Sunday, December 31, 2017

2018 Year-end Wrap-up

I honestly had thought that I was unlikely to ever read 50 books a year again.  I almost abandoned the blog completely as most of my other friends and compadres did in the 50 books challenge.  I have always been one to record things, though, and kept it going just to at least have a list of which books I read when. Thank goodness, because a new, unexpected energy seized me this summer and I found the time, discipline, energy and interest to get back into reading again.  It's been really great and I hope to keep it going.

I started the blog and challenge in 2005, so 2017 is the 13th year.  I achieved 50 books 7 out of the 13 years, but also went way over in several years.  I am currently averaging 44.62 books a year.  I have a total deficit of 70 books to catch up to make an average of 50 books a year (assuming I also read the 50 each year which cleary has not been a given).   My far and away worst year was 2016, where I read only 18 books.  Interestingly, this resurgence year, I read 58 books which is the exact same amount I read in 2005, the first year!  A real rebirth!

And speaking of birth, I am pretty clear on the various factors that inhibit or support my reading habits.  The biggest one is the birth of my daughter in late 2012.  I really let go in 2013, after my parental leave (where I was reading a ton, thus the strong 2012 itself).  I am not exactly sure how her existence slowed down my reading, I think just a general attack on free time and sleeping.  The second factor is job responsibility.  I went from lowly but relaxed and available office manager to extremely busy and sometimes quite stressed head of IT and Administration for my org in 2012.  I was enthusiastic about this as well and spent more time developing my skills and reading non-fiction.  The third factor, and the real killer, is social media.  I spent so many hours hunched over my phone or laptop scrolling through twitter and Google+ where I could have been reading fulfilling genre fiction.  There were some positive elements in that world. The amazing resurgence of my basketball team, The Golden State Warriors, going from decades of mediocrity to the hated crushers of all your loser teams was an incredible journey and I experienced much of the community around that online.  Also, the tabletop RPG world over at Google+ is an incredibly creative and cool bunch and we went through a lot of drama there that presaged all the internet shit that broke out in the rest of the world. Still, there was a lot of time wasted there.  I see now, though, that it's not any of these three factors on their own, but rather that deadly cocktail of childcare, work stress and social media.  The first two fry your brain to such a point that all you can do once you get the kid to bed is sit there and zone out.

I have a better handle on my job now (specifically disassociating myself from the politics) and a new position in the new year that should be a lot more focused.  My daughter is 5 and that brings a whole slew of other issues but also she is more independent and I am starting to find more time to read and even exercise (!).  Again, the biggest lesson for me of 50 books is that you never can predict your performance, but things are looking up for next year.  My fundamental goal is to read 50 books in 2018.  My secondary goal is to try and get past that to whittle away at my deficit.  We shall see!

As far as what I actually read in 2017, it was a real hodge-podge, defined only by my burning need to churn through the dust-covered row of books in my on-deck shelf.  I did do this, to great satisfaction, which led in turn to me keeping that whole area much better organized because I have more space there now (reading consistently as my friend Dan points out tends to encourage other good habits in life).  I did get through some classics that had long been on my list including all the Thongor books but 1 (great fun once I got past the nerdiness), the T.H. White King Arthur stories, a final showdown between Lehane and Pelecanos (Pelecanos wins), a massive sci-fi classic (Cyteen, which was really good) and finally lots of enjoyable and easy to get through mysteries and thrillers.

Unfortunately, my gender balance swung strongly back towards the male in 2016.  There were several highlights (as they usually are with female authors in mystery and fantasy), including C.J. Cherryh (still looking for the first Chanur book of hers), another excellent Margaret Millar (and more to come), finally finding and appreciating but not really loving Eleanor Arneson.  I am very excited for 2018, because I finally found some Elizabeth Sanxay Holding books and will continue to work on my overall gender balance.

Looking back at the books I read this year, there are some truly exciting finds.  Crawlspace by Herbert Lieberman really stayed with me.  A Dangerous Energy by John Whitbourn was incredible, one of the best portrayals of magic use and a convincing and engaging story of someone turning evil.  He has several more books out there and is now on my list.  He also seems to have read my review and since I can't find his books used, I will look for them new.  That's a strong endorsement by cheapass me!  The Cut by George Pelecanos was just fun.  Finally, The Furies by Keith Roberts, which looked really cheesy by the cover (giant wasps destroy the world!) turned out to be an intense and well-thought out PA novel, definitely should be included in the must-reading for fans of that genre.

So all in all a good year, thanks to whatever magic got me back on track.  I wish all of you a wonderful and book-filled 2018.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

59. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I picked this up at the behest of my brother-in-law and nephew, who both quite enjoyed it.  Interestingly, there seems to have been some snooty critique of Ready Player One by some whom I follow on Google+ and generally trust.  So I was a bit torn, but the appeal of easy reading won me over.  I have to say that it is a thoroughly entertaining read and people who poo-poo it because it has a lot of obvious 80s references need to get over themselves.  This was just straight-up cartoony, post-apocalyptic nerd fantasy and quite a page-turner.

This whole 80s thing is quite odd to me.  It's kind of cool because it makes me feel sort of special at a time in my life when all the glory is behind one, but it is also really puzzling.  The 80s were a time of cultural desperation.  It's not really something I would ever want to go back to.  As a kid, you were constantly looking for something cool and interesting and even if you had the money, which you rarely did, you couldn't find anything cool anyways. There was like one cool record store within any reach and it was usually in a city far away.  There were gaming and comic book stores, but they were hard to get to.  You could find out stuff on cool college and public radio stations but it was almost impossible to be able to actually get your hands on it (thus we recorded the actual radio shows and traded cassette tapes of them).  This was one issue I had with Stranger Things, the kids had all the cool stuff.  It just so was not like that.  One kid had a cool movie poster and all the other kids would be super jealous of it.  In Stranger Things, the kids rooms each have a perfectly curate museum of 80s cultural artifacts.

I wonder if a lot of the appeal today is precisely because it was a time when the search for culture was as important as the culture itself.  Today, it's the opposite where you can get every music, book, movie or videogame within seconds.  Maybe today's youth have a nostalgia for that search.  It was cool, I made friends because of it and checked into neat scenes.  But you have to understand there was also a lot of sitting through shit and boredom, listening to the worst AOR pop metal crap every single day on the school bus or your classmates seeing your King Sunny Ade album and saying "is it funny?".  I walk into a restaurant today and they could be playing some really cool minimalist electronic music or some bangra dub or whatever.  That never happened in the 80s.  Today, D&D is like an industry way to become a screenwriter.  Back in the 80s, mothers were burning your books and protesting after school programs because of the devil.  Don't get too nostalgic, people.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

58. Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason

I am not sure why I put Eleanor Arnason on my book hunting list.  I thought it was more for her fantasy but so far I have only found her sci-fi books.  I am starting to suspect that she is not totally to my style.  Ring of Swords is the second book of hers that I have read.  The first, To the Resurrection Station, was also her first book and you can see in Ring of Swords that her skill as a writer and developer of themes is significantly more mature and evolved.  It's the story of Anna Perez, a biological researcher on a remote planet where humans also happen to be trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the alien Harwarth.  She gets accidently involved in the negotiations when she befriends the human traitor/translator, a naval officer who had been captured decades before in one of the earliest skirmishes with the aliens.

It's a quiet, thoughtful book. Ultimately, it is about two very different cultures trying to figure each other out.  The perspective is mainly from the Harwarth side, who are militarily more powerful and extremely rigid about gender roles.  It is a strictly homosexual society, where the males all go out and fight and have relationships with each other.  The women stay back on the home planet and tend to make the broader strategic decisions.  War for the Harwath follows strict rules that only men can be killed.  Their dillemma is that us humans don't follow those rules and they have to decide how to engage in a war with such an enemy.

It's quite interesting and thoughtful and very well-written.  This is a true science fiction book for people who like reading about complex social thought experiments and to look critically at our own social mores and gender constructs.  From that perspective, it was a worthwhile read.  For myself, it was just a bit too close to non-fiction and I had trouble really getting into it. I think I need to find out what is the one classic of Eleanor Arneson, read that and then put her on my backlist.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

57. An Air that Kills by Margaret Millar

Dark Carnival, to which I get to be in proximity during the holiday season, is under threat of closing down, though thankfully still remains open as of this writing. They have books by several hard-to-find authors that I hadn't purchased for several reasons.  I think that I can no longer afford that luxury and accordingly picked up a two-book volume of Margaret Millar's.  It's really not in a format that I like and the layout and typography is frankly quite bad.  I feel terrible saying that, because I really appreciate Stark House and the quality of the others they get out, but they really need to hire somebody to do their design.  This book was hard to read at first because of the typography.

Fortunately, we're dealing with Margaret Millar here, where "hard to read" is about as far away as you can get.  I really can't get into a deep review here, because the pleasure is in the reading and anything I share with you in this meagre "review" will only weaken that pleasure when you finally make the right choice and dedicate your life to finding all of her books and reading them.  I will say that my primary enjoyment of Millar is her depiction of the characters and their myriad flaws.  She is as unsparing and exposing as Highsmith, yet somehow always maintains a slight tinge of empathy.  People are weak and confused and damaging yet you always get a little hint of why with Millar.  What this book in particular reminded me of, though, is that Millar is also a master crafter of the mystery form.  I can say no more than that.

This story takes place in Toronto and cottage country in Ontario in the 50s.  A successful and disconnected husband is leaving his wife and children for a fishing weekend with his buddies in their lake cottage.  He never gets there.  Why not and did his stopping over and having a drink with the wife of one of the buddies mean something more than just a missed connection?  The plot thickens, friendships and social mores of uptight 50s Toronto are tested.  Great stuff.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

56. Persuader by Lee Child

Nothing like a Jack Reacher novel for when you need to warm up your genre fiction reading gears after going cold turkey from a deep videogame addiction.  This one has been on my on-deck shelf all year and been brought on I believe every trip I went on and yet never actually read until it was the easiest thing left as I struggled to pull myself out of an Assassin's Creed: Origins tailspin.

This one starts off with a bang.  Reacher interrupts an attempted kidnapping of an undergrad at a small private college somewhere in New England.  He drives the kid to his parents isolated and super-protected home on a walled and gated rocky peninsula on the Maine coast.   We learn early on that the kidnapping attempt was a giant set-up to get Reacher into the family so he can save a discovered undercover agent and get to an old nemesis he thought was long dead.

It's a great premise and stays nicely focused.  Reacher has to stay with the family and so we get some nice unity of place.  He gets up to some extreme badassedness in the Reacher style (like simply killing the dude who cottons on to him by breaking his neck in the trailer office while the rest of the baddies are waiting for them outside).  There is some real nasty stuff as well and the lower-level baddies are creatively horrible.  Unfortunately, the two main antagonists are without any character at all and remain ciphers which robs the ending of its impact.  Still all in all a really enjoyable read.  Has a nice Jack Reacher/Lee Child nerdy factoid that I particularly liked:  Villaneuva is spanish for Newton.  Think about it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

55. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I found it for 50 cents at a bazaar
probably the worst cover possible
When doing a 50-book challenge, you must never forget that past performance is no indication of future results.  No matter how much momentum you have going, no matter how many books you are cranking through in a month, no matter how good you are feeling about your long-term book reading prospects, there is always the potential for it all to come undone.

I was project myself into the mid-60s this year, given my excellent summer and fall of reading.  Ah, the arrogance!  A daycare father who works at Ubisoft kindly gave me the new Assassins Creed: Origins game.  I am not a big gamer, but will dive in every now and then.  The second to last Tomb Raider and Stardew Valley were two I really got into in the last couple of years and I was slowly working my way through Rime, an obscure and relaxing exploration puzzle game.  I was not ready to be blindsided by Assassin's Creed, as I thought my days of obsessing over videogames were long behind me.  Oh man, this game has sucked me in.  There is nothing particularly original about it overall.  You play a dude in ancient egypt who has to fulfill a bunch of quests or can just wander around the land, exploring, causing trouble, hunting and so on.  You upgrade your gear, increase your skills and see more territory.  It's just that it is all done so well and richly. The visuals are beautiful and sneaking up on a guard encampent and taking them out with silent arrows is deeply satisfying.  See even in this review of an all-time literary classic, I am indulging myself by talking about this friggin' game.  All this to say, my reading rate has plummeted dramatically at the end of the year.

So thank goodness for my Google+ Roleplaying book club.  I had a commitment to them and it forced me to keep on reading Kim (an activity which would have required zero force a month ago).  What a strange and fascinating book.  I didn't know what to expect except that I knew it was considered a classic work of fiction in the colonial period.  Kim is a young British boy raised on the streets of India, happy in his life.  He meets a wandering Lama from Tibet and decides to be his Chalesh, the boy who begs for the monk.  He is also on the side taking jobs from a horse trader who is an agent in the Great Game.  Much of the first half of the book is Kim and the Lama making their way across Northern India, seeing and interacting with the rich culture.  In the second half, there is a more specific spy mission that he goes on, although even that seems sort of subsumed under the business of his interaction with all the various characters and locations.

I found it hard to read at times, partly because the language has so many references to cultural things from Colonial India that I don't know.  Also because Kipling makes transitions very subtly.  He doesn't tell you when people leave conversations or move to a different location and you have to infer it from the dialogue.  There were also some really great moments, like the amazing description of the Grand Trunk Road and the hilarious insult exchanges between Kim and various locals.

I need to study the history of India more.

Monday, November 27, 2017

54. Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus

I had to keep going with Thongor.  Partly, it's because of my obsessive completist tendencies (why I tried and failed to adher to a non-trilogy or series policy in the first place) but also because the later Thongors did get much more enjoyable.  I particularly liked the pirate scenes in the last book and this one seemed to be all about pirates.  It's the last Thongor book that Lin Carter wrote and this time the pirate city of Tarakus (which weirdly is right in the middle of Thongor's kingdom and they just let it ride all this time) has aligned itself with another escaped wizard who has harnessed another powerful magical/technological weapon from the eldritch past.  The weapon is a ray that makes everybody murderously insane.

Lots of adventure and super-coincidental reunions as usual.  There is a kick-ass princess in this one, who is a love interest but is constantly demonstrating to the dude how badass she actually is, so that was fun.

I note a significant slowdown from my torrid pace in the second half of this year.  This is entirely due to a guy at my daughter's daycare giving me a free copy of Assassin's Creed: Origins a videogame that almost succeeded in taking over my entire life.  This 50 books is no joke.  Distractions can come from anywhere.  Stay vigilant!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

53. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This was a huge childhood favourite of mine but I couldn't actually remember much about its content or even if I read it myself or if my dad had read it to me.  It's the story of a family on vacation in the lake country somewhere in England.  There are two brothers and two sisters (and a new baby sister who doesn't get to go on the adventures yet), their mum and nurse. The father is somewhere around the world on a ship.

The story is basically of their summer sailing on the lake, in particular a week they spend camping on an island in the lake and the adventures they generate from it.  Really not much happens.  It's really about them working their sail boat, setting up camp, pretending to be pirates, spying on the man on the lone houseboat, meeting some rival pirates their age, navigating the waters and going fishing.  Somehow it is all very absorbing and fantastic.  There is a small subplot of a robbery of the houseboat, but it's not really central to the story. 

I wonder if this book would appeal to children of today.  Kids gets such intense dosages of fantasy both visually and content wise with all the tv shows and books out there, that Swallows and Amazons may just seem to pedestrian.  I think it is an important book to read so I hope that they would still enjoy it.  It teaches so much about independence. The oldest boy is maybe 12 I think.  They sail by themselves and stay camping for several nights.  They do check in back at home to get supplies, but I just can't imagine this kind of independence today.  We stayed at Georgian Bay with my aunt a couple of summers ago and we took some of the kids out in her canoe and it was like the biggest deal. The parents don't let their kids out of their sight.  Really sad.

Another sadder thing was that this book was written in 1929 and many of the plucky kids in this story would probably have been off to use their skills and independence in World War II not so far down the road.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

52. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Got this page turner from meezly who I think got it from a colleague at work.  I knew I was going to devour it quickly because she read it quite quickly and I could see the large type and short paragraphs.

I am warning you now this review will have spoilers.  This book is best read not knowing anything.  So I will tell you straight out that it is a page-turning, enjoyable thriller with a really cool sci-fi premise, though it is ultimately about human relations.  That all being said, it is also very much a mainstream book and so is written in a way that I do not enjoy.  Way too much emoting about everything and constant references to class-conscious material goods (like describing the countertops and type of wine in a kitchen that will all feel so dated in a decade).  Also, the main character has to be kind of wimpy and make not the smartest decisions.  People seem to dig this style, but I can only handle a few of them a year.

So here's the story.  Jason Dessen is a happily married physics professor with a 15-year old son.  Coming back from celebratory drinks with his more successful colleague, he is suddenly accosted by a masked man who takes him to an abandoned warehouse and shoots him up with drugs.  He wakes up in a super fancy lab being applauded by a welcoming committee.   They know his name and treat him with deference and respect, but there is also tons of security and armed guards in the lab.  He escapes and makes his way back to his home, but it's all changed and there is no wife and son.  Really honestly you should stop reading this and just go read the book because the premise is really quite cool.

Actually, I am going to stop there as that should give you enough of an idea as to whether this kind of book is for you or not.  I ended up enjoying it, though with the reservations mentioned above as well as one major logical flaw which I will put down below for the record (again, major spoiler!)

[If he could go to any world from the box, why didn't he just go to a world that already had the quantum technology and explain to them what happened and get them to fix it?]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

51. Memory by Donald E. Westlake

This book set up expectations that I was worried were not going to be fulfilled but then when they weren't, Westlake had taken it into such an unexpected direction that I found profound and though not narratively satisfying, totally enriching.

It starts off right away with a dude in bed with another man's wife and the husband barging in.  The husband swings a chair at the dude and then the dude is in a hospital bed.  Once again, I am glad that I had zero knowledge other than the front cover (which is literally the action that takes place not just in the first page but the second paragraph, so definitely no spoilers).  Somehow the blow has damaged the memory of the protagonist, Paul Cole.  He has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember who he was but also has trouble continuing to remember new things.  We learn from the cop who found him that he was an actor with a touring stage play.  The tour paid his wages and went on without him (the show must go on). The cop has a strong moral position on fidelity and rousts Cole out of town. Cole has barely any money after the hospital bill, can't remember who he was beyond the ID in his wallet and has only some instinct urging him to go to New York, which has the address on his driver's license. He takes a bus as far as he can afford and ends up in some small, poor town called Jeffords.  Here it becomes a question of survival for this guy, who has a few dollars and no memory. 

I will stop at the storyline here, except to say that it begins with a lot of classic elements of Westlake's early works.  It takes place in the early 60s.  There is an expertly depicted small town.  Some menacing characters, including a very low-level loan shark at a tannery and a very nasty police detective.  Because of these elements (well crafted as usual with Westlake, god he is good), I thought we were going in one place.  That place being a crime thriller with the dude's memory as the suspense.  It doesn't go there, but instead explores in a pretty interesting way ideas of identity as well as subtly critiquing the cosmpolitan smugness towards what we know today as flyover states.  It's pretty sad and dark but also so interesting and compelling (and as always written so straightforwardly) that you keep turning the pages. It was copywrite 2010 but I wonder when Westlake actually wrote it.  The theme and sophistication made me think that it was indeed one of his later books.

This isn't the book that Hard Case Crime sells you on the cover and blurb, but it is a pretty damn good book. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

50. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White

Blam, did it.  I am quite happy to have made 50 but not feeling like cheering or resting on my laurels.  The challenge is to keep this up year after year and not flake out and build up a huge debt like I did for the last 4 years.  Also, this was perhaps not the best choice for my 50th book.  I have to admit that I read it almost entirely out of duty and not pleasure.  It was like the toughest part of a marathon.  You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It is ostensibly (at least according to the breathless editors, who seem to dotheth protest too much) the true ending to White's classic The Once and Future King that got partially incorporated into the 4 books series that was actually published but mostly blocked due to wartime shortages and editorial decisions.  It was a decent coda, but most of it was the king as an old man going back to the animal societies he visited as a boy when first starting under Merylyn's tutelage.  Then the animals all argue with Merlyn about various types of statehood and how man compares to other species. If you were looking for a political science debate, this would be a fun one to read.  If you are looking for a conclusion to The Once and Future King, this felt like a lot of repetition.  When it does get to the real narrative ending, it is satisfying but it's only about 30 pages.

I was expecting a story that was really about Merlyn, as he is one of the most interesting characters in the Once and Future King. He is going backwards in time, which would be quite difficult to tell in a book.  I suspect the title was created by the editors and not T.H. White himself for exactly the reason that it would encourage sales.  I lay the blame of my dissatisfaction with this book entirely at the feet of the publishers.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

49. The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee by his wife, Linda

I am a huge Bruce Lee fan.  I would go so far as to say that he is one of my major life influences.  He put me on the path that led me to be the man I am today (for better or for worse).  I first heard about him when I was 8 or 9.  I was part of a crew of little middle-class whiteboy roughnecks running the mean streets of Rockridge in Oakland, California.  We even had a gang name, the Thomas Avenue Terrorists (our symbol was a dagger in a pool of blood), ah, the 70s.  There was a golf course around the block from us and somehow we fell in with this guy who was the caretaker/security guard.  I don't think he lasted very long in the job because he was only around a few weeks (plus we were quite likely the kinds of people he was supposed to be guarding against; we used to wild on that golf course including hiding behind the sand traps and stealing balls as they came on to the green).  Anyhow, one of the times we were hanging out with him behind his bronze sedan, he said "I bet I know somebody you kids are into: Bruce Lee!"  Well, actually I had never heard of him before, but we all pretended like we knew who he was and that we were into him. 

It must have planted a seed because a few years later, after having moved to Vancouver Island, I was a full-on kung fu nerd, trying to suck up as much martial arts books, magazines and videos I could get my hands on.  That was not much at the time.  My friend Mike Tanaka and I used to practice our kung fu kicks on his trampoline (he had much better form than I did) and play all kinds of ninja games.  One of the greatest things ever of my young adolescent life was when the Famous Players theatre at Woodgrove mall had a double bill of Enter the Dragon and The Big Brawl.  This was a mainstream first run classic mall theatre (Arthur was the biggest hit they had and it played for weeks; I still don't understand why that movie was so loved in Nanaimo).  I don't know who was the person responsible for scheduling this double bill, but you did a wonderful thing.  My mom took me and Mike to see it (which also was a wonderful thing).  Mind blown.  I perfected my Bruce Lee growl for hours after that and can still do it quite well today.  Later as a young man I got deep into the Hong Kong movie fandom of the 90s and also did martial arts for pretty much most of my adult life.  I even went to China with one of my schools and visited the Shaolin temple. 

So it was pretty cool to go back and read about Bruce's life from Linda's perspective.  I thought this book was going to be a bit cheesy, but it's really straightforward and seems basically honest.  Linda Lee comes out of a different era and implicit in her love for Bruce was the assumption that she would be the quiet rock who took care of the kids.  She was good at it and their opposite personalities worked well together.  Bruce really seemed to love and depend on her, especially when his fame became so massive that he couldn't even leave the house and couldn't trust that anybody liked him for himself anymore.  She seems like a really solid, intelligent and good person.  You have to feel for her that her husband died tragically just as he was about to launch one of the greatest movies of all time and then loses her son in a film accident nineteen years later.  As they say, it just seems so unfair.  And yes Enter the Dragon is one of the best movies of all time.  Come at me.

Bruce Lee was amazing.  Reading about his life today and he almost seems like a parody of the self-actualizing Hollywood success story.  The truth is that he was insanely gifted, insanely charismatic and insanely motivated.  He called his success years before it happened.  He wrote down things like "I am going to bring Chinese gung fu to America" and "I am going to make x millions of dollars and become the first international asian movie star" years before they happened.  It was also really cool to read about his wild teenage years in Hong Kong.  It reminded me a lot of the opening scenes from Bullet in the Head.  He really was a teenage badass.  He got kicked out of a bunch of high schools and wasn't going to make it into college. Though quite delinquent, even back at that young age he was all about bettering himself and he eventually ended up under the tutelage of Yip Man where he learned Wing Chun.  Because he was born in San Francisco (his dad was a successful opera star and had been touring the U.S.) he had an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.  There, he translated his aggressive teenage self into a super-focused young man, did well enough at a technical high school in Seattle to make it to University of Washington where he met Linda.

Watch and learn:

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

48. The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson

I loved Spider World (though it never really ended properly) and have found Colin Wilson's other works intriguing but sometimes a bit too philosophical.  I suspected that of this book but this cover is absolutely irresistible.  I picked it up at Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver, but I can't remember at which store now that it has become a mini and much deserved empire out there.

The Mind Parasites is written as a non-fiction fiction (there must be a word for this).  It is made up long excerpts from a scientist's journal, with some other excerpts and footnotes added here and there to fill out points or bring an added perspective.  In effect, because it is mostly one long excerpt by Professor Gilbert Austin, it becomes basically a story with Austin as its narrator.  He has made a fantastic discovery on an archeological dig in Turkey, a massive structure built under the earth that is evidence of civilizations long before previously thought.  It is explicitly Lovecraftian and the professor posits that Lovecraft's fiction was actually recountings of true visions he was having.  However, it's all a feint, because in his exploration of these ruins, he discovers something else inside his own mind: faint hints of some parasitical species.  He further discovers that these species have been in humanity's mind for the last 200 years and worse are responsible for our inability to evolve past stupid, warring behaviours.

It's kind of a pulp action book where most of the exciting action, at least in the first half, takes place in Austin's mind as he explores deeper while trying not to alert the parasites to his awareness of them.  He recruits other like-minded scientists and the war begins.  It gets pretty ambitious and crazy and is preposterous and a lot of fun.  It's very appealing to think of all the shit going down today and the stupidity and greed of the elites in the world and how it all could be attributable to a parasite that is feeding off our life energy but keeps us stunted enough that we won't discover their existence.  The only thing that I didn't really jibe with was the idea that somehow up until the end of the 18th century, our great thinkers were unfettered and positive and then somehow everything got shitty because we realized there was no God.  That is the parallel that Wilson makes.  He seems really down on 19th century western culture, but I don't know enough about that history to really be critical. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

47. Corentyne Thunder by Edgar Mittelholzer

Picked this up at a Polish Church bazaar.  It's literature!  I'm very impressed with myself.

Corentyne Thunder was written in 1938, Mittelholzer's first book but published after he had somewhat established himself as a Caribbean writer.  It takes place in British Guiana and is the story of a very poor farmer and his two daughters.  They are literally dirt-poor, having only one set of cloths, living in a mud hut and earning money by selling milk from their cows.  The father, Ramgolall, is a coolie of East Indian descent who came over first as an indentured servant, until he bought himself out and was able to establish a small bit of land and some cows.  Despite their very tough existence, they are basically happy.  Interestingly, his daughter from a previous marriage ended up marrying the wealthy, educated cow baron who had been wooing her when she was young and pretty and now her children are being raised educated and comfortable.  So there is an incredible range of class and education in their small world in colonial Guiana.  Race is added somewhat to the mix with black and white characters, but they are mostly on the fringe.

The story itself has an overall narrative arc, but really the enjoyment in this book is learning about their daily lives, the interaction between them and their wealthier relatives and the society in general in Guiana in this period.  I love this kind of stuff.  Written very directly with no unnecessary tension or drama, the text envelopes you in its world.  Sad stuff happens, but it is all very benevolent, compared to what you might think about most colonial writing.  Mittelholzer himself was not a happy man, suffering because he was of mixed black and white race and I do not think anyone would consider his work an apology for colonialism.  It is my own bias of knowing people from the South Caribbean of Indian descent who generally seem quite happy with their lot in life. That is a similar vibe I got from this book, that while there was great inequality, it didn't seem to impact the day-to-day happiness of the people and it felt that there was opportunity for education and the possibility of a family lineage bettering itself.  Again, it's not written as if everything was hunky-dory.  Their lives are portrayed as quite exhausting and physically uncomfortable and there are small injustices and bad behaviours by those in power.  In general, though, the characters happiness is not a function of their station in life and the interaction between the races and class levels has that relaxed Caribbean vibe that makes for a very pleasant read.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

46. Thongor at the End of Time by Lin Carter

So this now is the fourth Thongor book I've read and the last of the set I found at Chainon.  I've now read 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the 6 in total, not counting Young Thongor that came out in 2012 .  The series had been a bit of a slog for me but I am pleased to say that Thongor Against the Gods was actually quite a lot of fun.  There was barely any exposition of past events this time and a much tighter storyline and cast of characters. 

Thongor is now king, married to beautiful Sumia with a strapping son named Thar.  One of the magicians we thought he had killed from Thongor and the City of Magicians had of course survived and was now secretly plotting to get his revenge. At the beginning of the book, Thongor is killed quite suddenly and soon after the queen secludes herself from all her loyalists and sets up this fat, decadent merchant to be in power.  Of course the magician is behind it all and we get two cool storylines: Thongor in the land of the dead and his son and trusted lieutenant on the run with a bunch of pirates.  I particularily enjoyed the pirate storyline.  It was the kind of fantasy setting, that while not original at all, was rich on colourful characters and maritime camarederie.  The return to the city of pirates was a great moment, with the captain striding through the streets of revellers to his favourite tavern. 

I realized as I was reading this that it wasn't just the cliched fantasy tropes that were distancing me from really getting deep into the narrative.  It's also that Carter uses so many adjectives!  I realize that it requires quite a lot of parsing down for my mind to grasp the actual narrative meaning of his sentences and that tires me out and makes my thoughts wander.  Here is a prime example:
Over all the thronged and crowded streets with their jostling, drunken, quarrelsome horde, over all the smokey inns and ale houses, above the narrow roofs and peaked gables, brooded the dark citadel that crowned the crest of the cliffs and thrust squat towers against the storm-dark skies where few stars flashed.
I literally had to re-read this sentence three times before I realized it was trying to tell me that there was a dark citadel brooding over the pirate town.  I appreciate the colourfulness of the descriptions, but he goes way too far.  I also learned that Carter is a very skilled writer and that this style choice is deliberate.  At the end of this book, there is a short essay where he explains the historical sources that inspired Thongor and the world of Lemuria and it is extremely well-written, clear and direct, but not simplistic.

I'm glad I made it this far and while reading the last book I was telling myself I would be done after this one, but I think I will now keep my eye open for the last in the series Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

45. Duncton Wood by William Horwood

I have been exercising my reading muscles significantly in the last few months, but I am not sure I was quite ready for a 750+ page fantasy epic, even if it is about moles in Britain.  I was able to read it consistently and finish it in over a week.  However, I found it a bit of a slog at the end and there were passages where I found myself skimming or drifting off in my thoughts.

Duncton Wood had been on my list for ages (The Farthing Woods books being the other animals in Britain stories that continue to elude me).  I found it finally at least a year ago, but the damn thing was so thick that it sat on my shelf all this time collecting dust, intimidating me.  With my new found reading energy and commitment to clearing off my on-deck shelf, the time finally came and I jumped in.

Duncton Wood is the epic story of a community of moles and the heroic journey of two of them to deliver it from evil and back to the spiritual connection with its past, as represented by the great stone.  I won't go into the storyline because I am averse to any spoilers and part of the pleasure is discovering how it all plays out.  I mean, either you want to read an epic tale of mole fable or you don't.  Nothing I say hear is really going to change your mind.  It is good.  I can definitely say that.  The imposition of a civilized social order on the biological reality of mole existence is really cool and though much of it is invented, their base behaviour feels very realistic (and an afterword that gives an overview of real moles makes it clear that most of it is realistic).  For instance, much of the questing and learning by one of the protagonists is how he develops his tunnel exploring and then construction skills.  He learns how sound works in tunnels so that he can identify locations by them (and build his own that take advantage of that).  There are great descriptions of the diverse environments of the British countryside from a mole's perspective.  There is also hot mole sex (and sometimes awful mole violation), mole combat and even mole kung-fu training.

I am sure this book is known and well-respected, though I imagine there is a generation of nerds out there who should discover this for themselves.  Personally, I can say that it wasn't entirely too my taste.  It's pretty rough, almost too much bad stuff happens for me to have truly enjoyed (I'm soft as you probably can tell by now).  The two protagonists and especially Bracken, the male, spend a lot of time being bummed out or angry and it started to bum me out.  By the end, the story is complex and the author skilled enough that you understand why, so I point this out as a matter of personal preference rather than critique. 

If you consider fantasy your genre, Duncton Wood should probably be on your list. However, holy crap I see there are 5 more sequels.  I am not sure I am quite up to that level of completion.

[POSTSCRIPT for those who have read the book, still pretty much spoiler free]
I also note here that I am suspect of the behaviour of Rebecca towards her father Mandrake.  I get that she is a healer and their love was a complex thing and part of the complexity of her character, but I do not think a female author would have ever written it in this way and it felt very off given the way our society is finally (I hope) evolving to undersand and condemn the role of sexual violence in our culture.  I am speaking very obliquely to avoid spoilers, but when you read it you will see what I am talking about.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

44. The Man on the Bench in the Barn by Georges Simenon

Funny story about this one, I was wandering through various back roads in the area of PEI where we often spend our summer vacation and discovered a rental cabins place where the office had a big "Books" sign on it.  I went in and there was the typical vacation cabins office but very few books, only three ground level shelves.  I went through them nonetheless and discovered this hardback which had originally been from either the Town of Mississauga library or Clarkson-Lorne Park (or both or they are the same thing) based on stickers and stamps on the inside.  It is a first edition but in really bad shape.  The proprietor told me they used to have tons of books, shelves up and down all the walls but that they stopped selling so he had boxed them up.  I wished I had a chance to go through those, but he didn't say where he had put them.  He also did a search for this book and found somebody selling the same first edition on the internet for $21.45.  I pushed back on the state of the book but I could see he was feeling like I was trying to put one over on him, so I gave in easy and gave him $20 for it.  Way overpriced, but the value worked for me at the time.  Still, I carry a slight sense of annoyance with the guy.  You could just tell he was one of those cheap vendors who refuse to discount any stock even though it doesn't move because he thinks he can get the face value for it.

Anyhow, on to the book itself.  Simenon is an amazing writer.  I really need to try and read one of his novels in french.  If the translations of his books are good and his french is as straightforward and short-sentenced as his books in english are, I should be able to read them fairly easily.  He is removed from the situation but at the same time somehow captures the psychology of the broken men that are so often his protagonists.  Here, it is Donald Dodd, small town upper middle class Connecticut lawyer, respected but humble. He goes to a big holiday party put on by a rich guy in his area with his wife and another couple.  On the way back, they get stuck in a serious blizzard and have to walk the last mile home.  Ray, the other husband and ostensibly Donald's best friend gets separated from them and is not there when they finally make it back to the house.  Donald goes out to try and find him and instead of actually looking, goes and sits in his barn and smokes cigarettes, knowing he is basically leaving Ray to die.

His action (or inaction) is partly due to physical cowardice but it's also something deeper and that is what the rest of the novel reveals.  He starts to question his life and poke holes in his past behaviour.  I won't go into details and it's all very subtle.  The first half was really great.  The second half kept on the same subtle pacing and made it less explosively entertaining for me but still really interesting and engaging.  You kind of hate the guy but you totally understand him.  Simenon just nails that new england upper middle class self-loathing and anomie of this period.  Good stuff.

Monday, October 16, 2017

43. The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon

I think I may be out on Theodore Sturgeon.  After finishing this collection of his short stories, I went back and read my past reviews of Sturgeon's works.  I really enjoyed The Dreaming Jewels, but I think he is just too much of a theoretical sci-fi author for me, sacrificing story for teasing out his ideas and concepts, most of which I don't find all that interesting.

This anthology, for instance,  had several stories that dealt with human psychology and technology that allowed scientists and psychiatrists to test out Sturgeon's wild theories on human psychology.  They all feel very dated, which is not a sin and of itself.  It's just that the '50s and psychology are kind of a particularly noxious mix, at least for me.  On top of that, the actual human relations that are in these stories feel really forced and artificial.  Love, in Sturgeon's world, seems super melodramatic.  He also seems to have a bit of an issue with being cuckolded, as that comes up in at least three of the stories here.

I apologize for belittling somebody who has contributed so much to the field ("Live long and prosper" being his line among other things) and who seems like an interesting and possibly quite good person.  He wants to understand why humans go to war, why we are so emotionally imperfect and he does a lot of interesting things exploring these themes.  His writing just doesn't work for me and these stories were a particular slog.

On a side note, there is a story in here, The Skills of Xanadu, about a super advanced humanity that is visited by another powerful (but less so) invader scout.  Though these people live in total harmony with freedom to do whatever they want, the women still are responsible for serving the food!  Sturgeon seemed like a very progressive thinker.  His novel Venus Plus X is about a species with a single gender.  He supposedly snuck in some homosexual subtext in an episode of Star Trek.  And yet even he cannot see beyond the dominant nuclear family heterosexual construct.  At first, I felt very critical of him, but upon further reflection it really makes you realize how powerful and fundamental these social constructs can be when you are inside of them.  If only 50 years ago, it was impossible for a science fiction writer to conceive of a future of humanity where women were not primarily responsible for homemaking, what rigid dogma are we today still stuck in?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

42. High Citadel by Desmond Bagley

Now this is what I am talking about.  This is how you write a manly adventure novel.  I was a huge Desmond Bagley fan in my adolescent years after my dad turned me on to him (I think it might have actually been this novel).  The last time I had read a Desmond Bagley novel was High Citadel for the second or third time while hiking through Torres del Paine park in Chile in 1996.  So it's been over 20 years.  Though I was looking forward to re-reading this, I was also nervous that I would find it lacking and be disappointed.

Well either I have not evolved at all as a critical reader (quite likely) or Desmond Bagley is just a kickass writer (or both) as I found myself to have thoroughly enjoyed High Citadel.  It has a few flaws, notably the simplistic conservative politics.  Otherwise, it is arguably a near-Platonic ideal of the late 20th century masculine adventure novel.  Being a little less hyperbolic, I would say that it is a tight, thrilling and imaginative story with a driving structure that really doesn't let up.

The protagonist is Tim O'hara, burnt-out alchoholic pilot flying over the Andes for a shitty airline.  He gets woken up for a late night emergency flight to take a bunch of passengers from a grounded airline to the capital of fictonal Cordillero.  His greasy, lazy co-pilot Grivas is acting weird and gets really weird when over a mountain pass he pulls a gun on O'Hara and forces him to land on a mountain runway.  The plane crashes and O'Hara and the surviving passengers find out that one of them is the ex-president of Cordillera who was secretly returning to trigger a revolution to overthrow the general who staged a coup against him.  Grivas was part of a plot by communist infiltrators to prevent him from returning.

And here is what makes this novel so great.  Oddly, there is nobody at this hidden mountain runway and when the passengers make their beleagured way down the old mining road, they come to a gorge with a single bridge on it. On the other side of the gorge are trucks and a bunch of soldiers. The sole bridge crossing the gorge has been damaged by the first truck that tried to cross it and now they can't get across.  The rest of the book is the survivors, led by O'Hara trying to hold off the soldiers from repairing the bridge.  They are a mixed bag of tourists, businessmen, the ex-president and his beautiful niece and O'Hara.  They have a single pistol among them, taken from the plane, with 12 bullets in it and bits of pieces of leftover equipment from the abandoned mine, as well as supplies the soldiers had left earlier.  I won't go into any detail about the creativity they use to try and survive, but will say that a medieval history professor turns out to be one of their most valuable assets.
The politics do bear mentioning.  The communists are portrayed as cruel and incompetent and it is assumed that the CIA are good guys and the ex-president simply wants liberty and business for his country.  You could very easily read this book as subtle imperialistic propaganda except that the real values here are not political at all but rather the redemption of a man when given the opportunity to fight and find a real woman.

A note on the trade dress.  I really love the design of these Fontana Desmond Bagleys.  There is a whole series and something about the illustration over the cream background and the typeface really works for me.  I would love to have the entire set. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

41. New Worlds of Fantasy #2 edited by Terry Carr

I generally avoid short stories, for many reasons, mainly that they are too all over the place in anthologies and rarely leave me satisfied. I found this one at Chainon and it had some good names and was a nice looking book, so I made an exception to the rule.  Each story has a neat little horizontal illustration at the top of the page that I found quite pleasing.  They were done Kelly Freas, who also did the cover (which I like less not because of the execution but the mode, silver-age abstraction of which I am not a huge fan).  I wish I could show you some but that would entail opening the book flat and the spine already cracked when I got to the end.

Overall, I found this anthology to be light, with a few bright spots.  Carr's intro did little to excite me, being pretty generic with a softball attempt to defend the genre of fantasy, which honestly isn't even well-represented here, the stories being more odd or supernatural than actual fantasy.  There was a lot of melancholy and those subtle ghost stories where nobody gets killed or anything.

There was one that really stood out for me, though, and that was The Scarlet Lady by Keith Roberts.  I wonder if Stephen King had read this, as it is basically Christine written 20 years earlier and taking place in England.  A mechanic's brother buys this massive old luxury vehicle that seems a nightmare from the beginning because it is so hard to get parts for, but then becomes a nightmare for real as it starts to rear off the road to mow down dogs, cats, cows and eventually humans.  The brother gets crazier and crazier as well, sneaking out to the garage at night to polish the car and stare at it.  This was a lot of fun.

Monday, October 09, 2017

40. Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard

This is a paperback anthology first printed in 1975 is a collection of Howard's short stories featuring Bran Mak Morn.  It's similar to Tigers of the Sea, which was released in the same format by Zebra.  They are illustrated and I think may have some value as they are both first printings.  They just aren't that good looking on the outside.  The art is vague and the typefaces a mess.

Anyhow, onto  the story.  Bran Mak Morn is a pict in northwestern Britain of Roman times.  They are embattled on all sides, a dying race.  Howard loves these guys.  There are only a few stories, so you get snippets of Bran's life.  He does manage to unite the scattered Pict tribes until his death.  He's a badass, like all Howard's heroes.  His skills lean towards subterfuge and craftiness.  These stories are overall much more supernatural than the Cormac Mac Art collection.  And overall I preferred them.

Howard is obsessed with racial origins and how they determine character.  It gets to be a bit much in these stories.  I think because of all the invading peoples (Romans, Saxons, Gaels, Britons, Vikings, etc.) Howard can really get into their various characteristics.  It is hard to call it consistently racist, though it gets pretty close at times.

I seem to have stumbled upon the theme of the middle ages in my reading this fall.  I think I may actually be learning something.  I can't get any of it straight, but now I have an overall better sense of England's origins.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

39. Shovelling Trouble by Mordecai Richley

I'm a big fan of Mordecai Richler and I am glad I read this collection of his essays from the late '60s to remind me.  He is smart, insightful and just so skeweringly funny.  He also pulls no punches.  I feel he reflects the best of our Canadian culture of criticism, in his directness.

The best one here is his essay on the James Bond books and Fleming himself.  He rips both apart.  It's pretty convincing actually.  I've read three or four of the Bond novels and they never did anything for me.  Richler helped me understand why.  He writes about hanging out in Paris with American artistic expats in the '50s, ongoing anti-semitism in the world, writing, Canadian culture (spot on).

Also, a beautiful paperback in great condition that I got free from I can't remember where.

Friday, October 06, 2017

38. The Once and Future King by T. H. White

This book is a bit above my pay grade.  I grabbed it free somewhere because it was one of those so comfortable Fontana paperbacks from the '80s and the title struck some distant chord in my memory.  I thought I was getting into a filled-out retelling of the Arthurian myth, which is exactly what it is, except not at all in the style that I expected.  I understand now that this book was a pretty huge hit when it came out and possibly one of the more important contributors to our contemporary understanding of the Knights of the Round Table.

What really threw me is that right from the beginning, the writing style is irreverent, almost flippant.  It reminded me of the British tradition of taking the piss out of things.  White makes a real effort to make Merlyn seem muddled (though still powerful) and there are long sections devoted to making questing knights seems like the twits of Monty Python.  It is also anachronistic, both in the story itself, because Merlyn is going backwards in time and makes constant references to things that haven't happened yet, especially the rise of fascism and in the meta-text because the narrator uses modern factors to build metaphors, like knights as cricket stars.  It's very jarring but then becomes quite fun.  The portrayal of magic is really cool as well, both utterly fantastic (Merlyn transforms Arthur into various animals as part of his education) and grounded (the hunting birds are rigorously mannered).

It's actually 4 books that later got put together into this single volume.  The first part is about Arthur's upbringing leading up to him pulling the sword out of the stone (which is a deliberate anti-climax).  The second, almost an interlude, introduces the secondary characters like Gawaine and his brothers, at a young age.  The third book is all about Lancelot, the love triangle between him Arthur and Guinevere and ultimately about Arthur's attempt to impose the rule of Right rather than Might on Britain.  The fourth book is it all coming undone.

And that is the main theme of the book.  It takes the piss out of the weight of the middle ages and then ultimately raises Arthur up as this deeply heroic figure not because of wars won but because of an extremist idealism to make England and ultimately the Christian world into a place that was ruled by justice, a modernized code of chivalry.  In effect, he reinforces the idea of the myth of Arthur as the father of Britain and takes it to an even greater level.  All the books were written around World War II and the spectre of fascism and Hitler's rise to power is explicit, especially in the last book.  White philosophizes deeply via Arthur's thoughts as an old king, failing to maintain his ethos in his kingdom about why man must constantly fall back into Might.

So it's a deep book, but along the way a lot of fun.  Another theme here is that White clearly loves the middle ages and he takes pains to show how rich and complex life was back then.  He doesn't shy from its brutality (and it gets brutal at points), but he does enrichen the culture, industry, crafting and thinking of the time that definitely worked on this reader.

Good stuff, definitely should be read by every nerd.

Friday, September 29, 2017

37. Lost Race of Mars by Robert Silverberg

I can't remember where I picked this up.  I know that Robert Silverberg is a fairly prolific sci-fi author and have never read anything by him.  Lost Race of Mars is a Scholastic book, written for late elementary school kids and probably something I would have dug back then.  I was hoping to get a teeny taste for Silverberg and more importantly a bit of insight into the kind of sci-fi schoolkids would be reading in 1960 when it was published.

The Chambers are the classic '50s nuclear family, father is a scientist, mother is a homemaker and Sally and Jim keen brother and sister.  The year is 2017 and earth has a colony on Mars.  Dr. Chambers (the dad) receives a grant to go and study there for a year. There is evidence that there was an ancient race on Mars but most people believe them to be long dead.  There are plants, animals and a bit of water, even thin oxygen (either Silverberg was fudging it for a kids book or they really did not have much knowledge about the solar system back then).  When the family gets there, they do not receive a friendly welcome.  The ethos is one of hard work and practicality and they are seen as freeloaders, using up precious oxygen and resources and not contributing anything tangible.  The father struggles to get the equipment he needs.  The children are particularly mean and Sally and Jim find themselves ostracized.  They decide to sneak out on their own to see if they can find the martians.

It's a fun, quick little read, simplistic and not super realistic.  I will slip it into my daughter's shelf and maybe she will chance upon it one day in the future (assuming we aren't dragging a sled with our bare necessities across the wasteland).  I will be curious to see what she thinks about it.

Here is a nice blog post giving a bit of history on the book and reference material on Silverberg and the illustrator, Leanard Kessler.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

36. West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn

Lost in the mists of time is the source of my original reason for adding Edgar Pangborn's Davy to my paperback hunting list I keep in my wallet.  I found West of the Sun in Victoria and though it wasn't Davy, it is the first Edgar Pangborn I had found, so I decided to buy it.  I read it and respected, but not sure if I should keep Davy on my list.

Based on this single novel, I feel I can say that Pangborn is a good writer, intelligent and thoughtful.  However, I am not sure if he is really to my style.  The story take place in the early 21st century. Earth sends out an exploratory ship and the book begins when that ship finds a livable planet  Unfortunately the ship crashes and the crew has to consider living there forever.  It is divided into 3 parts: the initial landing. 1 year later and 10 years later.  It reminded me a lot of Earth Abides.  Much of the story is interacting with the local flora and fauna and meeting the intelligent life (of which there are two kinds, cannibalistic warrior pigmies and super chill solitary ape creatures).  Much of, though, is about the crew themselves and how they are going to try and start a new human society while interacting with and developing the existing creatures.

The Prime Directive is definitely violated here, as they bring language and tools and just generally make a massive impact on the part of the planet they landed on.  It's an interesting story and a thoughtful exploration of what would be the challenges of landing on and surviving in another world.  There is also, unfortunately for me, a lot of long conversations about theories of civlization, much of it in that weird early 60s language that always seems trying to hard to be poetic and clever.  I found it particularly annoying that when the natives learn english, they speak it like some upper middle class housewife in a John D. MacDonald suburban thriller.  Basically, the ratio of story and characters to ideas about society was way too low for me.

These are my pet peeves and I will still keep an eye out for Davy, but I waver.

Monday, September 25, 2017

35. Balconville a play by David Fennario

A friend gave me this play for my birthday and it has been sitting on my shelf for a few years.  It's a real artifact from the anglo-Canadian scene during the height of the struggle for independence in Quebec.  Well that's what it takes place, but it was written in 1980, so about ten years later, but the issues were certainly still going on in this form back then.

The play takes place in Pointe-St-Charles, a neighbourhood on the other side of the canal from downtown Montreal, one of the earliest working class neighbourhoods and also a place where a lot of the social spirit of Quebec and Montreal was started.  The play is set in facing balconies, with two anglophone families on one side and a francophone family on the other.  Most of what goes on is street life among the working class people, in french and english: angry teenage daughter, alchoholic unemployed boyfriend, simply delivery guy, tired wives and so on.  It's quite entertaining and would probably be quite fun to see live.  There is no innate conflict between the french and english, but as the play goes on and when there is conflict about other things, it quite quickly leads to blaming the other side.

It all is leading up to a pretty obvious political sentiment, which is made explicit at the climactic ending when the actors turn to the audience and say "What are we going to do?" in french and english.  The answer is obvious in the text, which is stop fighting amongst yourselves and unite to fight the real enemy, the wealthy and the politicians.

I like the sentiment and I generally agree with it, but I can also see how a francophone audience at the time might not take it so positively.  This is a very similar kind of dynamic as to what is going on now in the States with all this talk about the poor white people in the flyover states being neglected by the left.  Yes, it sucks for everybody who is poor.  It sucks even worse to be poor and in a cultural minority.  This is something the resentful anglophones never really understood (and to this day you still hear them complain of the discrimination against them here as if the bureaucracy in B.C. or Ontario is somehow super effective and well-managed).  So it feels a bit naive and optimistic for Fennario to think that the two solitudes are going to unite while all the advantages were still structurally geared towards english speakers.  It's telling that this play has only performed in English theatres (at least according to the book; it may have shown elsewhere since then). 

The other interesting thing is that Pointe St-Charles is gentrifying pretty quickly and the people that make up the characters in this play are slowly disappearing from that neighbourhood.  It will take a while still but already the struggle and hardships depicted in this play are disappearing (or more likely moving away) and along with them a lot of the spirit and culture here too, to be replaced by professional families who organize "playdates" and worry about safety.

34. Thongor in the City of Magicians

More Thongor!  I am reading these because I found a pretty nice set of old British paperbacks at Chainon.  Unfortunately, it didn't include the one before this one (Thongor against the Gods, I believe), so I missed another most certainly epic chapter in Thongor's domination of all things vile in Lemuria.  Lin Carter is very conscious of this possibly happening as much of the start of Thongor in the City of Magicians is a recap of all of Thongor's previous adventures, as well as listing out all the secondary characters and the political situation.  The problem is there is a ton of secondary characters and their names all sound the same and they are all exemplaries of their brand of heroism and manliness.  Likewise with the various cities.  It's very hard to distinguish between them all.  This is real nerdery here.  Probably had I read these when I was into this stuff, I would have written it all out, drawn maps and so on.  In my late 40s, it becomes a real slog.

When you finally get through all that, the story does get quite fun.  This time, we learn about the source of all the nasty druids and alchemists who had been taking over the good cities.  It's the city of Zaar, far to the south of Lemuria, run by nine evil wizards and surrounded by black marble walls (that also hold back the crashing waves of the Pacific).  Thongor and his people head in that direction to mine some precious stones filled with sun energy and of course he gets captured.  Lots of ass-kicking ensues and great descriptions of corrupt magic and its practitioners.

This book really emphasizes that Lemuria is from earth's past and will sink into the ocean.  It even suggests that the continent has been weakened by all the meddling with dark magics, a bit of a climate change metaphor from back in the day.

Finishing this, I also realized that maybe Carter adds all the nerdery to pad the book out, because it's barely a novel as is and would almost be more of a short story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

33. The Levanter by Eric Ambler

I went through a big re-read of Eric Ambler's pre-WWII books and really enjoyed them.  My memory of his post-WWII books were less positive and I wasn't so enthused to jump into this book. I think I was concerned that they would be suffer from that weird 70s masculinity of that generation of British writers.  I also suspected they may be have been a bit too subtle for my younger mind.

I am happy to report, that at least with the Levanter, my concerns were entirely unfounded.  I do see why my younger self didn't find it quite as thrilling as say Desmond Bagley or Michael Gilbert.  It's the richness of the detail, the complexity of character, the description of region that are all done so well that make this book so great.  It also has a slow, simmering tension that really grabs onto you and forces you to keep turning the pages to find out what happens.  I think, though, that all of those positive aspects are more effective with an older reader.  There are pages and pages, for instance, of the history of a family company in the mediterranean.  I soaked it up, but I could see others thinking it was boring.

The structure is also interesting.  At it's core, The Levanter has a simple plot.  A businessman in the middle east is forced to participate in a terrorist plot and has to use his wits to prevent it, save himself, his mistress and his business.  However, it takes a while for the reader to figure it out, as it begins in the future and jumps between the viewpoints of said businessman and a journalist and seems, at first, to be more about a well-known lesser Palestinian terrorist.  Once the structure settles down and you stick with the businessman's narrative, you, as I said above, really get stuck in. He accidently discovers that one of his night watchmen is this terrorist leader and has been using his battery factory to build his devices and train his men.  The terrorist then forces him to join them and the rest of the book is his attempt to find a way out.

Really great stuff.  The businessman himself, though named Michael Howell, is really a mutt of the colonial middle east, English from three generations back but now mixed with Turkish and Greek Cypriot blood, educated in British public schools but fluent in Arabic, Greek and a few other languages.  He's a great character, privileged and a bit smarmy but also skilled and competent.  There is implicit bias here, for sure.  All the middle eastern characters are either terrorists, manipulative civil servants or cruel policemen.  Even the Israelis are demonstrated as being difficult.  The only truly reasonable people are the protagonist, his mistress and an American journalist.  We will see if this bias plays out in other Ambler books. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

32. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

My brother-in-law got me this last xmas and I had put it away for a time when I was ready for some good, modern sci-fi.  I actually got started on it this Spring, but couldn't get into it. In my current new reading resurgence, I jumped right in.  On the back of the book, the blurb says it is hard science fiction.  I think that is a mischaracterization.  It's definitely high-level, with some technical ideas that require a bit of understanding (like public private key encryption).  I would consider it more transhuman.  We are out in space with quantum nanotechnology that allows people to take over different bodies and space battles that are complex combinations of nuclear firepower and code attacks.

It takes a while to figure out what is going on.  The protagonist is a thief who gets sprung from a space jail where he keeps having to engage in a prisoner's dilemma with the other prisoners (and keeps dying).  A space warrior chick working for a goddess needs him to do a mission on Oubliette, which is the civilization on Mars.  Things there are really complicated and I won't even go into it, suffice it to say that it's pretty cool if you are into that kind of thing.

I'm just a little old and lazy now and while I appreciate the author not explaining a lot of things, it also made it harder to get into.  In the end, I think I more or less figured out the major plot.  Stories where technology is so advanced can sometimes lack emotional connection with the characters, especially when they are constantly rewriting their own identities and memories.  I found that to be the case here.  Nonetheless, the situation and tech was so cool that I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it turns out to be a trilogy and probably one I will have to eventually seek out (at which point I will have most likely forgotten what happened in the first book.  Sigh.)

[Completely irrelevant side note: the title of this book is accurate and it makes me think of another title that totally bugs the shit out of me, the movie Quantum of Solace.  What the fuck does that even mean?  I don't dislike Daniel Craig but his Bonds are probably the worst of them all and that stupid, meaninglessly pretentious title perfectly exemplifies why.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

31. Tigers of the Sea by Robert E. Howard

I believe it was Cormac Mac Art that my friend Jason first discovered way back in the day when we were nerdy teenagers and told me that there were characters other than Conan written by Howard.  It was quite a revelation at the time!  However, I never actually read anything other than Conan in all these years, so I was glad to find this book (and a Bran Mak Morn one as well to be read soon) at my local thrift store.

There are good and bad elements about reading a series of pulp stories about the same character.  It's cool to have it as a historical artifact and its very existence is thanks to Richard L. Tierney.  He put the collection together and had it published in 1975. He also wrote a very helpful introduction that is a survey of all the various characters that Howard created in old Europe and how they connect together in various historical periods.  I would have liked a bit more detail on the actual publication dates and sources, but the history is really helpful to ground the stories and give you clues to hunt down his other books.

On the other hand, there is a certain sameness to three of the stories here.  Cormac Mac Art is a badass Erin warrior who has travelled and warred all over the post-Roman British isles who is also very clever.  Each story has him and his pirate chief Wulfere sneaking into some enemy camp, either with physical subterfuge or in disguise, getting involved in some greater conflict, kicking a ton of ass and then getting out with the booty.  The ass-kicking is rip-roaring, heavy physical stuff (gigantic axes smashing through helms kind of thing) which I really enjoy.  After two stories of it, though, one needs a bit of a break.  It pains me to write this but I was even slightly bored at a couple points (sorry, sorry, Robert E. Howard).  It's like three pot roasts in a row.  Ideally, you have had a shitty day at work dealing with the whinging and the incompetent and you go home, have an ale and read one of these stories about how one really deals with lesser men to get your head straight again.

The last story, "The Temple of Abomination" was not completed and was a breath of fresh air from all the vikings and their stockades, with an ancient dark druid and the fetid, corrupt creatures he commands. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

30. First on the Moon by Jeff Sutton

Golden Age sci-fi is not totally my bag.  I can't remember where I got this book but I really liked the bold, colourful cover and it was in good condition.  I thought it was going to be a fantastic gee-whiz space story, but it is actually much more akin to a hard sci-fi attempt to realistically imagine in 1958 what a race to the moon would look like.

It takes place during the height of the cold war and is told from the perspective of an elite pilot brought into a top secret training program.  Paranoia is everywhere, to the point that he is pulled from his last date before launch because two previous pilots were killed in staged accidents.  He and his date are replaced with doubles (whom we later learn are also killed).  He is then led to the real rocket (the one he had been training on turns out to have been a duplicate to further fool the enemy) and meets his crew of three.  It's a tense, steady read.  A bit dry at times, but with enough suspense and even some characterization to keep me hooked.  They go to the moon, have to deal with all the very real issues of survival there as well as the commies who do all kinds of dastardly things.  They send a missile while they are in flight, they send another rocket themselves.  The whole point is that the country that first establishes a succesful person on the moon gets to claim it for their own in the eyes of the UN.  Once on the planet, the commander also learns that one of his men is a double agent who is sabotaging the mission.

It kind of felt like what I imagine The Martian was like, but from a 1958 perspective.  Jeff Sutton did many things in his life (including writing quite a few science fiction novels), among them working on survival issues for high-altitude pilots, so he knew his stuff.  Solid read.

Monday, September 11, 2017

29. The Case of the Vanishing Boy by Alexander Key

When I was a kid in elementary school, Escape from Witch Mountain came out.  I'm still not sure if it was a movie or a TV special, but everybody was talking about it.  I somehow saw at least an image from it and remember having a powerful crush on the girl.  I never did see it.  We didn't have TV and for some reason it never got on my parents' radar, but like a lot of media that I didn't see, I pretended that I had to be part of the conversation (Mad Magazine parodies were the best for this).

I don't remember where I found this book, but I thought I should check it out.  I wouldn't be surprised if there is some small re-discovery of Key's work, because this stuff falls squarely in the same genre as the successful Stranger Things series on Netflix.  Adolescent kids with powers who discover malfeasance among nasty, scientific adults and have to deal with it mostly on their own.  In this case, there are also some good adults, who are of course, self-consciously non-conformist. 

This is actually Key's last book (he died in 1979).  The story here is about Jan, a boy who wakes up on a commuter train with no memory of who he is or where he came from but that he is running.  He meets a blind girl on the train who spots him as somebody in trouble and the adventure begins (or continues).  I really enjoyed the in media res beginning.  I sort of figured most of the mystery out (minus the details) quite quickly.  It's a tight read, quite thrilling and enjoyable with real stakes and action.  I will see if my 12-year old nephew finds it interesting.  I think I would like to check out Escape from Witch Mountain and maybe even the original movie, just so I can talk about it without making stuff up.