The 2021 Reading List: March

Since one of my writing goals was also to read more, I thought it would help to keep track of what I knocked off Mount Tsundoku. Here’s as good a place as any to post what I’ve read to keep me honest, and what I thought of each book immediately after finishing.

Back in 2020 I decided to be a little more systematic about my reading plans. I started putting an actual to-read pile to stack on the nightstand and limited the stack to five books, which seemed doable for the month. Occasionally comics and graphic novels or roleplaying games jump the queue, but I typically tried to get through the pile in the order I stacked them. I also used this strategy to try and diversify my reading. The goal was for each to-read pile to contain at least one book by a BIPOC or LGBTQ2S+ author, one book by a woman, one non-fiction book, and one book by an author I know personally.

Here’s what was on the to-read stack in February. I almost cleared them all, despite it taking me a few extra days to finish January’s pile!

The February 2021 to-read pile: Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite, City of Ghosts by J.H. Moncrieff, The Break by Katherena Vermette, Rings of Anubis by E. Catherine Tobler, and The Wave by Susan Casey.

The Wave by Susan Casey: I really enjoyed this one. I was expecting a bit more of the scientist point of view than the surfer point of view, but maybe that’s what made the book so engaging. You can feel a little bit of the ocean’s power while you’re reading it, and it brought back some happy memories of my first time swimming in the ocean (and made me even happier that I wasn’t dealing with fifty foot waves).

The to-read stack for March has six books again, because reading The Wave made me want to revisit Fluke.

March 2021 to-read stack: Fluke by Christopher Moore, The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris, Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite, Fragment by Craig Russell, Scion of the Fox by S.M. Beiko, The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland.

Fluke by Christopher Moore: A reread of one of my favourite Christopher Moore books to pair with The Wave (both have sections in Hawaii, and I don’t like reading non-fiction before bed). What worked for me in the past mostly still works for me, and what bugged me back in 2002 (yikes) when I first read it, still does, but I really enjoyed revisiting it, especially juxtaposing it with The Wave.

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and the timing synched up nicely with my nearing the end of a reading stack and a friend saying they’d just finished the book, and enjoyed it. This is the first read not to come from my own stacks in ages. A very enjoyable, and at times, gross, book. I’ve never been more thankful to not have been alive during the Victorian Age. Fitzharris does an amazing job of conveying the stink and squalor of the period. I’d definitely read more science/medical history from her, depending on the topic.

Batman Grendel Vol. 1: Devil’s Riddle by Matt Wagner:

Grendel Batman Vol. 2: Devil’s Masque by Matt Wagner:

Continuing my graphic novel (and my Matt Wagner) rereads. Oh man. I forgot how much I loved Wagner’s art in these two. And how dense every page is. I’d love to see a deluxe edition with a larger trim size that combines the two volumes and showcases Wagner’s page layouts, but I realize that’s not likely to happen. Anytime comic world’s crossed over in my youth was an exciting time, and having some fan arguments about who would best who portrayed was quite the treat (and usually led to more arguments). Grendel makes a great foil for Batman, and could easily sidle into Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Or vice versa. The contrasting portrayals of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Grendel/Hunter Rose make it. Wagner’s art in this series reminds me of David Mazzucchelli’s art in Batman: Year One.

Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite: Another fantastic culinary fiction read with some crime overtones. I think I liked Liquor better, as the freshness and rawness of Ricky and G-Man trying to get their titular restaurant off the ground was a bit more engaging than some of their trials maintaining it, but I love the characters and Brite’s writing, so I’m sure I’ll be adding Prime to my to-read stack soon.

Justice Riders by Chuck Dixon, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Lee Loughridge: Another graphic novel reread. I think this was my first experience with the art of J.H. Williams III. I’ve always been a sucker for superheroes in the Wild West. This one mostly held up, but I kind of wish that a different assortment of heroes had been chosen to recast. I would’ve loved to have seen Zatanna, Black Canary, or Hawkwoman in the mix. Most of the Wild West takes I enjoyed, but I found the chemistry between Blue Beetle and Booster Gold to be lacking, or at least, not to my tastes, missing some of the Justice League International camaraderie.

Fragment by Craig Russell: I loved Russell’s previous work, Black Bottle Man, even saw it performed as a play. Continuing my water-themed reads, this book has a whale narrator, among the characters reacting to an Antarctic ice shelf the size of a country calving away and causing earthshaking changes to the world we know. I enjoyed Fragment quite a bit, although I think I still prefer Black Bottle Man, which is a bit more in wheelhouse, I’m looking forward to what he comes up with next.

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert: Another graphic novel reread. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, and while I used to really enjoy how Gaiman weaved the Roanoke colony history and legend into this time-displaced Marvel universe, the story doesn’t hold up for me anymore. Kubert’s a fine artist, but his work as never really been to my taste. Glad I reread it before I let it go off to a new home, however.

Scion of the Fox by S.M. Beiko: The first book in Beiko’s The Realms of Ancient trilogy. Sam is an excellent friend and writer. Full disclosure that she was also my editor on Graveyard Mind. Scion of the Fox has an incredibly vivid start. I was reminded after finishing reading the opening that the first time I encountered it was when she read it aloud at an event on her phone and I was livetweeting her reading and tagging her and almost made her drop her phone/murder me. Great worldbuilding, and very evocative prose. I don’t know if it’s of interest to her, but some of the passages made me long for a Beiko-written horror story.

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume One by Grant Morrison, J.H. Williams III, Simone Bianchi, Cameron Stewart, Ryan Sook, Frazer Irving, Mick Gray:

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume Two by Grant Morrison, Simone Bianchi, Cameron Stewart, Ryan Sook, Frazer Irving, Mick Gray:

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume Three by Grant Morrison, Ryan Sook & Mick Gray, Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette & Serge Lapointe, Doug Mahnke, Billy Dallas Patton & Michael Bair, Freddie Williams III:

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume Four by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, Freddie E. WIlliams II, Yanick Paquette, J.H. Williams III, Serge Lapointe:

Another Graphic Novel series reread. Grant Morrison’s attempt to revitalize a number of minor or mostly forgotten characters in the DC stable through seven individual limited series, that when read together also told a larger story. To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Morrison’s work, but this series was always one that worked for me.

Volume One has an introductory issue, and features The Shining Knight, Guardian, Zatanna, and Klarion the Witchboy. I love all the artists in this volume. I’m not sure I really dig Morrison’s take on Zatanna who is probably my favourite DC character, but the Ryan Sook art makes up for that. Volume Two continues The Shining Knight, Guardian, Zatanna, and Klarion the Witchboy. Volume Three concludes Klarion the Witchboy, Zatanna, and introduces Mister Miracle, The Bulleteer, and Frankenstein. Volume Four concludes Frankenstein, Mister Miracle, and Zatanna, and has a special outro issue that resolves the entire series. I loved The Shining Knight and Frankenstein series. Bulleteer and Zatanna were a mixed bag. Zatanna has always been one of my favourite DC characters, but I didn’t care for Morrison’s take on her, even if Ryan Sook’s art was great in that series. Where I liked the story on Bulleteer, the art got a little too cheesecake for me and felt exploitative. Yanick Paquette draws some beautiful women, but I think I preferred his art on Swamp Thing. The art for Klarion was gorgeous, but the character doesn’t do anything for me. I think Mister Miracle suffered from losing Pasqual Ferry on art in the first issue, the other artists didn’t capture the character as well, but then, I’ve never really cared for the Jack Kirby related 4th World characters, other than Darkseid as a villain.

I don’t think Morrison’s goals were met here, as none of his takes, beyond Frankenstein, who eventually got a series in DC’s New 52 relaunch, seemed to long survive the series. In the end, I was glad I reread it, but I’m also happy to let it go. I won’t be keeping it in the collection.

Spellfire by Ed Greenwood: A Dungeons & Dragons nostalgia reread snatched from a local “little free library.” I didn’t really enjoy it back when I first read it and was obsessed with the Forgotten Realms, and yet I always came back to it. While younger me didn’t like the story or the character of Elminster, I loved the banter of the Knights of Myth Drannor, who play a minor but significant role. As an adult, and a writer, I still have a number of issues with the story and pacing. For one, I completely forgot how randy this book was, and I still love the Knights of Myth Drannor, who if nothing else, feel like they come straight off the game table. It reminds me that the more the D&D novels became more traditional fantasy novels, with a single protagonist instead of an “adventuring party”, the less they reflected the game to me, and the less I enjoyed them.

I’ve decided to start making better use of my local libraries resources, so depending on when my holds arrive, it may involve shuffling my to-read stacks, but I am excited! My old hometown library got tons of use from me when I was growing up. Here’s my first library haul:

First Library Haul: Trejo’s Tacos by Danny Trejo, Invincible Ultimate Collection Vol. 6 by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley & Cory Walker, Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios, X-Men Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman & Leinil Francis Yu& R.B. Silva & Matteo Buffagni, New Mutants Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman & Rod Reis, and movie night choice, Detective Pikachu!

X-Men Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Francis Yu, R.B. Silva, Matteo Buffagni: Finally checking this out. I’m not sure if I like Hickman’s take yet, or that it’s what I want out of an X-Men story, but I am curious where it goes. Hickman seems to be playing with all the X-Men toys: Starjammers, Krakoa, Apocalypse, original and new X-Men, so that’s kind of neat. I haven’t seriously followed X-Men since Chris Claremont stopped writing them, I read a few of the major runs since then, but it was only a dip in here and there. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine & the X-Men was the last run I really enjoyed. For years, it’s felt like the X-verse was such a vast part of Marvel that you could follow it, or the rest, but not both. Maybe just me. I’m glad I’m getting these from the library, in any event.

New Mutants Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman & Rod Reis: Very different art style from X-Men, almost enjoyed it more than the main book, largely due to the awesome narration from Sunspot.

Pretty Deadly Vol. 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios: I love a good weird western comic. Beautiful art. Can’t wait to read more.

Invincible Ultimate Collection Vol 6 by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, & Cory Walker: I really enjoy the Invincible comics. Probably one of my favourite modern superhero launches. It probably helps having the continuity of creators that being an creator owned book allows. You rarely see Marvel or DC writers and artists spend so long developing characters. The new cartoon based on the series is looking fun too.

X-Force Vol. 1 by Benjamin Percy, Joshua Cassara, & Steven Segovia: Professor Xavier is dead. Again. Percy does some interesting stuff with it, and more of the mystery of what’s going on on Krakoa begins to unravel. The art suits the story well. Strikeforce-style black ops X-men comics still not something I particularly want though.

Fallen Angels Vol. 1 by Bryan Hill, Szymon Kudranski, & Frank D’Armata: Probably my least favourite book in the new X-Men storyline. Nothing technically wrong with it, but the characters of Cable, Psylocke, and X-23 have never really been my jam.

The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara (with Susan McClelland): Tough read, simply told, about a survivor of violence in Sierra Leone. I didn’t know much about the conflict in Sierra Leone and its aftermath, and The Bite of the Mango obviously focuses on Kamara’s story, but I’m glad I read it.

Here’s what I read in January.

Here’s what I read in February.

Also, check out the roundup of my 2020 reading here.

Behind the Scenes of The Last Good Look

I’ve liked crime fiction almost as long as I’ve liked fantasy. So I’m really chuffed that my story “The Last Good Look” was selected to be included in The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir.

New Canadian Noir Cover

One of my writing mentors was fellow Ravenstone author, Michael Van Rooy, who passed away far too soon. You should do yourself a favour and check out his Monty Haaviko crime novels (An Ordinary Decent Criminal, Your Friendly Neighbourhood Criminal, A Criminal to Remember) they are all great reads.

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(Photo Credit: Janek Lowe for the Winnipeg Free Press)

Michael has always been a huge inspiration to me, but was especially when it came to “The Last Good Look”.

Earlier in my writing career I was selected to be the Emerging Writer-in-Residence at the now sadly defunct Aqua Books. Michael had also been one of the Writers-in-Residence there. While I was writing in my office, which had been his office, and trying to finish up the as-yet-unsold Tombstone Blues, I had an idea for a rough-and-tumble troll tough guy.

And so Neelak (Neal to his friends) Trollborn, Wizard of Runes was born. I wrote the first four pages of his story and before long, Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues had sold to Ravenstone, and so I had to set Neal aside.

But I never forgot him.

When Claude Lalumière and David Nickle put out the call for submissions I was so excited to have the reason to figure out the rest of Neal’s debut story. He surprised me a lot, Neal did.

Every good noir also needs its femme fatale. Neal found his in one of my coworkers at the time: artist, photographer, and model, Holly Halftone.

I’ve rarely so blatently stolen someone’s appearance, so I asked Holly if she was okay being written into the story and thankfully she said yes. I had used “Halftone” as a temporary name in the text while I was drafting, thinking I’d eventually come up with something I liked better, but nothing else worked as well, and so Holly got to be a double inspiration on that particular dangerous lady.

Holly Halftone by Alexa Lachuta photography

(Photo Credit: Alexa Lachuta)

Pretty stoked to have this one in print. I hope you enjoy it.

Fellow New Canadian Noir contributor, Corey Redekop, interviewed Keith Cadieux and I about our stories (as well as a bunch of the other authors) over on his blog.

It’s still a long way off, but the Manitoba boys in the anthology, me, Keith and Corey will be doing readings at McNally Robinson Booksellers May 27th. I hope I’ll see you there.

Write on!

Strange Bedfellows

Regular readers here know I’m quite fond of Kickstarter and Indiegogo as a means for creative types to get their projects off the ground.

The current Indiegogo campaign I’m really excited about is for Strange Bedfellows. Author, editor (and now publisher at Bundoran Press) Hayden Trenholm is very close to getting his second anthology of political science fiction tales funded. I’ve chipped in to make this project happen because while I want to sell a story to Hayden, I also really want to read this anthology.

Strange Bedfellows — as in ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’ — will seek short fiction from the best writers in the field: writers who are passionate about the importance of ideology and political action as a source of solutions as well as problems.

As a long-time political analyst and advisor and an award winning SF writer and editor, Hayden Trenholm is perfectly placed to edit this 80,000-word anthology.

Hayden is also a familiar face at KeyCon, Winnipeg’s science fiction and fantasy convention and is planning on attending this year, so if you’re a science fiction writer in Winnipeg, this is the perfect chance to talk to an editor before you write your story and submit.

Below is an interview I did with Hayden about his writing and his then latest novel, Steel Whispers.

CG: Why Calgary? What made that city the perfect home for Frank Steele and the SDU?

HT: I lived in Calgary for over ten years so I knew it pretty well physically. A number of the locales — such as the Garry Theatre and Kaos Jazz bar were places I actually worked in when I was living as an artist. That made writing about it quite easy in the write what you know sense. But Calgary also has this wild west quality — as much imagined as real — and an admiration for corporations and right wing politics that made it perfect as a place that would somehow survive and even, for some at least, thrive in a world gone to hell. They say Calgary has more churches per capita than any city in Canada, but it also has more liquor stores and porn shops. Projecting that sense of anarchy and entitled class inequality — combined with the really fundamental goodness of many of the people who live there — into the future seemed natural.

CG: You make use of the first person point of view for the character of Frank Steele, the quintessential hard-boiled detective, but the remainder of your characters are presented in the third person. Why did you decide to alternate back and forth in this manner?

HT: There were several reasons to do this. First, Frank to work as a noir character had to be in the first person but the story I was writing was bigger than he could encompass by himself. Second, thematically Defining Diana was about the self, Steel Whispers about the family so using multiple points of view allowed me to explore how slippery both those concepts are. A first person narrator is always assumed to be reliable — and Frank is reliable as far as that goes. But he is also biased and sees the world through a very particular lens. By contrasting his views and values with those of other characters I got to show that all narrative — especially our narrative about our selves and our families — is essentially suspect. Third, people kept telling me it couldn’t be done. i can be a little stubborn that way.

CG: The Singularity, the analogy between the breakdown of modern physics near a gravitational singularity and the drastic change in society thought would occur following an intelligence explosion has been a trope of recent science fiction since it was popularized by Vernor Vinge in 1993. You name one of your corporations — a company that has seemingly done the impossible– for it in Steel Whispers. Do you worry that technology will advance beyond our ability to understand it? Is it something you considered in building your world of 2044?

HT: There are huge pieces of technology that most people don’t understand NOW and yet most people muddle along quite well. Take an MRI or any number of other scanning devices. We happily slide into them and let the technicians take their pictures but have no idea what the images actually show. Even the technicians aren’t always sure. Consider for a moment a peasant in rural Nepal or central Africa who has never used a telephone let alone a computer. Hasn’t the Singularity already happened for them? Or how about the 15% of Americans who don’t know that telephones run on electricity? I generally take the view that we, as individuals, learn exactly as much technology as we need to fulfill our desires. My 84-year old mother-in-law uses e-mail and Excel and is on Facebook because it keeps her from being isolated. My boss refuses to learn how to retrieve his cell phone messages because he sees his cell as being for his convenience not that of those who want to call him. Oddly enough, despite the dystopic nature of my novels, I’m generally an optimist — up to a point. The future will be better than the past but the benefits of that future may not benefit everyone equally — unless we make it so.

CG: You name drop Robert J. Sawyer — even having Frank Steele reading one of his novels. Sawyer is known in fandom circles not only for his passion for good science fiction but also for his mentorship of other writers. What has Rob meant to your career?

HT: First and foremost, Rob is a great friend. It’s true that he has been very supportive of me and a lot of other writers but he’s also been a friend to many of us in the truest sense of the word — someone whose company you value for its own sake rather than for the help it might be to you. But Rob deserves all the credit and accolades he gets — both for his work and for his mentoring and supporting other writers. And I will say I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a ‘professional writer’ in all senses of the term.

CG: You are a winner of Anvil Press’ 3-Day novel contest. What kind of madness does it take to attempt this, let alone to win?

HT: That was the first long piece of fiction I ever wrote so maybe it requires an absolute lack of knowledge about how impossible a task it is. I wrote A Circle of Birds in 1992, just after i moved to Calgary to become a writer. I had a couple of plays under my belt and a few short stories — none of them really good. I decided to try the contest as a way of kick starting my learning process. I was running a lot those days and actually composed the story during long runs along the Bow River. Big chunks of the story are sort of magic realist interpretations of episodes in my own and my father’s life — plus a big dollop of sex and violence that came out of wherever those things come. So, when I sat down to write it — with nothing more than a two page outline in front of me — the first 10000 words came pretty easy. After that I kept writing until I was finished the chapters I had outlined. I guess it worked.

CG: Do you have a favourite fictional detective?

HT: Lots. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan (I have a Holmes story in the new Gaslight Grotesque collection coming out from EDGE this fall) but I’m also fond of Poirot and Nick Charles from The Thin Man — though I’m not sure if I like the light hearted film version or the darker literary version better. And lets not forget Phillip Marlowe and Joe Leaphorn.

CG: If you could have any piece of tech from one of your novels, what would it be?

HT: One of the cars owned by the Singh Wannamaker Detective Agency.

CG: You won the Aurora for your short story “Like Water in the Desert“, and Defining Diana was shortlisted for the award as well. How important is it in your mind to celebrate Canadian science fiction and fantasy? What do you think would mean more to you, the Aurora, chosen largely by fans, or the Sunburst, which is a juried prize chosen by your peers?

HT: Can’t I have both? Juried awards have more prestige but it still comes down to the opinion of the people on the jury — a voting block of five. Fans have a special place in SF and F — unlike any other genre — so I think getting an award from them does mean a bit more to me. But I’d still like both.

CG: You have one more novel planned in The Steele Chronicles, after that, what’s next?

HT: As I answer these questions I’m about 15000 words in Stealing Home, so it is hard to think about the next thing. However, I just finished the first draft of a young adult SF novel so I’ll probably go back to that once Stealing Home is done. Then I have this big environmental collapse and recovery book I’ve been making notes on — something set about two hundred years in the future.