Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


02-22-08: John Varley Unleashes 'Rolling Thunder' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Publisher Jack Estes

Poddy Sings

Funny how a picture of a rocket ship is no longer rocket science.
Lieutenant Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia Redmond, that is, is a singer, but not necessarily in the manner she tells you.

Well, sure, Poddy, as she's known, giving in to the single-name singer-name aesthetic – can sing. She's a Martian. And she wants to be an entertainer in the Music, Arts and Drama Division of the Martian Navy. This is of course not your father's Navy. Let me take a stab and say that this is in fact more Robert A. Heinlein's Navy, if not that of the uber-talented John Varley. It is, after all his novel, 'Rolling Thunder' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; March 04, 2008 ; $24.95) where you'll meet Poddy and hear her sing.

I'm not kidding about hearing her sing. Open this book up and you'll be instantly sucked in, even if you've not read the predecessors, 'Red Thunder' and 'Red Lightning'. If you love to read, then there is no pleasure greater than picking up a new novel by a writer who is absolutely, one-hundred percent on top of it, a writer who grabs a voice and makes it sing. With 'Rolling Thunder,' John Varley introduces Poddy – you only have to read and I only have to type the whole shebang once. But no matter how many names she has, she has only one voice that you'll hear -- her prose voice, as written by Varley with the sort of verve that really could get you a gig singing, dancing or whatever, the key word is entertaining.

Varley's always been brashly, over-the-top entertaining, so the chances are you'll want to read the two preceding novels, 'Red Thunder' and 'Red Lightning'. In fact, the chances are that you have, so let me put your fears to rest and assure you that this novel "concludes the trilogy," though it does not exclude another. I guess we can be thankful that Varley did not feel so brash as to decide to blow up the entire solar system for the sake of a Rock Video. But you know, if somebody has to do it, I'd prefer the event be managed and directed by Varley.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Publisher Jack Estes : Pleasure Boat Studio

Smilin' Jack Estes (left), PBS Publication (right).

Today's podcast is a conversation with publisher Jack Estes, of Pleasure Boat Studio : A Literary Press. I've been talking with Jack for a while now, since he brought out Irving Warner's 'Wagner, Descending'. This is our first interview, however, and he tells me a great story – how a guy just up and decides to become a publisher, and what happens from the moment you wake up with those bees in your bonnet to the moment you hold your first book in your hands. Then the next, then the next. You can hear how Jack Estes started his own literary press, with three imprints, from this link to the MP3. You can find his website here. And you can find the wherewithal to do this all yourself within, should you dare.


02-21-08: Melinda Snodgrass Goes to 'The Edge of Reason' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Charles Bock First Book for NPR

Cops vs Gods

We'll just nuke them damn Satans.
You know Melinda Snodgrass. You've seen her name on Star Trek books, and in Wild Cards collections. Get ready to know her better. 'The Edge of Reason' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; May, 2008 ; $24.95) is one of those books that jabs just every sensibility in the eye with a big ol' stick and a ripped from the (Weekly World News) headline plot. Cops, gods and just about every being in-between are mixing it up in New Mexico. That darn Apocalypse is just around the street corner, and the homeless schizophrenic you tossed a dollar at just happens to be the Messiah. Good call on the charity toss!

'The Edge of Reason' fires off as Officer Richard Oort tries to rescue a teenage girl from some rather unusual pursuers. They're naked. And one of them is made of sticks and mud. They make the electricity go off. This is well beyond the pursuit handbook, which never explained the power of the penny. Snodgrass does, in a scene that effortlessly combines supernatural fantasy with police procedural crime fiction. But from then on out, things get far more exciting than the usual mystery.

This would be because the mystery being solved here is nothing less than that of Creation itself. On one side, we have the Old Ones. Do I need to issue an H. P. Lovecraft citation alert? I thought not. Of course, the Old Ones who are clearly beyond 'The Edge of Reason' are a much more hands-on bunch than Lovecraft's dreamers. The Old Ones in this novel are wide-awake and deeply inimical to humans. They feed off the suffering of men, at last, so if you dont consider that inimical, then chances are youre on their side – and youre not alone. On the other side of the equation are the Lumina, who simply want to liberate the human spirit. Of course that could be rather inimical to human life as well, depending on how you define liberation. Let's presuppose it's a good thing and get straight to the adventure aspect, which involves a conjunction of magic and religion set forth upon Richard Oort and the collection of Lumina who gather to help him. And yes, you should wonder about that last name. The only Oort I know of is the Oort Cloud, a spherical cloud of comets that surround the sun and define the Solar System.

Snodgrass, a seasoned pro, takes on this battle and brings it down to earth with an oddball collection of characters you might meet on the way home from the market, never suspecting that they were battling for the essence of mankind. Reality itself is being ripped apart and what comes through the rents proves to be unfriendly. And then there's the problem of belief – as in who to believe. Because supernatural beings from another reality may omit some bits of the truth that could give suffering and liberation a whole new meaning.

And then of course there are reader sympathies to think of as well. Because while the author may hope that the reader sympathizes with the Lumina, that may not be the case. One can imagine that the Old Ones reading 'The Edge of Reason' may find it just as enjoyable as the Lumina and the humans. So yes, you know Melinda Snodgrass, or at least, you may have thought you knew her. But once you cross 'The Edge of Reason', you'll have the certainty that comes with complete doubt.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Charles Bock First Book for NPR : 'Beautiful Children'

Beautifully written, not such a beautiful vision. Works for this too!

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is a high-quality MP3 of my recent report for All Things Considered on Charles Bock and his novel 'Beautiful Children'. [Please visit the NPR website and let them know if you like the story.] This is a powerful novel that still lingers in my mind; I can go an visit Ponyboy as he takes Cherie to her visit with Jabba the Hut, or Newell as he and Kenny go to meet Bing Biederbixxe and get their comics signed. The scenes are vivid and intense – artificial memories implanted by reading a book. The beauty and power of a simple technology – reading – never cease to amaze me. And for those who require that science fiction jolt, heres one of my favorite quotes from 'Beautiful Children':

"Shit happened, then more shit happened. That was the future."


02-20-08: Iain M. Banks 'Matter' Reviewed by Richard Gingell ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Catching Up With Erika Mailman

Return to the Culture

The US Orbit debut by Banks, big news, big name.

Among the big news stories of late last year was the arrival of Orbit in the United States. I talked to Tim Holman, who is heading up Orbit here and in the UK, in December, and of course, one of the big names on the horizon then was Ian M. Banks. His new Culture novel, 'Matter' (Orbit / Hachette Book Group ; February 27, 2008 ; $25.99), is now out in the states, and I have to say that so far as book aesthetics are concerned, this is a delight. It's big, the print is big, and the cover is classy though a tad bland. Still, I pick up this book and it just screams, "Read Me" – this to a man who has not yet read a Culture novel.

To review the book, I've brought in a comrade from KUSP, Richard Gingell, who hosts Democracy Now in the slot just before my Talk of the Bay show. It happens that he hails from the UK, and is a Banks fan who has read pretty much everything else that Banks has written, so youre getting your informed review right here. We'll look for more reviews from Mr. Gingell, more books from Orbit and more books from Banks, with and without the "M.".

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Catching Up With Erika Mailman : The HWA and the Stokers

Beautifully written, not such a beautiful vision.

Today's Agony Column Podcast Report is a catch-up conversation with Erika Mailman, whose book 'The Witch's Trinity', has been nominated for a Stoker Award, nominated by the Additions Jury, for "underpromoted books". Given that it was promoted by the publisher as literature with the above ARC cover rejected because it spoke too much of being "genre fiction" ayup, I'll say it was underpromoted.

I selected this book, along with Dan Simmons' 'The Terror' and Kathleen Ann Goonan's 'In War Times', as the best books I read in 2007. Do note the historical theme of all three books, which by and large, take place in the past, not the future. My conversation with Erika, however, is firmly rooted in the present, with background highlight "pterodactyl shrieks" of joy from her ten-month old daughter. This is the polar opposite of a dry interrogatory interview! This is a chat with a working writer who has two novels in progress and does a column for a newspaper. You want the writing life, you got it, shrieks included at no extra cost. Get ready to shriek – and if you decide to sample some of these delightful sounds, you are welcome to them, so long as you give credit to Erika's daughter. (And buy her book.)


02-19-08 :Agony Column Podcast News Report: 'Mysterious California'

A Criminal Environment

Literary video worth your valuable time.

Here's one more reason to live in California; The California Center for the Book, here to "help librarians and teachers get Californians reading." They have all sorts of advice on how to get authors to your library, some online video interviews and links to the films of Pamela Beere Briggs, the woman behind 'Women of Mystery.' Their latest production is a "Bookclub in a Box," in this case 'Mysterious California,' a video by Briggs featuring four mystery writers – Laurie R. King, Nadia Gordon, Nina Revoyr and Kirk Russell – talking about how locations in California inform their work.

Pamela Beere Briggs, Laurie R. King, Nadia Gordon, Nina Revoyr, Kirk Russel.

Laurie R. King writes the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli mystery books and other stand-alone suspense novels. Nadia Gordon (aka Julianne Balmain) writes the Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley mystery series, including 'Sharpshooter', 'Death by the Glass', and most recently, 'Murder Alfresco'. Nina Revoyr is the author of 'Necessary Hunger' and 'Southland'. And finally, Kirk Russell is the creator of the California Fish & Game Warden John Marquez novels. I Was fortunate enough to get a call from Laurie R. King shortly before they all met at Santa Cruz Public Library, and I got them to sit down for a talk about mystery and place.

(Clockwise) Kirk Russell, Nina Revoyr, Laurie R. King, YT, Nadia Gordon.

You can hear the entire Mysterious California Panel Discussion in MP3 here. You can order the video from this link, which hands you off to an 800 number, and chances are youre going to help more books get to more readers as well as support the next literary video by filmmaker Briggs. Between the discussion itself, and the bazillions of links in this article, you should be able to keep yourselves quite busy – look sharp, the boss is coming!


02-18-08: A 2008 Interview with John Burnham Schwartz

'The Commoner'

Another nice Nan A. Talese production.
One of the most common tropes in fantasy fiction is that of the sequestered princess, the supposedly-precious but usually stalwart young woman locked into a lifetime of ritual, set apart from the prying eyes of an imagined world. Her struggles to escape, the intelligent but downwardly-mobile young servant who is actually a noble-in disguise, the array of friends and enemies, the magic beings that move the world according their own arcane plans and desires – it's all so ho-hum, so programmatic, that such material succeeds in the marketplace based on workman-like execution and a welcome familiarity. We know what we're going to get in advance and there is indeed a certain joy in watching the expected come to pass in an unsurprising manner.

Reality, however, has a way of outstripping fiction. The real sequestered princess – Empress Michiko of Japan – led a life both more and less glamorous than that of any fantasy-novel heroine. Her story cannot be told; nobody knows exactly what happened to her after she entered the cloistered world of Japanese royalty, the once God-Kings and Queens who lost their godhood in the shadow of the atomic bomb. In many senses, 'The Commoner' ( Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House ; January 22, 2008 ; $24.95) by John Burnham Schwartz is a fantasy. Yes, he lived in Japan for a period of time, and yes, he talked to more people who were closer to the Emperor and Empress than most of us will even imagine speaking with in a lifetime. But the real people remain sealed off, behind a wall of ritual, tradition and secrecy that has not been broken to this day. 'The Commoner' changes names and kicks down doors to imagine a world that actually exists and is stranger than many that are strictly imaginary.

In the back office of the Capitola Book Café.

Burnham's work is carefully controlled, closely written and gorgeously revealed. Much of the first portion creates the entire world of Japan going into and coming out of World War II, setting the foundation for Haruko, the commoner who will eventually be transformed into the Empress. As we work our way into the mind of a modern Japanese woman about to be thrust into a world of ancient ritual, Burnham's prose carries us into a realm of pure fantasy and stark reality. Its a wonderful performance that will delight those who read historical fiction as well as those who read fantasy fiction. Trapped in "our beautiful prison," Haruko flirts with madness, simply to deal with an new inner world that in comparison to the modern history unfolding outside is indeed mad. The fantasy of the Japanese court and the reality clash in the narrator's mind. It's not a pretty picture, but it's truly compelling reading.

I spoke with Schwartz when he came to Capitola Book Café recently, and we talked about the twisted history he echoes so effectively in his novel, and about the research was able to do – and that which he had to manufacture out of whole cloth. Here's the MP3. You'll find Schwartz to be as compelling as his novel and his subject. 'The Commoner' is being marketed as literary historical fiction, and it is certainly a fine example of this. But there's a pretty large segment of fantasy readers out there who might find this equally appealing. It is indeed a fantasy, in the sense that all fiction is a fantasy. The imagination leaps – and readers follow.


Agony Column Review Archive