Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Best of Boston Award

Porter Square Books has been nominated for a Best of Boston Award by the Phoenix. Vote for us in the shopping section in the Book Store, new books, category.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Something like Dune

I don’t read as much sci-fi as I used to, so when I recently felt the pull of my inner otaku I turned to a good friend of mine who used to own a science fiction bookstore and groks the field like no one else. “I want something like Dune,” I said, referencing my favorite series of the genre. My friend thought a moment and then recommended two things. One was out-of-print (the great and terrible Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury, published in the UK as Geta) the other was the Virga series by Karl Schroeder.

Schroeder’s writing does not much resemble Herbert’s, nor do his characters or plot; where the Virga series does resemble Dune is in the world-building. Karl Schroeder’s Virga series is a brilliant piece of world-building. The novels are set in Virga, an artificial planet-sized balloon filled with gravity-free air, ocean-sized balls of water, tiny floating clumps of earth, and miniature man-made suns. With advanced technology suppressed by radiation from the central Sun of Suns, the people of Virga live preindustrial lives on spinning wheels, gear-towns, and giant cylinders using centrifugal force for gravity, or grow distorted and bird-like in free-fall. This setting is the most original and imaginative I’ve encountered and is logically consistent and well showcased. Virga has what I consider to be the hallmark of great science fiction: a unique and engaging conceit (be it setting, technology, alien life, etc.) that forms not just background or color, but the impetus and raison d^etre of the whole story.

The first book, Sun of Suns, is a fast-paced adventure story involving nations at war, pirates, and a hero seeking revenge for a conquered homeland. There is plenty of action, suspense, and reversals of fortune. There are also a few tantalizing glimpses of the truly bizarre far-future universe outside of Virga, which I suspect will become more important as the series continues. The characters are interesting and believable, the writing is good, and the ending is surprising and satisfying.

The second book, Queen of Candesce, is even better. For a sequel, the plot and characters are refreshingly different from its predecessor. The protagonist of QoC is Venera Fanning, an intriguing if unsympathetic secondary character from SoS. Here she is sympathetic (though still not heroic) as well as brilliant and ruthless. The novel’s setting is Spyre, an ancient metal cylinder nearly as old as Virga itself and home to a labyrinthine multitude of byzantine nations – many of them so tiny that they are contained within a single building! The plot is a fascinating mix of deception, plot, counterplot, action, and wacky political theory. Following the machinations of Venera and her enemies really did remind me of Frank Herbet’s Dune; it is a rare treat to read about smart people outsmarting other smart people.

There are two more Virga books: Pirate Sun, (available in hardcover) and The Sunless Countries (forthcoming). I am eagerly anticipating them both.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Old Characters New Stories

One of the neat things about the comic book genre is that different writers are able to write the stories for existing characters. Over the years, hundreds of different comic book writers have written for Superman, Batman, The X-Men, Spiderman, just in the course of comic book companies' routine production. But other times, established comic writers are given the opportunity to take creative license with an existing character or group of existing characters. The best examples of these new stories elucidate our culture's relationships with these characters, and deepen the characters by placing them in atypical environments. Here are three of the best examples of new stories for old characters. (And all three are just great comic books anyway.)

The benchmark for the revisited character is Frank Miller's, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Batman is one of the most, if not the most, interpreted characters in American comics and Miller's take is one of the most sophisticated and revealing. An aging Bruce Wayne, unable to quiet his compulsion to fight crime, puts the Batman suit back on and finds a new Robin (a young girl) to confront a new challenge to peace and order in Gotham. The Joker is reborn as well in the return of the Bat and Batman must confront the changes the world has gone through since he last donned the cape. Miller, author of the Sin City series, takes a dark, cynical approach to the relationship between order and vigilantism and presents a compelling character study of one of modern America's most important mythologies.

Multiple award winner and author of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman imagines characters from the Marvel Universe in 1602, dealing with Elizabethan intrigue and the conquest of the New World. Dozens of Marvel characters appear; Nick Fury, Spiderman, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, and the Fantastic Four to name a few. (Naming all of them would give away a few cool surprises.) What I liked most about 1602 is that I find most of its characters, generally uninteresting and yet Gaiman managed to make all of them fascinating and entertaining.

The Death of Captain America by Eisner Award Winner Ed Brubaker was featured on NPR as one of the top super-hero comics of 2008. Brubaker, author of the Criminal series, is already one of my favorite contemporary comics writers and The Death of Captain America is one of the best graphic novels of 2008. Told as part of the massive Marvel-wide Civil War story arc, which you don't need to have read, The Death of Captain America starts off with just that and explores the effect Captain America's death has on the public. There is a fascinating exploration of the politics of order and authority but the real power from the story comes from the personal struggles of the other characters. The emotions of coping with the loss of Steve Rogers turns an icon back into a character. While the nation mourns the loss of an American symbol, the other characters mourn the loss of a friend, and the differences between those methods of mourning provide a powerful lesson about the nature of national tragedies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Abraham Verghese

With little or no fanfare, at least publicly displayed, Abraham Verghese dropped by the store today to sign copies of his new novel, Cutting for Stone. I and many others here have been fans of his work for 18 years or so. His first book, My Own Country, a memoir, came out in 1994 and told the story of his days as a young doctor treating AIDS patients in rural Tennessee. It is gritty and emotionally provocative writing - he suffered along with his patients. It is palpable. Four years later he published The Tennis Partner, another memoir, about his friendship with a medical student struggling with a cocaine addiction. He does not take on easy subjects in life or in his writing which until his new book had been running parallel. There is alot of the man in this novel, compassion, dedication, elegance, and beauty. But there is much more in this epic story of two brothers, the mother they never knew, the woman who raises them, the power of healing, and the state of medical care in post-war Ethiopia. It is an unforgettable story. Cutting for Stone is on the February Indie Next Top 20 list; it is a staff pick; and signed copies are available.

Monday, February 2, 2009

PSB Presents: February's Poet of the Month!

Kevin Young

In honor of Black History Month, we're kicking off our Poet of the Month Series with celebrated, African-American poet, Kevin Young. Young graduated from Harvard College in 1992, and received his MFA from Brown University. While in Boston and Providence, he was part of the African-American poetry group, The Dark Room Collective.

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Young is the author of Most WayHome, To Repel Ghosts, Jelly Roll, Black Maria, For The Confederate Dead, and editor of Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers; Blues Poems; Jazz Poems and John Berryman's Selected Poems.

Young’s poetry is visionary, timeless, and extremely pertinent to our times. Prolific and intrepid by nature, Young’s work is an intelligent amalgam of the pure originality and a synthesis of the free voices that helped shape his talent. With the insight and the sensibility of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the experimental spirit of E.E. Cummings, and the candor and humility of Langston Hughes, his poetry is a fresh testament to our generation.

His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, to name just a few. Young's awards and honors include a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and an NEA fellowship. He taught at the University of Georgia and at Indiana University and currently teaches at Emory University, where he is the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing.

Click below to hear Kevin Young reading a poem from his book April in Paris:

And be sure to check out our in-store display of the poet's work at Porter Square Books!

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