Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column

10-26-07: Catherynne M. Valente Unfolds 'The Orphan's Tales' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : 'Tastes Like Cuba'

'In the Night Garden', 'In the Cities of Coin and Spice'

Beautiful to look at, better to read.

Here's one I missed that I should not have missed, but the second arrives in time to let readers know about the first – as well as the second. I spoke with Catherynne M. Valente shortly before the release of her first novel, the intense, surreal 'The Labyrinth'. I even got her to read some poetry and short fiction; here, here, here and here. She had mentioned an upcoming project in that interview, but I never saw the fruits of those labors until the second volume arrived on my doorstep. I may miss books once in a while, but I'm not completely without clue.

And thus, I commend readers to run, not walk to their bookstores and find Valente's 'The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; November 2006 ; $14.00) and the follow-up, 'The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice'. These books are everything a book should be; well-written, imaginative, lushly illustrated, nicely produced and bargain priced. For everyone falling over themselves to find "The next" who-the-heck-ever, forget that quest and hope that there's someone else out there as good as Valente, who sculpts bizarre, beautiful, ornate dreams into shimmering little jewel-like stories. And those little jewels turn out to be letters in a larger alphabet, the stories pieces of a larger weave.

The setup here is simple, familiar and yet nicely innovative. "...A child whose face was like the new moon shining" sits in the Palace Garden alone. She was born with an unusual birthmark inside her eyelids, from which she reads stories. Stories of strange monsters and curses and fates best not imagined. Those stories comprise the novels, but they slot into a larger story as well. They’re intricate, intelligent, funny, disturbing; they are life, refracted through a vivid imagination with a facility for lovely language.

Interior Illustrations by Michael Kumata.

Yes, it's The Arabian Nights re-birthed for the 21st century. Frankly, we could use it. But the stories here are not the whole story. I'm generally disinclined to like the sorts of books that New York prints. Mostly, they're just product, but somebody put a lot of care into these, and at fourteen bucks a pop, they really give the small press a run for its money. Vivid line drawings by Michael Kumata illuminate the manuscript within, matched by fantastic interior book design done by Glen Edelstein. 'In the Night Garden' sports cover design by the ever-dependable Jamie S. Warren Youll and cover art by Jon Foster. Michael Komarck provides the cover illustrations for 'In the Cities of Coin and Spice'; otherwise the design team remains the same.

And this is important to Valente's work. Make no mistake, her prose could carry the day. But the book design and even the trade paperback format all contribute to a much richer reading experience. These are books that will actually lie open when you set them on the table at the tacqueria, so you can eat that two-handed burrito the size of your forearm. They're compact enough to take on a trip without busting your bag, but long enough to last the whole plane trip even for fast readers. But you won’t want to read these books fast. You'll want to buy them fast. My copy of 'In the Night Garden' is a second damn printing, so you may have to hunt a bit, but I'm guessing the fussiest among us can find a first printing without breaking your bankbook. But that's not so important as finding the book, finding yourself within the book. That's a real possibility here; either finding yourself, or losing yourself, at which point the distinction becomes nebulous. Fabulous. Fabled.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : 'Tastes Like Cuba' : Eduardo Machado's Memoir with Recipes and Michael Domitrovich

On today's Agony Column Podcast News Report, find out what moved playwright Edward Machado, who has written over forty plays, to include the recipes in his memoir 'Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home'. I haven’t tried any yet, but several are in the queue, and they all sound quite delightful. I love to cook and to take my time cooking. First one must clean up the kitchen, then set out the utensils. It can take three to four hours to make decent meal in an enjoyable fashion. It's probably easier and healthier to just listen to the MP3 of the phone interview.


10-25-07: The Twilight Limited ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Eliot Fintushel Reads "How the Little Rabbi Grew" at SF in SF

The Rolling Darkness Revue 2007

Hear that train a comin'. For you.

This is my favorite time of the year. The nights are long and last well into the early hours of what might otherwise be dawn. It's 4:33 AM, and I'm about to go running on the beach, and now, when I do so, it is full dark. The skies are brutally clear and the moon has set. It's just stars and darkness. It's a time of year to be afraid. Which of course means it's time to read, to listen to horror stories, those tales told around a campfire meant to comfort and disturb us. A self-contradicting goal that embraces belief in opposing ideas. It's all going to be all right. Everything dies.


I was wrong about the moonset. A nearly full, barely gibbous moon, bloated and orange hung over the Monterey Bay and set while I ran. And now I have returned, to write some more about books for those of us who know they need never end, who know that they're vitally important not just to us personally, but to our society as a whole. The act of reading, of listening to stories is an important cultural statement and experience. Today I'm podcasting Eliot Fintushel's reading from SF in SF, and the story is strangely appropriate for approaching the Halloween season.

The real train leaves this Friday. It's a West Coast run only, I'm sorry to say, but The Rolling Darkness Revue with Glen Hirshberg, Pete Atkins and on one stop, Dennis Etchison, will begin on October 26, at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, California. Glen Hirshberg will read his new story 'Miss Ill-Kept Runt' and Peter Atkins will read his new story, 'Last of the Invisible Kings'. That stop will as well include Mr. Etchison reading his story 'Call Home'. Music for that performance will come from Rex Flowers and Jonas Yip. I covered this tour for NPR last year in this report; since then, joined by Jinny Royer, Dana Massie and Billy Reed, I've done ambient musical backing for their Northern California visits. This time, I'm delighted to report that we'll be playing in the Storybook Mountain Vineyards Wine Cave on Saturday, October 27. The tour will conclude on Sunday, October 28, at the haunted Truckee Book and Bean in Truckee, with music backing by Tad Piecka.

I really like the idea of music and story reading being joined. I know that usually when I read, I have a carefully selected soundtrack playing; generally classical or some sort of ambient music, never music with words that might distract from the reading experience. Even if you can't make the gigs, you can pick up the chapbook from Earthling Publications, which includes the play that Glen and Pete perform to bring the stories together. Pick your own soundtrack, and wait until it is full dark.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Eliot Fintushel Reads "How the Little Rabbi Grew" at SF in SF

Eliot Fintushel reads at SF in SF.

Today's podcast is the second from last week's SF in SF; it's Eliot Fintushel reading his story "How the Little Rabbi Grew". It's the kind of reading and story that will have you running, not walking to pick up that book I showed you a couple of days ago. At least, that's what happened to me. Straight from the reading to buy Eliot's novel. You can read the story over at Strange Horizons, and you can hear it read by the author on this MP3. We're going to try to run more fiction in the Agony Column Podcast, and not just readings from events, but original fiction written for audio performance. Stay tuned, keep reading and living stories.


10-24-07: Michael Swanwick 'The Dragons of Babel', John Meaney 'Bone Song' and Richard Morgan 'The Steel Remains' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jamais Cascio at Singularity Summit

Cyber-Steampunk Fantasies of Your Future

Another gorgeous cover from Tor.
Your future has already arrived in my mailboxes. I know it's unfair, but William Gibson did warn us that the future has arrived – it's just not evenly distributed. In this case, the future happens to be fantasies that are impure in every manner possible. The fantasy worlds our authors are offering us now are no medieval heavens. They are not our past done up in pastels with elves, dwarves and magicians. Nor are they idealized versions of the present with same, the better for young men to come of age. Our fantasies have become infected by the present. We are rotten to the core. So are our dreams.

In case you’re tempted to think that there is something new under the sun, let me first roll out 'The Dragons of Babel' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; January 2008 ; $25.95) by Michael Swanwick, which is no less than a sequel to 'The Iron Dragon's Daughter'. This novel came out first in the UK in October of 1993, followed by a US edition in 1994, and was an excellent example of cyber-steampunk fantasy. 'The Dragons of Babel' takes place in this same gritty non-nonsense universe and begins when a war dragon crashes in the lands of Faerie, declares itself king and makes young Will his lieutenant, using Will's mind to gauge what the rest of the populace is thinking about their new ruler. Will of course leaves and wanders a bleak post-industrial landscape strewn with the refuse of broken technology and covered with a skein of magical garbage as well. If you think technological pollution is corrosive and unpleasant, you haven’t seen magical pollution – until you've read Swanwick's hard-edged fantasy. I love this sort of horrific sf / fantasy / literature, all of which takes a cue from thee immortal and justly acclaimed Gormenghast trilogy by the late Mervyn Peake.

And because we can't get enough of this sort of literature, science fiction writer John Meaney has broken out the battle axe and launched his own bloody assault on our senses. 'Bone Song' (Victor Gollancz ; March 15, 2007 ; £18.99) came out earlier this year in a UK edition that may soon become very scarce. Even the normally reserved booksellers at Handee Books suggested in last week's bookseller podcast interview that this would be a desirable title to snag. As a guy who has like two copies of every UK edition of Meaney's groundbreaking SF, I agree. That said, the American edition of 'Bone Song' (Bantam Books ; February 26, 2008 ; $24.00) will be along shortly and here is one case where you'll definitely want both editions. The changes from the UK to the US version are substantial and significant. For dedicated readers this is an ideal situation, as it gives you two chances to experience the same work. In the rare situations where this occurs, the reading experience of the first refracts through the second; it's like reading the director's cut of the novel, so to speak.

'Bone Song' is set in a futuristic and fantastic world that like Swanwick's (and China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, for that matter, and others as well), takes aspects of high fantasy – gargoyles, zombies, and other supernatural critters – and uses them to populate a dark and gritty metropolis, in this case Tristropolis, where the cops use a phone and have to deal with "para-live" partners. The effect is simply wonderful; well, wonderful if you're a monster hound and like your settings bizarre and complicated just beyond the edge of your ability to comprehend them.

But Meaney and Swanwick aren't alone in this quest; Richard Morgan, who has made a lot of readers very happy with gritty science fiction like 'Altered Carbon' and 'Black Man' / 'Thirteen' told me in his last interview about his forthcoming fantasy, which now has a title, 'The Steel Remains' (Victor Gollancz ; August 2008 ; [no price yet]). Morgan's take on the typical fantasy schtick was to take on the aftermath of a LOTR-style conflict. Good versus evil has been fought and the war has ended leaving Ringil, Archeth and Egar jack-doodly beyond very bad attitudes and a pre-disposition towards violence. It's PTSD in a world of drugs, alcohol and The Scaled Folk. Of course, it's damn easy to dislike Scaled Folk, you know, the scales really are a barrier to sympathy and understanding. And our lack thereof makes us look tasty and delicious. And with Morgan at the helm of a fantasy novel, expect lots of bloody violence, liberal and entertaining use of the work "fuck" and most importantly, a gripping story about characters you may only sort-of like as human beings but love to damn death as fictional constructs to take you through a story.

For me, the appeal of these books is that they combine two very different sorts of familiar landscapes to create a world that seems bigger than the book itself, that has a life outside the pages. One familiar landscape element comes from our very own dystopian present; the crowds, the city, the dirt, the crappy discarded technology and the sort-of-works new stuff. Imagine what out present would look like to a medieval knight. And that's the second familiar ingredient; the traditional fantasy landscape, chock a block with elves, dwarves and all sort of magical types dragged through the greasy scrap heaps that history tells us was medieval any-damn-where. We're familiar with the first from real life and the second from our fantasy reading. Combine them, layer in a plot Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler and you have a world you can poke about in even when you’re not reading the book. A reading experience that gets beyond the pages.

So here's your ticket for 2008; first, go dig out 'The Iron Dragon's Daughter' for me from amidst all the clutter in my studio. I seem to remember seeing it next to my copy of 'Vacuum Flowers', but I could be wrong. Then having caught up on your homework, order up one of those scarce copies of 'Bone Song' from the UK and read it. So now we're into January, and you're ready for 'The Dragons of Babel'. In February, dip back into 'Bone Song' in the US version. Then you've got a few months to hope for the new contemporary supernatural novel from China Miéville, and to read through Meaney's excellent SF backlist available from the foresightful minds at Pyr. By then it's August and time for Richard Morgan's 'The Steel Remains' – I don’t have to tell you to buy two copies of the UK HC first, do I? Perhaps then you can hope that eventually our world will spawn some optimistic science fiction and fantasy. But don’t count on it.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jamais Cascio at Singularity Summit : "Science Fiction is a really nice way of uncovering the tacit desires for tomorrow...."

Open the future with Jamais Cascio.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report returns to Singularity Summit as I speak with Jamais Cascio, a gentleman who resides in a district where the future is more deeply distributed than it seems to be in the rest of the world. We talked about his Metaverse Roadmap; the term metaverse taken directly from Neal Stephenson's 'Snow Crash'. You can hear the MP3 of his interview here and marvel at how a gadget you bought your kid some five years ago changed the face of broadcasting.


10-23-07: A Review of 'Halting State' by Charles Stross ; Agony Column Podcast News : Eliot Fintushel at SF in SF

Second Chances

Cover illo by Sophie Toulouse. Cool. Different.
For all the adventurousness of the second-person narration featured in 'Halting State' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; October 2, 2007 ; $24.95), the real star of the latest novel by Charles Stross is his ability to articulate our dissatisfaction with the present in his vision of the (very near) future. Increasingly, we find ourselves immersed in a relentless competition fueled by capitalism that demands we buy more be more do more every single damn day. Amidst all the buying, being and doing, there's not a whole lot of time for knowing, and as for history – no need to perish the thought, it never gets into the queue.

'Halting State' captures the cognitive dissonance of our world and repackages it in another. You can read my review of 'Halting State' here. If Stross follows his usual path, you'll probably be able to read the novel online for free; at least it will seem free. But as 'Halting State' so ably demonstrates, everything has a cost.

Agony Column Podcast News ; Eliot Fintushel at SF in SF : The Mime Speaks

Check out the green box on the ground. That's the Line 6 Delay modeler and a damn good looping dealie, should you have the need for one.

Saturday night, I attended and recorded my second "SF in SF" event. This one featured Eliot Fintushel and Kage Baker. Hosted by The Variety Children's Charity, Borderlands Books and Tachyon Publications, this was another stellar event, and I've got lots of great audio podcasts that you'll hear over the next couple of weeks. If you live in the Bay Area and have any interest in literature and science fiction, make time for the next event on November 17, which will feature Molly Gloss and Karen Joy Fowler.

Who is your apocalypse partner?
That said, we'll start off the coverage of last Saturday's gig with my interview with Eliot Fintushel conducted before the show began, and before his theremin performance. Fintushel had an amazing rig, with a huge Bose speaker setup and a gorgeous Bob Moog Etherwave Pro Theremin. This to-die-for wood model was just a beautiful to look at as it was to listen to. Here's an MP3 of my conversation with Eliot Fintushel, which includes two pieces of music.

Fintushel talked about the influence of music on his work, in particular, his first book 'Breakfast With the Ones You Love' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; February 27, 2007 ; $12.00). He also gives a pretty damn conceptually amazing audio demonstration of his skills as a mime, and talks about the influence of that work on his writing.

Because I know you or someone who is trying to love you cares about this, I've got to mention that 'Breakfast With the Ones You Love' is pretty thin, so it won’t increase the tilt of your to-be-read stack too threateningly. There's a good reason that the game Jenga appeals to readers. It's great practice for book-stacking.


10-22-07: A 2007 Interview With Steve Almond

"The path to the truth runs through shame"

Not just another punching bag.
The bitter realities of our tiny lives are enough to make one buy yet another tale of impending apocalypse. I mean, we can live in hope and anticipation, right?

Consider the alternative, a life spent in the cringe zone, dogpaddling through the difficulties of quotidian existence. I'd be happy to live a life of quiet desperation; as it stands, my desperation seems to be stuck at 11. But I'm not alone, and that's why I read writers like Steve Almond, people who take daily trudge and turn it into something we can laugh both at and with.

It wasn't easy getting to talk with Almond, who had a torrentially busy schedule. We looked at going to KQED, no dice, we looked at going to KUSP, no dice, and eventually we ended up doing the interview at his parents' house, a beautiful, huge old home in the perfectly preserved suburb of Palo Alto. Polished wood floors, comfortable and classy furniture, the sun shining through a bay window. It proved to be much more idyllic than any studio could be. And once I figured out that the recorder wall wart did not need a three-prong plug, we were off. Almond is a fascinating and extremely well-spoken guy, funny one moment, serious the next. I had a blast talking to him.

I might add that listeners will immediately understand why I found it so interesting to be in the actual Almond house. He even gave me a couple of pieces of some kind of to-die-for candy, which I can assure you did not last the trip home.

Here is a link to the RealAudio version; here is a link to the MP3. We talked about his most recent book, a collection of essays, '(Not That You Asked)', which was nice because it allowed us to cover a variety of subjects, from the serious look at Kurt Vonnegut to the more lighthearted adventures in the Cringe Zone®. And yes, I am registering that as the title of my Fox News Interview Show. I just want to know who is going to buy the advertising?


Agony Column Review Archive