Friday, August 13, 2010

What I've Been Reading (Part One)

So, after reading so many books from the Bad Old Days -- Haggard's "Long Odds", Doyle's "MARACOT DEEP", Alexander Macdonald's THE LOST EXPLORERS -- I thought I needed to take a break and read a few things written on this side of the great Politically Correct divide, where racist thought and race-bating words occur only in the mouths of unregenerate villains and Tea-Party types.

Just before my recent trip started I finished up YSABEL [2007], a Guy Gavriel Kay book I'd tried several times before but always failed to get beyond the first chapter; this (fourth?) time I finally made it beyond the opening and all the way through to the end. A new Kay book is always good news, but this was a curious one for three reasons: it was the first to reuse characters who had appeared in a previous novel, it's the first to re-visit a geographical/cultural area he's used before, and it's the first to be completely set in the modern-day. Well worth reading, but not his best (that, I'd say, is still TIGANA), though I loved the portrait of the eccentric English writer who'd settled in Provence. Ironically, it took me so long to read this that he's now got a new one out -- this time I think calqued on ancient China.

On the trip itself, I read Anthony Bourdain's MEDIUM RAW [Kindle edition], in which in keeping with his persona he swears up a blue streak but carefully avoids racist slurs (proudly taking the part of Guatemalan line-cooks over the James Beard folks any day). Not his best -- he seems to be ambivalent throughout, devoting half of each essay to countering the previous half -- though it gets better towards the end, particularly when he's naming people he considers heroes & villains in the cooking world, and why (hint: writing a review trashing a restaurant he once worked for as a way to get back at him over a slight makes you an uber-villain in Bourdain's book, as does dissing the people who actually cook yr food).

Next up was a young-adult novel that'd caught my eye at the Federal Way Borders a week earlier, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart [2007]. The first in a series about four orphans/semi-orphans/runaways brought together by an eccentric narcoleptic to undertake an undercover mission. Good fun, esp. for showing how each has a v. different approach to a problem. They're rather like a fledgling superhero team without any actual super powers; recommended.

After that came another Kindle book, this time THE WEED THAT STRIPS THE HANGMAN'S BAG by Alan Bradley [2010], the follow-up to his excellent first book featuring 11-yr-old chemist/detective/future poisoner Flavia de Luce, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. This one didn't quite recapture the impact of the first but was enjoyable enough that I'm looking forward to the third in the series, already in the works.

Finally, on the flights back and on the recovery day after my midnight touchdown, I zipped through JOHANNES CABAL, THE DETECTIVE by Jonathan L. Howard [2010], about a necromancer fleeing on a zeppelin who's forced to assume the role of detective after an unexpected string of disappearances and murders break out on board. The writing of this one is a delight, full of phrases you want to underline or quote. Or maybe it just somehow punched all my buttons. Kind of a mix of Randall Garrett's breeziness and Clark Ashton Smith's cold-bloodedness (though without Smith's vocabularic exuberance). I know I'll want to read the first book in the series, and will be keeping an eye out to see if there's a third.

(continued next post)

--John R.

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