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 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

07-08-05: 'Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film'; 'Blood Red' by James Moore

Jimmy McDonough Just Can't Get Enough

But who could get enough?
Rock biographies aren't usually of interest to me, but when 'Shakey: Neil Young's Biography' by Jimmy McDonough came out, it piqued my interest because it looked to be just about as messy as the musician's life. Now, McDonough's back with a biography that really does have a lot of appeal -- sex appeal. 'Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film' (Crown / Random House ; July 5, 2005 ; $26.95) looks to have the same kind of seedy ambience that made 'Bottom Feeders: From Free Love to Hard Core: The Rise and Fall of Counterculture Heroes Jim and Artie Mitchell' such a great read. Books like this for me run right along the border of true crime, and if they're well written, they offer a glimpse of an America that is not seen often enough in either fact or fiction.

Meyer, born in 1922, had a family that might have come out of one of his films. With a mother who would unsubtly put the moves on his young friends and sister who ended up in Camarillo, he started out with an unusual attitude towards women. As a kid, his only escape from the strangeness was behind a $9.95 8mm movie camera. He first found himself behind a camera for pay in World War II, where he worked as a combat photographer. Upon his return, he found out that Evelyn "Treasure Chest" West was appearing at a cabaret in Oakland. He pitched himself as her agent, promising eight-by-ten still photos, which he developed in the family bathtub. Meyer tells us that his mother's response was, "What a lovely girl Russell -- and what big, beautiful breasts." Thus does a career launch.

McDonough got access to Meyer -- a notorious exaggerator and self-lacerater -- and documented what he heard from the man with dozens of other sources. The result is a wonderfully frank, funny and rather action-packed biography. And if you're looking for a genre fiction connection, here's an idea of what you can expect, as McDonough sinks his teeth into the making of the now-seminal Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! : "Armed with a crazy screenplay -- a script that Meyer says Eve wasn't fond of and had to be talked into co-financing -- RM assembled one of his most exquisite casts. Playing Kirk was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Paul Trinka, a health food nut whose bad breath would have Satana complaining for the next thirty-five years." McDonough doesn't go easy on his subject either. In a chapter titled "Shit Floats", he writes of Meyer's 'Common Law Cabin' and 'Good Morning and Goodbye', "These two unrelenting hatefests are silver bullets of badness oh-so-tightly packed with RM's soiled, despairing view of humanity, the sort of sad bile usually found in the dime-store novels of Jim Thompson." Talk about a backhanded complement!

What McDonough does is to pack this book with the kind of action you just can't make up; sordid humans engaged in sordid lives that are well, larger than the average life. Meyer may have been a marginal man with marginal talents, but he was smart enough to the plug in to a power source waiting to drive an entire industry. McDonough is smart enough to plug into Meyer at the level, down in the dirt. And he's really entertaining. Frankly, as soon as I read about Paul Trinka, I was there. When Meyer was filming Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, I was building the submarine Seaview. So. We met at last. It's a pleasure.

Earthling Books Part 3: Tramps, Vamps and "Parts of Your Body That Disgust Me More than Your Face"

No cover art yet, but I'm lobbying for Edward Miller.
James Moore's 'Blood Red' (Earthling Books ; October 2005 ; $40.00) does what all the best vampire novels do; it shitcans the stereotype and digs for blood beneath the skin. The second in Earthling's 'Halloween' series of novels follows a very auspicious first book by Glen Hirschberg, 'Mr. Dark's Carnival'. Hard act to follow.

But Moore seems to be up to the task. 'Blood Red' operates at a very simple level. It's Halloween and the vampires are coming to eat. But these aren't the seducers of Anne Rice's vampire world. These are gritty, suburban vampires reminiscent of those found in Stephen King's wonderful 'Salem's Lot' and Robert R. McCammon's 'They Thirst'. Moore also offers a modicum of humor to leaven his horror and he's pretty good at it, as the throwaway title line indicates.

But what really gets under the reader's skin here is the telescoped-down relentlessness, the twenty-four hour slice-of-life-and-death story that attracts writers both good and bad to the horror genre. Like many of the best, Moore makes it look easy. But it is most assuredly not easy. What he does with the vampire legend will cause some people's fangs to fall out, but that's why this book should get past your "I NEVER READ VAMPIRE STORIES" filter.

We all need our share of toe-tapping, page turning American Cheese. 'Blood Red' promises that cheese and some ham, and the kind of hypnotic trance that results in you telling people to leave you alone because you're busy.

You're busy reading, and you're reading books that come only from one of America's finest small-press publishers. Have at it. Next year, another Halloween feast. Have you tried the apples this year?

07-07-05: Eric Brown Documents 'The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne'; Simon Clarke & Tim Lebbon Get Up To 'Exorcizing Angels'

Two of a Perfect Pair, Part One

Airship battles in a retro future. Click image for large version.
I've got a number of these perfect pairs lined up, and not alas, scads of time to write about them. Still, here's something that proves the existence of those Platonic Ideals, and the potential for them to be realized, on a regular basis by completely different entities in the real world.

It's certainly no secret to longtime readers of this column that I'm a fan of Peter Crowther's discovery of the Platonic Ideal in a published, hardcover novella. In retrospect, somewhere down the line, Crowther will be revered for his brilliance and bravery to pursue this path to the bloody end, no matter what may come to pass. The latest results can be found in the form of Eric Brown's lovely looking 'The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne' (PS Publishing ; June 30, 2005 ; £25 HC/£10 TPB). Form and function combine to perfection in the lovely little gift to readers. What more can we ask?

Well, for starters, we can always ask for more of Eric Brown. He's a writer who might unkindly be lumped with the midlist, but he's top rate in my book. I loved 'A Writer's Life', his first PS novella. This time around, he's on to an idea whose time has certainly come. Now, I'll be the first to admit that this isnt a new idea. There was a TV series based on a similar premise, the premise here being that before he wrote his famous novels, Verne himself was involved in a few strange adventures that might have influenced his fiction.

What Brown does so elegantly is to take up the style of Verne's -- and Wells' -- prose styles and provide a sort of retro future and a futuristic past, packed chock full of telling details and detailed storytelling. Readers who like to play "spot the reference" will have a grand time. Everyone else will simply be amazed by the procession of adventures.

And readers who know me know also that at least for this set of years in space and time, one of my favorite cover artists is Edward Miller, and that he's been an essential part of the PS success story. He's back at it with this gorgeous cloudscape, which I was forced, I tell positively forced to render in gatefold on one of my totally unpatented Platonic discoveries, the full-size, full-cover page. Ah, buy and be happy, from out of the literary caves and shadows, Peter Crowther has snatched a bit of perfection and published it. What more can we ask?
Two of a Perfect Pair, Part Two, Earthling Books Part 2

Exorcising the ghosts of great writers.Click Image to see full size version.
Well, simply put that another publisher twig to this idea and start down the same path. And who better to find the same Platonic ideal than Paul Miller over at Earthling Books. Yes, I know, this Tim Lebbon's and Simon Clark's 'Exorcising Angels' (Earthling Books ; October, 2003 ; $35.00) has been around for nigh-on two years, but what the hell. If I'm operating at a two-year lag time, then I should be grateful, and I am. Because we have another publisher who has seen the same light. We have here something unique as well, something that goes beyond the simple novella format.

But first off, we have another shortish book fronted by a gorgeous Edward Miller cover, though this one is one the dark and dense side. And anyone with a bit of a weird literary reading background will quickly grasp the joy of what two of my favorite horror authors have done -- a tribute to the horror giant, Arthur Machen. One of Machen's most famous stories has actually become a sort of proto-urban legend. Here's the gist. Machen wrote 'The Bowmen' in 1915. In this story, he described a divine intervention that helped the British escape in the disastrous Battle of Mons in 1914. But such were the times and the hopes of the people that his story was quickly held up as being a recitation of true events. Clark and Lebbon collaborate to bring Machen and his tale to life in the Second World War.

In addition, each contributes their own tale in the style of Machen, who wrote restrained but visionary stories. Lebbon provides an Introduction, and Clark the Postscript. And thus not only is the book two of a perfect pair, in itself it combines two of a perfect pair. And it suggests that the Platonic ideals, once unearthed and made real, proliferate. The shadows have come out of the caves. As has that which casts the shadows. The end result is more books, beautifully produced, quickly read. Read fast, then read faster. What else is there to do?

07-06-05: 'Hammerjack' by Marc D. Giller; A Column in Little Bits: Looking at the Small Press Publisher Earthling Publications

The Inevitable Post-Matrix Post-911 Cyberpunk Novel

OK, so you've got your lonely guy, rainy streets, hard-boiled cyberdude. The names Cray. Cray Alden.
Don't hold it against 'Hammerjack' by Marc D. Giller (Bantam Spectra / Random House; June 7, 2005 ; $12.00) that the publication of a novel fitting this description could have been predicted by even the primitive AIs we have at this stage of the game. Often, fulfilling the prophecy is a good thing. Well, it is about half the time in fiction. The other half of the time, it spells doom.

In this case, 'Hammerjack' spells doom for any rational, productive activity from the time you pick it up till the time you drop it down. I'd recommend a quiet time, some beach time, some back porch-time will be your best bet for cracking this book. Yes, the combination of colors and images on the cover is this side of garish. The yellow is there in case you thought you might not be getting some cheese with this order. But if this is cheese, then it's the kind of cheese you want, in big huge greasy chunks. Frankly, I think this is better than the cover indicates, but I've got to admit that sitting amidst the piles of books I saw in an occasional visit to the unnamed chain, this one just jumped right out. So, score one for the lowball approach. Heck, maybe they'll pick up some video gamers. Snatch some folks right out of the evil electronic clutches the novel itself so convincingly portrays.

This book has all the ingredients youd expect. The organic supercomputer. The bad-ass hackers. The one-time hacker gone good, named Cray. Heck, the author knows a bit of cyber history. That's a good sign. An anti-tech cult. Good allied with bad to a common purpose.

But you could have guessed all that without my help -- heck that's the sort of stuff the aging AI would predict. But what you get free, absolutely, time-bleedingly, mind-bleedingly, money-bleedingly free from the aging non-AI writing this column is an actual read on the book. Its a good read, its the kind of book that will suck your time dry and leave you blinking afterwards waiting for the inevitable sequel and looking round for an equal. So look, you've slurped up all the Neal Asher and Richard Morgan you can get your hands on, including the blurbs they provide on the back cover of this one. You want some background? Heres a guy who got the opportunity to pitch screenplays to 'Star Trek:The Next Generation' and 'The X-Files'. He's got a web page that's worthy of your valuable time, as long as youre not billing at the rate of a senior partner in a major law firm.

Time to lay down the dollars and take leave of your senses. You wont regret it. There's no virtual reality like a book. And unlike all the video game realities your kids -- or you yourself -- are addicted to, this one wont make you dumber, though those in your vicinity will think you've been struck dumb. Stop talking, start reading. The inevitable has arrived in fine fettle.

Earthling Publications: 'King Rat' by China Miéville served with a side of Mini-Interview

Heavy, black leather.
I've been a fan of Earthling Publications for a long, long time. Readers need look no farther than my Review Index to find my early-for-this-site review of Michael Marshall Smith's 'Cat Stories' an early chapbook from this now-prolific publisher. Over the next week or so, I'll be writing a column about their wonderful works, one bit at a time, since alas, I never seem to get the time to sit down and spit it all out at once. So I'm going to start at the top, with a book that you must have, pretty much no matter who you are, if you are reading this column.

I'm presuming that nobody here has hidden under a rock so successfully that they've managed to avoid China Miéville. If you have, damn, I envy you really. What a wonderful literary legacy you have ahead of you! 'Perdido Street Station', 'The Scar', 'Iron Council'. I can tell you all about when and where I was reading each of these. They're like steps in my growth, though as much as I'm supposed to be "becoming a better person", in truth, I havent grown much at all. Still, damn, the USS Hornet. Up all night, the tiny bunks like coffins.

And count yourself especially lucky as regards Miéville, because the first time you encounter 'King Rat', you have the opportunity to read it in an optimal state. This is about as great as books get, my friends. For a mere $85.00 you're going to get something that you'll love a lot for along time, you'll spend money that you'll thank yourself for spending, every time you glance at the spine of the whole book, for years to come. Trust me, I know this because this is in the league of the Scream/Press Barker editions that have warmed my heart for some twenty years.

It certainly resembles them in quality, size and construction. The slipcase is a heavy, cloth bound box that feels stiffer than any cardboard. It oozes quality. But once you get to the book on the inside, then you'll see what I'm talking about. This is shiny full black leather, with a legible version of China's signature on the cover. The binding is solid and substantial. You want a book that will last for years? This is the book that will last for years.

Now, as to the content. This is China's first novel, and, as youd expect, it's beyond excellent. It's not a Bas-Lag novel, but a contemporary novel set to the drum-and-bass beat of the times when it was written. It's every bit as good as anything he's written - and it's rather different, a compelling contemporary fairy tale for adults. Here, you get an introduction by, appropriately, Clive Barker. You get an afterword by China himself, talking about the creation of the book, and looking back on the book in retrospect. Damn, youre lucky, aren't you? Some of us had to read trade paperbacks or Tor hardcovers.

Had to scan this three times to come even close to doing it justice.
And none of those had the gorgeous illustrations by Richard Kirk. I've only reproduced the title page here. The rest of them are left up to you to see when you buy it, and there are plenty of them. You'll have to find them in the copies you buy, and I'd suggest you buy them soon. My tardiness in getting this damn article together has certainly meant that the supply has dwindled significantly. Any questions? Here are China's answers to mine!

RK: Did you approach Earthling?

CM: No! I'd never approach a publisher about doing a limited, I'd feel too self-aggrandizing! They approached me.

RK: Also how do you feel about an acclaimed first novel that came out first as a royal PB -- in keeping with the anarchic and democratic nature of the narrative -- coming out as rockingly beautiful exclusive limited edition for obsessive collector geeks?

CM: I don't have a problem with it because the mass market is out there. The thing about collectibles is they're only anti-democratic if that's the only format in which something's available. It's an alternative, rather than an exclusionary, market.

RK: What input did you have into its creation and design?

CM: Not much directly, but we chatted about various concepts and whatnot. It's not my role to lay down limits, and that's fine, a specially designed book is a collaboration with designer and illustrator.

RK: How do you feel about the illustrations? Are they "cooking about painting"?

CM: Naw, they're great! They are, as I say, a collaboration.RK: Anything you can say about the upcoming versions of the Bas-Lag novels?

CM: Nuh uh.RK: And finally, do you cook? What's for dinner?

CM: Cheese, vegetarian ham substitute, olives and asparagus.

Look, buy the book and cut up your credit card. Not hard, China will approve and you still have time to save up for the upcoming releases in Earthling's Classics series; the next one is a 20th Anniversary edition of Dan Simmons' 'Song of Kali'. But there's a lot more Earthling where this one came from. Stay tuned for tomorrow's column-in-a-news-item!

07-05-05: Alma Alexander's Roisinan Tales

Fantasy From Down Under

By Terry Weyna

No longer hidden from American eyes!
Theres a great deal of exceptional fantasy and science fiction being written Down Under, and we only get to see a tiny fraction of it here in the United States. Even then, much of it is available only in limited editions that can only be obtained by special order, or it isnt reviewed anywhere of importance and escapes our attention, or it simply cant be found in the local Barnes & Noble because someone else picked up the only copy the store had.

For example: how many of you have read – or even seen – Stephen Dedmans 'The Lady of Situations'? Right – thats what I thought. That means youve missed this talented writers best work, a book that Locus called “amongst the best short story collections of the year” in 1999. It never even saw publication in the U.S. Of course, you won't need to miss it anymore, now that is bringing out many of the stories in 'Never Seen by Waking Eyes' -- covered here last week.

Apparently the way for an Australian or New Zealander to get his or her work published in the States is to move here. Thats what Alma Alexander did, and that, presumably, is why we can treat ourselves to 'The Hidden Queen' (Eos / HarperCollins, $6.99, May 2005) and its sequel, 'Changer of Days' (Eos / HarperCollins, $6.99, June 2005). These lovely little books detail the early life of Anghara Kir Hama following her ascension to the throne of Roisinan upon the death in battle of her father, Red Dynan – and her swift deposition by her illegitimate older brother, Sif Kir Hama.

Changer of reading habits as well.
We follow this extraordinary child for nine years, watching her grow from a brave, inherently royal girl into an accomplished mystic, especially due to the development of her extraordinary gift of Sight, a sort of witchcraft, a sort of extra-sensory perception, a sort of communication with the gods. We travel with her to a foster family, to something like a nunnery, on a long trip down river. We arrive with her in a desert, where a different race lives in harmony with a harsh environment, one where magic is integral to life, and religion and the Sight merge.

This is not cutting edge fantasy, but neither is it fantasy to be relegated to the pile of Lord of the Rings clones. You wont find elves or dragons, and the villains here are much more frightening than orcs, because theyre human.

What you will find is very good value for the price: a strong story beautifully written, characters skillfully and fully drawn. The transparent style and the smooth flow of the story are mesmerizing. These are excellent books to tuck into the beach bag, to loll with in a hammock on a sunny Sunday, to curl up with on a rainy day.


07-04-05: 'Captain Bluebear' and 'The Bright Spot'

Celebrate Your Independence With Unusual Reading

A Bright Spot in your reading queue. Please buy this book now, so we can see more of it's kind.
Well, for most of you, it's probably already Tuesday, and you're back at the grindstone. But if youre a reader, you can celebrate your independence every single damn day of your life, by having your nose in a book that's well, a bit beyond the usual shtick. For this Fourth of July, I've chosen a couple of books that are definitely outside of the norm, one that you might miss, and one that you might not be able to escape. But both share a common element.

They're kind of weird.

In a good way, in the way that makes reading more fun.

Let's get right into Robert Sydney's 'The Bright Spot' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; July 5, 2005 ; $6.99), because this is the kind of book that definitely deserves a spotlight but may wander outside of your radar. If the cover makes you think more of Lord Peter Wimsey than Philip K. Dick, well, you're on to something. But inside the screwball comedy cover beats a very offbeat heart. 'The Bright Spot' ducks under just about every convention for both the science fiction and mystery genres, though it works deftly in both. Now, while I enjoy the big-scale adventures and the heroes who are secretly avatars of some grand technology, I long for science fiction novels of average Joes in the future. When I read about a transformative technology unleashed by a scientific genius, I often wonder, "Yeah, but what about the folks who live in the burbs, what are they doing? What are their jobs like, their lives like in this future?" Robert J. Sydney's 'The Bright Spot' features Nick and Lu, two actors who are working stiffs just trying to make ends meet.

If this sounds suspiciously like the Nick and Nora of Dashiell Hammet, well consider your suspicions confirmed. But Nick and Lu live a world that is more Philip K. Dick than Philip Marlowe, a media-drenched day-after-tomorrow where there's no barrel bottom that has been left unscraped, no barrel that has not been upended and turned over to see what's left beneath. From a teen-oriented adaptation of Milton -- "Lucky Lucifer's Pair'o'Dice" -- to a sequel to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- "African Queen meets Last Tango in Paris, but without the butter and leeches" -- Nick and Lu work in one obscenity after another and never even get to the porn business.

But then the easy money comes their way, a job re-creating the past for an elderly rich man. Of course, easy money is never clean, and the dirt on these bills involves a time travel scam and a technology that has permeated the marketplace. Then things go from complicated to dangerous, the way they often do. Sydney combines light-hearted humor, insightful satire, and low-key but imaginative technological speculation. All of this and working stiffs too. What more could you ask for?

Well, that $6.99 price tag, for starters. And you might want a more attention-grabbing cover, but that's where I come in. See that cover? Do me a favor. Find it and buy it. Strike a blow for the working stiffs, for the average Joes, for the folks in the suburbs, sitting in traffic jams while Mad Scientists Change the World. As it happens, at the end of the day, the working stiffs go home, take off their shoes, put up their feet and relax, and there are a whole lot more of them than there are Mad Scientists or Avatars of the Secret Way. A million madcap Joe Six-Packs are going to Save the World today. Tune in -- to an oddball bit of literature. It looks like a paperback book, but it's going to bring about World Peace.

How weird can you get? Pretty weird.
Now Walter Moers' 'The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear'(Overlook Press ; October 31, 2005; $26.95) looks like something Completely Different. In the first place, when it lands with a giant "THUNK" in the bookstores, youre going to have to dodge it. They aren't letting this one get out undercover. But they are publishing it with 704 pages, 136 black and white illustrations and 2 maps. With that kind of heft, you should be able to guess that this is not your usual book for all ages.

So just what the hell is 'The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear'? Well, having had this for a week or so, I'd suggest that it's most like an old Stanislaw Lem collection, 'The Star Diaries'. But starring a big blue bear.

First off, a bit of history. 'The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear' was first published in Germany in 1999, where it became a massive hit. It was first translated into English in the same year, but only published in the UK. The folks over at Overlook had the wit and wisdom to snap it up and bring it to you and you should thank them, thank them, thank them. This very odd, very imaginative and wonderfully illustrated book is totally delightful. Think Jonathan Swift dipped in 1960's silly psychedelia and offered up with a side order of wonderful woodcut illustration. Or Doctor Who in Blue. Or -- well, there's probably nothing at all like it, which is why I like it.

The deal is that Bluebears have 27 lives, but in this volume we only get to see 13 and a half. Each adventure takes place in a baroquely imagined world with enough twists and turns to pad out a season of scripts for the good Doctor. The stories are intricate and subtle, surreal and silly. Did I say silly? We havent had silliness this pure since Douglas Adams picked up a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

What distinguishes this from the positive torrent of similar titles is a density, a complexity that will leave your head spinning in a most pleasant manner. Leavened with entries from the Encyclopedia of the Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamora and Its Environs by one Professor Abdullah Nightingale, this Bluebear book is the perfect addition to your bedstand stack, and something you can pass on to your kids without fear of being too embarrassed. Though they may wonder at some of the psychedelic aspects. Never admit anything! Just enjoy the non-stop firehose of wild imagination. Epic fantasy mixes with wicked satire and you get to drink the Kool Aid. Hey, it's safe. Really!

So look, you can't get the Bluebear book yet, but today, this very instant you can walk on down and pick up The Bright Spot. Celebrate your independence from das Massenmedium. Settle down, enjoy your Average Joe holiday. Get ready to SAVE THE WORLD.