Friday, August 14, 2009

What I read on my summer vacation

Charles here, back from Australia, slightly tanned and totally rested.

A few weeks back I posted a frantic request for suggestions for books to bring along with me to Australia. (Thanks to the folks who sent email suggestions – I didn’t get those until I got back but will keep your suggestions in mind now that I’m back.)

Rarely do I get so much time to do nothing but read – the flight from LA to Sydney was 13 hours and that was only part of the trip – and I feel I made great use of the time I had. So what did I read?

I started with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It’s a steampunk science fiction novel set in 1855 and I was enjoying it a lot – and somebody at the airport bar in LA must have liked it too, since it wandered off between rounds. I was only a third of the way through so I’ve picked up another copy. I like the Victorian setting and the saucy and adventurous heroine. Quite imaginative and fun.

With book one out of action, I jumped into Smonk: A Novel, by Tom Franklin. It was a tough, no-holds-barred western that reminded me of a mix of the best Larry McMurty and the most graphic Richard Stark. The ending was a bit too H.P. Lovecraft-esque, but the outstanding character development and dialog made up for any possible shortcomings. The phrase “It’ll cost you a dollar” has taken on a whole new meaning.

In Sydney, Rose and I toured the outstanding Barracks Museum near Hyde Park. I must have had that place fresh in my mind when I spotted Death and the Running Patterer by Robin Adair. I really liked this book. It’s a mystery set in Sydney in 1828 and it has one of the most unique protagonists I’ve seen in a while. A former Bow Street Runner and transported convict who’s done his time, Nicodemus Dunne now makes his living as a running patterer, sort of a talking newspaper for the semi-literate community. The period details were outstanding and I enjoyed learning so much about the realities of the penal system in Australia. This would make a great Merchant Ivory film if they were willing to get a little blood on their hands. Track this one down.

I spent three amazing days on a dive boat out on the Great Barrier Reef and Flint & Silver by John Drake, a prequel to Treasure Island, was the perfect reading companion. It was a swashbuckling romantic adventure, packed with action with a just the right amount of history and pirate reality blended in to make it believable. And it really was. The writing was crisp and while some of the scenes with Flint bordered on the over-the-top, it was well-crafted book. I look forward to the sequel and to re-reading Treasure Island.

In Brisbane I found a copy of A Way With Words: A Frolic Through The Landscape of Language by Ruth Wajnryb. It’s a collection of short essays – none more than four pages – that explore specific words and phrases. A scholar and applied linguist, Dr. Wajnryb takes a witty look at the ways language works (or doesn’t work), and while you know she’s got the chops to toss all these academic terms around, she keeps it light. It’s potato chip reading – you can not stop once you get started – and there were many times on the flight to Ayres Rock that I startled fellow passengers with my sudden bursts of laughter. Apparently the good doctor has a weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saturday ‘Spectrum’. I’ll be looking for it and you should too.

I’ll admit that I started The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramgo, but I never got past page 30. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the book – the writing is brilliant and it did win the Nobel Prize for Literature – but the copy I have is about nine-point font and the writing is rather dense (in a good, meaty and rewarding way). It’s just not a good airplane read. It’s on my shelf for winter reading.

We were in the Sydney airport, getting ready to head back to the states when we realized that we still had $40 in Australian currency in our pockets. There was an $8 service charge to exchange it to US currency, so we opted to spend it. Rose picked up The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey while I hefted the impossibly massive Drood by Dan Simmons. How massive? Try 770 pages. The story is told in first person by Wilkie Collins, an actual Victorian writer who you will remember reading a quarter of the way through Drood. The plot focuses – sometimes tangentially – on Charles Dickens’ obsession on the mysterious figure known only as Drood. I read nearly non-stop all the way home but I’ve still got 390 pages to go. I don’t know if it’s the plot or the characters or the writing, but I can’t seem to put this book down. I actually wished the plane would go slower so I could read more. I have no idea where this one is leading, but I’m hooked and, with no big blocks of reading time on the horizon, I’ll be nibbling away at this one for a while.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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