Sunday, May 19, 2024

29. The Chill and the Kill by Joan Fleming

Great cover, but come on
This is the second of the two Joan Fleming books that I bought based on the cover and the blurbs (very briefly skimmed) alone.  It's a different story and situation, but the books are very similar in their broad construction.  Both are wrapped up in the trappings and conventions of genre but really the bulk of the book is just about a bunch of interesting people in their environment.  The cover here is particularly egregious in how what it communicates has almost nothing to do with the actual book.

The main narrative is about a young adolescent girl in a small country town in England, who when struck by the Vicar's car, develops precognition.  This shows itself immediately when upon awaking and seeing the locum (new word for me, in this case it is the temporary doctor replacing the regular one), she announces that he will be found dead in the woods in a few weeks.  This indeed happens and she starts to become a sensation.  There is also eventually a murder (of which she also had a vision), but it happens almost at the very end of the book, with a few chapters of mystery speculation and then it is all resolved.

Most of the book, which is quite engaging, though is about the small town of Marklane, the various characters (with an emphasis on her family and the aristocratic family of the town) and their relationships.  The girls ESP powers are the thing that hangs it all together and create some change/conflict, but the book would have been probably 90% as enjoyable without that or the murder mystery.  I get the feeling Fleming had all this local life in her to write about but needed marketable elements to hang it on.  These aren't masterpieces of daily life, more like a pleasant and engrossing few hours in a gentle little British village. Not a bad way to spend the time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

28. Running Wild by J.G. Ballard

This really is a novella, but it is in its own, separate book, so I'm counting it.  It's written from the perspective of an unnamed psychiatrist who though not well-respected because of some of his more outlandish theories and approaches, is called in to investigate a mass murder and kidnapping in a gated upper middle-class estate.  In a matter of hours, every single adult was brutally and efficiently murdered and all the children spirited away.


Though it is presented initially as a mystery, the basic secret is pretty obvious right from the get-go.  I wonder if we have become that much jaded in our media since 1988 when this was written that it is possible at the time that it wouldn't be obvious what happened here.  The lack of mystery is okay,  because this book is really more of one of Ballard's many explorations of an idea.  What's great here is that he is basically foreshadowing the potential horrors of extreme helicopter parenting (tip of the hat to Meezly for pointing that out).  As the investigator explores the estate, we learn how the children there had the perfect lives, with everything taken care of and  their parents being hyper-sensitive and loving but also hyper-vigilant.  All the kids were successful, high-achieving and well-adjusted.  Until they weren't.

I also add that Ballard is just a very good writer, with clear, direct prose that moves along with just enough imagery and figures of speech to enrichen without distracting.  He does descriptions of murder scenes in a very effective way without ever needing to go really into the gore.  At the beginning, I got the feeling he was enjoying simply exploring the horror of this perfect estate on its own without even referencing the murders that had happened.

A fun, instructive and gruesome little read.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

27. The Black-Eyed Stranger by Charlotte Armstrong

I respect Charlotte Armstrong, but I'm not sure I love her works always.  She has a tendency to emphasize the inner thoughts of her characters over actual action, so you get a lot of pages where it's not clear if anything has happened.  Her characters also tend to wallow in their anxiety, which I think is representative of the time and milieu in which she wrote but also perhaps of her feminine perspective.  She is very skilled in her prose, her plots and characters, for me, they are sometimes submerged too deeply in the fretting and worry of half-sentences and unfinished thoughts.

The Black-Eyed Stranger went particularly hard in this direction and it was a bit of a slog for me to get through.  It also felt somewhat implausible and that the main character's actions didn't entirely make sense.  The story opens in a party somewhere where uptown girls shouldn't be and an uptown girl, an heiress is off to the side when an older man notices and strikes up an odd conversation, basically suggesting in a pleasant way that she probably shouldn't be there.

This older guy is Sam Lynch, the black-eyed stranger, a journalist with a knack at figuring things out and holding his tongue, to the point that it has hurt his career.  In the next scene, he stumbles upon the gangster, Ambiellie and his gigantic and simple right hand man "Baby".  Lynch cottons on by his knack that they are planning to kidnap the heiress.  Driven by his conscience (and because he was so charmed by the girl), he decides he finally has to act rather than just sit on the sidelines, but he risks his own life because if Ambielli learns that it was Lynch who warned the family, he would definitely go after him.

It's a great premise, but we get pages and pages of dialogue where nobody (and especially Lynch) will just come out and say what is going on.  It is sort of justified, but it is also super spazzy.  He doesn't trust the family to properly protect her, I guess because they are so naive about the world of crime or something and he then does something really crazy.  The heiress' fiance is an upper-class "do-gooder" who studies crime (that's why they were at the party), but also made out to be a real idiot and obnoxiously opposed to Lynch.  He never gets a satisfying comeuppance.  The ending is kind of exciting and it all sort of came together with a weird sort of older man younger girl romance of respect.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

26. A Ticket to Hell by Harry Whittington

Ah, that's more like it.  After slogging through the muddled and over-stuffed Blue Moon, I needed a well-written palate cleanser and who better to turn to than paperback pro Harry Wittington. This book starts out moving forward, lean and focused with a trunkful of intrigue.  A guy (whose name we later learn is Ric Durazo) is driving a porsche fast across a desert state. He's picked up a young punk hitchhiker and he knows the punk is going to try and roll him.  In the first few pages, you that he is bitter, that he is tough and that he has some kind of mission in the small town of Los Solanos, New Mexico.

For some reason, he is supposed to check into a specific motel and lay low there, awaiting a call.  Of course, right away there is trouble. The hotel owner's wife has "her pants on fire" (I love this phrase) and immediately becomes resentful and nosy when Ric rejects her advances.  Worse, while waiting in his room and looking through the blinds, he sees the dude in the cabin next door sneak out, turn off the gas line (which will kill the pilot light to the heater) and then turn it back on again, seemingly attempting to murder his wife asleep inside.  And thus the moral choice is thrust upon him, either don't get involved and wait for the phone call (whose provenance is not yet explained but is clearly of the ultimate importance to Ric) or go out and save the girl.

Ric, of course, does get involved and shit gets complicated.  As it turns out, Ric's back story and his reason for being out there is the main narrative and more interesting.  Whittington does an expert job of both putting Ric in an impossible position and slowly teasing out what he is doing out there.  We get a long chase in the desert mountains, some intense romance (hinging on Ric providing the woman with her first real orgasm, which is either a bit much or quite fun or both) and a cool shoot-out.  It's an intense, readable little thriller, though ultimately falls on the heroic rather than noir side (which I appreciated, being a big softie).

I picked up this Black Lizard edition for a buck at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale.  I actually have a very minor indirect history with Black Lizard books. I worked during my college years at a book distribution warehouse for a minor empire of used books and remainders and they had an excellent collection of Black Lizards.  The story goes that Barry Gifford himself delivered them and was a total asshole to the point that he was throwing boxes of books from the back of the truck onto the guys from the warehouse trying to unload them.  It never was explained what he was so mad about, but I'll forgive him as Black Lizard books was crucial to reviving the careers and reputations of several great crime authors and The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films is one of my all-time favourite books.

Monday, May 06, 2024

25. Blue Moon by Walter Wager

I can't remember who recommended Walter Wager's books.  I noted that they had specifically recommended the books Viper Three and Sledgehammer.  This was the first I had found in years (at Moe's in Berkeley) so I grabbed it.  Unfortunately, it really wasn't good to the point that I think I will have to take his name off my list.  The issues I had with Blue Moon were deep enough that I do not have confidence that any of his other books would be to my liking.

Blue Moon was written in 1980 and the novel idea is that the protagonist is an ex-CIA turned head of a private security agency who is a badass (but super hot) woman.  The story here is that she is hired by a top-level background mafia don (he flies her via helicopter to his armed and secured outpost in the desert) to investigate a ransom extortion plot against several mafia-run hotels in Las Vegas.  Anonymous badguys are asking for 5 million or they will bomb several hotels.  Because the mafia doesn't want any of their background activities revealed to the feds, they hire Alison Gordon.

The fundamental problem with this book is apparent early on, excessive explaining.  I hoped this would only be in the beginning, but it is pervasive and exhausting.  This book could have been 2/3 possibly even half the length and a lot of more fun if somebody had gone through and cut out all the side references and diversions that I guess were supposed to be interesting but just seemed distracting.  The second major problem is that the plot and the characters are all over the place.  The actual stuff going on is not bad, but it is all revealed so awkwardly, with fake-out red herrings that are not satisfyingly resolved and a second conspiracy that is weaved in and out in a confusing fashion so that by the time the big climax is setting up, you kind of don't care any more.

There are also several annoying behaviours in the writing, that one could critique as not being PC but are also just stupid and tiresome.  He is just constantly going on and on about Gordon's beauty and in particular her breasts.  Pretty much every female character has her breasts discussed and breasts are constantly mentioned even when there aren't specific characters.  Hey, I love breasts and am quite happy to read about them, but this felt like it was edited by a 13 year old boy who wanted more boobies.  Likewise, I know this was the end of the 70s and the early 80s, a very awkward period for us Yakubians culture-wise, but again it's just the constant mentioning of the race of a character (of which to be fair there was quite a diverse group amongst the good guys) and then some cliche or (even cleverer) a surprising anti-cliche!  Oh look it's the black driver who also has a Ph.D!

This was really a slog.  The actual story could have been a lot of fun, with a combo of ex-military bank robbers and a Carlos-type (literally named Carlos) radical left terrorist plotting a bomb attack using RC airplanes.  Unfortunately, the layers of badness eliminated pretty much any of the fun. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

24. Every Man a Menace by Patrick Hoffman

This is the second Patrick Hoffman I read.  I found it, if memory serves, at the Oakland White Elephant sale.  I had read The White Van and quite enjoyed it but very little of it stayed with me.  I hope Every Man a Menace stays with me and it should because it really impacted me as I read it.  I had to wait a couple of days before jumping into my next book as this one was so enjoyable (and went by so fast, I basically read it in a day) I wanted to marinate it in my mind for a while.

The title is great and broadly fits the book as you are reading it (as most of the people in it are menacing) but becomes specifically very apt at the end.  It could also have been retitled "and those who aren't a menace are victims and the trap is closing tightly around them and it is just a matter of time before they realize it when it is too late."  This is a rough, unforgiving book.  I don't normally enjoy books where bad things happen to people, but Hoffman successfully walks that thin line where you know the character is screwed while understanding and believing how impossible his position is without it being too obvious or unnecessarily cruel.  It is divided into 3 parts with 3 arguably 4 main protagonists and a variety of geographical and character diversions that round out into a rich morality play about crime in the age of globalism as well as a thoroughly enjoyable fictional documentary on the logistics and relationships of said crime.

The crime in question is the smuggling and distribution of large quantities of ecstacy coming from Asia and into the United States.  The first part of the narrative involves Raymond Gaspar a young Californian man recently released from prison where he was the right-hand man to Arthur, a powerful, connected drug dealer.  Arthur sends him to check up on a straightforward and lucrative deal that he had put in place years before where a Filipino woman picks up a bag of ecstasy and sells it to an older white guy who has recently been acting eccentrically.  Arthur gets a 10% finder's fee on this deal every time but for reasons that are not clear, he wants Raymond to check it out and possibly cut out one of the two players and take over that side for himself.  Things immediately are not as easy as they seemed.  I want to highlight a great scene where he goes to meet the supposedly eccentric ecstasy recipient and the guy is truly unsettling and weird, forces him to take acid and then tells Raymond "you crazy son of a bitch!  You're crazy!"  It's hilarious.

The scene shifts to Miami in part 2 and we learn about the two Israeli expats who met in the IDF and are the ones bringing in the ecstasy from Thailand.  This section goes into detail in their background and how they were able to connect to the big asian drug gangs.  It's very cool.  The third section brings in a new player that I won't reveal as the fun is in the reading.  Suffice it to say that a lot of wild shit goes down and it's a lot of dark fun.  I read this in 24 hours (took a reluctant break to go to bed; proud of self-discipline) and enjoyed every page.  Hoffman was an investigator himself and I don't know how realistic all the details are in this book, but they felt real.  I think you could make a good analysis that this book is also about globalism and the impact of corporate decisions on individuals.  Though more directly violent, there isn't a lot of difference in the way people are exploited between a "legit" global corporation and an illegal narcotics network.  Anyhow, a great book.  Strong recommendation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

23. Hellspark by Janet Kagan

I am actually looking for Kagan's other book, Mirabile, however since she has only published three books, I was happy to find Hellspark.  She is a lost author whom sci-fi heads really respect and whose loss at only 61 due to Lyme's disease and other immune complications still leaves a quiet sadness among the community.

Hellspark is real science fiction in that its main purpose is to investigate and explore a very human concept in the context of technological advances and space travel.  The concept is language and how humans communicate across cultures, but extrapolated here to a future or a galaxy where humanity is spread across solar systems and the language differences go far beyond just spoken language, but cultural and physical ways of communicating.  The set up is that the protagonist, Tocohl Sosumi, is what is known as a Hellspark Trader.  She is responsible for trading between worlds, but this seems almost secondary to her skill in languages and cross-cultural communication. 

Tocohl is hired by a member of a survey team who has been investigating Lassti, a super electrified planet for an exploratory/exploitative company called EKM.  In this world, there are strict rules about which planets can be exploited and the big one is if they have sentient life.  Lassti has these feathered humanoid creatures labelled "Sprookjes" who seem only able to exactly mimic the words of the surveyors but haven't demonstrated any specific signs of sentience.  The leader of the survey team quickly sends a final report saying there is no sentient life but most of the surveyors object so Tocohl is hired.  Also, one of the surveyors died in a suspicious accident.

It is not a super action-packed story.  Most of the narrative is Tocohl interpreting first the various cultures among the survey team and helping them to better get along with each other.  She also has a companion "interpolative computer" which is what we could call today AI called Maggy and a lot of the story is Maggy also learning about how these various galactic humans communicate as well as how sentients in general behave.  The main mystery is whether or not the Sprookjes are sentient and if so how can it be discovered?  The accident/murder, though central to everything else is almost kind of an afterthought.

This kind of book is really not my jam, but I just found it slow-going rather than annoying wanking in some sci-fi books that want to explore a theme.  In many ways, it was very ahead of its time as now with the global internet and cultural understanding being such a big part of public discourse.  I struggled to stay focused on the puzzles of interaction between the various humans, but the deduction of how the Sprookjes commuicate and how it is a function of their environment (constant electrical storms, plants that shock, etc.) is really cool and well thought out.

Hellspark was written in 1988 and it really reminds me how much this horrid wave of consnerdatives whose loud and tiresome voices have polluted nerddom.  This book would probably be considered "woke" by these losers, but it really was much more a general reflection of the broad ethos of sci-fi at the end of the 20th century: the general goal is to be caring and respectful of others and try and work together for the betterment of all. It is pleasant to read a book that doesn't have to be fighting against that notion but just assumes it.