Wednesday, March 25, 2020

24. The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Still tough going with the reading as my twitter addiction flares unabated and we go into our second week of Coronavirus lockdown, everybody's attention on the ticking time bomb that is the U.S. right now and wondering how bad the explosion will be.  I did power through the last third of this book, so it caught my distracted attention that much.  It's a nice little thriller with a great antagonist, though somewhat lessened for me as it had two very similar themes as the first Charlotte Armstrong book I read.

Amanda is a young, attractive art student who learns that as a newborn, she was temporarily given to the wrong parents.  Morover, the wrong father is a well-known artist, Tobias Garrison who lives not far from her in L.A. and is exhibiting.  She boldly introduces herself, gets invited to their house where she meets his handsome, distant son, Thone (with whom she was mistaken in the first hours of her life) and his mousy wife, Ione. Ione, it turns out, is not Thone's mother, but a first and third wife.  Ione's mother, Belle, was Tobias second wife and the subject of his most famous painting.  She died in a horrible accident one night, accidently trapped in the garage with the car running where she was poisoned by the carbon monoxide.

We learn quite early by Armstrong switching to Ione's viewpoint that Ione is a complete psychopath, who is obsessed with removing all traces of Belle from her and Tobias' life, including Belle's son Thone.  She is actively plotting to poison hin with some hot chocolate when Amanda shows up, spoiling it and seeing Ione knock over the thermos of poisoned chocolate deliberately.  It is somewhat contrived, as she helps to mop it up and then swaps the handkerchief so she can take the stained one to her boyfriend the chemist.

Anyways, I gave a lot of the plot away, because it all sets up in the opening chapters (which I appreciated).  The rest of the story is Amanda trying to convince Thone that he is being poisoned, while avoiding Ione's plotting, as she herself may now become a target (Ione suspecting that she may actually be Belle's daughter).  It has a nice gothic situation, in a very modern southern California hillside home.  I enjoyed particularly Ione's the super sweet, controlling utterly mad wife.  Unfortunately, some elements reminded me strongly of Catch As Catch Can, particularly the heroine being trapped in an enclosed space with almost too tight of a time limit before death only to be saved at the very last minute.  The love tension between her and Thone was also similar where there was an almost too aggressive conflict between them where they are so opposed you know they have to fall in love.  Armstrong is good, but I need to give her a break for a while and be in a quieter place to properly appreciate her work.

Oh cool, I just discovered that Claude Chabrol directed Merci pour le Chocolat in 2000, based on this book with Isabelle Hupert as the Ione character.  Definitely not the right body type, but she could play this role extremely well.  Might be worth checking out.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

23. The arena by William Haggard

I have been having a hard time reading consistently in these first days of the Covid-19 pandemic.  My twitter addiction, which I had really gotten under control to the point of seriously considering deleting my account on principle due to their ongoing "free speech" tolerance of racists, trolls and fake accounts, has flared up like the virus itself.  It is my main news feed and probably also fulfilling a social need that is not getting its fix on the basketball court or the office or even day-to-day interactions with neighbours and merchants.  I am really struggling to get to that place where I can't stop turning the pages and won't put the book down.

I picked The arena because Haggard writes so well and his characters are all about pragmatic efficiency that I thought it would keep me engaged while helping to model emotional distance in this time of crisis.  It was mostly succesful, given the situation.  It still took me almost a week to read a book I would have read in three days in 2019.

The story centers around the merchant bankers in London in the early 60s as they were evolving from family-owned, aristocratic entities to more and more mercenary affairs driven primarily by profit.  I am not sure about the title, nor why it is in lowercase on the cover (could that just be part of the design?).  The protagonist is William Hillyard, a director and shareholder in the Bonavias bank, a fourth generation company that is threatened with a takeover bid.  That this is happening is because the firm cannot keep up, but behind it there is also espionage.  One of their holdings is a small radar development firm who, unbeknownst to them, is working on some technology that could be very beneficial to the British government.  This is where Haggard's "detective" Charles Russel, head of the Executive branch and his competent assistant Mortimer step in.

There is a lot packed into this thin book, much of it involves Hillyard and his struggle to resist the takeover (he is the only one who is against it), which puts his own life at risk.  Class plays a huge role.  The antagonist, Scott Sabin (whose character comes in strong only late and thus, at least to me, lacked enough depth to feel satisfied with the denouement) is not of the class that I guess family bankers are or were in England and he is driven by a deep resentment.  We are supposed to loathe him, either because he is not of the correct class or because in his insane desire to move up a class, he has lost all sense of ethics and character.  You get the feeling that this book was written for the landed class, but were there enough of them in 1961 to make up a readership? 

As I alluded, the ending was a bit unsatisfying.  The rest is really good, very subtle, very strategic and political. Haggard has a way of making two men in a room speculating about other men's actions seems really cool.  There is also an attempted murder on a train in a tunnel in Italy, thwarted by one of Mortimer's "top men" that is an excellent example of subtle action and skill not requiring much firepower or physical excess.  Haggard is really good, though you have to keep an eye on the class perspective.

Friday, March 13, 2020

22. The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

Compare this to some of the covers below
I was led to understand that this was a real classic WWII POW escape book.  It's weird to me that it took me so long to find it and when I did (at Dark Carnival, of course) it was in a new large format reprint of not great quality.  The printing looked smudged and the cover was not of great quality.  Still, I appreciate Skyhorse Publishing for having reprinted it.  Seems a shame that a book like this would not still be on the shelves in most bookstores.

[Ah, just realized I had already read another book by Eric Williams, Dragoman and it led me to look for The Wooden Horse.]

It is written as fiction in third person, but is basically true.  The author and two others did actually escape from a POW camp by building a tunnel underneath a camp-made vaulting horse.  In the introduction, which I read after I completed the book, he explains how when he first published it right after the war, much of the info fell under the official secrets act, so he had to embellish it and change lots of details.  He since rewrote it several times until this 1978 edition which he says is mostly fact.

It is a really tense book.  The first half is all about them digging the tunnel.  I am kind of claustrophobic.  I don't know if I were in their situation, maybe I would be desperate enough to squeeze into a 100-metre tunnel of sand that was barely wider than my own body, with oxygen constantly running out, the walls and ceiling crumbling, sand everywhere.  I actually had to keep putting it down because it was stressing me out too much to read.

Later, when their tunnel succeeds and they are on the run in Germany, it is also extremely tense, but in a different way.  Posing as French foreign workers, neither of them speak German.  They have forged papers, limited maps and outdated railroad schedules.  They don't know how to act.  And they can trust nobody.  It's nerve-wracking.  Also, really interesting to see war-time Germany from the inside through the eyes of outsiders.

It's a great book and I am glad I read it on the day that schools were announced to be closed for two weeks and people are making runs on toilet paper in the supermarket to combat Covid-19.  The privations of the POW camp (which you read in his intro were actually much worse for their guards thanks to the Red Cross packages the prisoners received) put into perspective the anxiety about not being able to wipe your ass with 2-ply quilted Charmin.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

21. Hunting the Fairies by Compton Mackenzie

Deciding to take this book home falls under the "it's an old Penguin so it is just too physically beautiful to leave on the shelf, no matter the subject" category.  I quickly scanned the first few lines of the back author blurb and it left me no more the wiser about the subject of this book.  The cover illustration was equally unelucidating, though I know now that it depicts an actual scene in the book and a good one.  It turns out that either it's pure confirmation bias (I chose it, ergo I must like it) or Penguin just generally did a good job with these paperbacks.  Either way, I quite enjoyed this book.

It's a comedy of manners of a sort about a Scottlish Laird, Hugh Cameron of Killwhillie, I guess sometime right after the war.  He is of the old landowning class, though Scottish, not English so a weird subset of British aristocracy that I had never encountered before.  He has an old house on a large piece of land somewhere in Scotland.  All the place names and geography were completely lost on me, but it does sound quite beautiful and rugged.  His dilemma is that an old friend who lives now in the States, having married an American, will not be coming this summer but did take the liberty of asking if Cameron could host an acquaintance of hers, her daughter and her maid.  The woman, Florence Urquhart-Unwin, Yu-Yu to her friends, is the president of the Ossian Society and is coming to Scotland to research and absorb the culture to bring back for the society.  Cameron is quite put out and anxious about this guest, but invites her to come.  Much of the book is then her touring around Scotland, being way more into Scottish stuff than Cameron and many of the Scots.  She also has a rival who comes from the U.S. as well, with her eye on taking away the presidency of the Ossian Society from Yu-Yu.  Much of the humour is them trying to best the other with having more authentic Scottish experiences.

I found it quite funny, even laugh out loud at times.  It is the gentle humour of an older time and an upper class, with lots of dialogue ending in "what?"  The plot thickens as Cameron falls in love with Yu-Yu's 19-year old daughter (he's 50).  It all wraps up nicely and even touchingly, taking on a somewhat more realistic and human tone than the light satire of the middle of the book.  Turns out, Mackenzie has published over 70 books and was very well known on the BBC back in the day.  I would keep an eye out for his other books.  This was fun.

Monday, March 02, 2020

20. There There by Tommy Orange

I picked up this book last year on a recommendation from my sister and my mother and decided to read it now since we are having a lot of increased awareness about the reality for First Nations people in Canada with the blockades on the railroad tracks.  The wet'suwet'en people of British Columbia are blocking a pipeline that was rammed through their land in the usual completely fucked-up way the government and multi-national resource companies work.  Many other First Nations communities then blockaded railroad tracks in solidarity and it has put the federal government in a real dilemma.  If you can't tell, I am 100% in support of the First Nations.  Even if you want to be totally selfish, they are doing us a favour by putting the brakes on all this insance fossil fuels extraction that is destroying our planet.  This issue also brings to the forefront the incredible selfishness and racism in Canadian culture and it really pisses us off to be forced to see it for what it is.  Suddenly we can't be all smug and complacent because it turns out we are just as bad as our friends to the south.

Anyhow, I'll save that rant for when I resurrect Brique du Neige.  I hate to say it but I was somewhat disappointed in There There.  Once again, it is quite a good book but the hype is just insane.  I was getting ready to read a masterpiece based on the pullquotes from every major newspaper review and many famous writers.  I should know better, but nonetheless when people write "pure soaring beauty" and "a miraculous achievement" you can't help but get your hopes up.  I am very glad that the book is a huge success.  Tommy Orange seems like a really cool guy and I hope it opens the doors for more indigenous authors to get their stuff out there.  I'll take a thousand There Theres over one American Dirt and most of the mainstream "literary fiction" out there.  I just wish we could be objective and realistic about the actual text.

The story is about a lot of different American people of indigenous descent (he calls them "Indians" and they call themselves that, but I don't know how that works in the U.S. but us settlers don't use that term in Canada anymore and I suspect shouldn't down there either).  Most of them are in Oakland, but a few are making their way there.  The focus of the plot is that they are all coming to a big powwow that is going to be held in the Oakland Coliseum.  There are quite a few characters, so many that it has a cast of characters at the beginning.  I didn't actually need it until the very end when I got some of the heisting characters mixed up because each character is very distinct, very real.  The introductions and backstories of all these characters do get close to the hype.  They are all so brutal and sad, yet rich and interesting that it makes for that rare combination of compelling reading while being "educational" (for lack of a better word on my part).  Just one cool element is that some of the characters participated in the American Indian Movement takeover of Alcatraz Island, an incident mostly forgotten today but a big milestone in their struggle.  It was cool to read a fictional account (probably based on some reality) of what it was like to be a kid there.  These are all just really great stories about what it is like to be an indigenous person in America today and it is fucked up.  It was also cool that there is a lot of Oakland in this book, both its rougher past and the even more painful gentrification it is going through today.  Tommy Orange is clearly pissed at that.

Where the book did not totally succeed for me is around the powwow.  Everything is leading up to the powwow, including some young toughs who are going to heist it.  It became quite predictable that we were going to end in a violent tragedy with many of the main characters dying.  There lives were so difficult and challenging already, that I don't know if such an ending had much impact on me.  And it felt simplistic and it all ended too quickly. I would rather have read another hundred pages on the robbery going bad, but maybe on person getting killed and the rest of them continuing with the fallout and how it impacted their lives. 

It's funny me saying that, as I am the first to admit I am a slave to the narrative and want a good satisfying conclusion.  Here, I felt that Tommy Orange did such a good job building a rich reality, I would have rather it kept going, even if it never really ended with any kind of narrative conclusion.  Weirdly, it felt a lot like the ending of Game of Thrones to me.

Again, a good book and while I hate to use this term, I think it fairly applies here, an important book.  I hope it removes some ignorance in the world.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

19. Complicity by Iain Banks

I'm not sure what to make of this book.  I bought it at Chainon for $3 as I was looking for something readable after having slogged through a few duds in February.  Although I haven't loved all of his Iain Banks novels (Whit being the one standout), he is an excellent writer and the brief few lines of the inside cover blurb I read made me think the premise was compelling (and I am glad I only read the first few lines, because I went back and read the whole thing after I had finished the book and it basically gives away almost 80% of the story for fuck's sake).

It takes place in the early 90s.  The main character is a Scottish journalist in Edinburgh, political lefty, does a lot of drugs, plays a lot of videogames and is having an ongoing affair with a married woman while being friends with both her and her husband.  He is a good journalist, though, and works hard.  His main storyline is basically living his life, though getting these anonymous calls that seem to be providing hints to a big conspiracy.  While this story is going on, we get these nasty vignettes in the second person voice, where horrible "justice" is meted out to mostly white collar criminals: a judge who gives a rapist a lenient sentence is tied up and sodomized with a giant vibrator, an industrialist who allowed a factory accident to kill thousands is blown up in his home, etc. "You" do them all tactically, using cat burglary techniques, voice disguise and costumes.  They are pretty rough.  That's the thing about Banks, his sex and violence can be quite graphic. 

I won't go into any more about the storyline, though you can see the various ways these two storylines might start to converge.  It is well-written and the structure is excellently crafted.  Thematically, I couldn't quite get my head around it.  It is a thriller, with a mystery and action, but much of the emphasis is on the main character's backstory and his relationship with his childhood friends.  There is also a really strong theme of the justice of vigilante action against these kind of elites for their crimes.  So I enjoyed the story, but I just am not sure that any of those questions were really answered or explored in that much of an interesting way.  I guess also for the time the character was sort of novel in that he is doing speed and living a pretty dissolute life but this is presented as normal and okay.  I think it may have had more of an impact if you read it when the book came out (1993).  I felt that Banks was trying to make a point.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

18. Flight from a Firing Wall by Baynard Kendrick

I should have read the introduction.  Actually, it is probably for the better that I didn't.  I had two major problems with this book, one that I noticed right from the beginning but got used to and the other that I started to pick up on as I read and that got worse and worse until the end and basically made me decide I did not enjoy it.

It is the story of a Cuban expat doctor, Antonio Carillo in Miami in 1960, with his heart and his wife still back in Cuba.  He is part of an anti-Castro/Communism Cuban society that is also funded by the CIA and other agencies, though portrayed very neutrally as just an old guy with a pipe who is playing cloak and dagger (this neutrality should have set my alarm bells off).  Carillo gets a call from a beautiful Cuban woman who wants him to meet a boat to treat a sick passenger, whom Carillo guesses immediately is a Cuban refugee.  What he doesn't guess and is floored by is when he goes to the boat and discovers that the refugee is his father-in-law, high-ranking member of the secret police who betrayed Castillo and his daughter when they tried to flee.  Castillo escaped with two bullet holes but left his wife behind, not knowing if she was alive or dead.

The first problem that I encountered was the dialogue. Castillo's mother was American and he went to a prep school in Connecticut, so it was reasonable that he would be perfectly bilingual and speak colloquial english. The english he used just sounded totally wrong, a mix of John D. MacDonald-esque early 60s clever speak and cliched hard-boiled private eye wisecracks.  There was a lot of verbiage in general that made reading it slow-going and then so many metaphors and wise cracks that you felt disconnected.  Worse, though, two Cuban expats speaking a mix of Spanish and English spoke like a bunch of camp counsellors in upstate New York.  It just didn't sound realistic.  I've met and hunt out with several perfectly bilingual Cuban-Americans and they do not talk like that.

So back to the story.  In a somewhat convoluted way, Castillo decides to sneak back into Cuba, to both bring medicine to a sick leader of the underground resistance to Castro's regime and to find and rescue his wife, or at least die with her.  It is a nice setup and the details of the trip via boat to Cuba and sneaking back into such a controlled environment undercover and through the underground network was somewhat fun.  Now the second problem becomes apparent. This book was not written for the adventure or the pleasure of the fiction.  It was written to portray communist Cuba as a total nightmare place of atrocity and fear.  It is telling in the introduction, that all his research was done with government agencies and Cuban refugee groups.  Worse, he states that the descriptions of Cuba itself "are from the author's pleasant memories of many trips there dating back to 1954."

Weird that he only went there pre-revolution and somehow seems to that Cuba is a place of terror and privation.  I definitely do not think Cuba was some paradise and Kendrick himself is critical of Batista regime in the early part of the book, but this just feels like a propaganda job.  It is laid on so thick that by the end, I was totally disconnected and just wanted it to end.  Not an enjoyable ride, unfortunately.

One neat thing about this edition.  You will notice the "A Special Inner Sanctum Mystery" at the bottom of the front cover.  It turns out that Simon & Schuster originated the Inner Sanctum concept as an imprint for their favourite books.  At first it included several genres, but then they sponsored the Inner Sanctum radio show and focused it on suspense and mystery books.  Part of the deal of their sponsorship was that one of their books had to be promoted at the end of the show.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

17. Slam the Big Door by John D. MacDonald

I have a later 50 cent copy. The blurb reads
"From the best-selling author of THE DROWNER,
celebrated TRAVIS MCGEE series"
Another one in the Ed Gorman list of best non-Travis McGee JDM's, Slam the Big Door walks a line between being a crime novel and a drama at first and then veers entirely into the latter.  I was disappointed, hoping for more of the former but it nevertheless ended up being quite satisfying, with both the highs and lows of John D. MacDonald.

Mike Rodenska, reporter on leave, comes to his old army buddy Troy's place in an exclusive beach community in western Florida. His wife died recently of cancer and Troy and his new wife invited him down to just relax and heal.  We get all the great world-building and social critique that makes JDM so enjoyable. Here we have an enclave of long-time outsiders who now consider themselves local. They have their club and their cocktail parties and their gossip.  It takes a while, but we start to get hints that Troy and Mary's marriage is not doing that well and that Troy may be over his head in a big business deal.  There is a great setup here, when a group of local businessmen, including a super wealthy good ol' boy, meet and plan how to break up Troy's project and take it over for good.

At this point, I got quite excited, as I was expecting a story about a battle between Mike Rodenska, journalist with character from the North coming in to defend his friend, and these local semi-corrupt developers.  There was even some nice little investigating by Rodenska.  Then, all too quickly, he meets up with the good ol' boy, impresses him with his character and basically rescues the deal for his friend.  I was like, that was it?  Where is this book going to go?  Well it turned out to be much more a psychological study of the breakdown of his friend, who had cracked up once before.  There are some of the crazy period sexual politics, including the classic sexually irresistible temptation character (as seen in the great Clemmie), here personified by horsey-looking Jerranna.  When Troy gets with her, he either has to kill her or become a total alchoholic sex fiend and of course always chooses the latter, while she doesn't seem to care one way or the other as she is just in it for "the kicks".

So despite his friend coming down and saving his ass, it all goes to shit for Troy or rather he drives himself to shit, ultimately "Slamming the big door" on his own life. I guess ultimately this was about the damage the war did to him, but weirdly JDM seems to blame the women around him just as much.*  The trigger in the end that he uses to ultimately destroy his life is his flirtatious and amoral daughter-in-law.

Despite it not going the route I had hoped for, I did end up kind of enjoying it.  Yes, it meandered when it got into the weird relationship conversations and JDM moralizes a but much even for him about the youth of today with no morals, but it also had some great passages and awesome portrayals of sordid little places, like the depressing rental cabins.

*Below is the passage when Rodenska seeks out Jerranna after she shows up in Florida and Troy starts going back to here.  He finds her in a bar next to the seedy rental cabins.

She gulped the beer with automatic greed, her long thin throat working.  The years had coarsened her.  He had detected a certain sensitivity, a capacity for imagination, in the girl in New York.  But the years and the roads, the bars and the cars and the beds and the bottles --they all have flinty edges, and they are the cruel upholstery in the dark tunnel down which the soul rolls and tumbles until no more abrasion is possible, until the ultimate hardness is achieved.  So here she sat, having achieved the bland defensive heartiness of a ten-dollar whore. 
But there was more than that.  She had retained that unique sexual magnetism which had no basis in either face or figure.  It was a dark current generated in some unthinkably primitive source, a constant pressure which tugged the male mind into grubby yet shamefully enticing imaginings.  In the back alley of the mind of every man there is a small, black, greasy pool of evil, an unawakened capacity for foulness, a place of guilt.  She could walk through your house, past all your prides and glowing purposes, ignoring your display of awards for small victories, and take you out the back door and down the alley to the brink of the blackness you have learned to ignore, and point at it and smirk with an ancient wisdom and say, "See what we found?" 
If all men are alcoholics, she is the bottle.  If all men are compulsive gamblers, she is the gaming table.  If all men are suicides, she is the knife, the rope, the bullet.  In fair exchange for your soul, she offers self-disgust and avoidable repetition.

I mean it's half-nonsense, ultimately misogynist christian morality, but so much fun to read!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

16. The Suicide Murders by Howard Engel

My wife found this nice hardcover first edition from 1980 at Chainon.  I doubt it is worth much but it is in really good condition.  I have a faint memory of having read a Benny Cooperman mystery before.  My mom may have passed it down to me.  Anyways, it looked like one of those page-turning 80s mysteries and as a bonus it took place in Canada.

Benny Cooperman is a sort of sad sack Jewish private detective who is barely making two ends meet on the odd divorce case, except that he seems to stumble upon big interesting cases at least once a book.  He grew up in and now works in Grantham, Ontario, which I think is a real place along the Toronto-Windsor corridor.  In this first book, he is hired by an attractive upperclass woman who thinks her husband is having an affair.  Cooperman quickly learns that his lying and absences are actually visits to a therapist.  He believes the case closed and is about to deliver the news to his client, when he learns that the husband, a wealthy developer, has just blown his brains out.  The cops treat it as an open and shut suicide but Cooperman, who had followed the man to a sporting goods store where he had bought a new 10-speed bicycle is skeptical.  He keeps digging around and uncovers a lot of dirt in this medium-sized Ontario town: city hall shenanigans, blackmail, old boys with sordid pasts.  As he digs, there are more deaths.

It never explodes and the mystery is never intriguing enough that I was dying to find out what happened, but the investigating is steady and interesting.  The locations are well described and believable and he manages to make what is possibly the most neutral, boring place on earth, Ontario, actually sound like it could have a real mystery in it, no mean feat.  He has a funny relationship with his parents as well.  This was very much an 80s mystery, with lots of light wisecracking (a bit too much in the beginning but it found a nice rhythm by the end) and the detective himself being a big character in the proceedings.  Enjoyable!

Addendum: Here is a nice obituary of Howard Engel, who died in July of 2019.  Had a stroke in 2001 where he lost the ability to read but could still write!  Man, that would be brutal.  Seems like a good guy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

15. Odd Man Out by F. L. Green

I can't remember where I found this but it was cheap or free and has been sitting on the far right of my on-deck shelf for quite a while now, because of its small size.  I was expecting a terse, noir thriller, possibly dated.  Instead I got a florid, wordy asymptotical meditation on life, death and Belfast during the post-war Troubles.  (Asymptotical is my term for books that never seem to end, the pages on the right get thinner and thinner but the ending seems infinitely far away.)

The book starts out in medias res, though the text was already heavy and spilling over with excessive clauses, adjectives and adverbs.  Four men pull up outside of a laundry mill, ready to execute a well-planned heist of its payroll.  This was somewhat promising, but right away we go into the getaway driver's head.  Okay, fine, it is a stressful job.  But the thoughts in his head are beyond stress.  He is on the verge of completely freaking out: "...his mind would fracture and admit impulsive, hysterical factors which were already advancing from indefinable sources in his spirit"  And this is on page 3!  I thought that maybe the getaway driver was particularily nervous, but then we get to the ring leader, Johnny, we learn that he is along time member and leader of The Organization and this heist is to get funding for their political work (terrorism for some, liberation for others).  He is freaking out even more!  It's like he is on acid.  Seriously, everything is described like a bizarre dream and he completely loses touch with reality.  It's really weird because this guy is an experienced pro.  His state is attributed to him having been holed up in an apartment for months, but soon I realized that everyone is like this in the book.  One person saying something to another person launches some metaphorical, metaphysical reaction in that other person's brain.  It's really weird.  I don't know if this is just the way Irish people write thrillers because they are so tragic and poetic or something.  The whole book could have been about a third as long as it actually was.

Just to give you an example of how practically every description in the book spins off into excess, here is one sentence from a paragraph (of which there are many) describing the activity of patrons in a bar near the waterfront:
At corners, they broke into shrill chatter; and parting, they sped off to dart into deserted entrances or to pour wildly into the gutters or the dank foundations of walls oozing with slime and guarding a hollow silence into which the incessant breathing roar of the city dropped occasionally as the wind veered.

So because Johnny is tripping balls, the heist goes sour and he kills a cashier in a struggle.  The driver of the getaway car freaks out and drives too fast, spilling wounded Johnny off the running board. The first half of the book is then the story of the three other heisters making it back to their hideout, the recriminations, the getaway and tightening police cordon.  The second half of the book is Johnny, who is basically almost dead but somehow stumbling from place to place, person to person.  In this part, Johnny is really a vehicle for all these other characters to reveal themselves.  The neutral Protestant women who try and heal him until their husbands come home, the underworld barman freaking out because of Johnny's presence in his bar, the painter who wants to create a masterpiece by capturing the look in Johnny's dying eyes. Johnny is basically dragged around from Belfast locale to Belfast locale meeting a bunch of characters.  Call it Weekend at Belfast's.  It's not uninteresting but everything is so heavy and wrought.  It really was a slog to get through to the end, which was more or less predictable.  I really don't see how they could have made an entertaining movie out of this.

Speaking of movies, I did have a moment of amazing synchronicity.  My wife and I were watching the trailer for this documentary about New York bookstores called The Booksellers.  Though it looked annoyingly precious and utterly NY-centric (so typically navel-gazing New York, a city with probably the worst used bookstore scene in North America makes a documentary celebrating it), there was one very brief scene of the kind of used book table that excites me and others of my ilk.  I paused it to take a closer look.  Zoom in and you will see Odd Man Out, one of the more legible titles!  How crazy is that.  I was about a third of the way through the book at the time.

Friday, February 14, 2020

14. Gateway by Frederick Pohl

I found this in the ever-fruitful free shelf on St-Viateur.  It was in the nice old-school paperback that I like and my father is a huge fan of the Space Merchants.  I have so many books on my on-deck shelf that I am more picky now about what I take home, but this one made the cut.  Later on Twitter, a person whose taste I respect had a picture of it and when I mentioned that I had just found it, she said it was one of her favourites and she had read it three times.

So I had sort of high hopes, and I had just finished Appleby's Other Story, which I enjoyed but also found it left me a bit wanting.  Unfortunately, Gateway left me even more wanting.  I guess this is post-new age (was written in 1977), but it still feels like it comes out of that American masculine semi-nerdy, inner and out exploring period.  I just found it really boring.  The book has two storylines, both following Rob Broadhead.  In the first thread, he is later in life a very wealthy playboy in some future earth where Manhattan is under a dome and seeing a computer therapist named Sigfrid.  The second thread is his younger self, when he wins the lottery that frees him from a life of food-mining to take his chances in Gateway.  The stories come together as we slowly learn what his great trauma was that he is resisting facing in therapy and as it actually happens on Gateway.

The Gateway concept is cool.  An asteroid is discovered not too far out in the solar system that was once inhabited by some technologically superior race that humans call the Heechee.  They have left almost nothing except hundreds of pre-programmed spaceships that go far out to various spots in space and then come back again. The trick is that the tech is so advanced, nobody knows where they will go nor for how long until they actually launch them.  You could go, find yourself in the middle of nowhere and come back.  You could go and keep going far past the duration of your life support systems and die.  You could go and have a horrible accident.  In most cases, the ships return with the crew dead or alive.  In the best situations, you come to planet where you find a usable Heechee artifact.  If this happens and you return alive, the Gateway Corporation will pay you a big rewards.  So it is the ultimate high-risk high-reward gamble.

As I say, it is a really cool concept.  For me, the way it was put in to use was just utterly unentertaining.  I am really not into therapy sessions in fiction in general.  Here it was especially trying as the protagonist is fighting the computer therapist the whole time.  It just seemed stupid.  I don't know, maybe in the '70s this kind of childish resistance with you finally breaking down and realizing some deep thing about yourself was the norm.  Even worse, one of the big things he realized was that he had been sexually aroused by a man and had hooked up with one during one of the trips from Gateway.  It was just like, dude, really, this is what you go to therapy for?

And then on Gateway itself, the whole plot was about his fear to actually commit to going on a trip and his relationship with one woman.  It went on and one with Broadhead saving his money and avoiding for as long as he could actually going out on a trip.  I get it that it would be scary as hell, but his whole raison d'etre was to get out of his hardscrabble existence.  And it just was not fun or interesting to read about him being scared.  So we finally get a cool trip only at the very end of the book.  It just took way too long to get there and when we did, the payoff, while sort of neat conceptually, did not justify all the build-up.

Also, the guy freaks out at one point and beats the woman up, knocking a tooth out.  But then later, they realize they are really in love and the big tragedy is because they are separated at the end because of the big trauma that went down on their trip together.  That was just a rotten little cherry on the top that made me thoroughly dislike this book. Going to read up on what they hype was.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

13. Appleby's Other Story by Michael Innes

Michael Innes has been lurking around the periphery of my book reading for all my life, but I have never read him (nor have I read Hammond Innes, either for that matter).  I found this one on the free shelf up on St-Viateur (it's really been quite productive, that shelf).

I could see right away why his books are so ubiquitous.  He is an entertaining writer for fans of the educated British writing style.  It begins with Appleby, whom I guess is his detective in a long series of mysteries, driving with the local country Chief Constable to a country estate for a social visit.  The first few pages have references to classical poetry, latin quotations and deft observations of class and character, all in a rich vocabulary and indirect sentence structure.  There has to be a better word than indirect here.  This is the kind of book that you would not recommend to a reader for whom english was a second language.  Even for me, I had to reread many of the sentences to understand what he was trying to say.  It's fun, though, and quite clever.  There are a few really solid moments inside the ornate writing that are made even stronger because of the style of the writing.  Here, the detective is in the rather dingy pub where he initially had gotten surly service from the man at the bar.  After a fruitful conversation with one of the witnesses, he returns to the barman:
Appleby resolved to investigate.  He got to his feet and walked over to the bar.  A detached observer might have remarked in him a somewhat ominous gathering of authority as he moved.  The taciturn and discontented publican, who was disdainfully puddling glasses in an invisible sink of what was doubtless dirty water glanced at him with a new wariness as he approached.
I was a bit less pleased with the mystery itself.  The plot is that when they arrive, they find the lord of the manor shot dead in his study and a small house party of potential suspects, including a wayward son, a parasitical nephew, an over-efficient secretary, a dishonest London art dealer, a second wife and her lover, the murdered man's own mistress and finally a butler with a rough edge.  It's a nice setup but too much of the backstory is delayed simply because Appleby takes his time to talk to the witnesses.  It is a nice touch that he is retired and starts out trying to avoid getting involved and his expertise is thoroughly enjoyable.  The twist itself was also a bit convoluted, involving geography in the house that I never could have figured out through the reading (though this could have been my own lack of attention to detail).

Overall, though, I am glad to have read and been made aware of Innes' qualities.  I would like to find an earlier Appleby story when he was still on the force.

Friday, February 07, 2020

12. A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Charles Williams is quietly but strongly lauded by fans of the pulp genre as being one of the better if not the best of the Gold Key authors.  His books are very hard to find.  Of course, Dark Carnival had this Hard Case reprint as well as at least one (maybe two, I can't remember now) other reprint in a larger format.  I kind of wished I had bought it after having read this one.  I am not ready to say he is the best or anything, but this was a really solid, efficient read with a great ending.

It starts in medias res, the way I like it.  Lee Scarborough, looking to sell his car, accidentally meets a sunbathing beauty at the back of the apartment complex.  Coincidentally, she too is looking to buy a car.  Or is she?  In the first few pages, we learn the Lee is an ex-college football star whose bum knee kept him out of the pros and is now getting down to his last dollar.  He picks up quickly that she is feeling him out for some other reason.  After the fake test drive, she gets down to business.  She has inside info about a missing businessman and what may have happened to the $120,000 with which he disappeared.

What starts out for Lee as a simple break & enter gets messy quick and gets messier and messier right up to the disastrous end.  What I particularly enjoyed about this book was that while the storyline was simple, the actual plot underneath it was somewhat complex and keeps you guessing until the end. And—despite that complexity—it never loses steam.  There is a lot of action and you have a nice rhythm of straight up action and then tension and questioning.  The tension in the last act is almost unbearable, with Scarborough and a fantastic femme fatale character holed up together and hiding in his apartment as the dragnet tightens and each doesn't know where the other stands.  Good stuff.

I think I must have purchased some early publisher's version.  My copy looks exactly the same as the image above, except the tagline reads "It Began As ...AND END AS A NIGHT" which is just weird and wrong.  The inside back cover has what looks like promotional copy and info for a book store to order it, so maybe it is some kind of advanced copy.  Otherwise it all looked pretty legit.  I was just thrown by that bizarre tagline.

Here is a much better and fuller review, if you don't mind spoilers and want to get a better sense of what makes this book so great without actually reading it.

Monday, February 03, 2020

11. The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian

You know things are getting weird here at Olman's Fifty when not only am I reading two non-fiction books in a row, but one of them is actually a serious history book.  One of my best friends did his undergrad thesis on Iranian history and has an excellent shelf of Iranian history books. I've grown more and more interested in the mechanics of British colonialism as it comes up frequently in much of the fiction I read.  I was originally looking for a broad overview of Iranian history in the 19th and 20th centuries (and am still looking for one of Indian history), but when he handed me tome VI of the 7-part Cambridge History of Iran, that was a bit too daunting.  I went with this thinner, more focused book and I am glad I did.

I was completely ignorant of Iranian history leading up to the 1979 revolution.  This book deals specifically with an equally significant upheaval in Iran in the 20th century: the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq who was seen (and still is by many) as the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran.  Mossadeq was working to separate Iranian civil government from the monarchy and more significantly negotiating to wrest control of Iran's oil production from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and to nationalize it.  The US and UK worked with various internal oppositions (worked with being a very loose term here) to organize a coup against Mossadeq and return power to the shah. 

Abrahamian has a very specific thesis, that this coup was not motivated by a fear of communist takeover of Iran by the Soviets, as was the accepted conventional wisdom (and the propaganda line of the US, UK and the oil companies) but rather by the motivation to maintain control of oil production in Iran.  He argues this very convincingly.  A side affect of this argument is also to contradict the media portrayals of Mossadeq as being an crazed ideologue whose inflexibility to any negotiating offers other than nationalizing oil was the real reason for the coup.  From the beginning, Abrahamian argues, the UK and AOIC would never accept total nationalization (meaning loss of control of oil production in Iran).  The U.S. was more flexible at first, but soon changed their mind over fears that Iranian nationalization would then encourage other countries being exploited at the time to follow suit.

At the very end of the book, Abrahamian also lays out how the coup set the stage for the Islamic revolution of 1979. By basically destroying any republican, secular opposition to the shah the only outlet for a very unsatisfied and exploited people (who had once looked to Mossadeq as their saviour) was to their spiritual leaders.

The biggest takeaway for me from this book was how deep and effective was the propaganda in the large media outlets.  Though I have a deep contempt for the New York Times, I always assumed they more or less tried to post some form of objective truth, while always couching it in the editorial safety that would never truly criticize.  At least in the case of the coup, they just printed outright lies, straight from the CIA.  As did the CBC, the Herald-Tribune and pretty much every other mainstream journalistic outlet  Utterly fabricated and racist interpretations of Iran's quest to control its own oil were standard fodder for editorials and articles. The hatred of Iran and its use as a scapegoat by the west has been going on for a long time.  Fake news, indeed.

Friday, January 31, 2020

10. The Sixth Man: a Memoir by Andre Iguodala with Carvell Wallace

As I write this review, Andre Iguodala is currently officially on the Memphis Grizzlies, sent there in the sign and trade that got D'Angelo Russel to the Warriors in exchange for the always seeking new horizons Kevin Durant.  By mutual agreemement, Iguodala is not playing, which I felt he was justified in doing and I hope softens the "it's a business" blow that shipped him off the Warriors.  He is now seen as a potential contributor to a playoff-bound team, but I wonder if now that the Grizzlies are showing so much young potential that he would not have minded being the old mentor on that team.

At the very least, I do feel I have a much better insight into who he is as a player and a person after reading his book. My parents got it to me as an xmas present. They jumped on the Warriors bandwagon along with the rest of the country (to be fair, they had been paying attention to them before they really got good, probably in some response to my own enthusiasm and loyalty to the team).  I am not sure if Iguodala was their favourite player but they found him the most interesting.  My respect for him was solidified when he received the Finals MVP in 2015.  There were some people who expressed the opinion that it was not deserved.  Anybody who says that does not understand basketball and has probably never actually played.  The Warriors had a better team than the Cavs that year, but they didn't know it and they were not mentally ready for it.  Every time they got shakey and it looked like things were slipping away to LeBron's dominance, Iguodala either pulled them back in with a play or re-anchored their spirits with his consistency and focus.  It was a tremendous demonstration of basketball will and mental toughness.  You could see it happening during the series, the person who was the winner and going to make it happen no matter what. I knew Iguodala had this strength of will when he hit two free throws to tie the regular season game against OKC that season (the game being famous because Steph took the ball out and just hit the most ridiculous three with seconds left on the clock; a shot that woke the league up to how sick he was, but he never would have had the opportunity had not Andre iced those free throws, not his best skill).

My respect for him further grew when I started to read a bit more about his political convictions.  He is not loud about those convictions, but he is clear and firm and uncompromising, speaking openly about race in the NBA and America.  This is rare in pro sports because it takes so much courage and is so risky given the terrible efficacy of the racist system around them to punish any black athlete who doesn't walk the line (see Colin Kaepernick).

I devour these sports books.  First of all, they tend to be written in fairly large type, with wide margins, short chapters and a fairly straight forward style of writing.  The Sixth Man starts with his childhood in the midwest and goes into some details about his basketball path in high school and college. He passes pretty quickly over his years in Philly (though does a good job of characterizing the nastiness of the fans and media there) and then focuses on his time with the Warriors.  He is really clear and direct on the racial structures in his childhood (though he grew up in a good household with a strong mother and grandmother and he stayed on the straight and narrow, he and everybody in his community just knew that cops were dangerous to them because they were black).  He also does an excellent job of breaking down the notion that athletes are spoiled and should be grateful.  He recognizes the privilege but he is also very honest about the physical and psychological costs of dedicating your life and body to a business "owned" by white people who often treat the players as a commodity.  It is very enlightening and I hope some people who have that opinion get a chance to read this.

But for me personally, it was the stuff about specific basketball games and his own evolution in the game that was the most interesting to me.  I watch a lot of basketball, read a lot of sophisticated analysis and still play regularily.  Iguodala is known for his understanding of the dynamics in a game and having him explain the challenges of getting a team to work in a system was fascinating and eye opening.  The best beauty of the game for me (and there are many) is the team interaction, the complex dynamic between the players' roles and the system they are trying to execute in order to beat their opponent.  Iguodala really speaks to that in this book in a way that added to my own thoughts about the game and deepened my understanding of specific games I had watched in the past.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I've been vaguely aware of the existence of this book for a long time.  I was first introduced to it actually from the Roots album of the same name.  I got quite into that album and did a bit of research into the name.  I found this paperback in a box of books on the street and was pleased with how thin it looked (and also the nice paperback, despite the very dated cover illustration which reflects more a liberal cliche of African colonialism than the tone or content of the book itself).

I am actually a bit surprised and dismayed that I haven't already read this book. I did two long Humanities courses at Reed College, which were supposed to give you a broad overview of said subject.  We did a lot on colonialism.  After having read this, and knowing it is basically considered the grandfather of African literature (and seeing how short it is), it seems like it should be one of the ur-texts of colonialism in any course.

It's so fundamental that I sort of knew what was to come as I read it.  So many colonial narratives must have borrowed from this book, that they have basically permeated our popular culture at this point.  It's the native village minding their own business when the white man comes and fucks all their shit up.  What I did not know was the subtle combination of simple and straightforward language (almost anthropological) describing very rich and complex social behaviours that make up most of the book.  Two-thirds is just the life of Okonkwe, a well-respected man of his village, and also kind of an ass-kicker.  Only near the end do we get the very subtle arrival of the missionaries.  That is the other thing that I did not expect from the narrative.  The white man comes in very sneakily.  After an initial massacre at the market of another tribe (and one that was perceivded to be weaker), they behave relatively decently, building a little church in the evil forest the villagers direct them to.  The disaster is already happening and you know it, but it is done in such a way, like the proverbial pot of boiling water, that most of the villagers don't even see it.  When the "government" arrives to support the church's law, it is already too late.

Because of this quietness, the devastation of colonialism hits even harder.  I finished this on a train to Toronto and as I put the book down I looked upon a pleasant little town built around a river market by 3 church steeples.  I have never been a fan of the Christian religion but those steeples at that moment emanated evil in my eyes.

From a nerdy perspective, I also wonder how much influence Things Fall Apart has on the recent renaissance of African sci-fi, of which I have only read Nnedi Okorafor?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

8. Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt

I've been aware of Victoria Holt for a while now, having a sense that she is/was a big name in gothic romance. I picked this one up at the Concordia Book Fair, despite the horrific cover.  When I started it, I had a sudden frightening yet delicious feeling that I had finally found my crack cocaine of genre literature.  The set up was great, combining the complex clash of class and aspiration in 18th century Britain with the potential for political intrigue and adventure.  Because the protagonist is a woman, young yet educated, capable and smart (and as we learn headstrong), you have the built in underdog fighting against they system theme.  I was quite excited and imagined myself with a future of Victoria Holt reading ahead of me.  Unfortunately, the actual story did not quite achieve this potential  Whether or not this was because the author failed or her aims (and those of most of her readers) did not meet mine, I am not yet sure.

Minella Maddox is the daughter of a teacher who have a nice position on a Lord's estate.  He sends his two daughters to their schoolhouse, which then attracts the other gentry and ensure they make a decent living.  One summer, a french count's daughter comes to the school to learn english.  She is two years younger than Minella and her positive spirit makes her and Minella become friends.  The count is a very powerful figure in French politics and known to be a frightening tyrant to his people.  He is also intense and handsome. Minella first sees him on horseback as he checks out her school from afar.  She christens him The Devil on Horseback and learns that that is also his appellation back at home (though never to his face).  There is also the son of the British lord, a super nice guy, who takes a liking to Minella.  They go horseback riding every day.  He is super nice.  And though he is quite clearly into her, Minella being a realist feels there is no chance, as his parents would never approve.

So that's the basic setup but then fate hits as her mother dies and Minella struggles to keep the school afloat.  The count's daughter runs away with a handsome groom and gets knocked up.  The lord's son is sent away by his parents on the European tour (which I guess is a thing the sons of gentry did back then), ostensibly to separate him from Minella.  Oh yeah, and also during a game of hide and seek in the manor, Minella goes downstairs, where she is caught by the Count sneaking into their bedroom.  He kisses her and she pushes him away, outraged, but against all her judgement, powerfully stimulated!

So the Count finds out what his daughter has done and convinces Minella to accompany her to a small village where she will have the child in secret, pretending they are cousins (Minella's french is excellent, but they will say she is a long-lost cousin from England).  This is where I started to get excited.  France is near the breaking point here, so that aristocrats often do not leave their manors without guards.  The town is very small and people start asking questions about the two ladies.  There was lots of potential for a Fingersmith level of adventure here, with two aristocrat women on the run in revolutionary france, trying to get away with an illegitimate child.

Instead, we keep going back and forth between the Count's place in Paris and his castle in his ancestral domain and the main narrative starts to reveal itself.  Really it is about whether or not she should love this dashing handsome count who has done all kinds of evil shit in his life, has a wife confined to a sick bed and a mistress in a cottage nearby.  There is conversation after conversation where he declares his love for her and she remains prim and British, but oh what about her feelings!  It builds and builds as does the revolution, but we only get any real action in the last thirty pages or so where the mob rises up, the count is freed from the guillotine, we learn about a believed dead twin brother and she can finally love the count and they get married and live happily in England with his past behind them.

I'm a romantic guy and do enjoy that element (and can actually enjoy it as the primary narrative when it is done well).  Here, it just wasn't done very convincingly and I kind of guessed what was going to happen.  It all felt like a overly-complicated way to get a prim young British girl with a dashing French badboy on a horse together in some way that would still give her some clout.  It sacrificed so much potential, both for dashing adventure and for some complex gender-role challenging on the way.  I did not expect much of the second category but I do think I could have a bit more from the first at least.  I don't know, maybe Holt pushes herself farther in some of her other books, but I fear this stuff may just remain in the mainstream mode.

This pastely channel 9 Masterpiece Theatre vagueness
 is the kind of shit that I hated about the 70s when I was a kid.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

7. City by Clifford D. Simak

I see now that this is a real sci-fi classic, though interestingly it was a colleague at work who first brought it to my attention.  It took me quite a while to find and this paperback cost $7, putting it into high-class status indeed!

I had a progression of feelings about this book as I read it, from "meh" to quite moved.  It is my own personal taste and not a critique or universal judgement, but I find a lot of the silver age sci-fi (if that is what this is) kind of naive today and often overly obsessed with a single concept.  City has a really cool conceit, it is a mythical set of stories that dogs (now the sentient dominant being) puzzle over.  They cannot understand or even believe in many of the concepts presented in these stories, but we the readers understand it as the explanation of what really happened to the human race.  The first story takes place in the 80s and the big problem is that the cities are basically empty.  The municipal government remains and they are trying to figure out how to deal with the abandoned rows of houses.  Because of the personal plane and advanced building technology, everybody has moved out to the country, building their own personal estate.

It is very facile for me to criticize a writer from over fifty years ago for how wrong their speculation was, but this just felt so locked into the post WWII suburban fantasy.  How could Simak have not taken population growth into consideration?  That was an issue in the fifties for sure, though perhaps not as big as it would become later.  And people like to get be together, even if they also may want their space.  This just felt really badly thought out as the trigger to the end of humanity and it left me feeling very critical.

As it turns out, this move to the countryside was only the first step (and kind of felt a bit unecessary).  Each subsequent story moves forward in the narrative of how humanity would lose hold on earth. The ideas start to get wilder and wilder.  And as they do, City becomes interesting.  It really did make me think about existence, what it means to be alive and human and got me kind of melancholy at times.  It is really a big picture concept book. We get martians in one story whose impact comes and then goes.  We get body-shifting, existence on Jupiter, wild robots, mutant advanced humans, global empathy, sentient dogs then all sentient animals and even quantum realities.  It goes to some wild places and while I am not sure I can say the narrative had a unity to it, it definitely made me think and feel.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

6. Touch not the Cat by Mary Stewart

My nephew and I rode to downtown Oakland over the holidays, our destination the Salvation Army, in the hopes of finding there some cheap boots for a trip to Yosemite (I hadn't packed any).  I will share with you here that the men's shoe selection at the Salvation Army in downtown Oakland is quite poor and the boot selection non-existent.  I did, however, find two Mary Stewart hardbacks so it wasn't a total loss.  And we had an excellent vegetarian Thai lunch in the neighbourhood.

I am not quite sure what to make of this book.  Much of it puzzles me, as do her other gothic romance-mysteries.  People loved this book.  It is cited as one of her most popular and the reviews in Goodreads are gushing.  It's not that this isn't a good book.  It's really quite well thought out, gripping with an excellent location and situation.  It's the protagonist that I don't get.  She just seems way too nice and trusting to the point that starts to push at my willing suspension of disbelief.  I need somebody smarter and more versed in the literature of the period to help pick her mentality apart for me.

She is the only child of a widowed father, in her early 20s and part of a long, aristocratic clan that owns an estate somewhere in England.  They have long since lost any wealth associated with it, the father having sold the silver to pay for its upkeep and retired off to Germany because of health issues.  When he dies in a hit and run, she comes back, to help settle the estate, most of which is due to her cousins, because of a clause going back generations that the inheritor must be a male.  She is super fine with everything, even when we start to get hints that the cousins are not the most honest.  She stays fine when we learn that they have been stealing valuable items from the estate to make up money they have lost in their business.  She stays fine when it becomes pretty evident that they may have been responsible for the hit and run. 

I was feeling like the book was set up for us to want to preserver the estate, as Stewart gives us such loving descriptions of it and a detailed history.  Much of the heroine's character is built on her childhood there.  Her ultimate love interest is woven into its history.  And yet she is so weirdly passive and forgiving of her clearly completely fucked and evil cousins.  There is a mystery, the final fragmented words of her father involving old books in the library, that the reader can guess early on has to do with the true ownership of the estate.  The climax of this bizarrely involves her two nasty cousins arguing with her how she can screw them out of it while she sincerely is trying to argue with them that even if she could legally block them from their shitty plan of selling the place to developers so they can pay off the debts for money they basically stole, she wouldn't.  It's just a weird set-up where the reader and all the other characters can see the clear good vs. evil in the narrative, except the main character who though brave and strong basically spends the whole time not putting up any resistance beyond asking for time before she makes her decision.  Really the main point of tension is not that she doesn't want to let her cousins have the place, but that she just wants a week or two to chill out before she signs it away.  There is some unspecified reason the cousins can't wait, which is what drives them to be really stupid and blow their cover, when if they had just let her wait, she probably would have signed it all away and they wouldn't have had to do villainy.

I have had a similar, though less clear to me, critique of Stewart's other books.  Somehow, the passivity of her heroine's must be an accepted trope, akin to some similar consistent behaviour in male protagonists in the action genre.  Anybody know a book or article that might explain it a bit better to me?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

5. Tiger by The Tail by James Hadley Chase

I picked up three of Chase's books at the Concordia Book Fair.  I started with this one as it was the latest published of the three and I wanted to see how his style had evolved.  I went into it with some trepidation.  Despite quite enjoying No Flowers for Miss Blandish, I now have this slight feeling that he is "fake".  This is totally unfair as a writer is a writer and if they are good in other elements, the authenticity of the setting does not have to be that big of a factor.

I was aware of some bias going in, particularly as the set up was revealed to me in the early pages.  Ken Holland is a head bank teller whose young wife is away for a few days with her sick mother.  He is starting to feel antsy, staring at attractive girls on the street.  But he's a good guy and a good husband and just wants her to get home.  However, his workmate Pete, is a party guy and keeps egging Ken on, wanting to live vicariously through him in his temporary bachelor state.  He gives Ken the phone number of a girl who will show him a good time.  Ken doesn't want it, rips it in half, but then on a super hot night after a few drinks while avoiding mowing the lawn, he gives in and calls. The way the temptation is set up and the way it sucks him in is all quite well done.  The girl is easygoing, friendly in a way that surprises him and he ends up spending the evening with her.  They get it on at her place (this is done offstage and felt strangely not American in its frankness), then go out to a club, where he learns she used to be a dancer there.  His gut tells him to end it there, but he can't say no to an invitation back to her place.  Here is where things go wrong.  She goes to her bedroom to get changed and then doesn't come out for a long time.  When he calls to her, the power goes out, somebody runs out of her bedroom and then her apartment.  When he goes to her bedroom he finds her stabbed to death with an ice pick.

This is the first two chapters, so I am not giving too much away as the book really starts here.  I felt slightly let down, as it felt like a less interesting Highsmith, where innocent Ken has to figure out how to play it.  However, my initial pessimism was unfounded as the book quickly expands to bring in a much larger cast of players.  The town itself is run by a shadowy crime boss, with high-ranking corrupt police officers and politicians doing his bidding.  His reign is on a shaky foundation and the murder of this girl and the possible exposure that she was living in an apartment full of call girls risks to bring it all down.  It ends up being a convoluted and exciting adventure.  Parts of it are a bit awkwardly plotted and there is even a glaring continuity error (when O'Brien the big boss calls a fixer to move out all the girls from the cat house and move in innocent people, he calls the same guy back ten minutes later, though several cross-scenes, and congratulates him on the job well done when there was no time and no way he could have known it was done at all) that suggests he and his editors cranked this one out.  Also, it does have an ersatz feel.  This is an anonymous American city (though at one point it gets a name in California) that though being small enough that the murder is the first one in a long time, has several night clubs, a wharf district with a seedy boardwalk, several cat houses, an opium den and guys who kill cops on the regular.  It's like Gangster City off of the RKO lot in print.  But that's okay because it is a lot of fun, with some good action and fun characters and doesn't take itself too seriously (though he can be hell of rough on some of those characters).  The ending made me chuckle.  Good stuff.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

4. The Age of Scandal by T. H. White

I got this at the Concordia book fare.  It was the nice penguin edition that attracted me and the potential of the contacts that sealed the deal.  It brought me back to my college days where I studied history.  This period really didn't interest me at the time but I knew from some readings that there was often quite juicy tidbits of "civilized" European craziness in the 18th and 19th century and it sounded like this book had a lot of that.  Also, as themes of elite behaviours and gossipy obsession with social media dominate today, I thought reading about how it happened in the past might help inform my understanding of our current predicament.

White's main thesis (after a weird little intro where he seems to argue for a British aristocracy) is that between the Age of Romance and the Age of Reason, which traditionally has been seen as a bit stiff, there actually was a lively, dramatic period in Britain that he labels the Age of Scandal.  He then writes chapters on a wide range of subjects (ranging from views on religion, to discipline to ears) and on several specific scandals (the short-lived queen of Denmark, The Gunnington twins) and on individuals (Horace Walpole, Hervey, de Sade), most of which I had been ignorant. 

I don't think it is unfair to say that this isn't a rigorous work of scholarship.  It is peppered with quotations, many without reference (which I appreciated; I always feel compelled to read foot and endnotes and it kills my flow).  His argument is not unconvincing but also I don't think he is trying too aggressively so I don't imagine he got a lot of counter-argument (probably a naive assumption on my part as this is history; somebody was outraged somewhere).  It's just a lot of fun and the chapters are short.  There were some extraordinary little adventures.  I also enjoyed the specifics on the toiletry of the time (interesting that the french aristocracy were considered dirtier and smellier than the english) as well as the brutality of the culture of discipline.  The notion that though still very much an aristocratic country, the closeness in general of the upper classes and the plebians made for an oddly dynamic polity.  The mechanism for this, according to White, was the mob.  The lords and ladies would get more and more out of control and then there would be a riot.  This made me think of God is an Englishman, where a mob destroying a cotton mill played a central role.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

3. Crown: Macao Mayhem by Terry Harknett

I had high hopes for this book.  Unfortunately, the ratio of cover coolness to content was excessively high.  I mean check out that cover!  Plus Hong Kong, you can see how I would snatch this up.  I found it at the Rennaissance thrift store on the more eastern side of ave Mont-Royal which I should probably check out more.

I was expecting there to be a good deal of colonial ignorance and possibly even racism and took that into consideration.  Macao Mayhem takes place in Hong Kong and Macao in pre-handover 70s HK when the British were still in charge.  The two characters on the cover are a pair of Royal Hong Kong Cops:  rigourously honest but of course refuses to play by the rules Senior Superintendent John Crown and his long-suffering more humble but still wisecracking partner Inspector Po Chang (who is Chinese but was raised in Australia and tends to speak english more than Chinese).  The plot is a bit of a muddle and begins with a high-level call girl leaving an assignation at a wealthy Portuguese businessman's house and then of course getting killed and brutally disemboweled (in that order).  It eventually ends up in a plot to kidnap an important American politician but this takes at least 80% of the book to get there.  The reader does not really know where we are going besides getting a lot of aggressive banter, car chases (which are decent) and some pretty good action scenes.  The fights are probably the one highlight of the book, as the moves are quite specifically detailed and the actions somewhat satisfying.

However, because we don't really have much direction, I found myself pretty disconnected.  Worse, it never actually gets as extreme as it threatens.  It's really crude, both in the narration and in dialogue, but never actually gets extreme. We always hear about the male character's sexual appetites but their fulfilling of them is always done offscreen.  There is some gore, but never due to human cruelty (which I appreciated).  The writing is sort of bald and none of the characters too likable.

The worse disappointment for me though was Hong Kong itself.  All the roads and locations are geographically detailed, but it feels like he just got it out of a map.  None of the descriptions are very evocative and we get very little of the local colour.  Harknett's bio says nothing about him living in Hong Kong, so it could be that he indeed read it all from a map.

Now my dilemma is do I put this beautiful but unfun read on the shelf?

Addendum:  I just did a bit of research and learned that Harknett was a prolific pulp author, who cranked out over 200 books.  Makes a bit more sense!  Even crazier, there is a copy of it for sale for $600 on Abe Books!!! Bro, I'll sell this copy for $100 and a random pulp fiction book of your choice. :)

Monday, January 06, 2020

2. Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

My mother recommended this to me after I had complained about the bizarre marriage rituals in Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly.  It takes places a decade earlier before the war and is focused more consistently on the aristocracy.  It is a nice contrast as both are very British and pretty classically constructed murder mysteries.

Ngaio's detective is Roderick Alleyn, himself of the upper crust.  This case begins with his elderly mother deciding she is going to return to society and participate as a chaperone in the many debutante balls that would be going on in London.  This leads us to a blackmail case that touches many of Alleyn's acquaintances.  He engages an old family friend to be his man on the inside and at the end of an important ball, this man is murdered.  So the investigation involves both the blackmail and his murder.  Were they connected?  Who among the last people at the party could have followed him into his cab and suffocated him?

It's a solid and well-plotted mystery with some genuinely captivating moments of detective mastery.  Marsh does a great job of setting up diverse unpleasant characters who get their comeuppance in the face of Alleyn's superb interviewing skills.  These moments were quite fun, especially with the two super-pompous lords (though their characterizations blended a bit and were over broad to be truly ideal; still fun).  In the end, the mystery was complex but not too much that you got lost or disconnected.  I get why she is one of the Grand Masters of mystery and was popular for so long (and probably still is).  Nice to know there is a significant back catalog of her books that I haven't read, so when the time comes that I want a sure bet, I can go to it.

Note, this was a Jove edition from the early 80s and it has a very nice cover design and illustration that was part of a series of her books that I find quite aesthetically fetching.  You can see the other books on the back cover.

Friday, January 03, 2020

1. Bearskin by James McLaughlin

I read this brief review by blogger John Oak Dalton whose taste I admire over a year ago and had been naively looking for Bearskins as a used book.  I finally asked for it for xmas and got it from my parents.  I think it was fairly succesful (at least critically), so not sure why it never turned up used but after reading it I am happy to help add a few more coins McLaughlin's profits.  This was a fantastic read, a great way to kick of the new year and decade.  I stayed up late reading it and then got up early on New Year's Day to finish it.

Bearskins is the kind of book that you want to give to certain of your manly friends who are literate but may not have read anything in a while.  If you know my tastes and personal politics, you will understand why I found the premise so compelling.  Rice Moore is on the run from the cartel and takes a job as a caretaker on a natural reserve in the Appalachians.  It is owned by a rich family and part of his job is to ensure that the locals don't do any poaching.  We learn early that though a thoughtful, educated person with a background in science, Moore has somehow a history of violence and may in fact be quite a badass.  When he discovers a bear carcass on the reserve, with its paws cut off and it's insides cut open but otherwise left to rot, he decides to investigate and stop whoever is doing this.  At the same time, we slowly learn about his backstory that led him to this solitary life.

This is a great male fantasy, I suspect especially for the more left-leaning environmentally aware reader who also loves his pulp fiction.  McLaughlin does an excellent job of constructing a new "woke" male hero.  Sexual violence is partially a plot driver and character-motivator here, which generally is a no-no for me. Somehow Mclaughlin elides around it that it avoids being the simplistic cliche of dude getting revenge and free to kick ass now that his woman is taken from him.  Rather we have a guy who is also a victim of trauma, who understands the trauma of other victims and is just trying to get on with his life.  The hunt for the bear poachers becomes a more general raison d'être as does his connection with the old growth forest he is trying to protect.

There are so many great elements here and it all comes together in some super-satisfying elite ass-kicking.  You get the tense relationship with the good and bad rednecks, multiple levels of badassery, respectable (local) and shitty (the feds, of course) law enforcement, some batshit back to nature stuff all add up to an all-around great time.

One thing about these new literary fiction pulp books is that they are so well-crafted.  I guess in today's market, you can no longer just crank out a story with an excellent plot.  It has to be workshopped with your local writing group, go through multiple revisions and every sentence nuanced so that it is almost poetry.  The writing here is straightforward and solid but it all feels so perfectly finished.  I suspect it took McLaughlin a long time.  This is not really a criticism, just an observation as there is a certain preciousness with the trade dress and the style of the writing that doesn't totally jibe with the subject matter. Hey, if more people buy it and he can write more books along this line, I am not complaining.