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07-25-12: The Hidden Worlds of Words

Revealing Reading

Visit any bookstore, or any bookselling website and it is easy to be overwhelmed. The vendors of the wares we desire so intensely sometimes seem to be rather disconnected from the reasons we read. There's a perception that reading is something we do alone, that it is a means of escape, but that clearly misses the mark.

Reading is a group activity; otherwise why print more than one copy of any book? There are surely enough titles being published and self-published these days to fill the channels with product. Of course, product is not what readers are searching for.

Nor is escape. We do not read to escape the world, we read to engage the world with a new perspective. This is especially true of what is generally considered the most escapist form of fiction, that which incorporates elements of the fantastic. Arguably, all fiction is fantastic. It's fiction, after all. But to my mind, the best titles that incorporate the fantastic enable readers to draw a bead on what is most real in their lives. We read space opera, horror fiction, even detective fiction to step back and regard with clarity just how we feel about going to work, getting up, our families and our friends. We come away from this reading refreshed, ready to engage and interact with a sort of clarity that comes only from having your imagination effectively stimulated by the unmatchable reading experience.

Ian Tregillis broke big with last year's alternate history of World War II, 'Bitter Seeds' and he and his readers can now reap what they have sown in 'The Coldest War' (Macmillan / Tor / Forge ; July 17, 2012 ; $25.99). Tregillis gave us a war fought by compelling characters with supernatural weapons and weird science that was gritty and hyper-realistic. This is a top-notch series that finds Raybould Marsh once again in the Milkweed Project contending with British demons, Nazi and Russian supermen and the dark depths of his own soul. Tregillis is tremendously talented and this should be high on any reader's to-buy list; it will appeal to those who love straight-ahead spy novels just as much as it will bring in the New Weird crowd.

The New Weird is living up to its name and its promise with China Miéville's 'Railsea,' another must-buy in both the US (Random House / Ballantine ; May 15, 2012 ; $18) and the UK (Macmillan ; May 24, 2012; £17.99) editions. Miéville has an ability to create new worlds that is itself the province of the sorts of fantasia it posits. Here, in what is arguably a (sort-of) YA novel, he creates a world of rails, with a flora and fauna every bit as fantastic as the premise. With echoes of 'Moby Dick' (it's a giant white mole) and pirates and of course, lots of monsters, 'Railsea' is the sort of gripping, ripping yard you need to pull you out of whatever funk it is you might find yourself in. All this and illustrations by the author. For all his invention and sense of wonder, it's easy to forget that Miéville accomplishes all this with superb prose and carefully nuanced characters. It's the basics that make his beyonds so compellingly real.

Leave it to John Scalzi to take a joke from the original Star Trek series and turn it into a knockout science fiction novel. 'Redshirts' (Macmillan / Tor / Forge ; June 24, 2012 ; $25.99) plays off the legend that those on the away teams who wore the red jerseys were the ones destined to die on the planets. Scalzi's novel puts us in a version of this situation wherein the "redshirts" discover this and decide to do something about it. Scalzi's prose is so rough and ready that it doesn't take much for him to deliver one knockout punch after another. This novel is smart, fun and thought provoking. Prepare to explain early and often why you are laughing out loud, and be ready to hand the book to one of those to whom you offer your explanation.

On the supernatural side of the equation, Adam Nevill is back with 'Last Days' (MacMillan ; May 24, 2012 ; £12.99), one of those wonderful, somehow re-assuring thick-as-a-brick novels that scare the bejesus out of us even as we flip the pages ever faster. Here we have Kyle Freeman, filmmaker at the end of his reel, reduced to a tawdry doco about The Temple of the Last Days, a depraved cult that blew itself out back in 1975. That's just given it lots of time to fester and Freeman finds that there are worse things (though not many!) thank being broke. Nevill is a class act, and those whoa re searching for the sort of novels that made the 1980's a great time for horror need look no further. 'Last Days' is replete with the sort of evil that gives horror the edges it needs to make readers bleed.

Frank Tallis is known for his historical mystery series, The Lieberman Papers. Writing here as F. R. Tallis, in 'The Forbidden,' (MacMillan ; June 7, 2012 ; £12.99) he keeps the historical setting, 19th Century France, but goes for the horror genre with everything he's got and that's a considerable arsenal; zombies, demons, exorcisms, ancient magic and "modern" science. It's all quite fun as Doctor Paul Clément discovers his assignment to San Sebastien hospital involves not just tropical disease, but dark magic. Like any decent scientist, he decides to pursue his studies further upon his return to Paris, and manages to crate a problem more difficult to solve than he anticipated. Tallis creates a detailed, entertaining setting, compromised characters and a page-turning plot. This is one of those books that plays like a movie, and you can bet it's better than anything on an actual screen this summer.

If you like your otherworlds dark and Victorian, sidle on up to the slim and disturbing 'Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling' (Wm Morrow / HarperCollins ; $14.99 ; July 24, 2012), a remarkable first novel by Michael Boccacino. Beginning with a dream, it descends into ever more effective nightmares as Charlotte Markham takes on the care of some children who live too near to the Too Far. Boccacino knows how to crank up the atmosphere with dank prose that is truly creepy. He paints scenes of horror and keeps readers effective in an eternal twilight as to what is real and what is hallucination. Best of all, he grounds this all in the effectively realized psychology of compelling characters but does not get stingy with the supernatural.

With all these great choices, it's hard to make one's self waste any time watching other people's visions. The strength of books is that there are no disappointments with actors, effects, production or direction. Every penny has been sunk into the reason we are able to know what reason itself is — story. Story is what moves us, and reading is still the best way to experience story en masse and alone. You don't need to escape this world, just get some valuable perspective. Get a good distance from several different angles and you'll be able to put together a picture of what matters in your life. These books will provide that perspective.

07-23-12: Carlos Ruiz Zafón Releases 'The Prisoner of Heaven'

A Novel Liberation

We like to think of story, and in particular novels, as a linear form. One event follows the next, in much the same manner as we experience our individual lives. The problem with this perception, of course, is that our lives insect with those of others in a manner that is utterly non-linear. Even when we want to get beyond mere linearity, the temptation is to see the whole in two dimensions, and many fine novels manage this. But again, this falls short of actuality. Our lives unfurl in not just one, or two, or even three, but four dimensions, a vision that is quite difficult to render in prose, where one word, at best, follows the other.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has managed, in 'The Shadow of the Wind,' 'The Angel's Game' and now, in 'The Prisoner of Heaven' to give us story in four dimensions. Each novel truly stands on its own. But together they offer a grand and visionary reading experience, filled with the pleasures of plot and character we know from our reading past, but executed with a subtle sense of intersection, involvement and perspective that point towards our literary future. Zafón is not simply working on a canvas; he's building a literary cathedral.

Taken on its own, 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is an engaging, even enchanting mix of sweetness and horror. We meet Daniel Sempere, a young father who works at his father's bookstore in the Barcelona of 1958. Working with him is Fermin Romero de Torres, his best friend and headed towards a wedding. A visitor to the bookstore makes an ominous purchase, and with it, lives are revealed — and changed. Fermin tells his story, from the Barcelona of 1939, as the fascist regime of Franco made a habit of jailing those with whom it was displeased.

Zafón's prose in this novel is light and consistently, quotably witty. "'I think today will be the day. Today our luck will change,' I proclaimed on the wings of the first coffee of the day, pure optimism in a liquid state." Zafón is smart enough to limn from Chandler and yet find his own original voice. The writing feels lighter than air but always full of the stuff of real life, the emotions that matter to us, the joys and terrors we face in our own souls. Even when Fermin is telling the story of the worst days of the Franco regime, a tale of filthy, wretched horror, there is an optimism embedded in the words and phrasing so that the dark story does not shadow our souls. 'The Prisoner of Heaven' manages to make literary fiction joyful, free and fun.

The stories here have an intense draw, intertwining the very personal demons of Fermin and Daniel and weaving them together in a seamless smart whole that is striking, surprising and compelling. For a relatively short novel, Zafón manages to pack in a lot of plot without making the whole affair feel overstuffed. The soul of this novel is Fermin, who meets adversity with an undercutting, wry joke and a pessimistic confidence that though the design of life seems destined for unhappiness, it's entirely possible to pull the wool over life's eyes and find joy. But perhaps not in his own case.

As this is Fermin's novel, we get to know him intimately, and he is a fascinating character, a man who has had hardship imposed upon him and come though it, only to find himself flummoxed by his own fears. Daniel, on the other hand, finds himself in comfort and gives in to his inner distrust. Both characters are complemented by women who are their worthy equals. Zafón shakes these characters out with a great deal joy. This book feels fulfillingly comfortable, even as it takes some seriously chances with where it sends these characters we have grown to love.

For all this, Zafón provides a very nice denouement, a conclusion that leaves the reader both satisfied and wanting more; which is good because not only is there more out there already, there is more to come as well. Within the grand scheme set up by the first two books, 'The Prisoner of Heaven' takes on both meaning and power. It's certainly possible to read these books in any order, but having read them in the order they were published, I'm suggesting reader do so as well.

Seeing 'The Shadow of the Wind' and 'The Angel's Game' slot together as you read what prove to be the revelatory passages of 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is an altogether new kind of reading experience. This is not a series of accumulation that leads to confrontation. Instead, it is a collection of stories that offer revelation, as 'The Shadow in the Wind' and in particular 'The Angel's Game' become darker, lighter, deeper and much more interesting by virtue of the stories in this novel. And while this book offers a satisfying reading experience in itself, it points towards even more revelations in the subsequent volume. As Zafón builds his literary cathedral, each entry effectively re-writes the others, and opens them up to a larger world, just as each day in our own lives revises those that have preceded it. 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is ultimately, a liberation by — and from — the novel itself.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

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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

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08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

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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

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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

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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

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

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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

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