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01-30-09: Buying Local, 2 : Phone Call Versus Mouse

It's hard being a compulsive collector type when you’re deluged with books. Here's what happened to me. Back in the before time (2007), I got a copy of 'Blood Engines' by T. A. Pratt, the first in his Marla Mason series. T. A. Pratt, also known as Tim Pratt, is the author of 'The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl,' plus a slew of short stories that tend to get nominated for all sorts of awards.

For all that I loved 'Rangergirl,' it was really Tim Pratt's reading of 'River Boy' [Article] [audio] at SF in SF that blew me away. He's a true artist, and that's what makes these Marla Mason books so cool. With the latest book in his series,
'Spell Games' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; March 3, 2009 ; $6.99) about to come out, I thought I'd let my wife, who enjoys novels sort, start the series.

'Spell Games' finds Marla Mason Felport's finest sorcerer attempting to protect her turf from a con-artist named Jason. Alas, he's her brother, and that complicates matters. Complicating things further are events that involve what would certainly be a Jeff-VanderMeer-approved Apocalypse-in-waiting that involves ... fungus. So far, so good, and most importantly, you have T. A. Pratt making sure everything clicks, ticks, and kicks your mind into a highly imaginative space. I love these Felport mysteries, as the town bears a rather striking resemblance to Santa Cruz.

But being the compulsive sort that I am, I want to get all my T. A. Pratt books lined up before I start on the latest. And alas, as I dig through the stacks, I can find (2) 'Poison Sleep'; (3) 'Dead Reign' ; but not (1) 'Blood Engines.' Damn. Now I try to keep books by the same author together, but often they get filed in the stacks in what I consider geological layers. So, for example, I found 'Poison Sleep' in the Triassic layer, and 'Dead Reign' and 'Spell Games' in the Jurassic layer. I went back further, knowing that 'Blood Engines' would be in the Permian or Devonian layers ... but found nothing. And I want them all lined up, like my Simon R. Green "Nightside" novels. So, I figure, well, I'll just buy 'Blood Engines' again.

Immediately, I head the phone and call Bookworks Aptos. No luck. I call up Capitola Book Café, no luck, but they ask if they can order it for me. I say tell them that I'll check a couple more local venues, which I do, to no avail. Bookshop Santa Cruz asks me if they can order it. Now, finally, I head to the computer, like any compulsive geek, seeking instant gratification. But you know, here's the deal. It's going to cost me $10.98 to sit on my ass and wait for the book to come from an anonymous warehouse and a vendor that is directly responsible for the closing of many independent bookstores. That sticks in my craw some, but the $10.98 really does it. So, I call up Capitola Book Caf—, and order it from them. Now here's what I get as a huge bonus: the opportunity to get the book in the same time frame, but more importantly, the opportunity to go to a real bookstore and cruise the aisles to see what else meets my eye; not to mention the opportunity to talk to actual humans.

For some time now, it's always seemed that the best option to get a book that needs to be ordered is via *.*. But I think that like all fads, that knee-jerk is fading. There was an interstitial bit as the bookstores caught up, but now they are caught up, and they can do the *.* thing and save you the shipping. Plus it gets you out into the world and lets your eyes fall on books you might not ever see otherwise. Sure it's not a lot of money for Capitola Book Café. But his is how bookstores, your local bookstores, stay in business. One book, one buyer at a time.

01-29-09: Blue Mood : Catching Up with Charles Bock

OK America, has your mood gone far enough down the toilet to catch up with Charles Bock? I think we're verging on 'Beautiful Children' territory; if not we'll be there soon. When Charles Bock's debut novel, 'Beautiful Children' came out in hardcover, almost exactly one year ago, the ol' US of A wasn't lookin' so bad. Oh, a few naysayers who proved to be prescient were telling us that things were going to get a lot worse, but why listen to them when the surfaces all looked so shiny? Just like Vegas, until you read something like Bock's novel, were the rot rises to the surface in a manner that is entirely entertaining.

Unfortunately our national rot is not nearly so entertaining as Bock's pixilated vision. But now available in trade paperback, 'Beautfiul Children' (Random House ; January 20, 2009 ; $14) may offer readers something that seems a little closer to the reality we're all living in now. That would be a world in which the innocent are punished, the guilty rewarded, and love is rare and worth preserving.

Now that the bad times are much more evenly spread around, I suspect that a lot more readers will come to 'Beautiful Children' with a worldview that will, if not match Bock's, at least, allow it in as a means of grasping just how low we can go and still be human. Bock's writing is powerful and narcotic in nature; it lives on the verge of hallucination because the reality it perceives is rather unkind to human kind. When our lives have been flushed – and we didn't even pull the handle! — Bock's tale of loss and redemption seems a lot more on par with what's taking place here, on the ground. It's complicated and intense, and seething with ugliness, dripping in gorgeous language. Cultures don’t just clash, they self-annihilate just for the hell of it. And since there's enough hell to spread around now, I think that 'Beautiful Children' will find a more appreciative audience.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Chuck Sperry did the new cover, which gives a much better vibe of what's underneath the hood here than the original hardcover did. Bock will be on tour to talk about his book; you can find tour dates via his website for the book. You can hear my interview with him here; and you can find my report on his book for NPR's All things Considered here.

'Beautiful Children' is a fascinating paradox of a novel. It's beautiful literature about ugly lives and terrible choices. It's uplifting — to an extent — about as uplifting as your life, or anyone else's, for that matter. The writing is powerful, extreme, and almost as over-the-top as the lives it describes. Bock exhibits a lot of control amidst the chaos, capturing the decline and fall well before anyone else knew what was going on. And we haven't even hit the bottom yet. It's ways down there. Pretty soon we'll be meeting Ponyboy and Cherie and Girl with Shaved Head in circumstances where everyone is just a bit more equal than we might otherwise prefer.

01-28-09: : A Review of 'Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain' by Kirsten Menger-Anderson: The Ineffable Beyond

Today's commentary is my in-depth review of 'Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain' by Kirsten Menger-Anderson. I know, it took a while, but this is the sort of book that makes you think and think deeply, to the point where you might see things within it that the author did not deliberately put in the narrative.

Beyond my in-depth review of the book, what I can say is that this is one of those books that has not a whit of genre fiction in it; that is, there are no elements of the fantastic, no flights of fancy beyond those well-documented by history and yet ... and yet ... It still almost reads like science fiction. I think that's the result of Menger-Anderson's perspective on science and the beliefs of men through the ages, as well as her detail-oriented writing.

And as well, now that I think of it, perhaps because she uses the short story so effectively. Though her style is to my mind purely literary, it is indeed true that in science fiction, the short story gets a regular workout, it's still vital to readers of the genre in a way that short stories are not so vital to readers of mainstream and literary novels. And in my oft-repeated argument to try and open up the genre, it is fiction about science. The upshot is that her work is accessible and will be heartily enjoyed by a much wider audience than she's likely to reach via the regular reviewing sources. I don’t know that Locus or some of the other science fiction reviewers are going to find this book and choose to cover it. I think readers with any interest in good fiction should give this book a very close look.

01-27-09: : David Grann Seeks 'The Lost City of Z' : Green Hell and Evergreen Obsession

There's so much we think we know about the world. Sitting in my home, I can choose just about any point on the globe and zoom in on it with a satellite camera. I can look up any fact, I can check any statement against recent and not-so-recent recorded memory. We often feel, we like to feel unsurprisable. That's why books are so important, to shake our belief in our own "working omnipotence." All it takes is a name you've never heard before to make you realize how much history you don't know, and how much about our world is still uncertain. And there are names that you feel like you should know; for example, Percy Fawcett, an early twentieth century explorer who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle.

Fawcett is a bit of a scary example. Once you start to learn about him, there's a danger of becoming like him. He's so compelling that you wonder why you haven't heard about him before, but rest assured you will.
David Grann, a reporter for the New York Times discovered this explorer and the resulting book, 'The Lost City of Z' (Doubleday / Random House ; February 17, 2009 ; $27.50) is a top-notch tale that will have you glued to the pages and checking out excursions in the Amazon — so long as you have a high tolerance for viral, bacterial and insect infestations and infections.

Grann's book is impeccably written and researched, but mostly it is a raucous tale of two adventurers; Percy Fawcett and Grann himself. Each becomes a victim of obsession. For Fawcett, as Grann reveals, the object is to find evidence of a lost civilization deep within the Amazonian jungle. For Grann, the object is to find evidence of Fawcett deep within the Amazonian jungle. For the reader, the object is to read this book slowly enough to savor its many pleasures.
I've got an in-depth review of this book here. You can visit his website here — though I would caution against learning too much about what happens in the book, because it's actually quite suspenseful. Maybe check the website after you've read the book. I'll satisfy this much of your curiosity; they have sold the movie rights to the book, and they’ve got a star and director, both top-notch. But read the book first, it can't help but be better.

You might as well buy two or three copies. This is the sort of book that will delight a variety of readers and even non-readers will find this tale of high-adventure utterly compelling. It's the sort of book that will send you to the video store to pick up copies of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, William Friendkin's remake, Sorcerer, Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (the actual Aguirre is mentioned in the book) and his Fitzcarraldo, as well as Les Blank's documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, The Burden of Dreams. That final title suggests something about the nature of this book; and while the movies will help pave the way, it is the book that will blaze a permanent path in your imagination.

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