Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


04-18-08 : Orson Scott Card is 'Keeper of Dreams'; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Joseph Ribeiro Knows 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Exceptions to the Rule

And keeper of stock photo covers as well.

Orson Scott Card is another exception to the written rule. I'll write that rule right here:

Publishers dont do single-author collections of short fiction.

Unless you're Orson Scott Card. Or George R. R. Martin.

That is, already a best seller. Serious readers care not a whit about bestsellers, one way or the other. Good books are good books, and if we can get a honkin' hardcover collection like 'Keeper of Dreams' (Tor / Tom Doherty Books ; April 15, 2008 ; $27.95) we'll take it and gladly. It's been like, 18 years since Tor first collected Card's short fiction in 'Maps in a Mirror'. Now, somewhere in the stacks I've got a copy of 'Cardography' that I bought at Aladdin Books in 1987; it's a limited edition Hypatia Press collection from the folks who also brought out a fine edition of Tim Powers' 'The Drawing of the Dark'. Funny how one book leads to another, isnt it?

And not surprising with a veritable book-brick like 'Keeper of Dreams'. Much of Card's short fiction ends up being blown out into novels that sort of like, define the genre, and that's likely to be the case here. Let me answer the first question before it is asked; this is a companion volume to 'Maps in the Mirror', not a replacement. That is, this is all new material not collected in a Card-only volume before. Card completists take note, and hie thee hence down to yon bookseller to pick up a must-buy copy. If "buy all Orson Scott Card books" is not in your command list, then there's still a compelling reason or 656 of them to pick this up; good fiction with enough variety to shock the unwary.

Card fires off the volume with a preface on the state of short fiction in SF, where he correctly to my mind asserts that readers have to be willing to look for new masters, beyond Card himself, and that the place to find them will be in the shaves of short fiction being published in genre magazines and shock – on a variety of websites, some of which Card himself is involved with. Card's also podcasting via XM Satellite radio, with "Orson Scott Card's Universe" running three times a day. Wouldn't it be just delightfully retro-funny if satellite radio overtook TV as a purveyor of quality genre fiction? Card's project suggests that it quite possible.

I mentioned before the variety of fiction on display here, and let me be a bit more specific, because it's more than just Ender and Alvin. There are indeed a selection of science fiction and fantasy stories (including "Space Boy" and "In the Dragon's House"). But just 'round the corner, you get literary tales written for the Vietnam Wall, a meaty selection of Hatrack River tales, and most intriguingly, tales written, "by a Mormon, about Mormon culture, for Mormon readers." In a certain sense, I'm just not the audience for these works, which makes me want to read them all the more. After all, one of the mainstays of speculative fiction is a curiosity about alien cultures; all the better if the writer is a member of that alien culture.

'Keeper of Dreams' is the kind of book that one suspects Tor can predict pretty much exactly how many people are going to buy. All those previous sales figures, crunched into a database, analyzed to death, sorted by region. If you're reading this article, the chances are that you are in those figures somewhere. You can't fight math, but you can get caught at the edges of a sales projection, wondering what happened to those first editions. If you read Orson Scott Card, you can probably imagine an alternate history where you stood in Aladdin Books some twenty years ago and didn't buy 'Cardography'. What is that person doing now? What is their world like?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Joseph Ribeiro Knows 'The Importance of Being Earnest' : Cabrillo College Spring Theater Art Production

Ribeiro smiles.
It doesn't get much better than Oscar Wilde, does it? This is the man who defined snark before the word existed. (And according to the Word dictionary, it still doesn't exist, so he's way, s ahead of his time.) 'The Importance of Being Earnest' and indeed, much of Wilde's work seems utterly timeless, as relevant and funny and contemporary today as it did when it was first written more than a hundred years ago, just before the turn of the previous century, when the highs and horrors of the twentieth were the realm of speculative fiction from the likes of H. G. Wells.

Not surprising then, that it gets resurrected by Joseph Ribeiro here in Aptos, at Cabrillo College. I popped over to his office for quick chat, and we talked about Wilde, his play and Ribeiro's challenges working on the play. If you think you recognize his voice, you may be right, providing you've seen the inimitable epic movie Steel Dawn with Patrick Swayze, Ernest Borgnine and yes, Joseph Ribeiro. Ribeiro had scenes with both stars, but assured me before the interview that he was not thinking of that particular Ernest when he picked the play. Ribeiro has a delightful voice and is as funny as the material he's directing. Here's a link to tickets and the performance schedule.

The next step, of course, is to get down to the play itself and talk to the actors and the crew, a delightful time. I showed up a few minutes before the anti-penultimate rehearsal, mic in hand and got a great cross-section of sound. I am being completely earnest when I say that you can find the MP3 of my Life Under The Lights segment for KUSP here. Look for more of these stories in the coming weeks, I suspect; they're too much fun to leave behind.


04-17-08: Tim Palmer Scales 'Luminous Mountains'

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2008 Interview with Tim Palmer : Passing of the Stanislaus

California casts a shadow. When you live here, it's easy to forget, and that's the reason, really, for books like 'Luminous Mountains' (Heyday Books/Yosemite Association ; April 1, 2008 ; $19.95) by Tim Palmer. Palmer's latest collection of photographs and essays is more than a reminder, though; it's an exploration of this landscape with an eye on preservation and understanding in terms of today's environmental paradigm. We go through seismic shifts in the way we understand our place on the earth, and we're in the midst of one this day, this year, this hour, this minute, this second. With every breath we take.

Breathtaking, is of course, the best way to describe the photos herein. Natural is another, and that's not the usual course, Palmer told me in our interview, available from this MP3 link. When I spoke to Palmer at Capitola Book Café, I just assumed that he'd be using an array of digital gadgetry, lugging a laptop, a digital camera and the Adobe Creative Suite – but that's not the case. Every photo you see in this book is pure, untouched film. And that should give you a clue as to the pristine nature on exhibit in this book – both prose and photography.

Palmer not only shoots the photographs, he writes the prose and it's as captivating as the panoramas he shows you. He's quite straightforward, but knows when to notch up the elegance. There's an elegiac quality to his writing about the passing of the Stanislaus River, damned in the eighties. It's hard for me to conceive of the scene he creates. The descriptions of the river rising are almost surreal, but actually, all too real. When he writes of the pressures of water usage, he's entering into one of my favorite SF tropes, as I believe we're on the edge of a wave of stories about a future of water privatization and shortages. Right now it comes out of the tap, like magic. We may look back on these days with fond wistfulness. Where the buffalo roamed.


04-16-08: Chuck Palahniuk's 'Snuff' is Enough ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : An Interview with Susan Chang

For Some, the Gag Reflex

Oh my. So seventies.

Everytime you think that Chuck Palahniuk has reached the bottom of the barrel, that he can go no lower, he manages to upend the barrel and show whats squirming beneath. Now, you may or may like what you see, but you'll see it real clear. So pardon Chuck if he takes time out from his science fiction, car-crash trilogy to dish up a little, no, a lot of sex in 'Snuff' (Doubleday / Random House ; May 20, 2008 ; $24.95). How much sex? Here's a book that allows for more than the usual level of precision: 600.

At least, arguably, in the course of the narrative. The story is pure Chuck Palahniuk in its minimalist simplicity. Cassie Wright is a porn actress hoping to break a record for serial fornication on film, and the number she's shooting for is 600 men in a row. Sure, you might have thought that this was "Palahniuk does sex," but no, it's another horror novel, not so pure and as it happens, not so simple. There are some thoughts that the mind would prefer never to have thought, and the thought involving the number 600 is one of them. Leave it to Palahniuk to turn it into a novel.

The story is told from the perspectives of Mr. 72, Mr. 137, Mr. 600 and Sheila, who in a memorable scene, goes jogging with the star. What unfolds is positively surreal and filthily hilarious; assuming that you find such shenanigans a) readable b) funny, and that's the great divide here. Palahniuk is ever engaging as he is enraging. You love the straightforward, honest voices of his characters, even as theyre telling you things you might wish youd never thought of, let alone heard from a book. In some ways, this book is a very peculiar combination of surrealism and realism; one is made so twisted as to seem like the other; the other is rendered without affect, and it begins to seem like the first. Plug and play, it wont matter. Palahniuk's fans will read, his detractors will trash it and those looking for a good read are going to have to do a little bit of work to distance themselves from the tawdry subject. And those who cannot distance themselves are excused. But please dont carry around any signs, as tempting as it may be.

Palahniuk still loves the infodump, and the dumps here are well beyond the pale. You'll learn about and witness events that you simply could not have imagined on your own. The result is that reality at its ugliest starts to seem like something out of a bad science fiction movie from the 1970's. Remember that science fiction is a literature of extrapolation; thus any novel based on the number 600 becomes an obvious bit of extending reality. Even the book itself is a science fictional object, belonging to a weird future where women might be inclined to the sort of activities Palahniuk describes. He takes you out of the present by showing it to you in a detail that will make you forget it is the present.

Needless to say, 'Snuff' is the sort of literature that draws the ire of any number of "interest groups," whose interest in literature is otherwise nil. But there's one interest group whose opinion matters so far as 'Snuff' goes; readers. Some will be bored, some will be outraged, some will know that they dont need to read it without opening the covers, while others will know that they do without having heard anything beyond the author's name. Somewhere between the two is a group of prospective readers who might, just might, be able to put down all the baggage that a work like this makes you want to pick up. Readers who can sit down and read; readers whom a mere book cannot threaten, for whom language is words, for whom reading is an action verb.

For those who are interested, here are links to my interviews thus far with Palahniuk (stay tuned for more information):

04-29-08: It occured to me that Palahniuk readers might want a conventient one-stop shop for links to my previous interviews with Chuck Palahniuk; here they are:

2002: Lullaby, the horror genre.
2003: Writing horror, minimalism, Portland.
2005: Narrative, shock value, horror.
2007: Rant, Victor Turner, science fiction, embarassment.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : An Interview with Susan Chang, Tor YA Editor: "The first time I'd ever seen anything like that"

The final podcast from the Isamu Fukui sessions is my conversation with his editor over at Tor Books, Susan Chang. (Try to keep your spell check from turning that in Change, I dare you! And I apologize if it shows up thusly.) Ms. Chang and I talked about the editing process that Isamu went through once his book was turned over to Tor, and it should give prospective readers and writers more than a bit of hope. You can hear the whole shebang right here, via MP3 from this fabulous web link. I'm trying to get more and more insight into the way books go from the author's mind to your hands, and the result is the polar opposite of lawmaking; learning about how books get published makes you want to read, just to experience the craftsmanship that goes into their creation.


04-15-08: Terry D'Auray Reviews 'Bone Song' by John ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2008 Interview with Matt Bialer, Agent for Isamu Fukui

"A one-stop-shop for readers of genre fiction"

All things to all people.
It always pays to get a second reading, especially from a perspective outside your own. This is why I tend to pick up stuff readers might not otherwise expect me to read, and you'll see more of this in the coming weeks. But it also means getting Terry D'Auray to read 'Bone Song'by John Meaney. I'm sure readers who have read Meaney's Nulaperion Sequence were on this one before it arrived, and most liked it. But Terry D'Auray is not a science fiction reader by default; in fact generally she shies away from the genre. 'Bone Song' has a heavy dose of mystery, and that is definitely Terry's beat, so I thought I'd see what she had to say about this book. It was touch and go; one day she told she was going to give it another fifty pages; then some mumble days later, the review shows up and I'm guessing it passed the fifty page test. You can read what she has to say here; and find out once again what an ace reviewer she is. She's got more reviews in the queue, with authors more in line with her tastes. But her perspective on 'Bone Song' is really quite refreshing, even enthralling. Sometimes for a reviewer, it really pays to get a first time reading.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2008 Interview with Matt Bialer, Agent for Isamu Fukui : "A real, searing vision"

After speaking with Isamu Fukui, I had the privilege of speaking with his agent Matt Bialer. You can imagine, having heard Isamu's take on this story, that Bialer has a rather different take. He's no less enthusiastic – but he is an agent, and his concerns go to selling foreign rights, something one who reads exclusively in English has little reason or opportunity to think about. Here's the link to the MP3 of Matt Bialer's interview. Occasionally, it seems, publishing companies make a good decision, and Bialer is an integral part of that process.


04-14-08: A 2008 Interview with Isamu Fukui

"Nothing really directly addressed the worst parts of school"

...and some were writers. Well, one at least.


Isamu Fukui does not beat around the bush in his novel 'Truancy', and he didn't do so when I spoke to him via ISDN either. The basic story of how he wrote 'Truancy' is the stuff of literary legend – and I'll let him tell that tale in our interview, which you can access through this MP3 link. I think readers who hear his actual speaking voice will certainly recognize it in the book, and if you've not read the book, that voice may send you to the shelves. I liked 'Truancy'; it reminded me of an episode the 'The Twilight Zone' writ large, it had that sort of "floating world" parable feel. And Fukui speaks well of the struggles in school that drove him to write 'Truancy'. You might imagine a kid who is writing fantasy novels in his spare time is not like, the Prom King. As it happens, most of us aren't The Prom King, and for that majority, 'Truancy' will definitely connect on a visceral level. Dont expect this to be a happy-making book, and the interview is not filled with sweetness and light either. It's much darker and more straightforwardly dangerous than one would expect. Don't try this at most high schools in the US of A unless you want to be mentioned on the Action News Eleven O'Clock Report in the vicinity of the word "lockdown."


Agony Column Review Archive