Book Bag: “Telling the Map” by Christopher Rowe; “Only in Edinburgh” by Duncan J.D. Smith

Published: 7/14/2017 8:16:23 AM

by Steve Pfarrer


By Christopher Rowe

Small Beer Press


There’s Southern Gothic, and then there’s what you might call Southern Sinister — the world of Christopher Rowe.

Rowe is the author of “Telling The Map,” a collection of linked stories and a novella, published by Easthampton’s Small Beer Press and set in Kentucky and other parts of the South; it’s a strange mix of dystopia and science fiction/fantasy.

Society has degraded under corporate control and heavy-handed police, and advanced technology and remnants of the past, like buses driven by robots and trolley cars pulled by horses, sometimes uneasily co-exist.

In “The Contrary Gardener,” people in Kentucky grow vegetables under the orders of military contractors, farming now having become even more industrialized than today (“She paused before a container of bright pink corn kernels, their preprogrammed color coming from insecticides and fertilizers and not from any varietal ancestry”).

The main character, Kay Lynne, travels to the “Derby” in ’Ville — the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, one of the last vestiges of the old Kentucky — to meet with three political conspirators who seek her skills, as she’s a prolific grower. They want to use her excess crops as ammunition in an “anti-industrial revolution,” one that will render “thinking machines,” like the mechanical bus drivers, ineffective.

That’s just one sample of Rowe’s unique vision. In some of his other stories, rivers are infested with dangerous nanotechnology, telephones carry messages from the dead, doorknobs can bite and policemen carry whips, not guns.

In the longest story in the collection, “The Voluntary State,” Kentucky insurgents capture a painter, Soma, after damaging his sentient car; Soma’s captors want to recruit him for their plan to sneak into Nashville and kill Athena Parthenus, the governor of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Jenny, a mechanic, goes to work to try and repair Soma’s car “at taxpayer’s expense.”

Rowe’s collection concludes with the 122-page novella, “The Border State,” in which brother and sister Michael and Maggie Hammersmith take off on a bike race across Kentucky and must deal with flying telephones and a thinking, vengeful river, among other things.

Publishers Weekly says that Rowe “skillfully reinvents familiar narratives and widens common story lines into a world where anything seems possible.”



By Duncan J.D. Smith

Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

“Urban Explorer” Duncan J.D. Smith, a native of Sheffield, England, is a veteran travel writer, historian and photographer (and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographic Society) who has developed a series of guide books detailing off-the-beaten-path places to visit in European cities.

In his guide to Edinburgh in Scotland, by Interlink Publishing Group of Northampton, Smith profiles a city that he says has “a split personality … of vice and virtue, world famous for its literature, learning and festivals but with a violent past that includes war, witchcraft and bodysnatching.”

You can find out more about the latter at the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, commemorating Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, whose origins date to 1505. Among the museum collections are the remains of two notorious men, William Burke and William Hare, who murdered at least 16 people in 1828 and sold the corpses to an esteemed anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox, whose career was ruined by the scandal.

You can also visit The Elephant House, a café now famous for being the place where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the material for her early Harry Potter books. A view from the café of Edinburgh’s famous medieval castle, as well as a very old cemetery, evidently were inspirations for key parts of the stories, Smith writes, particularly the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Smith’s book comes with hundreds of photos by the author, as well as a wealth of historical detail about Edinburgh.

 Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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