Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


11-09-07 : 'The Adventures of Amir Hamza' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Ed Thomas, Owner of Book Carnival

Time, Money and Scholarly Fantasy

Oh my, Kage Baker, JK Potter, Subterranean Press!

You go out there to buy a book, even if it involves pointing and clicking, and there are some serious calculations to be made. Serious – but pretty simple. Your most valuable asset is time. That's why I'm here, really. Toi make sure you spend your valuable reading time wisely, even though that sometimes involves spending your money less than wisely. And to make sure that you even know about some stuff that just might pass well beyond your radar. 'The Adventures of Amir Hamza' (Modern Library / Random House ; October 30, 2007 ; $45) is something of a conundrum for me. I don’t know that it is immediately worth your valuable time. At 952 pages, it's a long book. But I do believe that it is worth your valuable money, which is to say the least, odd. Let me explain.

'The Adventures of Amir Hamza' was originally written in the mists of time. We're told that it comes from the seventh century. That is indeed a long time ago. The book is a collection of fantasies about Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammed. Over the centuries, the stories were spread by oral tradition, performances even in art. They're pretty wild adventures, with lots of swords, death, vengeance, some monsters, some tricksters, just about everything you might find in your bog-standard elves-n-orcs fantasy only done up in Persian style. The stories were first written down and published in Urdu in 1855 as Dastan–e Amir Hamza by one Ghalib Lakhnavi, a poet who worked in India and produced exactly one book: this one. Abdullah Bilgrami enlarged Lakhnavi's work in 1871, and that's all we can find of him. Maybe not a such a good book to work on, since it seems to be life devouring. Pity then, the translator for this edition, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, though he at least was lucky enough to get other works published. Hamid Dabashi got off comparatively easy, having just written the introduction. As for those who created the website for the book? Oh my. One had best simply send them your best prayer.

When you first open up this book, you’re going to feel like a character in a Lovecraft story who's just stumbled onto a previously undiscovered work by Abdul Alhazared. When you actually sit down to read it, well ... It's not an easy read. And it is an incredibly long book. On the other hand, what transpires is thoroughly delightful in terms of story and character. If money is a concern and you only buy books you intend to read like immediately, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you're a serious book collector and particularly interested in scholarly fantasy, then this is a must-buy. I don’t know what the print run is, but it can't be all that grand. If the weight wasn't such that it might crush the average bedstand, then this might be a great bedstand book. But damn, you know some twenty years from now, these things might be a scarce as hen's teeth, or as easily found as used copies of Frampton Comes Alive. It's hard to say, but me, I'd prefer to err on the side of having it and not wanting it, rather than wanting it and not having it. It is the rare case of perhaps not worth your time, but certainly worth your money. You'll know if you need to have this. Do you feel it tugging at you this moment? Are you scouting for empty space on the shelves where you can stash it without the spouse immediately taking note? Then this book is for you. I will warn you that you might encounter a woman who is ravished by a magical horse. You might encounter demons slavering to attack. Whatever it is that you find within has journeyed to you through the centuries. It is the voice of the past whispering in your ear. "I am worth your time," it says. "Give me your time."

A Conversation with Ed Thomas, Owner of Book Carnival : Hanging Out With Dean R. Koontz

Today's Agony Column podcast is a conversation with Ed Thomas, owner of Book Carnival in the city of Orange, California. It's an unassuming little place tucked into a fairly distressing strip mall, but damn – what a selection! I bought boatloads of titles published by Dark Harvest there, and that was where I first met Dan Simmons at a signing. Book Carnival focuses on horror, mystery, SF, thrillers, all in to-die-for hardcover editions. Beware! You can really go crazy in this compact store. They've got an 800 number for orders. And they have something else few stores have – signings with Dean R. Koontz. I don’t if he's actually going to be there this year, but he will be signing copies of his new book for you. You can hear my MP3 interview with here. But there is only one place in the world where you might catch Dean R. Koontz, Book Carnival. Again, beware. This store will have lots of stuff you really want. And you'll convince yourself that time and money are unimportant.


11-08-07: Tom Brokaw's 'Boom! Voices of the Sixties' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Phone Interview with Tom Brokaw : Long-Haired Hippies Vs Ronald Reagan in Santa Cruz

History Speaks

Top row, blue square – that's Tom Brokaw.

You can talk about history – or you can talk to history. The latter is both more informative and more entertaining, but rather difficult to find. Unless you're Tom Brokaw who has spent much of the last century walking through history with a microphone in his hand, in which case, history comes to you. 'Boom! Voices of the Sixties' (Random House ; November 6, 2007; $28.95) is something of a successor to 'The Greatest Generation'. The format is pretty similar; through a series of interviews with the famous and the ordinary, Brokaw captures a world, a world that is probably nearly as remote as Middle Earth to much of the population, especially that smallish percentage of the population who first discovered Middle Earth during the sixties.

Brokaw has been working on this project for some time now, and in his introduction he mentions that when his friends heard about a forthcoming book on the sixties, they quipped, "What are you going to call it, The Worst Generation?" Hardly. As you can hear in my MP3 phone interview with Brokaw, he has only the greatest respect for the sixties. But he commands respect as well, and that gets him interviews with a stunning variety of historical figures. You might expect people like Paul Simon and Gloria Steinem. But I certainly didn't expect Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, or Colin Powell and John McCain. It's a pretty amazing cast – more than fifty people, famous or simply real who managed to live through the sixties.

And a dapper young man today.

Not everyone did. I just finished reading the story of Andrew Young, who was standing next to Martin Luther King when he was assassinated. It was 1968, in the middle of Brokaw's sixties, which, for the purposes of this book, began in 1963 with Kennedy's assassination and ended in 1974 with Nixon's resignation. And while it's supposedly common knowledge, it was a new perception to the shattered remains of my tiny brain that the sixties saw not the triumph of the liberal values that figures so prominently in the history itself, but rather their defeat. Of course, the three assassinations that spiked these times; Kennedy, King and Kennedy – took out incredibly powerful voices of both maturity and moderation on the left. Books like 'In War Times' play effectively with "What if?", and that's a powerful vision in itself. As Brokaw told me, 'Boom!" talks about what is. That's our world.


11-07-07: Kage Baker Attends to 'Rude Mechanicals' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Ann Aurelia Lopez Undertakes 'The Farmworker's Journey'

Subterranean Press, JK Potter and Heavenly Perfection

Oh my, Kage Baker, JK Potter, Subterranean Press!

One of the more damning problems associated with these wonderful SF in SF events is the inevitable purchase of whatever it is that Borderlands Books literally brings to the table for each event. You'll recall the reading by Kage Baker, the panel discussion with Baker and Eliot Fintushel, the reading by Eliot Fintushel. What you won’t recall, as I've neglectfully not told you about it yet, is the IN-effing-CREDIBLE new short company novel 'Rude Mechanicals' (Subterranean Press ; April 25, 2007 ; $35).

Alas, my ability to keep up with the influx of great titles from Subterranean is being impacted by their sheer numbers. Still this book has a combo that makes it a must-buy. First off, it’s by Kage Baker. That alone should be enough; she's one of our finest writers, and a fine writer is thrilled to have fun and let the readers have fun as well. We can see Baker's joy in her creation flying off the pages with every word that she uses. Her Company novels will, I am certain, come to be regarded as one of the best series ever to cross the century barrier. 'Rude Mechanicals' is set in 1934 as theater impresario Max Reinhardt attempts to produce Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unfortunately for Reinhardt, one of his assistants is either dead or immortal, depending on how you view such matters, and that puts Reinhardt at the center of a series of events that can't be fortuitous. Not when our friend Joseph is involved, trying to patch up a mishandled mission.

At 114 pages, 'Rude Mechanicals' is a book that requires some serious braking while you read it. You could gulp this one down in an hour if you were determined, but don’t be. I mean, make this reading experience last. To help you, Schaffer and his crew at SP have brought in no less stellar a talent than J. K. Potter to do the cover, endpapers and illustrations. They’re classic, classy and so appropriate. I apologize in advance to all those who read this article and find themselves flipping over to Subterranean Website to pick up one of the 1500 copies. They were more just about halfway through the run when I picked up mine (#747), so tarry at your peril. And if you don’t tarry, you'll be rewarded in turn with a golden opportunity to tarry at your leisure and to prolong your own pleasure. You may not be immortal, but you aren't dead either. You'll be simply one more lucky reader.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Ann Aurelia Lopez Undertakes 'The Farmworker's Journey' : Policy and Humanity

Ann Aurelia Lopez with her book at Capitola Book Café.

Today's podcast is my conversation with Ann Aurelia Lopez, whose new book is 'The Farmworker's Journey', and once again, I find myself shocked by how much there is to know and how little of it is commonly known. Lopez is a passionate speaker, and the story of her involvement with the illegal immigrants of Central California is truly compelling. We talked about the history of Mexican agriculture, which is much more complex than I had ever imagined. From there, we journeyed north, and I suspect that readers will be as surprised as I was to hear what Lopez has to say about the relations between binational law, NAFTA and the immigrant population. Have a seat, enjoy some fresh produce and then listen up to my MP3 interview with Lopez. For reference, check back and refer to the interview with Andrew Kimbrell on GM corn. Who would ever have guessed that the most powerful terminator would be a seed?


11-06-07: Mister Kim Newman Peeks Through 'The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2007 Interview with Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich

A Big Kettle of Fish

Oh so delightful a cover – I love this style.

Synchronicity is a common theme in the world of Fortean studies. So how could I ignore it when Kim Newman's "The Big Fish" pops up as a subject on the Fortean list on the very same day that 'The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club'(MonkeyBrain Books ; November 2007 ; $15.95) shows up on my doorstep? Especially when said volume actually contains 'The Big Fish'? It can't be a coincidence.

Well, it certainly wouldn't be in Newman's world, where we are protected from the Deep Dark Deadly Ones by a collection of characters as strange as that which they fight. Monkeybrain's follow up to 'The Man from the Diogenes Club' is every bit as enjoyable as the first entry in this series, collecting stories that appeared between 1993 (when "The Big Fish" appeared in Interzone) and including a new tale, 'Cold Snap', original to this collection. For those who enjoyed the Cold from Newman's entry in the Doctor Who canon, 'Time and Relative', 'Cold Snap' offers its return in a new fictional universe

"The Big Fish" is a typical sort of Newman mash-up, involving a detective protagonist out of Hammet in a situation out of Lovecraft. Yes it's that Big Fish, ol' Dagon hisself, a risin' up outta first that there UK periodical and later collected in Fedogan & Bremer's 'Shadows Over Innsmouth' edited by the suspiciously ubiquitous Stephen Jones and the decidedly aquatic Ramsey Campbell. I hope it goes without saying that it, like all the other tales in this book is a total delight. Happily, here you can find it followed up by "Another Fish Story", from 'Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth', also edited by Stephen Jones and (yes this is a conspiracy) published by Fedogan & Bremer in 2005. I love these Fedogan & Bremer books; they're really a sweet deal, beautifully crafted volumes.

But let's get back to this MonkeyBrain book, which is itself a delight. How could I not love Lee Moyer's cover design and illustration? It's certainly of a piece with the John Picacio's cover for 'The Man from the Diogenes Club', but in an appropriately different style. I really like the idea of using different artists who continue a theme to illustrate covers for a series of books. It's certainly effective in this instance.

Ready to feast on the MonkeyBrain bonanza!

I can't go without mentioning fourteen pages that finish the book but make particularly pertinent reading for Newman fans. These are the 'Notes' and the "Who's Who". It's as close to hyperlinked text as one could desire for these and much of the Newman canon. They’re filled with lots of insights into both the fiction and the man behind the fiction, as when we find out that, "Edwin Winthrop first appeared, with his girlfriend Catriona Kaye (q.v.), in the play My One Little Murder Can't Do Any Harm (1981), in which he was played by me and exposed as a villain by feigning his own death during a séance." This is the kind of stuff that really fills out a book; Newman, like Jasper Fforde, is all over the competition that books face fro DVD's and these MonkeyBrain collections are quite the equivalent of DVD "director's cuts" with all sort of DVD extras thrown in.

Now. In the past, I might have really kvetched about the trade paperback format; to be sure a book such as this deserves hardcover more than much of the dross you'll find littering the shelves. That said, this and the companion volume did actually get published, a feat for which we should thank MonkeyBrain. For all the synchronicity in the arrival and discussion of things Newmanian and Lovecraftian, synchronicity by itself ain't enough. Hard work, great design and great writing are what truly make 'The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club' hard to ignore. But it is certainly true that great books fall from the sky about as often as fish.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2007 Interview with Eduardo Machado and Michael Domitrovich : Ghosts of Characters Past

Michael Domitrovich and Eduardo Machado at Capitola Book Café.

It's pretty funny how my interview schedule sorts itself out. About a week and a half ago, I talked to Eduardo Machado on the phone about his new book 'Tastes Like Cuba'. Exactly one week later, I talked to man himself in person, upstairs at the Capitola Book Café. I'm really enjoying these spur-of-the-moment interviews. The uncertainty adds an element of chance and complexity that seems to pay off, and this conversation is a prime example. This time around, I talked to Eduardo and his partner Michael Domitrovich together, and they told me not just about Eduardo's journey back to Cuba, where he witnessed a surreal vision of his actual past conflated with this fictional spins on that past, but also about their journey together. You can hear their moving conversation – I barely had to speak, since they were so forthcoming together – from this MP3 link. To tell the truth, this interview is strong enough that I could easily hand it off for the Monday Main Event, but I'm suffering from an embarrassment of riches. It's my pleasure to share the spoils with you. Just don’t blame me if you find the fluffy Cuban chicken-fried steak diet is not a weight-loss plan. And I'm not going on record about the crispy fried flank steak either. To die for? Yes. To lose weight? Perhaps you'll want to look at one of Molly Katzen's cookbooks.


11-05-07: A 2007 Interview With Erika Mailman

"When to use torture, how to use torture..."


It's horror-novel style cover. Burn it!
I admit that I'm a lucky guy so far as books go. I was among the fortunate few to get the "Burn her"-cover ARC of 'The Witch's Trinity' by Erika Mailman. It was late summer and I sat outdoors at Coffeetopia in Capitola wondering what was beneath the lurid, historical painting. When the real deal came out, it had been given the "I'm an anonymous literary novel" makeover. I can't say I was thrilled with the change, and I can't say that I think it will make it easier for the right readers to find this novel. Actually, I think a lot of readers will love this novel a lot. It is superb in many ways; as a toe-curling tale of witchly terror, it rules. Hallucinatory passages transport the reader into a surreal world. As a spot-on historical novel, told from the point of view of woman of her time, it offers readers the thoroughly satisfying experience having a character who tells you more than she knows by virtue of what you the reader know from your vantage point here in the 21st century. And as a novel of Fortean phenomena, it is chock-a-block of full of weird and anomalous experiences, from sleep paralysis to rune casting to out-of-body experiences to shamanic transformation. It has appeal to page-turning horror fans and high-falutin' litrary readers.

And your concise introduction to this novel is the wonderful interview with author Erika Mailman. She has more experience of witches than most of us; an ancestor of hers was tried for witchcraft and acquitted – twice. She told me about reading the Malleus Maleficarum and actually brought her heavily annotated copy to the interview. The title quote above comes from when she was telling me about its despicable content. I aired this interview on Halloween on KUSP in an edited form, and you can now hear the "director's cut" as Erika called it in a glorious MP3 or a stunted-but-DRMless RealAudio file. Let me mention here that I'm considering punting the RealAudio format come New Year's; those who wish me to continue it are advised to email me; if you do, I will. Mailman gives a not-so-delightful description of what a witch burning is like in 'The Witch's Trinity'. I'd prefer not to experience the 21st century Internet version merely because I got tired of doing "save as". But think of the symbolism. Even as I type this file, I know it will have to be ... saved. But not burned.


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