Barbarian Book Club: 5 May 2019

I read a lot of books. This past week I read one novel, one memoir, and two short story collections. Before starting this post I bought eight books.

Every time I finish a book I tell myself that I’m going to sit down and write an in depth, detailed, well written review. A review worthy of a glossy literature magazine, something insightful that will make you run out and get whatever book, read it, and drive to where I am so you can sit around drinking espresso, smoking cigarettes, and discussing the literary merits of said book with me.

I never do.

So instead of writing critiques worthy of Harold Bloom I’m just going to let list a few of the things I’ve read recently and particularly recommend them. I’m also going to link to Amazon using my affiliate link. Why? Because this site costs me money to keep add free. 

Some Recently Read

Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk. I saw the movie when it first came out. I was in high school and my brother and I came across it one day on cable. It blew our mind. One of my close friends became a Palahniuk super fan, guy read every one of his books numerous times, owned signed copies, convinced me to try one of the books. I borrowed Choke from my girlfriend and read it real quick. Didn’t like it. Too edgy in that try hard kind of way. It didn’t click with early twenties me so I passed on Palaniuk. Fiveteen years later I’m at the gym listening to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and Chuck Palaniuk is one of the guests. Before he comes on B.E.E. talks about Fight Club, book and movie, and my peaks my interest. I loved the movie, maybe I should give the book a try. I did and don’t regret it. It’s well written, exceptionally creative, and quick paced. It captures that late 90’s hatred and nihilism that seemed to permeate everything. From a writers perspective chapter six is outstanding, a piece of prose with interrupting beets that reads like a charged punk song. Each scene is prefaced and interrupted by one of the “Rules of Fight Club,” the book is worth it for this chapter alone.

Airships by Barry Hannah. A few days ago I hit up all my homies on Twitter asking for litfic recommendation. I wanted something good, something meaty, something that read like the second pack Marlboro Reds washed down with cheap beer after a night of disappointment. My boy Neal delivered by recommending Hannah. Airships is a short story collection that blends the civil war with Vietnam, adds a dash of New York lit snobbery and flavors it with a dash of Southern Gothic. Hannah is a must read. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him before. This is what litfic should be. No cat lady victimology knitting circles here.

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Anthony Beevor. One of the best history books I’ve ever read. A brutal account of one of most intriguing and overlooked conflicts of the 20th century. The Spanish Civil war was a war where the losers wrote the history. It was the first massively propagandized war and so much of it is misunderstood or even deliberately misconstrued. The early sections describing the build up, the escalating hatred between countrymen towards each other is chilling, specifically in the light of our current political climate where the centrist position is losing ground to extremism from both sides. I highly recommend this book, not just for history buffs but for everyone.

White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke by Nigel Barely. I’ve always had a fascination with the South Pacific in the 19th century. I love the opium trade, jungles, China Clippers, trade companies, and all of the adventure that goes along with the great men behind the history. My favorite novel is Tai Pan and Hong Kong and its history is one of my favorite places I’ve visited. So a few month ago work decided to send me to the jungles of Sarawak, what used to be the Kingdom of Sarawak founded by the British adventurer James Brooke. Sarawak was ruled by the White Rajahs for three generations, well into the 20th century, and the last of the Rajahs was buried in Kuching in 2013. While the book itself isn’t that great, with a strange focus on Brooke’s homosexuality, I read it the first few days I was in Sarawak and it was cool seeing all of the places built by Brooke in person during my free time.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky The greatest novel ever written. Make sure you read this translation.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. A comprehensive and intriguing cultural history starting with Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg through the death of Stalin. The focus of the book is mostly on the cultural and civil life of Russians in the 19th century going into detail about Russian art, music, ballet, and the fascination and dual nature between the enlightenment of Western Europe and the Orthodox nationalism of the peasant. Some of the most interesting and painful to read chapters were about the plight of the artistic revolutionaries after the Soviet Revolution. Soviet true believer committees that turned art and literature into propaganda for Stalin only to be denounced later and sent to the death camps themselves.

I read a lot more, but this should do for now. A few of the books I’ve read deserve more in depth reviews, specifically White by Bret Easton Ellis. Other books were too historically technical, obscure, or instructive to merit a recommendation.

Some December reading.

Last week I told everybody about my long flight to San Diego and back. A total of 23 hours worth of travel. Not including customs, waiting to board, shuttle, and driving. The good thing about having long flights is that I get to sit back, relax, and catch up on my reading. I managed to finish three novels on just the flights alone.

My first read was One Eyed Jacks by J.D. Brink. A great pulp noir piece involving casinos, gunfights, exotic women, islands in the Pacific, and a dash of magic reminiscent of Big Trouble in Little China. I devoured this one real quick because it was sooneeyedjacks.jpg fun. Right up there with what I am looking for from the pulp revival style. Fun, exciting fiction that reads like my favorite movies from the 80s. I came across J.D. Brink in issue #3 of Cirsova magazine and look forward to reading more of his stuff.

The second read happens to leave me with a bit of apprehension. John C. Wrights The Iron Chamber of Memory. Wright is one of the writers that gets lauded in certain circles, specifically the Sad Puppy blogosphere. For the most part, I agree with the SP crowd in principle but not in practice(that debate is for another post). But, I am definitely on board with the Pulp Revolution/Revival that branched off from a lot of the SP stuff. Both camps recommend Wright so I decided to finally give him a try outside short stories, having previously only read his Parliament of Beasts and Birds and enjoying it.

Wrights prose is great. I enjoy his Erudite style with multiple references to biblical themes, antiquity, and medieval literature. Writing above the usual level of SFF, up there with Dan Simmons and GGK while lacking the purple prose of hironchamberofmemory.jpgacks like Rothfuss. Sadly this book lacked the proper plot for me to find enjoyment in it.

The plot started well and interesting. An aging estate on the Isle of Sark, a young man, and his best friends fiancee. Mysterious happenings, strange history, a struggle with friendship and love. Unfortunately, without giving away the plot twists the book devolves into a Harry Dresden-ish urban fantasy with some of the most obnoxiously preachy moralizings I have ever read. A cool mysterious setting was ruined by what basically came down to an infodump ending where characters talked to each other.

I am going to have to give Wright one more try because I have a feeling I picked up the wrong book.

Finally the third book I finished on my return flight ended up being my favorite. Of course, it is written by my favorite writer, Peter Hamilton. I read his first published novel, Mindstar Rising. A near future post global warming cyberpunk novel. Greg Mendel is a mindstar-risingprivate investigator, but he is special because he has been modified by the British military with a gland that allows him to discern emotions. Gregs England is one of post global warming and coming down from a decade of totalitarian socialist rule. He is hired to assist an ultra powerful corporation in ferreting out a mole that is sabotaging their production lines. Lots of cool cyberpunk hacking, mind reading, fighting bioengineered war panthers, and all the awesome stuff I tend to love about Hamilton’s novels. Most of all its part one of three so I have plenty to read for the rest of the month.

Well, as I write this it 3 pm on Christmas Eve. Soon I will be getting ready to go out and enjoy a nice dinner and some drinks with the wife. I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas.

 

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

TheBuilders

After about a year or so of hearing Daniel Polansky brought up whenever dark gritty fantasy was discussed I finally got around to reading some of his stuff. I picked up his Hugo-nominated novella, The Builders as a quick read between larger novels.

The Builders is an anthropomorphic grimdark western. A band of violent, gun-slinging, talking animals  goes on a suicidal revenge quest. It uses the standard plot of 7 Samurai and The Magnificent Seven; a leader, here a one-eyed scarred mouse named The Captain, gathers his band of violent comrades for a bloody showdown.

The Builders succeeds in fun and execution but falters in the end. The early scenes where each animal is introduced are pure fun. Bonsoir the French Stoat is the standout reminding me of Val Kilmers Doc Holiday. Unfortunately, it seems Polansky really enjoyed the idea of a violent western with anthropomorphic animals but was over it by the time finale which felt crowded and rushed.

Overall The Builders was a quick fun read well worth the time. It left me with a positive impression of Polansky’s writing; enough for me to push his other novels towards the top of my to-read list. I personally would have enjoyed these characters in a longer novel format.

I also enjoy the idea of the novella format itself. The length is ideal for a quick read over coffee and the 2.99 price point  for a polished product seems fair to me. I hope the trend of novellas being released on Amazon continues.

So if you enjoy anthropomorphic animals, gritty westerns, and a snarky written voice pick up The Builders and enjoy.

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

“To see something marvelous with your own eyes – that’s wonderful enough. But when two of you see it, two of you together, holding hands, holding each other close, knowing that you’ll both have that memory for the rest of your lives, but that each of you will only ever hold an incomplete half of it, and that it won’t ever really exist as a whole until you’re together, talking or thinking about that moment … that’s worth more than one plus one. It’s worth four, or eight, or some number so large we can’t even imagine it.”

Gollancz-08237b Reynolds House of Suns

House of Suns continues my ongoing obsession with heavy Science Fiction and happens to be my first read by Alastair Reynolds. It was a thoughtful and complex Gothic Space Opera that did not disappoint and kept me thinking about longevity, space, and time for days after I finished.

Millions of years in the future Abigail Gentian “shattered” herself into one thousand clones. Her clones “The House of Flowers” spend millions of years traveling the galaxy at sub-light speed collecting data and experience. Every two hundred thousand years they meet for a reunion in order to share memories, knowledge, and experiences.

Two Shatterlings, Campion and Purslane, secretly in love, arrive at the latest reunion to find devastation. Someone or something is exterminating the Gentian line. They are thrown into a dangerous mystery that spans across the galaxy and over thousands of years, involving sentient machines, post human civilizations, and exotic worlds.

I loved this book. It shares a mournful atmosphere with other Science Fiction novels such as Hyperion and Dune. A sort of new-Gothic Space Opera that touches on the concept of humanity in a post-Earth far future Galaxy. A fantastic novel and a great introduction to Reynolds. If you enjoy high concept Space Opera pick this one up.

 

Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

altered carbon

Fighting off a massive hangover  I couldn’t think of a more appropriate activity than to spend a wet rainy weekend in Yokosuka reading a dark and violent cyberpunk novel. Altered Carbon has been on my to read pile for a very long time and after finishing it I am thankful for all the recommendations. Its a violent piece of cyberpunk that can hold its own with the likes of Neuromancer.

Takeshi Kovaks, a Envoy(special forces agent) turned criminal is taken out of storage and downloaded into a temporary sleeve(body) right smack in the middle of 25th century San Francisco. His probation and release hinge on completing a private murder investigation on the apparent suicide of his employer, a centuries old corporate billionaire. Kovaks navigates a bloody path through a dirty Bay City, dealing with prostitutes, drug addicts, corrupt police, psychotic assassins, cyborgs, and an A.I. Hotel in the likeness of Jimmy Hendrix.

The main science fiction element of Altered Carbon is the idea of sleeves and stacks. In the 25th century ones consciousness is digitized and stored in stacks mounted to the cerebral cortex. Human flesh bodies are now called sleeves because one can be uploaded into any empty available one. The novel hits some fantastic points about identity, human connection, and self-perception in a world where one can switch bodies. It also touches on the concept of near immortal longevity for those who can afford it.

Altered Carbon managed to touch all of my favorite elements. Dark, brutal, action taking place in a fantastic setting dealing with themes that touch on the philosophical. A fantastic read for anybody who loves cyberpunk and detective noir. I’m going to read more Richard K Morgan for sure.