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Books To Look For
The Kill Society, by Richard Kadrey, Harper Voyager, 2017, $25.99, hc.
As someone whose favorite form of entertainment is a good book, there's nothing I find more frustrating than being unable to find something to read. Does this happen to you? You have tottering stacks of books in your to-be-read piles—books you've really been looking forward to getting to—and each and every one of them gets put aside after a few, or fifty or so, pages because they just don't click. There's a flatness to the prose or the characters or both. The plot feels tired or you can figure out exactly where it's going after a chapter or two. Maybe you're just not in the mood for that story at this time.
So you move on to other forms of storytelling, or other kinds of books. Biographies are always good. TV shows are distracting. Maybe you can catch up on some of those movies that have been piling up on your DVR or are waiting for you on Netflix.
You might even get out of the habit of reading. It's easier to do than one might imagine, and it's probably the reason you know people who don't read books. Some may have never picked up the habit. Some fell out of the habit.
I never want to be that person.
And because of this column, I don't drift too far into the non-book world. The due date to turn in a new installment gets closer and closer as the days count down to a deadline. And I remember what I love about reading. I do. I'm just not finding something to love.
So I keep picking up books, trying authors who are new, or at least new to me, because my mandate shouldn't be simply trotting out the same coterie of my favorite authors every two months.
I think I'd read the equivalent of five or six books (by which I mean I started any number of books that got set aside when I realized they just weren't holding my interest) when I finally had to give up and turn to writers I could count on for a good story.
The Kill Society, the latest entry in Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series, was on top of the stack, so I cracked it open and within a few pages I remembered why I love reading.
Sandman Slim, real name James Stark, died at the end of the last book—which feels a bit odd in a story told from a first person perspective. But just as happened in Jim Butcher's Dresden series (also told in first person), Stark goes on to narrate further adventures after his death. Dresden did it as a ghost. Stark, as anyone familiar with the character might guess, does it from Hell.
But this isn't the Hell that Stark remembers from previous sojourns to the place. Instead he finds himself in the outermost regions, in the desolate home of the lost dead called the Tenebrae. Soon after arriving, he gets caught up with a caravan of the damned, led by a vicious Messiah who's taking his followers on a mysterious crusade. Stark's alone and with no clue how to get back home where his friends all think he's dead, so he throws his lot in with this brutal bunch made up of lost human souls, Hellion deserters, and rogue angels.
It's a compelling book, for all that it's a little too Mad Max at times. I have to admit that I prefer a story with some connection to our world rather than it all taking place in a secondary world. But The Kill Society is also the sort of story that once you start it's pretty much impossible to put down.
That's part of what made me read through to the end instead of abandoning it as I've done with far too many other books lately. It also helps when the author writes with assurance, when he's confident with his characters and story. That confidence, which spills up from the author's prose and his ability to render characters one can care about, lets the reader trust that the book will be worth reading.
We're all familiar with this kind of book—it's what keeps us reading and, when the author is particularly good at his job, has us search out more of his books. There's a reason why an author gathers a following, and it boils down to the simple fact that they can deliver what readers want.
And because of that, I'm going to concentrate the rest of this column on writers who do just that for me.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2017, $27.99, hc.
I love it when a writer gives us a book that we didn't realize we wanted until it shows up in the bookstore. Hoffman's Practical Magic (1995) is a real favorite of mine, but I never considered another book connected to it, either a prequel or a sequel. If I had, I might have been concerned that it wouldn't be good enough, or it would take something away from the one I loved so much. But this is Alice Hoffman.
As a writer, I often get asked to name my favorite author. It's an impossible question because the best writers don't wait for us to be in the mood to read their books, they put us in the mood. So, depending on what we're reading at various times, we all have many favorite writers.
But the question gets asked of me often enough that I simply offer up Alice Hoffman in response.
It's an honest response. Whether it's the aforementioned Practical Magic, which I first came across in the mid-nineties, or any of the books that she has written on the way to this most recent novel, Hoffman is always a writer I can count on to deliver stories and characters that mean something to me.
Oh, and that glorious prose, at once timeless and of the moment, all of it seeped in a sense of wonder. Whenever I need to be reminded what good writing is, and why it's good, I reread a few chapters from one of her books. Hoffman's stories nourish my soul, and this new novel is yet another gift to us from her talented pen.
So while normally I have a little trepidation when an author revisits a past glory, when I heard about The Rules of Magic, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy.
Now before you ask, you don't need to have read Practical Magic first (this new book's a prequel after all). But even if you have, it won't spoil The Rules of Magic, because the new book has a different cast and focus and doesn't really connect until you get to the end, where you might have a few "of course" moments. Or at least I did.
The backdrop is the sixties—New York City and Greenwich Village for much of it, a small town in Massachusetts for pretty much the rest, with side trips to Paris and California. I came of age during this time and spent the Summer of Love in Yorkville rather than Haight Ashbury, but I could still relate as the Owens siblings took their own fledgling steps into adulthood. It doesn't matter when you grew up for you to appreciate their journey, but for me the news events in the background really took me back in time. The Civil Rights Movement, the Stonewall Riots, Vietnam, the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pop Festival.
The siblings are Franny, who can talk to birds, Bridget (Jet), who can read thoughts, and Vincent, who is too handsome and charming for his own good. Their parents know that their children are different, and know the difficulties the three will face because of a family curse, so they've laid down a strict set of rules to live by: no walking in the moonlight, no books about magic, no candles, no crows, and most importantly, never fall in love.
By a third of the way through the book, the kids have broken all the rules and then must learn to live with the consequences.
I could go on and on about how much I love this book. It's sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting. Mostly it's magic—the magic of the characters and the story, but also Hoffman's prose.
As soon as I finished The Rules of Magic, I pulled out my old copy of Practical Magic so that I could stay a little longer in this wonderful world that Hoffman has created.
A Name Among the Stars by Mark Henwick, Marque, 2017, $2.99, eBook.
I wish the whole idea of indie publishing wasn't so divisive. Musicians have been doing this for decades—making music on their own terms and selling it themselves from their merch tables, and more recently, their websites. It's a win-win situation for the musicians, who have the chance to get their music heard away from the stage, and the listeners, who get a chance to absorb music that might speak more deeply to them than what has been curated for them by the big record companies. Let's face it, those companies tend to err on the side of releasing what's safe (by which I mean music that is already a proven commodity, so let's put out more of the same).
I understand that it's a commercial business. The record companies want to make money, so why take a chance on something unproven? It's the guiding force behind all mainstream media—TV, movies, music, and yes, books.
I don't have an argument with that.
What I don't understand is the necessity to belittle indie publishing or, for that matter, to rag on traditional publishers. They both have their place in the greater scheme of things. What I dislike is the idea that indie authors go that route because they're not good enough to get a "real" publishing deal.
I've discussed the reasons a writer might want to take this route in earlier installments of this column, but here's an element that I haven't addressed as much to date: what if one of the reasons that authors are going indie is simply for the creative freedom it allows them?
Mark Henwick's latest independently-produced novel is an excellent case in point. It originally appeared as weekly chapters published on his blog. Given away for free. He wrote it on weekends for fun and to try something different, concentrating on his usual writing for the rest of the week.
Imagine that. A serial novel given away for free. What traditional publisher would want a part of that? There's no profit in giving things away for free. As I said above, I don't blame them, because they're a business and a business needs to show a profit. But why shouldn't Henwick follow his creative muse?
I teach workshops from time to time, and if there's one takeaway I want attendees to leave with it's that they should be writing stories that they'd like to read. Stories that excite them and mean something to them. I want them to enjoy the writing process—particularly in that first draft—rather than struggle over all the other elements that can (and should) be dealt with in subsequent drafts.
When I read A Name Among the Stars, this new novel from Henwick, I could sense the joy of storytelling on every page. This isn't to say that his other books are somehow lacking, just that this one felt different. And not because it's a space opera with romantic undertones rather than the gritty urban fantasy for which he's better known.
Now, ideological reasons aren't good enough reasons to buy a book (although they can certainly help point us to books that might appeal to us). What's important is the story, how it's told, and whether or not we care about the characters.
This one hit the mark on every point.
It's the story of Zara, a young woman who is the last surviving member of the Founding Family of her home planet of Newyan. When we meet her, she's attempting to escape on a freighter to the planet of Kernow where she has taken the job of Dancing Mistress, a position that will have her teaching some rich child comportment, scholastic studies, martial arts, and yes, even a bit of dancing.
(As an aside here, kudos to Henwick for picking the UK's Cornwall on which to base the planet where Zara ends up. It's a favorite place of mine, and his descriptions of wild coasts, moors, and little fishing villages does his source material proud. He even manages to slip in a few hints of Cornish myth and folklore, all of which made me smile.)
With the weight of an entire planet's security forces after her, Zara manages to escape on the freighter Shohwa where her troubles intensify rather than ease up. As usual, I don't want to give away too much actual plot—why spoil the twists and turns for you? But what I will say is that A Name Among the Stars is a delicious mix of the Brontë sisters, murder mystery, sf drama, space opera, and just general romance and derring-do.
There are a lot of flavors here, but Henwick blends them with a light-handed assurance. And if you're the sort of reader—like I am—who loves rooting for well-rounded, likable characters, then you'll enjoy this side project of Henwick's just as much as I did.
The Squirrel on the Train by Kevin Hearne, Subterranean, 2017, $25, hc.
This isn't the first mystery story told from the point of view of a dog, in this case an Irish wolfhound named Oberon. The Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn pops immediately to mind. But I'm sure Kevin Hearne's "Oberon's Meaty Mysteries" series is the first dog-centric mystery series to also feature Druids, shape-shifting bears, sinister squirrels, and other sorts of magical mayhem.
The Druid I'm referring to is Atticus O'Sullivan, the lead character in Hearne's long-running Iron Druid Chronicles. You don't have to have read any of the Iron Druid books to appreciate this story, but you probably will get more out of it if you have. If you are familiar with the series—and haven't read The Purloined Poodle, the first Meaty Mystery—you should know that these stories told by Oberon are much lighter in tone than the Iron Druid books. Laugh-out-loud lighter in places. Early on this had me chuckling:
"Her opinion of hounds was that we just run around contaminating crime scenes and pee everywhere we can, but that's not true. We pee wherever we want to, and there's a big difference."
The Squirrel on the Train is a standalone novella (as beautifully produced as the first book) and brings back the character of Portland Detective Gabriela Ibarra as well as the Boston terrier Starbuck Oberon rescued the last time he and Atticus were in Portland. Through Druidic magic, the dogs are able to converse with Atticus, but learning how to do so is a long process. Oberon and his companion hound Orlaith are both proficient but at this point in time Starbuck can only send out two phrases, "Yes, food!" and "No, squirrels!" which he uses interchangeably for whatever he needs to communicate. Much like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, actually.
The story starts with Atticus and the dogs going to Portland for a day trip. Cue up a squirrel hitchhiking on top of the train, followed by a chase through the Portland train station when they arrive that takes them into a stairwell where the squirrel has vanished. In its place is Detective Ibarra in the middle of a crime scene. There's a body on the stairs with a plastic crossbow bolt in its head. The body also looks a lot like Atticus.
The mystery of The Squirrel on the Train is good but it's Oberon's voice as he tells the tale that makes it a winner. Hearne has moved on from writing the Iron Druid Chronicles, but let's hope he still finds time to give us more of these Meaty Mysteries, because they're an absolute delight from start to finish.
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction (Electronic Mediations), edited by Grant Wythoff, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, $35, tpb.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of science fiction will know the name Hugo Gernsback. He founded the first sf magazine, Amazing Stories, is often considered the father of science fiction, and the Hugo Awards are named after him. Gernsback was opinionated, and there have been many reports of how he steered the writers of his magazine to write a certain kind of fiction, one that was heavily based on technical detail as much as fantastic speculation.
What's probably not as well known—at least it was new to this reader—was how the whole idea of these stories, of science fiction itself, grew out of the electrical parts catalogues of his business, the Electro Importing Company. Or that he was a commentator on the study of media, describing and assessing the cultural impact of it long before it became an academic discipline.
The Perversity of Things is a fascinating collection of Gernsback's writings from his magazines, retrieving long lost editorials and blueprints of media history, critical essays, and short fiction. The material originally appeared in the early 1900s and has been out of print ever since.
But before one delves into this treasure trove there's editor Grant Wythoff's lengthy introduction, detailing not only the basis of the writings he presents later in the book but also a timeline of Gernsback's life that shows us how he, along with the company of his staff and readers, came to embrace their various theories.
The book's heavily annotated (the footnotes and commentary as interesting as the text itself) and chock full of technical illustrations and ephemera from the various magazines and catalogues.
For those who want still more, there is an electronic edition that includes the complete magazine issues in which all the material in The Perversity of Things originally appeared. You can get information about that edition at manifold.umm.edu.
I loved what I've read of this book. I've been dipping into it for the past month and look forward to much more exploration in the months to come. The material is both thought-provoking and a wonderful glimpse into a forgotten time when faith in technoscientific progress ran high. I also really appreciated Wythoff's introduction and his commentaries throughout, which were both informative and presented in an easy-to-digest prose that never made me feel like I was reading an academic text.
Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren, Tor Books, 2017, $15.99, tpb.
About the best thing one can say about a great sf or fantasy novel is that it's impossible to describe. You can try, but you'll find yourself taking up just as much wordage to do so as the length of the novel itself—especially if you're trying not to spoil some of the surprising elements that add to a book's considerable enjoyment.
All of which is a preamble to my saying that Kari Maaren's Weave a Circle Round is easily one of the best books I've read in a long time, but I don't have a clue as to how to properly tell you why. It also seems fitting that a book this good should be the last one sent to me by the late David Hartwell, because it's a hell of a note on which to hang the end of a long editing career.
I could start with David's own brief description in his accompanying letter:
But honestly, while it's completely accurate, that description is so bare bones and bereft of the sheer wonder, mystery, and audacity of the book, that it becomes fairly useless. The short and admittedly somewhat bland collection of facts quoted above doesn't come close to addressing the complex elements at play here. From the beginning of storytelling to the possible end of the world. From time travel and tricksters and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Loki and Heimdallr and Chinese fox spirits.
What I especially liked is that no matter how twisty and complex the story unfolds, the reader always has touchstones of understanding to guide them along the plot path that can sometimes feel as though it's dissolving like quicksand underfoot. The characters are rich and varied, and, as with pretty much everything else in the novel, complicated and at times infuriating.
I loved the language. Maaren has gifted touch with her prose, as well as snappy dialogue, especially that between Freddy and Josiah.
This is one of those rare books that will appeal to both adults and kids, the latter of whom will appreciate it all over again when they reread it as adults. It's a coming-of-age story that requires the unraveling of all the world's mysteries and a sense of wonder to deliver its insights to the main character Freddy, and through her growth, to us.
I'm delighted that having read as much in the field as I have, it's still possible to be so surprised and enchanted by a new writer and her debut novel.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide