I spent much of yesterday on planes, flying back and forth between San Diego and the Bay Area. I forgot to bring enough books to read, so I was forced to search through the airport book shops for an additional book — which is particularly sad since my latest batch from Amazon had just arrived the day before.
As it happens, a lot of the books I’ve read recently count as this sort of “plane read,” though not all. So here’s some capsule reviews covering both sorts.
Irish Cream by Andrew Greeley. I’ve talked about my strange obsession with Greeley before. This is part of his series about psychic singer Nuala Anne McGrail. In this one a talented young artist from a dysfunctional family is falsely accused of vehicular homicide, and at the same time an old manuscript once again reveals a mystery from Irish history during the Troubles. But does it really matter? These books are mostly the same, Nuala is as usual, completely perfect except when she’s self-recriminating and calling herself “a useless gobshite,” and all the rest of the hallmarks are here: cameos from other characters in Greeley’s extended universe, venal priests and noble ones, Mike the Cop art gallery owner, etc. It’s Catholic flavored popcorn, with a dash of murder.
False Impression by Jeffrey Archer. Archer seems to write in two modes at novel length. One is detailed novels of character and history that follow powerful people through the trajectories of their (frequently error-prone) lives, such as Kane and Abel and (possibly his best book, despite the differing-endings-for-different-countries thing), First Among Equals, which is about the British political process. The other is rapid-fire thrillers like A Matter of Honor. This is one of the latter. I haven’t finished it yet, but it involves a banker who commits quite preposterous swindles, 9/11 (including a not-very-harrowing from-inside-the-Towers segment), and a Van Gogh. So far, very airplane-y.
R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton. The cover lies. This is not a book about Kinsey Millhone. Usually, we see Kinsey do clever things, entrap a crook or two, delve into a mystery. and so on. This time, we get to see a far more flawed and vital character named Reba hijack the book, and drag Kinsey along on her adventures, including fast-talking past guards, breaking and entering, parking lot shootouts and kidnappings, and a breathatking triple-cross swindle. By the end of the book, the author actually has Kinsey say, “I learned that sometimes I’m not the star of my own story.” It made me wish for a Reba spinoff series; let Kinsey go back to investigating insurance fraud or something.
Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin. Alas, this is not an Inpsector Rebus novel. Instead, it’s another one of those ten-year-old Rankin thrillers dusted off for an American audience that has only recently discovered him. It’s like those other thrillers such as Witch Hunt — Not As Good. We do get some of the prototypical Rankin stuff, but it’s just not at the level that he reached ten years later. The ending in particular is a bit of a disappointment; the mystery is also a bit too big and world-shattering for belief. Sort of like Rankin trying to do Ludlum.
Accelerando by Charles Stross. My intro to Stross came from his “commercial” books in the Merchant Princes trilogy. This is the pure quill: out and out post-Singularity speculation. In Turkey City, we use the phrase “eyeball kicks” to describe those moments when reading SF that a sentence leaps out at you with some outrageous speculation and shocks you into a new perspective. Stross seems to like a high density of these: three or five per paragraph sounds about right. I knew I was in interesting territory when one of the first conversations in the book is between one of the protagonists, a software designer and “idea man” who patents five things before breakfast and donates them to the commons and then lives by leeching off the many favors he is owed, and an uploaded group of spiny lobsters who were being analyzed for their DNA by an expert system, and instead merged with the expert system, and who are now calling him on a cell phone begging for asylum, only he thinks they are one of the last KGB AIs before the transition to true “strong AI” and therefore not a valuable contact so he throws the cell phone in the Danube. It’s that kind of book. Like most Singularity books, the further it gets from today, the less emotional weight it seems to have — and it gets pretty far away from today, positing that the last few posthumans end up fleeing from the relentless fully-uploaded Borg-that-eat-the-Solar-System about a hundred years from now.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. A thoroughly pleasant surprise. I first heard about this when it was called Temeraire and came out in a British edition. Now it’s here with a new title, and the whole trilogy is going to conveniently be out by May or so. It’s about a parallel world where dragons are real, but history seems to have progressed much as it did until now — so you get to cross a Patrick O’Brian Napoleonic War novel with aerial dragon corps. It’s full of duty-bound naval officers, cads of British nobility who do not deserve the uniforms they disgrace, plucky lower-class folk who do, ladies with whom you have “an understanding,” week-long Regency parties, and one smuggled Chinese dragon that lands in the hands of the wrong guy and may turn the tide of the war. If there were one book out of this batch I’d say you should read just for pure enjoyment, this would be it.
Play Between Worlds: Eplxoring Online Game Culture by T. L. Taylor. Gotta slip in one book that isn’t fiction; I blurbed it too, so you know I think it’s good. Taylor is, of course, a TerraNova author, and here she’s published what can only be described as a full-immersion ethnographic-style study of EverQuest. Picture the wide-eyed anthropologist visiting the mysterious tribes and marveling at their ways whilst writing their monographs, only to get sucked into their unique way of of life, never to return. OK, it’s a bit more scholarly than that, but it really does provide that sort of window into things. Even those who think they already live in places like Norrath, Azeroth, or Britannia will learn something about them.