Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

08-04-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, August 6, 2007 : Watch out for falling anvils.

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday August 6, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


08-03-07: Andrew Vachss Brings Back Burke


I don't want to know what that is.
"Most guys want to be outdoors every chance they get, but there's cons who know their soaps better than any housewife."

Burying the knife in the heart of the truth. That's why we read Andrew Vachss, that's why we subject ourselves to the terrors of his Burke novels. Burke novels are a bizarre combination of page-turning compulsion and mind-bending repulsion. Vachss knows how to ripsaw through a terrorizing plotline, how to congeal the past, the present, and the unpleasant potential of the future into a series of character-driven confrontations. He's boiled his prose down to asphalt and broken glass. Once you immerse yourself, you can't stop reading.

That immersion is anything but cleansing. Once he's got your attention, Vachss manages to direct it to events you'd greatly prefer never to have considered. He's not a wallower. In fact, Vachss really takes a few pages from Lovecraft's horror in that he only suggests the outlines of what's going on and let's the readers' imaginations do the work. The Burke books are in some ways a modern exploited-child equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Two years ago, Vachss stepped out of the world of Burke with 'Two Trains Running' a hardboiled noir set in 1959. Now in 'Terminal' (Pantheon / Ransom House ; September 25, 2007 ; $24.95), Burke is back. An imprisoned dying con wants to live. Why? Who knows. But in an appropriately convoluted manner, he's willing to give up three rich men who buried a child more than thirty years ago. This is just the sort of thing that pisses Burke off. He's in on any scheme to nail the bastids.

'Terminal' is a short, slick, scary book that, should you flip it to a random page, will offer you the phrase "fleabag hotel". That should be enough for you to get the flavor here; Burke's been around for longer than you might imagine. This time around, Vachss does seem to have less interest in the most godawful aspect of Burke's tradecraft. You won’t find the gardens of bagged babies that turned 'Sacrifice' into an almost surreal horror novel. Have no doubt though, that you'll find the same anger there, the same hands-to-throat intensity that runs through all of Vachss' novels.

I must confess that one of the more interesting aspects of 'Terminal' is the excellent cover design. I can't tell exactly what that thing on the cover is. But I can tell you it is sinister, suggestive. It's very indicative of what you're going to find inside; black, white, a little gray, both indistinct and crystal clear. Hard decisions quickly made. Consequences and complications. The human drama of inhuman humans.


08-02-07: Owen Egerton Advises 'How Best To Avoid Dying'


The B&W interior illos for this book are really creepy.
Readers who come here to find the obscure but outstanding, rejoice! Owen Egerton offers some sterling but strange advice in his collection of short stories titled 'How Best to Avoid Dying' (Dalton Publishing ; June 2007 ; $13.95), and this is advice you'll really enjoy hearing. Egerton's work is surreal but very accessible, and dark but very funny. This is an outstanding collection that will have you buying his novel, 'Marshall Hollenzer Is Driving' before you've finished reading 'How Best to Avoid Dying'. But don’t worry. It won’t take you too long finish. This book is a bona-fide page-turner, in the oddest possible manner.

The pages turn so quickly due first and foremost to Egerton's delightfully transparent writing style. These stories, no matter how weird, and there are some very weird stories in here ("The Fecalist", for starters) simply compel the reader with great characters and an instant immersion that is required for work of this nature. By "work of this nature" I mean very, very short stories; most are one to five pages, though some longer works pop up with equally attention-grabbing power. When you’re writing a short story like "Spelling", for example, you've got to get the reader into your vision almost immediately and, at the same time, place the characters in that vision within a gripping story. Egerton does so with alarming ease, particularly because he has such a fecund imagination. Who knew it would be so easy to imagine yourself poised over a pit, spelling for your life and the Oil Reserves for Canada? Who might have guessed that the last visit of a secret restaurant inspector would be so involving? I certainly wouldn’t have, but I can say with certainty that anything Egerton introduces is going to capture your attention and make the rest of the world go away.

Even though Egerton is dealing with the darkest of obsessions, death, he consistently manages to make light of his situations without de-fanging the unpleasant messages he's clearly sending. You will laugh when you read "The Fecalist", but you'll also feel the poignant angst of the depressed artist. In "Holy Machine", Egerton uses only a single paragraph to satirize a wide swathe of American culture, combining agony and ecstasy, because, well, they're not all that different, are they? With every story, Egerton delivers an impressive jolt, but beware: don’t even think of starting a story unless you plan on finishing it. Egerton's work is addictive.

Readers of genre fiction and literary fiction will be happy to know that Egerton seamlessly combines the two into something very much his own without diluting the attributes of either. Egerton may offer a dystopian future there or a needle-sharp character study here. Both will be written with the sort of finesse that one finds among the best that either genre fiction or literary fiction has to offer. Egerton does have a fondness for taboo subjects (cf "The Fecalist" or "Lord Baxtor Ballsington") of which sensitive readers should be aware. Of course, such warnings will – and should – draw those readers who would not describe themselves of their tastes as "sensitive". When you’re done reading 'Rant' or re-reading 'The Books of Blood', 'How Best to Avoid Dying' will assuage your thirst for the ah – unusual.

Also contributing to the general joy of reading 'How Best to Avoid Dying' are the production values of the book itself. It's a large 6" x9" trade paperback with large print and a great layout. It makes Egerton's already easy-to-read stories easier to read, no easy feat. And there are lots of B&W photo illustrations, all consisting of different and slightly disturbing angles on that doll we see on the cover. It's effectively stark, classy and creepy. If you're looking for a collection of stories that is at once literary and surreal, science fictional and scatological, then you'd best not avoid 'How Best to Avoid Dying'. I might be tempted to tell you this is the perfect bed stand book with all these great short-short stories, but I'd have to add the proviso that this is only true if you want to read something to make your dreams seem tame in comparison.


08-01-07: Kage Baker Welcomes 'The Sons of Heaven'

As Do Her Fans

The actually important series climax.
Talk about a long strange trip: I suppose it's quite reasonable, after all; ten books in ten years. Yet still.

'In the Garden of Iden', the first book in "the Company" series came out in 1997. The world was a different place ten years ago, and Kage Baker's readers were surely different people. The genre itself has been transformed more times than one can easily count. In those years too many series to count were started, and more than a few finished. But none were as inventive, as imaginative and as far off the usual map of science fiction series as Baker's Company novels. Baker's long strange trip has been a landmark in both science fiction and, I believe it will one day become clear, general fiction. Her ability to pull off ten books in a series in ten years, as well as a few one-offs and numerous short stories outside the world of the Company, is nothing short of phenomenal. Finishing a series this great in a mere ten years is important work.

Combining historical fiction, science fiction, time travel, and serious speculation on a wide variety of subjects, Baker's novels were uniquely individual. Nobody else has written anything close. But it was not just the subject that distinguished her work; it was also her ability to bring off a huge story in a richly satisfying manner. A variety of characters grew and changed throughout the series. Not every character appeared in every book. Whatever rules there might seem to be for creating a science fiction series did not apply to Baker's work, yet her series seemed as full and as comprehensible as anything else out there. We all knew it was going somewhere. Ten years later, it has arrived.

'The Sons of Heaven' (Tor books / Tom Doherty Associates ; July 10, 2007 ; $25.95) brings in all the spies from the cold, reveals the motivations and plays out the climax of baker's long-unfolding story. And yes, for all the great science fiction speculation, for all the inventive twists that Baker brought to serial fiction itself, the most appealing part of her work has been the characters. The core of great writing is universal – and Baker is a great writer.

I'm not going to go into the details here. Nobody wants me to. We've all just been bombarded with the climax of another series. Readers of that series who are looking for something similarly involving, something as moving are simply pointed at 'In the Garden of Iden'. Readers who just finished the ninth book in Baker's series, 'Gods and Pawns' – rejoice.

But don’t read too fast. You only get to finish this series the first time once.


07-31-07: Alan Cheuse Lights 'The Fires'

Think Global, Angst Local

I forgive you in advance for just buying the book now that you know it's out.

You know Alan Cheuse. He's the book reviewer for NPR's All Things Considered. So when I tell you that Alan Cheuse has a nice, compact little bottle of angst and humor, two novellas collected in 'The Fires' (Santa Fe Writer's Project ; July 31, 2007 ; $10), you have a pretty good idea of what to expect and why you're going to like it. Here's why.

'The Fires' includes two novellas, 'The Fires' and 'The Exorcism', that explore themes of separation and connectedness, life, death, and life after the death of those we love, or perhaps just once tried to love. In the first novella, Cheuse creates the world of Gina Morgan, a menopausal woman whose husband, Paul, is an engineer working in the chaotic creation of capitalism colliding with communism that is Russia today. Paul's dead, and Gina has been tasked with going beyond the beyond of Uzbekistan to grant Paul's final wishes. This proves to be every bit as difficult as one might imagine – and more so. Cheuse immerses us in a modern woman on the cusp of changes external and internal, and then immerses his character in part of our world where ancient and modern traditions are just as inextricably jumbled by changes nobody can even conceive of controlling. It's a striking and effective portrait of just about everything going to hell in a handbasket. Cheuse makes the unbearable aspects of life bearable by virtue of a sort of surreal prose that captures the jagged inner rhythms of memory and forgetfulness, the lacunae of life that are every bit as important as those events that sear themselves into our memory.

By contrast, 'The Exorcism' is the hilarious tale of a man confronting the misbehavior of his college-age daughter as she confronts her grief over the sordid death of her jazz-piano-playing mother. Once again, it's the prose that lifts this not-so-straightforward tale into the stratosphere of enjoyable reading. Tom Swanson is one of the most matter-of-fact men to experience a lot of real weird events and people you'll ever read. Told in the first person, 'The Exorcism' will make you laugh out loud repeatedly, providing you don’t have a college-age child being booted for some pretty significant missteps. Cheuse invests a tale that might otherwise verge into slit-your-wrists-and-hope-to-die territory with a verve that makes Tom's and ultimately the readers' lives better.

Of course, 'The Fires' benefits from having these two similarly themed stories side-by-side. There's an organic infiltration of idea and image between the two works. Each informs and enlivens the other, and frankly, 'The Fires' benefits from the pairing with more carefree 'The Exorcism'. These are two perfect little afternoon reading experiences to take you through a weekend, Saturday and Sunday. On Monday you can probably hear Cheuse on NPR reviewing another writer's work. One hopes for the sake of Tom Clancy it's not one of his novels. Clancy might well be tempted to exhibit behavior along the lines of Tom Swanson's daughter, but on a Clancy-esque scale. Some things are best left unimagined.


07-30-07: A 2007 Interview With Richard Morgan ; On-the-Scene Report from a Harry Potter Release Breakfast

"They drink it and piss it up against a wall."


"Why? .....Why!?!?"
Warning: Richard Morgan speaks his mind. Clearly, concisely, and with the sort of language that you can't broadcast on public radio. But it's not just the swear words, which he uses early, often and effectively. No, those are not what's going to upset folks. It's what he says without swear words that will get listeners' steamed up, whether he's talking about why we need to give women in society the money:

"If you give it to men, they drink it an piss it up against a wall, or buy an expensive truck."

Or religion:

" ...what you find really at the heart certainly of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the sort of dominant patriarchal religions is a really misogynistic, violent, domineering kind of approach to the world, and I don't see any reason to represent it any other way. I mean, I know that in vogue at the moment there's this idea that you mustn't upset religious people, you must take their ideas seriously....Why? Why is that you know?"

"You don't buy a dog and then learn to bark yourself."

And that's just the opening act. Richard and I spent a while talking about the many ideas behind his book 'Black Man' / 'Thirteen', from the importance of the feminizing influence on society to genetic engineering and the witches, the hobgoblins, the super-terrorists and serial killers that have haunted mankind. He's a fascinating and funny guy. Listen to the MP3 or RealAudio file, be beware those around you. If you don’t protect their ears, you may need to protect yourself.

Capitola Book (and Kid) Café

"I am not a publicity shill for a book that needs no publicity," Harry said.
I tried to make the midnight show at Bookshop Santa Cruz, but...I just am not conscious at that hour. Ever. So, the next morning, I was up bright and early to attend the Harry Potter Breakfast at Capitola Book Café. It was a and classic Santa Cruz Scene. The Great Morgani was there in full regalia, playing the accordion. The store was giving away some very nice breakfasts from local bakeries and there were lots and lots of avid readers out and about. Equipped with my mobile recording setup, I was able to capture lots of audio from the event.

What I wanted to know was how the kids who had started reading the Harry Potter so many years ago had changed in the intervening years, and I got some good answers. "I got bigger," one young lad replied. I liked the sisters who had started reading Harry Potter on a car trip as well; they literally grew up with Harry.

While I was at the celebration, I took the chance to speak with Billie Harris, the one-time host of KUSP's Castle Cottage, who read the first book in its entirety on the air. She and I talked about her voicings for the characters, and how she kept them straight. And then, once she started reading the latest, I was hushed, and then banished myself back to my own cave to edit audio and produce both an MP3 and a RealAudio report. It's a bit different from my usual interview-only format, but it was really fun. I plan on getting out and about with my mobile recorder much more often – and posting the results here. So long as it doesn't involve a midnight gig.


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