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Coffee Break No. 25 – Writing, Music and Photography

For the silver anniversary of my Coffee Break series I thought I would share some links that I particularly enjoyed this week. Check ’em out. If they don’t move you, check your pulse, you may be paranormal.

Vivian Maier

At BronxBanterBlog.com is a fantastic post about photography. It’s a baseball blog at heart, but so much more. Host Alex Belth has a keen eye for stuff far outside the lines of the old ball diamond. Like this:

Every once in a while something comes along that is so unbearably tremendous that I can’t help but feel rejuvenated, filled with enthusiasm and faith in the world. Like this story about the guy who found a treasure and is now sharing it with the world.

Bat Segundo interviews Paolo Bacigalupi – I very much enjoyed this podcast. Bacigalupi’s candid answers provided a nice glimpse into his writing process. Here’s a taste:

It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel.

Over at Largehearted Boy, Jeff VanderMeer talks about a music play list that would best accompany his story collection, The Third Bear – There are also links to some free PDF downloads for a story from the book, “The Quickening”,  and reviews of the book.

It’s somewhere between elegy/dirge and celebration, chronicling the strange moments that occur more often than we want to believe. At base, it’s a collection that’s about the search for something beyond what we know…

And finally, over at More Red Ink, editor Marty Halpern discusses many things, but the thing that caught my eye was this post on how flexible e-paper reminded Marty of Paul di Filippo. I include this because I just discovered di Filippo through Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology and just downloaded a StarShipSofa podcast because he was in it.

From Marty’s blog (It’s Marty quoting Harlan Ellison talking about di Filippo):

My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There’s three-quarters of a novel. No, these things are not to be finished by other writers, no matter how good they are. It could be Paul Di Filippo, who is just about the best writer in America, as far as I’m concerned.

See, now you’re smarter.

Favorite Reads of 2010

by Jonathan 3 Comments

This list I am about to roll out is not about books published in 2010, but books that I read in 2010 and enjoyed. Unfortunately I am neither a book reviewer who receives the latest SF and Fantasy titles (on second thought, I don’t think I could manage to review with the intensity and frequency those guys do. They have my utmost respect), nor am I loaded down with disposable income. I receive most of my books as gifts for birthdays, Father’s Day, Christmas, Flag Day, etc.

In most cases, I’ve provided a link to either the publisher, a bookseller, or the author’s page. As a bonus, if you click on the cover of each book, it’ll take you into a magic world of chocolate waterfalls and phantasmagorical nightmares, or, rather,  a review of the book.

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

This was my intro to Mr. Mieville and I have to say that even though I read it almost 12 months ago, the images still stick with me. Mieville drives home some points overly much, but, if anything, adds a bit of charm to the whole thing. This is fantasy clad in weird science fictional robes. I may just have to read it again soon.

The Passage – Justin Cronin

This honker of a book justified the hype that came with  it. Dude raked in over 4 million clams before he had even finished the first book (three book deal and movie rights purchased by Ridley Scott). I literally couldn’t put it down. Have you ever showered with 750 pages of book in your hand? I didn’t think so. Read this and you’ll know what I mean.

Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

This is a late entry. I just finished it a few days ago and am into the next title, Gormenghast. In truth, it was a slow burn, but after Peake sets the table, it’s a smorgasbord of satisfying strangeness. The climax in particular is haunting. What I first thought was dense prose became easy reading. It reminded me of Dickens only more interesting.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

This one also starts a little slow, but holy moly, the book almost caught on fire I was turning the pages so fast. I managed to finish it in record time and then wrapped in a curtain and rolled it around on the floor.  There are things that might turn off some readers, but any story that demands you finish gets my respect.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

I wrote a post on this not long after I finished it. If nothing else, Bacigalupi’s conception of our world in a post-oil era is stunning. But The Windup Girl is so much more than that. I look forward to reading it again.

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

After reading The Difference Engine, I was leery of jumping into this one. Turns out that fear was unnecessary. Powers weaves a potent tale of time travel that starts you out in the dark and gradually draws back the shades. By the end, I was nodding my head and smiling. Very satisfying.

Finch – Jeff VanderMeer

Every time I look at the cover of Finch, I get a little giddy. The whole presentation of the story is superb, from the staccato pulp noir prose to the world-building to the tone. If you like your fiction off-center and a lot weird, this is one for you. If you’re allergic to fungus, get an allergy shot first.


The City and the City – China Mieville

China Mieville almost made this list thrice, but in the end, I did not include The Scar although I enjoyed it very much. I did include The City and The City because of how utterly different it is from Perdido Street Station. Where Perdido Street Station is steeped in Lovecraftian weirdness, The City is much more subtle. It is a police procedural, but like Finch, there is a fantastic element to it that revolves around two cities whose edges overlap in some strange extradimensional way.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I include the whole series here because you have to read all four books or you’ll be left wondering, “WTF did I just read?” if you don’t (you might still think that after reading all four books, but at least there’s closure). Gene Wolfe has a way with words. Like Mervyn Peake, once you get into the swing of things, these books read at a nice pace. The way Wolfe weaves everything together is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the series. Get your dying earth on with Severian (the protag). Can’t remember which author said it, but after they read this series they thought, “I didn’t know you could write fantasy like that.”

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Stark, moving, horrific at times, haunting at others. Frankly, any of the Cormac McCarthy books I read this year could be on this list (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and this one). The man knows how to turn a phrase for maximum effect and he has a knack for cutting to the heart of so many of the things we think about every day.  If you have children, it’s even better.

There you have it. If you haven’t some of these, check ’em out. Hope your 2011 is filled with words, whether you are reading or writing.



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A noir thriller/visionary fantasy set in the failed state of Ambergris, 100 years after Shriek: An Afterword. The gray caps, mysterious underground inhabitants, have re-conquered Ambergris and put the city under martial law, disbanding House Hoegbotton, and controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, martial law is in place, the gray caps are using human labor to build two strange towers. Against this backdrop, John Finch, who lives alone with a cat and a lizard, must solve an impossible double murder for his gray cap masters while trying to make contact with the rebels.

Nothing is as it seems as Finch and his disintegrating partner Wyte negotiate their way through the landscape of spies, rebels, and deception. Trapped by his job and the city, Finch is about to come face to face with a series of mysteries that will change him and Ambergris forever.

The cat and the lizard watch intently. Something is about to happen. And they both want to know: who is Finch, really?

At the heart of Finch lies a detective story. But like the city of Ambergris, in which Finch is set, the story is encrusted with layers of history and deception and flat-out weirdness. Oh yeah, and all manner of fungus, too.

I’ve been following Finch and its author Jeff VanderMeer since I got wind of the book. From video interviews, blog interviews, book reading videos and VanderMeer’s blog I got the impression that Finch would be not only novel (heh), but also layered and complex. Even though I usually try to dial down my expectations for books, I convinced myself that Finch would be a book I would love. The cover alone offered promises of grim weirdness and surreality draped over the familiar noir detective novel.

As I began reading, I realized I was waiting for my expectations to be dashed even though I found the story compelling and the writing superb. I worried for no good reason. Finch worked for me from start to finish. Even in those moments where I wondered what was going on, I reveled in my ignorance of things and the let the story explode into my brain the like the spores that have infected Finch’s partner.

There is an overlay of grim despair on Finch, Ambergris, pretty much everyone and everything in the story. Even so, Finch plods forward to unravel the mysteries of his past and the double homicide.

Along with the cast of human and humanoid characters, Ambergris the city shines as a character. Brilliant fungi in countless forms cover the city. Some are just fungi, but some function as spy cameras or dispensers of some kind of opiate to calm the masses. VanderMeer does a great job of keeping the boot of Ambergris’s humid fetor on your neck throughout the story:

Finch’s apartment was near the end of the hall. Had to negotiate a hothouse wetness to get there. Tendrils and caps of red-and-green fungus sprouted from the walls. Gray caps only cared about keeping the streets clean. No help from his next-door neighbors, either. Almost like they thought it gave them camouflage.

Fungus of all hues infiltrates the city, the story, the characters and your mind:

Fungal Beauty by Hawk Alfredson

In the apartment, the bodies lay much as before. Except that each had sprouted a thick, emerald-green stalk topped by a nodule. The detectives called them memory bulbs. No one could pronounce what the gray caps called them. Sounded like a word between loam and leer. An aqua-colored nodule for the man. Bright orange for the gray cap.


A spotlight of lavender and crimson painted itself across the far wall of his apartment, then leapt away. Once, Finch had seen a shoal of spores take the form of a huge, bloated green monster. Spiraling red eyes. It had bellowed and dived into a neighborhood to the north. Smashed itself into motes against the ground.

My only complaint was that I hadn’t read Shriek: An Afterword or City of Saints and Madmen before reading Finch. Not because I needed them to understand Finch, but because I felt like a newcomer to a cool, underground party that had been going on for hours without me. I shall remedy that as soon as I can.

Do yourself a favor: Read Finch. If you like noir detective stories you’ll recognize the underpinnings, but your mind will be significantly stretched by the time you finish this. If you’re not a big detective story kind of person, there’s more than enough in Finch to fascinate.