Friday, July 27, 2012

on-deck shelf update July 2012

My on-deck shelf is on top of my chest of drawers.  It has quite a few large non-fiction hardback books on the right hand side that I rarely make a dent in.  All the real activity is the paperbacks running from there to the left, where I grab the next book.  Before I left for California in April, the on-deck shelf had gotten so out of control that it was two layers deep!  This is bad and I put out a full embargo on any new book purchases until I could get it under control.  Thanks to my isolation, two-hour commute and lack of internet, I was able to work that on-deck shelf way down, eliminating that ungainly second row entirely and digging deep into the paperbacks on the main row.  I also, however, started buying books again.  What I had really been hoping for was to read so many of the paperbacks that I would be forced to get into the hardbacks, but there was just too many good finds in California and I'm just going to have to read some more awesome fiction paperbacks for a while. 

Happily, though, that whole section is almost entirely refreshed and I've got nothing but new books in the paperback section, all of which I'm pretty eager to read.  It's a nice feeling to refresh the on-deck shelf.  Sometimes there are books that you keep putting off and keep putting off and they get a kind of staleness, through no fault of their own, that impedes you from possibly ever reading them. That can put a real blockade on your on-deck shelf and you need something like a 3-month trip to California to break through it.

Here's what I'm looking at now:

I am not complaining at all.  Au contraire, I fall to my knees and offer a prayer to Librus, the god of the book, and his demigods and nymphs who have guided me so benevolently this year.  Onward!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

61. The Murder of Miranda by Margaret Millar

The Murder of Miranda is one of Millar's later books. I found a well-read library hardback in the Maritimes, notable for a cool picture of the author on the back with her 3-month old Newfoundland (the dog, not a real Newfie that she imported for her pleasure).  She looks like a pleasant, older lady next door except for a certain tightness around the mouth and an intelligence in the eyes that one would expect from someone who has peered into the darkness and weakness of men's souls and not turned away.

In the Murder of Miranda we have more darkness and weakness, especially weakness.  Everybody is broken, flailing around in life, desperately grabbing what weird pleasure their twisted hearts allow them.  The story takes place in and around a private beach club in San Felice on the central Californian coast.  Miranda Shaw is the attractive but aging wife of an old millionaire.  She is obsessed with preserving her beauty.  When her husband dies, she expects to become a wealthy widow.  She takes up with the young, handsome life guard.  There are many other storylines and characters circling around hers: the club administration made up of the burnt out manager and his efficient but jealous assistant (also seduced by the life guard), the poison pen writer Mr. Van Eyck, his wealthy sister who is married to a retired naval officer and has two full-grown but weirdly childlike daughters and finally the juvenile delinquent who longs for attention from the life guard while he makes life hell for everyone else in the club.  The whole thing is anchored more or less by junior lawyer Tom Aragon, who is responsible for overseeing Miranda Shaw's estate.  Part of that responsibility is finding her and telling her that her husband actually died in total bankruptcy and that she would not be receiving anything.

Where does the murder of Miranda come in?  Well you'll just have to read and find out.  Suffice it to say that this is not a conventional mystery story.  Millar plays with the structure here in a way that had me a bit befuddled until the end where I would have laughed out loud with the cleverness except that it was just so bleak and nasty.  This one reminded me a lot of Vanish in an Instant, where the investigator was also a young lawyer moving among a tangled nest of crazy, broken people.  Here, though, we aren't distracted by an arbitrary love.  Aragon is married and faithful, but his wife is off getting a degree for a year.  This allows him to remain even more disinterested in the case.  You don't find out much about Tom Aragon, he doesn't wax philosophical and barely even gets involved beyond just finding people and talking to them.  I found there was a certain absence of a protagonist because of that, but it does allow for a more objective view onto the flaws of humanity.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

60. The Long Dark Night by Joseph Hayes

One more sign that I am truly blessed is that Dark Carnival, one of the better sci-fi, fantasy and mystery bookstores in North America, is literally a block and a half from my parents's house.  It's kind of insane and became a regular haunt for me during my 3 months in California.  If I got back from work early enough, I would often park my bike outside and lurk in the back room where the used books are.  The store is overstocked, with new books stacked on the floor (though stacked somewhat neatly).  The back section was quite a mess, with bottom shelves of used books being inaccessible due to piles of books and toys.   But slowly over the summer, one of the employees was hitting it hard, working on cleaning it up and near the end of my trip the back section got in better and better order until I could actually reach the bottom shelves (one of which carried the letter C where I was desperately hoping to stumble upon a lost John Christopher; no such luck).  I did find this Joseph Hayes book, which I had never heard about before, but which had a very intriguing premise:  a young man falsely accused of rape in a small New England town plots his brutal revenge against the entire town.  It was written in 74 and the paperback was published in best-seller rather than a crime or mystery format.  There is rape mentioned in the blurb and a lot of other sensational stuff, so it could have gone either way and perhaps just been a lurid titillating mass market book.  However, I know of Joseph Hayes having read The Desperate Hours and really enjoying it.  That was written 2 decades earlier, but the initial prose seemed solid, so I picked it up.

Turns out to have been a good choice.  This book is definitely hardcore and even has some situations that would put it well into the lurid category. However, they are all done off-camera and referred to rather than spread out before the reader's eyes.  The story is great.  A young, poor hard-working student, Boyd Ritchie, comes from the midwest to this patrician New England town on a scholarship.  He's there for half a school year before he gets mixed up with the town beauty, who is betrothed to the town scion, but who also is a big slut.  A situation happens where the girl accuses Boyd of rape to protect her own reputation.  He gets caught, brutalized by the sociopathic chief of police (an ex-Texas Ranger, disgraced for killing a suspect in his old job), then convinced to plea bargain and then screwed over by the judge.  In prison, he gets further brutalized and something snaps, so that he spends the rest of the time planning his revenge on the entire town.  The book is the entire night of his revenge.

This is good, gripping, nasty stuff.  The plan is complex and seeing its execution, while learning through flashbacks and the ensuing investigation how he prepared for it is really enjoyable.   Watching it (and Boyd himself) unravel while the "good" guys start to figure out what is going on is also a great pleasure.  This is one of those books that is perfect for a long plane ride, easy to digest, with lots of short segments jumping from character to character.  The last third goes on a bit long as we get slightly bogged down in some family relationships (and how the crisis tests marriages and childrens' love for their parents) .  Overall, though, a great summer thriller read.

Friday, July 20, 2012

59. Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Thrilling Cities is another collection of Fleming's columns written for the Sunday Times.  For this series, he was sent on two trips around the world to write about the racier sides of various cities.  The first trip is to Asia and across the Pacific to the US and the second is a drive across Europe.

It's a really entertaining read.  He is a fun writer and it is cool to see both the state of these various cities in the early 60s and the cultural approach that this semi-upper class Brit takes to them.  The first half, especially the Asian part, seems a lot more fun, because Fleming was single (or at least had left his wife behind).  In the drive across Europe, she is with him (though barely mentioned) and we hear very little about any dancing girls or geishas. 

What was interesting is that he absolutely hated New York.  The way he wrote about it made it sound like the NYC of Death Wish except the people are even ruder.  My father worked in New York for a summer around this time and he had a very similar reaction.  Fleming hated it so much that he even adds a little James Bond vignette where he goes on one of his high-class consumer fetish trips (trying to get this razor and that shirt and so on; Bond is kind of boring when he gets into this stuff, though it may have been extra-exaggerated for effect here) and ends up having none of it work out.

This book is also written around the time of the beginning of the Parker series and what Fleming writes about the syndicate in the Chicago chapter very much jibes with the world Westlake describes in The Outfit.  I think any Parker fan will enjoy Thrilling Cities, at the very least for the U.S. section.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

interlude: Kayo Books in San Francisco

The Bay Area bookstore scene has suffered many blows in the last decade.  The major losses were mainly bookstores that sold new stuff, Cody's in Berkeley leaving Telegraph and then going out of business being the worst of all.  However, the used bookstore scene is still hanging on.  I wish I had the time and energy to do a more lengthy post, as I visited quite a few used bookstores while I was on my 3-month stay here.  However, I am compelled to say something about Kayo Books in San Francisco.

I cannot understand how I could have only heard of this place a week ago. It's been in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco for 17 years.  I finally got a chance to sneak out from work last Thursday and had about an hour to spend.  Oh my god.  This place is the paperback collector's nirvana.  I could have come here every day just to browse.  The stock is incredible.  But it's not only the volume and diversity (which I'll get into), but the organization and cleanliness.  While I enjoy the anticipation of the hunt while digging through dusty piles, I'll also never understand why most used bookstore owners cannot organize their stock.  This place shows how it should be done.  There is a section for everything and within those sections, it is all arranged in meticulous alphabetical order.  Every shelf is easily approachable, with lots of space so you can take your time to scan the rows.  You can see these lovely shelves in the picture above.  The sections are great, as well.  There are mysteries and hard-boiled as well as a great science fiction section (though very limited fantasy) and then tons of sub-sections, especially with the erotic paperbacks, it breaks down to things like Juvenile Delinquents, Biker Gangs, Catholic Schools, Pregnancy Scares, etc.

Interestingly, there were only two Richard Starks, but the proprietor (the wife of a husband and wife team; super friendly, helpful and knowledgeable) told me that Stark was in constant demand ever since they opened the store.  They also had an insane Peter Rabe collection, more books than I even knew he had written.  They were up in the $10-15 range, a bit rich for my blood, but I got one of the cheaper ones.  One dissapointment was that they had no Margaret Millar, which surprised the proprietor as well.  But did I score!  Check out my loot below:

Excuse the poor lighting. 
That Night Cry by William Stuart I've been looking for for years, ever since August West made it sound so good.  What a gorgeous cover!  I already have The Little People in hardback, but I couldn't resist the awesome paperback with this cover in such good condition.  It's My Funeral is the Peter Rabe I picked up.  And check it out, the original Harlequin version of The Body on Mount Royal (part of the recently reprinted series of Montreal pulp from Vehicule Press).  And then I rounded it out with an early Donald Hamilton and another installment in the Operation Hang Ten series.  The whole package set me back $23 and she even gave me those little plastic paperback book protectors.

Finally, the store has an awesome dog, a big friendly black lab who every ten minutes or so makes her rounds, going from customer to customer, getting some pets or just standing next to you while you peruse.  So you pretty much have to put a visit to Kayo Books on your list of things you must do in your life.

Friday, July 13, 2012

58. The Weathermonger by Peter Dickinson (book 3 of the Changes trilogy)

The Weathermonger was actually the first book written.  I haven't looked into it, but I think after its success, Dickinson was encouraged to go back and write some more taking place in this world.  I think in some ways, this is the best of the three.  The story here takes place about a year after Heartsease (about 6 years after the Changes happened).  It starts in medias res with a boy and his younger sister stranded on a little rock while the tide comes in and a gang of villagers are standing on the shore line, rocks in hand, to ensure that they drown.  The boy has no memory of what happened, but the girl slowly fills him (and the reader) in.  He's a weathermonger, a local magician responsible for ensuring good weather for the village.  He got too greedy and they decided to take him down.  He lost his memory due to a blow to the head.  However, losing his memory brought back his understanding of the world before the Changes.  He and his sister then plan to escape.  I won't go into any more plot details beyond saying that they do escape and then are sent back, to try and figure out the source of the Changes. 

The first half of The Weathermonger has a similar trajectory as the first two books in the series, an adventurous journey with children in charge.  It's the second half, when they meet the weathermonger and start to unravel his mystery, that takes this book to a higher plane.  It's fantastical and really enjoyable.  Very cool stuff and I can see now why as a kid I snuck and read ahead to find out what happened.  The whole series is great, but I think the Weathermonger really stands alone as well. If you only want to read one of them, this is the one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

57. Heartsease by Peter Dickinson (part II of the Changes trilogy)

Again, a beautiful edition
that I don't have.
Heartsease takes place about 5 years after the events of the Devil's Children.  The world of England after The Changes has settled into a pre-industrial state, with people gathered in isolated communities, surviving off the land.  We have another female protagonist here, Margaret, who lives with her aunt and uncle and older cousin Jonathon on a small farm in a small and, as we soon learn, superstitious, xenophobic village.

The book starts in medias res, with Margaret poking around after a stoning of a witch.  She notices that the stones are moving and with the help of her cousin they end up rescuing the witch, who turns out to be an American airman, sent over to investigate what happened to England and report back.  He was trying to send signals from his wireless device when the village discovered him.

The rest of the book is the children trying to heal him back to health and figure out how to help him escape.  All the while, we are slowly shown the nature of the village and the fear that dominates it.  People affected by the changes have varying abilities to sniff out technology and the de facto village leader is a classic small-minded, sneaky and suspicious little tyrant.  He keeps coming back to Margaret's farm, suspecting something is up and sensing evil around.  Every now and then he also ignites the townsfolk to go on a witch hunt.  At one point, they kill a bird with a broken wing because they think it is the escaped witch.

Dickinson does a great job of portraying the small, fearful minds of the close-minded rural.  Here there is a concrete explanation for their behaviour, the Changes have done something to their minds.   And the children go to pains to try and excuse the nastiness (and you sense Dickinson behind them trying to remind us that these people are still human beings as well).  However, it really does feel like a condemnation of that kind of irrational, fearful thinking that leads so quickly to violence that we see in so many places in the world (I couldn't help but think of the American far right and their fear of so much in the world).  When you are reading this, you really hate those people!  He does a great job of creating tension.  The last half is a super-exciting escape.

These books are short and thrilling. I would have liked just a bit more exploration of England after the Changes. There are lots of cool hints, like dog packs and blackened cities, but as a nerd, I like a bit more world-building.  Overall, though, another great chapter in this trilogy.

Monday, July 09, 2012

56. The Devil's Children by Peter Dickinson (part I of The Changes Trilogy)

I do not have this copy, but I want it.
This book is part 1 of the Changes trilogy (and that is how I am reading it, in a single volume of the entire trilogy). I really struggled to blog each book at a time or to just do the entire trilogy, since the whole thing is around 350 pages. I chose to do each book because they were all originally written as single books. Furthermore, they were not written in the chronology of the trilogy, so that this book, is I believe, the third one published, even though it presents a bit of the origin of the disaster. My parents are big Peter Dickinson fans and when I was a kid, my dad read The Weathermonger to me and my sister each night before bedtime. I was just learning to read and when we were about two-thirds of the way through, I snuck in to my dad's stuff, found the book and secretly read it to the end! I think I actually kept my mouth shut until after it was over, but it was still seen as a scandal by my sister and my dad who were quite "disappointed".

This trilogy should definitely be on the great PA book list (whereever that is).  The apocalypse here is called The Change and it manifests itself quite suddenly in Great Britain causing almost everybody to suddenly hate all machines.  They just go beserk and attack any kind of machine.  The chaos (which we only hear of obliquely in the child narrator's memory) ends quickly, leaving the population much diminished (many dead or fled).  Most people who remain still hate machines to such a degree that they can't even say words like 'tractor' or 'electricity' and going near things like downed power-lines causes them to feel totally freaked-out.  They also have weird gaps in their memory where they can't remember much about history or geography.  We learn later that this phenomenon seems isolated to Great Britain.

The story here is about 12-year old Nicola, who was separated from her parents during the Change.  She waits for two days and then decides to make her way home.  She succeeds in doing that, but nobody is left.  She waits at home and one day a troupe of Sikhs come by.  She ends up joining with them.  For some reason, they haven't been affected by the change.  They were a community of Indian immigrants who lived all in the same neighbourhood (and are mostly from the same extended family) who decided to leave the city and try and find a place to survive.  They are a cool group for a post-apocalyptic setting.  They have a range of skills (metalworking, agriculture, sword fighting) from their own rural backgrounds and a kind of cultural democracy, though there is a matriarch.  Being immigrants and outsiders from British society already, they have a wary approach to other people already.  They are wary of Nicola at first, but then realize that she can act as a sort of canary in a coal mine, feeling the aversion to technology where they don't.  They want to use tools but also don't want to attract any crazed people towards them.

They do find a good place to try and make a new home from.  The book is about them doing that and their interactions with the suspicious village nearby, who call them The Devil's Children.  With the Change and the reversion to a pre-industrial society, comes also the old, now-modified, superstitions.  I'm very curious to see where this will go.  This book, in and of itself, is a neat little story about a self-sufficient young girl who falls in with these neat people and they all try and make a go of it.  It is short, though, and very local in scale.  It almost feels like a novella, but I guess that's because it's a young adult book.  I'm glad there are two more books to go!

This is the version I have and the image is
kind of awesome, though I believe it refers to only
The Weathermonger, the final book in the trilogy.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

55. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Urusla K. does it again.  Man, she does not play.  I would say that this book, along with the Earthsea books and The Left Hand of Darkness are her best-known works.  I point that out because I'm impressed how all 3 are so different and have such different styles.  They share some themes (the abuse of power, exploration of human relations) and some motifs (environmental degradation) and you can hear her voice in all of them.  But these are three very different books.

The Lathe of Heaven feels like classic silver age sci-fi.  It almost could have been written by Philip K. Dick (except that the cohesion holds through to the end here).  It feels very modern and future sci-fi (where the Earthsea are true fantasy, almost lyrical and The Left Hand of Darkness is much more of epic other world sci-fi).  It's just so impressive how she can write such different books, but all of them be really good.

The story here starts out in Portland, Oregon in a mildly dystopic near-future.  The environment is bad, the economy is poor and society is less free.  George Orr gets arrested for using someone else's PharmCard.  He's buying drugs to stop himself from dreaming.  Because it's his first offense, he's sent to see a psychiatrist, who is also a dream expert.  Orr doesn't want to dream, because when he does, his dreams change reality.   The psyciatrist is at first interested and then when he realizes reality really is being changed, he starts trying to manipulate and harness Orr's unwanted ability.  Things get crazy.

The book progresses in a series of reality shifts, each one getting slightly worse than the last.  In a way, it is like a novel-length version of The Monkey's Paw.  Each dream request that the doctor tries to get Orr to dream about, ostensibly for the betterment of mankind, has unexpected results, either as filtered through Orr's personality or just because that's the way the world works.

There is a lot going on in this book. Humanity does not come off well.  It deals with life's purpose, morality and power.  The philosophical stuff is thought-provoking, but also, as always (at least so far) with Le Guin, deftly and subtly done.  The multiple futures are awesome fun.  We really get multiple disaster and apocalyptic scenarios as well as giant social experiments (what happens if we get rid of race?).  I lived in Portland for four years and though it's been a while, it was still cool to read all the specific changes it goes through.  Mt. Hood really gets the treatment.  Interesting that this book was written a decade before Mt. St. Helens blew her top!

Awesome book, super-entertaining, quick, lively and intelligent read.  There is a reason it is a classic.  Check it out.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

54. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

My dad actually pulled this one out from the fiction shelf and told me that he and my mom had both read it when they were young, that it was a great favourite back then.  It looked like the kind of swashbuckling romantic adventure that I myself quite enjoy (and it was $2) so I purchased it.

It's the story of a young man adopted into a noble, rural household in Brittany who comes of age just before the French Revolution.  Though he is well-raised, because he is a godson, he does not actually accrue the benefits of the family that cared for him and he seeks his fortune in law.  He himself is quite removed from the emotional fervour catching among his peers until his best friend is killed in a maliciously arranged duel by a cruel count.  He swears revenge on this count and in doing so, ends up taking the side of the Republic.  This springs him into a series of adventures, where he becomes an actor with a travelling theatre troupe, then a fencing master and finally a politician himself.  It's partly a bildungsroman, but it is also a romance and the plot, while it wanders, always pulls itself back to his feud with the count.

It's a thoroughly fun read, very satisfying.  I love these books where honour and manners play an important role.  People in this world behave with certain levels of courtesy whether they are good or evil and it makes for such great interchanges and verbal conflicts.

What was also interesting about this book was the pacing.  It is adventurous and swashbuckling, but there is also a long section dealing with him slowly improving in the theatre, gaining more and more authority in the troupe until he finally comes in conflict with the troupe leader.  These parts are not full of action, but somehow they are very satisfying and you really are caught up in the story.  It was written in 1921 and was not considered high literature, even a bit low (my mother was upbraided by her teacher when she chose it for a book report in grade 11).  Reading it reminds me that a book can be gripping and thrilling without having tons of physical action and conflict.

The backdrop of the French Revolution is also a great setting for this kind of adventure.  You have the combination of impending chaos with fearful authority, so that there is always danger but also always a chance of escape.

I see that Sabatini wrote several other adventure novels, such as The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.  Sigh, one more author to add to my list...

Sunday, July 01, 2012

53. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

My wife is a big Shirley Jackson fan and has several of her books. I've been meaning to give her a try for a while now and finally got motivated since it was chosen as the July read for an online book discussion group I am in. Great choice!

The Haunting of Hill House is not the first haunted house story, but it's an early one and was quite well-respected when it came out (she also wrote the short story "The Lottery" that a lot of us read in junior high). At least two movies have been made from it. It's the story of a doctor of the paranormal who gets the opportunity to study an abandoned manor in the Britsh countryside. He invites four people, whose existence have come to his attention for their own histories of being involved in some kind of paranormal activity. One of them, Eleanor, is the character through whose viewpoint the reader follows the proceedings. She lives with her sister's family and up until recently, devoted her life to taking care of her cruel, sickly mother. For her, this "experiment" is an exciting opportunity to make a break from her old life. Things do not go well.

It's a subtle, cleverly-written book. Right away, Jackson is totally direct about how foreboding and ominous the house is. She doesn't actually describe it much. Rather, she describes how it makes Eleanor feel and allows the dialogue of the others to describe what it does to them. It is freaky, and in some creative ways too, that I won't give away. It's a slow burn after that, though. We spend a lot of time learning about the doctor and the guests, the history of the house and its geography. It takes a while for things to get weird, but they do.

There is very little objective third-person description in this book, to the point that at times I didn't realize that certain people were present in a scene until they spoke. It was odd at first, until I got that we really are seeing things through Eleanor's eyes and that, as she falls under the influence of the house (if that is indeed what happens), she becomes one of those unreliable narrators.

It's a dark, nasty book. She does a great job of writing catty, underhanded, passive-aggressive dialogue. I didn't realize she was American at first, because the book takes place in England. Her prose is strong, with longer sentences, but they are very linear and lack some of the more intricately structured phrasing that I like in my British authors. And scary, I don't know how it will affect others, but I wasn't scared at all for almost the first two-thirds but then one thing happened and I was reading it in my room alone, with only one light on and I really got quite scared, to the point that I had to will myself to go down the stairs to the front door and make sure it was locked! So, your mileage may vary, but I got a serious chill from this book. I'll definitely add Shirley Jackson to my list.