Wednesday, September 27, 2023

71. A Multitude of Sins by M.K. Wren

I've been looking for the book A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren for quite some time.  I can't remember who recommended it to me.  It's a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi book.  When I was in Vancouver, I stumbled upon her name in the crime section with a couple of books featuring Oregonian detective Conan Flagg.  Normally, I wouldn't purchase a different book by the same author until I found the one I was looking for, but the combo of the Oregon coast location and the elite first name of the character allowed me to break protocol.

I read this much faster than the P.D. James I read previously.  These American detective fiction books are much easier to read, with fewer characters and a more straightforward through line as well as less complex prose.  So I burned through it, despite being really busy with work and personal bureaucracy.  I got caught up in it early, enjoying the intriguing setup and the cool and cultured detective.  He runs a book shop, of which we didn't get enough, and receives an anonymous note asking him to meet privately at the trail behind his beach house.  He is reluctant (and there is a suggestion that he was involved in things in his past that might still put him at risk) but concedes and meets the daughter of a recently deceased senator.  She is convinced that she is being followed and Flagg soon confirms that she is not actually paranoid, though there is a lingering question of her mental health.  

She plays the piano beautifully and that is enough to convince Flagg that she is worth protecting.  We are soon learn of her messed up family, or what is left of it: her charming frat boy party-hardy step-brother, her artist and now weird shut-in stepsister and her blind stepmom whom she hates.  It was an enjoyable read, but there was not much of a mystery and even the semi-twist at the end was pretty obvious to me.  I'm a dolt when it comes to figuring out mysteries, so I can only assume that Wren did not really care about hiding it and the pleasure was supposed to come from the action, which was okay.

So no masterpiece, but a nice digestible read.  Coincidentally, the day I finished the book, I went to Dark Carnival with the intention of only poking around, but the place has really been cleaned up and a lot of books that were buried under piles have become visible and lo and behold I found A Gift upon the Shore!  The book-finding Gods smile upon me.  

Monday, September 25, 2023

70. The Black Tower by P.D. James

Hmm, so this is only the second P.D. James that I have read and the first with Adam Dalgliesh, who was her main character recurring detective.  As I started writing this, I thought this was one of the last in the series, as he is convalescing from some kind of illness and planning on retiring.  I see with a quick check that this is only the fifth of fourteen, so little harm done to a chronology nerd like myself.

In the Black Tower, he decides to go to the Dorset countryside to respond to the summons of an old family friend and colleague to his father (who had some religious role), the curate Father Badderley.  Upon arriving at Toynton Grange, a home for the disabled, he discovers that Father Badderley had died of a heart attack a week earlier.  It seems unsurprising as he was 80 but the fact of the letter (he had not heard from him since he was a child and referred to needing Dalgliesh's help as a police commander) and some odd inconsistencies (he was wearing his habit, which he should have take off and his last diary was missing) push Dalgliesh to ambivalently poke around.

Much of the book is an exploration of this strange place, led by a semi-messianic pseudo-monk who claims to have experienced a healing miracle from debilitating disease paralysis himself.  Even before any actual crime, there is much skulduggery amongst the patients and the staff.  Many of the people that work there have scandalous pasts (the doctor who had an affair with an underage girl, the ex-con orderly, the nurse who hit a patient) and are there working for cheap and lodgings because they couldn't get work anywhere else.  The patients themselves all have various tragic pasts and difficult personalities above and beyond their disabilities.  And of course, actual skulduggery is afoot, which goes beyond Father Badderley's suspicious death.  Previously, another patient whom everyone hated for his cruel went tumbling over a cliff edge into the sea, either due to suicide or because the brakes on his wheelchair failed.  

I actually had to resort to a piece of scrap paper with all the characters listed and it really helped a lot to get me engaged.  I struggled through at first, but once I hit page 100 and more or less had the characters in my head (these white people with the white people names, who can keep them apart?), I got quite intrigued.  It ended up being a bit too long and one grows tired of the weary resentment of post-colonial England (everybody is just so unhappy and narrow) but I definitely wanted to find out the solution.  The reveal is actually quite cool and satisfying and I imagine if you were already a fan of Dalgliesh you would have been quite psyched to know that it spurred him to get back into the game and abandon his retirement. 

I won't seek out her books, but it is good to know they are out there if my on deck shelf ever runs dry (ha!) and I need a good mystery.  She also had quite a tough life and basically wrote her way to incredible success in life.  Pretty impressive.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

69. Codes Bananas by David Walliams

For some reason, my daughter insisted that I read this book.  She plows through graphic novels and is a decent reader but so far hasn't seemed super enthusiastic about any books yet.  Her close friends, the twins, loved this book and gave it to her for her birthday.  It may be that she just doesn't express enthusiasm about things (she tends to be pretty stonefaced during movies), I just don't know.  I would have read this book in a day were it in english, but the twist is that she read it in french.  I can read french fairly well but it is is not unconscious for me as reading in english is and thus requires concentration.  So even a kids book like this is a real chore.  Furthermore the style of these books is to have all kinds of cartoony typefaces in different sizes that I just found kind of annoying (old man yelling at cloud here).  So this took me weeks to read!  

A corollary of having to read french consciously is that I also don't internalize the story.  It's all very removed.  So to be honest, I can't give this book a fair review.  It's a really fun adventure about a young boy in London during the blitz (orphaned by a Nazi bomb) who lives with his grandmother and has so far avoided being sent out to the country.  His uncle works as a guard at the zoo and his great joy is going there to be with the animals.  One night when he sneaks out to the zoo (after he is caught there by the asshole security guard and forbidden to come back by the pretentious and rigid zoo manager), his grandmother and her house are destroyed by another Nazi bomb, he is caught up in a wild adventure trying to save Gertrude the Gorilla.  It's quite wild and over the top, utterly unrealistic and I suspect a lot of fun.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

68. A Terrible Tide by Suzanne Mead

Books are being read slowly this fall here at Olman's Fifty.  I'm stuck on a French children's book my daughter aggressively pushed me to read and it's blocking all other reading progress.  I found A Terrible Tide at the Salvation Army in Langley (don't ask) and thought she might enjoy it (i.e learn from it, I've become the worst pushy Didactic Dad).  I am always trying to expose her to the concept of "Canada" as it gets more and more elusive in this global age.

A Terrible Tide is a fictional retelling of the real 1929 earthquake and tidal wave that hit Newfoundland and nearly destroyed many of the communities on the Burin peninsula.  I did not know about this event, nor did I even know about the Burin peninsula, so I was also educated!  At that time, the peninsula was not connected by land to the rest of the island.  People got around with boats, most of which were destroyed.  Furthermore, the one telegram/phone line had been downed in an earlier storm, so they also had no way to communicate.

The protagonist is Celia, the middle child of the X family.  It's her birthday and the dinner party gets rudely and brutally cut off as first the earthquake sends the family out of the house and then the tidal wave grabs her.  It's all quite adventurous with the bonus of an awesome dog (a Newfoundland of course) named Boomer.    The book is written at the young adult level, so fairly simple in its telling, yet with a lot going on.  I was caught up in it for the most part and I think my daughter was too (the clue is in the level of resistance beyond wanting to stay up when I say it's time to stop reading).  You really get a sense of how it must feel and what you have to deal with when your house is entirely destroyed and you have to decide whether to rebuild or to move and start again.  It also gives a nice perspective on a time and place where material goods were quite limited and pleasure comes from smaller, more important things like family and place.  This was a cool book.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

67. Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts (Might Marvel Masterworks vol. 9) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

A friend lent this to me.  He's a big fan of the silver age of comics.  I grew up on a lot of these comics, but always very sporadically.  You never had an entire series back then, just whatever copies you found at garage sales or got as gifts or your friends had (or their older brothers).  So it's cool to get an entire series in order, even if with Dr. Strange's first appearances there wasn't much of an overarching narrative.  He was introduced in 1963 and you can see how the comics are reflecting the earlier manifestations of the interest in psychedelia and the occult that were a big part of the 60s.  

The narratives are fairly simplistic.  Each issue has a new baddie (or a repeating one the indefatigable Baron Mordo) usually from another dimension who decides he has to dominate planet earth (and presumably the rest of our dimension, though they seem generally fixated on earth).  Strange discovers it and following his rigid duty to always protect earth and help those who need his help, he boldly jumps into some other dimension for a magic battle.  Usually, after being almost defeated, he whips out his magic amulet gifted to him by his mentor The Master.

The language and the depictions of the other dimensions are what make these stories entertaining.  I've never been clear on how much actual writing Stan Lee did.  The language here is that great, fantasy pseudo-classical language where the traditional sentence structure is inverted ("It is over! Never have I faced defeat so close!").  Also, the combatants narrate each of their attacks ("Now feel the fury of the electro plasma ray of Tiboro!")

I don't love Ditko's art, it's slightly too sketchy for me (I'm a solid line kind of guy), but his surrealist depictions of other dimensions and the battles therein are quite neat.  Lots of weird random doodles floating in emptiness.  I wonder how much Ditko and Kirby influenced each other?

Monday, August 28, 2023

66. Thank you, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

I picked this up and another Mr. Mot Bantam paperback from a nicely-curated antique store in Vancouver that had an interesting collection of paperbacks (chosen almost entirely for aesthetic reasons as the otherwise friendly owner had not actually read any of them and had never heard of Ross MacDonald!).  I was a bit desperate for good paperback finds at that point so justified to myself that I needed to read a Mr. Moto book or two.  I did find a nice paperback of Margaret Millar's An Air that Kills and a Mary Stewart (The Moon Spinners) that I hadn't read before.

Thank you, Mr. Moto was a strange read.  Marquand was a successful novelist; he even won a Pulitzer, so I want to give him his due as a writer. It's hard, though, to find any merit in this book beyond its existence as a very specific manifestation of I guess what is called Orientalism.  It's not that the bizarre mix of trying to be progressive (in the 1930s) by arguing that all Chinese people do not actually look alike while constantly marvelling at China's (and particularily Peking) fundamental unscrutability is so bad that I am morally condemming the book.  Rather, the characters and the plot are basically dull and mostly passive.  It's just a boring story in an environment, pre-WWII Peking with all the various colonial powers machinating, which should be anything but.

The protagonist is professional expat Tom Nelson who hasn't gone native but is too satisfied with his life of doing nothing in China.  He gets involved with another young single woman with a slight questionable reputation (comes from good stock, but is staying on too long in China without getting married or something) who had been at another expat's house the night he was murdered.  There is some mystery around his death but no real suspense.  It feels like the plot is an excuse for Marquand to go on and on about the mysterious Chinese character, on which despite the many words, he really doesn't say anything.  Did he even ever go to China?

You may be wondering, what the hell does this have to do with Mr. Moto?  He shows up early but is only tangentially involved in the plot that turns out to be an alliance of an extreme Japanese nationalist and a warlord who are plotting to take over Peking.  He indeed speaks in that stereotypical way where he is contstantly thanking and apologizing but somehow we are told he is also extremely effective.  The end of the book is a standoff with the warlord where the plucky woman grabs his gun and thus foils the plot.  Moto is there and talks a lot, but seems to do very little and what he does do is off screen.

I can live with some old school "benevolent" racism in my 20th century fiction.  I can critique it but still find value in the rest of the text.The problem with Thank you, Mr. Moto, is that there really isn't much going on with the rest of the text so the racism is the only thing that stands out. And even this is not very interesting.  I would welcome an ethnocentric discussion of Chinese culture from an expat living in Peking in the 30s if it brought something interesting to the table.  Marquand's portrayal here is simplistic and limited; it honestly feels like he just made it up based on whatever popular cuture on China he was exposed to.  I'll be hard-pressed to read the second one I bought.

Friday, August 18, 2023

65. Badlands by Robert Kroetsch

With this posting, I tread warily onto the badlands of CanLit.  I can't remember where I picked this book up, but it must have been in a free library back when my on-deck shelf was down to a third of its max size.  After my massive book haul in Vancouver, my on-deck shelf is now full of books I want to read and so books I should read are much less tempting.  I debated putting this book down as it took me a few days to get into it.  After the awesomeness that was The Heights of Zervos, I was reluctant to start a new book.  I persevered and pushed through, the Macomber of boring books.

That's not actually fair to Badlands, which isn't boring.  It's actually kind of fun and weird, with an absorbing, vibrant portrayal of the Alberta Badlands and the river that runs through it.  Unfortunately, because this is "literature", we have to get an elaborate structure, forced themes and stylized language.  The main story is about Dawes, an obsessive explorer who has left his wife at home to hunt for dinosaur bones in the Alberta Badlands.  He is in competition with two other well-known bone collectors.  With him, on an enormous raft with their supplies and a made tent (when things are stable), are Web the steersman, Grizzly the cook and McBride (who bales and is later replaced by Tune, the boy rescued from playing piano in a "hoo-er" house).  All of them are strange individuals, communication is limited and seems mainly to release the various tensions among the men.  They get into various scrapes and interactions, many of which are entertaining (like when the raft goes through the rapids) or interesting (the various ferries and the photographer).  None of these interactions ever go truly crazy (I think this is what marks it as Canadian), though all are marked with eccentric behaviours and the language weighted with excess language and symbolism.

That narrative is further framed by I guess journal entries by Anna Dawes, the explorer's daughter, 56 years later.  She gives interprets what he wrote in his journal and laments his absence from their lives.  She ends up meeting Anna Yellowbird, the I guess Blackfoot woman, who follows and eventually joins Dawes' expedition (and of course has sex with Dawes and maybe with Web*) after her husband never returned home from WWI.  The two Annas attempt to drunkenly trace the raft's route backwards and I guess discover things about themselves.

Once I got into it, Badlands was a mostly fun read.  I enjoyed the portrayal of the zany raft crew and the detailed exposition of their work and interactions.  Likewise, the description of the environment made me seriously consider taking a trip there.  There is a dinosaur museum and I imagine great hiking.  

Unfortunately, the goodness of those things were somewhat buried under the forced "literature" elements like a well-made cake under too much cheap icing.  There are enough themes embedded here to fill 2-3 undergrad lit seminar sessions and yet none of them end up saying all that much.  Something about masculinity, yes a lot about masculinity of course, maybe something about Canada as a nation, buried dinosaur bones as metaphor of something or other, etc. The language is stilted and weirdly stylized. He uses a device where he says the subjects name in two sentences in a row, which I guess is supposed to be deep but just made it confusing as to whose point of view it was when he didn't use the name.  

You can see I wasn't exaggerating!

I'm glad I read it and Kroetsch had an esteemed career and seemed like a decent guy, so happy to have read it but now I am very much ready to get back into some straight-ahead story and ass-kicking.

*This edition was published by PaperJacks which seems kind of cool, though you can see where creative Canada was in 1975 by the books listed there, with references to Tonto, use of the word "Eskimo" and at least one book whose main point seems to be sex between a First Nations woman and a white man.