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09-08-11: Rudy Rucker Double-Play

'Jim and the Flims' and 'Nested Scrolls'

For all that the probably well-informed doomsayers would have us believe that books are on the decline, it's hard to believe when there are so many excellent titles coming out. This summer has been a boom time for readers of Rudy Rucker, and to my mind, that should be just about anyone interested in reading.

Witness his two, count 'em two latest titles, coming out within six months of one another, in hardcover. We can start with June's 'Jim and the Flims' (Night Shade Books ; June 7, 2011 ; $24.99), a perfect piece of Rudy Rucker weirdiana that comes out of left field with an absurdist, surreal, science-fictional take on the afterlife and the Orpheus myth, and wrap things up with 'Nested Scrolls : The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bittner Rucker' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; December 2011 ; $25.99). As to which is stranger — that's an exercise left to the reader.

Rucker is best-known as one of the original cyberpunks, but his fiction has always been far more diverse than that rather confining label. His cyberpunk work stretched the boundaries of that genre by virtue of his ability to combine razor-sharp wit with a surprisingly sunny outlook. With novels like 'As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Breugel' and 'Mathematicians in Love,' Rucker has felt free to roam through the wilderness of fiction blithely ignoring what most feel are the tropes and limitations of genre. Uniting all of this is an appealing feel for the surreal, and the optimism of human creativity.

With 'Jim and the Flims,' Rucker explores the afterlife with a science fictional backdrop and an appealing, slacker narrator, Jim Oster. Oster invents something that both kills his wife and opens a tunnel between the weird world of Santa Cruz, California, and the afterlife; the latter is marginally stranger. As one infects the other, Oster's narrative voice calmly confronts the critters that emerge and the potential for rescuing his wife, Orpheus-style. It's a joy to read; and you can read a full Archive review of the book here.

I've been looking forward to 'Nested Scrolls' since Rucker read from it at SF in SF earlier this year. Not surprisingly, as with 'Jim and the Flims,' it's the narrative voice that makes this book such a joy; only this time around you're getting Rudy von Bittner Rucker, straight up. The fact that Rucker would craft an autobiography isn't surprising. He's done it before ('All the Visions'), and more importantly, he was writing about "life blogging" long before it was happening. He's a man who has always been interested in the record.

What distinguishes 'Nested Scrolls' is Rucker's voice, which has this sort of steely, understated clarity. He writes in an almost flat, declarative style, which makes his rather amazing life all the more entertaining. He moves with equal ease through the halls of academia, science and science fiction. He effortlessly pushes the envelopes of math, technology, writing and art. He's told us many stories chock full of verve and imagination, but his own story may be the most powerful he has to tell.

When I spoke with Rucker at SF in SF, he told me that Tor's intention was to release 'Nested Scrolls' as a trade paperback original. Happily, the ARC I have indicates that somebody changed his or her mind. 'Nested Scrolls' will be published as a hardcover book, and perhaps, just perhaps, will change what people think, not just of Rucker but books.

'Nested Scrolls' managed to turn a corner, to stare down the doomsayers. Of course the fact that it is an autobiography in a time when that genre is very popular helps. And Rucker has always been a master of genre fiction — no matter what the genre. It's possible that having something to say actually helps a book's sales. For all the tech that hopes to supplant reading, there's something about the written word that just cannot be duplicated.

09-07-11: Michael Harvey Rides 'The Third Rail'

Undermining Hearts and Minds

We don't want to just watch the detectives — we want to learn something new about them. The challenge for the author of a series of mystery novels featuring a PI is to parcel out bits and pieces of an initially enigmatic, emblematic character's past while preserving the protagonist as surrogate for our desire to see justice done. Michael Harvey gets the balance just right in his third Michael Kelly novel, 'The Third Rail.' He pulls back the first-person, close camera that brought us through 'The Chicago Way' and 'The Fifth Floor' to give readers a wider perspective on both Michael Kelly and those who seek to do him harm.

Harvey doesn't waste a word and he doesn't waste a moment of the reader's time. Shots are fired before you finish page one. Someone is killing riders the el train but the real target is Kelly himself. As Kelly and his new damsel, Federal Judge Rachel Swenson are drawn deeper into the case and into the chase, the stakes are raised. And readers begin to learn something of Kelly's past.

The plot of 'The Third Rail' is a nicely complicated machine, with lots of moving parts that keep the reader guessing and catching up just as Kelly or those who seek to harm him step briskly ahead. Killings on the el bring in the Mayor and his political shock troops, as well as the press. Between his political enemies and his criminal enemies, Kelly is kept entertainingly busy. The grit of Harvey's writing ensures that all of this has a true feeling of consequence though. We care about the people who come into the cross-hairs. Even those capable of inhuman acts seem realistically human.

'The Third Rail' offers us some real insight into Kelly's background, tied, not surprisingly, to a real historical event, a train derailing that took place in the late 1970's. Harvey has smudged the actual events to fit in with his Kelly's past, and the revelations that follow give readers fresh insight into Kelly's choices. Once again, the Mayor makes a number of major impressions. He's a delightful wielder of power. Kelly's friend Vince Rodriguez gets fleshed out, while Rachel gets pulled into circumstances befitting her position as a federal judge.

Harvey keeps the tight prose and pacing of the previous novels, even as he adds depth and color to his characters and their lives. He writes some passages in the third person as we see events from eyes other than those of Michael Kelly. Harvey also strikes out to work on a larger canvas, bringing in the Department of Homeland Security and the "Terror 2000" report.

'The Third Rail' is a smart weapon that takes aim at your heart and peace of mind. What happens to the characters hits your heart, and what can happen to the rest of us will undermine your peace of mind. It's a novel that will deprive you of sleep while you are reading it because you simply want to find out more about these people and what will happen to them. But it will also deprive you of sleep after you're done, worrying about your own place in this puzzle. 'The Third Rail' demonstrates that the satisfaction of getting to know the detectives need not come at the expense of suspense.

09-05-11: Laurie R. King Crowns 'Pirate King'

Layering Laughs, Lives and Knives

Literary sophistication is rarely seen as a quick route to hilarity; and likewise, farce is not often regarded as a means for exploring the ways in which layers of representation signify and dignify the task of the artist. Fortunately, in the course of writing ten novels based on the absurd proposition that Sherlock Holmes was real and eventually fell in with Mary Russell, a woman smart and tough enough to keep up with him, Laurie R. King managed to forget these guidelines. With 'Pirate King,' the eleventh Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes adventure, she demonstrates that smart and funny can walk hand in hand with dark and dangerous. Shockingly, all four emerge unscathed in this novel that shows off a deft sense of humor and an engaging plot. 'Pirate King' proves that writing itself can be a swashbuckling business.

King doesn't mince words. Before the novel even begins, Mary Russell herself assures us that this book chronicles events so, "shall we say, colorful," that we have her "full permission to regard it (and alas, by contagion, me) as fiction." Well then! Let the fiction begin.

In her desperation to avoid being in the general vicinity of Mycroft, Russell takes on an assignment from Lestrade, who asks her to investigate some nefarious goings-on associated with a movie company. They're about to start a new project, and the "assistant's assistant" has vanished, leaving an opening for Mary. The next movie will be a film about a group of filmmakers trying to film a movie version of the The Pirates of Penzance. Everyone's eccentric. The director takes them to Lisbon, to hire some local talent, men who will really look the parts they're going to play. This proves to be an unwise choice. Fortunately for readers, at least, Mary Russell is on board.

'Pirate King' hits just about every note in the scale from farce to fear, and does so with what seems to be no effort. When she wants to be funny, which is often in this book, King will make you laugh out loud. But she knows that the key to making those laughs count is to create real characters and put them in real danger, which she evokes with equal ease. The plot here is much more linear than the usual outing for these characters, but King is skilled enough to keep danger alive as well as much of her cast.

The characters provide a large part of the entertainment value in 'Pirate King,' particularly Fernando Pessoa, a figure drawn from history who is entirely in keeping with Mary Russell's assertion that one might well be inclined to regard him as fiction. He's not, and King makes excellent use of a man who was clearly an artist ahead of his time. Complicating matters enjoyably and greatly are thirteen blonde actresses and an equivalent number of more-than-pretend pirates. King's layering of a famous play within a movie within a movie within a "memoir" within a novel offers her the opportunity to play with her readers' perceptions at every turn. There's always another mask to remove, which perfectly suits the sensibilities of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

In 'Pirate King,' Laurie R. King lets loose her smart comedic sensibility across a variety of genre tropes. Pirate stories, show stories, movie-making stories, mystery, adventure, travel, romance — the genres and jokes whip by so quickly that King seems to be one of those impossible jugglers on a trapeze wire, whirling plates and spinning cups over an abyss of storytelling panache. King writes well enough to make this all seamless and easy-to-read.

What 'Pirate King' most ably demonstrates, however, is that Laurie King has been carving out her own niche as she creates her own genre. Start out in the world of meta-fiction, then turn the page; you're at sea, you're in the desert, you're with a gaggle of giggling teenage girls or a brace of brutal pirates. King sets sail aboard a powerful story sporting a smile and sword, takes no prisoners and leaves no reader behind.

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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