Wednesday, March 25, 2020

24. The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Still tough going with the reading as my twitter addiction flares unabated and we go into our second week of Coronavirus lockdown, everybody's attention on the ticking time bomb that is the U.S. right now and wondering how bad the explosion will be.  I did power through the last third of this book, so it caught my distracted attention that much.  It's a nice little thriller with a great antagonist, though somewhat lessened for me as it had two very similar themes as the first Charlotte Armstrong book I read.

Amanda is a young, attractive art student who learns that as a newborn, she was temporarily given to the wrong parents.  Morover, the wrong father is a well-known artist, Tobias Garrison who lives not far from her in L.A. and is exhibiting.  She boldly introduces herself, gets invited to their house where she meets his handsome, distant son, Thone (with whom she was mistaken in the first hours of her life) and his mousy wife, Ione. Ione, it turns out, is not Thone's mother, but a first and third wife.  Ione's mother, Belle, was Tobias second wife and the subject of his most famous painting.  She died in a horrible accident one night, accidently trapped in the garage with the car running where she was poisoned by the carbon monoxide.

We learn quite early by Armstrong switching to Ione's viewpoint that Ione is a complete psychopath, who is obsessed with removing all traces of Belle from her and Tobias' life, including Belle's son Thone.  She is actively plotting to poison hin with some hot chocolate when Amanda shows up, spoiling it and seeing Ione knock over the thermos of poisoned chocolate deliberately.  It is somewhat contrived, as she helps to mop it up and then swaps the handkerchief so she can take the stained one to her boyfriend the chemist.

Anyways, I gave a lot of the plot away, because it all sets up in the opening chapters (which I appreciated).  The rest of the story is Amanda trying to convince Thone that he is being poisoned, while avoiding Ione's plotting, as she herself may now become a target (Ione suspecting that she may actually be Belle's daughter).  It has a nice gothic situation, in a very modern southern California hillside home.  I enjoyed particularly Ione's the super sweet, controlling utterly mad wife.  Unfortunately, some elements reminded me strongly of Catch As Catch Can, particularly the heroine being trapped in an enclosed space with almost too tight of a time limit before death only to be saved at the very last minute.  The love tension between her and Thone was also similar where there was an almost too aggressive conflict between them where they are so opposed you know they have to fall in love.  Armstrong is good, but I need to give her a break for a while and be in a quieter place to properly appreciate her work.

Oh cool, I just discovered that Claude Chabrol directed Merci pour le Chocolat in 2000, based on this book with Isabelle Hupert as the Ione character.  Definitely not the right body type, but she could play this role extremely well.  Might be worth checking out.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

23. The arena by William Haggard

I have been having a hard time reading consistently in these first days of the Covid-19 pandemic.  My twitter addiction, which I had really gotten under control to the point of seriously considering deleting my account on principle due to their ongoing "free speech" tolerance of racists, trolls and fake accounts, has flared up like the virus itself.  It is my main news feed and probably also fulfilling a social need that is not getting its fix on the basketball court or the office or even day-to-day interactions with neighbours and merchants.  I am really struggling to get to that place where I can't stop turning the pages and won't put the book down.

I picked The arena because Haggard writes so well and his characters are all about pragmatic efficiency that I thought it would keep me engaged while helping to model emotional distance in this time of crisis.  It was mostly succesful, given the situation.  It still took me almost a week to read a book I would have read in three days in 2019.

The story centers around the merchant bankers in London in the early 60s as they were evolving from family-owned, aristocratic entities to more and more mercenary affairs driven primarily by profit.  I am not sure about the title, nor why it is in lowercase on the cover (could that just be part of the design?).  The protagonist is William Hillyard, a director and shareholder in the Bonavias bank, a fourth generation company that is threatened with a takeover bid.  That this is happening is because the firm cannot keep up, but behind it there is also espionage.  One of their holdings is a small radar development firm who, unbeknownst to them, is working on some technology that could be very beneficial to the British government.  This is where Haggard's "detective" Charles Russel, head of the Executive branch and his competent assistant Mortimer step in.

There is a lot packed into this thin book, much of it involves Hillyard and his struggle to resist the takeover (he is the only one who is against it), which puts his own life at risk.  Class plays a huge role.  The antagonist, Scott Sabin (whose character comes in strong only late and thus, at least to me, lacked enough depth to feel satisfied with the denouement) is not of the class that I guess family bankers are or were in England and he is driven by a deep resentment.  We are supposed to loathe him, either because he is not of the correct class or because in his insane desire to move up a class, he has lost all sense of ethics and character.  You get the feeling that this book was written for the landed class, but were there enough of them in 1961 to make up a readership? 

As I alluded, the ending was a bit unsatisfying.  The rest is really good, very subtle, very strategic and political. Haggard has a way of making two men in a room speculating about other men's actions seems really cool.  There is also an attempted murder on a train in a tunnel in Italy, thwarted by one of Mortimer's "top men" that is an excellent example of subtle action and skill not requiring much firepower or physical excess.  Haggard is really good, though you have to keep an eye on the class perspective.

Friday, March 13, 2020

22. The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

Compare this to some of the covers below
I was led to understand that this was a real classic WWII POW escape book.  It's weird to me that it took me so long to find it and when I did (at Dark Carnival, of course) it was in a new large format reprint of not great quality.  The printing looked smudged and the cover was not of great quality.  Still, I appreciate Skyhorse Publishing for having reprinted it.  Seems a shame that a book like this would not still be on the shelves in most bookstores.

[Ah, just realized I had already read another book by Eric Williams, Dragoman and it led me to look for The Wooden Horse.]

It is written as fiction in third person, but is basically true.  The author and two others did actually escape from a POW camp by building a tunnel underneath a camp-made vaulting horse.  In the introduction, which I read after I completed the book, he explains how when he first published it right after the war, much of the info fell under the official secrets act, so he had to embellish it and change lots of details.  He since rewrote it several times until this 1978 edition which he says is mostly fact.

It is a really tense book.  The first half is all about them digging the tunnel.  I am kind of claustrophobic.  I don't know if I were in their situation, maybe I would be desperate enough to squeeze into a 100-metre tunnel of sand that was barely wider than my own body, with oxygen constantly running out, the walls and ceiling crumbling, sand everywhere.  I actually had to keep putting it down because it was stressing me out too much to read.

Later, when their tunnel succeeds and they are on the run in Germany, it is also extremely tense, but in a different way.  Posing as French foreign workers, neither of them speak German.  They have forged papers, limited maps and outdated railroad schedules.  They don't know how to act.  And they can trust nobody.  It's nerve-wracking.  Also, really interesting to see war-time Germany from the inside through the eyes of outsiders.

It's a great book and I am glad I read it on the day that schools were announced to be closed for two weeks and people are making runs on toilet paper in the supermarket to combat Covid-19.  The privations of the POW camp (which you read in his intro were actually much worse for their guards thanks to the Red Cross packages the prisoners received) put into perspective the anxiety about not being able to wipe your ass with 2-ply quilted Charmin.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

21. Hunting the Fairies by Compton Mackenzie

Deciding to take this book home falls under the "it's an old Penguin so it is just too physically beautiful to leave on the shelf, no matter the subject" category.  I quickly scanned the first few lines of the back author blurb and it left me no more the wiser about the subject of this book.  The cover illustration was equally unelucidating, though I know now that it depicts an actual scene in the book and a good one.  It turns out that either it's pure confirmation bias (I chose it, ergo I must like it) or Penguin just generally did a good job with these paperbacks.  Either way, I quite enjoyed this book.

It's a comedy of manners of a sort about a Scottlish Laird, Hugh Cameron of Killwhillie, I guess sometime right after the war.  He is of the old landowning class, though Scottish, not English so a weird subset of British aristocracy that I had never encountered before.  He has an old house on a large piece of land somewhere in Scotland.  All the place names and geography were completely lost on me, but it does sound quite beautiful and rugged.  His dilemma is that an old friend who lives now in the States, having married an American, will not be coming this summer but did take the liberty of asking if Cameron could host an acquaintance of hers, her daughter and her maid.  The woman, Florence Urquhart-Unwin, Yu-Yu to her friends, is the president of the Ossian Society and is coming to Scotland to research and absorb the culture to bring back for the society.  Cameron is quite put out and anxious about this guest, but invites her to come.  Much of the book is then her touring around Scotland, being way more into Scottish stuff than Cameron and many of the Scots.  She also has a rival who comes from the U.S. as well, with her eye on taking away the presidency of the Ossian Society from Yu-Yu.  Much of the humour is them trying to best the other with having more authentic Scottish experiences.

I found it quite funny, even laugh out loud at times.  It is the gentle humour of an older time and an upper class, with lots of dialogue ending in "what?"  The plot thickens as Cameron falls in love with Yu-Yu's 19-year old daughter (he's 50).  It all wraps up nicely and even touchingly, taking on a somewhat more realistic and human tone than the light satire of the middle of the book.  Turns out, Mackenzie has published over 70 books and was very well known on the BBC back in the day.  I would keep an eye out for his other books.  This was fun.

Monday, March 02, 2020

20. There There by Tommy Orange

I picked up this book last year on a recommendation from my sister and my mother and decided to read it now since we are having a lot of increased awareness about the reality for First Nations people in Canada with the blockades on the railroad tracks.  The wet'suwet'en people of British Columbia are blocking a pipeline that was rammed through their land in the usual completely fucked-up way the government and multi-national resource companies work.  Many other First Nations communities then blockaded railroad tracks in solidarity and it has put the federal government in a real dilemma.  If you can't tell, I am 100% in support of the First Nations.  Even if you want to be totally selfish, they are doing us a favour by putting the brakes on all this insance fossil fuels extraction that is destroying our planet.  This issue also brings to the forefront the incredible selfishness and racism in Canadian culture and it really pisses us off to be forced to see it for what it is.  Suddenly we can't be all smug and complacent because it turns out we are just as bad as our friends to the south.

Anyhow, I'll save that rant for when I resurrect Brique du Neige.  I hate to say it but I was somewhat disappointed in There There.  Once again, it is quite a good book but the hype is just insane.  I was getting ready to read a masterpiece based on the pullquotes from every major newspaper review and many famous writers.  I should know better, but nonetheless when people write "pure soaring beauty" and "a miraculous achievement" you can't help but get your hopes up.  I am very glad that the book is a huge success.  Tommy Orange seems like a really cool guy and I hope it opens the doors for more indigenous authors to get their stuff out there.  I'll take a thousand There Theres over one American Dirt and most of the mainstream "literary fiction" out there.  I just wish we could be objective and realistic about the actual text.

The story is about a lot of different American people of indigenous descent (he calls them "Indians" and they call themselves that, but I don't know how that works in the U.S. but us settlers don't use that term in Canada anymore and I suspect shouldn't down there either).  Most of them are in Oakland, but a few are making their way there.  The focus of the plot is that they are all coming to a big powwow that is going to be held in the Oakland Coliseum.  There are quite a few characters, so many that it has a cast of characters at the beginning.  I didn't actually need it until the very end when I got some of the heisting characters mixed up because each character is very distinct, very real.  The introductions and backstories of all these characters do get close to the hype.  They are all so brutal and sad, yet rich and interesting that it makes for that rare combination of compelling reading while being "educational" (for lack of a better word on my part).  Just one cool element is that some of the characters participated in the American Indian Movement takeover of Alcatraz Island, an incident mostly forgotten today but a big milestone in their struggle.  It was cool to read a fictional account (probably based on some reality) of what it was like to be a kid there.  These are all just really great stories about what it is like to be an indigenous person in America today and it is fucked up.  It was also cool that there is a lot of Oakland in this book, both its rougher past and the even more painful gentrification it is going through today.  Tommy Orange is clearly pissed at that.

Where the book did not totally succeed for me is around the powwow.  Everything is leading up to the powwow, including some young toughs who are going to heist it.  It became quite predictable that we were going to end in a violent tragedy with many of the main characters dying.  There lives were so difficult and challenging already, that I don't know if such an ending had much impact on me.  And it felt simplistic and it all ended too quickly. I would rather have read another hundred pages on the robbery going bad, but maybe on person getting killed and the rest of them continuing with the fallout and how it impacted their lives. 

It's funny me saying that, as I am the first to admit I am a slave to the narrative and want a good satisfying conclusion.  Here, I felt that Tommy Orange did such a good job building a rich reality, I would have rather it kept going, even if it never really ended with any kind of narrative conclusion.  Weirdly, it felt a lot like the ending of Game of Thrones to me.

Again, a good book and while I hate to use this term, I think it fairly applies here, an important book.  I hope it removes some ignorance in the world.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

19. Complicity by Iain Banks

I'm not sure what to make of this book.  I bought it at Chainon for $3 as I was looking for something readable after having slogged through a few duds in February.  Although I haven't loved all of his Iain Banks novels (Whit being the one standout), he is an excellent writer and the brief few lines of the inside cover blurb I read made me think the premise was compelling (and I am glad I only read the first few lines, because I went back and read the whole thing after I had finished the book and it basically gives away almost 80% of the story for fuck's sake).

It takes place in the early 90s.  The main character is a Scottish journalist in Edinburgh, political lefty, does a lot of drugs, plays a lot of videogames and is having an ongoing affair with a married woman while being friends with both her and her husband.  He is a good journalist, though, and works hard.  His main storyline is basically living his life, though getting these anonymous calls that seem to be providing hints to a big conspiracy.  While this story is going on, we get these nasty vignettes in the second person voice, where horrible "justice" is meted out to mostly white collar criminals: a judge who gives a rapist a lenient sentence is tied up and sodomized with a giant vibrator, an industrialist who allowed a factory accident to kill thousands is blown up in his home, etc. "You" do them all tactically, using cat burglary techniques, voice disguise and costumes.  They are pretty rough.  That's the thing about Banks, his sex and violence can be quite graphic. 

I won't go into any more about the storyline, though you can see the various ways these two storylines might start to converge.  It is well-written and the structure is excellently crafted.  Thematically, I couldn't quite get my head around it.  It is a thriller, with a mystery and action, but much of the emphasis is on the main character's backstory and his relationship with his childhood friends.  There is also a really strong theme of the justice of vigilante action against these kind of elites for their crimes.  So I enjoyed the story, but I just am not sure that any of those questions were really answered or explored in that much of an interesting way.  I guess also for the time the character was sort of novel in that he is doing speed and living a pretty dissolute life but this is presented as normal and okay.  I think it may have had more of an impact if you read it when the book came out (1993).  I felt that Banks was trying to make a point.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

18. Flight from a Firing Wall by Baynard Kendrick

I should have read the introduction.  Actually, it is probably for the better that I didn't.  I had two major problems with this book, one that I noticed right from the beginning but got used to and the other that I started to pick up on as I read and that got worse and worse until the end and basically made me decide I did not enjoy it.

It is the story of a Cuban expat doctor, Antonio Carillo in Miami in 1960, with his heart and his wife still back in Cuba.  He is part of an anti-Castro/Communism Cuban society that is also funded by the CIA and other agencies, though portrayed very neutrally as just an old guy with a pipe who is playing cloak and dagger (this neutrality should have set my alarm bells off).  Carillo gets a call from a beautiful Cuban woman who wants him to meet a boat to treat a sick passenger, whom Carillo guesses immediately is a Cuban refugee.  What he doesn't guess and is floored by is when he goes to the boat and discovers that the refugee is his father-in-law, high-ranking member of the secret police who betrayed Castillo and his daughter when they tried to flee.  Castillo escaped with two bullet holes but left his wife behind, not knowing if she was alive or dead.

The first problem that I encountered was the dialogue. Castillo's mother was American and he went to a prep school in Connecticut, so it was reasonable that he would be perfectly bilingual and speak colloquial english. The english he used just sounded totally wrong, a mix of John D. MacDonald-esque early 60s clever speak and cliched hard-boiled private eye wisecracks.  There was a lot of verbiage in general that made reading it slow-going and then so many metaphors and wise cracks that you felt disconnected.  Worse, though, two Cuban expats speaking a mix of Spanish and English spoke like a bunch of camp counsellors in upstate New York.  It just didn't sound realistic.  I've met and hunt out with several perfectly bilingual Cuban-Americans and they do not talk like that.

So back to the story.  In a somewhat convoluted way, Castillo decides to sneak back into Cuba, to both bring medicine to a sick leader of the underground resistance to Castro's regime and to find and rescue his wife, or at least die with her.  It is a nice setup and the details of the trip via boat to Cuba and sneaking back into such a controlled environment undercover and through the underground network was somewhat fun.  Now the second problem becomes apparent. This book was not written for the adventure or the pleasure of the fiction.  It was written to portray communist Cuba as a total nightmare place of atrocity and fear.  It is telling in the introduction, that all his research was done with government agencies and Cuban refugee groups.  Worse, he states that the descriptions of Cuba itself "are from the author's pleasant memories of many trips there dating back to 1954."

Weird that he only went there pre-revolution and somehow seems to that Cuba is a place of terror and privation.  I definitely do not think Cuba was some paradise and Kendrick himself is critical of Batista regime in the early part of the book, but this just feels like a propaganda job.  It is laid on so thick that by the end, I was totally disconnected and just wanted it to end.  Not an enjoyable ride, unfortunately.

One neat thing about this edition.  You will notice the "A Special Inner Sanctum Mystery" at the bottom of the front cover.  It turns out that Simon & Schuster originated the Inner Sanctum concept as an imprint for their favourite books.  At first it included several genres, but then they sponsored the Inner Sanctum radio show and focused it on suspense and mystery books.  Part of the deal of their sponsorship was that one of their books had to be promoted at the end of the show.