Sunday, December 23, 2007

Avast! It's Another Chronicle Review

Today's San Francisco Chronicle includes my latest science fiction and fantasy roundup. Discussed are Gene Wolfe's "Pirate Freedom," "Ha'penny" by Jo Walton, "Black Dossier" by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill and "The Gunslinger Born" graphic novel from Marvel.

By the way, I do happen to know that the correct term for a story set in a timeline different from our own is an "alternate history," not an "alternative history."

Most of the time, copy editors are our friends. But not always.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter Solstice Stoppard Roundup

Great googly moogly! Where has the month of December gone? On to the collected Stoppard links!

With the stagehands' strike over, "Rock 'n' Roll" is still "humming along" on Broadway, hitting its highest box office gross to date. Early in the month, the PBS NewsHour presented a lengthy feature on the production.

Nicole Ansari, actress and wife of Brian Cox, discusses what it's like to perform "Rock 'n' Roll" with one's spouse.

As the Prague Herald reports, the Plastic People of the Universe are making hay while the sun shines.

The Moscow Times includes the Russian version of "The Coast of Utopia" among the best theater productions of 2007. The Times also recently examined the life of Herzen, one of the play's principle characters.

Given the lukewarm reception of the film adaptation of "The Golden Compass," Stoppard is probably relieved that none of the blame can be laid at his feet.

Finally, Stoppard will provide the first lines for three plays to be written in four hours by Daniel MacIvor, Morwyn Brebner and Claudia Dey.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Speaking of Utterly Calm Killers...

I've elsewhere noted my high regard for crime novelist Donald Westlake. He's also known as "Richard Stark" when writing about Parker, inveterate thief and all-around bad-ass.

With thanks to Sarah Weinman, here's a great interview with Westlake/Stark in the Times Online.

Call It, Friendo

If you like the Coen Brothers, you're going to like "No Country for Old Men." If you sat through "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers" and wondered whether the boys would find their groove again, you're going to love it.

I haven't read the Cormac McCarthy novel from which the movie has been adapted, but I've heard that the Coens stuck pretty close to it, reportedly lifting big chunks of dialogue out of the book. It's basically a gussied-up "find the stolen money and wind up in hell" thriller, but it works mighty fine on the screen. Some people have problems with the book, but that's a different issue.

I don't think there's a bad performance in this film. Josh Brolin exhibits the right degree of close-mouthed working class fatalism, and Glaswegian actress Kelly Macdonald transforms herself into a young Texas housewife who's smarter than she first appears. Tommy Lee Jones keeps the folksiness to manageable portions. Tess Harper, Barry Corbin and Stephen Root lend their usual stalwart support. Even Woody Harrelson is fine.

The stand-out, though, is Javier Bardem as the utterly calm, terrifyingly implacable killer, Anton Chigurh. Watch the scene between him and Gene Jones, as Chigurh engages a gas station owner in an existential game of Heads-or-Tails. It's brilliantly shot, edited, acted and sound directed.

Best movie I've seen this year.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sooper Geenius

cash advance

I'm not sure what this signifies. It's not like I spend a lot of time discussing the finer points of string theory on this blog. Still, I'll take whatever approbation I can get, not matter how specious.

So, if your IQ's less than 150, back on out of here, pardner!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Recommended SF/Fantasy for the Holidays

The San Francisco Chronicle published my list of recommended science fiction and fantasy reading for the holidays. This is usually interpreted as a "Best of the Year" list, but it's really only 10 books I particularly liked among those I happened to read between January and October, sorted alphabetically by author's last name.

Have a look if you're interested in good books by Kage Baker, Christopher Barzak, Emma Bull, Joe Hill, China Mieville, Naomi Novik, Patrick Rothfuss, Matt Ruff, Dan Simmons and Charles Stross.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reckless Disregard

Here's a heartbreaking and infuriating story via Romenesko.

A socially awkward 13-year-old girl named Megan befriends Josh, a hot-looking 16-year-old boy via MySpace. She's all excited until other local teens begin leaving online bulletins calling her "fat" and a "slut." Then Josh turns on her and allegedly writes that "the world would be a better place without you."

So Megan hangs herself in her closet.

You probably think you know the kicker to this awful tragedy. That's right, there never was any Josh. Somebody created a false account and purposefully set out to humiliate Megan. But here's what you probably didn't guess -- the hoax was perpetrated by two adults, the parents of one of Megan's former girlfriends.

Read the story in the St. Charles Journal. The writer omits the name of the -- what's the word I'm groping for -- evil people who exploited the trust of a child they'd previously vacationed with. He does, however, paint a vivid picture of the hell Megan's parents currently occupy.

Some readers see the newspaper's reticence to identify the culpable neighbors as cowardly. I'm not sure I agree. But I'm not sorry that others have done some elementary online sleuthing and identified the creators of "Josh."

I hope there's some payback. Legal recourse would be better than not. But I hope someone other than Megan's poor parents is losing some sleep tonight.

Vertigo Fatigue

Comics from Vertigo, DC's "mature" imprint, just make me tired these days.
Back in its heyday, I used to read practically everything from this imprint. Gaiman's "Sandman." Morrison's "The Invisibles" and "The Filth." Ennis's "Preacher." "Hellblazer" by Delano and Ennis. Carey's "Lucifer."
Not anymore.

"Hellblazer"? Stopped when Mike Carey left.

"Y: The Last Man"? Bailed about 40 issues in. Figure I'll get around to reading all the trade collections one of these days.
"DMZ," "Scalped," "Crossing Midnight." "American Virgin," "Exterminators," Testament"? Read review-copy trades and was never tempted to pick up another single issue on its own.
"Army @ Love," "The Un-Men," "Faker," "Jack of Fables"? Nope, nope, nope, nope.
The only Vertigo books I buy anymore are "100 Bullets" and "Fables." "Fables" alone has the momentum and personality to keep me engaged month-to-month. I purchase "100 Bullets" more or less out of habit. I want those characters to just start killing each other and be done with it. I'm ready for the bloody saga to end. I get the sense series creator Brian Azzarello is too.
Have I aged out of the Vertigo demographic? Am I just too damn cheap to spend more tha $7 a month on these comics? Or maybe I just need a nap?

"Rock 'n' Roll" Takes a Breather

Broadway's largely dark because of the stagehands strike, but folks keep writing about "Rock 'n' Roll."

Irene Backalenick writes about the play for All about JewishTheatre.

At Broadway World, Michael Dale discusses the play, in between notes about the Ziegfeld Follies and "Richard III."

Carolyn Clay covers it for the Boston Phoenix.

Nicholas Wapshott provides an opinion piece for the New York Sun.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Rock." Papers. Scissors Not Required.

More newspaper articles about "Rock 'n' Roll":

Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune calls the play "one of this remarkable writer's most profound and personal works."

Louise Kennedy in the Boston Globe deems it "a hymn to the great god Pan."

In the New York Times, John Pareles writes, at length, about the music of the Plastic People of the Universe.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Autumn Reading

This week's Chronicle science fiction and fantasy review covers four titles that provide a high level of entertainment and range in genre from near-future high-tech caper to retro-superhero adventure. The books discussed are "Halting State" by Charles Stross, Naomi Novik's "Empire of Ivory," "Eat the Dark" by Joe Schreiber and Jeff Smith's new version of "Shazam!"

Next week, look for the Holiday Books issue, with my 10 picks for the year's notable Science Fiction and Fantasy Releases.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Gimme That "Rock 'n' Roll" Music

In The Nation, Eric Alterman starts out talking about "Rock 'n' Roll" and somehow winds up castigating Maureen Dowd for her alleged dishonesty, with a side trip to the legacy of the Enola Gay. He does deem the play "brilliant," however.

Toby Zinman at the Philadelphia Inquirer calls "Rock 'n' Roll" "intriguing."

The Daily Mail claims that the New York production is interfering with Stoppard's work on a new adaptation of Chekhov's "Ivanov."

Jeremy McCarter at New York Magazine doesn't think much of Mel Brooks' musical "Young Frankenstein" but finds "Rock 'n' Roll" "triumphant."

Kurt Loder at explores the play's connection to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll" Reviews Rolling In

The word is spreading about the New York production of "Rock 'n' Roll." Terry Teachout writes about it for the Wall Street Journal and says that "2007 will be remembered as the year Tom Stoopard fooled everyone" (in a good way, presumably).

Linda Winer at Newsday calls "Rock 'n' Roll" a "direct and worthy descendent of 'The Coast of Utopia.'"

The Complete Review maintains an extremely informative page about the play, with plenty of links to reviews of the London production.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Wall-to-Wall Mamet

The folks who put on last year's well-received Stoppardfest in Winnipeg are gearing up for Mametfest in 2008. I'm not sure I could deal with marathon performances of "Speed-the-Plow" and "Oleanna" in Manitoban sub-zero weather, but Len Cariou, Winnipeg native and Sondheim's original Sweeney Todd, is directing "Glengarry Glen Ross" at the Manitoba Theater Centre. That's certainly a selling point.

Better Red Than Dead

From the "Gee, I Wish I Reviewed Mysteries for Money" file comes the trade paperback edition of Duane Swierczynski's "The Blonde."

For those coming in late, this volume contains the full, unexpurgated text of the chase-thriller/sci-fi spy adventure that reads like Cornell Woolrich on a nitrous oxide bender. Plus, it includes "The Redhead," a bonus novella that serves as nasty little coda to the main event.

I like the idea of paperbacks that provide added value, though I must say that I now wish I had been able to read "The Redhead" the minute after I finished "The Blonde" in hardcover. My middle-aged mind loses track of a lot of plot details over the course of 10 months.

Like Stuart MacBride, Swierczynski is someone I discovered more or less through serendipity and am now willing to follow pretty much anywhere. If you haven't tried him yet, start with "The Wheelman."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Make My Logo Bigger!!!!

If you've spent any time at all in advertising, you'll find this video hilarious.

"Rock 'n' Roll" Opens Sunday

In previews since Oct. 19, the New York production of "Rock 'n' Roll" is set to open officially on Nov. 4. In anticipation of that event, Stoppard has been making the interview rounds.

He submitted to a Q&A with Time Magazine as part of a fuller portrait of him and the production. Time Out New York sat down with him for a short interview. Robert Feldberg of the North Jersey Media group conducted a telephone interview with him.

Meanwhile, the New York Daily News spoke with lead actor Rufus Sewall. Co-star Brian Cox groused about the state of the American Theatre to New York Magazine.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Think of the Children

Two or three times a year, I write a multi-title review for The Chronicle Book Review's monthly children's books feature. Today I covered three new books, including the latest from Steven Gould and Charles de Lint, as well as the first volume of a debut fantasy series from local writer Henry H. Neff.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Richard Russo's "Bridge of Sighs"

I don't often get to review mainstream novels for The Chronicle, but I was happy to write about Richard Russo's "Bridge of Sighs" for today's edition. I came to Russo via his academic comedy "Straight Man," which is a delight through and through, and have read all of his novels, except for "Mohawk." Russo writes about the kinds of places I grew up in, and he generally gets the details right.

If you haven't seen Robert Benton's film adaptation of Russo's "Nobody's Fool," you ought to check it out on DVD. It's really good. Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy are excellent in it, of course, but so are both Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. And how often does that happen?

Russo worked with Benton again on "Twilight," which I haven't seen and nobody ever talks about. (IMDB lists its top three plot keywords as Based On Novel / Female Nudity / Breasts. Make of that what you will.) Fred Schepisi directed a two-part HBO movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls," which is also worth your attention. And Russo wrote the screenplay for Harold Ramis's "The Ice Harvest," based on Scott Phillips's blackly hilarious Midwestern noir novel.

In the Chronicle piece, I'm not sure I adequately expressed my consternation over the climatic chapters of "Bridge of Sighs." I don't want to spoil anything, but Russo suddenly brings in a supporting cast of African American characters who are not convincing in any way, shape or form. For someone who writes so knowingly about class, Russo is surprisingly awkward when it comes to race.

Don't let that stop you from picking up "Bridge of Sighs," though. It's a big, involving small-town saga that hits most of the right notes.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A History of Deception

Josh Olson is the screenwriter for "A History of Violence," the very fine film by David Cronenberg. In this week's LA Weekly, Olson has published "The Life and Death of Jesse James: An Internet Love Mystery." It's an account of how one of Olson's friends was duped for two years by someone she met online. It's really good: horrifying, funny, surprising and sad.

The story has a happy-ish ending, thanks in part to one of Olson's acquaintances, none other than Harlan Ellison. You can say what you like about Ellison, but there's no question that he sticks up for his friends.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ready to "Rock 'n' Roll"

Tickets are now on sale of the New York production of Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll." Get 'em while you can.

In advance of opening night are a number of special events. You probably missed them, but the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech rock band featured in "Rock 'n' Roll," performed at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater on Sept. 27.

The current issue of Vanity Fair has a lengthy piece by Stoppard on Syd Barrett as an inspiration for the play. alicublog comments on the article and also provides a review of the London production.

On October 26, Stoppard will discuss the topic "Can Art Change the World?" as part of the TimeTalks program.

Off-topic, Caryn James of the New York Times reviewed "Stoppard Goes Electric," that evening of TV plays, and was not particularly impressed.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Without a Legal Leg to Stand on

The saga of the severed human leg discovered in a barbecue smoker continues. Now the guy who bought the smoker wants joint custody of the appendage. Apparently, he believes that, with Halloween around the corner, there's money to be made from this bizarre set of circumstances.

Dude, holding an amputated limb for ransom is so not cool.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

In Ascending Order of Enjoyment

While I was in Ashland, Oregon, over the weekend, The Chronicle ran my latest science fiction review column. It covers new books by Jasper Fforde, Ray Bradbury and Christopher Barzak.

I was pleased to finally admit my unenthusiasm for Fforde's work. I'm not quite sure why he so violently rubs me the wrong way.

I liked half of Bradbury's collection of novellas and can strongly recommend Barzak's debut. The market seems saturated with "I see dead people" fantasies, but "One for Sorrow" is worth your attention.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No Macabre Intentions

In keeping with yesterday's entry about horrifying disfigurements, here's the story of a guy whose amputated leg was found in a barbecue smoker purchased from a storage facility.

John Wood lost his leg in a plane crash in 2004, and since then the limb has been kept in a refrigerator, hung out to dry on a front porch and then packed off to the storage facility when Woods was homeless for a while.

Wood wants to have the leg buried with him when he passes on. He says he put it in the smoker because "I didn't have anything else to secure it in. There were no macabre intentions."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Blues for Charlie No Face

Jeff Kay, proprietor of the West Virginia Surf Report, linked to a newspaper report of a bizarre kidnapping plot that involves one Robert Wayne "No Nose" Gardner. Gardner does, indeed, have no nose, having lost it in some sort of firearms mishap.

In the comments, a loyal Surf Reporter mentioned a legendary figure from western Pennsylvania known as Charlie No Face, and someone else provided a link to story about the real person behind the legend. (Warning: The accompanying illustration is pretty damn disturbing.)

Raymond Robinson was eight years old when he touched a high-voltage trolley wire and burned off most of his facial features. That's the kind of tragedy that makes you wonder whether there's any order at all in this pitiless cosmos. But according to this account at least, Robinson found some way to maintain his sanity and even his good humor. His life wasn't easy by any means, but it had its pleasures, including long noctural walks alone along the road.

Those walks along the higway made him a local phenomenom, one that would draw crowds of teenage gawkers to see "Charlie No Face." Some who encountered him were kind, though many were not. Gradually, Robinson morphed into an urban legend, the Green Man, a mysterious figure with skin tinted green from some kind of industrial accident.

Robinson died in 1985. People still talk about the Green Man. So Robinson lives on as folklore. He paid a mighty high price for it, though.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Charlie Huston's "The Shotgun Rule"

I'm not quite sure how I discovered Charlie Huston. I think I was sent a copy of his second novel, "Six Bad Things," and noticed the blurb from Peter Straub on its cover. A recommendation from Straub holds weight with me, so I took the time to find Huston's first book, "Caught Stealing." It blew me away with its non-stop action, bitter humor and hapless protagonist, Hank Thompson.

In 2005, I reviewed "Already Dead," the first installment of his Joe Pitt vampire/detective series, in The Chronicle. It's pretty good, even though I don't believe that vampires and detectives are two great tastes that taste great together.

Now comes Huston's first stand-alone book, "The Shotgun Rule," and it's another winner. A stolen bicycle is the catalyst for a showdown between four disaffected East Bay teenagers and a family of crank manufacturers. Before they're through with each other, there will be bloodshed, torture and terrible revelations about themselves and their loved ones.

"The Shotgun Rule" guns its engine from page one. All you can do as a reader is hang on and trust that Huston will deliver you home in one piece.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


A few Stoppard-related links that have been hanging around for a while:

John Barry has written a very amusing piece for The Smart Set about the perils of reviewing community theater in general and a production of "Hapgood" in particular.

David Finkle reviews the Boomerang Theatre Company's production of "Stoppard Goes Electric," featuring three of the author's early television plays.

The International Herald Tribune picks up Ben Brantley's story from the New York Times about three Great Old Men of the Theater: Albee, Foote and Stoppard.

In the New Zealand Herald, Shannon Huse reviews the silo theatre's production of "The Real Thing."

A St. Louis production of "Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth" fails to impress Dennis Brown of the Riverfront Times.

Friday, September 07, 2007

History Repeating

The semi-retired Lynn Johnston has pushed her strip halfway into its cryogenic chamber, freezing the cast at their current ages while allowing them to reminisce ad nauseum about their "best of" moments. And what's among the first things of which we're reminded?
That nobody in the Foobiverse knows anything about birth control!
I never knew that Michael Patterson was a "surprise." But his younger sister, late-in-life baby April, certainly wasn't planned. And Michael's spawn were both "whoops" events, even though his spouse is a pharmacist who has at least heard of barrier methods. (Liz Patterson may be the product of an early experiment in in vitro fertilization, but don't quote me on that.)
Johnston's depiction of reproduction in modern marriage strikes me as a tad creepy. The husbands are seed-slinging doofuses who don't have a clue that they might actually, well, mate with their mates. The women are either lazy/forgetful or downright manipulative. None of these couples seem to have sat down and actually discussed family planning.
Oh, wait, Granthony browbeat Therese into producing a daughter to bless their spite-filled union. And we all know how well that turned out.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The "Ghosts" of Joe Hill

Earlier this year, I reviewed Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" for The Chronicle. I thought it was a particularly strong first novel, a straight-ahead, old-fashioned horror tale with a couple of neat, contemporary twists.

Because six months haven't passed since my last article about Hill, I won't be covering his next release, the short story collection "20th Century Ghosts." Which is too bad, because it's in many ways more impressive than "Heart-Shaped Box." The novel delivers what the reader of popular entertainment craves: compelling characters, narrative drive, a couple of don't-look-now set pieces. "2oth Century Ghosts" offers a much more troubling bundle of goods.

"20th Century Ghosts" will be released in October by William Morrow, but it was originally published in England by PS Publishing. Some of the stories have been reprinted in various "Best of..." anthologies and have won various major awards. So I don't feel like I'm spilling any beans by talking about it before its U.S. laydown date.

The title story riffs on the old "haunted cinema" set-up, "Best New Horrors" explicitly plays with time-worn genre cliches and "Last Breath" evokes Bradbury or Beaumont in their darker moods. But some of the stories are completely unlike anything else you've ever read. What are you supposed to make of "Pop Art," the story of an inflatable boy, or "My Father's Mask," in which a kid is taken on one of the worst vacations imaginable? It's clear from almost the start where the novella "Voluntary Commital" is headed, and yet it still ends up being surprising and affecting.

Because I wasn't under deadline, I read this volume in leisurely fits and starts over the course of two months, and I was always glad to get back to it, always shocked and gratified by what it offers.

Hill doesn't like to play up his literary pedigree, but it has to be said that "20th Century Ghosts" is as strong a collection as Stephen King's "Night Shift." Individually, Hill's stories remind me more of the work of Peter Straub, though, and that's high praise from me.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Stuart MacBride's "Bloodshot/Broken Skin"

After you've been a reviewer for a few years, it's hard to be taken by surprise. You hear the advance word about books, and you know what to look out for. Sometimes, though, you find a new author and a great book through sheer serendipity. And there's nothing sweeter than that.
I hadn't heard of Scottish writer Stuart MacBride until I picked up a paperback edition of his first novel, "Cold Granite," in a bookstore in Ashland, Oregon. Because I'm inundated with ARCs, I don't pay full price for many paperbacks, but I do like to shop for books while on vacation. A tale of child murders in Aberdeen, "Cold Granite" caught my eye, and I took it back to the Bay Area with me.

And it was great! One of the best first novels I'd read in a long while. Gruesome, funny, suspenseful, different. I ran to the library and found MacBride's second book, "Dying Light." It, too, did the job with wit and precision.

Now comes "Broken Skin," or as it's known here in the U.S., "Bloodshot." Which is a crap title, I must say. The book is about the hunt for a serial rapist and includes a major subplot about a BDSM enthusiast who is, um, sodomized to death. So maybe St. Martin's is justified in being skittish and choosing the less-squicky title. But still...

MacBride seems to have studied the lifework of another illustrious Scottish crime writer, Ed McBain. (Kidding...) These book have the flavor of the best "87th Precinct" novels. Instead of Steve Carella, MacBride gives us Logan McCrae as the nominal protagonist, but there's a well-drawn cast of supporting characters who pursue various lines of investigation.

What I particularly like is McCrae's fallibility. He's an experienced professional, but he makes horrible mistakes, ones that lead to disastrous consequences for innocent bystanders. For all the banter and comic business, these book can be deeply disturbing.

Although I have plenty to occupy myself with in science fiction and fantasy, I sometimes wish that I could cover crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle. MacBride's books are ones that I would like to introduce to a much wider audience. So, go read them, you!

Oh, and Amazon offers big savings if you order "Broken Skin" and "Bloodshot" simultaneously.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Stoppard Escapes Being Nicked

Last Wednesday, Tom Stoppard planned to attend a sub rosa performance of Edward Bond's "Eleven Vests" by the Free Theater of Belarus but cancelled at the last minute. Good thing. Armed police raided the performance and hauled away the actors and the audience. An outcry has been raised.

Stormtroopers are unlikely to interrupt "Rough Crossing" at Shakespeare & Company, now in repertory with "Antony and Cleopatra."

If you'd like to see three of Stoppard's early TV plays performed live, you'd better get to the Boomerang Theatre Company.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday"

To indulge in a little bit of understatement, Harlan Ellison is a polarizing literary figure. He evokes only the strongest reactions in those who encounter him, on the page or in person. Poke around the web a bit, and you'll find a number of recent anecdotes that don't present him in a flattering light.

I should say up front that, in the few times I've had personal dealings with him, Ellison has been nothing other than utterly gracious. One of my treasured possessions is a recording he left on my old, analog answering machine after I reviewed "Angry Candy" back in 1989. His gratitude at my having both praised the book and not referred to its contents as "sci-fi" seemed to know no bounds.
Now, though, I want to urge everyone to read "Shatterday," available in a new trade paperback edition from Tachyon Publications. I think it may be Ellison's best fiction collection, and that's saying a lot, when the other contenders are "Deathbird Stories," "Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Mispelled" and "Strange Wine."

It was "Strange Wine" that ripped my skull open and shot a thousand volts into my cerebral cortex that summer between high school and college. I'd never suspected that anyone could write fantasy or science fiction stories like these or reveal so much about themselves in their introductions. But Stephen King has already waxed on and on about that collection in "Danse Macabre," so why should I?

"Shatterday" contains 16 stories, many of them major award winners, each with an introduction. The highlights include "Jeffty Is Five," "In the Fourth Year of the War," "All the Birds Come Home to Roost" and the title story. They're raw, funny, frightening, angry, visionary. They do everything good short fiction should.

It's been 10 years since Ellison's last collection of fiction, "Slippage," was published. In the meantime, he has had health problems and embroiled himself in a couple of lawsuits. So who knows whether there will be another volume of short fiction from him.

Love or loathe him, Harlan Ellison won't be around forever. Many of the selections in "Shatterday," though, will endure as long as there are adventurous readers.


For those who wish to experience Ellison via the magic of multimedia, here are two items:

Tomorrow night, ABC's "Masters of Science Fiction" presents an adaptation of Ellison's "The Abnormals," co-written for television by the man himself.

Sometime later this year, "Dreams with Sharp Teeth," a documentary about Ellison, will be released. You can watch a bunch of clips from it at the Creative Differences site. Film Threat ran a lengthy early review.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cancelled Check

What's wrong with this picture? Not much.
You know your comic strip has run off the rails when the parody of it is only slightly more ridiculous than the original.
What's really interesting is the way Johnston is desperately attempting to ret-con her Foobs. Granthony's hilarious pornstache? All his evil wife's idea!
Here's a prime example of a writer losing control of her characters and forcing them to behave irrationally. You can find my musings about this situation at my other blog.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

From Humbert Humbert's To-Be-Read Stack

Unreliable narrators get their say in three novels I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. The protagonist of "Crooked Little Vein" by Warren Ellis might be telling the outrageous truth, but the main characters of Matt Ruff's "Bad Monkeys" and "A Good and Happy Child" definitely can't be trusted.

On a related note, everyone is linking to this New Yorker article about the not-always-reliable Philip K. Dick. Gopnik gets off to a shaky start with nutty arguments like the following:

Since genre writing can support only one genius at a time—and no genre writer ever becomes just a good writer; it’s all prophet or all hack—the guy is usually resented by his peers and their partisans even as the establishment hails him. No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald.
The essay improves after that point.

Of course, we all may be living in a vast computer simulation, so what does it matter?

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll" Has an Official Site

In preparation for the Oct. 19 opening, the site for the New York premiere of "Rock 'n' Roll" is up and running. Lots of good background information in this PDF file. Pre-sale of tickets to American Express cardholders started on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout reviews a Shakespeare & Company production of "Rough Crossing."

At the Telegraph, Gillian Reynolds reflects on the recent BBC Stoppard radio retrospective.

By many accounts, an uncredited Stoppard labored on the screenplay for "The Bourne Ultimatum." Go and see if you can pick out any lines that might be his. I favor "Jesus Christ, it's Jason Bourne!"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What the Heck I've Been Doing for the Past Three Weeks

Sorry for dropping out of sight so abruptly. I had my reasons.
1. Took a trip to New England
It had been more than a year since I last saw my parents in Portsmouth, NH, so we were overdue for a visit. All in all, it was a good trip, with plenty of opportunities for communing with family and friends. Managed to do most of the things that traditionally define a trip back home for me: swam at Wallis Sands beach, bought taffy at The Goldenrod, bought tax-free shoes from my pal Bert at George & Phillips, played skee-ball at York Beach's Fun O Rama (Nothing guarantees a good time like the syllables "O Rama."), ate seafood at Warren's Lobster House, ate lobster rolls prepared by my mother, ate Italian sandwiches from Moe's, played carpet golf in 90-degree heat (not really recommended) and strolled Portsmouth's scenic downtown.

2. Saw "The Simpsons Movie"
The rest of the world has made up its mind by now, but I thought it was perfectly fine. Not mind-blowingly brilliant, but solidly constructed and executed. For some reason, though, the folks at the CAP Movie Ministry don't agree with that opinion.

3. Spent way too much time fixing a glitch in my DVD drive
All I wanted to do was watch the third season of "Deadwood" without my kids having to hear profanity spewing out of the living room speakers. So I took the disc upstairs to the computer, only to begin spewing profanity myself when nothing would work as it should. Three days of posting frantic notes on the Dell tech forum and downloading various drivers and diagnostics finally did the trick. Cripes.

4. Suddenly realized that a new Chronicle book review was past due
But now it's done and submitted to my grateful editors. Look for coverage of "A Good and Happy Child," "Bad Monkeys" and "Crooked Little Vein" on August 19.

5. Was physically nauseated by the month-long Foob Wedding Flashback
Seriously, do any sexually functioning people in their twenties go romping around a country club and spout drippy declarations of mild affection like Granthony and Liz? No, usually there's some liquor involved, and reunited couples wind up thrashing around in the shrubbery in various states of undress to the horrified amusement of their less-drunk friends. Good thing Granthony already has a child. Now Liz can avoid the messy reality of reproduction and never have to sabotage her partner's birth control plans like her sister-in-law did.

More catch up later!

Touring "Spook Country"

William Gibson's new novel, "Spook Country," is now in stores, and it's well worth your time and attention. Nobody takes the measure of the zeitgeist (pun intended) more presciently than Mr. Gibson.

You can read my full-length review (which ran on the front of The Chronicle's Datebook section for a change) at

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Old Dog, New Tricks

I've started a new blog, Old Dog, New Tricks, hosted on my private domain and devoted solely to the topic of freelance writing. No Stoppard. No Foobs. No Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap. I envision it as a kind of laboratory for experimenting with new ways of stringing words together and, maybe, making some money from them.

It's sparsely furnished at the moment, but please check it out if you're so inclined.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Killer Bs -- Baker, Bull and Bachman

Time for a new science fiction and fantasy roundup in the San Francisco Chronicle!

I'm positively giddy with the way Kage Baker wrapped up her series about the Company. No dangling plotlines. The right mix of characters. Plenty of mind-boggling time-travel action. Everything you could wish for in a finale. (Take that, David Chase!)

I hadn't ready anything by Emma Bull in quite a while and was pleased to see what she's done in her new Western fantasy, "Territory."

I remember back when no one knew that Richard Bachman was really Stephen King. In high school, my good friend Matt Gats got ahold of the now-out-of-print "Rage" and told any member of the Portsmouth Clippers Marching Band who would listen that it was great. I'm not sure how many of us believed him, though many probably wish they could own that first-edition paperback now.

Eight Is More Than Enough

I've been infected with a meme by my pal and colleague Michael Ansaldo. In the interests of not being a spoilsport, I will play along and provide eight autobiographical facts and/or habits.

First, the rules, always with the rules:

1.We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them each a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

FACT: I'm really good at learning to read and write foreign languages and absolute crap at speaking them. That's why I enjoyed classical Greek in college and grew so frustrated with French and German.

FACT: I'm left-handed (which is probably part of the reason why I'm crap at speaking foreign languages. Stupid right-brain dominance.)

FACT: As a child, I always managed to injure myself seriously on major vacations. In Hawaii, I stumbled off a cliff while hiking to a scenic waterfall. In Texas, I walked through a plate-glass door after throwing firecrackers from the balcony of my grandfather's apartment.

FACT: In my early teens, I was obsessed with the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan of the Apes. John Carter of Mars. Carson of Venus. My avid interest may have had something to do with the Frank Frazetta covers.

FACT: Four summers ago, I appeared as Mr. Bumble in the Vallejo Musical Theatre production of "Oliver!"

HABITS: I've pretty much eradicated my New England accent, but if tired and inattentive, I will do such things as refer to the singer of "What's Love Got to Do with It?" as "Teener Turna." My daughter gives me grief for calling the second day of the workweek "Tuesdee."

FACT: I can still kinda-sorta play the trumpet, but my chops are like day-old spaghetti.

FACT: Before I got married, I lived platonically with my wife's sister for four years.

I don't have many bloggy friends, but I will tag the following:


Friday, July 06, 2007

Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap -- Part Three

"Let's do something other than read!"

Both Us Weekly and Photoplay feature full-page ads for various and sundry post-literate media. Us tends to focus on TV shows and videogames.

Nothing impressive or particularly risible here. Modern marketing at its most mundane.

Photoplay's got it going on, though, with movie ads like this one. I've never seen "Vendetta," but it certainly seems to be an attention-grabber.

Who needs that HBO black-and-white minimalist crap when you can have a four-color Faith Domergue, star of "This Island Earth" and "The House of Seven Corpses," clutching a knife with her dress half torn off? Plus, grown men smacking each other with riding crops or blackjacks or both!

You don't even need color photography when you've got copy as vivid as that promoting "Storm Warning" (or "I Frenched a Bigot"):

"The kiss of a Klansman...! This is the story of a pretty girl who spends a night in "friendly" little town...Suddenly out of the dark she is faced with the fear only a girl can know. Here is a picture more tense than words can describe -- as fresh as the ink of tomorrow headlines!"

Yow! All that, and Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan and Doris Day!

I never knew that the Klan spent all their energy menacing perky blondes. Guess that's why there are no African Americans in the supporting cast.

Photoplay is way ahead in this category, but I'm not finished yet. More hyperventilating movie ads have an appointment with the scanner.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Get me to the eye-wash station, stat!

We all knew this day was coming, but did Johnston have to spoil Independence Day for us Americans? The barbecue, the fireworks, the interminable pops concert from D.C. with two-fifths of the original Beach Boys -- they've all been ruined by the Love That No One Wants to Name.

If you need an antidote to Granthony mackin' on Liz, check out the re-mix of the "Shannon Takes a Stand" saga. UPDATE: Sorry, but "Shannon Takes a Stand" has been shut down by The Man, or more accurately, by a polite-but-firm letter from the official FBofW Web developer.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy 70th Birthday, Tom Stoppard

Today is Stoppard's 70th birthday. We wish him all the best and many more.

Franz Kafka was also born on this date. As was Tom Cruise. Make of that what you will.

Monday, July 02, 2007

More Stoppard on the Radio

The radio play "In the Native State," a precursor of "Indian Ink," is now available on BBC 7:

The British Empire and India, as viewed through the prism of the present and 1930 - when an artist painted a woman's portrait.

Also on the schedule are "The Dissolution of Dominic Boot":

Tom Stoppard's first radio play written in 1964. Dominic travels around London trying to raise cash for the mounting taxi fare.

And "Where Are They Now?":

An Old Boys reunion dinner inevitably invites echoes from the past.

Links for all three can be found on this page.

BBC 4 has "The 15-Minute Hamlet" for your listening pleasure.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap -- Part Two

"They think they're people!"

Magazines such as Us and Photoplay operate with a set of conflicting imperatives. On the one hand, they like to pretend that celebrities are some higher order of being, that being photogenic and marginally talented invests upon them a sort of ineffable miraculousness. On the other, you don't want your movie stars to get too uppity, so these magazines print lots of unflattering shots of them under the pretext of "See, they're really nothing special!"

The caption about train-wreck-in-the-making chanteuse Amy Winehouse alleges that she does her own laundry, but I suspect that what she's really doing is destroying her own evidence.

Photoplay can't really match the tawdry banality of Us. The best it can do is provide this completely natural and action-packed shot of household accountacy by Lena Lamont from "Singing in the Rain" and her condescending hubby.

This round goes to Us. At least they don't make us look at shots of Brad and Angelina firing up TurboTax together.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

BBC Starts Stoppard Seven-Day Countdown

BBC Radio 4 has started broadcasting Stoppard radio plays and adaptations. They remain online for only seven days, so don't miss out. The first up is "Albert's Bridge": A man's chosen profession is painting a huge bridge. The task is perpetual, since one end of the bridge is already in need of a fresh coat before he reaches the other.

"Arcadia" starts today. In case you don't remember what it's about: A comedy which masterfully juggles notions of literature, mathematics, landscape gardening and love through the lives and preoccupations of the inhabitants of Sidley Park, Derbyshire in the early 19th and late 20th centuries.
And as a bonus, Stoppard muses on Raymond Chandler's years in London.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap: Part One

For the past couple of months, I've been receiving Us Weekly against my will. I foolishly pre-paid a two-year subscription to Premiere, just before they stopped publishing the newsstand version. Crap! So now I'm a reluctant subscriber to a periodical that makes People look like Cahiers du Cinema.

A few weeks ago, I attended a local garage sale and snagged a copy of Photoplay from February 1951. Neither was it targeted toward pointy-headed intellectuals, but at least it has some vitality. Not to mention some really crazy-ass advertisements.

I've decided that it would be instructive to analyze the differences between two generations of celebrity "fan" magazines. For the next few weeks, or until we all succumb to ennui, I plan to critique both Us and Photoplay in a new feature entitled Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap!

Let's start with The Covers:

Oof. Busy. Garish. Featuring scary, Botoxed people with dead, soulless eyes. Heather Locklear I know, and it's hard to be unaware of Mrs. Brad Pitt. But who the hell is Vanessa, and why should I care that the young star of "Herbie Fully Loaded" is holding a knife to her throat?

But check this out! It's Jane Powell, star of "A Date with Judy," and she looks quite lovely. Her hair appears a little stiff, but her blue eyes sparkle with something recognizable as human consciousness. There's no drunken horseplay with edged weapons. And Photoplay cost only 15 cents, compared to Us's $3.49 cover price.

On to the back covers. Here's a fairly inoffensive ad for a reality cooking show on Bravo. I'll never watch it (nor put in my mouth anything any of these people prepare), but it doesn't actively annoy me.

But, man, do I want one of those Chesterfields! I don't smoke, but I'm a sucker for a pack of coffin nails offered by the female lead of "Captain Horatio Hornblower."
Great copywriting: It's the Easiest Test in the Book... Open 'em. Smell 'em. Smoke 'em.
A philosophy with so many applications to everyday life!

The first round of Gossip Rag Bitch-Slap goes to -- Photoplay!

Books I'm Not Reading -- Anything from PublishAmerica

Every once in a while, I get packages from authors who have self-published a science fiction or fantasy novel. I don't like receiving them. I always feel like the authors are wasting postage on top of whatever they've already spent to print the book. In two decades, I've never reviewed a self-published or vanity press book. There's simply too much better stuff out there that deserves my attention.

Recently I received a book from a local writer whom I am not going to name. He's produced a futuristic techno-thriller about AIs running amok. It's "published" by PublishAmerica. And it just kind of makes me sad.

If you don't know anything about PublishAmerica, read this article from the Washington Post . Also read about the publication history of Travis Tea's "Atlanta Nights," a "bad book written by experts."

I opened the local writer's PublishAmerica book and was immediately struck by a glaring typo on the Acknowledgements page. A quick flip through the book revealed many others.

On a whim, I went to the author's personal Web site and learned that he has battled dyslexia all his life. Which made me terribly angry at PublishAmerica, because they obviously did nothing to help a client with a recognized problem. Instead, they took his money and let him produce a book that no reputable store will ever stock and few people outside his family will ever want to read.

Then I noticed that the writer's main page includes a big link to Writer Beware, which offers "Warnings About Literary Fraud and Other Schemes, Scams, and Pitfalls That Target Writers." And what is one of the publishers Writer Beware warns about most vociferously?

That's right. Good old PublishAmerica. And there goes a large portion of my sympathy for the hapless local writer.

I understand the desperation that can grip someone who wants to see his or her words in print. But please, folks, remember Yog's Law: Money Flows toward the Writer.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

William Gibson Cracks Me Up

William Gibson’s new novel, “Spook Country,” arrives in stores later this month. I’ve read it, but I’m unsure when, if or how I’ll review it. It’s good, but not a real ground-breaker like “Pattern Recognition.”

I really loved 2003’s “Pattern Recognition.” So much so that I was interviewed on NPR about it. Too bad we had to go and invade Iraq that week, thus delaying the segment’s airdate for months. You can hear me blather about Gibson here.

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the author of “Neuromancer,” mostly because I’ve been too focused on the wrong elements of his fiction. The days of cyberpunk are long over, but Gibson has retooled his technique to embrace the absurdity of post-9/11 America. He’s consistently funny, but usually in a very understated way.

I never mutilate finished copies, but I cheerfully dog-ear galleys to mark notable passages. “Spook Country” has a lot of turned-down corners. Some of my favorite lines include:

On meeting an impressive old man:

Hollis thought he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate (or perhaps the methadone). Like someone who'd be invited quail shooting with the vice-president, though too careful to get himself shot.

On riding in a Zodiac:

This wasn't the Staten Island Ferry. He was bouncing along at some insane speed on something that reminded him of a creepy folding rubber bathtub he'd once seen Vladimir Nabokov proudly posing with in an old photograph.

On Gallic body language:

Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure.

I once interviewed Gibson for The Chronicle and really enjoyed speaking with him and his co-author Bruce Sterling. They’re both scarily smart, but each was polite and charming, witty but not aggressively so. I’ve exhumed the review/interview from The Chronicle archives, if anyone’s interested.

By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra; 429 pages; $19.95

During the 1980s, both William Gibson and Bruce Sterling shook up science fiction by inventing high-tech futures unlike anything readers had encountered before. With such novels as Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Sterling's "Islands in the Net," they dramatized the far-flung consequences of the Information Revolution.

In their new collaborative novel, "The Difference Engine," Gibson and Sterling take a decidedly different tack, reinventing Victorian England as a hotbed of cybernetics and industrial espionage. Extrapolating from the mostly forgotten work of mathematician Charles Babbage, who proposed building steam-driven computational machines in the early 1800s, they weave a complex narrative that involves a deadly search for a set of punched cards.

In an interview, Sterling and Gibson said that neither is sure who first saw in Babbage's "analytical engine" the germ of a novel.

"It's an interesting bit of historical trivia," said Sterling. "But then it occurred to us, "Hey, what if he'd actually built it?' This is one of your classic science fiction ideas, and when you get one like that, you need to do it justice."

In imagining a Britain where the computer revolution arrives a century and a half early, Sterling and Gibson twist history in surprising, yet eminently logical, ways. They play with the conventions of the Victorian novel and add references to the latest advances in paleontology, computer science and physics. Such eminent figures as Benjamin Disraeli, Keats and Byron make cameo appearances, but not in the manner one might expect.

It's a heady mix of fact and fancy, one that requires a certain sophistication to appreciate. Although it takes some of its inspiration from sensational potboilers of yore, "The Difference Engine" makes heavy demands on its readers. Sterling isn't kidding when he says, "This isn't a book you can eat like a Dorito."

The novel's structure is especially unnerving. It begins with a 70-page prologue about a prostitute and a shady public relations flack that seems to push the story in one direction. Most of the book follows dinosaur expert Edward (Leviathan) Mallory as he dodges secret agents in a London on the brink of anarchy. Finally, Mallory drops out of the picture completely, and the narrative becomes increasingly less linear and more impressionistic.

It's an audacious, infuriating stunt, which Gibson defends: "If we had structured the book along traditional literary lines, it could never have been as satisfying for us." Sterling agrees. "The whole last section, my favorite part of the book, is like a stew. . . . There's very little in the way of characterization and nothing in the way of coherent plot, but I think that section best captures the spirit of this book."

Readers may or may not concur. What annoys Sterling most are critics who imply that he and Gibson somehow "forgot" to give the book a conventional resolution.

"The Difference Engine" was published a few months ago in England, and Gibson had "a real fear that the British would say, "Give us a break! This doesn't sound remotely like us.' " Instead, the novel was well-received, and the publicity tour afforded the authors the chance to see how closely their imaginations matched reality.

They saw a real difference engine that, Gibson says, is "being built from Babbage's plan, using Victorian technology. We both sprang at it, and the woman who was its guardian said, "No! Not without white cotton gloves!' Which caused us both to collapse in shock . . . giggling."

The joke is that the characters in the book are similarly fussy about dirtying the fragile components of their steam computers. And indeed, it is in the small details that one derives the greatest pleasure in reading "The Difference Engine." While the main plot has its fair share of action and suspense, the novel, like the engine itself, captures the reader's interest mostly with glimpses into its intricate gearwork, rather than through the momentum of its large-scale effects.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer of Stoppard-Love

Lots of Stoppard plays in production this summer:

"Rough Crossing" is being performed in Lenox, MA.

In Boston, "Indian Ink" is being performed at the Plaza Theatre.

BBC 3, 4 and 7 are preparing a season of Stoppard radio plays and adaptations, including "R&G Are Dead," "In the Native State," "Arcadia" and "Rock 'n' Roll."

Turning to the cinema, Stoppard also worked on the script of the upcoming Matt Damon thriller, "The Bourne Ultimatum."

And in case there was any doubt in your mind, the Telegraph wants to assure you that Stoppard deserved all seven Tonys for "The Coast of Utopia." Meanwhile, the Independent has crowned him "the new King of Broadway."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

"Coast of Utopia" Wins Seven Tonys

Just as they were about to announce the winner for "Best Play," the screen suddenly went black for 10 seconds, and then the credits started to roll. No, wait, that was the other show.

By now, most have probably heard that "The Coast of Utopia" took seven awards, including honors for director Jack O'Brien and actress Jennifer Ehle.

So, hurrah. Maybe you want to celebrate by listening to the new CD of Mark Bennett's award-winning original score.

And if you'd like to compare the "Sopranos" finale with the Tonys telecast, Ken Levine has the run-down.

Mustache-Bereft Granthony: The Face of Fear!

Sweet sainted mother of Mordecai Richler, has Granthony shaved off his pornstache AND undergone a spur-of-the-moment nosejob? All the "For Better or For Worse" pundits have an opinion.

The train wreck, she is a'-coming.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tonys Versus Tony

The big event is only a day away, and the whole nation holds its collective breath.

Everyone wants to know whether Tony Soprano will get whacked in the series finale. As for any other Tonys, well, the suspense is a tad less palpable. (Some attendees at Radio City Music Hall will rely on Tivo to get them through the night.) Still, "The Coast of Utopia" is in the running for 10 awards, so there will be a few too-cheap-for-HBO Stoppardphiles tuned to whatever network broadcasts the ceremony. (CBS? PBS? Oxygen? Spike? These things get away from me.)

An anonymous Tony voter reveals his/her picks for New York Magazine. As does Lawrence B. Johnson in the Detroit News. There doesn't seem to be much controversy, though.

Here's to a decisive win for the author, cast and crew of "The Coast of Utopia."