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12-23-05: Smiles of a Ghost

Acknowledging the Limits of the Shelves

You know you want one.
So, here's the deal. I've been accumulating spare books for the past few months, both from publishers and from my own inclination to buy two copies of everything. If you do that twice, well, you end up with a fair amount of spare copies. So, I'm going to give a whole lot of books away, as well as sort of giving myself a day off from actually writing anything particularly witty or even intelligible. Heres the deal.

I'd like to help my readers find Phil Rickman's 'The Smile of a Ghost'. It's an outstanding novel and one of the best of the year. I can't imagine any reader of this column -- from SF, to horror, to mystery -- wouldnt enjoy Rickman's gripping and entertaining narrative. But the key to this is that we need to make our mark where it really counts with the publishers, and I'm trying to create the Agony Column equivalent of those cell-phone mobs. What I'd like readers to do is to head to the nearest Borders -- yes Borders -- and either buy or order 'The Smile of a Ghost'. It's cheap, $25, for a first edition (actually UK) hardcover that's being brought into the US in massive numbers. You need to buy it at the bricks and mortar Borders stores, because those sales will send a stronger signal to the publisher and the bookseller. If there's no Borders nearby, get it wherever you can. I just checked my local Borders online and they have it in stock at my Borders, where I'll be heading tomorrow to pick one up. Now I show a trade paperback --really, I believe, a UK mass-market paperback edition --available as well. That works for me as well.

Then email me a scan of the receipt or send me an email and I'll send you a snail mail address. If you can't afford the book, or really think it sounds like it's not your cuppa, write me anyway, and I'll see what I can do. The first and best books go first and best. I've got lots of great stuff -- signed first edition Richard Morgan hardcovers, PS Publishing spares (oh, shoot me, or rather shoot my VISA bill.) When those run out, I've got scads of hardcovers and paperbacks. I'll pay the postage, but you'll have to be patient, as I'll send the items via media mail, other than those I have to post internationally. I havent got a count as to how many books I can give away, but I suspect it may be enough. One to a customer. My brain is shrinking rapidly, my voice is shot to hell and my ears are ringing.

And now you know you'll get one. Oh so tantalizingly almost legible, eh? I know, I'm a very bad person.
When you email me, let me know your preferences, and let me know several preferences. I'll do as much as I can to accommodate everyone's taste and get them something they really like. It's my intention to share with readers, what else -- more reading!

Checking back, I realize that I've recently passed the two years of five-days-a-week of news mark. It's really been fun, if not occasionally challenging. At first coming up with the news seemed to be the challenge, now it's keeping up with the news. My how things change. I'm contemplating taking a day or so off next week to focus on a new service that readers have been asking for, but I've had trouble getting done. I'll lket you know if I decide to do this. The first shot is such onerous rote work that it's giving me the hives. But I have lots and lots of backlog material here that I'd love to get out in an efficient manner, and I know this tech is the best way to do so. But oy, the formatting! Save me!

I'll be back next week, and hopefully in my normally fevered state as opposed to this literally fevered state. *.* to you all!


12-22-05: The Coming of Howard

Wandering Stars Become Glittering Gifts

A couple of years ago today, Wandering Star taught us how to play.
Was it only in 2003 that Wandering Star first began issuing their mind-boggling (-ly expensive) editions of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories? I actually thought they had begun back in the nineties, because I was so tempted to buy them and almost believed I had the wherewithal to do so.

Since I dont have any in my library, I have to guess that's the case. Well, then 2003 it is. Or was. And the books themselves? To die, for totally.

Now, no matter how expensive these books were, they were worth it. I actually held one my hand at Worldcon earlier this year. You know how they say a frail-looking woman can lift a car to free a trapped child? That was the kind of effort I had to make to put the book back down, on two fronts.

Physically, these were utterly gorgeous books. Beautifully designed, carefully crafted. They were practically haunted by the spirits of the people who put them together. As I turned the pages, I thought I could hear their voices whispering in my ears. And that was just the limited edition. I had to avert mine eyes from the leather edition.

But as always, nice presentation can be trumped by superior content. And how could you do better than to print the original Robert E. Howard 'Conan' stories? How about over 100 pages of notes, drafts and sketches? Sketches? I guess I forgot to mention that these books were heavily, densely illustrated by artists intimately familiar with Howard's work, and that they included full-color plates. Silly me. And stupid me, for not being able to buy them.

A trade paperback edition. All those illos. Wow!
I actually asked the folks at Wandering Star about trade editions, that would offer the content in perhaps a less-deluxe presentation for the cash-challenged, and they expressed their sorrow at not being able to do so. Well, I can see why. Now thanks to Ballantine / Del Rey, you can have them all -- in an inferior but still pretty amazing trade edition -- for a mere $30 a pop. I just picked up the oh-so-affordable 'The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; December 6, 2005 ; $29.95) and the comparatively speaking dirt-cheap 'The Conquering Sword of Conan' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; December 6, 2005 ; $15.95). I have to say that Del Rey has done an outstanding job on bringing some of the most potent and essential works of fantasy fiction into the hands of readers who might not know anything about Conan beyond the lamentable adaptations that have polluted the minds of movie and television viewers around the world.

It really says something about the way that Hollowood treated fantasy before LOTR that the best adaptation of any of Howard's work was a sweet historical romance about Howard himself. 'The Whole Wide World', starring Vincent "Bobblehead Flawed & Sordid" D'Onofrio, was the only film that even came close to not murdering Howard's visions. Novalyne Price Ellis's memoir of love lost actually managed to suggest the primal power in Howard's writing. It's a wonderful little movie and well worth your valuable time.

Alas, what this means is that millions of viewers and potential readers of Howard's work see Conan as a leather-diapered, muscle-bound, sword-swinging serial killer who spent the majority of his time stumbling through the backlots and badlands of the San Fernando Valley. I can only hope that those brought to the world of fantasy by LOTR will somehow, somewhere stumble across these editions of these essential texts.
Yes Virginia, there is a Conan The Cimmerian, and he's not some leather-diapered pansy!
And heck, I only wish I could have read these back in the day, when I was pawing through one cheesy paperback after another. But better late than never, and now readers can only be amazed at how strong Howard's writing is, how well it holds up. I will allow that in general, these might be categorized more the on "manly" side of the equation. But Howard's ability to channel a seemingly ceaseless fury of imagination, force and violence into pulp fantasy adventure is a wonder to read and behold. He's cleaner than clean, and the prose is purer than pure. Prepare to be pummeled, to be sliced and diced. Also, prepare to have just about every sword-and-sorcery fantasy written after Howard pale by comparison.

And if you're going to shoot the competition to hell, this is the way to do so. From what I can tell, these versions are essentially facsimiles of the Wandering Star copies; the design of the books is credited to Wandering Star. The hardcovers include the full-color plates, and the trade paperbacks B&W versions of the plates. Either way, you get the essentials, the text and a whole host of extras; drafts, letters, comments, alternate versions. The books are lavishly illustrated with wonderful B&W drawings both small and large.
Imagine the spots of salsa that will be here when you start shouting the words aloud as you read them. Good thing this is the trade paperback version. When you give it to you fifteen-year-old kid, no worries if it gets left at the beach. Well, not many.
The artists for the two books I looked at; Mark Schultz for 'The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian' and Gregory Manchess for 'The Conquering Sword of Conan' offered illustrations that captured the pulp fury of Conan without making it precious. There's the perfect mix of brutality and simplicity, of depth and color. Combined with the layout and the generous number of illustrations, they manage to give these versions of Howard's work the kind of crude energy that electrifies his prose. Basically, they get it.

Look, if you've got the green, go for the Wandering Star. But even if that's the case, now you can get taqueria-ready trade editions to read while you polish off the all-meat, deep-fried chimichanga. While I'd suggest you refrain from shouting the words out loud as you read -- as Howard did while he wrote -- if you can't stop yourself, then you'll know why Howard's work has made such an indelible mark on the field. Do refrain from bringing a sword with you, however. And that whole leather diaper thing? That's a fashion statement that's best forgotten. Some things deserve the Eternal Darkness. But Robert E. Howard deserves these fine versions of his work.


12-20-05: Martin Davies Finds 'The Conjurer's Bird'

Shaye Areheart Strikes Again

It thrives on human flesh!
Well, we've seen a couple of these books from Shaye Areheart, and now I'm starting to wonder if theyre going for a Nan A. Talese vibe. Not that 'The Conjurer's Bird' by Martin Davies (Shaye Areheart Books / Crown Publishing / Random House ; January 3, 2006 ; $24.00) has anything in common with the likes of James Frey's 'A Million Little Pieces' in terms of tone or content. The two previous Areheart books I looked at, 'The Bright Forever' by Lee Martin and 'The Bronte Project' by Jennifer Vandever both offered a slightly weird premise with a dollop of litrary and soupcon of romance. But I really like to see imprints take off and fly. And with 'The Conjurer's Bird', Areheart Books is prepped to do just that.

'The Conjurer's Bird' starts quite promisingly, as John Fitzgerald is removing the skull of a dead owl. Everyone just calls him Fitz. At a crucial moment, he's interrupted by a phone call from his past. Gabriella (oh, the romance that one can find in a simple name!) has come back into his life with the tantalizing promise of something impossible. The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta.

So here's the hook. This bird is a real bird that was seen once, in 1774, on Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Seas. A single specimen was captured, preserved (read: stuffed) and brought back to England. It was given to a famous naturalist, Joseph Banks, who proudly displayed it until it went missing.

So, these are the facts behind the fiction. Davies spins out a tale that spans the centuries and involves the "Gene Ark," a project conceived by Ted Staest the owner of a pharmaceutical conglomerate, and a pretty simple idea really in these times of patented DNA. Staest is on a crusade to collect the DNA of all the world's rarest animals. And all he needs is a bit of this bird to help cap off his collection. John "Fitz" Fitzgerald is the man to help him track it down, even as, back in the day, Banks has his own issues with The Bird.

The prose here has the nicely-turned ring of what I'd call Modern British Baroque, wordy in all the right ways. Entertaining and continental. Told in alternate bits of first person (Fitz) and third person (Banks), the story shifts nicely from one scene to another, ratcheting up the tension and the plotlines converge. Those of us who like a good dissection scene will get them. Those who dont can turn the pages even faster. Apparently, much of Fitz's experience in finding out about the bird came from Davies' own research.

Martin Davies' name may sound familiar to you, and the reason why is that he's a senior producer at the BBC. I know that I've seen this name attached to shows I've managed to stay awake through, which is no small feat. He's also written a couple of mysteries featuring Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock Holmes' housekeeper, certainly a good sign. In keeping with my leading obsession, let me mention that this book is very nicely printed in an appropriately antique looking font -- not so strange as to be hard on the eyes. It's particularly easy to read and rather unique looking. The things about books that strike me as interesting, eh?

But then, this is a novel about the search for a rare stuffed bird. One hopes that once the DNA is obtained, it is not cloned only to prove remarkably dangerous. Thousands of drab brown birds, hungry for human flesh! Oh, I dont think so. If the sequel is titled 'Ulieta Park', well -- dont say I didn't warn you.

12-19-05: Taking the Agony Out of Seasonal Shopping

Hill House Still Rules OK

You can buy the Gods and their abode.
So, yes, there are still things out there that can amaze me, knock me off my feet, strike me mute.

Me, mute?

Well, yep. Here's a guy who can pop out a thousand words about leading (rhymes with bedding) and yet a simple book can shut me up for months.

Of course, as my son put it, "What, are there spells in there, dad?"

Well yes there are son. Spells and a whole lot more. (Note, he's not a cute little tyke any more. He's a 19-year old student in art school.)

I'm talking about the Hill House ultra-limited, lettered editions. Yes, I've raved about Hill House in the past, from the moment I first bought one of 'em. And I frankly thought that you couldn't improve on their product, you couldn't find something better, more beautiful than a Hill House Limited edition.

Leave it to Hill House to outdo themselves. Because I am the luckiest guy in the entire universe, I got a gander at a couple of the Hill House ultra-limited (lettered) editions, and I have to say that awe just doesn't cut it, for a couple of reasons. Now, some of these reasons are on the jaw-dropping drooling side of the equation. You've glanced at the piccies here, you can grok that the physical presence of these books is flat-out amazing. I'll go into some amount of gory, obsessive detail in the fullness of time.

But there are some rather practical matters that are almost as important. Yes, they come in a box that looks like something Pandora might have mail-ordered. But the Hill House super-duper limited editions also pack in a few important bits that will improve the actual mental process of reading the damn books. Yes, those improvements are delivered like jewels in velvet. Literally. But what matters is the pleasure they will add to the reading experience of your oh-so-lucky-as-all-get-out-of-here recipient is indefinable, unrelated to the imposing physical presence. Books are, in the most basic sense, IP. What Hill House delivers knocks you upside the head both physically and intellectually, which is really what you want, right?

Yes it is, trust me.

Let's open up the door, then, and cast a few spells.

"Dad, what's in there, spells?" Yep. Definitely.

What we're talking about here are the apexes of desirability. Yes there are two. But let's start with the main reason to buy, say, Hill House's ultra-limited edition of 'American Gods'. That would be that owning it will give you insight into his other works that you just wont find otherwise. In particular, should you wish to get something of an inside line on the utterly sublime 'Anansi Boys', then you'll need to pick up this edition of 'American Gods'.

Inside that spectacular box, you'll find a slim volume of invaluable information. It's titled 'Only the Gods Are Real: A Guide to the Gods in Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS'. Author Renata Sancken has gone through the WM Morrow edition of 'American Gods' and pulled out every God that Gaiman mentions (and some only suggested) and described that God. This includes the titular character of 'Anansi Boys' as well as other critters and creators that show up in that volume. She includes page references and extensive references to her sources, which include web pages as well as books. It's the perfect sidecar for those who want to tuck into the extended edition of 'American Gods' that comes in that honkin' box. Turn the little book over and you get Neil Gaiman's bibliography for 'American Gods', which is a wonderful article written by Gaiman about the books that he consulted when creating this novel.

Between the two there's an exponential effect when it comes to immersing one's self in Gaiman's novels; not just 'American Gods' but 'Anansi Boys' as well. They're the literary equivalent of a flashlight that you can shine about while reading Gaiman's work. Not so much light as to spoil the shadows. Just enough in fact to cast the kind of shadows that will make Gaiman's story sharper, more enjoyable.

Of course there is the incredible BOX. While it's certainly extraneous to the reading process, a lot of us just love owning books, and the nicer the presentation, well, the nicer the book. You can't get much nicer than the slab o' marble and the velvet tracks that hold this edition of 'American Gods'. Should you give this gift to someone you love (including yourself), be forewarned that it weighs in at some 30 or 40 pounds. It's beautifully engineered and even goes so far as to include maintenance instructions for the box.

Of course, while Hill House produces limited editions, they put no limits on their own work. So it's not just Neil Gaiman who gets the deluxe treatment. If your SF&F fan is of amore traditional nature, you can do no better than their lettered version of Ray Bradbury's 'The Cat's Pajamas'. This lives up to its name with nothing less than an original, framed, signed print from Ray Bradbury himself. The box is the same gorgeous green silk as the cover and the book includes five extra short stories. I've often spoken about the Hill House books as works of art; here's one case where they actually in fact are hangable works of art. Sublime.

The Cat's Pajama's -- and their signed print!
And whats more, this is sublime you can buy, sublime you can give to one of those rare, weird strange people who know just how important books are; more conveniently, they're on sale from the Hill House Website. Long, long ago, I popped for a limited, lettered edition of Stephen King's 'Skeleton Crew' from Scream/Press, which was in terms of beautiful design and deluxe presentation, the Hill House of its time. Though Scream/Press is no longer around, that book still is and it's still gorgeous and entrancing. It takes me straight back to the place and time where I read it, when I first bought it. The memories associated with this, the mixed up mélange of what I read and where I was, what was happening in my life at the time and how I felt about it, what the stories said to me and what I took from them back into my real life, all of those bricks in the wall -- the feelings have grown over the years, not diminished. I almost let it get away, and every day I see it on my shelf I'm glad I didn't. Dont miss out. Dont let anything like this get away. Let yourself be amazed.