Sunday, August 31, 2008

37. Spy Ship by Tom Keene with Brian Haynes

Spy Ship pictureI picked this book up from the same street vendor in Toronto who sold me Scapa Ferry and I really hemmed and hawed over it. On the one hand, the cover looked cool, just from the period I like (the height of Desmond Bagley's popularity). On the other, it takes place in the cold war and seemed to have a lot of military and espionage themes, which I am not so interested in (I don't mind the period, but I like the focus to be on adventure). Also, I was worried the whole thing would take place aboard some military ship. After reading it, I'm glad to say I made the right choice. Yes, the story is definitely in the context of the cold war, but the ship is sunk right at the beginning (it is the catalyst that starts the story) and the bulk of the narrative is about a plucky young reporter (whose father died on the ship) trying to find out what happened.

The story is based on the intelligence war that took place in the North Sea between the Russians and the west. Along the frontier off the shores of Norway Russian subs and American and British ships would play games of cat and mouse, each trying to read data off the other. The set-up for spy ship is that the British were secretly putting scanning equipment aboard long-range commercial fishing vessels, unbeknownst to even most of the crew, thus putting them in danger. When one of them gets blown up, the government has to cover it up.

There's lots of cool stuff in this book. The aristocrats who run the shadier parts of the government and the darker, amoral men who run the even shadier parts under them are the badguys. There is a really scary ex-military guy who has a carte blanche to clean up problems. The fishermen and their world is portrayed vividly and with compassion and there are some great fight scenes. The story itself had some very good twists and the final reveal of what actually happened surprised me. All in all, a pretty good read.

I imagine this was the kind of thriller that was read by businessman on the train on their way to the city when it first came out, but has since faded into obscurity. There even was a British mini-series made of it, which might be worth checking out if it ever shows up again (that's the kind of shit that we should be able to find on late night tv, but no).

Friday, August 29, 2008

36. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson

Brain Wave pictureAll this classic science fiction reading going on over at Buzby's Life got me motivated to pick up this old paperback I've had sitting on my on-deck shelf for quite some time. Brain Wave is classic golden age science fiction in the most speculative vein. What would happen if everybody in the world suddenly became super-intelligent? This question is answered in an interesting and entertaining manner, for the most part. It is burdened slightly by some of the psychological assumptions of the period and some stilted overly theoretical dialogue (external and internal)

"God!" Corinth's fists doubled. (If we could only learn more about ourselves! If we had a workable psychiatry!)

but those are classical tropes of the genre and did not overwhelm the book. As a bonus, on the plus side, there also was a really great animal-oriented side story that really pushed my buttons.

There are a few stories going on, but the principal narrative follows a young physicist and his happily homey wife. When the intelligence hits, which is the result of the earth passing out of a neuron-suppressing field it had been in for millenia, the world goes through a tremendous upheaval. Though people become more intelligent, they don't get any wiser and the same prejudices and fears that dominate their personalities remain intact. Ultimately, however, reason bears out. But the process to get there involves uprisings, a breakdown of the economic and political system, a lot of people going insane and all kinds of other mayhem that is quite fun to read about.

After the survivors manage to get past all this, we move into the more speculative part, where the humans reach for the stars and start figuring out how they are going to live. The human part of the story concerns the physicist and his wife. She can't handle the new intelligence and starts becoming more and more neurotic and depressive. A certain part of our humanity is lost with the intelligence and some people, Poul posits, can't handle this. Those who are used to looking outward and thinking hard and deeply about external subjects, e.g. scientists, were better equipped seems to be his argument. The dated part is that the latter group in the book is almost all men and the former represented by the wife. It's still an interesting idea and he does a good job of postulating what might happen.

The really cool side story, though, for me is about a simpleton farmhand. At the beginning of the book, he is mentally deficient, but strong and kept on the farm and basically adopted by its kindly owner. He's not allowed to drive, for instance. But when the change comes, he too starts to become intelligent. Only because he was behind to begin with, he only reaches up to a normal IQ. Everybody else is in super brain world and basically bail on the farm. He is left with the animals, who have also become more intelligent and thus extremely dangerous. Fortunately, he has an awesome dog with him, who remains man's best friend. The pigs cause the first problems, escaping and then hiding in the forest making attacks on the grain. Then the bull. It finally reaches a crisis point when he returns from town (the first time he'd left the farm since the change) and gets ambushed. Another bull takes the truck out and his faithful dog is trapped, wounded, on the roof.

All seems lost when there is suddenly a shotgun rings out. It's the calvary. In the form of two chimpanzees riding an elephant who had escaped from the zoo! (He'd been warned about the zoo breakout when he went to town.) After the chimps and the elephant take out the bull and chase away the pigs, there is a nervous moment when the farmhand isn't sure about their intentions. Then the chimp approaches him and tugs on his jacket. The chimps can't handle the northeasterly climate and need his help to survive outside the protected environment of the zoo. An alliance is made and the chimps and the elephant join him to run the farm! Most awesome. I love shit like that.

His farm ends becoming what is one of many "moron communes" (really, that's what they call them), places for the non-super brainy humans to live. This is an important part of the speculation, actually, as the two societies ultimately separate, with the smart ones heading off planet to become custodians of the universe.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

35. Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge

Dark Harvest pictureExcept for Stepen King, I was never a huge fan of horror. But in recent years, with the influence of Meezly, Fantasia and other friends, I'm getting more and more exposed to it. One of those friends, Jocelyn, whom I met through gaming, is quite into it. He ran a very fun Unknown Armies, (which would some would say is the RPG that epitomizes contemporary horror) campaign that I played in and he lent me Dark Harvest. I have no idea how Norman Partridge came onto his radar, because I've never heard of him before, but if this book is indicative of his skill and style, he's good.

Dark Harvest is a tight little read. It's about a small, isolated midwestern town in the early '60s. Every year, since as long as anyone can remember, the tradition is to lock up all the boys of the ages of 15, 16 and 17 years old for the three days before Halloween and starving them. They are then released on Halloween night, while the rest of the town locks itself away (except for those left to guard the food sources). The boys' goal is then to hunt down and kill a living Jack-o-lantern before it enters the town church. The boy who does this is allowed to leave town and his parents get a new house and a car. I've already told you too much, though most of this is laid out in the first few chapters. It's just that the unfolding of the story is a big part of the fun of this book. Don't worry, though, as there is a lot more to be revealed and I found the revelations to be quite delicious.

It's a grim, brutal tale. The town is closed and scary. The kind of place anyone would want to get away from. But nobody can in the way many people don't get out of a small town. But here it is even more sinister than that. What I particularly enjoyed was the way the plot unfolds. Partridge doesn't hold back any secrets in order to artificially maintain suspense. He's got such a great set-up that he doesn't need to. Secrets revealed just lead to more conflict and greater connection to the plot and the protagonists, making you want to turn the pages. It's a dark tale and he doesn't pull any punches, but it's not unnecessarily brutal or sadistic, a rare combination. Furthermore, it's all story, one that keeps moving forward, another thing that is hard to pull off.

It's a short read, really almost a novella. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

34. The Horror of the Heights and other stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dark Harvest pictureI have to admit that I didn't read all of this book in 2008, and in doing so, reveal a little strategy I use to give me a slight boost towards reaching the goal of 50 books a year. I don't like buying books of short stories, even if I am a fan of the author, because I can rarely get through them. Every now and then, in the case of great authors (such as Doyle and Howard), I can not resist. My trick is that in between every book that I finish, if I don't immediately go on to another novel, I'll read a short story or two. Eventually, I'll complete the entire collection and get to add it to my list. Such was the case with Howard's Blood of the Gods as well as today's review, a fun little collection revealing Doyle's early interesting in mysticism and the supernatural.

I got this book through a bit of serendipity. I went to S.W. Welch's, a great little bookstore and a Montreal landmark not too far from my house. It used to be right on The Main, across the street from Schwartz's, but the owner, in a savvy move, found a new place in the growing Mile End neighbourhood just before they started a two-year construction project on St. Laurent that killed several businesses, including the maternal clothing store that replaced the old Welches. I sold some books and after, noticed this book on the feature table and said "Oh, I'd like to throw that in," or words to that effect. I had meant that I wanted to buy it and have him take the difference out of the cash he was giving me. The owner thought I was bargaining and said "sure" giving it to me for free! It was only 7 bucks, but I felt like it was a sign of respect (probably my own fantastic imagination, that) and a cool move by the Mr. Welch himself. I do go in there and chat with him and the other employees on a semi-regular basis. He knows his stuff and the other employees are quite cool (including the hilarious and talented Howard Chackowicz of Wiretap fame). A good used bookstore. Visit it if you come to Montreal.

The Horror of the Heights are all on the subject of the supernatural, written in Doyle's rich and evocative Victorian language. He's not the tightest of writers from this period, but he captures the comfortable and slightly wry British mentality of that period well. I always love passages like these:

Hastie was a good fellow, but he was rough, strong-fibered, with no imagination or sympathy. He could not tolerate departures from what he looked upon as the model type of manlinesss. If a man could not be measured by a public-school standard, then he was beyond the pale with Hastie. Like so many who are themselves robust, he was apt to confuse the constitution with the character, to ascribe to want of principle what was really a want of circulation.


There was one little indulgence which Abercrombie Smith always allowed himself, however closely his work might press upon him. Twice a week, on the Tuesday and the Friday, it was his invariable custom to walk over to Farlingfod, the residence of the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, situated about a mile and a half out of Oxford. Peterson had been a close friend of Smith's elder brother Francis, and as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.

How that makes me long for a brisk walk upon the moors!

It saddens me that in his later years, Doyle got way into the whole mysticism and spiritualism phenomenon that made its rounds among the upper classes at that time. He engaged in some public debates on this issue and got taken in by some charlatans (whom they all were) and it is a smudge on his reputation. One would not think that the creator of the most rational detective of all time would succumb that kind of flim-flam. But he got rich and old.

These stories, from, I presume, his younger years, show a lighter and more entertaining interest in the subject. The intent is to thrill, not to convince. They seem rather light in comparison to contemporary horror, but they don't lack imagination or impact. There is often a real sense of fear and dread in these stories.

It's a nice volume, but I wish they would have shown the original source and dates of the stories. I imagine they were mostly published in the Strand, where all the Sherlock Holmes stories were published. It would be nice to know how they fit into the chronology of his more famous work.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

33. Soucouyant by David Chariandy

Soucouyant pictureCanLit time people! My boss passed me down this book while we were working together in Vancouver. Normally, I have a hard time reading these kinds of books, but it had a glossy cover and nice large margins, so I figured I could handle it. It's the story of a young black man in Ontario dealing with his mother's dementia. You can see why I might have normally hesitated! Sometimes, though, when someone random lends me a book, I'm quite motivated to read it. Can't explain it, but there it is.

It actually is quite a good book, very moving and touches upon a lot of things that I saw in my own life. I think I am more or less a contemporary of the author. I certainly didn't experience the things he did, but I saw it going on around me in my own Canadian small town. It's written so that the reader starts out pretty much in the dark. Basically all you know is that the author is of Caribbean descent, but was born in Canada, had left his mother alone in her dementia and then out of guilt or something came back. There is a nurse or assistant there who helps out, but her role and legitimacy aren't totally clear and she treats the author with a lot of contempt, possibly because he abandoned his mother.

What makes this book so successful is that there is actually a very complex story behind the situation at the beginning of the book. As the story moves forward, the backstory is slowly revealed. We learn about how his mother first came to Canada (and it's pretty harrowing; a lone, black woman in small town Ontario in the 50s), how she met his father (of Indian descent), the father's struggles to keep jobs in the factories that are laying people off, the author and his brother's struggles at school and in the town (not just being black, but having their mom be the town crazy person) and the mother's descent into dementia. It goes even deeper than that, revealing who the girl is who is helping the mom and the mom and her mother's story on the islands. It ends up being a rich and moving tapestry and a very satisfying read.

My only complaint is there is some "poetic" writing in there, little phrases of imagery, sometimes even incomplete sentences. I find these annoying. You can just see some literature professor lecturing on how the "bitter" orange peels staining the piece of paper in the kitchen garbage can represents the stain of colonialism or something like that. Fortunately, those little snippets are rare and most of the rest of the book is solid, clear writing.

I believe this book falls under the heading of "Post-Colonial Literature". Ultimately, it's about how the installation of an army base in the author's family's home island uprooted the people there, removed them from their traditional livelihoods and forced them to adapt to other means of survival (such as prostitution). This in turn led to opportunities or at least the choice to emigrate which led to strangers in strange new lands and the damage that can do to the people who lack the psychological resources to survive such changes. It all shakes out in the wash and here we are today, with a much richer, more complex and aware society (though with plenty of prejudices still remaining) so that the son of such a chain of events can be a successful author and professor at a good Canadian University. But the path there is a painful one and this book illustrates that masterfully.

I won't be leaping back into post-colonial canlit soon (there just isn't enough overall ass-kicking for my tastes), but this was a good little side trip. If you are still single and looking to pick up chicks in hipster cafés in liberal parts of town, you could do a lot worse than sit there with Soucouyant in your hands and you'd have a good read while you are at it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

32. Hilmar and Odette by Eric Koch

Hilmar and Odette pictureThis was sitting on my friend's desk when I was crashing at his secret mountain getaway, nursing a sprained ankle and moping regretfully about the plastering I wasn't able to do. The premise intrigued me. Plus, it was fairly large in print with wide margins, so I knew I could get through it before I left.

The author discovered that there was an illegitimate child on each side of his Jewish German family, both of whom had grown up in Nazi Germany. They had each been given up for adoption into non-Jewish families. One was identified as being at least half-Jewish (Hilmar, the boy) and the other wasn't (Odette, the woman). Koch, upon discovering this, tracked them back and tried to find out as much as he could about their two stories. Hilmar lived a difficult life, not being able to fight for health reasons and being identified as a half-Jew. He struggled with an impoverished and crazed adoptive mother (the one who turned him in initially) and the increasingly desperate situation around him until he finally ended up in the concentration camp. He actually survived until the arrival of the American forces, but died in a military hospital a few days later he was so sick and malnourished. Odette, on the other hand, never even knew she was Jewish and ended up marrying relatively high into Nazi society. She came out unscathed and even rubbed shoulders with high-ranking members of Goebbel's propaganda team at some social events.

Both of their stories are fascinating and I'm sure there are thousands of others that are equally fascinating. That period was just so crazy and made more so by the extremity of it's culmination. We look back today and it seems hard to understand why young Hilmar didn't just take to the hills the first chance he had. But I believe that just underlines how crazy the situation was. Very few people in it could really believe how far it would go. This book wasn't great in the way it was written, but it did not fail to remind me of the enormity of Nazi Germany and that there really is no limit to human cruelty. It's something that most people seem to have already forgotten today in our wealthy, comfortable and relatively free society.

My complaint with the writing was that it is done in a breezy, almost conversational style. It communicated a certain lack of respect for the reader. I felt like he was writing it for his own family, which is fine in and of itself, but not so good when you are going for a general readership. That was mostly in the beginning and end parts. The main story itself was well told, so it's a minor complaint. The research and effort made to construct the story more than makes up for it. A quick and engaging read which, as I said, reminds us once again of a frighteningly recent period in our history.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

31. A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley

A Little Yellow Dog pictureI like Walter Mosley and grab his books when they are cheap (a quarter outside of Pulp Fiction in Vancouver) but I don't follow too closely or remember the exploits of his protagonist, Easy Rawlins.

In this one, he is trying to go straight, working as a custodian at a public school in LA. He comes in early and ends up having classroom sex with a sultry teacher who is in some kind of trouble. Easy has all kinds of romantic complications, but getting laid is not one of them. I'm never sure if this is supposed to reflect the genre and the culture or if he is just super attractive, but I never find these sex scenes that believable (though they are pretty enjoyable to read). The trouble expands, gets more complicated and obviously catches Easy. Bodies show up at the school. Suspicious cops and principals harrass and hover.

It's a quick, mostly enjoyable read. What I didn't enjoy so much is that characters kept coming in who were part of Easy Rawlin's great story arc and each one would get a page or two about everything that had happened to them up to that point. I don't mind that stuff so much but it kind of seemed a bit forced to me in this book.

In general, there is something unreal in Easy Rawlins' world. Mosley is supposed to be this authentic voice but I'm a bit suspicious. I like his world but I wonder if he is getting a bit distant from it's source. There is nothing wrong with that, because the characters are interesting and situations are rich, but it clashes a bit with expecations. I'm sort of talking around my complaint here and not being very direct. Is this a hard-boiled mystery? Is it about the black urban experience in the 60s? It's completely fair that it be about both, but somehow the combination of the elements from each works out to a whole that isn't entirely satisfying and seems somehow a bit unreal and thus distancing for the reader.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

30. The Little People by John Christopher

The Little People pictureI found two more John Christopher books at Pulp Fiction when I was in Vancouver, both first edition hardbacks for $7.95. Now that I think about it, that's actually a pretty good deal, when standard used paperbacks are going for $4.95 these days.

The Little People is from 196?, still part of Christopher's working period as an author but later into it. Though there is a slight deviation from form, it quite quickly assembles itself into a structure very similar to The Possessors, Sweeney's Island and the other books from this period. A group of flawed people (though in this case, there is only one englishmen; the rest are european, scottish and american) assemble together in a remote location and encounter weirdness. In this case, it is a remote Scottish castle, that a young, competent woman inherits. She decides to try and run it as an inn, emphasizing the remoteness.

The first half of the book describes the interesting collection of guests, the bitter and fighting american couple, their silent daughter, the guilt-ridden german husband and his jewish wife, the innkeeper's english fiancee who thinks her decision to run the inn is mad, the scottish hyper-catholic young lawyer who has a crush on the innkeeper. Christopher slowly lays out their back stories, while revealing small hints of weirdness in the lodge. Strange small things are sighted moving in the bog. Useful household items get stolen. The distant uncle who left her the place had spent most of his time locked in the now closed tower, where there was a collection of well-made dollhouses and small cages.

In the second half of the book, the little people are actually discovered, as is their history. I was a bit disappointed at first, because it all was revealed a bit quick. But I should have had some confidence in Christopher's ability to keep the reader guessing, as things get weird fast and suddenly it is very unclear who are the victims. As I've said, all of these psychological thrillers of John Christopher's have a similar setup. Where they differ is which aspect they fall on. Whereas in the Possessors, the fight for survival took primacy (the "thriller" aspect), here it is the effect the situation has on the people and their relationships that is emphasized (the "psychological" aspect).

The cover above is the hardback I found. Quite elegant and probably better catches the actual mood of the book. But check out the wacky cover below. I saw it in this blog here and though it really does not represent the story, it is truly awesome.

The Little People picture

29. The Scorpio Letters by Victor Canning

The Scorpio Letters pictureI found a great used bookstore in Vancouver (ABC books on W. Broadway near Granville, right by the bus stop). Whoever is buying books for this place knows their stuff. They had such a good and organized collection that I was drawn to some of the recommended or featured books. There was a stack of paperbacks by Victor Canning, that had cool looking covers, classic '70s and 80s British crime editions from houses like Pan. I grabbed the one with the bullet-holed aviator glasses on the cover and wasn't disappointed.

The Scorpio Letters starts out with a description of a well-dressed man in a richly decorated office in a villa somewhere on the coast of Italy. He is going through a series of files and writing a letter for each one. All the letters sealed and addressed, but then put into a single, larger envelope in which they are mailed to England. There, a working class Italian immigrant posts the letters. That middleman dies by accident with the letters still in his pocket. The police deliver the letters by hand to each of the recipients to find out what they can. Everyone denies they know anything about it and take the letters.

Enter our hero, a young, adventuresome British guy. Ruggedly handsome, good with his hands and with an independent streak, George Constantine is cut right out of the Desmond Bagley mold ("He was thirty, a big man, built like a full-back, sandy-haired with a sun-burnt, square, almost pugnacious face."). He is back in England, visiting his adoptive parents. It turns out his adoptive father is one of the letter recipients. He admits that he has been expertly blackmailed for over a decade, since a brief affair as a young man. He finally reveals this info because he believes the death of the letter-posting middleman means the end of the blackmail. Our hero suspects a more sophisticated operation and decides to follow up.

Trouble, of course, ensues. He meets an attractive young woman whose mother was also being blackmailed. The two of them bicker lightly, become attracted to each other and follow the trail of the letters through France to Italy.

Canning doesn't have the subtlety and depth of character that Gilbert can command, but the story is strong and moves forward well. He builds a cool criminal network and populates it with some interesting, realistic baddies. The hero relied on luck too many times to get out of deadly situations. I would have liked to have seen a bit more application of specific skill (which you do get with Bagley), but there is enough here that I'll definitely be checking out some more Victor Canning books. An excellent discovery.