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01-25-12: Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger Perform 'A Study in Sherlock'

Holmes as Archetype and Inspiration

As the 21st century evolves into an electronic version of the Victorian era, it comes as no surprise that Sherlock Holmes remains as popular and as relevant as ever. Doyle's original stories have aged well. They're still fresh and exciting, written with verve and nerve. The problem is that Doyle himself only authored sixty works, and his story-hungry future cannot seem to get enough of the character.

But by now Holmes has become something more than a mere character; he's become an archetype and an inspiration. The canon has inspired Leslie S. Klinger's 'New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,' which has set the standard for Holmesian scholarship. Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels represent the best fiction that is both inspired by the Holmes canon and includes Holmes himself. After serving on a panel at Left Coast Crime, these two talents decided to create an anthology that spoke to the way Holmes as archetype and character has inspired the mystery genre as a whole. And, while one could readily wall one's self in for a long winter using only Holmesian anthologies as bricks, their collection 'A Study in Sherlock' lives up to the inspiration.

By and large, the stories within are truly inspired, and inspired by Holmes, even if the man himself doesn't show up in every work. The result is a collection that is accessible to the Holmes novice, thrilling for the aficionado and entertaining through and through. But beyond the quality of the book as an entertainment, 'A Study in Sherlock' provides readers with a thought-provoking meditation on the cultural import and impact of the Great Detective. Reading these works, one can't but help thinking about the myriad ways that a single fictional character informs our vision of the modern world.

All this cogitation is inspired by the stories, and is likely to come after the fact. While the stories are all inspired by Doyle's creation, the variety of fiction here is itself a tribute the power of Holmes. The closest to Doyle's work itself is probably Thomas Perry's "The Startling Events in the Electrified City," but even there you're getting an alternate history. Tony Broadbent's brilliant "As to 'An Exact Knowledge of London'" brings Holmes up-to-date with the same muscular power one finds in Doyle. On the other hand, Neil Gaiman's "Of Death and Honey" explores the Holmes canon with an eye for the fantastic and the delicate skill to make it work. Laura Lippman and Jacqueline Winspear both turn in works of literary fiction that explore Holmes and youth. Charles Todd plays a meta-fictional hand with "The Case That Holmes Lost," while Colin Cotterill's hilarious graphic story, "The Mysterious Case of the Unwritten Short Story" undermines everything we expect in a Holmes story, but still fits perfectly. Plus, it is a hoot to see a graphic story in a Holmes anthology. These are just the easiest stories to talk about without giving away the house. 'A Study in Sherlock' is a study in quality, though each reader will have his or her own favorites, depending on the approach to the inspiration.

Reading the whole book, however, helps to put everything in perspective. Indeed, perspective is a tool that several writers use to great advantage. But as we see Holmes revised, re-written and even re-tweeted, the impact of the original becomes clearer. Reading these, you can take a fresh set of eyes back to the original and enjoy them again; and after that, come back to this volume, or, the sequel, already happily in the works. And, when the difference between the 21st century and the Victorian era is indistinguishable, because all of our high-tech electronic gadgetry has been undermined by a combination computer viruses and global climate change, the tattered trade paperbacks will still be readable. And the ever-rational Holmes with his objective mindset may prove a useful inspiration to those who inhabit such a world.

01-24-12: Archive Review: Neal Asher 'The Skinner'

The Balm of Violent Ecology

Editor's note: I recenty noticed that I dont have this review in the new index, and as this is likely my favorite Neal Asher novel, it is time to redress the injustice.

Novels of planetary ecology are part and parcel of the science fiction genre. They can range from the classic 'Dune' by Frank Herbert to the obscure 'Planet of Chaos' by John Shirley. A great recent example is Robert Charles Wilson's 'Bios'. Neal Asher has entered the fray with a blunderbuss and enormous flesh-eating leeches in 'The Skinner'. The novel is set on Spatterjay, a world introduced in a short story collected in 'The Engineer'. One of the characters in the novel first showed up in another story in 'The Engineer' as well. But 'The Skinner' is no fix-up novel. It's a fantastically assured, wildly imaginative ass-kicking. If that was all it did, it would be worth ten times the price. But Asher is much more talented than he lets on. 'The Skinner' is something of a sucker-punch, luring you in with easy-reading mindless fun that layers up to something considerably more interesting.

Spatterjay is a remote world, on the edge of Asher's 'Polity Universe'. It's mostly covered with water, but for one large artificial settlement. Arriving in the settlement at the onset of the novel are three travelers . Janer is a human who fronts for the Hive Mind of Earth's other intelligent species, which happens to be wasps. He's something of a tourist, the eyes for their remote mind. Erlin is a researcher who discovered the secret of Spatterjay. Her paper on the subject made her famous, and now she has returned to find Captain Ambel, a resident of Spatterjay who helped her make her discovery. Keech is a reif, a human resurrected, dead-alive for more than seven hundred years, pursuing war criminals who may have found a home on Spatterjay. They arrive simultaneously, and book a ship commanded by Ron, one of Spatterjay's nearly immortal, nearly indestructible Captains. They leave the security of the Polity dome and enter the seafaring world of Spatterjay, where every form of life is dangerous.

Each chapter is headed by a description of some hazardous and horrific life form eating another. Asher clearly relishes his viscous, violent world, and the headings are certainly something to look forward to. Don't read them ahead however — they're there for more than sheer entertainment value. This is true for most of the novel. It's important to remember that this novel is set on an oceanic world. The surfaces of the novel and the oceanic world barely conceal unexpected depths. Though it might seem that Asher's characters are about to embark on little more than a sightseeing voyage, that's quite far from what he cleverly develops. The plot rapidly grows to encompass refugee war criminals, an horrific alien foe, and the unexpected properties of Spatterjay itself. One of the great delights of this novel for readers is the ease with which Asher layers his story, building up characters and events that might at first seem to be outside the scope of the novel.

The same can be said of the characters, from the three travelers to the huge supporting cast of planetary inhabitants. Even characters who at first seem to have 'walk-on' parts get an excellent build up, growing into reassuring presences on the pages. The aliens are truly alien, and they don't show up until much later than you might expect. When they do, they'll go beyond the mere — but complicated ecology that Asher has created. And though they are truly alien, they still have individual characters.

As you read this review, you might come to suspect that Asher's extreme world is like a non-stop-all-aliens monster movie, and to a certain extent, you'd be right. But Asher tempers his no-slow-parts express train with enjoyable humor and a rather wistful outlook that keeps it from being simply a non-stop slime-and-bloodbath. There's much more to this novel than meets the eye, and that's saying a lot because it's one of the most visual novels you'll read. 'The Skinner' is ably assisted by a great printing presentation — large font size, generous pages and Steve Rawlings' cover art all add to an enjoyable reading experience. Wild imagination, rigorous extrapolation, great characters , well-placed humor, clever plotting and a boatload of monsters make this novel a must-buy for any serious science fiction reader.

01-23-12: Sara Paretsky Nails 'Breakdown'

The Machine Stops

It's not just the vivid prose that puts us into the muck with private investigator V. I. Warshawski — in her party dress! — looking for teenagers. It's the situation itself, an emblematic, timeless and thankless task. Those girls aren't going to be happy to have V. I. show up to haul their sorry butts home in the pouring rain, or at least that's what they might think. But Sara Paretsky, never one to pull her punches, certainly doesn't start doing so with her latest novel, 'Breakdown.' The girls she's searching for are in a cemetery, playing out a vampire-novel-inspired fantasy, but it so happens that there is a very fresh corpse on hand. V. I.'s dress is not the only thing that is ruined.

'Breakdown' never lets up, and neither does Paretsky. Readers will barely have time to catch their breath as they learn the identity of the first body when an old friend of V. I.'s shows up, manic, with news that makes little sense but seems important. The complications unfold at an entirely pleasurable pace, with V. I. looking into three seemingly separate matters. But this is Chicago; nobody is too far from anyone else.

Paretsky's been writing V. I. for thirty years now, and she has V. I.'s hardheaded, multi-tasking womanly voice nailed. Social and political matters matter. V. I. is temperamental, smart and only occasionally shortsighted. It's a pleasure to immerse one's self in V. I.'s world. She's not exactly funny, but she has a very dry sensibility that leavens her inclination towards bombast, which is quite entertaining. There's a little bit of Sam Kinnison in V. I. and Paretsky herself. To both, the problems out there are screamingly obvious, and neither is willing to suffer fools gladly. All this adds up to a most entertaining prose style that is a blast to read.

The targets of Paretsky's ire and V. I.'s investigation in 'Breakdown' are the right-wing faux-news outlets that work on the premise that anything shouted loud enough, long enough can be made to seem true, no matter how preposterous. There's an election going on, and Helen Kendrick is hoping to ride her career as a commentator to a place where she can get her sweaty hands on the levers of real power. The body in the cemetery may prove to be helpful to her cause by being hurtful to her opponent's. But that's just the tip a very Chicago-esque iceberg, meaning that the rot and corruption goes a lot deeper than is first apparent.

Paretsky serves up an engaging set of characters who have complicated and realistic lives, whether they're scrubbing toilets or sipping champagne. Her news-reporting friend Murray is caught up in the ever-shrinking world of network contractions, and is now hosting a cheesy TV show on a Fox News Channel analogue. Through her cousin Petra, V. I. meets a variety of mothers and daughters; Paretsky manages to provide just the right amount of detail and grit to bring them all to vivid life. And Paretsky 's clearly having a ball, as will her readers, with her odious opponents, a Glen Beckian TV host and a Rupert Murdochian network magnate. Her manic friend Leydon is a delight, and Leydon's family a damnable delight. Every scene brings a character that readers will be glad to hang out with.

'Breakdown' keeps up a breakneck pace, but never seems rushed. The pacing also applies to Paretsky's political and social concerns. She's outspoken and brash, but never polemic or pretentious. It's simply fun to see her go for it with all the gusto she can manage. She addresses injustice in a variety of settings, from immigration to mental health, with an entertaining and incisive wit.

'Breakdown' is a novel that manifestly does not live up to its title; it never breaks down, and provides a very satisfying resolution. In that sense, for all its modernity — cell phone tapping, corporate consolidation, 21st-century political machinations — 'Breakdown' is a very classic and classy mystery. Even though we are a society of laws, justice alone is never enough. Paretsky and V. I. Warshawski deliver what we really need, served up ice-cold — justice and vengeance.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

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

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