Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


08-15-08: Janet Chui and Jason Erik Lundberg Offer 'A Field Guide to Surreal Botany'; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Lou Anders

Surely Beautiful and Buyable

The illustrations are by Janet Chui.

Oh my. Some books just knock you right of your proscribed order and trust me, ' A Field Guide to Surreal Botany' (Two Cranes Press ; July 2008 ; $12) edited by Janet Chui and Jason Erik Lundberg is one of those books that you must buy this very instant. Here's the URL to do so; there are only a thousand out there, so hie thee hence.

Yes, Two Cranes Press have really got it right, totally, totally right with this one. Gorgeously designed and printed, and yet (appropriately, given the subject) dirt-cheap, 'A Field Guide to Surreal Botany' gets it right every way. The conceit is pretty simple; here we have a field guide to "plants with 'magickal and unverifiable [sic]' properties," the Introduction informs us, not unlike 'The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases' edited by Mark Roberts and Jeff Vandermeer, but for plants, not diseases. Printed on thick, slick, matte, faux-faded paper, it literally oozes quality, to the point where you might be tempted to lay it on a lesser volume and hope the process of osmosis will work some sort of "magick." But I think most readers will be loathe to lay it down anywhere. It's a compulsively readable and ultra-cool book.

Let's start with the writing, since after all, it is a book. 'A Field Guide to Surreal Botany' is an anthology, and though there is a vast variety of voices, there's a nice through-line of low-key "scientific" verbiage that helps the work hang together. Under the cloak of "science" however, the differing species offer each writer the opportunity for a different approach, ranging from the sublime and suggestive to the patently absurd. Some entries contain short stories and others simply create an otherworldly atmosphere. Even if this were just bare text on a page, the collection would be outstanding.

I risked bending my book to bring you this.

But it's not bare text on a page. Illustrated by Janet Chui, 'A Field Guide to Surreal Botany' is simply a lovely, paginated, text-oriented work of art. The slim trade paperback / chapbook format is very much like that which it pretends to be. The aged look works. The art is gorgeous. Buy it while you can, before the age of Surreal Botany passes us by.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Lou Anders : Post Denvention Hugo Chat

I'm wrapping up the week with a chat with Lou Anders, the editor of Pyr Books, as we talk about the World Science Fiction Convention 2008 – Denvention in Denver, the Hugo Awards, and the upcoming slate from Pyr. Catch up on what happened while you weren't in Denver and on what's going to happen tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as Pyr lights the way to dusty death – via this link.


08-14-08: 'The Darker Mask', Edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers + 'The Ghost Quartet' Edited by Marvin Kaye ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : An Interview With "Mysty W. Moonfree"

All-Original Duet

Tor puts out an awful lot of original anthologies; perhaps too many. It's easy for stuff to get lost in the flood, and these two books contain enough nuggets that I wanted to ensure they weren't missed. First up, we have 'The Ghost Quartet' (Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books ; September 2, 2008 ; $25.95), in hardcover edited by Marvin Kaye. Accompanying this we have 'The Darker Mask' (Tom Doherty Associates / Tor Books ; August 19, 2008 ; $14.95) in trade paperback, edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers. Talk about confusing – or confused. I really can't figure out the HC/TPB strategy here. But set that argument aside for a few moments, because, we're readers after all, and in the first and final analysis, here to read, not kvetch about the weird, weird world of publishing. (Yet.)

Pretty classy, really.

So, 'The Ghost Quartet' follows on from 'The Dragon Quintet', and obviously, focuses on ghost stories, not dragons. I'm glad for that. Kaye, a well-known writer as well as editor, elected to include himself in this batch, which is frankly kind of odd, but not necessarily bad. Still, for me, the headliner is a new novella by Brian Lumley that heads off the collection, "The Place of Waiting". For me, Lumley is at his best when he's in full-blown storytelling mode, as he is here, a sort of rambling address to the reader, a tall tale about a red-eyed ghost. Lumley was made to tell ghost stories, and this one is superb.

Other contributions to 'The Ghost Quartet' include Orson Scott Card's "Hamlet's Father", Kaye's "The Haunted Single Malt" and Tanith Lee's "Strindberg's Ghost Sonata". The volume includes one nice line drawing per story by Stephan Hickman. They're classy, recycled a bit in the art direction and add a nice touch to the collection. Thinking back to the day, this is reminiscent of something Dark Harvest might have done, and that's a good thing. Readers who are looking for a decent ghost story should seek this book out. I know, it looks kind of anonymous, in spite of Hickman's fine art. I guess I just miss those garish, glossy Dark Harvest dust jackets.

...and kinda cool.

Our second entry is 'The Darker Mask'. Here you have a lot of short stories that combine a bit of comic book, a bit of the classic "Black Mask Magazine" pulpish-style mystery, and offer again, one illo per story. The stories are all over the map, as are the authors, with some high-profile names from the mystery world youd not expect in a Tor collection. I'm talking Walter Mosely, with a fine story about serial killers and what a youth advertiser would call "X-TREME SYMPATHY!!!" Or Lorenzo "Sleepers" Carcaterra with a tale of an urban witch in "The Strega's Last Dance". Like 'The Ghost Quartet', 'The Darker Mask' includes a story by one of the editors, which is kind of unusual. 'The Darker Mask' capitalizes on our supposed fascination with "super powers" that are born in the squalor of the city. While that fascination certainly exists in the world of motion pictures, we dont have a lot of evidence that readers are lining up to devour this sort of thing. Yes, I did love 'Soon I Will Be Invincible', now out in trade paperback. Austin Grossman really nailed the vibe with a very funny and poignant novel about superheroes. And yes, the stories in 'The Darker Mask' are fine, but one would probably want to use them as a sort of reading palate cleanser between novels. You read this whole anthology in one gulp, I just hope you don't live near a nuclear reactor.

Can I kvetch a bit now? OK. So, here we have two fine new anthologies, one HC and one TPB. It's outstanding that Tor is publishing these with illustrations; that's fantastic and they deserve our support. But other than the fact that 'The Dragon Quintet' came out as an HC, I can't quite suss the decision process between HC / TPB firsts. To my mind, 'The Darker Mask' would have been worthy of HC publication; or 'The Ghost Quartet' might have made a nice TPB original. We do have two illustrated anthologies from Tor. Good authors, good writing, nice illos. You'll have to dig for 'em, but take a look. You might find yourself super-pleasantly surprised.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : An Interview With "Mysty W. Moonfree" : Five Authors of a Second Novel

Gail Ortiz, Judith Feinman, Tomi Newman, Pat Pease and Marybeth Varcados

Today's podcast is a conversation with the five women who ARE Mysty W. Moonfree; Gail Ortiz, Judith Feinman, Tomi Newman, Pat Pease and Marybeth Varcados. It was six years ago that they first joined to write their first novel, 'The Jewel Box: A Capitola Mystery', which they published last year. Now theyre back with a second novel, 'A Killer Festival', and I managed to get all five in the studio at KUSP to talk about following up their first book. I have to admit that as I talked to them, I began to think that what they were doing might make for a program that could be repeated at other bookstores. The group collaboration effort to create a novel is a great way of getting a novel actually finished; Gail Ortiz spoke to me afterwards and she thought this might be repeatable as well. But for now, you can enjoy the five women of Mysty W. Moonfree (an anagram of "Women of Mystery") as they chat with me about their latest creation by clicking on this link.


08-13-08 Update: Literature of Place on Day to Day

Karen Joy Fowler, James D. Houston, Tom Killion and a House in Santa Cruz

James D. Houston
His book.
Karen Joy Fowler.
Her Book.
His latest book.

Today on NPR's "Day to Day", they'll be running my report on "Literature of Place" that features Karen Joy Fowler, James D. Houston and Tom Killion all talking about the importance of place int heir writing and one place in particular – James D. Houston's house near the beach in Santa Cruz, which was once owned by a survivor of the Donner Party and inspired his book, 'Snow Mountain Passage'. Here's a link to the Day to Day website. I'll post an update to the report it self when it is posted to the web, and I hope listeners will use the "Email this Story" button early and often. It's election season, get in practice for voting! It will help this site stay online in these perilous times and reward these fine writers and artists.


08-13-08: Terry D'Auray Reviews 'In the Woods' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Andrea Avantaggio of Maria's Bookshop

"Something untoward"

Nice cover image.

Sometimes we dont end up reading the first novel until the second novel arrives, which leaves readers in a dilemma. Do you go back and try to find the first one in hardcover, pay a premium price and seek out a signed copy? Or do you start with number two, and hope you didn't miss anything vital? There's a good example out there now. Tana French has a new novel out, 'The Likeness' (Viking / Penguin / Putnam ; July 17, 2008 ; $25.95). By all accounts it appears to be worth your valuable time and money. But there's a predecessor, 'In the Woods'. Today the well-read and well-spoken Terry D'Auray takes a look at Tana French's first novel so that you can make an informed decision about both. She's no pushover and she's also an adventurous buyer, through the various programs at M for Mystery, so she does encounter clunkers. You can read her review of 'In the Woods' here and see if these woods are worth wandering about in.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A Conversation with Andrea Avantaggio of Maria's Bookshop : "How to celebrate the best of what our community has to offer"

Andrea Avantaggio.

Photo: Scott DW Smith/Imagesmith Photo
Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is an interview with Andrea Avantaggio of Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colorado. She's sort of out in the hinterlands, and the challenges she faces are pretty different from an urban bookstore or even one remotely close to a major population center.

Its so interesting when she talks about "the Four corners" with this California coast guy who called her out of the blue. Four corners what? It sounds chilly there, but certainly cozy in the bookstore. Here's a link to another chapter in what is proving to be a fairly thorough oral history of bookselling in the early 21st century.


08-12-08: A 2008 Interview With Andrew Davidson, Part Two

"Heres how I'm going to personalize my query letter to this agent.."

ARC Mark I.

In the second part of my interview with Andrew Davidson, author of 'The Gargoyle', we talk more about the actual writing and selling of the book, moving beyond content to intent. Of course, like any writer, Davidson writes mostly to entertain himself. If this is the case, then he's clearly not easily entertained.

Davidson doesn't just spend his research energy in the composition of the novel. He also spent it in locating an agent, and for those of you looking for ideas, he's got a few very neat conceits that I'd not heard yet. Here's the link to part two of the interview, which, I will remind you, is bookended by readings form the novel.

Gargoyle Mark I.

For those who care about such things – my readers, mostly – Doubleday did a full court press on this book, issuing two different ARCS; one with a funky cover and one with the cover of the final hardbound book. They even sent out a little gargoyle sculpture long before enaything else. This little box just arrived in the mail, leaving the reviewer to wonder, "Well, what the....?" But I've always liked a good gargoyl since an I saw and ABC Movie of teh Week titled Gargoles, with makeup effects by the much-missed late Stan Winston.

Random House and Doubleday are total believers in this book, and I must say, as you'll hear during this interview, I am as well. At least in the sense of what's written. It's really quite compelling and has the ring of truth. It also appears to be readable by a wider audience than I might have guessed since Janet of Capitola Book Café was singing the praises of the section involving the burn treatments. I agree, but then this is the Agony Column. In fact, the publisher at one point sent along a series of rave reviews from a variety of bookstore owners, which is a tactic I've not seen before. But then, this novel is not like anything you've seen before either; and to my mind, the comparisons being made are not particularly helpful. It's not like this or that. It's not a remix of disparate authors put in a literary blender. It's an organic whole, with entrails, burned flesh – and more than one heart.


08-11-08: A 2008 Interview With Andrew Davidson, Part One

"How could I write a story that starts with a burn?"

Andrew Davidson at KQED.

Here's a book that goes everywhere, including the center of the human heart. 'The Gargoyle' (Doubleday / Random House ; August 5, 2008 ; $25.95) by Andrew Davidson is the gripping, peculiar, pixilated story of a burn victim whose caretaker claims they were in love – some seven hundred years ago. And that's not the strangest part of this book that ranges from present day America to seventh century Iceland in pursuit of love in all its infinite variety. Think of Scheherazade, 'The Inferno' and then forget everything you know. 'The Gargoyle' is a remarkable first novel.

It certainly exhibits the "kitchen sink" approach to first novels, that inclination that writers have to write a book about everything, but Davidson pulls it off with remarkable ease and only occasional overwriting. One thing is certain; start this book in the bookstore at your peril, as it opens with the sort of bravura writing that gets books bought on the spot.

A case of heartburn.

Davidson is something of a publishing phenomena, garnering a newsworthy advance that is utterly irrelevant to the quality of the writing, but likely to get as much attention elsewhere. Forget about all that and concentrate on an involving love story, no involving love stories, several of them, woven through the narrative and history.

Today I'm podcasting the first of two parts of my interview with Andrew Davidson. I had him read from four different sections of the novel, so I've bookended each podcast with two readings to give you a feel for the writing and variety in this novel. I'm also going to save you a bit of time by revealing that the history of the Engelthal monastery given in the novel is pretty much true, with the exception of once character fitted into the events we know did transpire. Davidson talks quite a bit about the importance of research and the variety of research he undertook to create the novel. Suffice it to say if you're ever a victim of third and fourth degree burns covering most of your body, you'll have a good idea of what's in store for you. You can start you journey to hell itself here. Enjoy the ride, and please dont disembark until the car comes to a full stop at your destination.


Agony Column Review Archive