Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


02-01-08 : Neil Shubin Unveils 'Your Inner Fish'

A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

If it walks like a fish.

Only when he discovered that he was a fish out of water did Neil Shubin discover his own inner fish. Due to faculty departures, Shubin, a paleontologist who specialized in ancient fish, found himself directing the anatomy course at the University of Chicago. Students who were expecting to be taught by a gastroenterologist were rather surprised to find themselves being taught by a paleontologist. But what Shubin rapidly twigged to was that he was the perfect guy to teach this course. As Shubin says in the introduction to 'Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body' (Pantheon / Random House ; January 15, 2008 ; $24), "The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks." And uncover, as he quips later, your inner lawyer as well as your inner fish, jawless worm, indeed, an entire ancient menagerie that lies within us.

Shubin with some outer fish.

Shubin's an entertaining writer with a great sense of non-fiction pacing. He doles out the amazing facts at just the right time, with witty prose that's clear and lucid but never dry. The book is remarkably concise. It's relatively easy-to-read, though Shubin is not shy about bringing actual science in to the text. He just does so in manner that is entertaining and lucid.

He's also smart about books design, so he'll happily substitute a well-placed image that can stand in for more than a thousand words. It's not that he couldnt write the words well, but he knows that reader can get the image in an instant and move on with the fast-paced text. 'Your Inner Fish' is partly about DNA typing, partly about fossil hunting, partly about anatomy, synthesizing a variety of disciplines into a new view of the human body. If you wanted to be overly reductive – and as a book critic, that's my job – you could say that Shubin sees the human body as elaborately jerry-rigged pond scum. We're a combination of cover-ups and mistakes, shortcuts and detours through the evolutionary landscape.

I spoke with Shubin a about his new book and we talked quite a bit about why and how he wrote it. Here's a link to the MP3 file. I wanted readers to be able to delight in discovering the critters and people he talks about in the book themselves. 'Your Inner Fish' is no farther away than your local independent bookseller, and well worth the journey – all 3.5 billion years.


01-31-08 : Barth Anderson Shuffles 'The Magician and the Fool' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Paul Kennedy, Bookseller

Tarot, Tarot on the Wall

The deadly Ph*t*sh*pped cover.
It's tempting to predict a career by virtue of reading a first book, especially in the world of genre fiction. Barth Anderson's first novel, 'The Patron Saint of Plagues', was a toe-tapping tale of near-future plagues and cyberpunkish shenanigans. So I simply inferred that he'd continue down that path, perhaps venturing father into the future, or slipping sideways into say, near-future surveillance nightmares. I presumed that Anderson would stay solidly in a close-to the-bone science fiction realm.

'The Magician and the Fool' (Bantam Books / Random House ; April 1, 2008 ; $13.00) comes as quite welcome surprise. No hardish-SF here. No, meet Jeremiah Rosemont. (Am I dating myself if I say that I can't hear the name "Jeremiah" without hearing Three Dog Night inform me that he was a bullfrog?) Jeremiah is a big fat ol' dropout, who punted his life of tenure tracks and respectable neighborhoods to live in Nicaragua, where the rich are impossibly so and everybody else is poor, including him. It seems that his studies back in the States were bringing him only grief. Alas, mingle in the forbidden arts and lo they shall follow ye anywhere. Thirteen atmospheric, well-written pages in, he gets a summons from Rome. Your opinion is needed. An offer he can't refuse and who better to make such and offer than His Eminence?

All too soon he's haring off after the earliest tarot deck, and he's surely not alone. The Boy King for example, has some interests in this matter. Of course there's a sizable chunk of change hanging on the uncovering of this deck of cards, but money is the last worry. First you've got to deal with the Powers and Principalities. And the near future? It's like, tomorrow, if youre still alive to see it.

In one sense, 'The Magician and the Fool' is in a continuum with 'The Patron Saint of Plagues' – if you view them both as "thrillers." But Anderson packs a little too much information and characterization in his work; it's just not generic enough to be classified in the "thriller" genre. At this point, Anderson has one foot in the science fictional and one foot in the supernatural. And the good news is that suggests he'll do something different next.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Paul Kennedy, Bookseller : "It does not pay for a living"

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is my conversation with bookseller Paul Kennedy. He's run an Internet bookstore from the beginning, and he's really going to entertain you – and hopefully sell a few books in the process. That's because it ain't easy selling books these days, something that Kennedy details with wit and a genial sense of humor. Follow this link down the rabbit hole of Internet bookselling to the MP3 file. Gentlemen Booksellers, oh ye of little need for income, gather round. Oh hell, this old world is rollin' round the Big Swirly, ain't it?


01-30-08: Peter S. Beagle Reads at SF in SF

An Essay on Author Robert Nathan

Panic in the Yea Zero with horses.
The contrast couldnt be stronger. Yesterday, I podcast Mark Ferrari's boisterous reading from his first novel, 'The Book of Joby', recorded at SF in SF on January 19 of this year. Today, I'm podcasting veteran, award-winning, iconic Peter S. Beagle, reading a poignant and powerful piece of non-fiction about a writer who influenced him greatly, Robert Nathan. Nathan published his first novel in 1919, so we're reaching back into time here, and it's a wonderful journey. Beagle has the perfect voice to carry this sort of writing off; he's a but on the quiet side. He holds the reader and the story close, which should come as no surprise if you've read his work. You can hear today's podcast from SF in SF from this link. But what you'll learn from this could last a lifetime. Beagle's perspective on writing, beginning writing, having a mentor, finding your voice; all that is timeless and beautifully written and read. Here's a link to the MP3.

Yes, it is very different in almost every possible manner from Mark Ferrari. I suppose we could talk about the commonalities between the writers' fiction. Both write what is recognizably fantasy, but also, quite recognizable, not standard issue, Celts-with-swords fantasy. Each of them takes their own personal slant, and that's why we like the fantasy genre so much. By definition, it encourages such experimentation. In the fantasy genre, there are no limits, which is as much of a problem as it is a plus. Limits are often helpful, even if you ignore them.


01-29-08 : Mark J. Ferrari Reads from 'The Book of Joby' at SF in SF

Actual, Real Fantasy

Good example, great reader.
Mark J. Ferrari and his novel 'The Book of Joby' are perfect examples of precisely why you go to events like SF in SF. I received an ARC of this book back in the before time, and glanced at it and decided while it might be well-written, it just wasn't my cuppa. The cover is at best indifferent if not outright bland. The premise, yet another re-telling of the story of Job, didn't send me into a buying frenzy. It looked like an earnest but uninteresting – to me at least – novel.

Cut to January 19, 2008, say, seven fifteen PM. Rina Weisman, of Tachyon Publications, does the introductions for the Variety Children's Charity (visit their website, donate and tell them we sent you); she hands off the mic to Terry Bisson, who introduces Mark Ferrari. Who starts reading. And:

That's it, that's all it takes. Maybe about four, five minutes before I'm hooked. Ferrari is a great reader, and his book went from "not my cuppa" to the bedstand. The first portion of the book was told in the manner of the Twilight Zone, with a relaxed God and a casual but tense Satan chatting it up in a café, angel at their side. It's incredibly well-written and witty. When he finished reading the opening, Ferrari stopped and asked the audience if we'd like to have him just continue reading a bit after the opening, which introduces Joby, or if he should skip somewhere down the line with more elements of what most genre fiction readers would call "actual, real fantasy." The overwhelming vote was to simply continue; that was my vote and I a) didn't want to hear anything that might spoil me, and b) the author had already established enough trust in his writing that I was certain this was a book worth my valuable time.

Worth your valuable time, in spite of the bland cover.
And – sigh – I suspect the same will happen for you. Here's a link to the MP3 to make that happen. Given the rather bland cover, in this case, I guess we can be happy that it's available in trade paperback. We'll let somebody like Night Shade or Subterranean Press or Cemetery Dance handle the deluxe hardcover edition. In the interim, suffice it to say that all it takes is a great writer to breathe new life into an old story. Ferrari isnt doing anything revolutionary here, beyond writing the hell out of prose. It doesn't hurt that he's an excellent reader, but it's all in the word choice, the prose, the pacing, the humor, and the wit. Ferrari is a real find – and it behooves me to point out again that he was found at SF in SF, a live event in a plush venue that could have held a lot more people. Oh, I wont want this thing to become standing room only. It's way too cool; wine and beer in the lounge, great guests and wonderful attendees as well. Still the lesson is quite simple. Books are a great pastime, and reading is a wonderful pleasure. But it's not confined to sitting around your living room. You can, in fact you need to get out of the living room and go to the bookstores and literary events in your neck of the woods. The events are fun, they add a new dimension to the reading (in that you might hear Ferrari reading his book to you in your brain), and best of all, you might discover something you really like.


01-28-08 : A 2008 Interview with Laurie R. King ; NPR First Book Series : Michael Harvey on Weekend Edition Sunday, January 27, 2008

"A thousand years of established history"

Laurie R. King visits the pataqphysical Pharm down at KUSP.
When Laurie R. King first told me about her novel 'Touchstone', she described it as an "English country house mystery," in the mode, one might have presumed, of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. Something nice, and tidy, and sort of sweet, out of time and away from the concerns of our workaday, terrorized world.

A human lie-detector.

Set in England in 1926 when the country is about to experience a general strike that many hoped would become a violent revolution, 'Touchstone' is toe-tapping tale of terrorism told from the perspective of the terrorist. Oh, and an English country house mystery, complete with loopy Dukes and shell-shocked World War I veterans. Dense, layered and intense, I think it is arguably her best yet. Fortunately for potential readers, when Laurie and I talked about the book, there was so much rich background material, we were able to chat the day away without spoiling the novel; or even much touching on the plot beyond what you'll, read on the jacket flap. You can hear the MP3 interview from this link.

Laurie is out touring for the book now, and if you live in one of the cities where she'll be appearing, you should definitely make the effort to catch up with her. You can hear from this interview – if you didn't catch our live interview on KUSP last Friday – that Laurie is one of those writers who could easily have had a career as a public speaker. She's really sharp and she's really nice. Or you can catch her via her website, where she's really quite active. Given that the thrilling, violent and very dark 'Touchstone' is her version of the English Country House Mystery, one might actually wish for her to write a so-called "cozy." It might be like asking Hannibal Lecter to cook a nice light meal. Tastes good, yummy! Dont ask for the recipe.

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

This is just a reminder that if you missed the broadcast of my piece for NPR on First Book Writer Michael Harvey, you can still catch it on the web at this URL. Michael wrote me, and said:

"Quick update....Paperback of 'The Chicago Way' hits bookstores in early July of this year. My second novel, The Fifth Floor (another Michael Kelly book), will be released in hardcover on August 26, 2008. Folks can currently pre-order on Amazon."

And from my side, I'm hoping readers will still us the Email this story button early and often. All those button presses help support this column and podcast. I'll have an MP3 version up on Friday of this week. Thanks!


Agony Column Review Archive