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    Anna Davour blog about Science Fiction and other strange flavours of fiction.

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    Helena – "Seventeen, clumsy and shy, I went to England and found not love nor luck but something far, far better."

Halloween reads

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

M.R. James once said that the aim of the good story is to make the blood freeze, pleasurably, and he, if anyone, ought to know. As frequent readers of my blogs will know, I am a massive fans of most things scary, from the downright gory to the ever sophisticated tingle. Having said that, there is something to be said for the good old-fashioned English ghost story. You know, the kind you read in one sitting while comfortably sprawled out in your favourite armchair, glass of wine or cup of tea in reaching distance. It will send delicious chills down your spine, it may even cause a nightmare or two but the fundamental air of cosiness never quite lets go of you, even when your blood reaches below freezing. If you ask me, ghost stories can - and should! - be read at any given time: on the beach (I find there is something wonderfully cooling in reading scary books in scorching heat, myself), on the bus, in the garden on a lovely spring day, coming home from a ski trip on one of those borderline cartoonish glittering winter days...

However, there is undoubtedly something deeply satisfying and appropriate in indulging in a good old-fashioned ghost story on a dark autumnal night, rain soaking what is left of the leaves while the wind sends chills down your spine as you turn the pages and find comfort in sitting inside, snug and warm, happily ensconced in your scary story of choice. After all, deep down you know that you only have to close the book to get away from whatever ghastly things that currently haunt you... and you are always safe in that armchair of yours.

Or are you...?

Read on for tips on books that will make your blood freeze, ever so pleasurably! Some are downright ghost stories, others more Gothic, some just might urge you to send me your therapy bills (apart from Casper, there is no such thing as a friendly ghost) but I can almost guarantee that you’ll have a lovely time.

 Dark Matter by Michelle Paver   Dark Matter by Michelle Paver   Dark Matter by Michelle Paver   The White Devil by Justin Evans

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

 This ghost story set in the Arctic in the 1930’s bears strong echoes of M.R. James while managing to hold its own. Lovely, lovely stuff!

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

A ghost story doesn’t get better - or scarier - than this, really. Read it before you catch the film starring Daniel Radcliffe. A friendly bit of advice, though: the ending nearly killed me!

Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Any ghost stories of his, really, but I’ve always found “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” particularly chilling. James’ ghost stories are wonderfully British and atmospheric, as cosy as they are menacing.

The White Devil by Justin Evans, which I’ve reviewed here: bookshop.se/content/white-devil-justin-evans

 Dark Matter by Michelle Paver    The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters    Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Arguably King’s finest moment on this side of the 21st century, this is a positively terrifying ghost story as well as a poignant tale of love and loss. And it resonates with one of my all time faves, Daphne du Mauriers Rebecca (more about that one in a minute!). 

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Gloriously well-portrayed and equally gloriously Gothic, Waters’ latest (please, Sarah, write a new one soon!) novel is an effective ghost story as well as a wistful tale of class, social outcasts and the end of an era for Britain. It is a slow burning sort of read that requires a patient reader and I’m still not 100% sure about the ending, but I loved it for the most part.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

D’you reckon the titles I’ve mentioned so far are a bit too dusty and Old Britannia for your liking? Well, how about a ghost on eBay, with a large helping of rock’n’roll, two AC/DC dubbed dogs, kickass humour and a genuinely spooky story? With this novel, Hill, the eldest son of a certain Stephen Edwin King, proves himself a majorly talented writer in his own right.

Dark Matter by Peter Straub    The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

Dark Matter by Peter Straub

 If you ask me, Straub is right up there with his good pal Stephen King when it comes to writing multiple-layered, immensely readable and scary novels. He is, perhaps, not as prolific but there is a literary feel to his nuanced scary tales that I adore. Outrageously underrated, in my humble opinion. Ghost Story still scares the bejesus out of me every time I think about it. I was so pleased to hear about his latest novel, Dark Matter, winning this year’s Bram Stoker Award for best novel. Must. Read. Soon!

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

 Mosse’s latest effort is a brief yet atmospheric and cosy read, ideal for a cold November night. It might seem a bit too tame for hardcore horror fans... or then again, it might serve as a nice break from more gruesome pursuits.

Finally: essential Halloween reading for wimps, or chills (almost) without ghosts!

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

The latest tome from the prolific and always brilliant Morton features a dusty old castle, elderly twin sisters and deep, dark secrets. It is the ideal Gothic read for Anglophiles.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again...” From the first evocative lines of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic romance to the very last pages, the reader - any reader, I suppose, but ideally a reader in love with all things atmospheric and Gothic and lovely - is spellbound by this 1930’s page turner. One of my favourite novels of all time (and I’ve read a few).

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontê

I have always loved Jane Eyre, but in recent years, I have come to appreciate the Gothic, slightly menacing undertones of Thornfield Hall and its troubled inhabitants. Do take the chance to re-read it - and if it is your first time, congratulations, you have a wonderful experience ahead of you!

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton   Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier   Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontê

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Marya Morevna, when you longed to see the world naked and watched for what was hidded behind everyday things, did you know where it would lead you? When you saw the three birds turning into men, did you recognize the structure of your tale? When you learned the date of your death, did it change your way of life?

They say there are only twelve plots, or seven, or three. These contain all stories there are to tell. Perhaps it is true that the human brain has a tendency to find certain patterns, to patch together precisely these stories from the jumble of events, meetings, and random catastrophes and triumphs that life brings. Maybe, but it does not reduce the value of telling the stories, and retelling them again.

In Deathless Catherynne M. Valente lets the Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna play out in parallel with some important decades in the history of St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, with revolution and war. We know what will happen, we know at least the outlines of this story -- even if we this time also get to see the house imps joining the Party and forming committees. Most readers will also recognize the structure of the fairy tale, and we understand that certain things have to be. Even if we are not familiar with all the creatures of Russian folk lore, we understand what they mean. There is an inevitability to it all, that partly feels horrible and claustrophobic, partly comforting and secure.

Knowing how it ends rarely makes a story less interesting, often more so. In a fairy tale, we expect certain turns and we know at least roughly where it will lead. Variations of folk tales is nearly a genre in itself, maybe partly because the well known is a secure framework for telling important stories. Also because if the reader can be expected to know the story, she will understand which points are new, or emphasized by the author.

Marya Morevna comes to the Country of Life, becomes the warrior queen, confronts Baba Yaga, travels to the Country of Death. Everything is expected, and everything is new and surprising. The writing is beautiful. The triangle of Marya, Koschei and Ivan becomes a dark comment on love and matrimony: who is to rule? The world we know fades out of focus and back again. The tragedies of Leningrad in the war gets entangled with the struggle against the boundaries of free will.

Life is like that. Life is not like that.

The Restoration Game

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeodTo summarise: I think you might like this book if you

  • like Ken MacLeods earlier work
  • are interested in history, or big political questions
  • want realistic female protagonists (not superwomen)
  • enjoy reality leakage and sense of wonder in your fiction

Through most of The Restoration Game you can safely allow yourself to believe that you are reading a kind of contemporary spy thriller, although kind of light on the action and violence and heavy on the personal history of the geek girl protagonist Lucy.

Lucy works for the small computer game company Digital Damage, located in Edinburgh. The company gets drawn into complicated international conspiracies through Lucys mother, Amanda, who used to be a CIA "asset". Lucy becomes an important person for the big game of power and economic control because of her knowledge of the language and national myth of the small (fictive) Georgian province of Krassnia, where she grew up.

Ken MacLeod here continues his exploration of ideologies and economy post communism, a theme that you can recognise from earlier books. The intrigues around Krassnia are interesting on their own, and a reminder that there is a world geographically really close to us which we in our corner of Europe tend to know little about. Most of the story takes place in 2008, but the focus on Krassnia and the lack of any hints of terrorist scare gives it a subtle alternate history feeling. The war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia actually took place in our reality, so in any case it's very close to the reality we know.

Lucy is talked into making a Krassnian version of a Digital Damage game, which then plays a role in the political plots. The topic of using online games as a means for organising protests is already science fictional (in the spirit of that William Gibson quote: "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed"), but in this book it's also a tool for the hunt after a secret hidden in the Krassnian mountains.

Still, as I mentioned, there is not much to remind the reader that this is SF. As if compensating for the lack of gosh wow SF elements through the early parts of the book Ken MacLeod is flirting a bit with the science fiction fans and computer geeks among the readers. Lucy is both. The number of people in Sweden who recognize the atmosphere among SF fans meeting in a pub might be few, but I guess there are many Ken MacLeod readers who will smile at a UNIX/eunuchs misunderstanding. I'm easily charmed by injokes like these, which might pass by unnoticed by readers who don't share the frames of reference.

Someone who does not feel included by these things might still appreciate that Ken MacLeod makes Lucy a really cool person. She is very far from the "kick-ass" heroines we have often seen way too much of. She is interested in many things, but she doesn't know any martial arts. Her life is full of work and flat mates and cat and new boyfriend and preparations for the wedding of a close friend  a normal person, who just happens to get involved in crazy big things.

At the centre of the things that happen around Lucy is the "secret of the Vrai". This is the MacGuffin as they say in the world of cinema, the object that drives the plot. Something ancient hidden on a mountain, surrounded by rumors and guarded with firearms and superstition. This secret fails to catch my interest for a long time, hidden behind the political machinations and the things Lucy discovers about her own background. Suddenly, at the very end, this changes.

It's wonderful when an author manages to play with your assumptions and turn them on their heads. This is a really old trick, and in some kinds of science fiction nearly compulsory, but often enough it still works. After turning the last page there is no doubt that this story was pure science fiction all along.

I'm not going to say more than this, and telling you that there are surprises is already a bit of a spoiler. Although it's now scientifically proven that knowing a lot about the plot doesn't spoil the experience, I prefer not giving away too much.

If you read the book, find me and we will talk about the ending and some philosophical implications. That could be fun.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald  As much as I love Helen Fitzgerald, I must admit to a certain degree of anxiety upon I first hearing of her latest novel, "The Donor". The tag line "two daughters, one impossible choice" sounded a bit too Jodi Picoult-ish for my liking, and while I have been known to read, enjoy and beweep many a Picoult novel, I’m not sure I’d enjoy a weepy dilemma drama from Fitzgerald. Seems like too much of a stretch, don’t you think? Of course, I needn't have worried. Behind the tagline lies a story very much in line with Fitzgerald’s previous, distinctly dark, gritty and morbidly funny, body of work. Whew!

The Donor tells the tale of Will Marion, single father of sixteen-year-old twins Georgie - sullen, difficult, angry - and Kay - mild-mannered, upbeat, eager to please. When Georgie suffers kidney failure and is placed on dialysis, Will immediately agrees to become a donor candidate. Then the unthinkable happens. Kay falls ill as well, and Will has to face a question no parent should have to ask themselves: which child should he save? Increasingly frantic, Will attempts to contact the girls' biological mother, a globetrotting drug addict whose leading man is currently doing time in prison for manslaughter. Now, this all sounds like - and is - very serious indeed. Being a mother of twin girls myself, the subject matter - drug addicts and felons aside - creeps close to home and the very idea of having to choose between two equally adored children just breaks my heart. Luckily, The Donor is heaped with a big serving of the same pitch-black humour that made Dead Lovely et al so immensely enjoyable. Nothing is quite as it seems here, and the many twists and turns of the story kept me up well after bedtime. Part crime, part chick noir, part X-rated family drama, Helen Fitzgerald's novels defy categorisation, and therein lies much of the appeal. Oh, and may I just comment on how much I love Fitzgerald's unflichingly, unapologetically badass female characters? So strong, so funny, so cool, so completely different from what a woman is supposed to be like according to society's ever so crippling standards. I definitely wouldn't want to encounter them in real life, but within the realms of fiction, they are about as cool as humanly - and fictionally - possible. If you're looking for a Helen Zahavi for the 21st century (and aren't we all?), congrats, your search is over.

Curious about Helen Fitzgerald?

Why, I thought so! On 10 September, I will be interviewing Helen Fitzgerald at Uppsala English Bookshop. Do come, and do take the time to check out Helen's books as well as those of the fabulous Scottish crime writer Karen Campbell, who will be interviewed by the equally fabulous Swedish writer Carina Burman. Did I hear anyone say "fabulous"? Stockholmers need not fret as there will be an event in the Stockholm shop the very next day. Fab, fab, fab!

Read more about The Kulturnatten event at The Uppsala English Bookshop

Helena's top 5 of the month: novels about twins

Like I've alluded to in my review of The Donor and, surely, on several other occasions, I am the mother of twin girls. My fascination with twins began a good ten, fifteen years ahead of the birth of my daughters, though. (Hello, Sweet Valley!) Here are five of my favourite novels dealing with twins, and you will note that I have not included the latest instalment in the Sweet Valley saga, Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years on. Utter crap, and, disappointingly, completely lacking that fun-filled guilty pleasure aspect I was hoping for. Steer clear - but do read the books I've recommended here!

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Featuring identical twins, Highgate cemetery, and a ghost kitten, Her Fearful Symmetry is a must-read for all literary Goths out there.

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

Arguably the best novel to have been picked for Oprah Winfrey's book club (and let me tell you, there are some real gems there!), this dome of a book tells the story of housepainter Thomas and his schizofrenic twin brother Thomas. A thoroughly absorbing, big, sprawling Great American Novel of a read. Bring tissues.

The Last Child by John Hart

The Last Child by John Hart

This novel about a young boy in the South who refuses to give up on his missing twin sister will have you frantically turning pages, and I can almost guarantee that the story and its characters will come back to haunt you long after the last page has been turned.

The Secret Lives of the Twins by Rosamond Smith

The Secret Lives of the Twins by Rosamond Smith

Joyce Carol Oates' fascination with twins, duality, and shadow selves is well-documented. As Rosamond Smith, one of Oates' not-so-secret dark twins (these days, she uses a new pseudonym, Lauren Kelly), the fascination became more like an obsession: several of her novels deal with twins in one way or another. I tend to prefer "normal" JCO to her literary twin sisters, but this one is one of her best written as Rosamond Smith.

(Out of print – Use our BookFinder-service to request it)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeld

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeld

This atmospheric, beautifully Gothic novel has "ideal autumn read" written all over it - and yes, it does have twins in it as well! I wish Diane Setterfeld would write a new book. Is there a petition I could sign?

The science fiction lover reads Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku This is a book about the technologies that will shape our lives in various ways in the near future and in the coming 100 years. It's all extrapolated from the current front line of technology and from new knowledge that is anticipated to be exploited soon. Michio Kaku is a physicist who has made a name as a popularizer of science, through his books and as host of various TV shows. Physics of the Future is based on interviews with scientists and people who are involved in developing and trying out the discussed technologies.

The title is a bit misleading – it's clearly chosen because the book is in some ways a sequel to Kaku's Physics of the Impossible, which discusses seemingly impossible things people do in fiction and what it would take to make some of them possible. Physics of the Future is not about what we will learn in physics in the future. Not even only about how physics will be applied in the future. It's about computers, robots, medicine, economics, energy and, yes, about space travel. Every chapter is divided into three parts: the current state of the art, what we might be able to do around mid century, and visions for the "far future" in about 100 years.

Many of the ideas are discussed in the light of two principles: Moore's law and "the caveman principle". Moore's law states roughly that computers double in capacity every two years. At some point in the not so far future Moore's law will break down because it meets the physical limits of how small we can make our integrated circuits. The caveman principle is just that people are basically the same as in the stone age. Our preferences and needs are rooted in that human nature, and this will shape how we implement our technologies and shape our future.

Of course things will not play out exactly the way described in the book, and this is discussed in the introduction. The book is about what we might do, based on what we know now, and this is the available information that we need to work with when imagining the future. A reader of popular science magazines might already be familiar with most of the things and ideas discussed here (I found this especially true for the chapter about space travel), but here a lot is collected in the same place in a nice package where you can start to appreciate how various advances can work together. Someone who is new to all of this might find the book fairly dense, but still readable.

Michio Kaku is clearly enthusiastic over the subject, and very optimistic. It's a mostly bright future he describes, where we use our collected wits and deal constructively with the problems caused by global warming and the end of oil. I actually feel that the positive picture he paints sometimes borders on the naive, when he glosses over the ethical problems with some of the inventions he describes. Yes, there are problems with creating entities with minds and make them serve us. And what responsibilities do we have to our "designer babies"? (As a friend of mine stated it: how fun is it 30 years later, when your genes are really out of fashion?) I understand that these discussions may be beside the point and that Kaku doesn't want to fill the book with them, but I miss acknowledgments that ethics can be relevant and important in shaping the future.

Some comments about economics, history and other relevant subjects far from physics also seem a bit oversimplified. I'm sure that Michio Kaku has done his research and that he has fact checked everything against experts, but being one myself I know that physicists are not necessarily experts of everything, and I reserve the right to be a bit skeptical about his historical analyses. Nevertheless I enjoy the enthusiasm and the optimism, because it makes it easy and entertaining to read the book. I put many question marks in the margins of the discussions about for example how exactly Europe came to be more successful than China and the Ottoman empire, but that doesn't spoil the rest of the book.

Perhaps the least successful chapter is the last one, "A day in the life in 2100", which is intended to illustrate what life might be like when we have access to all of the things described in the preceding chapters. It reads like science fiction from the 1930's, only with updated gadgets, and leaves me feeling unsatisfied when I put the book down. Michio Kaku is a good writer of popular science, but not as talented at fiction, and for this story did not add anything of value.

I have read enough good SF to have little patience with bad SF. This brings me to my real problem with reading this book, which is not a failure of the book but rather of me as a reader. My reading mind is shaped by decades on a high-SF-diet. The thing that keeps nagging me through the book is that the author seems to be completely unaware of science fiction literature after about 1982 or so. I know, it's very unfair to judge a book because it fails to do something the author didn't intend at all in the first place. (Actually, I hate it when people do that. I stopped reading reviews on online bookstores because of that.) I just cannot help it.

Physics of the Impossible by Michio KakuFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes Neverness by David Zindell
The Golden Age by John C. Wright The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson 

You see, I keep thinking of the perfect examples of how everything mentioned in this book is discussed in science fiction, new and old. If you talk about super intelligent mice I want to mention Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. If you talk about recreating Neanderthals I want to mention Neverness by David Zindell. If you talk about regrowing lost limbs I think of Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. If you talk about augmented reality (digital information superimposed on your senses) I think of The Golden Age by John C. Wright and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. If you talk about extended life spans I want to mention the treatment of that in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. When it comes to nanotechnology, why not mention The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, which I recently reviewed here.

This list just goes on forever.

Michio Kaku instead takes most of his examples from ancient mythology and talks about "the power of gods". The rest of his illustrating examples come from Star Trek and SF blockbusters, which he seems to like but not take very seriously. That is fair enough but leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think I personally would have preferred to read a book about technologies in fairly current science fiction literature with discussions of if and when these might be available in reality, and the science behind. The book I wish I had is an updated version of the classic The Science in Science Fiction, edited by Peter Nicholls. It was published in 1983 and is still readable, but it's too old to contain cyberpunk, new space opera, and a lot of cool scientific ideas which have been commonplace in SF recently – such as many of the things discussed in Physics of the Future. I wish someone would write an updated version of The Science in Science Fiction. I actually wish that I could write it myself (something that I could not do alone, that's for sure).

It's not Michio Kaku's fault that I feel frustrated by this. Physics of the Future is entertaining and I think the author succeeds with what he has set out to do: discussing future technologies. Thinking about it, I wonder if it would not also be a nice source of inspiration for SF writers.

(By the way: yes, it bothers me that my quick list of science fiction examples contains no works by women. That is something worth discussing.)

Oh, those summer nights... and summer reading

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

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There are few things in life that give me more pleasure than deciding what to read for the summer. It’s not just the prospect of idleness, lazy afternoons spent reading on beaches and front porches, drink in hand, that appeals to me. Nope, it’s the whole journey, from tentatively deciding on which lucky books will get to spend the summer with me, to writing lists, browsing and buying, and – finally – settling down to read the books I’ve been dying to read all year. Now, as you are about to discover, I tend to get brutally over-optimistic when it comes to planning my summer reading. Ten mammoth-sized novels in four weeks? No probs! Getting touchy-feely with fantasy, a genre known for many things, short novels not being one of them, as well as catching up on the latest in crime, fiction, and horror? Why, the sky’s the limit! Why not throw in some non-fiction and classics as well, just for the heck of it…?

So, bearing in mind that this list is more aspirational than factual – and also bearing in mind the fact that I absolutely reserve the right to change my reading plans at any given moment – I bring you…

HELENA’S SUMMER READING LIST: THE 2011 EDITITION!

The Passage (Justin Cronin)

The Passage (Justin Cronin) 

Here's a testament to the strength of summer reading plans: I bought The Passage, which has been praised by everyone from Stephen King to numerous Swedish book bloggers with a flair for horror, in January. The tome-esque trade paperback edition, that is. When I started reading, I immediately realised two things. 1: This is, to paraphrase Special Agent Dale Cooper, a damn fine novel. 2: This damn fine novel is too damn big and heavy to fit into my bag. I then decided to put the reading on hold until summer, when I would have time and energy to immerse myself in vampiric apocalypse. Can't wait to read this! And yes, I ended up buying the smaller, more beach-friendly paperback edition. Because a girl can't have too many copies of awesome horror novels, even if they happen to be duplicates.

Salem's Lot (Stephen King)

Salem's Lot (Stephen King) 

Vampires, summertime, can't beat the combo. In August, I will be re-reading King's take on Dracula, originally published in 1975, for my book club. The last time I read it at the tender age of thirteen, I was scared senseless - and irrevocably lured onto the dark and treacherous path that leads to all things horrific... Very anxious to find out whether it has passed the test of time.

Incubus (Carol Goodman)  Incubus (Carol Goodman) 
I absolutely, utterly adore Goodman's tales of literary suspense and her latest one, which will be published in July, seems like another winner. We have all the classic Carol Goodman traits: a Gothic setting in the deep, dark woods of upstate New York, a remote progressive arts school, a folklore teacher... and, of course, a mystery. Why change a winning concept?
The Red Garden (Alice Hoffman)  The Red Garden (Alice Hoffman) 
When it comes to magical realism in a cosy small town setting, no North American does it better than Alice Hoffman. I've read and enjoyed the vast majority of her beautifully written novels, including Practical Magic and Turtle Moon, but have found her latest novels somewhat lukewarm. Her latest novel, which tells the tale of a New England town during three centuries, sounds like the real deal, though.
The Steel Remains (Richard Morgan)  The Steel Remains (Richard Morgan) 
As some of you may already be aware, I've vowed to use this summer to become better acquainted with fantasy. More specifially, the scary kind that features swords and elves (aka, shudder, high fantasy). Richard Morgan was recommended to me by the almighty Jan, and while The Steel Remains does have swords in it, it also has a killer first sentence: ”When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options”. I'm all about killer first sentences, so hopefully Morgan will finish what he started.
The Silent Girl (Tess Gerritsen)  The Silent Girl (Tess Gerritsen) 
Sometimes creative to the point of ridicule (modern day mummies, corpses walking out of their own autopsies, etc, etc), Gerritsen is always a fun, scary read. The new instalment in the Rizzoli/Isles series is bound to please lovers of slightly gory thrillers worldwide. Ideal for long, warm summer evenings. American Rust (Philipp Meyer) Picked this up on a whim, knowing absolutely nothing about the writer nor the book. This I know, though: a novel set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town, with echoes of Steinbeck and McCarthy (and, at least from where I'm standing, a bit of Tawni O'Dell, too) sounds too good to ignore.
Boy's Life (Robert McCammon)  Boy's Life (Robert McCammon) 
And now we're back to my key argument: the unyielding force of summer reading plans. See, I've had Boy's Life in my book shelf for almost a year now. I KNOW that I will love it. In fact, the very promise of this coming-of-age novel oozes potential Helena favourite. So much so that I've almost been scared to read it (you know how it is with books and impossible expectations). But! I have decided that the summer of 2011 will be the summer of Boy's Life. Come late August, something tells me that I'll have a new favourite.
Karen Campbell's Anna Cameron series (The Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadowplay) Karen Campbell's Anna Cameron series (The Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadowplay, Proof of Life)
Because it's about time. And because female Scottish crime writers never disappoint. Never!

The Dervish House

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

This is so brilliant. Beautiful. At the moment I think this is the novel I'm going to recommend everyone to read for a long time to come.

As I have probably said before, it's a little bit risky to review a book before I have really digested it. I never know when I turn the last page what I will think of it in a week or a month. Still, I have now waited way too long to read this book, considering that I wanted to review it before the coming weekend.

Perhaps I'm just dazzled at the moment, but one thing that is safe to say is that I'm going to remember the wonderful opening scene. Some books have a catchy first sentence ("It was the day my grandmother exploded." The Crow Road, Iain Banks. Or, by now well worn cliché: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That's Neuromancer by William Gibson, in case that you don't recognise it.), but The Dervish House has a little movie in the beginning. We follow a stork, riding the rising air above Istanbul, The Queen of Cities, which is just waking up for another day of unusually hot weather in the year 2027. For half a page I am the stork, I can see it all! It's like a spell, pulling me into the book to keep me locked in between the covers for at least a couple of hours straight. It fits my way of reading perfectly: visual, sensual.

I have read things by Ian McDonald before, but I cannot remember being captivated this way. Brasyl was good in many ways, but did not resonate well with me at all. (Too much quantum physics, perhaps – I cannot make myself believe in magical quantum computers.)

The story in The Dervish House is very fast paced, very compact – it all takes place within five days – and very clear, but has room for a lot of science fictional ideas. It is centered around the people living in the old house of the title, which used to be a place where dervishes gathered but is converted to affordable housing. When a suicide bomber blows her head off on a tram passing by the area, some of the people of this dervish house are pulled into a plot which is much bigger than it first seems. Their paths cross the paths of their neighbours, and we get to know them all a little. I especially like the nine year old boy, who plays detective with the help of his bit-bot robot toy.

These people are very different, and show us very different aspects of Istanbul.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks Neuromancer by William Gibson Ian McDonald - Brasyl 

One of the central ideas is the use of nanotechnology in the form of some kind of nanorobots to temporarily or permanently rewire the nervous system. You can snort some nano to help you stay focussed on a task, or induce a certain state of mind. There are more experimental versions, that can do more specific things to your brain also. Istanbul is a centre of nanotechnology in this future, and there are ideas for applications that could change the world in ways that for most would be drastic and unexpected.

Another theme is economics, and we are shown the stark difference between the game with large sums of virtual money and the science of describing the behaviour of people. I recall that Paul Krugman – Nobel price, remember? – is supposed to have said that he went into economics because it was the closest he could come to psychohistory, as in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Kim Stanley Robinson said in his speech at the Worldcon last year that "economics is a pseudoscience; the astrology of our time". Perhaps it is, but some economists also seem to be very aware of the advances in psychology, and perhaps this field also is becoming a part of a general wave of discovery of what is to be human. Time will tell, and in the meantime we play with ideas and visions.

The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 - Paul Krugman Kim Stanley Robinson - Forty Signs of Rain  Isac Asimon - Forward the Foundation(#7)

The central theme of Ian McDonalds writing has to be that not only Europe and America are important in the future. More and more of the rest of the world makes itself noticed, and some people feel threatened when they notice that our part of the world is not the only place that matters. It hurts when you notice that you have been holding a privilege which depends on keeping other people out. Ian McDonald has recently shown us futures in India, Brazil and now Turkey, and I think it helps people lift their eyes a bit and see parts of the world they barely knew were there. Who needs other planets when we have so much to learn about our own?

In The Dervish House we get a very broad picture of Istanbul, and also a glimpse of the rest of Turkey. It's in the near future, and there is no glossing over the tension between ethnic groups. So we get to see some really ugly prejudice and discrimination (and worse) against kurds, but also the problems facing Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities. The Russians just seem to float on top of everything (but they are always just outside the frame of the picture in this novel). But there is more to the city than that: history, art, trade, food, and gas pipelines. Even science fiction. In passing, the only science fiction author of Turkey is mentioned, but not by name – I suspect this is a real person. (Burak Eldem? My best guess.) Perhaps there are also ancient hidden secrets, secrets that can only be uncovered by luck, dedication, and the eye of a trader in antiquities.

"All Istanbul is celebrating," one of the characters reflects at the end of the book. "And Istanbul is mourning, and Istanbul is dreading and Istanbul is hoping. Istanbul is everything."

Now, time to get ready to meet Ian McDonald himself, among other authors. Eurocon is this weekend (June 17-19), in Stockholm. Elizabeth Bear will be there! Charles Stross will be there! Hannu Rajaniemi will be there! Amanda Downum will be there! And many more.

And so will I, non-author as I am, and perhaps you too. Let's find each other and talk about books.

Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Bordertown - New and important things usually start at the edges, the borders, the intersections and interfaces. It's not through some central committee that revolutionary ideas are spawned, it's not in the limelight of the famous stages new musical expressions are tried. Things start in the gutters, in hidden corners, through the clashes between old and new, near and far.

That is the attraction of places like Bordertown.

Welcome to Bordertown is my first encounter with Bordertown. I was initally attracted by the lineup of really interesting author names in this anthology (Charles de Lint, Catherynne Valente, Nalo Hopkinson, Emma Bull, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman...), but then the setting also resonates with my imagination.

Bordertown is a place right on the border between our world and The Realm, or Faerie if you like. This is a place where elves can enter into our world, and where magic works -- sort of, sometimes. The elves are not those of fairytales for little children, but more similar to those unpredictable beings of folklore. Except in Bordertown they play rock music. They don't appreciate being called elves or fairies, but call themselves Truebloods ("which, I've got to admit, sounds a bit too white supremacist for my taste" says Joey in Charles de Lint's story).

Welcome to Bordertown Kushner, Ellen (ed.) , Black, Holly (ed. Welcome to Bordertown Kushner, Ellen (ed.) , Black, Holly (ed.

Bordertown is also a place for the odd, the strange, and those who don't really belong anywhere: typically runaway kids. You can get there if your intention is right and if you work on it, but it's not easy. Actually, noone has been able to find the way for thirteen years when it suddenly reappears. In Bordertown only thirteen days has passed. In this newly rediscovered Bordertown, the thirteen stories, seven poems and one graphic story of this book take place.

Bordertown is a shared world, where people write their stories in the same setting. It was created in the 1980's, when urban fantasy was just being invented, and is talked about as very influential on a lot of authors. There are four earlier anthologies and three novels in this world, but the thirteen years of isolation corresponds to a time where no new Bordertown stories have been published.

Being new to the setting is no problem. Welcome to Bordertown starts with two introduction texts and a short guide text of Bordertown basics, giving you most of the background you might want. There is only one story ("We Do Not Come In Peace" by Christopher Barzak) where I feel that perhaps a little more background would have been good to understand the significance of what's going on. Perhaps I just need to reread the story.

In the beginning, through the first couple of stories, I get a feeling of Bordertown as an eternal rock festival and art happening. After finishing the book I have a thorough sense of the backside of it also. Bordertown might be wonderful, but it's also shabby and dangerous.

There are gangs. There is drug trade. And there is the notorious unpredictability of magic and technology (the shifts in the magic are described as juju weather in the Nalo Hopkinson story). Noone said it was comfortable in Bordertown. You might live in a squat with only sometimes electricity and cold water, and perhaps you live just day to day for long periods. On the other hand there is music and art and all sorts of creative things going on all around.

"Bordertown is shabbier than I expected, run-down and wearing at the edges, but it's also got that makeshift cool that you'll always find in a certain part of any city. The place where the oddball stores, restaurants and clubs are all just a little hipper." ("A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint)

Here is also all of the complexity and ambiguity of life: who is good and who is evil? Who might help you, and who will make things worse? At least three of the stories in this book are centered around people who are in Bordertown with the special intention to help others, those unfortunate that get themselves too deeply into trouble.

As a whole, this is a strong collection. There are no stories that feel boring or pointless, and only three that I'm likely to forget soon. I'm going to tell you that the contribution by Neil Gaiman is a two page poem, but that Charles de Lint has written a long story. Those who buy the book for just one name might get more or less for their money -- but they will probably like much of the rest of the anthology as well.

Stories on a border push at boundaries. "Shannon's Law" by Cory Doctorow, for example, is what happens when a science fictional mind collides with the impenetrable border to a country which seems to obey different laws of nature than the World we know. Can you peer through the veil, send information through to learn more about the Perilous Realm? "Our Stars, Our Selves" by Tim Pratt features an astronomer who (much to her own frustration) turns into an astrologer because of the strange features of the night sky visible in the Nevernever surrounding Bordertown. Nalo Hopkinson's story "Ours is the Prettiest" hints at different lands beyond The Realm, with other even stranger magic and beings. "A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint looks also in the other direction, and explores (among other things) what kind of subculture might arise in our World if it were in contact with Faerie.

Since Bordertown was invented before urban fantasy was an established as a subgenre, it was well established before it was taken over by vampires and werewolves and teenage love. The story "Crossings" by Janni Lee Simner is a revenge on the vampire romance story. It's also a devastating take on what happens when young dreamers collide with harsh reality. A vampire is a monster, and true love might not be what you think.

There is also a strong theme of finding community or a place to belong, which is especially explicit in "Welcome to Bordertown" by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling and "A Voice Like a Hole" by Catherynne M. Valente.

These are just a few examples of the stories, I'm not going to talk in detail about them individually because I think you should discover them for yourself. One message I see throughout the book is that you cannot hide in stories to get away from the difficult things in life, but you can use the stories to be able to face your problems.

It didn't really occur to me until I put the book down that this is intended as young adult fiction -- or intended to be marketable as YA. I felt a bit stupid, since Terri Windlings introduction says so explicitly. Anyway, it just confirms what many have been saying: that a lot of interesting genre stuff nowadays is happening in YA. Also, in youth almost everyone passes through a period of feeling odd and uncomfortable, not really belonging. The search for somewhere to feel at home is really universal, and one of the things that give stories with young protagonists an appeal for many readers.

Perhaps also this experience is the point where those of us who are relatively privileged in this world can connect with people who are really standing on the outside for specific reasons. The general Bordertown feeling is that a wide variety of outcasts and lost people are visible and may belong. The stories deal with various backgrounds and experiences: skin colours, social backgrounds, sexualities, physical abilities. They are not glossing over the problems of getting along, so of course there is a lot of tension. Still, noone is expecting people to be all similar in Bordertown and all of the variety is there in plain view. I think that is very hopeful, because learning to live together starts with seeing eachother instead of hiding in our isolated corners.

Given this diversity, and the fairly distinct flavours of the different stories, I start to wonder about the dynamics of a shared world. How do you go about making it feel like one and the same place? I wonder how you tend a shared world, and how you create a book like this. The authors have to get a fairly strict framework to work within. I'm curious, I'll have to find something to read about that.

The stories are clearly arranged to be read in the order they stand. They cleverly plant details or people that you encounter again in a later story by another author, or a poem might echo as lyrics of a busker's song. I like the effect.

Still, in the end I wonder about the overall feeling I get, that the book gets darker and my view of Bordertown bleaker as I come closer to the end. In my mind it becomes less of a place of creative magic, and more of a glorified shanty town with a few shining points of hope. Was this really the intention? The introductin gave me the impression that Bordertown was intended as a place you would want to find, not a place to be afraid of.

The danger of reviewing a book directly after reading it is that I haven't yet digested the impressions. I'm not sure which view of Bordertown will remain in my mind, but I'm fairly sure that I will revisit this town some day. There are stories in this anthology that I will remember and very possibly want to reread.

The White Devil by Justin Evans

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

In his debut novel A Good and Happy Child, Justin Evans explored themes as hefty as memory repression, demon possession, and parental anxiety. Now, he is back with a brand new novel that at first glance seems a bit too good to be true.

  1. It is a ghost story.
  2. It is set at a prestigious English public school (which, by the way, the author attended himself in 1988!).
  3. Lord Byron, aka the first literary rock star, plays a major part in the unfolding of the story.

The White Devil by Justin EvansNow, I adore a good old haunting, as most of you already know – almost as much as I love novels with an academic setting. After all, you're talking to the girl who read Donna Tartt's The Secret History at the tender age of fifteen and had my entire world – my literary world, that is, which, at fifteen, pretty much was my world – rocked by Tartt's inimitable cast of characters, all of whom I still consider some of my best friends. And, oh, the gorgeous settings, so irresistible to a young bookworm! One section of the book that has really stuck with me throughout the years is the bit where Richard Papen, our narrator, has just arrived at Hampden College and, woken up from a slumber, walks around the campus and is positively awestruck by what he sees. The red-cheeked girls playing football in the golden afternoon light; the smell of apples, smoke, and early autumn in the air, the famous Vermont foliage all ablaze, everything so completely different from the humdrum, suburban feel of Richard's upbringing... She had me at hello, Donna did, and even though I have re-read The Secret History more times than I can count – and even though the actual plot, though advertised on page one, takes off a bit further into the book – there remains something magical about the chapters depicting Richard's first days at Hampden. I remember feeling something quite similar during my first – but far from last – stay in Oxford. The air seemed to be electrically charged with the very promise of knowledge, and me every bit as starstruck by the city of dreaming spires as Richard Papen of Hampden (”did Oscar Wilde stroll across the same meadow as I am right now?”). So yes, I'm a sucker for a decent cademic setting and actively look for books that may whet that particular literary apetite. (Read on for more scholarly tips in my top 5 of the month!)

Good and Happy Child, Justin EvansSpeaking of appetites, I just can't seem to get enough of novels featuring historical, cultural, and/or (preferrably all of the above!) literary icons. So, when I found out that not only will The White Devil cater to my supernatural and academic needs, Lord Byron will also be a major player... well, obviously I was thrilled, in an anxious, wide-eyed ”OMG, must read now!” sort of way. But with great expectations come the possibility of a great letdown. Upon hearing of Justin Evans' new endeavour, I couldn't help but wonder how he would manage to pull it all off.

The good news is, he does pull it off. An intensely spooky, richly atmospheric page turner, The White Devil is virtually impossible to put down once you've started reading it. It is a delightfully scary ghost story, but Evans also impresses me with his honest and real portrayal of what it's like to be eighteen, far away from home, and nearly broken down with expectations and self doubt. And yes, the Lord Byron parts seem well-researched and go well with the contemporary setting. I may be revealing too much here, but if you, like me, have a strange fascination with 19th century terminal illnesses, you will LOVE the premises of the haunting! Oh well, enough said.

Something slightly less vague and sweeping about the plot. After having been expelled from his school in his native Connecticut, Andrew Taylor (no relation, one would assume, to the novelist) is to spend his senior year at the prestigious public school Harrow, once home to the great Lord Byron. No sooner has he arrived in the UK than things – mysterious, startling, inexplicable things – start to happen. Following the death of a fellow student, Andrew starts to sense a malevolent presence. Someone – or something – wishes him ill, and it would appear that whatever is haunting Andrew is related to him playing Lord Byron in an upcoming school play. When a classmate falls ill, Andrew reaches out to his housemaster, a former literary genius turned alcoholic, for help. As the true motives behind the haunting begin to unravel, Andrew and his friends soon find themselves fighting for their lives.

You've probably already caught on, but I will say it just in case: yes, do read The White Devil! If you are into literary ghost stories with an innovative twist, and if your heartbeat goes up a notch by the very thought of drafty old English boarding houses – look no further! As for me, I will read A Good and Happy Child – which, if it is half as good as this one, is sure to please this hopeless lover of all things supernatural and scary – and then eagerly await the next book by Justin Evans. Methinks I've found a new favourite!

HELENA'S TOP 5 OF THE MONTH: NOVELS WITH AN AN ACADEMIC SETTING

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

You didn't think I'd leave it out, did you? If I hadn't already read it (and re-read it, and re-read it...) I would probably feel slightly hesitant towards this 1992 cult classic. It is, I believe, a book best experienced when you're as young and impressionable as the main character. Perhaps, ideally, even younger. Reading it with adult eyes might result in a less lovestruck interpretation. But then, it's just a theory...

Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates

2. Beasts (Joyce Carol Oates)

The ever so prolific Oates is nearly always flawless when she writes short prose. Everything I love about her writing style - the dark undercurrents, the beautiful language, the overall disturbing feel - is enhanced in her shorter pieces of fiction. In this 138 pages long dark gem of a novella, a young girl falls in love with a much older professor and his bohemian lifestyle - with dark, Oatesian consequences...

 The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton)

3. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton)

This is modern literary history by now, but I'm going to tell the tale anyway in case some of you have missed it: Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt went to college together at Bennington and both turned their college experience into literary form. Tartt, of course, wrote about Hampden College in that little book I seem to have forgotten to mention in this blog post, while Ellis' second novel takes place at Camden, a WASP-y New England liberal arts college with more than a passing reseblence to Bennington. It is not Ellis' finest hour in my opinion, but still worth reading. In a "blink and you'll miss it" passage, reference is made to some of the characters of The Secret History!

 Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld)

4. Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld)

New to the world of Curtis Sittenfeld? I envy you! Not to build up impossibly high expectations or anything, but Prep truly is a gem. So many authors try to be relatable, readable, and literary at the same time. Sittenfeld, unlike many of her colleagues, is a tremendous success on all three accounts.

 The Anatomy of Ghosts (Andrew Taylor)

5. The Anatomy of Ghosts (Andrew Taylor)

Historical suspense, don't you love it? One of my favourites within the genre is Andrew Taylor, whose latest novel The Anatomy of Ghosts is set in 18th century Cambridge. Not as thoroughly captivating as The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square, but I still give Taylor an A for atmosphere and effort.

Embassytown

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Embassytown by China Miéville China Miéville is an author with lots of readers who will just buy everything with his name on it. He gets all the prestigious awards and he is very visible in the field of SF/F. It's almost intimidating – how high should the expectations be on a new Miéville book? Still, I'm not disappointed. He has changed tracks again, after the strange fantasy setting of the Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street StationThe ScarIron Council), the inverted backside of London in Un Lun Dun, and the weird noir of The City and the City (I'm not saying anything about Kraken, which I haven't read yet). In Embassytown we get the first China Miéville science fiction, and it is a real treat.

I remember thinking, long ago when I read it, that Perdido Street Station had a sort of science fiction sensibility to it. Embassytown fits very well with Miévilles other work, and we get many of the things we usually expect in his stories, such as monstrous beings. This time they are aliens – exots – that are called Hosts by the humans of Embassytown. Some of the strangest extraterrestrials in all of fiction, beings very different from humans and difficult to understand. This, of course, is the cause of severe cultural clashes and potential disaster. The town itself is a colourful and weird setting, and the hints about the alien architecture and technology makes very strange pictures in my head.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville The Scar by China Miéville Iron Council by China Miéville 

Another thing we have learned to expect from China Miéville is mastery of language. I tend to be sort of insensitive to the fine nuances in style when I read in English, but with some authors I can tell that I like how they use their language. Miéville is good at making the words work with the story. Now, this is not only a book with nice English, it's also about languages.

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville City and the City by China Miéville Kraken by China Miéville

I don't think I give away too much if I reveal that this novel belongs in a proud tradition of linguistic SF. I'm not sure that the specific linguistic inventions that the plot is centered around are even theoretically possible, but that's hardly relevant. It works in the story, and perhaps also as a way to illustrate some deeper thoughts about language and mind.

If you already like China Miéville, you will want to read this one too. If you haven't read anything by him, you can start with Embassytown – especially if you like SF with very different extraterrestrials, or stories where everything depends on learning and understanding something that is deeply mysterious. A good thing is also that the book is shorter than some of his other ones, so it's not a major investment of time to actually read it.

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Multimediaambassaden, Mats Rytther