Wednesday, June 27, 2012

52. On Both Sides of the Law by Hugh H. Corkum

I bought this book at the Maritime museum in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.  It's one of those books that you can only get in the place it was written.  The author was a rum-runner in the 30s and then became the chief of police of Lunenburg, which is the symbolic heart and soul of Canada's fishing and maritime history.  This book was plainly told, but full of great anecdotes, life lessons and viewings into what life was like in this region in the middle of the twentieth century.

Good stuff.

Monday, June 25, 2012

51. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

This is an earlier Margaret Millar, a pretty classic hardboiled whodunnit filled with all the pathetic, unsavoury, desperate characters a reader could want.  In this one, the "detective" is a lawyer hired by the financially comfortable mother of the accused.  The book, though has a semi-omniscient viewpoint and though the lawyer, Meecham, leads the investigation, we spend a lot of time in many of the other characters' heads.  The daughter, married to a sensible doctor husband, is not sensible herself and was found passed out drunk, covered in blood in the cabin of a married man who was known in town to be a playboy.  The married man is in the cabin also.  Somebody stuck him in the neck several times with a kitchen knife.

Things get very complicated and very interesting, as each knew character, as sad and broken as they often are, are worth reading about.  What I found really interesting about this book is how much it reminded me of Ross Macdonald.  This is early in her crime career, but after she had written a few gothic thrillers and I don't know if she was finding her voice or if her husband was the one finding his voice.  She edited (and I believe typed up) his books so there was definitely an interplay between them.  I wonder how that worked out.  They must have had a solid foundation of a marriage to not get into terrible competition over their writing.

This was a really enjoyable read, but not an exemplary Millar book.  It didn't stand out for me like some of her others (Beast in View, in particular).  The one really weird thing in this book is when the protagonist and a woman fall in love.  It's so sudden and they don't even kiss or anything.  They've only met a few times and then suddenly they both admit that they are in love with each other and get all goofy and swoony.  I guess that's how it worked in the weird '50s.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

50. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ding ding ding ding!  50 books!  Before July!  I really don't know what got into me, but that shit is impressive.  I think I may change my goal to 100 books [asteroid promptly crashes through my roof].  There are many factors at work here and some advantages that gave me a big boost.  But again, I think the biggest thing is just sticking with reading.  The more you read, the more you can read.   I really have not sacrificed much other stuff in my entertainment life this year.  Still socializing as much as I have since I moved to Montreal, still working hard, still maintaining a decent marriage.  I have cut out gaming (tabletop roleplaying, not videogaming which I don't really do anyways) and especially all the online BS of that world where I was wasting a lot of time.  Also, my wife is like 8 total seasons ahead of me in the various TV shows we watch.  And finally, I got this 3-month secondment in California, which has a good hour of readable commute time a day and way fewer distractions of home life.  Also, I suspect that come mid-October I will not have much time to read, so I wanted to make sure I met my goal ahead of time.  But enough crowing.  If I could write like I can read, I might actually have something to be proud of.

On to the third book in the Earthsea trilogy.  I enjoyed it, but I have to say it was kind of a disappointment.  It's definitely my least favourite of the three and I hope that the other, later Earthsea writings can satisfy me more now.  At first I thought it was just the unrelenting gloominess of this book, but looking back on it, I see that it also has some structural flaws that made it feel less rich than the first two.

The Farthest Shore takes place a decade or two after the Tombs of Atuan.  At this point, Ged has become the Archmage of Roke.  He is the most powerful wizard in the Earthsea and has a rich history of exploits (beyond the ones in the actual two books).  Now, there is a darkness emanating from the outer reaches of the land.  Wizards are reporting that they are losing their magic.  A young prince from an important kingdom comes as a messenger and Ged takes this as an omen.  He calls a council and decides to sail with the prince to find the source of the problem.

The first and second books both end with these dark, gloomy and trudging finales where Ged is challenged in a slow, draining way.  In the first one, he and a wizard buddy sail way out to the edge of the world to find Ged's shadow.  In the second one, Ged is trapped in the labyrinth, clinging to life while using all his magic to hold back the shadows there.  These were dark and trying, but they were only at the end of the book.  Almost the entirety of the Farthest Shore is this kind of quest.  For me, it dragged.  There was no joy in this book.  The spectre of the end of magic is always a scary one for the fantasy reader.  It almost felt like the magic was drained out of this book from the beginning.  And though the ending, the darkness is vanquished and the magic restored, the reader doesn't get to experience any of the resurrection that should have followed.  We don't get to go back into the rich, magical world of Earthsea that drew us in in the first place.

Worse than that, though, was a real lack of characterization with the prince.  In the first two books, Ged and the princess are richly portrayed.  The reader grows up with the character.  Here, the prince comes ready made and you don't get much from him besides being a witness to Ged's struggle.  And this guy turns out to be the one king who will return the single throne to Earthsea.  Similarly, the antagonist is a minor character who is only initially referred to in a passing history of Ged in an incident that takes place after the first two books.  It just doesn't have a lot of weight.  At least for me it didn't.

The worlds they visit are evocative and cool and the underworld quest they go on was compelling such that again I was hard-pressed to not keep reading.  But it just didn't give me a lot of pleasure.  I felt denied!  I know there is at least one other book and several short stories that take place in Earthsea, so I'll reserve my hope for more of the magic of Earthsea in those books.

49. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the luxuries of being so far ahead with my 50 books reading is that now I can take a bit of time and actually read some series.  Now the Earthsea trilogy in its entirety probably has fewer pages than a single Game of Thrones or Harry Potter book, but hey it is three distinct books.

The second one, The Tombs of Atuan, is a direct continuation of the first, but you don't realize it at first.  It's the story of a young priestess, chosen by the elders at the age of four and taken away from her family.  The entire first half of the book is following this young girl as she slowly learns about what her roles and responsibilities will be.  She also learns about the politics of power that surround her and the ancient and secretive architecture of the temple and its ruins, most interestingly of this is the labyrinth, where no light is allowed to be lit.

This is another amazing book.  I think I would argue that this book is superior to the first one.  Personally, though I enjoyed the first one more.  But structurally, The Tombs of Atuan is like a diamond with a universe inside it.  We get to slowly explore the tombs with the priestess and our own alliance grows with her awareness of her potential power.  The focus on this limited world allows Le Guin to very subtly talk about power and politics, religion and society and how one reacts to a fundamental change in perspective and belief.  But in her craftsmanship, none of this gets in the way of the story, which keeps you turning the pages.  This is part of Le Guin's genius, her absolute commitment to a great story, while somehow delivering big ideas and making you think.

The second part of this book is where it connects to the first book.  SPOILERS (though this is spoiled on the fucking back cover, for god's sake).  Ged, or Sparrowhawk, whose origin is detailed in A Wizard of Earthsea shows up in the labyrinth, searching for a lost artifact of great power.  Here he and the priestess clash and develop a most interesting relationship.  Like in the first book, the trial for Ged is a slow, deteriorating one of his stamina against the constant pressure of the thing he is fighting against.  It gets gloomy, but the priestess and her own internal conflict (between her beliefs and the outer world this thief-wizard represents) keeps the book very lively, right up to the end.

My only dissatisfaction was that the denouement was all too brief.  I wish we could have spent some time with the characters after the adventure is over.  Perhaps that shows up in some of the later books or short stories that take place in the Earthsea.  Basically, another masterpiece.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

48. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I've been curious about the Earthsea books for a while now, having had the setting dance around at the periphery of my nerd vision for some years now.  It took me a while to pay attention to it.  Often, if I don't get the structure of a series of books and their basic deal, I won't really pay attention to them.  After reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I started checking out the Le Guin section of the used book stores shelves and I found the second and third books in the trilogy (with the handy numbers on the top of each book) in a neat, slim paperback edition.  They were super cheap, so I picked them both up with the new knowledge that it was indeed a trilogy and that the first book was named A Wizard of Earthsea.  I have since learned that there are a few short stories and a fourth novel published much later.  What I particularly appreciate about these books is that they are slim.  Why do all fantasy novels have to be three inches thick today?  Le Guin proves that you can pack an epic into less than 200 pages.

And what an awesome epic it is.  It's still fresh in my mind, but I might say that A Wizard of Earthsea may be my favourite fantasy novel ever.  I think it surpasses for me The Lord of the Rings.  One of the elements of the fantasy novel is the training and levelling up and this book is all about that, in the coolest way.  Plus, the setting is amazing, a land of many, many islands, with a cool map and Le Guin's subtle, moving, evocative voice to reveal bits and pieces to the reader.

The story is about Sparrowhawk, a young boy from the humble, goatherding island of Gont who has the magical potential to become a wizard.  His potential is recognized and he is sent to the Wizardry school on Roke.  There, his youthful pride clashes with his enormous innate power and he unleashes a darkness that sends him on a quest across the Earthsea.  Ultimately, his story is about growing up and the terrible price of being powerful.  In that sense, it is kind of a sad book, though there is so much coolness along the way that it doesn't get you down.

I suspect that most of my nerdy brethren have read this book long ago.  But if you haven't, I would say you need to get this book and read it right away.  This shit far presages Harry Potter (and does it better), so if your kids are into that, sneak this one into the pile at some point.

Friday, June 15, 2012

47. Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

this cover sucks.
This is part of Simenon's romans durs, but I think in this case, it might be called a roman doux.  It actually has somewhat of a happy ending!  It's the story of an aristocrat, Loursat, in a small french town who has basically given up on life.  Though a skilled lawyer, he rarely practices, spending his days eating meals in the kitchen and reading literature in his study, steadily drinking red wine.  Then one night, there is the sound of a gunshot in his sprawling house and he discovers a dead body in one of the unused (or so he thought) rooms.  It turns out that his daughter has been hanging out with a group of wild friends and they have been getting up to antics in the top level.  In becoming involved in the case, m. Loursat starts to come alive again.  We learn why he shut himself off and we follow him as he slowly awakens to his sorry state.  The main narrative thread is the investigation into the murder and the subsequent trial.  Quite entertaining and satisfying.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

46. Wyst: Alastor 1716

Wyst: Alastor 1716 is the third of the Alastor trilogy. I bought the entire trilogy in a single edition in order to read the first one, Trullion: Alastor 2262 and after that was told that Wyst is better.  Since I've already got the book and I felt guilty leaving a huge chunk of it unread, I thought I should read this one next.

It was very similar to Trullion in the style and story structure, though Wyst was a bit more adventurous and had some neat exploration stuff in it.  In this story, a young man from a sea-oriented planet isn't clear on his future and gets attracted to the idea of Wyst.  He's artistically inclined and learns that the light and colours there are the most beautiful.  It's also a planet that has a very peculiar lifestyle, called "egalism" where everyone is equal and there is no real striving.  So we have two storylines or themes going on.  One is the journey of the young man to find himself and the challenges and adventures he faces in Wyst.  And the other is the society of Wyst itself and whether or not it is truly sustainable. 

I found the lad's adventures quite compelling. He mixes it up with people in the city, then gets caught up in a conspiracy and has to flee.  Out in the hinterlands, he tries to raise money (similar in many ways to the protagonist of Trullion trying to raise money to get out of his situation) by painting and harvesting clam-like food creatures.

The study of Wyst was less succesful for me. I don't know if I was just having trouble conceiving of it or if it is badly conceived.  It just didn't seem feasible and though everybody seems quite idealistic about the values of egalism, they all seemed unhappy and complaining.  Even falser, there is a grand plot of a major conspiracy the proponents of which just did not seem capable of even coming up with such an idea, let alone actually executing it.  It felt a bit like a straw man argument by Vance.  In any case, I wasn't super convinced and the ending seemed pretty far-fetched. None of that really took away from the adventure of the protagonist, which was kind of fun and cool.

I just think that Vance's style is too removed and stilted for my personal tastes.  The stories he tells are rich and meandering in a fun way and the locations do seem quite creative and interesting. But I always feel a bit at arm's length and can't really get into them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

45. Hiero's Journey by Sterling E. Lanier

Hiero's Journey, where were you when I was 14?!  I stumbled upon this book on the dollar rack at half-price books saw this awesome cover, scanned the back where it was confirmed that this warrior-priest Hiero does indeed explore the wastelands of post-apocalyptic North America with his moose mount and telepathic black bear ally.  I mean what's not to love?  I found as well the sequel also for a dollar and picked them both up.  Quite happy with this score!  Somewhere in my internet-roaming past, I'm sure I've heard mention and possibly recommendation of this book, but it didn't stick.  This is not a masterpiece, but it is a pretty good read and should definitely be on the must-read list of any fan of the PA genre.

This post-apocalyptic world takes place 5,000 years after The Death, some kind of nuclear and biological disaster that almost wiped out humanity and created great mutations among the plants and animals that survived.  Hiero is a priest of the Metz Republic, the region that is today the Canadian prairies.  Metz is a distortion of Metis and his ancestors survived because of their remoteness.  In the current time, he is being sent out on a mission to the dangerous south to try and find a "computer" in the ruins of the cities.  He has been trained in fighting and the mental arts.  He has a limited telepathy, which he uses to communicate with his moose mount (called a "morse" and named Klootz).  As the book goes on, he encounters foes with much more powerful forms of mental power and he himself develops his own. There are tons of awesome psionic battles in this book. 

It's really the milieu that puts this book on the must-read PA list.  This is my kind of future PA world.  There are all kinds of mutated animals, either giant, or now sentient or some terrible hybrid.  There are also crazy plants and fungi as well.  These elements, plus the psionic battles makes Hiero's Journey about as close to the original Gamma World RPG as any PA fiction. Hiero's Journey was published in 73 and Gamma World in 78.  There must be a direct link.  I'll confirm this with the nerd community on Google+.

Anyhow, awesome read and I've got the sequel on deck!

Friday, June 08, 2012

44. Trullion: Alastair 2262

I read this book in the context of the Roludo Book Club.  I have read one of Jack Vance's fantasy books and am aware of his influence on the genre (and specifically on Dungeons & Dragons) but still don't quite "get" him.  Some of the people over at Roludo are quite knowledgeable and I am hoping that I'll understand Vance better through their aid. 

It was odd tracking this book down, because knowing that Vance is quite popular and that a lot of his books are available in used book stores, I thought I might stumble upon a nice used copy.  Oddly, the first bookstore I went to had no Vance books at all.  The guy there told me that someone had come in earlier that day and bought all the Vance books on the shelf!  How fucking weird is that.  Even weirder, at the next store, there were no Vance books and a big gap in the V section.  I went to two other used bookstores and only found one Vance book.  Very odd.  I eventually went to Dark Carnival where there was (as usual) an excellent collection of new Vance books, incuding the Alastair omnibus which has all 3 novels and was, for some reason, marked down to $7.50.  So though it is a rather uninspiring cover and in massive trade paperback form with no introduction or anything, it still was a good deal and I picked it up.

The series all takes place in a vast cluster of worlds call Alastair.  Each planet gets a number and a name and while there are overarching cultural and political connections between the planets, I suspect that each story is very different and has no real connection besides that they take place in the same world of Alastair.  In Trullion, a young man sets out from his tropical, idyllic world to join the military and then comes back ten years later to find his home world quite changed. Half his family plot has been sold out from under him, his older brother disappeared, his younger brother joined a cult and his mom doesn't seem to really care about any of it.  The rest of the story is about his efforts to fix these things.

He is an odd writer.  There is something distant about his style and approach.  Harsh things happen, close relations get into serious conflict. Yet the whole thing is written in a matter-of-fact style that takes the impact out of any of it. I found the family relations to be particularly distant and weird.  It was serious, but nobody really seemed to freak out about anything in the way they spoke about it.  Maybe this was reflective of Vance's portrayal of a super laid back society or maybe it's just his writing style, but it felt a bit unreal to me.  Still, it was a cool story and I got caught up in it. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

43. Ennal's Point by Alun Richards

I can't even remember where I found this book, but I must once again pat myself on the back for taking a chance on a totally unknown book and it turning out to be quite good.  It may be true that you can't judge a book by its cover, but I, at least some times, have demonstrated that one can judge a book by its cover, its back cover blurb, its pedigree, its first sentence and if necessary a few scraps of text in the middle.  Enough crowing, let's get down to the review

Ennal's point is the story of a small, poor seafaring town on the British coast and more specifically on the life and work of the volunteer lifeboat crew, which plays an important social and status role in the society there.  The book begins with a hearing on an accident.  The narrator is the local headmaster and the Lifeboat Association Secretary, responsible for administration and the history but not actually going out into the lifeboat.  He paints himself as a wimpy, nervous man, uncomfortable in everything but in love with the lore of the sea and deeply proud of the tradition of his town.  Without revealing the actual accident in question, he goes back in time to set the background, reveal to us the characters involved and slowly weave a complex story of family relations, human weakness and great courage in the face of an angry sea. 

At first, I found it a bit meandering and wanted him to get on with the story.  But I slowly got caught up in the rich history of the region and the complex (and quite nasty at times) relations between the towns people.  The idea that Richards tries (and succeeds majestically) to bring across is that these are poor, humble and sometimes mean folk but they have dedicated their lives and given their all to the duty of going out in a lifeboat to try and rescue people from crashed ships. It's heady, British, moving stuff and always gets me, especially when it is skillfully done.  My god would I ever not want to spend a night in one of these rescue boats, no matter how sturdily built, doing a painstaking search in 15-foot waves and gale force winds.  Barfing your guts out is only the beginning of the misery.  He describes so well the slow demoralization that evolves into hatred and anger and blaming towards everyone involved when men begin to lose hope.  And yet they also (at least most of them) continue to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward on the job that is their duty to perform.

The backstory, involving the big lifeboat family of the town, an older hotel proprietor marrying a far too young and loose girl and all the problems that creates, leads to the ultimate accident.  At times, it felt a bit soap opera ish, though you want to find out what happens.  It's worth it, though, when the book gets to the lifeboat action, which I really couldn't stop reading.  I would think this book would make for great summer reading at the beach.

Monday, June 04, 2012

42. The 22nd Century by John Christopher

Huge find here!  I've been scouring bookstores in the Bay Area for the last couple of weeks and finally made it to The Other Change of Hobbit.  They have a nice used section and I discovered this pretty tattered paperback there.  I didn't even know it existed, but it is a real find, a collection of short sci-fi stories Christopher wrote for the magazines in the 50s and 60s.  It lists the names of all the publications that the stories originally appeared in, but none of the specific dates or issues, which is very frustrating. 

I am guessing that a lot of the stories in here are some of Christopher's earliest work. I know he was very prolific, writing in several genres under several names to make enough income for his young family. It makes sense that short stories to paying magazines would also be another opportunity for him.  These stories are all very much in the style and content of that period of science fiction (is it the Golden Age) and reminds a lot of the kinds of stories you hear in X Minus One old time radio series.  There are stories about space travel, humans interacting with alien species, future societies.  Some of the stories are short and clever, with the classic little twist at the end.  There are hints here and there of Christopher's dark, apocalyptic side but for the most part, the book feels very different than his science fiction novels. 

Interestingly, it is organized into 3 sections.  The first section, entitled "The Twenty-Second Century" is made up of 5 stories, all with the same protagonist, Max Larkin, a sort of super-manager in a future where the world economy is divided up into several major, competing corporations each responsible for one thing like Atomics or Communication..  These stories appeared in different magazines, but evidently to John Christopher, they were of a piece.  There is even a footnote referring to another story with this character that doesn't appear in this compilation.  The other two sections don't really seem to have too much uniting them together.

One of the stories that stood out for me (and spoiler coming here) takes place in the future, where scientists have finally figured out a way to see into the future, but you have to ask a very specific question and the response comes back in the form of a question.  They are working furiously to outpace the Russians and come up with the better weapon.  They figure if they can go into the future and find out the most powerful weapon, they will be able to take the lead once and for all. They perform their experiment, asking the question "In one hundred years time, what is the most powerful weapon?".  They get back a picture of a crossbow.  A little presaging of his own work, I would say!