Uhh… yeah, you want these books.

World Fantasy Award nominees Aickman’s Heirs and Skein and Bone are on sale over at Undertow Books.

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I tend to buy collections based on maybe one or two stories or authors. The quality of these books, by that standard, is just amazing.

 

Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas 

Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award.

Finalist for the World Fantasy Award.

Finalist for the British Fantasy Award.

 The Dying Season,’ by Lynda E. Rucker, Finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.

 Seven Minutes in Heaven,’ by Nadia Bulkin, Finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.

 Underground Economy,’ by John Langan, reprinted in the Best Horror of the Year.

 Seaside Town,’ by Brian Evenson, reprinted in Year’s Best Weird Fiction.

 Seven Minutes in Heaven,’ by Nadia Bulkin, reprinted in Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror.

 Camp,’ by David Nickle, reprinted in Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction.

 

Skein and Bone, by V.H. Leslie

 Finalist for the World Fantasy Award.

 Finalist for the British Fantasy Award.

 The Blue Room’ – Finalist for the British Fantasy Award.

 

They are on sale! $30.00 total for both books AND worldwide shipping.

I own both books and can attest to their quality (you want these books).

To buy, go to the Undertow Books sale page.

Toni Morrison on Finding Time to Write

I saw the following on Toni Morrison’s Facebook page. She’s explaining where she finds time to write.

“Very, very early in the morning, before they got up. I’m not very good at night. I don’t generate much. But I’m a very early riser, so I did that, and I did it on weekends. In the summers, the kids would go to my parents in Ohio, where my sister lives – my whole family lives out there — so the whole summer was devoted to writing.

“And that’s how I got it done. It seems a little frenetic now, but when I think about the lives normal women live — of doing several things — it’s the same. They do anything that they can. They organize it. And you learn how to use time. You don’t have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how to do that. So, while you’re doing that, you’re thinking. You know, it doesn’t take up your whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in that packed train, where you can’t do anything anyway. Well, you can read the paper, but you’re sort of in there.

“And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And then sometimes I’d really get something good. By the time I’d arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn’t forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning. There was no blank time. I don’t have to do that anymore. But still, I’m involved in a lot of things, I mean, I don’t go out very much.”

She is one of the writers I would highly and quite seriously recommend for all those you want to be writers themselves one day.

Beloved, especially, is an amazingly powerful novel, not easy to read. Both the style of the book and the subject matter make it a difficult, but necessary, book.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is told in Lovecraft’s world, though a world where the cosmic horror is not mysterious and threatening but familiar and, erm, threatening.

“It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see.”

So starts H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cat’s of Ulthar, one of many stories from which Kij Johnson gets her inspiration for her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

kij

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is told in Lovecraft’s world, though a world where the cosmic horror is not mysterious and threatening but familiar and, erm, threatening. The dream-world is place of vindictive and mercurial gods. Distance is not to be trusted; the same trip might take two days one time and three weeks another.

Fickle gods may destroy anything at anytime. And yet, the world goes on.

Vellitt Boe is a professor in an all-girl’s university in Ulthar and one of the girls has snuck away with a boy from the waking world. Only, she is the granddaughter of a sleeping god who, if waking and finding his granddaughter gone, might just destroy Ulthar.

So Vellitt Boe goes after her. It is a perilous journey told in Kij Johnson’s fantastic prose. (If you don’t own her collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees you should remedy that right quick).

The story is a gift to those of us who have a thing for Lovecraft, and also for those who like a tale whose quality lies in the telling. This is fantasy at it’s best.

Despite the connection to old Lovecraft, this is not a horror story by any means. Johnson uses the fantastic elements from his dream tales and weaves from them a story very much her own.

Fans of her Hugo and Nebula award-winning The Man Who Bridge the Mist are in for a treat. 

The Best Writing of the Week – Tender is the Night

Do you ever read books simply for the prose? 

In an attempt to improve my writing I do this a fair bit and am now reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

Tender is the Night book cover

It was there I came across the following description that, as it happens, is also the best written thing I’ve read all week.

At the hotel the girl made the reservation in idiomatic but rather flat French, like something remembered. When they were installed on the ground floor she walked into the glare of the French windows and out a few steps onto the stone veranda that ran the length of the hotel. When she walked she carried herself like a ballet-dancer, not slumped down on her hips but held up in the small of her back. Out there the hot light clipped close her shadow and she retreated – it was too bright to see. Fifty yards away the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine; below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive.

That’s what writing looks like.  

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The Wonderful World of Michael Swanwick

I don’t remember what the first story I read by Michael Swanwick is. But I do remember the feeling I got as I read it.

It’s the same feeling I got when I first read stories by Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and Lucius Shepard. That amazing, wow-this-is-talent feeling.

Michael Swanwick is one of many authors I wish were household names, the likes of George Martin, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

In his new collection, Not So Much, Said the Cat, Swanwick is just showing off. The stories are all “genre”, either fantasy or science fiction (or both).

Not So much

The Man in Grey is a sort of riff on The Truman Show, highlighting the relationship of a man who is essentially a stagehand in the main character’s life. After she slips on a bottle and he “steps out” and saves her from an oncoming train, they start talking about the nature of her world. And then she makes a choice.

The Dala Horse is a Scandinavian post-apocalyptic fairy tale, and is fantastic and scary.
Swanwick Dala Horse

Something terrible had happened. Linnea did not know what it was. But her father had looked pale and worried, and her mother had told her, very fiercely, “Be brave!” and now she had to leave, and it was all the result of that terrible thing.

You can read the whole story now at Tor.com to get a taste.

There are stories here that I had read previously in two must-own collections; Goblin Lake was in Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Tawny Petticoats was in Rogues edited by George Martin (seriously, buy these books). The fact that he had a story in both these collections tells you something about Swanwick’s talent.

The fact that both those stories are in Not So Much, Said the Cat tells you something about the book’s quality.

I don’t know what else to say. This collection proves that Swanwick is a name that should be mentioned every time people speak of Gaiman, Link, Shepard, Martin or Harlan Ellison.

And Not So Much, Said the Cat is a collection that should be in every home.

Amazon’s Best-Selling Books for Each of the Last 15 Years, Rated

Amazon has been around since 1994, and their first book bestseller list appeared in 1995.

The book most popular that year on Amazon, and probably nowhere else, is quite perfect (but you’ll have to wait to see what book it is).

Looking at the best seller lists for the past 15 years gives us a short history lesson in both amazon and fads in books and publishing. The funny thing is, not all of these are immediately familiar despite being the best-selling book for that year.

Let’s take a look at the books:

goblet of fire new cover2000: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 

2001: Who Moved My Cheese?

2002: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t

2003: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

2004: The Da Vinci Code

2005: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

2006: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t

2007: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

2008: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

2009: The Lost Symbol

2010: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

2011: Steve Jobs

fifty shades of grey2012: Fifty Shades of Grey

 

2013: StrengthsFinder 2.0

2014: StrengthsFinder 2.0

2015: First 100 Words

2016 (so far): Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

 

Some interesting points:

  • In 1999, the top three sellers were the first three books in the Harry Potter series. So J.K. Rowling has topped the list in six separate years, if we count this year. That’s amazing staying power.
  • Dan Brown appears twice with separate books, the only author apart from Rowling to do so.
  • Two books appear twice; Good to Great in 2002 and again in 2006 and StrengthsFinder 2.0, which was the top seller two years in a row, 2013 and 2014. I’m not sure what that says about us.
  • Now, let’s take a look at both the overall number of ratings each book gets and then each book’s average rating.

First, the Amazon best-selling books that most people feel the need to give their opinion on:

The books with the most reviews

The books with the most reviews

Wow.

Looks like a LOT of people have opinions about Fifty Shades of Grey.

The two Harry Potter books that follow have the exact same number of ratings, a statistic that is slightly suspicious.

As you can see in the following chart they also have the same average rating, another statistic that is strange.

I suspect that the Amazon people simply can’t tell them apart. Anyway, here are the books that people like the most. Or…

The best-selling books with highest ratings overall

The best-selling books with highest ratings overall

Bonus: the bestseller on Amazon’s first year, 1995, was (presciently?) How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Website.

Best of all, it has a relatively recent review; this one-star review from 2014: “outdated book, not relevant now but definitely back in 95”

Which of the best-sellers above is your favorite?

Nightmares by Subscription – A Review of Nightmare Magazine Issue 44

Nightmare Magazine is one of the better things you can infect your Kindle with every month.

This month was no exception.

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In the current issue of Nightmare Magazine, there are four stories; two reprints and two originals.

The originals are The Old Horror Writer by Adam-Troy Castro and Sawing by Lisa Goldstein.

The reprints are Twittering from the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s sone, for those who are here for the trivia) and The Lost by Sarah Langan.

The Old Horror Writer

The Old Horror Writer is interesting and well written and while I had no problem with the story as such (it is well written), I don’t think there’s all that much for us to chew on.

A “something” is seeking out horror writers and, we learn, killing them. It has tracked down an obscure writer and is paying him a visit.

He’s harder to find than most. I have the basis for comparison because I’ve gotten to all of them sooner or later, from the big names to the obscurities. There are some who give up so thoroughly, and disappear so completely, that it’s as if they never existed at all. This guy’s far from the worst.

The story is perhaps more intended for writers of horror than for the general reader so if you are a writer, I recommend it but am a little reluctant in doing so for the more general reader (not that you would dislike it, just that you wouldn’t, you know, love it).

The Old Horror Writer is available to read for free on Nightmare Magazine’s website, now.

Twitter and a Circus of Zombies

The second story, Joe Hill’s Twittering from the Circus of the Dead, was a surprise. It is told as a series of tweets by a teenage girl who is on a road trip with her family. She, being a teenager, would rather be doing most anything other than taking a road trip with her family.

We get to know her and the family through the tweets which were annoying at first, to the point that I was about to skip the story entirely. I would have missed out.

The story turns creepy and then goes into true horror territory. The tweets, annoying at first, turn the story into beats (insert analogy of heart rate to reading speed here) that come faster as the story turns from family vacation into full dread.

I would tell you more about the story, about what happens next but I want you to read it for yourself.

I kid you not; this is the most intense reading I’ve done in a long while. If you are a fan of horror, you should take the time to read this story.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead will be available on the 11th of May on Nightmare’s website but you should just go ahead and buy yourself a copy, now.

Do it.

The Lost

This is a character study more than a horror story but it is a good one at that. It deals with self-destructive behavior on the part of a woman who recently lost her father. She drinks and neglects her own well being. She then starts to literally disappear.

As her fingers turn to skeletal digits and her limbs disappear, she hides herself more instead of seeking help. While this may not sound like the most entertaining of stories, it really is worth your time.

It even reminded me of my own First, Bite Just a Finger.

The Sawing

My least favorite of this month’s stories, The Sawing is about a traveling performance group run by an unpleasant man. The main character, by virtue of being small-statured, gets a job as the woman-in-the-box routine, the one where a woman is sawed in half in front of a crowd.

She takes the job, happy for the extra money but wonders what happened to the one who had the job before her.

It gets stranger but never felt like a horror story to me.

Verdict

This month’s issue of Nightmare is, like most issues, full of goodness. And I haven’t even mentioned the interviews or the artist showcase. It is amazing what just $2.99 will get you (seriously, buy yourself a copy).

$2.99. That’s a dollar less than what a Big Mac costs!

The Paper Menagerie – Book review

You should have read one of Ken Liu’s stories by now. You really should.

Ken-LiuKen Liu is one of the brightest new stars of the science fiction and fantasy fields. He’s won all the awards and had stories in all the main magazines, often reprinted in “Best of” anthologies.

So yeah, you should really have read one of his stories. Not because of the accolades necessarily, but because they’re really good.

Ken recently published a collection of short fiction, The Paper Menagerie, which is named after his most successful story, a story that won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards, the first story to ever win all three.

The story is about a the son of a Chinese woman and an American man. They live in the U.S. and the son is growing distant from his mother. Add a bit of magical realism and you have an amazing heartbreaking story.

Here are the first few paragraphs of The Paper Menagerie:

One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing. I refused to be soothed no matter what Mom and Dad tried.

Dad gave up and left the bedroom, but Mom took me into the kitchen and sat me down at the breakfast table.

Kan, kan,” she said, as she pulled a sheet of wrapping paper from on top of the fridge. For years, Mom carefully sliced open the wrappings around Christmas gifts and saved them on top of the fridge in a thick stack.

She set the paper down, plain side facing up, and began to fold it. I stopped crying and watched her, curious.

She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.

Kan,” she said. “Laohu.” She put her hands down on the table and let go.

A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “Rawrr-sa,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.

Zhe jiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.

I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

Copyright (c) 2011 Ken Liu, first published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, Mar/Apr. 2011.

You can read the rest at io9 now if you want. I’ll wait.

If you don’t read it at io9, you can buy the collection; I can safely say that this one story is worth the price of the book, no matter the cost. Consider the rest of the stories a bonus, though they are no mere fluff.

Indeed, another story in the collection, Mono no aware, is also worth the price of this collection by itself.

Mono no aware is straight science fiction and tells the story of a man aboard the only spaceship in the world, heading to a new home for humans. Interspersed are fragments of his upbringing and family in China (most of the stories in The Paper Menagerie have connections to China) that really pack an emotional punch for the ending.

Even just the cover justifies buying the book and displaying when you have guests over that you want to impress. “That? Oh yeah, that’s Ken Liu’s new collection. You probably haven’t read it.”

The Paper Menagerie book cover

All the stories in the collection are “genre stories”, veering from slight fantasy to hard sci-fi, often with a connection to China. None of them are filler.

This is the strongest single-author collection I’ve read in a good while and I can recommend it to all fans of science fiction at the very least.

Here’s a trick you can pull off to impress that bookish friend you have: buy this collection and put small post-its at the start of The Paper Menagerie and Mono no aware. Gift-wrap the book and give it to said bookish friend and say “I marked two stories I think you’ll really like.”

Then bask in the glow when they call you up and say, clearly wiping away tears, “Those were the most heart-breaking stories I’ve ever read. Thank you.”

His editor, Joe Monti, had the following to say:

“I think it ranks up there with the greatest collections of the field, alongside Le Guin, Butler, and Sturgeon. If you enjoy George Saunders, read Ken Liu.”

The Paper Menagerie is now available on amazon and all bookstores worth anything.

Windowsill Cowboy – Short Story

Here’s a short story I wrote in about 15 minutes at a drink-and-write event that Willona Sloan held at last year’s Reykjavik Literature Festival.

This is what 7 years of writing practice gets you.

Enjoy.

Windowsill Cowboy

Thomas sat on his favorite windowsill in the living room and looked out at the sun set over the cornfields. Daddy and Augusta would be giving the last of the feed to the cows now, and soon the thump thump of Daddy’s boots would sound on the porch.

Thomas watched as a stray wind, lost and alone in the Oklahoma autumn, tossed up a slice of dust and was gone. He picked up the book he had been reading, a science fiction novel about men conquering faraway planets, opened it and continued reading as he waited. The smell of dinner wafted upstairs, bourbon-soaked pork, and he realized his hunger.

He put the book down and looked out again and thought of the horses. His days were spent waiting; waiting to be helped out of bed after he woke up, waiting to be carried to a windowsill after breakfast. Waiting for help with the bathroom. But today was different, special, and Thomas couldn’t concentrate.

Daddy, on the rare occasions he spoke to Thomas, would ask him mostly about the books he was reading. Thomas had found that the more outrageous the story the more interest Daddy paid him. So he read about the spacemen and giant spiders invading New York. Mermaids that stole one-eyed sailors and forced them into an undersea marriage. He would much rather read about cowboys, but Daddy would scoff.

“You can see cowboys out the window, anytime. Why would you read about them?”

Thomas really didn’t see why it had to matter. He could sit on a horse just as he could sit on the sill. It was all he wanted to do. His father had laughed the one time he had dared to ask, a laughter that stung and left a scar. Daddy’s laughter hadn’t just dismissed the notion of Thomas riding a horse, but had dismissed Thomas himself entirely. It wasn’t the idea of Thomas wanting to ride a horse that was funny to him, but Thomas wanting anything at all.

What Daddy didn’t know, however, was that Augusta had promised to get him on a horse today.

“Now, Daddy will beat me if he finds out, so we have to do it when he ain’t at home. Momma can’t know either, she’ll tell Daddy as quick as she can.”

Daddy was going to the city after dinner. He went about three times a year, “for business” but they had gotten wind of what it was he was really doing.

###

That night in the stable, poorly lit by a small oil lamp, Augusta is helping Thomas onto a horse, one of the smaller ones. As she lifts him up she thinks how heavy he’s getting, and that soon she won’t be able to help him, will need to leave him to Daddy.

The look in Thomas’ eyes right now makes this easy, though. Makes him lighter. Makes her sad for time she won’t be able to lift him anymore.

She holds him against the horse, pins him against the saddle, feet dangling useless in the stirrups.

“Let go,” he says. His voice is soft, flying already. “Let go.”

“No,” she says. He’ll fall, she knows this. He’ll fall and get hurt, Mommy will hear them, and then Daddy will know.

But there is a look in Thomas’ eyes.

“Let go,” he says again and before she knows it she has, she’s let go of the reins and let go of Thomas.

The horse trots on, a few slow steps and then picks up the pace, curious as to why it’s been let out, ignoring the frail human on its back. The hooves tap tap on the dusty soil and a scatter of sand rises in a cloud behind them. The horse runs, just a few steps but enough for Thomas to smile, a true smile of happiness and freedom just before he falls.

“No!” he calls, confusing the horse, which stops and turns. Steps on Thomas.

Augusta runs, shoos the horse away and looks down to Thomas. He is laughing, euphoric. His leg is broken, bent at an odd angle but Thomas doesn’t feel it. Can’t feel it.

“Augusta, I did it. Did you see? Did you see me?”

She wipes her cheeks and smiles at him.

“Yeah, Thomas. I did.”

###

Thomas sits in the windowsill and looks out as a wind, full of mischief, tosses up dust and runs off. Daddy wasn’t mad when he found out what they’d done, not like Thomas thought he would be, just disappointed in their recklessness. He carries Thomas between rooms whenever he can now, even when Augusta is around to do it. It’s like their midnight horse-ride awakened in him a respect for his crippled son. The fall off the horse broke a useless leg but it repaired a broken love as well.

Thomas, sitting on the windowsill, closes his eyes and thinks back to those seconds when he was free, when he was flying. And he smiles.

Thoughts after reading Miéville’s This Census-Taker

China Miéville is at the forefront of the “new weird”, but This Census-Taker, while weird, seems like a departure from his other books.

This Census-Taker is a book I liked but find hard to really recommend to others. The most interesting thing about it is the subtle hints to the larger world of his Bas-Lag series and finding and deciphering codes he hides in the book, such as italicized sentences spelling out “You know this” and “This census”.

I don’t know if there are more secrets hidden in the book (I just found those two) or if they are supposed to tell us something but they did take me out of the book when I discovered them.

This Census-Taker

However, there was much I liked in the book, first and foremost being the atmosphere, the sense of dread. The story, as much as This census-taker has a story, is about a boy who sees his father doing something to his mother. He runs down the mountain they live on into the small town nearby. He says his father killed his mother, his father says she simply went away. The boy then tries to come to terms with this new reality.

That’s it, that’s the whole story. But this is a Miéville, so there are layers and strangeness.

Great for people who like that sort of thing, probably not for those who like their books to have actual “stories”.