Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

08-26-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, August 27, 2007 : "It was too hot to rebel."

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday August 27, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


08-24-07: Harlan Ellison's 'Shatterday' ; A 2007 Interview With Peter F. Hamilton

Start the Weekend Right

Here's the excellent front cover of Tachyon's re-print of Harlan Ellison's seminal collection, 'Shatterday' (Tachyon / Edgeworks Abbey ; September 15, 2007 ; $14.95). Back in print for the first time since it debuted. The artist is Arthur Suydam.

This artist is very familiar. I knows I've seen his work elsewhere. But where?

It's not like you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is. You do. But what you might not suspect is how good he is at the business of bookselling. So look at the back cover:

This artist is also familiar.

Nobody does the hard sell like Harlan. Just so you know; Page 7 is the introduction to "Jeffty is Five", which, you may remember is a title that Cory Doctorow has talked about taking on in his on-going "re-master the masters" project.

Page 37 is the opening paragraph of "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?", and it definitely reminds me of the opening line of a novel by Theodore Sturgeon, 'The Synthetic Man'. You decide. Here's Harlan:

"When they unscrewed the time capsule, preparatory to helping temponaut Enoch Mirren to disembark, they found him doing a disgusting thing with a disgusting thing."

Here's Ted:

"They caught the kid doing something disgusting under the bleachers at the high-school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street."

It's all disgusting, ain't it?

Page 84 puts you halfway through "Would You Do It for a Penny?", and in the midst of a should-be-patented Harlan Ellison rant.

The last two lines on page 199 are from the first page (in this edition, at least) of "Count the Clock That Tells the Time".

And finally, page 221 is the opening paragraph of "In the Fourth Year of the War". In case you needed to know that.

Now, I'd buy the book reading those bits, though I'd also recommend the very first bit, in which Harlan conveys his core personality. He's offensively observant. He looks so hard at humanity that it's kinda hard to hear what he has to say, and yet, kinda necessary. Oh, the first bit, yeah, it's about Harlan Ellison's pride at only having watched Johnny Carson once, and his shame that his friend Robert Blake (yes, I believe that Robert Blake) was the guest host interviewing Orson Wells ... badly. With Harlan, the phrase "Oh, the humanity" cannot be overstressed. Which is why, in spite of the fact that he annoys the living shit of a fair percentage of the population, he's still an important writer.

Should you buy this book? You've probably done something disgusting with whatever other edition you have. This edition has a great cover, it's reasonably priced and nicely printed. Maybe you should buy two copies actually.

One to read.

And one to do something disgusting with.

Cool montage from Hamilton's website.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News features an interview with Peter F. Hamilton, author of 'The Dreaming Void' among many others. We talk about how he writes really big books, and how he writes about "religion themes" as opposed to "religious themes". And of course, much more. You can download the 17-minute MP3 file from this link or subscribe to the podcast.


08-23-07: Kealan Patrick Burke's 'Midlisters' ; Agony Column Podcast News, Mark V. Ziesing, Bookseller

The Niche That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Tools of the trade
The midlist is dead.

Long live the midlist.

Well, at least, that's sort of been the word of late. Basically either you've got your first, second or third book out (if you're lucky), or you’re a bestseller, or, you're like:


The latest story has books gathering dust, not readers, and I'm sure that's true so far as the folks who wrote the story are concerned. I'm going to use some bad language now, so please bear with me. Fuckwits. Not a surprise that a television / web based news service would feature an article on how actual reading of books is on the decline. It's like FuckDonald's giving Burger Rat a bad review. Please ignore this seriously crappy excuse for journalism and look over here, where actual people are enjoying the mental exercise of reading a book.

The book in question would be 'Midlisters' (Biting Dog Publications ; August 2007 ; $35) by Kealan Patrick Burke. The term "midlister" is uses to refer to those writers who keep publishing books that are not bestsellers but turn enough profit to make them worthy of publication. As the chain stores drive out the independents and online giants hype-megasellers without quietly recommending this book you might like, too – as any decent clerk at a decent bookstore would be able to do – the midlist, we are told is bein' kilt.

Don’t believe it. The first time I interviewed Christopher Moore, we talked about his place on the midlist. He was rather happy to be there, and he just kept plugging away at his craft with a persistence that recently landed him on the bestseller list. He's always been a gracious guy, the kind of writer who seems like a fellow you’d like to have a few beers with, before and after bestsellerdom.

Not so much the case with Kent Gray, at least so far as Jason Tennant is concerned, in Burke's novella for Biting Dog Publications. No, Jason Tennant, a sort-of veteran of the violent horror midlist, hates Kent Gray, the bestselling author of a bunch of "sex-fi" novels. These two are going to meet at the Aurora Science Fiction and Horror Convention in Baltimore Maryland.

Talk about a horror story. As much as I love attending conventions, there is huge slab of desperation, pathos and even horror to be found there. I focus on the literary aspects, but it's hard to ignore the costumes, the reek of desperation that wafts through the hallways. (To be fair a certain amount of that might emanate from YT.) One can easily imagine the scenario that Burke sets up unfolding amidst all that pent-up emotion, though you can't easily imagine what Burke does with it.

Jack Ketchum provides the introduction to this novella, and that's a telling name. It says that we're getting raw and rather unpleasant humans, and putting them in the same room with sharp things and bad feelings. It says we're getting real characters – maybe too real for a certain segment of the reading population. But if you’re the sort of person who does not look away when you see blood on the pavement near a car wreck, and furthermore, the sort of person who sees red when you read CNN propaganda for the multi-media gorging elite, then 'Midlisters', while it will also have you seeing red (many shades) will probably be a book you'll enjoy greatly. In the teeth-grinding, terrorizing way one enjoys such reading.

Don't force me to hit you upside the head in order to make a pretty straightforward point about the publishing biz. Keith Minnion's illo from 'Midlisters'.

I've never seen a Biting Dog Publications book before, but this one, which launches a series of novellas, is very, very nice. Nicely bound and the illustrations by Keith Minnion are outstanding. Generous print size, nice signing sheet. An excellent example of the small-press limited edition book that we love to read.

Yes, read! Contrary to CNN's belief that all entertainment and news should be poured over a comatose populace like heroin-laced maple syrup, there are a sizable and to my experience, actually growing number of people who do enjoy reading. We enjoy literary events, readings and conventions where midlist authors and bestselling numbskulls inspire multiple, violent murders. CNN has been partaking of a little bit too much of their own special syrup, and you know that's leaving them vulnerable. To readers. I don’t recommend engaging in violence, of course. But turn off your TV. Point your browser at a reading or literary website. Keep something sharp handy.

Your brain.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News features an interview with Bookseller Mark V. Ziesing on the state of bookselling, YA fiction and how he finds all the oddball titles he stocks in his catalogue. You can download the MP3 file from this link or subscribe to the podcast.


08-22-07: Margo Lanagan Drives In 'Red Spikes'; Agony News Podcast, Alan Cheuse at the Capitola Book Café


Your Adult Children

Not a happy childhood.
Your children may be ready for the stories in Margo Lanagan's 'Red Spikes' (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers / Random House ; October 9, 2007 ; $16.99). Don’t count on the same being true for you.

Lanagan is a superb stylist, one of the outstanding writers of short stories working in any genre, and style matters, a lot. She gets so far under the skin of her characters that their limits become your limits. Some readers may find that a source of frustration, but others will find it a means of liberation. We are reborn when we read a Margo Lanagan story, into a world we probably won’t like, certainly don’t know and may indeed not even survive. Her stories are baptismal, drownings that replace the air in your lungs with waters of uncertain probably tainted origin.

For this reason, she's been celebrated and largely published, no small feat in a publishing world that abhors single-author short story collections more than vacuum. You'll find her previous collection, the celebrated 'Black Juice' pretty easily. Published by EOS / Random House, it's going to be right there with the rest of the science fiction; or maybe, perhaps in a more enlightened bookshop it will also / alternately be files with fiction.

But 'Red Spikes', like 'White Time' is a collection of stories published under the Knopf Books for Young Readers imprint, so if you want a dose of her latest, you'll have to saunter over and see if there's any room left on the shelves from the backwash of Scholastic's favorite wizard. Come October, that may not be much of a problem.

But though 'Red Spikes' is in amongst the safe and sane world of children's literature, it's certainly neither, and if indeed you are picking this one up for your child, you might want to be warned. Straight out of the box, you've got "Baby Jane" with a fairly dire birthing scene and the sort of surreal tug that can give you nightmares. One certainly hopes they aren't of the nature so vividly described in the story. Should that be the case, you might want to consider the old sleeping-with-a-gun-under-the-pillow routine. Whether you'll use it on yourself or that which you encounter is up for grabs.

Your significant other may be tempted to use it on you should you venture to read your child "Monkey's Paternoster", which steps back from the birthing process to a sort of mass, shall we say, forced attentions. As with "Baby Jane, Lanagan puts the reader squarely in the tiny mind of a being that will remind you all too well what it means to be human. The intense, surreal feeling of Lanagan's whisper-clean prose is mind-altering. It's a high, all right, but a high experienced during events that are at best disturbing, no matter how natural. We all know the brutal processes of the natural world. Lanagan offers readers the chance to experience them from within.

Of course, all of these stories are indeed perfectly appropriate for any child smart enough to be willing to read them. The idea that there need to be genres of fiction for adults and children is as off-kilter as the idea that science fiction needs to be shelved separately from general fiction. The labels are helpful indicators of content. They're convenient for booksellers. But they're not part of the literary background of the writing, nor are they indicators of quality. And I think to a certain extent that Lanagan's work is indeed perfect for younger readers because her worlds are as insular as those of the young. This may be how your child sees, how your child experiences the world. It's a perceptual set that most adults have lost touch with. That's precisely why they are so frightening to adults, and not so frightening to children. We are baptized before we can understand what is happening. We are born into an alien world full of pain and strangeness. But it is our world, as children, for a while. And leaving that world behind requires just a little death.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News is a report from the Alan Cheuse reading at the Capitola Book Café. You can download the MP3 from this link.


08-21-07 : Launching a New Podcast – Agony Column Audio News

Gavin Grant, Karen Joy Fowler, and Kelly Link on 'Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet'

I'm presuming that this is a Giant Robot. I mean, like what other kind is there?

Today, I launch a new addition to The Agony Column Podcast, The Agony Column Daily News. And what better way to do so than with a conversation with Gavin Grant, Karen Joy Fowler and Kelly Link. I'd exchanged emails with Gavin about his publishing venture, Small Beer Press, after he / Theodora Goss sent me the wonderful 'Interfictions' anthology. Apparently, last week he rolled into town with Kelly Link and stopped by the visit with 'Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet' contributor Karen Joy Fowler. Apparently, he saw an advert placed in the local art & entertainment weekly {Good Times, Metro Santa Cruz} for my interview with William Gibson and decided to give it a listen, not knowing it was I who actually did the interview. That's not listed in the ad. But after hearing the interview, he emailed me using the wireless hotspot at the Bad Ass Coffee Company Store in downtown Santa Cruz, and we set up our conversation while he was in town.

Let me tell you this: like 'Interfictions,' the forthcoming 'The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet' (Ballantine / Random House ; August 28, 2007 ; $14.95) is an essential anthology chock full of the sort of writing you're just not going to find anywhere than outside the pages of this venerable magazine. Now I could shoot off some names. You can spot a few on the cover. You will recognize those names as writers who consistently offer us great, slightly odd reading. But as Gavin says in the interview, one of the most exciting things about LCRW is the ability to open up the magazine and find new work by writers you've never heard of or from.

How did I not get this in here yesterday? Well here it is now!
I won't have to say much more about LCRW here – the interview takes care of that. While I was there, Gavin kindly gave me the latest issue, which in fact rather requires that it be referred to with the abbreviation because for a few brief moments, it's Lady Churchill's Robot Wristlet. And mostly I won’t have to say more about LCRW because Grant is hilarious in this interview. We had a blast talking about what Karen Joy Fowler calls, (and I'm trying but probably failing to quote) "... the sort of fiction we're all so desperately trying to describe here". Fowler, Link, Grant – they’re all very funny, very smart and a lot of fun to listen to. Readers have seen photos of books festooned with yellow stickies in preparation for an interview, but this time around I had about an hour to prepare. Fortunately, Fowler, Grant and Link are thoughtful, urbane and again, funny. We like funny.

Thus we like 'The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet', which has not only weird fiction by Fowler, but appreciations of Scotch by Grant and tips on the Martini by Richard Butner. I can say with confidence that this is the only anthology that comes with cocktails. And that, readers, is entertainment. If you're not subscribed to the podcast, you can download the MP3 of this 45-minute conversation here.

I promised myself that these interviews would not be the usual epic you get from this site, and yet here's the first one clocking in at near-epic length. My excuse is that here you get three non-epic interviews in the space of the usual epic; there's lots of variety here. Fowler's seen the movie based 'The Jane Austen Book Club' and she liked it; better still, we all talked about the book experience versus the movie experience and came to some surprising conclusions. This podcast will be MP3 only unless someone writes me to request a RealAudio file. I hope this shan't be necessary. Welcome to the world of Agony Column Daily News–defining "Daily" as any day I manage to get something done!


08-20-07: A 2007 Conversation With Alan Cheuse

"It’s a tremendous amount of personal power that we gain when we learn how to read."


Above: Waiting for dictation. : a lively bit of dication received.
It's no surprise the NPR's Alan Cheuse is passionate about reading. It's also no surprise how articulate he is when he talks about reading, nor that he's equally articulate about his own fiction, including his latest, 'The Fires', even if he is one of those writers who, like William Gibson, waits and "takes dictation" from the part of himself that actually does the writing.

Cheuse teaches at Georgia Mason University, and what he has to say about how blogging interacts with teaching literature will come as something of surprise, however. I had a great time talking with Cheuse, and attending his event at Capitola Book Café, where I was found Santa Cruz poets Morton Marcus and Robert Sward among those attending the reading. I'll be frank. Even Cheuse didn't expect a large turnout for a literary writer publishing two standalone novellas via the Santa Fe Writers Project. We joked about it before the interview, but I have to say I was surprised by the rather large turnout from local readers who had enjoyed his fiction and as well, his memoir 'Fall Out of Heaven'. As he told me in our interview, the latter get mined in the title novella from 'The Fires'. The memoir tells the story of his trip to Russia to retrace the exploits of his father; 'The Fires' takes place in that same Russia, a chaotic society coming apart at the seams.

To my mind, a lot of the interviews for this site might be something that would be of use to writers-in-training, or students studying writing. Cheuse is a teacher, and he offers up a lot of fascinating advice. I particularly enjoyed our discussion of the old "write what you know" saw that, as Cheuse points out, perhaps is as often used to destroy art as often as it manages to inspire it.

I should warn readers that both the MP3 and the RealAudio files of the interview contain the rather X-rated story associated with teaching and blogs. As if said warning is going to frighten readers away rather than having the opposite effect. Occasionally those of us tagged as bloggers have to live up to our sordid reputations. Or perhaps more often than occasionally.


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