Friday, December 18, 2009

5 Trilogies Worth Re-reading

The short days and cold nights put me in the mood for longer, more involved storytelling. I just finished Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played with Fire," the middle volume of the Milllennium Trilogy, bookended by "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the forthcoming "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest." (Larsson planned 10 volumes in the thriller saga but died after turning in only the first three.)

These books are clever and absorbing, with a dynamic female protagonist. But I doubt I'll ever want to re-read them, no matter how good the final book turns out to be. Their clumsy translations, eye-glazing info dumps and the ridiculousness of the male protagonist's irresistibility to the opposite sex are likely to prevent me from picking up the books for a second go-round.

There are some trilogies, however, that, at various intervals, spur me to re-read up to 2,000 pages. I've made it through three of the following multiple times, and the other two are on my One of These Days, Soon list. Only one is an out-and-out fantasy, and it's not very well known, even within the genre.

1. The Quest for Karla by John Le Carre
These may be the best three espionage novels of the last quarter of the 2oth century. (The first volume was published in 1974, but close enough.) I could read again and again "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the story of George Smiley's search for the Russian mole within British intelligence. "The Honourable Schoolboy" takes an entirely different tack and takes some getting used to, but it has its deep pleasures, especially the scenes in Asia. The overly talky "Smiley's People" is in some way the least successful of the three, but it does bring everything to an extremely fitting, and moving, end.




2. Game, Set, Match by Len Deighton
Deighton made his name with the "unnamed spy/Harry Palmer" books, beginning with "The Ipcress File" in 1962. As good as those swinging-Sixties novels are, I believe they are eclipsed by "Berlin Game," "Mexico Set" and "London Match," from the Reagan-era Cold War. Old Berlin hand Bernard Samson is pulled away from his desk job and back into the field when Brahms Four, one of his informants on the other side of the Wall, wants out. Samson's investigation brings to light the presence of, what do you know?, another mole. Only this time the betrayal is intensely personal for Bernard.

Deighton takes a cheekier, more working class attitude toward the spy novel than does Le Carre. He's also more slippery in his narrative. Samson is not a reliable narrator, over-confident in his own talents and too quick to dismiss his blue-blooded superiors.

These books constitute the first of three trilogies, the other two being "Spy Hook, Line and Sinker" and "Faith, Hope and Charity." The sequence, published well past the dismantling of the Soviet Union, runs out of steam before the end, but all of the books have their interesting bits, and there's a huge reversal in "Spy Line."

3. The Blue Rose Sequence by Peter Straub
Straub didn't intend for "Koko" and "Mystery" to be part of a trilogy, not until he dreamed up "The Throat" and saw how the third book could swallow the other two whole.

"Koko" follows a group of Vietnam veterans as they discover that one of their former platoon-mates has become a serial killer, hunting journalists who have written about a massacre that occurred in a village called Ia Thuc. "Mystery" is set on a Caribbean island and in the Midwest, where a young man nearly killed in a car accident investigates two sets of murders. In "The Throat," Tim Underhill, the secret hero of "Koko," reveals his connection to the characters in "Mystery" and then solves, once and for all, what have come to be known as the Blue Rose murders.

You can read an extended interview with Straub that I conducted during his tour for "The Throat." In it, he discusses the origins of the books and of the short stories that are peripheral to them.

4. The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
I haven't read "Fifth Business," in nearly 25 years, so perhaps it's time to go to the garage and dig it out, along with "The Manticore" and "World of Wonders."

A boy throws a rock-filled snowball at this friend/rival. The friend ducks, and the missile strikes a pregnant woman, causing her to give birth prematurely. Out from that simple set of actions spirals a saga that comes to span decades and continents, touching on subjects as diverse as Jungian psychoanalysis and stage magic.

Davies -- journalist, academic, playwright -- was particular fond of three-book sequences. Also of interest are the Salterton Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy.



5. The Chronicle of the King's Tramp by Tom DeHaven
DeHaven is the author of a trilogy about the history of comics, consisting of "Funny Papers," "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies" and "Dugan Under Ground," of which I've read only the middle volume. (It stands well enough on its own.)

"Walker of Worlds," "The End of Everything Man" and "The Last Human" make up DeHaven's other trilogy, an out-and-out multiversal fantasy that rivals Zelazny at his best. I'm not sure I can begin to give a decent summary of it. It features sentient dogs, evil monks, mud monsters, homeless savants and whole bunch of weird stuff. It's a kick from start to finish.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Posthumous Crichton

Michael Crichton, author of "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park," died of cancer last year, but there's a new novel out with his name on it. "Pirate Latitudes" was apparently found in his files as a completed manuscript. Indeed, it doesn't read like something patched together from notes, drafts and narrative stitching provided by some after-the-fact collaborator. It's creepiness factor is therefore pretty low.

It actually feels like a throw-back to some of Crichton's early work, either the potboilers penned under the John Lange byline or the historical novels published under his own name, including "The Great Train Robbery" and "Eaters of the Dead." It's a pirate novel, all right, but not an ironic pirate novel. There's no outrightly fantastic element in it, as in Gene Wolfe's recent "Pirate Freedom." What you expect is pretty much what you get.

"Pirate Latitudes" is entertaining, though, and that opinion is reflected in my review of the novel in this week's Sunday Chronicle. And, as a bonus, here's a link to the appreciation of Crichton I wrote for The Chronicle at the time of death.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Books -- Science Fiction/Fantasy 2009

The San Francisco's Holiday Books section will be published on Sunday, but you can already read my column online at SFGate.com. It's not really a "Best of the Year" list, though some will view it that way. There's just too much good material and too little time for me to say definitively, "Yeah, these are the genre's finest selections, no doubt about it."

And for the first time, I've hedged my bets a little, adding a handful of books I've heard good things about but which I have not found time to review. Check it out, and consider adding the latest from Richard Kadrey, Cherie Priest, Jeff VanderMeer and others to your shopping lists this summer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Defense of Stephen King

My review of Stephen King's "Under the Dome" ran in today's Chronicle, and it was not 100% positive. The book's too long and filled with too-familiar characters and situations. On a "weird doings in Maine" scale from the atrocious "The Tommyknockers" to the sublime "'Salem's Lot," I place it squarely in the middle. I enjoyed it well enough but will never be tempted to read it again.

My review prompted a reader to write and inquire about my opinion on why King has become a "literary darling." My correspondent threw around the words "hack" and "onanistic."

Stephen King is probably my favorite living writer. There are others whom I admire more and who have disappointed me less, but I can't imagine a time will ever come when a new King novel arrives and I'll just shrug and put it aside. I was imprinted on his prose too forcefully, at too early an age, to ignore what he offers.

I clearly remember sitting on our back porch in Portsmouth, NH, one summer day and reading a library copy of "'Salem's Lot." I was maybe 15, and I had no idea what the book was about. Not a clue, because the jack copy didn't give it away. The frisson I experienced in the instant when I suddenly realized that it was about vampires in Maine, set little more than an hour north of where I sat, remains one of the most delicious thrills I've ever enjoyed as a reader.

In quick succession, I read "The Shining," "Carrie," "The Stand" and "Night Shift," and I was hooked for good. I met him face-to-face at a signing for "Firestarter" at the Portland Mall and attended a press conference with him in Santa Cruz, when he was touring for "Insomnia" via motorcycle. One of my regrets is that I've never been able to arrange a one-on-one interview with him. I tried with "Under the Dome," but he's not coming to the Bay Area. So, sorry, Charlie.

"Hack" is one of those dangerous words like "nymphomaniac," used to judge people who give or get more than we think is proper. Whatever he may be, King is not a hack; he clearly cares about language, about his readers, about his characters, about the fate of the novel and the short story. Few critics recognize how experimental a lot of his work is, how willing he is to set new challenges for himself. He can be clumsy, sloppy, distracted and too in love with his own voice, but there's no doubt he means what he says.

At The Chronicle, I've reviewed at least 20 of King's books -- many good, many not -- during the past 25 years. I imagine I'll keep doing so as long as he, the newspaper and I are all still functioning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From Garp to Twisted River

I've been reading John Irving for just a tiny bit more than 30 years. I picked up "The World According to Garp" in paperback during the second semester of my college freshman year, and I was enraptured by it. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. It was one of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences of my life.

Of course, I think I read it at exactly the right moment, at 19, in 1979. I hadn't read much mainstream literary fiction at that point. I did fancy myself as a writer, so I liked the stories-within-a-story and the debates about the differences between fiction and autobiography. I was thrilled to read a book by someone who shared my experience as a resident of New Hampshire, who wrote about Exeter, a town only a few miles from my own.

I re-read "Garp" five or six years ago, and it holds up pretty well, though its mid-Seventies attitudes about feminism seem a little off and more than slightly creepy. What still works perfectly, though, is the tour de force "Walt Catches Cold" chapter, in which Garp tries to deal with his two obstreperous sons while his wife attempts to break up with her weaselly lover. Everything in that chapter is perfectly calibrated, balancing humor and suspense and irony and foreboding. Its last lines are among the most heart-stopping I've ever read, and Mr. Irving will forever be cut a lot of slack on my part because of how masterful that chapter and its aftermath are.

Unfortunately, I've never quite found an Irving book I like as much as "Garp." Some are just awful. I couldn't get more than 3o pages into "Until I Find You," and does anybody love "The Fourth Hand"? Others seem overly self-important, especially "The Cider House Rules." But I hold "A Widow for One Year" in high esteem, and though I'm not ga-ga about it like some readers, I see the appeal of "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

When I heard about Irving's new novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," I lobbied to review it for The Chronicle. (Truthfully, there didn't seem to be much competition.) And I'm glad I did. It gave me everything I want in a John Irving novel, but without most of the elements that make his lesser novels so irritating. Read the review and, if you're a fan of "Garp," see if it doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Housekeeping

What with the Twitter and the Facebook and other distractions, I took a long time away from blogging and am trying to get back into the rhythm of it.

Since July, I've contributed but two book columns to The Chronicle. The first covered new novels by Lev Grossman and Richard Kadrey, plus a graphic novel written by Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus mysteries. I wholeheartedly recommend the first two and was less than impressed by Rankin's interpretation of one of my favorite comics characters, John Constantine.

Earlier this month the paper ran my round-up of recent kids'/YA books of note. I covered the latest from Kage Baker, John Connolly and Laurence Yep. All three are good, but Connolly's is the stand-out, I think.

I should have plenty to post in November. I'm doing full-length reviews of John Irving's "Last Night at Twisted River,"Michael Crichton's posthumous "Pirate Latitudes" and Stephen King's "Under the Dome," as well as another round-up featuring new releases from Iain M. Banks, Anne Rice and Peter Straub. Plus, I'll be doing some kind of version of my "holiday books/best of the year" column.

And still the books keep coming...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Five Semi-Obscure Horror Novels Worth Your Time This Halloween

A couple days ago, I played with one of those Facebook widgets that let you pick your favorite five things in a certain number of categories. The topic was Great Haunted House Novels and I made five respectable choices: The Shining, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The House Next Door, lost boy lost girl (get the capitalization right, LivingSocial!) and Ghost Story. Later on, though, I started fretting that those are very obvious choices, that anybody fond of horror fiction would already be aware of them.

So, here are five more horror novels – from the 1970s and early '80s -- that can make your Halloween that much creepier. They may, however, take a certain amount of effort to track down. I live in a place blessed with great bookstores and libraries, and few of these selections were readily available in the obvious outlets.

1. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

Set in small-town rural New Hampshire, the novel focuses on John and Mim Moore, farmers struggling to look after their young daughter and John's elderly mother. When new auctioneer Purly Dunsmore comes to town, folks are happy to drag junk out from their cellars, attics and barns and donate them for a sale said to benefit the local police. But as the weeks drift by, Purly and his friends on the force become more demanding in their requests for donations, and soon John and Mim find themselves making sacrifices they truly can't afford.

"The Auctioneer" is Samson's only novel. She died of cancer before the book became a best-seller in paperback. But it's a very accomplished first effort – astute in its understanding of mob dynamics and the lure of conformity. If you've read Stephen King's "Needful Things," you can see Samson's clear influence on him.

I originally read "The Auctioneer" as a high school junior and didn't see anything scary in it at all. Then I re-read it near the end of George W. Bush's seemingly never-ending second term and thought, "Oh, yeah. Now I get it."

2. The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein

When I got out of college and was rummaging around for a career, I thought T.E.D. Klein had the coolest job in the universe as the editor of "Twilight Zone" magazine. I've since learned that years of reading slush pretty much extinguished his enthusiasm for horror fiction, but those are the breaks, I guess. "The Ceremonies" is his only novel, but it's a good one.

An expansion of his novella, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (recently reprinted in the very fine "American Fantastic Tales," edited by Peter Straub), "The Ceremonies" follows academic Jeremy Friers as he leaves New York City for the summer, renting a house in the rural community of Gilead, NY. Friers intends to spend his time preparing for a course on supernatural literature, but he doesn't sense that he's being manipulated by an elderly sorcerer who wishes to facilitate the return to Earth of a vast, ancient and malevolent entity. Also caught in the sorcerer's snare are Friers' virginal girlfriend and his hosts, the deeply religious Poroths.

"The Ceremonies" isn't an easy read. It's overlong, repetitive and the characters are all rather chilly and unpleasant. But Klein nails the sense of dread that can be elicited in the face of raw nature, where human intelligence doesn't mean much of anything. (The book also includes one of the nastiest felines in the genre.) The more you're familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, the more you'll take away from "The Ceremonies."

3. All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By by John Farris

I haven't recently re-read this gonzo Southern gothic by the author of "The Fury," but it certainly made an impression on me. Not very many novels open with a wedding scene in which a good portion of the participants either go insane or are decapitated with a military saber.

"All Heads…" is about the slave trade and a legacy of terror that extends from Africa to the American South in the 1940s. It may be one the best supernatural novels about vodoun ever written, and it almost defies summarization. Maybe it's best to come to it with no expectations, because Farris finishes by up-ending all of them anyway.

As a bonus, the Tor paperback edition features one of my favorite covers, boasting an Ann-Margret lookalike as a bosomy snake-goddess!

4. The Other by Thomas Tryon

Along with ""The Exorcist," Thomas Tryon's "The Other" ranks as one of the most popular horror titles in the period between Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" and Stephen King's "Carrie." It may be the best "freaky twins" novel ever published.

Holland and Niles are born 20 minutes apart, but their temperaments are vastly different. Born with a caul over his face, Niles seems the more empathic of the two, while Holland is more prickly and secretive. Growing up on a Connecticut farm in the mid-1930s, the boys are inseparable, but do they also share dangerous psychic powers? And by the way, who's responsible for the various fatal "accidents" that happen around the homestead? (I'll never forget that baby floating in the wine bottle!)

Tryon was an actor before turning his hand to fiction. (Apparently it was the tyrannical Otto Preminger who provided the last straw that made Tryon dump his Hollywood career.) The neatly plotted "The Other" is a fine debut, and Tryon continued his streak with other well-received novels, including "Harvest Home," which is kind of an Americanized version of "The Wicker Man."

5. Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

Stephen King provided the essay about "Burnt Offerings" in the original "Horror: 100 Best Books," edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. He ranks Marasco's book just below Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" in the "haunted house novel" sweepstakes. That seems a fair assessment.

Eager to get out of the city, the Rolfe family – Ben, Marion, son David and Aunt Elizabeth -- finds a summer rental that seems almost too good to be true. The country house owned by the peculiar Allardyce siblings is a bit run down, but the rate is cheap. Old Mrs. Allardyce lives on the top story, but she's no trouble at all, never venturing from her rooms.

The horror in "Burnt Offerings" is the quiet kind. As the house begins to mysteriously regenerate itself, the Rolfes always have the option of leaving. But even when the worst things happen, they fail to do so. If "The Auctioneer" is a fable about the dangers of letting go of what's valuable, "Burnt Offerings" is a cautionary tale about being imprisoned by what's not essential.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quickie Review -- Fragment

I was going to review Warren Fahy's "Fragment" in my last San Francisco Chronicle column, but I ran out of both space and interest.
This first novel is a Michael Crichton-esque scientific thriller about a mysterious island in the South Pacific that's actually a fragment of a lost continent. Cut off from the rest of the world's on-going process of natural selection for half a billion years, Henders Island is home to bizarre and super-lethal lifeforms that would chew through the rest of the planet's eco-system in nothing flat. And guess what's headed right toward Henders? That's right, a TV reality show crew!

There are, of course, human characters in "Fragment," but none of them are particularly compelling and some of them make no damn sense at all, so I'm not going to bother to list them. The real attraction is, of course, the monsters, and Fahy does a fine job of concocting some truly wild evolutionary throwbacks and developing action sequences around them. I don't know whether the biology lectures he uses as exposition are a bunch of hooey, but they work well enough dramatically.
"Fragment" seems to have aspirations to be this decade's "Jurassic Park." It's not up to that challenge, but it might be a welcome diversion for a dreary day at the seashore.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Link Salad Surgery

No time. No time. No time. So just a smidgen of links...

Justine Larbalestier on what happens when your book's cover betrays its story.


Thanks, David J. Montgomery. I'm reading "Chinaman's Chance" by Ross Thomas, and it's great!


Scott McCloud has interesting things to say about David Mazzucchelli's "Asterios Polyp."


The good folks at Making Light point the way to the worst author intro ever.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spilling Your Guts Online

I regard Penelope Trunk, author of "The Brazen Careerist," with nearly equal amounts of admiration and dumbfoundedness. Sometimes I find her advice useful and clear-eyed, and sometimes I regard what she writes as absolutely, well, nuts. A nod of agreement, a wince of embarrassment -- those are my two main reactions to her columns.

Take her latest post -- How to decide how much to reveal about yourself. Pretty powerful stuff. I could never be that forthright online. But given her history, perhaps Trunk has no other choice:

So what I’m telling you here is that I’m scared of secrets. I’m more scared of keeping things a secret than I am of letting people know that I’m having trouble. People can’t believe how I’m willing to write about my life here. But what I can’t believe is how much better my life could have been if it had not been full of secrets.

My life has been nowhere near as dramatic as Trunk's appears to have been, but I make a distinction between secrets, which are destructive, and private matters, which, with any luck, are not. Call me an uptight New Englander with a metaphorical stick up his fundament, but I keep a close watch on how much personal information I put online. Although I'm free with my opinions, I don't post pictures of my kids, complain about my parents and even acknowledge my birthday on Facebook. (You do know that it's fairly easy to predict a SSN given a place and date of birth, right?)

I don't delude myself into believing that anyone with sufficient interest (or a powerful resistance to tedium) could build a fairly thick dossier on me from public sources, but neither do I feel a compulsion to make the task easy on them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- The Land of Laughs

It may be memory playing tricks on me after a quarter century, but I still consider Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs" to be one of the books that welcomed me to California. It may not have been the first paperback I purchased here, but I can't remember any others that preceded it.

I know I bought it at Dark Carnival, then located on Telegraph Avenue, where it intersects with Stuart Street. The store was within walking distance of my apartment, and when I arrived here in 1983 with no job, no car and few friends, I spent a lot of time checking out the local bookstores. I have a clear memory of reading "The Land of Laughs" while commuting on BART, so perhaps it was the promise of a steady paycheck that allowed me to feel sufficiently flush to unlimber my wallet.

In any case, it was the David B. Mattingly cover that attracted me to the book. It's weird and whimsical and menacing, from the George Boothian bull terriers to the shadowy figure glowering through the front door. But what instantly sold me on the book is its voice, the assured cadence of its first-person narration.

"The Land of Laughs" is the story of Thomas Abbey, slacker son of a fabled movie star, who decides to ditch his teaching job and write a biography of his favorite author, Marshall France. The reclusive France died young and left behind a magical series of children's books, including "The Land of Laughs." Abbey and his girlfriend Saxony Gardner travel to France's hometown, Galen, Missouri, and, having been told that they might not be welcome, find themselves unexpectedly embraced by France's daughter and the other townspeople.
Of course, nothing in Galen is as it first appears. To say much more would be to spoil the pleasurable twists and turns of a plot that combines elements of mystery, fantasy and horror. Everything builds to an inevitable, yet shocking conclusion. It's a very well-constructed first novel.

Jonathan Carroll is one of my very favorite writers. His books wrestle with the big questions about life, death, the imagination and the hereafter, but with an easy humor and a cockeyed perspective that's unmatched. I always find something of value in each of his books, but the ones I especially like include "After Silence," "Bones of the Moon," "Sleeping in Flame" and "The Wooden Sea."

I recommend them all, but if you're coming to Carroll fresh, why not start with "The Land of Laughs"? And then start following his Twitter feed, checking his blog and reading the assorted short stories at his site. You're not likely to be disappointed.








Monday, July 20, 2009

Link Hodgepodge

Here's a small mishmash of links. Enjoy responsibly.


Nabokov, on TV in the Fifties, talking about "Lolita."

The final issue of Ellis and Cassaday's "Planetary" is on its way, swear to God!

Hard Case will publish a posthumous novel by the late, great Donald Westlake.

Your brain enjoys learning.

"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is the quintessential Boston crime novel. The film adaptation is pretty good, too.

Who's better informed, newspaper readers or web surfers?


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Precautionary Measures

So, I'm taking a course through SFSU, "Introduction to Internet Marketing," and part of the weekly assignment is to write a blog post every single day.

And that partly explains the sudden burst of activity here.

And the brevity of this note.

Friday, July 17, 2009

New Column -- Del Toro/Hogan, Koontz and Connolly


My latest science fiction/fantasy column is up at SFGate.com. Finally.

The theme is summer reads, and the books include "The Strain," "Relentless" and "The Lovers."

Guess which two I liked.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review -- "Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted"

I didn't pick up the first issue of the new Vertigo on-going series "Madame Xanadu" when it appeared, for a number of reasons. To start with, I've stopped buying monthly comics, the habit having become both expensive and frustrating. Then there's the fact that Madame Xanadu, as a character, didn't hold much fascination over me. Finally, Issue One was set in the sylvan forests surrounding Camelot and I'm rarely in the mood for anything druidic in comics. So I took a pass.

But if the new collection of the first 10 issues is a reliable indicator, "Madame Xanadu" has much to recommend it. Written by Matt Wagner of "Grendel" and "Sandman Mystery Theater," with art by Amy Reeder Hadley, the story follows the enchantress formerly known as Nimue as she travels across the centuries from Britain to the court of Kubla Khan to Paris before the revolution to the U.S. in the Thirties. She crosses paths with Marco Polo, Marie Antoinette, Jack the Ripper and other assorted historical figures, but her chief companion/adversary is none other than the enigmatic Phantom Stranger. Again and again, Madame Xanadu and Ol' Blank Eyes spar about free will versus determinism. She feels a need to help people avoid disaster. He's all for leaving destiny undisturbed.

What's nice about "Madame Xanadu" is that it's the kind of Vertigo book you don't see much anymore. It's adult in tone, yet thoroughly connected to the DC Universe, allowing for cameos by such fan favorites as the Demon Etrigan, the magician Zatara in his prime, and Neil Gaiman's version of Death. Wagner keeps the action lively, and Hadley's art is expressive and bouyant.

I'm not sure "Madame Xanadu" is sufficient to entice me back to the monthly comics. But I definitely look forward to the next collection.

Review -- "The Nobody"

DC Comics has a couple of minor characters who appear bandage-swathed in nearly all of their adventures — Rebis, the hermaphroditic energy being from Grant Morrison’s weird and wonderful run on “Doom Patrol,” and The Unknown Soldier, originally from “Our Army at War.” It’s a cool, if disconcerting, look.

Neither of those characters, unfortunately, appears in the new Vertigo hardcover written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire, creator of the “Essex County Trilogy.” Rather, the enigmatic protagonist calls himself “Griffen,” a name familiar to readers of H.G. Wells or, more likely, Alan Moore.

When Griffen, sporting bizarre goggles and wrapped from head to toe in weird bandages, arrives in the small town of Large Mouth, he evokes immediate suspicion. After he takes up residence in a run-down motel, a young waitress named Vickie tries to befriend him and gradually learns about the events that drove Griffen into seclusion. Meanwhile, a series of crimes ratchets up the level of distrust and paranoia among the locals.

Lemire’s scruffy black, white and blue artwork isn’t to my taste, and although I appreciate his feel for a tourist town in the thick of winter, I found the plot of “The Nobody” rather slow, pedestrian and predictable. I’ve seen the “caterpillar into butterfly” metaphor employed to greater effect elsewhere, and I wish there was more beneath Griffen’s bandages than, well, what I expected to be there.

If I had not received a review copy, I would begrudge the $19.99 cover price of “The Nobody.” If DC ever wants to do a new hardcover devoted to Rebis, though, I’ll be flinging cash at them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hi-Def Printing: What It's Good For

After a lot of preparation, the San Francisco Chronicle has officially begun printing on new, state-of-art presses based in Fremont, CA. Some of the advantages were immediately obvious -- more color at higher resolution; fewer wrinkles; a smaller, more convenient width. Other changes will roll out over the coming months -- heatset glossies, different ad configurations, innovative marketing products. I've spent a lot of time over the past few months working on the marketing campaign announcing "Chronicle HD," as it's called.


For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to publicly state how pleased I was with the first Hi-Def Sunday edition. My article about recent comics and comix was the cover story in Books and ran as a double-page spread, illustrated with color panels by Jason, Darwyn Cooke, David Mazzucchelli and others. And it looked gorgeous! The colors were accurate, the registration was correct, the pictures "popped." For the first time in five or six years, I made an effort to track down hard copies. The archived Web page doesn't do it justice.


I'm not about to make any prognostications about the long-term health of the newspaper printing business. But in terms of my column, I'm really happy with this new development.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- The Ditto List

During the Eighties and Nineties, Stephen Greenleaf wrote a series of well-regarded mysteries featuring P.I. John Marshall Tanner. There were 14 in all, beginning with 1979's "Grave Error" and finishing up with "Ellipsis" in 2000. Many volumes were set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, including one of the best, "Beyond Blame," whose climax occurs just a few blocks from where I sit now -- in Berkeley's People's Park.

Greenleaf is unusual in that he voluntarily retired the Tanner series and didn't feel the need to keep pushing them out in the face of diminishing sales. He discusses his reasons in this interesting interview from MysteryFile.

My favorite Greenleaf, however isn't one of the Tanners; it's a stand-alone, mainstream novel entitled "The Ditto List," published in 1986. It's not exactly a "legal thrilller," as these things have come to be known in the post-Grisham era, but rather the story of a down-on-his-luck attorney attempting to re-discover his purpose in life.

My, that doesn't sound appealing, does it? Let's try again: "The Ditto List" is the story of D.T. Jones, a divorce lawyer still in love with his ex-wife, who does the best he can for his female clients, even though he can barely make payroll. He tries to protect them from serial abusers and cold-blooded misogynists while trying to sort out his own problems with creditors, staff and former colleagues.

Greenleaf works hard to keep the proceedings from beginning too grim. D.T. is handy with a wisecrack, but there are a number of plot complications that require him to dig beyond his usual glib responses.

The best part of the book, the thing has brought me back to it more than once, is its penultimate chapter. It's a thing of beauty, as cleverly constructed as "Walt Catches Cold," the pivotal chapter in John Irving's "The World According to Garp." It's a courtroom scene, of course, with D.T. facing down a doctor who has abandoned his wife, now nearly crippled by MS. Everything -- theme, plot, characterization -- snaps together in a totally unexpected, totally satisfying way in that chapter. Sometimes I take the paperback edition of "The Ditto List" from the shelf just to re-read those 16 pages, they're that funny, pungent and compelling.

Unfortunately, the final chapter of "The Ditto List" is more than a little hokey, a rom-com fantasy ending that doesn't live up to what's gone before. But, hey, what are you going to do? If you like lawyer novels and want something different from the usual super-serious, "conspiracy in every corner" claptrap, seek out "The Ditto List."

Books I'm Not Reading -- Hylozoic

The books continue to stack up, but Rudy Rucker's "Hylozoic" isn't one of them. Why? I'm not really sure. I never received an ARC or a finished copy of the latest from the author of "Postsingular," "Mathematicians in Love" and "Frek and the Elixir."

Books reach me at The Chronicle via two streams. Many come directly addressed to me and wind up in my personal mailbox. Others are addressed just generally to The Chronicle and get shuttled down to the basement, where the Books editor sorts them by month or category. Anything that looks vaguely "sciencie fictiony" ends up on my shelf.

What's weird is that Tor, the publisher of "Hylozoic," is pretty good about sending material directly to me. But some stuff just seems to fall through the cracks. Such was the case with "Hylozoic." It didn't even appear in the basement.

Not that I was likely to read the novel, anyway. I'm a big fan of Rucker, having reviewed his work at least as far back as "The Hollow Earth." But there's a lot of other books that need my attention. And "Hylozoic" is a sequel to "Postsingular," another book I haven't read, and that might mean double the work. And if I have to go to all the trouble of picking up the phone or writing an e-mail to get a copy...

Oh, well. Rudy's a prolific fellow. I'm sure there will be other opportunities for me to write about him. In the meantime, here's a swell review of "Hylozoic" from io9.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Books You Oughta Read -- Stone City

I’ve been making an attempt to clear some space in the house, which — surprise! — has necessitated moving lots of books around. One upside of the process is re-discovering titles, often in paperback, that I liked enough to keep around for up to 15 years or more. In general, they’re not huge best-sellers or even critically well regarded. They’re just good books that hit my critical sweet spot once upon a time.

Over the next little while, I plan to write about some of them, under the rubric Books You Oughta Read. I don’t actually plan to re-read these books, at least not immediately, so my comments should taken as semi-informed, if not 100 percent reliable.

First up — “Stone City” by Mitchell Smith!

I have not read all of his work, but the bulk of Mitchell Smith’s output can be described as — uncompromising. Mr. Smith does not screw around. If he sets up a premise and a theme, he is going to follow them to the bitter, bitter end.

Case in point, 1990’s “Stone City,” easily the best prison novel I’ve ever read. (A small field, admittedly.) Set in a hellish state penitentiary, it focuses on ex-college professor Charles Bauman as he attempts to find a serial killer preying on his fellow inmates. Bauman is what’s known as too smart for his own good, and the narrative of “Stone City” concerns his continuing education as he moves through the various social strata in the prison and tries to solve a mystery while keeping himself -- and his family on the outside -- alive. Caught in a mesh of conflicting agendas, he mixes with black, Hispanic and Aryan gangs, lone psychopaths and transvestite punks.The narrative tension never slackens, and Bauman's complexities and foibles are explored with bleak, unflinching eye.

“Stone City” was published seven years before Tom Fontana’s “Oz.,” the hour-long prison drama on HBO. The novel's originality may seem obscured at this point, but I'd never read anything like it when I picked up the paperback in 1991. I don't know how Mitchell researched the book, but every aspect of it feels real, sometimes terrifyingly so. (Mitchell's bio notes that he worked in Intelligence in Cold War Berlin; I wish he had tackled a novel of espionage.)

The ending of “Stone City” is genuinely shocking, and it pisses off a lot of readers. But I find it absolutely apt, as would anyone else with an appreciation for classical tragedy, I suspect.

There's not a whole lot of information about Smith available on the Web. This profile from the Seattle Times is particularly informative, though. As for his other novels, "Karma" and "Reprisal" are the two that stand out among those I've read, but they don't match the intensity or craft of "Stone City." I regret not at least sampling his final work, the science fictional "Snowfall Trilogy."

“Stone City” is out of print, which is a shame. If you see a used copy, grab it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

In a Stoppard Frame of Mind

I'm way behind on my Tom Stoppard blogging chores. Apologies.

The Duke of York Theatre's revival of "Arcadia," running through September 12, has been well received. It was reviewed in the Telegraph, in the Oxford Times, in the New York Times, in the Times Online and on Reuters.

Stoppard's son Ed talks about appearing in the London revival.

"Arcadia" was also recently produced at the Folger Theatre.

Meanwhile, the Independent asks whether "Arcadia" is the greatest play of our age.

Sam Mendes' Bridge Project, having returned to England, paired Stoppard's adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" with Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."

Finally, program the "Rock 'n' Roll" playlist onto your iPod.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Books I'm Not Reading -- The City and the City

Way back in 2007, I instituted a feature on this blog that has since fallen into silence: Books I'm Not Reading. Nobody else seems to be covering this hot topic, so I believe it's time for another installment!

As a reviewer, I receive dozens of books each month that I can't/won't/shouldn't read. It doesn't mean that they're bad books, necessarily, just that there are only so many hours in the day, so much space in the newspaper and who over the age of 13 really, really needs to read the latest GI Joe novelization, even if it is written by Max Allan Collins? So nine-tenths of the books I get wind up in Postal Service containers down in The Chronicle basement and never receive any kind of mention from me at all, not even in casual conversation. Books I'm Not Reading therefore sheds light on some of the recent releases that, for one reason or another, get short shrift from me.

Sometimes it all comes down to bad timing. I was, for example, all prepared to read and review "The City and the City," the latest from China Mieville, author of "The Scar" and "Un Lun Dun." But I made the tactical error of trying to do so while on jury duty.

Back in May, I spent about a week trundling back and forth to the Superior Court in Hayward, worried that I would be stuck on a jury for up to a month. Traveling by bus and BART and being forced to sit for hours with nothing better to do, I did manage to whip through two science fiction/fantasy thrillers in quick succession, "Fragment" by Warren Fahy and "The Lovers" by John Connolly. But "The City and the City" was a different story.

While nominally a murder mystery, Mieville's book has a fantastical element that requires a good deal of special attention on the part of the reader. In an off-hand Tweet, I referred to it as "Gorky Park as written by Italo Calvino," and that's not far off. Unfortunately, I didn't seem to have the patience for "The City..." while on jury duty. Somehow, I kept losing my thread of concentration.

Eventually, the defendant in my trial took a plea, and I was released from my duties. But even then, I wasn't able to finish Mieville's novel. The Books editor at The Chronicle wanted me to review "The Strain" by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan in my next column, plus read 18+ graphic novels for a special feature on comics. And even though I kept a bookmark at around page 150 of "The City and the City," I never got back to it.

Maybe I will later this summer. I feel kind of bad, because I was intrigued by what I read, and I've certainly heard lots of good things about the novel. But I'm pretty sure I've lost the necessary momentum. Sorry, China.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

What I've Been Up to Since March

The past four months have not been particularly happy nor productive. No need to go into details. Those who know me can extrapolate why.

But having reached and passed the year's midpoint, it's probably time to reconnoiter and post links to some of the things I did manage to accomplish. So --

I did a couple of stand-alone crime fiction reviews for The Chronicle, Walter Mosley's "The Long Fall" and "The Way Home" by George Pelecanos. I liked both books, well enough.

Due to a shortage of editorial space and other factors, my science fiction column has appeared more irregularly than usual. However, in April, I covered horror/supernatural/urban fantasy novels by S.G. Browne ("Breathers"), Will Elliott ("The Pilo Family Circus") and Patricia Briggs ("Bone Crossed"). Later that month, I reviewed two YA post-apocalyptic novels, "Bones of Faerie" by Janni Lee Simner and Carrie Ryan's "The Forest of Hands and Teeth." In my most recent column, from back in May, the books selected were Michael Marshall's "Bad Things," Chris Roberson's "End of the Century," "The Best of Gene Wolfe," and the re-issue of Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside."

I have at least two stories planned for July -- a big, double-spread review of recent comics/graphic novels in hardcover and trade editions and the return of my column, featuring work by Dean Koontz, John Connolly and others.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Stoppard Catch-up

By most accounts, it looks as if Sam Mendes' production of Stoppard's adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" was a success. (It ends tomorrow, by the way.) Here's a review from New York Magazine to refresh your memory.

Newsweek ran an interview with the playwright, but it was James Mustich at the Barnes & Noble Review who scored the most illuminating conversation with Stoppard this season.

Of course, there are plenty of other plays in the Stoppard repertoire. "Travesties" is set to open at the Sydney Opera House on March 9. For those unfamiliar with the play's literary and historical background, Jonathan Biggins provides a decent summary in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Rock 'n' Roll" continues to roll out at various venues around the Globe. Productions are planned in Chicago and the Twin Cities. Right now it's playing in Manchester, UK.

Meanwhile, "The Real Thing" is playing at the Salisbury Playhouse in Salisbury, UK.

Bob Crowley, the five-time Tony Award winner, will receive the 2009 Robert L. B. Tobin Award For Lifetime Achievement In Theatrical Design at the TDF/Irene Sharaff awards on March 27 in New York City. Crowley designed the Lincoln Center production of "The Coast of Utopia."

Finally, Stoppard's son Barny has opened a healthy fast-food restaurant.

Photo credit: Jonathan Biggins as Henry Carr in the STC's Travesties.
Photo: Sandy Nicholson

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Review: "Drood" by Dan Simmons

I had a lot of trouble with "Drood," the latest novel from the highly versatile Dan Simmons. For starters, it's nearly 800 pages and the narrative sags badly in the middle. Then there's the fact that its narrator, semi-forgotten novelist Wilkie Collins, is the least reliable biographer this side of Charles Kinbote, so it takes considerable work out what's really happening in the story. Finally, if you're not already steeped in Dickensian lore and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," you'll miss some of the twists that Simmons sets up.

Ultimately, though, it's a captivating and innovative historical thriller. Not quite up to the standards of Simmons' arctic horror novel "The Terror," but still audacious and impressive in its execution.

Read my review from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Review: Air: Letters from Lost Countries by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Peker

DC Comics did G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Peker's new on-going series a serious disservice when it previewed "Air" in its other books from the Vertigo line. The disjointed pages excerpted from the first issue did little to convey the charm of this tale of air travel through the not-so-friendly skies. Now the first five issues of "Air" have been collected in "Letter from Lost Countries," and it's an introductory volume well worth picking up.

When acrophobic flight attendant Blythe becomes intrigued with Zayn, a mysterious male traveler of indeterminate national origin, she helps set in motion a violent on-board incident that culminates with her and the stranger jumping from the plane with only one parachute between them. After Blythe recovers from her minor injuries, Zayn leaves on a mission to Bangladesh, only to disappear in another presumed air crash. A letter with a return address from Narimar, a country that appears on no map, gives Blythe hope that, with the help of two co-workers, she can rescue her lover, wherever he is.

Wilson and Peker are the team behind the Vertigo black-and-white hardcover "Cairo," and they seem to be developing a comfortable groove for their first monthly series. Blythe is a good antidote to the usual Vertigo heroine. She's complicated but not kooky, she's a genuine adult, not an angsty teenager, and she seems free of the usual daddy and mommy issues. The antagonists are little over-the-top and too on-the-mark in their dialogue, not to mention too fond of explaining their nefarious plans exactly where they can be overheard. At the ends of the fourth issues, though, Wilson and Peker stage a reveal that pushes the premise of "Air" in a promising and unexpected new direction.

I'm not sure I'll become a regular reader of "Air," but I'm sufficiently impressed by "Letter from Lost Countries" to keep that possibility open.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Datlow, Berry and Sterling

This week's Sunday Chronicle includes my regular science fiction/fantasy column. The featured books are Ellen Datlow's "Poe" anthology, "The Manual of Detection," a first novel by Jedediah Berry and "The Caryatids" by Bruce Sterling.

All three are worth your time, with Sterling's novel as the stand-out. "The Caryatids" feels very much in tune with the tenor of these awful, uncertain times, but it also manages to provide a ray of hard-won hope.

Now I start reading for my April 5 column. Suggestions welcome!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar Fever, Chills and Vague Nausea

I'm usually pretty excited in Oscar Season, but not this year. My friendly neighborhood video store isn't being very friendly, having discontinued its annual Academy Awards contest. Times are tough all over, I guess, but without the prospect of winning an armload of free credits, I'm not mustering much enthusiasm.

I've actually seen three out of the five Best Picture nominees, so I'm better informed than usual. But I don't feel a personal stake in any of them, and I find the conventional wisdom about who will win to closely match my own guesswork.

Best Supporting Actress -- Penelope Cruz. Woody Allen has an excellent track record for directing the women who take home this award, so she gets my vote. Viola Davis is pretty amazing in "Doubt," but I think that voting block will be split.

Best Supporting Actor -- Heath Ledger. I think he'd be the top contender even without having met a tragically early death.

Best Actor -- Sean Penn. I'm not a big Penn fan, but I thought he was truly outstanding in "Milk." I'm even less of a Mickey Rourke enthusiast, so while I wish him and his freaky chihuahuas well, I'm not rooting for him.

Best Actress -- Kate Winslet. You couldn't pay me enough to sit through "The Reader," but everybody seems to like Winslet on general principles and feel it's past time she got an Oscar.

Best Director -- Danny Boyle. "Slumdog Millionaire" won me over against my better judgment, and it took a sure and inventive hand to pull that off.

Best Picture -- Slumdog Millionaire. See above.

Yeah, no surprises or dazzling insights there. But I've at least made my choices known.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Tom Piccirilli's "The Coldest Mile"

One of the drawbacks of being a reviewer is that you have to make a lot of snap decisions just to keep up with the tide of material that washes over you. I get literally hundreds of ARCs and finished copies every year, and it's a little frightening to realize how arbitrary my methods for selecting the 30-35 titles for review really are.

For one thing, I very rarely review mass-market paperback originals, and usually only if there's a local connection. (Currently, a lot of urban fantasies with covers depicting well-toned, bare-midriffed young women wielding edged weapons go directly into the rejects bin. Sorry.) And sometimes I later regret not holding onto these books for my own reading pleasure. Case in point: the novels of Tom Piccirilli.

I know I received copies of his horror novels "The Midnight Road" and "The Dead Letters." But I didn't hang onto them, and now I'm kicking myself. Because I read his Edgar-nominated crime novel, "The Cold Spot," last year, and I immediately wanted more. Luckily, the sequel, "The Coldest Mile," is now available.

The new book picks up pretty much where the earlier volume left off, with wheelman Chase at loose ends after the death of his wife and his act of vengeance against her killers. He takes a job as a chauffeur for a Mob family, trying to figure out how he can rip them off and then be on his way to hunt down Jonah, the grandfather who raised him and betrayed him.

Chase wants to find his grandfather in order to protect Jonah's two-year-old daughter, whom he doesn't want to be raised by a sociopath. Chase's quest takes him to Florida, where he falls in with various small-time hoods, all the while girding himself a confrontation he's not at all sure he will survive.

"The Coldest Mile" can probably be enjoyed on its own, but you need to have read "The Cold Spot" to get its full effect. And it's pretty damn powerful. Chase and Jonah are great characters, the plotting works smoothly and Piccirilli both pays tribute to the likes of Goodis, Thompson and Stark and gives them a fair run for their money.

It's likely that Piccirilli isn't done with these characters, so this has the feel of a middle book in a trilogy. Whatever happens, I won't make the mistake of overlooking any more of Piccirilli's books that come my way.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Review: Joe Hill's "Gunpowder"

I've enjoyed pretty much everything I've read by Joe Hill, starting with his novel, "Heart-Shaped Box," and continuing on through his collection of short fiction, "20th Century Ghosts," and the first volume of his on-going comics project, "Locke & Key."

Now comes a new, 26,000-word novella, "Gunpowder," published in various editions by PS Publishing. It's set on a planet being terraformed by a gang of young psychics under the tutelage of a lone teacher/mother figure. The boys squabble among themselves and scapegoat Charley, the only one who doesn't seem to have The Talent. Everything works well enough until a starship arrives and sends down an emissary with new orders for the kids.

To the best of my knowledge, this is Hill's first published foray into outright science fiction, and he does a good job of setting up the premise and delineating the shifting allegiances within this cohort of young mutants. My problem with "Gunpower" lies in its climatic confrontation. Hill doesn't precisely fall back on cliche, but it's clear too soon that the narrative is going to head toward its expected conclusion. The details are unguessable, but the overall shape of the showdown between the children and the interloper is too predictable.

Is it worth the money and effort to track down this hardcover edition? Depends on how fervent a fan you are. Hill has the potential to be prolific. Wait a few years, and perhaps "Gunpowder" will be part of a larger collection.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "House of Mystery: Room & Boredom"

I've mentioned before that I seem to be closing in on my final days as purchaser of monthly comics. Two more issues of "100 Bullets," and I'm done, I think.

For a long while, I stuck with Bill Willingham's "Fables," but even its clever take on folklore and fairy tales couldn't keep me reading past Issue 75. Now Willingham and Matthew Sturges are collaborating on a monthly series, "House of Mystery," with art by Luca Rossi and various guest contributors, and the first five issues have been collected in a new trade.

One of DC's longest-running series, the original "The House of Mystery," an anthology of short horror stories hosted by homicidal "caretaker" Cain, was open for business from 1951 through 1983, most notably under the editorships of Joe Orlando and Karen Berger. (Its counterpart, the House of Secrets, was home to Cain's hapless brother/victim Abel.) Alan Moore put a new spin on the concept in his "Swamp Thing" saga, and Neil Gaiman gave Cain and Abel the spotlight in a few episodes of "Sandman."

Sturges and Willingham's incarnation of the House of Mystery abruptly evicts Cain for reasons unknown. The focus of the main narrative is now a young woman named Fig Keeler, who finds herself within the house and unable to leave. She's one of five permanent residents who attend to the needs of various visitors who stop in its bar, where the cost of a drink is a good story. The others seem mostly resigned to their fates, but Fig is determined to escape.

Sturges and Willingham employ a light touch with this material, introducing some genuinely creepy elements without getting all dour and angst-y (as happened with the "House of Secrets" reboot of the late 1990s). But somehow the biggest questions about where the main narrative is heading are not terribly compelling yet. The five- to six-page bar tales offer little bursts of humor or terror and hint at future connections, but they don't offer the one-two-punch ironies that characterize the best of, say, the old EC horror comics.

"House of Mystery" has potential, but it doesn't yet succeed as a serial or an anthology -- or as a unique hybrid of the two. I won't start buying the series monthly, but I'll welcome the next trade collection.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Every Good Boy..." Revival

Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's 1977 orchestral drama, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," is being revived in the National Theatre's Olivier Auditorium, starring Toby Jones and Joseph Millson. Set in Soviet Russia, "EGBDF" "contrasts the circumstances of a political prisoner and a mental patient in a Soviet insane asylum, to question the difference, if any, between free will and the freedom to conform."

The Mail Online admires the score
but says "the politics have moved on." The Oxford Times finds the piece less dated: "The violence at the core of the debased political system under scrutiny is graphically revealed in a shocking display of balletic beatings-up among and around the orchestra, during which the players continue to bow and blow with vigour."

Variety says of the 65-minute piece
: "the production reveals the piece as more theatrical than dramatic, more a premise than a play." The Financial Times admires the production's ambition, but deems it "a play for yesterday." The Independent is even less enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, Bloomsberg.com finds the play still chillingly relevant. And musicOMH praises it, deeming it "a timely revival of a politically acute and quirkily engaging work."

As it requires the presence of a full orchestra onstage, "EGBDF" is rarely performed, so my advice to any Stoppard fans visiting the West End is that they not pass up the chance to see this production if given the opportunity.

UPDATE: The Sunday Times weighs in, and Liz Hoggard on the Evening Standard sings the praises of short plays that inspire long friendships.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart"

I've been following the career of Stephen King for more than 30 years now, and Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King" (St. Martin's; 310 pages; $25.95) didn't initially strike me as something I absolutely needed to read or review. I haven't seen every story in the media about King in the last three decades, but I'm certainly well acquainted with the major turning points in his life story. Although Rogak has published more than 40 books, I wasn't familiar with her work enough to trust her immediately as an authority, as I did Douglas Winter when he published "The Art of Darkness" back in the Eighties.

I'm glad I picked up "Haunted Heart," though. It's smoothly written, respectful and non-exploitative, a straight-forward chronological biography that treads lightly when it comes to literary criticism. In addition to the usual rags-to-riches-with-a-slight-detour-through-alcohol-and-drug-abuse narrative, Rogak elicits fresh comments and anecdotes from King's mentors, friends and colleagues. She also sheds light on King's relationships with his wife and children, rounding out her portrait of an artist obsessed with the darker side but usually also focused on traditional values of family, charity and hard work.

I caught a couple of minor errors (Tom Clancy's "The Hunt of Red October" was his second book, but his first novel), some odd interpretations of King's fiction (the ending of "Thinner" is very, very far from "upbeat") and a strange omission or two (after emphasizing so heavily King's love of the Red Sox, why no mention in the main text of "Faithful," his non-fiction collaboration with Stewart O'Nan?).

In general, though, Rogak's presentation of the material gibes with what I know about her subject, and she provided sufficient new tidbits to keep me interested. I'm not sure what the audience for this book might be -- truly devoted King fans may be tired of the umpteenth retelling of how "Carrie" was rescued from the garbage pail -- but it's the kind of easy-going biography that might appeal to a high school or college student who wants to know what it's like to be one of the most influential popular writers of the past half-century.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stoppard's "Cherry Orchard"

Sam Mendes of "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road" is directing the Bridge Project production of Stoppard's new version of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." It boasts a stellar Anglo-American cast, including Sinead Cusack, Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke. So far, the critical consensus has been favorable.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times calls it a "nimble new version...that invites fresh comic shadings, pushes that sense of the incongruous not so much into farce (although there’s some of that) as into 'Alice in Wonderland' absurdity."

Terry Teachout has a review in the Wall Street Journal.

The review in Variety says: "The chief strengths of Stoppard's adaptation are its conversational ease and erudite humor, but there's a slight chill to the playwright's gaze that undercuts the melancholy strains of a great Chekhov production."

The New York Daily News also likes the production.

Charlie Huston's "The Mystic Arts..."

I've been a Charlie Huston fan since I picked up "Caught Stealing," the first volume of the Hank Thompson Trilogy. (The other books are "Six Bad Things" and "A Dangerous Man.") I was impressed most by their immediacy, the way Huston lets the characters' weaknesses and bad decisions cascade ever closer to disaster. Hank's adventures are harrowing, profane, tragic and funny, well worth the time of anyone who enjoy crime fiction.

I am less enamored of Huston's work on the Joe Pitt vampire detective novels. I reviewed the first for The Chronicle and never felt a need to seek out the others. Their central conceit is clever enough, but the series really doesn't give me anything I can't find elsewhere. Huston's first stand-alone novel was 2007's "The Shotgun Rule," and it shared an approach and viewpoint similar to the Thompson Trilogy. I thought it rocked.

Now Huston gives us "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death," and it looks as if it may be his breakout book. (The blurb from Stephen King can't hurt.)

"Mystic Arts…" is narrated by Webster Fillmore Goodhue, a former teacher traumatized into slackerhood. Desperate for cash, he reluctantly joins trauma specialists Clean Team and begins to learn the trade of mopping up after people who have died messily. His first gig leads to an after-hours job in a hotel room for a suicide's pretty daughter, and everything begins to spiral out of control from there.

Over at John Scalzi's Whatever, Huston writes about the origins of his new novel and confirms some of the suspicions I had about the book. I hadn't picked up on its debt to "The Rockford Files" (which is clear once you've been tipped to it), but I'm glad to hear that Huston regards this as the first of a new series. It's fast, funny and bracing, similar to "Caught Stealing" but with a much more positive vibe.

If you haven't read Huston, this is the perfect place to start.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New Chronicle Review -- Reed, Priest & Langan

SFGate has already posted my book column for this month. The books under discussion are "Enclave" by Kit Reed, "Fathom" by Cherie Priest and "Mr Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters" by John Langan.

I'm a big fan of Reed, but "Enclave" was a bit of a disappointment. Great set-up, smooth execution, but I felt the ending felt too neat. As for Priest, I hadn't reviewed any of her work since her debut, so it was good to see what she's up to these days. "Fathom" is an odd, sometime unfocused, book, but it pulls itself together at the end.

I was unfamiliar with Langan's work, but I'm glad I took a chance with his new collection of novellas. He's somebody I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Books I'm Looking forward to in 2009

There's never enough time to read everything that catches my eye during any season of the publishing year. I know I won't be able to crack all of what's listed below, but it's always nice to dream...

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston -- I've been a fan of Huston since "Caught Stealing." I prefer his straight crime novels to his vampire detective series, so this new one, about a crime scene clean-up technician, is especially appealing. It's getting a big push from his publisher.

Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak -- Not sure if it'll reveal much I don't already know, but this seems to be a low-key, non-exploitative bio of Mr. King.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry -- "An unlikely detective, armed only with an umbrella and a singular handbook, must untangle a string of crimes committed in and through people's dreams." Could be an enjoyable bit of literary gamesmanship. Could be an annoyingly pretentious wank-a-thon.

End of the Century by Chris Roberson -- The search for the Holy Grail, set in three eras. I'm always impressed by Roberson's creative energy, and it's been a while since I read "Here, There & Everywhere."

Poe edited by Ellen Datlow -- Nineteen tales inspired by Edgar Allan.

The Caryatids
by Bruce Sterling -- I'm sure Sterling's take on clones will be an interesting one.

Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle -- The long-awaited sequel to "Inferno." I haven't read much Niven/Pournelle since college, so there's a nostalgia factor here.

Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald -- A collection of stories set in the same milieu as the award-winning "River of Gods."

Under the Dome -- Stephen King's next major work, said to rival "The Stand" and "IT" in page count.