literature

Ken Follett Hits and Misses with the Same book

A typical reader complaint when reading a book by a historian (or any writer with a passion for researching his subject to the finest detail) is that the writer, having done all that work, then decides that the reader must be subjected to the entirety of what was discovered in the process. It tends to lead to boring books.

Weirdly, Ken Follett’s Night Over Water is a bad book full of research which isn’t a bad book because of the research. It’s a bad book because the character interactions read like a Mexican soap opera (or maybe one of the less-realistic episodes of Dallas). This may be intentional, and it may have helped the book sell (which is fine by me – I have a very strong interest in readers paying money to buy books), but I didn’t enjoy it.

What I did enjoy was the result of all that research. Follett describes the experience of being a passenger on one of the legendary Pan-Am Clippers perfectly. Not just the plane itself, but the experience and the kind of people one would find on that particular airliner (the right crowd and no crowding, as the old saying at Goodwood went). For a few hundred pages you are transported to an era that existed only a very few years, and ended when flying boats were superseded by planes that landed on runways (concrete runways were expensive to build, but a lot of them were built for WWII… and then used by commercial airliners afterwards).

The description is wonderful and evocative, and I’ll admit that the action sequence at the end is pretty good (I read James Bond books, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy a good complicated fight to end a novel).

It does leave me wondering about Follett, though. The man was once a master of fast-paced novels, but in this one, his characters are boring and unbelievable (despite their fantastic backgrounds and motivations) which makes the novel drag along. I’ve already spoken of this phenomenon when I reviewed Hornet Flight, and I’m worried to have found it here, too.

There’s another Follett in my to-be-read pile. I hope the novel is better than this one… but I also hope the history is as evocative and all-immersive. That is one thing he still does really well.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller doesn’t drag along. In fact, Timeless moves through the world of Southeast Europe’s smuggling scene at a breakneck pace, pausing only for a few erotic interludes along the way. You can check it out here.

Bright Young Things Satirized

My copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (I read the one in the picture) had an intro by Waugh that stated that, at one point in the writing of the book, he’d gone from gleeful to bitter–although he doesn’t say so, I assume it’s because of his divorce from his wife (it’s his own fault. When A dude named Evelyn marries a girl named Evelyn, it can’t end well).

That comment began to worry me about halfway through the book. You see, the first part of Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. The description of aristocratic college life in the 1920s has always seemed to me to represent a perfect idyll (and if you want more of it, but from the academic side, I strongly recommend The Inklings of Oxford), while the second half, the “serious” half, dropped off sharply. I was enjoying the pell-mell anarchy of Vile Bodies, and I didn’t want that to happen in this one.

Luckily, it wasn’t possible–at least not for me–to easily separate Waugh’s biting satire of the “gleeful” part from the bitterness he says happened in the second section. Not on a first reading, anyway.

The book continues as it started, with the nuttiness of young people discovering their independence in a time just coming off the repressive age. While it can’t rival Gatsby as the ultimate expression of the Roaring Twenties, it does give you just enough reality beneath the exaggeration to give one a sense of what the London scene looked like.

As with Gatsby, it was a great time to be alive (as long as you were in the right set, of course).

The temptation here is to compare this one with Scoop, as they are both similar in conception: take an institution (journalism in Scoop, the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies) and go to town on the satire. It’s a valid comparison, but Scoop is both funnier (unless you’re easily offended, in which case we pity you) and more chaotic, while Vile Bodies, though good, does fall a little flat at the end. It’s probably very symbolic, but I’m reading this one as a regular reader, for the fun of it, and have little interest in social commentary about stuff that happened almost a hundred years ago.

As such, it’s a good book, and I have yet to find a Waugh that I didn’t like, but it isn’t quite up to the wonderfulness (I was sure the autocorrector would clobber wonderfulness, but apparently it’s a real word. Who knew?) of the first half of Brideshead and the entirety of Scoop. Still better than most everything else, of course.

Read Waugh. Don’t let his books go out of print. If not for you, do it for future generations.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in the linked story Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Fun Stuff in the Sixties Spy Tradition

Sixties secret agent books were escapist fun: a lone wolf secret agent, women who were available, dangerous or both, and clear-cut bad guys. No one cared if the masculinity was toxic, the women unrealistic or that communists are actually supposed to be the good guys. Back then, if you happened to think any of those things, there were other books for you, and everyone accepted that different people had different tastes. It’s a novel concept, this thing of keeping your adolescent political enthusiasms out of other people’s entertainment… but it appears to work really well.

Donald Hamilton’s character Matt Helm might not be as universally revered as James Bond, but he was very popular in his day, and four films were made of his adventures (starring Dean Martin, no less). If The Ravagers is a typical example, it’s quite easy to see why.

This book isn’t just fun in the traditional way, but it’s also linear, following the hero every step of the way without leaving his side for a moment. From a purely literary point of view, this shows the influence of classic noir on the secret agent genre (which, considering its beginnings, was sorely needed).

So what you have here is a noir adventure that moves out nighttime in the city and onto the much wider stage of international intrigue. It actually transfers reasonably well and, though the third-person narrative which follows several characters at once (see any Tom Clancy book) is probably better for that kind of thing, the noir treatment was a step in the right direction.

From a literary standpoint, that’s the extent of the deep insights you can get from this one, but one cultural thing that caught my eye was the fact that one of the plot points is that a fifteen-year-old girl would be relatively innocent. Whether that was ever true during our current phase of morality (remember that for most of human history, girls – and boys, too – that age were considered to be of marital age) I have no clue… but I suspect that not even in the fifties, where the roots of this book are, would a fifteen-year-old have been a real innocent.

Other than that, it works as entertainment, and I enjoyed it. Not memorable literature, perhaps, but an acceptable piece of escapist fiction.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller has much more modern sensibilities, and a lot more onscreen sex than this one. But the international intrigue and the fast pace will feel very familiar to readers of classic work. You can check out Timeless, here.

Macondo… But Not Quite the Same

La hojarasca (only the first word of Spanish-language titles is capitalized) is a novella-length book by Gabriel García Márquez. It was titled Leaf Storm in English, and it’s celebrated as the first appearance of the fictional town Macondo, made famous in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Unfortunately, this is a Macondo devoid both of magic and compelling characters. The plot revolves around the burial of a man who’d gained the enmity of the town by his actions since moving there, and there is a very real possibility that they won’t let the man be buried… despite the determination of one other character to inter him at all costs.

Therein lies the central conflict of a story that is very well written, but is not the master in full possession of his powers. This book is from before García Márquez was considered a literary giant, and it took quite a while to find a publisher (seven years, according to Wikipedia).

But it’s still a good example of excellent writing. The book is almost a guide to how to reveal the backstory of what is going on by taking three viewpoint characters and following along different paths that, little by little, shed light on why things stand the way they do.

One expects more from García Márquez… Although, to be honest, I’m beginning to think the man was a one-hit wonder – none of the other books of his I’ve read are anywhere near as good as One Hundred Years of Solitude. What a hit it was, though. I guess that’s the contrast with his main Latin American competitor: Vargas Llosa was apparently incapable of writing anything but brilliant books while García Márquez apparently spent his entire reservoir of higher inspiration in one dazzling dose.

So this one is perfectly competent, with wonderful use of every literary technique in the book… with pedestrian results. Give it a miss, and if you haven’t yet read his masterpiece, do so now. If you have and are in the mood for excellent Latin American writing, you can never go wrong with Vargas Llosa.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose own foray into literary fiction (he writes a ton of commercial fiction) consists of a book entitled Love and Death in which the intertwined destinies of several individuals and families reveal the true wonder and horror of the everyday world. You can check it out here.

Down and Out in 1950s America

For some reason, I find books about extreme poverty in the past compelling. Not because I enjoy them, exactly, but because they give insight into a world that is very different from that of everyday life for most people. I wouldn’t read a book about modern-day poverty because it would depress me, but if a few decades have passed, I like them a lot.

Now, Sara Harris isn’t Orwell, not by a long stretch of the imagination, so her book can’t be the literary masterpiece that is Down and Out in Paris and London, but she does have a journalist’s eye (ear?) for the human angle that will bring a point across to the reader, and she uses that gift very effectively in Skid Row USA.

This one is a paperback that I picked up somewhere (probably at a flea market in the church around the corner) with another few old paperbacks, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Garish, and aimed at thrill readers, it is both an interesting look at a past era and a psychological analysis of the dynamics of extreme poverty that sound like they’d still be relevant today.

I read this more as a history book, akin to this one, than as what it was meant to be, which is a sociologically-driven admonishment to the society of the fifties that extreme poverty is not a crime but a psychological and, when combined with alcoholism, medical problem.

It’s much more interesting as an insight into a different world. Hell, we’ve all seen the fifties. Huge tailfins, drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates, early rock and roll, the birth of the suburban ideal and the culmination of the American Dream. This book takes us out of the suburbs and small towns and into the lives and circumstances of the urban poor to whom suburbia is a legendary place outside their scope.

Of course, as a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Not all my stories take place in space, and not all of my characters are dashingly handsome aristocrats. Having this book both in my head and on my shelves means that a character from Skid Row will be a lot more believable.

But even non-writers should find this one an interesting, quick read. There’s even some hope at the end (although I have no clue if the programs described in this 1950’s book ever came to fruition).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most socially-conscious work is probably the science fiction novel Outside, which addresses the current problems of technology addiction and the incapacity of humans on one side of an issue to behave in a civilized manner to those on the other. You can buy a copy here.

A Nicely Balanced Collection of Horror

I expected the anthology entitled Revisiting the Undead to be exactly what it said on the cover: a collection of previously-published zombie/vampire/undead stories. But the very first story laid those suspicions to rest, as there was not one undead baddie in sight. Instead, we had a straight, creative horror story that seemed straight from the 1980’s canon (though it wasn’t).

That story served as a declaration of intent. Though undead beasties are in this book (my own story, “Bridge Over the Cunene” is one example), they most certainly haven’t pushed out other, equally rich, veins of horror.

The result is a book that is well-balanced and which continually refreshes itself with each new story. The reader ends up wondering what the next author is going to come up with, which is a very good thing to achieve in an antho.

My favorite was Bob Moore’s “They Restared the Mill at Killington”, which is a creepy sort of horror that doesn’t need monsters to be scary. A wonderful tale.

Even though its a reprint antho, I hadn’t read any of the stories previously, so these aren’t old horses half beaten to death. A good one for those who enjoy pretty much any brand of horror.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His most recent collection of horror and dark fantasy is entitled Pale Reflection, and you can check it out here.

A Plodding Walk Through Legendary Wessex

I’m not averse to reading classics. In fact, a lot of the 19th century literary work I’ve read has been extremely entertaining, so when I encounter a classic of the era which is almost unreadable, I rue the missed opportunity.

Now, I’m not a stranger to Thomas Hardy. I’d read Far From the Madding Crowd before I started reviewing for CE, and found it uninspiring, if not awful. But I see that Hardy wasn’t content with uninspiring. The book that is arguably his masterpiece went for the truly unreadable.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the worst books I’ve read in ages. The writing, of course, is perfectly fine, but the plot is tear-out-your-hair awful. The first 400 pages of this 500 page book are completely predictable and when it becomes unpredictable, it’s a Hays-Code crime plot… which means that it gives us an unsatisfying ending.

This is one of the few cases, however, where I’d consider giving a book a pass because of the time that has passed since it was written. You see, in 1890, the subject of this book–a woman who is seduced and bears a child and then marries another man without telling him–would have been sensational stuff, and perhaps audiences in the day would not have been able to predict what was going to happen, simply because they weren’t expecting the author to tread forbidden paths.

This is certainly an argument in its favor, although it falls down if one loses that taboo. If you trust that the author won’t flinch, the book becomes utterly dull.

Some readers will find things to like, of course. The scenes of rural life are the best part of the book and show Hardy’s love for the subject. I get that, and it truly is well done.

Other readers will be moved by the plight of the wronged woman… but it was so boring, and so much of it would have been avoided by a person with a measurable IQ that I was unimpressed. She seems to me like those characters in a horror movie that, confronted with the chance of leaving the house or running up the stairs to be trapped and dismembered, choose the latter.

My advice is to read it and judge for yourself. This book has a huge following, which means that many people are going to have a very different opinion than mine.For myself? Well, I wish Hardy would just have described rural life. When he added plots to his novels, he ruined them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work in the literary genre (as opposed to more fantastic work) can be found in his book Love and Death, which weaves together the lives, triumphs and tribulations of a series of people just like you and me. You can check it out here.

Books You Love to Read vs. Books You Love to Have Read

As I type this, I have two different books underway. The first is one that I will review here in a week or so, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Durbervilles. The other is a reread of a Glen Cook noir fantasy omnibus called Garrett Takes the Case.

Let’s start with the latter. This one is part of the PI Garrett series, which I reread every few years. It always starts the same way… tired of whatever I’m reading in parallel, I pop open the first of the omnibuses in my library… and I don’t stop reading them for weeks (I don’t abandon the reading of stuff I’ve never read before, just pop into the Garrett books when the mood strikes – which can be pretty often because I simply love to lose myself in the world of these novels. Utterly awesome.

This is a typical example of books I love to read, no matter how many times I’ve already done so. I have a lot of writers who write books like this: Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Asimov (particularly his essays), Eco, Pratchett, Bill Bryson. Wonderful books I grab off the shelves time and again, which I wear out and which are replaced, whenever possible, by better editions.

Other books were wonderful when I read them for the first time, but not necessarily something I’d reread every few years. Still, those fall into the category of books I love to read. You can probably pick them out from my reviews. Many of the classics, such as Austen or Thackaray fall here. Wonderful stuff, but a little dense for simple pleasure-reading.

But not all reading is purely enjoyable. Sometimes it is necessary to improve one’s knowledge of the literary giants upon whose shoulders I, and all modern writers, stand. I won’t pretend that Ulysses, for example, was light, wondrous reading. Bits of it are good, but mostly, it’s a work that demands concentration and much furrowing of the brow. But once the first go-through is done, the pleasure begins. You can reread passages for specific meanings, you can think about what the whole work might signify, you can be delighted by details. There’s pleasure in removing that chink in your wall of knowledge, of knowing where that particular book fits into the sum of human literature. And yes, you have permission to bask in the fact that you, unlike so many others, have actually read the thing. This is a book I love to HAVE read, even though I struggled through it.

A lot of books work that way. Off the top of my head, here are some books that nearly killed me which I now consider jewels, and which I look back upon with pleasure. Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Divine Comedy (the edition I have of that one has the Doré illustrations) were both long, involved reads. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible are also in this list.

Everyone, writer or not, literati or Netflix binger, is poorer for having missed any of the ones listed above, just as I am poorer because I have yet to read Tolstoy or Finnegan’s Wake. Some books are fundamental in the cultural education of any human on the planet. No excuses.

The good part is that many, many of the fundamental books are either partly or wholly wonderful. We’ve mentioned Austen and Thackaray, but there’s so much more. The first few books and last few books of the KJV are great fun (as are a few of the minor prophets). Shakespeare’s Histories are better than everything else he wrote, and so are MacBeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Then there are the unexpected ones; who would have thought that Crime and Punishment was such an entertaining read? Or that The Great Gatsby would be such a perfect book?

When you’re in the middle of a particularly difficult book, my advice is to always push though. I get so much pleasure from having these books bouncing around in my mind, occupying a definite place in my head, that the effort is always worth it in the end.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t let my mind wander and temper the great with the merely good–but beloved–work that I know I love.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores the consequences of being a little too online all of the time. You can check it out here.

Progressive Fiction? It’s not Quite as Awful as it Sounds… At Least Not in This Issue

If you told me to read progressive science fiction without giving me any context, I’d run, not walk, away from you. You already know that I believe that messages often ruin things, and that including a message in any type of fiction is a fine line to walk. The risk of doing it badly is severe enough that I actually steer clear of most of the modern science fiction published, and I haven’t read a Hugo winner in a decade.

But I made an exception for the Jubilee Issue of The Future Fire. Why? Because it was gifted to me by the editor himself at WorldCon in Dublin, but much more importantly because said editor, Djibril al-Ayad seemed very cool and extremely smart apart from being very pleasant. I suspected that if anyone could navigate the current political quagmire of the genre, it might be him.

And I’m delighted to have read it.

First, let’s get to the obvious stuff. Yes, there are a few things in here that will offend the easily offended–homosexual relationships, zoophilia in the fairy realm, non-traditional gender roles and the like. Since this doesn’t bother me in the least, it made zero difference to my enjoyment. Most of the book is not centered on pushing any particular viewpoint, but in telling stories about people who happen to be gay, or deadly female soldiers, or whatever, without stopping to question or pontificate. Included that way, these characters are not annoyingly didactic but interesting and dynamic… very easy to enjoy.

As for things I did stumble over, the only one present in this one is an invented pronoun. I understand the arguments for this, but it threw me out of the story every single time, which is unfortunate because the story in which it appeared was otherwise excellent. Unless the author is specifically trying to be openly activist here, I’d recommend dumping the inexistent pronoun (but keeping other progressive elements exactly as they are) because the rest of that story was excellent (Names withheld to protect the guilty) and there was no real need to slash the people who’d enjoy the story that way. If a reader like me gets thrown out every time, you’re really limiting your readership to a small, extremely woke crowd by doing this.

Okay, we’ve dealt with the obvious. What about the stories?

For most of the stories in here, I’ll limit myself to the observation these are excellent tales written by supremely talented people, and I’m delighted to have read them. They run a gamut of different styles and voices, so any given reader will enjoy some more than others, but they are uniformly of high quality and, save that pronoun in an otherwise good story, most readers looking for a good story will enjoy them. There is little attempt here to convert the unwashed.

But there’s one story that stood out not just in this book but as one of the best stories I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s called “Goodbye Snow Child” and the author is Jo Thomas. Wow. Just wow. The plot is very simple–a woman wakes, wearing a hood that keeps her from seeing anything, and knows nothing about what’s happening to her except what she hears from certain voices–but the execution is nothing short of genius. The last time I had this feeling of genius in a short tale was “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, which I read back in 2008 or so. Yes, it was THAT good. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what Thomas did, but it’s wonderful. Track this one down and read it.

So I’d give this issue of The Future Fire high marks. Does the excellence extend to the others? I don’t know, but judging from this small sample size and what I saw of the editor, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most recent full-length collection of short fiction is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As the title implies, this one stays away from traditional genre settings in North America and Europe to focus on other interesting places while reminding readers that humans, at their core are more alike than different. You can have a look here.

Disturbed Digest – My First Time

My first impression of Disturbed Digest – on receiving my first contributor copy, for my story in the December 2018 issue – was that the cover is brilliant and perfectly fits the topic of the publication. It looks like something that might have graced a cover of one of the horror or fantasy mags in the fifties, which is the highest compliment I can think of for cover art. I’ve never been shy in admitting that I love those old covers and feel that the modern ones suffer by comparison. This one does not suffer. It’s the perfect blood-red design with a classical human looking unsuspectingly to his symbolic doom. Wonderful.

So the stories inside had to live up to the cover, which is something that wasn’t always the case back in the Golden Age of science fiction in which the mags had classic stories by brilliant masters (Asimov or Heinlein or Leinster or whoever) but also filled their volume with lesser work.

Disturbed Digest doesn’t fall into this trap. There is no filler here, and the stories are chilling enough to carry the cover. Everything from nicely tuned dread to cosmic horror on a Lovecraftian scale, these dooms can be well-deserved or utterly unfair, as the story demands.

The story I enjoyed the most was probably Lee Clark Zumpe’s “Wild with Hunger” that, though it breaks no new ground when it comes to monsters, it is beautifully written and delivers the sensation of being in a dreadful place as well as I’ve seen recently. Another particularly good one was Aria J. Wolf’s tale, “The Death Waltz”, with a reveal at the end that you likely won’t see coming.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Moving away from the usual western European settings, this one will open your horizons to cultures and places you never suspected existed. You can check it out here.