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09-08-10: Mary Robinette Kowal Reads and Gives a Puppet Show at SF in SF on August 21, 2010

"Jane Austen was kind of British."

—Mary Robinette Kowal

Yes, You read that right. Puppet show podcast, right here on The Agony Column. I think it is a first, but I'm not so concerned about first as I am about Mary Robinette Kowal's spot-on British accent. You'll hear her talk in the introduction she gives, and then when she starts the reading, prepare to have your world disappear. She's really quite good at the accent.

For this podcast from SF in SF, you'll hear Rina Weisman's introduction to the show itself, as well as Terry Bisson's introduction of the readers and Mary Robinette Kowal. She gives a longish introduction to her novel, 'Shades of Milk and Honey,' taking care to set up the story. Then, you're off into a nice solid 20-minute reading that will give flavor of her writing and her story.

Kowal is a great reader with a great British accent, and you can see this when you're editing the sound file, the perfect clipped pace and the even volume. What I heard was more than enough to interest me, but I like these sort of novels anyway. While I understand that Austen herself would have been loathe to read, write or appear in one, the vibe just seems perfect. Kowal gets this and handles the writing well.

But when the reading ends, the fun begins. I'm not sure how the listening experience of the puppet show will strike the podcast audience. You'll certainly hear Kowal address you an apology. But once she gets going, back in accent, it is pretty wild. And, as Terry Bisson observes, a hard act to follow.

'Shades of Milk and Honey' is a Jane-with-magic novel, a subgenre that you can expect to show solid growth over the coming years, if I judge the reaction of a friend who cannot get enough correctly. It is also something else, which I shall let the author explain to you directly when you follow this link to the MP3 audio file.

09-07-10: Two Books With Alan Cheuse

'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen and 'The Fall' by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

There is an unfortunate dearth of novels featuring harried, unpleasant suburbanites with complex inner lives and prehensile, blood-sucking stingers in their throats. After all, it's fiction isn't it? It's not like you have to stick to the sort of stories you'll find in the Everytown Mundane Daily Gazette. It's not as if the only fodder for the imagination has to be pre-formatted to fit the imaginations of fourteen-year old girls. Remember, we want to read fiction not lingerie catalogues.

For those who want their fiction fictional, involving, and, now and again enjoy a prehensile, blood-sucking stinger, your intrepid reviewers, myself and NPR's Alan Cheuse, have once again dared to turn the pages of books that will be pitched at you faster than hardballs from a Major-league baseball cannon. Look out, he's on the front cover of a national news magazine! Duck, one of these guys has a new movie out based on his novel, the other is the subject of more speculation than the indigenous population of Mars. When you can't get away from them, it helps to hear some words from those who never get away.

Insomnia is my excuse, and Alan Cheuse needs no excuse since he's a National Institution. I think they ought to put him up on Rushmore before they add any late-twentieth-century astrology fans. And that's why when we need the big guns to go up against the big gun, we have Alan Cheuse.

Alan and I have been talking about both these books for quite some time, and we don't see exactly eye-to-eye on at least one of them. But that is precisely the joy of these conversations, and the point of having a conversation. It's not so much the words that each of us speaks, but the how the spaces in-between what we say get filled in. It's easy to forget that you need two eyes to perceive depth.

In this month's installment, Alan and I begin a discussion about books that we'll be carrying on in our next conversation as well. And we have a great deal of fun discussing two books that seem to operate on opposite ends of the spectrum. You cannot get a more important event novel than Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom.' He's always brilliant, and nobody can dispute that. But a reading experience is always personal as well.

On what might seem to be the opposite end of the scale, we have two movie-related authors, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, with the second book in a vampire trilogy. If I left out their names, I swear my eyes would glaze over at the prospect of reading this novel. But their first novel together, 'The Strain,' was utterly superb — haunting and page-turning. The real question was how they would confront the deadly middle-book problem (no beginning, no end). The answer is 'The Fall.' You can hear my conversation with Alan Cheuse about these two novels by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

09-06-10: A 2010 Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

"I'm telling myself you bloody well better figure out where this is going because you have to start heading there sometime around now."

—Guy Gavriel Kay

It's getting far enough into the year now that I can look back on the books that really stood out for me. I'm no longer interested in making lists, but I can say that for me, Guy Gavriel Kay's 'Under Heaven' was a wonderful, superb reading experience, and were I a list-maker, it would be on a list.

Kay's novel offers a sense of wonder, characters who strike a deep emotional chord in the reader, and simple storytelling bravura that sweeps you away. If you've not brought and read 'Under Heaven,' now is a great time to do so. If you already have, then you know why I write this, and why I am happy to podcast our conversation from his visit here in May.

For me, this is clearly Kay's most mature and compelling work. And in our conversation at KQED, he made the reasons clear. 'Under Heaven' seems inspired, and it is. As Kay and I spoke of how he came to create his latest novel, it became clear to me that the sense of wonder and fresh feeling in his work is the result of his writing process. Kay writes from the heart, which explains why his work is so affecting to the heart.

For all the inspiration, improvisation and imagination that goes into Kay's work, there is an equal amount of knowledge-driven research. He reads for his subject voraciously and internalizes a time, so that he can transform it in his fiction. In the case of 'Under Heaven,' Kay told me about his discovery of the Tang Dynasty and his chosen method of fictionalizing history as opposed to writing historical fiction. He used the word "filibuster" when I brought this up, because he's really quite passionate about what he does. And that translates into the fiction.

We also talked about prose, and here too Kay is quite emphatic. To my mind, the prose in 'Under Heaven' strikes the right balance between poetic and practical, between sparse and lush. He knows when to swing one way, when to swerve the other. We also talked about the poet who nearly runs away with the book, and the poetry Kay included. That said, this book trends more towards page-turning and never into naval-gazing. Gripping characters find themselves in the midst of gripping, "interesting times." Same as it ever was. And, same as it ever shall be, you can hear our conversation about the art of transmuting history by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

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