Book Reviews

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?

Centipede Press: Luxurious Limited Editions of the Tems, Farris, Kuttner

Jeff VanderMeer • October 20th, 2010 • Book Reviews

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Centipede Press continues to put out beautiful editions, four of which just arrived in the mail: In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction, Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem, Dragonfly by John Farris, Sacrifice by John Farris, Masters of the Weird Tale: Henry Kuttner

Some additional photos of the lovely detail of these books below…

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John le Carre’s My Kind of Traitor

Jeff VanderMeer • October 14th, 2010 • Book Reviews

Two years ago I was in the bookstore searching for something to read and my eye alighted upon a whole row of John le Carré novels. I decided to give them a try, and since I tend to gorge when I read, I bought the first twelve of them right then and there.

I read the first one, didn’t think much of it, skipped to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, liked it but didn’t love it—the ending was too melodramatic and stagey for me—and then read The Looking Glass War and was, from the opening scene, blown the f— away. The use of coincidence for deepening crisis, the ineptitude of the players in the spy services, the desperation of the resulting mission, including the inadequacy of preparation—all of this had a maturity and kind of controlled insanity to it that appealed to me.

I then hungrily devoured (and savored) A Small Town in Germany, which I still think is one of le Carré’s best novels, with so many places where, as a writer, he impressed the hell out of me with his use of craft, while still delivering on an emotional level. By the time I hit A Small Town in Germany, I was having to re-read sections and take notes on all kinds of things he was doing stylistically, approaches to narrative and character, the way he doesn’t usually let character movements be generic, not to mention the way he describes speech in interesting ways.

If we were talking about a great boxer, we’d talk about all of the small things he does well. Like, that little half-step to the left after delivering a punch while turning his shoulder, or the almost imperceptible feint to the right that results in the opponent not just missing but leaving himself open for a counterpunch. Or the way he leans on his opponent while on the ropes to tire him out. Le Carré is that great boxer for me. I see all of the little things he does in his fiction and how that sets up the bigger things, and I’m in awe. So much appears so effortless, and yet it takes monumental effort and practice.

After A Small Town in Germany, I got blissfully lost in the George Smiley novels and didn’t come up for air for six months. Looking at some of those novels, there are fewer pages unmarked than marked. I took at least two years off of the learning curve of acquiring the kind of technique on display, just by reading and re-reading those novels.

Then I came to A Perfect Spy and le Carré kicked my ass again, but in a different way. He found a way to merge the spy thriller and what in the literary mainstream would be called a detailed, complex, and intense portrait of a man from childhood to the present-day of the novel. It’s riveting, moving stuff, and one of my favorite novels.

Although not all of his recent output has hit those highs, le Carré continues to impress me and to motivate me. Now in his 80s, he’s continuing to engage with the world as it currently exists—to dive into the moral ambiguity and controversy—not how it existed when he wrote his most iconic novels about the Cold War. Sometimes his work is on a smaller scale now, sometimes you can see the joins. But then you read something like the first sixty pages of his latest, Our Kind of Traitor, and your mouth drops open again. That first sixty pages is as adroit and skillful an opening to a novel as I’ve read in the last year.

Anyway, I’ve posted the first of a few short pieces on the man’s work on Omnivoracious, and as I post more I’ll try to also post here, if I have time. I’d like to mirror the posts from a reader’s perspective on Omnivoracious with ones from the writer’s perspective on Ecstatic Days.

Reading Gravity’s Rainbow: First 75 Pages, Initial Contact

Jeff VanderMeer • October 13th, 2010 • Book Reviews

“Entertainment” and “pleasure” are somewhat devalued words when it comes to reading novels, subject to inflation both through overuse and through association with commercial fiction. With that caveat, I am being mightily entertained, and deriving much pleasure from, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’ve come to the novel after many months of speed reading and of fragmented reading, and reading that lived up to the promise of the text: which is to say, if the text itself isn’t doing much interesting, then why not power-skim it? It only matters what’s going to happen next anyway.

But seventy-five pages into Gravity’s Rainbow (and 18,000 words into my next [short] novel, which is creating lightning bolts in my brain), Pynchon’s novel has proven resistant to restless eyes, to sideways glances, to anything other than slow, immersive reading, and I’m thankful for it. Is it effect or cause that during this time I’m developing a resentment toward answering email, or performing any tasks not connected to reading or writing?

The first thing about the novel that strikes me is the language—its precision, power, and ambition in support of the multiple ways in which Pynchon approaches entry into narrative and character. Its rollicking good (black) humor and assuredness also impress. It’s hard for a text to make me laugh, disturb me, and move me all in the space of a few pages.

What makes the novel so difficult? A lot of characters, and many abrupt transitions into other points of view or into internal reveries that can jolt the reader initially.

Which is fine with me—I’m willing to be ignorant for awhile. I’m willing to live in the dark.** I’m also willing to go back and search for clues, which is why I have now stopped forward progress to re-read the first 75 pages, after which I’ll lurch forward with the context further strengthened in my mind.

Gravity’s Rainbow, in my humble opinion, forces the reader to adapt to its strategies, and the first thing it requires is a careful read. If you’re not willing to give it a patient, honest read, there’s no point in starting.

Other basic ground rules I’ve found useful.

—Don’t assume who the POV character is at the beginning of a scene until Pynchon makes it explicitly clear.

—Don’t expect the normal context and anchors and foundations provided by most authors, at the points at which you might expect them elsewhere.

—Therefore, be prepared not to understand a scene fully until later, when other clues or scenes illuminate it.

—Therefore, be at peace with the idea of being puzzled, even deeply perplexed, and try to enjoy the prose in the moment.

—Further, the lack of context will mean you encounter scenes that will make you deeply uncomfortable, even upset, until you find the later key that puts it in the proper context. Even then, you may feel vaguely disturbed.

—A re-read, especially “regrouping” re-reads while encountering the text for the first time, is a good idea, as this will prove essential to fortifying connections, making bridges between events and characters, and in general bringing the novel into focus.

—Recognize that some terms you may not grok because they’re specific to the World War II era, or specific to the idioms of writers working in the 1970s. Treat such terms as learning opportunities, or treat them like the small, benign, knotted tumors of made-up words you find in some forms of science fiction.

Yesssss, very basic, but has worked well for me. Once I’ve gotten back to page 75, I’ll post about the experience more directly…i.e., engage the text.

**My first major reading experience was The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the age of eight or nine. My parents gave it to me and in some ways it was a bit like a Rosetta Stone combined with the monolith from 2001: I didn’t understand all of it at that age, the vocabulary being beyond my reading skills a lot of the time, but I understood enough to be intrigued and to keep reading, and in some ways the mystery of what I didn’t know made the novels more compelling than they would’ve been otherwise, because I had to create connections, motivations, and narrative to fill in my blind spots. Indeed, my most complete understanding of the trilogy, in a future reading, left me sad and disappointed because the reality of what was on the page couldn’t compete with what I’d conjured up in my mind (even though it was still triggered by Tolkien’s own imagination).

P.S. This Book Is Restoring Mah Brain Powers to Mah Brain

Jeff VanderMeer • October 6th, 2010 • Book Reviews

Every year since I was 28, right after I’d finished the novel V, I have pulled out the above novel and tried to read it…and failed for some reason, putting it aside after about four pages. As part of my “Restore Jeff’s Brain Powers to His Brain” campaign, I picked it up again this past weekend…and I’ve soldiered on past page 75. This time I decided to just let it wash over me and hope I’d find an anchor somewhere…and I did. To the point where I’m now going back to page one and “rewriting” it with mah new brain powers to add in any context I didn’t pick up on the first time around, before moving forward from page 75.

Why now? No idea. Perhaps something I read in the last year was the software I needed to load before shoving this advanced shit into my mind. Anyway, I’m loving every minute of it, and I’m especially loving having to go slow and to parse meaning out things. And I’m even more loving the fact that there’s a huge freakin’ dream-monster haunting a diplomat that just comes out of nowhere! And a secret mythology of bombs! And this weirdo growing bananas. And crazy experiments. But that it isn’t gonzo, it isn’t lightweight, it isn’t just farce. I think I’m in love.

Okay, carry on with your lives. I’ve got to pack for Richmond.

P.P.S. Gio Clairval and I sold our collaborative story, “Lizard Dance,” to Fantasy Magazine. (I must add that Gio did the heavy lifting.)

The Orange Eats Creeps: Three Creeps Eat the Orange

Jeff VanderMeer • October 4th, 2010 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

This is one of a troika of reviews simultaneously posted, without prior discussion, on this blog, on The OF Blog, and Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream, with an additional post on Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog.

“The ’90s Pacific Northwest is refracted through a dark mirror, where meth and madness hash it out in the woods. A band of hobo vampire junkies roam the blighted landscape—trashing supermarket breakrooms, praying to the altar of Poison Idea and GG Allin at basement rock shows, crashing senior center pancake breakfasts—locked in the thrall of Robitussin trips and their own wild dreams. A girl with drug-induced ESP…searches for her disappeared foster sister along ‘The Highway That Eats People,’ stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ ‘Bob’ and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.” – The Orange Eats Creeps, cover copy

With The Orange Eats the Creeps by first-time novelist Grace Krilanovich, we’re not in Wonderland anymore: we’re fully through the Looking Glass and out the other side. One of my favorite novelists, Steve Erickson, writes in his introduction, “The exhilaration of such a novel is nearly beyond calculation. If a new literature is at hand then it might as well begin here.” But I find his associating the novel with the Decadents and the Beats to be perhaps more helpful, and it’s in these connections that the novel began to make sense for me. Take, for example, this early paragraph:

“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”

Or, “We not only devour each other, but we bite, hard. We’re blood-hungry teenagers; our rage knows no bounds and coagulates the pulse of our victims on contact. we devour them, too; the bodies of mortals become drained when they reach our fangs. Our cause is nothing…I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now. I ride the rails with a bunch of immoral shitheads, hopping freight trains, secreted away in rail cars across this country. We have no home, no parents. I can’t remember being a child, maybe I never was one. But I’m sure I’ll never die; I get older, my body stays the same. My spine breaks and then gets back together. I have the Hepatitis, I give it to everyone, but it never will actually get me. Our kind doesn’t die from anything, all we do is die all the time.”

Or, “The city smelled like a wet paper bag. That great big dirty rag hung up in the sky, casting a shadow over the middle of town. A motel was strangely and inexplicably equipped with a smokestack and it spit streams of pigeon-shit colored smoke up into the sky.”

Rimbaud, Huysmans, Kiernan, Brite–they’re all in there, along with a very dark, almost malevolent sense of humor. Luckily, the author doesn’t hamstring the text by trying to pull back, trying to make the narrator seem nice at any point or non-judgmental, or even the text itself.

The novel also has an attachment to both specific detail of a sometimes disturbing kind—rendered in a way that highlights this disturbance but by sheer dint of being so well-defined makes it also compelling and at times oddly beautiful—and surprising changes of direction and emphasis within paragraphs and within pages.

For example, the narrator indulges in a brief reverie about seagulls…”vague, blurry pods some distance overhead appearing out of the vapor, emerging as fuzzy flecks out of black, hundreds of them tossing up so much racket, visually too with the lame half-falling way they fly. I was sure something horrible had happened to produce this; perhaps a giant dumpster had been disturbed a mile or so off, behind a Safeway, a huge noise in itself, where the gulls had become increasingly upset to scatter like flecks of ash from an amoral fire.”…which is followed by, “In other news, historically speaking, I originally turned vampire on my fourteenth birthday three years ago, as a symptom of, or maybe a response to, things getting really bad at home.” Such juxtapositions not only create a kind of lovely absurdism but, in terms of fleshing out a character that can sustain a novel, do an excellent job of conveying narrator-as-teen-girl.

All of this—the description, the juxaposition of the real and the surreal—also begins to make the reader see the world anew, begin to think that perhaps our gaze is too jaded and that were Earth another planet and we visitors to it, we might see our urban spaces in this way. We might, in fact, understand the true ugliness of them; how much do we edit out?

As for other characters, there’s a sense of men as predators that invests the novel with unease and a distinct point of view. Men are generally obstacles to get around, threats to avoid or overcome, or sources of short-term security or satisfaction. Some observations are judgmentally hilarious and transform the real world into something stranger and more absurdist: “Truckers are mustachioed weirdos. They sleep in tiny apartments wedged between their big-ass engine and whatever they’ve got hitched back there. They settle into these metal cubes of gassy, local air with maybe a small TV and square blankets and just wait it out with all their lumber chained up behind them.”

It’s possibly the time at which I came to The Orange Eats Creeps, but in a way curiously similar to Proust—a writer about as different from Krilanovich as you can get—the novel carries you with it; you have to let the prose wash over you. Still, The Orange Eats Creeps is an urgent novel–in the best Decadent tradition, it is describing the underbelly, and documents the disease and filth of society, with the beauty of its language comes from tackling ugly things head-on. It’s visceral, tactile, disturbing, and thankfully not in any sense like the kind of “moral fiction” praised by John Gardner. (Fiction has no responsibility to be of use, to be political, to be social, to be sociable, to be anything than some reflection of some version of a truth.)

There’s, as mentioned, then, that strange beauty you find at the heart of the best surrealist and decadent texts, descriptions both effective and deliberately over the top like “Their collective misery built a house of flames in the middle of the forest…a tent of burning fibers braided through with suffering. The corpulent membrane blew up like a balloon and sat empty like an incubator of death trapped at the bottom of the trees—which hissed, Remember, it’s black, it’s always black.” In some ways, it feels like what would happen if the short story writer Kelly Link went nuts, developed a insatiable appetite for visionary horror fiction, and then became a devotee of William Burroughs. It also has a texture that shares commonalities with visionary painters like Myrtle Vondamitz III. (Not to mention, some confluence with odd indie comics creators who tend toward the boschian.)

By now you may have noticed I haven’t spoken much about the plot of The Orange Eats Creeps, and perhaps that’s because the David Lynch description above is also apt. The excitement and originality of this novel are created by the reader’s explorations of it along the way, through the narrator’s unique perspective–her way of seeing (and not seeing) things, and the language, which continues to surprise and challenge long after you’ve finished the book.

“The things you’ve made–your creations, little minions, little lumps of cloth, little masks—will leave you. You can’t really own them even though they are shadows of your body. Symptoms that will be shed, forming the residue of your life on the surface of your existence, like all surfaces that your eyes have coated with their gaze. Like a snake shedding its skin, your residue forms a ghost image all over town, everywhere you have ever been. Don’t fight it. The ghost guide will lead you all over the world in connecting shadows, a chain link of dark felt memories.”

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar: Perfect Gift Book

Jeff VanderMeer • September 20th, 2010 • Book Reviews

I’ve just posted a short review of Amal El-Mohtar’s lovely The Honey Month on Omnivoracious. It’s just a beautiful little book, and the kind of thing you should not only sample yourself but also keep in mind as gifts for friends, and during the holiday season. The book’s flying a little under the radar, and I think it’s the kind of thing that’ll be a great surprise for the readers in your life.

You can see a composite of some of the art here.