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The Agony Column for July 2, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


People often think that I read fast, and attribute the quantity of books I'm able to read and review to my "speed reading" skills. While I did do the obligatory Evelyn Wood course in high school, it never quite took for me. That's probably because my reading habits had been established ten years earlier, and by the time Wood got to me, I could no more change the way my eyes dove down a page of print than I could the color of my eyes. And the truth is, I'm disinclined to learn it now, though often I wish I could. At the rate I'm able to read now, I'm at least able to bathe as it were, in the words, to luxuriate the languorous prose of a great writer. I am NOT going to convert this into literary showers taken a three-a-day like some neurotic clean freak. (Many however, especially my children whom I often ask to assist in the cleaning, will attest to the fact that I am a neurotic clean freak. It's entirely untrue. Really.)


I was a big fan of the album (remember those?) titled 'Laughing Academy' by the 1970's artist Punishment of Luxury.

I also only read one book at a time. To do otherwise is heresy as far as I'm concerned, though I'm surrounded by heretics, most of whom I consider great friends. One of my reading buddies has at least three or four books going at any one time. The very thought is anathema to me. I find it hard enough to dwell in to the three or four worlds I've got going in what roughly corresponds to reality --one for each of the kids, one for the wife, and another for every-damn-body else. I can handle one well done fictional or non-fictional alternative, and beyond that, I'm a candidate for the laughing academy. Again, there are many who will say that I've always been a candidate for the laughing academy, but they're still waiting for the last laugh. In the interim, I'll continue to giggle at inopportune moments.


I should have known better, but I still have to admit liking James Herbert's 'Domain' and even (gulp) 'Sepulchre'. I cannot make the same admission about his latest novel.

I spent actual hours of my life reading this book.

The real kicker comes when you add in the final reading habit, the final reading equivalent of a neurotic twitch. There's been a thread on Usenet recently that neatly summarizes the place I find myself as I look to pick a new book to read. The thread subject is 'Finishing What You Start', with the question being, "Do you finish every book you start?" I had thought about contributing my thoughts on the matter, but they seemed to run so counter to the prevailing opinion, and the prevailing opinion was so persuasively argued, that I demurred. That's because like a truly fixated bookaholic, I finish every damn book I start no matter how bad. I finished James Herbert's 'Once...' which, though I had looked intensely forward to reading it, turned out to be a fairly challenging proposition. A couple of years ago, I ordered the very expensive imported 'Woken's Eye', by one William Smethurst. From the description it sounded as if it had potential. If words fail me when I try to describe the book, then they positively run in terror from Smethurst, or must have when he penned 'Woken's Eye'. In fact, I was so put off that I actually now avoid books that are even described as this one was.


I'm nearly finished with this excellent novel, and can hardly wait to start the next.

Does it get any better than having the sequel to a great novel lined up and ready to read? I don't think so.

So add it up: reads slow, reads one book at a time, finishes everything he reads. What this totals up to is the great importance of each choice as I read. To be fair, I counter some of those reading drawbacks by using quantity of reading time to compensate for the quality of the speed I read. Still each choice is precious, and the segues are also important. Ideally, I like to jump from genre to genre in a round robin, but my attention span and that must-read-it bug often conspire to foil my plans. For example, I'm currently reading the first of Phil Rickman's 'written as Will Kingdom' novels, 'The Cold Calling'. It's a great novel. Next up is Rickman's other Kingdom novel, 'Mean Spirit', both being read as research for an article I'm writing for another media. And because it's summer vacation, with the kids out of school, I have a bit more time to read and I've been saving these novels for far too long. They are Rickman's foray into crime fiction, featuring a resurrected detective and the wonderful border-of-Wales settings we love. If you haven't read Rickman, both of these make a fine introduction. If you have read Rickman, you (like myself) might not be aware that he's penned novels under another name. In that case, here's the delightful news: two new Rickman novels, both every bit as good as his most recent set.

Of course, there goes my genre-go-round with two supernatural mysteries novels by the same author in a row. I tell myself I deserve the privilege. But as usual, I can only say -- wait! There's more!


This was easily one of the best science fiction novels of last year. All my book buddies loved it, and for me it did in print what 'Alien' did onscreen, including scaring the bejeebers out of me.

The similarly-themed 'Chindi' by Jack McDevitt looks very promising.

Ace/Penguin Putnam has the very intriguing 'Chindi' by Jack McDevitt. I've never read anything by McDevitt, but this novel looks right in the pocket to me. It concerns the discovery of interstellar objects that are deadly and mysterious in a future where we have yet to meet intelligent alien life. I get a very definite vibe of the ultra-cool and very successful 'Ship of Fools' by Richard Paul Russo. If you haven't read 'Ship of Fools', proceed directly to your local independent bookseller and purchase a copy right away. It's certainly to my mind one of the best books of 2001 and one of the few novels to ever successfully cash in on the feel (but not the plot) Ridley Scott's 'Alien'. It's a creepy, character-driven space gothic with a genuinely shocking ending. If 'Chindi' is even playing in the same ballpark, it's bound to be pretty good. So, 'Chindi' has a shot at the science fiction slot.


Plan on seeing this image on this site repeatedly and this novel in several 'Year's Best' lists.

But -- well, you know. I just got word that one of my many copies of 'Redemption Ark' is shipping. Alastair Reynolds is certainly one of the biggest things to happen to science fiction in quite some time. 'Revelation Space' and 'Chasm City' were books that helped to finalize my re-plug back into the science fiction genre. Locus says that 'Redemption Ark' is better than either. That would come as no surprise, since Reynolds has came out of the box a more mature writer than others who have been working in the genre for years. I must say that the premise of 'Redemption Ark' is predictable sequel fodder. But 'Revelation Space' did require a sequel, and it certainly was not 'Chasm City'. I'm a little wary, but I like to keep my expectations in check when something with great potential is coming out.


How cool is this -- funny, supernatural, magical and NON FICTION?

Then there's the book supplied to me by my reading buddy. It's something I never would have found on my own, but it so much a Rick Kleffel-style book, I'm supremely glad she brought it my way. It's 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' by Tahir Shah. It's the non-fiction, true story of the author's apprenticeship to a practicing (eastern) Indian magician. Now, I must admit that from just the description, one might think this could be something interminably horrible, or at least something that would bounce off me like a superball off the marble façade of a Bank of America building. That was the fate of the Carlos Casteneda books. Though I never actually hurled whatever 'Don Juan' book I read across the room, I certainly shouted crossly at it, and resolved never, to never ever ever read another. Mind you, I did finish the book.

It takes about thirty seconds to see that 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' is nothing like Casteneda, at least my hate-it-and-try-not-throw-it-across-the-room experience of Casteneda. It's funny, very funny, and has the "here's someone really interesting talking to you about a fascinating subject" feel that distinguishes great non-fiction from feh! non-fiction. So what I have in store is non-fiction with a very Fortean feel, full of mystery and the supernatural and humor. It portends well.


John O'Grady's 'Grave Goods' also promises to be funny, magical, supernatural and non fiction. What more could I ask for?

Because however events tend to conspire against me -- or for me, really, I also have a book that leaped up at me when I was browsing at one of the local independents that looks to have many of the same qualities, though it's totally different. That would be 'Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature' by John P. O'Grady. O'Grady provides 16 essays on a diverse range of subjects, all of them apparently pretty weird. But not only does he provide a lot of variety, he does so in very little space, as the book is a mere 147 pages. I say this like it's a good thing because in some cases, brevity is the essence of wit, or some such aphorism. Brevity also makes for a quick read, which means more books read and reviewed in a shorter space of time, something that I put into consideration as I choose the books I read. Still, I could hardly imagine a more appropriate book. For example, one of the essays tells of O'Grady's experience when a man dressed in full beekeeping regalia showed up at his door. Seems the beekeeper had neglected to tell his bees of his mother's death, and they being sensitive souls had run away from home and set up shop in the woods behind O'Grady's house. The beekeeper was hoping an apology to the bees would help induce them to come home. And that's just the beginning of the essay. Other essays cover ghosts, witches, and a treasure.


This "secret history" novel manages to have Tim Powers' name in two of three blurbs. Until I find out otherwise, I'm thinking that's a good sign.

And finally, in the new books division, there's the potentially delectable 'A Scattering of Jades'. My last column touched on the joys of Alternate History. Now, there were those who wondered why I thought Alternate History was poised to become a thing, let alone a big thing. They need look no further than the Unstoppable Ship of Internet Book Commerce, under 'Science Fiction', where 'Alternate History' comes in front of 'space opera' in the list of sub-genres that comprise SF. Fortunately, 'A Scattering of Jades' appears to have a good dose of horror genre, and be more of a 'secret history' (mentioned in my last column by Mary Gentle). It concerns a New York man whose daughter might have died in the great fire of 1835. As he tries to find her, he's lured into secret societies, the Mammoth caves, the path of a Mesoamerican revenant and lots of real-life personalities. For those who have had the delightful experience of reading Tim Powers' 'The Anubis Gates', this sounds like an experience with the potential of great fun. If you haven't read 'The Anubis Gates', run, don't walk to the bookstore and read it immediately. Put it in your reading queue ahead of everything else, and don't delay.

In the interim, I'll wait for whatever interrupts my reading queue and try to finish my self-imposed assignments. I haven't even managed to mention the three Stanislaw Lem novels that are in my to-re-read-yesterday queue. And I know they're outstanding. But no, I won't consider reading them while I reading something else. What I will consider, however, is input from the readers of this column. If there's anything you want to move into my queue, let me know. I may just be willing to bump something extant. I'd be happy to read some suggestions. If they don't get bumped back out of the queue.






Rick Kleffel