Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


04-11-08: Margaret Lucke Puts a 'House of Whispers' in Escrow ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR, Company Sued for Potentially Ending the World

The Supernatural Realtor

Trailer for sale or rent.

It's still freezing cold – though sunny – and early spring here in Santa Cruz, but the summer books are piling up fast. In case any of you are experiencing some of the difficulties caused by the so-called "housing crisis," here's a book that's sure to lighten your load, or if not, at least erase your brain's inclination to form rational thoughts – 'House of Whispers' (Juno Books ; March 2008 ; $6.99) by Margaret Lucke. It's a nicely turned, well-written entry into the burgeoning-beyond-belief "paranormal mystery romance" genre that won't overwhelm you with the romance, but will keep your toes tapping with a crisp plot and some grisly murders that get the soft-focus treatment.

A brief mention about Juno Books is in line and quite overdue. Our friends over at Prime Books, who publish some of the best cutting-edge weird fiction out there, created the Juno Books imprint in 2006. Juno Books tend to be trade paperbacks or mass-market paperbacks; there are some reprints and some originals. Here's their website; if this book sounds like your cuppa, then head on over and gaze at the large and delightful list of other selections.

As for 'House of Whispers', I'll not whisper. Claire Scanlon is starting a new life as a realtor; sure maybe not the best time to do so, but sometimes our careers take on a life of their own. Alas, the best shot she's got is selling the LeGrande house; big, yes, big commission, yes, big problem, yes – it was the scene of a grisly murder. When she makes a visit with the of-course handsome brother of one of the victims, her long-suppressed psychic power kicks in, and she's drafted by the dead to help solve their murder.

Sure, it's a simple setup, but handled with enough class and cleverness to keep you reading and just as importantly, prevent you from thinking. You'll live in this tightly plotted supernatural mystery right up till the last page; not surprisingly, Margaret Lucke was nominated for a Best First Mystery Anthony for 'Relative Stranger.' I don't know that I could bring this to our beach as yet, but if you and your beach are ready, here's a fine book to fill your life with other lives, to whisper in your ears like the ghosts of the dead – and it wont command you to solve any murders.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR, Company Sued for Potentially Ending the World : Wagner, Rucker, Dimopoulos and CERN

As my final podcast for this week, I've made a high-quality MP3 copy of the report I did last week for NPR's Day to Day. You cannot imagine a fire drill more enjoyable than this report was to put together; luckily I had great support from the participants – Walter Wagner, Savas Dimopoulos and Rudy Rucker – as well as the folks at NPR. This time, I'm even going to upload the file under the right name and everything. Please note that if you ever do experience a problem uploading a file to let me know via email. I try to keep up with myself, but that's getting more difficult every day.As ever, you can help; go to the NPR Website and tell them to have me do more work for them; which will come back to you in unedited and full-length interviews. I'm here to provide you with the best guide to literature you can find. Well, unusual literature.


04-10-08: Steven Greenhouse Puts You in 'The Big Squeeze' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Rudy Rucker and the LHC

Tough Times (and Luck) for the American Worker

Not a pretty picture.

You probably dont need me – or Steven Greenhouse – to tell you that the world in general and the American economy in particular are headed straight for the Big Swirly. Pop in your ear buds, turn up the loudest and most obnoxious music you can find and still the chorus of voices around you will penetrate the veil:



It's not good out there now and it's going to get worse before it gets better. Everyone's trying to Photoshop reality, to soften the hard edges as lower wages butt up against higher prices. As more bad news arrives each and every day, the message is clear: This is as bad as it gets.

Until tomorrow.

Which is why it's a good idea to take a close look at 'The Big Squeeze' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; March 2008 ; $25.95). There's a graph on the front cover of the book that illustrates the problem rather eloquently; corporate America's rising profits are being made on the breaking backs of the American workers. Greenhouse knows that workers dont have a lot of spare time, so he doesn't waste time getting straight to the heart of matters. He starts with how incredibly overworked we are and then goes on to talk about the history behind the horror; the rise and fall of the social contract. You remember that, don't you? You go school, go to work, change jobs maybe once in your life and walk away with a decent pension. You dont kill yourself working 60-70-80-hour weeks; it's a straight 40 and some restful vacations. Not anymore, and let me tell you that this has hit this home. I've watched two companies rise on the entrepreneurship of those who created them, seen those companies sold to globalized gobblers and seen decent corporate cultures turned into workplace hells in say, about five friggin' years. From low-key innovation to hustle-till-you-drop; from a family business to a family-hating vampiric overlord, designed to get rid of experienced workers and replace them with underpaid newbies so grateful for the merest crumbs they'll work till they drop – or are replaced "at will" by somebody cheaper.

Greenhouse writes the sort of compelling economic non-fiction that I love; he effortlessly weaves in stories of real so-called "little" people with tales of corporate greed and scarifying statistics; and not so heavy on the stats, thankyouverymuch. What sells fiction? Characters; the same is true for non-fiction. If you thought you were alone, you aren't; if Greenhouse hasn't talked to you, he's talked to somebody like you. I particularly liked that he got to the heart of an industry that I think has been understudied in labor circles; that is the software industry, which in my time went from being a recession-proof prestige occupation to an outsourced sweatshop where grizzled veterans are forced to compete for jobs with desperate kids just out of college. That's a lot of fun.

Greenhouse isn't all doom and gloom. He does have suggestions for how we can break out of the Big Swirly death trap. But you've got to look at the numbers; and here's a book where the bulk of the text explores how terrible things have become. That doesn't bode well; not much does. 'The Big Squeeze' has arrived; wouldnt you prefer to experience it as a book as well as a reality?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Rudy Rucker and the LHC Lawsuit : Science Fiction Tips the Universe on Its Side

Rudy Rucker with a pear.

When I was staring down a hard deadline for a story I'd backed myself into a corner to cover, I knew there was one man I could count on to provide the breath of fresh air that any science-based reporting requires; Rudy Rucker. And he came through big-time, as you'll hear in this all-too-brief interview. Rucker's got a new novel out, 'Postsingular', the first in a new trilogy about life after the Singularity. Few writers are so well-equipped to write about the unknowable, which is precisely why I asked him about the unknowable. Hey, when nobody knows "boo" about whats really going to happen, find someone smart and entertaining to speculate. Rucker's your man, here's your MP3 interview. You'll see why I managed to come away with an embarrassment of riches with which to round out my report.


04-09-08: Mario Guslandi Reviews 'Other Voices' by Andrew Humphrey ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2008 Interview With Savas Dimopoulos

Reasons to Be Cheerful (or Torrentially Depressed)

Other publishers - like Elastic Press.
If, like me, you're a reader, reviews like the one that Mario Guslandi gives 'Other Voices' (Elastic Press ; January 28, 2008 ; £5.99) by Andrew Humphrey are indeed reasons to be cheerful. (Quoting of course the great Ian Dury.) On my own, I might never have encountered Humphrey's latest collection, but thanks to Mario, it's now on my must-buy list. These small-press trade paperback-only releases by authors who clearly could and probably someday will command a much larger audience take me back to the earliest days of my book-collecting mania. The small presses are still strong, still robust, and collections like these featuring stories in a variety of genres by a single author are the best reason to keep supporting the publishers – buy this directly from the website if you can, or at one of your local independents, or an Internet independent.

Of course, once you start reading the book, chances are you'll need reasons to be cheerful, as Humphrey doesn't stint on the darkness. He writes in SF, horror, crime fiction and psychological surrealism. Let Mario tell you all about it. Then be cheerful!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2008 Interview With Savas Dimopoulos : Other Universes

Ths universe includes atoms.

One of the best parts of putting together the report on the CERN LHC was getting to talk to some fantastically interesting and intelligent people. It doesn't get much better than Savas Dimopoulos – he's a Stanford physicist who is working on a theory of many universes. So once I got the CERN audio for the piece, I had to ask him about his latest theories, as some of the listeners to this podcast have commented that they enjoy the interviews with scientists. You can hear our conversation about universes without atoms from this MP3 link. One wonders about the state of consciousness in such a universe, what it might be and what it might perceive – and thus are born science fiction stories. I trust that out there somewhere is a listener who hears this interview and writes a story in response. Or a scientist, who reads a review of a science fiction novel here and then turns around and rolls that up into some serious science. Science and science fiction – not so different these days. Thought experiment – the phrase is so evocative. Open your eyes – and if you thought they were open, then you've just performed an experiment, or written a bit of first-person science fiction.


04-08-08 : Anton Strout 'Dead to Me' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report: Walter Wagner of

Americana Paranormal

Damn blue sparks!

It has been far too long. But 'Dead to Me' (Ace / Berkeley /Penguin Putnam ; February 26, 2008 ; $7.99) by Anton Strout is just the sort of Americana Paranormal that I like. The book is cheap, the story is funny, and it's told with enough skill that rational thoughts shy away from the shattered remains of your tiny brain like congressmen from ethics seminars. In other words, this is a fine ol' slice of American Cheese, cooked up right and ready to serve with a warm spring afternoon, a comfy chaise lounge and three pint bottles of Spaten Premium. Pull up a chair, hoist up a beer and let me give you a brief précis.

You got your psychic investigator, Simon Canderous. He's got the classic psychic power, psychometry; that is he can touch an object and divine useful information about others who have touched it and where it has been. Thus far, he's used his power for low-life crime, but he gets a gig with New York City's Department of Extraordinary Affairs, and no, not those type of affairs. There's the beautiful woman (a ghost) and the case; solving her murder.

I didn't say "Stop me if you've heard this before," because chances are you've heard this setup before. What's important here is that Strout writes well and delivers scenes that are smart enough to be really fun. And for all you rampant bibliophiles, there's a great payoff scene that involves a bookcase. 'Dead to Me' has a combination of good monsters, great writing, good characters and an ineffable energy, an elusive ability to skate past our senses and send readers into that pleasurable "Duh State". During which you'll wish for the sequel to arrive sooner rather than later.

Agony Column Podcast News Report: Walter Wagner of : "Almost a religious zeal on the part of physicists"

Will the buildings be around after they start it?

In researching for my story on the CERN lawsuit, I first spoke with Walter Wagner, who created the website to help fund his lawsuit to at least slow down the process of firing up the Large Hadron Collider (no NYT typo for me!). Here's the full-length, unedited MP3 interview with Wagner. The problem you face as a reader and inhabitant of the earth is quite simple: assuming that we're living in a science fiction novel, is it utopian or dystopian?


04-07-08: A 2008 Interview with Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D. : 'Welcome to Your Brain'

'Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive'

Shattered and tiny.

Get ready to have your favorite brain myths debunked – and yet rejoice that they'll be replaced by the delightful facts you'll find in 'Welcome to Your Brain' : Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life' (Bloomsbury / Macmillan ; March 4, 2008 ; $24.95) by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D. Aamodt and Wang take you on a richly illustrated, beautifully laid out and perfectly balanced journey through your own brain. It's everything you need to know about how you manage to know anything, written and presented in a lively, engaging manner that lets you pick and choose how you approach, well – your very self.

Aamodt and Wang take a very precise approach to a huge and complicated subject. They divvy their book up into six major sections; "Your Brain and the World," "Coming to Your Senses," "How Your Brain Changes Throughout Life," "Your Emotional Brain," "Your Rational Brain" (perhaps a bit presumptuous in these irrational times, but hope for the best, right?), and "Your Brain in Altered States." Each of these is divided up into read-'em-in-fifteen-minutes chapters. Design and layout play a big part in this book, and as you'll hear in the interview, the writers spent time not just getting a unified voice, but also making sure that the reading experience would provide the maximum everything. They actually succeed; the prose is lively and informative without being formal. The illustrations offer, again as they mention in the interview, well, about a thousand words a pop, let's say, that you don't need to read because all the information's there at a glance.

Yes, both in this interview and in the book they debunk a number of myths, but they replace them with facts that are a) factual and b) entertaining. Aamodt and Wang are dedicated storytellers, smart writers who keep you engaged in each subject long enough to make sure you take something interesting and useful away. They cover a lot of ground, from jet lag to spirituality, from decision-making to pair-bonding.

Now for some, the cure for jet lag will earn this book its keep, but it's really the fun reading experience that makes this book more than worth the cover price. Be advised that this is not a book that you need to read from in order; it's pretty modular, so you can for the most part pick and choose when you read what you read. That said, it's also cunningly organized to take you from the inner mind to the outer limits; no control voice is required. You can hear my conversation with Aamodt and Wang here. You know where to buy the book; and when you decide to do so, be advised that the book itself will have some pretty damn useful information about how you came to make that decision.


Agony Column Review Archive