My recent reading encompasses three books that range from disappointing to the sensational with something squarely in the middle.
Book 93: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre
The middle ground is occupied by John le Carre, who is still writing about Russians. But these days, the Russians are international criminals rather than espionage agents. That distinction alone means that Our Kind of Traitor will emerge as a disappointment to some readers.
One wonders why le Carre, in these recent books, has not returned to the past. Surely there are more stories to tell of Smiley and Karla or, at least, men and women similar to these two adversaries that lived among le Carre's best work.
One wonders, but one knows the answer. Le Carre's conscience leads him to write about the times we inhabit now. Times that he finds so lacking in moral fiber or integrity. He has, for example, explored the baseness and greed that motivate the pharmaceutical giants. In Our Kind of Traitor he casts an angry eye upon governments and politicians who have grown cozy with international criminals.
Our Kind of Traitor is an entertaining work. Le Carre's skills as a storyteller have been finely honed through years of writing. It is amazing to observe how much of this novel is confined to dialogue amid ill lit rooms inside safe houses and yet le Carre creates a skein of tension that slowly builds to a conclusion that, if not entirely satisfying, is entirely true to its tale.
Book 94: Bloody Crimes, The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse by James Swanson
Sadly, because I so enjoyed Swanson's Manhunt about the 12-day search for Lincoln's killer, I find Bloody Crimes a bloody disappointment.
The two stories, Lincoln's death pageant and the search for Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, do not work well in parallel.
The story of Lincoln's death pageant is a dry recitation of logistics that could have been summarized in a magazine article. The search for Davis is a compelling story that warranted its own book.
Book 95: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl is a sensation. Co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award, it it one of the best science fiction stories I have read in years and certainly ranks among the best first novels -- of any genre -- that I have read.
Comparisons have been made to the early work of William Gibson. Those comparisons are apt. Like Gibson, Bacigalupi takes the stuff of today and envisions a future so close to hand that the reader can almost touch it. And in creating this future, Bacigalupi fashions a story that is visionary and immediate and frightening.
We can smell the stink of tomorrow.
The stink from over-ripe durians rotting on a vendor's cart. And the stink from greedy men unleashing genetic havoc upon an unsuspecting earth.
The Windup Girl is set in Krung Thep (Bangkok). The earth's rising seas are held at bay by makeshift dikes. Chesires, a breed of genetically manipulated cats that wink in and out of one's vision, prowl the dark alleys. Men and women fear blister rust and genehacked weevils. Seed banks are guarded as we once guarded the gold of Fort Knox.
Bacigalupi weaves a wondrous tale of competing interests. Virtually everyone is corrupt and everyone is scrabbling just to remain a live. The narrative is gripping, but it is the future -- gene ripped and gene hacked and a little mad --which Bacigalupi envisions that is so compelling.
That and the windup girl of the title. Emiko is a creche grown member of the New People. Not human, better in most ways. She's fighting for her life and dignity against overwhelming odds. The windup girls makes for an unlikely hero in this gripping story of a future that's feels all to near.