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Books To Look For
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, by Sarah Pinsker, Small Beer Press, 2019, $17, tpb
(And I might well be wrong since the author's blurb tells us that Pinsker has her first novel A Song for a New Day coming out in September.)
I hadn't really read much of Pinsker before this collection, but I have heard her music. Her guitar playing is deceptively simple (by which I mean she has chops, she just doesn't flaunt them) while her voice makes you forget that there are other singers—at least for the duration of the performance. She sings cover songs with an individuality and assurance that makes you think they're hers, while her originals are in a class all of their own.
I heard her song "Waterwings" at a recent convention, and it's such an ear worm that I had to go back to my room that night and buy a copy so I could listen to her pure tones rather than the uneven memory of it that kept running through my head. I can't tell you how many times I've played it since.
Storytelling in song and in prose are different beasts. (If you want a good example, check out Steve Earle's "Taneytown" on his El Corazón album, then read the prose version in his collection Doghouse Roses.) However, they both require a high proficiency in the use of language, in narrative ability, and in bringing characters to life, so while I'd not read much of Pinsker's prose before, I did come to these stories with high expectations.
Happily, those expectations were not only easily met, but readily surpassed.
For one thing, I love her characters, how they are individual and different from those we usually meet in stories, but the stories for the most part don't center around those differences. This is simply who the characters are, and their sexual/cultural diversity isn't the focus. Their outsider status comes from their state of mind in contrast to the worlds in which they find themselves.
Then there's the range of the stories. From near futures to far futures to a high fantasy setting to parallel worlds. They take place in hospitals and spaceships, little fishing villages, a middle-America that's mostly abandoned, and a hotel on an island for an Agatha Christie-styled murder mystery.
The point is that each of the stories is unlike the others, yet they make for a cohesive collection because of Pinsker's narrative voice that runs like a thread from the first story to the last. The language is expressive and beautiful and starkly down-to-earth, and while inventive and curious elements abound, the focus is always on the characters.
I love the sense of hope that permeates even the most hopeless of situations. I love the way the characters, their problems, and the settings they move through stay with me beyond the confines of the book's pages. I love every damn thing about these stories. When I got to the last page I was already looking forward to rereading them.
Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi, NBM Publishing, 2019, $24.99, hc
There are pros and cons to a comic book biography. Let's get the negatives out of the way first, the main one being that you don't necessarily get as much depth as you would in a prose bio.
Okay, that's about it.
What I love about them—and especially this one—is the visuals, plain and simple. It's not simply the narrative flow of the panels. Rather it's the representations of a different time that's shown rather than described. And really, how much time do prose biographies spend describing clothing, cars, buildings—all the minutiae that make up a life that we don't actually need to know unless they provide a specific illumination into the subject's life? Not much, but they can still be of great interest in a visual biography.
It's probably one of the reasons that biopics are so popular, giving us that glimpse into another period, because let's face it, we already know how the story ends. We read instead to find out how the subject of the story got there and what he or she accomplished during that time.
Since Dick's life starts in 1929 and ends in 1982, that's a big spread of time to explore, but artist Mauro Marchesi does a fabulous job of bringing the years to life. Classic cars, architecture, household and office furnishings, fashion, and even meals. Fascinating moments such as the establishing shot of the 12th World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco's Drake Hotel, September 1954.
And of course Dick's peers show up. A. E. Van Vogt. Harlan Ellison. Poul Anderson. Tim Powers.
A visual biography also allows us to see Dick's psychotic episodes "on stage," as it were.
Dick's life is a sad story—not so much because he dies at the end (we all die at the end), but because of the struggles he underwent through his life and the way he self-sabotaged due to illness and his addictive personality. Was the mental turmoil that tormented him worth the mostly genius body of work he left behind? I don't think so—that sort of suffering is painful to even contemplate, and the biography makes that plain. But it was something he couldn't avoid, and through it all, not only was he still driven to write, but he did write, leaving behind a literary legacy that still has an impact today.
I mentioned earlier that a comic book biography doesn't give us as much depth as a prose one might. While author Laurent Queyssi hits the important notes, he's aware of this. Still he writes in his Postscript, "…there may be something more immediate, more visceral, that the union of words and pictures brings to the table. By using the medium, some aspects can be made more obvious, some causal links brought to the fore."
He makes an excellent point, and it was something of which I was aware while reading.
For those who wish for more depth, Queyssi provides an excellent bibliography at the end of the book. But my real hope is that readers new to Dick and hopefully intrigued by this portrait of him will go on to read the man's actual work. Approach it with an open mind and you won't be disappointed.
Seven Turns, Kim Beall, Solstice Publishing, 2018, $15.99, tpb
I like to support small presses and hope they know that, when I offer up criticism, it's because I want them to improve and do well. There's nothing more frustrating for a reader than to see the publisher do everything wrong and thereby undermine the potential sales for their authors.
Case in point, Solstice Publishing. They don't appear to be aware of it, but they're in desperate need of a decent book designer. The interiors are basic, with artifact problems in the ebooks (I haven't had the chance to take a look at a hard copy), while the covers are particularly unattractive with no sense of typography and what the font you use says about the book inside. The cover art itself is amateur. For the book in hand, I could do a better cover in half an hour with the most basic image editing software, and I'm no book designer. If you go to their web site it…well, it has the same amateur look.
It's all a shame, because Kim Beall's Seven Turns is a sweet and enjoyable book that deserves a larger audience than it's probably going to get. (I know I wouldn't pick it up just from the cover.)
The quick Hollywood pitch would be that it's a cozy mystery with ghosts and other paranormal elements. Let's expand on that from the book description copy:
"Years ago, Callaghan McCarthy wrote a bestselling ghost story which allowed her to escape her train-wreck of a marriage. Now her inspiration has run dry, and her bank-account is fast following in its wake. In a desperate last-ditch effort to come up with a sequel, she has loaded everything she owns into her car and set off across the country to seek inspiration at a bed and breakfast she's been told is haunted. She doesn't actually believe in ghosts, of course. The ghosts who haunt Vale House find this highly amusing."
I was charmed by both Beall's prose and how the story unfolded. The way the ghosts interacted with her reminded me of classics like Thorne Smith's Topper books. In fact, the whole feel of Seven Turns reminded me of Thorne Smith, or perhaps Thomas Burnett Swann: the gentle humor, the manner in which supernatural deities act so down-to-earth, and in the sense of wonder conveyed throughout. I also liked the somewhat languid pace of the book and the general feeling of kindness and good will—the nastiness of the villain notwithstanding.
If you do decide to give it a try, I recommend you don't read either the prologue or the epilogue. Unlike the rest of the book they come off as a little twee and aren't necessary for the enjoyment of the actual story.
The Murder of Jesus Christ, by John R. Little, Bad Moon Books, 2019, $18, tpb
There's half of a really great book here. The other half isn't so much bad as predictable. That said, remember that art is subjective and we all approach it with our own expectations. I went into it with strong memories of James Morrow's terrific Only Begotten Daughter (1990) in which the second coming of the messiah is Julie, a young woman in Jersey born in an immaculate conception to her celibate father. If you haven't read it, do seek it out. It's long been a favorite of mine. My favorite scene is still the one where Julie goes to hell and meets her half-brother Jesus tirelessly serving water to the damned. (Or was it ice cream?—maybe my memory's not that great.)
Like Morrow's book, The Murder of Jesus Christ is more of an ideas book than a character-driven one. In it, David Abelman is bequeathed the temporary gift of time travel from his just deceased grandmother. In the letter that explains how it works, she also provides him with a family tree in which it's brought home to him just how many of his ancestors died in the holocaust.
Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher, wrote, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." This was certainly the case with Hitler, who espoused Christianity for Germany only as a way to keep the people united. He certainly approved of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, father of the Reformation.
David is aware of this as well, but rather than using time travel to kill Hitler, he decides he needs to go back and kill Jesus Christ and then Christianity will never have happened. Somehow, in his mind, this will stop the holocaust, and also save the lives of all those who died in the Crusades and other holy wars, because if Christianity didn't exist, Europe would have been primarily Jewish, and Hitler wouldn't have gone after his popularity base.
It felt a bit vague as I read it, but I continued to see how Little's story would play out.
Like Only Begotten Daughter, Little's novel is a perfect intersection between religion and science fiction, but unfortunately for this reader he never explores the ramifications of Christ's premature death—how different the world would be if the primary religions were the Jewish and Moslem faiths. Instead he glosses over all of that—in his afterward he says he did so because he was focused on a different story, and that's of a new Messiah, a young black woman named Erika.
Erika begins to spread her message, mostly through social media and sermons in her local movie theatre. She gains disciples and…well, it all plays out just the way you'd expect it to, albeit in a contemporary setting.
Okay. Little's telling the story he wants to tell and fair play to him. But I couldn't help being taken by so many other aspects of the book that became secondary or were allowed to peter out completely.
The time travel element was really engrossing—David traveled back in time through his DNA, allowing him to share and take over the bodies of his ancestors—but this ends up only being a vehicle for him to get back to Christ's time and is then abandoned. There's an intriguing subplot of alien emissions coming from the dark side of the moon that appears only to exist to allow the love of David's life to go on a space mission to find out what's going on. There's also a distracting subplot about a kidnapper that's never fully utilized.
But the most disappointing element, from the viewpoint of a science fiction reader, is the lack of speculation as to what kind of a world we would have without Christianity in it.
I suppose The Murder of Jesus Christ works better as a parable than a novel, and viewing it with that in mind, it's a much more successful book. But in the end I found it utterly fascinating until about halfway through. After that I kept hoping Little would continue to be innovative and read on only to find that everything turned out pretty much exactly as I thought it would.
So, a mixed review. But I'm happy to have read it for the good parts and how they made me think about all sorts of moral and theological issues.
Oh, and I should add that if you live by the New Testament, you'll probably be offended by much of this book unless you have a really open mind.
Boundary Broken, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2019, $14.95, tpb
Companion Pieces, by Melissa F. Olson, 2018, $10.99, tpb
There are two kinds of reading experiences—well, three if we count being discontented with what's on the page and setting the book aside forever. I was thinking about this as I looked at the piles of half-read books stacked up around my reading chair.
There are the books that we read when we're in the mood to do so. They might be merely serviceable, they might be outstanding. The language might be gorgeous, the stories and characters compelling. Where they fall short is when we put them down—maybe to do some household chores, to walk the dog, feed the cat, earn a living. We don't think about them again until the next time we're in the mood to read and we're choosing which one we'll get back to.
Then there are the books that have us constantly trying to squeeze in the time to read just a few more pages. The ones we stay up too late to read and think about whenever we're not actually immersed in their pages.
I'm not sure exactly the whys and wherefores that separate the two. I just know when I've been captivated by one of the latter. And sooner or later you build up a little list of authors who always deliver that experience. The ones that when a new book of theirs arrives in your home, whatever you happen to be reading at the time gets put aside for it.
That list will be different for everyone. In fact when you talk to your friends, you might be surprised at how they love X and Y just as much as you do, but Z does absolutely nothing for them.
Art's so subjective, after all.
There are lots of things that can be taught when it comes to writing fiction…grammar, pacing, story structure (to some degree). But for all the promises of writing courses and workshops, the elements that makes one story and its characters sing, while another doesn't, can't be taught.
It's through trial and error and a lot of practice in putting words down on paper or screen that an author figures it out—not necessarily in a way that can be explained but at least in the ability to pull it off. And even then—because see above—what's perfect for one reader does nothing for another.
The best we can do as readers is to share our enthusiasm for the writers that make it work for us and try the recommendations that they have for us. And hope for the best.
Because everyone wants a new favorite author—right?
Melissa F. Olson's one of those writers for me. I've read better stylists, but Olson still writes with a deft turn of phrase that's all her own, and I find her work more compelling than most. But it's probably her characters that make me love her work so much. From the very first book I read by her, I genuinely cared about what they get up to, and that includes quiet moments as much as those with a stronger narrative propulsion.
Going back to that thought of what can be taught and what can't, I think one of the main strengths of a really good writer is that they have a genuine love and respect for their characters which speaks to readers in such a way that the readers don't consider them characters but rather people they know. Or would like to know. (Or perhaps avoid at all costs, if they're nasty.)
I know that long after reading a book I loved, I've caught myself wondering what the characters are up to before common sense sets in, reminding me that they're fictional. It can happen to a writer, too. I remember a friend of mine who likes going to garage sales, having to stop herself from buying things because after the first giddy thought of "so-and-so would love this," they realized they were thinking of buying something for a person who exists only in their minds.
Olson writes series books. They're standalones, but each of them picks up threads from the ones that have come before. The new novel, Boundary Broken, follows that trend. You could read it and quickly pick up all you need to know about character relationships and their histories, but it's a richer read with knowledge of the other books.
The setup is simple. Our protagonist Lex owes a favor to an out-of-state alpha werewolf, and he's come to collect. Two of his pack have disappeared in the Colorado sand dunes and he needs her help to get safe passage to look for them. What she finds in the dunes becomes the opening gambit in an all-out assault against the leaders of the various Old World factions in Colorado, with Lex stuck right in the middle of it all.
If you love Olson's Old World books as much as I do, it's time to head down to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy. Boundary Broken is a completely enjoyable addition to the series. And if you're new to her work and think maybe you don't like urban fantasy, then I urge you to give it a try. It's not just that Olson is such a satisfying writer. She also takes the tropes of this subgenre and makes you feel as though you're discovering them for the first time.
I mentioned above that a new book by Olson immediately gets a read as soon as it arrives, so I'm embarrassed to admit that wasn't the case with her recent collection Companion Pieces. In my defense, I assumed it brought together previously published work I was sure I'd already read, and I only bought it because we should support our favorite authors. It's also nice to have material previously published in various anthologies and such all gathered together in one volume.
So it arrived and I shelved it with her other books, only taking it down very recently because I was in the mood to reread something by her and thought a few short stories would be about right.
The first story (in which we meet Scarlet's roommate Molly before they lived together) and second (in which Lex goes to L.A. to find out how her sister really died) were as good as I remembered them but then I got to the third story (which details a road trip with Lex and her aunt) and it wasn't familiar at all.
I thought that was just my bad memory—or perhaps, as is often the case, the collection contained a few unpublished stories—but each subsequent story after that was new to me. So basically I sat on what was mostly a new book for a couple of months.
I don't recommend Companion Pieces as a jumping-in point for the series. For one thing, the stories take place in between the novels and so have a lot of spoilers. For another, they have far more resonance if you've read the books. Which isn't to say that they're incomplete or couldn't stand on their own. It's just that your overall pleasure will be increased if you read the books first (or read the stories and novels in the order Olson provides with her introductions in Companion Pieces).
Besides the stories, there are two items of "bonus materials." One is an alternate first chapter of her first Nightshades book, the other the first few chapters of an aborted sequel to her mystery novel The Big Keep. I was a little surprised, however, that the collection doesn't have her story "Bloodsick" which, so far as I know, is the only short piece of hers that isn't included.
To sum up all the above rambling:
1) Olson = good. Read her.
2) Support your favorite authors by buying their books, leaving reviews, and telling your friends.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P. O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2. EBooks may be sent as an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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