Sunday, December 30, 2018

57. The Gradual by Christopher Priest

This was a dreamlike, slightly disconnected yet ultimately intriguing and pleasurable read to end the year.  I actually had a tough time transitioning out of God Is an Englishman, it was such an absorbing epic and I didn't have any sense of what kind of book I was ready to read next.  So I think it took me a while to give The Gradual my full attention.  My partner found it for a buck at the Oakland Library bookstore (more on that haul).  The beginning of the book is slow and it takes a while to tell you where it is going (and even then you don't know the full journey to the end).  Things got interesting after the first third.  Priest constructs a mystery about the setting itself and once it gets going it really draws you in.

The protagonist is a musician in a desolate industrial city who had grown up under a military dictatorship in constant, but distant war.  He is invited to do a musical tour of the nearby vast archipelago of islands, neutral in the war and inspirational for his own compositions.  The islands are beautiful, but complex and alien. At every landing, they have to give these rods to an agent, who interrogates them, but otherwise life is much freer than home.  However, when he returns, he finds he has lost almost two years of his life.  His wife left him, his apartment was in arrears.  He tries to figure out what to do with his life all the while thinking about the mystery of the islands.

Priest weaves several other interesting narratives, including his brother drafted to the war and now fate unknown, the development of his own music and how it is received.  By the end, the disconnected style is overcome by the complex elegance of the plot and the rich sense of place.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

56. God is an Englishman by R.F. Delderfield

Wow, I don't know how many of these epic, engrossing 672-page romantic histories I have in me.  I have to admit, it was enjoyable for the most part.  I wish I could have read it at a bit more relaxed pace, but its length made me feel pressured to not lose pace.

The story starts out in colonial India, at the end of some battle as mutinies are flaring up. Adam Swann, a commissioned soldier is brought down, but survives and discovers a ruby necklace of great value.  He decides to leave soldiering and return to England to use the rubies to stake some kind of new venture back home.  Upon arriving, he already sees the impact the railway is having on industrializing England.  He decides to take a horse across the land to see what he can learn.  He learns lots about the cotton mills and how England is changing.  He meets and marries a feisty beauty, Henrietta, running away from her avaricious merchant father and he decides to set up a business running freight via coaches between railway depots and cities not fed by the railway. 

Those two storylines, his marriage and family and the development of his business, interweave with in-depth forays in one or the other at certain crisis periods.  You also follow the paths of all his lieutenants and the regions they manage.  These are great opportunities for local mini-adventure vignettes, like the depot manager who catches an escaped lion, or the welshmen who provides the wagons that get the pump to a submerged mine.  They all are defined by their British gumption, common sense and basic decency, despite a range of political and socioeconomic backgrounds.  These passages were all quite entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

The marriage storyline is interesting and while weird does give a lot of time to the female perspective (as well as a second female character, one of his lieutenants with romantic tension).  There are quite long parts that dragged on where they get all introspective about how they learn from each other and go to other levels, etc.

I have to say that overall this book succeeded in taking me out of my world. I started reading it at the beginning of xmas vacation and I finished it on xmas day.  I sort of felt like I had my regular family vacation as well as another vacation in 19th century England, it so absorbed my consciousness.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

55. Great Detective Feats by Leonard R. Gribble

I found this at the street sale on Rachel along with two other really enjoyable old mystery paperbacks (Darkness of Slumber and Map of Mistrust).  It was the least interesting and the least attractive aesthetically.  I don't know what 2/6 means in British currency (and what it's value was relative to the time), but given the cheap printing and the back being only ads for other books, I suspect this was an inexpensive read.  None of the names meant anything to me either.  It is a collection of 5 short detective stories.  I guess Gribble was well known for his Inspect Slade series (at least that's what it vaunts on the inside back cover).

Likewise, as I started reading the first story, I was worried it was going to be a slog to get through.  The premise itself was good, a restauranter in France (sometime in the late 19th century) finds a leg wrapped up in the well in his backyard.  The prose style and the way the story was laid out was very odd. It took me until about halfway through the second story to realize there was no dialogue.  These are basically narrated retellings with some embellishment but all done in the omniscient third person.  I think that all the stories may actually be real.  Once I cottoned to this, I enjoyed the book much more.  The crimes are all quite mundane and the detective work realistic (going through files, sending out letters, canvassing hundreds of people) and it made for some fairly enjoyable and interesting reading.  The morality is very black and white, but not vociferous.  The stories take place in a variety of times and places.  I was pleased to see the last story takes place in Berkeley in the 30's and is about a chemist who was working on an artificial silk when his lab in Walnut Creek blew up.

I think this book is the equivalent of one of those true crime books, but a lot less lurid (at least in the telling, the crimes themselves are quite nasty, though never sexual).  Solidly moral with constant applauding of excellent detective work but ultimately selling because people want to read about the crimes.

There was also this great passage, a little British dig at American law enforcement:
He was what is termed on the western side of the Atlantic a tough guy. Men like him and of his calibre created Chicago's dark history.  As a matter of fact, in features Kennedy was not unlike the celebrated Irish Chicaglo gangster overlord, Spike O'Donnell.  In the metropolis of the Middle West Kennedy would have flourished.  In England he did not flourish--Scotland Yard saw to that.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

54. Valérian l'Intégrale volume 2 by Christin and Mézieres

This volume comprises the fifth, sixth and seventh books in the series and here we get more into the episodic visiting of different worlds.  There is so far not a longer narrative through line other than Valérian and Laureline's teasing, platonic banter.  Here they end up on a different world in each book, have to resolve a social/technical problem as well as save themselves.  One thing that is not entirely clear is the tone of these books.  The two chrono agents never seem truly threatened.  They do have highly advanced technology at their fingertips, but sometimes they lose their ship and all their stuff and yet seem to float above the risks and dangers of the people they are trying to rescue.  I am not against it, as it makes the reading a lot more fun.  But I wonder how much of it is an artifact of the style of bandes-desinnées of the period they were created in, the tendency for the french to always go slightly goofy.  We shall see how it evolves.

Le Pays sans Étoile - Here they arrive on a far outpost that has recently got itself established enough that they don't need help from the tempo-spatiel chrono agents.  Valérian and Laureline are just here to say goodbye.  Unfortunately, they also discover that another planet, off its orbit and hurtling towards this solar system, risks to destroy the new settlements.  They go to this barren rock to discover that it has a world inside of it, a world with two city-states, at perpetual war with one another.  One of the city-states is run by decadent men and the women are all slaves and the other is run by decadent women and the men are all slaves.

Bienvenue sur Alflolol - This story takes place back at Technorog, a resource treasure for the vast Terrien galactic empire.  It is here that the fuel and technology that Valérian and Laureline depend on is produced.  On their way in, they discover a lost ship of weird, fun-loving aliens who turn out to be the original inhabitants of Technorog (known to them as Alflolol).  Because the earth empire follows a Prime Directive type of rule, these natives must be allowed to return home and settle where they want.  This causes a massive disruption in Technorog's production capacity and conflict with the leaders there.  This was light-hearted in treatment (and in its resolution), which undermined a bit the power and pain behind the theme.

Les Oiseaux du Maître - Their ship sucked into a planet with a bunch of other trapped ships, they tempo-spatiel agents find themselves in a land where a civiliization of other crash survivors all work to provide food for the master. They are driven by flocks of poisonous birds that make you go crazy if they bite you.  Over the centuries that this has been going on, the people have become fully enslaved to the master.

One interesting commonality between the first and third stories is that in both cases, V and L join a caravan at the beginning and travel across this strange land to the narrative goal.  In the first one, they join a migrant tribe who role is to mine the explosive eggs the two cities use as weapons and a lot of the first part of the book is them on a great route to one of the cities.  In the third book, they fall in amongst the people who strip the ocean of seaweed to add to the extravagant meals of the master.  They too walk along a major trail, joining up with other food providers (farmers, livestock raisers, etc.) who are all heading to the place where the feeding of the master happens.  Not sure if this is anything but a coincidence, but an interesting early pattern to keep an eye out for.

Monday, December 17, 2018

53. Bury your Dead by Louise Penny

I got this one out from the local public library after a recommendation from somebody.  I am generally leery of contemporary mysteries, but this one is set in Quebec and the author lives outside of Montreal, so I had to give it a try.  For some reason, I had it in my list that this was the first book in the Inspector Gamache series and I specifically was looking for it.  As I was reading it, it seemed less and less like a first book (or one with a ton of backstory that takes place late in the protagonist's career).  It turns out that it is like the 5th book in the series.  I am hoping it is representative of it as a whole, though I wished I could have started with something where the plot was not quite so ambitious and wide in scope (this one has a plotline involving a major terrorist attack).

Anyhow, an interesting read.  It is very well put together and the intrigue is imaginative and well-plotted.  Perhaps almost too well-plotted.  You actually get 3 mysteries in one here.  Something terrible happened in the past when one of Inspector Gamache's men gets kidnapped and we follow that flashback storyline.  At the same time (as the reader), Gamache who is recovering in Quebec City from his wounds mental and physical is investigating the murder of a Samuel de Champlain fanatic found murdered in the basement of the English Literature and Historical society.  Finally, Gamache's lieutenant, inspector Beauvoir, who is also recovering is sent back to the small town of Three Pines to re-investigate the murder of a hermit who had a cabin full of priceless antiques (they had caught and convicted a murderer, but Gamache has doubts).  So, yeah, a lot going on.  Honestly, I would have been perfectly fine with only one of these storylines.  I'm not sure why so much has to be packed into this book.  Is that the appetite of today's mystery reader?  Especially considering that in the flashback storyline, the kidnapping is actually part of a plot line that would fit better in a Tom Clancy novel.  Despite the quantity, they were all engaging and well-crafted storylines, though at times the suspense is a little arbitrary (like just tell us what happened).

The physical portrayal of Quebec City was great and reinforced my desire to do a family trip there.  It's a well-written page-turner and I can see why her books have been so succesful.  I would definitely pick up another one if I stumbled across it, though will probably not seek them out.  Not a criticism of the books, but just not quite in my wheelhouse.  I would like to see how she handles Montreal itself one day.

I do have one concern, though.  This is a delicate topic and I may come off sounding extremely nerdy or snobby here.  I had thought that Louise Penny was an anglophone Quebecer, but as I read this book I became less and less sure of it. There is a lot in here about Quebec and french that feels off.  Many of the protagonist's names are french from France, not Quebec.  I have never met anybody named Armand or Émile. Likewise, the food (which is often detailed) seems way more french than Quebecois.  Finally, there is an anglophone character whose french is really bad, but the way it is portrayed is that she says things that francophones understand in a completely ridiculous way like "have a nice strawberry".  It is supposed to be a humourous point about the character, but it just makes no sense.  If somebody speaks bad french, they will simply be not understood.  Nobody is going to mistake have a good night with have a good strawberry ("bonne nuit" vs. "bonne fraise"?!).  They sound completely different. This happens a bunch of times and I'm too lazy to find the actual text.

Going further, the political views of the francophone Quebecers rang oddly false to me.  They seemed to be stuck in the past and coming from an anglophone perspective.  The question of Quebec sovereignty in character's inner thoughts and dialogue is treated as this heavy thing, with this suggestion of menace around the more extreme separatists.  I find that to be a real anglophone view of the situation, informed by our own anxieties and the shit media coverage and propaganda outside of Quebec.  Even in 2010, sovereignty is not a major issue for most Quebecers.  The language is, the culture is and especially anxieties around immigration, but sovereignty for most people is kind of in the past now.  It's also not some heavy big thing.  People will talk about it.  It's not treated like some delicate subject you have to tiptoe around.

After I read the book, I read up on Louise Penny.  She's from Ontario but worked and lived in Quebec for decades.  She currently lives in the Eastern Townships.  It's not clear how good her french is nor how integrated she is in to francophone society here.  She clearly knows her stuff and does a lot of research for her books.  It could be she sees a side of Quebec that I don't see (I am pretty limited to Montreal most of the time), but honestly at times this book felt like cultural tourism.  I don't know if that is a good or bad thing and I suspect that her translated books do well and are well received here (will do a bit of research on that myself).  Quebecers love mysteries, homegrown ones especially.  I was just hoping for someone who really knew Quebec from the heart but wrote in english for my lazy ass and I am not sure I got that here, at least on the portrayal of francophone Quebec.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

52. Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome

This is the second book of the Swallows & Amazons series about little British children on holiday in the country in the period between the two world wars.  I was not so enthusiastic about the first one that I immediately wanted to read the next (it didn't quite grab me as it had a child, though I enjoyed it).  This was such a beautiful copy that I picked it up.

I am really glad I did, because this one did really grab me.  First, I needed something well written and real and honest after the pollution that was State of Fear.  Swallowdale was the perfect antidote.  Second, early on in this book, they crash the Swallow, their little sail boat and it has to go in for repairs.  This means that the bulk of the adventure and exploration takes place on land.  I do like the sailing stuff but the technical language loses me and I get disconnected.  Here, they are following the little river up to a cool, hidden valley and exploring outwards on the moors.  There is a really great map that goes with this one as well.  Finally, we have a real antagonist here, in the form of the Amazon's Great Aunt, who is staying with them and bringing with her a reign of terror of visits and outings in proper dresses and reading poetry and so on.  Nancy and Peggy and even their Uncle Jim have to sneak and plot in order to even get out of the house for some adventure.

With Swallows & Amazons, the first book, I theoretically enjoyed it.  Swallowdale satisfied my love of adventure and exploration in fiction so well that I am back on board and looking forward to finding the third book.  I am also going full-on prosletyzing and will be sending these books to the various children in my life that are the correct age.  It demonstrates to me how powerful the themes of exploration and adventure can be on their own. They don't need tension or character development or arcs or any of that American university creative writing dogma to be entertaining.  Even when you can see the map and know some of the events that are coming, Ransome is so good at capturing the feeling of climbing up over a ridge to see what is on the other side that you still feel excited.




Sunday, December 09, 2018

51. State of Fear by Michael Crichton

State of Shit
Writing this post will be a ceremony of cleansing, to help put this awful book behind me.  State of Fear is the worst book I have read in a long time, quite possibly one of the worst I have ever read.  The problem with bad books is that it is much harder for them to be good bad than a cheezy movie.  There was nothing good about this book, the whole thing was painful to get through.

Let's pretend first that it isn't basically a giant piece of shitty propaganda, an alt-right consNERDative screed.  I will just ignore the pages and pages of "conversations" where a naive liberal who has never had their assumptions challenged is slowly convinced that global warming is a giant scam perpetrated by super-rich environmental groups fronted by Hollywood elite.  These "arguments" literally contain graphs and footnoted references to real scientific journals.  If you flipped it so that it was corporate drones being convinced that global warming is real, it would be just as bad.  It is probably about 1/3 of the book when all added up.  Everytime the characters get on a flight to travel somewhere (and that is often), it's an excuse for another multi-page "dialogue" of badly constructed logic, straw men arguments and cherry-picked facts.  This would completely disrupt any rhythm or excitement the book had generated, it if it had ever actually generated those things.  Nevertheless, let's just cut all that bullshit out and focus on the narrative the remains

It is supposed to be the story of extreme environmentalists being funded by a major non-profit environmental org (who is in turn mostly funded by a rich donor) who are plotting to trigger a series of natural disaster to increase funding for their global warming campaign because they have discovered that the statistics are disproving man-made climate change.  Seriously.  Though that idea actually could be a lot of fun.  Here it is thoroughly confused and uninteresting.  There is a layer of story that takes place for the first quarter of the book, I guess establishing the arbitrary and boring (and unrealistic) characters before you can even tell what this is about.  Other than it just being a structural mess, here is a list of the other flaws in the book.
  • The characters are almost empty.  There is just nothing there besides their job.
  • The characters are unrealistic.  Like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky level of artificial constructs.
  • Nobody is competent.
  • The big cool agent guy who knows everything never will tell anybody anything but for no reason.  They get on a plane.  "Where are we going?"  "I can't tell you.".  Two chapters later, "we are going to Vanatau" "Okay cool, why?"  "I can't tell you." and so on.  It's just for fake suspense but there is no reason for it in the story.
  • The main character is a young lawyer who has never done anything tough.  He gets dragged along to everything for no reason.  These super elite agents who refuse to tell him anything also include him in every plan.
  • Each chapter is headed with a location and a time and all that.  Which is stupid because after the first quarter, the narrative always follows the same characters who are all together doing the same thing. So you have chapter after chapter with the same location on it.
  • The action sucks.
  • Heavy-handed use of italics "Evans glanced over his shoulder.  Sanjong was not behind him."
This book sucks.  It's for stupid smart people, I guess.  Fisher-Price: My First Thriller Book.  In college, for our final Humanities 110 project, one of the options was to write a dialogue with Socrates. My friend's dormmate wrote one where he and Socrates argued.  At the end, he wins the argument and Socrates apologizes and acknowledges that the dormmate was a superior rhetorician.  I kept thinking of that when reading this book.  Any dashed-off pulp book is going to be more entertaining and better put together than State of Fear. I am really glad that I have finished it and never have to think about it again.  Ugh.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

50. Map of Mistrust by Allan MacKinnon

Dr. Cameron, I presume.
I found this one at the same garage sale on Rachel where I discovered Darkness of Slumber.  Map of Mistrust is sort of the British equivalent of Darkness of Slumber, a standard but enjoyable murder mystery in the classic mold.  This time, Anthony Carne, competent young lecturer with wartime espionage experience finds himself finishing up a fishing trip in Scotland when one of the lodgers is found dead on a mountain path.  It looks like an accident, but also may have been foul play.  As he is leaving, he gets a call from his old spy boss who wants him to investigate.  The dead man was the British voice of Nazi propaganda in WWII who was thought to have long fled England.

His first stop is to Doctor Cameron, who discovered the body and thought it wasn't accidental (though the official coroner ruled it so).  What a shock when old Dr. Cameron says it wasn't him who stumbled on the body but his attractive, redhead daughter who was outside gardening and who is also a doctor!  Somehow, because of her youth and beauty, Carne understands why the coroner couldn't have taken her diagnosis seriously.  They get off on the wrong foot, but it is soon patched as she not only demonstrates that she is a capable doctor, but also very competent in everything else, especially spycraft.  She cottons on quite quickly that he is investigating something and he is convinced against his better judgement to let her help him.

This is a pretty entertaining read, though the central mystery itself is not all that intriguing.  There is a lot more adventure and excitement as Carne ends up being suspected himself and has to go on the run.  It has a bit of The 39 Steps feel to it and there is a pretty good chase and hiding sequence in London.  I also appreciated that despite the sexism of the time, Dr. Sheila Cameron is indeed competent and is never used as a threat or risk for the protagonist.

This was the Canadian White Circle Pocket edition from 1950 and there were quite a few typos.  I don't know how printing worked in those days.  Would it have been the same typeset that was used for all editions or did they reset them to be printed locally?

Also, the title comes from a neat little bit of writing when Carne is reading the newspapers and lamenting the state of the post-war world:
Briefly, he scanned the lesser headlines.  Anti-British demonstrations here... Anti-American demonstrations there... Formal protest to the authorities somewhere else... There was a neat little map of the world, variously shaded to illustrate an article on the suggested zoning of the planet's air routes. It might equally have served to illustrate the grouping of incompatible ideologies, of war-time friends who were friends no longer.  Map of Proposed Spheres of Control, they called it, but it was more than that.  It was a map of mistrust, of suspicion, of downright jealousy and fear.  The United States and Britain, he reflected, for all their differences and brotherly abuse, still shone like twin headlights through the international night.  But the slightest knock to either lamp might start a divergence in the beams, a divergence that would grow with every successive jolt.  And heaven knew that jolts were not far to seek...  He sighed and turned to the crossword puzzle.
Indeed!  This is the kind of stuff I like in my British spy thrillers.

This is not the book I read, but I wish my version had that sweet map.  There are a lot of cool lochs and mountains that I would have liked to have referenced.



Monday, December 03, 2018

49. The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth and penultimate book of The Dark Is Rising sequence and so far my favourite.  It still suffers from the arbitrary magic and vagueness of the Dark as antagonist.  However, the bulk of the story is anchored in the real and the setting, always a strong point in this series, is better integrated into the themes and plot points.  This time, Will is sent to his aunt's farm in Wales after a serious bout with hepatitis.  Though still an old one, the little boy that he is is physically quite weakened.  Of course, it also turns out that his aunt's farm is a valley in Wales that rests at the foot of the mountain of the Grey King, the site of the next step and confrontation in the quest to prevent the Dark from rising.

Will meets another lad his age, an albino whose aura he can't read.  The land is pleasant and the people rough-hewn but warm, except for asshole farmer neighbour Caradog Prichard, who has a hate-on for the other neighbours dogs, accusing them of killing his sheep.  As Will explores to fulfill his quest, a conflict with Caradog threatens, its tension mounting with the machinations of the Grey King.  I still don't get why Will spends most of the time being in a weak position, but then can cast quite powerful spells.  And I am never clear what the Dark actually is made up of.  Nevertheless, the story of the neighbour farmer was quite gripping and there are some great countryside wisdom and morals subtly portrayed here.  This was a good one and gives me some momentum for the home stretch of this series.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

48. Freedom by Daniel Suarez

The paperback is an odd shape,
1/2" taller and 1/4" narrower
than a standard paperback
Freedom is the sequel to Daemon, where a techbro turns himself into a decentralized algorithm on the internet and basically takes it over.  Most of the Daemon was about the investigation into his death and seeing the effects of the daemon as it slowly implemented its master plan.  It was mostly a murder mystery with a cool internet concept behind it (Ready Player One but the AI is evil).

In Freedom, we get a much broader scope.  The subtexts of daemon (multinationals being out of control, decentralized vs centralized control over information, old versus new) are pretty much the main substance of Freedom.  There is definitely a story here, but it feels like Suarez main motivation was to share his ideas about how the internet can change the world for good or evil.  I am usually turned off when authors of fiction spend a lot of time explaining, but here he is preaching to the converted and doing it in a pretty entertaining way.  I can imagine some would grow a bit weary of scenes like a Laguna Indian woman (who is a 22nd level tech shaman in the Darknet) explaining the high tech self-sustaining community they are developing on their reservation or the salt of the earth farmer lamenting how he became a slave to agribusiness and the evil of the global supply chain.  I gobbled them up.

And that's what is really fun about this book.  It was written in 2010 and while some of the details already seem obsolete in the age of fakenews, he is nevertheless broadly quite accurate in seeing how the man will use technology to suppress. It's not always totally coherent, but basically the good guys are the people who have signed on to the daemon's Darknet.  They all walk around in glasses with virtual reality HUDs so they can see the Darknet around them.  People and locations who are part of the Darknet have callouts that show their level, their value, etc.  The decentralized production method that helped them develop deadly weapons and extort opponents of the daemon in the first book is now being used to transform America's blighted economy, especially in the rural midwest into self-sufficient community cells.  The bad guys are the corporate and military elite who want to destroy the daemon that has infected their network and eliminate this new culture that is undermining the structure that keeps them in power.

It gets a bit cartoony and the storylines of the various characters are inconsistent.  As my wife pointed out, particularily glaring is the one female character's utter lack of doing anything ever than just being ferried around from place to place, told things and then fulfilling her romantic quest from the first book (with one of the main male protagonists who gets a lot more actual action).  None of the stories of the characters from the first book really get played out fully satisfactorily.  I think it was a deliberate choice, to keep the book small and more digestible so I am not totally critical.  Just wish they had at least included one of the women's stories and made it richer and more interesting.

Fun stuff, though, I am on board.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

47. Whore by Nelly Arcan

I have been reading so much that my on-deck shelf is actually starting to need to get refilled!  I have gone through and organized all my various book search lists and may even now purchase some new books!  In the meantime, I also started going through my wife's collection, which is quite interesting.  She has many female genre authors that I don't know so there is a lot of potential there.  For now, I jumped on Whore because I remembered when Nelly Arcand died it was quite a sensation here in Quebec.  It is also a far departure from British YA fantasy, which I need right now.  I do feel a major shame in reading this book, to the point that I kept it hidden at work.  Not because of the title, but because I am reading the english translation.  It's really not that long and is a true Montreal and Quebec book so I should have buckled down and read the original version.  In the end, I am glad I did not because I never would have finished it.  There is a lot of repetition in the language and endless sentences (seriously, each section is 1-5 pages long and is a single run on sentence).

It is ostensibly the semi-fictional story of a young woman from rural Quebec and a very Catholic upbringing who moves to Montreal to study while working as a prostitute.  It's really more like a long, poetic screed about sex and being a woman and family all from the mind of a very damaged person, but damaged in a weirdly rational way once you get stuck in to her mindset.

I have mixed, complex feelings about this book.  On the one hand, it feels like a ton of self-generated, pretentious pain.  For the first part of the book, I felt a lot like Terry and Dean at the beginning of FUBAR when they are watching the director's deeply personal short film.  I have learned now that it is thanks to my privilege as a white male, but I have trouble sympathizing and even caring about the main character in this book whose major issue was that her dad was no longer sexually attracted to her mother when she was a child.  Everything is extreme.  All women are either sexual daughters minutes away from turning old and becoming sexless, bloated mothers.  All men are cocks just wanting to come all over everything all the time.  There is some truth to this worldview and her insanity is richly complex and revealing, but it is also wildly reductivist and feels angry for no reason I can really put my finger on.  She comes off as one of the hot chicks in high school that we are supposed to feel sorry for because she is attractive and put her on the same level of dysfunction as children who come from abusive backgrounds.  Also, deep down, though this book was scandalous and shocking in its use of raw taboos, the morality underlying the shock is deeply conventional and judeo-christian.  The fundamental notion of this book is that there is something broken about being a sex worker. 

On the other hand, it does hold a certain savage light to modern gender relations and makes one think.  It's also quite funny in parts. Men who come see her in the day are always just coming from or going to chair meetings.  I am not quite capturing it as well as her language but she mocks everything important in our bourgeois world and I enjoyed that.

So not my style and I don't really buy the justification for the mania, but an interesting, thought-provoking book that moves forward quite aggressively in a way I enjoyed.  And I should add that while I say I didn't buy the justification, I cannot deny that whatever the source of her worldview, it did seem to be authentic.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

46. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third book of the 5-part well-regarded Dark Is Rising Sequence, a fantasy story in modern England where a family of children get involved in the war between the Dark and the Light.  I have to start this post with a complaint.  For some reason, it is extremely difficult to figure out the order of these books.  None of the versions I have found ever clearly show which books is which in the series.  It's maddening.  Just put a frickin' number somewhere!  Because of this, I have owned The Grey King for over a year now and never would have picked it up in the first place had I realized it wasn't the next one in the series.  I am sure I am just old and the kids that read this stuff have no problem figuring it out.

The last book had a really cool weather sequence, but I struggled to get into it.  I tried this time to really focus.  It's hard when the characters all have names like Will and Bill and Simon and Jane and because some characters are themselves in the modern world but also some older magical being, they may have several names, and different people use different names with them.  Furthermore, Cooper has this habit of having characters speak or appear in rooms where it hadn't been clearly established in the beginning that they were in the scene.  So again, I struggled with staying focused.

There are some real narrative issues as well, that I think contributed to my lack of interest.  First of all, there is no clear protagonist nor perspective.  The two brothers and sister, who were the heroes of the first book, join together on holiday with Will, who was the hero of the second book. Nobody gets central billing and we flit from character to character without any real structure.  More damning, the children really have zero agency and the reader has no real idea of what is going on.  We just wait for the old Lords of Light to tell us that something is going to happen but not say what and then we get to watch it happen.  It feels very passive, what we call deprotaganization in the tabletop RPG world. It's a bad thing.

There is some cool traditions of the Cornish town and the way they are woven into the overall narrative is quite clever.  I am hoping the flaws here may be most pronounced in the middle book.  I am reluctant to continue to read this series, but will plow forward.  I am still debating whether to jump into the next book right away or take a little break.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

45. Something to Hide by Nicholas Monsarrat

This is a very short book, 124 pages almost all of which are tense and unpleasant.  Jack Carter stops at the beginning of the book to pick up a desperate looking girl on the side of the road.  She is desperate and very pregnant and browbeats him into taking her into his home.  This is 1960s England and Carter is a petit bourgeois clerk at a small town hall, with a nice house by the river where he likes to go fishing.  Though he is in a rural place with some privacy, the neighbours do watch and having a girl in his home would cause social problems that could lead to pressure at work and so on.  He digs himself deeper with lies as the girl proves stubborn and utterly irresponsible.  This is more a book of tension and social pressure rather than outright violence, though it indeed goes down a pretty extreme path.  It reminded me of one of Simenon's Romans Durs with the Highsmith exploration of guilt and Millar's deceptive plotting.  Definitely enjoyable for a day's reading.  I would love to find the movie someday.

44. Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Now that's a paperback!
Other than John Christopher's lesser known adult novels, I have found the animal fantasy sub-genre the hardest to track down.  It's weird because it is not that obscure of a sub-genre and even has some all-time classics (Watership Down) and kids hits (the Warriors series).  I've looked for Colin Dann in used bookshops from coast to coast for a decade now and found nothing.  I was very excited to stumble upon Tailchaser's Song at this weird used bookstore on Mont-Royal east here in Montreal (it's just so barebones, with the english paperbacks being in the basement; I can't tell if the stock has ever changed).  Tad Williams is a succesful author in the wider fantasy genre, though this is one of the books he is known for as well.  It wasn't on my list and was the cover that attracted me to it.  It's a good find and definitely falls pretty close to the kind of animal fantasy books I enjoy.

There are many elements in animal fantasy that appeal to me.  The main one is that sense journey and escape in a world that is actually so close to you.  When the animals live entirely in their own world, which becomes in effect its own fantasy setting, I find it somewhat indistinguishable from a non-animal fantasy story.  That is not entirely accurate as even in those kinds of books, the animals behaviours and relation to their environment play a major role in the story and setting (such as The Duncton Wood series).  Still, I prefer it when it is real animals in the real world with humans off to one side while they go and explore the mysteries and threats of that world.

Tailchaser's Song definitely falls into that category.  The protagonist (and hero), Tailchaser is somewhat wild, but still returns to a box on a human porch where he gets fed.  In the nearby wood, there are wild cats that he hangs out with. In particular, he bonds closely with a female cat, Hushpad and when she and her family all disappear he decides to find and rescue her.  This coincides with rumours of strange goings-on farther afield.  Folk (which is how the cats refer to the themselves) from distant communities found slaughtered and other disappearances.  Tailchaser wonders if his friend's dissapearance is connected with that and decides to follow the older tougher cats to Firsthome, where the queen of the cats resides.  Thus starts his adventure.

The locations and the journeying are really top notch.  There is a great map (though so small that I had to photograph it and zoom in with my phone) in the black and white hand drawn fantasy map tradition.  The mythology, culture and society of the cats is rich and interesting, especially the origin story of man (an overly prideful cat who tries to usurp power gets his ass kicked by one of the Firstborn, is stretched and rendered hairless and forced to serve the Folk to the end of time).  Things get really crazy.  Thoroughly enjoyable. It wouldn't be totally unfair to call it a Lord of the Rings with cats, or perhaps just compare it to any classic quest novel (there ends up being a cool party of mismatched characters who each bring something to the table).  There is enough going on here to take it beyond such a simple critique.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

43. Darkness of Slumber by Rosemary Kutak

I stumbled on this book at a garage sale on Rachel while returning one of my daughter's friends home from hanging out. I think she was a bit curious as to why I had dragged the bike and trailer on to the sidewalk to get a quick look at the books on the table.  I was quite surprised to find this and two other really old mysteries.  This Pocket Book was the nicest looking one, though I picked up all three as the price was reasonable.

It was written in 1944 and I was curious as to the tone and sophistication.  One often has the impression that culture from the past is often naive or softer than modern work.  I am once again glad to be found wrong on that count.  The human relations and behaviours are complex and just as nasty in this book as in any you find today.  The mores are very different, with assumed gender roles and some straight out racism that I found quite off-putting.  It was nothing direct and only occured in a single line, but a word used in passing in the narrative to describe an African-American servant.  Black people are almost invisible except the very few times they appear to answer a door.  That would have been bad enough, but to have the author refer to that servant using what a profoundly offensive and hateful term really kind of slaps you in the face with how fucked up American society is (not that we in Canada are all that much better).  This kind of thinking was in my parents lifetime, so you see in today's shitstorm of conservative resistance to change in the US, that racism is deeply-rooted.  Sorry, I got sidetracked there but you can't just ignore racism, even in artifacts from the past where they supposedly didn't know any better.  My main point was though it is almost 60 years old and pretty mainstream, this book is very readable today for fans of the mystery genre.

The plot itself is quite complex and multi-layered.  It revolves around a wealthy family, their loved daughter, Eve, who has been in an institution for the last ten years in a state of permanent apoplexy (there was a technical term that I forgot; she is basically a vegetable).  As the back story is slowly unravelled from the perspective of three different characters, you learn that she was perfectly happy and nobody knows why she suddenly went catatonic.  Her husband was a lawyer, an ex-DA who had been disgraced in a failed reform campaign right around the time of her collapse.  There are many more layers to the onion and these start to get unravelled when the doctors discover a new treatment that appears to be bringing Eve back.

I found the ending and the actually revelation to be a bit less intense and dark then the lead-up but the bulk of this book was really great.  Rosemary Kutak is added to my list.

Here is a great passage:
Halsey's office had the old-fashioned proportions of the anteroom, but book-lined walls, a heavy carpet, and curtains at the tall windows gave it more solidity.  Halsey himself looked like the sort of man who brought bellboys and put head waiters on the qui vive.  Not, Marc thought, because he tried to create an impression.  He had just been born that way, to expensive schools and clubs and importance.  His appearance suggested tennis and squash courts, easy masculine companionship over a high-ball and a clever, hard-driving mind.  He would, Marc concluded, be a good man to have for a friend, and a formidable adversary to meet in court. 
I'm always down for some easy masculine companionship over a high-ball!

Monday, November 19, 2018

42. Replay by Ken Grimwood

I had never heard of this book before and have since learned that it is considered a classic and deservedly so.  It is thanks to my wife that I did discover it.  She did some research on Dark Matter (which she also passed on to me) and discovered people saying it owed a big debt to Replay  It's also a huge favourite in Japan and probably inspired the manga upon which the Tom Cruise vehicle Tomorrow Never Dies is based.

The story starts with Jeff Winston dying of a heart attack at the age of 43.  He is a producer at a local radio station, unhappy in his marriage and stuck in his career and life.  After dying, he wakes up to find himself in his old college dorm room.  More than that, he is actually is his 18-year old self and it is 1963.  He still has the conscious and memories of his 43-year old self and as you can well imagine, struggles to adapt to this new old situation.  I have to admit, reading this part made me feel a bit panicky.  While the idea of starting over is intriguing, I would just fucking hate to sit through all those classes and lectures again.  Also, trying to act your age would really hard.

One of the things that makes Replay so enjoyable is that as you read it, you can also fantasize about what you would do and how you would deal.  I am not going to go into any more details about the narrative here, as the fun is in finding out what happens.  Ultimately, though this was classified as fantasy, Replay is what I usually disparagingly call literary fiction.  Here, I will not disparage because this is just a really good novel, well thought out, entertaining and quite moving.  It's about love and what we do with our lives and while it has a lot of darkness it is ultimately quite hopeful and inspiring.  A great read.  Nice find, Meezly!


Saturday, November 17, 2018

41. The Philosopher's Stone by Colin Wilson

I was hesitant about picking this up, but the cover sucked me in.  I feared it was going to be a book with too much philosophical rambling.  My premonitions turned out to be correct.  Wilson even says as much in the intro, where he admits that the weak storyline is just a flimsy excuse for him to enlighten the world with his thoughts on perception and the power of the mind.  I am not going to say that this is a bad book.  I will say that it is definitely not my kind of book.

The story basically follows the life and scientific/intellectual journey of the protagonist, who develops an interest at a young age for deep studies of esoteric subjects. He gets mentored by a master in this field, who dies and leaves him half his estate, allowing him to devote his life to study.  At some point, he puts a tiny shard of special medal into his forehead that allows him to focus his mind.  He starts gaining psychic abilities and this allows him to explore and learn even more.  He soon discovers that there are some other being in existence who don't want to be found out. This leads him eventually to discover the history of Mu, the elder gods and Cthulu himself.  There is a fear they will destroy us but then when he discovers their true history, he realizes humans with his mind power could work with them, both species evolving together.  The end.

That's the story, except it takes up abou 40 of the 250 odd pages.  The rest is him rambling on about who really was Shakespeare, how are brains are under-powered and why everybody else is caught up in negative cycles and he isn't and on and on.  It's really a lot of goofy pseudo-science, some of which is kind of creative, but most which is just sort of thrown at the wall to see what sticks.  The ending where we finally learn the true history of man and our relation to the elder gods (and their history and ultimate downfall) is quite trippy and imaginative.  I would have enjoyed that part more had I not spent all week slogging through the rest of the wanking. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

40. Red Ketchup l'Intégrale Volume 2

I enjoyed volume 2 of Red Ketchup (books 4-6) so much and in doing so realized that it had been quite a long time since I had read the previous volumes.  Furthermore, I wasn't even sure that I had read them all.  Fortunately, the local library had the first intégrale and so I took it out and spent the weekend reading it, to my renewed pleasure.

For reference's sake, the first 3 books here are not actually the first appearance of Red Ketchup.  There is a summary of his origin story but it's only four pages.  He first shows up in the pages of Michel Risque when it was serialized in Croc magazine (kind of a Mad magazine from Quebec, though I am probably not doing it justice).  He is a secondary character whose side story takes over a bit from the main Michel Risque storyline (these Michel Risque's are also really good and you should hunt them down as well).  I guess Red Ketchup was so popular that he had to be killed off and then given his own books.  There is a nice summary to be found here.

In the first story, La Vie en Rouge, Red Ketchup gets brought into the ancient society of Templars, who are working behind the scenes to get their conservative populist leader elected.  According to their mythology, Ketchup is the modern incarnation of the knight templar who saved their society from siege (in the tapestry and legend, he has the same white skin, red hair and eyes as our hero).  There is also an internal power struggle and Ketchup with his trademark manic destructiveness is the catalyst that makes everything exploded.  The underlying satire of American politics and conspiracy is strong and funny here.

Because he has caused so much damage, his FBI boss this time sends Red Ketchup to Antarctica to guard a research base there in the second book Kamarade Ultra.  Here he becomes obsessed with what he believes to be a penguin spy (and massacres an entire penguin colony with a machine gun) which leads him to the Soviet base, which he of course attacks.  Two great recurring characters are introduced here for the first time:  Olga Dynamo, Soviet super spy and Docteur Künt, Nazi mad doctor.  This latter is really my favourite, one of the better humourous portrayals of the evil Nazi doctor in hiding.  He lives with his wife Natasha and there is always a hilarious introductory scene with him returning to whatever domestic situation he is and talking to her before the reveal that she is a blow-up sex doll.  Just the movement of his hands cracks me up as well.  I shouldn't sleep on Olga either whose sexual "tension" with Ketchup is just dying for consummation.  Will we ever get it?

He shows up as the main antagonist in the third book Red Ketchup contre Red Ketchup where he creates a clone army of Red Ketchups.  His plan, financed by a bunch of other Nazis in hiding is to use them to sow chaos and then move in to the anarchic aftermath as super troops to establish the Fourth Reich.  It's all really good stuff.

Dr. Künt at home

Sunday, November 11, 2018

39. Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

Ross Thomas has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the better thriller/espionage/crime writers of the second half of the twenthieth century, though that reputation is probably better held among fans of the genre than the broader book-reading public.  The Porkchoppers is one of my favourite books.  Yet once again, I am somewhat underwhelmed by one of his books, especially the ones that are part of a series with a regular cast of protagonists.

Cast a Yellow Shadow is a McCorkle and Padillo adventure. They are two cold war era men who don't really want to do what they do but have to because they are so good at it.  McCorkle is the narrator and ostensibly the less engaged of the two (and the less skilled and experienced, though he always handles himself well).  In this book, Padillo turns up unconscious after a knife fight on the Baltimore docks.  He had presumably died in the last book whose events took place two years earlier.  McCorkle gets a call from some of his contacts in the DC African-American criminal establishment, specifically one bookie and gangster Hardman (pronounced Hard-Man).  McCorkle is happy to see his partner alive, but his pleasure is short-lived as they discover that McCorkle's wife has been kidnapped. The ransom:  Padillo must do a job for these kidnappers.

The kidnappers are agents from a ficitonal south African country beween Rhodesia and South Africa.  They are from the white minority government who wants to gain independence from Britain while not relinquishing their power to the black majority (this book was written in 1967).  Their plan is to get Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister who is visiting America and make it seem like it was done by an American black radical group.  They believe this will turn world opinion in their favour.  The Prime Minister himself is behind the conspiracy as he has stomach cancer and only a few months to live anyways.  They are white supremacist fanatics who are fairly realistically portrayed despite the loopiness of their plan.

It's kind of a cool set up and the cast of characters is interesting, especially the black gangsters who help McCorkle and Padillo with their counterplay.  The problem is that the tone is all a bit too glib and everything feels slightly superficial. The premise was also a bit weak, as the bad guys though violent and desperate are basically amateurs compared to McCorkle and Padillo and completely out of their home territory.  Finally, there was a lack of emotional payoff in the end.

It is a beautiful paperback that I found in in Vancouver in one of those great free book boxes that are popping up all over and I feel like I need to keep it for archival purposes even though it's not one of my favourite reads. 

Thursday, November 08, 2018

38. The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator is the fourth Trollope I have read and likewise picked it up simply because I stumbled upon a paperback copy that whose condition I wouldn't have to worry about. Once again, I became quite quickly enveloped in Trollope's detailed prose and engrossing settings.  Though called The American Senator, the story begins and is ultimately founded on the town of Dillsborough.  We follow several members of the gentry as well as several who want to become or were once close to the gentry.  It starts off with a bewilderingly complex pre-history of the lord and manor hall of the county that Dillsborough is in, but we soon settle down to Lord Morton, a diplomat who has returned to his family seat where he never grew up, his insanely snobby grandmother and his unknown cousin Reginald (whose mother was from Montreal and thus hated by Lord Morton's grandmother).  The Senator in question is a guest of Lord Morton and goes around interrogating everybody and then criticizing England in a way that tends to put people off.  Sir Reginald is a loner and quite content to read books and wander around the family land smoking his pipe.  He also secretly is in love with Mary Masters the angelic daughter of the ex-family lawyer to the Mortons (the third generation of lawyers to them who was unceremoniously fired by the previously mentioned grandmother).  As I say, complex.

Two other important storylines are the laying down of poisoned herring in an fox-hunting wood during a lawsuit between a poor farmer and the neighbouring Lord Rufford (readers will know this is the stuff I really love) and the pursuit of said Lord Rufford by Arabella Trefoil.  This latter is ostensibly engaged to Lord Morton but is a career husband-hunter.  Much of the plot is how she juggles between pursuing Lord Rufford while being engaged to Lord Morton.

Finally we have the senator himself.  He is a guest of Lord Morton initially.  His whole deal is to learn about British institutions and then diss them.  He is often correct in his theoretical positions but almost deliberately blunt and ignorant of the customs he is violating.  He comes off at first as a bit of a caricature of the ignorant and headstrong American, but as you read on, you sense more and more that Trollope is using him as a mouthpiece to expose some of the absurdities of english law at the time.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, but had some reservations.  I found that the subtext here was more conservative than past Trollope books I read.  He lampoons the aristocracy but also seems to subtly argue for its ongoing existence.  My understanding was that Trollope was quite progressive for his time, but I felt a bit of a lament against change here.  None of that reduced my pleasure in the reading and I may be offbase.  However, the romance here was a bit simplistic and also hinged on for me an unbelievable lack of communication.  It dragged the tension on unnecessarily long which I found manipulative and in contrast to the deft way he goes beyond that kind of narrative trickery in Barchester Towers.  That being said, the final conclusion of the romance had a slight wrinkle that went some way to make it more interesting than it promised to be during its unfolding.

Monday, November 05, 2018

37. The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh

I picked up this very nice hardover in Nanaimo.  I think it's a first edtion, but don't know how to tell for sure [editor's note: it's not.  It's a book club edition, story of my life].  I quite enjoyed her book Cyteen, enough that I wanted to try out her more popular Chanur series. It took me a while to find the first one and I am glad I didn't give up the search.

The Pride of Chanur demonstrates Cherryh's strong handling of emotional interactions and complex political and commercial intrigue.  Unlike Cyteen, this one takes place in a really far flung universe with several alien species, some of them so alien that they can't even really understand each other (though they trade).  The protagonist is Pyanjar Chanur, the female Hani captain of the merchant ship The Pride of Chanur.  The Hani (actually hani as none of the species are capitalized here, I guess like the way we use the word humans) are lion-like creatures, bipedal with claws, manes and expressive ears.  Only the females venture out in space, as the men are too volatile and remain back at their home planet protecting their holdings from each other and their own sons who come back and try to take power.

The book begins with the Pride docked at Meetpoint, a trading station, when a strange fugitive creature runs aboard their ship.  It takes a while for the reader to realize it is a human and we learn that it escaped from the kif, a nasty, thieving species that all the others hate and fear.  It sounds a bit simplistic from my description but in the book it quite works.  These are really unlikable creatures.  Pyanjar cannot in her conscience return the human once she realizes it is sentient (though they cannot communicate at first) but by keeping it, she risk stirring up major inter-species conflict.  And that's what happens.

A lot of this book is a really cool space chase, with the Pride at a major disadvantage.  It is Pyanjar's experience and character that is put to the test in such overwhelming odds and we the readers are right there cheering for her and her crew (and the human dragged along).  There is lots of cool space combat and tense strategy and trickery as well.  All very enjoyable stuff for me.

There are 5 books in the series, which I think make up two overall narratives.  I will definitely keep my eye out for the second one.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

36. Red Ketchup Intégrale Volume 2

This is a collection of books 4, 5 and 6 of the Red Ketchup series.  The first three books are some of my all-time favourite comics, a beautiful combination of Hergè-like art and Wonder Warthog style anarchy and chaos.  Red Ketchup is an unkillable psychotic FBI agent, existing solely on handfuls of pharmaceuticals, driven by an 80's American distilled Rambo fascism.  He is also not bright at all and ends up achieving his mission through sheer destruction and the wild coincidences and machinations of the characters swirling around him. His boss at the FBI is constantly trying to take him out of circulation which leads to him causing greater destruction.  It's all a hilarious critique of American exceptionalism and the fantasy of violent victory over bad guys that dominates American comics.  Réal Godbout and Pierre Fournier are highly recognized in the BD field for this and their other great series Michel Risque (where Red Ketchup first appeared as a side character).  The books are also physically beautiful published by La Pasteque, such that I made an exception to my usually going to the library and actually started buying them.  They are translated into english and you should get them.

I sat on this Intégrale for quite a while because I wanted to savour it.  Ironically, when I did finally start reading this one, I got bogged down and abandoned it.  Book 4 Red Ketchup s'est échappé!  (Red Ketchup Got Away!) is actually very talky and starts out with tons of dialogue.  Ketchup who has been sent up to space by his bosses decides he has finally had enough.  He returns to earth (ignoring the burning up as he goes through the atmosphere), resigns in a huff and moves to LA to open up his own private detective agency.  This one really lacks the chaos of the preceding three volumes and I found myself worried that Godbout and Fournier had lost their way as perhaps there is only so much you can do with the concept.  Particularly frustrating is that Ketchup is constantly constrained throughout the book while surrounded by the kind of sleazeballs whom he usually destroys.  Likewise, while much of this takes place in the Hollywood film milieu, the satire is applied rather lightly.  There are the characteristically funny touches along the way, especially in the advertising for American products you can see in the background.

The second volume, Le couteau aztèque (The Aztec Knife), gets interesting again, though this time it is a trippy time travel adventure.  Red Ketchup's sister and brujo Juan Two-Tree chase Red through history (and he chases himself through his own abusive past) as he inserts himself into various conqueror's and completely rewrites the past.

LOL!
The third book, L'oiseau aux sept surfaces (The Seven-Surfaced Bird) brings Red Ketchup fully back to form.  I burst out loud laughing several times so much that my daughter kept asking me what was so funny.  The story here is an hommage to manga and kaiju, as Red Ketchup is sent by his bosses on a false investigation of the disappearing turkey population ("if the turkey disappears, what will happen to democracy!?") to get him out of the way.  After a hilarious investigation in supermarkets, Turkey farms, processing plants and finally a country fair where he slaps a turkey (this is what cracked me up first), Ketchup goes to Japan where it turns out his old enemy Docteur Künt is developing a gigantism gene. Chaos ensues.  This one was fucking awesome.

Now I have 3 more volumes left. The intégrale hasn't come out yet and I am debating whether to get them individually or just wait.  Either way, I am going to savour again.









I mean look at that.

Friday, November 02, 2018

35. The Moonbeams by R. Vernon Beste

I quite like the sombre colours and purple edges of this paperback.  It was in very good condition when I got it, perhaps only read once by the previous owner.  Two days of reading by me has left it in a much more "used" state.  I was pretty careful but I guess just the age of the paper and glue means that any movement creates lines and little degradations.

I thought it was an American crime novel when I picked it up, but it's actually a British WWII spy novel, specifically about agents working the ground in rural occupied France near the end of the war, allying with the resistance and communists.  The protagonist, Maltby, is cynical and bitter, but also kind of lost.  The book begins with him back in London after a debilitating ulcer forced him out of the France where he had worked with a small team of 5 other spies, blowing up industrial sites and spying on the Nazis.  Although he could have had his "ticket" to take the rest of the war off, his own anxiety about who he is allows him to be convinced to return.  His handlers learned that one of his crew was a double agent, working with the gestapo and was getting ready to blow up the entire extended network.  They send Maltsby back to find out which one was the traitor and also to blow up some crucial and irreplaceable machinery (because it was manufactured in Britain before the war) in a ball-bearing factory.

This is really more of a war book than an espionage book, though technically it's all part of espionage.  Most of the narrative takes place in France in this one region where Maltsby has been operating.  I found the detail of the way they managed themselves and planned their actions to be really interesting.  I don't know how realistic it is (there seemed to be quite a few englishmen who could succesfully pass as working class or peasant frenchmen, but perhaps to the Germans such a disguise would be more effective).  It was also near the end of the war and German forces were weakened, distracted and low on supplies.  There is also some really interesting social exploration, as Maltsby gets to know each of his fellow spies in a new way now that he suspects them of betrayal.  In particular, he discovers that one them is homosexual and he is disgusted but doesn't want to be, as his own innate prejudice clashes with his theoretical liberal values.

Though I am always a sucker for the happy ending, given the darkness and anxiety that makes up most of the book, I found the way this one concluded a bit pat.  Likewise, I guessed the traitor quite early on and found Maltsby's mistake somewhat difficult to believe. These are minor complaints about what was otherwise a solid and engaging story set in a well-portrayed and complex milieu.  Basically a really good resistance story.


Love those purple edges!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

34. Without a Trace by Background GmBH

I can't even remember where I found this book now, possibly in a box of books on the sidewalk.  It's a guide to police detection techniques written in 1977 by a far-left radical group in Switzerland. The version I have is a reprint by Partisan Press in Seattle 3 years later.  I was interested in it mainly for the time period and some insight into policing methods that would be relevant to the genre of books I tend to read.  I had been putting off reading it for some time along with the few other non-fiction books on my on-deck shelf but with my current spurt of reading energy decided finally to take it on.

At first it was really quite laborious.  I really struggle reading non-fiction. On top of it, the intro is dripping with the vocabulary of late 20th century intellectual left dogma.  I consider my politics to be fairly left-leaning (what we would call "progressive" today) and even quite radical in some areas.  But god do I balk at the nerdy rigidity of this particular form of thinking where everybody is a comrade and the bourgeoisie are this evil force.  It is probably the biggest failure of the left (and most ironic), its insistence on verbal conformity and taking itself so seriously, an issue we still see with us today in the internet sphere of leftist politics, though the language has varied.  Anyhow, I digress (and probably have already labelled myself as some kind of traitorious middle-roader).  My point is that I was having a hard time with the lack of narrative and feeling annoyed by the rhetoric.

As I progressed through the book, however, I began to enjoy it more and more.  The bulk of it is straightforward and well-written.  It is a broad survey of the various techniques that police forces use to investigate crimes.  The word they use the most is "trace" but I think they meant "clue".  They explain how detectives can find clues in voice recordings, typewriters, handwriting, explosion and arson scenes, guns and bullet wounds, fibres and materials.  It's a fascinating look at the state of forensic analysis and tools at this time period.  Much of the techniques are pretty outdated today, though probably form the foundation of many current techniques.  It is amazing the detailed work the cops go through and how difficult it is for "criminals" (a bourgeois label filled with bias) to neutralize the evidence.  There is an afterword where the writers mockingly explain what they went through to ensure that they could not be identified by this booklet (the original one), buying paper in small batches from several producers, destroying all the identifiable parts of the offset printing press that made it and so on.

And it is at this point by the end that this book got really entertaining.  They editorialize much more and there is some hilarious stuff.  Here is a paragraph from a section on ordering helpful material directly from book publishers and dealers.

Many or most of these works are written by and for the police, military, and intelligence communities, which has both positive and negative aspects.  On the one hand, frequently the practical and theoretical expertise of the authors cannot be questioned, despite the political despicableness of the presentation.  On the other hand, because many of the books are written for the ignoramuses who staff these government agencies, they are frequently boring and unenlightening for the intelligent reader.

That immediately made me think of the narcs and DEA agents pissing in their boots while on stake out in the Freak Brothers comics.  The bibliography at the end is gold.  There are several books that I need to add to my list that I discovered here, including Operation Ogro by Julen Agirre about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Spain and Franco's right-hand man and The Final Score by Emmet Grogan.

It's also a very revealing look at the mentality of the time and how much more freedom (at least of thought and expression)we have achieved since that time in the West.  Or perhaps how much more information we have access to and can share because of the internet.  Also a warning in these darkening times that extreme repression is always lurking.

As I read the book, it basically fell apart at the spine.  I was planning on recycling it but think I may now get it repaired and keep it on the shelf.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

33. The Salamander by Morris West

Another find from the hospital used book store, The Salamander has the look of the classic 70s bestseller.  It even has a quote from Cosmpolitan on the cover, so I guess they felt it would attract both men and women readers.

It's an odd mix of genres.  It starts out as a detective story and then morphs into a much larger-scale political thriller about halfway through without adding any new characters.  I guess one might say that the biggest character in the story is Italy herself.  Throughout the narrative, all the characters and the protagonist are constantly talking about the history of Italy, the political culture of Italy, the Italian character, how Italians are just so different from everybody else.  This is not an original refrain and I suspect there is some truth to it, but it is really hammered home here and I'm not sure how authentic any of it is.

The story starts with Inspector Matucci of the internal intelligence agency the SID, responding to the death of a very powerful general who was in line to possibly be the next leader of Italy, possibly through extra-legal means.  He finds a clue leading to The Salamander.  The first half of the book is this investigation.  It's fairly cool.  There's lots of rich locations and interesting methodology of a secret police inspector who is relatively morally good.  As the investigation broadens, it becomes less about what actually happened to the general but rather what conspiracy of a fascist takeover is brewing.  We do meet The Salamander and he turns out to be a good guy, working inside the world of power to prevent this coup d'etat.

The Salamander takes Matucci under his wing and the second half of the book concentrates on their relationshipo and Matucci's makeover from disgraced inspector to slick political spy, also playing the game at the highest levels.

It was entertaining and had some nice relationships.  I enjoyed the machinations of the various agencies and bureaucracies as well as the intermingling of society, money and military powers. It was all, I suspect, a bit unrealistic and simple and ultimately lacked a true edge that would have distinguished it from a mainstream bestseller of its time.

Monday, October 29, 2018

32. Valérian - L'Intégrale Volume I by J.C. Mezieres and Pierre Christin

In the past, I would only count a comic book (or bande-dessinée) if I had read the entire series.   Well desperate times call for desperate measures and I am changing that policy to consider an "intégrale" of a series (usually a collection of 3-4 of the books) a book in my 50 books counting.  I believe this policy choice is defensible, as they are written in french with a lot of text and tend to be as much effort and take me as long to read as a short crime novel.  I also tend to avoid french comics and non-fiction and several of these have been sitting on my on-deck shelf for a while.  Over the weekend, I went hard on that shelf, culling out books I wasn't going to read and re-organizing it to take advantage of my current reading energy.  My plan is to alternate fiction with french comics and non-fiction until I have emptied that shelf!

Valérian and Laureline is an all-time classic of the french language bande-dessinée world.  I knew about it for a while but was motivated to read it after the Luc Besson movie came out.  The movie is not as terrible as some would have led you to believe.  It's not great either but had enough of a cool space sci-fi vibe that I wanted to check out the source.  That led to an impassioned 20-minute discourse by the comic book store guy and a recommendation to get the first volume of l'intégrale which is made up of the first 4 books. Interestingly, he recommended that I skip the very first one, which he said was not indicative of the rest of the series.

I have to say that while so far really cool and enjoyable, the series so far hasn't quite lived up to his hype.  It's not quite Thorgal level of connection and emotion for me.  At least not yet, I can see the potential is there.  Even with what I have read, I can also understand why Valérian is so well respected. It is not unlike the original Star Trek. Valérian and Laureline are spatio-temporal agents from the 28th century where almost everybody on earth sits around connected to dream boxes.  This pinnacle of leisure society is thanks to the time-space technology allowing humans to go anywhere anywhen.  The space-time agents are the only people doing anything productive and their main thing is to just make sure nothing goes awry.  The first 3 books are sort of origin stories where you get some insight into what happened to earth since the 20th century.  The 4th book, the Empire of a Thousand Planets, I suspect will be more indicative of the series, where the agents go visit some new civilization and have to deal with a problem there, a lot like Star Trek, but with time involved.

And this is where some of the qualities of this series come in.  This some trippy space shit!  The art starts out in that very traditional slightly goofy style of the 60s and 70s (à la Lucky Luke), but the exaggerated features and floppy hair calm down.  The places and the concepts even in these early albums are really cosmic and imaginative.  They also have a great voyage through the United States being ripped apart by cataclysmic weather effects (Manhattan is drowning, the Rockies exploding in volcanoes).  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian vibe running through the stories.  While the main evil is defeated at the end of each of the stories here, there is also a rebel group left who will be shaking up that society going forward.

Like Star Trek, there is a code of not messing with the local societies.  It doesn't have it's own name but Valerian mentions it twice.  Like Star Trek, he and Laureline don't seem to follow it too closely.  Again, I suspect this will all tighten up and get more complex and interesting as the series evolves.

Good news for us all and especially those of you who don't read french, almost the entire series has been translated into english.  Ask your local comic book store!

 [Link to article on the order of books in the series]