The OF Blog: Some odds and ends from a peripatetic reviewer

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some odds and ends from a peripatetic reviewer

Although I do plan on still doing longer reviews of recently-released books, due to my new teaching job (teaching sophomore English in addition to US History leads to a rather unique course prepwork, to say the least) there will probably be more entries over at my personal blog on non-genre works than on genre fiction for a while. Not to say that I'm neglecting reading spec fic works, only that by necessity my non-genre reading load will be increasing quite a bit. But since that means that I'll get to read some outstanding short fiction in the coming months, I cannot help but view this (and the huge pay raise from my last teaching position) as being anything else but an unqualified good for me.

But I have had more reading time these past few weeks, due to my room being used during my planning period, so I used that wisely to read some fiction that might be hard to classify. Here are some brief capsule-like thoughts on a few of the more genre-related fictions which I read in the past week or so:

M. John Harrison, Signs of Life - I know Pat teases me about my "MJH love," but he is one of the relative handful of SF-associated authors that intermixes strong characterizations, dream-like landscapes, with a story that feels more like the unfolding of that wonderful mess called life than being a mechanistic plot unfolding. Out of the three MJH books that I've read in full (this, Light, and The Course of the Heart), Signs of Life just felt more "real" and tragic as one of the more secret and strong desires of the heart, that of a "flying away from it all," is just turned upon itself and shredded to devastating effect. This was one of the more moving stories that I've read so far this year.

Stepan Chapman, The Troika - I have heard Jeff VanderMeer and Jay Tomio, among others, pimp this as being one of the best books of the past decade, so after years of forgetting to get my hands on it when I was purchasing used books online, I finally snagged a copy a week ago and almost immediately dove into it. It more than lived up to its billing. A very surrealistic tale involving three personas that apparently are trapped in a shifting purgatorial world, The Troika intermixes quotes from Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland to achieve a work that is challenging, thought-provoking, and just as importantly, just so fucking weird and fun to read that re-reads are practically guaranteed to cause new reactions and considerations, which is the rarest and highest of compliments that I can give a book.

Jay Lake, Trial of Flowers - This was at times some fucked-up shit that I was reading about the City Imperishable, its maligned dwarves being sewn or slashed in boxes, and all sorts of searches for a secret (and lost) Master amid a siege of the City. Everything felt so "alien" at times and I was thrown out of any sense of "comfort" that I might have drawn from the false impression that it might be set in a world similar to umpteen medieval-lite fantasy worlds. But this was a good thing and by the end of this 263 page novel released late last year by Night Shade, I was thoroughly enjoying what was happening and was eager to see what would happen next. Lake's writing is excellent and as I said above, the setting is superb, along with some truly original applications for dwarves (although there are a few places that might make the squeamish a bit uncomfortable). Highly recommended.

Cherie Priest, Four and Twenty Blackbirds - Nice update on the Southern Gothic/mystery genre, starring a biracial heroine, Eden Moore, and her new ability to see (and talk with) dead people. Set in Chat Town (Chattanooga for the non-TN natives), Priest really does a good job in setting the scene and laying out a very faithful rendition of Chattanooga and its environs, while working in some of the funniest (and true!) comments on I-75 area Georgia south of Macon that I've read in quite some time (trust me, the places there are begging for sarcastic commentary about their trashy signs). The plot was quite basic (threat of murder to Eden's beloved aunt), but Priest develops this into a very enjoyable story. I have her second Eden novel, Wings to the Kingdom, that I shall be reading shortly.

E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros - The cod-medieval epic written a generation before Tolkien by another Oxford don (and apparently an Inkling along with Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, among others) is not something that I would recommend for the beginning fantasy reader (or for any readers who are not advanced in their reading skills). The writing is deliberately archaic, but in a way that is more faithful to some of the stylings of the previous one thousand years than what I've seen from post-Tolkien copycats trying to ape the "feel." The story is that of a series of quests, with some working better than others. While I had little difficulty with the language and did recognize some of the poetry that Eddison "borrowed" to highlight certain scenes, I don't think this is really "essential" reading for fantasy readers, as a combination of the archaic-to-be-archaic style with a rather plot quest-by-numbers approach left this reader feeling more appreciative that the genre has grown more nuanced in the intervening near-century than for what Eddison brought to the table.

In addition to these first-time reads, I re-read Zoran Živković's excellent 2006 collection, Seven Touches of Music. Back in February, I wrote elsewhere about an amazing event that happened (I believe) due to a classroom reading of "The Whisper." I decided last weekend that it was high time that I re-read the rest of that excellent collection and I cannot help but wonder how it was not up for WFA consideration this year.

Also, there will be a few non-genre reviews coming up in the next week or so over at Vaguely Borgesian, namely for David Anthony Durham's first two novels, Gabriel's Story and Walking Through Darkness, with maybe a brief bit on John Knowles classic A Separate Peace. But I cannot end this post without a link to a very intriguing (and drool-worthy) book sale that Jeff VanderMeer will be having around Tuesday of this upcoming week. Feast your eyes on these pictures, people. Multiple editions of Edward Whittemore...ymmm....

And now I bid you adieu for a bit - lots to do reading-wise this weekend in preps for this training session for administrating the TN Gateway Exam for English II later this month. Hey, at least I'm being paid to read and discuss stories, no?

P.S. Just found this interesting NY Times article on books and shelving that might of interest to some. Thoughts?

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