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09-12-13: Alfredo Corchado Clocks 'Midnight in Mexico'

Beneath the Barrel

Perhaps it's just proximity, though I'm hardly close to the border. But to me, the goings-on in Mexico over the last decade have grown increasingly alarming. Even more alarming is the seeming complacency with regards to the war next door here in the United States. Our newscrash is chock full of everything and everywhere but there. Halfway around the world gets a 24/7 red-letter alert. Half an hour drive over the border hardly merits a sideline. To be honest, I've just been wondering what the heck exactly is going on in Mexico, where a near-constant bloodbath is the accepted way of life.

Alfredo Corchado answers that question and many more, and manages to thrill the hell out of readers in his journalistic memoir 'Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness.' Corchado tells his story in the first person with good reason, beginning with a 2007 death threat issued against him for his work writing for the Dallas Morning News. The news comes to him from a trusted American source. His last story about the connection between the cartels and the deal brokered by the government has drawn their ire. His life is in danger and he needs to get out of Mexico now. For Mexican journalists, threats — and death — are an accepted, or at least understood part of the job. But Corchado is an American citizen, the son of a bracero. The cartels are entering a new territory.

What follows is an intense and passionate tale of identity, national and personal. Corchado's story is dark, dense and riven through with history; his own and Mexico's. He creates a large but well-drawn cast of real characters and takes readers through his life and recent Mexican history in a manner that makes perfectly clear who the players are, what their goals are and why violence is so often the first and last answer.

'Midnight in Mexico' plays out like a thriller told in the first person. It's easy to read and hard to put down as Corchado finds himself under fire and takes us back through his life and that of Mexico to explain how he and Mexico got there. Corchado's life unfolds in several parallel layers, each upping the ante and the tension. But, as the main character in his own book, he's smart enough to give us the full context we need to understand why he is willing to stay as a foreign correspondent in a nation where looking like a local is a distinct disadvantage.

Corchado is not alone in this story. We see his childhood in Mexico, his early days as a reporter (he was the first person to interview Vincenté Fox after his historic election), and the choices that lead him to the latest and gravest threat. We meet his family, his friends, and his informants. We also met those aligned against him, and Corchado is careful to give everything nuance and context. 'Midnight in Mexico' be set against the darkness, but it is a story told in shades of gray.

Corchado expertly weaves the recent history of Mexico into his narrative in a manner that is extremely entertaining and informative. Mexico is right next door and apparently a democracy, but Corchado's work adds layers and depths and perspectives that simply are not normally understood or described in US media. He manages to be revelatory in the midst of his personal story, underpinning that story and giving it more depth and urgency.

'Midnight in Mexico' is a powerful, gripping personal and national story. Every time we think we have reached the bottom of the barrel, we find that we can upend that barrel and find something worse underneath. But Corchado is writing out of both hope and despair. His parents brought him up to be proud of his heritage and embrace his dual identity as an American citizen born in Mexico. He sees hope in the people, not the politics. 'Midnight in Mexico' makes it perfectly, personally clear just that the hell is happening, who is fighting and who is winning the war next door.

09-10-13: Ian Tregillis Fights 'The Coldest War'

Waif of the Depths

Editor's Note: I know that this review has been slow in coming, but we're looking ahead to the review of the series finale and my interview with the author. Make sure you get all these in hardcover. This is a series to read and re-read.

Time hangs heavily on history. We look back with perfect clarity and see the moments and movements that changed us all. In the moment, nothing is ever clear. As 'The Coldest War' begins, twenty years have passed since the events in 'Bitter Seeds,' a title that seems ever more pertinent in this sequel. Raybould Marsh is washed up, and the world he lives in bears little semblance to ours, or even the one in 'Bitter Seeds,' which must be read to understand what comes to pass here. Grim times are ahead, but Tregillis manages to craft a novel that's endlessly engrossing, and hugely entertaining even as it takes its readers to the edges of clinical depression.

Depression is very much present, as in this timeline, America has been trapped in a depression for more than thirty years. Raybould's marriage is a sham(bles), while Klaus and Gretl have been prisoners of war in a Russia that has overtaken much of Europe. Will is doing reasonably well, but it won't last long, as events conspire to bring Raybould and Will back to the Milkweed project.

Tregillis is a master of economy, honing in on three characters and using their perspectives to build the world anew. Building both character and world proves to be advantageous for both, giving us a nuanced look at a very different world. Marsh is particularly enjoyable. Starting at a low that is almost difficult to read, as the new exploration of the Götterelektron technology unfolds, Marsh does as well. The title of course, gives a clue as to where the narrative is headed. We're in spy-versus-spy territory, with a big side order of supernatural technology. Of course, what comes to pass is beyond his expectations — as well as the readers'. Gretl and her plans are ever entertaining. She's the most Lovecraftian waif ever created in speculative fiction.

As the second book in a series, 'The Coldest War' has a difficult job; offering neither beginning nor ending to the series arc, Tregillis still manages to find self-contained stories here that are thoroughly satisfying. The initial shock of the new is nicely handled, while the direction in which the novel takes matters is a thorough and satisfying surprise. As this review is being written, the third book in the series, 'Necessary Evil' has already been released. Be sure to have it to hand as you read this one.

With 'The Coldest War,' Tregillis manages to craft an utterly unique take on science fiction, alternate history, historical fiction, spy fiction and the wildest of the pulps. Readers will find elements of everything but so thoroughly well combined as to never stand out. Tregillis' ability to create such a large and detailed world with the kind of economy that he brings to these books is nothing short of miraculous. They're well worth having in hardcover, as they'll definitely support re-reading. 'The Coldest War' is a superb example of series fiction done with élan and style. For all that it creates a distressing, depressing vision of man and the world we have created — yes, this world is not so hot either — 'The Coldest War' is a constant joy to read. Look around and realize that it is in a sense a sophisticated code for our world. Look around in wonder.

09-09-13: Benjamin Percy Marks 'Red Moon'

Satire Rising

Sense of wonder in a work of speculative fiction is usually evoked by a grand cosmic vision. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, and their modern heirs, Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton, take us out into space to give us perspective on our own lives. But personal, political and cultural visions can prove to be just to be just as wondrous in the right work.

Benjamin Percy's 'Red Moon' is such a novel. Set in a slightly alternate present, where lycanthropy is a disease controllable through drugs, 'Red Moon' turns the world inside out and upside-down with an ease and aplomb that induces a consistently jaw-dropping sense of vertigo. Using satire and looking at the world in a funhouse mirror, Percy evokes a true sense of wonder about cultural matters instead of cosmic gulfs.

It's not a novel of the supernatural, as Percy has craftily given the lycan transformation a science-fictional explanation. But as the story plays out in the alternate world that Percy has carefully constructed, parallel lines cross, reflections are inverted and distorted, and our world is ruthlessly and cleverly savaged as characters we intuitively know are ensnared in a rip-roaring plot that goes off-kilter as fast as reality. 'Red Moon' is marvelously fun and cuttingly intelligent. In those moments you're not reading, it will take a while to get back to the real world. But you return with a raw new perspective.

'Red Moon' wastes no time establishing pace and place. It's relentlessly plotted, and very difficult to put down. We meet Patrick Gamble, an insecure teenager, as he's on a plane which quickly succumbs to disaster. Claire Forrester knows that the knock on the door of her parents' house is not friendly; she makes it out the window before she's rounded up in a sweep of lycan undesirables. The two unrelated incidents quickly snowball into a complicated plot that involves hypocritical politicians, fundamentalist religious fervor, multinational energy economics, homeland terror, strategic wars, citizen surveillance, survivalists and ordinary Americans. Percy's story is consistently engaging and relevant; it's a thriller built from headlines. But he never discounts the smaller, human moments as well, with tenderness and romance always in evidence.

At the center of the book are the characters. Here Percy crafts a cast of people, some of whom are even not necessarily human, who, nonetheless, are all quickly and instantly recognizable, identifiable and sympathetic. To be sure, not all of those you meet are nice folks, but even the worst of them believe that they are acting on the best of ideals and motives. Reading about the worst in fact can really quite pleasurable, because they are so well-drawn. You totally understand the characters' self-justifications for cruelty, even as the cruelty itself is repellent and unnecessary.

But Percy's protagonists, Claire and Patrick, are strong, smart and entertaining enough to keep up with the enjoyably malicious forces aligned against them. Their supporting cast is equally strong and fun to be around. I particularly enjoyed Miriam, who crosses the line between survivor and survivalist. Nobody finishes the book as they begin. Those who manage to make it are scarred by the world they live in.

Percy's brilliance is most evident in cultural and political setting he has created. It's a source of constant wonderment and even awe as he crafts a political landscape where a single character can reflect portions of opposing perspectives in ours. Every political and cultural trend, the history of the last 120 years, is put through a rigorous and complicated set of funhouse mirrors that emphasizes the absurdity of it all. As Claire and Patrick's world hurtles to hell in a handbasket, we can see ours on a set of parallel tracks that still somehow manages to cross and re-cross. Percy makes use of the reading experience to craft a satire so sophisticated, smart and powerful that the fun-level is off the charts. It's the stuff of ten thousand graduate theses one hundred years hence — assuming things go better in this world than in Percy's, which is hardly a given.

'Red Moon' is a wild success a variety of levels. For the raw reader, it's a compulsively-readable thriller that fires off wildly from the beginning and never lets down. It's a book where you look forward to reading all of each page, just to see what Percy has in store. Percy's satiric, sidewise slant on the world is consistently inventive and revelatory, bringing out the true science fiction sense of the new, the feeling of "A-ha!" that makes the world over. With 'Red Moon,' Benjamin Percy pulls off the remarkable feat of managing to make readers look at the world as it is with an overwhelming sense of wonder.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

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

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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