Bookmas! with Peter Darbyshire

Bookmas: when thoughts of good cheer are always accompanied with readings of good prose.

Today’s Not-so-secret BookSanta: Peter Darbyshire

By day, Peter Darbyshire is an editor for Vancouver newspaper The Province. By night, when he’s not busy fighting/causing crime, Peter is the acclaimed author of the novels The Warhol Gang and Please, winner of Canada’s ReLit Award for Best Alternative Novel and the Ontario Arts Council’s K.M. Hunter Award for Best New Book. Peter has also penned numerous short stories, and also publishes the Cross series of supernatural thrillers under the pen name Peter Roman, a series of which I am anxiously awaiting the second book.

What 2014-published fiction would you recommend?

The book that really hit me this year was Jonathan Bennett’s The Colonial Hotel. I should point out that Jonathan is a friend of mine, but I hope people won’t hold that against him.

When Jonathan told me about the idea for his book over drinks some time ago, I thought he had lost his mind. We were drinking some lovely Australian shiraz and he started talking about adapting a long poem he’d written of the Paris and Helen myth into a poetic novel. I made agreeable noises, as it was his wine, and kept my thoughts to myself. That’s CanLit for you.

I bought the book when it came out, as friends do. I even read it, as friends don’t always do. And I was absolutely stunned by it. It’s a slim, elegant volume about a pair of aid workers/lovers who are torn apart when a civil war hits their part of the world. The prose is spare but poetic and absolutely loaded. It really made me question my own assumptions and even biases as a reader — how many books do that? I can’t recommend this one enough. Good on ya, Jonathan.

What 2014-published non-fiction would you recommend?

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction because of my day job. I’m an editor at The Province newspaper, and when I come home I just want to escape the lunacy of real life by slipping into some fantasy and make-believe. That said, I am currently reading a bit about Vancouver’s past. I’m partway through Eve Lazarus’s Sensational Vancouver, which offers glimpses into Vancouver’s crazy history of opium dens, bank-robber cops, haunted houses, brothels, bootleggers — you know, all the stuff that made Vancouver the great, world-class city it is today.

I’d also suggest a similar book Anvil published in 2013: This Day in Vancouver, by Jesse Donaldson. Both books are full of those stories that make you think, “This can’t be true.” But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from newspapers, it’s that real life is always stranger than fiction.

What 2014-published book to do feel needs more love?

Right now I’m reading Paul Vermeersch’s new poetry collection Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something. I can’t get through it because I keep re-reading sections. That’s partially because I don’t understand poetry and partially because they’re just so damned good. I read the first section of the book one night a little while ago, then immediately went back and reread it again. Then I read it again the next day. It’s the sort of writing that sinks down into the little nooks and crannies in your brain and bubbles away there. Incredible stuff.

What book that you’ve read in 2014 (not necessarily a 2014 book) would you recommend?

Max Barry’s Lexicon. It’s about a secret agency of “poets” – specially trained people who learn to use words as weapons. Like most poets, they inevitably go to war with each other. The story revolves around a cataclysmic event in a small Australian town that invokes the spirit of the Tower of Babel. I think it’s the first genuine literary thriller I’ve read.

What ongoing series of books would you recommend?

The Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard. They follow the misadventures of the cranky but clever necromancer Johannes Cabal, who thinks nothing of making deals with the devil, venturing into the Dreamlands or even hanging about with quirky vampires. They’re delightfully funny books that invoke the dread and eeriness of Lovecraft without the latter’s excesses. I wish I’d thought of Johannes Cabal first!

What author would you recommend?

I am eagerly awaiting the new Corey Redekop book. [ED.: You and me both, brother] While I wait, I’m reading Echopraxia by Peter Watts, the mad genius of sci-fi. I couldn’t possibly describe Watts’ books. All I can really say is he saved science fiction for me.

What’s the one book you think everyone should read?

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. If you can’t enjoy this book, then I don’t know… It must be like seeing the world in black and white and never knowing anything about colours.

Let’s go genre specific: what books would you recommend for

  1. The science-fiction fan: I already mentioned Peter Watts’ Echopraxia, so I may as well pick Blindsight by Watts as well. A first contact story with truly alien aliens, an exploration of consciousness, a biological argument for the possibility of vampires, a projection of our obsession with virtual worlds – and so much more? Yes, please.
  2. The horror fan: I’m looking forward to reading David Nickle’s new book, Knife Fight and Other Struggles. David is a fellow ChiZine author and a fellow journalist, so maybe there’s some conflict of interest in me choosing this book. I don’t care. He’s a smart and scary writer with the right edge of insanity for me. I mean, this one features a mayor who gets into knife fights with opponents. I’m in!
  3. The fantasy fan: I just finished Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade and loved it. It’s a nice alternative to the grimdark sensibilities dominating the genre right now. It’s the story of a fallen Greatcoat — kind of a wandering judge — who’s been framed for a murder along with some friends. It’s great fun with some of the best action scenes I’ve ever read. If you like the sensibility of The Three Musketeers or even Firefly, then you’ll love Traitor’s Blade.
  4. The strict realism fan: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner. I’m a huge fan of Gartner’s writing. I’d call it magic realism, only the magic is in the prose not the world. It’s really kind of indescribable. People who have read her understand. People who haven’t read her are sleepreading through life.
  5. The thriller/mystery fan: Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak. I kind of gave up on mysteries a while back because I found most of the acclaimed books in the genre painfully dull to read. If you can’t bother to write a good line, why should I bother trying to figure our your mystery? Babiak made me care about the genre again. This one’s a great mix of mystery and international thriller, with a literary sensibility. Babiak shows you how it should be done. I can’t wait for the sequel.
  6. The non-fiction fan: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. I think a good non-fiction book either tells you about something you don’t know or makes you think about something you do know in a different way. I’ve had kind of a hate on for religion most of my life for the usual reasons and the usual personal associations. But Wiman’s book about rediscovering his lost spirituality made me pause and look at people’s faith in a different light. It’s Wiman grappling with the idea of faith at all in the modern world — without rejecting science or modern thought — in the wake of a terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s challenging, thoughtful and just plain beautiful — Wiman is a poet and the editor of Poetry magazine. He looks at faith and spirituality through the lens of a poet, which is really the ideal way to do it. I was surprised at how much this book moved me. Poets. They’re always messing with you.
  7. The British/German/Canadian bloodline fan: World War Z by Max Brooks. Because zombies are an international concern.
  8. The kidlit fan: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman. I’m reading a lot of kids’ books these days, on account of having a four-year-old boy who loves stories. I took him to the local book and pillow store recently to buy some chapter books and picked this up on a whim. My boy wasn’t interested, as it wasn’t Scooby-Doo or scary. But he ended up loving it — as did I. It’s a great, fun story about a father who goes out to buy milk for his children’s breakfast and comes back with a story of being abducted by aliens, time travel, pirates, wumpires, a dinosaur professor and more. Really fun and clever stuff. I hate Neil Gaiman for making it look so easy.

If, god forbid, people couldn’t find any of your books, who else would you suggest they seek out for a similar literary fix?

What sort of future apocalypse are you imagining here? Is this a Handmaid’s Tale, where my books have been banned by the state? Or is this more of a Road scenario, where cannibals use my books as kindling for their cooking fires? I suppose it doesn’t matter. The future is always an apocalypse for someone.

For my Peter Darbyshire books, I’d suggest reading Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop. I think it mines the same vein of madness running under the surface of society. [ED.: I did not ask/beg/pay Peter for this recommendation. However, I did sleep with his image beneath my pillow, hoping my dreams would reach his subconcious. Dreamwishes work!]

I’d also suggest Craig Davidson. I’m not sure we have much in common in terms of actual story, but I think we both embrace the same spirit of craft and literary experimentation. He writes lines so sharp they draw blood, and he can structure a story so well he must have an architecture degree. Really, I’m just trying to associate myself with him in the hope that some confused reader will buy my books along with his.

For my Peter Roman alter ego, I’d say Roger Zelazny because my Cross novels (The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and the forthcoming The Dead Hamlets) are really my attempt to write the books that inspired me as a kid. Zelazny was the writer I read and re-read and then re-re-read. I still return to his works every few years. I’ve always been a nostalgic soul.

If you want a writer who’s still alive, I’d say Steven Brust, whose Jhereg books about a charming assassin in a fantasy land also had a major influence on me. I’m a sucker for charming rogues. Which may explain why I’m generally broke.

And finally, what would you recommend for the holidays in a non-literary context.

Hey, you can’t go wrong with a good game. I love all the usual games in fashion right now — Ticket to Ride, Last Night on Earth, Gloom, Zombies!!! But I also love playing co-operative games, as they’re less hard on my marriage. I was introduced to Forbidden Island recently, and I really enjoyed it. I really want to get the sequel, Forbidden Desert. (I initially typed that out as Forbidden Dessert….) Pandemic is also on my gift list.

If your loved one isn’t into games, then I don’t know… a good scotch to dull the pain?