This Just In...News from The Agony Column

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

 This Just in..News from the Agony Column

04-30-04: Fforde in Sync, Lambshead Reading Live on KUSP

The Razornail Radio Show

  Join the medical fun on Sunday night!

I'll be reading some passages from 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases' for the show "From the Bookshelf" on KUSP, 88.9 FM on California's central coast. You can also tune in over the Internet, at In addition to the Lambshead material, I'll be reading a short piece titled "The Doddering Barista". And I've even combed through all the material to remove the offending language without removing the offensive attitude. Please join me as I share diseases both physical and mental on Sunday, May 2 from 9:00 to 9:30 PM.

Jasper Fforde's Triple Threat: Something is Definitely Not Rotten

What you expect to see first.
Talk about getting it together. That's something I do all the time, lamenting the lag-time between the UK release of authors and their corresponding US releases. Led no doubt by the author, the teams at Harper Collins US and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK have ensured a perfect alignment of the stars, the planets and the release dates for the upcoming Jasper Fforde novel thus far known as TN4, now given the more expansive appellation of 'Something Rotten'.

Something is definitely not rotten as far as I'm concerned. Now, you can learn just about everything you're about to read here at Fforde's website. But I'm here to make it easy for you, and see that you get the best in book covers and coverage. TN4 finds Thursday back in Swindon and Goliath threatening to change to a faith-based corporate management system. Do you need to know any more? I don't. Fforde's been on the auto-buy list from practically day one.

Having these books released in sync is a huge improvement. I know that Terry Pratchett was happy to have it happen for him, and I'm sure Fforde will be happy as well. However, if his US publishers think their sales will increase significantly, I suspect they may be in for a surprise. Fforde is the kind of author who inspires intense dedication, and I bet a pretty significant percentage of his readers are buying all the hardcover editions. But it will certainly make it easier for customers on both sides of the pond to get in sync and keep in sync.

I've got some 25 year old Philip K. Dick paperbacks from the UK that look like this.
However, the formats are of interest. First and foremost you have what H&S are now calling the "UK 'Royal' collector's hardcover". That would be the same style book you've been buying from UK and smart US vendors since you noticed prices on 'The Eyre Affair' going first through the roof, then the stratosphere and only now settling into a geosynchronous orbit. It's classy and understated. It still rather boggles my mind that I even read my first edition back in the day, but there you go -- buy the books and damn if you don't want to read them! Oh well, at least they're enjoyable as all get-out.

But in addition to this collector's edition, which is sure to fetch a fair bit of change, there's the "UK NEW LOOK B Format hardcover. Now me, I like this look as well. We're told that eventually all the TN books will have this "30's pulp feel". I'm just wondering if they'll pre-scuff the jacket, or if the scuffing will be built into the duplication process. But let me make this clear -- I expect a scuffed look, period!

And finally, the US books, which go for a sort of classy, literary, silly and surreal feel and pretty much nail it. I can actually understand why US publishers didn't want to go with the original design of the books from H&S in the UK, as it is so Ukish that US buyers would definitely wonder what the hell was up with the book. And to be honest, the literary look of the US editions is pretty damn sweet.

Somebody in the art department gets to have too much fun!
The upshot of this is that readers like myself will find themselves buying say, somewhere between four and seven copies. I'm going to try to restrain myself to four, but I make promises about this. I have shelves of Fforde novels and would have more shelves of them if I hadn't given so many away. At this point, I'm in the "getting concerned about pre-ordering" stage, which will no doubt have a plethora of vendors who happen to view this page drooling with delight. I don’t think the folks over at VISA/MasterCard drool with delight. I see them as quietly rubbing their hands, doing sums, maybe chuckling a bit. They look to Greenspan and say "Up, boy, up!" They lick their fingers and carefully turn the pages of the business section. Bits and bytes slide down phone lines and money is moved out of my accounts, ever outward. I scout the house, looking for a place to put them, suitable for display. I eye the shelf where we've got knick-knacks hungrily, and my wife intercedes before I can even begin to get ideas. Books such as these May Not Be Stacked. I'm calling the contractors over Real Soon Now, to begin groundbreaking for my four-story library tower in the back yard.

I'd better include room for a cot.

04-29-04: The Critic Codex

Time Magazine Critic Lev Grossman Mixes Rare Books with Common Computer Games

Rare books combine with computer games to produce an apocalyptic novel about books.
This is one of those books I picked up about twenty five times at the various bookstores I like to visit. Each time, I read the DJ flap, then the provocative back-cover blurbs from such luminaries as Glen David Gold, Iain Pears and Darin Strauss, thinking, "Hmmm, sounds good, sounds good, hmm..."

Then I'd look at the cover and think of agent Kimberley Cameron, telling those of us at Left Coast Crime about the "25 or so 'Da Vinci Code' rip-offs" that she gets daily. And then I put the book down again. Intrigued and embarrassed, not necessarily a potent buying blend of emotions.

Eventually it showed up over at KUSP -- two, count 'em two copies, and I was able to take a longer look at this book. Fact of the matter is that intrigued wins out over embarrassed. Grossman's book is clearly no DVC rip-off, and in it he appears to combine some very interesting elements. Edward Wozny, a hotshot banker, is asked to uncrate and sell a box of old books for a valued bank client. Initially annoyed, he becomes intrigued when he learns that the crate may contain a codex, a treasure hidden away for many years. Wozny enlists the help of a [presumably hot, young] medieval scholar to help him unravel the history and message of the codex. At the same time, he finds himself increasingly addicted to a computer game that has many parallels in the codex. While it sounds like 'The Da Vinci Code' in many respects (ancient manuscripts, modern thrills), I read an NYT review of it that suggested it had a lot in common with Borges as well as Lara Croft.

A quick check on the author finds that he's a critic for Time Magazine and has written for Salon, The New York Times (Oh -- OK) and others that suggests he should be able to put something together more interesting than a slick summer thriller. In fact, this sounds a bit like 'Cryptonomicon', which is an entirely different league than DVC. And I might add that Ms. Cameron did not suggest that they were publishing lots of DVC rip-offs. Furthermore, it's interesting to note that myself -- and I suspect, the readers of this column -- manage an almost instantaneous reaction to to DVC-alikeness of this novel's production: dislike. So if they're trying to sell it as a DVC-like novel, they're re actually driving down the readers. In retrospect, ready to read, I don't think that's the case. Given that books have a two year or so back log through the system, this novel was still a-borning when DVC was climbing the charts. So, if you've picked this up a few times, pick it up again. At some point, you might not put it down.

04-28-04: The Irish Game: Steal This Painting, Buy This Book

Matthew Hart Follows the Vermeer

A great work of art always makes for great poster art. Add a snappy caption and voila -- instant class.

True crime titles tend to be on the trashy side, because the true crimes that really grab our interest are the seediest -- and because the publishers presume that only the seedy are buying these books. While that's usually the case it isn’t always the case. Witness this title about the theft of a Vermeer by a discerning Dublin rogue named Martin Cahill. In 1986, Cahill and his accomplices stole a Vermeer as well as works by Gainesborough, Goya and Rubens. But they found they couldn't actually sell the paintings so they used them as collateral in drug deals. That's only one of the things that Hart uncovers in his book. They also discovered how Vermeer created his paintings when they examined the work for damage.

The General robs a country house.
Walker Books are going all out on this one. The collateral they sent along with the book -- if the letterhead size poster is any indication -- may have cost them as much as the book. But at least if they reproduce a Vermeer, they bothered to do an excellent job, which they also do in the book itself. At 220 pages indexed, annotated and illustrated, this looks like an excellent deal on a quick read.

Hart focuses on the personalities behind the theft and comes up with a great set of characters, more than worthy of your novel reading instincts. Martin Cahill, a gentleman gangster who liked to wear Mickey Mouse shirts, was also known as The General. Rose Dugdale was a British heiress, a graduate of Oxford with a PhD from London University and a political activist. Myles Connor, Jr., was an early rock and roller who opened for Sha Na Na and called himself The President of Rock. All of these threads are tied together in Hart's work. Now look -- what more do you need? A rock guitarist, a British heiress and a Dublin gangster; I don't think it gets any better than that.

As long as you're not an art collector.

04-27-04: Writers Online: Robert Wexler Interview at Fantastic Metropolis and Jay Lake at Fictionwise, Randall Sullivan, PI: The Miracle Detective

Wexler Speaks and Lake Writes

Are you scared of the circus?
My interview with Robert Wexler at Fantastic Metropolis has just gone up over the past weekend at this URL. Wexler is a fascinating gentleman, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about his writing and writing speculative fiction in general. And certainly, before you contemplate the price of admission to Clarion, which does prove to be most helpful to many writers, it is worth the price of admission to Fantastic Metropolis to check out what Wexler has to say about this and other matters as well. If you're not checking Fantastic Metropolis regularly, clearly you should be. There is lots of essential writing, fiction and non-fiction at this zenith of web-based spec-fic sites.

Wexler's forthcoming novel, 'Circus of the Grand Design', another essential title from Prime Books, offers some more of the same mixture of the ordinary and the unusual that makes his work so enjoyable. I'm not sure if you enjoy circus books like me -- 'The Circus of Doctor Lao' and 'Quin's Shanghai Circus' are among my favorites -- but even if the circus gives you the creeps -- or perhaps especially if the circus gives you the creeps --then you'll want to pre-order this book.

Java time for Jay Lake.
Elsewhere on the web, Jay Lake informs me his new Hugo-nominated novella, 'Into the Gardens of Sweet Night', about a cosmos-traipsing pug named Wiggles, is online for free at In one of the panels at Torcon, a number of writers stated that they enjoyed both readers and profit from Fictionwise. This novelette is available for free, or more precisely, you have to register, then put the story in your cart. You'll pay nothing for this story (the cost is $0.00) and be set up to read further stories from this extremely useful site. As the absurdly proud owner of a wiggling pug named Cosmo, currently snoring in a basket beside me on the floor, and a reader who has enjoyed Jay's stories greatly, I suggest you pick this up before they run out of copies.

From Oregon to Bosnia-Herzegovina on the Trail of the Blessed Virgin Mary

From rap to rapture.
Readers should know by now that I'm quite interested in reportage on visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Checking my archives, I've collected over 700 articles on BVM apparitions in the past three years alone. I have an untapped archive going back nearly ten years, however. My interest resulted in my reading the wonderful piece of non-fiction, 'Marpingen' by David Blackbourn. What I found fascinating in this book was how his dissection of this famous set of apparitions reflected in a fractured mirror the societal ills that were present in a nineteenth century German village at the time -- and how similar they were to the problems present now in Our Divided Nation. So there's no doubt I'd be all over 'The Miracle Detective', by Randall Sullivan. Sullivan is a contributing editor to both Rolling Stone and Men's Journal. He's authored two books about murder in the rap business in Los Angeles.

The book had its genesis in 1994, when a young woman in Oregon experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sullivan, an Oregon resident himself, set out to understand something that's long interested me; that is, how the Catholic Church and the Vatican investigate these matters and confirm or deny them. That's one of the reasons I so enjoy the Merrily Watkins novels of Phil Rickman; Rickman is the first writer to create the "spiritual procedural" covering precisely such investigations in the Anglican Church.

Sullivan's journey might have started with a simple look into how the Vatican was working in the ground in his home turf, but as such quests do, it ballooned into an eight-year investigation into predictions of Apocalypse, divine manifestations and false claims of revelation. He started out as a profound skeptic and came away changed. In the interim, he journeyed to Medjugoroje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Scottsdale Arizona, some of the biggest scenes of BVM activity in the last half of the last century.

For me, the interest in BVM apparitions is two-fold; as s supernatural event they are curiously positive and revelatory, as opposed to ghosts, and other evils that creep in the dark. But most importantly, to me they excavate the psyche of a community with a clarity that no reality can achieve. They are a way of seeing ourselves that gets directly to the heart of how we live and why we live, how we hope and how we fear. All that all the speculative fiction in the world can aspire to comes to life in these visions. Be alert; subscribe to news services and file the clippings. There's a pattern that will emerge. It seems to be that it might be at least fascinating, flawed and human, but at most vitally important.


04-26-04: The Weather Underground on PBS, Neal Stephenson Limited Editions, A Winter's Tale Comes Home

A Nation that Will Never Be Again: The Weather Underground on PBS

Some of these children are now fathers and mothers.

While I in general don't feel that movies offer as worthwhile an investment for your time as books, there are some exceptions and this documentary is one of them. Offering a time, a place and a cast of characters that are unforgettable and utterly real, 'The Weather Underground' turns your head around about how things have gone in this country.

More freedom or less responsibility?
The sorts of shenanigans these folks got up to are utterly unthinkable these days. What they've become is equally fascinating. In short, 'The Weather Underground' offers all the things that great written fiction or non-fiction offer; compelling characters, a convincing setting and a strong story. Plus, it's absolutely free on PBS. Chances are, in your area, it's on Tuesday at 10 PM, but I'm posting this addendum now so that readers can be sure to check and catch it. You can go to this URL to find out precisely when and on what channel to watch it. If you're able to stay awake at that late hour, make sure you do watch. Or, just buy the DVD when it comes out May 25, which is likely what I will do. We'll never have that country again.

Not First But Best: Neal Stephenson Limited Editions from Wm Morrow

You know you want it. You know you don't need it.
Just how compulsive are you? That's the question you're going to be asking yourself when you sign up for one of the limited editions of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The retail price on these volumes is $200.00 each. There are only 1,000 copies. But they're emphatically not first editions.

The usual practice when it comes to limited editions is to have the small press publishing partner publish the limited editions first. That brings them value on two levels; they're both limited and first editions. That's why they're not a bad buy for the investor and collector, and marginally more justifiable purchases for the simply compulsive.

The first editions of Stephenson's masterwork thus far -- I say this because Stephenson's young yet and may have a couple comparably epic works in the wings -- are those books you bought at the bookstore last year and this year. If you were lucky enough, you got an autographed edition; at least I did courtesy my local independent bookstore. Those were the books that came out first, that makes them the first editions, end of story. Ask a certain small-press publisher who was skunked when a certain large press publisher in a certain country moved up their publication date for a very popular title, leaving said small press publisher high and dry. It doesn't matter how deluxe, how beauteous the edition is, if it comes out after another less beauteous edition, it's still not a first.

So, the truly compulsive who are going to be buying the limited edition of QuickSilver are those who to a one, I predict, will have already bought and in most cases read the title long before they see the delivery of their new literary baby. But what a baby. If you're going to shell out $200 plus delivery on a book, it had better have; [quoting from the website]:

Completely redesigned from the trade hardcover in a larger format-7" x 10".

Each book numbered and signed by the author.

Each volume hand-bound in Japanese silk.

Each volume housed in a handsome slipcase featuring a die-cut aperture for the Quicksilver icon and covered in the same Japanese silk. The slipcase will also feature a silk ribbon pull for easy removal.

Matching signed limited editions of the second and third volumes of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle will be published by William Morrow at six-month intervals.

Six-month intervals? Who are they kidding? Since, if I'm not mistaken, the first batch is already late [the given date for publication is 06-01-2004] (I can't be sure if that's late, though), the prospects for the rest being "on-time" are not great. But who cares? We're (yes I'm signed up via Ziesing) not in this for the reading. We're in this for the re-reading. That's right. Somewhere in a golden future we plan on having lots of time to read.

Or we're in it for the money. Some of us, who bought 'Snow Crash' on a lark (I seem to remember seeing a John Clute review and thinking I ought to buy it; could be wrong), now find outselves holding a $200 lark. And what will our $200.00 investment now be worth in ten years? Say $225.

Buy it because you love well made books folks. It certainly looks to be that; though once again, another opportunity for a publisher to employ JK Potter to do photo montages has passed by. Come on big publishers. If you're going to go up against the small press in this limited edition thing, get the details right! Here's my money.

Mark Helprin, Beer & Fruit Loops

Not in perfect shape, but certainly close enough.
One of the more interesting aspects of shopping independent is that many independent bookstores sell used books right in with the new books. But I have to admit I was looking over the counter at the shelf where the 'bought but not yet filed' used books were sitting when I saw a hardcover edition of Mark Helprin's 'Winter's Tale'. I read this book probably 20 years ago, in a paperback edition, which I still have on my shelves. I think. It might actually be out in the garage.

But seeing that copy on the shelves was a stroke of luck, the kind of luck that infuses the pages of the novel itself. It's an early example of what would come to be called 'magic realism', a novel that was critically acclaimed at the time but has since, I believe, unfairly fallen out of favor when compared with the work of the also excellent John Crowley.

Still, it's a prime example of the emotional hold that books have over you. 20 years ago I was making plans to get married, and we'd just barely recovered from our 1984 New Years Eve party. I was working at a blood factory, and for the party I'd nabbed 20 antiseptic full-body suits. We had bowls of breakfast cereal -- Fruit Loops and Trix -- in addition to potato chips, and when things got out of control, the guests hurled the cereal on other guests who were rolling on the floor in their antiseptic suits, covered in beer and smeared colored cereal. After the party, when everyone went home, it was almost dawn, and the skunks that lived under our suburban Spanish bungalow in Redondo Beach started mating. They made these hideous screeching squeaks that rose from the floor-heater furnace vents. In frustration my wife-to-be and I jumped up and down on the grates to quiet the skunks. It might be that our judgment was impaired at the time. The result was that two skunk let loose in the basement under the center of our house and drove us out on the front porch to watch dawn. Orwell's year to fear had arrived and we couldn't go inside out house without our eyes watering. Somewhere in that house was -- or would soon be -- a paperback copy of 'Winter's Tale'. It was -- and is -- the kind of book that hangs out in the memory, like a floor smeared with beer-Fruit Loop paste in a house reeking of skunk.