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12-15-11: Ayize Jama-Everett Reveals 'The Liminal People'

The Powers That Be

Secret worlds surround us. Clandestine orders of espionage, crime and even some religions are well known to exist, but most of us never experience the details. The nitty-gritty lives of those who live in those worlds are the stuff of exciting fiction and non-fiction. To make those worlds real to the reader, the details need to be right; we can't be overwhelmed, but our senses must be engaged.

In 'The Liminal People,' Ayize Jama-Everett creates a secret world of humans with psychic powers who live among us. He uses the gritty look and feel of mystery and espionage fiction to ground his fantasy. His integration of sensory immersion and hidden, borderline lives is so seamless and powerful that 'The Liminal People' doesn't seem particularly fantastic. It just feels real — and more exciting than life, or most fiction.

We meet Taggert, the protagonist, in the midst of a mission. He's the point man for a drug deal that might go very pear-shaped were it not for the fact that he can sense the hidden men in the landscape and put them to sleep with his mind. It's a superbly-written set-piece that immerses us in Everett's world in heartbeats that Taggert could hear — or stop. Taggert is a healer; but his power is not limited to mere healing. Put more precisely, Taggert can use his mind to manipulate the bodies of those around in any way he so desires; for good or ill.

Taggert is in the employ of Nordeen, a Morrocan who runs the Razor gang. It's not just about drugs, it's about power. Nordeen too, has powers and power, over Taggert, at least. But when Taggert gets a phone call to a dead-drop line, he's forced to face his past, his powers, and the powers that control him. It's a classic espionage plot ramped up into the realm of telekinesis and telepathy.

'The Liminal People' is compelling and engaging from the start. Everett's prose has just enough poetry and just enough propulsion whisk the real and the unreal together so that the reader accepts them as one. He knows how to reveal the world he has created, when to hold back and allow wonder, and when to give us the goods so that we understand the complicated relationships he is creating as a scaffold for the action that is to follow. The book grabs your attention and rewards it with a thoroughly detailed world.

The characters who inhabit this world are as detailed and realistic as the world itself. Everett is working in the tradition of mystery and espionage fiction where every character is broken and flawed. Taggert is the first-person narrator, who is pulled from his near-comfort zone by his past. Everett gives us old flames, children, and some very nasty humans, all of whom are enjoyable to read about. Even those who are outside of Taggert's secret world have the power of being memorable.

For all the grit, character and poetry on display here, Everett's own super power appears to be plotting and set-pieces. Readers will find a quick immersion in the opening scene, and then some secret world-building. Once the plot kicks in, readers had best be prepared to finish the book in one sitting, while experiencing better special effects than you will find in any movie. Indeed, Everett's prose is cinematic in the best sense; when he puts us in a scene of action, his descriptions take on a hyper-clarity that is better than telepathy. The plot arc is cunning and enjoyably surprising, and the revelations have the shock of the new but the old-school satisfaction of well-woven espionage plots. 'The Liminal People' is seriously well-written, but also seriously fun to read. It's a secret world that deserves the elegant exposition of this engaging novel — and a sequel, sooner rather than later.

Editor's Note: The first edition was a mass-market paperback self-published by the author. Copies may be available from the author's website.

12-14-11: Peter Orner Weighs 'Love and Shame and Love'

The Unstuck Family

Books are by virtue of the nature of reading future-oriented. If a book is going to get read, if the pages are going to get turned, the author has to make us anticipate a future where reading will provide us with pleasure. The "page-turner" is generally thought to be a plot-heavy, thought-lite thriller, where the anticipation comes from wanting to find out what happens next, usually in chronological order. Peter Orner's 'Love and Shame and Love' manages to be a compelling page-turner even as he tells his compelling story with a non-linear narrative. Orner's writing is so fine, his story is so true, that we as readers anticipate, and are given, pleasure with every page we read, even though the novel and story are entirely unstuck in time.

'Love and Shame and Love' spans four generations, veers from World War Two to the late nineties, and is set in Chicago, also a major character in the novel. Alexander Popper is the youngest scion of the Popper family, and the novel is a series of scenes from his life and his family's past wound loosely around his story. Politics of all kinds — family, city and national — figure into Popper's entertaining lives. Orner's plots offer glimpses not just of his family, but of a nation as it shifts and struggles through much of the 20th century.

The appeal, the tidal pull of this novel, comes from Orner's pixilated storytelling style. The chapters are beguilingly short, sometimes, when they are letters from Alex Popper's grandfather, only a paragraph long. It does not matter who we are visiting or when, because Orner's prose is so funny and so smart, so readable, that we are happy to turn any page, knowing that we'll find a story, a snippet, an anecdote that will delight us and add another tile to a mosaic whose outlines, we become confident, are well worth waiting for.

Orner's novel is a Jewish family saga that is chock-a-block with characters who come to live with the reader as well with one another. That is, when they are not fighting, or getting divorced, or being sent off to war. Orner's grandfather Seymour is a particular delight; his letters are concentrated doses of longing, love and fear, so craftily written that the single paragraph does the work of pages of prose. Orner's characters live surprisingly political lives, and this thread stands out, makes the novel seem more urgent, more realistic than perhaps even the world around the reader.

'Love and Shame and Love' is a novel that reads lightly, breezily, but the ring of truth at the center of Orner's prose poetry gives the work that gravitic, tidal pull. The illustrations by Orner's brother Eric Orner, add a lovely layer of poignant loneliness. Ultimately, readers can see in the skill, in the love, in the shame and joy that Orner writes of so well, a sort of solution to the mystery of where all this writing is going and why. In the piecemeal pasts of Popper's life, we can see our own pasts coalescing. As 'Love and Shame and Love' hurtles forward, each page brings with it a new reason to look forward into the future, and when we run out of Orner's pages, there are always, we realize, our own.

12-13-11: Marcia Muller Clocks 'The Dangerous Hour'

Managing a Life

Editor's Note: As I added Sue Grafton to my indexes, I realized that I had not yet brought over Marcia Muller — until now! At the time, I spoke with both Marcia Muller and Laurie R. King; here's a link to the MP3 audio file.
It's always better — but not always possible — to read a series from beginning to end, especially for an interviewer or a book reviewer. But when you first dip into a series-in-progress, you can often get a better sense of the quality of the writing that carries the series. If you're not invested in the long history of the characters, if all you have to judge the book upon are the words in the single volume, and not all those that preceded it, then you can actually get a better idea of where the author is as a writer than you'd be able to if you'd read everything the author has written. It's certainly an excellent way of divining whether or not you'd like to read the rest of the series, to become involved in the lives of those characters you've just met.

In 'The Dangerous Hour', her twenty-third Sharon McCone novel, Marcia Muller makes it perfectly clear that her writing is the real star of this respected series. With no preamble, no knowledge of the characters' history, 'The Dangerous Hour' is a fine, involving novel about a woman who has reaped the rewards of a long, successful career — a high potential for catastrophic failure. Sharon McCone is no longer a solo investigator roaming the streets in search of the clues that will solve a client's problems. She's the manager of a sizable small business with numerous long-time employees for whom she feels a parental responsibility, though she herself is not even married. McCone Investigations is doing well — too well. So when Julia Rafael, an employee with a checkered past, is accused of credit-card fraud, it's not just Julia who is threatened. The entire business stands to go belly-up if McCone can't clear Julia of charges. McCone begins to suspect that someone is out to ruin not just her business, but her life.

From the first paragraph of this novel, Muller's prose stands out as a model of narrative transparency, effortlessly and enjoyably transporting the reader into McCone's first-person perspective. Though there's a lot of history that leads the large cast of characters up to the point where 'The Dangerous Hour' begins, Muller manages to make every relationship crystal clear with brief exchanges. She keeps her character and the novel so focused on matters at hand that the complex background picture simply fills itself in with the same precise clarity of the foreground events. Muller's prose — McCone's voice — is funny and tough. It's amazingly easy to read, and though this novel was very tough to put down, it doesn't seem slick or facile. Muller's language has both class and sass.

McCone — as revealed by Muller's language — is a woman pretty much any reader would like to meet, smart, perceptive and witty. She's surrounded by a large cast of characters who are all easily distinguishable even if you don't have their obviously deep history to hand. Muller does a particularly good job in portraying McCone's rather uneasy relationship with Hy Ripinsky, her long-time lover who has finally proposed, making McCone very uncomfortable. After all, here's a woman who is clearly able to commit herself to a huge staff, a woman who lays her life and livelihood on the line for a new employee. But McCone is also rather vulnerable and hesitant when commitment means marrying Hy.

Those whose interests lie beyond the well-wrought protagonists will find a nicely fashioned nasty ex-con at the heart of events in 'The Dangerous Hour', and a number of nuanced walk-ons who surround the antagonist. But Muller is careful to avoid the kind of pornographic details that can make readers extremely uncomfortable. She's not trying to scare her readers, but the threats she offers are prone to do more than leave a neat little bullet hole in the forehead.

With language that's particularly and joyously clear and characters we enjoy being around, the plot still provides a crucial element to complement them. Muller keeps everything very low-key and naturalistic. There are no James Bond villains here, and the stakes are personal — the survival of McCone's PI biz. The low-lifes are just low-lifes and they're not writ large. But the pieces fit together so smoothly — like the prose — that seeing them click into place is immensely satisfying. For those who prefer mysteries of the clue-clutching variety, Muller offers a number of hints as to what will prove to be important to the novel, but she doesn't leave a trail of bread crumbs. McCone has to investigate her own past, but once events are set in motion, there's a palpable tension that keeps the pages turning even faster than Muller's beautiful, translucent language.

For this reader, the latest Sharon McCone novel leads neatly back to the first one, 'Edwin of the Iron Shoes', and her new location-based series of Soledad Country stories. For readers who have enjoyed her other novels in this series, it's my estimation that 'The Dangerous Hour' will provide the perfect number of enjoyable hours of reading.

12-12-11: David Vann Outlives 'Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter'

Hard Boiled Non-Fiction

"After my father's suicide, I inherited all his guns," David Vann tells us in the opening of 'Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter.' "I was thirteen."

Vann doesn't pull any punches. In the next two pages, he describes himself loading a high-power rifle and putting his neighbors' houses and front doors in the crosshairs, then shooting out streetlights two hundred yards away. His literary aim as a non-fiction writer is just as deadly. 'Last Day on Earth' is an intense and very disturbing portrait, not just of an individual, but of a nation.

Vann's book is not simply the story of Steve Kazmierczak; Vann interleaves his own story, with an underlying question; why did Kazmierczak end up as a mass murderer, but not Vann himself? Vann's exploration of this is an uncomfortable look into our innate capacity for violence. Weaving back and forth between his own childhood and teen years and those of Kazmierczak, Vann reveals his own weaknesses as well as those of the shooter. 'Last Day On Earth' is a compelling descent into madness that does not itself succumb to the madness it examines. Don't expect to find a lot of sympathy for the devil or anyone else in this raw and uncompromising work.

'Last Day On Earth' is book that many hoped to write, but none succeeded. Before Vann, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and even CNN tried to get the story. But in the five years before the shootings, Steve Kazmierczak had come back from the brink and almost re-invented himself. Vann, already a memoirist and a professor, was able to get those who surrounded Kazmierczak in the final five years to tell what little they did know. He listened. That got him access to 1,500 pages of police files, and then he decided to go back and look into Kazmierczak's life before NIU. That was where the problems began, and where the book begins as well.

Vann's story is terse to the point; it reads like a hard-boiled detective novel, with every scrap of fat rendered. In less than 175 pages, he takes readers through Kazmierczak's horrific youth, and serves up an American gun culture and the shredded safety nets that made it possible for Kazmierczak to stand on stage and live out his Marilyn Manson-inspired fantasies. It's a page-turning, terrorizing maelstrom that sucks in a mentally ill young man who is unable to resist his own weaknesses in the face of a culture that exalts guns and violence.

'Last Day on Earth' may stick to the facts and nothing but the facts, especially for the magnificently architected final sequence, but the material Vann is working with is inherently incendiary and political. This is a book that presents a terrifying problem with an obvious solution that the author asserts, with evidence, will never be solved. It is dark, frightening and absolutely essential reading.

While it is true that your chances of being caught up in this sort of murder are fantastically slim, the consequences of these acts affect more than those who are killed, more than those who know the victims, and more than those who knew the killer. When we look at the dead, when we see the bodies in photographs, when we read the reports, our willingness to fight the culture that creates the violence is eroded.

Vann's book may take a long hard look at needless, preventable murders and deaths, but ultimately, the act of reading this book is an affirmation of life. Not the pretty and happy parts, but the recognition that there are things we can change. And that act of recognition, the vision this book brings with startling clarity to the readers' minds, is what must come to pass before we make the simple changes required to prevent these horrors. Until we recognize our own shortcomings, we, like David Vann at the beginning of this book, are putting others in the line of fire.

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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