Tuesday, March 19, 2019

22. Frankincense and Murder by Baynard Kendrick

I now cannot remember from whom I received the recommendation to read Baynard Kendrick.  His name has been on my hunt list for years.  I finally found two hardcovers at Dark Carnival which I normally wouldn't buy but the threat of that gem going out of business has me buying anything of interest they may have (which is a lot) so I picked them both up.

I would not say that I was disappointed with Frankincense and Murder (nice little title btw), just a bit non-plussed.  It's a good mystery but felt very workaday, something that is part of a series that might have been a decent TV or radio show back in the day.  It's very New York City mad-men period, which I am starting to find less and less interesting (partly because I am trendily anti-trendy but also because the inherent sexism and erasure of anybody who is not white honestly starts to get me down; like seriously dudes were just straight up marrying their secretaries). 

Despite these concerns, it is a well-written mystery and the detective being blind really makes the detection cool and interesting.  There was also some very specific and detailed look into the perfume manufacturing industry that I quite enjoyed.  The financial forensics were less interesting (though wow tax rates and assumptions about them have changed vastly!) and despite two people and a dog getting murdered, it never felt like the stakes were all that high.  That lightness is what made it feel like a decent TV or radio show.  I can imagine that Kendrick was a favourite for a lot of people and his latest book was picked up as soon as it came out.  I am curious to see how I like the other one on my shelf.

This is from 1961.  91% tax rate!  If this is MAGA, I'll take it.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

21. The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser

A solid hollywood noir Graphic Novel with a particularily well done cover and trade dress makes it seem something more than the story actually is.  This is okay, because the story is quite good.  It's just that it being in a comic format kind of throws you at first (as well as the excessive promotional quotes by other authors, like this is a pretty good book but it's not the equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro, Joe Hill). 

It's just that when you start to have some experience with pulp and noir fiction in print, the story of Fade Out doesn't seem all that special because we have seen a lot of it before.  That being said, Fade Out hits some pretty cool marks.  The story is nicely dark and the protagonist a well-done take on the self-loathing, broken anti-hero.  The set up is cool, too.  Charlie Parish was a gifted writer who had his spirit broken in the war.  He is now a studio screenwriter and secretly continues to work with his blacklisted mentor, because he, Charlie, can no longer actually write.  So his bitter, alchoholic mentor does the actual writing and Charlie does all the day-to-day work, while also trying to ensure that his mentor doesn't show up drunk to awkward for both of them situations.  Charlie is pretty much an alchoholic as well and the story gets going when he wakes up from a blackout on an unknown couch after a big studio party.  He quickly stumbles on to the dead body of the upcoming star of the movie they were working on.  Trouble ensues.

There are lots of great characters ( I appreciated the cast of characters spread at the beginning as well to help the reader keep track) and the corruption of Hollywood near the end of the studio system is well portrayed.  The studio security guy was a particularily nuanced character, who comes off as the strongarm but then later reveals a more intelligent side (though perhaps never moral).  He reminded me a bit of the Comedian from the Watchmen. 

Rock solid noir thriller that is more fun to read because you get pictures.  Recommended.

Friday, March 15, 2019

20. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

As a younger person, I did not like this style of cover design.  I think it felt old-fashioned and chintzy.  The image itself still evokes that sense of cheapened glory (like Hollywood Squares) in me, but today I find the overall design to be really compelling.  I love the white space and right alignment.  The colours are particularily appealling. I don't know if it was originally supposed to be true-white or if the eggshell was deliberate as the book is quite old, but the green on the off-white really works for me here.  I guess this paperback was from 1964, but I would have pegged it as later. 

I have mixed feelings about the book as well.  I mostly enjoyed it and there is no doubt that Mary Stewart is a good writer.  I am still not well-versed enough in the gothic romance genre to be able to differentiate what are the writer's choices and what are staples of the genre.  The setup is absolutely fantastic and sucked me right in.  The lack of satisfaction for me in a lot of these thrillers is the distribution of the tension and mystery.  Here, it felt like you were pretty much ignorant of the details on anything nasty going on except for just the menacing feeling of everything. Once you do learn that there is indeed something real going on, you learn it all quite quickly about halfway through the book.  There is one central mystery that remains right up until the end and this whether or not the love interest is part of the evil plot or not.

Let me get to the basic plot before going on.  Linda Martin is a well-bred young British woman who had been raised in Paris and then on to England before her parents died in a car crash.  As a grown-up orphan, she became a ward at an orphanage.  Because of her sense and good work, she is recommended to become a governess to a recently-orphaned 10-year old boy who lives now with his uncle and aunt in the Chateau de Valmy in rural France.  The aunt is lovely, the boy is pale and sickly but good and the uncle a penetratingly handsome ex-rake who is now confined to a wheelchair.  The uncle in particular unerves young Linda Martin but he always behaves very decently towards her and she does a very good job with the boy.  The chateau is enormous and beautiful and everything is going fine until the boy gets "accidently" shot at while on the walk in the forest and the uncle's son, Raoul arrives, who is as good-looking as his father and can walk.

Here is where I started to get a bit disconnected.  One thing that is odd about this time is how quickly characters "fall in love".  I sort of thought the whole thing was to take your time back in these virginal times, but this book started to make me think that it was the opposite. Because you couldn't have sex right until you were married, you had to fall in love, get engaged and get married as soon as possible.  They go out on one date, albeit a fantastic one, and she has to admit the next day that as much as it pains her, she is hopelessly in love with Raoul. 

The other weird thing is that Raoul is not totally an asshole, he actually seems pretty good overall. It's just that he is so intense and aggressive. It's really worse than that.  He is always getting mad and all intense and brooding (about other things but also because he too seems to be equally in love with Linda).  He is also almost crashing into her with his over-powered car that he drives too fast or grabbing her and crushingly kissing her.  He never kisses in a gentle, slow way. It's pretty gross by today's standards, but it's not just simply that, there is some weird way they interact even verbally that seems stunted and off-putting to me. 

Accidents continue to happen around the boy and she becomes more and more suspicious.  She then learns that there is indeed a plot to murder the boy (who is set to inherit the entire estate) and she may be the one to be scapegoated for it. She is sure of some of the perpretators but is her beloved, yet weirdly aggressive Raoul in on it as well?  Things reach a climax and she realizes she has to run away with the boy and get him to safety (to his other uncle who seems good).

I really liked the main character.  She is smart and practical and makes the strong moral choice right away.  Very much the young female version of the British archetype.  What's problematic with the narrative is that while she makes the right choices that lead her down a difficult path, they end up being for the most part useless, as she lacked info that would have made her realize there was no need to run and hide with the boy.  And it's funny because when I was reading the exciting run away scenes, I kind of just wanted to get through it and see what happened.  I think I suspected there was not enough info to confirm her suspicions and was thus not totally bought in.  It's a shame because the description of some of the locations and their walk together was really beautiful and cool.

I guess for the readership they were targeting, the real suspense is whether the dashing aristocrat is true or not.  In that view, then, the mystery of the conspiracy and the thrill of the escape is all side business to the real climax.  This may be a simplistic reading, but it could be the equivalent to the romance in a man's adventure book being the side dish to the real climax of the baddy being killed or the objective achieved.  Could be a thesis in there somewhere, but I will need to read more of these books.

There is also a side character, a young, healthy and handsome British man she meets in town who is staying in a cabin doing some forest research.  He hilariously and obviously represents the staid, practical man a character like Linda Martin is supposed to end up with (and probably most of the readership). He is a very nice and cool-seeming guy and gets treated like an utter door mat in the face of her passion for the french aristocrat with the fancy car.  Total friend-zone. 


Saturday, March 09, 2019

19. Mission for Vengeance by Peter Rabe

This was another exciting find in the great Friends of the Oakland Public Library haul of xmas 2018. Any original Peter Rabe is a find, even a less one, which I suspected this might be.  The cover is quite generic and not very inspiring and the mixed messages of the promotional text didn't help.

The story here is about John Miner, a man on a ranch outside of San Francisco who is waiting for his fiancee, Jane Getterman, to finally come and live with him.  When she arrives, her dad is unexpectedly there and his presence makes Miner's stomach tight.  This is not just traditional annoyance with the father-in-law as we soon learn that Mr. Getterman and Miner have a criminal past together and his presence at the ranch means that something from it has arisen and there is trouble.

Trouble there is indeed and it is in the name of Farrett, a resentful loser that Miner had hired for the gun running operation that he had set up with Getterman and a few others.  It got busted up and they had gone their separate ways, but Farrett had now reappeared and his very name makes Miner worried, especially now that he has Jane.

It's a good premise but an uneven book.  The point of view jumps from first person (from Miner's perspective) to third (Farrett and several others).  The tone and pacing is also inconsistent.  Farrett is really frightening and we slowly learn more and more how crazy he actually is, while we also learn more and more about their gun-running operation.  Those threads were engaging, as were many of the locations and the writing overall.  Rabe is a skilled writer and he portrays odd yet real situations, often in quite rundown and depressing settings.  These are strong.  But the storyline itself bogs down at times, with lots of details about flight times and too many times where Miner is stuck then not stuck.  Finally, there is a major plot hole at the end, where a crime that would have been quickly discovered and quite quickly connected to Farrett is overlooked so that he can continue to be a narrative threat.

It is also quite nasty, especially the section when Farrett tracks down his old girl friend at the diner owned by her and her husband. Rabe did not pull his punches and there are some dark, sexual details here that surprised me for being from 1958.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

18. Traitor to the Living by Philip José Farmer

This was a really bad book.  I have read a few clunkers in the last year or two, but objectively speaking, I think this is probably the worst.  It's just boring, badly structured, full of lame ideas and unfunny sexist sexuality.  It honestly feels like a self-published e-book by a prolific 17-year old male who didn't have a social life.   Ostensibly, it takes place in the future and is about the invention of a device called MEDIUM that allows people to talk to the dead.  There is a mystery/detective/thriller about how the supposed actual inventor died and the man who claims the invention.  There is some wishy-washy debate over whether or not it really is the dead that are being contacted.  There is some supposed social commentary on the controversy this technology causes.  There are a lot of gunfights and explosions, all of which are boring, excessively violent without any real emotion and inconsequential.  Every woman is described in terms of her sexual features (which tend to be exaggerated in most cases).  Just really fucking bad.  It's a bummer, because I remember really enjoying the Riverworld books in high school.  Let's hope this is an aberration and represents one of his worst efforts. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

17. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold is the one-shot follow-up to the First Law trilogy that I quite enjoyed.  Like the first volume in that series, my brother-in-law gave me this one for xmas.  It is a phat phantasy of the new, grim, modern mold, very epic but also quite raunchy, violent and cynical. 

I won't go too far into the plot, as that task is best left to other more nerd-focused websites.  Suffice it to say that this story takes place on Styria, an island of competing city states. At the beginning of the book,  The book begins with Monza Murcatto captain general of a mercenary army and her brother Benna, paying a visit to the Grand Duke Orso for whom they have come close to defeating most of the other cities in Styria and made him the king of the island.  I really feel like I should leave it there.  If you are a fan of the other books or at all interested, just stop reading here and wait until you get the book and just read it.

It does happen at the very first few pages, so it isn't totally a spoiler, but the Grand Duke, worried about Monza's efficacy and popularity, betrays her and her brother.  The latter is killed and she is almost killed.  Both are thrown from the high tower to certain death, but she miraculously survives, though badly damaged and begins her quest for revenge.

There is a lot of good stuff in Best Served Cold.  The structure is very clever and satisfying.  There were 7 people in the room when she and her brother were betrayed, and she vows to kill all 7 of them.  She puts together a motley band of compatriots, each of which is quite fun and entertaining on their own.  Each chapter takes place in a different city with a single target for the revenge.  So as the book goes on, you learn a bit more about Monza's back story, the politics, history and geography of Styria (the design of the book really helps where you get a bit more of the map on each chapter intro page).

The guy at Dark Carnival told my brother-in-law that this one was better than the First Law trilogy.  I really enjoyed Best Served Cold, but still preffered the trilogy.  Abercrombie is really great at characters and ironic narratives associated with their traits.  You get a lot of those here, but I find they are more satisfying when they are drawn out.  Also, the backstory in the trilogy is subtler and more complex, with a lot of info missing that keeps things mysterious. Here, it is made clear by the end who the big forces are and the conflict is fairly binary, which is less interesting.  A lot of that is a function of the form of a single book, so I am not really complaining.  In many ways, the tightness of the setting and plot may make this a favourite for other readers.  This one is straight-up funnier too, especially with the dialogue of certain characters. It's quite grim and brutal, almost too much by the end, but redeems itself with very clever plotting.  Just a lot of fun.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

16. Route of the Red Gold by Dan J. Marlowe

I picked this up in the Friends of the Oakland Library score last xmas (a haul which continues to give).  I have mixed feelings about Dan J. Marlowe.  He can be incredibly good, almost Richard Stark/Peter Rabe levels of hard efficiency.  Then other times he goes astray and the reader gets bogged down in silly era-bound romantics or excessive details.  Route of the Red Gold is mostly the former.  It's a solid espionage adventure with a great locale and a nice mix of characters.  The story moves forward nicely and it has some cool bits.  The parts that do veer towards Marlowe's indulgent side tend to either be short or actually effective, such as a really cool close look at safecracking.

The story is about Marine captain Roy Weston who gets called by the CIA to investigate a possible commie banker on St. Croix while he is overseeing a large training/research operation there.  They picked Weston because they are down on manpower and coming from a Yale background, he has the social chops to mix it up socially with the colonial elites on the island.  He is also a kick ass marine with tons of specialization in spy stuff, so all in all a pretty good fit.  At first there is a lot of detail into the logistics and administration he has to oversee in his Marine officer dayjob and this bogs down a bit (and feels like military-porn which was maybe the intent).  The story picks up quickly, though, as Weston befriends the initial suspect, a hard-drinking shipping agent.  Things get more complicated when he meets an attractive young Vassar grad staying with her wealthy dyspeptic uncle and alchoholic aunt.  They stay on a way too locked down plantation.

It's quite fun and the ending is surprisingly cold (the way it should be, but not excessively in your face about it).  I also found the protagonist to be more likable than usual in that you really sympathized with his workload (managing companies of marines on elite trainings by the day, then boozing and sexing it up all night while trying to spy) and the stresses it brought him.  Everything that happens in the book does so in lovely weather and the kind of activities one would do in lovely weather like swimming and fishing and sitting on open verandas drinking.  A good book to read in February.

Friday, February 22, 2019

15. Basketball a Love Story by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, Dan Klores

This was a very nice xmas gift from my basketball fan buddy (a smart guy though with some questionable life choices such as being a Utah Jazz fan).  This is like reading candy for me.  It's an oral history of basketball.  There have been several really good oral history articles on specific events, such as the big brawl in Detroit, and it has become a standard form in recent years.  They are very easy to read and quite enjoyable.  This is an entire book of that.

I have really grown to love basketball and to some this title might seem a bit fanciful.  It really rang true to me.  It begins and ends with people just talking about how basketball took a hold of them at a young age and just never let go, all the reasons they love it and how it makes them feel.  My route took a little longer (I played in high school but didn't really feel it; it wasn't until college in the States when I was at a party and some dudes invited me to play late night hoops and the whole "fun" part of it revealed itself to me and then playground ball in the Bay Area, Portland and New York where just so much shit went down) but at the age of 50 I am still playing every week and still desperately and pathetically trying to improve my game. 

So I was hooked by the book, but it really gets much more interesting and impactful.  I knew that racism played a big role in the early days of the NBA but when you read about it from the people involved and here the details of what they went through, it's really upsetting.  Most of those dudes are still alive today and they went through some fucked up shit.  America likes to gloss that over, so I have to use again the word important about this book simply in that it reminds us directly how fucking bad it was.  This is probably the still most infamous incident, though you don't hear about it enough, but Celtics fans broke into Bill Russel's home, vandalized it and shit on his bed.  This is the possibly the best player in the history of the game, all class, who was the reason Boston dominated.  And that was the nadir of the crap he had to endure.  You read this book and it makes you crazy to see this way of thinking coming back to the mainstream, but you also understand it wasn't that far back in time. 

It also goes into the history of the women's game, of which I was quite ignorant.  They too suffered discriminatory nonsense.  Basketball in general for women has improved, as have sports, but the WNBA is still treated with little respect and you still see mainstream journalists and online shitbags talking about their game with a lack of respect.  Women do better to play professionally overseas, which is a gigantic dis to America.  I want to be a WNBA fan (partly to suck my daughter in) but none of the teams are in a city I can attach myself to.  Maybe a college team?

Finally, they go into the gradual entrance of international players to the NBA.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this part the most.  I actually got a bit teary-eyed reading the recollection of Šarūnas Marčiulionis, the Lithuanian bulldog on the Warriors back in the day.  That guy was fucking awesome.  And I learned something and changed my attitude.  I too shared the common prejudice that European players were softer.  What they talk about in this book is how they were softer in the sense that their game focused more on ball movement and team spacing and they did not go hard in the paint.  On the other hand, many of them came from extremely tough environments even from war-torn countries.  And the coaching culture in Europe is way harsher, so they would spend hours in unheated gyms just shooting the same shot over and over again, their coaches would scream at them.  So there are different kinds of toughness.  What they didn't have is the kind of intense individual toughness that you get playing in the street in the United States, but it doesn't necessarily make them less tough.  Still, I do remember taking advantage of much taller euros who would not come into the paint and didn't box out.  That's all changed today.  Everybody is good. I got eurostepped on badly last summer by this Chinese dude in Richmond who not only didn't speak english, he spoke a dialect of Chinese that most of the other Chinese dudes in the gym didn't speak so well.  He looked really country.  But he could ball.

Great book.  Now I have to go work on my footwork.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

14. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Wow, this book kind of blew me away.  I suspected it would be well written and interesting, because I had already read and enjoyed Hughes' Ride the Pink Pony and it certainly started off on competent familiar ground.  A medical intern, Hugh Densmore, is driving from LA to his family's home in Phoenix for the wedding of his niece.  He himself is tight on money (using the family car) but his family is well to do and he was clearly raised educated and with class.  However, there is an edge to everything, a kind of nervousness that I didn't fully consciously register.  I thought it was bourgeois anxiety and then confimed that it was when he stops to pick up a girl hitching a few miles outside of town.  He knows it's a mistake and almost doesn't stop but a sense of responsibility (she's in the middle of nowhere and it is the desert) causes him to pull over at the last minute.  She's super young and lies about visiting an aunt in Phoenix and he vows to get rid of her at the bus station of the next town.

His nervousness made more sense to me and I thought I was in a very similar story to Nicholas Monsarrat's Something to Hide (which has almost the exact same setup; just in England).  I was actually a little disappointed, as I thought I knew where we were going, another exploration of bourgeois white male guilt as he can't shake this teen girl who spells doom to his reputation and class standing.  I was quite wrong about that as things get really interesting both in the story and in the perception of the reader.  I will leave it at that here and say that it is a well-crafted and well-written novel with a rich and convincing portrayal of Phoenix in the 60s as well as an important (hate to use that word) and very relevant reveal of the nastiness at the heart of America.  It's crazy to me that this book doesn't show up more in college curricula or referenced where other important books about 20th century America get mentioned.  I guess it did get chosen as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which is the version I read, so that is something.

SPOILERS BELOW

Though honestly this book is way better when you have no idea going in.  I am glad I didn't even read any of the blurbs at the back, which had enough of a hint that I would have been looking.








































Densmore is African-American.  This is very, very subtly implied once he makes it to Phoenix but becomes explicit when the girl turns up dead, quite likely after having had an illegal abortion.  He is also from an upper class black family, with his father being a succesful doctor, his daughters all sent to good universities.  His race becomes more and more of a factor in the story until by the end, it is (realistically) the biggest issue.  It never feels like a polemic, but it reminds you how powerful and deep racism is in American culture.  It is also fascinating as well to see it portrayed from the perspective of an upper class African-American man, though equally fascinating to parse how accurate/acceptable that is from a white author.  There is lots to unpack here and after finishing this blog I am going to see if I can hunt down any smarter than me people who might have interesting things to say.  Walter Mosely writes an afterword which is okay but doesn't go into it very deeply, beyond sharing his father's own experience of moving to LA in this time. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

13. Dragoman by Eric Williams

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books in Berkeley, based purely on the cover and trade dress alone.  I read a snippet of the blurb and saw it took place in Communist Eastern Europe and thought it might be promising.  What's neat is that there is a stamp on the inside (see the photo below) for the Hotel Perge, which is in Atalya, Turkey, not too far from where all the action in this book takes place.
It's an interesting book.  Based on the short preface paragraph, the author and his wife seemed to have been one of the few western people allowed to drive freely around Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary at the height of Soviet oppression in the mid-50s.  That's basically the set up here, with Roger and Kate Starte driving in their Land-Rover at first in Romania (Rumania as it is spelled in the book) and then into Bulgaria.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because I was assuming they were spies, but nothing kept developing.  They just acted like plucky and semi-clueless British tourists the world around.  It turns out, that's what they are!  The excitement comes when they run into a pro-Communist British archaeologist who was invited to Rumania to work on a book proving that Romanians were of Slavic descent.  When he got there, he saw the concentration camps and the brutality of the existence of men building a canal and realized that he had been wrong.  Now he was being held prisoner.  They decide to help smuggle him out.
It's all very competently written, though for some reason a bit light.  The consequences are very real, but they don't feel heavy.  It's hard to say if it is the failure of the author to deliver the real fear or if is a success and he is portraying the ignorance of the privileged westerners.  It feels like an escape story tacked on to a well done travelogue.  Oh yes, and with some simplistic individual vs. collective freedom philosophizing.
It is interesting to read about the region during that period.  It sounds geographically quite beautiful (and makes sense that it is becoming a tourist destination these days).  It is also a reminder of living in a truly oppressive system.  While the Communist bogeyman of the cold war was in many ways overblown, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a near-totalitarian state.  Furthermore, that was not that far in the past.  Today, we have a common perspective on Russia that seems to have forgotten a lot of that, but you see how their understanding of propaganda and coercion has given Putin's Russia a strategic advantage that outweighs their actual military and economic power.  This book was a good reminder of the history behind that advantage.  Fucking scary stuff having military outposts on every road; police, secret service and informers in every neighbourhood constantly watching and reporting on each other and any newcomers.
Eric Williams was an RAF pilot and a POW in WWII and wrote another book about his actual escape attempts called The Wooden Horse.  I shall add that to the list.



Thursday, February 14, 2019

12. Shall we Tell the President? by Jeffrey Archer

Not hair-raising, nor audacious, nor shocking
My friend and co-founder of the MBU gave this to me that he found in the anarchist brewpub and library place near his place.  They have an interesting paperback shelf and he thought I would appreciate this one (and another that will come later), though didn't necessarily expect me to read it. He also had read about the author having a fairly fetid personal history.  I needed something easy in these February doldrums so jumped right on it.

I did not have high expectations.  In some ways, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  It was relatively low-key in the politics (centrist for the time, which is a bit to the left of today's mainstream U.S. politics) compared to nonsense like State of Fear and basically just wanted to tell its story.  On the other hand, it is really generic and honestly not very thrilling at all.  It's an alternate future, where Ted Kennedy becomes president after Carter.  A young FBI agent (who actually hopes to return to academics) takes the call and gets wrapped up in a conspiracy to assassinate the president.  There is a lot of mild American politics/Kennedy assassination fan theory that must have helped make this book successful (as it seems based on the cover).  The conspiracy is pretty lame, nobody does anything cool and the characters are all kind of insipid and dull.  I am going to look up Jeffrey Archer's past now and I hope that is more interesting than what he wrote here.

I wonder if I would have liked it better had it this lovely earlier cover:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

11. Chanur's Venture by C.J. Cherryh

I feel quite bad about the way I treated this book.  The top of the front cover ripped off a couple of days in.  I found it and the next book together at Moe's and I suspect the previous owner had read them both together as they are the same publisher and edition.  Although the pages were hard to keep open and the interiors quite fresh.
The story here is almost a direct continuation from The Pride of Chanur.  Captain Pyanfar is back with her crew trying to work as normally as before the whole flair-up with the Kid when once again the human Tully is dumped in her lap.  It's hard to tell what is going on but the stakes are higher as it appears the humans are sending a war fleet.
I found this book a bit hard to get through.  It really isn't the book's fault, though.  The situation is complex and the various species are probably the closest to truly different than I have ever read in a sci-fi book.  The situation is stressful and the captain responds to it in a very realistic way.  These believable elements manifest themselves in a way, however, that distanced me from the story.  The various species do not understand each other well and in several cases, not at all.  It makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on.  Part of this is purposeful as Pyanfar is also in the dark about a lot of the big political machinations going on around her.  But that level of intrigued coupled with difficulty of understanding what characters are saying (and them not understanding each other), I wasn't really clear or connected with what was going on.
The basic action is clear enough to follow and there is a clear objective, to protect the human and keep the ship alive, so the pages do turn. It's the back story and the politics which are driving the action that I am not clear about.
This book is also psychologically realistic, but this too turned me off.  These adventurous space situations where the stakes are real (such as the status of your family, your life, the lives of your crew and loved ones, etc.) would actually be extremely stressful and mostly very unpleasant.  You get that feeling in this book.  The thing is, those are mostly feelings I am trying to avoid when I read science fiction.
This really is only half the book, basically split in two to sell more copies I suspect.  It ends just as things get going.  I'll crank through the last one, but I suspect that while I'll enjoy the plight of the ship, I'll be unsatisfied with the reveal of the stellar space politics.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

10. Maneater by Ted Willis

What a find!  Man, 2019 has started out with a bang for my bookhunting.  I found the pulp haul at The Bookmark in Oakland right after New Year's.  I stumbled on this book at the free shelf on St-Viateur.  Man-Eater checks off so many of my reading preferences: 70s British manly adventure, beautiful Pan paperback, animals fighting for freedom against civilization and I've never heard of it or the author before!

The story starts off immediately, with an unnamed man driving a truck off the road into the moors, where he releases two lifelong circus tigers from their cages.  You don't know why except hints that he was as caged by their existence as they were by man's.  Then the fun starts.  An older man and a younger woman are parked near the forest for some illicit nooky.  When he goes out to take a piss, he doesn't come back and she freaks out and drives away.

The story then opens up into a wider investigation and exploration into the small villages in the county and how they are impacted by the escaped tigers.  We also go back to the tigers every few chapters, to see their perspective and how they are getting on in their new found freedom.  There sort of two main protagonists. The first is the competent young Chief-Inspector Charles Gosford, who leads the investigation.  The second is David Birk, hunter and assassin on mental leave from his day job at the agency.  He's just chilling in his little hamlet off the beaten path next to the moors, tending his garden, taking tea when he hears the unmistakable call of the tigers.  He was raised in India with a famous hunting father and, though it is almost unbelievable, he knows exactly what he hears.

This is what I particularly love about these books.  The British are so good at understated competence.  There is always a great game recognizes game moments in the best British adventure books.  Here is one of the lieutenants describing Birk to his chief after Birk comes to the station to warn them that somehow there are tigers on the moors:
"Doesn't look like a crank either, sir.  On the short side, actually, but rugged, nose a bit squashed as if it had been broken some time.  Very sharp, bright blue eyes—first thing you notice about him almost.  Knocked around a bit, I'd say.  Odd manner, too.  Sort of detached, as though he was telling all this as a favour, wanted nothing to do with it himself."
And then later when Gosford first meets him:
He could see what Miller meant about this man's detachment; there was a curious air of completeness about him, as of a man able to stand alone, without the need of social crutches on which other men prop up their lives.  There was a calmness there too—no, thought Gosford, correcting himself—it was a sort of stillness, a poised, brooding stillness, like the moor, as if he were wating, listening...
I love the use of "knocked about a bit" to mean super bad ass man-eating tiger hunter and world-weary elite sniper for dying empire still trying to punch above its weight in the world.  And of course, the stillness.  This is the impression I try (with minimal success, I suspect) to impart when going on job interviews or meetings with vendors.

The first half of the book is fantastic, capturing the district and a diverse range of characters and moments as the fear (and attacks) of two tigers on the region creates chaos.  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to its potential as many of the storylines are abandoned or resolved too presumptorily and everything wraps up way too quickly given the scope of the chaos.  One is left slightly unsatisfied. It kind of feels like it should have been another hundred pages longer.  I can only speculate.  Still, a really enjoyable read and definitely a prized keeper for the shelf.  I will be looking for Ted Willis' other books.


9. Queenpin by Megan Abbot

This was an interesting (and good read.  It's noir, pulp, hard-boiled, etc. but a modern simulacrum.  It's like somebody perfectly rebuilt an old car but there were some modern parts hiding under the hood.  It's tight, tough and entertaining.  If it had come in fake dressing with dates from the late 60s I might have thought it was real, though little hints would have nagged at me.  It's the story of  a young, smart, working-class girl who does the books for a cheap bar.  She gets noticed by an older, glamourous woman who works for the mob, Gloria Denton.  Denton takes her under her wing and mentors her to be her sidekick.  This is the kind of book that was sort of predictable, or at least you weren't worried so much about where the narrative led as you knew right from the beginning it was ultimately going to be a power struggle between the girl and her mentor.  So it is safe to say that the girl sort of fucks up or sort of deliberately does what she wants by hooking up with a low-life, charming hopeless gambler.  Shit goes wrong in a deliciously brutal way.

Smarter people than me will be able to do a better analysis of this book.  On the one hand, you can at the very least, credit Abbot for wrtiing a near diamond perfect pulp book.  However, I suspect there is also a lot deeper shit going on here with the role reversals and how she plays with the power dynamics between the two women and the men in the world.   Or perhaps it can be criticized for being too much of something the male gaze would want?  I don't know, will go read up and will also keep her earlier pulp works in mind.  She has also gone on to a successful career writing "literary" fiction, some of which look promising and interesting as well.

Monday, January 28, 2019

8. The Innocent Mrs. Duff by Elizabeth Sanxsay Holding

I found this at the Grande Bibliothèque here.  It's actually a different double reprint of two of Holding's books (back-to-back so you flip the book over to read the second book).  The Innocent Mrs. Duff is from 1947, which would be a bit later in her career (though she wrote 4 books after it before dying in 1955).  I have to say that either I didn't get this book or that it is not one of her better efforts.  It did help me to identify some recurring themes in her work.

The story is about Jacob Duff, a wealthy New Yorker out in the suburbs.  His wife had died and he recently remarried a younger model.  They have been married for a year when the book starts and he is already clearly exasperated by her.  His distaste is all centered around class, somehow she can't do anything right, though she seems honestly to be making an effort.  He also is struggling with alchoholism, though in total denial about it.  As the book goes on, you realize he is an absolute drunk and that his life is spiralling out of control.

However, right from the beginning, I couldn't get a handle on his character.  His alcoholism accelerates so quickly.  I couldn't tell if it was him being an unreliable narrator or just that was the way Holding thought alcoholism works (which doesn't seem likely as the rest of portrayal is quite accurate).  It threw me.  Furthermore, the guy is just completely stupid, almost addled to the point where you wonder if he is being drugged by someone else.  Basically, he just gets more and more confused and paranoid and ruins his life.  There is some hinting at a mystery but there really isn't one in the end.  The narrative does careen forward and is entertaining and almost funny.  At one point he goes to the office to try and type up a fake ransom letter.  The secretary wants to do it for him but he can't let her see what he is typing.  He sits at the typewriter and keeps screwing it up and then stuffing the erroneous pages in his pocket, all the while the secretary is standing there waiting for her typewriter.

An odd story, kind of fun, but ultimately left me a bit puzzled as to what story she was trying to tell.  The late, great Ed Gorman writes a much more positive (and better) review that does make me realize this book is very well regarded by those whose opinions on these things count (Raymond Chandler said it was the best book about alcoholism).  He paticularily appreciated the portrayal from the drunk's perspective and the constant sense of dread that forces you to turn the pages.  I can attest that these things are very good in the book.  I just felt unsure of the foundation I was on from the beginning.

Friday, January 25, 2019

7. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

She calls it a novella, but really it is a short story so I feel a bit cheap considering this as a single book.  I did purchase it new and separately, so economically it is quite definitely a book and I'll take that.  Anyways, I have been wanting to read a book by Okorafor for a while now. I thought Binti was the one you are supposed to read but I think I probably should have started with a real novel such as Who Fears Death.  She writes in a lot of different forms with novellas and sort-of series and some books for young adults, so it is difficult to find a clear entry point.

The story is about a gifted young girl who comes from a tradtional desert people and is running away off-planet to go to university, the first of her people to do so and against her family and community's wishes.  En route, the ship is attacked by Meduse and she by the luck (or perhaps her special technological skills) of a piece of ancient tech that she found and keeps as a good luck charm, she is spared.

I am reluctant to be overly critical as this is really a short book.  The protagonist is really cool, as is the setting.  It's written directly and enjoyably.  I gobbled it up.  It just felt a bit thin for me (again, the size so not a real criticism).  I feel that this could easily be a young adult novel (and perhaps that is a large part of its audience).  The resolution is very quick and things work out way too well (given humans), but again this is probably a function of the form of the story.

More disappointing, is that the progressive, racial themes were basically analogous to our own social issues, almost simplistically so.  It is like a 101 of post-colonial tropes.  The girl comes from a minority, dark-skinned tribe that wash, dress and decorate themselves very differently than the light-skinned majority on her planet.  The conflict that triggers the attack is because of a body part stolen for research and kept in a university museum.  I suspect this book informed some of the writing in Black Panther. 

I like these themes and recognize that their absence in sci-fi and fantasy are not an absence but rather due to the dominance of the white male viewpoint.  It's just that I wished they had been incorporated here in a way that didn't keep reminding me of the real world.  That being said, the final part of the book, where the heroine is transformed physically and makes a connection with the meduse suggests the setting will get more complex and take me to a new place without sacrificing the impact of those real-world issues on the narrative.  I do have the next one, so that should be interesting.

Despite my nitpicking, a good start.  I just want to go deeper.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

6. The Wild Party by John McPartland

Interesting, I just realized I read two books in a row with "Wild" in the title.  I have mixed feelings about The Wild Party and those feelings went up and down as I read the book.  It's jazz or trying to be jazz. Sometimes it succeeds and you feel the rhythm of the writing and the situation.  At other times, it becomes pretentious, annoying and trapped in its time.  I, feel, on balance that the ending unfortunately swung it just a bit into the latter, with a failed attempt at making some big theme about one of the characters instead of justing ending the narrative.

The set-up is great.  You start in a dingy jazz bar in LA and immediately get to know 4 pretty low characters.  Big Tom the brutal ex-football player and the leader of the gang.  Gage, the psychopathic knife-wielder, Kicks the loser pianist and Honey the wasted college drop-out.  They are broke, futureless and looking for money and trouble on a Saturday night.  Each has their own motivations and Tom is the uncontested alpha male of the group.  Right away, the dialogue and the inner thoughts are all hep jazz lingo.  I have always found this particular period of American culture to be profoundly annoying and it is on full blast here: weird pseudo-poetic incomplete sentences, lots of pre-60s labelling of various social roles and so on.  Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be McPartland's actual narrative voice most of the time and much of the objective voice it is straightforward and clear. 

They hatch a plan to send Gage, who is also good at looking and acting above his class, to a fancy motel to see if he can pick up a mark.  He falls upon this perfect couple, the navy pilot on leave and his debutante fiancé who is into jazz (or "progressive" as they call it which I guess is the more freeform jazz of the time) and a slight yearning for excitement.  They get led out to this dingy bar where shit gets scary quickly. 

The trap and tension is very well put together.  It is hard to blame the victims here, beyond their mistake of going out with Gage to the bar in the first place.  Every step they take gets them closer to a terrible situation but the gang is shifty and savvy enough that there are no obvious outs for them.  There is a ton of psychosexual interaction.  Tom is portrayed as a kind of ur-man that is so sexually potent and masculine that he just takes women whenever he wants and women fear him and yet realize that he may offer them some transcendant manliness that speaks to them on some primal level.  This is probably all nonsense, but is deeply rooted even today in our gender relationships and so is impactful in the book. 

I generally avoid narratives where rape or the threat of rape is a central theme and I was hesitant to pick this book up.  It was just too beautiful of a paperback to resist.  It is pretty nasty in the threats and the thinking and writing behind them.  That theme is a big part of the story but it is more about these lost lives and the desperation of all the people who are caught up in the extreme, unfettered aggression of Big Tom's insane masculinity.  In some ways, he reminds me a lot of the character of McQuade from The Spiked Heel (written around the same time).  This conflict between civilized and animal masculinity may reflect some of the tensions in post-WWII society with GIs trying to live the straight life.  Where the book over-reached was in the psychological justification for the various characters' behavours.  It is based on simplistic and overblown ideas relevant at the time.  This was especially true with Honey, who was like 20 and supposedly had been a popular cheerleader type girl until she encountered jazz and men and pot and then somehow becomes a complete wastoid with zero confidence or future.

At other times, though, this book is tense and hard as fuck, quite scary and short.  So a good read, just undermined slightly by the need to try and be deep and jazz.

I am reminded of this classic comedy moment:

 




Tuesday, January 22, 2019

5. The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

I noticed this sitting on one of the many piles hiding the front counter at Dark Carnival while having my big post-xmas book haul being rung up.  On a whim, I threw it on the pile.  I had initially thought my nephew might enjoy it, but he found enough books of his own and I ended up keeping it for myself.  It's a nice 80s paperback that I banged up too much.  I really don't like these designs, but age and rarity have made it much more appealing to me and I regret somewhat my rough handling, but it had to be read.

This is Kim Stanley Robinson's first published novel.  I don't know if this was the first place it was published, but it is part of a revival of the Ace Science Fiction Specials with an introduction by Terry Carr.  He talks more about the science fiction genre in the early '80s than the book itself, complaining about the popularity of generic sci-fi using rehashed plots.  It doesn't go into any depth, but is nonetheless an interesting glimpse into the ongoing tension between art and commerce in the genre at that time.

The Wild Shore is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel, and has many of the themes and situations that I enjoy in the genre. It takes place in southern California 60 or so years after a major nuclear attack reduced America to rubble and the remaining Americans to a hardscrabble frontier existence.  The community of Onofre works hard at fishing, farming and surviving after having built up a small foundation of civilization.  They also trade with neighbouring communities, including the gypsy-like scavengers, who choose to survive by living off the ruins.  There is a twist, though, we learn about a third of the way in.  America was actually the loser in the war and the rest of the world may be going on in its modern way, embargoing and quarantining the United States.  The Japanese control Catalina and patrol the coast, sending misilles from satellites anytime Americans build up too much infrastructure.  Japanese adventure tourists may be smuggled on shore and hosted by the scavengers.  This the young man Henry learns when he meets two travellers from the much larger San Diego to the south, travellers who also tell of the resistance.

It's a cool concept and it gets explored in the book, though not thoroughly.  The Wild Shore is more about a young man faced with difficult choices and making some bad ones and about the community around him and how it works together and deals with these changes.  Normally, I would prefer to stick with the setting and adventure stuff, but everything seems very realistic here and I got caught up in it.  Likewise, Robinson's style can be too straightforward and at first there seemed to be a lot of telling but as the novel progresses, you realize there are layers to the narrative.  It is also about writing itself, especially at the end.  I found some very inspiring passages that really captured the pain and magic of trying to write.

There are two other books that follow this one, though I felt that this one was wrapped up very nicely.  I will keep an eye out for them, but don't feel the need to read them to find out anything more that happened.  It might even spoil some of the magic of this book.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4. The Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse by Hugh Trevor-Roper

My friend lent me this book with a strong recommendation.  We both got our bachelor's in history but he kept with it more than I and said this one was really good.  He was not wrong.  It was also nice to be reminded of how funny and rich history is, both the content itself, but also all the crazy back and forth between historians.  I am glad I never went into it professionally as it can be painfully petty and vicious, but from afar it is quite entertaining.

The Hermit of Peking is a really interesting book because the story itself is interesting, but perhaps even more so it is the way that Trevor-Roper structures it that really captivates the reader.  There is a prologue where he explains how he knew of Backhouse but hadn't really thought much beyond his generally understood reputation as an eccentric and scholar living through the most disruptive times in China.  A Swiss diplomat contacted him saying he had an interesting manuscript by Backhouse but one that was quite offensive and he wasn't sure what to do with it.  They meet at an airpot where the manuscript is handed over.  It turns out to be Backhouse's biography but basically x-rated (at least for the 1970s).  This spurs Trevor-Roper to really dig into Backhouse's life. As we go through his research and archival detective work, we learn more and more about Backhouse's life and work.  Each chapter peels away another layer of the onion and things that seemed true and straightforward in early parts get exposed in an entirely different way as you learn more and more.

I won't go into the actual story, as Trevor-Roper does the job extremely well and the fun is in the reading.  To give you some tantalizing hints, Backhouse was seen as a historian and connected diplomat to the Chinese court.  He donated extremely valuable documents to a library in Oxford.  He also lied and forged and pulled several long cons all of which ultimately failed.  Yet he is not outwardly evil, but rather sad and lost (though ultimately a survivor).  Trevor-Roper does an amazing job.  I have two criticisms of his analysis.  Both are probably ones that I am only able to make because of the time period I am in.  First, there is a subtle but nevertheless omnipresent revulsion against sexuality and particularly homosexuality.  It's not hardcore, but rather the slight contempt of the supposedly objective protestant.  Trevor-Roper talks a lot about what a great and creative storyteller Backhouse is, but dismisses his autobiography as basically pornography, with terms like "revolting" to describe the explicit text.  Second, there is zero critique in this book of colonialism.  I mean ultimately, Backhouse could have only pulled off the stuff he did because of colonialism.  It is unstated, but this book really reminds you that the British presence (and the other foreign nations) in China was basically all criminal (and that is putting it mildly).  They destabilized a polity in order to rob it blind and that went on at the governmental level and at the individual level.  For decades, other Europeans bought into Backhouse's lies, partly because he was so good at it, but also because of racism.  They were all too quick to assign any failure or contradictions on Backhouse's part to wily Chinese machinations.  I guess I benefit from decades of post-colonial theory to be able to see those failings so acutely (this book was written in the 1970s).  He isn't excusing of the behaviour of the colonial powers, but also kind of glosses over it all. 

Great book, though.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

3. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes, I am learning, was one of several popular and succesful female mystery writers from the middle of the 20th century.  It is extremely difficult to find her books today, though there are a few reprints and my library had a volume of three of her books.  Even though my on-deck shelf is full, I took it out out of fear they would get rid of it soon if it showed little activity (the english fiction shelves have limited space).  Now that I finished Ride the Pink Horse, I will return it and take it out again for each subsequent novel in the volume.  I wish I could do it on somebody else's library card.

Ride the Pink Horse takes place, I believe in Santa Fe.  It's some American city close to the border of Mexico on the weekend of a big festival called the Fiesta.  Sailor has arrived on the bus from Chicago in a hunt for The Sen, the corrupt politician/syndicate boss that plucked him out of the south side and trained him to be a smooth gangster.  As Sailor struggles to find a room (he had no idea about Fiesta), we slowly learn of the background of his beef with the Sen.  There is also a high-ranking homicide detective in town (he got a room), friendly with Sailor because he knew him also from the old neighbourhood.  The three of them circle a narrative around the murder of the Sen's wife, but really the story is about Sailor, who he is and what choices he has made and will make.

This is very much existentialist noir.  It is almost surreal, with the Mexicans and Indians representing other worlds, other histories and the Fiesta making all the scenes crowded and frenetic.  Sailor befriends the fat old man who cranks the merry-go-round the kids love to ride, who himself has had a violent path but now seems perfectly content to make the fun ride for the kids and sleep in the park.  These characters and others force Sailor to confront who he is and the journey and what holds you to the book is to see what he learns.

I tend to not go for the symbolic and prefer a concrete mystery (and there is one here).  In this case, the writing and the very real-seeming background of Sailor were strong and compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  This is literature folks and there is absolutely no reason on that merit alone that this book should not be seeing endless reprints as we see today for Chandler, Hammett, etc.  It's a shame.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

2. The Shadow of Suspicion by Emilie Loring

The cutoff top is the book, not my photo
Part of the really great pulp haul from the Bookmark in Oakland, this was really not a very good read.  The premise is cool and it had some potential, but was ultimately undone by obvious plotting, inconsistency and a pretty insipid and uninspiring female protagonist.  It's about a young woman who goes to Maine to support her widowed aunt who must stay in her lumber camp to ensure they cut down enough wood to pay off the debts her husband incurred.  There is trouble at the camp, unrest among the men and other more mysterious whisperings.  The previous manager who was well-liked was killed in a hunting accident (this is the first of the bad plotting: he was shot in the head and it was dismissed as an accident even though they never discovered who did it).

So that all sounds good, but because this is 1955 there has to be some steely-eyed, firm-jawed dude who is actually going to do all the investigation and commanding and stuff.  His character also had potential, a Korean vet who had been imprisoned and now was on the hunt for a commie traitor he had discovered while being released.  He accidently discovers that the traitor may well be at the lumber camp. He is supposed to be this totally awesome dude "whose manners are invariably charming" except when he spazzes out and accuses the heroine of having fallen in love with the dude who drove her up to the camp.  That's like 20 pages in!  I am familiar with the sexual conventions of books of this period, but there is a subtlety even within those restrictions. This book was just weird, with her immediately falling in love with this guy and he obviously in love with her and yet not consummating for no reason other than stilted conversations.  His eyes are always flashing and her cheeks blushing. It's just badly constructed and leaves the reader with zero emotional romantic feelings about them.

I read up on Emilie Loring and she was really prolific.  She also died in 1951 and her family kept publishing under her name using a ghost writer and scraps of her remaining writing.  They did not do a very thorough job here.

Most interestingly, check out this list of other books at the back. This is like an excellent survey of the very specific nurse/female doctor romance/thriller sub-genre from the mid-50s.  You can just feel the tension between the conflicting cultures of traditional female domesticity competing with the dawn of the professional woman ("Has a dedicated nurse the same right to happiness as other women?" "Her ideal of nursing conflicted with her fiancé's ideas of the duties of a wife", "Dr. Gail Benton's rise in the medical profession is threatened by the imperious demands of her woman's heart")





Monday, January 07, 2019

1. Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

I have been looking for a book by Lionel Davidson for quite a while now.  I did not note it down, but I believe that I heard his name the first time via Kenneth Hite (gaming luminary and a genre fiction reader of impeccable taste) in the fantastic Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff podcast.  I finally stumbled upon Kolymsky Heights at Moe's. I see now that this was his last book and the first one he had published in over 16 years, so I clearly still have some searching to do.

I sort of wished I was reading this in the summer, as it takes place mostly in Siberia during winter and you really do feel the insane cold there.  I read it in Berkeley and Montreal in the winter and I still think it helped, as it made me not feel so bad about it being -7 and somewhat windy here.  I am not actually sure it is truly possible to do a lot of the things that happened in the book when it is in the -30s and -40s (like could you really even tighten bolts in that temperature?  Spend the night, even in a super awesome sleeping bag?  Wouldn't you just die?).

The premise of the story is a bit preposterous, even slightly science-fiction.  In a hyper top secret chemical laboratory in Siberia, an old scientist discovers a perfectly frozen cavewoman.  Because of the security levels, he has committed to spend the rest of his life there (as have all the staff, except the native Chukchis who help with some external work because the authorities know they will only return to their reindeer herds).  He manages to sneak out a message to an old colleague that he has important scientific info to share and that he has a way of getting that info out.  He just needs someone to come to him. This someone is Dr. John Porter, academic, eccentric and (as we learn) total badass First Nations dude from northern Manitoba.  Because he is indigenous to Northern Canada as well as being a languages expert, he is the only person who can possibly sneak into the region and somehow access the top secret base.  It also turns out that this guy is super skilled at all kinds of things.  He can fight, he can act, he knows a wide range of industrial manual labour skills (can load merchant ships, drive winter trucks, fix vehicles).  It's all very understated and the details of his actual background are never revealed (he says once he is used to living rough).

What makes the book work are the subtle and complex details of all the spy stuff. How he gets his various identities, how he gets into (and around once there) the region, are interesting, well thought out and really fun to read about.  The location itself is really cool.  I really knew next to nothing about Siberia and here you get a nice look at the industrial and economic engines that drive it, some of the history (how much of it was settled by ex-prisoners of Stalin's camps) and the insane geography and cold.  In the summer, you have to fly everywhere because it's all mushy permafrost.  It is only until winter that the trucks start rolling, across frozen river beds often!  Finally, there are several groups of indigenous people who are integrated into the world there and Davidson portrays the relationship between the Russian state and them in an interesting way.  I don't know how much of it is true or accurate but as a broad portrayal, it certainly made me interested.

I suspect he has better books in him, but this was entertaining and innovative.  Lionel Davidson stays on the hunt list.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

2018 Year-end Wrap-up and Berkeley book haul

Here is what is awaiting me for 2019

Here is what I wrote for my 2018 objectives in my 2017 wrap-up post:  "My fundamental goal is to read 50 books in 2018.  My secondary goal is to try and get past that to whittle away at my deficit.  We shall see!"

I am very glad to be able to write that I did indeed achieve both goals.  I read 57 books in 2018 and have reduced my deficit  down to 63 (that is how many books I am behind to achieve an annual average of 50 books a year).  Though I am crowing now, things did not look so rosy halfway through 2018.  My reading was way down.  I only read a single book in February (probably due to Assassin's Creed: Origins). Surprisingly, I also only read a single book in each June and July.  Once again, it was my August vacation to Vancouver that kicked off the reading.  And then I just started surging.  My new job is going great (I used to be in charge of everything now I am responsible for three things and sharing that responsibility).  My daughter is in school and logistically that is going really well.  Google+ is shutting down and I pulled myself away from that and Twitter big time in the second half of the year.  I basically fell in love with reading again this fall.  I just really got into going through the books on my on-deck shelf and seeing that size reduce to the point that I had to actually find some books to add to it near the end.  Extremely satisfying!  I used to have to hem and haw over whether I should get a book.  Now I go to a bookstore and need to find something. This allowed me to go hogwild in my book buying over the holidays and now my on-deck shelf is full of interesting books I really am excited to read.

Again, my reading went across a wide swath of genres and periods, though mainly anchored by my interest in crime fiction from the 20th century.  I read 15 books by female authors, up from 2018, but still showing a preponderance of white males. I learned a few things: Anthony Trollope is great but not as perfect as I first found him, my tepid opinion of Alistair Maclean did not change after reading two of his books, and my random old paperback purchases were often though not always more enjoyable than I think they will be in the actual reading.  15 of the books I read in 2018 were old paperbacks by authors completely unknown to me, that I found intriguing.  More than half of them were really quite good and only one mediocre (Takeover Bid, which had the coolest cover).

There were no major highlights for me this year, but I have to recognize Daniel Suarez for the contemporary techno-action fun he delivered for me in three books.  I also got deeply sucked in to God Is an Englishman, so much so that I almost wished I had ended the year on it. I would love to find another book by Rosemary Kutalik or even find out more about her.  I hate even to mention it here, but a major lowlight was the piece of shit State of Fear by Michael Crichton.  Fuck that guy.

I was going to say that it was a rocking year of music but that isn't totally accurate, as it was really more like a rocking half-year.  I hope in 2019 to be a bit more steady, consistently reading every month so that I don't have to rush at the end of the year if I really do pick up momentum.  My objectives in 2019 will continue to be to read at least 50 books, to cut into my overall deficit and a new addition, to read at least 3 books a month.

Fortunately, I have a refilled on-deck shelf, with only a couple books that weren't added this december in the very rich book haul I added over the holidays.  Check them out:

Top 3 are from Moe's, bottom 3 from Half-Price Books:

Bookmark Bookstore (run by Friends of the Oakland Public Library):  A Peter Rabe, a Mary Stewart and two Parker paperbacks!  I am joining up as a FOPL.


 And finally the inestimable Dark Carnival: