Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

09-21-07: Sarah Langan Keeps 'The Missing' ; Agony Column Podcast News: Sampling Dark Delicacies with Del Howison

Fine American Cheese

Foil! Blurb! ACTION!!!!!!
Oh, I am courting trouble again. Find something you’re good at and stick with it, they say, but what if what you're good at is being bad?

In this case, I'm bringing back the not-so-friendly ghost of American Cheese, my very first web column ever. It was so unpopular, it generated lots of hate mail for my then-host Masters of Terror (now Horrorworld). Andy Fairclough, the proprietor at the time was very nice about it. And the worst part was that I meant it to convey a positive message! I've touched on the subject now and again in the years since -- I've been doing this column and website for more than five years now, so you've got to expect to find bits of yesterday's rubbish mashed up in the cultural garbage compactor of the ear-crushingly loud Trashotron.

But only 'The Missing' (HarperCollins ; September 25, 2007 ; $6.99) by Sarah Langan brings back the sweet, wonderful vibe, that indelible whiff of American Cheese. Make no mistake about it. I like this book. But when you go through as many books as I do, you've got to know that not every goddamned one is a GAN. Most of them are not. Some are just well-written fun, and believe me, in today's all-gray world we need to grab every bit of gods-damned fun we can find and suck it as dry as the desiccated corpses in that wonderful bit of British Cheese, the movie Lifeforce. Remember that one? I bet that Patrick Stewart doesn't want to, but damn. Floating hot nekkid vampire babes, the required-for-British-Sci-fi-movies crowd panic scenes, and more desiccated vampire corpses than you can stack in the back of my son's Toyota truck. Now that was cinema verité, the truth filmed. Because if there are not hot nekkid floating vampire babes, then something is direly wrong with this world.




Well. Thanks for destroying that illusion.

Am I missing something? Oh yes, I was writing about a book. A sweet, wonderful, kick-ass mind-number, the kind of book that makes you call in sick with a summer flu. 'The Missing'. Well, first off, let me tell you that this is the second book by Sarah Langan; her first was 'The Keeper', and you'll want to read that one first since it is at least tangentially connected to this one; I'll get to that later. But it is a pisser that I missed the first one, because, I could have been steeped in the cheese a year ago. Better late than never, though. So.

'The Keeper' takes place in Bedford, Maine, just a short commute, apparently from Castle Rock. Something bad happens. A girl dies and then the dead come back to life – unhappy about their job prospects, they decide to eat the living. But Langan takes this fairly straightforward horror trope and cooks up some good characters, crafted in the sort of prose that makes you forget all the shitty things that are happening to you. That there's some skill. So go buy that one first and read it, before you tuck into 'The Missing'. Because the missing fires off when schoolteacher Lois Larkin take the rich brats from neighboring Corpus Christi on a field trip to Bedford. You know, one of those "Check out the rotting corpses" things all school kids go on. The problem is that your rich brats, they're going to get into some stuff they shouldn’t and before you can say, "Eat me!" someone is trying to do just that.

'The Missing' plays with all the genre standards. Some it evades, while others it sings as if they’ve never been sung before. And that's just what you need when you want the perfect slab of American Cheese, the USAian mass-market paperback original horror novel. From the cover blurb to the blurry cover, this is America's finest publishing house doing what it does best, dropping a pellet of forget-your-troubles in troubled waters. For seven-fiddy, you got yourself a nice weekend of utter bliss. While the rest of the world mows the lawn and weeds the garden, you're experiencing hell on earth, up close and personal-like. 'The Missing' may just make you realize how much you've been missing your American Cheese, how delightful these paperback visions of terror are. Langan invests hers with lots of research to make it seem all too real, and most importantly, makes us really care about those who are being eviscerated. And come to think of it, that's a literary skill that is not to be denied its import. I've not seen a Philip Roth novel where guilt-plagued Jewish zombies wonder if the people they’re eating are kosher, nor one where an even more guilt-plagued rabbi does whatever it takes to make those humans kosher. I'd buy it – but only if it were a paperback original. In the interim (are you listening Mr. Roth – your zombie audience awaits you!), I'll be happy to enjoy Sarah Langan's work. Reading this sort of novel gives me just the lift to continue my good work being bad.

Agony Column Podcast News: Sampling Dark Delicacies with Del Howison : America's Only Horror-Only Bookstore

Today I talked with Del Howison, the owner and operator of Dark Delicacies Books. They’re America's only all-horror bookstore, and their story is pretty damn amazing. Here's a link to their website, which you'll definitely want to visit after hearing the MP3 of our interview. Kiss those hardly-earned dollars goodbye!


09-20-07: A Review of Michael Harvey's 'The Chicago Way'; Agony Column Podcast News : The Women of Mystery Book Club

The Simple Life (and Death)


Surprisingly, not a Chip Kidd cover.
My advice? If you like classic mysteries with a nice modern setting, you can't do any better than 'The Chicago Way' by Michael Harvey. Harvey, the co-creator of A&E's Cold Case Files works in the low-key style of Hammet, Chandler and the more obscure Charles Willeford, but sets his story in present-day Chicago, itself a major character in the story. I have a full-blown but spoiler free review here. The short version is that Harvey is a keenly skilled writer with a clear style, an engaging cast of characters and a story that has enough heft and grit to carry it but eschews the sort of over-over-over kill that can turn the general audience off to some of today's other, tougher noirs. This is a very reader-friendly novel that will make an excellent gift to your friends. They'll thank you. Harvey is currently on tour, and chances are you can pick up a signed copy or better still meet the man himself on one of his stops. One never knows about such things, but signed copies of this book may prove to be worth more than the cover price somewhere down the line. Moreover, they'll always be great reading or great book gifts. Check out the review; find the author and his novel. They’re well worth your valuable time–here's why.

Agony Column Podcast News : The Women of Mystery Book Club: From Readers to Writers

Since 1992, in Capitola, the gorgeous little tourist town just up the coast from me, – The Women of Mystery Book Club – Gayle Ortiz, Marybeth Varcados, Pat Pease, Judy Feinman, & Tomi Newman have been reading and discussing books. Five years ago, they decided to write one of their own, and their labor of love and literature overcame conflicting vacations, serious life interruptions, and demanding work schedules of members like Gayle Ortiz, owner of Capitola’s fabulous bakery, Gayle’s. The result of this impressive writing effort by some of Capitola’s finest readers is The Jewel Box: A Capitola Mystery, a tale of murder starring the colors and sights of Capitola that is selling as briskly as hotcakes from the fabulous bakery. Here's the MP3 of my interview with them shortly before their appearance at Capitola Book Café.


09-19-07: Alex Bledsoe Sharpens 'The Sword-Edged Blonde' ; Agony Column Podcast News: A Chat with Charlie Huston

Hard Boiled Fantasy

Classic fantasy-noir cover art by Justin Sweet.

It should be a contradiction in terms rather than a mini-genre unto itself.

Hard-boiled fantasy. If ever any two things did not go together, it's the totally invented and imagined worlds of fantasy and the gritty everyday feel of hard-boiled detective stories. But if you step back to look at the origins of the hard-boiled genre of detective fiction, you'll see it makes perfect sense that stories like those in 'The Sword-Edged Blonde' (Night Shade Books ; November 22, 2007 ; $24.95) by Alex Bledsoe should come to pass. Because hard-boiled detective fiction is as much about what it is not as it is about what it is.

When it first appeared on the scene, the hard-boiled detective story was not the dominant force we know today. The world of mystery fiction was dominated by the British, by the English cozy as exemplified in works of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. Now make no mistake about it, I like the work of both these writers. But you can see why they might rub Americans the wrong way, and why in reaction to the dominance of the British, American writers like Hammet and Chandler created the hard-boiled formula. At that time, at least, we were not a nation of aristocrats. Hard times had fallen in the wake of the Depression. We were scrabbling from day to day. So in place of the finely-attired Lord Peter Wimsey, we get the natty Philip Marlowe. The workaday instead of the worldly.

So if hard-boiled detective fiction is a reaction against the aristocratic nature of British mystery fiction, then the work of someone writers like Glen Cook and Alex Bledsoe starts to make a lot of sense. The fantasy world has long been dominated by the towering colossus of J. R. R. Tolkien, where aristocrats clash on knighted plains and the concerns are no less than the future of every gods-damned thing in sight. Writers like Cook and Bledsoe offer the same reactionary sort of fiction that Hammet and Chandler offered; an American take on a world created by the Brits.

There's not just a difference in subject. 'The Sword-Edged Blonde' introduces Eddie LaCrosse in a mystery involving kings and princesses, and it's a mere 233 pages, not the usual book-brick, door-stop fantasy. You start this book, you're not promising yourself that you'll read the next nine or so volumes. You're looking for a good time in a cheap bar with a good storyteller. Bledsoe is certainly the latter, with a great prose style that is funny and direct. The disconnect that one experiences reading this sort of fantasy noir is unique. You don’t have to go any further than the opening paragraph of Bledsoe's novel to get the idea:

"Spring came down hard that year. And I do mean hard, like the fist of some drunken pike poker with too much fury and not enough ale, whose wife had just left him for some wandering minstrel and whose commanding officer absconded with his pay."

What's really fun about novels like 'The Sword-Edged Blonde' is that they gently lampoon both of their inspirations, epic fantasy and hard-boiled detective fiction. You can't read a book like this without being well aware and pretty well steeped in both of its birth parents; or you can, but you might miss out on a few grace notes. Thus, the existence of this genre suggests a readership with very diverse tastes. And make no mistake about it, a lot of people are going to like Bledsoe's novel. But chances are they'll also have well-thumbed copies of both 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Maltese Falcon' on their shelves. This is a sophisticated and odd sort of entertainment – not the contradiction in terms it appears to be but instead a short history of two disparate kinds of genre fiction combined into a literary chimera that might yet give birth to monsters none can yet conceive of.

Agony Column Podcast News: A Chat with Charlie Huston: Breaking 'The Shotgun Rule'

If you're lucky, you're going to be able to catch Charlie Huston as he tours to support his new novel, 'The Shotgun Rule'. Look, if you can score a signed first edition of this, there's no reason to wait. The fact of the matter is that you'll want to get the usual two copies, or maybe even three; the one to read, one to display and one to stash. I managed to catch up with Huston and chat with him about this novel in detail. You can find the MP3 here, and Charlie's tour schedule here. There are some spoilers in here for the very sensitive; be aware.


09-18-07: A Review of Charlie Huston's 'The Shotgun Rule' ; Agony Column Podcast News: Kathryn Petruccelli Speaks With Belle Yang

It's A Bloody Fucking Wonderful Life


Don't break the shotgun rule.
I do believe that Charlie Huston's 'The Shotgun Rule' is going to be one of the best books I've read this year. He talked about it a bit in the interview we did, but man – I wasn't ready for how superb it turned out to be. It has all the elements that make his other book so enjoyable. Bad language (a chapter titled "Regarding Your Mother's Pussy"). Violence to the point of torture (I'll not tell you). More bad language and more violence when you don’t expect it. You'll laugh. You'll cringe in terror. If you are with other people when reading this book, prepare for some hard stares.

I'm telling you this because chances are you won’t notice other people around you when you're immersed in 'The Shotgun Rule'. You won’t notice the sounds you’re making because you'll be hearing only the words that Charlie Huston writes, as they unfold into a powerful movie in your brain. There's a lot of honest sentiment in 'The Shotgun Rule' and what keeps it honest is Huston's unflinching vision of the American lower class, duking it out on a landscape that promises cake but provides crumbs. This is the review. I won't wreck the story, only, I hope, make it possible for you read at an even more engaged level. This book is well worth your valuable time no matter how goddamned much you get paid. Sentiment. Violence. Honesty. It's a bloody, fucking wonderful life. Jump off the goddamned bridge.

Agony Column Podcast News: Kathryn Petruccelli Speaks With Belle Yang: Always Come Home to Me

Can you believe I paired these two titles? I mean really, what am I thinking?

Today's podcast finds Kathryn Petruccelli having lunch with Belle Yang, author of the children's book 'Always Come Home to Me', along with Terri DeBono and Steve Rosen, the two filmmakers who created "My Name Is Belle", a documentary based on the author's life. You can find the MP3 here; get ready to enter a world you do not expect.


09-17-07: A Report from the Singularity Summit 2007

AI Ain't What It Used to Be

At the San Francisco Palace of Arts, a break in the Singularity.

Today, I'm podcasting a report from the Singularity Summit 2007: AI and the Future of Humanity, an overview with excerpts from interviews of several speakers, and even my original report for NPR on the Singularity itself. You can get the MP3 here, the RealAudio here and find out more than the shattered remains of your tiny human brain could possibly comprehend at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence's website.


Agony Column Review Archive