Saturday, December 31, 2011

iTunes is Timely, if Depressing

Currently playing right at this second: Local H's "What Would You Have Me Do?"

Sample lyrics:
Hold tight, it's New Years Eve.
It will be cold tonight.
Kill the heat and shut out all the lights.
Cut the phone line too.
Alright. We don't need nothing but cyanide.
Pulled our teeth, won't be identified.
What would you have me do?
And here's a video of that song, played live somewhere last year. Actually, Local H usually plays a New Year's Eve show in Chicago every year, so they might just be playing this live right now.

Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick

Yesterday, I reviewed a book about one con man -- The Other by Matthew Hughes -- and so that means that today I have one with two con men, to continue the streak. (I don't know of a book about three con men; if you do, feel free to comment up at me.)

Dancing With Bears is the first novel about Michael Swanwick's series characters Darger and Surplus, but not their first story -- as the words "series characters" probably tipped you off -- since they've previously appeared in three shorter pieces starting with "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." (Those three stories are all collected in Swanwick's most recent assemblage of new short fiction, which, coincidentally, is also named The Dog Said Bow-Wow.) Darger and Surplus are, as I just said, con men -- they traipse through a complicated, gaudy and dangerous post-apocalyptic future a few centuries on, in which a Singularity was more or less tamped down, with the cold and cruel AIs scheming in various data-storage devices to slaughter any life they can whenever they get a chance. Technology has turned biological -- Surplus himself is an uplifted dog, more or less, and is the flamboyant American to Darger's quietly nondescript Brit -- and the world is a patchwork of small and medium-sized polities, full of wonders, treasure, and lovely women, all of which Darger and Surplus endeavor to take for themselves. (Though usually with spectacularly dangerous, and not particularly remunerative, results.)

Darger and Surplus are something like the post-historical version of Fritz Leiber's great sword & sorcery duo, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, though Swanwick's heroes rely much more on their wits, and are typically vastly overmatched in the violence department (unlike Leiber's swordsmen, who are good enough to fight their way out of nearly every situation they encountered). And Swanwick uses appropriate prose for their tales: long, rolling sentences, a wry, world-weary tone, crackling dialogue, and just enough description of the bizarre world to keep the story hurtling forward.

Taking them to novel length meant that Swanwick had to weave an even more intricate plot around them than before, which unfortunately does mean that Darger and Surplus are not at the center of Dancing With Bears quite as much as I might have hoped -- they set the action in motion, but they disappear for chapters at a time, and the focus is wider than the two con men. This time around, we meet them in mid-journey, just as Prince Achmed, the envoy from the Caliph of Byzantium to the Duke of Muscovy, has learned that his two learned and experienced guides are actually nothing of the sort. Achmed, like so many of Darger and Surplus's temporary companions, doesn't last too long in this story, but Byzantium's gift -- a group of bioengineered young women, the Pearls Beyond Price, designed to be the perfect courtly lovers and wives to their noble husband the Duke -- continues onward to Moscow, guarded by a group of fanatically loyal and massively powerful Neanderthals and somewhat guided by our con-men heroes.

And of course matters in Moscow -- and in Russia in general -- are less settled, and more complicated, than anyone anticipated: just to begin with, the Duke is never seen in public, and admits no one for an audience, so how are his gifts to be delivered? As usual with a mysterious, hidden leader, there are factions that would be quite happy to replace him with a more visible face of Muscovy -- themselves, for example. And what of the fanatic Koschei the strannik, a wanderer with plans of his own? Worse, the demons of Russia -- those AIs -- are not as dead or walled away from the physical world as in more civilized regions, and the path of the Caliph's party passes directly through a former oil refinery, now a manufactory for mechanical beasts to kill humans. And the demons have larger plans than that -- a plot well in motion to kill all of Muscovy, and much of the rest of the world, with forgotten megaweapons from before the apocalypse.

All Darger and Surplus want is to find a way to make a vast fortune and get out of Moscow with it -- and their skins -- intact. Is that so much to ask?

Dancing With Bears is a splendid romp, a tour through a strange future, and an enthralling adventure -- I won't recommend it to any readers looking for morals in their novels, but for all of the rest of us, it's a great way to spend a few hours. (And reading about them is the only way I'd recommend spending time with Darger and Surplus!) Since the paperback is officially published on January 3rd -- which is this coming Tuesday -- the timing is perfect as well.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Other by Matthew Hughes

I could pretend that I was trying to spare you folks getting the same spiel from me too often...but you wouldn't believe that, would you? So I don't really have an excuse for why I didn't review Matt Hughes's newest far-future SF novel, The Other -- which was published by Underland Press in early November as a very reasonably-priced trade paperback -- soon after I read it in mid-September.

Look, Matt Hughes is one of the most entertaining writers in the SF/fantasy field, now or ever -- his writing is reminiscent of Jack Vance at his lightest, P.G. Wodehouse at his least cow-creamer-focused, and Arthur Conan Doyle at his most frivolous. This is not my opinion; it's a fact. See my reviews of his previous novels The Damned Busters, Hespira, Template, The Spiral Labyrinth, or Majestrum for more details -- or, better yet, just pick up one of his books, start reading a bit, and see if you can stop. I'll bet that you can't.

(Wait a minute! You can read the beginning of this very novel, as I am reminded by an e-mail from the author way back in October, on his website. So you don't need to go anywhere, or do anything but click that link, to be exposed to the full glory that is Matt Hughes.)

If you actually want to know something about this novel, well, let's see what I can remember of the details, these three months later. Luff Imbry is a rich and successful con man on the Earth of the far future -- it's not quite Vance's Dying Earth, but Hughes's Earth is definitely on a restricted diet from its physician and watching its level of exertion closely to stay on this side of health -- whom we met previously in Hughes's novel Black Brillion, and he is kidnapped and abandoned on a far-away world. Even worse, Fulda -- the planet in question -- is not only low-tech, and almost completely cut off from the greater interstellar Spray of humanity, but is home only to a fanatical sect devoted to perfecting the human form -- that is, to remaining absolutely identical with each other. The corpulent and unique Imbry could no more hide among them than he could stand behind a grain of sand, and so his troubles begin.

On the other hand, Imbry is intelligent, clever, and entirely able to take advantage of every last opportunity that comes his way -- and, better yet, he has Matt Hughes on his side. The Other is a sparkling, wonderfully amusing novel, full of great dialogue, odd situations, and quirky characters; it's a lovely, masterful souffle of a book, and I can think of no reason why any reader wouldn't love it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Something I Won't Be Doing

I had a dummy post, sitting in Blogger as a draft, under the title "Shelf Porn." The idea was that I'd take a picture of one of my shelves and write a quick bit about each of the books (or maybe just authors/series) on that shelf, since I keep wanting to write about books I read in the past and haven't done that as well as I'd liked.

I am about to delete that dummy post now, and forget the entire idea, since all of those shelves were lost in the flood, and what I have now is pretty thin and entirely recent -- so it's mostly unread and probably all already mentioned here once already.

On the other hand, I'm now 99% settled into my new basement office -- it's what I've been doing over the past week almost nonstop, with brief breaks for holiday frivolity -- and maybe I'll actually get some relaxation out of this vacation before it's time to go back to work. (One can only hope!)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Just in Case You're Too Full of Holiday Spirit

Here's the truest love song ever:

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/24

I'm writing this the evening of Christmas day, after a hectic few days of last-minute shopping and basement renovations and holiday frivolity, and I'm happy to report that this is the first "Reviewing the Mail" post to emanate from my deeply traditional blogger's basement since late August and the flooding from hurricane Irene. I'm not entirely moved in down here -- I still have books stacked in heaps across three rooms upstairs, waiting for a trip tomorrow to buy new bookcases -- but it's definitely getting there.

However, even in the midst of turmoil and holiday fervor, the mail goes on. And so I have four books to tell you about this week, all of which reached my mailbox over the past few days, which may be just what you're looking for. I usually point out here that I haven't read any of these books yet, but my lead-off title this week is a reprint of one of the best fantasy books of this year (or the past decade, actually), so I'll instead just dive into...

Among Others by Jo Walton, a luminous, deeply felt and masterfully written story of growing up odd and SFnally oriented, combined with a deep but understated fantasy story of perception and possibility. I reviewed it back in the spring, when it was published in hardcover, and I said then "Among Others is a great fantasy novel, a great novel, a great love letter to the power of books and science fiction, and a great picture of a young person so many of us were like, in our own ways." If you read SF and fantasy -- if you've ever read SF and fantasy, or were ever a socially awkward teenager who preferred books to people -- Among Others will be like coming home. The trade paperback edition is coming out on January 3rd from Tor, and I can't recommend it more highly.

Faith Erin Hicks's graphic novel Friends with Boys is coming as a book from First Second in March of 2012 -- but First Second has also been serializing that graphic novel on line, for absolutely free. Hicks has previously created the graphic novels Zombies Calling (my review) and The War at Ellsmere (my short review is buried in the middle of this epic monthly roundup, since I read it during my Eisner-award-judging weekend), and was the artist on Brain Camp (my review), written by other hands. Friends is a teen-friendly story of one girl -- who has certain similarities with her creator -- dropped into a public high school after a childhood spent being homeschooled with her three rambunctious older brothers, and finding her way there. Like Hicks's other books, there's also an element of the supernatural. It looks like a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to reading it all at once -- I've been avoiding the webcomic version because I hate reading long comics stories a page at a time, and because I knew the book was coming.

Mike Resnick's new novel is the second in his "Weird West Tales," a steampunky series about Doc Holliday in the 1880s. Following up on The Buntline Special, this one is The Doctor and the Kid, which finds Doc trying to provide for this continued care in a TB clinic by doing a few quick bounty hunter jobs -- and the biggest bounty out there is for a hotshot named Billy the Kid. Pyr published Doctor and the Kid as a trade paperback earlier in December; you should be able to get it from anyone who sells books by this point.

And last this time around is the most recent Man Booker winner, Julian Barnes's short novel The Sense of an Ending, which was published in hardcover by Knopf in October. It's not the kind of thing people come to me for a review of, but Barnes is a fabulous writer -- and several of his books, such as A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, England, England, Staring at the Sun, and Flaubert's Parrot, either have fantastic elements or otherwise are the kind of books that readers of imaginative literature are likely to love. (I've reviewed both his book of stories The Lemon Table and his meditation on death Nothing To Be Frightened Of here.) So I hope to read this quickly, and then inflict my thoughts on you folks -- and I do recommend Barnes in general, for those of you who can stand fine writing arrayed in interesting ways.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Belated Quote of the Week: Let Me Tell You About Us

"Chinese culture was proving oddly malleable. The thing about Chinese people is that they are always telling you what the thing about Chinese people is. For a long time, I made the mistake of trying to pay attention to the specific things themselves. The Chinese will tell you that Chinese people are less formal than Westerners, and they will tell you that Chinese people are more formal than Westerners. Chinese people are outspoken, and Chinese people are reserved. They are very blunt, and they are very indirect. They are too curious and not curious enough. Chinese people are naturally thrifty (or cheap); they are inherently generous (or wasteful). The outlook of the Chinese is inflexible, and it is adaptable."
- Tom Scocca, "What Chinese People Are Like"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Weird Questionnaire

I like doing lists of questions -- it brings out my combative, contrarian side, which is never far from the surface -- so I saved Jeff VanderMeer's run-through of this list (originally from the French) when it came around last week. (I deliberately avoiding reading Jeff's post, so that I could answer the questions spontaneously.)

I finally have time to do it myself, so here goes:

1. Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.

There is more of Thor left in Thursday, even in these lesser latter days, than most of us realize.

2. Without looking at your watch: what time is it?


3. Look at your watch. What time is it?


4. How do you explain this?—?or these?—?discrepancy(ies) in time?

My wife just came home, and I had to say hello to her and help retriever her laptop from whichever son had it.

5. Do you believe in meteorological predictions?

I believe that they're broadly accurate, within their limitations and subject to the usual probably with probabilistic projections.

6. Do you believe in astrological predictions?

No. They're wishful thinking for the feeble-minded.

7. Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?

I have done so, but I don't go out of my way to do it.

8. What do you think of the sky and stars by night?

They're good for sparking pseudo-philosophical musings, about things like history and the depths of space and (when airplanes pass by) travel and separation.

9. What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?

My RSS feed in Google Reader. Before that, some editorial cartoons.

10. What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?

When they're large and architecturally impressive, the usual awe and wonder at the skill and knowledge that went into making them. Otherwise, there's no specific reaction I have to all religious architecture.

11. What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?

Absolutely nothing -- that's what being blind means.

12. What would you want to see if you were blind?

Everything; which is to say that I would want not to be blind.

13. Are you afraid?

As a default state? No.

14. What of?

I'm no longer afraid of heart attacks, floods, and being laid off, since those all happened to me in the last few years. I hope I don't get to add to that list; I still worry about my sons and all the other half-nameless things that could happen to me.

15. What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
I suppose that would be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for rather thin values of "weird."

16. Whom are you afraid of?

I suppose I should say "myself," to seem deep and mysterious.

17. Have you ever been lost?

Of course. I was a teenage boy in the late 20th century, when gas was cheap and getting lost was one of the great weekend pastimes. I don't mind getting lost as long as I have a sense that I can get back to somewhere familiar eventually.

18. Do you believe in ghosts?

No; not at all. My wife's family intermittently talks about strange noises in their house, which they sometimes attribute to one dead ancestor or another, and I try not to scoff too loudly these days.

19. What is a ghost?

Traditionally, the unquiet spirit of a dead human being.

20. At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?

There's music playing from the computer, which may or may not be separate -- it's "Out Come the Wolves," by Jacob Golden. The TV is on in the next room, playing some Big Bang Theory episode. And there's a very faint noise from the ceiling fan above my head.

21. What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard?–?for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?

The thump, many years ago, when I turned away for a second while changing my older son and he rolled off the bed onto the floor.

22. Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
Today I drove half an hour to buy a used desk, vacuumed and mopped a basement floor, drove boys to and from school, picked up prescriptions at a drugstore, and did a dozen other deeply mundane things. The whole week has been that way.

23. Have you ever been to confession?

I don't think so; I've never been Catholic, and my adolescent church's cross-religious training only went so far as to have field trip to other religions' worship services.

24. You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.

I deliberately led one of my best friends over a ledge in the snow, many years ago, hoping he would be hurt -- and he was, though not badly.

25. Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?

A Renaissance collection of interesting oddities -- usually of natural history, broadly defined -- gathered together in a piece of furniture created for the purpose.

26. Do you believe in redemption?

I believe people can do bad things and then later do good things. I don't believe there's any supernatural person or force keeping the books on those people. The question makes more sense to me in a political or sports context than in a moral one.

27. Have you dreamed tonight?
It's not night yet.

28. Do you remember your dreams?

Not usually.

29. What was your last dream?

I was having breakfast with a large group of people -- some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn't, and some of whom (I think) were famous. As is usual with my dreams, I was anxious, and things weren't going well -- my dreams tend to be a continual series of unresolvable crises and problems.

30. What does fog make you think of?

Driving to my train station, early in the morning, and the quiet stillness of that time. Seeing objects loom out of the mist, and how fog cuts the world into two parts: the few close things that can be seen, and the vast unknown outside.

31. Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?

This question has an interesting tension between "believe" -- presumably in a pseudo-religious sense -- and "exist." I don't "believe" in things in that sense; I accept the world as it is, as far as I understand what that is. If an animal doesn't exist, I don't "believe" in it.

32. What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?

Windows, out into the dark, on two sides. Yellow paint, a refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, two lights, a small window with a piece of stained glass in front of it. A door. A gorgeous piece of counted cross-stitch that my wife did, years ago.

33. If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?

Sell out Carnegie Hall.

34. What is a madman?

Someone with a mental illness.

35. Are you mad?

I'm angry, probably too much of the time -- but that's not what you mean. I'm a bit compulsive, introverted, and neurotic, but I'm tediously sane.

36. Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?

You mean, besides the ones that everyone knows about, and so aren't secret? No. I do believe that those not-so-secret societies do exist, and that their members use them, and the connections with other members, to try to quietly, and perhaps secretly, affect the important doings of the world.

37. What was the last weird book you read?

Richard Sala's graphic novel The Hidden.

38. Would you like to live in a castle?

Maybe, if I could have all mod. cons. The old and drafty and cold kind, no.

39. Have you seen something weird today?

I saw a sad, ugly, stark motel on the side of a minor highway, so closed-off and prison-like that it led my wife and I to make up stories about murder and horrible love affairs that took place there. That's a different kind of weird, though.

40. What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?

I would say Twin Peaks, which is a cheat, since it was a TV show, not a film.

41. Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Maybe. There's one in the center of my town -- only half-abandoned, since one side of it is a shop, and the other side is empty. They're not all that large, not all that well-fitted with plumbing, generally in the middle of parking lots and near major roads, and would be difficult to leave comfortably in. I'd prefer a lighthouse, actually.

42. Can you see the future?

No. I can sometimes guess things that will happen, but we all can do that.

43. Have you considered living abroad?

If by "considered," you mean with any seriousness, then no. But it's something I would love to do, or think I would love to do. 

44. Where?

An English-speaking country, preferably -- Canada, Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, even South Africa. I've never lived in a big city, either.

45. Why?

Life is so short that I don't want to waste it all in one place, doing one thing. On the other hand, I hate change.

46. What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?

This is a puckish answer, but Plan 9 From Outer Space.

47. Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?

In the past? Sure, why not. At this point in my life, it would only be interesting stories.

48. What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?

I'm not sure how to contextualize "weird" as a comparative quality. And I recently lost most of my books, so I can't poke around and remind myself of things. Perhaps a small self-published book, full of illustrations, called Steering Locks!, about the dangers of those automotive devices.

49. Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?

They're both excellent props for orotund speeches and sententious utterances, but globes are more fun to spin.

50. Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?

Bladed weapons, I suppose.

51. What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?

Mud, muck, and fish. It's a smallish body of water cut off from the sea, and nothing very large could hide there.

52. Do you like taxidermied animals?

I don't encounter them much in my life, so I've never had to take a particular position on them.

53. Do you like walking in the rain?

Not particularly: I get wet and depressed and dreary, and then more and more wet. Rain is for being outside and looking out at.

54. What goes on in tunnels?

Transit from one place to another, and, thus, commerce.

55. What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?

Reflections of lights in the window in front of me.

56. What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?

That we all are trapped in our own heads, with our own thoughts ever present and dominant.

57. Without cheating: where is that famous line from?

It's probably not "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which came to mind first. I don't know.

58. Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?

I don't have enough experience with either to say. I used to love walking around places I knew well at night, back when I was in college, but I tend to be at home at night, these days.

58. Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.

And they never spoke of that day, ever again. They had no need to.

59. Without looking at your watch: what time is it?


60. Look at your watch. What time is it?


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Publishers Don't Do

This week's tempest in a book-pot was sparked yesterday by the fine writer Michael Chabon, but it could easily have been any one of a thousand other authors. In an interview with the Washington Post, occasioned by the upcoming flood of his back catalog into electronic formats, Chabon complained about his royalty rates:
When it’s comes to royalties on a paper book, that rate (25 percent) is completely fair when you think of the expenses a publisher takes on — the delivery trucks and the factory workers and the distribution chains. But it’s not fair for them to take a roughly identical royalty for an e-book that costs them nothing to produce.
There have, of course, already been a dozen or more impassioned blog posts and hurt tweets, from various publishing folks, taking offense at that "nothing to produce." It is wrong, and horribly wrong, and all of us who work in the business know how much time and effort and agida goes into turning a manuscript into a readable ePub file, or its multifarious brethren. And that's only the beginning of the process -- merely making something exist is the simplest part. One might hope that we all could take that as read by this point -- that Publishing, as a verb, is much larger, and encompasses many more complicated, useful, necessary processes than the simple printing and warehousing of books.

We clearly can't take that as read: we might know it, but no one else does. It may be stupid to hope that readers will ever understand, because there's no reason for them to care. (How many of us care about the supply chains of the consumer products we use?)

But our authors should be different; they're our partners, friends, colleagues. More than that, publishing could not exist without them -- they're the ones telling the stories and making the arguments and explaining the details that we're here to disseminate. If they don't understand what we're doing, we've already lost the people who should be our closest allies.

I don't think it's those authors' fault, though: this is an inevitable result of how big, mainstream publishing handles authors, and the problem lies with publishing, not with them. The Big Six houses have built a system where most authors talk to their editors regularly, their publicists sporadically, and anyone else hardly ever. So those authors don't regularly confer with the marketers assigned to their books, might have only arms-length contact with the production editors who actually turn their words into books in bound and electronic forms, and see the entire rest of the publishing company, from sales to subsidiary rights to the web team, as a black box. Can you blame those authors for ignoring the hard work of people they never talk to, never hear mentioned, and never share ideas with?

The company I work for doesn't operate that way, and I originally came out of Editorial myself, so it took me sometime to realize this, but it's clearer and clearer from what authors and editors say -- and, more importantly, don't say. Certainly, the primary relationship of an author to a publishing house is through her work, and so the editor is the initial contact point -- but what too many big publishers fail on is by making that editor not just the gatekeeper, but the bottleneck of that relationship.

That kind of genteel aristocratic air worked reasonably well for a long time, but this is the worst time for that kind of relationship: authors know that they can self-publish, or do many of the other options that are called self-publishing, and they can see the advantages of those options: control, immediacy, speed, flexibility. If all traditional publishing can muster on its side are the cozy relationships with a nurturing editor, then we'll see many authors defect for the other side.

But that's not all we can offer; it's not what we do offer; it's not what we currently do. And we have to become much better at both telling authors what we are doing, and in involving them in those efforts. The head of my marketing group had a great presentation at our recent sales conference -- I wish someone had videotaped it and put it on YouTube, because it's exactly the kind of thing every publishing company needs to be saying to its authors -- that was a strong and inspiring defense of what full-service publishers really do, with some comparisons to other possibilities and one notable recently ended "experiment".

Dealing with authors isn't always easy, and it's rarely simple; it can seem much easier to let the editor "handle" them, and work encased in the bureaucratic cocoon of your company. (And I've certainly made cracks about authors in my day; I'll admit it.) But authors are demanding because they know their material better than anyone else. And the trick is to show them -- not just tell them; they know the difference! -- that we're equally strong on our material, on marketing and selling and forging relationships and getting books in front of the people who want and need them.

A publishing company that can't do that -- that won't let anyone else talk to authors but the acquiring editor, or maybe the VP of Sales & Marketing (for those top-of-the-list authors) -- is one that will lose writers to "self-publishing." Those writers might then find that doing it all themselves isn't easy, or even possible, and might discover that there are vast swaths of "it all" that they can't even come close to touching -- but learning that would take them time and energy and expense that no one wants to see wasted. We can, and we have to, show our authors that what we're doing for them is valuable, and extensive, and powerful -- that publishing is vastly more than printing books and stacking them high in the front of a storefront.

Update, 12/22/11, 4:00 PM EST:

Both comments so far have focused on the time and effort costs to create an ebook, which means that they've both utterly missed my point. (On the other hand, they both seem to be readers rather than publishing people, so I wasn't talking to them in the first place.)

So let me be blunter.


Even after the ebook is created, it's just a file on somebody's hard drive. It's not in the iBookstore, or the Kindle Store, or the Nook Store. It doesn't have co-op placements. It hasn't been advertised. It hasn't been publicized. It doesn't have cover art, or descriptive copy. There are no special offers attached to it. No one has marketed, sold, or promoted it.

Those are the things that a publishing company does. Those are the people at publishing companies that often don't get to talk to authors, and so authors -- and my commentors -- apparently don't realize that those people exist, or that their work matters.

There are a million people who can turn a word-processing document into an ePub or eMobi file. Only a tiny fraction of those people are embedded in organizations that can publish those books afterward. And even if a file is in up-to-date XML and recently copyedited to within an inch of its life, the resulting ebook files will still need to be published just as much as an ebook made from a handwritten 19th century manuscript.

Merging the Streams

I have just -- if I did it right -- merged the RSS feed for my Tumblr blog, Hornswogglets, into the RSS feed for this very blog, the mothership.

If I did it wrong, I expect something will blow up very soon.

So now I'm off to find something to blog on Tumblr to see how it's working. Wish me luck.

Update, several hours later: Well, the thing I actually did wasn't the thing I thought I was doing (or that I wanted to do), so I've undone it.

It turns out that there's no easy way to combine feeds -- there are some tools that do it, but they're all from 2007, so I suspect they might not be entirely supported these days.

So my feeds will remain separate. But, just to let you know what they are, here are links to the feeds for Antick Musings (this blog), for Hornswogglets (my tumblr blog, with all of the short linky posts that don't go here anymore), and for Editorial Explanations (a much more active blog in which I make fun of and/or explain the hidden meanings of editorial cartoons.)

All three of those also feed into my Twitter stream, which then flows down to the ocean of Facebook. (And I semi-mean the effluent metaphor lurking in the back of your heads now.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Playing Cards With a Man Named Doc

It was a day full of complication and difficulty before the Christmas tree fell over -- which is getting to be a recurring theme in my life; my mother's tree fell over just after being put up, and I had to assist in the recovery there as well -- which makes me exceptionally happy to be officially on my vacation.

Construction on the new basement continues forward at a blinding pace -- they dropped off materials Thursday, did rough framing for walls and the drop ceiling on Friday & Saturday, and rough electrical was done yesterday. Today was the electrical inspection, plus a few other small things, and tomorrow is the building inspection, so it might actually be "done" -- leaving aside our clean-up; floor-painting; rug purchase and installation; furniture purchase, moving & assembly; and actually putting books back up on shelves for the first time in four months -- by the weekend, and Christmas.

On top of that, Thing 2's birthday will occur over the break, so he and The Wife (and occasionally me) spent much of the early evening making a marshmallow/melted chocolate/sprinkles concoction for his classmates to eat tomorrow. (And he had a lot of homework tonight, in part because he forgot to do his spelling work for most of the last week and in part because he's doing an essay for class that has gotten very long because he's writing about a video game he loves.)

Before that, The Wife -- who is also fighting a cold, and feeling not up to normal -- and I had to run out and shoot a few games of pool after dinner, because that's what we do on a Tuesday.

(I won't even mention work -- it was the last day before a long vacation, which is always hectic -- except to note that, at least, four of my seven scheduled meetings were cancelled before they happened.)

What else? Did I mention the cat vomited in the middle of the kitchen during the snack-assembly? And that all of the usual nightly routine (showers for the two boys and so forth) had to also happen? And that Thing 1 was working on his own essay, which I had to read and comment on? And that this computer has been ridiculously slow and crash-prone recently, due either to a program called TuneUp that I accidentally installed, or due to increased "parental controls" due to one of the various recent bits of drama, or both, or neither?

So, when the tree fell over -- almost hitting me, by the way, since it's right behind me in the dining room -- it was just the cherry to the drama sundae that was my Tuesday.

Tomorrow is more construction downstairs, and who knows what else. Thursday we go to pick up a new desk for me, and Friday I get to meet my brother at the airport. But I hope to spend a lot of the other hours those days lying down, or otherwise relaxing, reading 1Q84. Let's see if I can manage it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/17

Another week has come and gone, bringing us all that much closer to death and/or Christmas (depending on whether you're a pessimist or optimist). During that week, I got a few books in the mail, and so I want to tell you about them. Here's what a quick perusal shows me about...

John C. Wright is back with what looks like a new standalone SF novel, Count to a Trillion -- from Tor in hardcover on December 20th. It's one of those enigmatic alien artifact books, with said artifact embedded in a complicated future history and a similarly complicated relationships with a supergenius who first has it make him insane (about two hundred years on, as part of an interstellar mission from what's also described as a collapsed civilization) and then comes back, cured, another two centuries later to contemplate the artifact again and learn that his best friend is now dictator of the world. The guy's name is Menelaus Illation Montrose, and Wright's dialogue is similarly ornate, for those looking for (or avoiding) that kind of thing.

It's also time for DAW's January mass-market paperbacks, of which -- like Gaul of time immemorial -- there are three. The first is Diana Rowland's Sins of the Demon, which is the second novel about Louisiana homicide detective/demon summoner Kara Gillian listed on the card page. [1] However, the book also has quotes about other, earlier books, so I fired up the ol' Google and found this page on the author's site that lists the prior books, including two from Bantam. (TL; DR version: #1 is Mark of the Demon.) This is somewhere in the urban fantasy territory, with a strong police procedural strain in it -- there seems to be only a mild romance element (in a demonic lord who is "deeply interested" in her -- I've seen enough paranormal romance to know where this is going).

Michelle West's House Name is a big fat book, and the third in the "House War" series, a secondary world fantasy series with at least a strong thread of the epic to it, with an orphan heroine who's been brought to live in the most powerful of the ruling houses of the Essalieyan Empire and who will -- I'm morally certain of it -- turn out to be secretly special in some very important way.

And last of the three DAW paperbacks is Benjamin Tate's Leaves of Flame, the followup to his first novel, Well of Sorrows. It's another big fantasy novel, set a hundred years after the first one -- but with the same hero, which is An Important Clue when genre-typing it -- with the fate of the world in the balance and some kind of magic centering around Wells, Trees, and races that aren't called elves and dwarves.

[1] This is the technical publishing term -- or, at least it was in certain sectors of publishing where I learned it; it can be dangerous to assume anything is universal -- for the page that says "Other Books by this author" in the frontmatter.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Words are tricky, complicated things -- even the seemingly simple ones. Take the tile of Terry Pratchett's newest Discworld novel: Snuff. Snuff could be a noun (a form of tobacco), a verb (to eliminate a flame, or a person), an adjective (a kind of unsavory entertainment incorporating such eliminations), or even more. Given Pratchett's surface British gentility, one might presume that this Snuff is probably not adjectival, but presuming any more than that could be dangerous.

This particular Snuff is the eighth "Night Watch" novel, which more and more are concentrating on the aging, crotchety Samuel Vimes (now Commander of a force greatly expanded from the one he captained back in 1989's Guards! Guards!), much as the Lancre books focused down on the even more aged and crotchety Granny Weatherwax and even the Unseen University books came to feature the aged Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully and the crotchety Librarian. This time out, Vimes is officially on vacation, having been almost forcibly removed by his wife, Lady Sybil, to her family's ancient rural demesne, the Hall [1] to spend time away from work with her, their son Young Sam, and the great outdoors.

Of course it doesn't happen that way -- even Pratchett would be hard-pressed to spin a four-hundred page book out of a quiet, relaxing vacation -- as the countryside turns out to be as full of mischief and malice as Vimes's beloved Ankh-Morpork. (Pratchett's narration bangs a bit too hard on this theme, particularly for someone who has already written a dozen novels in this very series about nasty things happening in quiet rural places like Lancre, but it is his theme this time out, so he's entitled to bang on it as hard as he wants.) Continuing one of the larger themes of the later Discworld series -- that all sapient creatures are brothers, and should be treated with respect and dignity -- Snuff also adds another superficially unsavory race, the goblins, to the ranks of the blessed, following dwarves, trolls, zombies, Igors, Nac Mac Feegle, gnomes, vampires,  golems, and whatever Nobby Nobbs is.

The goblins have been badly mistreated by the usual forces of repression in Pratchett -- petty bullies, the hereditary aristocracy, and the general unthinking prejudice of people who have not been yet exposed to Discworld protagonists -- and do not seem to have any legal rights whatsoever as the novel begins. They're also servile, cringing, little creatures that live in dirty holes in the ground and obsessively collect their own bodily secretions, so it's fairly easy to see how they came to be so repressed -- but, as Snuff goes along, we meet the necessary heroic gnome, Stinky, and also learn of the hidden depths (mostly artistic, this time out, though there's also the usual Pratchett "this race slots in amazingly well to a particular job in the growing detailed division of labor" moment) which gnomes, surprisingly to everyone, possess.

There's only a little business with the rest of the Watch along the way -- Carrot and Angua are almost completely absent, and Nobby and Fred Colon appear primarily as a bad example and a plot element, respectively. The crazed maniacal wild-man this time out is Wee Mad Arthur, the guardsman who recently learned that he's a Feegle, and the cold, collected purveyor of violence is Vimes's gentleman's gentleman, Willikins. Oh, and Young Sam is obsessed with what he calls "poo," and may grow up to be a world-renowned expert in the stuff, if Pratchett follows up.

Snuff does not entirely run to formula -- the Discworld books don't have a formula, exactly, but they do have a medium-sized Chinese menu of flavors and themes that nearly always appear -- but it rattles down well-worn ruts that are very familiar from the prior Discworld books, and goes to the places that Pratchett's regular readers will expect. It does so well, and is thoroughly professional end entertaining along the way, but there's nothing particularly surprising here: Pratchett is telling the same kind of story he's been telling for about twenty-five years, with the same kind of jokes (somewhat fewer this time out, and much less poke-you-in-the-ribs, check-out-this-joke nudging), the same lessons, the same kind of characters (even the ones who aren't series regulars), and the same joys. Considering the vast audience for the Discworld stories -- and I'm definitely among them; Pratchett is as dependably wonderful in his sphere as P.G. Wodehouse and Donald Westlake were in theirs -- that's probably a positive thing, all in all.

[1] It may have a more official name -- as may the requisite small hamlet that it's picturesquely near -- but that name is so rarely used in Snuff that I could neither remember nor find it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Quote of the Week: High Finance

The wells of quotedom on the Hornswoggler spread are running dry at the moment -- I add them in as drafts when I find them, but my old stock is depleted, and I lost a number of quote books I was planning to mine for more material back in that event I'm trying not to mention every damn day -- so this is something of a re-run: it appeared here as a "mid-week quote" some years back.

It's the opening of one of the best novels I've ever read, a book that's smart about work and finance and people, the closest thing the current generation has come to another Catch-22:
It was a filthy profession, but the money was addicting, and one addiction led to another, and they were all going to hell. Turner had gone to hell, and Mike McAfferey had gone to hell. Wes "Green Thumb" Griffin developed a wandering eye, while Antonia Zennario, who used to joke that "all investors are made from Adam's rib," lost her sense of humor, and then her smile, and then her job. Carol Manning miscarried. Coyote Jack began to stutter on his numbers and was moved into management. They had all gone to hell. Sid Geeder hated them all and missed them like crazy. The phone rang constantly and everyone suffered cauliflower ears, neck rashes, and cervical pain, and when the sun came up in the morning and they had already been at their desks two, three hours, they went to the 41st floor window and imagined what it would be like to have to ride a bus or find a parking place.
- Po Bronson, Bombadiers

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today's Stupidly Reductive Quote

From a Wall Street Journal article about e-book prices, from some random shmoe-off-the-street:
It's hard to justify the purchase of e-books that are priced at $10 to $15 when you can buy the real book on Amazon used for $2 or $3.
 Compare this to equally truthful pearls of wisdom:
  • It's hard to justify the purchase of a couch that is priced at $300 to $2000 when you can buy it from Goodwill for $20.
  • It's hard to justify the purchase of dinner for $50 when you can get it from the restaurant's Dumpster for free.
  • It's hard to justify paying rent when you have so many family members to mooch off of.
Feel free to use this line of thinking in all aspects of your daily life! Never buy anything again!

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011

    What I've Been Doing for the Last Six Months

    Two websites that I've spent an inordinate number of my waking hours on over these last few months have gone live this week. I doubt any of you will care about either of them, but these things have taken over my entire consciousness, and it's my blog, isn't it?

    First is the mighty, which I've mentioned in passing a couple of times (in ways that even people who worked with me probably wouldn't recognize). It's a dedicated site to sell a new product which is nothing like a book at all -- it's sold as a Word download, is used as a worksheet/organizing form, and which no one in the world besides Wiley proofreaders will ever read straight through. But it's, I hope, going to be a very useful tool for public accountants in the USA doing audits of small companies, who will now have a quicker, easier (but just as definitive and trustworthy) alternative to gigantic, cumbersome software packages. Again: you don't care, and that's OK.

    Second is something that a few of you might even find useful: the brand new, spawn of the mighty Your Income Tax series of books. (Before there were software packages that would explain how to do your taxes, the Lasser books were there -- and I still think they do it better, though that could be nepotism.) The old Lasser was a subscription website, with the contents of several books available entirely there, but it was a complicated thing, and the people who want a book to explain how to do their 1040 forms, it turns out, really want a book rather than something else electronic. So the new site is entirely free, filled with tax news, tips, and analysis from some of the smartest and best-informed people in the tax world -- it'll be updated daily (or nearly so) as things happen, and it should help anyone who has to pay American income tax to pay the (legally) lowest amount.

    In additional Hornswoggler drama:
    • The Wife got two new tires for the Mighty Minivan this morning -- it had been riding around on a donut for a week since something (a nail?) punctured the rear passenger tire.
    • Thing 1's drama settled down over the weekend, and this school week seems to be back to normal (he said, crossing his fingers)
    • But there's always drama when you have teens and tweens in the house (he muttered)
    • Our new basement stairs were finally installed today -- the old ones were submerged in six feet of river water during the flood (remember the flood? it seems like every damn thing I've done since then has been because of the flood), and that weakened and loosened them so that they had to be replaced
    • And, if we're lucky, the new basement system will start to be installed by the end of this week, and (fingers doubly crossed, now) will actually be done before Christmas, so I can move my office back down there, start putting books back on shelves, and finally get back to "normal" with my life.
    One can only hope.

    At this point, I have five working days before the big end-of-year vacation, and what looks like seven-to-ten-days worth of work to get done.  For all of those reasons, I may remain distracted for the foreseeable future.

    Or I may ramble like this semi-regularly. These are the risks you take with a blog; they're baggy, misshapen monsters that defy all attempts to shove them into line.

    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Incoming Books: December 12th

    The end of the year is fast approaching, which means Certain People (I name no names) realize that they need to use up their vacation days or lose them.

    Changing subjects entirely, today I took off from work, and most of what I did was bop into the city to do some book-shopping. (I had a vague idea of doing Xmas shopping as well, and even walked quickly through part of that agglomeration of festive selling huts in Union Square, but that portion of the day's festivities was not successful.)

    First I hit Forbidden Planet -- pretty much as an aperitif -- which I hadn't been in for several years. (My mental map of FP is from the days when they had back issues in the basement -- yes, that long ago.) I got issues of two comics for the boys, and also two extremely different graphic novels:

    Brody's Ghost, Vol. 1, the first in a new series (teen-focused, I think) by Mark "Akiko" Crilley, about a guy who discovers secret supernatural powers.

    And Ken Dahl's Monsters, a highly acclaimed 2009 semi-autobiographical book (by a guy who now goes under a different name, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on) about herpes.

    After that, I headed down the block to The Strand, which was the whole point of the trip. (Speaking of mental maps, when I was there, I was shocked to see that they don't check bags anymore and then reminded that the childrens' section used to be in the basement -- so my standard of what the Strand looks like is also a good decade out of date.) There, I got many more books, mostly used or remaindered or otherwise non-standard:

    Art d'Ecco, collecting comics work by Roger Langridge (along with his brother, Andrew) from around twenty years ago.

    Proof of Life on Earth, an old collection (1991) of Roz Chast cartoons

    Your Mother Is a Remarkable Woman, a similarly vintage (1992) book of Sam Gross cartoons

    Love From the Shadows, an original graphic novel that came out earlier this year from the indefatigable Gilbert Hernandez, which has a loose (and probably indescribable) connection with his Love & Rockets material.

    Martin Amis's recent novel Yellow Dog, which was the first new book of his I didn't read since London Fields -- entirely because his prior novel, Night Train, was such a gigantic stinker -- and which I used to have, in first edition hardcover, before the recent unpleasantness.

    A gigantic trade paperback edition of Lawrence Block's Enough Rope, which is his entire short fiction, more or less, as of 2002, when it was originally published. (I'd had a hardcover copy -- again, a nice first edition -- and a first of the preceding UK trade paperback The Collected Mystery Stories, which was not quite as complete, back apres deluge.)

    John Harvey's Ash & Bone, part of a new mystery series by the author of the great Charlie Resnick books. (I think this is #2, but I now am not sure how far behind I am on Harvey -- I kept buying/obtaining a lot of mystery writers, even as I slowed down on reading them, so my old shelves kept track for me -- but now, of course, I have to try to remember!)

    The brand new Daniel Handler novel for younger readers, Why We Broke Up (with art by Maira Kalman). Handler wrote one of the very best novels about tormented teenagers of the past generation in The Basic Eight, and also used to be Lemony Snicket, who wrote excellent books for not-quite-adults. So it's great to see him back.

    Red Eye, Black Eye, a graphic novel by K. Thor Jensen that I remember seeing good things about.

    The Night Country, a dark -- one might even say "horror" -- novel by Stewart O'Nan, who writes great books, but I can't read them too close to each other. (I had a copy of this one, too, in the beforetime.)

    Mr. Pye, an odd little novel by Mervyn Peake, who's best known for the Gormenghast books.

    A Library of America volume of Mark Twain, containing A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, and some minor travel writings.

    And three P.G. Wodehouse books, in the great Overlook Press editions:
    And then I had to drag all of that stuff home, so I'm now completely exhausted...but happy. New books always mean happiness.