Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


07-11-08: Jay Lake Live In-Studio for Call-In GeekSpeak on KUSP ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jim Malusa Races to the Bottom

Behind the Clockwork

Back again into the breach

Tomorrow, on Saturday, July 12 between 10:00 and 11:00 AM on KUSP, 88.9 FM in Central California (90.3 in Santa Clara County, or, I'll be joining Lyle Troxell and Sean Cleveland for another Saturday SF GeekSpeak, in which we'll have JohnW. Campbell Award-winning author Jay Lake live in the studio to take your questions via the phone or the Internet. You can see their web page here. Turns out, not surprisingly, that Lake was well-ahead of the current Steampunk craze with his 2007 novel 'Mainspring', and he's back this year with a sequel, 'Escapement'. I remember when he first started making the inquiries that led to 'Mainspring' on the Fortean mailing list that both he and I belong to. The upshot of those first queries now stands at two must-buy novels set in an alternative universe on an alternative Earth where God started it all and runs it all with literal clockwork. Lake's extrapolated this on a variety of levels; the physics of such a world, as well as the social order, the sociology and the characters one might encounter. The result is a rockin' adventure and a constantly thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. Grand in all senses of the word.

Dirigibles courtesy Stephan Martiniere.
Now, this is LIVE RADIO. On one hand, if you can't make the date, know I'll be podcasting it later on as well as the Geeks, and KUSP itself. You can email me your questions and I'd like to have a bevy of emailed questions to hand so when we air we can always keep things lively. But as live radio, with a phone-in number, here it is:


It would be nice to get some phone callers as well, asking concise and entertaining questions. I know you guys can do it. We're on the West Coast, so unless you're farther out in the Pacific, and some of you may be, (Charles!), you wont have to get up at zero-dark hundred in the AM to get on and ask away. Some of you may be having lunch, some dinner ... But do call. We want to hear YOUR voices as well as our own. We'll be talking to Jay about his books and about the whole Steampunk deal, which, due to the heavy-duty fashion / crafting aspect, has really taken off. Add your voice to the mix – and the subsequent podcasts.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jim Malusa Races to the Bottom : 'Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents'

Not-so-easy rider.
Jim Malusa doesn't take the shortest path; that's why he's such an engaging travel writer. Today's podcast begins with a 5-minute reading from his book 'Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents' (Sierra Club / Counterpoint ; April 28, 2008 ; $16.95) that sets up our interview about his travels to the bottom of the world. The reading will also give you an idea of why this book is so good. Malusa really knows how to pace his travelogue with facts, humor and a quirky eye for what's happening around him. It's the kind of book that offers a reading experience akin to the travel experience it describes; it happens faster than you expect and you remember the oddball details with the same clarity that applies to the expected highlights.

Malusa told me after the interview that for him, one of the essential skills of being a writer was learning to live without debt. Only if youre in perpetual grad-student money mode can you deal with the low lows and low highs that most writers can expect. He's a smart, instinctive writer who took an outstanding series of trips for The Discovery Channel. You can hear about his journeys and just enough to make you want to buy his book via this MP3 link to the podcast of our interview.


07-10-08: 'Les Miserables' Redux ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Cindy Dach, Changing Hands Bookstore

New Translation

Alas, the same injustices are still with us.

I have got to say that I am absolutely loving these Modern Library re-issues and re-ups of the classics. The latest out of the pipe is 'Les Miserables' (Modern Library / Random House ; July 8, 2008 ; $28) by Hugo Gernsback Victor Hugo, this time around translated by Julie Rose, with an introduction by Adam Gopnik. Talk about value for your entertainment dollar; for a mere 28 bucks, you'll bring home a riveting classic that with notes, introductions and more than a few useful what-nots, clocks in at 1,330 pages. Were Hugo to be alive today, his publishers would probably make him issue it as a quartet at $25 a pop. Given the length of the book, the high-quality entertainment value, and the relatively low cost, this is really a bargain.

But get beyond the page-count bargain and you'll find what really distinguishes this edition; the introduction and the translation. Some of us may have read 'Les Miserables' back in the day, but chances are that gas cost less than two bucks then – maybe even less than a dollar. And while reading this book under the auspices of a college course is a great way to do so, because you're going to have the salient history drilled into your brain whether you want it or not, that's not an option open to the average reading addict. Beween Gopnick and Rose, you'll get two introductions that will offer all the pleasures of your college instruction with none of the pain. Gopnick writes an elegant essay that's concise and informative, giving the reader a framework from which to read this rich story. Rose writes that she gives you everything – this is the entire manuscript, not edited for length, or because there are visions of the vulgar. She says that at times, she felt as if she were channeling Hugo; what more could one ask of a translator? And finally, just because you know you need and want one, there's a timeline covering Hugo's life from birth to death. The upshot is that you get all the background information you need to enrich your reading, including 136 pages of notes.

Of course, all this gets quickly backgrounded when you start reading the novel. 'Les Miserables' has many of the trappings of a mystery or a psychological thriller melded into an epic story of social injustice. Jean Valjean has languished in prison, kitted up for stealing bread to feed his starving family. Le plus ca change le plus ca le meme chose. Victor Hugo would feel unpleasantly at home in our modern world; and reading 'Les Miserables', you will feel unpleasantly at home in his.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Cindy Dach, Changing Hands Bookstore : Chain / Library / Independent

If you're inclined to agonize about books and the state of publishing, then you need to run, dont walk to Tempe, Arizona and spend some quality time in Changing Hands Bookstore. I talked to Cindy Dach, (pronounced "Dash") and she is just chock full of good news, smart ideas and intelligent enthusiasm for reading and bookselling. She told me about her work for a chain bookstore, a library and her current gig at an independent. It's fascinating stuff, as in her tales of how the 20-something world is discovering the world of collecting hardcovers. That's what it takes to keep books alive. Listen to the voice of hope via this MP3 file.


07-09-08: Warning : Traffic and Action ; Interview With Charles Tan ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Douglas Abrams

Brave Yellow Books

Not the same designer.

Sometimes these things happen; two books, totally unrelated arrive and sit next to one another on the table of the Rolling Shelves and I find myself associating them despite their disparity. Judging books by their covers is ill-advised, but still, one can only wonder if someone was missing their Big Yellow Tonka Truck back in New York. Of course, it's easy to explain the presence of Yield-sign yellow on 'Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)' by Tom Vanderbilt (Knopf / Borzoi / Random House ; July 29, 2008 ; $24.95). 'Illegal Action' (Knopf / Borzoi / Random House ; July 3, 2008 ; $24.95) by Stella Rimington is the third novel featuring MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, and other than there being a sale on Yield-sign yellow at the printers, I can see no particular reason for this choice. Rimington, once the head of Britain's MI5, has earned no small amount of acclaim for her tense and pertinent thrillers. To be quite honest, I find this color pretty off-putting on a book cover. I'm not even happy to see it on a "Yield" sign. But that said, these books both seem to be well worth pulling over for.

'Traffic' is a book I can honestly say I've been waiting to read for as long as I've been sitting in traffic, and given that I started my driving life in Los Angeles, that was from the get-go, back in the days when they were not only jacking up the price of gasoline to a then-unconscionable 75¢ a gallon, they had the gall to make you wait for it as well. Vanderbilt brings a bushel basket of analytic tools to bear on the problems of traffic. History, science, psychology, economics and anecdotes are smartly mixed and mined to yield up a bumper crop of weird but useful facts. Some of this is stuff you get told all the time, but by the authority figures whom one is inclined to disregard. You know, like aggressive driving doesn't save time? Well of course it doesn't, but it sure makes you feel great! King of the Road! Reading it in Vanderbilt's book is quite different. Vanderbilt marshals his arguments with entertaining skill, delivering in a single book a myriad of views and visions. If you drive you probably need to read this book; but best not to read it while you drive, though I can't claim never to have tried reading and driving myself. But then, I know I rate pretty low on the driving skill bell curve. 'Traffic' is not likely to make me a much better driver, but any improvement would be an improvement. I mean, dont read and drive – how am I going to get anywhere?

Driving's not an option when reading 'Illegal Action'. Rimington's latest Liz Carlyle novel finds Carlyle pursuing Russian spies on British soil, something one might not have thought to be too urgent were it not for the recent poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the subsequent ratcheting up of tension between the UK and Russia. What was once starting to seem pretty ducky suddenly got pretty dicey, and all we saw were the headlines, until now. Who better to do a "ripped from the headlines" spy thriller about the Litvinenko case than the former head of MI5? With a solid character already established and peerless background for creating authentic tradecraft, Rimington's latest nicely sidesteps all the current US security concerns about terrorism and gets us back into the almost nostalgic realm of Cold War-era confrontations. And the layers of what's-real and what's-not offer readers a lot of fodder for entertaining contemplation. We always hope that, "This is as bad as it gets," and we need writers like Rimington to remind us how easily imagination is outstripped by reality.

Interview With Charles Tan

From his Blogger site.

Readers who want a bit of a glimpse under the hood of The Agony Column are advised to pop on over the website of the wonderful Charles Tan, Bibliophile Stalker. He's just posted an interview with me we did via email; great questions that allowed me to spew long enough, one hopes, but not too long. Here's the link, tell him I sent you and check out his site. He's the most patient man in the world, as I've been sitting on that interview for far too long. Thanks, Charles!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Douglas Abrams : Don Juan Loves to Publish

Not From his Flickr Stream. Taken by YT at CBC.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is a conversation with Douglas Carlton Abrams, author of 'The Lost Diary of Don Juan' (Flash site with sound) at Capitola Book Café. Abrams is a local author and his romantic history is heavy on sex (he's written a couple of Taoist guides to sexuality) but offers a nicely detailed look at the legendary lover as a historical and romantic figure. But wait – there's more. He's got a blog over at Amazon, and Abrams was an editor over at HarperCollins. The website for his literary agency / editorial support service (you'll hear about this in the interview) is Idea Architects. He's dispensing some practical advice to those of you hoping to write and sell a book; advice from one who has been on both sides of the transaction. Tune in, write on and find out what to do and more importantly, what not to do. Here's your MP3 link.


07-08-08: Charles Stross and 'Saturn's Children' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Panel Discussion from SF in SF June 21, 2008

Heinlein and Honeys

21st century American Cheese.

Oh the cheese of it all. Joe Williamson's cover painting for 'Saturn's Children' (Ace / Penguin Putnam ; July 1, 2008 ; $24.95) really gets to the point of the new novel by Charles Stross in a way that no written précis can hope to match. Heres a novel about a purple-haired sexbot, that cover says. And it's 100% truth-in-advertising. But the implications behind that statement are not as apparent as one might think.

Nor surprisingly, for those who have read both Heinlein and Stross, the culture we're looking at in 'Saturn's Children' is no longer human. Our successors, the robots, the AI's, the what-have-0you's have steeped onto the stage, and you know, the apple doesn't fall so far from the tree even if it is mechanical. In the posthuman world of 'Saturn's Children', the robots are as prone to squabble as ever their human predecessors were, and for reasons just as puny. Freya Nakamichi is a fembot whose services are no longer in demand, and her latest commission is pretty dull. Take this from here to there. Of course this proves to be very important to some shadowy "humanoids" who will lead Freya to re-think her part in the universe and then redefine the whole shebang.

Expect sex, interest therein. Expect adventure, cf traveling through the solar system, and all the big-bucks special effects that Heinlein never imagined, let alone saw on the big screen. Expect intellectual revelation and authentic mind-boggling, a la everything we know about Charles Stross. And expect it all in a fast paced beach read that for once will not stand out amidst the other book covers featuring scantily clad heroines.

Stross has the wit and verve to deliver a fitting tribute to and update of Heinlein with a nice nod to the flaws of the master as well as his many strengths. Stross knows his audience and uses that knowledge to both his and their advantage, crafting a novel that simply could not have been written even ten years ago, because at the time, the readers just might not have known what to make of it.

I know most of my readers have Stross on auto-buy anyway. He's going to be touring the US later this month, so you may just want to hold off until after he's blown through town and signed a heap of these, or order up your UK version as well as the US version, so you can hand him both as well as the rest of the titles you've got stored in the cardboard box. It's a pretty good bet that all these Stross novels will one day be worth a fair amount of money; and even then their value will not nearly match their value as reading experiences. Strap in and throw the hyperdrive switch. Your summer blockbuster movie for the mind has arrived.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Panel Discussion from SF in SF June 21, 2008 : Carol Emshwiller, Pat Murphy and Terry Bisson

And now the final podcast from the last edition of SF in SF – the captivating panel discussion with Carol Emshwiller, Pat Murphy and Terry Bisson. Since the two writers have rather contrasting styles in terms of the process used to create them, but similar styles in the terms of the final product, it's a really interesting conversation, egged on by the always intelligent Terry Bisson. Here's the link to the MP3.


07-07-08: A 2008 Interview with Benjamin Wallace

'The Billionaire's Vinegar'

Wear and tear on the Demco cover as well as tne win bottle.

Some books just sweep you away and dont let go. If youre looking for a riveting, non-fiction mystery, you can do no better than 'The Billionaire's Vinegar' (Crown / Random House ; May 13, 2008 ; $24.95) by Benjamin Wallace, a look at the world of high-flying wine buying. Wallace's book has the sweep of history, lots of juicy celebrities, ranging from Thomas Jefferson on his Bordeaux wine tour to Kip Forbes in the Capitalist Tool private airliner, and a keeps-you-guessing mystery involving high fraud, millions of dollars and thousands of victims.

At the heart of the mystery is Michael Broadbent, the man who pretty much single-handedly invented the rare wine auction. At the age of 82, he still rides a woman's bike to work every day in his role as the head of rare wine auctions for Christie's. But he's not the only compelling character you'll meet in this book; take for example, Thomas Jefferson, a compulsive note-taker, tooling around Europe under the auspices of the US government, checking out trade options. Wallace follows his exploits trying to get the best wine possible, with the idea of growing wine grapes in the US, and expertly threads this history through to the present day; are those bottles of wine found in the cellar, really a consignment once bought by Jefferson? When you open the bottle, are you in fact drinking history?

Or, has someone hit the "truth turns to fiction" button just a little too hard? Wallace's investigation into this world is expertly paced, impeccably researched and chock-a-block with characters you'll never forget, like Hardy Rodenstock, a man who helped create and define the most excessive wine-tasting experiences of the 1980's. Charismatic, creative and chameleonic, you'll wish you were there – so long as you had the money to pursue such rarified interests. I dont drink wine; and I've never studied it in the least, but this book about a subject of which I knew nothing and for which I cared little, held me spellbound by virtue of great writing.

I spoke with Wallace when he came to Capitola Book Café last month, and he gave me some of the background to the book as well as the juicier details. Break out your best bottle, settle back on the porch in the summer sun, enjoy the MP3 of our conversation, but only after buying the book. You won't find a more entertaining and compelling mystery or work of nonfiction this side of the Bordeaux.


Agony Column Review Archive