Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

For reasons I can't put my finger on, August 2010 has been my single favorite month of blogging. It may have been even better had I been able to get my comments for Leviathan Wept together, but they will be along in a few days. It was a busy month and I can say I got a lot done in many different areas.

September maybe a bit more relaxed as far as my drive, and goals are concerned. In the book world I've set aside only four as they are all rather hugh: Nile Shadows by Edward Whittemore; The Ammonite Violin and other Stories by Caitlin R. Kiernan; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (I've never read it); and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. There maybe a fifth. We'll see.

I managed to keep a low profile on book buying this month primarily because the one book I bought cost fifty bucks. Subterranean Press' weekly--sometimes tri-weekly--newsletters mentioned a 'cleaning out the warehouse' bit and all of a sudden I found myself at their ebay auctions buying The Club Dumas by Aurturo Pérez-Reverte, supposedly his magnum opus, in a limited edition. It's an amazing product, and one I'll be detailing in Subterranean's book review in time to come. I felt bad about buying it. It cost me sobriety for longer than I'd like, but I'm glad that I bought it at two-thirds less the asking pricing. Furthermore, it was a book I'd been lusting after for awhile.

The other book I bought this month I didn't know existed until a few hours before posting what you currently read. On the strength of Miriam Gershow's short stories, buying The Local News was easy. I'm still kicking myself for not knowing about it sooner. Warning: if you click the above link, your to-be-read pile will increase by 'one.'

It's looking like November is going to be Edward Whittemore appreciation month and to that let me say that writing commentary for Jerusalem Poker was the most difficult bit on non-fiction I've ever worked on: my statement of purpose included. It is quite literally beyond words.

There will be a lot more to say next month, and hopefully more wit and energy to say it with.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Binding Quandary

My copy--a first edition hardback--of Jerusalem Poker has fallen apart: page by page. Something with the storage of this book, I bought it used, went horribly wrong. I don't think the book was ever opened before I read it, however the glue that held the pages to the spine went dry and yellow long ago… and shattered into many little pieces.

Ever since I started my monthly book review concerning manufacturing, I have had an interest in binding my own books. I still do, but now realize that I'd never bind enough to justify the cost that it would take to get into such a hobby. But that doesn't help me right now.

I still have a copy of an out of print novel; perhaps the finest novel my eyes have come across (review of the novel and the series forthcoming) in four-hundred and five leaves plus the cover. Needless to say, I'll buy another copy for posterity, but I'd love to have this one re-bound 'a la' Easton Press and truly make it, "mine."

Quite a conundrum I should say.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Blood Knight; The Born Queen by Greg Keyes

The quality of writing continues to be strong in the final two books of The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone; more of the same good stuff, right up until the end...The Sefry, a humanoid race apart from humans that scream of 'Elf', get real interesting as their secret is let out. I was happy to see that while they fit the elf mold they turned out to be something greater, though we never really get to see them in their element; which might have been a great divergence in development from the otherwise standard fair.

All the characters of substantial import have been introduced by now, and I was rather sad to see that dead King William is still the only guy I really cared about. I was more detached from everyone else and had trouble investing myself in their lives and difficulty.

The music is magic thing came into it's own. I rarely knew what Keyes' literary allusions referenced despite my education in music but I know that I approach music in fiction perhaps too seriously. So perhaps the terminology used makes sense to someone from that world--or other readers. I, myself, have no idea what a voice of 'black joy' or 'a doleful grace note' sound like. A non-musical bend what does, 'eyes like green ice' mean? While the prose maybe overwrought in places, at least he's trying, and as I said in my previous 'not a commentary' Keyes' succeeds on making the genre fantasy banalities a bit more interesting than most in my opinion. To substantiate my 'overwrought' claim:

"The first bass line began, a male voice, rising and falling, the roots in the soil, the long slow dreams of trees. Then, after a few measures, a second line entered as deep in pitch but in uneasy harmony with the first: leaves rotting into soil, bones decaying into dust, and in the lowest registers the meandering of rivers and weathering of mountains." The Born Queen page 349.

What the hell does any of that mean (particularly the second half of each sentence)? I'm supposed to know what it sounds like?

The maturity of Anne, the eponymous Born Queen, has been phenomenal. Her 'growing up' is very real, both due to her experiences and Keyes' writing. Her development has been very convincing from book to book. After all that is set up and poised to take place, she has got her work cut out for her in book four and that is really where things start to fall apart.

Anne becomes unstable in many ways, and all the growth a maturity seems to vanish. She becomes a coquettish school girl rather fast--a step back for her--and indecisive where she used to be absolute. With one hundred pages left in book four I couldn't believe there wasn't a book five. There was no way that I felt Keyes' could tie things up (or even explain what the hell had happened!) in so short a remaining page count.

Primary characters start dying with astounding speed in The Born Queen. And our 'bad guys' become so weak that a decent analogy can't be made. The head-scratching, ill-explained plot events were all very interesting and great as far as story telling were concerned, but things happened so fast and were never put into context to a degree for the ending to be satisfying.

The mythical beast that had been plaguing the land are unofficial allies. Stephen, the mild mannered scholar monk, develops a multiple personality disorder. Robert and Cazio becomes irrelevant and personal animosity between Aspar and Fend, ends with the dullest of fizzles. When it was all over, I was a bit upset not because the story wasn't what I wanted, rather I felt if Keyes had developed further he is a strong enough writer to have made things feel much more organic than they did.

What initially seemed like an overwhelming amount of characters--and I still think two or three could be omitted without hurting the core story--all come into their own, and blend together wonderfully. Keyes' mapping out of the story and framework, is extraordinary. However, given the quality of his plotting of events, and the general merits of his writing I can't help but shake the feeling that what should have been a quintet was contractually obligated to stop at four.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Mass Market Hardback; a Book Review.

In this series I'm going to evaluate the quality of book manufacturing from various publishers. I intend only to focus on the quality of the physical book itself. For previous comments on Easton Press and Everyman's library please see the respective links.

This review will be the biggest undertaking yet and one I've struggled with for quite some time. My self imposed minimum of book ownership for a review has been three--a low number all things considered, but one I think fair, considering the price and high consistency of the higher end publishers. This review encompasses more than twenty-six books from Bloomsbury; Warner Books; Doubleday; Tom Doherty Associates; Harcourt; Berkley; ACE; Little, Brown; Penguin Group; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bantam Spectra; Harper Collins; Putnam; The Dial Press; Knopf; and Houghton Mifflin Company. While I'd like to give each their fifteen seconds of fame, there is little to distinguish one from another in the realm of mass market of hardback books.

In considering such a large spectrum of materials consistent inconsistency is the common thread. Paper quality ranges from stark white office copy paper, ecru with speckled color marks (a sign of recycled paper) with that 'soft' insubstantial texture, to the standard fair one would expect from a 'regular old hardback book.' By and large most of the paper used from the major publishers and their multiple imprints is acid free (for greater flexibility) and all-around really good.

Tor has a penchant for decorative endpapers which is a small measure of class from from an unexpected source. The endpapers usually comprise of a random color, heavy card stock in the front and back with minimal texture. They add nothing to quality but are a nice nod to the past when book binding was more of an art.

The covers, not dust jackets, of all these books tend to be standard cardboard though some have cloth bindings. Very few seem to have full cloth coverings and there is something new out there that looks like cloth but is in fact not; a faux cloth if you will. There really doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason as to what book gets what binding other than publishers whims. A sad fact when considering the varying size of books.

Door stoppers get no special treatment and their added girth isn't expected to hold up as long. Indeed after a single reading some will seem to have incurred substantial wear. Little, Brown and Knopf seem to be publishers of "Giant f------ Books" among other things, and they would be wise to take special measures to ensure the pages don't separate from the cloth strip on the spine and the cover itself. However, I'm not sure there is much they can do. I do own several of their copies where the only thing holding the cover on are the end pages (not a good sign). In the case of the big boys, I think the trade paper back editions are all around better: you get the hardback formatting without the threat of the spine breaking or covers wearing out (off?) assuming the book is treated with due respect of course.

Publishing head scratchers persist in book manufacturing as they do in marketing. By and large, books that are expected to sell less get some special treatment while those writers who sell in great quantity receive only standard fair. Susanna Clarke's "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" is fully cloth bound with beautiful artwork and print on the cloth complete with endpaper and deckled edges. I can't imagine this collection of short stories (from one I wouldn't consider a short story writer) sold very well but, the production values are extremely high. Meanwhile, eternal best sellers such as Frank Hurbert's Dune or The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova receive little more attention that a mass market paperback. I'm sure it all makes sense to someone but, it seems that the books that sell are very far from the books that are made to last. Speaking of deckled edges…

I hate them. Yes they look nice and have a appearance of antiquity, but we have paper cutters for a reason; I call said reason progress. Combine deckled edges with the super 'soft' recycled tissure paper feel that seems to absorb moisture from my fingers and you have an actual page turning issues. As with most issues in this review, which ever way the wind blows seems to be the deciding factor on whether or not a book receives deckled edges.

My biggest complaint with all books of this quality from these types of manufacturers is that of cost. 'Mass market hardbacks' cost marginally more to produce that paper back books, yet at retail they are substantially more for what is essentially the same quality. Hence the reason I do the vast majority of my hardback book shopping in the bargain bins and from selections of publishers remainders; at those prices I feel I actually get what I pay for.

We all know these books. We all have many of them. There are exceptions; the previously mentioned "Ladies of Grace Adieu," Houghton Mifflin collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings (finally a lasting piece of 'literature' printed in a lasting format!) and Doubleday's unique--though by no means better quality--cover to The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (and I'd love to hear exceptions from your collection!) but for the most part blah…

If I were giving grades in school I'd probably appoint a "C" as far as quality goes; they could be much better or much worse, but with no expectation of quality from such books it's hard to judge them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Don Jaime Astarloa is an anachronism and has lived his life in contented knowledge of the fact. He wishes to be left alone to complete his life's work: the pursuit of the perfect fencing thrust. The story takes place in an age of firearms, where chivalry by Don Astarloa's definition is dead, and the art he dedicated his life to is thought to be useless; merely a 'sport' for the rich. He's a stoic man, happily living in solitude and the security that the way he has lived his life means something; if only to himself. In his own words, "I have spent my whole life trying to preserve a certain idea of myself, and that is all. You have to cling to a set of values that do not depreciate with time. Everything else is fashion of the moment, fleeting, mutable. In a word, nonsense."

This is the first stand alone novel from Pérez-Reverte I've read. The setting is slightly more cosmopolitan and thus it is less of a character than in his Alatriste stories, rather the actual characters of the book take center stage. We see the routine of Astarloa's life and all that has made him comfortable as an older distinguished gentleman. He ages, with no regard to the world around him, content in his status. Until he takes his first female student, who demands to learn his 'two-hundred escudo thrust', captures his heart and then disappears after learning the current extent of his life's work with only the merest of goodbyes.

It is the beauty of the author's words, and not the plot that keeps you reading (the plot doesn't really solidify itself until rather late.) Pérez-Reverte takes his time letting us getting to know his characters, and if you--as the reader--pay enough attention all subtleties of the plot can be surmised. There is a certain elegance to his prose and unhurried grace to the pace of events. I read this book in Spanish, side-by-side, with the English translation, and while I don't think the translation is as well done as some of his Alatriste books (the repeated use of 'sangfroid' and an odd conversation question, "Do you know something?") it may be in part to the lack of florid language used in the latter historical setting.

There is a political revolution that takes place against the personal concerns of Don Astarloa who is presently teaching two students of astounding ability: one a aristocratic playboy, and the other Doña Adela de Otero who makes Astarloa question much of what he knows concerning life and fencing. In a very clever device the political subplot becomes entwined and eventually overcomes what ever we thought the book was to be about, and by the time it does Astarloa is caught in the middle as the body count rises and the cause of death of at least one is the 'two-hundred escudo' thrust making the possible list of suspect extraordinary small.

Perhaps the book can be called a mystery, among other things, as we aren't given much in terms 'who done it' or motive. I'll admit that I didn't even try to guess who was at the bottom of things, not because I couldn't discern the obvious, but rather I had too much fun reading word by word to even think about puzzling out the crimes.

Many writers have done a stoic, solitary character refusing their age and the world around them and painted the devil as a woman; few have done it this well. You'd be doing yourself a disservice reading it at the beach, or on the morning commute to work; take time to enjoy an 'ordinary' book done to the highest degree of quality. It's better than whatever is on TV, and you'll agree with me after reading it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Summer Beer Bad Beer

I don't dislike beer; only I don't like it enough to blog about it. I like expensive Belgian beers that are delicious. Sadly I don't get to drink them as much as I'd like. When I do get to imbibe, my favorite cheap, regular ass beer is Fat Tire made my The New Belgian Company, a brewery out of Colorado. It's a Belgian styled beer.

It's not great, but it is really good. It's not Leffe, or a Trappist ale, but the price tag also reflects these facts. In addition to Fat Tire they make a summer beer called Skinny Dip (it is much like Magic Hat Number Nines summer beer). So how is this summer beer made? Well, it's tricky…

They take the beer you enjoy, pour half of it out, and fill the rest o the bottle with water; no seriously that's what they do… Some how the light watery aspect of summer dilutes all points you previously enjoyed and make you question your purchase. How is such a practice acceptable?

I find the trend very odd, and altogether evil. Anyone else experienced similar atrocities with a favored beer?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In this fine collection we are given twelve short stories with a central central theme of foreigners abroad, living in an exile of their own volition or imposed on them by external forces. Although the stories are not inter-connected, many elements beyond exile are universal throughout the collection; the setting being one of them.

All the stories take place in Europe, however it is a slightly more rustic Europe than what some would imagine. The author doesn't write the affected settings that some American readers love as they remind them of past vacations or honeymoons. Rather he speaks plainly of where events take place and through no real effort makes grand destinations seem normal as only one who has lived in such places can.

My favorite story in the collection, Bon Voyage Mr President, is of an exiled politician living out his remaining days abroad only to find that there is much to life ahead of him than he expected to find. Upon rescinding his ban on vice: drinking, eating red meat, smoking, eating shellfish and others, he finds friendship and the joy of being alive; despite old age and being forced out of his country when he expected to not have much time before him.

Maria dos Prazeres is a similar tale of a retired whore in her seventies who finds that old age isn't what she thought it would be and the only limitations on the pleasure she can derive from life are self imposed. Both of these stories have a similar feel, likable characters who are far from role-models, dealing with advanced age and impending death, but due to the astonishing ability to impart so much detail with so few sentences it is near impossible to get them mixed up.

I don't know that I've come across a writer who communicated more sentiment or imparted more understating of all things happening in so few words. Garcia Marquez at his best makes me want to swear off fiction longer than thirty pages. Even if the stories he writes were all kinds of boring, the words on the page would be nothing short of beautiful.

Most of the stories deal with death and in a rather abrupt and stark fashion. Tramontana, Light is like Water, and Mrs Forbe's Summer of Happiness all take a morbid turn while maintaining the writers light hearted voice through out until the end.

I only Came to Use the Phone, is terrifying and probably the all around best in the collection; a story of a woman whose car breaks down and seeks to make a phone call to her husband at a mental institution and ends up being taken as a patient. This story--while absolutely fabulous--also brought up my only real point of contention with Garcia Marquez's writing: the women of stories speak like men. Should you read Garcia Marquez and be bothered by the same issues, do as I did: Get over it and keep reading.

The Saint and Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane are proof of the writer's ability; they should be flawed as they are repetitive in the extreme; the former about a father's eternal application for his daughter's Sainthood and the latter about a man on an airplane doing nothing but reflecting on the beautiful woman next to him. Instead of simple material that doesn't have enough substance to expand upon, Garcia Marquez's strings together long, breathless sentences that ironically read at an unhurried pace and make you forget that there is little next to nothing happening in the story itself by way of plot progression.

The term 'magical realism' that is near impossible to separate from the author's name surfaces many times in this collection. He plays with the word 'magic' often, and even calls some people wizards and sorcerers. There is a dog that is trained to cry and sheds tears; a couple that falls asleep in one bed and wakes up in another; light bulbs that spew water enough to sail in; a dead girl whose body is both weightless and refuses to decay among other odd things, yet he never quiet crosses the line of 'fantastic' by genre fantasy standards.

He can make you smile with the jest of children functioning in an adult word and shake your soul a page later as they lose the innocents of childhood. There are a few stories that won't strike you as stunning as others, for me The Trail of your Blood in the Snow proved nothing more than a phenomenal title, but after reading this collection I certainly believe in the power of his novels and plan to seek them out. However, for the moment, I'm more than content to read more of his short fiction.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Month In Review and of Things to Come

There was an unprecedented first in this month: I became an uncle. Langston, my nephew is the cutest thing on the planet and that comes from one who doesn't ever use the word, 'cute.' He is perfect, and he looks like me. (My sister would argue that Langston looks like her, but what does she know; we both look like our dad.)

Kinda pissed that one of my best friends is moving away. A bit jealous that he not only has a job, but is thought of well enough that they want to give him a badass two year assignment.

In the book world, I've recovered from my slow reading funk and have been in high gear. I've read five, which is my average for a month: The Blood Knight by Greg Keys, Purple and Black by K. J. Parker, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barows, Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore, and The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I hit an unexpected slow spot with the latter.

Swanwick may be my favorite short story writer, but this novel did nothing for me. I was gonna leave a commentary but stopped taking notes as interest waned. It's a unique book; clever and well written, but for whatever reason it didn't resonate with me.

I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to keep up with what is popular with everyone else. It's harmless but nothing special. It reads fast, feels like comfort food and can be finished in three days.

I've never liked any of the commentary I've left for books in a series and so with Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet I'm gonna try something different. I've written commentary for Sinai Tapestry but I'm not gonna post it until I've finished the last book. I don't know that I'll go back and touch it up upon completion of the series but in an effort to find a sweet spot for reviewing books in a series, be it on the quality of one book or how it fits into the greater whole, I'm taking a different approach. To say nothing of my forthcoming commentary; Sinai Tapestry is without doubt one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read; I missed my stop on the train going to work, ended up at the airport, called in sick, and kept reading for another hour; true story.

I got a bit out of control as far as the acquisitions go this month but everything I acquired was on the 'list.' How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry by Edward Hirsch, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (yes, I've never read it…) The General in his Labyrinth and Strange Pilgrims by Gaberial Garcia Marquez, Dream Songs Volume II by George R.R. Martin (Not a word, Mick; and I know you're reading) The Born Queen by Greg Keyes and The Ammonite Violin by Katlin R. Kieran.

My interest in poetry isn't new, and I don't feel shamed when I say, "I don't get." Hopefully Hirsch will help in broadening my reading horizons. With all the books in the Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series, I can finish my 'not a commentary' this month. Garcia Marquez is new to me and I'm looking forward to reading his works. Martin is new to me as well and we will see where that goes (No Mick, I'm not gonna pick it up and devour it tonight.) True to Subterranean Press's M.O for whatever reason they haven't kept a ship date since I've started purchasing their works. That said, The Ammonite Violin has the most striking book cover I've ever seen. I saw the cover online, but only was taken aback by it, when I held it in my hands.

I really don't know what comes next as far as August is concerned. I have some self-imposed deadlines with Ph.D stuff, and I'd like to think employment lies in the future but I've been saying that for awhile. I'm being ambitious and gonna set aside six books to read this month: Keys, Whittemore, something by Garcia Marquez, Leviatan Wept by Daniel Abraham, The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and The Dragon Quintet (I've learn after reading Purple and Black that I really like reading longer short stories (short novels?), a hundred pages or so).

I also have a book review planned from a publisher at the opposite end of the spectrum from Easton Press and Everyman's Library. Thus far I've compared the former to a

Bosendorfer and the latter to a high end rum; where will my analogies take me next?

Oh yeah, in a sure to be reoccurring event my birthday was overshadowed by Langston's arrival. I'm okay with that. Thirty feels oddly similar to twenty-nine, or twenty-eight, or…

My feet hurt.