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.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

26. Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

I found this first edition hardcover in one of those little neighbourhood book exchange.  I love John D. MacDonald but I don't seek his books out because they are so readily available and I like to keep them as fallbacks for when reading choices are limited.  I am also wary of the later Travis McGee books.  McGee is a philosopher and MacDonald does a lot of social observation and commentary via McGee's voice.  His perpetual bachelorhood seems forced by 1982 and you get a feeling that John D. himself senses he is a bit left behind.

Cinnamon Skin starts off convoluted, with a lot of back story referring to a previous book where his friend Mayer had his spirit broken by a psychopath, plus another doomed McGee love affair.  There are a lot of characters and narratives in the first few pages and I was slightly offput.  But once Mayer's niece and  new husband get blown up on his boat with a not very credible Chilean extremist group claiming responsibility, things get going.  You know the explosion isn't what it seems and the unraveling (and investigating) of what really happened is quite cool.  McGee and Mayer travel to weird little corners of poor white America and Mexico and get involved in a bunch of mini-adventures.  The ending is a bit of a letdown as the rich psychological profile of the target of their investigation that MacDonald developos so nicely is not fully exploited in the climax and I felt a bit of a letdown. 


We learn quite early that the husband wasn't actually on the boat, and as they dig into his past, they learn so little about him that he becomes their target.  In their hunt for him, it is slowly revealed that he has been serially falling in love with woman under a different identity each time, killing them and absconding with their money.  His psychosis was caused by a sex-ravenous Mexican-Italian stepmom who seduced him. His dad caught them, killed her and either shot himself or the son shot him.  McGee meets with an old psychologist friend, who explains how that kind of trauma could turn someone into a serial killer (he later gets a verbal agreement with her for some friends with benefits).  The straight-facedness of this very implausible explanation was a bit much.  It looks Horny Stepmoms as a theme has been around long before PornHub made it a trending topic,

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

25. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

I feel a bit cheap counting these Binti books separately.  They really should be read in a single volume.  I think there is a single volume version out there and I believe Okorafor wrote them separately, but the most popular version are these slim volumes that you could read in a day. 

As the title states, Binti returns home after a year at space university.  She has found her way there academically, if not socially,  after her initial struggles and triumphs.  The trip home poses greater challenges and risks.  She brings Okwu with her, the meduse (a jellyfish like race) that contributed to the massacre of everyone but Binti on the ship to Oomza University.  You learn that there had been a war between the white earthlings and the meduse and this was the first time one had come to earth in peace.  Binti is sort of a galactic celebrity because of her survival and plea for peace with the meduse, but her family is very traditional and her leaving has created a lot of resentment.  Things are complicated.

A lot goes on in this book and at the beginning the style and pacing was a bit too declaratory and fast for me, but I think that is what the young adults enjoy.  It gets much deeper as you learn more about her family and background culture and quite intense as she heads out into darker and more mysterious territory in the deserts outside her home and ends in a cliffhanger.

Looking forward to the third and final book in the series.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

24. The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but it was enough that I bought it new from Dark Carnival.  As always, reading a translated version of a french author always leaves me with a little protestant guilt.  I also suspect that some of the phrasing that seemed a bit awkward here would probably be more easily accepted in french.  His books are short so I may just make that one of my challenges, to find a nice used version of one of his untranslated novels and see how hard it is for me to read in la langue de Molière.

I guess Manchette has the reputation of reviving or at least revisiting the genre of pulp fiction and he is often compared to the french new wave filmmakers, though he came a bit later.  The Prone Gunman read pretty much like it could have been from the 50s or 60s.  Only some references to music (a Brian Ferry song) really reminded me that it wasn't the 60s.  He goes into some detail about clothes and interior decor and these all felt more 60s than 80s, but I think that is because the point he was making about the garish taste of working class people with money.  Also, some gun detail that I suspect was not anachronistic. Otherwise, it kind of felt similar to Queenpin, an ersatz pulp.

The other thing that reinforced that was the way Manchette describes the protagonist.  He never actually feels any emotions.  Only strange expressions on his face suggest to the reader that he might be having emotions.  It's very odd and I couldn't tell if this would go over better in translation or if this is a deliberate writing technique to somehow comment on the genre.

Here is the plot:  a professional killer decides he wants out.  Turns out he always had a plan to work for 10 years, go back to his small town and marry high high school sweetheart.  The gang wants him to do one last job and start making his life hell.  It gets quite nasty and I wasn't totally feeling it at first.  It gets more interesting when we learn about his backstory and he makes his play against the gang.  The ending is weird, though.

Not a bad book, but I need to read more of his work or somebody else's deeper understanding than mine to properly appreciate it, I suspect.

Friday, March 29, 2019

23. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Image stolen from much better review here.
This is the third and final book in Mary Stewart's trilogy series about Merlin and King Arthur and it took me a long time to get to it.  I held off because I've been trying to find the Coronet version with the same design as the first two I already have.  I finally gave in and just snagged this at Moe's.  I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because I forgot a lot of the first two and had also read the The Once and Future King books in between, so was getting that mixed up with Stewart's interpreration when trying to remember back.

It wasn't a huge deal as The Last Enchantment stands on its own.  This is the chronology that lines up most closely with the Knights of the Round that we know in popular culture and medieval history.  Arthur pulls the sword at the end of the second book and here we have his victories, his consolidation of power in England, Camelot and the betrayal of Guinevere and all that.  Mary Stewart adds and changes a ton from the original source material (not that I know it well; she has a handy afterward where she lays out all the differences).

The Last Enchantment is all about Merlin.  He was the narrator in the first two but the story felt less about him than Arthur and the goings on around him.  Here, though Merlin remains his extremely humble self, and even loses much of his power, it is really his story we are reading here.  He travels all over England, meets cool characters, does some good spying, continues to guide Arthur while encouraging his kingly autonomy, falls in love, gets buried alive, gets to have a brief, wonderful retirement in an ideal British cottage and so on.  It's all very satisfying and quite moving at times.  You get the feeling that Stewart really wanted some nice stuff to happen to Merlin and though there are challenges, she really gives it to him.  He's just a great dude in this book.

I've read quite a few of her other gothic thriller novels and it is really something to compare them.  I don't have enough material, nor enough of an understanding of the gothic genre yet to really understand her work.  What stands out to me is how different the characters behave and think in the Merlin books than they do in the thrillers.  My current belief is that Stewart is a really good writer and she has freedoms with male characters that she did not with female ones.  Merlin is thoughtful, even worrisome and quite romantic, yet he never seems to behave or think in the excessively doubting and anxious way her female characters act and think.  Likewise, there are some serious great ass-kicking moments, both in real physical action but also in psychological and social conflicts.  Stewart is very British and she is up there among the best thriller writers in knowing how to subtly display superiority or high skill in really exciting ways.  I often found this lacking in her gothic thrillers, where the heroines would pull back or be passive while the male secondary character did something bold (though often not subtly).  She clearly has the writing skill.  Was it because these books came later or because the protagonist is male? Again, very unformed and possibly erroneous thoughts but something to keep an eye on as I continue reading her books.

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.


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.