These are boom times for books, which seems counter-intuitive. For the most part, our culture seems headed to hell in a handbasket. Publishers tell us that they can't make any money unless a book is a bestseller, authors who are lucky enough to get an advance can't make ends meet on one, booksellers are thinning their shelves, book review sections have disappeared from the daily newspapers still left standing, and one will make more money collecting recyclables from the trash cans in state parks than one will make reviewing books and interviewing authors. You'd think the result would be that books would have been brought down to the level of movies; not very many, few of those good.
But the opposite proves to be the case. There are more great books being made than most readers can read. The problem with books remains the same; it is a matter of finding those worth your valuable reading time. Allow me then to winnow through the stacks of books that come in daily and at least mention a few live up to the (rue the day such emblems became necessary!) #WYVRT standard. I'll have to be quick, so I can get down to the rubbish bins at the State Park before the competition arrives. And if you get there while it's still dark, sometimes you can find a good breakfast in the bins!
We'll start with 'Interzone #244' and 'Black Static #32' both of which are clearly benefiting from new printing technology, which lets Third Alternative Press turn what were once clearly magazines into something more closely resembling trade paperback books. Given the quality of what lies within, that's a win for all around.
In 'Black Static #32' (£4.99), Tim Casson heads off the fiction, with "The Withering" a nice work of Victorian supernatural horror. Ilan Lerman goes for the disturbing drug-abuse story, "Love as Deep as Bones," while Lavie Tidhar ponders "What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Z------." Steve Rasnic Tem offers up a short "Bedtime Story" and a lengthy, informative interview. Ray Cluley, Drew Rhys White and Priya Sharma round out the fiction selections. Peter Tennant offers a boatload of fiction reviews, with lots of looks at stuff you will not find anywhere else. Tolny Lee aned Mike O'Driscoll cover DVD and TV respectively and respectably.
Interzone #244 (£4.99) fires off with Lavie Tidhar's "The Book Seller," a Central Station story, and offers readers new work from George Zebrowski, "The Genoa Passage." Karen Tidbeck and Saladin Ahmed are interviewed and reviewed, along with a passel of other books worth reading about. Helen Jackson, Guy Haley and Jim Hawkins round out the fiction. Art is full-color both outside and inside the volume, with the esteemed Jim Burns taking the cover. Nick Lowe reviews major movies, while Tony Lee covers DVDs. 'Black Static #32' and 'Interzone #244' cover both sides of the speculative fiction divide with quality fiction and non-fiction and they look good. They're worth the shelf space; and what you pay for them.
As the work of Conan Doyle edges ever closer to complete residence in the public domain (barring not unexpected changes in copyright law), the variety and quality of what one can find in the world of pastiche (and I mean this in the best possible way) edges upward. William Meikle's 'Sherlock Holmes: The Quality of Mercy and Other Stories' from Dark Renaissance Books ($18.95) is a case in point. Readers looking for superb supernatural spins with Holmes need look no further.
'The Quality of Mercy' offers ten stories, richly illustrated by M. Wayne Miller in a meaty trade paperback. Meikle knows the appeals of Holmes stories and keep them intact while adding well-wrought layers of the fantastic where they are called for in stories like the standouts "Revenant" and "The Case of the Highland Fiddle." There's fun to be had as well with "The Case of the Walrus Tusk" and the trés-Lovecraftian "The Color That Came to Chiswick."
Meikle does not mess around. 'The Quality of Mercy' takes supernatural Sherlock Holmes for every pound and ha'penny Meikle can extract from the venerable legend. M. Wayne Miller's illustrations are plentiful, wonderful and appropriate. They add just the right Victorian, Stand Magazine feel to the proceedings. I used to be a die-hard Conan Doyle-only fanatic, but work like this makes it easy to cross the line — and lots of fun.
Helene Wecker's 'The Golem and the Jinni' (HarperCollins ; April 23, 2013 ; $26.99) is a remarkable first novel of supernatural romance, immigration and menace set in New York at the end of the nineteenth century. Chava is a golem, literally a woman of clay, whose creator dies on the ship voyage from Poland to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire demon, trapped in an ancient flask and accidentally released in Lower Manhattan.
Wecker uses her historical backdrop to seamlessly blend a variety elements, both fantastic and mundane, to great effect. By focusing on two supernatural beings, she's able to give each a rich characterization, to bring them to life as effectively as the wizards who create and trap them in the first place.
Wecker has a lot of fun here, creating a rich historical backdrop for her supernatural romance, which, not surprisingly, offers a nuanced and layered look at just what it means to be human, to try to fit in, to be alien — in short, to be alive. Of course, such a relationship is not going to go unnoticed, nor are such beings going to be able to exist without threat. Wecker gives readers more than atmosphere; she gives readers a novel that lives up to the superb cover and packaging.
That said, I'm much happier to see 'You' (Mulholland / Hachette Book Group ; April 16, 2013 ; $25.99), Grossman's second novel, set in the world of video game creation that Grossman knows so well. While the old "write what you know" saw is at best misleading, in this case it certainly tilts in Grossman's favor. Russell is a geek at heart, and after pretending he can be a lawyer, ends up writing for Black Arts Games, where mysteries start to unfurl in the real and virtual worlds. As with his first novel, however, what really shines here are both Grossman's inventiveness of the world — the promo materials and the gaming backdrop, combined with prose that is funny enough to make you laugh and smart enough to make you think, both to your benefit. Readers who play games will find this novel irresistible; those who don't will as well, and may find their interest in gaming piqued to the point of actually trying one. But in either case, 'You' is clearly a great way to spend your time, at play in the fields of the weird.
Mark Morris is another name of yore, and for this reader, very ancient yore, as in 1980's horror. His novel 'Toady' is to my mind one of the classics. It's a novel I read as a British paperback and enjoyed enough to search out the hardcover. He's back with a new novella from Earthling Publications, 'It Sustains' (May 2013 ; $35), an intense story of fathers, sons, the supernatural and the consequences of trying to run away. The glorious, horrific cover art is by Les Edwards and Morris, who has been working busily on Doctor Who novelizations, now a fashionable occupation, comes back to the horror fold with a short, sharp story of terror and heartbreak.
Morris wastes no words here, setting up Adam and his father with a brutal launch into a hostile world. Actions have consequences and so do feelings — and so does the thing in the pond. Morris mines the emotional and supernatural landscape he creates with ease to excavate a rip-roaring, heart-rending story with ease. Prepare to explore his back-catalogue and make time for 'Toady.' If you've not read Morris yet, you'll want to after dipping into 'It Sustains.'
Read through these books, and like zombies in a bad movie or video game, there are ten more just as good that I've not yet got to. Michael Marshall Smith, Sarah Pinborough, John Langan, Jacqueline Winspear are waiting in the queue. Good times for books, good times for readers — we'd best make sure we at least buy the damn things while they are still making them. There will be plenty of time to scavenge for recycling in the state park trash bins.
04-16-13:Stephen Kessler 'Scratch Pegasus'
Lens of Language
Language is a lens through which we view the world. It colors our perceptions, bends the light, focuses and blurs, conceals that which is obvious and reveals that which is hidden. Every word we hear, every word we read adds another layer to our vision. In Stephen Kessler's collection of poetry, 'Scratch Pegasus,' the windows we find within the book don't just change the way we see our world; they give us the vision of others and visions of other worlds.
Melancholy pervades 'Scratch Pegasus,' which is divided into four sections. The opening section, "Aging Heart," feels almost like a closing chorus on an autumn evening, as Kessler evokes the feeling of deep time in our shallow lives. "This dust has history," the first poem, "Thrift Shop" tells us. The items on the shelves bring with them the memories of their journey there, and find in the reader a sad joy. In "Mal de Terre,"
I never expected
the long days of summer
the moonlight fogged
my friends getting old
and dropping dead
Kessler helps us find the dislocation, the unbalancing act that keeps us off-kilter even as we walk into the future on apparently steady ground. His language overlays ours but as we read it becomes ours. His ability to use space on the page, his pacing and word choice are colors in the mix, but they are not the mix. There's an ineffable more to the work we find here.
The other sections of the book are equally strong. "Some Teachers" offers ten sonnets, a form that Kessler spent time with while he was translating the work of Borges. The poems as pocket biography are particularly like the work of Borges, however. Kessler's work is particular and personal. "Wild Men" offers another collection of biography, but like the title the poems and the people range farther and wilder. The concluding poem, "Driving a Stake Through the Heart of the Beatnik Vampires" sublimates fury into suitably grim humor. There's a bit of a rant and a bit of an epic for the attention-annihilated 21st century.
The final section, "Scratch Pegasus," makes its journey towards the final poem, the title poem, a flight path carved from the hardscrabble words of "Midnight Sidewalks" and "Epiphany on 41st Street." Kessler's collection, the words you find here, do not leave us; they launch us, upward, into a vision free of language, a clear sky.
Editor's Note: The striking cover image is by Robert Weinstock.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
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]