A monthly wrap-up - first, new purchases and exciting (to me) acqusitions. Then a round-up of the best and worst reads of April. A month that was better for quantity than quality, I'm sad to say.
Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of Sea-Serpents. How did I not know this wonderful man existed?! Heuvelmans was a Belgian scientist who specialised in cryptozoology, although only a few of his books have been translated into English, he's very popular and extremely significant in this field. I picked up Sea-Serpents purely because it was sort of a conflation of kitschy magnificence: a couple pounds for a 600 page book on sea serpents? Who wouldn't? But this is almost the least of his works: On the Track of Unknown Animals is a truly heroic volume and, even better, he wrote a volume specifically on the giant squid and Kraken. (Sadly, the English translation is both extraordinarily expensive and, according to the reviews, badly produced. Boo.) Anyway, Sea-Serpents is wonderful - I've already read the first few introductory chapters, and am enjoying it heartily.
Non-fictional bits: Jon Savage's Teenage, Ruth Holiday & Tracey Potts' Kitsch!, David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men and Dominic Strinati's An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. The latter has been a particularly useful survey - I've never studied this 'stuff', and it is nice to have a single volume that spells out the theories, vocabulary, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Newer fictional bits: Richard De Nooy's Zendingsdrang. Yes, Dutch. No, no idea what it says. But I like De Nooy's work and this cover! Joey Hi-Fi is a legend. I also found a signed copy of Phil Earle's Heroic at Foyles. It joins John Connolly's The Wolf in Winter and Ben Aaronovitch's Broken Homes as the 'lovely new signed books' for the month. Also bought a paperback copy of Katie Coyle's Vivian versus the Apocalypse. After reading and raving about it on ebook, wanted a physical copy around.
A ton of comics: I've been piling up classic crossovers so I can participate in Jon Morgan's new series for the blog. Plus, a visit to the (AMAZING) Traveling Man in Manchester equalled a pile of a half-dozen new Cinebook volumes. And, I.N.J. Culbard's magnificent Celeste showed up - I know Culbard's work through his exceptional Lovecraft adaptations. Celeste is an original story both written and drawn by Culbard and it is as haunting and as beautiful as ever could have wished. A fantastic release.
The finds of the month, however (sorry Sea-Serpents) have come as a stack of Gold Medal paperbacks - some from eBay, some from a wonderful bookstore in Lyme Regis. And not just any Gold Medals, the new acquisitions include titles from John McPartland, Norman Daniels, Edward Aarons (two Sam Durrell cases I didn't have), Stephen Marlowe (a Chester Drum I didn't have!), Bruno Fischer, Vechel Howard, Octavus Roy Cohen and Lee Richards. I just want to bury myself away with them like some sort of Pharoah.
The cover to Murder on Her Mind, shown on the right, is absolutely stunning. [Scheme note: the world needs ENORMOUS POSTERS based on Gold Medal covers.] And the find of finds? An actual copy of Donald Keyhoe's The Flying Saucers are Real. Why is this significant? It is one of the very first Gold Medal books, and its commercial success was one of the reasons that the imprint took off.
And the reading...
Thanks to a well-timed vacation, I've now gone from 'behind' my Goodreads challenge to ahead of it. Which is very handy, as I'm now in the middle of an estimated 900,000 pages of DGLA reading.
That said, despite reading a lot in April, I'm not sure it was a highlight in my literary life - thus explaining a month of fairly lackluster reviews. Particular lows include:
- Stephen Frances' This Woman is Death - which balanced inane introspection with surprisingly unpleasant violence
- Guy Boothby's A Crime of the Under-seas - which was just mean (also, racist)
- Lewis Perdue's Zaibatsu - which was simply hilariously awful
- Mark Barnes' The Garden of Stones - which I've already bullied elsewhere
- Melissa de la Cruz's The Witches of East End - which just wasn't very fun, I'm afraid. Three slightly-too-perfect protagonists, an extremely twee small town and a generic urban fantasy setting. I can see why it is popular, but it felt paint by numbers.
A few of the comics I picked up didn't quite live up to expectations. Young Avengers was pretty and, I guess, unusual, but I can't help think that my 12-year-old self would've been bored shitless by it. I don't, obviously, mind superhero comics written for folks my age (and welcome them, in fact), but... I dunno. Didn't do for it me. And Fatale was weirdly problematic - not helped by a Lovecraftian/noir fusion that, again, just didn't quite click for me.
Even my beloved Gossip Girl series seems to be stuck in a rut around book 8. And if I can't rely on Gossip Girl...
Fortunately, there were some highlights (although, again, nothing like March):
- Georgette Heyer's The Nonesuch - which was definitely my pick of the month. The titular 'Nonesuch', so named because he's a man without equal, visits a small town in the North, much to the delight and anxiety of the local demi-aristocracy. Features a spoiled beauty, a foppish dandy, a cunning governess and a lot of goofy-yet-charming shenanigans. A blast. Plus, with a more critical hat on, a strangely - not subversive, but creative - Georgian romance. Some folks don't really wind up with who you'd expect, some lessons are learned, some aren't... there's a happy ending, of course, but also a sense that the story has very much just begun.
- C.J. Box's Open Season - which is a murder mystery in rural Wyoming. The first in a series of books featuring game warden Joe Pickett. Ostensibly, Pickett's an unlikely hero, but he does, in his close-mouthed, good-hearted, sharp-shooting way, fit the police procedural mould. That said, as disastrous as his personal life is, Pickett's a hero with a solid family life and a heart of gold. He's not a complete paragon of ethical excellence, but nor is he a self-destroying alcoholic, serial womaniser, 'man on the edge'. The mystery, I'm afraid, is pretty predictable - the whodunnit and how are obvious from the start - but it is also secondary: it is more about a Man and Temptation, plus an absolutely lovely (and meaningful) wilderness setting.
- Kate Brian's Private - which seems to be my next Gossip Girl fix. Girl goes to elite boarding school. Politics, romance, back-stabbing all ensue. I like that our heroine, Reed Brennan, keeps - despite herself - doing what she believes is the right thing (and at unexpected times). An unexpectedly cliff-hangerish ending, so I hope the second book is as good.
- John Mitchell Ames' The Last American - which is an 1889 tale of Persian explorers in a post-Apocalyptic America. It is absolutely stunning. I'd suggest ditching the Gutenberg version and finding one of the Archive.org scans with all the original illustrations - they make the book. It is a combination of dark humour and light adventure, although there's still an irritatingly jingoistic underbelly that peeks out in places. But, overall, an interesting historical artifact, a great look at turn-of-the-century concerns, a beautiful book and an interesting fantasy travelogue.
And a few other older works that I'm glad I've read as a matter of personal enlightement: Edward Ellis' The Huge Hunter, or, the Steam-Man of the Prairies, W.S. Lach-Szyrma's Aleriel, Richard Jeffries' After London and the first in Pauline Lester's Marjorie Dean series. Basically, early steampunk, early space opera, early post-apocalyps and early YA. Good fun, even if some of them were a bit stodgy.
Finally, a nod to Courtney Milan's "Brothers Sinister" trilogy, plus the standalone novelettes. A fun, spicy series of saucy historical romances that cheerfully embrace anachronism in favour of progressive, out-spoken and generally adorable characters. I'm fairly sure there's a lesson in there. Perhaps something about, "you can actually do whatever you want, and don't have to be stuck in a reactionary rut because a misguided sense of 'historical accuracy' demands it"? If Milan can write feminist characters in a Georgian setting, perhaps creators of entire secondary worlds could figure something out. Maybe.