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06-30-11: Melissa Marr Minds the 'Graveminder'

Tending to the Dead

Death rituals are personal. In good times, we tend to the dead individually, and we reflect upon their life as well as their death. Even dead, our loved ones are still loved. That is, so long as they stay dead.

Generally, that's not a problem. But in Claysville, the dead seem to get more than their fair share of attention. William Montgomery runs the local mortuary, and he's teaching the very particular particulars to his son, Byron. But the real responsibility lies with the women of the Barrow family. Maylene, whose adopted daughter Rebekkah has left town, is getting on, though she's still strong. But not strong enough.

Melissa Marr's 'Graveminder' (William Morrow / HarperCollins ; May 17, 2011 ; 978-0-061-82687-0 ; 326 pages ; $22.99) draws on myths from all corners of the world and brings them organically together in a low-key American Gothic setting. For a novel that is filled with all the buzzwords of modern pop fiction, Marr goes to some length to successfully underplay those elements and give readers an inventive and entertaining novel of destiny, love and death — though not necessarily in that order.

Maylene may manage to go gently into that good night, but what remains afterwards suggests that others in the small town of Claysville will not. Rebekkah reluctantly returns to bury her dead, and finds herself tasked with others as well. There's a ritual that needs must be adhered to in this neck of the woods, involving food, drink and farewell. Maylene always meant to pass on her talents to Rebekkah, but she never had the chance. Rebekkah's not-so-long-lost love affair with Byron still stings, but they must work together. And as strange as Claysville may be, there are places far stranger and closer than one may suspect.

Marr does a wonderful job of building a both characters and worlds in 'Graveminder.' There's a pretty complicated family setup here that Marr unfolds gently and with great skill. Rebekkah has tried to be the outsider and failed, as has Byron. The reasons for this become clear to the reader before they do to the characters, but Marr does a nice job of pacing revelations for both. In lesser hands, this could devolve into the stuff of raised-foil-cover paperbacks, but Marr adds enough grit and detail to keep the characters sympathetic and entertaining. There's a large cast of secondary characters who prove to be both important and well rounded.

The supernatural underpinnings of the book are varied and combined in an inventive, original manner. Marr works on a lot of levels, from folkloric rituals to secondary world-building. You'll find America's favorite monster here, but reborn in its original form, with an emphasis on a sympathetic, nuanced character. You'll find the Small Town With a Secret in all its Andy-of-Mayberry glory. Marr's second world is unlike any you've read, though it draws inspiration from the classics. The surprises are well paced and the setup for a series is satisfying. There's a lot to explore and when you finish the novel you'll want to explore.

More than anything, 'Graveminder' is a very unusual mix of genres, themes and execution. Marr's prose is smart enough to stay out of the way of her characters, world and plot. It makes the utter oddness of what you're reading utterly transparent. Readers are likely to whip through 'Graveminder' in a couple of sittings, but likely as well to visit the scenes Marr creates afterwards in memory. If death rituals are personal, so are our memories of books. Like the some of the characters in her book, Marr's 'Graveminder' is the sort of book that will not remain buried in memory. It's reading as the Afterlife.

06-29-11: Angela Slatter Makes 'Sourdough'

Trusting Tartarus

Our world is wrought not from atoms and molecules, but emotion and vision. Colors are not the result of wavelengths and photons, but feelings and intuitions. The soil we walk upon is not dirt; it is our memories, layered with love and regret. And our lives are spells we cast with every word we say, lost in the wind.

Angela Slatter knows this world well, and even though she sets her stories in a world much like, but nominally not our world, her collection 'Sourdough and Other Stories' (Tartarus Press ; August 12, 2010 ; £30) captures an essence that cannot be denied. There is magic in this world. It is not just what we feel, but that we feel.

The stories in 'Sourdough' unfold around Lodellan, a labyrinthine knot of streets and lives where the heart has mastered the world, if not itself. It is a world where what we might call magic is common, but devoid of "magic." The mind holds this world in an uneasy grip, like a palm scooping water from a river. If happiness can be made, so can its opposite, and rather more easily. The men and women of Lodellan strive for success, but failure is often the reward for their efforts. Everything here is unfamiliar, and yet so elemental as to be utterly familiar.

Slatter's stories hew close to the bone and low to the ground. The prose is clean and clipped, as are the plots. The stories often circle around story, as in "The Shadow Tree," in which a governess tells her spoiled royal charges a simple tale with an unexpected outcome. Souls are easily moved into dolls and even bread, and gallows bear strange fruit that may be consumed by those willing to risk the consequences. The world of Lodellan is timeless, beyond technology. It inhabits our consciousness as if it were a story we have told ourselves and half-forgotten.

The power of stories here derives from Slatter's incredibly controlled prose. Reading "Under the Mountain" or "The Bones Remember Everything," is a very involving experience. You can almost — but not quite — detect the words that have been carved away, the better to deliver the story and emotion directly into your reading world. This is language that readers will experience almost as memory.

Beyond the pristine quality of the sixteen individual stories is an impressively-built world on a much larger scale. For all the powerful characters you'll meet in the stories, Lodellan itself is the through-line, and a meta-character that may overshadow memories of (so-called) "real" cities you may have visited. Slatter gives us alleys and houses, farms and fields, highways and crossroads — oh yes, and very important they are — to corral our impressions and inhabit our minds.

Tartarus Press — as run by Ray Russell — brings something essential to this collection as well. The presentation is peerless, if familiar to those who have Tartarus Press books in their library. The soft yellow cover and inset illustration, writ large on an interior plate and on the hardcover itself make this book feel like a volume for the ages. A mere 300 copies are being published, so time is of the essence. Readers who enjoy the work of Robert Aickman will find 'Sourdough' similarly memorable.

More importantly, this book suggests that Tartarus Press (Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker) are establishing a powerful sensibility of quality in all of its definitions. That this is a well-made book is obvious. What is not so obvious, until you read the stories, is the sort of book, the kind of prose you can expect. There's a consistency of imagery and tone that make this book and Tartarus Press (in my experience so far, at least) a wonderful follow-on for the Aickman collections. The introduction by Robert Shearman and the Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer inform the reading experience with intelligence, not just enthusiasm.

Angela Slatter's short story collection 'Sourdough' is an excellent argument that Tartarus Press has earned readers' trust.

06-27-11: David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt Fall Under 'Heaven's Shadow

Faster, Bigger, Better Ideas

Science fiction, particularly that which involves space travel, tends to be set in the future. Positing technology we don't have to get us places we can't go, writers take two leaps of the imagination before the first page of the story. It often makes for fine writing, but it's not the only way to approach manned space exploration within the science fiction genre.

It's amazingly easy to forget that even as you read these words, we have humans in orbit around the earth. This is the stuff of classic science fiction, particularly the work of Arthur C. Clarke, brought to life. We can get off the earth with technology we have right now. And the places we can go with that technology remain largely uncharted. We've barely managed to get to the shores of space, and what we think we know about what's out there is based on theory, not experience.

David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt offer readers the experience of a lifetime — tellingly, our lifetime — in 'Heaven's Shadow' (Ace / Berkely / Penguin Putnam ; July 5, 2011 ; 978-0-441-02033-1; 404 pages ; $25.95), a toe-tapping ripping yarn set in the present day but informed by big ideas and imaginative verve. Goyer and Cassutt use today's technology to take their characters to a wild science fiction sense-of-wonderland. It's the best of both worlds — hard SF that segues seamlessly into space opera, written with the pace of a techno-thriller. Best of all, Goyer and Cassutt throw in some Big Ideas that will bang around in the very same brain that lost sleep finishing the book.

The setup is simple and direct. Keanu is the name of the NEO (Near Earth Object, ie, rogue asteroid) that gets discovered just about now. It's coming close enough and is big enough to visit. The US, via NASA, and the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition mount competing expeditions and manage to get them to Keanu in one piece. Once they get there, things get complicated.

Goyer and Cassutt make the most of their premise with cleverly-characterized astronauts, a time-sliced plot structure that cuts between the object's discovery and the in-progress mission to explore it, and lots of great hard science. Zack Stewart leads the US mission. He's a recent widower who texts his teenage daughter from the surface of Keanu. As with every astronaut character, Stewart is crisply etched into the reader's memory with the traits that make him an astronaut; primarily, in his case (beyond his work as an astronomer) that he "plays well with others." That's necessary, because he's swiped the captain's spot on the mission from Tea Nowinski, his new girlfriend.

Goyer and Cassutt do an outstanding job at managing a large cast of characters, keeping them straight in the reader's mind, and offer lots of verisimilitude by tying smart hard science to each of the characters. We know why these people are out there, why they belong out there and why they behave as they do. On the ground, the mission control team is well-handled, too. You even get a classic science fiction "Home Team" of advisors, one of whom is a crusty science fiction writer.

For a novel full of realistic science and characters who meet head-on with actual Big Ideas, there's never a dull moment in 'Heaven's Shadow.' Goyer and Cassutt have architected a plotline that is consistently thrilling and provides lots of surprises, none of which need to be discussed here. Suffice it to say that even though the characters themselves refer to Keanu at first as a BDO (Big Dumb Object), that proves to be a serious mistake. But with hard science and careful characterization grounding the action, as things get weird, and they do get weird, it's easy to buy in. It helps that the weirdness itself is based on some reasonable thought-experiments, and that the imagery is nicely played out. 'Heaven's Shadow' may start out in a very recognizable world, but it makes a considerable journey in what feels like a very short reading.

On a prose level, Goyer and Cassutt acquit themselves well. 'Heaven's Shadow' is easy to read, but never so slick as to seem oily. Descriptions of earth and beyond are well wrought and atmospheric, even when the atmosphere itself is either absent or unbreathable. The dialogue is smart and often appropriately funny, including one moment in the book where they manage to make the reader and the characters say the same word. They make use of every word in the book, even the obligatory chapter headings, which manage to tell a story. And, given that this is a collaboration, it is totally seamless. There's no dividing line. The voice is unified, strong and entertaining.

For those who already enjoy the science fiction genre, 'Heaven's Shadow' is a done deal. Goyer and Cassutt evoke many of the classic authors — Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Robert Heinlein just to start — but they make the story their own, and have a hell of a good time with it. But even readers who are just looking for a good thriller will find a lot to like here. They may discover that 'Heaven's Shadow' is a gateway drug to the books that inspired it. In any event — other than those described in the book — 'Heaven's Shadow' is the sort of book that will make the world go away for a couple of days. And it's good enough that readers will really have to wonder if the book itself is more fun to experience than the events it describes.

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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