Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pulp Fiction

I am mostly a non-fiction type, but I thought it would be fun to mention a few novels that I have enjoyed in recent years. My tastes tend to run to techno-thrillers and fairly violent plots, so these will certainly not appease all literary appetites...

Sci-Fi/Fantasy

I think my favorite cyberpunk novel is Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Stephenson must be a great guy to have a beer with---his erudition is extraordinary.

In the swashbuckling, sword-and-sorcery fantasy department, a newcomer named Brent Weeks wrote a series called The Night Angel Trilogy that struck me as an impressive work. It chronicles the development of a street urchin into a magnificently lethal warrior-assassin. The villains in the story are so despicable that you cannot wait for them to pay.

Thrillers

The Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte has a breadth of knowledge that rivals that of Neal Stephenson, although Perez-Reverte's particular interests are chess, art, fencing, rare books, and the occult. I have enjoyed all of his books, but my favorite is probably The Club Dumas. The Club Dumas was made into a Polanski film starring Johnny Depp and retitled The Ninth Gate.

My friend Marcus Wynne does great work combining very highly trained military special warfare characters and real-world equipment and tactics with a nuanced psychological study of the dark side of the job. I think No Other Option is my favorite one by Marcus.

The rather misogynistic and opinionated South African writer Wilbur Smith manages to combine very vivid descriptions of African wildlife with violent action, "Mary Sues" (i.e., unnaturally perfect, wish-fulfillment characters embodying traits that the author particularly desires), and backdoor political intrigues. My favorites by Smith are A Time To Die, about a physically godlike and ruthless Rhodesian commando veteran-turned-professional big-game hunter's problems when he crosses the wrong border pursuing a rogue elephant, and Hungry As The Sea, a more poetic story of a man's losses and redemption during a life spent in the hazardous profession of remote, high-risk ocean salvage operations.

Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War is worth a read or re-read, in my opinion. Classic mercenary stuff here.

A sophisticated financial thriller, David Schofield's The Pegasus Forum involves a psychotically bitter Nobel Prize laureate economist's master plot to destroy the Japanese economy, using tools that include a handpicked crew of former disciples that have been strategically placed in senior positions at the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan, Wall Street and City of London investment banks, and a secretive Cayman Islands-based global macro hedge fund called "XFin Partnership." It is a fun book.

Manga

If you are into this art form, you might enjoy a series called Black Lagoon, about a small paramilitary team running a heavily modified WW II era PT boat ("Black Lagoon") around Southeast Asia and performing various illegal jobs, mostly as contractors for organized crime syndicates in the region.

Heavier Literature

Mark Helprin's Memoir from Antproof Case was very enjoyable for me, particularly as a coffee drinker. The protagonist has a background that includes Harvard, service as a fighter pilot in WW II, investment banking, and time in a Swiss mental institution. The book starts off as rollicking satire, but it becomes quite serious and poignant towards the end.

Non-Fiction Adventure

Frank Pope, who was a member of Oxford's MARE (Maritime Archaeology Research) Unit, wrote Dragon Sea about a dangerous and complex joint-archaeology/underwater commercial salvage operation in the waters off of Vietnam. Issues related to time and expense cause decision-makers to opt for a saturation diving approach, and Pope's discussion of the risks and characters that make up the sat-dive world are memorable and rich in insider's detail. He also gets into a discussion of the tensions between an academic archaeological project and the fine art auction market, since a percentage of the artifacts recovered from the shipwreck---a treasure trove of 15th century ceramic pieces---must be sold to offset the costs of the operation.

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