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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

28. Thongor of Lemuria

Part two of the Thongor saga, which is not always easy to know as the titles all kind of sound the same.  I need at some point to make a reference list.  The first one is called The Wizard of Lemuria and the second Thongor of Lemuria and on the back of the edition I have, where they list the other titles, they don't specify if they are in order (and they call it "the saga of Thongor of Lemuria" but that isn't the name of the first book, argh!).  I remember as a young nerd in the late '70s and early '80s how it was so hard to find out any info on things (like which Star Trek episode came from which season, or what all the Star Wars cards were and so on).  On the one hand, this lack of information probably is what gives me my book-hunting drive today.  On the other, it seems damned lazy and cheap by the publishers at the time, who knew they were marketing to anal-retentive nerds and should have given us the data we needed.

Anyhow, this is another chapter in Thongor's ass-kicking life.  It starts off immediately after where the last one left off, with Thongor, the hot babe Sumia and his less extraordinary but still capable soldier friend Karm Karvus on the airship.  They hit an electrical storm and fall into the ocean and all kinds of shit happens.  It starts out at first with them being on an unknown jungle isle, fighting local flora, fauna and primitives, but we quite quickly get back to the bigger geopolitical plot of decadent, evil men taking over kingdoms and cities and fucking with Thongor.

Like the first book, at first I was a bit bored and found it all too simplistic and derivative and then things got quite weird and excessive and I was once again in for the ride.  I do find disappointing the depiction of the jungle savages.  It's not quite as blatantly racist as Howard, but still has the boring trope that being primitive means not only being less civilized but also arbitrarily crueler and genetically inferior.  Plus, they are dark and apelike.  I get the sexism in these books, written in 1966, but you think Lin Carter might have been just slightly more aware than the pulp writers of the thirties.  Sentences like "Scores of the shaggy Beastmen and their unlovely mates and equally repulsive cubs crawled from the huts to watch the procession" bum me out.  I'm not expecting a post-colonial deconstruction of the native "other" here, just maybe a bit more sense that a bunch of natives living in the jungle might actually have a reason for doing what they are doing.

The more civilized badguys in this book are, on the other hand, quite entertaining and creative and their evil is due to their own character flaws (greed, ambition, etc.) rather than any innate genetic characteristics.  The torturer whose body is bubbling with disease, the corpulent scientist vampire who sits naked in his techno-chair feeding on the blood of his people, these guys often have weak and cruel lips.  Good stuff.

I am just going to keep on cruising through this saga.  I found a bunch of Thongors at Chainon from Tandem, a British press.  The image above is my scan. Oh yeah, there re so many names of beasts, places and especially characters and they all kind of use the same structure that I couldn't really keep them straight. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

27. The Furies by Keith Roberts

I found this at Chainon, a thrift store here that is a fundraiser/job provider for a woman's shelter (called Chainon) and support organization.  They have a small but decent english fiction section and while it doesn't change much, every now and then you can find a few gems there. They re-arranged the place earlier this year and right afterwards there was a minor treasure trove of old paperbacks, including a bunch of Thongors and this book, which I grabbed almost purely because it was such a beautiful old paperback.  I did not have high expectations.

The subjet matter is certainly in my wheelhouse.  Gigantic wasps take over the world.  It also is a pretty good book.  I would have been happy to have found it even if it were more trashy and less well written, simply because The Furies definitely can be categorized as a post-apocalyptic book.  Happily, it turned out to be a pretty good read.

The hero is an illustrator who recently bought a place in the country and has a pretty good life, kind of just enjoying things including a not-expected professional and financial success (that allowed him to buy the house) and a great dane.  He also meets a young girl who is vacationing in the area and they become friends, taking the dog for long walks. Then giant wasps start attacking in the area.  At first it is sporadic, but then it turns into an all-out assault.  At the same time, there are two major nuclear tests that set off massive global earthquakes.  The end result is a split and ruptured england and gigantic wasps everywhere, killing humans as efficiently as possible.

This is already a lot of fun but it gets a lot deeper and weirder.  I won't reveal too much more of the plot, but there is great survival stuff and rich exploration into what the wasps are doing.  It's quite tough.  Punches are not pulled, though it is all done with a lot of British stiff upper lip.  It's really quite epic.  This paperback had small type and small margins so it was deceptively thin, but really could have been a much thicker book.

It's not perfect. There is a bit too much of jumping into omniscient explanation of what is going on.  These explanations satisfy one's curiousity, but feel a bit unnatural and take you out of the flow of the survival narrative, which is otherwise quite gripping.  Still, I am very happy to add this to my library.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

26. The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson

A neat little fantasy novel from 1976 about a boy priest (named Tron, 6 years before the movie) in an isolated religion-bound kingdom.  He gets a sign from the gods at an important ritual which he distrupts, thus dooming the king to death.  He feels compelled to take the hawk that was to be sacrificed for the king.  As it turns out, he was actually being manipulated by the cabal of elderly priests in their machinations to maintain their political strength over the king and the military, who want to open the country up.  It's pretty neat as you the reader and the boy discover the world and the political machinations as well as starting to see that while he was manipulated, it's not clear if it was the priests or actually the gods themselves who may be playing a very different game.

Very cool story for young and old alike. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

25. Too Mini Murders by Patrick Morgan

Another book in the Operation Hang Ten series about surfing detective/undercover agent Bill Cartwright.  I am going to have to go back and check the reviews of the other Operation Hang Ten's that I read (I think two).  I don't remember them being as nasty as this one.  It really leans heavily on the pornographic mysogyny and it crossed the line for me and left a gross taste in my mouth that the redeeming features wasn't quite able to wash away.

Also, I get that Cartwright is mellow, but here he is downright negligent.  A young girl, whose life is threatened, comes to Cartwright's trailer for help.  He of course beds her (and satisfies her profoundly in a way none of her previous partners could even come close to doing).  The next day, he leaves her in the trailer and tells her to not answer the door for anybody.  Of course, the bad guys come and she answers the door.  Cartwright doesn't get back until late that evening and doesn't even do anything when he discovers her missing. He goes to the beach the next day!  She of course gets brutally raped, tortured and murdered.

There is one interesting passage where he goes to a drag strip and talks about the professionalization of drag racing, how it started out as amateurs in their garage but as the big car companies got involved, became more and more competitive and the little hobbyists slowly got squeezed out or forced to do illegal drag racing.  A lot of the philosophy of the book is the individual, free from constraints of the establishment (that is Cartwright's life philosophy to the point that he somehow justifies his violence against criminals in that they, even more than "the man" risk limiting his vagabond lifestyle). 

I went back and read the two other reviews and it does sound like the sexual violence in this one is particularily extreme.  I'll be wary but keep an eye out for these just because the cover is so cool.

Also, here is the kind of passage that I think reveals the deep-seated social conservatism at the heart of these novels (that I discussed in more depth in my review of The Freaked-Out Strangler). :

Every beach town had its share of night people. He didn't know what they did, it looked like they just cruised around when all the bars closed, crawling up and down side streets. Most were either queer or lesbian. Maybe they looked for easy marks. They sat low in the seats, holding cigarettes between thumb and index finger, dull lifeless eyes searching sidewalks.  Feminine men and masculine women.

Holy shit, that is over the top.

Monday, September 04, 2017

24. R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek

Okay, this is actually a play and only takes an hour or two to read, but I am counting it, damnit!  I read this for the G+ Tabletop Roleplayers Book Club, so if you really want to see some nerds in action, you can check out the discussion on this book at the community there.

I loved The War with the Newts and was happy to have another chance to read something else by Capek.  I am grateful as well that reading this play spurred me to read about the man himself, who was an interesting and important European intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century.  He died in 1938 due to complications from pneumonia due to a lifelong spinal cord problem, but maybe he was lucky as he was #2 on the Nazi's list of people to suppress in Czechoslovakia. When they discovered he was already dead in occupied Czechoslovakia, they interrogated his wife.  Later, his brother, a successful artist and collaborator with Karel, died in a concentration camp.  10 years ago, it seemed easy to write whatever you want in North America and atrocities like what happened to the Capek's and others seem in the distant past.  With today's climate of growing populist fascism, the choices one makes about what one writes down for others to see becomes slightly more real.  It is good to reminded of that.

I was a bit disappointed in the play.  I do appreciate that an actual interpretation on stage would have filled in a lot that is implied in the text.  As it stands on paper, I found it too abstract and simplistic.  What I loved about The War with the Newts was that while it also dealt in big ideas and there weren't any real characters to connect with, the events were so detailed that it all felt very realistic.  With R.U.R. we really are in the realm of theatre and allegory and it is all a bit distancing for me.  The characters are representations of their area of work or their role in society, so there is the inventor, the accountant, the mechanic and so on.  The only women, Helena, who is central to the story is also just that, a woman.  All the other men are in love with her immediately.

As a story, it did not move me much.  I would love to see it performed one day, as I suspect a lot of richness that is lacking in the text (probably deliberately) would be filled in.  And the ideas it does touch on our quite interesting.  It's funny as well.  Here is a good example:

HALLEMEIER
It was a great thing to be a man. There was something immense about it.
FABRY
From man's thought and man's power came this light, our last hope.
HALLEMEIER
Man's power! May it keep watch over us.
ALQUIST
Man's power.
DOMIN
Yes! A torch to be given from hand to hand, from age to age, forever!
The lamp goes out.

It is well worth reading and since it is in the public domain and is very short, you can do so right now!  Here is a handy link to a pdf of the play.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

23. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

I almost bailed on this book.  It was part of the haul that I found down the street from me (mainly the Pelecanos and Lehanes but a few sci-fis as well) and the one that I almost didn't take.  It's pretty big (678 pages) and jumps right in to a ton of politics and names and I got lost quickly.  I found myself annoyed at the nerdiness (it felt like it was written for the kind of audience that thrives on details that immerse in a setting rather than a human narrative).  Fortunately, I had read everything else I brought with me (this was partially planned) and had to come back to it.  I am glad I did.  It does settle down into a very human, really fair to say deeply human story that while not totally satisfying at the end, takes the reader on a rich journey and makes you think a lot about family and the future of humanity.

The story takes place in the distant future where earth has colonized the stars.  There is now earth and and Alliance (which I think are the planets still allied with earth) and then the Union, which is a group that has gone farther out into space and separated in a war from the Alliance.  The political capital of the Union is the planet Cyteen.  On Cyteen is also a super important institute, Reseune, who developed the cloning technology that has been crucial to humanity's colonization of the stars.  The Union is divided into several different political representations (Military, Commerce, Citizens, Industry, etc.) of which Reseune basically controls Science.  The politics are roughly competition between the Expansionists who want humanity to keep colonizing space and expanding and the Abolitionists who are against cloning and expansion and the Centrists. 

Reseune is led by Ariane Emory, a powerful, superior matriarch.  Her advanced intelligence (technical, social and political) is demonstrated early on as well as her many enemies, including another brilliant scientist, Jordan Warrick and his son/clone Justin.  Early on in the book, she is murdered.  Her family and the political bloc that she represented decides to clone her and grow her replicate up in an environment as close as possible to the original one and her growth and relationship with Justin is the main part of the story for most of the book.

See, it's a lot to explain and I am really glossing over it.  The issues that come up are really interesting.  Do you hate the child clone of the person who totally fucked you over as an adult?  How does a clone react slowly learning about their genetic mirror image and predecessor?  And what are the risks of a human society that can clone itself to make beings of various skill levels and psychological stabilities?  Cherry really thinks these things through in Cyteen and it's pretty fascinating stuff.  It's also really gripping.  You get caught up in it and the readers emotional responses to characters get thoroughly twisted around as you learn different aspects of well-detailed characters.  It won the Hugo and I think it deserved it.

Honestly, that I almost gave up on the book in the first twenty pages, I blame on the publisher.  This edition had one really crappy map of the planet of Cyteen, which you don't even need.  There are only two cities they visit anyways.  What it needed was a political map and glossary, so you can quickly figure out who all the players are.

Friday, August 25, 2017

22. Brooding Mansion by Paulette Warren

This is the sub-genre where I hope to distinguish myself, modern gothic romance, but I suspect that is just the privileged white male in me being arrogantly ignorant of the wealth of thought by many women fans of the genre that have already been written.  And really I'm just a beginner in this area and grabbing books as they appear before my eyes, such as this one.

The cover really is pretty classic gothic romance, but the book itself falls a bit short to be totally in that genre.  It takes place in Manhattan, for one, albeit in a giant gloomy gothic house/manor.  The gloomy atmosphere and mystery get swept up very early in the book when the entire situation is basically explained (though everything in the book is accelerated as it is very short page-wise and a lot has to go down).  A young and competent Registered Nurse gets a job to serve an old wealthy man in his mansion but when she gets there, she finds that it is actually his out-of-control son that she is taking care of.  It was a bait and switch by the family's doctor, at first for truly medical reasons (he does have a badly broken leg from a car accident) but then as the plot thickens, we learn there was a more nefarious, criminal reason.

I won't go into the details of the plot too much as it is all kind of arbitrary and patched together (old man is actually a neo-nazi holding meetings in his ballroom, the doctor is trying to steal all the family money and the brother and sister are decadent but with good souls who need guidance).  What is interesting is how the book started with the heroine showing real promise. She is competent and smart and in control of herself, but unlike male protagonists, everything she does has to be justified and legitimized by a male.  So there is a really interesting crossplay between her being a cool character and the reactive need to constantly undermine that or block it.  All the men in the book are losers. It's when the romance plot takes over that everything sort of breaks down.  It's one of those pre-pre-marital sex worlds where people fall in love in a day and have those weird conversations about each other that have no meaning and make no sense but they are in love.  The main conflict in the second half of the book is whether the lame son will finally stand up to his dad and be a man.  It is entirely up to the protagonist to help him do this and she is basically constantly disappointed until the very end when he finally does something slightly independent and now she knows she made the right choice.  It's pretty depressing and annoying but at that point the plot has come so fast that you don't really care anyhow.

There is something here, though, and I suspect better writers (or ones who had more time) can take this female competence in a sexist world to a much more interesting place.  So I continue to seek out other examples of the gothic romance genre.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

21. Stop this Man! by Peter Rabe

Always pick up a used Rabe if you find it, is a good general rule.  Original paperbacks of his are getting pretty hard to find, but Westlake's posthumous literary respect has resurrected Rabe's career tangentially and we are seeing more of his stuff getting reprinted.  This version was from Hard Case Crime, whom I know little about except that they seem to be doing exceptional work in putting out great new and old crime fiction. 

I struggle somewhat with trying to understand Westlake's love of Rabe.  It's not that I don't like it, on the contrary.  It's just that Rabe's books always seem somewhat meandering.  They lack the diamond structure of a Stark novel.  I think reading Stop this Man! helped me to better appreciate Rabe and understand why Westlake loved him so much.  That and the wisdom of age.  To appreciate influence, one has to also appreciate the cultural context of the time.  My father loves Godard while I have always been a bit mystified and sometimes annoyed by what looks to me today like french intellectual masturbation.  I realize, though, that my father was growing up in a cultural wasteland when it came to movies and so much of the irreverance and absurdity that is commonplace in cinema today is because of Godard. For a young person seeking something original in the late 50s, Godard must have come as such a welcome change.  I suspect this was similar for Westlake and Rabe.  The characters in Rabe's books just do.  Often, they are not good people. It's nihilistic at times.  Even the darkest noirs of the 50s and 60s had a lot of moralizing and hand-wringing in them.  With Rabe, and especially in Stop this Man! there is none of that.

The "hero" is an older jugger (safecracker) who has just got out of his third run in jail and gets signed up to a too-perfect job, steal a bar of gold from a laboratory.  The story starts after the heist, which went perfectly, except we learn that the gold bar is irradiated and basically poisonous to anybody who is near it for any length of time. This sets off a chase as the jugger tries to convert the gold into cash and the FBI try to find him by the trail of radiated bodies he leaves behind.  The jugger is a real carpe diem type of guy. He claims that he wants this to be his last job (he's 50 and one of the sub-themes is how he is behind the times crime-wise) but he is a pretty carpe diem kind of guy for somebody in his 50s, basically taking the ladies he wants and going aggressive against anybody who is getting in his way, including the syndicate smoothies (this theme of the modern, organized syndicate replacing and slowly eliminating space for freelance criminals is a theme we have seen somewhere before, no?).

It's dark and nasty and relentless right up until the end.  Reminded me a lot of The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Lawrnece Tierney could definitely have played the jugger.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

20. Wolf and Iron by Gordon R. Dickson

I have been looking for this book for years.  I can't even remember how it came to be added to my list, but I know that Dickson is prolific and you can always find his books at used bookstores. There is usually a good length of shelf with just his books and they always gave me hope.  Time and after time, I would have a flash of hope seeing his name (most of the books on my list you can't even find the author) and then another confirmation that no Wolf and Iron was not there.  I finally did find it in Victoria earlier this summer.  I still don't get why it is so hard to find, it's one of those late 80s early 90s paperbacks that they usually printed a ton of. 

Once I read the blurb to remind myself of why I was interested in it, I knew that the reasons were still valid for it to be on my list. It's the story of a lone man, a social scientist who predicted the global chaos that came (but badly underestimated the speed and severity of it), fled from his university town and now travelling across America to get to his brother's Ranch in the Rockies.  The apocalypse in this case is purely social.  Some minor bank collapses trigger a global run which then causes all of modern society to fall apart and humans to devolve into a survivalist mode.  America is a bit like the wild west, except degenerating and more violent and xenophobic.  Other humans are the greatest danger, in a landscape with many other basic dangers.

Early on, Jeebee encounters a wolf and they flee together from a trading encounter gone bad.  He and the wolf slowly develop a relationship as he makes his way across the country and slowly transforms himself from thinking, civilized man to instinctive, survivalist man.  This book is a nerd's dream.  It's all about how using your brains, developing skills and organizing and gaining equipment.  It's funny because the book is ostensibly about him trying to figure out how to be a partner with this wolf, but the real challenge is other humans.  The details and execution of his transformation are really quite enjoyable, almost delicious to PA nerds like myself.  The last quarter devolves into a survivalist domestic nerd fantasy which though a bit pat, does nothing to weaken the pleasure of the first three quarters.  This one is staying on my shelves and it should be included in any list of significant post-apocalyptic fiction.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

19. The Cut by George Pelecanos

The design on this trade paperback is really cool.
The Cut was really great.  It's got all of Pelecanos usual good stuff, the detailed locales of Washington DC and area, the rich characters of young, flawed men, many of them tough and competent, some kind of semi-complex but mostly realistic crime effort.  I suspect the Pelecanos was trying to do a bit of an hommage to Richard Stark here, because it feels sparser and tighter than his other novels.  There are also several references to Parker, some subtle (more like easter eggs for us Parker nerds) and some explicit.

The protagonist, Spero Lucas, is a Desert Storm vet who now works as an investigator for a criminal defense lawyer.  The lawyer for whom he works refers him to one of his clients whose in jail for dealing marijuana at the wholesale level.  The guy, who claims to deal only pot and not use violence, has two young henchmen still working on the street.  Their role is to pick up the weed that gets mailed to various people's houses who are not at home on the day and the distribute those packages out to the lower level dealers.  Somebody seems to have discovered their drops and has been stealing their weed and the big boss sends.  Spero gets sent to work with them and figure out what is going on.  Shit gets messy and the two henchmen get executed.  Spero goes on his own to figure out what went down and to sort of avenge their murders.

It's not pure Stark by any means, as Lucas' brother is a public school teacher and there are young African-American men with potential and complex family issues.  When it digs into the main storyline, which is basically the last third and where the book really gets going, it's just a gang of colurful scumbags as American as apple pie.  The whole criminal enterprise is mundane and realistic and fundamentally integrated into the DC/Baltimore urban landscape.  Really entertaining.

At this point, it's pretty clear for my tastes that Pelecanos is superior to Lehane.

Friday, August 18, 2017

18. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

Hey, it rhymes (Lehane... Rain, anyhow).

Quick review here as I am running out the door to start a week's vacation (and hopefully some major reading).

I had one more Dennis Lehane book from the drunken stumble haul and decided for completion's sake to give him another chance after my displeasure with my last read of his (Darkness, Take my Hand).  At the halfway point of Prayers for Rain, I was glad I did.  Here we have much more of what I was looking for, a complex investigation with interesting characters and the protagonist investigating.  There is a slight dusting of dark observation on the state of the world and his own mindset, but not pages and pages of mooning. Unfortunately, at about the halfway point, most of the mystery is revealed and once again the antagonist is a highly-skilled total psycho.  He wasn't quite as ridiculous as the one in Darkness, but after a while can we just not have flawed, broken characters who do a crime than over the top conspirators whose sole goal in life is to inflict creative torture and cruelty on good people?  So this one was okay, sort of satisfying, definitely not 100% redemption, but not closing the door altogether either.  I wonder if as the Kenzie-Gennaro novels advance, he matures more and more, gets away from the simplistic stuff and allows the good writer that he is to tell a story that doesn't have to impress you with its excess.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

17. Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

I've been lamenting my drunken stumbling into a pile of free books because it added an unwanted burden to my already overflowing on-deck shelf.  And yet, since that incident, I have been on a tear, completing 4 of the 7 books in just over two weeks. Is it because they are all sort of new and I don't care about wrecking them so I can carry them with me?  Is it the summer?  Just a coincidence?  I don't know but I am going to ride this wave for as long as I can and try and recapture a teeny bit of the 50 books ground I lost since becoming a father.

Frameshift starts out slowly and a bit blandly.  I find Sawyer's style here generic and it took a while for the story to reveal its depths.  I did like that the main character was a Quebecois and mostly accurate (except when he said "morceau de merde").  It also takes place in the Bay Area with lots of locations I know well.  So that kept me going.  About halfway through the book, though, things get quite interesting and there is a lot going on and from there, it becomes quite a page-turner.

Pierre Tardivel is an associate professor who has Huntington's disease.  He is working at Lawrence Lab in Berkeley and he meets another professor, Molly Bond, and they fall in love.  At the beginning of the book, he is attacked by a neo-nazi mugger, though he and Molly for reasons I won't reveal know that it was actually a planned attack.  This starts him on his own investigation and we get into a story of unethical behaviour of private health insurance companies, hidden nazis, genetic manipulation and murder.  Really, the fun is in figuring out what is going on, so I will be even more spoil-sensitive and leave it at that.  It's an enjoyable summer read.

It does rip into the evil that is private health care, and rightly so.  It focuses specifically on the practice of not ensuring people with pre-existing conditions and what that will mean when we have sophisticated genetic identification technology.  Given the insanity of the times in America today and the incredible indoctrination and self-delusion of many of its citizens towards universal health care, this book, written in 1997, was surprisingly relevant.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

16. Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson

This was the lone outlier (non-Pelecanos, non-Lehane, non-sci-fi) of the drunken stumble giveaway pile of books I found this August in my neighbourhood.  The cover looked cool and I saw it was an A&E series.  It seemed potentially inoffensive to my overly-sensitive genre fiction aesthetic. 

The protagonist is Walt Longmire, a big tough sheriff in Wyoming, in a region dominated by native communities.  This is the 7th in the series and you don't get a strong sense of his connection to the society because the entire book is a chase up a mountain.  I suspect in other books, those relationships are developed much more deeply.  In Hell is Empty, it's pretty much action and a lot of soul-searching/spiritual quest stuff.  The action part was great.  Longmire is part of a team overseeing a prisoner transfer.  There are 5 of them and they are all nasty, but one is one of these superhero serial killers.  His skills were limited to violence, outdoor survival and psychological manipulation, so at least we had some limitations to keep it somewhat realistic.  But still, "he's a genius." says one of the characters who was manipulated into helping him escape.

The prisoners do escape and head up Bighorn mountain just as a major blizzard is moving in.  Longmire is in a position to either wait the storm out, because there really was no exit off the mountain, or go in after them, which he does because they have hostages.  Or at least that's his excuse to himself.

The pursuit up the mountain is tight, creative and entertaining.  It's not just him following them on a trail, a bunch of cool stuff goes down that I won't go into.  As the pursuit narrows and it becomes (of course) Longmire vs the psycho, we get into a more internal narrative, as Longmire struggles to figure out what is motivating the psycho as well as struggle with his own demons.  This was actually kind of cool too, but sort of dragged on a bit at the end, for my tastes.

Still, pretty enjoyable stuff.  I want to read one that deals more specifically with the native communities to see if it is handled realistically and with depth, because that could be quite good as well.  What I'd really love to find is a badass crime writer who writes about the First Nations milieu but who actually is a First Nations person him or herself.  Any recommendations?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

15. A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos

I used to mix up Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.  I discovered both of them because of The Wire and they are both known as contemporary detective fiction authors with a strong sense of place (Lehane being Boston and Pelecanos DC).  I've read the DC quartet and quite enjoyed it and always kept Pelecanos on my list as a potentially good read, but easy to find so no rush.  Dennis Lehane was also on this list until I read Darkness, Take my Hand and now he has one more chance. 

I approached A Firing Offense with some trepidation, fearing that it might suffer some of the same flaws of Lehane.  The protagonist and the set-up of Pelecanos' NIck Sefanos and Lehane's Patrick Kenzie.  Both are from white working class neighbourhoods in their respective cities with one foot in their rough past and another in the more gentrified present.  Quite quickly, though, Pelecanos stayed out of the kind of trouble that Lehane gets into.  Pelecanos dishes out melancholy and jaded self-reflection sparingly and in small doses.  The scope of the action remains local and much more realistic.  Half of A Firing Offense is more about Stefanos and his buddies just being a bunch of young fuck-ups at their job, with the actual mystery only getting going until later.  It's really an origin story.  While it strays somewhat too far into the white bourgeois fantasy of being a ghetto badass at the end, it mostly remains grounded in the reality Pelecanos constructs.  It's gritty and enjoyable and I am looking forward to stumbling upon another Nick Stefanos novel on the street.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

14. Darkness, Take my Hand by Dennis Lehane

[I stumbled upon this book while walking home late one night. It was among a pile of contemporary mysteries and some sci-fi somebody was giving away.  I got a Pelecanos, 3 Lehanes, a Longmire mystery and a CJ Cherryh book.  I really didn't need more books on my on-deck shelf at this point, but I was drunk and my guard was down.  Do not drink and walk through neighbourhoods where readers with good taste and small library space live!]

Hmmm, I may be out on Dennis Lehane.  I was never a huge fan, but really enjoyed Shutter Island and respected him in general.  Unfortunately, Darkness, Take my Hand undermined a lot of that feeling. First of all, I do not accept serial killers as plot devices for any kind of detective fiction.  They are played out and were never that interesting in the first place.  You get a new one every week now on Criminal Minds and that is about the level of audience they are written for.  Even worse is the phenomenon of the, what I am coining, "superhero serial killer". These are the serial killers that aren't just ruthless psychos but also hyper-intelligent, elite fighters (in hand-to-hand and gun combat) and highly skilled ninjas with elite security and surveillance knowledge.  I guess The Silence of the Lambs started it and it was sort of okay in that over-rated movie.  Now, can we just put to bed this super-villain that if you even go visit him in jail you risk your entire family being raped and tortured before your eyes because you accidently left one of your eyelashes on his leather wrist manacle.  It's fucking stupid.

 My understanding was that Lehane was a slightly higher grade of writer than that, because of his deep understanding of the Boston milieu and the human cost of crime.  That's how he got his gig on The Wire, right?  Things started okay in this book, although even before you learn the plot is centered around a serial killer there are elements that really start to weigh in on this simple reader.  I get that we are painting a dark picture of the world, but is it necessary to have the detective waxing melancholy every single time he runs into another character or goes into a new neighbourhood?  I am not a huge proponent of "show don't tell" but there is a lot of telling here where a little bit of showing would be just as effective and less intrusive.

I have one more of these Kenzie-Genarro novels on deck.  I am debating whether to just give it away or to see if he can do a better novel that deals with a more realistic level of crime.

SPOILERS!

The serial killer here is actually almost worse in the context of Lehane's style. His plots are so far deeply connected to the protagonist's background and the milieu of poor, south Boston.  This is a rich milieu filled with crime potential.  Sticking a superhero serial killer here is incongruous and made worse when it is all actually profoundly connected to the detective's own childhood.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

13. The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. Van Vogt

There is a group of gamers and cool nerds on Google+ who have a roleplayers book club that I keep trying to join but can never find the book or the time.  This time, I found both as this classic was easily found in the library.  We had a lively but short-lived discussion and I am very glad I read the book.

I have since learned that A.E. Van Vogt is an important though sometimes disrespected author in the golden age of sci-fi.  You can go to wikipedia to learn about the critic who dissed him early on in his career and left him with a maligned reputation.  I, for one, enjoyed the book. I particularily appreciated how he wed the space theorizing common to this period with a more aggressive pace than usual, so that just when the wankery was getting a bit too long-winded for my lazy mind, some shit went down (not unlike Raymond Chandler's send in the guns rule) and the narrative moved forward.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is an episodic tale (technically a "fix-up" being several previously published short stories stitched together to make a novel) about a pioneering ship exploring distant galaxies.  It is high science fiction in the technology, but kind of low in the challenges, which is about a ship full of male scientists battling their own internal conflicts to overcome external ones.  Yes, all men.  And they behave stupidly quite often, which I don't think was intentional, but read today does seem like instead of some meta-philosophy to bring them together, they just could have had a bunch of women (and non white people too).

The meta-philosophy is "Nexialism" and the protagonist is the sole Nexialist on the ship.  His challenge is to use Nexialism to unite all the various disciplines so they can overcome the problems they face, because each discipline alone is too narrowly-focused to see the bigger picture needed to deal with the problem.  Nexialism itself is not entirely thought out, but it's fun and satisfying to see its superiority overcome the petty squabbles of its narrow-minded opponents.  The obstacles themselves are pretty cool as well, space beasts, telepathic societies and the like.  Good stuff.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

12. A Dangerous Energy by John Whitbourn

I picked this up in another dollar bin outside a used bookstore, but I can't remember exactly where, somewhere in Vancouver of Victoria.  It just looked interesting and honestly I don't know if it is my honed instinct or that the Goddess of Reading is just blessing me these days but it was another total winner.  Probably more learned and erudite fans of fantasy and science fiction are well aware of Whitbourn's work.  I hope so.  If not, I hope my review will encourage you to seek him out.

Ostensibly, this is a bildungsroman in an alternate reality where the Reformation never happened.  The setting is the primary interest at first, a world where the Roman Catholic church dominates, there is subtle magic in the world (originally of wilder origins but now harnessed and controlled by the church for the most part), colonization is severely limited compared to our world and technology and commerce advancing at a much slower pace.

The story starts in the late 60s and ends in 2026.  Young Tobias Oakley encounters an elf in the forest outside his village who teaches him the rudiments of magic.  This leads him to be shunned by his village, discovered by a priest whose job it is to discover those with the magical gift and then sent to a magical Catholic college in London.  The rest of the book details his conflicts and rise to power, both in the world and in his use of magic.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I would suggest you stop reading here and just seek this book out.  Anything more I say here, though not explicitly a spoiler, would ruin the wonderment and pleasure of where Winterbourn is going with this book.  I will add that it is pretty fucked up and super dark. 

Because A Dangerous Energy is really about a descent into evil.  Oakley is understandably driven by ambition, but with a singular focus that makes him worthy of a book but also pushes him farther and farther away from morality and ultimately even humanity.  It is done very subtly and there are many moments in the book where there is an opportunity for him to get back on the right path.  Each time, he chooses (or is not able) to stay on the wrong path.  And slowly it starts to rot out his soul.  The language is rich but not flowery, told in an omniscient almost matter-of-fact way that blindsides the reader into the atrocities Oakley undertakes.  It all makes so much sense in the narrative that you have to step back and remind yourself how horrible he has become. 

There is also a nice touch where each chapter is titled with descriptive phrases along the lines of very early novels:  "In which our hero goes to London and is obliged to remain there", "In which our hero receives help from the friend that he helped, and a problem is solved satisfactorily".  These are absolutely accurate descriptions of what goes on in that chapter, except the details are generally super dark and nasty, which adds to the cold irony of the book's presentation.

A lot of his ambition, as he becomes a more powerful magician, is around the development of his understanding of summoning magic.  The imagery around his attempts to contact demons is evocative and the procedures and details of how it all works really cool.  Things like the demons' names, the locations they appear in, how they come into our world are all novel takes that are super entertaining (and gameable).

Likewise, the alternate history itself is fully thought out, but only revealed as is needed to inform the narrative (with a few bits and pieces of material interspersed to add depth like questions from a history exam, excerpts from books, etc.).  I am not well informed on the religious history of Christianity nor a huge fan of alternate realities and this was delivered in such a way to keep my interest (that's putting it mildy) and allow me to keep it all clear in my head more or less.

A great read, strongly recommended.  It is part of a series, too (not with this character, I assume, but taking place in the same world).  Added to my list!