Douglas Coupland's 1994 novel Life After God is super weird. It's about going going though normal adult stuff. Like many works of literary fiction, the plot is not really the main point, though I do not wish to imply that this story lacks in action. The scenes with the exploding nuclear bomb are pretty quick paced if that is important to you.
I want to say that this is a book about finding community and connection even in an isolated world. Now granted I am suspiciously able to find those themes in every book I read, but in this case the reviewer blurbs back me up.
This book is dangerously quotable. A few instances:
"His main pick-up technique was to pump out negative signals so that women with low self-esteem would be glued to him."
"Before we know it, too much time has passed and we've missed the chance to have had other people hurt us. To a younger me this sounded like luck; to an older me this sound like a quiet tragedy."
"As I--we--get older, we are all finding that our conversations must be spoken. A need burns inside us to share with others what we are feeling. Beyond a certain age, sincereity ceases to feel pornographic."
Coupland's writing reminds me of Russell Banks, with the shrewdness of the main character's perceptions. And I think it's not too much of a stretch to compare this book (it really is weird) to The Little Prince, though it's less whimsical and more the-march-of-time-comes-for-us-all.
Also there are lots and lots of little pictures throughout the book, which is pretty great, more books need this please.
System Collapse, the latest in the science fiction series of novellas-approaching-novels by Martha Wells, was released four days ago. I did extra housework to get in the listening time so I could discuss it today. My floors are looking nice.
Murderbot is a security unit, a construct of human and machine parts. Its job is to provide security to a group of human researchers, who keep getting into mortal peril when they visit other planets. Its likes include watching soap operas. Its dislikes include getting attached to humans, who are messy and complicated.
Narrator Kevin R. Free does such a good job with this series. I am especially fond of the voice he does for ART, the sentient research vessel that steals every scene it's in. I'm almost as fond of ART as I am of Murderbot. Don't tell Murderbot I said that.
Don't start with this one of you're new to the Murderbot Diaries. Go back to the beginning with All Systems Red.
I realize I haven't said anything about this book specifically. I don't think I'll go into plot details, but I'll say that it made me feel some feelings the same way poor Murderbot felt them.
"I was having an emotion, like a big, overwhelming emotion. It felt bad but good, a weird combination of happy and sad and relieved, like something had been stuck and wasn't stuck anymore. Cathartic, okay? This fits the definition of cathartic."
Contemporary literary fiction is so disappointing to me, so often, but I keep going back to it because sometimes you'll find a gem like Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. Also it is short, and that is an admirable quality in a book when your time for leisure reading is limited.
Somewhere in northern England, seventeen-year-old Sylvie is on holiday with her parents. Sylvie's dad is a huge history buff and wilderness survivalist, which is why nobody in the family has bathed in several days. They're too busy foraging hazelnuts and mussels like their Bronze Age forebears.
It sounds like the setup for a comedic novel, and while there are moments of hilarity, that's not the primary emotion at work here. This is a dark, violent, ugly story about domestic violence.
Sarah Moss reminds me of was Kate Atkinson, but as I was reading reviews, I found a better comparison: Flannery O’Connor. I think that's about right, Flannery O'Connor with some Shirley Jackson. It's about bad men hurting their families, and how individuals and communities perpetuate violence, and in the middle of all this you find yourself snort-laughing because Sylvie said something droll.
This is another one where I recommend the audiobook if you can get it. The working class v. posh accents play a role, and narrator Christine Hewitt does an outstanding job.
I confess I haven't finished the audiobook yet for Stone Blind, written and narrated by Natalie Haynes, but it's based on Greek myths so I'm sure everyone is happy in the end and no one dies.
Okay so. I was not expecting much from this, for the very simple reason that Madeleine Miller's Greek retellings knocked my socks off, and Claire North has a retelling out recently that I expect will additionally knock my socks off, and there's only so much room for talent to go around.
Oh I was wrong.
Haynes is funny, let's get that out of the way first. The section she wrote from the perspective of a crow had me clawing at my throat for more air, I was gasping so hard. Or here's this bit from the perspective of an unnamed Nereid:
"Mortals have a word for this kind of arrogance, the kind that makes a person think she can compare herself favorably to a goddess. The word is hubris. And while I am all in favor of using precision to describe something, might I suggest that you would be better off not doing something so dangerous so often that you need a specific word for it. Perhaps develop your self-control rather than your vocabulary."
Contrast that to the section where the gods of Olympus were marching to war with the giants. It's told from the point of view of Athene and I swear I felt an emotion I can only describe as battle lust. I wanted to march with some comrades in arms and hit something. For the record my typical emotional response to anything is crying a lot.
I was never much into the gods when we studied classical antiquity in high school English. I found them capricious and arbitrary. Haynes maintains these flaws while making them believable.
As for her prose: follow me for any time and you will find I am insufferable about word-smithing. I have such unforgiving standards. And here I was listening to the prose and wondering if maybe I could write like that, if I worked hard at it.
As for the narration: it is perfect. Haynes is not a voice actor and doesn't bother attempting different voices for different characters but it doesn't matter. She's so expressive with each one. And she has the type of English accent that is kryptonite for American listeners. Occasionally Medusa comes out as Medus-er.
p.s. It's also a fine time to listen to Tom Waits singing "Stone Blind Love."
I had planned to do horror books throughout the month. I started a new-to-me writer, Gemma Files, but there was heavy gun violence in the opening chapters, and this was not the week to read that.
Instead, I'll mention T. J. Klune. I've only read two of his books so far, but each one has been the emotional equivalent of hot cocoa and fat lazy cats. The only reason I'm not immediately reaching for another is that I'm trying to pace myself, one per year.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a fantasy novel and queer romance about finding family when you feel unwanted. Under the Whispering Door is a fantasy novel and queer romance with a redemption arc. You know that warm feeling you get inside when Scrooge looks out the window on Christmas morning, wondering what day it is? Same emotional payoff here.
For books that will inform you or give you ideas for addressing a social problem...how about Isabel Wilkerson's Caste? I've read extensively about race and racism, and hers is one of the best. It's a long book and a longer audiobook, but it flew by, which is not something I often say about meticulously researched social histories.
Things have been intense recently. I've barely had time to read or listen to anything, so I'm cheating and using a nonfiction book I read ten years ago, The Amityville Horror (1977).
In 1974, a house in Amityville, NY was the site of a several gruesome murders. In 1975, a family of five moved in: two parents, three kids. They lasted not quite a month before fleeing in terror.
Jay Anson describes the haunting in detail while allowing the reader to choose their own interpretation. If you are a skeptic about paranormal phenomena, you can walk about with your doubts intact (though perhaps slightly weakened). If you are a devout Catholic, you can read about the priest's attempted exorcism without feeling trivialized.
To my own great regret, I am impervious to terror from written horror. Too much Stephen King, too young, ruined everything else for me. I am pretty sure though that normal people find this book scary, and I can truthfully say that it is atmospheric and entertaining. And for audiobook enthusiasts, Ray Porter's voice is gritty and noirish, the perfect delivery for the story.
Laird Barron writes horror with more literary flair than normal, like Henry James but with satanists. In more contemporary terms, his style reminds me of John Langan or John Horner Jacobs, people who take care with their prose but who aren't afraid to throw around shapeshifters or occultists to keep the peasants in line.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is a collection of longish short stories set primarily in the American Pacific northwest. My favorite was "The Hand of Glory," which reads more like prohibition noir than horror, at least till the twist at the end. If you've ever enjoyed one of Stephen King's gangster stories, you'll like this--same boozy atmosphere where life may be cheap but the dames ain't.
Are these stories scary? My scare meter broke a good thirty years ago. The same way chronic smokers can't taste spice in their curry, I can't detect terror in my fiction.
But I found them enjoyable, especially as narrated by the hardboiled voice of Ray Porter, who also did a standup job with the Amityville Horror. More on that next week, I think...
Though best remembered for Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury wrote across many genres and for many ages. The Halloween Tree (1972) is a horror/fantasy Young Adult novel that I probably would have enjoyed as a kid. Alas.
One Halloween, a group of eight boys find themselves taking a spooky tour across space and time to learn the origins of Halloween, which [insert convoluted, unconvincing plot explanation here] is necessary to save the life of the ninth boy, Pipkin.
Bradbury lavishes praise on Pipkin, using over-the-top descriptions to paint him as the best possible boy to have ever walked the earth. I was reminded of Melville's ultra horny descriptions of Billy Budd. There is nothing sexual in Bradbury's portrait--I cannot point to any one line or paragraph that is inappropriate--but taken together, I felt uncomfortable about the intense scrutiny and effusive compliments directed toward an adolescent.
Maybe someone else who's read this book can let me know if I'm being too sensitive.
So I can't really say I recommend it. Kirby Heyborne did a great job narrating, though, considering there were ten characters and none of them were women.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a hell of a good book, the first of a series of four historical fantasy novellas by Nghi Vo. You know from the start it's going to be good because the main character is an archivist. As a cleric, Chih is responsible for recording oral history. Their interviewee is an older woman, Rabbit, who recalls attending the empress in her youth.
Some people are good writers and some people are good storytellers and the overlap of those two groups is not as big as you might expect. Vo does both things right. The style of the prose is pitch-perfect. The rhythms and inflections make you feel like you're sitting by the fire. The plot is palace intrigue and adventure and scheming.
It's hard not to compare Vo to Becky Chambers, who also writes a speculative fiction series of character-driven novellas with a nonbinary protagonist, starting with A Psalm for the Wild-Built. I was also reminded of Leigh Bardugo's fable-inflected prose.
Or you could compare it to Friend Green Tomatoes. A member of the younger generation interviews an older woman who recalls her friendship with another woman. They struggle to survive in a world run by abusive men, and you can never fully decide whether they were friends or lovers. (That's the movie. It's been decades, but if I recall correctly, their relationship in the movie was ambiguous and their relationship in the book was Yep We're Lesbians Now).
This hit all the right notes. I need to finish listening to Cindy Kay narrate the rest of the series (I'm in book 2 currently) so I may have to skip next week's book talk. Actually yeah, that's a good idea regardless. I'm traveling to North Carolina for a few days next week, so it's a convenient time for a break. Everyone enjoy the first day of decorative gourd season!
Out of professional interest--first as a librarian, now as an editor--I turned to The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall. Also I turned to it because the audiobook lasts only five hours and I didn't have much time for pleasure reading this week.
I liked the somewhat different approach here. There are tons of books about the joys of reading, and this is the first I've encountered that looks at the role of storytelling in human evolution. Though this is not a science text, I don't normally see this much science and psychology alongside my literary criticism.
Storytelling, Gottschall argues, is an adaptive trait that helps us practice conflict and novelty in a safe way--not only in the stories we consume deliberately, but also in the dreams we conjure at night. Stories communicate culture and values. Think sacred texts that unite members of religious communities.
Or think Peter Benchley's Jaws. Following the release of Spielberg's movie, beach vacations plummeted, thanks to the shared cultural understanding that sharks will eat you.
Recommended if you need a quick, diverting read that will flatter you for being more empathetic than people who do not read books. (The pro-social benefits of reading, especially with fiction, have been amply demonstrated in studies.)
Narrator Kris Koscheski was fine, but disclaimer, he's in that school of audiobook narration that applies accents to real people. For example, when he was quoting George W. Bush, he took on a Texas twang. I expect accents in my narrated fiction but they irritate me in narrated nonfiction.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.