Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


03-14-08: NPR First Books Series: Toby Barlow Sorry, Postponed 'till next week; A Review of Paul Melko's 'Singularity's Ring' by Richard Gingell ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Stephen Youll

Werewolf Epic in Free Verse on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Next Week

Update: postponed to original air date next week. But do re-tune in!

This Next Sunday, (one hopes) on Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR will be broadcasting my report on Toby Barlow and the rather odd journey he took when he decided to write 'Sharp Teeth', an epic story of werewolves in love in free verse. It features excerpts from my interview with Barlow himself, and as well, Jennifer Barth, his editor over at HarperCollins. This is a pretty interesting look inside the world of publishing, from the time a writer with a truly unique idea first sets pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, through getting an agent, selling the book to a publisher and seeing the book edited and brought to the shelves. I'll podcast unedited versions of both interviews next week.

Listeners who want to keep this little website going can help by going to the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Website on next Sunday morning / afternoon and using the "Email this Page" link on the URL that I'll provide. If listeners email this page and it ends up in the Top 25 Most Emailed Stories, NPR continues to give me access to the writers that you want to hear from. Your support of my work for NPR directly supports this website, and is greatly appreciated. And heck, I hope you just enjoy the story! If youre out there thinking about writing your first novel, here's a look at somebody who did what youre doing and against all odds succeeded.

"Something Unknowable"

Trés 70's style book cover. Cool!

We're finishing up the week with a couple of science fiction-related items. First up is Richard Gingell's review of 'Singularity's Ring' by Paul Melko. This is a ScifFi Channel Essential Book, so I wanted to pay attention. It sports blurbs from Charles Stross and Neal Asher – two of my favorites. You can find out what Richard Gingell thought by reading his review here. I havent cracked it, but I will say that the Singularity better find a new party dress pretty soon. When it starts showing up at Worldcons, and there are three other girls at the costume ball wearing the same outfit, oh there will be hell to pay. I think we're going to have to crank out a new something-punk. Let's see, er, steam-, cyber-, splatter-, I know – let's all take a cue from Thomas McNamee, interviewed yesterday, and start a whole new science fiction genre about food, call it, what – foodpunk? Kitchenpunk? How about cookpunk? Mealpunk? Meatpunk? Or was there already a meatpunk -- I can't remember. We have so many punks in science fiction, it's like we're a gang or something. Or the Band That Couldnt Play Straight. Why don't we just go to the logical endpoint and call our new subgenre bandwagonpunk. One size fits all – all aboard!

Portrait of the Artist as Pixels

The Positronic Man, from his website.

If you read this column, you've seen the work of Stephen Youll. In fact, I can say with some certainty, that if you read science fiction, you've seen the work of Stephen Youll, because he's been doing book covers for Random House, as he told me in this MP3 interview, for more than twenty years. I talked to Stephen about how he started in the trade, how he worked his way up, and about the changes that both he and book art in the abstract have gone through. Interestingly enough, we never ended up talking about specific book covers; we just chatted about his processes, both as an independent businessman and as an artist. You have to be both in the world of book cover creation; he told me that he's well aware that he's not painting a pretty picture, but putting together a package to sell a client's product. The pretty pictures are apparently just lovely by-products.


03-13-08: Remembrances of Things Present ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Thomas McNamee

Book Geek Gift

Times pass. Your heart friggin' breaks. And nobody knows why.

I get a lot of great stuff in the mail, and it is almost always all books. So when I get something that's not a book, but is definitely book related, and very cool, I pass it along to you, the readers. In this case, I got three little dealies in a big ol' padded (and therefore not recyclable) envelope; at first I thought they were very odd-sized books. But they were not; it was "Marcel Proust: Of Madeleines and Men' (Clarkson Potter / Random House ; October 2007), a very classy assortment of gift tags, note cards and a journal. If you're looking to give a writerly, artsy friend of yours a gift, these might be perfect either for you – the gift tags, that is – or your intended.

Here's what you get; for $12.95, you get the Marcel Proust Gift Tags, an assortment of 50 gift tags with a ribbon. The tags are really quite lovely, and are embossed with quotes from Proust. I like "Love is time and space measured by the heart." Nice sentiment and a nice card; the design is gorgeous throughout the three items here. And when you price it out, theyre not that expensive, not for something that looks this classy.

Next up is the Marcel Proust 5 x 7 Journal at $10.95. It's 160 pages, writable-within lines, has the strap to keep it closed. Again, and you can see, this is just classy looking. But be sure not to give it to me, because my handwriting is so dire that I avoid hand-writing whenever possible. If you've seen one of my sticky-noted interview prep books, you've seen at least ten sticky notes that even I couldnt decipher. And I often have to write the same thing down twice, because I'll write something and right there, can't read it.

And finally, we have the Marcel Proust Gift Cards ($12). They're 4 3/8" by 5 7/8", truly, madly beautiful; you get 16 cards / 4 designs, with 17 envelopes. Send one to someone you wish to love you.

All of these items are listed as "By Scott Russo," with images from Wonderstock. I'm guessing the Russo put the project together and did the design; I'm here to say nice job. And more importantly, my wife, the Creative Director (not of my site, otherwise it would look a lot better), gave them her stamp of approval, so I know it's not just a book geek thing going on here. Here's an example of nicely done book paraphernalia. I know I suggested that you buy them as a gift for someone, but if you do, dont be surprised if you just use one of the tags on the gift you do decide to give. If you have to buy them for someone else to get them for yourself, well, that's one way to work the system.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation With Thomas McNamee : 'Alice Waters and Chez Panisse'

One meal at a time.

We've changed the world, one meal at a time. It's hard now to remember that not so long ago all the foodstuffs and inclinations we now have were utterly unknown and even in some cases, unthinkable. But, as Thomas McNamee reminds us in 'Alice Waters and Chez Panisse' (Penguin ; February 28, 2008 ; $15), it wasn't always that way. His book is the story of how Waters, who did not consider herself a chef, or a writer, or a revolutionary, managed to, through sheer force of will, er – change the world, specifically by cooking brilliantly, writing brilliantly and managing a restaurant; well, maybe not so brilliantly, but then Chez Panisse is still around and a lot of restaurants aren't. McNamee came down to the Capitola Book Café to talk about his riveting story of how a young girl who happened to go to France ended up transforming our culinary and cultural world.

McNamee's book is wonderfully written, with a prose and narrative flow that is perfectly reminiscent of the fabulous meals he describes and even gives recipes for. Alice Waters is a riveting figure in McNamee's narrative, a grand character who seems to have created the life of a novel's heroine for herself. McNamee captures in prose the wild times, the complicated and kind of creaky life that Waters carved out for herself. This is a side of the food revolution that weve not seen, and it's heartening to see it so well portrayed here. For all the conflicts and fights that emerged between the headstrong personalities who stomped and tip-toed through Chez Panisse, McNamee finds a sort of sweetness, an underlying positive force that embodies the best aspects of the sixties, wrought large in our world today. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse have changed the way the world eats; McNamee lets us understand and care how and why it happened.

We love our food here in Santa Cruz, flavorful and organic. We like our books the same way, and better still if the subject is food. McNamee had extensive access to Waters when he wrote this book, and she's a fascinating character, a woman with an inner vision that she manages to realize in spite of both herself and the world around her. Battles are fought within and without and the readers gets to see them all, to taste them all – literally, as there are recipes in here as well. Hats off. Time to eat; here's the link.


03-12-08 : Makes You Think

Book-Tech, RAM and Why Kindle Will Not Ignite Readers (but may prove useful to writers)

I think this looks particularly cheap and ugly.
As I read Cory Doctorow's latest column on "E-books," I was happy to have that wonderful experience one gets now and again from reading – it made me think. I like what Cory said, but my thoughts went along a rather different route. Like many readers with lots of paper books, the very idea of "E-books" kind of grosses me out. Granted, I'm not fond of video games either. But as far as the evolution of books and reading goes, I dont think they're particularly significant – to readers, at least. They do have a use and a definite audience, but it's not the people who buy paperback or hardcover books on a regular basis. They're simply an obvious use of existing technology, a realization of straightforward extrapolation and thus, not very interesting.

In fact, old-fashioned books are a much more interesting technology. They're one of the most robust and oldest techs around. We're coming up on six hundred years, and though the manufacturing technology behind books has gone through several revolutions, books themselves have not changed a whit since Gutenberg first printed a Bible, and even arguably before that. Faced with the hardware of a book, be it a bound and printed set of pages, an "E-book," or an illuminated manuscript, it's easy to miss the actual tech under the manufacturing tech. The actual tech underlying all books is the concept of putting language into a written format and assembling texts. It's the intellectual equivalent of a lever or a pulley, one of the basic "mind machines" that enables us to leverage our minds beyond their raw capability. Following language itself, then math, books are the third simple mind machine.

Thus the manufacturing process behind books is itself important only in how it enables us to distribute and use them. Think of the current pace of technological change, the hallowed Moore's Law and its corollaries, and the idea of a tech that hasnt changed in six hundred years starts looking pretty remarkable. And "E-books" in their current form are a particularly clunky incarnation. Using the same extrapolation that lead to the "E-book," one can easily envision that some ten or so years down the road, we'll have smart paper, a single-sheet portable display that's able to do everything a computer screen or television does in the size of an 8 1/2" by 11" piece of paper. Using the beloved blood-sucking subscription economic model, vendors will fill your smart paper with whatever you want to read or see. But as far as reading goes, the "book machine" of smart paper isn't all that different from a Gutenberg Bible. It's just cheap and new, has different distribution possibilities, but it's not a successor to the book in terms of intellectual machinery.

The book that asks readers to ignite it!
All this Gutenberg stuff comes up in part because I just finished reading Clive Barker's increasingly interesting 'Mister B. Gone.' In the realm of "makes you think," Barker's short supernatural novel really delivers. The concept behind the book (and the irony is not lost on the reader or the writer) is that the invention of the printing press proves to be a supernatural hinge point, a potential or actual Apocalypse attended, in Barker's vivid vision, by hosts of angels and demons that are different so far as humanity is concerned in name only. Barker truly gets the nature of the printing press – it's a singularity, an end to history, and what else is an Apocalypse but a supernatural version of science fiction's favorite hobby-horse of the last ten years?

Books changed everything, and cheap books changed everything more. "E-books" aren't cheap, nor are they as robust as the most humble mass-market paperback from 1972. They offer little more conceptually than a regular book. And even though paper-page books were around before the printing press, it was Gutenberg's invention that truly pushed them over the top. All the refinements of manufacturing technology havent changed that, and even if extrapolated to their ultimate end, smart paper, they won't.

What people are looking for in "E-books" and smart paper is the next simple mind machine, a new intellectual lever. They aren't it, but we do have that machine, in about the same state as the illuminated manuscripts, today labored over by new monks. Forget the "E-book." Sorry to be boring, but the next intellectual machine is here and its called Random Access Memory – RAM. It's not whiz-bang new glamorous, and it's not ready to bring about an Apocalypse, but give it time. Somebody will figure it out, and in so doing bring about Science Fiction's beloved Singularity. Or the Biblical Apocalypse, attended by Barker's demons and angels. (Think humans with RAM.) That's to come, and all we have to do is hope we dont kick the bucket before it happens, or hope we do, depending on you feelings about living through Apocalypses.

In the interim, we still have these newfangled devices, "E-Books." I can't imagine buying a Kindle or Sony E-Book to actually read on, though publishers are already trying to push "E-copies" of books onto book reviewers. Good luck with that! Given the flood of fantastic reading that lands on my doorstep, why would I bother to put myself through the Agony of reading a PDF? It would take a very special case to make that happen, and even then, I'd be leery. And I'd hate to print it out; reading unbound sheets is nearly as painful as reading from a screen, though certainly more portable. There are just too many good, real books out there.

But there is a substantial, perhaps and growing market for the current clunk. When I talked with Charles Stross last year, he joined me afterwards for a wonderful lunch at a restaurant by the ocean in Santa Cruz. While we chatted, he pulled out his latest toy, a Sony "E-book" gadget. He wasn't using it to read other people's work, but his own, at readings and while traveling. I could see the utility. Here is a very useful niche for the "E-book" – it's not so hot for readers, but it's pretty damn nice for a writer hoping to read his own work, either with an eye for revision or at readings. And I'd suggest that the publishers who hope to have reviewers read what is essentially an "E-book" do the math. How many ARCs equal the cost of one "E-book?" I'm guessing not too many. It bears thinking about. In the interim, you can hope that reviewers themselves buy "E-books." Frankly, I pay a boatload of money to run this site and publish the reviews I write. Reviewing is generally not a source of income; its a passion, and one reviews because one has to say something about this book or that book. Generally, paper books. And I likes me paper books. As it happens, they are just as effective as any "E-book" is, or even an Internet-only article. They make me think.

Agony Column Podcast News : A 2006 Interview with Dr. Bruce Ames : "Fear is easy to sell"

Dr. Bruce Ames

Back in 2006, I was working on a piece for NPR on the conversation within the science fiction genre about global warming. As part of the background for the piece, I was privileged to speak with Dr. Bruce Ames, a distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley, and a Senior Scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). We talked about his dustups with the environmental movement, which have to do with cancer-causing chemicals in the environment. He's a smart scientist, an interesting guy and you're going to hear things said you wont expect to hear. He also gets mentioned by Michael Pollan in 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'; they're practically neighbors in terms of where they work. You won't look at your broccoli the same way after hearing Dr. Ames; but then you'll still be dipping it in fat-free ranch dressing. Here's a link to the MP3; remember, fear sells. That's true in any realm.


03-11-08 : A 2008 Interview With Alan Drew

'Gardens of Water'

Go ahead, ask him. He's on tour.

Begin your life again. It may restart at any moment without your permission. Ask Alan Drew.

Back in '99, things were fine, they were more than fine. Well, compared to today, at least. World generally at peace, world economy looking incredibly bright, and the worst thing happening in the White House was a sex scandal. Damn, we could use a good sex-scandal presidency now, don't you think? You need but just look around to consider the alternative.

Alan Drew and his new wife were starting anew. Recently married, both English teachers, they decided to start their lives with an adventure, teaching English in China. But as fate would have it, there were no schools in China that needed two English teachers. Disappointed they started to leave, but found themselves in front of the desk for a school in Istanbul, Turkey. Exclusive joint for the hoity-toity. They signed up, then showed up in Istanbul on August 13, 1999, to begin their lives again. Four days later, the Izmit earthquake struck, restarting their lives without their permission. It was a whole new world.

His new novel.

Alan Drew's first novel, 'Gardens of Water' (Random House ; February 5, 2008 ; $25) draws upon his experiences after the earthquake. He tells me the specific genesis of this novel in my interview with him, available as an MP3 from this link. The novel itself is quite powerful if rather alien in perspective. I actually told Drew that he ought to consider writing science fiction. His main POV character is Sinan, a devout Kurd Muslim whose family is displaced after the earthquake and whose daughter is so-briefly freed from the strictures of her religious upbringing. In powerful, closely written prose, Drew embeds us in the mind of a man who will seem less familiar to many than a space alien. Everything is there for you to understand why Sinan does what he does; but though you may like the character, you may not like what he does or what unfolds in the course of this powerful drama. It's plain weird to the Western mind, strange and sort of creepy.

But one thing is certainly true, at least for me. As I read this book, I couldnt help but think that the chaotic aftermath scenario that Drew describes so well, a place where the past and the future are jumbled and mixed up by forces beyond the power of either to control, is our future. Start this book in the bookstore and be prepared to bring it home. Drew's vision is extraordinary; 'Gardens of Water' sports one of the best descriptions of a disaster and aftermath I've ever read. Sinan's perspective is haunting and alien, like something you'd encounter in 'Dune'. Take a sip of the water; you'll bring home the garden, and hope life doesn't start anew for you.


03-10-08: A 2008 Interview with Alan Katz


A goofy book for kids and the habitually immature.
We're told that comedy is hard by people who should know; but for some folks, that simply cannot be the case. Alan Katz is one of those people find funny easy. It just happens when he's around. I must admit, I didn't exactly know what to expect. Katz is the author of the Silly Dilly Songbooks, (parody songbooks for children with titles like 'Take Me Out of the Bathtub' and 'On Top of the Potty'), the Stinky Thinking books ("Gross Games and Brain Teasers"), That's Right, That's Wrong!, a trivia game for children and his most recent book, 'Oops!' (Margaret K. McElderry / Simon & Schuster ; March 4, 2008 ; $17.99), aimed at children ages 4 to 8. That said, one must note that the book is illustrated by no less than Edward Koren, the justly famous cartoonist for The New Yorker. And Katz is brilliant at what he does with poetry for kids. He incorporates natural, conversational language, goofy rhymes and juvenile humor. I'll admit it, I'm kind of a sucker for juvenile humor. I was one of those kids who really got interested in reading about the time I discovered Mad Magazine when we vacationed on a houseboat in the Sacramento River Delta. Before the interview, I would have asserted that I was not in Katz's target audience; having spoken with the man, well, if I could shed as many pounds as I did years, I'd be starvingly skinny. Katz was a delight to speak with.

A goofy writer signs stock at Capitola Book Café.

Of course, the children's books are not the only things he does. He's written for lots of television, including the Grammy and Tony Award ceremonies, Taz-Mania, Disneys Raw Toonage and Goof Troop and the Rosie O'Donnel Show. Get this: he was writing for Henny Youngman in college – seven bucks a joke! And in the interview, he confides that his parents thought that Youngman might have been using jokes he hadn't paid for; after all, how would they know!

I've done lots of interviews, but none that had me laughing (as silently as possible) till I was in tears – until now. Katz isnt just funny, he's also a remarkably astute businessman, and if youd care to learn about the biz side of writing, heres your chance. This is a link to the MP3 of our interview. This is the time of your life, say 40-something minutes. Be careful about what you're doing when you listen to this one. You're listening to the man who wrote "On Top of the Potty," the man who hauled out the word – I wont say it, but it's a bit naughty – in front of a meeting of hundreds of librarians and poets, serious types. Until they heard Katz. Life seeming a tad too serious? Here's the cure.


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