Book Reviews

Three Fine Fools Get a Schedule: Triangulated Blogging on Gerry Alanguilan, Eric Basso, Javier Marias, and Helen Oyeyemi

Jeff VanderMeer • January 17th, 2011 • Book Reviews, News, Uncategorized

If you’ve followed this blog lately, you know that Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and I have formed a blogger book club. Every few weeks we read a book and then post our reviews of it, without sharing our opinions with each other ahead of time. I then also post the book info and snippets of the reviews to the Amazon book blog. So far, we’ve covered Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, and Michael Cisco’s The Narrator (with guest J.M. McDermott).

Since these reviews have seemed useful in spreading the word about under-appreciated weird books, we thought we’d continue—and not only continue but formalize a schedule for those who want to read along. If you do read along and post a review around the same time as ours, I’ll add the link to our coverage.

Here, then, is the tentative schedule for our posts, which we’ll update with each new round of book reviews.

Early February: Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan (graphic novel)—”Gorgeously drawn black-and-white artwork combines with outstanding storytelling in this modern-day fable of ethnic strife, identity, friendship, and family. The titular character has been a writer all his “human” life, keeping a secret diary that his son Jake discovers and reads after Elmer’s death. Along with his newly engaged sister and gay movie-star brother, Jake returns to his childhood home for Elmer’s last days, stays on for his funeral, and helps his newly widowed, delicate mother. Oh, and Jake and family are sentient, well-spoken chickens.”

Late March through May: The collected works of Eric Basso. This writer of what I would call avant garde gothic/weird literature is criminally under-appreciated and under-reviewed, and requires an extensive re-visiting. (His “Beak Doctor” is included in Ann and my The Weird antho from Corvus.) Therefore, we will be reading multiple texts, with others read as reference points for the main volumes under review. We’ll have writer Matthew Pridham joining the team as a special guest sharing his opinion as well. We will cover, in multiple blog posts:

The Beak Doctor and Other Stories: 1972 to 1976—”For years, Eric Basso’s novella, “The Beak Doctor,” has sustained a cult reputation among a hard core of avant-garde writers. This collection of short stories begins with a tale of death and hideous resurrection, moves on through a quest for the great horse who rules a subterranean polar kingdom, an atmospheric cycle of short prose pieces, a tragicomic roman noir set in Istanbul (in which the great horse appears in a new guise), and concludes with the harrowing odyssey of a masked man in a fogbound city turned upside down by a plague of sleeping sickness: “The Beak Doctor.”

The Golem Triptych: A Dramatic Trilogy—”According to Jewish legend, the golem is an automaton in human form created through magic, a spirit that could be called upon to perform tasks for its master. The central character in this dramatic trilogy, Joseph Golem, is an old man who dies in a prison camp and is brought back to life by a young woman. Moving through time and various identities, Joseph finds himself in 16th-century Prague, where he assumes the identity of Rabbi Judah Loew, creator of the golem.”

Bartholomew Fair (novel)—”Set in London during a killing heat wave, the novel unfolds as a terrible cataclysm is about to devastate the city. Begun in the Middle Ages as a religious festival in commemoration of St. Bartholomew the Great, over the centuries Bartholomew Fair passed through several metamorphoses. Now it has gone underground. Its lone survivor recounts the story of the Fair’s final, sordid incarnation, and the bizarre odyssey which brings him face-to-face with the unspeakable.”

The Sabattier Effect (novel)—”An investigation into the death of an old man takes place in a French village, but nothing about this investigation is as it first appears. Its prime witness, a photographer, is interrogated by a police inspector about the dead man, his connection with two mysterious younger women, and the enigmatic painting the man had hired him to photograph. His account of events triggers a series of flashbacks in which the immediate past comes dangerously alive. The investigation becomes a desperate quest to rescue a present threatened with extinction by the unpredictable past that is about to engulf it.”

We will also be reading and referring to the following by Basso:

Decompositions: Essays, Art, Literature 1973-1989—”Decompositions collects all of Basso’s essays on art and literature in one volume. Basso approaches his subjects not as a critic but as an artist reflecting on the works, lives, deeds and frailties of other artists. These studies cut to the quick of what it means to create, and be created or destroyed by, a great poem, story, novel or painting.”

Revagations: A Book of Dreams, Vol. 1: 1966-1974—”In these pages, we discover an unconscious life laid bare in a myriad of bizarre adventures and intrigues.”

Accidental Monsters: Poems and Texts 1976—”Completed in six months, on the eve of the poet’s twenty-ninth birthday, Accidental Monsters was Eric Basso’s first collection of poems. The author carries us through a world where landscapes and interiors merge, a terrain vague of fleeting visions, gnomic adventures, enigmas, grotesque creatures and bizarre mechanisms. We eventually journey to an unnamed planet, and are witness to several sinister tableaux.”

Catafalques: Poems 1987-1989—”A dark magic works here, sustained by poetry that is often complex, ironic, disquieting, impassioned, and sometimes even wildly comic. In these pages we are confronted with the poet in midair, the Walrus Voluptuary, a tree that becomes a woman, a man with the head of a black swan.”

June-July: Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias. Writer Kai Ashante Wilson, who suggested Marias’ work, will join us as a special guest blogger. This is a three-volume novel, and will probably require three separate posts. Here’s a description from PW of volume one: “In his leisurely, incisive latest, these preoccupations fuel a plot with a spy-novel gloss. Jaime Deza, separated from his wife in Madrid, is at loose ends in London when his old friend Sir Peter Wheeler, a retired Oxford don, introduces him to the head of a secret government bureau of elite analysts with the ability to see past people’s facades and predict their future behavior. A cocktail party test proves Deza to be one of the elect, and he goes to work clandestinely observing all sorts of people, from South American generals to pop stars.”

August: Helen Oyeyemi, novel(s) to be determined.

Seven Views of Michael Cisco’s The Narrator

Jeff VanderMeer • January 6th, 2011 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

This is the last of a troika-plus-one of reviews simultaneously posted, without prior discussion, on this blog, on The OF Blog, Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream, and by by guest commentator J.M. McDermott on the Apex blog, with an additional post on Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog.

In Michael Cisco’s The Narrator, the narrator Low is conscripted into an army to fight against the “blackbirds,” who possess lighter-than-air armor. But first, our hero must play a waiting game in a city of cannibal queens and uncanny dead things, with priests for both the living and the dead. The Edak, strange remnants of a mighty imperial power, must be avoided at all costs. Once mobilized, he sets off on a journey that is by turns absurd, surreal, deadly, and one of the great feats of the imagination thus far in this new century. The novel is possibly also the most neglected of the year. Michael Cisco, the Amerikan Kafka, deserves your attention.

1—As a Series of Brilliant Scenes, Paragraphs, and Sentences.

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I’ve rarely come across so many instances where I was simultaneously in the moment of the novel but also recognizing that I was encountering images, snippets, set-pieces unlike any I’d ever read before. Sleepwalkers that bruise the surface of reality as they glide past, assailants who skim the surface of the water in armor that’s lighter than air, conjurings with unexpected consequences, refugees from an insane asylum who assemble as soldiers. “It’s as if a giant were pushing us along the road, blithering to itself.”

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2— As the Nightmare Answer to a Question From a Film. Bonant looms like a cliff out of the water, “projecting suddenly above them, too high to see. It’s like a black egg with an opening in the front—it sweeps toward them, as oblivious to them as a passing god, but the men are suddenly quailing and dizzy. They vomit, collapse clutching their chests and abdomens. Blood drips from their skin, smears their teeth as the gums burst, and they die under the influence of that black ship’s mere proximity.” …And inside, the answer to the riddle of a giant skeleton in the captain’s chair in A—-, “naked with long heavy white limbs. His massive body sits, like a sack of grain, on a marble cenotaph….bleached muscle, wanly shadowed with a lace of veins and arteries.” There are connections that make no sense at all and yet by dint of the power of the imagination and the communicative property of art…make sense. (G + A + MC = absurd heresy)

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3—As an Extended Treatise on the Negation of Meaning that Is War. “An army is a horror. It’s a horrible thing.” There are many battle sequences in The Narrator, and they all translate as action without meaning, sometimes so chaotic that even individual action is hard to discern within the movements. As near as is possible in text, Cisco conveys the jerky, roving, incomprehensible experience of men on foot shooting at each other across broken, often hilly ground. The individual meaninglessness of it and the group rationalization of it. (Group rationalization undercut by the lack of an Order from On High later in the novel, which would’ve driven the point home better.) The result is to come close to conveying the derangement required to wage war…while simultaneously demonstrating that the more a writer repeats battle scenes, the more the result becomes boredom and skipping of pages. That the more you invest in too many similar scenes, the more the meaninglessness recedes and the more purposelessness closes in on the reader, until what was pointed before seems like kids playing with rifles in the backyard. To retreat from purposelessness would mean to advance toward tighter editing. But where to cut?

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4—As a Series of Experiments in Narration, Eel-Slippery. The narrator of The Narrator may not be the narrator of the entire novel. Where does his narration really begin and end? What to make of the asides between chapters? Of meeting another narrator, who in a sense begins to narrate the tale in a different way. What of the accounts of others, which the narrator narrates by adding notes like “an unhurried, slow inhalation” and “Her voice dropped there.” And “She caressed the air by her knees with stiff old hands, seeming to coax the guillotine blade out of the sparkling air so that I for a moment saw it.” Should we be worried? Should we care?

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5—As the Most Surreal Science Fiction Novel Ever. A place that alters all who enter it. Flying things that seem intelligent. A cathedral like a science lab or…something else? The drone of a tower, that can kill. “Those aren’t people. Their guns aren’t guns.”

6—As the Tale of the Ride of the Valkyries, Through the Exploits of Saskia. “Here comes from somewhere behind the asylum, a woman all in armor. She has a short sword with a basket hilt on her right side and a flapped holster on her left hip…A pleasing, and weirdly familiar face. I could say she looks like da Vinci’s ‘Lady with Ermine’ if there had ever been such a thing. Strange thing to think.” If there’s a hero of The Narrator, it is this battle-tested woman who joins the narrator’s army and never falters in her bravery under fire. She’s a deliberate counterpoint to the senselessness of war—an entity with a tactical purpose who brings order by simple focus. “From the window I see Saskia herself darting across the water. The [soldiers] are shooting at her. She zig-zags with astounding speed and in the next moment is right alongside them. She whirls around toward the rear of the boat, gesticulating wildly, then suddenly hurtles back toward us in fantastic back-and-forth curves, her legs pumping.” Saskia is perhaps the only character who remains consistent from beginning to end, and in a sense she gains her own agency as narrator because of it.

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7—As an Extended Dream From Which You Will Not Awaken. “In the distance, a white something bobs in the water asleep. It slobbers and mutters…Its slobberings wriggle through the water like black eels. In a vision no one present can see, the ocean turns to fluid mirror, like mirage, where it crashes over the white figure, the mirror froth rolls away across the surface of the water like mercury and Low’s outstretched hand draws the black saliva from the glistening antiseptic mouth of the sleeper to form elegant, calligraphic loops and ornate signatures of unreal sharpness on the reflecting surface. A down of phosphorescent ash spins from them as they move, forming glowing coils that sink into the black below the silver, whirring and snapping like whips. They seem to drag Low’s arm to and fro. Who is narrating this?”

Saskia. Makemin. Low. Nardac. Punkinflake. Thrushchurl. You’ll remember all of them. By the end, the book will be buried in your skull.

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Curious? Imaginative? Weird? Books for You…to Gift!

Jeff VanderMeer • December 9th, 2010 • Book Reviews, News

I’ve just posted a feature on Omnivoracious entitled “Gift Books for the Imaginative, the Curious, the Weird.” It features around 20 books, some of which you might not have heard of already. Feel free to signal boost the article, as lots of indie presses are featured and many of the writers aren’t household names yet. Alas, Catherynne M. Valente’s Under in the Mere and Ellen Kushner’s The Man With the Knives are not available on Amazon—perhaps out of print? Anyway, both are well worth the effort to seek out and buy.

Below the cut, the entire list–but go check out the feature, since it includes more information on all of them, and more images.

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Michael Moorcock’s Into the Media Web: Best SF/F Nonfiction Book of 2010

Jeff VanderMeer • November 20th, 2010 • Book Reviews

Michael Moorcock’s Into the Media Web: Selected Short Nonfiction, 1956-2006, edited by John Davey, is the best SF/F nonfiction book published this year. Savoy should be commended for publishing it. John Coulthart did the remarkable design, and he’s shown off that design here. Over 700 pages and 300,000 words, with Alan Moore contributing a foreword and Moorcock himself has written a thorough introduction, which includes several interesting photographs.

Moorcock is a post-WWII literary icon and the range of his enthusiasms, dislikes, and passions is on full display in this book. It’s an important and career-spanning creation, and demonstrates the versatility and depth of Moorcock’s talent. The book is listed as out-of-print on Savoy’s site, but you really must seek it out regardless.

Drawn & Quarterly: Pablo Holmberg, Kevin Huizenga, and Brecht Evans

Jeff VanderMeer • November 20th, 2010 • Book Reviews, Photos

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(OMG–are those mushroom dwellers?!?!?)

Thousands of books arrive at our house every year because of the various reviewing gigs like the NYT and Omnivoracious, and because of Ann editing Weird Tales. Some publishers, time and again, become anonymous in that context. The books all look the same, or there’s something about the format that becomes anonymous.

Others stand out by a mile because they’re recognizably coming at readers from a unique or interesting perspective, and because they vary their formats and design approaches while remaining true to some central focus.

Drawn & Quarterly always puts out cool books. When they come in the door, I can’t just throw them on the stack.

Today, for example, we got Eden by Pablo Holmberg, The Wild Kingdom by Kevin Huizenga, and The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens. The art style of each, the world view behind each, and the size of each book are entirely different. But they share the D&Q vision. They’ve all got great end papers. They each are in the format best-suited for them (Wild Kingdom as a little hardcover, cover image printed on the boards, for example.) Take a look at some samples below, and definitely look for all three. Extremely awesome stuff—and am enjoying the kind of “eavesdropping on party conversation” style of the Evens.

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Hiromi Goto Guest Blogging on Amazon’s Omnivoracious Book Blog

Jeff VanderMeer • November 19th, 2010 • Book Reviews

Hiromi Goto, Tiptree Award winner and author of the cross-over YA/adult novel Half World from earlier this year is guest blogging on Amazon’s book blog—and it’s great stuff.

Her first post is about romance or lack thereof in dark fantasy, specifically that her novel doesn’t have that element. (Just one of the things Half World doesn’t do that makes me like it so much.)

Goto’s second post is about a realistic approach to fantasy, which in some ways goes hand-in-hand with the first post. I agree with everything she says there. It’s one of the issues facing fantasists writing today—which is to say there’s this kind of escapist view of how things should happen that tends to destabilize some novels and introduce gaping plot holes as well, or to cover up plot holes with some fantasy element. Anyway, great post.

Check in over at the book blog on Monday and Tuesday when Goto talks about how fantasy is horror’s BBF and some really wonderful and poetic parting thoughts on the genesis of Half World.

Some readers may have missed Half World when it came out in the spring. Now’s your chance to pick up this unique and powerful novel, which also comes with pretty darn cool illustrations.

If you’re so inclined, give these posts some signal boost—I think they’re definitely worth it.

Bull Spec? BULL SO!

Jeff VanderMeer • November 12th, 2010 • Book Reviews

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Editor-publisher Samuel Montgomery-Blinn recently sent me Bull Spec #3, a new speculative fiction magazine that has featured writers like Joe Haldeman, Natania Barron, Lavie Tidhar, D. Harlan Wilson, Katherine Sparrow (whose work is seriously underrated), Kaolin Fire, John Kessel, and more.

Starting a magazine with a hardcopy presence is probably seen as running counter to the Evidence, but in actual fact that’s one reason why it might be a good time to use this approach—simply because most new genre mags are web-only, or web with a resulting annual anthology.

I have to admit that although I know and respect the editor, I’ve been in the field for 25 years now and I’ve seen dozens and dozens of start-up publications last an issue or two and go the way of the dodo. So I’ve been supportive but also coldly clinical about its chances of sticking around. It’s a tough, tough area of publishing.

So, encountering the third issue made me sit up and take notice. Oh, this magazine might just be around in a year—if it gets sufficient signal boost. All I know is, the little warning bells that always go off in my head when encountering something I’m not sure will have longevity have been snuffed out.

Also, Bull Spec is enjoyably and admirably eclectic. An interview with David Drake would not be the first thing I’d guess would be in the same issue with a story by Sparrow, but it works. The organizing impulse is a roving eye for stuff that’s interesting. The magazine deserves your support.

Bull spec? BULL SO!

Triple Review: Matt Bell’s Story Collection How They Were Found

Jeff VanderMeer • November 10th, 2010 • Book Reviews

How They Were Found by Matt Bell is the debut collection by a talented story writer whose work often straddles the gap between realism and fantasy or horror. Formally innovative, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and Best American Mystery Stories. The stories range from the tale of a nineteenth-century minister creating a mechanical messiah to the documenting of a strange and failing military outpost. In advance praise for the collection, Laird Hunt called it “fierce, unflinching, funny.”

This is the second book selected for review by Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and myself. You can read the entries on this book by the other two here and here.

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Amazon’s Best Books of 2010: Top 10 Science Fiction/Fantasy

Jeff VanderMeer • November 4th, 2010 • Book Reviews, News

Amazon has just revealed their top 10 SF/Fantasy books of the year, as well as a general top 100, and I’ve posted two blog entries showcasing all ten titles. The writers on the list are Michal Ajvaz, Charles Yu, Karen Lord, Felix Gilman, N.K. Jemisin, Grace Krilanovich, Dexter Palmer, Nnedi Okorafor, Brian Conn, and Richard Kadrey. The order kept changing and if I had my druthers the list wouldn’t be numbered at all, but in the end Michal Ajvaz won out. The list reflects consultation with Amazon editors and my own reading throughout the year.

Ajvaz’s The Golden Age was a brilliant act of imagination that showcased this Czech writer’s amazing talent—a career-defining book. Charles Yu single-handedly revived the time travel story with a short novel both inventive and poignant. Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is a miracle of storytelling ability and compression and generosity. The dialogue and characters and quality of writing in Felix Gilman’s novel took me by surprise several times, and the book displays complexity and moral ambiguity at every turn. N.K. Jemisin’s wonderful Hundred Thousand Kingdoms plots a non-trad course for fantasy in the twenty-first century. Grace Krilanovich created an amazing phantasmagorical Pacific Northwest in her The Orange Eats Creeps. Dexter Palmer revitalized retro-futurism by way of The Tempest and his own absurdist imagination, while Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death features a brave and original heroine and a unique, often heart-breaking story. Finally, Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars is a awesomely strange post-capitalist surreal SF mosaic novel and Richard Kadrey continues to mix pop culture and genre tropes in bold, high-energy recombinations.

Anyway, I’ll post about a “second ten” of worthy novels next week, as well as posts on anthologies and story collections before the end of the year. I’ve also invited each writer on the top 10 list to submit their own top 10 list—either of books read during the year, favorite books, or books specifically from 2010–and will post those on Omnivoracious as they come in.

Interesting Juxtapositions: Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age and Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran

Jeff VanderMeer • October 30th, 2010 • Book Reviews

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What do we mean by slow- versus fast-paced in the books we read? What is the nature of “action” versus “introspection”? Where do nonfiction and fiction have commonalities and interstices?

These are just a few of the general questions I have been asking myself as I re-read and savor Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age, a novel about an imaginary island in the Atlantic and begin to read for the first time Tim Robinson’s two-volume Stones of Aran, Pilgrimmage (his trek around the edge) and also Labyrinth (his journey in the interior), about the Aran islands off the coast of Ireland.

Both the Ajvaz and the Robinson are meditations of a sort, both are recursive, both encompass folktale, history, biology, anthropology, geology, architecture, and a myriad of other elements to tell their stories.

Readers who glut themselves on one type of book—thrillers, for example—will need to adjust to the pacing of both authors. However, read in concert, the Ajvaz and the Robinson place the reader in a different context with regard to pacing. The Robinson is so wonderfully and intensely poetic, without being in the least bit florid, that you must read and re-read each chapter for fear of missing something. The Ajvaz has a kind of dreamy intensity, with a specificity that lies somewhere other than the landscapes.

The effect is as if Robinson were the rock you hold onto to in the middle of the Ajvaz River, which glints and glides along hypnotically. You can better appreciate the pacing of the Ajvaz in the context of Robinson, and you soon begin to notice the changes in that pacing much more acutely than if you had paired the novel with, say, Elmore Leonard.

Similarly, the Ajvaz, with its somewhat different focus and different idea of specificity of detail, complements the Robinson by its blurring of fact and fiction, so that in returning to the Robinson you look for fiction in the fact, and you expect story where normally you would see only description.

Which is to say, you have now entered the real-time of the authors’ vision, no longer resistant, and now that you’re synched to it, you are able to appreciate the amazing, strange, and at times transcendent treasures to be found within each book.

Both Ajvaz and Robinson know how to stop Time. Both know how to make a single moment an epiphany, a single detail. Both know how to immerse the reader, if the reader is willing to give him or herself up to being immersed.

Which leads me to the question, what juxtapositions in your reading have you found most useful, unsettling, or revelatory?