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The Virgin Soldiers

The Virgin Soldiers - Leslie Thomas

Synopsis

 

they don't stay virgins for long!


Review

 

time to strip down...

 

for the British soldiers stationed in late 40s-early 50s Malaya at the Panglin Base on Singapore Island, there is one element that impacts them all: the intense, pervasive heat. clothing becomes unnecessary for these soldiers, a burden, and so those clothes are quickly discarded throughout the day and night. the soldiers are stripped down in other ways as well: young, inexperienced in matters of love and death, their personalities only barely formed, virgins in their lack of experience in war, in the understanding of life itself. there is a sameness to these recruits, a shared lack that gives them a sort of anonymity. trade one out for the other and you'd barely notice a difference. the writing and the story itself are likewise stripped down. this is not a novel of gorgeous prose or of adventure after adventure. The Virgin Soldiers is about life on a sleepy base, one where the war against communist guerillas barely encroaches. it is a book about small moments, ways to amuse yourself when bored and stuck in one place. and so Thomas describes his story's anecdotes with a certain nonchalance, a lack of poetry, using only the occasional splash of vivid imagery to brighten the pages. it made the reading experience an easy and swift one, but a rather forgettable one as well.

 

time to fuck...

 

with soldiers who have so much time on their hands and so little to do, in their teens and early 20s, one obsession connects them all: their dicks. the book is frank and highly sexual, but it is not a sexy book. nonchalance balances frankness and so the end result is sexual behavior treated with a lack of heat and drama. whether they are contemplating their various erections in the barracks or getting it on with various Asian whores in a nearby city, reckless passion is rarely present; instead there is a constant and very prosaic horniness, an itch that always needs to be scratched. one of the things I appreciated about this book is Thomas' decision to include the perspective of Phillipa, the 20-year old daughter of a particularly repugnant Sergeant-Major. she dominates the thoughts of many soldiers, including the appealing protagonist Brigg and the admirable Sergeant Driscoll; her vaguely contemptuous disinterest that barely hides a deep well of seething anger in turn dominates the narrative whenever she appears. a fascinating character. I also liked the lack of homophobia in the offhand description of a pair of soldiers in love with each other, and I particularly respected the lack of sexism in the depiction of the whores that Brigg and his buddies return to repeatedly. the author's honesty and lack of issues, his refusal to be judgmental when presenting sexual relations and sexuality in general is really admirable.

 

time to die...

 

the base on Singapore Island may be a quiet one, its soldiers bored out of their skulls, but death still comes to call in The Virgin Soldiers. the horrible and tragic death of one of the female characters comes out of nowhere; its suddenness and the careless way it is described to Brigg was like a punch in the gut for both Brigg and me. likewise with the accidental death of a soldier who steps on a mine: a beautiful morning on the beach, young men swimming and playing football, a terrible explosion, body parts everywhere - and then a memory that won't go away for Briggs, or me. those are isolated incidences in the overall story, but death comes in a major way near the end of novel. a bandit attack on a train transporting civilians and soldiers returning from vacation is completely hair-raising. Thomas' decision not to alter the breezy nonchalance of his story nor to escalate his stripped-down prose into something more dramatic made this sequence particularly striking. the mayhem and confusion, the body parts, the moments of cowardice and heroism... all are reported in same casual way in which Thomas describes a bullfrog race a few pages earlier. a commendable show of restraint. and although it was not a particularly memorable experience overall, I would say that the novel is still quite commendable as well. no complaints from this corner.

Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane

Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane - Karl Edward Wagner

Karl Edward Wagner was many things: originally trained as a psychiatrist (a profession he ended up rejecting), a longtime editor of the influential Year's Best Horror and Fantasy series, a poet, a writer of dark horror, an alcoholic (it eventually killed him), and - perhaps most famously - the author of a series of odd stories and novels featuring the immortal Kane. this iconic character is widely considered to be the most successful of all the Conan-esque creations to follow in Conan's footsteps.

 

Wagner writes his Kane stories using a dark but vibrant palette of throbbing colors. his pastiche of the classic Robert Howard style manages to stay true to the form while injecting his own brand of despair, various hallucinatory elements, and a deeply cynical outlook on life. these tales of 'adventure' often read as gripping horror stories (plus swords & sorcery, 'natch) that are informed by a very modern nihilism and a free-floating feeling of ambiguous menace.

Kane himself is none other than that infamous brother-slayer, Cain, cursed to immortality for his crimes by - as Wagner sees fit to describe - "a long dead god." it is interesting to see an author use a biblical character while completely rejecting the religion that created that character. it is even more interesting to see how that immortality plays out, story by story. events and places and people that Kane encounters in one story become historical tales told by people in other stories - no doubt with Kane silently smirking at the mistelling of those stories. ah, immortality. what a cross to bear!
Wagner cheats a little bit in these tales. at different points in his career, Kane is a Machiavellian courtier, a bloodthirsty warlord, a murderous sorcerer... his history is that of an immortal, capital-V Villain, one who causes kingdoms to fall and cities to be sacked and towns to be plundered, happily manipulating events for his own obscure goals, an infernal architect of countless plans that result in the deaths of countless people. he's not tragic or noble - he's a monster. the cheat comes in that we never actually see that particular Kane, those different villainous aspects - at least not in the stories collected in this compendium. instead the reader meets Kane between his notorious misdeeds and misadventures. we don't see the cruelty or the devious machinations; we see those presumably rare moments when Kane is on the run or is revisiting the scenes of his crimes or is just having a little side adventure that actually isn't hurting anyone. we see Kane when he is kind - when he protects the weak and rescues the innocent. an odd but usually very effective strategy. I came away from this book feeling pretty sympathetic to the character.

the first seven stories amazed me! thrilling, often sinister tales that portray a compelling antihero and atmospheres full of sorrow & regret, or hot-blooded but misguided vengeance, or the threat of sexual violence, or intangible dangers, or all of that combined. "Undertow" cleverly uses parallel narratives to illustrate why Kane's girlfriend is someone we all should just avoid pursuing. the bittersweet "Two Setting Suns" details Kane's journey with a giant as his companion attempts to reinvigorate his dying race. "The Dark Muse" is very Clark Ashton Smith with its drug-taking poet and interdimensional threat and scary journey through the ruins of a dead city. the remaining stories of this first seven ("Raven's Eyrie" & "Misericorde" & "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" & "Lynortise Reprise") are all equally compelling.

the stories that follow are less compelling. I don't know what happened here. "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" (that title!) and "Cold Light" have so much promise and do such an excellent job at creating an intriguing premise full of eerie atmosphere... but they are done in by the terrible anachronisms of the dialogue - it gets genuinely laughable at times - and the extreme overuse of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!! "Mirage" and "The Other One" are not bad, but are also rather flimsy and unmemorable. the less said the better of the Kane-meets-Elric adventure "The Gothic Touch."

there are three modern day stories of horror featuring Kane in his new guise: a drug-dealing man of extraordinary wealth engaged in a battle against the forces of evil. or just engaged in drug dealing. frankly, these three stories are terrible. the modern elements are eye-rollingly awkward, with the exploitative use of 'alternate sexuality' feeling particularly forced. the protagonists are pathetic and irritating. also... an Elvis dildo, really? ugh. the experience of reading "Lacunae" & "Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse" & "At First Just Ghostly" was repellent, to say the least.

I hate to end my review of such an interesting and idiosyncratic author on a sour note, so I'll repeat myself: those first seven stories were FANTASTIC. so good that they have helped me pretend that those other stories don't even exist. I am really looking forward to reading the three Kane novels, all thankfully set in archaic times.

Warrior by Zoe Archer

Warrior - Zoe Archer ♥ he is an EX-SOLDIER! ♥ she belongs to a SECRET SOCIETY! ♥ this is a ROMANCE! ♥ but it has a lot of ADVENTURE! ♥ and MAGIC! ♥ in MONGOLIA! ♥ I liked all of that MONGOLIA! ♥ she's no prude she wants to be an ADVENTURESS! ♥ and also his WIFE! ♥ he's your basic decent studly alpha male STEREOTYPE! ♥ his eyes, his skin, his hair are colored in shades of GOLD! ♥ he apparently smells like the WIND! ♥ she is an accomplished ARCHER! ♥ she really knows how to use a GUN! ♥ also, she sure knows how to ride a HORSE! ♥ the story was like a classic fast-paced ADVENTURE MOVIE! ♥ the feel of this book is decidedly OLD-FASHIONED! ♥ except he frequently mentions his stiff COCK! ♥

Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal Johnson

Let's Go Play At The Adams' - Mendal W. Johnson

I don't believe in the world of this book, nor in its worldview.


HEAVY SPOILERS


three children and two teens, ages 10 - 17, trap a 20-year old babysitter; over the course of a week, she is repeatedly tortured and raped. in the end, they torture her to death.
 
I'm not a glass half-full kinda guy. I know that children can often (usually?) have little to no moral compass. more importantly, I know how the world can be a cruel and relentless place; I've seen the horrible things it can inflict on people. thank you, work history. but there is always context for why people do the things they do. not context that excuses those things, but context that allows an understanding of why they occurred.

5 kids are not going to quickly turn into psychopaths able to systematically abuse and murder a person within a week unless they were already deranged. only one of them is characterized as having mental issues; none have traumatic backgrounds or guidance from a disturbed adult. there is no believable context to why they do the things they do, unless it is mere coincidence that brings these 5 deeply disturbed individuals together. that's a hell of a coincidence. no, I don't believe in the world of this book.

on a formal level, the writing is excellent. really, quite top-notch. the perspectives of all six major characters are interestingly depicted. interestingly, not believably. surprisingly enough, the intellectual, clinical, yet oddly dreamlike manner in which Johnson views his subjects reminded me of writers like Duras or Ballard or film directors like von Trier or Fassbinder or Lynch. but you do not often approach those authors or directors as if they were depicting actual reality, real life there on the page or up on the screen, breathing and bleeding and genuine. instead their works have an almost ironic distance from the material that encourages contemplation of - rather than engulfment by - that material. one could try the same approach to this book. good luck! Let's Go Play is not an extended metaphor; it shows the actual thought processes involved during this situation, how escalated forms of projection and objectification and role-playing can lead to atrocity. the author brings a certain sardonic detachment to the material, but this is no stylized dream odyssey. it attempts realism but tries to paint human nature as inherently monstrous, psychopathic. that is not reality.

there are reasons given for the kids' actions. "It's all a game" ... "There always has to be winners and losers" ... "The world is all about hate" ... "We voted" ... that old bugaboo, violent media ... etc. the reasons provided are not convincing enough for me to believe that 5 kids (ok, let's not count the lil' psychopath) - 4 'regular' kids without traumatic lives or the guidance of a disturbed adult - are going to be able to slowly and dispassionately torture someone to death, and then methodically cover their tracks like supervillains. I call bullshit on that. I don't believe it. there needs to be context for such actions because all humans are not all monster. well, perhaps I am a glass half-full sorta guy after all.

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard

Running Wild - J.G. Ballard

EXPERIENCED NANNIES WANTED

Experienced nannies wanted for care of 13 children ages 8-17 in the safe, comfortable, and perfectly controlled upper class environment of the exclusive Pangbourne Village.



Position Description:

The nanny is a specialist working in the family's home, responsible for all tasks related to care of the children. The nanny will serve as a loving, nurturing, and trustworthy companion to the children. The nanny will carefully maintain at all times the liberal attitude enforced by the parents and society of Pangbourne Village. The nanny will avoid being shot, stabbed, electrocuted, and/or run over by the children. The nanny will avoid surprise strangulation by Vietnamese bamboo traps set by the children. The nanny will shower the children with hugs, kisses, and positive affirmation on an ongoing, continual basis.



Major Responsibilities:

*Create a stimulating, nurturing environment for the children;
*Supervise and monitor the children's activities at all times and provide a minute-by-minute accounting of all activities throughout the day and evening including in the bathroom;
*Prepare meals and bottles for, and feed, the children (regardless of age);
*Dress the children (regardless of age);
*Place the children down for naps and bedtime (regardless of age);
*Bathe the children (regardless of age);
*Change diapers (regardless of age);
*Discipline the children, when necessary, with a preferred disciplinary regimen that includes naps, hugs, friendly pats on the head delivered with a half-smile that combines subliminal admonishment with the understanding that the child is otherwise practically perfect in every single way, followed by handfuls of spending money to allow the child to maintain a positive self-image after the disciplinary regimen;
*Regularly remove bite marks left by children on wall corners, bannisters, headboards, and closet interiors; and
*Perform additional positive reinforcement activities as needed.



Job Qualifications and Requirements:

*High school graduate required; PhD preferred.
*Experience caring for children.
*Experience treating teenagers like children.
*English proficiency.
*Comfort with status level of service position; lack of interest in upward social mobility.
*Car, driver's license, auto insurance, and safe driving history. *Reliable, honest, and trustworthy.
*Ability to keep children from, as they say, "running wild."
*Ability to run very, very fast.
*Ability to plan, organize, and multitask.
*Ability to counter any plans and tasks organized by the children that could potentially lead to the violent massacre of all adults within Pangbourne Village. Safety first!


✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰


Pangbourne Village
is a subsidiary of Ballard Microcosms Unlimited, Ltd™.  Our model of absolute positive reinforcement at all times is delivered in the classic Ballard style, using the traditional Ballardian techniques of cool appraisal, ironic distance, postmodern pastiche, sardonic detachment, and small moments of gleefully vindictive humor at the expense of the affluent upper class and various soul-deadening institutions.

Pangbourne Village... Where Nature Is Unnatural!
Pangbourne Village... Where Nurture Rules And Nature Drools!
Pangbourne Village... Where Teh Children Come First!

As the saying goes: 'It Takes a Village'... Pangbourne Village!

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory: A Miles Vorkosigan Novel (Unabridged) - Lois McMaster Bujold

a colleague asked me a series of questions while we were out drinking the other night, questions like So what's next for you? and Is this all you are planning on doing with your career? and Is your current job how you want to be defined and does that actually give you satisfaction? I found myself annoyed then defensive then offended. what gave her the right to question me, I've accomplished a lot in my job and in my life, yes I am content with my career and why the hell shouldn't I be, blah blah blah. in the end I realized that I shouldn't have been offended because I think she was asking me those questions because she was asking herself the same. and so I calmed down and we continued to get drunk while philosophizing on the choices we've made and the nature of our existence blah blah blah.

I think some people like to live in boxes. I am such a person. I love my box, it's a safe and comfortable one and I've spent a lifetime constructing it. my box is one that gives me genuine satisfaction and the feeling that I am doing only what I want to be doing with my life. but I think other people resent and reject the idea of a box; they prefer to live in what can be called a "liminal space" - that space between, that place of ambiguity and movement and looking towards what comes next. you can look at your goals in life and try to come up with a plan or timeline to achieve those goals. or you can look at your goals and see them as constantly in flux, in movement depending on where you are, liminal. or you can look at yourself and realize that you are actually not a goal-oriented person. I think all of those are different kinds of boxes. I think my colleague may disagree.

so this book, Memory, is about those sorts of things. despite opening with a character getting his legs shot off and ending with a high-stakes trap for a devious villain, this is far from an action novel. it is a thoughtful story about who we are, why we are, the boxes we construct, the identities we create for ourselves and the separate boxes those identities live in, how our identity/identities can become dominos or houses of cards falling if something or someone takes those boxes away. Miles Vorkosigan's dual identities of mercenary fleet commander and aristocratic peer of the realm have always been bubbling in the background throughout his stories; in this novel they finally come to a head. Bujold does a superb and moving job in delineating who Miles is, and was, and can be; she gives the mundane, all-too-common situations of making errors & trying to cover up your tracks, losing a job & so losing a part of your identity, a palpably emotional resonance. she does all of that and then she doubles down and gives us another ongoing character, Simon Illyan, going through a similar thing but in an entirely different manner. Miles is the sort of character who assertively rejects the idea of a box and who insists he lives in a liminal space - but who has actually been constructing two boxes to live in, and has actively not been living in the space between, in that liminal space. Simon is the sort of character who has constructed his own perfect box - one that makes his career equal his actual self - only to find that box dismantled and his sureness of purpose and self destroyed as he moves into a purely liminal space. it is fascinating comparing the two journeys.

in sum, this is a wonderful novel about figuring out that who you are does not equal your job or your birth name or any specific, singular role or title; rather, it is the sum of all such things, and your experiences, and your internal workings, your actions and your potential, your ability to change or not change, and so much else. you = not easily summed up in one word.

I love that this space opera is all about these 'mysteries' that every human experiences. I know when I pick up a Vorkosigan Saga novel that I will be enjoying some action and some intrigue and some political maneuvering and maybe even some romance. standard space opera pleasures. but I also know that I will be enjoying a human tale about actual human beings and the things that happen in life, to everyone. it is that last sentence, that particular quality, that makes this series so special.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

The Silent Land - Graham Joyce

youngish married couple go on a ski trip. avalanche! when they extricate themselves from the snow they find that everyone at their ski village has disappeared and that time now moves differently. what the hell?

fortunately, guessing the (entirely predictable) twists that come at the halfway and end points should not ruin the experience of reading this lovely and affecting book. unless you are the sort of reader whose experience rises and falls on the twists and turns and purely narrative pleasures of a book. if so, stay away. if not, then there is a lot to enjoy in The Silent Land - a minor note but very thoughtful, very sweet (but not saccharine) experience.


it is a chamber piece, of sorts: two primary characters; one POV - a wife contemplating her feelings about her husband and their future together. I say of sorts because, surprisingly, the married couple are not particularly well-developed or given the sort of rich, deep characterization that you'd expect to find in a novel with such a small cast and such intimate concerns. they are real people, certainly, but the context behind their actions and the lifetimes behind them that helped make them who they are... not so much of that, not really. there is a dog that gives some context (context that actually made me tear up a little bit, but I'm a sucker for sentimental stuff around animals)... and there are two wonderful chapters that are concerned with the impact that death has had on each of their fathers. those two chapters were insightful and the fathers are depicted with both clarity and warmth. very, very moving chapters - but they are anomalies in the novel. what is mainly present are the thought processes of the wife and husband, how they think, what they think, how and what they think about each other. the book is very Here & Now & What Comes Next. I thought this was a really interesting and atypical approach, and helped an already dreamlike (sometimes even nightmarish) landscape become even more dreamy.

the prose is also quite dreamy. rather spare, rather elegant, subtle, careful, with the occasional dash of idiosyncrasy to spice things up now and again. the atmosphere moves between eerie and ominous and even strangely enchanting... again, dreamlike.

naturally there is a lot of sex. I assume that most couples stranded by themselves in fairly luxurious quarters, who don't have much to do and who are still deeply attracted to each other on both an emotional and a physical level... yeah, there will probably be a lot of fucking going on. and hey, some making love too. all mixed up together.

anyway, the book is about love. how we live with it, how it is a magical thing yet also an everyday sort of thing, how it exists beyond the here and now, how it can stay with us and all the myriad ways it can take shape.

it also has a Christmas tree that is adorned with memories rather than ornaments. awesome idea!

Best Serve Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie

What is best served hot?

a) Flesh
b) Blood
c) Slaughter
d) Desire
e) Revenge*

*also delicious served cold

Best Served Cold delivers all of the above in a warm-blooded fashion. this is a sweaty, fully engorged adventure novel that follows a diverse cast as they move from locale to locale on their own sort of anti-quest. although it spends much time examining the psychological make-up of its characters, is heavy reliant on the kinds of details usually found in military fantasy, and is not shy of graphic sexual and violent detail, it still lives and breathes all of the classic, instantly recognizable tropes of adventure fiction - to its credit. tropes are tropes for a reason: their familiarity creates an ideal framework on which to hang a plot and a range ideas - a plot and ideas that may variously play into or challenge those tropes, depending on the author's goals. this author wants to do both, and he succeeds. his book is complex and simplistic, old-fashioned and very modern.

synopsis: sibling mercenary leaders Monza and Benna Murcatto are betrayed by their employer during a meeting that ends in violence and murder. the six people in the room besides the Murcattos (plotters and bystanders alike) must now die, and so a colorful band of miscreants are assembled for just that purpose. thus the fun begins. don't let the title fool you into thinking that this is a book of cunning feints and subtle plots and a diabolical machinations. far from it. its characters may be cold-blooded but Abercrombie serves his adventure yarn quite hot.

the author is well-known for his bleak world view and this novel is certainly more of the same. not a real hero to be found within these pages - although there are plenty of characters who are truly complicated. or at the very least, amusingly and/or sympathetically depicted. being forced to ride along such a cynical perspective could potentially make for a depressing experience; fortunately, the author's cynicism is matched by his ability to make his characters consistently entertaining and often surprisingly funny. dark humor - but still humor! I appreciate that. although a 600+ page doorstopper, the book is far from a heavy one to read and is often an exciting, page-turning experience rather that one submerged in the sort of fatalism that makes me less than eager to read what will happen next. humor is the MVP in Best Served Cold (and after that would come Abercrombie's skill at writing cinematic action sequences).

unfortunately, there is a Least Valuable Player present and it is that incredibly aggravating flaw that seems to be prevalent across so much of modern fantasy and science fiction: REPETITION. ugh. it is so frustrating to see smart, talented authors like C.J. Cherryh, Patrick Rothfuss, Janny Wurts, George R.R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey, C.S. Friedman, Peter Hamilton, Connie Willis, and I'm sure many more, fall prey to the idea that their readers simply can't be trusted to remember traits integral to their characters, and so those traits and feelings are conveyed, via dialogue and thought processes, over and over and over, again and again and again and again and AGAIN. readers are not idiots who need to be repeatedly reminded about important details because their tiny little minds don't have the capacity to retain an important piece of information over the course of the book. repetition does not make the heart grow fonder; it make the mind grow numb.

but back to the compliments because despite that glaring flaw, I still loved reading this book.

so I'm a secretly sentimental sort of chap and despite my cynicism about people and life in general, I still believe that deep down most of us actually recognize the difference between good and evil, feel guilt about negative actions, and genuinely strive to be good - when that's possible. I doubt many people get off on their villainy. happily, Abercrombie shares my point of view - and only the most superficial read of his books would enable a person to come away thinking that the author writes everyone as a villain. assholes, yes; villains, no. like his First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold has protagonists who try to do good despite themselves and who do attempt - sometimes too late - to make up for regrettable actions. they regret things, they try to make amends, they see the need for change - even when they are also alienated or bloodthirsty or Machiavellian. I hate cheap positivity but I hate cheap nihilism even more. this novel has all the appeal of a dark, cynical adventure novel set in a bleak, war-torn landscape, but it still has a warmly beating human heart at its center. I wouldn't have loved it otherwise.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels - Margo Lanagan

Snow White and Rose Red live with their mother in a cottage. upon them comes a bear, out of the cold, into their warmth and into their lives. he stays with them a bit; they become a sort of family, until he must go away. the girls meet a strange and irritable dwarf and save him several times. he is not grateful. later, the girls come between the dwarf and the now enraged bear. the unpleasant dwarf begs the bear to eat the girls rather than his little self. can the girls' sweet spirits get them out of this mess - are the girls able to survive? they can, and they will!

 photo tendermorsels_zps63324dce.png

a young girl's mother dies, and she is left with her horrible father in a cottage. she is repeatedly molested and impregnated by her father. it is important that you know this, that this is a part of the book and this is a part of life, for some. a young girl loses her father and is happy for a time. a group of boys come upon her, pull her down from the chimney where she has fled, and proceed to rape her. it is important that you know this, that this is a part of the book too and this is a part of life, for some. can this much-abused girl survive? she can, and she will.

a woman writer named Margo Lanagan decided to write a book about women. she would make the book a portrait of a family of women, a family that grows bigger. she would make the book a portrait of motherhood and sisterhood and daughterhood, the challenges and the wonder and the excitement of becoming, of transforming into such roles. she would make this portrait of women a part of the greater world, so there are many voices heard, even voices of men, sympathetic men and strong, kind ones too. the book does not share the voices of those who are brutal and who destroy with their brutality; they are not worthy of having their voices heard and they are not missed. well, there is a certain voice, a harder voice: the dwarf. but his story is its own kind of tale, not the story of a brutal man but rather the story of a man small in stature and in spirit, an occasionally unkind man but not a brutal one, and one deserving of some sympathy. so this woman writer would take the fable of the sisters Snow White and Rose Red, their cottage and their mother and that dwarf and the bear-who-was-a-prince, as her template. men in the shape of bears and women in the shape of women. she would spin this tale out of prose that is light as gossamer, pliant as cotton, soft as flax, sturdy as wool. prose that sings; prose that whispers. can a woman do all these things in one book, tell all these tales, and still stay true to her goals and still stay true to the myth itself? she can, and she did.

I was once a residential counselor for runaway kids. one girl in particular, I remember her well, she came from a history of sexual abuse, like many others. she fled to the house where I worked. one night she went out wandering and upon her came a group of men. they raped this girl, this girl who had already suffered so much. was she broken though? she was, for a little while. but she came back, she healed, not completely because these kinds of wounds never heal completely, but she did heal. she was young and I know that this was still the beginning of her story. could she survive this beginning, could she survive and even thrive, one day? she could, and she did.

I thought of this girl quite a bit while reading Tender Morsels, her survival. the first 50 pages were exceedingly hard for me to read, for many others to read as well. sometimes these kinds of stories need to start hard. but they don't need to stay that way, only hard, they can expand and move beyond and transform, become something different, something more than atrocity, something bright and warm and ready to embrace those who have been hurt and who long for that bright warmth. can stories that start with such terrible things remain hard - even vengeful - while also growing softer, a soft side and a hard one, side-by-side, life is all sides, can a story juggle such things, even up until its very end? it can, and it did.

Bully by Some Nitwit

Bully - Penelope Douglas

so nice to see the topic of bullying being turned into a romance! that is definitely the way to deal with bullies. they just need hugs and kisses! poor misunderstood bullies. oh so loveable! Jared the manly wittle bully with daddy issues just needs to be wuved by someone. bullies just pick on you because they are secretly in love with you. why even bring up the idea that bullying often causes kids to kill themselves. that's not romantic, yuck!

in the words of one of the most embarrassing reviewers on Goodreads:

"This may make me seem a little crazy- but I will just say it right now. I LOVE JARED. Okay, a lot of people loved Jared by the end of the book. Not me. I loved him the entire time I read this book. He was a jerk. An asshole. A bully. But there was just something about him that pulled me to him... I was rooting for him the whole book, so yay!"

self-esteem much?

gosh the author sure knows the right topic to choose to make some money. not a cynical choice at all! and I see that this is apparently the first book in a series. I wonder what the second book will be called. how about "Date Raper"? the wuveable misunderstood wapist just wants to wuv you!! as long as he's a hunk, who cares?

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Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Vampire Academy - Richelle Mead

Dear Vampire Diary,

wait, why did I write that? "vampire" diary? maybe cause everything in my life is vampire, vampire, vampire! best friend vampire. training to protect vampires. actually protecting vampires. I'm half-vampire. I go to a Vampire Academy for chrissakes. vampires, vampires, everywhere. and now apparently I have a vampire diary too. hello, unconscious. argh! ok enough of this bs, I'm getting annoyed and need to work it out by working out. maybe this diary thing isn't going to work out. I wish I could talk to Dimitri instead.

Rose



Dear Vampire Diary,

ok, let's try this again. just came back from a great workout with Dimitri and I need someplace to vent. hello, diary. I'm not really a diary sort of girl, whatever that even means. that's probably more of a vampire type thing, thinking about life, deep thoughts, writing it down, all that. deep. deep and not exciting. but I need someplace to put all these dimitris thoughts. whoah! ok, I guess I need someplace to put all my thoughts about Dimitri. those eyes! that voice! the body! shoulder length hair! now I know that shoulder length hair on guys is a total romantic cliché but whatever. I love that shoulder length hair. oh, Dimitri! Dimitri. ok, enough about Dimitri. I should talk about more important things like my training and my best friend Lissa and all the plots swirling around her and stupid school cliques and my hectic schedule and what I learned in dimitri today. what I learned in class today! it was something about - uh - hmmm - I don't know. honestly I was thinking about Dimitri the whole time. ok I think I need to take care of some business here because I'm feeling sorta frustrated and I can't get Dimitri out of my dimitri.

Rose



Dear Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead,

there, that feels better. who needs a stupid diary when I can just write to the story of my so-called life. it's not like anyone's going to read this, they can just read the book. so anyway... I want to thank you, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. you really got it right. sure you put a lot in about Dimitri and his hair but all that stuff really wasn't the point and you know that. first of all, I want to say how much I just plain LIKED the story you made of my life. it was fun to read! and exciting. you kept some of the boring parts, sure, whose life is all excitement, but mainly it was fun from beginning to end.

ok, that's all I want to say about the fun. you made it fun, thank you, but fun is not everything. what really counts for me is that you did not gloss over the things that were uncomfortable and deep and sometimes even ugly.

you got the addictive part right, the blood sucking, how it is like a drug or like sex and how much I want to do that drug-sex thing (or actually how much I want Lissa to do it to me). and getting bitten feels so good, so incredible, damn how it makes me feel! but I can't admit it. I don't want to admit it to myself and I especially don't want to admit how much I like it to other people, they'll think I'm some junkie or some slut or whatever, and if I think too hard about it, I'll probably think the same thing about myself. so yeah, you got that right, Vampire Academy. the self-loathing that comes with feeling good about doing something bad. but is it so bad? I like how you left that ambiguous.

you left Lissa's cutting in. I love you for that. you made sense of the cutting and why she did it. you didn't dismiss it, didn't shy away from it, and you didn't make it pathetic. you made your readers understand cutting in an honest and real way.

here's another thing you got right: my pettiness and my hypocrisy. I used the same disgusting tactics of gossip and shaming - both slut-shaming and shaming around status & class - on the people who used it on me. you didn't leave that out. you didn't excuse it. you showed how I was sometimes just as bad as the villains in the book. you didn't justify how low Lissa and I went in trying to defend ourselves, how we became just as terrible as the people who were tormenting us. that was hard for me to read. and it was important for me to read too.

but the most important thing you got right was the central relationship. you are not about me and my thing for Dimitri. you are about friendship between women. you are about two best friends, me and Lissa, everything else is secondary. that's the point of your whole story. sisterhood! that feels corny to write but whatever. it's true. your story is moving because it is about how girls can bond and protect each other and hurt together and move forward together. how they can understand each other. thank you for getting all of that right.

so in case you're wondering, I gave you 3 stars instead of 4 and that's because the writing was kinda bland and the second half got a little bogged down in DimitriDimitriDimitri. but so what! nobody's perfect (except Dimitri). I will still read your sequels.

Rose



Dear mark monday,

Stop pretending to be Rose.

Richelle Mead

Young Törless by Robert Musil

The Confusions of Young Törless - Robert Musil, Shaun Whiteside, J.M. Coetzee

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the place is an exclusive all-boys boarding school in Austria. the time is the turn of the 19th century. three boys: Törless, Beineberg, and Reiting. Reiting is an amiable, energetic sort; his aggressive nature is balanced by his charm and ease in the world. Beineberg is an anti-intellectual intellectual; much like his father, he yearns to be a mystic. in Törless, still waters run deep and much of the material world holds little interest for him; contemplation and melancholy are his hallmarks. what are three such precocious lads to do with themselves? there is the village whore to spend time with, but these boys' ambitions go further. what to do, what to do? how about find a fellow schoolchum, learn about his weaknesses, and then grind him into nothing; torment and humiliate, beat, sexually abuse. and so there is a fourth boy: Basini. the three boys play with him.

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The Confusions of Young Törless was published in 1906 by Robert Musil. apparently it is autobiographical in nature. it is a philosophical treatise and a classic coming of age novel.

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although the novel's narrative is centered around the endless debasement of the passive Basini, that degradation is not at all the novel's primary concern. it is there in the title: the book is about confused young Törless: his quest for logic in an illogical world and his need to quantify the ineffable and his barely-understood desire for transcendence, for an escape from small minds and fixed roles and murky morality.

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a boy will fight against his surroundings, he will struggle with authority figures, he will be cynical without experiencing enough of the outside world to earn that cynicism. a boy will rationalize or a boy will simply choose not to think about things that disturb him. a boy will strive, a boy will yearn, a boy will barely understand himself. but a boy will try. and he may force others to do the same.

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there are worms. a worm is a symbol of decay. or rebirth? a cord dangling from drapes looks like a writhing worm in the moonlight. there is a red worm of blood that trickles down Basini's face.

there is an eye; Törless sees it in the boys' secret hideaway. it is an eye made of dust motes and shadows and dim shafts of light. he sees it in the midst of one of Basini's beatings. he contemplates it. what does this eye behold? what is the story of this eye?

there are windows. windows are a window to the unknown; Törless stares through many windows. windows are a window to memory; Törless recalls sounds he once heard through windows. the sky is a window; Törless stares at the sky and is filled with awe, wonder, and fear. Törless is a thinker, Törless is a dreamer. Törless has disturbing feelings: some about his mother, some about the local whore, some about Basini. Törless has hallucinatory dreams with meanings he can only slightly grasp. he tries to share these feelings, these dreams, but no one ever understands.

Törless, Törless, Törless. oh, Törless! you and your yearning, your dreams.

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fuck you, Törless. of the three boys, I think you are the worst. Reiting likes Basini to read him stories about conquering heroes; then he fucks and beats him. Beineberg likes to use Basini as a footrest, make him bark like a dog, beat him; sometimes he fucks him. Törless asks Basini searching questions about how he feels, what is going on inside of him while all of this is happening; he makes Basini speak when Basini would rather cry; sometimes he fucks him. guess who Basini falls in love with? Reiting and Beineberg's motivations are banal (despite Beineberg's laughably pretentious attempt to intellectualize his predations): they are cruel boys who enjoy brutalizing someone under their thumb. Törless is not like them, he's a sensitive lad. he wants to understand many things, imaginary numbers and order vs. chaos and the logic of dreams. unlike his friends, he is not a malevolent sort and his sexual arousal at Basini's tortures confuse him. poor, confused Törless! Basini means nothing to him, he considers him to be "meaningless" - except as one of many puzzles he is desperate to figure out. fuck you, Törless. your confusions are nothing compared to what you and your buddies dole out.

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the problem with this thoughtful, absorbing, boring, poetic, mechanistic, frustrating, compelling, often brilliant novel is that it is exactly like its title character. it is not about the debasement and Törless' key role there. it is all about our protagonist's struggle, his inner life. well, it was a bit hard for this reader to focus on such things when throughout all of the philosophical musings are brief descriptions of the boys' predations. the intellectualization of such acts, their use as metaphor, all the world's a play and we are merely actors on a stage, what goes on behind the curtain and within a mind... honestly I don't give a flying fuckeroo about all that when some weak kid is getting destroyed by stronger kids. you used the wrong metaphor, Musil. all the philosophical musings - I would say 90% of the novel - were rendered obnoxious and uninteresting after it became clear that Musil himself is disinterested in what is happening to Basini. like the novel's protagonist, the author also views Basini as meaningless. Musil, you are like Törless. you make that crystal clear. and that is not a good look.

The Story of Harold by Terry Andrews

The Story of Harold - Terry Andrews

The Story of Harold was written in 1974 by ‘Terry Andrews’ – a pseudonym for the children’s author George Selden, who is most famous for his 1960 classic The Cricket in Times Square. The novel is about a suicidal man named Terry – a writer of children’s books – and it was originally illustrated by Edward Gorey. The narrative follows Terry as he merrily moves towards the date of his proposed suicide while interacting with four key people in his life: his lover Anne Black, a fellow connoisseur of fine arts and a kind and gentle woman; his lover Jim Sheridan, a doctor and devoted family man, and the main source of Terry’s despair; his lover Dan Dailey, an equally suicidal social worker who longs to have Terry burn him alive; and Barney Willington, a melancholy and socially awkward 7-year old who is often placed in Terry’s care.

I found Terry’s voice to be a familiar one: so very la-di-da, so very Upscale Gay Manhattan, the voice of a fatuous, judgmental queen, full of droll asides and nasty put-downs; what made it unique for me was the writing style that captures this voice is itself intensely stylized and extremely mannered, all dashes and ellipses and ceaseless parentheticals, all stops & starts... a striking prose style that is as drolly theatrical as Terry himself. I was surprised to find that his voice did not match his external traits – it turns out that Terry comes across as a thoughtful, charming, even rather sedate person; similarly enjoyable is the wide distance between the snide and rather stereotypically faggy voice and the terse, dominating sexual sadist who appears in the extremely explicit bdsm scenes. I liked all of that because, well... whose inner voice really matches up with how they look anyway?

You didn’t know what to make of this book, at first, but you read it as if in a trance. You couldn’t believe the extremes of the novel, its bizarre schizophrenic style, as it went from a graphic bisexual sexcapade with a married suburban couple... to an oddly tender but defiantly unsentimental scene of Terry telling children’s stories to poor forlorn Barney... to the most horrifically predatory pickup scene you’ve ever read, where Terry ruthlessly exults in manipulating the despairing Dan Dailey into first baring his wretched soul and then giving up his pliant body to our hero’s gleefully sadistic urges. You wanted Terry to die.

The book is practically unknown! The book has practically no reviews! The book should be a cult classic!

I thought Terry was despicable. I thought Terry was heroic. I thought Terry was inhuman and more than human and subhuman and inhumane and humane and a human.

You thought the novel’s combination of cruelty and kindness, its stark and uncomfortable honesty and its harshly cynical and bitter humor, its sweetness and its mean-spiritedness, its abandon… to be both an invigorating tonic and a terrible-to-the-taste medicine. You didn’t want to admit how much you saw yourself in Terry, his bisexuality of course, but also his perversity (Perversity is just another word for nothing left to lose! Right, Terry? Ha!) and his pettiness (But a largeness of spirit as well! Sometimes! Ha!) and his sadism (But only with consenting adults! Ha, right! There are so many different ways to be sadistic and sometimes consent isn’t even a factor!) and his suicidal feelings (But don’t worry! There’s nothing to worry about! Ha!) and his respect for families, his love of children (Until they grow up into adults! Until those families begin to look like houses of cards! Then you hate them! Ha!)… you didn’t want a connection to Terry, you didn’t want see yourself in him, you didn’t want to admit that to yourself! You wanted to lie.

The Story of Harold is fiction for people who like challenging prose, who see the challenge as a game, who appreciate writing that is flexible, dynamic, experimental; looking it up on Amazon, the books Nightwood and The Exquisite Corpse come up as well: take note. The Story of Harold is a book for people who want to see what NYC was like at a certain time in the 70s, a snapshot of a particular world that is now gone or at least transformed, a document of life pre-AIDS, pre-80s, pre-internet, pre-polite and sensitive ways to talk about gender & race & class & beauty & ugliness & sexuality & sex. The Story of Harold is a story for people who like stories, stories that are simple and resonant, simple yet multi-leveled, stories within stories, stories with surprise endings, stories about stories, stories that act as a looking glass or a camera obscura or a microscope or a macroscope through which to view the world around us, stories as a way to look at ourselves of course.

I was constantly impressed with the juggling act that Andrews pulls off, so many balls in the air. I saw a ball that was about loving a woman, being devoted to her, but a one-sided sort of love where the man loves but the woman is actually in love; I saw a ball that was about how to get through to a lonely, misunderstood child and how to talk to that child in a way that is honest and real, that was about wanting to give protection but knowing the need for that child to be a part of the world – prepared for the world, that was not just about loving children but actually understanding them; I saw a ball about how the seduced is often the seducer, the bottom that tops from beneath, the masochist whose strength outstrips the sadist, the objectified who becomes the objectifier; I saw a ball that was about the difference between sex and love, between friendship and “love” and how they can be equal things but sometimes a person so craves that love, being in love, that they don’t recognize that sometimes sex is just sex and that friendship can be as important as love. I was amazed at how Andrews kept juggling those balls, all of them whirling around but never knocking each other out of the air, never connecting... until they do connect.

You loved this book and yet you often avoided it; you look into mirrors all the time but many times you didn’t want to look at this one. You thought you saw where the novel was going, and you were right and you were wrong, but you didn’t expect the tension to build and build (that inexorable move towards suicide always there), to grow more deeply emotional, all moving towards… a dinner party – a dinner party for four! – where the strands come together, where the prosaic becomes the ineffable, where a loving father plays a game with a forlorn child that means everything, and where a bisexual gent realizes that life is all small moments, that’s what’s important, all those mundane moments that accumulate and create a life, a good life – life is good, it really can be! – you didn’t expect the novel to take a breath and suddenly affirm life – The Story of Harold is a life-affirming book! It truly is! – you didn’t realize that you were holding your breath, you had no idea how much you needed Terry to live – to live and be happy! – you didn’t expect how deep and life-affirming the book turned out to be, a beautiful terrible excruciating wonderful monster, a book that looked inside you and knocked you around and loved you and, in the end, said that life was good. You wanted to cry.

And so you did!




thanks for the loaner, Mike Puma.

Reading and Reviewing

I don't want to get into any GR censorship conversation here, but I was reading an excellent post in Goodreads on the topic from last December by Megan Baxter, where she talks about how she sees the experience of reading and of writing book reviews.

 

I'm posting this because I really love what she has to say and I want to be able to easily access her comments on the topic in the future without having to dig through old threads.

 

Megan on Booklikes:

http://meganbaxter.booklikes.com/

 

Megan's original comment appear in the thread attached to this piece:

https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/349383-goodreads-this-is-not-okay

 

I see reading a book as a truly subjective experience. I read a book through the lens that is me, with all the experiences, knowledge, and biases that entails. Sometimes it might be the time of day I read it, if I was having a terrible time and a book lightened the load or made it more difficult. Sometimes it might be that I read a book too close to another book with the same theme, and that very act has influenced how both books sit in my memory. Sometimes my knowledge of the author has had an influence on how I read that book.

And in time-honoured fashion, I attempt to write reviews that reflect all those things, as they seem relevant, so that my readers can tell that if I'm overly critical of a book because it compares badly to something else I just read, that perhaps it was just that two books came onto my radar at the wrong time, to one of their detriments, and can decide whether or not I'm overreacting. If I write about my father's death, as I do whenever it seems appropriate, it helps explain why books that affected me deeply (or enraged me in their treatment of cancer - I'm looking at you, The Help) did so, and people can gauge whether or not they think my reaction would be the same as their own.

Reading a book is a deeply personal act, in a way that writing a recipe is not (although I disagree with you there too - my favourite cookbooks include little anecdotes before each recipe - Food That Really Schmecks is a perfect example of this.) And so my reviews tend to be deliberately personal, and sometimes I'm inspired to go off on tangents - but that's one of the great joys of books too, the ideas they provoke that might not be directly related. And I love reading other people's thoughts and inspirations and funny parodies. Parodies, I think, are perfectly legitimate reviews, in that they are attempting to capture something about a book humourously and share it.

And, getting back to the first issue that sparked this, if I am writing reviews through my own experience, and I am, if what I know about an author has influenced how I've read their book, I want to acknowledge that as well. It's part of the baggage I carry.

 

 

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner - James Dashner

[oblique spoilers ahead]

A is for Apocalypse! A modern craze; a timeless fantasy. What shall bring us to this place? Can there be life after such an event? And if so… what kind of life would that be?

B is for Banzai! “Banzai” is a traditional Japanese exclamation meaning “ten thousand years”. A Banzai charge is a last, desperate charge.

C is for Cube! “Cube” is a 1997 film by Vincenzo Natali. The characters in this film are trapped in a kind of maze, and must pass from one cube-shaped room to another. The characters do not know why they are in this place. They must escape or die.

D is for Despair! As Thomas Jefferson once said: “My theory has always been, that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter, than the gloom of despair.”

E is for ESP! Extrasensory Perception involves reception of information not gained through the recognized physical senses but sensed with the mind. ESP includes TELEPATHY!

F is for Flare! A solar flare is a sudden brightening observed over the Sun's surface, which is interpreted as a large energy release of up to 6 × 1025 joules of energy.

G is for Goethe! Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and politician. He believed that “in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified” … but do the means justify the ends when it comes to reaching that redemption? A timeless question!

H is for Hybrid! A cross between a giant slug and a killing machine equipped with pincers & needles would be considered a sort of hybrid. Machine-animal hybrids often appear within genres such as science fantasy, steampunk, and the post-apocalyptic young adult adventure novel.

I is for IQ! The Intelligence Quotient is a score derived from standardized testing in order to assess intelligence. Some have questioned its use…

J is for Janissary! As children, the Janissaries were taken from their parents to become elite soldiers in the Ottoman Empire. They revolted against their masters during the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826.

K is for Killing Zone! Strictly speaking, there is no actual “kill zone” in The Maze Runner. But the phrase just really fits.

L is for Lord of the Flies! A bunch of boys stranded in a dangerous environment! They revert into savages! Murder and Mayhem and Malice, Oh My! But why was it so hard for them to maintain their own sort of society, to stay civilized? They should have consulted the lads of The Maze Runner!

M is for Maze Runner! see A-L & N-Z.

N is for No Exit! “No Exit” is an existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre. The play is about three deceased characters who are punished by being locked into a room together for eternity. Hell is other people!

O is for Ouroboros! It goes around & around & around!

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P is for Pandemic! A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that has spread through human populations across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or even worldwide.

Q is for Quotient! In mathematics, a quotient is the result of division.

R is for Runner! The Runner” is a song by Ian Thomas, covered in 1984 by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.

S is for Survivor! “Survivor” is a ‘reality’ game show created by Mark Burnett. Contestants attempt to outwit, outplay, and outlast each other; the key goal is to not be voted out. Last person standing wins!

T is for Tenacity! I would say that running around in the same maze for two years is pretty damned tenacious!

U is for Unanswered Questions! Some readers felt frustration or anger at the end of The Maze Runner – too many questions left unanswered, too abrupt of a cliffhanger. I felt quite a bit of frustration as well, but for the opposite reason: I would have appreciated less questions answered, more ambiguity. I wanted less of a plunge into a rather typical post-apocalyptic adventure and more running about in a maze for reasons unknown. Although I did enjoy the actual cliffhanger!

V is for Vendetta! The characters in The Maze Runner use the idea of Vendetta to fight back, to inspire themselves, to fling themselves into the unknown. “V for Vendetta” is a graphic novel by Alan Moore. The movie adaptation of that comic contains this quote: “There are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidences” … which of course is an approximation of Albert Einstein’s quote: “God does not play dice with the universe” … indeed! But who is this “God” in Maze Runner's universe?

W is for Waiting for Godot! “Waiting for Godot” is a play by Samuel Beckett in which two characters wait in vain for a person named Godot. The characters wait for answers that never appear. Beckett, describing his creation: “It is a game, everything is a game”… the game of life?

X is for Xbox! The Xbox and its various successors are video game consoles. I trust you can connect the dots here.

Y is for Young Adult! I think that many of our classic and modern young adult stories constitute the fables of our times. A handful of narratives that are repeated and reshaped, told through thousands of books and read by millions of readers. Their prose is usually transparent and their meanings overt. Both the reader and the protagonist are given clear lessons to learn. But the reader may, in turn, choose to project their own meanings onto these archetypical stories.

Z is for Zarathustra! “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a philosophical novel by Friedrich Nietzsche. It deals with ideas such as ‘the eternal recurrence of the same’ and the Übermensch, or Overman – a goal in which human life would be given meaning by how it advanced a new generation of humans.



* 12 letters taken directly from my best Wikipedia. thanks, pal! I truly do love you. *

Top Ten Reads of 2013

 

10. THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck

 

I didn’t like this book. I didn’t like its deterministic perspective on humanity or its pessimistic outlook on the way people interact and love and hate and live. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t like it. The Wayward Bus is gorgeous. It details heartbreak in miniature, lives that cross each other briefly, sadness and pettiness and barely understood anger…  the striving to be more, understand more, live more, no matter the hopelessness of that striving. I didn’t like this book, but you don’t need to like a thing to love that thing.

 

9.  MARTYRS AND MONSTERS by Robert Dunbar

My favorite book of horror read in 2013 was this masterful collection of short stories. Martyrs, monsters, and the danger and potential toxicity of self-enclosure. Dunbar is a thoughtful author who specializes in menacing ambiguity, but in this book he also illustrates the flexibility and fluidity of his talents. By turns eerie, funny, scabrous, and inexplicable, each story is its own strange and vividly imagined world.

 

8. THE TOWERS OF TREBIZOND by Rose Macauley

Macauley’s 1956 novel takes its reader on an amusing and whimsical trip through Turkey. She’s like an aunt who is full of all sorts of stories but whose breathless storytelling style is its own reason for listening. Aunt Rose serves you some nice herbal tea and tells you this wry story; at the end of her tale, she picks up that teapot and smashes you across the head with it. Her story is not meant to be amusing. Wake up!

 

7. RED CLAW by Philip Palmer

Dense and action-packed, Red Claw is a rollicking saga and a demented, bloody massacre. This bizarre future society is ingeniously imagined; the alien anthropology on display is even more impressive. Palmer is an aggressive and brazen author who wants his rollercoaster to be as appalling as it is fun. Plus genuine bravery and an uplifting ending! Sorta. My favorite science fiction novel of 2013.

 

 6. LONDON FIELDS by Martin Amis

Amis continues his lifelong thesis on the insect nature of mankind in this lavish and spiteful death-farce. Humans Off Earth Now!

 

5. THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE by Moebius

Moebius is surely one of the most likeable geniuses to ever write and draw a comic. His visions are as loveable as they are obscure. Worlds within worlds; super-powered humans who never bother to show those powers; characters who jump off the page and then disappear forever. Circular narratives! Mind-bending visuals! Demented plotlines! Nonsensical dialogue! This charming epic is candy for the brain.

 

4. THE PYX by John Buell

How is this 1974 crime novel not a classic? Each sentence, each paragraph is a work of art. Follow the haunting heroine as she walks inexorably down her tragic path. Sit back and try to figure out the mystery with the stalwart and humane detective as he sorts out this shadowy tragedy. Gape, agog, at a truly fearful ending.

 

 3. MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN by Marguerite Yourcenar

"But books lie, even those that are most sincere…” but not this one. Yourcenar finds her way to the heart of a man, his own truth, by reimagining not just an ancient world, but all aspects of the man who lives in that world. By the end of this book, I felt as if I looked through Hadrian’s eyes and thought Hadrian’s thoughts. The man is the world is the book. O Death, sometimes you come not with a sting, but with an embrace.

 

2. QUEEN LUCIA by E.F. Benson

My favorite reread was Benson’s classic first novel in his Mapp & Lucia cycle. Rose Macauley is your eccentric spinster aunt with a heart of steel; E.F. Benson is your quirky queer uncle with a mouth full of ironic innuendo and ludicrous, hysterical tall tales. Except these tall tales don’t involve giants or beanstalks; instead they detail a fantastically petty and obsessive little English village full of smaller-than-life characters who do larger-than-life things. Pure pleasure from beginning to end.

 

1. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman wrote something wondrous, something perfect. Again.