Saturday, August 17, 2019

55. Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Whew, I finally made it through the entire Dark Is Rising sequence.  This was the fifth book and unfortunately, other than a few bright spots, I found my critique to be the same here as it was of the previous books.  The setting is well done and probably the best part of the book, with vivid descriptions of Wales in present and in the past.  There is some neat historical moments as well that though not totally my bag I do recognize as being quite compelling for people who enjoy the notion of a character finding themselves in key moments in Arthurian history.  Finally, there is one scene at the beginning, in the present day, when the hero kids encounter some bullies picking on an immigrant kid.  Later, the bullies' dad comes up to speak to the kids dad, revealing his racism (and that he is part of man that the Dark can influence).  It is disturbing and filled with the same hateful bullshit that is becoming so prevalent again today. 

Unfortunately, nothing is made of this and the rest of the book is again the children being given arbitrary quests where they have little agency beyond remembering some clue from the previous arbitrary quest.  Furthermore, there is not much character development nor interaction between the children.  You never get a sense of why they are chosen and what is in them that helps them along in their journey.  It was all a bit of a slog for me by the end.  I am disappointed.  It is possible that it is just me and where I am in my age that this kind of fantasy doesn't appeal to me, so please be your own judge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

54. Gat Heat by Richard S. Prather

I chose this one after Homicide, simply because it was short.  Too be honest, I was not looking forward to reading it.  The last Shell Scott book I read, The Meandering Corpse, was just too goofy.  I knew this was going to be easy to read and I soldiered on.  Happily, I ended up actually quite enjoying it.  This one was possibly more goofy and that pushed it over into being actually funny.  Scott is also extremely self-deprecating in this one, making himself look bad in front of other cops and witnesses in moments that were absolutely slapstick.  At times, there was the prepatory monologue that I found so off-putting in The Meandering Corpse, but it was scaled way down here and the payoffs were funnier. 

The book opens with Scott responding to a call from a potential client, whom he finds dead in his own home while what he finds out later is a swingers party is winding down.  Scott ends up investigating the murder for the wife (who fails to tell him about the swinging).  The plot and mystery were semi-interesting and the ultimate badguys, an attractive couple whose scam was to get groups of swingers going, take their pictures and blackmail them, were interesting.  There is a lot of violence with a bunch of gangsters in between and two very funny setpieces: Scott breaking into a couple's home fearing an ambush where there is none and destroying their curtains and Scott showing a home movie to a bunch of cops that was going to be evidence but ends up making a goat of him.

I guess the series had its ups and downs.  I was totally down on the Shell Scott series at the last book, but now I am back up again.  I won't be hunting them down, but will do a bit of investigation if another one falls into my lap to see if it is one of the good ones.

Monday, August 12, 2019

53. Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

After having finished Homicide, my feeling was that it is essential reading if you are a fan of detective fiction.  As lauded by the many reviews quoted on the cover of this 2006 re-edition, it is also essential reading for an understanding of America in the 20th century and who just likes great journalism.  Simon took a year-long leave of absence in 1988 from his job as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and instilled himself as a "police intern" in the Baltimore Homicide division.  You don't really learn of his role until the afterword.  The author's presence is absent from the book and as he writes in the afterword, he mostly succeeded.

I had already read The Corner and of course seen The Wire, the latter of which strongly informed my approach to Homicide.  I was surprised to find that actually only small bits of Homicide are in The Wire.  This book is much more positive than I expected.  The detectives are poorly paid, the politics and hierarchy above them is annoying and the streets are brutal.  However, they love their job and they are really good at it.  The bulk of the book is just case after case, revealing the various detectives' methods, their interplay with the citizens, the other workers and especially with each other.  They don't all make it through but the good ones just keep plugging away, solving murders.  During the year the book was written, over 70% of the cases are solved, which was at the national average.

The hacking away at public institutions that defines the start of the 21st century (and the theme in Simon' later work) was just beginning to manifest itself in the late 80s.  In another afterword, we read about how the closure rate on the murders goes down in the following years (and the number of murders goes up). 

It took me a second try to get going on this book.  The first time, I was too distracted it seemed too long.  This time, I couldn't put it down and was kind of sad when it ended.  The detectives are such great characters (some of whom do show up in The Wire) and the cases each one so interesting.  Simon is a great writer, keeping it fast-moving and straightforward with a cynical and humorous edge that reflects the dark humour of the detectives themselves.  There were several laugh out loud moments.  And while the cases are all "realistic" and do not fit any neat narratives, they certainly were interesting and compelling, making me want to find out what happens as much as the best fictional cases.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

52. Miasma by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

It's an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding double rock block!  The main reason I went back to back is that they are in the same physical book (part of the way Stark house has done their reprints) and my on-deck shelf is so full that I am stacking books on top so I have to make room.  Also, though, the first one was just so much fun I thought I would keep going.  I was not disappointed.

First of all, she is just such a good writer.  In the first 3 or 4 pages, you get the entire set-up and the stage is set for suspense.  Alex Dennison is a young man right out of medical school hoping to start his practice in a small town.  He has a young fiancee back home that he hopes to marry when he has established himself.  There is pressure there, as her family is well-to-do.  He is a dour, Calvinist from a poor background with a grim outlook on life, but hard-working and honest.  He struggles to get patients and is soon desperate enough to try to get a job on a passenger ship (which does not please his fiancee) when he receives an offer out of the blue from the more established town doctor. It is an offer that seems almost too good to be true.  Dr. Leatherby is urbane, accommodating and supportive.  His  house is beautiful, dripping with class.  He has too many patients and wants Alex to be his assistant at an excellent wage, room & board, including a beautiful nurse.   The offer is a godsend, but Dennison is reluctant as he wants to go on his own.  However, the pressure of his fiancee is always there:
Then, as was natural, his thoughts drifted toward Evelyn.  He took a little snapshot out of his pocket, and looked at it. Such a pretty little face, such a gay and innocent smile! She looked at him out of the picture, as she looked at him in life, making unconscious enormous demands upon him, upon his patience, his energy, asking of him protection against the brutalities of life.  Very well, he meant to meet her demands; he meant to take care of her.  He would save his money, and secure a home for her, where, behind frilled curtains, her innocence and gaiety would be safe.
As it turns out, Evelyn has a bit more mettle than Dennison perceives.  Sanxay Holding beautifully nails his perception of her and the anxieties her potential creates in him.  I love the direct exposure of his psychological punctuated by that perfect little image of suburban properness and safety, the closed frilled curtains.  So good!

And soon things start to happen that confirm Dennison's reluctance.  The sunshiney nurse tells him that he should leave.  Dr. Leatherby's sister does the same, though both seem to like him.  Dr. Leatherby has private appointments with patients at odd hours, one who dies in his sleep the following night and bequeathes 100k on the good doctor.  Dennison's strong sense of right and wrong won't allow him to continue the job without finding out what is going on.

In many ways, the setup here is very similar to Lady Killer (written 20 years later).  An inexperienced protagonist out of their element is the only who finds something wrong is going on.  In Lady Killer, she is on a passenger ship for the first time, out of her depth with the educated classes and a woman. Here, though a man, he also lacks the class and upbringing of the others around him.  In both cases, they are headstrong.  Their determination is commendable and makes them likable but they also are not very smart or subtle about how they go about trying to figure the situation out.  Things get messy.

Miasma was not a total home run.  The ending got a bit convoluted and then required a lot of explanation to clear everything up.  Getting there was a lot of fun, like an excellent old-time radio play with much more depth and nuance than you could fit into a half-hour.

I leave with you another great line, when Dr. Leatherby's chauffeur is first introduced:  "They found Ames in the garage; a very self-possessed young man, with the independent air of one who can always find a job."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

51. Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Not the copy I have, sadly.
This was a lot of fun!  Young and beautiful (and was we learn quite strong-willed and practical) Honey Stapleton is taking her first ocean passage to the Caribbean with her old and uptight and very wealthy husband, Weaver.  Right from the beginning you can see the marriage is not doing well.  He is a total pill, worried about everything and super conscious about being proper.  He locks himself in the bathroom to change.  Honey, on the other hand, though aware that she doesn't love him, really does want to make a go of it.  She is realistic about her situation yet inherently positive.  She soon meets the couple in the cabin, Hilary and Alma Leshafer, next door and right away things seem suspicious.  They are a couple on their honeymoon but the wife's luggage never arrived and she almost missed the boat because she got a call that the departure was going to be delayed.

Though at first I thought it was going to be about the travails of Honey as a naive, out of her element young wife amongst the educated upper class set, right away you see that she is a pretty cool character.  She immediately recognizes that Hilary is super suspicious and Alma is way too in love to see it.  The book is fun because almost all the men are either jerks or deliberately oblivious while the women are more or less trying to work around their stupidity or evil.  The twist that comes at the end makes this even more fun.

Monday, August 05, 2019

50. Death on the Broadlands by Alan Hunter

I bought this at the excellent Dark Carnival simply based on the cover and the back blurb saying it was in the "classic John Buchan tradition".  This latter is wildly erroneous, though it is indeed British.  I learned after reading it that this is one of over 50 George Gently novels, which are quite highly regarded (and inspired several TV series) and which I will keep an eye out for.  In this one, though, Gently is a secondary character, whose true identity is not revealed to the protagonist until almost the very end.

The protagonist is Stella Rushton, semi-succesful novelist who was recently quite badly jilted by a somewhat public figure whose biography she had written.  She receives an invitation to stay in a lovely cottage in the Broadlands which I guess was a somewhat well-known vacation spot in Norfolk.  Though a wreck at first, Stella soon reveals that she truly has a writer's observation, a strong spirit and an independent sexuality.  She wants to stay alone to write but soon gets sucked into the social life at the larger house of the cottage's owner, a very successful play-write.  They are a catty and somewhat unpleasant crew, except perhaps young Keith, morose heir to an engineering firm who falls into puppy love with Stella.

It takes a while for the crime to actually happen but the idyllic surroundings gradually become tainted by the human foibles of the theatre crew and others.  I was quite enjoying the book for the first half, especially the wonderful descriptions of the locations and the somewhat nasty characters.  The book fails a bit in that the crime itself is not that interesting and the solution less so.  I will spoil the book somewhat to say that the murder victim being young Keith was an interesting gender reversal of the all too common oversexed young girl victim.  Stella's ultimate callousness to his death seemed to underline this.  Interesting for a book written in the early '80s.  I will check out some of the earlier Gently books if they pass my way.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

49. Recursion by Blake Crouch

I can basically quote most of my review of the first book by Blake Crouch that I read "Dark Matter" and use it again here, minus the plot details.  And happily minus my major criticisms of the book (the consumer brand/status-focused narration and lame character).  I won't be that lazy, though.

Once again, meezly brought this book home from a work colleague.  She devoured it in a week and after Davy I really needed something easy to consume.  Recursion was clearly it.  It is the story of a woman who while working on a machine to capture and retrieve memories (as a way to if not cure Alzheimer's at least to alleviate its symptoms; her mother suffers from it) accidentally discovers what is in effect time travel.  By going back to old captured memories and dying, you actually go back in time to the point of that memory and can live again making new choices.  However, there are also some pretty nasty side effects, as the people's lives who have gone on to different paths will suddenly begin to remember their previous lives on the day that the original person went back in time.  Anyhow, things get really messy.  Like globally destructively messy.  It's a lot of fun and both a bit of a mindbender and kind of moving.  Ultimately, like Dark Matter, it ultimately is about a love affair.

I am curious if Crouch has read Replay, because there is a lot in Recursion that borrows from that book.  In some ways, Replay is more emotionally satisfying, as it explores deeply what would happen if you could go back and start again.  Recursion is much more of an action thriller and while fun doesn't quite leave you as emotionally satisfied.  Still, an excellent summer read.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

48. Davy by Edgar Pangborn

I cannot remember how Davy was recommended to me.  Once again, it was a book on my list for quite a while.  I am trying to figure out what the hype was.  I have to be honest, this was a tough slog.  It felt self-indulgent to me, with very little story and really not a whole lot to say, at least in today's context.  Perhaps in the mid-60s themes critiquing religious dogma, the folly of human conflict and frank sexuality seemed refreshing.  If so, they needed to be at least in a package that had something else going on besides a lot of reminiscing using folksy language and a sort-of bildungsroman about a young man coming of age.

I have gotten ahead of myself.  The story is about Davy brought up in post-WWIII upstate New York which is now several countries in somewhat of a medieval state, with a few larger towns and many small villages protected from the wilds by stockades.  There is a more rigid social hierarchy, with slaves and indentured servants and most people practice a kind of post-apocalyptic "Murcan" Christianity, which has all kinds of dogma, particularly around childbirth to prevent the proliferation of "mues".  Davy is an orphaned indentured servant with an adventurous spirit who runs away, joins a trio of wanderers and then the Ramblers, a performing/snake-oil selling caravan.  It is narrated from a present where he eventually became part of a larger political reformist movement that go overthrown.  All that stuff is interesting, but it actually makes up very few of the pages.  Most of the time we get philosophizing between the characters that was just not very interesting.  There are little incidents in between that are not unentertaining but when you have neither clear narrative nor thematic drive, one wonders what it is all in aid of. 

The world itself was also not uninteresting, but there was something so one-sided about the way it was presented.  It felt like a campaign where the Dungeon Master spends the whole time telling you what the world is like and does endless conversations between NPCs to show you all his brilliant little nuances.  I get that mainsplaining was sort of the default for science fiction from this period, but somehow Davy felt particularly egocentric to my reading. 

One bright spot was that the back of the book has lists of other books for sale by Ballantine including this gem:

Now that is the kind of book I want to read!

[A tip of the hat to Mporcius who wrote a much better review with a similar opinion and who must have had the exact same copy and spotted the gem above near the bottom of the non-fiction titles, where I had petered out.  I also stole his picture above, so go read his blog!]

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

47. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This was a cool find, though not by me.  There is a very nice bookshelf of free books in the basement/laundry area of the apartment where we stay in Vancouver. It is usually pretty mainstream stuff (almost a dozen Lee Child's) which is nice if you are desperate, but it is not often I find anything of true value there.  My wife grabbed this one, after I thought I had thoroughly checked the shelf, and she thought I might find it interesting.  She was correct!  I didn't even know it existed nor its import in the history of detective fiction, so a fail on the part of my education there.

As it says on the back cover, The Moonstone is one of the earliest detective stories in English fiction.  It was originally serialized in the 1860s and was quite popular, as were the later book versions.  It's the story of a massive diamond stolen from the head of a Hindu statue by British soldiers which makes its way to England, as well as the three Indian men whose family lineage is to hunt down and return the diamond to its rightful place.  The black sheep uncle who stole the diamond bequeaths it to his niece (either as redemption with his family or revenge, it isn't clear at first).  When the niece receives it on her 21st birthday, it is stolen.  The narrative is long and told from several viewpoints: the head butler of the house, the cousin who transported the diamond, the family lawyer, a distant cousin (and funnily and scathingly portrayed religious zealot who is constantly trying to convert people and then leaving them improving pamphlets when she fails) and a few others.

It's long and it takes a long time to unravel the mystery.  What is cool (and what Dorothy L. Sayers makes a big deal of in her intro) is that you can figure most of it out in the first part when the crime happens.  It does tend to meander and at points I felt the mystery was somewhat artificially drawn out (like the victim daughter refusing to speak to anybody for years about it when if she had just opened up everything would have been resolved way faster).  Nevertheless, the various narrators are all so interesting and enjoyable written that I really didn't mind.  The ending veers into a side story about a half-caste doctor's assistant that is quite moving and cool.  It was nice to read this book at this point in my 50 books journey, because I am so far ahead, I didn't feel the need to rush and was quite happy to jump into 400+ pages of Victorian drama and detection. 

The theft of the diamond is portrayed as a negative action, though it is the undiscipline of the troops that is the problem not the reality of invading some foreign country to take over its resources.  The more I read this summer, the more I am reminded of how fucking basically barbaric British colonialism was, the moreso by how they masked it in legality and codes of ethics.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

46. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

I have now started adding the source or reference for books that I have on my wanted list.  Too many times I find a book and I have completely forgotten how it came to my attention. Such is the case with Nancy Mitford.  My sense is that it came indirectly from a high-falutin' place (I am not in direct contact with such places) such as the New Yorker.  She, I believe, had a minor renaissance recently, as evinced by the beautiful Folio version I found at Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver (their store on West Broadway). 

Given my gradually increasing tendency towards British Literature, with an emphasis on the upper classes, this book fell perfectly in my area of current interest.  It is kind of like Trollope on crack, although there really is much less of a true narrative here and it takes place in the mid-20th century.  Things have changed a lot from Trollope's time and at least in this book, Mitford is much funnier.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Mitford is sort of a blend of Trollope and P.G. Wodehouse.  At it's core is the same desire to look at the characters and behaviours of the British aristocracy.

Love in a Cold Climate follows the Hampton family, the perfect British gentleman and man of state who is the father, the egotistical and motivating wife and their beautiful, disconnected daughter, Polly.  That trio and the various characters around them are expertly and humorously described by the more middle class, though still from an aristocratic family of her own (with an equally entertaining portrayal), narrator, a cousin and friend to Polly.  There isn't a lot of story at first and the crux of the plot is around when and who Polly decides to marry and the fallout.  It's the ride that is the real pleasure.  Not all her books were social comedies, so I am not sure about her entire bibliography but I will now be looking in the literature section of used book stores for her other books like that.  I believe that this is actually the second book and I should have started with The Pursuit of Love.  Both were at the bookstore and I only took this one, not being sure.  Fool, I.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

45. Deadly Welcome by John D. MacDonald

So I was in Vancouver and did some fairly decent book-hunting. One thing I noted was the messiness of used bookstores.  Even the main Pulp Fiction store on Main was uncharacteristically cluttered with boxes so that you couldn't get at some shelves.  Macleod's was absolutely out of control.  There was literally a horizontal pile of books going along the back wall as if they had been dumped there by a bulldozer.  I am sure there are major space limitations and it may be that used books are coming in at an unprecedented rate as 20th century book owners die off.  Nevertheless, I find it deplorable.  There are ways to organize your stock to allow customers access and to allow you to more efficiently get the sellable stuff on the shelves.  Sometimes I want to just volunteer myself to spend six months in some of these bookstores whipping them into shape.

That being said, I did make a really nice little find at Macleod's.  7 of the late Ed Gorman's top 10 non-Travis McGee John D. MacDonald's all in a pile on the floor.  I have spoken before (and had some nice comments about) the ubiquity of his books, but these were just too beautiful to pass up.  Plus any opportunity to render hommage to Mr. Gorman I will take.  Check these beauties out!

Unfortunately, the first one I read, Deadly Welcome, I did not like as much as Ed.  It starts out as a spy novel, where an agent is sent back to his home town to convince a retired genius engineer to come back and work for the government.  The old engineer is holed up in this Florida shithole because his wife, who was from there and dragged him back there, was also murdered there and he can't move on.  So it veers quickly into a murder mystery.  The small town is portrayed exquisitely (and depressingly) and the brutal deputy sheriff who dominates the downtrodden of the region with the tacit support of the law-abiding citizens is an excellent antagonist.  Unfortunately, it all felt a bit rushed. The mystery was not mysterious and the resolution was only extended with a kidnapping of the main female character (and burgeoning love interest) you could see coming for pages and felt very unecessary.  I am not too critical because this was originally a short story that MacDonald expanded into a novel, but so far probably my least favourite of his non-McGee novels.  As Gorman said "Not all JDM fans like this novel but I’ve read it three or four times and enjoyed it every trip out." and I must include myself in that group of not all JDM fans.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

44. Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

I picked this up new from a pretty cool mobile bookstore called Iron Dog Books that was outside of Jazzfest in Vancouver.  I had been looking for it used for a while and despite its popularity (or perhaps because of) was having no luck.  I was happy to support this store as the woman who owned it really knew her stuff and had an excellently curated selection.  Ironically, I found a used copy plus the other two of the trilogy at Pulpfiction books the next day.

If you are a contemporary science fiction fan, you should be aware of Anne Leckie and the Imperial Radch trilogy by now.  It is a big success and I can confirm that it lives up to the hype.  It's part of the new wave of what I will term "woke space opera".  There is a lot to get in a huff about here and people already have.  I won't go too far down that road except to say that science fiction is always a reflection of the time it is written.  The theme of the impact of colonization (and particularly as finally being perceived by the colonizers themselves) is central to this book and gender identity as in issue is interwoven into the narrative.  To my mind, it is all an integral part of a really interesting whole and the story and setting are rich and engaging and the themes so integral to them that nothing in this story seems forced or having any kind of agenda.  It's just really good science fiction.

I won't go too deeply into the story either, as you can find that all over the web.  I was hooked from the start as the main character is a ship as well as many "ancillaries" or the stolen human bodies that its AI can inhabit to do all of the ship's various duties (such as serve its officers, annex other civilizations and then later police them).  They are part of the Radch Empire, whose raison d'etre is to "civilize" other human races, with systematic annexation using their giant AI ships and their ancillaries.  The actual humans who run these ships come from houses of various interlocking statuses.  It's a really cool set up and of course things get complicated.  I will leave it there. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

43. The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson

This is the second book by Lionel Davidson I have found (picked it up in Amsterdam) and is his second book and much earlier than Kolmynsky Heights.  It's the story of a young man who sneaks into Tibet in 1950 in search of his brother who somehow got separated from a film crew.  Post-WWII Northern India, Tibet and western China is an interesting and complex time and this is a great view of it on the ground (and mostly from an ignorant outsider).  Compared to Kolmynsky Heights, though quite adventurous and perhaps a bit over the top, I found The Rose of Tibet to be much more grounded and realistic (though similarly to Kolmynsky Heights the ability to survive extreme cold seems quite fantastical).  I am much more convinced of Davidson's reputation now. 

I think part of his appreciation, at least for the The Rose of Tibet, is that this is a true adventure book, along the lines of John Buchan (there is even a long hiding out in a hole sequence), but couched in more modern terms and context.  There is gruelling mountain travel, which I usually find hard to connect to, but here you really feel the pain and struggle.  There is some great sneaking around and intrigue and weird characters.  And there is some pretty hardcore action, including a gruesome battle between starving man and starving bear.  The entire book is framed as if Lionel Davidson is an editor who stumbles upon this true story but struggles to corroborate it (as the protagonist cannot be found) and so publishes it as fiction.  This left the ending feeling a bit deflated, but the adventure along the way is so much fun that it is excused.

Great book.  Try and find it.

Monday, July 01, 2019

42. Reflection of Evil (originally Death of a Fox) by Jan Roffman

A pretty classic 60s British gothic thriller, uplifted somewhat by the really tight unity of place.  Young widow Joanna Crane with her 4-year old son Mark, in economic desperation takes a job as a live-in housemaid in a sad duplex at the end of a country lane.  Her employer is laconic to say the least and utterly without sympathy, a stern, isolated old man with meagre but specific wants.  We learn that Joanna's husband died two years earlier and her attentions to his disease (and of course his death) have made her son somewhat neurotic and needy.  Things quickly get weird when the perspective switches to a man hiding in the attic, spying on her and wondering how she will mess up his plans.  Who he is and what those plans are take a while to learn, and it is part of the anxiety/fun.  It is winter and the constant snow storms play a crucial role in Joanna's psychological struggle with at first isolation and then fear when she discovers the existence of this third player in their little house.

So much of the protagonist's action is passive in these books.  I find it really challenging to read.  They are really slow, agonizing burns. Instead of the intermittent release of some ass-kicking you get in the men's action books, in these gothic thrillers you spend a lot of time just following the heroine as she tries to figure stuff out, then tries to master her emotions and then tries to just survive and not get harmed and more importantly, not allow that which is precious to her be harmed (in this case, her son).  She is also constantly blaming herself for everything and being so critical of what she considers tactical mistakes, when you as a reader recognize that she is actually pretty darn brave and making the best of a really fucked up situation.  I guess this is so the love interest (in this case, the town doctor) can later absolve her directly.  And in the end, she does actively save herself and her son with some desperate but direct action.

I found the backstory here pretty cool and well thought out (which they aren't always in this genre), and the stuffy, cheap, cold house very convincing and unpleasant.  The location and the side characters as well were well developed.  There was also a fox struggling with the winter that was a nice (if sad) touch.  The romance wasn't as fleshed out as it could have been, almost felt like an afterthought.  Really, the meat here is about a woman trapped in a house with a killer, isolated in a winter storm and how she survives.  Solid.

Friday, June 28, 2019

41. The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker

Ah summer vacation, so much time to read.  I can't remember why this was on my list now (I really need to start noting where my recommendations come from) and was happy to find it at a used for a reasonable price. I was also ready to take a deep dive into an absorbing 600-page epic.

Unfortunately, this book didn't really deliver.  I was never attracted to Clive Barker, mainly because I am not a horror fan but also because the Hellraiser movies always seemed a bit simplistic and watered down for me, mall horror for the trendoids.  Horror books from the 80s also often seemed slightly pornographic where the story was just a delivery vehicle for the titillation of sex and violence.  I was however, like many of my generation, a huge Stephen King fan.  He delivered on the characters and situations and often the actual horror seemed secondary to the story.  I was hoping to have a similar experience here.

The story starts out promisingly with a middle-aged loser guy, Roland Jaffe, stuck in a job in the dead letter office in Omaha Nebraska.  His dick boss forces him to go through all the lost mail and pull out anything of value.  At first, he is resistant but since he had been fired from so many jobs, he does what he is told.  After a while, though, he starts to discover a hidden communication, a world of people grasping for some other world.  By being in the center of the postal world, he is able to glean through scraps of people with hints of it that there is some other power out there.  He even starts to accrue some of this power to himself and when his corrupt boss, stupid but cunning, begins to suspect something, he kills him, burns the building down and starts on a journey to find this Art, as he calls it.

A lot happens in the beginning part of the book, so much that it felt rushed. Jaffe ends up a powerful near-spirit in battle with his nemesis, both trapped in the caverns at the bottom of a small town in Simi Valley.  Here is where most of the rest of the book takes place.  Unfortunately, the storyline keeps going, with more characters and more foundation being laid for the ultimate battle.  Normally, I would welcome a continuing storyline, but it becomes hard to tell what the story is and who are the main players.  Characters that seem central to the mythology disappear and others that have no real background suddenly become prominent.  The revelation of the background cosmology also feels sort of arbitrary and never grabbed me.  It's shame because the portrayal of the town is excellent and he really captures that cheap pseudo-Christian bourgeois morality of the 80s.  Nothing solid is made of it and by the end I was just sort of reading to get through it. Finally, the use of the word cunt felt excessive and arbitrary (or just put there to be titillating; what 16-year old girl refers to her own "cunt"?)

 I am not sure why this book is so loved that it deserved a big reprint.  It's not badly written and there were some freaky ideas and cool moments, but as a whole it just didn't hold together and I certainly wasn't satisfied.  My wife tells me she liked Weaveworld a lot better, so maybe I'll give that a try but so far my opinion on Clive Barker remains skeptical.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

40. Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

I am specifically on the hunt for The Moving Toyshop by the same author, as recommended by Kenneth Hite, but found this one in an Amsterdam used bookshop as a decent proxy.  It turns out that the detective is the same and that this story takes place ten years later than the Moving Toyshop (without any spoilers thankfully, just a passing reference from a tertiary character).

Loves Lies Bleeding starts off very British and very promising for me.  It takes place at a second-rate public school where the headmaster and headmistress of the affiliated girls school are discussing the distressed state of one of the latter's students.  Already, the language is really rich, dry and quite funny.  It felt like a slightly older and more verbose version of Michael Gilbert.  The masters are a motley lot, described with a cynical but affectionate regard by the headmaster.  The next day the girl disappears and soon after that, two masters are found dead, murdered by a .38.  Fortunately, the headmaster's old acquaintance, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford and amateur detective had previously been invited to deliver the end of year speech.  He works with the headmaster and the local constabulary to unravel the mystery.  Along the way, we get a very British and entertaining cast of characters, a comprehensive and fulfilling portrayal of the school and environs and an exciting hunt through the forest and a final car chase.  I enjoyed everything thoroughly except the mystery itself, which was a bit too convoluted for my limited attention span.  The last twenty or thirty pages went into excruciating detail first about the logic of Fen's deduction process and then a narrative about what actually happened, at which point, I didn't really care anymore, especially as we barely got to know the culprits before they were revealed.  For real mystery fans, I think this would have been all pretty good stuff.  As it was, the overall writing (though perhaps a bit excessive on the obscure vocabulary and adverbs) and characterization of people and place were very much what I look for in this kind of book, so I am extremely glad to have Edmund Crispin added to my list and my search for the Moving Toyshop will continue in earnest.

Monday, June 24, 2019

39. Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I had been meaning to read this book for a long time and finally found a used paperback copy while in Amsterdam at this odd coffee shop that had piles of books on the sides of a staircase for sale or trade.

Old Man's War was a big hit and put Scalzi on the sci-fi map so I won't go into too much detail about it.  Briefly, it's the future where earth is plodding along after a few wars, but more or less the same.  However, out in space, humans are constantly waging war with other races and colonizing planets they can win or keep.  The recruitment plan for the Colonial Defence Force is pretty unique.  When a human on earth reaches 75, they can choose to sign up where somehow they are made into space soldiers.  What actually happens to the recruits is kept secret and none of them ever return to earth.

The first part of the novel is the story of one of these recruits, widower John Perry, and part of the fun is learning what happens to him after he signs up.  The second part is him learning about the universe and all the various battles going on (also quite fun).  While there is no single storyline, there is a romantic narrative that I won't reveal that was also quite satisfying and emotionally fulfilling.

This book is heavily influenced/inspired by Starship Troopers (which I really need to read).  I question a bit its position on war and colonialism.  Though there is some interesting soul-searching on the why of what these soldiers are doing, it is all ultimately hand-waived away by the excuse that all the other races are violently colonizing planets as well.  It's a questionable thesis, given when this book was written in 2005 as America ramped up its foreign involvement in the wake of 9/11.  Despite this, it's not a simplistic or jingoistic book, just feels a bit too embedded in the American exceptionalism that defined this period.*  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, this book is really fun reading.  It moves along zippily and there are some great aliens (all of whom get fragged) and excellent battle scenes with unique tactics.  I could imagine this was well read among actual troops.  I'll be keeping an eye out for his other books and the two sequels to this one.

*Doing some internet reading, I see this issue has been heavily discussed.  I found this essay to be a nice encapsulation of the debates and an excellent, more balanced and nuanced analysis of the book itself.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

38. The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert

Another random find from the library sale.  Really an odd book.  I can't tell if it is because it was translated from German or if this is the way it was intended.  It is oddly straightforward, almost simplistically told.  There is also no tension or conflict.  It is just the story of a young boy, Christoph, who sneaks out of East Germany in the '50s and makes his way to America where he starts a new life.  As a baby, an arriving American G.I., Larry, found him while searching a cabin and snuck him food which helped him survive.  That same G.I. ended up becoming friends with his adopted mother, the schoolteacher who had been hiding him and he promises to make him his adopted son when the boy is old enough to leave.

This is basically what happens.  we learn about the families he meets going through Germany, the other children on the boat to America, his time with a family in Chicago and eventually his new life on a farm in Central California.  He is an appreciative and open-minded boy and the reader gets to share his perspective on his journey and the world around him.  He misses his home and is surprised by the wealth and culture in America, but also loves the freedom and the independent, hard-working spirit of the people.  I don't know, I lapped it up.  It was just a really nice, positive story with pleasant descriptions of taking care of the goats and learning to ride and making new friends and his relationship with the other members of his new family.  There is an exciting forest fire at the end, but it is all told in such a direct, pleasant way that you kind of know nothing seriously bad is going to happen.

I once picked up a Polish hitchhiker on Vancouver Island and he was drinking goat milk and was quite enthusiastic about how good goat milk was for you.  If there was one lesson in this book, it was that goat milk is really good for you.  Christoph's main goal is to get some goats in his life, like he tended as a boy in Germany.  Anytime anybody has some health issues, they are healed by steady drinking of goat's milk.  I think I'm going to give it a try.

Hmmm, doing a bit of research, I have learned the Benary-Isbert's books were fairly succesful in their time and were primarily read by younger audiences.  She has several other books, including two about a family struggling in post-War Germany (The Ark and Rowan Farm) whose characters have small parts in The Long Way Home.  They sound similarily comforting and absorbing, so she will have to be added to the list!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

37. Flashpoint by Dan J. Marlowe

For some reason, with these American men's paperback crime books, I like the crime but not the espionage.  Partly because morally they assume that the CIA and FBI are basically good guys as these were intended for a mostly conservative white male audience.  They also just feel a bit contrived.  With the straight crime, the morality is pushed to one side and you stay within the realm of reality, more or less.  Flashpoint is a mix of both and I thus only halfly enjoyed it.  Dan J. Marlowe often walks this line and I definitely prefer him on the crime side.

For convoluted reasons of having to deliver money to somebody, Drake ends up on a private plane full of high-rollers on their way to Vegas.  It gets hijacked and brought down in the desert (with some quite nasty violence here).  So now Drake needs to go and get back the money he was delivering.  It turns out the hijackers are arab extremists who are committing these crimes to fund a bigger project of some kind.  The FBI agent who Drake worked with in a past book tracks him down and uses him to infiltrate the gang (which he doesn't want to do but sees it as a way to get his money back).

The rest of the book takes place entirely in and around New York City.  There is a really silly side story where he befriends a rich runaway waif who is hooked on tea and tries to save her.  She of course gets brutally murdered by the bad guys.  The bad guys are preposterous and the job involves heisting some nuclear material was pretty goofy as well, but it had some fun moments and didn't take itself too seriously.  Not on the top of the pantheon of Dan J. Marlowe books, for sure.

There is a beautiful Turkish woman in the book, but none of it
takes place anywhere near a middle eastern window like that.

Monday, June 10, 2019

36. The City of Gems by Joanna Trollope

I picked this up at the library sale.  It is the semi-fictional tale of the last monarch of Burma framed in the purely fictional (I believe) story of the European Colonials involved in their collapse.

Trollope paints an engrossing and fairly critical picture of the small gang of expats in Rangoon.  Though there are some decent characters, all of them are basically there to take advantage and exploit the resources.  I know the broad strokes of how Britian did this.  Reading about it in a story with all the details brings out how fucking awftul it all was.  The British trade with the monarch for the right to harvest the teak forests and dig up the ground.  In return, they bring them European "treasures" and try to curry favour with the capricious queen.  When it seems like the French are making a move to get these franchises, the British send in the navy, depose the king and queen and install their own rule.  This all actually happened.  What separates it from an outright invasion and in some ways makes it even more outrageous is how they justify it all with legal legitimacy, laws they already decided on.  Truly fucked.

Anyhow, it was an entertaining story, oddly easy-going despite the stakes and I learned some history

Thursday, June 06, 2019

35. Horizon by Helen Macinnes

I kind of feel that I need a cuff in the back of the head for having only read Helen MacInnes at the age of 50.  She is a giant in the field of espionage thrillers.  Now that I have read one of her books, I can say that it is at the very least as competent and entertaining as many of the other mainstream authors of that genre.  I am not sure why I neglected her before. I honestly want to say it is the same reason I hadn't read any Alistair Maclean, that she was just too mainstream and popular.  It is entirely possible though, that there was an unconscious bias in that she was a woman.  I can say that Horizon was easily superior to both the Maclean's I read (except HMS Ulysses), though those were his later works and generally considered inferior.

Horizon starts out in an Italian prison camp near the end of WWII, at the very northern end, near the border with Austria.  I knew very little about Tyrol, though I had vague memories studying the conflicts there during the war.  As portrayed richly by MacInnes, it is is its own culture, more Austrian in language and culture, but still considering themselves independent from both Italy and Austria, as well as oppressed by both.  The whole beginning sequence is great, where the protagonist, two-time escapee is planning his third, when the local guards abandon their posts and the men take over the prison. He is weirdly conflicted because his escape chance was ruined and it is suggested that he is kind of a rebel in general and just wanted to be on the run rather than reunited with the army.  He was a painter in peacetime.

Instead, he gets sent up to the South Tyrol to hide out there and act as a liaison for a potential allied invasion, to ensure they meet with the right local people (those waging a quiet resistance against the Italians and now the Nazis now that Mussolini's government has collapsed).  You get a great portrait, both physical and social of this part of the world.  The locals are quiet, independent mountain people.  You also get some classic WWII nazi baddies, coming in like they are liberating the Tyroleans from the Italians, but with an even more sinister and aggressive plan to take the menfolk for their last gasp arms productions.

My only frustration with the book was the characterization of the main character.  Annoyance and frustration are not pleasant emotions to read about in a book and he seemed constantly annoyed and frustrated right from the beginning, without any real background to understand why.  Yes, his escape was thwarted, but so what, the entire prison was liberated.  You slowly realize that he is kind of a rebel and the arc of his character is that he finds a positive role to play and comes to accept it.  It just wasn't developed on a sound foundation so you don't really connect with him. The locale, other characters, intrigue and action were all really good, so it is forgivable.  Good stuff and a new author for me to pick up.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

34. Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

This was a very nice palate cleanser after a few more difficult reads.  It is a middle-aged pre-WWII espionage fantasy for the sophisticated male, artfully written and absorbing, with great details, but ultimately light and unchallenging.  Coming from me, this is not a criticism.  I expected something a little darker and jarring, as an oncoming fascist takeover of the world tends to deliver.  Everything here is smooth sailing.  Cristian Ferrar is a Spanish ex-pat and successful lawyer in Paris at the end of the 1930s.  He flies to New York from time to time and has pretty cool love affairs there and in Paris.  He slowly gets drawn in to espionage in support of Republican Spain and this leads him on various adventures, each a pretty cool little spy vignette with great locations, characters and neat little details.  This was all thoroughly enjoyable for someone who is a fan of the period and genre.  It is very skillfully written, digestible without being overly simplistic.  The actual history is interspersed as well in a way that despite the lightness of the whole affair, does not fail to remind us of how awful we can be and how bad things got.  I think in another time, this book could be consumed entirely guilt-free, but given the all-too familiar shadow of fascism menacing the early 21st century, I think that current authors of this period need to deliver a bit more bite.  That being said, I am happy that he has quite a few other books out there waiting for me the next time I need such a pleasant diversion.

Note, I picked this up for a dollar at the book sale of the Grande Bibliotheque.  It along with another copy of the same book were being retired from circulation.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

33. Black Fox Running by Brian Carter

This was a very exciting little find, though now I can't remember exactly where.  It falls perfectly into my pastoral animals adventure sub-genre (need a better name) and though a bit slow for me to read, was a moving and engrossing story that is going on the shelf.

It's the story of Wulfgar, a large and powerful fox living in Dartmoor after the end of World War II. As it say in the preface, Brian Carter "knows Dartmoor intimately and for years has been a very close observer of foxes and other animals".  It shows.  There is a really nice hand-drawn map (though quite small in detail, so that at this age I needed to really squint to read it) and the text lovingly details the animals, insects, plants and agricultural life of this region.  At times, he went into such detail, with very specific names and terms to the point that I kind of lost the thread.  I love the literature of British rural life, but I am not a nerd about it and having very little room for facts left in my soul, this kind of detail is lost on me.  It is not a knock on the book at all, just to point out that it took me a long time to read it because of this.  Better informed readers would find this element a positive, because even when I didn't know which bird he was referring to, it still felt very evocative and transported you to that place.  I really need to do a trip to this part of the world, if it hasn't all already been developed over.

Though much of the book is Wulfgar's life as a fox, there is a strong narrative thread.  Scoble, the shell-shocked trapper is obsessed with Wulfgar and as his life slowly succumbs to alchoholism, disease and the psychological ravages of surviving the trenches of World War I, he wages a horrific war against all the little creatures and foxes especially.  There are some interesting class issues that are well portrayed, as the local gentry retard Scobles cruel ways, as they want the foxes kept alive for their sport.  Interestingly, the two most sympathetic humans are a young boy who loves nature (and of course is treated as being a bit simple) and an American ex-fighter pilot coming to the country to recover. 

At first, Scoble and his mad dog Jacko are portrayed as real monsters and they do some horrible things.  There is also conflict between him and the American.  But by the end, you almost feel sorry for him.  His end underlines a quiet but powerful theme against war that elevates this book beyond the simple ecological message.

[Note on the slow output for the month of May, NBA playoffs were intense with the Warriors gunning for their 4th championship title with this team plus me playing a lot of basketball and daughter activities getting more varied.  Social media usage was down, so can't use that as an excuse.]

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

32. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Whew, this was a novel!  I picked it up at Chainon basically just because it looked old.  I did see it was a bunch of people on a ship and it takes place just before the start of WWII so that also piqued my interest.  But damn, this was almost 500 pages of small typeface with 3 chapters!  Plus, it's the NBA playoffs so my reading time is limited.  Excuses, excuses, but I made it through.

The story is about a second-rate German passenger ship leaving Mexico in 1939 taking a motley group of weird expats back to Europe.  There is also a large group of Spanish sugar cane workers in steerage, sent back home after their industry collapsed in Mexico.  There are so many characters that the book has and needs not only a roster at the beginning but a list of cabins and who is in them.  Most of the first class passengers are German, Swiss and Swedish, but there are four Americans (an unmarried and tortured couple and an angry engineer from Texas and a divorcee), several upper class Mexicans, a Spanish dance troupe, Cuban medical students and a lone Jew.  They all have their own storylines and they overlap.  The larger narrative is how the Spanish dance troupe sows chaos on the ship, ostensibly for their own material gains as they are thieves, pimps and prostitutes and just general scammers, but also with a general cultural contempt for the Teutonic uptightness of the Germans.  They have two children who are just totally wild, constantly trying to throw things and animals overboard, stealing stuff, doing childish incest in the lifeboats and generally horrifying the "civilized" upper class Europeans.

Racism is ubiquitous.  The Germans at the captain's table talk freely of eugenics and purification of society.  One of the storylines is a young German man of good social and genetic standing who is returning to his Jewish wife.  The discovery of that fact causes a big scandal and he is forced to sit with the lone Jew (whom he despises).  Really, there is not a single likable character in this book, though they are all interesting.  This is a savage, scathing portrayal of Western society at this time.  I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been written in 1945.  It feels every so slightly like there is a bit of hindsight schadenfreude going on here and I wonder how this book would have actually been written before the war started.  It is based on Porter's own experience on an ocean liner, so I am not questioning the authenticity of the portrayal overall. It is just a bit too firm and consistent in its portrayal of the Germans and their view utopian view of their Fatherland.

If there is a climax, it is the second to last night before they finally arrive in Europe and the dance troupe hosts a party which gets out of hand.  Some of the conflicts and desires that have been brewing across the Atlantic come to fruition.  Nothing particularly new is revealed about the characters, for whom the reader has already developed a pretty solid distaste.  They have been well developed, though and there is nothing false or exaggerated about their narratives end.  Each character leaves at the various stops in Spain, France and England with the final destination in Germany.

Not mindblowing, but an interesting portrait of a group of people at a very specific time in 20th century history.  Porter herself led quite an interesting life and you wonder how much of her is in the sophisticated, self-possessed and slightly lost divorcee character, Mrs. Treadwell.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

31. The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn [Part 3 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

The Babysitter both disappointed me and exceeded my expectations.  It disappointed me simply because it is not at all the genre I assumed based on the cover and title.  It exceeded my expectations because it is a brooding, hard almost noirish mystery that is quite good.  It's a great find and was an enjoyable read but It doesn't fit into this series at all!  I guess part of my assumption about its genre was that I found it with The Crib and The Babysitter (parts 1 and 2 of this now badly named Maternal Anxiety Horror series) both of which are clearly horror novels.  Does this not look like a horror novel cover to you or could it also be mystery?

The Babysitter starts in media res with a stunned John Wright being interrogated by police in his own home after returning from a night out to find the babysitter dead in the hallway her head bludgeoned in and their 14-month old baby missing.  It's the 70s and John and his wife Merle had left their ad-copywriting jobs in Boston to come to one of the bedroom communities surrounding it.  We learn quickly that the babysitter, whom John met at the local college where he taught, had actually lied about her name and background.  Her real identity is a mystery as is the fate of the baby.

The authorities who arrive are manifold and useless at best.  The FBI are particularly malevolent and the couple feels they have to act on their own.  Their investigation takes them to various interesting locations around this part of Boston.  The location is strong here and there is a cast of characters similar to Denis Lehane book, though toned down.  The backstory, as it plays out is intriguing and takes the reader into some dark places to meet some pretty low characters.  It has a desperate, brooding atmosphere.  It's a hot summer and there is an aggression in all the dialogue and everyone seems uncomfortable. The style is laconic so I felt a bit distant at first, but after a while as the plot got more complex and interesting, it felt appropriate for the mood and it drew me in.

The Babysitter does close this series with a bit of a whimper thematically.  The sacrifice was worth it, however, for an obscure and enjoyable discovery.  I will now return to my regular non-programmed reading schedule.

The NYT Book Review should have clued me in that this wasn't horror.

Friday, April 26, 2019

30. The Nursery by David Lippincott [Part 2 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

Now this is more what I expected when I started this mini-reading series of mass market horror paperbacks with a maternal anxiety theme.  It is lurid, silly and kind of nasty, definitely targeted at the "babysitters and housewives" market.  However, like The Crib, this one also does not actually provoke much maternal anxiety.  It is much more aligned with the social critiques of young women's independence and sexuality of the time.

We start with 17-year old Jennifer Delafield of Park Avenue, with a controlling, envious mom and an easily manipulated dad.  She is finishing up at Mrs. Chambers School for Girls and soon to be at Smith, when she decides in angry rebellion to elope with her 20-year old boyfriend.  They drive to Chiver, Maryland a town whose industry is built on marriage due to laxer laws. Hidden off the main strip of tacky neon marriage establishments with cheap promotions, they find a beautiful old Victorian named Blossom House with an amazing orchard and an elegant little sign indicating Justice of the Peace.  The couple that greets them, Henry and Harriet Griggs, is odd, but friendly.  He is a charming round man with white hair while his sister is gigantic.  After the brief ceremony among the blossoming apple trees, the couple invites them to share a celebratory drink.  Things go downhill.

So first of all, this book is not subtle at all.  The basic narrative I shared with you above is actually way more spoiler-free than the actual first few chapters of the book.  The author straight up tells you stuff.  So we know already that Harriet Griggs was brutally fatshamed in school and treated like shit by her dad and thus hates all men and pretty girls.  [You can't totally blame her with lines like "To Jennifer it was remarkable that so large a woman could move so softly, but she remembered hearing once that fat people could be incredibly light on their feet and therefore made good dance partners—as long as you remembered to judge them by their dancing and not their appearance."  Where in the early 80s did she learn that?!] Each chapter starts with an excerpt from Harriet's diary.  It is really simplistic and obvious stuff.  Also, the point of view jumps around quite a lot, revealing perspectives and diffusing any intrigue.  You will have a scene with Jennifer worrying about something and then dismissing it in her mind and in the next paragraph Harriet's thoughts which reveal that Jennifer should be worried (and then some!) and often even a line from the author saying basically the same thing.  It is almost like a bad voiceover in a low-budget horror movie from the 60s.

I spend a lot of time on it because this approach is very different from what I am used to reading and I suspect more in line with this sub-genre.  It does not detract much because the real pleasure here is in the bonkers set up.  Basically, the old couple drugs the drinks, separates the newlyweds and put Jennifer in an upstairs cell that is gussied up to look like a little girls bedroom.  Harriet sits on her and shaves her pubes (because she refuses to do it herself) and then forces her into this contraption that flattens her breasts.  After a few days of isolation, she is introduced to the rest of the third floor, 11 other young women all forced to pretend like they are 12-year olds.  It's creepy and gets creepier when cuddly Henry comes around. Yikes!

The rest of the narrative is Jennifer trying to deal with her situation, while we slowly learn about the backstory and some of the other girls.  The pacing of the suspense is inconsistent, but the upstairs scene is like a crazy jail narrative, with alliances and power struggles between the girls while they also try to deal with their captors.  Quite entertaining.  The ending is absolutely bonkers.  Like really so preposterous and crazy that I had to exclaim out loud.  [So bonkers that I am going to share it with you at the end of this post.]

This is really not my jam.  I am into action, not cruelty; fighting not torture and I like a happy ending.  I'm simple.  This book is not extreme, but the money shots here are all around cruelty and torture done to the main character (and her husband).  Aside from the shaving, she gets starved, beaten and dentisted (this is the perfect moment for a Joe Bob Briggs-like roll call of shit that happened) as well as having to deal with creepy Henry.  And of course there is psychological torture.  Gaslighting is Harriet's M.O. as she tries to break each girl down and especially Jennifer.

I am also not sure what the message is here.  There is clearly an emphasis on the parrallels between Jennifer's complaining that her parents kept her in a prison compared the real prison she ends up in.  Her sexuality and independence seem to be set up for some of punishment, but she is also quite strong-willed and demonstrates some virtue and character development in befriending one of the other girls who used to be a prostitute. 

Oddly, there is an empty link floating out there in some bookseller databases for a The Nursery 2: Jennifer's Revenge.  There is so little actual data and the date is the same as this one, that I suspect it is just wishful thinking.  Anybody know if there really was a sequel?

The Ending
So Jennifer starts to win over the other girls and together they work to disrupt the Griggs' control over them, with the ultimate goal of her escaping and freeing the rest of them.  The visit of lowlife Cousin Larry (who renovated the third-floor prison for Harriet and Henry) almost disrupts their plans, but Jennifer improvises and manages to make it out of the third floor.  There is hiding and chasing and then she gets out.  Stunned and stumbling in daylight, she sees a rental car parked along the road with the door open and still running.  Desperate, she jumps in and starts to drive.  She's free, finally free!  But wait, from the backseat, Cousin Larry pops up. He'd been hiding there (and we knew something was up because the author keeps having Harriet tell us how the escape is all actually a part of her plan to finally get Jennifer) and has a can of gas and his zippo.  I told you it was crazy.  So as Jennifer is driving, he pours the gas on her and lights her on fire.  She can't get out because the inner door handles had already been loosened and they fall off, but guess what neither can Cousin Larry!   That's right, Harriet's master plan kills two birds with one stone, by eliminating hateful Jennifer and Cousin Larry who knew too much.  The car, burning from the inside, goes screaming into town and gets plowed by a semi.

Already my jaw was on the floor, but wait, there's an epilogue.  The scene begins at a plastic surgeon's office, peeling away the layers of bandage from the face of a young girl.  Jennifer did not die in the crash!  She ran burning and stumbled into a kindly young doctor's office.  The doctor for reasons that make zero sense, did not tell anybody and instead healed her and then found the best doctors to reconstruct her face.  She has totally lost her memory and falls in love with her saviour.  She doesn't want to know about her past because even thinking about it starts to make her panic.  They decide to get married and find a lovely old house.  As she approaches the door, she starts to freak out, but then the door opens and it is some other couple.  Phew.  The nice doctor (who lived minutes away from Blossom House) and the amnesiac reconstructed girl live happily ever after.

There is a final epilogue after that which is the Griggs, who have now moved to Big Sur, changed their last name and still do the marriage business.  It was not directly implied nor contradicted whether or not they were still also doing the kidnapping business.  Very weird final moment, though:

Certainly impossible for me to know.  Is this some horror trope?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

29. The Crib by Paul Kent [Part 1 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

I found The Crib in the fruitful St-Viateur free shelf, along with two other thematically similar 80s horror paperbacks, The Nursery and The Babysitter and several V.C. Andrews.  At first, I only took one of them, but back at home the missed opportunity of such a find started to gnaw at me.  I was somewhat inspired by the paperback community on Twitter as well, as I thought they would appreciate seeing at least a picture of them.  So the next time I was on St-Viateur, I checked the shelf and fortune smiled upon me as both other books were there.

 Maternal Anxiety Horror trio

At first I was just going to take a picture of them, but once I had them in my hands and saw their beauty as artifacts, I couldn't let them go. You really have to love the parallels in these three books, published across the span of a decade (The Babysitter 1979, The Nursery 1983, The Crib 1989).  As well as the obvious thematic similarities, they are all named The "something" and all written by authors with really boring white guy names.  And once I had them, I realized I can't parade their covers around without actually reading them.  Turns out The Crib was so much fun, that I've decided to read them in baby stage order (Crib, Nursery, Babysitter) and share my findings here.  So I present you the first ever Olmans Fifty Three-Part Maternal Anxiety Horror Special

We start with The Crib itself.  The first half was at worst competent and it held my interest until things started to pick up in the second half.  It ended up quite exciting with a complex and well thought out back story.  The entire premise is sort of obvious and you figure out quite quickly what is going on (though not the precise details, which are cool), but that didn't spoil the fun.  The Crib far exceeded my expectations and is going to be a keeper.

Dr. Stuart Rice is an epidemiologist who used to be a practicing surgeon.  One night in April, his wife wakens him to his neighbours' desperate call; their child has stopped breathing.  From this dark beginning, Stuart is reluctantly drawn into investigating the baby's death, perhaps as his only way to help.  He learns that other distant members of the same family had also lost babies to SIDS, at statistically disproportional rate than should be normal.  The research and work that Stuart does as he digs deeper into the patterns of baby deaths is the competent part of the first half.  Some may find research and investigation action dull and I don't know how accurate it was, but I enjoyed the inside peek at how the W.H.O. organized and distributed its data in the 1980s, the discussions with his buddy the M.E., his visits to the public library, meeting with the new data academics where he actually gets a database programmed for him!  All this rational attempt to explain is entertaining enough to get around the basic fact that it is obviously the crib that is doing this.  At times you are kind of banging your head against the book going, dude, it's The Crib!  What is truly hard to swallow is that anyone would want to re-use a crib that a baby had died in, but especially one where thirteen children had died, all on Easter and each of their names is carved into the wood slats of the crib!  I know it was the 80s where we weren't so obsessed with child safety, but come on.

Despite this whopper, The Crib maintains your suspension of disbelief.  And it gets fun.  The narrative here is much more akin to a men's action book, though more cerebral, than true horror.  Stuart is characterized as a hunter or predator, honing in on the solution to the mystery.  His narrative as he goes farther afield the closer he gets to the truth is alternated with the back story of the piece of wood going backwards in time as it travels across the world and history to its origin.  If I tell you the wood used to make the crib was around 2,000 years old and seemed to have some kind of dark stain on it, do you think you might have a sense of what that might be?  You learn that info and more a quarter of the way into the book and it's not until the last page that what the reader has long since known is thrown out like a shocking reveal.  Dr. Rice seems smart but perhaps sometimes can't see the forest for the trees.

The Crib is imperfect, but well put together and ultimately entertaining.  Turns out Peter Kent is Canadian, an ex-doctor who wrote and lived in Vancouver.  I think this is his only book, which is too bad.  Also turns out that it is kind of collectible.  Paperback copies on Abe Books in good condition going for $30-40!

Friday, April 19, 2019

28. A Comedy of Terrors by Michael Innes

I believe I found this book in the free shelf on St-Viateur.  I've seen Michael Innes name around a lot, but have never actually read anything by him.  I took this one on the appeal of the British parlour mystery.  It definitely delivers on the sub-genre, being about an upperclass family meeting on their estate that is now surrounded by business and industry.  Unfortunately, the book itself just wasn't all that good. The writing was overly complex, trying to be more classical but, at least to my ear, ended up being convoluted and counter-intuitiive.  The plot was weak and without any emotional punch:  an uncle gets shot through the window but doesn't die; the family all snipe amongst each other so any of them could have done it but nobody has a really strong motive.  Some of the characterizations, in particular the two smug, superior youngest members of the family, were funny and at times the nasty wit made me chuckle.  I suspect that Innes may have been trying on a style here.  It didn't work for me.  I will check up on him and see what else I can try.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wile

Not the version I read; I liked the cover
It's interesting finally actually reading Oscar Wilde.  I am familiar with his life and career, the plot of Dorian Gray and his pithy witticisms and always felt highly of all three.  After reading the book, I still think highly of the first two, but all the quotes that seem so spot on when read out of context feel forced to me in the narrative.  This is my bias, but I felt like all right dude, I get it you are really witty and have all these clever aphorisms about the stuffiness of 19th century England but can we just get on with the story.  I am being even more unfair because had I probably never heard them before and read them here for the first time, most would have seemed quite brilliant.  Living in a day where the sort of moral uptightness of the Victorian age has been replaced by a thoroughly Dorian-Gray-esque excess of consumer capitalism, his words also feel misplaced.

I shouldn't start off with such negativity, but wanted to get it out of the way.  The rest of the book is really amazing and no question that this book's classic status is well justified.  The portrayal of Gray's descent into immorality is possibly the template for all future descents we read in literary and genre fiction today.  Wilde is fairly subtle most of the time.  The worst factual thing that Gray does is smoke opium, but the locations, the characters and their dialogue and the suggestions of worse that Wilde weaves together evokes powerfully the dark night of the soul that tempts us all.  The violence and aftermath are also so intense and nasty that one wishes Wilde had veered into doing straight up genre fiction himself.  He would have crushed it.

So yeah The Picture of Dorian Gray is a literary classic.  I would further argue that it is a foundational text in the thriller/crime genre and you would do well to read it if that genre is your jam.