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01-23-13: My Life in the Bush of Books

Deep in the Printed Pages, Part 1

Editor's Note: This started out as a more smallish piece, but grew and I'm splitting it into two. Tomorrow I'll have reviews of Brian Lumley, James P. Blaylock, Edward Ball and Gheorgie Sasarman.

All it takes is a printed page. From language to storytelling to books proves to be a very reasonable chain of production, and the results prove this again and again. The author sits down and writes and if they are lucky, if we are lucky, the result is a reading experience that can both entertain us enjoyably as well as enrich our lives and our worldviews. Because you get to make the effort to read the book, to invest your imagination in bringing the author's words to life, the result is engraved into your memory. Fortunately, there are enough good books coming out that are well worth your valuable reading time to keep you reading, for the rest of this month at least.

One of the best aspects of reading is that you can find quality work in a variety of styles and subjects. Reading lends itself well to jumping from one sort of book to another. Yes, it is tempting to read in just one category, be it science fiction, horror, non-fiction, fantasy, general fiction, literary fiction, mystery or politics to name just a few. But by jumping from one to another, they all seem fresh and fun. The downside of having such a wide slate of taste for me as a critic is that I'm unable to pigeonhole my site as being this sort or that sort. For the moment, you're reading the sort of site that suggests this slate of reading.

Let's start off with a book that qualifies for many genres at once; that is, Cory Doctorow's 'Homeland' (Tor ; February 5, 2013 ; $17.99), This sequel to 'Little Brother,' (I spoke with him back in 2010) finds Marcus Yallow, now working for a crusading politician, once again on a problematic path to indeterminate incarceration. Doctorow writes engagingly about the politics and culture of the day after tomorrow, mixing up mystery, thriller, science fiction and adventure with lots of actually useful non-fiction HOWTO instructions. Most of the examples from 'Little Brother' ended up on Instructables.

But forget the good-for-you stuff; Doctorow's novels are always funny, entertaining and authentically "mind boggling" in the manner of the best Golden Age science fiction. 'Homeland' manages to be exciting both in terms of plot and philosophy. We care both about what the characters do and what they think. And while the book is clearly aimed at the Young Adult audience, it is the sort of book that will have a huge appeal to a wide segment of the adult audience as well. For years, the publishing industry has been searching for the next big YA series, and there is very good reason to believe that the adventures of Marcus Yallow will become the incarnation of those hopes. We'd all be lucky if that were the case.

Of course, Golden Age science fiction had some less-than-salutary repercussions in and beyond the literary world. Yes, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury certainly helped kick-start getting the human race into space. But the result of an infamous, if likely-to-be-apocryphal bet between the aforementioned Heinlein and his supposed drinking buddy, L. Ron Hubbard, brought us Scientology. It has many fans, to be sure, and many of them are quite glaringly placed in the public eye. But the exact nature of the organization, its aims and even the number of — disciples? — fans? — believers? — is certainly open to interpretation and, yes, investigation.

Readers are lucky enough to have a man with the stature of Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright's stature to investigate, and the result is 'Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief' (Knopf ; January 178, 2013 ; $28.95) Wright made some waves writing about Al-Qaeda in 'The Looming Tower' and here he proposes to get to the heart of an important question; just what is religion, and does Scientology qualify? It's as gripping as any thriller from the first page on. Equally gripping is the drama playing out as the book is published and publicized. Already we are seeing legal threats from the Church of Scientology with regards to both the content of the book and those who discuss the content of the book. 'Going Clear' offers a reading experience that goes well beyond the usual boundaries of books.

For an equally gripping history of Al-Qaeda, readers can, and indeed, should turn to Gregory D. Johnsen's 'The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and America's War in Arabia' (WW Norton ; $27.95 ; November 19, 2012). Johnsen gives readers a perspective that I've not read before as he ratchets back to the 1980's and then takes us step-by-step from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the current world of fragmented fury. Johnsen in a master of historical storytelling, and 'The Lat Refuge' reads like a wide-screen thriller by creating characters for readers. It's a fascinating example of how books can do things that mere news cannot.

While some of the material here is from the headlines over the past decade, Johnsen's magisterial perspective pulls those disparate pieces into a heretofore unseen coherent whole. Understanding Osama Bin Laden as a character is nothing short of revelatory, and Johnsen just begins there. The result of reading this book will be a couple of night of lost sleep and a terrifying comprehension of how ineptly we've dealt with things thus far combined with shreds of hope. Just being able to wrap your brain around why a tiny country proves to be such an important pivot point is a powerful form of what science fiction readers call the "sense of wonder."

As a palate cleanser for all the insanity in the real world, you can find no better than Dave Barry, who is back with a new novel, 'Insane City' (Putnam ; January 29, 2013 ; $26.95) Writing last year with Alan Zweibwel [here's a link to interview with the two of them], in their novel 'Lunatics,' Barry proved he is a comic mastermind, with the ability to use plot and language to make us laugh at ourselves until it hurts. This time around, ordinary guy Seth Weinstein flies to Florida — ok. Right off the bat, you know he is in trouble. Florida is nothing but insanity and trouble as Tim Dorsey [link to interview] (in 'Pineapple Grenade' and just about dozens of other books) and Barry himself will attest.

Drugs, strippers, pimps and pythons will be competing with gangsters and the Group of Six to sabotage the Weinstein nuptials. Barry's talent is for writing humor on three levels at once. His prose is funny, and readers will find lots of sentences to read aloud just to hear them. He creates characters who manage to wedge themselves into humorous situations, with always entertaining results. And he writes novels where the ideas themselves have humor. There's a chaotic philosophy at the heart of these novels that loves humanity in spite of our insanity and inanity. This is the sort of book that will probably fry your eyeballs in a rather pleasant manner.

To be continued ....

01-21-13: Jojo Moyes Sees 'Me Before You'

Hard Choices for Smart Characters

We call it chemistry because people, like chemicals, change one another when they meet. It's an inevitable law of nature. While this is easy to observe, and often enjoyable, conveying this experience in a thoroughly and universally engaging manner is quite difficult. Novels that address our most difficult and intractable problems must face those same problems, and offer more than life. We can experience joy, love, and tragedy without coming to any particular conclusion, or even a resolution. Life lets us slog from one day to the next. Novels, on the other hand, must have a beginning, middle and end.

With 'Me Before You', Jojo Moyes takes on the difficult task of providing a very satisfactory beginning, middle and end to a very human chemical reaction. We meet Will Traynor, a successful financier from an upper-class family, and Louisa Clark a not-so-successful newly-unemployed young woman from a family where her income matters greatly. They meet as well, and as the novel unfolds, Moyes offers readers a particularly engaging voice, in Louisa, who tells most of the story in the first person. With Will Traynor in the mix, Moyes crafts a plot of character that is utterly compelling. 'Me Before You' is charming, gripping and eventually, it is authentically poignant.

It would be terrifically easy to spell out the particulars, but it is best for readers to pick up the book knowing as little as possible. If you're lucky enough to know only of the book's existence and its quality, try to keep it that way. I'd go so far as to suggest that readers avoid the dust jacket copy, even though it does not give away many of the surprises that follow.

'Me Before You' benefits from superb, transparent prose with enough of an edge to give matters grit, to bring the characters to life with all their flaws intact. Moyes writes most of the book in the first-person voice of Lou. When we meet Lou, she feels as if she knows the world and all its ways, but she does not. As the novel proceeds, she grows and becomes deeper, more interesting, more nuanced. But Moyes simply shows this happening to Louisa even though she does not particularly notice it happening to herself. As she tells most of the story, her language becomes subtly richer. Moyes does not confine herself to Louisa's perceptions, though. At key times, we also see the world through other characters' eyes, and each perspective adds a layer of depth to the world that Moyes creates.

Readers will find a wisely and grippingly plotted novel. Moyes starts strong and induces a real tension to proceedings by refusing to compromise her characters. The result is that the characters feel more realistic and seem more pragmatic than might otherwise be the case, and more importantly, readers will really want to see where they end up. It's certainly not obvious, and Moyes' research into the background of the subject she deals with here pays off handsomely. She treats important topics with the intelligence and delicacy that lets her show them to be important, so that her characters can react to them without having to step into a sidebar lecture to the reader. 'Me Before You' is a surprisingly effective page-turner.

Jojo Moyes demonstrates here not just the power of prose and plotting, but the import of the human relationship, clearly portrayed. Louisa, Will, and all the characters you meet in 'Me Before You' will fall into place together because Moyes knows the chemistry that drives the human heart. It's a complex mixture. Nothing is simple. Nothing is stable. Put two people together and they will change one another; even, perhaps especially, if one if a writer, the other a reader and means by which you put them together, a book.

New to the Agony Column

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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 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

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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 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

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03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

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