Thursday, November 03, 2022

57. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

I read this to my daughter who is now 10.  It's one of my wife's favourites and the nice Laurel-Leaf paperback was the one she read as a girl.  It is a great little book that lives up to its reputation. What works here is the Robinson Crusoe fantasy, but done with an adolescent girl. Also, it is sort of the opposite in that she is not shipwrecked on an island but accidentally abandoned as her community all flee after a fight with Otter hunting Aleuts leaves them vulnerable.  Because she is a girl, she doesn't have the hunting and building skills that the men had and has to figure them out on her own from what she saw growing up. This was one element that my daughter heavily criticized and also made me suspect may be historically inaccurate.  Or at least O'Dell never checked.  My understanding was that a lot of the west coast people were matrilineal, though I don't know how that would impact education and it may have varied a lot depending on the region.

Still, her teaching herself fishing and canoe repair is a cool part of the story.  Despite not having all the skills, she is tough and non-emotional when she has to be.  It makes for a good protagonist for girls and boys.  I don't have a whole lot to add, just to say if you are looking for a good read for your tweener and even teen child, I can recommend this one.  Sadly, the real story is quite dark.  All her people were taken to Santa Barbara and died there of disease.  When she did get found, she too was sailed to Santa Barbara, where she could speak to nobody but 3 of the remaining people.  She died 7 weeks later and was the last of her language group.  It sounded like her life wasn't too bad in those last 7 weeks, that she was excited to have different kinds of food and see the world.  The book hints at this at the end, making it ultimately quite sad.



Tuesday, November 01, 2022

56. Dance of the Dwarves by Geoffrey Household

I took this mainly for the cover.  I like but don't love Household's work, though he is often quite interesting.  This one is quite odd.  I found the reading of it to be a bit slow and even trying at times.  This was partly because not much goes on and it is indeed slow, but also because I was never sure of the mission here.  This is not a "masterpiece of the macabre as the cover says.  It is neither a masterpiece (and I didn't expect it to be) nor macabre.  I did expect it to be macabre and it wasn't until the final third that I realized this is more of a semi-realistic speculative fiction for hunting nerds. It is basically about an amateur hunter discovering and researching a previously unknown predator species at the edge the South American jungle.  If you are really into hunting narratives, this might be your jam.  There is a weird and questionable romantic storyline as well that sort of brings everything together.  Ultimately, though, this feels like it had enough content maybe for a short story.

The story takes place in a remote area between plains and jungle in Colombia, where an Argentine born and raised Brit, Owen Dawnay, is researching soils and planting techniques.  It is truly desolate.  He lives in an abandoned estancia a few hours walk from a tiny "town".  The book is framed with a preface explaining how Dawnay's body was found in the estancia, presumably murdered by some leftist revolutionaries.  Then later a diary is discovered, which makes up the rest of the book.  It is all very well-written and the description and portrayal of the region, both the physical environment and the small world of the locals (mainly natives, itinerant cattlemen, the Spanish guy who runs the store and the aforementioned revolutionaries who show up from time to time to be intrusive and self-righteous and implicitly criticized by locals and Dawnway) are thorough and realistic.  The problem is that really not much happens.  There are visits and eventually he is gifted a young native girl from Bogota.  This whole storyline is incredibly problematic to say the least, though also probably realistic for the time.  She becomes his love and sort of daughter (she may not yet be even 15) and as the book moves on, he does fall in love with her.  He treats her quite well but the whole thing is quite tough to read and exposes Household's colonial perspective in about a dark a way as possible.  She is often referred to as an object and he is pleasantly and wondrously surprised when she demonstrates the smallest hint of an actual personhood.  Yikes!

The other storyline is that of the "duende", supposed magical and evil dwarves that come out for humans at night.  Other than Joaquin, the local shaman, nobody else will explicitly mention them.  They do however refuse to travel in certain areas at night, get scared when Own tries to play the guitar and they shut all the doors and gates the estancia each night.  Own gets interested and much of the second half of the book is him tracking these duende, which he discovers may be some kind of relative of the stoat, based on their hunting technique, but much larger and with a weird bouncing gate that makes them look like little dwarves.  They are actually quite dangerous and stalking and hunting them puts Owen's own life at risk.

So yeah, it's a kind of cool idea and I was absorbed with the setting, but I'm still not sure what the point of it all was and I found myself having to push to get through to the end.  And since I knew what was going to happen, though not precisely how, I wasn't all that interested to get there.  It was sort of satisfying how it all wrapped up.


 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

55. Murder in the Madhouse by Jonathan Latimer

This is the second book by Jonathan Latimer that I have picked up in search of the coveted Solomon's Vineyard, which ranked high in Paperback Warrior's top ten one year, I think even number 1.  The opening is fantastic, with detective (though you don't know it at the time) William Crane, handcuffed in the back of an ambulance being driven to a fancy asylum for the wealthy.  The driver and the orderly are passing a bottle of homemade applejack (I really want to try this one day) back and forth and getting drunker and drunker.  It gets even more fun, as Crane almost immediately starts causing trouble when he does get checked in, busting the stuffy (and clearly suspect) head doctor of messing around with the nurse and then kicking another doctor in the head before the orderlies can get him into the detention room.  It's quite satisfying and fun right away.

He has been sent to investigate the theft of Mrs. Van Sant's metal box with $400,000 of bonds and a key to a safety deposit box with even more money.  Quite soon after Crane's arrival, the murders happen.  Latimer has a sparse writing style which is constantly moving forward, sometimes even skipping over details that you have to pick up on your own.  It's quite enjoyable to read.  Furthermore, there is no false modesty or bourgeois sensibilities covering up the behaviour of the characters.  They are direct and like to party.  Crane seems to drink as often as possible, often passing out in the middle of the day.  The men are hitting on the women and the women are no saying no.  I think this must be that depression-era prohibition culture and that Latimer hits the notes often because that's what people wanted to read.  Unfortunately, he also hits the murder and sleuthing notes often, to the point where it gets kind of absurd.  After the first body, two more are killed in fairly quick succession.  An idiotic sheriff comes with his deputies (one of whom is his son) and is absolutely clueless and arbitrary.  As it says on the back cover, it gets "daffy".  I still had a lot of fun reading this and will definitely pick up more of his books.  I just need to go in not expecting a whole lot in the execution of the plot and to remember that the tone is both hard-boiled and comic.

Note: the image above is not mine but it is the edition I found.  It's from Library of Crime Classics line by International Polygonics ltd. New York City.  Quite the amateur layout, but it captures all the key elements: a madhouse, a fountain (crucial to the plot in a not clever way) and boobs!

Monday, October 24, 2022

54. Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

Beware the trade paperback hyped by mainstream newspapers!  I exaggerate for effect.  I have been keeping an eye out for the Jean-Claude Izzo Marseilles trilogy for a while. I can't remember where I first heard it recommended but judging by the pull quotes on the copy I did find at Pegaus books, the hype reached a fever pitch amongst the literati.  Everybody was saying how hard-boiled his work was.  It's tough and there is some pretty harsh stuff here (unfortunately some of it the tired victimized women to motivate lone wolf male hero who can't make love work troope), but this is not what I call hard-boiled.  From the intro, I guess it is an evolution of the french neo-polar such as Manchette, where the world of crime is also intensely political.  There is a lot of poetic prose, which works okay in english and probably quite better in french as well as many very specific food and wine references.  It's all too flowery to make this book be hard-boiled, no matter the bleakness of the content.

Stripping away the hype and the mislabelling, this was a decent modern crime/mystery novel.  It begins with a man Ugo, returning from 20 years (in jail we presume though it is never explicitly mentioned) to avenge the murder of his criminal buddy, Manu.  An older criminal figure who is well connected points him to a high-ranking crime lawyer, whom Ugo shoots down. He is then gunned down by the police.  This is really just the inroduction to the main story and protagonist, sidelined cop Fabio who was the third friend.  His unofficial investigation into his friend's murder quickly dovetails into several other investigations (including the rape and murder of Leila an Algerian immigrant's daughter with whom he almost had a relationship) which then lead into the complex politics of the Marseilles underworld.

The descriptions of day-to-day life in Marseilles are juxtaposed with more expository (but brief) explanations of the tangled criminal networks in this central port city.  The latter is quite cool, but also often told rather than shown and at such a high scale that I sort of got lost and a bit disconnected.  It all does come together a bit quickly at the end and a bit too satisfyingly.  I accept that I am contradicting myself here, generally wanting a satisfying ending but not too satisfying.  This almost felt pat and a bit too easy after the convincing portrayal of the flexible power of the corruption between organized crime, business and politics in Marseille.

So I am glad that I have read the first book, but I do not feel a strong urge to continue with the trilogy.  I also am happy that Mediterranean Noir is supposedly a thing now and would be interested in other examples.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

53. Ora:Cle by Kevin O'Donnell, Jr.

Ora:Cle was recommended by a colleague who is an old school nerd with some interesting and intelligent perspectives, so I thought I would take him up on it.  It was an interesting read, hampered for me somewhat for being the kind of theoretical sci-fi that prefers ideas over narrative, but ultimately sticking the landing.  It takes place roughly 200 years in the future when everybody is forced to stay inside in order to protect what little organic life remains in order to maintain the C02 levels.  Further keeping people inside, a fleet of pteradactyl like aliens, the Dac, hover near the moon, sending down ships of who appear to simply be trophy-hunting humans.  Any attempt at fighting back has led in the past to massive retaliation by the Dac such as destroying an entire city.

Our hero Ale Elatey makes his money as a Seeley, basically part of an online group of researchers who will answer any question in their field of knowledge.  Their "internet" is Ora:Cle.  There is lots of fun tech in this future world, remotely-controlled repair bots, medics and police.  Everything is brought in to the homes via matter transmitter.  It's funny to have such advanced technology next to artifacts from the period it was written (1984) such as a box of floppy disks.  Also, the general size of the data is still so small (measured in megabytes) compared to the scale of digital junk we are hoarding in the cloud today.  Sadly, the gender politics are also as archaic.  Ale's wife is smart and tough and hard-working but also represents the shrill, overly-emotional foil who wants Ale to not take any risks that would upset their domestic peace.

The big idea or ideas here are who controls the information and whether it should be controlled or not.  Because all the action takes place in Ale's apartment, we have a lot of world-wide power struggles going on  via a telescreen, which felt unrealistic and took me out of the narrative.  There is a global security group called the Coalition that first came in place in response to the environmental crisis but now stays in place to deal with the Dacs.  The main conflict in the book is about them trying to kill Ale and gain control over Ora:Cle to control the dissemination of news to the world.  There are some prescient and interesting ideas that are relevant to today's challenges but it's only at the very end when a big secret is revealed that they coalesce into something interesting.  Is it acceptable to censor information from the public if that information would put the world at risk if it were available to the public?


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

52. The Furies by Niven Busch

My friend who was clearing out some of his old DVDs gave me this Criterion DVD and book set because he thought I might be interested in the book.  I was expecting a western noir.  From the beginning, the richness of the prose and the slowness of the pacing made me realize I was in for something more baroque.  I guess you could call it a western melodrama maybe?  The story centers around the Jessup family and particularly the relation between uber-patriarch and cattle baron T.C. and his daughter Vance.  She is a great character, right from the beginning.  You have this feeling that she is going to get screwed, as she is already sleeping with a Mexican cowboy (with a good but unrecognized lineage).  Instead, she is pretty kickass right from the beginning.  Her flaw is not one of weakness but rather she is too like her hardass father.  A lot goes on in the book with her character, ultimately revolving around her relationship with her father.  It's extremely Freudian and epic.  I appreciated that while she suffers a lot, none of it is in the cliched vein of the victimized woman.  Rather, it is the result of her power struggles with her father.  Everyone in this book turns out to be the person others are warned about.  The warning for T.C. is that he will use anybody to his own ends and this is indeed the case.  Despite that and the terrible things he does, in his limited way he loves and respects his daughter.  He is just a driven, self-centered son of a bitch.

It's an enjoyable, rich read.  The prose style is too baroque for my tastes, but you get a great sense of the plains and mountains, of the people and the cattle on these western lands.  It doesn't feel entirely authentic and I was not too surprised to learn that Busch was a wealthy new englander, well-connected to get a starting job at Time magazine and then plumb screenwriting connections with Walter O. Seznick's son.  He even married Teresa Wright!  Nevertheless, he is a good writer and this is a sprawling page turner.  I am looking forward to watching the movie.

Monday, October 17, 2022

51. Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh

Okay, it took this book to finally nail home my lesson about Ngaio Marsh.  Her books are not relaxing, escapist fare!  I brought this with me on a work trip, thinking I could use it in my free moments and on the plane to kill time.  Instead I struggled with the opening, barely able to get through a page, sometimes even a paragraph before I got distracted or nodded off.  This shit requires serious focus.  You spend the whole opening on trying to understand the layout of a New Zealand sheep farm and manor (impossible for me to visualize and no map provided) and once you have given up on that, it's page after page of who went where among 6 different characters (at least there was a cast of characters, though only with their formal names and not all the different nicknames and titles that are used in the book and no relationship map which was also needed; which nephew!?) while they were looking for a lost brooch.  What really made all this sleuthing nerdery even more difficult to follow is that none of the relationships or the setting and situation are established, so you have no context for any of it.  For front-loading the mystery minutiae at the beginning I am going to have to blame the author.  In general, though I just have to remember that Ngaoi Marsh's books though also including fun characters studies and interesting situations are still ultimately whodunnits of the highest order and require a level of concentration that I cannot bring to a book.

So basically, this set me back almost two weeks of reading.  I finally got hooked in once I got back from my trip and actually finished it on another plane flight.  There was some good here, the portrayal of the New Zealand mountains and the sheep farm (and the process and locations for the shearing) were really interesting and kept the pages turning.  The slow revelation of the victim, the farm matriarch and local MP, who goes from strong, inspiring woman to quite nasty, even abusive manipulator is well done.  It gets particularly dark with the story of the local lad with musical talent that she took under her wing.  The murder is gruesome, or rather the disposal of the body, which is stuffed into a bale of wool and then compressed.  In the end, the revelation, though, left me a bit cold.  I think I am done with Ngaoi Marsh for a while.