Thursday, October 18, 2018

27. Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald

Another nice little find from the Nanaimo used bookstore, this is a reprint of one of MacDonald's rare forays into sci-fi.  He writes in an afterword that he was pleasantly surprised to find after not having read it for 14 years that it wasn't as bad as he feared and despite some stilted dialogue, he found the story moving forward at a nice pace. I have to agree with his assessment.  I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover this is a pretty cool concept with a nice, advancing story.  I was worried it would be Travis McGee in space, but I think if you didn't know he wrote it, you would have had a hard time identifying the author.

 The story has two threads.  The first is a scientist and a psychologist working together on a major space flight project who also have potential feelings for each other, kept in check by professionalism and the shared belief in making the project the top priority.  The problem is that one of their top people suddenly went crazy, took an iron bar and smashed up the control room, setting them back months and giving fuel to the skeptical military bureaucracy and politicians that fund the project.  There are hints in the background of people just doing senseless things in society in the news and so on, which give it somewhat of a sci-fi feel but also may be just a reflection of reality.

The second thread takes place in a society of humans who spend their entire lives inside a building that they think is the whole of existence.  Once they turn adult, they spend most of their time in dreaming chambers where they can inhabit the minds and bodies of people in three different worlds.  It is not clear why they do this, but they must.  It is the dogma of their society, as is the belief that there is only the structure they live in.  The dreams are fun and they seem to take the most pleasure in taking over dream people and wreaking havoc in their worlds.  One of these people begins to question as he makes his way up to unused upper chambers and discovers a window (there is a suggestion that the population of these people is shrinking).  His discovery leads to other knowledge and ultimately of a very different understanding of the dreaming, that maybe they are actual worlds and not just dreams.

And so both sides struggle against the fear and limited imagination of their superiors while moving forward in a way that will bring them together.  It's a very interesting commentary on human conservatism and a novel way to try and explain our extreme behaviours.  A good read and I will look for his other sci-fi novel, Ballroom of the Skies.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

26. Rapt in Glory by Edwin Silberstang

I can't even remember where I found this book.  I was very hesitant to read it as it seemed like it had never even been opened before, the sides were so firm and straight.  It was published in 1964.  In the end, I reminded myself that despite the physical beauty of these paperbacks, they were ultimately written and produced to be read and so that's what I did.

The story takes place in New York City in 1950 and follows a few different characters around the main story arc leading up to a hold-up of a pharmacy in Brooklyn and the aftermath.  The main characters are a struggling attorney living at home with his bitter wife, his disaffected war hero younger brother, a resentful two-bit bruiser and an up-and-coming detective.  The first three are Italian and very much of their neighbourhood, while the cop is an Irishman.  Ethnicity is big in this book.  The casual racism seems very realistic, though jarring for the modern reader.  It's the younger brother who is the focal point of the story.  He saw serious action and is clearly suffering from it, but it takes a while for the reader to find out the details.  He is the one who plans the robbery.

This is a really solid, well-written book, actually quite great in parts.  People are pretty poor in this book and don't have a lot of options and you really feel it.  The writing style is steady, with lots of attention to detail that never feels superfluous.  Once it got moving, I had a hard time putting it down.  It lost a bit of its steam in the final section, which focuses on a trial and I guessed the final supposed surprise ending.  Still, a really solid moving book and a fantastic portrayal of New York City as it transitioned into the social change of the '60s.

Did a quick search on Edwin Silberstang and turns out he was best known for his books on gambling but most proud of his fiction, which based at least on this book (his first), he should have been.  This is why I keep doing this!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

25. Caravan to Vaccares by Alistair MacLean

I've probably already said this but I avoided MacLean for a long time.  His popularity made me suspicious of his quality and I am disappointed to say that my instincts were correct.  This is the second book of his that I have read and in terms of plotting, characters and structure he is generally a bit too sloppy and simplistic for my tastes.  In Caravan to Vaccares his writing style is downright goofy at times and the behaviour of the male lead so fantastical that there was very little tension or suspense, given the stakes of the situations.  Furthermore, there are just some embarrassingly bald exposition passages.  I know the entire genre is pretty boyish and simplistc but this one reads like it really was intended for British schoolboys from the 19th century, except without the rich language.

It's not un-fun, though, and I will read more of his books if choice is limited.  It's just that compared to writers like Desmond Bagley and Duncan Kyle, he is second-tier, which is depressing that of course he is the most succesful of the genre, sales and popularity wise.  "Why oh why must the sub-elites have such poor taste?!" as a friend of mine once lamented.  Indeed.

Here we start out at a resort in a valley in France along the caravan path of gypsies who end in the Carmargue which I guess was some exotic place that was in vogue at the time, because I had never heard of it before. It does sound really cool.  Maclean does a great job with location, both natural and civilized, I have to give him that. The reader benefits from a pleasant escapism.  The story involves gypsies up to no good and the devil-may-care but morally rigid englishman who is investigating them.  He is called Bowman and is an utter cypher except he is a total badass, to the point that you wonder why he didn't just beat the shit out of all the bad gypsies right from the beginning and force them to reveal their plan.  There is also a lovely young woman on holiday with her friend, who gets mixed up with Bowman's troubles and soon they are working together and he is constantly joking about how they are going to get married.  It's weird.  One really good character is the Duc de Croytor an outsized aristocrat with massive appetite who is ostensibly studying gypsy culture but is clearly involved in the game in some way.  He was actually quite fun, though his actual role in the plot was fairly goofy as well so that the strength of his character felt deflated to me by the end.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

24. Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak

I finally had my fill of men's adventure fiction and felt like a move over into some science fiction.  I picked up this beauty at a difficult to walk to bookstore in Nanaimo while there.  He actually had a quite a decent collection of 80s sci-fi paperbacks, but I only picked up this one.  The guy was also re-organizaing a shelf of VHS and seemed confident they would move.  Interesting.

Also interesting is that in many ways, Donovan's Brain is as much a detective/crime story as it is science fiction.  The premise is very scientific but most of the narrative is about the protagonist going around LA and dealing with a weird cast of characters as he tries to uncover a mystery.  Said protagonist is Patrick Cory an obsessed scientist living in the desert with his neglected, supportive wife while he works on trying to understand the power of the brain.  Because the local doctor is a drunk, Cory gets called when a plane crashes in the forest.  While trying to resuscitate one of the victims, he realizes that while his body is done for, his brain is still living and he takes the opportunity to steal it for his experiments.

He also discovers that the brain he stole is that of W.H. Donovan a famous tycoon.  We don't learn much about Donovan at this stage of the book, though his character becomes very important as the story goes on.  Cory plugs the brain in and starts trying to communicate with it.  Things get interesting.

This is a real page-turner.  The characters and situation is interesting and it's the mystery of who Donovan was as well as the slowly increasing connection between Cory and Donovan's brain that really grabs the reader.  I can't do much analysis on the book without giving away a lot, so I won't (plus I'm lazy), but I do think Donovan's Brain is worthy of such analysis.  There is a lot going on here beyond just the entertaining narrative.  Very cool and fun book.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

23. Assignment-Mara Tirana by Edward S. Aarons

Serious 1960s babe right there,
also this happened in the book
I just realized upon starting to write this post that I have never actually read an Edward S. Aarons book.  They are staples of the manly fiction collecting world and I have come across them many times, including a massive collection at a used bookstore in Winnipeg.  I guess partly because of their ubiquity, I never felt the need to actually read one.  Probably part of me was being a bit dismissive, assuming that they couldn't be all that good given the quantity of output.

Well times are desperate for this paperback book hunter and I found this on a blanket in Mile End or the hospital used book store and picked it up.  It's actually very well written.  It suffers from some of the tropes of the time and genre, particularly the sexual and romantic relationships and the portrayal of women.  The story is grim and mostly in the realm of the realistic (though the commie bosses are portrayed as pretty brutally evil, without any real motivation beyond ideology and crushing the west) and the locations are captivating and evocatively written.  I stuck with it to the end and quite enjoyed it.

In this one, Sam Durell discovers that the woman he loves and had to abandon because of his job, has followed one of his brutal compatriots to Vienna to try and help rescue her new love, an American astronaut who has crash-landed in the mountains behind the iron curtain.  Durell goes to rescue her, against the wishes of his CIA superiors.  There is a lot of hand-wringing about him not following procedure because of love, but we never spend too much time on that.  Furthermore, we get storylines of the other spy as well as the crashed astronaut that are all pretty fun to follow.  There are several interesting side characters, including a Hungarian partisan, a village police chief, a spoiled actor brat younger brother.

I'm very glad to know that these are decent reads.  I won't be collecting them but will keep an eye out for them in my future hunts. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

22. Ransom for a God by Tony Foster

This was a fortunate find from the weird blanket booksale on Bernard where I found the previous read, Chip Harrison Scores Again.  I have never heard of Tony Foster and though written in 1990, Ransom for a God is a solid adventure novel right out of the classics of the 70s.  It does take place in 1976, so perhaps it was actually written back then.  I am not sure but Foster is worth a read if this book is any indication.

It is a somewhat convoluted story with several characters and their own storylines.  It starts as high espionage with a plot to discredit the Chinese and sow conflict with their Russian allies by stealing a giant solid gold statue of the Buddha from a temple in Bangkok.  Most of the book though, gets down to ground level, following ex-con and Vietnam veteran pilot Mike Carson who is slumming in Bangkok, drinking away his PTSD.  He ends up getting the job of actually flying the statue out after the heist.  There are corrupt Thai officials, subtle Chinese spies, incompetent DEA agents, decadent American bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians and military officers.  As you can see by that last group, this book has a decidedly anti-American spin, very much in the post-Vietnam sentiment.  

As I say, it's a bit convoluted, perhaps even slightly preposterous at times, but it is a lot of fun, the characters are interesting and the action quite well done, never overblown.  Really a solid adventure find.

Ah I see, Tony Foster is Canadian!  Nice, added bonus.  I'll have to check his stuff out some more.

I think this is him, though the writer of this laudatory obit did not do his research on Foster's books.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

21. Nick Harrison Scores Again by Lawrence Block

This was a strange read.  It started with its purchase.  I picked it up from a guy selling books on a blanket in Mile End in a place where people don't usually sell books or anything.  It was weird because he had like 40 books, all paperbacks from the late 80s.  He also didn't have change and seemed more interested in the graphic novel he was standing and reading than in actually selling the books.  From afar, the blanket looked really promising and I did find one or two gems but mainly I got the books because they were in that rare zone of being readable for me but not collectible so I can take them with me and not worry about damaging them.

I like Lawrence Block but don't love him.  He is a solid, engaging storyteller with a very similar cultural perspective as Westlake (with whom he was close friends).  Both share that slight distance from their material but somehow Block's feels slightly farther than Westlake and I don't totally connect with the characters.

The cover has the subtitle "Another Chip Harrison Mystery".  This is false advertising.  There is no mystery.  It is, I discovered, the follow-up to a first Chip Harrison novel.  The conceit of this one is that Chip Harrison is the author, as he was of the first and you learn this early on.  There is a lot of asides and talking to the audience and bald hommages and references to other authors.  It's all a bit meta.  At the same time, very readable and the story flows.  Chip is hanging around in New York City in the 60s, hanging with Bohemians but eventually running out of money.  Through a convoluted path, he ends up with money from a bus ticket that he uses to guide him in his next steps, which is to get on a bus and head to this random town.  He ends up in a small town in the south, living and working at a small brothel at night, helping an elderly preacher in the day and balling his daughter during lunch hour.

There is a lot of sex in the book.  At times, it almost feels that it is supposed to be a sex novel, either for sales or because Block wanted to try it out.

It's enjoyable and it flows, but it's kind of weird in its overall purpose.  I enjoyed being in the world of a young unfettered wanderer in 60s America, but wasn't sure what I was doing there as a reader.