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06-25-04: 'The Value of X' Squared

Poppy Z. Brite Serves up A Sparkling 'Liquor'

At least $55.00 -- or more.
Poppy Z. Brite re-burst upon the literary scene in 2002 with 'The Value of X', a coming of age story set in New Orleans. John Rickey and Gary Stubbs fall in love as teenagers, discovering the joys and pains of being gay in New Orleans, and first experiencing the allure of the restaurant business -- an allure that the author has utterly, becomingly fallen to herself. Published as a limited edition hardcover by Subterranean Press, 'The Value of X' proved what many in the publishing industry would have called impossible. That is, Brite's legions of readers, acquired during her years as a horror writer, have without hesitation followed this writer beyond the horror genre because, as it happens -- they liked her writing! Imagine that.

Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious. Readers like a writer for their writing. Some readers are perhaps more interested in one genre or another, but when a writer has as powerful and individual a voice as does Brite, it turns out that readers just like reading that voice -- regardless of what it's writing about. Proof comes in the recently announced second edition of 'The Value of X', the first edition having sold out. In fact, lettered and numbered copies of the second edition -- also from Subterranean Press -- have already sold out, though signed copies are still available. If you hurry.

Someone has got to have this restaurant running, don't they?
This is why the small press deserves our support, and why that support is so vital -- because writers are not as easily pigeonholed as conglomerate publishers would prefer. Sometimes they decide to move on, from one subject and one mood to another, sometimes they never latch on to a single mood at all. But in a world where money talks, it took a sold-out first edition of Poppy's course-changing novel to convince the upper reaches of management that paying Poppy to do what she does best -- just write -- was the right decision. It took the vision and persistence of Subterranean Press to make it happen.

'Liquor', Poppy Z. Brite's latest novel, is now available as a trade paperback from Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Books, which itself shelters under the eaves of Random House. 'Liquor' follows up on Rickey and G-man, the two characters introduced in 'The Value of X'. Having served their time on the sidelines in the grueling restaurant business, they're ready to strike out on their own. Rickey has a brilliant idea -- one of those ideas that even in the real world seem brilliant. He wants to open up a restaurant called Liquor --where every dish features, well -- liquor. The two of them find backing, but it's not without problems. Those are the only ingredients Brite needs to whip up a ravishingly enjoyable novel. That's because she loves her characters, she loves her milieu (and who wouldn't love the upscale New Orleans restaurant scene?) and she's one hell of a prose writer.

Last I heard, Poppy was quite well connected herself to the New Orleans restaurant business, and that guarantees she'll be able to provide the crucial spice to make this all come really, really alive -- authenticity. Moreover, by setting her novel in the city in which she lives, she's taking a huge chance. She's going to have to live quite intimately with the repercussions of what she's written. She's cooked the book, set the scene -- and there's nothing left for her now but to reap the responses to her literary meal. I've read enough of Poppy's work to know that every single thing she's written is illuminated by her strong prose sensibility. I'm confident that if she writes about vampires, restaurants or even the mind-shattering horror of politics, her prose will tell all in a voice that I delight in reading. Frankly, I've read so much about vampires and politics, I find it hard to tell the difference. I'm thinking that for novelty's sake -- and because she walks that walk -- restaurants sound like a perfect setting for her tales. And it leaves her plenty of room for subsequent scene-bursting, should she decide to do so. I'll follow her writing wherever it goes. And in this case, there's dollars-on-the-table proof that I'm not alone.

06-24-04: To Serve Mammon: Dare to Venture to The Edge of Marketing Overkill

"If You'll Just Take my Hand." Bill Gates unveils X-Box.

Random House Enlists Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell to Mount a Dual Campaign on the Empires of Potter & Snicket

The first two books in Paul Stewart's and Chris Riddell's 'The Edge Chronicles'.
One thing you can count on any art-oriented business to do is to miss the point. In music, in movies and books, those who run the business side have the peculiar idea that when a particular artist becomes suddenly, wildly popular, the reason is because the customers want the form or content of that original offering. That is, if a movie about cole slaw hits it big, the audience must be starved for cole slaw movies. Or if an artist who sings using only an auto-harp for backup hits it big, why, the world needs lots of recordings of solo auto-harpists. Or if a book about a boy wizard hits it big, then by gosh, the world is sorely in need of more books about boy wizards.

Actually, what the audience is usually responding to in such cases is not the specific form or content but instead, the novelty and artistic execution of the content. Now the first wave of follow-ups to mind-boggling hits often does fairly well. Of course, the sales figures are often based not on sales to end customers but sales to retailers, and how much is shipped to retailers. Best sellers are created by publishers simply by printing a boatload of books or recordings. They might as well ship 'em to the remainder bin. [This is not true in the realm of movies where box office results can render rip-offs unprofitable; but it doesn't seem to stem the tide, perhaps because of 'The Producers'-effect, in that failures still rack up big money for somebody.]

To be fair, I heard good things about the books of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell last year from my UK contacts, but alas, was unable to lay my hands on any. This year, they've been carpet bombed into bookstores as of yesterday, with standee displays and giveaway gimmicks. Let's approach these books with the highest cynicism, from the outside in. Because I think that somewhere in there, there's something worth looking at; but the audience may not be as Universal Pictures as Random House hopes.

What we have here is clearly, on the marketing side, an attempt to gene splice Harry Potter with Lemony Snicket. You've got the perky boy wizard look personified by Twig, the youth abandoned in the forest and left to be raised by Wood Trolls. Magic and monsters abound in these books; but more on that later.

3-d glasses are available free with purchase while supplies last.
Now when you check the form factor, however, you'll note a very distinct resemblance the wonderful Lemony Snicket books of Northern California McSweeney's Mafia member Daniel Handler. My teenage son immediately commented on this; when the teenagers notice something about a book, it means that even Jimmy Hoffa, interred long ago in my coffee table is painfully, unpleasantly aware of it. It is shining in his face like a neon lamp, pulsing in his inner ear like the bass beat from a passing pickup truck, rammed down his poor dead dry throat like a plumber's helper helping a plumber.

As far as books for teenagers go, these look to be pretty much aces. They're as well-written as the Potter tomes (and for the children's sake, not as thick), from a brief examination. The real highlights are the illustrations of Chris Riddell. These are not available in either of the other series, and they are quite beautiful. They even verge on the kind of creepiness that once made Rat-Fink toys famous. And as far as plot goes, they also seem quite well-suited to adolescent boys. Since I almost fall into that category or so I'm told by adults in my general vicinity, I can say with authority that the density of monsters one encounters herein is positively bracing. Now I must admit that both boys asked -- twice -- about these titles. They both really admired Riddell's illustrations and Stewart's monstrous inventions. That's an incredibly good sign that 'The Edge Chronicles' have a chance. The fact that they're all illustrated is admirable and makes them even more readable by the target audience. But. But.

You see, while the target audience for Potter is adolescent boys and girls, the books are really selling well to adults. Sure, there are lots of parties that you'll see where die-hard teenage fans go gaga. But I'm guessing that not many fourteen-year old kids are shelling out the twenty-plus samolians required to bring one of these babies home. So moms and pops are buying them, and one suspect reading them as well.

As for the Lemony Snicket books, while they're aimed at a slightly younger audience, the incredible wit of Daniel Handler is so effervescent that even I enjoyed the one I read immensely. It's really in the Neil Gaiman range of funny prose. So, once again, while the audience may be the kids, the buyers are the parents, who again, enjoy reading them.

A definite Rat-Fink vibe to this illustration.
I'm not so certain that the primarily male audience for 'The Edge Chronicles' will be drawn away from their X-Boxes and Halo parties to go gaga over the cavalcade of beautifully illustrated and well-written monsters in these books. But I am certain that their parents will also find the whole business a bit too disturbing -- and yet also too "young adult" -- to go gaga over them for their own sake.

Now, it's very possible to go gaga over Riddell's illustrations. Stewart's prose and story obviously offers a lot of nice craftsmanship and the slack-jawed satisfaction of a parade of monsters. But I think I can safely conclude that there are not many folks out there like myself who still like to wallow in monsterama epics. These books have been languishing over in the UK since 1998. I hope they won't languish here. I'd give anything to see kids compelled away from the deeply evil mind-erasers built by the sick desginers in Redmond.

But think of it. How many teenage boys do you know who read more than they play video games? If you think of this audience: "compulsive teenage male readers", the words BIG MONEY do not spring to mind. You're more likely to think of a cancelled television series: "Freaks and Geeks". So I wouldn't hold my breath and wait for the big bucks to roll in. But I might spend more time than was healthy looking at Chris Riddell's wonderful illustrations, enjoying Paul Stewart's entertaining monster creations.

No, in the spirit of innovation that really sells books, I'd look for something about a boy wizard who discovers an ancient manuscript in his father's basement that's tied to a conspiracy involving the Tri-Lateral Commisson and those who hate either President Bush or ex-President Clinton, or those who love one or the other; our intrepid hero will eventually uncover, after many double-crosses, car chases through city streets that aren't quite on the map and a bunch of research on non-existent internet sites, the true secret of the long lost genius's manuscript. Yes, Long Lost Genius discovered the Ultimate Diet. His creation:

It's a cookbook.

"I'm sorry ma'am; we're all out of Halo 2. Do you think your boys would like to read a book?"

06-23-04: Join the Feast With Liz Williams

Night Shade Books Releases 'The Banquet of the Lords of Night'

Note pink elephant just above "of", tipping glass of ale on itself. Don't ask how I know it is ale -- I just know!
Though speculative fiction offers writers the opportunity to write pretty much anything they want to, few seem to seize the chance to write as wide a variety of fiction as does Liz Williams. She's gained acclaim in the science fiction world, and justly so, with novels like 'The Poison Master', which she described as 'Victorians in space on drugs'. She excels at galaxy-spanning archaeological space opera in titles like 'Empire of Bones'. But then she can turn around and write piece of mythic contemporary fantasy horror such as 'Nine Layers of Sky'. And how many adjective qualifiers do I have to put in front of her titles to even hope to give you an idea of what she's up to? She's versatile, and we like that in a writer.

So it's natural that she would display her versatility in a collection of short stories, and who better to publish that collection than Night Shade? Who indeed and thus was born the forthcoming 'The Banquet of the Lords of Night'. A good way to glean if you want to buy a collection of previously published stories is to check where the stories have been published. If you like the magazine or the general vibe of the magazine then chances are you'll like the collection. For example, a collection with stories that trend towards Analog is going to be quite a bit more nuts-and-bolts than a collection of with stories from The Third Alternative, which is where a number of Williams' stories have been published. But Williams isn't restricted to the usual suspects; you're going to find stories from Unhinged, Visionary Tongue and Scheherazade as well as TTA and Realms of Fantasy. The collection boasts one original story titled 'Skindancing'.

The cover art is by World Fantasy Award winner Tom Kidd and features a pink elephant, which could come in handy if you wanted to be able to say that you'd seen a pink elephant, or if you've let it slip that you've seen one in other circumstances best left to everyone's imagination. You can point to the cover and say "See? That's where I saw the pink elephant!" That'll settle some arguments for you. And maybe help you escape some hot water. Pat Cadigan's introduction -- not present yet in the copy I have -- is not likely to provide any similar sort of cover.

The subjects covered in this collection range from a contemporary South China-set story of supernatural detection to the far-flung future of 'Quantum Anthropology'. In between you'll travel from a near-future Uzbekistan to soul-swapping and blood-drinking in London. The production here is especially generous; Night Shade's large format and large print help make reading a pleasure. I must admit that I'm rather torn by Night Shade's latest offerings. On one hand, it seems utterly insane that larger publishers aren't offering this type of material as a default setting. But then, Night Shade is one of a number of publishers that seem to be able to give the conglomerates a run for their money and more. The more includes works like this one; imaginative, excellently executed and hard-to-pigeonhole. Works that truly offer the range of imagination that is usually only hinted at in speculative fiction. It's not just the main dish; it's the banquet.

06-22-04: Exit the Dragon, Enter the World of Elizabeth Kerner

'Redeeming the Lost' and Completing a Series

"If you've got a good car, then you do not need to be REDEEMED!" Flannery O'Connor, from 'Wise Blood'
We're told by all the Oracles -- the database gods that oversee our oh-so-commercial world -- that PeopleSoft fantasy outsells science fiction by a significant margin. Of course, we're well past the point-of-no-return now. The fiscal and artistic success of the movie version of 'The Lord of the Rings' guarantees that those trees which manage to avoid being felled to provide paper upon which to print all the fantasy currently being written will certainly acquire quite a few more rings before the pendulum swings back to the science fiction side of the spectrum.

It's up to the readers, then, to decide which of the series to wade through and which of them to cast aside. One thing that really counts in the fantasy world, for this reader at least, is whether or not one can read an entire series, and how many books one will have to wade through to do so. On that count alone, then Elizabeth Kerner's 'Redeeming the Lost' gets a nod. The third novel of the adventures of Lanen Kaelar completes the story of the return of dragons to the world of man. Not surprisingly, they don't like what they find. Demon Lords and other bad actors make life difficult for Lanen and dragon-turned human Varien, who gave up all that dragon goodness to hitch up to Lanen. Of course, any whose name contains the text string 'Kael' gets some extra points in my book. One wonders if our intrepid heroine has a post-dragon life of film reviews to look forward to.

Kerner writes in a nice straightforward prose style in short chapters, befitting the prize bestowed upon her by the New York Public Library, which gave the opening novel in the trilogy, 'Song in the Silence' a 'Best Book for Teens' award. Of course that puts this book as the concluding novel in a series meant to hit on the same audience that's buying up Harry Potter -- that is, everyone in creation and apparently, some of their dead relatives who stopped by the bookstore after voting in the last election.

Of course the question that one must ask that darned old Oracle, vis a vis the sales of Science Fiction versus Fantasy is precisely this: Oh Oracle, why dost thou include Harry Potter in Fantasy genre sales, and not Michael Crichton in the Science Fiction sales? The Force -- a fantasy concept hand-stitched from fantasy into mega-selling SF, tells us that there must be a balance. Who is balancing the books?

We, the readers are. In stacks on our tables and by the bed. On desks and double-shelved. One of the nicest things about trilogies such as Kerner's is that they offer the reader a choice to vote early and often for their favorite authors, all perfectly legal, all well within the bounds of the democracy of the marketplace. Read them all, and let the Gods of the database sort 'em out.

06-21-04: Ford & Price Get Stackified and Admired

'Red Tide' and 'Samaritan'

By Terry D'Auray

A rising Red Tide lifts a lot of souls to their just reward. Or not.
Newly arrived, two books to add to the stackification that threatens to consume my little corner of space in this world, both of them glowing with promise.

First, G.M. Ford's latest mystery 'Red Tide' (Wm. Morrow) featuring renegade reporter Frank Corso (think Hunter Thompson without all the drugs) and his memorable side-kick Meg Dougherty. Corso is an aggressive-with-attitude investigator of the ethical gray areas of the contemporary landscape. Dougherty is the ultimate Goth-girl photographer with more than a little attitude of her own.

In 'Red Tide', Corso gets involved with bioterrorism under the streets of Seattle, while Meg grapples with the re-emergence of her ex, the sweetheart of a guy who drugged her, tattooed her from head to toe, and left her for dead.

Ford showcases his newly amped-up writing style in the Corso novels (this is the fourth in this stellar series), delivering suspenseful, gritty narratives mixed with pointed wit and chilling realism. He'd better be careful or he'll loose claim to the moniker "the best-kept secret in mystery novels" and join the likes of Lehane and Pelacanos on the top of the hypermodern heap. We'll do our best to help. For an extensive article on Ford and his work, you can read my column on 'Ford in the Fast Lane', where I looked at both the Frank Corso and the Leo Waterman books that brought this author to the top of the mystery genre.

Price's novel gets a nice noir treatment.
The second arrival is a nicely-produced trade paperback edition of Richard Price's 'Samaritan' from Vintage Books, with a cover that mixes stark black-and-white photography as befits the content with marketing hype that barely misses going over the top. I could probably do without the "Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year" sticker, but the good news is, it's a sticker that can be removed.

Price, for me, is a pure case of letting authors I admire lead me to other authors they admire. Both Lehane and Pelacanos tout Price, and Price has joined those two favorites of mine to write episodes of HBO's gritty series 'The Wire".

'Samaritan", Price's third book behind 'Freedomland' and 'Clockers'', looks to have all the makings of a winner – gritty urban landscape, hardboiled prose, moral complexity, terrific dialogue and good old-fashioned suspense. Be still my heart.