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01-06-11: T. Jefferson Parker Rides 'Iron River'

Guns in Your Future

Chances are there are guns in your future. Lots of guns. Guns make money, and help those who hold them wield power. If you're lucky, then the guns in your future are in 'Iron River' (New American Library / Penguin Putnam ; Jan 4, 2010 ; $14) by T. Jefferson Parker, now out in a trade paperback reprint. I'd never read Parker until now, and I'm glad I finally did. This lurid-looking novel is an over-the-top kick that goes places you would not expect a hard-boiled mystery novel to travel. These are places that you, the reader, will hope you never have to visit beyond doing so in the printed page. But as a reading experience, 'Iron River' really is a ride, one of those books that will tempt you to look ahead and try to see the future. You can't, so don't bother. Best read the book.

'Iron River' is the third Charlie Hood novel, after 'L. A. Outlaws,' and 'The Renegades.' The fourth novel in the series, 'The Border Lords,' is due out next week. Readers know I rarely jump in mid-series, and I probably would not have here, but I liked the cheesy format of the book and sat down with it, only to look up hours later, wondering if I was soaked in blood.

Parker is a smart, entertaining writer who quickly draws you in to a story of guns, technology, and perhaps just a little something more than most of us are able to know. The story fires off with murder in the desert, then Charlie Hood on the roof of Guns a Million, working with the ATF to try to staunch the flow of guns between Mexico and the US. Next we meet Ron Pace, a man who makes guns, and has in fact made a better gun than really ever needed to be made. Assuming it works, of course. He's beyond bankruptcy, and hoping the newer better gun will bring him back. Of course, the man he is selling it to has plans that don't involve big-game hunting. Then things get complicated.

Parker's talent for character and voice enable him to present us with a gallery of people we'd pray never to meet beyond the pages of a book. But in that book, in this book, we're happy to see these trigger-happy murderous deceptive drug-selling psychos take on one another and the ATF, with Charlie Hood's help. Charlie is not well set to deal with the passel of problems coming his way, but seeing his competent, low-key approach unfold against men who love to kill for the fun — and profit — of it is truly engaging. Dialogue, voice and prose for each of the characters we meet ensures that we want to hear what they have to say and see what fairly insane thing they are going to do the next time they show up.

Matching Parker's prose and characterization is his ability to weave a very complicated plot and render it comprehensible while staging scenes of action that play out easily in our reading experience. From the roof of the Guns a Million to the penthouse suite above the gun factory, Parker knows his sleazy southern California well. No matter where you sit as you read, you'll smell the exhaust of the cars and squint at the smogified sunlight. Parker doesn't just shoot them up, however; there's a nice sense of balance in what unfolds.

Even though I hadn't read the first two entries in the series, I had no problem stepping in where I did. That said, I now plan on going back to the first book, and look forward to the forthcoming hardcover. Parker has a fantastic sense of plot, of place and of people — so smart, and so well-written, in fact, that it hardly matters that none of the above are anything you'd want to experience, anywhere you'd want to be or anyone you'd want to meet. Let T. Jefferson Parker introduce you in prose. Best to meet the guns in your future — and hope they don't show up elsewhere.

01-05-11: Catherynne M. Valente Enters 'The Habitation of the Blessed'

Growing on Trees

Our lives are comprised not of the events that take place during them, but the stories we create from those events. If something is forgotten, it may as well never have happened; and conversely, if we remember that which did not happen, if the stories we tell about our lives include inventions intentional or otherwise, then the story is what endures. The events — real or imagined — are ephemeral, of the moment.

The stories we have in our culture likewise take on a reality that may surpass reality, which is something those who tell stories well, those who make myths, know is part of their art. The story of the Kingdom of Prester John, for example. It's a letter supposedly sent in the 12th century to Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus by one Prester John, who claimed to be the descendant of the Three Magi. He described a kingdom of wonders that captured the imagination of those who read it. By describing this fabulous kingdom, he made it real.

Catherynne M. Valente is the most potent of our mythic writers here in the 21st century. Her work combines shards of fable, episodic hints of fantasy, lush prose and a vision that that is so intense it almost burns into the reader's mind. If you're looking for a book that seems as if it might have grown on the trees it describes that grow books, then look no further than 'The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John, Volume One' (Night Shade Books ; November 2010 ; $14.99). Valente writes books so good that they make the world go away. Once you journey to the places she describes, what you read will be inscribed into your memory as vividly as your last vacation — perhaps more so.

Valente's novel rings in the new year with a visit from Brother Hiob of Luzern, a missionary to Shangri-La, or rather some place in the Himalayas. Hiob finds a tree that bears books as fruit, and the books he finds describe no less than the Kingdom of Prester John; in fragments, in tales, in confessions, in a manner so shimmering and powerful readers cannot look away.

Valente's book is like nothing you have read. Deeply entrenched in myths and legends, Valente spins tales of "The Scarlet Nursery" ("If I was forced to eat the children...") or "The Book of the Fountain," ("When I was born, my mother cut off her smallest finger.."), the latter being the confession of Hagia, Prester John's wife, who happens to be a Blemmy, a headless creature with her face on her chest, which we last saw in the work of Bruce Sterling. The prose, the approach, the style here is almost an opiate, heady and disorienting.

Night Shade has done quite a nice job packaging this book, with a lovey cover by Rebecca Guay and super-ultra rag-cut pages that give it the feel of an ancient text. But for all that, it could just be dot-matrix printed on a scroll; Valente's prose is so powerful, her sense of story and fragment so assured that she transcends medium. There's nobody else whose work even remotely resembles Valente, at least, outside of the Kingdom of Prester John. Perhaps that's the point. Books may not grow on trees, but you will remember that they do after reading this one. And expect to find the sequels in your garden.

01-04-11: Tim Akers Wears 'The Horns of Ruin'

Swords and Steampunk

Our world often seems like a mystery that we are supposed to solve. To the degree that we are born and live here, the mystery is not particularly impenetrable. But even so, within the familiar settings, the plots of our lives unspool and each decision leads us to a new awareness of our surroundings. Are they friend or foe? Is the world for us or against us?

One of the most entertaining aspects of speculative fiction is the fact that writers can use their setting as the plot. Because the writers have invented the world in which the characters' stories are unfolding, they can use our exploration of their creation to drive the narrative. Sights familiar to the characters have implications that we cannot comprehend. The world in which the story unfolds is an opportunity for the writer to talk about our world, to externalize our fears and embed them in an unfamiliar vision. And because we do not know that world it is more than a character — it is an action.

Tim Akers city of Ash, the setting for his second novel, 'The Horns of Ruin' (Pyr / Prometheus ; November 30 2010 ; $16) is one hell of a plot point. And it is not just in the present as the novel begins. The city of Ash has a complex history, which even Eva Forge, the last Paladin of the Dead God, Morgan, does not know. What she does know is that she's in danger escorting the formally-dressed Fratriarch, Barnabas around the city. When danger comes — and this happens quickly, she has to be ready, with a series of spell-stories and incantations. Of course, when the very world around you is unknown, is an action, preparation simply cannot be enough.

Readers who like their worlds dense, political and surreal will love 'The Horns of Ruin.' Akers city of Ash is not a mishmash of this and that. It is a carefully layered experience of magic as technology and technology as magic. He expertly plays the dueling perceptions against one another, creating a plot-tension so that even as we learn one aspect of Ash, it serves only to reveal another layer of mystery. Eva Forge narrates the novel in the first person, a rather unusual choice that pays off handsomely. Sure, she knows the mean streets with their petty gods, their swords and guns. And she might know some history, but perhaps not her own.

Ackers fantasy plays out like a thriller set in a world as real as our own, but with different rules. While the elements of steampunk and urban fantasy are all here, Akers characters and plotting have the logic of science fiction. This is not a place where anything can happen, but rather a place where what happens is the result of laws and history with which readers (and even the characters as well) are unfamiliar.

The potential for problems with this sort of environment is that it takes a certain level of prose skill to make this all seem organic and fun, and to make sure that the plot is not simply a tour of the city. Akers is clearly up to the challenge of creating a great place to read about and great things to happen in that place. Murderous religions and wars so eternal that they have become part of the background ensure that the fantasy seems relevant and not simply frivolous.

'The Horns of Ruin' combines mystery and political thrillers in a gob-smackingly entertaining setting. Akers also wrote 'Heart of Veridon,' which came out in 2009, and like 'The Horns of Ruin,' offered political intrigue and mystery in a steam punkish world. He clearly has a flair for baroque settings and slick, smart action. These books are perfect little movies that will play on the big screen in your head when you read them. But you'll come out of that world back into this one, where guns can be blessed just as much as those in the City of Ash. Count your blessings; and if you need to, count your bullets as well.

01-03-11: Mike Brown Confesses 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming'

Life, With Science

It's natural to conflate the object of science with the practice of science. We expect those who pursue the perfection of abstraction to do so in a manner that is wholly objective, abstract, and yes, even perfect. When we read that a new scientific paper confirming this or that theory has been presented, our assumption is that the process by which the discovery was made was as bloodless and pristine as the conclusion itself. Scientists stick to the facts, and their lives are presumably as ordered as the papers they write.

Mike Brown's moving and funny memoir 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming' (Spiegel & Grau / Random House ; December 7, 2010 ; $25) reminds us that science is, first and foremost a human pursuit, undertaken by men and women, not robots. In Brown's world, the scientific method is subsumed into the lives of the men and women who practice science. To be sure, the science we all know and love is here; long nights pouring over photographic plates and writing computer code to analyze the data. But that's just part of Brown's life. While he starts out the book as a bachelor, by the time he finishes off the Solar System as we know it, he's married and has a young daughter, he has comrades who buoy him through tough times and enemies who conspire to demean his work. His is not a scientist's life so much as it is a life, with science.

Brown starts his memoir with the press conference that announced Pluto's demotion from planethood. He's not a part of this, beyond having provided the basis for this demotion, but the local news outlets in Southern California have him up at oh-dark hundred as the events unfold in Prague so he can finally say, "Pluto is dead." He's comfortable with the early hour because he's a new father and he's often awake anyway. Fatherhood makies science look easy.

From there, Brown takes us back on a complex journey that begins in the pristine environment of Palomar Observatory where Brown's very human beliefs and behavior (a hunch and a bet) start him towards the discoveries that will unseat Pluto. His story is charming, informative and offers readers a unique perspective on the practice of science. To be sure, Brown shows us the facts and offers a few figures. But if 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming' sounds like an offbeat mystery, that's because it is. Brown's book examines not just the science that he led him to discover new (as they are now labeled) "dwarf planets," but the very human events and emotions that drive the science.

Brown is a charming narrator and his prose is lively, funny and self-deprecating, especially when he immerses us in the society of science. He meets his wife-to-be at Palomar, and finds himself tongue-tied. He almost outsmarts himself out of their first date, and as their relationship grows his hunt for what he thinks will be the tenth planet becomes entangled in his personal life. We see the candid emails that he and his colleagues exchange, and the tension that mounts once they discover a new and significant object. Having seen and verified the existence of the object does not, for Brown, mean that he can trumpet his discovery. There is painstaking work — in his ethos — that must be completed. But while he is doing that work, there is always the potential for someone else with a different set of ethics to find and announce their discovery. Everything he does is a race against time, and failure is more often his companion than success.

Marriage, children, and yes, computer programming as well as data theft follow in a tightly constructed narrative that is as compelling as it is informative. While readers will learn quite a bit about the Solar System, the real revelations here are not about what planets are or are not. The jaw-drops come as readers get a real understanding of what science is, of the import of human events and human lives in the discovery of abstract ideas. Teaching plays a crucial role, as does office proximity. A cup of coffee with a colleague re-kindles a fire for discovery. Internet chat groups and high-tech detective work reveal data thieves who bridle when confronted with their own unethical behavior. The tension and terror of waiting to see if Brown will manage to get any credit for his work become a propulsive force. 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming' shows how human events influence science, and that the process of science is not scientific, but all too human.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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