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12-16-10: Simon R. Green Returns to the Nightside


There's a whole series of Fortean news clippings that come under the heading TCBOO. These always involve a sword, generally being misused by some misunderstood man who seems impelled to wield said sword in a manner most inappropriate. It took me a while to twig to what the acronym stood for; There Can Be Only One.

Yes, a Highlander reference, and evidence again that one of the strengths of Fortean studies is the sense of humor those who participate bring to their scholarship. Swords of course, play a mythic role in lots of fantasy literature, and so, we should have expected that eventually one very special sword would end up in John Taylor's hands. Simon R. Green's supernatural detective is, after all, a "finder." And as well, quite a find; Green's Nightside novels are ever-dependably entertaining.

Green gets his Nightside books out on a regular basis; they're slim, action-packed tales filled with gods and monsters duking it out on the Nightside, the supernatural analogue of London, just a couple of steps to the left of the real thing. John Taylor is a Private Investigator who simultaneously keeps a low profile but manages to get tangled up in one impending Apocalypse after another. The latest two, the two to land are 'The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; December 28, 2010 ; $7.99) and 'A Hard Day's Knight' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; January 4, 2011 ; $25.95). Here's series that hits the mark again and again. Green hits the sweet spot suggested by that Fortean acronym; a mordant sense of humor, over-the-top action, and a sweet, smart sense of the surreal.

Green's major strength is the prose, the voice of his first-person protagonist, John Taylor. There's a bit of hard-boiled detective in there and more than a bit of supernatural explorer. No matter how long John Taylor has been on the Nightside, there always seems to be something new to encounter, which he does with the perfect aplomb of any British civil servant. Green's storytelling skill makes this stuff the sort of book you hear as a voice over to the wide, wide, wide-screen movie that plays in your head.

That wide-screen movie is a very peculiar combination of comedy mixed with seriously gruesome weirdness and violence. Green's talent is to render all this in Taylor's voice in a manner that seems jaunty, gripping and entertaining, and never is off-putting. Understated John Taylor finds himself loose in a city filled with every sort of nightmare imaginable, and many not imaginable until effectively described by Green. Taylor may never expect the weirdness, the preacher who has burned out his eyes with a crucifix, leaving two cross-shaped scars on his face, and using the eyes of his followers to see, but — there he is, and to cope. Green's sense of action scenes and horror allow him to write about things that would might be too horrific or intense to see in a manner that is thoroughly enjoyable. He embraces paradox, and wins.

'The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny' is the tenth book in the series, and 'A Hard Day's Knight' the eleventh. Green has uses the serial format well, creating a thoroughly likable cast of returning characters like Shotgun Susie, whom he might find at home in domestic mode, "in the kitchen, scrubbing the blood and gristle off of one of her gutting knives." He's also created a backdrop and mythology that offer him a lot of flexibility with regards as to what he can include in the series, that is, pretty much anything he wants to. There's a light patina of social commentary that keeps the books relevant, but nothing too topical.

The latest two novels make some pretty big changes in John Taylor's life, and do so in a satisfying manner. Green shows a lot of skill in his ability to keep the appealing elements of the series in place, while moving the plot and characters forward. It's a very carefully choreographed piece of work that reads quite fluidly. Long-time readers of the series will remain satisfied, while new readers are advised to go back to square one, 'Something from the Nightside' and look forward to lots of fun. For all the investment that Green and his readers have put into these books, they never seem imposing. This is a series in which each entry seems like an opportunity, not a chore. John Taylor is back, Simon R. Green is in fine form, monsters and gods are running wild. There are lots of authors trying to do this, but if There Can Be Only One, I'd vote for Green.

12-15-10: K. J. Taylor Flies 'The Dark Griffin'

Unfriendly Skies and Smart Publishers

If you walk into a book store, the chances are that you will be confronted with more fantasy than you could possibly ever want to read. If you are at all interested in new fantasy, and by this I mean second-world, magical-character stuff, you could spend days opening up books and closing them again, trying to find something that stands out. And even if you did, the real problems have now begun. Chances are that you've picked up part of a series. Which part? How many books are there to catch up on? More importantly, how many more will there be? How many years will you have to wait to read the whole damn story?

These questions are important. As much as an author or a publisher will want to tell you, "Oh it may be part of a series, but it works alone as well," that is simply not true. Lots of series fantasy is telling one big story, stretched across anywhere from two to ten books and more. Who wants to start a story and finish it more than a decade later? Not me. Publishers seem to think that they'll increase sales by putting a year between installments of a series. Until now.

K. J. Taylor started her career with the delightfully-titled 'The Land of Bad Fantasy.' No, it's not about the racks forced to hold the paranormal romances at a bookstore. It's a silly fantasy for kids about silly fantasy. Not a bad introduction. But the real deal is her new book, 'The Dark Griffin' (Ace / Penguin Putnam; January 2011 ; $7.99). It starts not with the usual son-of-a-slave who comes upon a magic sword, but instead with the birth of the titular bird, well, griffin. It's not a good child. It is wild. It is a cannibal.

Parker's prose is pretty much up to the task of giving us the perspective of the Dark Griffin. There's enough song to make it seem a bit on the surreal side, but it never calls attention to itself. But don't get too used to this unusual trick. Of course, the son-of-a-slave is not far away, and yes, you will find the whole human-griffin bond happening soon enough. But Taylor actually dares to tell at least part of her story from the perspective of an intelligent critter, and that's a difference that makes a difference for this reader. 'The Dark Griffin' gives the monster a voice.

Of course, once we get that voice, we're plunged into a pretty familiar unfamiliar world, complete with maps, kingdoms, and lots of conflict — none of them resolved, as this is the first book in a trilogy. Arren Cardockson proves to be less interesting than his eventual mount, The Dark Griffin. But his heritage (yes, son-of-a-slave) is one of the lynchpins around which the story turns, never too fast. So far, so good. The first book in a perfectly interesting trilogy. But here's where the real story gets very interesting.

Ace is releasing the next book in the series, 'The Griffin's Flight' one month after the first, in February of 2010; and the final book of the trilogy, 'The Griffin's War' in March. That means, and this is something to think about, that there's a good chance you'll be the same age when you finish the series as you were when you started. Unless you have a birthday in there (I do), but still — three books in three months, about the perfect way to experience a series. You don't have to buy the first one and wait for the last one to come out before starting the first, which is often the only way to read a series. You know that the books are actually going to come out.

It's a revelation in the publishing business and one that is long overdue. And in this one instance, I have the feeling that the books will not be overdue. K. J. Taylor and her readers will be better served. Here is something very rare in the publishing business — a publisher that is thinking about their customers, and remembering that they are readers. It's like something you might find in a fantasy novel.

12-14-10: Tim Powers Reaches 'A Time to Cast Away Stones'

There Were Giants In the Earth

It's easy to think that creating an authentic sense of awe would require a lot of text, but the Romantic poets demonstrate that's not the case. Byron and Shelley could suggest in a couplet a sense of the supernatural that might require a few hundred pages of exposition in a modern horror novel. Not surprisingly, both Byron and Shelley (and their fictional creations) have been pulled into numerous novels with supernatural themes. One of the first writers to do so was Tim Powers, in what remains one of the best in its class, 'The Stress of Her Regard.' If you're lucky, you managed to buy or find a copy of the limited edition by Charnel House, bound in blue denim, illustrated by Powers, and printed on the finest of the finest papers. Copies of that edition can still be found, but they will be used and start at $200ish. The prices rise into the clear blue sky to join Powers' visions of Men, Great Men, and That Beyond Man.

Perhaps it's unfair to review a book when I can only find one copy for sale through my most reliable search engine. (And no, I'm not talking about the one that wants you to buy a cell phone.) But I'm going to go right ahead, knowing that there is at least one copy of 'A Time to Cast Away Stones' (Charnel House ; 2010 ; $250) by Tim Powers available. Perhaps in some peculiar manner, more will arrive. It's the sort of thing that would make perfect sense in Powers' world. And once you enter his world of words, rest assured, it will bleed through into your everyday life. You will know that there are giants in the earth.

'A Time to Cast Away Stones' concerns one Edward Trelawny, who is making his way to a mountaintop aerie where he will join in the battle to drive the Turkish forces from Greece. Accompanying him are his unhappy wife, Tersitza and a brace of disincarnate beings that masquerade as the humans he has created in the plentiful lies he has told about his life. For the most part, only he can see the latter. Mostly.

Powers is in top form in 'A Time to Cast Away Stones.' Following from 'The Stress of Her Regard,' Powers continues his story of the Romantic poets after their deaths. They may have left this world, but they're not ready to leave this world alone. Trelawney finds himself in possession of something with the potential for great power. With that power comes not just responsibility, but mortal danger.

Readers who enjoyed Powers wonderful supernatural evocation of ancient intelligences in 'The Stress of Her Regard' will surely want to read 'A Time to Cast Away Stones.' It's packed with evocations of supernatural awe, great characters, and the sort of plot twists at which Powers excels. Powers works well in the novella format. 'A Time to Cast Away Stones' moves fast, but offers lots of action in a short space. It's a great piece of writing by one of our best writers.

Charnel House offers its usual fine production of a limited edition. Joe Stefko, the publisher of Charnel House knows how to design a book that looks like something from the period in which it is set. Creepy reproductions from Shelley's manuscript book serve as endpapers. The book is printed on "handmade Cave paper." You feel like you are getting your money's worth.

At $250 for a signed limited edition, 'A Time to Cast Away Stones' is not cheap. If you're going to spend that kind of money, you'd be well advised to hunt down the Charnel House edition of 'The Stress of Her Regard.' 'A Time to Cast Away Stones' is clearly intended for collectors on the compulsive side, and most of them probably have one already. If not, you'd better start searching now. 'A Time to Cast Away Stones' acts as a bridge between 'The Stress of Her Regard' and Powers' forthcoming novel, which according to Powers himself, "may be called either Hide Me Among the Graves or Blood Between Us." If you seriously thought about buying this and haven't, move fast. If you've already bought this and haven't yet read it, then you have something to look forward to. Clear some time, and invest in the best food and drink to have with it. Check in to a seaside hotel and read this while you gaze out over the ocean. Beneath you, in the earth, the giants are waiting.

12-13-10: Syed Afzal Haider Wants 'To Be With Her'

Easier Said Than Done

There is always room for change. In moments of optimism, we call it maturing, and we call a story of one who matures a bildungsroman, literally, a "formation novel." This is typically thought of as the journey of a young man from immaturity to adulthood, and in theory this happens only once in a life. But it is possible to re-mature if circumstances call for it — or if you deliberately change your circumstances by leaving not just home, but the country you call home.

Ramzan Malik may or may not think he has growing to do in terms of becoming a mature adult. But coming from Pakistan to America requires more than just the normal changes associated with growing up; this is not just maturation, this is metamorphosis. Just like in the movies.

Syed Afzal Haider's first novel, 'To Be With Her,' (Weaver's Press ; November 15, 2010 ; $14.95) is a rough and ready, funny and friendly look at acculturation as a bildungsroman, and in that sense, it's an archetype for an experience that is now particularly possible. Cheap travel and a desire for a good education bring Ramzan Malik from the movie houses of Pakistan to the reality of an America that in some way inspires the movies. Ramzan is a movie freak. They have informed his young adulthood in Pakistan and they permeate his vision of America. Once he is actually in America, a student at Mid-Western university, he finds that fantasy and reality have little in common, other than that both are very, very human.

Haider's novel is funny and gritty, with more than a touch of the absurd and the surreal. Part of the charm here is Haider's ability to pop back and forth between well-informed visions of Ramzan's childhood in Pakistan and his young adult life in America. Our perceptions are turned upside-down. Ramzan's youth is to him pedestrian and boring, but to us it is exotic and exciting. On the other hand, Ramzan sees America though an immigrant's eyes; our bland Mid-western landscape are fresh and new to him. Haider writes of everything Ramzan sees as if it were new and strange. The result is that readers feel the same away; our world is re-invented.

The sense of the fresh carries through to the characters as well. Haider uses movies and other American cultural references — as seen by the immigrant, now in America — to put people in a new light as well. Ramzan doesn't just fall in love with America, he falls in love with an American. Love stories play out on two levels here; in letters and in person. Haider's engaging plot speaks to the power of words for those in love. Readers will find his fascinating family and friends back in Pakistan equally engaging.

Haider is an editor for The Chicago Quarterly Review, and he manages to use those skills in his own work. 'To Be With Her' is a tightly written and paced novel in which maturation finds it has competition — acculturation. Ramzan's journey, while very specific and gritty, is something we have all undertaken at some point in our lives. The differences between growing up and growing American are not so great. And our own culture can seem bizarre and surreal even to those who grow up immersed in it. Change is undeniably accelerating. Every day, we wake up in a foreign country, and the first step we take that day will be a step outside of our own lives.

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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