Sunday, April 14, 2019

27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wile

Not the version I read; I liked the cover
It's interesting finally actually reading Oscar Wilde.  I am familiar with his life and career, the plot of Dorian Gray and his pithy witticisms and always felt highly of all three.  After reading the book, I still think highly of the first two, but all the quotes that seem so spot on when read out of context feel forced to me in the narrative.  This is my bias, but I felt like all right dude, I get it you are really witty and have all these clever aphorisms about the stuffiness of 19th century England but can we just get on with the story.  I am being even more unfair because had I probably never heard them before and read them here for the first time, most would have seemed quite brilliant.  Living in a day where the sort of moral uptightness of the Victorian age has been replaced by a thoroughly Dorian-Gray-esque excess of consumer capitalism, his words also feel misplaced.

I shouldn't start off with such negativity, but wanted to get it out of the way.  The rest of the book is really amazing and no question that this book's classic status is well justified.  The portrayal of Gray's descent into immorality is possibly the template for all future descents we read in literary and genre fiction today.  Wilde is fairly subtle most of the time.  The worst factual thing that Gray does is smoke opium, but the locations, the characters and their dialogue and the suggestions of worse that Wilde weaves together evokes powerfully the dark night of the soul that tempts us all.  The violence and aftermath are also so intense and nasty that one wishes Wilde had veered into doing straight up genre fiction himself.  He would have crushed it.

So yeah The Picture of Dorian Gray is a literary classic.  I would further argue that it is a foundational text in the thriller/crime genre and you would do well to read it if that genre is your jam.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

26. Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

I found this first edition hardcover in one of those little neighbourhood book exchange.  I love John D. MacDonald but I don't seek his books out because they are so readily available and I like to keep them as fallbacks for when reading choices are limited.  I am also wary of the later Travis McGee books.  McGee is a philosopher and MacDonald does a lot of social observation and commentary via McGee's voice.  His perpetual bachelorhood seems forced by 1982 and you get a feeling that John D. himself senses he is a bit left behind.

Cinnamon Skin starts off convoluted, with a lot of back story referring to a previous book where his friend Mayer had his spirit broken by a psychopath, plus another doomed McGee love affair.  There are a lot of characters and narratives in the first few pages and I was slightly offput.  But once Mayer's niece and  new husband get blown up on his boat with a not very credible Chilean extremist group claiming responsibility, things get going.  You know the explosion isn't what it seems and the unraveling (and investigating) of what really happened is quite cool.  McGee and Mayer travel to weird little corners of poor white America and Mexico and get involved in a bunch of mini-adventures.  The ending is a bit of a letdown as the rich psychological profile of the target of their investigation that MacDonald developos so nicely is not fully exploited in the climax and I felt a bit of a letdown. 


We learn quite early that the husband wasn't actually on the boat, and as they dig into his past, they learn so little about him that he becomes their target.  In their hunt for him, it is slowly revealed that he has been serially falling in love with woman under a different identity each time, killing them and absconding with their money.  His psychosis was caused by a sex-ravenous Mexican-Italian stepmom who seduced him. His dad caught them, killed her and either shot himself or the son shot him.  McGee meets with an old psychologist friend, who explains how that kind of trauma could turn someone into a serial killer (he later gets a verbal agreement with her for some friends with benefits).  The straight-facedness of this very implausible explanation was a bit much.  It looks Horny Stepmoms as a theme has been around long before PornHub made it a trending topic,

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

25. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

I feel a bit cheap counting these Binti books separately.  They really should be read in a single volume.  I think there is a single volume version out there and I believe Okorafor wrote them separately, but the most popular version are these slim volumes that you could read in a day. 

As the title states, Binti returns home after a year at space university.  She has found her way there academically, if not socially,  after her initial struggles and triumphs.  The trip home poses greater challenges and risks.  She brings Okwu with her, the meduse (a jellyfish like race) that contributed to the massacre of everyone but Binti on the ship to Oomza University.  You learn that there had been a war between the white earthlings and the meduse and this was the first time one had come to earth in peace.  Binti is sort of a galactic celebrity because of her survival and plea for peace with the meduse, but her family is very traditional and her leaving has created a lot of resentment.  Things are complicated.

A lot goes on in this book and at the beginning the style and pacing was a bit too declaratory and fast for me, but I think that is what the young adults enjoy.  It gets much deeper as you learn more about her family and background culture and quite intense as she heads out into darker and more mysterious territory in the deserts outside her home and ends in a cliffhanger.

Looking forward to the third and final book in the series.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

24. The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but it was enough that I bought it new from Dark Carnival.  As always, reading a translated version of a french author always leaves me with a little protestant guilt.  I also suspect that some of the phrasing that seemed a bit awkward here would probably be more easily accepted in french.  His books are short so I may just make that one of my challenges, to find a nice used version of one of his untranslated novels and see how hard it is for me to read in la langue de Molière.

I guess Manchette has the reputation of reviving or at least revisiting the genre of pulp fiction and he is often compared to the french new wave filmmakers, though he came a bit later.  The Prone Gunman read pretty much like it could have been from the 50s or 60s.  Only some references to music (a Brian Ferry song) really reminded me that it wasn't the 60s.  He goes into some detail about clothes and interior decor and these all felt more 60s than 80s, but I think that is because the point he was making about the garish taste of working class people with money.  Also, some gun detail that I suspect was not anachronistic. Otherwise, it kind of felt similar to Queenpin, an ersatz pulp.

The other thing that reinforced that was the way Manchette describes the protagonist.  He never actually feels any emotions.  Only strange expressions on his face suggest to the reader that he might be having emotions.  It's very odd and I couldn't tell if this would go over better in translation or if this is a deliberate writing technique to somehow comment on the genre.

Here is the plot:  a professional killer decides he wants out.  Turns out he always had a plan to work for 10 years, go back to his small town and marry high high school sweetheart.  The gang wants him to do one last job and start making his life hell.  It gets quite nasty and I wasn't totally feeling it at first.  It gets more interesting when we learn about his backstory and he makes his play against the gang.  The ending is weird, though.

Not a bad book, but I need to read more of his work or somebody else's deeper understanding than mine to properly appreciate it, I suspect.

Friday, March 29, 2019

23. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Image stolen from much better review here.
This is the third and final book in Mary Stewart's trilogy series about Merlin and King Arthur and it took me a long time to get to it.  I held off because I've been trying to find the Coronet version with the same design as the first two I already have.  I finally gave in and just snagged this at Moe's.  I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because I forgot a lot of the first two and had also read the The Once and Future King books in between, so was getting that mixed up with Stewart's interpreration when trying to remember back.

It wasn't a huge deal as The Last Enchantment stands on its own.  This is the chronology that lines up most closely with the Knights of the Round that we know in popular culture and medieval history.  Arthur pulls the sword at the end of the second book and here we have his victories, his consolidation of power in England, Camelot and the betrayal of Guinevere and all that.  Mary Stewart adds and changes a ton from the original source material (not that I know it well; she has a handy afterward where she lays out all the differences).

The Last Enchantment is all about Merlin.  He was the narrator in the first two but the story felt less about him than Arthur and the goings on around him.  Here, though Merlin remains his extremely humble self, and even loses much of his power, it is really his story we are reading here.  He travels all over England, meets cool characters, does some good spying, continues to guide Arthur while encouraging his kingly autonomy, falls in love, gets buried alive, gets to have a brief, wonderful retirement in an ideal British cottage and so on.  It's all very satisfying and quite moving at times.  You get the feeling that Stewart really wanted some nice stuff to happen to Merlin and though there are challenges, she really gives it to him.  He's just a great dude in this book.

I've read quite a few of her other gothic thriller novels and it is really something to compare them.  I don't have enough material, nor enough of an understanding of the gothic genre yet to really understand her work.  What stands out to me is how different the characters behave and think in the Merlin books than they do in the thrillers.  My current belief is that Stewart is a really good writer and she has freedoms with male characters that she did not with female ones.  Merlin is thoughtful, even worrisome and quite romantic, yet he never seems to behave or think in the excessively doubting and anxious way her female characters act and think.  Likewise, there are some serious great ass-kicking moments, both in real physical action but also in psychological and social conflicts.  Stewart is very British and she is up there among the best thriller writers in knowing how to subtly display superiority or high skill in really exciting ways.  I often found this lacking in her gothic thrillers, where the heroines would pull back or be passive while the male secondary character did something bold (though often not subtly).  She clearly has the writing skill.  Was it because these books came later or because the protagonist is male? Again, very unformed and possibly erroneous thoughts but something to keep an eye on as I continue reading her books.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

22. Frankincense and Murder by Baynard Kendrick

I now cannot remember from whom I received the recommendation to read Baynard Kendrick.  His name has been on my hunt list for years.  I finally found two hardcovers at Dark Carnival which I normally wouldn't buy but the threat of that gem going out of business has me buying anything of interest they may have (which is a lot) so I picked them both up.

I would not say that I was disappointed with Frankincense and Murder (nice little title btw), just a bit non-plussed.  It's a good mystery but felt very workaday, something that is part of a series that might have been a decent TV or radio show back in the day.  It's very New York City mad-men period, which I am starting to find less and less interesting (partly because I am trendily anti-trendy but also because the inherent sexism and erasure of anybody who is not white honestly starts to get me down; like seriously dudes were just straight up marrying their secretaries). 

Despite these concerns, it is a well-written mystery and the detective being blind really makes the detection cool and interesting.  There was also some very specific and detailed look into the perfume manufacturing industry that I quite enjoyed.  The financial forensics were less interesting (though wow tax rates and assumptions about them have changed vastly!) and despite two people and a dog getting murdered, it never felt like the stakes were all that high.  That lightness is what made it feel like a decent TV or radio show.  I can imagine that Kendrick was a favourite for a lot of people and his latest book was picked up as soon as it came out.  I am curious to see how I like the other one on my shelf.

This is from 1961.  91% tax rate!  If this is MAGA, I'll take it.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

21. The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser

A solid hollywood noir Graphic Novel with a particularily well done cover and trade dress makes it seem something more than the story actually is.  This is okay, because the story is quite good.  It's just that it being in a comic format kind of throws you at first (as well as the excessive promotional quotes by other authors, like this is a pretty good book but it's not the equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro, Joe Hill). 

It's just that when you start to have some experience with pulp and noir fiction in print, the story of Fade Out doesn't seem all that special because we have seen a lot of it before.  That being said, Fade Out hits some pretty cool marks.  The story is nicely dark and the protagonist a well-done take on the self-loathing, broken anti-hero.  The set up is cool, too.  Charlie Parish was a gifted writer who had his spirit broken in the war.  He is now a studio screenwriter and secretly continues to work with his blacklisted mentor, because he, Charlie, can no longer actually write.  So his bitter, alchoholic mentor does the actual writing and Charlie does all the day-to-day work, while also trying to ensure that his mentor doesn't show up drunk to awkward for both of them situations.  Charlie is pretty much an alchoholic as well and the story gets going when he wakes up from a blackout on an unknown couch after a big studio party.  He quickly stumbles on to the dead body of the upcoming star of the movie they were working on.  Trouble ensues.

There are lots of great characters ( I appreciated the cast of characters spread at the beginning as well to help the reader keep track) and the corruption of Hollywood near the end of the studio system is well portrayed.  The studio security guy was a particularily nuanced character, who comes off as the strongarm but then later reveals a more intelligent side (though perhaps never moral).  He reminded me a bit of the Comedian from the Watchmen. 

Rock solid noir thriller that is more fun to read because you get pictures.  Recommended.