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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Year of the Flood

I recently finished Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood: A Novel. I liked it. It's her follow up to Oryx and Crake, her earlier novel of the genesis and effects of a human-created pandemic. I guess you could call it a sequel, but it's not quite that. It's more of a companion novel. It covers the same time period, many of the same events, with some of the same characters, but deals with it all from several different perspectives. For one thing, the main characters in this one are female, whereas Oryx and Crake had more male voices.

What I remember liking about Oryx and Crake (although "like" is probably a strange word for it) is that it dealt with a recognizable present, a reasonable near-future, and a catastrophe of a sort that seems... uncomfortably plausible. It just all felt possible. That would suck, except that Atwood manages to infuse all the horror with humor as well.

This new book does the same, although perhaps with more emphasis on the day to day survival challenges facing her female characters. In some ways, that's starker than the time spent with the guys in the earlier book.

I did find it a little convenient that so many of the people the main characters know before "the flood" happen to be around through it and beyond. It allows closure and resolution to some relationships, but it also makes the world seem awfully small, like it revolves around this particular handful of people just bit too much...

But I digress. I'm not here to review. I'm here to recommend. The bottom line is that Atwood brings her usual fine writing into play here. The fact that she does it in firmly sf territory is wonderful.

I wonder if she would turn up for the Hugos or Nebulas if she was nominated?

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nam Le

Herewith, another book recommendation. This one is in the literary fiction category, just in case you've got a hankering for some good short fiction...

The book is called The Boat and the author is Nam Le. I was lucky enough to meet Nam at BEA a couple years back. This was before his book came out. I enjoyed talking with him a bit late into an evening of fine food and free drink, but it was awhile before I got around to reading his collection. As is so often the case, I'm very glad I finally did!

So what do I like about his stories? Each and every one of them is an engaging character study, stories about people living their lives, but with enough happening in them that none of them feel like navel gazing. They're about things, and each story is a trip to a very different place in the world, featuring very different situations and characters.

And that, in a big way, is another thing I love about Nam's work. He's marvelously ambitious. He might - as is mentioned in the first seemingly autobiographical story in the collection - have cashed in on the "ethnic" thing. He's an Australian of Vietnamese origin, an interesting enough identity that he could have played that card effectively to liberally-minded literary readers. Instead, he does something very different. After that opening story about a character that is essentially him, he tells a tale of Colombian assassins, and then one about an aging and ill white artist, and then about a conflict and love story among Australian youths, and then about a Japanese girl during WWII, and then about an American woman caught up in politics and persecution in Iran...

See what I mean? He's all over the globe, and I'd argue he makes each jump with incredible style. At times his stories end with a bit of mystery to them, almost as if the subjects and themes he's working with are larger than he can fit on the page. Other stories - like the title story about Vietnamese refugees - he nails shut to devastating effect.

I got to hang out with him again last month at that Pen/Faulkner event. Good fun. He's working on a novel, and I, for one, am looking forward to it. And just so you know he's not without some interest in the genres... he's on the record as having written a lesbian vampire story! I haven't read it, and it's not in the book. Maybe one day, though...

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kindred

I'd read a bit of Kindred before, but recently I sat down with it again and read the whole thing. Very glad I did. It confirms yet again how marvelous I think Octavia Butler is/was.

I've said it before, but I think what I'm still most struck by is the feeling of empathy she seems to convey for all her characters. White or black, slave or free, noble or wicked or a complicated variation of both: no matter what I believe she grasps her characters humanity at it's core, and still manages to show them as living and breathing flawed individuals shaped by personal inclination and societal forces that make it impossible for those cores to remain unaltered.

(Just to warn you, I'm going to mention some plot details here.)

In this case, we have the story of a modern African-American woman, Dana, (who happens to be married to a white man) who gets mysteriously transported back in time to the American South in the early 1800's. She quickly learns that she's been brought back to save the life of a child that will eventually become her ancestor.

Complications? Well, there are many. For one, the ancestor is a white boy from a slave owning family. As a black woman the main character immediately has no rights that any white person needs to respect. It's a wonderful way to juxtapose modern perceptions with Antebellum realities. It doesn't matter how smart she is, how much history she knows, how well she can read: none of it is accepted at face value and all of it puts her in danger as much as it helps her.

I won't say too much more about the specific plot points, but I will aid this – that I love the way Butler's complicated characters defy the type of narrative progressions that we've come to expect in popular literature and film. Frankly, I can see this characteristic of her writing putting some people off. Does Dana's intelligence and insight and all the many things she offers change the perspective of her slave owning masters (and relatives)? Not by a long shot. Does her 20th Century smarts allow her to thrive? Not exactly.

And that's why I treasure Octavia Butler. She humbles me with the breadth of her intelligence and the clear-eye generosity with which she writes about human foibles. I wish she was around to write more, but at least I know I have many more titles of hers yet to read.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Light Of The Sun

I'm down in Washington DC now, about to go visit a public school class that's read Gabriel's Story, and then tonight is the big gala ceremony. Should be fun, and nerve-wracking. While I'm busy with that stuff it occurred to me to post a blog I'd had cued up for a few weeks now. So here it is is:

It's always embarrassing to admit when I haven't read an author that I really, really should have read ages ago. One of those, for me, was Guy Gavriel Kay. I'd thoroughly enjoyed it when reviewers compared me to him when Acacia: The War with the Mein came out, but it was just one of many comparisons that didn't have anything to do with direct influence.

Anyway, I'd met him a couple of times before, and when I knew I was going to be on a panel with him at Worldcon I figured it was REALLY time to read the man. For no good reason at all, I chose The Last Light of the Sun. Very glad I did.

I enjoyed it a lot. I know it's different in many ways than his Fionvavar Tapestry books, but it was still a great introduction - for me in particular - to his work.

For one thing, I've enjoyed reading Anglo-Saxon and Norse tales in the past. I rather enjoyed Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles, and was impressed to see that Kay's rendering of this distant, violent world stands strong in comparison to it. For much of the novel it feels pretty much like a straight historical. Later on the Faerie influence becomes more pronounced, but in many ways the feats of prophecy and the interactions with the fantastic seem a natural product of the characters' culture and religious beliefs. Skillfully blended.

His writing was controlled and artistic, but also direct, muscular when it needed to be, and generally well crafted. I can't tell you how much that matters to me. So, I'm very glad to be a new fan of Mr. Kay's. I'll look forward to getting back to his other work soon.

Of course, at the moment I'm reading a lot of Wild Cards novels. Oh, and lots of student manuscripts... and a couple of graduate theses... and...

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Fantasy Magazine's Gateway Books

Over at Fantasy Magazine they're conducting a survey.

They've a list of books people suggested as possible gateway books, titles that might be good ones to introduce people to the genre. Somebody was nice enough to make sure Acacia: The War with the Mein got on the list. That's nice. I've no thoughts that I'll make it to the next round - of twenty. There are just too many beloved books to choose from, many of them great choices, I think. But it's nice to be on the longlist!

If you want to take a look and vote click Over To Here. Have a say!

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Maya and Sage's Book Recommendations

A while back some kind person asked if I had suggestions for books that I thought were especially good for kids. I figured the best source to reference were my own kids, so I asked them.

Maya (10) and Sage (8) came up with the following list. It starts with picture books and moves forward up to the stuff they’re reading now.

The Gruffalo,by Julia Donaldson
Pumpkin Soup, by Helen Cooper
Where's My Mom?,
Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson
I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato (Charlie & Lola), by Lauren Child
Catwings (4 Volume Set), by Ursula K LeGuin
Hachiko Waits, by Leslea Newman
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread, by Kate DiCamillo
Dragon Rider, Cornelia Caroline Funke
Varjak Paw, by SF Said
The Outlaw Varjak Paw, by SF Said
Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips, by Michael Morpurgo
Pirate Curse (The Wave Walkers Book One), by Kai Meyer
Stardust, by Neal Gaiman (Yeah, they read the saucy stuff too.)

At the moment, Maya is reading Keys to the Kingdom, by Garth Nix. Sage is reading
Redwall (Redwall, Book 1), by Brian Jacques.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. But these are the titles that came to mind when I asked.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lamentation

Time for a book recommendation!

First a note, though... When I recommend a book I don't do so in the form of an in depth review that weighs up everything. Other folks do that. When I recommend something it just means it captured my interest and attention in a strong way, stood out a bit. It doesn't mean I think it's perfect, because I don't believe it perfection, really. It does mean that whatever those blemishes were they were as natural as features of a person's face. The imperfections are part of the whole, part of the experience, part of why the work is unique. And, of course, they're trumped by the things I liked. And in this case the book I liked was...

Lamentation (The Psalms of Isaak), by Ken Scholes. Ken's a good writer, and the world he's created here is an interesting mix of fantasy and sf, a little steampunkish as well. Here's what Booklist had to say:

In his first novel, a vividly imagined sf-fantasy hybrid set in a distant, post-apocalyptic future, Scholes, already highly praised in the speculative-fiction community for his dazzlingly inventive short fiction, turns his talent up a notch. When an ancient weapon destroys Windwir, the Named Lands' greatest city and repository of knowledge, the only surviving member of the city's Androfrancine order is the metallic android Isaak. Rudolfo, lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, finds Isaak surprisingly intact in the Windwir's smoldering ruins and guilt-ridden over his role in the city's downfall. Yet Rudolfo quickly begins to suspect that Sethbert, overseer of the neighboring Entrolusian City States, is the real culprit and starts girding his Gypsy Scouts for battle. So begins Scholes' Psalms of Isaak, a projected five-volume saga containing all the ingredients of a first-rate epic-magic, arcane science, and a handful of compelling protagonists. By the end of the novel, the reader is caring deeply about the characters and looking forward with burning anticipation to the sequels.

Here's what the Fantasy Book Critic had to say.

Here's what Adventures in Reading thought.

And here's Tia Nevitt's verdict at Fantasy Debut.

Honestly, they make enough in-depth points that I'll just direct you to them without a whole lot of commentary. What I will say is that I really enjoyed that Ken wrote the book for grown ups. Lusty grown ups. Intrigue-hungry grownups. Grownups that like a bit of cataclysmic destruction and knife fights with invisible scouts. Stuff like that. But Scholes' writing, unlike much of what's out there in fantasy, doesn't feel YA. Oh, how I liked that about it...

Ken was kind enough to send me a copy of Canticle (The Psalms of Isaak), the second in the series. I've got a full plate at the moment, but I'm glad to have it on my shelf, knowing I'll pick it up before too long.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Fantasy Book Critic 2008 Review/2009 Preview

In answer to Robert's request I participated in his series having authors talk about their favs for the year, books they're looking forward to, and things coming up for them next year. It's quite a series, and he has a lot of authors participating. Take a look if you're in need of some suggestions.

Here's a bit of what I said...

"The Dreaming Void" by Peter F. Hamilton. I loved the scale of this, the variety of plotlines and engaging characters. It's all well written. Just a smart as you could ask for. Some of the plotlines are hard sci-fi feeling; some are set on almost subsistence worlds and feel more like fantasy. Nothing is really resolved in the book, but with writing like this I'm happy to read on for a few more thousand pages. Definitely my kind of book...

Check out the full post - and the site in general - HERE.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cesaria Evora

I also mentioned that we were listening to Cesaria Evora the other night in the cottage. Don't know if you've got a taste for the World Music scene, but if so you might want to check her out. Very cool. Good stuff to have in your quiver of musical options. At times you will hear Scottish fiddle music coming out of the cottage. At other times it the sounds of further flung places, like the Cape Verde Islands.

See video for the vibe...



Oh, and I haven't failed to notice that tomorrow is Christmas. My kids keep reminding me. Enjoying the build-up very much!

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Friday, December 05, 2008

And the Father-In-Law Responds!

Okay, folks, for all of you that helped suggest sci/fi and fantasy titles for my father-in-law (and those that may have watched with passing interest) here's the verdict. Yes, I just heard back from Laughton, and figured I might as well share his response, especially as this has been a collaborative effort. Here's what he wrote...

I clearly did not know what I was asking of you! I'm overwhelmed, by the time and thoughtfulness that you and all your correspondents have put into this and... by my ignorance of modern fantasy and sc-fi. You know I read a lot but this is literally (in both senses) another world.

I am pleased to say that I have read one of the suggestions... Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, probably in the early 70s. When I discovered the joys of the A Wizard of Earthsea trilogy for the children I went on to read everything of hers that I could get. Lately, her writing took on the later style and topics of Doris Lessing's 'fantasy' (although the latter has moved on/back again) and she no longer appeals to me.

My choices from your list may well then be a little conservative (I am getting old). The last thing I want is to settle down (perhaps that's stretching it a bit) on the long flights and restless airport lounges and find that the thick book with the crisp pages is not to my taste!

Robert Heinlen's Stranger in a Strange Land is appealing, probably for nostalgic reasons... I read masses of sci-fi in the late 5
0s, 60s and 70s. Less of Heinlen than I thought when I look at the shelves; they seem to contain more John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Azimov, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert etc (just name-dropping). I wonder how many of your correspondents have read A Voyage to Arcturus by the Scottish writer David Lindsay (who died fairly young)? So, Heinlen would be stepping back rather than forward...

I have my eye on a couple of recommendations, partly based (I was going to say 'mostly' but that might worry you) on your comments; I have a great respect for you judgement!

But the others...

A Game of Thrones by R R Martin sounds like a big boy's read. I think I will have to graduate to that. Maybe when I get home in January, when the nights are still long and dark and it's blowing a gale out there, I will take the plunge. No, not maybe, let's not be too tentative and timid here... I will go for this in the new year.


Richard Morgan's Thirteen/Black Man... hhmmm. The 'over-sexed' comment puts me off. Not that I would under-rate sex, but in one's late 60s I'm looking for subtlety.

Dan Simmons' Ilium? I guess I will just leave this for the reasons you know. Like I know the story of Franklin so well... incidentally, it was an Orkney man, John Rae, who first brought the news of the horror of the fate of Franklin's men, and one of his few companions was a Shetland man. Lady Franklin also makes a brief appearance in a book of mine. I felt the 'actual' story was scary enough.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf and Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, I will keep on my list for later.

I suspect I will be raising a few hackles with my very short and dismissive comments, but what do we all do when faced with so many choices?

China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. With a title like that, it sounds quite intriguing. Plus your 'bloody good read' comment. I am tempted here. Likewise, I am tempted by your comments on Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton. These I might try later along with, or before, RR Martin. So, they are sort of third/fourth choices.

I am going to take two then. Did you intentionally/unintentionally put them in order of your own preferences? (No you didn't did you! You put them in alphabetical order so as to appear completely unbiased...)

However, I am going to take your first two. Second choice is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Not because he is British writer but because it sounds frighteningly contemporary. Tell me if my hunch is way wrong.

The one that I instantly went for, though I am not sure why, is Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. On second thoughts, perhaps because I see that the author is a black woman whom I would hope might bring some fresh perspectives. Or am I the marketing man's dream who simply picks the first shiny one on offer? Like the previous book, there is a contemporary feel to it which attracts me... and... you liked it.

So thanks to you all and forgive me for my many presumptions... I'll let you know!

Thanks, David,

Laughton

And just so you know who has been talking, here's a photo of the man himself (along with his youngest daughter - and my wife).

Okay. Works for me. Butler and Gaiman. They both rock. I do hope you'll have both of them with you, Laughton, just in case either doesn't do it for you.

Octavia Butler is... well, she's the first sci/fi writer to get a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, isn't she? (Jonathan Lethem scooped one more recently. As far as I could tell, he bought really suave new glasses with the cash.) I know pretentious literary prizes aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I wouldn't say no to $500,000 "Out of the Blue", with no strings attached, just for being... geniusy. And, yes, in many ways Ms. Butler's racial identity informs her writing. She would've been brilliant anyway, but she has a wide, empathetic perspective that I'm quite sure was influenced by the particular details of the skin she lived her life in.

And, yes, Gaiman does strike me as "frighteningly contemporary", at least in reference to American Gods. Neither author is one that I assume everyone will like, but both have a measure of brilliance that I'd encourage anyone to at least try. Notes on two other titles... I finished The Dreaming Void recently. Liked it very much, although as I rounded the last hundred pages or so I got to suspecting there wasn't going to be much in the way of resolution at the end. I wasn't wrong. Mr. Hamilton wraps things up like a professional, but this is clearly just the beginning of this particular story. And Perdido Street Station got another celebrity shout out recently - John Scalzi spoke of it as one of his favorite books on several occasions at LosCon. As we all know, Mr. Scalzi is a very smart guy.

Okay, I think that brings the "Help Me Pick a Book For My Father-in-Law" segment of this blog to a close. Thanks for playing. In closing... I'm curious. Anyone read A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay?

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Friday, November 28, 2008

The Father-in-Law List

Okay, here it is, the list of recommended sci-fi/fantasy books I've been trying to prepare for my father-in-law. I appreciate all the responses to my earlier query on this, and it has effected what I finally came up with. Honestly, one of the ways it effected it is that instead of recommending ONE book I realized I'd need to give him a shortlist and leave it up to him. So that's what I'm presenting here.

As I say, I did appreciate all the suggestions. The things I ended up recommending have at least little bit to do with the particular person my father-in-law is. (All good. All good.) Also, though, I was inclined to recommend titles that had a feel of tenure to them - either because they or the authors had been around for awhile. So don't think I've ignored or dissed the Abercrombie, Abraham, Lynch, Rothfuss, Ruckley contingent. I think those guys are awesome. I'm also glad to say I know most of them, and it does feel very good to be writing fantasy in amongst such promising emerging stars.

Okay, enough of that. Here are the books I think my father-in-law should consider. Are you paying attention, Laughton? Take a look at...

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. Loved this one. My first Butler book. Might be a little worrying to a man whose daughter lives in far away Central California, but I swear I'll take the kids and run before it gets this bad. Promise.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods. Neil made me feel all funny inside when I met him. Tongue-tied and silly. What can I say, though? He rocks the black leather jacket, and this book is... well, it's sort of like "A Great American Urban/Contemporary Fantasy", if such a category existed, and if it I didn't matter that a Brit wrote it.

Peter F Hamilton, Dreaming Void. I'm actually in the middle of this right now. It's the first Hamilton I've read, so some folks may have other faves of his instead. I'm just really enjoying the smart writing, the multiple plot lines and the amazing diversity of his far future. This is a novel of both high-technology and subsistence-based worlds, all woven into the same epic tale. Kinda like an exploded version of the mix we have going on earth.

Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land. Classic sci-fi, yeah? I could see Laughton liking this one. I do think it shows some... uh... well, dating in terms of gender roles, etc. I had a mini-argument with Pat Rothfuss on this issue. (I won, by the way, though Pat may not know that.) Still, quite a book.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. I'm sure he's read LeGuin before, but maybe not this one. I think she's absolutely great. Wrote her a gushing note awhile back, actually. Didn't hear back, but that doesn't change my affection for her work.

George RR Martin, Game of Thrones. This one means inviting him into a big, unfinished, gigantic work. I have to mention it, though. I think Martin is tops in epic fantasy. (We're on a first name basis, you know? Hehe...)

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station. China. Okay. Confession. I haven't actually read him. I mean to, and I will, and I can't help but want to recommend him cause this book sounds so bloody good.

Richard Morgan, Thirteen/Black Man. Technically, Richard and I are exactly the same age. (Hence my assumption that I can call him by his first name - as with China above.) Still, he's cranked out some lean, mean books. This one isn't so lean, really, but I thought it was terribly smart. As I mentioned when I praised it before, it is a bit over-sexed. Err... But we're all grown-ups here, right?

Dan Simmons, Ilium . So, as I mentioned before, The Terror didn't go over that well with the prospective reader in question here. But Simmons got so much love from folks he seemed a reasonable one to include for a second try.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (or The Diamond Age.) I haven't read Anathem yet, but I've loved several other Stephenson novels. I'm looking forward to this new one, and folks seem to think it's worth it.

Gene Wolfe, The Book Of The New Sun: Volume 1: Shadow and Claw. I saw Wolfe pick up a World Fantasy Award a couple years back in Saratoga Springs. Not for this book, but it was still well-deserved. Wonderful writer.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light. And this is another star figure of sci-fi history that I haven't read. I guess I recommend it because Zelazny is on my too-read list also, and I've heard so many good things about him that he seems like a safe beat.

Okay. That's what I came up with this time. I think there's some good reading here...

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Friday, November 14, 2008

I Need Suggestions...

A little help here, please. Yesterday my father in law asked me for a recommendation of a good sci-fi or fantasy book. He's heading to New Zealand for Christmas (to enjoy the summering sun with his other daughter's family) and he fancies reading a big book, something to get lost in. No, I can't recommend anything of mine, cause he's read all of them. (I'd like to think, actually, that Acacia sort of planted the seed for this query.)

Some context first. My father is Scottish, a Shetlander who lives in that lovely wee cottage I've posted photos of so often. This one...

Yes, it's bloody isolated, but it's isolated in a good way. Inside, it's filled with books and art and letters and photos from his far-flung family. He reads really widely, and is looking for something to rival Dune... See my dilemma? How do you rival Dune? I can't point him toward an OK book. It can't be light on substance. It's got to be a gem.

The weird thing is that as enthusiastic a proponent of the genre(s) as I am, I'm having a hard time settling on a book. I keep thinking of ones I love, but then there's always something that makes me think twice about it. Hence, this call for suggestions.

So, on my shortlist so far are...

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

A Game of Thrones
, by GRRM

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

Is it one of these I should go with, or something else I'm not thinking of right now?...

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wall-E

I'll keep this short... When I think of how much meaningless drivel (ugly, vacuous, violent, divisive, etc.) Hollywood produces and America (and the world, too) consumes I'm... Well, actually, I try not to think about it. I'm just used to it. All the gore in the aisles of Blockbuster... But coming out of Wall-E yesterday, I couldn't help but be amazed at the positive power of film and the sheer joy of being taken away by a great story.

If you haven't seen this movie, please go and see it. Take a kid if you have one available, but go even if you don't. It's special, and the filmmakers deserve your money in payment for them making it. I didn't know how powerful the experience was until the final credits rolled. Don't get me wrong, I am talking about a kid's flick. It is funny and light and enjoyable... But that's why I was so struck at the end. This movie is, thematically, about big issues. What's so stunning about it to me is that the filmmakers manage to be critical of human (Western) folly without being shrill or accusatory. This is a film about the biggest mistake humans can make, an enormous crime that we are in the midst of right now, but it's made with love, not anger. (Well, not exactly...) Man, these guys are smart...

That's all I want to say about it.

If you want to hear what a few others thought here's:

Ty Burr at the Boston Globe


Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun Times

and Claudia Puig at USA Today. (They all loved it too.)

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Terror

So here's a heartfelt, but qualified recommendation. I'll get to the heartfelt part later, but first the qualifications...

There are many reasons to read Dan Simmons' The Terror. Many. But don't - please, just don't - read it if you can't deal with multiple point of view characters. Don't read it if you have a problem with long books. Don't read it if you think historical novels have to follow some literal version of the truth. Don't read it if your such a buff on Sir John Franklin's last expedition that you're only looking to find fault in a novelist's version. And don't read it if you can't stomach scurvy, murder, amputations, cannibalism, and generally watching white guys flail...

And it's not that I look down on you if those things don't work for you in fiction. Honestly, I don't for a minute think that my wife would like this book. She gets my utmost respect, but the descriptions of scurvy alone would do her in. So, I'm just saying, if this book ain't for you it ain't for you...

Okay. If you're still here... The Terror is an amazing book. As a writer of historical fiction, I know exactly how complex and difficult it is to render historical material credibly. Simmons does that. Early on I forget that I'm reading an American author at all. His predominantly British characters are completely credible, rendered in a variety of formats, intimate third person, journal entries, omniscient and even fairly mystical moments.

This is, ostensibly, the tale of Franklin's 1840s expedition and its doomed search for the Northwest Passage. But Simmons doesn't let the sparsity of real historical detail - the fact that the expedition's two ships disappeared with very few signs of what might have happened to the crew - get in the way of his imagined history. Nor does he limit it to straight historical fiction.

Right from the start we are told of a "thing on the ice" that is tormenting the trapped ships. It's hard to know what it is exactly, but the wondering and speculating is part of what makes the novel so engaging.

No doubt, it is a long haul at 784 pages, but I'm not one to throw stones at large books. For me, this novel is a remarkable bit of detailed, nuanced historical fiction. It's also a work of Gothic horror. I'd argue that it's ultimately more mystical than horrific, but in order for that to make any sense you'd have to read it to the end. By the way, I rather liked the end. I won't say a thing about it, other than to note that I, for one, did not feel let down by how it all played out.

Okay, enough from me. I liked the book. If you want some other opinions there are many out there, including these...

Here's the New York Times Review.

Here's the Washington Post Review.

Here's the Agony Column Review.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

James McBride

Do you know James McBride, the author of The Color of Water and Miracle at St Anna? The guy has sold a lot of books, so there's a good chance you have heard of him. And there's a good chance you'll be hearing more about him soon. Spike Lee is filming Miracle as St Anna, with an impressive cast signed on. Could be very interesting.

And he's got a new novel coming out this month, Song Yet Sung and I see it's already getting some great pre-publication attention. Here's what Publishers Weekly said about it in a starred review, for example:

Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and adventure in bestselling memoirist (The Color of Water) McBride's intricately constructed and impressive second novel, set in pre–Civil War Maryland. Liz Spocott, a beautiful young runaway slave, suffers a nasty head wound just before being nabbed by a posse of slave catchers. She falls into a coma, and, when she awakes, she can see the future—from the near-future to Martin Luther King to hip-hop—in her dreams. Liz's visions help her and her fellow slaves escape, but soon there are new dangers on her trail: Patty Cannon and her brutal gang of slave catchers, and a competing slave catcher, nicknamed The Gimp, who has a surprising streak of morality. Liz has some friends, including an older woman who teaches her The Code that guides runaways; a handsome young slave; and a wild inhabitant of the woods and swamps. Kidnappings, gunfights and chases ensue as Liz drifts in and out of her visions, which serve as a thoughtful meditation on the nature of freedom and offer sharp social commentary on contemporary America. McBride hasn't lost his touch: he nails the horrors of slavery as well as he does the power of hope and redemption.

Now, my fantasy readers may not immediately see how that's just up my ally, but it is. My second novel, Walk Through Darkness was about... well, about a runaway slave from Maryland and the tracker in pursuit of him. Familiar territory. So I'm very interested.

Actually, I'm also involved! The Washington Post asked me to review Song Yet Sung. I did, and the review came out today. It's here if you're interested.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Locus List of Books on... Well, on Lists...

Locus has come up with a list of the sci-fi and fantasy books that appeared on the most Best of the Year lists. Pleased to say Acacia: The War with the Mein is one of them! You can check it out here. Good books in this group, but I'm biased...

For the record, I noticed they didn't include Kirkus Reviews in the sources they picked from. If they had I've have earned another point and been bumped up to next to Pat Rothfuss.

Ah, well, I'll get you later, Pat.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Looking for an Agent? I Know Just the Person...

I've just learned some very good news. Colleen Lindsay (aka La Gringa) has jumped from one side of the literary desk to the other. She's an agent now! She's just accepted an offer from FinePrint Literary Management, and she'll be handling science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.

This is very good news for writers in those fields. I've known Colleen since last spring, when she signed on as my publicist for Acacia: The War with the Mein. She was - for Doubleday and me - the expert advocate we needed to navigate into a new genre. She did a freaking great job, and has a share in any success Acacia has had - or will yet have, really. She knows her stuff. She's tireless, connected, enthusiastic, and pretty darn funny as well. Her cats seem to boss her around a bit, but that doesn't often effect her work.

So... looking for an agent? Make sure to write some good stuff first, and then give her a call...

Here's the GalleyCat entry on it.

And here's a link to FinePrint Literary Management.

Oh, and here's one to LaGringa's blog: Swivet!

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Albino Girl

Hey, here's a way to sample a new author for just .45 Cents. (That's nothing!) Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, author of two well received young adult fantasy novels, has a new story up for sale on Amazon: The Albino Girl. Take a look.

I think what's she doing - bringing African storytelling traditions into contemporary fantasy - is just awesome. I'm also happy to point you in her direction because I've had the pleasure of meeting Nnedi. She's great fun to be around, a real unique spirit. And it's not just me that thinks so. Ursula LeGuin blurbed her and Neil Gaiman conversed with her with the type of rapt interest that makes other authors purple with envy. (I know this. I was there and saw it with my own eyes...)

Anyway, here's a bit of info on her...

Nnedi was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. Though American-born, Nnedi's muse continues to be Nigeria, where her parents have been taking her to visit relatives since she was very young. Because Nigeria is her muse, this is where her stories tend to take place, either literally or figuratively. Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature as a whole, her work is always filled with startling vivid flora and fauna. And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o are her greatest influences her work tends to beon the creative side.

Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was published by Houghton Mifflin and will be published in Nigeria in 2008 by Kachifo Ltd. It was shortlisted for the Parallax Award and Kindred Award, a finalist for the Golden Duck Award and nominated for a Locus Award (Best First Novel). Zahrah the Windseeker takes place in a highly technological world based on Nigerian myth, culture and land.

Her second novel, The Shadow Speaker, published by Disney's Hyperion Books for Children (Jump at the Sun), takes place in the countries of Niger and Nigeria. About The Shadow Speaker, Nnedi says: Spontaneous forests, polygamy, strange insects, Nigerian 419 scammers, really really fast cars, a different kind of Sahara Desert, male beauty contests, the apocalypse, life, death, sword fights, fat chiefs, assassins, this novel is kind of nuts!

Nnedi earned her PhD in English at the University of Illinois and is currently teaching creative writing at Chicago State University. Learn more about Nnedi at nnedi.com.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Can you guess what book they're talking about?

That Tess Gerritsen post from a while back created a nice little discussion. People had interesting interpretations of (and issues) with her post, which I enjoyed hearing about. Right from the start, though, I was thinking about an off-shoot that wasn't really her topic. That is, what to make of reviews that attack works you love as if they had absolutely no value, quality, anything of interest to anybody? Every book that's been read by enough people has a few of these reviews on Amazon. (And they happen in paid-reviewer venues as well.) They're usually in the minority, sure, but they can feel like tiny worlds all to themselves, worlds in which the reviewer acknowledges no other perspective than his/her own (or dismisses those other perspectives as crap)...

Okay, so here a few quotes taken from one star Amazon reviews of four books. Each book gets a few choice critiques. See if you can guess the book by the quotes. They're all completely famous books. I'll name the books down at the end.

BOOK ONE:

"Clumsy writing, heavy-handed symbolism, self-righteousness, unbelievable dialogue, characters even a comic book would blush at. A book that insults the intelligence at every level."

"This was not a good book. The dialogue is stilted, the characters are caricatures, and everyone's always "hissing", "glaring", or "swallowing with a dry throat"... from where I stand, XXX is a poorly-written, lackluster, repetitive tale."

"This is a chore. I don't go for complex storylines and this book is the worst of the worst for those. I kept turning back to read over parts I had not taken in the first time, and in the end I gave up. I got to almost half-way, but I had lost interest way before then."

BOOK TWO:

"I was stupefied by its thick, plodding, contrived plot and bizarrely drawn characters. I do not understand why on earth this book has received the altitudinous praise it has received. I would not choose to teach it again and I would not recommend it. Maybe something else by XXX (who I feel is an "okay" writer, but certainly not an American great) would do."

"Awkward, boring, poorly written, nearly incomprehensible. I admit I did not get to page 75 - so maybe I shouldn't even write a review. But even getting to the point that I did, took extreme perseverance... honestly, I hated it - or the part that I did read... Didn't work for me at all. Don't bother with XXX."

"Simply Unreadable."

BOOK THREE:

"I admit I only read the first 120 pages. Reading the entire book is not my responsibility. Instead, it is the author's responsibility to maintain my interest."

"Completely disappointing. Read to learn how not to write."

"The reason I hate this book is because it sucked! I was astonished that it got so many great reviews. The plot was extremely slow and dull. And the whole story seemed unoriginal, like I've heard it many times before. The author has been praised for his amazing characters and personally I found them flat, boring and predictable. They seemed to have no original thoughts or feelings and some of their actions were unrealistic in human nature. I felt as if everyone had a blank expression on their face and they were speaking in monotone... I think this is a horrible author and you would do good to avoid his work."

BOOK FOUR:

"I really didn't like this book. Maybe it's because you need an imagination to read it, and mine isn't always there. It just seemed too unrealistic, and I just hated it."

"I found this book the most boring and monotonous book I've ever read... I literally had to slap myself a couple of times to stay awake and read this darn book. I just found this book disgusting boring, but that's just my opinion."

"To call this book an enduring American classic gives America a bad name."

"This book was a profound disappointment. It offered nothing in the way of plot, characters, or theme. It is a long, painstaking, tedious read. Don't bother with this book."

"Simply put: What a lousy novel! Maybe this was his first novel...I don't know. Anyways, I sure hope he doesn't plan on writing anything else. I read this book, initially, in the author's native bulgarian language...and it was even worse! The translator was probably trying to do us a favor by touching up this P.O.S. novel, but I think it would take an act of God to save this text..."

And just what books are these (so you know to avoid them)?

BOOK ONE: Dune, by Frank Herbert

BOOK TWO: Beloved, by Toni Morrison

BOOK THREE: A Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin

BOOK FOUR: Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Anyway, these are just a few I picked out. Any book that's been read by a lot of people ends up with reactions like these. (Go look up one of your favorites.) My books have gotten a few as well, so even little me hasn't dodged the angry reader's wrath. (Except for Walk Through Darkness, which has only Four and Five starred reviews. Go figure...)

Oh, by the way, I highly recommend all four books. They're totally different, but I think they're each awesome in their own way. Does that mean I think everyone will love (or even like) everything about them? No, but unlike these detractors, I'm not saying I have the intelligence and knowledge and insight to damn them for all possible readers. I'm just saying that at least this one person (me) found something wonderful in each of these. That's quite different than suggesting that because I hated something everyone else will/should also. I like that kinder and gentler approach...

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kirkus Reviews: The Best of Fiction 2007

I just learned that Acacia: The War with the Mein was chosen as one of Kirkus Reviews ten best works of fiction this year! Whaah? Really? How strange, in a nice way. The list isn't ten best works of sci-fi/fantasy, or best by an African-American author or any other sub-category. It's just there as one of "The Best of 2007 - Fiction". Period. I'm sharing space with writers like National Book Award Winner Andrea Barrett, National Book Award nominees Mischa Berlinski and Amy Bloom, and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin.

It's actually really gratifying to have this stellar year of recognition from Kirkus. I think it's fair to say they can be pretty hard to please. (That's putting it mildly.) In my case I've had my ups and downs with them. They gave Gabriel's Story a great starred review, but then rather trashed Walk Through Darkness (and almost sounded like they wanted to take that earlier star back because of it). Their review of Pride of Carthage was absolutely fabulous, arguably the best pre-pub I've ever had. They kept the star close to their chest, though, and didn't let me have it. Enter 2007, and they came on board unreservedly: starred review, feature in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Special Edition and now this best of the year nod. Thanks Kirkus.

If you're interested in seeing the rest of the list, and other titles they recommend, go here to their 2007 Special Issues page. You can then click on Best of 2007 and/or Sci-Fi and Fantasy to view the pdfs of those editions.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Naked Through Utah

I've never had cause to embed a YouTube video here until today. But that was before I saw this music video by an old friend. The song is "Pull the Sky Down" and the singer in Paul Burke. About a decade ago, we were both raft guides on some wonderful California whitewater rivers. We saw some big water together that year. El Nino an all that. Paul Burke knows how to flip a raft with style. Apparently, he also knows how to keep musical dreams alive.

I dig this song. I like the combination of laid back humor, the U2-ish sound of it, garage band nostalgia mixed with the wisdom that comes from admitting the years are passing and our views of the world maturing. And I like the uplifting tone of it. Well done. If you have a minute give it a listen.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tidbits

Hello. Nothing profound to say this Sunday afternoon. Just spent a few days in Tahoe, very nice. Loved the air, the vistas, the cold. It always does us good to get up to altitude.

I've been quite pleased that folks have joined my Forum and put their names in for the audio Acacia giveaway (Click Here for the Original Post About It). The contest is still open, so if you're interested in picking up a free copy of the audio version of Acacia pop over to the Forum and sign up. I'm thinking I'll leave it open until the end of the month, and then I'll do the big drawing! (Hey, it's my first giveaway. I'm digging it.)

I got a stellar review from Joe Sherry over at his Adventures in Reading blog. It's easy for me to point you his direction on this occasion, seeing as how he's proved himself an insightful reader - the kind I do figurative somersaults on hearing from. I also don't mind just sending you in his direction in general, though. He's an active blogger that has a wide range of reading tastes. He's just got his 10,000 visitor. Nice numeric milestone to reach!

Oh, I'm also pleased to say the Durham family is soon to be conducting an interview with Kai Meyer. He's a wonderful, internationally bestselling writer of many novels, known in English translations primarily for his YA fantasy. I say "the Durham family" because all of us have been reading his books. Kai agreed to take questions from adults and kids alike, so look for what we put together in the coming weeks! Maybe it'll be the start of a series of some sort...

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Mrs. Kimble

Putting on my "literary" writer/reader cap for a moment...

I just finished Mrs. Kimble, a first novel by Jennifer Haigh. I'd known of Ms. Haigh for some time. Actually, her second novel, Baker Towers, came out about the same time as Pride of Carthage. I think we were Booksense selections the same month and did a similar round of reviews for a while. So she was very much on my radar, but she was one of many writers I'd not yet actually got around to reading. I was prompted to recently, though, because Steve Yarbrough has managed to arrange for her to visit Cal State next month. I'm glad he did. It prompted me to read the book, and that's a good thing.

It's very well-written, deserving of the Pen/Hemingway Award it picked up. Reading it I was aware of how many things Haigh does right - the kind of things I'd like my students to pick up on. Again and again I thought things like, "Oh, yeah, exactly, that's a great way to develop this character through description of simple actions that do double duty in terms of being revealing of intimate information as well". Or, "Now that's what I mean when I talk about making sure each scene both works on its own and adds to the cumulative progression of the larger narrative" etc.

Admittedly, there were times (quite a few) that I was frustrated with the various Mrs. Kimbles. (There are more than one in the novel.) But that was never a frustration directed at the author. It was appropriate to the characters, to the flaws they lived with and way those flaws affected the decisions they made - or didn't. And I was very impressed by the sense of completion and satisfaction I felt at the end. By no means does Haigh answer all the questions. There are aspects of all her characters that remain hidden. She does, however, move them toward a reasonable and realistic sort of narrative closure.

It was well done. I'm a picky reader at the best of times, and much of what's offered and lauded as "literary fiction" these days can leave me feeling a bit tepid. Jennifer Haigh delivered, though, with a quiet, thoughtful and carefully crafted novel. I look forward to meeting her, and I plan to read her sophomore effort, Baker Towers, before I do!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Friends in High Places...

Ya know, a strange and rather enjoyable thing has been happening lately. I've found myself corresponding more and more often with other authors - authors that I've read and respect and that (surprise!) have also read and respect me. I guess the internet makes this a lot easier, and I'm thankful for that. Of course, it took me a minute to get over my initial skepticism in this case...

You see, a couple weeks back I woke up to find two emails from people whose names were suspiciously like some famous authors that I'd read. A new form of span perhaps? Some marketing campaign? Was I going to be inundated with fake emails? Or was there some other explanation?...

Happily, there was. The emails actually were from the authors themselves, and they were writing to tell me the dug my work! This was particularly awesome because I dug their work, too. And thus I entered into a mutual-admiration correspondence with both these guys. I don't suppose they'd mind if I mention them here, especially as the mention takes the form of recommendations.

The first email that morning was from Kai Meyer. Kai is a German author of lots of books for adults and children. He's sold millions worldwide, but has a quite modest American profile. What I read of his were the first two installments on his Dark Reflections Trilogy: The Water Mirror and Stone Light. They're great. Very unusual. Chock full of imaginative flares and unexpected turns and images that are original and often unnerving at the same time.

It begins in an alternative Venice, one patrolled by stone lions, with canals filled with mistreated mermaids. The city is besieged by the Egyptian Pharaoh, with his army of floating barges powdered by magicians that harvest bodies from graves and turn them into walking dead soldiers.

The second book includes an extended trip to Hell. Not quite the Hell we're familiar with from our lore, though. This is an entirely different Hell at the center of the earth, a place in turns vastly empty and thronging with life forms on a massive scale. I've never read anything like it. Phillip Pullman comes close, but I'd say that Kai's imagination works at an altogether different pitch.

I get the feeling American publishers don't know exactly what to do with him. He's been described as "very European", but I don't know what that means except that he's different in a way they can't easily categorize. Many of his protagonists are young, resourceful girls, and there is a dark streak to the material that just doesn't feel like Kansas. But I enjoyed them, and I look forward to the concluding volume.

The second email was from David Liss! He's the author of several very popular historical novels. A Conspiracy of Paper (about the early days of stock speculation in 18th Century London, featuring a former pugilist - um, boxer I guess you could say - Benjamin Weaver, who is hired to retrieve an item a gentlemen unfortunately lost to a prostitute and finds himself caught up in rather a complicated web of deceit), The Coffee Trader (about a Portuguese Jew in 17th Century Amsterdam that tries to make a killing in the exotic, "Coffee-Fruit" market), and A Spectacle of Corruption (again returning to Benjamin Weaver as he finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit - mind, now, he does commit some murders, but not the one he got convicted of - which is bound to be a bit annoying).

At this point I've read several of his novels and enjoyed each one. In a way I feel the comfortable structure of good crime writing in them, but they're also marvelously detailed historical studies as well. These are books that you enjoy and learn from at the same time.

His lastest book is a contemporary crime novel set in Florida, The Ethical Assassin. This last is a little bit Carl Hiaasen and little bit Elmore Leonard and... well, a good bit of David Liss as well. It's interesting to see him working in the contemporary realm (if the 1980's can be considered that). He does it well, but I don't think he plans to stay here long. Seems like he has another historical novel in the works for next year, and then another Benjamin Weaver for the year after that.

That's productivity you can take to the bank. Wish I had more of that. I don't go to the bank nearly as much as I'd like... When I do I'm making withdrawals... That's not quite the way I want it to work...

Anyway, though, if any of this sounds interesting to you please check them out.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Octavia Butler: Parable of the Sower


So I said a while back that I would recommend a book every now and then. Do my part to spread the word about wonderful writing and writers. You'll likely almost all know of Octavia Butler, but for those of you that don't I'd like to bring her to your attention. And if you know of her but haven't read her yet... well, I'd like to give you a push.

I'm putting out Parable of the Sower as a place to start, but that's really only because that's where I started with her. I've read more of her since, and every time I've been reminded how brilliant she is, how far-reaching her empathy. Her novels have great range, and I'm sure that as I read more of her over the years I'll discover new favorites.

But I really did enjoy Parable of the Sower. "Enjoy" is a strange word for it, of course, because the material she's writing about is grim in many ways. It's a near future that doesn't really look so unfamiliar. This isn't a novel of space travel and aliens - although Butler does those too. It's very much a version of our world just tweaked a bit. As such, it's frightening. I won't really go into the plot too much at all, except to say it involves the crumbling of our civil society, a collage of social conflicts, and a journey through a treacherous landscape of our own design. At it's heart is a young woman - a black woman, girl really - that dreams up a vision of a future she feels propelled to see made real.

Lest this all sound too depressing, do know that this novel is also filled with generosity and promise. Butler may be unwavering in her study of our crimes and passions, prejudices and fears, but she's also amazingly compassionate, and manages to convey the potential for love that's just as much part of our human nature.

So I recommend this one, or any other Butler book that looks interesting to you. She was a great writer, and I'm increasingly saddened that she passed away. Geez, I would've loved to have met her!

If you're interested in more information on her there are plenty of resources out there. A quick search brought me to this: New York Times Piece, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Slate Obituary. Here's an NPR interview with Scott Simon and another with Jelani Cobb and another from CyberHaven/Amazon.com.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Subterranean Press!

A while back I had the pleasure of corresponding with Bill at the Subterranean Press. They do lovely special editions of selected works, mostly fantasy and sci-fi. They print them in small numbers, with original covers and illustrations, and usually with an authors' signature, I believe. Great stufff for the collector in you.

Anyway, they were kind enough to send me a few sample books...

I'm particularly happy about getting Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora. I had the rather unfortunate experience of being at the same fair in the Netherlands as Scott, but somehow managed NOT to connect with him over the course of several days. No matter, we'll meet one day. And in the meantime I now have a lovely signed copy of his debut...

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Some Jeffrey Lent Stuff


I've got two Jeffrey Lent related pieces of information. First is a very early, very positive STARRED review from Publishers Weekly for his forthcoming novel, A Peculiar Grace. It doesn't come out until late July, but they obviously wanted to go on record first. Here's what they said...

Family-fracturing secrets are at the heart of Lent's luminous third novel, a transcendent story about the healing power of love and art. Two decades after an intense romance curdled, hermetic Hewitt Pearce is living in his familys rural Vermont home, firing up his tractor for the occasional two-mile trip to the village, sometimes hiding in his hay barn, and producing prized custom ironwork when the spirit moves him. Upheaval arrives in the form of Jessica, a psychologically troubled waif with mysterious connections to Hewitt's late artist father. Then Hewitt learns that Emily, the girl he loved years earlier and whose life he has tracked from afar, is now a widow. Evocative flashbacks reveal his family's turbulent history, including Hewitt's days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll on a commune and his dark period of "death-by-whisky drinking" after breaking up with Emily. This sympathetic depiction of a decent man wrestling with his demons while deciding whether to revive an old love or open himself to a new lover is less visceral than Lent's astonishing debut, In the Fall, and less gritty than his second novel, Lost Nation, but it's no less magisterial and every bit as beautifully written.

Not bad. Okay, the other thing is that Jeffrey offered a blurb for Acacia. I'm thrilled about this. Jeffrey has blurbed my books before, so that part of it isn't new. But I wasn't sure at all what he'd think of Acacia: The War with the Mein. He's a highly literary writer, and his reading tastes are mostly in that area. But he read the novel with an open mind and liked it enough that he didn't mind saying so publicly. Here's what he said...

It's the rare novel indeed that overwhelms and absorbs us to the point that we live fully within it. I read Acacia in four long wondrous days, unable to leave the book. Durham has created a world so familiar and distant at once that the reader is transported and transfixed- the braiding together of this world through numerable plotlines is effortlessly accomplished and compelling with magnificent prose that illuminates crisply and cinematically. Acacia is full of wonders, brought to us by a masterful writer, a wizard of mind and place.

Cool.

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