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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


11-30-07: 'Now You're One of Us' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Craig Graham, Vagabond Books

Asa Nonami Joins the Family

Cover design by David Heasly; photo by Geoff Spear. S-c-a-r-y.

Nothing is quite so frightening as happiness. We look at the smiling faces, the hands being held and wonder, What the hell are those people hiding?

Unfortunately, our imaginations are happy to fill in the blanks. Cut and paste from your favorite lurid news source, add a dash of hometown strange, and you've got your own private nightmare. Should you have any difficulty, however, legions of writers are queued up to inform you. Adding a very unsettling angle is Asa Nonami in 'Now You're One of Us' (Vertical ; November 20, 2007 ; $14.95), in which Noriko marries into the perfect family, the Shitos. It's the nature of that perfection that rapidly comes into question. Yes, they’re perfect – but what have they perfected?

Nonami doesn't waste time with a lot of setup. When 'Now You're One of Us' starts, Noriko is already ensconced in the family estate, living in a single dwelling with eight others. Her hubby adores her, her in-laws fawn, business thrives. But not without a price. The raggedy man who approaches her one sunny, bright morning claims asks if the rent can wait, just a little while.

A small thing really, easily dismissed.

But the unease sets in and does not depart. Nonami is a master of the quietly disturbing observation, and layers the novel effectively, leading the reader deeper and deeper into a family history that bears all too close a resemblance to actual history. Shot through with violence, sexual subjugation and unpleasant combinations of the two. Of course everything has an explanation and our heroine finds herself thinking "Shouldn’t I be satisfied with that?" When you're comfortable, it's so much easier to let the facts drift, isn’t it? It's so much easier to drift into horror.

Cults, families and the differences between the two melt as Noriko finds her identity under assault. This is what being part of family does; it changes you. We always assume that it's for the better, but as Noriko begins to find out "the better" can be very easily re-defined. Nonami twists Japanese societal norms ever so effectively, turning charm into creep and happiness into horror. Mind, you have to enjoy the sort of embarrassing horror genre that Nonami is writing within. The terrors are not simply physical, but emotional; the fear of being disgraced is more powerful in Japan than America, at least for the moment.

Vertical is offering this one as a trade paperback with a cover that is every bit as creepy as the novel within. For fifteen bucks, you too can experience the prose equivalent of finding a pubic hair embedded in your bath soap. And all the seas of Araby shall never wash you clean.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Craig Graham, Vagabond Books : On the Road to Perdition

Home sweet home for those who roam.

Today I spoke with the Craig Graham, owner of Vagabond Books in Pacific Palisades, California. I know about this bookstore because Dennis Macmillan told me about finding a paperback copy of 'Whip Hand' by Charles Willeford writing as Franklin Sanders at Vagabond. So, I got on the phone and spoke with the owner about A conversation with Craig Graham, owner of Vagabond Books, about 30 years of book culture that include James Ellroy, Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman and more. You can hear the MP3 of our conversation here. If the honorable trade of selling books is on the road to perdition, then soon all book stores will be vagabonds.


11-29-07: Juliet Marillier Reveals 'Cybele's Secret' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Molly Gloss, Karen Joy Fowler and Terry Bisson

Very Well-Traveled

We always want a big version of a Kinuko Y. Craft cover.

'Cybele's Secret' (Tor UK / Macmillan ; December 14, 2007 ; £14.99) by Juliet Marillier is a book that barely even flirted with the Rolling Shelves. It traveled directly to a place of honor next to 'Wildwood Dancing' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; December 14, 2007 ; £7.99), now out as a mass-market paperback. Some books really bring out the compulsive collector in me, and these gorgeous Tor UK hardcovers are definitely in that class. Everything about these books says, "Read me," from the Kinuko Y. Craft covers to the Author's Notes at the end of the book. Tor UK has done a fantastic job at packaging these books. Even though these are being sold as "Young Adult fantasy," they look like real books. The sort you put directly on your shelves in a place of honor.

For me, typesetting matters. So part of the appeal here is the small-press worthy font size and leading. The words seem to leap off the page, but not in a manner that suggests kiddie book. I can't really put my finger on why that is; it's probably an artifact of page design and layout. Whoever set this book did a fantastic job and deserves commendation.

But all the great covers and nice deign wouldn’t matter a whit were it not for the essential ingredient, Juliet Marillier's writing. With these Paula in the Other Kingdom novels she seems to have found an easy synthesis of contemporary fantasy and fairytale myths, a way of telling stories and stories within stories that is compelling and suspenseful for readers of any age. When you read the book, you’re just going to experience the seamless whole of Marillier's story. This time around, Paula travels with her father to Istanbul to purchase Cybele's Gift, an ancient artifact that one might presume has ties to the Other Kingdom. Perils in this world and others pursue her; myths unfold before her eyes and she becomes enmeshed in stories that have yet to be told as myths. Marillier keeps the suspense high, the prose fluid and provides a complicated plot that is intricate yet well-articulated.

So much for the plot summary. Readers of 'Wildwood Dancing' will have an excellent idea of what’s in store for them, and you should not venture into these secret realms without having first read that book, now conveniently available as a mass market paperback. Now, I just did search on Bookfinder and couldn't scare up any UK first edition hardcovers of 'Wildwood Dancing'. It's quite possible the copies over at * are firsts, but certainly not guaranteed. The point being, the UK hardcovers of the first book in the series are not so common as you might expect them to be. The point being, you might want to snap up a couple, just to satisfy your shelf-filling compulsions.

The most important compulsion, however is your reading compulsion, and that's where Marillier really pays off. The prose effortlessly immerse you in a world as jam-packed with gorgeous detail as the cover illustrations. If you like reality to be subtly bent by a writer with serious prose chops, then Marillier is your gal. Paula's first-person narration straightforward when required, but filled with poetic touches that heighten the surreal plot elements. She knows how to keep a brisk pace without forcing things. Now, there is a proviso to all this. The main character is a teenaged girl, so the book is by definition sort of girly. That said, it's never precious or smarmy. There are elements of fear woven into the narrative, but you won’t be finding far-flung body parts. Nor are there any dull epic battle scenes. There is however, room for another sequel, so if you’re the sort who likes to read a series cover-to-cover, back-to-back, then just stash this one on the shelf and hope the next one comes in a timely manner.

'Cybele's Secret' is a luxurious world of words. Immerse yourself in Marillier's prose and you'll not want to emerge until you've undertaken the whole journey. Happily, the books themselves, the physical objects, make this easy. Words on bound pages, hard covers, a dust jacket. Such a deceptively simple technology.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Molly Gloss, Karen Joy Fowler and Terry Bisson : SF in SF Discussion, November 17, 2007

Today we wrap up our coverage of the last SF in SF event with a podcast of the panel discussion between Molly Gloss and Karen Joy Fowler, moderated by Terry Bisson. You can hear the whole shebang from this MP3 file. I bought a new mic for this gig, and I think it helped enormously. Alas, there will be no SF in SF next month, but the series and the podcasts will resume in January. Consult the SF in SF website, or just stay tuned here, as I'll also announce them in advance, just as soon as I know the who, when and where.


11-28-07: Steven M. Thomas Lives in 'Criminal Paradise' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Karen Joy Fowler Interviewed at SF in SF

Home-Town Fiction

It may be home town fiction form, but the cover ain;t nothing to write home about.
For me, it's Orange County, and it started when I read 'Watchers' by Dean R. Koontz. At the time, I was living in Orange County, and one of the most memorable scenes was set in a nascent housing development that I believe to be modeled on the tract where my parents bought their first brand-new house. Koontz so perfectly captured the ambiance of Orange County – suburbia on the edge of rural tracts of undeveloped land, now called "exurbia" – that I could enter his novel entirely. I was transported by the reading experience into the place I currently inhabited. It's a unique and powerful experience when writers can manage it. But I was not alone in this feeling; 'Watchers' is widely regarded as one of the best Koontz novels, a book that even many terribly, horrifically bad movie adaptations cannot damage. So I suspect that some kind of alchemy beyond my own recognition of place is going on in the text. Even those who have not walked the not-so-mean streets of Orange County can feel the seething emotions of place.

Which brings me to 'Criminal Paradise' (Ballantine / Random House ; March 1, 2008 ; $24.95) by Steven M. Thomas, a sizzling slice of low-key noir that slaps the reader right down on those same streets some twenty years hence. Robert Rivers is skulking outside Cow Town Restaurant on Harbor Boulevard, and by my guess he's just about a mile or so from where I used to live when I worked at the blood factory. Rivers – written in the first person – is a reasonable, organized and pretty nice guy. He's a successful career criminal who specializes in meticulously planned bloodless robberies. We watch while he and his accomplice Switch display weapons to the Hispanic help, slip into the now-closed Cow Town and net some eight grand. Even when it's easy, it's not easy, and things get tense fast. Women disappear with money, surly help threatens when it's expected to just back off. But Rivers ("Call me Rob") and Switch keep cool, stick to the plan and make it work.

Actually, it's Thomas who makes it work and so smoothly that readers don’t notice how smart the writing is. One of the temptations when you're writing about a specific, real place is to overload the reader with details that prove you've been there and aren't just making all this up. Thomas resists that temptation. he puts in just the right level of knick-knack obsession to make it real and lets the reader do the light lifting. It's great technique to involve readers in the world without dropping it on them wholesale.

The proviso here is that I've lived in Orange County. I've spent enough time there so that it feels familiar and even more so since my visit to Anaheim in 2005 for WorldCon. My sister still lives in Anaheim Hills. She pointed us at a great family-style restaurant where we had a wonderful meal with Alastair Reynolds and I swear that Thomas' Cow Town has got to be on the same block. So I can't be objective about this book. It's like a chance to cruise around my old haunts with somebody doing stuff way more interesting than what I used to do. Robbing people.

And the problem with robbing people for a living, as opposed to say, chatting with writers, is the caliber of person you meet. For example, when you rob a Cow Town, you've got to wonder who works at a Cow Town. If you’re unlucky, you might find out. You might say snag just the cash box and find something other than cash in it. And then if you're the sort of career criminal who has managed this career and yet startlingly maintained your conscience, you might have to do something, to use those gun-waving, law-breaking skills for something other than safe and easy in-out robberies. Go outside the comfort zone.

'Criminal Paradise' is a nice, low-key novel that doesn't purport to be Dostoyevsky in disguise. The writing is tight and the characters don't acquire super-powers. (Not that I'm opposed to characters acquiring super powers in the right context.) If you belong to the M for Mystery Book club and they offer this one up as one of their S&S choices, snap it up. If you see this in the book store in a couple of month, pick it up and read the first coupkle of chapters. I bet you'll take it home. Orange County is certainly a 'Criminal Paradise', though not for store robbers. It's Da Place if you're a bent politician with ties to just about any industry. It's Da Place where I used to spend my days and nights, watching the fireworks over Disneyland. And it is a place, concrete (mostly) and quite real that Thomas brings to life for you in a most entertaining manner.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Karen Joy Fowler Interviewed at SF in SF : Ambiguity is a Tool, Not a Mistake

Brownie-point bonanza–bnut yhou'll like it as well.

Continuing on with our podcasts from the last SF in SF, today I'm podcasting my interview with Karen Joy Fowler. She's a great guest and I wish I had her latest book in hand and dotted with stickies before I talked to her, but alas, it's not out till April and I've not seen even the hint of an ARC yet. We did talk about her use of ambiguity, which I really like, and I think is perhaps more present than one might imagine. For example, in "The Last Worders", she presents a very detailed and complicated history of a place that does not exist. In one sense, it's the total opposite of ambiguous. She totally brings this place to life. But in another, the fact that she presents this fictional place as real imbues the entire story with a sort of ambiguity. Are we supposed to know about this place? Could it be real? That act of creation, that sense of the totally fantastic, invented place which is created through entirely realistic details for me, at least is an exercise in the ambiguous. Of course, the challenge when asking and answering questions about ambiguity is to discuss ambiguity without being ambiguous. Easier said than done – but Karen Joy Fowler manages, which you can hear in this MP3 of our brief chat. Hear the name of her new novel! Prepare to buy it! And while you're at it, buy your wife/girlfriend 'The Jane Austen Book Club'. It's a brownie point bonanza, trust me on this.


11-27-07: 'Tales of Pain and Wonder' by Caitlin R. Kiernan ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Karen Joy Fowler Reads at SF in SF

If At First You Succeed, Do So Again

Top, Gauntlet True First; middle Meisha Merlin TPB ; above, the newest from Subterreanean Press.
Caitlin R. Kiernan is, to put it bluntly, an odd writer. Her work is at once visionary and hyper-real, shrouded in the supernatural yet anchored in the gritty evocation of our hardscrabble lives. Reading almost anything she has written, you might find yourself thinking "Faulker" one second and "Lovecraft" the next. These are not names or styles that rest comfortably close beyond those pages penned by Kiernan. Somehow, in an alchemical reaction that can only come from that unique combination of talent and originality, Kiernan manages to forge a literary style that is densely packed with both passionate realistic details and surreal monsterific imagery. She laces her writing with carefully chosen research, adding an academic feel. It's true that this sort of writing isn't everybody's cup of tea. It's not the stuff of slick bestsellers. What Kiernan offers you is something unmistakably genuine.

Even if it's third generation genuine, as is the case with the forthcoming 'Tales of Pain and Wonder' (Subterranean Press ; March 25, 2008 ; $35). Take a look at the pre-order web page and note that everything else by this author from Subterranean has sold out; if you're inclined to purchase her work, it's clearly best to do so early. Especially with a volume that has such a rich history. 'Tales of Pain and Wonder' first appeared on the scene in 2000, from Gauntlet Press, sporting a cover image by Richard Kirk, who also did the interior illustrations. Now I love the stuff that Gauntlet does, but it tends to be a bit pricey – even for me – and more importantly, tends to sell out like instantly. At this moment, the least you'll pay for a Gauntlet first is somewhere north of a hundred bucks; and you could pay quite a bit more should you feel the need.

The next appearance of the book was a 2002 trade paperback edition by Meisha Merlin. I have to confess that I see Meisha Merlin booths at the conventions regularly, and the books – at least laying out on a table – look fine enough. I kind of like the cover here because the image is a monster, right? Sure. And I'm not opposed to garish either. But garish is better suited to say, Neal Asher, or, er, James Herbert than Caitlin R. Kiernan. And my take would be that the sort of reader who would be attracted to that cover would likely be disappointed with the fiction behind it unless they had a fairly diverse reading palette. That said, it's still out there and fairly affordable. The editions have the illustrations by Richard Kirk from the Gauntlet edition; why the original cover image wasn't used is a mystery to me. So all said and done, if you want a five-year old trade paperback version with a cringe-worthy cover, it's out there.

The latest version from Subterranean Press a new cover by Kirk, and original illustrations that are reproduced, we are told from high-quality scans of the original artwork, long since sold to collectors. It also includes a new story not found in the other two versions, 'Salammbo Redux'. In an introduction to this new edition, Kiernan admits that, "I have allowed myself a certain degree of revision during the two months I spent editing this edition of the collection." That includes the decision to elide the story "Angel You Can See Through." As a result, you can find, "This edition of Tales of Pain and Wonder has been designated by the author as the "Remastered" Definitive Text," rounding off the colophon page. At least she seems certain about this. At $35 for a Deluxe Hardcover edition, it seems like a bargain to me.

And this brings me round to a bit of a rant on the import of keeping works in print. I touched on this last week, but it can't be said too often that genre fiction, like all literature, needs must be kept in print and readily available to new generations of readers. And where a third edition like this one, nicely printed, bound, and illustrated becomes available, it's best not to worry about first/firsts. 'Tis better to have the reading experience than none at all. And if nought else, should you find yourself with a lightly read first/first, here's your chance to get a reading copy with altered text, an extra story and nice production values to boot for a comparative pittance. That 'Tales of Pain and Wonder' is available is itself a tale of pain and wonder. I've told you that tale to the best of my meager abilities. You are about to complete one reading experience, and it is suggested you embark upon another, very different, soon; but apparently not until next year!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Karen Joy Fowler Reads at SF in SF : "The Last Worders"

Karen Joy Fowler photographed by Laurie Roberts.

We're finishing up the rounds of SF in SF podcasts carefully, oh so carefully. In that I am considering the order of the podcast to ensure the best effect for listeners. So this week's 'cast starts off with Karen Joy Fowler reading 'The Last Worders'. My take is that it is best to encounter the fiction fresh, and then hear the analysis and discussion after the fact. Do I need to remind you that Fowler is a powerful, skilled writer with a great sense of humor? You can just listen to the MP3 file here to get a perfect example. Fowler's also a great reader, which helps matters considerably. We'll follow this up with the interview she and I did tomorrow and the panel discussion on Thursday, so stay tuned, or at least, do yourself a favor and listen in order of the podcast. Make sure that the authors, not the critics, have the last word.


11-26-07: A 2007 Interview With Andrew Szasz

"You're not getting the kind of protection that you think you're getting"

Shopping, eco-shopping and freako-eco-economics.

When he appeared at Capitola Book Café last Tuesday, I took the opportunity to speak with Andrew Szasz, author of 'Ecopopulism' 'about his new book, 'Shopping Our way to Safety'. He's an engaging, intelligent speaker who has found a fascinating and timely subject with some uncomfortable implications. We like discomfort here at The Agony Column, so Szasz fit right in. Szasz's 'Shopping Our way to Safety' examines our current fixations with all things organic, clean and healthy and uncovers what he calls "an inverse quarantine" approach to the clear and present dangers that are brewing the in the world that surrounds us. Szasz is a fascinating writer who is unafraid to question not just the environmental movement, but more importantly – himself. You see, his theory of an inverse quarantine is a great description the problems with bottled water. But it doesn't pan out in the same manner when you analyze the organic food business, and Szasz is eager to explain why. You can hear him do so on this MP3 or this RealAudio file. And, yes, we did talk about fallout shelters again and at length. Talk about Boom!


Agony Column Review Archive