Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Monsieur Proust's Library

Monsieur Proust's LibraryMonsieur Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My wife is the biography reader in our family. To be honest, I'm not fond of biographies at all.

But this, this Monsieur Proust's Library, while it shares some DNA with biographical sketches, it is not the same thing. This is a sort of convergence of, yes, biography, bibliography, critical essay, and Proust's fiction itself. It is a strange intersection, yet seems like the only one that matters. It's not so cut and dried as "art imitates life" or the claim that one must entirely separate the artist from their art. No, it's much more complicated than that. And it is in this moil of complexity, of half-shadowed influences and inferences, that Muhlstein provides a book whose sum is greater than its parts. It's not perfect, but it might be the perfect introduction to Proust. I'll be sure to let you know, once I know for sure.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden WondersAtlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was once a world-traveler. This had nothing to do with my courage and everything to do with my father being in the US Air Force. I had the privilege of being born in Germany and living in The Philippines, Italy, England, and even Nebraska. And all over the United States.

The funny thing is, though my parents were sure to take me to several tourist destinations while we were abroad, I usually didn't seek out such places myself. This was especially true in Italy, where my friends and I would go explore the extensive tunnel systems under the city of Brindisi, and visit beach-side World War II bunkers where we would look for (and find) old shell casing from a time when our grandfathers might have been storming the beach. This was also true when I lived in England, where our favorite thing to do was to break into an old, supposedly haunted 12th-century priory, complete with trap doors in the floors and passageways hidden within the walls. They are real. I found them and walked through them myself. But I never did get to the Roman Colosseum, nor did I ever visit the Tower of London. Maybe I had an aversion to doing the touristy things because I LIVED there. Yes, the stay was temporary, no more than three years, but these places were "home" for me. So I didn't feel like a tourist. I'd much rather go watch the bums roll each other on Carnaby Street (affectionately known as "Cannabis Street" to us teenagers and, which has become way more commercialized now than when I was a kid hanging out there in the mid-'80s) than step foot in Madame Tussauds (I even had to cheat to see how to spell that). I've had hookers proposition me on Leicester Square, watched hungry bands busk on the tubes, and, yes, watched bums roll each other in alleyways. This was my idea of "touristing".

So when I saw that the fabled website Atlas Obscura had put out a book, I had to give it a read. Thankfully, my local library had a copy sitting front and center on a display as I entered in. I couldn't believe that it hadn't been snatched up yet, so I grabbed it fast. The book, like the website, provides GPS coordinates and a "Know before you go" caveat for each location or event, a helpful hint or two that might just save your life, if not save you a lot of embarrassment.

So, from the Narcisse Snake Orgy to Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum to The World's Quietest Room, take this book with you on your travels and discover the hidden strangeness that the world holds. I guarantee it will be much more fulfilling than merely walking like well-behaved sheep along well-manicured routes led by well-spoken tour guides. The world is awkward, grungy, untidy, weird, and broken. Embrace the strange! Sure, you should see some of the normal destinations, but don't forget the abnormal!

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Twist in the Eye

A Twist in the EyeA Twist in the Eye by Charles Wilkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love the candor of Mark Samuels' introduction. He introduces his "impartial bona fides" then proceeds to heap praise on Wilkinson's work convincingly, stating that "A Twist in the Eye is the most exciting collection of weird fiction (or strange fiction, if you will) that I have read for many years."

I am in whole-hearted agreement. This collection ranks up there alongside the best of short-story collections, including that of Mark Samuels himself, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco, and Brian Evenson's The Wavering Knife.

Truth be told, I ordered this book on Samuels' endorsement, the cover, and the fact that the incredible Egaeus Press (who had published another favorite of mine, Stephen J. Clark's criminally under-known In Delirium's Circle) had published the book. Yes, it was a gamble. I previewed one of Wilkinson's stories that I found online (not collected in this work), so I hedged the bet a tiny bit. But really, I took a chance with my money, and I won yet again. I'm beginning to think that Egaeus is totally incapable of producing a bad book.

Now, regarding the stories themselves, I leave you my notes, with a short addendum at the end:

"Returning" is a melancholy ghost story that I had felt, at first, "cheated" the reader by allowing the narrator too much knowledge right up front and beating the reader on the head with foreshadowing. I was wrong. Wilkinson does an admirable narrative twist that slips past reader expectations or the careful readers' notion of plot "rules" and then slides up behind him with an emotionally-impactful "soft surprise". 4 stars, and we're off to a good start.

Recently, I watched several short films by one (actually two, though they are identical twins) of my favorite directors, The Brothers Quay. As I read "The Human Cosmos," I am struck by unspeakable aesthetic similarities. The line between banal reality and the superluminal universe beyond our own is smeared. What seems like forgetfulness might be an apotheosis. This story is beyond brilliant. 5 stars!

"Hidden in the Alphabet" has echoes of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado". I have to admit that the third person present tense often threw me out of the story, as did several obviously missing words throughout. Auctorial trick or just error? I'm not 100% certain, but it bugged me a great deal. Still, enjoyed this excellent 4-star story!

"Line of Fire" is a story about discovering one's familial roots and thus knowing oneself. This story drips with atmosphere and grey obfuscation. 5 stars.

"In His Grandmother's Coat," a story about minks, yes, those scrappy little creatures, provides a devious bait and switch on who the real monster is. Brilliant. 5 stars.

"Night in the Pink House" is one of the most disturbing stories I've read where most of the horror is evoked by implication, rather than representation. Reminds me of a story I read years ago in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, vol. 9, "Redacted," by Joyce Carol Oates, where redactions were used to great effect. Sometimes, it's not what you see that produces the terror, it's what you don't see! Another 5 star story.

"Cold Plate" was the weakest story thus far, but still a 3 star story. While the writing could have pushed it to 4, the utter predictability, the gift of too many foreshadowing winks and nudges by the author, holds it back. I'm not disappointed, per se, but not thrilled by it either. Yeah, a solid 3.

I have a friend who's a "car guy". When I say that, I do not mean the same thing as the main protagonist in "Petrol, saved", though I could use those exact same words. This story did not spin the way I thought it would. The overall mood changed from one kind of creepy to another kind of creepy, but still held enough coherence for this reader. 4 stars.

"The World Without Watercress" is more of a mood than a story. The prose is rich and luxurious. In some ways, it's evocative of "The Shining," but far, far more well-written. 5 stars.

"Gold in Ash," loosely founded on Welsh folklore, is surprisingly tender and sweet, yet does not feel out of place in this dark collection. Five stars to this grim and beautiful story of love and family. Yet another 5 star story.

"An Invitation to Worship" focuses on the (very) old folk fertility cults, at first in a roundabout way. Then it cuts to the chase! 4 stars, dragging the modern domestic into the ancient mystic.

"The Investigation of Innocence" was unexpected. After a series of stories centering around folk horror themes, for the most part, this dystopian future folk noir (yes, that is what it is) was a nice change of pace. Still fantastic writing, though, and a twist in the plot and several twists of character that I'm finding is the hallmark of Wilkinson's work. 5 stars.

"Choice" is a ghost story unlike any you've read before. The twist in this one telegraphed a little, but I can forgive that. The voice of this story is compelling and, frankly, exciting, but not in a shoot 'em up kind of way. Thrillingly subdued, I guess. Yet another 5 star story from Wilkinson.

"A Lesson From the Undergrowth" shows, with great literary panache, that grudges and vengeance have a price to the holder and avenger, as well as the victims. Though it is a bit of a slow start, in the end, it really gets under your skin. 4 stars.

"Watchers in the Wood" is a moody tale about trees and people, outcasts and society. It is not quite as atmospheric as the other work in the volume, yet it is still a good, solid story. 3 stars. I do, however, have to point out one issue, and it's throughout the book: line editing. "Gwyn" turns to "Glyn" in one instance in the story, and other stories are missing small words: "to", "is", etc are missing or repeated.

"Hands" caps odd this excellent collection with a fitting denouement, a quiet tale hovering in the interstitial zone between creepy and comforting. The perfect story to end on.

As noted in a couple of places above, there are some slight difficulties with the book itself, namely, the line-editing. Several stories (more than I noted above) were missing small words ("it" or "to" seemed to be commonly AWOL). At first, I thought this was some sort of game on the part of the author, then I realized that these were just plain mistakes that were not caught in the editorial process. Not a "deal breaker," by any means, but noticed. That said, I'm still giving the book a full five stars. These (admittedly trifling) errors leave the book imperfect, but nearly unblemished. The strength of the fiction, with its many twists and ethereal mood, combined with some of the highest production values from any existing publishing house, ensure that this work, this work of art (on several levels) will hold a prominent spot among my chained books!

Get yours quick! Only 260 copies are available. You don't want to miss this!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Books and Possibilities: Opening Salvo

I'm not here to share wisdom. This entry is simply me processing possibilities.

After purchasing a few Egaeus Press Titles (namely: A Twist in the Eye, The Tainted Earth, and In Delirium's Circle), along with examining Ezra Claverie's outstanding The Shadow Out of Providence and the Tartarus Press edition of Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, I got to thinking. Why haven't I ever made a book like this? Okay: Money. Sure. But now there's Kickstarter, which can go horribly wrong, if not managed correctly. But, hey, I manage projects all day every day at my day job and have done so for years. Besides, I've brought out my own little chapbook Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Beyond the Silver Scream (physical copies are still available, by the way), and what is a very expensive, very fancy, professionally-produced book but . . . a very expensive, very fancy, professionally-produced, significantly larger chapbook with a whole lot more risk involved, right?

So I've watched and re-watched Joseph Goodman's seminar on Book Making 101 and have identified some potential printers, including a storied bindery that is, apparently, about a ten minute walk (literally) from my house.

I think I can do this.

The problem is, deciding what it is, exactly, I want to do. Because I can't do everything at once. Yes, I have almost made my money back on my investment for Beyond the Silver Scream, but here, we're talking a much bigger investment with a much bigger risk. One step at a time.

I do know that whatever I choose as a first, trial-run project will have the following characteristics: 1) Cloth-bound cover, 2) marbled end-papers, 3) foil-stamped spine, 4) silk placeholder ribbon, 5) internal illustrations (the number dependent on the chosen project).

So, project options:

  1. Short fiction collection. Yes, this one appeals to my vanity the most. I have a short fiction collection published by Raw Dog Screaming press many years ago. And I've done a short self-published e-book of some of my other stuff. But it's time to do this again. And, as most publishers will tell you, their economies of scale vis-a-vis potential sales do not normally justify producing single-author short story collections. The exception here is the "bespoke" collections like those done by Egaeus Press, Tartarus Press, and Zagava. These are very expensive, limited-edition collector pieces. I know some readers who will snatch up almost everything done by these publishers because of the publisher's strong reputation. Problem is, I don't have that strong reputation. Nor do I have a huge audience of readers, despite what I will call the relative success of my novel Heraclix and Pomp. Given time, I might just make my advance. Maybe. In any case, I think I could probably sell, say 100 copies of a very fancy short fiction collection. Maybe 250 if the dominoes fall just right. 500 if I catch lightning in a bottle. The reason these numbers matter is economies of scale. The price-per book on printing and binding a print run of 500 is significantly lower than a run of 250; 250 is better than 100; etc. In any case, I am way overdue for another fiction collection. I don't say that in a prideful way - I have just written a lot of short fiction and it needs to get collected again.
  2. Novel(la). I have a novella under consideration at a publisher I won't reveal. My agent has shopped this thing around to a number of publishers, one of whom told him "it's too well-written". That's an actual quote. I would have to take a look at my contract in order to produce this thing on my own, but it's tempting. I'm guessing I could push the same numbers as a short fiction collection, with a stronger possibility of a 500-book run because things that are in the novel-ish range tend to sell better than short story collections. Or so I am told.
  3. As you might know, I won a World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award a long time ago for editing the Leviathan 3 anthology with Jeff VanderMeer. After that, I edited Leviathan 4, Text:UR - The New Book of Masks, and The Nine Muses (with Deborah Layne). It has been many years since I've edited an anthology, however. Yes, I know how to do it, but I have not kept super up-to-date on my ties with people in the industry. Some have washed out, some have passed away. I think I could get a few "big" names, but I would have to pay top-dollar to get some of them, and rightfully so - they are great authors who deserve to be paid well for their work! I'm not certain about numbers here, but again, I would think that 250 would be reasonable. Possibly 500, if I had the right names and the right theme at the right time. Lots of variables there. But given the seeming dearth of really good short fiction anthologies at the moment, maybe it's time to make a go of it again?
  4. Role-playing Supplements. I am working right now on a project for a publisher, a super-secret project I can't let out of the bag yet, which will get my name in front of a fairly large contingent (a couple thousand) of role-playing gamers who like to spend money on very nice RPG projects based on certain game systems. Yeah, I should probably be working on that right now, but . . . In any case, I'm finding that many of the nerds I grew up playing D&D with are now programmers with lots of spare cash. Have you looked at the returns on RPG Kickstarter projects? Holy cow. Gamers will spend when they want something! I know - I'm one of them (not a programmer, just a gamer who will drop some cash on the "right" kickstarter). I have several ideas for RPG books, but I'm loathe to talk about them because a) they are my ideas and I don't want to give them away just yet, b) to talk about them too much would spoil them, and that kind of destroys the whole idea of a game, and c) some of these ideas still need to be playtested, which takes a long time. Still, I think this option might have the most likelihood of getting a return on investment if it isn't too fancy for the system with which it is associated. There's this funny aesthetic in gaming where we still value books with crappy blue maps that fall apart in your hands. Then again, take a look at what Lamentations of the Flame Princess is doing with their books, or Goodman Games, and you'll see some select pieces that belie the "scratched on a pad of graph paper" model.
Now I have the sneaking suspicion that those who read my blog tend to skew to the RPG side. But I really, REALLY want to know what people think. I'm just in the thinking stages at this point (though I am about to send off an email to that local bookbinder to get a quote for an imaginary book run, so I can start thinking about costs vs price, profit margins and such). I need to talk Kickstarter with more people who have experience with it (though I've gotten a bit from people here and there). And, most of all, I have to decide just what the heck I want to do.

Your opinions might just help me decide. Feel free to comment below or E-mail me at forrestjaguirre at gmail dot com with your thoughts, suggestions, or wish-lists. As with any project, I can't do this on my own. And while I think I know who I want to tap for design work and internal art, the rest, including the decision on which project to start with, can be influenced by your opinions.