Reviews and Features: Mieville’s Embassytown, Stacey Levine, John Scalzi, and More

A few links to features, interviews, and reviews of mine posted recently.

—A short review of Pascal Girard’s study in high school reunion embarrassment, Reunion. This is a graphic novel in the cringe-inducing mode of Ricky Gervais.

—A fun interview with John Scalzi about his new novel Fuzzy Nation that allows me to ask the immortal question “Why Fuzzy, why now?”

—An interview with one of my favorite short story writers Stacey Levine about her new collection The Girl With Brown Fur. Including Moonbounce.

—A review of China Mieville’s Embassytown is now up on the B&N Review site and also, oddly enough, the Christian Science Monitor. I thought a lot of it was brilliant, but a third of it was just moving people around the board in a not-well-thought-out way. I don’t like to talk in reviews about how an alternate version of a novel might have played out, but (1) keeping the past-present structure throughout, (2) not killing off a main human and a main alien character and replacing them with pale substitutes we don’t care about, and (3) making the viewpoint narrator’s function more central to the action of the last third would have fixed it all. That said, it’s got more cool ideas on one page than most SF novels have in 300, it’s incredibly imaginative, and the writing is top-notch. I’d rather have read this novel despite the flaws than any number of others.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce: Brilliant Novel

I reviewed Graham Joyce’s Shirley Jackson Award-nominated The Silent Land: A novelrecently for The Washington Post. I thought it was a brilliant book, especially considering that two characters have to carry the whole thing. It’s also, from a writer’s perspective, an amazing example of control, and of writing skill, all in the service of the characters and the emotional resonance of the novel. Few writers have the chops to pull off what Joyce has pulled off, and I’ll be using chapters from The Silent Land in future workshops as examples of various writing techniques.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In Graham Joyce’s brave and ultimately heartbreaking new novel, “The Silent Land,” a young married couple trapped in a deserted Alpine village must come to terms with strange events that test the strength of their relationship. In its melding of the bizarre and the personal, this tour de force invites comparison to the work of Haruki Murakami and Ian McEwan.

West Coast Book Haul: Lisa Goldstein to Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter to Banksy


As you might imagine, even though we tried hard we wound up acquiring more books while out on the West Coast. Two favorite authors, both picked up at the Tachyon home offices in San Fran (they have a laser gun now and really interesting process flows on post-it notes). The Goldstein doesn’t come out until June—it looks really interesting.

Michael Blumlein
The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein


The FOGCon book room, expertly run by Keyan Bowes, had many wonderful dealer tables, but the one that I must confess made my heart flutter a little was PM Press. They’ve got marvelous lines of left-wing nonfiction and, more recently, fiction that includes a lot of edgy or surreal SF/fantasy. I didn’t mean to bring home a cockroach killer, but who the heck could pass up such a fine-looking William Morris bio?! On the right is Crucified Dreams, which looks to be a very cool dark noir/horror antho, from Tachyon.

Crucified Dreams edited by Joe R. Lansdale
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

[Read more…]

Four Views of Fantastical/SFnal Fiction in 2010: Locus Online Best-of Lists

book image

Last year, I did a comprehensive overview of genre books for Locus Online. This time, in the context of writing a SF/Fantasy column for the NYTBR, reviewing for LAT, WaPo, and B&N Review, along with being the major contributor to the Amazon top 10, I didn’t particularly like the feeling of being semi-ubiquitous. So I suggested to the marvelous Mark Kelly that I just do a list of the best fantasy and that getting at least three other views with a bias, respectively, toward SF, YA, and, finally, heroic fantasy would be a good idea.

The result is great, I think, because it means more and different books get additional attention. Here, then, are the full best-of lists posted on Locus. They’re also a useful counterpoint to and/or reinforcement of the Locus recommended list. To buy and the full-on articles, click the four header links, although I’ve provided buying links for my list just cause I’m an Amazon associate.

Fantasy in 2010, A Baker’s Dozen – Jeff VanderMeer
Best Novel of the Year (3-way tie):

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz(Dalkey Archive Press)
The Narrator by Michael Cisco
(Civil Coping Mechanisms)
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
(Small Beer Press)

Ten More of the Best:
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman(Tor)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
and The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin(Orbit)
Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey(Eos)
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich(Two Dollar Radio)
The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee(Orbit)
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen(Random House)
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor(DAW )
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer(St. Martin’s)
Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo(Peter Owen)
A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter by Peter Straub(Pegasus)

Heroic Fantasy–Larry Nolen
1. Carlos Gardini, Tríptico de Trinidad (Bibliopolis, Spain)
2. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit)
3. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (eds.), Warriors (Tor)
4. Paul Kearney, Corvus (Solaris)
5. Andrzej Sapkowski, La Dama del Lago, volumen 2 (Alamut, Spain)
6. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Stonewielder (Transworld, UK)
7. Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders (eds.), Swords & Dark Magic (Harper Voyager)
8. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Salute the Dark (Pyr; Tor UK)
9. Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings (Tor)

Top 10–Gwenda Bond (with an emphasis on YA, although not exclusively)1. White Cat by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books)
2. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
3. Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves (Simon Pulse)
4. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books)
5. Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve (Scholastic)
6. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown)
7. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
8. What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer Press)
9. The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook (Berkley)
10. Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)

Top 10 SF Novels – Adam Roberts (in alpha order)Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Project Itoh, Harmony (Haikasoru)
Tom McCarthy, C (Jonathan Cape; Knopf)
Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (Gollancz; Pyr)
Hannu Rajaniemi The Quantum Thief (Gollancz)
Francis Spufford Red Plenty (Faber)
Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn (Orbit)
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe (Canongate; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorama (Melville)
Charles Yu, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe (Corvus; Pantheon)

Five Unique Books: Ducornet, Agus, Appanah, Chapman, Kang


Five rather intriguing and unique books have entered the house the past few days, and I’d like to put some special emphasis on them. I haven’t read them yet, but have sampled all of them.

Netsukeby Rikki Ducornet—One of our iconic surrealists, Ducornet has gone very dark this time, with a tale of a psychologist who “seduces both patients and strangers,” in a feat of very deep characterization. A strange and unusual book.

From the Land of the Moonby Milena Agus—Set in Sardinia, this is another treasure from Europa editions by the looks of it. A young woman reflecting on the life of her grandmother, telling a sweeping story that’s charming and painful. A short novel but a grand scope.

The Last Brother: A Novelby Nathana Appanah—Set during World War II on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, this novel, from a sampling, is both devastating and beautifully written. The book follows the life of nine-year-old Raj who is put in a prison camp and meets a Jewish refugee named David. The novel focuses on Raj’s life in the camp and the two boys’ attempts to escape.

Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imaginationby Minsoo Kang—A wonderful short story writer, Kang has turned his hand to nothing less than a history of automata that looks absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on Alexandria, Masahiro Mori, Vaucanson, Borelli, Kempelen, Capek, Metropolis, and more. (I’m honored that my “Dradin, In Love” is mentioned on page 46.)

Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto: A Novelby Maile Chapman—I’ve read Chapman’s short stories and they’re brillliant, especially the one we reprinted in Best American Fantasy. This first novel made a Guardian list of best first novels while being criminally under-appreciated here. Junot Diaz says it best: “Maile Chapman is one of my favorite writers and in [her novel] she has given us an eerie gift…It is a superb hallucinatory piercing, an ominous dispatch from that Gothic frontier of the Female Body.” The novel’s set in a convalescent hospital in Finland and the writing, again from a sampling, is brilliant. Compared also to early McEwan and Highsmith.


Like what you’ve read here? Consider donating to Leviathan 5.

Three Bloggers Blogging: Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer

This is the fourth in a series of reviews done by myself, Larry Nolen, and Paul Smith. Each of us (along with the occasional guest reviewer) reads and reviews the book selected independently of the others’ opinions. Larry and Paul’s reviews may be found at the respective links above, along with a summary post on Amazon’s book blog. Next up: the work of Eric Basso.

Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer, first published by Komikero in the Philippines, was finally picked up by SLG in North America last year. The four-book comic now collected as a graphic novel tells the story of a family of chickens and their interactions with human beings in the aftermath of chickens everywhere mysteriously becoming intelligent. Thankfully, Alanguilan doesn’t waste time trying to explain why chickens have become intelligent. Instead, he employs a structure that follows chicken Jake Gallo’s quest years later to understand his father, Elmer, and also to understand the horrors and mercies of the past. Elmer’s left behind a diary, and Jake reads through it, Alanguilan using flashback sequences to devastating effect, their power in part due to the contrast with the scenes set in the relative normalcy of the present.

There are many moments of pathos in Elmer, scenes that will stick with me for a long time, but perhaps the one that got to me the most also explains why Elmer is so effective in presenting seriously and with great skill an idea that in summary seems destined for humor. Jake’s sick mother, from her bed, recounts what those first moments of sentience were like: “It was as if someone turned on a light. Like waking up from a long sleep and you don’t remember who you are, where you were…and what time or day it was. I couldn’t really remember anything. Except that I was hungry. As if I was always hungry. I wanted to eat. It was a desire that seemed to completely consume me. Then the screaming began…”

This leads to one of the great page-turns in recent comics history, when she realizes she’s in a poultry kill line.


This style used by Alanguilan is so important to Elmer. It is detailed but clean, never cluttered. It allows the text to support a realism in the art that makes the reader move past any doubt about the seriousness of the intent. This style also allows Alanguilan to give his chicken characters personality without reducing them to caricatures. The faces are expressive while still being specifically chicken-like. Some readers will want to read parallels to real-life bigotry and real-life events, and I think this is secondarily Alanguilan’s purpose. But the primary challenge he faced was to tell a story about chickens that become intelligent, and it’s from the foundation of making the reader believe in that story that any other effects are at all possible. In other words, Elmer can become metaphorical only after it’s become real.

Elmer is also solidly about family. All the great art in the world wouldn’t matter if Alanguilan didn’t keep the spotlight firmly on this family of chickens and their bond to human allies. Son Jake is a good kid, the father is admirable if at times distant, the rest all have their quirks, their foibles, the things that make them distinctive. You genuinely care about these people, and you worry terribly about what they go through. A real depth of feeling comes through on the pages, a sense of the author knowing these characters very well. To accomplish this in the short span of a relatively slim graphic novel is nearly miraculous and speaks to the level of the creator’s skill.

I have to admit that I teared up a few times reading and re-reading Elmer, something that almost never happens to me.

Note my prior post about the limited edition version of Elmer that the creator so kindly sent to me.

Eric Basso’s in the House

Over the next two or three months, I’ll be reading most of these books by surrealist/gothic/weirdlit writer Eric Basso. Joining me in posting reviews will be Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and Matthew Pridham. If you want to read along, order some of them (we’re especially focusing on the fiction, nonfiction, and plays), post about them, and I’ll crosslink on the Amazon book blog.







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

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

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.


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.”


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)


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?


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?


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.


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.


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

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.

[Read more…]