Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Regardless of year published, the following are the books I read in 2016 that stuck out for one reason or another.  The gods know I am horrendous at doing my 21st century duty and reading as many female writers as male, homosexual as hetero, three-eyed as two.  My ratios are bad.  But when looking through the reviews I posted, this might have been one of my better years for diversity.  In no particular those that lingered are:

Breathmoss & Other Exhalations by Ian Macleod – Containing some of the best short fiction of Macleod’s career, this is a collection that can be read several times to discover the details of setting and character, in a wide variety of sub-genres, and all the while drooling over Macleod’s glorious prose.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Not for the faint of heart, Ballard's collage—sorry, collection—sorry, tableaux—sorry, mosaic—sorry, I don’t know wtf to call it—tests the limits of what precisely fiction is.  A visual/ideological experience in the least, Ballard combines and recombines imagery of the 70s into a vision both political and artistic that will not be to everyone’s liking, but it is very much mine.

Distraction by Bruce Sterling – Quite possibly Sterling's best novel, Distraction is the purest distillation of his unique brand of satire.  Politicized, Sterling takes more than one crack at American politics, effortlessly cutting it off at the knees all the while asking humorously posed questions in scenarios having one foot in comedy and the other all too reality.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

The gods know there is a surfeit of serial killer novels in existence.  It is one of the most known tropes of fiction, let alone television, film, etc.  How then, to distinguish yourself in the field?  Accuracy of detail?  Vividness of character depiction?  Organic nature of mystery building?  A properly disguised surprise or two?  Well, yes or no to these questions, they can’t hurt—at least that seems Joe R. Lansdale’s approach in his 2000 The Bottoms.

Young Harry Crane lives in the rural bottoms of Depression-era East Texas.  His father the local township’s barber and constable, when Harry and his sister Tom discover a mutilated body in the woods late one night, he gets involved.  The townsfolk discovering the body is a black woman’s, nobody wants to get involved.  The local doctor dismisses the case as none of his business and the sheriff directly states it’s none of anybody’s business, except the blacks’.  Harry’s father doing a little poking around in his free time, he inadvertently pokes the hornet’s nest, and more bodies begin appearing.  Trouble is, not all are the result of the serial killer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review of The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

There are innumerable good writers who struggle to gain wider recognition.  Their style or content too non-formulaic for the average mainstream reader to latch on, they hover around the fringes, writing quality fiction, and occasionally attempt to write more familiar material in the hopes of gaining a readership that might be willing to check out their back catalogue.  Paul Kearney has walked this road.  Those who know his work are aware of the talent—the will to write something different in the face of popular trends, but eventually giving in and attempting to write something more familiar.  His Macht trilogy of pseudo-Spartan-Persian novels gaining him some relative recognition, for the follow up effort Kearney decided to test his readers by returning to his roots.  2016’s The Wolf in the Attic is a return to more literary fantasy—and a welcome return, at that.

We are introduced to young Anna several years after her family emigrated from Greece to the UK in the wake of WWI violence.  Only she and her father arriving on foreign shores, they live a life of poverty in the backstreets of Oxford, her father attempting to convert his political leanings into a means.  Out late one night walking in the local fens, Anna is witness to a murder, and in her rush home, is confronted by the assailant.  The young man just watching her, she eventually finds her way back, and things return to normal.  The memories of the evening troubling, however, they are also alluring, and some time later Anna decides to revisit the fens.  Further incidents occurring, it isn’t long after Anna begins to hear strange noises in their home’s attic, even as family tragedy looms ever closer.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Best of 2016's Books

2016 is come to an end, and it’s time to take a look back and offer some first impressions (more solid impressions, of course, requiring time for the books to filter and settle where they will). 

Overall, I would say 2016 was a good year.  Not great, not average, good.  That bland pronouncement can be spiced up by the fact China Mieville made a strong return, releasing two of the best books he’s ever written.  Tim Powers likewise published two novels/novellas in 2016, one of which at least proved he is still one of the most pure storytellers on the market.  (I have yet to read the other.)  A debut novella by Haris A. Durrani made an impression for the strong interplay of the fantastical and personal).  Paul Kearney abandoned epic fantasy to return to his roots of literary fantasy—and made it a welcome return.  Don Delillo dipped into science fiction in glacial, existential form.  The ever-unpredictable Bruce Sterling brought us retro-Futurism in contemporary, politically relevant form.  And Kij Johnson revised Lovecraft in solid fashion that goes against some of the grains of contemporary gender discussion, while going with others (natch).  In the short fiction arena, I got my hands on several quality anthologies and collections, which as a whole had a bit more shine than those I read from 2015.  The curated effort by Jacob Weisman Invaders, Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell, Neil Williamson’s Secret Language, Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, and Michael Swanwick’s Not So Much, Said the Cat—all made for a refreshing break from the gushing wealth of vanilla available on the market these days.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is a renowned writer across many fields of literature.  From science fiction catastrophes like The Drowned World to the highly experimental, post-modern literary collage comprising The Atrocity Exhibition, the semi-autobiographical The Empire of the Sun to the controversial social commentary of Crash, urban dystopias like High-Rise to free-form representation of the art and ideology of William Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company—Ballard’s oeuvre covers a lot of ground.  All novels, seemingly only people in the know are aware of what a powerful short story writer Ballard was.  The transition to short form not something every great writer can do, Ballard made it look easy—the ideas and themes of his novels deftly rendered in a dense, paucity of pages.  His 1964 collection The Terminal Beach contains some of his best.

Opening the collection is one of Ballard’s most straight-forward pieces of fiction: “A Question of Re-entry” starts in Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness mode, but quickly gets conspiratorial, science fiction style.  A UN agent named Connelly hires a boat captain to pilot him deep into the jungles of South America and find a crashed space shuttle. Arriving at their first waypoint, Connelly meets a half-crazed foreigner who lords over the village and its native inhabitants.  Something inexplicable about the foreigner, Connelly’s search for the fallen craft ends up turning over more than he expected.  The story lacking a lot of the psychology and symbolism Ballard is known for, the stripped down piece nevertheless reads very Ballardian, even as it represents humanity’s penchant for megalomania and criticizes the US space program.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski

What to do with malevolent people? It is a question every society, no matter how big or small, must answer. Kill them? Incarcerate them? Let them go free? If incarcerated, in what conditions? Bare minimum? Luxurious? Average standard of living? What rights should they have? Education? Roof? Communication with the outside world? Time in nature? Three meals a day? Medical facilities? Daylight? And beyond, in the society they came from, does the threat of punishment in fact reduce malevolence? A short, bare-bones novel compared to the size of the subject matter just described, George Zebrowski’s 1998 Brute Orbits attempts to address these very questions.

It is undoubtedly the opinion of much of civilized society that the bad apples should be separated from the good. Taking this premise and running with it, Brute Orbits posits a near-future scenario where the world’s convicted criminals are packed aboard asteroids rigged up as living modules and sent hurtling into solar orbit. The groups segregated to some degree, one asteroid is home to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other violent criminals. Another is a mix of men and women convicted of white-collar crimes. And still another is teenagers and other delinquents who have broken the law in rash moments of youth. And there are other asteroids. The convicts told the length of their orbits before sent spinning into space, the isolation has a different effect on them all. But does it affect their humanity?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

‘Savory’ and ‘gritty’ are not two words that typically go hand in hand describing a novel.  One rich and full and the other edgy and rough, casting through my thoughts trying to quantify Angela Carter’s magnificent The Magic Toyshop (1967), I keep returning to the dichotomy, however.  A fleshed out experience with detail that brings the story to life, the novel nevertheless possesses an edge of quotidian realism that grounds it in something wiser, more fatalistic, and more human for it. 

Gorgeous prose telling a gorgeously dark story, The Magic Toyshop is a few months in the life of young Melanie.  Eldest daughter to an upper-middle class British family, she and her younger brother and sister enjoy the comforts of life, even as her parents are not often around.  At fifteen, her body, and her thoughts regarding her physical self, are changing.  But nothing changes her as much as a tragedy that strikes one day.  Forced to leave her home and live with an uncle, Melanie’s youth takes a drastic, unexpected left turn.  The uncle, named Philip, is a surly toymaker and runs a strict, depressing home.  Philip married to an energetic Irish woman named Margaret, however, Melanie finds solace in the new situation through her aunt’s kindness.  It remains uncertain, however what Margaret’s two brothers, Finn and Francis, have to offer.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review of The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

From setting to style, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds is one of those amazing novels that simply defies categorization.  ‘Comedy fantasy’ about the shortest one can describe it without descending into broader, vague descriptions, it is a wan term that doesn’t come close to clueing the reader in just how unique the novel is.  A success, Hughart looked to continue the story of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in 1988 with The Story of the Stone.  The humor returning in full form yet the story taken in a new, equally singular direction, the follow-up it is every bit the success of the original.

Set once again in a “China that never was”, The Story of the Stone, like Bridge of Birds, remains a wildly fantastical parallel to the Middle Kingdom.  The clever Master Li (the man with “a slight flaw to his character”) along with the young, strong Number Ten Ox are now a team, thus when a monk from a local monastery comes to the two’s home, telling of an inexplicable murder that occurred in the cloisters, the pair set out to investigate.  Discovering an apparently forged and therefore useless ancient manuscript beside the body, Master Li turns to rumors of the Laughing Prince having been at the scene.  The ghost of an evil prince who died centuries earlier, Master Li and Number Ten Ox dig into the Prince’s opulent tomb, only to have the intrigue heighten in what they find.  A trip to the capital required to answer further questions, the ethereal Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn join the team.   Master Li hot on the scent, he rides Number Ten’s shoulders, looking to get to the heart of it all: a mysterious grey stone. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P. Blaylock

James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives has quietly become of one the greatest fictional adventurers of all time.  Since 1978 his globe-trotting escapades featuring dirigibles and nefarious clockwork devices, time travel and giant kraken, space rockets and uncanny carp, have appeared in print in one form or another.  From short story to novel, fourteen different stories have appeared as of 2016, and likely more to come.  Subterranean bringing together the first set of adventures into an omnibus edition and adding a plethora of complementary artwork from J.K. Potter, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (2008) collects the stories that introduced the gentleman scientist and his trusty comrades to the fictional world.

Collecting two novels and four short stories, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives opens with the first-ever story published featuring Langdon St Ives.  “The Ape-Box Affair” (1978) has many of the trademarks of Golden Age fantastika yet bears a modern sensibility—an awareness of of what it’s doing.  An eccentric gentleman scientist, Langdon St. Ives, has built a rocket ship, and his test pilot is an orangutan named Newton.  Forgetting to fill the food box before lighting the fuse, however, has dire circumstances, as the ape, cheated of his vittles mid-flight, sets to pushing buttons, sending the ship careening back to London.  Emerging from the wreckage a smoldering, alien visage, London may never be the same as Newton wanders the city.  Quite simple a story that may define the word ‘uproarious’… 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review of The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

As of the beginning of the 21st century, it’s arguable whether or not Edgar Rice Burroughs predominantly influenced the American science fiction scene and H.G. Wells the British.  Cross-pollination of all styles and forebears the state of the current game, I would nevertheless point to the influx of sf fluff in the American market in the years following Burroughs’ success compared to the lack thereof in Britain as an indication, at least in the beginning, of such sway.  Simply put, as the early 20th century got on with itself, more considered, sophisticated sf material was coming from Old Albion.  Writers like Olaf Stapledon, C.S. Lewis, Naomi Mitchison, and others show clear influence of Wells.  As do later writers, including Brian Aldiss, D.G. Compton, Michael Coney, Ian Watson among them.  One other British writer influenced by Wells is Christopher Priest, and in 1976 he penned an open homage to the father of British sf called The Space Machine.

Young salesman Edward Turnbull has the meeting of a lifetime while on the road one day. Attempting to cash in on the trend for motor cars, he peddles goggles for the Sunday driver, and in doing so meets the lovely Miss Emily Fitzgibbons at an inn.  The young lady’s overseer ensuring the two spend as little time together as possible, a spark is nevertheless lit, and upon his return to London Edward receives an invitation to visit Emily at the estate of her uncle, a rich, eccentric inventor.  Over drinks, the young couple decide to test out his time machine to see a few years into the future.  The blind twist of a knob here and an accidental kick to an instrument there, and the two are winging their way through space and time to ends unknown.  Awaking in a strange place with red weeds and a strange, pallid coldness to the air, it takes the two some time to figure out where, in fact, those ends are.  It takes them even longer, a fact supported by the capture, enslavement, wars, and otherwise inadvertent detours the two are put through, to even consider getting back to turn of the 20th century England.  And when they do, well, it’s nothing like they left it.