Sunday, April 28, 2019

April Reads Part Three

The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald
Spring by Ali Smith
Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan
The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas

There comes a time when you have to admit an author pulled one over on you. Usually, I can predict twists and solutions to mysteries. I've read enough mysteries to get a feel for how these stories move. The killer won't be that character because it's too obvious, but it can't be this other character either, because that's not tragic or shocking enough. And while I might have guessed a substantial part of the mystery in The Ivory Grin, the eponymous skull and the rest of its skeleton, surprised me. Which is lovely! It's fun to be surprised! As with other MacDonald novels, I loved this, especially its quiet moments. He deploys these Ozu-like transitions, these moments of quietude between long scenes of dialogue, and this is where the poet in MacDonald shows off:
It was late afternoon when I drove through Arroyo Beach to the ocean boulevard. The palm-lined sand was strewn with bodies like a desert battlefield. At the horizon sea and sky merged in a blue haze from which the indigo hills of the channel islands rose. Beyond them the sun's fire raged on the slops of space.
I  turned south into traffic moving bumper to bumper, fender to fender, like an army in retreat. The arthritic trees cast long baroque shadows down the cemetery hill. (210)
The novel grapples, quite consciously, with Black folks being railroaded by police. Even though one character couldn't have possibly committed the murder, he is arrested and jailed without charge because he is Black and he was there. MacDonald wrote this in 1952, 3 years before Rosa Parks, 3 years before Emmett Till, and 2 years before Brown v. Board of Education. For a white writer of mysteries, he risked little to express this sympathy for Black folks, but that he did is pretty commendable. However, his Black characters still have a taint of simplicity to them. Perhaps this improves with subsequent volumes.

The next Archer book in the series is Find a Victim, which I read in January of 2014. I'll skip it for The Barbarous Coast, the last novel in the "Archer in Hollywood" omnibus I own. After that is The Doomsters (which I read November 4, 2010) and then what everybody considers the high point of the entire series, The Galton Case. Eventually, and not in the too-distant future, I'll have read every single one, and I can go back to re-read the ones from 2014 and earlier.

Spring might be Ali Smith's longest novel and most ambitious. In one plotline, a washed-up TV director, now forgotten by the masses, considers suicide by train. In the other, a guard for a migrant detention centre gets roped into a journey by a little girl, fulfilling the classic Smith role of precocious disruptor. These two strands converge, things get disrupted, puns are made, and it ends with an honest-to-goodness climax. I liked this one more than Autumn, but not as much as Winter, which rises in my estimation with time. I don't have much to say about this, but we're 3 books down, with 1 to go, and this is an incredible project. I feel so blessed to live in a world where Ali Smith publishes a book a year.

I read the short story "Mr Gaunt" about four years ago in the anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird and I was so jazzed by it, I started an entire blog post about it. I took notes, I drafted an opening paragraph, but then was distracted by this or that. On the strength of that memory, I purchased hardcover copies of the collection and his debut novel House of Windows (I picked up both used and cheap, so it wasn't the end of the world cost-wise). Finally, I got around to the collection, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. Rereading "Mr Gaunt" was a bit of a letdown, I'm afraid to report. I kept asking myself what I was so fired up about with this story. It's okay! Langan's prose is lovely, truly a close disciple of Henry James and M. R. James, both in prose and in affect. His stories are lush with detail, long and patient, but it's this adolescent self-consciousness which drags the stories down. He's not satisfied with clever easter eggs; his narrators explicitly name-check the influences. This attitude strikes me as snotty: "I'm not like those other horror hacks; I've read the classics and I want you to know." It weighs down the stories, makes them stuffy and almost inaccessible. The horror becomes distanced, more abstract than the physical details Langan describes intend. T. E. D. Williams managed this threading of influences with visceral horror quite a bit more smoothly. The final story, a previously unpublished novella titled "Laocoon, or the Singularity" was my favourite of the bunch: an sculptor discovers a weird Giger-style sculpture in the garbage, brings it home, and obsesses over finishing its face. The disintegration of his personal life, coupled with his failed artistic career, are handled well. The symbiosis of pop culture artifacts and texture with the horror and the personal doesn't quite work as well. Still, a good story. Langan shows a lot of promise, and hopefully with his next collection, he's shaken off the teen angst at being taken seriously.

I didn't read The Nest in the fancy new Valancourt edition. Nor did I read the American paperback with its famous cover. I did buy a copy online, expressly due to the cover, but the edition I was mailed was the UK edition, with a not-so-great cover, pictured above. It's also riddled with more type errors than I've ever encountered in a professionally published work. Yowza.

 This is one of the worst novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I try not to hate-read or hate-watch or irony-consume anything. I like to meet cultural objects at their level. And for most of The Nest, I did. I got a kick out of the purple prose, the completely wild violence, the better-than-average command of plotting. But as the novel wore on, for 450 pages, my patience began to deplete. Part of it is the incessant exposition, the entomology factoids lobbed at the reader, over and over. Two of the characters are the classic professor, the patrician expert from Harvard or whatever, spooling out reams of information, all meant to rationalize the horror. Which is my least favourite part about horror from the 80s. You don't need to justify the existence of this monster! Just let the monstrous invade the Real!! Perhaps that's why I gravitate more towards cosmic horror than creature feature stuff. I prefer my horror existential than physical.

And physicality is this book's raison d'être. There's an alarming amount of sexually-adjacent violence and genital mutilation described. In one telling scene, a man, running naked through the woods with his hand cuffed behind his back, decides to nestle into a pile of leaves to sleep through the night. No, the circumstances by which he finds himself there don't matter, so don't bother asking. He quickly realizes this pile of leaves feels enough like a woman (????), he is aroused, and he fucks the pile of leaves, the vibrations being enough to awaken the nest of sleeping cockroaches dangerously nearby. There are also numerous instances of penises being eaten or orifices being invaded by the villainous insects. One hilarious bit has a man and woman enjoying a steamy makeout session and he slips his finger inside her. She begins to protest because she doesn't like to be touched there—"there" being her anus—and it only takes the reader a second to realize the man isn't touching her there, but something else is!! A nasty bit of humour.   

As a final bit, I hope you're ready to enjoy the worst sex scene I've ever read. I'm going to quote it at length:
...and she spread herself wider, welcoming, wanting, lusting for him now. She felt Peter Hubbard enter her body. He was full and strong and straight. She uttered one cry which gave away in a moment to a gasp of ecstasy.
She held him fast inside of her as the deck of her life lsted in the sudden story of emotions she had never sailed before. She clung to him harder as her body became a skimming craft on swelling seas. She rose and fell, bobbed and turned and wheeled and heeled. She was a ship running before the wind of love; she was its sails; he was its keel. She was a bird; he was its wings.
Then suddenly she was the wind itself, and scudding clouds filled up with thunder and with the lightening he was charging up in her and charging up in her. Until she could contain it no longer. Like a storm sky she split, the thunder crashed out of her and the burst of her orgasm shook the world.
They came crashing to release together, both riven to the core. Then the tempest passed, easing easing at last to let their hearts clear and quiet in the fading wind, quieted the deep-breathing in a sleepy peace in each other's arms. (412)
Just awful. Men should be banned from writing about sex and/or women.

Monday, April 15, 2019

April Reads Part Two

Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted near the beginning of April he suffers from impatience with writers who frame their reviews with their personal connection to the cultural object in question. I have extremely well-developed search engine skills (my partner refers to it as "Google-Fu") leading me to suspect he deleted the tweet as I cannot find it. He deleted the tweet. But it gave me pause. Perhaps I do indulge in too much personal reminiscing when reviewing books. I often start my review by connecting the current object under scrutiny to a previous object. Is this mode stale? Am I putting too much of myself into these scribblings? Frankly, I write this blog for myself, and I'm eternally grateful for whoever might stop by, even if for only a moment. I thought of this opening gambit, this metacognition, because I knew exactly how I would open this review of a Kōbō Abe novel: by reminding readers I last read the author when I was 15 or so, struggling vainly against The Box Man. I wonder what is the point of mentioning this. To prove that I'm literate? To create a chronological connection? To illustrate how long I've been reading as an adult? Is it just narcissism? I'm not sure.

I was inspired to read Secret Rendezvous by Joachim Boaz of the blog Science Fiction Ruminations (here). I'd purchased the major seven Abe novels off a pal from Letterboxd about two years ago but hadn't got around to them. I'm glad I did, though, as this novel was a laugh riot. The narrator, unnamed of course, watches helplessly as an ambulance shows up to his house and takes away his wife, despite her being in good health and despite neither of them phoning for medical assistance. He hopes to track her down and goes to the local hospital, a nightmarish labyrinth of shifting geography and in-fighting bureaucrats. It's as funny as it is frustrating as the narrator never receives a straight answer to any of his questions and slowly, just like in modern day bureaucracies, he manages to ascend the job ladder to head of security. Kafkaesque, sure, but far more pointed in its satirical aims. Abe was a medical doctor, though he didn't practice, and from what he saw, he was angry. This should probably be a required text for any and all hospital administrators.

It's been too long since I've read an Abe book and I won't make the mistake of waiting >15 years to read another.

I don't think I'm well-versed enough in Catholicism to do justice to O'Connor's dark, psychological thriller. I read some reviews of it, and the Wikipedia article, and I knew I was in trouble, with regards to my critical lens, when I read the secular uncle was the antagonist of the book. I also read the book as quite critical of religious dogmatism and blind obedience, but apparently, the ending isn't that, because the prophecy is fulfilled and the mentally handicapped child is killed, but it's okay because he was baptized first. Reading these deeply religious works often frustrate my sensibilities; not in any prosaic, atheist way, as if my beliefs were being challenged, but in the sense that I'm coming at these texts without any of the background, cultural knowledge. My reaction to Scorsese's Silence was a large shrug (I could not fathom why Andrew Garfield wouldn't just step on Metal Jesus' face, even to save lives!). I liked The Violent Bear It Away because it's beautifully written and dripping with the much-loved Southern Gothic flavour. The prose was a lovely change of pace from the bland book I had just finished (here), but it was like reading a transmission from another planet, an aesthetically pleasing transmission, but confusing nonetheless.

I knew I was going to love the Didion collection pretty much right from the opening piece, a true crime bit of reportage which feels tired and soporific and stylistically energized all at the same time. Her voice, this perfectly pitched, pretentious, haughty, judgemental voice resonates outwards from each piece, no matter the subject. She is the subject. Yes this is style over substance but what style! what lexical precision! From her piece on keeping notebooks:
"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they regard one another in silence fora while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me.... (140)
Stunning. It's not just the careful accumulation of details (the Pucci bathing suit, the dipped toes) but the efficiency of it all. The switch from California to New York in the same paragraph, the "harsh" wind, her being "irrevocably" tired. It all hammers home this precision, this despondent, fin de siècle prose, a yawning emptiness she can't help but see everywhere she goes.

Later, in a piece on the uniqueness of Los Angeles, she goes to a piano bar, where in is written "the oral history of Los Angeles". She writes, all in one perfectly pitched paragraph:
A drunk requests "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." The piano player says he doesn't know it. "Where'd you learn to play the piano?" the drunk asks. "I got two degrees," the piano player says . "One in musical education." I go to a coin telephone and call a friend in New York. "Where are you?" he says. "In a piano bar in Encino," I say. "Why?" he says. "Why not," I say. (224)
This is, of course, the last paragraph of the essay, a shock to the system, a wry and sad period ending the piece. The amazing part about reading Didion is seeing where all of my favourite writers have gotten their style. Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, without Didion they would be nothing. Of course, Didion didn't entirely invent New Journalism, nor did she invent the absurdist non sequitur dialogue much cherished by short story writers (I've heard Samuel Beckett is the one to really nail this. I must investigate). But she certainly aced this style. I can't wait to read more of her work.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Light Brigade

I've had a few Kameron Hurley novels on my to-read list but hadn't got around to reading any of them until this newest one, of which I received an advanced reading copy. The Light Brigade has a clever-ish premise: soldiers are deployed, via teleportation, to Mars to combat insurgents. The method of teleportation is to break the soldier down into light, send them at light-speed, and reconstitute them in situ. The drama is derived from the time displacement issues the protagonist is experiencing. She perceives her life non-linearly, hopping around from moment to moment. It's a clever conceit, a way to replicate, with science fictional elements, the absolute chaos and disarray and confusion when dropping into a combat zone. It's infinitely disorienting. Each new deployment has the discombobulating effect of the opening to Saving Private Ryan: beautiful chaos. But more so, as the protagonist must not only orient herself in the battle but in her own timeline. This is supported, thematically, by the complete absence of calendars and regular timekeeping instruments. No, not absence—the purposeful withholding of these orienting tools. The military organization keeps their soldiers in the dark as much as possible, drilling into them the maxim of "stick to the brief," ie follow these immediate orders and ask no questions. Hurley's political aims in this book aren't subtle: the soldiers are being lied to, the enemy they're fighting is not who they think they are, corporations are waging vast wars across time and space using poor people as pawns to fuel their practically meaningless competitions. This is not subtext; this is literal text. One character paraphrases Marx's thoughts on bloody revolution. All very admirable and I applaud Hurley for finding a way to make war unappealing (anti-war films mostly inadvertently glorify war due to aesthetics) and to tie a science fictional element into the themes. Well done.

But I found reading the book far less enjoyable than thinking about the book. Hurley's sentences are simplistic, short, as if I'm reading See Spot Run and not a novel for adults. I suppose, if one were generous, one could ascribe the relative plainness of diction to the protagonist's lack of education, but how then to account for the moments of poesy? No, it's safer to say that these sentences are the reality of commercial fiction. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a coworker about The Expanse series. She hadn't really heard of the television show, but when I explained how many copies of the numerous volumes we sell at the bookstore, she was befuddled. Who watches this show? Who reads these books? (I loathed Leviathan Wakes for its holistic blandness) This got me thinking about what we readers expect from commercial fiction. I can't help but suspect that commercial science fiction is calculated to answer plainly these questions asked by readers:
  • "are these characters shippable/likable?"
  • "does the plot confirm my own political beliefs as a good liberal incapable of racism/sexism?"
  • "can I read this fast because too much time spent on one thing is bad"
I started reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen last night, an example of an opposite to commercial fiction, and my partner informs me Rankine designed the book to be less edifying and more experiential. She didn't want the usual methods of analysis weighed against the book in order to extract meaning from its words, thus abstracting the feeling, the political immediacy of the work. Thus, the book resists the usual mode of close reading. It also made me uncomfortable. For all my good white liberal hand-wringing, I'm still complicit in and benefit from white supremacy. It's politically necessary to induce discomfort.

The Light Brigade does not do this. Its aesthetics can't be described challenging, leading me to believe its simple sentences are strategic: the clarity of the message cannot be risked by anything so fancy as poesy. But is Hurley changing any minds with her safe science fiction tale, so easily consumed and so easily forgotten?

I'm torn by this novel. I did read it—quickly, in fact, surely a sign of competence. But I took nothing from the novel. I felt nothing, I was unmoved. Even though its subject matter was categorically adult (violence and gore and war crimes), the novel never felt grown up. It doesn't help that the spectre of Joss Whedon hovers over this, just like he does with so many geek properties. Characters aren't people; they're collections of quips and quirks. Every person the protagonist meets gets the barest minimum of characterization.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Gretchen Felker-Martin's essay, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up (And Neither Can You)" (here). She argues the necessity of transgressive art, the worst kind of art which wallows and even possibly celebrates the darkest possible aspects of humanity. She writes, articulating what I'd hoped to but better:
From the callous Islamophobia of the Iron Man movies to the US Air Force and CIA-approved wokeness of Captain Marvel and Black Panther, the whole enterprise is bent on saying as little as possible while looking as socially conscious as it can.
Gone are the truly radical works of art, for they have been erased or sanded down by the Left (and the Right, let's not forget about their moral crusades) in an effort to "protect" the marginalized, the traumatized, the wounded. Felker-Martin argues, passionately:
But what's left in art once you scour away the things that make you uncomfortable? What's left for the people who make their living and/or maintain their sanity by approaching our own suffering from a place of skill, assurance, and safety? What's left for readers and viewers trying to grow as people, to find empathy for those they've been taught to despise, to understand their own sexual shame and fear? What's left for people struggling with the isolation of abuse who have no support and no words to help them name it?
How can we grow if we can't explore the deepest, most taboo parts of our psyche? She demands we ask of ourselves what happens when all media confirms our pre-existing political, sexual, personal beliefs. We can't grow up if we don't ask, of ourselves, the difficult questions. For many folks, exploring the darkest, most traumatic aspects is the only way to come to grips with those same traumas.

Of course, you might disagree. That Hurley is arguing for communism is radical in of itself. That Hurley's expose of war crimes committed by soldiers is radical, is traumatizing, is taboo, for in the United States, the veneration of the military is taken as gospel. And I might perhaps agree with that. This might not even be a fair example of commercial fiction to examine through this lens. Maybe I'm reacting negatively against a book which ticks off all the right boxes and I'm just being a contrarian for the sake of it. I offer no easy answers to this.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

April Reads Part One

Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud
Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time edited by Hope Nicholson
Falling In Place by Ann Beattie

Wounds was tremendous, easily one of the best single author short story collections I've ever read. I had read two of the six stories already—"Atlas of Hell" in Year's Best Weird Fiction and "The Visible Filth" in chapbook format, which I guess makes me one of those weird fiction/horror nerds. The other four stories, new to me, with one being new to the collection, ranged from ok ("The Diabolist") to absolutely one of my all-time favourite ever ("The Butchers Table"). The collection is loosely, very loosely interconnected, mostly in how the borders of Hell rub up against our world, with all kinds of terrible things bleeding over into our reality. In "Skullpocket," a small town lives somewhat uneasily with a house full of ghouls, whose religion has seeped into the minds of townsfolk, replacing the Christian Church. Every year, children are summoned, by dream, to the house of the ghouls where they learn of the very first ritual in which they're current partaking. It's wonderfully plotted, cutting between flashback and the present, all the while the readers' idea of this story-world coheres, culminating in an incredible "punchline" at the end. "The Maw," which would have been my favourite story if but for the finale, reminded me of Alan Moore: a neighbourhood has been invaded by things from Hell and a small economy has built up in the aftermath: people desperate to find loved ones, mementos, etc left behind in the neighbourhood pay wily children to guide them through the Hellish urban space, where Surgeons, tall shadowy figures who create walls of human flesh, roam, and gaping maws of teeth and skin breathe from the centre of buildings. The last story, "The Butchers Table" might be described as an R-rated Pirates of the Caribbean: a group of Satanists employ a pirate ship to take them to the borders of Hell, where they will Feast on a human being and summon the Dark Lord himself. Hot on their tail are a quartet of hungry, mindless angels who can possess anything, even if the possession in turn destroys the physical body of the host. However, not all the human characters have the same goal; there are competing organizations of Satanists with different plans, a hired bodyguard with ambitions, and a gay Captain in search of his lover left behind in Hell the last time they were there. It all culminates in some of the best plotted finales I've ever read, full of blood and gore and reveals, and did I mention a kraken possessed by an angel? Ballingrud's imagination is on fire with these stories. I can't wait to follow him back into Hell. Highly recommended.

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time was our queer bookclub pick this month and it was a mixed bag. Three of the stories I outright hated, two I was indifferent, and only two did I actually like. The anthology is Indigenous-written and queer-focused and perhaps if the anthology had been left in the realm of realism, I might have found it more successful. However, the theme is science fiction and therein lies the problem. Many of the stories felt as if their science fictional elements tacked on, after the fact, without much thoughtfulness. "Legends Are Made, Not Born" by Cherie Dimaline depicts a young Indigenous person being brought into the world of Two Spirit by Auntie Dave, a memorable character unto themselves. However it's not until the end when Auntie Dave clumsily reminds the protagonist and therefore the audience the setting is New Earth, as Old Earth was abandoned. What's the point? The first story, "Aliens," is over-written, didactic, and diagrammatic to a fault. It's awful. The worst story is the most science fictional, "Imposter Syndrome", by Mari Kurisato. Imagine somebody who doesn't read science fiction trying to write a parody of all the worst tropes of science fiction. That's this story. It made me think of Raymond Chandler's famous dismissal of science fiction:
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It's a scream. It is written like this: "I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels."...They pay brisk money for this crap? (here)
That's what reading "Imposter Syndrome" felt like. However, not all is terrible. Gwen Benaway's "Transtions," a very lightly science fictional story, weighs the scientific method against the traditional methods. It's the story most accomplished and most writerly. Benaway, of whom I've only read some poetry, writes professionally, writes expertly, knowing how to pace a story, which details to include and exclude, and how to end. It's terrific. The other story I liked was "Néle," by Darcie Little Badger, an extremely fluffy F/F romance set on a Seed Ship taking dogs to the new colony on Mars. The protagonist is a vet, woken up from stasis to take care of the dogs, an extreme luxury item. She falls in love with one of the pilots. It's cute and it has zero dramatic stakes. Wonderful stuff. It's also the only story in the entire anthology which needs science fiction in order to tell its story. The premise and setting completely depend on the Fantastic. A mixed bag but those two stories were great.

I will admit it took me 2 weeks to read Falling In Place. The blame is shared equally between the book itself (good but could've been better) and myself. I've mentioned in the past, sometimes my tastes change in an instant. These last two weeks, I've been consumed with playing Batman: Arkham Knight on PS4. I don't write much about video games because I often feel unequipped to dive in with any acuity. Which sometimes deprives me of material with which to blog, as I do play video games. Recently, I've played Just Cause 3, Skyrim, and Bloodborne and I have not written a single word about them. Oh well. Falling in Place isn't quite as accomplished a novel as Chilly Scenes of Winter but still moved me. The scale is much larger: Beattie undertakes the glacier-cool breakdown of the late 70s American family and their orbiting friends and lovers. The cast's size might be the problem; much of the first half of the novel feels like vignettes, peeks into everybody's lives, so fleeting that the late turn towards actual plot can feel galling and unwelcome. Part of my problem with the novel is that I found certain characters a million times more textured than others but those were not the characters Beattie felt she needed to spend the most time with. On a scene-by-scene basis, though, Beattie is masterful, heartbreaking, wry, aloof. Some might accuse Beattie of disliking her own characters but I think there's a pity there, a sensitivity to the impossibilities the characters are faced with. I liked this novel but I didn't love it.

Monday, April 1, 2019

March Reads Part Two

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan
American Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates
Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds
The Burning House by Ann Beattie
Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Man Who Would be Kling by Adam Roberts

I never reviewed it, but I read Tim Maughan's Paintwork back in 2012, making me an oldschool Maughan fan (Maugfan?). I'm sure I heard about it from Jonathan McCalmont (pretty much all the good SF I've read has been recommended by him). I can't believe it's been 7 years since I read Paintwork and 7 years until he published his debut novel, Infinite Detail. Like Paintwork, this novel concerns itself with technology, urban spaces, music, and alternate modes of community engagement. Infinite Detail is split in two, cutting between the two: before the catastrophic collapse of the internet and after, when society is barely scrapping by. The highest compliment I can pay this magnificent novel is that I wish I could teach this. Maughan touches on so many of my favourite subjects: the erosion of community by the gentrification of England via destruction of council estates, the insidious grasp of global capitalism, British music of the 80s and 90s, architecture, and of course, excoriation of the white bourgeois class. This is the science fiction equivalent of the work of Mike Davis and Owen Hatherly. Maughan is only one of the only writers I've ever read in my life who writes about music in a way that is immediately gripping without ever being so abstract or Pitchfork in its metaphorical language. I listened to a long 3 hour jungle mix today at work in honour of finishing the novel. This was terrific. Easily one of the best novels I'll read this year.

Permafrost is my first Reynolds in a while. I was plugging away at Chasm City but it was like hitting a brick wall so I abandoned it. I hope to return to it at some point. Permafrost is another one of those novellas that I'm very keen on. 170 pages or so, readable, and finished in one or two sittings. Reynolds is a fantastic writer. I love his stuff. But I'm always passing his books on my shelf for shorter things. I wonder if it's market forces ballooning his novels to >600 pages. Anyway, that's beside the point. Permafrost is terrific, a cracking time travel story which doesn't get too bogged down by shenanigans and has the courtesy not to overstay its welcome. If they adapt any Reynolds property to feature length film, this would be a great place to start.

I read The Burning House over months which has fogged my memory of it, of course. After I would finish a novel, I'd pick this up and read a handful of stories before diving into the next novel. That I never felt impelled to continue reading it all in one go I think speaks to the unevenness of this collection. There are a handful of stories in this which rocked me to my core, which brought me close to tears, either of sadness or due to that ineffable exquisite pain good writing can provide. Only a couple stories were a bit tiresome or a chore to get through. Still, with almost every Beattie story, her glacial coolness, her beautiful non sequiturs, her razor sharp scalpel of insight, they all thrill me. Some of the standouts were "Jacklighting," about a couple after the death of their son, "Running Dreams," about a dog but isn't about a dog. The one about abortion just wrecked me, but I can't remember the title at the moment.

The Man Who Would Be Kling has the dubious distinction of being the best "Worst Cover Ever" novels I've ever read. The cover is fucking hideous, making it seem like it's self-published. This published, NewCon Press does these series of novellas, each one by a different author, but the four or five titles of the series connect to make one large picture. I only purchased this because of Adam Roberts. Like his other work, this is clever clever science fiction operating at a level I'm not sure I fully "get." It's set in Afghanistan, where a mysterious Zone has emerged which fries any and all electronic activity. Two cosplayers (yes I'm being serious) embark on a pilgrimage, despite the Zone killing every single previous interloper. The cosplayers hope their commitment to their roles of Klingon and Vulcan, respectively, will appease or placate whatever unknown presence controls the Zone. So we have a pastiche of Roadside Picnic (the Zone), Rudyard Kipling (the title, the colonial esprit), and Roberts' usual mucking about with Star Trek and fandom. I'm not 100% sure if I understand what he's getting at, other than to levy the twofold, connected charge that Afghanistan has been the playground for rich people to exercise their weapons and Star Trek is a middle-class bourgeois fantasy which perhaps allows people the fantasy (or delusion) that they're really liberal. The implication, I'm sensing, is that the same people who pretend to be liberals are the same people who would stage wars and lie about how logical/necessary is war. It's a lot for 70 pages but thankfully, it's entertaining as all hell and Roberts' skill with prose is unmatched by his peers. I'm always grateful Roberts is out there doing his weird thing (publishing an entire novella based presumably on a pun he dashed off on Twitter one afternoon) and will continue to follow him where-ever his bizarre proclivities take him.

American Appetites was such a B-list Oates novel: not terribly ambitious, not out-there, not Gothic, and concerned with middle-aged academics and their infidelities. But that's okay! That's what I wanted! Not every Oates story has to be this grotesque trip into the mind of the world's worst, though the liberalism evinced by these schlubby profs could potentially put them in that category. The "appetites" of the title refers not only to a character's job as cookbook writer but to the hunger for more outside of a marriage. Symbolism! It's not the deepest novel and doesn't quite have the lexical dexterity of her other works, but I was entertained for a few days.

Normal People is a masterpiece and if I could summon the energy to write about it, I would. I haven't been feeling writing much and my reading has taken a small dive these past few weeks. I was resistant to the hype, to the cult of Rooney, but after devouring two of her novels, you can mark me down as a loyal disciple.