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11-05-04: Neil Jordan's Haunted Novel

From the Silver Screen to 'The Shade'

This reminds me of a costume worn by a character in the original Star Trek Series in an "evil children episode". Friendly angel come to me!
While I'm not a big fan of the movies, there are some movies that have really stuck in my mind. Perhaps one of the best movies to map the texture of the types of books that I read is Neil Jordan's 'In the Company of Wolves'. This very peculiar collection of fairy tales, oddments and scenes is nicely nonsensical, surreal and features Angela "Scary Milk Movie" Lansbury. [ 1 ] So I have to admit that as soon as I saw the listing for Neil Jordan's upcoming appearance at 'M for Mystery', I was intrigued. I suspected that the title 'Shade', which was all I knew about the book, was indicative that it might be of interest.

{[ 1 ] When my oldest son was quite young, he sat with us while we watched a videotape of the original version of 'The Manchurian Candidate'. He later referred to this as "the scary milk movie", and that memorable appellation has remained a part of our vocabulary.}

And now, having picked up a copy of 'Shade' (Bloomsbury, October 25, 2004, $24.95), I'm convinced I was right. This is not Jordan's first novel; he's previously published 'The Past', 'The Dream of a Beast' and 'Sunrise With Sea Monster', as well as a short story collection, 'Night In Tunisia'. So it's not as if the guy just decided he could write a novel because he'd directed a few movies. In fact, he did win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 'The Crying Game'. So we have an actual, original writer on our hands. But what about this, his latest novel?

'Shade', is, as I had hoped from the title, a story told by ghost. It begins in 1950, when world-renowned actress Nina Hardy is murdered by a childhood friend. As her body is never recovered, she remains a ghost, a shade, watching the events that follow her death from the afterlife while recalling the events that lead to her death.

Steeped in the history of Ireland and of war, Jordan has picked a potentially quite effective supernatural style of storytelling. Now in fact, this novel sort of defines why I like fiction that includes supernatural angles. It has nothing to do with violence or terror, and everything to do with freeing an imaginative writer to tell a story in an unusual fashion. Just as Kurt Vonnegut used science fiction tropes to unstick Billy Pilgrim in time in his novel 'Slaughterhouse Five', Neil Jordan's used the device of a dead narrator to enable his story to roam freely to see deeply where it might not otherwise feel free to go.

Of course, this device is by no means new nor is it uncommon. Alice Sebold created the World's Hardest First Act To Follow with her debut, 'The Lovely Bones'. But what's great about this device is that the device itself is unimportant; it's the results that will speak for themselves. And, of course, the prose.

Jordan's prose is as closely detailed and musical as you might expect from a screenwriter and director. He establishes a strong narrative voice from the get-go that simply, easily sweeps the reader away. There's an elegiac feel to the writing that asks to be read aloud. And on the more practical side, at less than 300 pages, the book is less likely to wear out its welcome.

One is well advised to be cautious when confronted with writing by those in the movie business. A recent news item on NPR included a veteran screenwriter who avowed that no script these days is actually ever read from beginning to end. They go from the pitch session to the back lot. This appears to be more than a pitch. Perhaps even a home run.

11-04-04: The Iron Tree

Hitting the Target With Cecilia Dart-Thornton

An Iron Tree and an open heart. Gorgeous artwork by Julek Heller is featured on the cover of Cecilia Dart-Thorton's new novel.
The legions of writers who have been compared to Tolkien could easily cleave off from their home countries and form a new nation of their own, a sort of medieval kingdom based on the idea that all swords, sorcerers, spunky heroes and heroines are created equal. Having established said country -- let's call it Middle Earth, after all -- they could easily populate it with their fans, and export root vegetables, Renaissance Faires and door-stopping trilogies of fantasy fiction. Chances are, they'd give California a run for its money as fifth largest economy in the world. We'd be happy to host them here in California. Come on down, folks. We're always looking for knights in shining armor.

Cecilia Dart-Thornton is alas, unlikely to grace California with her governessly presence, though we've already got a cartload of her novels with More, More II and More III (the final chapter of the trilogy) expected shortly. Her first series, 'The Bitterbynde Trilogy' done and finished, she's just released 'The Iron Tree' (Pan Macmillan, November 19, 2004, ¢17.99) the first novel of 'The Crowthistle Chronicles' in a handsome, beautifully produced UK edition from the Tor UK imprint of Pan Macmillan.

The Bitterbynde books won quite a bit of acclaim and positive reviews in addition to the inevitable Tolkien comparisons. But Dart-Thornton is a different sort of writer, and this seems to be more than a bit clearer in 'The Iron Tree' where the focus is, to quote the dust jacket, "above all, love". Still, as in all fantasy series, it's going to take a while for the characters to get to the point where they make that realization. 'The Iron Tree' begins as Jarred, coming of age, leaves his desert home and finds a startlingly unfamiliar world of forests, water and woods in the Marsh of Slievmordhu. There he also finds Lilith. But these two have a lot more to sort out than raging hormones. They're connected by more than entangled limbs; their lives have been raveling together, growing forth from the Iron Tree.
Looking to the References in the back of the book, I found a lot of fascinating pointers to wights, legends and forgotten fairy tales. A goodly portion of this novel seems to have been derived from Irish and English lore, which is certain to lend the novel a helpful dose of reality, or at least real perceptions of the unreality that surrounds us.

Tor UK's presentation of this novel is superb. The cover art, by Julek Heller is understated, detailed and quite gorgeous. And though I don't often make this observation, I have to admit that this book just smelled good. Really! If one needs to be lost -- and there's many a reason afoot that might enhance one's willingness to lose one's self -- then this is quite assuredly a book in which one could do so. Moreover, were one to fear an endless story, and again, there are many good reasons to fear an endless fantasy series, the map is laid quite clearly. This is the Crowthistle Trilogy, with 'Book 2: The Well of Tears' to follow in 2005 and 'Book 3: Fallowblade' to follow in 2006. This suggests that Dart-Thornton is one of those writers who plan, outline and follow the map they've made for themselves to complete a story. Again, given the potential for the endless fantasy series, this is a welcome decision. We read with purpose.

I took a peek at Cecilia Dart-Thornton's website, which has won a couple of awards. I can see why, though I'd suggest that readers beware the separately hosted link to a FAQ on, where they've managed to create pop-ups that defeat even the otherwise immune Safari browser that's my default choice. The rest of her website is quite gorgeously done with a flash "movie overview" of all the novels, flash movies for each individual novel, an interview and some authentically beautiful music sung and played by the author herself. Readers who enjoy Annie Haslam and Renaissance and John Renbourne are likely to enjoy the two tracks she has on offer. Usually, I'm a bit leery of musical offerings. Dart-Thornton's material is quite classy. It would make excellent background music for reading her novels. And like them, it ends in a timely manner.

11-03-04: Rafael Alvarez 'The Wire > Truth Be Told'; UK Lambshead

More Than the Media

by Terry D'Auray
Now it can be told -- and read.
The Agony Column is all about books - big books, little books, prize-winning books, books to buy and books to pass by, pocket books, brick books, body-count books, books that elicit laughter or longing, terror or tears, depression or drooling. Rarely, you'll read a reference to a particular movie, usually a disparaging reference at that, but you'll never, never read a reference to a T.V. series. Until now, when the release of the DVD of a TV series coincides with the release of, well, a book.

The first season of HBO's acclaimed television drama 'The Wire' has just been released on DVD, and with it, a book, 'The Wire > Truth Be Told' (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, $25.00) by Rafael Alvarez, which takes the reader "behind the scenes and into the streets" of this groundbreaking dramatic series. Alvarez has written episodes of 'The Wire', along with some of the highest-powered crime novelists on the contemporary landscape – George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price. Also contributing is David Simon, reporter, novelist, script writer for 'Homocide' and writer/prime-mover/executive producer of 'The Wire'. Simon is also the roommate of Laura Lippman, the writer of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan mystery series and the recent Edgar award winning standalone 'Every Secret Thing'.

'The Wire > Truth Be Told' is, of course, an act of commerce as well as love, a "media tie-in" leveraging the strength and popularity of the HBO series. But unlike most such efforts which are little more than colorful celebrity photographs interspersed with a few insider stories, this one has substance along with its star shots, a look that's unusual and inviting, and, best of all, some challenging literary meat on its bones. For those unfamiliar with 'The Wire', David Simon describes it best: "It's a visual novel". (To which Lippman cheekily replied "…if 'The Wire is really a novel, what's its ISBN number?"). The book outlines in depth each episode of the first three seasons, provides a full list of cast and crew (including the stuntmen and dialect coaches) for each season and adds a helpful glossary of the street slang that makes 'The Wire' realistic but sometimes incomprehensible.

David Simon's fiercely written saga of the concept of the show – "We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme" –and its production and marketing and the role of HBO is worth the price on its own. Add contributions by Anthony Walton, Joy Lusco Kecken (also a writer on 'The Wire") and George Pelecanos' pointed and poignant piece on his chance encounter with a ghetto boy named Peanut Butter and Jelly, and you'd find this a fascinating read even if you never watch the series. But if you have watched 'The Wire', if you've joined the growing fan club of this visual novel, then this is clearly a "must buy".

A Must-Buy CTB Field Guide

Speaking of Must-Buys, I find myself shocked by how much I love the new UK-only version of 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases'. Now, I can't pretend to be unbiased here; I'm in the Guide, which of course is reason enough to buy it. But let's add one more; Pan Macmillan have done an outstandin job at creating the field version of this guide in what I would call California Text Book style.

The wonderfully shiny front and back cover of the UK version of the Lambshead Guide.

Pan Macmillan have served editors Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts quite well, with a version of the Guide that has all the bells and whistles of the original version, but is just different enough to warrant purchase -- and satisfy the buyer. The Pan Macmillan version of the Guide is truly the pocket version, small, and actually, in fact, slick.

This version of the guide contains everything the Nightshade did; illustrations, utter weirdness, lots of strangeness and of course complete and utter poppycock! But it's issued sans DJ, in a different cover that screams to be sold in turn-of-the-twentieth century San Francisco. It's a bit smaller, sturdy and perfect for field use when you travel afar. Yes, you'll want to keep your original, Nightshade edition at hom. It's a fine first edition. This book is made for traveling! The slick and shiny cover is certainly reminiscent of some of the California textbooks my kids have used, and I'm going to suggest that we get this book put in the curriculum of all fifty states. This is, after all, an election year. It's time for readers to speak their mind and demand that Lambshead be put in the schools!

11-02-04: Time Beyond Death, Beyond Empire with PS Publishing and Stephen Baxter, Paul Park and Lisa Tuttle

Ignoring the Obvious

No traveller returns, or passes spell-check in a US word-processor.
Read all about it somewhere else. Here, you’re going to find a look at the three latest PS Publishing novellas. Yes, I've been a bit remiss, but anyone who is tracking the site will know it's not like I've been taking a lot of time off. This is just, I guess, the busy season for books, and I'm having one heck of a time keeping up. The stacks are positively staggering. Still, time must be made for our best and brightest publishers, and PS Publishing certainly qualifies there.

Going by the ever-unreliable ISBN number, I'm guess that the Paul Park novella, 'No Traveller Returns' was the first to see the light of day. Or the dark of night, as it were, since it treats a rather dark subject. The unnamed narrator of 'No Traveller Returns' starts the novella with a Fortean experience; he encounters an ape-man in the mountains of Northern India. Upon his return, he learns that his mentor, Jim Carbone, has died. And quite simply, the narrator pursues him, entering a surreal borderland of harsh mountains, lunatic monasteries, odd cities, fascist police and the not-to-be-left-behind beautiful women. What would a surreal afterlife be like without beautiful women? I hope never to find out!

Paul Park has written a passel of highly regarded science fiction novels, and he's a writer who was highly recommended to me by Kim Stanley Robinson. With the recent discovery of "Homo tom thumbus" as the wag over at the New York Times called Homo floresiensis, this whole "ape man in Northern India" aspect takes on a much more urgent tone. But then the overall theme of this novella, which Elizabeth Hand, who writes the introduction, calls "a prose poem in the shape of a grieving man", is about as urgent as one can get. At least while you’re still alive. Once again, PS has provided readers like myself with a perfect passport to the works of a highly regarded author. Alas, I just ran a bookfinder search for Park's works, and it came back with a distressingly long list of essential new books to read. But they're actually rather reasonably priced, for once!

Separation of church and space.
I've been reading Stephen Baxter since I first encountered his work in the PS Publishing line. His first two novellas for them both slotted in to the "Xeelee sequence", as do the novels in his new series, 'Destiny's Children'. The Destiny's Children Trilogy includes 'Coalescent', 'Exultant' and a third novel to come, but these are set long before the PS Publishing novellas, before the conquest of Earth by the Xeelee. The PS Publishing novellas -- 'Reality Dust', and 'Riding the Rock' -- take place long after the conquest, in fact, after the occupation has been thrown off. Of course, once mankind is free from the aliens, the first order of business is to punish any of the collaborators. Never enough death about, is there? And certainly, never enough punishment! 'Mayflower II' is a generation starship that a handful of immortals take to escape their potential punishment as immortals. As the years stretch to centuries and the centuries stretch to millennia, evolution begins to work on the inhabitants of the ship. But not the immortals...

Baxter is a big-thinks kind of guy, and the plotline I'm sensing here seems to be quite a perfect little Petri dish for a novella of big thinks. As with Parks novella, you'll get a gorgeous Edward Millar cover and 87 pages of thoughts larger than your brain is likely to be able to come up with during lunch. Or mine, at any point in the day. In fact, what Baxter is doing with his PS Publishing novellas is no less than a stealth series that slots in nicely after the rest of his Xeelee novels. Which of course, I can add to my sub-orbital launch platform book stack.

Mark Harrison takes up the lead as artist for PS Publishing with Lisa Tuttle's 'My Death'.

I've included the gatefold version of the cover to Lisa Tuttle's first PS Publishing novella, 'My Death', because it offers the work of a new artist, which is the sign of a smart publisher. Now, this is not to say that I couldn't live on a steady diet of Les Edwards covers, but since Edwards is now doing work for US publishers, he may be getting a bit busy, and have to let artist Mark Harrison take on some of the chores. It's pretty nice stuff really, different, but keeps up the same vibe, albeit without the oil-painting grain effect. And showing the cover painting is appropriate because 'My Death' is about a biographer who discovers a secret within a painting done by a novelist. The painting, labeled 'My Death' is clearly a self-portrait from a critical moment in the writer's relationship with her art teacher, an important Scottish artist.

That moment, portrayed on canvas is the lynchpin around which both the writer's and the artist's subsequent work turns. But what happened? The writer, still alive, but 90 years old is unhelpful. The artist is...dead. The biographer finds that she's becoming obsessed with that long-lost moment, that phrase that connects -- with her life.

Tuttle wrote one of the best novellas in the long lost, sorely missed, now welcomed-back 'Night Visions' anthology series. She's collaborated with no less than George R. R. Dot. When. Will. The. Next. Book. In. His. Series. Come. Out. Martin. Given that his book has a cover that could authentically be called ominous, one tends to think that perhaps this Is. An. Omen. That. The. Next. Book. In. That. Series. Is. Coming. Out. Soon. And you can look forward to Tuttle's new novel, 'The Mysteries', coming out from Bantam in 2005. Really!

11-01-04: Harry Turtledove's 'Curious Notions'; Robert Freeman Wexler Presents 'The Circus of the Grand Design'

An Alternate History Alternative for Heinlein's Juveniles

The second novel in the "Crosstime Traffic" series.
Heinlein's juveniles -- as his YA books are commonly called -- have a timeless appeal. They certainly nailed my generation and my son's generation, at least. But their influence runs much farther than simply readers. Many a writer has cited Heinlein's novels for teenaged boys as a primal influence, and in the years since, many an SF novel has appeared that wished to remind readers of their own halcyon days first reading science fiction. Add to that the mind-boggling success of YA fiction at the hands of a certain English Schoolteacher, and you have publishers positively starving for what U2 called on their first album 'Stories for Boys', a phrase that has stuck with me.

Recent science fiction writers who tried their hand -- often with great success -- include John Barnes ('The Sky So Big and Black') and David Gerrold ('Jumping Off the Planet', 'Bouncing Off the Planet', 'Leaping to the Stars'). Now we can add to that mix Harry Turtledove, who follows up the first novel in his "Crosstime Traffic" series, 'Gunpowder Empire' with 'Curious Notions' (Tor Hardcover, $23.95, October 30, 2004). Turtledove wants to do for alternate history what Heinlein did for space travel. That's a tall order, but Turtledove's probably the guy to pull it off.

The series setup is pretty simple. In our future, we create the technology that enables us to travel between alternate timelines. But while we've got the technology, we don't have the raw materials. So we sneak into the timelines that have what we want, live there in disguise and trade cheaply manufactured slightly-better-than-they-have techno-trash in order to obtain the raw materials we need to keep our good times going strong. The idea being that when there's no more third world left on earth, we'll simply turn the less-advanced alternate earths into third worlds of the nth degree. That's seems a bit on the dodgy side to me, both ethically and scientifically. It's an ethics problem (for me) because even if we're profiting from the rich of another world, eventually it's at the expense of the poor of that world. But since we never have to see them, then, I guess, hey, no problem. Out of sight, out of mind. But the scientific aspect is more problematic. In the first place, there's the old "If they can travel between timelines, why can't they just grow crops in the basement?" We'll give Turtledove a hall pass on that one. But if alternate history teaches us anything it's that meddling with history always ends up causing quite a bit more fuss than intended no matter how careful the meddlers are. Somebody always steps on the butterfly.

And that's just the dilemma that these books turn on. 'Curious Notions' is the store our teenaged protagonist and his dad are running in an alternate San Francisco where Germany won the First World War. They're just a bit behind us, so the gee-gaws of our time are pretty slick stuff for theirs. Of course, this type of commerce attracts the wrong type of attention. Paul and his Dad are forced to point fingers, and the resulting fracas involves Chinese Tongs, the German occupation force.

Carp though I may about the various premises and the problems inherent in butterfly crushing, I have to admit that the idea of Alternate History Juvenile fiction is pretty attractive to me. And to my mind, Turtledove has the right writerly inclinations to pull it off. In the first place, we're looking at nice short, small books. That's a plus that can attract both teen and adult readers, who might feel a bit pummeled by the book-bricks that writers seem to feel obliged to lob their way.

The alternate history aspect plays into the scholastic leanings of such fiction. Readers might recall how writer Gary Gibson mentions in his interview that he learned all about wiring with live electricity from Heinlein's juveniles, and I can see kids pulling in some valuable history lessons from these books.

There's also an element of satire available here, should Turtledove be of a mind to mine it. As a teen reader, I loved anything remotely satirical, which is why I latched on the Philip Roth's 'Our Gang' as such a delicate age.

While there are not likely to be any breakthroughs at the level of English Schoolteacher, Turtledove's juveniles are likely to hook more than a few readers and parents of readers who are "buying the books for my kid". Really, they are. Really! Time will tell, of course whether or not some of those teens who actually do read these books manage to go off and write their own in some future that gets harder for adults to imagine every day. It is certain to happen -- if not in our timeline, then in some other.

Step Right Up and Out of Reality

My pristine first edition of Edward R. Whittemore's classic circus novel.
I'm a huge fan of books about the circus. Not that I'm a huge fan of the circus itself. My few memories of the circus are of experiences that were both dull and disturbing. There's no logical reason why I would like circus-based fiction, except that two of my favorite speculative fiction writers wrote spectacular novels about circuses.

'The Circus of Doctor Lao' by Charles G. Finney is probably best known because it was filmed by George Pal as 'The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao'. And while I respect the film immensely, I managed to encounter the novel first and I feel it's immeasurably better. Finney is a great humorous prose writer. His story of a weird, fantastical circus that comes to town was greatly changed for the screen, watered down in a number of ways so that both the sexual nature of what happens and all the grandeur are pretty much absent. Finney's novel might look like a light diversion, but there's a lot of meat and thought-provoking ideas inside a novel that is easily read in a single day. If you've not read this novel, you need to pick it up immediately. It's funny, intelligent, immensely imaginative and utterly timeless.

If you've been reading this site for any length of time, you can easily guess the next circus novel on my list. 'Quin's Shanghai Circus' by Edward R. Whittemore' offers much of the humor and bawdiness of Finney's work, but is much longer and far more horrific. Whittemore is one of our great undiscovered writers, a man who quietly wrote a series of novels set in the Far East and Middle East that quite simply are some of the best novels you’re going to find, period. I wrote about Whittemore a couple of years ago, but you can never bring him up too often. His novels have recently been reprinted by Old Earth Books, and if you haven’t bought them all, it's not too late to do so. Often compared to Vonnegut or Tom Robbins, I find Whittemore superior to the latter and rather different from the former. If readers doubt his influence, one need only look at Jeff VanderMeer's 'Veniss Underground', which resurrects 'Quin's Shanghai Circus' in a post-genengineered wonderland.

Gatefold cover with art by Jane Andrews and design by Luis Rodriguez. Click the image to see a full-size version of this dustjacket.

And now, one of my favorite PS Publishing writers Robert Freeman Wexler follows up his PS novella debut 'In Springdale Town' with 'Circus of the Grand Design' from Prime Books, who not coincidentally published VanderMeer's 'Veniss Underground'. It's a small, small, small, small world, and that works to your benefit as a reader. Wexler's new novel features an appropriately bizarre cover painting by Jane Andrews and cover design by (I believe) the same Luis Rodriguez who edits the noted website 'Fantastic Metropolis'. Coincidentally -- or not! -- I interviewed Wexler for Fantastic Metropolis back in April, and readers should definitely check out the interview to get an better insight on the work of this talented writer.

The novel begins when Lewis rents a vacation house on Long Island. In short order he accidentally burns it down and meets up with Joseph Dillon, manager of the CIRCUS OF THE GRAND DESIGN. Dillon offers him a job as a publicist with the circus, with one proviso...Lewis may not be able to return to the place he leaves behind. Given the ashy state of that place, Lewis heads off on the private train that carries this peculiar circus from one reality to the next. Of course, our world allows for a lot of latitude, but having read Wexler's elastic first novella, I'm quite piqued to see where he takes his protagonist in his new novel. I'll give this much away. The dust jacket promises "a giant woman and her savage, prehistoric rodent bears". And with that single phrase I'm right there for this novel.

But frankly, as long as the world novel was attached to Wexler's name I'd be there anyway. Wexler has the idiosyncratic inclinations of such writers as Jonathan Carroll and Jeff VanderMeer, a willingness to cross whatever lines there might be without having to acknowledge their presence. He's very funny, very surreal and amazingly imaginative. And, he's writing about a circus. If readers want to get to the third ring of great circus fiction, they'll only have to order it up on Prime's website, or (equally good), have their local independent bookseller order up a few copies. As I read more circus fiction, I realize that my circus memories are no longer dull -- so long as they're fictional.