Category Archives: Books

Books I Got the Most Out of in 2018

  • Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd: I read this because of David Bowie. It was on his list of favorite books and his son started a sort of online freeform book club based on his dad’s favorite books. This book is super weird! A story that eats its own tail (tale?), set in different eras of London. Turns out I love books about London and books about detectives and books about secret histories and architectures. There’s nothing pleasant about this book, except the mesmerizing prose.
  • Gnomon by Nick Harkaway: You can’t go wrong with Harkaway, you really can’t. The man can write! I’ve read every book he’s written and I’ll read every book he writes. A story about (what else?) a detective–actually, an inspector. It’s not exactly a mystery, but it is a fantastic story about memory and identity. It has one of the creepiest characters in a book I’ve ever read.
  • Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls: A married woman falls in love with a sea monster. It’s funny and sad and more people should read it and know about it, probably.
  • Puckoon by Spike Milligan: Another David Bowie pick. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read (while it’s also deeply offensive in almost every way, but what can you do?). An Irish novel from the 1960s. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is going to go through the middle of a town and the British government is going to put their border crossing station in the middle of a cemetery. There’s almost nothing but crazy hijinks.
  • Six Four by Video Yokoyama: Somehow the PR guy in this Japanese police force solves a mystery. I don’t usually go in for the police procedural stuff, but for some reason, I found this one deeply compelling. It’s just really good.
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: George Orwell writes movingly about his time in poverty in the early 20th century.
  • The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch: I’m a sucker for time travel stories, even ones like this that are hiding inside of a “thriller” story.
  • The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt: Dewitt writes an extremely moving story about fathers and sons. Well, one son and several fathers. There aren’t any samurai in it, unless you count the cinematic ones.
  • Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: No other book has reminded me so much of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide books. A real pleasure.
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West: The best book I read in 2018 (and many other years). A travelogue of 1930s Yugoslavia. I can’t think of another book that charmed me so effortlessly or that made me feel the burden and weight of history so keenly. Rebecca West is someone I would’ve loved to have known. But I’ll settle for her writing instead.
  • The Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin: Some of these were a re-read and some of them were new to me. Sometimes you need a little magic in your life. These books are a good place to get them. (See also: Beren and Lúthien by JRR Tolkien)
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman: Europe in the 14th century was probably the worst time and place to be alive as a human being. A little comfort reading. Knights were freaking terrifying (“worms in iron cages”). And disease was pretty terrible too.

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But though there were no formal parties, it is true that there were now two broadly opposing worldviews floating in the political ether waiting to be tapped as needed. As the crisis over the Lex Agraria revealed, it was no longer a specific issue that mattered so much as the urgent necessity to triumph over rivals. Reflecting on the recurrent civil wars of the Late Republic, Sallust said, “It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.” Accepting defeat was no longer an option.

Excerpt From

The Storm Before the Storm

Mike Duncan

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January 18, 2019 · 5:45 pm

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

If you’d told me that Helen DeWitt would follow up her exquisite The Last Samurai with a novel about a guy who solves America’s workplace sexual harassment issue by starting a company to provide anonymous sexual encounters as a workplace perk, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you. For a novel primarily about sex, it’s not very erotic or salacious, but it is funny. Doesn’t hold a candle to her other novel or her collection of short stories, to my mind, but for what it sets out to do–satirical take on American gender relationships in the workplace–it does it pretty well. The best thing this book does is present sex as really not that big a deal, because it’s just something that everyone does, so why not be pragmatic about it? Why treat it as something separate and unusual? It’s a refreshing take on it.

Unlike The Last Samurai, I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but it’s a quick, smart, funny read.

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A Couple Books

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette De Bodard is a novella-length science fiction story in what might be some future Earth where a race of aliens have come and gone–the Vanishers–leaving disease and desolation in their wake. It’s an intimate story of a human (?) woman living on a Vanisher spaceship–maybe? everything is very vague–with two abandoned Vanisher children. She trades her healing service for the servitude of a young woman to teach her children. It’s described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and that’s certainly accurate. This story shines in its portrayal of the weird alien technology as a kind of bizarre magic based, I think, in some kind of super-tech genetic engineering. A quick, charming read.

The weirder the better a la science fiction, as far as I’m concerned. The stories in this collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis, are weird. I think I probably checked this book out from the library based on its title. Read it for: the title story, “Moonkids”, “Teacher”, “Sweetheart”, and “Ultimate Housekeeping Megathrill 4”, but all of the stories are worthwhile. The language in these stories is often casually bizarre, as though they’re being written by people used to writing and speaking and English from a couple parallel universe away.

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I Read Some More Books

The Explorer by James Smythe: This book dances on a kind of knife’s edge for the first third of it or so. The book captures the protagonist’s tedium and dread at being the sole remaining survivor of a doomed space expedition almost too well. Thankfully the book swerves into true weirdness after that first third and becomes a fascinating meditation on the inability to see ourselves as others see us. I’ve been pretty down on first-person narratives lately, because of how limiting and constrained they are, but this book uses first person point of view particularly effectively. I dug it.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu: Two of the stories in this collection made me cry and I’d say that almost all of them are worth reading. I especially liked: “The Paper Menagerie”, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, “State Change”, “All the Flavors”, “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King”. I expect many of these stories can be found online. Go digging!

Doom Patrol: Nada by Gerard Way: It’s impossible to read this without seeing Grant Morrison’s influence. Which is fitting, I suppose, given Morrison’s long run on Doom Patrol. I found the issue with Niles “The Chief” Caulder–their former leader–especially satisfying. The story’s pretty gonzo and surreal but manages to keep a slight hold on the reins so that things don’t devolve into pure nonsense. Also, the art is quite lovely.

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Was Too Busy Reading Books Lately to Write About Them

A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: Describes burglars and their relationship to architecture and cities and those who try to foil them (cops, safe makers, architects, etc). I especially liked the chapter in which the author met with members of various lock picking societies. A quick and enlightening read chockablock full of fantastic detail.

Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker: They just don’t write science fiction like this anymore (or I’m looking in the wrong places). There’s almost too much creativity crammed into this book about an alien world divided into hexagons, each one of which has a completely different environment and set of alien creatures. I suppose that’s why Chalker wrote several more books. I enjoyed this crazy romp through this bizarro alien world and will probably read one or two more of these.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: A book that’s probably a lot more interesting than it sounds. The story of the interpersonal dynamic among a crew of alien races on a long distance space journey. The characters are charming, the alien races are unique and strange, and (in what was something of a relief, I realized) the characters solve their problems without the use of violence. This is one of those science fiction books that you could easily hand to both fans of science fiction and not and still find a receptive audience. I intend to read the sequels.

Neverworld Wake by Misha Pessl: I really enjoyed her first book a lot (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) and was delighted when I realized that she had written a couple new books. This is a YA novel with a time travel/Groundhog Day motif. I liked it a lot and I did not see the twist coming (to be fair, I usually don’t). A quick, enjoyable read (what I’m usually looking for when I pick up a YA novel).

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova: Do you like sewing machines? Because there are a lot of them in this book of short stories. These stories have a real Grimm’s fairy tale sort of vibe to them with an often pretty harsh (but fair) take on contemporary gender relationships. Bordering on the grotesque, Grudova has a real unique voice. I’ll be looking for more of her writing in the future.

Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin: If you like Le Guin’s other Earthsea books, you’d be missing out if you didn’t read this collection of Earthsea stories. Fills in some gaps in the novels in real interesting ways.

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin: The final Earthsea novel doesn’t disappoint. I think this was the only one (apart from the stories) that I hadn’t read before. Heartbreaking at times, this quiet novel was so deeply satisfying as a conclusion to the Earthsea story. Le Guin writes about the nature of power and the role of gender like no one else. I’m glad I read it when I did, because I think I would have got much less of it if I’d read it at a younger age.

Hellboy (Library Edition, v4): The Crooked Man and the Troll Witch by Mike Mignola: I liked the Troll Witch part of this one best, because Mignola’s still doing the art. The rest of it is fine, but Hellboy definitely loses something without Mignola doing the art. Funny thing about the Hellboy comics, I have a very hard time remembering details of the stories, even as the art remains vivid in my mind.

Battle Angel Alita (Deluxe Edition 2) by Yukito Kishiro: I still like this comic, but I don’t remember being as bothered by the grotesquerie of it when I read these the first time about 10 years ago.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman: If you’re feeling real down about where the world is at, this history of 14th century Europe could be useful cure. It probably really was one of the worst times to be alive. Plague and violence and famine and daft kings were all the rage. Also, they wore really stupid looking shoes. There are incredible, just flabbergasting details in this book.

The Wicked & the Divine: Mothering Invention by Kieron Gillen: Really effective use of wordless panels, repeating almost identical actions over thousands of years really drive the point home about how much of a drag it would be to be immortal (or to experience reincarnation with the full memory of all that had happened before). I like this comic, but all the characters are such tools, I have a hard time loving it. (But then they are all gods/rock stars, so it kind of makes sense.) The art’s fantastic.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson: Science fiction novels about psi powers were all the rage in the 70s and 80s. I haven’t seen any for a while, but this book reminded me of them. Set in a town in Nigeria that’s been infested/visited by some alien thing, this novel’s brimming with ideas. In a fitting touch, the United States has completely cut off all ties and communication with the rest of the world, so much so that no one knows anything about what’s happening there, except for strange rumors from the occasional refugee. The story’s told non-chronologically, which works pretty well in this case.

Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci: This novel uses Venn (and other) diagrams to show the status of characters’ relationships. I never suspected that a couple circles could be so moving, but it turns out that with the right context, they can be. I picked this one up on a lark at the library and I’m glad I did.

John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magicking and the Occult Roots of the Modern World by Jason Louv: Fascinating and weird. You don’t need to believe in magic to get a lot out of this book, because it’s clear that many of the people who rule the world do. It’s a weird (wyrd?), oblique take on how and why the world is where it’s at today. Sometimes I find it useful to get a curveball perspective on things.

Restart by Gordon Korman: My kid recommended this one to me, so I read it. The protagonist bonks his head and gets amnesia. Upon returning to school, he slowly learns that he was the school bully terrorizing almost everyone. It’s a kid’s book, but it’s exploring real interesting ideas around memory and identity. Who are we? The memories that we have about ourselves or the memories that other people have about us? Pretty heady stuff disguised as a pretty goofy a kid’s book.

The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar by Terry Cheney: Pretty intense stuff. I’m still thinking about this one.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash: It’s about a wrestler who really wants to win at wrestling. I mean REALLY. Another book that suffers from a plot description, because it’s really all about the execution. I like how this guy uses his words.

Fallen Words by Yoshihiro Tatsumi: Charming fables set in medieval Japan. Light and funny.

Black Hammer (v1): Secret Origins by Jeff Lemire: Another round of alternate DC/Marvel heroes complete with decades worth of fictional comics continuity to draw from. These heroes have been forced to retire a farm that seems to be a pocket dimension they can’t escape from and their interpersonal relationships sure do suffer as a result! I’m interested to see where Lemire takes it.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl: Speaking of fictional comics continuity, Proehl created an entire fictional comic book industry (complete with characters) to provide the backdrop for this story about this mother and her kid traveling across the country doing comic book conventions. The professional cosplayers form a sort of Greek chorus. The mother’s relationship and concern for her kid I found pretty touching.

The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell: Four barely interconnected short stories set in a world of environmental catastrophe caused by unbridled use of magic. Dark and grim. I wanted the stories to be more interconnected than they were.

Rock Manning Goes for Broke by Charlie Jane Anders: A short (basically novella-length) post-apocalyptic story about a guy who survives for a while by being unconcerned with what happens to his body a la Youtube-style antics. The characters just sort of keep trying to live their lives as the world goes farther and farther down the tubes. Reminded me quite a bit of A Distant Mirror in that way.

Harrow County (Library Edition v1) by Cullen Bunn: She’s a witch! And the whole town’s not what it seems. I sure wasn’t expecting the curveball this book threw. The art’s exactly what this story needs. I’ll check out future collections.

Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko: What if Hogwarts totally sucked and studying magic was a real drag? That’s basically the premise of this novel. I’m being super reductionist here and maybe unfairly so. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it compelling.

The Wild Storm: Michael Cray (v1) by Bryan Hill: I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I feel like it was kind of a rehash of stuff I’ve seen before. Michael Cray fights evil versions of classic DC heroes (Green Arrow, Aquaman, etc).

Battle Angel Alita (Deluxe Edition 3) by Yukito Kishiro: This is where Battle Angel Alita really starts to get weird. This is also where I started enjoying it a lot more when I read it the first time. The same is true this second time.

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Some Books What I Read Recently

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell: The story of one woman’s life. Shows, in harrowing detail, the emptiness and soul-crushing boredom at the heart of the “American dream”. Funny and deeply sad. 

Milk Wars: A crossover comic with DC’s biggest characters and Young Animal’s. Almost worth it just for the Milkman Man gag. Deeply surreal and weird. Riffing on stuff that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have been doing for decades. It’s great to see someone finally pick up those toys and play with them. 

Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? by Geof Darrow: Astoundingly intricate and ultraviolent martial arts comic. No one does comic action like Darrow does. The mind-controlling crab is pretty great as a villain.

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames: The sequel to Kings of the Wyld, which I liked a lot. These two are probably the best D&Desque novels I’ve ever read, for sheer enjoyment value. The band names are pure delight.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin: I thought this was my favorite Earthsea book until I (possibly?) re-read Tehanu shortly after. Reading these books again has been an experience in realizing how little I understood when I read them the first time. Maybe when I read them again in 20 years, I’ll realize how little I understand now. They’re those kinds of books. There’s something about these books that tries to get at what it means to be a man. What it means to be a good man.

Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin: The strangest thing to me is that I think I read this book when I was a kid, but I have almost no memory of having read it. I think I read it, but it was so outside of my frame of reference that I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get it so much, that I remembered almost nothing from it. It’s really, really good. I haven’t read them all yet, but I think this ranks up there as one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Hellboy (Library Edition v2): The Chained Coffin, The Right Hand of Doom, and others by Mike Mignola: Re-reading these Hellboy comics in a larger size really pays off. The art is so great. I can only think of one or two other comic artists whose styles have stuck with me so much. The story is a lot of fun too. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: How is it possible to be a good person? I almost read this book in a single sitting. I found it deeply compelling. Nothing much happens in it, except that a young woman tries to figure out what’s important in life. Moshfegh can write. I didn’t like this as much as her book of short stories, Homesick for Another World, which I can recommend unreservedly. In her writing, I think Moshfegh is really trying to get at how pernicious and destructive the lack of meaning in modern American life is.

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja: A goofy military SF story. Good for a quick light-hearted read. I’ll probably read the sequel.

Beren and Lúthien by JRR Tolkien: I didn’t realize how much I missed reading Tolkien’s writing until I read this one again. Worth it just for Tevildo, Prince of Cats.

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich: My book club wanted to read it. There’s something super weird about those cattle mutilations, y’all.

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Some More Books I Read Recently

Songy of Paradise by Gary Panter: A comic (and comic) retelling of the Temptation of Christ. “Seems to me like you are trying to sign me up for some macho trip.” The devil’s hapless temptations fail utterly in the face of Songy’s simpleminded skepticism and muleheadedness. I’m sure many of the Christian persuasion would find this blasphemous, but this adaptation (or parody) reveals some kind of truth in this biblical story that always just seemed weird. By doubling (quadrupling?) down on the weirdness, Songy gets at something real. The arts grotesque and pretty fantastic. Dig those dragons.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin: Like Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, really captures the terror inherent in being a parent. Also, the futility of parental worry in the face of the World. Bleak and post-apocalyptic and spare. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly, but it captures something valuable, I think, some sense of loss and despair and confusion that’s easier for me to read about than to feel myself.

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman: I would have loved this book if I’d read it as a kid. I still enjoyed it as an adult. I ended up reading it because my kid checked it out from the library and I was curious. Full of puzzles and ciphers and mysteries and a love of books. I recommended it to my kid. We’ll see if he reads it.

You & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis: An autobiographical comic about a woman’s bike trip from Texas to Georgia (am I remembering that right?). Almost a meditation on the value of solitude and of setting goals for oneself. It’s a brave and personal book and it made me (slightly) want to get on a bike and go someplace.

Providence: Act 1 by Alan Moore: I think the Lovecraft thing is mostly played out at this point, but this comic manages to evoke a kind of slow-burning dread that pays off in a fairly unexpected crayon drawing. The writing is, unsurprisingly, exceptional and the art is tops. I found the hand-written text pretty painful to read and mostly skimmed through it. Like other works by Moore, he delights in creating primary source documents from the period that he’s writing about. If you’re still down with the Lovecraft thing, I’d recommend it. Otherwise….

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Some Books I Read Recently

Hollywood Dead by Richard Kadrey: I’ve read 9 or 10 of these Sandman Slim books now. Super enjoyable in the same way that eating popcorn is. Salty and greasy and delicious! If you like supernatural, LA noir stories about a flawed hero making his way in the world and fighting monsters and such, you should check this series out. Pretty sure you could read them in any old order, because I quickly lose track of the plots of these. It doesn’t seem to matter too much. Super quick read. My only curiosity is why these haven’t been optioned for a movie series before now. Seems perfect for that kind of adaptation.

The Wicked & The Divine by Kieron Gillen: A bunch of music superstars actually get turned into gods. They only get to live a couple years, though. The art (by Jamie McKelvie) in this comic is beautiful. It’s pretty tough to feel sympathetic for any of these characters, but then I kind of feel similarly re. real world pop superstars. I have no idea where this comic is going and the latest had a (for me, Mr. “I didn’t see that coming!”) pretty unexpected twist.

Battle Angel Alita (Deluxe Edition v1) by Yukito Kushiro: I picked this one up to re-read because my kid saw the trailer for the movie that’s coming out soon. It’s funny what a decade will do, because I enjoyed this comic a lot more when I read it the first time. If you want to read it, definitely get this deluxe edition. The art is pretty incredible. Hugo’s trenchcoat is still as goofy as I remember.

The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux: Wild, surreal comics from the 1970s. Claveloux is a French comics artist. Her work is super strange, but in a deeply charming sort of way. 

The Nine by Tracy Townsend: I had this book checked out for so long that I couldn’t remember why I’d checked it out in the first place. And then I remembered. The central plot point was inspired by Borges’ book Dictionary of Imaginary Creatures–a fantastic book–and I’ll read anything by a Borges enthusiast. It’s less of a heist story than I was expecting based on what I’d read about it (cover jacket) but I liked it pretty well. I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes out.

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The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer

Not like any bird I’ve ever seen…

It’s not really a sequel or a prequel, but a story sort of told obliquely to the excellent novel Borne. It’s a story about a truly alien creature in a strange and ruined (at least from a human perspective) world.

Short and heart-breaking, it provides an insight or another way of thinking about Borne, even though I think it could stand along on its own merits. Ultimately, a meditation on the cruelties human beings inflict on non-humans, simply by being unable to imagine the value of non-human perspective. It’s not a nice book, but it did get me thinking about the value of compassion toward all of the wondrous variety of living things in our world, not because of what they can do for us, but simply because they’re alive.

I’ll read pretty much anything that VanderMeer writes, I think because he really gets at a certain weirdness and emotional intensity that I really dig. I think this short book stands as one of his strongest works.

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