Saturday, January 18, 2020

6. Touch not the Cat by Mary Stewart

My nephew and I rode to downtown Oakland over the holidays, our destination the Salvation Army, in the hopes of finding there some cheap boots for a trip to Yosemite (I hadn't packed any).  I will share with you here that the men's shoe selection at the Salvation Army in downtown Oakland is quite poor and the boot selection non-existent.  I did, however, find two Mary Stewart hardbacks so it wasn't a total loss.  And we had an excellent vegetarian Thai lunch in the neighbourhood.

I am not quite sure what to make of this book.  Much of it puzzles me, as do her other gothic romance-mysteries.  People loved this book.  It is cited as one of her most popular and the reviews in Goodreads are gushing.  It's not that this isn't a good book.  It's really quite well thought out, gripping with an excellent location and situation.  It's the protagonist that I don't get.  She just seems way too nice and trusting to the point that starts to push at my willing suspension of disbelief.  I need somebody smarter and more versed in the literature of the period to help pick her mentality apart for me.

She is the only child of a widowed father, in her early 20s and part of a long, aristocratic clan that owns an estate somewhere in England.  They have long since lost any wealth associated with it, the father having sold the silver to pay for its upkeep and retired off to Germany because of health issues.  When he dies in a hit and run, she comes back, to help settle the estate, most of which is due to her cousins, because of a clause going back generations that the inheritor must be a male.  She is super fine with everything, even when we start to get hints that the cousins are not the most honest.  She stays fine when we learn that they have been stealing valuable items from the estate to make up money they have lost in their business.  She stays fine when it becomes pretty evident that they may have been responsible for the hit and run. 

I was feeling like the book was set up for us to want to preserver the estate, as Stewart gives us such loving descriptions of it and a detailed history.  Much of the heroine's character is built on her childhood there.  Her ultimate love interest is woven into its history.  And yet she is so weirdly passive and forgiving of her clearly completely fucked and evil cousins.  There is a mystery, the final fragmented words of her father involving old books in the library, that the reader can guess early on has to do with the true ownership of the estate.  The climax of this bizarrely involves her two nasty cousins arguing with her how she can screw them out of it while she sincerely is trying to argue with them that even if she could legally block them from their shitty plan of selling the place to developers so they can pay off the debts for money they basically stole, she wouldn't.  It's just a weird set-up where the reader and all the other characters can see the clear good vs. evil in the narrative, except the main character who though brave and strong basically spends the whole time not putting up any resistance beyond asking for time before she makes her decision.  Really the main point of tension is not that she doesn't want to let her cousins have the place, but that she just wants a week or two to chill out before she signs it away.  There is some unspecified reason the cousins can't wait, which is what drives them to be really stupid and blow their cover, when if they had just let her wait, she probably would have signed it all away and they wouldn't have had to do villainy.

I have had a similar, though less clear to me, critique of Stewart's other books.  Somehow, the passivity of her heroine's must be an accepted trope, akin to some similar consistent behaviour in male protagonists in the action genre.  Anybody know a book or article that might explain it a bit better to me?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

5. Tiger by The Tail by James Hadley Chase

I picked up three of Chase's books at the Concordia Book Fair.  I started with this one as it was the latest published of the three and I wanted to see how his style had evolved.  I went into it with some trepidation.  Despite quite enjoying No Flowers for Miss Blandish, I now have this slight feeling that he is "fake".  This is totally unfair as a writer is a writer and if they are good in other elements, the authenticity of the setting does not have to be that big of a factor.

I was aware of some bias going in, particularly as the set up was revealed to me in the early pages.  Ken Holland is a head bank teller whose young wife is away for a few days with her sick mother.  He is starting to feel antsy, staring at attractive girls on the street.  But he's a good guy and a good husband and just wants her to get home.  However, his workmate Pete, is a party guy and keeps egging Ken on, wanting to live vicariously through him in his temporary bachelor state.  He gives Ken the phone number of a girl who will show him a good time.  Ken doesn't want it, rips it in half, but then on a super hot night after a few drinks while avoiding mowing the lawn, he gives in and calls. The way the temptation is set up and the way it sucks him in is all quite well done.  The girl is easygoing, friendly in a way that surprises him and he ends up spending the evening with her.  They get it on at her place (this is done offstage and felt strangely not American in its frankness), then go out to a club, where he learns she used to be a dancer there.  His gut tells him to end it there, but he can't say no to an invitation back to her place.  Here is where things go wrong.  She goes to her bedroom to get changed and then doesn't come out for a long time.  When he calls to her, the power goes out, somebody runs out of her bedroom and then her apartment.  When he goes to her bedroom he finds her stabbed to death with an ice pick.

This is the first two chapters, so I am not giving too much away as the book really starts here.  I felt slightly let down, as it felt like a less interesting Highsmith, where innocent Ken has to figure out how to play it.  However, my initial pessimism was unfounded as the book quickly expands to bring in a much larger cast of players.  The town itself is run by a shadowy crime boss, with high-ranking corrupt police officers and politicians doing his bidding.  His reign is on a shaky foundation and the murder of this girl and the possible exposure that she was living in an apartment full of call girls risks to bring it all down.  It ends up being a convoluted and exciting adventure.  Parts of it are a bit awkwardly plotted and there is even a glaring continuity error (when O'Brien the big boss calls a fixer to move out all the girls from the cat house and move in innocent people, he calls the same guy back ten minutes later, though several cross-scenes, and congratulates him on the job well done when there was no time and no way he could have known it was done at all) that suggests he and his editors cranked this one out.  Also, it does have an ersatz feel.  This is an anonymous American city (though at one point it gets a name in California) that though being small enough that the murder is the first one in a long time, has several night clubs, a wharf district with a seedy boardwalk, several cat houses, an opium den and guys who kill cops on the regular.  It's like Gangster City off of the RKO lot in print.  But that's okay because it is a lot of fun, with some good action and fun characters and doesn't take itself too seriously (though he can be hell of rough on some of those characters).  The ending made me chuckle.  Good stuff.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

4. The Age of Scandal by T. H. White

I got this at the Concordia book fare.  It was the nice penguin edition that attracted me and the potential of the contacts that sealed the deal.  It brought me back to my college days where I studied history.  This period really didn't interest me at the time but I knew from some readings that there was often quite juicy tidbits of "civilized" European craziness in the 18th and 19th century and it sounded like this book had a lot of that.  Also, as themes of elite behaviours and gossipy obsession with social media dominate today, I thought reading about how it happened in the past might help inform my understanding of our current predicament.

White's main thesis (after a weird little intro where he seems to argue for a British aristocracy) is that between the Age of Romance and the Age of Reason, which traditionally has been seen as a bit stiff, there actually was a lively, dramatic period in Britain that he labels the Age of Scandal.  He then writes chapters on a wide range of subjects (ranging from views on religion, to discipline to ears) and on several specific scandals (the short-lived queen of Denmark, The Gunnington twins) and on individuals (Horace Walpole, Hervey, de Sade), most of which I had been ignorant. 

I don't think it is unfair to say that this isn't a rigorous work of scholarship.  It is peppered with quotations, many without reference (which I appreciated; I always feel compelled to read foot and endnotes and it kills my flow).  His argument is not unconvincing but also I don't think he is trying too aggressively so I don't imagine he got a lot of counter-argument (probably a naive assumption on my part as this is history; somebody was outraged somewhere).  It's just a lot of fun and the chapters are short.  There were some extraordinary little adventures.  I also enjoyed the specifics on the toiletry of the time (interesting that the french aristocracy were considered dirtier and smellier than the english) as well as the brutality of the culture of discipline.  The notion that though still very much an aristocratic country, the closeness in general of the upper classes and the plebians made for an oddly dynamic polity.  The mechanism for this, according to White, was the mob.  The lords and ladies would get more and more out of control and then there would be a riot.  This made me think of God is an Englishman, where a mob destroying a cotton mill played a central role.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

3. Crown: Macao Mayhem by Terry Harknett

I had high hopes for this book.  Unfortunately, the ratio of cover coolness to content was excessively high.  I mean check out that cover!  Plus Hong Kong, you can see how I would snatch this up.  I found it at the Rennaissance thrift store on the more eastern side of ave Mont-Royal which I should probably check out more.

I was expecting there to be a good deal of colonial ignorance and possibly even racism and took that into consideration.  Macao Mayhem takes place in Hong Kong and Macao in pre-handover 70s HK when the British were still in charge.  The two characters on the cover are a pair of Royal Hong Kong Cops:  rigourously honest but of course refuses to play by the rules Senior Superintendent John Crown and his long-suffering more humble but still wisecracking partner Inspector Po Chang (who is Chinese but was raised in Australia and tends to speak english more than Chinese).  The plot is a bit of a muddle and begins with a high-level call girl leaving an assignation at a wealthy Portuguese businessman's house and then of course getting killed and brutally disemboweled (in that order).  It eventually ends up in a plot to kidnap an important American politician but this takes at least 80% of the book to get there.  The reader does not really know where we are going besides getting a lot of aggressive banter, car chases (which are decent) and some pretty good action scenes.  The fights are probably the one highlight of the book, as the moves are quite specifically detailed and the actions somewhat satisfying.

However, because we don't really have much direction, I found myself pretty disconnected.  Worse, it never actually gets as extreme as it threatens.  It's really crude, both in the narration and in dialogue, but never actually gets extreme. We always hear about the male character's sexual appetites but their fulfilling of them is always done offscreen.  There is some gore, but never due to human cruelty (which I appreciated).  The writing is sort of bald and none of the characters too likable.

The worse disappointment for me though was Hong Kong itself.  All the roads and locations are geographically detailed, but it feels like he just got it out of a map.  None of the descriptions are very evocative and we get very little of the local colour.  Harknett's bio says nothing about him living in Hong Kong, so it could be that he indeed read it all from a map.

Now my dilemma is do I put this beautiful but unfun read on the shelf?

Addendum:  I just did a bit of research and learned that Harknett was a prolific pulp author, who cranked out over 200 books.  Makes a bit more sense!  Even crazier, there is a copy of it for sale for $600 on Abe Books!!! Bro, I'll sell this copy for $100 and a random pulp fiction book of your choice. :)

Monday, January 06, 2020

2. Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

My mother recommended this to me after I had complained about the bizarre marriage rituals in Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly.  It takes places a decade earlier before the war and is focused more consistently on the aristocracy.  It is a nice contrast as both are very British and pretty classically constructed murder mysteries.

Ngaio's detective is Roderick Alleyn, himself of the upper crust.  This case begins with his elderly mother deciding she is going to return to society and participate as a chaperone in the many debutante balls that would be going on in London.  This leads us to a blackmail case that touches many of Alleyn's acquaintances.  He engages an old family friend to be his man on the inside and at the end of an important ball, this man is murdered.  So the investigation involves both the blackmail and his murder.  Were they connected?  Who among the last people at the party could have followed him into his cab and suffocated him?

It's a solid and well-plotted mystery with some genuinely captivating moments of detective mastery.  Marsh does a great job of setting up diverse unpleasant characters who get their comeuppance in the face of Alleyn's superb interviewing skills.  These moments were quite fun, especially with the two super-pompous lords (though their characterizations blended a bit and were over broad to be truly ideal; still fun).  In the end, the mystery was complex but not too much that you got lost or disconnected.  I get why she is one of the Grand Masters of mystery and was popular for so long (and probably still is).  Nice to know there is a significant back catalog of her books that I haven't read, so when the time comes that I want a sure bet, I can go to it.

Note, this was a Jove edition from the early 80s and it has a very nice cover design and illustration that was part of a series of her books that I find quite aesthetically fetching.  You can see the other books on the back cover.

Friday, January 03, 2020

1. Bearskin by James McLaughlin

I read this brief review by blogger John Oak Dalton whose taste I admire over a year ago and had been naively looking for Bearskins as a used book.  I finally asked for it for xmas and got it from my parents.  I think it was fairly succesful (at least critically), so not sure why it never turned up used but after reading it I am happy to help add a few more coins McLaughlin's profits.  This was a fantastic read, a great way to kick of the new year and decade.  I stayed up late reading it and then got up early on New Year's Day to finish it.

Bearskins is the kind of book that you want to give to certain of your manly friends who are literate but may not have read anything in a while.  If you know my tastes and personal politics, you will understand why I found the premise so compelling.  Rice Moore is on the run from the cartel and takes a job as a caretaker on a natural reserve in the Appalachians.  It is owned by a rich family and part of his job is to ensure that the locals don't do any poaching.  We learn early that though a thoughtful, educated person with a background in science, Moore has somehow a history of violence and may in fact be quite a badass.  When he discovers a bear carcass on the reserve, with its paws cut off and it's insides cut open but otherwise left to rot, he decides to investigate and stop whoever is doing this.  At the same time, we slowly learn about his backstory that led him to this solitary life.

This is a great male fantasy, I suspect especially for the more left-leaning environmentally aware reader who also loves his pulp fiction.  McLaughlin does an excellent job of constructing a new "woke" male hero.  Sexual violence is partially a plot driver and character-motivator here, which generally is a no-no for me. Somehow Mclaughlin elides around it that it avoids being the simplistic cliche of dude getting revenge and free to kick ass now that his woman is taken from him.  Rather we have a guy who is also a victim of trauma, who understands the trauma of other victims and is just trying to get on with his life.  The hunt for the bear poachers becomes a more general raison d'être as does his connection with the old growth forest he is trying to protect.

There are so many great elements here and it all comes together in some super-satisfying elite ass-kicking.  You get the tense relationship with the good and bad rednecks, multiple levels of badassery, respectable (local) and shitty (the feds, of course) law enforcement, some batshit back to nature stuff all add up to an all-around great time.

One thing about these new literary fiction pulp books is that they are so well-crafted.  I guess in today's market, you can no longer just crank out a story with an excellent plot.  It has to be workshopped with your local writing group, go through multiple revisions and every sentence nuanced so that it is almost poetry.  The writing here is straightforward and solid but it all feels so perfectly finished.  I suspect it took McLaughlin a long time.  This is not really a criticism, just an observation as there is a certain preciousness with the trade dress and the style of the writing that doesn't totally jibe with the subject matter. Hey, if more people buy it and he can write more books along this line, I am not complaining.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Year end wrap-up

Phew!  A record-breaking year for book-reading here at Olman Central.  I am quite pleased to have continued to maintain and even increase the new-found energy I found for reading at the second half of last year.  Even better, I was really quite consistent about it.  I made a huge dent in my deficit and where I had planned to take 3 to 4 years to get my average back to 50 books a year, it is now conceivable that I could achieve that by the end of 2020. 

More than the numbers, though, are the benefits of so much reading.  First and foremost, I get to read so many great books!  Really if you are reading this, I don't need to say much more than that.  Some may argue that reading in such quantity diminishes the experience, as if I am rushing through books.  It is the opposite, as I am not reading any faster than usual but just reading instead of doing other things.  As I have said in the past, those other things were usually wasting time anyways, like futzing around on the now totally-polluted World Wide Web (so advertising did destroy the internet, just like everybody said it would back in the day, who would have thought?).  I am also barely watching any television or movies these days, except some sports while cooking.  This is not so bad except that it was one area that my wife and I liked to do regularly together.  I still would like to do that but all these prestige shows coming out seem so similar to me that there is nothing that grabs my attention more than the book I am reading. 

The other big advantage of reading so much is that I can vary the kinds of books I read.  I have been branching out more into non-fiction and even picking up hard to read books every now and then.  I am toying with the idea of reading some big classic next year when I am ahead of my goals, as I will have the extra time.

Finally, I find that steady reading becomes an anchor in my life for other good disciplines.  I believe there is a subtle calming, even meditative, mechanism in reading that counter-acts the psychological frenzy of adult life in the so-called civilized world, especially in today's phone-zombie nightmare we are all living.  It isn't all due to reading, but my sleep schedule is the most consistent it has been for a long time perhaps ever.  Though to be fair, there are certain books that will keep you up either because you can't put them down or because they get you so excited it's hard to go to sleep after.  For my own personal discipline and productivity, 2019 has been a banner year, a real step in a return to my old ass-kicking form.  It would be an exaggeration to say that this is because of all the reading, but that certainly has been an important factor in the mix that sets the foundation for all the rest. 

My reading goals for next year are the same as last.  Read 50 books and if possible whittle away at the average.  If I can keep up any of the consistency of 2019, 59 is a very realistic possibility.  I also hope to read a long series or trilogy one after the other, to stay in the same imaginary space for a longer time rather than jumping all over the place.  I am targeting the Vorkosigan saga and some of these great new what I call "woke" sci-fi or fantasy series, possibly Robin Hobb's Assassin books or the N.K. Jemison trilogy.  I hope to throw in a major classic in there as well.  We shall see!

Now on to the actual books!  It is hard to summarize 2019 with any general theme as I read so many books.  There were several highlights.  As I mentioned above, I read several non-fiction books which I usually resist mightily.  The two books on the history of basketball and the ABA were great, super fun, informative and I tore through them.  I didn't tear through The Hermit of Peking but it was also enjoyable and it refreshed my knowledge of the British colonization of China, which I had studied in college and which indirectly informs so much of the British spy and adventure fiction I read (basically reminding me that despite its outwardly benevolent guise, British Colonialism was at its base motivated by greed and was fundamentally a giant and destructive theft at best).  A bizarre read for me, which ended up being quite rewarding was The Organized Mind, though it did reinforce my belief in the hype around all these organizational self-help books.

Another highlight was that I found and read a lot of authors that have been on my hunting list for years:  Edmund Crispin, Lionel Davidson, Michael Tod, Edgar Pangborn, Dorothy B. Hughes and a few others.  I also finished a few series that I have been working on over the years, including Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series (disappointing) and Mary Stewart's King Arthur trilogy (solid) and C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series (which was great but really should have been a single massive book or I at least should have read it that way). 

Speaking of female science fiction writers, I also jumped on the wave of all these great new series and books coming out in the new "woke" sci-fi space.  I only read two authors but that was simply because I am pacing myself as so far everything has met the hype and even exceeded my expectations.  Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series was really cool and innovative.  Anne Leckie's Ancillary series was really mind-blowing and awesome, up there on my most favourite books.  I really have had to force myself not to read the third one.

Finally, I discovered or found several Animal adventure books (I really need a term for the sub-genre where the animal is the protagonist).  The Silver Tide about squirrels in england had been on my list for ever.  Maneater was an awesome random find, as was Black Fox Running.  I still haven't found a single Colin Dann book used but did discover a beautiful reprint of The Animals of Farthing Wood and loved it.

Specific books that stood out for me were the quiet and gentle and almost simple The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert.  The super nasty and intense No Orchids for Miss Blanding which since I have read it keeps popping up everywhere (a character is reading it on the train in Crispin's The Gilded Fly mystery).  Wake in Fright, as well as being satisfying as a great find (Penguin paperback for $3 off a sidewalk garage sale) stayed with me like the heat of the Australian outback it portrays.

I really could go on and on. I probably missed something.  However, now it is time to move on to the next decade of reading.  Happy new year and happy reading in the Double Twenties everyone!