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Books To Look For
Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone, edited by Tom Hirons, Hedgespoken Press, 2018, £75, boxed set of chapbooks
I see publications like this as a big part of publishing in the future. Yes, small presses have been around forever, but I think we're going to see an upsurge in books produced not only by the more established presses such as Subterranean Press or PS Publishing but also by micro DIY presses producing small-scale, super-limited editions of books that are artifacts as well as literature and will satisfy book lovers in the same way that vinyl is satisfying a generation of music lovers who have grown up on digital music and streaming services. You can't hold digital music in your hand—it exists only in zeros and ones—while streamed music is even more ephemeral. But a twelve-by-twelve album with a beautifully designed jacket and that mysterious vinyl disc inside that will play as long as you have a turntable and electricity—that now holds cachet. I've spoken to record collectors who don't even have a turntable. They just like the jackets and being able to hold a piece of art in their hands.
It's no different with books. Ebooks will continue to grow in popularity—especially the shorter lengths that appeal to the present-day's diminished attention spans—but a lovingly made book will still be more desirous than a mass-produced paperback. It won't be a large market because that would somewhat negate a bit of the appeal. Instead they will be handmade, or at least look a little rustic, and will deliver a physical experience as well as the words on paper.
Hedgespoken Press out of England offers up an excellent example with their recent publication of Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone. It's a collection of seven four-by-six-inch perfect-bound chapbooks with an extra saddle-stitched one which would be the front matter if they were all published in a single book. They come in a small box made of brown recycled paper that stays closed with a magnet. On first opening the box, the chapbooks are wrapped up like a present in tissue paper.
I remember years ago visiting a really interesting bookshop in Tucson, Arizona (unfortunately the name of the store escapes me), where all the books were works of art as well as readable. The variety and imagination of the designers made for an absorbing experience akin to visiting an art gallery. There were even titles that had only been printed in an edition of one.
Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone would have fit right in on their shelves. And it helps that the material collected in its box is so intriguing.
Jay Griffiths's Twilight isn't a narrative so much as a meditation on the titular time of day. It's a prose poem rich with gorgeous mythopoeic imagery that invokes a real sense of wonder as the author explores the Mystery of what is my favorite part of any day.
In Martin Shaw's The Five Fathoms, a goddess walks onto a Welsh beach wishing to rekindle her love affair with Mannanán mac Lir, the Celtic god of the sea, only to find the sand filled with tourists on their cell phones, so focused on the devices in their hands that they're frying in the sun. What follows is a glorious mash-up of the timelessness of the ancients confronted by the emptiness of modern life. The line "Nobody speaks in myth anymore" appears about halfway through the book, but I can tell you that Martin Shaw does.
Terri Windling, probably better known to most readers as the editor who changed the face of fantasy in the eighties and nineties, shares her poetic soul in the handful of stories Seven Little Tales. Little they are indeed, almost fragments, but they conjure up epic stories that will resonate in your dreams, that will catch you by surprise at odd times in your busy day and transport you, if only for a moment, to that place where they are true.
Sylvia V. Linsteadt's Bull • Poppy • Star uses the story of the minotaur as a paean to the passion of love and the echoes of the wilderness that lie inside each of us.
Fairy tales and riddles go hand-in-hand, so it seems fitting that the box should have Rima Staines's Nine Praise Riddles in which the clues appear not only in the words but also in her fascinating illustrations that were created on black-inked white scratchboard. Sadly I only figured out three of them.
When I Was Furthest from Water by Joanna Hruby is a metaphorical as well as biographical recounting of a pilgrimage she made to the Font of Balàfia on the island of Ibiza, one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. Illustrated with moody photographs by Michaela Meadow, Hruby's thoughtful meditations are a far cry from the party atmosphere for which other parts of the island are so well known.
Editor Tom Hirons's Black Hat was the least successful for me. The writing was fine. I just didn't like the smugness of the viewpoint character—mostly, I think, because I think he was supposed to represent Everyman, and for me he was anything but. And it certainly didn't help that he was such an impatient prick with his dog.
On the other hand I quite enjoyed Hirons's "introduction" chapbook in which he sets out the theme of the stories and his personal approach to the biographies of the contributors.
I've spent a fair number of column inches discussing this book, but I did it because I want to encourage publishers such as Hedgespoken and its ilk, the presses that wrap the words in artistic designs.
One of the reasons that paper books and vinyl appeal to me is that I know in fifty years they'll still be around and still do their job. After all, you can go into any decent used bookshop and find books that are twice that age and more, and they're still readily readable. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the convenience of digital, but it remains ephemeral. Lose your Wi-Fi, or worse your hard drive, and it's all gone. And you certainly won't be able to find them as old treasures in a thrift shop. Just like—
Well, I used to love going into junk shops and looking at old photographs—not only those from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also those from the middle of the last century. But for all the fun and convenience of Instagram and taking pictures on our phones, no one's going to find a shoebox of old photos from the 2000s because they don't get printed. They only exist in clouds, in lines of code.
I find that a little sad. Just as the idea of paper books vanishing is sad as well.
You might think I'm overreacting, but delivery systems for media are forever falling by the wayside, and in these days when everything seems to get accessed on a phone or a tablet, even such a venerable delivery system as the printed page is not guaranteed safety.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djélì Clark, Tor.com, 2019, $14.99, tpb
Now this is the way to deliver a fantasy novel: write something engaging that nobody else is writing and stuff it full of a sense of wonder.
These days it can sometimes feel as though writers aren't even trying to write with any originality. Instead they're presenting us with what's basically fan fiction that they're passing off as their own work even though we've seen the stories and characters a hundred times before. At least genuine fan fiction is honest and has a reason to use its borrowed characters. I don't know if it's laziness on the part of the guilty authors, if they just aren't aware that they're doing it, or if they even understand that what they're doing is wrong. I suppose it doesn't help when publishers and readers enable the practice.
Regardless, that isn't the case with The Haunting of Tram Car 015.
Certainly there are a few tropes herein, the biggest being a seasoned detective saddled with a rookie partner, but Clark imbues their relationship with so much warmth and charm that it feels fresh rather than familiar.
In fact everything about this novella feels fresh, starting with the setting of 1912 Cairo in a world that is just a sidestep away from our own. It's sort of steampunk except the power is generated by magic—djinn magic, to be precise.
The plot is simple. Senior Agent Hamed Nasr of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities and his new partner, Agent Onsi, are tasked with exorcising a possessed streetcar, but the complications quickly escalate to the point where all of Cairo is in danger. Mix in elements of a blossoming suffragette movement and the question of sentient automaton rights and you'll quickly discover that The Haunting of Tram Car 015 has the depth and breadth of a novel.
But don't think this results in a compressed story, or that events speed by in a rush. Clark has a warm prose style that allows the story to move at a pace that's well in keeping with the stifling heat of its setting.
I was so delighted with this little book from start to finish. It left me with so many concepts to mull over when it was done and I loved how vibrant and alive even the secondary characters were.
It wasn't until I did an online search to see what else Clark has written that I realized he was responsible for The Black God's Drums, a book that's been on my to-be-read pile for a while. Which means I know what I'll be reading next.
Space Babe Coloring Book, Jeanne Gomoll, Cabal Press, 2018, $12, tpd
The last thing I'd expect to be reviewing in this column is a coloring book but this is a special case.
If you're not familiar with Space Babe, she's the symbol of the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was designed by Jeanne Gomoll way back in 1997. Her first appearance was as a temporary tattoo sold as a fundraiser for the award. Gomoll adapted this symbol of a kick-ass gal with a raygun from the cover of a 1953 comic book, but she's long since taken on a life of her own.
For twenty-some years Ellen Klages has been creating faux memorabilia based on the character which are sold at Wiscon every year in a hilarious auction for which Klages used to be the MC. She's made everything from WWII-era posters, 1970s animation cells, movie props—so much, in fact, that one might feel that there really had been a Space Babe character appearing in Cabal Comix over the years.
This coloring book is simply one more addition to the wealth of memorabilia that has already seen the light of day and features thirty-seven new representations of the character—but with a difference. The original Space Babe was white and superhero-proportioned. The new ones come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. Some are gender-fluid. There are activists, construction workers, bakers, even a female POTUS.
The illustrations are the familiar black outlines that you'd expect to find in any coloring book and I love the idea of boys and girls (and grownup boys and girls and others) coloring them in and learning a little about diversity. Or finally seeing themselves represented in many of these traditionally male roles.
The reason I'm bringing the book to your attention is that it also serves as a fundraiser for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. It's an honor given "as an effort to reward writers who were pushing against gender expectations" and considering the bombshell that hit the sf scene when it was revealed that Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon, it seems very well named indeed. Pat Murphy went on to say in her Guest of Honor speech at Wiscon 15, where she first brought up the idea of the award, that it should "look for work that resists narrow definitions of political correctness, and is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating."
The mission is to Change the World and, considering both the forward strides and backward stumbles of the past few years, it feels more relevant than ever.
If I was to have any quibble at all with the book it's that the back cover features small colored versions of all the images inside the book that would be perfect for stickers, but alas, there are no stickers. Maybe we're supposed to make our own. Maybe that's something that's being planned for a future fundraiser.
Regardless, pick up a copy or three to support a good cause. If coloring isn't your thing, give them away as gifts to kids and friends who will most certainly appreciate them.
Faerie Knitting: 14 Tales of Love and Magic, Alice Hoffman and Lisa Hoffman, Adams Media, 2018, $26.99, hc
I'm not a knitter. It's not from a lack of interest but rather a lack of time. There are so many things I'd love to try, but not nearly enough hours in any given day to explore even a small portion of them.
But I do love the art form, and I consider it an art form. There are some that will disagree and start talking about fine art versus craft, or how art shouldn't also have a practical use, but I prefer William Morris's philosophy that we should live our lives as art, and that includes the places in which we live and what we wear. Morris made or designed every aspect of his home, from the wallpaper and carpets to the furniture and the designs on the plates from which he ate.
I also love fairy tales—not simply the traditional classics handed down to us by Andrew Lang and the Brothers Grimm but also those written by authors such as Hans Christian Andersen ("The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Little Match Girl," etc.) and Charles Perrault ("Cinderella," "Puss in Boots" "The Sleeping Beauty," "Bluebeard," and the like).
Many people don't realize that the stories cited above were created by authors rather than having been handed down through the years by word of mouth and then eventually collected by someone such as the Brothers Grimm.
One of the best living practitioners of the fairy tale is Jane Yolen. Her stories tick all the boxes. The prose is timeless and the settings are anywhen. They have a certain moral structure, and while simple, the stories have a deep underlying resonance. I wouldn't be surprised if in a hundred years her fairy tales will have simply become a part of the tradition like "The Little Mermaid" and "Cinderella" have before them, with people not even considering their authorship. They'll just be stories that everybody knows.
Considering the simplicity of a fairy tale, it's harder to pull off than one might realize. While many people have given it a try, Yolen has been the singular voice for many years because she just gets it right. Happily, now we can add Alice Hoffman to the ranks of those who can pull it off.
The stories in Faerie Knitting are glorious gems, and their characters feel like they've been around forever. The "Seventh Sister" who always returns home no matter how far her sisters dump her. The girl raised by a heron in "Blue Heron." The girl who knits herself into invisibility.
And in the tradition of many fairy tale collections, Faerie Knitting is fully illustrated—but with a difference. Each story features something knitted that's an integral part of the plot, so each story comes with a pattern to make that item along with a photograph illustrating it.
As I mentioned above, I don't knit, so I couldn't tell you how well the patterns are presented, but I do have eyes, and the photos are sumptuous. They seem like they might have come from old fairy tale books or the brushes of the Pre-Raphaelites, if those artists were using cameras.
The whole presentation and design of the oversized book results in a very pleasing experience. It looks good and feels weighty and lovely in your hands.
Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination, Nicholas Parisi, University Press of Mississippi, 2018, $38, hc
It's a testament to what a cultural phenomenon The Twilight Zone is that almost sixty years after its debut in 1959 people still immediately understand a reference to it, can usually hum the theme song's hook, often know who Rod Serling is, and will get a little thrill of recognition from the words:
"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity.…"
The themes of the show, while quite familiar to genre readers at the time, were things barely considered by the general public. Time travel. Aliens living among us. Actors who can step into their own films. Dystopian futures. Robots more human than humans. Shapechangers. Premonitions of the future. Doppelgängers.
And that was just in the first season.
The show ran through 1964 and lived on in a feature film, two revivals on TV, various comic books, a magazine, and short story collections, and it even inspired some scholarly studies. But the interesting thing, one discovers in Nicholas Parisi's book, is that Serling's non-Twilight Zone material presents a body of work that's as significant as his best known creation.
If you're any kind of a TZ fan, you'll love this book. For one thing, it has an episode-by-episode guide of every show of every season. At this point you might be saying, sure, but we already have Marc Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion, so why do we need to rehash that?
Let me put it this way. Parisi serves on the Board of Directors of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting Serling's legacy. He has access to an incredible wealth of Serling-related material, including access to Serling's daughter Anne, who wrote As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.
He puts all that research material to excellent use, going beyond TZ to give us guides to Night Gallery episodes, Serling's work on Planet of the Apes, and all the other writing—television, films, and miscellany—connecting themes and mixing throughout the text fascinating biographical details of Serling's life. And best of all, he writes in a clear, readable prose that's never pedantic, as books like this can sometimes be.
There's a comprehensive index, of course, but also appendices that cover various film work, and a chart of all Serling's works and awards, complete with dates and production data.
I realize that Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination isn't going to be for everyone. Some folks don't need to know all the minutiae of an artist's creative life. But for the enthusiasts who appreciate all the little details, the book is a treasure trove.
The Test, Sylvain Neuvel, Tor.com, 2019, $11.99, tpb
We're in Britain, in the near-future.
Idir Jalil is taking his Citizenship Test. Only one person from a family is chosen to take the test, so if he succeeds, his wife Tidir and their two children, a boy and a girl, will all become citizens. If he fails, they'll be flown back to Iran, which would be devastating for them after five years of living safely in Britain.
The story begins with Idir sitting down to take the written portion of the test. His charming personality quickly comes through and the book has a lovely whimsical tone as he reminisces about his new life while answering the questions.
It quickly takes a turn for the worse, however, when the immigration office falls victim to a terrorist attack. The leader of the terrorists takes an interest in Idir and begins a sadistic cat-and-mouse game with him that escalates to the point where Idir is being forced to choose between which of two men also in the office will be shot by the leader to show the authorities that he's serious in his demands.
I have to admit that at this point I was distracted by how the depiction of the terrorist leader was so over-the-top and stereotypical—and also by the fact that the author eschews quotation marks for the characters' dialogue in favor of using an em dash and italics instead. But the situation was riveting, so I kept reading, and the reason for the terrorist leader being depicted in such a way was soon revealed.
It took me completely by surprise.
And now I'm a little torn here. What really makes this book such a thoughtful and worthwhile read is also what you should be allowed to discover on your own, so I can't tell you about it however much I want to, because The Test is a remarkable book with a lot of depth.
But here are a few things I can talk about. I mentioned my irritation with how the dialogue is indicated, but that's overshadowed by Sylvain Neuvel's characterization. There are two viewpoint characters, and each has a unique voice. I also loved how through only a few deft hints in the text, we get a pretty good idea what this near future Britain is actually like. The pacing, the ideas, the execution of the plot are all stellar.
Now go out and read this book. The column's done, so there's no need for you to continue reading any further. Unless you've read The Test.
Because now there is a SPOILER.
It would be remiss of me to not mention one thing. I loved pretty much everything about The Test, but the final chapter left me confused. In the text we're given to understand that applicants remember nothing of the situations that arose during the test, but in this final chapter Idir does with no explanation as to why this is the case. It's a powerful and poignant ending to the book (one that would have appealed to Rod Serling), but the lack of an explanation didn't allow me to properly absorb his situation because I kept asking myself, why?
But I'm still glad I read it.
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