Wednesday, August 18, 2004

BOOKS: A Reading List of Authors

I like books. Not all books. And many so-called classics just bore me to tears. I don't usually want to read books that make you work, unless they are technical books about computers. Avant garde Science Fiction, aka New Wave, is of no interest. But I LOVE space opera. Not much interested in bodice-rippers (my mother's area of specialization). Just good ol' page-turners.

So, who do I recommend? Glad you asked, because that's what the next twenty paragraphs or so detail.

Comic Faux Holmes

Right now, I have to admit that I like a splash of humour with my mysteries. In times gone past, I'd be reading the adventures of Nick and Nora Charles. But now, it seems only women are willing to make fun of their heroes as they write about them. The grand damme of this group is Janet Evanovich who has written a series of numbered mysteries featuring Jersey Girl and bounty hounter Stephanie Plum. Each year, a new Plum adventure arrives in June. Each year, I get the new release as a birthday present. Each year, a day past my birthday I'm finished reading Evanovich for the year.

In between Plum books, I make do with what I think of as Evanovich Lite. Sarah Strohmeyer writes about Bubbles Yablonsky, a combination of hair-dresser, would-be journalist and trouble-magnet from the hard-scrabble mine towns of Pennsylvannia. Nancy Bartholomew's heroine is stripper Sierra Lavotini. She's the least 'charming' of the lot, the most hard-boiled, yet the one that comes by the most straight-forward mysteries. In fact, she's a lot closer to the next section than this one. It's been awhile since Sparkle Hayter did a Robin Hudson mystery. That's too bad, because the ex-CNN staffer knows how to spin a humourous yarn.

Clint Eastwood Crafts

Mysteries and Thrillers. If I had to read only one genre, this is the one. In fact, outside of the sports books I read, many have facets of this category. Right now, the writer I look most forward to new books from is Greg Rucka. Rucka has been penning tales of a personal bodyguard named Atticus Kodiak for awhile. There's been a spin-off and enough happening in each book to highly recommend the whole series. Start with Finder. Moving closer to legit police work, you can find the Lincoln Rhymes novels by Jeffrey Deaver and John Sandford's 'Prey' books featuring cop/troubleshooter Lucas Davenport. In each case, there's enough cat-and-mouse interplay to make the reads worthwhile. Sandford also has a secondary series that's good, featuring computer hacker Kidd. Deaver had a three-book run with a character called Rune, but hasn't added to the series since 1991. Still, worth looking for those books.

Heironymous 'Harry' Bosch
seems like a friend of mine. Michael Connelly has made him so with the various books detailing the LA cop's toils and troubles. Possibly the most imperfect of the heroes in the previously listed series. In other words, he could be you. And vice-versa.

Clive Cussler is this generation's Edgar Rice Burroughs, a prolific chronicler of somewhat formulaic adventurers. In addition to the Dirk Pitt adventures that include Raise the Titanic!, Cussler has also got a series going with Kurt Austin. In both cases, the James Bond-esque Pitt and Austin spend a LOT of time in the water. Cussler habitually writes maguffin books and trying to outguess what the misdirection is has become distracting of late. And Cussler's insistence on placing himself into Pitt's stories to offer up key help or info is even MORE distracting. But, if you are new to Cussler, you are in for a treat.

Dan Brown is currently the HOT writer, having penned Angels & Demons and the mega-selling The DaVinci Code. While both books were flawed, both are worth reading, if only for the conversations they will engender. It's better to be informed when caught at the water cooler.

Fantastical Futurists

Speaking of formulas, Burroughs churned out books and books of it. But with GREAT characters. Tarzan is best known, but John Carter of Mars might be best-loved by those who have read the complete canon. Myself, I tend to the Carter novels with a nod to the sea-faring Carson of Venus stories too. A fun romp is assured for the evening it will take you to get through any one of most of the books. Concurrent with my discovery of Burroughs, I also found the works of Andre Norton. Specifically, Time Agent, the first book in the adventures of Ross Murdock. I was seven, pushing eight, when I happened upon the book in what passed for the Bramalea Library at the time. What a wonderful book. I read it again just last year. Fourty years had dimmed my memories a bit. It wasn't as good as I remembered it. But it was still pretty good. And it fostered a love affair between myself and Ms. Norton. I never cared much for her fantasy, but her SF was always welcome in my book bag. I might have learned my racial (and species) tolerance from reading her books.

I read the expected greats list of SF authors as I was growing from boy to man. No need repeating them. But some of the other lesser-known authors would be worth your looking up. A. Bertram Chandler wrote about the Rim of Space, introducing me to naval life as lived by a spacer of the future. Eric Frank Russell wrote one of my favourite books Next of Kin, aka Plus X aka The Space Willies. Think of it as a science fictional Hogan's Hero. I guarantee a delightful time reading it. Russell was a master of the short story as well. Try to find Allamagoosa. Gordon Dickson wrote great stories of the Dorsai, including possibly my favourite book, Tactics of Mistake. The Dorsai were mercenaries, frequently imperfect and often naive about the politics of others without honour. Still, each book and short story in the series made me wish for more. And lastly, in this group of secondary reps and primary talents, I offer Lester Del Rey, the man behind the book imprint bearing his name. Nerves reads like a script for a modern-day blockbuster of a movie and yet it is decades old. Not everything Del Rey wrote was as good as this, but I think it's one of the great un-made movie properties out there.

That's not a bad list of writers who's career peaked before I left school. Of the 'new' generation, writers I like to tout include Rick Cook, S. Andrew Swann, Elizabeth Moon and Robert Asprin. Cook's hero is a computer hacker named Wiz Zumwalt, combining Burroughsian sensibilities, magic and an understanding of the modern-day computer programmer. Need I write more? Swann has taken the writings of HG Wells to heart in penning the adventures of Nohar Rajasthan, who combines the nobility of the tiger and man's cunning, literally. Moon would have A. Bertram Chandler as a stylistic antecedent, telling stories of the future's space navy through the eyes of the Serrano and Suiza clans. Asprin is my new Andre Norton, with his Time Scout adventures. Doesn't hurt that Asprin can also claim the Phule's Company books that offers up militiary adventures that Eric Frank Russell would be proud of.

Although Asprin has truly channeled Norton's spirit in his Time Scout books, Norton's modern-day equivalent would be Alan Dean Foster. Foster's principle series involves Flinx and his pet mini-dragon and it's a good series. Yet Foster could have written only the Icerigger series and would still make this list. The Icerigger series, with heroes Skua September and Ethan Fortune, remains three of my favourite books. And did two characters ever have better names?

Asprin also must share the humour mantle with Canada's own Spider Robinson. Be aware, however, that the residents of Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon and it's associated houses of somewhat-ill repute, delight in puns. Pages and pages of them. Enjoyment will be as much in the reader's ear as in their eyes. If hilarity is still needed, any of the Retief books by Keith Laumer will likely fill the niche.

The complex de-coding that is a feature of the Dan Brown books has a science fictional equivalent. Jack McDevitt, James P. Hogan and Robert Sawyer each spin tales of scientific curiosity. McDevitt is an across-the-board SF Mystery writer, a genre that Isaac Asimov once opined was the most difficult in literature to write well. Since being able to pull a raygun out of your back pocket or do something almost as magical at a moment's notice is considered cheating the mystery reader, I can agree with Asimov. Still, McDevitt rarely disappoints. Hogan's nowhere near as consistent. But the Gentle Giants of Ganymede series is fabulous. Inherit the Stars, which spins from the premise of finding a corpse on the moon that isn't contemporary, makes for a wonderful night of reading. Canadian Sawyer doesn't always write mysteries in his SF, but he always 'Asks the big question!' Most times, he's successful in answering it. Amongst his works, the most enjoyable are the Quintaglio trilogy, featuring intelligent dinosaurs at work and play. That said, he won more awards with his more-recent Neanderthal Parallax series.

Moon's my favourite combat SF writer right now, but David Weber and John Ringo both have as many hits as misses in the category. Their teaming up on the Prince Roger series that started with March Upcountry is a great hit, and one I'm happy will expand a lot from the original trilogy length. Although he's veered into fantasy of late with great writer and friend Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle has many solid books out there to read. And seek out William C. Dietz. You'll be glad you did.

Niven, is sort of an oddball. He's very hard-SF-grounded, but he shows a flair for the inventive that takes him out of territory mined so well by Hal Clement and Robert Forward. In doing so, he joins the likes of Charles Sheffield and Ben Bova as good reads, with a hefty dose of science thrown in. Best of all, Niven puts out a new Ringworld book every decade or so.

When I was still a lad, I read the Robert Heinlein juveniles (The Man Who Sold the Moon is FAAARRR better than the usually-cited best, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel). Wasn't much competition at the time. Today, kidlit is a whole category worth exploring. Sure, you can't go tooooo wrong with the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowlings, especially the first two. But the gem you should search out is Eoin Colfer, the genius behind the Artemis Fowl series of books. All are uniformly good. The best approaches the initial Harry Potter book in quality. The worst is no worse than the second Potter book. Excellent stuff.

Scratching the Jock Itch

Two authors wrote sports fiction I found entertaining, when I was the youngster described above. I might be a Canuck and have great respect for Scott Young, the author of the seminal A Boy At Leaf's Camp. But the wordwright I consumed back then was Joe Archibald. In particular Old Iron Glove, a book that made spectacles an important plot point. I've had to wear glasses since before I started school. It really hit home.

Later, I discovered the autobiographical writings of Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel and Bill Veeck. As much as I respected the first two, I devoured all of the Veeck books. Veeck as In Wreck and Thirty Tons a Day by Veeck and Ed Linn, should be mandatory reading for EVERY sports executive. Sports as ENTERTAINMENT! What a concept!?!

Sports as humour was an obvious theme of the Stengel bio, as well as books by Ron Luciano and Bob Uecker. But if you want funny, then Loose Balls by Terry Pluto chronicles the zany goings-on in the old American Basketball Association. Great stuff.

The sports book with the most commentary in recent money was Michael Lewis' love-poem for Billy Beane, Moneyball. As a resident of Toronto where Beane disciple J.P. Ricciardi reigns, it is mandatory reading. Turns out, its worth the time spent reveling in Beane's tweaking the nose of baseball's old practices.

And finally, the creme de la creme of sports writing can often be found under Thomas Boswell's name. Why Time Begins on Opening Day is mandatory reading every ten years. In fact, I think it's about time to re-read it again.

Hope some of the preceding steers you towards an enjoying day or three. Comments and suggestions gratefully received.

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