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Review: On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On Stranger Tides is one of the most purely fun books I’ve ever read. Published in 1987, it’s difficult, in hindsight, not to imagine On Stranger Tides being an unacknowledged inspiration for the entire Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise—despite Disney having only bought the rights to the novel in 2009 and apparently only plundered it (pun intended) as the loose basis for the fourth installment. We shall have to take them at their word.

Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories aside, Tim Powers is a mad genius who, if there were any real justice in this world, should be much better known. Mr Powers has created some of the most unique fantastic fiction in several genres and is one of the key progenitors of what we think of as steampunk today, through his seminal 1983 novel The Anubis Gates.

In On Stranger Tides Mr Powers manages to refresh the incredibly tired clichés of pirate stories through the layering of a wild palimpsest of real sixteenth century pirate history with voudoun ritual & afro-Caribbean folklore, tangled familial & criminal intrigue, taut thrill-filled action, love story & comedy, and full-on supernatural horror.

It’s this last element that really elevates the book. Mr Powers shades in the background of his rousing high-seas adventure with a system of magic based equally in the psychological histories of its wielders & victims as in a deep, fathomless (pun intended) supernatural other-world of shadowy semi-human spirits. He drags his characters through frightening scenes of violence and hardship during which they drift between the real world, supernaturally altered states or other dimensions and psychologically traumatic scenes of their own past.

And in all these scenes he describes highly original and creepily perverse depictions of undead apparitions and weird creatures. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say I’ll never look at tree fungus the same way again.

My minor complaint is that the only real female character, Beth, is a bit thinly drawn, as she disappears off the page for long stretches. However, this marginalization is a largely necessary side effect of the plot. In the end, the character of Beth becomes key in an interesting and unanticipated way (at least by me, but maybe sharper readers would see it coming…the hints are there).

In fact, the novel pays off all of its incredibly dense plotting in such a satisfyingly clockwork manner by the conclusion, that I’m a little jealous of Mr Powers’ ability to successfully wrangle all the concepts he’s jammed into this book.

Hollywood, please take note: big fun doesn’t have to exist in the absence of big ideas.

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear”

For a couple years now, Neil Gaiman (rock-star writer of fantasktika and virtually his own internet meme) has been promoting the concept of turning Halloween into a gift-giving holiday. This year a Twitter campaign has been launched with his participation as All Hallows Read.

I think this is a really wonderful idea. As Mr. Gaiman has alluded to previously, there are no existing holidays that are explicitly about giving a book—despite how often some of my friends and family get books from me on other holidays. And Halloween is the ideal time for story telling. I have an early school memory—grade two or three—of a substitute teacher doing a reading to a small group of us around Halloween. Maybe six of us sat cross-legged in a semi-circle around her in a small room off the main classroom. She went all out and dimmed the overhead lights and held a flashlight under her chin. She read The Tell-Tale Heart to us and I’ve been a lifelong fan of Poe ever since. I wish I could remember her name and could tell her what a difference that simple act of sharing a good story made to me.

So, in the spirit of All Hallows Read, I’d like to make a general suggestion for what is quickly becoming a little known spooky book: The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson.

Borderland was published in 1908 and was very influential on writers such as H.P. Lovecraft who would go on to lay the foundation of the contemporary genres of horror, science-fiction and fantasy—weird stories. Lovecraft gave Hodgson special regard in his groundbreaking essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. He describes Hodgson’s unique skills in terms of his ability to convey ”…vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life…” H.P.L. singles out Borderland in particular as perhaps Hodgson’s best book. The influence of Borderland on Lovecraft’s work is undeniable.

What makes the book really special to the reader today is its casual disregard for what we now see as the boundaries of sub-genres. Hodgson was writing in a period before people began making clear distinctions between SF, fantasy and horror. To the modern reader, Borderland is a wild mix of survival horror, alien invasion SF, contagion & body transformation horror and a kind of new age spirituality involving astral projection. All of these seemingly disparate elements mesh better than one might expect. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.

And in the spirit of Halloween, The House on the Borderland is genuinely creepy. In particular, the siege and survival horror parts of the story, which begin early in the novel, still posses considerable power to freak us out. Later, when the story detours into bizarre, disease-based body transformation, the book becomes truly unsettling and darkly doom-laden.

The House on the Borderland is unlike almost any other work of horror or dark fantasy and holds great rewards for the adventurous reader. Just writing about it makes me want to dig out my copy and curl up next to the fireplace and get lost in Hodgson’s supremely eerie world again.

“Illusion is the first of all pleasures”

I realize that this post is wholly unrelated to books, bookselling or any of my usual topics, but it’s my blog, so I’m going to indulge myself.

The picture at the top is my first experiment in tilt-shift photography, and I’m rather pleased with the results. It’s based on some photos I took from our hotel room on our trip to Newfoundland—part of the harbour and Signal Hill. I followed this excellent tutorial as closely as possible. But, my weapon of choice was GIMP, which is a fantastic opensource version of Photoshop. This caused a few early difficulties in trying to identify the equivalent GIMP tools to the Photoshop versions used in the tutorial.

I’ve long been enamored with tilt-shift effects, having first seen them in use on a photo of, I think, the Bronx at deviantART. Something about the way a real scene can be made to resemble a set of models appeals to me strongly. It reminds me of a visit when I was quite young to a family friend who was a model train enthusiast. His work was incredible. He actually designed workshop tools to produce specific parts of his train setup—such as a custom saw to make tiny wooden shingles. When I visited him, he had recently taken up Super 8 film. He had mounted cameras on his train and was experimenting to create short scenes that looked, as much as possible, like they were filmed from a real train passing through a mountain village and surrounds.

I’m not sure why these things resonate with me: both the illusion of reality in miniature and the reduction of the real to something with imaginary boundaries of scale.

Anyway, just to stick to the overall theme of the blog, here’s a link to the Miniature Book Society. I like those too.

31st Annual Ottawa Antiquarian Book Fair

Sunday October 16th of this year will be the 31st Annual Ottawa Antiquarian Book Fair:

Cornell Booksellers will not be mounting a display, but we will be attending to assist the excellent Bytown Bookshop with their table. (And I may sneak in a couple of choice books in the lining of my trench, Times Square style.)

Hope we’ll see you there!

Review: Carmilla

Carmilla
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve spent some time now staring at my screen wondering what to rate this book. The four stars I’ve given it seem excessive for a book this slight, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Does Goodreads require a new system with half-stars or am I getting hopelessly pedantic about something I’m not getting paid to do? (The correct answer is: “yes” to both.)

Star ratings aside, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in vampires or Victorian Goth. Published 25 years prior to Stoker’s masterpiece, to call Carmilla an influence is an understatement. Stoker lifted elements of Carmilla wholesale: Central European castles & ruins, a menacing coachman, a man of action a victim’s relative and an eccentric old expert banning together to finish off the beast—and more. Carmilla is also presented as the notes of a Doctor who is an expert in the occult, but these kinds of framing devices were common to many Victorian gothics.

And here’s the point where I wish I had more expertise in Victorian lit. Some of the elements of Carmilla—particularly the use of multiple, jarringly easy anagrams along the lines of “Alucard” from a hokey Universal monster pic—throw the modern reader (by which I guess I mean me) right out of the flow of the narrative. The anagrams almost seem like satire now—Monty Python-esque. Was Le Fanu poking a little fun at the concept of the gothic story? I tend to favour that interpretation because the climatic scenes of true horror in the story are well written, but almost perfunctory. Le Fanu lavishes much more time on the scenes of (largely suggested but visceral) lesbianism and doomed affection between the young female leads. These scenes are so atmospheric and effective—sensual, yet creepy—that they become the whole raison d’être of the book.

Stoker lifted a number of story components from Carmilla, but was more interested in the horrific elements of the vampire mythos. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dracula, but, in part, Carmilla seems more contemporary in its lush romanticism. Le Fanu understood the appeal of the sexy, doomed “children-of-the-night” in a more direct way than Stoker. Most of Carmilla wouldn’t be too out of place in a contemporary anthology of urban fantasy or vampire-romance stories; except that Le Fanu’s atmospherics are more resonant than any dozen vampire-lit toss-offs on the shelves today.

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Review: The Dylan Dog Case Files

The Dylan Dog Case Files
The Dylan Dog Case Files by Tiziano Sclavi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Umberto Eco says something like “I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for several days without being bored.” I can’t resist picking up the comic book in question. This is how I found myself reading an Italian horror comic in translation. Dylan Dog is steeped in media influences and was the inspiration for cult classic horror film The Cemetary Man. The palimpsest quality of the comic is probably one of the main attractions for Eco—our beloved semiotics teacher: the hero is Rupert Everett lookalike; the first story is named after Romero’s legendary films; the hero lives on Craven street; his superior is named after Robert Bloch; his sidekick is a Groucho Marx impersonator; and on and on. The art and pacing is also steeped in giallo style. But rather than feeling derivative, Dylan Dog is a unique expereince. It’s frequent humour is sometimes opaque or clumsy—but that’s quite possibly the quality of the translation, so I can’t really deduct points for that. What stands out though are the very effective bits of tension and horror. Dylan Dog manages to be something much more than the sum of its many Frankenstein’s monster-style parts. The references fall aside during its best moments and Dylan Dog becomes quite engrossing. The overall effect is sureal and unhinged in the best way.

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Review: The Strain

The Strain
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wholly unoriginal, but such a deft pastiche of various sources—Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Del Toro’s own Blade II and others—that The Strain stands out in the crowded vampire-book market. The prose is a little clunky in spots, which I suspect has to do with the duel authors involved. Certain passages bear the unmistakable flavour of Del Toro’s lyricism—best represented in Pan’s Labyrinth—while others are standard jargon and slang-filled pedestrian thriller-speak (which I have to assume are the work of Chuck Hogan). Here’s the thing though: these opposing styles mesh (awkwardly at first) into a highly entertaining whole. The ancient-seeming vampiric supernatural myth forced into a very twenty-first century framework of terrorism, contagion and post-9/11 paranoid conspiracy. One of the aspects of the book that really worked for me was simply spotting all of Del Toro’s pet obsessions: folk tales and oral history, children in peril, dark underground spaces (and specifically subways), disease and transformation, autopsies, blue collar and white-collar heroes finding common ground, secretive assassins/strike teams and baroque weapons. All of these elements can be found in Del Toro’s movies—from Mimic to Hellboy II—and all feature prominently in The Strain. For me, a true auteur or artist is revealed through his or her obsessive revisiting of themes and motifs. I thoroughly enjoy following Del Toro’s process of working out how and why these things obsess him—whether in movies or on the page.

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CAN-CON 2011

Once more unto the breach, dear friends: Cornell Booksellers will be stationed in the dealer’s room of CAN-CON 2011 next weekend from September 9th to the 11th at the Travelodge Ottawa Hotel & Conference Centre, 1376 Carling Avenue. Please come down and say hello and buy a book. Please.

CAN-CON is a small local convention that has an impressive past and seems to be building momentum again after a brief hiatus. We’re really excited about the opportunity to attend a convention in our own hometown and hope that this is the first of many.

Gang aft agley…

Life affords many opportunities to learn from your mistakes and we certainly learned some valuable lessons on the 14th about organizing a book sale. Taken as a whole, the sale was fairly successful ( at least on a personal level I did better than break-even),  almost against all odds.

To begin with, the weather was bad for a sale: heavy rain and windy—like most of this lovely Spring in the Ottawa Valley—killing much potential walk-in traffic. Next, the venue double-booked us with a class of Vets with Parkinson’s disease (lovely people), which made our start time over an hour late—frustrating a large number of first-in-line book lovers (whom I apologize to profusely).  Finally, our bartender arrived very late and left early—putting the final lie to the “beer & a bratwurst” portion of the program.

Mistakes were made.

However, I had a great time, and I hope the other participants who joined us enjoyed themselves as well. I met some very nice people from the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, who had a display of wonderful hand-pressed and hand-bound books and art books and papercraft. I would highly reccomend checking out their show in June:

The Future of the Book: The 2011 CBBAG Book Arts Show and Sale
hosted by the CBBAG Ottawa Valley Chapter
Saturday, 11 June 2011, from 10.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington St., Ottawa, Ontario

I also had a nice chat with Mr. Nigel Beale and would recommend you check out his latest endeavour The Literary Tourist. Nigel has purchased the The Book Hunter Press and has been developing an excellent online component to the printed guides. I wish him great success in this very worthwhile project.

So, will Richard and I actually make this thing an annual event as advertised? Stay tuned…

…but don’t expect any more talk of brats…

Books & Beer Sale

We’re still pleased to announce that Cornellbooksellers.com will be once again teaming-up with the Bytown Bookshop for an event on May 14th, but due to unforeseen circumstances there is a slight change in the program:

No brats, but all else remains the same. Thanks for your attention and carry on.