I have the bad habit of buying way more books than I read, with more coming into the house during a year than I could possibly read in that same time. (This is actually a subset of my habit of spending more money than I have, but I’ll not digress…)

I’m sure this habit is strange to no one reading this (in part because I’m sure that, indeed, no one is reading this). My goal this year is to get a handle on the to-be-read shelves, which now number four, if I don’t count the entirely separate and just as large shelf for to-be-read story magazines. I can’t stop myself buying The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction every other month, plus assorted literary zines. I like the pretty ones.

Since January 1, I’ve finished 16 books from the TBR shelf and added only three, two of which were birthday gifts. This represents heroic restraint on my part and I puffed my chest out a little as I wrote that.

What I’m reading

Nothing current, so don’t look for reviews of any hot new releases here. Some books on the TBR shelf are at least four years old, and there are a lot of used books on there.

Oldest book – Approaching Oblivion by Harlan Ellison. Bought used at Balticon last spring. Fantastic collection and eerily prescient. Ellison had an eye for bigotry and little faith it would be wiped out in any possible near future. He’s at his best deconstructing those for whom he feels the most contempt. I miss that angry savage genius. I need to read more of his books.

Most recent book – just guessing, but probably American Hippo by Sarah Gailey, published May 2018 and also purchased at last year’s Balticon. Charming spec fic about an American south infested with feral hippos, pinging off the actual historical fact that some politician thought it would be a great idea to breed hippos in America for food. It never happened, goddammit. Light reading, maybe a little predictable, but the characters are fun and they ride hippos like horses. The book’s goofy delight can not be understated.

Best book – Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. A filthy cousin to Bastard Out of Carolina, populated with Appalachian meth heads living in shacks instead of southern alcoholics in trailers. I haven’t seen the movie, so the book held its secrets and surprises. Alternatively nasty and beautiful, clearly written with love for its characters, even the meth dealers who’ll cut your head off if you look at them sideways.

Favorite book – The Cripple of Innishmaan by Martin McDonagh. Close runner-up to Winter’s Bone for best, but some of the characters are a little too quirky/cutesy, and I felt like McDonagh was writing for the audience laugh rather than what felt true to life or real for the characters. On the other hand, I’m not native Irish, so what do I know? The disabled boy in the title is by turns loved and lonely. Mostly he’s picked on and tired of being treated like an invalid. When word goes round that a Hollywood movie is being filmed nearby, he takes drastic measures to get transport, hoping he’ll be cast as local color and perhaps be taken all the way to America. The characters’ sense of longing for something better than their small village life rang true. Not as good a script as McDonagh’s In Bruges, but lots of good stuff.

Worst book – Catacombs of Terror by Stanley Donwood. I picked this up for $2 at an Ollie’s because I like pulp trash once in a while, but this wasn’t worth the hour on the stationary bike it took to read it. I wasn’t expecting a novel of consequence, but this lacked any sense of wit or lyricism. A hard-boiled detective novel can hide a lot of sins behind a few pithy observations and luxurious cynicism, or go all in with off-the-wall lunacy (such as Warren Ellis’ Crooked Little Vein, which I loved.) But this was an empty egg carton of a novel. It’s hard to believe the writer could muster up enough enthusiasm to write something so bland. Was there nothing on TV that night?

Most disappointing – a tie. What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund had an intriguing title but barely dipped below surface observations in what amounted to the writer’s somewhat rambling thoughts on the topic. About 70 pages of writing spread out over 400 pages. Lots of pictures, if you like that sort of thing. Also, The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. A fascinating premise – a fiction writer living in a police state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of bizarre child murders occurring in his town – slowed down by farcical characters and a plot twist that felt like a cop-out. Its tense encounters are undermined by its sense of ridiculousness, and it was difficult to tell McDonagh’s intentions. Imagine The Usual Suspects broken up here and there by Monty Python sketches. I expected something Kafka-esque and wasn’t ready for The Pillowman.

Most embarrassing – IDW’s reprint volume of the Planet of the Apes magazine from the 1970s. Not because I’m embarrassed to read Planet of the Apes comics, which I’m not because monkeys are awesome, but because it was soooooo bad. Every sentence ends with three !!! The human character hates apes!!! Until he doesn’t!!! And then he really does again!!! Why can’t they be brothers??!! Oy.

Honorable mentions – The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (I’ll be looking for the others in this series of mysteries); Brat Pack by Rick Veitch (glad to see this collected); Apt Pupil by Steven King (pulp trash, but tightly written and sufficiently disturbing. As good as I remembered).