Literature

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

Savage, Hyper-Targeted Social Satire

I’ve discussed Pablo Mourier’s work here before.  His biting, funny stories lambast Argentine society with a a surgeon’s touch, applying the scalpel as opposed to the broad brush.

It might appear that this particular method is better suited to short fiction than to lengthier work, but Pablo’s novel, El silencio de los porteros (The Silence of the Doormen) is more of a good thing.

El Silencio de los Porteros - Pablo Mourier

This is a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny look at how, even in our alienated modern society, we still live in villages where everybody’s life is everybody else’s business.  The framing device is that the doormen of certain buildings in the best neighborhood in Buenos Aires are, unbeknownst to them, planning a huge extortion of the people who live in their buildings.

On the face of it, it makes sense, and everyone assumes it’s true.  After all, these are the people who know everything that goes on, who’s sleeping with whom and where all the bodies are buried.  It’s possible they buried a few themselves.

Of course, the conspiracy rumor takes on a life of its own and everyone gets dragged into the whirlwind and spat out the other side.

It’s both funny and timely, but I can’t really recommend it to most of my readers because, apart from it not being available in any language but Spanish, the book is also very much understandable only by Argentines.  Hell, the rest of you won’t even understand a lot of the expressions, much less figure out why they’re supposed to be humorous.

But for those with the tools to understand, a lot of this book is priceless.  Get a copy.  Laugh out loud.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you like a biting look at life, you can do a lot worse than his book Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

A Book Worthy of the Accolades in an Edition Worthy of the Book

I only bought this one because it was a leather-bound Harvard Classics edition of a book I’d read about more than once, and because it was priced to move at a used book store.

When it cycled to the top of my to-read pile, I was a little afraid that it might be a slog.  After all, a sailor’s memoir from 1840 would likely be in slightly archaic English and contain a lot of technical terms.

But I still read it, and Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast can only be described with one word: Wonderful.

Dana - Two Years Before the Mast

We live in an era that attempts to disparage the literary work that has come before.  We might be too cool to read that stuff, or we might have strange political beliefs that lead us to deny the enormous value of the great books just because they’re written by white guys (as if that affected the quality somehow).  Maybe (as was my case) we’re so caught up with fast-paced modern literature that a dip into the past would slow our roll.

But this one immediately does one of the things that literature is supposed to do: it immediately transports you to another time and place.  In this case, the merchant navy of the first half of the 19th Century and a completely alien, deserted, California coast.

It’s one of those tomes which underlines the difference between books that are merely good, perhaps even those that create great emotional responses, and those that are truly great, the books that not only play to the emotions–which this one does–but also engage the intellect.  A third quality, unintentional, is that it documents something an age disappeared much faster than anyone around ever thought would happen.

With regards to this last bit, I recommend trying to find an edition which has a section entitled “Twenty-Four Years After”, which, as the name says, was written much later and gives a fascinating rundown on the what happened next for the places, people and ships referenced in the main text.  That bit makes it even more wonderful.

As many of you know my preference for beautiful books, it will probably come as no surprise that my recommendation is that you try to get hold of a copy of the Harvard Classics edition (these appear to be going for $10 with free shipping on Ebay as I type, so it might even be cheaper than buying from Amazon.

And the leather, in this case, might even make the experience more genuine.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is the somewhat nautical Ice Station Death.  Well, there’s a ship in it which goes near where Dana was nearly two centuries ago.  You can check it out here.

 

The Sense of Agatha Christie

The Chalk Circle Man - Fred Vargas

When I started reading The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, I expected something good–the reviewers can’t ALL be wrong–but I also expected something very French and perhaps a bit existential.

About ten pages into the book, I had a sudden thought: this is what Agatha Christie would be writing if she was alive today.

But that’s ridiculous.  Agatha Christie is the quintessential British writer and, what’s more, she was also a very feminine writer.  Fred Vargas is French and…

And Fred Vargas is also a woman.  Something I didn’t know when I first picked up the book.  That, at least, explains the sense of femininty.

But the other part, the English part? Well, maybe that isn’t there, but there’s definitely a sense of affection for the small town life of France which isn’t that dissimilar from Christie’s familiar milieu.  But, most of all, I realized that Vargas’ main character reminded me enormously of Poirot.

While specifically insisting that, far from being a genius, he is a man of less-than-normal intellect, Adamsberg, Vargas’ Chief Inspector, still gives off that same vibe of knowing what is happening long before anyone else does, and then being proved correct.  And that sense makes you think you’re in a Christie novel.

Morality in 21st century France is very different from that of mid-century England, of course, but the naturality with which sex and unfaithfulness are dealt with is similar to Christie’s deft handling of the same material.

I’m aware that Vargas probably doesn’t want to be compared with the Queen of Crime (and also that many critics would be aghast that I took their avant-garde darling and tried to pigeonhole her this way) but I mean it as the highest praise when I state that this is almost exactly what I’d expect from the Grand Dame if she was alive today.  Recommended, and a quick, engaging read.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless deals with his passion for books and the publishing industry, as well as his fascination for crime syndicates and the deadly game of international smuggling.  You can check it out here.

 

The King of Planets, Anthologized

Something I always look for when perusing used bookstores are science fiction anthologies.  Partially, this is because, as a short story writer, it’s useful to see what’s come before, but mainly because I really enjoy reading short fiction, especially the stuff published until about 1990 or so, when the genre was focused more on entertainment than anything else.

It’s not unusual to encounter incredible stories forgotten in the pages of some battered mass market paperback, and that discovery is always wonderful.  So my bookshelves are kind of packed with random anthologies chosen for no other reason than that I found them on a shelf at some point.

The latest in this quixotic quest was the 1973 antho Jupiter, edited by Frederick and Carol Pohl, which included colossi like Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Simak, Weinbaum, Anderson, and del Rey.  Only two stories were by authors whose name I failed to recognize immediately.

Jupiter - Carol and Frederick Pohl

But the names, amazingly, are secondary.  The most interesting part of this one is the date.  1973.  Jupiter was just being explored, then.  The major NASA probes were on their way, but enough had been discovered to remove any possibility of the pre-war sword & planet tales being possible.  By 1973, everyone knew that the gas giants had atmospheres at least a few hundred kilometers thick and that any surface activity would need to take place under horrendous pressures and in chemically difficult conditions.

And yet even the more modern stories in the antho assume that there is a surface that can be used under the atmosphere–thinking that today’s discoveries have ruled out.  Which means that, even though there’s a certain amount to modern feel to the tales, the fact that many of them take place on the surface of Jupiter gives them a bit of a sword & planet feel anyway.  We know this isn’t how it is, and the story is superseded by reality.

That doesn’t stop one from enjoying them anyway and, as is often the case, the very best of them in my opinion was Lester del Rey’s “Habit”.  I’ve always thought del Rey to be enormously underrated–whenever he has a story in a volume with the real heavyweights, it usually holds its own or better.

Second place goes to Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa”.  This one, while not as entertaining as the del Rey, is imbued with the spectacular sense of wonder that the best SF stories always have.  Clarke was a true master of the form.

Overall, however, this one, though entertaining, is for completists and people who don’t mind reading stories that science has since left behind (interestingly, the Clarke and the del Rey, my two favorites, were also the ones that could be published today with little modification, as none of the story depends on old science).  Good, but not great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection of short fiction (none of them based on old science yet) is entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out (and hopefully buy it) here.

A Classic Format: Ace Doubles Revisited

From the 1950s to the 1970s Ace Doubles were a staple of science fiction publishing, and it was a good thing.  There were hundreds (possibly thousands?) of these books published.

For those unfamiliar with the series, these books have a tête-bêche format with spectacular pulp-style covers.  They contain two novels, and two “front” covers, so flipping the book over gives the impression of going from one book to the next.

I often wonder why the science fiction that is currently winning awards (the Hugos, at least) is utterly obscure and unpopular while everyone flocked to the stuff in the ’50s.  One reason, of course, is the inane, spectacularly boring political content that seems to attract prizes.  But another must be the pretentiousness, the utter horror of using a cover that the reading public might find attractive or exciting.

(I’m not trying to say no one is buying SF.  But I just don’t see the stuff the genre intelligentsia are trying to foist on us at Barnes & Noble… and B&N, having skin in the game, knows what sells and what doesn’t.  Apparently, it’s James S. A. Corey).

And when you read an Ace Double, you’re reminded of the good times.

Of course, with so many to choose from, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be good.  But I still pulled one at random from a local used book store and waded in, ready for whatever wonders (or horrors) of plot and prose awaited within.

I ended up with Ace Double D-351, and read The Sun Smasher first, as the title seemed to promise less than the other, Starhaven.

Ace Double 351 - The Sun Smasher by Edmond Hamilton

If my objective was to save the best for last, I probably should have read them in the other order.  Edmond Hamilton was a great writer (something I should have remembered because I’ve read a lot of his stuff), and he weaves a tight action story.  Predictable and dated?  Perhaps.  But we’ve had sixty years to catch up with the events of his novel, and both the main character and the way the plot was resolved still seemed fresh after all these years.  The Sun Smasher is an excellent short novel.

Ace Double D-351 - Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson

Apparently, this one’s author, Ivar Jorgenson is a pseudonym for Paul W. Fairman, but why he should have chosen to publish this one without attribution is a mystery.  Starhaven is a solid tale in the 1950’s mold where a clean-cut hero saves the day and gets the girl.  Wonderful stuff, and interesting in the way it plays with what morality looks like.

Binding these two short novels together is (and I don’t want to give any spoilers) a sense of hidden identity of the characters.  Neither of the heroes knows who he really is at the outset of the narrative, and that discovery–and subversion of the identity–is the key to both plots.

Very fun to read.  Also, I was delighted to get hold of this one because I’ve always felt that, if you’ve never read an Ace Double, your genre street cred is lower than it could be otherwise.

Anyway, they’re dirt cheap.  Find one and read it if you want to remember why people like SF.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Argentina.  His most popular book is a deep-space novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

 

 

The Father of the Road Novel Genre

On the Road.  It’s a classic of global literature written by a man who decided to create a genre just because he was a bit rough and broken around the edges.  He is Jack Kerouac, and his genre is, of course, Beat.

On the Road Jack Kerouac

What’s interesting about the word “beat” is that, despite my belief that it had something to do with musical rhythm, perhaps as expressed in Ginsburg’s poetry, the true origin of the word is a completely different usage, more akin to the phrase “I’m beat.”

So, to get the real experience of this novel where men and women travel across the country several times with nothing but a bit of food money in their pocket when they set out, I should probably have read the book in a demolished paperback found at a charity store.

I didn’t.  I read it in a beautiful Folio Society edition (pictured above), and am happy to say that I don’t regret it in the least.  Reading about hardship in a luxury edition is somehow decadent in a way that the Beats–judging by how they acted when they had money–would have appreciated.

Anyhow, onto the book itself.

This one shares a problem with many seminal works: it’s been done over and over again, and the people who came after built on the good parts of Kerouac to refine the genre.  Nevertheless, it’s still an un-put-down-able piece of literature, and I was genuinely saddened when it ended.

Simply stated, it bridged the generational gap between postwar youth and what I remember from being the same age: the same sense of adventure, the same preoccupations (with girls and sex, mostly), and the same questions regarding what life was actually about.  That’s the reason the book is a timeless classic, and will remain so as long as late teens and twenty-something are allowed to be wild and free.

It’s also a wonderful celebration of youthful freedom, one that, seen from the point of view of a world in which the freedoms that adults enjoy are ever more regulated by a well-meaning society hell bent on protecting people from themselves, is hugely refreshing.  Through Sal Paradise and his accomplices, we vicariously enjoy that wonderful age where everything seemed possible, even if it wasn’t strictly legal or morally correct.

If you haven’t read this one, you are missing an essential part of the American experience.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He works in several genres, and his most recent work of mainstream literature is a book called Love and Death, which you can buy here.

The Attraction of the Local Writer

When you live in the English-speaking world, discovering a wonderful local writer must be a cool experience, as you can immediately go online and write about it knowing what most people will be able to read his work if they are so inclined.

In my case, it’s a bit of a bittersweet experience.  You see, the local writers I usually discover tend to be untranslated into English, no matte how wonderful their work is… which means that I can really only make most of my writerly friends aware of their existence, but I can’t share it.

Más sería vicio - Saurio

Almost a year and a half ago, as I was leaving the monthly gathering of Buenos Aires-based SFF writers (all but me Spanish-language writers), one of the writers followed me out the door and gifted me one of his books (a particularly touching gesture as most of the Argentines are also investors who have to sell books to make the projects worth their while).

The book went into my TBR pile and has now cycled through.

Más sería vicio (note that the title has caps only on the first letter, as that is the way it’s done in Spanish) by Saurio was a book that I literally had no idea about.  I’d never read anything by Saurio, and I hadn’t even heard of him until that same day he gave me the book.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I waded into this one, only to find that it’s one of those treats that you just don’t get in the English-Language world.  Essentially, it’s the voice of Argentina’s neighborhoods–not the literary elite, but the real, gritty people of an earlier age–expressed in a series of short stories that straddle the border between straight fantasy and magical realism.  Unlike most Argentine literature (and especially local film), which, at the drop of a hat, descend into a tango-like rending of the garments about the military dictatorship, or poverty or… or about just anything… this book is funny and irreverent as opposed to ponderous.

Yes, it’s dark.  But it’s dark in a take-no-prisoners, laugh-at-everything way with a proletarian voice you couldn’t mistake for anything but Argentine, and an utter disregard for social niceties.

Having said that, it must also be noted that Saurio follows the Shakespearian (or possibly Cervantine, in this case) tradition of keeping the masses (me…) entertained with his obscene references and painfully silly characters while, at the same time making references to everyone from Lovecraft to alternative (very alternative) rock group The Residents.  You have to be on your toes to catch all the intertextualities.

There are lots of these, and the author, when he actually remembers them, explains them in footnotes.

All in all, fun and cultural interest in a literary package that, for a couple of days, made me happy.  Recommended to anyone who reads Spanish.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most recent collection of short stories–Off the Beaten Path–doesn’t straddle any boundaries.  They’re either fantasy or science fiction… though some seem to be one and are really the other.  You can have a look at it here.

Boring on a Large Scale, Well Done on the Small Stage

I always thought that a well-written story could pretty much overcome any apathy towards the subject matter itself.  Hell, if you think of the stakes of the last book you read, odds are that they only matter to the characters themselves.

And yet, when reading Arthur Hailey’s novel In High Places, the major stakes were essentially the possibility of Canada combining a good chunk of its sovereignty with the US.  It was written from the Canadian point of view, and it’s pretty safe to say everyone was gravely concerned with the possibility that things might go one way or the other.

Authur Hailey - In High Places

Um… Yawn.

Canada’s fate failed to inspire even the slightest interest.  I couldn’t care less, so the main political cut and thrust of the book lost a lot of its strength.

Fortunately, there was a subplot which affected the larger events in which a young lawyer attempted to win a court case against all odds.  That held my interest sufficiently that I was able to finish the book in a reasonable amount of time.

Hailey sold a ton of books (including the later-filmed Airport), so I suppose a lot of people cared about his subjects and I’m in the minority here, but this one didn’t do much for me at all…

Apparently, political intrigue of great moment to Canadians is my threshold for stuff that actually IS too uninteresting to read about, even in the hands of a master page-turner of a novelist.

This one allowed me to discover more about myself than about the book.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest book is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  It’s entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can buy it here.

Discovering Noblebright

A couple of years ago, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology to be entitled Still Waters.  I read through the guidelines and realized I had a story that fit with everything except one term I wasn’t sure of: Noblebright.

So I clicked on the link and learned a lot about the concept of Noblebright, including that it was meant to be a contraposition to grimdark.  Now I like a happy ending as much as everyone but, as I admitted in the introduction to Off the Beaten Path, I often set out to write a nice little story and somehow end up with bodies all over the place.

Still Waters edited by CJ Brightley

But though my story did kill of a perfectly nice and attractive character, it also embodied a lot of the concepts they wanted, so I sent it off.

As happens in these cases, I got the acceptance a couple of months later, and received my contributor copy when it was published.  The book went into my pile (those who come here often know I always read and review my contributors’ copies, even if it takes me a few months–or more–to get to each one).

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this one, but one thing that caught me off guard was the spectacular level of the writing here.  I know a couple of the authors involved, so they weren’t a surprise, but the level of craft across the entire book was.  Clearly, the field is getting better at being literary.

The second thing I realized is that most of this isn’t the kind of work I’d normally read were it not for the fact that I had a story in there.  The book is mostly composed of the more modern take on fantasy, meaning that there is less emphasis on adventure and a bit more on character motivation and emotional states.  There are also a couple of science fiction pieces (mine was one), but mainly, this one is more for those who enjoy the current trend of making the genre more literary and mystical (and yes, before you ask, my story is very much in line with this trend… my preferred reading is not always a reflexion on the way I write).

Finally, a word about Noblebright.  While the concept definitely makes for a much less painful reader experience because twisted, reader-unfriendly plots and characters are mostly absent, it also makes things a little predictable.  You know the main character (or the primary secondary character, or all of them) will be motivated by a desire to do good, so you find yourself consciously searching for the signs.  It doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable, but it was an interesting feature I thought worth mentioning.

Favorite story?  Probably “The Ice of Heaven” by Corrie Garrett.  I would have loved for that one to continue, aways the sign of a good story.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s short fiction has been collected in several books, most recently in Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.