Friday, December 05, 2014

23. The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth

Okay, now back to full manliness!  I've never read this classic and only seen snippets of the movie (which I shall also rectify now that I have read the book).  As a young man, I read a book of short stories, No Comebacks, by Forsyth that I absolutely loved, then tried to read The Day of the Jackal and wasn't able to finish it.  I think that sort of put me off Forsyth for a while.  I found The Dogs of War at the local thrifts shop for two bucks in a thick, generick 90s paperback that I didn't have to worry about treating roughly and jumped right in.

Really, this should be called The Dogs of Preparing for War.  The premise is a massive British mineral company discovers a mountain of platinum in a fictional West African backwater country and their CEO hires a mercenary team to take the entire government out while also performing some financial shenanigans to ensure a massive killing on the market.  The mercenary he hires, Shannon, is the protagonist and he is tasked with first scouting the mission, coming up with a plan, hiring the team and supplying it.  This process is really the majority of the book, a 260-page chapter called The Hundred Days where Shannon and his men travel all over Europe buying weapons and equipment, arranging transport, negotiating with customs brokers, gathering sketchy documentation, dealing with rival mercs and all the rest of the work that goes on in preparation of a military coup.  The only action is the aforementioned rival merc and that is a brief shot in the arm in what is otherwise all procedural.  For me, it wasn't boring at all.  I couldn't put it down.  I love this stuff anyhow, but it being pre-internet made it even more fascinating to read about the way arms get bought and sold and how to avoid surveillance (lot of letters to people staying at hotels under false names) and other extra-legal activities in 1970s Europe.

The portrayal of Africa and the Africans is at best patronizingly colonial and at worst straight-up racist. This book was written right after the wave of African independence from Colonialism and the attitude is one of the post-colonial country's superiority, with a contemptuous portrayal of the African governments as being hopelessly corrupt and inefficient.  This portrayal is not untrue, but when the root causes are unexamined (i.e. colonialism itself), it comes off as pretty ignorant at times.  The context is overall very cynical and morally speaking the whites in power, especially the businessmen are portrayed as being utterly unethical.  It's in the competence where the racism is the worst. It really gets bad when Forsyth talks about the Africans as soldiers, suggesting that they have an innate tendency to shoot with their eyes closed. I'm sure Forsyth is reflecting the attitudes of old Africa hands of the time, but still. It's not just racist, it's also historically inaccurate and weakens the rich, realistic detail he builds up so well otherwise.

It's ironic, because at the end of the book, it's clear that despite his militarism and accepted colonial attitude, Forsyth seems relatively liberal at the end of the book.  I won't give anything away, but "good" Africans come out of the woodwork plot-wise at the end and it's clear that Forsyth is in favour of them ruling their own lands.

Despite my misgivings on the portrayal of the Africans, this is a great read and deserves its reputation as a classic.

Monday, December 01, 2014

22. Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Which book blogger has read and posted about women authors in four of his last six reads? This guy!  Okay, that was bad, but I do give myself a small pat on the back for trying to expand my horizon out of my cozy nerdy boys' club of masculine genre fiction and succeeding somewhat (by reading cozy nerdy feminine genre fiction).  Tales of Earthsea is 5 longish stories that fill out either the history or some parts of the world set out in the original trilogy.  I didn't make an effort to place these stories into the overall context of that trilogy, since I had forgotten all those details, but as I read them, bits and pieces came back to me.  The stories here are nice because most of them are very local, going into characters and locations with the richness that LeGuin is good at and avoiding the more fable-like remote telling that made the third book in the trilogy, The Farthest Shore, unsatisfying for me.  There is also a history at the end, which I think the attuned reader would find invaluable.

An enjoyable read, but it was the forward that I found the most stimulating.  As is my practice, I went back and read it after I had finished the book and it is there that I was reminded of LeGuin's genius, not just as a fictional writer, but also as a very active and critical social thinker.  This little essay just rips apart the commodification of science fiction and fantasy.  She goes after the world of completists, collectors and the producers who churn stuff out because it satisfies a certain consumer need.  Her attacks are broad and structural, but I almost suspect that George Martin might have been one of the producers she had in mind here.

So people turn to fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity; an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable and interchangeable.

Friday, November 14, 2014

21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This was recommended to me by ex-50 booker (though still fairly prolific reader) Buzby and since I am always on the lookout for Canadian "genre" authors, I went for it.  Also, it gave me an excuse to support a local sci-fi/fantasy bookstore in Toronto and it fits into my new trade paperback reading strategy.  Finally, it's a book that makes me feel contemporary and hip when I read it in public locations (in the train station, I carried under my arm in such a way that you could see the author's photo).  So many compelling reasons to read Station Eleven!

The book itself is definitely a page-turner.  It's an interesting hybrid of "genre" and "literary".  Mandel is walking the same path as Cormac Macarthy wrapping what are basically good stories of action and adventure in a package that will make it appealing to the medium-brow mainstream.  Station Eleven is a post-plague world without us novel that references pulpy graphic novels as a serious art form but is also an exploration of character and modern-day relationships.  One of the main storylines is of a band of travelling musicians in the rebuilding wasteland in conflict with a religious cult that has ninja forest skills, but it is told in non-linear fashion, interwoven with pre-plague narratives that slowly give us the backstory of various characters and weave the entire thing into an exploration of one particular character who dies before the plague even starts.

This hybrid form forced me to ask myself what I really like.  I feel like this is an honest effort and the author's understanding of comics, sci-fi and the dystopian sub-genre appear to be deep and personal, not just slumming it as we have seen with some mainstream literary authors (only to get skewered on the pen of Ursula K. Le Guin).  But in the end, I wasn't clear on what the point of this novel was.  It seems to be ultimately one of those meditations on character, where the narrative takes a back seat to the attempt at sharing some kind of "truth" with the reader.  That's a bit ungenerous on my part, as I think here it is more of a feeling about the worth of a life and how we impact each other in our interconnected world than a truth.  It was a pleasant book overall and left me with a nice feeling, but it also didn't live up to the promise of its premise.  When it was over, I felt that it was just over.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

20. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I see now that several of her romantic
thrillers are published in this style. 
Collection addiction stimulated!
I'm very angry at myself, because I found this really nice copy in the dollar book bin in front of the same used bookstore where I bought The Deal.  This time, the owner was sitting on a stool just inside the doorway, writing prices on the inside cover of books from a new shipment.  The story is overcrowded at the best of times, but on this day there were so many stacks of books that I could not walk through without taking my backpack off.  Classic used bookstore owner.  But I digress.  I am angry at myself because after keeping the book safely on my shelf I stupidly put it into my jacket pocket when going out to a friend's house in case I got stuck with time to kill and no reading material.  And of course, the spine got bent.  I still have so much to learn about myself.

Anyhow, Wildfire at Midnight is a well-written thriller with a plucky and beautiful British heroine, which is undermined by a painfully sexist romantic demoument.  It was Stewart's second novel, written in 1956, so I can excuse the gender politics somewhat, but it was just so disappointing.  The heroine is a divorced model who decides to take a vacation in Skye, rugged Northern country that draws anglers and climbers.  When she gets to the isolated and charming country inn, after meeting an attractive local outdoors enthusiast on the boat ride over, she immediately discovers that her ex-husband is staying there.  She also learns that there has been a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a local girl on a nearby mountain.  What follows is a thriller as more murders happen and nobody staying in the inn is above suspicion.

[SPOILER]

The sexual politics that were so frustrating is that her ex-husband acts like a total dick the whole time, even to the point of being so aggressively creepy that she thinks he is the killer (and Stewart leads the reader into suspecting him as well).  Of course, it turns out that he isn't and he even sort of saves her and then there is this really terrible scene where he declares his love for her and she realizes she still loves him and its all suddenly hunky-dory.  The whole idea of being divorced is presented as an untenable choice throughout the book and that it is superior to marry the jerky manipulator than to just stay single even if you are a beautiful, smart, brave and hardworking woman.

The other disappointment was that the mystery of the murders wasn't complex at all.  There was no link between the murdered and the potentially interesting conflicts among the guests at the inn.  He was basically just a psycho.  So there was nothing for the reader to dig into and try and guess who or why was responsible.  Finally, I guessed it about halfway through because Stewart's double blinds were too obvious.  Again, only her second book and the descriptions of the locale (which I would love to visit) evocative and the characters rich.  And the psycho is into some old-school Wicker Man style paganism, which is cool.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

19. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I follow some people on my Google+ feed who are big fans of gothic literature and it is from them that I learned of the Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first gothic fiction.  It turns out meezly had a nice paperback copy of it in her bookshelf (which is a growing source of potential good reads for me). 

This is a weird book.  It is far from gothic in tone.  It's actually quite absurd and funny.  Just to give you an idea, at the very beginning of the book, the sickly son of the Prince of Otranto, who is going to be strategically married to a neighbouring Duke's daughter, is killed by a giant plumed helmet that falls out of the sky.  What follows is a story of political and courtly intrigue as seen from the perspective of several characters. The Prince is the principal figure (to call him a protagonist does not capture what a maniacal asshole he is) and once his son is dead, he becomes obsessed with marrying Princess Isabelle (who was supposed to have become his daughter-in-law).  We also follow his wife and daughter, the priest (who shelters Isabelle) and a handsome, idealistic young foreigner.

The layout of the writing makes it difficult to read.  I don't know if it was this edition or that was the way it was orginally written, but there are paragraphs that last several pages, with back and forth dialogue and a lot of narrative all crammed in there.  Some of these passages, I suspect, are supposed to be quite humorous.  The dialogue involves one person repeatedly not getting to the point of what they said they were going to say while the other one keeps exhorting them to get to the point.  I found it tiring.  The action picks up in the second half and it ends up being somewhat enjoyable.

The gothicness of it is more in the themes and locations:  unknown birthrights, mysterious strangers, evil momarchs, the haunted castle, the catacombs underneath, a gloomy forest, etc.  I'm sure I am not doing justice to this book, as it is from the 18th century and has been studied extensively by scholars.  I'm glad I read it, though.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

18. Adrano/For Hire 1 - The Corsican Cross by Michael Bradley


The front cover of this striving for respectability men's adventure novel is a bit of a mess with a photo, an illustration and way too many typefaces.  The back cover, however, is awesome.  Two dudes in a Greek diner smoking!  A guy reading a book!  The guy reading the book is actually a significant moment.  There definitely were several scenes of mafiosi eating, but I don't remember a particularly important one taking place in a restaurant.

It wasn't the back cover that attracted me to the book, but the idea of the young buck advancing his career by shaking up the boring old organization.  I always enjoy corporate politics in crime and the added anti-establishment theme was icing on the cake. Adrano even makes a favourable metaphor with himself and the hippies in one section.  It's clear the author is sympathetic to that movement as well.  I was hoping Adrano's plan would be a bit more intelligent and complex.  It was all a bit preposterous but not insanely so and the execution along the way was quite enjoyable.

Glorious Trash writes a much more thorough review here.  He is much more critical of the protagonist and I don't have a strong argument against his position.  I just personally didn't find him quite so arrogant.

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.