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Michael Reynier
Five Degrees of Latitude
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Tartarus Press
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-905784-37-0
Publication Date: 07-01-2011
270 pages; £30 / $50.00
Date Reviewed: 10-23-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Mystery  Fantasy  Science Fiction  Horror

The conventions of fiction are not necessarily bad. The guidelines of length, style and content help publishers sell books to the bookstores, and in turn help bookstores sell those books to the reading public. They make it easier to find what we want when we look for something to read. Dividing lines of genre and content may have little literary importance, but at least we know where to look for books that feature elves, detectives, or elves who are detectives. We can easily find a doorstop biography, a 300-page thriller, or a collection of kitchen-epiphany short stories. (Though the latter is something of an endangered species!)

Of course, there are exceptions to be found as well. Robert Coover can put the emotional wallop of a 500-page novel of suburban angst into a 15-page short story. On the other side of the equation, the bestseller lists are filled with books 300 pages and longer that offer less plot and characterization than a short story by Flannery O'Connor. (Has any serial killer novel outdone "A Good Man is Hard to Find?" I don't think so!)

Readers will have to work, really work to find 'Five Degrees of Latitude' by Michael Reynier, and so I'm including a link to the publisher's website. At this point, there are fewer than 300 copies. In a just world, in the fullness of time, the book may be reprinted, but for the time being, this is the only place you're going to find this totally unusual, almost uncategorizable collection of — novellas? Novelettes? There are five narratives in here, each between 40 and 60-something pages. But to this reader, what you have is no less than the equivalent of five full-fledged novels, without an ounce of baggage. At 270 pages, 'Five Degrees of Latitude' is shorter than the average thriller. But in those pages, Reynier offers readers five ripping yarns, all written with an original vision and a literary intelligence that makes them as memorable as they are engaging.

The variety here is simply remarkable. The collection begins with "Le Loup Garou," an historical mystery powered by a very intricate and clever literary framing device. A series of brutal murders and mutilations once haunted a remote French mountain village, and the scholar Professor Florant Hortholary went to investigate; but we know this only though his notes and journals as pieced together by the graduate-student who narrates the story. Reynier creates a remote region so convincing readers will be tempted to try to find it on a map, to no avail. But the involving plot, commanding characters, and emotional power here are undeniably real.

"No 3 Hobbes Lane" is a mystery of a very different sort, as a traveler in England during the Industrial Revolution tries to understand how — and why — a house was built in a most unusual manner. Landscapes are perfectly rendered and yes, unmapped, and the pathos here is leavened by a sly sense of dark humor. Humor is even more evident in "The Rumour Mill," a proto-information age story about an old academic study that has never seen the light of day. The grand characters and understated, well-wrought romance balance out the knife-sharp dark meditations on human behavior.

"Sika Tarn" is an evocative story of a haunted landscape, set on the remote coast of Scotland. Reynier manages to be both subtle and eerie, and seemingly invents the conventions of the classic English ghost story with his own landscape-oriented literary style. The final work in the collection, "The Visions of Lazaro," is unique almost beyond description. It seems to document a religious splinter sect, and contrast that history with a visit to a remote desert outpost. Reynier grounds his work so thoroughly in both literary and academic styles, with a remarkable evocation of a realistic landscape, that it only slowly dawns on the reader that the world we are reading about may not be the one with which we are familiar. As our assumptions and expectations are stripped away, Reynier manages to evoke a true sense of wonder that verges on terror of the unknown. He handles invented technology and cultures here with an economy that is astonishing.

'Five Degrees of Latitude' offers readers very much the equivalent of five novels worth of reading in the space of less than one novel. Each work has a true emotional core, vividly imagined landscapes and characters, unique plots and original literary style. None of them are much like anything you've read, and while Reynier has a certain style that ties them together, they're very dissimilar in terms of content. 'Five Degrees of Latitude' may be the five best books you'll read this year.

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