Sunday, December 09, 2018

52. State of Fear by Michael Crichton

State of Shit
Writing this post will be a ceremony of cleansing, to help put this awful book behind me.  State of Fear is the worst book I have read in a long time, quite possibly one of the worst I have ever read.  The problem with bad books is that it is much harder for them to be good bad than a cheezy movie.  There was nothing good about this book, the whole thing was painful to get through.

Let's pretend first that it isn't basically a giant piece of shitty propaganda, an alt-right consNERDative screed.  I will just ignore the pages and pages of "conversations" where a naive liberal who has never had their assumptions challenged is slowly convinced that global warming is a giant scam perpetrated by super-rich environmental groups fronted by Hollywood elite.  These "arguments" literally contain graphs and footnoted references to real scientific journals.  If you flipped it so that it was corporate drones being convinced that global warming is real, it would be just as bad.  It is probably about 1/3 of the book when all added up.  Everytime the characters get on a flight to travel somewhere (and that is often), it's an excuse for another multi-page "dialogue" of badly constructed logic, straw men arguments and cherry-picked facts.  This would completely disrupt any rhythm or excitement the book had generated, it if it had ever actually generated those things.  Nevertheless, let's just cut all that bullshit out and focus on the narrative the remains

It is supposed to be the story of extreme environmentalists being funded by a major non-profit environmental org (who is in turn mostly funded by a rich donor) who are plotting to trigger a series of natural disaster to increase funding for their global warming campaign because they have discovered that the statistics are disproving man-made climate change.  Seriously.  Though that idea actually could be a lot of fun.  Here it is thoroughly confused and uninteresting.  There is a layer of story that takes place for the first quarter of the book, I guess establishing the arbitrary and boring (and unrealistic) characters before you can even tell what this is about.  Other than it just being a structural mess, here is a list of the other flaws in the book.
  • The characters are almost empty.  There is just nothing there besides their job.
  • The characters are unrealistic.  Like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky level of artificial constructs.
  • Nobody is competent.
  • The big cool agent guy who knows everything never will tell anybody anything but for no reason.  They get on a plane.  "Where are we going?"  "I can't tell you.".  Two chapters later, "we are going to Vanatau" "Okay cool, why?"  "I can't tell you." and so on.  It's just for fake suspense but there is no reason for it in the story.
  • The main character is a young lawyer who has never done anything tough.  He gets dragged along to everything for no reason.  These super elite agents who refuse to tell him anything also include him in every plan.
  • Each chapter is headed with a location and a time and all that.  Which is stupid because after the first quarter, the narrative always follows the same characters who are all together doing the same thing. So you have chapter after chapter with the same location on it.
  • The action sucks.
  • Heavy-handed use of italics "Evans glanced over his shoulder.  Sanjong was not behind him."
This book sucks.  It's for stupid smart people, I guess.  Fisher-Price: My First Thriller Book.  In college, for our final Humanities 110 project, one of the options was to write a dialogue with Socrates. My friend's dormmate wrote one where he and Socrates argued.  At the end, he wins the argument and Socrates apologizes and acknowledges that the dormmate was a superior rhetorician.  I kept thinking of that when reading this book.  Any dashed-off pulp book is going to be more entertaining and better put together than State of Fear. I am really glad that I have finished it and never have to think about it again.  Ugh.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

51. Map of Mistrust by Allan MacKinnon

Dr. Cameron, I presume.
I found this one at the same garage sale on Rachel where I discovered Darkness of Slumber.  Map of Mistrust is sort of the British equivalent of Darkness of Slumber, a standard but enjoyable murder mystery in the classic mold.  This time, Anthony Carne, competent young lecturer with wartime espionage experience finds himself finishing up a fishing trip in Scotland when one of the lodgers is found dead on a mountain path.  It looks like an accident, but also may have been foul play.  As he is leaving, he gets a call from his old spy boss who wants him to investigate.  The dead man was the British voice of Nazi propaganda in WWII who was thought to have long fled England.

His first stop is to Doctor Cameron, who discovered the body and thought it wasn't accidental (though the official coroner ruled it so).  What a shock when old Dr. Cameron says it wasn't him who stumbled on the body but his attractive, redhead daughter who was outside gardening and who is also a doctor!  Somehow, because of her youth and beauty, Carne understands why the coroner couldn't have taken her diagnosis seriously.  They get off on the wrong foot, but it is soon patched as she not only demonstrates that she is a capable doctor, but also very competent in everything else, especially spycraft.  She cottons on quite quickly that he is investigating something and he is convinced against his better judgement to let her help him.

This is a pretty entertaining read, though the central mystery itself is not all that intriguing.  There is a lot more adventure and excitement as Carne ends up being suspected himself and has to go on the run.  It has a bit of The 39 Steps feel to it and there is a pretty good chase and hiding sequence in London.  I also appreciated that despite the sexism of the time, Dr. Sheila Cameron is indeed competent and is never used as a threat or risk for the protagonist. 

This was the Canadian White Circle Pocket edition from 1950 and there were quite a few typos.  I don't know how printing worked in those days.  Would it have been the same typeset that was used for all editions or did they reset them to be printed locally?

Also, the title comes from a neat little bit of writing when Carne is reading the newspapers and lamenting the state of the post-war world:
Briefly, he scanned the lesser headlines.  Anti-British demonstrations here... Anti-American demonstrations there... Formal protest to the authorities somewhere else... There was a neat little map of the world, variously shaded to illustrate an article on the suggested zoning of the planet's air routes. It might equally have served to illustrate the grouping of incompatible ideologies, of war-time friends who were friends no longer.  Map of Proposed Spheres of Control, they called it, but it was more than that.  It was a map of mistrust, of suspicion, of downright jealousy and fear.  The United States and Britain, he reflected, for all their differences and brotherly abuse, still shone like twin headlights through the international night.  But the slightest knock to either lamp might start a divergence in the beams, a divergence that would grow with every successive jolt.  And heaven knew that jolts were not far to seek...  He sighed and turned to the crossword puzzle.
Indeed!  This is the kind of stuff I like in my British spy thrillers. 

This is not the book I read, but I wish my version had that sweet map.  There are a lot of cool lochs and mountains that I would have liked to have referenced.

Monday, December 03, 2018

50. The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth and penultimate book of The Dark Is Rising sequence and so far my favourite.  It still suffers from the arbitrary magic and vagueness of the Dark as antagonist.  However, the bulk of the story is anchored in the real and the setting, always a strong point in this series, is better integrated into the themes and plot points.  This time, Will is sent to his aunt's farm in Wales after a serious bout with hepatitis.  Though still an old one, the little boy that he is is physically quite weakened.  Of course, it also turns out that his aunt's farm is a valley in Wales that rests at the foot of the mountain of the Grey King, the site of the next step and confrontation in the quest to prevent the Dark from rising.

Will meets another lad his age, an albino whose aura he can't read.  The land is pleasant and the people rough-hewn but warm, except for asshole farmer neighbour Caradog Prichard, who has a hate-on for the other neighbours dogs, accusing them of killing his sheep.  As Will explores to fulfill his quest, a conflict with Caradog threatens, its tension mounting with the machinations of the Grey King.  I still don't get why Will spends most of the time being in a weak position, but then can cast quite powerful spells.  And I am never clear what the Dark actually is made up of.  Nevertheless, the story of the neighbour farmer was quite gripping and there are some great countryside wisdom and morals subtly portrayed here.  This was a good one and gives me some momentum for the home stretch of this series.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

49. Freedom by Daniel Suarez

The paperback is an odd shape,
1/2" taller and 1/4" narrower
than a standard paperback
Freedom is the sequel to Daemon, where a techbro turns himself into a decentralized algorithm on the internet and basically takes it over.  Most of the Daemon was about the investigation into his death and seeing the effects of the daemon as it slowly implemented its master plan.  It was mostly a murder mystery with a cool internet concept behind it (Ready Player One but the AI is evil).

In Freedom, we get a much broader scope.  The subtexts of daemon (multinationals being out of control, decentralized vs centralized control over information, old versus new) are pretty much the main substance of Freedom.  There is definitely a story here, but it feels like Suarez main motivation was to share his ideas about how the internet can change the world for good or evil.  I am usually turned off when authors of fiction spend a lot of time explaining, but here he is preaching to the converted and doing it in a pretty entertaining way.  I can imagine some would grow a bit weary of scenes like a Laguna Indian woman (who is a 22nd level tech shaman in the Darknet) explaining the high tech self-sustaining community they are developing on their reservation or the salt of the earth farmer lamenting how he became a slave to agribusiness and the evil of the global supply chain.  I gobbled them up.

And that's what is really fun about this book.  It was written in 2010 and while some of the details already seem obsolete in the age of fakenews, he is nevertheless broadly quite accurate in seeing how the man will use technology to suppress. It's not always totally coherent, but basically the good guys are the people who have signed on to the daemon's Darknet.  They all walk around in glasses with virtual reality HUDs so they can see the Darknet around them.  People and locations who are part of the Darknet have callouts that show their level, their value, etc.  The decentralized production method that helped them develop deadly weapons and extort opponents of the daemon in the first book is now being used to transform America's blighted economy, especially in the rural midwest into self-sufficient community cells.  The bad guys are the corporate and military elite who want to destroy the daemon that has infected their network and eliminate this new culture that is undermining the structure that keeps them in power.

It gets a bit cartoony and the storylines of the various characters are inconsistent.  As my wife pointed out, particularily glaring is the one female character's utter lack of doing anything ever than just being ferried around from place to place, told things and then fulfilling her romantic quest from the first book (with one of the main male protagonists who gets a lot more actual action).  None of the stories of the characters from the first book really get played out fully satisfactorily.  I think it was a deliberate choice, to keep the book small and more digestible so I am not totally critical.  Just wish they had at least included one of the women's stories and made it richer and more interesting.

Fun stuff, though, I am on board.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

48. Whore by Nelly Arcan

I have been reading so much that my on-deck shelf is actually starting to need to get refilled!  I have gone through and organized all my various book search lists and may even now purchase some new books!  In the meantime, I also started going through my wife's collection, which is quite interesting.  She has many female genre authors that I don't know so there is a lot of potential there.  For now, I jumped on Whore because I remembered when Nelly Arcand died it was quite a sensation here in Quebec.  It is also a far departure from British YA fantasy, which I need right now.  I do feel a major shame in reading this book, to the point that I kept it hidden at work.  Not because of the title, but because I am reading the english translation.  It's really not that long and is a true Montreal and Quebec book so I should have buckled down and read the original version.  In the end, I am glad I did not because I never would have finished it.  There is a lot of repetition in the language and endless sentences (seriously, each section is 1-5 pages long and is a single run on sentence).

It is ostensibly the semi-fictional story of a young woman from rural Quebec and a very Catholic upbringing who moves to Montreal to study while working as a prostitute.  It's really more like a long, poetic screed about sex and being a woman and family all from the mind of a very damaged person, but damaged in a weirdly rational way once you get stuck in to her mindset.

I have mixed, complex feelings about this book.  On the one hand, it feels like a ton of self-generated, pretentious pain.  For the first part of the book, I felt a lot like Terry and Dean at the beginning of FUBAR when they are watching the director's deeply personal short film.  I have learned now that it is thanks to my privilege as a white male, but I have trouble sympathizing and even caring about the main character in this book whose major issue was that her dad was no longer sexually attracted to her mother when she was a child.  Everything is extreme.  All women are either sexual daughters minutes away from turning old and becoming sexless, bloated mothers.  All men are cocks just wanting to come all over everything all the time.  There is some truth to this worldview and her insanity is richly complex and revealing, but it is also wildly reductivist and feels angry for no reason I can really put my finger on.  She comes off as one of the hot chicks in high school that we are supposed to feel sorry for because she is attractive and put her on the same level of dysfunction as children who come from abusive backgrounds.  Also, deep down, though this book was scandalous and shocking in its use of raw taboos, the morality underlying the shock is deeply conventional and judeo-christian.  The fundamental notion of this book is that there is something broken about being a sex worker. 

On the other hand, it does hold a certain savage light to modern gender relations and makes one think.  It's also quite funny in parts. Men who come see her in the day are always just coming from or going to chair meetings.  I am not quite capturing it as well as her language but she mocks everything important in our bourgeois world and I enjoyed that.

So not my style and I don't really buy the justification for the mania, but an interesting, thought-provoking book that moves forward quite aggressively in a way I enjoyed.  And I should add that while I say I didn't buy the justification, I cannot deny that whatever the source of her worldview, it did seem to be authentic.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

47. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third book of the 5-part well-regarded Dark Is Rising Sequence, a fantasy story in modern England where a family of children get involved in the war between the Dark and the Light.  I have to start this post with a complaint.  For some reason, it is extremely difficult to figure out the order of these books.  None of the versions I have found ever clearly show which books is which in the series.  It's maddening.  Just put a frickin' number somewhere!  Because of this, I have owned The Grey King for over a year now and never would have picked it up in the first place had I realized it wasn't the next one in the series.  I am sure I am just old and the kids that read this stuff have no problem figuring it out.

The last book had a really cool weather sequence, but I struggled to get into it.  I tried this time to really focus.  It's hard when the characters all have names like Will and Bill and Simon and Jane and because some characters are themselves in the modern world but also some older magical being, they may have several names, and different people use different names with them.  Furthermore, Cooper has this habit of having characters speak or appear in rooms where it hadn't been clearly established in the beginning that they were in the scene.  So again, I struggled with staying focused.

There are some real narrative issues as well, that I think contributed to my lack of interest.  First of all, there is no clear protagonist nor perspective.  The two brothers and sister, who were the heroes of the first book, join together on holiday with Will, who was the hero of the second book. Nobody gets central billing and we flit from character to character without any real structure.  More damning, the children really have zero agency and the reader has no real idea of what is going on.  We just wait for the old Lords of Light to tell us that something is going to happen but not say what and then we get to watch it happen.  It feels very passive, what we call deprotaganization in the tabletop RPG world. It's a bad thing.

There is some cool traditions of the Cornish town and the way they are woven into the overall narrative is quite clever.  I am hoping the flaws here may be most pronounced in the middle book.  I am reluctant to continue to read this series, but will plow forward.  I am still debating whether to jump into the next book right away or take a little break.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

46. Something to Hide by Nicholas Monsarrat

This is a very short book, 124 pages almost all of which are tense and unpleasant.  Jack Carter stops at the beginning of the book to pick up a desperate looking girl on the side of the road.  She is desperate and very pregnant and browbeats him into taking her into his home.  This is 1960s England and Carter is a petit bourgeois clerk at a small town hall, with a nice house by the river where he likes to go fishing.  Though he is in a rural place with some privacy, the neighbours do watch and having a girl in his home would cause social problems that could lead to pressure at work and so on.  He digs himself deeper with lies as the girl proves stubborn and utterly irresponsible.  This is more a book of tension and social pressure rather than outright violence, though it indeed goes down a pretty extreme path.  It reminded me of one of Simenon's Romans Durs with the Highsmith exploration of guilt and Millar's deceptive plotting.  Definitely enjoyable for a day's reading.  I would love to find the movie someday.

45. Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Now that's a paperback!
Other than John Christopher's lesser known adult novels, I have found the animal fantasy sub-genre the hardest to track down.  It's weird because it is not that obscure of a sub-genre and even has some all-time classics (Watership Down) and kids hits (the Warriors series).  I've looked for Colin Dann in used bookshops from coast to coast for a decade now and found nothing.  I was very excited to stumble upon Tailchaser's Song at this weird used bookstore on Mont-Royal east here in Montreal (it's just so barebones, with the english paperbacks being in the basement; I can't tell if the stock has ever changed).  Tad Williams is a succesful author in the wider fantasy genre, though this is one of the books he is known for as well.  It wasn't on my list and was the cover that attracted me to it.  It's a good find and definitely falls pretty close to the kind of animal fantasy books I enjoy.

There are many elements in animal fantasy that appeal to me.  The main one is that sense journey and escape in a world that is actually so close to you.  When the animals live entirely in their own world, which becomes in effect its own fantasy setting, I find it somewhat indistinguishable from a non-animal fantasy story.  That is not entirely accurate as even in those kinds of books, the animals behaviours and relation to their environment play a major role in the story and setting (such as The Duncton Wood series).  Still, I prefer it when it is real animals in the real world with humans off to one side while they go and explore the mysteries and threats of that world.

Tailchaser's Song definitely falls into that category.  The protagonist (and hero), Tailchaser is somewhat wild, but still returns to a box on a human porch where he gets fed.  In the nearby wood, there are wild cats that he hangs out with. In particular, he bonds closely with a female cat, Hushpad and when she and her family all disappear he decides to find and rescue her.  This coincides with rumours of strange goings-on farther afield.  Folk (which is how the cats refer to the themselves) from distant communities found slaughtered and other disappearances.  Tailchaser wonders if his friend's dissapearance is connected with that and decides to follow the older tougher cats to Firsthome, where the queen of the cats resides.  Thus starts his adventure.

The locations and the journeying are really top notch.  There is a great map (though so small that I had to photograph it and zoom in with my phone) in the black and white hand drawn fantasy map tradition.  The mythology, culture and society of the cats is rich and interesting, especially the origin story of man (an overly prideful cat who tries to usurp power gets his ass kicked by one of the Firstborn, is stretched and rendered hairless and forced to serve the Folk to the end of time).  Things get really crazy.  Thoroughly enjoyable. It wouldn't be totally unfair to call it a Lord of the Rings with cats, or perhaps just compare it to any classic quest novel (there ends up being a cool party of mismatched characters who each bring something to the table).  There is enough going on here to take it beyond such a simple critique.