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01-22-10: 'Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter' by "A. E. Moorat"

Trash-Litifying National Treasures

I suppose that it is only fair that I'm writing this by the battery-powered light from my son's long-gone bicycle. For all our modern conveniences go to hell when there's a bit of wind and rain. The trees here took down power lines before breakfast was finished – and we eat early. So as I type this, my battery power down to 71%, I'm in a race against time.

"A. E. Moorat" was in a race against time as well when he set his fingers flying over the keys on his laptop — well, "Moorat" doesn't own the laptop, but Alan Holmes does — to write 'Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter' (Eos / Harper Collins ; January 2010 ; $14.99). The race to fill the steam-punk Horror-Victorian Mash-Up channel was on, and what, with all the Austen ripoffs jumping in the fray to join the work of authors like Cherie Priest and George Mann and Jonathan Barnes, pretty soon we were going to be looking at direct-to-remainder pile publishing. There are only so many Victorian Masterpiece Theater treasures to trash. You've got to get in early and stake out your ground, so to speak. "C. C. Finlay" (noted fantasy author Charles Coleman Finlay in his mass-market paperback guise) has already colonized the colonies with his Patriot Witch series. I can't say I look forward to seeing Mark Twain and Jack London's work distended into the literary equivalent of a bad video game made into an even worse movie.

That leaves us with the habeus corpus of 'Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter.' After all my fussing and whinging, I do have to say that, well, even though it's every bit as trashy as you might expect, it is also nearly as good as you might hope. "Moorat" does us the favor of not taking himself at all seriously, while taking at least a modicum of time to set up a decently complicated supernatural upgrade to all the faux-Victoriana. I'm going to spare you the juicy details, and you should spare yourself reading about them on the back of the book, since they comprise the lion's share of the pleasure you may hope to encounter. I will say that "Moorat" also has the great decency to drench his book in a variety of monsters. You're going to get the whole basket here, and these are pretty well presented monsters to boot. The fights scenes get a bit disheveled and there are more than one might hope to find. But give the man points for keeping the monsters in the full light of day (when the monsters themselves can take it.)

In the end, the very existence of this book is just about as interesting as the book itself. It's a monument to human tenacity, to our ability to focus on a goal, to write a post for a website when the power is out and you have no easy way to update. All my modern conveniences have gone to hell, and when they return, what shall they bring with them?



01-21-10: Keith Thomson is 'Once A Spy'

Father Knows Best

We're told that there are no new stories. But the world creates opportunities for new stories every single day. It's not just the ever-changing technology, though that certainly helps. What happens is more fundamental. As technology changes our relationships change, not just to the technology, but also to one another. Yes, we all know about virtual friends; that are already old. The relationships between parents and children, between fathers and sons are undergoing constant change. As we live longer, and are required to work longer, fathers and sons can find themselves on a level playing field. Until somebody blows it up.

Charlie Clark is an unremarkable man, in most ways. Other than his ability to lose money at the track, that is. He's got a real talent for that. His father, Drummond, is even more forgettable — and alas, now, "forgetful." He wanders away from his bleak, barren Brooklyn apartment and can't find his way home. He can "remember" his career as an appliance salesman. Charlie gets the call to pick him up, and then, things start blowing up. No, it's not Charlie's Russian creditors. Turns out, it's Drummond's past that has come back to hunt, not haunt him. And Drummond's past is not quite so bland as he's led his son to believe.

I'd recommend picking up 'Once A Spy' (Doubleday / Random House ; March 9, 2010 ; $24.95) by Keith Thomson and dipping right in, bypassing the spoiler-ific dust jacket and "Product Descriptions." I like my spy thrillers cold, and 'Once A Spy' is as cold as they come, but with a warm sense of honest family dishonesty and violent sense of humor. But driving the novel is a great, and to my mind, innovative new spin on the father and son relationship. For all the ancillary canon fodder, the ticking-time-bomb plot and the derring-do, 'Once a Spy' is really a great book about getting to know your father under circumstances that were really not possible until this moment in history.

After all, it is only now that we know what can happen with Alzheimer's disease, and terrorism, as we know it now, is chock full of potential destruction. That there should be a connection between these two facts is not at all obvious, but Thomson finds a way to put a father and son through a wringer designed by Rube Goldberg for a gritty James Bond movie. 'Once A Spy' is a wonderfully fun novel of discovery, matching explosive apartments with explosive revelations.

Thomson does a very nice job of keeping things personal and writing what is really a two-few novel with a lot of collateral damage. For all the revelations, violence and pursuits, this is a taut father-son dialogue about truth, lies and responsibility. Thomson's twist, putting the responsibility where it has apparently been vacuumed away, is a great way into both a spy novel and a novel of reconciliation. It's a new world out there — and if you look, there are new stories to be told.





01-20-10: Reading the Newspaper

Why the San Francisco Chronicle Gets My Money

For all the novels, short story collections, anthologies, non-fiction — you name, so long as it comes between two covers — I read and write about, there's something I read relentlessly, daily, that I've never written about. Yes, I read a daily newspaper, hard copy, delivered to my curbside daily, usually about the time (5:00 AM), I'm in the midst of my morning run down on the beach. I've read a huge amount of teeth gnashin' and weepin' over the past year about the sorry fate of newspapers, and it's not as if I don't believe the financial pains are real. But the Chronicle seems to thrive in adversity, and gets better with each passing day. Plus, they cover a LOT of books. They get it. If someone subscribes to a newspaper, chances are they read books. What a shock!

My relationship with the San Francisco Chronicle goes back, well. More years than I'll willingly divulge. Suffice it to say that when I was in elementary school, we lived in Northern California, and I have snapshot memories of the graphic that went Herb Caen's column. My parents read it religiously, and they instilled that love of the newspaper in me. I get my news from a variety of sources; public television and public radio, online sources, but first thing each day, it's the San Francisco Chronicle. There's something about holding the paper in my hands, spreading it out on the kitchen table while I eat breakfast that helps me be able to read the news, which is grim in the extreme, and to be able to contain it in my mind, to hold that image of a story so I can compare it to others.

In a time when the media at large like to characterize newspapers an endangered species, the San Francisco Chronicle is doing a lot of stuff right. Yes, they have a huge-ass website, but the paper itself is well worth your time and money. First off, they've recently taken to printing what they call a glossy version, which while it is not Time magazine glossy is quite slick for a newspaper. The photos and images are now top-notch. They have apparently remembered that those of us who pony up for the paper, actually like to read the physical thing, and it is well worth making that physical thing physically nice. It was a good decision.

I've also recently (like today) noticed that there are articles in the paper that are clearly labeled "Exclusive to the Print Edition." Again, this is a smart move. It includes some of their top columnists; Matier & Ross, for example, who offer some wonderfully nuanced coverage of local events and politics. They're smart guys, fun to read and on-point. It's nice to know, to see the words on the paper you paid for "Exclusive to the Print Edition."

And finally, they've significantly increased book coverage to include at least one review every day of the week, and an 8-10 page Sunday Book section. The writers are generally top-notch. And though you can hear him talk about them first in the Three Books Podcast, you can find Alan Cheuse there regularly. It's fun for me to see the final polished after hearing our totally improvised first take.

I don't know what your local newspaper is like. I often, though not always, read the Santa Cruz Sentinel for hyper-local news, but time and tide are with Chronicle. You can develop a personal relationship with your paper; and not just for yourself, but for those in your house. The next time you're reading the paper, look around and take the snapshot. It will just be from a day, and here is the true charm of the newspaper. It really is an astonishing production, and amazing publication schedule. It is over tomorrow. It is another day, and there is, yes, waiting for you, another newspaper.



01-19-10: Gene Wolfe Moves into 'The Sorcerer's House'

Magical Surrealism

There are a lot of ways to pull a reader into a story, to sell a book. A great cover (sorry, this ain't that), a great writer (it most surely is this) and, in these troubled times, when everybody has the attention span of a gnat ... short chapters. You might think that short chapters are a recent invention, but there's a form of novel that's been around since, well, at least 'Dracula' ... that naturally limits chapter length. Let us sing the praises of the epistolary novel.

'Dracula,' as it happens, proves to be a latecomer to the epistolary genre, but it's relevant here because it's a major landmark in the horror genre. Now, let's be clear. The epistolary work may contain more than letters, and 'Dracula' is a good example. So is H. P. Lovecraft's story, "The Call of Cthulhu." They both contain newspaper clippings and other documents that seek to create a feeling of verisimilitude for the reader. There's also the pleasure the reader derives from putting together the story out of the disparate pieces. For genre fiction, particularly horror and supernatural fiction, the epistolary style is a particularly powerful tool. And it's a great way to let an unreliable narrator tell his story; or perhaps, just blurt out a pack of lies.

It's not surprising then that superstar
Gene Wolfe uses it to his great advantage in 'The Sorcerer's House' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; March, 2010 ; $24.99), a creepy, surreal epistolary novel that might as well be printed on a Mobius strip. Baxter Dunn is as disgraced scholar; a smart man who did time for fraud. Now he's out, and finds himself staying at the Riverman Inn, where the room is always dirty. But there's a house in town that's caught his eye, a white house, and when Baxter checks it out and finds it empty, he decides he's better off squatting there than at the Riverman. He writes his cell mate, his (twin!) brother, and tells them of his great fortune, because in no time, he's living there. Well, as much as anyone can.

The house's previous occupant appears to have been a sorcerer, and the house has more magical dimensions and inhabitants than Bax knows what to do with. Each letter takes us further into the mind and farther away from the reality we all think we know. But then again, they are all just letters, and from a con man, a smart con man at that, whose expertise in writing is matched by his expertise in lying. Bit by bit, Wolfe leads us from our world into a very different, and rather malevolent other world. A world contained in letters.

Wolfe is one of the genre's most literarily adept writers, but 'The Sorcerer's House' is, by virtue of its epistolary nature, ultimately accessible and really quite easy to read. The chapters are terse, but never choppy. Letters tend to be short (though not too short), and there's a nice feeling of easy reading, a great sense of layering that makes the journey though the house, through the lives, through the competing realities, effortless. So effortless in fact, that upon coming to the final letter, one feels compelled to re-read the first ... and then perhaps, the second. We revise our own realities every day, with every word we utter. Each word may be our last — or the first of another story.



01-18-10: George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois Bring On 'Warriors'

An Anthology Waiting to Happen

Here's a great game you can play during one of the parties at your next genre fiction convention. Call it "Spot the Anthology." All you have to do is look around the room and find some object, some reminder of something that can be the subject of a themed-anthology for a bunch of genre fiction writers. In other words, find the anthology waiting to happen. I suppose it is no surprise that George R. R. Martin's name is at the top of 'Warriors' (Forge / Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; March, 2010 ; $27). What is surprising is that it took so long.

In case you can't read the type in the little star on the cover of the book, yes, that means there is a new "Song of Ice and Fire" novella in this book by Martin. Given his penchant for writing, shall we say, longer books, he probably considers it a short story, or perhaps a flash fiction. One surmises that those champing at the bit for the next installment in the series will regard this as a sort of mixed blessing, in that it does give readers a taste of what they want, while probably postponing the reading meal they long to belly-up to. But, wait, there is of course more. A lot more.

Yes, Martin's story is just about a hundred pages long, and it finishes the book. But before that you'll find a rather surprising variety of stories, authors, and yes, genres. Martin's introduction is titled "Stories from the Spinner Rack," and with that title, he catches even my jaded attention. I loved, and still do love, the spinner racks from which I bought books by H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, Clive Barker — there was a drugstore in Monterey Park when I worked at the blood factory that has an incredible selection of books, all racked up. Robert R. McCammon, 'Thirst,' a disturbing realistic vision of vampires invading LA. Barker's paperback 'Books of Blood.' The spinner racks have defined a large part of my literary life.

So the fact that Martin is trying to emulate the spinner rack with this anthology is absolutely wonderful news. And he's got the authors to back this up. Joe Haldeman, with a new 'Forever Peace' story, Diana Gabaldon with a new Lord John story, and an Emberverse story by S. M. Stirling. But those are the names you would expect, so nice to have them checked off. What you might not expect is Lawrence Block, James Rollins, Steven Saylor or Joe R. Lansdale. It appears that this rack is going to include a bit wider variety than your average SF anthology, and it is all the better for it. Spin the rack, grab a story and settle back. Oh, and if you want to name another anthology waiting to happen? How about 'Warriors 2'? Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, David Drake, and let's be optimistic, George Pelecanos and David Levien. Coming to a spin rack near you!



New to the Agony Column

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10-20-14: Commentary : William T. Vollmann Tells 'Last Stories and Other Stories' : Atlas of the Afterlife

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with William T. Vollmann : "...that's the choice we make with death..."

10-19-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 179: William T. Vollmann : Last Stories and Other Stories

10-16-14: Commentary : Alix Christie Hires 'Gutenberg's Apprentice' : Fifteenth Century Start-Ups

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Alix Christie : "This was the world's first tech start-up."

10-15-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 178: Alix Christie : Gutenberg's Apprentice

10-13-14: Commentary : Maureen Corrigan 'So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures' : The Power of Re-Reading

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Maureen Corrigan : "On his death in 1940, there were remaindered copies..."

10-08-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 177: Maureen Corrigan : So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

10-03-14: Commentary : Lawrence Wright ' Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David' : Suspension of Belief

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Lawrence Wright : "...peace is possible..."

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