Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

09-28-07: Ysra Sigurdardottir Examines 'Last Rituals' ; Agony Column Podcast News : James Hughes, At Singularity Summit

"Burn him! Wait, him?"

Cold hearts and minds, watching.
Ysra Sigurdardottir tells us that there is a "depressing lack of crime" in Iceland. But that didn't stop her from writing 'Last Rituals' (William Morrow / Random House ; October 2, 2007 ; $23.95). "A mere 300,000 people live in Iceland and crimes are relatively few and far between. This is quite a good state of affairs for the general public, but extremely depressing for a crime writer, especially considering the fact that the few crimes committed are excruciatingly boring."

Which is quite unlike her novel. Imagination wedded with actual history make short work of any potential boredom for her readers. 'Last Rituals' begins when Thóra Gudmundsdottir, a struggling attorney, agrees to investigate the death of a German student. His family doesn't think it's down to the local drug dealer the cops have in the nick. They want someone who can speak Gertman – Thóra, and they're willing to pay double her rate, so all's good, well, except for the murder victim, Harald Guntleib.

But even when he was alive, things weren't so peachy for Harald. His murder was sort of spectacular, not just a dead body with a neat hole in the forehead. And it turns out he was on a quest for a book we’ve mentioned here before, the Maleus Maleficarum. Yes, the good ol' Witch Hammer figures in the plot once again. Harald, it seems was part of a group fascinated with black magic, and as such, in the world of you-deserve-it murder mysteries, he's toast. No, more like steak tartare, but maybe not so finely chopped.

How do you find the murderer of a young man obsessed with magic and witch hunts? Looking to local history is a good guide, and the complicating fact is that just like the US, Iceland had its share of witch hunts – most of which sought out men. And many of which took place in now-hip Reykjavik.

Sigurdardottir writes with a light hand and grounds her story in the struggles of her heroine, a single mother, new attorney, new at everything, So hunting witch hunter killers is just another new thing, only bloodier. And probably more dangerous than being a new mother, though that's arguable. What's not is that readers looking for crime fiction with an evocative setting and an at least tangential connection to the supernatural can find in 'Last Rituals' the first book in a potentially interesting new series. We're told she's already at work on 'My Soul to Take', the second Thóra Gudmundsdottir mystery. Obviously, a depressing lack of crime does not impact Sigurdardottir's chilly imagination.

Agony Column Podcast News : James Hughes, At Singularity Summit : Sharia AI

Today's podcast features James Hughes from the Singularity Summit on the ethics of AI. Wild and fascinating Speculation about Sharia AI, and deciding when robots can kill. Here's the MP3 link. Watch out, Hughes is just fantastic and may have you pulling over to the side of the road in wonder.


09-27-07: A Review of 'The Great Man' by Kate Christensen ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Bookseller Jack Rems

Portrait of the Absence as an Old Man

Painted with bold strokes of prose.

Today, I have a review of the new novel by Kate Christensen, 'The Great Man'. I'm prone to bits of bitterness that inspire one friend to urge me to start "The Bile File" as a regular feature here. That love of my own bitter nature makes Christensen's work consistently enjoyable. 'The Great Man' is a very funny book, so long as you have a slightly sour disposition and an interest in affairs of the heart both good and bad. Christensen's work puts you in the lives of four fascinating elderly women while it lacerates just about everyone in sight. The author has clearly fallen in love with her characters and readers will as will. The four elderly women who were once in the orbit of "The Great Man" all know, but never say that he was really just a womanizing lout smart enough to surround himself with great women. Readers who relish a sit down with the witty, the smart and the tart will find a feast here – and recipes on the author's website to compliment said reading delights.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Bookseller Jack Rems : 31 Years of Dark Carnival

Today's podcast is a conversation with Jack Rems, who has owned and operated Dark Carnival Books in Berkeley for THIRTY-ONE YEARS. Here's a link to the MP3 file. Think about that; thirty-one years of owning a specialty bookstore. The mind boggles, and not just at the SF content that the bookstore carries.


09-26-07: H. P. Lovecraft Revises 'The Horror in the Museum' ; Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Peg Kingman : 30 Years / 7 Years / 2 1/2 Weeks to 'Not Yet Drown'd'

X-Mart Arkham House

Cover art by John Jude Palencar.
We all have to discover H. P. Lovecraft in our own way. I first read about him in the back of a Groff Conklin anthology that claimed to contain the '17 Great Science Fiction Stories'. Lovecraft was listed in an appendix, and I found the infamous burning-skull Lancer paperback in the same liquor store where I had found the Conklin anthology. 'The Colour Out of Space' wasn't quite as alluring as the Mickey Spillane paperbacks with their torrid covers, but it did in fact change my reading life forever.

That was longer ago than I'd care to admit, and things have sort-of gotten better. Alas, the corner liquor store no longer (needs to) carry a paperback book inventory. For the kind of cheese I'm talking about, you’d have to go to one of the Marts, and they won’t even have the best stuff, the sleazy covered Pbs from Hard Case.

But if you're lucky, you might find 'The Horror in the Museum' (Del Rey / Random House ; September 25, 2007 ; $16.95). I'd suggest that you try your local independent bookseller, but if you want the sleaze experience, then these days, X-Mart will have to do. Oh, the humanity.

At least Del Rey is fighting the good fight, keeping Lovecraft in print – sort of. 'The Horror in the Museum' is not exactly a Lovecraft collection, but a collection of stories he revised for other authors. As such, it's not actually even his work – , but for this reader, there is something about all Lovecraft and his related authors that is simply appealing. This horror fiction, designed to disturb us to our souls, is my comfort reading, that to which I can return like an old friend. If you've read Lovecraft, but not these stories, you'll probably want to pick this up to fill in the corners of reading as the fall arrives and the streets grow dark. And even if you own the Arkham House first edition, it's old enough to have kids in high school (say Scott Sigler, whose work I think Lovecraft would enjoy), and should probably live in your rare books room. You do have a rare books room, right?

Good. Then move the Arkham house over there, and pop this trade paperback in its place. You do get a disturbingly beautiful cover by John Jude Palencar and an additional introduction from Steve "Mammoth Book of Horror" Jones. The print is decent but the pages are cheesy. If only, if only they could make them purple, like the Lancer edition. Are you listening Del Rey? Bring back our purple-edged pages. I'm pretty sure you'll move more units through the Marts with purple pages. It certainly matches the prose!

Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Peg Kingman : 30 Years / 7 Years / 2 1/2 Weeks to 'Not Yet Drown'd'

A nice cover for a debut novel.

Today's podcast is a quick conversation with debut author Peg Kingman. Her novel, 'Not Yet Drown'd' combines history, mystery and romance; it's set in India and Scotland in 1821. You can listen to the MP3 from this link or subscribe to the podcast from iTunes.


09-25-07: Whitley Strieber Makes a Date for '2012' & Graham Hancock Gets 'Supernatural'; Agony Column Podcast News : Avoiding Death With Owen Egerton

Two Paths to Human

A meeting of the minds.
We're just now figuring out what makes us human. At least we've just started writing about it.

Not that the subject hasn’t been the eternal subject of literature, of all art, really. But sometimes science drives the art, and something we learn gives us a new perspective. In this case, it's cave drawings in Southern France. Art itself now defines humanity.

'Supernatural' (Disinformation Company ; October 20097 ; $18.95) by Graham Hancock and '2012: The War for Souls' ( Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; September 18, 2007 ; $24.95) by Whitley Strieber purport to tell us what makes us human. Hancock's work is non-fiction, while Whitley Strieber's is science fiction. What interests me as a reader is that both books hark back to changes in human behavior that took place between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Hancock asks why and explore the subject scientifically; Strieber asks why and explores the subject with his imagination. But both writers agree that it wasn't simply happenstance that brought about this change. To put it bluntly, it was beings from the Otherworld meddling about in not-yet-human affairs.

Hancock's book is a paperback re-print of the hardcover issued last year, with a pretty major change, that is, the deletion of SEVEN CHAPTERS of (and I quote Hancock himself here, from an author's note) of "overly academic" (read: boring to the great unwashed) material focused on Professor David Lewis-Williams' neuropsychological theory of cave art. This material has been replaced with a single chapter précis that folds more reasonably into the overall thrust of 'Supernatural'. So this is somewhat frustrating; I would have preferred to have the elided material included as an appendix, but I can see why it was not. At 453 pages, 'Supernatural' is already on the long side. Seven more chapters, even as an appendix might have scared readers away. If you want both versions, and you might, then you'll want to buy both. Hrumph.

But they shouldn't be scared because Hancock is an engaging writer. He dives right in where angels, or at least the sort of scientists who publish in Nature fear to tread, but the places he goes at least interesting to read about. 'Supernatural' starts off with Hancock supine on a couch slowly watching reality melt under the influence of ibogaine, a drug derived from the iboga or eboka plant, a favorite of central African shamans. It's illegal in the US, but in the UK, where Hancock lives and writes, they've opened up access because, well – maybe it helped us become human.

Sounds reasonable to me.

Hancock's pursuit of the moments that made us human leads him around the world, from France, Spain and Italy to South Africa and eventually the Amazon. 'Supernatural' posits that the glimpses given by drugs such as ibogaine and Ayahuasca from the Amazon rainforest are not simply hallucinations, but visions of an actual Otherworld peopled by entities that had a vested interest in seeing the cave apes become human, and that the path we were set upon was not the result of random chance but part of a plan. The Gods Must Be Art Collectors, and why not? Are not the books we write and read, the paintings and music we create the summit of human endeavor? Hancock may or may not convince you that his thesis correlates with the world out there, but he's certainly going to make you think and think deeply about what it means to be human.

Geddy Lee, man. Geddy Lee.
Whitley Strieber is no stranger to this territory, and he presents a pretty straightforward thriller-ized version of the same ideas. Basically, in 2012, the year we first heard about from Rush so long ago – so, so long ago – the same critters that nudged us into the habit of painting back when we were cave apes make another appearance, this time with less salubrious goal. On 12-21-2012, sacred sites around the world become roach motels for human souls. Not human bodies, mind you, whatever's doing this has no need for the flesh. Of course, this upsets HUMAN CIVILIZATION, because it might like, end. What follows is a big enough disaster to attract the likes of motion picture director Michael Bay (Armageddon), who was and still is purported to have an interest in bringing it to the big screen. Whether or not it ever gets there is may well depend on the very critters that both writers are alluding to.

Strieber will not knock you off your feet with profundity but he does provide a toe-tapping apocalypse in the standard 300-something pages format. You read this in a weekend and forget it by the next weekend, unless you read it in conjunction with Hancock's book, which is much more likely to stick in your brain. We creative, engaged humans have uses for both modes of thought. Hancock wants us to reconsider how we became what we are and he works on the fringes of both literary and scientific thought. But he's serious, skilled, smart and quite compelling. Strieber takes some of the same ideas and recombines them to make us forget who we are for a few moments. Strieber is also serious – about entertaining us, about helping us excape from where we are. We need both. We are, after all, only human.

Agony Column Podcast News : Avoiding Death With Owen Egerton : Scrubbing the Wordscape

Today's podcast is a conversation with Owen Egerton, whose book is 'How best to Avoid Dying'. He and I talked about how he writes so fast that his first drafts are filled with nonsense words, and how he takes a lot of inspiration fro his visits to the midnight movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, often brought there by Ain't it Cool News maven Harry Knowles. You can hear the MP3 right from this link, or subscribe to the podcast from iTunes. "Humor has this ability to kind of, twist our perspective," he told me. Twisted is often the best thing we can say about the world around us.


09-24-07 : The Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Debate

Tachyon Publications Presents SF in SF

Scott Sigler, Terrry Bisson and Howard V. Hendrix.

Shortly after I decided to engage in daily podcasting, I talked with Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. After our interview I asked him if he had any suggestions where I might gather audio to fill my new schedule. He suggested that I get in touch with Tachyon Publications, which was hosting a monthly "SF in SF" show at the Variety Theater in the Hobart Building on Market Street in San Francisco. I already knew about the shows and had been intending to attend, but this lit a fire. I emailed Rina Weisman, and working with her, obtained permission to record and podcast last week's "SF in SF" show, the titular "Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Debate", which I first saw mentioned in this Boing Boing post. The participants included Scott Sigler, author of 'Ancestor' and Howard V. Hendrix, author of 'empty cities of the full moon', moderated by Terry Bisson.

Here's the short story behind this discussion. On April 24 of this year, Howard Hendrix posted what he himself described as a "rant" about "webscabs, who post their creations for free," to the SFWA LiveJournal Community. As you might imagine, this enraged a lot of people; author Jo Walton declared April 23 to be International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. Cut to September 19, and you find Scott Sigler – who made his career by podcasting his novels for free – on stage with Hendrix for the SF in SF event, with Terry Bisson between them. All for free in a to-die-for setting, and I mean to-die-for. I almost killed myself trying to find a parking space after practically driving up on the curb to park illegally while I dropped off the sound gear for the show. I provided the mixer, speakers and mics to ensure the best possible recording.

What's nice about these events is the focus on literature. After a brief introduction by Rina Weisman of Tachyon Publications, and Ellen Goodman, Executive director of Variety Children's Charity of Northern California (who provide the venue, thank them and contribute), Bisson started the proceedings with a meaty reading by each of the participants. Sigler went first, reading from his forthcoming-in-hardcover novel 'Infection', which is (from what we heard) apparently powerful enough to infect the author himself who later joked about podcasting from the tubercular ward. Bisson turned things over to Hendrix, who read a new story, 'Flame of Branches'. That took care of the first hour of the show, followed by a brief break.

When the participants returned, the debate, really a wide-ranging, polite and very erudite conversation, ensued. You can hear it for yourself here in MP3, and here in RealAudio. (I'm aware of the irony, but the Monday podcasts traditionally go out in both formats – and this one is long, over an hour.) Next Tuesday I'll podcast Sigler's reading, and next Wednesday, Hendrix's. I'm definitely hooked on the SF in SF productions and schedule / authors permitting, will continue to provide sound and podcast them. Upcoming events include Kage Baker and Eliot Fintushel for Sat. Oct. 20th, and Karen Joy Fowler and Molly Gloss, on Sat. Nov. 17th. How I'll fill the days in between – well, that's something we'll both find out.


Agony Column Review Archive