favorites

Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

Advertisements

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

Reading update: book juxtaposition

I am finishing up my review of Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (while eyeing his Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand), but in the meantime, here’s some reading news that is not news about me reading short stories:

wonderbookI’m still making my way through Wonderbook, and I am still mightily impressed. If you are a creative type of any variety, you should get this. It’s incredibly useful if you like to put words down on a page, but if painting or music or some other thing is more your speed, the art itself is worth it just for inspiration. I’ve been writing and drawing again, mostly thanks to Jeff VanderMeer.

I am also re-reading The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan. It’s probably my favorite Kiernan book, but it invariably gives me very strange dreams (stranger than usual), disturbs me, unsettles me, and, going with the theme in the book, haunts me. Also, there is a transgender character. It is amazing, and I am savoring each sentence.

In a rather odd juxtaposition to The Drowning Girl, I am also reading Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. I have mentioned my conflicted relationship with humorous genre fiction before, and that I only read Pratchett when I really feel like it. Maybe I just needed funny this week to counteract all the shitty things that are happening (see #Ferguson in your latest Twitter feed). There is a delightful Discworld reading chart on io9, and I am sort of using it to re-read or fill my gaps in different story arcs.  I like the witches, but I am pretty sure I have only read Wyrd Sisters and Carpe Jugulum in that storyline.

Perhaps it is also time to do an ‘upcoming releases’ post. We’re heading into a pretty busy fall, and there are some truly cool things about to be released into the reading wilds.

Best books (so far) of 2014

I’m following in the steps of In the Forest of Stories to present you my Halfway There list of best books (so far) of 2014. I’m not limiting myself to books published only this year, but if you’d like to see lists of just the newest stuff, see this Mind Meld at SF Signal.

So here are my top picks from the books I’ve read this year. I’m not including rereads and I’m not limiting the lists to ‘top x’ number of books:

whatmakesthisbook1) Books published in the first half of 2014:

Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great

Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation and Authority

Michael Deforge, Ant Colony

Jalphaomegaoe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key: Alpha and Omega

Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga #3

 

2) Books published before 2014:

Will McIntosh, Love Minus Eighty.

Robert Jackson Bennett, American Elsewhere

S. Bear Bergman, The Nearest Exit orendaMay Be Behind You. Possibly my favorite book of essays on trans* and gender issues.

 

3) And now, the tricky one: books published in the second half of 2014. Not out yet, but you should put them on the list now.

Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs

David Mitchell, Bone Clockswhatif

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Randall Munroe, What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Jeff Vandermeer, Acceptance (but you will want to pick this one up anyway, because you have already finished Annihilation and Authority and can barely wait, right?)

Re-reading Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

book_1_welcome_HCI am very attached to my graphic novel series. I re-read Transmet once a year. I have almost all Absolute Sandman books (ran out of money at one point). Unlike regular sci-fi and fantasy series, graphic series are the only ones I binge on. I came to Sandman pretty late, and I ended up reading the entirety of it in just a couple of weeks during one particularly boring graduate class (no, I didn’t fail). I am pretty sure I breathed and ate Sandman. It is almost entirely certain it gave me weird dreams.

And so for the last two days I binged on Locke & Key, which might be my favorite series at the moment. The last volume is out, so I could sit down and be disturbed and unsettled for two entire days, and that is a good thing.

I almost did not pick these books up because I didn’t particularly like the art. At least at first. I eventually got the first volume from the library purely because of Joe Hill. I was still riding the Joe Hill high after finishing his NOS4A2 (which, despite a somewhat gimmicky title, is an excellent horror novel). I figured I could get over the art if the story was good.

Which is exactly what happened. The next day, I went back to the library and checked out the rest of the volumes. And when I got to #5, I almost cried, because I had to wait for the end, and I didn’t think I could stand it.

alphaomegaI obviously survived that particular book trauma. Now that Alpha and Omega volume is out, I could once again sit down and swallow all of Locke & Key at once. The second time around it really hit me how brilliant this series was. Even the art. I like the art. I think it’s perfect for the story, it’s distinctive, it’s sharp. The characters are great. The entire thing is spooky, unsettling, traumatic, and just altogether astonishing.

/gushing off

 

Re-reading the Dresden Files: Storm Front

Skin Game, the latest Harry Dresden book, is out, and is already getting incredibly good reviews (see here and here, for example). I really want to read it, but I have terrible memory for books and therefore lack sufficient lore knowledge to thoroughly enjoy the new volume. I have therefore started making my way through 14 previous Dresden books. This seems like a daunting task, but it’s really not: Dresden files are pure book candy and take only a few hours per book to read. I could have just looked through the Dresden Files wiki, but reading books is more fun.

And so I started with Storm Front, first published in 2000 with this cover:

stormfront1

Once the series became popular and famous, they handed the art off to Chris McGrath and reissued the first few installments with new covers:

stormfront

I’ll be honest, at some point in my SF reading career I got a bit tired of McGrath covers. Handsome humans walking or standing in Rembrandtesque light and shadow combinations, they all blurred into one image. That said, I still think McGrath is the perfect artist for Harry covers.* His Harry is, well, Harry. That’s the Harry in my head.

Storm Front is generally considered to be a fairly weak book. It was Butcher’s first attempt at the urban fantasy/noir mix. Every time someone recommends the Dresden Files, they inevitably have to say that the series gets better. It does indeed. In fact, I think at one point Butcher sells his soul to the fairie queen in exchange for some mad skills.

I finished Storm Front during my Saturday ‘Running With Books’ session, and I have to say it was better than I had expected it to be. Maybe my previous experience with the series influenced my reading. Maybe this whole business of ‘weak first book’ was too ingrained in my mind. It is definitely not as good as some later installments, but it does a good job at introducing us to Harry and at making us want to read more books with Harry as a main character. If there is such a thing as a literary crush, I have one on Harry Dresden. Too bad he is straight.**

Storm Front also sets some pieces in place for later books. We meet Morgan and find out about White Council. There are also some bits about Harry’s mother, his magical training, and his first love, that become very important later. In short, a lot of the scenery is a setup for later use, including characters involved in the main story (such as Johnny Marcone).

I was not awed by Storm Front, but reading it now reminded me why I continued reading the series many years ago.

On to Fool Moon.

 

* Also, putting ‘マトリックス’ (‘Matrix’ in Japanese) on the staff is a nice hilarious touch, and it is even mirrored like in the Matrix code.

** And also fictional. Sigh.