Another year, another bundle of books. Much like 2012, I started out strong and was able to stick to a review every 4-6 days, to the point where I thought I might make my self-imposed 65 book goal. But more fall overtime means less fall reading ability. Currently I stand at 47 out of 65, with Goodreads helpfully telling me I’m only 17 books behind schedule. Though, I did also read 9 magazines in my Great SF Magazine Project. By including those, I read 56 items out of my 65 goal, which sounds more reasonable.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 32,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Top 5 Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels:
Most of what I read this year fell somewhere around average, but there were a number of standouts. I’d picked a few to read in January that turned out to be underrated masterworks, and read a few more over the year that turned out to be winners. It’s always tough choosing “bests” or “favorites,” but most of these were natural choices—I knew while reading them that there’s no way they wouldn’t end up on this list. Other than that, I wasn’t aiming for specific themes or award winners like last year, and was mostly digging for forgotten gems. Most of these works fall under that category.
- The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker (1952). A gritty, brutal novel, and probably the most realistic depiction of a nuclear attack to come before the Reagan years. A grim vision of a United States divided at the Mississippi River into two halves: one ruled by military martial law, the other a nuclear and biological wasteland. Our protagonist woke up on the wrong side of the Mississippi, and leaves ruin in his wake.
- Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore (1947). To those who say 1940s SF wasn’t very good, I give you Moore’s satire, quite scathing in its damnation of humanity. Its unique place in time—after World War II but before the onset of the Cold War—gives it a unique vantage point. As unstoppable Bermuda grass overruns the world, the salesman protagonist works to become the ruling robber-baron, overseeing a dead world and selling meat-paste to a rapidly dwindling population.
- Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh (1981). This is my type of science fiction, a space opera with grandiose scale, played out in a constrained setting: a single orbital space station, lynchpin to both warring factions in an interstellar war nearing its end. Politics and intrigue abound, as does Cherryh’s capable (if awkward) prose. Slow pacing is a hindrance, though the novel is rich in plot and character.
- Notions: Unlimited by Robert Sheckley (1960). A collection of 1950s SF social satire, from one of Galaxy Magazine’s best practitioners of the art. Sheckley is another underrated, long-forgotten master, but as (most) of these stories show, his wit and satire are both skillful and timeless.
- Judgment Night by C.L. Moore (1952). A collection of some of Moore’s strongest solo material, namely the title story and four other novellas from pulp-era Astounding. The works showcase Moore’s strongest writing elements: exquisite imagery, an oozing miasma of unease, and a strong sensuality just beneath the surface.
Top 5 Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Reads:
Last year, I ended up reading a lot of SF novels dealing with time travel; this year, I ended up reading a number of crime novels dealing with people being held hostage by a crazy person—Richard Matheson’s Fury on Sunday, Gil Brewer’s A Killer Is Loose, Wade Miller’s Kitten with a Whip, and Ed McBain’s Killer’s Wedge—which made for an interesting comparison. Matheson’s showed that even early in his career, he was excellent at creating tension. Brewer’s was an interesting turn from someone whose works usually fall under the theme of “seductive feminine evil,” and its staggering immediacy makes up for its wandering narrative. Kitten with a Whip had some of Wade Miller’s best prose, though was less suspenseful than the others. McBain’s characters were the strength of his novel, and its weakness was alternating the tense standoff with a weak whodunit plotline.
Just by looking at my best-of lists, I’m noticing a trend favoring the absolute bleakest noir novels—the ones where down-on-their-luck-everymen struggle to escape a world of misery and oppressive authority, in an inverted American Dream. I’ll also throw a nod to Odds On, the first book by Michael Crichton (via a pseudonym), a fun and breezy thriller; I have all of Crichton’s early novels written under the “John Lange” pseudonym, and look forward to reading the rest of them.
- The Grifters by Jim Thompson (1963). A beautiful tale of misery, one where richly developed characters take center-stage. They’re all grifters and hucksters and loners, each conning the others for a bigger slice of life. Of course, in that wild scramble of greed, there’s a lot more death than life dished out.
- The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe (1962). Another bleak novel of human misery and vengeance, this one about a sociopathic bank robber who decided to stop taking abuse from the system, and instead abuses it right back. The book is a sucker-punch to the gut, which then kicks you while you’re down.
- Kiss Her Goodbye by Wade Miller (1956). An interesting take on a boy and his mentally unstable sister; they’re on the run because of her violent outbursts, and he struggles to build relationships due to his guarded nature. Things come crashing down when the brother’s boss makes a play for the seemingly innocent but deadly sister. As noir as they come, and one haunting read.
- The Box by Peter Rabe (1962). A deep and layered read about a former Mafia lawyer who’s freed from his round-the-world prison—a box in the hold of a cargo ship. Finding himself born anew in a North African port, he sets about making a name for himself—his own criminal empire—without really understanding who he is, much less where he is. As such, ambition leads to tragedy.
- One Endless Hour by Dan Marlowe (1969). While less bleak and aggressive than Marlowe’s masterpiece Name of the Game is Death, his second take on the “Earl Drake” character is an inventive heist novel. The planning elements are intriguing, and the action itself comes fast and furious… plus, some of the unexpected and weird elements are amazing.
My Bottom Books
Every up has at least one down, though I didn’t read enough awful books to go through them individually this time; again, I feel as though I got a better quality of books this year, there were a few disappointments in the mix. Some of them came close to greatness, but burned their wings of ambition on the sun (Midsummer Century and Shadow on the Hearth); others were just no good to begin with (Doomed Planet).
There were also a few that were just too mediocre—average, painful in their normality—though often saved by a few good elements. The tension in Matheson’s Ride the Nightmare and Fury on Sunday made up for their shallower plots and characters, Richard Powell’s A Shot in the Dark had an impressive and witty first half that gave way to a sluggish second, while Ozaki’s Case of the Deadly Kiss was decidedly average.
Top Short Fiction Discoveries
Reading all those magazines brought me numerous short works that I’d otherwise never hear about. Some of the authors are still quite famous; others were lost to the pages of time. In any case, it was nice to discover both authors new to me, and stories from authors I’d read before.
I’m leaning towards actual discoveries here, stories from writers I’d never read before, or ones that made me change my opinion about an author; I already believed Alfred Bester and Jack Vance were excellent authors before reading “Fondly Fahrenheit” and “Green Magic.” The best of those “discoveries” are below:
- Poul Anderson (“No Truce With Kings,” “Outpost of Empire,” “Superstition,” “Operation Salamander”): Anderson has always been an author I thought “wasn’t bad,” but these four stories showed he’s an author I may have been underestimating. They have plenty of originality that blends genre and theme, to Anderson’s benefit; well-written and thoughtful with strong action scenes. What’s not to love?
- Mildred Clingerman (“The Wild Wood”): Just thinking about this story makes me feel a bit uneasy; strong writing and a shocking, twisted ending to this Christmas horror put Clingerman high on my list.
- Zenna Henderson (the People series, namely “Gilead” and “Wilderness”): A teacher by day, writer by night, Henderson brings raw emotion and a human side to SF. While her tales of intergalactic refugees scattered and hiding in the American Southwest are much the same and have mawkish tendencies, I think their strengths outweigh their flaws.
- John Jakes (“No Vinism Like Chau-Vanism”): A rather smart satire in the Galaxy style, though its oddball plot can challenge suspension of belief: America, crippled with ennui for lacking the kind of constant war like the Soviets and Chinese fight, come up with televised “commercial wars” between local corporate interests. One novelette about a butter war says a lot about chauvinism, machismo, and capitalism.
- E.C. Tubb (“Vigil”): Truth be told, the story is middling fare: a father’s vigil for his runaway son turned starship pilot, and the pilot who passes him by on away leave. But the way Tubb handles this bleak, short tale makes me think he’s got something there. I’m hunting for his Dumarest novels to find out.
Looking At 2014
At this time I have more books than I could read in a year, much less more books than I can store. I’ve always been more of a collector—about 60% of my collection were for the covers, specific authors, or books in a specific series, and I spent high school and college collecting books I’d read in some eventual future. Well, that future is now. Add in the boxes of books gifted from my parents and their local library sales, and I’m swamped with an excess of choices.
For SF, following in the wake of Downbelow Station I’m taking a reinvigorated look at the ’80s (namely, more Cherryh, and a few other things I’ve meant to read). That would be the main reason I’m not contributing to January’s Vintage SciFi Not-A-Challenge, since my immediate reads fall after the 1979 deadline. Beyond that, I still have a disproportionate amount of Jack Vance and now Poul Anderson, some seasonal Bradbury, and I’ve meant to read a novel by the late Frederik Pohl. I have a shelf full of vintage 1950s novels, the prizes being Cyril Kornbluth, William Tenn, Robert Sheckley, and Theodore Sturgeon. Plus the copy of Zenna Henderson’s Ingathering that was gifted to me. I plan on reading more women SF writers and contribute more reviews to SF Mistressworks.
Magazine reviews will return in the summer (by which I mean the period of warmer weather running from late May until early September). Still heavily leaning towards F&SF and Galaxy, though I have more Amazing, a few Astounding, and more Imagination than any one person really needs.
For noir, I have a few classics at the top of my list: Robert Colby’s The Captain Must Die, and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. Of the latter, Ed Gorman said “Chaze is known in pulp circles for his flawless novel Black Wings Has My Angel, which many people feel is the single best novel Gold Medal published during its heyday.” And of the former: “He’s worth looking up. If you read nothing else, make it The Captain. It’s damned fine book. He had a journalist’s eye for his times. This was especially true in the novels he set in Hollywood. Captain is his masterpiece. You will not be disappointed.”
Other than those two, I went crazy during Prologue Books’ various $0.99 ebook sales, to the point where I’m no longer sure what I own. I have Stark House Press’s Trio of Gold Medals, of which The Vengeance Man is a high temptation. I’ll definitely read more of Michael Crichton’s “John Lange” novels. Those Library of America volumes on noir are always a temptation. And there’s a trio of Jack Vance and two Lewis Padgett mysteries to-be-read, as I love watching SF writers do mysteries (and vice versa).