Books Read and in Progess: Smith Henderson, Evie Wyld, and More

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So far this year I’ve had a chance to read and review a handful of novels for the NYTBR, LA Times, and the Guardian—here are some links and info, along with, first, my current reading—very excited about everything I’m reading now.

CURRENT READING (in progress)

Right now, I’m on the road and am reading the following, all of which I’m really enjoying thus far. I don’t know why, but I’ve been going back and forth between them without it destroying my immersion in any of them.

–After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (magnificent author—such a sharp, sharp writer)

–McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (out in October; profane, ‘orrible in the best way, and brilliant style for the protagonist)

–Idiopathy by Sam Byers (so far a spot-on critique of every aspect of our modern post-industrial existence)

–Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin (most excellent biography of the wonderful writer and artist, lovingly written and with copious illos and photographs)

–The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948—2013 (the best from the Nobel Prize-winner; I’m making this one last, reading a couple of poems every day)

THE BEST

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: “Early in the story, Pete observes that “We’re all animals. Just dancing bears in tutus and monkeys with cigarettes. Painted up and stuffed into clown cars.” Henderson is committed to showing us unhappy and unstable people existing at the edges of any safety net. But they’re also people struggling to find a kind of truth, and they’re portrayed with compassion and humanity, in a voice that crackles and lurches with the intensity of a Tom Waits song.”

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: “Wyld’s also not afraid to just give the reader the blunt, brutal truth. There are aspects of Whyte’s past—because of what’s been done to her and what she herself has done—that you get full-on, in detail…some level the rest of All the Birds, Singing is nothing but exploration of her character, a kind of clear-seeing that creates empathy even through the most disturbing sequences.” (Granted, this one’s a cheat—I posted this review on my blog, but it’s a favorite read of the year so far and if I’d found it earlier would’ve pitched it for review.)

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “Yet Weil’s earnest, deep commitment to a portrait of brothers in crisis means that these issues recede into the backdrop. There’s pathos and tension in how Yarik becomes trapped in his relationship with Bazarov. There’s breathtaking brilliance in Weil’s portrayal of Dima as an outcast estranged from society, especially in one astonishing scene in which Dima walks around in a reverie of dissolution.” (Note: I had some negative things to say about this novel, but it’s the kind of book that I think a good many readers will enjoy a lot and a fair number of reviewers may not have the same caveats I did. I’ve now ordered his story collection and awaiting it eagerly.)

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Weird Fiction StoryBundle: Two Weeks to Go!

StoryBundle has given me the exciting opportunity to curate a “weird fiction” bundle based on some of our Cheeky Frawg offerings, with my last story collection, blurbed by Junot Diaz, thrown in. You can pick up e-book versions of amazing work by iconic Finnish writer Leena Krohn and sample some of the best current weird Finnish fiction in the anthology It Came From the North, edited by Desirina Boskovich.

You can also read two classic weird novels from the American Kafka, Michael Cisco—as well as Karin Tidbeck’s amazing collection Jagannath, which won the Crawford Award and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Also on offer: the humor book The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, written by me and my wife, Ann. Last but not least, read the wonderful The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautifully written book.

How does it work? The details are on the StoryBundle site, but here’s what it means in practical terms: Whatever percentage of the amount you pay is allocated to the writers goes to us here at Cheeky Frawg Books. We take our cut and the rest goes to the writers. In all but one case, these books have already earned out, so the authors get a very nice chunk of change out of this special deal—and we’ll be giving that money to the authors right after the end of the StoryBundle. (Our contracts are very generous on e-book rights, much more than the industry standard, so…)

In addition, the monies Cheeky Frawg retains will go toward future translation projects and our operating costs. We’re planning such delights as a huge 900-page omnibus of Leena Krohn’s work, which is not an insignificant undertaking. StoryBundle’s contribution to these efforts cannot be undersold, frankly.

So, thanks for considering buying this weird fiction bundle—it’ll directly benefit authors and help us, too.

It Came from the North--Finnish Fiction

Southern Reach UK Tour: London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Bristol, Bath

Annihilation--Fourth Estate cover

The last two weeks of August I’ll be over in the United Kingdom for a book tour behind the Southern Reach trilogy. You can find the basic details below, and I’ll provide more information closer to August. My wife Ann VanderMeer will be traveling with me and participating in some of these events. We hope to see many of our UK friends and fans!

London

Aug. 14, 4pm—Reading and signing at Forbidden Planet; exclusive reading from Acceptance (London Megastore)

Aug. 15-17—World SF Convention; panels below, Walk-with-Stars Saturday morning; rest of schedule TBA

**Big Anthologies: Bookends or Benchmarks?, Friday Aug. 15, 4:30pm—Jo Walton (M), Jeff VanderMeer, Ellen Datlow, Martin Lewis, Jonathan Strahan
**Imaginative Resistance, Saturday Aug. 16, 11am—Jeff VanderMeer (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, Pat Cadigan, Daryl Gregory, Sarita Robinson
**The Wrong Apocalypse, Sunday Aug. 17, 1:30pm—Mark Charan Newton (M), Nina Allan, Jeff VanderMeer, Tiffani Angus, Ivaylo Shmilev
***John Clute’s The Darkening Garden, Sunday Aug. 17, 4:30pm—Paul Kincaid, Jeff VanderMeer, Lisa Tuttle, Ellen Datlow, Dr Paul March-Russell

Edinburgh

Aug. 19, 8:30pm—Edinburgh International Book Festival event, “Fantasy That’s Terrifyingly Believable, with Charlie Fletcher and Jeff VanderMeer” (Baille Gifford Corner Theatre; ticketed event)

Glasgow

Aug. 21, 7pm—Waterstones, an evening with Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Amal El-Mohtar, Hal Duncan, and Neil Williamson (Argyle Street)

Dublin

Aug. 23, 24—Eurocon; schedule TBA

Bristol-Bath

Aug. 25, 7pm—Small Stories Big Books event featuring Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (The Lansdown,8 Clifton Rd, Bristol)

Aug. 26, 7pm—Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights a conversation with Jeff VanderMeer (and short reading) (14/15 John Street, Bath, UK; ticketed event)

Authority--UK

Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

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I picked up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing on a whim, because I liked the cover design and the tone of the review quotes on the back. I didn’t know anything about the author, and it wasn’t until I was about three-fourths of the way through that I discovered she’d won a lot of literary prizes for the novel. All I knew by then is that Wyld deserved all of those prizes.

I can count on one hand the number of novels I’ve read in the last couple of years where the prose is truly exceptional and the author’s vision has both clarity and substance. In All the Birds, Singing Wyld creates an unforgettable character in Jake Whyte, a woman with a troubled past who, in the present, lives on a farm she owns on a remote British island. The story of her encounters with a strange beast and neighbors she wants nothing to do with is interwoven with a narrative about the past that gradually delves farther and farther back in time.

We learn that Whyte knows a lot about how to shear and care for sheep, a job she’s taken up again by choice in her isolation on the island. We learn that she grew up in Australia and in fleeing her past she got a job at a sheep station in Australia. The scenes in which she is navigating a landscape full of men, many of whom don’t trust her, are riveting and contain brilliant moments of character insight. All of the secondary characters come to life with deft, economical precision, and the bustling sheep station provides a great early contrast to the isolation of Whyte’s life on the island.

But the contrast between these scenes and the ones in the present isn’t just expressed through a shift in tense—the past cleverly presented in present tense—it’s also in the atmosphere. Whyte’s subtle but adept in how the island scenes are slowed by cold and mud while those in Australia are alive with heat; the syntax shifts and adjusts to fit the setting. This is in part a function of conscious thought about style by the author and in part due to first-hand knowledge of both landscapes…or at least this is my impression; perhaps Wyld’s just a really good liar about details of setting.

Wyld’s also not afraid to just give the reader the blunt, brutal truth. There are aspects of Whyte’s past—because of what’s been done to her and what she herself has done—that you get full-on, in detail. To describe them here would be spoilery, in that the life of the novel is in the moment and in the particulars of sometimes fairly brief scenes. But my point is that we begin the novel with a mystery about Whyte—who she is and why she’s now on the island— and on some level the rest of All the Birds, Singing is nothing but exploration of her character, a kind of clear-seeing that creates empathy even through the most disturbing sequences.

The writing in the novel is muscular without being lush or overly descriptive; Wyld knows how to pick her spots so that everything we get counts. A bicep on a scrawny man bulges like “a new potato” during an arm-wrestling contest. Recalling a horrible encounter, Whyte feels like “wax is coating me from the inside.” Trees in a moment of tension “appeared to swell and shrink with the rhythm of breath,” which is perfectly placed after a description of birds rising out of the trees and then settling back in that reinforces the illusion.

As All the Birds, Singing progresses, it’s true that the evocations of the past aren’t always as fresh or new as at the novel’s start—and the conclusion feels much more like stopping than ending, perhaps in part because no matter whether a mystery is about a dead body or a living one the reveal can’t be as compelling as the set-up.

But the clear-eyed self-appraisal present throughout, the evocations of island life and Whyte’s interactions with a mysterious man who shows up at her farm, the utterly stunning set-piece involving her home town and a tragedy…all of these elements have softened my slight disappointment at the end to the point where all I remember are the brilliant things about this novel. Especially in a context where Wyld gives the reader such a memorable, unique, strong-yet-flawed woman as her viewpoint character.

In short, All the Birds, Singing now makes me want to read everything Wyld has ever written.