literature

The Dreamlike Apocalypse

The two most important trends I’v seen recently in modern science fiction are a tendency towards a much more literary style of writing and an equally strong tendency towards eschewing far-future space-based scenarios for near-future dystopias.

Few books embrace both these trends as completely as Eliza Mood’s O Man of Clay.

O Man of Clay - Eliza Mood

Set in a post-global-warming England in a town half-submerged under the rising sea, the book tracks two women and one man as they navigate, each in their own way, the new reality of scarcity, radiation and pollution.

But it’s the way this book is written that sets it apart.  Within the linear structure following the main character, a young girl who lives outside the new society starting to form, we get flashbacks into the life of the antagonist, a former prisoner in a Siberian camp.

To make things a little more interesting, some of the characters are not perfectly aware of who they are, others are totally confused about what year it is and the only one thinking clearly is expressly trying to avoid the rest of them.

The fact that the writer managed to keep the threads advancing coherently and not have the whole thing unravel on her qualifies this book as a writing tour-de-force.  This is the kind of book that will appeal quite strongly to those who enjoy the more literary aspects of genre work, as well as a different look at a post-apocalyptic society.

Those who love deciphering themes in their fiction will enjoy it as well.  It comments on both authoritarian régimes and capitalism overtly (and, in a nice change of pace from usual practice, it attacks them both), but there are several other things to find.

The characters don’t act like characters.  They act like people.  Unbalanced, obsessive people from a Russian novel, perhaps, but definitely not characters.

This is a book for those who want to be one step ahead of the bleeding edge: post-apoc, dark and literary to a degree seldom seen.  If that describes you, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His science fiction book Outside deals with some of the same themes, but very differently.  You can check it out here.

Old-School Fun

Back when I started publishing regularly in science fiction and fantasy magazines in the late 2000s (does anyone say the “noughts” any more?), there were a lot of large format perfect-bound magazines out there which took advantage of then-new print-on-demand publishing technologies.

These mags contained fiction, poetry, art and even comics.  They were a lot of entertainment for the money.

But not many of them survived for very long, which is why horror magazine Night to Dawn is such a refreshing reminder of how things used to be.

Night to Dawn Issue 35 - April 2019

I received my contributors’ copy of Night to Dawn 35 because it contains my vampire story “Neurosis and the Undead”, and read through it, savoring the sense of being back in 2010–which, in this case, is a good thing.

For starters, there were a LOT of vampire stories in this magazine (I suppose the title of the publication should make one expect that) which is surprising in modern times.  Vampires, the common wisdom contends, are overdone.  I argue that vampires might have been popular, but they were popular for a reason: they are fascinating creatures, and you can always tell a new and different story about them.

Next, there are many, many interior illustrations of the black and white type we always loved in an earlier generation (think 1960s / 80s) but which you almost never see anymore.

And then there is the fiction.

Many outlets for short fiction, especially in small press, are essentially a mouthpiece for political pandering.  The stories therein might be better or worse, but they are often selected for criteria of ideological homogeneity or an attempt to ensure that the table of contents is populated by the correct demographic instad of quality (I won’t get into any arguments here about why this is wrong.  If Stephen King is taken to task for arguing that quality is more important than any other criteria, I don’t even want to imagine what Twitter would do to me).

Night to Dawn is refreshing in this sense as well.  The stories are diverse in the best sense of the word, meaning that they are different from each other.  Some seem to lean progressive, some a little more conservative.  It’s quite clear that the attempt here wasn’t to line up a point of view but to select the best possible stories for publication.

Whether that is successful or not will depend on the taste of the reader.  Most likely, in an eclectic mix like this one, you’ll enjoy some more than others.  Most intriguing to me was “Therapy for a Vampire” by Margaret L. Carter (this one is a serial, so I don’t know if the ending is as good as the setup).  I also enjoyed “My Zombie Valentine” by Roxanne Dent and “Professor Zapfman’s Miraculous Galvanic Apparatus” by Bernie Mojzes.  Your mileage will vary depending on your tastes, of course.

So if you miss the old-school style of horror, this one just might be for you.  I encourage you to have a look.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose darker fantasy is collected in the ebook Pale Reflection.  You can check it out here.

A Magazine About Creating Beauty

One of the nice things abut buying books from Folio Society is that they send you little gifts with the books.  My personal favorite is the annual Folio Diary, but another wonderful little gift is Folio, the company’s magazine.

Folio Magazine - August 2018

This magazine is about what you’d expect from the house organ of a company dedicated to creating beautiful publications (and one which I’ve featured before).  It’s a bit of an advertising piece disguised as a self-indulgent series of interviews of creators, behind-the-scenes look at how the final products are made and paeans to the finished product.

It is an utterly wonderful read.

The images of Folio artwork in this edition (Autumn 2018), are wonderful.  The central topic is the Folio edition of Atlas Shrugged, which, love it or loathe it, is undoubtedly a hugely important book that seems even more relevant to political discourse today than when it was first published.  Politics aside, Folio’s artwork is a wink and a nod to the era in which it was published, and takes us back to the glories of the Art Deco age.  It’s like standing in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

But that’s not the only article.  Food, mythological beasts and murder mysteries are all illustrated in the pages of this publication, because they are also illustrated in the books the magazine is trying to sell.  You get a look at the creative process behind the art, a guided tour given by editors and just a general sense of the loving way the books are put together.

Probably the most effective piece of advertising I’ve ever been exposed to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary collection of linked short stories is entitled Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

A Reasonable Voice from the Past

As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague.  My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.

I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see.  The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all.  Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes.  Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.

All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.

And it’s always been that way.  It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.

No one would say these were measured strikes.  But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.

Down and Out in Paris And London - George Orwell

Which neatly brings us to this.  Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda.  But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.

He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs.  The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident.  Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).

In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also  remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments.  Remember those days?  Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).

Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released.  There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates.  Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.

The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong).  I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper.  Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.

Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers.  You can buy it here.

Horror for the Literati

Like erotica, horror is another genre I don’t read as often as I do science fiction, crime/thrillers or fantasy.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but I often relegate purchases because a shiny new discovery in a different genre beckons.

That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it.  Quite the contrary.  I like reading the stories and watching the movies, and I should probably do it more often, especially since my fantasy fiction has a tendency to run, terrified and screaming, right over the boundary between fantasy and horror.

One good reason to read more horror is that I wouldn’t be surprised when an antho breaks the tropes.

Let me explain.  When I have read horror, at least modern horror, I have found it to fall in a certain box: thrilling, terrifying and unafraid to use a certain amount of shock value to drive the point home.  This goes for Stephen King, and it also goes for the books I receive in which my own stories appear.

Enter Re-Terrify.

Re-Terrify Anthology

Edited by Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist, this one surprised me.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a horror antho, but it aims for a very literate approach to the genre.  If you like gore or extreme terror, this isn’t the right place for it; it has its frights, but builds up to them like MR James more than Friday the 13th.

The final effect is powerful.  There was only one story I didn’t like (not awful, but a little weaker than the others), and it was buried almost in the exact center of the book, which seems to indicate the editors had some misgivings about it, too.  The rest, reprints all, from the 1950s to the 2010s (mostly from the 2010s), showed why they’ve been selected by editors at least twice.  They are uniformly good, and written to a truly high standard, generating horror without being blunt about it. (disclaimer – this is a contributor’s copy, meaning that there’s one of my stories in there… so I might not be completely objective, but I truly did like them all!).

Another thing this one has going for it is that it’s just a horror antho.  Not a horror fairy antho or a werewolf book or a slasher volume.  There’s a little of everything in here, even horror-sf, so you won’t get bored of ploughing the same furrow.

One story, though maybe not the best, was definitely memorable, above and beyond the norm, and that one was “Uncle Sharlevoix’s Epidermis”, by Gregory L. Norris, which was creepy and imaginative, even though the ending is in the classic style.

The rest are all good, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a different favorite, so go out there and buy yourself a copy.  You will enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest collection Pale Reflection, pretty much defines dark fantasy.  You can buy it here.

A Flat Detective

It should have been a match made in heaven.  Murder mysteries are one of my favorite genres.  Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  And Sicily is just paradise if you happen to like the same kinds of places that I do.

And yet something failed to click.

The Age of Doubt - Inspector Montalbano - Andrea Camilleri.jpg

The Age of Doubt is a book by Andrea Camilleri in the Inspector Montalbano series.  I had seen the Montalbano series on TV a few years ago, and the series hadn’t really caught my attention (I’m much less of a series watcher than I am a series reader), but this was my first exposure to the author’s writing.

I was unimpressed, mainly because, unlike Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg, I found the inspector to be utterly annoying in his insecurity and strangely adolescent (or perhaps even pre-teen-girl-like) in his emotional responses to pretty much everything going on around him.

At first, I was tempted to blame the translator, as I wasn’t terribly impressed with the prose even before encountering the emotional issues, but once I saw how childishly emotions were rendered, I’m giving the translator a pass.  For all I know, this is a faithful rendering of the original Italian (I can read Italian, but not well enough to judge prose quality, unfortunately).

These are small irritants, of course.  The overall review of this book is that it’s an interesting murder mystery with a melodramatic ending.  I personally found the Inspector’s emotional inner monologue to be an irritant, but others obviously enjoy it.

This series can’t be dismissed, as the late Gardner Dozois famously did every year to the even later Martin H. Greenbergs’ anthologies, as “pleasant but minor”, as it is already a worldwide bestselling publishing phenomenon.  So I’ll limit myself to saying that I prefer my investigators to have different neuroses, treated differently, and leave it at that.  If you prefer a touch of overwrought melodrama, this might be just the series for you.

In my opinion, there are better crime novels among the millions of options out there.  Your mileage may vary.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime novel Timeless is a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can buy it here.

The Perfect Response to “Bite Me”

Those of you who’ve been following along know that, though I’m not particularly a follower of the genre, I have little problem with an occasional piece of erotic fiction, whether it be a timeless classic or a forgotten piece of 1970s sleaze.

You might also know that, as a writer, I occasionally dabble in erotic fiction across a few genres.  I mentioned a sale to Blood in the Rain 4 a few months back, and the book has cycled through my enormous TBR pile and now I can review it.

Here’s that cover again:

cof

Now that I’ve read it, I can state that the content within is exactly what it says on the tin: vampire erotica.

Now before you run off, I need to say three things that surprised me (as someone who doesn’t read all that much modern erotica).  The first is that the stories in this volume are uniformly well-written.  On a sentence level, the writing (and don’t tell anyone I said this), is of a much higher quality than that which you’d find in a non-erotic science fiction or fantasy volume of the same payscale.

Secondly, the definition of what a vampire is gets examined and plenty of different roles, good and evil, victimizer and victim are studies between the sheets of this book.

Third, there is much less preoccupation with politics than in the rest of the genre.  This book is lovely in that any personal politics the author might have are left behind.  And that means you actually get decent stories instead of manifestos.  SF and fantasy editors need to take note.

In fact, the weakest story of the bunch is the single story that is a political revenge fantasy.  Included, one supposes, for variety’s sake, it was the single clunker as a tale, although well-written.

As for the sex, all varieties are sprinkled in here and, like me, you will probably find some stories that turn you on while others might make you squirm a bit.  Which, quite possibly, is the whole point.  In my own case, male / male stories aren’t my cup of tea, but there are a couple in here, “Lawful Evil” by Erin Horáková is memorable that worked for me as a tale despite being male / male.  In fact, almost every single story was excellent, with well-done sex scenes central to each.  Vampires lend themselves well to that.

The best of the bunch was “The Prisoner” by Bill Davidson, a long story with a twist ending that nevertheless follows logically from the themes developed inside.

This one is highly recommended (and not just because there’s one of my stories in it).  The quality of writing is superlative, the sex is sexy and the vampires are memorable.  What more do you want from life?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Timeless is a fast-paced and sexy thriller, and you can buy it here.

A Wonderful Cultural History Lesson

Several years ago–long before this blog was born–I stumbled upon a series of books that i absolutely love and that I dip into every once in a while, although I know them basically by heart.

These books were published in the early 2000s by Collector’s Press (which I can’t seem to find today, so perhaps they no longer exist): Fantasy of the Twentieth Century and Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  The fantasy volume in particular is spectacularly well-thought out, but both are good.

But I needed to complete the genre set.

Horror of the 20th Century.jpg

Horror of the Twentieth Century, written by Robert Weinberg, didn’t let me down.  Although it wasn’t quite up to the Fantasy volume (I am in awe of that one, it’s a wonderful history), it does an excellent job of tracking the literary and cinematic fortunes of the horror genre through the 1900s (and with a bit of history to set the stage).

Of the three genres, Horror is probably the one that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century survived because of the movies, and that is reflected particularly well in this book.  Also, the horror boom and crash are looked at long and hard, which is key to understanding the genre today.

Since I’m not a collector, the text is as important as the images here, but as a writer, it’s always fun to fantasize about what would have happened if I’d been active in any of the eras described within.  Would this or that Weird Tales cover have had my name on it, or, better still would I have rated a Hannes Bok cover painting?  Reading these books creates a tangible feeling of connection with the men and women writing in bygone eras, sometimes even more than reading the stories did.

For readers who aren’t writers, these books are just as good (probably even better, as there’s no pressure to compare yourself to the heroes of the past…) and it’s the kind of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelves whenever you have a few minutes of free time and the novel you’re reading just isn’t as engrossing as you wanted.

In short, this is a great primer for those just getting in to any of these genres, but it’s also the stuff experts’ dreams are made of.

Hugely recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a collection of dark fiction which would fit beautifully within the volume we’re discussing.  It’s called Pale Reflection and you can buy it here.

Some Books are Just a Pain

I usually try to spare Argentine writers the worst reviews.  After all, a shared background and experience has to count for something, right?  When I don’t quite enjoy a book by one of my countrymen, I simply refrain from recommending it.  I don’t usually feel the need to go any further.

Siete Casas Vacías_Samantha Schweblin.jpg

Unfortunately, the latest book in this list that I’ve read is Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samantha Schweblin and I can’t in good conscience give this one an ambiguous review–you never know who might mistakenly buy the thing and then come after me with a fire axe.

First, let’s get some things clear.  It’s very, very evident that that author is both extremely talented and extremely well-versed in the craft of writing.  The fact that this is a bad book doesn’t mean that Schweblin is a bad writer.  She very clearly isn’t.  In fact, I’d say she is a very good writer.

The second thing I need to point out is that this book–a collection of seven short stories–has one some serious awards.  The main body of the collection won the Ribera del Duero Prize while the story not included in that prize won the Juan Rulfo Prize.  While I’m not as familiar with Spanish-language awards as those given in English, and can’t truly say how prestigious these two are, it’s clear that these stories were highly valued by the judges of two different international competitions in two different countries.

So, please keep the above under consideration while I tell you why I didn’t like this book at all.

The reason Schweblin’s undoubted talent couldn’t keep it from being a massively boring read is down to the subject matter she chose.  So let’s have a look at that.

The overall approach is similar to what I discussed in the O Henry Prize volume I read recently.  Schweblin goes tight into her narrator’s mind and looks at the world from that extremely limited perspective.  The key difference with a typical “woman goes to the laundromat and thinks deep thoughts about menstruation” story that we all love to laugh at is that Schweblin’s characters are mentally a bit off.

It sounds interesting, but in this particular case, it really isn’t.  These characters aren’t insane in ways that entertain, but each one has just a little bit of their personality exaggerated–an obsession taken a bit further than is healthy, a neurosis that comes to the fore and pushes normal behaviour aside.  It’s not enough to make the characters memorable… just enough to make the reader get depressed on their behalf.

Reading a book while alternately feeling depressed and embarrassed at the poor people populating its pages is not what I’d call an entertaining read.  As a writer I recognize that only an excellent writer can maintain a consistent, unbroken sense of depression and ennui through a hundred and twenty pages.  Shweblin is enormously talented; she did this on purpose.

It’s not a choice I would have made myself.  I understand that there is a certain amount of this sensibility in literary fiction but, even when writing in that genre, I try to keep the stories and characters more interesting.  I suppose that the difference is that I deviate just a little more from the everyday.

Speaking as a reader, I would love to be able to enjoy the characters, to find them interesting, likeable or entertaining as opposed to perfect recreations of my more annoying neighbours.  This book failed in that respect despite the fact that it would have gotten full marks in most creative writing classes–and despite all of its prizes.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given an objective review of the volume–you can decide for yourself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own book of literary short stories is entitled Love and Death, and you can buy it here.

 

 

The Art of Writing Adventure – Made Spectacularly Evident

There’s a rule to writing any kind of exciting fiction that says, and I paraphrase: “Put your here in a dangerous situation.  Then pile another complication on.  Then another.  Once we’re sure he will never get out, send in the zombies.”

I always thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, but in reading the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Storm Front, I found that adage to fall well short of what Butcher does to his hero.

Jim Butcher - Dresden Files - Storm Front.jpg

Normally, I’d run, not walk away from a book that goes as far over the top as this one does with regards to ratcheting up the disaster but…

But Jim Butcher has rare talent.  His prose, and consequently, Harry Dresden’s voice in your head, is amazing.  The mix of desperation about what’s going to happen to him when the other shoe finishes dropping mixed with a kind of world-weary resignation makes the book impossible to put down.  Not only do you want to see how he gets out of it (there are a LOT of books in a series called the “Dresden Files”, so you kinda know he isn’t going to become monster food in the first book), but you are also infected with a morbid curiosity as to what else Butcher is going to do to him before the end.  (Pro-tip: Butcher is imaginative and sadistic.  Never make an enemy of that guy).

A second thing that made me love as opposed to loathe this one is that the noir sensibility erases any number of sins in my mind.  Give me a first-person private eye, even a magical one, and I’m pretty much going to enjoy it no matter what else you do.

So, simply put, despite seeing what Butcher was doing (obvious as it is, even a lot of non-writers are going to spot the technique), I loved every second and exaggerated crisis of this one, right until the fiery, demonic ending worthy of the troubles he’d gone through.

Job has nothing on this guy but, if I recall correctly, the book featuring Job sold pretty well. Dresden sells amazingly well, too.

My main regret is that I’m just getting to this now.  Hell, I’ve been a fan of Glen Cook’s Garrett series since before puberty, and this one should have been a no-brainer.  Yes, Cook is funnier than Butcher, but that’s no excuse for not having checked the Dresden Files out much sooner.

I have to thank a good friend and amazing beta-reader for gifting me this one (I always read my birthday gift books, because I like to see what people who know me think I’d enjoy).  Highly recommended, but, judging by the sales numbers, I guess everyone already knew that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was well-received despite not having any magical detectives in it.  You can buy it here.