In recent years I’ve largely lost my taste for new fiction, and I’ve probably spent more time perusing essays and polemics than I have reading stories. Nevertheless, I still occasionally read novels and story collections. Here are some that I read last year, with a few from 2021.
I downloaded a number of the titles in the periodic $.99 sales organized by Hans Schantz and read a few pages of each. Usually a few pages is enough. I did finish On Basilisk Station by David Weber, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia and Draw One in the Dark by Sarah Hoyt, all first volumes of lengthy series. They held my attention, but after finishing them I had no interest in reading the next books. (Your taste may differ from mine; if they sound interesting, give them a try. All are competently written, and while they’re not my kinds of story, they might be yours.) I read all five volumes of Fenton Wood’s alternate history Yankee Republic; I would have loved it when I was ten years old, but I’m not that young any more. Frank Fleming’s various novels are amusing, though only the Superego series has any real heft to it. I also read Hoyt’s Deep Pink; the premise is clever, but it feels like a short story inflated to novel length.
The most interesting novel I read was an old one, written over a century ago: William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s stupendous, and it’s nearly unreadable. This tale of a heroic quest in a far distant future is written in a deliberately archaic language. It may have the highest ratio of semicolons to periods in all of literature. And in many passages every sentence begins with “And.” Getting through the first few chapters is work, and even when you’re accustomed to the rhythm of the prose it still takes an effort to read. But it’s worth it for its depiction of an Earth grown strange, hostile and dark.
I’ve been meaning for years to investigate Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. I finally got around to reading their Roadside Picnic, one of the few books that can stand comparison to The Night Land for sheer dread. Aliens briefly visited the Earth, leaving trash behind at a handful of sites around the globe. Some of the garbage is useful to humans. Some is lethal. “Stalkers” brave the hazards of the “Zones” where the aliens were to find items to sell on the black market. It’s dangerous: a step in the wrong direction means crippling injury or instant death, and there are consequences even for those who not venture into the Zones. The novel is narrated by one of stalkers during a few of his trips into the Zone over the course of several years. Roadside Picnic an intense, nightmarish book. I’ll need to read more of the Strugatskys.
Tim Powers is the contemporary writer most like the other Inkling, Charles Williams1. Like Williams, his books are spiritual thrillers. Powers is a Catholic, and it shows. His recent novel, Alternate Routes, introduces Sebastian Vickery, a former Secret Service agent who Saw Too Much and is now wanted dead or alive by the Feds, preferably dead, and Ingrid Castine, from a government department with a suspiciously innocuous name who saves his life. Together they save a haunted Los Angeles from the supernatural schemes of a rogue government agent. They reappear in Forced Perspectives, in which they save Los Angeles and the rest of the world again, this time from people with guilty consciences wielding an ancient Egyptian symbol/artifact. The daughter Vickery never had also figures in both books. The novels are fast-moving, easy to follow and entertaining, but they’re Powers-lite. For full-strength Powers, I recommend his earlier books. Try Declare if you like spy stories, or The Drawing of the Dark if you prefer 16th-century historical fantasy, or beer. English majors might consider The Anubis Gates, set in 19th-century London.
In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner names Frederic Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock as the outstanding work of fiction inspired by Lewis Carroll. Of course Brown’s book was long out of print when I first saw Gardner’s recommendation, and it wasn’t in the local library. I kept an eye out for it at used book stores but never spotted it. A few months ago I checked the devil’s website, as Robbo calls it, and there it was, and … it’s okay. Brown is deservedly famous among those who remember him as clever craftsman of short-short stories, and I hoping for an intricate Carrollian fantasy. However, Night of the Jabberwock turned out to be a murder mystery in which the narrator is a Carroll enthusiast. Solving the mystery involves ordinary reasoning, not Carrollian logic, and there are no white knights or Cheshire cats, just a small-town newspaper editor and his acquaintances. If you like tidy murder mysteries it’s worth checking out, but I was disappointed.
I also read Brown’s Martians, Go Home, in which the earth is suddenly invaded by obnoxious little green men. They won’t attack you physically, but they are mouthy little jerks, contemptuous of human beings, who pop up everywhere and insult everyone. They have x-ray vision, too, and blab what they read in personal letters and top secret documents. They are invulnerable, and there is no way to evade them or kick them out. Part of the book relates how a blocked writer copes with the alien provocations, and part recounts how the rest of the world deals with the little creeps. It’s never really explained how or why they came or what eventually happens to them. It’s an odd little book that doesn’t fit in any category, not quite science fiction, not quite humor, not quite satire. I can’t give it a strong recommendation, but it is unlike anything else I’ve read recently.
I read a few of Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books a thousand years ago. They have been missing from my library for decades, but recently they have been made available again in English, this time with all the stories included in each collection.2 The books are mainly about Don Camillo, a priest in an Italian village in the years after World War II, and his battles with Peppone, the Communist mayor. The tales are mostly humorous satire. Camillo usually gets the better of Peppone, but he can be a jerk, and Peppone, wrong-headed though he is, is not a monster.
The novel Don Camillo and Don Chichi3 is the last Don Camillo story. It takes place in the mid-1960’s, after the second Vatican Council. The bishop of Camillo’s diocese assigns him “Don Chichi,” a young curate full of the spirit of Vatican II who spouts socialism and wants to “demystify” the Church. He is almost as much a trial to Don Camillo as Camillo’s niece, the willful biker chick Cat. Cat is Camillo’s match for guile and feistiness, but over the course of the novel she gradually becomes more responsible. Don Chichi, on the other hand, remains a fool whose meddling does more harm than good. Don Camillo and Don Chichi is primarily humorous, but there is bitterness. Guareschi was furious with the changes to the Church done with the excuse of Vatican II and his anger shows, particularly in the second chapter, a sarcastic “Open Letter to Don Camillo.”