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01-27-11: Rebecca Hunt Sends 'Mr. Chartwell'

Black Dog

Symbols endure; they return to haunt us in our dreams, or worse, in our lives. Few are so pervasive or invasive as that of the Black Dog. Dogs were the first domesticated animals; it has been suggested that humans and dogs co-evolved. Not surprisingly, there is a long history of dogs and the otherworld; they are psychopomps, our guides in the otherworld, mediators between the conscious and the unconscious.

Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog; when a friend of his claimed to have been cured of depression by a doctor, Churchill wrote to his wife: "I think this man might be useful to me — if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now — it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture."

But the black dogs always return. Black Shuck, Moddey Dhoo, Gwyllgi, Cerebus — the hellhounds. Or, perhaps, unexpected renters of rooms in our houses, who take the name of Mr. Chartwell.

Rebecca Hunt's 'Mr, Chartwell' (Dial Press / Random House ; February 8, 2011 ; $24) looks Winston Churchill's depression in the eye and gives it a name — Mr. Chartwell. He's an enormous black dog who shows up in Churchill's bedroom early one morning in 1964 — and on the front porch of one Esther Hammerhans, hoping to rent a room from her, for an enormous sum of money. He's pleasant, persistent and only hopes the worst for you.

Hunt's novel is funny and very strange. She writes in a low-key but elaborate prose style and is quite funny. Her approach is very direct. Black Pat has been with Churchill for years; his visit to Ether is his first, but not his last. The trick that Hunt pulls off rather well is to make Black Pat real for the characters ands the readers, while simultaneously acknowledging his unreality. Hunt manages this by descriptions of the creature that emphasize his corporeality, a physical presence that suggests an otherworldly origin. "As she walked towards the front door a weird odour developed ... It smelt like an ancient thing that had been kept permanently damp; a smell of cave soil." Hunt confronts the absurdity with a perfectly British aplomb; Esther not so much. Churchill, however, handles Black Pat with a melancholy familiarity; he's not quite an old friend, he might be a nemesis, or just a blissful release.

'Mr. Chartwell' thrives on a simple approach; two well-drawn human characters, a well-evoked historical setting and one well-conceived and cleverly conceived supernatural character. Churchill is the greatest risk here, but Hunt is strong and smart enough to pull of a portrait of the great man in his declining years. In fact, the supernatural presence of Black Pat actually helps Churchill seem more real and more palatable; he seems such a natural externalization of Churchill's dark imagination. Esther is thoroughly modern, listening to the Rolling Stones and Manfred Mann as she whiles away her workdays as a librarian for the House of Commons. But Black Pat has taken up residence in her boxroom for a reason.

Hunt's novel takes a stately pace, but the tension is wound tight from the get-go by virtue of her supernatural premise. It's a great way to the reader focused on the narrative and a fascinating evocation of depression. Make no mistake about it; 'Mr. Chartwell' is a very peculiar novel. It's beautifully written, intelligently conceived and charts a very hard-headed path into weirdness. A reader's experience meeting the novel may be quite a bit like the characters' experiences meeting Mr. Chartwell. There's something alluring about the unknown and the unreal. Something very compelling — and perhaps dangerous. Once the line between reality and fantasy is obliterated, your world can come undone. Depression is perhaps better at such destruction than book, but you can return from books. Usually.

01-26-11: Cherie Priest and Sean McCabe

More Damnable Vampires

I'm supposed to be a "sci-fi and horror guy." You read one book in the genre, it's like a stigmata. I have the mark of Cain on my forehead or something. Yes, it is true that I like science fiction and horror fiction — good science fiction and horror fiction, which these days is probably less common than Theordore Sturgeon would have you believe. How many vials of Holy Water from Philip Roth, silver crosses from Alan Cheuse and heads of garlic from E. L Doctorow will it take to combat this pernicious perception? "Here's the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!"

Blood, blood, and more blood. Cherie Priest's 'Bloodshot' (Spectra / Ballantine / Random House ; January 25, 2011 ; $15) and Sean McCabe's 'Uprising' (Signet Select / Penguin Putnam ; February 1, 2011 ; $9.99). They're both worth your valuable time. Sure. But sometimes this book reader feels like Carrie at the prom.

It's a strange thing to realize that you will never, never, never ever be done with vampires. The blood, the lust, the bloodlust, the night night night, the politics, the scheming, the anguish — oh my, the anguish — they all conspire to make each vampire novel to arrive in my inbox an even higher peak to scale. Which means that every author has to reach deeper, try harder, no slackers are going to get by. But Sturgeon's law has an upside. Even at 10%, even at 1%, if enough works are produced, something good will slip through.

And indeed Cherie Priest is sort of a no-brainer in this regard. Just be being Cherie Priest, she gets a bye. In this case, it's for 'Bloodshot,' the first in yes, you guessed it, an urban fantasy series that features vampire Raylene Randle, a thief for hire who cannot escape the fact that she's a vampire. Hired to steal government documents, she finds that stealing copies of old smut might pay less be a more healthful gig.

There's nothing here you haven't heard before, other than the work of a superb writer at the top of her game. Yes, Virginia, there are vampire detectives, but at least Raylene comes to us in smoking hot prose that is hilariously funny, surprisingly smart and thoughtfully provocative. I've been with Priest from the get-go, and she's on my auto-buy list; she should be on yours as well. The incredible writing you'll find in this book proves it. If there are no new stories, then there are at least talented writers who can magic you into thinking otherwise.

Priest's prose is the first star you'll notice as you read 'Bloodshot.' She's super-mart and hilarious. You're going to laugh out loud before you finish the first page. But she follows her excellent work on the prose level with entertaining, shaded characterizations of Raylene, her crew and their antagonists. Priest is operating not so much in vampire territory as she is in detective territory, and she clearly knows how to put together an entertaining and potentially durable series. A big part of the puzzle is to give us secondary characters as compelling as the protagonist, and Priest delivers, big time. You're going to love her crew; I'll do you a favor and let you discover them.

Priest also gives us a toe-tapping plot, with the backbone of a mystery but muscles of science fiction and the flesh of horror. She keeps all her plot point tantalizingly just beyond reach. This is not the sort of vampire novel where someone whinges on and on. This is a novel with gratifying monsters. It's Cherie Priest, she makes the cut via auto-buy and earns her place.
Sean McCabe's 'Uprising,' on the other hand, had to be pulled from the dustbin. Note that price, it's ten bucks for a overly-large paperback. That alone sent it to the Donation Hell. Fortunately for my readers, I did give it second chance, and I was glad I did. 'Uprising' is a satisfying international thriller with its heart in London.

The setup gives DI Joel Soloman good reason to sustain his irrational belief in vampires. They're real, well-organized and fairly well integrated into society. Except those who choose to live outside the Asimovian Three Laws of Vampirism, and make it bad for everyone else. Alex Bishop is in the VIA, the Vampire Intelligence Agency, tasked with enforcing those laws. Yes, she's hot, and Joel is handsome. Yes, they're going to meet, and yes, the third law of vampires is: "3. A vampire must never love a human." Some rules are made to be broken, including my rules with regards to reading this stuff.

McCabe may go for the sex and violence, but there's a feel of quality to the proceedings. The book moves sat a brisk pave that never feels rushed and never lets up. There's a level of quality in the writing that is not immediately apparent, because you're reading the book in a slack-jawed, drooling state of mindlessness. There's potential for mindfulness, but one might well hope it is studiously avoided.

If the vampire genre cannot be killed, we can at least be thankful that it is reaching threshold where sheer numbers alone seem to be guaranteeing that books worth reading are being published. And perhaps it will become mainstream enough that those who read them shall no longer have the mark of Cain.

01-25-11: Ben Aaronovitch Navigates the 'Rivers of London'

'Midnight Riot'

Just in case you don't have enough urban fantasy at your disposal; in the event that you are feeling the need for a supernatural police procedural, well, then, you're in luck. Ben Aaronovitch is not exactly new to the field of weird fiction. He's written a handful of Doctor Who novels and an entry in the Professor Bernice Summerfield series, the latter a spin-off from the New Doctor Who adventures. To my mind these are great pedigrees for his first original effort, 'Rivers of London' (Victor Gollancz / Orion ; January 10, 2011 ; £12.99).

Of course, you won't find any 'Rivers of London' in the US, alas. You will, however, find 'Midnight Riot' (Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House ; February 1, 2011; $7.99), the same novel packaged to look like the novelization of a Steven Seagal direct-to-VHS flick. You might well wonder why the guy's left hand is on fire, when he's holding a gun in his right hand. Consider it your clue that New York has no clue what to do with a good British novel. Even if you have to use tongs to pull it from the shelf of your local independent bookstore, it's worth the risk.

Peter Grant is a probationary constable on the fast track to a desk job doing paperwork, when he gets the unglamorous task of guarding a crime scene. There he meets a witness to the murder, who has a lot of helpful observations. Alas, the witness is a ghost, and Peter soon finds himself transferred into the care of DCI Thomas Nightingale, the man in charge of supernatural crime. Grant has an aptitude, and becomes a Detective Constable, then a trainee wizard. Things are starting to look up, aside from the whole "all the monsters, gods and mythic beings of London are now after me" thing.

Well, not all, but there is a nice assortment of nasty critters out there, and none of them is concerned about human laws. Aaronovitch has the perfect pedigree for this sort of thing, and he brings it off remarkably well. What sets 'Rivers of London' / 'Midnight Riot' apart from the rest of the pack, is of course, the writing. Aaronovitch writes some great prose, funny and wisecracking British supernatural humor.

'Midnight Riot' is told in the first person, and yes, in the fullness of time, you will find out why the writers chose the flaming hand for the cover. But think Stephen Fry, not Steven Seagal. Aaronovitch is really quite funny, even when Grant is facing irate gods or, happily, famous science fiction bookstores.

It helps that Aaronovitch also has a good grip on both London and the mythology of London, and that this book takes its supernatural very seriously. 'Rivers of London' / 'Midnight Riot' is not a fang opera, but a full-blown supernatural procedural, with all the details lovingly attended to. The mythos of the Rivers of London universe is carefully worked out, contributing to both plot and characterization.

Here's that rare exception where the fact that 'Rivers of London' / 'Midnight Riot' is the beginning of a series is a happy note, not a dismal one. Aaronovitch has set up his world for stand-aloneish adventures, and while there is evidence of a larger story arc, you won't finish the book feeling unsatisfied. That said, at least in the US, the publishing schedule is pretty aggressive, with the second book, 'Moon Over Soho' due in March (and in April in the UK). That's good news; so far as Ben Aaronovitch is concerned, readers do not have enough supernatural police procedurals to hand. And try to make sure that is you do, that your hand is not on fire.

01-24-11: Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker Dissect 'Winner-Take-All Politics'

The Trickle-Up Economy

What compels us to read — and why? Story is the key. Nowhere is that more obvious than in non-fiction, because, so often the writers are caught up in facts that seem compelling in and of themselves. But it does not take long for even the most compelling facts to dry up. Put those facts in the context of a story, and you have a reading experience that is gripping to the mind and the heart.

The problem then is finding the story behind the facts, and that's not easy. But there is always a story to be found. Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker went out and found some extremely startling facts. But more importantly, they found the story behind the facts, and their book, 'Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class' turns out to be a page turning mystery. It's the crime of the century.

When I started 'Winner-Take-All Politics,' I actually thought I would read one chapter of the non-fiction, then pick a novel and read a chapter. But 'Winner-Take-All Politics' proved to be far too involving to permit such a strategy. I literally could not put the book down. Pierson and Hacker offer a contrarian view of the last thirty years of economic history in the United States, and present their work as a mystery. The crime is of almost unimaginable proportions; how did the top 1% of America's wealthy siphon off so much money from the middle and lower-classes in what is purportedly a democracy?

Hacker and Pierson have more than a little fun with their mystery format. They identify the "usual suspects," such as SBTC (Skill-Based Technological Change), but demonstrate that these are not the culprits. Each excuse for this transfer of wealth is brought up and each is given a bye. When they look at the alibis usually given to politics, they ruthlessly dissect each with an impressive array of facts and perceptions that step outside of our blinkered 24-hour news cycle.

At the center of their book is the idea — obvious, once they state it — that the American economy is subject to and controlled by largely political forces. The so-called "free market" they contend, is instead propped by a framework of taxes and regulations that favor the wealthy. And by wealthy, they're not talking about hundred-thousand-aires, or even just millionaires. The kind of wealth they're talking about is so extreme, that much of what they discuss affects not the top 1%, but the top 1/10th of 1%. The money in America is not simply flowing upward, it's on an express elevator into the stratosphere.

This is the result of what the authors call a 30-year war, fought often by simply making sure that no changes are made to codes and regulations made thirty years ago. This is the process the authors call "drift." The effect of drift is that we have a country where billionaire hedge-fund managers pay a lower tax rate than those who clean their floors. Combined with active de-regulation, where the repeal of Glass-Steagal is the tip of the iceberg, and driven by a well-funded organizational effort funded by the businesses and wealthy families who benefit the most, "trickle-up" clearly seems to fall short as a description of what has happened. The wealth of America has been redistributed upward with a fire hose.

As the authors bring the story into the present, they offer their insight into the politics and economics of the first two years of the presidency of Barack Obama. Here we see all the players that they have taken through the past thirty years, some up (the Republican Party organizations, the filibuster, the Chamber of Commerce) and some down (the Democratic Party itself, regulatory legislation, unions), as they duke it out for what the authors call the "Battle Royale." Here, in spite of the serious downward spiral for the middle class, they do find some grains of hope. The problems however remain enormous.

What makes 'Winner-Take-All Politics' such a compelling read is the quality of prose and the structure of the author's arguments. They manage to make complex concepts seem simple, by virtue of excellent metaphors and similes. The mystery plot device drives an actual narrative; this is not simply a collection of facts and arguments. They story they tell is big, but made comprehensible with charts and figures that make the complexity of what has unfurled much easier to understand.

'Winner-Take-All Politics' may or may not convince those who are disinclined to see the new luxury gap as a sign of ill that change is required. Even so, the clever narrative structure and clearly delineated arguments make it easy and entertaining to read. Pierson and Hacker are not economists, but political scientists. Their area of interest and expertise enables them to offer an effective contrarian view of generally received history. Given that the book is framed as a mystery, it is to a degree a secret history that peels back camouflage that has masqueraded where the money has gone and why. As our world teeters, as our jobs are threatened while our work hours grow longer, Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker offer readers a means to draw back the curtain. We may have reached the bottom of the barrel. 'Winner-Take-All Politics' allows us to upend the barrel and look underneath, to bring light to the festering nest of parasites that have fattened themselves at the expense of the American middle class.

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

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