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 This Just In...News from the Agony Column

11-17-06: Jonathan and Faye Kellerman Commit 'Capital Crimes'

A Book Worth Opening Up

..But not the crimes you're thinking...
So, yes, when I first saw this book, I was, not to put too fine a point on it, underwhelmed. From all appearances this looked to be another entry in the insalubrious trend of sharecropper novels, those books with a famous author's name above the fold, so to speak, but for the most part written by the not-so-famous author whose name appears below the fold.

Sharecropper books have their place I suppose, otherwise they'd be neither written nor published. If you're in search of the reading experience equivalent of mind-blanking television and a die-hard fan of the above-the-fold name, then have at 'em. They're American Cheese in its most calculated and corporate incarnation, without any of the entertaining excess that you might find in some greasier, sleazier titles. But the cheesier titles I prefer tend to get pulled along in the wake of the as-above-so-below mainstream. I can ignore the sharks and enjoy the remoras. Publishing is an economisystem just like everything else, and one need not consume at all levels to benefit.

So the appearance of a husband-and-wife, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman version of the sharecropper novel did not seem to be particularly newsworthy. I'd read a couple of Alex Delaware novels back in the 1980's and enjoyed them, but not kept up with the series. Happens all the time. I didn't really know much at all about Faye Kellerman; presumably she was related to Jonathan, probably his wife, who knew?

Well, apparently a boatload of people knew. There are at this point fifteen Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus novels by Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman's wife and she's been at it since the mid-80's as well. There are 20 Alex Delaware novels, that's 35 mainstream, many-bestselling novels in total and you know, it occurs to me that these two don’t need to sharecrop with one another. So, as usual, the Kiss Of Death (12 books with that title, none by the Kellermans), I opened up the book. Occasionally we're called on to dangerous duties. We're here to help.

Imagine my surprise (somewhat greater than yours, given all this windup, here’s the pitch) when it proves that 'Capital Crimes' (Ballantine Books /Random House ; November 21, 2006; $24.95) is not a sharecropped novel. It is something much more intriguing, a set of two novellas, one by each author, each novella featuring the author's signature character. Now this to me is news. We have no less than the biggest publisher in America popping out a book consisting of two novellas by top-name authors. Novellas, mind you in hardcover. It's almost like someone was paying attention.

Hardcover novellas have been around for years in the small press and they're a delightful format and length for those of us who like to read a wide variety of literature. You can usually gobble up an entire novella in a single sitting, or maybe two, if you're feeling luxurious. Peter Crowther over at PS Publishing made his mark with his series of novellas that featured authors such as China Miéville, Kim Newman, and James Lovegrove. Cemetery Dance, Earthling Books, and Subterranean Press (and others) all have prestigious novella lines that feature lots of award-winning authors and titles.

But scaring up a hardcover mainstream novella has been pretty damn difficult. So seeing to top-name authors, husband and wife in a single book that features two novellas actually labeled as such, well, that signals something good so far as readers are concerned. Of course, there's a catch. The particulars are as follows. First up is Jonathan Kellerman with 'My Sister's Keeper: Berkeley: A Novella'*. You've got your "progressive state representative Davida Grayson" who turns up dead. (Catty political remarks elided in the interest of such-like not being the true purview of this column.) Will Barnes and Amanda Isis hold up the main duties while I'm betting that Alex Delaware gets a walk-on. Given the political nature of the crime, your mileage may vary depending on your political leanings, or not. (See above parentheses.)

What, they first published when they were fifteen years old? How is this fair?
Then we have 'Music City Breakdown: Nashville: A Novella'*. Dead in a ditch is the key scenario here. Baker Southerby and Lamar Van Grundy, both ex-musicians, are now murder squad cops assigned to find out why Jack Jeffries, your standard-issue rock legend returning from retirement for another fast buck is found, see above. Yep, the son of a bitch shows up dead in a ditch. Well, this is Nashville, even murders have got to have rhythm. Presumably somewhere along the way, Peter Decker shows up as well. Neither dead nor in a ditch.

(* Novella Titles cobbled together from dust jacket and actual book; the city appellation is in the dust jacket and the "A novella" appellation is in the book. Since I've got a novella bee in my bonnet, I wanted to emphasize the fact that the books emphasize the fact that these are novellas.)

As it happens, these novellas aren't so much gifts to Alex Delaware and Peter Decker fans as they are launch vehicles for new series characters, which is probably not a bad thing. I mean, all of these cops have been at it since the mid-eighties, and right now, if they’ve aged chronologically, chances are the only mysteries they'd be solving would be trying to figure out the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

So new blood, probably a good idea. Novellas, great idea. Twofer format, also a great idea. (Not new, though.) Opening up the book to see what's inside: good idea. ALWAYS a good idea, as often as one prefers to simply judge by the cover. Bottom line: 'Capital Crimes' is certainly more intriguing than you might at first surmise. It might get a few new readers and satisfy lots of old readers. And it might signal a welcome new acceptance of the novella format by mainstream New York publishers. Better late than never!


11-16-06: Adam Roberts Uncovers 'The Wonga Coup'

Life Imitates a 1970's Thriller

Yesterday's thrillers becomes tomorrow's headlines.
I don’t about any of my readers, But I really enjoy the work of thriller writer Frederick Forsyth. Back when I first started getting addicted to reading, his books really grabbed me with a combination of detail, precision and excitement. 'The Day of the Jackal' is a perfect case in point. You knew in advance what the outcome was going to be and the entire thrill was in the journey there. 'The Dogs of War' spun out a more hypothetical case, and in some ways was a bit science fictional. It detailed the use of mercenaries to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. Of course, such an idea was preposterous, but it sure made exciting reading, the sort of very soft SF that thrillers occasionally manage to pull off.

Only it proved to be not the stuff of thriller, but instead, a prescient piece of science fiction that indeed came to pass. 'The Wonga Coup' (PublicAffairs / Perseus Books ; August 2006 ; $26) by Adam Roberts (NOT the British science fiction author of books including 'Salt' and 'Stone') chronicles the actual events that played out the "predictions" in Forsyth's proved-to-be prescient thriller. Equatorial Guinea is roughly the size of Maryland. (Such comparisons are called FUMs , Fortean Units of Measurement, because so much Fortean phenomena is described using these bizarre size-comparisons.) In 2004, it was a horror novel in progress. The ruler, Obiang Nguema was pretty much inarguably not a nice person. I mean, you don’t get accused of being a cannibal, or believing in witchcraft or the very modern evil of being corrupt to the tune of billions of dollars without there being some fire behind all that smoke. So, should such a man be overthrown, well, the world we be done a favor right. After all, it's just a dirt-poor, jungle-covered, disease-ridden nation nicknamed Devil's Island. Do the world a favor, overthrow the dictator, happy endings for all and no connection whatsoever to all that oil.

I guess this is sounding familiar, but it's not that part of history we're talking about here. The events covered in 'The Wonga Coup' were largely overshadowed by other goings-on, and frankly almost boring by virtue of the fact that Forsyth had already covered that ground. But when Adam Roberts comes into the picture, well that picture becomes ever so much clearer and undeniably entertaining. If, that is, you are entertained by mercenaries traveling in American registered planes carrying Zimbabwean mercenaries to Equatorial New Guinea for purposes that probably don’t involve erecting health clinics. Roberts writes a toe tapping thriller that you may have read thirty years ago and though, well, this is just a little fantasy. As it is often proved, science fiction pops up in the strangest places and works of science fiction are often only identified in hindsight. Which of course begs the question: which preposterous thriller out there right now will, in fullness of time prove to be science fiction? One can only hope the actual events are written with the skill and élan shown by Roberts. And that they are as remote as 'The Wonga Coup'.


11-15-06: Alan Dean Foster Gets a Room in 'Sagramanda'

India of the Future

Did you guess that John Picacio did the cover? Of course you did!
Well, it's not as if they didn't know or anything. 'Sagramanda' (Pyr / Prometheus ; November 14, 2006 ; $25) by Alan Dean Foster has the blurb right on the back cover from fellow Pyr author Ian McDonald, author of the superb 'River of Gods'. To me, these sorts of things seem worth mentioning. So we're clear that this is not the first "Novel of Near Future India"; it does not claim to be, mind you. And it's still too early to tell whether or not we're at the start of a wave of novels of India in the near future.

Of course, India itself seems to be the near future, a Blade Runner-esque combination of super-high-tech with multiple layers of ethnic and religious culture clashes buffeting about. So setting a novel in near-future India seems, somehow, right. The near future seems a lot nearer in India than it might seem to be elsewhere.

Foster is primarily known for his high-profile novelizations of movies that need not be named here. You've heard of them, seen the books and probably seen the movies so many times your brain is starting to melt at the prospect of seeing them again. To my mind his lower profile novelizations, such as 'Dark Star' are more compelling. And both unfairly sideline his exemplary original work. There's a not insignificant chance that 'Sagramanda' may go quite a long ways towards redressing this cruel injustice; here's an original novel by Foster that might make one hell of a major motion picture. From injustice to justice served in a single novel. It’s funny how these things work out.

All speculation aside, 'Sagramanda' is certainly toe-taping slice of a life that we may all too soon be living, nicely complicated by the setting. Taneer has stolen something from his company, and they want it back. They'll kill to get it back. Some might kill to see it stolen and sold. Taneer is at the nexus of a series of complex social relationships that just became, by virtue of his potentially virtuous act, far more complicated. And bloody.

What Foster does is take a fairly well-known thriller plotline and by running it through the Indian culture, turns it both into an exotic novel of another world as well as an even more toe-tapping thriller. The kind of class divisions that we have here in the States but refuse to acknowledge or speak of are right out in the open in India. The kind of religious schisms that we alternately bow to or pretend do not exist are part and parcel of everyday life in India. The kind of huge, wild tigers that roam our cities on a regular basis, well. Scratch that. In India, you do have that jungle and those tigers are real, unless of course they are avatars of gods best left unspoken to or of. In which case they are more real than real. But this sort of hair-splitting about reality is pretty much immaterial when the damn thing is tearing your throat out. Or is it? If a god tears your throat out, it sort of says something either about the god or the life you're living.

Foster does not waste time and at 284 pages, his novel whips by like a whirlwind vacation of a place your where exotic proves to be more problematic than one might hope. 'Sagramanda' partakes of the aura of India without getting lost in the slums. Foster is an American writing for an American audience. But this novel has the sort of appeal and the sort of feel that might well translate into film with international implications. 'Sagramanda' sneaks up on you softly. You read it thinking that mayhaps you’re just going to have good time, and then discover that not only are you going to have a good time – this monster is going to rip your face off. The near future is already here, just a continent away. It is not friendly.


11-14-06: A Few Fine Catalogues

Mark V. Ziesing, Ken Lopez and Sawtooth Books Make Offers You Cannot Refuse

The latest from Ken Lopez.
Books don't just materialize out of thin air. You can either trudge out across the tundra, mile after mile, to buy them, in the frozen hell of a chain bookstore, should you be inclined towards eternal damnation or have one of those handy self-cleaning consciences. You can hop on your bicycle and it becomes a sunny day, chasing the clouds away, and ride to your local independent bookseller and buy local support local and hope that the owner's children are thus less likely to be inclined to toilet paper your house on Halloween evening.

Or you can go to your mailbox and pick up this week's deliveries from any one of a number of catalogues. The thing about book catalogues for book lovers is that they make great reading themselves. Yes, we love to read the latest mind-bogglingly good and funny Richard Ford novel, 'The Lay of the Land' ; 'tis to die for, such reading. But we're complicated people, book lovers. Some folks read a Land's End Catalogue and look at sweaters; some read Sharper Image and look at gizmos; some read Orion Telescopes in hopes they might see stars; and some of us read Mark V. Ziesing, Sawtooth Books and Ken Lopez. Keep them around and pet them even if we can't afford to buy everything we want. In fact, it would be bad if we could buy everything we wanted. The idea is that within them, we can discover just what it is we do want and precisely how much in terms of dollars, we want it.

Great front cover and inside of the latest Ziesing. Easy to read reading about reading.

Now, these three catalogues cover a rather wide variety of styles and books. Let's start with the Mark V. Ziesing catalogue. I've flogged his stuff a bazillion times here, so perhaps this is superfluous, but Ziesing is to me the Zenith of a certain type of catalogue. He features largely new books, that is recently published. Just out. What Ziesing offers is a very entertaining and wide-ranging selection of eclectic titles. You get imports, small press, big press, limiteds, pamphlets, chapbooks, the whole range in these terms. And you also get a wide variety of literature. Ziesing trends towards genre and science fiction, but he includes lots of literary fiction, lots of very oddball non-fiction and best of all titles you are not likely to see featured anywhere else. Mark's catalogue is printed in B&W and includes lots of cover shots of the books. This issue, for example, 201, includes Dominic Peloso's 'Adopted Son' from Invisible College Press in Arlington, a trade paperback at $15.95; it's a novel of the near future about children being born who aren't quite human. It sounds beguilingly intriguing. On the same page, 'Special Topics in Calamity Physics' the super-hot, can't miss it if you want to new novel by Marisha Pessl. And that's just where it falls open naturally. You buy a book from Mark, he'll send you that catalogue and it is better reading than most magazines. Mark's take on books is funny and he's not always enamored of everything he carries. His stuff is most amusing and to my mind, one must buy stuff from him. If you need expensive collector's items, he's got 'em listed in small print at the back of the catalogue. Beware! You'll spend a lot of money once you start squinting. The small print is your preventive friend. You can call up Mark at this number: 530-474-1580, visit his website here, or email him at

Danger Will Robinson! Danger!
George Baker runs a little shop called Sawtooth Books, and he's just released Catalogue 55. It's pretty bare bones in terms of what you get in the catalogue; 12 pages, 262 items, individually listed and described. It is an interim catalogue, and he often ships stuff that is perilously long. That said they are a pretty choice 262 items and they're mostly new arrivals. How about a signed UK first of Peter Ackroyd's 'First Light' for only fifty bucks? Dangerous, if you ask me, to the fifty bucks you were going to spend on groceries. Oh well, you ate Ramen in college, what's the diff now if you feed your high-school kid Ramen? It’s not like he's growing up and it's better than the Taco Smell he'd probably buy if you tried to feed him something decent. Or a signed first edition of Chuck Palahniuk's 'Invisible Monsters' (TPB) for a mere $125. Ladies, are you reading this? Your husband is sending you a message when he emailed you this URL. Trust me. Sawtooth offers a literary and non-fiction oriented selection with lots of very valuable and to-die-for titles that will make you ask, "New transmission for the station wagon or Cormac McCarthy?" I just hope that you have good public transportation where you live, or that you work at home. You can visit the Sawtooth Books website, and don’t blame me for what happens when you go there. You can call up Mr Baker at 208-426-0661, or email

You know you want these. Well either these or the cars you own.

And finally Ken Lopez, of Ken Lopez Bookseller. These catalogues are, not to put too fine a point on it, pure porn for book people. The catalogues themselves are gorgeous and printed on heavy stock that is finer than most magazines and many trade paperback books. Each catalogue includes several pages of color plates that will show you pictures of titles you've only ever dreamed of seeing. The book descriptions are thorough and complete. The prices trend towards the astronomical, but then so does the selection. Faulker, Steinbeck, Harper Lee, still my beating heart. But Lopez is not exclusively a domain of the insanely expensive. Sure, you can pick up 'The Grapes of Wrath' for a cool $15K, but you can also find Robert Stone's 'Dog Soldiers' for a mere $300. (The latter mentioned to me by no less stellar a talent than Richard Ford, whose work is also available at less-than-tragic prices.) Lopez really puts on the show here, and you'd best be willing to buy something to get these catalogues. It’s worth it. His latest features Native American Literature, with an introduction by Gerald Vizenor, lots of color plates and lots of books that aare fascinating simply to read about. It would make a remarkable magazine with as I mentioned before, production qualities that would give a retail cost of $15-$20, minimum, and it would be worth it. You can reach Ken Lopez at his website, you can call him at 413-584-4827, or email him via It is so worth it.

And the point of this little article is NOT the vendor's websites. It is the hardcopy catalogues that these guys send out. You can look at them anywhere, carry them with you and loan them to people. These are catalogue to sell books that make great reading in themselves. If you love books and reading about books then you don’t want to do so only when seated in front of the computer. These catalogues offer a lot of joyful reading about reading; it's a recursion that we could all stand to experience more often.


11-13-06: Non-Fiction Steampunk

A 2006 Interview with Erik Larson

Danger, high voltage steampunk non-fiction.
Prepare to be swept away when you read 'Thunderstruck' by Erik Larson. It's truly an immersive experience, surrounding you in the sights and sounds of two stories that weave together in a compelling true-crime, high-tech story; a story set at the turn of the twentieth century. I talked to author Erik Larson not long ago about this book and his previous book, 'The Devil in the White City', and if his books are immersive, then he counts himself successful. What's fascinating to me is that as immersive as the books are, as thoroughly as they build a world different from ours, when you read them now, you can't help but think of the modern parallels.

'Thunderstruck' is a Victorian and Edwardian crime thriller about Harvey Hawley Crippen, a notorious murderer who is brought to justice through the use of Marconi's wireless telegraphy. It's also a biz-thriller about Marconi's incredible drive to create and market an invention which science and common sense told him was impossible. As I read it I was immersed while simultaneously thinking that Marconi reminded me of a dot-com innovator, a guy who had no science background yet founded an incredibly successful technically based business in a remarkably competitive environment. Talking with Larson, I found out about his inspirations for pursuing his peculiarly appealing writing genre – narrative non-fiction crime and tech thrillers, and readers will find themselves quite rewarded. I also talked to him about his research techniques and his adventures in the archives.

Juicy Fruit gum for you.
Lots of scenes in 'Thunderstruck' will remind readers of the best steampunk Victorian science fiction one could hope for with the added appeal of it all being true. If you like gas-lit, windswept landscapes, towering structures crawling with electricity swaying in the storms, telegraphs and radios so powerfully charged that the strikes are literally like thunder, then you'll love 'Thunderstruck' and enjoy hearing Larson talk about it. It's as if you're reading Mary Shelley's lost novel of technological hubris.

You can download the MP3 version of the interview, the RealAudio version of the interview or subscribe to the podcast. Larson is a remarkably entertaining guy in person, just as you might expect from reading his books. He's also the portrait of the perfect best-selling author; a great prose stylist who keeps the pages flying, an assiduous researcher and a man with a talent for picking fascinating subjects. This is a book that geeky SF-heads will love as well as historical non-fiction readers and even their mothers, sisters, wives and friends. At least that's how it worked for me!