Books Read 2023
Bourbon Penn 31 Ed. Erik Secker (journal/ anthology)
Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 Roger Crowley (history)
Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr (anthology)
This Immortal Roger Zelazny
Palm Sunday Kurt Vonnegut (memoir/collection)
The Physiognomy Jeffrey Ford
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday Saad Z. Hossain (novella)
Fireheart Tiger Aliette de Bodard (novella)
Lessons Ian McEwan
Not So Much, Said the Cat Michael Swanwick (collection)
Beggars in Spain Nancy Cress (novella)
Bourbon Penn 26 Ed. Erik Secker (journal/ anthology)
The Passenger Cormac McCarthy
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales Ed. Kate Bernheimer (anthology)
Give Me Your Heart Joyce Carol Oates (collection)
Tender is the Night F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Factory Witches of Lowell C.S. Malerich (novella)
Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain Christopher Merrill (memoir/expository)
Yellowcake Summer Guy Salvidge
Asimov’s Science Fiction September/October 2018 Ed Sheila Williams (journal/magazine)
High Times in the Low Parliament Kelly Robson (novella)
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain Nghi Vo (novella)
Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party Graham Greene (novella)
The Porcupine Julian Barnes (novella)
The Ghosts of Sherwood Carrie Vaughn (novella)
Coffee, Sex & Health: A History of Anti-Coffee Crusaders and Sexual Hysteria Ian Bersten (history)
Doctor Rat William Kotzwinkle
I spent most of the year novellaing. I’ve always been a fan of the form, so one day I rocked up at Stephens Books in Perth and bought all the Tor novellas he had on offer. Lucky for me, all read so far have been entertaining.
On the short story front, I’ve read two editions of Bourbon Penn (26 & 31) and four stories from One Story; both publish the longer version of short stories to an excellent standard (Asimov’s also had many wonderful longer stories). Although, I’m a proud lifelong subscriber to Overland Literary Journal and a fan, I do wish they’d include a few longer fictional pieces. In fact, Australia’s general word limits in literary journals are creating a false representation of the short story at a national level, which concerns me.
This list of standout reads this year will be short due to time and life parameters. Almost all the books I read over the course of the year are worth reading, with only one I’d warn readers to stay well clear of.
Publishing Front: I had ‘An ‘80s Tenement Love Story’ published in Bourbon Penn 31. Bourbon Penn is a delightful place to have another story in. I can honestly say that all the accompanying stories have more than just merit, so to have a 30 odd pager in Bourbon Penn for the second time is a true privilege.
The curator of Auslit sent a lovely uplifting message with four simple words: "I loved this one", which made my day as I have no expectations that Auslit ever read my work with their enormous role.
Erik Secker and the Bourbon Penn team do a fabulous job supporting literature and genre, and that joyous area in which the pair meet. Bourbon Penn is the kind of product that suits my own reading taste to a tee. The stories are layered, often meta, always entertaining, but also sublime in terms of the aesthetics of either a courageous narrative voice or controlled prose.
Most Enjoyable Reads
I’m savagely limiting myself to one per genre, which is incredibly unfair on so many great books. I am also keeping it short this year too in terms of commentary.
History: Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453 by Roger Crowley
Crowley's work is clearly reminiscent of Runciman’s classic The Fall of Constantinople 1453, and like the Runciman predecessor, Crowly explores the huge siege of a once glorious city, and the small but valiant defence provided by those dying embers of the ‘New Rome’. The siege has ignited the imaginations of writers and readers for hundreds of years. Crowley ensures we understand its international elements and significance, and the fact that this siege had it all: land, maritime, and even underground elements, along with two inspirational leaders of the era in Constantine Palaiologos, and Mehmet, along with unheralded military weaponry. The event itself was a crucial turning point in history with the clear establishment of the Ottomans as a true superpower not only in The Middle East, but also in Europe, along with the demise of the Byzantines; many of who had already fled en masse to the Greek quarter in Venice along with Southern Italy, whereby they, in turn, provided a major impetus for The Renaissance. And there is plenty of irony in the Greek presence in Venice as no place did more damage to Constantinople than Venice itself with its egregious sacking of the city; a sacking from which Constantinople never recovered from.
Like Runciman before him, Crowley manages to focus on the narratives of the siege, rather than a raw bludgeoning of endless details. And it is Crowley’s capturing of these individual stories within the scope of the overall larger narrative, which make it a delight.
Anthology: Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr
Aurum: A Golden Anthology of Original Australian Fantasy Ed. Russell B. Farr (anthology) is made up of novelettes or novellas, depending on where you believe the arbitrary cut-off is. Each one of these novelettes is an entertaining read. Numerous were in my previous list of best stories read for the year. A couple of works draw on more traditional tropes, which I have no problem with as the execution is superb, while others are innovative and experimental in nature. But I admired each and every work. A consistently superb anthology.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales Ed. Kate Bernheimer is also excellent. The anthology is incredibly eclectic with many wonderfully written stories.
Novel: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
This novel was awarded the Hugo along with Dune in 1966 in what was a tied place. And while Dune went on to become an iconic cult classic for many SF fans, the innovative, albeit chaotic, This Immortal, fell into relative obscurity.
This was not the 'best' read of the year, but for a variety of reasons, I found it the most enjoyable. In This Immortal, post-apocalyptic Earth is in danger of completely collapsing, and it’s now a perilous tourist resort for blue Vegans (an alien people, not entirely different from today’s equivalent…). The hero of the story, Conrad Nomikos, is a mysterious survivor with a long history in the Aegean. He claims he is a kallikantzaros but he is an anthropomorph. But perhaps Conrad is even more than a kallikantzaros, and yesterday’s Pan? As a reader you are unsure at times as to whose side Conrad belongs to, but you can’t help but barrack for Conrad Nomikos, whose Greek island home is destroyed early on in the story along with his lover. Conrad is typical of a Zelazny hero: self-deprecating, cunning and elusive, irreverent, but also laden with hidden powers.
Not all will enjoy This Immortal, but Zelazny’s mish-mash of modern Greek folktale combined with Classical Greek mythology, combined again and with his own zany sci-fi world building is a treat. Zelazny also really understood the Greek cultural elements of the 1960s.
This Immortal will never enjoy the legendary status of Zelazny’s far more controlled Lord of Light, or the adventurous swashbuckling brilliance of The Chronicles of Amber work. Rather, This Immortal is more of a madcap ride through a chaotic wilderness. The seemingly unplanned adventure makes it a compelling read. Perhaps at the time of reading it, I was after something that was less polished, not superbly crafted, but raw and ambitious.
The subversive nature and courage of Conrad is also refreshing when compared to many of today’s almost apologetic heroes. I’ll confess that Dune has dated far less, yet part of the joy of This Immortal is that it has dated to a ridiculous extent. The unexpected unplanned nature of This Immortal is a reward in itself, especially when compared to the modern era of celebrating carefully sculpted works. The climax and lead up in This Immortal is all fairly psychotic.
This Immortal will undoubtedly divide readers, especially if they are going in with contemporary expectations of what good literature is. Characters in This Immortal come and go, scenes and enemies change without an abundance of logic, and there is also an expectation that you, as a reader, will have mountains of cultural capital, especially regarding modern and ancient Greece. All AOK with me, but be warned…
If I were to be objective, I’d clearly state that this novel is stuck in a past era, but, for me at least, that made it refreshing. Although a personal highlight, I’ll provide a final caveat: unless you’re a time traveling sci-fi geek and lover of mythology, who can also deal with dated worlds and characters and random rolls, you may want to avoid This Immortal. And although I enjoyed it that’s a pretty specific caveat…
Memoir-collection Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut
Like This Immortal, this is another text that will polarise readers. Some parts delight more than others, but as always, Vonnegut’s honesty and wit and conversational honesty won me over.
Vonnegut often uniquely manipulated and blended genre, and Palm Sunday is a wonderful example of this. It contains a bizarre collage of family histories, speeches, reflections on works, reflections on his marriages, reflections on his parents, reflections on his home life and children, stories of his own, thoughts on mental health and family, praise of creative types, letters, and even essays and… the list goes on. And a bit like Zelazny’s aforementioned work, at times Palm Sunday appears to have the structure of a randomly rolled die.
So, unless you’re a true fan like me, this may disappoint. Vonnegut meanders all over the place with a recklessness in a structural sense. But for a Vonnegut fan, the sentiment and quirkiness will win readers over, but for others, the sporadic, disconnected nature of the text and its many imperfections, will be just that, an imperfect disordered rambling discourse.
Yet, circling back to the fans, for those who like to sit back and hear Vonnegut chat away and digress all over the place, this will be a treasure chest.
For me, Vonnegut is a celebrated rarity: a truly hopeful cynic. Irony abounds…
Many came close, but in the end I went with zany The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain.
After millennia, the mighty Djinn, Melek Ahmar the Lord of Tuesday, is awoken by a cunning retired Gurkha, Bhan Gurung. But those in the nearby city of Kathmandu have forgotten the mystic might of Melek Ahmar. The world Gurung returns Melek to has been ravaged by climate change, and myriad of other disasters. But nanotechnology and microclimates make Kathmandu inhabitable. Karma, the supreme ruler of Kathmandu, is an algorithm of sorts, who supposedly gives out points to its good citizens. Melek wants an old fashioned violent upheaval but modern humans are quite apathetic to his cause, plus the city’s tame inhabitants weirdly don’t share the same passion he has towards old fashioned boozing and brawling. The cunning puppet master, Bhan Gurung, has his own motives for keeping Melek’s outdated egomaniacal spirit alight and firing.
This is simply a fun read, blending the fantasy of Arabian Nights with nano-sci-fi-technology, all in a tale of vengeance that rivals Alexandre Dumas, but at a quarter of the length. The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday is a genre-blending mish-mash of entertainment.
Collection: Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick
Joyce Carol Oates’ Give Me Your Heart contains numerous superb stories, but the bleak overall thematic nature offers little in terms of hope, so Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick is the collection pick this year as the tone and nature of the stories allow for more versatility, and there is also a dose of humour, which can make any text more meaningful and rewarding. I find that Swanwick even at his worst is still a good read, which speaks volumes in itself. As expected, Swanwick has produced an amusing and innovative collection of stories here. It’s nice to know that there’s a writer like Swanwick around who you can turn to whenever you’re in the need for a good short read.
Hope you all have a happy and meaningful and healthy year with plenty of good reads!