Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

Preview for Podcast of Monday, April 16, 2007: The problem was much bigger than that.

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday April 16, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!

04-13-07: David Shipley and Will Schwalbe Suggest You Don't Simply Press 'Send'

'The Essential Guide to Email for the Office and Home'

Maybe they should have called it "DON'T Send".
It's too late for me.

Some ten years ago, I would have ordered fifty copies of this book and given one to every manager, programmer and a second copy to those managers, in case they missed the first. The second copy to be delivered with a swift swing upside the skull, just to make sure it got through. In my IT management days, this book would have saved me hundreds of hours of plucking should-never-have-sent-them emails from the server. It might have salvaged a couple of careers as well.

Not mine, but that's another story. The story in 'Send: The Essential Guide to Email for the Office and Home' by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; April 10, 2007 ; $19.95) is as simple as S. E. N. D. That's Simple, Effective, Necessary, Done. And not nearly so simple as anyone ever thinks it to be.

For many of us, email is supposedly "old hat", and those who think so are the most in danger shooting themselves with the deadliest weapon the 21st century has thus far offered humankind. Like most weapons, email looks deceptively safe. Any day's headlines will tell you it is anything but. David Shipley and Will Schwalbe have gone out and put together a concise and beautifully laid out guide that is certain to prevent you from sending at least one tragically stupid email. And that's worth more than any amount of money.

'Send' is divided into eight smart sections. The introduction asks and answers the question, "Why Do we Email so Badly?" The reasons are not what you’d expect. We then go through the sort of tutorial that should be given to every user before they are given access to their email account. The authors discuss "When Should We Email", "The Anatomy of an Email", "How to Write (the Perfect Email)", "The Six Essential Types of Email", "The Emotional Email" (uh-oh), "The Email That Can Land You In Jail" (read this one twice) and "S.E.N.D." An VERY informative appendix tells you "How To Read Your Header" and Notes make sure that every "i" is dotted and "t" is crossed.

Unlike most emails you send.

The best thing about 'Send' is, well, two things. One, it is written in lively prose and an engaging style that keeps it from being dry, stupid, corny or preachy. You've read enough of those memos, trashed and emptied the trash with those helpful emails about email, and you absolutely don’t need to see them or deal with them again. Two, it's laid out so you can read it over your upcoming two-hour lunch. The look of the book is as forthright and engaging as the prose.

I don’t have to flog the headlines we could have been spared were certain parties to have read this book. Trust me, the times they will change and the morons who use email to perform an electronic immolation of their lives and careers will just keep marching on. You can pick up this book for a song, read it in an afternoon and profit from the advice therein for a lifetime.

As opposed to the life sentence you might receive should you ignore that advice.


04-12-07: Lorenzo Carcaterra Follows 'Apaches' With 'Chasers' ; A Review of 'The Ghost Brigades' by John Scalzi

Blood, Grit and Fermented Body Parts

Decent covers? We don't need no stinkin' decent covers.
Just in case you haven't read any books in which the phrase "watching the dead burn bullshit" is to be found of late, here's a pointer to the only game in town. Lorenzo Carcaterra opened up fire on the literary world with 'Sleepers', then locked, loaded and did the ready-fire-aim thing with 'Apaches'. This gruesome bit of mayhem brought him to the attention of Satan himself, followed quickly by Hollowood, which turned 'Sleepers' into a movie and the headline-ripping TV series Flawed & Sordid into a career for Carcaterra. There's a whole lot of ripping going on in Carcaterra's world. Still, he apparently has enough time to bring back the Apaches for 'Chasers' (Ballantine Books / Random House ; April 24, 2007 ; $25.95). If you haven't visited Over The Top, New York recently to hobnob with the sort of folks who'd just as soon put out a ciggie in your eye as give you the time of day, well, here’s your chance. You have the right to remain silent and read.

Let's ratchet back 22 years, making it 1985. A brutal slaying is on the menu in a Manhattan restaurant. Giovanni "Boomer" Frontieri's niece is down, and this brings in the Apaches, former NYPD cops who seem to be bullet magnets. They'll be pursuing justice, not vengeance in the guise of some Colombian coke merchants. Many deaths and much explicit violence follows. Then some more. Some torture sort of stuff. Now you’re on page 27.

Suffice it to say that Carcaterra does not play around when it comes to plotting. Kill first, ask for plot points later and try to avoid the arterial blood spurts when one comes into contact with such delightful folks as the Boiler Man. You know, I never want to meet a fellow who gets nicknamed The Boiler Man, do you? It just can't be a good sign. He's just the sort of gent who might take a few days to kill someone as a career-builder. And those wine casks at the back of the basement? Don’t ask. I won’t tell. Suffice it to say it's an uncommon vintage.

Carcaterra has the pulp knob turned to eleven, and noir dialed down to break-your-toes-on the-way-to-the-bathroom black. With characters like Rev. Jim ("I'm what the doctors call an EDP, and you need to be careful how you talk to somebody's got that." "What the fuck is an EDP?" "EDP is an emotionally disturbed person...But don't worry–the doctors think I'm cured!") and Dead-Eye (he's a good guy), we're talking streets that left mean behind. This is not simply grit. It's ground glass. So if subtle is your cuppa, then this is not. On the other hand, if you're the kind of hammer that thinks the world is just one big fuckin' nail, then it's time to start pounding. Or better still, reading about pounding, as that's far less likely to get you pounded on.

'Chasers' is unapologetically not ripped from any headlines, though lots of ripping is involved. But Carcaterra has a feel for the streets and the dialogue that makes this bullet ballet go down easier than anything in the novel itself goes down. Mostly what happens here is violent, unnecessary and thoroughly unenlightening. You will not understand humanity any better after reading this novel. You may have a much better feel for the scum of the earth and those who choose to scrape the scum from the streets. Scum is not all that is scraped in 'Chasers'. Don’t bother with the surgical glove shit here. This is not going to be neat and tidy. Evidence, schmevidence. A loaded gun and bug-eyed drug lord, it's like, American as Mom and Apple pie.

Shoot an Alien, Shed a Tear

Ciover artist John Harris channels the 1970 is perfect post-millennial style.
I'll try to be as economical with this introduction the review of John Scalzi's 'The Ghost Brigades' as Scalzi himself is in the novel. I just read this kick-ass, take-no-prisoners sequel to his acclaimed 'Old Man's War'. Yes, the Heinlein vibe is strong here. Yes, you may want to go out and shove this book down the gullet of some Hollowood types who are without doubt making, bad stupid space movies when they could be filming Scalzi's work. But don’t let any of that stop you from a) reading the review of 'The Ghost Brigades' and b) buying 'The Ghost Brigades' and reading it right this damn minute. Whereas much of 'Old Man's War' was (not surprisingly, given the title) an alien-killing mediation on the aged and their role and feelings, 'The Ghost Brigades' contemplates the other end of the human spectrum. Babies. That's right GUYS, this book is about babies.

Sure, gun-totin', alien-shootin' babies, but – there you go. Rest assured that thought he book deals with both astronauts and babies, there is nary a diaper to be found here. You will enjoy lots of action and some very nice espionage / wartime-shenanigan twists. Eventually, one hopes they'll make movies of these books, and they'd better do it right, because otherwise a bunch of angry old men are going to tear the filmmakers a new one. In blogs and such, but still. Blogs can be cruel. John Scalzi, himself a blogger, should know quite well.


04-11-07: Chaz Brenchley Maps the 'River of the World'

Wish Granted

Gritty fantasy...with sand.
Chaz Brenchley is a UK writer who started out writing crime and horror fiction and did it particularly well. But as we all know, the bottom dropped out of the horror market, leaving not just readers but writers high and dry. Brenchley re-invented himself as a fantasy writer, where his talents for giving his work an edge came in handy. He came back with the Outremer series, published in the UK as 'The Tower of the King's Daughter', 'The Feast of the King's Shadow' and 'Hand of the King's Evil'. Each of these books, as published by Orbit in the UK, was some 600-plus pages long. In an early example of the noxious practice of book-splitting, the same series was published as six mass-market paperbacks in the US. What's worse, is that they came out one book at a time, so you’d really only get Eric the half-a-book to read. What could make a reader more angry than coming up on a full stop in the middle of a narrative, a false stop not written by the author? For this reader nothing, and Brenchley's books were such a fine fantasy trilogy, it seemed an evil to chop 'em up and dole 'em out like candy-coated drugs. It was a way to ensure that a fine writer failed to reach an audience. Give the audience the first half of the first novel and see if they like reading half a book.

Fortunately, the ploy apparently failed. When these books were being released and I wrote about them, I expressed my hope that Brenchley, who is clearly a cut above lots of the corporate fantasy out there, would get a shot at having a whole book published in hardcover. Well, wish granted. His new series Selling Water by the River and book two has just been released here in the US. 'River of the World' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; April 3, 2007 ; $24.95) follows on 'Bridge of Dreams' with the story of Issel, a man with an affinity for water . The Marsai have erected the bridge, having conquered the Sundain. Issel has led a band of freedom fighters (read: terrorists) trying to break the magic bond that links two cities from Sund to Marsai.

Like all great writers, Brenchley's biggest asset is his gorgeous language, his ability to write prose that captures the reader and creates a new world. Yep, it's worldbuilding, but the world that Brenchley creates is so full of life and detail that it transcends reality and colors the perception of our world. Brenchley eschews the usual sentimentality for hard-edged fear and hard choices that offer equally unpleasant alternatives.

Of course having offered readers a nice slab of hardcover, Ace did have to hobble Brencheley with a well-rendered but rather namby-pamby cover image that really does not to this reader suggest the gnarly nature of Brenchley's writing. So 'River of the World' does look like every other fantasy out there, but don’t blame Brenchley, or even, I would guess, cover artist Tim O'Brien. Don’t let the image put you off. Just be glad that Ace hasn’t decided to split the book into two parts, though that may in part be due to the fact that at a sub-400 page length, it's pretty short for a slab of fantasy. Buy it read it and make wish, this time that Brenchley gets cover where the gritty nature of the work within is not shown as ... sand.


04-10-07: Brian Lumley Opens 'The House of Cthulhu' to Find 'A Coven of Vampires' ; A Review of John Shirley's 'The Other End'

Don't f'tagn to Buy

A plague upon ... well, not his house.
Brian Lumley is chameleonic, shifting prose tone and style with utter aplomb. One moment, he's writing big-screen B-movies like the Necroscope series, gritty action novels with supernatural, science-fictional themes, the next, closely observed horror stories, then a formally written heroic fantasy. Readers looking for evidence need look no further than 'A Coven of Vampires' (Subterranean Press ; June 2007 ; $35 ; Signed) and 'The House of Cthulhu' (Tom Doherty / Tor Books ; April 3, 2007 ; $14.95). Between those two titles readers will find more Brian Lumleys than they'll know what to do with. While both are reprints, the originals are now either hard to find or exceedingly expensive or both. You can pick up the pair for less than either one might cost you should you seek them out used.

'The House of Cthulhu' was originally published in 1984 by Paul Ganley Books, operating out of Buffalo, New York. Ganley was a wonderful member of the small presses that burgeoned during the horror boom of the 1980s. Ganley published lots of limited edition hardcover Lumley novels and the justly-acclaimed, World Fantasy Award winning Weirdbook, where stories from both 'A Coven of Vampires' and 'The House of Cthulhu' first appeared. Yes, I went through my Ganley obsession years back then, buying the hardcovers from Aladdin Books in Fullerton, California and from Mark V. Ziesing. I have lots, but not all of them, and as you can imagine, I regret those I did not buy, including, alas, 'The House of Cthulhu'. So having the chance to get this in a paperback is really very cool. And whoever is doing the publicity for this is doing an ace job. The sheet I got with the books shouts, "The weird, wonderful, horrifying world of the Primal Land–Now available in trade paperback!" Of course! Cthulhu f'tagn!

But he's not f'tagn in the usual sense here. Lumley wrote, as I indicated above, in a variety of styles. 'The House of Cthulhu' showcases his ornate heroic fantasy, which will appeal to fans of Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany and the works Lovecraft wrote in manner reminiscent of these contemporaries. This is not the sort of fantasy we get today, all walking around and socialized with grit and dirt. The fantasy you'll find in 'The House of Cthulhu' is much closer in tone and feeling to the romantic poetry and the works of Edgar Allen Poe from whence Dunsany, Smith and Lovecraft drew their inspiration. 'The House of Cthulhu' begins with a geographic description of the world of Theemh'dra, wrapped into a framing device that involves an island rising off the coast of Iceland. Once you get to the meat of the matter, expect ten stories chock full of eldritch prose and eldritch horrors. Do not expect the slime-wielding monsters that haunt the Necroscope series. Instead, look for old-style poetic-prose and fast-paced action leavened with an undercurrent of wicked humor. Lumley's heroic fantasy is not for all tastes, but for those who enjoy the work, it's the grain alcohol of high fantasy. Very high fantasy indeed, aided and abetted by the lovely Bob Eggleton cover. Is it, as Lovecraft once famously asked, "a drawing from real life"?

Alas, poor Yorick, turns out he was vampire.
'A Coven of Vampires' is probably more familiar territory for Lumley fans, featuring stories from that span twenty years of Lumley's career, and no stories that spin from the Necroscope series. Instead, expect a variety of tales in a variety of modes. Remembering that Lovecraft himself wrote much of his oeuvre in an effort to get pas the typical vampire story, it's surprising to find a few of Lumley's Cthulhu mythos tales here. You'll also find a couple of high-fantasy style stories and lots of other examples of why Lumley is held in high regard by horror readers.

'A Coven of Vampires' was originally published by specialty press Fedogan & Bremer in a run so limited that unsigned copies of the original are going for no less than $200 via Bookfinder. Subterranean Press is upping the ante and going for another classic with a print run of just 1,000 copies, all signed by Lumley with the original Eggleton cover and new vignette illustrations by Eggleton as well. If you don't have the original, and perhaps even if you do, this seems like a steal at $35. You can read my original review here, and the 2007-updated review of the new edition here.

Both books point out a valuable lesson when it comes to making your book-buying decisions. Should you see a reasonably priced, fairly limited edition by an author that you like, you’d be well advised to buy the damn thing now and worry later. In the first place, you're almost always going to get a better reading experience with the small press edition, and in this case, you’re going to save yourself some money as well. Fedogan & Bremer are still out there publishing, and Subterranean Press is a vital force. Don’t let the chameleonic small press slip by unnoticed. It's a wild environment out there. Turn over some leaves of the sorts you'll find between hard covers and snag what you can. Books are worth hunting down, they’re worth your valuable time.

Platonic Apocalypse

Beware of world. Plato will getcha!
Leave it to John Shirley to take on the Cash Machine that is the "Left Behind" series. Does that make 'The Other End' the Anti-Cash Machine? One hopes not! To my mind, the number of readers who would buy into the Platonic invasion on display in 'The Other End' should far outnumber at least the initial print run of the novel. The outrage that is likely to result as word of 'The Other End' gets round should ensure that there will be anti-readers out there willing to buy the book just to burn it. Not that I would advocate book-burning, but I certainly might expect that an unabashed polemic that targets the hypocrites who seem to be in charge would be on the receiving end of a few literal as well as literary flamethrowers.

You can read my review of the book here, and you can hear Shirley speak about the book here. I'd advise both, followed by a long spring afternoon caught up in Shirley's exciting end of the world. This is not the end of the world as we've ever seen it before. It's a brave thought experiment that is incidentally as hell of a lot of fun to read. Obviously the end is near, and you're well-advised not to f'tagn for Cthulhu and his minions to pick over what’s left. It's my guess that in the perfect world to follow, first editions of 'The Other End' will be worth more than a pretty penny or a silver samolian. I'll leave the precise amount to my reader's imaginations.


04-09-07: A 2007 Interview With John Shirley

"It's Dangerous To Be Aware"


A dangerous man with an even more dangerous mind.
Well, it's dangerous to be aware of John Shirley, at any rate, something that will become quite apparent when you listen to his intense, and intensely funny reading from 'The Other End', his transformation of the Apocalypse into an invasion of Platonic ideals. Visceral ideals, to be sure, but the sort of ideas, at least that are hard to forget when rendered in the context of an action-packed re-ordering of the world. "If God came to you and said, "I need a consultant," Shirley told me, "and can you tell me, because...this is such a mess, how am I going to re-arrange things?"

'The Other End' offers readers a glimpse at an alternative apocalypse, what Shirley said could be described as liberal apocalypse. "I feel that we should all be given access to that kind of thought experiment, " he adds. As thought experiment goes, 'The Other End' is anything but dry and actually pretty damn brave. It's also fun to read, unless of course, you’re inclined to think it should be set afire.

This of course makes the interview the perfect Easter Sunday Gift to my readers. We talk about 'The Other End' and Shirley's forthcoming collection from Prime Books, 'Living Shadows'. The interview is thorough and all too entertaining, so I'm going to hand you over immediately to the MP3 podcast or the RealAudio files. Both contain extensive back-masked hidden and subliminal messages guaranteed to cause intense hallucination in susceptible individuals. Consider yourself susceptible if you’re breathing.

Shirley is an icon in the field who offers some fascinating thoughts on thought experiments and his personal views on addiction and drugs. The interview also includes tracks of his music with Obsession and The Panther Moderns, as well as a look at the resurrection of the Mabuhay Club via the Mabuhay Music Label. This is surely the most rock and roll interview I've done since...the last time I talked to Shirley. Just don’t blame me if you get The Panther Pit stuck in your brain.


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