mystery

Readings: Hill, Faye

Now that I have moved and unpacked all my things, I am trying to get back into some sort of a routine. It’s harder than I thought it would be; for several days I could not even remember what things I used to do before the Month of Anxiety and the End of the World (aka March). What was the last book I read from start to finish?

It seems like I did not do any reading in March at all, but as I think back, I realize I did finish Joe Hill’s The Fireman in two or three days. In retrospect, it wasn’t a wise choice to read when my mental state was already not particularly steady. It’s big and on fire. People already refer to it as Hill’s magnum opus, which I suppose it is, but I don’t think it’s my favorite of his. It is very good, though. I remain a fan of N0S4A2 (as much as its title annoys me). But The Fireman will please you if you like your novels in high gear for many many pages. It’s out in May.

janesteeleAfterwards, a couple of books were picked up and then abandoned after a handful of pages, and then I read a memoir that was fine until it used the ‘t’ word to refer to a certain type of bar. It seems that its author is one of those gay men who remain largely ignorant of the fact that certain terms are no longer kosher to use (see also John Barrowman’s usage of the same word a few months ago).

And then I picked up something I did not expect to like. It did not seem like my type of book at all, but a number of people mentioned it was quite good, so I decided to give it a shot. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is definitely delightful, smart, and witty. It is a reimagining of Jane Eyre, wherein Jane happens to be a serial killer (“Reader, I murdered him.”).  I never particularly liked Jane Eyre, to be honest. Maybe I have been waiting for this iteration.

 

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

There is naught on Pluto but magicians, Americans, and the mad.

It seems that most of my favorite authors are the ones with whom I have an uneven track record of book enjoyment. I think it’s a sign that they try something different each time they write a book, and sometimes different works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I love China Miéville, but I don’t love all his stuff. Same for Murakami. Same for Guy Gavriel Kay.

Same for Catherynne Valente. My favorite of hers is still The Habitation of the Blessed. I did not like her Deathless as much as I had hoped to. For some reason, I could not get through her Orphan’s Tales books (even though it seems that for most people, these are the books that got them into Valente’s work). Her novella, The Bread We Eat In Dreams, blew me away. And now there’s Radiance.

radianceRead the first sentence on the flap of its dust jacket: ‘Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.’ It’s the type of novel that in book reviews earns descriptors like ‘experimental’ or ‘audacious’, which is code language for ‘too hard to read and sell to customers’.

I like those ‘audacious’ books that are many genres at once, mostly because if you want to write a mystery set in an alternate Solar system, then what does it really matter whether it’s mystery, or sci-fi, or alternate history? I like when people write in ‘whatever the fuck’ genre.*

I also really like stories that are non-linear or stories that try unusual formats, and in that sense Radiance is rather perfect. There are film scripts, interviews, transcripts, newspaper clippings. To use this method of storytelling for what appears to be a murder mystery is actually not that unusual or far-fetched (Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is told largely in interviews, to use one example), but it is a neat way to avoid omniscience when unraveling a puzzle and deliver emotional punches using seemingly unemotional narration.

And there’s also the setting. I never doubt that Catherynne Valente can work magic with the setting. Her words build amazing worlds, and this one is no exception. The planets are habitable (and Pluto is back on the roster), and Hollywood has moved entirely to the Moon to make their silent movies with starlets whose skin is turning blue because of silver in the water. How is it that we are suddenly living on Mercury? Does it matter? This is not the time to complain about handwavium, suspend your disbelief and be immersed.

And yet how is it that I cannot gush about this book? Maybe there were too many things going on at the same time, or maybe the format got a little too audacious. At one point I had this eerie feeling that I was endlessly watching the Tevye’s dream scene from Fiddler On the Roof that I so dislike. I could not tell what was going on. I think that perhaps for me, Valente’s style of writing occasionally gets in the way of the story. It seemed perfect in The Habitation Of The Blessed, but here it was not on my brainwave length. Perhaps this multitude of formats and time jumps required a tighter grip on the pacing of the story, and Valente’s own genius and not being afraid to play with her own creation did the story itself a disservice.

But in the end, you should try it. Who knows, maybe alt-history space decopunk mystery is exactly your jam.

*What is even genre? Wait, let’s not. Rhetorical question. Moving on.

‘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.

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).

Review: All The Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl

Published: April 2011

Where I got it: The Library

This review was originally written for Worlds Without End’s Grand Master Reading Challenge (GMRC).

I think it’s a little strange to start reading Frederik Pohl with his latest book, All the Lives He Led.  After all, the man has been writing award-winning sci-fi since way before I was born. And after reading this book, I realize this is also not perhaps the best introduction to Pohl’s work, because unless you know about Frederik Pohl’s track record and are determined to read more of him, this book alone would not inspire you to do so.

The main character is Brad Sheridan — born into a well-to-do family, his fortunes change with the eruption of a super-volcano in Yellowstone that covers half of United States with ash. Brad’s family loses their fortune and moves to a refugee camp on Staten Island. Brad grows up committing petty crimes and getting mixed up in shady deals. He then signs up as an Indentured person and moves first to Egypt, then to Pompeii, to work at what is now a tourist theme park, complete with Roman currency, people selling Roman wine and food, and the city rebuilt via virtual reality.

At its core, the story is a thriller set in a dystopia– terrorism is common world-wide, with attacks happening virtually every day; people start dying of a mysterious disease nicknamed Pompeii Flu; Brad’s girlfriend, a mysterious and beautiful woman named Gerda, disappears without a trace; his coworker is found dead. And yet despite all these things happening, the story just seemed rather boring. Perhaps it is because Pohl’s writing seems ill-suited to the thriller genre and does not convey a sense of suspense and mystery. Perhaps it is the characters. Brad is extremely difficult to sympathize with. He is not likeable or smart — he is a pretty crude (for lack of a better word) guy, especially in the way he talks about women. He is also, despite having grown up in a rough environment, somewhat lacking in street smarts — he talks about things he probably shouldn’t talk about, fails to observe the fairly obvious.  His pining for Gerda does not elicit any sympathy either and actually starts grating on reader’s nerves after a while. The problem also is that Brad is one of those main characters who has things happening to him rather than making things happen. This, unfortunately, makes for a very shallow story — there is a multitude of events and characters, but the only way we know what is happening is to read about Brad’s reactions to all these events.

This is obviously a work of a writer with many novels under his belt, because even despite the unsympathetic character and at times slow action, you keep reading, because the narrative is just so smooth. It is a good read, but it does not read like Pohl’s best work.

This one gets 2 denarii out of 5 from me. Never fear, I will read Pohl’s other stuff (a copy of Gateway is on my nightstand).