Monday, February 18, 2019

13. Dragoman by Eric Williams

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books in Berkeley, based purely on the cover and trade dress alone.  I read a snippet of the blurb and saw it took place in Communist Eastern Europe and thought it might be promising.  What's neat is that there is a stamp on the inside (see the photo below) for the Hotel Perge, which is in Atalya, Turkey, not too far from where all the action in this book takes place.
It's an interesting book.  Based on the short preface paragraph, the author and his wife seemed to have been one of the few western people allowed to drive freely around Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary at the height of Soviet oppression in the mid-50s.  That's basically the set up here, with Roger and Kate Starte driving in their Land-Rover at first in Romania (Rumania as it is spelled in the book) and then into Bulgaria.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because I was assuming they were spies, but nothing kept developing.  They just acted like plucky and semi-clueless British tourists the world around.  It turns out, that's what they are!  The excitement comes when they run into a pro-Communist British archaeologist who was invited to Rumania to work on a book proving that Romanians were of Slavic descent.  When he got there, he saw the concentration camps and the brutality of the existence of men building a canal and realized that he had been wrong.  Now he was being held prisoner.  They decide to help smuggle him out.
It's all very competently written, though for some reason a bit light.  The consequences are very real, but they don't feel heavy.  It's hard to say if it is the failure of the author to deliver the real fear or if is a success and he is portraying the ignorance of the privileged westerners.  It feels like an escape story tacked on to a well done travelogue.  Oh yes, and with some simplistic individual vs. collective freedom philosophizing.
It is interesting to read about the region during that period.  It sounds geographically quite beautiful (and makes sense that it is becoming a tourist destination these days).  It is also a reminder of living in a truly oppressive system.  While the Communist bogeyman of the cold war was in many ways overblown, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a near-totalitarian state.  Furthermore, that was not that far in the past.  Today, we have a common perspective on Russia that seems to have forgotten a lot of that, but you see how their understanding of propaganda and coercion has given Putin's Russia a strategic advantage that outweighs their actual military and economic power.  This book was a good reminder of the history behind that advantage.  Fucking scary stuff having military outposts on every road; police, secret service and informers in every neighbourhood constantly watching and reporting on each other and any newcomers.
Eric Williams was an RAF pilot and a POW in WWII and wrote another book about his actual escape attempts called The Wooden Horse.  I shall add that to the list.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

12. Shall we Tell the President? by Jeffrey Archer

Not hair-raising, nor audacious, nor shocking
My friend and co-founder of the MBU gave this to me that he found in the anarchist brewpub and library place near his place.  They have an interesting paperback shelf and he thought I would appreciate this one (and another that will come later), though didn't necessarily expect me to read it. He also had read about the author having a fairly fetid personal history.  I needed something easy in these February doldrums so jumped right on it.

I did not have high expectations.  In some ways, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  It was relatively low-key in the politics (centrist for the time, which is a bit to the left of today's mainstream U.S. politics) compared to nonsense like State of Fear and basically just wanted to tell its story.  On the other hand, it is really generic and honestly not very thrilling at all.  It's an alternate future, where Ted Kennedy becomes president after Carter.  A young FBI agent (who actually hopes to return to academics) takes the call and gets wrapped up in a conspiracy to assassinate the president.  There is a lot of mild American politics/Kennedy assassination fan theory that must have helped make this book successful (as it seems based on the cover).  The conspiracy is pretty lame, nobody does anything cool and the characters are all kind of insipid and dull.  I am going to look up Jeffrey Archer's past now and I hope that is more interesting than what he wrote here.

I wonder if I would have liked it better had it this lovely earlier cover:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

11. Chanur's Venture by C.J. Cherryh

I feel quite bad about the way I treated this book.  The top of the front cover ripped off a couple of days in.  I found it and the next book together at Moe's and I suspect the previous owner had read them both together as they are the same publisher and edition.  Although the pages were hard to keep open and the interiors quite fresh.
The story here is almost a direct continuation from The Pride of Chanur.  Captain Pyanfar is back with her crew trying to work as normally as before the whole flair-up with the Kid when once again the human Tully is dumped in her lap.  It's hard to tell what is going on but the stakes are higher as it appears the humans are sending a war fleet.
I found this book a bit hard to get through.  It really isn't the book's fault, though.  The situation is complex and the various species are probably the closest to truly different than I have ever read in a sci-fi book.  The situation is stressful and the captain responds to it in a very realistic way.  These believable elements manifest themselves in a way, however, that distanced me from the story.  The various species do not understand each other well and in several cases, not at all.  It makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on.  Part of this is purposeful as Pyanfar is also in the dark about a lot of the big political machinations going on around her.  But that level of intrigued coupled with difficulty of understanding what characters are saying (and them not understanding each other), I wasn't really clear or connected with what was going on.
The basic action is clear enough to follow and there is a clear objective, to protect the human and keep the ship alive, so the pages do turn. It's the back story and the politics which are driving the action that I am not clear about.
This book is also psychologically realistic, but this too turned me off.  These adventurous space situations where the stakes are real (such as the status of your family, your life, the lives of your crew and loved ones, etc.) would actually be extremely stressful and mostly very unpleasant.  You get that feeling in this book.  The thing is, those are mostly feelings I am trying to avoid when I read science fiction.
This really is only half the book, basically split in two to sell more copies I suspect.  It ends just as things get going.  I'll crank through the last one, but I suspect that while I'll enjoy the plight of the ship, I'll be unsatisfied with the reveal of the stellar space politics.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

10. Maneater by Ted Willis

What a find!  Man, 2019 has started out with a bang for my bookhunting.  I found the pulp haul at The Bookmark in Oakland right after New Year's.  I stumbled on this book at the free shelf on St-Viateur.  Man-Eater checks off so many of my reading preferences: 70s British manly adventure, beautiful Pan paperback, animals fighting for freedom against civilization and I've never heard of it or the author before!

The story starts off immediately, with an unnamed man driving a truck off the road into the moors, where he releases two lifelong circus tigers from their cages.  You don't know why except hints that he was as caged by their existence as they were by man's.  Then the fun starts.  An older man and a younger woman are parked near the forest for some illicit nooky.  When he goes out to take a piss, he doesn't come back and she freaks out and drives away.

The story then opens up into a wider investigation and exploration into the small villages in the county and how they are impacted by the escaped tigers.  We also go back to the tigers every few chapters, to see their perspective and how they are getting on in their new found freedom.  There sort of two main protagonists. The first is the competent young Chief-Inspector Charles Gosford, who leads the investigation.  The second is David Birk, hunter and assassin on mental leave from his day job at the agency.  He's just chilling in his little hamlet off the beaten path next to the moors, tending his garden, taking tea when he hears the unmistakable call of the tigers.  He was raised in India with a famous hunting father and, though it is almost unbelievable, he knows exactly what he hears.

This is what I particularly love about these books.  The British are so good at understated competence.  There is always a great game recognizes game moments in the best British adventure books.  Here is one of the lieutenants describing Birk to his chief after Birk comes to the station to warn them that somehow there are tigers on the moors:
"Doesn't look like a crank either, sir.  On the short side, actually, but rugged, nose a bit squashed as if it had been broken some time.  Very sharp, bright blue eyes—first thing you notice about him almost.  Knocked around a bit, I'd say.  Odd manner, too.  Sort of detached, as though he was telling all this as a favour, wanted nothing to do with it himself."
And then later when Gosford first meets him:
He could see what Miller meant about this man's detachment; there was a curious air of completeness about him, as of a man able to stand alone, without the need of social crutches on which other men prop up their lives.  There was a calmness there too—no, thought Gosford, correcting himself—it was a sort of stillness, a poised, brooding stillness, like the moor, as if he were wating, listening...
I love the use of "knocked about a bit" to mean super bad ass man-eating tiger hunter and world-weary elite sniper for dying empire still trying to punch above its weight in the world.  And of course, the stillness.  This is the impression I try (with minimal success, I suspect) to impart when going on job interviews or meetings with vendors.

The first half of the book is fantastic, capturing the district and a diverse range of characters and moments as the fear (and attacks) of two tigers on the region creates chaos.  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to its potential as many of the storylines are abandoned or resolved too presumptorily and everything wraps up way too quickly given the scope of the chaos.  One is left slightly unsatisfied. It kind of feels like it should have been another hundred pages longer.  I can only speculate.  Still, a really enjoyable read and definitely a prized keeper for the shelf.  I will be looking for Ted Willis' other books.

9. Queenpin by Megan Abbot

This was an interesting (and good read.  It's noir, pulp, hard-boiled, etc. but a modern simulacrum.  It's like somebody perfectly rebuilt an old car but there were some modern parts hiding under the hood.  It's tight, tough and entertaining.  If it had come in fake dressing with dates from the late 60s I might have thought it was real, though little hints would have nagged at me.  It's the story of  a young, smart, working-class girl who does the books for a cheap bar.  She gets noticed by an older, glamourous woman who works for the mob, Gloria Denton.  Denton takes her under her wing and mentors her to be her sidekick.  This is the kind of book that was sort of predictable, or at least you weren't worried so much about where the narrative led as you knew right from the beginning it was ultimately going to be a power struggle between the girl and her mentor.  So it is safe to say that the girl sort of fucks up or sort of deliberately does what she wants by hooking up with a low-life, charming hopeless gambler.  Shit goes wrong in a deliciously brutal way.

Smarter people than me will be able to do a better analysis of this book.  On the one hand, you can at the very least, credit Abbot for wrtiing a near diamond perfect pulp book.  However, I suspect there is also a lot deeper shit going on here with the role reversals and how she plays with the power dynamics between the two women and the men in the world.   Or perhaps it can be criticized for being too much of something the male gaze would want?  I don't know, will go read up and will also keep her earlier pulp works in mind.  She has also gone on to a successful career writing "literary" fiction, some of which look promising and interesting as well.

Monday, January 28, 2019

8. The Innocent Mrs. Duff by Elizabeth Sanxsay Holding

I found this at the Grande Bibliothèque here.  It's actually a different double reprint of two of Holding's books (back-to-back so you flip the book over to read the second book).  The Innocent Mrs. Duff is from 1947, which would be a bit later in her career (though she wrote 4 books after it before dying in 1955).  I have to say that either I didn't get this book or that it is not one of her better efforts.  It did help me to identify some recurring themes in her work.

The story is about Jacob Duff, a wealthy New Yorker out in the suburbs.  His wife had died and he recently remarried a younger model.  They have been married for a year when the book starts and he is already clearly exasperated by her.  His distaste is all centered around class, somehow she can't do anything right, though she seems honestly to be making an effort.  He also is struggling with alchoholism, though in total denial about it.  As the book goes on, you realize he is an absolute drunk and that his life is spiralling out of control.

However, right from the beginning, I couldn't get a handle on his character.  His alcoholism accelerates so quickly.  I couldn't tell if it was him being an unreliable narrator or just that was the way Holding thought alcoholism works (which doesn't seem likely as the rest of portrayal is quite accurate).  It threw me.  Furthermore, the guy is just completely stupid, almost addled to the point where you wonder if he is being drugged by someone else.  Basically, he just gets more and more confused and paranoid and ruins his life.  There is some hinting at a mystery but there really isn't one in the end.  The narrative does careen forward and is entertaining and almost funny.  At one point he goes to the office to try and type up a fake ransom letter.  The secretary wants to do it for him but he can't let her see what he is typing.  He sits at the typewriter and keeps screwing it up and then stuffing the erroneous pages in his pocket, all the while the secretary is standing there waiting for her typewriter.

An odd story, kind of fun, but ultimately left me a bit puzzled as to what story she was trying to tell.  The late, great Ed Gorman writes a much more positive (and better) review that does make me realize this book is very well regarded by those whose opinions on these things count (Raymond Chandler said it was the best book about alcoholism).  He paticularily appreciated the portrayal from the drunk's perspective and the constant sense of dread that forces you to turn the pages.  I can attest that these things are very good in the book.  I just felt unsure of the foundation I was on from the beginning.

Friday, January 25, 2019

7. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

She calls it a novella, but really it is a short story so I feel a bit cheap considering this as a single book.  I did purchase it new and separately, so economically it is quite definitely a book and I'll take that.  Anyways, I have been wanting to read a book by Okorafor for a while now. I thought Binti was the one you are supposed to read but I think I probably should have started with a real novel such as Who Fears Death.  She writes in a lot of different forms with novellas and sort-of series and some books for young adults, so it is difficult to find a clear entry point.

The story is about a gifted young girl who comes from a tradtional desert people and is running away off-planet to go to university, the first of her people to do so and against her family and community's wishes.  En route, the ship is attacked by Meduse and she by the luck (or perhaps her special technological skills) of a piece of ancient tech that she found and keeps as a good luck charm, she is spared.

I am reluctant to be overly critical as this is really a short book.  The protagonist is really cool, as is the setting.  It's written directly and enjoyably.  I gobbled it up.  It just felt a bit thin for me (again, the size so not a real criticism).  I feel that this could easily be a young adult novel (and perhaps that is a large part of its audience).  The resolution is very quick and things work out way too well (given humans), but again this is probably a function of the form of the story.

More disappointing, is that the progressive, racial themes were basically analogous to our own social issues, almost simplistically so.  It is like a 101 of post-colonial tropes.  The girl comes from a minority, dark-skinned tribe that wash, dress and decorate themselves very differently than the light-skinned majority on her planet.  The conflict that triggers the attack is because of a body part stolen for research and kept in a university museum.  I suspect this book informed some of the writing in Black Panther. 

I like these themes and recognize that their absence in sci-fi and fantasy are not an absence but rather due to the dominance of the white male viewpoint.  It's just that I wished they had been incorporated here in a way that didn't keep reminding me of the real world.  That being said, the final part of the book, where the heroine is transformed physically and makes a connection with the meduse suggests the setting will get more complex and take me to a new place without sacrificing the impact of those real-world issues on the narrative.  I do have the next one, so that should be interesting.

Despite my nitpicking, a good start.  I just want to go deeper.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

6. The Wild Party by John McPartland

Interesting, I just realized I read two books in a row with "Wild" in the title.  I have mixed feelings about The Wild Party and those feelings went up and down as I read the book.  It's jazz or trying to be jazz. Sometimes it succeeds and you feel the rhythm of the writing and the situation.  At other times, it becomes pretentious, annoying and trapped in its time.  I, feel, on balance that the ending unfortunately swung it just a bit into the latter, with a failed attempt at making some big theme about one of the characters instead of justing ending the narrative.

The set-up is great.  You start in a dingy jazz bar in LA and immediately get to know 4 pretty low characters.  Big Tom the brutal ex-football player and the leader of the gang.  Gage, the psychopathic knife-wielder, Kicks the loser pianist and Honey the wasted college drop-out.  They are broke, futureless and looking for money and trouble on a Saturday night.  Each has their own motivations and Tom is the uncontested alpha male of the group.  Right away, the dialogue and the inner thoughts are all hep jazz lingo.  I have always found this particular period of American culture to be profoundly annoying and it is on full blast here: weird pseudo-poetic incomplete sentences, lots of pre-60s labelling of various social roles and so on.  Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be McPartland's actual narrative voice most of the time and much of the objective voice it is straightforward and clear. 

They hatch a plan to send Gage, who is also good at looking and acting above his class, to a fancy motel to see if he can pick up a mark.  He falls upon this perfect couple, the navy pilot on leave and his debutante fiancé who is into jazz (or "progressive" as they call it which I guess is the more freeform jazz of the time) and a slight yearning for excitement.  They get led out to this dingy bar where shit gets scary quickly. 

The trap and tension is very well put together.  It is hard to blame the victims here, beyond their mistake of going out with Gage to the bar in the first place.  Every step they take gets them closer to a terrible situation but the gang is shifty and savvy enough that there are no obvious outs for them.  There is a ton of psychosexual interaction.  Tom is portrayed as a kind of ur-man that is so sexually potent and masculine that he just takes women whenever he wants and women fear him and yet realize that he may offer them some transcendant manliness that speaks to them on some primal level.  This is probably all nonsense, but is deeply rooted even today in our gender relationships and so is impactful in the book. 

I generally avoid narratives where rape or the threat of rape is a central theme and I was hesitant to pick this book up.  It was just too beautiful of a paperback to resist.  It is pretty nasty in the threats and the thinking and writing behind them.  That theme is a big part of the story but it is more about these lost lives and the desperation of all the people who are caught up in the extreme, unfettered aggression of Big Tom's insane masculinity.  In some ways, he reminds me a lot of the character of McQuade from The Spiked Heel (written around the same time).  This conflict between civilized and animal masculinity may reflect some of the tensions in post-WWII society with GIs trying to live the straight life.  Where the book over-reached was in the psychological justification for the various characters' behavours.  It is based on simplistic and overblown ideas relevant at the time.  This was especially true with Honey, who was like 20 and supposedly had been a popular cheerleader type girl until she encountered jazz and men and pot and then somehow becomes a complete wastoid with zero confidence or future.

At other times, though, this book is tense and hard as fuck, quite scary and short.  So a good read, just undermined slightly by the need to try and be deep and jazz.

I am reminded of this classic comedy moment: