potter, I still would have loved Carry On. There are familiar Potterverse elements in it, but there are also differences and extras that give the book its own character (which is really what good fan fic and good books are all about).

Most of the reviews I’ve read stress this particular fact to convince the unbelievers – look, fan fic can be good! It can be published as a ‘real’ book! But there is a much more important side to Carry On. It fills the uncomfortable and very noticeable blank space that Harry Potter books have when it comes to queer characters. Sure, Dumbledore might be gay, but he was openly ‘outed’ after the fact, so to speak, and the only relationship of his mentioned in the books does not take place in front of our eyes. There are really no LGBTQ kids in the books (at least none I can think of), either out or rumored to be queer. I love Harry Potter, but LGBTQ characters is one of the few things so visibly missing from that universe. And so thank magic for Carry On, where queerness is very much there, in all its beauty and sweetness.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

There is naught on Pluto but magicians, Americans, and the mad.

It seems that most of my favorite authors are the ones with whom I have an uneven track record of book enjoyment. I think it’s a sign that they try something different each time they write a book, and sometimes different works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I love China Miéville, but I don’t love all his stuff. Same for Murakami. Same for Guy Gavriel Kay.

Same for Catherynne Valente. My favorite of hers is still The Habitation of the Blessed. I did not like her Deathless as much as I had hoped to. For some reason, I could not get through her Orphan’s Tales books (even though it seems that for most people, these are the books that got them into Valente’s work). Her novella, The Bread We Eat In Dreams, blew me away. And now there’s Radiance.

radianceRead the first sentence on the flap of its dust jacket: ‘Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.’ It’s the type of novel that in book reviews earns descriptors like ‘experimental’ or ‘audacious’, which is code language for ‘too hard to read and sell to customers’.

I like those ‘audacious’ books that are many genres at once, mostly because if you want to write a mystery set in an alternate Solar system, then what does it really matter whether it’s mystery, or sci-fi, or alternate history? I like when people write in ‘whatever the fuck’ genre.*

I also really like stories that are non-linear or stories that try unusual formats, and in that sense Radiance is rather perfect. There are film scripts, interviews, transcripts, newspaper clippings. To use this method of storytelling for what appears to be a murder mystery is actually not that unusual or far-fetched (Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is told largely in interviews, to use one example), but it is a neat way to avoid omniscience when unraveling a puzzle and deliver emotional punches using seemingly unemotional narration.

And there’s also the setting. I never doubt that Catherynne Valente can work magic with the setting. Her words build amazing worlds, and this one is no exception. The planets are habitable (and Pluto is back on the roster), and Hollywood has moved entirely to the Moon to make their silent movies with starlets whose skin is turning blue because of silver in the water. How is it that we are suddenly living on Mercury? Does it matter? This is not the time to complain about handwavium, suspend your disbelief and be immersed.

And yet how is it that I cannot gush about this book? Maybe there were too many things going on at the same time, or maybe the format got a little too audacious. At one point I had this eerie feeling that I was endlessly watching the Tevye’s dream scene from Fiddler On the Roof that I so dislike. I could not tell what was going on. I think that perhaps for me, Valente’s style of writing occasionally gets in the way of the story. It seemed perfect in The Habitation Of The Blessed, but here it was not on my brainwave length. Perhaps this multitude of formats and time jumps required a tighter grip on the pacing of the story, and Valente’s own genius and not being afraid to play with her own creation did the story itself a disservice.

But in the end, you should try it. Who knows, maybe alt-history space decopunk mystery is exactly your jam.

*What is even genre? Wait, let’s not. Rhetorical question. Moving on.

New books I care about, 9.28.2015

The new releases and embargoes pile in the receiving was so tall today that at one point it simply gave up, collapsed, and had to be propped up by a handtruck. September and October are normally heavy on new books, but this year the avalanche of frontlist (read: new stuff) is approaching ridiculous.

Here are a few awesome (or hopefully awesome) books that are out tomorrow:

IMG_0667Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. I had to take my own cover photo because I couldn’t find the one that adequately reflects the shiny. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t read this one months ago when I got it, so I am halfway through this on the eve of its release.

I see Gold Fame Citrus as a sort of a sister book to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife. It has a similar dystopian setting, but it explores the environmental theme in a different way. The novel is about two survivors living some time in the near future in the completely dry Southwest (survive on ration cola kind of dry). They come across a little baby girl, which sends them on the path of possibly finding a better place and life for their new family.

I’m finding it almost painfully beautiful. Watkins’s descriptions are masterful. I remember Battleborn, her short story collection, gave me a certain shortness of breath, and her novel is even more exquisite.

It also makes me really thirsty.

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is also out tomorrow. You might remember that I have a conflicted love/hate relationship with Atwood. At this point, it’s more love than hate, particularly after her last story collection, so I am duly excited about the new novel.

There is also the new Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, which is a start of a new fantasy series. I have not had an urge to pick it up mostly because fantasy, and steampunk in particular, have somehow slipped far down on my ‘want to read’ scale, but the book exists in case I want something with airships and pirates. There are apparently talking cats (and I also have a love/hate relationship with those).

And finally, this misleadingly titled gem is out tomorrow:

IMG_0664

Recent books, briefly

First of all, Books Brains and Beer is back (-ish)! Or is he? He isn’t sure. But he has been reading up a storm and posted a bunch of flash reviews. I like short reviews. Every time I see some gigantic review spread in The New York Times, I have a feeling that I could save myself some time by skipping the review and reading the book instead.

Which brings me to my own brief bookish observations.

First of all, all those glowing reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho are quite right. I’m just going to say that it was Saturday night, and I had some red wine, and this book was perfect. You might want to replicate the setting. It wasn’t the kind of book that sucked me in and made me spent 12 hours on the couch. On the contrary, I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then putting it down. Perhaps it wasn’t the book’s fault and I was just feeling distracted that weekend. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s quite fun and also funny. Favorite quote:

‘I had no one to teach me better, you see.’

‘So you have found someone to teach you worse!’

Lest you think it was just an amusing romantic historical romp, here’s a brief list of topics it touches upon: Class. Race. International politics. Colonialism. Gender roles. Education of girls.

My other read was quite in contrast. It was Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, out next January (can I even talk about it yet?). It was a magically beautiful memoir about love, grief, friendship, and how all those things change and are experienced at different points in life. The whole book feels like a quilt made of gossamer. It jumps in time, holding all these fragile pieces together. The sentences are almost translucent at times. For some reason I always find descriptions of male companionship and love incredibly heart-achy and touching. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a queer man. Perhaps this kind of love still feels forbidden from a larger society’s point of view, marriage decision notwithstanding. The Narrow Door has quite a few of those, and I was glad I had a glass of bourbon at hand. I’ll definitely mention it again closer to its release because it is already on my list of 2016 favorites, and we aren’t even in that year yet.

Other books briefly:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Here’s what you should do. Read this book while listening to electronica. The combined effect of that music genre and Kleeman’s writing style make you feel as if time no longer exists. Or it makes reality feel like a continuous straight line with no beginning or end in sight, with no changes whatsoever. Maybe that’s why, sadly, I abandoned it. I couldn’t handle the depersonalization effect it seemed to have on me.

Saga # 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. For some reason, I refuse to read Saga in single issues. I like the trades. I wasn’t a fan of #4, but this one is pretty good.

IMG_0598Currently reading:

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Yesterday was its release day, and I spent most of it with a giant raccoon cutout as we shot videos and took pictures for marketing purposes at work (if you don’t get to stage mock battles with human-sized cardboard raccoons at your place of employment, I feel sorry for you). I’ll be honest, Furiously Happy is better than Lawson’s first book, but it did give me an anxiety attack. I woke up at 2 am last night, convinced that some shit was going down. Apparently reading about other people’s mental issues reminds me I also have mental issues. But I’m not giving up, because the book is immensely funny and full of taxidermy, two things I look for in all books and find in so few.

I know you wanted a picture of me with a giant raccoon. You’re welcome.