Books read in June

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.

Books read in June

Recommended books read in April & March

April Books (& March)

So the good thing about having some time off from the insomnia is getting sleep, obviously.  The bad thing is being short on time to do all the things I usually try to do.  Reading faltered, as did blogging (also obviously).

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…

Recommended books read in April & March

Final Friday Fiction – Things Underneath

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.

 

Things Underneath

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.

Final Friday Fiction – Things Underneath

The Book Resists Reading

The Book Resists Reading

You’re left the book in your uncle’s will, not singularly, but part of his collection. Not so many books really, a single car load, hatchback crammed full, axles protesting. A lot all at once, but it’s not like you could start a store with them.

The executor—your oldest cousin—blushes, embarrassed that this is your share, but you don’t mind. You like books, and though money is always nice, there wasn’t much of that. The dirty books leave itching streaks on your forearms and sandpaper your fingerprints.

At home, it takes you a dozen slow trips to unload your car, walking while scanning titles beneath the dust. You wanted an itemized list, but your cousin never made one.

You pass a pleasant afternoon, dusting and slotting your uncle’s collection into your own shelves of unread books. His books are things you’d never have selected on your own—obscure philosophers, questionable autobiographies, religious tracts bound in cheap leatherette warning about witchcraft, pamphlets about mysterious artifacts with even more mysterious powers.

One particular book draws you. It’s faded and dusty, bound in green leather, its title indecipherable, stamped letters blurred by time and pressure. Your hand lingers on its spine.

You read alphabetically. This book, with its unreadable title that might begin with an ornate S, is for later. The book reminds you of a journal.

You love old journals, that slow creep into someone else’s thoughts. The pages cling together, reluctant to part. You set the book down to mix up a mister of alcohol and water to clean the pages. When you come back, the cats have avalanched all your piles of books into one heap. By the time you think about the book again, you’ve mislaid it somewhere in the mess.

Your uncle died with a book in his hands.

You wonder, which book was he reading? Not the kind of question you can ask. Even if your cousins knew, asking would be insensitive. His death was sudden and surprising.

When you move apartments, you lose the book. You find it again when you clear a room preparing to paint. You set the book beside your bed, and it’s gone in the morning. You find it dead center beneath your bed a week later when you sweep. It’s in your hand. The phone rings.

You carry the book and race to the phone, and sometime during the long call, you mislay it. When you retrace your steps, the book is nowhere to be found.

You notice, of course you notice. There are only so many times you can lose something. And you wonder, every time you pick up a different book, a consolation prize, what’s in the book.

You lose the book when you set it down to answer the door.

You lose the book when you need to answer a few emails.

You lose the book while doing laundry.

You lose the book.

In the midst of a search, you try to tally the losses, but they rapidly reach triple digits. You start tallying possibilities instead.

The book might be attractive to your cats. Though you smell only dust and paper, a faint hint of smoke, who knows what your cats smell. Maybe they’re the ones moving the book, driving a maddening taste before them.

The book could be moving itself; stranger things happen. Rocks sail across Death Valley. Surely a book slicked with dust could sail itself around a small house.

The book could be full of information so dense and so powerful that the book might work like some kind of magnet, propulsive, repulsive in equal measures.

The book could be waiting for the right reader. And you’re not it. You try not to think about that too much. There’s a rejection you’d never get over.

The book could be the journal you think it is, but its pages might still be writing itself. Maybe it’s your journal, and the end page will end you. All biographies end with a death. And your uncle is dead.

The book could be magic. Not that you believe in magic; you’re too old, too tired to believe. Except if anything could be magic, it would be a book, wouldn’t it?

Embarrassed, you think the book could just be a book. It’s not like you’ve never mislaid a book before. Two just this past month, one fatally lost, left on the bus. One, you left in the freezer. But you found that one, minutes later, backtracking.

You find the book behind the shelves.

You find the book atop the refrigerator, blood warm with reflected heat.

You find the book beneath the stairs, shrouded in cobwebs.

You find the book in the piano bench, amongst the pages of Pavane for a Dead Princess.

You find the book in the patch of rue in your garden.

If you’ve had it in your hands so often, why haven’t you been able to read it? Books are created to be read. Cat and mouse for months now.

You find the book.

You find the book.

You find the book.

The book flexes in your hands, the pages fluttering against your fingers like frantic moths, a panicked heart-beat. By now, you’d expect nothing less. Yours is beating just as fast. You part the spine, press the page flat, and begin to read.

###

The Book Resists Reading