This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

04-23-04: Don't Get Confused About Your Reading Goals

Neal Stephenson Delivers 'The Baroque Cycle' in a Timely Manner

A timely release schedule -- thanks Wm Morrow (and Mr. Stephenson!)
When Neal Stephenson's first novel in The Baroque Trilogy came out, he toured to support the novel, and had several signings, though none in my city of Santa Cruz. But I dutifully went down and bought a copy at one of my many local independents. There I found a signed first edition, which greatly pleased me. Alas, I have not yet found time to put it in my queue, and I must admit to a bit of hesitancy. I'm one of those people who usually prefers to start a series as the final volume is released. This stems from an experience I had reading a fantastic series by Brian Stableford, years ago, that began with 'The Werewolves of London', continued with 'The Angel of Pain' and concluded in…in…wait for it…wait another year…no, another year…you've got something to do for six months…the paperback only release (in the UK)…of 'The Carnival of Destruction'. By the time the final book came out I was somewhere past livid and not thrilled to see that the first two hardcover novels had been followed by by a relatively cheesy mass-market paperback.

Now, in the US, Carroll & Graf did a much better job of publishing and releasing the books. But in general, I've been a bit gun shy ever since.

For this series, I don’t suppose that I should sweat it. Stephenson's already finished it and the final book is due out on 9/21/04. We've seen pictures of the cover and I'm sure this is a done deal. Still. Wait for it. Still.

With the release of 'The Confusion', I once again toddled to the independent bookstore and found myself an autographed copy, which I duly reproduce here for you. While purchasing it, the clerk, a women with whom I occasionally speak about books (she and I both enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre), asked me if I'd read the first and if I thought it had been worth my time. I had to confess that No, I hadn't read it -- yet, but that Stephenson was on my auto-buy list and I hoped to have the time Real Soon Now. And that Stephenson was rock-solid -guaranteed to be worth reading. I mentioned that John Clute had enjoyed it. I'd forgotten that I live in a rarified world. She replied that she'd probably get round to it Real Soon Now as well -- when the final book was released.

So if publishers like to think that setting up books in trilogies or quartets or whatever sells books, they may be right -- but only for the truly compulsive. There are quite a few folks out there who have been stung by annoyingly long release schedules. But I believe that Stephenson and his publishers have done themselves proud by setting up a tight release schedule - so tight that even the most dedicated readers will find themselves pressed to read and finish these books in a timely manner. In the interim, do yourself and your reading life favor by actually rising and walking on your hind legs to trundle out to your local independent bookstore to buy these books. My guess is that you'll be pleasantly surprised to find a nice autographed copy awaiting you.

04-22-04: Reaping the Reader Rewards

A Reader's Suggestions: 'City of Pearl' by Karen Traviss and 'Mr.Timothy' by Louis Bayard

Getting up close and personal.
One of the best things about running this website is, of course, coming into tips for all sorts of books. Yes, publishers and writers send me tips, but readers do as well. Reader Troy Knutson has gone one better; he's not only sent in a couple of very nice tips, he's included a review as well. He's pointed me in two very different directions to two very different books, both of which are so appropriate to this column I wanted to pass them along.

First, the non-reviewed title, 'City of Pearl' by Karen Traviss.  You've got your Environmental Marines, sent to protect the fragile ecosystem of another planet to be colonized by human fundamentalists. There are already four alien races on the planet, so to my mind, it seems a bit crowded already. The space marines hit the ground and the fun begins. If this fun includes tentacled, incomprehensible monsters as illustrated on the cover, well, what more could you ask?

Two more books to complete the story, that's what. Because there are clearly not enough trilogies in this world, Traviss has written a story that plays out across three books. And she's apparently good enough a writer to have been offered a Star Wars book. I think that's a good thing. Well, it will certainly pay the bills. Think of it: Star Wars is this author's day job. We hope.

Now, lest you think we're all just willy-nilly SF readers here, habituating the Star * sections of the bookstore, here's Troy's review of a considerably different tome, Louis Bayard's 'Mr. Timothy'. I really like the diversity between these two titles. It's an utterly perfect example of why we love reading. And why there are five foot high piles of books around our houses.

"Bugger off! Nobody's home dammnit, ya little urchin!"
Mr. Timothy
Louis Bayard
US Trade Hardcover First
ISBN 0-06-053421-4
Publication Date: 10-21-2003
384 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 04-15-04
Reviewed by: Troy J. Knutson © 2004

Let's take an informal poll, an electronic show of hands if you will. How many of us have read 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens? Great, quite a few of us have. And how many have seen any number of stage, screen or television adaptations of said story? More of you, of course! Well, retain memory of one major character and one minor character from 'A Christmas Carol' (namely Uncle Ebenezer and Tiny Tim), add several decades to the story, and add liberal doses of thriller, mystery and pulp and you'll get 'Mr. Timothy' by Louis Bayard.

'Mr. Timothy' follows the exploits of an independent 23-year-old man making his way through 1860s London. The independent man named Timothy Cratchit is no longer Tiny Tim but stands 5'8” tall while still displaying a slight limp, a reminder of a cured childhood condition. Timothy is trying to go it alone, trying to avoid reliance on Uncle E's generosity. Timothy has sought refuge in a “den of ill repute”, a whore house if you will, and is teaching the madam of the house how to read in exchange for room and board. His other means of income is derived from dredging the Thames for dead bodies with the guidance of his presently landlocked sea captain friend.

Timothy comes across several corpses of young girls no older than 12 years of age with distinct signs that connect the two bodies to a single murderer. Enter Philomela, a young Italian girl who is living on the streets and fearful of everyone and trusting of no one. She is somehow connected to the two dead girls.

The cast of characters is as colorful and abundant as the original 'A Christmas Carol'. They include Colin the Melodious, a singing street urchin reminiscent of 'Oliver's' The Artful Dodger; Captain Gully, the aforementioned sea captain who pines for his ship, the high seas and a certain class of brown-skinned girls from Majorca; Ophelia Sharpe, the illiterate madam who loves the story/relationship of Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday; Iris and Mary Catherine, just two of the prostitutes working at Ophelia Sharpe's “Boarding House for Gentlemen”; George, the bouncer/enforcer for Ophelia Sharpe and her ladies; and numerous other major and minor characters that are best left unmentioned so one can savor their appearance.

I really enjoyed several aspects of the novel. I love a quick and satisfying read. This novel was both. I appreciate the use of authentic language and phrasing from that time period. "The candles, at least, were new, and the air was quick with oranges and cloves, and there on the hearth, beneath a garland of bay leaves, stood a half-sized Father Christmas, almost sinfully hearty in his purple ermine." Bayard has clearly completed some pain-staking research and attention to detail to get the language of the times just right.

One of the problems that can result from using time-appropriate language in a novel is that sometimes the writer can lose the reader's attention by flowering the language and neglecting the storyline. Mr. Bayard does a superb job of packing 14 days worth of action (the majority of the novel covers December 12 through December 26 of 1861) into a compact, thoughtful storyline that explores many topics that could have been used in any number of the present day novels (i.e., pedophilia, white slavery, murder, sadomasochism and religious hippocracy).
No, dear reader, this isn't your daddy's Tiny Tim. It's yours and mine and I guarantee you will enjoy the adventures of 'Mr. Timothy' and his motley crew of friends and foes. The only regret I have was not reading Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' just prior to reading 'Mr. Timothy' for the obvious and inevitable comparisons.

04-21-04: Cop Diary to Blue Blood, Mary Magdalene and the Nightingale's Lament

Blue Blood on the Tracks

From the New Yorker to the New York Times bestseller list?
Why should you listen to NPR? Not just to hear my interviews, though that's a start. The first I heard about 'Blue Blood' by Edward Conlon was the Terry Gross interview with the author, and that was enough to send me running for the bookstore. Conlon has a gripping voice and a story to match.

Edward Conlon is descended from generations of New York cops, good and bad. His great grandfather was a crooked cop who "carried the bag on Atlantic Avenue" during the Tammany Hall era. The blood runs deep. Conlon was born to be a cop, and though he graduated from Harvard -- he still ended up a cop. 'Blue Blood' traces his life from walking a beat in the South Bronx, through his ascent to detective, though his work at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten island, to sift through the debris of the Twin Towers after 9/11.

He's been writing the 'Cop Diary' column for the New Yorker since 1997 under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey. This book has been compared to David Simon's epic 'Homicide', a book cited by both George Pelecanos and David Corbett as a landmark and a cornerstone for all mystery writers. It's my take that first edition/first printings of this novel will become scarce pretty fast. But that's not the reason to run to the bookstore. The reason to run to the bookstore is that Conlon offers a powerful look at America today. Listen to the Terry Gross interview, because Terry Gross is herself immensely talented at bringing out what makes others interesting. There's no doubt you'll find Conlon a gripping, original voice; one that you'll want to read for 559 pages.

The Child Goddess: Another Ascension Into Hardcover

Simple haristyles of the future.
Louise Marley has been on the trail to hardcover publication for a long time. In 'The Child Goddess', she finally gets there. She's a musician whose music has worked its way into her novels, most notably her recent work 'The Glass Harmonica'. It's a bit surprising then, that a silent child is at the heart of her new novel. She also takes on one of my favorite corners of Our Weird World, The Mary Magdalene cult. Isabel Burke, a priest for the Order of Mary Magdalene and an anthropologist is brought to the planet of Virimund. There, she's confronted with the people who are keeping the ExtraSolar Corporation from developing Virimund as an energy source. The children born on Virimund are the key. They don't age.

This is not a huge epic, but looks to be on the taut and terse side of the book-brick divide. It's a traditional story in many ways; Isabel must protect the speechless child from becoming a corporate resource while solving the mystery of why she does not age. The evocative cover art is by John Jude Palencar, who, if I am not mistaken, did the wonderful 'empty cities of the full moon' cover for Howard V. Hendryx.

For this reader, I find the endless genre fiction fixation with the many offshoots of the Catholic Church quite fascinating. It seems to me that genre writers are particularly drawn to this religious institution; it crops up in Stephen Baxter's 'Coalescent' and gets some treatment in the latest Alastair Reynolds novel. Marley's in good company. She's got a lot to live up to; including the standards of the Church itself.

NightSide Alert: Nightingale's Lament by Simon R. Green

The good ol' jazz singer mystery novel gets a Simon R. Green twist.
I'm sure that I'm not the only one who is a fan of Simon R. Green's 'NightSide' novels. I only wish they'd make it to the big screen, or at least, to a small press so that JK Potter can illustrate them for me. But while I'm waiting for a supernatural event such as this, I'm just glad I've got a steady stream of great, totally fun reading. Green must be incredibly prolific; he gets one of these things published every six months. I checked; in fact, with this title, they're coming even more often than six months. Now, these aren't big meaty novels to knock your brain into a geosynchronous orbit; they're wonderfully lightweight little bits of fun. In fact, it seems that Green himself must have one hell of a good time writing them; it comes through in the prose, which is a high point of these novels and an excellent high point to have indeed. And the reader gets to enjoy the novels every bit as much as Green.

Both Terry D'Auray and I enjoyed the first novel of the series, 'Something from the NightSide', and I also enjoyed the follow-up 'Agents of Light and Darkness'. I keep thinking it's going to be a long time between books, but here's one time that they can't come too fast.

The latest novel is 'Nightingale's Lament', and it finds John Taylor searching not for a thing but an answer -- why has a local-to-the-NightSide diva named Nightingale cut herself off from her family and friends? And why are her fans becoming more and more prone to suicide? Unless I miss my guess, big things are brewing in the NightSide and John Taylor will have to use his wits and most importantly, his witty repartee to keep the fabric of reality from unraveling. I say, let it go, let it all come unraveled. But Taylor probably has other ideas. As a reader, I have only one idea: that by 10/21/2004, I'll have yet another John Taylor novel in my hands. That's something worth looking for, and given that these are mass-market paperbacks, we don't need a John Taylor to help us find them!

04-20-04: Creatures, Jigs and Reels

50 years of the Creature

I hope I look this good at 50.

David J. Schow dropped me a note to let me know that he makes an appearance in 'Creature Feature: 50 years of the Gill Man', a documentary about the making of the three principal 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' films. As someone who built the Aurora Model kit, I have a deep and abiding love of the green guy. 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon' is one of those movies that quite surprisingly provides a nicely balanced mix of romance, terror and mixes up the audience's sympathy for the monster in a fashion I find to be far under-used in the creature features of today. And of course, there's the nostalgia factor. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' and its iterations on 'Chiller', which was followed by 'The Outer Limits', the latter so lovingly chronicled by Mr. Schow himself.

Of course there's a catch with this movie. Having it made, in the can and quite good is apparently not good enough for Universal. They want to hear from you about it. They want you to write them and tell them that if they release, you will buy a copy for yourself and a copy for your twelve year old son/nephew/grandson. The erudite readers of this column should be able to cobble together some literate responses and file them at this URL.

Here's what Dave himself has to say about this fascinating documentary….

"Some notes: The doc runs about 83 minutes (nearly the length of the movie) and is slanted more toward Creature fans and Creature collectibles - including coverage of the last CreatureFest in Wakulla Springs, FL. Besides the stars (Julie Adams, Ben Chapman, Ricou Browning, Ginger Stanley) and the guest stars (Benecio Del Toro, Keith David), it also features the usual motley gang of misfits: Bob Burns, Frank Dietz, DJS, Dan Roebuck, Ed Bowkley (who runs the Creature group on Yahoo) and a look inside the lair of Johnny "the Arizona Gillman" Gilbert.

Also, if the Universal "Legacy" sets continue the pattern set by the first three (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man), then the Skal documentary on production of the actual film will also be included. Point being: The two docs together would make a terrific, inclusive bonus disc for the hoped-for Creature set, and provide something not previously available anywhere."

Readers can look forward to seeing more of David J. Schow as he chronicles the making of 'I Robot'; I believe his work will be featured on the eventual DVD release of the upcoming movie.

Readers of The Agony Column will recall that David J. Skal is the author of 'Isaac Asimov presents AntiBodies', published by Harlequin Books. (So don't say that Harlequin never did us SF genre readers any favors.) 'AntiBodies' is an effective and disturbing SF horror novel about a cult of "replace body parts with cordless blenders" types. No thanks, no need to shake hands.

Joanne Harris Does 'Jigs and Reels'

Don't open the one with the fish in it.
Even as 'Holy Fools' (reviewed for this site last year by UK critic and Harris afficionado Serena Trowbridge) makes an appearance in the United States, Joanne Harris's new short story collection is now on the shelves in the UK. Titled 'Jigs and Reels', Serena Trowbridge tells me that "It was read on BBC Radio 4 last week by famous people (June Whitfield, Jack Davenport) and was excellent! Many of the stories are based on her experiences as a teacher etc, and others on fairy tales." This is a fascinating mix of real and unreal, something we know that Harris does well.

Readers who have been to the Joanne Harris website of late will notice that Serena's article for The Agony Column has been picked by the author herself for inclusion there. Serena will be reviewing this in-depth in the near future. Also look for Serena's prize-winning story in the UK publication 'The Lady'. It's a major coup for this author, and as ever, I'm proud to be publishing such a talented young lady.

04-19-04: Thomas Sullivan, Pulitzer Nominated Horror Writer, Rounding up this month's periodicals

From the Pulitzer to the Pulps

The painterly version of the common "red-eye" effect that is the scrouge of photographers.
How many paperback original horror writers do you know who have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize? Well, there's at least one; Thomas Sullivan. His latest novel from Berkeley Publishing's Onyx imprint is 'Dust of Eden'. Sullivan's early novel, 'The Martyring' was a World Fantasy Award Finalist. This was one of those I bought in paperback and then went back and bought in hardback because I heard so many good things about the writer.

His first novel, back in 1988, was 'The Phases of Harry Moon'. It's a slightly absurd coming-of-age tale about four quirky brothers that was nominated for the Pulizter. It's wild stuff, having a one-time PP wrirter churning out paperback novels. They look to be pretty entertaining.

'Dust of Eden' concerns the woman who finds the dust of Eden, that blood-red dirt from the creation of the world. Talk about mysterious ways! When a bit of the ol' garden ends up in the hands of an elderly woman, she's forced to dress like a man and hijinks ensue; no wait, that's from the humor shelf. Ah. From the horror shelf, right next door, we see that Ariel Leppa is an elderly woman who acquires some of this mysterious dust, giving her ferocious power.

She uses this power to help her at the New Eden rest home. There, she's able to improve her guests' health to the point of bringing the dead back to life. Of course, I'm saying that like it's a good thing, but you know it isn't. This being Eden, there's likely to be a serpent about, a snake with some bad intentions.

One of the great things about genre fiction is the huge number of talented writers hiding behind covers that would embarrass even the thickly-skinned. Now Sullivan's cover is by no means embarrassing. It could have popped up on the shelves any time in the past 20 years. In fact, this has the feel of vintage 1980's horror fiction. Slowly, surely, it's crawling out of the closet. Aided and abetted by good writers and publishers scared shitless of flooding the market with crap, we should have a nice careful rebirth on our hands. Along with the usual cleanup afterwards.

To India With Jesus

Hey, Jesus is crooked on the cover as well.

Don't think you're going to miss the cover of the latest Fortean Times on this website. Not while I still have one of the 5,800 or so pennies required to afford a subscription. Not while I have the disk space on my server for the pictures. Not while the scanner scans, the Graphic Converter converts or the Dreamweaver weaves this particular dream for you. This time around, since we're all feeling rather Holy and all, it's Jesus in India. Had to grow a couple of arms to make the journey. Within, there's a tumor picture straight out of Skin Disease Weekly (sadly no longer online) that's likely as not to make you gag, a Cyclops rabbit and big ol' printout of that exploded whale picture from Japan. The Fortean Traveler visits Snorri Sturluson's hot tub (his Prose Edda is one of the earliest written works of literature), and you get a hilarious review of The Third Movie by Mel Gibson ("every age gets the Jesus film it deserves"), and -- all hail! -- a visit to Marpingen to investigate the Marian visions there, covered in such enticing, exciting detail by David Blackbourn in his book 'Marpingen'.

The Marpingen article alone is enough to justify an entire year's subscription, which I've got to get signed up for. Join me and get your very own four-armed Jesus Magazine cover in the mail today!

From Locus With Love

Meanwhile, Locus celebrates it's 36th anniversary this month. Well, it's some kind of milestone -- a 36-mile stone to be precise. But readers of The Agony Column will recall that Katie Dean loved the new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, 'The Last Light of the Sun', and here he is on the cover talking about writing serious fantasy. Plus the usual reviews and forthcoming books listed. I must admit that I'm usually up on the ones that matter to me in this column, but seeing who's being advertised and getting page space in Locus is something of an education in modern SF marketing.

Pay close attention to the interview with Gordon Van Gelder. It's really quite interesting, and essential reading for those who hold out hope for the future of short fiction. Recall as well that Van Gelder is the man who started the career of George Pelecanos (as revealed by Pelecanos in his interview [MP3,RA]), and you'll find a long and sterling track record discussed in fascinating detail.