Daily Reads: 8 December 2014

Daily Reads

Morning all! I’ve got some particularly good stuff for you today.

Tim Parks thinks we should be writing in our books with pens. We tend to treat the written word as sacred, he says, and it impairs our ability to think critically about what we’re reading and engage with it. He finds that his students perform much better after he’s got them reading with a pen in hand. I think Parks had classic and literary fiction in mind here (the ‘important’, intimidatingly authoritative stuff) but it’s still worth thinking about.

As a fairly critical reviewer, I’m already on Parks’s side. I take loads of notes on my Kindle, and I pencil notes in my print copies. I’m still wary of the pen though. I understand his point – the permanency of the ink gives the pen greater authority, thereby giving you more authority, and so encouraging you to think more critically. But these days my print copies are among my most valuable books (signed, limited edition, hardcover), and so I don’t want to write in them with a pen any more than I want my cat to scratch an expensive piece of furniture. I might be willing to try it on a cheap paperback, but I sometimes I lend, sell or give my books away, and the recipient probably wouldn’t appreciate comments in ink.

Still, I appreciate the sentiment of this article. Even though I already leave comments and underline/highlight passages, I love how Parks is encouraging even more – 3-4 comments on every page, underlining everything you love or hate, everything that moves you in some way. It’s not about simply criticising texts, but understanding and engaging with them. When re-reading you could see how your feelings might have changed over the years. I also think that more notes are always better than less for review purposes. Most importantly, more notes can help me learn more about fiction with more in-depth dialogue. What works, what doesn’t, why do I feel the way I do, how could this be better?

Now to pick a book to sacrifice to my pen…

Robert Jackson Bennett reviews Nexus by Ramez Naam over at The Book Smugglers. I’ve never paid that much attention to this book (not for any real reason other than being unable to take note of everything), but Bennett makes it sound absolutely brilliant. I’m totally sold.

Charles Stross laments the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future sf. If a story is set a few centuries in the future, how could a contemporary “Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to” possibly be a universal norm? As he points out, even in “in the context of our own history, we are aliens”. If you travelled back even a century in time, you’d be totally lost, so it’s unlikely you’d feel at home four centuries into the future. Granted, implausibly familiar societies are easier on writers and readers, but Stross makes a good argument for the harder option. Great food for thought for sf writers and readers.

Daily Reads is my feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments 🙂

Short Fiction Review: January 2013

Last year I started reading short fiction regularly, following magazines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I read and reviewed a few anthologies – Kabu Kabu by Nnedi OkoraforThe Color Master by Aimee Bender, and Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran, to name my favourites. Outside of the anthologies however, I didn’t review or even mention what I’d read on on my blog, so I thought I’d start a feature for it.

I’ll use Short Fiction Review to share my favourite short stories for the month or according to a theme, with a brief review or recommendation. It won’t necessarily be stories published that month, just whatever I happened to read. Most of them will be stories available for free online, since I’ll most likely write reviews for any anthologies I read. I’ll try to read all the award-nominated stuff as well.

Anyway, here are my favourites for January 2013:

Equoid by Charles Stross“Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com)
I read this just because I liked the artwork. I had no idea what it was about except, obviously, that it was some kind of horror story with unicorns. However, these unicorns are not cute or noble. They’re extremely fucking scary carnivorous tentacled monsters that gave HP Lovecraft nightmares he would never escape.

The narrator, Bob Howard works for a secret government agency called The Laundry, and is annoyed to be sent to “Ruralshire” to investigate a unicorn infestation. His brief comes in the form of letters written by HP Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, describing a terrifying encounter he had with a unicorn when he was 14. Bob assumes it’s some kind of joke but he’s horribly, nightmarishly wrong.

It’s not all tentacles and gore though – “Equoid” has mystery, action, and lots of humour (some of which comes from Howard’s annoyance with Lovecraft’s purple prose and inability to just get to the point). Although the story is standalone, it’s part of Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, which I am now very keen to read. The first book is The Atrocity Archives.

If you’d prefer to read Equoid on your Kindle, you can buy the short story on Amazon, or get it for free in Tor.com’s best-of anthology for 2013.

“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan (Nightmare Magazine)

I don’t know if I can really ‘like’ a story as bleak as this, but it certainly makes a strong impression. I won’t be able to think of Hansel and Gretel without recalling Lanagan’s version. Hers is set several years after the siblings escaped the witch, who is known as the mudwife. Gretel – or rather, Kirtle – is absent and Hansel is a sullen, damaged teenager with a habit of eating dirt (no cottage made of gingerbread and sweets in this horror story). Shortly after escaping the witch, Hansel was taken by a paedophile named Grinnan, who both rapes him and cares for him. They get by through petty thievery, and end up at the mudwife’s cottage. Grinnan – apparently looking for some variety – is hoping to get into her bed.

Hansel is just disgusted, by sex, and by people. It’s not hard to understand why. Fairytales don’t get much darker than this. One of the best stories I’ve read at Nightmare Magazine.

“Ghost Days” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine)

On a lighter and more touching note is “Ghost Days” by Ken Liu. His writing amazes me – it seems like his stories never fail to strike an emotional chord, even when the story itself is not that memorable (although most are). He often tackles the tension between moving into the future while trying to hold on to the past. This story does that by following an object across three periods and places – a post-human colony on another planet in 2313, a highschool Halloween dance in Connecticut 1989, and Hong Kong in 1905.

Each of the characters is a young person frustrated by the clash between past and present. On Nova Pacifica, where the human colonists have genetically modified their children to survive on the alien planet, Ona doesn’t understand why she needs to learn about Earth history when she has much more in common with the alien planet. In 1989, Fred Ho, a Chinese immigrant, is trying to be as American as he possibly can while knowing that he’ll never fit in. In 1905, William has just returned to Hong Kong after getting an expensive education in England, and wishes his father would stop calling him Jyu-zung and acting like a villager. As always, Liu handles his characters difficult relationships with past, present, culture, and change beautifully.