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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Confession. I am a huge Neal Stephenson fan (Snowcrash, The Baroque Trilogy, Cryptonomicon). I think his writing is witty, complex, and surprising so I dove into this behemoth (750 plus pages) with gusto. Oh, yeah, Stephenson also writes looooong books. It's everything I love about his work - geeky, exciting, full of language and innovation and surprising touches of humour. Co-author Galland leavens the mix a little, bringing more of the funny especially when skewering shadowy government bureaucracy and bureaucrats including the 'men in black' and she humanizes Stephenson's female characters (and the male ones too) adding dimensions to them and their relationships. It's a heady combination of talent. So the story is wacky (as one expects from Stephenson) melding witches and secret organizations and time travel and quantum physics into one bombastic sci-fi trip. Basically this secret government organization has discovered documents which prove that magic existed and was utilized until around the Age of Enlightenment when it began to weaken, and eventually died out at the same time as the Great Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace. The people of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) in league with a few witches aim to bring it back. There are anagrams galore and plenty of psychobabble but I just suspended belief and rolled with it. It was a fun ride and that's not even including the Viking saga about the sack of a Walmart.
This gorgeous, stunning book won the 2017 Newbery and has enduring fantasy classic written all over it. Every year the town elders of the Protectorate make a sacrifice and abandon a baby in the forest. Purportedly this is to satisfy the evil witch who lives there but in reality, the witch, Xan, is a kindly woman who saves the children and finds homes for them with loving families. Baby Luna is accidentally 'enmagicked' when she is fed moonlight (rather than the regular starlight). The book follows her adventures with Xan, a swamp monster poet named Glerk, and a small dragon with a big heart as they fight the oppressive leadership of the town. There is plenty of humour, the prose is luminous and elegant, and the threads of identity, bravery, and familial love are interwoven into a tapestry of magic.
Written by Jory John
Illustrated by Pete Oswald
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “bad seed” as "a person regarded as bad or corrupt by nature”. In this case it is literally and fittingly a seed who is our eponymous antihero, “the bad seed”. And boy is he bad: he lies and doesn’t wash, he cuts in line and never puts things back where they belong, he is a friend to nobody and bad to everybody. All the other seeds in the community stare and point, “There goes a baaaad seed.” But there is more to this bad seed than meets the eye. He wasn’t always this bad. He had a sunny childhood on a sunflower with all his seed siblings. Then one fateful day he was harvested and bagged, destined to be a snack. Luckily he was spat out at the last second, but he was now alone and something changed in him. He stopped smiling; he kept to himself and didn’t care. Author Jory John combines quirky humour - expertly buoyed along by illustrator Pete Oswald’s expressive digital and watercolour artwork - with a more serious message. Young readers are challenged to question the idea of fixed identities, be that of a human bully or a bad seed, by looking at back stories and redemptive future stories (yes, the bad seed comes to see the error of his ways) with empathy and generosity.
Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel The Buried Giant is a gently-told, deeply affecting tale about an aging couple who set off on a journey to find their long-lost son. Set (sort of) in iron age Britain, this is a beautiful, disturbing epic that incorporates fantastic elements - ogres, dragons, and giants - in a very reasonable way. Ishiguro has expertly combined many genres here, and the story stays with the reader long after the reading. It is a gorgeous, exciting novel, that tells an enormous story about love, war, the strangeness of memory and aging - in simple, powerful language.
Every now and then I'll share older books that I think should be essentials on everyone's shelves. Anne Waldman's Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays, originally published in 1974, is a marvellous little book, featuring at its centre the title poem, which is a rolling, ecstatic list poem/chant. This is a highly energetic, rhythmic, and empowering piece, which is very fun to read aloud. A lot of the works in this small book, which has had 20 poems added since the initial publication, are about the poet as an energy source for poetry, which moves through the poet as portal. This book was one of those eye (and ear) openers for me - the exuberance in language and the community of women. Upon re-reading/re-listening, there are some questions about appropriation that arise from the speaker's universal "I" in the title poem- but there is a prismatic and oracular quality to the piece that simply presents the I as being a multitude of experiences and embodiments, without assuming a position of expertise. A great book! Read Waldman aloud, and listen to her read the poem here for the full experience.