You Should Read: Stephen Elliott’s MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP

Synopsis: Fiction or memoir? Stephen Elliott’s blistering new collection inhabits a mysterious area in between. As with all his work, these stories have the raw ring of truth filtered through Elliott’s downbeat poetic sensibility. No subject is too controversial, no image too taboo to put to paper in these brilliant first-person narratives. (From Cleis Press)

I almost don’t think I should review this book, because I’m not sure what needs to be said about it. Elliott presents a collection of short stories, all based on his real life, though fictionalized to different extents. He doesn’t dress it up or down or sideways, he just presents it. Here you go, he seems to say. Do what you want with it. Then he hands you the book, and doesn’t stick around to find out what you thought. The book just is. It’s simple. It’s honest. It is almost pedestrian, the way Elliott describes being tied up, beaten, cut, abused, and loved. His stories, though probably more extreme than most people’s, aren’t that unusual either. They’re familiar, if you’ve been there, and that’s kind of what adds to their brilliance.

The thing is, there are two kinds of people drawn to the BDSM scene. Of course, there a million kinds and everyone is special and no one wants to be pegged (unless that’s your thing, in which case, there’s nothing wrong with that), but the truth is, it’s those two kinds that make up the biggest population. The first are people who’ve experienced it all before, in nothing like a good way, and are eroticizing their abuse in order to get a happy ending to an event or a lifetime which scarred them badly. The second people are the ones who don’t feel enough, who want to feel more, and they’ve tried everything else. They weren’t loved enough, or wanted enough, or desired enough, and they’ve usually given up, and maybe don’t even think they deserve it anymore, to feel something so strongly, but they’re still hoping. In a way, Elliot’s book is like a good scene – you get what you wanted out of it. Either you read through to the end, past the hurt and fear and subjugating your body to the whims of crazy people, and you find the happy ending, or you feel what you’ve been longing to feel. You experience this man’s alternative history. While in the pages of the book your heart has raced, you’ve been scared, disgusted, compassionate, aroused, and curious, depending on the page. Either way you got what you came for.

Would I recommend the book to others? If you’ve read this far and aren’t certain this is a book you need to read, maybe you don’t. It’s too personal to force onto people, too specific in its kink to pass around to the mass market readers. It’s a book for people who look at it, and know.

MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP. Elliot. Cleis Press. 144 pages. ISBN 978-1-57344-255-8

 

You Should Read: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J. G. BALLARD

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream. (Amazon)

I think I’m going to let my friends tell me what to read for a while longer. Fresh off finishing Ted Chiang’s amazing collection, the same friend who recommended that book also gave me this one. Next up on the review list is John Joseph Adam’s Brave New Worlds, suggested to me by a different friend. My advice to you: if you want to read great books, befriend readers.

J.G. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t believe I didn’t know about. What he writes fits so perfectly with the kind of hard-science, dystopian, speculative fiction I’ve loved from writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven. Taken as a group, it’s clear to see the guy was worried about overpopulation, unchecked capitalism, and government control, but his forays into the science of sleep make for some interesting fiction as well.

“The Concentration City” starts the collection off with a great story about a possible future where space – up, down, left, right – is valued at a price per foot, and the city itself is a huge mass of buildings clustered together. Ballard’s male protagonist (and they’re always men, it should be noted) is one of the forward-thinking types he favors, and this fellow has the idea to ride the train out of the city, just to see how far he can get. The story is meant to make us think about space, government, inbred agoraphobia, and mob mentality, and it does all of those things well. This might be my favorite story except for the existential twist Ballard throws in at the end, which in my opinion he didn’t need to do at all. It turns the tale from a brilliant look at the mentality of an overgrown city-state into a “oh, look, it’s spooky!’ morality play. Didn’t care for it.

“Manhole 69” looks at what happens to men who no longer need sleep. Again we’ve got Ballard looking at science as a way to explore psychology, and I like what he does here, though I felt the end was a bit rushed. We could have used a few more pages about the subjects’ descent into madness, instead of “oh, look, it’s scary!” But unlike “Concentration City” the twist at the end of “Manhole” actually makes perfect sense, if thrown in earlier than feels comfortable.

“Chronopolis” I loved. Ballard’s future city here is one that saw the rise of the government culture, fed on organization and efficiency, and rebelled against it. The protag’s rebellion then isn’t against the oppressive regime but against the unorganized society which arouse from those that had overthrown the past. In Newman we get a kid who’s seen the future and the past both, and makes it his life’s work to get back to a kind of interwoven lifestyle he feels we should never have left.

“The Voices of Time” was about the science, for me. The interpersonal moments, of which there are more than usual, seem to be there to support the science. The core idea is that when the world is ending, we’ll sleep more before we die. This takes us back to “Manhole 69” in a way, Ballard playing with the idea of sleep, and of the two stories I prefer “Voices”. It may be the difference in the way that “Manhole” internalizes the actions of the main characters and “Voices” allows them to be affected by external forces.

“Deep End” wasn’t as moving for me. Perhaps it’s that the moral of the story – stupid boys ruin everything because mankind is inherently destructive – is one I’m all too familiar with. It’s a dystopian staple to have the enlightened main character be hurt at the end because other humans just don’t “get it”. Ballard does it, everyone does it. Before you point out that this collection is 30 years old, yes, I do acknowledge that, but this particular idea was old even in the 70s.

“The Overloaded Man” is a lot of fun, if you enjoy darkness and not being able to tell if the main character’s discovered a super power or has gone insane. Personally I prefer to think of it a la Twilight Zone, and imagine that Faulkner has found the ability to destabilize form from function into idea. One of my favorites.

“Billenium” reminds us that we are our programming. It was so sad for me to see that at the end, Ward succumbs to the idea that it’s better to live in a closet than to have room enough to breath. He doesn’t rebel, he doesn’t struggle against the system, he just quietly lets it roll over him. The character’s actions made perfect sense, given his society, but personally I’d have loved for him to have his secret room and to have been the one person who understood freedom.

“The Garden of Time” is boring. There, I said it. It feels more like a writing exercise than a story. What are we supposed to be emotionally invested in?

“Thirteen for Centaurus” is another one of Ballards thought experiments. He takes a psychological problem and explores the minds of the subjects who’re part of the testing process. It reminds me of “Manhole 69” though they’re set in completely different facilities. Again, Ballard feels the need to do the “shocker” twist ending, which neither feels twisty or shocking, but sort of a reasonable ending given the story. (You can tell it’s meant to be shocking because it’s in italics!)

“The Subliminal Man” takes the theme of unchecked capitalism and agressive government thought control and nails it. It’s pitch-perfect, start to end.

“The Cage of Sand” – This story felt longer, as if Ballard had more time to let the story unfold naturally, even though it’s about the same size as several of the other tales. I think it much more effectively explored the dying world theme than “Deep End”.

“End Game” – By this point I was a little tired of Ballard telling me how fascinating his own ideas were, but if you can ignore that, it’s a exploration of a mental game to see how long it takes a prisoner to break.

“The Drowned Giant” – Ballard does his best work when he’s dealing with external factors – government, science, mutated creatures …. It’s also an fascinating look at a story written entirely in exposition, as there’s no dialogue in it anywhere.

“The Terminal Beach” is one of only two stories in the book to be written as a set of notes, broken up into tiny sections, complete with headers in bold type. I enjoyed the change in style.

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” Ballard takes his characters off the ground and into the sky and the result is beautiful. One of my favorite stories, and one of the few that actually ends on a basically happy note.

“The Assassination of John Fitzegeral Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” tell you, right there in the title, exactly how irreverant and darkly humorous this flash fiction piece is going to be. Also, the story’s not much longer than the title.

“The Atrocity Exhibition” is the other index-card style story, and I think it’s more successful than “Beach” because the subject matter is more interesting. There’s a small mystery unfolding in this tale, in segmented pieces and without all the facts. “Atrocity” is an excellent choice to end the collection.

While I didn’t absolutely adore every single piece of every single story, the overall collection is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. I know so much more about writing than I did before I started the book. Taken as a group of stories, it’s easy to see why Ballard is as oft-recommended as he is. If you haven’t read him, you should.

ISBN 0-312-278446, PICADOR

 

You Should Read: Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although not a prolific author, having published only twelve short stories as of 2010, Chiang has to date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works: a Nebula Award for “Tower of Babylon” (1990), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, Locus Award and Hugo Award for his novelette”Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), and a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Exhalation” (2009). (From Wikipedia)

I was sick for five weeks, down with a bronchial infection that my work schedule wouldn’t let heal. I would get up, go to work, come home and pass out again, over and over, until it finally passed. I wasn’t reading, and certainly wasn’t up to coherently reviewing anything.

When I did recover I started reading Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I didn’t used to enjoy short stories, and up until about a year ago I only owned one anthology. Recently I’ve started reading flash fiction, micro-fiction, and more traditional-length short stories, finding the craft in carefully constructed worlds designed to blossom, burn bright, and die within 4,000 words or so. A short story has to be meticulously worded to fit the maximun amount of meaning into the smallest space. Often the best ones tell a second story in the empty spaces, adding to the original tale by the implication of what they left out.

Having read Chiang’s collection, I come close to accepting why he publishes so little and so rarely. His stories are crisp and pure, releasing words the way a melting icicle gives up its essence, drip by drip. There’s nothing tacked on unecessarily, and at the end of each story I was left with the peaceful sense that each tale ended exactly as it shoud have. On the other had, this is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish a book of any length, because I found I couldn’t read more than one story at a time. I would finish one, then need to push it away from me, come up for air. A week would go by, maybe more, before I felt ready to open the book and let myself be engulfed by Chiang’s words again.

My thoughts on the collection as a whole mirror much of what’s already been said about Chiang, so I’ll focus on the stories that stood out to me:

“Tower of Babylon”: From the very first story in the collection, Chiang shows his abilty to thoroughly embody his chaaracters, to know how they move, how they work, how a piece of stone feels under their fingers. He sees the sun in the sky as his characters do, feels the wind blowing, and by knowing these things he can put into words the simplest explanations of how that world works. The stone masons and metal workers who travel to the Tower, construct of legend, suffer mental and physical side effects from existing at ever-increasing altitudes – who thinks of that? It isn’t a thing which the plot hinges on, but a thing which would be true, if the place and the people existed.

“Understand”: What if everything started to make sense to you? Society, language, music, psychology, math, government, violence, dominance, and even murder? The story shows you what that might be like, and the feeling of understanding the potential in that much coherence is at least momentarily overwhelming.

“Story of Your Life”: By far, my favorite story of the collection. It’s a story for people who have loved enough to understand going through all the pain and sorrow and loss of real life, just to feel the good parts again. Like everything else Chiang writes, it also features a sideways look at a real science (in this case, both physics and linguistics) and how that might be viewed differently in a world where the rules aren’t the same as ours. I enjoyed this story for the emotional aspects, the way it made me feel something deep in my chest, and the way it let me empathize with a character I could see, clearly, had no other choice. I was also intrigued by the description of a race of extra-terrestrials that truly was alien, instead of simply a scaly/tinted/tailed version of  a human society.

“Seventy Two Letters”: A weird little tale about homunculi and golems and the secret powers of words. I had to read this twice before I settled into liking it, not because the story was written badly (it certainly wasn’t!) but because the oddity of the material required another look. I actually love golem stories, ever since I was a kid and found out what they were. I always thought of them as being a secret art, whispered about only in silent libraries and dark corners of a temple, not something right out in the open where any kid could learn how to make his clay toys walk. Thinking of that way, it’s obvious how the story should unfold, which is how it does – and another great aspect of Chiang’s writing is that he doesn’t work against the grain of the story. He doesn’t need to rely on twist endings to shock the reader or to make a statement. Simply by showing us a world which works the way he thinks it should, he shows us something worth seeing. No tricks required.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: It’s the style of writing, in bits and pieces, a journalistic pastiche, that intrigued me about this story. Though I actually found the story to be one of the few in the book which covered already-written-about territory, the way in which Chiang presents it is novel enough to make it work.

I talk about Chiang’s collection in terms of feelings and understanding, because that’s how it affected me when I read through it. I had an emotional reaction to many of the pieces in Stories of Your Life and Others which I hadn’t been expecting, but am grateful for. So many writers can be clever or subtle or quick or brilliant, but how many can be all of those things and affect your heart as well?

Trade paperback/ebook · October 2010 · 9781931520720, Small Beer Press

 

Philcon 2010

It’s been about a week and a half since Philcon, so I’m very nearly overdue for my post-con write-up. Philcon is a local science fiction and fantasy con, here in NJ, and is the first con I’ve attended on the East Coast. Cherry Hill, where the con was held this year, is about a 40 minute drive from my apartment; including a short side trip to pick up a friend, it took me 10 hours to get there. This involved a windy mountain road, a sweet rental car, losing cell service at precisely the wrong time, and an unfortunate dinner in Scranton.

Don Pizarro (my friend, con-buddy, and a contributor to Cthulhurotica) and I got to the hotel too late on Friday night to see much of anything, so we check in and went straight to bed. Breakfast the next morning was coffee and a bacon/egg/bagel at a Panera, and then back to the con hotel to pick up badges and schedules. On the upside Don and I had pre-registered, so we got to skip the line and our badges were already printed out; on the down side the young kid working the table didn’t mention the odd layout of the con schedule, which caused us to get lost later in the day*. Don and I split up (we actually ended up in very few of the same panels together) and I dropped in on “The Shift Back to the Small Presses” which meant to talk about small press publishing but ended up being a conversation between Wildside Press publisher John Gregory Betancourt and the rest of the panel/audience. We talked a lot of PoD technology and the evolution of ebooks, and the panel did change my mind about how we were going to distribute Dagan Books titles. Betancourt acts like a man who’s pretty sure that he knows more than everyone else in the room, without being too cocky about it, and perhaps he does … but I would have liked to hear more from other presses. Part of the problem is that the rest of the folks on the panel were writers and editors and self-publishers, and Betancourt was the only actual publisher**. Neil Clarke sat in front of me and had some good comments; he’s another publisher I’d like to chat with more at another time.

Thus the day began and ended with the most useful panel I was going to attend all weekend.

The rest of the day was spent attending panels, running errands, and getting lost in Camden for an hour and a half because my gps kept missing one important turn. This ended up being a blessing in disguise because I accidently found a wine shop that carries Absente absinthe. (This comes in to play again later on Saturday evening.) Meanwhile Don was meeting Peter S. Beagle, the GoH, and getting stuff signed by Beagle and going to a Beagle reading … and apparently never noticed my quick trip out to find a working atm became a three-hour tour. I did finally get back to the hotel, and started making plans. Simon Carter, a writer friend of ours, was going to come to the con that evening to meet up with Don, and I had to read my zombie erotica story “Mitch’s Girl” at 6 pm as part of the Garden State Horror Writers reading. We settled on dinner beforehand, and Don came along to the reading so I’d at least know one person there – I’ve been a member of the GSHW group for about 6 months now, and I hadn’t actually met any of the other writers.

I needn’t have worried. Dinner in the hotel cafe was mainly a collected of shared appetizers but there was a corned beef sandwich in there I remember being fond of. The reading was well attended for th size of the room we had (small) and the GSHW folks turned out to be warm and chatty. There were 6 readers in all, in a variety of genres (I think mine was really the only “horror”, and my story isn’t actually scary as much as it is erotic; we also had fantasy, steampunk, YA with a talking cat, paranormal romance and lit fic). I got to meet Danielle Ackley-McPhail, who edits a couple of books for Dark Quest (where I still read slush for Neal Levin), Hildy Silverman, who edits Space and Time, and of course Neal, in addition to Gary Frank, Ed Greaves, Jon Gibbs and some other folks from the group. We chatted after the reading, and into Danielle’s launch party for the Bad Ass Fairies anthology series website. The party featured more baked goods than I’ve seen crammed into one room in a long time, as well as a couple of interestingly-dressed folks hanging out before the masquerade. (Don, who has a lovely handmade Dr. Who scarf, couldn’t help comparing it to another man’s Dr. Who-ish scarf, and may even have taken photographic evidence to support his argument that his scarf was better.)

At this point, Don insisted that we attend at least one more panel for the evening, since we were actually at a convention with the stated purpose of doing such a thing. The GSHW folks were sort of insistent that we meet them in the bar for drinks instead. I wavered, then went with Don, and planned to meet up at the bar after the panel let out.

That panel turned out to be “Sexy Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories” which we felt we kind of had to go to, since we both had zombie erotica stories in Rigor Amortis, and we’d been working on Cthulhurotica. This was our first panel we attended together, and we discovered that a) I will talk in a panel discussion if someone asks for input, and b) Don won’t. The three ladies on the panel, after an awkward pause were we discovered that none of them really knew what the panel was supposed to be about, launched in a rousing discussion of Things Not To Call A Vagina. There was a list***.

Once done, we headed out to the bar, by exiting through the room’s doorway and walking into the hallway, like you do. There we found Hildy, who was scheduled to be on a panel on “The Hard Boiled Detective Tradition in Fantasy”, and fairly certain that no one would show up. Never being the sort to leave a damsel in distress, Don and I went to her panel, where it turned out one important person did – in fact – not show up: the other presenter on the panel. The moderator, a charming gentleman, bravely dove in to help out, but his area of expertise was the classic detective in film, and he knew very little about the trope in the spec fic/UF/fantasy genres. Luckily, some more group discussion was had, and I got to introduce new people to Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series. Yay!

And then, finally, the bar. The GSHW guys, it turns out, had been sitting out front the whole couple of hours I was in panels, and had started to suspect we weren’t going to show up. We explained, they forgave, and we wandered in for drinks and to await the arrival of Simon, who was leaving a party at that point and heading over to drink more with us. We got Simon, introductions were made, and the group got exactly one drink order in before the bar closed on us. At 10:30 pm. Is that right? I ask you. We’re writers! But luckily, the evening was saved because I’d stopped by that wine shop earlier in the day … After Simon made me split a free beer with him (Dogfishhead) and I downed my Old Fashioned, Gary Frank went home for the night and the rest of us headed up to the room to break open the absinthe.

It was a thing of beauty. Smooth, flavorful, and subtly strong, it fueled the slow descent into madness that is a bunch of drunk guys trying to play Munchkin Cthulhu for the first time. Simon, that charmer, won with a smile, and it was only afterward we discovered he’d been cheating the whole time – though to his credit, he hadn’t realized it himself. Things eventually wrapped up sometime after two, and we all headed to our beds.

Sunday morning was breakfast (full buffett in the hotel restaurant), contemplating panels, not being able to find anything we cared about, packing, and finally heading back to my house for lunch and family time (were again we played Munchkin Cthulhu, and again we realized Don’s not that familiar with the rules). A lot more driving ensued before I got Don back home to upstate NY, and got myself back home.

Overall the con itself was a disappointment but the people made up for it exponentially. Don P turns out to be a great guy as well as a great writer, Simon is as clever, and as Scottish, as you’d expect from his Twitter feed, and the folks from the GSHW were fun and full of helpful writing/publishing tidbits. We bought books, we chatted up writers, we wandered the dealer’s hall, and I managed to only volunteer to help with another project once the whole weekend. Maybe twice.**** I met so many new people that I could have skipped every panel offered and still the con would have been worth the price of admission.

Footnotes:

* The rooms were numbered in a way that only mattered to the Programming department, and had nothing to do with the room numbers, which were on a seperate piece of paper. Guess which one we didn’t get at the registration table?
** If you’re considering “publisher” to be someone who publishes books by people other than himself.
*** The V, the Triangle, and the Core, if you’re wondering.
**** This is an improvement, for me.

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s AN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT

Synopsis: Everyone in the Bay Area knows about Blind Michael, the unseen, dangerous figure whose Hunt sweeps the Berkeley hills on full moon nights. He’s a familiar hazard of life in the Kingdom of the Mists, and most people don’t waste time worrying about him. October “Toby” Daye certainly doesn’t. She has better things to worry about, like paying the electrical bill on time. So it’s understandable that she’d be upset when Blind Michael suddenly starts taking an interest in people that matter to her, like the youngest children of Mitch and Stacy Brown. (FromSeananMcGuire.com)

I make it a habit to avoid fairy stories because modern interpretations usually lack the pain and fear and loss of traditional fae tales. I don’t enjoy putting myself through misery, but the watered-down and sparklier versions kids read these day are too plastic, too PG, too Disney for me to take seriously. McGuire suffers from no such white-washing. Her fairies are dark, broken, and dangerous. They need humanity as much as they despise it. In the classic style, McGuire’s fairies take what they need when they need it, and few of them worry about how it affects us. They steal clothes, money, blood, and children …

This is where An Artificial Night begins: children are missing. Of course, it’s missing fairy children that get Toby’s attention, but to her credit she doesn’t back down when she discovers that human children are missing too. Chasing down the path of the lost kids takes Toby through one of Oberon’s children and into the realm of another. She endures a changed shape, altered perceptions … she’s hunted, enthralled, beaten, tortured, and abused. It’s a path that only heroes choose to walk, because only heroes are broken enough to throw themselves thoughtlessly into the face of danger over and over again.

Which, of course, is exactly what Toby does, no matter how close to death she comes – and did I mention May, her Fetch, who shows up on her doorstep to usher in that death? Yeah, that happens. By now we’re not so surprised at Toby’s self-destructive behavior, but sometime before the end of the book is the realization that she’s doing this to herself on purpose, and just possibly might want to stop.

McGuire’s third novel in the Toby Daye series makes me cry like a wounded child for the first seven chapters or so. She goes on to present a story much darker than what’s come before for Toby, and one that is arguably her best to date. It isn’t a happy story, even when Toby seems to have found her way back into the light. It is a good story, a complex story, and one I recommend you get your hands on.

I reviewed the first two books in this series as well;Rosemary and Rue is the first and A Local Habitation is the second.

Seanan McGuire, An Artificial Night, DAW Books, 2010. 368 pages. ISBN0756406269.

 

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)

 

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter

 

You Should Read: Stephen King’s THE STAND

Synopsis: One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that – in the ensuing weeks – wipes out most of the world’s population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas. The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil. (from StephenKing.com)

Obviously, the first question is: Why am I reviewing a book that came out in 1978?

The answer: I review what I read. My husband decided to read it this week, which means he and I are talking about it, and since I’ve read it dozens of times, I thought I should talk to you about it too. Good reason? Ok then.

Next question: What’s it about?

Normally I prefer to talk about my opinions instead of giving a more thorough overview, but The Stand is over 800 pages long, so the paragraph synopsis isn’t going to be quite enough. It begins with the setup, introducing you to the characters you’re going to be spending so much time with, a few that won’t stick around for very long, and the world itself, which as you can guess isn’t going to be with us for too long either. The Stand is told from the point of view of an omnipotent narrator, who sees all and knows all, so you get the thoughts and feelings of characters who don’t ever get to meet up with our hero, Stu Redmond. This book unfolds before you, no secrets held back, no stone left unturned. King can give you two sentences about a random girl, but in those two sentences you know something intimate about her character, making her a real person. Who’s about to die. Along with nearly everyone else on the planet.

You also get a New York charmer, smooth and a bit slimy, in Larry Underwood. He’s the underfoot, under-appreciated, underdog, that Larry Underwood, just trying to make a name for himself as a singer and guitar player. Of course, he “ain’t no good guy,” as his mother and just about every other woman in the book point out. It’s pretty obvious that Larry’s going to want to be Stu, since Stu’s the man that everyone is going to want to be. After all, he’s the guy that’s going to have the plan, save the girl, and lead his people out of the desert. He’s the Texan, the straightforward cowboy hero, and if he doesn’t have a horse to ride in on, well that’s ok, because King thoughtfully provides him with a motorcycle, which will do the trick. Hallelujah.

Thankfully, King doesn’t actually make Stu into someone quite so perfect, and even Stu ends up wanting to be more like the man everyone thinks he is. It just takes 500 pages to figure that out.

What’s the conflict?

You’d think the world as we know it dying in a fit of phlegm would be conflict enough, but it actually serves as the beginning of the story instead of the end. The real story is about the classic fight of good vs. evil. Larry isn’t the real bad guy, he’s just not a great guy to begin with, and has to struggle to learn how to be better. Stu isn’t the only good guy, either, he’s just trying to be the man everyone needs him to be. The bad guys of the story all have their reasons for being on the wrong side, making them complex characters who can’t easily be dismissed. Our Good Guy squad is rounded out by the Girl That Guys are in Love With, the Old Professor, the Disabled People, the Happy Hick, a few Doctors, and a Friendly Dog. On the other side of the story, the side with storm clouds, neon signs and hot rods, are a Slutty Teen, The Whore of Babylon, the Ex-Additcs, a Grumpy Cop, few Criminals, and some Wolves.

King needed truly bad and truly good to give all those other people flags to rally under. Good and Evil as archetypes are too simple to be human, since we have far too many flaws and hopes and guilty pleasures to ever be just one thing. King brings in the big guns, the angel and the demon, God and the Devil, and introduces their champions as the flag bearers for the darkness and the light.

The sheer number of characters in this novel is astounding – King’s population rivals that of a major metropolitan city.The Stand gives us old women, young women, mothers, new wives, children, and angry victims. It shows us a retarded man and a deaf-mute, who manage to find each other and, in their own ways, make useful contributions to their new society. It gives us bad guys, selfish guys, criminals, soldiers, stupid people, lost people, and Trashcan Man, who lives to burn. Each of them has a past, a present, a favorite thing. When you meet them in the story you see the color of their hair and the patterns on the soles of their shoes. It’s these details that make what was, otherwise, your average viral apocalypse into a story worth reading.

King’s power to tell a great story is in his willingness to go on, and on. And on. He’s not interested in getting to the end of the story as much as he wants to show you every excruciating detail along the way. If you’re looking for a book that will take you into the belly of a new world and carefully describe everything from the color of the dust beneath your feet to the feel of snow on your skin to the sound of wolves howling up on the mountain, I can’t recommend The Standstrongly enough.

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s A LOCAL HABITATION

Synopsis: After spending fourteen years lost to both the fae and mortal worlds, only to be dragged back into Faerie by the murder of someone close to her, October “Toby” Daye really just wants to spend a little time getting her footing. She’s putting her life back together. Unfortunately, this means going back to work for Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills, doing her duty as a knight errant. That isn’t the sort of thing that exactly lends itself to a quiet existence, and before she knows it, Toby’s back on the road, heading for the County of Tamed Lightning in Fremont, California to check on Sylvester’s niece, January. (From Seanan McGuire‘s site)

NOTE: This is the second novel in the October Daye series. My review of the first novel, Rosemary and Rue, can be found HERE.

So, Toby isn’t dead yet. This is good both because there are a few more books in this series still to be published, and because she fills a niche that no one else in her world seems to want to take over. Given how much damage she takes in the process of solving her mysteries, that’s not really a surprise. October Daye (Toby, if you don’t want her to hit you) is still under oath to her liege, still living in her low-rent apartment in the City, and still oblivious to the fairly obvious feelings of the men around her. What’s new is the part where she’s sent off to solve a new crime, gets injured in new and interesting ways, and meets a few more of the less savory types of fae.

The basic story is that Toby is busy living her faux-human life in San Francisco, where she follows cheating spouses and finds missing kids for a living. After she spent 14 years as a fish, and then some more time as the anti-social store clerk we meet in Rosemary and Rue, it’s nice to see that Toby is trying to make friends again, and the book opens with her enjoying a girls night out with a few changeling ladies from her old life. Her life hasn’t changed too much though: same job, same cats, same rosegoblin, same giant case of the dumb where Tybalt is concerned.

What should have been a simple request by Duke Sylvester ends up putting Toby, and the pure-blood page, Quentin, in the middle of two warring Fairie counties. If that weren’t dicey enough, our detective has happened upon a murder that needs solving.

McGuire keeps to the strict first-person perspective that helps set this series apart from other books in the genre. Toby doesn’t know anything that she doesn’t have direct knowledge of, which means that there are times she gets it wrong. Even better, McGuire doesn’t “cheat” by giving Toby a dozen well-informed advisers to fill her in on everything under the sun. There were a few times that  I’d figured out a clue before Toby did, and that added to the feeling of anticipation. When you can see the monster just outside the window, the story isn’t so much about figuring out if the monster is really there as it is finding out what your heroine will do when it finally catches up to her. McGuire gives us monsters, and Toby is a hero, however reluctantly, because the harder it gets, the more she resigns herself to never giving up.

Lately it seems that everyone wants to write the perfect killer sex goddess, who breaks a thousand hearts while simultaneously defeating the undead/vampire/werewolf/mage/human horde. Toby might be attractive (some of the other characters seem to think so, though she appears to be too busy to look in a mirror most days) and she might be able to survive quite a few gunshots, but she also makes mistakes. I don’t like everything she does but these flaws make Toby real. Real isn’t cookie cutter. Real isn’t perfect. Real isn’t straightforward. You can cheer for her or be confused by her, outsmart her or be enlightened by her, want to be her or be glad you’re not, but one thing you won’t be able to do is predict what Toby will do next.

To find out, I suggest buying An Artificial Night, third book in the October Daye series, due out September 2010.

Seanan McGuire, A Local Habitation, DAW Books, 2010. ISBN 0756405963

* I read A Local Habitation as an ebook, a departure from my usual method of devouring paper-and-print texts. I bought the ebook version because my local bookstore didn’t have a copy in stock, and I didn’t want to wait a week for Amazon to ship me one. I didn’t love having to read it on my iPod (I see an ebook reader purchase in my future) but I didn’t have any problems with the formatting or readability of the book itself. I still plan to buy books the usual way, but it’s nice to know that with this series, digital is an option.

 

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s ROSEMARY AND RUE

Synopsis: The world of Faerie never disappeared: it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Half-human, half-fae, outsiders from birth, these second-class children of Faerie spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas.

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby is forced to resume her old position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her. (From SeananMcGuire.com)

Seanan McGuire skips the backstory and drops you straight into the action with Rosemary and Rue, starting her debut novel with a crime already in progress. October Daye, who would prefer to be called Toby just the same way that you would prefer no one punched you in the face, is tracking down the kidnapped wife and daughter of her pure-blooded liege, Duke Sylvester. To complicate matters, it’s a crime committed by the Duke’s own brother, and tracking a fugitive fae through the human world means a lot of being subtle and trying to blend in. Have I mentioned that Toby isn’t very good at subtle? Instead of saving the day, she falls victim to the bad guy’s superior magic, is trapped in the body of an ornamental koi fish for over a decade, and loses her self-esteem and her family in one fell swoop.

The fish thing wears off, eventually, though too late for Toby to be able to explain it to the daughter she seemingly abandoned. This is the woman we get properly introduced to: a dejected, failed detective, living alone in a bad part of town with no friends, no family, no future, and a dead-end supermarket job that barely pays the rent. She lives in a dark place, to be sure, but much of that is of her own making, since Toby’s worked very hard to keep away anyone that might have made her feel better. Duke Sylvester? She doesn’t return his phone calls. Her old changeling friends? She makes excuses so she doesn’t have to see the happy families that they have, and she doesn’t. Her job? Her PI license lapsed while she was nibbling tourists’ bread in a cold pool, and she doesn’t have the confidence in herself to want to get it back. She has exactly one friend in the world, the Countess Winterrose, but of course Toby can’t see the woman’s helping her out of anything more than obligation. It’s a pity party, table for one, and only Toby Daye is invited.

This is where McGuire’s story really starts.

What do you do with a half-breed fairie woman who’s lost, literally, everything she held dear? You kill off her one remaining supporter, of course, and that’s exactly what happens when Winterrose is brutally murdered. Without any idea of what’s happening around her, Toby has to return to the only skill she has: finding the answers.

To be honest, I don’t read many fantasy novels. I prefer my fiction to be desolate, apocalyptic, and dangerous. Fairies, to me, are a lot like sparkly vampires: they’re based on creatures which were, originally, something much worse, but they’ve been prettied up to fit in with the buying habits of tween girls and unmarried aunts. Fairies now mean fluttery and flowery and beautiful, but I know better than to believe that. Fairies are supposed to be nasty, bitey little creatures, and impossibly beautiful ice queens, and confusing things made of mixed together bits of tree branches and stolen shoes. They’re not creatures of light and happiness, no matter how much glitter you slap on them. Too few people want to write about the dark side of fairies.

Seanan McGuire understands the dark.

She blends together Shakespeare, Irish legends, Japanese myth, medieval ballads, and Victorian Flower Fairies to tell a tale so familiar it doesn’t occur to you to look for where she’s gotten it wrong because it’s all unbelievably right. Toby lives in a world that makes sense, in a sad and disturbing way, because it’s our world, if you could see just a little more of it.

I started reading Rosemary and Rue, expecting to put it back down again, but I ended up hiding in the bedroom and telling my husband to make his own dinner so I didn’t have to quit until it was done. I loved this story, and can’t wait to read the next in what I hope is a very long series.

Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue, DAW Books, 2009. 368 pages. ISBN 0756405718.

The second book in the series, A Local Habitation, is out as of March 2010, and I review it HERE.