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If there’s any justice in the world, someday these books will have the recognition they deserve. To be fair, some are already hugely popular in certain parts of the world, so maybe this post should be called “Books I’m surprised the Whole World isn’t talking about”.

Would love to know if you’ve ever hear of/read any of them.

Alphabetically:

1. A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson (USA)

At the yearly Book Fair here in Brussels I always buy a couple of mavericks. A Short History of a Small Place was my 2007 blind date but it quickly became one of the best of the year. I may have been easy to please because of my soft spot for Southern Literature, but this novel seemed to have all the elements needed to win me over: a small town, eccentric characters, smart jokes and the bittersweet feeling of coming-of-age. Still, I’ve never met (online or in person) anyone who’s ever heard of A Short History of a Small Place.

The story is set in the mid-60s, in the fictional town of Nelly, NC. Our young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of old Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a former town belle and eccentric wealthy sister of the late mayor. After years of total seclusion, Miss Pettigrew returns flamboyantly to public view to sing her swan song.

Although events are told by Louis, in a way we see them from the perspective of the entire town. They are those stories told over and over at the kitchen table, in the supermarket line, in the beauty salon and after Sunday service. So often that they become the stuff of legend.

2. Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) by José Saramago (Portugal)

I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that Baltasar and Blimunda is the most popular book by Saramago in his home country, so when he jumped borders it surprised me how rarely it’s mentioned. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with some friends and the only reason we can come up with is that, unlike Blindness, The Double or All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda is very… Portuguese. Its political and religious message, although not unique, can better be appreciated if you know something of Portuguese history and psyche.

It’s the 18th century, and the Inquisition strengthens its grip on Portugal as gold and diamonds pour in from Brasil and other colonies. The book starts when King John V dutifully visits his Queen to try for an heir. He promises God that if he succeeds he’ll build a magnificent Monastery, and that’s the start of what will become the Mafra National Palace. Baltasar and Blimunda is the story of the construction of the Palace and Saramago takes us on an intimate journey through the Nobility and Clergy who funded it, the engineers who design it, and the lower classes who actual build it.

It’s an historical novel with the social and religious criticism Saramago is famous for, but he still managed to create what’s still one of my favorite love stories of all time.

3. Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia) by Jorge Amado (Brazil)

A classic of Brazilian literature which doesn’t seem very popular outside the Portuguese-speaking world and Latin America. I remember it for its emotional punch and my first encounter with a world that is not all black and white. I probably read it a bit too early in life and I clearly remember how it heart-broken I was.

“Captains of the Sands” is a gang of abandoned children living in the streets of Bahia in the 30s. They’re between seven to fifteen years old and survive by stealing and coning. Think Lord of the Flies meets City of God meets Peter Pan. It’s a book that surprised me by the amount of topics it approaches: poverty, social injustice, parenthood, sexuality, gender equality, African culture in Brazil. Read it and fall in love with Pedro Bala, the leader, Professor, the book-lover and artist, and Dora, the Wendy-like figure of the gang. There’s also a movie adaptation. Here’s the trailer.

4. Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten (art) and Benoît Peeters (story) (Belgium)


These are a series of books started in the 80s that have reached cult status, at least in the Franco-Belgian graphic novels world. Schuiten in particular is so well liked here in Belgium that he got to design his own Steampunk metro station.

The Cities of the Fantastic are an imaginary world where humans live in independent (sometimes isolated) city-states, each with a distinct civilization and architectural style.

There are passages between our world and the Cities (the Obscure Passages), sometimes crossed by people on both sides. Jules Verne, for instance, is a frequent visitor. Most Passages are found in buildings and constructions similar or identical in both words, such as Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique. You can even read reports (complete with photos) of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages or The Web of the Obscure Cities.

The series and its spin-offs offer beautiful art with a solid world-building. Pure, unadulterated escapism.

5. Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare (USA)


It’s a huge mystery to me why Citizen Dog doesn’t have the same following as Calvin & Hobbs or Mutts.

It ran between 1995 and 2001 and it’s about the life of Mel and his dog Fergus. Call me a biased dog-person, but I love that in Citizen Dog cats are (for once!) not portrayed as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe that’s the source of discrimination? 😉

I always get a good laugh out of Citizen Dog books, no matter how often I read them. The lines between master and dog are usually blured and often switched, but somehow Fergus is more lovable than other rebels, like Garfield. Anyone out there also a fan?

6. The King Amaz’d (Crónica del rey pasmado) by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (Spain)

Very short, but oh-so-delightful.

After sleeping with his best courtesan, young King Philip IV becomes obsessed with an idea. A simple idea, but one which will rock the Court, the Inquisition and the Kingdom: Philip wishes to see the Queen, his wife, naked.

This is the epitome of a hidden gem, a funny, clever and insightful satire about conformity and personal freedom.

Word on the street is that Larklight is a steampunk must-read. It’s also on Goodreads’ Trippy Books list, so my curiosity was spiked.

The book has a great premise: in Victorian England, Sir Isaac Newton discovered that alchemy could power spaceflight, an event that accelerated human exploration of space by centuries.

Her Majesty’s Empire now stretches across several parts of the solar system, an ideal setting for this epic Victorian space-opera. 12-year-old Art, 15-year-old Myrtle and their father live a quiet life in a boat/ship called Larklight, until a mysterious visitor throws them into an adventure across space, where they must fight against evil forces to save the universe.

I was completely in love with the story until impossibly wacky things started to happen. Of course you can argue that steampunk itself is impossible, but it’s still based on some  sort of reality and partly grounded on the laws of physics. On the other hand, walking and talking fungi inhabiting the Moon is less than likely…

The language of the book is enjoyably Victorian and Art is a fun (if clueless) first-person narrator, but I quickly get bored with books where anything can happen, as was the case with Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t even finish. I’m afraid my lack of appreciation for surrealism in paintings, sculpture and film also applies to literature.

However, I might have ignored the lack of boundaries if Reeve had included an interesting female character. Unfortunately we’re left with a choice between whinny Myrtle who while escaping from certain death refuses to run across the villain’s lawn because of a “keep off the grass” sign, and a blue she-lizard pirate who decides to dress up like a lady to get the attention of the human boy she’s in love with.

If you don’t mind a stereotype or two, and if you think you might like something that a tripping Verne might have written, this is the book for you!

Book read for the Steampunk Challenge.

***

Other thoughts: Book Clutter (yours?)

In the 1860’s, the Russians announce a reward to anyone who would invent a machine to help them drill gold in frozen Alaska. Leviticus Blue, an obscure Seattle inventor convinces them and is asked to build his brainchild: the Boneshaker, a huge underground-drilling machine.

The problems start when the Boneshaker malfunctions and destroys downtown Seattle after bursting out of Blue’s laboratory. To make things worse, it opens a hole on the ground that starts releasing a toxic gas – the Blight – that can either kill you or turn you into a flesh-eating zombie. So you see, if you’re looking for steampunk with a bit of the living-dead, Boneshaker is your book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine. I didn’t hate it, just didn’t care enough and became frustrated with all the holes in the plot.

My only disclaimer is that zombies are not my thing. The only zombie story I ever liked was Shaun of the Dead and that’s because it makes fun of them. After so many bad zombie movies and books (yes, P,P and Zombies, I’m looking at you!), I just can’t take them seriously – they’re slow, brainless and utterly predictable.

More than fifteen years after the incident, Blue is missing and his widow and son – Briar and Zeke – still live in the outskirts of Seattle. The damaged area was walled down in an attempt to control the Blight and zombies, although some people still live there, stubbornly surviving in sealed houses and with the help gas masks.

Briar didn’t share a lot of information with her son about the past and Zeke grew up creating a hero myth around his father, which he decides to prove by sneaking into the walled area looking for answers and the chance to clear his Blue’s name. As soon as she finds out, Briar follows him.

What comes next seems to come out of a computer game – those grim ones, full of dangers at every dark corner. The problem is that the idea of the story never really turns into good, dramatic action. Briar and Zeke face several dangers, but inevitably end up going “Whoa! That was close! Luckily [insert saving event over which they had no control]!”. Actually, the two main characters are some of the most passive I’ve seen in an action-full book, which also contributes to just how slow the pace is at times. They think and re-think about their plans and in the end never go ahead with them because the right time has come and gone.

Characterization also suffers with the amount of action scenes. For instance, although Cherie Priest spends a great deal of time building up tension around the villain, we never know what drives him and when we do meet him, he just comes out as a weak Wizard of Oz. While Briar feels 3D, Zeke is that most frustrating of characters: someone we’re always being told is smart, but who never does anything to prove it. Actually, for his 15 years, Zeke could be in his pre- or early-teens. He spends most of his time vomiting, containing vomit or thinking how he wants to vomit (seriously, you have no idea how much the word “vomit” shows up in the Zeke-chapters…)

Those of you who read the book, can you please clarify some point that are bugging me?

  • Why aren’t people curious about what exactly is the Blight and where does it come from? Shouldn’t they know more about it after 15 years, especially if they even managed to make a drug out of it?
  • The villain lives in downtown Seattle because he wants to control the supply of Blight to the drug market, right? But there’s also Blight (although in less quantity) in the outskirts and later we even find out that the airships can capture it just by hovering over the city. Why does he control the monopoly?
  • What exactly did Zeke expect to find in his family’s old house? Very weak and foolish plan.
  • When exposed to Blight, what exactly makes some people die and others become zombies?
  • Couldn’t the people who stayed get rid of all zombies? There’s only about 1.000 in the walled city and during the book a lot are killed. What task could be more important to the Seattle inhabitants, than to kill creatures who are hungry for their flesh?
  • Why does the Chinese community, for no pay or even recognition, continue to painstakingly filter the air of the city? Other characters don’t think much of them and they’re clearly rowing against the tide, so why do it at all?

End rant.


It was my plan to only start the Steampunk Challenge at the beginning of 2011 (it runs from Oct 10 to Oct 11), but I just got too excited to wait. I’ve recently got my hands on the audiobooks of Leviathan and Behemoth – books 1 and 2 of the Leviathan series – both read by the fabulous Alan Cumming. (And now just a little interlude to say how I just love Cumming’s character in The Good Wife. You’re never exactly sure what he’s up to, but he sure keeps you interested! I’m only sorry that they’ve decided to go for the American accent instead of maintaining his native Scottish). Talking of accents, what the audiobook gives you in richness of accents, it losses in the lack of images (available on the paper editions). I’m even tempted to actually buy the books just because of them.

Imagine a world where Darwin discovers a way to manipulate genes and starts creating fantastic mutant creatures. While he does this in England, other countries in Europe develop advanced machines. These two technologies become different economic philosophies and ultimately opposite ways of life. When the death of Franz Ferdinand (and another wee interlude just to say that Franz Ferdinand in Antwerp was my favorite concert of 2009) in 1914 triggers WWI, it becomes a fight between the English – the Darwinists, and the Germans – the Clankers.

Throughout the two books we follow the lives of two teenagers on difference sides of the fence: Aleksander, Ferdinand’s only son and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne goes into exile to preserve his birthright, and Deryn Sharp, a Scottish commoner, disguises herself as a boy to fulfill her dream of serving in the British Air Service.

The best thing about the series is how Westerfeld mixes reality and an alternative past (or is future?). At the end of both audiobooks, he even makes a short comment on what’s fiction and what’s History. Actually, it’s a strangely effective way to learn. For instance, although you’re following the adventures of the passengers aboard a floating, living whale filled with hydrogen, you still find out lots of stuff about the history of Istanbul when the war broke out.

Deryn in particular is a great heroine, full of spark and sense of humor and I swear that by the end of the book I was already saying to myself “barking spiders!” or to people “are you barking mad?” with the heaviest of Glaswegian accents 😀

The second book ends with a cliffhanger worst than the first, so I’ll have to wait for the next to see how the story ends… or at least I hope so. Dear Mr. Westerfeld, please don’t drag the story too long. Pretty please?

Steampunk: a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.
in Urban Dictionary


I’ve only recently discovered that steampunk it’s actually a genre, but I’ve always been instinctively attracted to that type of atmosphere. I’m interested in knowing more, so decided to go deeper into it in 2011, specially since I haven’t found a novel as good as my favorite steampunk graphic novels and anime movies. So if you have recommendations, please let me know. Already on my radar:

  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul di Filippo
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • Larklight by David Wyatt

What I really like about steampunk is the aesthetic component. If well done it completely stimulates the areas in my brain for imagination, adventure, romance and beauty. Steampunk also fits with my love of art-nouveau and other late-XIX and early-XX century glass-and-metal architecture. Train stations and greenhouses in particular fascinate me and I could be hours just soaking in the environment at Antwerp Central or St Pancras.

Because it’s so visual, steampunk adjusts well to all types of channels: books, graphic novels, movies, anime, design, illustration, fashion and architecture. (Question: on impulse I would say that steampunk would attract more male followers, would that be right? Note to self: investigate)


Most people read/watch steampunk without actually categorizing it as such, but lately it;s been picking up steam (no pun intended :)), and making a name for itself. In October 2009 Tor.com had a Steampunk Month, Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science had an exhibition on steampunk which ended in Feb 2010, and the TV series Castle will have a steampunk episode (called “Punk”) that promises to be memorable. Reading the advanced reviews really made me want to attend a meeting of aficionados.

In the book blogging world, The Bookkeeper is organizing a Steampunk Challenge, which I’ll join in 2011.


A couple of recommendations

Graphic Novels
These are actually my two favorite graphic novel series of all time, they just happen to be both steampunk.

  •  A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
    Especially satisfying for lovers of Victorian literature as it’s completely full of (more or less) obscure references.
  • The Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters
    Not very famous outside the French-Belgian graphic novel world. Schuiter is the son of two architects and you can tell by his attention to architectonic detail. Think Twilight Zone meets Victor Horta meets Jules Verne.

Anime
… and these are all by Studio Ghibli

Currently reading

… and

Currently listening

Project Gutenberg Project

Pledge