Last week I came home from my summer holidays in Italy, and I thought I’d shared a few thoughts about the books I read while I was sunbathing in Sorrento – plus share some of my snaps, which are mostly of random animals I saw, and the occasional UNESCO World Heritage landmark.
The first four days were spent in Rome, eating thin pizza, classic pastas covered – and I mean covered – in parmesan, and suppli (rice baws). Although most of my time was spent walking and gawping at the Ancient Roman architecture, I still fitted in some time to read Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids.
This book has become huge, and you can see why – it’s selling point is that it’s a horror novel based on Scooby Doo. In Cantero’s version, the teen detectives are now in their late twenties and disbanded. One is wanted by the cops after breaking out of jail, one is squandering their genius tending bar and getting drunk every night, one is in a mental institution, and one is dead, having committed suicide at the peak of a Hollywood acting career.
In short, they’ve burnt out. Lead, Andy, is convinced this has something to do with their last case, which may have had a supernatural villain after all, not just a man in a mask.
I really wanted to like this book. And I do, the characters and plot are solid, but it has some drawbacks, mainly Cantero’s writing style. The text is peppered with meta-fictional details and fourth wall-breaking jokes, which nudge and wink at the reader but aren’t nearly as funny as he thinks they are.
Meddling Kids is silly, gruesome, and fun in places, as it should be, but all these literary tricks continually pull the reader out of the narrative. You feel the writer’s presence and ego, and, unfortunately, his fear of being labelled low-brow.
After Rome, Sorrento gave me a lot more time to lounge about and do some reading – as well as eating plenty of clams and octopus.
I started with Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, now a big Netflix deal. It’s a good read, absolutely. A cyberpunk world where people’s minds are saved on disk and can be moved from body to body – called ‘sleeves’ – thereby eliminating death, if you can afford it. (I wrote a short story a while back – as yet unpublished – with a similar premise, though it focused on how this affects a kid going through puberty, or not, because his body is artificial.)
Takeshi Kovacs, a kind of UN peace assassin turned criminal, is killed at the beginning, then after a short time in storage is ‘re-sleeved’ into a white-person’s body to solve the suicide of a man who is convinced he did not commit suicide.
The hardboiled noir elements are worthy of Raymond Chandler, but the style, the world, and the tone of it all feels ripped off from William Gibson – that is, the stuff Gibson was writing thirty years ago. It doesn’t feel fresh.
Don’t get me wrong, I love William Gibson. Neuromancer is one of my favourite books, but its ideas have been repeated and ripped off by so many other books, films, and computer games over the decades that putting out a book that so closely borrows from it feels like a bit of a waste. Also, Morgan’s version is a lot more macho, and none of his characters have the charisma of a Molly Millions.
(Reminder: I did enjoy reading these books.)
While in Sorrento I read the sad news about Anthony Bourdain’s death. I’d seen his programmes on TV and had read his famous New Yorker article some time ago, so I decided to check out his book, Kitchen Confidential.
Published 18 years ago now, it recounts his misadventures on the way to becoming a big name chef, including stints working in mafia-owned kitchens in New York and a crippling drug addiction – plus throwing in chapters with practical advice on home-cooking, how a professional kitchen operates (when you should go, what you should order, what makes a chef want to spit in your food), and a wonderful piece about his first visit to Tokyo.
I used to work in a restaurant as a kitchen porter and his descriptions of the chaos and camaraderie in the kitchen resonated with me. Not since George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London has anyone managed to capture this so well. Bourdain is brutally honest, his writing unvarnished and relatable. If you have restaurant experience you’ll love this book, if not, it’ll be an eye-opener to say the least.
For the flight home to drizzly Glasgow, I picked out Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, a sci-fi romp bursting with big ideas. In the Newitz’s future, drug pirate Jack fights back against Big Pharma by reverse-engineering their expensive, patented drugs and selling them cheap to those in need.
Everything goes wrong when she accidently sells a batch of drugs with the side-effect of addicting people to their work – to the extent that they die from exhaustion or dehydration.
Military robot Paladin, newly built and working to shut down Jack’s operations, is made ‘autonomous’ for a short time in order to better apprehend her. All robots are indentured for a set number of years, as are many humans, because robots and humans are considered equals by law. If one can be enslaved, it is only fair that the other can too, is the logic here.
One of the best scenes is when Paladin goes to a robot-only city, where a lot of the architecture is AR and therefore invisible to human eyes. She hears free robots talk about slavery and sees for the first time the disparity in equality between robots and humans, and the connection between indentured robots and human slaves.
I told you there were big ideas – and human/robo sex scenes.
That’s it for my round-up for now. Arrivederchi! Ciao!
(Photos are my own.)