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03-11-11: Jo Walton is 'Among Others'

Book Magic

Books can save you. They can nurture you through tough times, take you away from a world that hurts and into a world that helps. When you read, it's an act of deliberate meditation — you wall off the rest of the world to enter the world of words. The words are for you and you alone.

But books about books can be a dicey proposition. There's a natural appeal, of course, to reading about reading. But even a book about books has to have a story. If you get the story right, then you have a book that will sweep you away. Jo Walton knows first and foremost how to tell a good story, but she also knows the power of reading, and she puts both to good use telling the story in 'Among Others' (Tom Doherty / Tor Books ; January 18, 2011 ; $24.99). With gorgeous prose, she crafts a supernatural plot that externalizes the magic of reading.

Walton's novel unfolds in the surreal shattered remains of the Welsh countryside, now a wasteland of rotting industry. There, Morwenna and her twin sister play among the fairies until the magic turns bad ... very bad. She's sent to a boarding school in England, to live with her father, away from the corrupting influences that killed her sister. She uses the magic she brings with her to find like-minded friends, who turn out to be readers of science fiction and fantasy, not witches. But she has always been a reader; it's part of a magical upbringing. She intuitively understands the magic in the work, and that she will be unable to leave her past behind.

Walton writes incredibly involving prose, using her own magical powers. 'Among Others' is Morwenna's diary, and it's a form that works well for this story. Walton knows how to make the world go away using only carefully chosen words. Sentence by sentence, you'll find descriptions and observations that cry out to be written down and underlined. Her style is sparse and understated, because she knows that the reader is capable of bridging the gap. 'Among Others' is a novel clearly written by a reader for readers, and it is sinfully easy to read.

Walton knows how to put her prose talents to good use, crafting the novel from Morwenna's first person perspective. As readers, we get to live her life, to experience her world and those she comes to know. Walton works the diary format well, capitalizing on its strengths to show a character's weaknesses, and create a fully-formed person who lives as we read. Walton also knows that readers derive pleasure from being able to see more through a character's eyes than the character herself. It's a subtle joy, a pleasure that is unique to reading.

Walton's plot is a wonderful reveal, a mystery that is surrounded with tension and more than a little terror. We know that Morwenna has been sent away, but the why is obscure. Walton lets this story unfold in a compellingly told-out-of-order style. Set against the stories within the books and the growing love of a young woman exploring science fiction, Walton folds time for the reader. There's a feeling that you can explore this book, as if it is a place to live and not a simple story; and of course the story is not simple.

'Among Others' is a book that will be read very differently by different readers, because the books mentioned are books that can evoke strong reactions within the reader of 'Among Others.' If books are maps, this is an atlas, a book of maps, a world that contains worlds that contain worlds. It is filled with stars, stars like grains of sand.

03-09-11: Chris Wooding Reaches 'Retribution Falls'

Airship Fantasy

They're going to have to invent a new subgenre; in fact, they already have. Chris Wooding's 'Retribution Falls' (Bantam Spectra / Random House ; April 26, 2011 ; $16) makes it official: Airship Fantasy is a sub-genre unto itself. Here's the first fantasy series explicitly set around the travails of an airship crew. Airships have been on the sidelines thus far, a sort-of icing-on-the-cake for the New Weird fantasies that are filling the shelves these days.

Somebody had to bring them into the foreground, somebody had to put them front-and-center. We can be glad it was Chris Wooding, a name that should be familiar to readers of this page. All it requires is the usual sort of time travel, wherein we here in America find our publishing present in the UK's publishing past.

The man of the hour is once again Simon Spanton, the editor running the "speculative fiction," shall we call it, section of Victor Gollancz. I remember a phone conversation and some emails we exchanged back in 2003 about Wooding's sort-of YA trilogy, 'The Weavers of Saramyr.' Spanton told me in no uncertain terms that he was certain Wooding would emerge as an important new name in the fantasy genre.

Cut to 2009, when Victor Gollancz released their first edition hardcover of Wooding's adult airship fantasy novel, 'Retribution Falls.' A quick glance at the usual sources finds that none are available. And yet it took it two years to make the Atlantic crossing, longer than the perilous journey made in the novel.

Darien Frey leads a crew of misfits on the airship Ketty Jay; Crake, Jez and Malvery. Things have gone bad enough that when the opportunity for sky piracy comes their way, they cannot afford to pass it up. Of course, it proves to be more complicated than they imagined, or even could imagine.

'Retribution Falls' is set in Vardia, a gloriously imagined fantasy world that is detailed and rich, menacing and original. Magic, monsters and weird science are deftly combined in an eclectic mix that leaves lots of room for compelling characters. Wooding's prose is finely turned but really fun—and this is the key. For all the literate back-office work that makes 'Retribution Falls' original and compelling, Wooding's novel reads like a wonderful ripping yarn. This is, of course, a key aspect of Airship Fantasy; it's literally high adventure.

The time travel aspect as far as the publishing goes yields up this treasure, one not available to the characters in the novel. Readers who can't wait for more adventures, and these are adventures worth seeking out, can in fact order up the second volume in the series, 'The Black Lung Captain,' now — and hardcover UK first editions are still gettable. This presumes, of course, that they're not being shipped on an airship that is in the general vicinity of the Ketty Jay, the crew of which may just decide to snap up copies of their own adventures for sale to the highest bidders in Vardia.

03-08-11: Leslie Daniels is 'Cleaning Nabokov's House'

Including the Kitchen Sink

Well, I clean mine often enough. And to that end, my life, like everyone else's, has a very strong resemblance to a first novel. It includes everything, even a generous helping of kitchen sink. Leslie Daniels' first novel, 'Cleaning Nabokov's House' (Touchstone / Simon & Schuster ; March 1, 2011 ; $24) includes quite a few things not present in my life, or most people's lives, I'd wager. She's kind of outrageous in that regard.

Daniels manages the outrageous well, and she does it through the not-so-simple-as-it-may-seem expedient of an engaging prose voice. She's a natural saleswoman, in this case offering readers Barb Barrett. Barb is the kind of woman you can listen to even as the tale she tells gets ever taller. Yes, it's the 21st century and tall tales no longer need updating, but they do need Barb Barrett.

This is not to say that 'Cleaning Nabokov's House' is unbelievable or that it includes elements of the fantastic. It's the sort of outrageous story that, when you hear it, you know it's too crazy and too vivid to be made up. Barb Barrett's story has the ring of truth. Because though it sounds sort of absurd that the breaking point of a marriage might revolve around the way that one puts dishes in the dishwasher, I can assure readers that this is indeed a highly under-valued skill. Of course a judge in a court of law might not think this is the case, and in that event, Barb Barrett's ultimate dry landing in a house that was once owned by Vladimir Nabokov is the stuff of clear-eyed realism. But then there's the manuscript. And after that, the home business.

Suffice it to say that readers are well-advised to steer clear of plot summary reviews of Daniels' entertaining novel and simply discover what unfolds themselves. What makes this all possible is Barb Barrett, who tells the story in the first person in such an involving, likable voice that we as readers can't help but follow her with a combination of slack-jawed amazement and bemused joy brought about by the vibrancy of the prose. 'Cleaning Nabokov's House' is a hoot.

Daniels gives readers a great gallery of characters that seem like the sort of friends and neighbors you like to tell stories about. She paces her story excellently; she's not the kind to drone on. She's snappy, intelligent and if things get a bit far out, it's just the sort of thing that you can read about in the "Local News" section of your local paper. While it does not re-invent the novel, as did its namesake, it is a superb novel of re-invention. Leslie Daniels manages the neat trick of making the present seem like a desirable future, even if your personal world goes to hell in a handbasket. And if you turn that hell upside-down, even if it isn't heaven, you can certainly manage to shake things up. Here's a reminder that the best self-help books can be entirely, one-hundred percent fictional.

03-07-11: Peggy Orenstein Knows 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter'

'Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture'

Fear is a funny thing. The fear we feel for ourselves, and our own safety, is surely powerful and visceral. At gunpoint, we become different animals. But the fear we feel for our children is of a completely different order. If you even make us slightly worried about the fates of our children, we will come for your heads and take no prisoners.

The marketing executives at Disney had better step up their security in the wake of Peggy Orenstein's 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.' Orenstein was worried about the influence of consumer culture on her daughter, and so sought to understand its origins, its motivations, its goals. What she unearthed is as likely to give readers nightmares as any of the kidnapped-children scenarios that are the staple of television. Our precious little girls are born with a four billion dollar price on their heads. But the point of Orenstein's book is entertain and inform, not frighten. 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter' embraces the absurdity of a culture that has sliced and diced our children into targeted profit sectors for longer than most of us could imagine.

Orenstein starts her quest with a gently self-mocking examination of her own fear — she was worried that if her first baby was a girl, she'd not be able to live up to the standards of motherhood so prominently promoted in our child- and youth-obsessed culture. Her child was a girl, and as her child grew, so too, did her curiosity. How did we arrive in this pink-painted world where her expensive pediatric dentist asked her three year-old daughter to, "sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?" Orenstein's answer is engaging and compelling reading, no matter what your gender. Her book may be about mothers and daughters, but it is written for anyone who wants to wrap their brain around the intricacies of selling childhood to girls and their parents.

Orenstein's prose is the key that unlocks what you might think will be the Young Ladies' Room to a general audience. She's an excellent non-fiction humorist, with an ability to directly address difficult issues with a wry sense of humor that keeps agendas at bay. She's smart enough to make the reader laugh without undermining her own sharp observations. The book has an easygoing conversational tone that makes it engaging even when she's imparting some pretty sobering statistics.

A keen sense of organization helps matters as well, because while Orenstein's subject is sort of diffuse, her focus is not. Each chapter hones in on a different aspect of the commercialization of girls, from Barbies, Bratz and the American Girl dolls to the horrorshow beauty pageants to gender issues and life online. She mixes big-picture facts and studies with observations of her personal life fluidly, so we get the overview as well as the anecdote. She covers a lot of ground in a very compact work.

I'll be honest and admit that I found the cover of 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter' fairly frightening. It's certainly an attention-getter, what with the pink sparkles that are likely to make first printings startlingly costly on the collector's market. But Orenstein is a master at writing precise, lively prose that makes a point and makes you laugh. She'll take you down a rabbit hole that you may not have known existed, and when you return the world around you will glow with a slightly pinkish absurdity.

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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