One of the things I’ve rediscovered at the library is the love of trying new music. It’s free; it’s painless; and it lets me just grab CDs on a whim and wander away. The most recent album I picked up is ZZ Ward’s When the Casket Drops, and it’s been really interesting listening to her.
So, you should know this about me. I rarely watch movies. Somehow I got out of the habit of my teenage years, where like most teens, I spent every weekend binge-watching movies (before binge-watching was a term, I believe). Part of it is ADD–isn’t that supposed to get better as you get older? Part of it is just that movies are getting SO MUCH LONGER. It’s a chore to stay in a seat for that long. I’m up, I’m out, I’m roaming the theater.
But, I kind of miss movies. I love the world-building that goes into them. Shot for shot, it seems that most movies pack in more immersive detail than a television show. Budget, I presume.
The point of this confessional being that I’ve taken a vow to watch at least 1 new-to-me movie a month. Can’t hack the theater that much! Too loud, too long, too slow, too cold, too much freaking 3D. But there’s a whole slew of movies I’ve missed and I’m daunted by the selection. Mostly what I’ve seen in the past few years have been the Marvel blockbusters–all spectacle and well-choreographed violence. Though I did watch Resident Evil: the Final Chapter, and enjoyed it. Which tells you a lot about my tastes, I bet.
Help me out! Tell me what SF/F movies you’d recommend.
I’m not a huge fan of “gritty”, especially when it feels shoehorned in for the sake of it. Do not get me started on my opinion of Seven. (shorthand–I loathed it. LOATHED.) I don’t like characters making multiple dumb choices. Despite Res Evil up there, I’m not a fan of zombies. I will not watch anything that could be labeled “torture porn”. Just not my cuppa. My brain is enough of a horror show; I don’t need to give it more material. I don’t like movies that take place almost entirely in the dark; that’s a technical thing. I watch movies on my computer and I just can’t SEE the dark movies very well. I made the mistake of watching Immortals (so many mistakes there), but the most irksome one was that I physically could not see what was happening in a whole bunch of scenes.
I like competence in characters. Leverage was my TV jam. I will watch movies that are badly flawed if they’re interesting anyway (Jupiter Ascending, I’m looking at you.). I especially like movies that have significant roles for women. I love witty banter. I get very tired of the one-liners that pass for witty banter. Anyway, if you feel inclined, throw some titles at me. Please, pretty please?
Every year, I read a lot of books, with two goals in mind. 1) To find entertaining books (naturally) , and 2) to find a new (to me or otherwise) author. 2016 gave me three new authors to follow.
Gaie Sebold, who wrote the charming Babylon Steel (one of my favorite books of the year) as well as Dangerous Gifts, Shanghai Sparrow, & Sparrow Falling. Her writing is energetic; her characters are awesome and appealing; and her worlds feel flush with life.
JL Bryan, whose Jenny Pox claimed my weirdest book of the year title. But I started with JL Bryan for the Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper series, which started off slowly and has become one of my most “oooh, a new one, grab it!” series.
And this year, I made a concerted effort to read more short stories, aided by the sheer number of good, online spec fic magazines. One of the first stories I read this year was Sam J Miller’s “Angel, Monster, Man” published in Nightmare Magazine I wasn’t sold 100% on this story, but I loved so much of it, that it left a big impression. One that only grew more favorable after I read “When Your Child Strays from God” (Clarkesworld), and “Things with Beards” (also Clarkesworld). Sam J Miller’s gone from completely new to me, to a writer that I’m excited to see.
Anyone else have new, or new to them writers they fell in love with this year?
My favorite books read in 2016. Not in any particular order.
Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Reading Valente is always more experience than story. This is a silver-screen look at a past that never was—if the early Hollywood years encompassed an SF landscape of planetary travel. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on here spread over multiple layers of story-telling and it takes some work to pick out which threads actually lead to a cohesive solution to the central mystery (though arguably not the central point of the book): what became of Severin, a Hollywood darling? How did she vanish and where did she vanish to? And will it change anything?
Valente’s writing style rewards rereading, not least because she sets up mysteries, then writes a lot of scenes that basically suggest that the answers are unimportant even as she gives you a handful of options, none of which feel super conclusive. This book, especially, flirts with made-up stories, in the thread of a movie being written about Severin that wanders through different genres and tweaks events to suit each need. In other hands, this might be a godawful mess, but here, it ends up being a book that lingers with you. And whether or not each segment of the book ends up part of a cohesive whole, they’re beautifully written vignettes on their own. I was a little dubious about this book when I first finished it, but it’s grown on me.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files
People talk about art being an “unflinching” look at the world around us, and holy god, this book refuses to flinch. The main character—a film analyst and writer, mother to an autistic child, daughter to a difficult mother—embarks on a brutal self-dissection of herself while hunting down a piece of film that may or may not have something horrific lurking in it. It’s part a mystery about what happened to a long-lost film-maker; it’s part dissection of the film scene in Canada; and its part homage to horror movies as a whole. The main character is rarely likable, but she is fascinating. The ending’s not quite as strong as the rest of the book—a sad irony of so many fantasy books; the better you ground it in reality, the less powerful the magic can feel—but it’s still way up on my list of books for 2016. Plus, Gemma Files’ writing on a micro level—line by line—is often glorious. Where Valente makes elaborations and fancy little flirts with words, Files’ writing tends toward deceptively sparse but it builds inexorably.
ACCEPTANCE by Jeff Vandermeer. The last book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. I really enjoyed this weird fantasy trilogy, and recommend it to the few people who haven’t read it yet. So many times, these grand idea stories fall apart at the end for me, when the answer to the huge array of questions either doesn’t satisfy or doesn’t seem to connect. This one really felt solid. I would suggest reading them all at once and not spaced out over a year like I did, though.
THE GAMEBOARD OF THE GODS/THE IMMORTAL CROWN by Richelle Mead. I’ve never read Mead’s vampire books, though many people have told me they’re compulsively readable. I’m just burned out on vampires.
So when I saw these books at the library, and they didn’t involve vampires and did involve high tech super soldiers, I picked them up, and man, are they chewy in the best way.
The heroes belong to a high-tech society that’s disavowed all religions and has people investigate any small cult that springs up. They’ve weathered genetic disease and enforced breeding mandates. The gap between first world and third world is enormous, though not always in the way the characters think they are. The characters are very much embedded in their own cultures and mindsets, and wander around happily unaware of their own contradictions. “Pure breed people are diseased and worthy of scorn. Pure breed people are beautiful and rich and are powerful.” It makes for interesting setting.
And in this world where religion has been cut out, the gods are coming back. With real power and real effects on the world. Magic simmers beneath the high-tech. Classism and racism are everywhere. And that’s just background for a complicated romantic thriller between an exiled religious investigator and his super soldier bodyguard. This world is really screwy and really fascinating. There are moments where I bobbled uncomfortably, trying to figure out if the ‘isms’ on display were the authors or the characters, but it always tipped back to the flaws in characters. I’m sad that there doesn’t seem to be a book 3 in the works.
If anyone else has read these, tell me what you think!
THE SECRET CASEBOOK OF SIMON FEXIMAL – KJ Charles. I admit. I’m a fan. I’ll read anything this lady writes. This one is a collection of short stories about a strange, suffering ghost-hunter and his journalist lover set turn of the century. It would have been so easy for her to make this a fun romp of stories, but instead she infuses it with a melancholy, and leaves you off, inevitably, at the first world war. Charles is wonderful about respecting history. She rarely gives you just a window in time; she shows you the wider world and the way times are changing. And of course, the romance is wonderful.
THE SHADOW THRONE – Django Wexler. I adored the first book in this series, and liked this one. I was excited to leave Khandar and come back to Vordan, but in the end I wasn’t as wild about this entry. Mostly because the magic, while present, felt somehow like an afterthought. It seemed to seep through the first book more. I also felt like the story threads were tighter in the first book, but to be fair, the first book had a more straightforward plot: retake the city, and find a mysterious magical force. This ones involves a lot more political infighting and so it feels more scattered by default as Wexler has to show all the factions. I’m still very much looking forward to the next.
SERIOUSLY WICKED – Tina Connolly. This YA was a romp! It’s fun, fast, and eminently quotable. I kept reading snippets of dialogue aloud to people near me.
April Books (& March)
I’m just going to hit the high spots of the past two months.
From March, I recommend four books:
An Egg, A Key, An Unfortunate Remark – Harry Connolly. This is a VERY strange book, and I wasn’t sure I was going to survive it in the beginning: the tone just felt so… odd. But I know Connolly’s writing, so I knew this weird narrative style was a deliberate choice and I wanted to see where it went. And just about when I was really doubting this, the explanation for the narrative style appeared and I LOVED IT. It was a wonderful explanation and it made the whole story that much more entertaining. It’s still a strange book, but it’s delightfully strange. In a lot of ways, Egg feels like Child of Fire turned inside out and upside down. Definitely worth the read, not least because as io9 will tell you: Egg features an older woman as a protagonist.
Trace by Sam Starbuck. This is another left-field kind of book. Starbuck/Copperbadge is really really really well-known for writing fanfiction, but he also writes original books. Trace had its start in White Collar fanfiction, before he turned it into something else. The magic in this book is amazing and presented as matter of factly as any magical realist tale ever. The premise has small stakes–there’s no end of the world approaching here–but the kind of small stakes that mean everything to the people involved. Colin Byrne, a con man with a weird sort of magic, goes back to prison undercover to help out the police. It’s just a stylish, fun read. Available only at lulu press.
Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire. Not my favorite of the InCryptid series–the plot felt a little thin to me–but as usual, McGuire’s characters are topnotch and the emotions are real. I have rarely been so appalled to have a character die as I was in this book.
Lovecraft’s Monsters edited by Ellen Datlow. A really good anthology that had a lower than usual percentage of stories “not for me”. Standouts within the collection?
“The Same Deep Waters as You” by Brian Hodge, who I’ve liked ever since PROTOTYPE.
“The Dappled Thing” by William Browning Spencer.
“The Bleeding Shadow” by Joe R Lansdale, which I’ve read before, but enjoyed enough that time to feel an “oh!” of recognition and dive right back in.
I also really loved “Children of the Fang” by John Langan.
April’s recommended books:
Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant. Killer mermaids. It didn’t work for me 100%, but it’s a novella that hits the sweet spot pretty neatly: just enough information to get your imagination invested, not enough to bore you with what is really a horror movie plot of “everyone gets eaten by monsters”. Though I did spend a lot of time arguing about mermaids and elbows and whether McGuire implied they had them or not, because… ELBOWS. Everything else about her mermaids would make enough sf-science sense, except the elbows. So if anyone else has elbows on the brain, come talk to me about it.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. After reading and loving Dark Places, I wanted more. This one starts off really strongly, but sort of peters out a little bit midway for me. Someone told me you can see her writing getting better and better with each book, and I believe it. This one was written before Dark Places. It’s still a solid read. I’m going to have to read Gone Girl, I suppose, though I am rarely interested in stories about marriages gone wrong.
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear. I thought I’d read this book, but I knew I didn’t own a copy. I remedied that, then realized as I flipped through it that no, I hadn’t actually read all the stories in this collection–only some of them that had been printed elsewhere. A wonderful shock of surprise. I sometimes have a hard time getting invested in Bear’s novels, but oddly I have no problems getting sucked into her short fiction. At least one of these stories left me in tears, which still surprises me. A story about dying dragons shouldn’t be that powerful, yet….
Anyone else read anything wonderful? My TBR piles are only four feet deep; I could add more…
This may be the shortest piece I have ever written. And oddly, one of the most satisfactory.
I envy writers who can create flash fiction on a regular basis. There’s just something amazing about an idea so neatly encapsulated, and getting the reader in and out.
The comic book mentioned in this flash piece was real, part of a collection that traumatized me. I wasn’t really allowed comics as a kid—not because the stories were objectionable, but because I read them too quickly and I think my parents were frightened of giving me an appetite for comics. They thought they’d be better off giving me an appetite for actual books. (Ha! Scholastic book club taught them the error of their ways… Man, I miss Scholastic Book Club.)
But I ended up with a friend’s collection of comics. Well, hers weren’t Archie, or Spider-Man, or detective stories. They were horror comics.
There was a story about a devil-possessed girl who was terrifyingly fuchsia-colored beneath her blond pigtails as she tortured things with knives. There were ghouls creeping out of the graveyard, eating people. There was the inevitable story about an actor playing a vampire who ran into a real vampire. With PICTURES. (That was what really tipped me into nightmare land. Art is scary, y’all!)
Then there was the story referenced in Things Underneath—a tale that encompassed body horror, identity horror, zeitgeist horror, and conspiracy horror in a few short pages.
Thanks, Tracy! Thanks a lot!
I never forgot the meat of that comic, and my narrator hasn’t either.
There was a comic I read once, a long time ago on the sly. It was a story about a boy who thought he knew what life looked like, what his family looked like, what the world itself looked like. Of course, he was wrong. There was something in the water, something that kept the hideous truth from them all, kept them content. He found this out, had his face rubbed in it by purists, and after he realized it was true, he ran home and gulped down the treated water. Illusion was preferable. Oblivion was better and he forgot.
I think it happened.
We forgot. Not that we fought a war, were bent by a radioactive battle we lost before we can remember, but that illusion can become de facto reality if enough of us believe it.
I’m pink and soft with the requisite bones and blood, but sometimes, when I lie still in the dark, before sleep blankets me, sometimes then I can feel it under my skin, the motion of ropy muscle that moves differently. And I remember, or imagine, my skin stretched open, beyond the flesh and sometimes there is something else. Grey and lumpy, oiled and wrinkly, with sparse hair thrusting out of the skin like cilia. That’s what I look like. Underneath.
A creature of something, hiding for some reason that eludes me now, caught up in the illusion of flesh and humanity, of working and dating, of eating and dancing. It tickles my skin in shivery reminders, in dreams.
I’ve been thinking about it and I have an idea. Suppose we were here first, more of us, and they came, the humans and almost erased us like a text gone wrong. Suppose we hid from them, first in the borrowed skins of our enemies, and then learned to build our own.
Sometimes, I see the alien thing in someone else, and I think, “Ah, there we are, here we are, we are everywhere.”
Suppose that’s true. Suppose that was our plan, told to our parents parents parents beyond memory. Hide and be like them. Control them. Seize them. Suppose the final command got lost along the way. Or we did. And we’re waiting for someone to let us know that we’re ready for whatever comes next.
But I don’t know and I can’t be sure. Maybe we practiced our illusion too well. The people I’ve taken to the bone, none of them were grey underneath. Or at least, not when I was looking.
Maybe there aren’t many of us at all. Maybe we’ve been abandoned and lost, and there are only a few of us hiding here. But maybe we won. We became every living thing and we just can’t see past our own illusion.
I don’t know. I only think that maybe someday, maybe soon, we’ll just unzip our skins and there will be rejoicing.