Monday, November 11, 2019

90. The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Since I finished this, I discovered that it actually was a novella, originally published in a sci-fi magazine (to quite some acclaim; many old sci-fi heads have fond memories of the excitement it generated).  I got it in book form (and a lovely form as well, though the copy on the back is totally off base) and will thus consider it a book.

I enjoyed The Dragon Masters but it helped solidify my inability to truly connect with Vance's work.  It's his writing style.  His sentences have many adjectives and he often uses obscure words where a more common one exists (sacerdote, fuglemen are two examples that come to mind).  There is nothing inherently wrong with that and I can see how as a younger man, I may have even appreciated the opportunity to expand my own vocabulary.  Today, it distances me from the text.  Furthermore, he makes up his own words and drops concepts specific to his world in the book without explaining them.  So you can't always tell if it is an english word that you should know or something specific to the world that may or may not be explained further along.  Finally, he almost always describes what people are wearing, in great detail and with colours, also often using specific wardrobe vocabulary that means nothing to me.  I can sometimes stop and build a picture in my mind, but usually do not want to.  For an illustrator or a costume designer, these details are probably quite welcome, for my brain not so much.

All that being said, I am still quite capable of parsing through and enjoying the innovative settings and creatures he comes up with.  Here we have the last vestiges of humanity living on a rocky planet where they have tamed and allied themselves with dragons.  They also breed them and there are many varieties.  There are only a few communities left and they have fought with each other.  There also is a history of the destructive visit of the Basics, a higher species with powerful tech from the stars who comes around every few generations to steal the humans.  There is also a race of naked long-haired people (I guess) who live deep in the caves and never associate with the surface humans, though will answer questions honestly if forced to.

The protagonist, Joaz Banbeck, is the lord of the town of Banbeck and a smart strategist. His nemesis, Ervis Carcolo, is the opposite.  Banbeck realizes that the Basics could be coming back soon and figures out the pattern of their visits, based on the alignment of the stars.  He tries to work with Carcolo, who is too short-sighted and stupid to take him up on the deal.  As the two towns go to war, the Basics arrive and a lot of destruction and dragon-fighting goes down.  It's an interesting read and some have suggested it is an analog for the cold war.  I get why Vance is so popular and I think I could get into one of his longer series, but his style is distancing for me such that this novella did not really grab my full attention.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

89. Sunday by Georges Simenon

After having read two narratives about the crimes and trials of real-life poisoners in Famous Trials 4, I thought a Simenon roman dur about a poisoner was in order.  It was also part of my Concordia book fair haul.

Sunday is about Émile, a cook and innkeeper on the Riviera who is plotting to poison his wife.  The book begins on the day he will commit the crime.  He has been preparing for years.  The rest of the book then meanders back into his origins, how he ended up working/partly owning the inn, married and weirdly beholden to the daughter of the original owner and having an affair with the nearly mute, animal-like maid that lives in the attic.  There is a lot going on in behind the scenes at these quaint, rustic seaside inns!

A lot of this book feels so real.  It is part of Simenon's genius that he could crank out book after book, often in different locales (though mostly in France) and in each case create a complex and realistic set of characters, interwoven with each other and the place in such knowledgeable detail.  Here we get the background world of rural innkeepers, how it isn't the ideal retirement for peasants from inland that it seems to be when you are stuck in the rain and the cold on some farm outside of Nantes.  There is some good detail for foodies here, about how Émile goes to the docks and picks and then hand cleans and cuts the ink squid for the risotto for which travellers come to his little hotel.  Likewise the nuances of the power relations between his wife and himself, his wife and the servants and his own relations with the staff are all drawn with nuance and detail.

At the same time, there are other elements, major plot ones that seem almost insane in their preposterousness.  Now maybe this is how sex went down in the 50s in France, but it seems like all the woman just sort of wait around, showing absolutely no sign or interest, until the man finally summons up enough courage to have sex with them in some sudden way.  Then they are silently grateful, sometimes subserviently and other times in a controlling matronly way.  The maid/indentured servant, whose father basically sells her to Émile's wife as a servant under the condition that she not be allowed to leave the inn, is referred to constantly as a pet, with zero agency who barely even speaks, though is oddly resistant to the mistress of the house and utterly sexually complaint to Émile.  It's weird.

Despite all that, you really do get a sense of why Émile feels that murder is the only way out for him.  You don't sympathize with him, but neither do you sympathize with his wife.  You realize as you make your way through their history how their marriage was one of jailer and prisoner and his poisoning her is him trying to find his freedom.  The dark, twist ending brings this all home in a way that is quite horrible and depressing but also kind of funny.

Cool, looks like the BBC made a radio play of this and it's free on!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

88. Famous Trials 4 edited by James H. Hodge (and report from the Concordia Used Book Fair)

A friend alerted me to the Concordia Epic Used Book Fair the day before the pre-sale was going to take place (for a $5 entrance fee the real hardcore book heads like me can go a day early and get the first pickings).  I am very grateful, as I re-arranged my Sunday plans.  I got there about 20 minutes early to scope it out and there already was a line-up of around 40 people, so I sacrificed my plan for a snack and became the 41st. It was worth it.  I can't believe this is the first time I have gone.  Who knows what I missed?  English used book stores are not great in Montreal, I guess because the anglophone community is relatively small.  This fair gets donations from that same community, so it seems to pull in some interesting books in my line that may have been sitting on people's shelves for quite some time. 

Check out this haul:

Somebody had a nice James Hadly Chase collection.  I love those70s Corgi covers.  The real prize, though is the 1947 Avon version of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  It still isn't the truly degenerate original edition that so disturbed Orwell, but it is a little rougher than the updated version that I read and I think doesn't yet have the "modern" additions that Chase put in later (such as television).  One of these days I will do a side-by-side analysis.

 Lots more lovely Penguins. I suspect these all came from the same collection, as the ages were quite similar and they were the only paperbacks that old.  I don't know anything about A Sour Apple Tree but how cool is that cover?

 I am a bit John D. MacDonald'ed out currently, but I could not resist this fat 70s paperback of Condominium.  This image does not do justice to the cool wraparound cover image.
I saw and put back all 3 of these trial essay Penguins on Sunday, but on Monday the fever was back upon me (like a vampire who drank some really good virgin blood and craves more) and I went back at my lunch hour.  That Jack Vance I had not seen and it is a beautiful little paperback and that kind of allowed me to justify getting the other 3 just because they were old Penguins.

And on to the review itself...
Now that I have three dense, dry essays on famous trials, I felt some pressure to get through them so I picked the first one to read.  It was actually somewhat promising, looking like it was well-written and I might get some exposé on the seamier side of British culture.  It did deliver that, but it was also fairly dry and at times even boring.  There are 5 cases in this book, as you can see from the cover, all of them notorious at the time.  Two are about men who poisoned their wives, one a prostitute whose throat was slashed and a fourth about a wealthy paranoiac (and ex-Australian cabinet member) who paid two men to kidnap and kill a completely innocent lodger because he was insanely jealous of his 65-year old mistress who had said hi to the poor guy once.  Those are all murder trials and all fairly interesting, though honestly mundane and realistic (because they were real) that for me they all ended in a slightly unsatisfying way.  The William Joyce trial was for treason, as he was the infamous Lord Haw-Haw who defected to Germany at the start of WWII and became the voice of Nazi propaganda.  He was declared guilty and hanged.  The essay is written by a lawyer and he goes into agonizing detail about how Joyce's guilt hanged on whether or not he was a British citizen (he was born in Brooklyn to Irish parents who had revoked their British citizenship) and how treason can be defined and what is citizenship.  This was a tough one to get through, though the part about Joyce's life was instructive.  He had returned to England at the age of 3 and grew up a young fascist.  We see these fucks sprouting up again today in America and Canada and England.  I wish they would study their history to see what happened to this loser.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

87. Severance by Ling Ma

I can not now remember the precise details of why I had kept this book on my list.  I know I read a review that made it sound fantastic.  It's in the post-apocalyptic genre and supposedly was a fresh take on the modern workplace, two areas of fictional interest for me.  It got so much hype that it sold out and was hard to find even new for a while. I am also trying to support independent bookstores, so will buy a brand-new book from time to time. I found this in Argo and picked it up.

Unfortunately, it really didn't live up to the hype.  My rule of skepticism towards literary fiction and trade paperbacks remains firmly in place.  It's not a bad book, in the second half it actually gets going and becomes fairly engaging.  It has clearly been carefully crafted and overall the writing is good (though there are a lot of throwaway, clever little descriptions that while not "bad" writing, feel too much of a time and style and undermine any substance that is developed by the narrative).  But the reviews.  One wonders if these people have ever read a good book before.  They acted like this book was some profound exposé on the millenial condition and the modern workforce.  While I enjoyed the details of the protagonist's job working for a book production company, managing the logistical details for outsourced manufacturing jobs in China, there was nothing particularly profound or groundbreaking here. It was a very typical, at times clichéd story of a  young, educated woman first moving to New York City, trying to fit in socially, sexually and professionally.  She is ironically self-critical and aware that she is doing nothing new, yet this does not dismiss the fact that the writer is doing the same thing.

There are two main storylines,  involving Candace Chen, who comes from Salt Lake City after college (with a photography degree) and her immigrant parents' deaths.  The first is as described above, her finding her way in the big city.  It is a pretty depressing and effective portrait of how cookie-cutter New York has become in the age of globalization and wealth disparity.  That rot was already well-advanced when I left in 2004, so I can only imagine how little of anything authentic or original remains, other than the power of money to keep people motivated.  I did enjoy reading this take on NYC, less so however the unmotivated meanderings of the protagonist, which really felt basically autobiographical and is simply not that interesting.  The second storyline is 5 years in the future, where Candace is now part of a small group of travellers, making their way to Chicago after the Shen Disease, a fungal parasite that turns people into harmless zombies, repeating their old habits à la Dawn of the Dead (though not messing with anybody or wanting to eat brains), has wiped out most of the population. Again, Candace is disconnected from her surroundings and colleagues and there wasn't really a lot new added to the PA genre here.  It wasn't boring though and some seeds are set, particularly with the mansplaining leader, Bob, of their group and hints of his malevolence.

Things do pick up in the second half of the book in both storylines.  Candace's disaffection and lack of connections mean she ends up being one of the last few people in New York City and watching it go empty and her steadfastly going to her job until she is the only one is quite enjoyable.  Likewise, the PA storyline, where they finally find this shopping mall that Bob was leading them to, gets interesting as well.  Finally, her own backstory and the struggles of her parents immigrating in the 80s, which are woven throughout the other two storylines, are also quite interesting, kind of sad.  When I think back, there are kind of like three books in here, two of them being quite good (her background and the Shen disease fallout and journey) and one being pretty derivative (the NYC first time one).  I think the biggest disappointment was how little this book said about the supposed Millennial condition.  As always, I should not believe the hype.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

86. The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt by Michael Pearce

I've been looking for any of these Mamur Zapt novels for a long time and finally stumbled upon this one at Re-Reader on the Darlington in Toronto.  I am hoping this is not one of the better ones.  The writing is solid, British, slightly wry and on the sparse side.  The setting is really cool, British-controlled Egypt before WWI, a really nice period for intrigue but usually neglected in colonial genre literature.  The Mamur Zapt is the head of the Egyptian Secret Police and Captain Gareth Owen, who holds the post and is the antagonist of these stories and stands out among his fellow Brits in roles of responsibility because he is definitely not an old boy.  It all sets up really well and I will keep looking for them.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this one didn't really grab me. There was no central mystery and I found I couldn't connect to the storyline.  It centers around the market of archeological goods leaving Egypt (which was also quite interesting to read about in a fictional context).  A feisty American do-gooder, who has quite a lot of sway because her uncle may become the next American president, is visiting Egypt and wants to ensure that the archeological heritage of Egypt (and to her mind, the world) is not plundered.  She suffers two suspicious accidents.  Captain Owen, though skeptical, must investigate.  He also starts to feel political pressure around the market for artifacts and this further motivates him.

It all kind of meanders, none of it boring, but overall lacking purpose, so when a plot is finally revealed, it just didn't seem all that important.  I hope to find one of the earlier ones to give this series another chance.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

85. The Executioner #21 Firebase Seattle by Don Pendleton

My interest in Mack Bolan was only sparked by listening to the excellent Paperback Warrior podcast. They gave a nice overview of the line of books and their original author Don Pendleton.  He seemed like such a cool guy and the hosts spoke well of the books that I had always dismissed that I decided I needed to at least check one of them out.  I discovered this one at BMV in Toronto and since it was fairly early on in the series (the 21st book being "fairly early on" is saying something) that it might be a good representative.  Also, since I am from the Pacific Northwest and have a fondness for Seattle, at least the Seattle I once knew the choice was confirmed.

Unfortunately, this book was really, really not good. Even if this is one of the worse Executioner books, I would still be reluctant to continue on.  I don't mind stupid and I don't mind goofy.  Firebase Seattle was both, but also the plot was a mess, there were no side characters nor badguys that were of any interest and the entire objective was uninteresting.  Worse though, there is just no tension or doubt.  Mack Bolan, who has dedicated his life to wiping out the mafia, is investigating some grand plot by the mafia in Seattle, a town they had heretofore never messed with.  He discovers that under the guise of Expo 74, they are shipping construction material, tons of guns and other mysterious stuff. Since they never had a presence in Seattle (huh?), this is a sign that they have some major plan going here.

What's weird is how the "mafia" is portrayed in this book. They are more like some kind of international organization of super evil badguys who are plotting to take over the world, like SPECTRE.   Their plans are preposterous and the only thing that makes them The Syndicate is that all the guys working for them have Italian names and mafia-style nicknames.  Since none of the bad guys barely get a scene other than when they get killed and have little dialogue, you have no sense that they are even actually bad.  Bolan just shows up with all kinds of high-tech gear, super-human combat and spying skills and an unwavering desire to screw up all their plans and kill everybody.  And that's what he does.  I did not find it very entertaining. I make it sound simple, but the storyline is quite meandering, with him going from one place to another, connecting with allies who go on and on about how amazed they are by his skills, saving one daughter and banging her, then saving her mother and not banging her but wanting to.  But none of leads to anything and even the ending is kind of a whimper.  I really don't get what the appeal of these books are.  It was just odd and kind of hard to get through.  It didn't take itself too seriously and there are some funny moments where Pendleton goes deeper into Bolan's motivations.  It's not terribly written either.  There just isn't a lot here. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

84. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I found this on the street in a bag filled with mainstream mysteries and literary fiction, all in good condition amongst other household items, often found on Montreal streets during moving weekends.  I took it because it caused a lot of excitement here in Canada and because I had heard an interview with John C. Reilly who was so humbly and charmingly pleased with the movie he produced based on the book.  My wife had read it a few years ago and said it was pretty good.  As it turned out, she still had her copy, so I needn't have even stretched out my on deck shelf.  Though knowing my capricious motivations around which book to read, I may never have gotten to it had I not stumbled upon it in a ripped open black garbage bag.

Before I get into all the annoying things around this book, I will say straight off that it is a really good book, a great story with funny, likable characters that makes you want to turn the pages.  The author worked hard at it, did a good job and deserves all the money and respect he got from its success.  What bugs me is why does this book get elevated to some elite status, while there have been so many great westerns that are not dressed up with cool graphic design and marketed to an educated readership that are just lost in time?  I think I answered my own question.  I am just always suspicious when a "literary" author writes what is basically a genre book and it gets treated with so much respect and publicity while great, great writers languished away, their books not getting the respect simply because they are seen as lower-class.  It's very much like Tarantino, who "elevates" movie genres he claims he loves by filling them with faux-intelligent dialogue, high production values and great actors and he is thus an "auteur" (to be fair, I enjoyed deWitt's treatment of the western far more than any of Tarantino's work). 

This is especially true in Canada, with its precious, desperate, incestuous and back-biting canlit world.  DeWitt doesn't even live in Canada and likely hasn't for years (though coming from Sydney on the island and being only 6 years younger than me, I wonder if I may have ever run into him back in the day) and gets adopted as a Canadian writer by the media here.  What is Canadian about this book?  It takes place entirely in the United States and the underlying themes and tropes are mostly American (the expansion of the west, man exploiting and destroying nature, killing people).  I guess you could argue that the softer nature of the narrator (the nicer one of the two brothers) and his desire to just live a slower life and do something mundane is pretty Canadian.

Anyhow, to the story itself!  It's about two brothers who are hired killers, working for a powerful employer known as The Commodore.  They are sent to San Francisco to hunt down a man, Hermann Warm, who supposedly stole money from the Commodore.  The first half of the book we slowly get to know the two brothers as they encounter various adventures between Oregon City and San Francisco.  We learn that the older one is much more aggressive and meaner and the younger one is deep down a sensitive sould.  In the second half of the book, they get to San Francisco and learn about Warm and what he was up to which tests their alliance and motivations.

It is written in a Runyon-esque style, with the first-person narration by the younger more sensitive brother speaking in a rich and educated vocabulary that is entertaining to read, though makes the whole thing feel somewhat unrealistic.  I guess this is what makes it literary fiction and not just a genre book.  It's a lot of fun learning about the brothers' characters as well as them employing their wits and badassedness to deal with situations.  The second half gets really interesting and crazy.  A very enjoyable read all in all.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

83. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

The second in the Ancillary trilogy and just as hyped and hard to find used.  Now that I have gotten my reading lungs back up to capacity, I am no longer so worried about reading trilogies and series.  The issue, though, is that I want to start reading them in order without such long waits between books.  It's not like there is a shortage of good science fiction and fantasy series out there, far more than I will be able to read, that I have to space them out.  And I find that when I come back to a series, I've forgotten a lot of the details and story from the previous book.

Such is the case with Ancillary Sword, whose predecessor, Ancillary Justice, I read this summer. 
Actually not that far back, but far enough that I had forgotten most of the secondary characters.  Fortunately, Leckie seems aware of this potential problem and puts subtle catch-up narrations in the beginning and throughout the book.  None of these are intrusive and they are just helpful enough that by the time the plot really got going, I was pretty much refreshed on what had happened in the first book.  Furthermore, this is an entire universe, so she does need to explain a lot to the reader.  Having the main character be an ex-AI, thousands of years old and still connected to a ship allows for the author as Leckie to do a lot of telling that feels like showing.

The story of the vast colonizing Raadchi empire and its slowly unfolding civil war continues with Breck, the aforementioned ancillary (the human bodies used by ship's AIs to do all their physical work) is promoted to Fleet Captain by the Raadchi tyrant and sent to a distant system to check on the shut down gates there (rebellious forces having taken to attacking gates).  Here we discover another colonized planet, this time for its superior tea and the cultures that have been suppressed/assimilated.  Breq and her crew (all women) sniff out the local politics, both uncovering the injustices that have been done to the locals and others while also seeing how they may or may not be connected to the bigger picture of the warring halves of the Raadchi.

This book is kind of a woke post-colonial revenge fantasy. If you had incredible physical power and influence and were say sent to America as the slave trade was starting, what would you do?  This is sort of the question that is asked here, in a science fiction setting.  Berq is sort of a combination superhero/Sherlock Holmes/elite diplomat-strategist caught in a war where both sides may or may not be evil whose goal is to try and minimize damage to the innocents caught in the middle.  It's very satisfying.  While there is a bit of ass-kicking, what I love in this book is how much of the real tension and excitement comes from super-polite dialogue and personality standoffs.  The Raadchi have an extremely polite society (which goes hand in hand with the atrocities of their colonization, which I believe is a point Leckie is making) and there is tons of great diplomacy and oneupmanship that goes on.  I also believe that every single character in this book is a woman (though gender and how it works is not totally defined for the reader) and I caught myself several times assuming that characters in positions of authority were men, even though they had already been introduced.  Old habits!

The climax in the first book was breathless and long with a ton of stuff going down and while I enjoyed it, it took me ever so slightly out of the narrative.  I was relieved that this one did not go down the same path, eschewing an over-the-top climax for something much smaller and more subtle that nevertheless delivered a very exciting and satisfying conclusion.

Great book.  I am very excited for the third one.  My only problem are the titles.  They are kind of interchangeable (as is the trade dress), so I keep getting them mixed up.  They also don't make sense, because there are different types of ships in the Raadchi universe: Mercys, Swords and Justices.  In the first book, she is a Justice (a troop carrier) and the book is called Ancillary Justice.  In this book, Breq pilots a Mercy (the smallest of the ships) and it's called Ancillary Sword.  There is a Sword that plays a significant role, but it's not the main ship or character.  We shall see what happens in the next book, Ancillary Mercy.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

82. Testament by David Morrell

Despite the unattractive modern "best-seller" look of this copy, it was David Morrell's name that grabbed my eye in the thrift store and the 1975 original publishing date that sealed the deal for me to pick this book up. I would love to find an original paperback copy but am happy to have this one, as I didn't have to worry about keeping it in good shape while travelling.

It starts off about as rough as you can get and written skillfully that you are caught up in the momen, while wondering what the hell is going on and yet somehow being almost fully in the picture by the second chapter.  It's rough, almost too brutal.  The plot is that Reuben Bourne, a thriller writer who also does long-piece journalism on the side, has written an expose piece on the leader of a white supremacist movement.  The leader knew he was going to be charged with a crime soon and was using the journalist to put him in a good light, which Bourne in his conscience decided not to do.  Now the leader will exact his revenge, which is what happens right at the beginning of the book.  Their organization is sophisticated with sympathizers embedded in law enforcement and Bourne and his family are forced to go on the run.

The revenge exacted is so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, and definitely so horrifying that I contemplated not reading anymore.  I am not into excessive nastiness as a literary ploy in thrillers and Morrell almost crosses a line here.  However, these are really the catalyst that set the rest of the book in motion, an adventure of flight and survival, much of it taking place in the mountains and the winter.  In the foreward (that I read afterward), Morrel explained that the literature on outdoor survival wasn't convincing enough for him, so he did a 5-week NOLS course.  He puts his training to work in the story here!

As I should have expected from Morrell, this book is more thoughtful and complex than just a straight up survival/revenge thriller and while I was hoping for something a bit easier, in the end, this was quite interesting and rewarding. His foreward also helped to make the less satisfying ending in the narrative more understandable.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

81. U-Boat 977

Wow, great find!  I picked this up at the Rennaissance Thrift store here in Mont-Royal.  It's a nice looking paperback but it was the forward by Nicolas Monsarrat that sealed the deal for me.  He starts out quite aggressively arguing against any apology for behaviour by German officers and soldiers during World War II and being super clear that he recognizes Schaeffer's job on a U-Boat as being evil.  Nevertheless, the actual story of what it was like being on a German U-Boat and in particular their escape to Argentina at the end of the war, Monsarrat says is worth reading and knowing.

The first half of the book is disturbing.  It's a classic tale of the good German just doing his duty.  Schaeffer grows up loving sailing and joins the navy just as the war starts.  He gets routed into the submarine program and ends up joining a crew.  It's hard to know how much of it is post-facto, but he clearly identifies himself as a good German, with Nazism being some distant phenomenon that he had little if anything to do with.  We know today that this was often the case for many career men in the military and particularly the navy.  Nevertheless, even if you separate out the hateful ideology of Nazism, you still have to recognize that it was Germany invading everybody else so this "just doing my duty" narrative does not hold up well.  This is brought into strong relief the way Schaeffer describes their successful torpedoing of cargo ships, with little thought to he men who perished horribly. 

Most of the book though focuses on the life and work details of being on a submarine and this was pretty interesting and intense.  Though they were the predators at least until the tide was turned with radar, it still required a lot of brutal labour and psychological pressure.  They had to stay hidden constantly and only pop up to fire off their torpedoes.  The risk was incredible.  Of the 40,000 U-Boat sailors in WWII, 30,000 died.

U-Boat 977 really goes to another level when the war ends.  Schaeffer, who was only 23 and a new captain puts the vote to the crew as to what they want to do.  Fearing retribution from the victors (which was not unwarranted, though Goebbels' propaganda machine had amped up these fears to insane degrees where they truly feared all of Germany was going to be razed and turned into goat fields), they decided to flee to Argentina.  This triggers an incredible journey, first with 66 days submerged to avoid the Allied dragnet and get into the Atlantic where the ship starts to rot, the men grow sick with rashes, their clothes are constantly wet.  It's really bonkers and a testament to their discipline that they survived without killing each other or just giving up.  When they do sneak through, because of low fuel they spend the rest of the trip on the surface and that is also crazy, where they basically hang out on the deck getting tan, growing huge beards, fishing and surfing off the bows of the sub! 

This was a fantastic read.  As well as just being a crazy adventure, it is also a nice counterpoint to the two great narratives of the convoys of the Second World War, Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea and Alistair Maclean's HMS Ulysses.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

80. Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

I bought this at the Salvation Army in the NDG neighbourhood of Montreal, a stop of a fairly demoralizing book hunt out there.  Pickings were slim.  Still, a J.G. Ballard collection of short stories from the early 60s for less than a buck and a few other decent finds left me feeling not totally unsatisfied.  It's odd, though, you would think that the anglo neighbourhoods of Montreal, which tend to be pretty old demographically, would have lots of nice book finds.  It hasn't really been the case so far.

I also discovered as I started reading the second story that I had already read it.  This prompted me to go back to my old posts where I discovered that three of the stories here were also in The Disaster Area.  (The Subliminal man one of my favourites about a nightmare consumerist world, Now Wakes the Sea evocative story of a man convinced the ocean is washing up on his neighbourhood each and Minus One a very funny story about an asylum for the wealthy who lose a patient until they convince themselves he never existed)  No matter, as I had quite enjoyed that and it was back in 2012 so I was certainly read to be washed over anew in Ballardian sense of isolation and deserted post-industrial landscapes.

I also suspect I had already read The Last World of Mr. Goddard, about a department store clerk who goes home to open a miniature of his world in a safe in a closet.  This was quite neat, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode.  The Time Tombs, about men searching memory tapes in ancient tombs had a cool setting.  The Venus Hunters is a story about an astronomer who meets a man who is convinced that he met Venusians and slowly gets drawn into his illusion, which it actually isn't.  Both these last two were intriguing but ultimately didn't really go anywhere conclusive.  Finally, there was a small story The Sudden Afternoon about a man who has his body invaded by somebody else transferring his personality into him, an Indian doctor on the run for killing his wife (who had cancer whom he also transferred).  That one was neat.  The last and titular story, Terminal Beach is a classic Ballardian tale.  A man is wandering around in some massive nuclear bomb test site, filled with rows of bunkers and piles of mannequins.  The geometry of the bunkers become the schedule of his life as he tries to uncover some unnamed mystery while also catching glimpses of his wife and child who died in a car accident.  The imagery in this one was stunning.

Ballard is a trip.  You have to take him in small doses and as I said in my review of The Disaster Area in some ways his short stories are an ideal way to do this.  Quite enjoyable to revisit the ones I had already read and to allow myself to be absorbed the new ones.

Monday, October 21, 2019

79. One-Way Ticket by Dolores and Bert Hitchens

I've been looking for any book by Dolores Hitchens for quite some time now so was happy to discover this at Pulp Fiction in Vancouver, but slightly disappointed that it was a collaboration with her husband, rather than a "pure" Dolores Hitchens.  I needn't have been.  Her husband was a railroad detective and at least in this collaboration the combo comes out solidly.

It's the mid-50s and the story takes place in and around Los Angeles, mostly in the poorer parts of town and industrial neighbourhoods.  Everywhere there is a feeling of inevitable change as well as loss.  Streets so down that they seem ready to simply disintegrate and be replaced by modern homes for a wealthier class, the last house now surrounded by warehouses and machine shops, an entire block already razed to make way for a new hospital.  The writing of place here is very evocative, that sun-blasted southern California noir that makes you want to go to a bar and get a drink.

The protagonist is ambivalent railroad detective Vic Moine.  He is going with a rich girl whose dad wants him to join his law firm, but his dad was a cop and he doesn't really know what he wants to do besides a resentment and suffocation against anybody trying to hem him in.  His character arc is what strings the entire book together, but the real storyline is the cases he is investigating, especially the passing of forged railway reimbursement checks.  This puts him on the trail of a strange group of two men and two women and a baby.  I liked this book all around, but the mundane detecting I particularly enjoyed.  There is a lot of Moine just walking and driving around, talking to people, thinking things through, hashing things out with his boss. It felt very real, yet very interesting.  They wrote another one together and I will not hesitate to grab it if it every crosses my path.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

78. Prisoner of Fire by Edmund Cooper

Well this was the first really bad book that I've read this year.  It's disappointing too because the trade dress was right up my alley.  A beautiful Coronet paperback from the 70s with lovely typography and layout on the cover (though the illustration isn't very exciting).  It also has that nice rich paper and wide margins that make these books so physically pleasurable to read.  I also thought I was in for a great ride at the beginning which starts with a teenage telepath blocking the probes of the authorities and planning her escape from her residential school/prison for psychic kids. 

Early on, the warning signs came.  First, a creepy suggestion that the middle-aged professor who studies her is also sexually interested in her and she in him.  Yuck.  Sadly, this theme becomes more than a suggestion as we have several situations where older men are with younger women romantically/sexually against or with their will.  There is also lots of arbitrary young sexuality thrown in purely for thrills like the throwaway line where one of the psychic boys is just sitting their masturbating.  I am fine with this stuff if it fits in, even if it isn't PC, but this is just thrown in purely for prurience.  It's already gross, but is also awkward and rarely makes any sense.  This reads like it was written by the 13-year old Dungeon Master that nobody wants to play with.

The girl does escape and ends up being a pawn between the autocratic Prime Minister (this takes place in the 90s with hovercars and tri-dis which are 3D televisions) and the opposition as well as a deranged telepathy expert who has assembled a gang of psychic misfits.  It all could have been fun plot wise, but everything is done so unsubtly, the pace is clunky and all the characters suck.  What's worse is that the ostensible protagonist, the girl, is utterly passive even though she has the best psychic power in all of Europe.  Again, I don't mind junkiness if it's fun and the story is well put together as in my foray into some of those Paperbacks from Hell around the theme of maternity.  Prisoner of Fire seemed to be aiming for that same audience, horny adolescent boys I guess.  Sadly, this British attempt at the genre was far inferior to the American counterpart. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

77. We All Killed Grandma by Fredric Brown

I found this at the same sidewalk sale at Port de Tête, where I found The Stolen Documents.  I was kind of looking forward to this book as I haven't read one by Fredric Brown in quite some time.  He can be very clever and inventive and I was looking forward to seeing how he handled what looked like a murder mystery from the cover. 

The story starts out with the protagonist, Rod, going to see a woman that somebody advised him against seeing.  We soon learn that he has recently suffered from amnesia and the woman he is going to see is his ex-wife.  We learn further that his grandmother was murdered, shot by a burglar and that Rod had discovered her body.  Some shock at finding her body completely knocked out his memory.  The rest of the book is him putting the pieces of his life back together in his mind and by extension trying to figure out what happened on the night of the murder.

The first half of the book reminded me a lot of Donald Westlake's Memory. It captures a similar lost feeling, though the difference here is that while Rod has lost all his personal memories, his personality and skills have not diminished any.  Rod cannot accept the burglar story and even suspects that he himself may well be the person who murdered his grandmother.  He has no memory that he can remember that would disprove the burglar story and the evidence is all quite sound.  But he keeps digging away.  As the book moves forward, he also eases mostly back into his life, except that he realizes he still (or newly) loves his ex-wife and wants to get back with her while she wants nothing to do with him.  The mystery takes precedence in the last third and is finally revealed in the end.  I was not totally satisfied with the ending as there was info missing from the reader so no way we could have guessed it.  The payoff did not really connect with the amnesia (though it did somewhat explain it) and so it felt a bit like a gimmick to keep the reader guessing.  The rebuilding of his life was actually more interesting and moving.  It's interesting, because the Westlake book still haunts me and it went the opposite direction, where any mystery narrative was discarded and the story was really about how the loss of memory would affect you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

76. Stolen Documents by S. Beresford Lucas

I picked this up for a dollar at the Port de Tête bookstore during a sidewalk sale.  I read it now as a quick palate cleanser between the epicness of Barkskins and whatever I decide to read next (that will probably involve nasty grown-up behaviours).  This book also involved nasty grown-up behaviours, mainly Germans kidnapping plucky young sons of American millionaire inventors via U-Boat and stowing them in a secret underwater lairs in the Chartney Islands.  Fortunately (or unfortunately for the Germans), the plucky American was also accidently accompanied by two plucky British lads whom he had just rescued when they got caught in a squall in their rowboat.  The three youth thwart the Germans and have a rollicking adventure.

It's all very boys adventure, as advertised on the tin.  The bad guys beyond their accents and speaking in a foreign language are barely distinguishable from a common criminal organization, except that their plan is to attack London (with the ray that they hope to extort from the American's millionaire inventor father).  It was first published in 1938, before the war had officially started and I guess ideology is not really at play either at this time or for this audience.  They are bad guys who want to take over and thus should be stopped.  The American is portrayed in an extremely positive light, as skilled and gutsy, but also fun-loving and joking non-stop.  The three boys become great friends and their heroics are rewarded by getting to spend the rest of the summer together!  It's an interesting contrast to post-war resentment of the easy and rich Americans we find portrayed in some British genre fiction.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

75. Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Phew!  Talk about sweeping.  My friend Chris recommended this to me when he came up to visit.  I guess things in Montreal kept reminding him of Barkskins.  It was on my list and I found a nearly new hardback copy at the free shelf up on St-Viateur (that thing has been a rich mine for me this year).  I was a bit regretful that I had picked this massive tome up with so many books on my on-deck shelf, but I jumped in and devoured it.  700+ pages of historical fiction in just over two days! 

To be honest, it reads quickly.  It begins as the story of two french men who have just arrived in Nouvelle France.  They get a job as indentured servants working on this dude's homestead.  One runs away and joins up with the voyageurs, eventually making a fortune from converting furs to capital to timber rights.  The other stays, chops a ton of trees and marries a Miq'maq woman.  Going in, I though the book would unravel mostly in this period.  Had I looked at the chapter names, each of which had dates, I would have realized that it is an epic crossing almost 400 years and 8 generations of these two family lines.  The one who ran away, Duquet, starts a small timber empire and we follow it as it expands with the inward colonization of North America.  The one who stayed, Sel, starts a line of Métis, most of whom are connected with the forest industry at the bottom end.  From their narrative, we see how colonialism impacts the native people and the land itself.

Other than the first two characters and a woman president of Duke Lumbrer (what Duquet's company involves into), the book moves pretty quickly through characters so that you never really get too attached.  I am not saying this as a criticism, because I was so caught up in the narrative and wanted to find out what happened, that I was happy to move forward quickly.  The pace and how many of the characters die quite brutally and sadly, does distance one from the human connection.  Ultimately, though, this book is really about the forest and how we use and abuse it as humans.  And that part, you really feel.  It also brings home the reality of colonialism for the indigenous populations.  I had never though of agriculture as being in itself a damaging element of colonialism, but there is a part where the Miq'Maq lament how a french settler's cow has eaten hundreds of varieties of medicinal plants that don't ever grow back.  The ending got a bit rushed and preachy, but I am converted to the argument that our ways have fucked this beautiful planet up and so was enjoying the sermon. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

74. The Silver Tide by Michael Tod

The Silver Tide has been on my hunting list for a long time and it is one more in the animal adventure sub-genre (though sub of what I am not sure).  I've done cats, foxes, moles and now squirrels.  This one takes place in Dorset, in southern England.  A community of red squirrels (native to England and once thriving across the entire island and now mainly gone) live around a lovely blue lake.  Their tranquil lives are upset when a pair of grey squirrels show up, not only a different colour, but larger and with very different attitudes about property.  They also have some understanding about numbers beyond 8 (the amount of claws on a squirrels two front paws) and can arrange rocks in a way to create a powerful force.

And these grey squirrels have no qualms about their aims, which is to drive the reds out and take over their territory for their own "leaping room".  The first two are a vanguard, to scout and soften resistance by intimidation.  The red squirrels, peaceful, communitarian (they don't believe in or even understand private property) are easily intimidated and when the wave of greys come in, they do leave and thus begins the adventure.

It's very fast-paced, a bit baldly told, but quite enjoyable.  A lot goes on and it develops in an unexpected way so that it didn't end up with the typical epic battle versus the evil oppressor. You get a nice sense of the setting as well.  Really makes me want to visit this area (in the afterword Tod actually gives the address of the Blue Lake and recommends checking out the museum there).  Now to hunt down books 2 and 3!

(Note: this is the 74th book for me this year, a new personal record.)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

73. The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen

This is actually the first Ellery Queen book I have ever read.  I have never been too attracted to them, I guess because they felt common and I was never clear there would be a strong authorial voice. Having read this, I now know that all the Ellery Queen books featuring Queen himself as the detective were written by two cousins.  There are many other books under the Ellery Queen imprint, written by other authors, and of course the magazine.  The Spanish Cape Mystery was written in 1935 and is around the 9th in the series. 

I have to say, it was quite an enjoyable, competent and at times demonstrated its own character, enough that I would be interested in picking up another one.  It's a real mystery, to the point that near the end, there is an interlude, a brief chapter all in italics where the author(s) tell you that you now have all the info that Ellery Queen has and can go back and make an effort to solve the mystery yourself.  That was kind of fun and made more so because I actually figured it out.  I was lazy on some of the details, but did guess the broad plot of the conspiracy and who the killer actually was.  I never used to be able to even come close to figuring mysteries out on my own (excepting one Sherlock Holmes story; The Case of Silver Blaze), so I guess all this reading and wisdom is paying off.  This interlude was a trope in all the Ellery Queen books.

The story here is about a wealthy couple with a secluded mansion on the coast northeast of New York City.  The husband avoids the guests and wants to potter around in his garden.  His wife is the socialite and has invited a weird crew of guests.  Her brother and her daughter, out for a walk on the grounds late on night while the others are playing bridge are brutally kidnapped at gunpoint.  The brother is taken away, mistaken for one of the guests, a playboy named Marco.  Later, Marco himself is found murdered on the verandah by the beach (the kidnappers ostensibly having discovered their mistake), stark naked but for a cape around his shoulders.  As it happens, Ellery Queen and an older ex-judge of his were coming out this way to take a well-earned vacation at a neighbouring beach house and they get involved in the murder.

The characters are quite good and the dialogue was fun.  There are very wealthy people, the servants and then the striving guests in between.  Class plays a role but it never gets really nasty.  Likewise, the local sheriff does a lot of the heavy lifting and is always a step behind Queen, and yet is treated with respect and shown to have positive characteristics.  The entire proceedings are somewhat light in delivery and done in a pleasant way, though the characters themselves have traits of hard-boiledness.  It makes for a nice middle ground and I can see why these books were so popular in their time.  I understand, though, that the tone varies as does Queen's persona.  We shall see.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

72. A Time to Kill by Geoffrey Household

I am not a Geoffrey Household completist by any means, but this beautiful first edition really caught my eye when I spotted it at Black Cat Books.

A Time to Kill is indeed a "tightly-plotted, fast-moving story of international intrigue" as it says on the inside flap.  So fast-moving that it only has a single chapter (or no chapters, depending on how you want to look at it).  It is conducive to being read in a single sitting and I basically finished it within 24 hours.

Taine, the protagonist, is the typical Household hero, practical, slightly sardonic and ultimately British.  His superior asks him to look in on an ex-British fascist, who was exiled and now has snuck back into England in a boat in which he lives.  Labelled "Pink", he spent the years after the war mixing with the various dregs of scattered fascists, many now part of the international Communist movement. There he discovered a plot to bring anthrax-poisoned ticks back into England to destabilize economy and society.  Though exiled, he is still ultimately a patriot.  Taine meets with him, thinking he is just crazy but soon discovers the plot is real.  Adventure ensues.

This took place almost entirely in England, including a finale around the cliffs of Dover, which was quite a neat location.  Smugglers used it for centuries and there secret caves, leading into a cliff house were part of their escape plot (with Taine's kidnapped children, natch).

The politics are a little disturbing, as a lot of semi-innocent people get killed and Pink is ultimately exonerated, with Taine helping get him back into Britain.  It's all a pat on the back for the old boy, who finally threw politics to the side and went back to being a good gentleman boater.  Household easily excuses his fascist past and his nasty anti-semitism because he is on the right side and, I suspect, a gentleman.  Yuck.  Still, a good yarn and I would not mind stumbling across the prequel "A Rough Shoot".

Monday, October 07, 2019

71. Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan

Some credit to the success of Lois Duncan's books back in the day has to go her publisher and the person who did the cover illustrations.  They were always so freaky.  This one is a classic.  My six year-old daughter was drawn to it "Daddy why does she look like that on one side but looks scary in the mirror?"  To be fair, this scene doesn't actually happen in the book and even as a metaphor only loosely captures the plot and that is stretching things.  But who cares, it's freaky and makes you want to read the book.

This is not to underplay Lois Duncan's work.  She was huge back in the day and having re-read this I think she needs to get more recognition when it comes to the various works of art and cultural influences that are driving today's Stranger Things 80s nostalgia boom.  Lois Duncan books are classics of late 70s and early 80s teens on their own against a supernatural power with ineffectual unbelieving parents.  They also capture a white, residential (suburban but where there were still neighbours you could walk to) idyllic community that doesn't exist anymore today and was dying for disruption at the time (and probably was being threatened by social change already thus all the anxiety).

In Summer of Fear, Rachel is a normal 15 year-old in Albuquerque with her loving middle-class family and best friend and old neighbour friend/new boyfriend about to begin a lovely summer when the family learns that her mom's sister and her husband have died, leaving behind their only daughter.  The daughter comes to live with them and is not what she expected.  As her distrust of Julie grows, everybody else grows more and more enamoured by her and it is Rachel who starts to become the difficult outcast.

The atmosphere and the writing style never allow it to get truly dark, though the stakes are real enough.  It's tense but wasn't actually scary to me (although got close in a part or two).  I think part of the issue was that as I was reading it, I remembered it from my distant past and the surprise seemed totally obvious to me.  Maybe it wasn't so obvious back in the day or to an adolescent reader (though they usually are the most astute to these kinds of things).  It also has a fascinating subtext, though only lightly touched upon, about privilege.  The backstory here comes right out of the classic American fear of the redneck/hillbilly as Joe Bob Briggs breaks down so well in his "How Rednecks Saved Hollywood" lecture.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

70. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cooke

How nice is this.
I found this beautiful Penguin paperback at a garage sale on Rachel.  Unfortunately, somebody in the past scrawled the price with a grease pencil, marring its elegance (I will try to clean it with lighter fluid successfully cleaned it and it is fucking gorgeous and you can't have it!).  The film of this book has been on our radar for a while, but I was too scared to see it.  My wife watched it a while ago and quite liked it.  So I was torn whether or not to read the book first or buck up and watch the movie.  The book came first, which seems appropriate.  She will read the book next so we can compare how the order informs our viewing/reading of each.

The book was great.  It's not as harsh as I thought, more sad and desperate than cruel.  It's kind of Australian lost weekend, about a young man who makes some bad choices and gets (or allows himself) to be carried along until he hits near rock bottom.  My fear about the movie (and somewhat about the book) was general worry about cruelty and sadism, neither of which I am a big fan.  The Australian angle added to that.  I am not scared of Australia because of its dangerous wildlife and climate but rather the reputation of its people.  Mad Max, Wolf Creek and an Australian exchange student in my senior year of high school who overflowed with testosterone and seemed to have zero moral principles all have built up a reputation of an outback filled with Sheila-abusing rednecks. 

What made this book interesting and a pleasant surprise is that almost all the people in the book are actually quite friendly and generous.  I can't tell if Cooke is critiquing the people of rural Australia (the West, as it is called here) or the protagonist, who seems to dislike them so much.  There is a constant contrast between his loathing of the environment and desperately wanting to get back to civilized and relatively temperate Sydney and how much pride and pleasure the locals seem to have with their hometown.  Grant, the protagonist, blurs his dislike for the wasteland with his dislike for the people.  To me, this seemed like a bourgeois snobbery, as they kept being super generous to him and super non-judgemental.  Yes, all they do is drink constantly, massacre kangaroos and seem to have loose sexual mores but there is only one slightly selfish character in the book.

Wake in Fright does capture that "you are here now" moment of a man whose life has spiraled out of his control in pretty awesome fashion. Driving around the outback in the back seat of a big cadillac, stuffed between beefy Joe and a kangaroo-hunting greyhound, drunk out of his mind, with loaded rifles pointed all over the place, Grant is certainly living.  Everybody else but him (and the kangaroos) are having fun.  While exhilarating and frightening in the moment, that is the kind of experience people now manufacture.  For Grant, it is a horror that he wants to get out of but can't.  I think he is the one who comes off looking bad here.

This description of the characters of Western Australia in this book is inaccurate and pejorative.

Friday, October 04, 2019

69. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

I always find dipping back into contemporary science fiction (and sometimes fantasy) sort of a refresher that lets me keep up my reading pace and breaks up too much mid-twentieth century fiction.  Newer books tend to be cleaner and shinier, with lots of space on the page and often formatting and delivery techniques that make it easy to plow through.  My wife got this from a work colleague and while she wasn't super enthusiastic, I did want to read it because the writer is from Quebec.

The premise is really cool and it starts off intriguingly.  A young girl falls into a hole in the woods near her house and discovers a gigantic hand surrounded by panels covered in strange symbols, all made of some impossible metal.  Later, she grows up to become the lead scientist on the super secret government project to research this hand.   Two blackhawk pilots accidently discover the arm and we soon learn that there is probably all the pieces of what must be a giant super high-tech robot scattered and hidden throughout the globe.

This is the first of the trilogy and is about the team that hunts down the pieces, puts them together and tries to figure out how it works and where it came from.

The book is written as a series of interviews and transcripts of conversations, detailing what happened before.  The interrogator is some faceless operator working for some super vague organization that seems to be above presidential power, yet also somehow weirdly limited.  It's odd.  The narration technique is interesting, but I am not sure it helps or hinders the story.  At times, it felt awkward, with a lot of exposition in the kinds of conversations where there wouldn't normally be that kind of explaining of what happened.  It felt forced.  The book moves along quickly, though, so it wasn't a huge flaw.

Worse, though, was just some of the internal logic.  It may be that the author was gunning for a movie from the beginning, but there is some simplistic interpretation of how governments would behave and worse behaviours by characters that seem to be there just to make a neato plot idea.  In particular, the love triangle which ends up in a guy's legs getting amputated that is just all too convenient so he can have the special prosthetic legs needed to move the robot.  Just way too convenient and the sudden burst of crazy violence by the jilted character came out of nowhere.  The way the politics worked just didn't seem realistic at all.  It's too bad, because the premise is really cool and where that part goes is quite neat.  It's just that all the plot and characterization around it felt at a kind of 80s tv show level of sophistication. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

68. The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

I was disappointed by this novel.  I actually was under the impression that it was the first book of hers that I had read (I got her name confused in my mind with Dolores Hitchens, for whom I still search) and was thinking this may be the last of this author I read.  Then when I finished it, I read her bio and realized that I had read Ride the Pink Horse and The Expendable Man and found them both excellent.  The So Blue Marble is Hughes' first novel, so I can excuse its flaws and recognize her evolution as a writer.  Phew!

Now that my own confusion has been cleared up, let's go into the book itself.  It starts out great, in medias res as a woman is walking to a destination in Manhattan she is suddenly and subtly accosted by two attractive collegiate-looking young men who politely but firmly lead her to where she is going and seem to know her.  The uncertainty from the perspective of the woman (and the protagonist as we learn) is palpable and you really want to learn what is going on.  However, quite quickly you realize the protagonist and narrator herself is unreliable.  The location she is heading to is her ex-husband's apartment that he is lending her, but the way it is written all this is unecessarily shrouded in mystery.  The young men, who turn out to be sadistic upper-class twins (though one has dark hair and the other light), are looking for a marble that she claims not to know about.  She also claims in her thoughts not to know about it, but then a few chapters later, she does know about it actually.  Her motivation for cooperating with these sadists is poorly founded.  She is scared of them, which is fair, but doesn't tell her ex-husband who is some kind of journalist but also later we learn a tough guy working for an elite anti-spy department of the government, because she fears for him.  It's very contrived and leads to more unecessary murders all of which could have been prevented if she had just told everybody what was going on.  They also break into a bank super easily and the cops seem to be really bad at investigating murders.

The plot holes and unconvincing characterization undermined what was sometimes quite creepy, especially her strained family dynamics.  Overall, though, this felt forced to me and I am glad it was the third of her books that I read, otherwise she would have dropped low on my list if not off altogether.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

67. She and Allan by H. Rider Haggard

I bought this at the Grande Bibliotheque book sale for a buck.  I was vaguely aware of Haggard, mainly through the existence of what is considered one of the all-time worst movies and a general sense that he was quite popular adventure writer back in the day. I also thought this was somehow related to the movie She and will confirm that after writing my review.

It's an odd book, with an odd title.  The plot is pretty straightforward colonialist adventure.  Allan Quatermain is writing his memoirs from when he was a great white hunter in Africa.  He gets sent on a quest by a dwarf wizard to find a white queen who may be able to allow him to speak to the dead.  Already things are kind of weird and spiritual.  The whole impetus is that he felt kind of melancholy and wondered about a woman he had once loved who had died.  The dwarf, it turns out, needs the power of this queen and so sort of compels Quatermain to go on the quest.  With him comes his Hottentot (apologies for the use of this word, which I understand is now considered perjorative; it's the word in the book as well as constantly being referred to as yellow) guide, Hans and later a mighty Zulu warrior king with a huge axe, Umslapogaas. Both these characters are quite cool.  Hans is an expert tracker, always thirsty for gen and constantly dissing Quatermain in obseqious language.  Umslopogass has issues at home with conniving relatives and lives to kick ass in battle.  Quatermain himself is quite funny, as he is super self-deprecating and full of regret about all the ways he has screwed up his life.

The characters' interaction and the adventure itself were quite enjoyable.  There are also long weird spiritual passages that were less enjoyable. It gets quite trippy.  Furthermore, this is all wrapped in the deep, deep racism of the colonial mindset and lots of slaughter of animals (though Quatermain himself is now beyond killing just for sport).  It's just a given that Africa was there as a savage source of wealth, to be depleted.  The humility in Quatermain's character and the supernatural powers that both She and the dwarf have somewhat offset this perspective.  Quatermain is constantly and futilely trying to explain away all the magic shit that happens, which does give a sense that maybe the white man is out of his depth.  An odd, interesting book. I suspect others have done much more serious research into Haggard's work and I will depend on them for further elucidation.  I am glad I read this one and would pick up another if it was a bit tighter and maybe recommended.

(Addendum: this is at least the third book this year where the major plot point is the kidnapping of a virginal young woman, the other two being No Orchids for Miss Blandish and The End of the Night.)

Monday, September 23, 2019

66. The End of the Night by John D. MacDonald

This is the second of the Ed Gorman-inspired haul of JDM books I found in Vancouver.  I went in with some trepidation.  My mother had just finished a Travis McGee book and excoriated it thusly:
Just finished A Turquoise Lament and what a horrible book. 9/10ths of it was mansplaining about everything, and sooo tedious. The denouement happened in about 10 pages after endless lamenting about this and that. I can’t believed that. I used to enjoy his books!
While we do not share the same tastes and she has zero patience for nerdy, manly things, it pains me that there is truth in her critique and sometimes MacDonald's wordy explanations of the Human/American condition in the second half of the twentieth century can wear on me as well. Furthermore, this one looked pretty nasty.

It's an interesting read.  It is structured with much more variety than I have yet to encounter in a JDM book.  Usually it is first person or third-person most of the way.  Here we have a letter from an executioner to an old workmate, the notes from a trial lawyer, the notes from one of the suspects before he is to be executed and some omniscient narration, all structured around a crime spree you already know happened with the victims dead and the culprits caught.  The sole narrative tension is what happened to the perfect, innocent young fiancée they picked and how far did it go?

It is more of an investigation into a crime spree by psychopathic counter-culture young people with no motivation other than kicks.  It is the drugstore paperback In Cold Blood, but with 4 individuals whose backgrounds and psychologies make them together into murderers.  The main character is the fourth one to join the team, privileged college dropout who had just got over a crazy love affair with the older actress he was chauffeuring (which caused her murder and her husband's suicide).  He wanders out of Mexico with nothing left to live for and runs into a crazy pill-popping loser leader, a psychopathic beatnik slut and a massive beast of a young man.  Together, their dynamic plus the bills and booze triggers a crazy joy ride of murder, rape and car theft.

JDM's philosophizing about how it all came about and why the ostensibly well-raised college boy would go down this road is voiced by the defense lawyer, representing the older generation.  The college boy speaks for himself.  Combining the two, we get the jumbled thesis that the youth of this time have gone astray because we aren't disciplined enough and that people are a few steps from becoming animals at any given time.  It isn't super convincing. 

Despite my critiques, The End of the Night is a good read.  There are some great procedural passages when the authorities try and close in on the gang.  The locations and side characters feel very real, very American.  You do want to find out what happens.  The ending is oddly soft, compared to the lead-up and left me a bit puzzled as to what he was trying to do (or if in the end, he just had to pull his final punch).

Sunday, September 22, 2019

65. The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier (Le Grand Meaulnes)

I bought this book at a church bazaar, I believe, for 40 cents, based on its nice Edward Gorey cover, thick pages and sense that it would have lots of nice walking in the woods.  It turns out to be a classic of French literature, a Sorrows of Young Werther in the Parisian countryside.

It's hard for me to be fair to this book.  It fails the Bechdel test utterly and in this day of #MeToo, twitter and a total re-examining (to put it mildly) of the domination of the male protagonist in literature, it was hard for me to absorb the romantic mopings of the titular character who completely fucks shit up for himself and the women in his world because he feels indebted to an even more mopy and romantic young man in his pursuit for ideal love.

The story is from the more stable son of the schoolteacher. In their weird world of older boys still going to school everyday and having rivalries and minor adventures, a new alpha dog Meaulnes arrives.  He becomes the leader and one day gets lost after stealing a cart. He ends up at a mysterious manor that is preparing a massive party to welcome home a son and his bride.  He briefly meets the son's beautiful sister Yvonne with whose romantic vision he falls in love.  The son's bride never shows for reasons we learn later and the son then abandons the family and runs away to wander the land as a minstrel, he too yearning for his lost bride.

The plot is actually kind of interesting and woven together in an elegant way such that you can ignore the many coincidences that make it more of a fairy tale.  And there are really beautiful and evocative scenes of rural life in this part of France.  But man, this is some cliched romantic stuff.  These young men are around 17 or 18 and they are constantly weeping and filled with remorse and then sudden elation (but tinged with the potential for sadness like rain on a summer day).  This was written in 1913 and takes place just before the turn into the 20th century, so it is probably responsible for much of the notion of French romanticism.  And these young men didn't have TV or even radio, so you get it. It is very much of its time and so my superior condescension is weak sauce.  And I did actually enjoy most of it while reading it.  It's just that both Meaulnes and son are basically total dicks and the women suffer because of their obsession with romantic ideals (the son ruins his entire family with his spoiled whims, putting them in debt so they have to sell all their possessions and he is portrayed as some kind of wonderful, unique character; Meaulnes runs off after him leaving his bride and the women he yearned for pregnant and alone so of course she dies leaving him a baby daughter to represent his love when he comes).  It's not a good look.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

64. No Orchids for Miss Blandish

Am I like the last person to discover James Hadley Chase and this book?  I picked it up for a dollar at a sidewalk sale outside of the Le Port de tete, based mainly on the nice '70s Penguin cover.  I was not expecting much.  A few pages in, the sparse prose, tough and pathetic criminals and desolate Kansas roads made me think this was something special.  I don't think I ever remember Westlake referenceing Hadly Chase, but this felt very much Parker-like in tone.

A down-and-out gangster learns that a young debutante is going to be going to a nightclub wearing a $50,000 pearl necklace and plans to steal it.  The heist goes badly wrong when her drunken beau fights back and gets shot.  The thugs decide then and there to kidnap her and hold her for ransom.  Things go worse for everybody involved.

This is a tough, nasty book with cool police procedure and logistical details.  The locations, the various members of the underworld, the cops and about halfway through the detective who finally starts figuring out how to break the case are all neat and well thought out.  It's rough, too.  Some dark shit goes on.  This is grown-up stuff.

Imagine my surprise when doing a cursory research on the author, not only do I learn that he is considered the king of thriller writers, but that he is English and never even visited the U.S. until much later in his career!  Well you learn something new every day and I am most happy to have been luckily educated in this way.  Also, great title and brutally, darkly funny.

I also learned that Hadley Chase revised this book in 1962 to update it and my understanding is that he may have softened it as well.  The copy I have was published in 1980 and while there is no mention that it is revised and it also has the original copyright date of 1939, I'll have to assume this is the revised version.  Damn, I bet the original is expensive and hard to find.  Worth it though, if it is harder than the revised version, which is pretty damned hard.  Here is a reference to an extensive breakdown of the various versions of the book.

What is says on the tin.