Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books read, 2014

1. Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
2. Terry Pratchett, Snuff
3. Stephen King, The Shining
4. Lorrie Moore, Bark 
5. Jeffrey Ford, The Physiognomy
6. David R. George III, Revelation and Dust 
7. Kim Newman, Johnny Alucard: Anno Dracula 1976-1991
8. Steve Rasnic Tem, Onion Songs
9. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
10. Jams Tiptree, Jr., Brightness Falls from the Air 
11. James Tiptree, Jr., The Starry Rift

1. David Sedaris, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
2. Octavia Butler, Kindred
3. Altariel, A Game of Chess  
4. Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories

1. Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
2.  Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History
3.  Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel
4.  Jennifer DuBois, Cartwheel
5. Lauren Owen, The Quick

1. Polly Courtney, Feral Youth
2.  Sarah Langan, The Keeper

1. Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World
2.  Rainbow Rowell, Landline
3. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings
4. Joe Abercrombie, Half a King
5. Georgette Heyer, Frederica
6. Dorothy Dunnett, Queen's Play
7. Leah Hager Cohen, No Book But the World
8. Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
9. Graham Joyce, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit
10.  J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
11. Robin Hobb, Fool's Assassin

1. Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
2. Theodore Sturgeon, Some of Your Blood
3. Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon
4. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
5. Bel Kaufman, Love, Etc.
6. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell*
7. P. D. James, Cover Her Face
8. Laline Paull, The Bees
9. Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, The From Hell Companion
10. Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
11. Chris Beckett, Dark Eden
12. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics: and Other Essays
13. Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
14. Daniel Levine, Hyde
15. Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link 
16. Matt Cardin (editor), Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti

1. Nick Mamatas, Love is the Law
2. Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave
3. Alissa Nutting, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
4. Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door
5. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
6. Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs
7. Reggie Oliver, Virtue in Danger
8. Jeffrey Ford, Memoranda
9. Alissa Nutting, Tampa
10. Brendan Connell, The Galaxy Club
11. Philip K. Dick, The Crack in Space
12. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
13. Shirley Jackson, Other Stories and Sketches (from the Library of America volume)
14. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
15. Georgette Heyer, Venetia
16. Michael Marshall, The Lonely Dead
17. Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
18. Brendan Connell, Miss Homicide Plays the Flute
19. Georgette Heyer, Footsteps in the Dark
20. Grady Hendrix, Horrorstor
21. Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Sanctuary
22. Jo Walton, Farthing
23. Ian R. MacLeod, The Summer Isles

1. John Joseph Adams (editor), The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
2. Caitlin R. Kiernan, Daughter of Hounds
3. Kage Baker, Gods and Pawns
4. Ian R. MacLeod, Journeys
5. Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Sorcery and Cecelia
6. Sherman Alexie, Flight
7. Sherman Alexie, War Dances
8. Sue Grafton, "D" is for Deadbeat*
9. Jo Walton, Ha'penny
10. Jo Walton, Half a Crown
11. Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian
12. Edward St Aubyn, Never Mind
13. Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden*
14. Edward St Aubyn, Bad News
15. Edward St Aubyn, Some Hope
16. Kage Baker, Sky Coyote*
17. Kage Baker, Mendoza in Hollywood*
18. Kage Baker, The Graveyard Game*
19. Kage Baker, Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers*
20. Kage Baker, The Life of the World to Come*
21. Kage Baker, The Children of the Company*
22. Kage Baker, The Machine's Child*
23. Kage Baker, The Sons of Heaven*
24. Kage Baker, In the Company of Thieves

1. Angela Pneuman, Lay It on My Heart
2. Edward St Aubyn, Mother's Milk
3. Edward St Aubyn, At Last
4. Charlotte Mosley (editor), The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
5. Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest
6. Ha Jin, A Map of Betrayal
7. Matteo Pericoli et al, Windows on the World
8. Avi Steinberg, The Lost Book of Mormon
9. Jonathan Carroll, Bathing the Lion
10. William Gibson, The Peripheral
11. Kim Newman, An English Ghost Story
12. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

1. Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
2. Jane Smiley, Some Luck
3. Maeve Binchy, Maeve's Times: Selected Writings from the Irish Times
4. Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman
5. Deanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine
6. Chuck Palahniuk, Beautiful You
7. Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set
8. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
9. Alice Munro, Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

1. Laurie R. King, Dreaming Spies
2. Joan Didion, Salvador*
3. Joan Didion, Miami*

1. Jose Saramago, Skylight
2. Matt Karlov, The Unbound Man
3. Nicholas Bourbaki, If
4. Joan Didion, Where I Was From*
5. Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice
6. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet*
7. Laurie R. King, A Monstrous Regiment of Women
8. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four*
9. Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary
10. Kelly Link, Get in Trouble
11. Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed
12. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

* indicates rereading

Monday, December 22, 2014

If: a novel

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The best that can come of ambitious literature adopting the forms of popular fiction is work that combines the sheer narrative appeal of the latter with the subtle thoughtfulness of the former. Such a novel is If, by a writer working under the playful pseudonym Nicholas Bourbaki. The horizons of American fiction these days are so narrow that the phrase "experimental novel" doesn't mean much, but the format of If is certainly unusual: it's one of those choose-your-own-fate books, where you're given options at the foot of a page and turn to a different section based on what choice you make. But you, the second-person protagonist, aren't facing robots in a futuristic wasteland or escaping from a haunted amusement park: you're just growing up, in middle-class northern California around the end of the twentieth century. Your decisions are about sex and love, education and employment. Some are large, some are small, but they all have unexpected, and unintended, consequences.

This sounds like a gimmick, but it's actually essential to one of the novel's thematic concerns: what the author described in a recent interview as "how contingent our lives are, but also how some parts of our identities are stubbornly resistant to change." And If succeeds in no small part because the protagonist does indeed have a consistent identity despite his wildly varying choices. "You" might wind up a homeless drug addict, a pillar of the community, or something even stranger, but certain traits will endure: insecurity, passion for grand ideologies, perhaps an over-reliance on mild-altering substances. There's something tragically likable about you, even though you can be a real jerk a lot of the time. You want, like everybody else, to be happy, and you associate happiness with freedom. But pursuing freedom tends to leave you unhappy.

And make no mistake, "you" will be unhappy for much of this book. Most pick-a-path titles have obvious good and bad endings; If doesn't break down that easily, but let's just say there aren't many turns of the page that will give "you" a deep sense of personal fulfillment. In that sense, If is rather a bleak meditation on the consequences of the unstructured pursuit of happiness. But it's subtle about that. A lesser writer would make much of the fact that doing the right thing can lead to a bad ending; Bourbaki takes that for granted, and has a less mechanistic sense than many writers of the way we are and aren't shaped by our decisions. The way the protagonist's life evolves acknowledges the seeming randomness of existence without denying the possibility that art can still illuminate meaning in that chaos.

This makes the book sound like heavy going, and for readers expecting the adult equivalent of Prisoner of the Ant People I expect it will be. Some of the protagonist's fates slip from straightforwardly realist contemporary fiction into more stylized and unsettling forms; he's artful about unleashing it, but Bourbaki has a real gift for intense, psychologically suggestive experimental prose. And yet for readers accustomed to long sentences, prose poetry, and highly fractured stream of consciousness, this novel will be the farthest thing from difficult: it will be a genuine page-turner. I myself picked it up to skim the first few pages, and wound up reading long into the night, impelled by the same curiosity about the consequences of a choice that draws children to the famous gamebooks, and by the psychological acuity of Bourbaki's characterization. The next day I couldn't wait to go on my lunch break and continue following the protagonist's forking paths. If is a novel that manages to be experimental yet accessible, compelling yet quietly intricate, and it deserves to be read by a much wider audience.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Unbound Man

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The continent of Kal Arna was once dominated by the great empire of the Valdori. Now only ruins and fragments remain of that greatness. But even fragments can be dangerous. There is a mysterious urn. Arandras Kanthesi has it, but is interested in it only for the clue it might provide to the identity of the man who murdered his wife. Clade Alsere wants it, for the help it might offer in his escape from the god who dominates his existence. Eilwen Nasareen knows nothing of it, but will soon become caught up in events surrounding it, events that threaten to ruin her life with the Woodtraders Guild and reveal her most terrible secret. As scholars, sorcerers, and merchants struggle for power, these three lives will intersect, and their shared desperation for freedom will have terrible consequences.

If the premise of Matt Karlov's first novel sounds broadly familiar, that isn't misleading: this is a novel very much in the tradition of contemporary epic fantasy with a gritty edge. But familiar doesn't have to mean derivative, and The Unbound Man manages the difficult feat of fitting into a subgenre without being trapped by it. The key to this, I think, is that Karlov's protagonists are less aggressively amoral than in some of the epics that label-loving readers have called "grimdark." Fantasy was dominated by heroes and then by anti-heroes, but Karlov's characters are neither: they're ordinary people, struggling to balance their desires and their morality. They do bad things, they justify them, but they're aware of the weakness of their justifications. This makes their moral struggles easier to relate to than those of murderous queens and sadistic knights, though the thematic points being made are not dissimilar. Karlov is interested in the line between appropriate and inappropriate moral certainty, in the way the perception of oneself as righteous can lead to just as much destructive behavior as conscious cowardice. That's not to say, though, that the book declines into facile moral relativism. The three protagonists of The Undying Man are drawn with empathy (and even in the world of gritty epic fantasy it's striking to find a novel lacking an out-and-out human villain), but their dramas are weighty precisely because it matters whether or not they're doing the right thing.

If there's a downside to Karlov's themes and characterization, it's lack of subtlety. The reader is constantly being told what the characters' emotional states mean, even when it's obvious from their current and previous behavior. At one point a character has a thematically-charged dream, and the text notes, "The dream's meaning was plain enough." Indeed... but the text goes on to explain it anyway. These explanations can feel especially grating because the characters' moral and emotional dilemmas are basically unchanging throughout the book, so that their implications would be obvious even with no hand-holding, let alone a constant stream of it. The climactic action in particular feels bogged down with on-the-nose statements of points that were already implicit. But the thematic resolutions are satisfying enough that they work despite being overplayed.

The themes are perhaps the strongest aspect of The Unbound Man, but no aspect of it is less than competently done. The prose is clear and readable, with diction that is only occasionally too contemporary for a pre-modern fantasy setting. The world-building is rich in detail, concerned largely with the daily life of the two major cities in which the novel takes place, but also suggesting a wider world that will likely come into focus in the two remaining volumes of the trilogy. Karlov's world-building is less atmospheric than that of the very best fantasy writers, less likely to produce a vivid mental picture or a sense of wonder, but it's enough to make the setting feel real and weighty. The magic system strikes what seems to me a good balance between "mysterious and inexplicable" and "so detailed it belongs in a role-playing game."

The plot is, it must be said, a slow-building one even by epic fantasy standards. The mysteries of the characters' backstories make the opening sections compelling, as readers begin to puzzle out how it all fits together, but once the general outline is clear, it takes a while for the action to kick into high gear. Part of the novel's emphasis on realistic characters rather than heroes is that the stakes are not at first enormously high, and the intrigues are less complicated than they might otherwise be. It's only in the last third of the novel, as the plotlines directly intersect and long-held plans are enacted, that events take on the usual feel of epic fantasy. But there's enough going on throughout to satisfy readers who don't demand superficial action every step of the way. And the denouement is both a satisfying resolution of this novel's conflicts and the beginning of a larger story that promises to extend this one's themes in intriguing and emotionally resonant ways. I'm certainly looking forward to the next book, and I suspect that, once they've experienced The Unbound Man, many other readers will be too. This is a fine debut novel from a writer with a great sense of how to use the tropes of epic fantasy in thoughtful and entertaining ways.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Bend of the World

There are two basic kinds of novel that get packaged as literary satire. There's the bitter, score-settling kind, where everyone is thinly based on someone the writer feels superior to, the fiction equivalent of the fired guy's expletive-laden mass e-mail or Jim Carrey's on-air meltdown at the start of Bruce Almighty. And then, more common and (to be uncharitable) more pernicious, there's the earnest, gentle satire, the kind that says "Look how silly we all are, but that's life!", and boils down to middlebrow postmodern realism with a slightly higher joke count. But there are also books that combine the best elements of both with an outlook that isn't so easily pigeonholed, and create something distinctive, something like Jacob Bacharach's The Bend of the World.

 One of the problems with most satire is that it tells people something they already know. Yes, corporate machinations are simultaneously ridiculous and malevolent. Yes, artists are pretentious, venal, and emotionally fragile. And yes, conspiracy theories are bizarre and their proponents colorful. An entire novel devoted to exploring any one of these notions is likely to overstay its welcome. Especially if its author isn't knowledgeable enough about the setting being described to do anything more than reproduce the cliches that have made the underlying message familiar in the first place. But what about a novel that explores all three notions at once, by someone who knows all three worlds well enough to summarize them in three hundred expertly-streamlined pages? Well, that's what The Bend of the World is, and I'm here to tell you it's pretty darn good.

I'm not one to talk about writers and generations and one being the voice of the other, because I don't believe in individual writers being the voice of anything, or in generations period, except as inventions that get into people's heads and influence their behavior in limited but visible ways. So let's just say that Bacharach's voice is thoroughly contemporary, with a particular brand of sarcasm that's related to but distinct from that of other richly ironic novelists. (The cover copy and Dan Chaon's blurb mention Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, probably because both are first novels, but I think Wonder Boys is a better comparison, in range and momentum and lightness of touch that is nonetheless ultimately quite moving. Bacharach, whose blog is always worth reading, calls Wonder Boys Chabon's finest work.) The dialogue has the snappiness of a great pay-cable sitcom, if there had ever been one of those, and captures something about the combination of intelligence and goofiness, of posturing and sincerity, in the way some of today's twenty-somethings talk.

It helps that Bacharach has lived in the world to a degree that many first novelists haven't, or at least don't give any sign of having. He can write about a museum party, which lots of writers could probably manage, but he can also write about a job in corporate middle-management, about going to a (non upper middle class) bar, about riding a public bus, without the film of alienation and reflexive disapproval that would cover most literary novelists' accounts of same. You never feel like he's describing drug use, casual sex, and so forth in the tone that even theoretically worldly writers often fall into, that of the dismayed tourist. (Which is not to say he's not aware of their downside; we'll get to that, if I ever manage to stop writing this review.) And I doubt you'll find many fictions that describe the following moment, even though it's as instantly recognizable as many a celebrated apercu: "I fell into bed fully clothed and slept a blacked-out, anesthetized sleep until two a.m., at which point I woke with the desperate need to piss and a huge boner that made it nearly impossible. I stood unsteadily and willed it to go down; when it didn't, I did my best to force myself to pee anyway, bending at the waist and trying my best to aim for the bowl, and I made a ridiculous mess."

Well, instantly recognizable to a dude, anyway. And I suppose I should acknowledge that The Bend of the World is a pretty dude-centric novel (something else it has in common with Wonder Boys), though to some degree that's a function of the protagonist's personality and circumstances. The women in his life are seen from a distance that's realistic but also potentially off-putting for some. All this ties in with the novel's final sequence, which I find slightly unsatisfying on narrative terms (it smacks of the Serious Event with which lesser novels in this niche often attempt to create a sense of finality for their wide-ranging plot) but quite powerful as a thematic crux, the point at which Bacharach's prose proves as adept at humanist melancholy as at surrealist mockery. This is a common transition-- as I suggested above, much satire is deeply sympathetic beneath the surface-- but it's rarely this well-executed technically, and it works all the better because what has gone before hasn't telegraphed its intentions quite as strongly as usual. Bacharach's not one for telegraphing, mercifully: he leaves the reader to recognize the point at which these seemingly disparate satires converge, the larger observations about life and socio-political order and sense of purpose, the (forgive this cliche) face of tragedy beneath the comedy mask.

I haven't really discussed the plot. Nor will I, and not just because this review is long enough already. I'm not sure a description of it can really capture the tone. It's the sort of sequence of events you'd describe as madcap, but that word is so wrong in a description of The Bend of the World as to belong in some other language entirely. It all flows along very naturally; to some extent that's to do with an expert sense of pace and of balance among plot strands, but another way in which this is the best kind of satire is that it's just exaggerated enough to be enjoyable without losing sight of the similar things that happen in real life. And let's not lose sight of "enjoyable." I've said a lot of nice, sophisticated-sounding things about this book (enough, one might imagine, to earn a bribe in fiat money rather than cryptocurrency), but if I've made it sound like hard work I've obscured the point. This shit is hilarious. I'd like to offer some quotes to prove it, but like all great comedy the material is heavily dependent on context for the full effect, and anyway the best stuff is too profane for Amazon, where a version of this review will eventually appear. So don't take my word for it. Read the first fifteen or twenty pages. If you're not laughing already, you're not going to like this book as much as I did, but you should still read it, because there's more going on there than wild urban misadventure. The Bend of the World is easily the best novel I've read this year.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories

[The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.]

The stories in Melanie Lamaga's dazzling debut collection investigate the pleasures and the perils of abandoning mundane life in search of beauty and meaning. Her characters may have to risk their livelihoods, minds, and even lives to get at something rich and strange, but readers need only turn pages and follow the clear, simple, yet transportingly evocative prose. Some of the stories are light and funny, like the delightfully absurd title piece, which features not only reptilian handbags but a trance like a lava lamp and a tsunami of trash, or "What the Dalai Lama Said," which begins, "Justine careened down the aisle toward my cubicle, her scuffed, blue flats sliding over the industrial carpet like water bugs on a pond." Others are harrowingly dark, like "What Kind Are You?", in which the transition that allows a young woman to escape her dreary industrial life bears a terrible price, and "Black Crater, White Snow," a post-apocalyptic blend of science fiction and fantasy with echoes of the Persephone myth. These variations in tone are a testimony to Lamaga's skill-- the language is always carefully modulated to create the desired mood-- and they make for the best kind of short-story collection, one in which an entertaining diversity of styles is unified by a consistent and powerful worldview.

Light and dark aren't the only observable variation: the stories also range from a mere two pages to a full sixty. And again, what's striking about this is not diversity but unity. The two-page "Invisible Heist," which closes out the collection, is a perfect encapsulation of its themes and its delicately magical tone, and as such an eminently satisfying note on which to end. "Medusa" and "Purple House" are short, sharp mythic fantasies about love, loss, and renewal, every bit as disturbingly resonant as the longer Sleeping Beauty retelling "Waking the Dreamer." The only thing that sets apart the two longest stories, "Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter" and "The Seduction of Forgotten Things," is that they are perhaps the collection's finest, and that they withhold this brilliance for a while, seeming more conventional and less poetic stories about flight from, respectively, midcentury suburban and contemporary upper-class banality. But each takes an unexpected turn that I would love to reveal but shouldn't, becoming gently elegiac in one case and disturbingly ambiguous in another, or perhaps in both. It takes real talent to make the desire for escape haunting and universal rather than selfish and shallow, but Lamaga is more than equal to the task.

Once in a very great while I feel myself incapable of capturing in a review what it is that makes a given book so remarkable. My usual solution is to offer a quote or two, in the hope that it will help readers figure out if they're on the right wavelength to appreciate the title as I do. Here, then, are a few passages from this hilarious, melancholy, magical, treacherous collection, one of my favorite books of 2014, by a writer who will, if there's anything vaguely like justice in the world, have a long and distinguished career. THE EVOLUTION OF REPTILIAN HANDBAGS AND OTHER STORIES is not to be missed by readers of literate, mythic, humane fantasy-- but don't just take my word for it:

"I imagined the Lynchburg landfill heaped with all those plastic pens, their luminous orange bodies forming a tower of Babel that reached into the sky. This image, which normally would have filled me with disgust, now struck me with pathos, as if I’d known each pen individually, as if each one had a soul and aspired to something higher—tiny shoots yearning toward the sun."

"I close my eyes and her voice takes me there. Souvlaki and baklava. Elliniko, bitter-sweet. White sheep, blue sky. Horses. People plowing the fields, singing. Corn ripening, gold and green. The final sheath of the harvest, reaped in silence, laid at my mother’s feet.

I open my eyes. Death flies in, kisses the walls, dives into the floor, reappears above the stove. She glows hazy orange. The sun behind the fog."

"I stood at the edge of the water, dipped my ravaged feet and watched the blood wreath my reflection in spirals—red snakes dancing around the head of a woman I’d heard of only in stories. Lies.

The last bit of stone melted to flesh. Eyes wide, I uncoiled down into her blue light, shedding this house, this worn-out skin, this apocryphal life."

If you're looking for the chance, however fleeting, to set aside your own apocryphal life, this book can be the pool into which you uncoil.