Tuesday, June 19, 2018

11. The Gingerbread House by Maeva Park Dobner

That house is looming!
This was another great pick-up from the hospital used bookstore haul.  Like The Best People which I just read, this also protrays a closed milieu, the families of Orchard Street, a residential neighbourhood in an unnamed east coast city but somehow isolated from it.  At the end of the cul-de-sac is the old Gingerbread House where young Sara, newly out of the hospital for a breakdown after having been raped, arrives to be the new maid to Mr and Mrs Buford.  Things start out very well, almost too well, with the friendly confines of the neighbourhood harbouring some subtle malevolence.
The beginning of the book was really engaging and I was quite psyched.  The portrayal of the various families on the block was rich and intriguing.  Sara exploring the house, making friends with the cook and starting to just notice some curious things really drew me in. Unfortunately, the sense of menace and mystery is popped early on as two children are kidnapped at Halloween, having last been seen going into the Bufords.
I was a bit bummed at this point, but the narrative moved into more straight-up adventure mode with Sara in a serious pickle and it was done well enough that I got back into it.  Some of the plot was a bit flimsy, with people several times finding complex inner reasons why not to call the police when they saw something suspicious.  But the bad guy was really well portrayed and there is a light dusting of the supernatural and spiritual that made it fun.  It was a definite page-turner to the end for me. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

10. The Best People by Helen Van Slyke

I couldn't resist picking up this book with that amazing cover.  And subject matter intrigued me greatly, a story of an exclusive Park Avenue cooperative.  I thought it was going to be about people trying to get into a snooty apartment and it was, but not quite how I thought.  It's more of a Mad Men vs. housing discrimination when an advertising firm tries to woo a crucial client, a Jewish shoe magnate, by attempting to secure an apartment in this super waspy building.

I love books that describe an enclosed milieu and this one did a solid job of portraying the history of the building, its current residents and the dynamics of the all-important board. You get a strong sense of its clean quiet hallways and explicit description of the many rooms and dimensions.  The disappointment for me is that the protagonists, a super waspy but progressive couple, totally luck into the sick apartment.  Their struggle is to get the apartment for the client and they risk alienating their neighbours, but they already got the place and ultimately do not seem all that threatened.  The book's conclusion, which hinted at some colour with the exiled Austrian noblewoman who harboured a dark secret, ultimately falls back on safe drama. Overall an enjoyable read.  I think this one is going on the shelf for its style alone.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

9. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

One more decent find from my hospital bookstore discovery.  I am really glad I read this.  At parts, it dragged a bit for me but overall was really entertaining and a great historical read.  The impact of this book has faded somewhat today, but it broke all records when it came out and still pretty high up there on the best seller list with 31 million copies.  I imagine that in the 60s if you were on the subway, everybody would be reading a copy.  People today act like Mad Men was some deep revelatory exploration into show business and advertising in the early 60s but they were all talking about the same shit back then and Valley of the Dolls can really be considered the ur-text for that period.  It is at once commenting on the time but also very much of it.

Sorry I'm rambling because most info about the book, its history, impact and analysis are very much available online.  It's the story of three young women coming to New York and becoming stars.  The dolls are what they name the various pills they all get hooked on to one degree or another.  They are a central element, but more like a background to the stronger narrative about their love lives, their struggles to succeed and ultimately how shitty men are.  Punches are not pulled for women either but wow this book is cynical.  I think ultimately what made me appreciate this book was how dark and hard it was.  Even the main love narrative with the character who is the most solid and makes it to the end mostly unscathed is slowly revealed to be a complete disaster and the man a monster.

I'm psyched for the movie now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

8. The Way to Dusty Death by Alistair Maclean

I found the worst cover ever for this book
This is sort-of the first real Alistair Maclean book I've read.  I say "sort-of" because I have read his first book HMS Ulysses and it was really good.  However, it is pretty much autobiographical.  I grabbed The Way to Dusty Death at the used bookshop/goldmine I discovered in the hospital here. 

I have avoided Maclean's books simply because they were too popular.  This is not just elitist snobbery on my part (though that is a factor), but generally massive mainstream sellers in any genre tend to be the most dumbed down of that genre with bad writing (cough cough Kathy Reichs cough Jeffrey Deaver cough and on and on).  What surprised me about this book was how shoddy it all was.  I don't know what period of his career it took place or what was going on then, but this book feels like it was cranked out overnight and not edited at all.  There is just a lot of really awkward language and scenes where you actually can't quite tell what is going on.  The plot is also badly constructed and when the reveal happens, it's super lame and not thoroughly explained.  Despite all that, the initial setup is quite gripping and there is some minor masculine heroic behaviour that is satisfying (although the protagonist is a total machine and fundamentally superior to everyone around so that there is little suspense once you figure that out).

The story starts out in medias res with the flaming wreckage of an ugly Grand Prix crash.  The protagonist is the best driver who was thrown from his car and watches in a daze the burning body of the guy he just knocked off the road.  We learn quickly that his brother died a month ago and that he has become reckless and may even be drinking (this is a big deal in Gran Prix driving, I guess).  The first chapter portrays him as a total wreck, but there are weird little tells, such as him washing his mouth out with whiskey in his hotel room later then spitting it out.  Soon after, he is seen spying on the team owner and the mechanic while they check out his car and you realize that there is a greater game afoot. (This scene is one where I didn't even realize he was supposed to be hiding at first because of the weird way it was written so though the other two characters knew he was in the room.)  This part is cool and you definitely want to find out what's going on. 

If you have read my reviews, you know my taste and that I am very patient with certain kinds of clichés and silliness in men's action fiction.  Look, I get chills watching the trailer for The Equalizer 2.  I'm an easy mark.  I gotta say, I was really not impressed with Maclean with this book.  Desmond Bagley crushes him.  Yes, he has a similarily macho simplicity, but his characters make sense and they get really challenged, plus he writes well, clearly with punch.  Maybe this was on the lower end of Maclean's massive output.  They are easy to read, so I will give him another try.

Monday, April 16, 2018

7. Hit List by Lawrence Block

I had actually read Hit List many years (decades, actually) ago as well as its predecessor Hit Man.  That was back when we were way into Richard Stark/Donald Westlake and one of my fellow Stark fans discovered the Keller books.  Block was a close friend of Westlake.  They played in a regular poker group and discussed and shared writing ideas.  You can see it in the style of Hit List, though very hard to tell how much of that is just that both of them were deep New Yorkers from that time period.  Much of Hit List's style comes from the very New York City quirks of Keller.  I'm rambling but my point here is that there may be a tendency to feel that Hit List derives a bit from Westlake's Dortmunder/Parker novels but given that I haven't read anything else by Block, I suspect that is not fair and that Westlake probably was influenced just as much by Block's style.  Block may have actually been a better seller than Westlake in his lifetime.

Keller is a professional hit man who behaves and thinks about his job the way a garbageman or accountant might think about his.  He is concerned about doing his job correctly and some elements of it are unpleasant but there are various ways to deal with them to help you get by.  He has a broker/boss named Dot who lives upstate and finds him jobs.  Hit List begins like a series of short stories, with each assignment being a story.  As it moves forward, we begin to see longer narrative arcs: his relationship with Dot, his relationship with a few civilians and the possibility of another hitman who is eliminating other hit men to limit the competition.  There is also underneath it a very slight shadow of Keller struggling with his conscience, especially when Dot pressures him to eliminate any "loose ends" which may include a woman he had been seing.

It's all very banal and normalized.  Keller collects stamps.  He frets about taking first class and enjoys local cuisine.  Each assignment has an interesting wrinkle, some of which are quite enjoyable to read in a dark way.

I suspect that part of the charm of Hit List is lost today, when assassination and killing have been portrayed in such over-the-top cartoony ways in popular media.  When Hit List was published in 2000, we still didn't have headshot ballets like John Wick 2.  Despite its impact being somewhat lessened, I would classify the two Keller books as a must-read for anybody interested in the hit man genre and an enjoyable read for fans of crime in general.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

6. The President's Plane is Missing by Robert J. Serling

I had to go the emergency room because of a "mallet finger" I got playing basketball.  It was an extremely negative experience except that I discovered the Montreal General has a book shop in the lobby.  It's called the Book Nook and was filled with paperback and hardcover anglo fiction from the 60s, 70s and 80s.  It was quite exciting but because of the terrible emergency room service, I couldn't check it out despite being stuck at the hospital for 8 hours (you can't leave the room or you'll miss your appointment that you have no idea when will come).  However, I did have a follow-up appointment with the doctor at the hospital and I made it a point to come in early to look for books.

Well the haul wasn't mind-blowing but it was still a good vein with potential for the future.  The most exciting find was a first American edition hardcover of Jack Carter and the Law by Ted Lewis (the U.S title for Jack Carter's Law), the prequel to Get Carter.  Very psyched about that find.

The President's Plane is Missing has about the most boring cover ever (although I do like the fading letters).  The story itself is not boring, but the cover does represent well its straightness.  This is a very mainstream (for the time) political thriller.  Despite it being slightly vanilla, it is actually quite a gripping and suspenseful story and I stayed up an hour past my bedtime to finish it.  It has a cast of characters most of which are focused around a small newswire bureau in Washington.  The president is like the best president ever, but he is tired.  He is embarking on a much needed week long vacation where he has made special requests to not be disturbed.  This extends to his time on Air Force One, where he makes plans to spend the flight reading in the back room.  The flight takes off fine and once in the air is flying smoothly.  Ground Control calls to tell them that there is a storm ahead of them.  The pilot requests permission to fly above it and permission is granted.  Shortly after, the plane simply disappears from the radar.

The rest of the book is about trying to figure out what happened, while following the political repercussions.  The weak and henpecked vice-president is the protagonist in this storyline.  His character is unrealistically insecure and you know he is going to cause trouble in some way or other.  I won't say anything more because it honestly was quite gripping the story behind everything is solid and well thought-out. 

Ah cool, I see they made a TV movie out of this!  And it got some decent reviews.  To the internet!

Monday, March 05, 2018

5. Paper Money by Ken Follet

Picked up this workmanlike paperback in decent condition at Chainon.  It's Ken Follett's first book and was originally published under another name (and didn't sell very well).  I found it to be quite enjoyable and fun to read.  The milieu is the highs and lows of wealthy financiers and cockney hoodlums in London in the 70s, with the reporters of a daily newspaper in between.  Several storylines including a financial deal, a heist, policy announcements, blackmail and so on quickly and efficiently converge together by the end.  The portrayal of the milieu and the characters, especially the villians (term used in the book by the villains themselves) is rich.  It came at a good time as I am once again struggling to read steadily.