Monday, October 25, 2021

63. Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling

I've never read a Bruce Sterling book, which is sort of a big omission since I am of the cyberpunk generation.  Neuromancer blew my mind at 15.  Found this in the free shelf on Waverly and thought it would be a good opportunity to rectify that omission. I don't really know how I feel about this book.  It's not bad, but I didn't really get the point of it.  It doesn't follow the typical narrative structure of a novel, which is not a bad thing at all.  There just wasn't enough in it for me to really get caught up in the storyline and the main character.  That being said, there were several neat ideas and moments that gave me things to ponder in an enjoyable sci-fi way.  

It takes place at the end of the 21st century, about a hundred years from the 1990s when it was written.  The idea is that medical advancements have gotten humanity to be almost immortal. The world is run by the polity who maintains health and order.  The idea is that the old people stay in control and the world cannot really evolve culturally anymore.  It's a post-scarcity society but the young people all feel trapped and limited.  I didn't really feel convinced by this.  The protagonist is Mia an old civil servant who has always played it safe.  She gets a radical new treatment that makes her young again and then decides to break free, flees to europe and joins various culture and fashion groups and does somewhat wild things.

So you learn about the dissatisfaction of the youth from her meetings with said youth, but you don't really get to see it.  Mia's rebelliousness is also inconsistent.  Part of it is that you don't know how much of her behaviour is because of the treatment and how much is just her.  That is okay but none of it really amounted to anything. There is a lot of discussion about art.  She becomes a hit fashion model, then tries to be a photographer.  There is also a side story of a virtual castle that is bequeathed to her by an old boyfriend that doesn't really go anywhere.  Now that I think about it, it feels like this book was more a collection of ideas and semi-stories that never got held together fully. I wonder which is the Bruce Sterling I should read?

Note to self: be wary of books with review blurbs using the words "haunting", "lyrical" and "triumph".

Friday, October 15, 2021

62. Perry Mason Solves the Case of the Nervous Accomplice by Erle Stanley Gardner

When I was a kid, the Perry Mason TV show seemed to be on fairly regularily.  I didn't love it but would watch it on the general principle at the time to watch whatever was on TV whereever I was given the opportunity since we did not have a TV at home.  I remember vaguely being able to follow the plot and the legal twists that came up. This is the first time I have read one of the books and two things stood out me and surprised me somewhat.  

First, Perry Mason seems completely without morals and his legal ethics seem super questionable.  In this book, he gets his client to hail the same taxi she took the night before (where the driver recognized her which would put her at the scene of the murder) which investigator Paul Drake tracked via radio and then take the exact same trip at the same cost but with a new outfit and a friend to later use that to make the taxi driver look unreliable on the stand.  That can't be allowed, can it?  And the crazy thing is at that time, Mason himself wasn't convinced that his client was innocent.  It surprised me to see such a cynical take on legal procedure from the early 50s but I guess lawyers have been gaming the system since they were released on the world.

Second, Hamilton Burger, the prosecuting attorney and I guess regular foil for Mason is comically stupid and always and obviously two steps behind.  Every objection he makes he uses the same phrase "objected to as incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial." Ultimately, Perry Mason does perform some clever tricks to expose the truth, but he is just so clearly superior to the opposition that it seems to steal any tension from the story.  Maybe that was intended.  

There was a dry patch before the trial started where I started to lose interest, but the initials set-up was enjoyable with some depressing sexual politics of the time thrown in. He is hired by a wife who knows her husband is having an affair. Instead of busting him, she wants Mason to help her with a scheme to turn the mistress from fantasy escape lover to annoying dependent, while she plays the positive one. It's actually probably a good strategy but depends on the woman accepting that she loves her husband or wants to keep the marriage no matter what. The ending was somewhat fun too and the solution to the murder more or less solid, though with some sketchy ballistics.  I found this in a box on my street and there was another one so I'll read that at some point.  It is unlikely I will make this series staple reading but glad to have finally been exposed to it.

On a sad note, in order to read this book I had to turn the pages, which separate them from the glue to the binding.  It always pains me and I'll try everything to give a book a chance to get another read, but this may be one paperback whose life has come to an end.

Monday, October 11, 2021

61. Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door by Wilt Chamberlain and David Shaw

Somebody has been slowly dropping off a large collection of 60s and 70s hardback non-fiction biography and autobiography books in the St-Viateur free shelf these last couple of weeks.  It's mostly Canadian and British political figures (you know you are getting old when you feel a teeny but quickly suppressed inkling to read a Joe Clark biography) so I was quite excited to stumble upon Wilt's autobiography.  I've educated myself on the hoops of the 60s and 70s with some recent sports journalism reads, so I was psyched to find an actual primary source on the subject.

A lot of this book is Wilt, coherently and convincingly, arguing against the consistent criticisms he faced throughout his career.  When you are exposed to the absolute insanity of his career stats (he led the leg in at least one of scoring, rebound or assists each of his 14 seasons) that go beyond his most famous exploits (10,000 women, 100 point-game), it does seem to suggest that people sort of had it out for him.  The two biggest critiques of him were: 1) that he wasn't actually that skilled or worked hard, just really big and 2) that he couldn't win when it counted.  Both are bullshit. There was a lot of tension and drama around Wilt and the other big men.  He and Russell went at it as did he and Kareem.  His supporting of Nixon is really an excellent example of a smart person being blinded by his wealth and privilege (comparably to some of these anti-vaxxer players today) and is for me Wilt's second biggest actual flaw.  

The biggest flaw is that, at least the way he tells it here, he is a little bit boring.  He seems like a really cool, intelligent life winner who isn't actually all that interesting, though probably a lot of fun to hang out with.  In some ways, he is kind of a superman who kind of transcends race and class at the time (relatively speaking).  He is certainly very outspoken about racism which he recognizes and calls out fairly frequently in the NBA and NCAA, but he seems to have mostly avoided actual ill effects by dint of his innate physical superiority and coolness.  So he doesn't play it safe, but somehow it all comes off very rational and even-keeled.  He goes through all his seasons and the playoff endings in some detail, which while interesting for a hoops nerd like me also makes the book unthrilling.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

60. Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Discovered this, plus another Ngaio Marsh and two Perry Masons in boxes of free stuff just down the street from me!  They were already beat up and then got some water damage from a light rain that had happened over night and that only freed me up to not have to worry about taking care of them.  My love for paperbacks started this way, back in the naive and carefree days when we did not think of them as collectibles but something cheap and portable.  It's nice to have a book every now and then that you can just throw in your bag and stuff in a pocket and not worry about keeping it in pristine condition.  After hearing how Eric from Paperback Warrior got a severe and weird lung infection, possibly from sitting amongst moldy books, I left these outside for a few days and took care to fan the pages and blow as much dust and whatever from them.

The book itself was another solid murder mystery from Marsh.  What made this one stand out was the nice (but sad because it was shattered by the murder) portrayal of the traveling theater company as well as the great look at New Zealand, Marsh's homeland.  Inspector Alleyn is supposed to be on vacation but of course gets mixed up in a murder. On the boat to New Zealand, he falls in with a theatre company. There is a minor kerfluffle on the train when the co-owner is almost kicked off the viewing platform.  His fate is sealed for good later when an elaborate birthday surprise for his wife and lead actress goes horribly wrong.  He had intended to lower a giant bottle of champagne, but somebody removed the counterweight and it smashed his head in. Bonus points for the Fontana photo cover which actually shows this (right down to the jeroboam larger-size champagne bottle).

Marsh is just a great writer.  I enjoyed this book more for the interactions and rich characters, especially the interesting insider writer writing as outsider visitor to New Zealand, than the mystery itself.  The Maori doctor is really great.  I almost wish he had a series of his own.  Fun read.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

59. Cybernia by Lou Cameron

This is another one that I picked up on a whim at Zoinks Music and Books in Toronto.  The design of this book hits my sweet spot.  I love the wacky but clear illustration and the choice of typeface and colours works for me.  The weird three (or maybe four) -eyed surveillance signpost on the cover even caught my daughter's eye, who asked me twice what it was about.  The image only symbolically represents anything that happens in the book as there is no Ridge or Centre streets, nor a signpost with a rubbery sphere with humanoid eyes atop it in the story.

The premise quite good.  A small town nestled in the remote forests of Norther New Jersey is run entirely by computer.  It does the maintenance, much of the security and manages all its own billing and paperwork. The protagonist, Ross MacLean is called there by his friend, who is starting to get paranoid that the town is out to get him.  Quite soon after the arrival, the friend is indeed killed in a freak accident.  I was hoping for some combination of The Demon Seed and The Corbin Affair but the book never really goes there.  There is a lot of early '70s engineering nerdiry that seems specific enough to suggest the author knew what he was talking about, but any science specifics are undermined by the inconsistent plotting.  It can't decide if it wants to be a thriller or a mystery and the one blocks the other, where we are guessing when it doesn't advance the story and everything is revealed too quickly and then we don't care.  There is also a lot of really dumb sexism which I can usually accept as an artifact of the time. Here the author seems to want to make a point of how woman can only push buttons and not understand any theory. It's honestly offensive. He also has to make a weird point of heterosexuality.  At one point, the town's elderly founder, a well-known theorist, invites Maclean to stay at his place, since he needs a place to stay and says "Don't worry, I'm heterosexual."  WTF early 70s?

There is a little bit of mayhem at the end where the programming of a sex robot gets wire-crossed with the town alarm system while all hell is breaking loose that is fun.  I also enjoyed learning about the Jackson Whites, but overall not a great book.  Too bad, because it sure looks beautiful!

I have found that Lou Cameron was an extremely prolific pulp author and comic book artist, who wrote the Longarm series (basically sex-western series, that I learned about from Paperback Warrior).



Saturday, September 25, 2021

58. Spook Country by William Gibson

I found the hardcover, first edition (from 2007 so not a huge deal, but still) of this for $1 at Value Village on Bloor St. West in Toronto.  My nephew expressed zero excitement when I gleefully showed him that it was signed.  William Gibson is probably one of my favourite authors.  Neuromancer was a massive influence on the way I see the world and love science fiction today.  I suspect it hit me at such a vulnerable age that some of his style and outlook imprinted on me so that today I may lack a critical eye on his work.  All that is to say I really enjoyed Spook Country.  

I actually haven't read Gibson since I think Virtual Light, when it came out, though I have a vague memory of having also read All Tomorrow's Parties as well.  Now that I have been re-introduced to him, I am going to have to keep an eye out for his other books.  Spook Country is a moden-day spy story from 2007 where the tech is actually outdated today.  Despite that, Gibson delivers all the tech theory stuff in a really interesting way that makes this book a marker of that time with some interesting thoughts for the present.

Ultimately, it's just a cool spy story, not particularily epic in nature, but the cool characters and intriguing set up keeps you turning the pages.  It has 3 main characters, each their own storylines that will of course eventually collide.  Milgrim is the educated addict kidnapped by a mysterious operative who makes him translate intercepted Russian text messages.  Hollis is the ex-lead singer of a semi-popular '90s band turned journalist hunting down a virtual reality designer.  Tito is the young member of a Cuban-Chinese espionage/crime family trained by Castro's KGB allies.  The last is really cool, a migrant parkourist and expert in systema, the family's anti-surveillance technique, who is basically kept in the dark until his skills are needed.

It doesn't quite end as satisfyingly as one would like, given how compelling their set-ups are.  The world and the characters are so enjoyable that you nevertheless don't want it to end and can forgive the mellow conclusion. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

57. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

This was the Edmund Crispin that came so highly recommend.  I think by Kenneth Hite, but I can't remember exactly.  I actually bought this new at one of the big bookstore chains.  I like but did not love the other Crispin I had read, so approached this with moderate hopes.  After having read it, I better understand his deal now.  These books are supposed to be funny, which I don't think I fully appreciated with The Case of the Gilded Fly.  The Moving Toyshop is not a masterpiece.  It goes on too long and the interesting part of the mystery is revealed early on.  I think it's main raison d'etre though, is not so much the mystery but to showcase the town of Oxford and the kinds of characters that live there.

The book starts with Cardogan, a poet (clearly of the upper classes because though he struggles with money he somehow has a home and a servant) who feels like he wants adventure in his life.  He also wants to avoid a poetry tour of America that his editor is pushing on him.  He goes to Oxford but has to hitch a ride and then walk in late at night.  Passing a toy store with a door ajar, he decides to go in.  Upstairs, he discovers the body of a woman and is then knocked out.  When he wakes up, he is in a closet at the back of the building, which no longer houses a toy store but a grocery shop and the proprietor and the cops think he may be suffering from delusions due to the concussion.

Enter Gervase Fen, literature professor and don.  This begins a madcap adventure of deduction and college hijinks, much of which is quite funny.  I will not seek out Crispons book, but I may well take the next one I stumble upon.