mysteries

Readings: Lavie Tidhar

manliesI could tell you that A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar is a pulpy and visceral alternate history noir revenge fantasy, but no blurb can adequately describe what this book is. You can’t talk about it without spoilers, and I pity the person who had to do the blurb on the inside cover. It is vague and it’s vague on purpose. A bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, Germany is taken over by Communists, and Nazis are fleeing to England. In another world and time, a man in Auschwitz is dreaming of the world where a bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, and Nazis are fleeing to England. With me so far? The man dreaming happens to be a former writer of shund, which in prewar Yiddish theatre was considered to be cheap melodrama, trashy and vulgar. And so the world he dreams of is narrated in the manner of shund, with all the viscerality and vulgarity that it implies.

Perhaps A Man Lies Dreaming can best be described in its own words:

But to answer your question, to write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

This pulpy quality might trick the reader into thinking that this is merely a noir/alternate history one reads in an afternoon and forgets the next day. This particular illusion is dispelled quickly as one gets deeper into the novel and sees layers and layers of symbolism within. It is worth reading the historical note at the end to get the full picture of how well-researched and intricate this novel is.

I find it both difficult and easy to recommend it. It is difficult because A Man Lies Dreaming is not a light book. It has plenty of R- and X-rated stuff inside. It is easy because it’s one of the most intense books I’ve read (at one point I told my friend that if I didn’t finish it in two days, my head would probably explode), and it will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been a solid week of amazing historical genre-bending fiction so far, which makes the task of choosing my next book victim quite difficult. The bar is really high.

 

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Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

God is dead: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing. 

I am a sucker for gods and religion in my SF books. Maybe it’s because these subjects remind me of reading myths. I loved the Greek mythology tome I had as a kid. The gods in it were wise, petty, mighty, vain, all of the above, occasionally at the same time. Those myths were great stories to start with, so it’s no surprise that I later transitioned to reading strange and speculative fiction.

three-parts-deadThree Parts Dead has organized religion, worship, faith, and gods in spades. At its most basic, it is a mystery novel. It begins with the death of Kos Everburning, the god who keeps the city of Alt Coulumb running. His death is discovered during the watch of a novice priest Abelard. It later appears that Kos’s death might have involved some foul play.

Enter Tara Abernathy, a necromancer recently graduated from the Hidden Schools. She arrives in the city with her boss, Elayne Kevarian, and the two attempt to solve this case with the help of chain-smoking Abelard, a vampire, a servant of Justice (see: police officer), and even some gargoyles.

Gladstone writes a great tale, bringing all these characters together and feeding the reader details and tidbits that become important later, which makes Three Parts Dead a lot of fun to read. What he also does, however, is build a fascinating world and set out some interesting rules. Rules, for example, that govern humans’ relationship with their god. In essence, gods are business people. They operate by contract. You provide worship, they provide power (as my late teacher of Irish used to say, ‘there are no nice goddesses, only successfully propitiated ones’). And so gods can die by owing more power than they could provide. Something drained Kos of power and left him a lifeless husk.

But wait, not all is lost. You can, in fact, bring the god back to life. Or some semblance of life. It probably won’t be the same god, but it will be good enough for government work, as it were (Justice, in fact, used to be Seril, a goddess that had died in God Wars). Hence the summoning of Kevarian and Tara, both necromancers.

Gladstone’s worldbuilding offers many other cool things to the reader. The idea of Craft is fascinating. It sounds like ordinary magic, but its origin is quite interesting. It’s ‘half art, half science’, and it was born from ‘the awe at how well divine hands has made a thing, and the insatiable need to improve on that design’. It almost sounds like the origin of alchemy, an attempt by humans to improve on nature. The expression of Craft itself seems almost Harry Potter-like, theatrical. It’s not always clear how the Craft works, but it seems the kind of magic you want to have (you know, the kind that comes with the ability to levitate objects).

The characters, the rules, and the world make Three Parts Dead much more than just a SFnal mystery novel (as Abelard says, ‘could we please not talk about God as if He were a corpse on the floor?’). I already have Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand, and Full Fathom Five, Gladstone’s newest book, will definitely end up in my hands as well.

Reading update: apocalypse now, or in six months

lastpoliceIt seems like I’ve only been reading apocalyptic fiction for the past two weeks. Not specifically either post- or pre-, but it definitely involved ends of worlds, either global or more localized. This is a lot for a guy who says he is not a fan of dystopias. Yet recently, my friend and I had a discussion about dystopian fiction, and he said that he would not read the book if the cover said ‘dystopian’, but would read it if it said ‘post-apocalyptic’. Maybe that’s how I pick my books too.

And here we go again with the apocalypse, this time with Ben H. Winters. The main idea is rather simple: an asteroid is going to crash into our planet in a few months and basically bring on the end of the world. The consequences of this crash, however, are far from simple, particularly if you are a police detective.

countdownDetective Henry Palace is at the center of all three books. He is one of those good-guy characters that, despite being very much on the lawful good side, are not annoying and actually seem quite human and well-developed. An asteroid is going to destroy life as we know it in six months, so what’s the point of solving crimes? Most of the cases are suicides anyway. But no, Palace goes on, doggedly pursuing leads and looking for evidence.

Both mystery and sci-fi genres mix pretty well together in the series. The books also pack a solid emotional punch. Hank has a sister who seems to like getting herself in trouble. He has a dog he ‘inherited’ from a drug dealer. The dog is the most bad-ass bichon frisé you’ll see in fiction (note: this is also the only time you will see the words ‘bad-ass bichon frisé’ in the same sentence). There’s always a dim hope that maybe, just maybe, the astronomers were all wrong and this asteroid will just pass by. Or that maybe there is no asteroid. Or maybe the humanity will come up with some scheme to avoid it. Humanity does hope pretty well even as it falls apart.

worldoftroubleI read The Last PolicemanCountdown City, and World of Trouble one after another, which in itself is quite strange for me, since I like to space my series out. Yet I finished all three in a handful of days, as if an asteroid was really about to collide with our planet, and I had only so much time. In my defense, these books do feel disturbingly real. In fact, they gave me an ongoing feeling of doom. After finishing the first one, I almost called my work and said ‘I can’t come in, the world is ending’. As a bookseller I should be allowed to take days off due to book trauma, right?

I will stop here and point you to the blog that started me on these books. Matt at Books, Brains and Beer has excellent reviews for both The Last Policeman (if you haven’t read the series yet), and of World of Trouble (if you have).

Short Story Sunday, 04.27.14: the eggs edition

Short fiction is great. Everybody should read more of it, including me. The best way to motivate myself to read more of it is to commit to blogging about short stories. Hence Short Story Sunday. I will read something short during the weekend and post about it. No rules, no theme. I might end up reading only one story, or an entire issue of some magazine. It might be new, or it might be from some forgotten anthology published in 1955.

1) Some time this week I decided to reread the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. I have happily made my way through The Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, and I’m now on to Adventures.

A Scandal in Bohemia — it’s delightful. Part of its delight lies in the fact things happen as they are supposed to happen, and very smoothly too… until the very end. Is this the only case where Holmes gets outsmarted and thus does not get to resolve to his satisfaction? We shall see as the reread continues.

2) The Turkey Raptor by James Van Pelt in Asimov’s June 2014 issue. There is a persistent feeling of ‘not going to end well’ throughout this story. The reason is mostly that all parts of it are unstable and dangerous on their own. Yes, there is the raptor, and also high school kids, and bullies and victims.

lightspeed413) Observations About Eggs From the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa by Carmen Maria Machado. My favorite of the bunch this weekend. Because eggs! And because it was weird and funny and at the same time true (well, maybe not the part in point #7). Also, because it’s in Lightspeed and you can go read or listen to it right now.

I need to go boil some eggs.