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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


10-26-08: NPR First Books

Two Episodes Sunday, October 26: Nathaniel Rich and Andrew Davidson

Nathaniel Rich, not at KQED.
Readers should be pretty familiar with the First Books reports I've been doing for NPR, and can probably spot the source material when it gets posted here, usually much earlier than the NPR broadcast. Trust me, the old saw, "To make it shorter it will take me longer," applies to literary radio reports with the sort of vengeance usually reserved for superheroes (or superheroines) who have had a loved one nabbed by an evil genius.

So, in theory, assuming some news-consuming event does not devour the available time, Weekend Edition Sunday is scheduled to broadcast my report Nathaniel Rich. You can find my full-length interview with him here (Part 1, Part 2). I'll post the link to the NPR website for the story here tomorrow, and I trust readers will be so kind as to visit the site and email the link, so I can continue to madly interview authors as I strive to bring you the best and brightest literary podcast you can find, with new material five days a week.

Update: Here's the link to the Nathaniel RIch story, with an excellent web-page buildout that includes a big sample from 'The Mayor's Tongue'. Go to this link and use the Email button at the top of the page as often as you can; and hit recommend as well Thanks!.

Andrew Davidson at KQED.

Also in theory – heck a lot can happen between Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon – All Things Considered will broadcast my First Books Report with Andrew Davidson about 'The Gargoyle'. The original interview is here (Part 1, Part 2), and the book review is here. To make it shorter, yes ... easier said than done. I'll post the link for this NPR website tomorrow as well. Given the level of detail in Davidson's book, one just hopes not to be burned.

Update: Here's the link for the NPR story on Andrew Davidson. I'd appreciate it if you could support this literary venture by going to these links, adding comments and recommendations.


10-24-08 : Neal Asher Visits 'The Gabble' : Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF / LitQuake Event ; Rudy Rucker

Shorter Than You Think

Now I have find an HC copy!
You know, you look at Neal Asher's novels and you might be tempted to think that he's just not got it in his DNA to come up with something less than 300 pages long, that 'Cowl', for example, might be his idea of a short story.

But that's not the case, and I have the evidence right here, on line to show you. You can read 'Watchcrab', a short story by Neal Asher from this link, and rest assured you'll find all the things you love about Asher; a bit of police procedural, a wild future and of course, a monster. Think Law & Order meets The Mysterious Island. Ah, that Mysterious Island movie, it sort of marked me. Gave me a love, an appreciation of big honkin' monsters that look upon humans as walking French fries.

Which brings us to 'The Gabble and other stories' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; November 7, 2008 ; £17.99), a new collection of Polity-based short stories from Asher featuring that oh-so-cool monster of all monsters, the Gabbleduck, in not just one, but three stories. But before we go any further, let us have a moment of silence for the incredible artwork of Steve Rawlings, which has long graced the work of Asher, and to my mind significantly impacts the reading experience. I'm pulling in the cover image not only for 'The Gabble', which is truly outstanding, but for the UK version of 'Prador Moon' as well (which conscientious Asher fans should probably have obtained first from Night Shade), as both covers give a good idea of Rawlings' excellent and highly-appropriate style. Nobody else is doing work like this in the science fiction field and this sort of excellence deserves to be mentioned.

'Ware the Gabbleduck, my son.
Of course, the stories inside 'The Gabble' are what you're here for and they're all worth your valuable time. What surprises me – pleasantly – is that Asher's stuff works as well in short form as it does in long form. Now, perhaps this is because all of these stories are set in the Polity Universe, so I already have a reading experience vocabulary, so to speak with which to approach them. My mind already has a feel for how things look in the Polity and a code-breaker for how to read Asher's novels. And there are lots of reqards for those familiar with this environment. There are lots of connections to the Spatterjay stories, including 'The Skinner' and 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech'. And in addition to three, count 'em three stories dedicated to the Gabbleduck, including the longest story in the collection 'Alien Archaeology' (69 pages), you'll find some of your favorite sea-shells here; the hammer-whelk. And in the notes afterward, Asher promises and entire novel about the Gabbleducks. Here's a man who loves his monsters just as much as his fan do. But while Asher gives us a nice bit of autobiography to explain the Gabbleducks, ou just know there's got to be more to it than that. This fascination with monsters, which I think is what many of Asher's fans respond to, is itself fascinating.

The bottom line here is twofold. Tor UK / Pan Macmillan has done a bang-up job in terms of publishing Asher of late. Their hardcover originals are sturdy, easy-to-read and beautifully designed. Books worth buying, reading and keeping.

Assuming you like monsters.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF / LitQuake Event ; Rudy Rucker Reads from 'The Hollow Earth

Roberson, Rucker & Picacio, what a deal!

Well, in case you were looking for a reason to buy the recent (well two years ago, but who's counting) MonkeyBrain Books release of Rudy Rucker's 'The Hollow Earth'? Sure the Chris Roberson helmed publisher should be on your auto-buy list, right. And yes, the to-die-for John Picacio cover image is priceless, of course? But here's a deal-closer for you; Rudy Rucker his-own-bad-self reading from this very book at the SF in SF / Litquake "Steampunk" event. Here's an MP3 that will, we trust open your heart and shortly afterwards you shall find yourself opening the pages of this very tome!


10-23-08: Leopoldo Gout Tunes In to 'Ghost Radio' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF / LitQuake Event

Bad Times Are Here To Stay

Tres- JK-Potter-esque.
Well, it's official; we're deep in a recession if not The Great Depression II : Greater But Less Than Zero. My evidence? Forget the financials, theyre meaningless and a distraction for the slavering masses. Forget – or at least try to – the fact that you're now paying more for less across the board. Ask yourself if they'll have numbers for the bread lines. They gotta bring those back! But still, not the real indicator, the flashing blue light that indicates we're in the midst of a blue-light special downturn. How do you tell when the Bad Times have come to stay? Look for the horror.

And I stress, I'm not talking about the bills in your mailbox or the political spam in your inbox. I'm talking about Horror fiction, unrepentant, compared-to-Stephen King horror novels with first edition hardcovers from New York publishers. When the times get tough, we like to read about people being drawn into nightmarish otherworlds, enough so that we'll shell out the hard-earned for a hard cover. In this case, opportunity knocks with 'Ghost Radio' (Wm Morrow / HarperCollins ; October 14, 2008 ; $25.95) by Leopoldo Gout. You'll have to flip the book over for that Stephen King comparison (its from James Patterson, which isnt exactly re-assuring, but you know, times are tough, we'll take what we can get), and then you'll see not more blurbs but an excerpt. I'll credit the book designers and marketers with this; they dont give away too much on the DJ blurbs or the back cover, which is really quite refreshing.

But when you open up the book to read, that's where the coolness and surprise start. When you start reading, you will indeed find a nice piece of 80's throwback horror fiction. Wm Morrow is a prestigious imprint and if theyre doing unapologetic horror, then you know something interesting (a major recession or minor depression) is afoot. What can you do about it, eh? Just be glad theyre printing horror fiction again! And calling it horror, not some euphemistic "dark fantasy". The plot for 'Ghost Radio' is twisty but pretty tight. Boiled down, you've got you radio show dedicated to call-in spooky stories, hosted by Joaquin. But there's something trying to connect via the static, the white noise that Joaquin hears but can't quite decipher. And his call-ins are beginning to immerse him in their stories with more vision than he'd prefer. Ever listen to "Coast to Coast AM" and think they might be haunted? You've got the idea; add characters, and whip to a froth over three-hundred plus pages.

Gout's a good writer who writes sturdy prose and has a talent for character. But 'Ghost Radio' has a lot more than 80's horror tropes done well going for it. First off, Gout snags one of the great devices of these novels – short chapters. I know, it sounds silly and facile, but Gout's pacing goes a long way towards keeping the pages moving. And those short chapters? More than a few are anecdotes from the call-in bank, and they're a highlight here. The whole concoction has a lot of giddy-up. Gout makes this easy to read and uses all the tricks in the 80's-horror toolkit with enough skill to keep you awake.

Nice work by the author.
And more importantly to this reader: illustrations, one per chapter and all pretty damn nice in a JK Potter-meets-graphic novels kind of way. Not surprising, that; Gout illustrated a graphic adaptation of a James Patterson novel. The illos here add just the right sense of 21st century menace with a retro B&W feature-film feel. I'm reminded of my pre-teen Saturday afternoons spent watching Dementia 13 on Chiller. Not exactly scary, no, but compelling.

This is the perfect book to curl up with when the TV news goes beyond horror, which is pretty much every day. After all, I've never known anyone harmed by radio stories, but what we're seeing on the news is beyond harm. I'll take my scares from the printed page, from a good book, with pitchers. In the background the radio is playing classical music, tinny, distant, like a message from another time.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF in SF / LitQuake Event : Joe R. Lansdale Reads from 'Flaming London'

Oh that Ned!

Here's the sort of reading that just plain old sells books. Fortunately, there are copies of 'Zeppelins West' and 'Flaming London' by Joe R. Lansdale to be had. The reading is from the latter, but if youre going to read it, you'll want the former as its the first in the Ned the Seal series. Mind you now, Ned's the sort of seal who has flippers, well, and ... That is, this is no "Navy SEAL". You'll just have to listen to Lansdale's hilarious reading to get the gist. No milk drinking during this one, not unless you like it coming out through your nose.


10-22-08: Robson and Pratt Keep the Series Alive; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF IN SF / Litquake Steampunk Event

'Going Under' and 'Dead Reign'

Love this simple cover.
Two noteworthy series by writers who are on the auto-buy list just got updated, and it's time for celebration – and a visit to your local independent bookseller. 'Going Under' (Pyr / Prometheus Books ; October 7, 2008 ; $15) by Justina Robson is the third book in the "Quantum Gravity" series featuring cyborg/elf Lila Black; and 'Dead Reign' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; October 28, 2008 ; $6;99) by T. A. (Tim) Pratt is the third book in the series featuring Marla Mason, the chief sorcerer of Felport. Both mix a variety of genres to the point where genre really not longer matters. Good reading is good reading, and labels are best left behind.

Robson, who started out writing stories set in a textured, near-future UK, uses SF as a springboard. A Quantum Bomb made the world different, and Lila Black, who is a tasteful mix of woman, robotics and artificial intelligence – with the heart of a dead elven necromancer – must venture deep into the now-accessible world of the Faerie. It proves to be more than dangerous. Sure, weapons and death can be easily dealt, but making decisions is truly dangerous; what to pursue, what to bring out and who to help. Robson's talent is to combine disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Magic and machinery seem right at home in her skewed, surreal setting. Her characters are smart and they need to be as the dangers she present them with call for more than strength of sword; wit is required and the result is not just wildly imaginative set-pieces but delightful dialogue and hard-boiled echoes. I love the tasteful and restrained cover. It's as classy the writing.

Listen to River Boy, then buy.
Tim Pratt is the kind of writer who ends up in best-of literary anthologies as well as F&SF. He's the kind of class act who can write those tales that bring an authentic tear to your eye; just give 'River Boy' a listen if you have any doubts. So when this kind of talent applies itself to a supernatural serial featuring a woman who runs the sorcery biz in a small town, you can bet that the writing will be top-notch. In 'Dead Reign', her third outing, Marla Mason has a bit of a problem on her hands – Death. Not in the abstract, but personified. Pratt may deal in the supernatural, but his series offers all the pleasures of the great detective series; well-drawn plots, sharp dialogue and a snappy portrait of the 21st-century American suburb. As you might expect, it's chock-a-block with magical beings who are quite well grounded in the mundane happenings of our everyday lives. Like his first novel, 'The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl', 'Dead Reign' complex, enjoyable characters engage in all sorts of surreal and supernatural goings-on with the sort of aplomb required to make the unreal believable. It's our magic world, and the sort of book that makes you want to stay a while in Felport. And whether it's Pratt's Felport or Robson's Fae, all that's required to get there is a turn of the page. Both writers make that easy.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF IN SF / Litquake Steampunk Event : Joe R. Lansdale Interviewed

Today's podcast is my interview with Joe R. Lansdale at the SF in SF / Litquake event a couple of weeks ago. Lansdale was in fine, fighting form, carving out his own niche. The more we were told that Steampunk was positive, the more Lansdale told us his was not. You'll see just how much not when I podcast the reading, but for now, you can enjoy a brief slice of, well, something much better than what gets left on Twain's copy of Moby Dick by following this link to the MP3.


10-21-08: Jeff VanderMeer and Brian Evenson Are Dark Horses ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF IN SF / Litquake Steampunk Event

Media Fiction From Experimental Writers

We've got five years, that't not a lot.
It's easy to see media tie-in fiction (read: endless Star* novel[ization]s) as a major death-blow to science fiction. By definition, many contend – with reason – they're inferior literary creations. The spark of originality is snuffed before the work is born, it is smothered again as the work is conceived and buried in a deep hole in the back yard when the work is published. The literary difference between a Star* novel[ization] and a trailer for the new Star* movie is artistically and culturally moot. Neither the audience nor the publisher can be given to expect much from the book, which merely serves as a morsel to whet our appetite for the forthcoming and presumably much more profitable movie or – I shiver as I write this – video game.

Paper has never refused to accept ink, nor have screens yet repelled the pixels we attempt to paint upon them. (Even these.)

But that hasnt stopped an impressive line of science fiction and mainstream writers from scooping up a check that clears when offered the chance to squeeze out a surrogate for the silver screen. And that's not always a bad thing. I'd already read the Cities in Flight series by James Blish (based on a recommendation at the back of an old Groff Conklin anthology) when I started pick up his adaptations of the original "Star Trek" episodes. But had that not been the case, I might have gone from dreck to Scranton, which doesn't sound like, but in fact is a big improvement. Orson Scott Card did his level best to turn James Cameron's embarrassingly bad story for "The Abyss" into a readable novel. And heck that might really pay off for him if the readers of that book turned to his Ender novels and before they're eviscerated in a big-screen adaptation. Excellent proto-cyberpunk and New Space Opera expert Walter Jon Williams' name can be found on the spine of Star* books. What will young minds impressed by the Lucas "legacy" think if they get a hold of Williams' Dread Empire Falls series? It's like going from Archie to Jeeves and Wooster. That can't help but being a good thing – I think.

We've got five years, that's all we've got.
All this bile is just a build-out as the latest we-hope-they-got-paid-well media tie-ins hit the shelves; in this case, 'Predator: South China Sea' (Dark Horse ; October 15, 2008 ; $6.99) by Jeff VanderMeer and 'Aliens: No Exit' (Dark Horse ; October 15, 2008 ; $6.99) by "B. K. Evenson", AKA Brian Evenson. And, as with the previous examples, there's every chance that these novels will lead movie-eyed readers back to the authors "real" work; in the case of VanderMeer, it's 'City of Saints and Madmen', his Ambergris series and his entire and unusual oeuvre; in the case of Evenson, 'The Open Curtain', 'The Wavering Knife' and the forthcoming-from-Underland 'Last Days'. For that matter, the next Ambergris novel, 'Finch' will be published by Underland as well. But I digress.

Now, it's time for the not-in-the-least-bit shameful admission. I liked the first two or three other Alien novels I read, back when I read them at least. And you know, between brainfuls of haute litrachur, it never hurts to read a palate-cleansing cheesy paperback. But I think there's a potential in these books that might have been missing from previous MTI's.

That's because to be quite honest, at this point literary science fiction is informed by the movies; and it doesn't have to be informed at a storytelling level. That is, to my mind, both the Predator and Alien franchises (hey the computer didn't crash when I typed that word!) have a vital visual component that is quite copasetic with the imagery one is likely to find in both VanderMeer's and Evenson's work. There's a gooey, visceral level of detail that has nothing to do with stock stories of doomed thises and thats banging about in the dark before meeting an unpleasant-to-them but enjoyable-to-the-viewer fate. Hand a couple of writers known for experimental style that level of imagery and it seems all-too-possible that they can produce a satisfying story while slinging the prose in their own artisan style, no cramping required. You can buy really expensive hand-made gourmet cheese that is still quite exactly cheese. These books are like that cheese, only inexpensive to boot. For all I condemn the MTI by a Famous, Talented Writer, there's also something very appealing about then, especially when, as is the case here, the writers get to pretty much make up the whole shebang. And the landscape these guys have been operating in, even before they signed up with Dark Horse, was authentically and artistically informed by the Franchise Product.

That said, these books are not experimental fiction. They're monster books, and frankly, I love a good monster book. Moreover, we have to give Dark Horse kudos for the fantastic covers, the 'Predator' title in particular, which looks like it might been painted by Abraham Ebdus, the father in Jonathan Lethem's 'The Fortress of Solitude'. If you're a VanderMeer or Evenson completist, and you probably should be, there's a shadow of a chance you might miss one of these. Now you not only have no excuse to miss them – you have the best possible excuse to read a cheesy-lookin' monster book with the imprimatur of haute litrachur. It doesn't get any better than that, does it?

Agony Column Podcast News Report : SF IN SF / Litquake Steampunk Event : Richard Bottoms Interviewed

SF in SF is a great deal in so many ways. It's free. It's comfy. And it is almost certain you'll meet fascinating new writers and artists you've never heard from before but are likely to hear from again. So let me introduce you to Richard Bottoms, from whom we heard briefly last week. Here's my interview with him, which is likely to send you to his Steampunk convention and all manner of other things steampunk.


A 2008 Interview With Billy Collins

"The dog that runs away when you call its name"

Had to be the Queen of Hearts.

You probably think about poetry more often than you believe. The snippets that circle in your head, the fragments that fall into your mind when you grasp for a clever phrase, so many have been liberated from poems that it's easy to underestimate the continuing power of poetry. For example, since the world is ever heading for an Apocalypse that we know will arrive in the next five years, and that Apocalypse tends be rather un-dramatic (the banks collapse and everyone is confused), the phrase "not with a bang, but a whimper" trips from our tongues. It's easy to forget that it has escaped the prison of a thousand, no a million Norton Anthologies where it is entombed as the final convocation from T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland". This is one of many poems that the United States educational establishment has used to inoculate students from any chance of enjoying poetry. Make no mistake, I like it, but then I enjoy an Apocalypse that is continually just around the corner. I can safely discount my own taste in this matter.

Billy Collins has reason to smile.
But in the matter of liking Billy Collins, well, I'm on the side of the angels. Everybody who reads him likes him and there's a very simple reason; he's a great poet, a man who knows how to turn very few words into something that never escapes your mind and how to coalesce a life we actually live into a poem we can actually enjoy. It helps that he's funny, and he can mange this because, as he told me in our interview, "I gave a talk about humor once, and I called it the dog that runs away when you call its name." He told me quite a bit more; how much the Poet Laureate of the United States makes, how the Poet Laureate gets chosen, and how Billy Collins goes about writing, editing, submitting for publication in magazines and putting together a collection of poetry. Trust me, none of the answers are what you expect. Here's a link to the interview, but let me suggest that before you listen you pick up not just his latest, 'Ballistics', but 'The Trouble With Poetry', 'Sailing Alone Around the Room' and 'Nine Horses' – at least to begin with. You'll probably end up picking up his entire oeuvre and reading as he suggests most people do, out of order. Not to worry; just make sure that you finish quickly, because it seems increasingly likely that we're nearing the end of the last five years of existence rather than the beginning.


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