Thursday, February 13, 2014

2. Slayground by Richard Stark

During this re-read of the Parker series, I have mentioned several times now in reviewing various titles that said title may be vying for the spot of best Parker book.  Well we can just put that to rest right now.    At this point, Slayground is the hands-down winner.  Now there is a tiny possibility that Butcher's Moon could knock if off at the last second, but it is very doubtful.  Slayground is not the first Parker book I ever read.  I'm pretty sure that was The Green Eagle Score, which was on the shelves of a book distribution company I worked at in the early 90's.  Later, though, when I had moved to New York, I found a hard copy of Slayground (the  book club edition of the 1971 Random House at the top of the page here), read it, loved it and passed it on to a friend which started us on a Parker-hunting craze.  So I credit it with turning me from an appreciator of Stark's work to the fanatic I am today.

[SPOILER ALERT!  YOU REALLY SHOULD JUST GET SLAYGROUND AND READ IT.  Why deny yourself pleasure?  If you haven't read it, reading my blathering below is like reading a restaurant review of a delicious meal that is right around the corner of your hosue and affordable.  Why not just get the real thing?]

Upon rereading it in 2014, the exquisite craft of Slayground has only been reinforced in my mind.  The opening chapter is a master class in in medias res (and let's not forget another genius Westlake metaphor, the armoured car wheels turning "like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep") .  I had remembered that, but I had completely forgotten how brilliantly and efficiently the entire novel is set up in the final paragraph of that opening chapter.  Parker standing there in the cold, just about to run into a closed amusement park (his only choice with sirens coming, his escape car totalled) glimpses behind him to see in the parking lot across the way two crooked cops getting a payoff from two local outfit men (another genius metaphor, the black mafia Lincoln "as deeply polished and gleaming as a new shoe").  Right there, that is everything you need to know.  It's a brilliant premise and takes the book from escaped heister with cash avoiding cops to escaped heister with cash trapped in a closed amusement park in the dead of winter while the entire organized crime racket of the area comes in to hunt him down and get the money.  It's a quantum step up in coolness.

Now that would be enough right there.  But no!  Westlake develops that basic premise in a few more chapters of Parker ascertaining that he truly is trapped, that the legit cops were scent on a wild goose chase and he then begins to prepare for the eventual hunt.  This only takes up the first 40 pages of the book and then we are brought into part two, the viewpoint shift that is a hallmark of the Parker books.  This time, we get to meet the two crooked cops, one more experienced and corrupt and definitely wanting to get his hands on Parker's stolen cash, the other already nervous about being on the take and feeling like hunting a man down and killing him, criminal or not, may be crossing his moral line.  We also get to see the syndicate men, one a rising star in the local mob and the other his strong arm man.  When you read this section, you realize the depth that Westlake is going to bring to the book.  We could be satisfied with the game of cat and mouse with Parker the mouse, but we are going to also really learn about the characters who make up the cat, thus making Parker's kicking of their ass that much richer and complex.  Furthermore, we also get a glimpse into how the local outfit is structured and who are the people that make it up.

This is all 40 pages in and it got me so excited that my poor wife had to suffer my effusive exposition of the points made above while she was trying to get something done (I still haven't entirely lost the adolescent boy in me whose over-enthusiastic and point-by-point retelling of movies I had seen inspired a rule banning me from talking about movies with the rest of my family).  The rest of the book fully delivers on its promise.  It actually goes even farther, though I was ignorant of this at the time, in setting the stage for the orchestral climax of the Parker series, Butcher's Moon.  I wonder if Westlake knew he was setting it up at the time?

And how is this not a good movie already?  Oh yes, Hollywood is retarded.  Anyhow, if anybody has any brains and muscle out there, Slayground is basically already perfectly storyboarded.

So right now, the top three Parkers are: 1) Slayground, 2) The Jugger and 3) Deadly Edge.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

1. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Almost but not quite my edition
I chose this my third Trollope novel as part of the long book strategy to break me out of not reading at all.  So far it seems to have worked, as I steadily made my way through Phineas Redux and even got quite caught up in it at several points.  A big advantage to reading Trollope is that all his work is in the public domain, so if you forget your hardcopy, you can always download it at Gutenburg and read it on your phone or tablet.  No need to bother with synching products that tie you in to one provider either, because Trollope wrote in short, well-labelled chapters.  You just remember the name of the chapter you were on and it is then quite easy to find where you last left off.

I chose Phineas Redux simply because I found it somewhere (I think the free store on Lasqueti Island actually) and it was a beat-up paperback that I didn't need to worry about preserving.  It turns out that this is actually the 4th book in the Palliser series and that last Trollope I read (way back in the summer of 2011), The Eustace Diamonds, was the 3rd!  So now by all the laws of mightly Biblius, I must read the entire series, or at least books 5 and 6.

Phineas Redux is the story of Phineas Finn, the eponymous Irishman from the second book in the series (and who plays only the most incidental role in the Eustace Diamonds).  He was once and up-and-comping Liberal MP, who made a political sacrifice and returned to Ireland to marry and work an administrative job.  But his wife died in childbirth and in Phineas Redux he comes back to take another stab at the parliamentary life.  There are several storylines going through this, including a romantic one. The biggest theme is his struggle with the value of being a politician.  At first, he easily reverses his positions depending on what the party asks of him or if it is necessary to win an election.  As things become complicated, and he doesn't receive the expected support from the leaders of the party, he begins to doubt his career choice.

At first, I found it less focused and more like a soap opera than his other two books that I had read.  I also found some of the characters most unlikeable.  Phineas himself becomes kind of a wet sock for a while as well.  But by the end, I was convinced that their actions and behaviour reflected a realistic portrayal of political ennui and disenchantment.  I think, though, that on the whole I am leaning more towards the Barsetshire series, rather than the Palliser, because the location is so much richer in the former.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Year End Wrap-up

[This is actually being written on February 12, 2014, I just wanted to get it into the correct order.]

Ugh, rough year.  My worst year since I started the 50 books challenge.  I do have a good excuse, which is that I got onto the procreation train in late 2012 and a lot of my time and energy has been dedicated towards raising a rocking little girl.  Honestly, though, I can't fairly attribute being a father to my dropoff in productivity, at least not directly.  The time when I should have been reading was spent dicking around on the internet.  Now it could be that the sleep deprivation and the energy consumption meant that I was just not capable of doing anything more than +1'ing Google+ posts and scrolling through my Twitter feed.  Still, you look at the Sun King, who also jumped on the daughter bandwagon (possible to say that I made the waters safe for him? ;) ) and his productivity has barely dropped off.  I even had a nice burst in August where I had a fighting chance of approaching 50, but I just bailed in the fall and winter.

I'm too lazy to figure out my numbers, but they have certainly taken a major dip.  In terms of what I actually read, nothing really stands out.  I basically added on to threads that I had established in years past.  Deadly Edge stood out as a front runner for top 3 Parker books.  Daniel Dafoe's Journal of a Plague Year was interesting, entertaining and educational, as was Bare-Faced Messiah about L. Ron Hubbard and the sick origins of the Dianetics cult.

2014, well we shall see.  As I write this, I do feel that I have gotten the taste for the printed word back.  But my daughter's advanced pre-post-apocalyptic preparedness training regime will continue to be a priority and my job looks to also be quite rich and busy this year.  I'm too cowardly and weak-livered to actually make any kind of commitment, but in the back of my head I shall try to choose reading over noodling on the internet.  My appreciation to all of you who may read this.

Monday, December 30, 2013

26. Bold Rider by Luke Short

Not the copy I read.
I really should have some system for noting where I found books, because some have stayed so long in my on-deck shelf that I have entirely forgotten their origins.  Such is the case with Bold Rider.  I don't read tons of westerns, but I like to dip my toe in the water every now and then as it is usually satisfying.  The cover and date of this one appealed to me.  It looked like the kind of paperback western that would be quickly and easily purchased by the common man looking for a good read back in the 70s, but it was actually written in 1938 and so has some potential for pedigree and solid writing syntax.

It's funny, though, because if I hadn't known, I never would have guessed that it had been written that long ago.  The story has a slightly cartoonish feel to it, where the main character is a roguish good guy who is in constant conflict with the local army garrison.  There is a highly unrealistic over-the-top train stunt that would not be out of place in today's blockbuster movies.  Finally, the ending is also a bit too easy and happy.  All that was juxtaposed against what was otherwise quite brutal and realistic western stuff.  The bad guy was nasty and people get killed and it's real.  So it was kind of an inconsistent read and unsatisfying because of that, but not uninteresting.

The story involved the hero pretending to be someone else to transport a gold shipment from a mine so that he could steal it, while he knew that the other transporter was also a criminal who had posed as well. This is all wrapped up in the protagonist's history and how he was falsely accused of a crime by the cattle baron for whom the gold was being transported.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

25. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


I wanted to write a longer review, but I just need to get something down here so that I can move forward.

I have been struggling with my reading and am thus casting about for different approaches that will keep my nose in a book and not an attention-shattering tablet.  I thought one long book that I could slowly work my way through might work and two friends recommended Shantaram.  It looked glossy and digestible enough that it would also be easy consuming, like a big blockbuster action movie.  What I didn't realize is that Shantaram is not only a dreaded "trade paperback", it's also a chick book!  My good friend Lantzvillager, with whom I share many literary tastes, took great pleasure in ridiculing me for reading Shantaram.  And thus I found myself torn between friends, questioning my own identity!

I exaggerate for humour, but the truth is that throughout this book I kept going back and forth on whether it should be praised or condemned.  The narrative is great, right up my alley: heroin-addict armed robber escapes from brutal Australian prison and flees to India where with his street smarts and the craziness of the Mumbai crime world begins a life of adventure.  The problem is that all of this is of course in service to his own journey of personal discovery.  So that at the end of each chapter of entertaining craziness, there would have to be several paragraphs of reflection and bad metaphors ("and with each bullet wound, the river of pain that is life reminded me of my own pain and blah blah).  Worse, the whole thing is such an insane white man fantasy.  As a white man, I'm all for white man fantasies of going into one of the craziest most other cities in the world, learning all their languages, getting down with the super poor people in the slums and hanging with the baddest ass gangster bosses in the fancy clubs, but please don't try and frame it in all this self-actualization and awareness bullshit to try and make it more than it is.  [And one part just goes way beyond the pale.  When he is making his way up with the big Mumbai mafia bosses, he is given the responsibility for the currency exchange side of the business.  In an aside, he mentions how he has introduced computers into their business to improve their efficiency.  Please.  Australian ex-con is going to show the Indians how to use computers.  Yeah, right.]

The problem with the above criticism is that while this is not based on a true story at all (according to the other), he really did flee an Australian prison and lived in Mumbai and still lives there today.  So the guy probably is kind of a badass.  Usually when someone is full of shit, you find out about it on the internet pretty quickly, but it does seem like Gregory David Roberts has led a pretty extraordinary and courageous life.  His white man fantasy was no fantasy.

As you can see, I kept going back and forth, though I also kept turning the pages.  The last section, where he goes to Afghanistan, drags on a bit long, but overall it did deliver the kind of reading experience I had hoped for.  And got me at least halfway to my goal in 2013!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

24. Death of a Thin-skinned Animal by Patrick Alexander

[I'm actually writing this review on Jan 4th, 2014.  I finished the book sometime in the fall of 2013 and then only read 2 other books for the rest of the year.  All to be explained in my year-end wrap-up.]

I picked this book up at a closing-down sale at a used bookstore on Broadway in the Kitsilano district in Vancouver late this summer.  It's a 1976 espionage thriller about a spy who was sent on a mission to assassinate an African dictator, who got doublecrossed and sent to jail.  In the ensuing years, Britain decides that it must make friends with this dictator.  The spy then escapes and decides to carry out his mission.  The story takes place in London from the point of view of the people working in the agency (and in particular the handler who sent the spy on the original assassination mission) while the dictator is visiting and they learn that the spy is making his way back to England to complete his mission.  It's a great premise, with a nice structure of the current cat and mouse game and a slow unravelling of the captured spy's backstory.  Right up until the end, Alexander succeeds in making this premise live up to its potential.  The anxiety of the spymasters, the politicians and the police involved is very satisfying to the reader, as you know they were all involved in some way or another with the betrayal.  The portrayal of all the various players is also rich, especially the educated, amoral and decadent dictator.  Where it bogs down is in the love story, which, as is so often the case in British stories from this period, is overly pessimistic and faux-modern (in the sense that everyone acts like they are so modern but still follow strict gender and class roles).  British upper class men were such unter-mensch losers in this period (same annoying patheticness that dogs Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  So of course we have to have a forcedly ironic downbeat ending of an otherwise cool story.  Despite my harping on it, this was a good read and I would definitely pick up something else by him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

23. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

That weird mask was because the nose was
stuffed with strong-smelling spices to ward off
the disease and the stench of dead bodies.
I have a general rule, which is to try and read as little as possible about a book before I actually start reading it.  I especially avoid all the business printed on the book itself that is not the actual story, like the blurb on the back, critic's quotes, the author's bio and forwards.  I am always tempted, as I am easily distracted.  So this practice is a form of self-discipline to get me through the book.  All that other stuff is a little bit like desert.  The big reason, though, is spoilers.  I know editors have to sell books, but it is just selfish and irresponsible the way they give away all the cool stuff on the back cover.

With a classic like A Journal of the Plague Year, the temptation to read the foreword (by J.H. Plumb, Cambride) and even to go to the internet was strong.  I wanted to find out the history behind the narrative as it is just so fascinating and crazy what happened.  However, spoilers were just not a concern for me in this case.  Well when I did finish it and read the Foreword, I was totally blown away to find out there was a HUGE spoiler (explained at the end of the post) and one that would have completely changed my perception of this work had I known ahead of time.  It was a great pleasure to be surprised in this way and this experiences reinforces my dedication to my rule.

Victims would run through the streets, naked and crazed
with pain and the madness of the disease.
So on to the book itself.  It is a first-person recollection of the year 1665 when the Black Plague swept through London, killing tens of thousands and (as you can well imagine) throwing the city into an upheaval.  We've all heard about it to some degree or another, most limited (like me) to Monty Python and a few scraps of memory from high school history classes.  It was pretty hard core!  It's hard to imagine the way London was back then, even before there was a plague.  There were open sewers and people just threw their garbage out into the street.  When the plague hit, thousands of people were dying per week.  The whole "bring out yer dead!" thing really happened.  The book, though, stresses that despite some mistakes, the city managers actually handled the situation relatively well, creating policies that ensured that ensured that there were no dead bodies left on the street.  They also managed to ensure that enough trade remained open so that the poor who remained in the city didn't starve.  One of the controversial policies was the act forcing families to be shut up in their homes if one of their members or staff showed signs of the sickness.  Guards were hired to stand outside their door to ensure that nobody left and nobody came in (which also helped create employment).  Defoe narrates some great stories of families trying to sneak out, or attack the guard.  Several were murdered.

Structurally, the book is lacking.  There isn't really an order and it goes all over the place in time and subject.  Defoe often gets started on something and then says that he'll say more about that later.  This happens a few too many times so that the reader loses track.  And dude, chapters!  The whole thing is one long flow and it makes it hard to put it down and pick it up again.  (Oh yeah, right, they hadn't been invented yet.)  The writing style is rich and arch, made me laugh out loud at times
However, in general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burned perfumes, incense, benjamin, rozin, and sulphur in their rooms close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder; others caused large fires to be made all day and all night for several days and nights; by the same token that two or three were pleased to set their houses on fire, and so effectually sweetened them by burning them down to the ground...
 Dry British humour in its earliest days.

A really enjoyable read that gave me a strong interest in the Black Death, which led to lots of fascinating internet reading.

ADDENDUM: new (and avid) reader and commenter Kelly Robinson (check out her great blog Book Dirt) reminded me in her comment below about how Apocalyptic this novel is.  It reminded me strongly of the British authors from the 60s and 70s and especially John Christopher's Death of Grass. A big part of the book is about the exodus out of London, with the issues of the advantage of wealth and class and having to decide when (or whether) to leave.  He also recounts a tale of a small group of workers who banded together to travel in the country and how they were refused to enter by certain towns.  I wonder if this is something that is part of British culture that has been passed down with the various disasters that have befallen London in history.


Daniel Defoe was 5 years old when this London plague happened!  He wrote the book as a work of fiction based on several non-fictional tracts and his own childhood memories and tales.  The entire time I was reading it, I thought it was his own recollection.  Looks like he was a darned good writer!