Book Reviews

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

Jeff VanderMeer • July 14th, 2014 • Book Reviews

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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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Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Jeff VanderMeer • July 2nd, 2014 • Book Reviews

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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.

Finnish Weird: It’s the Hot New Thing from the Cold Place

Jeff VanderMeer • May 28th, 2014 • Book Reviews, Culture

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(Oh–there it is. Finnish Weird. Popping up amongst the ‘shrooms.)

Finnish Weird now has a fruiting body: a one-off magazine that allows you to sample some of the best examples of this delectably strange Nordic truffle. Download these infectious spores or enjoy them right there online.

In addition to iconic Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s editorial, “Rare Exports,” Finnish Weird includes an essay “Finnish Weird From the Land of the North” by Jussi K. Niemela and features Emmi Itaranta, Jenny Kangasvuo, and Tiina Raevaara. Fiction and interviews and essays all come with a great visual presentation, too.

Mentioned in the nonfiction is It Came From the North, an anthology of the Finnish fantastic edited by Desirina Boskovich from our own Cheeky Frawg Books. In honor of Finnish weird, we’ve discounted it for Kindle to $2.99 for one week only. If you’d prefer a different seller, we recommend Weightless (although we can’t discount that version).

So go read Finnish Weird and check out It Came From the North if you’re so inclined.

It Came from the North--Finnish Fiction

Oxford Exchange in Tampa: Book Haul

Jeff VanderMeer • March 28th, 2013 • Book Reviews, News

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We meant to work all day while still here in Tampa, but took some time off this afternoon to go to the Cigar City Brewery and then Del Rio’s for dinner (a great Cuban place). But before that, we stopped by the Oxford Exchange Bookstore, which was recommended to us by Liz at USF (thanks!). What a great, well-curated, unique bookstore! Definitely worth it. I haven’t bought books in awhile, and I’m sorry to say I splurged. (Well, not too sorry.)

In this first photo, just a few notes. I’ve wanted the Lethem collection for awhile—can’t wait to dig into that. Snow I have in another edition, but the font was just not right for me, so this Everyman edition is a godsend. Weirdlife is about the search for unusual lifeforms. It’s a good refresher as I dive into the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, on a couple of areas of interest.

Peter Nadas’ sprawling novel set during the middle of the last century just was too enticing to pass up—just an amazing-looking book that I’m going to be immersed in, I’m sure. Ann wanted Miss Dreamville and the new Karen Russell collection, so I added on Swamplandia, to give it another go. The Nabokov biography I had to buy since I collect all things Nabokov, including nonfiction about him. This is probably around the 80th book in my collection. Its slant is that there is a lot of politics and whatnot in the backdrop and subtext of the master’s work. To which I say, well, DUH. Too bad a world-class style and verve can blind us to what’s staring out right in front of us.

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Ann also wanted the New American Haggadah, which looks fascinating for a number of reasons. Viola Di Grado’s novel from one of my favorite imprints, Europa, just grabbed me from the first paragraph and I couldn’t pass it up. Similarly, Speedboat by Renata Adler, a reprint from the 1970s, captured me and wouldn’t let me go. It’s from another of my favorite presses, New York Review of Books, which does such a wonderful job of bringing fiction into the world that might not otherwise be in print. Buying How Fiction Works was another case of having an edition where I hated the font. This more portable, better-designed edition I’m already having more luck with. I don’t agree with Wood on everything, but it’s useful to engage with his ideas.

I was so happy to find The Best of Archy and Mehitabel—a lovely set of poems/adventures featuring a cat and a cockroach. Without Michael Moorcock mentioning Archy to me a decade ago I never would’ve discovered these too joyful miscreants. Ann wanted the Book of Nice, which I pointed out was from the same publisher has her perennial favorite Bad Cats. And the Oxford Exchange also has lovely notebooks, of which I purchased two.

The ambiance of the Oxford Exchange bookstore is rather amazing—the curating of the bookstore is eccentric in a meaningful rather than frivolous way. It is on the small side, but it makes the space count, and the selections seemed to hit my sweet spot rather more often than not. The many props, including manual typewriters and card catalogues, lend a real weight to the place as well. Beyond the bookstore is a more general gift store, a coffee shop, and a restaurant. All of it combined lends itself to a great experience—and across the street is the University of Tampa, with its steely minarets and nice river walk. I highly recommend you check out the bookstore if you are in the area.

Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows

Jeff VanderMeer • September 25th, 2012 • Book Reviews

Every once in awhile something exceptional pops up unexpectedly—in this case Lindsay Stern’s Town of Shadows, which was published this past month and which I just learned about last week. Stern’s still in college, but the book reflects a mature voice and is of definite interest to anyone who likes the darkly fantastical.

Going into overdrive, our managing editor Adam Mills has interviewed Stern for Weirdfictionreview.com, have posted an excerpt, and also posted a review. Check it out. This is why we get excited about fiction. This is the cool stuff. (Like what you read at Weirdfictionreview.com? Donate!)

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung

Jeff VanderMeer • September 2nd, 2012 • Book Reviews

My google feed brought me this possible gem today: Atlas, by Dung Kai-Cheung. I’m buying it right now.

Here’s a description:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections — “Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs” — the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

Much like the quasi-fictional adventures in map-reading and remapping explored by Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, Dung Kai-cheung’s novel challenges the representation of place and history and the limits of technical and scientific media in reconstructing a history. It best exemplifies the author’s versatility and experimentation, along with China’s rapidly evolving literary culture, by blending fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a story about succeeding and failing to recapture the things we lose. Playing with a variety of styles and subjects, Dung Kai-cheung inventively engages with the fate of Hong Kong since its British “handover” in 1997, which officially marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of an uncharted future.

Japan Times has this review, which reads in part, “The faux-scholarship in this section is beautifully done and is equaled, though in a different vein, in the next part, where we move from theory to The City, an entity approached not directly, of course, but through maps and documents such as Round the World on the Sunrise by John Smith, a chronicle of, among other things, Smith’s movements on Aug. 9, 1907, the day he spends in Victoria. In Smith’s account, with characteristic subtlety, Dung mocks colonial travelers and the memoirs that reveal their odd interpretations of cultures to which they can only condescend.”

Interview with the author here.

Brit Mandelo’s Beyond Binary Interview

Jeff VanderMeer • August 27th, 2012 • Book Reviews

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Over at Omnivoracious.com you’ll find my feature on the excellent anthology Beyond Binary, including quotes from an interview I conducted with editor Brit Mandelo. Go check it out and recommend it to your friends! And below you’ll find Mandelo’s full answers to a couple of the questions; I couldn’t include everything due to length considerations.

What do you think makes SF/F ideal for exploring ideas and issues related to gender and sexual identity?

I think that the astounding range of possibilities speculative fiction offers for asking vital questions, reinterpreting or discarding contemporary mores, and breaking boundaries is what makes it ideal for exploring issues of gender and sexuality. SFF not only allows us to ask “what if?,” it also allows us to make real whatever we can imagine—the very nature of the form, as a literature of extrapolation and invention, opens up a field of discourse where everything has potential and anything is possible. This nearly unlimited ability to explore, expand, and explode definitions makes speculative fiction the only form that can effectively transcend and truly embody an equally vast multitude of potential gender and sexual identities.

In the same vein, Joanna Russ’s argument for speculative fiction is one that resonates with me, too, and I tend to quote it when asked a question like this. She said, “science fiction […] provides myths for dealing with the kind of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.” In SFF, we can deal authentically with issues of identity and self in a way that is often effaced or barred from traditional literary forms; being able to twist and restructure reality in narrative is a powerful tool for social criticism. In fact, I’d say that the tools for social criticism are natural to and almost inseparable from the same narrative machinery that drives speculative fiction to begin with—that willingness to ask questions, to imagine, and to invent worlds that are not quite like our own. Speculative fiction, then, offers a golden opportunity for folks whose stories are often silenced to encompass their narratives, their identities, in a form that is—in a lot of ways, though this is a whole different argument—itself a sort of outsider literature.

I’m curious as to what kinds of effects stripping out gender referents has on fiction, in your opinion?

When done well, it can destabilize narrative assumptions about gender—and, even more so, reader assumptions. When we begin reading a story, we make assumptions based on hints and clues from the narrative, yes, but also based on our own implicit worldview. I’m as guilty of this as anyone; it’s just a way that we make meaning during the reading process. But, when a story manages to sidestep gender referents and craft a narrative not mediated by explicit gender, that’s something special: it forces the reader to step back and check their own assumptions about character gender, and destabilizes the assumption that everyone presents a specific gender. The thematic force of a narrative that rests on an agendered, neutrois or un-gendered person can also be pretty stellar, challenging mythologies of gender performance and the binary of male/female that the English language so commonly subscribes to. (And, on a craft level, writing without gendering a character is a pretty thrilling display of technical mastery. It’s hard to overstate the control and precision required to write, and write well, without pronouns or gendered language.)

The Art of the Literary Fake–Now Online

Jeff VanderMeer • August 23rd, 2012 • Book Reviews

My essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)” is now online at the New Haven Review’s website. At over 9,000 words it’s my longest essay since I wrote about Angela Carter almost 20 years ago. I’m appreciative of the opportunity, courtesy of Brian Slattery, and I hope you enjoy the results. The essay references everything from mad penguin researchers to capybaras, bizarre crayfish dictionaries to Nabokov.

Excerpt:

“Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.”

Notable New Books: Beyond Binary, Lauriat, The Moment of Change, and Yesterday’s Hero

Jeff VanderMeer • August 14th, 2012 • Book Reviews


(The cool cover art for Lauriat)

I’m a little behind on blogging about some interesting books that’ve come my way. So here are thumbnails on four of them, all of which you should consider picking up…

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Charles Tan. “Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.” Written up in Publishers Weekly and on io9.com. I’m still delving into it and finding it very entertaining.

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Summer Road Trip Book Haul: More Than You Might Think…

Jeff VanderMeer • August 7th, 2012 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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(An anthology of Bruno Schulz-inspired fiction ffrom Ex Occidente and the latest from Wendy Walker–check out Wendy Walker’s back catalogue.)

I never intend to buy books on trips, and I especially didn’t intend to on this latest one, where from July 10 through August 5, I went from the Stonecoast MFA program to ReaderCon to the Shared Worlds teen SF/F camp. But, as usual, no matter what I plan, books accrete to me without conscious thought…So here’s the run-down on what I acquired, or was gifted to me.

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