What I'm reading

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Event klaxon! I’ll be at the Village Well on 15 February, talking The Big Book of Cyberpunk. I love this shop: it is a family favourite, and a mandatory visit whenever we’re in LA. It is an honour to occupy one of their evenings.

I’ll be interviewed by Anne C. Perry, publishing director at Quercus, legendary SF/F editor, and SCOURGE OF MY EXISTENCE. In our decades of collaboration and co-existence, Anne and I have only ‘panelled’ together a couple of times, and this is definitely our first time doing a 1:1 discussion. I predict chaos.

Last December, my digital housecleaning revealed that I had over 3,000 ebooks, a disturbing proportion of which I hadn’t ever read. This has become my de facto reading challenge for 2024.

I’m going more-or-less alphabetically by title, which has made for a delightful randomness of reading. It has been a while since my last update, so I’ll keep these reviews on the shorter side.

Aching God (2018) by Mike Shel: I mentioned this one as one of my 2023 favourites, and that still stands. Sometimes you just want a good ol’ fashioned dungeon crawl with fun characters, snarky banter, and really gooey monsters. Aching God sits rather awkwardly in this ‘challenge’, as I’m very keen to read the next book in the series but not so keen that I’m disrupting the challenge to do so. We’ll see how that turns out. (First read.)

Aces and Eights: The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok (1981) by Loren D Estleman: Wild Bill himself merely cameos at the beginning of what is less a conventional ‘Western’ and more a ‘legal thriller’. Despite that, he’s the most interesting and well-developed character in the book: a central body (pun intended?) that the others orbit around. This is, essentially, a clever way of doing a fictionalised biography, without having to do too much heavy lifting with fact and context. I think the subsidiary action plot could’ve been dropped entirely. (First read.)

Act of Fear (1967) by Dennis Lynds: The debut mystery by a writer that may be more interesting than his book. Dan Fortune is a private eye that came up on the mean streets of Chelsea. While he’s struggled in the worldly sense, he’s found a sense of peace (and a nice girl). This is by contrast with his childhood friend, Andy Pappas, who is now the secret boss of the neighbourhood’s underworld. Fortune investigates a missing boy, which is then linked with a strange mugging, which is then connected to the murder of a beautiful woman. Suddenly Fortune’s small case is a very, very big one. I think there’s a lot going on here, but Lynds links it all together nicely and wraps it up in a way that doesn’t undermine the thematic heft. That said, as much as I love an emo, egocentric protagonist in my detective fiction, Fortune grated on me. (Reread. First read as part of my mystery challenge.)

Across the Dark Water (2021) by Richard Kadrey: Charmingly grim post-apocalyptic stand-alone. A man hires a guide to get him out of the city, so he can find his lost wife. Everyone involved is pretty monstrous (some more literally than others), but is it by necessity or choice? A world that I’d call ‘generically awful’, but it serves its function, as this is more a peripatetic story about two men (and one absent woman) and what it takes to survive. The ending escalates things pretty impressively, but I’d argue that the actual resolution happens a chapter or so earlier. I cared a lot more about the short, sharp relationship between the two men than the broader, off-screen ones, even if they were more ‘significant’ in the scheme of things. (First read.)

After the Wedding (2018) by Courtney Milan: Eloisa James was my first introduction to modern Regency romances, followed very swiftly by Milan. Milan - with the exception of her initial Brothers Sinister series - is a slightly different kettle of fish. She aggressively reclaimed Regencies, and made a notriously non-representative subgenre into something more diverse and inclusive for readers. The Worth stories (this is the second) are part of that effort, and Milan still (somewhat) tries to balance inclusivity and anachronism. As a result, I think it is quietly one of her best. It has an engaging, diverse cast, but they’re not just magically ‘there’ - and in trying to ground and include them contextually, she does justice to the complexities and challenges of the time (and also the genre). It also happens that this is one of my favourite romance tropes (forced marriage → mutual respect → canoodling → love). (Reread.)

All the Bright Places (2015) by Jennifer Niven: A girl who isn’t like other girls meets a boy who is a magical wanderer outcast. They’re both obsessed with death. They’re both struggling, quite badly and obviously, with their mental health. Authority figures are, as in all YA fiction, totally useless, but, hey, this pair is lucky enough to have hijinks to help them. Lots of wandering about and finding the magic of little things and y’know love and shit. It is 378 pages of this shit. I have a pretty low threshold for tolerating books that downplay the importance of therapy and medication. I also think the ending is - to say the least - problematic. The mini-trend of death-cult YA featuring exquisitely weird protagonists snogging their mortality away is something I’m well done with. I absolutely understands this fragile pseudo-philosophy resonates at the same frequency as a certain species of adolescent angst, but when I spot a half-million Goodreads ratings on a book like this just makes me upset. (First read. And last.)

Anyone’s My Name (1953) by Seymour Shubin: Writer noir! Paul is a hack writer (with aspirations) for true crime magazines, who gets a little too close to his cases. It is extremely noiry noir: there’s a tooth-grinding, stomach-churning sense of the inexorable as the noose slowly appears, and then tightens. Like many of its ilk: very good, but could only recommend to a certain type of reader (self-destructive). (First read.)

Anything That Isn’t This (2015) by Chris Priestley: A bleak YA novel in an unnamed, deliberately-abstract, Orwellian secondary world. Frank’s not the easiest protagonist to like: he’s a bit of a jerk, actually. But Priestley plays with that well, and what starts as the ‘special one’ trope is cleverly rug-pulled into ‘actually, you’re just a self-centred knob’… and from there, actual growth begins. There’s an overarching adventure, of course, but Frank becoming less of a pest and more of a person is the real arc here. Priestley also illustrated the book, and my recommendation is to track down a physical copy - my ebook didn’t quite do the art justice. (First read.)

Bethany (2016) by Adam Roberts: I was actually in an argument - on the internet! - about authors attempting Biblical retellings. There’s something, I posited, inherently narcissistic about tackling what is billed as ‘the greatest story every told’ - and one that has been literally analysed, studied, and picked over for thousands of years. It takes a certain immensity of writerly ego to take the suppposed word of God and be like, ‘this needs MY perspective’. And, practically speaking, the amount of research and sensitivity required to get stuck in? Nope.

Of course, some people actually get it right and find an interesting way to freshen up one of the most exhausted stories in all human history. And irony being a thing, as soon as I hit ‘send’ on my argument that people maybe shouldn’t do this, I find this novella by Adam Roberts. A time traveller heads back with the explicit and intended purpose of killing Jesus a second time, and therefore putting his faith - and Christ’s supposed divinity - to the ultimate test. This is a slow burn, requiring the reader’s patience, presumably matching that of the protagonist. There’s a lot of theological and historical name-dropping, but it isn’t necessary to comprehend the book and it’s ultimate moments. Roberts is annoyingly good at this sort of thing. (First read.)

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure (2014) by Laurence Ellsworth: This is great. After reading The Big Book of Science Fiction and editing The Big Book of Cyberpunk, it is clear that I like Big Books and I cannot lie. This one is an absolute hoot. Ellsworth focuses on the Golden Age of swashbuckling, which was quite some time ago - there’s nothing even remotely modern in here. There are swordsmen and pirates and musketeers and rogues and soldiers and even a shockingly blood-thirsty bishop. This would be highly recommended for the content alone. Ellsworth also also doesn’t shy away from using extracts, but they’re all very carefully chosen and stand alone well as self-contained tales. Each story comes with an entertaining, fairly light-touch, biographical introduction, and something that helps place it in an important genre context. His editorial voice is, appropriately enough, humourous and rather joyous - it does a wonderful job carrying the reader from story to story. Basically, this is bang-up editorial work, with Ellsworth and his material combining for a vastly enjoyable read. (First read.)

The Big Sin (1953) by Jack Webb: Terrific mystery. A Jewish homicide detective is spurred (guilted) by an Irish priest into taking a look at the mysterious ‘suicide’ of a showgirl. Things escalate. I’m loathe to call it ‘noir’ or ‘hard-boiled’, as this is, throughout, a very hopeful book - keen to demonstrate the underlying goodness of humanity. There are a lot of baddies, and they’re very bad indeed, but there’s an underpinning belief that people are basically good, as demonstrated by a host of Good (if not Lawful) secondary characters. The dynamic between the two protagonists is thoughtful without being ponderous, and there’s a fair amount of clever - if not unduly explosive - action. (Reread.)

Way too many Billionaire books (The Billionaire’s Fake Fiance, Butt-dialing the Billionaire, Breaking the Billionaire’s Rules, The Billionaire’s Wake-up-call Girl) (2017-2022, inclusive) by Annika Martin: I’ve read this series twice now, and fallen for the same trap both times. The Billionaire’s Wake-up-call Girl is actually pretty good, and somehow convinces me to keep going, and honestly, I should not. I think the issues are as follows… First, the billionaire man (it is, of course, always the dude) gets more and more alpha as the series goes on. Initially grumpy, they become reclusive, chauvinist, and really rather horrible people. That’s not fun. Second, the plots - which start ridiculous - get even more far-fetched. The women in this are a group of very close friends, so, when the first one ends they are, basically, connected to a billionaire of their own. This means Martin has to come up with increasingly far-fetched reasons that each individual woman needs their own billionaire to solve whatever conflict they are facing in their life. It just gets a bit stupid, honestly. Third, and this is connected to the first point, the women grow more and more diminished as the men grow more and more aggressive. They’re all initially defined by their independent spirit and bold attitudes, but across the book they get slowly overpowered by the will of the cranky men. These books try really hard to be cute, but they’re actually not very nice.

I think the series probably bottoms out with Breaking the Billionaire’s Rules, in which our billionaire is essentially Tucker Max - a pick-up artist who creates an entertainment empire based on how to manipulate women. He’s a trash person, and he has - canonically - directly or indirectly contributed to painful moments in the lives of all the female main characters’ friends. The reveal, and frankly, I don’t much care about spoilers here, is that he became a shitty person after his ‘heart was broken’ by the female main character as a teenager (after he dumped her, but whatever). So, y’know, it was the woman’s fault that he became an incel edgelord. Fuck him, fuck this book. I kept reading the series because I was in shock that Martin actually took this road and maybe the next ones would be better, but eh, nope. So if your hot romantic fantasy is being the origin story for Andrew Tate, this is the book for you! (Reread. I don’t know why.)

Blade of the Poisoner (1987) by Douglas Hill: First book in a young adult (middle grade, perhaps) fantasy duology. Set in a secondary world with both magic and ‘talents’ (mutant powers, basically), there are really bad guys ruling everything and also a depleted, but heroic, resistance. Our young hero must join the latter, as he’s in a race against time before a curse takes his own life. This isn’t particularly deep stuff, but Hill’s great at fast-paced, entertaining reads - and writing really creepy scenes. The big battles and the magic powers are actually a bit predictable and underwhelming. Where the book shines is in moments of the strange and disconcerting, like a garden filled entirely with poisonous beasts. Hill also brings the daily ‘grind’ of a quest to life: not the huge milestone moments, but the stress and anxiety of living day by day under trying circumstances. (First read.)

And a few online things as well:

  • This is fun: a weekly read-along of The Big Book of Cyberpunk over on reddit. I’ll keep an eye on it (because of course I will), but won’t stick my oar in. I can’t wait to read what everyone thinks.

  • The future of London transport is looking bright.

  • A collection of spurious correlations. Did you know the number of movies Tom Hanks appears in correlates the the number of special education teachers in Georgia? Or the number of Master’s degrees in Education correlates to US bank failures? Or even that the number of UFO sightings correlates to the number of patents filed? (That one feels less specious and more like the Venusians giving us an occasional kicking.)

  • Cute accelerationism.

[Drinking fountains] are one example of what political scientist Bonnie Honig calls “public things” — things that “may not be fully publicly owned but [are] public insofar as [they] are subject to public oversight or secured for public use.” Honig’s list includes public phones, public universities, public libraries, national parks, roads, radio networks, water treatment plants, and so on. Many public things are utilitarian; they are also interfaces to what economists call public or common goods, like security and education and health care, that ideally are accessible to all without restriction. Our democracy, Honig argues, “is rooted in common love for, antipathy toward, and contestation of public things,” which we then “deliberate about, constellate around, or agonistically contest.”

Who knew the big binary of 2024 would be FOR or AGAINST Taylor Swift? When Taylor started dating Travis Kelce, everyone knew there’d be a backlash from football lovin’ MEN who don’t like FEMALES caring about MAN THINGS. To be fair to NFL fans, that backlash was actually tamer than expected. There are 99 reaons to hate the Chiefs; Kelce’s hot girlfriend barely cracks the top twenty.

But, because in 2024, anything even mildly polarising turns into a holy war, the anti-Taylor war cry has been picked up by Trump, FOX News, MAGA creepers, and, of course, the manosphere.

My hunch is that this was a very, very bad fight to pick. Swift is a billionaire with an entrenched fanbase and a proven ability to make business happen on her own terms.

Ironically, she’s not unlike Trump in that regard: all the conventional methods of ‘bringing her down’ simply won’t apply. Like Trump, Swift has her own ‘base’. She’s also popular with demographics that might not be naturally politically active, meaning MAGA could be - amusingly enough - creating an effective voter turnout campaign.

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