Up for Review: Murder as a Fine Art

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, has published 29 novels, 6 works of non-fiction, and numerous short-stories and essays. His latest novel is a historical murder mystery featuring  real-life author Thomas de Quincey. I’ve never paid any attention to Rambo, but this sounds quite good.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellMurder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland Books)

NetGalley blurb:


Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.


Murder as a Fine Art was published on 7 May 2013 by Mulholland Books.

Mulholland Books
Conversation with Morrell and De Quincey scholar Robert Morrisson
Pretty much everything else is covered by the novel’s page on Morrell’s website. Click through for links to the book trailer, interviews with Morrell about the novel, and buying options.

About the Author
David Morrell is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association as well as the prestigious lifetime Thriller Master Award from the International Thriller Writers’ organization. His writing book, The Successful Novelist, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Review of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsTitle: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Published: 21 March 2013
Genre: literary fiction, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This one is a gem – a book about writers and writing, fiction, lies, and truth.

Apparently one of the ‘absolute’ rules of fiction is that you don’t write about writers, but like Kristopher Jansma, I have never heard this and I don’t buy it. In an interview with Interview Magazine he dismissed the idea that such stories are only interesting to other writers – we can all understand the practice of storytelling:

Even if readers aren’t writers, they tell each other stories; they process great books the same way that we all do. Some of us sit down at a typewriter or computer and write out what we’re feeling, other people call up a friend. We all go through the storytelling process to make sense of it all.

I am glad Jansma ignored the rules – I love metafictional tales, not to mention the intimate portrayal of a writer and compulsive liar. The unnamed narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards claims to have “lost every book I’ve ever written” beginning with a short story written during the after-school hours and vacations he spent waiting for his mother at the airport. In high school, he discovers that he is a talented liar when he’s asked to act the part of a high-society teenager and escort a debutante to her ball. He goes on to study ‘lying’ at college, in a fiction and poetry class. Here he meets Julian McGann, a writer as talented and troubled as he is. Julian is the stereotypically tortured, eccentric artist. He seems to come from another age, and works only on a typewriter. He drinks too much, sleeps with too many young men who he discards in the morning, and writes in ferocious bouts of inspiration when he barely eats or sleeps.

Julian and the narrator begin a years-long friendship characterised by competition and jealousy, but strengthened by their shared love of writing. Julian introduces the narrator to his friend Evelyn, a gorgeous, charismatic actress. He is instantly infatuated with her, and she becomes his lover, the love he will never have, and the subject of a novel he spends years trying to finish.

The trio travel around the world, and although the novel is set in the present day, the characters’ tastes and habits often create the sense that they’re living in the Jazz Age. Our narrator goes from his tiny home town of Raleigh to New York, the Grand Canyon, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland and Luxemborg. He lies constantly, making himself up as he goes along, and struggling with relationships based on fictions. It’s one of those magical debuts – fresh and enchanting.

It feels like a book that’s going to get a lot of well-deserved attention this year, partly because of the delightfully dishonest narrator. You never know when he is lying, and he lies to everyone – strangers, lovers, friends, you, himself. Although you never learn his real name, he invents or borrows names. Eventually, he’s more accustomed to lying than telling the truth. Everything he writes or says is true in some way, but because of the way he twists fact into fiction, you learn to be sceptical. There were occasions when I was completely surprised to learn the extent of his lies. The novel is kind of trick, but you feel captivated rather than conned.

Of course, there is also a lot about creating fiction. His aim, taken from Emily Dickinson is “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”. He tries to figure out what exactly this means for him throughout the novel. It’s a question of how much of your own experience to put into your fiction. He always writes about himself to some extent but alters details, trying to give meaning or structure to his life, or write his world as he would like it to be. We also see his development as a writer. As a child, the narrator began by writing about the people he saw in the airport while waiting for his mother. He wrote so he could tell her what she’d missed while she was working, but of course he was also developing a skill for writing characters. At college, he is intimidated by Julian’s ability to write incredible stories about people from all over the globe, until he finds out that Julian too takes his stories from real life; he’s just very wealthy and has had a much more varied life so far. It’s interesting to see which details they pluck from their lives and how they re-imagine them for fiction. The narrator’s stories are usually borne out of his personal obsessions – the women who captivate him, his competitive friendship with Julian, and of course his struggles with writing.

Each chapter tells a full tale that fits into the whole, and stories are embedded within stories through things like summaries of Julian’s work and extracts from the narrator’s projects. I enjoyed most of them a great deal. Like the narrator wishing he had Julian’s talent, I wanted to be able to tell stories with such quirky details and great lines. I would have easily given the novel five stars if only there weren’t a few parts that proved a bit dull in comparison to others.

I didn’t really enjoy the extracts from the narrator’s writing, especially the snippets from a romance inspired by his affair with Evelyn. It makes sense that his voice in these stories would differ from the novel itself; unfortunately it’s rather bland. Then he parts from Julian and Evelyn after a falling out, and the novel slows down. Julian is such an eccentric and disastrously passionate character that I missed him even though I had no problem with where Jansma was taking the story. I was however, quite annoyed when the narrator travelled to Ghana, but kept using the blanket term ‘Africa’; a common, infuriating habit.

Those aren’t book-ruining problems though. This is one of the most inventive and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year, and I often think of what a good decision it was to request a review copy. It’s the kind of book that bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, in that it’s smart and well-written, but also entertaining and easy to read. I hope it does well.

Review of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
7 August 2012
Night Shade Books
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.

December Round-Up

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great holiday season, and are continuing to enjoy it if you’re lucky 🙂

Without a festive season to enjoy (I really hope I’m not stuck in Addis for December again next year) I managed to get a fair bit of reading done.

December 1

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was a reading challenge book I read with a friend. It was recommended to us as a particularly scary horror novel. I didn’t find it all that scary, but Joe Hill has clearly inherited some storytelling genes from his father Stephen King and I thought it was a good read overall. 7/10.

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches on the other hand, had very little in terms of story and rather a lot (often too much) of random meandering and weird sex. I think this is the kind of book you’re likely to enjoy only if you feel some kind of kinship with the narrator, a sixty-something bitter writer who drinks women’s blood and functions as a fictionalised (well, I assume) version of the author. While I admired a few things about this novel, it was mostly pretty boring.

Kraken by China Miéville was, to my unhappy surprise, a total disappointment. It is officially my least favourite of Miéville’s novels, and I’ve read all of them except Iron Council. I expected to finish it within a week, but I ended up taking more than two to slog through it. I was bored, easily distracted and, worst of all, I was at a loss to explain why I didn’t like it. It had all the kinds of things I usually love about Miéville’s novel, but this time it just didn’t work for me. Since I didn’t really have anything interesting to say, I decided not to review it for now. I’ll give it another chance some day, but for now it’s a 4/10.

December 2

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) was a much more enjoyable metafictional mash-up of all sorts of entertaining genres – crime and mystery, steampunk, sci fi, and horror. It’s set in Victorian London, where the titular Affliction causes victims to change sex – a catastrophe for such a prim and prudish society. With lots of gender play and outlandish plot, it’s a really fun read. Review to follow soon.

Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo is an upcoming publication from Night Shade Books. Vampires are re-imagined as eco-warriors (for example, they sleep in the ground because the Earth nourishes and heals their bodies). They lament the damage that humanity has done to the Earth, and although the blurb gives the impression that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s set in the present day. Devious corporate plots that threaten the vampires make up the story, and it’s got loads of action, but I found it forgettably average.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen was my last read for 2012, and it was a good book to end the year, despite being a rather tragic one. In a disturbing global phenomenon, young children start killing their parents. The narrator, Hesketh [?] is investigating a series of workers around the world who sabotaged the companies they loved. Hesketh is very good at his job, partly because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, gifting him with an incredible talent for spotting patterns. He sees the connection between the saboteurs and the child murderers, but although this makes for a good story in itself, it’s Hesketh himself who really made this a great book for me. Jensen goes into the details of Hesketh’s psychology and daily life as someone with Asperger’s, and for me he became one of the most likeable and memorable characters I’ve come across this year. I recommend the book for that alone, but I’ll tell you what else I liked about it in my review.

The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeBefore The Uninvited I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis for a reading challenge. I don’t think I’ve read this since childhood, when I fell in love with it and wished very hard that my cupboard could also be a portal to another world. In my childish innocence I didn’t even notice the Christian allegory, which was so grotesquely obvious this time around. But although I dropped my rating from four stars to three, I still like this, and it still made me long for Turkish Delight. It might just be nostalgia working its magic, because I don’t really like such childish books anymore. 

January has gotten off to a slow start. I’m trying to catch up with my reviews of The Constantine Affliction, Earth Thirst and The Uninvited, so I haven’t finished any books yet. But I will have to get cracking – I’ve set myself a reading goal of 85 books for the year, and I’m planning to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, which means I’ve got some dauntingly long books ahead of me.

Review of Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

Me and the Devil by Nick ToschesTitle: Me and the Devil
Author: Nick Tosches
4 December 2012
Little, Brown
literary fiction
arc from the publisher via NetGalley

Nick is a bitter, alcoholic writer in his early sixties. “I looked like a man but I was not” he laments, complaining that he has become “a toothless wraith of a man that once had been” without even the inspiration to write (“I felt that there was nothing left to write. I was a poet without pen or drum.”). He scrapes by on a diet of booze, coffee and cigarettes, but as he crawls further from youth and closer to death he becomes “desperate to cling to another” even though human contact often repulses him. Despite his complaints though, he has no trouble picking up young women in bars and one day he meets Sandrine, who “liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair” (Nick repeats this description multiple times). Sandrine is the first of a series of women who Nick beds, bites, and drinks. He finds their young blood invigorating, as if drinking it restores his youth. He begins a relationship with a beautiful young student named Melissa, who entertains his sexual fantasies and new-found blood lust.

The blood changes Nick’s life – he feels like he’s getting younger and healthier; he stops drinking alcohol; he eats the finest foods money can buy. Soon, the changes become grandiose – he believes that he is turning into a god, and Melissa is a goddess; his exquisite meals are viewed as “Eucharistic”; and his habits become “rituals”.

If this were a fantasy novel, I would have accepted this as perfectly normal. However, the novel has the distinct feel of literary fiction that would never admit to being pure fantasy, leaving me with the suspicion that it’s Nick who simply can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, this is a man who binge-drinks his way into blackouts and hallucinations. The ease with which he finds a string of beautiful young women who are willing to let him bite their thighs and drink their blood seems even less plausible than the idea that their blood restores his youth, and I became even more sceptical as Nick engaged in increasingly weird and violent sex scenes with women who actually wanted to be abused by a dirty old man. It’s too convenient, too much in tune with Nick’s desires. The fact that the story is narrated in the first person throws further doubt on Nick’s credibility. Although he has stopped writing, he finds a strange new piece that he can’t remember penning, giving us one of the first signs that his mind is not to be trusted.

Even if it weren’t already mentioned in the blurb, Nick’s eventual descent into madness and destruction would seem inevitable. As with his apotheosis, we never know how much of it is real or imagined, and Tosches has no interest in clarifying the matter. He simply offers this portrait of a mind in turmoil, and the reader cannot escape its subjectivity. And since Nick and Tosches have the same name, profession and age, you’re constantly, disturbingly aware that this is a kind of fictionalised autobiography, that Tosches is using Nick as a kind of puppet, or that he is at least toying with you by making you think so.

For the most part, I liked this aspect of the novel, which exists mostly in Nick’s interactions with the other characters. Unfortunately, he is a grumpy old asshole who spends most of his time alone, pontificating about all sorts of random crap.

Nick takes us through his day-to-day activities – cooking meals and eating them, taking medication, shopping, going to the bar, going to the doctor, having dinner with his good friend Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards), etc. He doesn’t drive, so he walks, giving him plenty of opportunity to comment on what he sees. Mostly, he complains about how much he hates modern-day New York and its inhabitants:

I looked down across the street at those who scurried to their daily servitude, with their Styrofoam cups of bitter watery coffee, their dupe’s containers of treacly Starbucks swill, their industrially dyed and flavored sugarwater “energy drinks,” their assembly line donuts, their stale rubbery bagels, their tasteless doughy croissants.

They were a funny lot, these white slaves of ignoble careers of lucrative indolence. To say that they were deserving of death would be to demean death. It would be without meaning as well, for they were in a way already dead. The jogging dead. Carbohydrate-conscious cadavers with frozen smiles of chilling insensate fake vibrancy on their dull scrubbed pampered faces.

I passed a new store, on Hudson Street, a sort of day care resort for yuppie mutts called Biscuits & Bath. It offered grooming, transportation, natural foods, puppy kindergarten, classes in basic manners, exercise programs, and socialization services. This neighborhood really was fucking going to hell. It was getting embarrassing just to live around here.

Ok, that last one is funny, and those quotes aren’t entirely unfair, but you see what I mean about Nick being bitter and ranting a lot. I did enjoy some of his meanderings, especially his descriptions of exquisite things – the luxurious pantihose and designer high heels he buys for Melissa to indulge one of his fantasies; the sublime food he enjoys at the heights of his experience; sets of beautiful hand-crafted knives with handles made from rare materials. I also learned a few things about pronunciation and grammar, but for the most part Nick is a boring, insufferable snob, and this novel is far too self-indulgent (whether the ‘self’ is just Nick or both Nick and Tosches, I’m not sure).

To the book’s credit (perhaps) it actually admits to these flaws. Nick, has several disparaging comments about his writing, and writing in general, and these actually fit my feelings about this novel:

George Orwell said, all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy. “Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

The words that pursued these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear. I knew only that they sang to me, that their song was mine, and that they must be given form, metered to and arranged on the page in a way that captured and conveyed the sound and colors of their spell.

No one will ever see this. I am the you to whom I write. I am you. The only you.

What I took from this is the idea that he’s writing under a kind of compulsion that may well be as pathetic as the a screaming of a baby. His writing doesn’t have a message or theme (“these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear”); he just needs to express himself, and he does so without expecting anyone else to read it.

That could be an excuse for why the story is so self-indulgent, why it’s sometimes so boring and mundane, but also has so many graphic, increasingly violent sex scenes (actually, there isn’t always sex per se, but I should warn you that this book is not for sensitive readers). Nick can say things that he might not be able to say to others, and admit to doing horrible things. It could also explain why Nick feels at liberty to speak about women the way he does, referring to them as “galmeat”, casually throwing the word ‘rape’ around and saying things like

There was a lot of good-looking leg passing by out there. What a drag it was that rape involved so much exertion. Just to get some broad to be still while you jerked off on her calf or had her suck your cock without being properly introduced.

Me and the Devil is very much the narrative of an angry, arrogant, aging man saying what he wants and indulging his fantasies, the greatest of which is desire to reclaim his youth. A major part of that is his struggle with that titular devil, which could be an evil being or – more likely – Nick himself.

I can admire all this, to an extent. There’s some great writing here, along with the exploration of an interesting kind of psyche. I don’t like Nick at all, but sometimes it was interesting to be inside his head, and I like the idea of him expressing himself so freely, even though I’m often repulsed by what he says. I also like that the novel seems to admit to its flaws of self-expression, but at the same time those flaws make it pretty tedious to read, and for me that’s far worse than all the perversion. I think Nick is someone who has to resonate with you on a personal level, and if he doesn’t you’re unlikely to enjoy this novel very much. I didn’t.

Up for Review: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia

This one caught my eye because of the unusual narrative – the story is told using alphabetical encyclopedic entries that make up the notes an author has written for his novel.


Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by José Manuel Prieto, translated by Esther Allen

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

“A terrifyingly original writer, José Manuel Prieto’s prose shakes the walls of the literary kingdom.” —Gary Shteyngart

In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, José Manuel Prieto has beautifully crafted a kaleidoscopic portrait of modern life in Russia through alphabetical encyclopedic entries. Poetic, humorous, truth-seeking, and fanciful, Prieto melds literature, philosophy, and pop culture into a story of two misfits caught between old traditions and modern consumerism.

Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia was Prieto’s debut novel, first published in 1998 in Spanish. Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, is publishing an English edition, to be released on 8 January 2013.

Add it on Goodreads
Order it at The Book Depository
The novel on the publisher’s website
Brief review on Publishers Weekly


About the author:
From Grove/Atlantic: José Manuel Prieto was born in Havana in 1962. He lived in Russia for twelve years, has translated the works of Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova into Spanish, and has taught Russian history in Mexico City. He’s the author of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex. He has held teaching appointments at Cornell and Princeton, and currently teaches at Seton Hall University.

Blog (in Spanish)

The international literature festival, Berlin, 2003 (bio)
List of works on Goodreads


November Round-Up


This gallery contains 2 photos.

November was a great reading month, although a little slack in terms of reviews.

My first three review books for the month took me beyond mainstream cultural settings. Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the second book in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, set on the planet Umayma, where two vastly different Islamic nations have been fighting a religious war for two centuries. Continue reading

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