Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


07-18-08: Michael Jasper Opens 'A Gathering of Doorways' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Susan Palwick Reads at SF in SF on July 12, 2008

What is Classic Eighties Horror?

The 1980's saw an explosion in the horror genre. The success of writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Peter Straub led to the publication of hundreds of lesser-selling but often equally skilled writers, all working in the same sort of territory now called "Eighties Horror"– at least by me, in this particular article. Eighties Horror is real (Dis)Comfort Reading, providing a frisson of fear served up with a heaping helping of familiarity.

By "familiarity" I mean the general setting and characters to be found within the vast majority of these books. Eighties horror was a success because it was the first time the audience found something remotely resembling the reality they experienced portrayed on the pages, mixed of course, with that leavening of the fantastic. And thinking back on it now, Eighties Horror was really the first time this had been done. The prototypical Eighties Horror novel offered as its center a middle to lower-middle class family, generally struggling financially, and often emotionally. Strip out the ghosts, werewolves, and the whatevers and youd have a mundane and generally uninteresting story; or rather a story that the readers were themselves living. Throw in that soupcon of the supernatural it all starts to seem more interesting; the weirdness offered the writers a way of externalizing the uglier demons of suburbia in a manner that provided a plot driver and some nice, if odd and occasionally threatening scenery. Stir not-too-gently, kill off some ancillary characters, shatter your readers' hearts by knocking off a protagonist and let it run between 300 and 500 pages. It's not life as we know it but rather life as we feel it, monsters and all.

Of course, Eighties Horror overplayed its hand and overstayed its welcome. The big names have survived, in some tattered state. But once in a while the genre gets an injection of new blood from an unexpected direction. Having found Michael Jasper first in Interzone, with a story he later expanded into the science fiction novel 'The Wannoshay Cycle', I pretty much expected him to pop out SF novel after SF novel. So when I got 'A Gathering of Doorways' (Prime ; October 2008 ; $24.95), I saw the name and thought, "That guy sounds familiar," but because of the novel's pure Eighties Horror premise, it took me a long time to connect it with the guy who wrote 'The Wannoshay Cycle'. But here it is and happy am I to immerse once again in stories of struggling families who get much more than they bargained for. In this case, Gil and his wife Melissa have moved out to the country with their "adventurous" five-year-old son Noah. Turns out the country wants them in a big way – perhaps as an aperitif, perhaps a main course. And we're off into a world where ex-suburbanites have meaningful dreams and children disappear even if they are watched by their fathers – which theyre not. Jasper handles the mundane and surreal aspects of Eighties Horror with confidence and imagination. 'A Gathering of Doorways' is classic (Dis)Comfort Reading. When youre continually pressurized by debt and employers who think they own your life, it's actually nice to think that there's something else out there, even if it wants to eat you.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Susan Palwick Reads at SF in SF on July 12, 2008 : Sorrel's Heart

Today's podcast, from SF in SF on July 12 begins with an appreciation of Thomas M. Disch by Jacob Weisman and Terry Bisson. Then prepare to have your heart broken – and redeemed by Susan Palwick's story from 'The Fate of Mice', 'Sorrel's Heart'. Here's a link to the MP3; this story simply needs to be heard.


07-17-08 : Michael Harvey Steps Up to 'The Fifth Floor' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jay Lake Interviewed at SF in SF

Historical Reach Swamps Hysterical Spouse

ARC scrounged from Capitola BOok Cafe.

Michael Harvey is back! I totally loved his debut novel, 'The Chicago Way', which I read while attending the Singularity Summit last year. 'The Chicago Way' introduced Michael Kelly, a low-key ex-cop PI written in classic prose and set in the current day. Harvey hit the grace notes just right with this novel, keeping the whole shebang both classy and gritty – a difficult feat that he handled with absolute reading ease. Now he's back with 'The Fifth Floor' (Knopf / Random House ; August 26, 2008 ; $23.95), and Michael Kelly is back as well. Things start off in a classic-enough mode; Kelly is helping Janet Woods, an old flame who is married to a bad seed named Johnny Woods. Easy-peasy, he decides to follow Johnny and see what's the what. He doesn't anticipate heroics. Maybe a quiet talk with the abuser, or perhaps just a look-see for a potential mistress. But what he steps in to is considerably more dangerous and tied to the sordid history of the other major character in the series, Chicago. Unfortunately, you poke the history of a city like Chicago, you're likely to get some blowback in the present. Not that Kelly will concern himself about such potentialities until the present themselves. Usually armed.

Michael Harvey was an engaging interview back when I spoke to him who would have sold me on the book had the book not already sold itself by virtue of being a great read. Here, he continues to display his knack for creating the language, characters, conflicts and feel of the classic mysteries in a current setting. If you've not read 'The Chicago Way', the trade paperback reprint is out now (Knopf / Random House ; July 8, 2008 ; $13.95). As a word of warning, should you spring for that one, expect to pre-order 'The Fifth Floor'. Kelly – and Harvey – are the sorts of characters you'll want to have around.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jay Lake Interviewed at SF in SF : 5,000 Words A Day

Hawaiian shirt chic.

As I hope you expect, I'm following up yesterday's podcast from SF in SF with my on-site interview with Jay Lake. Jay and I talked about some of the stuff we didn't get to talk about on the air when he did the GeekSpeak interview, to wit, his "The Fast and the Furious" writing schedule. Lake's a seasoned pro, so if you want to find out how you work a full-time job in the tech sector, bang out 5K words a day and still have time for the child, check out this MP3 file – after you've done your 5K words.


07-16-08: Harry Turtledove Declares 'The Valley-Westside War' ; Susan Palwick Interviewed at SF in SF

Crosstime Traffic Worth Stopping For

I love this sort of cover.

I dont know how he does it, really. Harry Turtledove cranks out novels like nobody's business. I've been a fan since I read the 'WorldWar' series, and though I can't keep up with everything he does, some titles really catch my eye. And some cover illustrations really catch my eye as well. I'm a sucker for a faked-out newspaper headline, so when I saw 'The Valley-Westside War' (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; July 8, 2008 ; $24.95) it migrated instantly from the Rolling Shelves to the stack o' books on my "desk". Not only does it have a design I like, it speaks to my old stomping grounds of SoCal, where I recently went to speak with Whitley Strieber and Jessica Queller. It happens that Turtledove resides in LA as well, and that suggests that his vision after "Panic in the Year Zero" is filled with the sort of details that makes reading a pleasure.

The premise of the series is that the inhabitants of one of the many quantum variations of our world have learned to travel between those variations, usually for trade reasons that include just the right amount of adventure for the YA-friendly series. And to be honest, the YA tag is sort of off-putting to me – but not here. I dont give a fig (figs are expensive and in season now, as well as a fine topping for pizza) about YA this or that given this scenario. Liz and her family are sent to Los Angeles where the nukes came out just about the time most of us were doing drop drills; it's a study in what went wrong, not a trade mission. And in this world, the San Fernando Valley and the LA Westside are fighting the sort of skirmish war that is currently in vogue in other parts of the world. This is so compelling a vision to me, that, combined with the cover art choice, 'The Valley-Westside War' goes into the instant-buy zone.

Turtledove knows his SoCal, and shows it and its inhabitants little mercy. Sure, the characters in the book probably dont say, "Fuck" as often as they might in the course of an average day, but Turtledove keeps things hopping with gunfire and grenades deployed in American suburbia – by Americans, against Americans. Talk about frightening. This book makes the old adage that we're all just one paycheck / three meals away from anarchy startlingly real. You dont need to saw off heads to scare the reader when you've got a startlingly real vision of urban war in America by Americans. We ain't so high and mighty as we'd like to believe. And Turtledove is pretty damned brave to spin this one out on his home ground. I hope he gets on well with his neighbors.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Susan Palwick Interviewed at SF in SF : Outlawing Compassion

From left, Susan Palwick, Terry Bisson and Jay Lake.

Last Saturday was another fine SF in SF gathering, this time featuring Susan Palwick and Jay Lake. For my first podcast, I'm offering my interview with Susan Palwick, who talks about a world where compassionate caring has been declared a mental illness; and yes, this is a science fiction novel, not a political essay about the current day – well, except that it is a political essay about the current day, written as a toe-tapping science fiction novel. On the minus side, Palwick is not nearly so prolific as you might hope her to be. She's not on the novel a year plan. On the plus side, that means you have less backlog to buy up once you hear the interview; I think you'll find her to be an excellent, thought-provoking author when you listen to the MP3.


07-15-08 : Terry D'Auray Reviews 'The Evil That Men Do' by Dave White ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jay Lake Live on GeekSpeak

Satisfying Noir

Road kill.

Today, Terry D'Auray looks at the trade paperback original mystery 'The Evil That Men Do' by Dave White and likes what she sees. I handed this book off to her with no idea whether or not she'd read it, like it, review it or strap it to a rocket and send it to the moon. Well, I guess I can confidently say it was my suspicion that she was unlikely to send it to the moon. You can read her review of this book here. We're lucky to have Terry around to keep us honest with her excellent writing while informing us who writes best about the dishonest.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Jay Lake Live on GeekSpeak : Promise of the E-Book

From left, Sean Cleveland, Some Yo-Yo, Jay Lake, Lyle Troxell, Miles Elam.

I am having a blast with GeekSpeak – this week it was Sean Cleveland, Lyle Troxell, Miles Elam and Ryder Brooks and we sat down to talk with science fiction writer Jay Lake. Today's podcast is a recording of our conversation from Saturday, July 12, 2008. Here's a link to the MP3.


07-14-08: A 2008 Interview with Dorothy Hearst

'Promise of the Wolves'

Hearst and friends.

One of the most entertaining aspects of genre fiction is to explore works that defy the genres. 'Promise of the Wolves' (Simon & Schuster ; June 3, 2008 ; $25) by Dorothy Hearst looks like an entry into the "Animal Fantasy" subgenre; the best-known example of this is probably 'Watership Down'. But when I spoke with Hearst before her appearance at the Capitola Book Café, it quickly became clear that while there were certainly elements of fantasy in the novel, there were also considerable portions of what could only be seen as science fiction. 'Promise of the Wolves' is set 14,000 years ago and works from recent theories of wolf-human co-evolution, as well as lots of wolf-science. Sure, you've got the marked outsider who is the main character and you have lots of the plot points of epic animal fantasy – but this novel is clearly speculative fiction based on actual science. The world that Hearst portrays is our world. The perspective of the wolves is anthropomorphized, and the novel reads like an animal fantasy. But there's a wealth of interesting science behind the novel.

Animal SF Fantasy.

That's what I was interested in when I started talking with Hearst, and she'd done her research, which you can quite clearly hear in this MP3 of our conversation. Hearst is another First Book author, however, and her story in this regard is equally fascinating. She was a senior editor for Jossey-Bass, where she published books for non-profit, public and social change leaders who found herself on the other side of the editorial desk, taking suggestions instead of giving them. 'Promise of the Wolves' is the first in a projected trilogy, and you can also hear her talk about how she decided on that length – and get an idea as to whether or not she'll be able to meet her own goals. The book is gorgeously written, so I had her read two excerpts; the one that heads up the interview is the beginning of the novel, and just before the sign-off, I wedged in another, from the center of the book, which will give readers an idea of how skillfully Hearst treads the lines of anthropomorphizing. It's a delicate balance and Hearst falls on the poetic side, in a manner that gives the novel the same fluid grace and strength that her subjects have. Power – beauty – danger, all reasons we read.


Agony Column Review Archive