literature

A Fleet Street Pratfall

As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing.  You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time.  You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..

I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer).  The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal.  It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.

That feeling only comes once in a while.  Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.

It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining.  Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on.  Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt.  Waugh satirizes it perfectly.

And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on.  Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted.  It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.

Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”.  In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.

Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s.  He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point.  Two masters coming together in prose.

I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.  It will make you happy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

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A New Favorite Dickens

I probably read Charles Dickens in the wrong order.  My first exposure to the man was a volume called Hard Times which didn’t impress.  This was followed by Oliver Twist, probably also a mistake.  The overly melodramatic and emotional has never been my cup of tea.

Things began to look up with A Tale of Two Cities which, by dint of being about something other than suffering, immediately took the top spot in my personal rankings.  At the time I enjoyed it a lot.

Enough, in fact, that I went on to read David Copperfield.  That one was a masterpiece, and probably, if one is objective, the best of Dickens’ work.

Luckily, though, I didn’t stop reading with that one.  His minor work (Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol) was duly consumed and found reasonably good, and I did enjoy Dickens’ London, a compendium of sketches by Boz and other essays.

But now, I can say that I’ve finally found MY Dickens. (Yes, that does sound unfortunate when you read it out loud.  Don’t read it out loud.  Especially in a crowded train).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Certainly the one book by old Charles that creates a feeling of wonder as opposed to simple admiration about how well the guy writes on a sentence level.  This one is also entertaining, a bit kooky (yes, that is a technical term reviewers use all the time) and just as well written as his heavier works.

And therein lies the rub.  This one un very un-Dickens-ian in the sense that it’s a light-hearted romp through several counties of English countryside (some, perhaps all, apocryphal) as opposed to a worrying grind through an urban landscape.  It’s like reading Wodehouse written by Dickens, which is always a treat (more on that particular angle in my forthcoming review of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop).

Essentially, it tells the adventures of four friends who, though wealthy enough to go on the kind of lark one would usually enjoy, are utterly clueless when it comes to everything else, apparently.  Hilarity ensues.

As such, it’s a pleasure to read.  Every singe page is fun stuff, and Mr Pickwick must rank among Dickens’ most memorable characters, which is quite a feat in itself.

For those who think that humor is somehow a guilty pleasure, you can rest assured that it’s all right.  No one will shake their heads at you in disapproval at your next literary gathering because A) Dickens is a classic writer, B) it’s 800 pages long so most of your literary friends won’t have read it and C) it has redeeming social commentary, so you can pretend you read it only because of that.

So you can enjoy every one of those 800 pages without having to make any excuses at all.

Perfect.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His laters book is a collection of short genre fiction set in non-traditional places entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here, and it’s worth having a look for the cover art alone.

Off the Beaten Path Has Been Launched!!

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

Most books have a story behind them.  This one is no exception.  When I started writing short fiction for publication, back in the mid-2000’s, there were very few people from the non-English part of the developing world writing original work in English.  Oh, some people were translating stuff that happened to land on their desk, but it was a scattershot effort.

So, mixed in with my more usual fare (fiction set in an American or Western European setting), I loved to change it up on editors a bit and drop my characters into unexpected places.  So you get a noirish dystopia in Namibia, a parrot story in New Zealand or a straight up SF espionage tale on the moon… in which two of the antagonists are India and China.

These stories sold, so I kept creating them until, almost without realizing it, I soon had enough for a book dedicated to just my published work that takes place, as the title suggests, off the beaten path of traditional SF.

And it just happened that I already worked with the perfect publisher for a book of this kind.  Guardbridge Books is based in Scotland, but has specialized, since its launch, in books from different cultures.  They had published my novel, Outside, and when I pitched the idea, they were delighted to have a look… and they, like the editors who’d bought the stories initially, also decided to publish.

Of course, they asked for a couple of new stories, which I was more than happy to write, and which round out the book wonderfully (of course I think that… I’m the author!).

So, that’s the genesis of this particular book.  Have a look!  Buy a copy!  Hell, buy multiple copies…  give one to all your friends.  Sign it and pretend I did it (I’ll back you up).

Anyway, you can buy the book on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.  Let me know if you enjoyed it.

Possibly the Most Unusual Book You’ll Read

As a writer, I read in many genres, but SFF is closer to my heart than, say, the Romance genre.  I’ve read more widely in SFF than in many others so when there’s a fantasy classic that I haven’t read sitting on a used-bookstore shelf, I will usually grab it without hesitation.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, Introduced by Anthony Burgess

Titus Groan was one such book.  Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy is considered a classic, and the edition I bought was introduced by none other than Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame.

I was expecting the book to be ponderous and impenetrable, but I was surprised.  It’s not impenetrable in the least.  Unlike Lovecraft, who often laced his work with archaic or unusual language in an attempt to heighten the effect, Peake wrote in language perfectly modern for his day and age (1946), which makes the book much more of a pleasure for modern readers.

Of course, it’s still ponderous.  It’s ponderous in a way that few other novels would ever dare to be.  Peake was apparently convinced that you should never describe a person in one paragraph where four chapters would do the job just as well.

It’s hard to get used to but, to be fair, it’s this dogged insistence on creating mountains of words that gives the book its texture and which has established it as one of the genre’s classic works even without its having been widely read.  You get used to the pacing after a while, and what action there is is decisive enough that the story is also a satisfying read if you can stick with the pace.

Once you close that back cover on the completed book, you’ll find that the world around Gormenghast mountain is alive in your head and you miss it.  You might not immediately want to seek out the two sequels, but you certainly have a sense that, eventually, you will.

But that’s not what struck me most about the books, however.  What struck me most is that they’re not strictly fantasy.  If not for the fact that Gormenghast has never existed anywhere, Peake might easily have been writing about a lost kingdom in central Europe in the 19th Century, The Prisoner of Zenda isolated from the rest of civilization.  There is no science fictional explanation for the castle’s presence, and the only magic is a premonitory dream which might, or might not have been an actual premonition.

The literary world has classified it as fantasy, though I’m not sure whether Peake himself would agree with that assessment (I still need to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so they might clarify the situation).  He just needed a place where his characters could play out… and where it made sense to write seventeen pages describing the moss on a stone wall.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories from places that aren’t usually represented in genre fiction–from African gorges to South American ghosts–entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here.

 

Genius Always Makes Things Better

If I spoke about a book written in the 19th century whose thinly-veiled message is that young women need to be respectful of their parents, appreciate the joys of a happy traditional home life and then added to that that the book also speaks of the love of God as the most important force in life, what would your reaction be?

Yawn?

Yeah, me too.  Except this book has become a classic.  It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and it’s wonderful.

little-women-louisa-may-alcott

It’s a children’s book, of course, or at least it was a children’s book when it was written… if published today, it would be firmly Young Adult or Even aimed at adults because children no longer read at a significant level.

The positive thing about that is that Little Women can be enjoyed by adults today without the feeling that one is reading something below one’s intellectual level.  Better still, the emotional punch this book packs hits across age groups.

Because Alcott’s genius is all about the characters.  Other than a couple of illnesses and a marriage or two, nothing that would make the plot of most other books even happens here.  It’s all about domestic life and tiny little squabbles, petty jealousies and completely plain-Jane friendships.  The acts of rebellion would have Holden Caufield, to take a name at random, scratching his head and wondering if anyone actually believes that a family could be so square (Holden’s word, not mine).

There is very little in the way of interesting events, yet you still find yourself reading, you want to know that it all comes out well for the characters, and suffer with them when it doesn’t.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

It’s not easy to make commonplace events, of interest mainly to gossiping grandmother types, gripping.  Even hampered by 150 years under the bridge, Alcott pulls it off.  She was a literary giant, and I can’t even imagine what she would be capable of if she lived today, unencumbered by the worldview of her times and circumstances.  She was supposedly a feminist in her time… you could never tell unless they told you.

Modern feminists won’t enjoy this one but, if you are the kind of person who can look past a little bit of preaching of currently unpopular values and enjoy a beautiful book, you should pick up a copy.  Because looking past the obvious can show you a work which has aged remarkably well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book The Malakiad takes place in a particularly unusual version of ancient Greece.  You can check it out here.

An Enjoyable Product of its Time

One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.

Racist.  Sexist.  Colonialist.  They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon.  So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.

What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans.  If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about.  It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.

I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.

It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world.  Pretty standard stuff so far.

But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal.  He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary.  It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day.  Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.

The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.

I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them.  It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload.  And a great story to boot.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future.  You can have a look here.

 

More Visions

A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of a book called Visions III – Inside the Kuiper Belt.  I’d gone into that one with low expectations, but the book blew them all away.  It’s still one of the best contributor copies I’ve ever read.

Visions VI - Galaxies - Edited by Carrol Fix

Unlike its predecessor, Visions VI – Galaxies had some big expectations to live up to.  I’m happy to report that it succeeded reasonably well.   It’s not as good as Visions III, but then, almost no anthology I’ve read in the past few years is.  What it is, however, is a solid collection of writing about space, with adventure and wonder thrown in for condiment.

In a collection of 13 stories (of which I will only comment on 12 as the final tale was “Cloud Marathon”, written by yours truly), there is only one true clunker – a writer who gets the science very wrong (you need to know what a galaxy is if you’re writing a story about galaxies) and is also preachy.

Other than that, though, this book is full of good stuff.  Everything from way-out satire of SF television (“Space Opera” by Amos Parker is the memorable story that does this) to introspective tales that make you question humanity’s behavior (“Final Contact” by Al Onia), it spans the gamut.

Favorites?  There are a couple.  Bruce C. Davis’ “Old Soldiers” packs a strong emotional punch, while “Unity” by Tom Olbert is pure adventure goodness (this one almost lost me for being a little preachy and PC, but the writing carried the day in the end).  But there are other good ones as well, making this a solid read.

So, another good one in this series.  The good news for you is that there are a total of seven anthos in this series.  The good news for me is that I still have my contributor copy of Visions VII sitting in my pile.  A treat to come.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  For people who like anthologies similar to Visions, he recommends his book Siege.  You can check it out here.

A Genre Buffet

Some writers don’t read contributor’s copies.  Some even insist their agents send them cut sheets (just those pages in which their work appears).  I suppose that if you’re an Asimov type, who published 250 books and countless articles and short stories, that makes a lot of sense.

I, on the other hand, read every contributor’s copy that I receive.  However, they do go into my pile which–for reasons of sanity–is read in chronological order.  That means that a book from 2017 might get reviewed in mid 2019… such as is the case with this post.

The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 - Robert N. Stephenson

There’s a reason I preface my review that way, and that’s because today’s book is The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2, edited by Robert N. Stephenson.  Fans of my fiction will be aware that I’ve already been published in volumes 3 and 4 of this series and have sold a story to volume 5, so it might seem strange that I’m writing about the second volume.  The above should clear that up.

Anyhow, what about the book?

After reading a lot of old automotive publications, it was a delight to get back to my favorite genres, and this book is a brilliant way to get a sprinkling of a little bit of everything.  From well-known masters of the field like James Van Pelt–whose work I reviewed for SF Reader a few years back and who contributed an evocative tale for this antho–, to people I recognize from sharing many tables of contents with, to names that were new to me, this one gives a nice overview of what the genre can do.  There’s definitely a bit of each genre, and also, the sub-genres that make the field so rich are well-displayed.

A veteran reader of the field can lose himself in this one and enjoy the take on each type, while a newcomer can actually use this book to understand what they like most about SFF and find more work along those lines.  It’s a wonderful volume.

What I liked most was the book’s adventure story par excellence.  “Mnemo’s Memory” by David Versace is a swashbuckling steampunk airship story of the kind they just don’t make any more… and it was utterly wonderful.  Of course, I tend to like my adventure, and Versace got it exactly right in this one.

So, recommended for anyone interested in the genre, both newbies and long-time fans.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a writer with over two hundred stories in print.  He has a new collection coming out in August, but if you can’t wait that long, his short fiction has been collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places and in Virtuoso and Other Stories.

 

A Tale of Two Lions

A couple of years ago, I read one of the most delightful nonfiction books I can remember: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.  So it was with enormous pleasure that I began his second major volume.

Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes

Patience and Fortitude, as most people are aware, are the names of the two marble lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library, which makes the title of this book particularly apt for what turned out to be (I intentionally avoided reading any synopsis) a history of the evolution of the library in the Western world, told in Basbanes chatty, anecdote-sprinkled style.

As with the first Basbanes book, I found this one engrossing.  It has the advantage that it deals with a subject that has a much wider appeal than insane book collectors but, at the same time, loses a little bit of the charm that the quirkier topic brought with it.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful volume which, in a mere 550 pages, gives you an overview of how ancient knowledge was stored and replicated and reached us, as well as telling us what a modern library looks like, and the issues facing it in the future (as seen in 2001, when the book was published).

It’s a good one, and it’s portable size allows one to read it anywhere but, for my money, the best book about libraries I’ve ever read is still this one.  Kinda hard to lug around on the subway, though.

I’d say the Basbanes is the right volume for those who’s like to read character-driven history of libraries.  The Campbell – Price for those who are a bit more visually oriented.  Both are wonderful, so don’t chose one or the other, buy them both and enjoy them.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  The plot of his thriller Timeless centers around a book and an ancient monastery, but it still manages to avoid resembling The Name of the Rose in any way.  You can check it out here.

Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block – My First Time

The Girl With the Long Green Hear by Lawrence Block

It’s no real secret that I like noir, whether it be in film form or book form.  It’s just so evocative of another era and a kind of person, the hard-nosed, gritty guy who lives in the real world whether he likes it or not, who no longer exists.  As an escape from reality it’s just as fantastic as anything Tolkien ever put to paper.  Can you imagine a Millennial Sam Spade in today’s era of political correctness?  I’ll wait while you stop laughing.

So when I spotted a brand new copy of Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart in the bargain bin of a bookstore at the beach town where I usually go on vacation the same bargain bin that, a year or two earlier had disgorged a King James Bible, I snapped it up.  A bonus, at least for me was that it was a Hard Case Crime edition of the book.

As a writer, Hard Case Crime is on my radar as the first publisher to send any noir novels I might happen to write (I don’t write a ton of crime fiction, but if I do…), but as a reader, I just love their selection.  More importantly, though I love their covers.  They hearken back to the golden era of lurid art featuring scantily clad women and/or dead bodies, all tied together by excellent design work with the right sensibilities.

Block, on the other hand, was new to me.  I’d read the classics Hammett, Spillane, McDonald etc., but not the bread-and-butter crime writers of the era, especially not from the sixties.

I think I’ve been missing out… a quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the man is worth reading, although this is probably not his best book.  Nevertheless, it is a great example of its kind.  A couple of con men get into a deal with no real idea of where they really stand…  it’s grim and doesn’t pull any punches, but also hopeful in a twisted sort of way.

I think what I like most about crime fiction is that it doesn’t try to judge or moralize.  It tells the story (often in the first person), as the protagonists would have told it, not as a well-educated writer might see it.

And that is what allows the escape to be fully realized.  And this one works perfectly in that sense.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Ice Station: Death, is a creature feature thriller set in Antarctica.  You can buy it here.