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02-10-12: Stephen Jones A Book of Horrors Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

"A veritable feast"

Editor's Note: A new review from Mario Guslandi of a book that sounds like it belongs on our auto-buy list, particularly given that Stephen King's story gives a nod to agony.
By Mario Guslandi

The horror anthology is, traditionally, one of the backbones of horror fiction, particularly appreciated by those fans of dark literature who, like me, seek for a variety of themes and atmospheres and prefer short stories or novellas rather than novels because endowed with a short-lasting suspension of disbelief.

Stephen Jones is one of the most respected and prolific editors of horror stories, not only providing every year a long standing anthology of the "year's best" (the series is now in its twenty-second volume), but also assembling, occasionally, collections of original, previously unpublished, tales.

'A Book of Horrors,' jointly published in the UK by Jo Fletcher/Quercus Books and PS Publishing is a kind of special event for horror readers because Jones has delivered a volume featuring only brand new dark tales penned by an impressive line-up of authors, whose names are among today's most celebrated and talented writers in the field.

Needless to say, the result is an excellent horror anthology, which bids well to be considered another milestone in the genre. On the other hand, it is impossible that, under any circumstances, all the stories can appeal to all readers and reviewers, so I must bluntly confess that the contributions by John AjvideLindqvist, Peter Crowther, Elizabeth Hand and Richard Christian Matheson, although accomplished enough, failed to impress an old horror reader like me.

By contrast, the overwhelming quality of the remaining stories has provided me with several very enjoyable reading sessions making my long winter evenings quite pleasurable.

First of all I'd like to mention the long awaited return of Dennis Etchison, "Tell Me I'll See You Again", a deceivingly simple, superb story about a group of youngsters playing with death just to exorcize their memories of it.

Stephen King's latest story ("The Little Green God of Agony") is a very horrific, vivid piece featuring a man affected by an unbearable pain, the true nature of which is hardly human.

In "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint" Caitlin R. Kiernan effectively portrays a terrible woman whose long existence has been always linked with fire.

Ramsey Campbell contributes "Getting It Wrong", an ingenuously creepy tale where a contestant in a mysterious and cruel radio show in vain seeks help from a co-worker to get the right answers.

Angela Slatter's gorgeous narrative style graces "The Coffin-Maker's Daughter" a dark tale blending death and lust within the frame of the professional duty of a dismal job.

"The Man in the Ditch" is a story of unease and premonition crafted by Lisa Tuttle with her usual skill, while "Alice Through the Plastic Sheet" by Robert Shearman is a slightly surrealistic piece where a family gets deeply affected by the arrival of new, mysterious neighbours.

Among so many excellent stories, a special mention is due to three really outstanding pieces. In the beautiful "Sad, Dark Thing", wonderfully probing life's deep secrets, Michael Marshall Smith displays, once again a splendid, perceptive narrative style. "Roots and All" by Brian Hodge is an insightful, extraordinary tale where supernatural horror meets the strength of brotherly love and the nostalgia for a long gone past. Finally Reggie Oliver confirms his terrific storytelling ability in "A Child's Problem," a memorable piece of modern gothic, filled with dark, disquieting shadows and terrible, disquieting secrets.

'A Book of Horrors' is a veritable feast not only for horror fans but for any lover of great fiction.

02-08-12: Thrity Umrigar Reveals 'The World We Found'

Slow-Burning Loss of Control

Misdirection is arguably the most powerful technique in the novelist's toolkit. It is the means with which places, people and stories are transformed by the readers' preconceptions and perceptions. It need not be a deliberate ruse used only in genre fiction. When misdirection rises slowly and inevitably from the organic structure of a story and the characters in that story, the sense of discovery is palpable and thrilling. Thrity Umrigar's novel 'The World We Found' ultimately proves to have a very appropriate title. Readers will surely find a very exotic world within, and it proves to be every bit as unpredictable as ours.

As 'The World We Found' opens we meet three grown women who have lived long past their youthful moments of bonding as a quartet of students in an India wracked by change in the 1970's. Laleh, once a sort of socialist firebrand, is now comfortably married to Adish, a well-to-do businessman. She flaunts her activist outlook from the easy comfort of her suburban life with hypocritical flair. Kavita, who is gay, is a quietly withdrawn professional with a lover and a low-key life. Armaiti moved to America, was married and is now divorced with a grown daughter, Diane. Even though none of them have seen one another or talked for many years, Armaiti discovers a reason to bring the Laleh, Kavita, and the fourth in their old group of friends, Nishta, to her in America.

Umrigar immerses readers with great ease in a culture most American readers won't find very familiar. On a prose level, the book is utterly transparent and stripped down. The result is a certain pleasing opacity, a showing without telling. This makes just getting to know these complex characters and their back-stories an enjoyable adventure. Umrigar manages the unique feat of writing prose that is atmospheric and dense, but smooth and enjoyable. She sprinkles in a few Indian phrases here and there in a manner that seems natural but lends real texture to the world she is building. 'The World We Found' is very easy to read, but a bit rough and ready. It may have been tough balancing act for the writer, but as readers we never notice.

Umrigar has a large cast in this book, all with lives that rise up from the history of India over the past fifty years. With no apparent effort, they each become distinct, nuanced and very entertaining to read about. The core quartet; Laleh, Armaiti, Kavita and Nishta, are seen both in their student days and in the present lives that grew from those days. The events of the past shaped their lives in ways that are universal, even if the events themselves reflect the specifics of Indian culture.

Umrigar creates four modern women who now run in different social circles, at different income levels, in different classes and even in different countries. But we can see how what they once were together informs what they are now apart. The variety and veracity that Umrigar brings to these women's lives is at the core of this novel, and the appeal to readers is very universal. Even if you don't think you would like this sort of thing, you're bound to like Umrigar's version of it.

It helps that she gets the men right as well, and gives then powerful arcs of their own. Adish is an understated gentleman, not complicated so much as convincing. Iqbal, another husband, proves to be just as craftily conceived and very well-written. The way these characters play off one another and off the women in their lives is truly engaging.

But for all this great prose, characterization and the impeccably rendered settings — you really get a sense of the cities you visit and the places they live — Umrigar's plot stands out as well. The task at hand seems very simple, almost dismissively so. But Umrigar's got the reader so entrenched and invested in the people she's created that the plot-by-revelation we find is truly compelling. There's something in all of these people, something in their pasts together and apart. What seems simple and safe might prove to be very complicated and dangerous.

As we immerse and invest more and more, a well-earned sense of urgency grows. You might think that you can approach 'The World We Found' casually, but you'd be wrong. Prepare to read this book in one or two sittings, and don't make any plans. The slow burn grows incandescently hot. It would be deliberate misdirection to suggest that this book is a thriller. But 'The World We Found' is certainly thrilling, a discovery of story that grows from characters who feel just as much in control of their world as we do of ours. By the time we discover we are wrong, the world we find, that new world, is clearly one where we have no control. It is not even ours.

02-07-12: Archive Review: John Burdett 'Bangkok 8'

World Within Our World

Editor's note: John Burdett has a new Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel, 'Vulture Peak' out now. And credit whjere credit is due, in that Terry D'Auray first reviewed this book and broght it to my attention. Snakes on speed, who could ask for more?

"This isn't a whodunit, is it?" narrator Sonchai Jitpleecheep asks the reader nearly two-thirds of the way through John Burdett's fine novel 'Bangkok 8'. In fact, Burdett's story of an exotic milieu and an alien worldview has much in common with 'Blade Runner', the filmed version of Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' As in many science fiction novels, the reader is plunged without preparation into a culture that is thoroughly unfamiliar. The narrator tells the story from a perspective that is distinctly alien to most who will read the novel, that of a devout Buddhist.

Sonchai's first person narration will culture-shock the reader throughout the narrative. Though it's set in the Thailand in the present day, we've seen many a science fiction world that seems more familiar than the real world as viewed by Sonchai Jipleecheep. 'Bangkok 8' isn't concerned so much with who did what and why, but rather how such a radically alien worldview could exist so comfortably alongside our world of unbridled capitalistic materialism.

Sonchai and Pichai, his cop-partner and Buddhist soul-mate, are the first on-scene when a US Marine Sergeant is killed in the back seat of a Mercedes by snakes on speed. They are the only two honest cops in Bangkok District 8. Unlike all others, they refuse to take bribes; they are arhat cops, saints in training. Corruption is the default in Bangkok, and it makes the police department run rather smoothly and well. Sonchai and Pichai are outcasts, and problems tolerable only because their other skills compensate for their honesty. When they open the car door to find a scene of reptilian horror, Pichai is killed, and Sonchai vows to kill the person responsible for Pichai's death. To do so, he will have to solve a case that seems unsolvable.

Sonchai's first-person narration, as rendered by Burdett, is remarkably readable and highly enjoyable. Burdett utterly succeeds in capturing the peculiar worldview of his Buddhist protagonist, the son of a Bangkok whore and an unknown, unnamed American soldier. Sonchai's story is fluid, lyrical, and surreal to the average western reader.

'Bangkok 8' is more a novel of magic realism than many that claim the genre. Sonchai lives in a spiritual world. Ghosts, disembodied souls, and other phenomena we would consider supernatural are matter-of-fact parts of his everyday experience. Here's where Burdett really shines. His prose is fluid and poetic. He conveys the extremities of life in Thailand as easily as he conveys the immanency of the spiritual world. Reality is subtly shifted from the first sentence on the first page the final satisfying, striking image of the novel.

As a genre mystery, 'Bangkok 8' occasionally gets a little flat-footed. There are a couple too many conversations where Sonchai receives information in a helpful monologue from one of the many memorable characters who cross the pages. Surprisingly enough, this does not detract significantly from the suspense. Instead these come across as what science fiction readers have termed "info-dumps". The tension here is created not by what we know.

As far as the way Sonchai sees things, we know nothing. He exists in a very different world from ours, and as readers, it's a pure pleasure even to just to sit and listen as Sonchai listens. The tension in the novel is created instead by the joy of exploring this very odd world; not that of the Bangkok policeman, but rather, that of the devout Buddhist who carries what essentially an ordinary western job. The collision of what we think we know about our world with what Sonchai knows proves to be the driving force of the novel.

Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find that a novel that deals with a world based exclusively in sex need not be filled with explicit sex. Burdett demonstrates an ability to steep the reader in this world without making it seem like an off-putting episode of 'Operation'. There's really no 'Yikes!' factor here. However, lots of explicitly sexual material is covered — in a chaste, Buddhist fashion --but nonetheless, those who are easily offended by such goings-on might want to think twice before visiting Burdett's exotic world. Burdett manages this by focusing on the characters and their nonchalant, non-western responses to the world of erotica in which they live. Between the Buddhist mindset and Burdett's prose, 'Bangkok 8' manages to create a vivid world without unpleasant close-ups.

'Bangkok 8' is in the end not a mystery, and it's a stronger novel for its willingness to slip through genre boundaries. Burdett is a talented writer whose focus on an alien worldview that co-exists with ours results in a wonderful, gripping novel of cultural displacement. Science fiction readers will find a lot to love here, perhaps more than the mystery fans. As long as the generalities of the Asian sex trade don't send you into a tizzy, just about any reader will find Sonchai Jitpleecheep a genial, joyous companion. 'Bangkok 8' is a thoughtfully written piece of fiction that evades any description beyond compelling and beautiful.

02-06-12: Eric Weiner Posts 'Man Seeks God'

Religious Pilgrimmage and Mordant Wit

In the introduction to 'Man Seeks God,' Eric Weiner confides with the reader that he's afraid of hospitals and with good reason; as a child, he'd accompany his father, an oncologist to work. When he finds himself hospitalized as an adult, the nurse attending him asks: "Have you found your God yet?"

It's a call to arms for Weiner and great news for readers. Weiner's subsequent search for his place in eight different religions is consistently entertaining, as it manages to be both humorous and generous. 'Man Seeks God' asks hard questions, never settles for easy answers and is so much fun to read it's difficult to put down. Weiner's prose is smart and engaging, as well as laugh-out-loud funny. Remarkably, he manages all this with an even hand. This is a seriously funny book about religion that never makes fun of beliefs or those who hold them. Instead, Weiner evokes his humor on the sentence level with writing so great you never want to look away.

Having escaped the hospital with nothing more than a warning, Weiner immerses the readers in his arguments with himself about belief. Dubbing himself a "Confusionist" ("We have absolutely no idea what our religious beliefs are"), Weiner then sets out to explore eight different religions in a variety of settings. He starts with Sufism and concludes with the Kabbalah; in between he immerses himself (and his readers) in a variety that includes Buddhism, Raelism, Wicca, the Franciscans, Taoism and Shamanism. Each religion requires (so far as Weiner is concerned) a trip to where it is most purely and invitingly practiced. 'Man Seeks God' serves up no less than an eight-course pilgrimage.

The key to Weiner's success is his prose voice, which combines acerbic wit with deep respect for those he meets and their beliefs. Sentence by sentence, Weiner keeps his reader amazingly entertained with thoughtful and very funny writing. Weiner himself is the main character, and he gets lots of miles out of self-examination. "I know I'm supposed to broaden my mind, expand my perspective, but instead it just terrifies me." This may all sound very easy, and Weiner makes it look that way, but the balancing act is in fact very difficult. Beyond making fun of himself, Weiner's outlook is so sharp that he writes a lot of sentences that you'll want to read over, write down or read aloud to those in your general vicinity. His talent is such that his sentences will sound as good to those around you as they do to you.

'Man Seeks God' is filled with great characters who help Weiner try to share in their religious experience, generally without success. From Wayne in Nepal to Dilek in Turkey, Weiner's guides and helpers are memorable individuals. We like them third-hand as much as he does first hand, and we feel like we really get to know them as well. Weiner has an eye for details that capture the whole man or woman, and his nervous anxiety proves to be a great ice-breaker.

Click image to read a review of
The Geography of Bliss.
Front and center are the religions and the places Weiner goes to find them. 'Man Seeks God' is a religious travel guide, and Weiner sets himself a pretty high bar in this respect. Not only does he have to take us to a different physical location, he also has to take us into a different philosophical mindset. Here again, Weiner's prose is up to the task. His details put us in the places with his characters and his sense of humor gets readers into the religious beliefs by making fun of Weiner's own inability to fully realize the varieties of religious experience he seeks. Weiner's attempts to these varieties of religious experience are clearly heartfelt and his inability to do so completely causes him some real sadness. The end result is that when he turns himself into the target of his own sense of humor, we feel the pang of regret as well as the barbed wit.

The most amazing accomplishment of all this is that Weiner writes a very funny book that embraces the contradictions of the religions he explores. You can feel the writer's urgent need for connection even as he writes so entertainingly of his own disconnect. You can join him in the Godmobile, an old Caddy in New York in which he is ferried around by a ex-wrestler turned Franciscan priest, or walking clockwise around what he calls the "Giant Marshmallow" (really, a temple) in Nepal. Wherever Weiner takes you, he will make you laugh and make you think. In 'Man Seeks God,' Eric Weiner goes looking for religion. Readers are likely to find something even more valuable; a trusted, smart friend who will make you laugh.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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