Wednesday, December 29, 2010

23 new book reviews added!

Now off to New Orleans for NYE!


Agents, Editors, and You by Michelle Howry

A useful, if somewhat dated introduction to the world of literary agents, publishing houses and the like. I need to get up to speed on the business side of publishing. While I’ve one published book, my understanding is that the non-fiction side of things works a little different. And from what various people who might be in-the-know tell me, having been published on the non-fiction side isn’t likely to help me any.

Editors, Agents, and You consists of ten chapters. Do you need an Agent? (Yes.) How do I find the right Agent? (Internet, go to conferences, write them.) How do I approach an Agent? (With a well crafted query letter.) What does an agent actually do? (Contact publishers on your behalf, help with negotiations, take part of the money.) And so on.

First, I need to find another book on the topic written after the advent of the internet age. Second, I need to generally read a few more books, blogs, etc. on the topic.

But mostly I think I just need to reach out to a bunch of agents to see if anyone is interested in representing me for my newest book: The Arc!

Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker

Eternal novel; vintage Barker. A fun look at old Hollywood’s romance with itself. Should have (and could have) ended five times before it did.

What happens is: In an old and evil monastery in Transylvania in the nineteen twenties, the rich consort of a Hollywood starlet purchases a tile fresco which has been driving monks mad for centuries. Because, see, the devil’s wife inspired the fresco (or something like that.) The starlet installs the fresco in her mansion in the Hollywood Canyons, and then throws orgies for the who’s-who of Hollywood, in which they are allowed to taste the immortality offered by the world within the fresco.

Cut to the modern day, in which a soulless Tom Cruise type gets bad (and unnecessary) plastic surjury to appease his vanity. He then moves into Coldheart Canyon to recover, and awakens the ghosts within. Evil and naughtyness ensue.

This is classic Barker stuff – good if you like his brand of brutality and depravity, but certainly not as good as many of his other works. If you are even slightly squeamish about sexual perversion, you might want to steer clear.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Short story collection in which a number of tales feature aging and sickness as themes. There are a few good stories here, a few stinkers-- the one about the port-a-potty comes to mind—and a few that are standard King fare. I always enjoy his readability and the straightforwardness with which he approaches storytelling.

The World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Written in 1989, The World in 10½ Chapters is a fun little bit of intellectualized masturbation from a bygone era. Far too clever for its own good and erratically unpredictable, the book cavorts between various musings on the tale of Noah’s Arc, some tongue in cheek legal satire dealing /with the trial of a woodworm in sixteenth century France, and some authorially intrusive diatribes on love and heaven. It all adds up to… a playful romp without a lot of real coherence.

Zero History by William Gibson

Following in the same footsteps as Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Gibson tells us of the modern brand elite and their machinations. An ex-addict, Milgrim, and Hollis, the former lead singer of the band Cerfew, get caught up in another of Big End/Blue Ant’s schemes in London and Paris. As with most of Gibson’s books, he presents us with a power struggle which takes place in the pantheon above normal mortals, and in which the main characters play a role they don’t understand in bringing about a power shift that changes a world one order of magnitude above the one they live in. (Case frees Wintermute from the bonds of Turing, loosing a new godhead upon the Matrix; Count Zero frees the Loa into the Matrix, changing the power from one AI god to a pantheon, and in this case, Bigend ascends to a new level of financial moguldom through the unwitting, confused efforts of Milgrim and Hollis.)

It’s another fascinating look at our-world-as-cyberpunk. Ono-Sendais are replaced by iPhones, but otherwise the prose and the song remain much the same, albeit with the violent and sexy juicy bits at far greater remove. (Remember when Case spreads Molly’s labia? Here a veiled reference to a shower scene is the closest we get to sex. Remember when “someone made wet sounds in the alley and died” during the show for 3Jane? Here at a climatic moment an AK appears (but is never used.)) It’s a conscious choice to focus instead on brand intrigue, the texture of consumerism, and the stately mechinations of a media elite rather than the low-level heat of sex and violence on the streets of Chiba City. But unfortunately the story loses some animal pleasure as a result.

The style works for the most part. Occasionally Gibson’s tangled sentence construction, layered clauses, and aggressive disregard for basic subject verb relationships gets tedious. Likewise the so-hip-its-incomprehensible dialog which serves as narrative most of the time sometimes just isn’t worth untangling in order to figure out WTF these folks are talking about. But as a general rule the language still reads as Gibson, and helps serve up the world of today as a fresh cyberpunk utopia that lives in each of our pockets.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

First book I read in digital format. (Kindle app for iPhone.) First book I’ve ever read by a celebrity chef. Quite an engaging look at the back rooms of New York’s high (and low) end kitchens. Bourdain knows and loves food, and is a far more literate writer than I’d have expected. He makes his crew, and kitchen staffs in general seem like a bunch of salty pirates. While a bit self-aggrandizing at times, I also find that I generally believe most of what he’s telling me.

Gave Mike a copy to see what he thinks. So far he says it’s a fairly accurate description of the many kitchens he’s worked in over the last decade.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss has done a fine job of writing a kickass book in a genre so mired in cliché that it usually struggles really hard to do anything fresh. The Name of the Wind deals with the story of Kvothe, a young phenom who is cast adrift in the world and becomes a hero of sorts. The story is told as a retrospective; a legend related by the legend himself around the table at a tavern in a troubled land…

The writing is smooth, clever, and engaging. Rothfuss refrains from the leaden sentences and archaic diction that pollute so many fantasy novels. Kvothe is a likeable character in a cast full of likeable characters. And while we’ve seen many of these places before (the gypsies here are reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s gypsies, the University here has shades of Hogwarts, etc.) they all feel fresh here and tie together into a mostly believable world.

I wish the novel had been longer, which is as high praise as a book can get I suppose. I started and finished over the course of a few days surrounding the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. The sequel, A Wise Man’s Fear, comes out in March of next year. I look forward to reading it.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Finished this one last night on the plane to Penny-Arcade. It’s a fun premise, executed with plenty of sloppy cleverness and pop culture razzmatazz. “What if demonic possession were real?” What if we’d become almost blasé about it? In this short first novel Gregory gives us a look at modern America, complete with Starbucks, Google, etc. that has just learned to deal with the occasional bout of possession; as when the Demon Truth started shot OJ Simpson dead in the midst of his trial, or when the Kamakazee Demon flew a plane into Ike, setting the stage for Nixon’s presidency. It’s a cute premise, though it gets lost in its own cleverness and a lot of rabbit trail homage to Phillip K. Dick periodically. Not a bad first novel, though about as filling as Crunch n’ Munch.

The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow

Because I enjoyed his book Power of the Dog, I figured I’d try another Winslow product. Turns out, Bobby Z is a bit of a stinker. The tale is good enough I suppose: a self-proclaimed three-time loser gets offered the chance to impersonate the famous SoCal criminal dobe dealer and surfer, Bobby Z. He does, and gets pulled into a world of Mexican drug lords and double crosses. Luckily, he was a trained marine badass before becoming a petty criminal loser. Eventually, he gets the kid, the girl, the money, and sails off (literally) into the sunset.

No, it wasn’t the clichéd plot of Bobby Z that bothered me. It was, like, the language, man. When the narrator is like, hip as a motherfuck to the SoCal scene, man, it’s like, hard to, you know, take the prose seriously. If it were like restrained to like the goddamn dialog or some shit like that it would be, like, a bit easier to take, man. But since the prose itself is supposed to sound like it was like narrated by like some Hells Angel reject acid casualty, man, it was just a little, like tres fucking ridiculous, you dig?

When Lebowski talks like this, he’s a parody of the Southern California burnout scene. When the prose itself is written in this fashion it’s just tedious and obscures the cool.

Luckily, Winslow got a lot better by Power of the Dog. So if you’re going to read something by him, I’d recommend that instead of Bobby Z.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Good collection of horror shorts by the author of Heart Shaped Box. A few of these stories are actually quite good. I particularly enjoyed the poignancy of “Pop Art”, which reminded me of the best of George Saunders. “The Cape” had some good writing in it. “The Black Phone” was tightly wound, if a little obvious. And “Bobby Conroe Comes Back from the Dead” was a piece with a lot of emotional nuance. Overall, I give this one an A. Nice work, Mr. Hill. I’ll certainly read the next thing you publish.

Under the Dome by Stephen King
A massive, sprawling tale in which King does what he does best: Introduce us to a cast of small town characters, then put them in a “Monsters Are Coming to Maple Street” setting in which the shit hits the fan and social order dissolves. In this case, the “What if…” scenario involves a giant impermeable dome being dropped over the town, and the resulting social politics of the residents.

King’s characterization is fun, his heroes and villains obediently huddle on either side of the line of scrimmage, then play their roles nicely. The ultimate conclusion is a bit stupid, but the ride along the way is lots of fun if you like King.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
The Power of the Dog is a look at the cartel wars along the Mexican border. It is a hip, nasty little tale of betrayls, double-crosses, and small-arms skirmishes. There are a few clichés here (hooker with a heart of gold, for example), but generally, it’s a fast paced, savage look at border intrigue and politics from the early nineties. Quite cool.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Dr. Cronin is a professor of creative writing at Rice University here in Houston. His sprawling tale, The Passage, is rumored to be the beginning of a mighty trilogy, and the advances he received for his first horror novel are rumored to have been impressive.

The Passage tells us of the decline and fall of North American civilization under a plague of vampirism brought about by a Miltary/CDC experiment gone wrong. We get a long buildup to the catastrophe, then jump forward about 100 years to a post-apocalpytic world in which a band of survivors tries in vain to keep the lights on to protect themselves from the hordes of night-stalkers. Eventually, a small band of misfits must undertake a journey across the blighted land for some reason. They encounter other civilizations (shades of Watership Down here), and have some cool skirmishes. (Vamped out Vegas is pretty cool.) Some of the characters are really memorable. Some of the action scenes are excellent (others, like the runaway train-car bit feel too much like someone was trying to create a movie…) The resolutions to some of relationship drama is touching. Other times, deus-ex-machina rears its ugly head in a way that is frustrating.

Overall, it’s a cool setup to what could be a much longer tale, and despite being almost 900 pages, this book itself could have been longer.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Subtitled “Men Who Hate Women”, The Girl… series has ended up being an international sensation, based mostly on the appealing strength of the heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

She’s cool, and Blomkist is an interesting foil to the villains (he’s the man who loves women.) Since pretty much everyone has read these, or seen the movies by now, I’m not sure there is too much else to say.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson
Lisbeth Salander moves into Jason Bourne territory in this second installment of the most popular thing to come out of Sweden since… ever. We learn more about her mysterious past and end on a cliffhanger that will send you out to buy the third book in the middle of the night…. But what’s with the opening sequence in the hurricane? Seems to have nothing to do with anything else.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Steig Larsson
By now the tale of Lisbeth Salander has become silly and a bit tedious. Mostly a police-procedural at this point, things wrap up as we’d hope. Mostly. Too many new characters introduced, too many irrelevant subplots, some of which seem to have just been dropped.

Still, these were a fun romp through the life of a Jason Bourne-esque Swedish hacker girl and the men who surround her.

Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton

Subtitled “Hired Guns in the War on Terror.” Pelton is an travel-adventure-journalist better known for his series on “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.” In this illuminating bit of journalism on the rise of private mercenary armies, like Blackwater, Executive Outcomes, or Triple Canopy, Pelton explores the world of the private military contractor, from Baghdad to Central Africa.

Some fascinating details: Contractors, primarily made up of former special forces, SAS, or police officers, are usually hired by private firms to provide security in guarding fixed position installations (offices, etc.) or security for transporting goods. These guys are armed to the teeth, paid well, and subject to virtually no governmental oversight. As a result, there are likely as many as 100,000 private mercenary soldiers at large in the world, who report only to the highest bidder. Some companies, like Eric Prince’s Blackwater, operate hand-in-hand with the US Federal Government. Others, like Sandline or Executive Outcomes can be employed for far more nefarious purposes, like overthrowing governments in Equatorial Guinea, or seizing diamond mines in Sierra Leone. In this shadowy world, civilian deaths are common (particularly in Africa and Iraq) and contractors are held to no legal standards, and no moral standards but whatever they bring in with them. It’s a fascinating brave-new-world of steroid monkies and ex-cops toting automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and private gunships in some of the world’s least stable places for fantastic sums of money.

Pelton does a good job of keeping relatively neutral on the topic, neither condemning nor deifying the cowboy contractors. He poses thoughtful questions about the role of such large corporate armies in nation building. Interesting book.

The Little Black Book of Violence by Laurence Kane and Kris Wilder

Wilder and Kris are martial artists. Their book is subtitled “What Every Young Man Needs to Know About Fighting.” It was recommended by Sgt. Rory Miller and a couple of my krav instructors. I picked it up in order to round out (and likely conclude) my readings on violent encounters in the US. (Rory Miller, Gavin deBecker, Marc MacYoung). The book is written for someone fifteen years younger than I—a lifetime ago. It is interesting, though likely most effective as a sort of “scared straight” book to be given to a young man in your life who is just beginning to get involved in a lifestyle or peer group which are encouraging him to think violence and fighting is cool. This book is a three hundred page reminder that violence and fighting are dangerous and have very high costs.

Kane and Wilder describe ways to avoid violent encounters, ways to de-escalate an encounter which is on the brink of erupting into violence, a few techniques for resolving violent conflict quickly. These topics constitute approximately one-third of the book. The rest deals with a lengthy and elliptical enumeration of all the reasons that you don’t want to get involved in a violent conflict. They discuss the legal implications and costs (jail time, lawyers fees, prison sentences, effect on future employment, etc.) as well as the risks of injury and death. (No shortage of gruesome photos of stab wounds, etc.) They also cover (less convincingly) the moral costs of violence and the long term impact it can have on a person’s psyche.

Overall, the book works well as a tool for convincing young men that they should not fight, and that the costs of ANY violent altercation are likely to be far, far higher than they may seem when the testosterone and tequila are both flowing freely. Useful and interesting, if not necessarily intended for me.

The Negotiation Toolkit by Roger J. Volkema

Volkema’s book, subtitled “How to Get Exactly What You Want in Any Business or Personal Situation” was published in 1999 by the American Management Association. I picked it up after reading an excerpt from the book on the internet. Volkema seemed as if he had sufficient experience in the topic to be a valid source, and who couldn’t stand to be a better negotiater? The book is useful. In two hundred easy-to-follow pages it covers common negotiation strategies, how and when to best employ them, and how to counter them when used against you. Most of what’s here will already be familiar to veteran businesspeople or anyone who negotiates deals for a living. But formalizing some of these hard won lessons is definitely useful. I found myself remembering specific events or occasions in the past when I’d first learned whatever lesson Volkema was attempting to teach; suggesting that reading this book when it was first published might have given me a head start.

The book is well organized and useful, though much of the actual text of the “negotiation exercises” seems like filler. Still, as a foundation for a course in Business Basics or similar, this book would be quite valuable. And there are many folks I know who operate on a fairly high level who would benefit from reading through Volkema’s thoughts and practicing some of what’s contained herein.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666 by Roberto Bolano
Fascinating, unsettling, depraved, and strange are just a few of the words it would take to accurately describe Bolano’s final work. It’s a a masterful and twisted labyrinth of violence, creation, and madness. (To use a few other words that seem appropriate.)

2666 is a novel in five parts. In the first, several European scholars who are experts in the work of an unknown novelist visit, worry, fuck, and ultimately, plan their travel to Mexico in an effort to find the artist. In the second part, a professor at a school near Ciudad Juarez (here called Santa Teresa) goes slowly crazy. (The geometry book he hangs hung on a closeline so the wind and elements can teach its abstractions a thing or two about real life is one of the novel’s more enduring images.) In the third section an American sports writer travels to Juarez to investigate a prize fighter and gets caught up with the narcos who run the place. In the chilling fourth section we get a journalistic enumeration of the hundreds and hundreds of women who have disappeared near Ciudad Juarez in the last decade. In the fourth section we meet the mysterious German writer, Archimboldi, and learn his strange tale, and a lot of complicated byplay about the relationship between creations and their creators.

All of this complexity adds up to a very disturbing and complex work that… I wish I had read twice (despite being almost 900 pages translated from dense Spanish), and wish I had a friend or class to discuss it with. Make no mistake, Bolano was a brilliant writer who tackled an important topic in his final years. It is unclear to me what his real intent with 2666 might have been, and I’d love to ask him if he realized it.

Death Interrupted by Jose Saramago
Death Inturrupted was a silly tale, by a master writer who just didn’t seem up to his game in this one. What if Death took a holiday and just stopped killing anyone on the Iberian Pennisula for a few weeks? Imagine the social upheaval. Imagine the response of the mafia!

Now, what if death herself fell in love with a cellist? Yeah… They do it.

It’s been almost a year since I read this one, and it didn’t really do that much for me, unfortunately. Short and silly, without much lasting value in my humble opinion.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

One of Dan Simmon’s earliest works, if not his first, Song of Kali takes place in a vibrant, filthy, deplorable Calcutta. A journalist and his wife and infant daughter travel there to research a missing poet. They get caught up in the city’s magic and corruption. Their lives are pretty much ruined, though I’ll not spoil how.

As a setting piece Song of Kali works well. Calcultta here is reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Venice or China Meville’s New Cruzoban. The setting itself is a character of sorts.

Otherwise, this wasn’t a particularly memorable novel, but I do like Simons and enjoyed reading some of his horror.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker
Gavin De Becker approaches the subject of violence as a scholar. He is considered an expert on providing security and threat analysis to high profile individuals. His basic assessment is that almost no incident of personal violence is unpredictable. People give off warning signs when they are contemplating a violent act. If we are able to read these signs correctly, using our innate “Gift of Fear” then we’ll be able to better protect ourselves and our loved ones.

DeBecker is bright and his subject is interesting. Take home lesson: Trust your instincts. Cross the street to avoid sketchy looking characters. Don’t open the door to strangers. If someone creeps you out, tell someone, and avoid that person. Your instincts are honed through millions of years of evolution. Don’t ignore them.
First, let's get the apology out of the way... No updates since March???! Terrible. Undisciplined! Shameful!

Luckily, I've read lots of books since then, and am committed to posting them all this afternoon!

In the days since March 2010:

We moved from our Midtown condo into a great townhome in the Heights. The Professor has become acclimated to her new job. I've continued bouncing between ATX and The Third Coast. I wrote a new novel called The Arc, for which I'm now seeking publication. My book, Distributed Game Development, was released by Focal Press. Various family dramas have unfolded, but none to a tragical conclusion, for which we can be thankful. And we've learned that we more or less love living down here; lots of good friends, etc. We're off tomorrow for a NYE vacation in The Big Easy.

But first, the books!