Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


02-15-08: Clive Barker is 'Mister B. Gone' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Bob Eggleton

Changing the World One Word At a Time

Hidden in the words; great interior design, but the cover lacks.
Clive Barker changed a lot of people's worlds. Whether with his ground-breaking, "future of horror" 'Books of Blood' or his rule-breaking 'Hellraiser' films, Barker's claim to having actually created Work That Matters is undisputed. Barker is still all about changing the world, even if he's not quite so intent on doing it himself, at least with his latest work, 'Mister B. Gone' (HarperCollins ; October 30, 2007 ; $24.95). Dont expect the transformational Barker to flay your skin and change your world. In 'Mister B. Gone', Barker is writing about how someone else changed the world, or perhaps, brought it to an end. That would be Johannes Gutenberg, who in creating the printing press, apparently damn near ended the world.

'Mister B. Gone' is told in the first person by one Jakabok Botch, who from the get-go urges the reader to burn the book, burn it now. This is a pretty risky strategy, since a pretty large proportion of the readership is going to want to do just that as the story unfolds in a manner most different from Barker's other work. Jakabok Botch is a minor demon trapped in the Ninth Circle of Hell, the son of a large and violent, but also minor demon whom he calls Pappy Gatmuss. It doesn't take long for Jakabok to get himself yanked out of hell and thrust into fifteenth-century Germany, where the angels of heaven and the demons of hell are gathered to witness or perhaps just to usher in the end of the world – with the printing press.

Barker is definitely not playing his usual games here. 'Mister B. Gone' is a very different read from almost anything else he has written. There's not a lot of fear here beyond the wheedling and cajoling of the reader to burn the book, which does have a way of getting under your skin. It's a paranoid fear that Barker's never created with prose before and while I found it pretty effective, if you're looking for 'Rawhead Rex'-style terror, move along. In fact, Barker even manages to describe scenes of despicable violence without evoking so much as a shiver, simply because his character, and the reader as well, find it all so humdrum. Bathing in babies' blood? Done that. Jakabok Botch is really pretty much a normal guy, well, other than the fact that he's a baby-slaying hideously-burned monster. In some senses, this is almost a bildungsroman about the life of a young demon who just happens to stumble upon something very significant – the end of the world as it was once known and the beginning of the world as we know it.

Barker's on a jag about words and the power of words, not just to convey information, but to create new realities that undermine the current consensus. It's a theme that, once you get past the death, the violence and the not-horrific horror, is pretty damn interesting. For Barker it's a very odd book, like a triple X-rated Twilight Zone polemic. But it's short, snappy and employs Barker's usual prose to a rather unusual end. Barker is capable himself of changing the world with his words. This book wont do that. But what it will do is make you think about words, and the Singularity ushered in by Gutenberg. Nothing was the same after the invention of the printing press. Eventually, it would be used to print 'Mister B. Gone' – a thought that would probably have frightened Gutenberg as much as the appearance of any devil or angel.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Bob Eggleton

Owned and created by BOB EGGLETON. Borrowed by me. Very cool!

Science fiction art is vitally important to the life of the written genre. Artists like Bob Eggleton don't just sell books – which is vital – they also influence the reading experience either directly, by illustrating characters and events found in the books, or indirectly, by providing an ambience that informs the reading. I spoke with Eggleton about how he started (early) and his first experiences of art in college in the late 1970's, when the sort of art he was interested in pursuing was not even in the frame for those teaching art in an academic environment. You can hear the MP3 of our conversation here. I'll leave the pictures up to Eggleton.


02-14-08: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Christopher Phillips Chats Up 'Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic'

Oddly On-Topic

How they met.

Readers may have noticed that I generally try to avoid holiday-themed articles. Well, it's not so much that I try to avoid them, but rather that I wont lift a finger to find something holiday-appropriate. So here, for I believe the first time ever, I'm oddly on-topic when I offer up my interview with Christopher Phillips, author of 'Socrates in Love : Philosophy for Die-Hard Romantic' (W. W. Norton ; February 8, 2008 ; $14.95). As with many of my interviews, I came across this one via Capitola Book Café. It was kismet, destiny, you-name-it. The upshot was that I found myself racing through a fascinating written and social experiment. What happens when you get a bunch of folks who dont know you and dont necessarily know one another together to talk about the Philosophy of Love? The answer – three hundred-something pages organized around five forms of love by a writer with a philosophic bent and a great prose voice. You get to thinking.

Christopher Phillips
'Socrates in Love' is based on Phillips' "Socrates Café" concept. It's pretty simple and very smart. CF above, get people together and engage them in Socratic dialogues about Socratic subjects in a Socratic manner. Be sure to remain in the 21st century even if the concepts youre discussing first popped up back in the Before-Time. In between the dialogues, take your readers on a journey through the pinnacles of the ideas youre discussing. Keep it short, to-the-point, witty and interesting. Repeat, across the country, then around the world. Write up the books, let 'em sell like hotcakes and maybe the world is actually a better place afterwards. Beat back the forces of despair. Not a bad plan and well-executed.

'Socrates in Love' is extremely organized. It's divvied up into five sections, one for each of the five forms of love identified by Socrates; Eros (erotic love), Storge (love of family), Xenia (love of strangers), Philia (love of friends) and Agape (unconditional love). In each section, Phillips conducts a couple of cafés in a variety of locations, many of them powerfully significant; think Hiroshima Park. As he explores all the permutations of love, both historically and in his conversations with the public, Phillips is most assuredly going to succeed at his goal, which is simply to expose the reader to ideas they may not have heard expressed in a new and interesting manner. Phillips is not here to offer you advice, or tell you what to do or think; this isnt a self-help book, nor is it, a philosophical work in the sense that he's trying to impress upon the reader a vision of reality or a model for living. Instead, Phillips and those he speaks with will simply make you think.

Phillips of course has a website, but he also has a website for The Society for Philosophical Inquiry, a way for those involved in his Socrates Café gatherings to keep in touch and spread the word. It's worth your valuable time to investigate – assuming you have a philosophically inquiring mind. The very idea of people gathering to talk about philosophy is appealing, even if you're not inclined to join them.

I spoke with Phillips and we talked at length about the varieties of love and kept returning to the romantic form of love, the holiday-appropriate form of love. I have to say that Phillips was true to his word, and managed to take the interview in directions I hadn't foreseen. You can hear the results from this MP3 link. It turns out that Phillips and I ended up having a dialogue about love. Interesting, that.


02-13-08: Agony Column Podcast News Report Shannon McGinnis 'The 10 Minute Tidy'

Clear the Clutter

I wish my website was this tidy!

I know precisely where left field is and when to go there fast. I trust that readers can imagine the look on my producer's face, the sound of the bookstore event manager's voice and the look on my wife's face when I told each of them I intended to interview Shannon McGinnis, author of '10 Minute Tidy: 108 Ways to Organize Your Home Quickly' (Organized 4 Success! ; 2007 ; $12.95). Somewhere between, "There's something deeply wrong with you, Rick," and, "Seek therapy now, Rick", north of, "What is in your tiny brain?" and south of, "Stop acting so compulsively," all of them and the shattered remains of my own fractured mind, wondered what I was up to.

What I was up to was a 216-page book about the size of the largest Post-It notes you could reasonably use that was just chock full of good advice. Shannon McGinnis is a Certified Professional Organizer, and her book is wonderfully simple in premise, promise and product. There are 108 things in this book that take about ten minutes to do. None of them will Save the Whales, the World or even A Tree. What that they will save is time, down the line, for those who do them, as well as make your world nicer, neater – and tidier!

Shannon at Capitola Book Café.

Now, understand that this advice is coming from a gentleman who hangs blue shirts on blue hangers and white shirts on white hangers. (Yet has stacks of books in each of the chairs surrounding the should-be dining table. Go figure.) I'm already fairly tidy, if not a bit on the compulsive side, which should explain my interest in the book.

However, there was a lot more to this book than the simple tips, which are plentiful and practical. I went to the Capitola Book Café to meet Shannon McGinnis, and delve into the world of Certified Professional Organizers. I asked her how one might go about becoming a CPO, and we talked about clutter. McGinnis has a great, useful definition of clutter that in itself will help you begin to beat the clutter back. And refreshingly, she covers all sorts of tidy, from your bedroom closet to your computer desktop, your email reader and even your finances. And just to demonstrate how practical and useful her advice is, let me mention that she suggests you back up your computer. I spent many years in the IT trenches backing up computers, and hearing this was music to my ears.

You may think you know some of this stuff, but having it all in one compact book is a really great help. You can find more help from Shannon's website. One of the things we talked about was people's hesitation to seek professional organizing help. But with the science-fictionally fast pace of our lives, we have good reason to need ­ and seek ­ expert help. Want an example? You can hear my conversation with Certified Professional Orangizer Shannon McGinnis from this MP3 link. And while you're listening, pick up the living room!


02-12-08 : Terry D'Auray Reviews 'Pyres' by Derek Nikitas ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Chatting With Christopher Moore at Capitola Book Café

Edgar Nominee, Best First Novel


Do not build your house out of matches. Bad idea.
I like the Edgar Awards; I think they do things right, and the Best First Novel Category is a great idea, since it uses the award process to get the word out about new writers readers may not have otherwise heard of. It's nice to see an award that helps jump-start writers' careers. Even if a writer doesn't win the Edgar for Best First Novel, just by virtue of having been on the list, each of those nominated gets a bit of extra attention at the beginning of their career that could really help them keep up the work.

All of this is just a wind-up for Terry D'Auray's review of 'Pyres' by Derek Nikitas, which has been nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel. She likes it and she's not easily pleased. While 'Pyres' is a mystery, it's not a police procedural or a detective story; it's a drama about a teenage girl that involves some surreal visions, which of course, makes it very appealing to both me and, I'd suspect, most of my readers, regardless of whether or not they're mystery-readers. Here's Terry's erudite and succinct review. Prepare to add another book to your stack!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Chatting With Christopher Moore at Capitola Book Café

Bringing back the memories of old Actual Bibles.

Yes, it's a bit of a whirlwind, but at the last minute, I managed to sneak over to Capitola Book Café for a brief chat with Christopher Moore, on tour this Valentine's Day week to promote 'You Suck', which is, after all, advertised as a "Love Story". Sure, it's got more death than the usual love story, and more blood-drinking than the usual Love Story, but there is identifiable (if sort of teenager puppy-like) love at the heart of this totally entertaining novel. Now, we heard all about that last year, but if you've not got round to reading it, it's well worth your time – so long as you've read 'Bloodsucking Fiends', which is the first book in this series that also includes 'A Dirty Job' (sort of; it's a Christopher Moore sort of thing.)

I do have to take this opportunity to mention the most recent Moore release, 'Lamb: The Special Gift Edition' (Wm. Morrow / HarperCollins ; October 27, 2007 ; $19.95), which is so totally cool, it almost beggars the imagination. I dont know how many of you had or even still have one of those old-style, gilt-edged Bibles. My grandmother – A Christian Scientist – had one and just the sight of this book brings back the memories. And the novel itself is so contrary to that which it mimics that the combination is irresistible. No, 'Lamb' is not a condemnation of Christianity. But it does have Christ as a character; not a usual or even an advisable tack to take when you're sitting down to write a novel. But Moore is so generous with his characters that 'Lamb' is going to please a lot of people who might think it should be tossed in the 'Pyres'. And at a mere $20, it's amazingly, affordably cheap. |

Moore's done more than a few of these special editions, so I hied myself hence down to Capitola Book Café to find out what gives, because I think it's an unusual little market to corner. You can hear the results from this MP3 file, and I don't promise that he wont say any offensive words. He will however, amuse you. This is of course another good reason to read.


A 2008 Interview With Charles Bock

'Beautiful Children' Review

Well, the cover, er ... Shoulda used the poster.
The plans were made easily – too easily. I called the studio in New York, and the studio in San Francisco. Everybody agreed and exchanged emails. I left for the San Francisco studio at 6 AM in the pouring rain. I drove over Highway 17, featured in just about every episode of Red Asphalt, with nary a problem. I managed to arrive in SF by 8:15, and popped up to the studio, ready to sit down and talk with Charles Bock, author of 'Beautiful Children'. We had our chronology set. In New York, it was 11:15. I was set up, ready to go; I turned off my cell phone, as my children seem endowed with the psychic power to decide to call me any time I've left my phone on during an interview. At 8:25, we call up New York.

"Are you sure you booked the New York studio?" my engineer asked, looking up from the phone. He had a new engineer helping him. She looked worried.

I was sure; I'd received email confirmations from everyone. The interview had been set up only a week before, so it was still fresh in my mind. Charles Bock had come to NPR in New York – and been sent home.

That's what happens when you upgrade your scheduling software over a weekend. I'm guessing that it was a Windows program. Turning on my cell phone, I found two voicemails had arrived in the few brief minutes I'd had it off, from both the author and the studio. It didn't take long to sort out what happened. Fortunately, Charles lived fairly close to the studio and he was back in a trice. Hookup was seamless, and my hosts in SF generously offered me as much time as I needed, which was very good. When we finally both sat down to talk, Charles and I were slightly frazzled, but a bit more relaxed than we might have been. An inauspicious start led to a fortuitous conclusion.

You can hear my conversation with Charles Bock from this link. It begins with two readings; the first an extended version of the reading for the NPR report; the second a very short chapter that captures the essence of Bock's powerful vision of a suburban marriage going quietly wrong. These are followed by the interview. You'll see why he made such a great subject for my NPR First Books report on his first novel, 'Beautiful Children', which I review in-depth, but without spoilers, here. Bock is a lightning rod and an antenna, a hypersensitive receiver and a powerful transmitter of emotions and impressions; aimed at his childhood home of Las Vegas, he picks up and broadcasts the inner core of the scrum of suburbs that surround Las Vegas, of the inhabitants of those suburbs. I'm particularly pleased that even though things looked dicey, they turned out ducky. I have to thank all my engineers around the nation – what a miracle to get that kind of great voice replication, so that you can have a really intimate conversation with someone on the other side of the continent. Bock is a real find, as is his novel 'Beautiful Children'. Plan on reading the latter after listening to the former – but get a backup plan in case things go awry.


Agony Column Review Archive