Book Reviews by Michael Matheson

Crimewave 12: Hurts

Crimewave 12: Hurts cover

You know, I keep referring to Crimewave as an anthology series when I talk about it elsewhere—and because of the way it’s put together I’m going to discuss it analytically as though it were an anthology—though it’s technically a magazine. The truth of the matter is that it falls somewhere between the two states. Much as its stories are wont to do: crime, mystery fiction, the occasional supernatural piece, all doing their damnedest to defy direct classification. Instead, Crimewave is composed of stories that are decidedly more interested in just telling a good story.

And in that effort the latest volume of Crimewave—Crimewave 12: Hurts, edited by Andy Cox—succeeds, in really rather spectacular fashion.

Granted, there are some stories that aren’t holding their own alongside the better pieces in the issue. But they’re few in number, and don’t hurt the whole overmuch. The more interesting dichotomy is the distinct split between pieces that provide closure and those that end prior to, or without, resolution. Indeed, in many ways, Crimewave 12: Hurts is a volume of anticipations.

This issue of Crimewave leaves one feeling always on the edge of something; always seizing one’s breath, and forever holding it. And, ultimately, the stories on display here that court a firm resolution are somewhat stronger in tone and execution, though all of the stories linger in their own respects. And some of the best stories in the issue are among the longest, allowing them to explore fully the dissolution—of lives, of relationships, of self—that they cover.

Moreso than a direct adherence to one particular genre, that sense of wounding, of loss, is what is pre-eminent in the aptly named Crimewave 12: Hurts. And in that territory there’s a lot of thematic...

Annihilation (Book 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

I feel compelled to point out, up front, that Annihilation, the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, & Acceptance; all to be released over the course of 2014) is an absolutely fucking brilliant book. Really, one expects no less from Jeff VanderMeer at this point, but still. And, yes, I’m being a bit of a bastard by pointing this out at least two months before you can pick up a copy of the book yourselves. Which you will absolutely want to do the moment this book becomes available.

Now, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you need no introduction to Jeff VanderMeer’s work. On the off chance you have for some reason not already been exposed to VanderMeer’s oeuvre, then you’ve clearly been trying very hard to avoid the man’s prolific output, across both fiction and non-fiction. You should correct that immediately. Here, have a link to his (mostly up-to-date) Wikipedia page: We’ll be here when you come back.

As those of you who did not have to wander off into the vast digressions of the internet’s larger sprawl (and for those just returning: welcome back) already know, VanderMeer’s work is largely concerned with perception, transmutation, and revelation. His projects are generally shaped by the use of fascinating, story-appropriate voice, a beautiful, malleable prose style, and an adroit hand for characterization. Annihilation follows in those larger traditions, and touches on concepts similar, primarily, to VanderMeer’s work in relation to his Ambergris narratives, up to and including both societal and personal dissolution, the numinous and Cosmic(ally Weird) represented both large scale and in...

Dying Is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann

Dying Is My Business

Dying Is My Business is an immensely enjoyable book. In spite of its flaws, which are owing to a number of different causes.

But it is, nonetheless, a book I’m comfortable suggesting you pick up a copy of. And that has a great deal to do with the fact that Nicholas Kaufmann is an excellent writer. And there are a great many things I like about the book: Nick is very good at creating reader investment, he’s got an excellent handle on grounded worldbuilding (barring some consistency issues, without which the narrative doesn’t work, so…), and he has a flair for writing character.

Specifically characters like Trent, the book’s protagonist. An amnesiac who can’t stay dead. It’s a good basis for the series: a fun hook that immediately creates a sense of mystery and engagement. One wants to know, just as much as Trent does, why and how this is the case. Though Trent’s concerns also run more immediately to figuring out who he is. But, taken in combination, all of those concerns also allow for a gradually widening spiral of introduced worldbuilding elements. And Nick has incorporated some very good material into the book in that regard:

An elemental system out of balance; a world where taking magic directly into oneself leads to Infection and alteration; where effective castes of magic are relegated to the ages of the world (relatively speaking, it’s a little more complex than that), with magic operating differently for those who are older, non-human entities. And a consistent refrain of “stand up and be counted/it’s your duty to fight the encroaching dark,” delivered, albeit, too bluntly. Actually, Dying Is My Business is, in many ways, an unsubtle book. Despite that, though, it’s still an interesting trajectory, and an excellent look at a New York...

Deep Down by Deborah Coates

Writing grief properly is a difficult proposition. Real pathos is about minutiae: about the conservation of words; about the layering of effect and affect; about the subtlety of the external and the wide, broken aching of the inner. Writing rural fiction, too, takes patience and a different understanding of the world than most urban writers ever manage a feel for. Writing about the kind of wide open spaces that tower in slow rolls of cloud and a vastness inside and out–about a sense of space so wide and so lonely it just keeps going forever–and writing it true. Well, that takes something special.

Deborah Coates has done both. And done it with an extraordinary understanding of character, family, and loss. It’s not so very far from Vast to Vastation. And Coates captures both eloquently. And with a highly honed and sparse prose style that one does not often find in a novelist only two books in.

Deep Down follows Coates’s first novel (and the first novel in her ongoing series of which these two books are a part), Wide Open. Both are absolutely gorgeous reads. Coates knows her characters as she knows her landscape, and locus too is a powerful character in both novels. Coates also has a most enviable gift for control and precision in her writing.

And though it follows her first book, Deep Down, is a quieter outing. Her characters are a little hardened in some ways. A little softened in others. Rougher edges here and there, but with the same core of wanting to make the hurting stop, and the rest of the world fall together.

Interestingly, Coates’s writing has, if anything, gotten only more potent with her second novel. Still honed, but sharper. It cuts deeper. And that alone would have made it excellent. But Coates has done something very...

Bel Dame Apocrypha

Serious as a fucking heart attack, Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha books (God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture) are a bold, brutal sojourn through blood-soaked streets, war-torn countries, and the battered maps of her characters’ lives, bodies and proverbial souls. And ladies and gents, this series is a god-damned masterpiece.

Set on the (incompletely) re-engineered planet Umayma, Hurley’s science fiction trilogy (with some framework and structural elements borrowed from fantasy, including many of the worldbuilding aspects) is about broken people, broken countries, a multi-centuries-long war, the military-industrial complex that has grown up around that war, political intrigue (ranging in various forms and intersecting plots and machinations that interweave over the course of the three books), the realities of race-relations, state-wide persecution of perceived aberrations (shapeshifters), bug-derived biotechnology, magicians reliant on the mutant bug strains littering the half-formed world, a desert world slowly working to reclaim itself from an invasive species (humans), religious ideology and religious fanaticism, and millennia-old machinations still at work in the world that Hurley rolls out in slow reveal over the course of the series. And at this story’s heart is one woman: Nyx (nissa so Dasheem).

Make no mistake, all three books use roving perspectives to excellent effect, giving all of the central and secondary characters fully three-dimensional roles in the books, especially Rhys, and from book two on Inaya as well. And that is due to Hurley’s willingness to craft a three-book arc that takes place over nearly a score of years, allowing all of the characters (those who survive from book to book) to experience personal growth and highly...

Kendare Blake Double Review

With her duology of Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares, Kendare Blake has created an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive portrayal of how, and why, the dead maintain their hold on the living, literally and figuratively. It doesn’t hurt that Blake has crafted a deeply appealing YA love story in the process.

These are the kind of books that will appeal immensely to fans of Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and the first couple of seasons of Supernatural (when the Monster of the Week episodes were more frequent, and the show was still striking that beautiful balance between being dark and creepy, and being deliciously, totally inappropriately funny). These books will also appeal immensely to fans of McBride’s work and the Supernatural series because, like those stories, at its core Blake’s duology is all about family.

The story of Anna Dressed in Blood, and the events that grow out of it in Girl of Nightmares, begins with (Theseus) Cas(sio) Lowood. Cas kills the dead, moving from town to town with his mother (a practicing witch), so, naturally, Cas falls in love, hard, with a girl who’s already dead—a girl who was murdered long before Cas was even born. It’s a deceptively simply premise, because the two novels that frame that love story are so much larger than just that central conceit.

Built around a painful story of first, and real, love, is the story of a child haunted by the death of his father, unable, or unwilling, to form connections with the world around him for fear of losing those relationships as well. It’s a story of personal growth, told in achingly real terms by an outsider who is still very much a teenager. And here is where this book succeeds in its YA vein: Cas is a teenager trying very hard to grow...

Dark Duet

Dark Duet, a collaborative collection of poetry from Linda D. Addison and Stephen M. Wilson, is an exquisite work of interwoven voices blending seamlessly into something greater than the whole of their already excellent parts. Creating narrative through harmony and discord, call and response spirals of imagery and prose, and poems both new and culled from other sources, Dark Duet is an extraordinary achievement.

Collaborative poetry is not, by any stretch of the imagination, new, but this is something else entirely. Dark Duet is a full orchestration produced by two highly accomplished voices moving through a symphony of words and ideas to a gradual crescendo. Indeed, musical terms may well be the best way to describe what Dark Duet actually manages, especially given the names of the sections: “Prologue,” “Bel Canto,” “Libretto,” “Aria,” and “Coda.”

The themes that underscore the text are beautifully arranged (and are discussed below without naming the poems themselves because those, too, should be experienced in the process of reading the work itself), and form a delicious symphonic framework:

Dark Duet begins almost tremulously. But this is as the first tentative notes of a complex and masterful symphony. Pianissimo flourishes and swift pieces give way to the first direct duet, which in turn leads quickly into the “Bel Canto” section. “Bel Canto,” too, is a gradual crescendo: an awakening of elements and additional instruments for Addison and Wilson to draw music from: music by turns tender and brutal. The themes in “Bel Canto” begin broad and work their way from the external to the internal, and intimate: the sublime, and sublimely dark. Want and need, both of the soul and of the flesh, come to the fore, all in call and response,...

Marrowbones, Issue 1

Six parts whimsy mixed with a dash of humour and a healthy dollop of dreamlike disjointed light horror-fantasy, Eric Orchard’s comic book Marrowbones is an absolute delight.

In the first issue of Orchard’s seemingly Edward Gorey-inspired romp through a lovingly weird supernatural swamp world and its denizens we meet our occasionally-rapier-wielding heroine Nora, as well as her uncle Barnaby Ravensbeard (the werewolf who runs the “Ravensbeard Inn, deep in the Marrowbones Swamp where it’s always October and always evening” that is the focal point for our swamp adventures), a vampire named Ollie, a ghost named Mrs. Strumm, and our faithful narrator the Librarian (who is somewhat dead). Not to mention some unruly characters (none of whom are actually evil) including a kitchen lich, a small army of dough zombies, the Gord Brothers, and the only characters in the volume who actually are evil: the proprietors and staff of The Hillgrove School of Haunted Children, “[a]n institution dedicated to disenchanting children.”

Orchard’s first volume of Marrowbones begins with the abandonment of Nora by her parents to Hillgrove School, her subsequent rescue by her uncle via the Gord Brothers, and her ensconcement in the Ravensbeard Inn. All of which is preamble to the tale told in the first volume concerning a wayward (mostly) kitchen lich, and his culinary animations. Since there is no true malice in the world of Marrowbones (save that of the external world and its forced disbelief in the numinous) the troubles of the tale are solved comfortably through deus ex machina means and a reinforcement of the notion that those who care for us will come to aid us in our time of need. Frankly, I have no problem with that message, especially since in this case...

The Hollow City

Dan Wells' The Hollow City is something of an oddity. The novel should work, except it doesn't. The Hollow City follows in the tradition of the kind of stories The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery used to run. And the construction of the story mimics the structure those programs commonly employed: an interesting premise that plays off the audience's uncertainty, keeps the audience guessing during the build-up, and then dumps the reveal in the audience's lap at the close.

So, why doesn't the novel work where the stories told in those programs did? It actually has a lot to do with structure. Television writing and novel writing are, pretty obviously, quite different, and they require a different approach to storytelling. What worked very well in the aforementioned programs doesn't generally lend itself to the requirements of a novel. We never needed deep character build-up in The Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, or Night Gallery. Most of the characters were sketches, and the focus was on the mystery. In Wells' novel, the reverse is true: we have a story that focuses almost entirely on the main character at the expense of the mystery. It's a reversal of structure that ultimately doesn't work out well, though it probably would with a better balance.

The premise of The Hollow City is actually fairly straightforward: Michael Shipman is crazy—or so the government, his family, and the various levels of institutional clinicians he has to deal with, tell him—because Shipman sees faceless people and the world says they don't exist. In an extraordinarily bad bit of timing, Shipman's ongoing psychosis and latest hospitalization happen to coincide with a serial murderer killing people and removing their faces. So, of course, the...

Poe's Lighthouse

Perfection is a rare quality in an anthology. But even coming back to Poe's Lighthouse in its Wicker Park Press re-release (it was originally put out in limited edition by Cemetery Dance Publications back in 2006), Christopher Conlon's startlingly diverse homage to the works of Poe—using an exploration of Poe's (in)famously unfinished "Lighthouse" fragment as the crux (literal or figurative at the choice of the author) of each story—is still unabashedly pitch-perfect.

And that has as much to do with the calibre of Conlon's work as an anthologist as it does the quality of the stories themselves.

Take the nuanced progression of the stories: from past to present, to present surreal, straight on through to futures possible, the organization of the anthology itself forms a distinct and lyrical narrative. In so doing, Poe's Lighthouse acts as a conversation between writer and Poe, between writer and reader, and between idea and reader, all of this accomplished through framework alone. And what happens once we look at the stories individually is even more astonishing:

Each is nothing less than the primal beauty of iterative interpretation at play.

Because of the finesse of the writers involved, Poe's Lighthouse is exquisite in both scope and execution. Conlon gave the invited authors the choice of working from either the full text (several fictional journal entries) of Poe's unfinished piece, or simply using the ideas as a starting point. Both approaches have been used here to varying degrees, and no two stories are exactly the same. Indeed, the works in Poe's Lighthouse are, by turns, direct homages, wild and free interpretations, and superb blends of the two extremes, producing stories that rove between the horrific, the humorous,...