Wednesday, March 29, 2023

34. Watcher in the Woods by Geoffrey Household

Household really had a specific niche in the men's adventure fiction genre:  manhunting and tracking in the forest, particularly agricultural regions of England.  Maybe I need to read more of his books but of the three I have read, all of them had extensive tracking and stalking scenes involving pages and pages of minute detail about moving around a small area, playing a cat and mouse game with ones hunter.  I enjoy his books but don't love them as the human element is always kept at a cool distance and his badass characters so steeped in oldboy humility and reserve that it tends to lose its excitement.

I found this one at a free book box in Oakland on the way to the Temescal pool.  It's a nice hardback from Thrift books.  The story here is about a now-British of aristocratic Hungarian background who worked for the British OSS in the Second World War.  The story starts with a postman getting blown up just outside the hero's door.  At first he thinks it was a mistaken address or some terrible accident, but after some prying by his Aunt (with whom he lives), he starts to move past the denial and realize that he was most likely the target of the bomb.  We then learn that as part of his war service, he went undercover to work for the Gestapo and was stationed in Buchenwald.  This is an example of where the humanity just seems gone from Household's work.  The hero has shame and regret about that work, but those feelings are never really addressed with any passion or energy.  Though he used his role to save some important women from the death chambers, you would still think that anybody working at a concentration camp would have some serious issues and at least acknowledge the atrocity that he had experienced.  Here it is brushed off as a dark stain on his reputation and sense of self-worth.

Once he realizes that he is being hunted, he heads out to the country where he feels he will have an advantage, both because of his training (as an observer of small animals!) and because it will be harder to surprise him.  Here we get the bulk of the book which is him using different tricks that involve hiding in the forest for long periods of time or going for long walks or rides in the countryside to slowly draw out his hunter and reveal him.  This eventually works and the final climax is an endless night time stalking conflict with each having limited bullets and not wanting to fire because it would waste bullets and give away their position.  I wouldn't call it gripping, but it was kind of cool and interesting.  Maybe if you are someone who has done a lot of old school waiting hunting this stuff would seem quite realistic and technical and therefore exciting, but I really need maps to figure out what is going on so it all becomes sort of abstract.

Of course, his hunter is also a "gentleman" and by the end, each understands the other that it is almost a romance.  The last line of the book is literally them holding hands.  Though there is a real female love interest, the passion isn't quite the same level as between two gentlemen who each deeply respects the rules of the game hunting for one another.

33. One Small Step by P. B. Kerr

Jack from Dark Carnival had recommended this book to me for an xmas present for my 12 year-old nephew but it turned out he had already read it.  My nephew also strongly recommended it so I decided to hang on to it and read it to my daughter.

It's the story of a 12-year old Scott Macleod in the late 60s who turns out to be a flying prodigy.  His father, a decorated and heroic pilot and Air Force instructor, and mother, newspaper fact checker and anti-war protestor, are separated.  After a spectacular rescue landing in a jet, Scott gets tagged by NASA for a super secret space project.  It turns out they have a project to send chimps on the moon before the humans and one of them has become uncooperative, they don't have time to train another and since Scott is small and already shows the potential to be an astronaut, they want him to replace the chimp.

One Small Step is a boy who loves to fly fulfillment fantasy, as well as being an introduction to the world of flying and space and the historical period of the late 60s from an American adolescent male's perspective.  I would say it was a bit too fact-based around airplanes and how to fly them for my daughter, as she glazed over those sections.  However, the various points of drama and excitement were quite gripping. It starts out with the accident (where a goose crashes through the cockpit of the jet and knocks Scott's dad out when they are flying together) and then goes back in time and we were both quite anxious to find out what happened.

The empowerment fantasy continues as Scott is quite willful and also more ethical and caring than they scientists and doctors around him.  He takes a strong stand in protecting the chimps that is cool and later pulls an even stronger power play against the authorities.  Scott embodies the best of America, both its pride and work ethic in striving to achieve but also its disdain for authority.  We get both those poles reflected in Scott's mother and father, though the latter's impact is more apparent in the story.  His mother's strong morality we see more through Scott's actions as her actual role is sadly more restrictive and perhaps a negative stereotype of the worried mother.  The book also gets kind of spiritual and trippy by the end in a nice, subtle way that keeps you thinking.  

Sunday, March 26, 2023

32. Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

I took this book, I'll admit, purely for the cover (and it is a banger).  I wasn't even going to read it, but felt a need for a science fiction palette cleanser as I crush through my on-deck shelf of mostly mystery and thrillers.  Mindswap is of that New Wave science fiction age where the priority was on ideas over narrative, which I respect but recognize is just not to my taste.  I would add a sub-genre of "Irreverent Sci-Fi" of which I think Sheckley was one of the big players if not originator.  Elements of Irreverent Sci-Fi include tongue-in-cheek and self-referential humour, a nerdy, bemused distance from horrible things.  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Discworld would probably be two big giants.

The story here takes place in a future where you can swap minds.  Our hero, Marvin Flynn, lives in upstate New York and really wants to travel so he does a mindswap but once in the martian body and on Mars, he learns that the martian he did a swap with is a scammer and has taken off with his body while another being is owed the body he is in.  Due to legal and bureaucratic rigidity, Flynn has 6 hours to find another body before he has to return the one he is in (and effectively die).  This begins an adventure that takes us to many weird worlds, including indentured egg-hunting, a trek through the Mexican mountains, a high fantasy rebellion and eventually coming full circle.

There are some genuinely funny moments, especially the language he uses in the high fantasy one where they are always going on about their various clothing.  It's just that we basically lose track of the overall story and even worse with any semblance of worldbuilding consistency so that Sheckley can explore various "ideas" and the characters can have side discussions full of logical fallacies and nerdy constructions that are probably stimulating to some readers, but not to this one.  I'm kind of dull and structured and like my books to have a solid narrative and situational framework.  Still, I have to appreciate that Sheckley is a really good writer, his satirical representations of various genres are quite spot-on and even small situations would sometimes get me caught up (and thus disappointed since they end up having no weight or stake).  I also recognize that when this book came out in 1966 stuff like this was pretty wild and fresh for readers of the time.  We are drowning in irreverence today, so I speak from a place of privileged glut.


Friday, March 24, 2023

31. The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

Williams is not being removed from my hunting list.  This book was great.  It started out solid, well-written though the set-up seemed a pretty classic situation of the loner guy new in town who gets caught up in bad things in the town.  The main theme also seemed a bit simplistic and blatant as well; the guy is caught between the world of crime and sin that his bad side led him to and the safe legit world opportunity that the town presented to him.  However, as the story moves on, the complexity of the situation and the deeper and deeper shit he gets himself into and the really unexpected yet darker ending than I expected took this book into the upper echelon of noir fiction.

Madox is a bit of a drifter, not a super-bad guy but not great either.  After leaving the navy, he gets in a brawl in Houston so hits the road and ends up in a small town in Texas where he finds a job selling cars.  He's definitely disgruntled, arguing with his boss and spending his nights tossing and turning in his way too hot boarding house room.  Right off the bat, things get a bit weird, when he is sent with the attractive and nice young lady, Gloria, from the loan business across the street (owned also by his boss at the car lot) to go repossess a car.  The guy who bought the car is a roughneck, working as a security guard near an oil rig in the forest.  Here we get a great game-recognize-game moment and an example of some of Williams' great hard-boiled prose:

He was a big man, around six feet and heavy all the way up, and walked with a peculiar short stride which some people might have called mincing but wasn't. It was the flat-footed shuffle of a bear or a heavyweight fighter, and men who move that way are balanced and hard to push off their feet.

Sutton behaves with nasty and smug contempt towards Gloria, like he has something over her.  This is the biggest mystery of the book, but slips to the background as Madox begins to dig his hole.

First, he has an affair with the ripe, near spoiling, wife of his boss.  She is a fantastic character, coming off at first as just a bored, stupid sexpot but revealing layers of deceit and nastiness as the book goes on.  She is super hot and sexy and Madox at first can't resist and then when he can, she has the leverage on him and starts to apply it:

"I love talking to you," she said, smiling. "We understand each other so well.  You know, in a lot of ways we're just alike."

"Isn't that nice?" I said.

"Yes, I think so.  Now kiss me like a good boy, and tell me you like me better than that skinny little owl."

There was no way to kiss her like a good boy.  You could start out that way, but you always ended up on the other side of the tracks. If you hated her, it didn't make any difference; it worked just the same.

Such a great line!  Then, by chance, when there is a fire in town, he goes into the bank and finds it empty but for one old man, which sets him thinking of how he can rob the place, which he does.  This is an incredibly tense and creative scene, as the only thing that goes wrong is Mort, the old blind African-American who sells pencils on Main street, walks in and senses something wrong.  He can hear Madox's breathing and tracks him as he tries silently to sneak out of the bank. Such a great idea for the thing to screw up the robbery.  Nevertheless, Madox succeeds but then his hole only gets deeper.

He starts to actually fall in love with Gloria, and she back.  But she cleary has some twisted connection to Sutton and Madox keeps trying and failing to stop fucking his boss's wife. Everything just gets worse and worse, of course, while Gloria and Madox's love gets more and more real.  It's a great contrast of highs and lows as you read it.  The simplicity of the theme, rather than becoming obvious, gets more and more mired in the craziness of the situation.  Life keeps handing Madox opportunities to lead a great, legit life with Gloria, but he is already in so deep with all his crimes and lies that you know he's fucked.

Great book.

Addendum: I just did a bit of internet research on the movie and it looks quite good.  The casting of Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly seems quite good and it was directed by Dennis Hopper.  I'm going to check it out.  I'm a big fan of those '90s noir/thrillers anyways.  I also notice that the original title of the book appears to be "Hell Hath No Fury" which is way better.  Some idiot producer high on coke probably changed the title and Black Lizard then changed the book to get some movie sales.


<spoiler select to see>This is what makes the ending so great.  Williams totally flips the traditional noir ending, so that while Madox lives and even gets away with it, he gets completely trapped by Dolores and is forced to marry her, take over the car and loan business and go totally legit, all the while working with his love (that Dolores forced him to reject).  He even succeeds in work and life, thinking about running for town council but he is miserable and must keep his wife alive for as long as he can because if she dies, she will expose him.  Just the worst.</spoiler>

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

30. The Schoolgirl Murder Case by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson is an interesting and talented writer.  When I read a book like this one I am reminded at how skilled he was at producing a solid to excellent thriller in the conventional police genre.  I hesitated on this one because the last books of his that I read (or at least that I remember) were not so focused.  I was worried this one was going to be a bit of a rambling mess like The Philosopher's Stone.  I was glad to be wrong, as I tore through this one.  It is a very readable, straightforward and engaging procedural mystery that gets connected to black magic social circles but only the subtlest hints of any real supernatural.

The opening scene is the police at a murder scene.  A young woman has been raped and strangled and left in some trees between two houses in Hampstead.  The investigating officer on the scene Chief-Inspector Gregory Saltfleet (odd name) is the protagonist, an experienced, humane and competent detective.  He figures out a day late that what they assumed was a schoolgirl was actually a prostitute in her 20s who was dressed up as a schoolgirl.  They also check the empty house near the body the next day and discover another dead person, this time a middle-aged male, nude and half under a bed, no obvious signs of death but a look of terror on his face.  The house appears to be wiped clean of prints.  

The second victim is quickly identified, the wealthy and dissolute nephew of the owner of the house, whom we soon learn was quite a pervert and also recently interested in black magic.  Saltfleet competently and calmly starts poking around the world of the occult and local sex trafficking, centered around an occult bookstore.  The mystery itself is not super interesting but all the locations and the steady work of the police kept me engaged.  Things stay very grounded and we also get a lot of nice details of other side cases going on.  Felt like Wilson did some real research into Scotland Yard and wanted to share it with us. There is a hint of real magic, as Saltfleet meets a patron of the bookstore, a witch who does horoscopes and things get slightly freaky (and possibly sexual) back at her apartment when she has a powerful vision that leads him to a clue.  Later we learn that she had a more concrete connection to the murder, but Wilson doesn't dismiss his protagonist's spiritual connection with the witch.

I was also relieved that this book wasn't actually about murdered schoolgirls, but focused on this single case.  A solid read. I wonder if Wilson ever used Saltfleet in any other books?


29. Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette

No I did not read this book in a single day.  I've been reading it for at least a year maybe two, reading sections in between other complete books.  Surveys like this about books I am into are very challenging for me to read.  They can get repetitive and the content doesn't stick with me if I read them straight-through.  The real danger, though, is that they make me aware of all these other books I need to find and read. My overburdened hunting list and on-deck shelf (though I have cut into that this year) can not take the pressure.

I follow Andrew Nette on twitter who so often has cool recommendations and just shares great ephemera about old paperbacks and movies.  I admit to being envious to his many nice paperback finds in Australia.  They have a very different publishing world and had a much stricter censorship regime post-WWII so that there were fewer pulp books there.  Yet somehow the second-hand book stores seem much more fruitful than those we have in Canada today.  Anyhow, he is a serious student of the genre and has put together several books like this one.

Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats is organized chronologically with each broad period of paperback fiction being given an essay or two, excerpts from the books, sometimes an interview with the author and most importantly, tons and tons of beautiful full-colour images of the covers.  The essays vary in quality, some are more factually-based histories of the various writers and the genre's impact on society (and vice-versa), whereas some try for social analysis.  There were too many and too spread out for me to remember any qualities aside sadly from one negative reaction to an essay on female and youth sexuality that was just bizarre and so wrong in its simplistic political assumptions that I almost wonder if it was done deliberately in a bad attempt at tongue-in-cheek humour.  Very questionable that it was included at all. 

Don't let that minor stain colour one's impression of the overall work, which is thorough and excellent.  This is kind of a must-have for anyone with an interest in paperbacks and will fill in many gaps for collectors. I also appreciated that it had a more Australian and British perspective, which was informative for me coming from North America.

In some ways, my favourite part was the very end where they got into the social issues books that came out in the 70s and early 80s of young adults and were often sold in schools.  Books like Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack and The Chocolate War.  These were very present in my childhood, though I think I was a bit young to read them but they always represented a kind of cool, older world.  I particularly liked the work of Molly Gratton (though they were short) and will check out her blog, Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989.

You can buy this book in North America at PM Press.  You should!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

28. Enter the Dragon by Mike Roote

This was another neat gift from my friend who can't stop going to the collectible store.  It's a pretty cool little collectible it turns out and I was proud to share it on twitter when somebody else had a different version.  I wasn't too keen to actually read it, though.  Enter the Dragon is one of my all-time favourite movies.  My mom took me and my friend Mike Tanaka to see it a special double bill with The Big Brawl at the Woodgrove theatre .  We were totally into martial arts and used to practice our moves on his trampoline.  We actually had to wait about a half-hour between the two movies while they drove the reels for Enter the Dragon over from Parksville where they had been screening it earlier.  It was a truly memorable cinematic experience and I was totally into Bruce Lee for years (still am).  I had an awesome poster in my bedroom of him with the 3 cuts across his stomach from Han's bladed hand.  Enter the Dragon holds up today on so many levels. It's so tragic that Bruce Lee died before it was released because it was the success he had dreamed of and can be considered probably the most important and influential martials arts movie for western action cinema.  

So anyhow, I wasn't too keen to read a movie adaptation, until I stumbled across this article about the author, who is actually a woman named Leonore Fletcher who wrote the book from the screenplay while on speed over a weekend.  She actually had quite a successful career doing movie tie-ins which were big business back in the day (this one was a bestseller). It's really worth reading the article.  I thought I should read the book as well.

It's a fast read and is basically a scene by scene copy of the movie.  There are some changes (Bolo is Turkish and the bully on the boat is Korean and no fight in the hall of mirrors, among others) and a little bit of suggested backstory thrown in, but honestly it lacked depth which I think would have made it much richer.  I mean why not throw in some more backstory for Lee and the connection between the Brits and the Shaolin temple in past espionage work?  It kind of felt like I was reading the movie for the most part (and some of the dialogue, especially that of Williams and Han is quite good on the page too) so not all that enjoyable.  But I guess pre-VCR this was all most fans could hope for to be reminded of the movie.

There was one big difference that was quite interesting.  In the fight scene between Han and Oharra, which is one of the greatest moments in cinema history on the screen, they just have a long fight and then Oharra pulls a blade from the crowd.  Lee forces him to stab himself with it.  The movie is very different, does an excellent and creative job of demonstrating both Lee's superiority and his fury.  I wonder if that choreography came from Bruce Lee himself?   It's also way more intense and dramatic.  Jesus this all makes me want to watch the movie again.

RIP Bruce Lee.

Monday, March 20, 2023

27. The High Wire by William Haggard

This is something like the 5th or 6th Haggard I have read.  What a great discovery.  It's odd, because the only books of his I have found are these gorgeous green penguins from the 50s and 60s.  However, it turns out Haggard wrote almost 30 books going right into 1990, but I never see those later books.  I wonder if they didn't sell as well.

I would say The High Wire is one of the lesser of his books that I have read.  I kind of get the feeling he is trying for a love story as that is the narrative thread that holds together a somewhat disjointed plot.  The main actor here is Rex Hadley, recently divorced from a difficult woman (whose behaviour somehow held him back from fulfilling his full career potential as a managing engineer) is now promoted to take over the nationally important "Project A".  He is first given a week's vacation to settle down post-divorce and goes to Sestriere, a ski resort in the Italian alps.  There he meets a charming and louche aristocratic with an attractive woman who wine and dine him and he accidentally lets slip that he is now the boss of Project A.

He realizes his error the next day, and also sees the slip as a reminder that he has to tighten up his game.  However, it is enough for the aristocrat who then gets assigned to the British embassy where he sets up a blackmail play.  At the same time, his boss, Victor head of the secret service back in the enemy country (never named and not Russia) also is working with more direct action to get Hadley to talk.  Project A is only in its nascent stage, but the rumours are that it is based on a new concept that could revolutionize conventional warfare and tip the balance of power to the west.  Victor's boss is putting heavy pressure on him to find out what it is.

I say it is disjointed, but it's more that the book flows pretty evenly for the first two-thirds, seems to conclude and then has a new final act which involves Hadley now engaged to the woman he first met with the aristocrat back in Sestriere and though Victor and the aristocrats moves have been blocked, Victor comes himself for a final desperate play.  It involves commandeering a gondola (thus the title) to torture Hadley and get his info. I can't remember if Victor was a character in any of the earlier books and maybe that's why he gets this final chapter, but it felt tacked on.  There was more action than usual in this book including an attempted kidnapping via helicopter on english soil, with dogs attacking and a shootout. That was fun. So not my favourite Haggard but will look great next to the other green penguins on my shelf!

Saturday, March 18, 2023

26. Duke by Hal Ellson

There is a lot to be suspicious about here: a novel that will "awaken" you, the middle-aged white people on the cover (the protagonist is black) and the back especially that says this is a "book of proven merit".  Even wilder, I read elsewhere that there are several editions of this book with a foreword from Dr. Fredric Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame.  This edition had a prefatory note from the author that appeased my fears somewhat, only in that he clearly is trying to show us the lives of the adolescents he is writing about in an honest way and that he is genuinely sympathetic with them.  He was a social worker at a psychiatric hospital in NYC and his stories came from the stories he heard from his patients.  Still, I was dreading a Cross & Switchblade situation heading in.

Duke is an odd book in its style and structure.  The narrative is repetitive.  Duke is the leader of his gang and there is a cycle of war and peace between them and their rivals from the next neighbourhood. Duke also runs weed for a spanish dealer, making deliveries via subway and foot all over the city, especially Brooklyn.  The book is an ongoing series of these incidents without much of a larger narrative.  It's kind of a summer in the life of a kid in Harlem.  He tries to write it in the slang (it's first person), which may be authentic but feels forced and artificial (not helped by the extensive glossary at the beginning) at first.  As it goes on, though, there is a rhythm to the book.  It starts to feel almost like a poem.  You do feel for Duke and his stressful, tiring life.  

The sympathy is reinforced by the growing prominence his psychology takes as the narrative goes on.  Duke struggles with fears and anxieties.  These are quite interesting.  He hears his name being called on the streets and nobody is there.  He fears his hands are shrinking.  He sees the face of the spanish girl Gigi that he loved and whose father moved her away because he was black.  He sees a one-legged man who looks at him funny and scares him.  All these neuroses are much more terrifying to Duke than the undercover cops that are really tailing him.  At first it feels a bit simplistically Freudian, but it gets weirder and weird and he even has a full breakdown where he runs away and sleeps in the basement of a house he breaks into and then ends up with some hoboes.  His recovery is so sudden that it really does seem like he is suffering from schizophrenia that is only going to get worse.

So I hate to admit it but Duke is sort of an "awakening" book, but not in a cloying pushy way.  I would rather read this book actually written by a young black kid from Harlem for many reasons but for a white guy from 1950, this book does give you a compelling and sympathetic look into such a person's life.