Fiction: 'Black Paintings' by James Smythe
Three Questions with Kathryn Allan about Accessing the Future

The Best and Worst Books of August

Feast-famine-potluck_ebook-cover_20131122I don't know about you guys - and I promise, this isn't going to get too navel-gazey or woez-is-me - but this was a month where something was always happening. It was awesome, and, even the little bits I managed to take part in will leave me memories for a lifetime. But, wow - that was busy. Sarah McIntyre wrote about the importance of downtime earlier, and I wholeheartedly agree. When you start getting excited about long tube journeys (no signal, no email, just an hour with a book and the sweat of strangers), it is time for a break. 

I did carve out some time for non-Goodreadsable reading - including reading the longlisted selections for this year's Short Story Day Africa. As a pool of short stories, the quality is absolutely incredible, and I've been blown away. The shortlisted stories have now been announced - congratulations to all of the writers involved, and I can't wait to read Terra Incognita.

And the books: I tacked 24 in August. According to my bucketing system, 4 were 'Old', 8 were 'Oldish' and 12 were New. My overall Goodreads target is well on-track (I'm ahead by about a month, I think), but my goal of dividing the year's reading evenly into the three buckets has failed pretty miserably. I may need to spend all of December reading 19th century serials just to balance things out a bit.

My August Favourites

Feast, Famine and Potluck (2013), edited by Karen Jennings, was last year's Short Story Day Africa anthology. With two stories on the Caine Prize shortlist - including the eventual winner, "My Father's Head" - this collection hasn't been short of praise. And, honestly, it deserves every word. 

Feast contains an eclectic collection of stories that uses its theme - food - as a way of talking about everything from families to futures. As well as the superb "My Father's Head" and "Chicken" (the two already recognised by the Caine Prize), I was particularly impressed by Jayne Bauling's "Choke" (the tension between spiritual and actual hungers, with a clever and satisfying resolution) and Hamilton Wende's "Fizz Pops" (the awkwardness and introspection of adolescence). A great collection.

Dia Reeves' Bleeding Violet (2010) was a recommendation from The Book Smugglers. Reviewed here - a terrific 'small town' fantasy and gutsy spin on the Chosen One tropes.

Tad Williams' The Dragonbone Chair (1988) - this might be the third (fourth?) time I've tackled this series, and I think it gets better every time. The Dragonbone Chair still has its fair share of cliches, tropes and general epic bonkersness, but it also defies the mould in some very interesting ways - ways that still hold up. At the risk of wanging on overlong about it, two smaller things:

  • Integrated world-building. Simon learns a lot about his world - the history, the religions, the big special prophecies, the magic - all that standard gibberish. But Williams infodumps in character: we always get this stuff through Simon's eyes, and Simon, like any 15 year old, only picks out the interesting stuff (and dozes through the rest). We get the information, but we also 'get' Simon. 
  • Totally harrowing. Seriously. Simon (SPOILERS) watches his tutor die, then stumbles around in tunnels underneath the castle for an immeasurable period of time - only to come out into the light for a confrontation with Darkest Evil and a week of slow starvation. Williams captures Simon's horror - both at the moment and, more importantly, over time. Simon never recovers, and that depth of character (and experience) is what makes the book great.

Overall, there's no question to me that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a more intense, and perhaps deeper, series than others of its ilk (Eddings, Brooks, Kurtz, etc), and I grow more fond of it with every read.

My Less-Than August Least Favourites

The Human Equation (1971), edited by William F. Nolan, was a nice find for my collection (it has a rare John D. MacDonald story in it), but I really had no business reading it. It contains several, frankly, minor works by JDM, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury/Leigh Brackett. Classics, undoubtedly. But also... just not very good. The Nolan introductions are the best part. Not recommended except for other completists.

Paul Russo's Corrupt Woman (1961) has all the hallmarks of a properly sleazy Midwood Press novel, but, alas, wasn't actually sleazy at all. Or, for that matter, a novel. A rich businesswoman agrees to attend her high school reunion - manipulated into doing so by her assistant so that the latter can have a chance to reunite with her lover. The reunion is set up to be a hotbed of reunited lovers (as well as a few new pairings), and... nothing really exciting happens.

It seems like Russo (or his editors) realised Corrupt Woman was on the road to nowhere, as, at the halfway point, the book changes dramatically and focuses on - of all things -  Communist aggression! The manly-man driver (enough with the female leads!) foils an attempt to destabilise a South American country which mostly involves kidnapping a nubile young graduate of the school. Or something. It is the plot of a porn movie, except without sex ever occurring - meaning this fails both as a book and as pornography. Impressive. 

Howard Chaykin's take on Challengers of the Unknown (2004) was, and no sugar-coating this: pretty awful. The same high-intensity kaleidoscopic satire that worked in the 1980s with American Flagg!, now feels increasingly shrill and dated. I normally like the way he plays with format and narrative, but, in the case of Challengers, it just made a boring story into a gibberish one. A sham

There were a few other books in August I didn't like, but it would be misleading - and rather savage - to lump them in with the three above.