reading reccos

For the last year or so, shamefully, I’ve done hardly any reading for pleasure. I don’t quite know why. (Black depression. Ssshhh.) Nearly all the fiction I’ve read has been unpublished, either my own—a matter for despair, usually, although a recent reread of The Unexpected Thing in advance of this summer’s revision proved mostly delightful—or other writers’ MSs. Since the latter tend to be projects undertaken for filthy lucre, whether editing, proofreading, or layout, pleasure isn’t guaranteed to enter into it.

I would visit the local public library every month or so. It’s right near the post office where I pick up my mail. I’d investigate the new arrivals, often enough bring two or three home. Then find reasons not to read them. The prose was clumsy. The characters didn’t appeal. The world building (if the book was fantasy or science fiction) didn’t convince. I was too tired or depressed. I had (told myself I had) too much work even to open them up before the due date.

It’s something I’m trying to change. As I roam the web, I’ve been making note of new releases that look promising and actually writing the titles down instead of trusting to notoriously poor memory. Rhode Island’s public libraries have an integrated on-line catalogue and easy statewide interlibrary loan, wondrous things that mean one doesn’t have to depend on the tastes of a single institution’s selection committee. Most of the titles on my list have not yet appeared in the catalogue but I run my searches now and then, place my requests.

Week before last, the first request made under the new order came through. A young-adult science fiction novel, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, March 2013).

This is a fine novel, I think, deserving of the wide praise it’s received. At any rate, I read two thirds of it in one sitting—putting aside paying work to do so—and expect it will reward rereading. I have a few minor reservations about the worldbuilding and voice, and was mildly disappointed to recognize that it promises to be first in a series (when did standalone SF and fantasy novels become unviable?) but not disastrously so: the novel has a shape of its own, a satisfying conclusion.

Four-hundred-some years after an apocalyptic war and nuclear winter, vast self-enclosed cities dot the globe like high-tech jewels, most beautiful among them Palmares Três in what used to be northeastern Brazil. Here, for reasons that almost make sense, the powers have reinvented the (hypothetical) ancient institution of the Year King, ceremoniously wed by the queen who will, twelve months later, cut his throat in sacrifice to the city’s continued prosperity and her own legitimacy.

Our hero, June, a precocious multimedia artist, her bestie Gil, and the new Summer King Enki* will disrupt the self-satisfied complacence, rigid social stratification, and smug isolationism of Palmares Três through acts of guerrilla art and more overt rebellion, until at year’s end Enki’s predestined sacrifice reveals the parallel sacrifices Gil and June must endure.

* Parenthetically, it fascinates me that not one of the notices, reviews, or interviews I’ve encountered makes note of the novel’s not so subtly acknowledged debt to the ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic.

The other novel I’d like to bring to your attention came to me via work assignment—proofreading first, then layout and design—but my pleasure in it was not diminished by that happenstance. Death by Silver by Melissa Scott & Amy Griswold will be released by Lethe Press in a few weeks (official pub date 25 May) and you should pre-order it right away. Look at that cover art! Another triumph by Ben Baldwin.

While I’m not familiar with her collaborator on this novel, my admiration for the work of Melissa Scott, solo and otherwise, is longstanding. I’ve been following her since discovering Burning Bright (Tor, 1993) at Boston Public Library twenty years ago. Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel (Heinemann, 1997) remains the most fertile and sensible such work I’ve yet to encounter.

With regard to Death by Silver, a lovely, lovely novel, I’ll simply direct you to this review by the perspicacious Hilcia at her Impressions…of a Reader blog, and repeat the blurb I was proud to provide:

This is not the Victorian London you think you know. In Death by Silver, Scott and Griswold have created an eerily familiar world lit by magic of an eminently practical—and occasionally murderous—sort, and a story that gives equal weight to meticulous detection, twisty red herrings, thrilling adventure, and an unconventional, stiff-upper-lip romance. I love this book. Do yourself the favor of making the acquaintance of metaphysician Ned Mathey and private detective Julian Lynes…then beg Scott and Griswold (as I do) for a sequel.

And an unveiling. It’s undetermined when my dear friend/boss/publisher Steve Berman’s new collection will actually be released—he has three stories yet to write, he says, and illustrators to wrangle—but within the last little while he decided on its title and asked me to mock up a front cover.

Steve Berman: Red Caps
photo: Anonymous / typography & design: Alex Jeffers

Steve would not thank me for encouraging you to visit the contact page on his website and badger him to complete those three stories…so I won’t. I badger him quite enough myself—have been badgering him since he first started talking about this book some three years ago. I’ve read (sometimes before anybody else in the whole damn world) most if not all of the completed stories he plans to include, seen many of the proposed illustrations, and anticipate with great impatience putting the book together for him—and you, and me—and finally holding a copy in my hands. It’s going to be beautiful and heartbreaking.

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