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 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.