Thursday, August 29, 2013

23. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

That weird mask was because the nose was
stuffed with strong-smelling spices to ward off
the disease and the stench of dead bodies.
I have a general rule, which is to try and read as little as possible about a book before I actually start reading it.  I especially avoid all the business printed on the book itself that is not the actual story, like the blurb on the back, critic's quotes, the author's bio and forwards.  I am always tempted, as I am easily distracted.  So this practice is a form of self-discipline to get me through the book.  All that other stuff is a little bit like desert.  The big reason, though, is spoilers.  I know editors have to sell books, but it is just selfish and irresponsible the way they give away all the cool stuff on the back cover.

With a classic like A Journal of the Plague Year, the temptation to read the foreword (by J.H. Plumb, Cambride) and even to go to the internet was strong.  I wanted to find out the history behind the narrative as it is just so fascinating and crazy what happened.  However, spoilers were just not a concern for me in this case.  Well when I did finish it and read the Foreword, I was totally blown away to find out there was a HUGE spoiler (explained at the end of the post) and one that would have completely changed my perception of this work had I known ahead of time.  It was a great pleasure to be surprised in this way and this experiences reinforces my dedication to my rule.

Victims would run through the streets, naked and crazed
with pain and the madness of the disease.
So on to the book itself.  It is a first-person recollection of the year 1665 when the Black Plague swept through London, killing tens of thousands and (as you can well imagine) throwing the city into an upheaval.  We've all heard about it to some degree or another, most limited (like me) to Monty Python and a few scraps of memory from high school history classes.  It was pretty hard core!  It's hard to imagine the way London was back then, even before there was a plague.  There were open sewers and people just threw their garbage out into the street.  When the plague hit, thousands of people were dying per week.  The whole "bring out yer dead!" thing really happened.  The book, though, stresses that despite some mistakes, the city managers actually handled the situation relatively well, creating policies that ensured that ensured that there were no dead bodies left on the street.  They also managed to ensure that enough trade remained open so that the poor who remained in the city didn't starve.  One of the controversial policies was the act forcing families to be shut up in their homes if one of their members or staff showed signs of the sickness.  Guards were hired to stand outside their door to ensure that nobody left and nobody came in (which also helped create employment).  Defoe narrates some great stories of families trying to sneak out, or attack the guard.  Several were murdered.

Structurally, the book is lacking.  There isn't really an order and it goes all over the place in time and subject.  Defoe often gets started on something and then says that he'll say more about that later.  This happens a few too many times so that the reader loses track.  And dude, chapters!  The whole thing is one long flow and it makes it hard to put it down and pick it up again.  (Oh yeah, right, they hadn't been invented yet.)  The writing style is rich and arch, made me laugh out loud at times
However, in general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burned perfumes, incense, benjamin, rozin, and sulphur in their rooms close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder; others caused large fires to be made all day and all night for several days and nights; by the same token that two or three were pleased to set their houses on fire, and so effectually sweetened them by burning them down to the ground...
 Dry British humour in its earliest days.

A really enjoyable read that gave me a strong interest in the Black Death, which led to lots of fascinating internet reading.

ADDENDUM: new (and avid) reader and commenter Kelly Robinson (check out her great blog Book Dirt) reminded me in her comment below about how Apocalyptic this novel is.  It reminded me strongly of the British authors from the 60s and 70s and especially John Christopher's Death of Grass. A big part of the book is about the exodus out of London, with the issues of the advantage of wealth and class and having to decide when (or whether) to leave.  He also recounts a tale of a small group of workers who banded together to travel in the country and how they were refused to enter by certain towns.  I wonder if this is something that is part of British culture that has been passed down with the various disasters that have befallen London in history.


Daniel Defoe was 5 years old when this London plague happened!  He wrote the book as a work of fiction based on several non-fictional tracts and his own childhood memories and tales.  The entire time I was reading it, I thought it was his own recollection.  Looks like he was a darned good writer!

Monday, August 26, 2013

22. Dale of the Mounted Sub Hunt by Joe Holliday

Here is a nice little piece of post-war Canadian propaganda.  As a physical artifact, it was just so beautiful that I had to pick it up, despite it's beat-up condition.  How great is that illustration on the front!  It's almost Hergé-esque in its geometry and soft-focus, with a filter of 50s modern abstraction.  What is going on on the cover here actually happens in the book as well.  Unfortunately, the book itself is quite boring, in keeping with its Canadianness.  The adventure part of it is simply a frame for the author to repeat paragraphs of information that seem quoted verbatim from Fisheries Canada pamphlets.  It is divided into two parts, the first taking place in Atlantic Canada and the second in my old stomping grounds, Nanaimo! 

In both cases, Dale goes undercover.  In the first, he joins up with a fishing crew.  This section was actually not so boring, as it described the fish-trapping techniques used in the Bay of Fundy.  Wide nets would be installed in the ground at low tide and then when the tide came up and went out again, the men would unload the traps with all the fish stuck in them.  The mystery starts here when a body is discovered in one of the traps.  Actually, looking back, this was a pretty cool start.  From there, though, it all gets kind of boring, at least narrative-wise.  The problem is the writing style, so that even when we get away from factual info and statistics about the Atlantic Fisheries, it is all still dull and stilted. 

In the second half, Dale takes on the disguise of a young applicant for the Fisheries department in their research center at the West Coast Biological Center in Departure Bay.  Here, we have lots of optimistic enthusiasm about all the science being applied to the fishing industry and how it is going to make it even easier for Canada to deplete the oceans.

What is fascinating, and depressing, about this book, is how there is not a single mention of conservation.  Everything that the government is doing in the Atlantic and the Pacific side, is made to increase yield.  There is an oblique mention of ensuring the future existence of fish populations when they mention poaching and efforts to reduce it.  This book was written just a few decades before the total collapse of the entire Atlantic Fisheries and you can see the profound ignorance and greed that was the dominant culture of the government and the industry at the time.  Not that it's changed much today, sadly.

I scanned the back cover as well, which has examples of the entire line.  It's a shame that these weren't better written, because they are quite beautifully designed and would make a great collection of Canadiana for a bookshelf.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

21. The Moonraker Mutiny by Antony Trew

These 1970's manly action books put out by Fontana were really where I began with my adult reading.  I don't remember specifically who introduced me to Desmond Bagley, it must have been my dad, but he was my favourite in my high school and college years.  Once I finish re-reading the Parker series, I may go back and read his books again.  I also discovered Duncan Kyle through Fontana as well.  They are manly adventure books, but generally written with some intelligence and that British WWII mentality that doesn't have to get in your face about being badass.  So when I see one, I will always give it a scan, which is what happened at the sadly closing down Blackberry books in Kitsilano where I found The Moonraker Mutiny.  I mean how can I resist this cover?  At the very least, I know it will give my wife something to snicker about.

The Moonraker Mutiny turned out to be quite an enjoyable read, with a more complex storyline than I had expected from the blurb.  It's about a merchant freighter with a once competent but now broken and badly alchoholic captain and its sketchy crew who are making a run from Australia to Cape Town when they get caught in a hurricane.  Things go bad in many ways, leaving the ship engineless and badly damaged.  The crew, led by the treacherous and disrespectful Italian first mate, decides to abandon ship, leaving the captain, his neice, his steward and one young mechanic.  We follow the stories of both groups, as well as the sleazy owner back in London and another smaller merchant ship coming from Antarctica whose fate becomes entwined in a really interesting way with Moonraker's.

And that is what pushed this book from pretty good to really damned enjoyable to me.  The first half was decent, with a nice range of characters (though a few stereotypes such as the aforementioned first mate), but I thought the story was going to be either about the mutiny or the ship in the storm.  It turns out that was merely a jumping off point and a lot of other cool things happened.  I didn't realize that even up in the modern days the law of salvage at sea is still valid and there are boats that just trawl the sea looking for abandoned ships and who will get aggressive with one another for salvage rights.  It makes for some pretty cool sea action, especially when you are dealing with a crippled tanker that still has the barely coherent captain aboard.

Sigh, one more author to add to the list.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

20. Star King by Jack Vance

I have read a few other Jack Vance novels and enjoyed them but they never grabbed me the way they have some others.  I respect his massive contribution to the world (both in fictional writing and in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby as his ideas about magic were fundamental to the way it was designed in Dungeons & Dragons).  Many people have said that I should check out the Demon Prince series and so I could not resist picking up this paperback (which is also a beautiful Daw paperback and was in such good condition, appearing almost unread, that I was loathe to even open it).

Well it turns out they were right!  There is still something distancing to me about Vance's approach and prose, but Star King was super cool and super engrossing.  I think it helped that it was the first of his books that has a very straightforward plot, so that while it meanders, especially at the beginning, and while there are all kinds of asides that are not relevant to the story (though do build a rich sense of the universe), the book always presses forward and you want to find out what happens.  It also has a strong moral core, which is something I've found lacking in his other books.  It's not that I need a moral core in a piece of fiction, but in Vance's case, it helps to bridge somewhat the distancing effect of his prose style.  Finally, there are some really good and detailed fight scenes, which I always appreciate. These were so detailed and well mapped-out that they could have been choreographed for a movie.

The story here is about Kirth Gersen who finds himself on a remote tavern far out in the Beyond, the part of the universe that is not governed by law.  He meets a "locater" who has discovered a paradisiacal garden planet, but who has discovered that his employer is Malagate the Woe, an infamous intergalactic slaver.  The locater does not want to reveal the location of his discovery because he has been enchanted by its innocent beauty and doesn't want to see it destroyed.  Well this poor dude, quickly gets killed by three very nasty characters (and a rich, flamboyant group of badguys they are indeed) who show up at the bar, including Malagate himself, though he is not actually seen.  When they leave, they accidently take Kirth's ship instead of the murdered locator's, which allows Kirth to mess with them.  Well, it turns out that Kirth has specifically been on the hunt for Malagate, that he has actually been trained his entire life to hunt down and kill the Demon Princes (of which Malagate is one) who destroyed his village when he was just a child.

So that is really my kind of plot.  As I said, it does meander and at times gets a bit bogged down, particularly in a long section of logic/deduction in trying to figure out which of three characters back in the civilized part of the universe is actually Malagate.  But there is enough coolness along the way, in the story moving forward; the rich and wacky locations and characters and finally in Gersen himself, who is a real badass.  I also like that Vance is really not a nerd.  He doesn't waste time fretting over whether or not you can fly through space in a timely manner.  He just goes to where the coolness needs to go and yet does it in such a way that it feels more or less realistic within the logic of the setting.  I also enjoyed the way he portrays the style of this universe, as people can modify their bodies to any degree and change their skin colour, so that every character has a different palate going on.  I will definitely be hunting down the rest of this series.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

19. Nice Fillies Finish Last by Brett Halliday

Really you couldn't ask for a better combo of cover and title to incite snickers and contempt from the modern literary set.  I'm pretty sure this might be the first Mike Shayne book I've read.  I didn't have a high regard for the series before I read this.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the book more intelligent and complex than I would have suspected.  In particular, the author had a very deft way of portraying his characters as one way in the beginning and then revealing their true corruption as the story went on. I found myself actually believing their initial stories and found myself taken by them later on in the book.  The detective work is quite good as well.  The framing of the story and Shayne himself are fairly standard stuff, with him being super cool and having all the neatest gadgets, but the meat of the story, I would say, was a step above what I expected and leads me to keep an eye out for other Mike Shayne books.

Here, Shayne's gambling buddy and reporter gets a hot tip on the carriage races from a usually reliable stable hand.  It's a complex affair involving betting on three races in the day.  The reporter convinces Shayne to come out with him at two in the morning to meet the stable hand and back him on the tip.  The guy doesn't show up and the two guys write it off as a bum tip.  Until the stable hand shows up dead, of alchohol poisoning.  This leads us into a complex mix surrounding a wealthy stable owner, his wife and a satyr-like jockey (and several other characters).  There is some dark stuff here, especially at the end, as the true nastiness of what already was kind of a nasty relationship is revealed.  There is some good action too.  My only problem is that I don't know anything about gambling on the horses and the complexities surrounding the betting and the scams behind it were lost to me.  Nevertheless, this filly rode well and I look forward to future installments.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

18. The Explorer by W. Somerset Maugham

For some reason, I have a hard time getting W. Somerset Maugham into my head.  I get him (or is it her?) mixed up with Evelyn Waugh and Armistaud Maupin.  I really need to make the effort to do a bit of researcha and figure out who each one is.  I guess it is just because there names all sound similar, but it's also that Maugham seems so well known, but doesn't seem to have a specifically famous book, style, genre or period attached to him. This problem is so acute for me that I actually wrote this paragraph initally about Evelyn Waugh!

The Explorer is the story of Lucy Allerton, a young heiress to a large estate whose disollute father has run to the ground.  She is strong and selfless, loves her father unquestionably, even when she learns of all his faults.  She pins the hopes of her family's ressurection on her brother.  When the father is arrested for fraud, thus ruining the family's reputation as well, the brother is forced to join the expedition of an intrepid African explorer.  This explorer and the heroine up to this point had fallen in love, but she refused his hand in marriage because she could not love him until her family's name was restored.  Complications ensue on the voyage and the the explorer is left with a heavy burden and difficult moral choice.

I picked up the book because of the title in the hope that there would be some good colonial adventurism.  There was, but most of it was narrated by characters within the book, after the fact.  It was interesting nonetheless, as the explorer is portrayed as a hero, liberating the local tribespeople from the oppression of Arab slavery (I am thinking that he is supposed to be modeled after a real-world figure of the time).  This all seems good, if fantastic, but then his ultimate goal is to turn the territory over to the good hands of the British Empire, for the uitimate betterment of the native people!  Oh well, better than the Belgians at least.

It's an enjoyable read, very well-written, but ultimately a bit simplistic.  It is basically a romance, with the barrier being the aforementioned moral dilemma and a female character who is a bit one-dimensional.  This latter stands out because the rest of the characters are portrayed with nuance and richness.  I suspect a book like this was quite popular at the time, as it reads a bit like its period equivalent of today's best-seller, addressing popular themes in an easily-digestible way without challenging the average reader's thinking.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

17. The Mistress by Carter Brown

Carter Brown is one of those crime fiction authors whose existence can be discouraging both for the reader and the writer.  He was actually a British guy living in Australia and he cranked out 332 (!) novels under the Carter Brown pseudonym, not to mention dozens of westerns, sci-fi and romances under other names.  His books were ubiquitous in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, said to be a favorite of JFK.  What's particularly distressing is not just the sheer quantity (at one point, he was contracted to write two short and one long novel a month), but that he was also subject to painful writer's block!.  It makes the potential writer realize how much writing is just hard, hard work.

The Mistress begins with a sheriff's niece found shot dead on the front steps of the sherrif's house in Pine City, a small town somewhere not too far from Vegas.  The protagonist is the brash lieutenant, Al Wheeler, who always second-guesses his chief's simplistic solution.  In this case, it's the independent bookmaker who had just been ran out of Vegas by the syndicate, had taken up shop in Pine City and in whom the niece had fallen in with.  He is too obvious of a culprit for the lieutenant, who starts digging deeper.  It's a fun ride, with some good detecting and an interesting set up.  I correctly guessed who the murderer was early in, because he was telegraphed as such an asshole, even though not obviously connected to the crime at the beginning.  One of the principle characters is a top-shelf stripper, whose abnormal routine was quite fun (she appears on stage just for a moment in the spotlight completely nude and then comes back dressed and starts the dance).  However, that she quickly hops in bed with Wheeler and basically is in love with him for the entire second half of the book was pushing even my tolerance for unbelievable genre and period sexual mores. 

So it's a decent book and that is what makes Carter Brown so discouraging for the reader.  It's not garbage, it's actually good enough that you wouldn't mind reading more.  But there are just so many and nothing that really stands out about them that gives you anything to grab on to.  Is there a highlight or a particular series I should look into?  It's all so much that one kind of just wants to ignore his entire ouevre.  Though interestingly, I rarely come across old copies of Carter Brown.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

16. Broke Down Engine and other troubles with machines by Ron Goulart

Another find from the back alley pile of apartment stuff that just keeps on giving, this is a collection of short stories by Ron Goulart, a prolific writer from the 60s and 70s and onwards about whom I knew nothing until now.  The cover just intrigued me at the time.  The style of these stories makes me think of Omni and Playboy rather than science fiction magazines and rightfully so as several of these stories were published in Playboy.  Theys tend to be of two types, either taking place in some kind of dystopic near-future LA where machiness and man combine to make nightmarish bureaucracies (hospitals that don't let you leave, food agencies that decide who lives and dies) or in far off galaxies and futures.  In both cases, the tone is similar, light, wry and not taking itself too seriously, despite often fairly nasty situations.  At first, I found myself a bit disconnected (which is not unusual for me with short stories), but as I worked my way through, I enjoyed the read more and more.  The themes here, though based on very primitive extrapolations of technology, age well.  Human stupidity tends to get magnified rather than mitigated by more powerful tools.  Cruelty is a truism and not worth making a big moral stink about (though defnitely worth avoiding).  We get so caught up in the moment, especially in today's media environment, that we tend to think that all the issues we are freaking out about now are new.  Reading a book like this reminds me that they are not new at all and that guys like Ron Goulart were pointing them out to the rest of us decades ago.  Good stuff.