What I've Read 2016


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The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer: A short story collection where each entry is an account, be it personal, academic, folklorish, or any other number of things, of an item in a fictional collection of curiosities. Includes Alan Moore writing about Jerusalem in a weirdly meta thing all the way back in 2011 (lol, sure, it'll be finished in 2013), art by Mike Mignola, entries from China Mieville, NK Jemisin, Garth Nix, and many others. Great anthology to go through at your own pace, and some really haunting entries within.

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Red Spider, White Web, Misha: 90s cyberpunk written by a Native author. As near as I can tell, she wrote this, and aside from some poetry, never wrote anything else. This is basically a fever dream of a book. I'm not entirely sure I ever had a grasp on what was really happening in this book, but to be entirely honest, I'm okay with that. It's a hell of a ride, with some goddamn gorgeous imagery, and if you can find it somewhere, it's worth a read.

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Woes of the True Policeman, Roberto Bolaño: This novel is apparently the result of two separate manuscripts that were found among Bolaño's things on his death, of a work in progress that he'd been working on since the 80s. There's kind of a coherent narrative if you squint, but don't go in expecting a nice clean resolution to this. Focuses on a father, his daughter, both characters from one of his other novels, their lives, and some odd adjacent literary topics that comprise about a third of the book. It's an interesting read, especially as my third or so Bolaño.

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Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, Allie Brosh: A collected book of some of Allie's best stuff from Hyperbole and a Half (including the depression entries), and at least 30 - 40% new material, all of which is pretty great. Makes me miss her updating Hyperbole and a Half regularly, but apparently she's got a new collection coming out in October?

Binti, Nnendi Okorafor: The novella that won this year's Nebula (and may be up for a Hugo? Not sure). Feels like it's a proof of concept for something larger - I do hope she continues in this universe, because the bits we got here are very intriguing. The novella itself has a good arc, as does our main, and went a direction that I wasn't expecting, but kept everything going very well. The author mentions her eleven year old helping her through some writers block moments, and you can tell a bit with how suddenly some of the plot bits happen. But overall, great world building, and a wonderful, quick read.

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Grotesque, Natsuo Kirino: Pitched as a detective story, actually more of a character study. Focuses on a malicious older sister, the beautiful younger sister who becomes a whore, a high school classmate who becomes a whore, and the Chinese immigrant who murders the younger sister and high school classmate. The older sister's narration bridges the first hand accounts, and it's an interesting look at these women's reactions to the men in their lives and how it shapes them, and how they all become monsters in their own way. Kind of hard to believe it's written and translated by a woman for how negative it is towards its female characters/how often the downtrodden whore stereotype is bought up. Still not sure how the hell this ended (it's implied that the narrator also became a whore and may be sleeping with the man who murdered the other two), but it's a hell of a ride. Also interesting because apparently it was censored upon US release (a section about underage male prostitution was removed, but we regularly hear about the younger sister being an escort in middle/high school). Bought this remaindered, worth a read if you can find it similarly cheap.

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Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen; Alison Weir: ARC that I picked up at our bookstore's anniversary sale for free. Comes out this Tuesday, I believe. 600 page historical novel about the first of Henry's wives. This novel can't tell if it wants to be a popular history biography of Katherine, or a historical novel, and by God the writing sure as hell can't decide which it wants to be, either. The novel switches between passages that seem more suited to a biography, and attempts at writing a really basic historical novel, and they don't meld well together. This feels like it badly needs an editor. Weir's supposedly written three historical novels, but you couldn't tell from what's written here. She has, however, written a shitton of popular history about the Tudors, and the style seems far more suited to that. Weir is supposedly contracted to one of these a year for each of Henry VIII's wives. Here's hoping she finds a better editor and balance for the next one.

Silvina Ocampo, selected/translated by Jason Weis: a short book of translated poems by Silvina Ocampo. Some absolutely gorgeous imagery and stabbing lines here; I typically don't go in for poetry lots, but I went through this in a half hour's time, and half or more of it is gonna stick with me. Read it if you get the chance.

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Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, Paul Krueger: No relation. Starts as a pretty standard urban fantasy trying to be a multimedia property with Statements to Make. The tag line of Harry Potter with booze is pretty accurate. The last third or so of the book turns it around and makes the first two thirds worth it. It's got some good lines, it's a quick read, if you find it remaindered, I'd say get it. (Also, author clearly grew up in the burbs of Chicago, and not the city proper.)

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Lullaby for a Lost World, Aliette de Bodard: One of those Tor novellas that's actually way more like a short story (14 pages total), worth the $.99 I paid for it. A story about a girl sacrificed to hold the power of a house, and also a unicorn. You'll see. Nicely tinged fantasy horror.

The Seventh Bride, T. Kingfisher: One of Ursula Vernon's pennames. A great fairy tale about women relying on each other, a girl relying on her own inner strength and cunning to beat a nasty sorceror, and occasionally the wisdom of hedgehogs and she bears. Practical and dry witted and great, it's $3 on Kindle, and worth every penny. Been posting excerpts from it recently too.

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Finch, Jeff VanderMeer: Bless the boy for turning me on to Jeff VanderMeer in general. What would've already been a great detective noir novel and some beautiful turns of phrase gets elevated and turned even weirder by a fantasy setting that heavily features mushroom people and fungal infections. Like, think the Vimes novels in the Discworld series with a heavy dose of body horror. My first in the Ambergris series but apparently this might be the last major book in the series? Either way, I've got the other two books here, and given that one of them is heavily referenced in this one, I'm really looking forward to seeing where this series goes next.

The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro  Tanizaki: Found this remaindered at Unabridged. Tanizaki is apparently one of the major writers of the modern Japanese movement, after the one who tried to lead a coup and then committed seppuku. It might be the translation, but I had to force myself to power read through this, as I wanted to start Shriek (next book in the Ambergris series, the boy bought it to my place for the weekend), and I was determined to get this book over with. It's a combination of an upper class declining family drama and little vignettes, and very much feels like a dude trying to write how women feel but utterly failing at it. It's worth the $5 I paid for it, but not much more than that.

 

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Shriek: An Afterword, Jeff VanderMeer: Second in the Ambergris series, and the second one I've read. Honestly, wondering how the hell I've not heard of VanderMeer until the boy. This is an autobiography framed as a dialogue between brother and sister (the former leaves notes on the latter's manuscript) also framed as the history of the city as it changes, and getting to see all the links to the other book, and the expansion of things that are only touched on briefly in Finch is just... Holy fucking shit. Likely starting the first book in the series tonight.

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Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads! by Kirk Demarais: Exactly what it says on the box. Demarais went out and tracked down a metric fuckton of all that shit you used to see advertised in old comic books and determined what actually delivered what was promised, and what was worded in such a way so as not to be technically fraud. As a kid, I was ridiculously gullible and would believe pretty much anything I read, and even I would look at these ads and wonder what I would actually receive if I mailed a dollar to a PO box somewhere in Eau Claire, WI with the understanding that in exchange I would be sent a coin that could hypnotize people and a machine that would turn ordinary slips of paper into twenty dollar bills. Just seeing the old ads again was a huge kick, but actually finding out what the werewolf mask looked like, what Charles Atlas' course entailed, and exactly how the X-ray glasses worked was really fucking cool.

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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite, Suki Kim: Found remaindered on my latest trip to Unabridged. A journalist essentially goes undercover at a university based in Pyongnang for six months in 2011, right before Kim Jong-Il dies, and teaches English to the sons of North Korea's elite (as all other universities have been shut down during this time). The resulting account is a neat look into some of the more elite lives of North Korea, such as they are, and at these boys being exposed to the world outside their own. Their lives are admittedly super restricted though, so I wonder how much of this is actually the boys connecting, and how much of an effort they may have been putting on for her. Kim doesn't make it overly about her, thank god, but the times when she gets close are super cringeworthy.  I wonder how all the missionaries she was working with (the university was staffed entirely by missionaries) felt when all this came out. Worth a read if you find it cheap.

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Real World, Natsuo Kirino: Four teenage girls are drawn by circumstance into the aftermath of one of the girls' next door neighbors being murdered. The ensuing novel is compelling, incredibly well written, and an interesting account of all four of the girls' reactions to the murder, and the murderer himself, along with a situation that just gets worse and worse because all of our protagonists are teenagers, and make their decisions accordingly. Again, it's great to see Kirino tackling the point of views of all of her female characters, and to dive into a murderer's mind like she does. The novel is pretty short (each pov character gets a chapter, with three of them getting an additional chapter), but I've been racing through it the last few nights. I read something somewhere recently that whether or not you like an author in translation has a lot to do with the skill of the translator. I think that's the case with Kirino, as this is a different translator than Grotesque, and I liked it a lot better. (It also has almost 200% less reliance on prostitute stereotypes!) Going to try to find Out, her other novel that's been translated, and see how I like it.

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The Rolling Stones, Robert A. Heinlein : I am only two thirds of the way through this book and I am wanting to negotiate a deal between Mike, Dan and Wendee over sponsoring a The Edge of Forever / Books Without Pictures crossover because I am finding many connections between this book and Star Trek. For example: I noticed the mother said  

"  I'm a doctor not a Fortune Teller  "   - Chapter 6

And I just got to the part where the Martian flatcat is having a litter. 

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I would like to see what other connections could be made. 

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KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, John Higgs: Recommended by a friend when I asked for some reading to expand my nonfiction repertoire. Weaves together the narrative of the KLF, the discourse of pop music, discordianism, a bit of Alan Moore, and the idea of magic to create a real compelling narrative thread, basically looking at framing contexts. I went into this knowing almost nothing about the KLF, and in reading, found out that I did actually know them from their Doctor Who novelty hit, which further ups the weird coincidences that Higgs examines. The man also writes with the typical British dry wit, which ups the book significantly. Give it a read, it's going to be percolating in my head the next few days I suspect.

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City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer: Technically the first book in the Ambergris trilogy, but the book I came at last. The book itself is a collection of short stories, all purporting to be from the world of Ambergris; from a pamphlet about the King Squid, to correspondence about the case of a mental patient who believes he is a famous writer from Chicago and that Ambergris isn't real, to various in world histories and literary journals. All of these create some amazing world building and some beautiful meta narratives within the book itself. Doesn't make it easy to get through (I've been chewing on this one for about a month now), but if tackled a few short stories at a time, it moves quickly. I still recommend my reading order of Finch, Shriek, City, but if you want proper chronological order, reverse that.

The Girl With All the Gifts, MR Carey: This book has been on the to read list for a while now. With the combination of the movie being announced, a Kindle sale, and realizing this was the same Mike Carey who wrote Unwritten and Lucifer, I decided this was next up after finishing KLF on the phone. One of the best books I've read this year. Yes, it's a zombie book, but in a way I've not seen before (fungi and kids!), along with the fact that one of our pov characters is a child who's been infected but has retained her higher brain functions. The first part is great at building dread and horror, the middle part stumbles a bit, but the twists that are delivered once they get to London are great. I don't often wish for sequels, but would love to see one here. 

Current count: 39 books

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Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson: The Bloggess' second book. Combination of crazy ass stories from her own life, advice on how to handle mental health stuff, and reprints of some of her blog posts. As always, a great, quick, fun read. Which is a much needed antidote after the first four chapters of Who Fears Death included a description of systemic use of rape as racial violence, genocide, and an eleven year old choosing female circumcision to not shame her mother and adoptive father over the shame of her existence as a rape baby.

Books Read: 40

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Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor: Nnedi's novella, Binti, won the Nebula this year, and I've been looking for her other work. Jim picked up this for me at a bookstore we both like. This is a standalone novel, fantasy with a vague postapocalyptic hint, but it doesn't go out of its way to hammer the postapocalyptic part home. This novel goes hard, featuring systemic rape as violence, eleven year olds choosing female circumcision to avoid shaming their families, and incest/abuse in the first four chapters alone. I thought I was going to need to take this slow after last night, and then I ended up mainlining the entire thing tonight. A great fantasy mythos based out of Sudanese traditions, a good hard look at the systemic violence that's taken place there through the lens of fantasy, and some amazing highs and lows throughout the novel, along with a great character arc and journey for our main character. Definitely going to be looking for more of her stuff now.

Books Read: 41

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Out, Natsuo Kirino: Liked this the most of her novels that I've read so far, and unfortunately, there's not much more of her in translation. Great story about a group of four women that get drawn together in the aftermath of one of them killing her husband, and the men who incidentally orbit their lives. Again, female centric noir esque fiction, has some amazing lines, and takes some amazing twists and turns. Definitely worth a read if you find it. 

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Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads! by Kirk Demarais: Exactly what it says on the box. Demarais went out and tracked down a metric fuckton of all that shit you used to see advertised in old comic books and determined what actually delivered what was promised, and what was worded in such a way so as not to be technically fraud. As a kid, I was ridiculously gullible and would believe pretty much anything I read, and even I would look at these ads and wonder what I would actually receive if I mailed a dollar to a PO box somewhere in Eau Claire, WI with the understanding that in exchange I would be sent a coin that could hypnotize people and a machine that would turn ordinary slips of paper into twenty dollar bills. Just seeing the old ads again was a huge kick, but actually finding out what the werewolf mask looked like, what Charles Atlas' course entailed, and exactly how the X-ray glasses worked was really fucking cool.

I felt the same way with the catalogues in te back of Boys Life  magazines. I would fantsize about getting plans to build my own lightsaber and hovercraft and becoming a real life Darth Maul.  Fortunately I never had the money to spend so I never know. But my past job had me working a leaf blower hovercraft so maybe I would know.

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The Broken Earth: The Obelisk Gate, NK Jemisin: First off, if you haven't read the first book yet, it just won the Hugo, go do that. The sequel won't win a Hugo, I don't think, but how it moves all the parts it needs to move is great. It continues the three povs conceit of the previous book, though now with different people all on a convergence path, and a fourth added as a context pov for when the second POV is used. (Great technical work there.) Essun's part of the novel is mostly a training montage for the amazingness of the last part of the book, and comm politics. The real interesting bits of the story this time come from Schaffa, our first Guardian pov, and Essun's daughter Nassun. Warning for Nassun's POV chapters: they go hard into what abuse looks like and does to a person, so if you have that in your past, be prepared to tap out here and there. Jemisin is wrapping the last book now, and I can't wait to see how all this comes together.

Books Read: 43

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War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the strangest chapter of 1940's Science Fiction, by Richard Toronto

  The thing that I liked about this book is the thing that the reviewers on Amazon hated. It portrayed Palmer and Shaver as people rather than dug into the mythos surrounding the two. When I first heard about the Shaver Mystery I was suspicious. I thought Shaver sounded too much like another SF writer who claimed he knew how the universe worked. But when I read the book I realized that Shaver is closer to that kid who did not see a face shaped rock like a face shaped rock, to him it was the vestige of an ancient temple buried right beneath your feet. You may not have believed him but you still had fun with his story. Also Shaver openly joked about how he was "crazy." I also liked how I saw pictures of Shaver throughout his life and not the popular image of where he is old and paranoid looking, like Doc Brown with a mustache.

    The second part felt a bit off and could have been its own book. That part focused more on the battle between Shaver and Hamling who was trying to ride the coat tails of Hugh Hefner. I still was a bit confused about how Hamling set things up to take advantage of a financially struggling Shaver but I still got a sense of Schadenfreude when I heard about how that porn baron got his come uppance with the FBI. 

It changed my views of a chapter on SF history that the Mainstream has long ignored. And influenced the next two books that I read which are...

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One was Stubborn: Lafayette Ron Hubbard- On a superficial level it was a twilight zone-esque piece of pulp fiction. But it did make me wonder if I could manipulate matter with my mind. It was in that moment I realized how the author came to be known as the most dangerous man of the twentieth century. The way that he emphasized believing things in or out of existence revealed to me how he was able to live with himself after his treatment to his wives and children.

Invasion of the Micro-Men, a Shaver Mystery by Richard S. Shaver Reading this I was ready to give it the same scathing review that I gave to One was Stubborn there were some visceral imagery and some deeply uncomfortable subjects. However this also makes the beautiful imagery that much more memorable. Scenes of the spaceship the Black Prince taking off and landing, the protagonist injecting herself with good micromen to battle the invaders.

 

Both books made the reader think. One was Stubborn gave the impression that you can make yourself believe the world you live in. Micro Men had a lecture on gravity. Even though a physicist would shake their head and shout that gravity does not work that way. It was still provoked the imagination. Originally I thought these two authors were different sides of a coin. But now I see that Shaver and Hubbard were very much opposite.

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The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu: okay, so. I read this because I liked Liu's translation of the Three Body Problem, and Jim picked me up this at the Hugo signing that he was at. I also wanted to support diverse writers in fantasy, etc etc etc. I'm gonna stick to his translations from now on. Powered through most of this tonight because I wanted to be done with it and to be able to properly critique the whole thing instead of dropping it like I badly wanted to. I should've dropped it.

This book has four major problems, as follows:

1. It can't decide if it wants to be this epic sweeping history book or the story of two boys caught up in history. It swings wildly between the two, which makes our two main characters' development suffer badly, with entire chapters and the occasional mid chapter flashback for no reason for side characters, who I swear to God exist just to max out word count.

2. This six hundred fucking page tiny ass type book is two separate books. There's a clear break at page ~350ish that was clearly supposed to be the original ending, and then it drags onto page 618. If the book had split, I would likely have been a lot kinder. But it drags, and dear fuck Christ it suffers for it. (Also, HOW THE FUCK ARE THERE TWO MORE BOOKS IN THIS TRILOGY?!)

3. It switches between being barely concealed Chinese history, trying real hard to be like Game of Thrones (wuxia GOT is one of the actual fucking pull quotes), with a bit of "silk punk" (aka lazy steampunk with a vaguely Asian flavor) that it remembers to bring up once every hundred pages and then forget about. PICK A THING AND STICK TO IT.

4. The women in this book. Holy fuck Ken Liu I actually ended up throwing this book in anger at one point because of his lack of women, and the women who do get a chapter or so devoted to them are the worst fucking stereotypes. At least GOT developed its female characters. Our ladies are 1. The cunning wife who sees much in one of our mains and lifts him up and plays politics and suggests he get a second wife and then gets jealous; 2. One of the main's moms, who dies and provides a convenient funeral to make politics at; 3. A woman who ends up falling in love with one of the other mains and is the only woman who gets him; 4. The second wife, who we get one chapter about and jealousy from wife 1 and that's literally fucking it; 5. A secret aunt of one of the mains who exists to tell him that he's lost his way and be mysterious and a secret advisor to wife 1; 6. A woman who dresses like a man and leads the army and is tough as a man and I think my eyes rolled out of my head; 7. A beautiful woman who tries to play the game with her beauty but fails and gets herself killed to absolve her shame (the point at which I threw the book and just started yelling). There are twice as many male mains with way more development.

TLDR holy fuck this book needs an editor and needs it badly.

Books Read: 44

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