This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

12-13-03: Prolific Greens and Custer's Next Stand

The Annual DeathStalker Return

This gunslinger is going for the early Elvis look.

Most authors get by on a one-novel-per-year schedule. It's like a migration pattern. Then there are those like Simon R. Green. Here's a guy who has released two perfectly wonderful little paperbacks this year in a new series, 'Something from the Nightside' and the sequel 'Agents of Light and Darkness'. That would be more than enough for many a writer. But not for Green. In fact, the books of his I particularly enjoy, these little supernatural mystery outings are only a sideline. His mainstay series is 'Deathstalker' & son, a sort-of 'Star Wars' type shtick with big heroes fighting bigger evil. You've got spaceships, laser guns, all the usual World War Two and Medieval implants re-tooled for a "future" that involves tight trousers and anti-grav cleavage.

Interestingly enough, these are hardcover books that apparently have a significant fan base, and even more shockingly, I can work my way round to seeing why. In his supernatural novels, Green displays a nice imagination channeled through a sense of humor. While here, the imagination may be more in line with the usual adolescent male techno-fantasies, even a quick examination of the first page revealed the sense of humor was firmly in place.

At least Green isn't forced to deploy his talent in the service of Lucas & Company. Remember readers; this is the kind of bread-and-butter stuff that keeps the more esoteric titles afloat. Easy to condemn, but if you nuked all the novelizations, spin-offs, retrofits and retreads from the science fiction and fantasy worlds, you'd pretty much have the choice of reading about seven authors. For me, the main problem is that Green is good enough to make me want to read the Deathstalker series, but I'm what, five books down? A quick look at Bookfinder at least shows they aren't going to cost an arm and a leg to get however. Reading for a rainy day. Coincidentally, it happens to be raining outside now.

Custer's Next Stand

Custer's next one-night stand.
On the other hand, at a far more reasonable pace, Kurt Giambastiani offers another chapter of his alternate history series 'From the Heart of the Storm'. This time around the dinos are acting in a diminished capacity. Custer's son has disappeared as the Crow and Cheyenne Alliance join forces and ready themselves to crush the white invaders. Presumably, as we reap the rewards of global warming in the form of endless rains, I'll have time to read this and the three previous titles in the series. Katie Dean sort-of enjoyed 'The Spirit of Thunder', and these books seem like the kind of reading perfectly suited for flu season. If that's the case, then Giambastiani is on the trail of serious sales this winter.

12-11-03: Lethem Makes NYT List

The Fortress of Solitude is selected Editor's Choice of 2003 by the New York Times

A novel "about the homeless" re-creates the author's old stomping grounds.

As the year winds up, so too, do the prizes. There are so many prizes that I remotely care about -- and this is a filtered down list -- that my spreadsheet hit 150+ rows. I was pretty sure that Jonathan Lethem's new novel, 'The Fortress of Solitude' would win something somewhere -- it's a beautiful, massive, imaginative literary masterpiece. So here's the first folks to pop the cork for Lethem, the New York Times. It took me for frickin' ever to find the article on line, and then I had to go through the odious and ominous "We take your privacy seriously -- we promise only to sell your information to every spammer with a shitload of money" registration form; only to find out the name I chose had already been taken (by me!). So I took a stab at my password, and lucky me, lo and behold I was right.

I actually saw the list displayed by the ever-vigilant Bookshop Santa Cruz. The Editor's Choice includes only books that were reviewed by the Times. In a gesture of solidarity with editors everywhere who stretch the point to find a common theme in a selection of disparate books -- a muscle I exercise regularly -- the article states that, "Thematically all the novels are about the homeless." Given that Lethem's novel is a loving, semi-autobiographical re-creation of his home turf, I'll listen for the sound of themes snapping in the wind. It's so distinctive. Maybe I should sample it.

Lethem's novel is going to win a lot of awards in the upcoming months. If you haven't yet bought it, do so, then sit down and enjoy a wonderful, imaginative take on the Great American Novel that is a Great American Novel. I interviewed Jonathan Lethem when he was touring for this novel, and had a blast over at KQED studios in San Francisco. Each year, it seems I interview one author whose book ends up on this list. Last year, it was Timothy Ferris, talking about his book 'Seeing in the Dark'. So now I'm intrigued, and I'll have to see if I make the cut next year.


12-10-03: Pelevin, Wells & Roth

Biting Satire from Talking Mosquitoes, the Reading Habits of 12 Year-Old Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth's Lost Satire and Indecisive Book-Buyers

Mosquitoes invest in Russia in Pelevin's biting satire.

It was seven months ago that Ira Sher, author of 'Gentlemen of Space' recommended to me an author named Victor Pelevin. I was looking for any Pelecanos I could find at Logos books in Santa Cruz, and I stumbled across this short novel by the author and nabbed it.

Well, not exactly. I was on my way to the movies to see 'The Weather Underground', an excellent documentary that gives the history of the seventies radicals who bombed government buildings in their efforts to protest the Vietnam War. But I got there a bit early, so I decided to look at Logos, as I'd parked in the lot adjacent to this bookstore. I went through and found the Pelevin and the Wells volume I talk about further on. But I decided not to buy any books. I left the store, walked across the lot and then changed my mind, raced back, because at this point it was getting close to the time when the movie would start. I found the Roth volume, also below, tossed the three into the car, then went and enjoyed the movie. My ability to avoid and postpone decisions could, if properly harnessed, probably power the city of Aptos for a month or two.

OK, let's get back to the books. While looking for George Pelecanos, I came upon Victor Pelevin's 'The Life of Insects'. Pelevin, suggested by Ira Sher, looked quite interesting and here's the perfect novel for me to read -- short, succinct, surreal and relatively recent. 'The Life of Insects' is billed as a "comic and biting satire of contemporary Russia'. Biting because the main characters are mosquitoes? Yes, the novel opens as a trio of investors -- two Russians and one American -- meet in front of a rural hotel, then transform into mosquitoes. They're meeting to see if the American would like to invest in the pesticide-free blood and sugar supplies of the Mother Russia. It's very odd, and written in the prose of classic Russian literature. Odd, funny and well-off tangent. Also short, so there's a hope in hell I can get it into the queue. It's the kind of novel that screams "Rick book".

Kingley Amis read Wells as a 12-year old boy. Happens to a lot of us.
Having rumbled the Pelevin (and put it down again), I went downstairs to see what was new in the SF and mystery sections. What I found was 1983 omnibus edition of H. G. Wells 'The War of the Worlds'. It was in good shape, with the traditional "price clipped dust jacket". What put it into the eventual "buy" column was an introduction by Kingsley Amis. In it, he recounts how he had discovered Wells and science fiction when he was twelve years old -- and Wells himself was still alive. All this and lots of H. G. Wells in a find-condition hardcover. Hard to pass up. I actually own a first edition copy of Wells 'In the Days of the Comet', which I bought at the now-gone Mockingbird Bookstore, in Aptos.

Who's laughing now?

But I passed both of them up, left and then returned. Upon my return, I passed the R section and there saw something I'd actually been looking for, a tight, clean first edition of a book I read when I was 14, Philip Roth's 'Our Gang'. You know, it's the only Roth novel I've ever read. Yeah, yeah, you'll need to get to the back of a long queue to shoot me. While you're waiting, enjoy this fine piece of American literature in it's UK edition. I wonder what those in the UK must have made of all the fuss surrounding Nixon. I was once a young Republican who campaigned for Nixon in 1972. I have a distinct memory of one of my co-workers telling me to play down the Watergate burglary. The whole deal rather soured me on the politics and the voting process, and it wasn't until Reagan's second term that I came out of the woodwork to vote, and then only against him, not particularly for anyone. And while 'Our Gang' is probably looked upon by Roth's scholars and fans as one of his lesser books, it had a big impression on me in terms of the potential for satiric fiction and fictional facts. The Boy Scout Knife speech still lives in my mind. It just seemed a book that would fit in thematically with the movie I was about to see, and I was certainly correct in that assessment.

12-09-03: McMillan, Truluck, Pelecanos & Phillips

Prizes, Prequels, and Paste-Ups

Truluck's award-winning sequel to 'Street Level'.

Luck was with me, and Dennis McMillan just sent along images from his forthcoming limited, beautiful editions of 'Hard Revolution', a prequel of sorts to the Strange/Quinn trilogy by George Pelecanos and Scott Phillips 'Cottonwood'. Let's get right to the heart of what's going on.

First and foremost, let me remind readers about 'Saw Red', that Bob Truluck novel that McMillan published earlier this year. Publisher's Weekly just gave it their 'Book of the Year' award. I'm not sure how award selections affect your book buying habits -- though I'm interested. However it works for you, I'd suggest you snap up this one before the price starts to climb steeply. Don't write me and ask me to help you find it after it picks up an Edgar. This is the case where "afford to wait" has definite fiscal implications.

Without a doubt, the most sought after mystery limited edition of next year is going to be the McMillan edition of George Pelecanos' 'Hard Revolution'. That's because though the story starts with plot points familiar to mystery readers -- small time criminals plan a bank heist -- the background is the weeks before and after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Derek Strange walks the mean streets in 'Hard Revolution'.
In 'Hard Revolution', Derek Strange is a young cop who finds himself forced to work riot control in his own neighborhood. As a reader, I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I'm inclined to read 'Hard Revolution' before I read the Strange/Quinn books, because it's set chronologically before them. Also it's shiny new and wonderful. It's a McMillan book, after all. On the other hand, the trilogy was published and written before 'Hard Revolution'. It doesn't need that book, except to deeply inform the reader about the background of the main character. So maybe it's better to read the three novels first, get a gradual buildup of the character, then go back to 'Hard Revolution' (as did the author) to get the hard facts. These are the kinds of dilemmas that one enjoys having.

Dennis McMillan is also a big fan of writer Scott Phillips. Phillips is the author of 'The Ice Harvest' and 'The Walkaway', two noirish novels that have some decent-sounding reviews to their name, as well as McMillan's approbations. With all the turmoil in the publishing world, Phillips isn't exactly getting the Royal Treatment that McMillan feels he deserves, and, as a publisher, McMillan is in a position to do something about this.

Michael Kellner's cover for 'Cottonwood'.

So, he's putting out a most wonderful limited edition of Phillips new novel, 'Cottonwood', which sounds to me like what I would describe as a 'western noir'. According to McMillan, "It features the great-grandfather of the Willefordian psychopath Wayne Ogden from THE WALKAWAY, and you can see where old Wayne got his genetic start on that path of amorality and morbid insouciance."

McMillan's copy of 'Cottonwood' is designed by Michael Kellner to look like a book from the 1880's and he's really hit the target. This looks a bit like one of the early versions of the 'Lambshead Guide' created by Alan Coulthart for Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts. Western noir has the potential for great power and popularity; 'The Unforgiven' proves that. Terry tells me that Phillips' first novel is very, very, very dark, full of the nasty kind of violence that can set teeth on edge. Both the Pelecanos and Phillips novels are going to the printers soon. Get your checkbooks ready! I know lots of people are collecting McMillan titles in the "subscription" mode. Damn. It could happen to me as well.

12-08-03: Misanthropic Delights, From Abandoned Places to the Boneyard home page.

Readers know that I have an enduring admiration for the artwork of JK Potter. They know this so well that reader Mathew Riley sent me a link to a website that I had to pass on. That's Henk van Rensbergen's '' website. I poked around a bit and found a whole lot to like. Van Rensbergen has a wonderful sensibility. As a Misanthropic Youth, I loved wandering about such places, and back in my youth there were plenty of such places to wander about.

Captain Henk.
Ven Rensbergen has taken this to a new level. His beautifully designed website includes many images that capture the lonely feelings of standing in a long-empty warehouse. As a pilot for a commercial airline, he gets around. There are images from Poland to Havana, yet they all share the same lonely, melancholy feeling. Most are in black and white, but some are in glorious color. With his permission, I've nabbed a couple of the images -- and his own introduction -- from his website to give my readers an idea of what he's on about. The images I nabbed are sized down, to fit in my tiny format, so if you want to see them in a larger size, you'll need to look at the website. There are lots more where these came from.

Today, the pyramids of the industrial revolution just uselessly stand in the way, they're a scar in the landscape. The deafening noises have been replaced by silence, but if you listen carefully they will tell you their story.

Abandoned hospitals where you can still smell the anxiety of the ill, where you can hear the coughing of the TBC infected and where once doctors and nurses walked through the shiny corridors.

A 100 years old hotel, standing proudly at the waterfront, arrogantly overlooking the beach and fiercely withstanding all the storms of the past century, a decayed symbol of wealth for the rich.

Why are abandoned places so attractive ?

Henk will sell you a selection of sizes of the photos on real photo paper ("no inkjet") for prices in Euros "(for USD please convert with the rate of the day)". The prices are reasonable, the images are stunning and Henk's a nice guy. Next lunch hour, once you've checked out the news column and the day's reviews, you can spend some time in Abandoned Places while ensconced in the safety of your cubicle.

Boneyard's Sex Crimes

David J. Schow, Christa Faust and Wayne Allen Sallee were sick enough for Boneyard.

In 1991, Hart D. Fisher was just another Angry Young Guy slaving over a drawing board, creating comics for today's young Misanthropes. His grandfather gave him loan to start a self-publishing venture, and he went to make a few shekels with comic titles such as 'Dark Angel' (no relation to the TV series), 'Rectum Errectum' (the first Russian comic ever printed in America, according to Boneyard's website) and 'Bill the Bull: Burnt Cain'. Naturally, all these passed me by, and I've got to admit I'm happy to have missed them, as this sort of thing is not really my area of interest, though, it would probably interest one or more of my teenagers. Fisher really hit it big with a series of comics and books on Jeffrey Dahmer. Encountering legal opposition from the families of Dahmer's victims didn't stop him from publishing 'Jeffrey Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of a Serial Killer', 'The Further Adventures of Young Jeffy Dahmer', 'Dahmers Zombie Squad', and the best seller, 'Jeffery Dahmer Vs. Jesus Christ'.

Yes, this eventually does have some relevance to the readers of this column. Wait for it…

Boneyard Publications is an equal opportunity offender.

Because Boneyard is publishing a fiction anthology that does include some authors we really like. Yes, the call for submissions for 'Sex Crimes' did say "We're looking for a few sick fucks", but the selected responders include David Schow, Christa Faust and Wayne Allen Sallee. You also get Bernie Wrightson for absolutely no additional cost! It's interesting to see the world of graphic novels and comics spinning towards fiction. I haven't seen the book itself yet, but the cover treatment certainly looks….lurid. In general, I am, as today's Misanthropic Youth would say "down with" lurid. Alas, I'm certainly long past youth. But not misanthropy.