Will Schwalbe Finds Books for Living: What Are You Reading?

Some see books as an escape from life. Will Schwalbe sees them more as a route to life, a means of engaging the world in its infinite variety. Schwalbe’s Books for Living is simply fun to read; a collection of some 26 book essays, it lends itself, you might think, to casual reading. But once you pick it up it’s impossible to put down. It’s super-fun, but not just a collection of essays. It’s a stealth memoir, personal and cultural, as well as a meditation on questions, answers and the importance of goofing off.

schawlbe-books_for_livingSchwalbe trains his book around a personal North Star; Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, a book whose real message is well conveyed by the chapter titled “The Importance of Loafing.” Schwalbe does a masterful job of bringing up books we do know, those we think we know and those we do not to craft a wonderful quilt that is full of life and joy, and yes, goofing off and fun.

Each of the essays is perfectly paced and fun to read individually, but the joy to be found here is cumulative and carefully crafted, As Schwalbe discusses the books that have moved him, he becomes our stand-in, our personal reading champion. And we get to know this man in an intimate and utterly unique feat of characterization. We see Schwalbe as a young gay high school student at a time when this was not generally acceptable. The librarian gives him the keys to understand himself, and we realize that Schwalbe is doing the same. By showing us the books that help craft him as a literary character in his own book, we understand from within how reading shapes us.

Make no mistake that the choices you will find here are as outstanding as they are unexpected. It’s a blast to read about what Schwalbe likes and why, and as he writes about the simple joys of reading widely we realize that by virtue of his format (memoir via book), we are reading widely whether we expected to or not. It’s all about the most important question we can ask: “What are you reading?”

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is the perfect magic act. We open it for a series of enjoyable single-use essays, and find out by the end that we have lived not only the lives of the books that we have read about, but the reader’s and writer’s as well. But we are the readers, are we not? Better check to be sure you’re asking the right question, and living the right life. Ask early and often; accept conflicting answers. Books will tell you a story. Eventually, not one, but all of them will turn out to be yours.

will_schwalbe-2017-origWill Schwalbe in person is just as much fun as you’d expect. And while you eavesdrop on our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file, no need to take notes, Let it flow and enjoy it, you’ll have the books live when you buy Schwalbe’s book. If you’d care to begin life early, just click on the bar below and let your cubicle neighbor enjoy the conversation.


Florence Williams Gets The Nature Fix: Quantizing Intuition

Knowledge is, perhaps counter-intuitively, ambiguous. We know facts and science, but we also know emotions and intuition. Of late, we’ve seen scientific advances that are allowing us to quantize “knowledge” that has thus far rested firmly in the terrain of emotions and intuition. We’re finding facts behind the feelings.

The devils and delights of the details of science combine with lovely prose in Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Williams uses her writer’s art to explore the science that underlies the universal appeal of the out-of-doors. Exploring the science behind our emotions in artistic prose proves to be a perfect combination. Moreover, there’s lots of fascinating work being done here and it is only the beginning.

Take, for example, the Japanese scientists and nature enthusiasts who are pioneering what they call forest bathing. It doesn’t involve disrobing;

“‘People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide, Kunio, explained to me. “This way, they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio—a volunteer ranger—had us standing still on a hillside, facing the creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the mother ship. Weathered and jolly, Kunio told us to breathe in for a count of seven seconds, hold for five, release. :”Concentrate on your belly,” he said.”

Concentrate indeed! Rest assured that you’ll need no help following Williams’ survey of the current state of our “NDD,” what she calls the Nature Deficit Disorder. She knows the perfect proportions of facts and science to story and character. You will meet quite a few characters here, not the least of which is the author herself, a very genial guide through a landscape you will see with entirely fresh eyes. Even as she engages us with wildly weird scientists, their stories and the facts they unearth, Williams is craftily creating for readers a new inner landscape.

Perhaps the most important aspect of The Nature Fix is that it is not the last of its kind. You will know that surely as you read every word and rewrite your own vision of the world the science will get stronger and more specific. The power of this book then, is that even when the facts become known, the feelings they underpin will be no-less certain. Nature makes us feel good and gives us strength, ultimately because we are natural. It might take us a bit longer to prove that scientifically. Until then, having a delightfully well-written book to remind us of the fact is a perfect example of the very human ability for intelligent design.

Not surprisingly, in our conversation about the book, Florence Williams gave it the human touch. We talked about her inspirations for the book (moving from Denver to DC), and many of the wonderful experiences she had in her journey writing it. Here’s a link to our conversation, or you can listen below, even, especially at work. You can authentically call this your health care check-up even as you listen to the interview below.


Joe R. Lansdale Floats Rusty Puppy: Rot Within

It’s much easier for us to deal with a lie that feels like the truth than a truth we wish were a lie. Which is to say that generally we’re much happier (and often better-served) to hear a fictional story about an unhappy problem than non-fictional reportage that’s so dire we refuse to let it enter our ears. And it helps too, if we already know the folks in that fictional story, especially if we’ve known the fictional people (as characters) for years.

lansdale-rusty_puppy.jpgJoe R. Lansdale is an expert at making readers happy, a skill much in evidence in his latest Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy. By my count, it’s the ninth novel in Lansdale’s series featuring low-key North Texas detectives Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is white, straight, married (to Brett Sawyer), easy-going and liberal; Leonard is black, gay, unmarried, hot-headed and conservative. Lansdale’s skill at playing with the dynamic between the two makes them believable, enjoyable and charming. The first book in the series is Savage Season, and if you’ve not encountered these guys before, this is the place to start.

That said, Rusty Puppy is smart enough to bring you up to speed in about three paragraphs that open the novel (which the author reads in my interview; more on that later). You get death, resurrection and a laugh-out-loud line you’ll want to hang on to. Once you’re in place with Hap, Leonard and the whole family, the clients arrive, and things begin whipsawing between hilarious, terrifying, poignant to craft a story that moves like lightning, makes you laugh a lot while you read and think about afterwards.

As the novel begins, a (black) mother from a nearby rusting-out mill-town hires Hap & Leonard to find out what happened to her son. The cover story is that he was killed looking for drugs in a bad part of town, uncharacteristic behavior. His mother thinks the cops killed him. Hap is inclined to take it slower, while Leonard wants to quickly even accounts by any means necessary. As skilled as these two are, prepare to stay awake turning pages as characters you love are put through the wringer – and yet you laugh. Yes, you laugh a lot.

What proves to be the true power of Lansdale’s work here is that he’s so good at entertaining you with these great characters, smart-ass humor and a toe-tapping terrorizing plot that he’s able to pack intense, powerful truths into his fictions as a by-product. Now, make no mistake, this reads very much like a comedic crime novel, with more than a few touches of horror. It’s fast paced and (slow down!) quickly read. That said, when you finish the book, you will come to know that it is not finished with you. The jokes are still funny, and linger, charging the implications of the novel with their frenetic energy.

Ultimately, Rusty Puppy is fun; the kind of fun that energizes the world around you. If it represents only a slice of what Lansdale writes, well – that’s all the more incredible. When I sat down to interview Lansdale, first I had him read the opening of Rusty Puppy. But, not surprisingly, that brought up his beginning to The Drive-In, which is one of my all-time favorites. I could not help but laugh, and then we were off to the races, talking about Rusty Puppy without really talking about it. We talked about the TV series based on the novels; each season roughly covers one novel, and the seasons will follow the novels’ order.

joe_r_lansdaleFor all that Lansdale is making his name with the Hap & Leonard novels, he’s actually writing quite a bit for Subterranean Press, whether it’s the upcoming Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers, a prequel novel for Bubba Ho-Tep, Dead on the Bones, a collection of pulp stories, or Hell’s Bounty, a supernatural western co-written with Lansdale’s brother John L. Lansdale. Lansdale and I talked about all of them, when he wasn’t making me laugh.

If you’re in a hurry, check out the short lightning round interview, which you can download from this link, or listen to below.

No matter what you do listen to the reading that begins this interview, then stay for the many laughs that follow. Download the whole shebang here; listen to the first bit below.

Phillip Meyer Sires The Son : Building Texas World by World

Editor’s Note: The Son is exciting, shocking, thrilling and page-turning. It is extremely violent but powerfully, not exploitatively so. The characters are vivid, intense and engaging.   No matter what your tastes in fiction, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. Buy it while you can still get First Editions / First Printings. We now turn control of the review back to the non-frothing.

meyer-the_son.jpgStory is power. Words control families, countries, empires, and worlds. The Son by Phillip Meyer begins with a transcription of a 1938 WPA recording of Eli McCullough, who claims to be 100 years old at the time of the recording. By the end of the novel, you’ll have lived through those 100 years and more; Eli’s life, his family and two other members of his family whose stories wind through to the present. It’s a powerful, purely American story that builds, word by word, a world that no longer exists but is transformed into ours. Meyer rips down into the core of what’s human to craft indelible memories. The Son builds a world from words with the power of pure story.

Immerse yourself at your peril, because Meyer’s story is raw, violent, often horrific and full of intense emotion. The craft at work here is subtle and astonishing. Meyer begins the novel taking us from one timeline to another through an almost 200-year history of the McCullough family.

The fabric of the story comes together slowly at first, though each episode is rendered in gorgeously sparse prose. Eli McCullough is 13 years old when his life is changed on the Texan frontier. It’s a battle zone, and he’s on the losing side. His son, Peter, manages to make a life for his family, and his great-grand-daughter, Jeannie, must do the same. From Comanche raiders to the descendents of Spanish landowners, from wildcat oilmen to 21st century market manipulations, Meyer takes us through three lives and six generations.

For all the grandeur that emerges, each word, each story, each chapter feels incredibly sparse and to-the-point. The prose is stripped and bare-knuckled, intense and often shockingly easy-to-read. Meyer is able to lead the unsuspecting reader into scenes of intense emotion or violence so naturally, with such little warning that they come with the terror of the unexpected. For all the rich power of the prose, The Son proves to be page-turner of the first degree.

It helps that Meyer creates a great cast of characters with slightly oddball, individual American voices. Eli is rebellious and intense with good reason. Peter, his son, is more contemplative, considering if not always considerate. Jeannie is a woman who had to compete in the Texan world of men and won. She’s aware of what she’s lost in the process, but not willing to regret her decisions. In any given forty pages, you’ll find as many well-drawn characters as you will in any other novel. Meyer’ sparse prose style works well for the creation of memorable characters.

Meyer’s world-building and plotting skills are impossible to untangle and beyond compare. The physical descriptions of the early Texan frontier and life among the Comanche are gritty and engaging; equally so, the Texas wildcatting days and the oil boom. Eli, Peter and Jeannie’s stories are intricately intertwined stories of power, sacrifice, and civilization. They are compelling because Meyer’s prose takes us seamlessly into their worlds and makes those worlds ours.

Check your expectations when you pick up Phillip Meyer’s ‘The Son.’ Here is proof that story transcends all boundaries of genre and subject, that prose overpowers history and experience to create new histories, new experiences that run raw into our minds. Here is a book where the power of story builds a world that is ours word by word. The Son lives up to Texas’s reputation.

phillip_meyer-2013-pgc.jpgA 2013 Interview with Philip Meyer: “…the folks who moved out there knew they were moving to a combat zone…”

Phillip Meyer is a serious guy. As we sit down and talk about his pitch-perfect take on the Great American Western Novel, ‘The Son,’ I can tell that he has pondered not just what he wrote but how it came to be with a fierce intensity.

The Son is a bit, big, novel, with lots of moving parts. It feels raw and natural, as if he just carved it out of a stack of diaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias, cutting out the bad words until only the good ones remained. But as we speak, it’s clear this was not the case. The book we have before us is V2 maybe V30. At some point, the original concept for the book gave way to the character of Eli McCullough.

Meyer likes the idea of world building, and in doing so for this novel about Texas, he spent a great deal of time in Texas, camping, living off the land, learning to make his own rope, start his own fires and make his own bows and arrows. This is why the novel has that feel of dirt beneath its fingernails. That’s not something you can fake.

Meyer and I talked quite a bit about the process of putting this novel together. It reads very quickly and seamlessly, so it’s tough to get how it did not come together that way. The feat of art, he says is to remove the traces of the effort is requires to make it.

Meyer and I also addressed some of the more controversial portrayals in the novel, his version of the Texas frontier, which he describes as a combat zone. No character or side in the novel comes off as all-good or all-bad, or even predominantly one or the other. Meyer sees one civilization as pretty much like the other. Once you have the advantage, you use it, and take as much as you can to defend it.

Meyer is every bit as eloquent as his novel. To be honest, I might not have thought I’d ever read or like this book, but having read it and even better spoken with the author, I’m on board for anything he has to offer. My take is that readers should order up the book before they listen. But if you must, try just the lightning round first; follow this link to download, or listen here:

Trust me, better to have the book on it’s on the way before you listen to our in-depth conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file… or listening below.

Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey Examine The Social Organism: It’s Alive

Social media is a problem, a threat, a waste of time, the answer to all questions and the solution to all problems, as well as their cause. Do we spend as many hours talking about the “connect-me Internet” as we spend talking in it? Possibly – at least it feels that way. Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey have taken a not-uncommon observation – “It’s mimicking life” – and by running with it to explore implications good and bad, have crafted The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life.

The innovation here is to dive deep into biology and set up a series of careful parallels, and this is where most books might stop. But Luckett and Casey really go for it. The result is a wild and weird mash-up of cybernetic and social bio-philosophy that offers both practical advice for the here-and-now (as you read this, it’s there-and-then) that leads to an optimistic if not utopian future.

The power of this book is the depth to which the authors take their argument. Internet memes are likened to biological DNA – information packets, pay-loaded to deliver specific information that will set in motion a series of planned, if not always predictable changes. The implications might lead anywhere – business, politics, the arts, science, even and perhaps especially, crime. Luckett and Casey make an excellent case suggesting that by treating the connect-me Internet as a living organism, you may be fighting less and swimming more.

Luckett made pots of money and probably even more friends (digital and actual) by leveraging our desire to connect for Disney, Revver and theAudience. It’s experience we can all profit from, in all senses of the word. Rest assured that both authors know the power of story and use it well to make their cases. After offering hands-on, use-now advice, they take us out into a future that is bright but not blinding.

The authors themselves are well aware of the pitfalls of social media as well. Not to put too fine a point upon it, evolution gave us both apples and anthrax. Unfortunately, the Internet (of late) has been leaning more towards the latter than the former. A book that understands this but looks towards a tomorrow better than today (not a slam-dunk by any means), is a book that’s both useful and engaging.

Obviously, the hard science of all this, the cyber-biology, so to speak, is decades in the future. But having an informed, high-level discussion of just how we, as a biological species want to manage the evolution of information technology is the only and probably the best way for us to get this science in the queue. And as we think about the evolution of the Social Organism, we’d be well advised to remember the early paleontologists, who in their enthusiasm to rebuild dinosaur skeletons, managed to put a thumb-bone on the nose of an Iguanodon to give it a horn. Evolution is not so easily understood as we might hope.

Oliver-LuckettI spoke to author Oliver Luckett by Skype about The Social Organism in an epic conversation that you’re not going to hear on the radio without more than a few beeps. Which is to say, that he was lots of fun and minced not a single word when it comes to taking on ummm… most of the Internet. Follow this link to download the interview, or just listen below and make sure the volume is high enough so your cubicle neighbors can hear all the parts they won’t hear on the Ray-Joe.

Shannon Leone Fowler Traveling With Ghosts: Memoir of Refraction

The typical memoir is a work of reflection; turn a mirror on the past and try to describe what you see there. Easier said than done, surely, and things might fall out of order, if we choose to grade by import as opposed to order. But what if the past we have made, or the past that has been given to us, does not bear reflection? Trauma does not lend itself to memory but unmemory.

fowler-traveling_with_ghosts.jpgTraveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler begins as she is vacationing in Thailand with her fiancé when he’s stung a box jellyfish. He died in three minutes. It was an event that did not simply bisect her life – it untied it. Since she’d been a little girl, she had been fascinated by the ocean. She was midway through a PhD in Marine Biology. Now the ocean she loved had killed the man she loved. She bolted to Eastern Europe, away from the ocean, on a journey back to the ocean.

The pure power of the book comes from Fowler’s clipped and poetic prose riding the tide of a powerful storytelling voice. Rather than simply reflect what happened, Fowler refracts her story, breaking it up into compulsively readable explorations of her heart, the world in which she’s traveling, and the very human hearts she meets along the way. The pacing and plotting keep this book in the realm of a page-turner, even if the plot plays out in the human heart.

From a Croatian aquarium to a tense lunch in an Israeli café, Fowler creates a series of indelible scenes, and characters. The Israeli girls she meets on the beach in Thailand are still friends with her today, and their stories are the stuff of pure – sort of gnarly – human life. But most importantly, Fowler brings a deft, light touch to all her writing, even, no especially the tough parts. We are all haunted; by our past, our mistakes, by memory. Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler will lighten the time you spend reading it and a give you the words with which to address your own refracted shattered pasts.

shannon_leone_fowler<a name=”ttrslf” id=” ttrslf “></a>When you hear Shannon Leone Fowler’s voice on the page, you’ll quickly recognize it in audio. She has an amazing sense of speaking directly to the point, to the issue. And though she does not mince words, we did find ourselves speaking at length about her book and her experiences. Her intricate sense of story shines through in even the short lightning round interview, which you can download from this link.

For the deep immersion in this powerfully refracted story, follow this link to download the in-depth interview, or listen below.

Ian Rankin Would Rather Be The Devil: Better than the One You Don’t

rankin-rather_be_the_devil.jpgIt’s no small thing to grow old. Time and life catch up with you, even if you are John Rebus. But the fact that Rebus is no longer the man he once was does not mean he is any less of a man. In his latest novel, Rather Be the Devil, Ian Rankin explores the interstices of aging, crime, manhood and the constant churn of change. Siobhan, Malcolm Fox, Deborah Quant, Darryl Christie and Big Ger Rafferty are all back and all is not well.

Rebus, we learn early on, is sick – COPD, to be precise. But it might as well be life, the disease for which there is but one cure. Big Ger seems to be accustomed to gangster retirement, but like Rebus, he’s finding it hard to leave his past behind. While Malcolm and Siobhan are trying to find out who’s taking shots at Rankin is so thoroughly invested in , Rebus remembers a cold case and sets about solving it. But men who know how to fight and are accustomed to it are disinclined to stop.

The latest string of Rebus novels proves to be a powerful and engaging exploration of characters and themes we already know and love, written with the depth and ease that comes from Rankin having spent some 30 years in this man’s shoes. In fact it is the 30th anniversary of the first Rebus novel, and Rather Be the Devil shows that there is plenty of life left in Rebus’ still vital character. Rankin is so thoroughly invested here that it is effortless to immerse yourself in his words and his world.

But while Rebus and the gang are charming, there’s a lot more going in here than character-based charisma. Rankin’s prose is a constant pleasure to read, poetic and prosaic in one swell foop. The ease with which the words come enables readers and the writer to enjoy the sumptuous or rough and ready details, to get down and live this life. Put all this in a tense plotline with surprises in the right places, and you get a full serving of book. This is pure pleasure reading, with an afterkick of feeling life’s rich pageant just a little more deeply.

ian_rankin-2014-pgc.jpgThe question for me as a reader and interviewer is whether I look forward more to reading to talking with the author. I’ll call it a toss up, because when we sit down to talk, it always feels like yesterday – something we do often. You can hear my latest conversation with Ian Rankin by following this link to download the file or by pulling up a good single malt and settling down to listen below.

Ottessa Moshfegh : Life Externalized

Ottessa Moshfegh writes about people who feel almost too realistic. In her novel Eileen and in most of the short stories in her collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh offers her readers an eyeful of awful. Her characters are compulsive, addicted, selfish, and peculiar, but – they are not weird, even in the story titled “The Weirdos.” They are (unfortunately) like people you might know, or at least know as well as you might wish. But when you are intimately in their heads and in their lives via Moshfegh’s startlingly direct prose, you understand just what kind of monsters you are dealing with – or might be yourself.

moshfegh-eileenEileen seems straightforward, but requires a bit of unpacking. Eileen is a caretaker and partner for her alcoholic father. Their home is a sty, but it might be an improvement over the boy’s prison where she is a secretary. A now-aged Eileen from the present tells the story of her younger self, and leaves no unpleasant detail unmentioned. She’s going nowhere, fast. Eileen meets Rebecca at her job, and quickly finds herself headed somewhere. Rest assured their destination is not what you will expect. What starts out as a compelling, can’t-look-away portrait of ugly reality veers off the road and into uncharted, exciting territory. While Eileen is an intense novel with all the detail and involvement you expect from the form, prepare to read it in one or two sittings.

moshfegh-homesick_for_another_worldHomesick for Another World might actually last a bit longer, simply because you’ll only need to read one or two stories at a time. Grifters, cheaters, losers – the characters in these stories might hope to rise to such a level, and never succeed. But Moshfegh gives us direct access to their thoughts in prose that is gripping and so awful in its honestly that all we can do is to bark our laughter out loud. Plot summaries of the stories might be misleading. Moshfegh writes about the mundane with an intensity that feels like science fiction.

All of Moshfegh’s work derives its power from her direct prose. It almost feels as if she’s hot-wired your brain to theirs. It feels real. But there’s another side to this. Moshfegh shows us what her characters are thinking and they’re generally things that many of us only think about, and in most cases we might prefer not to. So by writing so clearly about her characters’ thoughts she successfully externalizes them.

This is not unusual – but Moshfegh’s unique skill is that what in any other novel might look and feel and actually be simple introspection is, in her work, externalization. And while there is not a whiff of genre anywhere in the vicinity, Moshfegh’s brand of externalizing introspection feels quite fantastic to read, in all senses of the word. The title story for the collection arguably has some aspects of the fantastic, but Moshfegh’s handling of them is purely her own. Which is to say, rough and ready.

Eileen and Homesick for Another World are perfect examples of books that read quick and easy, but carry a lethal load of language. Ottessa Moshfegh’s prose is captivating and intense. Pick up the books in a store and you’ll not leave without them. But it’s not quite, not quite, as if Moshfegh will make you think thoughts you’ll wish to forget. You’ll remember these books all right, when you look in the mirror and are able to see the humanity boiling in your own brain.

ottessa_mossfegh-2017-largeFor all that I wrote here about how much I enjoyed her work, I suspect that it will only take a few moments of listening to her voice for readers to make up their minds. You can hear her prose voice in her speaking voice. She’s plain spoken to the point of being hilarious. The interview begins with a brief bit of chat – a minute of so of warm up that I might usually elide. It felt right, in this case, to leave it in. Then, we start with a reading from her short story “The Weirdos” – and things get strange. Follow this link to download my interview with Ottessa Moshfegh – or just hang out here with us to hear about the punk rock club in China.

Sabaa Tahir Lights A Torch Against the Night: Flights of Fantasy

Second world fantasy set in pre-technological worlds comes with a built-in set of problems for both the writer and the readers – pacing. It is quite possible to write a novel where the characters just walk from one set piece or place to the other. That gets old fast, and you can end up feeling like you’re reading a dull travelogue with bits of violence wedged in.

That is absolutely not a problem with Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes. It’s rather the reverse and not a problem at all so long as you have cleared some time to read. These are stripped-down, raw, fast-paced fantasy chase thrillers. Tahir does a lot of smart re-invention of the genre with these novels, weaving themes of ethnicity, immigration and romance into a tight action narrative.

The structure of the novel is key to its enjoyment. Tahir alternates chapters between key characters. In A Torch Against the Night we meet Laia first, as her family is torn asunder in political upheaval. We meet Elias next; he’s a Mask, training at the Blackcliff Military Academy. They’re on opposite sides of a conflict that has an immediate, urgent feel. Power is being wielded by the cruelest and richest, in their own interest. An Ember in the Ashes adds a third character to the mix, offering yet another perspective.

At the prose level, and the immersive-reading-experience level, both of these books read like well-written, psychologically-informed thrillers. Tahir keeps the action close and lets the world speak for itself, laconically. She’s pretty much all show, no tell, and as a result, understanding the nature of the world she’s building becomes a plot tension point. It’s detailed, with a nice mixture of medieval realism with a mere soupcon of the fantastic – at least at first. As we dive deeper into the world, the weird starts to come out of the woodwork. It’s nice to see that she’s mining more than the usual mythologies, drawing most interestingly from middle-Eastern mythos. But she’s not just working with supernatural elements; the novel has a bit of science fiction as well. The result is a world that feels more well-rounded.

sabaa_tahir-2016-large.jpgA cast of well-drawn characters propels the novel. Laia, Elias, and others (best discovered in-story) are written with a compelling immediacy. Tahir creates a world that is very different from ours, but one that directly and indirectly addresses ours. Given that this is a second-world fantasy, it offers the best of both worlds – gritty realism, thrilling action, and an imagined world where the story unfolds.

Ultimately, both A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes offer readers an exhilarating mix of exciting narrative, muscular prose set in a thought-provoking world. Balancing the power of optimism with a dark and gnarly conflict, Tahir evokes emotions we understand in a world we’ve never encountered. Back in our world get some new shadows, and some new light.

<a name=”ttrms” id=” ttrst”> </a>Here’s a link to download the lightning-round interview with Sabaa Tahir, or you can listen at your desk by clicking below.

And here is a link to download my in-depth conversation or take a vacation in another world by listening below.


David Grinspoon Sees Earth in Human Hands: Learning to Drive a Planet

It’s easy to be overwhelmed. There are so many moving parts, so much to keep track of – but we humans, having brought the planet this far, have demonstrated our ability to craft unintended change. Now, astrobiologist David Grinspoon says in his new book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, it’s our turn to take control and carry on with intended change – because, as his study of the planet Venus suggests, the end results of not doing so may well be terminal.

grinspoon-the_earth_in_human_handsWith Earth in Human Hands, Grinspoon looks outward, to the stars and the exoplanets, and then back, to the Earth. Make no mistake, this is a page-turning work of speculative non-fiction, offering readers the thrills of science fiction stories that are grounded in what we actually know at this moment. A huge part of that knowledge, as described by Grinspoon, involves the idea of “deep time” in order to help readers obtain the right perspective.

But that’s just the first of many fascinating stories that Grinspoon spins as he takes readers on speculative journeys to the past, the future, and even the present, informed by the latest science as well a strong engaging narrative voice. Grinspoon does particularly well with the Gaia hypothesis and the trickster-style researchers who originated it, weaving together the story of scientists and science to help us achieve and keep perspective. In this context, he discusses the plusses and minuses of geoengineering, as well as some of the proposed solutions to climate change.

Grinpsoon does not confine himself to the human race however. His sense of fun is infectious as he dives into contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, and the potential for intelligent life on earth. After all, we’re on our way to the sixth of seventh mass-extinction, following in the footsteps, so to speak, of the microscopic life that brought about its own demise and created oxygen in life’s first go-round on Earth. If we blow ourselves up (and/)or kill off pretty much everything, then perhaps intelligent is not the best description for humanity.

david_grinspoon-2016-insetThe most enjoyable aspect of Earth in Human Hands is Grinspoon’s voice. He really has a talent for writing non-fiction that makes you want to turn the pages as fast as possible, mark them for future reference and read the book aloud to those around you. He can and does look at the terrifyingly difficult coming years with a clear eye – but this is in no way a depressing book. While he sees the difficulties with clarity, he also sees the opportunities as well. We may become mature, in spite of everything we have done.

When I spoke with David Grinspoon, and you can hear it easily, there is simply a sense that humans, having invented science, can invent everything else we need to succeed. You can follow this link to download our conversation or listen below.