Saturday, August 17, 2019

55. Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Whew, I finally made it through the entire Dark Is Rising sequence.  This was the fifth book and unfortunately, other than a few bright spots, I found my critique to be the same here as it was of the previous books.  The setting is well done and probably the best part of the book, with vivid descriptions of Wales in present and in the past.  There is some neat historical moments as well that though not totally my bag I do recognize as being quite compelling for people who enjoy the notion of a character finding themselves in key moments in Arthurian history.  Finally, there is one scene at the beginning, in the present day, when the hero kids encounter some bullies picking on an immigrant kid.  Later, the bullies' dad comes up to speak to the kids dad, revealing his racism (and that he is part of man that the Dark can influence).  It is disturbing and filled with the same hateful bullshit that is becoming so prevalent again today. 

Unfortunately, nothing is made of this and the rest of the book is again the children being given arbitrary quests where they have little agency beyond remembering some clue from the previous arbitrary quest.  Furthermore, there is not much character development nor interaction between the children.  You never get a sense of why they are chosen and what is in them that helps them along in their journey.  It was all a bit of a slog for me by the end.  I am disappointed.  It is possible that it is just me and where I am in my age that this kind of fantasy doesn't appeal to me, so please be your own judge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

54. Gat Heat by Richard S. Prather

I chose this one after Homicide, simply because it was short.  Too be honest, I was not looking forward to reading it.  The last Shell Scott book I read, The Meandering Corpse, was just too goofy.  I knew this was going to be easy to read and I soldiered on.  Happily, I ended up actually quite enjoying it.  This one was possibly more goofy and that pushed it over into being actually funny.  Scott is also extremely self-deprecating in this one, making himself look bad in front of other cops and witnesses in moments that were absolutely slapstick.  At times, there was the prepatory monologue that I found so off-putting in The Meandering Corpse, but it was scaled way down here and the payoffs were funnier. 

The book opens with Scott responding to a call from a potential client, whom he finds dead in his own home while what he finds out later is a swingers party is winding down.  Scott ends up investigating the murder for the wife (who fails to tell him about the swinging).  The plot and mystery were semi-interesting and the ultimate badguys, an attractive couple whose scam was to get groups of swingers going, take their pictures and blackmail them, were interesting.  There is a lot of violence with a bunch of gangsters in between and two very funny setpieces: Scott breaking into a couple's home fearing an ambush where there is none and destroying their curtains and Scott showing a home movie to a bunch of cops that was going to be evidence but ends up making a goat of him.

I guess the series had its ups and downs.  I was totally down on the Shell Scott series at the last book, but now I am back up again.  I won't be hunting them down, but will do a bit of investigation if another one falls into my lap to see if it is one of the good ones.

Monday, August 12, 2019

53. Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

After having finished Homicide, my feeling was that it is essential reading if you are a fan of detective fiction.  As lauded by the many reviews quoted on the cover of this 2006 re-edition, it is also essential reading for an understanding of America in the 20th century and who just likes great journalism.  Simon took a year-long leave of absence in 1988 from his job as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and instilled himself as a "police intern" in the Baltimore Homicide division.  You don't really learn of his role until the afterword.  The author's presence is absent from the book and as he writes in the afterword, he mostly succeeded.

I had already read The Corner and of course seen The Wire, the latter of which strongly informed my approach to Homicide.  I was surprised to find that actually only small bits of Homicide are in The Wire.  This book is much more positive than I expected.  The detectives are poorly paid, the politics and hierarchy above them is annoying and the streets are brutal.  However, they love their job and they are really good at it.  The bulk of the book is just case after case, revealing the various detectives' methods, their interplay with the citizens, the other workers and especially with each other.  They don't all make it through but the good ones just keep plugging away, solving murders.  During the year the book was written, over 70% of the cases are solved, which was at the national average.

The hacking away at public institutions that defines the start of the 21st century (and the theme in Simon' later work) was just beginning to manifest itself in the late 80s.  In another afterword, we read about how the closure rate on the murders goes down in the following years (and the number of murders goes up). 

It took me a second try to get going on this book.  The first time, I was too distracted it seemed too long.  This time, I couldn't put it down and was kind of sad when it ended.  The detectives are such great characters (some of whom do show up in The Wire) and the cases each one so interesting.  Simon is a great writer, keeping it fast-moving and straightforward with a cynical and humorous edge that reflects the dark humour of the detectives themselves.  There were several laugh out loud moments.  And while the cases are all "realistic" and do not fit any neat narratives, they certainly were interesting and compelling, making me want to find out what happens as much as the best fictional cases.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

52. Miasma by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

It's an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding double rock block!  The main reason I went back to back is that they are in the same physical book (part of the way Stark house has done their reprints) and my on-deck shelf is so full that I am stacking books on top so I have to make room.  Also, though, the first one was just so much fun I thought I would keep going.  I was not disappointed.

First of all, she is just such a good writer.  In the first 3 or 4 pages, you get the entire set-up and the stage is set for suspense.  Alex Dennison is a young man right out of medical school hoping to start his practice in a small town.  He has a young fiancee back home that he hopes to marry when he has established himself.  There is pressure there, as her family is well-to-do.  He is a dour, Calvinist from a poor background with a grim outlook on life, but hard-working and honest.  He struggles to get patients and is soon desperate enough to try to get a job on a passenger ship (which does not please his fiancee) when he receives an offer out of the blue from the more established town doctor. It is an offer that seems almost too good to be true.  Dr. Leatherby is urbane, accommodating and supportive.  His  house is beautiful, dripping with class.  He has too many patients and wants Alex to be his assistant at an excellent wage, room & board, including a beautiful nurse.   The offer is a godsend, but Dennison is reluctant as he wants to go on his own.  However, the pressure of his fiancee is always there:
Then, as was natural, his thoughts drifted toward Evelyn.  He took a little snapshot out of his pocket, and looked at it. Such a pretty little face, such a gay and innocent smile! She looked at him out of the picture, as she looked at him in life, making unconscious enormous demands upon him, upon his patience, his energy, asking of him protection against the brutalities of life.  Very well, he meant to meet her demands; he meant to take care of her.  He would save his money, and secure a home for her, where, behind frilled curtains, her innocence and gaiety would be safe.
As it turns out, Evelyn has a bit more mettle than Dennison perceives.  Sanxay Holding beautifully nails his perception of her and the anxieties her potential creates in him.  I love the direct exposure of his psychological punctuated by that perfect little image of suburban properness and safety, the closed frilled curtains.  So good!

And soon things start to happen that confirm Dennison's reluctance.  The sunshiney nurse tells him that he should leave.  Dr. Leatherby's sister does the same, though both seem to like him.  Dr. Leatherby has private appointments with patients at odd hours, one who dies in his sleep the following night and bequeathes 100k on the good doctor.  Dennison's strong sense of right and wrong won't allow him to continue the job without finding out what is going on.

In many ways, the setup here is very similar to Lady Killer (written 20 years later).  An inexperienced protagonist out of their element is the only who finds something wrong is going on.  In Lady Killer, she is on a passenger ship for the first time, out of her depth with the educated classes and a woman. Here, though a man, he also lacks the class and upbringing of the others around him.  In both cases, they are headstrong.  Their determination is commendable and makes them likable but they also are not very smart or subtle about how they go about trying to figure the situation out.  Things get messy.

Miasma was not a total home run.  The ending got a bit convoluted and then required a lot of explanation to clear everything up.  Getting there was a lot of fun, like an excellent old-time radio play with much more depth and nuance than you could fit into a half-hour.

I leave with you another great line, when Dr. Leatherby's chauffeur is first introduced:  "They found Ames in the garage; a very self-possessed young man, with the independent air of one who can always find a job."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

51. Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Not the copy I have, sadly.
This was a lot of fun!  Young and beautiful (and was we learn quite strong-willed and practical) Honey Stapleton is taking her first ocean passage to the Caribbean with her old and uptight and very wealthy husband, Weaver.  Right from the beginning you can see the marriage is not doing well.  He is a total pill, worried about everything and super conscious about being proper.  He locks himself in the bathroom to change.  Honey, on the other hand, though aware that she doesn't love him, really does want to make a go of it.  She is realistic about her situation yet inherently positive.  She soon meets the couple in the cabin, Hilary and Alma Leshafer, next door and right away things seem suspicious.  They are a couple on their honeymoon but the wife's luggage never arrived and she almost missed the boat because she got a call that the departure was going to be delayed.

Though at first I thought it was going to be about the travails of Honey as a naive, out of her element young wife amongst the educated upper class set, right away you see that she is a pretty cool character.  She immediately recognizes that Hilary is super suspicious and Alma is way too in love to see it.  The book is fun because almost all the men are either jerks or deliberately oblivious while the women are more or less trying to work around their stupidity or evil.  The twist that comes at the end makes this even more fun.

Monday, August 05, 2019

50. Death on the Broadlands by Alan Hunter

I bought this at the excellent Dark Carnival simply based on the cover and the back blurb saying it was in the "classic John Buchan tradition".  This latter is wildly erroneous, though it is indeed British.  I learned after reading it that this is one of over 50 George Gently novels, which are quite highly regarded (and inspired several TV series) and which I will keep an eye out for.  In this one, though, Gently is a secondary character, whose true identity is not revealed to the protagonist until almost the very end.

The protagonist is Stella Rushton, semi-succesful novelist who was recently quite badly jilted by a somewhat public figure whose biography she had written.  She receives an invitation to stay in a lovely cottage in the Broadlands which I guess was a somewhat well-known vacation spot in Norfolk.  Though a wreck at first, Stella soon reveals that she truly has a writer's observation, a strong spirit and an independent sexuality.  She wants to stay alone to write but soon gets sucked into the social life at the larger house of the cottage's owner, a very successful play-write.  They are a catty and somewhat unpleasant crew, except perhaps young Keith, morose heir to an engineering firm who falls into puppy love with Stella.

It takes a while for the crime to actually happen but the idyllic surroundings gradually become tainted by the human foibles of the theatre crew and others.  I was quite enjoying the book for the first half, especially the wonderful descriptions of the locations and the somewhat nasty characters.  The book fails a bit in that the crime itself is not that interesting and the solution less so.  I will spoil the book somewhat to say that the murder victim being young Keith was an interesting gender reversal of the all too common oversexed young girl victim.  Stella's ultimate callousness to his death seemed to underline this.  Interesting for a book written in the early '80s.  I will check out some of the earlier Gently books if they pass my way.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

49. Recursion by Blake Crouch

I can basically quote most of my review of the first book by Blake Crouch that I read "Dark Matter" and use it again here, minus the plot details.  And happily minus my major criticisms of the book (the consumer brand/status-focused narration and lame character).  I won't be that lazy, though.

Once again, meezly brought this book home from a work colleague.  She devoured it in a week and after Davy I really needed something easy to consume.  Recursion was clearly it.  It is the story of a woman who while working on a machine to capture and retrieve memories (as a way to if not cure Alzheimer's at least to alleviate its symptoms; her mother suffers from it) accidentally discovers what is in effect time travel.  By going back to old captured memories and dying, you actually go back in time to the point of that memory and can live again making new choices.  However, there are also some pretty nasty side effects, as the people's lives who have gone on to different paths will suddenly begin to remember their previous lives on the day that the original person went back in time.  Anyhow, things get really messy.  Like globally destructively messy.  It's a lot of fun and both a bit of a mindbender and kind of moving.  Ultimately, like Dark Matter, it ultimately is about a love affair.

I am curious if Crouch has read Replay, because there is a lot in Recursion that borrows from that book.  In some ways, Replay is more emotionally satisfying, as it explores deeply what would happen if you could go back and start again.  Recursion is much more of an action thriller and while fun doesn't quite leave you as emotionally satisfied.  Still, an excellent summer read.