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12-26-08: Peter Crowther Edits 'We Think Therefore We Are' : Requiem for An AI

Poking through the huge pile of books that arrived yesterday, I picked up 'We Think, Therefore We Are' (DAW / Penguin ; January 6, 2009 ; $7.99), the latest theme anthology from PS Publishing's Peter Crowther. DAW fires theme anthologies at the reading public with the rapidity of a machine gun, and it's easy to miss something, but when Crowther's involved, I always give an extra look-see. Once again, you'll find here a great selection of writers, many from the PS Publishing stable. For those who enjoy UK-centric writing, this kinda you-glee lookin' anthology has a lot to offer. Stephen Baxter shows up, along with Brian Stableford, Eric Brown and James Lovegrove. Adam Roberts, always up to no good, offers readers "Adam Robots". Tony Ballantyne returns to the world of the Watcher ('Recursion', 'Capacity' and 'Divergence'). Keith Brooke of Infinity Plus and 'Genetopia' makes an appearance, along with Steven Utley, Marly Youmans, Robert Reed, Patrick O'Leary and Ian (I wrote "AI" for Kubrick) Watson. Chris Roberson offers up "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea," a story set in the Celestial Empire, his Chinese-dominated alternate history. Garry Kilworth, who wrote 'Angel' and 'Archangel' and 'Abandonati', three novels that bring back the 80's horror boom with a boom, makes the most of his recent travels to Tasmania with "Alles in Ordnung."

But I've saved my sentimental favorite for last. Who better to take up the reins of Lem's cyber-fabulist setting than Paul Di Filippo, whose "The Last Cyberiad" manages to effortlessly immerse the reader in Lem's quite ornate universe. This is a rich, pun-filled linguistic delight, in which the fearless automatons decide to bring back the palefaces (ie, humans) to help relieve the boredom of a galactic monoculture. Like the best of Lem's work, there are sentences you'll just want to read aloud again and again for an appreciative audience of fellow systems administrators. Forgive this paperback anthology its unfortunate design, and savor the joy of a new set of stories helmed by one of the finest editors working today.

12-25-08: Holy Limited Edition Batman! Its the Hardcover Holy Grail of Bat-Manga!

The 'Bat-Manga' limited edition has no box, but it does have heft. It looks and feels about twice as heavy as the softcover. When they say hardcover, they mean hardcover. Those boards are thick and heavy. They could dent somebody's skull. This is not some cheaply tossed together quick-rip. This book was put together the same care that was afforded the trade paperback. It's just ratcheted up another notch. The paper's a lot thicker in the hardcover as well. Yes, there are a lot more pages, but those pages are printed on a heavier stock.

The overall effect here is to create the same level of awe and joy you experienced when you first saw the trade paperback. It was déjà-vu all over again, which I was frankly not prepared for. I thought, "Well, it'll have hardcovers and some pages, but the opportunity for joy? — no way!"

The extras pretty and they're wonderful, but you'll hesr more about them in an upcoming podcast of my interview with Saul Ferris. Who could even begin to resist Chinese Batman, circa 1959? The mind boggles just thinking about this prospect, but to see the pages on the heavy, glossy stock. It's just amazing. If you think you're immune to wonder, think again. This is the best sixty bucks you'll spend, this year or next. This is the best gift you can give anyone, anytime. This is the lush life, the boy's life. The joy of life. A good book.

12-24-08: M. F. W. Curran Fights 'The Secret War' : 'The Hoard of Mhorrer'

So things slip by. Best not to worry about keeping up with the flow and focus on what you've got to hand. Pan Macmillan have been running this New Writers Imprint for a couple of years now, and theyre clearly not averse to genre fiction. In fact, a genre fiction writer, M. ("Matt") F. W. Curran, founded the blog . His first book, 'The Secret War,' came through this imprint, and went out into the clear blue yonder so far as I knew. Hardcovers can be got, but the prices vary. This is what happens when you can only pay attention to three of four hundred things at once.

But we do get caught up, which means that Pan Macmillan just sent me both the first book by M. F. W. Curran, 'The Secret War' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; January 2, 2009 ; £7.99) and the sequel, 'The Hoard of Mhorrer' (Tor UK / Pan Macmillan ; January 2, 2009 ; £14.99). I didn't have to spend long reading the first to know that it was just the sort of book I love, a historical novel shot through with the elements of the fantastic to pump up the action and the scope.

I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite series in this mode, the David Lydyard series by Brian Stableford. Consisting of three books : 'The Werewolves of London' (1990), 'The Angel of Pain' (1991) and 'The Carnival of Destruction' (1994), this series offered a
dense fantastic take on historical events. Stableford employed all the supernatural tropes with ease and aplomb and wrote a cracking historical novel as well. I suppose these days they might seek the vaunted "steampunk" genre label for extra-sexy presentation. But to me they were just great books, mishandled by the UK publisher, Simon & Schuster, who waited some three years to issue to final volume in the trilogy, then did so in a mass-market paperback format. Arrgh! At least in the US, Carroll & Graf gave us hardcovers.

'The Secret War' fires off in the midst of a not-so-secret war. Captain William Saxon and Lieutenant Kieran Harte manage to walk away from Waterloo, having seen an enemy that has been characterizes as "demonic" reduced to pathetic corpses clutching crosses. They're not buying the whole demon argument, and become far less inclined to do so when they meet up with the real deal. It's a well-written scene of supernatural action that unfolds just like a movie, as if the one of the critters from Ridley Scott's Alien showed up in his first movie, The Duellists.

'The Secret War' mixes sword-fighting and supernatural no-goodery with perfect aplomb. There's more than a bit of Patrick O'Brian in the battle scenes — that is if O'Brian's characters had to battle flying vampyres and raging demons. Of course there's a Magic Maguffin — and no, it's not on the Dollar Menu at Mickey Dee's, though perhaps it should be, since it involves excess consumption, though in this case, it's blood and living flesh, not cardboard and soya flesh substitutes. Only in twenty-first century America could bloodthirsty, human-flesh eating monsters seem to have more appetizing fare than those theyre consuming. As far as the Maguffin goes, it's bad, in a global-warming-due-to-spilled-blood way. Saxon and Harte have their work cut out for them, and its not the work of a single volume.

And thus we have 'The Hoard of Mhorrer', set some five years after the events of 'The Secret War.' This time around, Saxon and Harte are after something even worse than the first book's Maguffin, and I'm not giving away spoilers to suggest readers need look no further than then title. Looking for that hoard is going to be a genuinely bloody pursuit. Curran has a website where he spills the beans a bit about what’s to come in the series — he does have an end in mind — and a blog which he calls "Muskets and Monsters". That will give you a pretty precise idea of what to expect in the books. Win-win so far as I'm concerned!

12-23-08: Xiaolu Guo Sees the 'UFO In Her Eyes' : Bring Out the Book Hunters

I really hope I'm wrong. It's really nice when US and UK release dates are close, and when you can pretty much count every major title crossing over. And that the right titles get the right attention. But I'm telling the compulsive book hunters out there now — reserve in advance the UK hardback first editions of the new novel by Xiaolu Guo, whose first book was the notable 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.' Her new book is 'UFO in Her Eyes' (Chatto & Windus / Random House ; February 2009 ; £12.99), and I dont believe that it's been snapped up by an American publisher yet, even though Random House published 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.' (A mere 7 months after the UK "true first" edition.) A matter of months matters with regards to this wonderful novel. Alas, you may find yourself unable to stop reading and devour it in a day.

Let's wind back a bit so we can recall whence we've come. Xiaolu Guo, who grew up in a fishing village in South China, wrote 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' in English while she was learning the language. Learning the language was part of the plot of this inventive and entertaining novel. 'UFO in Her Eyes' is her second original novel to appear in English; 'Fragments of a Ravenous Youth,' a novel she wrote in Chinese, has been translated into English. In a just and sane world (alas, there is ample evidence neither assertion is true), 'UFO in Her Eyes' would be a mega-bestseller. It manages to take us to another world — a world that is part of our own, that we may think we know. 'UFO in Her Eyes' offers an astonishingly clear vision of rural China. Everyone is an alien.

The novel unfolds as a series of interrogation transcripts, compiled by a variety of agents sent to investigate the sighting of a UFO in Silver Hill Village, a rural setting that is rapidly overrun in the resulting foofaraw. Kwok Yun is riding her bicycle when she sees a spinning plate in the sky. She rescues a rich Westerner from the shadow of the craft. His check clears, but now Kwok Yun is under constant surveillance. Beijing Agent 1919 and Hunan Agent 1989 have some very pointed questions about the incident.

And the inhabitants have some very pointed answers. They may not shed a lot of light on outer-space alien life, but their answers do create the alien world of rural China with spectacularly entertaining ease. Guo's language and characters are so direct and down-to-earth, they become perfect witnesses even if most of them saw nothing. Their stories are simultaneously funny and powerful; funny because the speakers have little time or patience for UFO's and alien life, powerful, because Xiaolu's prose allows these characters to paint a poignant portrait of life in rural China. Teacups and aliens prove to be well-suited partners.

Beyond the toe-tapping pace and excellent story, the book is a visual delight. Paper clips, moonscapes, emails and snail mails, reports and printouts are used to break up the already easy-to-read interrogations. There are appendices, maps and lightly-redacted documents. What 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' did for dictionaries, 'UFO in Her Eyes' does for government records of eyewitness accounts. They're the most unreliable and entertaining form of evidence. The records reveal a human truth that might seem quite alien.

Using the tropes of science fiction with alarming, ease, Xiaolu Guo has fashioned a fantastic vision of a world ordinary to its inhabitants but alien to the book's readers. She turns simple perceptions into a page-turning plot. You may read 'UFO in Her Eyes' in a single day. But it will be one hell of a good day. Your trans-Atlantic book-hunting instincts will be rewarded.

12-22-08: Brian Yaeger's 'Red, White and Brew' : 'An American Beer Odyssey'

Compelled by market forces to seek an alternate form of beer, what with my grocer no longer able to obtain the cases of Spaten pints I had previously enjoyed, I was lucky enough to stumble upon just the sort of book I needed. Brian Yaeger's 'Red, White and Brew : An American Beer Odyssey' (St. Martin's Griffin / St. Martin's Press ; September 30, 2008 ; $14.95) is a guided tour of fourteen top-notch small breweries across the nation. If you're interested in finding out about where, why and how good beer is made, here's the book for you.

Yaeger is one of those guys who figured out what his dream job was, then hired himself for the position. He certainly had the educational background. He got a dual BA (Russian and Religious Studies) from UC Santa Barbara, hailed by Playboy Magazine as one of the top ten partying schools. But like many students, four years of self-induced flu wasn't enough, so he went on to USC, where he wrote his thesis on beer. So far, so good dude — PAR-TAY!

So there he is, on the verge of adulthood, and like many on the verge, he's hoping to avoid it. What to do? Yaeger's solution is as elegant as it is easy-to-imitate. He decides to embark on road trip wherein he would stop at fourteen different smallish breweries and brew pubs. He chats up owners, brewmasters, locals, but still keeps each entry concise and entertaining. He looks at a variety of breweries and characters, from the charmingly "eccentric" Dave Harvan of Dave's Electric Beer in Bisbee, Arizona (his probation officer was once his dealer) to Thomas "Jake" Leinenkugel of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, in Chippewa Falls Wisconsin (now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Miller). He meets the legendary Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam Brewing and Kurt and Rob, the Widmer Brothers who are the current kings of American hefeweissen.

Yaeger writes with humor and skill. He doesn't have an agenda, so you get the bought-by-Miller perspective as well as that of Electric Dave, who is in fact the "maverick" of the bunch. Yaeger's pretty free with his opinions, and he bolsters them with facts, but he's not about convincing you one thing is better than another. 'Red, White and Brew' aims to show the variety and passion of America's local and smallish breweries, to expose a delightful subculture that I suspect just about any of us can find locally. Here in Santa Cruz, for example, we have the Seabright Brewery and Pub, who hosted the event at Capitola Book Café. And that's the real power of this book; it may show you an America you don't know, but it will lead you home. Make sure someone else drives.

New to the Agony Column

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04-28-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: : Time to Read Episode 95: Ben Katchor : Hand Drying in America

04-27-13: Commentary : Mark Morris Introduces 'Toady' : A New World of Horror

Agony Column Podcast News Report : : Thomas Frank from The Easy Chair and Harper's Magazine: TV's DC Fantasies : "... basically, everyone is corrupt ..."

04-22-13: Commentary : Danielle Trussoni Maps 'Angelopolis' : The Afterlife of Angels

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with Danielle Trussoni : "I wanted it to be accurate...absolutely accurate."

04-21-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 94: Danielle Trussoni : Angelopolis

04-17-13: Commentary : How Not to Leave the House : Reach for the Recycling

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Matt Richtel, Sophie Littlefield and Terry Bisson at SF in SF on February 9, 2013 : "You cannot do this all day long." Sophie Littlefield

04-16-13: Commentary : Stephen Kessler 'Scratch Pegasus' : Lens of Language

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04-14-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE : Time to Read Episode 93: Stephen Kessler : Scratch Pegasus

04-09-13: Commentary : Paul McComas & Greg Starrett Sew Up 'Fit for a Frankenstein' : Hands All on Gretl

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Matt Richtel Reads at SF in SF on February 9, 2013 : "I'm much more interested in the mental miasma..."

04-08-13: Commentary : Ruth Ozeki Clocks 'A Tale for the Time Being' : Reading is the Future

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with Ruth Ozeki : "...through the act of writing, she would somehow conjure the reader into being..."

04-07-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 92: Ruth Ozeki : : A Tale for the Time Being

04-06-13: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 91: Lawrence Wright : : Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

04-04-13: Commentary : Danielle Trussoni Excavates 'Angelology' : Gothic Girl

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Three Books With Alan Cheuse : : 'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki, 'Odds Against Tomorrow' by Nathaniel Rich and 'Pandemonium' by Warren Fahy

04-02-13: Commentary : MacKenzie Bezos Sets 'Traps' : Need to Know

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2013 Interview with MacKenzie Bezos : "...without intention or recognition, we're playing important roles in the lives of other people..."

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