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11-21-13: Christopher Rice Watches 'The Heavens Rise'

Hell Is Where the Heart Is

We like to say that we are frightened by forces outside of ourselves, but the reality is rather different. Zombies and apocalypses offer as much opportunity for adventure as they do for horror. Focusing all that energy on what's not us allows us to ignore what we are. Sure, it's scary to fight a monster. But it's far more unsettling to realize that you are one.
Christopher Rice's intricately constructed tale of toe-tapping terror, 'The Heavens Rise,' inverts the normal relationship between horror and host. At the center of the novel are four characters whose lives are forged in their teenage years; Niquette DeLongpre, a rich man's daughter; her (gay) best friend from childhood, Ben Broyard; her first, intense boyfriend, Anthem Landry, the out-of-place kid from out-of-town; and Marshall Ferriot, the high school psycho who has a thing for Niquette. A fifth character enfolds them all; New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, a chaotic, beautiful intense fire of a city that Rice brings to life with his sparse, intense prose.

The joy of reading 'The Heavens Rise' derives in large part from Rice's sense of storytelling, which is powerfully splintered into slivers of lives separated by time and space. Rice offers vivid pieces of a peculiar puzzle; dead birds in a yard, snippets from Niquette's journals, Ben's and Anthem's opposing perspectives on the same events. There's a very nice Lovecraftian innovation to kick off the horror, that's already in progress as we read. Rice favors short chapters and quick cut that jump back and forth in time. His prose is detailed and clipped, fast to read but edgy and poetic. It's a blast to put it all together and a very intense, involving engaging experience.

As the swirls of characters and time deepens, we get to see a slice of New Orleans life that is not often front-and-center the way it is here. Rice has a real talent for capturing chaos in a manner that lets his readers experience the emotions but still get the big picture. His love for the city is evident but never overplayed.

This is also true of his other characters. Much of the story comes to readers via Ben, a wonderfully done gay character whose sexuality is part and parcel of who he is but understated though not uninvolved as part of the narrative. Niquette's part is cunningly woven through the story, while Anthem and Marshall, the more intense figured, are sparingly and very effectively used. Rice does a superb job of nailing the import of adolescent trauma in the lives of young adults. You could easily read 'The Heavens Rise' as a portrait of New Orleans or a coming-of-adulthood novel and be quite happy, once you recovered from your state of disturbed terror.

But for this reader, the real thrills were in Rice's ability to craft a kick-ass old-school horror novel. He's not afraid to play out the consequences of the Lovecraftian SF trope that sets things spiraling downward. He writes great action set-pieces, and some gnarly bits of surrealism cut through the violence. He knows how to sling to gore in a manner that disturbing, but not nauseating. His storytelling style keeps the action fast-paced, but does not rely on an "..and then..." narrative. 'The Heavens Rise' is quickly read but stays with you after the fact.

It's unclear why this sort of novel seems to thrive in hard economic times, which are in the background here, but certainly not particularly germane to the story. Still, it does seem that Rice has captured to real spirit of the burst of energy that brought us puffy foil lettering on paperbacks and the gerund naming trend that still haunts the genre. Readers looking to be riveted by a smart, beautiful novel with a lot of sharp edges are advised to pick up 'The Heavens Rise' 𕢔 carefully, so as not to cut yourself.

11-19-13: Anne Rice Unleashes 'The Wolves of Midwinter'

The Family Red in Tooth and Claw

The feeling of a family Christmas story flows from the first pages of Anne Rice's 'The Wolves of Midwinter.' It's getting darker and colder outside but warmer and cozier inside. Reuben Golding, no longer a freshly-minted werewolf, is settling in to his unsettling new surroundings. "It would be a Christmas like no other for Reuben," the author tells us. By now we know Anne Rice is no stranger to the undersell.

'The Wolves of Midwinter' picks up shortly after the end of 'The Wolf Gift,' handily summarized in an opening scroll page, but most assuredly must-reading for anyone who is inclined to read this novel, which is every bit as thrilling as the first in a very different manner. 'The Wolf Gift' was almost non-stop action with romantic supernatural interludes; 'The Wolves of Midwinter' offers lots of romantic supernatural atmosphere and action, punctuated by some seriously exciting superhero set-pieces. With this novel, Rice proves she's in for the long haul, and up for the challenge. This is supernatural world-building by a master of the art at the top of her form.

Prose, characters and a sense of place dominate the wolf's share of the novel. Rice takes her time, with luscious, sensuous sentences that draw us in and painterly prose that rework the world of the Mendocino coast into Nideck Point, a magic forest filled with eerie, haunting presences. Rice cranks up the charm and the joy of family, of community, as her werewolf clan prepares a Yuletide celebration that will replenish the town economically and spiritually. But she never lets us forget that these are the most perfect and truest natural born killers, lovers of the hunt and the blood. Think Norman Rockwell meets Grand Guignol and you'll know just where Rice is coming from.

Within this carefully crafted setting Rice explores her returning gallery of characters, and a few new besides. We get to know Laura, Reuben's beloved in much greater detail, as she becomes a part of his world. Reuben's brother Jim plays a much larger part here. He's a very intricately and well-drawn priest, with a past that comes back to haunt him. Reuben's father and his ex also figure largely into the story in refreshing and satisfying ways.

On the other side of the divide, we get to know not just the individual werewolves better, in particular the avuncular Felix, who is really quite a hoot. But 'The Wolves of Midwinter' expands this series' supernatural pantheon in some very interesting ways. Suffice it to say that readers can rest assured that the novels are just about werewolves, that there is no crossover, thus far, wit her other novels and that the author is clearly having fun. The upshot is that her readers will as well.

Rice's plot in 'The Wolves of Midwinter' is admirably intricate and interwoven, as the prose unfolds to reveal a very wide tapestry. There are series advances and forays into new territory and there are in-book plots with a snappy, tense feel to them. Rice is equally adept in her rural township and in the wilds of San Francisco. The careful characterization and world crafting that she does add veracity and texture to the superhero action riffs.

'The Wolves of Midwinter' bucks the trend of "this series entry can be read as a standalone novel." It really can't and it should not. The scroll at the beginning is a nice reminder for those who spent last fall with Reuben Golding, but won't replace reading the first book. It's well worth it, and 'The Wolves of Midwinter,' while rather different than the first novel is every bit its equal. This is a family of choice, not blood, well, not the blood that runs in their own veins. The wolves of midwinter here share blood — it just runs through the veins of their prey, until it is spilled in the joy of the hunt. Yuletide with The Distinguished Gentleman is definitely, defiantly, a bloody good holiday.

11-18-13: Dan Simmons Looks Forward to 'Flashback'

The Unhappy Dystopia

The novel is a great canvas for crosstalk. With 'Flashback,' Dan Simmons, working in the dystopian genre, takes this to a whole new level, one that has offended and even alienated readers, and not without reason. In crafting his dystopia, Simmons has gone against the trend for those soothing scenarios where slate of civilization as we know it has been wiped clean. No RESET button was pushed to make the world in 'Flashback.'

The mere premise of 'Flashback' sets many heads afire. Just far enough into the future, every promise of the current presidential administration has gone bankrupt, and every nightmare of the far-right political polemicists has come to fire-breathing life. The economy is stultified in a permanent jobless recovery, the military is rented out to the Japanese and Chinese, and September 11th is celebrated as an American Islamic holiday.

Readers who might be inclined to think that these events reflect the author's political views, and that the novel is grinding a particularly sharp and unpleasant political axe, are directed to the novella version of the story, published in 'LoveDeath,' where the same endpoint is the result of Reaganomics. That said, there's an emotional wallop to Simmons' scenario, no matter what your beliefs are. Simmons does a damnably good job delivering the details of our downfall.

But politics and the details thereof are just the surface. Simmons wants his dystopia to hurt, and it does. 'Flashback' is fleshed out and filled with the awfulness of now. Get ready to grind your teeth in terror and anger as Simmons spares you no detail required to drive his relentlessly dark mystery over the edge and into the pit of despair.

In that pit, you'll find Nick Bottom, a disgraced detective who spends as much time as possible like most of America — high on flashback, a drug that lets him relive the good times. One wonders what the children of flashback's world are going to look back on, but only for a moment, as Nick finds out that the pit of despair is only the beginning. Nick Bottom is a wonderful character, a man who had his conscience shoved to the side by a life that bears all too close a resemblance to what many are living in this moment and in this world. Nick has long passed the Ability to Give a Shit about anything beyond his next fix and what once was. His son, Val, is even more bitter. "Flashback' is in many ways a literary cup of triple-strength espresso.

Rounding out the cast are thugs of every nationality, size and shape, none of them nice, all of them given just right shadings to make them feel both real and be really upsetting. Simmons imagines a society that is both the nemesis and the ultimate incarnation of jingoism. He's an equal-opportunity offender; don't come to 'Flashback looking for a comfortable dystopia. This is truly slit-your-wrists-and-hope-to-die material — except for the reader.

Here's where 'Flashback' requires a bit of a leap, and for some, a mighty leap. With all his worst-case scenarios in place, Simmons is pumping up the crosstalk in 'Flashback' to an epic level. Whether it's the Islamic America or the global warming hoax, there's something here to grate any sensibility. Simmons has built a world we don't want to live in, one we don't even want to believe possible, then given us characters and a plot that have the ring of a very unpleasant truth. It's a powerful and challenging combination.

In fact, while 'Flashback' hits all the right notes for a dystopian novel, it also hits the same notes, with equal power, to form the similar but not the same chords in a horror novel. If horror fiction is what scares us, then Simmons has taken it to a whole new level, and in a whole new direction. Having crafted a world that itself is largely plot, as in what happened to this world, when Simmons sets his wheels in motion he already has serious momentum, downward, ever downward.

There's no doubt that 'Flashback' is a divisive novel. There are readers who will, indeed those who have, assigned it to the "I threw it across the room" genre. But this has been true of many works that have gone to be recognized as classics. How time will treat 'Flashback' is irrelevant to readers of the present however. It's a brave novel and to a degree, requires a brave reader. Perhaps its most ardent fans might be found in the mystery-reading community, who are used to seeing darkness in our hearts. Simmons tells one hell of a good story set in a hellish version of our world.

The despair at the heart of 'Flashback,' the terror and anger it inspires are not so much the result of Simmons' clever world-building, or his plot. It's not the extrapolations that make this book so disturbing and upsetting. It's the reality upon which they are based. We need no enemy but ourselves, this book assures us. Welcome to The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

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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..."

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

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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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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