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06-04-04: Signed, Selected and Sent to Your Doorstep

M for Mystery Offers Animated Death and Shadow of the Wind

News from Terry D'Auray

I think that this book will cross a number of lines.
Specialty mystery bookshops provide a wealth of resources to genre-junkies like myself – announcements of upcoming releases, author readings and signings, books searches, and general genre scuttlebutt to name but a few. And for the brave and the adventurous, many also offer the textbook "auto-buy" opportunity – book clubs, where the reader signs up for books to-be-named-later, selected by the knowledgeable bookstore staff with an eye to picking high-quality new releases for their fans.

The best book clubs are ones that focus their selections by sub-genre, so those of us who are hardboiled purists need never unexpectedly come face-to-face with a cozy. But the most adventuresome clubs, and there are many of these to choose from, are "First Mystery Clubs" that focus on selecting the best new mysteries from promising new authors. If done well, these clubs give readers the benefit of pre-separating the wheat from the chafe, the opportunity to follow an author as they mature on the printed page, and the chance to grab those potentially highly valuable signed first editions of the author's first book for that highly valuable home library that's only valuable if they part with the books, which they never will. All well worth the risk of finding a dog or two in the otherwise stellar bunch of books that show up on your doorstep.

I just received my monthly care package from the M for Mystery First Mystery Club (called S&S 1, for signed & selected), which held not just one, but two, new mysteries by new authors. (M for Mystery fell a bit behind in their shipping of monthly selections, but then again, I've fallen a bit behind in my reading of them).

Rules, rules, rules! Antiqued or faux-antiqued? You decide.
One book is the first in what's billed as a police procedural series by Michael Joens, called 'An Animated Death in Burbank'. Joens is a veteran of the LA movie biz, with stints in animation, TV, animated commercials, videos, and four previous books. (Note – first mystery does not equal first book by most of these club's rules and many selections are written by authors who've previously published in other, non-mystery, genres). The protagonist is a female LA Detective, Sandra Cameron. Her first case is the apparent suicide-that-we-know-is-really-murder of cartoonist Parker Stewart, whose body is found beside a note that says "That's all folks". Now, would I pick this out of the crowd of new releases all by myself? Highly doubtful. But it has some undeniable appeal – a male author writing a female character (it's always interesting to see if they get it right), clearly a bit of wit mixed in with the murder, the dust-jacket promise of Hollywood glitter and romance, and a setting in the animation industry where I worked for several years. A book well worth a spin.

The second book looks to be a sure winner. 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is receiving accolades aplenty both inside the mystery genre and out. First published in Spain over a year ago (Note – first mystery does not equal first publication of the title ever, simply first mystery in US. Rules, rules, rules!). It's the story of a boy who is initiated into the secret of Barcelona's Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, falls in love with one of the books therein and discovers that all other books by this author have been systematically destroyed. Promising a mix of history, romance, magic and murder, 'The Shadow of the Wind' looks to be Jaspar Fforde meets John Dunning with absorbing atmosphere and an enveloping plot. At close to 500 pages, it's a weighty tome, packed in a nicely muted cover designed to look old, worn and well-read. Marketers would describe the cover as "antiqued"; honest marketers would describe it as "faux antique". Whatever the description, the contents look simply yummy.

06-03-04: Golden Gryphon Rules the World

News and New Work from the Two Macleods

Check out Ken's Blog; it's full of the same incisive wit you find in his fiction.
Over the next week or so, expect a close look at some new books from Golden Gryphon. They are currently staging their own attempt at world conquest, and I must say things are going well. And now we return to the Two Macleods, covered together here first in an earlier column.

No, they're not related, and they're not even remotely similar in terms of style and content. Yet it's hard to think of Ken Macleod without casting a thought towards fellow Scot writer Ian R. Macleod. It's summer again and time for new work from our favorite Scot writers. I've just posted my review of the wonderful 'Newton's Wake' by Ken Macleod. Ken writes to tell me of his next novel that, "…I'm working on it right now. It's called 'Learning the World', and it's about a colony starship thousands of years from now unexpectedly encountering aliens who are about to have their own version of the exciting twentieth century."

You've got to love a writer who comes up with a description like "their own version of the exciting twentieth century." That phrase brings to mind just the sort of wry, dry humor that permeates Ken's work; it's front and center in 'Newton's Wake', which manages to evoke chuckles and awe, page after page. An odd combination that; but it's what we look to Ken Macleod for. Nobody else is going to get in his particular, peculiar patch of surreal, socialist, reference-loaded science fiction.

Click image for full-size, full DJ glory.
Likewise, expect no challenges to Ian R. Macleod's equally exotic blend of low-key social science fiction that puts people front and center. Golden Gryphon's plan for world conquest begins with 'Breathmoss and Other Exhalations'. This collection includes the Hugo and Nebula nominated title novella, a poignant tale of life in a world where men are rare. Two World Fantasy Award winners are included in this collection as well. Readers who read my summary of the awards and what they mean know that this award is one of those I tend to agree with, so the presence of 'The Chop Girl' is a certain treat. She's a girl with a reputation, an unlucky angel, who once dated by the WWII aces in her town, brings upon them certain death. 'The Summer Isles', another World Fantasy award winner, depicts an England that lost World War I. In the 20's and 30's, fascism and repression take the lead. Jews and gypsies are relocated to isles off the coast of Scotland and homosexuals are sent to camps to be cured. An aging historian and homosexual, a one-time friend of the fascist leader, tells the story.

Expect nothing but the best from Golden Gryphon, who have commissioned a beautiful dust jacket from Bob Eggleton. This one is available in a signed, limited edition, with signatures from both author and artist. Miss it at your own peril; when the time comes and you feel (as I did last year) that you must own all of Ian R. Macleod's work, you'll be upping the limit on your credit card to get one of the few limited copies of this collection.

Coming later this year (we hope) is Ian R. Macleod's follow-up to his incredible novel, 'The Light Ages'. This novel, which loosely followed the story of 'Great Expectations' in an England where a technology of magic has crippled and enhanced science and invention, was a beautiful, intense and, yes, poignant story. 'Electricity' takes place just after 'The Light Ages' and unfolds more of the history Macleod's evocative world. Once again it's a good, no it's a great summer for the Macleods. Between the two of them; with the help of Golden Gryphon, readers better get deep in their pockets to enjoy the big screen behind their eyes.

06-02-04: 'The Skinner' in Hardcover

Underneath the Skin of Neal Asher

A new meaning to wind powered. Click image for full-size version.
Readers of The Agony Column hardly need notice about Neal Asher, and 'The Skinner'. But when Tor books brings out a beautiful hardcover copy, with cover art by Jim Burns it's time to celebrate. And Asher is celebrating a lot lately anyway. He's being published in all sorts of languages around the world, he's been reviewed quite positively by the New York Times, and now, his second hardcover from Tor looks to be on a number of ballots. And only two years after you first read about it here!

On one hand, you have to ask yourself, what are you reading about now that will be the next big thing in two years' time? We'll do our best to tell you, every day. And on the other hand, you have to be happy to see a fine copy of a great book reach out bookstores with lots of positive publicity and a cover that actually illustrates quite well a scene from Neal's monsterific masterpiece. Since we're dreaming at the moment, how about a bestiary of the creatures from 'The Skinner' illustrated by Mr. Burns? Is that too much to ask? I think not, especially given the popularity of the Barlowe extra-terrestrial books. And in one Asher novel, there are more than enough critters to populate a complete bestiary with illustrations by Burns and Barlowe both. Why not share the joy?

Readers are also directed to check out a recent interview with Asher over at the estimable UK SF webzine 'Computer Crow's Nest'. When you're done with that one, you can go back and re-read my interview with Asher, from 2002, when we talked about the future -- that's now, in part, the past. Readers should know here and now that I have an enduring love for the concept of "the future". Every future inevitably becomes the past. My own personal hope is that we get some of the critters from Asher's futures -- but someplace where we can view them at a safe distance. Of course, that would defeat the purpose of such beasts, who are created to populate our nightmares. Alas, all too often reality bears a greater semblance to our nightmares than our dreams.

06-01-04: Don't Say "That's Not Me!" It is you.

Daniel Jones Gets 27 writers to talk about the joys and the pains of being 'The Bastard on the Couch'

Dig those white socks! Easy to match in the laundry.
"I'm not asleep! I was watching that!"

Well, maybe I was dozing, just a little bit.

As much as I enjoy my daily schedule of getting up at 3.30 AM, I do find that come 9:00 PM, it does not matter what I'm reading, what's on TV, what movie I'm watching, those damn eyelids get a dose of gravity that seems to be absent during much of the day. You put me on the couch, I'm a goner. Well, also, the couch wreaks havoc with -- maybe that's too much information.

But sometimes too much information is just what is needed. I know the excess of information in 'The Bitch in the House' certainly enlivened things around my house. And if you were smart enough to pick up a copy of this fine tome for yourself or your other half, then you were rewarded with a healthy excess of the truth that may not have made things better, but might have made seemingly insane madness at least comprehensible. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. According to H. P. Lovecraft, a lot of knowledge will drive you crazy. But if you're already there, what’s the difference?

So now it's our turn to grab the remote, hoist up a brew and explain why everything we do makes one hundred percent perfect sense. Daniel Jones, husband to Catherine Hannauer, the editor of 'The Bitch in the House', has put together 'The Bastard on the Couch', a companion volume that has the same all-star power of its predecessor. The best part of this is that the brightest of us have bothered to write it down so that the remaining (literate) ones simply have to read it and pass the good news along.

I'm going to have to do some digging to see if I can scare up the identities of some of the pseudonyms that creep in here. But you get McSweeney's star Stephen Elliot and Anthony 'Jarhead' Swofford. You get Anthony Giardina, and Steve Friedman, author of 'The Gentleman's Guide to Life'.

On one hand, there's a certain amount of "These are Things Which Women Were Not Meant To Know." This book might easily be passed into that genre I spoke of in a much earlier column that includes the work of Nick Hornsby and Graham Joyce. It may be best for you to read this and take notes, so when the various subjects come up -- such as "Why Men Lie (and Always Will)" and "My Problem With Her Anger", well, you've got some ammo.

Of course, there's always the "Give me the remote, get me a beer and read this," strategy, which may or may not work for you. I won't recommend that to you. It's a judgment call, and you know what?

I'm guessing my judgment is flawed in this regard.

But I am perfectly qualified to suggest that readers cut the genre fiction, dump the mysteries, stash the sci-fi under the cushion and make a token effort to read this. In the first place, you’re going to find that it's a lot of fun; great writing about reality with lots of variety is not necessarily a bad thing. In the second place, with a variety of essays, it makes a perfect palate cleanser between this slab of space opera and that slap of space opera. Furthermore, it does confirm the wisdom of choosing to wear only one brand of white socks, so that you never have to worry about matching when you do the laundry.

You do do the laundry, don't you?

I'm currently having Serena Trowbridge, our expert on feminist fiction of the first half of the 20th century take a look at this book.

I'm a bad person, I know that.

05-31-04: Enter 'The Labyrinth' of Catherynne M. Valente

This Is Not the Way

Are those butterflies escaping from someone's stomach?
Trust me when I say that: "This is not the way." Look, there's the edge, and over the edge. The edge is pretty darn popular and accessible. Edgy fiction is fiction that by definition has some connection to the mainstream. Some single hanging thread to a reality that much of the world at least allows to pass for normal and acceptable, if not, in fact real. Edgy fiction is for the most part mainstream fiction. Then there's 'The Labyrinth'.

For those of us who need to plunge completely over the edge, into the psycho-poetic terrors of a post-modern post-grad feminist, there's not a lot of choice out there. Catherynne M. Valente seems to be in the forefront of the Catherynne M. Valente school of poetry and fiction. When she's not authoring graduate theses on Jacques Derrida -- which she herself describes as "…pure wankery. See that? It's spooge, all over my computer screen," -- she's writing poetry, living in Japan "among the sushi and the geisha", or writing some one-hundred percent kicks-your-ass-into-another dimension fiction that Prime Books has the guts to publish. In case you've recovered the shreds of your sanity after reading Michael Cisco's 'The Tyrant', here's 177 pages of frothing, ranting madwoman-on-something literature that's likely to leave you wondering what exactly was in that sugar cube you put in your cup of tea this morning. Assuming, of course, that surreal, monsterific madness is your cup of tea. I can't think of any better way to start the day.

Maybe not Top 40 material.
'The Labyrinth' describes itself as "a lyrical anti-quest through a darkly conscious maze." This is hard-core, surreal, symbolic poetry fragmented, mix-mastered and re-sampled into something resembling a narrative of madness. To get a bit of a flavor of her attitude, ideas and work, I'd highly suggest you check out Catherynne's website. To my Apple browser (admittedly non-standard), there are still a few bugs, but it's well worth digging about. If your tastes run towards the poetic and the surreal, this author is definitely the one for you. Her site includes readings from the novel and her other works, including her already-published collection of poetry, 'Music for a Proto Suicide'. The readings are short MP3 files that will definitely give you an idea of what's in store for you in 'The Labyrinth'. The is not your father's or your mother's Jorge Luis Borges.

Her journal will give you the clearest picture of the mind behind this fiction; intense, intensely intelligent and anti-every-damn-thing including anti-itself. Somewhere between the cracks in reality, Catherynne and her fiction are growing, spawning, changing, churning out words that can only take you away, away from your mind, your sanity, the safe little cube of your life. You may need that desperately and know it. Or you may need it desperately and NOT know it. The only way you'll find out is to experience it. Better get your prescription drugs prescribed before you tread this maze. I'm pretty sure this is one of those deals where it's easier to get in than out.