I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
Colleen Danzig is an aspiring writer of Lovecraftian fiction. While attending the biggest gathering for Lovecraftian literary types: The Summer Tentacular in Providence, Rhode Island, she finds the hardcore fans more than a little off-putting. When her roommate–a widely admired and equally despised writer named Panossian–is murdered and his face surgically removed, Colleen finds that she is the only one who seems to care about Panossian’s death. Deciding to start her own investigation, she delves into the underbelly of the Lovecraftian fandom, a place where racism and sexism merge with mystical thinking, and more than one convention goer seems to be searching for a book bound in human skin . . .
This is a meta-fiction, a Lovecraft book about Lovecraft folks. There are no cosmic horrors here, though, just the banal horror of truly terrible people. I do like the split narrative between the well-meaning and frustrated Colleen and the dead, decomposing, but still conscious Panossian, which did give the book a touch of Lovecraftian horror. the tone of the book is bitter and snarky, focusing on the trouble that arises when you have too many socially-backward folks in one place. Despite the occasionally sour-grapes-esque tone, Mamatas does bring forward some legitimate problems both with Lovecraft himself and with a subset of his fans (see previous: racism, sexism, etc.).
The plot of the book stumbles at times, switching viewpoints or segueing with little warning. In addition, the various secondary characters tend to be a bit one dimensional, which occasionally makes it difficult to keep these players straight.
The book is quite funny at times, but I would recommend it more for the serious Lovecraft fan, and not a casual reader.
Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison
This is the ninth book in Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series. Therefore, there will probably be spoilers for the previous books in this review. Caveat: I haven’t read the previous book in the series, but the good news is that this book can be read as a stand-alone, without having read the previous novels.
We find our hero, Shan Tao Yun, reluctantly acting as the constable of tiny Yangkar village in Tibet. His appointment more a punishment than an honor, Shan does his best to toe the party line while remaining sympathetic to the native Tibetans under his jurisdiction. When a military convoy stops in town with a dozen political prisoners and an investigator from the Public Security Bureau in tow, Shan braces himself for trouble. Unfortunately, he has no idea just how bad things can get. When an elderly nun is assaulted and local herders begin talking of “the dead walking” Shan heads into the mountainous terrain to investigate and finds something that defies explanation: an ancient tomb with not one, but three bodies inside – the mummified body of a Tibetan saint, the fifty-year-old corpse of a Chinese soldier, and the days old body of an American. With the Public Security Bureau and the army both digging into the town’s affairs, the situation becomes extremely complicated. Shan must find a way to solve the crimes without getting thrown back in prison or being executed.
This was certainly an interesting mystery. Pattison, while an American author, is a world traveler, and has infused the book with his love of Tibet and his knowledge of the conquest of that country by the People’s Republic of China. The intricacies (and atrocities) of politics between Tibet and China are on full display and impact most every aspect of the plot. Inspector Shan is a wonderful protagonist, vividly realized as a man trying his best to walk the tightrope between two very different worlds. The paranoia and precariousness of his situation are palpable throughout the book.
As I said before, this book works well as a stand-alone novel, but I would imagine you get a bit more out of it if you’ve read the previous books. Fans of the series will likely enjoy this book. I would also recommend it to mystery lovers and those into international intrigue.
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Skeleton God will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.
Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
This poetic book is told in a series of interconnected vignettes. As an apartment building succumbs to fire, the reader visits each resident in turn, from a neurosurgeon to a priest, a young boy to a naturalist. With each chapter, we learn a little bit about each tenant, their pasts, futures, hopes, and dreams.
The interconnectedness of each vignette is not immediately obvious, but as you read further and further on, you begin to experience small niggles at the back of your brain, a sense of deja vu. Each chapter teases out a little bit more about the nature of memory and the fragility of the self.
This synopsis is a bit vague, and I apologize. But the nature of the book makes it hard to summarize succinctly without spoiling the book. Let me tell you instead that the book is extraordinarily well crafted. Layers of meaning underlie each chapter, and the nuance of words and names are well done. The writing style is on the poetic side, but not dense.
This book is not at all what I typically read, but it was a lovely trip outside of my comfort zone. I really had no idea what to expect when I opened the cover, but I’m incredibly glad that I took the time. I think most people who enjoy books that require some extra thought will enjoy this book.
An advance copy of this book was provided via a Powell’s Indiespensable book box (seriously, you need to subscribe). Night of Fire will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.
Human Acts by Han Kang
I’m going to say off the bat that I loved this book. I was a fan of The Vegetarian, another of Han Kang’s books (you can read my review of this book here), but Human Acts was simply incredible.
The plot is centered around the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea (the author’s hometown) in 1980. Protesting against the authoritarian South Korean government, civilians and military clashed in the small town in May of 1980, and several hundred people were killed (official estimates on the death toll vary). In the midst if this, Han Kang focuses on one boy, Dong ho, a fifteen year old student caught up in the middle of the violence.
Through the chapters, we hear from many people, all who have lost something to this massacre. As the story moves forward in time, we see how the living and the dead are still haunted by what took place in the square at Gwangju, and how the scars of the souls involved (both the human souls and the soul of South Korea itself) never really heal completely.
The book is wrenching. The stark horror of the story is made all the more immediate by the familiarity of the author with the subject matter. Han Kang grew up in Gwangju, and while she wasn’t living there when the massacre took place, friends, family, and neighbors were drawn into the conflict. Many of the chapters in this book were drawn from survivors’ accounts written up after the fact.
This book is a difficult read, more due to the subject matter than the language (Deborah Smith did a wonderful job translating). But I would recommend this book to just about everyone. With all the unrest in the world today, sometimes we need to be reminded that such things have happened in the past, and so we must be doubly vigilant to prevent them from occurring in the future.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Human Acts will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.