Monday, November 11, 2019

90. The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Since I finished this, I discovered that it actually was a novella, originally published in a sci-fi magazine (to quite some acclaim; many old sci-fi heads have fond memories of the excitement it generated).  I got it in book form (and a lovely form as well, though the copy on the back is totally off base) and will thus consider it a book.

I enjoyed The Dragon Masters but it helped solidify my inability to truly connect with Vance's work.  It's his writing style.  His sentences have many adjectives and he often uses obscure words where a more common one exists (sacerdote, fuglemen are two examples that come to mind).  There is nothing inherently wrong with that and I can see how as a younger man, I may have even appreciated the opportunity to expand my own vocabulary.  Today, it distances me from the text.  Furthermore, he makes up his own words and drops concepts specific to his world in the book without explaining them.  So you can't always tell if it is an english word that you should know or something specific to the world that may or may not be explained further along.  Finally, he almost always describes what people are wearing, in great detail and with colours, also often using specific wardrobe vocabulary that means nothing to me.  I can sometimes stop and build a picture in my mind, but usually do not want to.  For an illustrator or a costume designer, these details are probably quite welcome, for my brain not so much.

All that being said, I am still quite capable of parsing through and enjoying the innovative settings and creatures he comes up with.  Here we have the last vestiges of humanity living on a rocky planet where they have tamed and allied themselves with dragons.  They also breed them and there are many varieties.  There are only a few communities left and they have fought with each other.  There also is a history of the destructive visit of the Basics, a higher species with powerful tech from the stars who comes around every few generations to steal the humans.  There is also a race of naked long-haired people (I guess) who live deep in the caves and never associate with the surface humans, though will answer questions honestly if forced to.

The protagonist, Joaz Banbeck, is the lord of the town of Banbeck and a smart strategist. His nemesis, Ervis Carcolo, is the opposite.  Banbeck realizes that the Basics could be coming back soon and figures out the pattern of their visits, based on the alignment of the stars.  He tries to work with Carcolo, who is too short-sighted and stupid to take him up on the deal.  As the two towns go to war, the Basics arrive and a lot of destruction and dragon-fighting goes down.  It's an interesting read and some have suggested it is an analog for the cold war.  I get why Vance is so popular and I think I could get into one of his longer series, but his style is distancing for me such that this novella did not really grab my full attention.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

89. Sunday by Georges Simenon

After having read two narratives about the crimes and trials of real-life poisoners in Famous Trials 4, I thought a Simenon roman dur about a poisoner was in order.  It was also part of my Concordia book fair haul.

Sunday is about Émile, a cook and innkeeper on the Riviera who is plotting to poison his wife.  The book begins on the day he will commit the crime.  He has been preparing for years.  The rest of the book then meanders back into his origins, how he ended up working/partly owning the inn, married and weirdly beholden to the daughter of the original owner and having an affair with the nearly mute, animal-like maid that lives in the attic.  There is a lot going on in behind the scenes at these quaint, rustic seaside inns!

A lot of this book feels so real.  It is part of Simenon's genius that he could crank out book after book, often in different locales (though mostly in France) and in each case create a complex and realistic set of characters, interwoven with each other and the place in such knowledgeable detail.  Here we get the background world of rural innkeepers, how it isn't the ideal retirement for peasants from inland that it seems to be when you are stuck in the rain and the cold on some farm outside of Nantes.  There is some good detail for foodies here, about how Émile goes to the docks and picks and then hand cleans and cuts the ink squid for the risotto for which travellers come to his little hotel.  Likewise the nuances of the power relations between his wife and himself, his wife and the servants and his own relations with the staff are all drawn with nuance and detail.

At the same time, there are other elements, major plot ones that seem almost insane in their preposterousness.  Now maybe this is how sex went down in the 50s in France, but it seems like all the woman just sort of wait around, showing absolutely no sign or interest, until the man finally summons up enough courage to have sex with them in some sudden way.  Then they are silently grateful, sometimes subserviently and other times in a controlling matronly way.  The maid/indentured servant, whose father basically sells her to Émile's wife as a servant under the condition that she not be allowed to leave the inn, is referred to constantly as a pet, with zero agency who barely even speaks, though is oddly resistant to the mistress of the house and utterly sexually complaint to Émile.  It's weird.

Despite all that, you really do get a sense of why Émile feels that murder is the only way out for him.  You don't sympathize with him, but neither do you sympathize with his wife.  You realize as you make your way through their history how their marriage was one of jailer and prisoner and his poisoning her is him trying to find his freedom.  The dark, twist ending brings this all home in a way that is quite horrible and depressing but also kind of funny.

Cool, looks like the BBC made a radio play of this and it's free on!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

88. Famous Trials 4 edited by James H. Hodge (and report from the Concordia Used Book Fair)

A friend alerted me to the Concordia Epic Used Book Fair the day before the pre-sale was going to take place (for a $5 entrance fee the real hardcore book heads like me can go a day early and get the first pickings).  I am very grateful, as I re-arranged my Sunday plans.  I got there about 20 minutes early to scope it out and there already was a line-up of around 40 people, so I sacrificed my plan for a snack and became the 41st. It was worth it.  I can't believe this is the first time I have gone.  Who knows what I missed?  English used book stores are not great in Montreal, I guess because the anglophone community is relatively small.  This fair gets donations from that same community, so it seems to pull in some interesting books in my line that may have been sitting on people's shelves for quite some time. 

Check out this haul:

Somebody had a nice James Hadly Chase collection.  I love those70s Corgi covers.  The real prize, though is the 1947 Avon version of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  It still isn't the truly degenerate original edition that so disturbed Orwell, but it is a little rougher than the updated version that I read and I think doesn't yet have the "modern" additions that Chase put in later (such as television).  One of these days I will do a side-by-side analysis.

 Lots more lovely Penguins. I suspect these all came from the same collection, as the ages were quite similar and they were the only paperbacks that old.  I don't know anything about A Sour Apple Tree but how cool is that cover?

 I am a bit John D. MacDonald'ed out currently, but I could not resist this fat 70s paperback of Condominium.  This image does not do justice to the cool wraparound cover image.
I saw and put back all 3 of these trial essay Penguins on Sunday, but on Monday the fever was back upon me (like a vampire who drank some really good virgin blood and craves more) and I went back at my lunch hour.  That Jack Vance I had not seen and it is a beautiful little paperback and that kind of allowed me to justify getting the other 3 just because they were old Penguins.

And on to the review itself...
Now that I have three dense, dry essays on famous trials, I felt some pressure to get through them so I picked the first one to read.  It was actually somewhat promising, looking like it was well-written and I might get some exposé on the seamier side of British culture.  It did deliver that, but it was also fairly dry and at times even boring.  There are 5 cases in this book, as you can see from the cover, all of them notorious at the time.  Two are about men who poisoned their wives, one a prostitute whose throat was slashed and a fourth about a wealthy paranoiac (and ex-Australian cabinet member) who paid two men to kidnap and kill a completely innocent lodger because he was insanely jealous of his 65-year old mistress who had said hi to the poor guy once.  Those are all murder trials and all fairly interesting, though honestly mundane and realistic (because they were real) that for me they all ended in a slightly unsatisfying way.  The William Joyce trial was for treason, as he was the infamous Lord Haw-Haw who defected to Germany at the start of WWII and became the voice of Nazi propaganda.  He was declared guilty and hanged.  The essay is written by a lawyer and he goes into agonizing detail about how Joyce's guilt hanged on whether or not he was a British citizen (he was born in Brooklyn to Irish parents who had revoked their British citizenship) and how treason can be defined and what is citizenship.  This was a tough one to get through, though the part about Joyce's life was instructive.  He had returned to England at the age of 3 and grew up a young fascist.  We see these fucks sprouting up again today in America and Canada and England.  I wish they would study their history to see what happened to this loser.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

87. Severance by Ling Ma

I can not now remember the precise details of why I had kept this book on my list.  I know I read a review that made it sound fantastic.  It's in the post-apocalyptic genre and supposedly was a fresh take on the modern workplace, two areas of fictional interest for me.  It got so much hype that it sold out and was hard to find even new for a while. I am also trying to support independent bookstores, so will buy a brand-new book from time to time. I found this in Argo and picked it up.

Unfortunately, it really didn't live up to the hype.  My rule of skepticism towards literary fiction and trade paperbacks remains firmly in place.  It's not a bad book, in the second half it actually gets going and becomes fairly engaging.  It has clearly been carefully crafted and overall the writing is good (though there are a lot of throwaway, clever little descriptions that while not "bad" writing, feel too much of a time and style and undermine any substance that is developed by the narrative).  But the reviews.  One wonders if these people have ever read a good book before.  They acted like this book was some profound exposé on the millenial condition and the modern workforce.  While I enjoyed the details of the protagonist's job working for a book production company, managing the logistical details for outsourced manufacturing jobs in China, there was nothing particularly profound or groundbreaking here. It was a very typical, at times clichéd story of a  young, educated woman first moving to New York City, trying to fit in socially, sexually and professionally.  She is ironically self-critical and aware that she is doing nothing new, yet this does not dismiss the fact that the writer is doing the same thing.

There are two main storylines,  involving Candace Chen, who comes from Salt Lake City after college (with a photography degree) and her immigrant parents' deaths.  The first is as described above, her finding her way in the big city.  It is a pretty depressing and effective portrait of how cookie-cutter New York has become in the age of globalization and wealth disparity.  That rot was already well-advanced when I left in 2004, so I can only imagine how little of anything authentic or original remains, other than the power of money to keep people motivated.  I did enjoy reading this take on NYC, less so however the unmotivated meanderings of the protagonist, which really felt basically autobiographical and is simply not that interesting.  The second storyline is 5 years in the future, where Candace is now part of a small group of travellers, making their way to Chicago after the Shen Disease, a fungal parasite that turns people into harmless zombies, repeating their old habits à la Dawn of the Dead (though not messing with anybody or wanting to eat brains), has wiped out most of the population. Again, Candace is disconnected from her surroundings and colleagues and there wasn't really a lot new added to the PA genre here.  It wasn't boring though and some seeds are set, particularly with the mansplaining leader, Bob, of their group and hints of his malevolence.

Things do pick up in the second half of the book in both storylines.  Candace's disaffection and lack of connections mean she ends up being one of the last few people in New York City and watching it go empty and her steadfastly going to her job until she is the only one is quite enjoyable.  Likewise, the PA storyline, where they finally find this shopping mall that Bob was leading them to, gets interesting as well.  Finally, her own backstory and the struggles of her parents immigrating in the 80s, which are woven throughout the other two storylines, are also quite interesting, kind of sad.  When I think back, there are kind of like three books in here, two of them being quite good (her background and the Shen disease fallout and journey) and one being pretty derivative (the NYC first time one).  I think the biggest disappointment was how little this book said about the supposed Millennial condition.  As always, I should not believe the hype.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

86. The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt by Michael Pearce

I've been looking for any of these Mamur Zapt novels for a long time and finally stumbled upon this one at Re-Reader on the Darlington in Toronto.  I am hoping this is not one of the better ones.  The writing is solid, British, slightly wry and on the sparse side.  The setting is really cool, British-controlled Egypt before WWI, a really nice period for intrigue but usually neglected in colonial genre literature.  The Mamur Zapt is the head of the Egyptian Secret Police and Captain Gareth Owen, who holds the post and is the antagonist of these stories and stands out among his fellow Brits in roles of responsibility because he is definitely not an old boy.  It all sets up really well and I will keep looking for them.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this one didn't really grab me. There was no central mystery and I found I couldn't connect to the storyline.  It centers around the market of archeological goods leaving Egypt (which was also quite interesting to read about in a fictional context).  A feisty American do-gooder, who has quite a lot of sway because her uncle may become the next American president, is visiting Egypt and wants to ensure that the archeological heritage of Egypt (and to her mind, the world) is not plundered.  She suffers two suspicious accidents.  Captain Owen, though skeptical, must investigate.  He also starts to feel political pressure around the market for artifacts and this further motivates him.

It all kind of meanders, none of it boring, but overall lacking purpose, so when a plot is finally revealed, it just didn't seem all that important.  I hope to find one of the earlier ones to give this series another chance.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

85. The Executioner #21 Firebase Seattle by Don Pendleton

My interest in Mack Bolan was only sparked by listening to the excellent Paperback Warrior podcast. They gave a nice overview of the line of books and their original author Don Pendleton.  He seemed like such a cool guy and the hosts spoke well of the books that I had always dismissed that I decided I needed to at least check one of them out.  I discovered this one at BMV in Toronto and since it was fairly early on in the series (the 21st book being "fairly early on" is saying something) that it might be a good representative.  Also, since I am from the Pacific Northwest and have a fondness for Seattle, at least the Seattle I once knew the choice was confirmed.

Unfortunately, this book was really, really not good. Even if this is one of the worse Executioner books, I would still be reluctant to continue on.  I don't mind stupid and I don't mind goofy.  Firebase Seattle was both, but also the plot was a mess, there were no side characters nor badguys that were of any interest and the entire objective was uninteresting.  Worse though, there is just no tension or doubt.  Mack Bolan, who has dedicated his life to wiping out the mafia, is investigating some grand plot by the mafia in Seattle, a town they had heretofore never messed with.  He discovers that under the guise of Expo 74, they are shipping construction material, tons of guns and other mysterious stuff. Since they never had a presence in Seattle (huh?), this is a sign that they have some major plan going here.

What's weird is how the "mafia" is portrayed in this book. They are more like some kind of international organization of super evil badguys who are plotting to take over the world, like SPECTRE.   Their plans are preposterous and the only thing that makes them The Syndicate is that all the guys working for them have Italian names and mafia-style nicknames.  Since none of the bad guys barely get a scene other than when they get killed and have little dialogue, you have no sense that they are even actually bad.  Bolan just shows up with all kinds of high-tech gear, super-human combat and spying skills and an unwavering desire to screw up all their plans and kill everybody.  And that's what he does.  I did not find it very entertaining. I make it sound simple, but the storyline is quite meandering, with him going from one place to another, connecting with allies who go on and on about how amazed they are by his skills, saving one daughter and banging her, then saving her mother and not banging her but wanting to.  But none of leads to anything and even the ending is kind of a whimper.  I really don't get what the appeal of these books are.  It was just odd and kind of hard to get through.  It didn't take itself too seriously and there are some funny moments where Pendleton goes deeper into Bolan's motivations.  It's not terribly written either.  There just isn't a lot here. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

84. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I found this on the street in a bag filled with mainstream mysteries and literary fiction, all in good condition amongst other household items, often found on Montreal streets during moving weekends.  I took it because it caused a lot of excitement here in Canada and because I had heard an interview with John C. Reilly who was so humbly and charmingly pleased with the movie he produced based on the book.  My wife had read it a few years ago and said it was pretty good.  As it turned out, she still had her copy, so I needn't have even stretched out my on deck shelf.  Though knowing my capricious motivations around which book to read, I may never have gotten to it had I not stumbled upon it in a ripped open black garbage bag.

Before I get into all the annoying things around this book, I will say straight off that it is a really good book, a great story with funny, likable characters that makes you want to turn the pages.  The author worked hard at it, did a good job and deserves all the money and respect he got from its success.  What bugs me is why does this book get elevated to some elite status, while there have been so many great westerns that are not dressed up with cool graphic design and marketed to an educated readership that are just lost in time?  I think I answered my own question.  I am just always suspicious when a "literary" author writes what is basically a genre book and it gets treated with so much respect and publicity while great, great writers languished away, their books not getting the respect simply because they are seen as lower-class.  It's very much like Tarantino, who "elevates" movie genres he claims he loves by filling them with faux-intelligent dialogue, high production values and great actors and he is thus an "auteur" (to be fair, I enjoyed deWitt's treatment of the western far more than any of Tarantino's work). 

This is especially true in Canada, with its precious, desperate, incestuous and back-biting canlit world.  DeWitt doesn't even live in Canada and likely hasn't for years (though coming from Sydney on the island and being only 6 years younger than me, I wonder if I may have ever run into him back in the day) and gets adopted as a Canadian writer by the media here.  What is Canadian about this book?  It takes place entirely in the United States and the underlying themes and tropes are mostly American (the expansion of the west, man exploiting and destroying nature, killing people).  I guess you could argue that the softer nature of the narrator (the nicer one of the two brothers) and his desire to just live a slower life and do something mundane is pretty Canadian.

Anyhow, to the story itself!  It's about two brothers who are hired killers, working for a powerful employer known as The Commodore.  They are sent to San Francisco to hunt down a man, Hermann Warm, who supposedly stole money from the Commodore.  The first half of the book we slowly get to know the two brothers as they encounter various adventures between Oregon City and San Francisco.  We learn that the older one is much more aggressive and meaner and the younger one is deep down a sensitive sould.  In the second half of the book, they get to San Francisco and learn about Warm and what he was up to which tests their alliance and motivations.

It is written in a Runyon-esque style, with the first-person narration by the younger more sensitive brother speaking in a rich and educated vocabulary that is entertaining to read, though makes the whole thing feel somewhat unrealistic.  I guess this is what makes it literary fiction and not just a genre book.  It's a lot of fun learning about the brothers' characters as well as them employing their wits and badassedness to deal with situations.  The second half gets really interesting and crazy.  A very enjoyable read all in all.