Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Movie Log: Scenes of a Sexual Nature

Netflix recommended Scenes of a Sexual Nature, and its trailer was amusing, so we got it last week.

Scenes's title betrays its origin -- it was, at first, seven separate vignettes, which were combined into one film since they were all about relationships and all took place in the same location (and that would allow the combination to be a movie, released to theaters and all that). A young man tries to pick up an young woman, a middle-aged couple meet for a blind date, an older couple meet by chance and discover they have a shared past -- that sort of thing. (Let's see if I can remember all of the rest: a divorced couple trade their child for a visit, a gay couple talk about children, a married man is caught staring at a pretty girl's "pants," and a very chic-looking couple wander amid columns until we find out something unexpected.)

It's essentially a textbook case of how to create a successful low-budget movie:
  • start with a good script, with juicy (but small) roles that actors will enjoy
  • get those actors (lots of them) by saying its only two or three days of work, and let them work with people they like
  • set the whole thing outdoors (on Hampstead Heath), to avoid building sets, or needing much in the way of props
  • and then set up a cast-and-crew joint-stock company to distribute the final product and keep the money going to the ones who made it.
The actors are all good, and the script supports them. The movie's short and light and not as sexy as one might expect from the title. (Then again, it is British, so any sex at all is slightly surprising.) It's a successful comedy that doesn't overstay its welcome (though the "making of" documentary is half as long as the movie, and exceptionally congratulatory). If you don't expect anything large from it, Scenes of a Sexual Nature will be a delight.

Reports of My Posting at ComicMix Are Not Exaggerated

On Monday, I reviewed a book called Graphic Classics: Mark Twain, edited by Tom Pomplun.

There are two other things I've read but not reviewed yet, plus some stuff I hope to pull together for Manga Friday. But I'm running out of week, so we'll see what I can get to...


Yet another one of these iTunes memes, stolen (as usual) from Keith R.A. Decandido:

How many songs total: 16,562
How many hours or days of music: 45 days, 9 hours, 18 minutes and 21 seconds

Most recently played: "She Sang Angels to Rest" by Richard Thompson, from Sweet Warrior
Most played: "Maureen" by Fountains of Wayne, off Out-of-State Plates (64 times)
Most recently added: "Power" by Nick Jaina, from Wool

Sort by song title
First Song: "A.C. Cover" by Camper Van Beethoven, off Camper Vantiquities
Last Song: "( )" by They Might Be Giants (the conversation with Gloria from the answering machine)

Sort by time
Shortest Song: "Kangaroo - SFX" by Carl Stalling and the Warner Brothers Orchestra
Longest Song: "Pelleas und Melisande" by Arnold Schoenberg, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez

(Hey, it missed Sort by Artist, so I'll throw that in, too --
First: 1996 Broadway Cast (Chicago soundtrack)
Last: Aaron Neville
No, wait. Strike that -- reverse it.)

Sort by album
First album: Abacab
Last album: 90125

First song that comes up on Shuffle: "Happy Jack" by The Who, from Live at Leeds

Search the following and state how many songs come up:
Death - 118
Life - 229
Love - 657
Hate - 52
You - 1465
Sex - 75

Melded Again

I'm one of the folks babbling about "What Golden Age SF Got Right & Wrong" today at SF Signal, in their current Mind Meld feature. (Well, I'm babbling; I bet everyone else is coherent and reasonable.)

Joining me in this virtual discussion are James Gunn, James Wallace Harris, John C. Wright, Mike Brotherton, Sue Lange, and Fred Kiesche. I haven't read what they've written yet, but I'm sure they're all thoughtful and interesting and -- insofar as they agree completely with me -- accurate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Movie Log: Juno

Since the kids had school last Monday -- but I had a holiday at work -- The Wife and I grabbed the opportunity to go out and see a movie for adults in the theater. Juno is about a bunch of teenagers, but it's much more adult than most of the current R-rated movies about killer skeleton-whales and dying grumpy old men.

Juno's been getting glowing reviews and award hype at every turn, and that's all mostly justified. Yes, the first five minutes or so of Juno are in an exceptionally arch patois, but the movie settles down after that. (And I wouldn't be surprised if that opening was in there just to get the script read by jaded young interns at production companies -- much like American Pie was read and bought because the script was called "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love.")

The sausage-factory workings of Hollywood aside, Juno is an excellent movie. It has about seven major characters, and all of them are played by fine actors doing good work with honest, realistic lines. It's that rare movie that sees all of its characters as individuals, rather than as representatives of a type -- Juno is not popular at her school, but she's not "the Goth," or anything else pre-digested, she's just herself. And the fact that her best female friend is a cheerleader was a great touch, showing quietly that real people don't fit into tidy marketing categories and that the real world is always a bit messier than we expect.

You've probably heard of Juno by now, so I won't bother talking about the plot much -- Juno (Ellen Page) is our main character, and in the very first scene she learns that she's pregnant from what seems to be a one-time experimental thing with her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera, doing much the same shtick as he did in Superbad, only with the creepy passive-aggressiveness dialed down and the quizzical tentativeness dialed up). She almost gets an abortion, but of course no positively-depicted woman can actually have an abortion in a major American work of entertainment, so she decides to have the baby and put it up for adoption. (That might be slightly unfair to this particular movie, which needed Juno to decide to find a childless couple to take her baby -- and the scene where Juno runs out of the abortion clinic works well. But I stand by the general point; there are some stories that just won't be told.)

Things go on from there, and Juno is saved from becoming an Afterschool Special by one part acting and one part writing -- it isn't trying to be A Parable for Our Times (on any side of the teen pregnancy debate); it's telling this story about this girl, and she's quite enough to carry the movie. (Though, as I said, the rest of the cast is excellent as well.)

I Want What He's Got

I missed this New York Times article on Tom Stoppard's excellent traveling book-case on Monday, but caught up with it when PW's Book Maven blog covered it today.

When I travel, I tend to bring three or four books and at least half-a-dozen magazines (for a three- or four-day trip), so I love the idea of this book-box. On the other hand, I stash my reading material in my messenger bag, so I can carry it onto the plane -- that's one of the best places to read on a trip, and I want to have choices then. (Though I'm often reduced to making sure a New Yorker is accessible in an outside pocket and pulling out a current book as I scrunch into the tiny airline seats.)
If I was going anywhere for a week or more, and especially if I'd have reading time while there, I'd love to have a case like this. Pity that they haven't been made for twenty years...

Monday, January 28, 2008

What Is the "Disappearing Bestseller"?

GalleyCat has had two posts in the last few days about a nonfiction bestseller that is rumored to have no copies in the pipeline and won't be reprinted -- here's the second post.

There are plenty of reasons why a publisher wouldn't want to reprint a particular book, and knowing that there are umpteen copies ready to be returned any moment is definitely one of them. Still, publishers usually manage these situations in public, and attempt to move stock around, if possible, to keep the supply where it needs to be.

But what I want to know is -- what book is this? From the context, I think it's a hardcover frontlist title, so I took a quick gander at a Nielsen-branded book-sales-tracking tool to find a few possibilities, with an eye to books that may have some controversy around them:
  • Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography by Andrew Morton
  • Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld
  • An Inconvenient Book by Glenn Beck
  • Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg
I have no idea if this rumor has any truth at all about it -- but I'd bet money that it's about Morton's bio of Cruise. Anyone have any other plausible candidates?

I Have An Author on TV!

Cynthia Cooper on a local San Francisco morning show, talking for over seven minutes about her book Extraordinary Circumstances.

Oh, and CFO magazine gave the book a great review, too.

I've never been directly pushing a book this big before -- this is great!

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/26

Only four new books hit the Hornswoggler House this week, so I'm not going to bother to categorize them:

Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula has a premise that sounds silly at first (Dracula in Japan!) but could be something interesting. The cover is awfully busy, but doesn't go over the top in the way I would have expected from that title. Dark Wars is a novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi, best known as the creator of Vampire Hunter D (none of whose work, I have to admit, have I read), with illustrations by Katsuya Terada. It's published by Del Rey, hitting bookstores any day now. It's an interesting choice for Del Rey, and shows that they're really serious about their partnership with Kodansha (and that they think that there might finally be a solid audience for translated popular fiction somewhere in the nexus of Goth, manga, and urban fantasy).

Copspeak is a dictionary of law enforcement (and criminal) terms published in 1996 by that fine and venerable house John Wiley & Sons. (Look for the Wiley label on all the books you buy!) It was written by Tom Philbin, who has written a pile of novels, true crime books, and other crime-related stuff. I can rarely resist books of interesting language, so this was right up my alley. I hope to be peppering my posts with authentic perp talk soon, so be warned.

T is for Trespass is Sue Grafton's new novel, and you've either been living in a tree or make it a point to ignore the world of mystery novels if you've never heard of her "Kinsey Milhone" series. This is the nineteenth of them, set in December of 1987, and I expect it will be just as good as the last eighteen of them -- which is very good indeed.

And Brave Story is an immense doorstop of a fantasy novel, which I'd thought was a young adult book (though the book itself doesn't actually say that anywhere, so I may be wrong). It was written by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith, and has a great oddball cover by Dan May. (When people complain that all fantasy covers are illustrations, and so they have to look alike, they forget that things like this are possible. I'd love to see more like it, if the audience doesn't run screaming in disgust.) Viz published it back in July of 2007, and I remember thinking then, "Is Viz trying to expand into fiction now?" Only time will tell how big that program will end up being, but seeing any SFF in translation hitting US shores is a good thing.

And that's two translated novels (both from the Japanese, which is the flavor of the decade) out of four books this week. Can a PW trend piece be far behind?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Question We All Must Answer

And by "we," I mean "editors," of which I am now not one. But I was when I answered that old "How Did You Get Such an Awesome Job?" question back on August 7, 2003 in rec.arts.sf.written. Someone called "Luna" asked me, and here's what I said (minus the parts of her question I quoted).

I graduated with a degree in English and lived close enough to NYC to be able to live with my mother for a few years (publishing doesn't pay well -- a little better now than it did ten years ago, but still not well). Other than that, it was pure luck -- I was out of work when the assistant job at the SFBC came open, and my interview with Ellen Asher (then and now the Queen of Science Fiction) went well. I've clung like a barnacle ever since.

A question about how much fun the job was...

Parts of it are lots of fun, and parts of it are just like every other office job in the world, except that the specific widgets we're dealing with are books. There's also the factor of having to deal with books one does not particularly like, but which will sell. (Which can feel something like school in the bad sense -- "I can't stand this Faerie Queene thing, and I still have to read six hundred pages of it and be coherent about it when I'm done.")

Comment about it being her dream to edit SFF.

Like the theater, you have to move to New York and starve for a while. Even then, the odds aren't good (also like the theater). Publishing isn't that glamorous, really, but it's enough more glamorous than auto-body repair that the supply exceeds the demand.

And, she asked, is reading books and writing/thinking/talking about them all the time as much fun as she thinks it will be?

It is. But there's also an element (for me, at least) of having to read books that you don't like -- and doing that regularly.

And I explained that last point a few days later:

Well, yes, but there's also the large segment of "books I don't like personally but which are popular with other people." Private readers can generally ignore these; reviewers and editors need to deal with them somehow.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Aurealis Award Winners

Awards season is on us again -- or does it ever actually end? -- with the announcement of the winners of Australia's prestigious Aurealis Awards for 2007.

I note that of the winners of Best SF Novel, Best Fantasy Novel, Best Horror Novel, and Best Young Adult Novel, I've only heard of one of them, which probably means that a lot of good stuff is not making the long journey up-and-over.

I also note that the winner of the Best Children's (8-12 years) Long Fiction is books 2-6 of a series, which is odd -- they may be wonderful, and they may be long (combined), but whatever happened to the first book? Is that one execrable, or jettisonable, or just not awardable?

[via Locus Online]

In Which I Note The Times Has a Good Horror Reviewer and Twist That Fact To My Own Ends

There's a long column on horror in this weekend's New York Times Book Review by Terrence Rafferty. Rafferty has nice things to say about Joe Hill's superb collection 20th Century Ghosts, and also covers a few books I haven't read myself. (Plus Marilyn Stasio's very regular mystery column, though that's substantially shorter. Stasio, among other things, covers the new book by the great Loren Estelman.)

And our man Itzkoff? Not seen since his December 16th column about what vaguely-remembered SF books the various presidential candidates should be reading. His last review was of William Gibson's Spook Country on August 26th.

There's no reason to believe Sam Tanenhaus reads my blog, but, if he happens to be ego-surfing and comes here -- Sam, get rid of Itzkoff. He's not doing anything at all for you. And, at this point, who could tell the difference if you canned him?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce

First of all, that name stops me short every time I see it. I suppose "Wilce" is unextraordinary, but on top of "Ysabeau S.," it looks like some particularly flamboyant version of the Witness Protection Program. I'm sure it's her real name --who would make up something like that? -- but I have a moment of "huh?" every time I see it.

And, second, I read Flora Segunda almost two weeks ago, and haven't managed to think up much to say about it. It's a pleasant YA fantasy novel, but the plot is fairly linear, the main character is yet another Spunky Girl (an interesting one, yes, but still, she's very much a type), and we don't learn enough about the world for that to entirely make sense.

(If I'm remembering and piecing together widely separated things correctly, Flora Segunda and the related short stories seem to be set in a world where the Vikings settled North America, at least to some extent. Columbus probably didn't show up, or didn't lead to any major conquest. I think this is set on the west coast, with the nasty Huitzil Empire to the South and the semi-independent city of Califa in which our story takes place. But I could be very wrong about any or all of that.)

Anyway, our heroine and first-person narrator is Flora Nemain Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca, scion of a once-large and powerful family, dweller in a very Gormenghastly house, and all-around Girl of Spirit (which is how the subtitle puts it). She's not as omni-competent as I expected, which is a nice change -- in fact, there are a lot of things that she thinks she's good at but does not demonstrate exceptional aptitude in.

Her family and house have fallen on rough times, as it customary for this kind of story: she's the youngest of four surviving Fyrdraacas, along with her older sister Idden (off on military duty), her mildly-deranged ex-POW father Reverdy, and her head-of-the-local-armed-forces mother Juliet. (And she's Flora Segunda because she had an older sister by that name who was with the father when he became a POW, and who did not emerge from captivity.) Things are even worse because mama Juliet banished the house's supernatural butler Valefor years before, halting the usual upkeep on the sprawling manse and leaving everything to slowly fall to pieces. (Don't even ask about the all-over-the-place names; they don't make much sense to me but that doesn't necessarily mean no sense could be made of them.)

As the only sane one regularly living at home, Flora is burdened with keeping up the house -- such parts of it as the family still use -- and with managing her occasionally drunk and manic father. She's sick of this, so, when she comes across the insubstantial remnant of the butler, she quickly falls in with his plan to revive himself and take back some of his abilities to keep up the house.

All he needs is some of Flora's energy. And that kind of thing never goes wrong, does it?

Fixing everything eventually requires the help of Flora's "sidekick," a boy from her school named Udo. (He's absent for the first third of the book, because he's grounded, which was an odd narrative choice. As it ends up, he's introduced awfully late in the story for someone who's supposed to be the best friend.) It also involves kidnapping, forgery, the supposedly-dead butler of a failed noble house, at least one pirate, Flora's upcoming coming-of-age birthday party, and Flora's mother's archenemy Lord Axacaya, a dangerous sorcerer who has often been in league with the hated Huitzils.

Flora Segunda has a lot of fun elements, and Flora's voice is spunky without going overboard about it. If I wasn't as impressed as I hoped I'd be, that can be attributed to high expectations, I guess. I liked Flora Segunda, but I couldn't quite love it.

Various Links

Too short to be their own posts! Too interesting to ignore!
  • John Klima wants you to know that he's been blogging longer than you have (though he's too polite to put it like that) and that he desperately wants steampunk stories for his great magazine Electric Velocipede (though not quite yet, since his reading period doesn't open until April 1st). So go out there and write some great steampunk for John!

  • Geek Alert! Proving once again that everything can be graphed, Virgil Griffith of CalTech has charted various colleges' SAT scores against their favorite books to create Booksthatmakeyoudumb. [via Boing Boing]

  • I've recently posted some stuff at ComicMix -- my usual "Manga Friday" feature, covering books called Sundome, Y Square, and Hell Girl; and a review of Marc-Antoine Mathieu's The Museum Vaults. And I forgot to put an exclamation point in this item! So I'll add a few at the end!!!

Things That Make Book Marketers Wake Up Screaming At Night

Your author goes on Fox News to denounce a video game that she's never seen or played, gets the facts wrong, and hundreds of gamers descend on Amazon to post one-star reviews of her book, add nasty tags, and camp out in the forums.

Lesson Learned: make sure your authors are capable of staying on-message, and that they know what their message is. Denouncing things you don't understand is very dangerous.

Luckily, all of my authors are much smarter than that. (And mostly unlikely to get on Fox in the first place, but that's a side point.)

A Taxonomy of Pizza

I just ate lunch...and I had pizza for dinner just last night (from the excellent King & Sons in my hometown), but, still, this post from Slice has me salivating.

It makes me want to try to eat my way down the list, that's what it does...

[via Boing Boing, which means most of you have already seen it]

What this Organization Needs Is a Committee!

Or maybe vice versa.

Mary Robinette Kowal is running for Secretary of SFWA, on a very detailed, specific platform.

Important things to note:
  • she has identified problems and has plausible solutions for them
  • she has experience as Secretary of a similar organization
  • she's willing to dive into the SFWA swamp and fight the alligators
  • and, most importantly, she wants to be Secretary, not President, like most folks who want to fix an organization. That speaks to a knowledge of organizations and an attitude which has not always been in evidence in SFWA's office-seekers.
I don't know who, if anyone, else will run, or if she'll be able to do what she plans if she wins. But it looks like a great, and achievable, platform to me. (But I'm not a SFWA member, so all I can do is watch from the sidelines.) Good luck to her.

Odd Personal Milestones

As of today, I've been an employee of John Wiley and Sons for exactly as long as I was unemployed.

(Unemployed May 23-September 23, employed September 24-current. Each one, 124 days.)

Now, don't think this means anything -- I was at the old place for sixteen years (sixteen years, one month, and seven days, to be precise), and I have some hope of breaking that record...

Quote of the Week

"Mum always thinks I'm being a sexist, so I try to be careful -- not only with her, but with everyone. It seems to make a difference to some girls. If you say something that isn't sexist to the right sort of girl, she likes you more. Say one of your mates is going on about how girls are stupid, and you say "Not all girls are stupid," then it can make you look good. There have to be girls listening, though, obviously. Otherwise it's a waste of time."
-Nick Hornby, Slam, p.17

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Slam by Nick Hornby

Most YA novels that I've read have idealized protagonists -- even if the kids are flawed, they're still generally smarter, more resourceful and articulate than real kids would be in that same situation. Hornby, on the other hand, depicts an absolutely realistic teen boy in Sam, the narrator of Slam.

Sam isn't exactly dumb, but he's not particularly motivated. School isn't the focus of this book, but, from what we can tell, he does OK in his classes without trying much at all. He's also an emotionally authentic teen boy, unconnected with his emotions most of the time and unused to articulating his feelings. He's our first-person narrator, so we get a lot of his voice, but he's still a bit opaque -- we know as much about him as he does, but he doesn't know himself all that well.

(Of course, he's sixteen, so that's very appropriate -- and more convincing than some of the hyper-verbal feelings-obsessed kids in other YA books.)

It's a good thing that Hornby is an energetic writer, used to moving pages forward through voice and creating vivid characters, since someone like Sam could easily turn into a dull lump in the hands of a more slow-moving writer. Hornby doesn't have a whole lot of plot in Slam -- we find out, almost on page 1, that Sam is telling this story from a vantage point two years later, and that something major and life-changing happened for him, but the story is just that: how one thing changed this kid's life forever.

Sam meets a girl, Alicia, at a party and is interested in her. They start dating and become (to quote Juno) "sexually active," and then the major, life-changing thing happens.

Would stating baldly what that thing is constitute a spoiler? Because I have to expect that anyone more focused and attentive than Sam himself would have figured it out by now.

And Slam then deals with the repercussions of that "thing," on Sam, on Alicia, and on their respective parents. (There's room for an interesting compare-and-contrast with the aforementioned Oscar-nominated movie, which I just saw over the weekend, but I'm not sure I want to give away that much of Slam to get into it.)

I want to discuss the end of Slam -- which I found plausible, and thought Hornby meant it to be a corrective to more optimistic or ideologically committed stories, but still didn't like the way it assumed this is the way such a relationship would necessarily be for people like Sam and Alicia -- but I will refrain.

Oh, and I forgot to mention two interesting aspects of Slam:

First, that Sam has a poster of Tony Hawk on his wall, which he talks to. (And which "talks back" to him, in that Sam has memorized Hawk's book Hawk: Operation Skateboarder and spouts back appropriate quotes from it to himself.)

And, secondly, that Slam has what might be a slight speculative element: more than once, Sam goes to sleep in his own time and wakes up a year or two forward in the future, to live a day of his future life before coming back to his original time.

The latter adds an uncomfortable element of inevitability. Again, Slam has a certain opinion about relationships -- a very modern, urbane, sophisticated one -- which I think is valid but not helpful, in the sense that believing in something negative about your own life can help to make it happen.

I'm running around in circles trying not to talk about Slam's ending, so I think I'd better quit while I'm behind. Slam is an interesting YA novel, and a decent, non-preachy example of the problem novel. But Sam and Alicia seem to end up where they do more because of the author's declaration than by their own actions, and that's a problem.

Topic for Discussion

The Dabel Brothers are this generation's Byron Preiss.

Agree or disagree?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bram Stoker Preliminary Ballot

Ellen Datlow has posted the very long list of preliminary ballot items for the Bram Stoker Award; from my jaundiced position, it looks like every horror publication worth reading that was published last year (and possibly a few that aren't). The fact that I don't much like horror should probably be factored in there.

[via SF Awards Watch]

Always Counting

I'm reading Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 9tail Fox, and trying to piece things together -- some things fit together very nicely, and others...don't. Page references are to the US (Night Shade) edition:

First: when was that?
"9tail Fox takes place a few years in the future and is based on a past where San Francisco's Chinatown was cut out of Central in the mid-1990s and turned into an autonomous subdistrict of the SFPD."
- Acknowledgements, p. vii
"In April 1991, the small sliver of central San Francisco bounded by Geary, Market and Larkin Streets got its own SFPD task force. ... Ten years later, a purpose-built SFPD building opened at 301 Eddy Street, the new Tenderloin Station.

"About five years after that, a similar decision to cut Chinatown out of Central and turn the area into its own SFPD district created such outrage from those within the local community that the whole plan was put on hold, indefinitely. Civic pride, however, needed saving and City Hall's compromise saw Chinatown merged with the Financial District and given quasi-autonomy as an SFPD sub-district within Central, which was, itself, one of five stations within Metro."
- Chapter 3, p.9

To review, 1991 + 10 + 5 equals "the mid-1990s." Sure, it does.

Second: what time is it?

" eighty-seven-year-old doctor...Misha Persikov...."
- Chapter 1, p.2

Chapter 7 header: "Stalingrad -- Winter, 1942"

"Anyway, Misha was on official business. He might only be thirteen...."
- Chapter 7, p.25

Someone aged 13 in 1942 would be 87 in the year 2016. (Admittedly, the book has not yet explicitly said that the "Misha" of Chapter 7 is Misha Persikov. So this may be a quibble.)

The book opens on Friday, February 6th (year unspecified). 2009 has such a date, as does 2015. Perhaps Misha's birthday is in late January, or the "Winter" in Chapter 7 is at the end of the year. From this evidence, 9tail Fox is set in 2015.

" 1978 when Robert Vanberg was admitted...."
- Chapter 8, p.30

"...that had lasted six presidents, thirty years and a couple of major wars..."
- Chapter 10, p.39

I stumbled on that "thirty" at first, and thought it was an error -- but it looks now like just an understatement. As to the six presidents: Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and thus whoever wins in 2008 gets a second term in 9tail Fox. (I doubt that will be important.)

Third: disconnected thoughts

9tail Fox was published in 2005, but, so far, it doesn't really feel like it's set ten years in the future.

Grimwood thinks the National Enquirer is the Weekly World News; the Enquirer has stories about celebrities and it's the WWN that has (had, now) stories about aliens and the resurrected Elvis. (p.16)

He thinks that an American would say "Should I have done?" (p.45)

And a lot of things seem slightly off in ways I can't quite articulate -- I'll hope that these are deliberate, and forge on.

The News From Nowhere

Bad News: J.G. Ballard is suffering from advanced prostate cancer, which sounds terminal.

Good News: That condition spurred him to quickly write an autobiography, Miracles of Life.

I hope the first isn't as true as it looks, but, if Ballard is heading off into that good night, at least he leaves behind the massive legacy of his work. If there's any justice in this world, someday he will be known as one of the best and most characteristic writers of the twentieth century.

Meaningless Numbers

In the tradition of all the writers on the Internet who proudly post their daily word-counts, I hereby declare that I've sent twenty-three e-mails before 9:00 AM.

Further updates will follow, as the situation warrants.

More Bestseller List Shenanagans

Publishers Weekly reports this week on the case of Dave Zinczenko's Eat This, Not That, which is selling very strongly...but does not appear on the New York Times bestseller list. (It is on PW's list.)

The Times sniffed that Eat This "falls under the classification of of a calorie counter book, which the Times does not track."

Anybody else get the sense that the Times is just making it up as they go along? Has the Times ever explicitly deigned to say what categories they are willing to "track" and which they won't?

A bestseller list that ignores the books that actually sell the best is not just a bad idea -- it's a failure and a lie. The Times just keeps digging themselves deeper and deeper into their hole, as they gerrymander these books out of that list and dismissively decide not to track entire categories of books because they don't like them. Why do we still pay attention to these people?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Unexpected New Neighbor

Torque Control has the interesting news that Michael Chabon has joined SFWA.

So -- all that stuff I said about him pretending he doesn't really belong in the genre ghetto when I reviewed The Yiddish Policemen's Union a few weeks back? I'm taking it all back; he's just bought a condo in skiffytown. And it's nice to have him here.

{via Shaken & Stirred}

BSFA Nominees

SF Awards Watch has the full list of nominees; all we need now is the American version of Niall Harrison to come into the comment thread and sneer at it. (SFWA should designate someone to officially do so...not that SFWA is organized or unanimous enough to do that.)

For myself, the really interesting nominee is Alice in Sunderland, under novel. This is actually a work of comics; what's sometimes called a "graphic novel." I wasn't aware the BSFA's definition of "novel" included comics. (I myself pit novels against graphic novels in my own year-end round-ups, but I'm not entirely sure if it's a good idea for awards to do so on an ad hoc basis.)

Extraordinary Circumstances by Cynthia Cooper

Admission of Partiality: I have a professional connection to this book; it's being published by John Wiley (my employer), and I'm the Marketing Manager for the line in which it is published. So obviously I'd be expected to say nice things about it in public.

But it's even better than I expected; I read nearly a hundred pages Saturday afternoon standing up in a bowling alley during a kid's birthday party. (My younger son, age 7, was in attendance.) A book that can hold a reader's attention like that is something to be prized.

Cooper was the whistleblower at WorldCom in 2002; she was a Vice President and head of the Internal Audit department there, and had come across some discrepancies in the numbers. Like any good auditor would, she and her team followed the thread as far as possible. And that was much farther than any of them expected, and through more roadblocks than usual. Extraordinary Circumstances is the story of what happened: not just the fraud itself, but the story of both WorldCom and Cynthia Cooper, the story of an upstart telecom company from a state considered a backwater and a talented, driven young woman from that very same place.

As I said up top, I'm biased with regard to this book. I was sure it was terrific before I read it, and now I know I was right to think that. But Cooper ranged farther and dug deeper to tell this story than I expected -- I knew it would be personal and compelling, but I wasn't as ready for it to be the definitive story of a company's rise and fall.

I got one of the first copies off the presses -- there's that "insider" thing again -- but Extraordinary Circumstances is on trucks right now, en route to all of the booksellers you can think of (and probably a number you can't). The official publication date is February 8th.

I know my usual audience is not terribly interested in business books (and I've just picked up a giant pile of recent SF/Fantasy, which I hope to be powering through over the next couple of weeks), but this is a great book -- and I say that as someone who doesn't read lots and lots of business books, either.

(And, if you're a blogger or other reviewer who is intrigued and wants a copy for yourself, e-mail me at work at awheeler (at) wiley (dot) com. We'll be sending review copies out starting this week, and I'd love to include you.)

Update, 2/15: Since this is one of the top five Google hits for "cynthia cooper extraordinary circumstances" -- at least at the moment -- here are some other links from people who might be considered more unbiased about this great book than I am.

Another List-of-Questions Meme

I haven't done one in a while, and Keith R.A. DeCandido just did three in a row in one post. (Kieth is the Iron Man of Memes, though, so I don't feel so bad in only doing one. I picked the one in the middle, just because.)

1. How old will you turn in 2008?

2. Do you think you'll be married by then?
I certainly hope so, since I'm married now.

3. What do you look forward to most in the next 3 months?
I suppose Thing 1's birthday. He's turning 10, so it's an odometer birthday.

4. Do you like to say "I told you so?"
Only when I'm right.

5. Who was the last person to call you?
A creative supervisor from upstairs at working, saying she needs a copy of a book quickly.

6. Do you prefer call or text?
I prefer neither. Can I insert "e-mail?"

7. Do you have any pets?
There is one cat and one fish in my house. They are not my pets. The fact that I seem to now be the one who most regularly feeds the cat is deplorable, but I expected it.

8. What were you doing at 1:30 am?
As far as anyone else knows, sleeping.

9. What were you doing at 3:00 am?
I decline to answer that question on the advice of counsel.

10. When is the last time you saw your mom?
Saturday evening, for our standing dinner invitation.

11. What is your mood?
Bemused, as usual when typing a meme aimed at chatty fourteen-year-olds.

12. How many houses have you lived in?
Let's see...apartment in Albany, apartment and two houses in the Rochester area, house in Wayne, apartment in Lodi, house in Pompton Lakes...five.

13. How many city/towns have you lived in?
Seven -- the ones named above, plus Pittsford and Penfield (suburbs of Rochester).

14. Do you prefer shoes, socks or bare feet?
For myself, and for everyone else in my near vicinity, shoes.

15. Are you a social person?
Not in the slightest.

16. What was the last thing you ate?
An apple.

17. What's your favorite color?

18. What are you doing for your next birthday?
Getting older.

19. What is your favorite TV show?
Don't really have one; I watch very little TV on purpose.

20. What kind of jelly do you like on your PB & J sandwich?
There's always strawberry jelly in the house, and that's OK, but I usually got for orange marmalade. My favorite, though, is probably apricot jam.

21. Do you like coffee?
I've never had a cup, so I assume "no" without evidence.

22. What are you listening to?
The sound of my fingers typing. (Previously: someone's child playing a "Super Mario" game on a handheld -- I'm going to guess a DS -- in the next officicle, which made me intensely homesick.) Update: she's back!

23. Do you have an iPod?
Yes. Two of 'em right now, to be honest. (Because I got a new one before the old one died.)

24. How do you feel about the last person you kissed?
Well, I married her almost fifteen years ago, so I hope that's a clue.

25. Do you sleep on a certain side of the bed?
The right, looking at it.

26. Do you know how to play poker?
In the vague sense that I know how to do differential calculus, yes.

27. What are you thinking about right now?
That my official lunch hour is just about over.

28. Any plans for this weekend?
Not "plans" as such, but I hope to play a bunch of Lego Star Wars on the Wii with Thing 2.

29. Have you cut your hair this week?
Someone else cut it a week ago Saturday, which is close but no cigar. I do shave and trim my beard every morning.

30. Last picture you took?
Two of Thing 1 doing his homework Sunday night, at the kitchen table, using Thing 2's camera.

31. Are you a tease?
Not in the sense this question means, though the boys probably think I tease them a bit.

32. Have you ever been in an ambulance?
Yep. A cheap little converted-mini-van one, back in 2002 for my "heart trouble."

33. Do you prefer an ocean or pool?
Pool; I hate salt water. Lakes are nice, though.

34. Do you smile often?
I smile only when things amuse me, so no.

35. What color are your bed sheets?
A dark, shiny brown. (If I had Thing 2's giant Crayola box, I could probably give you a decorator-style name for it, but I don't.)

36. What is your favorite thing to spend money on?
I prefer not to spend money, but I guess food, books, and CDs are the most likely to get me to unbend.

37. Do you wear any jewelry 24/7?
A wedding ring.

38. Have you heard a rumor about yourself this week?
No, but if you want to start one I'll be evasive and unconvincing...

39. Who is the funniest person you know?
My brother.

41. Where do you want to go to college?
Wrong tense, dear. I wanted to go to Columbia, but the rat bastards wait-listed me, so they won't see a cent when I'm a bloated plutocrat. I did go to Vassar, which was quite nice.

42. Who was the last person to make you cry?
Ellen Page, at the 10:00 show of Juno yesterday morning. (I love days when the kids have school but I'm off from work.)

43. Do you shut off the water while you brush your teeth?
Of course. What do you need water to brush your teeth for? The mouth does have a certain amount of fluid already within it, you know.

44. Do you wish you were with someone right now?
Not in my officicle, no.

45. Are you mad about anything?
No, just mad in general.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Great Whomping Load of Condescension

From John Clute's current review of Gregory Frost's Shadow Bridge, which was up to that point lucid and on-point for Clute:
" benumbing for an adult to read as almost any story written for the Young Adult market, whose products are about as close to genuine fiction as megachurches are to monasteries where silence is observed."
Clute is revealed as a genre snob, and should henceforth be treated in exactly the same way as the commentators who make similar sweeping pronouncements about SF.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/19

I've got three categories of new books again this week -- first are a couple of items that came in for review:

Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece, from First Second in May 2008. Abel is the writer-artist of La Perdida, Soria is her co-writer on this project, and Pleece is a solid British artist who's worked on more things than I could mention. The publisher's letter describes it as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Clerks," with young, disaffected Goths and real vampires. Looks like it would have been very Zeitgeist-y about ten years ago, but we'll see.

And from Papercutz, which seems to be an NBM imprint, is Michel Plessix's adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's novel Wind in the Willows, in yet another iteration of Classics Illustrated. CI -- comics adaptations of "great books" -- has always been a decent idea with mixed messages. (On the one hand, it's supposedly about getting kids interested in these stories via comics, but they often end up being used like Cliffs Notes.) I've always liked The Wind in the Willows, and the art looks nice, so I have some hopes for this one.

I also bought some books this week:

Confessions of a Blabbermouth is another book from DC's Minx imprint, written by Mike Carey (also behind the best Minx book I've read, Re-Gifters) with his daughter Louise Carey and illustrated by Aaron Alexovich. It's another story firmly aimed at teen girls, with a plot about mixed families and blogs -- and I love seeing comics aimed at a wide audience without fantasy trappings, so that's promising.

Da Brudderhood of Zeeba Zeeba Eata by Stephan Pastis is the second-most recent "Pearls Before Swine" collection, which I somehow missed the first time around. It confused me a bit when I saw it in the store, but I recovered quickly enough to make sure I didn't already own it.

Kitty and the Silver Bullet is the fourth novel in the series by Carrie Vaughn. I liked the first three well enough to re-publish them in an omnibus back at the old place, and I'm planning to keep reading the series as long as still the engaging, non-standard take on urban fantasy that it has been so far.

I also recently realized that Hard Case Crime had published three old Lawrence Block novels that I didn't have, so I remedied that situation -- I now have copies of Grifter's Game, Lucky at Cards, and A Diet of Treacle for when I need some old-school paperback mystery/pulp fun.

And then there was a library trip, mostly to pile on the recent SF/Fantasy that I missed since leaving the old job and that hasn't come in to La Casa Hornswoggler for review:

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst, a Norton-nominated first novel by a writer I keep running into at conventions and similar events.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, a mystery about a dead detective whose cover proclaims it to be science fiction.

Ian McDonald's Brasyl, another one of those books with three plotlines set centuries apart from each other. That kind of thing often annoys me, but I've liked nearly everything of McDonald's I've read, so, on balance, I'll give it a try.

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson, first in a contemporary fantasy series that's becoming quite popular. (The second book is titled Selling Out, which may or may not be a wink at fan complaints.)

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, who I've run into on-line for ages now and who I think I met at the Baltimore WorldCon a decade ago. I've never read one of his books before, and that's starting to embarrass me.

The Braindead Megaphone, a collection of essays by George Saunders. Saunders won a World Fantasy Award for his story "CommComm" in 2006, the year I was a judge. I haven't read a lot of Saunders otherwise -- though I did dislike the very arch The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a particularly thin and obvious allegory -- so I thought essays might be the way to go.

Eclipse One, first in what I hope will be a long-running series of original anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan. (Though I also have to admit that the landscape of the last two decades is littered with the wreckage of previous original-anthology series.)

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente. I've met Cat a couple of times -- most recently at JohnCon at World Fantasy -- and this book has sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy. (Though, back at the old job, my freelance reader, who also thought she would love it, very much did not love it.)

And Axis by Robert Charles Wilson, since I read Spin, and generally find Wilson a solid SF writer (if sometimes too consumed by his hobbyhorses).

(Note: I originally had the cover art of all the books mentioned here, but that was just too much. So I only left a few.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Great Novels of the Future

In ten to fifteen years -- when the generation brought up entirely on modern videogames is in its prime creative years -- I fully expect to see a great literary novel entitled Anything Not Saved Will Be Lost.

If you're part of that generation, feel free to use that title -- but what you write has to be good enough to support it.

Worlds That Never Meet

Running through the blogroll today, I see that Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is reviewing Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods. He's very positive, as he usually is, and burbles a bit more than I would have. (I like American Gods, but I found the ending a bit of a fizzle.)

What intrigued me, though, was his description of American Gods as "Neil Gaiman's signature work." And my first reaction was, "Come on, he'd been Neil F-ing Gaiman for nearly a decade when American Gods was published; there's no way that's his signature work." But then I thought about it a bit.

American Gods was Gaiman's first "big" novel -- it came after Neverwhere (the novel version of Gaiman's script for a teleplay that wasn't a big success in either form) and the odd object Stardust. (It was around that era when I pointed out that Gaiman's publishers were promoting every single Gaiman novel as his first something -- first novel, first illustrated novel, first novel-written-as-a-novel, first YA novel -- and wondered, as a joke, how long they could keep that up.) For those benighted souls who don't read comics and never came in contact with Sandman, American Gods might seem to be Gaiman's signature work.

I still won't admit that it is -- that would be like saying Woody Allen's magnum opus was "The Kugelmass Episode," simply because it's his best-known piece of prose -- but I can see where it comes from. Though it still does seem odd to me that the worlds of fantasy novels and of comics, which have so much in common, can be so separate to some audiences.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Semi-Review of Heaven by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Another busy Saturday means another old RASFW post dragged out for a semblance of daily content. (For good or ill, I'm almost out of these.) This one was originally posted 2/13/04 on rec.arts.sf.written, in reply to a general request for information about the book:

Well, I'm selling it in the SFBC, so my opinion is probably biased. (So I'll try not to get into opinion.) Despite the title and cover, it really is a science fiction novel.

It has Neanderthals in spaceships and an interesting alien race with very different forms for the two genders. I've heard that it's related to Wheelers, but I couldn't tell from reading it -- it's set in the medium-far future, so it could be the same timeline (but it certainly didn't seem to have to be).

I enjoyed reading it, but I didn't love it -- it's probably best for readers who really like SF and want lots of ideas thrown at them. (Which is why I think the title and cover are unfortunate.) The antagonists are somewhat reminiscent of the evil Catholic church from Dan Simmons's "Hyperion" books.

I think those are all relatively factual things, so I'll leave it at that.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Quote of the Week

"All I can say is that, believe it or not, sex is like anything else good: once you have it, you stop being quite so bothered about it. It's there, and it's great and everything, but it doesn't mean you're happy to let everything else go out of the window. If having sex regularly meant listening to Alicia's dad being snobby, and giving up skating, and never seeing mates, then I wasn't sure how much I wanted it. I wanted a girlfriend who'd sleep with me, but I wanted a life as well. I didn't know -- still don't know -- whether people managed that. Mum and Dad didn't. Alicia was my first serious girlfriend, and it wasn't happening for us either. What it seemed like was that I'd been so desperate to sleep with someone that I'd swapped too much for it. OK, I'd said to Alicia. If you'll let me have sex, I'll give you skating, mates, schoolwork and my mum (because I was sort of missing her, in a funny sort of way). Oh, and if your mum and dad want to talk to me like I'm some no-hoper crackhead, that's fine by me too. Just...get your clothes off. And I was beginning to realize that I'd paid over the odds."
-Nick Hornby, Slam, p.71-72

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Making Love by Richard Rhodes

Libraries are wonderful places for unexpected discoveries. On the main shelves, there's the presumption that everything is worth reading -- it's what has survived purges over the years, and was bought, after considered thought and perusal of reviews, in the first place. So a book that's battered and old might be particularly special, simply because the librarians have had to make a decision, every year or so when they realize space is getting tight, to keep that specific book.

I found Making Love by pure serendipity -- it was in the case next to the one where I found Larry Miller's Spoiled Rotten America, and I'm not a man who could avoid a quick browse of the sex books when I found myself right in the middle of them. I vaguely remembered it, and Rhodes; he's a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Making Love was his attempt (back in 1992) to write a modern, honest sexual autobiography. (Though, doing a bit of research after I finished it, what I may have been remembering was Martin Amis's demolition of it in The New York Times Book Review.)

Rhodes had an admirable aim: he wanted to write about his own sexual life with the same honesty as he had written about other topics -- and, since he'd won a Pulitzer, one would expect that his prose will be solid.

But one would be wrong.

In Making Love, Rhodes is a clunky writer in several ways. Amis's review nailed the cliches and hothouse quality of many of Rhodes's descriptions of sex, but he skipped over Rhodes's clinical streak and his unwillingness to use earthy terms where appropriate. (Making Love is a hundred-and-seventy-three page book about fucking in which the word "fuck" never appears.) Rhodes has a tin ear when it comes to sex; he manages to consistently hit the wrong tone, and to do so in one of five or six different ways in rotation. For just one example, he massively overuses the descriptive term "vaginal introitus."

I suspect Rhodes is an obsessive; his explanation of his masturbation routine (which seems to require the whole of an afternoon -- who but a freelance writer has such time?) is the best example of this, with extensive preparations and hours of what doesn't really seem like fun. And Making Love focuses on obsessiveness rather than on sex too much of the time.

Rhodes covers his deflowering in a quick initial chapter, mentions his teenage group-home "situational homosexuality" honestly but doesn't really go into detail in chapter two, and then plunges into adulthood. He mentions that he's had sex with eleven women in his life, but he doesn't run through them, or organize the book chronologically. Instead, we get a few of chapters of thematic meandering (one on the penis, one on an abortion in the '60s, a very long one on porn) to cover most of his adult life (the late '50s through about 1982) and then he gets sucked into the vortex of ESO.

Rhodes was the ghostwriter on a sex book, ESO: Extended Sexual Orgasm, after he browbeat the sex researchers Alan and Donna Brauer into letting him tape their spiel and turn it into a book. He'd attended one of their demonstrations in 1981 -- of a woman supposedly remaining in an orgasmic state for hours -- saw a direct connection to his plateau theory of extreme masturbation, and was instantly intrigued. The ESO phenomenon started slow, but I know from my early days in the business that ESO books were selling like mad by the early '90s, and they don't seem to have entirely died out even now. Rhodes took to ESO like a duck to water, throwing himself completely into its regimen. (ESO is something like the extreme sports version of sex, requiring training and record-keeping; for an obsessive like Rhodes, it was like coming home.) One does wonder what his then-current wife made of this; I don't believe he ever directly mentions her or talks about their sex life together.

The back half of the book is one part extended paean to ESO, with unsexy physical descriptions and clunky pseudo-poetic writing about emotions, and one part love sex letter to his current (as of 1992) inamorata, G_____.

In time-hallowed fashion, G_____ was:
  • two decades younger than Rhodes
  • incredibly physically fit
  • amazingly attractive
  • working in the media (at a radio station), where Rhodes met her in his capacity as Big Cheese touring author
  • amazingly multi-orgasmic and willing to indulge Rhodes in his ESO operations.
Rhodes himself was married at the time, but that didn't last long. The last, long chapter details his relationship with G____ in unarousing detail, culminating when she finally breaks down and tells him that she doesn't want to spend her life counting and timing her orgasms in search of ever-greater heights of ESO. Rhodes briefly sulks, then settles down to a slightly less acrobatic sex life as the curtain falls.

There are at least a dozen novels that are at least as "real" about sex as Making Love and which are much better written. It was a noble experiment, but it was one of those experiments that shatter the test-tubes and leave the lab a mess. There's no real reason to read this book these days, though I will admit it's very short.