Saturday, October 18, 2014

17, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Now that my wife has got her books unpacked on a beautiful new set of shelves, I am able to peruse her collection, which is quite interesting.  We share a lot of taste in genre, but her authors are wildly different than mine.  I was going through them when she suggested I try Fingersmith.  The narrative kept you hooked and it had hot lesbian action.  That was enough for me.  I see now that I had added it to my to read list when I read her original blog post, but had completely forgotten.

You should probably just read her post, as it does a much better job than I could of capturing the books qualities.  But for form's sake here goes:

Very simply, Fingersmith is a Dickens from a 21st century perspective.  And perhaps a bit more neatly structured.  The book starts out in a house of lower class petty criminals, their primary source of income being fencing.  The protagonist, Susan, is a teenage girl who was adopted by the matron of the home Susan is inducted into a plot to trick a young, naive country heiress of her fortune.  Her role is to act as the lady's maid to encourage her to sneak off with Gentleman, a gentleman fallen down in class and morals.

I will say no more as the story really does take you off on a ride where you want to find out what happens next.  I think because of it has lesbians, pornography and a lot of women suffering from male power, this book gets a lot of literary love.  That may be well earned, but for me it is just a tightly written, entertaining story where you really care about what happens to the characters.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

16. Weekend by Christopher Pike

Found this at the free box on St-Viateur (where my wife sometimes finds good kids clothes).  Again, I'm picking up anything that I can easily read without worrying about damaging.  This looked pretty trashy, but the 80s-ness of it appealed to my me and the first page was actually not badly written.

I was a chapter in before I realized that this was specifically written for teenagers in mind and I now know that Point was an imprint of Scholastic.  It also got bogged down in all these relatively complex relationships between a group of guys and girls going to Mexico for a weekend holiday.  At one point, I was seriously considering drawing up a relationship map on a piece of paper just to keep it all straight.  But I powered through.  Then what drove me on was to see how violent and how supernatural it might actually be.  I have to admit to that the intrigue of the story kept me turning the pages.

It turns out that there is a lot of tension and anxiety in this group of seniors soon to graduate.  Besides break-ups, rivalries and betrayals, one of them was actually poisoned at the party, her kidneys destroyed and now surviving on a dialysis machine.  It is she and her sister who have invited everybody down.  But weirdly, only the kids involved in the night of the poisoning plus one mysterious new boy are the ones who actually make it.  Also, they encounter a strange shaman-like man on the route who talks to ravens and seems to see through their soul.

It's a bit of a mess and preposterous, but quite a lot of fun for most of the book.  I can see how it would have been popular back in the 80s among the appropriate demographic (I'm guessing grade 9 girls or so).  The ridiculously happy ending brings it all back down from the dark promise of the middle, but that is probably okay given its target audience.  I have a vague feeling in the back of my mind that I have read something by Christopher Pike back in the day, but I might be mixing him up with the first captain of the Enterprise.

Monday, October 06, 2014

15. Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

After finishing Roseanna, I wanted to seize on to my new found reading momentum but unfortunately did not have any disposable trade paperbacks that I wanted to read.  Desperately, I went to my own bookshelves and re-discovered the Eric Ambler omnibus edition that I had found in an unmanned use bookstore/barn on the side of the road in Ontario's cottage country.  The book is called Intrigue and contains four of the classics of Ambler's early period:  Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger.  It also has an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock which I shall read upon completing this post.

Journey into Fear was excellent.  A naive British engineer travelling to Turkey at the beginning of the Second World War suddenly finds his life threatened by Axis spies.  They want to delay the deal he worked between his armaments firm and the Turkish government.  After a failed assassination attempt in his hotel room in Istanbul, the Turkish secret service have him put on a small freighter to Genoa.  There are a dozen other passengers or so and the bulk of the intrigue takes place on the ship, as his naiveté is slowly stripped from him and he learns the true nature of the world and the war that is building up momentum around him.

Ambler is probably the progenitor of the realist school of espionage fiction.  His heroes are oftne not heroic and the bad guys can be quite banal, even pathetic.  However, he does, at least in the earlier books, have clear good guys and bad guys.  It's interesting reading them today, in the post LeCarré world.  I wasn't sure at which point it would be clear who were the good guys and bad guys.  The twist for me was that there was no twist, if you see what I mean.  Despite the traditional form of protagonist and antagonist, Journey into Fear is at its core a fairly dark and pessimistic book and probably reflects Ambler's own awakening to the horrors of the war as they came to touch upon everyone in England.

What I particularly enjoyed about Journey into Fear is the role that manners play in the intrigue.  Every interaction has layers of breeding, nationality the social expectations of the situation.  Underneath all that are the true motivations of the characters.  Even when it is time to put ones cards on the table, everybody remains unfailingly civilized, politely discussing the various reasons why one would not wish to kill the other person but would do so if it were made absolutely necessary.

[In looking for an existing online image of the cover, I see that The Sun King has a different version of Intrigue with a different cover and only three novels and no intro by Alfred Hitchcock.  Will this start an international game of cat and mouse as he does everything in his power to obtain my copy?  Or should I simply reveal that mine is a Book Club edition, the shabby bourgeois riding the third class car of book collecting to save him the trouble and expense?]

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

14. Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Trade paperbacks may have pulled Olman's Fifty from the edge of the pit!

I am alive, I have been reading, albeit very slowly (up to 14 so far this year as you can see).  I have a child now and have significantly more responsibilities at work after a timely promotion.  However, these are really minor factors in my blogging decline.  It's these godamned tablets!  They are like the crack cocaine version of the internet and I have been spending almost all my leisure hours with my cracked lips sucking on the pipe.  It's pathetic.  Google+ believe it or not is particularly insatiable, consuming my hours as I sit there hunched over, drool collecting on the corner of my lip, reading snippet after snippet on pulp fiction covers, tabletop RPG gaming controversy and sports gossip.  It's pathetic.

But these last months I have slowly grown weary and the well is getting drier and drier.  My wife discovered a garage sale with some great kids books and we went back together.  They had several of the Inspector Martin Beck books in good trade paperback form and I grabbed the first one for a dollar.  I realized that I have several vintage paperbacks that I want to read, but I am too scared to crack them open for fear of damaging them.  I got into used paperbacks in the first place oh so many years ago because I am so rough with books and wanted something I could keep with me at all times and conditions and not worry about their condition.  Now that the traditional paperback has become a niche collectible, I can no longer afford to do that.  I was anti-trade paperback for many reasons, but since more and more good books (i.e. non-literary fiction) have been re-released in trade paperback form, I suspect we will be seeing more and more of them show up in used book stores and garage sales.  Well this Roseanna was a start anyways and I devoured it in a day, spilled milk and water on it, knocked it off the side of the bed and put it in a backpack with a soiled diaper bag and bread crumbs.

I should have bought them all, but was wary of commitment at this early stage of my reading rehabilitation.  Roseanna is a straight-up detective procedural, utterly focused on the investigation and a frustrating and slow one that is somehow neither for the reader.  A woman shows up dead in the bucket of a lock dredger in Sweden.  At first, they can't even identify her, let alone generate a list of suspects.  Martin Beck is called in from Stockholm and he and his colleagues doggedly keep at it until little by little they start unearthing more and more information, some by luck, some by smart investigation but most by exhausting every possible channel of dogged info gathering.  It's extremely satisfying to read about people who work hard in a quiet, often unpleasant but determined and relentless way.  The ending was quite tense, though the thriller aspect at the end felt a bit forced.  From the introduction, the entire series is a 10-book examination of the Swedish investigation bureau and if the characters evolve and the investigations continue like this one, I will definitely get into it.  I'm glad I finally stumbled upon what most detective readers have known for a long time.

[As for reviews of the previous 13 books for this year, I have noted the time of their reading but haven't actually written reviews.  May write a few but may also just throw in a brief sentence or two to note their having being read.  Thanks for your patience!]

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

7. It's my Funeral by Peter Rabe

I picked this up at Kayo Books.  They had a decent collection of Rabes at pretty good prices.  This was one of the cheaper ones.  I ended up finishing it at 2:30 in the morning after being awakened by my daughter.  Soft ending, but some pretty intense and satisfying tough guy stuff the middle.  A precursor to Get Shorty with the protagonist being an ex mafia guy trying to go straight in Hollywood who gets mixed up with one of his old colleagues who is now working a blackmail scheme with a big-time producer.  It's my Funeral did not put Rabe on the map, but it's a decent crime story from its period.

Hmm, interesting, I just learned from Existential Ennui that the protagonist of It's my Funeral, career gangster Daniel Port, is a recurring character.  He leads five of Rabe's novels!  I maybe should pay more attention to see if that continuity is interesting.  The character has potential for sure.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

6. Merchants of Menace edited by Hillary Waugh

Whose heads are those?
[Review hastily written October 7, 2014, actually completed reading as of the date of this blog post.]

Now this was a find.  It was in a box of books outside a house sometime in the early summer.  Obviously the title, the sub-title ("An Anthology of Mystery Stories by the Mystery Writers of America") and the date (1969) were appealling to me.  But I hesitated because it was short stories and this was at the nadir of my reading this year.  Well hesitation was gone when I saw that the third story was by Donald Westlake!  It's called Domestic Intrigue and was originally published in the Saint magazine from 1966 as well as Westlake's collection The Curious Facts Preceding my Execution and other Fictions.  Stories by Robert Bloch, Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith rounded it out as well.

I thought I was just going to read the Westlake story, but that was over way too quickly.  It's more like a clever joke, almost a shaggy dog story than a complete tale, but tight and clever nonetheless.  I kept reading and found several gems.  The Front Room by Michael Butterworth particularly stood out.  It's a super creepy and darkly funny story of a newly-married couple staying in a beach bungalow at the far end of a road where their landlords are an old lady and her simple son.

All in all a fun read and this appears to be an actual hardback first edition, though pretty beat up.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

5. Clemmie by John D. MacDonald

[Review written October 7, 2014, date of this post is when I actually read it.]

I can't remember where I picked up Clemmie.  I am choosy with MacDonald paperbacks, because they are easy to come by and his style is so strong that you can overindulge and become sick of it.  I couldn't resist this cover, nor this awesome back jacket blurb:
She was very young. She was dangerous.
She was a girl who lived too close to the edge of violence.
She hunted trouble. She was an exhibitionist, a body-worshipper, a sensualist.
She was without morals, scruples, ethics. She was beautiful. She was CLEMMIE . . .
Ah, those body worshippers!

It's the story of a struggling middle-class, middle-management man whose wife takes the kids away back to England for the summer and leaves him alone in their imperfect house and his imperfect job.  He is really a flawed character, probably the most flawed I've encountered in a John D. MacDonald book.  His characters usually are fairly heroic and altruistic, though sometimes with a weakness.  This guy just seems really weak right from the beginning.  You get a sense, though, that it's not entirely his fault and that the situation he is in does generally kind of suck.  So he meets Clemmie accidently and she sucks her beatnik fangs right into his weakness.

This was a fantastic read. It's not perfect.  It's weighted down by the mores of its time, the antagonist is an idiot and the ending is a bit pat.  But wow it gets really crazy.  It sets up the hero with a lot to lose and then keeps pushing him to lose more and more.  It's the early 60s striving middle class and I've ready so many books about male characters struggling against that stifling environment, but in Clemmie he really just smashes it all to hell and it is a most enjoyable ride.  This is probably the best portrait of a drinking binge that I have ever read.  You almost feel drunk yourself reading it.

There is also lots of great class and generational tension.  Clemmie herself is of course from a super rich family (which contributes to some of the patness of the ending) and the "creative" society she keeps seems like a strange mix of two distinct "others" to the bourgeois of that time: the upper class and the incoming generation.

Though I loved the book and the paperback was gorgeous, I gave it away to some friends who just had a daughter and named her Clementine.  They got quite a kick out of it.  I wonder if she'll ever read it?