Lindsey Davis; Venus in Copper

With this, the third novel in Davis’ series of mysteries set in the Roman empire and featuring professional “informer” Marcus Didius Falco, I became an unabashed fan. A library request for the next volume was delayed by the long holiday weekend, and as my impatience grew, I cleaned Kate’s Mystery Books out of their entire stock of Davis titles, even though the fourth volume was not among them.

Everything I said about Silver Pigs applies to Venus in Copper, and then some (I enjoyed Shadows in Bronze, too, although it didn’t impress me quite as strongly). The characters are wonderfully realized. Falco’s narrative voice is assured and incisive, and his helpmeet [trying to skirt spoilers…] is more than a match for him. The setting is so vividly drawn that I’ve had fanciful thoughts about a time machine in Davis’s closet with its coordinates set to Imperial Rome. Heck, I almost feel as if I’ve visited Imperial Rome. The plot elements are quite satisfyingly twisty (although once again, a Big Clue in the open seemed far more obvious to me than to the protagonist).

Moreover, while the tone isn’t broadly comic, it made me laugh out loud several times, and the mouth-watering descriptions of certain Roman sweetmeats instilled a craving that I’m still trying to figure out how best to satisfy. Finally, it’s more satisfying on a literary level than a great many mysteries, what with the foreshadowing, the symbolism, the external conflict mirroring internal conflict, and so forth.

Needs More Demons? No.

Robert Aickman: Cold Hand in Mine

Let’s try to squeeze in one more spooky book while it’s seasonal…

My friend Tim of the Doubtful Palace has several times compared Aickman to Kelly Link. My first brush with Aickman was disappointing, I think because my expectations were mis-calibrated. I found few specific points of similarity between the two writers: Aickman is implicitly patriarchal where Link is feminist. Link’s work often plays with the nature of the short story itself, incorporating elements of fable, myth, and an oneiric sensibility. Cold Hand in Mine‘s stories are written more-or-less in a naturalistic mode with discernible beginnings, middles, and ends. Aickman’s prose evinces an archetypal British restraint; Link’s does not.

On my second time through, though, I think I got what Tim was trying to communicate. Link and Aickman share something more important than any specific stylistic sensibility; they are both strong writers with unique voices who are ill-suited to pigeon-holing. Aickman reminds me in fragmentary aspects of many other writers — his protagonists are often withdrawn and isolated, as are many of Kafka’s. He shares an ability to narrate compellingly from the viewpoint of decidedly unpleasant characters with Jonathan Carroll. At least two of these stories reminded me in some way of Julio Cortázar. But Aickman is really nothing like Kafka, Carroll, or Cortázar. He is perhaps most often described as a writer of “ghost stories,” but none of the tales in this volume are ghost stories per se. The story that comes closest to featuring a conventional supernatural entity doesn’t even use the word that describes it.

The final pair of stories (also the longest two) were my favorites. “Meeting Mr Millar,” is a very unusual take on “things that go bump in the night”; it continually defied my expectations of it. In “The Clock-Watcher” the effect that the clocks exert on Ursula mirrors the impact of her husband’s mistrust and gradual estrangement. Generally I found Aickman’s stories “unsettling’ more than “frightening”; this one was also unexpectedly moving.

Needs More Demons? No.

I spent a little time trying to find affordable copies of other Aickman works (tricky prospect, but I believe I have landed a copy of The Wine Dark Sea) and was amused to note that several vendors are apparently selling this book as Cold Hand in the Mine.

Karen Novak: Five Mile House

Karen Novak’s Five Mile House is unambiguously a ghost story, even a haunted house story — one of the narrative voices belongs to a ghost, and provides the novel with its arresting opening sentences:

I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted. I died when I fell from this tower, that window. It is sixty-seven feet from the sill to the stone on which my neck was broken. All a matter of record.

But Five Mile House manages some striking and unusual twists on the theme. Novak uses ghosts as an extended metaphor, mirroring and externalizing internal conflicts. The dominating presence of Five Mile House is not Eleanor, but Leslie Stone, who is haunted by several things, but chiefly by the act of vigilantism that ended her career as a police detective, and estranged her from her family. Stone is initially pretty resistant to the notion that she might also be haunted by a destiny that links her fate with Eleanor’s, perhaps because she doesn’t have room in her life for more haunting.

Whether or not she has room for them, Stone eventually finds herself in some unsettling and unpleasant circumstances. The classic horror fiction trope of the protagonist whom no one will believe arises very organically from the circumstances, as does the threat that motivates her. Stone refreshingly continues to act and think like a cop — if a damaged cop — as the level of weirdness rises around her.

While Stone’s present-day life is unraveling, Novak gradually peels back the century-old mystery of the titular Five Mile House, which turns out to arise from a substantially different mix of jealousy, insanity and revenge than is commonly supposed.

Five Mile House displays some of the weaknesses you might expect in a first novel. Some of the supporting cast are too thinly drawn to avoid cliché and I think there are indications that Novak is still evolving her prose style, but those caveats aside, this is recommended as a nifty, spooky read.

Needs More Demons? Not at all.

John Harwood: The Ghost Writer

Harwood’s The Ghost Writer is a tour-de-force of the “is it a haint, or ain’t it” style of ghost(?) story, and simultaneously an impressive feat of post-modern multi-level narrative construction. Gerard Freeman keeps finding ghost stories — both whole and as tantalizing fragments — written by a mysterious relative, which the reader gets to absorb along with Gerard. The more of them he finds, the more they seem to have a connection to Gerard’s family — his mother is at the least eccentric, if not actually mad, and Gerard has unresolved questions about how she came to leave (flee?) England for Australia. Gerard acquires an equally mysterious pen pal with a name — Alice Jessel — that aficionados of classic ghost stories might find unusually resonant. (Through a happy accident, I’d never gotten around to reading James’ The Turn of the Screw, so when Gerard encounters that novel, I was able to read it along with him, an experience I recommend.) The mysteries in Gerard’s past and present, collide, as you know they must. I found the resolution quite satisfying. I worked out most of it out before Gerard did, but I was still surprised by a few of the turns. Reading this novel reminded me in an odd way of watching The Ring: I was often very conscious of the degree to which I was being manipulated — The Ghost Writer uses the novelistic equivalents of jump cuts and shrieking violins — but my awareness of the writer’s intent hardly diminished the effectiveness of the work; it’s one creepy book.

Needs More Demons? Nuh-uh.

Sean Stewart: Perfect Circle

I’ve been thinking about this novel for months, and I still can’t figure out out how it feels so fresh and original, even though it’s built from such familiar components. Will Kennedy is a slightly off-the-rails underachiever who could have a bit part in almost any Richard Linklater movie without sticking out. He has the hackneyed gift/curse of being able to see dead people, but what really haunts him — at least to start with — is the ghost of his marriage.
Somehow Stewart took what sounds like a premise for an eminently missable TV show on one of the also-ran networks, and crafted a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny, gripping, moving, and even insightful. And, oh, yeah, scary.
Stewart’s prose style is lean, spiced with the occasional sharp metaphor — “it was a muggy ninety-two degrees out, and the whole city smelled like a crawdad boil,” — but I think mostly what makes Perfect Circle work so well is how authentic Will Kennedy’s voice is. Despite having a supernatural power, he seems very real.

Needs More Demons? Nope. But I need to read more Sean Stewart novels.

Crystal Zevon: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

Crystal Zevon’s biography of perennially misunderstood and mis-marketed songwriter Warren Zevon takes a holographic approach to the musician’s life (and death). Crystal Zevon (a former wife) provides chunks of bridging text, but the book consists mostly of brief chronologically-arranged snippets from an impressive array of Zevon’s family, friends, lovers, collaborators, and (most importantly) excerpts from Warren Zevon’s own copious journals. The book does a remarkable job of assembling a multi-dimensional portrait of a complex and, in many ways, contradictory character.

In her acknowledgments Crystal Zevon writes,

Over the three years [of writing the book] I … fell in and out of love hundreds of times. There were weeks when I was sure I’d hate him forever; nights when I’d cry myself to sleep missing the sound of his voice; and many moments when I wondered how I could expose what he’d asked me to expose … I’d made a promise to tell the whole truth — “even the awful, ugly parts.”

I suspect that many readers will have an experience similar in character, if less intense and personal. I’m glad I read Miles Davis’ autobiography Miles first; that was a formative experience for me in resolving conflict between enormous respect for a musical talent, and repugnance at the man behind that talent sometimes being a real shit. There were many points in Zevon’s story before he got sober where it was hard to have any sympathy for him at all. Even the sober Warren Zevon was hell on anyone he was romantically with, and often hard to deal with for most who knew him. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the world would have had any of his “comeback” records from the mid-80’s on, if not for the perseverance of Andy Slater:

..when [the record company executives] got to Warren, somebody said…”We’re going to terminate him.”
I stood up and said, “Terminate him? He’s the best artist we have.”
There’s all this harrumphing and one of the principles said, Slater, he’s 180,000 dollars in debt [to the I.R.S.], he doesn’t live her anymore, he has no record deal, and he doesn’t want to work.” I said, “Yeah, but he’s a great artist. And he’s the best writer here.” This guy says, “Then you manage him.”

After weeks of coaxing, Slater gets Zevon started on the road that led to his album Sentimental Hygeine, and his first substantive experiences with sobriety. Throughout their association, Zevon continues to use Slater hard:

I got a call from Warren. He said, “I’m in big trouble, Andy. You’ve got to help me. This girl is pregnant. I’m not in love with her, and I don’t want to be with her, and she’s going to have the kid. You’ve got to come here and explain my life to her.” I said, “Okay.”

but ultimately, even Slater gets fed up:

When I went to rehab, Warren was finally in good financial shape, sober, had a healthy touring base, and was about to release a new record. I called him from treatment… I said “What’s going on? How’s the record? blah blah blah.” He said, “Yeah, it’s going fine. I’ve got to talk to you about something.” He says, “Look, Andy, I just got off the phone with Irving [Azoff]. He said that if I fire you … he’ll really work my record and I’ll get better promotion and marketing… I think I’m going to do it.”
I hung the phone up, and thank God I was in treatment…It was devastating to me because here was somebody I had been friends with for almost ten years. I had … made it my mission to get him back in the record business when he was drunk and living in Philadelphia. I had taken him to rehab three times…Then, when I had a problem, he wasn’t there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is subtitled “The Dirty Live and Times of Warren Zevon.” Like all of the chapter titles, it’s a phrase drawn from one of Zevon’s song titles. Crystal Zevon admits to drawing a veil over the most baldly pornographic of Zevon’s reminisces, but there are racy bits a-plenty:

I invited Jeanette over and we made love, wonderful. Feel great. Went to the tanning place. Sure enough, there was Susan & before I knew it we were fucking on the carpet, then on the tanning bed.

But in addition to the typical trashy rock star excesses of sex, booze, and tax woes, and the less typical excesses of Calvin Klein gray shirts, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead offers more than the usual share of insight into Zevon’s artistic process. And that’s ultimately what makes it a compelling and moving read.

Needs More Demons? Ye gods, no.

Glen Matlock: I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol

I’ve whined recently about how the London punk scene of ’76-77 gets such a disproportionate share of media attention. So why’d I pick up Matlock’s book? Because his is one of the first-person perspectives I haven’t seen. Lydon’s and McLaren’s versions are amply documented. But Matlock’s part in the Pistols actually ends when Sid Vicious joins the band, and much of the Sex Pistols legend as punk icons kicks into high gear.

Matlock’s musical contributions to the band also fascinate me. I’m convinced that the strange alchemy between Matlock and Steve Jones is at least as important to the band’s enduring success as Lydon’s characteristic sonic sneers and McLaren’s image-mongering. Matlock wrote lovely pop songs and Jones stripped away the fiddly bits and reduced them to their elemental essence. (The fantastic EMI documentary Never Mind the Bollocks has many examples of this process in action).

Matlock (with help from co-author Pete Silverton) proves a breezy and entertaining narrator unburdened by false modesty. He’s got about as little patience for the myth that the Pistols couldn’t play as I do. He portrays McLaren as more of an opportunist than a master manipulator, and since he worked in McLaren’s shop even before it was renamed Sex, his is presumably a well-informed opinion. His account of the infamous Anarchy tour is markedly different than the others I’ve read; he was insulated from the press furor and mostly remembers being dead bored in hotel rooms.

A brief quote will give you a feel for the book’s flavor, and also show why Matlock didn’t ultimately fit well with the band:

…What they were interested in was prostitutes. It was all, let’s go and get Glen a tart. It may sound like I was a party-pooper but I wasn’t interested. One, I had my eye on a girl at the Paridiso [the club where the band was booked]. Two, I had a couple of songs to work on and one of the songs I wrote there turned out to be “Rich Kids” which sold 100,000 copies, thank you very much. So sod going off after a tart.

I read the original 1990 edition, but indicates that Matlock has revised the book with new material covering the recent reunion tours. Dang. I might have to read it again.

Needs More Demons? Not really.

Laurie J. Marks: Fire Logic

A curmudgeonly speculative-fiction fan I used to know had rules for avoiding crap books that went more or less like this:

  • Nothing with swords or dragons in the title or the cover
  • Nothing with a map of imaginary places at the front

There are many counter-examples to prove the rules, and even more bad books not filtered by them, but they do eliminate a lot of books I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read (I’ve had my lifetime quota of lame Tolkien knockoffs, thanks). I usually think twice before picking up a sword-y or dragon-y book, and the presence of a map is not likely to sway me toward an impulse purchase. Fire Logic has a big sword on the cover and a map in the front. I’d also be inclined to add a rule about titles that define the context of a series: Fire Logic, especially once you learn a little about the set up, implies that Earth Logic, Water Logic, and Air Logic will follow. Poor Fire Logic had three strikes against it before I’d read even a word.

So why did I read it? The third volume in the series is published by Small Beer Press. I have great faith and trust in their editorial judgment; their track record of publishing the kind of books I like is virtually flawless. In their promotional material, clearly aware that their audience might be leery of a mainstream fantasy tetralogy, they went to some pains to assure potential readers that this was not a standard issue heroic fantasy.

And indeed it’s not. What struck me most about this novel was its sense of place. Shaftal, despite a name that still strikes me as silly, feels like a nation where people could really live, not a sketchy setting for events of import to befall heroes and villains. There’s no incarnation of evil bent on utter subjugation of the world; there are invaders and a resistance, and the readers sympathies — and many of the characters’ — are tugged back and forth by the choices that people make. There is magic, but it’s not of the gaudy, lightning-bolts-from-the-fingers variety. Marks doesn’t belabor the principles by which magic operates, but they nonetheless feel internally consistent (a neat trick).

Marks’ society is very thoroughly egalitarian, few of the central characters are heterosexual, and nobody in the novel makes a big deal over anyone’s gender or sexual preference. It makes many of the standard fantasy genre tropes look very reactionary. I’m no expert, but I certainly can’t think of any fantasy set in a pre-industrial society as gender-neutral as Fire Logic. (In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ day, heroes could of course stumble upon cities, islands, or planets ruled by women — but ultimately that seems just as non-feminist: “Oh look, Dr. Jameson! The women are in charge! How very queer indeed!”)

On the down side, much of the plot was a little too military-oriented for my personal taste, and while Marks’ characters usually emerge as well-rounded, I could wish they were fundamentally a little farther from standard-issue fantasy types in aspects other than sexual orientation. Marks’ dialog has a realistic flow and is blessedly free of faux archaisms, but that makes her prose look a little dense and early 20th-century by comparison. But the bottom line is that I liked Fire Logic quite a bit, and I look forward to reading the next volume.

Needs More Demons? Nope.

Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers (eds); Slipstreams

Pretty much ever since the genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror have existed as distinct marketing categories, there have been periodic movements seeking to un-define them as such. In the 60’s there was “The New Wave.” In the 80’s some bruited about the awkward, demi-hemispherist phrase “North American magical realism.” And more recently, an unruly amalgam of authors have had their work variously labeled as “new wave fabulism,” “interstitial writing,” and “slipstream.” I dislike “slipstream” least of these terms. It’s less clunky than “new wave fabulism” and not burdened with mis-associations to 20th-century European cinema, the first New Wave of science fiction, or ridiculously big hair and synthesizers. “Interstitial writing” implies a negative relationship where I think an additive relationship is appropriate; existing in the interstices between genres suggests “neither fish nor fowl” instead of the more accurate “both fish and fowl.” Also, it’s hard to spell. The literal meaning of “slipstream” — the reduced zone of pressure behind a moving object (a.k.a., why birds fly in “V”-formations) — doesn’t apply either, but at least it suggests something hard to get a hold of.

The urge of speculative fiction authors to escape their marketing categories is driven, it seems to me, by sour grapes on both sides. Genre authors who aspire to more than simple escapist tale-telling resent the prestigious awards and publication venues available to “serious” or “literary” authors (most famously The New Yorker). On the other hand, “serious” authors resent the megabucks available to the upper sales echelon of the genre authors.

The debate may seem silly to anyone outside it. Works of “serious” literature have frequently incorporated fantastic elements since the very dawn of literature, no matter when you choose to place the dawn (Homer, Beowulf, Milton, Rabelais…). And many of the canonical great authors wrote their books in an era where the novel was considered an intrinsically frivolous and unworthy work; the idea that critical acclaim should come during an author’s own lifetime is a comparatively new one. But SF writers take their genre-name wrangling very, very seriously. And it’s true that the likes of Dickens didn’t invalidate their work by publishing in markets geared toward the cheap seats. And it’s also true that the prestige markets nowadays are publishing work from writers like Chabon, Lethem, Saunders, and Wallace that are much like the best of the work in the best of the genre publications.

Of course, the advocates for the best of the genre authors tend to downplay the fact that there is also an awful lot of purely escapist genre work published, and a great deal of that, bluntly, is badly written and unworthy of more serious consideration. You know — all those books with dragons, bare-chested strong-thewed warriors, and/or battling spaceships (let’s ignore for the moment the confusing irrelevancy that a tiny fraction of books with those illustrations are actually not crap).

Many smarter minds than mine have considered the problem of how to distinguish the good stuff. I’ve come up with my own test, the Is-it-bigger-than-a-breadbox? test. Here’s how it works: You could describe Hamlet as a ghost story in which a vengeful spirit convinces a young man to murder his uncle, ultimately leading to his own doom. But if you describe Hamlet strictly in genre terms, you fail to capture the essence of the play. It doesn’t fit in the ghost-story breadbox. In the same way, if you describe Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” as a ghost story in which a vengeful spirit claims the life of two children, you fail to capture its essence; it doesn’t fit in the ghost-story breadbox either. In fact, that description isn’t necessarily even accurate, and part of the story’s essence (I’d argue) is that it doesn’t fit in the breadbox; it defies the narrative expectations of the conventional ghost story.

The breadbox test has a catch, which is this: If the story fits into different genre breadboxes — ghost-story and hardboiled detective fiction, say — it’s still breadboxable. To escape the conventions of genre, a work has to fail to fit in any genre breadbox.

This is the great failing of Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers’ theme anthology Slipstreams, one of several recent books released to capitalize on interest in this movement. In Helfers’ introduction, he confesses that he doesn’t quite get what this slipstream stuff is supposed to be (I have the distinct impression he hasn’t read any of it), so he asked his authors to submit stories which combined two genres. Unfortunately, few of the results are impressive; most have a paint-by-numbers predictability to them.

Far and away the best story was Jane Liskold’s “Menu for Life…and Death.” Despite a title which telegraphs more of the plot than it needs to, this combination of cookbook and fatal love triangle was striking and unusual. Other than that, I liked the stories where one of the other genres was detective fiction best, although that may be because I generally prefer detective fiction to westerns or war stories. Robert Sawyer’s “Biding Time” actually suggested a new (to me, at least) motive for murder that arises from its science fictional conceit. Michael M. Jones’ hardboiled Santa “Claus of Death” is about as predictable as the lame title, and not even internally consistent, but I thought the St. Nick à la Chandler was still kinda fun; ditto the vamp sleuth of Tanya Huff’s “Critical Analysis.” Two stories demonstrate Summervillain’s First Corollary of Crap Historical Fiction: If you’re in late 19th-century London, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over Jack the Ripper. (Summervillain’s First Law of Crap Historical Fiction: No matter where or when you are, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over a famous historical personage.)

The primary reason I picked the book up was the inclusion of a story by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a writer of whom I’m a big fan. “Marrow Wood” doesn’t give her an opportunity to showcase her strengths; it’s too short to allow the compelling character development that marks her novels, and her take on faery magic is more standard and less distinctive than I usually expect from her.

When I was younger, I devoured Alan Dean Foster’s novels by the dozen, but his entry here — a tall tale/deal-with-devil hybrid — is particularly awful. Sentences like, “The result was a climatological confusion that often left him squinting to see through the resultant heavy fog,” cry out for a stern editorial hand. Russell Davis’s “The End of Spring” is perhaps the most ambitious story here, and the closest to slipstream as I define it. But it’s also one of the weakest; it punishes the reader with flat, repetitive present tense; the sentence, “The man sitting in his pickup truck is staring at the ridgeline and thinking about patterns,” appears multiple times; one of its genre components is perhaps apotheosis (if that can be considered a genre), but another is armchair psychiatrist babble.

Needs More Demons?
No, but needs more good writing.

Jennifer Trynin: Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be

If I were dictator of the world, everybody who wanted to form a band to play in front of people would be legally required to watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown first, and everyone who wanted to sign a record deal would be required to read Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be. In my dictatorial fantasy, this leads on the one hand to more bands that go back to the basement until the members learn to listen to each other, and on the other to fewer bands that sign contracts that will probably kill the band. I’m extra-sensitive on the latter point right now; a local band I like just signed a P&D deal with a Warner’s affiliate, and while I wish I could be happy for them, and hope I’m proven wrong, I think it’s unlikely the band will survive the experience. The last dozen or so sure didn’t.

But Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is by no means only for aspiring record-deal-signers, or obsessive students of music culture. In fact, one of the awesome things about the book is how thoroughly outside-the-industry Trynin’s vantage point is. She found herself the object of an archetypical major label bidding war without having much prior knowledge of how such things work, and she doesn’t expect the reader to bring that knowledge either, nor does she get bogged down with business specifics. Although I think this memoir works well as a cautionary tale, it’s also a highly entertaining rags-to-riches-to-rags story, and Trynin brings the same sort of not-quite-what-you-expect sly wit and acuity to her prose that she once brought to her songs.

Needs More Demons? No. The only thing I want to change about this book is to tack on a feel-good happy ending where Trynin had a long, productive, if perhaps niche-y career as an independent artist. Unfortunately, although she played guitar with Loveless for a while, that hasn’t exactly come to pass so far.

While I don’t want to change the book, I do hope somebody assembles a glossary of all the names-changed-to-protect used in it, and I’m not steeped enough in Boston-ania to get very far. “Flint Raft” would seem to be Gravel Pit. “The Front Load” seems to be The Middle East. And…? Please feel free to help in comments.