Book Book Book Book
Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

12-08-11: Ross E. Lockhart Opens 'The Book of Cthulhu'

Discomfort Reading

There is something utterly satisfying about a Cthulhu Mythos anthology — and make no mistake about it, 'The Book of Cthulhu' is a great Cthulhu Mythos anthology. For sixteen bucks, you're going to get more than 500 pages of engrossing Lovecraftian horror.

The power, of course, of Lovecraft's vision is that it was always intended to be a collaborative universe, set in what passes for consensus reality but set also on undermining consensus reality. The stories were meant to be subversive from the get-go. Moreover, this has always been a very flexible fictional sub-genre that accommodates a variety of tastes and styles. You'll find ample evidence in this collection. 'The Book of Cthulhu' is a perfect example of discomfort reading.

In general, I prefer my anthologies to consist of all-new stories, or at least, reprints from obscure magazines that have not been collected elsewhere, so that valuable space is not used up with stories I've already read and thus am unlikely to re-read. But I find Cthulhu mythos stories in general very re-readable. For example, in here 'Fat Face' by Michael Shea, which has made many appearances since its original publication as a chapbook, was something I really looked forward to re-reading. Shea's disturbing vision holds up well, and his prose is always a pleasure to read. "Bad Sushi" by Cherie Priest and "Nethescurial" by Thomas Ligotti are also joyous ways to spend the holiday season re-reading and immersed in ichor.

Lockhart's collection does include quite a few re-prints from the sort of sources where one appreciates the reprint. Bruce Sterling's "The Unthinkable" and Charles Stross's "A Colder War" are excellent examples, and both share a very well-wrought theme incorporating nuclear Armageddon and extra-dimensional intrusion. It is such a natural fit, one wonders why it hasn't popped up more often. And then there is Steve Duffy's delightful "The Oram County Whoosit," which takes the old folk tale of the "toad in the hole" to a Lovecraftian level. Duffy approaches his material with a sense of humor that in no way undercuts the horror, but instead ramps up the terror.

One of the great strengths of this anthology is the variety of writing styles it accommodates, even as every story yields up a lovely nugget from the Cthulhu mythos. You can enjoy the literary styling of T. E. D. Klein's "Black Man With a Horn" again, since chances are you've read it before, and find Joe R. Lansdale's weird western "The Crawling Sky" not so far away. Laird Barron's novella-length "The Men from Porlock" is meaty and intense, while Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. offers up the hard-pulp "To Live and Die in Arkham." It's just as intense, but in a very different manner.

If you're a fan of the Cthulhu mythos, then 'The Book of Cthulhu' has an easy place on your must-buy list. But since the American Library-curated Lovecraft collections is getting the creator some notice beyond the hard-core horror fans, this book seems like a natural follow-on. The stories in this collection have all lots of literary merit, a wide and wild variety, and some sort of tentacled entity from another dimension. This is not a recipe for sushi, good or bad, but rather a recipe for literary satisfaction.

12-07-11: Vicki Goldberg Reveals 'The White House: The President's Home in Photographs and History'

The Politics of Plain Architecture

American politics as practiced in the 21st century are eroding our vision of the United States. The messages we get emphasize anything but "United." Instead, the governance of our country is portrayed as a battleground in which polarized tribes duke it out with weapons of mass disinformation.

For readers weary of anger and accusation, 'The White House: The President's Home in Photographs and History' is the perfect remedy, an anodyne to the culture of confrontation. Goldberg's writing and collection of photographs are a powerful reminder that we are, for all our differences, one people, and that there is one place from which we are governed, not by sound bytes and press releases, but by actual human beings, who live and breathe, who have children and pets — even pet racoons.

The White House, Goldberg's books tells us, was never meant to be a palace, but instead, it's exact opposite, an anti-palace. The first mass-image of the White House, from an 1807 book called 'The Stranger in America,' by Charles William Jansen, described the White House as a "neat but plain piece of architecture." That initial vision informs this book to a large degree, as Goldberg explores the architectural and very personal history of this symbolic structure.

'The White House' is a breeze to read. Goldberg organizes her book well, and keeps the prose as lively as the photography. The book is divided into sections that discuss the architecture of the White House, those who have lived there, what goes on there and what it all means. As such it offers an interesting and very unifying vision not just of the place, but the country it represents. We see posed and candid shots of the Presidents and their families from a variety of eras. Weddings, funerals, pets — it's all here, in lives that are not so different from our own.

The photographs themselves are really quite amazing. The pet racoon is a standout for this reader, as is the photo of a photographer teetering on the end of a fireman's ladder in 1962 to get a shot of the White House that is now standard-issue. The Presidents and their families are revealed in shots that help us see them as people who live in a house, not angry voices emoting for this or that cause.

'The White House: The President's Home in Photographs and History' has a still center, a quiet power that is re-assuring and coherent. It's a reminder that the states are indeed united, that we, the people, have a single point of focus where we can all look for guidance and governance. It's a very political book in that it suggests and inspires a vision of governance without politics. This is a vision of a government of the people, one of whom runs the most powerful country on earth from a "neat but plain piece of architecture."

12-06-11: Kim Stanley Robinson Sees 'Forty Signs of Rain'

Science in Science Fiction

Editor's Note As I put together the podcast of Kim Stanley Robinson at SF in SF last week, I noticed that I was missing the review 'Forty Signs of Rain' from the index and have since restored it. It's the first in the Global Warming Trilogy, followed by 'Fifty Degrees Below' and 'Sixty Days and Counting'.
Embarrassingly enough, what's all too often missing from science fiction is science itself. Yes, any number of novels speculate one or more advance here and there, around which people, plots and places spin. But science itself — that nebulous practice of studying the real world and writing down what is observed, with an eye towards understanding the principles that move the world — science itself is often absent.

There are exceptions of course, and Kim Stanley Robinson offers a fine example of science fiction as fiction about the process of science itself in 'Forty Signs of Rain'. Taking the controversial study of global climate change as its object of study, 'Forty Signs of Rain' tells a tight, focused story. Robinson reveals the state of what we call science through complex character studies of the types of people that readers might make an effort to avoid at parties. Bureaucrats, lobbyists and working-stiff scientists are revealed in all their self-conflicted glory.

As the first novel in an anticipated trilogy, 'Forty Signs of Rain' offers an insider's introductory view of a largely invisible bureaucracy while introducing the bureaucracy itself to a problem that will not yield to an easy solution. For the reader, it's an exciting glimpse of science entwined with a frightening and convincing speculative plot. 'Forty Signs of Rain' may be the smartest and best disaster novel you'll read.

Charlie and Anna Quibler are Washington wonks with two kids and an unusual home life. Anna is a scientist who works as a bureaucrat for the NSF, helping to decide which proposals get funded by the government and which are sent out to the private sector. Charlie is a work-at-home, stay-at-home Dad to his sons, Nick and Joe; Joe is just getting to the terrible twos. Charlie acts as a science advisor to a highly placed Senator, and as the novel opens, Charlie is hoping that the Senator will be able to introduce an omnibus bill to help study and combat global climate change. Frank Vanderwal is a scientist on leave from UCSD, currently helping Anna decide who gets funding. Frank has some ties to the biotech boom back in San Diego. Every day the Arctic ice pack is melting. So far, we haven't seen any effects observable to the average Joe. As it happens, actual science suggests this won't last long.

Robinson zooms into the heads of his scientific and bureaucratic characters with laser-like clarity. Frank constantly observes the people around him as if they were primates, roaming the African plains. That is, he's a scientist, damn it, and he sees the world as a scientist even when he's just standing in an elevator. But he's also a complex and conflicted character. He's not been wildly successful in either his romantic life or his career. Robinson does an excellent job conveying the shades of a character who is not particularly likable, but certainly interesting.

Readers will be shocked to find that Charlie Quibler, stay-at-home Dad, seems more like a character out of Tom Perrotta's 'Little Children' than a science fiction novel. Toting his two-year old around to meetings with Senators, yet still entranced while playing with his kid, he's a lot more rounded than Frank. He's busy enough that he has no time however, for scandalous affairs. And given that Anna Quibler is his wife, little inclination. Anna spends her time trying to make a difference in a bureaucracy that has all the momentum of fifty years in Washington, DC behind it. Anna and Charlie as just flawed and exasperated enough to stay on the right side of readers' patience.

'Forty Signs of Rain' follows two plot lines that show no sign of converging in this novel, though the reader will quickly twig as to precisely how they will converge. On one hand, Charlie and Anna try to fight for come action from the US government to help stem the tide of global climate change. On the other hand, Frank's biotech friends back in San Diego encounter promising experimental math and a lack of funding. Robinson is working on a wide canvas here, so some reader patience for final results will be required. But within the confines of this first entry in the series, you get a nice sense of toe-tapping tension as careers collide with cash and bounce back hopelessly, helplessly in the face of a nearly religious faith in the efficacy of capitalism. Readers need have no fear that the book is pure wonkery, however. Robinson supplies a "trigger event" that's full of nicely scaled, exciting but believable action to propel the plot, even though his scientific shenanigans are in themselves quite gripping.

The practice of science is the real subject here. Robinson shows a once-honored form of human activity now cow-towing to crass capitalism, and he does it with the kind of detail and finesse that makes the whole picture captivating. This is no simple axe grinding, but rather an honest re-assessment of where we are going with the way things currently work. Robinson is not afraid to tackle current politics in his scientific fiction, and here's where the science really works in favor of the narrative and the conclusions that Robinson reaches. It's pretty simple. Science is broken. Anyone who believes that science is an impartial pursuit of truths that will better the lives of common men and women is deluded. Science is now a cog in a machine that makes money. It gets all the lubrication it needs, or at least squeaks loud enough for.

'Forty Signs of Rain' shows a side of science fiction that needs more exposure in the realm of popular fiction. It's by no means escapist fantasy. Robinson takes a strong political stand here, and offers a perspective on science that's refreshing as well as an exciting plot device. It is clearly the first in a series, and readers need to be aware of that going in. But once you start, expect that you're going to finish the series. Robinson puts plenty of science in his science fiction - and makes it exciting enough to ensure that you'll want to come back for more.

12-05-11: Sue Grafton Unleashes 'V is for Vengeance'

Shopping for Change

Serial mysteries present the author with serial problems. How can the writer preserve the traits that keep readers coming back without letting them grow stale? How can one change the way one writes a series without alienating readers who like things just the way they are? How much do you move a character through time? Put more simply, how do you keep writing good books year after year?

Obviously, there is no single right answer, but there are plenty of writers who solve the problems. Sue Grafton, famously twenty-two books into her "Alphabet series" featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, demonstrates that change is both necessary and to be avoided in 'V is for Vengeance.'

On one hand, Grafton has mixed up the writerly aspects of her series with great success; on the other, she's kept her character preserved in 1980's amber with equal success. She's fixed what wasn't broken and made it better. Her latest novel offers a great combination of the familiar and the new. It's a delight to once again wind back the clock and stroll down the streets of Santa Teresa for a main course of murder and a side order of shoplifting.

Grafton fires off the novel with a flashback sans-Kinsey, where we see bad things happen to a flawed young man. The next thing we know, Kinsey is turning thirty-eight and she's got a busted nose and two black eyes. The novel takes us from the first story to the second, It's a twisty, complicated machine that sidesteps all the usual tropes of the mystery genre while it simultaneously provides all the rewards.

At the core, Kinsey is hired to run a background check on a prospective fiancé by a worried elderly groom. He's sort of lost his grounding, rushed into a new marriage after his wife has died, with a woman he clearly does not know as well as he should. Kinsey sees crime, he sees hardship. Her investigations lead her to a shoplifting ring, an unhappy socialite wife, and eventually, a fist in the face. It's a intricate, thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable journey.

The plot unfolds in layers and revelations, as we meet new characters and Grafton counterpoints third-person narration with Kinsey's first-person narrative. This is a tough act to pull off, but in Grafton's skilled hands, it's a true pleasure to read. 'V is for Vengeance' lives up to the title with multiple character arcs meeting the implied promise, which is not so easy to deliver. It's not a who-done-it style mystery by any means. We know who the bad actors are, and we know what they did. The plot tension is provided by the Grafton's complicated vision of how lives become entangled, and what happens when the ties begin to bind. Some will hang, and some will slip free, all to the readers' great satisfaction.

Grafton's characters are always fun, and 'V is for Vengeance' is a showcase for those we know and those specific to this novel. Her client is a great example. He's an infatuated retiree who is too reluctant to stop believing in his girl. This may make him an honorable man, but it also makes him a stubborn mule and a problematic, antagonistic client for Kinsey. There are some deadly but very engaging criminals about, countered by cops who are deadly but not so engaging. Grafton knows how to put us fully in these lives without an overabundance of details.

The prose is smart and utterly transparent. After the fact, you'll realize that you read an undue number of great sentences that only rarely pointed out the fact that they were in fact great. The architecture of the novel is finely wrought. It's twisty but never feels convoluted. Grafton has a very low-key, down-to-earth suburban approach in her novels. They're not exactly gritty, but only because in Santa Teresa, the sidewalks are generally swept clean.

'V is for Vengeance' surely benefits from the 21 letters that have preceded it. When she started, Grafton was writing contemporary fiction; now she's writing historical mysteries, reverse science fiction. You could start with this one, but why? Don't do that. If you've not read the rest, Sue Grafton's novels will give you the unique experience of looking forward to looking backward. Gripping, intelligent, and fun, 'V is for Vengeance' has it all. It's best served hot off the press, with an easy chair and glass of bad wine.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

Commentary & Podcast Archive
Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us