In theory it was a restrained month for new book acquisitions, with only Paizo’s Starfinder core rulebook (science fantasy yes please!) and the audiobook of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened being added. That being said, this post will be popping off the queue right when I’m busy at Conflux, and there’s pretty much no way I’m coming home from that empty-handed.

Most importantly, however, I purchased my sub to Lyss’s Never Never Book Box. And you? Yeah, you totally should too.

Kaaron Warren, The Grief Hole

Kaaron Warren is someone I’ve come to shamefully late. An Australian horror author, I’ve described her style before as sort of a bit like Shirley Jackson in that it combines accessible prose with ethereal ambience, all wrapped up in a very solidly woman-centric bundle. The Grief Hole is the first novel of Kaaron’s I’ve read–previously it’s been short stories–and it… honestly? Is pretty much all I could ever have wanted from her. Superficially, it’s almost an urban fantasy; Theresa can see ghosts gathering around people who are about to die, and she uses this ability to try and intervene and prevent said deaths. But The Grief Hole is no fun romp in tight leather pants. Instead, it’s an oppressive, grinding psychological thriller that defiantly presents its supernatural elements with no explanation or excuse. Things in the book are what they are, particularly the novel’s skin-crawlingly effective villain, whose humanity (or lack thereof) is left up to the reader to determine.

The Grief Hole isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea; I generally like oppressive atmospheric horror and even I’d struggle to say I “enjoyed” it. But it is a good book and it is hellaciously effective (and deserving of its various awards). Recommended for horror fans tired of the usual gore and schlock.

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

I have a very distinct memory as a child of sitting behind the old claw-foot leather couches at my granny’s house, playing with Lego while my parents watched Lateline on the television. The segment was an interview with US-based political theorist, Francis Fukuyama, who was explaining his then-new End of History Doctrine; basically the notion that liberal democracy represents the “ultimate evolution” of human political organisation. I don’t know why this particular interview stuck with me so strongly, other than that it did, and that being able to whip out “Francis Fukuyama” and “End of History” made me feel like a Very Smart Girl who knew All About The World. For the record, I was about nine at the time. ((That being said, I also seem to recall him talking about the Golden Arches Doctrine, i.e. the theory that countries with McDonald’s don’t go to war with one another, although that was posited by a different theorist at a much later date, so… it’s entirely possible I’m making some or all of this memory up. Either way, the name that stuck in my head was Fukuyama’s, so… lucky him, I guess.))

For those keeping score in the Adult World, Fukuyama is generally considered to be one of the early neoconservatives, and the ideas presented in the End of History are–as you can probably imagine–popular with ring-wing types of many flavors, most of whom understand about as much of what Fukuyama was trying to say as I did when I was age nine. For his own part, Fukuyama grew increasingly disillusioned with the neoconservative/neoliberal movements, distancing himself from the group and eventually “renouncing” the End of History in 2014.

Sort of.

And this book? This book is the “sort of”. Well, it’s actually the second of two volumes of the sort of, but it’s the one that deals with the modern history and so it’s arguably the more “pop nonfiction” of the two. In it, Fukuyama looks at the rise and fall of liberal democracy in the last few hundred years, and tries to explain why the system sometimes takes hold (e.g. northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada) and sometimes doesn’t (e.g. most of Africa). Or does, for a while, and then doesn’t again (e.g. many countries in the Americas, including the US, in several cycles).

To sum up this 600+ page behemoth, Fukuyama identifies three components that he says must exist in a sort of balance in order for liberal democracy to thrive–rule of law, a strong state (e.g. bureaucracy), and accountability (e.g. democratic elections)–and gives multiple historic examples of where these institutions come from, how they’ve spread, and where and how they can be seen to be working or not working. He is very definitely still a conservative and very definitely from the political right, and every now and again says some things that had me squinting askance at my audiobook. That being said, Fukuyama is one of an increasingly rare breed of small-c conservatives/non-dogwhistle classical liberals. He argues in favor of a strong bureaucracy and its role in providing basic essential services such as clean water and education. He decries corruption and political porkbarrelling. And he’s a lot more sensitive to the vicious legacies of colonialism than, perhaps, his history would lead someone to expect (albeit from the point of view of “colonialism was bad because it made it harder for many colonized countries to develop liberal democracy”).

In short, this is dense tome and, while I’d be lying if I said I agreed with all of it, it’s definitely worth a read for anyone with even a passing interest in political theory. ⭐️

Warren Ellis, Normal

I’m always a sucker for three things: conspiracy theories, novellas, and Warren Ellis. Which means Normal? Right up my alley.

Very briefly, it deals with the goings on in a sanitarium for futurists; people who’re employed to predict the future and have found nothing good in what they predict. In theory the plot is a murder mystery (sort of), but mostly it’s just an excuse for Ellis to go on wallbanging author tracts about things from drones to the New York sewerage system. If, like me, reading Warren Ellis Rant About Things is Your Bag Baby, then you’re in luck! This short little book is for you! For everyone else… your mileage may vary.

(That being said, Ellis can absolutely turn some amazing descriptive prose when he wants to, and there’s some here that’s worth the price of admission alone…)

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

So, way back when I was a wee little lass, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands was my gateway drug not just to the Cthulhu Mythos, but to the idea of portal fantasy in general. Narnia had never interested me–in retrospect, even as a child the overt Christian chauvinist themes put me off–but the Dreamlands? Ah! Now there was something I could devour, and devour I did, mostly in the form of Brian Lumley’s works because, to put it modestly, they were what the local library had.

Still, between Lumley and Lovecraft there always seemed to be something… missing. And that “something”? Well, women. Not to put too fine a point on it. I mean, a lot of other things besides, but… Women. Being their own characters, not just thinly drawn adjuncts to male protagonists. That was the gap I noticed, in my subconscious teenaged sort of way.

Hence it was with great excitement that I picked up Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe. This novella is, effectively, an alternate-POV reaction to H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, specifically The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The tl;dr summary is that a female fifty-something university professor must go on an Epic Quest–of the sort she used to embark on as a younger woman–in order to track down an Errant Girl who seems to have eloped with a man from the Waking (i.e. our) World.

And, look. I’ll be honest: I’m just really… not sure what to think about this novella. On the one hand, it’s definitely beautifully crafted. If all my teenaged self ever wanted to do was to walk the Dreamlands in a woman’s shoes, Johnson’s story delivers in spades. Except… that isn’t all my teenaged self–let alone my current self–wanted to do. She wanted to walk the Dreamlands on her own terms. And this novella? Definitely doesn’t allow it.

It’s a restriction of the format, really: because The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe never moves beyond its status of a reaction to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. In other words, even when it pretends to be about her, Vellit’s journey is never not defined by men in general and H.P. Lovecraft’s Mary-Sue-self-insert Randolph Carter in particular. So it functions as a critique of the lack-of-place of women in Lovecraft’s works–and the works of his successors, like Lumley–but intentionally refuses to carve out its own space beyond that. It’s a deconstruction without reconstruction; ultimately, all it really does is reinforce the notion that women, and particularly ordinary women, have no place in the Dreamlands (and particularly no heroic one). And that? For all the sumptuousness of description, in the end, that’s kinda… ugh.

Next up: Oh, it’s time. Time to learn What Happened