Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

05-26-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, May 28, 2007: "Fail to scale."

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday May 28, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


05-25-07: Rebecca Stott Takes a 'Ghostwalk'

Getting Ahead in 17th Century Cambridge

Our blood-spattered past comes back to haunt the bestseller lists.
So how many books are born on book tours? I've talked to many an author about book tours and elicited a wide range of responses with regard to the tours themselves. Some writers will aver that they came from working on a new book to the studio for their interviews, while others confess they’ve left their computer, notebook, wax tablets and scribes back at the ranch.

Rebecca Stott may leave the wax tablets behind, but she's clearly willing to do random research. In 2003, she was touring to support 'Darwin and the Barnacle'. Presumably, visiting bookstores made it easy for her to pick up a copy of Patricia Fara's then-new Newton bio, 'The Making of Genius'. She was understandably interested in comparing Newton's formative years to those of Darwin. What she found therein led to no less than her first novel 'Ghostwalk' (Speigel & Grau / Random House ; May 8, 2007 ; $24.95).

'Ghostwalk' begins when Cameron Vogelsang (no relation to Cartlon Vogelsong from Jonathan Lethem's 'You Don’t Love Me Yet') finds his mother, Elizabeth Vogelsang, dead; drowned in a river, clutching a glass prism. No rocket science is required to connect her death to her research for a book on Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy. He asks Lydia Brooke to ghostwrite the final chapters of the books. She will tell the story. To You.

As You might imagine, the story connects murders in the past, murders in the present, alchemy and just a soupcon of quantum entanglement, because, well, what would we be without quantum entanglement? Separated from the reading that inspired the novel, to be certain. While on her book tour, back in the before-time, Stott discovered some asides in the Newton bio that referred to his luck in getting a fellowship at Cambridge. He hadn't tested well, but lucky guy, don’t you know it, a couple of vacancies conveniently popped up, and young Isaac suddenly had his shot. Stott dug deeper and found a diary written in 1667 by an alderman who discussed the deaths in a manner that suggested they were suspicious. Four years later, we've got a shot at reading her novel.

With this sort of subject, Stott faces a peril far more insidious than centuries-old conspiracies. The far more powerful forces of modern publishing and Petri-dish culture are going to attempt to take her delightful little discovery and the literary inventions it spawns market it as a plot-heavy potboiler. It's so easy and obvious. You throw a little Photoshopped art on the cover, and voila. You have this summer's historical mystery thriller.

Book geeks should note that the American edition is the first offering from a new Random House Imprint, Spiegel & Grau. She's joined by Suze Orman. Well, so they’re one for two. That smiling face is scary. Dig deeper, and you'll find a whole host of titles, some of them pretty damn interesting. There's a novel by Edward Conlon, the author of 'Blue Blood'. It has a bit of Fortean spin. 'A Season in the Pit' finds Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi "embedded" in the US Congress, the Marines in Baghdad and an apocalyptic church in Texas. That's a whole lot of embedding! No wonder the book won’t be out till 2008.

Book geeks should also note that the actual first edition came from the UK's respected Weidenfeld & Nicolson. So perhaps you may want to pick up a copy of the UK version in case the book "pops" on this side of the pond. If you're that kind of compulsive, which is not unlikely, given that you're reading this column. Every time I see Weidenfeld & Nicolson, I think of the first UK hardcover editions of Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood', the ones with his patented, garish, wonderful illustrations on the covers. I'm hurtled back twenty years in time. Heck, the memory is practically history.

But Stott is the real deal, an actual historian with an actually good title to her name. Moreover, her prose is quietly detailed and evocative, even though she's writing the novel in an awkward, second person voice, from Lydia to Cameron. Remember when I mentioned You above? Actually, as I read parts of this book I could not help but think of Stanislaw Lem's little literary satire, a review of a book called "Toi" ("You", from the French) in 'A Perfect Vacuum'. Funny how one reading can throw light on another. But Stott is smart enough and good enough that I got over my Lem-light perception, and found myself immersed in her tale of science, ambition and murder. There's a bit of a love story here, given that "Dear Cameron" slant, but not overheated. The whole "real deal historian" aspect helps keep Stott on target, doling out details of Newton's life as plot points in a thriller. I can read that. Stott will be touring this summer to support this book, and one might well wonder what she'll discover to propel any future projects.


05-24-07: Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola Visit 'Baltimore'

Collaboration and Conquest

One tin soldier rides away.

Yes, New York can get things right once in a while. I'm generally underwhelmed by the products of our largest publishers. Sure, they can make a book with decent pages, the covers can be appealing, but it's not often they put the kind of effort into creating a book that offers more than mere words on pages. Night Shade Books, Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance, Golden Gryphon and a host of other small publishers put New York to shame again and again with top--notch productions that offer just a little bit more – illustrated novels and short story collections for adults.

Apparently, editor Anne Groell over at Bantam has been paying attention, and the result is a big-press publication that will have hardcover collector types drooling even if they do produce a bazillion copies. 'Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire' (Bantam Dell / Random House ; August 28, 2007 ; $25) by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola is the sort of fantastic title you’d expect from the small press. It's a richly illustrated adventurously written novel of genre fiction that pushes boundaries as well as buttons. It absolutely rocks, and gives Golden a chance to shine sitting right beside a name with big-screen movie recognition.

The story is happily quite complicated. Lord Henry Baltimore finds himself laying amongst the dead on a World War I battlefield, and espies something feeding on them that is neither animal nor human. Thus begins a hunt for an amorphous, hideous evil that will take him around the world. Illustrated by Mike Mignola, it will take readers of genre fiction to several kinds of heaven.

Stark images free the imagination.
Let me make this clear; Golden's writing has never been better, and he's a first-class writer in any event. But here, he pushes himself into a sort of fever dream, with a rich, heady prose that will evoke images in the reader's mind .... as dark as ... as powerful as ... Mignola's illustrations.

Illustrated novels can be a dicey business. Too much detail and you're limiting the reader's imagination. Too little detail and you're just taking up space, Mignola hits the perfect middle ground, offering a series of over 150 woodcut-style illustrations that compliment Golden's prose without trapping it. As a reader you will feel your imagination fly more freely than you may have reasonably expected possible. The story is labyrinthine and bizarre, verging on experiment. The combination of story and image is rich and satisfying.

A huge part of the reading experience of this sort of novel stems from the production values. Great stories and excellent illustrations, no matter how well-told, no matter how plentiful, can't fly from the pages if the pages are badly printed or cheaply produced. And since what I have is an advance reading copy, I could be wrong. But the ARC production values are spot-on. The book is larger than usual, 8 1/2" by 9 1/4". The pages are very white, the ink is very dark. Nothing is sacrificed for the sake of cutting a costly corner. Now, it's not as if this is particularly difficult. The small presses I mention above -- and others I've left out for the sake of space -- have all been doing this for years. Even big-press Bloomsbury gave us Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' with illustrations; and there are other examples out there as well. These books are easily produced. But they are not common.


05-23-07: A Review of 'The Big Girls' by Susanna Moore

A Woman's Rant

Chip Kidd captures the essence of Moore's novel.
I'm not sure how long it will take me to recover from reading 'The Big Girls', Susanne Moore's powerful vision of how friggin' horrible we are.

But in the interim, I can at least step back and disconnect at the level of technique to enjoy the work. Moore's novel, like Chuck Palahniuk's 'Rant', uses the technique of a fictional oral history to plumb the depths even more effectively than Palahniuk. 'The Big Girls' is a woman's 'Rant'.

Readers of Palahniuk's latest novel, those who enjoy the discomfiting aspects, the makes-you-squirm effect, will have a hell of a bad-good time cringing through 'The Big Girls'. Moore's novel is considerably leaner than Palahniuk's, but the storytelling effect is precisely the same. This is a not a novel that tells you what to think with a godly perspective. The reader is the god of this novel, and trust me, the world you shall inherit is not a happy one.

Of course that much is obvious from the setup; a woman psychiatrist at prison hospital is treating a notorious mother who killed her children. How much worse can it get? Plenty. But what makes 'The Big Girls' a fascinating reading experience is Moore's ability, her willingness to let the reader tell the story. Moore's work is largely reportorial, almost like a series of newspaper or diary clippings. Almost. Except for the incredible skill with which everything is assembled into a single-sitting reading experience. Unless of course, you're not strong enough to take it. Many readers should not read this book. But if you enjoyed 'Rant', you should enjoy 'The Big Girls'. Or seek therapy. Or both.


05-22-07: Tony Ballantyne Achieves 'Divergence'

Saint Augustine and Science Fiction

Psychedelic, man? Can you dig the Saint Augustine vibe?
Saint Augustine is a not an influence one expects to find in the world of science fiction. The fourth century philosopher is mostly known these days for such gems as "Love the sinner and hate the sin". But his thoughts on predestination and the nature of time have lots of resonance in the world of science fiction. Those who are familiar with Saint Augustine's work will get a real kick out of Tony Ballantyne's "The Watcher" trilogy, which he began in 'Recursion', continued in 'Capacity' and now concludes in 'Divergence' ( Tor UK / Pan MacMillan ; May 4, 2007 ; £10.99 ; Bantam Spectra / Random House ; May 1, 2007 ; $6.99). This tightly-woven series offers a combination of philosophical conundrums played out using science fiction tropes. Ballantyne writes gripping science fiction in which the answers to the biggest questions have immediate consequences for the characters who inhabit his cleverly conceived futures. I talked to Ballantyne shortly after 'Recursion' came out; he's a fascinating guy, and I highly recommend you take a look at his website for lots of arcana behind the books. (And not Augustinian.)

Ballantyne's series is very much a series, so do not plan on reading them out of order or as standalone novels. You'll definitely miss plot points, especially since characters who show up in numbered chapters in 'Recursion' do not return until subsequently numbered chapters in 'Divergence'. Moreover, Ballantyne writes in a rather opaque style that I would term "science fiction mystery", but NOT in the sense of crime fiction mysteries. Instead, the mysteries in these novels involve the very nature of the world Ballantyne is describing and what the precise relationship is between the characters. Often, they don't at first seem to even be in the same novel, though that is much less true in 'Divergence'. But Ballantyne operates in his own manner and does eventually reveal how and why everything in his novels is connected. Putting together the "mystery" of how everything in the novel connects is one of the main delights in reading these novels.

'Divergence' offers a pretty straightforward setup. Passengers in a spaceship decide to engage in interstellar trade with a robot– or is it a spaceship? – they encounter. To do so, they engage FE (Fair Exchange) software that guarantees everyone comes out ahead. But it sure doesn't feel that way to the passengers, who soon enough find themselves encumbered with Judy, from 'Capacity', who works in Social Care. She's in the employ of The Watcher, the AI that makes sure humanity is happy if not exactly free, and the passengers of the starship Eva Rye will be bringing her back to Earth.

'Divergence' is fast-paced and exciting to read, even as the philosophical concerns play out in the plotting. The character's dialogues are practically Socratic at times, discussing free will and predestination in terms of virtual and real world computer programming. Open your mind to both ends of the spectrum – the science fiction tropes of virtual reality, Artificial Intelligence and Von Neumann Machines, and the philosophical ideas of free will, capitalism, and human nature – and you’re in for a real treat. Spaceships are rebuilt and reborn, copied and upgraded while reality takes a holiday. Capitalism is viewed as a computer virus, or a genetic flaw in human DNA. Or is it a strength? This is one of the key questions resolved most satisfyingly by Ballantyne in 'Divergence'.

A lusher view of the world from the US publisher.
Don’t let the space opera comparisons fool you. 'Recursion', 'Capacity' and 'Divergence' do include some space travel and a very nice Menace from Beyond the Stars that could reasonably draw comparison to Alastair Reynolds. But space travel is pretty perfunctory in these novels. It's hyper-drive hand-waving so that the characters can play out their drawing room dramas in a moving vehicle. The thrust in 'Divergence ' is mostly on an ethereal level, and it is a total delight. Ballantyne has a very tight, stripped-down writing style. But that just gives his ideas more room to resonate and expand.

One further comment that is relevant only to paper-book loving fetishists – in either set, these books are outstandingly well-designed. I prefer the UK trade paperbacks, just because the print inside ends up bigger, and there's a spacious feeling in the page layouts. Dominic Harman's cover art for all three books is classic, 1970's-style SF art, updated for a new, though less-shiny century. I like the set enough that I've been hauling the three of them around since they arrived. The US mass-market paperbacks take a different, though no-less effective tack. The art, by John Blackford, is lush and hyper-real. The layout and design, by Jamie S. Warren Youll is classy. Either way, the books themselves are a fine compliment to the excellent writing within.


05-21-07: A 2007 Interview with Charlaine Harris

"Let's give 'em vampires"

Pay close attention to the action illustrated on the cover.
Charlaine Harris is a happy writer. Her new book, 'All Together Dead' is a bestseller. Her Sookie Stackhouse series is being adapted for HBO by Alan Ball. And all this stems from a book she told me that her agent didn't like, that took her two years to sell. This when she had two or three cozy mystery series in progress. I could understand why she told me, "I'm feeling pretty neener neener neener about that now."

What I didn't expect her to tell me was the agenda behind this popular vampire series, which I'll leave for you to discover in the interview I'm podcasting today. You can download the MP3 from this link or the RealAudio from this link. Harris is a very funny writer who works her humor in a deadpan manner, which is my favorite delivery method. But she's not above slapstick comedy, as you'll note when you read 'All Together Dead', where you'll find the most unlikely combination of humor and terror I've read recently. But more than being funny in print, she's funny in person.

You'll also find Harris introducing two new critters from her supernatural pantheon, two Conanette barbarian babes whom she describes as, "a tip of the hat to my desire to write books about women with big whacking swords who kill people, because they were just a lot of fun to writer, they've got armor, they've got swords, they've got guns, they’ve got everything." She mentions that she'd like to write a novella about them.

Harris also talked about her involvement with her fans on her website She listens to her fans, and they actually contribute to her books, so write her and tell her to do that novella. In the interim, you can hope that HBO gets True Blood in gear and ready for next fall. It sounds as if they’re adapting the books quite literally. Literal adaptations. It's enough to make your blood run cold.


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