Tuesday, October 12, 2021

First Impressions by Glen Engel-Cox

I've read book reviews by Glen Engel-Cox for a long time, as I find him an interesting critic who expresses himself quite nicely, and one with whom I share a fair number of author-interests. Now comes a supersized (500 oversized pages) collection a lot of the reviews, titled First Impressions (2021). The book's subtitle notes he has been "Dancing about Literature since 1986," though the bulk of the reviews date from the decade of the 1990s, after which the number of books reviewed drops considerably. 

Reading (or rereading) reviews of favorite authors do bring insights, and recommendations for other books I haven't read. Besides masters like Borges and John Crowley, Engel-Cox has a taste for quirky modern fantasists like Jonathan Carroll, Graham Joyce, William Browning Spencer, Tim Powers, James Morrow, and many others. But his praise is not unconditional, and flaws are pointed out and discussed. And Engel-Cox does single out books that he expected to like more but in the end found disappointing. I certainly agree with him on Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint,  Edward Whittemore's Sinai Tapestry and even the supposed classic anthology, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison.  

Of course the real value of this book is in the descriptions of books I haven't read that the reviewer found especially worthwhile. So I'm making yet another list of books to read, or to acquire (if I don't already have them). And I look forward to some worthwhile reading. I do hope Engel-Cox will do a follow-up volume, covering more thoroughly the speculative fiction of the 2010s. I wonder if he feels the heavy disappointment I have found in a great many of the supposed standout books of the modern era.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Another ho-hum short modern fantasy that seems designed to tick off various qualities of virtue-signalling. Asian-styled setting. Check.  Character who uses the (annoying) ungrammatical single they/their pronouns.  Check. The publisher's blurb on the rear calls the book "feminist high fantasy" (debatable, on both points) and "an indictment of monarchy" (ditto). Etc. What's left? A thin story of an empress's revenge, played out over years.  The blurbs on the rear by other writers are delusional: "An elegant gut punch" Seanan McGuire; "a small, masterful jewel" Aliette de Bodard; "Glorious, beautifully written"  Kate Elliott.  The book is not dreadful; it's just not very good.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Wally the Wordworm by Clifton Fadiman

A slim children's book by the well-known bookman Clifton Fadiman, first published in 1964. Fadiman wrote it because he hated children's books that limited their vocabulary to words supposedly suitable for children. He found words fun--they opened up new worlds, new meanings, and new feelings, things which should be encouraged in children. Thus the tale of Wally the Wordworm, an explorer who eats his way through odd words in a dictionary. It's a clever and amusing contrast to the many modern books of a less ambitious nature. 



Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Web by John Wyndham

John Wyndham is one of those authors that I would expect to like but don't. British and dour, hopeful and initially optimistic, are qualities in the right direction, but a classic like The Day of the Triffids left me cold. The reason?  Because Wyndham underplayed the interesting overarching plot and centered on a small boring group of survivalists. I've been tempted for years to read his final novel, Web, which went unpublished until a decade after his death in 1969. In the mid-1960s he had tried to get a co-author for it, but when he would explain that it was about "giant spiders" it turned off potential collaborators like Brian Aldiss. I started the novel but saw Wyndham's typical dullnesses quickly begin to emerge. Instead of abandoning it completely, I found another option. In 1991 it was retold by Jocelyn Potter and Andy Hopkins in a much truncated version designed for "upper intermediate" young readers. Thus in about fifty small pages I could get the plot and feeling of the novel of some 180+ pages, with much less suffering.  I'm glad I did this, for it satisfied my curiosity about the book in one sitting and I didn't have to slog through extended passages of Wyndham's weaknesses. In this small form it's kind of like a Twilight Zone episode--dated, with dull characters on a serious mission, who encounter malevolent spiders on a remote south seas isle, and with the expected stinger in the tail. Good for a short entertainment, but not for anything more.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper

I recently saw two films that were co-written and co-directed by Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley:  Like Cattle Towards Glow (2015) and  Permanent Green Light (2018), and I realized that I've never read anything by Cooper, who is primarily known as a fiction writer. So I looked around a bit, and thought I'd try The Sluts (2004). After reading the book, I was surprised by how accurate the blurb on the rear cover is as regards the set-up of the book: "Set largely on the pages of a Web site where gay male escorts are reviewed by their clients, and told through the postings, e-mails, and conversations of several dozen unreliable narrators, The Sluts chronicles the evolution of one young escort's date with a satisfied client into a metafiction of pornography, lies, half-truths, and myth." What this doesn't hint at is how violent much of the book is. S&M is mild compared to the extended discussions of snuff films and the extreme torture played out on the supposedly willing underage street prostitutes. The book is basically torture-porn, with a bit of a plot. Neither the subject matter nor the technique of this book interests me, so I think I'm done with Dennis Cooper.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Every year or so I feel I ought to try some new poet, and this year I decided to try the slim "first full-length collection" by Ocean Vuong, with the intriguing title Night Sky with Exit Wounds. It came out in 2016, and my copy is an undated fourth printing, so it's evidently been successful, as far as poetry goes. But sadly the book's best moment is the title itself. The rest is drivel, all moments and thoughts very personal to the author, but of little interest for anyone else. So, thirty-five poems spaciously spread over eighty-five pages in a slim book, and it really was a waste of time. A perfect exemplar of why the audience for modern poetry gets smaller and smaller.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker

Prosper's Demon is a novella by K.J. Parker, a pseudonym of Tom Holt. It is the tale of a mortal exorcist fighting possessions by immortal demons, in a quasi-medieval setting. The exorcist discovers that the famous self-proclaimed scientific genius, Prosper of Schanz, is possessed by a demon, and the exorcist begins a forbidden collaboration with the demon, seeming to aid the demon's long-term plans because they will outlast the exorcist. The dual between the two is clever, but the story is only moderately successful, and the ending is rather rushed. Prosper's Demon is  darker in ways than the other books by Tom Holt that I've read.