Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


01-25-08: Jeff and Ann VanderMeer Meet 'The New Weird' ; NPR First Book Series : Michael Harvey on Weekend Edition Sunday, January 27, 2008

Not the Same As the Old Weird

A Clockwork Moth.

I suppose that I thought there had already been a "new weird" anthology; in retrospect, I guess I was thinking of 'Conjunctions'. The New Weird's been around long enough that some of the folks who built the bandwagon are eager to jump off it. And now 'The New Weird' (Tachyon Publications ; March 2008 ; $14.95) edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer gives them a well-defined bandwagon from which to jump.

'The New Weird' is not simply an assemblage of stories that Ann and Jeff felt would fit under the rubric of "New Weird"; it's more of a historic and critical document of a literary movement, a book that gives shape and literally gives meaning to the term "New Weird". There are five parts to the book; and I talked to the VanderMeers about all of them in an interview you can hear via this link to the MP3.

Eschewing Jeff's usual playful or metafictional tone, the VanderMeers begin the book with a serious, even scholarly discussion of what the New Weird is, what its precedents were and where it points to the future. This is where you're going to find a one-paragraph, this-is-it definition of The New Weird. Then the fiction begins; first with a section that the VanderMeers call (at least in the ARC) "Stimuli", that is, examples of The New Weird that appeared well before the literary movement even had a chance to think about naming itself. Here you'll find vintage M. John Harrison, Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock and the heretofore-unknown-to-me Simon D. Ings. (And that's why you buy these anthologies, right?)

Then you get the "Evidence," the pure thing, the real deal, concluding with what Jeff suggested was an example of "the Next Weird"; an original story by Alastair Rennie. Following on the fiction, there's "Discussion", which includes postings from The Third Alternative discussion boards (wherein M. John Harrison suggested the name "the New Weird" [though China Miéville and Steph Swainston also may have come up with the term as well]) and essays by Michael Cisco, K. J. Bishop and a fascinating set of responses from a variety of European editors.

Finally, in the name of formal experimentation, something associated – not always positively – with the New Wave science fiction writers of the 60's and 70's, there's a "Laboratory," a round robin collaboration between a group of New Weird writers. All fascinating stuff, and top-notch; another must-buy anthology. More importantly, an anthology from which one could quite easily teach a class, because this is stuff that people need to know about.

So it happens that there wasn't a New Weird anthology until now. Just in time to introduce the Next Weird. All on board the Next Weird bandwagon, folks; just make sure you're ready to bail well before whatever comes next gets a name.

NPR First Book Series : Michael Harvey on Weekend Edition Sunday, January 27, 2008

Assuming that there are no newscape-devouring events between now and Sunday morning, NPR and the wonderful Liane Hanson will be running my report on First Book author Michael Harvey ('The Chicago Way') this Sunday on Weekend Edition Sunday. I have to say that Harvey was such a great -- and very "regular", as it were guy, that his story really resonated with me and I think it's a first book story that lots of readers will share. Fifty pages of a novel in a drawer – it's an American Heritage, isnt it? At the present time, I dont know when in the program it will run, except that it is scheduled, I believe, to run in the general vicinity of their Cybercrime series. As I hear more, I'll post updates for you, and they'll occur as late as Sunday morning. So do check back!

Readers on occasion ask what they can do to support this website and podcast; well the biggest help you can give me is to go to NPR's website when the stories run and use the Email this story button to email the story to as many people as you can. Of course, you can also email NPR and ask for them to set me up with an hourlong weekly show based on this podcast. Also, because, hell, ask yourself, how many people do you know who have fifty pages in a drawer – beyond yourself, that is?

Update: Here's the link for the NPR Story on Michael Harvey; use the email this story button early and often!


01-24-08 : Toby Barlow Has 'Sharp Teeth' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Peter S. Beagle Interviewed at SF in SF January 19, 2008 ; Laurie King Live Interview Tomorrow 10:07 AM to 11 AM PST at KUSP : Email Your Questions or Call In

Blank Verse Werewolf Epic

A nice book, issued sans DJ. Very pretty and cool to read.

Hopefully most of us read the blank-verse epics in high school or college; 'Doctor Faustus' or John Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' recently-re-issued in a wonderful volume containing his poetry and prose. There's a reason theyre called classics; theyre still powerful texts today, in spite of subjects that go well beyond the confines of realistic fiction. 'Doctor Faustus,' for example, could well be pigeonholed today as "mere" genre fiction, since it involves a deal with the devil. Likewise 'Paradise Lost,' what with Satan presenting such an appealing anti-hero. But theyre both still readable as well. They have exciting plots, great characters and lots of action.

So dont write off 'Sharp Teeth' (Harper Collins ; January 29, 2008 ; $22.95) by Toby Barlow, just because it is an epic story of love and werewolves set in Los Angeles and written in blank verse. Indeed, 'Sharp Teeth' might be seen as pretty straightforward mimetic realism by some who have lived in LA and experienced the werewolves there firsthand. Instead, give the book the pick-it-up-and-start-reading test, and your thought wont be, "Why is this written in blank verse?" You'll wonder instead why more books aren't written in blank verse.

'Sharp Teeth' is a fairly intense novel about werewolves in love and the pretty damn awful state of our cities – with line breaks. Anthony is a dogcatcher looking for more money to make ends meet. Clearly that requires sharp teeth these days. When he meets a girl at a bar, she ends up buying his drink. But that's not real inequality; it's the fact that she's a werewolf which tips the tables. She's left her pack behind, and in werewolf terms that's like yanking the sun from the center of the solar system. Gravity's not going to make what happens pretty. Following lots of violence, lots of blood will be spilled – in blank verse.

The effect of the blank verse as a storytelling medium is fascinating; it both confines and liberates the reading experience. Barlow's got the chops to bring just enough epic, literary feel to the proceedings before he grounds things in the gritty underworld of beings that can shift shape at will and who are recruiting from the homeless to add to their ranks. You'll find the pages turning faster than you expected. For me at least, the reading experience was akin to that of reading a graphic novel, with the line breaks standing in for the graphics as a means of up-pacing the narrative. No matter what the subject, it's really interesting to just read the form.

'Sharp Teeth' is probably going to scare away readers it shouldn't. If you hesitate at the mention of blank verse, get over it; reading the book will aid in that quest. And perhaps, if youre lucky, you may take another look at those older epics; deal with the devil journey to hell. Pretty damn tight stories, big plots, lots of action. Sharp teeth, indeed.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Peter S. Beagle Interviewed at SF in SF January 19, 2008 : "Fantasy occurs, really, in the corner of the eye"

The Tachyon Publications re-issue of the classic.

It's funny how things work out. You finally get to talk to Peter S. Beagle, and you find out that he used to be a substitute DJ at the NPR affiliate which hosts your weekly radio show. When I finally caught up with Beagle, after SF in SF had finished, he was ready to talk about his old alma mater, and a bit more besides. You can hear the MP3 from this link, and hear why he was a DJ. For radio, as well as fantasy, he certainly has the voice.

Laurie King Live Interview Tomorrow Friday Jan 25 10:07 AM to 11 AM PST at KUSP : Email Your Questions or Call In

I thought it best to remind readers and listeners that, assuming the power is on at the station, I'll be interviewing Laurie R. King tomorrow, live, on the radio, available via the Internet at, from 10:07 AM until around 11 AM PST. Email me your questions -- I already have some -- hear your name over the radio and Ms. King's response as well. Or, you can call the station, at 831-476-2800, or (in California, at least) at 1-800-655-5877. I've already heard from some readers, and I hope to hear from more – and actually hear more, on Friday.


01-23-08: S. M. Peters Worships 'Whitechapel Gods' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report: SF IN SF for January 19, 2008 : A Conversation With Mark J. Ferrari

Steampunk Revolution

Cool cover, no credit. Somebody email me!

The rich aroma of American Cheese permeates the air today, as I finally get to write about 'Whitechapel Gods' (Roc / NAL / Penguin Putnam ; February 8, 2008 ; $6.99), a delightful mass market paperback debut by S. M. Peters. Clear the transom before you pick up this book, because its going to force you to shove everything else aside and pay attention to it. It's clever, fun, intense and imaginative.

Set in a London we should hope never to know, 'Whitechapel Gods' begins with a literally searing vision of horror. Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock have sealed off Whitechapel from the rest of the city and made it their own. Humans tried to fight them – and even called it The Uprising, but to no avail; the Boiler Men made short work of them. Now a new disease is spreading in the city; regular folks call it the clacks, and it involves machinery growing inside people with decidedly unpleasant results. Hopes for overthrowing Mama and Grandfather are born anew. Nobody will be unscathed.

Peters has a great sense of visual splendor, and uses it to bring the grimy, grotty streets of London to life, or more often, death. Horror aficionados will just love 'Whitechapel Gods'. It's chock-a-block with inventive mechanical mayhem, filled with gruesome set-pieces that are as conceptually smart as they are viscerally rendered. But what sets this novel apart is the sense of wholeness, the single-mindedness that the author brings to his creation. There's no sense that this is a Frankensteinian pastiche, cut-and-pasted from other authors. Peters' vision is unchecked, undiluted and untamed. 'Whitechapel Gods' creates a whole world you can visit in your mind. Not that youd want to live in this world mind, you, but it's a hell of a fun place to visit. So long as the Boiler Men don't knock on your door.

There's a lot to like about 'Whitechapel Gods, and not least is the fact that it's been issued with so little fanfare. There's something very appealing about the low-key nature of this book. The cover illustration – for which I can find no credit – is remarkably effective. There are no blurbs, which is refreshing, and just fine. I believe that anybody who thinks they might be interested in a book titled 'Whitechapel Gods' will find themselves thrilled to pieces with what they find in these pages. It lives up to any promises I can make for it and beyond. While I'm a fan of hardcover books and limited editions and all the foofaraw of specialty publishing, it's actually books like this that this column was created to find. American Cheese – cheap paperback with gaudy covers and lurid stories that just happen to be damn fine writing – to my mind, this is what makes reading exciting. This book looks like just about any other cheap and tawdry piece of paperback science fiction. But 'Whitechapel Gods' is the sort of cheap and tawdry science fiction / horror / steampunk fantasy that you might put on a shelf next to your paperback original of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep', 'King Rat' or 'Neuromancer'. Cheap packaging somehow manages to accentuate raw talent.

Agony Column Podcast News Report: SF IN SF for January 19, 2008 : A Conversation With Mark J. Ferrari : Words and Pictures

SF in SF is off to roaring start for 2008. The guests for Saturday, January 19, 2008 were Peter S. Beagle and Mark J. Ferrari, and both were incredibly entertaining. The first podcast from the show will be my interview with Mark J. Ferrari, author of 'The Book of Joby'. I talked to Ferrari between the reading and the panel discussion, and here's a link to the MP3 file of that interview. You can see why Tor sent him on tour; he's clearly a guy who will help sell his own book the old fashioned way, by being interesting, intelligent and well-spoken. Stay tuned for lots more podcasts from this show, but more importantly, if youre in town when the next one rolls around, do take advantage of this great opportunity. The shows are free, they serve drinks in a plush little movie theater, you can get books signed and even buy books on the spot. I think the buying thing is a plus, because nobody can ever have too many books.


01-22-08: Míceál Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann Unveil 'The Orb Project'

A Conversation With Míceál Ledwith at Gateways Books and Gifts

Is it in the eye of the beholder or itself a beholder?

There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity talk with Míceál Ledwith, [pronounced Me-haul] who with Klaus Heinemann authored 'The Orb Project' (Beyond Word Publishing / Atria Books / Simon & Schuster ; November 6, 2007 ; $18.95). I actually ended up going directly from my chat with Michael Pollan over to Gateways Books and Gifts so that I had at a least a few minutes with the man who had a collection of over 150,000 photographs of Orbs – which he and many others believe to be intelligent spiritual entities that have something to say to us mere humans.

Ledwith told me about the various levels of reality that each variety of Orb inhabits, and explained how he knows that they are not merely dust motes on the lens. The book itself is filled with gorgeous and occasionally frightening photographs, and it's essentially two books between one set of covers. Each writer takes about 90 pages to give his perspective on the phenomenon; they have very different approaches. Lediwth is a theologian, and his perspective is spiritual, as was his journey from being part of a commission that advised Pope John Paul II to his current work with orbs. Heinemann is a physicist, and his journey is one of theory. Together, they give a thorough look at this very strange phenomenon.

You don't have to believe that these images are indeed spirits that inhabit other levels of reality to find their presence and discussion of interest. For me, I find the people who discuss them – and what they have to say about them – as fascinating as the various theories put forward to describe, and yes, dismiss them. We live in a reality that is difficult to share with others, and photographs are one this world's best ways of bridging the gap from one person to the other. And perhaps from one reality to another as well.


01-21-08: A 2008 Interview With Michael Pollan

"This a food that's left the realm of food"

Michael Pollan at the J-School studios in Berkeley.

Sure, I'm on a food binge. But not what is usually meant when one hears the words "food" and "binge" put together.

Readers can't but help having noticed the cookbooks creeping into The Rolling Shelves, and the increasing number of food-related books that have come my way. A couple of weeks ago, I ran the panel I conducted with Michael Pollan, Mollie Katzen and Ann Vileisis; this week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Pollan before his appearance at Capitola Book Café.

Note the forest of stickies in each book.

Let me first emphasize that for all the wonderful, scare-ifying facts that Pollan pulls out in 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' and 'In Defense of Food', the real strength of both works is his top-notch prose, which manages to be painfully clear while cheerfully observing the absurdity that is the Western Diet. The books are constantly entertaining on a reading-the-words level as well as a the-facts-the-words-are-conveying level. Well written and easy-to-read, they are nonetheless quite different. 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' is a trip down the rabbit hole of where your food comes from – and why. The book accurately reflects the subject, which means it's a journey from the table back to the farm, via some places you might not expect to visit or look as they look. Pollan takes apart four different meals, tracing each part of the meal back to where it came from. He visits factory farms and the incredible Polyface Farms, a truly organic operation. Even though Pollan is going to tell you things youd prefer not to know, you'll be glad to know them and glad you got the facts in a manner as engaging as the facts are alarming. 'In Defense of Food : An Eater's Manifesto' is a carefully constructed polemic, a cri de coeur for more sensible eating. It's short, snappy and crystalline where 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' is dark, long and labyrinthine. But it's equally funny. Don't read it too fast.

I talked with Mr. Pollan about both books, following the common threads from one to the next. You can hear the MP3 of the interview from this link. But I must warn you that if you listen in your car, while eating and driving, you may find your appetite for fast food is diminished. For which you'll wish to thank Mr. Pollan.


Agony Column Review Archive