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08-06-10: Tim Powers Sails 'On Stranger Tides'

History, Fantasy and the Reality of Reading

How much of what see in history, in the lives of our friends, in our lives, is just the surface? For all the intensity of our sensory experience, it's really very limited. Think of the things you keep secret each day, even if those secrets are unintentional. There is simply no way and often, no reason, to share every moment of our lives.

There are so many gaps, and so many ways one can fill in those gaps. Is there a difference between what happens in those gaps and what we image happens? We don't even have the time to imagine, to fill in those gaps. And often what actually happens does not map well to how our hearts feel about the matter. Between our hearts, and our imaginations, there is but one bridge, the stories we tell to pull it all together. The fantasy of our lives.

Tim Powers knows about the gaps and the stories that fill them. He has been creating fantasies about the truth in our hearts from the time he was first asked to write about incarnations of King Arthur. There's a reason I have a Tim Powers shelf-and-a-half, stuffed with his books.

I can tell you where I was when I read every book on that shelf, for first, and often, the second time. I remember spending what seemed to me like an incredible $40 to buy 'On Stranger Tides' in a hardcover first edition from Aladdin Books in Fullerton.

It was a difficult time in my life; the family was driving about two hours each way to and from work every day, dropping everyone off at schools, day care and work. Once a week, I allowed myself to stop at Aladdin Books and buy a new book or two, with a budget of $40.

So spending all that money on one copy of an older title, even by an author acclaimed within the genre, meant a lot of thought. But 'On Stranger Tides,' and all the other Tim Powers novels and collections I've bought through the years, they stick with me. Perhaps that's because Powers' ability to fill in the gaps in history with the fantasies that I knew could not be real, but seemed more real than real, spoke to those moments of my life, when I was reading.

Nobody else was there, for example, when I re-read 'Last Call' in the Charnal House limited edition on the banks of Pinecrest Lake. There, the pine trees come right up to the water, and I sat between gnarled roots listening to my kids in clomping about in the water. I was very much there, and yet, as well, in Las Vegas (a city I've never visited), with Powers' characters. And I can tie that to myself standing in front of the shelves of Aladdin Books, where I met Richard Laymon, a horror writer whose work I admired greatly. And to that I can tie reading 'Declare,' Powers' Middle-Eastern spy novel. And to that ... through my life, in the gaps I fill by reading. I'm about to be in two places at once.

This comes up now because my wife just read her first Tim Powers novel, 'Declare,' and because I'm finally going to podcast the interview I did with him last year at the World Fantasy Convention. And of course, because at oh-dark hundred in the morning, thoughts of then and now crowd my mind, and mix together. I know that there are so many gaps in my memories of my own life, and I know that I will fill those gaps with history and fantasy and reality and whatever I need to make my own story work. Because stories are indeed what make our lives work; and an integral part of stories are stories within stories. The books we read become as real as out memories of reading them, and of the time when we read them. If there's magic in our lives, it's because we leave gaps, places for stories to fill in where memory leaves off.

08-04-10: Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crime Spree

'Bryant & May Off the Rails'

Writers reach into a place that does not exist. They live there. They report back. They sometimes even pretend that place is familiar to us. But when we turn the last page of the book, that place is theirs and no other. Even if it is the city of London.

What's nice about Christopher Fowler's London is that it maps so well into the London the rest of us know. He could probably give tours. That shared experience makes the place that Fowler lives seem so much more powerful. We get to live there too, for a few moments while we read the latest caper in his peculiar crime spree.

Even as I sit here, typing on my laptop solidly into the twenty-first century, I can still remember the little drugstore in Playa Del Rey, in whose paperback racks I found 'City Jitters,' Christopher Fowler, and yes, Bryant and May. It had to have been twenty-four years ago, and I can still remember the bookstore, the smorgasbord up the street where I first sat down to read, and yes, most importantly, the reading experience. My first immersion in Christopher Fowler's London.

'Bryant & May Off the Rails' (US: Bantam / Random House ; September 28, 2010 ; $25 ; UK: Doubleday / Random House ; June 10, 2010 ; £16.99) continues the crime spree launched in 'City Jitters' (was it "Lost in Leicester Square"?), and if you've ever enjoyed Fowler's London, or the Bryan & May novels, the chances are you're going to enjoy this one as well. Why the US versions have such namby-pamby cover art is beyond me. The UK cover designs are infinitely better.

To be honest, I thought Fowler hit his stride on the first outing, 'Full Dark House.' That said, these are the sort of novels that readers can look forward to, a thoroughly satisfying reading experience. Each novel filled with dark deeds, entertainingly complex plots, actual humor and characters we love. Each novel a new visit to the London we will know only through the good graces and fine prose of Christopher Fowler.

There's always been to my mind, a sort of Lovecraftian feel about these books. Not in the sense of monsters from beyond, or all the tongue-twisting name-o-philia, but instead in the sense of deep, layered time existing with us, and more importantly, under us. Lovecraft's story "The Rats in the Walls" has had an influence on all fiction, I suspect that is clearly underestimated. But even if that's not specifically the case here, that feel of deep pervades this novel and the Bryant & May novels in general. It' a part of Fowler's London that is so easily sensed not just in the London where most of us walk (if we're lucky), but everywhere. The sense that we are living on top of a place where others have lived.

This time around, Bryant & May are looking for Mr. Fox,, who escaped from a locked room, and has slithered down into the underground, or rather, The Underground. The Tube. London's subways. What Lies Beneath.

Fowler has a magnificent grasp at how to re-engineer history to pull out the threads of intense story, and weave them with his own imaginative take on London. Ghosts can have more than one form; places may be ghosts and those in those places are the unreal by comparison. 'Bryant & May Off the Rails' is dripping with atmosphere, which is effectively evoked by the banter between his characters. The sense of humor and sharp, funny writing serve to bolster the sense of the ancient. He also knows how to plot his novels, to keep us engaged and guessing. There's a thin line between compelling and confusing; Fowler always stays on the right side.

Mystery series, and The Bryant & May novels are a fine example, do have that comforting feel to them, and not just because right or something approximating it reigns. No, it's that at their best, they take us to a place we know, or think we know and show us something new to our eyes, but close to our hearts.

08-03-10: Robert M. Price Spins 'The Tindalos Cycle'

Terrorize, Horrify, Repeat

It indeed proves to be true that every dog has their day. And finally, if we cannot loose the hounds of war — wait, they're already plenty loose! — then Robert M. Price, noted Lovecraftian scholar and anthologizer, is ready to unleash 'The Hounds of Tindalos,' those corner-loving creatures first ushered into this space-time continuum by no less than Frank Belknap Long. Both names are etched in the minds of those of us who grew up on Lovecraft and in particular August Derleth's collection 'Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.' Now Robert M. Price wants to elaborate.

Leave it to Hippocampus Press to bring us more hounds than we might have thought heretofore existed. In a sense we'd be right. There are not that many stories to feature these amorphous but deadly monsters; but there are a lot of precedents and side alleys to explore. And so, we have 'The Tindalos Cycle' (Hippocampus Press ; 2010 ; $20) edited by Robert M. Price, dropping out of space-time onto my desk. (Though my copy reads "2010", it looks to have been out a couple of years.)

There's no doubt that the three standout stories in this collection are by Long himself, ('The Hounds of Tindalos,' 'The Space Eaters, 'The Horror from the Hills') and most of them are collected in other volumes that the reader had better damn well own. Long's contributions to the Mythos are memorable not just for their monsters, but for their superbly creepy atmosphere. Any way you slice them, they're effective works of horror. As for the rest of the collection, the purpose, placement and quality of the individual pieces vary wildly. Some are only remotely related; there are a fair number of poems; and there are some parodies as well.

Price starts things off with work by Robert W. Chambers, best known for 'The King in Yellow.' "The Maker of Moons" as well as the Ambrose Bierce tale that follows, "The Death of Halpin Frayser" are cited as influences on Long's work, and while there is no firm evidence of this, no "smoking gun" Facebook posting fan letter from Long, for example, Price makes his case well enough in the prefaces for each story. These sort of scholarly notes may fire things off, but the tales that follow go everywhere from the parody of Peter Cannon to the poetry of Ann K. Schwader. You'll find a lot of material from a variety of small-press collections and magazines here, some of it wonderful, some of it less so. But to my mind, the point of such anthologies is not in the individual pieces.

What draws me again and again to the seemingly endless Lovecraft-and-friends-inspired anthologies is the overall feel of the work, the dedication to crafting stories (not always as well as the original authors) that explore the juncture of awe and horror. Since many of them have historical settings, and indeed historical authors, there are more than a few stories that seem out-of-place, or weirdly unstylish for today's tastes. This is an anthology that clunks. For this reader, that's just fine. 'The Tindalos Cycle' is not a collection for everyone. But for those of us who want to return to a time when we were adolescent outcasts, reading deliberately weird books to the dismay of our parents and peers, this is every bit as puerile and amazing now as it was back then.

08-02-10: A Second Tour Through 'The Passage'

Sending Characters into Time

So here's the "runaway best-seller," etc, etc. It's not cheap and it's not short. More importantly to readers, it's not finished. Justin Cronin's 'The Passage' (Ballantine / Random House ; June 8, 2010 ; $26) is certainly a compelling, makes-the-world-go-away success.

But given that going in you already know that you're signing up for not one, but three books, the question any good reader is going to ask themselves is not, "Is this worth the money?" (It is, you easily get your entertainment dollar's worth and then some), but rather, "Is this a time investment I want to make?" And how can you detect from the first novel whether or not the whole shebang is going to be worth your time?

The Question, then dials out to become more general. What makes a series of books satisfying; what makes it worth our while to slog, or rather sprint, through some 2,400 pages of world-building? For this reader, it is a synthesis of great character arcs that are keenly integrated with great set-pieces. We have to care about the characters in the story, to achieve some sympathy and liking of them, even if, in some cases, our like is a dislike, and what we're hoping for is a spectacularly messy ending.

Character arcs are critical, because to truly enjoy reading about a fictional character in a series of novels, we want to see them change in a manner that is consistent with our own experiences, at least by extension. With luck, we're not going to see the end of the world, but it always feels like we're about to. Every time in history feels like the wind-up for the end-times. So in 'The Passage,' we want to see Amy and the other characters react to these end times in the way we hope we would react. But we want to feel that they are embarked on an exciting adventure as well, fraught with peril, some of which will decimate their numbers. We want death and we want it to matter to us as readers and to the characters we're reading about as well.

Having read the first part of Justin Cronin's trilogy, I can say with some confidence that he does indeed know how to create characters and character arcs that are involving and sufficiently rewarding to his readers, even when he's wiping out a huge portion of the world's population. In the first place, it's not really giving anything away to mention that partway through the book, he pretty much annihilates the population of the US, at least. He then invests time and attention to set up the aftermath, and it is the aftermath where most of the action takes place. He's clearly planning for the long run, and planning well. After a significant number of pages, we meet a whole new gallery of characters, and they all pan out well through lots of well-rendered adventures. On the big scale, Cronin shows that he can deliver a satisfying reading experience.

The big scale is one thing, but he also has to deliver on an individual basis. This is where the action and real emotional rewards lay. There's a character we encounter very early in the narrative, and we really enjoy this character. Cronin does a superb job of misdirection, of keeping us focused on other pressing and rewarding characters, but offers late in the novel a superb set-piece that manages to encapsulate the appeal of this character. It certainly bodes well for the longer narrative.

One proviso here is that this is not, so far, a very monsterific series. The monsters are present, and well-done, but gore and grotesquerie are not the focus. This will broaden the appeal for a larger segment of readers, but dampen it for others. There are some memorable monster scenes, but don't expect this to have the same monster density as say, a Neal Asher science fiction novel. That's not what Cronin is about. That said, these are not, and I can quote Cronin himself here, from our interview, "twinkling underwear model vampires." Indeed, one is compared at one point to a bloated tick. Give me some monster bloated ticks and people I can care about, I'm ready for the end of the world. I have to admit, though, that for the past forty years or so, I've been pretty well convinced that we have five years left. Now, I just hope that Cronin finishes his trilogy in the current end-time of five years, before the world finishes us all.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 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 2015 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

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