Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

03-14-13: My Life in the Bush of Books

Genre Fiction, Straight Up, No Chaser

I get lots of books that have aspects of genre fiction, and many that actually are genre fiction, but without the identifiers that make it easy to spot in the bookstore. While my only goal is to find books Worth My (and therefore, Your) Valuable Reading Time, once in a while I want to just, as Joe Hill told me a while back, "Let my freak flag fly." That's surprisingly difficult to pronounce (especially when you have laryngitis, as I presently do), but lots of fun to do. Readers know that I love a good monster book.

None of these books are per se, monster books, and two might not let their freak flags fly so prominently as the first. That said, make no mistake about it, these are all books that would be called (yikes!) "sigh-fye," "fantasy" or "horror" by the kitchen-sink epiphany aficionados of yore. But they're also well-told stories, with imagination, verve, good prose and characters. If a monster sneaks in here and there, well, I won't toss them aside on those grounds. So long as I can read them and remember them afterwards, as if I'd lived in them, then they are indeed worth my valuable reading time.

It's hard to go wrong with David Walton's 'Quintessence' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; March 19, 2013 ; $25.99), given that the sea monster you see on the cover shows up early and often in the novel itself. The premise here is that it's about five hundred years ago, the world is flat, and here be monsters and magic. It looks like there might be some really valuable stuff by the edge, and the Western Star, piloted by Mad Admiral Chelsey, is about to prove that .... until it all goes very wrong.

Christopher Sinclair hopes to pick up where the Mad Admiral left off, and to follow in the footsteps of the Pinta, the Nina and wait for it — the Santa Maria, but unlike them, he hopes to return with what his many studies suggest will be riches beyond compare, or at least, lots of wild and magic stuff that will justify his journey. But more than anything, he wants quintessence, the key to magic and immortality.

Walton does a superb job of alternate-world-building, offering up details real and invented, mixed in a manner that makes it all seem real and textured. He gives us a crew and cast of characters, most of them human, and for this reader, best of all, he does not hold out on the monsters and creatures. This is a world with lots of strange flora and fauna, all created with the same care Walton gives his characters. The journey is swift and filled with action, driven by details in character and place. Walton does not waste any words; he only gives us enough to tell this tale and make us want more. The quintessence of speculative fiction is to be found here, between the words. You forget that the world is not flat.

Hugh Howey's 'Wool' (Simon & Schuster ; March 12, 2013 ; $26, and importantly, Century / Random House UK ; January 21, 2013 ; £9.99) does not open up the world so much as close it down, into a single spiral silo, where humanity wrests a life from the ground, sealed in darkness. This book is in-your-face dystopia, from the get-go, genre fiction of a very distinct nature and with a vaunted lineage. Howey's claustrophobic world is filled with closed corridors, shrunken lives and questions, questions, questions; from the characters and the reader. How did this distinct and rather unique dystopia come to pass?

The power of mystery in science fiction is often overlooked, but Howey uses it very well. I'm not talking about science fiction mysteries like those of Isaac Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw robot detective series, but rather the more basic mystery, as posed here, an implied question: how did this world come into being? Is it just imagined that way by the author, or has the author thought of a path from our world to his? Howey plays with this mystery with a great deal of expertise and 'Wool' offers an immersive and involving world, where characters we really like find themselves confronted with very basic questions.

'Wool' does not involve a lot of complicated innovations so far as genre fiction goes. Howey sticks with the basic basics, but uses them with a gripping narrative flair. This book is a superb slow burn, one that creeps into your dreams and nightmares. It's the sort of novel that once started, you cannot wait to finish, but also dread finishing. It's an unpleasant world, to a degree, leavened by characters forced to make choices that matter, to you, the reader. Choices that, as a reader, you might not enjoy so much should you find yourself forced to make them.

One choice you should not overlook is buying both editions of the book. Both US and UK hardcovers have much to recommend them. The US version comes with a nice dust jacket, while the UK version is issued sans dust jacket, with printed boards. Howey is currently tour in the US; you can find his tour dates and times on his website. There's quite a bit of action there, since he started publication of the novel on the web. Your local independent is likely to have both, an perhaps some of his other work as well.

Helen Grant's 'The Sea Change' (The Swan River Press ; February 18, 2013 ; €30) is the latest collection from this stellar publisher, and after I finished the first story, I was looking up her novels (there are two, thankfully!) to put them in my queue. Grant's work in this book is classic supernatural fiction, though with some nice subtle chills, great character work and the kind of variety that makes the horror genre so rewarding.

Grant's stories are overtly supernatural, and gain their power from her excellent, crisp prose and her sense of detailed locations. "Grauer Hans" is a perfect childhood monster, with the right mix of the personal, the historical and the on-the-scene-details that make it all real. The title story takes us scuba diving, with rather dire consequences. In other stories, art critics and rock climbers make bad decisions and suffer consequences that Grant renders with a superb combination of suggestion and description.

The key to Grant's excellent work is her ability to give us just the right mixture of detail, character and lore. She strikes a very precise balance here; each story is superbly crafted and precisely written, without any extraneous plot strands, but satisfying and rich. The Swan River Press puts together a book of a superior caliber as well with a DJ and cover with printed boards that lend a murky mystery to the proceedings. 'The Sea Change' is another excellent entry into that new-old genre I'd call "The New Strange."

None of these books are going to be mistaken for or shelved with the general fiction, though both 'Wool' and 'The Sea Change' have much to satisfy that audience. If you are looking for great genre fiction, straight up, no chaser, these titles will do the trick. Finding a bookstore that stocks all three might be a challenge, but there is likely one near you. And while you are trolling through the genre fiction aisles, I'm guessing that there are more than a few other titles, current and classic, that will reward your reading hours. These are the books that make memories of events that can never came to pass in our world. Given what happens in the titles, that's mostly for the best. (Depending on how you feel about this world, of course.) Some memories are better to have read than to have lived; but the kind of reading that makes those memories is not to be missed.

03-11-13: Karen Russell Meets ' Vampires in the Lemon Grove'

Monsters and Mirrors

Worlds collide on a daily basis; in every moment, actually. Our inner life butts up against rude reality in a manner that disconcerts us before we stagger forward, another stumbling step into the unknown. The bubble beings that surround us don't just come from another universe. Each of them is another universe, a complete cosmology that began with a Big Bang and is well on its way to an inevitable Heat Death, the triumph of entropy. Should we hope to understand them, we can't hang around to grok an infinitely long tale of woe and wonder. We need those worlds condensed into words that can make their way into our world.

The short story gives us the glimpse we desire, the executive summary of something we might otherwise never make its way over our personal event horizons. With her new collection of short stories, 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove,' Karen Russell produces for the reader eight precisely rendered worlds. None of them are expected, all of them are on the right side of weird, and every one is so vivid as to seem more like a memory than an invention. These are miniature worlds with mirrors as a backdrop, where readers will see themselves in an infinite regression, emotions shattered and made real.

The eight tales here offer a particularly wide variety of settings, formats and storytelling styles. "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" is a relatively straightforward look at the classic monster, imagined by the author as being very different from the legends. The down-to-earth style, low-key humor and plain-spoken characters contrast nicely with ethereal lives and endless addiction. In "Reeling for the Empire," we see both characters and a country making a horrific transformation. The ease with which all this transpires makes the story all the more disturbing.

Russell offers what looks like the world most of us live in, subtly shifted in "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and "Proving Up." In the former, we slide slowly into something else, while the latter employs a child's perspective to upturn the normal into the chillingly strange. "The Barn at the End of Our Term" employs thoroughly enjoyable absurdity taken with a straight face so as to let the author finish on an elegiac note. "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" is fine fun with the list format.

"The New Veterans" is the longest and most intense work here, a carefully written tale of emotional transference and the power of stories to rise from within. "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutts" uses the classic horror trope of an evil doll (in this case, a scarecrow) to excavate the emotional costs of bullying; it's a fine, upsetting story.

Ruling the roost in all of these stories is Russell's prose. Most of the stories leaven the intensely externalized emotions with well-placed nuggets of humor evoked by the horror. There are lots of sentences that will make you laugh even as the overall effect of the stories that contain them is deeply disturbing. Russell knows how to write a beautiful page as well, drawing us in with dense descriptions that open up into dialogue and action. It is a constant pleasure to read this book.

For a book that is in retrospect, replete with both horror and humor, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" manages to sidestep any limitations we might think to place on the reading experience. In terms of tone and subject, Russell is all over the map, but it is one map, clearly her own, and just as clearly, a route to the terra incognita of those worlds that brush by us but are not us. We look in the mirror, then outside of ourselves at those around us and see something different, never realizing that what gazes back at us from the mirror finds us to be disturbingly alien.

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

Commentary & Podcast Archive
Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us