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04-10-09: Two Seconds of Carlos Ruiz Zafón : Better the Second Time Around

It's not often you get a second shot at enjoying a great novel. And readers love nothing more than great novels about books. That, and great writing, speak to the success of 2004's 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a novel in which the love of books is played out into a labyrinthine plot involving secret libraries and mysterious forces. Zafón's novel has all the creaky, gear-driven feel of steampunk while it eschews the steam itself. Five years having passed, it's just about time to re-read this dense, compelling novel. And now there are two great reasons to give 'The Shadow of the Wind' a second spin.

It's always fun to re-read a great novel, especially one as dense and enjoyable as Carlos Ruiz Zafón's 'The Shadow of the Wind.' But as readers, we sort of need an excuse to indulge in such a luxurious activity. Now and in the coming months we have not one, but two fantastic reasons to re-immerse.

The first and foremost is no less than 'The Shadow of the Wind' (Subterranean Press ; December 31, 2008 ; $75) in a limited edition from Subterranean Press. What could be more appropriate than the deluxe book about books? Sub's really pulled out all the stops for this one. It features a lovely cloth binding, and lightly-textured endpapers. The paper is heavy and nicely white; the text is printed in two colors, mostly black but with touches of light brown to set off the story. The dust jacket features one of five illustrations by Vincent Chong on the outside, and on the inside, it becomes "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julian Carax, the book at the center of this book about books. The low price makes this a readable collector's edition. If you're going to re-immerse, here's the copy of this book that will make your journey so much more pleasurable.

But there is of course another reason to re-immerse in the Subterranean Press limited edition. That would be Zafón's follow-up, 'The Angel's Game' (Doubleday / Random House ; June 16, 2009 ; $26.95), which ratchets back to Barcelona — and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books — in the 1920's. David Martin is a young novelist who is made an offer he cannot refuse. He's approached by a publisher who wants him to write a book in which people live and die. Anyone who read or writes knows how hard it is to get a gig like this; Zafón is a master at transforming his reading audience into participants in his narratives.

Of course, the narrative story we finds ourselves within starts looking a lot less pleasant as Martin realizes the connection between his work and a book ensconced in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. And as Daniel Martin finds his publishers have more influence than he presumed possible, our reading pleasures ramp upward. Zafón creates a world in which the levers and gears are all literary, a steampunk version of what was once called metafiction, steeped in atmosphere, one that turns a simple existing technology — the library — into a source of wonder. The Subterranean Press limited edition offers readers the chance to use a literary technology — a finely produced book — to enjoy the subsequent literature.

04-09-09: Gayle Dayton and 'New Blood' : Steampunks in Love

You know you've arrived as a genre when you've fallen in love.

Sure, it's nice to have your steampunk books set out with mainstream fiction, like 'The Domino Men.' It's nice to get a vibe going on high-profile websites like Boing Boing, which regularly features ultra-cool steampunk fashions, computer mods and literature. Feature films like City of Ember certainly speak to a general acceptance of the tropes of steampunk.

But all of that is as nought compared to the ultimate confirmation: when the omnivorous world of the Romance Genre decides to swallow your little neck of the woods whole and offers forth a Steampunk Romance. With Gayle Dayton's 'New Blood' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; March 3, 2009 ; $6.99), you know you have arrived.

Your point of arrival is a pretty rockin' scenario. It's nineteenth Europe, shot through with magic and machinery. Jax has been hanging around for two hundred years. His last job was as the magically-bound servant to the last blood sorceress, Yvaine. Now it appears he's found her successor ... the comely Amanusa. (Amanuensis, a writer's assistant or scribe, geddit?) She's a hedgerow witch who lets her power out long enough to attract the attention of Those Who Would Prefer It Not Exist. She and Jax embark on a mad journey through Dayton's elegantly conceived landscape populated by magicians and tea-tray robot critters. It's really quite a nice playground.

Dayton writes nice descriptive prose and creates an excitingly-detailed world. But lest ye forget, the words on the spine of the book are "Paranormal Romance," and plotting for 'New Blood' tends to center on kissing and tender embraces, not the more intriguing aspects of getting behind Dayton's careful world-building.

That said, 'New Blood' does offer a pretty entertaining visionary backdrop. Unfortunately, it's saddled with a bad title that suggests you're looking at Yet Another Bad 1980's Vampire Novel. Worse is the cover, which looks exactly like your worst nightmare of a bad 1980's horror novel. All it lacks is raised foil lettering. On the other hand, this is certainly the only romance novel out there that involves tea-tray robot monsters, and that's a pretty strong draw. And hopefully, those who are in it for the kissing and tender embraces will enjoy them in the steampunk backdrop enough to look for books that involve less kissing and fewer tender embraces — perhaps even Dayton's anticipated sequels to this novel. But whatever the case, give steampunk a big steamy kiss on the forehead, it's arrived and done fallen in love. Can a reality TV series be far behind?

04-08-09: Jonathan Barnes Topples 'The Domino Men' : A Victorian Legacy

I shouldn’t be surprised that the first most surprising thing about 'The Domino Men' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; January 7, 2009 ; $24.99) was where I saw it. Here's a steampunk sequel to Barnes' debut, 'The Somnambulist,' chock full of Lovecraftian critters and supernatural technology, blithely resting on a shelf next to the rest of the mainstream choices. It seemed so "in place," I almost didn't notice it.

Steampunk hides in a variety of guises. You might find it with the science fiction, since it often posits oddball technologies out of place in the setting of the novel. You might find it shelved with horror, since the technologies it describes are often based in magic or the supernatural. And, now, it appears, you might find it shelved with the latest thrillers and general fiction, because, not surprisingly, just about any reader might enjoy an engagingly-written ripping yarn.

There is a figure who seems to hover behind a great deal of the latest steampunk creations. Whether she is an invalid kept alive by means most monstrous, or a being who has made a deal with monstrous entities, Queen Victoria is the gift that keeps on giving to the steampunk genre. In 'The Domino Men', Jonathan Barnes manages the neat trick of extending the steampunk vision into a current day setting, using the tropes of modern horror to create a world within our world where ancient gears creak slowly, inching humanity towards a Lovecraftian apocalypse.

Henry Lamb is an unremarkable man in an unremarkable job. Too bad the same can't be said of his grandfather, who is about to pass on to Henry a foul inheritance. Unfortunately, it's not the worst gift from the past. Something far worse is working its way towards our world, sent from the nether depths of a time when deals with the devil, or entities less benevolent, were easier to strike. As Barnes' unfolds Lamb's story, the world we know is insidiously replaced with one informed by the visions of Lovecraft and H. G. Wells, a world in which mechanisms that run reality are subtly and unsubtly altered.

Barnes' second novel uses many of the literary devices found in his first novel in a different setting but to similar effect. He plays with voice, and while in his modern setting he eschews the Victorian dialogue style, he still creates a baroque cabinet of curiosities effect, hiding plans within plans and plots within plots. The pleasures that unfold while reading 'The Domino Men' are as distinctive and unusual as the plot turns and twists. There's an inclination to believe that the world is as we see it; and an equal inclination to suspect that nothing is as we see it. 'The Domino Men' offers a steampunk-flavored vision of the present, unearthing a hidden reality as immersive as reading itself. And come to think of it, reading is indeed a very steampunk-style pleasure. Perhaps the end effect of all this literature will be to bring back the drawing room, the sitting room, the personal library, where we can go to forget our woes. Shortly before the bill comes due.

04-07-09: Jonathan L. Howard and 'Joahannes Cabal The Necromancer' : Burning Bridges to Hell

That old Debbil. In the right hands, always a good source of entertainment. Satan — Evil in the Flesh — is the kind of character that a good writer can fill up in much the same way a good actor can get a hold of the scenery and chew like there's no tomorrow. Even better, Satan can often inspire a foil who is equally charming. And together, Satan and foil, they create an atmosphere, a feel of creaky deals and weird sorcery that borders on science, and science that borders on sorcery. Faust, after all, sold his soul for knowledge, and the stories of Faustian bargains have more than a tinge of the steampunk science fiction feel about them.

You have to wonder, really. Is it possible that Goethe sold his soul to the devil in order to write an eternal piece of fiction? And was he pleased when he learned that the Devil himself would be featured in a starring role? It's just the kind of Faustian bargain that Goethe himself writes about. And what about Jonathan L. Howard? How did he go from the premier issue of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror to what appears to be the literary equivalent of a tentpole summer release with his novel 'Johannes Cabal The Necromancer' (Doubleday / Random House ; July 7, 2009 ; $24.95)? What kind of deal did he make? More to the point, can he get out of it?

That, at least is the question confronting Johannes Cabal as he conjures up demons and makes his way to Hell as the novel 'Johannes Cabal The Necromancer' opens. Seems that Cabal long ago sold his soul for song, and now he's interested in reneging on the deal. What follows is delightful, imaginative as all get-out and not a little bit awesome around the edges.

Howard's a talented writer of comedic horror. He understands that the best humor is the flip side of utter gravity, and takes his subject quite seriously, then plays off the utter absurdity that results. Cabal is the perfect 21st century steampunk Faust. All he ever wanted to do was to learn how to resurrect the dead. Sure, there was an unfortunate problem with his brother, but that drawback proves to be an asset when Cabal finds himself at the helm of the archetypal Evil Traveling Carnival of (hopefully stolen) Souls. Cranking, creaking, casting spells written by magicians who, "might better have served the world by writing crossword puzzles," Cabal heads out on a road to well ... Hell.

Howard takes not only his horror seriously, but his characters as well, which lends them a certain tenderness, a certain actual bit of emotion. This keeps the novel from being a mere lark or simple send-up, but also makes it much funnier. Cabal may be scoundrel, but he's our scoundrel. Howard even makes the Satan and the Legions of Hell out to be sort of nice guys doing a difficult job. Prose, characters and horror gel into a charming and rather hilarious whole.

OK, so you saw that Howard appeared in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror and what you really care about is how he handles that whole Lovecraftian deal. Humor is often anathema to Lovecraftian-inspired fiction, but that's not actually the case here. Howard does indeed manage some great scenes of extra-dimensional terror that double as being quite funny. I suppose the bottom line for a lot of readers is going to be this: you're not even ten pages into the book and you get a phrase that should be music to your ears: "non-Euclidean." That's right, angles — not angels — from Hell. (You get the latter in spades, of course.) Can "cyclopean" be far behind? Moreover, Howard really knows and loves this stuff. As a Steampunk writer, he puts together a clockwork tale in which every tick evokes laughs or suggests chills. There's something to look forward to this summer. Listen for the carnival — but don’t sign anything while you’re there.

04-06-09: George Mann Crosses 'The Affinity Bridge' : Victorian Avengers

The past is a story we tell ourselves, fitting the facts to our fancies. The more we swear that what we say is true, the more we should suspect it is nothing but fabrication, or worse, the truth mixed with lies so cunningly that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other.

The latter is a particularly potent source of storytelling. By revising the past, by revisiting history, we can infuse our stories with the power of experience and the verve of imagination. We can turn a dreary stretch of unfortunate actuality into a cracking adventure. Whether it's a past of workhouses and debtor's prisons, a lost library in Barcelona, deals with the devil, or a Europe that never was, a sub-genre called steampunk has found a firm footing in popular culture. The past of steampunk is legion, from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to K. W. Jeter and James Blaylock. This week, I'm gong to take a look at a series of new titles that, if they’re not actually steampunk, will probably appeal to readers who have always wanted to live in a past that seems like the future.

If you're George Mann, you need but cross 'The Affinity Bridge' ( Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; July 2009 ; $24.95 / Snowbooks ; August 31, 2008 ; £30) to enter a Victorian London that is considerably more entertaining than might be strictly healthy. Mann's Victorian era surely includes all the dangers that we are familiar with; disease, war, starvation, murder. But add to these airships, automatons and zombies (just to start) and you'll find that Mann's imagination is more than equal to the task of taking your mind off the future by recreating a past that never was.

'The Affinity Bridge' starts with a zombie attack in India, but quickly moves to London and introduces Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes, agents of Queen Victoria. Newbury and Hobbes may bring to mind Steed and Peel, but the terrors they confront and the world they inhabit are far more arcane. Victoria survives with the aid of mechanical means, while Newbury and Hobbes investigate airship crashes. In addition to the zombies and the glowing policeman, this could all get to seem a bit overstuffed, but Mann manages to make it seem dank, prickly and full of the messy details of life. There's a sort of future shock that has set in our world, and Mann mines that feeling to make his future-shocked past rich with the kind of density and complexity that often kills those who come into contact with it. He writes with the right balance of mannered prose and arch dialogue, keeping things light enough to remain fun while they seem real enough to pose an actual hazard to those on the scene.

I am both in the past and in the future on this particular title. Snowbooks, a UK independent publisher, brought out 'The Affinity Bridge' late last year in paperback, hardcover and even a signed, limited slipcased edition with a gold coin. This year, Tor brings it to US readers in a nice hardcover. Readers can detect, I trust the series set-up aspect of 'The Affinity Bridge.' To that end, you can find the short story, "The Shattered Teacup," a "Maurice Newbury Investigation" for free from Snowbooks as a PDF or listen as an MP3. Happily, a novel sequel is just about to arrive in the form of 'The Osiris Ritual' (Snowbooks ; April 2009 ; £7.99). Sub werewolves for zombies and add rogue agents for the queen hoping to achieve immortality, not by virtue of good acts.

Here's the plan then readers; pop over to Snowbooks, pick up the PDF (or the MP3), then place your orders at the independent bookstore for the Tor HC as a reader and the Snowbooks limited as, well, one of those super-desirable books to own. Predict the past, and prevent the future. Sit down and read; books are an eternal now.

New to the Agony Column

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Erik Larson : " "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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