No reviews in this update, but stick with me, as I'm going to share my FRAMEWORK for EVALUATION. That's saucy stuff, right?
It is Friday afternoon, and I'm playing with simplify.thatsh.it - a website that creates 'random modern art by simplifying images to their core elements'. Basically, we're one step from Skynet, people.
Anyway, I've taken the liberty of simplifying some of my favourite SF/F covers. They're pretty remarkable.
Have a play - tag us in your experiments on Twitter at @pornokitsch!
I'm participating in this year's Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off competition - all the background, details and updates are here.
The first step is to filter through the buffet of 301 books that have been sent my way. Although I'll bring some fancy-shmancy grading criteria in later in the process, at this stage I'm being unabashedly subjective: do I want to keep reading it?
Mohammed Rabie's Otared (2016) is a harrowing existential thriller, set in a near-future Cairo. The city has been occupied by a mercenary army - a sort of quasi-Masonic organisation that swept through in a sudden coup with distinctly Cruaderish underpinnings. Cairo persists - everyday life plods along, despite the foreign invaders and the ominous ring of battleships.
Otared is a former policeman who, infuriated by the way the government rolled over, has joined the rebellion. His job is distasteful: assassin, freedom fighter, terrorist - everything in-between. Otared repeatedly asks the same question - how far would you go? - with different nuances and inflections each time. The voiceless people of Cairo are choosing between two - if not 'evils - brutalities. Otared decides what he will do, how far he will go, in the name of a city that he never particularly liked and certainly never liked him. It is particularly telling that the resistence is led neither by civilians nor military, but policemen - who Otared describes less as a public service and more like a necessary evil.
I've been reading some of the 'best books', which has been surprisingly fun. Perhaps slightly less educational than I had assumed it would be, but there's a virtuous buzz that comes from reading anything with <10 downloads on Gutenberg.
Although not one of Sinclair Lewis' best works, The Job has a lot going for it. This is a sort of Babbitt for the working woman, and Lewis tries to balance warm-hearted (and progressive) feminist thinking with a thinly-veiled disgust for, well, everyone, including its own protagonist.
It is a tricky line to walk, and the book occasionally stumbles a little too far into one camp or another: either with full-on preaching monologues or vast swathes of parenthetical scorn.
Still, mean is funny. And this lengthy, abusive aside about the 'literary itch' was particularly entertaining:
* * *
The Journal of Science Fiction was published by a fan group based at the University of Chicago. Like many zines, it was short-lived - despite some (now) star-studded issues, it only existed for four short issues.
I can't vouch for the tone of the first three, as I've not found them yet, but the fourth is a corker. Whether the JSF was established with this particular tone, or if the editors took to the final issue with nihilistic zeal, the content - especially the editorials - is passionate and, er, rather blistering.
The editorial begins with a succinct explanation of the Journal's demise - 'malnutrition, both of material and of readers'. The editors also note that 'if a publication fails to satisfy the needs and desires of its time; it deserves to die'. Thus they sail, with stoic aplumb, into the darkness. But not without burning some bridges behind them with this - timeless, and ever-relevant - rant...
*According to The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925, A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books.
There's always something enjoyable about the listicles of the previous century, especially when they're so shamelessly transparent. I think my favourite part of that description is the idea of 'home library builders' - the idea that if you don't have the Dickinson Certified Best Books™, well, your parlour simply isn't up to snuff. I stumbled on Dickinson's 1,000 Best when I was doing the research for Lost Souls, and was delighted to find that his penchant for creating league tables of literature had continued.
Four recent reads, showing the breadth, depth and wonderful weirdness that can be found on the fantasy shelves.
Sami Shah's Fire Boy (2017). An early - or not so early - book of the year pick. To slap some labels on it, Fire Boy is a YA, edgy American Gods, but then, none of that is particularly accurate. Wahid is a weird kid, growing up in Karachi. He was a sick child and now he's a gormless teenage. But he's got some fun friends, a loving family, and a future that's more or less bright.
Then things go horribly, terribly wrong. Wahid starts seeing things that aren't there. There's crazy assassin is after him. Oh, and he's in a horrible car wreck. Suddenly he's gone from secure and self-absorbed to a life on the run, with everything taken from him. His search for answers takes him to some very strange, and not entirely earthly, places. Fire Boy has all the classic elements of Chosen One-ness and Portal Fantasy: Wahid's a gawky, geeky everyman with a good heart and a lot of potential. But there's also a shockingly edgy overlay - this isn't a book that pulls its punches, and manages to be truly shocking and surprising as the one twist leads to another. Karachi itself comes to life, as Shah brings its sprawl and the splendour to the page, effortlessly weaving in the city's mythology.
I'm way behind on writing reviews - a combination of life, SPFBO reading, sekrit projects and watching Ariana Grande and Chris Martin sing "Don't Look Back In Anger" on continuous loop. But whilst we all wait for me to get my act together, here's a quick catch-up on recent reading:
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (2016, first 2012). In an unnamed country, the people are ruled by a faceless bureaucracy. All paperwork challenging the state must be notarised by officials at the 'Gate', the accepted nomenclature of the 'powers that be' that work at entrance of the government building, but the Gate never opens...
Over time, a huge queue forms, and with it, a new society. People come and go, trade gossip, form a new, grey economy. The Gate seems to know everything and be everywhere, but its actions are nonsensical and baffling. Set against this... a mystery, of sorts. A man, shot in an uprising that never happened by soldiers that weren't there using guns that don't exist, is standing, wounded, in the queue. The maze of paperwork around him, if he exists, captures a handful of others, as they make extremely difficult choices in the face of overwhelming indifference.
The Queue isn't quite as abstract as I'm making it sound. It is a good Orwellian thriller, with compelling, heart-breaking characters. Although inspired by Egypt, The Queue is one of the great fictional dystopias, with horrifying relevance to, well, everywhere. If you read one book on this list, make it this one.
In 1921 - this has a point, bear with me - the compilers of What Editors Want interviewed a lot of the prominent editors (both magazine and publishing house) of the day. They all responded with pages of stuff: formatting advice, genre preference, commercial details, you name it. Very specific.
The best response was a single line from Atlantic's Ellery Sedgewick: "My selection is made according to the whim of one individual."