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08-18-06: Reprinting Your Way to Glory

Frederic Brown, Jeffrey Ford, Mark Z. Danielewski and Simon R. Green

I've got six years, so I'm told. Next year I'll be able to say I've got five years -- that's all I've got!
I'm not known for talking about the virtues of reprints. But that's not because they are without virtues. Reprints can be pretty damn exciting under the right circumstances, and in the fall of this calendar year, the stars, as Lovecraft would say, are right. There are a plethora of very exciting reprints coming out, worthy of your money and attention. They hail from every point in the literary spectrum, from high-falutin' litrary masterpieces to down-and-dirty mass-market paperbacks crammed into a bigger, better, faster format. These are heady times indeed for the reprint, and chances are you'll be find these every bit as interesting as the original versions.

Let's start with the big news; news you might have been waiting for for what, five years? Six? So, six years ago, let's say, if you were to be suitably flush, you might have doled out an a not-inconsiderable amount of money for 'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski. And it of course was most certainly worth it. For $40, you got over 700 pages and, you might well think, nearly as many fonts, and certainly more gorgeous and aggressive book design that you might expect. Literarily, you got a once-in-a-lifetime reading experience, an immersive, obsessive – I'll leave the adjectives behind and let you refresh your memory.

Back from Ash Tree Lane, are we? Good. Remember the colophon page? My take is that if you read 'House of Leaves', chances are you spent a good deal of time there. Noting the versions and editions. OK, get your book. Look at the options under "A Note on This Edition". Here's mine, from as true a first a first edition as could be had at the time:

I suspect that this particular book might well have a fiscal value that nears it's artistic value. That is, astromomical.

So that was what you could get in the year 2000. No matter how much you shelled out back in the before-time, I don’t think, at least, anybody had the full-color edition. Nobody had an edition whose colophon page looked like this:

Sorry this isn't straight, but you're lucky I'm willing to even touch these babies. Well, no actually in this case, this is a "reading edition".

Welcome to 2006. After six years of apparently banner sales for an ultra-dense, totally obscure, genre-informed, multi-media meta-novel, we get, we finally get the reprint. 'House of Leaves: The Remastered Full Color Edition' (Pantheon / Random House ; August, 2006 ; $45) is, I think brand-new. Brand-new in the sense that it just came out this month, or maybe next month. As with all things Danielewski, there is a frustrating combination of no information and too much information about this particular edition of this particular book. I'll note that there are some differences in the colors of various portions of text, and some of the photos are now full color. Talk about delivering on a promise. Yes, we should have suspected this, because well, Danielewski delivered on the brave concept of the Eric-the-sort-of novel itself. So let's let the minutia pass for a moment, because I'll certainly be coming back to this book and this author. But on a scale of 1-10 for reprint importance, well, this is a VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY large prime number. One of those that a cryptography firm would shell out the big bucks for. Thus, reprint of worth number 1: 'House of Leaves: The Remastered Full-Color Edition'. Buy 'em while you can.

Someday, some enterprising small independent press publisher will issue versions of these illustrated by J. K. Potter. I can dream, can't I?
Now let's leap to what might apparently seem to be the other side of the spectrum. Let's say you just read 'House of Leaves'. You've got a shaky hold on reality, at best. Now lets hjop on down to the local independent bookstore and pick up 'A Walk on the Nightside' (Ace / Berkeley / Penguin Putnam ; September 5, 2006 ; $15.00) by Simon R. Green. I've already reviewed Green's delightful little John Taylor novels, 'Something from the Nightside', 'Agents of Light and Darkness' and 'Nighingale's Lament'. They're, as one in the UK might say, ace. Very cool little deals, Now you can three of 'em in one nice Trade Paperback. This is good, dirty, butt kicking fun. The kind of books that should be made into a good, loud, summer thriller movies. I hope this is a prelude to a richly-deserved hardcover first edition of his next Nightside novel. What's interesting in the reprint world is the not-too unusual combination of three books into one TPB. This is a frequent occurrence these days, and not a bad way to get a bigger version of books you like or a good intro to books you haven’t read. Green's work is particularly apropos for this sort of reprint because the novels are pretty short. Even with three full novels crammed into one, this book doesn't top 400 pages. But they're good pages! If you haven’t read Green's engaging series, here's a great place to start.

Fredric Brown skulks; Ford beyond.
Reprints need not be scaled-down or scaled up copies of recent works. There's a booming business in the reprinting of worthy older titles as well. Take for example 'Here Comes a Candle' (Millipede Press ; September 2006 ; $14 TPB / $40 HC) by Fredric Brown. This is a pretty unjustly obscure novel by a writer who deserves wider recognition. Brown worked in almost every genre, but he's best known for the iconic science fiction title 'Martians Go Home' (1955). 'Here Comes a Candle' is bizarre noir, the story of Joe Bailey, a young man who gets in with the rackets in a bad way. His life is tied to a snatch of nursery rhyme: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed /; Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

Not a good sign, that. But for readers who enjoy stylistically innovative and experimental pulp fiction, this title is a cracker. You get a novel with passages written in a variety of styles, from sportscast to stage play, with everything in between. It's very odd, very edgy and all that brilliance is cut with the just right amount of cheese to keep things slick and moving. Millipede Press includes an introduction by Bill Pronzini, an extra short story by Brown, ("The Joke") and an essay by Brown, "It's Only Everything". This is a very nicely done book, and the hardcover promises to include a sewn binding. Old-fashioned literature sold with old fashioned craftsmanship; it's always new and always nice to see.

And finally in my list, are books still a' bornin', but books well worth watching out for that did in fact launch this little tirade. Those would be the forthcoming trade paperback editions of Jeffrey Ford's award-winning and award-deserving 'Well-Built City' series; 'The Physiognomy', 'Memoranda' and 'The Beyond', all from Golden Gryphon as trade paperbacks. These books, initially available in a series of disparate editions are surely modern fantasy classics. They were pretty well-served upon their first release, but they were never available in a standardized format. The deal is that they started out as trade paperbacks but as Ford's talent was rewarded with awards and accolades, the final volume of the trilogy actually made a firsts edition hardcover. Now we can look forward to a sleek set from Golden Gryphon. As I see them, so will you. And, of course, you'll already have twigged to the fact that reprints, far from being boring, are a place to look for excitement and innovation. So long as you like pretty weird fiction!


08-17-06: Christopher Fowler Ascends the 'Ten Second Staircase'

True First Alert

Well, I guess it conveys the labyrinthine feel.
We care about all manner of books, so long as they're good reading. Christopher Fowler surely falls under that heading. I love his perfect sense of place, the labyrinthine sensibility that he brings to his Bryant and May mysteries. His latest novel is 'Ten Second Staircase' (Bantam Books / Random House ; June 27, 2006 ; $24). Note the price. Note the date. Pay attention; it is, after all, a mystery.

Of course, the mystery to which I refer is the release date and price, the former being early and the latter being high enough to signify that the book itself is a hardcover. Here we have proof positive that crime pays, or at least, great crime fiction pays. I've often whinged bitterly about how tardy American Publishers are when it comes to getting out titles by UK authors. Here we have a prime candidate for late release. UK writer? Check? Weird fiction twist? Check. Old men detectives? Check.

But Bantam must be selling these Bryant and May mysteries like popcorn, because it’s not been but a few months since we got the US mass-market-paperback only version of 'Seventy Seven Clocks', and here we are with the latest Fowler title on the US shelves literally months before the UK first edition hardcover is coming out. In a land where 'Full Dark House' is PB-only. That makes it the must-buy true first edition. Now, I'll be buying the British hardcover as well, because I love the design choices they've made. I'm one of those people who wants the spines to line up nicely, well, as nicely as they can after having been read and loaned and read and re-read. So, collecting clue-time has arrived. Fowler is getting hotter, and you'll want to pop for the US edition to get the true first. You'll also want the UK edition, because, well, there's something sort of wrong with you. But all this begs the question as to why this Bryant and May mystery got a leg up in the US.

What's up?

In a word, sales; at least, that would be my guess. Heck, I even heard a promo for this on NPR, one of those "Brought to you by Bantam Books, publishers of 'Ten Second Staircase' the new Bryant & May mystery from Christopher Fowler," deals. When an author ascends to the rare heights of radio advertising, you know he's doing something right. But I've known Fowler was on the mark since I first read 'City Jitters', maybe 20 years ago. Damn, those book-buying memories assault me! I bought "City Jitters" in a drugstore in Playa Del Rel, at a time when drugstores often had pretty significant book racks. Today that's rarely the case. You get four rows, almost always horrific–in the worst sense of the word– trashy bestsellers.

But back then, you could browse those racks, inhale the funny smell of a locally-owned drug store and often find some pretty great stuff. And ever since 'City Jitters', I've been a fan of Fowler's. Not surprisingly, the case started way back then, in "City Jitters" is still going forth in his latest novel. Yes, that embarrassing vampire of Leicester Square is back. But he's not alone, this time. Someone has murdered a performance / installation artist in their performance installation. I guess this is a crime, right?

Right. We'll presume that's the case. And with Bryant and May on the case, one must also presume that they'll be fighting and kvetching and generally annoying not only one another, but many in their general vicinity. Everyone, in fact other than readers like myself, who enjoy a good crabby-old-man book. Sure, no surprise, the guy who says FUCK in the parking lot likes the crabby old men. But you know, actually, my wife loves this series as well. That suggests an appeal wider than the pre-Depends set out there.

The appeal comes largely from Fowler's skill as a prose writer, his ability to immerse readers in his complicated explorations of the London landscape. Add to that the wonderfully witty dialogue, the excitingly weird crimes and solutions and you get a must-buy beyond all the crabby old-man appeal. Now, wait, did I just use the phrase "crabby old man appeal"?

I did, and you know, it's pretty right on. Yea, though this world headeth to hell in a handbasket, some things are so right. Add to those things the fact that Bryant and May rate not only in our weird little universe, but in the book universe as well. Is it possible that veins of sanity exist out there? Damn, I never read that in a book. And if I ever do, then I expect it to be in a Bryant and May mystery. As an Urban Legend that they'll thoroughly debunk.


08-16-06: Ken Kalfus Monitors 'A Disorder Peculiar to the Country'

Bitter Is as Bitter Does

When will they wage a war on economic fucking terror, huh? HUH?
Sometimes, in the past, I will admit, I have been that guy. You know, the guy who says "FUCK" in the parking lot.

It is not difficult to become that person, and if my ears in the parking lot do not deceive me, it is not that unusual. In fact, it's becoming more common, and to my mind more justified. While the economic wizards dingle and dangle and peer with furrowed brow at rows of numbers wondering whether or not we're "experiencing inflation", there are people all over this fine nation pulling up to the checkout counter to (like me, earlier today), find out that the monthly dog food bill just jumped up two bucks. That's like 10%. I'm no economic wizard, and I may not know the precise parameters of inflation, but I'll be FUCKED if I don’t know it when I see it. That's it right there. $19.78 instead of $17.83 over-FUCKING-night. Bang, you're dead.

Sometimes you might wish for such a thing.

For yourself, or for a particularly vehement and intractable ex-loved one, someone who is putting a pincer move on your pitiable savings and 401K while attempting to saddle you with the credit card bills. And they always want the dog, even if she's going to cost an extra two bucks a month. On principle they want that dog.

Yes, it's a tragedy, a peculiarly American tragedy.

Perhaps on a small scale, but put yourself in those shoes and your beat-up wing-tips are going to start looking pretty good.

Now what happens if you combine that tragedy on a small scale with say, a larger tragedy? What happens if your now-unloved, ex-loved one, the one with the hot pincers, say, goes up in smoke in a NATIONAL TRAGEDY?

Wipe that smirk off your face. This is 9/11 we're talking about!

Or maybe don't wipe that smirk off your face. Ken Kalfus has a devil of a good time delivering some really bad news to the antagonists in 'A Disorder Peculiar to the Country' (Ecco Books / HarperCollins ; July 3, 2006 ; $24.95). And there are no protagonists in this novel, only, well, Joyce and Marshall Harriman. On 9/11 they are in the midst of a bitter divorce. While each watches the day's tragic events unfold, each shares the same thought, that the other has been killed, and they are so, so, SO secretly happy. Deliriously happy. Shamefully happy.

Not to pass, alas. Not to happen. They both survive, and are forced to deal with the unpleasant fallout. And worse still, one another. 'A Disorder Peculiar to the Country' is a very funny novel for the battery-acid guzzlers amongst us, and I suspect that I have a higher-than-average proportion amidst my readers. It is bitterly hilarious, searingly funny and depressingly right-on. Moreover, Kalfus doesn't just confine himself to 9/11, oh no. He's takes readers right on up through the liberation of Iraq, turning each national tragedy into something more immediate and funnier. Funnier, that is, if you can laugh at such matters when filtered through the mind of a highly skilled and literate writer. Otherwise, you might want to read this book say, if you enjoy spitting nails. Or saying FUCK in the parking lot.


08-15-06: Blazing Hell With Denise Mina

Tartan Noir and Graphic Glasgow

by Terry Weyna

Cigarettes and vixens. What more can one ask for?-Ed.
I read oddly: I buy a bunch (always from the DC Vertigo line) and read at least six months’ worth at a go. This time around I set a record: because 18 to 20 months’ worth of my favorite titles were missing from my comics library, I ordered them all at once. As soon as the huge box arrived from, I plunged in starting with my favorite, Hellblazer.

I’ve stuck with this series through thick and thin. Brian Azzarello, for instance, was downright crude in his handling of John Constantine’s time in an American prison in Hellblazer: Hard Time, nearly making me abandon the series I fell in love with when I first read Garth Ennis’s Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits, about Constantine’s bout with lung cancer. Mike Carey had a long run recently, and skillfully handled another visit to hell and the loss of more of Constantine’s loved ones.

Denise Mina has been writing the scripts in the most recent issues, beginning with Issue 216 (March 2006), and she is a welcome addition to the roster of Constantine writers. Mina, known for her “tartan noir” mysteries ('Deception', 'Sanctum', 'Garnethill' and others), takes Constantine to her home turf, Glasgow, Scotland in a story arc called “Empathy Is the Enemy.” Constantine makes the trip from his beloved London, despite having foresworn magic in the wake of his sister’s death, in order to help out Chris Cole, a new drinking buddy who has been afflicted with an excess of empathy. This spell, emanating from Steve Evans, a “big noise up North” who appears to be luring Constantine to Scotland, causes Cole to empathize with everyone around him to such a degree that he becomes emotionally paralyzed and suicidal. Cole might be bait, and he might even be in on whatever plot Evans has brewing, but he’s definitely suffering. Constantine, intrigued by Evans’s odd invitation and sympathetic (in the way of noir heroes – not really, but what the hell, why not help), decides to solve the mystery.

Mina gets Constantine right. She’s got all his habits nailed, from his incessant smoking and drinking to his tricks with language, the cynicism that hides a character who pretends not to care about his fellows but in fact cares so deeply that his soul is irrevocably scarred. The story, which takes us to the Isle of Iona in the sixth century and a strange group of monks and inside the mysteries of the present-day Oransay Contingent, is predictably dark. Mina’s work as a mystery writer shows in the puzzle that this story arc contains, a more suspenseful treatment of Constantine than is generally written.

The art, by Leonardo Manco, is the essence of noir. This man’s palette contains only blues and grays, browns and dark greens; his occasional splash of yellow is a sickly shade of the hue that portends no good. Several of the covers (Issues 216, 217 and 219) are by Greg Lauren, and are notable for the odd technique (they appear to have been drawn on heavy crumpled paper to my untrained eye) and the effective use of subdued and nearly monochromatic hues. The cover on Issue 217 is particularly good, recalling Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Comics – or graphic novels, if you prefer that term – have undergone a renaissance in the last several decades. No longer merely the stuff of superheroes or the tweener magazines like those starring Archie and Veronica, they explore the depths of horror and the feyest of fantasy. The longstanding Hellblazer, now nearly 20 years old, has consistently been in the forefront of this rebirth of a venerable medium. Denise Mina takes serious graphic work further in the right direction.


08-14-06: A 2003 and 2006 Conversation with Cory Doctorow

Singularities Real and Imagined

That's Cory, blogging on stage with a sticker-covered laptop in the center.

One of the pleasures of doing a podcast is digging back into the archives and realizing that you have more material than you expected. So, when I was putting together the raw audio for the Singularity report for NPR (please listen, and if you enjoy it, write them to request more SF reporting) I discovered that I had never podcast my original 2003 interview with Cory Doctorow. Now I hasten to correct this egregious error and add on "bonus scenes", to wit, a brief interview we did outside the Singularity Symposium, posting both in glorious MP3 as well as RealAudio. I've got quite a bit of new material to prepare, so I'm off to do so, leaving in you with Cory & Cory, two rather different fellows, actually. The 2003 Rev of Cory Doctorow was living in San Francisco, and working for the EFF, having just released his first novel, 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom'. The 2006 Cory Doctorow is well, a Very Busy Guy, engaged in both conquering and saving the world. Or at least the parts of it we all care about quite a bit.

As for me, the real change comes down to file size tech. Back when I first broadcast this interview and uploaded it to the website, it seemed unconscionable to burden listeners with a "huge" MP3 file. Now it's just Business As Usual. I'm certain that in the next few years we'll undergo some other revolution, or that I'll at least notice that we've undergone a revolution while I was busy writing about books. Will we be reading electronic books? Yikes. More likely, the vast majority out there will be watching more downloaded, on-demand video, because we all need to fatten our asses and shrink our brains with more downloaded video. Make me dictator, I'll have a four-to-one ratio of excercise to reading, minumum exercise, one hour. Now that's the path to a healthy and mentally healthy nation. But how are you going to fit in your sixteen hour days working at the fry-o-lator? Or the grocery store checkout? Or the code mines? Soon enough we'll be looking back at the seemingly huge hard disks of today and saying, "How could we get by without having fifteen terrabytes of streaming three-dee video queued up for our spyglasses twenty-four-seven?" Or we'll be more likely saying: "You damn kids!"

Now, yes, really, I'm handing this off to Cory. Sir?