Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

04-21-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, April 23, 2007: "You have to be a fake before you can be real."

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday April 23, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!

04-20-07: Jon Courtenay Grimwood's '9Tail Fox' and Liz Williams 'Precious Dragon'

Nightshade Brings Home The Dead

Not the final cover, but a nice illo.
Few writers are as uncategorizable as Jon Courtenay Grimwood. His prose style is sparse and powerful, with a dense literary feel that immediately immerses the reader. You never feel that he's introducing you to a situation or building up to something. You are simply there. His plots include well ... anything. You may be popped from the unimaginably distant future into a gritty present and wonder what the hell the two have to do with one another until each point is revealed as a pearl on a necklace, a piece in a puzzle. The great pleasure with Grimwood's novels is that he trusts the reader to put it all together, and that makes the reading experience of his work very intense and very enjoyable.

Over the UK, Grimwood is reliably published by Victor Gollancz; first in a nice hardcover, then in a trade paperback. Simon Spanton, his editor, never knows what sort of book he is going to get beyond the next Grimwood novel. Here in the US, things are considerably more complicated for this talented author. Once in a while, we'll get a trade paperback original from Bantam Spectra, who last released 'Stamping Butterflies'. That novel fit quite well into their SF line, but there's that word – "line" – and Grimwood is quite adept at crossing them with complete aplomb.

Thus, we can thank our lucky stars that Night Shade Books will be bringing us '9Tail Fox' (Night Shade Books ; July 5, 2007; $14.95). It's a perfect fit for this maverick publisher, a genre-defying work that simply is. But it does have a movie-perfect hook, emblazoned on the cover of the ARC: "A dead cop must solve his own murder!" That alone, I would think, would make Random House, the überpublisher of Spectra, want this novel. It's the sort of hook that can sell a lot of novels, and best of all, '9Tail Fox' is Grimwood's most accessible novel yet, living up to the promise of its premise. It's a classic, easy-to-grasp last chance to dance. Bobby Zha is a something of a loner in the SFPD. Working a case, he's murdered, but before he can die he is brought back to life by a celestial fox and offered a chance to set things right. There's even a very nice science fiction nugget buried here amidst the mysticism that infuses not just this novel but Grimwood's writing in general. Still, his is essentially a very down-to-earth and gritty mystery that will appeal to fans of the mystery genre even though it does include a soupcon of the supernatural. And horror fiction readers will love it. You can read my original review here. This is the perfect novel introduce you to a unique talent, a book that will send on return trips to track down the rest of this author's work. The obvious question is, who is going to snag 'End of the World Blues'?

Precious, oh so precious. Where are the Pretenders when you need them?
Chances are that you'll find it directly in the vicinity of Night Shade's other oriental supernatural mystery hybrid, Liz Williams' 'Precious Dragon' (Night Shade Books ; July 15, 2007 ; $24.95), the newest hardcover original entry in her Inspector Detective Chen series. Williams' work is firmly rooted in the world of fantastic fiction, but played out as a gritty mystery. Given that DI Chen's partner is a demon, there's certainly more than a soupcon of the supernatural to be found here. Especially in this third novel, wherein Chen and Zhu Irzh are asked to escort an emissary from Heaven on a diplomatic mission to Hell. If that is not enough to whet you reading appetite, add in the titular baby, 'Precious Dragon' born to parents who reside in Hell but sent to Singapore Three. Clearly this is no picnic for anyone involved.

Once again, Williams offers us mysteries both human and supernatural, with a wonderfully conceived mythology that is chock-a-block with monsters. I like monsters. I like Liz Williams' monsters a lot, and you add those into a pulse-pounding, character-driven mystery, and you get well, stuck to a chair for a day or two, with a film playing on the screen in your brain that offers incomparable special effects.

Now, I know, I've got to admit that both of these books sport blurbs that have my name attached. (And that's gusto meant to be on the '9Tail Fox' blurb.) There's a reason for that. I run this shebang and I get to pick the books I read. I've decided that I want to only read good books. Life is short, why waste my time? I can figure out if a book is good or bad pretty easily. I'm presuming that you, the readers, are looking for good books as well. Let me note that when paid cold hard cash, I'll read a bad book. A certain climatologically oriented novel comes to mind. But here are two damn good books – assuming, of course, you like your mysteries to include oriental and supernatural elements. Frankly neither one of these authors is easy to pigeonhole. We'll just put them in that catchall category -- great books, well worth your money and time, the latter being far more precious.


04-19-07: Michael Marshall Smith Returns With 'The Servants'

"No-one happened to be watching"

Out the window. In the door. Elsewhere.
Michael Marshall Smith. Michael Marshall Smith. Welcome back, man, it's great to have you here.

Yes, we liked your 'Straw Men' series of thrillers, with their unified conspiracy theory of serial killing, their darker-than-dark tone leavened by your witty prose. But for my money, your weird, surreal novels of the fantastic and science fictional are the bee's knees, the tops, the Coliseum. Starting with 'Only Forward', you forged a weird-as-heck path down which no writer had journeyed before. Those are the paths I like the best. Sure, you can mop the floor with bloodied scalp of a certain serial killer who passed his prime and came out the other end of the Hollowood pipe. You've got that evil vibe down to a science. Let me tell you, my mother and my sister and my sister's husband all LOVE those books, and that's just the iceberg tip of a huge audience. Congratulations!

And with regards to Hollowood, I feel your pain. Smarmy & Pabulum sucked up the rights to your outstanding, surreal trans-dimensional novel of war and body parts, 'Spares', only to transmogrify it beyond recognition into yet another title best left unspoken. So far, nobody's managed to mangle your reality-dissolving 'One of Us', though as I recall, S&P were falling over themselves in their efforts to get the rights to do so. Let's hope it stays that way, un-fixed and produced with the wildly creative special effects that any reader worthy of the name brings to a great work of the fantastic when they read it.

But looking back at the review I wrote, I can see it was nearly ten years ago when it was published, man, TEN YEARS! How could we survive without the prose drug you pumped into our bloodstreams? Yes, 'The Vaccinator' was a great fix about a fixer, a Vaccinator who can protect anyone from anything so long as he's not protecting a writer from Hollowood. Those damn aliens from the lower half of the left coast, they’re savage. They're like literary locusts, stripping properties and potential readers of the glowing, glowering vistas of madness and wonder you so excellently explore in your books.

Alex McVey deconstructs the world of The Servants even as they deconstruct ours.

While the Michael Marshall version of you prepares to rule the world with 'The Intruders' (William Morrow ; August 7, 2007 ; $24.95), with which your USAian publishers finally get round to giving you a hardcover original, Michael Marshall Smith returns in glorious Weird-O-Rama with 'The Servants' (Earthling Publications ; July 2007 ; $30). Yep, the limiteds are already gone, damn my eyes. But there's still time for astute readers to pop on over the Earthling's website and reserve a copy of the trade hardcover. It's illustrated, so we're told, by Alex McVey. Readers can check out his website here, and figure out that we're in good hands. So, small press, illustrated, we're already good before we even get to the good part.

The falling-apart part.

Unless you're in London, which goes on forever. But Mark, who is about to meet 'The Servants', has been shunted out of London to Brighton, from metropolis to beach town, from endless renewal to ceaseless decay. Mum is sick, David the step-dad's no good. Calls him an asshole, no, that's American, an arsehole. What's to do? Out the window, over a fence.

Through a door.

Yes, he was already in a Michael Marshall Smith novel so Brighton, London, wherever, it's not the usual. Neither is 'The Servants'. It's reality, red-pill style. Expect snarky prose, and feelings of wooziness and unreality. Expect no less than Smith. Michael Marshall Smith. More precisely, expect things to fall apart in a manner much more entertaining than they are currently doing in consensus reality. The people around you exist only as and when they are perceived by your eyes. You're reading a Michael Marshall Smith book and time:



04-18-07: Richard Preston Moves Into 'The Wild Trees'

From 'The Hot Zone' to the High Zone

I'd like to see the world in general look more like this world in specific.
I confess. That Stephen King quote on the original hardcover of 'The Hot Zone' was what sold me, but I was happily sold and sent down a rabbit hole from which I've not ever really escaped. Richard Preston was years ahead of his time with this terrorizing work of non-fiction, a blow-by-blow account of how we might have – and might yet – succumb to a hemorrhagic fever that could burn out most of the US population before we have the chance to figure out what's happening. In the years since, the entire world has become hyper-aware of diseases and the potential for de-populating epidemics; witness out concern with bird flu, for example. To my mind, that's one way, at least, a book changes the world.

Preston's back with 'The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring' (Random House ; April 10, 2007 ; $25.95), and one really, truly hopes that he's ahead of the game this time as well. That's because this time, Preston's not mapping out the end of this world but rather an exploration into a new one, the world that exists in the canopy of the redwood giants. I'm lucky enough to live in Northern California, and this is a local story for me.

'The Wild Trees' is the story of a group of youths who explore the world of the redwood canopy, thirty-five stories above the forest's floor. We like to think that American is well and truly known, that every nook and cranny of this country if mapped, trapped and numbered, ready to be zoomed down into using Google satellite. But Steve Sillet and Marie Antoine scaled the trunks to find an entire ecosystem that had never been documented, never been seen before. In retrospect, perhaps it seems obvious that there might be something interesting happening up there. But it takes a writer of Preston's caliber to make it real for readers. It's worth noting that some wonderful line drawings by the scientists and explorers help make this realm more real, and give the book a detailed, careful texture.

As he did in 'The Hot Zone', Preston balances the back story and the compelling present-day drama perfectly, all while maintaining a concise, focused narrative. But for me, the wonder that kicks in as he describes the discovery of a new ecosystem is the draw. There's a forest above the forest floor, with caves in the trunks hollowed out by fire, soil layered on the limbs of ancient trees and a breathtaking number of new animal species and old. But this isn't just a nature documentary. The trees are a living and dying world. When a thirty five-story tree falls in the forest, it does indeed make a sound. It screams.

But the tenor of this book, which reads like a novel, is not terrorizing. Sure, we're working hard to destroy these trees. Indeed, Preston does not give the location of any tree that is not previously known, because any visit to these realms changes them irreparably. But this is a story in which previously hidden beauty in our world is joyfully and exciting uncovered by, well, naïfs. A story in which our eyes are opened. We are urged to look up, and discover.

04-17-07: Liza Mundy Knows 'Everything Conceivable'

The Other AI

Actually quite a bit to wrap your head around.
Try, I ask you, try and find a science fiction novel these days that does not involve some form of AI. The 9000 spawn of Hal 9000 wriggle through our futuristic literary landscape, infesting every work they invade. It seems you can't launch a starship, start a corporation or even slip between dimensions without the help of some sort of AI. And in fact, those AI's are not usually particularly strong on the "I" side of the equation. Hal 9000 has indeed sired the spawn that have spread across the land.

But there's another AI that's much less discussed, even though it offers fertile ground for science fictional exploration. That would be Artificial Insemination, and just because it's old technology, that does not mean that one can no longer use this concept to enter into the speculative realm. Of course, reality itself is pretty interesting as well. Just fifty years ago, a book like Liza Mundy's 'Everything Conceivable' (Knopf / Random House ; April 24, 2007 ; $26.95) would have been science fiction, probably written by James Tiptree, Jr. and displaying "his usual keen insight into the human condition". Now, it's non-fiction, and we can be thankful that Washington Post reporter Mundy is on hand to take readers through a fascinating tour on the front lines of the battle between science and humanity. 'Everything Conceivable' is gripping stuff, a non-fiction embodiment of science fictional thought experiments brought to life by life and a skilled writer.

I frankly didn't expect to find this book as compelling as it turns out to be, but that's why we like to open 'em up and start reading on page one. Do so, and you'll encounter a gripping story of egg donors and religious ceremonies, the sort of story core that would inform the best science fiction. Mundy knows how to tell the hell out of a story, packing it with human emotions brushing up against the effects of social change and technological expertise. It's one thing to theorize about the consequences of technology. That's the bread and butter of science fiction. But it's compelling reading to dive into a here-and-now example of the realization of science fiction's predictions.

Not that Mundy has SF on her mind. 'Everything Conceivable' is an exhaustive but not exhausting look at the many consequences of our current level of technological expertise. This is about what happens when science moves out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, and as such it is required reading for those interested in that collision. From the opener about the egg donor to the irritated infertility specialist who finds that tere are testicular implants for dogs but not humans, Mundy makes social chances wrought by technology the stuff of page-turning excitement. She doesn't pull her punches either, and most readers will find something that will upset them or incite head-shaking disbelief.

Believe it. This science non-fiction has all the compelling pull of science fiction, frisson after frisson of fear and wonder. Sure, we all are supposed to know that science fiction is about our world, the present, but we don't like to think about our AI space adventures that way. It's a tribute to Mundy;['s writing skill that she can turn the stuff of reality into a wonder-inducing vision of the present. She's not afraid to speculate, and she's pretty damn good when she gets round to it. But no speculation is required. We're living in science fiction's vision of the future. It is here among us and it's not really hiding. Everything is conceivable.


04-16-07: A 2007 Interview With Scott Rosenberg

"It Was a Big Train Wreck"

Happier here than he will be when he's well into his own development project.
Scott Rosenberg knows whereof he writes. As the co-founder of, he headed the technology upgrade for "content management software" that shut down publication of Salon for a good 24 hours. As he told me, "It was a big train wreck."

While I, and probably millions of others, hope that the development of Chandler software by the OSAF has a happier ending, it's completely clear from Rosenberg's brilliant 'Dreaming in Code' that they're not getting an easy ride that same train. 'Dreaming in Code' is Rosenberg's account of Chandler's development thus far mashed up with an accounting of software development history. The result is a compelling narrative that offers gripping tension mixed with trenchant observations.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Scott Rosenberg last week, and we talked not just of the content of his book, but of his experiences writing it as well. For the legions out there champing at the bit to write their own bit of non-fiction, this is an abject lesson in easier said than done. But for anybody wishing a glimpse into the workings of the modern world, 'Dreaming in Code' is fantastic exploration of how people work together no matter what the occupation. You can check out Scott Rosenberg's blog here and the 'Dreaming in Code' website here.

Rosenberg and I chatted for over an hour, talking about how he came to write his book and how the lessons of software development shine a light on the process of creation no matter what the arena. I begin the interview with two reading, both longer than usual, because they really help to set the scene for listeners. The first reading comes from the beginning of the book. The second reading comes from well into the book, and offers a glimpse at the Chandler team well into the process, immersed, as Rosenberg observes, in "software time".

I took a few notes while reading 'Dreaming in Code'.

Readers can download the MP3 or the RealAudio versions of the interview, or subscribe to the podcast -- you can even use iTunes to subscribe, and that would be not a little ironic, as it was the limitations of iTunes that helped inspire Mitch Kapor to create Chandler. I suspect that hearing the interview will inspire readers to buy and read Rosenberg's book. And as long as we're dealing in irony, I'll inform readers that Rosenberg is himself now managing a software development project. One presumes that he will learn from the observations he made in writing his book.


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