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08-07-09: A Trifecta of Urban Fantasy : Robson, Day and Lamplighter

Soon, everything written will be urban fantasy featuring attractive but strong female characters who battle unseen forces in our world while keeping a svelte figure and wearing hot pants. Or leather bustiers. And really, would that be such a bad thing?

Here we are in the 21st century, but what sells pretty much was defined by Hugh Hefner. Oh, we got rid of the bunny ears, and that might indeed be a bad thing. But so far as literature and reading goes, the speed with which publishers are willing to fire out novels of urban fantasy featuring the aforementioned scantily-clad is probably frightening the horses if not the booksellers. That said, with such a high-volume of output, the chances are actually increased that there's something worthwhile amidst this title wave. In this case, you could do worse, and in some cases, perhaps would be hard pressed to do better than today's trifecta;
'Chasing the Dragon: Quantum Gravity Book 4' by Justina Robson (Pyr Books / Prometheus ; August 11, 2009 ; $15.98), 'Eve of Chaos: Marked Book 3' by S. J. Day (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; June 30, 2009 ; $6.99) and 'Prospero Lost' by L. Jagi Lamplighter (Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates ; August 4, 2009 ; $24.99). OK, Miranda on the cover of Prospero Lost' isn’t quite as babelicious as the others. But were she a private investigator helping me out with a supernatural problem, I'd still be OK with her.

First things first,
Justina Robson continues to have more fun than should be strictly legal. 'Chasing the Dragon: Quantum Gravity Book 4' is definitely best read after the first three books in the series and they're all seriously fun stuff. These books have a rather different spin than the usual; they’re set in the future, and have a soupcon of science fiction in that Lila Black is part robot, part AI, part human, tortured by elves, and send into her own future in this novel via ground shipping, UPS. Well maybe not that last part. But Robson is a superb writer, who delivers a rock and roll sense of wonder with as nice literary lilt. In a way, this is sort of the fantasy version of a post-singularity future, with inscrutable fantasy elements mixed in with the inscrutable AI stuff. Rest assured you'll find Demonic politics (some things never change!), resurrected lovers and angels drifting by slowly like fish. This entry keeps the quality, the action and weirdness of the series in excellent repair.

S. J. Day is only on book three of her series 'Eve of Chaos: Marked Book 3', but then, the first one ('Eve of Darkness') came out in April, which seems to be part of Tor's strategy to capture an audience in the way that Random House hit the decks running with the Termeraire series by Naomi Novik. Note as well the two-initial name, mirroring the "TJ Pratt" and "CC Finlay" sorta-kinda noms-de-plume. I should have suspected something was up. Well, I picked up number three and found it to be pretty damn good. Now, you'll not expect 'A Remembrance of Things Past' when you pick up a book with a gal wearing hot pants on the cover. But you can expect a reasonably well-written page-turner in which Satan himself decides that heroine Evangeline Hollis has got to go. How can you not like a book that has demons serving yakisoba noodles in the first paragraph? I mean, really!

And finally, there's newcomer
L. Jagi Lamplighter. Her first novel, 'Prospero Lost' offers a Shakespearean twist on the urban fantasy genre, with Prospero and Miranda surviving into the present day aided by some pretty strong magic and pursued by some pretty nasty beings. Given that ol' Will has been dragged into the proceedings, it's nice to know that Lamplighter (John C. Wright's wife, I believe?) brings a solidly written noir sensibility to a well-thought-out and entertainingly complex magical background. Pick this book up and read the first page, in which we discover that Prospero is missing, and you'll be hard pressed to put it down afterwards. She's got one hell of a good secret history happening, and there's a playful sense of humor at work here as well. She's not as scantily clad as she could be, but bodices are made to be ripped. All she needs are bunny ears. And that seems positively Shakespearean!

08-06-09: Some Final Thoughts On the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference : Places to Stay, Things to Do

I left the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference yesterday morning, driving out into the morning sun set against the backdrop of pine trees and craggy peaks. It was sunny and warm with a fresh breeze, invigorating in every way. But perhaps that was a bit of the leftover feeling from the conference itself.

When you attempt to get a spot in this conference, and it's not easy — they took only about a quarter of those who applied — you might well wonder what you’re getting into. I've written about the workshops, with their rotating leaders and a structure that ensure writers benefit from criticism even if it isn’t their own work that's being talked about. The panels are excellent, and focused on artistic results first. This is not about sell-sell-selling. It’s about creating the best art you can, with the idea that good stuff tends to sell.

But there's more to these conferences than the workshops. When I got spot for a couple of days to talk to people and record some audio, they told me that I'd be staying in an open loft and I rather got the impression that it would be above some bustling concourse, or little more than a closet in a crowded house of swirling writers.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you go to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference, from my experience, you can count on it being as much of a vacation as workshop. Make no mistake about it; you will be plunged into a fairly intense regime of workshops, readings, panels and craft talks. That will be tempered by an overall community feeling that offers a hard-nosed support of your writing craft and a firm family commitment to quality. The meat of a great writing workshop is here.

But hell, the accommodations are outstanding. I stayed in Buckler House, which I'm told is one of the nicer places. My loft was in a house that was nothing short of palatial. Beautiful hardwood floors, comfy furniture and beds, everything sparkling clean an brand new. While they offer nice dinners each night (chili verde, enchiladas, lots of salads, burgers, fries), the house I stayed in had an outstanding kitchen with a huge refrigerator. Showers and bathrooms were better than most expensive hotels I've stayed in.

You're lodged in a house with three or four other participants, and this is another key feature that plays into the community aspect of the workshops. You'll find that you form a bond with those you bunk with. The assignments seem to be pretty random, which abets a sort of cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives with your flatmates. The upshot is that the accommodations contribute significantly to the overall community ambience.

As I left the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference, I watched the pines pass by and peered up through my windshield at a fierce blue sky. It's an experience you can drive away from, but not leave behind.

08-05-09: Squaw Valley Community of Writer's Conference, Day 2 : Community and Craft

One can approach teaching writing from a variety of angles. Writing can be seen as an exercise in marketing, where you study what's selling and craft a pitch for an agent. This is actually a valid approach for non-fiction (or if not valid, at least, generally accepted). But as Kimberley Cameron mentioned in my interview with her, in the fiction world, they want a whole novel. But you might want to ratchet back, and ask about the craft of writing itself. When books are published, they can actually make a difference. And as much as you might isolate yourself while you write your book, you are inevitably part of a community.

This brings me to the approach they take at Squaw Valley, which is very community and family-oriented. The idea is to create an organic approach. Writers send in a manuscript to apply for a slot. Not everybody gets accepted. They're then asked to bring in a manuscript that's different and recent — no more than 5,000 words. Once you're immersed in the Workshop, you're going to spend a lot of time reading and writing and getting feedback. The focus is on the work, on wringing the best work out of each writer by exposing them to a variety of criticism. The feeling I have about the work here is that they are aiming for a gestalt of writing that is about something more than selling a piece of product. The idea is that a good piece of writing is a good thing in this world. plus, if you get that far, the rest of the job becomes a whole lot easier.

To that end, at the conference, it's a pretty straightforward day. Nine to noon, you're in workshop. The workshops get you a good hour-and-a-half of criticism. Moreover, they're designed with a bit of churn and built-in change. In the afternoons, you've got craft talks, readings and panels. In the evenings, more readings and events.

But mostly what I'm getting here is a very detail-oriented approach, on all levels. The directors work hard to create a community that will in turn enable those within the community to learn the hard lessons in a supportive environment. Beyond fiction and non-fiction, you don't spin off into one track or another. You live and you write. Everybody connects. It's a writing community.

Max Byrd
08-04-09: Squaw Valley Community of Writer's Conference : Panels, Readings, Tributes

It was a five-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Squaw Valley. But the real distance covered is in terms of commitment to writing. I arrived at 2 PM, on Sunday, the first day of the 40th Annual Squaw Valley Community of Writer's Conference, created by Oakley Hall back in 1969 — six years before I took my first American Lit class from him at U. C. Irvine.

It's 6:17 AM Monday morning now, and you won't see this for another 12 hours. By then I'll have gone through much of day two of conference, but then, my days here are atypical. I'm here to gather audio and talk, to get a sense of the conference and who attends. Fresh writers, heavy hitters, folks whose work you'll find in college textbooks — and the people who wrote the textbooks. It's a heady mix.

The Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference is held in Lake Tahoe Squaw Valley — not the Squaw Valley outside of Fresno. This year, we're in the Olympic Village, with gorgeous accommodations and lovely weather — sunny and warm, but with a nice breeze that keeps things from getting too bakingly hot. So what is it like at Squaw Valley? One word; welcoming.

The atmosphere here is open, smart, but businesslike. I sat through a seminar conducted by Max Byrd on maps in fiction, which was not something I'd really have expected outside of the world of genre fiction. But Byrd gave a riveting and helpful speech. To my mind, the fact that it wasn't geared towards genre fiction probably made it all the more helpful to writers of genre fiction. That kind of outside-the-box slant offered a lot of perspective that you just would not find elsewhere. And for writers of general fiction, well, here's literally a whole world opening up before your eyes.

Today, there will be a Craft Talk on Characterization, which I'll try to both attend and record, conducted by Louis B. Jones. I don’t know how many of my readers have picked up Jones' novel 'Particles and Luck,' but it's a wonderfully perfect example of how this column likes to stretch the definition of "science fiction." It's about Max Perdue, a harried physicist whose life is just as complicated as anyone else's, but gets an extra dose of chaos by virtue of the fact that he is a physicist, and his perceptions matter. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say about characterization, especially since he's returning to the world of Max Perdue — which you'll hear in a podcast later this week.

08-03-09: A Review of 'Eye of the Whale' by Douglas Carlton Abrams

Douglas Carlton Abrams describes his work as fact-based fiction. In the case of 'Eye of the Whale' (Atria / Simon & Schuster ; August 4, 2009 ; $25.95) that means you're not reading a work of science fiction, even though his novel has some of the feel of such classics as 'Day of the Dolphin.' That said, facts alone aren't enough to make compelling fiction. Readers need characters to care about and a story that is interesting because we want to find out what happens to those characters, not just hear them spout facts, or see them immersed in verifiable reality. Abrams lives in Santa Cruz, just a couple of hours' drive from the Sacramento River Delta where much of the action — and there is a lot of action in 'Eye of the Whale' — takes place. He immersed himself in the effort to save Delta and Dawn, and it shows in his novel. Here's a link to my review of 'Eye of the Whale.'

New to the Agony Column

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 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 2014 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

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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