Ben Percy The Ninth Metal and The Unexpected Garden

Fun is an undersold aspect of literature, and indeed much literature manages to minimize the import of fun, even when there’s lots of it to be had in the reading.  So when an author embraces fun and really goes for it, all the while managing to include all the other important bits, it’s really noticeable.  When you pick up the books in Ben Percy’s The Comet Cycle, The Ninth Metal and The Unexpected Garden, prepare to have a blast.  These are the closest thing to a blockbuster movie you’re likely to find with words as the means of expression.  They will put a big fat smile on your face as you read, and make you think about going back for a second viewing, that is, reading.

The premise behind this well-planned (for improvisation) series is a classic SF trope.  An extra-solar comet blows through the solar system and while it does not directly pose a threat to earth, its path does cross earth’s orbit, leaving behind what Frank Zappa once called Cosmic Debris.  When the earth passes through it, lots of weird stuff falls.  There’s some damage, but more weirdness, as well as some seeming treasure, including the titular Ninth Metal.  The first novel, The Ninth Metal, is set in Northfall, Minnesota, where there was lots of damage, but also lots of treasure – omnimetal, which glows blue and makes lots of heretofore unimaginable tech easy to achieve.  Before the comet, Northfall was a mining town on a long slide downhill.  Now it’s back to being a boomtown.

John Frontier is the black-sheep son of the family that once ran Northfall, and Dad wants him to take up the reigns again.  Victoria Lennon is a scientist for the DOD, brought in to research omnimetal, but is now immersed in a very unpleasant series of experiments.  Percy does a fantastic job of setting up his main characters, and crafting a world re-born.  He quickly fleshes out his plot and those enmeshed in it, providing at once aching realism that is recombined with the DNA of monster and superhero movies.  For every big-screen special-effect extravaganza he writes, he offers up compelling character insights.  And though there’s clearly a lot more world to explore and tales to tell, the novel feels fine in and of its own right.  Rest assured, there’s an amazingly high goofy-grins-per-page count.  While it does not require a sequel, pretty much anyone who picks this up is going want one.

Ask and ye shall receive, in [garden] spades, The Unexpected Garden. Jack and Nora Abernathy, and their daughter Mia, are a happy family until…  Afterwards, Jack, a mycologist, and Nora, a cop, lose the thread.  While the comet apparently did not leave much for their corner of Seattle, five years later, the rains return, and a new species of fungus gets Jack involved in his job again.  Nora, meanwhile, has a new and quite awful serial killer on her hands.  As before, Percy roots his story in characters we care about, and then happily throws them into the very pits of hell, which he brings to life in a thoroughly Lovecraftian manner.  The stories of the two novels illuminate one another, but run on parallel roads, well over the speed limit.  

Yes, these two will leave readers jonesing for The Sky Vault, the third book in the series, but not so much because plot threads are left hanging.  Rather, each is so much damn fun, as well as everything else great books are supposed to have, that you just want to get back into Percy’s post-comet world to see what else he can dream up. 

Ben Percy sounds like a horror writer.  But if he ever gets tired of it, or the Marvel Comics he writers, there are folks lining the hallways hoping to get him into voice work.  Here’s a link to our example, or, listen below.  If you dare!

Two hours of listening music

Here are two hours of listening music.  There are no lyrics to distract listeners.  The music is intended as background for reading, writing or conversation.

The Dream Journal is the music I composed for the show of the same name hosted by Katherine Bell.

Here’s the music for the show of 2022-01-15:

Cephalotron 145 is my show of electronic listening music for KSQD.  Each hour offers music from CDs or digital downloads.  The format of the show includes short pieces I composed (usually for The Dream Journal), as by Trashotron.  Each of these is about 1:45, and when broadcast (Sundays from 9-10 PM), these are used for station ID and music information. 

Here’s the music for this week’s show:

Here’s my sheet for reading the announcements for C145:

Cephalotron 2022-01-16

KSQD Santa Cruz ; K-Squid 90.7 FM ; streaming online @ KSQD.org You Can support this station by going to kqsd.org/donate.

01-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220108ex1

02-Polygon Window ; Surfing on the Sine Waves ; If It Really Is Me

03-Cavern of Anti-Matter ; Hormone Lemonade ; Automatic Morning

04-Linkwood ; Mono ; Squeeze

05-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220108ex2

06-Klaus Schulze : X ; Georg Trakl

07-The Black Dog ; Spanners ; Pot Noodle

08-Woob ; EM_t 1194 ; Wuub

09-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220108ex3

10-Laraaji ; @0 ; Illusion of Time

11-Tarwater ; Animals, Suns, Atoms ; Song of the Moth

12-Michael Rother ; Katzenmusik ; Katzenmusik 9

13-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220108ex4

Two hours of listening music 2022-01-26

Illustration by Dietrich Kleffel

Here are two hours of listening music.  There are no lyrics to distract listeners.  The music is intended as background for reading, writing or conversation.

The Dream Journal is the music I composed for the show of the same name hosted by Katherine Bell.

Here’s the music for last week’s show:

Cephalotron 146 is my show of electronic listening music for KSQD.  Each hour offers music from CDs or digital downloads.  The format of the show includes short pieces I composed (usually for The Dream Journal), as by Trashotron.  Each of these is about 1:45, and when broadcast (Sundays from 9-10 PM), these are used for station ID and music information. 

Here‘s the music again:

Here’s my sheet for reading the announcements for C146:

KSQD Santa Cruz ; K-Squid 90.7 FM ; streaming online @ KSQD.org You Can support this station by going to kqsd.org/donate.

01-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220115ex1
02-Ataurean ; New Terrain EP ; Idiom
03-Topdown Dialectic ; Topdown Dialectic ; A3
04-Autechre ; Amber ; Further
05-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220115ex2
06-Woodleigh Research Facility ; Vernal Invocations (Single) ; Lex Talonis
07-Tosca ; Suzuki ; Busenfreund
08-Nicholas Jaar : Nymphs ; No One is Looking at U
09-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220115ex3
10-AFX; Analogue Bubblebath EP ; Analogue Bubblebath
11-Bonobo ; Dial “M” for Monkey ; Flutter
12-Colourbox ; Colourbox ; Just Give ‘Em Whiskey
13-Trashotron ; The Pandemiad ; dreamjournal220115ex4

Robert J. Lloyd The Bloodless Boy

In the long tail of a civil war, the body of a young boy is found, discarded on the snowy bank of Fleet Street. In London, in 1678, who can explain such a thing? Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, Justice of Peace for Westminster, sees a papist conspiracy against the King.  Who better to prove this for him than Robert Hooke, Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, a so-called scientist?  Harry Hunt, Hooke’s assistant, is to help Hooke in his search, and tells a story that is complicated, gritty and compelling.  The Bloodless Boy is a superb novel, the first in a series that readers will look forward to long before they finish this book. 

From the get-go, the power of this historical novel hinges on Lloyd’s evocation of post-Restoration London.  He establishes the perfect level of detail, telling us enough, but not too much, about the setting and lives of his characters.  Lloyd offers all the dirt, grime and sludge you might expect, then describes it as seen by the minds of the time, giving us a good dose of early science, primitive hygiene and suspicion-laden politics.  Harry Hunt, Robert Hooke’s Watson, is an engaging narrator, aware of his own limits by virtue of being an assistant to A Great Man.  Hunt nonetheless manages to create for the reader a truly entertaining sense of discovery as he is plunged into a word of politics and manipulation. 

Lloyd seamlessly weaves in a cast of real figures from history and brings them to a gritty and unflattering life.  For readers, the mysteries multiply, as we try to suss both the world and the plot of the book.  The ratio of fiction to reality provides a rewarding buzz, effectively creating a sort of third place within which the story takes place.  Happily, Lloyd’s masterful characters lead the way.  Unless you know your history very well, it’s tough to tell who really walked these very mean streets, and who was created to drive the intricate plot. 

For all the imaginative world-building Lloyd does, the commonalities between then and now – a society that has torn itself apart, science advancing faster than the ability of society to deal with it, the ever-dweeby (mostly) men who break and re-write the laws of (man and) nature – speak directly to readers in the here-and-now.  It’s a sort of best-of-both-worlds scenario, offering a three-dimensional perception of past and present in one go.  The Bloodless Boy is an outstanding novel, with a story that turns the pages relentlessly, compelling characters and a vivid setting, both disturbingly primitive and unflatteringly familiar.

Robert Lloyd managed to be intelligently straightforward as we discussed his process for creating a twisty mystery.  You can download our conversation from this link, or scrape away the rubbish nearby and listen to our conversation below.

Angela Slatter Lodellan Tales

The joyous pleasures of reading can be so engrossing, so rewarding as to eclipse all the separate bits that go into the books within which we lose ourselves.  When you discover such an author, the temptation to tell no one, to keep this treasure for yourself, battles with the impulse to shout it from the rooftops.  Or these days, post in the social media.  Angela Slatter is an author whose work engenders these emotions, simultaneously whirlwinds and slow-breaking tidal waves. Her latest books to take readers to Lodellan are The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales and All the Murmuring Bones, and they display an author whose incendiary talents will have readers trying as hard as possible to avoid burning up the pages, the better to linger the world Slatter creates with what feels like no effort whatsoever. 

It’s important to note that readers would be well advised to seek out and read, in this order, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Sourdough and Other Stories first.  The stories they tell create a rich backdrop for the works to hand, and as well, prepare the reader for the astonishing innovations in The Tallow-Wife and All the Murmuring Bones.  With the first three books, Slatter offers what appear to be short-story/novella collections but in reading turn out to be more akin to novels-in-stories. All the Murmuring Bones is a novel, but retains Slatter’s unique style of storytelling.

All of these books are set in Lodellan, a sort of medieval fairy-tale world where the everyday drudgery of life walks and works with the supernatural.  All of the stories come from a carefully controlled feminist perspective, which is to say that the subjects and tale-tellers are girls and women.  With this perspective, Slatter manages to concentrate on the everyday as opposed to the epic, with the result that she finds the epic within the everyday.  While each story in the first three collections is indeed self-contained, they build on one another to create an incredibly complex and enjoyable tapestry.

With The Tallow-Wife, Slatter displays the sort of mastery that takes decades to achieve.  After the atmospheric opening tale, “The Promise of Saints,” the title story sets the focal points for the narratives that follow. Each short story/novella adds layers, bringing in new characters and re-examining those we have met.  The thrill of the reading experience here – and it is thrilling – is not just to be found in the individual storytelling, but as well, in the experience of putting it all together into a coherent arc.  It’s a particularly rich experience, like reading a 700-page novel in half the number of pages.  It’s concentrated and more complex.

All the Murmuring Bones uses much of the same technique, but tells the story from one (mostly) sequential first-person point-of-view, that of Miren O’Malley, the last-in-line from a once-prosperous family fallen on hard times.  By the time you get to this book, the awesome depth of Slatter’s talent will have prepared you for her first novel in the series.  Miren is smart and unwilling to suffer fools.  She’s a delight to experience on the page, and readers will be more than willing to follow her to hell and back; knowing, of course that’s exactly the sort of story that Slatter is inclined to tell.

Yes, Slatter is the genius we need writing literature, but two aspects of the books outside of her direct purview are important.  For the Tatarus Press editions, the demure illustrations by Kathleen Jennings provide an understated atmosphere of menace and delight.  They merge with the narrative and expand the reading experience.  And the quality of the presentation of the Tartarus hardcover, trade paperback and even the electronic editions, provides a place where Slatter’s world can grow in the readers’ minds without effort.  You’ll not only read these books, but look forward to re-reading them, to assembling Slatter’s world and stories in your mind.  While they have elements of the traditional fairy-tale, this is not once upon a time. This is forever.

I had the privilege of speaking with Angela Slatter about not just her creations, but what went into creating them.  The world is more fortunate than it or we know.  Slatter not only writes, but teaches writing.  It’s part of her DNA apparently, since it came out so naturally in our conversation.  You need not imagine her storytelling talent in this regard. I have the recording here, for both your immediate pleasure – listen and learn below, and you can download the file from this link.  I envy everyone who has not read or heard Angela Slatter.  Rooftops being a bit dangerous for one with as uncertain a sense of balance as I, I’m making use of our own world’s supernatural means to manifest my thoughts.  I’d prefer ghosts, spells, potions, were-creatures, even with the knowledge that there is always a cost.

Jeff Hertzberg The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: Favorite Recipes from BreadIn5

What are the ingredients for a book that will change your life, objectively and measurably?  This question begs an answer that addresses characterization and plot.  Forget them.  Fourteen years ago, I came across the first book by Jeff Hertzberg M.D. and Zoë François, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  I’ve been eating homemade bread using their recipes ever since.  It was only recently that I realized the book had indeed changed my life objectively and measurably.  We’re closing the circle with The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: Favorite Recipes from BreadIn5, a greatest hits collection that can offers readers the ability to easily make bread (and a lot of other necessities) on demand.  This is a book that can make a notable improvement in your eating life. Better still, it’s easy and does not require a lot of effort.

The trick is to make a large batch of no-knead dough, which takes, say, half-an hour.   Then, when you want a new loaf, grab a fist full of dough, let it rise, then bake it.  You can read a good slab of fiction (or more recipes) while rising and baking.  This book pulls the best recipes from many of their books and the website.  The dust-jacket free hard cover lies flat easily.  The recipes are a delight.  But there’s more than recipes here.

Having the right equipment helps a LOT, but happily, the essentials are inexpensive and easily found; a scale, a good measuring cup, plastic buckets to weigh and store the dough.  Before you get to the recipes, you get a brief tutorial on what you need and why.   In this edition, many of the original recipes now include easy and smart variations.  If you have never baked bread and are inclined to think you can’t, this book (an excellent distillation / introduction to all of their books and work, well worth owning) might change your life as well – for the better.

Here’s my conversation with Jeff Hertzberg (busy busy Zoë François can be seen on The Magnolia Channel), or follow this link to download a chat that may permanently change the way you eat.

Wendy Suzuki Good Anxiety

There’s a lot to worry about these days, which itself is worrisome.  The slope thereafter is as slippery as we were warned. Early on in our evolution, this heightened sense of danger saved our lives.  But the same physical reactions to danger that once were lifesavers now seem to be consuming our souls.  It’s a never-ending cycle of fight or flight in order to live another tension-filled day.  How to break the cycle of anxiety?

In Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, neuroscientist and author Wendy Suzuki harnesses science and pragmatism to suggest we make the most of our built-in defense systems.  She analyzes what seems to be a cultural norm with the eye of a neuroscientist and concludes that seemingly minor deliberate changes to our state of mind can allow us to use the power and energy of anxiety to step up and respond to challenges in an appropriate manner.  In a sense, by reframing the raw information imparted by anxiety, fight or flight can be retooled into analyze, divide and conquer.  We can make use of anxiety’s energy instead of being ruled by it, and plan instead of panic.

Good Anxiety keeps the science simple and to the point.  We learn a lot about the brain and our emotions, all in the service of pragmatic goals like resilience and flow.  Suzuki writes as much a memoir as she does a book about regions of the brain.  She also includes lots of real-life examples, stories from her students and colleagues as well as her own life, in order to illustrate the practicality of her studies.  If you’ve ever worried about presentations, tests, pubic speaking, job interviews, all of the events in our nebulous futures that seem life-threateningly difficult, this is the book for you.  Suzuki is a master at explaining simple plans to reframe looming worries in order to bring them back into the “you’ve got this” realm of reality. 

Having explained and entertained us with the theory and stories of those who upended anxiety, Suzuki finishes with a remarkably helpful how-to section.  She includes self-surveys to help you understand where you are and follows up with simple ways to achieve your goals using the power of anxiety.  The real measure of her accomplishment here is that by the time she’s talking about the “power of anxiety,” you’ll know what she is talking about and be making your own plans.  When the adrenaline starts flowing, you’ll be using it to power your brain and respond thoughtfully.  What was once worrisome will become food for thought, not fodder for angst.  And once you break the cycle, anxiety will no longer be a synonym for worry; with Suzuki’s help, you can do more than write a different ending. You can tell a different story.

Wendy Suzuki is enjoyable, entertaining and informative no matter how you encounter her, as this audio interview demonstrates.  Download from this link, or better yet, give yourself a break to listen here and now.

Laura Davis The Burning Light of Two Stars

We define ourselves by our stories, even though the stories we tell are never the same.  When we reach into memory, we’re not pulling from a single still event, we’re plunging into a continuum and returning with the dripping bits that linger.  We use language to string these bits into a story, and present it as an unchanging (for the moment) whole.  But what happens when we’ve been damaged, traumatized?  Our stories and our very selves become fragmented.  In The Burning Light of Two Stars, Laura Davis writes down – she freeze-frames – two very different stories of damage, a mother-daughter narrative that shines with pain and, yes love. 

As a very young girl, Laura’s narrative was wrecked by her grandfather’s sexual abuse.  She stored these episodes outside of her “everyday” story, where they festered until they became a traumatic revelation.  The new story annihilated a normal mother-daughter relationship for decades.  But even though Laura had no memory of speaking to her mother, they still wrote letters.  In the 21st century, when her mother began to experience the onset of Alzheimer’s, Laura’s mother returned from a cross-country exile, and Laura began to finalize a story she’d been telling and retelling. The Burning Light of Two Stars is that story, beautifully told in a cross-cut series of time travels between past and present, forward into an uncertain future. 

At her heart a storyteller, Davis writes a page-turning, compelling narrative.  Short scenes link through time and plot, making the book hard to put down even when it is difficult to read because the pain and love are so powerfully present on the page.  But Davis knows that what gets us to read is plot, and there’s a lot here made from the fabric of ordinary everyday life with a parent succumbing to the story-destroying horror of Alzheimer’s.  Add to that Laura’s own pain-and-love laden back story, and her well-wrought vision of suburban life and it gives the overall book a much lighter feel than one might expect given the omnipresent darkness that has cast a shadow over their lives. 

Memoir is a very tricky genre.  The very name implies memory and reflection, not action and story.  And memoirs are by their very nature now-static scenes pulled from the rushing rivers of a writer’s ever-changing mind.  Davis’s genius is to understand the fluid attentions of the reading mind, the give the river of our reading the headwaters what’s going to happen, to show us the past while focusing our minds on the future in a book that has in fact long passed.  We exist in a future not imagined or imaginable by the minds in her book.  We experience her past again, but it is no longer her past, and we are no longer in the same present we experienced before reading the book.  Our futures are now entwined, and as we change, moment by moment, the past we reach back to remember will no longer be what once happened.  It will be a new story, an we’ll be new storytellers.

You can hear Laura Davis untell her story by following this link, or listen below, in this moment, which will pass and change with or without your permission.

Mary Roach Fuzz

Relationships between humans and every other sort of living being are fraught.  Science, culture and individual personality complicate our understanding of what creeps, crawls, walks, stalks, flies and grows around us.  We understand our species to be the top of every pyramid, and expect everything around us to bend to our will.  But we are absurd even by our own measure.  We are often unwilling to bend to our own will.  It is hubris, stupidity or most likely an unclear combination of the two that leads us to expect that bears, monkeys, trees, beans, insects, albatrosses, elephants – critters and veggies – will obey or even pay attention to our desires, our laws.  The world around us is a crime scene, and every living thing is potential lawbreaker.  Laugh while you can, monkey boy!

With the help of Mary Roach and her latest book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, the laughs come early and often.  She’s one of the most skilled and unusual humorists writing today.  She’s unusual because her humor is found in enjoyably informative non-fiction.  She finds a peculiar corner of the world, then mines it for stories that as strict narratives are chock-a-block with the sort of delightful surprises that are in themselves perfect examples of why non-fiction is fun to read.  But because she’s both a comic genius and a writer of superb skill, she’s able to play her research like a violin – imagine Stradivarius performing for a Looney Tunes soundtrack.  From the sounds of her prose to the shape of her stories, Mary Roach infuses her books with a gently (and sometimes, not so gently) skewed vision that is hers alone.  From cadavers to space travel to sex, she lets us walk a mile in her clown shoes, and it is always very smart and very fun.

Fuzz finds Mary Roach looking at that point where nature in all its variety meets that very odd human invention, the law.  You will meet conflict bears in Aspen, Colorado, and marauding macaques in Mumbai, India.  The might of America’s military is defeated by obstinate albatrosses.  It takes a human to turn a lowly legume into terror beans, but we’re up to the challenge, extracting ricin from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.  And it takes a talent like Mary Roach to tell these, and so many other stories, in the delightful manner that she alone can manage. 

Stephen King once said when writing of horror, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”  Mary Roach follows a similar formula for humor, and so you’ll find insightful chuckles mixed with, well, Loony Tunes guffaws.  The humor works so well because she seamlessly mixes it with astute cultural observations, startling science and solid beginning-middle-end storytelling and reportage.  It reads easily, but when you think even a bit about her ability to do what she alone does, it turns out to be quite an amazing performance.  Fuzz finds her in top form with a great subject.  And it’s the reading experience alone that matters.  You can summarize her books until the cows refuse to come in, but the experience of reading Fuzz (it’s all too easy) demonstrates once again, that there are things only books can do.  Like the best entertainment, Fuzz makes the world go away while and even after you read it.  And like the best books, Fuzz lets you see that world in a whole new way.  Happily, it’s with a big ol’ smile on your face.

I spoke with Mary Roach about combining science non-fiction and humor, the import of her research and my favorite bits of Fuzz.  No jokes in the book were harmed during the course of this conversation.

Andrew Kumasaka All Gone Awry

Alex Arai has lived a life that externally, at least, seems modest, successful and unassuming.  He teaches art history at a California university.  He lives happily with his longtime partner, Lisa, and is the son of a famous sculptor, Kazuo Arai, a severe man, best known for his memorials to Japanese Americans interned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.  Alex is best known for his scholarly articles about his father’s art.

But Alex is nearing the end of a long, slow burn.  As a child, he tried to “contribute” to his father’s art, and the punishment has been slowly poisoning his own sense of self.  Life is not going to let that continue.  He begins to see one of his students, a strident young woman who is quite self-possessed and certain of her own artistic aptitude, as more than a student.  And an acquaintance in his old-man basketball team hooks him up with a graffiti artist.  When he picks up a can of spray paint, he finally finds a means with which to externalize a lifetime of seeing the world around him.

Andrew Kumasaka’s All Gone Awry is deceptively engrossing; it’s fun and perceptive, with an engaging cast of characters.  The prose pulls you in, and the plot feels light-hearted.  But Kumasaka is a very smart writer.  By the time you’re turning the pages as fast as possible, you realize there’s a wealth of life here, as a series of complex and surprising events, ideas and revelations take hold.  All Gone Awry tells one hell of a great story, to be sure, even as it dives deep into the role of art in any and every life.  Kumasaka revels in the pleasures of dissonance, the distance between who we think we are and who we find ourselves to be.  He takes us from a quiet life to bigger than life, from embarrassment and shame to joy and success so seamlessly that we as readers realize only afterwards that the journey is ours as well.

Kumasaka is also a master of showing, not telling.  His meditations on the clash between culture and art underscore those on the Asian-American experience.  Alex once saw himself as deeply immersed in a community, only to step outside and realize what he perceived as acceptance on the part of others was in fact acquiescence, the sublimation of his essential self.  He’s forced to re-write his own story with a spray-paint can for the world to see.  Whenever you think that Kumasaka is ready to call, he ups the ante.  His prose, quiet but powerful and a playfully fun sense of plot make every twist of the knife and of life a reason to keep reading, driving right to the edge.  You can see the cliffs around you, enjoy the view and experience the implications of falling, the messy impact of the art and arc of life.  Everything seems to be speeding up.  All Gone Awry feels fast, and in its wake, the waves follow, steadily unfolding to the horizon.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Andrew Kumasaka to discuss his thoughts in and about the creation of All Gone AwryYou can download the conversation from this link, or surf the audio waves from the player below.