Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


09-02-07: Preview for Podcast of Monday, September 3, 2007 : "Self-censorship is profound as a Chinese author, and I donít think anyone like to admit that."

Here's an MP3 preview of the Monday September 3, 2007 podcast for The Agony Column. Enjoy!


08-31-07: A Review of 'Spook Country' by William Gibson ; Agony Column Podcast News : Alan Beatts, Borderlands Books

Locating Locative Art

Dust in the concrete canyons.
I hope a few long-time readers noticed that I uploaded this review earlier this week, saving for a rainy day, so to speak. And here’s that rainy day, having rained down two interviews before I had much chance to touch the keyboard.

It's an interesting challenge to review a book that most readers already know about and probably have some well-thought out opinion. But as Gibson's been all over the map of late, moving from the science fiction of 'Idoru' and 'All Tomorrow's Parties' to the recent past settings of 'Pattern Recognition' and 'Spook Country', I can at least give them the gist of what's what with his latest. Here's a link to the review and in case you missed it, my recent interview with Gibson. I suggest you buy the book and get ready to be surprised by Gibson's subtle, dry humor. As the summer dies, here's a book to read while watching the dust blow down Sunset Boulevard at dawn.

Agony Column Podcast News : Alan Beatts, Borderlands Books : From Law Enforcement to Litcrawl

If you don’t know about Borderlands Books, now is your chance to get to know them via the erudite owner and manager, Alan Beatts. After a morning at KQED in San Francisco, I navigated the seven blocks and seven SFPD cops to actually find a parking space smack dab in front of the not-yet open icon of science fiction books in San Francisco. We talked about how he got into bookselling and what you can expect if decide to try. Hint: Not for the greedy. We talked about the Litcrawl, a reading equivalent of a pub crawl that will take place during the next LitQuake in San Francisco. And Alan gave me two book picks that are well worth listening for from this MP3 file or your own subscription. Stay tuned for next week's Agony Column Podcast. Please subscribe and review the podcast at iTunes. They're only vaguely evil over there.


08-30-07: Vincent Lam Offers 'Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures' ; Agony Column Podcast News: A Short Interview with Xiaolu Guo

Be Still, My Beating Heart

Who could resist this cover? Not I!
We like to stay alive. No, really we do. It's just not that easy; moreover it seems to be getting harder rather than easier. You’d think that high-tech and spreading wealth – well, high-tech, at least – would result in better health care, but the horrible mess of our current system is, if nothing else, at least the talk of the town.

It's funny that so much medical fiction seems to live in the potboiler zone. Gut a mystery, set it in a hospital and wait for the tear-stained / prideful confession. What's odd is that hospitals are so human. They're chock-a-block with flawed patients and flawed professionals just trying to make it through another day. We like to stay alive.

With all the raw humanity on display in these settings, you’d think somebody would take a more literary focus. Just look at the people and say, "Well, that's a hell of a mess." The trick is to mine all that "oh, the humanity" without diving into bathetic blahs, to find the drama as well as the drama queens and kings. One might even have to take an unusual approach.

Vincent Lam takes that unusual approach in 'Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures' (Weinstein Books ; September 4, 2007 ; $23.95). Rather than offering up a novel that attempts to cram all the disparate bits of drama into one over-arching (and over-reaching) plot, Lam offers up a collection of short stories that focus on four characters as they make their way into and out of Med school and into a hospital. There is no single, simple answer to be found here, but instead four complicated characters playing out the little dramas that add up to the big picture.

Lam's four characters are not composites. Fitz is most obviously flawed; impulsive, a drinker, a young man changing radically as he becomes a doctor. Ming, the only woman, is smart but chilly, more of a scientist than a healer. Sri is the kind of guy who hesitates to carve through a corpse's tattoo, while Chen attempts to balance compassion and ambition. In the course of twelve stories, they manage med school, badly-planned relationships, and, of course: death. Drama, yes, but pixilated, sliced and diced and dissected the way that life dissects us, a motley horde of problems nibbling us to death.

Lam is a practicing emergency room physician in Canada who brings his own experience with SARS into the picture in the story "Contact Tracing". That sense of authority permeates the collection, but not in the usual sense. It's not that Lam slings jargon about so much as it is his unflinching view of life in those linoleum hallways. Anyone who has spent any time in a hospital knows what the vibe is like. It's not good, and it's NEVER like what is written about or seen in movies. There's a drone of hopelessness, a pulse of despair and boredom from waiting. Just waiting.

'Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures' won the 2006 Giller Prize, "Canada's richest literary award for fiction," according to the website. Alice Munro (who has a story in this year's 'The O. Henry Prize Stories') had a hand in creating the award. We definitely need an award scorecard, it seems. Whatever the case, the Giller caught the eyes of the Hollywood's Weinstein Brothers, who have just launched their literary venture, Weinstein Books – distributed by Hachette – with Lam's collection. That's a pretty interesting debut selection. It shows a lot of confidence in any writer to publish a collection of short stories. Alas, there is no information on previous publications of any of the selections on the colophon page. One might presume that to mean this is an original collection, in which case it becomes even more significant. Of course, the forthcoming multi-generational first novel set in Sagon during the Vietnam War, might have aught to do with that. I'll look forward to it. Assuming of course, I manage to stay out of the hospital.

Language is a character in this novel.

Agony Column Podcast News : Looking Up 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers', A Short Interview with Xiaolu Guo

You're going to hear a lot about 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' by Xiaolu Guo in the coming month. The book is fascinating and extremely well written, with the sort of conceit that either flies magnificently or fails abysmally. I'm here to tell you it’s the former rather than the latter, unless you read Ursula K. LeGuin's review for the Guardian or Boyd Tonkin's review in the Independent first. I called up Guo Xiaolu in London and spoke to her for more than twenty minutes. She is every bit as intelligent and fascinating as you might hope. Here's link to the MP3 and here's a link to subscribe to the podcast. This is a wonderful conversation, and I hope to talk with her at length about this wonderful book.


08-29-07: 'The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1: Crimson Shadows' ; Pirate Women, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Seana Graham, Contributor to Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet: Agony Column Podcast News

Start Them With the Classics

Stealing minds one word at a time.
Last week, for the Agony Column Podcast News, I talked with Mark V. Ziesing about bookselling and what’s to replace the gap left by J. K. Rowling. He told me that he always felt good suggesting the classics; Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Those were among my early favorites and they remain a favorite. So I'm quite happy to see that Ballantine Books and Del Rey are continuing their re-issues of the classic works of Robert E. Howard. The latest, 'The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: Crimson Shadows (Del Rey / Ballantine Books / Random House ; August 14, 2007 ; $16.95) is a handsome trade paperback, amply illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan. It's the kind of book that could damage a young mind for life.

At least, that's what happened to me. Once I started down the path of Howard, Burroughs, and Lovecraft, I was pretty much a goner, until, I'd gone through their available published catalogue. I must say that wish I'd started out reading books as nice as this one, though. I got my Howard addiction through ratty paperbacks, albeit with classic Frazetta covers. And one thing I surely didn't get in the editions I read was the variety offered here.

Like me, you might expect that Howard equals Conan, with a side order of King Kull and Bran Mak Morn followed by a chaser of Red Sonja. But what you've got in 'Crimson Shadows' is not just "The Shadow Kingdom", the classic Kull story that arguably started the now-burgeoning genre of sword and sorcery fiction. Nope, you get "The Fightin'est Pair" featuring Steve Costigan. You get poetry of the sort that makes younger hearts sail and literary critics roll their eyes. You get illustrations, lots of them. Bran Mak Morn is here, and Solomon Kane. Hand this to an impressionable say – ten, eleven year-old slightly precocious reader, probably male – and you've branded them.

The first sword and sorcery story, ever.

'The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1: Crimson Shadows' is, we are told, the first of a three volume set. Now in my day, I loved to collect serial paperbacks, and had all the Burroughs / Frazettas, all the Howard / Frazettas, all the Lin Carter edited Adult fantasy series. I still have some of them. Imagine this. Thirty, forty years hence. Books are gone. Books are dust. We're reading smart paper. Your child hands you a book you gave him so long ago. A real book. A manly book. You'll remember that moment for the rest of your life, which when they upload you, may be considerably longer than you expect.

Agony Column Podcast News : Pirate Women, Bookshop Santa Cruz and Seana Graham, Contributor to Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet

Today's Agony Column Podcast News is a twelve-minute interview with literary and weird fiction author Seana Graham. Here is a link to the MP3, or you can subscribe to the podcast. She's a contributor to 'The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet' and a long-time employee of Bookshop Santa Cruz. I've been seeing her for years, and it was fantastic to finally formally meet her. She talks about sending out her submission to a variety of small literary and weird fiction presses and how working in a bookstore affects her writing. Gripping, stuff this. I'm asking my listeners to help the podcast by reviewing it for iTunes. If you enjoy this podcast in it's new incarnation, do let me know. And if you have any suggestions or requests for interviews, article or reports, also let me know via email. Thanks!


08-28-07: 'Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology' Edited by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel ; Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Dark Delicacies 2' ; Agony Column Podcast News: Adrianne Ahern Wants You to 'Snap Out of It NOW'


Tachyon Rides Again

Beyond Wired.
Was it really last year when James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel were 'Feeling Very Strange'? I just looked it up and it was more than a year ago, though the anthology still seems fresh in my mind. Apparently enough time to scare up a new anthology for Tachyon Books, this time the forthcoming 'Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology' (Tachyon Publications ; October 15, 2007 ; $14.95). Once again, expect a genre fiction literary moment to be captured in amber. Prepare to part with fifteen or so bucks.

The idea behind this anthology seems obvious once you see it in print, though nobody has spoken directly to the core concept until now. Back in '85, Bruce Sterling decided to stir up some shit, so to speak and declare by executive fiat a literary "movement" – cyberpunk – and "move some units" as William Gibson recently put it by throwing together some disparate writers in a landmark anthology, 'Mirrorshades'. As soon as it was defined, cyberpunk was by definition dead. That's an interesting tack for a literary "movement", but over the last quarter century, that dead movement has flung a lot of weight around as the world it seemed to long for and fear in the same breath came into being around us. Now we're living that cyber-paradise / hellhole and lookit that – another bunch of science fiction writers have decided to throw out the rule book. Or at least amend it into extinction.

As Kessel and Kelly point out in their must-read introduction, some of the writers who are leading the way now were, "struggling to parse the subtleties of Green Eggs and Ham when Mirrorshades first appeared in the book store." Yes, they do want to remind us all just how old we are. But in said introduction, they do quite a bit more. No, it ain't no stinkin' manifesto. You know of course that these days, we don’t need no stinkin' manifesto to start a revolution because we're smack dab in the middle of one that just won’t give up the goddamned ghost. I for one am sick to death of it. Of course, that's why I read science fiction. Just so I can begin to wrap my brain around what’s going on in the real friggin' world, which, thank you very much, is just chock full of science so bizarre and complicated it might as well be fictional; and indeed, when it comes to stuff like cold fusion, often turns out to be just that!

But back to 'Mirrorshades 2' er no 'Rewired'. After the erudite, must-read intro by Messers K & K, you've got sixteen stories by these sixteen writers: Bruce Sterling ("Bicycle Repairman"), Gwyneth Jones ("Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland"), Jonathan Lethem ("How We Got In Town and Out Again"), Greg Egan ("Yeyuka"), Pat Cadigan ("The Final Remake of 'The Return of Little Latin Larry'"), William Gibson ("Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City"), David Marusek ("The Wedding Album"), Walter Jon Williams ("Daddy's World"), Michael Swanwick ("The Dog Said Bow Wow"), Charles Stross ("Lobsters"), Paul DiFilippo ("What's Up Tiger Lily?"), Christopher Rowe ("The Voluntary State"), Elizabeth Bear ("Two Dreams on Trains"), Paolo Bacigalupi ("The Calorie Man"), Mary Rosenblum ("Search Engine") and finally Cory Doctorow ("When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"). I've listed the titles in the order in which you'll find them in the book.

Chances are you've read some of these, and own them as either parts of single-author collections (Doctorow, "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" is in 'Overclocked' and Marusek, "The Wedding Album" is part of 'Getting to Know You'*) or novels in which they were included (Stross, "Lobsters" is part of 'Accelerando But this is not an original anthology; it's a collection that gathers apparently diverse authors between the same set of covers to see if readers can discover the similarities, the fault lines these writers are mapping for us. As with 'Feeling Very Strange', 'Rewired' does this very well. Not that it hasn't been done before – Lou Anders' 'Live Without a Net' has some of the same vibe – but the not-a-manifesto call to attention that fires this one off suggests that the editors have a pretty specific not-a-manifesto goal in mind.

*(Thanks to PH)

As a reader, if you sit down and read these stories again, out of their original context and in the context of this anthology, you'll find precisely why this is important. The continuum from Bruce Sterling to David Marusek is pretty amazing and not really obvious unless you experience it in print. And that's ultimately what this anthology is about – a reading experience, putting all those words in your brain, the old-fashioned way, one word at a time. Someday, we're often told, we'll just upload them. When that starts, then you can rest assured that these will be The Good Old Days.

Behind the glass.

Rule Out Monotony

That's what Mario Guslandi says in his review of 'Dark Delicacies 2'. No single-author slump, just a second collection with lots of outstanding stories, including Joe R. Lansdale, one of my old favorites, Barbara Hambly (I LOVED 'Those Who Hunt the Night'), Ray Garton, Glen Hirshberg – I'll let Mario do the honors.

Apparently, Dr. Ahern has snapped out of it.

Agony Column Podcast News: Adrianne Ahern Wants You to 'Snap Out of It NOW'

As I've noted before, I'm usually pretty suspicious of self-help books, but I really liked both author Adrianne Ahern and her slim book 'Snap Out of It NOW', so I took myself to our local metaphysical bookstore, Gateways Books and Gifts to see what she had to say about her book and what her presentation was like. Here's a link to the MP3 file, or just subscribe to the podcast.


08-27-07: A 2007 Interview with Kaui Hart Hemmings + Review of Hemmings' 'The Descendants'

The Truth Hurts School of Humor

Look how happy she is!
Kaui Hart Hemmings has such a sunny voice and personality that her sense of humor comes as a bit of a shock. Her first novel, 'The Descendants' is hilarious. It's not slapstick and it's not really dark humor, though she did admit to loving The Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma" ("It's very serious"), a song that will inevitably come to mind as you read. The novel fires off with a scene of protagonist Matt King and his ten-year-old daughter in the hospital room with his comatose wife, and Hemmings gets a good line and laugh coming out of the gate. It gets better and better: you can read my in-depth review here.

And you can hear my in-depth interview here as an MP3 or here as a RealAudio file, or subscribe to the podcast. Hemmings is every bit as smart and witty in an interview as she is on the printed page. We spoke over the phone late last week, and she told me about the trouble with paradise, which is that all that beauty sort of puts the kibosh of pouting. We also talked about the challenges of raising children, a subject she'll return to in an upcoming collection of stories and essays about brings up kids in San Francisco. I can already feel the cringe setting in.

Hemmings is the newest writer to join the Grotto, which has housed such Agony Column favorites as Mary Roach. I admit that I did not get round to asking about the commute from Hawaii to SF. I suspect that it is every bit as enjoyable, as challenging, as human as the journey Matt King makes in searching for his comatose wife's lover. The truth may hurt and it may set you free. But in Kaui Hart Hemmings' hands, it's funny, poignant and above all entertaining reading. And Hemmings is an entertaining speaker. Don’t worry. Hemmings is not too sunny. In both Hawaii and San Francisco, the sun can be pretty swiftly pre-empted by fog, rain, inclement weather. Bring a raincoat.


Agony Column Review Archive