Read any good books lately? (#2) – It’s about Africa

I have never read any of Agatha Christie’s crime novels. In fact I never paid any attention to the crime/mystery novel genre until I recently started reading Ian Rankin’s novels. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the novels have a gritty quality that is way more interesting than the “brigadoon” atmosphere of other Scottish novels. It was short step from Ian Rankin’s Scotland to  Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s – Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo – tales of murder and mayhem in Sweden. The common thread in these novels is the role of a central protagonist. For Ian Rankin it is Inspector John Rebus, for Henning Mankell it’s Inspector Kurt Wallander and Stieg Larsson has the journalist Michael Bloomkvist doing the honors. All of these characters seem to verge on the edge of being dysfunctional yet get the job done. The crimes are solved and justice, more or less, prevails. So, true to form the ex-BBC journalist Richard Crompton has stepped into the crime novel genre with a, yet again, slightly dysfunctional “hero” in the first Detective Mollel novel. But there is a twist. The novel Hour of the Red God is set in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 during the turmoil of the much disputed general elections. At first glance a former Maasai warrior, complete with tribal scars, seems to be a little unbelievable as a detective. However, once the novel gets rolling it is easy to set aside any misgivings while Detective Mollel pursues the investigation of the murder of a prostitute. The Hour of the Red God is a gritty novel with a particular mix of tribal and urban elements set against the street riots and violence of the elections. The jagged view of life that is the trademark of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is also reflected in Mollel’s struggle with his own issues set against the inter-tribal conflicts and corruption that are very much a curse on the African political landscape.  The novel navigates its way through many twists and turns in the political and social milieu before  the crime is finally solved. This writer, in this his first novel, is a worthy addition to the crime/mystery genre. It is available from the Cranbrook and District Public Library.

One thing leads to another. So while tripping around Richard Crompton’s dark side of Kenya Paul Theroux’s travel book Dark Star Safari – Overland from Cairo to Cape Town  immediately came to mind. So much so that I pulled it off my bookshelf, sat down and, over the course of a few days, re-read it. For Paul Theroux it was a return to the landscapes of his youth. He was a Peace Corp worker as a teacher in Malawi in the 1960’s. His opening line of the book “All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper, I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.”  After an opening like that how could you put it down? So, on returning to Africa in the early part of this century for his monumental overland trip through pretty well all the countries of East Africa he obviously has a lot to say. He revisits old friends and old landscapes, indulges in some new adventures, has some narrow escapes and reflects on an Africa that is materially more decrepit than when he first knew it. He has very few good things, if any,  to say about “the agents of virtue”  – the Aid Organizations and NGO that, in his opinion, are a major part of the problem. He thinks the best thing that could happen to Africa is for all foreign aid to cease and let the Africans solve their own problems. I don’t think that Paul Theroux is a particularly nice person and, I suspect, if I ever met him I would probably not like him. However, he does write marvelous travel books and, without a doubt, this is one of his finest. On closing one of his travel books my immediate reaction is “I don’t want to go there”. That is a little different from the promise offered by most travel books.



Read any good books lately? (#1)

I divide the populace up into two groups – readers and non readers. And, of course, as I am biased, readers are the more significant group. They are the ones whose imagination is fired by the written word. And among the readers there are the ones who are into ” molecules”. They like to have a book in their hand; they like the feel of paper, the physical act of turning the pages and being surrounded by walls lined with books. Then there are the “bits and bites” advocates who have no particular attachment to the physical presence of a traditional book. They are just as happy to get their fix via an e-reader, tablet  or computer screen. They consider themselves more eco-friendly and point to the waste of paper, storage space and the difficulty of finding that particular volume in their crowded living spaces. Regardless of their differing points of view they still all love to read. There was a time back in the dawn of the modern computer age that the notion of books becoming obsolete was considered a real possibility. Any casual stroll, on any given day, through any books store will demonstrate that the promise of the demise of books has be greatly exaggerated. My son, a child of the computer age, a confessed computer geek, is an obsessive reader. I guess all those trips to the Cranbrook Public Library when he was growing up sowed the seeds of a life long passion.

So back to the original question “read any good books lately” can be answered in the affirmative. Now retired, one of the joys of this new found condition is having the time to read and reread as many books that I can get my hands on. One of my criteria for identifying a good book is the desire to re-read the just finished volume. So the top of my list at the moment is  REAMDE by Neil Stephenson. I have read and re-read his spectacular Cryptonomicon and will probably re-read it again. Not everything of his has been to my liking, his Baroque Trilogy I couldn’t finish. His material always seems to have a “teckie” edge with plots that involve technology to some extent. The title Reamde is a corruption of the name of a file, Readme, that is nearly always appended to new software. Part of the attraction of this novel is the opening and closing locations in the Kootenays. The particular geography isn’t exactly as we see it in this area but there are recognizable locations that will definitely resonate with local residents (is that Fernie or Nelson he is talking about?). Geographically the novel ranges far afield from the Kootenays to  Seattle, China, The Philipines, Northern British Columbia, and back to the Kootenays and finally to Idaho. The plot revolves around international terrorism and on-line role playing games. I have never played computer games so that part of the plot is somewhat outside my experience and the whole genre of role playing is beyond me. And the concepts of financial profit from playing these games seemed a little far fetched. However, my geeky son came to the rescue and cleared away some of the fog and misconceptions. In answer to my question ” Is there really a virtual economy in these games that can be transferred back to the real world and real money?”. Here are his comments:   “Ah Reamde – yes, that was a good read, and along with Anathem has redeemed Stephenson after his Baroque Cycle trilogy (which I failed to finish even the first novel). And yes, there are virtual economies in these games – so much so, that many of these games companies actually have economists on staff to manage the economy, just like a Chief Economist would do for a country (printing money = “how many magical swords should we make?”). The practice of “gold farming” – using cheap labor in countries such as China to “farm” virtual goods in the game and then sell them to westerners who don’t have enough time to dedicate to the games to build their characters, is a lucrative business. In fact, many of the Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORG – think Dungeons and Dragons / Tolkien-esque stuff, or military strategy games) have had to struggle with the question of how to limit this black market without killing the interest in their games.  It’s a delicate question – how do you make the game hard enough to be interesting and challenging, without making it so hard that casual gamers can’t enter the game without immediately getting their asses handed to them? How do you, as a game company, make money from the obvious market for shortcuts (i.e. “buy the magical sword that would otherwise take 900 hours of gameplay to earn!”) without pissing off the hardcore gamers, who will perceive this as a “only the rich can win” game. In truth, these games are less like games, and more like entire worlds. They have their own economies, rules, mythologies – Tolkien would be envious. While there are guided epics/quests in the games, the worlds are effectively an open field with only a few “hooks” for whatever quest you might be on… It’s a hell of a long way from Pacman’s “eat all the dots, don’t touch the ghosts, and once you’ve eaten all the dots, start over, but faster and with more ghosts”. The games are immersive and complex, and they can be all-consuming. There’s a reason that the MMORG “EverQuest” is known colloquially as “EverCrack”. Even outside of the Dungeons & Dragons type stuff, there’s whole leagues of other online games. If you have a computer or a console, you can log in to things like XBox Live and play head-to-head against an opponent that’s halfway around the world, any time of the day. Talk about breaking down global barriers. It’s one thing to get schooled by your buddy when he’s sitting beside you on the couch – entirely another thing when a bunch of Chinese kids living on a couple bucks a month are schooling you from an Internet cafe, and you’re hearing the audio channel in your ears as they taunt you in a language you don’t even understand.” So there you have it, an education in an email.

So there is enough “teckie” stuff, adventure, murder and mayhem in this book to keep one’s interest up for many late night reading sessions. Who needs sleep when some much is at stake? This is a good read and one that will definitely go into my re-read list. The book is available from the Cranbrook Public Library.