Friday, June 26, 2020

44. Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald

I had decided to give the John D. MacDonald non-Travis McGee's a break because I was getting too used to his style and less patient with his social philosophizing, especially about women.  However, I was heading out to a cottage in Lanaudière and felt like something easily digestible for relaxed lakeside reading.  I also wanted to bang out a few more books before June is over as I will probably be heading back to the Robin Hobb phat phantasy world in her next trilogy, each of whose books is in the 400-700 page range.

As always, I enjoyed the set-up right away and JDM gives it to you straight and quickly.  Jerry is a construction exec in his father-in-law's badly run company, his wife is a shrewish alcoholic.  His old army buddy (OSS behind enemy lines stuff in India) comes to visit and proposes a surefire caper: rip off a diplomat carrying 3 million dollars to buy arms for an uprising in his banana republic.  JDM presents everything in this one in a very lowkey and straightforward style. At first, when he and the wife start to go at it, I thought we were in for a lot of bad period dialect, but it was kept short and effective.

We get on with the story.  Things go bad, in quite interesting ways.  This is a heist gone wrong tale, a JDM morality tale and a man losing it tale all mixed together for a very enjoyable ride.  It is quite dark at the end, though because so much has gone on, it's not a downer.  I can safely say that Soft Touch is so far my favourite of the non-Travis McGee novels.  I also love the edition I have.  Just a lovely layout with space allowing a busy illustration to express itself.


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

43. Incident at a Corner by Charlotte Armstrong

I read this as the shorter half of a Giant Double Ace Novel Book.  I can't figure out what year this was published.  Actually, it isn't even clear when these stories were actually published.  Both have two copyrights on their respective frontispieces: 1946 at the bottom and 1956, 1957 at the top.  Confusing.  The other book is Unsuspected and the typeface looks to be from the 80s.  

Incident at a Corner is more of a dramatic suspense story than a true thriller.  There is almost no crime.  An old crossing guard is anonymously accused of being perverted with the girls and is fired from his job.  His daughter and son-in-law refuse to allow it to blow over quietly to save his reputation.  They investigate and start ruffling feathers.  Right at the beginning, the reader knows who sent the note, so the suspense if more if the forces for truth will overcome fear and suspicion.  The note spurs rumours and parents question their children in such a way that they are convinced the old man is a pervert. It is a very prescient portrayal of that kind of accepted community fear that is utterly irrational.  We see it exert itself to much worse affect in the satanic panic in the 80s.  The stakes are much smaller here, but Armstrong nails it with clarity and gentleness.  

A common set-up in Armstrong's books is the young man and woman, often a couple or with the potential to be one, overcoming social obstacles and a mystery together.  In the process of their investigation or search, they know each other better and end the book usually ready to get married.  I particularly liked the couple in Incident: Pat the artistic and strong metalworker and Jane the empathic but also firm teacher.

Ah, pretty interesting.  I found some info on this edition.  It is the G series of Ace Doubles, which was all women authors.  This is the first one and as noted in the website I linked to "The copyright dates are often included, but not the publication dates..."  This one was actually printed in 1962.  So I was a bit off about the cover typefaces on Unsuspected!  Anyhow, wow this looks like a line right up my alley.  Several Elisabeth Sanxsay Holding doubles and several other intriguing ones with amazing covers all by women authors.  Will need to keep my eyes open.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

42. A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress

I found a nice paperback copy of this book on a bookshelf on the sidewalk in my neighbourhood. It was full of mostly french books, some of which had the stamp of the library of my local elementary school.  I also found a Pokemon book for my daughter, which she had specifically asked me for.  So a nice little find in a time when the free closet on St-Viateur is still locked!  

This book plays a big role in the memories of my childhood.  I grew up in California in the '70s and we used to get these book catalogues.  As you got older they had different names and each had a selection of books you could buy.  I don't remember if they were subsidized or who actually paid.  I remember getting a few.  The teacher would receive a big book and hand them out.  Your books would be wrapped together in a rubber band with the receipt inside.  I remember it being quite exciting and it seemed to me at the time, that every kid got one.  I hope that was the case, as there several kids from less well-off families in my class.  

A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich was part of the heavier and so intriguing books that were offered to the older kids.  I remember The Chocolate War and The Outsiders.  I moved to Canada before puberty so never actually got the opportunity to order them and I only read a few, but the titles and cover images are still very evocative to me of the mystery of teenagers struggling with social issues in a very 70s way.

Actually, it was very timely to read this book.  At first, I was a bit put off as it is written in text in the language a 70s ghetto teenage boy would use with his peers.  It is written well, though, and each chapter is a different character, in their unique voice.  It moves very quickly.  The core story is of 13-year old Benjie who is on the road to becoming a junkie.  We start out with him, but then meet his stepdad, his teachers, his grandmother, his mom and others, each in their own voice.  It's short and tight and super clearly and strongly lays out the reality of the generational trauma the black community in America has suffered.  I knew this, but the recent chorus of seemingly educated white voices on social media makes me wonder what happened to our education and collective understanding of history.  This is the kids born 5 years before me, so early Gen-Xers or late, boomers who was reading books like this.  It just hammers home how little we have done about racism when you see how a mainstream book like this is basically laying out all the problems and it is from almost 50 years ago!

Another interesting comparison is the story of Bubbles and that young kid whose name I forgot who goes on to become a junkie and basically the next Bubbles.  A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich has a climax of hope, but a denouement that leaves the outcome anxiously undecided (funny that the previous book I read, Marianne Dreams, also ended with an ambiguous will-he won't he ending, though it seemed more optimistic).  I guess it is a story told all too many times in the ghetto.

One criticism I will make is that I didn't get a good understanding of Benjie's relationship to heroin.  There was very little that explained how the way the drug made him feel would make him want to keep doing it. It was elided and I didn't leave understanding how a 13-year old boy would become hooked.

Still, a great book, really well-written, tight and moving.  It's not preachy at all, but you will be reminded of urban black history and that the struggle is fucking real.  Black Lives Matter.


Monday, June 22, 2020

41. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

This book is a family milestone.  My wife discovered it and was reading it and my daughter picked it up. She is 7 and to my disappointment has not enjoyed me reading chapter books to her.  We did the first two Beverly Cleary books, but it was really mostly due to my insistence.  I had dreams of reading all kinds of kids classics to her, but it may not end up happening.  She seems to strongly prefer me to only read picture books and comics.  On the other hand, she does love reading by herself and she just devoured this book, to our surprise and pleasure.  I had just finished the phat phantasy Farseer trilogy and was waiting for the next trilogy to come in the mail and thought a quick, well-written, British children's book would be a perfect in-between read.  And my daughter insisted.  So this is the first book the entire family has read independently, all within the same week.  

I had never heard of it, but it does seem reasonable to suggest it was once a children's classic.  Marianne gets sick and must stay in bed for two months.  They never explain what specifically is wrong with her but it is not super serious and she seems basically fine except she must rest.  Her struggles are emotional as she gets bored and frustrated, even leading to some pretty bad temper tantrums (nice to see this behaviour is universal).  One day, she discovers a nice old pencil in her mother's old jewelry case and draws a house with it.  That night, she has a dream that takes place in the house and she meets a boy.  Neither of them know how they got there or what they are supposed to do.  The rest of the story is about her and the boy figuring out the relationship between her drawing and what goes on in the dreams.  It becomes a mix of her own personal growth as well as their adventure to get out of the house.  The boy turns out to be another pupil of her governess, a boy named Mark who has polio and may or may not be able to walk again.

It is well-written and fast-paced with its own engaging internal logic, even if not all the questions are answered.  The ending was hopeful but ambiguous, which leaves you wanting to find out what was going to happen but also probably the best way it could end.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

40. Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Epic!  Whew, that was definitely a deep fantasy trilogy dive.  I've been reading this for most of the month of June and my 50 books pace is going to take a hit because of it.  It's okay because this is what I was looking for reading-wise this summer (and it is so far a scorcher, in the 30s in June).  I have even already ordered Hobb's second trilogy (and not used copies!) which is in the same universe as the Farseer trilogy, but a tangential story about living ships. 

The final book in the epic saga of FitzChivalry and the fight against traitorous Regal and the Red Ship Raiders is made up of two major sections: Fitzs' journey to the Mountain Kingdom to try and find Verity and then he and a small party discovering the mysteries of the Elderlings.  The first part is really enjoyable because it is just Fitz and his wolf, Nighteyes. They are both on the run and exploring new parts of the world, which makes for a lot of fun.  The second part is much more mystical and magical and reveals many layers of backstory both about the history of the world and all the various characters.  I wouldn't say this section bogged down, but it definitely took a while.  The pages left to read were getting thinner and thinner and we still didn't seem to be nearing any kind of climax or conclusion.  However, it gets there and it is very satisfying.

Fitz still does a lot of pouting and there is a lot of people not telling stuff for vague reasons that don't really feel justified.  There is also one really obvious moment where Fitz is so stupid [see the spoiler below if you are interested].  Again, this threw me a bit though wasn't as prevalent as in the first two books (and the other characters finally stopped being stupid). Overall, super absorbing and satisfying.







SPOILER:  When the Fool asks him to name the town his wife and child live and asks twice in a totally uncharacteristic way after they have been warned multiple times that the Fool was susceptible to the bad guys' skill attacks and Fitz tells him completely unsuspectingly and then also has a total spaz-out because the fool doesn't answer him when he asks if the prophecy tells him he will survive.  It is just so obvious that it was not the Fool asking the questions.  I think the idea was that Fitz being so upset on assuming he wasn't going to survive distracted him that he had been deceived, but it all felt super obvious and out of character.  I excused Fitz' spaziness in the earlier books because he was quite young but by the time we get to the third book the dude has seen and done a lot, lived a full, learning life and should not be acting this babyish way. 

Friday, June 05, 2020

39. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (part 2 of the Farseer Trilogy)

I finally got my package from Thrift Books.  I think it took over two months!  Whatever method of mailing they are using, I will ask them to try something else, even if I have to pay a bit more.  I suspect the pandemic only played a small role in the delay, because I received several other packages from the States during this time and they were all quite prompt.  This reeks of Canada customs to me.

When I decided to start reading this trilogy, my goal was to immerse myself in a fantasy or sci-fi series and even try to read them consecutively.  I did a bit of reading around on the web and Hobb's work came up several times.  I can say that for the most part, I am happy with my choice.  Her world-building is rich and absorbing, with plenty of mystery that makes you want to keep reading.  She has an excellent balance of detail that gives the world weight and interest without ever bogging down.  And in these two books, the scope of the conflict is very gradually being revealed to be much bigger than the immediate issues of the red-ship raiders on the coasts of the Six Duchies and the internal conflict of the royal family.  I am motivated to read on to the third book and am seriously considering jumping into another one of her series or trilogies.  My understanding is that many if not all of them take place in the same world and one narrative may brush against or even interact with another that reveals more depth about each.

The Farseer trilogy is centered on FitzChivalry, bastard son of an abdicated and murdered prince who is molded as a spy and assassin for his grandfather, the king.  He is an underdog right from the beginning, treated like shit at first because he is a bastard and then worse later because he is considered a threat to Prince Regal, his decadent, ambitious half-uncle, who is clearly the antagonist.  FitzChivalry gets to do all kinds of super cool stuff.  He has The Skill, basically psychic powers in this world.  He also has The Wit, the ability to bond with an animal that is considered a heresy in the culture here, with some very interesting parrallels to communism or homosexuality in the way it is persecuted and the way Fitz handles the guilt and fear associated with the natural pleasure it brings him.  The Wit brings him an awesome Wolf partner and enables him to berserk in combat.  He learns to sneak, to spy, to poison, to fight with an axe. 

So there is some great fantasy wish fulfillment here.  The trouble is that Fitz can't enjoy any of it. He is such a bummer, always fretting and stressing and making up all these reasons why he can't just kick ass and solve his problems. His problems are manifold and many of them truly beyond his power.  One of the frustrations with this book, as I felt with the last one, is that some of them are not beyond his power.  He and other characters around him seem sometimes artificially ignorant and passive.  It is just so clear who the bad guys are and what they are up to. For instance, the king for some reason loves Regal and favours him, but is other wise super savvy.  Why does not all the good guys just explain to him that his favoured son is deliberately undermining their security?  Another example is when out fighting these mysteriously powerful and destructive red ship raiders, Fitz sees a strange white ship coming out of the fog and it fills him and the others with incredible dread and pessimism.  He is the only one who saw it and he never tells anybody about it.  Hello, it is obviously some greater evil force directing the red ships.  He has the complete trust of his allies.  Why would he not say "hey there is some greater conspiracy here, we need to find out about these white ships and go after them"?

There is enough character development and depth of situation that a lot of Fitz's fretting and passivity makes sense, so I definitely kept reading.  And I get that you need resistance and conflict so when there is a climax, it is satisfying (and this one is here).  It's just that at times I got too frustrated to keep reading and had to take little breaks.  I am hoping the third book will have a bit more of him gaining confidence and skill and whooping ass on the badguys.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

38. Titus Groane by Mervyn Peake

The Gormenghast series has been on my radar for a long time, but I have always hesitated because it looks so daunting.  It is one of meezly's favourites and I took advantage of her having a reading copy when my books that I ordered a month ago still haven't arrived and nothing interests me on my on-deck shelf.

My trepidation was accurate.  This book was a bit of work for me.  As the vast multitude of my readers knows, I am lazy-minded and driven forward by the narrative of a book.  Titus Groane is almost 400 dense paragraphed, narrow-margined pages and what actually happens in the book could probably be condensed down to maybe 100 pages and that would be pushing it.  As Anthony Burgess says in his introduction, Titus Groane is "architectural".  Gormenghast castle and the surrounding bleak landscape take up the bulk rest of the pages. It is incredibly rich and evocative world-building, a fantastic evocation of an epically decadent aristocracy, manifested in the few remaining members of the House of Groane and their servants, but mostly in the place itself.  It is good and I would say it deserves the title of a modern classic.  It's just for me, this kind of reading can be a bit of a grind.  I just get distracted too easily.

The story too is compelling, though perhaps ultimately lacks some weight as the characters are so crazed and almost entirely unlikable.  It begins with the unexpected birth of Titus Groane, next in line to become the Early of Gormenghast.  We meet the cast of characters around him: his check-out, book-obsessed father, his lonely older sister, his mother who lives for her cats and birds only, the self-obsessed and victimized nanny, the class-jumping doctor and the sort-of protagonist, Steerpike the young kitchen aid with a machiavellian drive for power that risks to bring change to Gormenghast.  There are others and though each is quite unique, they are all almost entirely self-centered and utterly disconnected from any reality other than their role in the castle.  There is also Keda, a woman from the mud towns that live at the foot of the castle walls, who seems to have a larger role in the later books. She is actually decent, so far.

The geography of the castle is amazing. It would be literally possible to get lost on the rooves and die of starvation.  The twin sisters of the Early, total freaks, live in a room with the roots of a giant dead tree whose network is so complex that you can get stuck and not be able to leave the room without them guiding you out.  It looks like I will have to read the entire trilogy, but not right away.  Need something with some pace to it next.