Friday, August 26, 2011

50. Operation Stranglehold by Dan J. Marlowe

My reading and posting has slown down somewhat and probably will continue to be slow until early October as I am overseeing a fairly large renovation project at work (large for my normal job, anyhow) and it is taking up a lot of my time.  I'm going for the short, punchy books that don't demand a lot of my memory or commitment but deliver the cathartic savagery a working man needs in this world of law where you aren't allowed to break someone's fingers for sticking gum on to to front railing.

Operation Stranglehold is apparently the first Dan J. Marlowe book I've read, at least since I started the 50 books project.  While I was reading it, I had him mixed up in my head with Donald Hamilton.  That is cleared up now and it sounds like Marlowe had an interesting life history.  Operation Stranglehold is part of the ongoing series of Drake books ("The man with nobody's face").  If this one is representative of the series, it is pretty standard mass paperback espionage fare of the period.   I suspect he has better books in him.  In this one, he has to rescue the son of a powerful politician from a spanish jail before the arrest can be used to make the politician look bad.  Also, Drake's mentor or sometime partner had been sent out to do the job and got caught himself.  So Drake and his super-hot girlfriend (who is also rich) go out to Spain and get involved in a decent little adventure.

It's not a great book and a bit of an inauspicious choice for my 50th, but it was competent enough and had some good little details about trying to get through the authorities in rural spain, some nice stuff on a train. It just had no real bite or thrill.  There is one really weird thing and that is the conceit of the book, that Drake has had extensive plastic surgery and thus looks really weird and anonymous.  He has no hair on his head at all, wears wigs and has to wear make-up in the sun!  How the hell does he get a super-hot babe girlfriend?  Doesn't everybody think he looks like a disturbing weirdo?

Note, this cover is not my own.  I've got the same one, but there are no scribbles on it.  I picked it up in my Nova Scotia trip.  I'll scan mine when I can find it again (told you I was busy!)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

49. Virginia's Thing by Henry Woodfin

Picked this up for a buck during our vacation in Nova Scotia, though I can't remember exactly which book store. Maybe the one in Lunenburg? You can see by the cover why I picked it up. I'm always interested in portrayals of the '60s in crime fiction. I love the crazy naîveté of the period, especially juxtaposed against the hard reality of the investigator.

The book is much calmer and less over the top than the blurb on the back suggests. It's a basic detective story, starting with a job. The sensible and independent daughter of a union boss has been missing for two weeks. He wants her found as quietly as possible as he is participating in a tight election. The job sends the detective to the campus of the state university, where he encounters the diverse society that is the intellectual left, focusing especially on a professor couple. Slowly, we learn more about the girl and more about the people around her.

It's interesting and engaging, but we don't learn anything that helps us with what actually happened to her until quite near the end. So the mystery itself seems a bit rushed when it gets wrapped up. The emotional impact doesn't though, and the message of this book is pretty establishment all the way, though in a sensible, quiet sort of way. The academics with their extreme, absolutist views, are made to look obsessed, weak, soulless and basically evil. At the same time, there is a certain sympathy for the more sensible liberal elements (interracial marriage is strongly approved of). Though it's a savage portrayal, the author suggests that living with their own conscience is punishment enough for their sins. All in all, it's that kindler, gentler conservatism from folks who fought in the war. I wish we had more of that around today.

 Other than the pacing of the mystery itself, this was quite a good read. I was caught up in the characters and felt a certain bit of satisfaction with the way it all concluded. I can't find a single other book by this author. It was from Pyramid books, who bothered to credit the cover artist (D. Greene - I wonder what Louis XIV knows?)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

48. The Big Guy by Wade Miller

Was this ever a cool book. The opening lines were enough to sell me: "Joe Drumm glanced dispassionately at the blood on his knuckles.  It was not his own blood."  Well the rest didn't disappoint.  I read this book pretty much non-stop, including staying up way past my bedtime to finish it. So I am happy to say that it lived up to my expectations, even exceeded them.

It's the story of a heartless and aggressive thug who rises to power and then succumbs to it. Joe Drum is a brutal man, animal-like in the way he approaches the world. Early on in the novel, he and a partner stumble upon a bunch of cash while doing a strong arm job for the big boss in town. They use it to leverage a higher position in the organization. From there, Drum sees all the weaknesses and attacks until he is the kingpin. Then things start getting interesting.

The first half of the book, chronicling Joe's strategies and conflicts on his way to the top, is enjoyable but not uncommonly good. We've read this kind of stuff before. The second half, where we learn through Drum that power does indeed corrupt, is uncommonly good. It is structurally satisfying as well.

I really want to talk about the sexual relations in the book, but doing so will mean revealing some pretty major spoilers. Put short and as vaguely as possible, The Big Guy subverts that tradition in crime novels of this era where the dudes either stalk or sexually assault the women who then fall in love with them. Great read. One of the best of this genre I've read so far. Great language, rich crime milieu, lots of creative action, decadence and sex, what's not to like? A nasty and smart little book.

Here's a link to a good review with some interesting info about the author (authors actually as it was "a couple of high school buddies who teamed up to write mysteries all their adult lives").  He doesn't like their other books, but many people do in the comments below.  I'll keep my eyes open.

Okay, now here is the motherload:  MysteryFile has pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about Wade Miller.

And here is a little Westlake reference :  "More recently, Mr. Wade was given the 1998 City of San Diego Local Author Achievement Award.  Still an active octogenarian, he writes a monthly mystery wrap-up column called “Spadework” for the San Diego Union Tribune.  From this vantage point, he can survey past and present crime writing.  He has praised such crime authors diverse as Martha Lawrence, Robert Crais, Rochelle Krich, Sue Grafton, Donald Westlake, Marianne Wesson, and Janet Evanovich."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

47. Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

When I was younger, though some of my friends were reading the books of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, I always thought they were going to be too hard and dry, so I never read them.  Perhaps Lucifer's Hammer is not totally representative, but if it is, it's a shame, as I would have loved it as an adolescent and the simplistic politics would have mostly gone right over my head.  The authors do have the reputation of being hard sci-fi authors, but I think that must have been a title that was easier to learn back in the 70s as the science in Lucifer's Hammer seems to be about as good as all these reports debunking climate change.  And it reads like a giant soap opera with lots of crazy action.

It's the story of an asteroid that hits earth and it centers around a large cast of characters in southern California.  It takes place in the mid-70s and it shows.  The first quarter of the book feels like a written version of Knot's Landing or some boring "adult" novel from that period.  It isn't until society starts getting a bit freaked out about the comet that things get interesting.  Then the comet hits and the fun starts.  The middle section is very satisfying as we get to see all the various forms of destruction it causes and the various characters trying to save themselves.  The last part of the book is those characters trying to rebuild a society and struggling against the challenges of resources and the destructive factions, notably an army of cannibals.  The super blatant theme of the book is that science and technological progress is good and any form of resistance to that is bad and naive.  This is sprinkled lightly throughout the book at the beginning and then made obvious at the end and finally basically shoved down the reader's throat in a final secondary climax that kind of ruins the satisfaction of the ending.

I've run into many nerds in my travels who espouse this kind of faux-tough, pseudo-science based anti-environmentalism.  This position disguises itself as a rational, political stance when it is primarily an emotional one.  The basic tenets are that 1) environmentalists are naive and their ideas would never survive a second in a non-civilized world and that 2) science and technology will always find a solution to man's needs.  There is a lot to both of those tenets, but there is also a lot to question there.  Of course, the nerd anti-environmentalist position leans heavily on the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.  And ultimately what it really is is a justification for one being allowed to do whatever one wants without any kind of interference or having to make an effort to think about how your behaviour may impact the rest of society, the planet and the future.  It's a kind of technological libertarianism and very appealing to the male adolescent who can't get laid.

Here, for example, is a throwaway line when the reporter decides to get some stuff ready for hammerfall (the name given to the time when the asteroid hits, even though it is not predicted to hit):

Solar heat: the simples and most efficient solar system known to man.  Hang your clothes out to dry, rather than use an electric or gas dryer. Of course, not many "conservationists" did it: they were too busy preaching conservation.
Have you never read the Whole Earth Catalog, Jerry and Larry?  This kind of nonsense is peppered throughout the book but really gets retarded when, in the final pages, after the organized good people have beaten off the cannibals and are celebrating.  The team that was sent to protect a surviving nuclear power plant comes back with the bad news that the remnants of the cannibal army are in a position to destroy it.  This sets up an impromptu debate with all the main characters deciding whether they should hunker down, enjoy their win and survive the winter or go and save the nuclear power plant to ensure a long-term future.  What is so stupid about this, in the context of the book, is that this argument was already had and won by the long-term faction, which is why the team was sent out to protect the nuclear plant in the first place.  So not only are you thinking, "okay, yeah, yeah, we get it, having power is awesome and the future of mankind" but you are also trying to figure out why the pivotal character who comes in and forces the trip out to the nuclear power plant is suddenly nowhere to be seen in this final debate.  Oh yes, we also learn that not only is chemical warfare necessary, but it (and the bodies of its victims) are excellent fertilizer.  And for a supposed hard science book, there is some shocking ignorance about nuclear power (such as blowing up a nuclear power plant is not the same as a nuclear bomb so therefore there won't be any radiation or fallout).

I'm harping on the political stuff, but the bulk of the book is actually just people surviving the craziness and that stuff is quite enjoyable, once you get past the stupid '70s soap opera crap.  (Just for one example, the main character goes out to the country in one early episode to interview a senator at his ranch and ends up hiking with his hot daughter. when they get home, she offers to make him dinner and I kid you not suggests microwaving the steaks and this is treated like some awesome advancement; this probably offended me more than any of the nerd politics. How utterly retarded were the 70s.)  Lucifer's Hammer felt like a mix of a bunch of post-apocalyptic classics.  You've got your Alas, Babylon, your Earth Abides, The Postman, even The Stand comes to mind at points (which came out a year later).  It's good fun for the most part with a couple of really cool characters (Harry the country mailman who never gives up doing his rounds and ends up as a messenger in the post-hammerfall world and Dr. Forrester who lovingly wraps up all his books and buries them in the front yard).  I guess I would consider it a best-seller type of PA book, kind of a mess, but quite entertaining for the most part.  If you are a fan of the genre, you need to read it at some point.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Looking for others on Google Plus

Hey, I'm over at Google+ and I'm finding it difficult to connect with other people there who are interested in the same kind of books as I am.  I'm sure they are out there and it would be fun to have the kind of short-term discussions and sharing of neat stuff that goes on on G+ with them.  So if you are on google+, find me at Olman Feelyus and add me to your book circles or whatever.  If you want to be on, let me know in the comments and I'll try and send you an invite.

It's weird, because I already have lots of people I already know as well as tons of people from the tabletop RPG community in my circles.  But I can't figure out a way to search people by interest and thus find discussions about other subjects (mainly books and movies) that I am interested in.

(I'm going to post the same thing over at Briques du neige, but over there I'll be looking for movie geeks and Montreal and Canadian issues nerds.)

Friday, August 05, 2011

46. Bloody Sunday by Frank Scarpetta

Okay, now we're talking!  No more of these sensitive chick books!  What a breath of fresh air to finally wallow around in the mud of good old fashioned killing of mafia and hippies and balling young hippie chicks.  Bloody Sunday was weirdly really good in parts, appropriately pornographic in others and basically workmanlike in its ensemble.

We start in medias res, with no real back story or history for the protagonist, Magellan.  He has been shot in the shoulder after wiping out a nest of mafia scum in one city and ends up in another.  An old woman finds him in the alley and takes him home.  She is originally from the country and one of the few good people in the bad part of the city.  Turns out she had 12 sons, only 2 of whom are still alive and the last one got killed trying to find out what happened to his daughter.  What did happen was that she had been sent to an apartment as a replacement stenographer for a meeting with some big time businessmen.  The meeting turned into a party and they wanted her to join along.  She didn't want to party and they threw her out the window.

So though we are almost already halfway through the book (he also dispatches the local enforcer and his superiors who are extorting the old lady), Magellan now has his new mission.  The second half of the book is him hunting down each of the four businessmen, figuring out how to get to them, getting to them, killing all their men and then torturing them to death after letting them know why. This is really the porn here.  There is some sex (and I have to say it wasn't bad, especially the lead-up stuff; I guess I'm becoming the perverted middle class, middle-aged white male demographic Scarpetta is targetting) but it's the descriptions of the exit wounds and the bodies spinning and the long-drawn out final torture (which really is gruesome) that push this book into pornography.  But hey, I'm not really complaining!  Those scumbags had it coming to them.

Parts of this book, though, were actually quite well-written.  There are way, way too many adjectives and lots of run-on sentences, but otherwise it's sparse and direct and at times even quite effective.  The final torture scene takes place on a field of cows and the whole thing is punctuated by the cows themselves, who at first nervously hover around and then, when the torture really gets going, totally freak out.  It worked very well to ramp up the tension and horror of the scene.
There was a small, squat structure a few yards from the feeder.  Several of the cattle snorted with fright and raced away again as he walked toward it, their tales whipping as their hooves thudded against the ground.  They lumbered around and crashed through the brush to circle and come back in their agony of terrified fascination with him and the break in the monotony of the long night of their lives.
During my vacations I took a walk that passed several fields of cows and I have to say that "their agony of terrified fascination" perfectly describes their reaction to me.  It was rather unsettling.

I have learned through this post on the Glorious Trash blog, that Bloody Sunday is actually The Marksman #20, part of one of the many series in this sub-genre.  I'd love to find out the history behind the series, who were the real writers, who was behind the publishing.  Probably some good stories behind that history.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

45. Memoirs of a Lighthouse Keeper's Son by Billy Budge

This book was published locally in the Maritimes.  I learned about it thanks to the recommendation of the good innkeepers of the excellent Four Mile Beach Inn at the north end of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.  It's a region of Canada that has a lot of history and they are quite proud of it.  I was happy to find this book in one of the little road side stops and to learn that there is a small but going press that produces a lot of interesting books from and about the Maritimes.  

This is the story of Billy Budge, whose father got a job being the lighthouse keeper in lonely St. Paul's island, a rock off the northern tip of Nova Scotia that was known (and still is today) as the Graveyard  of the Gulf.  It's a short, directly told and quite engaging tale.  The family (Billy was 5 at the start, his little sister, their mom and their Newfoundland, King) stayed there for 5 years and had many interesting and challenging interactions with the tough environment as well as the isolation.  It's a great read, very positive but also realistic.  It's one of those books that reminds you that life can be really rich and fulfilling without a lot of stuff and society as long as you have a purpose and interesting things to do. 

What I found a bit surprising is that the challenge for the author was not going out to the island and being separated for everybody.  His real difficulty came when he had to return 5 years later and go to school.  Either it was because of his age during his time on the island or his personal make-up, but he really preferred the loneliness and difficulty of his life on St. Paul to the crowded world of the mainland and it took him some time to re-adjust. 

Check out St. Paul's Island:

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