Wednesday, August 22, 2012

ReaderCon: Last year's novels reviewed

This post is the 4th in my series of reports about ReaderCon, held July 12-15, 2012, in Burlington, MA. We last mused over the panels "The Works of Peter Straub" and a reading of new material by John Crowley. Then, at last, your devoted narrator slept, in spite of every intention of devouring a substantial portion of one of the many new books she had acquired the day before.

Breakfast was a pleasant affair, spent in the company of a fellow member of the All Hallows' group in the hotel's restaurant. After breakfast, running a little late, your fearless narrator clambered into the packed Rhode Island room and managed to squeeze herself into a corner, where she perched against the back wall.

Unfortunately, my lateness meant I didn't get a copy of the list of the year's notable novels, as there were more attendees than copies available. However, the panel discussion was not hampered for those of us missing out, and Don D’Ammassa, Natalie Luhrs, Liza Groen Trombi (leader), and Gary K. Wolfe proceeded to mull over all the various delectable morsels that the publishing industry had seen fit to present to readers in the year since ReaderCon 2011.

Here is a list of those titles with brief notes where available:

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine was rated a fast and entertaining read, sparse but very good.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was applauded.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was described as one of those books that gives the reader an addictive craving compared to smoking literary crack. It was apparently a very fun read, but not terribly substantial in hindsight.

Annoyances were aired that the new Christopher Priest, The Islanders, was still available only in the UK. American readers will know him as the author of The Prestige, already adapted into a major motion picture.

The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch was called out as another promising read for those of us who like to drive ourselves crazy waiting for the next book.

John Connolly's name was brought up by Don D'Ammassa as a dark horse in fantastic literature. Those of us who are fans of his writing know he is skilled at spinning a tale, and often forget that part of the tale is fantastic due to his skilled weaving of elements. Ghosts give clues even in his hard-boiled Charlie Parker mysteries, and The Gates and The Book of Lost Things absolutely fall under the umbrella of fantastic fiction, with a fairy tale or fable-like feel to them. I can only hope that in future years Connolly is invited to ReaderCon -- I think he will be surprised at how many old fans he finds, and how many new fans he creates by his presence. Also, I suspect he will have a lot of fun.

Ernest Cline's widely acclaimed Ready Player One was an obvious addition to the list for the panel.

Neal Stephenson's Reamde was rated by most as more of a really good international spy thriller than anything else, which readers of his early book Zodiac will not find surprising.

Mieville's Embassytown with its inscrutable aliens engaged the panel and audience in lively discussion, and the audiobook solution for the aliens' perplexing speech patterns was lauded. Mieville's name was mentioned repeatedly, with great deference.

Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series was recommended as a good addition to the steampunk genre.

Lavie Tidhar's book Osama, which takes place in a parallel universe where Osama bin Laden is a character in a book, received serious note from the panel. PS Publishing released it in North America.

A number of books released as Young Adult novels received note, including The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, and Bitterblue, the latest installment in the Graceling series by Kristin Cashore.

George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons was duly mentioned, and speculation as to whether the series would ever be completed was likewise duly raised.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson received a fair amount of discussion, with varying reviews. The general consensus seemed to be that it was a sort of utopian "solar system" novel, but the overarching plot was not a main focus. Rather, the book tours the reader through the solar system planet by planet, and uses that for the sequence structure.

As talk turned to upcoming and anticipated titles, Hydrogen Sonata by Iain Banks, the latest in his series of Culture novels, was mentioned, as well as Shadow of Night, the 2nd installment in Deborah Harkness's "All Souls Trilogy," which was happily anticipated by those who had yet to pick up their just-released copy of the book.

This discussion was a great capsule overview of the prior year's books of note in the fantastic fiction field, especially useful for someone like me who is in the secondhand book field, where volumes are only encountered months and often years after their initial release. Not only were the standard adult fiction selections discussed, but note was also taken of promising young adult series, audiobook versions of texts, and other peripheral versions of the traditional book format.

Prior posts from my ReaderCon report series are here if you missed them:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mrs. Plant Talks, or...

...a rumination on 1920s mystery chapter headings.

I was just cleaning up an old copy of a 1920s Crime Club hardcover, and flipping through the pages I found that the titles of each chapter section were more than enough to entertain me on their own.

So, in hopes you too will get a grin out of these, please enjoy a selection of chapter titles from Anthony Berkeley's 1929 The Layton Court Mystery.

  • Mr. Sheringham Is Puzzled

  • Major Jefferson Is Reluctant

  • Four People Behave Remarkably

  • The Vase That Wasn't

  • Mr. Sheringham Becomes Startling

  • Mr. Sheringham Sees Visions

  • Mrs. Plant is Apprehensive

  • Lady Standworth Exchanges Glances

  • Hidden Chambers and What-Nots

  • Mr. Sheringham Amuses an Ancient Rustic

  • Mr. Grierson Becomes Heated

  • What the Settee Had to Tell

  • Mrs. Plant Proves Disappointing

  • Mr. Sheringham Is Dramatic

  • Mr. Sheringham Solves the Mystery (this one seems a bit premature)

  • Mrs. Plant Talks

  • Mr. Sheringham Is Disconcerted

  • The Mystery Finally Refuses to Accept Mr. Sheringham's Solution (see?)

  • Mr. Grierson Tries His Hand

  • What Really Did Happen

  • Not to leave you entirely in the dark, please allow me to produce a sampling of some quotes from within these pages:

    pg 31 But Roger had other things to do that dancing attendance attendance upon fainting and hysterical ladies.

    pg 80 In spite of himself he shivered slightly. "Ugh, you ghoulish brute!" he exclaimed.

    pg 169 "Oh, no!" Alec groaned. "Tea!"

    pg 167 "My God!" Alec shouted suddenly. "That isn't a cow; it's a bull! Run like hell!"

    Luckily for us, the book has not gone out of print. In fact, there is a reprint still going strong right now. Goody!!!

    Wednesday, August 8, 2012

    ReaderCon: Meeting Straub & Crowley

    Dear readers, in this post we pick up after the second installment of the ReaderCon report series, which had just departed a panel discussion of "The Works of Shirley Jackson" panel.

    Now, a glutton for literary punishment, I traipsed right over to "The Works of Peter Straub." As I may have mentioned before, Straub was one of the Guests of Honor of the ReaderCon 2012 convention. The panel was no less distinguished than the author himself, featuring the talents of Mike Allen, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, John Langan, Henry Wessells (leader), and Gary K. Wolfe.
    One of the first items that came up in the discussion was the connection between what panel members called the “Tim Underhill novels.” What are the Tim Underhill novels? The character of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Underhill first appears in Koko, which I am reading currently (in part because of this panel discussion). He pops up again in The Throat, Lost Boy, Lost Girl, and In the Night Room, as well as being mentioned in Mystery. He reappears in the short story "The Ghost Village," which was published in the short story collection Magic Terror.

    The Underhill novels illustrate one of the points made early in the panel discussion. The 'braiding' of Peter Straub's tales, as in the Underhill novels, is not so much a form of continuity as a filling in here and there of left-out details, a re-focus of the lens, another facet of the story, each time with a difference from what came before in earlier books and stories.

    John Langan made the very good point that with Straub, "the story is not allowing you to JUST be terrified." With Straub, there is something more, an element that holds you to the tale, an air of mystery that makes you want to know more. Straub's horror is not slash and burn horror, shell-shocking the reader to death. He wants you to live to inquire further into the matter, and to be glad you did (mostly!). Horror rarely walks alone in Straub's books.

    I think it was also Langan who talked about how A Dark Matter returns again to the theme of the guru, the corrupt or bankrupt teacher, who somehow enlightens and endangers his young student, very similar to Straub's earlier novel Shadowland and John Fowles' The Magus.

    The panel members referred frequently to the characters of Mr. Club and Mr. Cuff, leaving me feeling very neglectful for never having read their story, which appears at the end of Magic Terror. [Yes, kind readers, pity me for my behind-ness in reading Straub’s other books beyond my already-favorites. I have been missing out on so much! I have started with Koko and am working my way through EVERYTHING as of now.]

    The panel compared Straub's multi-layered storytelling approach to the use of the "secret house" -- the house-within-a-house. There is the house that everyone sees, and then there is the OTHER house that exists simultaneously.

    Another intriguing mention by the panel went to the Lovecraft trope in Straub’s novel “Mr. X,” now also on my to-read-soon list. Mr. X himself, one of the main characters in the book, is fully convinced that the fictitious Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft is real, and he sets about his work to bring the triumphal earthly return of the Elder Gods to fruition. This, of course, is only on aspect of the story – there are other major characters in the play, adding their ingredients to the mix.

    As a little FYI, panel leader Henry Wessells mentioned the excellent Victorian era Lock & Key mystery series, edited by Julian Hawthorne (son of the famous Nathaniel). This series is mentioned in Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue, by S. T. Joshi. This little 10 volume set was a huge influence on Lovecraft’s reading, and is a terrific addition to the library of anyone who enjoys intriguing fiction with a mysterious bent to it. To read Wessell’s review of Lovecraft’s Library, click here:

    "What is a book but the struggle of a story to tell itself?" -- Henry Wessells

    In the panel quote above, Wessells speaks to the tendency of Straub’s books to be dynamic, mysterious cauldrons of seemingly organic activity, where the readers themselves are sleuthing their way through the changing story at the same time as they are experiencing its events, examining each character’s perceptions and memories for clues as to the true natures of the story. What is really going on? And without the reader, what happens to the story?

    The Straub panel finished up at 9:00pm, and I happily had my photo taken with the man himself, and took my friend Jeff Pert's photo with him too to commemorate the happy occasion. Mr. Straub was as pleasant and charming as I could have wished him to be. One always worries on meeting ones respected idols that they will turn out to be ... well, less than expected, to put it mildly. I was not disappointed, in fact I was delighted.
    That would have been enough to settle my first day at ReaderCon on a plentifully positive note, but the night was not over yet -- I still had the John Crowley reading to go to just down the hall. I had no idea what to expect -- and once again was met with nothing but good surprises.

    John Crowley, author of one of my all-time favorite books, "Little, Big," read to us for almost an hour from the preparatory chapters he has been building for his upcoming book, Ka. The book is told from the viewpoint of one crow, Dar Oakley, as he watches his fellow crows move through the world, and at the same time watches the other creatures, such as the humans, make their way across the face of the land too, with their peculiar and inexplicable ways. I'm always a little leery of animal point-of-view tales, but I have been surprised before (Felidae by Akif Pirincci, Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song), and I found myself surprised by the freshness of Dar's voice and the keen illustrations of the world through an unmistakably crow-true perspective.

    I'm looking forward to the book's release. After the reading Mr. Crowley very graciously signed my ancient and cat-chewed paperback copy of Little, Big and let me take our photo together. All in all, a night of fantastic experiences I couldn't have had if I didn't go to ReaderCon. And this is just the end of the first day!

    Parts 1&2 of my ReaderCon report are here if you missed them:

    Saturday, August 4, 2012

    The hoary beard of science fiction?

    As a fan of weird fiction in general, and with classic supernatural fiction as one of my favorites, I like to peek in on the All Hallows newslist on Yahoo frequently (, and see what's going on in the current ghost story related conversation. Every now and then, the talk veers into similar but ultimately unrelated terrain, such as science fiction.

    One of the other group members was feeling discouraged about the lot of older science fiction, and I responded according to what I see in the shop here. Then I thought to myself, why not post this on the Green Hand blog where everyone can read it? This is what I've been saying to folks in the shop for the last little while, so some of you may have heard bits and pieces of this over the last year, but here goes:

    In response to the assertion that the only fans of old scifi (beyond the major classics like Heinlein) are retirement age themselves, I had this to say:

    I'd have to throw up a flare of positivity here and disagree -- I've been growing my scifi section extensively since I opened my used bookshop 2 1/2 years ago, and the stuff that gets people really excited, both young and old, is the uber-classic stuff that's slipped through the cracks. I'm trying to fill that gap, because no one around here really cultivates their bookshop's scifi section (or horror, which is my real pet section, and sadly seems to be a much harder sell for me than scifi is at the moment).

    I watch people as they come up, with their little pile of books in hand and a gleam in their eye as if they've found treasure before anyone else got to it. Or people come in and hopelessly ask me out of habit if I have a particular old obscure scifi title, and when I say, "Yes, I think I might have that," they get this I-won't-believe-it-'til-I-see-it hope on their face, and when I hand them the book, well -- I can safely say that the old scifi is not dead in people's hearts, at least not around here.

    The younger customers are reading articles about scifi online written by people like you who read this stuff in the decades after it came out and loved it. I think so long as the fans of scifi have enough enthusiasm and heart to keep telling the newcomers about the things they love most, the kids are learning to appreciate it too. The other method of inculcation is word of mouth -- their friends read the older stuff and inform them that they "have to read this!" and they listen.

    I have a ton of customers excitedly working their way through the obvious suspects (Heinlein, Asimov, Dick), and more who are taste-testing anything obscure they can get their hands on. Then there's Bester, Lem, Blaylock, and scores more who are scarce but sought after enough that I have a hard time keeping them in stock.

    I also run an all-women scifi bookclub that has been going for just over a year now, and is alternating male and female authors month by month, with great success.

    In my opinion, it is an incredibly exciting time to be a scifi fan, because there is no reason why you ever have to read a bad scifi novel (unless you want to!) -- the cream has risen to the top, and if a gem is missed by the vox populi, there is usually someone to stand up and shine a spotlight on it so that the observant fan will pick up on it and resurrect it.

    So there's my two cents on the matter. I know, I'm an eternal optimist. Can't be helped! I'm excited about all those darn books.